It was halfway through our first day on the Macs Adventure winter skills weekend in the Cairngorms when our instructor, Matt, explained the difference between type one and type two fun. Type one is the kind of fun you enjoy in the moment. There’s a smile on your face. Type two is the kind that’s only considered fun once you’re removed from your less-than-fortunate situation, preferably reliving the moment next to a warm fire with a cold beer in hand.
Over the course of the weekend our group would hover between both.
Ten Macs team members had been given the opportunity to spend a weekend with Lakeland Mountain Guides learning winter mountaineering skills that would hopefully transform a bunch of fair-weather walkers into savvy hikers, equipped with the basic knowledge to navigate snow-packed hills when the weather turns rough.
After a delicious Friday feast provided by our hosts in a cosy Aviemore cottage (home for the weekend), we were up and at ’em Saturday morning toting rucksacks overloaded with ice axes, crampons, survival kits, helmets, waterproofs and plenty of food. Lesson one of winter walking: do not step onto the mountain unprepared.
Our guides set a course on the map and introduced us to a little basic navigation, explaining how to follow contour lines and how to line our compass on the map to orientate ourselves. Then we were off into the Northern Corries.
After a mild late January, the weather had taken a drastic turn and day one provided all the conditions we’d need to learn first-hand how to undertake a winter walk. A mix of light snow and rain gave way to a full-on winter storm as we climbed higher. We used ice axes as makeshift walking poles and third point of contact, always in the upward hand, as we practiced moving in cramponed zigzags up small patches of icy snowpack.
Every skill our guides showed us reinforced the underlying theme of the whole course, that winter hill walking is fundamentally different from a warm season jaunt up the mountain. Regulation of body temperature—through proper layering, controlling your pace and only taking short breaks—is so important. If you warm up too much, you’ll arrive at the summit and that sweat will quickly turn to cold. If you stop for too long your body will lose too much heat.
We learned to have food at the ready in jacket pockets (I ate my first-ever Scotch Egg and Matt calculated that for every one hundred meters you climb the taste improves) and to continually sip fluids. By the time you feel yourself getting hungry or thirsty, your body is already depleted.
Another crucial part of winter walking is to be in tuned and alert to your surroundings. It starts with forming a solid plan before you even leave home. Websites www.SAIS.gov.uk and www.mwis.org.uk are essential resources for UK climbing, allowing you to plan your walk by considering weather developments and avalanche risk in specific areas. As you begin your journey, as well as at key points during your walk, it’s important to compare that initial information with what you see happening around you. Any changes might be a signal to stop and reassess the safest route.
All of this became very clear about an hour into our second day when the sun gave way to unforecasted white out conditions. We reached the Cairngorm Plateau, a flat stretch of land that one of the guides let on is a little notorious for losing people. We weren’t far at all from the ski base and civilisation, but with everything looking the same in all directions at low visibility, I realized how easy it would be to get disoriented and into trouble.
Because of the weather, plans to summit Cairngorm Mountain were traded for an afternoon of fall-arrest practice just in time for a needed boost of spirits. We put our packs to the side and were taught how to throw ourselves down a baby slope in several different positions, ice axe in hand to abruptly stop our fall. In reality, the practice was for the most serious of situations, but our little group looked like a bunch of kids let loose to play.
We didn’t leave the mountain until dusk on that last day. My legs were jelly as I walked down the beginners ski slope back to the car park, and there was a buzz about the team that only comes from a hard-earned physical feat in the outdoors. Even though it was back to the office the following morning, we walked out of the Cairngorms revived, inspired and equipped for our next trip into the wintery hills.