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Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole


Postby CurlyWurly » Sat Apr 03, 2010 11:04 am

Date walked: 25/03/2010

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Thursday 25th April, day four of the winter mountain leader training course and it was expedition time. Anyone who has completed their summer mountain leader or winter mountain leader will know the format; a series of days learning various aspects from the syllabus and then a two day expedition with a night spent out on the mountain (on the assessment it is a three day, two night expedition).

The weather had been pretty grim all week. Low cloud and blustery wind had been a daily occurrence but the instructors seemed to enjoy this. Suppose it makes sense to learn skills in poor conditions anyway.

We arrived at the Cairngorm ski centre at 11am. Our first point of call was the ranger’s office where we picked up our special pots and bags that would enable us to carry our human waste of the hill. The Cairngorm ‘Poo Project’ was set up two years back with the aim of reducing the amount of human waste left out on the high plateau. The bags are made up from a special corn starch which will breakup once in the treatment facility. The pots are water and air tight.

1 - Cairngorm Poo Project Tub.JPG

I was not particularly keen on exposing my ‘rear-end’ to the elements and was hopeful that I would be able to manage to ‘not go’ until I got back the following day. The pot seemed a good idea anyway and I shoved it into the top of my 70 litre rucksack. For summer trips I travel as light as possible and get all my gear into a 40 litre pack. But in addition to the usual overnight stuff, I had a rope, slings, karabiner, snow shovel, snow saw, avalanche probe, ice axe, crampons, goggles, three pairs of gloves, helmet, extra hard shell, flask and enough food to feed the whole group. To be fair the pack did not feel too bad once it was on back.

The plan was to navigate onto the plateau, build a snow hole, sleep in it and then navigate off then next day. There where twelve of us on the course and we where split in to two groups of six
Our main issue would be the soft snow and whether we would be able to find a suitable area to build a snow shelter. The snow was melting rapidly at low level and with a freezing level of 950m the plan was to navigate to a re-entrant south-east of the Ptarmigan café near the summit of Cairngorm where the snowpack would be consolidated.

The format for navigation legs on the winter mountain leader is the same as the summer mountain leader. One person is given a location to navigate to and the rest of the party follow and then relocate once we have arrived. I did not anticipate any issues navigating to the re-entrant because there was lots of features to ‘tick-off’ (ski-tows, ski runs etc.) on the way up.

We slowly shuffled up the mountain in single file, each taking it in turn to navigate to different points. Even in cloudy conditions, the navigation did not pose any issues although I knew that it would get a little tougher once we where on the plateau itself. We arrived at the Ptarmigan café to find the other group, who had taken a different route, sat having a cup of coffee and eating cake. No such luck for us, we took a compass bearing and headed south-east towards a huge re-entrant near Marquis Well. With limited visibility and snow covering the ground there were no features to tick off and we had to walk on a bearing and count paces. To be fair to the guy leading the leg, he hit the re-entrant spot on.

It was obvious that this was a popular place to snow hole. A huge bank spanned in a semi circle and holes where cut at random places where previous groups had stayed. I had a good look inside some of them and there were some impressive constructions. Our instructors informed us that we could not commandeer a hole already created and we would have to build our own.

We set about prodding the bank with an avalanche probe to test the depth and found a suitable location high up on the bank and set about to work digging with our snow shovels. There would be three people in our snow hole; myself, Brian and Dave. With vigour we hacked into the snow with our snow shovels and began to make progress. We had learnt that the sleeping section is elevated and a pit is dug down near the door. The idea being that the cold air sinks into the pit and the sleeping area stays warm. It was hard work but four hours later we had created our snow hole. On inspection, the instructors where slightly concerned that the roof was a little thin and may collapse. Suggestions of moving into one of the other shelters where quickly dismissed. It was at least 18 inches thick and there was no way we where working to build it for four hours then move out!

2 - Brian starts digging the snow hole.JPG

We hacked out some shelves in the walls and placed candles and the hole was surprisingly cosy. We had made the ceiling quite high so you could practically stand up and I hacked some shelves into the ice so I could store items and hang my gear up. Without further ado I shoved my therm-a-rest and sleeping bag inside my bivi bag, jumped inside and got the stove on for some food.

3 - The Brian and Dave in the snow hole.JPG

4 - Me in the snow hole.JPG

On mountain leader training courses, you usually have do a night navigation exercise but the visibility was so bad that the instructors said there would be no need and we could just relax for the night. We chatted for a while and then I settled down to watch a film on my iPhone. By 10pm I was pretty tired so I decided to call it a night. I was surprised as to how well I slept, I only woke a couple of time and on each occasion I quickly dropped off back asleep. Waking up at 6:30 I was satisfied to see that our roof was fine. Breakfast was quickly made and our gear packed for a prompt departure at 8am.

5 - Snow holes.JPG

Once again we where going to perform a series of navigation legs but this time there would be no easier features for assistance. Because myself and another guy had not done a leg the day before, I knew I would be first or second. The other chap was chosen first and his leg was to a spur south of our location. The clouds parted briefly to reveal blue sky but this was short lived and soon we where engulfed again in mist.

We set off and Rich navigated us to the spur perfectly. Now it was my turn. Although I have completed many of these navigation legs before during my summer mountain leader, the pressure of leading a group of other people who are all analysing their maps is pretty intense. So far, every one had performed their leg perfectly and I did not want to be the first to make a mistake.

The instructor points to a location on the map south west of our current location.

“Can you take us to that spot height at 1082 metres? What is your plan? How far is it? How long will it take?”

Visibility was down to a few metres, the white snowy ground just met the sky and I could not see any features to help with the navigation. A direct bearing from our location was out of the question because it would mean clambering up a steep cliff section.
Fortunately, there was a saddle between Cairngorm and the spot height that looked quite large. I measured this with my compass and it was 200 metres across, that should not be to difficult to find. The distance to the saddle was just short of 800 metres and if I took a bearing that hugged relatively close to the 1050 metres contour line I would climb across one contour until I hit the saddle. So if I managed to walk straight on my bearing I would know I was close the saddle once I started ascending.


MountainLeaderRoute.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts


I relayed my plan to the instructor and set off. Normally when I walk on a bearing I try and pick out objects on the bearing and walk to them and repeat. There was nothing at all just snow and cloud, I slowed my pace and kept my eyes glued to the compass.

100m, 200m, 300m, 400m….

At 500m the cloud lifted briefly and I could see the saddle and the spot height. I was pretty much spot on. Great news! I relaxed and pushed on. At 700 metres the ground ascended and I knew I had nailed it. We hit the saddle and I took another bearing that would lead to the spot height. Leading everyone forward, I marched on up to the top.

This may not have been the assessment but I was pretty relieved to have not made any mistakes. The instructor got out a GPS and showed me the bread trail of the route I had taken. My pacing and bearing where spot on but unfortunately my time estimation was not. I had calculated the time based on what I would walk in the summer but with deep slow that slowed progress this was way to optimistic. Schoolboy error!!

We each took it in turns and navigated from place to another and worked our way up to Coire Domhain and then to the top of Coire an t-Sneachda. We discussed the options; we could descend directly into Coire an t-Sneachda via the goat track or descend via Fiacaill Ridge. We decided on the ridge but avoided the large rounded blocks by descending the snow slope to the west. A snow bollard was created and a rope used to belay people down the slope. It was interesting to note how much time was taken to belay people and the decision to us a rope must not be taken. During the course there had been real emphasis on party management and we discussed the pro and cons of rope use and route selection.

6 - Descending Fiacaill  Ridge.JPG

7 - Foot stomper belay (West Coast style).JPG

Pushing on down the ridge the going steadied out and with the cloud rising, we even got some blue skies. We continued on and even had the opportunity to practice other skills. At lower levels the snow had been thawing rapidly and I could now make the path back to the ski centre. Additionally, I was able to return my ‘Poo-Project’ tub back to the ranger’s office unused – happy days!!

It had been a great expedition and an awesome course, the skills gained where invaluable especially all the avalanche awareness information and I am looking forward to consolidating over the next couple of seasons before I take the assessment. For those interested in taking the winter mountain leader award you must hold the summer mountain leader award and have twenty quality winter days.
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CurlyWurly
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby BethAtTheHug » Sat Apr 03, 2010 11:27 am

Ah Ciste Mhearad is I think the re-entrant you used for the overnight. It's amazing to drop into it and see the whole 'village' before you dug into the snow. Awesome stuff. Who did you go with?

Thanks for the write-up, interesting to see what happens during these courses.
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby Milesy » Sat Apr 03, 2010 11:40 am

Looks like great fun! Winter navigation is great! That accomplishment you get from making your target :D Your right about the snow belays - they seem to take a lifetime! Especially having to cut out bucket seats :shock:

Well done and hope you enjoyed it! Really fancy the WML myself :)
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby mountain coward » Sat Apr 03, 2010 11:59 am

That's a superbly interesting report... Don't think I'd trust a snow bollard myself for belaying as I don't really trust a rope in the first place but that's just my mountain cowardice...

I'm sure I'd never go for the winter mountain leader myself but I'd love to have a go at snowholing - in fact I'm thinking of going in Feb with one of my friends who always snowholes on Creag Meaghaidh. I'll go just for one night simply to experience it, so your pics and info were fascinating.

I may one day go for one of the easier mountain leader qualifications so long as it's a summer one and you don't have to do anything to do with ropes. My idea of routes which need a rope is that it's the wrong route and to choose another! If I was leading a party, that's exactly what I'd be doing...
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby CurlyWurly » Sat Apr 03, 2010 12:01 pm

BethAtTheHug wrote:Ah Ciste Mhearad is I think the re-entrant you used for the overnight. It's amazing to drop into it and see the whole 'village' before you dug into the snow. Awesome stuff. Who did you go with?


Nice one Beth, just looked at the 1:25k map (we where using 1:50k) and you are right :)

SnowHolingLocation.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts



I used http://www.phillgeorge.com/ from Wales. Phill is an amzing teacher. I have heard some real horror stories from people who have horrendous assesors during their assessment. Phill is really chilled and makes you feel really relaxed.

Milesy wrote:That accomplishment you get from making your target Your right about the snow belays - they seem to take a lifetime! Especially having to cut out bucket seats

It was great constucting all those different belays, but it took our party nearly an hour to descend that slope.
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby mountain coward » Sat Apr 03, 2010 12:03 pm

Oh yeah, and the other comment I was going to make... about the poo project container - do they expect you to fill that on your own? It's huge!! I suppose they supply them a standardised size for people who are going out for a week or more...
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby CurlyWurly » Sat Apr 03, 2010 12:09 pm

mountain coward wrote:I may one day go for one of the easier mountain leader qualifications so long as it's a summer one and you don't have to do anything to do with ropes. My idea of routes which need a rope is that it's the wrong route and to choose another! If I was leading a party, that's exactly what I'd be doing...


You are exactly right, you should plan your route accordingly. Rope work in both the summer and winter ML is for emergency use only. If you really did not fancy the idea of rope work why don't you consider the Walking Group Leader? The navigation and party management is the same as the summer mountain leader but no security on steep ground and river crossing. :)
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby mountain coward » Sat Apr 03, 2010 12:12 pm

You're probably right - I should just go for that one... I'm not happy on really steep ground myself, summer or winter! I don't mind river crossing though...
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby BethAtTheHug » Sat Apr 03, 2010 12:19 pm

:) I navigated to that re-entrant in a white out on my winter skills course with Glenmore Lodge! We tried digging a wee emergency shelter each with just axes in the bank round from the headwall village, slow but possible. And great fun. The instructor had a shovel and managed to complete his in the 1/2 hour we had.

I've just registered with MLTE to try for my summer ML. Really don't know how far I'll manage to get along the path, but I have a 'free' summer and it's something to aim for.
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby Paul Webster » Sat Apr 03, 2010 1:26 pm

Quite jealous of that trip as I've always fancied having a go at making a snow hole. Mind you, we should be moving to the Cairngorms this year so will be in the right place to have a go next winter 8)

Was it actually a comfy night? I presume you'd have to put something round a down sleeping bag or was it not very wet inside...
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby HighlandSC » Sat Apr 03, 2010 1:41 pm

A great, interesting and alternative report. Enjoyed that :)
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby mountain coward » Sat Apr 03, 2010 1:44 pm

Paul Webster wrote:Quite jealous of that trip as I've always fancied having a go at making a snow hole. Mind you, we should be moving to the Cairngorms this year so will be in the right place to have a go next winter 8)

Was it actually a comfy night? I presume you'd have to put something round a down sleeping bag or was it not very wet inside...


So, as well as another 'WalkHighlands' bothying trip (like the Tarf trip), we need a Walkhighlands snow-holing trip! :D
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby Graeme D » Sat Apr 03, 2010 1:52 pm

Excellent stuff Darren - a unique report. I would love to build a snow hole and spend the night in it. I've just completed the 3 day WGL training as we now need to hold NGB awards for leading DofE trips with the school. As DofE remit doesn't include that sort of terrain, they wouldn't fund us for the ML course, but I'll definitely do it one day soon. The nav and group management aspects were just the same. The night nav was an excellent experience and I was still buzzing the next morning.
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby kevsbald » Sat Apr 03, 2010 4:42 pm

From a public health point of view, glad you didn't have to use the Poo-pack.
Looks a very interesting night out!
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Re: Winter ML, Cairngorm Poo Project and a night in a snow hole

Postby gaffr » Sun Apr 04, 2010 10:15 am

Nice bijou winter accommodation in Mary's Coffin....hope the neighbours weren't noisy! :lol:
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