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A history of Scotland winter mountaineering trips

A history of Scotland winter mountaineering trips - The Mountain People
 
This photo from 2010 has featured in brochures, such does it capture Scotland winter!
 

A history of Scotland winter mountaineering trips

 
This is part six in our ‘Getting ready for Scotland winter mountaineering’ series, designed to help you prepare physically and mentally, putting in place realistic strategies and effective tactics.
 
Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Winter Climbing Part I – Getting started
Winter Climbing Part II – Training
Managing yourself on the hill for Scotland winter mountaineering
The Headgame: Scotland winter mountaineering
 

Introduction

 

I’ve made four Scotland winter mountaineering trips over the years and counting, and quite quickly went from being a participant to organising and leading them. I loved the overall experience that much!
 
Seeing is really believing with Scotland winter, but I wanted to give a flavour of some of the magic by looking back on my highlights from previous trips.

 
A history of Scotland winter mountaineering trips - The Mountain People
 

Cutting my teeth in Carrbridge

 
Walking into the snowy Cairngorm interior on a snowholing expedition
 
My first ever trip to Scotland was in 2010, based out of a bunkhouse in Carrbridge, outside Aviemore, and really was an extraordinary week.
 
It coincided with a handful of very hard winters recently, which was pure luck and meant I was spoiled for winter weather and conditions – blue sky days, low winds and volumes of snow.
 
Being cramped into a small bunkhouse meant lots of interactions with people, and I appreciated the different characters that emerged.
 
Joel’s enthusiasm for passing on knowledge and skills, and his pure, infectious enthusiasm for being together in the outdoors. Richard, the corporate banker who kept the drinks flowing and regaled us with amusing anecdotes.
 
There was Nick, a cheeky yet fatherly figure, with whom you could spend much time talking about philosophy, life or career. His hilarious stories of triumphant failures helped to bond the group together.
 
We spent much of our time in the Cairngorms, and I enjoyed the quick progression from the bread and butter skills on the first day; a fine Grade I gully, The Couloir I***, Coire an Lochain ; my first winter climb, Hidden Chimney III*, Coire an t’Sneachda; and a long haul over to the West coast to attempt the Ring of Steall.
 
The highlight of the trip was the last day on which we walked out of Glen Feshie in the eastern Cairngorms and took in an overnight snowholing expedition. My vivid memory was of a sea of snow, as we dropped down into a buried riverbed to spend the rest of the day digging in.

 
A history of Scotland winter mountaineering trips - The Mountain People
 
An eventful week with the minibus!
 

Disaster strikes!

 
The following year, buoyed up by my first taste of winter in Scotland, I helped organise the 2011 trip and we found a lovely traditional cottage outside Newtonmore.
 
However, this was the introduction to the real Scotland winter: high winds, changeable weather, fickle snow conditions. Despite this, there were moments of pure wonder, whether a burst of sun, an unexpected view or a quick freeze as conditions changed.
 
There were a couple of low points on this trip, which make it stand out even more!
 
I had the dubious pleasure of a ‘rain at all levels’ day. These are the sorts of days where you look at a poor forecast and try to make the most of it. Generally, it means starting in the rain, eating lunch in the rain on a summit, staving off hypothermia and then descending in the rain!
 
On the penultimate day of the trip, the weather deteriorated rapidly in the afternoon, leaving us battling through stormforce winds and blizzards to get back to the minibus. Even then the ordeal was not over: the high-sided minibus acted as a sail, almost toppling us over a steep bank at the edge of the carpark. The wind then whipped back the driver’s door and left it dangling by a thread.
 
Thankfully, Glenmore Lodge came to the rescue and we lived to see another day. Even the minibus hire company saw the humorous side of things, but raised an eyebrow the following year when we hired a van.

 
A history of Scotland winter mountaineering trips - The Mountain People
 
One of many special moments with our group
 

Constantly surprised

 
The year after, undeterred by the setbacks, we took a very big group and stayed in a wonderful old Scottish lodge in the Kinguisse area.
 
My reflection on 2012 was how we were continuously surprised and entertained as the week unfolded.
 
Long-returning attendee Sarah and started the week with a bang, taking in Ben Macdui, which is the second highest peak in the UK. It involves a committing walk onto the Cairngorm plateau, deep into the interior – what some call ‘going over the top’, as you enter a different world, cut off from civilisation.
 
We spent a day in the Creag Meagaidh area, which is a wonderful journey from a farmhouse, through stunted woodland, into the inner coire and up to the distinctive col called The Window, and finally onto a broad and expansive ridge. Throughout the week, the views kept opening up at unexpected times, leaving us in awe at the beauty of the Highlands.
 
On the last day, we got a special offer to be dropped off by the local estate keeper. Beforehand, we helped feed the local deer population. As we continued our journey on foot into a less well trodden area, the landscape continued to develop, gradually becoming more snowy and icy. At the summit, we popped out into bright sunshine and romped back to glen level in high spirits.

 
A history of Scotland winter mountaineering trips - The Mountain People
 
Striding forward for glory
 

Hiatus

 

With training, assessments and life, the next time I headed to Scotland for a group trip was 2014.
 
We stayed in the now familiar Aviemore area, accessible to the services of town as well as the popular Northern Corries.
 
By this time, I was a fully fledged Winter Mountain Leader, so had the pleasure of taking groups off on my own on big days out.
 
In contrast to 2012, we ventured onto a plateau shrouded in cloud – the whiteroom – and navigated carefully from point to point to the summit of Ben Macdui. The satisfaction of moving around safely and confidently in these conditions is huge.
 
The week wouldn’t have been complete without a big expedition over to the West coast, so we made the most of our last day on Stob Ban in the Mamores, close to Ben Nevis and Fort William. We had a bit of everything, which is what makes it special: a steepening ridge, navigational detour and deploying some winter skills with the rope.

 

Getting ready for Scotland winter mountaineering series

 
Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Winter Climbing Part I – Getting started
Winter Climbing Part II – Training
Managing yourself on the hill for Scotland winter mountaineering
The Headgame: Scotland winter mountaineering
 

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Highland Hobo #2

View of Braeriach from the Chalamain Gap. Image courtesy of Andrew Last. Some rights reserved.

View of Braeriach from the Chalamain Gap. Image courtesy of Andrew Last. Some rights reserved.

I am now fed up with dehydrated and pasta meals, which means, I think, that I am starting to get accustomed to this expeditionary lifestyle. What is more, my feet and ankles no longer protest at their incarceration in plastic boots; the bruises on my shoulders and hips have diminished. In short, I’m feeling pretty fit and have managed some big days out as a result.

 

The turning point was day two. I made good progress from the Hutchinson Memorial Hut to Ben Macdui on what was the only pleasant morning (nevermind day) of the expedition: blood red skies, crisp snow and very still. Two choices lay ahead: descend to the Lairig Ghru and Corrour – a short day; or descend and then climb onto Braeriach and cross the big plateau. Time was with me, and so seemed the weather, so the second option it was. The trouble was that halfway to the plateau strong southwesterly winds arrived as well as low cloud. To retreat would mean failure, to carry on require extra reserves of will-power and energy.

 

The gauntlet had been thrown down.

 

Mind games required the greatest resolve to overcome – can I trust my navigation and map skills; is there enough daylight left; have I got it in me to make it across; and, whatever you do, keep away from the cornices. After a leg or two of point to point navigation, I settled down and the peaks and bealachs (low points between peaks) came and went. Whilst engrossed in following bearings and keeping check of the distance I was covering, I glanced sideways and to my surprise noticed two other walkers on the plateau. I briefly wondered why they were there and then continued – the thought was probably reciprocated.

 

One concession I had to make en route was Cairn Toul, also known as Carn an t-Sabhail, ‘the hill of the barn’. After already having made a lot of height gain, this was beyond me physically, and the desire to climb a barn or a barn door after tackling the Lairig Ghru straight on had inevitably waned. So, it was then a case of making my way down to the Corrour hut, past the ominous and looming Devil’s Point, which went without incident.

 

After six days out now, my only desire is that the weather and conditions return to a more acceptable state of winter. Although you have to take every day as it comes, most will admit that they would take the blue sky days and leave the murky, wet ones. Forecasts are now suggesting  a return of certain amounts of colder airflows, which will fit nicely with a quick foray into the Grey Corries before a first aid course in Glasgow.

 

 

Simon is the Morocco Director and an instructor with The Mountain People. He is currently preparing for his Winter Mountain Leader assessment, as chronicled by the ‘Highland Hobo’ series.

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