Several hours of high wind and spindrift ensured that my first day of winter walking was giving me a good taster of what Scotland in February could whip up. I was quickly learning that the freezing conditions would make my buff around my mouth solid if I wasn’t careful of condensation, and that it was going to take a while to learn how to avoid steps that would leave me flailing, one leg disappearing into the snow to mid thigh.
Back in February I decided to get myself on an Introduction to Winter Skills course at Glenmore Lodge. After years of being a three season hiker, it was brilliant to get a feel for what Scottish winter had to offer. With the winter season just starting, here is what you can expect when you first dip your toes into winter walking.
Your equipment might need a bit of an upgrade. Morning one of the course, and before we headed out we had to drop by the kit store. Summer boots were upgraded for stiffer soled winter boots to go with our crampons. With ice axe and snow shovel stashed away, we spent some time on how to use the avalanche transceivers. As part of a trial, the lodge is the first permanent training park for these, which is pretty cool! With all of this new kit comes the need for new skills, and I’m looking forward to getting out and practicing.
Route planning in winter is massively important. Generally ridges are safer, but you have to take into account how steep a slope is, what the wind and snowfall has been over the past few days as well as the forecast for the day.
Our plan for the first morning was to head up the Fiacaill a Chorie Chais just to the east of
Cairngorm. The fairly strong SW wind gave us a really good example of a cornice starting to build up on the NE of the ridge, and having the visual example really helped to better understand the earlier discussion about how important yesterday’s wind conditions can be when you’re planning routes.
Be prepared to getting excited about the many different types of snow! On the way up the ridge, we had a go at guessing where wind slab might build up and passed some really cool examples of rime and sastrugi. Sastrugi may be one of my favorite features so far – the wind scours the surface of the snowpack and creates wave like patterns, and it can be really useful for drawing out some information that can help you to make decisions to keep safe. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out too well in pictures, but it looks really cool.
It turns out learning to use crampons wasn’t as scary as I expected, but it is a fair workout for your calf muscles! As the slope got gradually steeper, we paused to strap these slightly intimidating metal spikes. The walking style can take some getting used to and it definitely doesn’t feel natural. Front pointing up the steeper sections really did burn a bit, but aching legs were definitely worth it for the view at the top!
Looking back down to the ski centre, this view had me hooked on winter walking. It amazed me how alive the mountain was at this time of year; our group disturbed some ptarmigans that hopped ahead of us among the rocky outcrops for a little while, and all around we could see other groups of walkers and mountaineers on adjoining ridges, giving me even more precarious adventures to aspire to.
On the way back down, we stopped to practice some ice axe arrests. Sliding head first on my back down a fairly steep slope was definitely not what I considered fun on the first try, but after a few attempts I began to build some confidence and actually started enjoying it.
Exhausted after 6 hours out in the snow, we had a bit of time for dinner before the evening lectures on winter navigation and planning. Have I mentioned that weather is super important yet? It was kind of the theme for the weekend. Turns out I’m a bit of a geek for weather forecasting. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service uses a hazard compass rose, and the website has a pretty comprehensive explanation of how to use and interpret their reports.
On day two of the course, we headed in to a corie to practice some of the skills we had already learned, as well as attempting to cut steps. I had a go at following a bearing into the mist – no problem in summer but a bit more daunting in the snow! Despite all of these new skills and masses of new information, the thing I found most difficult was simply walking in flat but deep snow. It seemed that every time the instructor turned round to check on the stragglers, I was flailing around on the ground having just lost my leg to a deep hole in the snow.
So with the snow starting to lay, and a shiny pair of newly acquired crampons in the cupboard, I’m quite excited to get out in the snow. Maybe see you there!