Sunday, March 20, 2005

Snow and Ice Course Report - Scotland

For the first time since moving to London, I moved among the morning tube mania without being jostled about – the two sharp ice axes protruding either side of the rucksack on my back had been a great idea, a bubble of space on a rush hour tube train was indeed rare! Now only an eight hour coach journey to Glasgow (a £5 bargain) – destination Alltshellach, the Plas y Brenin winter base for a week-long course on Scottish snow and ice climbing. On arrival at Alltshellach an ensuite room and cake at five o’clock each day awaited me; I was going to enjoy this!

Day One began with introductions to my course mates (11 men – things were definitely look good!) followed by a recap of skills. Leaving the minibus bound for the Buachaille Etiv Beag in blizzarding snow and strong gusts was a sharp reminder of Scottish weather. Day Two was the first day of putting skills in action and now at a ratio of 1:2, my partner Toby and I set off with guide Phil to Stob Coire an Lochan and Boomerang Arete. Weighed down with my kit, a rope, mountains of packed lunch and the infamous Plas y Brenin cake, I knew this week would also improve my fitness, no excuses! The weather was good and both the walk-in and climb were aided by sunshine. Toby and I both learnt a lot about snow and ice multi-pitching, including the importance of moving swiftly and that ice is always steeper when you get on it than it looks from the walk-in!

The third day also dawned sunny and we set off for Ben Nevis (affectionately known to the staff as Benjamin Everest). Toby unfortunately had a recurrence of an old knee injury and made his way back to the bus leaving Phil to work on my ice technique on a Grade 5 bulge which looked beautifully convex as we approached but monstrously overhanging from the bottom. We then proceeded up to our route, Central Gully Left-Hand. On arriving at the top of the penultimate pitch, I was informed that we were a little behind schedule after helping Toby off earlier and that a speed record would have to be set for the top pitch and walk-out to the bus. A 12-minute speed assault on the last pitch was followed by just over an hour of my running to fill Phil’s 6’3 strides. A really fab day!

Day Four and the weather returned to poor visibility for an ascent of Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etiv Mor. This was a chance for us to practice moving together alpine style and placing runners/belays. My new partner Ollie and I took it in turn to lead parts of the route and I made a new discovery: Dachstein mitts. Whilst appearing out of the George Mallory (and/or Richard Backwell) era, me hands were toasty!

The final day of the course was again sunny and my calves were thankful for the cable car up most of the Aonach Mor walk-in. Two climbs later we settled into the local pub for a de-brief and end of course drinks. This was not the end of my stay at Alltshellach however, Ross had arranged to meet me and put some of the week of skills in action two days later. In the intervening days I was lucky to hook up and climb with one of the Brenin’s Assistant Instructors who had an injured knee. Over the next two days we made our way round the beautiful Ballachulish Horseshoe (would recommend) and I got some much-needed technical advice on my rock-climbing technique. I now felt fully prepared to meet Ross and tackle some more ice…or so I thought!!

Catherine Freeman

I could barely contain my excitement as I made the drive from the Lakes to Ben Nevis. I had not done any winter climbing in about 2 years and had done very little ice climbing. I met Cat in Ballachulish, hardened from a week of ice climbing instruction. Needless to say I felt in good hands, sadly though, so did she.

The following day, having overcome some serious route finding difficulties, we found ourselves at the CIC hut deciding to climb The Italian IV,4. An initial ice ramp leading to steeper ice. Cat boldly led the first pitch, she had no choice she had forgotten our ice screws. I seconded, terrified by the hard, brittle ice, yet awed and inspired by Cat’s superb lead and her relaxed attitude at the top of the pitch. The rest of the route proved too much, not even getting into my circle helped (management tool to help calm and relax, which does not work), so we retreated off the route.

After a good night’s sleep we took on the great White Shark of Aonach Mor. This time. Armed with a full set of ice screws we felt confident. Cat started climbing, leaving me at the bottom to enjoy spindrift and frozen hands and eyelashes. I seconded up to find a perfectly created anchor with very neat ropework. I carried on up steep ice to a piton belay, but difficult route finding and a party climbing below us made us decide to abseil off. The cornice at the top would have proved difficult to break through – that and Cat had a plane to catch from Glasgow in three hours!

Ross Buchanan


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