Winter Skills Mountain Journey Day

10th Feb 2013

Today was the third day of a winter skills course in the Scottish Highlands.  Ten people had travelled to Scotland to experience the unique delights of the winter mountains.  Some had quite a lot of winter experience and some had none.  Over the first 2 days we spent lots of time looking at key winter skills then today we had our finale.....a mountain journey day.  
The 3 day course is our most popular and it's my favourite because the final day is a great opportunity for participants to put their new found skills into action.  The evening before they pore over maps and look at avalanche and weather forecasts to help decide the route.  The day is, as much as possible, theirs.
On this course we'd visited Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor on the first 2 days then today we decided on a circuit around Stob Coire Nan Lochan.  The forecast was for snow falling above 400 metres and medium strength winds so we went with a look and see approach (which generally works best in winter) but with hopes that we could ascend the ridge and traverse the corrie rim.
The group had loved the first few days and they were raring to go this morning.  For many of them it was their first visit to Glencoe and the beauty and drama of the place affected them like just about every other person I've taken there.  We spied the route ahead from the parking area and soon we were ascending the steady footpath into the corrie.
One of the most amazing aspects of my job is being able to move clients from winter novice to more confident and skilled winter hill goer in a short time.  Don't get me wrong, they aren't going to get anywhere near expert level in a few days and several told me they would only feel confident enough to ease themselves very gently into independent winter travel.....but they certainly looked confident enough as they climbed the snowy path today.
Along the way we recapped some of the information they'd been receiving all weekend.  How does the weather compare to the forecast we saw? What can you tell about the avalanche risk from what you are seeing on the ground?  When should we consider putting crampons on? How far up this path are we?  Eventually we reached the main corrie and the team eagerly spied the route ahead.
The ridge ascending to the summit of Stob Coire Nan Lochan is a great route and we were soon heading up in the swirling wind and snow.  A few times I asked how everyone was and I was only greeted by broad smiles.  They were having a brilliant adventure.  
As we ascended the ridge we weaved between some boulders, climbed a few small gullies and waded through some powder snow and it was great to see the team confidently using their ice axes and crampons to climb safely.  Then there it was.  the summit cairn beckoned and the team picked up steam towards the days high point.  After celebratory photos, an overdose of Haribo sweets and a lot of excited banter, we started our descent to the corrie rim.  
By anybody's standards Stob Coire Nan Lochan is a stunning place.  Add some wind and swirling snow and you have a great adventure venue.  The rim edge guided us around towards our descent line but along the way the group got to experience some white out conditions, see cornices up close for the first time and discuss wind created snow features like riming and sastrugi.  
Back into the corrie and we made our way to the base of the slope that links up to the access path.  The group were wind blasted and challenged but still the buzz continued.  They were inspired to do more, empowered to do more and excited to do more.  I really hope they do.
We headed back to the car park and as we sorted the rucksacks one of the group came over and quietly told me the day was the best he had ever had in the mountains.  Now it was me with the Cheshire Cat grin!