As part of the BTEC Outdoor Education programme at Queen Elizabeth’s, 11 Sixth Form students had the opportunity to travel to Britain’s highest mountain range, the Cairngorms, to enjoy winter mountaineering in Scotland’s snow-capped peaks.
After a long journey from Crediton to the accommodation at the Cairngorm Christian Centre, just outside Aviemore, the first day was about blowing off the navigational cobwebs and getting stuck in to the winter conditions.
Starting from the Cairngorm Ski Centre Carpark, the students navigated their way southwards to Coire an t-Sneachda, ‘Corrie of the Snow’ (pronounced “coy-ue un th-onnec-cuhh”). From the carpark, the group headed straight into the Scottish mountains, starting at 600m, climbing to over 900m throughout the day. Leading in pairs, the students worked together to get the group to the coire in time for lunch, where they conveniently found shelter behind a boulder, out of the wind and snow. They then met their Winter Mountain Leader, Mike, who lead the group around the coire, to get used to scrambling over icy rocks and boulders, which didn’t prove easy whilst carrying rucksacks in deep snow! Using their ice axes as a walking aid, they practiced walking safely up and down slopes and finally made their way over the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais Ridge and back to the bus.
The second day of the trip was forecast to be clear but very windy, so airing on the side of caution, the group planned a snow-less route. From The Queen’s Forest in Glenmore, they hiked up to the Ryvoan bothy, a small stone hut that can be used by mountaineers for shelter, passing the magical An Lochan Uaine – the green lochan, on the way up. After stopping for a bite to eat in the bothy, the students lead the way up to the summit Meall a’ Bhuachaille (“Me-al ah Vohuhluh”). From here the conditions worsened, so they dropped down to the other side of the mountain and into the forest to escape the strong winds.
As Monday marked the middle of the trip, the group set off early for a challenging day on the mountain, with the plan being to reach the Cairngorm summit. Starting from a lower carpark to the Ski Centre, the students led the group up into Coire na Ciste, where they found good consolidated snowpack to learn some new skills using ice axes and crampons.
The students were sliding down the slopes of the coire from all angles of approach; on their fronts and backs, using the axe as a brake just before they hit the stream at the bottom. A thrilling, high speed, snow slip-‘n’-slide!
Donning their crampons, they slowly zig-zagged their way up the coire, reaching the Ptarmigan Centre at the top of the ski resort for lunch. After increasingly difficult walking conditions, driving wind and snow, Mike turned the group homeward, bypassing the summit. After an unfortunate slip and catch of his crampon, Mr Skinner twisted his ankle and broke his leg. He was safely evacuated from the mountain and taken to hospital for treatment.
The last mountain day, which concluded this year’s winter mountaineering trip, saw even more wind and snow. The group followed the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais ridge, battling sub-zero temperatures with cheerful songs to keep spirits high! As they dropped down into Coire Cas to escape the weather, Mr Woodgate found a deep enough snow pile to dig snow holes, making 13 people shaped seats on the side of the slope - the group had great fun! What a climax to a fantastic trip in the Scottish Cairngorms.
Every student learned lots of skills and techniques to assist them in winter conditions; from ice axe and crampon techniques, to navigation tips in arduous conditions, something was gained by all. Winter Mountain Leader, Mike, said he was delighted to have such an enthusiastic group, who dealt with less than perfect conditions by getting stuck in with no complaints.
This trip is definitely the pinnacle of their year for those studying the Outdoor Education programme at Queen Elizabeth’s.