Glenmore Lodge February 1st to 6th 2009
Before May 2008 I’d not paid much attention to Glenmore Lodge. I was vaguely aware of its existence from TGO magazine and seeing their emblazoned minibuses travelling the roads of the Aviemore region. It was not until I hired a guide, Garry Smith, to help me bag Tryfan (I’m a coward for exposure) that I got sold on the place. A former guide at the centre himself he spoke of its virtues and I duly booked an introduction to winter skills course. This is my story, told through snow goggled eyes.
Having travelled up, with an overnight stay in Edinburgh, I’m waiting in the cool of a winter’s Sunday evening at Aviemore station. Anything that looks like a minibus raises my hope for the pre-arranged pick up to Glenmore Lodge. Along the main street I see a suitably sized red vehicle approach, but my heart sags as I realise it is a van and not a minibus. Then the coincidence hits me for along the side of the van is a simple logo advertising “Get High”. It’s Garry’s van - the very Wales based guide who put me on to this place.
Coincidences set to one side I’m grateful when the Glenmore Lodge minibus arrives and whisks a few of us up into hills. The centre is clean and neat. The first evening is spent with a bar meal and it feels like that first night in halls of residence when I was eighteen. “What course are you on?” “Where do you come from?” The only difference being is that the years have killed the need for discussions about driving tests and girls.
My room is excellent, hotel like, ensuite without the telly. The centre has grown from its simple beginnings to offer incredible value for money. I get the sense that this is a significant step up from the YHA centre based courses I’ve been on before.
At breakfast I’ve still not met anybody from my course and sit with a police officer, Andy, on the further winter skills course. Mark, who I met the night before, joins us and I at least introduce two people on the same course. The food is fantastic, a clear difference from halls of residence, and we discuss our winter experiences, mine pretty low with some bad mistakes I’ve made whilst soloing in snow. Andy describes his life as a police dog handler; I chip in with “I guess you’re looking forward to the ice axe arrest training.”
“Aye, we did that on the introductory course, Steve.”
With my humour pride dented I collect a packed lunch and fill my flask with coffee. All provided inclusive of the price, unlike my YHA experiences where the misunderstandings between the warden and the suppliers of the course are legendary including what nights accommodation is included, what meals, packed lunches, coffee and use of drying facilities are permitted. And here there is a distinct lack of notices instructing you to take your boots off, it’s largely left to the individual to determine when boots may or may not be worn.
I then make my way to the handsome lecture theatre for the introductory talk by Nigel Williams, head of training. His professionalism and confidence exudes and I like his straightforward approach, even his words “I can’t guarantee your safety” have an air of reassurance about them.
Then it’s time to meet our instructors an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Spaniard. For the want of this being the opening line to an old joke their names are Rupert, Clive and Rafael but I’ll leave you to wonder whether I have listed them respectively.
We gather by the stores, a tall open garage like area with a climbing wall in one corner. Large double doors protect us from the elements and the line of minibuses waiting to take us further into the mountains.
We queue and the store man lists the kit we need, surveys what we’ve got then fills in the gaps. With bits of kit dangling from every place possible we are instructed to head for the bar. This is fast becoming like the first day in halls of residence! Alas the bar is shut and we use the space to adjust crampons, try on goggles and helmets. The instructors circulate, testing the fastness of our equipment. I’m keen on the loaned plastic boots, they are solid, fit well and I feel my feet will just be along for the ride.
It’s then off to the minibus and the Ski Centre car park. We disembark and start to make our way into Coire Cas; first following the funicular railway, a raised concrete structure snaking its way up the hills like the route illustrations in one of Poucher’s guides. Its conception, construction and concrete are still heaped in controversy.
The instructors circulate amongst us, getting to know us. Rupert asks me “Have you done any hill walking in snow before?” I start to think about my first Munro and a companions helicopter rescue when his bum sliding in snow got out of hand. The time I was ascending Stob Coire Raineach, in Glen Coe, and climbed into such a steep snow face that I had to rely on a couple of other walkers to bail me out. And the time I was following a ridge in the mountains in the Ben Alder area, using what I thought was a line of boot prints to lead me to the summit until it dawned on me that I was walking on the gash in a cornice about to break away. “No,” I reply.
I find the walk tough going, the boots give excellent protection but I’m aware of their weight. We are soon taught how to navigate an icy slope by using the side edge of the boot to kick and form steps. How to turn safely and how to descend through snow by kicking ones heal in.
At Coire Cas we drop our packs by a collapsed igloo and Clive instructs us to don helmets. “Treat your helmet like a tortoise,” he says.
“What leave it in the shed for the winter,” I reply. I think the wind wisps my words away as I’m spared a glare and discover the advice is useful as it refers to placing the helmet on the ground open side down so it does not take off on the ice. I see we each listen by way of our own personality. Some offering quips, shared ideas or past experiences. People like John listening quietly and thoughtfully. A character can be judged simply by the way one listens.
A motley crew – picture Ben Wallis
We are then instructed in a selection of ascent and descent techniques using the ice axe. Sticking the shaft in, cutting steps, digging a ledge to sit or stand on. The biggest thing I learn is the importance of making flat ground to move or rest on. The cutting of steps is hard on my back, each swing just touches the snow to create a ledge but it’s a long way down for me. Rafael, Rupert and Clive circulate; correcting our mistakes, watching until we get it right then moving on to the next. Rafael speaks perfect English, narrated through a distinctive Spanish accent. From the Basque region he’s settled in Scotland, distinctive in looks, as well as accent, with the blackest hair I’ve ever seen, nose stud and earring sleepers.
The sticking the shaft in requires aggression. Clive tells me to pretend it’s somebody I don’t like. I adopt a “Yer bastard” each time I thrust it into the snow. This catches on with Clive and he explains my technique to the rest of the group.
The exercises require frequent regroupings at the rucksacks. Each time we are reminded of the conditions as our packs are quickly covered in snow. Things could easily disappear. Snow Buntings hang out and move in for crumbs each time we graze on our lunches. It’s good to see the wildlife, earlier a mountain hare darted across the slopes above us.
I’m glad when Clive calls an end to the day. I’m tiring and we’ve been at it a good few hours. We don crampons that make for a comfortable descent. As we meet the ski runs snow boarders zip past at great speed, their equipment built to not stick to the mountains whereas ours is built to do the very opposite.
The evening passes with a three course meal and instructional talks in the lecture theatre.
Tuesday dawns with the news of snow down south. The biggest for years the reports say. Here’s me come looking for snow and it’s arrived on my very doorstep. I’m reminded of my 1999 Christmas in Canada, hoping for my first ever white Christmas. For the first time in living memory Southern Ontario was devoid of snow whilst family and friends back home experience the first southern England white Christmas in my lifetime.
Glenmore Lodge - Picture Ben Wallis
I purchase a pair of inner gloves from the store. Goggles and gloves are a few of the items not provided free of charge. I’d found it very cold having to remove gloves to eat yesterday so I welcome the chance of a handy base layer.
Again it’s a drive up to the ski centre and this time a walk into Coire na Ciste in search of a suitable slope to practise ice axe arrest. Again I find it tough going, I ask Stefan how he is doing and am reassured I’m not the only one finding the walks in tough. I’m glad when the instructors find some sloping ground, test the gradient and snow quality and declare it suitable.
We kit out in wet gear consisting of a pullover top and over trousers. This is to protect us from the worst of the wet and damage to more expensive clothing beneath. With my goggles and balaclava Jon says that I and the others look like we are equipped for biological warfare. “After that breakfast I think we all need it,” I reply.
Both my hands ache from the “Yer bastards!” of yesterday so I’m glad when the first lessons are axe free involving throwing yourself down hill head first, feet first on your stomach then on your back. Then it’s repeated many times with the axe as we learn the art of correcting your position and braking.
I envy our youngest member Ben, little older and a student with laid back attitude to match, as he appears to be able to make the moves without fear of later aching limbs.
We stop for lunch, and I take a look at the relics of an ancient chair lift we are working beneath. The timbers of the seats rotting through as they gently swing in the breeze. We sit beneath the dilapidated wheel house and munch our food and sip our warming coffee.
When the day’s work is done we return to the centre and practise and count our pacing on a 100 metre stretch of woodland path. We need to know for navigating in poor conditions. Mine is around 60 paces for 100m on the flat and, once we migrated on to the uphill paths, rose to 72 paces and 90 paces on descent. There was a considerable variance across the group so it’s important to know your own. There then followed a series of navigation exercises amongst the trees. Each designed to take you back to the start via squares, rectangles and triangular courses of varying lengths.
The evening lecture is on avalanche awareness. We learn to watch the forecasts and review the information supplied at the Scottish Avalanche Information Service website to determine the weather of the past few days. Avalanches occur because of snow build up on the lee side of wind blown hills. It’s important to know as much about what has happened as what will happen with the weather. Like cavers who review the rainfall of the last few days winter mountaineers should review the snow fall and wind patterns of the last few days. Each day the warnings are about 80% chance of avalanching in the Aviemore area. I’m glad of the instructors’ careful checks.
Wednesday I wake to a corking bruise on my stomach, so many times had I thrown myself down that slope yesterday that I can’t recall which slide was the culprit. I pull back the curtains and find that a large snow dump has taken place during the night; this turns out to be too much snow to be able to get the mini buses up the road to the Ski Centre. A change in plan, which we are told is key to mountain safety, has us walking on the track towards Ryvoan Bothy then the Corbett overlooking it. Clive says “You can leave your extra wet weather gear behind, we shan’t be practising ice axe arrests today.” I’m delighted to shed some weight then catch Clive eyeing my pack. “Can you take the snow shovel there Steve?” His eye is focused on an extra outer piece of material on my pack.
“Is that what it’s for?” I ask.
“I rather wished I’d known before.”
“I’d have taken it off.”
We pace off landmarks, sometimes very accurately, other times worryingly inaccurately to reach the bothy. I’m looking forward to our group being able to congregate within its confines, eat and drink our coffee. Alas the romantic ideal is scuppered by a large group of well behaved youngsters that has filled the single roomed shelter. We manage to eat and survey the Corbett of Meall a’ Bhuachaille. We make out two paths, branching a few hundred feet above where we stand. Although the left one looks more tempting we opt for the straight up option as this follows the path marked on our maps. Clive makes a welcome statement that we don’t need to pace out sections as the way looks fairly clear. He also talks over Naismith’s rule which is to allow a minute per contour. Worried about my pace, and preferring Steve Smith’s rule of two minutes per contour, I set my altimeter and tuck in behind Jane and Roger, clearly fit for the hills.
As we spy reindeer on high ground we pass over areas of soft powdery snow, pure ice and ice covered in snow. I notice the tread on Jane’s boots is caked with snow and assume mine must be the same. I kick off the snow and I have much more grip. I tell Jane to do the same, she’s says thanks not realising it’s her boots that have actually helped me. We traverse west over steep ground and see how avalanches happen by no more than a desktop of snow breaking away from frozen older snow below.
We make the summit in 85 minutes, just 12 minutes longer than Clive’s rule of thumb calculations, like us it’s all very iced up. So quickly the Velcro on my sleeves is covered in thick ice, my jacket is stiff and I’m covered in what one would describe as a sharp frost. It’s strikingly cold and Clive urges us to get moving. We are set the task of heading west into the col. We have to each calculate, agree and set bearings before setting off and pacing the downward slope to meet the col.
After awhile Clive calls a halt to the shambles. We’ve headed south west instead of west. I sense he’s hiding some frustration. I’m not sure if we are as far off as he says but dare not speak up, at least my altimeter has us south east of the col, where Clive has us more due south. Fortunately we are not made to re-ascend and we follow a sweep search downhill to meet the path that leads through the forest and ultimately to the lodge.
The visibility is good and our sweep search does not hold line. With each of us falling into holes and struggling across some of the deep snow it’s welcome when the gradient slackens off and we meet the very outer edges of the forest. Alas no path to be seen so I surreptitiously take a look at my GPS. It has us not far from where we need to be but I know I need to keep my sudden “expertise” very quiet. We head to the right, still searching out the path into the forest. Jane says to me “It could be by that signpost saying footpath.”
“Looks about right,” I say as I share the irony of the situation with her and reveal my GPS. At this point I figure I should put it away and in doing so drop my compass. This gives Clive the delight in telling us how important it is not to drop your kit. In all my years of walking this is only the second time I’ve dropped a compass and it had to be in front of an instructor.
Meall a’ Bhuachaille – picture Ben Wallis
It feels like a long final slog through the woods and back up the track. We do a final pacing as the 100m course we used yesterday was free of snow, today it’s covered. A debrief follows in the dining room around a circular table. Very welcome tea, coffee and cake is provided at the end of each day. We look out the window and see the principal taking photos of a hastily built snowman. Clive says “I never thought I’d see something so bizarre.”
“Not as bizarre as if it were the snowman taking a picture of the principal,” I suggest.
In the evening I take a walk around the centre. Photographs from the 1950s, showing young people having fun in the early basic accommodation, fill the walls of the stairs. It gives me a level of sadness, moments in time snapped for history. The subjects will be bordering on old age now. Photographs and artefacts from renowned lost climbers, lives cut short in the pursuit of dreams.
I’m cheered by a thoroughly entertaining evening talk by Kirk Watson. As a climber he’s spent a number of winters and summers at the British Antarctic Survey base. His film clips, stills and stories are entertaining and have most of us dreaming of spending some time there. In particular Alan Maw, a welder from the North East of England, learns that his type of skill is in high demand. Alas I could not see a role for me as a software engineer does not fit into the category of climber, scientists or skilled labour.
Thursday I wake to see the snowman up to his neck in snow. Rafael is unable to make it in and we are allocated Kirk to take his place. The snow is too deep to even get out of the centre so we start with building snow holes, something Kirk had covered with some instructional video clips the night before.
We split in to two groups and the party I’m in pile our rucksacks in a heap. Mine is still in my room, which gives me mixed feelings of guilt and relief as we pile on snow. We continually pack it down before adding layer after layer. A couple pass and the woman of the party asks what we are doing. Clive replies, “Making a snowman.”
“Why not a snow woman?” she asks.
“Ours is going to have snow balls,” I offer.
“That’s the tone just lowered,” says Clive.
“If a guy can’t just have a joke,” I mutter. “Only trying to cheer people up, I thought it was quick, witty and relevant.”
“Steve, shut up and keep digging.”
Jane is sent in to dig the entrance. She reaches the packs which are then pulled out, we then take it in turns to slide in on our stomachs and hollow out a cavity. It’s unlikely this form of shelter would be used in emergency as it’s a lengthy process. The other group start to dig what is known as a snow grave but becomes more of a snow wall. This is then used to shelter a group bivi which holds about ten.
The Snow Shovel Parade – Picture Birger Vilen-Peterson
During all of this the RAF search and rescue helicopter lands three times. Once to pick up search and rescue dogs. Two people have been out all night in the hills. Texts had been received the night before and they were told to “dig in.” This morning the ominous lack of contact has rescue workers concerned. The dogs are eager to board and are taken high up into the mountains. The snow, and wind kicked up by the helicopter gives us some idea of whiteout conditions. Our beautiful blue sky day, with mountains edged with snow as an artist would pick out shadow on a picture, is turned in to howling snow swirling conditions. We have to turn our backs in to it and brace ourselves. On the third landing the snow cave is sufficient for Jon and me to dive in and take refuge.
Birger, our dry witted Danish representative, has some fun with me. I’d earlier explained the helicopter rescue I was involved in on my first ever Munro. As it lands this time he says “They’re here for you again, Steve.”
A BBC camera crew turn up and we learn that the two climbers have been found alive and well.
The blue skies continue into the afternoon and the instructors find that enough snowshoes are available. Solid plastic flipper affairs, which you fasten into with a hinge at the toe end, make for easier travelling across the deep powder snow. We set off on a circular route, following forestry tracks, with the aim of touching the shores of Loch Morlich before the return to the lodge.
Picture Ben Wallis
Picture Ben Wallis
We are all taken with the pure beauty. Each lump and bump on the ground picked out by rises in the whitewashed blanket that’s folded into every contour. Blue sky sat above the higher branches, rays of light drawing our eyes as it splashes its way from canopy to carpet. Trees holding snow on every skyward face, rocks in streams like sleeping polar bears, bridge rails with perfect vertical white extensions.
We meet cross country skiers and share our enthusiasm for the nearest to perfection that Scotland can produce. As a group we fall into a line, grouping into a circle when it’s time to rest and talk. A skier that Kirk knows passes us. He’s young, designer stubble and shades, flowing dark hair. “Russ!” calls out Kirk.
“Hey, Kirk,” comes the reply from the biggest smile I’d seen in a long while, “perfect day, man.” If he’d been smoking a spliff the scene would have been complete.
We reach Loch Morlich and all fall silent. Beyond are perfect snow covered hills, the sun lowering yet still above them casting its light over the secrets of their folds and bringing a shimmer across the loch. Ducks float in flowing water where the ice is not. It’s a long while before anybody speaks, we walk along the snow crusted beach with our heads turned left, savouring every moment.
Sat with coffee and cake in the lodge we reflect on the day. It’s been the biggest snow fall for ten years, Clive tells us that it’s been years since he’s been out on snow shoes. They’ve done us proud, what earlier looked to be a day of hasty improvisation became an experience that nobody expected and could not be planned.
Clive asks each of us for our personal highpoint of the day. I reply seeing the party of school children disembark from a luxury coach with MacPhallus emblazoned down the sides. Clive pauses, raises his eyes and says, “McPhails Steve, McPhails.”
Friday brings the road open to the Ski Centre and our first day out by minibus since Tuesday. The car park feels alpine, skis being unloaded from roof racks, folk kitting themselves to the gentle anticipation of the hum of ski lifts.
We opt to walk and trail up into Coire Cas. It’s tough going, the blue skies of yesterday now hidden by low cloud and occasional wind whipping up snow. I see Clive keeping an eye on Stefan’s broad frame. He’s trailing at the back and I can sense some mental calculation is being made whether he’s fit for the summit of Cairn Gorm. We hear the instructors talking, via radio, to the three other courses, all more advanced than us and one by one we hear the news that they’ve turned back. It just leaves us; the least experienced that have picked the route where conditions are most favourable.
Me at the summit of Cairn Gorm
Clive and Rafael huddle in conference. I pick up enough that Clive wants to walk Stefan off and there is debate too whether the summit is really suitable today for any of us. Stefan is approached but feels up to it. Clive is not convinced but we settle on splitting into two groups. On we march until time for a coffee and a snack is called. Clive starts to dig a snow grave.
“It does not look good for you, Stefan,” I quip.
We are instructed to each dig our own hole for shelter and comfort to eat. A few minutes of flurry ensues as we each open out our homesteads.
We carry on, Rafael selects Jon to lead via bearing and pacing. Deep snow is negotiated until we reach the ice encrusted building and weather station that marks the summit. It’s no place for a lengthy rest and we are soon instructed to move on. I’m not ready and feel frustrated. My frustration grows in the descent as my goggles freeze over so I’m seeing the white ground, white sky and blowing snow through a couple of square centimetres. I trip often as I desperately try to find the footsteps in from of me. We rest infrequently, but I’m glad for Ian’s realisation and hands as he chips the ice from my goggles. I’m relieved when we finally halt, Rafael’s pacing, to the Ptarmigan Restaurant being off by no more than twenty meters. Though we can not see it as the visibility is so poor. An exploratory party sets forth and calls the rest forward. Now amongst skiers we look and feel surreal. Bright clothing, cool ski wear, without a drop of snow or ice is the typical garment of people stepping off the ski lift. We are ice and snow encrusted like some Edwardian photograph of an Antarctic expedition.
Amongst curious gazes we follow the edge of the ski slope back to the car park to the end of our week.
Saturday morning I wake in Euston Station, having come down by the sleeper. The bulk of London’s snow has melted but as I get the train out to Great Bedwyn the scenes of Scotland return. 0830am and I’m in our village bakery, hearing how our village, three miles from the nearest main road, remains cut off to all but those with a 4x4. I’m glad for the train, and my new found skills, as I make the final short walk home.
Glenmore Lodge: www.glenmorelodge.org.uk
Scottish Avalanche Information Service: www.sais.gov.uk
Garry Smith’s guiding: www.gethigh.co.uk
© Steve Smith
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