Winter Mountain Leader Assessment (or why walking took over from running this winter)

My running shoes have stayed firmly in the cupboard at weekends this winter – relegated in favour of my many times heavier mountaineering boots. Fast and light? Definitely not! There has also been the irony of spending most of my winter leisure hours doing precisely the activity I condemned in Scottish Trail Running: ‘Mere hill walking does not do the [Cairngorms] justice and quite frankly, long walk-ins and rounded slopes make these hills fairly dull to walk up one at a time’. Famous last words!  Last week I headed to the Cairngorms…

‘Gusting 95mph… snow showers becoming persistent.’ Not exactly the best forecast for a day on the hill, particularly when that day is part of a one week assessment for a Winter Mountain Leader award. As we walked away from the minibus into a strong head wind I doubt any of us were sure about what lay ahead. Plan A was to snowhole but it wasn’t clear whether we would even be able to get up to the relatively low level site our instructors had in mind. We could hear the wind howling as we reached the top of the forest. ‘Do we really have to go out into that?’ I gritted my teeth and dug the edges of my boots into the snow with every step; I was determined not to be blown over despite the sail-like proportions of the expedition rucksack on my back.

Conditions were deteriorating as we reached the bank of snow that potentially would be our home for the night. The wind-driven snow gave no opportunity for discussion so after a few shouts and a bit of arm waving we started digging into the top of the bank, hoping that each of us had a similar construction plan in mind. As we dug the wind strengthened and the snow kept on falling. Visibility was almost nil. Our gradually expanding holes were oases of calm and silence in comparison to the maelstrom outside. After several hours we’d dug ourselves a good roomy hole and were comfortably settled into sleeping bags. We set an hourly alarm for checking that the doorway was clear of spindrift but beyond that I had no intention of setting foot outside the hole until morning.

We woke up to sunshine which made a pleasant change. Ironically, sun, blue skies and clear summits were just about the last things I wanted. Our assessors needed to see us operating in low visibility and I knew that we’d have to walk long into the night if the right conditions eluded us during the day. Luckily, the Cairngorm summits were quick to deliver some of their trademark clag and we found ourselves in proper ‘inside of a ping-pong ball’ white-out conditions – just perfect!

Demonstrating accurate navigation (and surviving the wintry conditions!) were the last skills we needed to display. Before heading out on expedition we spent the first two days of the course focusing on movement skills and security on steep ground. For movement skills and ice axe arresting, the emphasis was on our personal ability to demonstrate perfect technique to groups in our charge. On the steep ground day we worked through several scenarios requiring snow anchors including lowering over a small cornice and working our way up a gully and over a rocky ridge. Even though we were being assessed, I was delighted to find that our instructors treated the week as an opportunity for further training and I picked up some useful new techniques, particularly around snow slope assessment. I was very impressed by the quality of the training at Glenmore Lodge – both the days out on the hill with instructors and the very well prepared evening lectures.

The assessment has been a great opportunity to improve my winter skills and in particular my awareness and assessment of avalanche hazard. WARTS: Weather, Above/Angle/Aspect; Route; Terrain and Snowpack – the most useful mnemonic passed on at my WML training and the one I now use every day I head out into the winter hills. Apart from Snowpack, I can work through the rest before even setting foot on the hill, particularly with the aid of the detailed Scottish Avalanche Information Service Forecasts. Having been out with one of the forecasters on a particularly hideous day I am very, very thankful for their hard work in delivering this fantastic public service.

For others doing their assessments – I recommend reading George McEwan’s very clear article on the MTA blog. The Winter Skills handbook became my bible for the winter and Chance in a Million is recommended reading for everyone heading out into the winter hills – not just WML trainees!

As for me, I am looking forward to using my award to help others enjoy the winter hills safely. I am also looking forward to getting some skiing and climbing in before the winter ends – and perhaps even dusting off those running shoes!

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