Call it hiking, hill walking, or trekking, almost anyone can do it with a bit of fitness and
some simple gear (hiking boots, gaiters, trekking poles, water proofs, layers, and a backpack). Depending on where you are hiking, you can do it on your own by following a clear trail, hire a guide, or use your navigation skills to get from one place to another. I’ve been doing it for several years now. I’ve done lots of hill walking in the UK, I’ve climbed the mountains of Sinai in Egypt, hiked in America’s Smoky Mountains, climbed and summited Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, walked the full distance of the Inca Trail and did the Santa Cruz trek in Peru, walked between the seaside villages of the Cinque Terre in Italy, and attempted (but failed) to summit Mont Blanc in France and Aconcagua in Argentina.
It was on that last trip that my tent buddy Victoria mentioned an amazing Scottish winter mountaineering course she had taken a few months earlier. I had taken a short course in using crampons several years ago before I climbed Mont Blanc. But I felt maybe it was time to refresh those skills and to get some of the technical skills needed to climb in the UK in winters; something I’ve mostly avoided when there has been snow and ice.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wanted to know if winter mountaineering was for me.
Let’s just say it was EPIC.
I want to winter mountaineer for the rest of my life.
The course instructors started by spending a full day teaching us how to walk on snow with crampons and how to arrest a fall with an ice axe. That last part was the game changer for me. Learning that there was something I could do to save myself if I slipped on a snowy, icy slope taught me what I needed to be able to climb with more confident steps, ultimately making me less likely to fall.
We spent the following four days climbing in the stunning Scottish mountains of Glencoe
and the Ben Nevis range. I’ve climbed in Glencoe and hiked up Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, in the summer. Conditions were wet, cold and foggy. This time we were going to climb up some very steep snow-covered gullies. When our instructors pointed out where we were going to go, I could hardly believe it possible.
It took me no time to feel confident once I had crampons strapped to my mountaineering boots and an ice axe held in my hand. If anything, I was less confident walking up to snow level because nothing I was aware of could be done to arrest a fall on a precipitous, wet, bouldery hillside. But once we were in that snow, it didn’t matter how steep we climbed or how much it hurt my calves at times, I could do it with confidence.
The views were amazing. At times, we climbed in complete whiteouts. We could barely see two meters ahead of us. At others, the fog dissipated, the snow blizzards stopped, and the sun came out and we could see rolling, snowy hillsides with Scottish lochs and villages in the far distance.
The climbs were in no way risk free and I had my own near brushes with “death”.
At one point early in the week, I had somehow managed to find myself at the head of our group of eight. I was crossing some snowy ground, while Nick, behind me, was waiting to see how my crossing went. I suddenly fell waist-deep into a hole. I looked below me and saw that I had walked onto a snow bridge covering a rather deep stream. I couldn’t get out! Max, our main instructor, was by my side in milliseconds. I have no idea how he reached me so quickly. Between him pulling and me pushing, I soon managed to get myself out of that precarious situation. It was an important lesson learned: not all snow is safe to walk on.
For the rest of the trip, I kept my eyes open for potential holes. Even so, on our last day of climbing and third in a queue of walkers traversing a steep snowy, slope, I managed to find another snow-covered hole to fall into. This time it was even scarier because one leg was caught in the deep hole while the rest of my body was trying to prevent itself from falling down the slope without anything for me to cling onto to steady myself back up. Again, Max somehow managed to come to my rescue in a matter of milliseconds. He handed me Nigel’s ice axe—Nigel was ahead of us all that day and was quick enough to give Max the axe as he headed towards me—and I smashed the axe into the snow to give me a leverage point to pull myself up and out of the hole.
Neither of those was my scariest encounter of the week. My scariest encounter happened when I didn’t have crampons on. We were crossing a steep stream that required stepping onto some icy rocks in order to get to the other side. Because I am less than confident on ice, I almost slipped. Had I slipped down that rocky stream, I see no way I could have survived. But I didn’t slip. And Max was standing there with his hand out in case I did slip. That makes it sound less like a brush with death and more like me being a wimp. But I’m telling you: I almost DIED!
Besides those three episodes, I have to admit I was pretty amazing on my feet. I learned
how to climb up and down very steep slopes using my axe and the front two points of my crampons. I learned how to climb up a steep slope while roped to my climbing partners and how to abseil down (SO much fun). I learned how to use side steps to go up and down. I learned how to use my heals to climb down. I learned how to carve a shelf into the mountainside to make myself safe enough to stand still on a steep slope. OMG I loved it all!
I think my most important lesson of all was that I learned that I do not know enough or have enough skills to go winter mountaineering without an experienced guide. There is so much to learn about types of snow, avalanche risks, planning a mountaineering day, and having the technical skills to do a variety of climbs.
Last week is right up there with some of the most exciting and fulfilling trips I’ve ever been on. The instructors were great, the company of my fellow course-mates was amazing, the views were stunning, and I had so much fun I can still barely contain myself.
Winter mountaineering will just have to be added to the top of my list of very expensive hobbies I find myself interested in. I’ll also have to keep myself in tip-top shape if I want to do it again. That stuff requires some real strength and cardio fitness!