Cornflake Climbers and Cranberry Ninjas

Gravitationally-challenged Andrew Murray learns the basic body grammar of rock climbing at Scotland’s Glenmore Lodge

Turned out nice again at the Pass of Ballater
Turned out nice again at the Pass of Ballater

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.

That’s the way to do it…

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.

Errr…

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

Do you want the bad news, or the bad news? An MWIS weather report
Do you want the bad news, or the bad news? An MWIS weather report

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!

Maybe I can do this...
Maybe I can do this…

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

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