Learning some winter skills

In February 2017 Chris and I ventured up to Scotland to try a new sort of adventure - winter mountaineering.

We signed up for a weekend winter skills course at Glenmore Lodge. I’d done a 5 day mountaineering course at Plas y Brenin the year before (photos still to come), and was interested in what I could do next - both in terms of skills and in pushing my boundaries.

Chris and I are both massively in to hiking and photography, so this seemed like a great way of extending those interests. It was also something of a gamble - would we really like being in bitterly cold and more risky conditions?

A selection of winter mountaineering tools on carpet. Pictured are a helmet, crampons, ice probe, shovel, and ice axe.

When you arrive you’re given an impressive and scary set of tools to look after. These are exciting - but also make it start to hit home that this is a lot more serious than some other outdoor activities you can do.

As we’d come to appreciate through the course, winter mountaineering can be incredibly fun - but also has to be treated with a lot of respect. Done without care it can be incredibly dangerous.

Four men dressed in winter gear walk in a line up a snowy mountain in poor visibility.
Four men wrapped up in winter clothing huddle on a snowy mountain.

Other than some of the basics you might expect - crampon use, ice axe arrests, etc - the majority of the course is really about safety. There’s so many things that can go wrong, and it’s so easy to go off course. Much of what our guide talked to us about seemed trivial initially until you realised that if that one thing went wrong you could be in serious trouble.

Ed Horsford reading a OS map next to the Cairngorm mountain weather station
Photo by Chris Natt.

We had less than ideal conditions through the course - but perhaps that makes for a good learning opportunity. Much of our second day was spent in near white-out. This was great for practising navigation - and for learning how not to panic when everything around you looks the same.

Ed Horsford standing next to the Cairngorm weather station, holding an ice axe over his head. The weather station is completely iced over and there’s very little visibility.
Photo by Chris Natt.
The weather station antenna at the top of Cairngorm mountain. It’s completely iced over.

We didn’t build this ice hole - but I’d love to come back and do a course on that too. It was so cold and windy outside but remarkably comfy inside.

A man uses the corner of a compass to look at a map. He’s sat inside a snow hole.
Sheltering from the wind.
Four people walk on rocky and snowy ground in poor visibility.
A black and white contour map of the Cairngorms on a table. Parts of it have been hand-coloured in yellow, orange, and green to indicate avalanche risk.
Learning to estimate likely avalanche-prone areas.

I’d never really considered that avalanches would be a thing in the UK. Nor that avalanche prone areas might change each day - one day a slope might be safe, and the next it could be very risky. I now know they’re a massive part of winter mountaineering. Even four winter trips later I still feel this is an area where I’ve got lots to learn.

If anyone were thinking of doing some winter mountaineering I’d wholeheartedly recommend doing one of these courses. Even if you’ve used crampons and axes a bit (glacier trek maybe?) - there’s so much more you pick up on the course - navigation, avalanche awareness, etc.