Ballater Weekend featuring Hillgoers Winter Skills Training

Lazy Saturday in Ballater

The ideal Christmas gift, a Winter Skills Day with Hillgoers, led us to Ballater at the weekend. Not being ones for doing nothing, we enjoyed a gentle stroll around the Seven Bridges, my favourite being Polhollick.

Polhollick Suspension Bridge, Ballater

Aside from this the walk was gentle and easy, a fine stroll where we marvelled at nature and the water levels that had been seen in the horrendous flooding of 2015.

The Bothy once again drew us in for coffee and cake, delicious as always, mainly due our feeling that mid-afternoon was not an acceptable time to go to the pub!

Later, having checked into our B & B we did just that; a busy night in the Balmoral Bar in Ballater! A decent meal saw us ready for an early night, looking forward to the skills day ahead.

Hillgoers Winter Skills

Meeting at The Bothy, this time in Braemar rather than Ballater, my fears were confounded when the other four participants in the group (husband included) were all male. Instructor Bill, however, very quickly allayed said concerns without even trying, introducing himself, getting the teas and coffees in, and settling us into a relaxed chat about the day ahead. Key to this was that the focus was on learning and support for one another.

After our initial chat, covering the planning and preparation stages of our walks including need to check the weather and avalanche forecasts for a few days prior, we headed out. Originally planned for Glenshee and postponed due to ridiculously strong winds last weekend – you’d have struggled to be upright, let alone hear anyone – again, the weather forecast was mixed and due to get windier, albeit not on the same scale, so we headed out to Glen Callater instead.

Loch Callater Bothy

The walk out to Loch Callater Bothy takes around an hour. It’s pretty much flat, along a good landrover track, and today had a decent covering of snow. This had fallen overnight and was reportedly better than the slushy conditions encountered by yesterday’s Hillgoers group.

Despite this, the snow made it a wee bit of a slog so it was a relief to come upon the bothy. As we approached, the snow began to fall lightly. This was especially welcome as Braemar was likely encountering rain if the aforementioned forecast was correct.

Into the bothy it was time for a snack, some hot chocolate, and the opportunity for Bill to check that we all knew how to put our crampons on and ensure they fitted our boots properly.

Loch Callater Bothy tucked into the slope

As is often the case, the world proved to be extremely small. Bill, having recognised me from running circles, transpired not to be the only runner. Others in the group also had links to friends through work and running interests, and it was entertaining establishing how we were all connected through mutual friends and interests throughout the course of the day.

The Fun Begins: Onto the hill

Refreshed, we headed out onto the hill. As we went up, Bill took the lead and did the hard work allowing the rest of us to follow behind, demonstrating energy saving techniques used when volunteering with Braemar Mountain Rescue Team. Second in line then also did some work, treading on the backs of Bill’s footsteps and creating a bit more of a channel, and so on. Being second last (or back of the pack)I enjoyed a stroll up the hill with minimal effort. I did feel somewhat guilty about this, but not guilty enough to move forward, the others seeming quite content and the distance to be covered relatively short.

I did appreciate Bill’s honesty and humour; when stopping for a mini lecture on conditions or technique, he admitted this was more due to the need for a rest after the exertions than urgency to impart information at this particular moment.

Boots as Tools

The first thing we practised was using our boots as tools, winter boots having harder soles with less flexibility making them better for kicking. We practised using the edges of our boots to gain stability while traversing across the hill, developing confidence in our movements. Quick movement downhill was also demonstrated and practised, including a technique for scree. I’m still not convinced I particularly wish to use this, but I may try it one day – I do ‘love’ a scree slope! Perhaps I should practise a bit more on snow first.

During this time the weather began to change, snow falling and, as the afternoon progressed, wind picking up. Having swithered this morning about my thermal leggings I was quite delighted to have put them on, at no point during the day feeling cold, and glad that I’d put up with overheating a little on the walk out.

The Real Fun: Ice Axes

Initially we practised the self belay, the idea being that this becomes instinctive and can effectively prevent a slip turning bad. Although the snow was pretty soft, this was an ‘easy’ technique to get my head around in the grand scheme of the day.

My initial attempts at self belay

The Inner Child

It doesn’t take much for me to find my inner 5 year old, so I was in my glory when it was suggested that we should all have some fun rolling down the hill in order to flatten the snow, creating an icy slide. One roly poly made me realise that my brain doesn’t work in quite the same way as it apparently used to; it was amazing how disoriented I felt, not sure which way was up and struggling to walk in a straight line! I found sliding down on my belly, head first, to be equally (if not more) satisfying!

Slide made, Bill then clearly demonstrated the techniques required to use our ice axes to arrest should we slip when walking. Previously for Bruce and I, these arrests had been taught through falling onto our fronts with legs pointing downhill.

Bruce in the act of arrest

Today was a whole new experience! Not many falls are graceful and easy; we therefore had to learn techniques for falling backwards and forwards, with both involving a headfirst slide.

The supportive environment and the group dynamic allowed us to have a lot of fun with this. Coordination is key – I’m not blessed on this front – but I do have an awareness of teaching physical skills and was quite comfortable practising the movements while upright and waiting my turn, aware that it will take lots of practise before this is in any way ‘unconscious’. Ultimately, the key skill was to master the initial control, getting the axe into position and the pick into the ground, thus allowing momentum to turn the body to the right direction before then stopping properly. It’s amazing how easy it can look when done by some accomplished! That wasn’t me!

I have a feeling I’ll be rolling around on the living room rug a bit over the coming week – here’s hoping I don’t impale my axe on the sofa!

Cutting Steps and Crampons

Lastly, our learning involved how to use our crampons effectively, the hope being that if we master this art we won’t need to do an ice axe arrest for real. Although using the ice axes was great fun in practise, all the other techniques should be the priority for safety on the hills.

I liked Bill’s analogy for using crampons: walk like a puppet, essentially trying to make contact with as much of the ground as possible, using all points on the crampon to increase grip and stability.

We learned to cut steps, using the ice axe as a pendulum, flattening a small step before moving onto it, thus theoretically allowing others to follow up or down in our footsteps. This is a useful technique if the weather conditions have changed the ground cover.

Back to the Bothy

Heading back down to the bothy, we kept the crampons on. Chat was very easy among the group by this point and it was a pleasurable short descent.

Safely ensconced in the bothy once again, it was time for more hot chocolate (still hot, courtesy of the Stanley flask) and another bite to eat. We were joined by a couple of students who had biked out – good effort – and a couple of lads who’d been out walking.

Finally, the walk back to the car. This passed quickly as we blethered, snow turning more slushy as we approached the car park again.

All in all, a great day out! I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to join Hillgoers on this excellent day, and sincerely thank Bill for his time and efforts. Here’s hoping if I see him again it’ll be a random bumping into at a race, or in the Bothy at Braemar, rather than on a dark hillside when he’s with the Braemar MRT! Thanks to everyone that joined us today – a pleasure sharing your company. Happy walking!

@Hillgoers Winter Skills Training Group

Tyndrum, Days 4-6 (‘Spring’ holiday)

Day 4: Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy
Having very much enjoyed the last few days but feeling somewhat tired, I’d resolved last night that today would be a day off. The original plan had been to have breakfast, read my book (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine) and go for a run along the West Highland Way. The weather forecast went in my favour though as with high winds and rain to come, Bruce opted to have a ‘rest’ day too so I had company for a walk instead.

Thus, after another excellent breakfast (freshly baked trout for him & porridge, fruit, scones and yogurt for me, no chance of starving when staying with Heather at Tigh-Na-Fraoch, we headed off along the West Highland Way to Bridge of Orchy. This is a fine easy walk, all the more so when the legs are weary, and we made good time.

At Auch we diverted to recce the river crossings for Beinn Mhanach, a potential walk for the coming days. Our concern was that the river may be in spate due to the rise in temperatures, and while it wasn’t excessively high it was quite fast flowing. The decision was made to leave this for a summer day instead.

West Highland Way: Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy
WHW Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy

Heading back onto the trail, we passed the Bridge of Orchy Hotel and continued up the WHW to get to the viewpoint, stopping for photos before heading back to the bar.

As always along the way, there were some friendly folks to chat to – these three turned out to be in the same boat as us, walking the hills and staying lower because of the weather.

Heading off we went out early to catch the bus. Having successfully hitchhiked from this point previously I suggested that we should try to thumb a lift ahead of the bus to save a few bob! In the ten minutes we had two cars stop – the first, a mountain biker who was willing to rearrange his car (and bike) to fit us in – we declined as with the bus being imminent it seemed rather unfair on him; the second was two ice climbers who’d been on Ben Nevis and were heading back down South. We were delighted, simple pleasures, and enjoyed the chat on the road back to Tyndrum. As we walked back towards our B & B the bus passed. Thankfully their car was long gone!

To complete the circle, I can now add retrospectively that we came home via Bridge of Orchy in order to return the favour, giving a lift along to a lovely young American couple who had decided to knock a few miles off their long day. Balance is restored!

Day 5: Beinn Achaladair & Beinn a’Chreachain
It was one of those perfect hill days according to the weather forecasters (Met Office, I hasten to add, not MWIS) – not too windy, foggy for starting out but due to clear with the prospect of sun. It was therefore a no-brainer for us. We needed to do something scenic and may as well go for a big day out!

Off once agaain the first challenge of the day was to be the river crossing at the Water of Tulla. We walked up and down for a bit trying to find a good crossing place.

Heading out to Beinn Achaladair (in search of a crossing place)

Options were limited, with deeper water in places and a lack of stones within jumping distance; I can run but I’m not blessed with the ability to jump or throw! Bruce eventually bit the bullet and crossed, only dipping one leg in to the knee which with his gaiters on wasn’t too bad. Me, being a bit more cautious and accident prone, walked further upstream, walked some more, and finally had to strip off more of my clothes than I’d like in order to don a spare pair of liner socks and wade across, very grateful that there was nobody else around for all our sakes. It wasn’t as cold as anticipated but seeing the supportive husband capturing the moment on camera tipped me over the edge and provoked an impressive array of colourful language!

Safely across, I dried off and dressed. We proceeded to follow the path around, eventually starting to gain some height. The path went on to climb pretty relentlessly and unfortunately there was no sign of the fog burning off.

Eventually reaching the ridge of Beinn a’Chreachain, still in the fog and with tricky underfoot conditions – lots of snow which was a little slidey in places – we opted for the precautionary measure of both the ice axe and crampons. This should have been spectacular but instead was somewhat scary; the ridge narrowed, the wind got up and it wasn’t clear how far the drop was due to the lack of visibility. Once again I was venturing out with my comfort zone.

Heading up Beinn a'Chreachain

The ridge soon widened and we made it up to the first munro summit of the day. The wind was still strong so we chose not to linger here, instead just pausing for a quick photo before battling on.

Summit of Beinn a'Chreachain

Dropping down was easy enough, the snow assisting with a quick descent before the steep climb to our second summit, Beinn Achaladair began. This was really daunting, appearing just to keep going up into the fog. The fact that the drops were again not visible, combined with a gradient that would challenge me on a fine day, never mind a day like this with snow covering the slopes, again led me to feel a little less than delighted to be here. Ultimately there wasn’t a whole lot of option but to keep going as the prospect of trying to retrace our steps did not appeal either!

Tricky navigation between Beinn a'Chreachain and Beinn Achaladair in snow & fog

Climbing into the cloud we did finally reach a flatter plateau and found the summit. Again, only time for a quick photo stop. Shortly after we paused to put on our waterproof trousers to try and combat the windchill. It really was getting quite bitter and any pause led to slight shivering and feelings of cold seeping in. Top tip for putting your waterproofs on a windy summit: sit on your rucksack; that way nothing’s blowing away, even if there is the danger of squishing any remaining food!

The hard part over, the crampons came off. The snow had softened again which meant that going downhill our feet sunk in well. I felt comforted by this as I figured that worse case scenario I could sit down and stall myself by sinking in should I slip, hopefully not going too far. Thankfully this wasn’t required.

Very snowy descent from Beinn Achaladair

The descent was fairly quick with regular checks of the bearings to ensure we were headed in the right direction. Finally we dropped out of the fog and could see the path ahead which was very refreshing indeed! By this point we only had a few miles left and I was no longer phased by anything! Stream crossing? Wade through it! Snow covering a burn? I’ll take my chances, fall through it and sink in to my knees. What’s the worst that can happen?

Coming off Beinn a'Chreachain

I can’t begin to express how happy I was to see the road appear in the distance and to know that the end was in sight. The day, according to Walk Highlands, should have taken around 7 hours. They’re usually pretty accurate and we finish within their forecasted times, but today was an 8.5 hour day for us.

In all honesty, it’s probably one of the toughest days I’ve done in the hills and again one that pushed me to my limits. Am I glad I did it though? Definitely yes, especially when safely home reflecting on the day with a glass of wine in hand. Amazing how a couple of hours can change perspective on things!

Day 6: Beinn Fhionnlaidh
We headed for Beinn Fhionnlaidh as it was an ‘easy’ munro – relatively short distance and not too long.

A fine easy start, we began by heading along a road towards the estate houses. From here it was quite a steady ascent which felt steep, but this could be due to the miles already in the legs. Mercifully, and for reasons unknown, this was incredibly dry! This was a real treat after all the boggy ground we’ve had.

Progressing upwards, we were slow and steady. It was around 500 m before we started to get cold as it was very windy indeed! The jackets went on here and the hood went up as it’s a struggle to see with hair all over your face! It’s one of the rare times I envy my follically challenged husband!

Heading up to Beinn Fhionnlaidh, decent paths for a munro

The route continued climbing steadily, we passed a couple of wee lochans, and the ground became stonier. The surprising thing was that there was very little snow. Thus, we’d carried our crampons and ice axes for nothing – this was in itself a pleasant surprise.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh, summit cairn approaching

Continuing to the summit, the views were absolutely stunning! We saw Ben Nevis, Mull, and so many mountains around the Glencoe area. Beautiful! While Bruce captured the views I sat down having been blasted against the trig point by the wind, increasing my sense of vulnerability.

Amazingly enough, as we turned and made our way down the wind completely died. It was quite surreal having been buffeted all the way up. This allowed us to progress at a leisurely pace and stop to enjoy lunch in the sunshine. Beyond this it was a fairly easy walk, quickly descending back towards the estate houses.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh, descent from the plateau

What a way to finish the holidays! A truly spectacular day!

‘Spring’ Holiday: Tyndrum, Days 1 – 3

Day 1: Meall Ghaordaidh

This was chosen as our first munro of the week as it’s short and a simple up down – allegedly.

A clear parking area was located just after a very clear sign showing the access path to the hill. We donned our boots, fixed ice axes on the rucksacks and headed off – that sounds very swift; in actual time we probably faffed around for 5 minutes. We then quickly realised just how warm it had become and more faffing ensued as layers were shed. In contrast to last time we were out, we were comfortably in base layers until well up the hill.

The path was decent, albeit a little wet and boggy, gaiters on though, we were unperturbed. The snow line was high, around 750 m, and we were fortunate in that even at this level it was quite patchy. It was only towards the final pull that we swapped poles for an ice axe just to be safe, and managed to the top with no need for crampons, the snow being pretty soft.

On reaching the dizzy heights of my 111th munro, Bruce asked, “How many munros have you done now?”

This is a standing joke as I’ve usually got no idea and he can tell me as he remembers things. On this occasion though, as I replied correctly, a little voice in my head queried whether you’ve done the munro if you’re not yet back down. Hold this thought!

Heading downwards we retraced our steps (and those of others who had passed through previously), making our way through the snow with relative ease. Off the snow I stopped for a comfort break and Bruce carried on. I couldn’t have been far behind him, but lost sight of him. I blew my whistle and shouted but no response. I lost the boggy path. Meanwhile, he’d gone a little further down and realised he’d lost me, also shouting and getting no response.

Thinking I’d come upon him soon I tried using OS Locate to get an exact pinpoint on the map – it didn’t work. I had a compass showing but no grid reference. On return to the B & B, having reinstalled it, I now realise that you need to give it access to location services on your phone. Oops!

Anyway, with no ability to get a proper reference point I vaguely orientated my map in line with where I’d come from. I then made the mistake of following what I thought was the main burn – it was in fact a small tributary but everything’s bigger just now with the snow melt – and ended up back at the road as planned, but a mile or so up from where I should have been!

Despite the unfortunate turn of events this all turned out okay. A minor feeling of panic as I descended wondering where husband was had been reciprocated as he shouted and retraced his steps to find me. As I saw the car coming into view I hollered and blew my whistle, just in time to catch him about to embark on the next ascent. For once, timed to perfection!

Day 2: Stob Coir’an Albannaich & Meall nan Eun

Having debated last night which walk to do with concerns of streams in spate and marshy ground due to yesterday’s rain we settled for the above munros. As we headed up the boggy path we did briefly question our judgement; the marshy grass was slow going and a steady incline meant that although we were gaining height it was neither quick nor easy.

Initial climb towards Stop Coir'an Albannaich

Continuing up we had to cross a series of small waterfalls and streams. The main issue here was snow – although we could hear the water flowing we were in effect walking over it, hoping that the snow was still firm enough to hold our weight. We wouldn’t have come to any real harm as the water would have been shallow but walking with wet feet’s not particularly pleasurable! Thankfully we reached the bealach dry.

The true ascent then started with the top of Stob Coir’an Albannaich in sight. We followed the curve of the slope up and around, and I was grateful to Bruce for taking the lead for much of this. It’s far easier following in someone else’s footsteps rather than having to break trail yourself. The snow was fairly soft and for the most part the walking was fairly easy. The thing that played on my mind was the steep descent to come between the tops, as per the Walk Highlands route guide.

Stob Coir'an Albannaich

Reaching the summit cairn we stopped to admire the views which were stunning. The cornices along the top of the ridge were very apparent and I really did start to worry about what lay ahead! Having checked the map and route guide the line of descent became clear and it was somewhat steeper than I’d have liked.

Initially we dropped down to a bealach. This proved manageable once started despite looking (to me) quite horrific in the beginning. The next step was to find the rake that lead down to the next bealach: it was steep but the softer snow allowed our feet to sink in. Alongside the comfort of the ice axe it quickly saw me reach the floor of the bealach, although if I’m honest I did have a feeling of panic at the start of the descent from the cairn. The upside of heading for a bealach is knowing that you will stop if you slide. This was the fear higher up – how far down would you go, and what might you hit, before stopping!

The walk to the second munro, Meall nan Eun was easy. We ascended a peak between, Beinn Tarsuinn, which was a pleasant walk with gentle incline compared with what we’d done previously, followed by another short descent and the final push up to the munro. It proved stunning as the views around were breathtakingly clear.

During the ascent we’d had a brief spell of gentle rain. This may have added to the chill as prior to this we’d been warm; however it happened, we chose not to linger too long as the cold was noticeably for the first time.

Heading back across the plateau we had another descent to tackle. This was an experience indeed! Essentially we had to drop down the steep crags (snow covered) and lose height quickly. Bruce led the way and I followed in his footsteps again. However, at one particularly steep section he suggested I’d be better going a marginally different route as it may prove easier. I found myself frozen to the spot, terrified, as I became very aware that the soft snow may well give way beneath my feet resulting in a slide downwards! Bruce was somewhat surprised by my polite request for help, and calmly coached me to use my ice axe to hold the position, dig my feet in and go sideways. Having succeeded with this I was then able to get moving more comfortably again, all the while being given gentle encouragement from below – my hero!! (He later told me that he could tell I was scared so figured not to crack jokes or take the mickey!)

Steep descent from Meall nan Eun

Back on the grass, although we still had a good height to descend it felt easier. The ground was much better than the route up with a decent path; despite the boggy wet conditions in places we made good progress. A few small waterfall and stream crossings eventually took us back to a land rover track and after this it was only a short walk back to the car.

Off the hills - a totally different day to the summits!
Walking back out from Stob Coir’an Albannaich and Meall nan Eun

A truly joyful day in the hills again: felt like I was pushing my limits at times but looking back I’d do it again.

Day 3: Ben Challum

Opting for a shorter day, we decided to try Ben Challum. Despite being short this hill was a hard slog, climbing steadily after crossing the railway line across boggy ground. The snow, as we progressed, took care of the bogs and again we were able to walk across covered streams and areas that would otherwise have been unpleasant.

Cloudy Ben Challum

The views further up are said to be quite spectacular but sadly we didn’t get to appreciate them. The cloud was low and it became very foggy as we approached the top. The snow line was higher than it has been (around 900 m) and again the snow was slightly wet allowing the feet to sink in making progress easier, particularly on the descents. A familiar story, ice axes provided security for self belaying, but crampons were just extra weight in the rucksack, along with the Microspikes, spare gloves, down jacket, base layer, hat and 2 buffs!

Summit of Ben Challum
Distinct lack of visibility

As the snow got deeper I had a fleeting moment of thinking maybe this is as far as I go. However, Bruce assured me that we were within a few hundred metres of the summit. Problem was that you couldn’t see the summit, and with the route guide describing a cleft on the ridge I was worried we’d fall down it! It transpired the cleft wasn’t too big, we didn’t fall down it and we did get to the top safely. On this occasion the return leg was far easier, retracing our steps back down.

Ben Challum in fog

As we descended the sun attempted to break through and the route opened up to show views back down. It’s amazing how much less steep and scary something is when you can actually see it!

Coming out of the cloud on the descent from Ben Challum

Another one done, and I feel done!