Alistair McDonald

Winter Mountain Leader Training

On Saturday the 25th of February I arrived at Glenmore Lodge in spring like temperatures wondering how on earth they were going to find enough snow for me to complete my Winter ML training.  I also met my roommate for the week, Mick, who immediately began telling me stories of his expeditions to far flung places including climbing Mount Everest.  My tales of forays into the Scottish Highlands seemed measly by comparison and I began to wonder if I had bitten off slightly more than I could chew…

On the Sunday morning we met out instructors for the week: Scott and Dave who both had a wealth of knowledge and informed us we would be spending the day in Coire Laogh Mor which was just about the only place in the Cairngorms with any snow left…

The weather was insistent on making our day as miserable as possible and we spent the majority of it in horizontal rain and sleet with freezing winds.  Despite this we managed to cover coaching ice axe and crampon skills alongside personal movement on snow.  Thoroughly soaked, we headed back to the bus hoping the weather would prove kinder for the rest of the week.  I should add at this point that the weather on day 1 had the unfortunate side effect of soaking my phone which despite being in a waterproof case, inside a waterproof jacket was no match for the Scottish weather and my report is subsequently devoid of many more photos!



Day two dawned and a very unfamiliar sight met my eyes out the window…snow!  Winter was back and we were finally going to get some time in proper winter conditions.  Our instructor for day 2 was Mark Chadwick who funnily enough had taken me on my Summer ML training 5 years previously.  The weather couldn’t’ have been more different from the first day with sunshine and no wind revealing a landscape like that out of a Visit Scotland poster.  Mark took us up to the ski car park and then up into Coire Cas all the time coaching us on personal movement and ice axe and crampon skills.

We were back around four but just had time to catch our breath and then we were into the lecture theatre for a talk on avalanche awareness before dinner.  This was followed by a post dinner lecture on winter navigation which finished around 9 and I fell into bed absolutely exhausted but feeling like I had learnt a huge amount.

Days 3 and 4 followed a similar pattern to the second with a full day on the hill looking at everything from ice axe arresting to snow belays.  This was always followed by two evening lectures focusing mainly on avalanche awareness… something that any winter mountain leader has to have at their fingertips.

Our final two days were spent on a snowholing expedition which I was really looking forward to given that I had never spent a night in one before.  We arrived at the snowholing site to be told to settle in for a long shift as it takes around five hours to dig one out.  Within two swings of my shovel I had revealed…a pre existing snow hole!  After giggling at our luck for a few minutes we set about making it into more of a snow palace… complete with shelves, luggage storage and even a spare bedroom with a second entrance!

Given the glorious weather we had had up to this point in the day the instructors wanted to give us a shot at navigating in poor visibility.  So at 9pm we set out to do some night navigation.  Underfoot conditions were very slow and it wasn’t till after midnight that we arrived back at the snowhole utterly exhausted.

The final day dawned with some of the best weather I have ever experienced in the Scottish hills.  No wind, sunshine and a glorious sunrise over the Cairngorms.  Sunburnt, tired but with big smiles on our faces we arrived back at the van and headed back to the lodge for tea and cake and a debrief.  It really was the perfect end to what had been a physical and mentally demanding week but one that I would do again in a heartbeat.

Once back home I took a walk in my local hills to contemplate all that I had learnt.  The Scottish mountains are a harsh and demanding place but can also produce the most magical of moments.  This training has given me the confidence to go out and explore the mountains more in winter, hopefully heralding a lifetime of adventures.  As a volunteer with my local mountain rescue team I know that these skills will also come to the fore in our next call out.  Without the Neil Mackenzie Trust I would not have been able to undertake this training and learn so much about winter mountaineering in Scotland.  Thank you.

A mcDonald dog

Contemplating all that I had learnt on the summit of Broad Law with my favourite hill walking partner. 

For report and more pictures visit Alistair McDonald report