Thursday, March 22, 2007

winter skills training in the highlands ...

We decided we should learn some mountain skills in the event of any, shall we say, adverse conditions we might encounter en-route. So, despite the onset of heavy colds we headed north for the 6-hour drive to Kingussie, our base for a February weekend of winter skills training.

Day 1 - Our instructor Richard picked us up and took us to the ski-lift at the bottom of Cairngorm mountain - the combination of snow & glorious winter sunshine had brought the skiers out in force, but sadly only those with ski-passes we're allowed to take the easy way to the top.

After a quick "this is how to carry your ice-axe" lesson in the carpark (shoved in the gap between your rucksack and back, with the axehead resting on the back of your neck - apparently) we hiked uphill for about an hour to reach serious snow, rock and ice.

The first part of our day was spent teaching us how to move safely on steep frozen surfaces - kicking or cutting steps with ixe-axe, navigation techniques, and then as we ascended further to over 1000 metres we got a quick lesson in mountain weather, as it went from sunshine to blizzard and back again in 45 minutes.

There was no real lunchtime with Richard as "you get cold when you stop" so it was a a case of eating as much as we could in 3 minutes before moving on to the second part of the day, ice-axe arrest - otherwise known as what to do if you fall off the mountain.

Our training consisted of us practicing a serious of simulated falls, in increasingly alarming positions - culminating in a rapidly accelerating headfirst slide backwards down a steep icy mountainside, with only your ice-axe to stop you falling. If you have ever had an ice-cube down the back of your t-shirt, you can probably imagine how we felt coming down off the mountain.

As we returned to the guesthouse, our colds returning with a vengence we knew the next day would only be harder. So there was only really one thing for it. We went to the pub.

Day 2 - Despite reports from the Tipsy Laird of "feeling better" at 11.30pm the previous evening, Mel's cold had worsened.

On the promise from Richard of a quick detour to the petrol station in Aviemore for some beechams powders I decided to carry on - and we headed back up to the ski lift car park once more.

This time we headed for another part of the mountain, and after a 45 minute march we arrived in the sheltered Corrie where we would use crampons (spiky feet) for the first time. It was about 3 minutes after being asked to follow the rest of the group up a steep slope of solid clear ice that I remembered my fear of heights - all that was keeping me from a dangerous slide down the hill was a few short spikes on each foot. In the end it was just a case of head having to overule heart and although it was probably the most difficult part of the weekend, with a little practice I was soon moving around with greater ease.

Crampons-fitted, it was now time to tackle our first Munro (Scottish peaks over 1000m) and we climbed the frozen wall of the Corrie - we were rewarded with some stunning views of the Cairngorm plateau (right) as we reached the top. After walking along the ridge, we made the final ascent to the summit of Cairn Gorm at 1245m, the UK's 5th highest mountain and site of a famous automatic weather station .

Whether we'll have to call on these skills while we're away I really don't know, but it was a very memorable weekend and an interesting glimpse into the world of serious mountaineering. I think Mel will remember it more for sitting by a log fire, watching the red squirrels in the trees outside the guesthouse - but there are certainly worse places to have a cold!

Sent by Mark Fretwell via the free Email Scheduler service.
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