Cairngorms Winter Skills Course - Review

Glenmore Lodge is Scotland's National outdoor training centre, based at the foot of the Cairngorms and the base for mountain leader training north of the border, uphill skiing, kayaking, climbing and a host of other lunatic outdoors pastimes, and so seemed to me to be well placed to know a thing or two about winter mountain skills and safety. We signed up for the 2 day Introduction to Winter Skills course, the most basic of a huge selection.  I understand this is the first year they are running the 2 day courses, which are a condensed version of the more usual 5 day course.  They also seem to be advertising a one day course in the MCoS magazine. 

The first thing to say is that so much was learnt over 2 days its hard to know where to start.  Much of the first day content I had read about, but lets be honest, context really IS everything here.  To borrow a phrase from Joe, one of our fellow students, this is an invitation to winter hill walking.

The first day: covered kit issue, safety and risk assessment, preparation, snow types and accumulation, avalanche awareness and analysis, SAIS forecasting, ice axe use as stick, dagger, step cutting, self belay and self arrest, use of crampons - kicking in, heel plunge, front point, hybrid and mixed ground.

We spent the first morning doing some drills.

This really just gets your confidence up, the slopes aren't steep but once you fall over a few times you realise anyone can do it, the important thing is knowing how to stop!  With the axe in your either hand, on your back, belly down, upside down, and so on.  Its nice to be graceful with it, but not essential.

After a bite to eat, we don crampons and go for a walk.  The pace is comfortable and there's no pressure to be macho, people were happy to stop if adjustments to gear were needed. 

Joe in the foreground - a lovely guy

Up the gully, again just getting comfy using the shoe spikes, learning to move around confidently on the steeper stuff.  Also, some ledge cutting.

Once we gain a little height its more crampon practise as the day draws to a close.  Once again, this was paced really well, there are lots of questions, reflections and shared experiences within the group, so it doesn't feel like a drill.

We come down on mixed ground, which is more difficult after deeper snow, but the skies are aglow and so are we!  Key words for the first day are efficiency of movement and kit choice/packing, and dynamic - sometimes 'aggressive' movement is required, to match harsher winter conditions.

A word about the teaching style:  The ratio is 6 students, 1 tutor.  Our instructor was hugely supportive, knowledgeable and just formal enough to challenge us as students to learn properly - overall the quality was exceptional.  The teaching is what is called in the trade Experiential - basically, you learn by doing.  The tutor demonstrates how to, then you try.  Then you try again, until you feel comfortable.  Group feedback is positively encouraged and prior experience was shared throughout the 2 days - our group contained a summer mountain leader, a climber, an experienced skier and a superb navigator with over 30 years of hill walking experience.  T and I were the youngest in the group but had different backpacking and scrambling experience.  The evening lectures on winter navigation and avalanche awareness were also consummately delivered, with wit, humour and jam packed full of vital information.  Despite being a teacher I am not the easiest person to teach -  I tend to zone out a little in more formal settings.  This felt inclusive without being laboured, if that makes sense.

Kit: You are asked to bring the basics but there is a store onsite which is free to use if you are on a course - incredible value for money, I'm sure in the Alps this would cost extra.  They supplied rigid plastic boots and 12 point crampons, as I expected they would - I knew they wouldn't go for our 3/4 season boots and Kathoolas!  I got shin rash from the boots, which were awkward and uncomfortable, but useful for the much steeper ground on day 2, as were the 12 pointed petzls.  Conversely this climbing orientated gear made gradual ascents and descents over mixed ground much harder than when compared to our own setup during the rest of the week.  They can also supply rucksacks, goretex jackets and trousers, maps, compasses, helmets, axes, etc. 

Accommodation: The lodge itself is almost a dream from another era, but with all modern conveniences.  I've mentioned the free store and evening lectures already, but they supply enough high quality food to kill a rhino (veggies no bother), full board on the first day, our room was en-suite and immaculate, there's a pool, a sauna, a rock wall, wifi, a bar, teaching rooms, a dry room, laundry facilities, the list just goes on and on.  There's even an old school tannoy to announce when the minibus is leaving and the classes are about to start - its a luxury university of the outdoors!

spindrift on Creag an Leth-choin

Day 2, we studied the forecasts some more, before leaving for Coire an t Sneachda, getting the feel for a -20 windchill and a 40mph southwesterly.  It was a stiff walk in but a stunning alpine day...the forecast was not entirely accurate, for the second day running!  Navigation and pacing practice on the way.

Once in the coire we got out of the wind under the bivvy for first lunch, then over to the fast piling snow for a look at another group making snowholes.

'bit blowy

On the 5 day course you would probably cover snowhole building, we didnt have time for this, but principles were explained, and snow analysis and avalanche avoidance skills (following ridges, types of cornice, windslab structure, islands of safety etc) were covered in a way to practically reinforce the lecture material from the night before - again, the mark of a joined up curriculum.

Kev explains how to dig a 'hasty pit'

We then climbed the wall of the coire onto the Plateau, which was something of an eye opener for everyone, and I became very aware of 1. the rest of the group and how we needed to work as a team, and 2. the advantage of more rigid boots and very sharp crampons!  This was a long haul and required daggering with the axe and front pointing with crampons, as well as cutting ledges for others to rest.  The phrase dynamic rang in my ears, it pushed everyone's envelope but to do this under instruction was a liberating thing I reckon.

Joe gets to the top

Once on the plateau, I was so overawed I completely forgot how to take a bearing, so the following navigation exercises found me sorely lacking.  I was too busy catching my breath and taking photos!  Then we're off home, down the Chais ridge, awesome.  I should go back and do the winter nav course though, it definitely flagged that up for me.

Choire Chais

Thoughts about alpinism, and a word of caution.  The lodge is a fantastic place to start to get under the skin of the history of alpinism, and our UK tradition.  The difference between European and Scottish climbing styles - why they call it 'death roping', for example.  I would argue (and it turns out I'm not the only one) that most of the teaching here is informed by mountaineering, not hill walking.  And that's a history of managed risk: make no mistake - this stuff just is more risky than bimbling about in July.  Even our beginners course had that edgy section on the second day where 1 or 2 felt a bit out of their depth.  The tutor handled it all in his stride, of course, but admitted afterward he had misread the snow conditions on the last 1/4 of the climb, since there's alot of snow and ice for this early in the season.  But these kind of judgment calls come with the territory.  When you factor in the winter weather, and much shorter days, you can see this is a tremendously hard and high risk occupation, calling for minute by minute evaluation of the conditions and of the group, and of course the tricky part is that it's not possible to fully grasp this as a beginner until you are there. 

The trainers are most definitely not beginners - they are athletes, very highly trained and highly skilled people with many years of experience.  These guys are also part of a long history of risk taking, they like the necky stuff, the adrenalin rush, its how they stay sharp.  I don't think this is a problem with the course, it's just good to be aware of it - they have a deep understanding of risk management as a balancing act between objectives, and mitigating factors - like many professionals.  Don't let this put you off: if you have a reasonable level of fitness, and you go walking in the hills in summer but want to walk in winter, you may be stretched a little, but that's what you're there for, and you are in good hands.  And if you want to be thrilled, this is where it starts.

2 climbers next to the finger of rock, centre frame, show the scale of the Fiacaill buttress


Lastly, I would say that if you love the mountains, and you want to be in them all year round, this is the place to learn - with people that love them as much as you do.  The instructors at Glenmore maybe athletes, but they are naturally welcoming and definitely NOT elitists - they love their work, and that passion comes through in the content and presentation of the place itself.  Glenmore is also amazing value for money, which speaks volumes about their access priorities - I have no end of respect for those early pioneers, but this isn't the 19th century and the winter hills need be the province of the privileged no more.  If you go out on the hill, and want to build your confidence and improve your skills base, at whatever level, then you need to support this place, and let it support you.  Honestly, go there, its the business.

Disclaimer: Our course cost us £225 each.  We paid full price for our course and so I feel able to review it honestly.

Our instructor was Kevin Rutherford, who has around 12 years MIC experience, and runs his own company, Ecosse Mountains.  His blog is called, bizarrely enough.  Great photos and some crazy ass Norwegian ice climbing on his web pages - he's a safe pair of hands and a good guy, nuff said.  Cheers Kev.