Finlay Wild

Finlay Wild
Hill runner, mountaineer, skier
Sponsored by Norman Walsh UK and Anatom / Dynafit UK

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Skimo British Champs washout

The 2016 Skimo British Champs were set to take place at the Roc et Pic race at Thollon les Memises on the slopes above Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). I've done the Roc et Pic before, and remember some great sections with sunny slopes and expansive views down towards the shimmering lake with bluebird skies above. Unfortunately this weekend was not to follow suit.

Things started badly for me as I expertly procrastinated on getting packed, and then for one reason or another ended up spending a pretty uncomfortable time in Glasgow airport as far from ideal race prep. Arriving in Amsterdam airport I was totally disorientated as I woke up to being climbed over by the guy next to me who was rushing to catch his connection. I just made mine, despite being in a sleep deprived, caffeine-addled, dehydrated suboptimal state.

That done I was in Geneva. Or rather stuck at the outsized baggage area in Geneva airport. Eventually it transpired that my bag was delayed until the evening, so I abandoned it and got a lift with the patient Neil, Andy and Tim to Thollon. 
Impromptu lunch break in Thollon Les Memises (Pic: Bjorn Verduijn)

Getting there it was decidedly Scottish - mild, damp and windy. There wasn't an awful lot of snow to be seen either. The race organisers had worked tirelessly to try and put on a 'C' course despite the conditions, but the briefing was noticeably devoid of racers, with the Brits making up more than 10% of those assembled. This wasn't really a good sign. Adding to this my lack of any ski kit led to a general uncertain atmosphere. A message came to the hotel that my bag wound arrive at midnight - well we would see I suppose but I wasn't for staying up hanging around for it so set the alarm and had a much needed sleep. Waking early we were greeted by an apologetic message from the race committee - the poor guys had been out at four am checking the course, and had decided to pull the plug. Looking out the window this was entirely unsurprising as the wind had now increased and it was raining and mild in a way that even Skimo Scotland might struggle to race in. Feeling fairly deflated we met the other Brits and I found that my lost bag had indeed made it. Just in time for the 'annuler' message.

After some moping about, commiseration and general indecision we decided to go for a skin anyway and - not being as hardy as the GB girls who went for a skin up the icy wet race course in the soaking rain - we headed fairly en mass to Grand Montets at Argentiere and skinned up the marked track to the ski area and down the home run. This was still pretty soggy but at least the wind was lighter, we were in the trees, and there was even some reasonable snow. Thoroughly soaked through we hit one of the Chamonix cafes for many coffees and frites.

Neil and Anthony at Grand Montets

Next day I went skinning with Colin, Guillem, Naila, Ben B, John and Alasdair at Les Houches. It started cloudy and mild and we headed up to Le Prarion before skiing some heavy snow and then down the pistes. Some folk headed up for another lap but some of us had other business - namely getting the entries in for Glencoe and Tromso Skyline races, which both opened that day at noon. Turned out this was a good idea as they sold out in minutes! Then I headed back to Scotland and the wild gales blowing lorries off the road in Glencoe.

Lycra at Le Prarion summit

Cheers to Ben Bardsley for all his work setting up the British Champs - no one could have predicted just how unhelpful the weather was going to be. There's always next year...

Monday, 25 January 2016

Once upon a time when there was snow..

We've had a few weeks of reasonable snow, followed by the devastating thaw on Sunday.

On 16th January myself and Suzy decided to head up into the Mamores. From the forecast it looked like Lochaber could be a better bet than the Cairngorms, although the opposite was true in the end and the cloud came in early.

The Mamores isn't really an obvious choice for ski touring, excepting spring skiing the bowls off Sgurr a Mhaim and a few others, as it's pretty rocky and scree topped, with a fair few narrow ridges. I have always wanted to head up there on skis however as the idea of travelling on skis along the ridge traverse appeals to me. There are also some pretty remote slopes which look like they would be amazing to ski in the right conditions. Also with an eye on the Tranter round, it was worth a reccy.

We headed up from Achriabhach onto the slopes of Mullach nan Coirean. Getting the skis on it was straightforward to start with, but then as it got more rocky it became more awkward. The basic problem was the lack of any significant base! There was quite a bit of soft snow, but not much between it and the (many) rocks. We made our way up into the mist as the wind picked up...

The cloud had come in much earlier than expected. We picked our way along to Pt 917 and then to the col where the north ridge of Stob Ban heads off. We decided to bag Stob Ban, in the mist, then descended back to the col.

This was a fairly ski wrecking sort of descent with what tantalisingly looked like enough snow, but which really wasn't, and the rocks scraped through far too often! Thankfully no major damage was sustained. That done we got the skis on the packs and came down the North Ridge. It was all soft snow so reasonable to just pick our way down the scramble carefully. From the bottom of this there were some nice turns (between the rocks) down the long ridge, and then it got silly as the grass to snow ratio increased.

In Glen Nevis, the wind had dropped and fluffy snowflakes were falling straight down onto the road, turning it white. We enjoyed that silence you get when snow is falling straight down, muffling the earth.

It was a useful day as information gathering for the Tranter - some sections were definitely quicker using the skis, but of course a better base and more consolidated snow were sorely needed. It's potential ski trashing terrain up there - but then again using the ski as a tool for travel, getting all the way along the Mamores would be worth quite a few ski gouges.

Cairngorms Navigation

For Sunday I headed to the Cairngorms. The weather apparently had been brilliant on Saturday so I was kicking myself a bit. I got a reasonably early start going up Cairngorm into the mist, which I felt was likely to clear from the forecast I had read. The snow cover was much better here and I couldn't wait to get a glimpse across the Lairig Ghru. Unfortunately the visibility just got worse and I spent a slow 2 hours on map and compass work to Ben Macdui and back. Finally the cloud lifted a bit at Coire Domhain and I headed down into a fantastic looking Loch Avon basin. Its been ages since I saw the Shelter Stone so gliding down to the base of it and then onto a frozen Loch Avon felt pretty special. It was a quick ski along the flat and then up to the saddle back into the mist. I skied towards the Ciste car park but then thought better of it as the snow gave out, and came over the An t-Aonach back to Coire Cas carpark.

Glenshee Skimo Race 23rd January

There was a record turnout of about 50 skiers for the second race of the season. Although there had been a bit of a thaw, there was still plenty snow around and a course was set on the east side of the resort.
Glenshee start line (Picture: Fiona Wild)

I really enjoyed the course, which mostly ascended at a relatively gently angle with pretty fast open piste descents. I managed to break away from Ben Bardsley and then keep my lead to come in first after 48mins. It was great to see so many folk out racing, and some more lycra speedsuits too. As dusk approached the wind increased, and by Sunday the mega thaw had set in.

Ben Bardsley crosses the finish in second place (Picture: Fiona Wild)

Myself (1st; centre), Ben Bardsley (2nd; left), Jon Morgan (3rd; right)

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Heading East

This weekend I had a couple of good days out. Although the weather wasn't great it was brilliant to see the hills looking much whiter.

On Sunday I skied in the Cairngorms with James W. It was fairly windy with clag and a predicted wee window of clearer weather around noon. We managed to coincide this clearing with getting to The Saddle between Cairngorm and Bynack Mor, for great views of a snowy Shelterstone and a mostly frozen Loch Avon.

The ski down to The Saddle was actually pretty rocky and scoured, but at least it was a safe slope - with this much fresh snow around we were thinking carefully about which aspects to ski, especially when visibility wasn't great either. Going up Bynack Mor was rocky initially but skin-able and then the snow improved. We skied down Allt a Choire Dhuibh with some comedy snow topped heather skiing down into Strath Nethy, then back up and over west to the Ciste car park, with a few minor but illuminating navigational issues.

Skiing down Allt a Choire Dhuibh
In Strath Nethy

Technical Issues
On the final descent one of my new bindings was playing up - it kept releasing at the back piece despite being clipped into downhill mode. This wasn't such an issue immediately as, well, the skiing wasn't that great in heathery hummocks with not (yet) enough base. But it was more of a concern in general, as effectively made the ski useless for proper downhill use.

Back in Aviemore I headed to Mountain Spirit to consult with the guys about what could be going on. My Dynafit Low Tech Race Auto 2.0 bindings are pretty new to the market, so a bit of an unknown, and they don't come with much mounting info. We eventually worked out that probably a crucial metal bar should be mounted the other way round - so hopefully it was just a quick fix.

Rear part of binding showing the metal bar which was initially mounted the other way up.

I will try and clarify this with Dynafit as one picture on their website shows a pair of bindings with the crucial metal bar mounted a different way round on each binding! Presumably the way it is now mounted is far more robust as it holds the plastic rear piece in place solidly.

If you are interested, look at the picture of the pair of bindings on this page, zoom in and compare the bar position on each binding and you will see it's different.

With a fixed ski and a Monday off I debated what to do. There is more snow east currently and I was already half way there from Fort William. With an optimistic eye at the forecast it looked like it could possibly turn good over Lochnagar way. I had seen a glimpse of Beinn A'Bhuird direction from The Saddle which looked plastered. The only concern was that it seemed a few degrees warmer than forecasted - maybe this was a sign that the weather wasn't going to play ball.

Monday morning was snowy and a bit damp. I set off with the first light from Loch Muick up the climbers path towards Lochagar. I managed to get my skis on low down, just after coming out of the forest.

I hoped the weather would clear and I could get up onto the plateau and continue around in a big day loop but sadly the wind increased and the weather just got worse. At around 1050m going up Lochnagar from the Lochnagar-Meikle Pap col I decided to call it a day as I couldn't see much except the thin line of the cliff edge. It was getting gusty with no sign of clearing. Heading down there was lots of deep fluffy snow around, but I had to avoid it as I couldn't see without the rocks to guide me! Skiing down my binding worked fine and I think the problem is now fixed. The hills are staying white this week and the weather looks good for next weekend!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Lecht Skimo

After some more wet and windy mild weather we did finally get some snow, and pictures of the snow conditions looked great at the Lecht on the 27th Dec. I missed the chance to get out as I was on a cyclocross mission with Gary Mac - linking Glen Creran to Glencoe via a route I've wanted to do for a while.

Unfortunately the mega thaw was set to come in on race day for the Lecht 2090 Skimo race - the first of the 2015/16 season.

And thaw it certainly did. Arriving at the Lecht there were two immediately obvious issues - a) there really wasn't very much snow and b) it was really very windy. Despite these fairly major issues Di and the Skimo Scotland team battled through Plan A, B and C to come up with a race course.

All pictures: Mr Drew Photography

Around 29 racers set off on the muddy soggy bootpack across towards the Buzzard tow, then skis on and up a short and steep climb to another transition. Then it was down a dwindling-before-our-eyes piste to the bottom of the bootpack again. The race was in a laps format over 90 minutes - I did 12 laps in total, although I had lost count after the first few. Because they were such short laps (between 7 and 8 minutes for myself) there were only a few minutes between each transition and I was drawn into working really hard as I knew I was getting a (brief) rest each downhill, which was never far away. Skins got soaked, as did boots. Despite real worries about catastrophic skin failure, I raced the whole thing on one pair which thankfully held out - although I had another 2 sets spare, and emergency tape too.

The downhill was pretty comedy. You had to skate against the howling wind to get going, then basically straight line it until you started to slow as the heather patches got bigger and the snow receded. By the end it was pretty muddy and grassy down at the bottom! The marshals were amazing as it must have been pretty cold and grim watching us all loop around forever.

We had managed to start a little early so got finished just before dark. Then it was straight in for some much needed food and a generous prizegiving. Everyone seemed to still be smiling.

So, the race conditions were certainly extremely Scottish! I would love to have seen the look on a French or Italian Skimo racer's face if they had turned up. A few things that were highlighted however were that light race kit and skins are fairly adaptable and resiliant even in pseudo conditions, and that it doesn't take much actual snow to have an enjoyable and successful skimo race!

Hopefully we will get some more of the white stuff for some touring and adventures before the next race in January at Glenshee.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Winter 2015-16

Winter is finally here after a protracted mild and wet spell.

I am really excited this winter to get out on long mountain missions on the skis and on foot.

Having spent a few years dabbling in ski mountaineering racing, at home and in Europe, I want to see how using this very light and speedy 'Skimo' kit can transfer to 'light and fast' ski mountaineering objectives in the Scottish mountains.

I could write at length about different types of ski touring / ski mountaineering kit and the pros and cons of different approaches. I have toured in Scotland on over 2m long nordic free heel skinny skis as well as heavy telemark setups. I'm not going to go into this right now, except to state that 'Skimo' kit is extremely light and functional for race 'transitions' (from uphill to downhill mode) and has been used for some simply mind blowing descents and tours in the Alps and elsewhere. A GB Team consisting of Ben Bardsley, Jon Morgan, Ben Tibbetts and Misha Goupal completed the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route in a single push in 2013 using this kit. Bear in mind that the route is usually done over seven days on conventional ski mountaineering kit and you start to get an idea of the possibilities.

See Ben B's blog for more details:

Clearly the weather and snow conditions will be a huge factor, but given good conditions I am hugely excited to try long routes such as the South Glen Sheil Ridge, various long Cairngorm munro link ups including the Six Tops, the Mamores Round, or even the Tranter Round (the Mamores and the Grey Corries / Ben Nevis).

One issue which needed addressed was kit. I already had some decent race kit, however trying these routes in likely marginal conditions is a recipe for kit destruction, so I needed some spares. Thanks to Scarpa UK who helped me out, and Anatom / Dynafit UK who have agreed to take me on as a supported skier. This led to a trip to Mountain Spirit in Aviemore for some kit fettling with help from Rob and the lads:

First snow
I managed to sneak out with the first snow for a Creag Meagaidh Round. It was skis on from the car, then unconsolidated-no-base floundering up to the ridge, then quite a scoured ridgeline. I managed to skin for a while, then got the skis on the back for a walk into deteriorating wind and chill. At The Window I grabbed some shelter, got another layer on, and the weather improved. I carried on to summit Creag Meagaidh, then skied off down the Sron a' Ghoire ridge for some cautious but enjoyable turns in the Allt Bealach a' Ghoire bowl and back to the car. I carried for probably 15% of the time.

Then the snow melted and it was back to low level running and biking in the wild wet weather.

More new kit
At Mountain Spirit in Aviemore I was introduced to Graham from Edinburgh. I then promptly demanded he took his boot off as it looked like nothing I'd ever seen before. As a man whose probably spent more than his fair share of time in the snow with cold feet in trainers, I was incredibly excited to hear about the new Salomon X-Alp Carbon GTX boots. They have been designed with Kilian Jornet in mind, and his awe inspiring blend of running and mountaineering - think Mont Blanc traverse, Matterhorn record, Denali, Everest plans..
As soon as I saw the boots I knew they were exactly the tool I had always dreamed of, but assumed no-one made. I had to have some. End of.

Again many thanks to Cotswold Outdoor in Fort William who are always helpful in getting me a good price on kit. The shoes arrived:

Out of the box they were a tad heavier than I expected (quoted weight at 500g each) but as soon as I held them I understood why - they feel solid. But yet hugely lighter than any 'technical' boot I've ever used. Putting them on they felt like S-labs, which they are, but the stiffness felt like it would make them really useable in winter conditions.

Test Drive
Day 1 testing was the Mamores Round. I started late and wasn't sure if I would go for the whole round. I wore trainers up to snowline to reduce wear on my new toys, then switched and headed up to summit Mullach. They really did feel amazing to move in - light enough to be able to run, but stiff enough to be able to edge in firmer snow. Crucially, I didn't have cold feet, despite trail breaking and sinking in to ankle and sometimes knee deep snow.

It was brilliant weather and I was loving being out on the ridge. I decided to keep going. My feet did get a little colder at the 5hr mark, and this was due to the fact that with so much trail breaking my leggings were covered with snow, which melted, and then water got into my socks. However, wearing thick Seal Skins I still felt my feet were at a reasonable level of warmth. If I'd been in trainers I would have had to give up after a few hours, and if I'd been in normal boots I wouldn't have been able to cover the ground so quickly.

The day grew late and the snow firmed up a bit. The grip and edging was great. I didn't need my crampons so haven't tried the boots with them on yet - although they have been designed with this in mind. Down at valley level again I changed into my trainers for the long run out to Glen Nevis, which was more to save the tread on the boots than a necessity. The conditions had been hard - trail breaking the first and last third in soft powdery snow, which then became firmer but just meant I was postholing and fighting crust! Thankfully there had been quite a few folk on the Stoban - Sgurr a Mhaim circuit so there had been a good track in there.

All in all I was really pleased with the new boots and do think they will revolutionise what I can do in terms of moving fast in the mountains in winter. Clearly comfort was not an issue as I wore them out of the box for a 9hr hill day. In firmer and colder conditions they would be ideal for trying a Tranter Round, which I hope to have a crack at some time.