Weeks of anxiety and last minute preparation finally came to an end the other week, as I headed up to Scotland to test myself against the infamous and dreaded Winter Mountain Leader assessment. This 5 day assessment is heralded as the ‘hardest’ of all the Mountain Training awards – this is due to its reputation for 5 days and 2 nights of ‘suffering’ and the inevitable beasting that you will get from your assessors, coupled with some hard navigation in the worst conditions that UK weather can throw at you: winter storms, whiteout and, potentially, a constant risk of getting avalanched.
When I prepared for this assessment I found reading accounts of other people’s experiences really valuable, if not a little daunting, so I figured I’d try and capture here what happened on mine, so below is a bit of an account (which has turned out to be pretty long!) followed by some tips and a list of kit for those who are into that sort of thing.
I came at this assessment mainly as a winter climber, rather than a winter ‘mountaineer’. This meant that although I easily had enough mountaineering logbook days to meet the minimum required, I had a lot more as a climber. This didn’t really matter, as I have always found that as a winter climber you are continually out in terrible conditions. This definitely gives you a strong grounding for WML, given that a large part of this assessment is about being able to look after yourself when the sh’t hits the fan, which seems to happen a lot when winter climbing!
I’d definitely say though that you want to make sure that you have a lot of experience of slogging around the Scottish hills in winter and that as many of these days as possible are in rubbish conditions. Looking after yourself and your group on a blue sky day, with a Cat 2 ‘Moderate’ avalanche risk and perfect visibility, is very different to when it’s a Cat 4 ‘High’ and the visibility is so bad that you can’t even see whether the ground is going up or down in front of you.
My assessment was on the west coast with the Brenin, based out of Ballachulish. I chose the Brenin as I like the massive variety of terrain that the west gives you: the Aonachs, the Ben, the Grey Corries, Creag Meagaidh, Glencoe, the Mamores – so many different ranges and challenges. The only downside in the west is that you often have to work super hard to reach the snow line, with most days starting at sea level, as opposed to the 600m advantage that you get in the east. West coast winter days are super tough, but days high on the Cairngorm plateau certainly aren’t a walk in the park and definitely deserve their fearsome reputation.
Anyway, I digress.
Day 1 saw a nervous and apprehensive group of 4 head out on a blue sky day with a Cat 2 ‘Moderate’ forecast and walk straight onto one of those hard won ascents – the slog up to Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glencoe. The snow line started at about 700m and it was super warm gaining height. My initial nav leg was pretty straight forward – up the path to a stream crossing, with a request from the assessor to tell him how long it would take. I guessed at 30mins – he asked me not to guess and to check the map (good start!). I checked. It was 30mins. On the route up it was all about group management. Bits of coaching, spotting, managing hazards and keeping the pace steady to avoid getting too hot or too cold (or in my case, to avoid getting there in less than 30 mins!). The following legs followed a similar theme as we gained the snow line just below the main corrie.
Once on snow, it was time to look at personal movement skills and how we’d teach these to groups. Up, down, across and back up the slope. On gaining the corrie we were then asked to select a suitable place to teach ice axe arrest skills, but on the way to look at some step chopping. When folk talk about winter ML, you hear the following saying a lot: ‘if you’re not naving, you’re digging and if you’re not digging, you’re naving’. It’s true and it’s not 4 or 5 steps that they want to see you cut – it’s 30 or 40… for now.
The snow was a bit rubbish for ice axe arrest, but we did the best job we could of teaching the various variants: on your back, on your front, head first and every other combination possible, plus an out of control roll to spice things up. All seemed to be going okay.
More step cutting led us to the Gearr Aonach, SCnL ridge where the wind had picked up, the clag had set in and the good vis disappeared. it was time to put crampons on and teach the group how to use them, before heading up the ridge on mixed ground to the summit.
Hanging around on the summit wasn’t an option so I was asked to locate Broad Gully and get us out of there. I dialled in a bearing, questioned my compass a few times as it felt like it was taking us the wrong way off the summit, gave myself a talking to then trusted the compass and soon found Broad Gully in the gloom. After a chat about snow conditions and avalanche risk, we all agreed that a descent of this Grade I was safe so I managed the group down, coaching movement on this steep ground.
On the way down, we were quizzed about the features of the snow pack and the conditions of the previous week or so. I’d spent the last 10 days in Scotland so had lived through all the changes in the weather and snow conditions. This really helped with having a detailed knowledge of what was going on deep under foot.
Day 1 was pretty much done. Some more step cutting (in descent) broke up the long slog back down to the bus and we all felt pretty okay with the way things had gone. If every other day was like this, the assessment was going to be a breeze… but we did get the feeling we were being broken in gently!
The forecast for day 2 was dire and looking out of the window in the morning confirmed that it was accurate. 124mph winds were recorded on the summit of Aonach Mor and they weren’t far off that figure high above the Lost Valley on the slopes of Bidean nam Bian. It was a Cat 3 ‘Considerable’ avalanche risk and the freezing level was due to fire above the summits, accompanied by heavy snow, becoming rain. I have a rule when climbing that if it is so windy that you can’t open the car door in the car park, then don’t go out. Unfortunately the bus had a sliding door, so this rule was negated. No getting away with it today.
The waterproofness of my salopettes failed by the time we reached the bridge into the Lost Valley (a 10 minute walk). This was not good and meant a wet and cold day for me. I kept it quiet, for obvious reasons, but was definitely cursing the kit – do any manufacturers actually test this stuff in proper conditions? I do wonder.
The day consisted of harder nav legs, to non existent stream crossings and to hard to spot contour features high on Bidean’s approach slopes. The conditions were challenging to say the least and we were watched carefully as we picked a safe, low risk route up the mountain, avoiding pockets of windslab and other potential avalanche traps. It was head down and goggles on from quite early as the winds slowly increased and things got more and more wild. Visibility below us was okay, but up high was the dreaded white room. Fortunately conditions were too wild to enter it for long.
Asked to relocate high on the SW face of Bidean, I lost the plot. My timings, pacings, height gain and everything else all muddled into one and I ended up placing us far away from where we actually were. I was given a hint that I might want to rethink but my second go still wasn’t backed with any hard evidence. I really had screwed up. This is is what I was afraid of. A hard relocation leg, under pressure when I’d needed ‘just one’ feature to get it nailed, but there was nothing to see or use. Shit.
The theme of day 2 was steep ground and the use of the rope to protect it. At various points we were asked to get our clients down steep snow banks and steps and over small cornices. This went okay – I’ve dug countless bucket seats, buried axe belays and snow bollards as a climber so this felt like familiar ground. I felt flustered though, knowing my earlier mistake, but must have managed to hide it as my anchors were decent and as textbook as they could be in the conditions. For what it’s worth, I dug 3 bucket seats, two bollards, a buried axe and did one abseil. It certainly wasn’t Stomper weather and the avalanche hazard was given Cat 4 ‘High’ by the SAIS on their evening update.
I slept badly, mulling my mistake over in my mind and the expedition loomed on day 3, with another awful forecast for our 3 day and 2 night trip into the mountains.
After we’d all had an early morning bollocking/motivational speech from our Course Director on the morning of day 3 (well deserved) we headed off with massive heavy packs wondering what a 3 day winter mountain exped was going to bring. I’ll be honest – I nearly ducked the assessment entirely, feeling completely off the mark after messing up so badly on day 2. It’s amazing how one error can drag you down mentally.
Exped day 1 fortunately brought a mini high pressure, with ‘only’ a Cat 3 ‘Considerable’ avalanche risk and no real wind to mention. We slogged into the Grey Corries with our sunglasses on and were handed some long, but pretty straight forward nav legs and route making decisions which slowly got us high on the hill. By this point, I’d pretty much settled on my result being a nav deferral given my epic nav fail the day before. This felt like a weight off my shoulders and weirdly helped me start to enjoy stuff again and I felt the confidence come back.
I nailed my nav legs and relocations and enjoyed being on the hill in such amazing conditions. Bomb hard neve, blue skies, amazing views. If it wasn’t for the heavy pack it would’ve been perfect.
The easy day soon ended though, with a task to lead the group ‘safely’ up a 300m 40 degree neve slope. Safely = step cutting, I soon realised, but in hard neve. This was pretty tough work – trying to move quick, trying to stay strong, trying to cut massive steps each time. After 100m or so I got some respite and was told I was ‘working fucking hard’ – I took this as a compliment and the next person took over.
More digging and more nav legs took us to a kink in a contour and perfect bank of snow to dig our shelter for the night. It was getting on for 1800 and the crags above the corrie were baked in alpenglow. They looked perfect for an evening of cragging, or maybe a short mixed line on the buttresses of perfect frozen turf and ice free cracks. Digging needed to take priority though.
It took 3 of us (the 4th dropped out due to illness) about 3 hours to build our palace of a snow hole and I’d say it is definitely worth taking the time to make it big enough for you all to do stuff at the same time. This meant that we could cook all at once without knocking stuff over, plus there was room for a couple of people to stand and sort kit. Our feedback – ‘you guys can DIG!’
After a couple of hours eating, drinking a lot of fluid and trying to chill, it was dark and time to head out again for some night nav. I was expecting ML(S) style night nav (not sure why!) – so perhaps a few hours wandering around looking for pointless reentrants and ring contours in a corrie. Nope. This was going to be a journey, and what a journey it was. 5 hours of nav, taking in 3 Munros and 2 other 1000m+ tops, including a knife edge alpine ridge and endless steep, hard neve.
The nav was okay, our heads were down and we all made good decisions. This really helped as having to follow folk on a drifting bearing is a stress you really don’t need. All the features were big, proper WML features. No silly reentrants. This was all about cols, large reentrants, summits, spot heights, more cols and then a Grade I gully to descend back to the snow hole. The weather was kind for a couple of hours then gradually crapped out, but the positions were amazing and believe it or not I actually had one of the best times I’ve ever had on the hill! Who’d have thought it – WML assessment night nav and you’re having a good time?!
Day 4 started well. We looked out of the snow hole, which fortunately hadn’t been buried overnight, and the weather was still fine. We headed back in and packed, only to return 15 mins later to whiteout and strong winds! Just shows how quickly things can change in the mountains.
More long ‘head-down-stare-at-compass’ nav legs followed. Tough today. The wind was clearly getting up and we knew that it was forecast to gust up to 90 or 100mph at some point. The visibility was shocking.
A tough nav leg took us into a wide reentrant where I was tasked to try and cross a high col, but to make a call if I thought it wasn’t safe. I did maybe 100m and got literally knocked off my feet by a gust, practically having to self arrest. It was turning into a fight for survival, rather than an assessment. The wind was picking up even more, the visibility was poor at best and it had started to rain. I turned to our assessor and basically told him that if we went to the col ‘we would die’. He agreed and replied with ‘get us out of here… NOW’.
Some long nav legs followed, up to 2½km on a bearing, trying to avoid getting blown into gullies and not losing too much height, but without gaining too much and putting us in danger again. Progress was slow and we were tired, but in the back of our minds was the bothy that we were heading for, another couple of hours fight away. And a fight it was. The windspeed easily hit its target and things got more and more miserable. I looked at the group and saw one of those scenes that are often associated with winter ML assessments: a group, caked in snow and ice, hardly standing, in a blizzard! Epic!
Several hours later, we arrived, wasted, at a bothy where lots of fluid, food and rest slowly brought us back to life. There was no night nav to be had that night. 5 hours the night before plus today’s fight for survival had been enough. We’d suffered enough apparently.
An ‘easy’ walk out along a track to a bus where some pre-stashed quiche lorraine, cheese and onion crisps and a Coke waited. Thank God the 60mph gusts were behind us. A handshake confirmed that I’d done enough to pass. I could hardly believe it. I’d convinced myself that my nav mistake earlier in the week would get me nothing better than a deferral, but it turned out I’d nailed literally everything following this event and had been ‘consistently well above the standard’. Pretty pleased with that feedback.
Well done to the others too who walked away with a deferral and a few more bits to do. I’m confident they’ll nail it next time. Commiserations go to John who had to duck out with illness. He made the right (difficult) call as the conditions on the exped would have pretty much killed him I think. I know he’ll come back strong.
Tips and learning points
- Get out in rubbish conditions a lot in your prep. If being out in these sort of conditions is ‘second nature’ it means you can concentrate on looking after your group and leading properly.
- Get to Scotland as early as you can in the run up. Living through the changes in the snowpack is really helpful and west coast munro bagging is great for building hill fitness.
- Be fit. It’s a no-brainer but being strong is absolutely critical. Your assessors will try and break you as they want to see you operate and make decisions when completely knackered, mentally and physically. Don’t let fitness be the reason that they succeed.
- Get some decent waterproofs and reproof them, a lot! I used Neo Shell on the first half of my assessment. Despite a lot of care and reproofing, it’s not yet up to the sort of conditions we were out in.
- Make sure you are happy on steep ground. If Grade I is your limit then push past it. You need to operate on Grade I ground as if you’re walking on a pavement. Coming at this as a climber meant that the ground we were on was never anything near my limit. This helped massively and I never once had to think about my personal ability to deal with the positions I was in.
- Use pacing over timing, unless the ground really can’t be paced. Usually when it can’t be paced you will find there are collecting features such as slope change to identify your position. For me, timing confuses things too much, but of course this is just a personal viewpoint.
- Get used to using your watch with gloves. Most watches are crap with gloves, even expensive Suunto pieces.
- Use your altimeter. I found mine super useful, but watch out for inaccuracy as fronts come through. Often it’s better just to use it to measure height gain or loss, rather than your actual altitude. Eg. you need to drop 150m then change direction. It doesn’t matter what the current reading is, just let it drop by 150m.
- If you need to relocate, use the slope aspect. This technique is gold dust in winter. Learn it, then learn it again.
- The nav isn’t that hard, despite its reputation. Despite my mess up on day 2 (my fault). You will be looking for big features – you just might not be able to see them (or anything else). Get very used to interpreting contours and feeling the change in the ground through your feet, rather than seeing it with your eyes.
- Your snow anchors need to be textbook and your knots and rope work need to be slick. Practice them, a lot.
- Never take your gloves off, for anything. You need to be able to do your crampons, hood toggles, use your watch, nav, dig, tie knots, everything, with gloves on.
- Don’t use a Stomper unless the conditions are perfect. Any even slightly strong wind = no. Anything but a perfect snowpack = no. Okay, in reality you might get away with it, but this is assessment, don’t put yourself under unnecessary additional pressure trying to justify it.
- Be confident in everything you do (even when you’re not!) especially when leading the group.
- As soon as you hit snow, get your axe out and make sure the group does too, even if you think the terrain is benign.
- Get your kit sorted. You should be able to access everything you need, straight away. Do not faff. Ever.
- Eat loads and drink loads. Especially at night.
- Get quick at cutting big, fat, quality steps, fast. Don’t get tired (or at least don’t show it).
- Get an axe thats heavy with a big adze. The lightweight alpine axes are great for the Alps, but this is about working hard, in Scotland, in winter. A heavy axe makes step cutting easy and is worth the extra weight.
- Don’t turn up in technical climbing crampons with vertical front points. This is a mountaineering award. It’s like turning up for your assessment with a Nomic as your axe. It will get you grief.
- Work hard. It’s only 5 days. It will end. Graft. It impresses the assessor.
- Dig a massive snow hole so you can have some comfort and all function in there without getting in each others way. Take a snow saw. They’re worth the extra weight.
- Don’t drift on a bearing. Get very used to having your head down and walking on a bearing in a white out, for a long way, on all types of terrain.
- Work out how many ‘crawls’ = 100m! Sometimes crawling is the only way of making progress.
- Don’t forget about your group. You are always responsible for them. It’s not like summer ML when sometimes you are ‘just naving’. Always check that they are all there, aren’t knackered (they’ll lie!), have their axe in the right hand, are using their spikes properly etc etc.
- Leave treats in the bus so that you have something to look forward to on the walk out.
- Take extra socks (luxury item but well worth it).
- You can’t take enough pairs of gloves! Have a pair just for digging the snow hole, it’ll be worth it.
- Make sure you rest when digging your snow hole. It’s knackering and it is no place for heroes.
- Take your insoles out of your boots and put them in your sleeping bag. They will dry.
- Keep your gas in your sleeping bag too and anything that is damp, but not wet. It will dry.
- Get good at suffering, because basically that’s what it’s all about. Learn your assessor’s lingo: ‘this is a total ming-fest’ = ‘the weather isn’t too great today’ ; ‘suffer-fest’ = basically, winter ML ; ‘suffer-monkey’ = you.
- And finally… don’t forget your sunglasses, as looking cool masks the suffering thats going on underneath!
Kit and issues
Here’s some of the kit I used. It all worked pretty well, apart from the shell issues I had on day 2.
- Boots: Scarpa Phantom Guides
- Crampons: Petzl Vasak
- Axe: Black Diamond Venom (although a heavier, old school big adze tool would’ve been loads better)
- Lid: Petzl Meteor 3
- Goggles: Oakley Crowbar with lemon lenses (these were great for lifting the flat light of semi-whiteout. I’d definitely go with lemon or clear lenses over shaded)
- Shell: Jottnar Bergelmir jacket and Vanir salopettes (for 2 days), then
- Shell: ME Changabang jacket & Arc’teryx Theta SV salopettes
- Gloves: mainly ME Couloir and ME Randonee & some waterproof mitts for digging. I took 5 pairs on exped. I used 4.
- Watch: Suunto Core. Something with bigger buttons would be loads better.
- Layers: Patagonia Neo Air on the wild days and exped, Patagonia R1 on day 1, Brynje mesh baselayer (awesome kit, dries super fast, breathes extremely well and is really warm).
- Packs: Patagonia Ascentionist 35 litre & a POD Black Ice 50ish litre
- Sleeping: Rab Survival Zone bivi bag, Mountain Hardwear Phantom 15 down sleeping bag, Thermarest Neo Air mat
- Cooking: MSR WindPro II stove and MSR titanium pan (a Jetboil would have been better and more efficient). I tried the new Primus winter gas, but to be honest I didn’t notice any difference between it and the normal ‘Power Gas’ they do, apart from in my wallet.
- Torches: Black Diamond Icon and a Mammut X-Shot, both with lithium batteries. The Icon got me through 5 hours of nav, snow hole digging and all the next evening – there is still loads left in the batteries. Amazing.
- Shovel: Black Diamond Deploy 3. Great for digging in the snow hole. Not so great for digging outside of it as the handle is too short. Still the right choice for this assessment though.
- Food: I took dehydrated Mountain House food which saved weight, but would be a massive issue if I had not been able to melt snow due to a stove malfunction. On top of that, loads of cereal bars, flapjacks, pies, cake and soup (soup is definitely the way to go for rehydrating).
Hope this has been useful. It’s definitely been good to write it all down. It’s kind of a bit like counselling! Time to forget about it all now and go climbing!