Ice, Ice, Baby – an introduction to Scottish Winter Mountaineering

In my head, there’s an iconic picture of me, in helmet, sun glasses, bright coloured snow gear, at the tip of a snow-covered peak surrounded by other (lower) white-tipped peaks in the distance; with just a couple of pairs of footprints behind me and whoever I’m climbing with, in the snow, along the ridge to summit success…. I’d be at the top of Montblanc, or some other easily recognised gorgeous Alpine height. And I would be grinning, from ear to ear, high on achievement.

There’s only one problem (apart from the complete lack of snow/ice technical knowledge): I am terrified of the cold. I don’t mean “I don’t like the cold” or “I hate feeling cold”. I mean that I have no resilience against it whatsoever. I have been known to turn blue beside others sunbathing on a beach in Spain, start becoming hypothermic on a crag in summer-time Italy, and to keep on a cardigan in St Lucia because although it was around 32 degrees’s, there was a cool wind coming off the sea…

I don’t know how to do cold. I have numerous synthetic, technical pieces of gear to keep out the cold. I have gloves, glove liners, thermal hats with thermal liners. I know what to wear. What I don’t know, is how to withstand the cold itself.

Which is a bit of a bummer, because to be at the top (and return safely to the base) of an Alpine mountain, I need to walk and climb in cold temperatures.

I have tried to organise various informal trips to the snow and ice with friends or local climbing groups, but to no avail, so returning to my maxim “we’re only here once” I’ve booked a formal course, Scotland. Yes, I aim to learn technical climbing skills. More importantly though, I need to know if I can do this. Can I go out in these temperatures (forecast for tomorrow is -7 including windchill) and function…?

I am in The Onich Hotel, with nine other intrepid cold-doers, who have planned various guided/taught expeditions. My group has four gents (two of whom I shared the table at dinner) and two others seen across the room, but not really met. Duncan and Andy, were sat on the other side of the large dining room, and seemed chatty; various others were sat eating too but not making eye contact or conversation. The waitresses told me that the first night was always like this, conversation started properly on the second evening when every one had a day’s outing under their belts. I took the plunge and walked the length of the room to say hello. the guys were friendly, are chatty and I think it was a relief to us all to break the ice. I was glad I’d asked…

Which is something I should have done a better job of earlier today.

I have long held that questions are much more powerful than statements. Either in terms of avoiding assumptions and clarifying situations first or because answering a question creates a neural pathway that makes for much more impactful learning and insights.

I was on my second of what should have been four trains, heading towards Edinburgh and I showed the guard my ticket, enquiring about where I should catch the next train to Glasgow. She was very helpful. Alight at Haymarket and get the next train to Glasgow as it’s quicker and it’ll avoid a hurried change/missing the connection. What I didn’t ask was “How long do I have between trains?” So when she said breezily, you have plenty of time to get the 12:21, I didn’t confirm that the 12:21 was leaving from Glasgow, not Edinburgh.

We pulled into Edinburgh Haymarket, I thought I had plenty of time, so nipped to the loo and whilst having a leisurely sit on the pot, was vaguely aware of a train to. Glasgow being announced, arriving and departing in short measure. I emerged, wandering along the platform towards the notice board and then noticed the problem – the next Glasgow train wasn’t for AGES. Oh no….?

A very nice guard eventually stopped walking briskly away from me, examined my ticked, the schedule and sympathetically said “Sorry, you were here at the station, you could have caught the train”. He moved on and I looked, bewildered, at the board again – there were two trains for Glasgow coming up; one slow, the other slower. Which was which?

Laura and her colleague Steve were much more helpful; even trying to persuade the duty manager at Glasgow to hold the next departure but it was no good. My train from Glasgow to Fort William left at 12:21; the faster train to Glasgow arrived at 12:22. “Stand at the front of the train and RUN” advised Laura. And I did.

Which put me at Buchanen Bus Station, nearly three hours later, getting onto the 3pm bus to Fort William which, as it happened, stopped at Onich on the way through.

As I boarded at 14:45, the bus was already quite full and worried about getting travel sick, I saw that an extra leg room seat was available just two rows from the front of the bus. The window seat was occupied by a lady in her 60’s or 70’s who was clearly hoping to keep it that way. She very graciously smiled as I lumped down, sorting my stuff and settled in.

Conversation over the next 3 and 1/2 hours was wonderful. Margaret has always been a keen walker, having stomped the West Highland Way and Great Glen walks for years. We plotted how I would entice (entrap?) M into doing the Highland Way, starting at at the end of Loch Lomaond and walking from there to Fort William (72 lovely miles and only one real hill to speak of… honest…). Her knowledge plotted not only the route, but the over night stops, one B&B at a time! Conversation went all over the place, either of us empowered to deflect from uncomfortable topics (Nicola Sturgeon, Brexit…etc) and then talking about children, grandchildren (hers) and life in general.

So I got to ride along Loch Lomond, with views of a storm-torn vista that would have been missed by the train route set in the trees. After my train trials, I arrived at Hotel Onich, on the Loch-side just half an hour later than I might have done, but I was much the richer for my travel deviation: thank you Margaret!

Checking in, fellow travellers, food and “issues” will need to wait for tomorrow, save that the kit list they’ve given us tonight suggests you should have 3-4 spare warm jackets to take on the mountain. In total (spares included) I have just two…

Oh God…

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