Always wanted to try your hand at hiking in the white stuff, but not sure where to start? Just like me, then! I was lucky enough to attend a Winter Skills Course with ClimbMTS a few weeks ago so — if you fancy giving it a go — here’s the lowdown on what might be your best ever day in the Scottish outdoors.
The week before
One week to go, and I was excited and nervous in equal measure. As my kit began to molehill in my bedroom – ice axe, crampons, winter boots, rucksack, merino layers – I started to worry that I was a bit out of my depth.
I love hillwalking, that wasn’t an issue. But I’d never swum through deep snow; I’d never had to push the point of an ice axe into frozen ground to stop myself slipping; never felt the constant cold of minus degree wind chill on my fingers. It was the unknown that worried me more than anything. Oh yeah, and having to pee in front of everyone on an exposed slope. I wasn’t much looking forward to that either.
Add to that B’s concern. I’d conveniently not mentioned the fact that I’d be wielding an ice axe on the side of a Munro until the very last minute when my bag was packed. ‘What?’ He looked at me. ‘You’d better be bloody careful. I’ll be worrying all day!’ And although my heart gave a wee flutter of panic at my uncoordinated self stamping on a hill in crampons, I replied, ‘Come on, there’ll be an instructor there. Could there be a safer way to do it?’
Friday night: pre-trip preparations
Regardless of what ClimbMTS course you’ve chosen, there’s always an informative prep session on the Friday evening. Not only does this alleviate any worry you might feel about being thrown in at the deep end, you’re also provided with essential information about the following day.
When our Winter Skills group assembled in Edinburgh, we were met by ClimbMTS leader Stuart Johnston. There were couples, siblings, friends and co-workers in our pack, a great variety of folk with their own stories to tell and challenges to overcome. Each of us shared the reasons why we’d signed up. Mine was to ‘push my boundaries’; for others it was a ‘birthday treat’ and for some who had tried winter mountaineering before, this was a way to ‘improve skills’. Whatever the reason, we were all in the same boat: slightly wary, excited but passionate about the outdoors.
Stuart took the kit list and explained each bit of equipment. Winter boots should be rigid and correspond to the crampons; ice axes shouldn’t be too long so as to give the user the best strength and efficiency; emergency kit like bivi bags are essential; and you should never overestimate the waterproofness of your rucksack (no rucksack is ever waterproof… that’s why you need liners!)
Another important point that Stuart reinforced was the need to plan your route (and have multiple Plan B’s) before you go. That’s where the avalanche forecasts come in. Stuart’s go-to website is sais.gov.uk, which not only gives the avalanche forecast for Scottish mountain regions but also explains how the forecast works.
With the key information conveyed, Stuart had only to tell us where we’d be headed the next morning. (This last-minute disclosure is the same across most of the courses. No, it’s not to stress you out and leave you unaware, but it’s to ensure that you get the best conditions on the day of your course). Our destination? Glenshee, for some epic winter conditions.
Saturday: To the hills we go!
Are early starts really worth it? If you want a worthwhile day on the hills, the answer is a categorical YES. We left grey Edinburgh behind just after 6AM, shooting across the Forth Road Bridge through countryside and into growing, snowy hills.
Our group met at the carpark just before Glenshee Ski Centre, clad in waterproofs and thick mittens. Dave – our instructor for the day – gave us a quick debrief before we headed onto the hills. We ran through what we’d learnt the night before: which slopes we should avoid due to avalanche risk, the route we should take up Carn Aosda and a quick mention of rucksack packing before we set off.
As the snow was thawing slightly at the foot of the hill, the initial half-hour stint was pretty challenging. We were dipping at times into knee-deep snow, which was exhausting. Plus – as I’m always cold – I’d gone overboard with my layers and was slightly too cosy (according to Dave, you should be shivering BEFORE you get out the car. A baselayer, fleece and waterproof jacket will suffice).
But once we got above the thawing snow and onto a crustier carpet, I forgot my sweat and just stared at the views. We could see dots floating down the ski slopes in the distance; turn around, and the brown and gold glen stretched out underneath us. Even halfway up the hill, I was in awe of the scenery. THIS is why people are mad about mountains.
We weren’t there just to stare at the scenery, though. Dave soon got us testing our footwork, using the rigid winter boots to dig into the snow in a variety of ways that would ensure safe movement. We zigzagged up the slope using the jagged boot sides, making ledges for our feet. Again, we practiced kicking shelves out the snow for a less confident walking partner to use. It was tiring stuff, but incredible to see how crucial a rigid pair of winter boots really is.
Our next task – after a bite of lunch watching the light on the hills – was self-arresting. This is when you stop yourself falling or sliding off the hill using your ice axe. Dave showed us the fluid movement: when you fall, bring the head of the axe in towards your shoulder to be held with one hand (spike pointing towards the ground) whilst the other hand takes the opposite end near your opposite hip bone. Elbows bent, with the axe locked in this position, basically ensures that you come to a quick and sturdy stop. This can be practiced in a variety of ways, whether that’s head first, on your back or feet first. If you’re falling WITHOUT your stomach on the ground, you’ll have to extend the ice axe at a 90 degree angle from your body, stick it into the snow, and then spin yourself around to be able to perform the arrest. (Watch a video here.)
By this point we were almost at the summit of Carn Aosda… and it only got easier from here, as Dave gave us the go-ahead to don our crampons. It was incredible how much simpler movement was with the spikes; we covered the distance to the peak in no time.
And then we were at the summit. Across frozen rock, we moved to the edge of the hill and looked down upon the skiers and snowboarders similarly enjoying the landscape. It was beautiful and I was a bit blown away (literally and metaphorically). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a view that incredible that wasn’t in a photograph. As I stood looking out across the slopes and the stick people in the distance, I remember thinking, ‘THIS is why people go mountaineering’.
By this point, the group had found its groove. We were so much more comfortable in our kit, relaxed with Dave’s company and confident that we had all the skills needed to make our day in the mountains safe. We followed the west ridge down the hills, Dave stopping at times to point out the danger of crevasses, or illustrating how to make an emergency snow shelter, or even spotting a mountain hare tear across the slope.
At about three o’clock, after six hours on the hill, we began to descend the final slope backwards on all fours (really!) using our ice axes and crampons to steady ourselves. After an early start and long day, I think we were all nevertheless quite sad that the day was over and that we’d returned to walking on tarmac.
What a day though! The weather was better than even the instructor could have wished for, the company was great and the views made me fall in love with Scotland all over again. But the biggest takeaway from this trip was just what I’d told Stuart on the Friday night: ‘I want to try something new, to push myself out of my comfort zone’. And that is exactly what I did. There’s now a little voice inside me saying, ‘if you can do that, what else can you do?’ For that self-confidence, that desire for adventure, that calm at the summit… Well, an early start is a very small price to pay.