|What I learned on my winter climbing course
||[Feb. 1st, 2011|05:33 pm]
Last week I went on a two-day Introduction to Winter Climbing course at the National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge, at the foot of the Cairngorms. I'd done a few winter routes before, but I wanted to fill in my knowledge of the basics: I had a few specific questions I wanted answered, but I was mostly worried about the unknown unknowns. There were three of us on the course: a geologist from Heriot-Watt called James, who had lots of stories about teaching sailing in Belize and drinking with government officials in Tajikistan; a nurse and former merchant sailor called Brian; and me. James had done a bit of rock climbing but not much winter mountaineering, and so he was given an instructor (called Al, who I'd met on a previous visit to the Lodge) to himself to go over movement on steep ground, ice-axe arrests and so on (but by the end of the course he'd seconded the grade III route Hidden Chimney - good effort!). Brian had soloed some winter routes up to grade III and seconded The Message (grade IV), but wasn't confident with the ropework; he and I were grouped together with an instructor called Bill, who took us out for two fantastic days' climbing in perfect conditions.
Day 1: walking in
The course was great fun, and I learned a lot; here, in no particular order, are some of the lessons I learned.
The "winter" part of "winter climbing" is just as important as the "climbing" part; a lot of the challenge is in the winter mountaineering aspect and your general mountain sense, which needs to be a lot sharper than in summer. You should be watching the weather as far in advance as you can manage, so you can work out the structure of the snowpack; as soon as you start the walk-in you should be watching out for signs of the snow structure.
[As if to underline this, one of the /r/climbing regulars, the experienced alpinist and talented mountain photographer Alexandre Buisse, was caught in an avalanche while walking in to an ice-climb in Norway on the weekend following my course. Fortunately both he and his climbing partner were OK.]
It's a good idea for the leader to go a bit ahead of the rest of the party to set up the first belay. The extra space helps them get everything sorted out. When everything's ready, they can call the second(s) to come up and clip in.
Bill goes ahead to set up the first belay
Days are short, so you have to climb and move efficiently, and a huge part of that is anticipation. Always try to think a couple of moves ahead. Your second's coming up: have you prepared a karabiner for him to clip into? You're about to put your waterproofs on: have you taken everything you need out of your trouser pockets?
Sun shining on Fiacaill Buttress, Coire an-t'Sneachda
It turns out I've been tying figure-of-eight loops wrongly for years. Each eye has a small hole and a big hole: when you reweave the figure-of-eight, start by threading through the small hole and end by threading out of the opposite eye's big hole (or vice-versa: from small to big or from big to small, but never from big to big or small to small). This leaves you with a neatly dressed (and hence more secure) knot.
A figure-of-eight knot, with the big and small holes marked
If your crampon strap is too long, wrap it around your ankle before threading it through the buckle.
The correct depth for a snow bollard depends on the layer structure of the snow. You need to dig deep enough to get to some hard snow; but if there's a layer of soft snow underneath a layer of hard snow, then you don't want to dig down to the soft snow, otherwise your rope might bite through and slice through your bollard from underneath.
Brian belays Bill up pitch 2 of Central Left-Hand
If you strap your watch to your rucksack strap, you can know what time it is despite having all your gloves and layers on. So simple! I can't believe I didn't think of that for myself.
Brian climbs on
The obvious way of climbing as a party of three is in series: leader goes first, middle man comes up, unclipping each piece of gear from his upper rope and then reclipping into his lower rope, then finally the third climber comes up and cleans all the gear. But you can also climb in parallel: leader goes up belayed on two ropes, clips gear into alternate ropes, then the two seconds come up together, one on each rope. The first second moves off straight away while the other stays behind and dismantles the belay anchor: this gives enough separation between the two climbers.
Topping out on day 1. Now we've got to untangle those ropes...
If you're being belayed by two people (as when leading a parallel climb), then think about which direction you're travelling in when clipping your first piece of gear. If you're moving off to the right and you fall, then the rope from your left belayer will sweep into your right belayer and cheesewire him. To prevent this, try to get some gear in as quickly as possible and clip it to your left rope.
Brian topping out on day 1.
In general, try to get the first piece of gear (which John Long calls the "Jesus nut" - if it fails, the next person you'll see will be Jesus) in as soon as possible. While you're still standing on the belay ledge, if possible.
Alpenglow back at the car park. Time to head back to the lodge for tea and cake.
It's usually OK to clip extra stuff, but always double-check before unclipping anything. You don't want to accidentally unclip the only thing holding you on to the mountain.
I hadn't used the ice-axes dagger-fashion much before (demonstrated by Ueli Steck in this astonishing video). It keeps you close in to the slope, and hence is a good idea in windy conditions. You want to keep your hands fairly close in to your body, so you can use your weight to assist the axe placements, but you want your feet fairly far apart, so you don't catch your crampons on your legs. You also want to keep your knees out from the slope, as this helps your crampon points to engage. The correct position is rather like the high-point of a press-up.
Unfortunately this leads to burning calves. Aaaaaargh, the calf burn. I clearly need to incorporate some calf raises into my exercise regime. Bill and Al said they were impressed with our enthusiasm and fitness, but I think I could stand to be fitter!
Walking in on day 2: that's not a moon...
The Google Nexus One/HTC Desire is a great phone, but in its native state it's not ideal for mountain photography. You can use the touchscreen by either modifying your gloves with conductive thread or (as I did...) working it with the tip of your nose, but the case is very slippery and feels insecure with gloves. And lots of my photos came out bright blue. Bill also had an HTC smartphone, but he had a rubber case for it (must look into getting one of those...) and a separate camera.
Brian, rocking it old-school with 35mm film
Layering gloves is less simple than you may think: if your outer gloves aren't big enough for your inner gloves, then they compress the inner gloves and in turn your hands. This leads to reduced loft and reduced circulation and hence cold hands.
Even double plastic boots will not magically keep your feet warm when kicked into snow.
If you're leading in a parallel climbing situation and your belay anchor is totally bombproof, you can use a Petzl Reverso to bring your seconds up on a direct belay (I knew this in theory, but had never done it before). The autolocking nature of the Reverso makes rope management easier, but it's very stiff on thick ropes or if you're not close to the device.
Half-way up Spiral Gully, with another team ahead of us. Note the Reverso direct belay
I'd been looking at buying some frozen turf protection to winterise my rack, and wasn't too clear on the differences between the old-school warthog and modern hook-like devices like the bulldog. Both have some similarities, in particular a tendency to get stuck. It turns out that there are three basic differences: (a) bulldogs can be driven into cracks as well, (b) warthogs are only bombproof if fully driven, whereas bulldogs are more forgiving (possibly that's only in cracks, come to think of it... I'll email and ask), (c) warthogs are no longer made, and hence are much harder to find. Makes that decision easy. The instructors recommended against getting the Black Diamond bulldogs, which cost twice as much and hence will be twice as painful when you can't remove them.
[(c) isn't actually true, it turns out - you can get warthogs from Needle Sports in Keswick.]
Looping your hexes up and clipping them to the racking krab twice (once through the end of the sling, once through the bit of sling that pokes out of the head of the hex) is a good idea in winter, because otherwise it's all too easy for a crampon spike to catch on a dangling hex and send you flying.
It's not only allowed but encouraged to remove your axes at a belay station and put them somewhere out of the way. If there's nowhere solid to place them, clip them to the anchor. Axes add substantially to the tangle and faff, and slow you down.
Relatedly, I shall be acquiring leashless ice axes at my earliest convenience.
It's not cheating to re-use your leader's axe and crampon placements when seconding. It's actually good practice, since it saves energy and time.
The next time I teach something, I'm going to get the students to summarise the most important points at the end. Bill did this on the first day, and it forced us to really think through what we'd learned.
Brian heads off up pitch 4 of Spiral Gully
When staying at Glenmore Lodge, there's no need to bring a towel, despite what the kit-list says. However, do bring your own bar of soap and/or shower gel, otherwise you'll be mucking about with teacups and liquid hand-soap in the shower.
When swinging the axe into ice, it's important to keep your swing and pick straight, otherwise the pick will glance off on contact, shattering the ice if it's brittle.
Look for signs of wind: rime (grows into the wind), cornices (grow away from the wind), sastrugi (prows point into the wind), raised footprints, scouring. When you see these signs, don't just say "that's pretty", say "that's pretty, now where did the snow go?"
On the top. The weather couldn't decide whether it wanted to be misty...
Bill used a cordelette setup for the belay anchors, which made it nice and straightforward for him to lead all the pitches and to clip extra things into the anchor. However, I found that the cordelette's a pain for the second to rack after dismantling the anchor.
... or glorious sunshine.
The Cairngorm plateau, according to the Marmot catalogue, is technically "alpine semi-tundra", which doesn't sound terribly inviting. Glenmore Lodge is part-sponsored by Marmot, who provide clothing for the full-time instructing staff; according to the same catalogue, Glenmore Lodge instructors give a garment ten years' ordinary wear in a single season. It was very odd to look through the catalogue and see a piece about the place I was staying, in amongst all the "Marmot sponsored athlete does record-breaking big-wall ascent of Arctic nunatuk" stuff.
We met some ski-tourers on the plateau, who'd brought their dog with them. One of my favourite things about the Cairngorms is how so many different mountain-users - climbers, walkers, downhill skiers, ski-tourers, snowboarders, snowshoers - all use them in relative harmony.