Tom Litchfield

Winter Mountain Leader Training and Assessment:

I attended Winter Mountain Leader training run by Scotch on the Rocks Guiding in the Northern Cairngorms. Attending the course seemed like the next logical step after completing the Summer Mountain Leader and Rock Climbing Instructor awards. I was also keen to improve my personal skills in the winter mountains and learn how to look after and teach relative novices in the winter hills, building towards delivering winter hill walking for my university mountaineering club.

Day 1:

After meeting fellow participants and the instructors, and a lecture on the Be Avalanche Aware process, we focussed on improving our personal movement skills to be a role model to future groups and began to think about how and where we could teach these skills to beginners. On our journey around Coire Cas, we also discussed navigation and softer skills, such as group management and leadership. The day got off to an unusual end, as we assisted with the rescue of a hill walker who had fallen down the Coire Cas headwall. This was a really valuable learning experience, as I had never been involved in a ‘real life’ rescue scenario before, and we were all glad to hear that the walker hadn’t sustained any serious injuries.

Practicing using drills and games to help ‘clients’ get used to moving with crampons on

Day 2:

The main focus on day 2 was winter navigation, particularly how we can use changes in slope aspect and gradient to accurately pinpoint present position. This is particularly useful in the winter as many features we would rely on in the summer (e.g., paths, burns and lochains) are buried by snow.

After heading into Coire an t-Sneachda, we explored movement skills on steeper ground by traversing beneath the Mess of Pottage up to ‘Windy Col’, discussing the limits of the Winter ML remit. We then journeyed into Coire Domhain, where we dug emergency shelters as the sun set. This was something else I hadn’t done before, and I enjoyed digging it and could see how effective they can be.

Once it became darker, we put our new winter navigation skills to the test, journeying out towards Ben Macdui and finding lots of slope gradient/aspect changes around the Garbh Uisge Beag burn. This was a very new approach to navigation for me, and something I’m looking forward to practicing ahead of my assessment, and putting into use on personal hill days.

Day 3:

Day three started with an avalanche planning exercise, practicing using the BAA process to plan safe days out faced with challenging avalanche forecasts. This was a really valuable exercise, which highlighted the challenge of meeting possible client expectations (e.g., to ‘bag’ Munros) while maintaining suitable safety margins. After this, we headed back into the Coire Cas headwall area to practice snow anchors and ropework. We covered bucket seats, buried axe and snow bollard anchors and how these can be used to manage short steeper sections, client problems (e.g., crampons falling off) and increase client confidence.

Day 4:

On the hunt for more snow, we headed across to the Nevis Range, where we used the Gondola to access higher elevation snow patches around the Nid ridge on the east face of Aonach Mor. We explored how to manage groups on steeper ground, starting with step cutting, before moving on to consolidate yesterdays ropework and snow anchors. After this, we covered ‘stomper’ belays and confidence roping, before going on a journey up some steeper ground where we discussed heuristic factors and how we would manage imaginary clients on the terrain we were on. The day finished with exploring how we could employ the rope to manage edges, invisible due to bad visibility.

Day 5:

Day 5 started with a brief return to wintry conditions with some high-level snow, lots of rime ice forming and generally poorer visibility than the previous days. The instructors took advantage of this to do some more navigation practice, heading from the Ciste Car Park to the Ciste Mhearad via the top of Coire Laogh Mor and Cnap Coire na Spreidhe. Once we arrived at the Ciste Mhearad, we dug snow pits and assessed how we can use them to evaluate snowpack structure to identify avalanche problems and snow grains, discussed trenching to quickly evaluate slope stability, practiced an avalanche casualty search and recapped the use of a rope near ‘invisible’ edges. On the way back to the cars, we practiced searching for lost group members, highlighting the importance of clear initial briefings to clients (before they get lost!) and intra-team communication while conducting the search, and discussed the instances where line and box searches are more appropriate.

Day 6:

On the final day, we covered the four required ice axe arresting methods in Coire na Ciste: Sliding feet first on the front; Sliding feet first on the back; Sliding head first on the front; Sliding head first on the back. The importance of giving near perfect demonstrations was again highlighted and we considered how best, and where, to teach these to future groups. After this, we headed back down the hill for group and individual debriefs.

Overall, I’d like to thank Ian and Dave from Scotch on the Rocks for delivering an extremely informative and enjoyable week so well and for making a decidedly un-wintry conditions feel pretty wintry, and to the Neil Mackenzie Trust for their incredibly generous support- it really helped me to attend this course. I left looking forward to putting all the skills I’d gained and refined over the week to good use while consolidating and with my eyes on an assessment next season. I’m also planning to practice teaching some of the skills to friends and members of my university club, giving me the chance to build further upon my winter hill leadership skills, and hopefully increase their competence and confidence in the winter hills.

Assessment – one year on

After offering very generous support with my Winter Mountain Leader Training, I am really grateful that the Neil Mackenzie trust extended further support for the next stage in the Winter ML journey: The assessment.

After a largely good season of winter hill walking in preparation for the assessment, I arrived at the start point in Aviemore with a healthy amount of trepidation. Well aware of the reputation of the Winter ML assessment, I went into the assessment expecting a challenging and stressful week. The assessment was certainly this but it was also enjoyable and rewarding to put my skills to the test against a well-defined standard.

The first two days of the assessment were spent working through how we would teach novice and intermediate clients how to use an ice axe and crampons, and how best to manage them on slightly steeper terrain. We also covered “problem solving” both with and without using the rope- I particularly enjoyed seeing how my fellow candidates dealt with the various issues the assessors threw at us, and I certainly learnt from their experience throughout the assessment in addition to that of the assessors.

While there was no doubt that this was certainly an assessment, I really valued the learning opportunities built into the assessment- The chance to learn from the assessors, who are all extremely skilled, experienced and knowledgeable mountaineers, leaders and instructors was fantastic- for example, on the first day we were given feedback on our snow anchors to bring them up to “gold standard” and the chance to put this feedback into action on the second day.

The meat of the assessment, and the bit I was most anxious about, occurred on days three and four: The snowhole expedition. Traditionally, this would have been a three-day, two night expedition, but recent changes to the syllabus after the pandemic meant that the length of the snowhole expedition (and whether one happens at all) is determined by the course director. I was really pleased that a snowhole expedition was included in our assessment to get the “full experience”. After a briefing in Tiso Aviemore, we made our way from the Cairngorm Ski Centre car park to find pre-dug snowholes in Coire Domhain. Having visited these snowholes, which were very sizeable (dug by the military) already this winter, I was excited to return and sleep in them. However, the snowholes had sagged and collapsed quite a bit during a warm spell and now re-frozen (in places with hard water ice), so digging them out to be a usable size again was quite a task, taking many hours.

After dinner, we headed out on night navigation towards Ben Macdui in windy conditions with poor visibility- this was a good challenge! The next day we had a great mountain journey, in fantastic weather, from Coire Domhain contouring around Cairngorm before heading down to The Saddle then along Loch Avon then heading back to the snowholes in Core Domhain. This was brilliant and a great way to tie all the syllabus aspects together, assessing how we dealt with situations on a real mountain journey, for example evaluating avalanche hazard, dealing with iced up rocks and burns in spate.

We ate dinner in the snowholes then headed back to the car park in burly conditions doing a bit more night navigation. Remarkably, over the course of the expedition, I managed to break three zips: I am still trying to work out how I managed to do this and whether this is some kind of record!

On the final day we thought about the element many beginner winter skills groups are particularly keen to learn and practice: Ice axe arrests. We considered how best to teach the whole progression from self-belay to all four types of ice axe arrest (sliding feet first on your back, sliding head first on your back, sliding feet first on your front, sliding head first on your front) which was again good fun to learn the different ideas all the other candidates had about this and to learn from their experience.

On reflection, I certainly put too much pressure on myself throughout the process and this level of stress definitely affected my performance during the assessment. On the whole, the assessors did a great job of creating teaching opportunities during the assessment which was really valuable, in addition to their feedback.