February 2017: Winter mountaineering skills in Snowdonia

The idea: Brush up on our basic rope work and mountain skills and get some time in the snow.
Location: Snowdonia
Essential kit: Harness, helmet, climbing rope, climbing hardware
Less essential kit: Ice axe, crampons
Kit we wished we’d had: A snow machine.
Cost: £40 each petrol, £100 each for guide.

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There is just something about mountains – I can never quite put my finger on exactly what it is. Perhaps it’s the physical challenge of summiting impossibly high peaks, or maybe it’s the feeling of freedom I get when spending a day out in nature at its most extreme. In all likelihood, it’s a combination of all of the above that’s got me completely hooked.

For a long time now, I’ve wished for the technical knowledge to enable me to tackle higher climbs, and I was thrilled to find out that Nick had too. Eager to put our money where our mouths were and capitalise on this revelation, we immediately booked a trip to climb Mont Blanc from the Chamonix Valley in June 2017, taking our hiking and scrambling experience to the next level.

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Rather than throwing ourselves in at the deep end (which we’ve been known to do before), we also booked in a couple of guided training trips to prepare – a winter mountain skills course in Snowdonia and a winter ascent of Mt Toubkal in Morocco, the highest peak in North Africa. It’s our hope that by the time we come to summit Mont Blanc, we will be equipped with enough knowledge and experience to tackle some of the easier peaks in the Alps by ourselves, should we want to extend the trip.

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Our Toubkal trip is booked in for March, and the plan was to have completed the course in Wales well in advance of this. Unfortunately however, the weather didn’t play ball at the beginning of the year, and the snow that’s (surprisingly) required for winter training just didn’t show up. When it came to mid February, with Toubkal less than a month away, we decided to stop waiting for the snow and use the time we had booked with Snowdonia Adventure to brush up on our navigation and mountain rope skills instead.

We spent the weekend in the Ogwen Valley learning the basics of avalanche awareness, navigation, how to travel roped together, basic multi-pitch climbing skills, and how to place nuts and cams in the rock as protection. Despite not getting a chance to practise using our shiny new (tags, embarrassingly still on) ice axes and crampons, we left feeling considerably more prepared for the technical elements of climbing and almost ready for our first ‘proper’ mountaineering trip to the Atlas Mountains.

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Five things we learnt:

1. The importance of checking an avalanche report before setting off.

2. This simple test to check the angle of a slope, to tell if it poses an avalanche risk (between 35-45 degrees).

– Start with two identically sized ice axes or walking poles.
– Place the 1st pole vertically in the snow so it lines up with the bottom of the distant slope you are looking at.
– Hold the 2nd pole at a right angle (90°) to 1st so that it is horizontal on top of the first pole.
– Move the 2nd pole along until it touches the slope.
– Estimate the point at which the 2nd pole crosses the 1st .

1:1 If the poles line up tip to tip the slope is 45°
1:¾ if the second pole is ¾ way down the first the slope is around 37°
1: ½ If the second pole is ½ way down the first the slope is around 27°

3. You can find your position on a map using contour lines to locate mountain features such as ridges or sharp changes in slope angle.

4. Roping up together makes navigating dangerous mountain terrain safer.

5. Using climbing hardware and a clove hitch knot you can create a temporary anchor to protect yourself when belaying.  ▲

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