Meet Buddy and Elvis, two aliens who thought that Earth sounded so fun, they decided to play truant from alien school and come visit us!
Learning the essentials of mountain survival, Andrew Murray also learns to appreciate just how much weather the Scottish Highlands get in winter
I’m plunging head-first down a mountainside in the Coire an t-Sneachda, the Hollow of the Snow, my mental gyroscope confounded as I struggle to right myself. My brain is unable to process the simplest way to correct my position and it takes a series of convoluted twists before my head is finally above my feet. But I’m still sliding, on my front now, knees, chest and face hissing against the icy crust. I must keep my knees bent and my feet well away from the slope, because crampons will snag in the snow and very likely break my legs. And then I recall Mick’s instructions, and ease my ice axe into the snow as smoothly as I can, at the same time raising my midriff so that my knees can also dig in. I clench my core muscles, turn my face away from the axe tip, and finally, the three points of contact bring me to a halt.
Happily, it’s just an exercise in self-arresting, checking your fall if the worst comes to the worst, on one of the more benign slopes of the spectacular bowl of mountain peaks that is the Coire an t-Sneachda. Even more happily, I’m not wearing crampons. But a sober reality check awaits, as Mick tells my group that in all his years in the mountains he’s only ever seen one real, successful self-arrest…
It’s my second time at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s National Mountain Centre, a few snowball throws from Aviemore, and my first in winter. The previous summer I had spent five days as a box-fresh novice to rock-climbing, being patiently introduced by my instructor Andy to the mysteries of scaling, effortlessly in his case, and with far too much ungainly use of the knees in mine, the spectacular diversity of Northern Scotland’s rock faces. Our day at the crumbly sandstone cliffs of Cummingston was blazingly hot, and we were glad of the cooling breeze from the azure Moray Firth.
Well, it is summer no more. I’m here for the five day Introduction to Winter Skills: and as we are introduced to our guides, the eternally ebullient Mick, and the phlegmatic Giles, and venture out into the sweeping grandeur of the high Cairngorms, I will begin to appreciate the extraordinary climate that prevails in the Highlands in winter. Scotland’s mountains are old, and worn down by age and attrition: compared to the Alps they are no more than large hills. So their actual elevation, the height you climb from valley to summit, is relatively modest.
But such are the winds that roar across Northern Scotland – situated as it is, a long way north and at the junction of four weather systems – that the difference in weather between the valley floor and the summit is one of the most extraordinary things I have experienced. The valley feels like London in a snowy December – minus 2, say. The summit feels like you have been transported to an Arctic weather station – in real terms it is a few degrees colder, but the constant, knee-buckling gale brings the wind chill closer to minus 20. Ferny fronds of ice grow horizontally from each boulder to shelter from the blast. We strap on crampons, swaddle our faces, and press on, bent almost as horizontally as the ice ferns. It feels fantastic.
Navigation is the cement that binds the other mountain skills together, and I’m not very good at it. I feel acutely my lack of hill-walking experience as Mick calls a halt and my companions whip out their maps and compasses and confidently correlate the contour lines on the paper to our surrounding topography. By the time Muggins here has managed to bring map and Silva together in some kind of purposeful union, everyone else has packed away and is marching into the distance. It’s a myth that navigation is a mystic art – it takes practice, the repetitive discipline of observing the three dimensional landscape around you and relating it to the two dimensions of your map – and I just need to grind out a lot more map-miles.
Another myth: that the Inuit have more words for snow than us. Not even close – spindrift and sastrugi, firn and frazil, hardpack and hoarfrost, suncup and slurpee are just a taste of the English lexicon of the white stuff. Mick gives us a hands-on education into the nature of avalanches, carving out cross-sections of snow to reveal distinct strata, each layer a subtly distinct snow type that can speak volumes about the likelihood of this particular region of snow to avalanche, if you have eyes to read it.
And certain words in the lexicon loom large. The Scottish Highlands are a tad windy, and falling snowflakes rarely settle on one hillside for long: rather, they are scoured away from the windward side of a hill and dumped on the leeward side as windslab. This battering by the wind knocks the pretty edges off each snowflake, turning it into a shape more akin to a sand grain, and so the deposited windslab has a textural composition very different from the fluffy original. Cross-loading is a term for the dumping of successive loads of snow, from alternating directions, into a gully. These and many more features speak to Mick’s educated eyes, and begin, falteringly, to speak to mine. But I know I have a long, long way to go before I can read the snowy slopes with even basic fluency.
Trains run from King’s Cross to Aviemore – you can save time and hassle with a no-changes service – and Glenmore Lodge is just 5 minutes away via the local cab company (not cheap, so share if you can). Glenmore is a centre of outdoor excellence, with instructors of the highest calibre – but it has an unfailingly relaxed and friendly atmosphere which should put newcomers at their ease. Evening lectures inject rich seams of information with impishly sharp humour – although to say that Muggins here was not at his most mentally receptive, huddled round his coffee in a warm lecture theatre after a richly rewarding but long day’s adventuring, would be an understatement…
You can find more information about Glenmore Lodge’s courses at
Photos by the author and Mick Hunter www.mickhunter.com
Andrew Murray 2015
It’s a question as old as time, or at least sliced bread – why does toast always land buttered side down? And it’s a wonder as old as feline evolution – how does a cat’s gyroscopic brain manage to twist its body into a purrfect four-point landing every time? If you ask Buddy and Elvis, the only way to answer these teasers is to tie them together into a 2 for 1, and then watch the fur, and butter, fly!
Gravitationally-challenged Andrew Murray learns the basic body grammar of rock climbing at Scotland’s Glenmore Lodge
I’m box-fresh to climbing. An earliest memory is of my first day at primary school, falling off the climbing frame, bumping my head (which explains much) and scoffing a consoling lunchtime jelly as bosomy teachers cooed and soothed. I climbed a few trees. At secondary school I baulked at being six foot up the climbing wall. Might have been five. But having tried, and loved, a variety of outdoor courses, including a summer mountain skills week at Wales’ National Mountain Centre, Plas y Brenin, I fancied having my first proper exposure to what has to be one of the core skillsets – with navigation, first aid and skiing – of the outdoor all-rounder. But I also wanted to see Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s answer to Plas, a hub of outdoor adventuring a few Cairngorm caber tosses from tiny, friendly Aviemore. And so I booked the Centre’s five day Introduction to Rock Climbing.
Glenmore Lodge is a centre of outdoor excellence, with as high a level of instruction as you could find anywhere. But what I appreciated from the moment of arrival was the genuinely relaxed ethos of the place. I soon sussed that I had less rambling, hiking and Munro-bagging experience than almost anyone there, but that’s fine. As people gather for the hearty breakfasts in the canteen, and quietly ninja the prime roll fillings for the day’s packed lunches (the early bird gets the cranberry cheese), and natter about yesterday’s travails, and today’s high hopes, then people happily accept that people are people, whether beginners, intermediates or experts. And that the best scrambler or skier, hiker or biker, is the one who is happiest.
Andy (T) will be my guide for the week, and I, to my surprise, will constitute his class of one (an instructor on a course like this will have a maximum of two instructees). We hook up with fellow guide George and his two wards, who are taking the Lead Climber course, to share a minibus. Three Andys, one Andy Murray, and no mention of tennis (don’t start). The Lead Climber course looks impossibly advanced and, well, responsible, to me. But this week I shall see what I shall see…
Climbing the Cornflake
Cummingston on the Moray Firth could this day be twinned with the Côte d’Azur – it’s blazingly hot, and we are glad of the cooling breeze rolling in off the turquoise waters. Time to climb some breakfast cereals. Cummingston’s cliffs are crumbly sandstone, and wind and weather have etched them into textures resembling… well, I’ll let the route names speak for themselves. Cornflake Wall, Shredded Wheat and Rice Crispie Wall look as they sound (though other route names show more free-form creativity on the namers’ part – Surf Nazis Must Die, Sandy Volestrangler or Anal Stretch, anyone?)
It’s my second day, and I am beginning to get an inkling of the basic physical grammar of climbing. I’m still clutching on like grim death, which is exhausting on the arm muscles. But today my mind and body are becoming aware of a first principle – that you should do as little work as possible with your arms. Hang down from your hand-holds and relax, then drive with your legs to the next set of holds. Hang and relax, then repeat the process. But I’m still so slow. I hang paralysed, clutching to one spot until my biceps burn, because I lack the climber’s eye for the next hold; I lack basic confidence; and when I do resume my ascent, labouring like an aged, arthritic toad, my knock-knees finding as many holds as my feet, I lack marks for artistic impression. A pair of roosting gulls mock my efforts like a seaside Statler and Waldorf. What a muppet.
Chasing the Dry
In a nutshell, you can’t climb on wet rock. And so each evening Andy and George huddle around the weather forecasts for the following day – not only the Met Office but also MWIS, the Mountain Weather Information Service, and others if tomorrow’s skies promise to be dreich and drippy and a third, or even fourth, meteorological opinion is required. And Andy and George get it right, five days running. We chase the dry across northern Scotland: on day one the weather gods are kindly and let us play at Kingussie, on Glenmore’s Cairngorm doorstep; day two beckons us to Cummingston, which feels positively Mediterranean; day three to the Pass of Ballater, and still nary a fleck of Scotch mist; day four, and we fling ourselves to Glen Nevis in the far west; and day five returns us to Kingussie. I think a drop or two fell at the end of the final day – literally a drop or two – and that this is all the wet we encountered in a Scottish week is testament to the painstaking backroom work put in each evening by Andy and George.
The Confidence to Commit
Smearing. That’s the technique, when the cliff surface is sheer and obvious footholds are unavailable, of trusting the tremendously tacky grip of your climbing shoes to adhere to the rock. Doing this effectively requires you to have the confidence to fully commit your weight to your foot. Apply your weight half-heartedly, and your security of grip will be halved, or worse. (Kick turning when skiing is similar, leaving you a sprawling snow-angel if you don’t fully commit yourself.) And on day five, back full-circle to Kingussie, I begin to have the confidence to commit. Full weight onto foot, to shoe, to rubber sole. And what do you know, it works!
I’ve learned a lot in five days. Inevitably, I’ve learned just how little I know about rock climbing, but that’s fine. There is so much to master, and a realistic perspective is always best. I’ve dipped my toe in the water of another ocean, and that’s what I love to do. Andy T has been eternally patient (and taken some very nice photos) while his neophyte client Andy M blundered, knees akimbo, below him. George wowed me with his effortless, ropeless assurance, perched like a parental Peregrine above his chicks. I think the Three Andys were happy. The Other Two were happy. And I wanted to come back again to Glenmore Lodge. Maybe to climb, maybe to do something else. I’m not seeking to be an expert in anything. I just want to have a go at as many things as possible. And Glenmore Lodge is as fine and friendly a place to have a go at outdoor fun and adventure as you’re ever going to find. I’ll be back soon. See you there for breakfast, and leave a cranberry cheese roll for me.
Find out more at Glenmore Lodge
Andrew Murray 2015
Photos by AM, Andy Townsend and MWIS
Review by Andrew Murray
The Art Deco age has long been a playground for artists, film-makers and other raiders of a lost aesthetic. It’s an era that can seem both modern and antique. The building-blocks of modernity are in place – the train, the aeroplane, the moving image – and the sleek contours of the decorative modern style aspire to a future beyond steam, propeller and silver nitrate celluloid. The term ‘Art Deco’ wasn’t coined until the sixties – a conscious act of looking back and repackaging the era as a wonderland ripe for plunder and play. And how we’ve played, from Raiders of the Lost Ark, to the enduring popularity of Poirot, to video games like Bioshock, to the current cosplay culture of steampunk. High-minded Bauhaus modernism was all very well, but it was a bit austere, a bit Spartan. Deco was modernism unafraid to have fun.
Piet Kroon and Illuminated Films came to the party with T.R.A.N.S.I.T., as joyful an encapsulation of Deco as you could wish to spend twelve minutes watching. It’s a tale of thwarted passions and intrigue played out in reverse, as luggage labels peel away from a suitcase and we are transported back in time to Cairo, the Orient Express, Venice, Baden-Baden, to discover, step by step, the innocuous beginnings that will lead to blood and betrayal. The bullet returns to the revolver, the chloroform pad returns to the trench-coat pocket, and at last we see the beginning, an innocent flirtation that we, as with Deco, can savour with the full experience of hindsight.
A talented team of animators have rendered each of the seven locales in a distinctively different style, all joining together, like the fractured shards of a Venice mirror, to produce a sympathetically variegated whole. The Orient Express and the South American steamer are born of the travel posters of the era, posters whose style was boldly modern, near-fetishistic in their celebration of the thrusting lines of locomotive and liner; and deeply romantic in their promises that the wonders of engineering could transport us to lands of enchantment, Shangri-las as unreachable to most people as the far side of the moon.
T.R.A.N.S.I.T. is a film for anyone who’s ever flown with Indiana Jones in those beautiful flying boats, joining the dots-to-dots of a world map that still contains Siam and Ceylon; for anyone who’s ever given their little grey cells a work-out with Poirot’s clockwork crime conundrums; anyone who Bioshocks; anyone who steampunks; and anyone who’s ever passed by the antique-futuristic theme park called Art Deco, and hopped over the fence to have a play.
Andrew Murray 2015 Images © Illuminated Films
In class, Buddy and Elvis thought planet earth sounded so much fun that they skipped alien school and decided to pay us a visit. On arrival, Buddy and Elvis slightly misjudge the planet’s pecking order and trade places with two unsuspecting pets. With the aid of special collars, the pair transform into cat and dog, whilst the ‘real’ pets are sent back to alien school in their place as cover!
Life as aliens disguised as pets takes some getting used to though: their dinner gets handed out in bowls on the floor and they have inherited some peculiar species habits…
Children’s series for ages 5-11, inspired by the successful children’s book series by Andrew Murray and Nicola Slater