If anyone ever told you that it’s not that far from Cornwall to Scotland…..don’t believe them!
After a two day journey to get there and the last few miles in a blizzard with the road closing behind me as I drove, I was relieved to finally arrive at Glenmore Lodge and rest my head for a few hours before embarking on 5 days of mountaineering in the Scottish Cairngorms.
Glenmore Lodge is Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre and is a great place to go and hone your skills or learn new ones. As my normal climbing partner had disappeared to warmer climes for the winter season and I really wanted to get some Scottish mountain days, I’d decided to enrol on a winter mountaineering course. Hoping to build on my skills, learn some new ones and generally have a great week in the snow. Glenmore Lodge has a fantastic reputation for these courses and the facilities at the lodge are great, decent rooms, great food, nice bar, climbing wall, even a sauna if you have time to use it! Which I didn’t because for the next 5 days I was either on the hill, eating, at a lecture or sleeping.
After a welcome brief on the first morning we met with our instructor and other group members. A quick 15min all you need to know about TPS ( Transponder, Probe, Shovel ) in case of an avalanche and we were heading up to Coire an t-Sneachda. Day 1 was a skills day, looking at personal movement on snow and ice with crampons before moving onto ice axe arresting and cutting steps. I’ve done a fair bit of winter walking and mountaineering in the past but it was still good to fine tune my skills, and dust off the cobwebs. The weather was good to us but the wind was gradually building with some pretty high speed gusts which made for an interesting descent back to the minibus at the end of the day.
In the past I’ve done a number of courses at the National Mountain Centre in Wales, Plas y Brenin, there you’ll be back at the centre for sometime around 16:30 in time for tea & cake. I was pleased to find that at Glenmore Lodge its the same! Nothing beats having a days debrief over a good cup of tea and a nice piece of cake!
As part of the course, we had lectures every evening. This evening’s subject was avalanches. I have attended a number of avalanche lectures in the past and it’s still an area of the course that I find super useful. It is definitely something I don’t know so much about seeing as Cornwall doesn’t tend to get much snow and whilst still being a long way off an expert I’m a lot more knowledgeable now and it’s such an important subject if you’re out and about in the winter.
The next couple of days the weather wasn’t so kind to us, with wind speeds being recorded of up to 117mph on the tops! Needless to say we still got out there, but as is always important when heading into the mountains in winter you need to have plans A,B,C and D ready to go just in case. Our plan B/C was to stay low level and learn some more skills. Over the next couple of days we practiced some navigation as well as getting to grips with more winter mountaineering techniques such as digging bucket seats, constructing ice axe belays and abseiling from a snow bollard. Rope work is something I’m more than happy with, however making belays and tying knots with big gloves on, in strong winds and driving snow is a little different to the sunny sea cliffs of Cornwall. Luckily for me a friend of mine who I am on the Cornwall Search and Rescue Team with, usually makes me practice rope work in the driving rain, at night up on the moors. This practice helped loads, and made everything a lot easier, but still the Scottish winter conditions, the environment and exposure made the whole thing a great learning experience for me.
For the last couple of days the weather played nice! And so we were able to start putting all those skills we’d been practising to use. Completing a traverse of the Fiacaill ridge, navigating on the cairngorm plateau and ascending some grade 1 and 2 snow gullies. Even rescuing a ski tourer who was stuck beneath a cornice! All fantastic fun.
I had come to Scotland for a couple of reasons: Firstly to have some great days out in the winter mountains. Secondly I’d chosen to do a course not only to learn new skills, but also to prove to myself that the skills I already had, and were using in winter when I go to the mountains with friends and family, are the right ones. I’m pleased to say they are! The pace of the course was slower than I expected, I was prepared to be knackered each day but this wasn’t always the case. I learnt that I knew more than I thought I did but that I’ve also still got a lot more to learn! Which is great because it gives me a excuse to go on another course next year.