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Our frosty foe brings with it biting cold, snow, ice, and winds, all of which can make navigation and walking more difficult… and potentially dangerous. But, with a little bit of knowledge and experience of how to avoid difficult situations – and how to deal with them if they occur – there is nothing stopping you from having a cracking day up the hills in the white stuff.
I was lucky to be enrolled on one of the Winter Skills courses run by Tiso and ClimbMTS. I'd done plenty hillwalking in the past, including some easy stuff in winter, but I wanted to gain a greater level of comfort and confidence.
The course runs over two days: Friday evening at a Tiso store, and an all-day Saturday trip onto one of our beautiful mountains (the destination of which is usually kept secret until the night before, as you never know what the Scottish weather will hold).
Stuart Johnston met us on the Friday night for our debrief. First, the kit talk: what you should be bringing, from clothes to equipment (it should be noted that if you have a sudden bout of panic there’s the chance to pick up any last minute items in store). Then Stuart discussed what we’d actually be learning, including a brief talk about avalanche awareness, how to understand the reports and most importantly relay that information onto a map… so you can pick the least risky route. The evening also included a discussion about ice axes and crampons, mainly how to size your axe (there’s not really a right or wrong, it depends on the type of walking and terrain you’re in) and how to fit crampons to your boots.
So we were all set, ready for our day of winter walking in… where are we going again? A last minute decision meant we’d be heading to Glenshee for 9am. Superb!
On Saturday morning, we found ourselves huddled around the back of the instructor’s car at a windy carpark next to Glenshee Ski Centre. Dave, our leader, ran through what we’d be doing, checking that everyone had the necessary kit and giving us a rundown of our route. He also spoke in depth about the avalanche risk on the slopes we’d be walking on, allowing us to understand why he’d picked this particular route. And we were off!
What became quickly evident was how difficult winter walking can be. Lesson one: Dave explained that if we walked in single file, each person stepping in the adjacent space of the last walker’s footprint, we could quickly create an easy path for those behind. Those at the front swap with those at the back and everyone gets a shot of the easy path. Winner!
As we rose, the snow became more compact. Dave then advised us to walk in zigzags up the hill, giving us more control and putting less strain on our calf muscles. You soon realise how important good winter boots are, as you begin to use them as a tool. Using the sharp outside and inside of the boots’ soles as cutters, we dug steps in the harder snow and had a level platform to stand on. You can also dig your toes in to gain a more level step. All these skills seemed like common sense when talking about it after, but the difference they made in your confidence – when you were halfway up the side of a steep mountain – was amazing.
So imagine the scene: we’re learning, having a good time, eating lunch on the side of a beautiful mountain… and what can beat gorgeous weather in Scotland? But I think we were all shocked by the next stage in our course. Who knew you could have so much fun learning to self-arrest?!
Self-arresting is a technique which uses your body and your ice axe to prevent you sliding down the mountainside. In reality, you never want to have to use this manoeuvre. In practice, it meant we got to spend the best part of an hour slipping down a snowy slope upside down, back to front, sideways, all kinds of ways, acting like a bunch of loonies. Great fun to say the least! But all that we’d talked about the night before suddenly made total sense. Self-arresting is a powerful skill to have learnt, and could easily save you from harm on the hill.
As the terrain got harder and more challenging on the boots, we donned our crampons. Dave coached us on how to safely attach them on the side of a windy Carn Aosda in Glenshee. It’s a bit more technical than just plonking yourself on the snow for two minutes though! It involves using the axe to chop a platform in the snow big enough that you can fit your bag, yourself, and still have room to get the crampons on.
Once we’d managed that awkward bit, we learned crampon walking techniques (which differs from walking without them). We stepped over and across our feet as we zigzagged up the mountain, making sure that all points of the crampons met the surface of the snow… especially when descending! Again, the crampons – which might seem a bit daunting at first – give you more traction, stability and ultimately confidence that you’re not going to go rolling down the mountain (and use your newly acquired self-arresting skills).
Now we had crampons on, we soon summited the Munro. The descent then took us down some very steep slopes, where we learnt how to ‘four wheel drive’ our way down. This is when you’re on all fours facing the slope, descending by kicking your toes into the snow (to create a step, like before) and punching your axe in with one hand for added stability. This technique is a little disorientating (especially when you’re descending and have to verify your route through your legs!) but as before, quickly feels stable and secure.
Dave was a brilliant leader. He was spot on with his instruction, keeping us engaged, giving us tasks, and then working with us one-on-one and as a group. The course had the right balance of all the basic information you need to get outside in winter whilst still being good fun; a relaxed and encouraging environment that gave us the confidence for our next adventure. By the time we were walking back to the car, everyone was reminiscing about what a great day we’d had – including Dave!
I’d thoroughly recommend any of the courses run by Tiso and ClimbMTS, especially if you want to make the most of your time in Scotland’s beautiful hills… all year long.
About the author... Lewis Matheson is an artist based at The Number Shop, Edinburgh. Interested in the land and culture of Scotland, his work - which directly results from his experiences of Scottish landscape - comprises a mixture of photography, text, poetry, sculpture and publishing. See more at lewismatheson.com and SCOT/LAND//PROJECT.
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