Friday, 2 December 2011


A few years ago my friend Richard and I hired split snowboards while on holiday in Whistler in Canada. On that occasion we went on a backcountry tour with a local mountain guide for a day. We'd originally anticipated carrying our own snowboards and on the uphill secctions using hired snowshoes but the guide advised us to go with splitboards instead. We were both well impressed by the splitboards which allowed us to climb relatively easily while still performing well in snowboard mode on the descents.
Three years ago Shuzzy was over in the 'States on a snowboarding holiday and arranged to have two DIY splitboard kits delivered to Scotland when he got back. We both had donor snowboards that we were prepared to cut in half to make oursleves splitboards.
Now we had all the bits we just had to pluck up the courage to cut two perfectly good snowboards in half!
We then had to epoxy coat the cut edges to seal them against water ingress and fit all the various hardware that allows the board to be used as a pair of skis for ascending but as a snowboard on the descents.
Once we'd got them finished it was time to get out into the wilds and try them out. We've done a few trips on them now but probably the best one was an ascent of Beinn Ghlas (a Munro in the Ben Lawers range near Loch Tay).
We departed from the visitor centre and took the boardwalk up through the nature reserve.
Shuzzy with Beinn Ghlas behind him.
Ascending the west ridge.
Loch Tay and Ben More and Stob Binnein behind.
Higher up the ridge became more rocky and icy so we swapped skis for crampons then it became skiable again but we were near the summit so just persevered with the crampons.
Shuzzy on the summit. We admired the view for a few minutes then switched to checking out our options for the descent. It took a little while to get ready, we donned crash hats and goggles, switched on our avalanche transceivers then Shuzzy set off down the gully we'd chosen while I filmed him.
The riding was pretty good by scottish standards although the light was a little flat making it difficult to spot undulations in the snow. Still we made some nice first tracks down the gully system.

I also made this short movie of our day.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The snow hole that never was (part two). A retro blog.

..................Fast forward almost two years and we were once more planning a snow hole trip on Bein Ime. This time we were better prepared in every respect. Heavy snowfall had been followed by a thaw then a prolonged period of high pressure and freezing temperatures. What this meant was that I'd seen exactly how much snow was on the hills and knew that although the snow cover was patchy there were deep snow patches remaining which importantly would be frozen hard and would be really safe for digging into. The weather was forecast to break but we hoped to grab the last opportunity to get out beforehand. 
We parked up in the same lay by as the previous igloo trip and started getting ready.
Shuzzy had learned the lessons of the previous trip and now had a good quality down sleeping bag and Goretex bivi bag and some more techy clothing including a down jacket. He'd elected to make the ascent with a new split snowboard (we'd acquired one each to use for back country tours). I'd explained to him that there wasn't going to be much snow but he was keen to try out the split board for the first time. I decided to save the weight and just walk.
As you can see we also set off in the daylight this time as well!
As we got a bit further up the hill the cloud inversion that had kept our hometown of Helensburgh under a blanket of cloud for days came into view.
We had to stop briefly while Shuzz tended to a blister caused by his snowboard boots rubbing his heel (if you will go hill walking in snowboard boots!)
Chance for me to have a rest and take in the view then it was onwards and upwards to the top of the corrie head wall as the sun started to drop below the hills.
The light from the setting sun was stunning as it lit Bein Ime in it's glow. I think by now Shuzz was beginning to realise the folly of bringing his snowboard.
As we reached the bealach the sun dipped below the hills and we could tell we were in for a spectacular sunset.
There was no question of stopping lower down the hill this time, we knew the only chance of finding decent conditions for a snow hole were right on the northeastern flank of the summit so after a breather on the bealach we set off again.
This view is back down towards the bealach with the Cobbler behind and the flank of Ben Narnain on the left. 

The mountains poking through the clouds in the distance are on the Isle of Arran.
We could also just make out the red light on top of the chimney on Inverkip power station sticking through the cloud far to the south.
We were now high enough to have increasingly large patches of snow to cross.
Shuzz finally had the opportunity to deploy his split board and try skiing on climbing skins for the first time in his life!
He was able to ski to quite close to the summit before the slopes became too rocky and the snow too patchy so we found a level area so that he could remove the skis.
After that it was a short climb up to the summit cairn (and a new Munro for Shuzz).
With the obligatory summit photo out the way we sauntered over to the northeastern aspect of the summit cone where I'd spied a big patch of drifted snow through the binos whilst at work. This area had looked promising for digging a hole and sure enough the gully on that side of the summit was loaded with perfect hard neve snow (ideal for digging a snow hole). At this point though we decided that it would be sacrilege to spend the night below the surface when the sky was so crystal clear and the stars so bright. We elected instead to build a wall to act as a windbreak and bivi outside so we could look up from our sleeping bags and admire the heavens! We started cutting snow blocks which proved much easier with the hard snow (compared to the slush we'd had to use to build the igloo).
Although it was easy to form the blocks it was still hard work and Shuzzy had to have a lie down once we'd finished!
We moved into our shelter and got into our sleeping bags to keep warm (a few hundred quids worth of North Face down ensured there would be no repeat of the igloo experience for Shuzz!)
Once we'd settled in it was time for some food. As we were only out for one night there was no need to skimp on convenience food so we had salmon fillets with spicy couscous and sweet corn. The only problem was the speed at which it cooled down while we ate it (a sure sign of how low the temperature was).
After dinner we settled down to chat and stargaze until we fell asleep.The night sky was incredibly clear with the lack of light and atmospheric pollution and we were treated to quite a show with satellites, shooting stars and other celestial bodies.
The night passed without any dramas this time (other than the daunting task of answering the call of nature in such freezing conditions!) In the early hours the sky started to cloud over and the wind started to pick up as forecast. As soon as it came light we ate a hurried breakfast, packed up and prepared to descend before the inevitable precipitation arrived.
Shuzzy balanced precariously on the frozen snow with our shelter and the summit cairn behind.
Once we descended a little Shuzz strapped on his board and put in a few turns on the iron hard snow. It wasn't too pleasurable with the snow conditions so he soon resorted to walking again.
We were soon far enough down the mountain to be certain we could make it back to the car before the rain started.
In comparison with the igloo trip this one went off without a hitch and it really was a privilege to be in such a place on such a stunning night.
I still want to sleep in a snow hole at some point though!

The snow hole that never was (part one). A retro blog.

I've always harboured a desire to sleep in a snow hole but despite having slept out in the snow on many occasions it's something I've never actually accomplished.
From my place of work I have a great view of the Arrochar Alps (a range of mountains behind the village of Arrochar) and have often spent spare moments at work admiring the lovely views of snow covered hills like the one below.
A few years ago there was a heavy snowfall on these hills and I hatched a plan (with my faithful accomplice of the time Shuzzy) to try to finally do an overnight stay in a snowhole. The forecast initially looked very promising but I had a couple of night shifts to do before my next days off and I had my fingers crossed that the temperatures would stay cold enough to preserve the good snow. During my night shifts there was some really heavy rainfall at work but the temperature stayed fairly low so I remained hopeful that the rain would be falling as snow higher up. Unfortunately as it was dark, cloudy and moonless I didn't actually have the opportunity to see what the snow conditions were on the mountains.
The big day arrived and the plan was to leave around lunchtime to allow us time to get high up with some daylight left. That would allow us to search for a nice deep drift to dig our snow hole that would still be safe enough from avalanche or collapse (which can be a danger if you site your snow hole in the wrong place). Unfortunately Shuzz had his departure delayed and it was late afternoon before we parked half way up the "Rest and be Thankful" pass which was to be our starting point. The daylight was already fading fast as we sorted our gear at the side of the road and despite the poor visibility I was having the first pangs of doubt about the amount of snow on the hills. We'd decided to take our snowboards in the hope that we'd be able to board back off the hill the next morning (we've done quite a bit of backcountry snowboarding in Scotland and have the relevant safety gear and knowledge to do this). Combined with overnight bivi gear, food, stoves and spare clothing plus ice axes and crampons our backpacks were huge and very heavy as we set off from the car.

  We plodded slowly up the steep hillside past a series of small dams (part of a nearby hydro-electric scheme) taking frequent breathers and wondering when we'd hit the snowline.
The corrie which we were climbing ends in a steep headwall which I knew would be really hard going with such big packs, the upside was that it would allow us to gain height quickly to the bealach which lies between Bein Ime, Ben Narnain and The Cobbler where I expected we'd hit the snowline. I hoped that once there we would be able to contour around the side of Beinn Ime to an area that I knew held deep snow where we could search for a site to start digging our snow hole.
As we trudged up the headwall in our own little worlds of pain we became seperated, each trying to find a non existent easier line up the steep hillside. All I could see of Shuzz was his headtorch bobbing about in the distance as we worked our way upwards. Eventually the gradient eased off and we emerged onto the relatively flat area on the bealach. We were pleased to be above the steep ground for a while but there was no sign of any significant snowfields. We headed up the lower slopes of Bein Ime in search of a decent spot to build our shelter and eventually found some patches of wet sugary snow in the area that I'd expected to be loaded. It was now clear that the rain that had fallen earlier hadn't been falling as snow even on higher ground and the impressive cover of a few days ago had been stripped by the deluge.
We had a conference to decide what to do and settled on trying to build an igloo like shelter. We knew that if the worst came to the worst we could retreat back down to the car but we were reluctant to give up without a fight. I have only built an igloo once before (when I was a kid growing up in Yorkshire) and the snow wasn't really solid enough to make proper snow bricks but using a folding saw and our snow shovels we set to work learning by trial and error what would work and what wouldn't. It only seemed like a short time until we reached the stage where I had to build myself into the igloo while Shuzz passed the blocks over the walls to me but in fact it was getting very late. Finally Shuzz placed the last block on the top and I was sealed inside. I'd taken the saw in with me and cut a doorway to the outside world then we had a celebratory brew while moving our gear into the igloo.
When we checked the time we were both amazed to find it was one in the morning, it had taken ages to build the igloo! We wasted no time in moving into our tiny haven
Once inside we climbed into our sleeping bags, we'd both been sweating with the effort of constructing the igloo and knew we'd quickly cool down once the hard work was completed. I was toasty in my down sleeping bag and Goretex bivi bag and Shuzz assured me he was fine as well despite only having a synthetic bag and using a mansize polybag as a bivi.
I slept for a while then some strange sixth sense woke me, I could hear Shuzz moving about a lot and he didn't sound comfy but when I asked if he was okay he said he was. Despite his answer I wasn't convinced, Shuzz is the kind of guy who'll suffer in silence rather than feeling that he was being a nuisance and when I spoke to him some more his answers weren't making much sense. I know the warning signs for hypothermia well and the alarm bells started ringing straight away, I took this picture of him and I don't think you need to be a genius to work out that he doesn't look too good!
All the years of conditioning swung into effect and I got the stove on for a hot drink and gave him all my spare clothing. After a couple of hot chocolates and with the effect of the extra layers he quickly started to recover and described to me the strange sensation he'd experienced which he hadn't realised was the onset of hypothermia.

Once I was happy Shuzz was okay again we settled back down and with the extra clothing he was able to survive the night and get some sleep. The situation was never that desperate, in a worst case scenario I'd have got him up and walked him back off the hill confident that the movement would have warmed him up again (the temperature wasn't that cold outside). Nevertheless it shows how quickly hypothermia can take effect if you become damp.
Morning came and the lack of snow on the hill became blatantly apparent with the daylight.
 We packed up and Shuzz felt the need to have a token slide having carried the board all the way up!
We posed by our little igloo for a few last pictures before retracing our steps from the night before.
We set off back down the corrie to the car, you can see the steep headwall section behind Shuzz in this photo.
We still laugh about this trip to this day, it really was a comedy of errors but we both still got a lot out of it and learned some valuable lessons. Realising the ambition to sleep in a snow hole would have to wait for another day.
To be continued.................................................................