Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Cairngorm Pole

The latest gear to be investigated in the WA is walking poles. I’ve never been that interested in trying them. An unnecessary set of sticks to tap, tap, tap on the path and ruin the peaceful panorama ahead of you on the hill. Or, so I thought?

Poles have never been a focus, however, Del had been investigating them for a while now and he had found a good deal on a set of Black Diamond Trail Trekking Poles. When they arrived there was a lot of interest in them. Still at this stage I wasn’t that fussed. Rab and Hughan then placed their order, Rab went for the same and Hughan got the BD Expedition Poles. Technically a ski pole but as he is our one man Munro a longer pole was required.

Well to the hill. With me still poleless, we went to the Cairngorms. We set off into Coire an-Sneachda from the base station car park. The path into the coire was covered in hard compacted snow with patches of the path wearing through. Tap, tap, crunch, crunch! I didn’t let it bother me, really I was to busy practising my new specialist dance move – the Moonwalk. The path was slippy but it didn’t warrant crampons yet, the snow was too thin and with the areas of exposed path and the softer snow on the edges there was traction for good old rubber grips to be found. This is the terrain, I would imagine, micro spikes would slot in. Already, I was hearing “These are great, you can really get a proper grip with these poles!” or words to that effect. We certainly seemed to be pushing on. It was a cracking day, a little low cloud was swelling over the buttress ahead of us.


It was busy, there were queues of people heading up there: climbers, winter skills groups, guided walks and walkers out to enjoy the surroundings.


All the bases on the buttress were full too. Strands of rope dragging across the thin layer of snow and largely exposed rock. We guessed that this would add a couple of grades onto most of the routes up there. Today wasn’t that kind of day for us. Once we were right in we circled around the lochan and stopped for a bite to eat, quick roll and a mouthful of tea. The poles got stowed and were swapped for crampons and ice axe. We were heading up onto the ridge from the west corner of the coire. I don’t know if this track/route has a name but it’s steep. It’s not the goat track, that contours a little more than this route. The snow was compact with a nice crust to puncture with the crampon points. I went for the toe kick option; a calf burner! The zig-zag route would have been the alternative, which is what Del went for. We gained height quickly and found ourselves on Fiacaill Ridge. We skirted round the south side of it, avoiding the more technical ridge line. There was a couple of groups on there moving understandably slowly over the dusty white rocks. We scrambled up on the top and into the sporadic cloud cover. The views came and went like we were trying to tune in a tv channel by moving the aerial.


And the poles were out again. “Have we sold you on the poles yet Davy?” It was a hell of a sales pitch or was I being ground down? To be fair, I could see the lads benefitting from using them. Especially on the flatter ground, the rhythm of the pole placement seemed to move them along like a paddle. When it came to boulder field I think the momentum is lost a little but this is where the additional balance came into play.

I put a tweet out to see what the opinion was of poles in winter walking that night when I got back. Only a few responses, all from pole users! Am I the only one? Surely not!

@RAW_Adventures was the first to respond. A convert since 2006 and still on the same BD poles today as back then. (coincidently the same as Hughan got) Used for walks in and out and beneficial for the knees whilst carrying heavy packs. Also advised that a pole and axe can be used on certain terrain. 

@flubdevork added that the type of walk will depend on whether they go with you or not. A handy flow chart: “are you cragging? no: take poles, yes: prob fine without.” And another mention for knee preservation.

@jgbell100 said “yes, so long as they're with Mr ice axe. V useful for the weary walk out when all you want is to be beamed home.” Dragging yourself back off the route can be hard, as we all know, after a particularly hard day. Distributing the weight could be an advantage? 

@csleight put a bit of a twist on pole use by only taking one. Not using it for rhythm but using it for balance whilst crossing boulders, streams and for use in high winds. The other reason for one was so it was easily packable when moving to climbing.

The streams thing I get, there’s a cheeky water crossing over rocks on the way up to the lost valley on Bidean Nam Bian, Glencoe where wet feet are a risk.

Thanks to all who contributed.

Once up onto the top of the route overlooking Fiacaill Buttress the cloud level was still blowing over us giving broken views of our surroundings. I could hear the cow bell clanking of the climbers gear as we crunched along the top of the buttress. We had a chat to a couple of climbers enjoying the offerings of the coire. The conditions seemed to be climbable but could have been better. To be honest, we could tell that looking up at the wall from below but we left them to dangle down a gully and make the most of their day.

We carried on up on to the Cairngorm where the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. We ducked behind the radio station out of the wind and sat and had some much needed lunch. We had moved quite quickly up to this point roughly 3 hours. And as you’d expect this was put down to the poles. I was having to keep up with them for most of the day. I couldn’t really argue with them.

New ImageSo as Del spilt tea on himself we decided it was time to head back down. A little photo, including the poles, to rub it into Hughan that he hadn’t made it today. This is a bit of a tradition, I’m sure we’re not the only group that does this. It still continues to amuse us, depending on what side of the message your on of course. With the ice coverage on the structure behind us its a wonder the thing actually works.The map has it down as a radio relay station but apparently its a weather station. I should probably know this? It would be interesting to know what the temperature and wind speed was whilst we stuffed our faces. The contraption did make a whirring noise as we sat there. Maybe disapproving of our sandwich filler!

So down the path towards the Ptarmigan, this was also patchy. Again trying to find as much snow to gain grip, no dance moves this time fortunately. We then crossed paths with the other users of the mountain; skiers and snowboarders. I know from experience that some ski/snowboard type people look at us walkers as a strange breed. I was that person in my late teens.

“Why would you walk up a mountain when there’s a perfectly good Funicular?”

Well, my snow sliding friend you may never know the answer to that question, thus, you have never lived! I hold no grudge to skiers, I like skiing but there is some of them that feel this is their mountain and we have no place here. I can feel it from behind their orange tinted goggles! Well know this – when the last of the snow is gone I’ll still be using our mountain, where will you be? I’m know these views are rare and I shouldn’t let it bother me but…

We did see an interesting character with a mock suit on; shirt, tie, jacket, hat and all! And we’re the strange ones?

We continued to make our way off the hill. I had a go at these wonder implements for a couple hundred metres. It does take a bit of concentration to begin with to get the timing right. If you go over something uneven or you don’t place a pole down when you’re supposed to it does lead to timing issues. Practise, I suppose, over different terrains will cure this. I did feel a bit of judder up through my arms and into my shoulder as the poles hit down on more solid ground. The guys didn’t go for the shock absorber option, an extra tenner apparently. Using them was alright and, dare I say it, it didn’t feel half bad.

We wound down the path emerging behind the base station and into the car park. As we looked back up on to the mountains behind us it was mobbed. Coire Cas was full of winter skills courses and snow sliders. Both car parks were full and I think they had started to use the overspill car park as the shuttle bus was knocking about. We made our way back to the car, which was at the front of the lower car park. Just over 4 hours (including snack and lunch stop) covering around 9km. I don’t think that’s bad and we felt in good shape too. Poles were discussed and how this had helped with the time. As the only non-poler, again, I couldn’t argue. I had kept up with Del and Rab all day.

I will buy poles, the question is do I shell out for a set that will last? With flick locks? Or do I get a cheap set, that I can bin if I really decide I don’t like them? One of the other guys, Gordy, had a set of twist lock poles which froze solid preventing them from being collapsed. I’ve heard of this before. As a gear-a-holic I will start my own investigation now and report back later. As another twitter response from @CrookesClimbing said “it’s a personal preference”. I’m just going to have to figure out if I like them and not treat them like broccoli; I don’t like it but I don’t think I’ve ever tried it.

Thanks for reading and I applaud your perseverance through poor grammar and potentially uninteresting content. If you have any views or comments about poles or any tips on them we’d love to hear them.

Any blogging tips as well, always open to constructive criticism. Better and more photos to choose from would be my first self evaluation.

Enjoy yourself out there however you go about it, Davy.