Beneath the large, frozen hood of my jacket, my borrowed ski goggles and woolly buff, there was very little skin exposed to the Scottish elements, but my face still felt frozen as we battled onwards through the whipping, arctic wind. “22, 23, 24, 36… uh I’ve lost count again”… As we practised pacing in little visibility, I kept finding my mind wandering and the numbers blurring in my head; distracted by the beauty of the elements that surrounded me. I was taking in every ounce of this landscape, though I could see very little beyond the fog. Despite that and the cold, I felt such a happiness being here. Everything about the situation I was in filled my bones with contentment. I was exactly where I wanted to be, learning new skills, battling the elements, and being overwhelmed by the beauty of Scotland. Frost and ice covered all my gear and my hands throbbed with pain, but I focused my mind and continued my pacing to point 1188 on the map in front of me… “25, 26, 27, 28…”.
The Jonathan Conville Memorial Trust is a trust set up by the family of Jonathan Conville, a young man who died on the Eiger in 1979, offering courses to young people wanting to learn more outdoor skills in the mountains. After spending a summer in the Alps, and falling completely in love with Alpine climbing, I knew I wanted to learn more to feel safer when heading into the mountains. The Winter Skills course, hosted in the Cairngorms, seemed like the perfect start to doing that. So one Thursday evening in January I made the 6 hour journey from the bright lights of Manchester to the snowy peaks of the Cairngorms for a weekend of mountains.
On our first day on the course, the weather had forecast practically Alpine conditions. We arrived at the carpark to clear and still skies, and what appeared to be an abundance of snow. I was in Di’s group, an amazing big mountain climber who, at that point, we knew little about, but later heard of her many ascents of Everest and attempt at the ominous K2. Di briefed us on the route we would take and went over a few compass skills, before one by one we headed up the hill. We were told to assess conditions enroute, and after around 20 minutes of walking Di asked us to tell her what we had observed. There was some fresh snow, ice on the tracks, and clearly much more as we climbed higher. I was already understanding how aware of your surroundings you must be when heading into these snowy conditions. This was my first lesson of the course, and I focused my eyes a little closer the next time we set off.
Not too much further up the track, we grouped on the side of the hill to put on our crampons for the first time. I’ve worn crampons before in the Alps - my inauguration being walking across the La Tour glacier - but I’ve never learned how to properly walk in crampons. We learned side-stepping and front-toeing, holding our ice axes in our up-hill hands and assessing avalanche risk by cutting a snow block. I was feeling so much more confident already of crampon technique and tackling steeper slopes — slopes I would have been terrified of just 6 months before in the Alps. We continued walking in our crampons all the way up the hill, and as soon as the morning sunlight hit us we sat down to enjoy a well-earned lunch.
Later that day, feeling much more confident on our crampon technique, we practised cutting steps with our mountaineering boots and walking axes, and throwing ourselves down a snow slope to learn ice axe arrest. This was an interesting lesson, and though I felt confident in how to stop myself sliding down a hill, I knew this was one thing I wouldn’t want to repeat in a real life scenario. We ended the day as the sun had started going down on the summit of Cairn Gorm; the sky a hazy shade of pink and our cheeks glowing from the winter sun.
That evening, after a warming dinner of spaghetti bolognese and chocolate cake, Di gave us a talk on her attempt at K2. What I loved about the talk and admired so much about Di, was how real she was about big mountain climbing; highlighting the least glamorous aspects of tackling high-altitude peaks. Yet it was evident from her talk that Di had the greatest passion for being in the mountains and challenging herself in those harsh conditions, despite the misery that sometimes prevails on the day — despite failures, injuries, discomfort and death. Di hopes to be the first British woman to summit K2.
The next day on the hill, the conditions were much more like the typical ‘Scottish winter’ I had heard so much about. Snow, high winds, and very little visibility. We wrapped up warm and set off from the ski centre carpark into the Northern Corries, practising some more crampon technique on ice before heading on a ‘journey’. From the Northern Corries, Di guided us up the Goat Track - a steep, snowy track that lead to the summit of the plateau at Cairn Lochan.
For all of us, heading up the track felt like the start of the ‘mountain climbing’ we longed to do. It was adventurous, a little bit scary at points, but brilliant. In reality, the track was the easiest kind of Scottish Winter Mountaineering, but to us it felt like the beginning of many more adventures in the hills. It was about putting our skills into practise, feeling a little bit adventurous, and tackling terrain that two days before we wouldn’t have been able to do.
Once on the summit, an arctic wind blasted in our faces and our ski goggles went immediately on. We took our crampons off but kept our axes firmly in our hands as we began navigating in virtually white-out conditions off the hillside. We learned and practised pacing in our group, heading to distinct points on the map with no features to guide us. Eventually, the Corries reappeared on our right hand side and we started heading down to the carpark, just as the sky began to glow with pink and yellow hues. The last light of day waving us off the mountainside.
The skills I learned on the JCMT winter skills course were, to me, invaluable. These skills allow me to be able to feel safer and achieve more in the mountains. Though this is only the first step, I now feel that with a little more practise, I can navigate in white-out conditions, walk properly in crampons, arrest if falling down an ice slope. I feel so much better equipped for heading back into the mountains and I can’t wait for the future adventures I will achieve within them.
A weekend Winter Skills Course with the JCMT was based in the Cairngorms and cost £95.
Find out about the courses here.