Hillwalking: It’s all go in Glencoe

After one of the coldest winters in
three decades, I’m in the coldest place possible, standing thigh-deep in snow.
I’m being reminded by my smiling, precisely spoken instructor Rob that “if
you slip here, you’ll die. So pay attention.” Between myself and the
bottom of the valley far down to my left, through which runs a river swollen to
rapids by melting ice, is a steep, still-snowy slope.

Following Rob’s lead, I step out
cautiously, swinging my left leg around and planting it in his footprint, where
the snow is packed and firmer. I’m heavier than him, so my foot sinks deeper,
and I think for a horrible moment that it’s not going to hold, but it does. I
repeat with my right leg and continue my slow progress up the mountain.

As we make our way up the Coire Gabhail
– the “lost valley” where the Macdonald clan once hid their cattle
from the marauding English – the weather turns from driving rain to blizzard.
Those who claim Britain has lost its wildness haven’t been to this part of
Scotland in winter.

The train from Glasgow to Fort
William is like a journey into Middle Earth: you pull in at Garelochhead,
Ardlui, Bridge of Orchy; wispy little places where nobody gets on or off.
Mountains stained wine-red by heather sweep up like cupped hands around lochs.
Lower plains are turned into spiky oceans of white, mottled by pine forests and
the occasional stag.

I’m here to prove a point. Many
people, even very active summer hikers, are put off attacking the mountains in
winter or early spring because of the miserable weather and danger. Yet despite
a total lack of previous experience I’m discovering that with a bit of
preparation, as Rob says, it’s all about “managing the risk”. Having
climbed all his life – he once worked as a binman in Chamonix to pay the bills
– he is now Operations Officer for the National Mountain Centre at Plas y
Brenin in north Wales, so I’m inclined to trust him.

He introduces the ice axe to me as
my trustiest friend – even in March, where bleak sun is starting to hit more
southerly climes. It is a walking stick, a climbing tool and, in extreme
circumstances, an emergency handbrake: one of the central skills of my two-day
course is the ice-axe arrest, a procedure which involves throwing all your
weight onto the axe-head, driving it into the snow to prevent a precipitous
slide. It’s fun to practise, but I hope I’ll never have to use it.

Learning to walk in crampons also
takes a bit of getting used to. They snap on like skis and instantly change
your gait from a swagger to a totter. Clamped snugly to previously treacherous
hillsides, you must stay wary of tearing open your trousers, as I did, twice,
as you acclimatise to walking with 10 miniature daggers on each foot.

I’m also taught how to climb small
ice walls and rock formations, dig snow shelters and work out the odds of an
avalanche on any given slope. This last point is important: avalanches still
kill climbers in Scotland each year.

Aside from these technical aspects,
the instructors emphasise the importance of the right clothing. As the bare
minimum you should dress for skiing – thermal base layer, lightweight and
heavyweight fleeces and a Gore-Tex jacket, as well as several pairs of gloves,
a hat, helmet and emergency gear that could make the difference between life
and death.

It turns out that most of the other
people on my course are staff at the venerable retailer Cotswold Outdoor,
swotting up on the different properties of the kit they sell. The evenings
become a nerdish and hilarious riot of one-upmanship about the properties of
different jackets.

Their head of staff training, an
affable Australian called Sarah, explains the thinking: “I want our staff
to be passionate – we want them to know exactly what the customer is getting
when they buy an ice axe.” I’ve now learnt how it really makes the

But winter mountaineering is not
nearly as scary as I feared. It’s far more about mindset than fitness: the
slopes aren’t harder, you just have to think harder about getting up them.

In Britain, we are blessed with
some of the most varied and interesting terrain in Europe – why fly anywhere?
Next time the snows descend, instead of staying in, hop on the train, grab your
axe, clamp on your crampons and head for the hills. Whatever your disposition,
ice climbing is an unnatural thing to do. On the whole we try to avoid standing
on ice, let alone climbing up it. Yet it’s easier than you’d think and
incredibly rewarding. With your ice axe, or axes for the more advanced, you
swing and gain a foothold. Using the front two points of the crampon, you kick
into the ice, pushing your heel down. This is counter-intuitive – your instinct
is to try and push onto your tiptoes. It’s difficult to believe, but the ice
holds and you can climb up. Once you get used to the sensation it’s immensely
satisfying, although a shock to untrained calves. Thanks to “The Ice
Factor”, the world’s largest indoor ice-climbing facility, Glencoe
visitors can practise on real ice even in the middle of summer.