The British Mountain Guides Scottish Winter Test

This year I spent January, February and March this winter in Scotland preparing for the British Mountain Guides (BMG) winter test that is based in the Cairngorm mountains there. I learnt to climb and ski there so I was no stranger to the place and love it to bits, but Scottish winter climbing is so unique that climbing in other ranges around the world does little to prepare you for the onslought of the sub-Arctic weather, or provide you with the cunning skills required to climb, and more importantly, protect  heavily rimed and snowed up mixed climbs. Its fair to say that some of the climbing I have done there have involved the most technical trad protected leads that fully engage the mind.

The first week there was spent in the Cairngorms getting my eye back into climbing snowed up rock before relocating to Ben Nevis for a week’s winter training with the BMG. It had been mild and dry winter in the lead up but the trainers did a brilliant job making the most of the conditions to show us the guiding techniques for short roping, approaching climbs, guiding mixed and ice routes, descending, navigating and general client care.

Since I’d already spent years climbing in the Cairngorms, I decided to use some of my trip to explore some of the remoter areas of Scotland that were still 4-5 hours drive from where I used to live in Aberdeen. The beautiful region of the far North West known as Torridon was on my to do list and as it happens Martin Moran and his wife Joy have been running a guiding agency there for 32 years. When they offered me a job guiding in February I jumped at the chance and fellow trainee guide Guy Steven and myself were allocated to deliver the technical mountaineer course.

On week 1 I had the pleasure of Singaporeans Jie Ling and Arnette Wong. We visited Beinn Eighe, Ben Nevis, Skye and the Kintail, all being strong contenders for Scotland’s best scenery and climbing. On Week 2 I met Peter and Chris who were two strapping strong lads and we ticked off Beinn Eighe’s East and West Buttress, Cobalt Butress and Seamstress in the Cairngorms. On my final week I had the company of Californian Linda Sun and Londoner Guy Arnold and did Fruar Tholl;s Right End Buttress, Beinn Eighe’s West Buttress integral, Cobalt Buttress, Pot of Gold in the Cairngorms and finished with a big dry tooling session. Linda had come to Scotland lured by the promise of climbing icefall routes such as Poacher’s or Salmon Leap but with Scotland experiencing a dry winter there was no ice to be had and having never done any mixed climbing she took a little persuasion to swing her brand new picks into the frozen turf. However by the end of the week she was fully sold on subtleties of mixed climbing and was seconding grade Vs with ease.Brilliant. Despite Scotland experiencing a dry and mild winter it was still producing fantastic adventures with great company.

After 6 weeks in Scotland it was time for a quick trip home for the weekend to see Michelle and get a quick fix skiing.  It was still low tide in the Alps with little change from when I left after Christmas but with spring like conditions we enjoyed a nice run down from the Aiguille du Tacul and another in Y couloir.

Then it was back to it and the final few weeks leading up to the test were spent in the Cairngorms practising guiding skills. The whole winter so far had been plagued by persistent southerly gales with temperatures bouncing up and down. Finally as the first group started their test it looked like winter had returned and should be set for us. Cruelly the temperature bounced once again and most of our test week was spent in positive temperatures.  With atypical conditions that few had seen in 20 years, the test itself became more mental than physical making conservative safe decisions on where to go and what to do.

The 6 day test kicks off with an overnight expedition where the candidate gets to demonstrate their knowledge of climbing history, geology, snow and ice craft, snow science, night navigation, client care, bivi skills, and of course rope skills for protecting clients while moving through the mountains.  Our journey started out from the Cairngorm ski centre and passed through Coire an t-Sneachda where some of our rope skills were assessed. After we travelled on to Coire Domhain where we had a brew in the snow holing zone.  We set off on night navigation as the sun started to set and made our way around the Cairngorm Plateau navigating to the various locations requested. Once the assessor was happy with the navigation we dropped down to the Hutchinson Memorial Hut situated on the Braemar watershed side of the Cairngorms in Coire Etchachan. It had been twenty years since I had visited this mountain hut, or bothy as they are known, and it was good to see it newly renovated.  After cooking some dinner for the team we settled down to a few hours sleep and got away early in the morning.

Day 2 dawned clear and mild as we made our way back onto the Cairngorm Plateau towards Carn Etchachan in glorious warm sunshine. There we were assessed on snow science and ability to manage a team descent down the steep terrain of Pinnacle Gully. We then held an ice skills class before returning over the plateau and making the short rope descent down the goat track and heading back to Glenmore Lodge for the debrief.

The mild weather was due to continue over the next 2 days which meant we needed to get the personal ice climbing day done as quickly as possible. That meant getting up at 3 am, driving an hour and a half followed by a 2 hour yomp up Ben Nevis to seek out any remaining ice before a warm band of rain past over at noon. With a few pitches of ice despatched we topped out on the Ben just as the monsoon started which ensured we were all wet to the pants by the time we got back to the cars.

Back at Glenmore lodge we all had our personal debriefs before demolishing dinner and getting an early night to catch up on lost sleep.  The personal mixed climbing day was scheduled next but the forecast wasn’t looking good and sure enough the next morning brought storm force winds and positive temperatures. After some discussions the assessment team called the day off and left us to prepare for the 2 final client days.  This meant that we would each have to come back the following week to sit the personal mixed climbing day.

Meanwhile we needed to plan and prepare what to do on the first client day and the weather was not cooperating. Summit temperatures had been above freezing for the previous 24 hours which would mean soggy turf, loose rock and out of condition climbs. My mind wondered through all the possible ridges available in the area to do as a mountaineering objective and I spent a lot of time asking all the instructors and guides at Glenmore Lodge about what had been done recently. Conditions on the nearby Moray coast at the sandstone crags of Cummingston would have been perfect for rock climbing. Ally and myself had already enjoyed 2 lush days sports climbing at Brin Rock in the middle of January but going rock climbing wasn’t going to pass us a mountain guide’s winter test.

I went to bed with some good ideas of what to do and decided to wait to the morning , meet my client and ascertain their fitness and ability and make a plan A, B, D and D to cover all eventualities. I really wanted to avoid focusing on an instructional day as it isn’t my background and delivering in a structured manor off the cuff doesn’t come naturally to me. After all it was a guiding exam and if at all possible I wanted to cover lots of ground while throwing in some teaching and coaching along the way where appropriate.

Next morning I met Paul Jackson who would be my client for the next 2 days. Paul is an ex-marine / Falklands war vet who now works in the Oil and Gas Industry as an asset manager. He falls into the category of an alpha male high achiever where time is a major commodity. The Fiacall ribs would provide safe climbing sheltered from the worst of the westerly gales and by the end of the day we climbed 3 mini routes covering a fair bit of ground and throwing in some snow science instruction along the way. This was by far the worst day of the exam for the candidates as it was difficult to pin down an inspiring option and doubt played heavily on the mind. Having seen my client move well on rock, I went to bed a lot happier knowing he was up for smashing a couple of grade IV/Vs the following day with the return of winter conditions.

Thankfully the final day of our week dawned clear and cold with light winds and it was back to normal winter conditions. All the doubts we had experienced about what to do on the previous day were gone and it was time to go mixed climbing. An early start from the Lodge allowed us to make the most of the day and comply with the non-negotiable return time of 4 pm. We headed for Mess of Potage to maximise the climbing to walking ratio and started up initial pitches of the Message before taking on the burly top pitch of the Melting Pot V,6. Having smashed this Paul just wanted more and we did the brilliant direct start to Hidden Chimney to finish the day.

Once we got back to the lodge there was time for a quick shower before our individual debriefs for the day. We all had to come back the following week to take the personal mixed climbing day and that loomed like a shadow over us. Despite this we all wanted to get debriefed on how the week had gone so far and adjourned to the bar for the long wait knowing the first results were unlikely to be given before 11 pm.  By 9 pm we’d already had half a dozen pints and were all feeling somewhat jaded after a busy week with less than optimal amount of sleep. As we started to relax from the busy week, falling asleep at the bar was a real possibility and I went to get some coffee for the lads. By 11 pm its fair to say we were all wasted in every sense of the word and desperate for some sleep. Finally the examiners were ready and called the first candidate. We were all on tenterhooks and hoped we hadn’t made any major errors during the week and embarrassed ourselves. I continued to wait n tenterhooks as the second, third and fourth candidates were called and passed provided they passed the mixed day the following week. The pressure was mounting and with the initial candidates getting provisional passes it felt inevitable that someone would be deferred. My mind wondered if the mistakes I had made during the week would be viewed as minor or result in a deferral. During a week long assessment its unlikely that your performance will free from errors and the effect of exam stress comes into play an impacts negatively on performance.

At last I was called and prepared for the worst just kept  quiet and listened to my feedback. As expected its started off with the things I had done well and I was braced for the shit sandwich only to hear, come back next week, do the mixed climbing day and you will pass! Relief and happiness washed over me with a new wave of fatigue. I was over the biggest hurdle on the way to becoming a British Mountain Guide and the mental burden of the Scottish winter test was being me. Afterwards I stayed up into the wee small hours chatting about the week and our experiences with my friends Jack Geldard and Ally Swinton before crashing out for a few hours well earned sleep.

I now had a few days off before the mixed climbing exam and went to see my Mother in Aberdeen. It was great to relax a little and eat well after a busy week and I needed a couple days to rest a pulled hamstring but all the time there was the final day in the back of my mind.  4 of the guys elected to do their final day on the Monday while Swinton an myself chose the following Wednesday. I drove back to Aviemore on Tuesday and met up with David Thexton to climb the good Burning and Looting mixed route on the Fiacall. On the Wednesday Ally and myself went into our final day knowing the other 4 had passed so the pressure was on not to fluff it at the final hurdle. The weather was kind and conditions good so we headed back to the Mess of Potage for a couple more laps. I kicked off climbing a big pitch combining Pot of Gold and the Message. All I had to do was climb steadily and not mess up the ropes and I would pass – I’ve probably never climbed so slowly, but steady and sure was the theme of the day. With my part done it was over to Ally who despatched the Melting Pot. As we walked out of the Northern Corries for the final time that winter we got given the news that we had both passed.

Ally and myself said our fair wells in Aviemore before hitting the road south. I ‘d hoped to get to Michelle’s work flat in middle England but the adrenaline of the day soon faded and was replaced by deep fatigue from the stress of the test and a long winter on the hill. Luckily for me my sister lives in the Scottish borders and I stopped off at theirs to celebrate passing with bubbles, beers and a dram or 2!



A quiet Sunday on to the Capucin couloir was what we hoped for, no stress from people behind & time to enjoy it. As I put the track in towards the Periades I looked over my shoulder and was shocked to see 25 people following! Fortunately they were only going for low angled pow and soon turned around leaving us to enjoy the mountains in peace. With all the recent wind I guessed the line would filled in but it was still amazing to see so much snow there. If I hadn’t been the first person in there this year I would have skied in form the col but I wanted to cut the slope while on the rope.

The uppers skied really well while the lower half on the bed surface was chalky. After the summer’s heat wave the glacier has dropped significantly providing us with the added surprise of a 30 m abseil to get out of the couloir.


Getting After It

Its been a while since I posted on my blog because I’ve been really lucky and had a run of routes in the mountains and not much time at home.  Michelle had 10 days off work and timed it perfectly with the arrival of 80 cm of powder. Enrico Mosetti was also visiting from the Julian Alps and I had the pleasure of showing him around the mountains for the week. We had a day on the Midi skiing a Rond and Cosmique with Minna Riihimaki and Dave Searle which got the juices flowing. Usually I ski around 200 runs off the Midi a year but this was only my 6th day on The Mothership – its definitely been a unique season. The next day we could have easily kept hoovering lift access powder off the Midi but I just want to ski in the mountains by this stage of the season so we decided to get some solitude and tour 800 m up to the Col du Capucin. I’d not been there since 2011 and no one had been there this season. At the col I was pretty sure the abseil anchor was on the left and we set about digging down to find it. With no traffic this year the 50 degree couloir had filled in to an extent that I’ve never seen. As I rapped in and sunk up to my chest I regretted not rapping with skis on.  The rest was beautiful deep sluffy cold pow and the only issue was avoiding your sluff, certainly my best powder run of the season. Over a beer Elevation in the hot afternoon sun we decided to go East facing the next day – I had a little project that I’d meant to do for a few years that would test our endurance to the max. The plan was to skin up 1200 m to Col Tour Noir Superior at 3690m, ski the 5.2 50/45 degree East Couloir, then skin 700 m up the scorchio South facing slopes to Col du Saleina at 3419m,  finishing with the grind up the Saleina Glacier and over Col du Chardonnet at 3223m. The route weighs in at circa 2500m of up, 4000 m of down, a lot of time in the dry air above 3000 m and getting microwaved from the inside out on South facing glaciers in the super hot sun. Enrico didn’t know better and was up for adventure and Michelle didn’t bother checking it out or listening to the numbers so came expecting it to be easy – I was surprised she thought I did easy things! Usually I carry 0.5 litres and decided 2 litres might just be enough. In the end 2.5 would have been ideal but 2 worked. The first climb gets the sun early and I’ve been cooked on this climb before. Fortunately a chilly wind kept us cool and we arrived at the col having not sweated much fluid. Looking down the sunnyside we were pleased to see the couloir was full of snow.  We were skiing on sight without any knowledge of conditions over there. After some steep sugar turns, things mellowed out to 45 degrees and we rode the couloir in 2 or 3 pitches on a combination of creamy spring snow and chalky powder. The next skin lived up to all expectations of being hotter than hell and we stripped down to white base layers and just got on with it loosing fluids and salts at a stupid rate. Just before the col Saleina I had to get my swollen feet out my boots as the crushing bone pain was becoming pretty bad. Enrico and myself ran out of water about here. Unfortunately for Michelle, she thought it was a ski down to Cham from here and didn’t take the news too well that we had 2 hours to the next col. I’m sure she is going to heavily scrutinise any of my future plans in minute detail! After force feeding her and with no technicalities left it was pretty easy for an ex-ironman triathlete to rally and get up to Col du Chardonnet. There we were rewarded with golden glow of the late evening sun and soft spring snow down to Lognan where we stepped of our skis after 11 hours. As the spring skiing in the A Neuve Basin had been so good, I decided to do another route there, this time just with Enrico. I’d never skied Passage D’Argentiere so that was the obvious choice with only 1000 m of skinning and the main difficulty being negotiating the large cliff at the base on sight. A quick rap off the col with skis on and we were away skiing soft spring snow in big turns and having a lot of fun. Then Enrico hit a trigger point and a metre deep wet slab ripped out – he did so well to point it out and ride clear – we were still above a large cliff at this point. With our nerves jangling I took a look at a picture of the face to find our exit and we mange to link some ramps out right and get off the face without taking our skis off. The snow turned to shit lower down the mellow glacier,  having not frozen the night before It was collapsing under the tails of our skis or sucking at them at different rates. I stopped half way down and turned expecting Enrico to be there, but no sign. After waiting 5 minutes he appeared with blood pissing down his face. In the gloop he had tomhawked and taken the tip of a ski through his mouth – oW!  OOOOOOWWWWWW!!!! He just stood there spitting out blood as it filled up in his mouth and shrugged it off with ‘is it beer time?’ Sure is, its past noon now! Somehow Enrico was allowed onto La Fouly’s Terrace bar despite looking like he had killed a wild boar by biting through its Aorta! I could see small upset children running to arms of their parents who had concerned looked. Backwoods Switzerland is pretty conservative and a bearded bloodstained man yielding an ice axe would be treated with caution in most places perhaps with the exception of Fort William. Enrico got cleaned up and amazingly we got served. After a pint (or 2) Michelle came and picked us up and took us home – what a star! For Enrico’s last day I had a long day in mind – a North-South traverse of Les Courtes. Up Cristeaux, along the ridge and down Croullante Couloir. After a 1000 m climb we hit the ridge and a beautiful traverse took us towards the Aiguille Croullante. 1997 was the last time I did this ridge and it was a real pleasure to do it again surrounded my magnificent scenery in all directions. We rapped onto the North Side to traverse below this pinnacle and found some horror show 55 degree sugar ontop of a mixture of black ice and weetabix rock. I couldnt get a pick placement and just teetered on my feet while I pulled the ropes. Getting my backpack (with skis) off and balancing it on my thighs to secure the ropes was probably the hardest manoeuvre I’ve been faced with in the hills.  I quickly joined Enrico at the col and we put our skis on the super exposed knife edge separating the Croullante Couloir and the 800 m North Face of Qui Remue.  A lassoed spike let us rap over a boulder and after packing the ropes we discussed if we should try make Montenvers in 35 mins or suffer the ball-baggery of walking to Cham. I elected to go for it and 8 mins later we were below the shrund after sending the line on perfect velvet corn. That definitely ranked in my top 5 big mountain ski descents for snow quality. We schussed down the Talefre glacier passing Pierre a Beranger. Slowing only for a rock slide and some slabs (sorry skis) we arrived below Montenevers just in time for the ‘last lift in 5 minutes’ announcement. A sprint up the stairs ensured we got the training effect that we may have missed earlier in the day! What a great day and a perfect finish to a week skiing with Enrico. I’m looking forward to going and visiting him in the Julian Alps next season. The last run that I’ll post here was with Luca Pandolfi and Tom Grant. The plan was to do the South Face of the Dent de Geant, which although I have skied before in pow, would be fun on the corn. Leaving the Helbronner we were met my a bitingly cold North East wind and on the way over we decided things were unlikely to soften at 4000 m. Instead we headed for the ‘Petit’ variation that sneaks onto the face 200 m or so lower. On the ridge the wind continued to howl and we hid behind the rocks, relaxing and laughing while waiting for the snow to soften up. I took my Atris for this freeride face and had a lot of fun arcing out the turns on the creamy corn. Down at the alpages we swapped ski boots for flip flops and strolled down through some of Italy’s prime real estate to Lou’s cafe and tunnel pizza. There was one more hit before the run came to an end, over Mont Dolent. With Andy Nelson we climbed the Charlet and descended the Gallet ridge – I’ll post that next!   20150406_112304 Heading to the Col Capucin20150406_135451(0)One rap in, Michelle skiing11024789_10153639642273973_656810169192206345_n Me trying to avoid getting sluffed with the sluff train down over the shrund20150406_135816Enrico charging20150406_140832_1_bestshot 20150406_141244_1_bestshot Michelle enjoying the powder under the Capucin 18596_10153639642918973_1096087686793219780_nThe reward for the best pow run of the season RH Enrico and Myself of Col Tour Noir Superior20150408_133919 Enrico blasting down the East Couloir20150408_133954_1_bestshot Michelle skiing 11030840_10205148974956140_1868574250360739144_n Me getting my shot in20150408_134251 Enrico big mountain wave riding 20150408_134359 Michelle20150408_134842 Enrico about half way down20150408_140447(0)Michelle exiting the couloir20150408_144613 Michelle underneath the Gallet Ridge of Dolent (left) which we skied later in the week and the stunningly beautiful North East Face of the Amone on the right which I skied with my good buddy Dave Searle one sick weekend in 2011. Did I mention it was hotter than hell skinning up this South Facing glacier?20150408_175950Final treadmill session was eased by the milky late afternoon light and cooler temperatures. 20150408_190254The final wee bootback on Col du Chardonnet, fixed rope handrail 20150408_192344 Savouring the moment, nearly 8 pm. 20150408_192827(0) Ripper corn on the West facing slopes20150410_124621 Passage d’Argentiere – Enrico blasting off20150410_125152Freeride down to the big cliff 20150410_133537#1 Enrico spitting blood after tomahawking in rotten slop and getting a ski tip in the mouth on flat glacier 20150410_132134In the zone!20150412_125543Traverse of the Courtes – up Cristeaux, along the ridge and down Croullante. The 2 Norwegians followed along on our heals the whole way but seemed reluctant to do any work instead letting an old man like me put the booter in. If I was 20 again there’d be no way I’d wait for some old codger.  20150412_135434On the Ridge 20150412_140804I had not been here since 1997 20150412_143023Enrico contemplating the traverse around the Croullante20150412_154352One of the most precarious spots to step onto skis on a knife edge ridge with 800 m Qui Remue behind and 600 m Croullante Couloir below 20150412_154405Excited about the perfect conditions on velvet20150412_155107Enrico on the 10 m rap20150412_155912Time to rip – 4 pm and Montenvers last gondola at 435 pm, about 6000 feet and 7 miles to cover.croullanteThe couloir rode smooth and fast – 8 mins including camera stops! In Elevation by 5 with a hell of a thirst.20150412_16035920150414_102633Next! Sheltering out the wind and waiting for the snow to soften on the South Face of Dent de Geant 11156943_10101530346871398_681779973_n   Beautiful setting. While Waiting for Luca and Tom I skinned over to the top of the Marbree seen behind to pay my respects to Dave Rosenbarger who died in an avalanche there earlier this year. It was the first time I went there this year and an emotional moment to be there on the col. 11157170_10152657073492260_586698300_oMe enjoying the creamy spring snow with Marbree behind. 

Sublime Powder Day Tour with Cedric Bernardini

Finally out touring after a lot of variable weather this winter.
Cedric Bernardini Epaule TaculCedric Bernardini Epaule Tacul-2 Cedric Bernardini Epaule Tacul-4 Cedric Bernardini Epaule Tacul-5 Cedric Bernardini Epaule Tacul-6

Super fast smooth turns on my Nocta 178 with Plum Yaks.

Tacul Shoulder

Today I was joined by Andy Houseman, Max Turgeon and Tom Grant for a quick tour before the weather broke. We went to the Aiguille du Tacul to ski the shoulder, the lasting memory of the day will be the bitter cold. I toured the whole way with goggles and a buff protecting my lungs from the super cold air. Maybe thats why the Midi was deserted today?
Andy Houseman Max Turgeon Tom Grant Tacul shoulderAndy Houseman Tacul shoulder-2Max Turgeon Tacul shoulder-3