We had our first Ben Nevis Winter Camping trip last week on 9-10 February. I had the idea to run this trip last year to offer something different for my clients. Something that is more of an achievement than just walking up the highest hill in Scotland. In the past I have run several winter ascents to the summit of Ben Nevis. However, they are just the same as what everyone else offers and it’s always a bit of a rush to the to the summit in time. With camping on the summit you don’t need to worry about the timing too much since you will stay up there anyway. So you can start walking a little later than usually. You also spend some more time on the summit so you might even get a view.
Back to our first trip. We started off walking just before 10am from the North Face Car Park and walked straight up the new path and then along the Allt a’ Mhuilinn path towards the C.I.C. Hut. We turned off to the path going towards the Red Burn before we got to the Hut and walked in sunshine further up the hill. Once we got to the zig-zags it was quite apparent that it has become hard work with heavy packs to get to the summit. The conditions couldn’t have been much better for a winter ascent though and we plodded up the hill. After a total of 7 hours of walking we reached the summit successfully and got on with pitching the tents. It was pretty cold with around -10C and a chill factor of below -20C. Just melting snow and bring it to a boil took almost an hour. Eating took considerably less time.Then straight into the sleeping bag to sleep.
The morning saw less wind and even a few occasions with a view from the summit down towards Carn More Dearg and Aonach Mor. After a quick breakfast we headed down again and it only took up 1:30 hours to get back to the red burn where we had a quick rest and then continued back down to the North Face Car Park.
Even though it was quite windy at night at it was pretty cold this trip was a total success and will certainly keep it in the programme.
This winter has been a bit slow to pick up and snow has developed very slowly… if at all. The reason is some strange weather patterns we had since December 2016.
What we need to get a good winter in the mountains is a good dump of snow, followed by sub zero temperatures in the mountains. Then even a mild day or two don't make much of a difference since all the snow would have been consolidated well.
What happened this year was a pattern of snowy day (typically one or 2 days) followed by a rapid rise in temperature to somewhere between 3-10C and most of the time with rain. This stripped all the fresh snow and then it dropped the temperature without having any snow to consolidate. This happened repeatedly during December and January.
In February it has started to become a bit more wintry and our first scheduled winter skills course of the season has looked and felt a bit more wintry. even though we had to walk a fair distance to get to some proper snow. Lets hope that the winter will stay cold now.
Last week was another one of those weird weather conditions you have along the Scottish seashore. Best know here as the sea haar. You usually get it at the east coast when warm air is moving over the cold North Sea but even at the west coast you can have some haar when it is extremely hot (for Scottish conditions).
On 17 and 18 August I went with a group from Sheffield to do sea kayaking from Kyleakin in Skye along the coast to Port Lunge and then to Uags bothy to camp at the field next to it. The paddle was pretty good with a lot of sunshine and over 25C to contend with. Kind of T-shirt and shorts weather, which I had a few times on kayaking trips this year but none whatsoever last year. For some reason the the midges haven’t been too bad most of this summer but in August they have appear with a vengeance and are out for blood. I can only once remember them to be as bad as this and I had to escape off a climb back then to safe my red dotted skin. This time I had to use some fancy technique to get into the tent with as few beasties getting in as possible. Part of it was to go for a run and the dart inside the tent as quickly as possible. It was so bad that whenever I turned on my headtorch it sounded like it was raining, but it wasn’t. It was bloodsuckers trying to get into my tent. It was the first time I actually had to hose down the flysheets of my tents to get rid of all the dead midges.
Anyway back to the sea haar. On day 2 we woke up to some fog over the sea and the Crowlin Islands kept disappearing and reappearing. After a cappuccino and egg roll breakfast we headed out to the sea and across to Crowlin. This was easy enough to spot but the Longay the next Island was nowhere to be seen in the mist. Just as well I had a GPS with me and I know pretty well where the small island is and sure enough we saw Longay after a 1km paddling. The haar didn’t really give up till we arrived in Kyleakin. It was pretty interesting to see the Skye bridge in fog too.
For years I had great Island Kayak Expedition kayaks for my clients which are pretty easy to load and are stable even for people who have been trying kayaking for the first time. The only real disadvantage with these kayaks were the off-centre skegs. They have been introduced so that the loading of large long items to the back is easy and no stones get lodged into the skeg box. However, it meant that it was not as effective when the kayak is empty or too heavy at the front. This is why I have decided to move the skegs of one of my kayaks to the centre.
Back in late May I first started with cutting out the skeg box. Because the box was a bit angled I had to add some fibreglass to one side to make the box equal on both sides. Then I needed to cover the hole and cut a new centre hole. Then I placed the skeg box over the new centre hole and fixed it in place with 2 component epoxy and the fibreglassed it in with a few layers. I tried to slap some gelcoat over the area needed to cover and had some other gelcoat repairs to do but the weather and work started to cause a 2 month delay in finishing the job.
In August I managed to then finish the gelcoat repairs and fit some new deck-lines to the kayak to spruce it up a wee bit. I also reinforced an area at the back-deck, which always has been a bit too bendy.
Last week I managed to give it a test drive on a trip over at Skye and have to say that it is so much more effective to what it was before. I notice the skeg as soon as I pull it a little down and when it’s all the way down it is too much for force 3 conditions. I never had to use the full skeg on that 2 day trip.
Unexplored Scotland has managed to strike a deal with Cascade Designs, who are best known for making revolutionary MSR stoves and Therm-a-Rest Sleeping mats.
We have therefore replaced all out tent with MSR Fury 4 season mountain tents, which are highly durable, withstand any weather it gets thrown at in Scotland and has plenty of room. All MSR Fury tents also have a large porch for storing kit. The tent also packs down to a smaller size to previous tents we used in the past.
We also invested in some folding chairs from Therm-a-Rest. Folding chairs can make a huge difference when camping and provide that little bit of extra comfort. These one can pack down to nothing and are easy to load in a sea kayak in comparison to conventional folding chairs.
We try to continue to make a difference in providing something special for all of our clients and hope that the new equipment is making a trip with us a lifetime experience to remember. We strive to be THE premium outdoor activity provider in Scotland. Who else can claim to provide fibreglass sea kayaks, high quality tents, comfy chairs and cappuccino on their trips?
This is what Cascade Design says about the kit we just purchased:
Fury™ 2-Person Mountaineering Tent Our strongest, extreme-condition double-wall tent for two.
Offering unmatched strength and full protection for two in all conditions, the Fury double-walled tent features a compact floorplan that allows it to be pitched with minimal platform prep on steep slopes and ridges. A roomy, hooped front vestibule maximizes critical interior space, and a large rear window keeps weight down without compromising the excellent cross-ventilation that's mandatory for moisture control. Easy to set up in winds, the super-strong Fury tent is your 4-season refuge, whether you’re at the top of a mountain or in the middle of winter.
Treo™ Chair Big comfort in a small package.
Updated with sturdy yet supple 300D Polyester Rip-Stop fabric, the patent-pending Treo camp chair is incredibly compact, comfortable and strong. It’s built with a realistic seat height and width that doesn’t require a technical plan of descent just to get into. And though it delivers the comfort and ease of use of a big chair, it packs entirely into its own tripod base, making the Treo Chair as easy to bring along, as it is to relax in.
Unexplored Scotland has been featured at the March 2016 edition of The Great Outdoors Magazine. This hasn't been the first time that we have given the magazine some expert advise.
This time it has been a feature they have used for the first time called "My Gear". It it I have given the TGO a comprehensive list of clothing and gear I take with me when I go walking in Winter in the Scottish Highlands. How many can say that they have been pictured in an outdoor magazine, drinking tea?
The weather for the weekend didn't look very promising with a lot of (up to 100mph on Cairngorm summit forecast for the evening) and heavy rain. After we met at in Aviemore and sorted out the equipment we headed up to the Cairngorm car park. There it became very quickly clear that we would get pretty wet. And so we did!
First we worked a little on kicking steps just to get ourselves around on the snow and then moved on to ice axe arrests. We worked on all ways of ice axe arresting (legs first on front, bum sliding, head first on front and the infamous head first on back). After that we had a look on how to self-arrest without ice axes and point out the limitations and dangers. Since it was such a wet day of we decided to dry out quickly and head to a cafe in Aviemore to work on the theory of avalanche awareness, planning and a little navigation. As it turned out, Saturday was with 24.4mm rain at Cairngorm the wettest day of the year so far.
Ice axe arrest[/caption]On the Sunday the prospects of having a good day out was much better. We cheated and headed straight up Cairngorm with the Funicular. Since the snow was proper névé we had a look how far we can go with just kicking steps with our boots and found quickly that it was a bit too hard for comfort. We then had a look at cutting steps with our ice axes and found it much easier. But having a look at how far we could actually do this and how much we would have to go we decided very quickly to put on crampons.
While we were on the slopes between the Ptarmigan station and Cairngorm summit we encountered several groups attempting and struggling up the icy slope towards the summit. I had to talk to most of them and ask them to turn around as they are ill equipped and will put themselves into harm if they attempted to continue. None of these groups had any ice axes, crampons or even stiff boots and would have no way to stop, if they would start sliding down the hill.
We then went up to the summit and then, after a wee break navigated towards Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais and to the Wall for some more steep ground skills, avalanche awareness and ice axe arresting. It started getting late and we headed down the hill.
I have spent 7 weeks on and off since November at Dhekelia in Cyprus to train soldiers from 1 SCOTS in kayaking. The regiment is currently spending its last few weeks, of a 6 month posting, at Nicosia as part of the UN peacekeepers on the island. As part of their time in Cyprus the soldiers are going throu adventerous training with a choice of mountain biking, climbing and kayaking.
I had the privilage to work with them for 4 weeks in November, 2 weeks in February and now spending another 2 weeks here. The isleand has been proven to bee a fantastic place for watersport. The coastline between Dhekelia and Cape Greco is particularly beautiful, with many lime stone cliffs and caves. Since the soldiers were free to choose the activity they were mostly very keen to learn new skills and have a bit of a "down" time for a week. They also walked away with a K2F (Kayak 2 Star Foundation) qualification.
I would love to come back to work for other units on Cyprus. However, the word is that the british part of the UN mission in Cyprus is probably coming to an end soon. This would be a bit of a shame, not just for me but also for the squaddies posted out here.
Just a follow up to the recent blog on what to wear when winter mountaineering. It is just as important what you would put inside your rucksack.
Let’s start with the bag. You should have a larger and sturdier rucksack than what you would use in summer. The recommended size would be between 45 and 60 litres. It sounds like a lot but it isn’t and it’s always best to have a too large bag than too small. The more basic it is the better. All the bag needs is a large main compartment, a lid with another small compartment, compression straps and small but sturdy pockets below the compression straps. Try not to go for rucksacks with meshed side pockets. Neat idea to keep the weight down but they rip in no time. Ice axe looks are not necessary if you have to compression straps and I would actually advise not to use them if you have the loops. Instead use the compression straps and the side pocket to store your ice axe. This is safer for anyone walking behind your and the axe is easier to access.
Additionally I would advise a dry bag liner for your dry kit. This way you can create a dry zone and a wet zone in your bag and keep the dry kit dry.
45-60 litre rucksack
Large dry bag
Just like in summer it’s good to have your navigation gear with you. The obvious ones are Compass and map. You should always have a map of the area you walk in with you. In winter the best choice are 1:50k OS Landranger maps. The 1:25k maps tent to have too much detail and are more confusing than helping. Since the terrain is usually covered in snow, all you need is the contour lines, distances, rivers and lochs (or lakes south of the border). To protect the map you should always put it inside a map case. Over years I have seen many different types of map cases but the only ones that really cut it are from Ortlieb and any other, that are of similar design. Cheaper ones don’t last nearly as long and for a few quid more you get a much better lasting map case. In winter I would also advise the A5 size and not the full map case. This makes it a smaller pack size and will easily hide, ready to use inside your jacket pocket. To get back to the compass, you should always have a functional compass with roamer scale and measuring scales. Best choices to do the job are the Silva Expedition (with clinometer and magnetic variation) or Silva Expedition Type 4. However you get now similar from other manufacturers. I would also advise to have 2 compasses with you. They are pretty bomb proof but what do you do if one decides to depolarise while stored next to your mobile or camera? Last not least you should have a stop watch to time your legs and another good aid are spring toggles attached to the rucksack strap to count 100m (like seen on the photo).
Waterproof map case
Now spare clothing can help you stay warm when you stop. Pretty good are belay jackets. They are very light, have good insulation and tend to work even when wet (unlike down jackets). Also some hats and a balaclava to keep your head warm. The human body loses more heat through the head than any other part. Also have plenty of gloves. In the photo you see 2 pair of thin gloves for nicer conditions and 2 pair of thick leather gloves. Rather have too many than not enough. Getting cold usually starts at the extremities. Also but not on the photo you should have ski goggles and sunglasses in the bag.
2 pair thick gloves
2 pair thin gloves
Ice axe and Crampons
Those are the obvious winter tools, your ice axe being the number one tool. In the past ice axes where picked by measuring the distance from your hand, the top of the boots. This is nowadays to be considered too long by professionals. However it is still a personal choice. I would advise a length of 45-60cm depending on your height. Having a shorter ice axe allows you to use it on steeper ground in a comfortable position while when they are too long the arm could be too far up the slope and stretched out.
With crampons it all depends on what footwear you choose. I tend to advise people on stiffer B2 or B3 boots. I have seen B1 boots to bend when walking on harder snow. Below is a table for fitting crampons on boots. The easiest to fit tend to be C2 and C3.
B2 or B3 Boots
Safety and group equipment
Often overlooked are safety and group equipment. When walking in the mountains in winter it can get pretty cold and windy. By having a group shelter (red bag in photo) you can hide from the elements. The first aid kit goes without saying and so does the head torch. The helmet is a personal choice. But think about that, most fatal injuries in the mountains are head injuries!
The snow shovel, avalanche probe and snow saw are in case you need to rescue someone from an avalanche. The shovel can also help you to build a quick shelter too.
First aid kit
Food and drink
Last not least, you have to take some food and drink with you. Essential is a thermos flask with a hot drink. Think about what you put in there. Coffee has no nutritional value at all but something like hot Ribina can give you a bit of a sugar boost. Food should be slow release energy, complex carbs. So something like bananas, sandwiches and for a boost choccie bar.