“Thinking back later, I realised how different things could have been, if not for being correctly roped up… Even with an ice axe, it’s highly unlikely I would have been able to stop myself before I hit the granite boulders that were waiting who knows how far below me, in the white-out at the bottom of the slope.”
As we prepared for our ascent, the weather went all Scottish on us. The clouds came in and before we knew it, the snow was falling.
Climbing to higher altitudes, it wasn’t long before we were inside the cloud belt.
I kind of liked it. I mean, it’s cold, you’re soaked to the skin and the surface is tough going, but there’s something undeniably peaceful about being up there, hidden away, just trudging through a cloud.
As long as you’ve got the right clothes and a guide who knows what they’re doing, you’ll be comfortable enough and your only limitation is your own determination and physical fitness.
The guides had warned me that something that takes a lot of folks by surprise on their first time here is just how arctic the climate and landscape are during the winter months.
And they’re not kidding. It’s featureless white in all directions and if you’re not walking on thick ice, you’re sinking into deep snow which, at times, took me by surprise, as I suddenly disappeared down to the thigh.
The wind was blowing fresh, wet snow across the surface of the snow, which was forming an ice crust the instant it landed. So with every step, we had to punch our boots through the ice into the snow, so we didn’t slip.
The climate on the top of the Cairngorms is sub arctic and it can change on you in a second. They have a saying around here: If you don’t like the weather, hang around for ten minutes.
Pretty soon, we were roped together and walking in harness and hard-hat territory.
At first, I seemed to have an aptitude for this kind of thing and we were able to move about the mountain fairly quickly.
But after a couple of hours, we were pulling up a steep section, using crampons and ice axe and the strength just went out of my legs!
It wasn’t that I didn’t have the energy to push myself up the incline anymore, it was that I didn’t have the strength to punch my spikes into the ice anymore, so I was just taking one step forward and sliding two steps back. It doesn’t take long doing that before your lungs are bursting on you!
Gravity and stuff
At one point, I did take a fall. I dropped the camera, turned and caught it on reflex, only to discover that you can’t spin around like that when you’re standing on an ice slope at 45 degrees.
Well, you can, but what happens is your crampons come out of the ice and before you know it, you’re ten feet away, bum to the ice, dangling from a rope.
Luckily, I was roped to my instructor, Carl, who’s been doing this for thirty years and caught me without even thinking about it.
At the time, I just got up, rather embarrassed, and hauled myself back up the slope, but thinking back later, I realised how different things could have been, if not for being correctly roped up.
Given the steepness of the incline, the ice and the speed I fell just that short distance, even with an ice axe, it’s highly unlikely I would have been able to stop myself before I hit the granite boulders that were waiting who knows how far below me, in the white-out at the bottom of the slope.
By the time we were coming back down to the tarn section, I was doing that half-not-here trudge through the blizzard, as two Air Force guys practically ran past us down the mountainside, defying gravity, and gave us a cheery ‘hullo!’ as they passed.
We caught up with them at the rendez-vous point in the tarn. It turned out they’d huffed up and along a huge chunk of the mountain plateau that day already. They described it as ‘a good yomp’, before bounding off into the snow, leaving me feeling like the world’s worst couch-potato.
We stayed at Glenmore Lodge, which is nestled inside the Cairngorms National Park, so you can check out the conditions through the window as you eat your breakfast. It’s home to the Scottish national Outdoor Centre, so you can get kitted out, trained and taken out by nationally qualified experts.
I had a great time and I will do it again, but I didn’t get the wonderful mountain views I’d been fantasizing about.
So why choose the Highlands?
I guess it’s got to be the accessibility. You can have breakfast in Edinburgh, jump on a train and be in Aviemore for lunch.
Within an hour or two’s trek up the Cairngorms, you’re in what is to all intents and purposes an arctic wilderness with world-class ice climbing.
There’s no denying you’re at the mercy of the weather here, but as they say in Scotland, there’s no such thing as bad weather – just the wrong clothes.