Introductory Winter Mountaineering

Ballachulish (Photo credit: Graham Steel)

I spent a week in March 2012 on a Jagged Globe Introduction to Winter Mountaineering, based in Ballachulish, near Glencoe in the Western Highlands of Scotland. On the whole, it was a great course and a really good holiday. Unexpectedly though, its major feature was a lot of reflection on the nature of aging, and whether it is ever really too late to seize the day.


I do feel as if I’ve been travelling for days to get here from London, since I went via Edinburgh.  I had dinner at The Apartment on Tollcross – definitely recommended for cheapish dinner if you’re in the vicinity, and then went to see The Marigold Hotel. It’s a film entirely about a group of pensioners who for various reasons decide to travel to India and enjoy their retirement in more economical surroundings. Ultimately it is about the fact that regretting what you have lost in life is corrosive; about the fact that new activities or the resolution of missed opportunities are cathartic. It was a highly unoriginal idea, but quite nicely implemented.

I unexpectedly thought about those characters, delving into a new adventure in a new country, a lot over the next week, as the other course participants were quite a lot older than me, and really keen to go on high altitude treks, which they wanted more skills for. Part of me found this frustrating, since I wanted to push myself much harder, and couldn’t really do so in a group setting. But then I thought there seems little point in slaving away building up a stash of retirement money if you can’t use it to do something exciting with the time that is left, and no doubt I will decide to take up sky-diving when I’m 64.

I drove from Edinburgh to Pitlochry via the A9, which took about 2 hours. There’s a great restaurant there called Fern Cottage – I had a fantastic slice of haggis with mustard grain sauce, and the best piece of sirloin I’ve had in a while. The trip up the A 82 was easier than I expected, and I arrived at the hotel by 5. The Ballachulish Hotel is quite nice, and much plusher than I expected given that the cost of the week with full board, all equipment, teaching and transport was £650 – for all that it’s a bargain. My room faced the lake (no idea which loch it is), which is nice, but the mountains behind the hotel are of course what I’m here for.

We were given substantial packed lunches and warm flasks every morning, and had full 3 course meals waiting for us on our return every evening, which was very welcome after spending the day mostly getting cold and wet – having said that, we ironically had some of the best weather I’ve ever seen in Scotland. I kept a little diary of the weeks’ various activities, summarised below.

Midweek blues

What is climbing really for? What is mountaineering for? Why not just go for a walk? When I first got into climbing, which was more or less a year ago, it seemed to me like the promised land, the thing I was missing in my life, the thing that filled the gap between merely existing and being truly alive. But I can never completely ignore the silliness of sport climbing – the idea that you go to a designated venue where someone else has already picked the bolt placements in the rock, and you dutifully clip the line they designed, like dozens of other people before you every day. But it’s still a wonderful way of whiling a way a whole day, and provides a whole range of mental and physical challenges. The thing that keeps me coming back is that it is 90% about self-belief and mastering basic fears, at every skill level. For my level, that is the difference between failing to climb a 5+, and climbing a really nice, exciting 6b onsight (not that I’ve ever quite managed it). But then once I’m back home, I no longer understand why it all mattered so much anyway, and why I was so upset about falling/chickening out/weighting the rope. So what if I failed to climb a couple of moves some random loser I don’t know decided constituted some arbitrary level of skill in a completely obscure sport?

Trad climbing makes much more philosophical sense; you’re mastering a completely natural geological feature, and your skills are enabling you to proceed through a landscape that was otherwise perhaps inaccessible.  Similarly, winter mountaineering is primarily about understanding nature and attempting to avoid it killing you. I originally did this course to start bridging the gap between the “artificial” techniques and tools of climbing, and the in some respects natural skill of navigating a landscape’s features. I want to be able to progress through the landscape, understanding what it offers me, how to find things, how to escape it if I need to. On my darker days, I suppose I consider these skills will come in handy in an apocalyptic future where all I might have is some equipment I’ve salvaged, and my knowledge. So far this week has taught me that I know nothing about reading maps, nothing about snow, nothing much about abseiling either (seems to be done really differently in mountaineering). It’s made me realise what a long road I would have ahead of me if I ever wanted to get to do a  big expedition, which is a bit depressing.

And maybe there is no real point in going on an expedition, which was one of the real motivators for learning mountaineering. It’s just a commercial enterprise, and since most of them use fixed lines, it is no less artificial than sport climbing. The idea of clipping a jumar to an in-situ rope, and shuffling along it with the dozens of other people who seem to think that clicking the “Buy” button on an adventure travel website represents their unique spirit of independence and adventure, is just about as unusual as shoving yourself on the tube every morning with several thousand other commuters – the fact you happen to be on Mera Peak seems pretty incidental and a whole lot more expensive. People can learn to aid climb their way up a cliff any day of the week, the only difference in doing so at 6,000 metres is a bit of Diamox and putting the porters’ lives at risk if anything goes wrong.

Final day

I have come to the end of the week, and not quite reached a conclusion on whether I enjoy this. I really enjoyed yesterday, going up Stob Coire nan Lochan (I think), and going back down the gully – although it did get a bit boring after a while. Even in this rather limited environment of the end of the season, the beauty of the mountains is pretty breathtaking. Then there was a day of technical skills, which I want to know but can’t be arsed to learn. Halfway through the day, when we were practicing all the different ways of doing ice axe arrests, and then did all the stuff for setting up an abseil using a snow bollard, I just thought, “who the hell came up with the crazy idea of climbing up steep snow anyway?”. On the final day, we went up a simple Grade 1 snow gully on Ben Nevis, which was great, but really pretty easy. It was reassuring to know I don’t actually need to be that much fitter to do some of the big trips, although I don’t want to do them if I don’t feel confident I understand how to rescue myself. It’s wrong to rely on other people. The rock faces on Ben Nevis look stunning, and I just wanted to get out of the crampons and onto the rock. Tower ridge might be fun in the summer.

Anyway, the trips I want to do, if I go with Jagged Globe’s offerings, are one of the following:

  • Muztag Ata
  • Nubra First Ascents
  • Tharpa Chuli
  • Kanchenjunga circuit

Maybe do something in the Alps in the summer.

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