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: http://benbardsley.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/chamonix-to-zermatt-is-long-way.html
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:
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.
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.