Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Winter skills at Glenmore Lodge

It's a truism but one that bears repeating: winter hillwalking in Scotland is very different to summer hillwalking. The physical and mental demands are far higher, daylight is scarce, the margins for error slimmer. It's colder, stormier, and, of course, there are avalanches. As a youngster I didn't know or care much about the risks: I just wanted to get out there. And I got into situations that I know now were dangerous.

In more recent years, and each passing winter roll-call of accidents and fatalities, I've subconsciously avoided challenging myself in winter as I mull over how it all could have turned out much worse. Becoming a parent hasn't helped either. So, winter walks have tended to be on modest hills, by the gentlest routes, on the most benign days. But, but... I miss those snow-plastered cliffs and cornices, the sting of graupel, the crunch and squeak of snow under boots, the late low sun and long shadows, and the way the lower jaw goes so numb it's hard to speak. Timidity and self-imposed limits are to be scorned: I just can't in good faith say I only want to climb mountains in the summer. I want my winter mojo back - but in a more sensible adult way!

So that's how I found myself on a two-day introduction to winter skills course at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland's national outdoor training centre. This is aimed at the hillwalker with little or no winter experience, or the rusty and untutored such as me. A vast amount was packed into the two days, distilled into two broad themes: moving safely on the mountain (crampon and especially ice axe skills); and planning. The philosophy of planning is maybe a more accurate way of putting it, as attitude is so important to planning well for the conditions. If you want time to consolidate these new skills, there is a five day course available: otherwise it's a good idea to get out into the winter hills and start using them as soon as possible.

There's a vast and well-equipped stores where you can borrow technical equipment and many other items including winter boots, waterproofs, tough and capacious rucksacks, and belay jackets. For those starting out on an activity it's a chance to 'try before you buy'; it was also a godsend for me as I travelled light from Edinburgh by train and bicycle.

Packing for winter

The lodge is a comfortable and convivial base - but be warned, folks: this ain't no hotel weekend break. You'll earn those luxuries. The instruction is friendly, informal and supportive, but expect to be pushed, and expect to be outdoors and working hard pretty much regardless of the weather - it's where the real learning happens. My course was sandwiched between storms Gertrude and Henry. Conditions even on the lower slopes of Cairngorm's Northern Corries were wild, but out we went into it to get some real-world experience with ice axe and crampons - and eating lunch, putting on crampons and donning extra layers, Herculean tasks compared to summer!

Digging snow holes

There's no excuse to clock off early either: after day one's foray onto the mountain we dragged our tired limbs into the lecture theatre for two hours of detailed talks on avalanche awareness and winter navigation. On face value, courses are not cheap, but if this one was anything to go by, you will get your money's worth and more.

Courses run until the end of March so do hop onto the website if you fancy it and have a few spare days coming up.