My last week in Scotland has flown by, not only still working on Plas Y Brenin’s Scottish Stores but also finally getting around to doing my Winter Mountain Leader Training, the first of my ‘higher awards’…also dubbed by Dave Evans (the course director) as the Winter Mountain Labouring Award. He wasn’t joking either. I’ve come away from the week truly believing that to be a successful ML winter candidate you need to be strong, mentally but also physically with an ability to stay calm when the shit could potentially quite easily hit the fan. Cutting steps in rock hard neve in a howling white out while confidence roping the weak one in the group, being in charge of navigating your group off a mountain, not getting avalanched and doing it all comfortably and in control means you’ve got to be hard as nails quite frankly…again not just mentally but physically too!
The week started with a jolly up to the summit of Buachaille Etgive Baeg (the people’s mountain) to look at skills such as cutting steps and ice axe arrest and how you might go about teaching these foundation skills to a complete novice. We moved onto more journeying days, efficient moving with a group over steeper ground and snow belays. We headed up the ridge to Stob Corie Nan Lochan and down into the lost valley and on the third day ventured just out the front door up Schoolhouse Ridge and to the summit of Sgorr Dearg. The fourth day was a complete and utter Scottish ming fest. The weather was grim and the whole of the western highlands fell into a thaw. We walked up to the CIC hut and practiced building snow bollards, bucket seats and confidence roping people. Then the real challenge, the expedition. A morning walk into the window on Craig Meagaidh to dig our snow hole for the night. Dave explained that it would take a few hours and you wanted to take a layer off to stop yourself sweating. By this point I was freezing anyway, and 3 hours later sat inside our size able snow hole I was even colder than before with blocks of ice where my hands used to be. We brewed up, ate our boil in the bags and headed out on night nav, a task which people weren’t particularly looking forward to. Once again outside in the howling wind and spin drift we practiced our winter navigation before crawling into bed at 1o having actually had an amazing time. That’s not it, every 2 hours an alarm goes off and you check your snow holes door to make sure it isn’t filling in and that air flow is still good, so all in all a cold, moist broken nights sleep. The next morning, with porridge and custard lining our stomachs we headed out again for some navigation practice, following the ridge back towards the van and tasty stashed food.
Winter ML, a completely different kettle of fish from its summer counterpart. The risk, the factors your taking into consideration for your group, the planning, the knowledge all seem that step above what I had expected. Apart from being physically demanding the knowledge and experience a winter ML holder needs and the assessment process all sound fairly brutal. You essentially have to know your s**t, be hard as nails and not give up even when the wind is making you crawl and the recurring hot aches in your hands leaves you on the edge of vomiting. Hence the dubbed name, Winter Manual Labour. A new respect gained for its holders, assessors and the people holding the even higher awards like MIC and BMG status!
My last hill day involved catching the lift up Aonach Mor with Emily (who is taking over in Scotland for the last stint) and post holing out to the view-point 1km from the gondala station. Having been an idiot and lost my socks between my bedroom and the car and also not taking gaiters, I got cold wet snow inside my boots within seconds. Although the view was stunning and the Scottish mountains have already captured my imagination and infinitely extended the length of my tick lists, the cold wet snow seeping into my socks and cold burning my shins also affirmed the fact that I longed for my own bed, with the rest of my CA family and the routine of the Welsh base.
The drive back south this morning through the Glencoe Valley past the mountains which had entertained and occupied me for the last month was slightly bitter-sweet. A feeling that I had achieved a lot but needed more time, which inevitably would never be fulfilled with the coming of spring. The brutal nature of Scotland, being cold and having wind chapped skin, bruised toes and balaclava tan meant that I was ready to return to Wales to comfort and familiarity, but something addictive about Scottish winter made me feel slightly uneasy about driving back south.
Next season should be fun!