Last year I joined Explorers Connect. A social network for like minded people into adventure and getting outdoors. They run weekends away and I booked onto a Winter Skills course in Aviemore. The aim of the course was to learn how to stay safe when out on the mountains in snow, movement on snow and using crampons, handle ice axes, make ice arrests, some winter navigation tips, read weather forecasts and digging out a snow hole to spend the night in.
Last week I found myself on a 9AM train from London to Aviemore via Edinburgh. The first leg was a 5 hour journey so spent the time wisely. Going over the routes for my planned walks.
I met a guy called Sandie on the second leg from Edinburgh. I knew him from a EC Xmas night out and I told him more about my plans and he talked about his. Great guy, loads of experience, good laugh and brilliant company. He runs an expedition company called Extreme Expeditions and has big plans for his future as well.
After a long day we eventually arrived at the youth hostel. First time in a hostel since I was a kid. Brought back some good memories. And of course I had to have a bottom bunk.
I met my roomies for the night. A young skier from Derby and a big Maori dude. His first words were “are you a light sleeper?” to which my reply was “yes”. He explained he fell into an icey lake a while back and as a result his throat had closed up causing him to snore. I told him not to worry about it. I’d be fine. Found out the next morning he spent the night in reception sleeping so not to disturb me. What a nice guy. People can be so thoughtful.
Anyway, after dumping my bags I met Sandie and we went to get our snow boots and provisions. Never worn B3 boots before but found them to be pretty stiff and unforgiving. I would realise why once I hit the snow.
After sorting through my kit I met everyone else in reception and we headed out for food. I can highly recommend the roast belly pork at The Winking Owl. It didn’t touch the sides. Then a few rums in the Ski-ing-Do bar (not a big whisky drinker) before heading back to sleep. And I slept right through to 7. That has not happened in a long time. Being out of London and in fresh country air will do that to you.
After breakfast we met our MLs. Paul Lewis from Peak Mountaineering and Rob and Hannah. I was in Robs group. Really interesting and funny bloke. Prior to working as an ML for Jagged Globe he was an air traffic controller for 18 years. Like me he’d had enough and wanted to do what he enjoyed. He has led treks all over the world and was a font of knowledge and encouragement.
We got in our transport and headed off to the mountains for our first days training. We walked into where we would be working and got our first taste of the snow.
When we arrived we learnt how to walk in the snow and stop ourselves from sliding using the ice axe. Rob also showed us the cat on the hot tin roof approach that included a meow. Essentially you stick your arse in the air and use your arms and legs to dig in to stop the slide.
We then learnt how to use the ice axe to help keep balance and cut steps and also put on the crampons to learn how to walk in them. Pretty much like John Wayne. If you didn’t you could damage your trousers. As I found out twice. As well as also some how tearing my downs. No idea how I managed that as I had my waterproof shell over the top.
We then had a break for lunch and walked down to a hut to get out the snow and cold.
After lunch we set out again to climb one of the nearby mountains and put into practice some of the skills. We stopped halfway to dig a hasty cube.
This is used to check the layers of snow and look for signs of potential avalanches. The idea is to dig out a cube and look for compact ice, fresh snow etc. Once dug you start pulling and tugging to see if it gives. If it doesn’t then jump on it to see how much pressure it can take. Good indicator for the type of snow you might be walking into but obviously one cube doesn’t paint a whole picture. And I had to really jump to get this to break which was a good sign.
After that stop we ascended to the top to see the view of….a whiteout….so we headed back down.
The last thing to learn was ice axe arrests. Now given the seriousness of this it was a lot of fun sliding up and down a slope to practice certain scenarios.
With the day done we headed back to our digs for a shower and food. Belinda (the woman who runs EC) recommended we eat at Skiing-Do. The food portions were gigantic. I was ready for bed after mac & cheese, onion rings and a large plate of fries. Figured I needed the food and wanted to get lots of fuel on board for Saturday.
After another sound sleep we had breakfast and, after a quick equipment check from the MLs, were bundled in to the van to head off to the bottom of Cairngorm which would be our home for the night. After a two and a half hours walk we arrived at…. and set to work digging out our home.
Digging out a snow hole for 4 hours is back breaking work but there is nothing more satisfying than knowing you’ve accomplished it.
Once done we dumped our bags and took part in one of three exercises. I opted for the winter navigation. I was cold and wanted to warm up. The objective was to find a cairn, then a sky tow and then back to the holes. Easier said than done. It soon got dark and a whiteout came. Perfect practice as far as I was concerned.
A couple of the people in the group didn’t know how to read a map or take a bearing so I took some time to explain it while we walked. Felt good to help and teach. That’s why I want to be an ML. Get more people interested in getting outdoors for themselves. After a while we found the cairn and the tow and headed back.
Once back we cooked. It’s amazing how long it takes for water to boil in the cold. Felt like forever but that chicken pasta was the best thing I had eaten as far as I was concerned.
After eating it was bed. I would be lying if I said I had a great nights sleep. I was near the door and kept waking up because of the cold. But I’m not going to complain. It’s why we do these things. Because we love being outdoors. Although my foot would argue. Took me hours to defrost it the next day
When I woke up properly at 7 it took me 20 minutes to work out what I needed to do in my head, figure out where everything was and how I would do it. Thought it was just me but a few people said the same thing. That environment seems to slow you down and focus a bit more.
After getting ready and making breakfast we packed and made a break for the summit of Cairngorm itself. After 10 minutes Paul made the decision it wasn’t a good idea. Lot of snow coming in so we wouldn’t see anything and we had to make our transport link. Sign of a good ML and something else I took note of.
We stopped in a cafe on the way down for a quick brew and bacon sarnie. And the views on our way down were just awe-inspiring.
Back at the hostel a warm shower awaited. Man was it welcome.
After a repack of my gear it was off to catch the train back down to London. Heartbreaking. But it reaffirms that getting out from behind a desk and into the outdoors is where I want my life to go. It isn’t going to be quick and easy but it’s my goal.
Overall a cracking weekend. Learnt some new skills for the future and met dome awesome people.