If only winter skills were as simple as listening to good advice. David Lintern reflects on lessons learnt in the Winter Mountains.
“Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions” – Mark Twain (possibly)
Scotland is amazing – I’m a big fan. In winter I run out of superlatives. The probability of foul weather is at an all time high, but that means the rewards, when they come, are hard earned and so much more appreciated. Meanwhile, outdoors media is full of seasonal advice about the dangers of the winter outdoors, often from official organisations with a remit to promote safety. Given the fatalities each season and the mainstream media’s knee jerk reaction to them, easy access to accurate, peer-reviewed information is a huge boon to hill goers, but the official line can sometimes feel a little simplistic, to me at least.
The reality, as everyone with experience will admit in face-to-face conversation, is more complex. On the mountain as in life, our mistakes are what define us. The trick is not to let them kill you in the process – the Winter Mountains can be dangerous if we don’t know what we’re doing, and sometimes even if we do (hence that essential messaging). Maybe it’s my teaching background, or maybe I’m procrastinating learning more knots, but I’m fascinated by how to best manage the risk, so as to expand our repertoire over time.
First things first though – as all good TV crimefighters know, the most important question is – ‘what’s your motivation?’ As for me, I wanted to be in the mountains all year round. It was under my skin, I didn’t want to stay away. I didn’t know what was entailed in winter hill walking, but I knew I didn’t know. And knowing what you don’t know in the Winter Mountains is a very useful, life affirming skill to nurture. So my partner and I went back to school. At the time, that meant the sleeper to Aviemore and a 2-day ‘intro to winter skills’ course at Glenmore Lodge. If I have any one piece of advice to newbies, it would be to do at least one winter skills course – there’s lots available and they run until March each year. The technicalities of axe and crampon use, safe movement, self arrest and avalanche awareness are vital, but these courses are also great at getting across the human practicalities – group dynamics under pressure, moving with efficiency and speed as a team, early starts, late finishes, playing to strengths and forgiving weaknesses. You don’t gloat on the Cairngorm plateau in a minus 25C, 40mph hoolie, at least not for long.
I’d like to tell you it was all gravy after we completed that essential first step, that we bolted experience onto our new found confidence with nary a hiccup… but I’d be lying. The very next day we were ‘geographically challenged’ in a white out on Cairn Gorm. Under pressure and exposed in a heightening blizzard, we became unable to make effective judgements. The hole in our new skills armoury was accurate pacing. I still can’t count for toffee, but I’ve paid more attention to my watch ever since. Within a week of moving to Scotland we had a mini-epic on an icy slope descending from Stuc a Chroin. The slope looked remarkably benign in the shadows, but as I hung on with all my might to my axe, as my toes went numb and my load bearing leg begin to Elvis (well bless my soul), I knew I’d woefully underestimated both the terrain, and the strength and fitness needed to move efficiently on it. Half-day summer outings become exhausting all day battles of will on snow and ice, and those winter days are way too short. For me, this can mean the temptation is to push my luck.
The thing I’ve struggled with most, is knowing when to turn back. I hate it. But turn back I have, probably more times than I’ve topped out. I’ve yet to get anywhere near the top of Ben Avon in winter, despite miserably post holing my way up Gleann an Slugain once a year for 3 years in a row. I backed off from the start of Ling, Lawson and Glover’s route when I saw avalanche debris shift under the party ahead. I high tailed it off the Sannox horseshoe, when late in the season a whole snow slope moved underneath me. I even turned back from the highest mountain in the Pyrenees, the glacier ringed Aneto, as a lightning storm hugged the summit, after a 4-week walk from the Atlantic to get there. That was annoying.
But, there’s no way to short-circuit this, it seems I have to chip away bit by bit. I might turn back one year in order to reach the top the next… or not. Turning back isn’t easy; it’s frustrating and can take courage, especially with others. But I’ve grudgingly come to accept that every time I go out, I build on experience – timing, route or gear choice, weather and snow conditions. Without exception, I learn something that stands me in good stead for next time… even if it’s just humility and a proper sense of perspective about my (silly, and pretty modest) mountain ambitions. A little fear is a very healthy thing in the Winter Mountains.
A part of being prepared for all eventualities is putting in the practice. I’m no gym bunny but I do my best to fend off the Christmas flab with local runs, cycles, and the odd press up. But that’s not even half the story, and it’s the boring half at that. We’re blessed with good, easy access to smaller hills and moors north of the border. This allows us to build up stamina and will power as well as fitness for the less comfortable bits of the winter hill day. To practise navigation and get the stupid mistakes out of the way – not packing enough gloves, forgetting spare headtorch batteries or a pair of goggles – without it turning into an MRT guilt fest on facebook the day after. My first trip of the season should definitely not be an epic, unless I want to be a statistic.
The other thing I’ve figured out is that I’m practising for the winter hills all year round. Winter in Scotland often means ‘mixed ground’ of rock, bog, snow and ice. The first two of those are present in spades the rest of the year too, so scrambles in the fairer seasons mean I’m more prepared for trickier terrain once the big freeze comes along… and hill walking at any time of year keeps the fitness, weather awareness, navigation and hill sense honed.
Personal benchmarking can help here too – timekeeping, route or technique choices mean I can grade my own comfort levels and abilities for next time. Experience of different weather and ground conditions on previous trips add to the comparative picture. This is why it’s critical to build up slowly, incrementally – mistakes will happen anyway, and conditions will change suddenly, and I need to manage as much of this risk as I can. Dying is something I’m keen to postpone until I can no longer change my own underwear.
Grading, route descriptions, forums and videos can all help shed light on what might be in store, but are no replacement for the experience borne from quality hill time. Even with this preparation, the questions of judgement still remain, and always will, because the goalposts are always moving – the Winter Mountains are the very definition of what the professionals call a ‘mobile environment’. So, when to stay and when to go? Only I can decide. Well, me, MWIS and SAIS!
I don’t like the language of the ‘outdoor playground’ – it feels far too instrumental, too focused on me and not focused enough on the environment. That’s a seriously dangerous headspace to inhabit. For me, the phrase ‘outdoor classroom’ rings more true. Somehow I’ve gone from a summer daytripper to a multiday winter obsessive. But my very humble winter’s journey has been more about the failures, not the odd success. The only method has been the choice of scale – most mistakes have been small enough, but still frustrating and often revealing of my own hubris. That hasn’t just been luck – there’s been some judgement, but often not the best. So far, I’ve managed my risk, but one thing I do know – there’s always room for error.