Every man dies, not every man really lives.
(William Wallace, Braveheart)
Training in Scotland had been highly recommended by my Lhotse guide Tim. Scottish winter is known for its harsh conditions (cold, wet, windy …) that will help you learn how to operate your gear and manoeuvre in such environment. Off to Scotland then! My guide for the three-day tour was Di Gilbert – quite some name in the Scottish mountaineering world and beyond having completed the seven summits, all 284 Munros (all Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet or 914m) and for her relentless positive attitude and perma-smile as I would find out.
Leaving London on Aussi-day, then 12h bus ride to Aviemore
Before I set off it was time for a catch up with my good friends David, Isaac and Arndt in Pimlico. Much to discuss as most of us had met at the AC/DC concert last time – ages ago. And not to forget there was also Australian National Day (26 January). Cheers then!
Team Australia for the evening
There are many options to get to Aviemore (540 miles north of London), the main city in the Cairngorms, all of which were shorter than the 12 hour coach ride I picked. However, it was overnight (I actually got six hours sleep), it was a direct connection from Victoria station (the other one being the sleeper train from St Pancras @ 11hours) and why not – it’s not that I am short of time.
I woke up just before we arrived in Glasgow. It was still pretty dark and would initially not get much better as the bus continued further north. Fog and frost all over. In fact, my Suunto watch went off several times with storm alarm (it would be right eventually). However, from 9am the sun came out and revealed a magnificent landscape. Amazing.
At 11am and completely on time we arrived in Aviemore. Across the road was all the mountain shops one could need, but my desire was for a solid Scottish breakfast at ‘The Coffee Corner’ near the bus stop. Bacon & egg roll and a tea … and I had finally arrived. Now off to the accommodation at the ‘Old Bridge Inn’ and fingers crossed my gear from Keswick arrives on time. I’ll need every bit of it.
Beautiful bike ride to Loch Morlich & Glenmore … bring on the colours
A box full of gear was waiting for me right at check-in. X-mas had come early! I was also alone in my bunk bed room (well, until Adam joined me later at night) and enjoyed unwrapping the ‘presents’ (Scarpa Phantom boots & two Petzl Quarks being my favorites). By 2pm I was done and it was time to get active.
I hired a mountain bike nearby (GBp15 for the afternoon) and set off to Glenmore (route planned with Suunto – love this device!). What an amazing 20km there and back culminating in Loch Morlich in Glenmore Forest Park (pictures speak a thousand words). The trip wasn’t very long at just about two hours as night falls early up here and by 5pm its dark. Time to rest and get some food at the Old Bridge Inn pub. Relaxed atmosphere, good service and tasty food (be it a bit pricey for what it is). Had a good chat with four lads that came together to honour the life of the one’s deceased dad. Anyway, I didn’t last very long and after a bit of reading it was time to call it a day.
Day 1: The basics, hiking up Cairn Gorm and … it felt much more like winter
We had agreed to meet up 8am and so by 7am I was up. Last check of the gear and a chat with Adam, who arrived after my bedtime last night. He is a Scot and guides two girls up here. Di arrived on time with her trademark big smile just as I had my make-do breakfast (can of tuna, avocado & banana). Quick chat trough required gear for the day (we would return home … so no need for sleeping bag) and the broad plan for the day. Cairn Gorm (1,245m) was the target alongside a general skill check – orientation (map & compass), using crampons & axe and loads of helpful little things as I would find out later.
We set out from Cairn Gorm ski station at 9.15am. Initially we followed a path uphill before crossing over to a ridge. Crampon training was on the menu. First rookie mistake – my crampons weren’t adjusted to my new boots and the cord too long (to be fair, they were also too long for my old boots). Then Di explained the basic technique where by you aim to point your foot downhill so that all the whole crampon has good grip, how you turn and how you use your axe in different ways. The hike was steep, but short and crampons came off quickly.
Tip: Don’t use a leash for your mountaineering axe as it creates a massive trip hazard when you use crampons (bad idea at altitude in particular) and makes switching sides (as you zig zag up the mountain) cumbersome.
We then moved into more technical terrain that required a bit of climbing. Very slippery so axe, advanced ‘knee technique’ and at times rope were required to be on the save side. Conditions, mainly just foggy in the beginning, got a little harsher as we moved uphill when light snowfall kicked in and temperatures went below freezing (-3 degrees at Cairn Gorms weather station 1,245m). Visibility was poor throughout, but Di insisted that there are usually great views (the next day would indeed prove her right). After the summit and my navigation training (you guessed it, I failed my first test) we headed for the Ptarmigan restaurant (named after the prevailing snow chicken bird) for a well deserved hot chocolate before making our way down (Chelsea were winning 2:0 in the FA cup while we descended). Altogether some 9-10km. Great day.
Map Cairn Gorm (1:50,000)
For dinner I followed Di’s advice and headed over to Cairngorms Hotel. Quite busy and indeed good value as suggested. I was quite satisfied after my chick’n’dip starter and required strong will to finish off the salmon afterwards. Could fall asleep right here …
Basic navigation: map & compass
Di had advised me to get a Ortlieb map pocket and a Silva 4 compass. She brought a 1:50,000 & 1:25,000 scale map of the Cairn Gorm along. All set. Using the map & compass was explained as we hiked (makes it all a bit more real). Starting point was a given (I am not yet that advanced and my army knowledge all but faded). From here follow the steps as I show below to determine your bearing. Most important though … think. What rough heading should you expect, are you heading up or downhill, are there any fixed features or large contours to look for etc.
1 – connect start and destination with your compass / ruler (A to B so to say, in this case from number 1,245 to 1,151 as example)
2 – spin the compass wheel so that its lines are aligned with the map (north facing)
3 – read your bearing (40 in this case) from the yellow highlighted are on the wheel
4 – keep the red in the bed (north facing needle to point at N on compass) and walk
Knowing where you are headed is good and can be well supported by your watch (love Suunto), but you also want to know how far to go. For that you measure the distance using the ruler and pace your steps. On flat terrain I do about 60 double steps for each 100m (again, watch helpful especially in more rugged terrain). More important than getting your steps right is te accuracy of you distance measure on the map. Ten wrong steps put you ca 7m offside, while one millimeter on the map adds/reduces your estimated distance by 50m (1:25,000 scale). In bad conditions that can quickly become a problem (and naturally I would have missed my target on my measure ;o)? Pacing is also a great technique to create you own data / reference points in case you get lost.
Day 2 – Off to our bothy adventure, Ben Macdui and the promised (stunning) views
I woke up 7.30am to prepare food for our 36hour bothy trip. Adam also made it back from his night out with the girls he guided (4am) and looked reasonably fresh. Gear was much unchanged from yesterday other than sleeping bag & ridgerest and technical climbing tools.
Our starting point was once more the Cairn Gorm ski station at 10am (its Sunday after all). We hiked for about 3km, today with great visibility and still not much wind, until we reached a steeper wall. Time for some snow/ice/rock climbing!
The gully Di had picked proved a little tricky in the beginning with lots of unsettled snow (‘swimming’ as she described it) and further up too much rock for her liking. On the other hand, we did get to climb a smaller ice fall (with some extra exercise added as my go pro fell off my helmet and forced me to climb back down the ice fall) and had more solid, frozen snow further up. Loved every moment of it.
After a short break for refreshments and to remove our technical gear, we made our way to the Hutchinson bothy. Some 7-8km hike across Scotland’s second highest mountain (Ben Macdui @ 1,309m) and frozen Lock Etchachan that took us until 5.30pm (so just after sunset). To our pleasant surprise the bothy’s stove was in full swing thanks to Simon. He is a tree surgeon from Surrey and here to add some more Monroe’s to his list (52 so far, aim is 100 by April). He also had his fatbike with him that is apparently great to ride in snow – I have to try it some day. Evenings in such huts or bothy’s aren’t very long usually. Eat, drink and sleep (after a 7,5h hiking day also fully deserved!). Well, we did chat a little bit …
New additions to my kit list after this trip
- Rope knife (could come handy … and you won’t have time to find not to mention open your Swiss army knife when you need it)
- Few small carabiners (for compass etc)
- New lightweight harness (mind will never ever fit over my downsuit!)
- Smaller dry bags (one large one is just not handy to move gear in & out your backpack … especially not if you do that on a steep wall 8,000m high with wind)
- Glove retainers for my new ice climbing gloves (best gloves are of no use if blown away)
- Tenacious tape (to fix rips in your clothes etc … crampons aren’t exactly extending the lifetime of your trousers) & aquasure for permanent fix to garment
- New hiking poles (those you can take apart for better drying)
- Robinson’s squashed for drinks (for when you get sick of tea or to prevent that)
- New lightweight thermarest on top of ridgerest
- Pick & axe protectors
- Small anchor / wire to secure go pro (mine fell off when my helmet hit ice)
Day 3 – No storm warning from my Suunto … storm it was nonetheless
The night in the bothy was alright be it that I did wake up a few times from either hard floor or a companion falling off the bench they slept on. The sky, which was 100% clear in the evening and even early morning, was now clouded. Di had already mentioned yesterday that the weather would get worse especially in the afternoon (good call!). We left 8am and climbed up past Loch Etchachan to Loch Avon (has something of a fjord). From there we hiked up gully to get us back up on the plateau. I used the time to get friendly with my go pro’s voice control … with mixed success although I am sure that Di is now proficient in all basic commands.
Distance slightly overstated … switched off only after Di hit the gas pedal ;o)
Once out of the gully the wind picked up markedly (Di estimated 30m/ph) and goggles were in order. I have to say that the experience was pretty spectacular and I felt good about having Di around. You get lost in such conditions all too easily (15m visibility?). Also happy with all the gear. No cold feet, hands or anything (well, the cheeks a little). After 4.5h we were back at the car and headed for a soup in the valley before I checked out of the bunk house and waited for my bus home. Sadly (but will be back in mid-March)!
Thanks to my guide Di Gilbert for the wonderful three days, the fun and the skills!