There is nothing quite like winter in the Scottish hills. The days are short, the sun is low, the light transforms from fug to crystal to honey in the briefest of moments. On New Year’s Eve 10 years ago, I stood on the summit of Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms looking out across thick cloud and a gleaming plateau. A smoky blanket smothered the glens; the mountains stood clear. In the far distance, the distinctive white whale back of Ben Nevis broke the surface.
As an undergraduate, I made many inspiring trips to the Highlands with my university mountaineering club. Along with the bluebird days, we also experienced challenging conditions. Blizzards, white-outs, deep snow, icy slopes, freezing winds … conditions can change in the blink of an eye.
For Heather Morning, safety adviser for Mountaineering Scotland, Scotland’s mountains in winter offer a “magically beautiful, yet harsh and challenging environment. Underfoot and overhead conditions require knowledge and skill beyond that required for summer hill walking.” She adds: “I would advise anyone heading out to enjoy the winter mountains to take one (or all!) of the following options: go with someone more experienced, join a club, or sign up for a training course. Skills required to travel safely in the winter mountains include navigation, avalanche awareness, an understanding of risk, specialist clothing and equipment – and training in the use of specialist equipment.”
After leaving university, I was keen to continue winter walking and help new friends discover the magic. So I did a winter mountaineering course in the Cairngorms, run by the Jonathan Conville Memorial Trust, established by Jonathan’s family after he died on the Matterhorn in 1979, aged 27. In partnership with the Plas Y Brenin National Outdoor Centre in north Wales the trust offers subsidised training to 18-30-year-olds. (Similar courses are also available from Mountaineering Scotland and Glenmore Lodge.) Courses run from December to March; mine took place in January.
A good level of fitness is essential. Participants must be able to spend two days out walking in steep mountainous terrain, and have a good base level of summer hill and mountain experience. Two-day courses offer knowledge and skills for winter mountaineering, including clothing and equipment; navigation; moving on snow and ice; use of crampons and ice axes; snow belays; basic ropework; snow evaluation and avalanches; route planning; and snow shelters and emergency bivouacs.
My course was taught by Di Gilbert, who has led expeditions on Everest and K2. Our group of six met at Ardenbeg Bunkhouse in Grantown-on-Spey, on the northern edge of the Cairngorms national park. Di took us through the basics, ensuring we all had the right kit. We consulted maps and applied weather and avalanche forecasts to route planning. But only so much can be taught from the warmth of a bunkhouse; the best way to learn winter skills is to apply them. So under Di’s guidance, we spent two days in the frozen world of the northern corries.
As we piled out of the minibus at Coire na Ciste car park, the air was bracing. My first steps were clumsy. Winter boots take a little getting used to. The thick soles are rigid, for kicking footholds into snow and ice. To practice moving without crampons, we stomped up slopes, kicking our toes into snow and sawing steps in ice. We kept a steady pace. Sweating is best avoided in winter: wet clothes chill.
Stopping on a steep slope, Di stood comfortably while the rest of us slipped and shuffled in an awkward penguin huddle until she showed us the secret to “parking up.” I kicked a small platform in the snow and relaxed for a moment. Below, snowy hills curved down into the vast Caledonian pine forest. Ahead loomed buttresses of rock and ice.
Our next task was to put on crampons – without taking off our gloves. Crampon straps are small and fiddly, difficult for gloved fingers. I eventually wrangled them on, making a mental note that this would need some practice. Suitably shod, we stamped across the ice like John Wayne, keeping our feet flat and legs apart to avoid snagging trousers on the spikes. A trip or slip in winter could be fatal. This is where the ice axe comes in. Di led us to a safe bank where we practised ice axe arrests. We hurtled down – feet first, head first, on our bellies, on our backs – learning to turn, dig the pick in and throw our weight over the adze to stop the fall.
When we reached the plateau, undulating snowfields melded into cloud. It was a white out: no path, no view and no features. Navigation became critical. Phones and GPS devices can’t be depended on in winter because batteries soon drain in the cold. Di helped us plot a route to the summit of 1,245-metre Cairn Gorm relying on map reading, compass bearings and measuring distances. When it was my turn to lead, I stepped forwards, following my compass bearing. The group stayed behind, just out of my sight. I was isolated in a white, formless world. After 183 paces, a grey line appeared in the mist. I walked nearer and it sharpened. I had successfully led the group to the ski lift.
We came down, cheeks glowing and eyes sparkling. The course gave me a great foundation of winter mountaineering skills that I have since built upon. Just two days later, I put my new skills into practice, leading some friends on their first ever winter walk in the Cairngorms. We grew tired battling through knee-deep snow, but our toil was rewarded. We met ptarmigan and white mountain hares. As we climbed a steep bank, a tangle of velvety antlers danced into view. The reindeer herd rose to their feet and clustered around us like a crowd of children. Reindeer, we discovered, have a keen ear for sweet wrappers.
• This season’s Winter Scottish Mountaineering Course is now full; applications for courses in January 2021 will open in September 2020, £100pp. Demand is always high
Winter skills course essential equipment
Waterproof jacket and trousers
Warm clothes (thermal base layers, fleece layers, warm socks)
Warm gloves and spare warm mitts
Map in waterproof case Cairngorms 1:50,000 OS map, sheet 36
Head torch with spare battery
Compass (Silva 4 recommended, with a 1:40,000 Romer Scale)
Warm hat or balaclava
Large rucksack (30-40 litres)
Boots that are suitable for crampons (they should have very little flex at the toes and should provide good support at the ankle) *
Crampons and crampon bag *
Ice axe *
* This equipment can be hired locally
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