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