When we were offered the chance to go on a winter skills course with Lakeland Mountain Guides, I jumped at the chance, half expecting the spaces to be filled up! But I was pleasantly surprised – and somewhat daunted – when I was told I had a place. As a fair-weather friend to the mountains, the idea of climbing my first ever Munro (a Munro is a Scottish mountain with a height over 3,000 feet) in winter was as terrifying as it was exciting.
A small group of seven Macs Adventurers set off from work one Friday night and headed towards Aviemore. Our spirits were high and jokes flew around the table at the local chip shop, before we headed to the Aviemore Youth Hostel for our boot and crampon fitting, and a good night’s sleep before our expedition in the morning.
Having been well rested, and eaten as much as we could at breakfast, we headed up to the Cairn Gorm car park to begin our first day of training. The day started easily enough with a walk through the snow to our mountain-side classroom for the day. Despite the sunshine, we found it cold, but our guide quickly put us to work, learning the skills we’d need to survive a winter walk.
We began by learning how to cut basic steps with our boots that would help us cross steep terrain, and then how to make more defined steps with our ice axes. Laughter could be heard as we bumped into one another, and avoided the enthusiastic swinging of the ice axes.
With snowballs flying, we began a further ascent up the mountain and learned how to identify different types of snow, and the dangers associated with them. Having previously checked the SAIS website and weather forecast for the day, we took a route that avoided the more dangerous areas. Matt kindly showed us how to compare the landscape with the chats we had read before we started in the morning, warning us that with high winds, the dangerous areas may change.
Thankfully, no one was hurt, and we made it to the Quarry in one piece. Here we stopped for a quick bite to eat and then the most fun part arrived! We began to learn how to use our ice axes to stop us in a fall (also known as an ice axe self-arrest). Despite the serious nature of the task at hand, there was laughter as we watched our colleagues flail down the slope, eventually mastering the skill. I was particularly frightened of stopping myself when practising some of these moves, but I felt much more confident with the support offered by our guides.
Having completed our training for the day we took to to-bottom-ing down the slopes and homewards to the youth hostel. To-bottom-ing, for those not in the know, is one of the most fun ways to get down – simply sit on your bottom and slide down the hill! Make sure to watch out for rocks, and use your ice axe if you need to slow down.
Day 2 began with the dawning realisation that I would have to climb Cairn Gorm, the 6th highest mountain in the UK. After my struggles the day before, and a bad night’s sleep, I wasn’t convinced I’d make it…
It became clear quite quickly that I was not as fit as others in the party, and I soon lagged behind the group. Thankfully, a patient guide and Lizzie stuck with me and supplied me with biscuits. Halfway up the Fiacailla a Chorie Chais and with the top of Cairn Gorm in sight, my leg suddenly gave out. With sharp shooting pain in my right leg, I fell into the snow. I was convinced this was it – I could go no further!
I looked up into the blue sky, seeing the sharp white line that marked the top of Cairn Gorm. I wanted to cry. But I was so close: I could not give up! Knowing that the pain in my leg was from an old injury, and not something new, I pushed myself up, borrowed a ski pole from Lizzie and kept going.
Finally, accompanied by our fabulous guide Matt, I made it to the top! I was much later than the rest of the group, but they still cheered me on, and we quickly took photos of our victory. It felt like -30 degrees Celsius, so we moved to the Ptarmigan Restaurant for some well-deserved drinks.
After warming up, we decided that the only other suitable reward would be to-bottom-ing back down to the car park.
Much like children on a slide, we shot down the mountain and passed the skiers. In a chaotic shamble, we made our way to the base of the mountain, laughing, and smiles all around. Standing in a loose circle in the car park, although we were exhausted, each of us wished we could do it all again.