Day 1 – 40-ish…

Oh My Goodness!

But I digress…

I met up with Duncan and Andy, who had been at supper last night. It was great to have friendly faces this morning. Added to our group were Chris, who’s driven over from Edinburgh, and like Me, Andy and Duncan, he appears well past worrying about a 40th birthday. Then Alex, (29 and going to Island Peak, Himalayas this year) who thought he should know how to put on crampons. Good move, I would say. With our guide, Rob, there’s me, five blokes and a surprising lack of testosterone (e.g. I’ve climbed this high; I’m really good at this; What, you’ve only done that?) which is a bit of a relief, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Rob gave us a briefing, which included a kit check (my layers should be enough), a long talk about staying warm, how the body’s core temperature falls; tell tale signs – cold hands are often an indication of a cold core, so put on more layers. Lots on avalanche and weather warnings, how to read the avalanche reports (of which there are two daily for this area); general danger signs.

Feeling duly cautioned, we go out to the minibus which will take us to today’s playground. I faff with my gear a lot. Can’t get my sac comfy, fumble with the straps, feel slow. I’m frequently the last to get sorted and when we walk it’s me and Andy, who’s struggling with asthma, at the back.

But this weather is wicked… Visibility ranges between 3 and 300 metres, often changing at a moments notice. At it’s calmest the wind blows a steady and constant 20-30 miles an hour. Gusts are 40-ish miles an hour. Rob judges the wind speed by how likely he is to be blown over. A really strong force of wind and snow stops us in our tracks. That was 40-ish says Rob – it had him rocking. When it’s too strong we should drop to the ground as it will make us more stable, or grab someone else. Apparently two unstable people are less likely to be felled than one.

As we trail the others, Andy and I agree that Rob will probably pull us off the mountain in these conditions. But this is a WINTER mountaineering course. We’re here to learn how to do precisely this – cope in winter. And Rob is completely unperturbed. Only once did our skills session pause; Rob was facing into the wind, a huge gust carrying all sorts of nastiness blew straight in his face. It simply wasn’t possible for him to speak. He waited for the gust to pass and then continued precisely from where had left off. We moved onto using ice axes to cut footsteps in the ice/snow, making progress up and down the mountainside.

So the day continued, past morning (no break), past lunch (no break), to early afternoon(no break); too chilly to stop for more than a few moments to grab a mouthful of sandwich and swig down liquids. Colder and colder, -20 with windchill. Frostbite will attack exposed skin at -26. My gear was fine! The combination of layers was working. I found an easy set of adjustments for when we did heavier exertion and I needed to let out steam, covering back up quickly when the wind surged over us and body temperatures plummeted again.

We’d covered most of the skills that Rob had planned for us today; no chance of rope work in these conditions. So our leader announced that we may as well do the nearest Munro and get the ascent whilst we were here. It was three o’clock’ but there should be time…

Suddenly those crampon and ice axe skills were for real. We were travelling up a steep slope of snow and ice, wind strength and height increasing simultaneously. As I walked I sensed as much as heard my crampons biting into the icy snow surface with a reassuring crunch. The going was tough on quads, calves, knees, and chest as I gasped for breath through the wind. Feet sideways, rocked downwards to the slope so that all 10 teeth of the crampons connected with the snow surface, increasing stability. Ice axe held into the snow above me, always with the axe blade pointing behind in case of a slip and needing to ice-arrest. When fatigue cramped muscles, I carefully turned to face the hillside, climbing straight up. Each step involved a kick into the white so that the front of my footwear broke the surface and gained a secure toe-hold. But not for long, calves screaming, I turn to the side again, and let my feet rock over apologising silently to my complaining ankle joints.

Just 30m from the summit Andy’s asthma kicks in properly; he’s pink in the face but has white/blue lips. He sets himself in a rock nook, as protected as he can be, the rest of us struggle upwards. Chris has already paused. Knee issues and lack of energy and hydration. We continue: up, up, up.

Blow, Blow, GUST, WHOOMP, I can stand still and stay upright, but dare not move for fear of destabilising. Suddenly a tall blue-clad figure is beside me; Rob has reached over and grabbed my pack, not taking weight or guiding me, just preventing me from blowing off the ridge. And we’re back to inching our way onwards. Up, up, up. Chest dragging in air, quads filling up with lactic acid. Step, crunch, kick other foot forward. Step, crunch, kick other foot forward…

Then we’re there… up! The top is too blowy to have a visual record of our first achievement, none of us have the energy to remove packs, fish out phones and battle the storm around us. As we stand there momentarily, I take the offer of Young Alex’s arm just to stay stationary. So it’s a short sharing of victorious smiles before we turn and trudge down the steep, icy, slippy descent, picking up Chris and Andy on our way.

Up is so much easier.

But down has us learning a new skill – plunge steps – on a soft deep snow section we goose-step, pounding our heels into the snow and feeling the glorious soft powder collapse beneath our feet and cushion each footfall. It’s the best bit of the return journey. Leaning back slightly and throwing ridiculous moves in the fabulous white stuff, we make great progress and I laugh as we go. Then back to ice: step, crunch, kick, step, crunch, kick, step…

At different points during our descent Andy and Chris put a foot through the snow, dropping thigh deep through the surface, whilst the rest of their frame moves forwards. Knees are badly jarred. For Andy, this is an insult to the injury of his unhappy lungs. Both guys are stoic, but clearly in discomfort.  Despite his challenges, Andy is always the one to ask if others are ok.  Chris takes another fall and uses his ice axe to stop his slide.  Back in the minibus, we give him the “Ice-Arrest of The Day” award, for his use of technical equipment.  I think he’s a bit non- plussed by the honour…

So, Julie who was terrified of the cold, need not have been. My gear was great – too warm on occasions. From Rob, I’ve learnt new ways of using what I have to better effect (Down layers on top of hard shell; very effective for quickly restoring core temperatures). I didn’t get mittens for this trip and they would have been good for today, but my gloves were still good and on occasions too hot. I’ve more of a sense of how to function and move in this environment and lost my fear of snow and wind blowing; it’s quite possible if not pleasant, to move and make progress is truly horrid weather. If you have to. I am a little euphoric about this change of perspective. If I can do the rest of this course, then…

Over dinner, we chat bout the day, re-live our funny points, share consternations and how they were overcome. Andy and Duncan reliably inform me that the wind speed at the top gusted at 50+ miles an hour. I have no way of judging; once it gets over 30mph, I focused on staying on the mountain. Strong enough to blow you off is all I need to know.

Then bed and in theory write up the day, in practice turn out the lights and feel the aches and strains of unnatural muscle-use slowly wear away.

Where did we go?

On the image attached are the car park in a red circle,  where we did our skills training (blue circle) and then in the black circle, the ascent we did after our 4 hours of skills training!  Access the car park on the road from Fort William through the Pass of Glencoe.

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