So after solo scrambling yesterday, today was the official course day, first glance out of the window this morning told me some improvement in the weather had occured.... no rain for starters. So I left for the meeting cafe early, mainly so I would have some time with a phone signal to catch up with everyone. Eventually 8 am arrived and I found myself drinking a coffee with the guide for the day and two other gentlemen who were also participating. We had reasonably similar aims for the course but it seemed they had a vast amount more experience with winter mountaineering than I do, this being my first foray into this world of ice and snow.
We then drove back to literally the point I had started and kit was produced from rucksacks. This being my first time, I was on a try before you buy policy and was borrowing most pieces of kit. So out came the mountaineering boots, looking more like space boots... infkexible, hard shelled and waterproof, they must have added at least 1kg, or at least thats what it felt like. Walking in them, just on the concrete was tricky at first, and I briefly wished for my leaky walking shoes.
Then out came crampons, walking axe, rope, karabiners and an assortment of slings and other equipment. Once that had been squared away we set off the path towards the top, initially following a similar path to the one I had trodden yesterday.
My lack of fitness showed, well at least to me, as I was soon huffing and puffing, worse than that, I was overheating rapidly. My new coat, much better at keeping warmth in than im used to and soon the zip as open as we made our way up. At one point we came to reasonably steep gully, filled with boulders and the scrambling started. In mountain boots, once again, it seemed trickier than it normally would but soon became more confident in balancing on the rigid toe caps and using them to thrust up for the next foothold.., better still, was enjoying every second of this. Its what I would do for fun out and about by myself in the mountains and the weather was holding to create a pleasant day.
Once we had topped out of the gully we were faced with a boulder field. Once again I struggled with the new boots, but soon found a balance and found that I didnt feel the rocks bashing into the sides of my feet, as I do normally with walking shoes, which made this part more enjoyable than usual. Then finally we hit the snow line, and this is where the boots crossed from ok to fantastic. Fully waterproof and occasionally sinking ankle deep, it didnt matter and the grip on them outclassed anything I had ever worn on my feet before.
Then we arrived at the bottom of the walls of the peaks and here the guide pointed out where small avalanches had been, the cornices on the ridges above, which are inherently unstable and other things to be aware of when selecting where to climb... invaluable information.
On went the crampons and out came the axes, harnesses and helmets on, and the real fun of the day began. First came a lesson in putting on and ways of walking in crampons. Another thing to get used to. This type of snow too soft for proper crampon use and we regularly sank up to knee or even waist level as the soft snow gave way under our weight.
Kicking steps in the snow was fun, but hard work, but despite being told it was easier to follow in others footsteps, I kept veering slightly off line to practice the technique. As we progressed up the gully, the angle increased until we were informed that we were on a slope of 30 to 40 degrees, which by the way, is where most avalanches happen.... interesting.
Eventually we reached a point where the ropes came out and here at least I knew how to attatch myself to it and belay others. That however is only the beginning. Here we covered anchors to rock, using slings and karabiners and attaching anchoring points as you go up, to lessen the fall distance. So then we continued up the gully, taking turns to lead and belay. The hardest parts were where you would climb on some exposed rock with your crampons, balancing on the 2 front points in places, axe dug into turf, not snow. As I hadnt done this before, I was a little slower, but gained confidence in the crampons and was moving a bit easier by the end of each pitch.
It was at one of the points where lead climber switched that I remembered to look at the view. Up till now I had been concentrating too hard, but as I looked down and around me, the scenery blew me away quietly. The sun was lighting up the valley and the surrounding snow tops looked suddenly accesible with this new found way of moving.
Suddenly the danger areas jumped out at me, places to avoid, cornices that might at any second, fracture and fall to the floor below. This new found knowledge felt like a whole new world had opened up to me, a new playground to get temporarily lost in, new challenges and dreams to set my sights upon.
But back to the business in hand... The ground got steeper as we climbed and soon we were on all fours, axe in hand, three points to the snow at all times. The safety net provided by the rope removed an element of fear, and enabled the mind to concentrate on hand and foot placement. Several pitches later and one rock/snow bit that I found a bit more tricky, and we were standing grinning at the top. The lessons hadnt finished. Snow anchors were demonstrated and abseil technique from a snow anchor demonstrated and just like that the day had gone and it was time to be heading down.
The adage of 'the top is only halfway' was highlighted as as I know from many of the books I have read,most accidents and deaths happen on the way down. Personally I prefer going uphill as down hurts the feet more. Fun on snow slopes with long strides though at times backwards was a faster method, despite getting the occasional face full of snow from the climber above. It certainly was quick and in no time at all, the crampons were off, climbing gear was stowed and we set a reasonable pace back to civilisation. The wind picked up on the way down and once again provided a reminder how quickly conditions can change. By now, my foot, the previously damaged one on route 66, was starting to hurt but managed to keep up and not jar it too much.
And then we shook hands, swopped emails to exchange photos and went our separate ways. Personally I felt that I had gained an awful lot out of today. New equipment, not quite mastered, but at least now familiar... a greater sense of the different dangers winter in the mountains can bring, and how to avoid them or at least reduce the risk, and finally the satisfaction that completing a new challenge brings, albeit leaving me with more dreams and ideas. Today the mountains called me and I shouted back!