1st February 2015

Winter Mountain Leader Training

It’s been a while since I’ve been on a training course towards another qualification and having been registered for the WML scheme for a few years, it was time I got around to doing it! I’ve written a bit of an account about, hopefully it’ll be of interest to some!

I chose to do it at Glenmore Lodge, the dates fitted and although it’s fairly expensive I thought it would be handy to have decent accommodation and good food each day after long days out out in the hills.┬áThe facilities at the Lodge are great, decent rooms, decent food, nice bar, climbing wall, sauna etc. Perhaps the best facility though, other than the bar, are the stores where you can borrow everything from an ice axe to a belay jacket.

My mate Mike and I had booked on the same course and had come up the week before to get some climbing and mountaineering in and turned up to the Lodge on Sunday evening ready for the six day course starting Monday morning.

After a welcome brief first thing Monday morning, we were sent off to meet our instructors for the week, Sandy who was directing the course and John who is the head of mountaineering – they must have over 50 years experience between them.

Monday was a skills day, looking at personal movement on snow and neve before moving onto ice axe arresting. I’ve done lots of winter walking and mountaineering in the past but it was still good to fine tune my skills, with a view to demonstrating these skills to clients in a clear and text book manner. You look at cutting steps for the clients as well, which is not something I’ve done before, as a WML you might cut steps for a short section to help out your clients. In a similar vein ice axe arrests are practiced in a variety of body positions, again the aim is to be able to give text book examples to your clients so they learn the skills in the best way possible. The weather was kind to us and we didn’t walk very far, operating just above the Coire Ciste car park for the day.

At Glenmore Lodge, similarly to Plas y Brenin, you’ll be back at the centre for sometime around 1630 in time for tea & cake, which is always welcome followed everyday by a quick debrief of the days events.
We also had a lecture that evening on avalanches. This is an ongoing theme of the WML and an area of the course that I found super useful, it was definitely something I didn’t know so much about and whilst still being a long way off an expert I’m a lot more knowledgeable now and it’s such an important subject if you’re out and about in the winter.
On day 2 we walked up to Coire an t-Sneachda, doing a little bit of navigation on the way. The focus of this day was crampon skills, which again was fine tuning our personal skills, but also looking at how we’d teach clients these skills so clients can learn the appropriate skills on their mountain journey. It was another good weather day and on the way out we looked at snow shelters that other groups had made previously – no digging that day which is a bonus as you’ll do plenty more later on in the week!
That evening we had a winter navigation lecture – although this was very well presented, I found it pretty pointless, I deliver a lot of navigation training, including Summer Mountain Leader course so nothing new was covered.
Day three was the rope work day and the weather was a bit more spicy, definitely a goggles on day! The rope work isn’t much more complicated than on a Summer ML but we learnt how to dig bucket seats, construct horizontal axe belays and make a stomper belay as well doing a bit of abseiling. This is the first day you start to appreciate the joys of digging with your ice axe! Again, we didn’t walk too far and there was no nav to be done, on getting back to the Lodge we had another avalanche talk, this time more advanced, getting into more detail about the finer details of the snow pack and the changes it all goes through and what effects it.
I’d been looking forward to day 4 which is the mountain day, a day of actually doing a journey and putting into practice the movement and rope work skills. We navigated to a few different points on the way up to Sneachda, before getting the rope out and looking at how you’d protect someone going over a cornice or approaching an edge in poor vis. After we’d done that we made our way up the Northern corner of the Coire up on to the ridge. We used this opportunity to practice our text book examples of crampon skills etc as well as route finding our way through the variety of ice, snow and rock. After a little bit more nav we found a steeper slope where we practiced a bit of abseiling off snow bollards and lowering from bucket seat + horizontal axe belays. The snow was hard here so digging out the snow belays was pretty hard work, but it was good to practice it in a more realistic situation. We did a bit of confidence roping as well, which is only slightly different to the summer version. After getting back to the Lodge we had a brief chat about the expedition on day 5 & 6 and signed a shovel out from stores for digging out our snow holes and the all important poo tube…!
The final two days are taken up with an overnight exped, normally staying in a snow hole overnight, so we packed up in readiness, nice warm sleeping bag, bivi bag, stove and plenty of gloves etc. We weighed the bags as well, mine was 13kg, I think the lightest was 11kg and the heaviest 19kg.
We started from the Ciste car park and took it in turns to navigate short legs as part of the longer route. We bumped into a WML assessment group who had been out for 2 nights, they seemed in surprisingly good spirits even though they were covered in rime! The weather got worse as we gained height, the winds were probably around 40mph which although isn’t too brutal, when combined with snow stings your face and makes you grateful for your goggles. The nav became trickier and eventually we got what we’d all been waiting for, decent white out conditions to test our skills!
We arrived at Ciste Mhearad mid afternoon which meant it was time to get digging…. Our team of six started digging two holes into the slope with the aim of combining the two holes into one for a good size area to sleep in.
As part of our planning we had checked out the weather and our instructors got the updated forecast whilst we were digging in. With the next day bringing in heavy snow and 100mph+ winds, it was decided we’d just dig temporary shelters, cook our food and then get out and do some night nav before retreating back to the Lodge. It was really useful spending some time in our shelter, it definitely highlighted the need for good kit admin. Everything was rimed up but soon melted once in our shelter – on the assessment you spend two nights out, so this definitely requires some thought.
The navigation is not really much different to summer nav, but it does require bomb proof tactics, solid skills and confidence.┬áThe navigation wasn’t as hard as I expected, but I do a lot of nav all year around so I’m pretty confident with my skills. We used the 1:40k maps which I haven’t used much before, but I am most definitely a convert now – they’re awesome.
We navved our way back down to the mini bus and got back to the Lodge at about 2300 and as much as I was disappointed not to be in a snow hole, it was nice to be in a comfy, warm bed.

On the final day we ended up just having a thorough debrief and chatting about the consolidation period and what’s expected of you between training and assessment.

The week definitely highlighted any kit inadequacies, my nice new LED Lenser head torch was great a few weeks ago on a summer ML course but in the winter the rime filled the lens – which due to the shape is not easy to clear, the zoom function just ices up and the button only borderline operable when iced up and wearing gloves. Others had compasses die, pockets rip, glasses break, over trousers rip, draw cords snap etc. etc.!

Here’s a quick summary of the kit I used… Pack wise I used my trusty BD Speed 30 and the 40 for the exped, just about big enough… I started in my Sportiva Trangos (silvers) which have some insulation, but switched to my Phantoms, which are warmer and just as comfy. Clothing wise, merino base layer stuff, a thin Haglofs or Marmot fleece, Mountain equipment soft shell trousers and hooded jacket (I love hoods), Patagonia Super Alpine Shell, ME Karakorum over trousers. A belay jacket is a must for me and I chuck on my ME Citadel whenever there’s breaks in the day. My Bloc goggles were awesome at keeping the elements out, they have an orangy tint that I like and works well (for me) at night. Silva type 4 compass was ok, but the bezel freezes up easily and is a little fiddly with frozen gloves on, I think there are better options. I use an Alpkit down sleeping bag with an old bulky VauDe bivi bag – I’m going to upgrade to a lighter bivi bag. Gloves… had a few cheap thin liners a pair of awesome Marmot leather Work gloves, a pair of ME Guide gloves and a mega warm pair of Outdoor Designs Primaloft mitts. My crampons were Grivel G12s and I used a DMM Cirque axe. I’m never without my BD Z-Poles either – love them! I mentioned my LED Lenser torch, that won’t be used in winter any more (updated to add LED Lenser are sending me a new model to test so fingers crossed it’s a good design).

The pace of the course was quite a lot slower than I expected, I was prepared to be knackered each day but this wasn’t really the case, I’d have been quite happy for the course to run over five days.
The WML is a well respected qualification and a stepping stone towards the Mountaineering Instructor Certificate which is a long term aim. I’m back up to Scotland in a couple of weeks, but for winter climbing rather than walking…! If you’ve got your ML and the necessary days, get booked on a training course!

Loads more shots on the FB page as usual…

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