Going on an Intro to Winter Skills course

By Isla McCay

Just a month after moving to the Cairngorms I embarked on my first experience of winter hillwalking with an Intro to Winter Skills course at Glenmore Lodge. As the weekend approached, I was excited about getting out onto the hills to try something new. But I also spent a lot of time thinking up nightmare scenarios in which my lack of experience was going to land me in some sort of disaster! Despite my nerves, I knew this would be worth the challenge of getting out my comfort zone.

Before the course

For a bit of background: there was nothing I disliked more as a kid than being told we were going for a walk! My parents practically had to drag me out of the house. Our family is full of people who are passionate about Scotland’s natural places. So while younger me probably spent more time complaining than appreciating it, the outdoors was unavoidable. Over time I picked up their respect and love for the natural world, but I avoided anything “adventurous”. I always felt that I wasn’t fit enough or wouldn’t be any good compared to whoever I was with. The prospect of group activities or excursions filled me with dread; especially when others around me appeared able to take things like hillwalking in their stride with ease. To me they seemed unbothered by things I found difficult physically and mentally.

Though I came to enjoy walking, I always deemed hiking up Scotland’s hills and mountains to be beyond my limits. When opportunities arose to get back out and about after the Covid lockdowns, I decided that I needed to give new things a go rather than write them off as too challenging for me.

As the weekend of my course approached I felt decidedly unprepared. But I eventually accepted that this feeling was an unavoidable part of ‘stepping outside my comfort zone’. Despite my nerves I was determined to have a positive mindset and give it a go.

Day 1:

Preparing for the hills

The Intro to Winter Skills course was exactly the right place to get started with hillwalking in winter. Upon meeting the others in my group and our instructor at the Lodge on the Saturday morning, we had a bit of a chat about our levels of experience and what we were hoping to get out of the two days. Fi (our instructor) talked us through the best places to get information about the weather and conditions up on the hills. Your regular weather forecast might be fine for most places, but there are some key sources to check before heading for higher ground:

We talked through the kit we’d need (including helmets, ice axes, crampons). As everyone in our group was new to winter, it was great to be able to borrow good quality equipment from Stores rather than risk spending a lot of money on something unsuitable. Then having sorted our bags, met at the mini vans and departed Glenmore Lodge.

Learning key skills

We arrived at the lower Cairngorm car park, then spent the morning getting to grips with our sturdy winter boots and learning to walk in the snow effectively, using our axes for additional balance and paying attention to the conditions and landscape around us. Movement skills are key in winter, and efficiency is the goal. As I’m not the most co-ordinated individual, Fi’s clear instruction and patience were welcome. Once we got the hang of things we were able to enjoy the stunning snowy views and interesting company. We stopped for lunch, then made our way over to a steeper section of the hillside to learn a variety of self-arrests using our axes. Although what we were learning would be useful in a serious situation, it was (admittedly to my surprise) also turning out to be great fun!

We got plenty opportunity to put the range of self-arrests Fi had shown us into practice

Good company

After a good deal of self-arresting practice and a bit too much snow on the inside of my waterproof jacket, we moved on. We had the hang of walking and I’d forgotten the doubts about my abilities going into the weekend. It was great to just enjoy the stunning surroundings and entertaining company. We spent a bit of time discussing the forecast and how far the conditions we were experiencing matched it (we got very lucky with the weather that weekend after a windy season). Throughout the day’s conversations Fi shared her insights about the snow and landscape with us. We finished the afternoon off with a bit of navigation to set us up for the next day.

Glenmore Lodge’s neighbours came to say hello!

On our way back to the carpark we spotted the Cairngorm reindeer herd grazing on the heather, and moving in our direction. As we stopped to admire them and take some photos, as they continued to move closer! A memorable experience to end the day with before heading back to the Lodge for some equally memorable chocolate brownies.

Easily the best chocolate brownie I’ve ever had…

Day 2:

When I checked the forecast that evening after dinner, Sunday was promising to be a good day. The next morning when we met to discuss our plan at the Lodge Fi asked us what our takeaways were from the forecast: with our main conclusions being that we would have sun and a 95% chance of cloud free Munros! The clear skies didn’t mean there were no hazards to consider though. We discussed these and how to prepare for them, which included sunglasses and an extra layer for the chill on the summit. The plan was to head up Cairngorm, and many others were keen to do the same that day. Plenty of skiers, snowboarders, climbers, and walkers were heading onto the hill to enjoy the clear winter day. This created a real buzz of excitement around the Cairngorm base station when we arrived.

Setting off

After departing the car park we got out our maps to figure out where we currently were and which way we wanted to go. A quick game of tig on the snow worked wonders to recap the previous day’s learning. The tentative steps disappeared as our competitive sides came out. We rapidly moved with more confidence and efficiency, determined not to get caught or fall over.

Conditions like this aren’t to be taken for granted in the Cairngorms!

We began to make our way up the hill, and I realised that I definitely had too many layers on. Figuring out what to wear and what to take with you is something you can read and be told about, but ultimately tends to be learned with experience. Since then, I’ve picked up a much better understanding of how to dress and pack appropriately for the conditions.

As we reached steeper terrain and more frozen snow, we stopped to put on our crampons. After a bit of adjustment and some demonstrations of different ways to make the most of them we set off again, trying out more new ways of moving. The weather had stayed glorious. As much as we were keen to test our navigation skills, doing so required imagination given the perfect visibility. Nevertheless, it was good to refresh our map and compass skills in the clear conditions, and to learn a bit about the particular challenges of navigating in winter as we continued our ascent.

A somewhat surprising photo for the family group chat

Reaching the summit

The views from the top of the plateau were stunning and made the journey even more satisfying. Everyone enjoys hillwalking for different reasons but taking in the views is very high up on my list of motivations! We spent some time taking it in, marvelling at the beautiful snow-covered panorama. Heading off away from other groups of walkers and skiers, we found a quiet spot to add a warm layer and refuel with some lunch.  

While returning to the car park, we learned about using our crampons in descent. Once we were back and had returned our borrowed kit to stores, we met in the dining room for another delicious serving of cake. We enjoyed the warmth and basked in the satisfaction of a great couple of days out on the hill. As on the day before Fi answered any further questions that we had about the course or our next steps.

Heading home from the Lodge, I was so pleased not just with the practical skills I had learned, but how much confidence the weekend had given me to go out on my own adventures. It certainly was an Introduction to Winter Skills; I went into it with little experience or knowledge, but I’m eagerly anticipating the next adventure when the snow returns!

Written March 2022. A version of this article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine, November 2022.

Discover Winter

Check out our two-day Intro to Winter Skills course, or join us for the five-day option to learn the key skills and build your confidence for safe and independent winter adventures.

Looking to develop your navigation skills in winter conditions? Our Winter Mountain Navigation course consolidates your and develops your skills to prepare you for navigation in a hostile and challenging winter mountain environment. Or check out the new for 2024 Winter Night Navigation course.

You can find the full range of our Winter Mountain courses HERE.