Intro to Winter Skills in the Cairngorms

I had a good chunk of time off work over the last few weeks and, rather than tending the garden, I decided to spend at least some of it getting outdoors. One of the issues I quickly encountered is that many of the places I might have liked to hike were likely to be covered in snow in late Feb or early March. Although that actually only added to the appeal, I’m also not overly keen on taking stupid risks, and I’m very conscious that I have very little experience of winter hiking, including the use of crampons and ice axe.

Fortunately, a perfect win-win solution presented itself to me as I hunted for somewhere to go. A short flight from my nearest airport to Inverness, followed by a short train ride, would get me into the heart of the Cairngorms and, more specifically, to Glenmore Lodge; an outdoor centre with a huge number of courses on offer.

The course I chose was the Intro to Winter Skills, a quick 2-day course over a weekend that covers exactly the sort of things I felt I’d need to know to feel more confident doing winter hikes in future: safe movement on snow, use of crampons and ice axe, self-belay and self-arrest, and avalanche awareness. All for less than £400 including two nights accommodation and two days of meals.

As the day approached, news reports covered the disastrous season for ski resorts in the Cairngorms and it became pretty apparent that their wouldn’t be a lot of snow, but flights were non-refundable and I just wanted to get out in the mountains, so I invested in the few bits of extra kit I needed and gamely made the amazingly brief journey to the very Northern end of Scotland, and deep into the Highlands.

Glenmore lodge itself is sort of a mix of hostel and outdoor centre, with an excellent bar serving a range of decent food (open to the public, and at a cost) as well as a dining room for those on courses, serving really good canteen food included in the price. There’s a pool, gym and climbing wall and a superbly-equipped stores that will lend you anything you require, along with a small shop for basics like water bottles, dry bags and maps.

The rooms are simple but comfortable, with the kind of reliably hot, powerful shower you need after a day on the hills, and well-designed large wardrobe spaces suitable for storing a lot of kit. The whole thing is nestled at the foot of the mountains in a forested area, with lots of hiking and mountain-biking possible from the doorstep.

After a nice meal in the bar and slightly too many beers with other people on our course, I got a good sleep and then a fairly leisurely start, huge breakfast, welcome talk, and finally divided into nice small groups of six and introduced to our instructor. As the winds were due to pick up later in the day, we got out rapidly and headed to the nearby, almost snowless, ski resort and began to climb.

Views were amazing, but the first bit of the hike didn’t involve a great deal of snow. All the same, Sarah (our instructor) made good use of each big patch we came across, gradually building up techniques for walking on snow in boots, assessing the type of snow, kicking steps, using an ice axe to create steps, and so on. Arguably many of the techniques are probably the sort of thing you’d figure out for yourself if told to walk up a snowy hill, but there’s a lot to be said for being taught the ‘right’ way to do things, or even just reassured that your instinctive way to do something is in fact the correct way to do it!

By lunchtime we’d got considerably higher and to some decent patches of snow, including an absolutely enormous drift against one side of a bowl, in which a previous course had practiced cutting snow holes, including one so large and well constructed that it could fit all 7 of us inside in reasonable comfort. This was the perfect area to practice an essential (and, let’s face it, also childishly fun) skill of walking along the snowdrift then allowing your feet to slip out from under you, and attempting to quickly jam your ice-axe into the snow and grip it with both hands before you slid down the slope. I didn’t get any good pictures of this as I was having far too much fun, but in the picture below you can just about see the line of the snow bowl over my left shoulder and level with my whistle, and a few of the emergency snow-holes are fairly visible in the far bank.

After that we moved on and began an even more hilariously childish but really important skill – sliding down a steep and snow-covered hill and learning the self-arrest, building up from just adopting the correct position, and then adding in the use of the ice-axe. I’d have liked more time to practice that, and try different methods depending on the position you’re sliding in, but time (and the prospect of 80mph winds) was against us, so we moved on and began to slowly descend, now finally putting on our crampons and beginning to practice moving safely and efficiently in those.

At this point the promised wind and blizzard arrived and photos pretty much stopped as I was keeping on my two layers of gloves the whole time. It began to get seriously cold and my hardshell jacket and trousers, which had done an amazing job all day of allowing me to shrug off the strong winds and supposed -25C wind-chill, finally started to let water through. In fact, it only started to in very specific places – my elbows and forearms, knees, and butt. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that these are the areas that had constantly been being pressed into the snow as I practiced sliding down the snow and then adopting the self-arrest position (onto knees and elbows, feet in the air). Sadly, one of the things most likely to make even the most robust hardshell eventually wet out is pushing it into snow, and then hitting it with 70mph winds and sleet. It is precisely because of this that the high hydrostatic head (a measure of water-resistance at pressure) is so important. It was an interesting learning point, although given that my jacket was about the most waterproof that Rab makes, and the trousers were issued by the centre, the real learning was less about buying better kit and more about not rolling in the snow if you want to stay dry.

Eventually we made it down, a lot wetter and a little wiser, but definitely highly satisfied at a day that had defied all our expectations (given the lack of snow) and been both extremely fun and an amazing learning opportunity.

The learning didn’t let up though: tea and cake was followed by a lecture on winter navigation, and then a superb dinner was followed by a genuinely fascinating talk about avalanche awareness. The day didn’t finish until 9pm so, while I was exhausted, I definitely got my money’s worth.

Day 2 started with gale-force winds so we stayed low and spent the morning doing micro-navigation in a beautiful wood right next to the centre. I’ve done a fair amount of nav before but I am certainly not as good at it as I want to be, and I always like having an opportunity to practice. In any case, the wood was beautiful and I really enjoy micro-nav, so the two or three hours spent going from point to point was absolute bliss.

After that, the group moved a little further up the mountain and carried on doing navigation, although I regretfully decided to bail out at that point as I was concerned about making my flight home. I needn’t have worried, to be honest, and in future I won’t, but in this case I started a brand new job the following day, so the consequences of missing that plane would perhaps have been a bit more serious than otherwise…

Overall, I can’t recommend Glenmore Lodge and, specifically, the Intro to Winter Skills, highly enough. A lot of learning covered in a short space of time, in a beautiful location, with comfortable accommodation and great food; it’s pretty hard to beat. I fully intend to return and do another course, perhaps after getting out in the snow and picking up a bit more crampon experience.

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