Winter Skills-Crisp and Even in the Cairngorms

Winter Skills Course – Glenmore Lodge 6th – 7th January 2017

There hasn’t been much snow this winter even so, as I stepped off the train into the cold air of Aviemore I could feel a deeper chill than my lowland bones were used to.

Despite buying the kit for winter walking I had found plenty of excuses not to really do it in earnest, although there were times when I found myself wishing for the security that an ice axe and crampons could have given me.

To sort myself out I had booked onto a winter skills course in Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s National Outdoor Centre. I like this place, it has the presence of a benign institution that offers just the right level of comfort and reassurance to offset the possiblity of any austerity encountered in the mountains of the Cairngorms: a sort of Goldilock’s Zone between unacceptable luxury and self-mortifying rigour.

Sharing a room with a stranger is one aspect of going on a course that can be slightly worrying but the thing about Glenmore Lodge is that the people who elect to go on this type of experience tend to be okay. This is my third visit and the room-mates have always been fine.

The Mountain Weather Information forecast was pinned up and looked promising for the next day: minus seven degrees centigrade with clear skies and only light wind. That looked good to me and so it proved to be.

The ski centre on Cairngorm didn’t have enough snow to be open, so we followed the paths next to the empty runs upwards. When we reached the snow-covered plateau the stark nature of the cold became obvious. Even the slight breeze was creating a noticeable wind chill effect and Ian, the instructor,  decided to break out the group shelter for lunch and a warmer space to add extra layers of clothing.

I have used these before but it was a new experience to some of the group. There is no doubt that deploying one of these has its comic side- it is effectively like playing one of the parachute canopy games that nursery schools love. However, the immediate boost in warmth and the stillness of the air under the thin membrane of fabric that covered the group proved that this was a seriously useful piece of kit.

Re-energised with the substantial Glenmore Lodge packed lunch inside me it was time to make our way across the plateau around Cairngorm itself.

The range of useful skills,techniques and observations that Ian packed into the day was amazing.The snow was compacted and stable, topped by crisp hard layer of almost-ice: it was a delight to walk on. After some good coaching we were confidently, if inelegantly, edging, kicking, self-arresting and front-pointing across the snow before descending in darkening twilight with headtorches.

Things are really packed into this course and after some tea and cakes it was off to the lecture theatre for an hour on winter navigation. Some excellent dinner followed- mushroom and fennel soup, a hearty lamb hot pot  and dessert if you must know- and then the day was rounded off by a lecture on avalanche awareness: not quite After-Eight mints but probably more useful. A long day, but very worthwhile indeed.

The next day was warmer and involved a focus on the navigational techniques needed in winter. There was real attention to using contour features that would not be obliterated under layers of snow and using a compass to identify aspect of slope to confirm your position.We also got to do lots more slidey stuff- practicing ice axe self-arrest head first and backwards, which was interesting.

The second day ended with a really useful session on building the data from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service into route planning. Working in small groups to interpret the data was a really useful exercise and reinforced how to make things go right for you on the day by proper planning.

All told, another very good experience provided by Glenmore Lodge.

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