The expedition took place in the Western Highlands of Scotland between 4th and 10th February 2018 with the aim of providing opportunities for staff and cadets of the RAF Air cadets to develop their winter mountaineering experience. The expedition consisted of two groups – one who were focussed on undertaking several quality winter hill days to build their experience towards involvement in the Winter Mountain Leader scheme and another whose focus was to further their climbing knowledge through involvement in the Joint Services Winter Climbing Foundation course.
Via a variety of forms of transport a group of 11 eager folk arrived at the Inchree lodges in Onich. The first evening involved a large amount of logistics and planning due to a last-minute change in the availability of instructional staff but after the general room and group allocation was completed people got underway with sorting kit and making plans for the following day.
The plan for Monday 5th Feb was to refresh the students winter skills with a group of 4 students focussed of quality hill days taking the opportunity to practice footwork and crampon skills and to refresh using the axe to prevent a slide. The other group of 5 students also focussed on the above skills with the addition of looking at using the rope in the winter environment as they were interested in undertaking some mountaineering objectives later in the week. Both groups headed in to the Lairig Elide and on to the steeper ground in Coire Sgreamach to practice these skills and take advantage of the possibility of visiting the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamach should time allow.
With a good forecast for Tuesday 6th both teams set summit objectives with a group of 5 looking to walk the Balachulish horseshoe and 4 heading to the Dragons tooth to put in to practice the ropework skills learned yesterday under the watchful eye of their instructor. The walking team cut short their intended plans after picking off one of the summits due to a foot injury flaring up in one of their party but the mountaineering team were able to complete their intended plans for the day.
By Tuesday evening the pattern for the week was established with each evening, after return to the accommodation, sort kit, shower and eat followed by discussions of individual’s intentions for the following day and discussion of objectives with the instructors. Wednesday 7th’s weather forecast showed a deterioration in the afternoon so after a re-organisation of the groups 4 walkers planned to pick off a summit in the Mamores whilst 4 mountaineers decided to return to the familiarity of the Lairig Elide for a quick ascent of the Sron na Lairig ridge. The ascent to Sgor Elide Beag took the walkers longer than they had planned so they took the decision to forgo the summit in the deteriorating weather and take the opportunity to practice some snowcraft skills instead. In the meantime, the mountaineers made good progress up their objective arriving at the main ridge which marked the end of the difficulties in good time. White out conditions made for tricky navigation for the short leg down to the col and back to the Lairig Elide and during this the group had the unnerving experience of seeing their instructor disappear before their eyes. They made the sensible decision to get in to the group shelter and contact the emergency services and were just discussing possible plans when the instructor reappeared. He had gone through a small cornice and been unable to make progress back up the soft snow below and had had to traverse to a place where he could regain the col and be reunited with the group. Progress back to the bus was relatively uneventful from here.
Further reorganisation of the groups for Thursday 8th enabled the climbers to operate at a ratio of 1:2 to increase climbing and learning opportunities. With a reasonable weather forecast after overnight snow the climbers headed to the west face of Aonach Mor in search of some pitches of ice and the walkers headed to Buachaille Etive Beag to increase their summit tally. The day was successful for both groups and Thursday evening marked the last careful study of weather and avalanche forecasts to plan for the following day.
Friday 9th saw two different climbers heading to Aonach Mor west face to lead some ice pitches with the walking group returning to the Balachulish horseshoe for some unfinished business from earlier in the week.
The week finished with a final meal on Friday eve followed by a reverse of the previous Sunday’s kit sort and clean up and all participants heading away home early the next morning.
“As someone really keen to develop my mountaineering skills, but without the circumstances where I could attend a privately funded course like this, it was invaluable. I progressed my abilities as a mountaineer immeasurably, giving me a broader base of knowledge and more confidence to approach the summer environment, and opening up a whole new exciting branch of winter activities. This will directly carry over into what I can give back to Cadets; though it will be some time before I could ever take cadets into this environment, it puts me in a much better place to inspire and train the next generation of mountaineers in the environments for which I am qualified.”
WO Ben Wagstaff
“I really enjoyed the week. it was great to consolidate the skills I learnt from the Winter Mountain Foundation course and to hone my layering and hydration knowledge and experience for those conditions which were testing at times.”
Flt Lt Dawn Adam
Our thanks go to the generosity of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust for supporting this expedition. www.rafct.com