A two day subsidised introduction to winter mountaineering for under 30s in the Cairngorms.
What inspired you to do the course?
I had a near miss after a winter fall in the Julian Alps in Slovenia a few years ago. We’d been badly prepared and in hindsight, should have known better. I steered clear of any winter mountaineering after that and just didn’t have the confidence to go out in snowy conditions. The JCMT course was a pretty unique (and incredibly cheap!) opportunity to learn about winter mountaineering with fully qualified guides.
What did the course involve?
We split into two teams of six with two British Mountain Guides leading the course.
On our first day we drove up from Glenmore Lodge to Cairngorm Ski Centre before walking around 45 minutes to Coire an Sneachda, a glacial cirque popular with climbers in winter due to its relatively easy accessibility. The weather was full on Scottish winter, with poor visibility and minus 20C wind chill. On the slopes we learned to walk in crampons, do ice axe arrests and practiced climbing up iced over rocks. Walking in and out we took turns to navigate.
Jonathan (our guide) ran a slideshow for us on the evening of our first day on the course. He showed us photos of some of his experiences in the Scottish mountains and some from further afield which I thought was great to help us visualise that learning all the right skills can take you to some amazing places.
On the second day we learned how to assess a slope for avalanche risk and learned how to build a variety of different snow belay anchors. I was genuinely surprised by how well a snow anchor holds a person’s weight! In the afternoon we built snow caves before glissading back down to the car park.
Who else was on the course?
I met so many interesting people from different backgrounds, all passionate about the outdoors. The group was around 50:50 men to women and included:
- A 19 year old ‘adventurer’ who planned to stay in Scotland to camp and climb for a few weeks after the course as part of his preparation for his second Everest attempt. His first had been cut short after a devastating ice avalanche buried a number of sherpas and climbers, causing all expeditions to be called off for the season. He’d overcome a stutter to give speeches about his mountaineering experiences and was tirelessly raising money for the families of the sherpas who had been killed.
- An LSE student planning to cycle from Holland to the Caucasus the following summer, finishing with an ascent of Elbrus.
- A gritty Yorkshire climber who thought an ascent of Everest was pretty frivolous and unnecessary compared to joys of climbing hard routes in Malham Cove!
- A tiny bubbly girl with insane dreadlocks who swore by wearing worn out walking socks as handwarmers. She’d been on a 5 year long gap year and was hoping to get a nature conservation or outdoor instructor job in the Lake District.
What weaknesses in your personal skills did you identify?
Navigating in poor visibility – I’d gotten used to heading out for climbing only in good weather or in trekking along well signposted routes abroad so I hadn’t had to practice my navigation skills in a while. It was a good wake-up call!
Did the course change or inspire your future mountaineering plans?
The course was such a good introduction to winter mountaineering and really helped to build my confidence to head out to the mountains in winter. I hadn’t been to the Scottish mountains before so the course really inspired me to come back and to try out some of the skills I picked up on the course. I’m hoping that after some practice, I will also be able to apply for the Alpine Mountaineering Course in Chamonix to learn some new skills in a different environment.
Would you have done anything differently?
I’d encourage anyone doing the course to stay an extra day at the end to independently plan a day out in the mountains and to consolidate the skills learned.
What’s the best way of getting there?
I took the train from London to Aviemore. The view of the sunset along the East coast on the way up to Scotland was stunning. Our train got stuck just before Aviemore due to iced up tracks ahead, which was quite atmospheric. I remember thinking that it was such a shame that the ride through the mountains was all in the dark so I came back to cycle from Edinburgh to Aviemore in May. The landscape is much grander and more barren than anywhere else I have seen in the UK.
I took the Caledonian Sleeper train on the way back so as to not lose a day travelling back to London. It was well worth the money.
Great! How do I apply?
Applications for the Scottish Winter Mountaineering Course open in September and close in October of each year. Keep an eye on the JCMT website for details of this, and other, mountaineering courses.