Cairngorms National ParkMountainsScotlandWalking

Winter Worryland

Winter landscape at dawn, snowy hill, frozen loch, dark trees, sun rising behind clouds.

From the comfort of my sofa in a warm living room, I have just booked myself onto my first ever mountain winter skills course. It is the middle of January in Scotland and having just returned from several weeks of the Australian summer, I feel plunged into darkness. Jet lag casts me onto the endless shores of the night where I lie tired but sleepless, listening to the silence that looms strange and total around the house. My parents’ old weatherboard house in Melbourne is a being of breath and bones, sighing with the see-sawing temperatures, bumping with the passage of creatures inside and out, caressed by trees. The Australian birds are raucous and the road busy.

Here in our village in the Highlands in mid-winter, even morning arrives without sound or light. I keep checking the clock to tell whether it is still some ungodly hour or time for breakfast. By day, rain washes across the landscape, clouds mass and shift with the wind and this morning we woke to a fall of wet snow that by afternoon had dribbled into the mud. None of this inspires me to go mountaineering. Nor does the whole-body misery of bubbling cold, sinusitis and jet lag.

But I want to write a book about the Cairngorms in all their moods, so I need to get up there and broaden my experience. Although I’ve walked in snowy hills many times, it’s always been with more experienced walkers and not long treks or demanding conditions. Late last year, therefore, I became a member of Mountaineering Scotland and this year I need to go on one of their highly recommended Winter Skills courses. The problem is they’re all booked up.

Until a few days ago when an email arrived offering a space on a one-day course this Wednesday – three days’ time. My heart sinks. I should be excited by the opportunity, but I’m feeling rotten and the last thing I want to do is spend nine hours in freezing conditions throwing myself down snow slopes for ice axe practice.  Besides, the combination of the festive season, heat in Australia and this virus means I’m not exactly at peak fitness.  But I know this might be my last chance this winter, so I gird my loins and book, noting that – at this late stage – no refund will be possible on cancellation.

Reading the kit list, I then note I will need to make a trip into town the following day for proper winter boots, crampons, ice axe and seriously waterproof trousers. (My current ones are budget brand, have lost their seam tapes and are about as effective as a pair of plastic bags.) But ouch. The cost of all that gear may wipe out any author earnings for the book. Wondering how many warm layers to wear, I check the Scottish mountain weather forecast for the day of the course. Here are extracted highlights:

HOW WINDY?

Southwesterly 60-80mph; risk gusts towards 100mph on high tops.

EFFECT OF WIND ON YOU?

Atrocious conditions across the hills with any mobility tortuous; severe wind chill.

That sentence goes through me like a 100mph gust of freezing wind. No, no, no. This is not me. I’m a happy-go-lucky hillwalker, not a polar explorer pitting myself against the elements and prepared to get frostbite, hypothermia and snot crystals hanging from my nose. And it’s not that sort of book I’m writing, anyway: the adventure epic of agony and conquest, the heroic survival memoir pushing the limits of bravery and belief. Who needs a mountaineering disaster? I’m touching the void of my existential crisis right here on the couch.

I go to bed feeling not just unwell, but frankly terrified. Little wonder I barely sleep.

The following afternoon, we head into Aviemore. If there’s one thing this town excels at, it’s outdoor shops, and we do the rounds. My husband Alistair is an experienced hill-walker in all weathers and advises me on winter walking boots, the pros and cons of stiffer soles or a more flexible fit, the lacing techniques. I’m struggling to get my head past the price tag. And that weather forecast. It’s only 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but already the darkness is gathering in the wind-blown skirts of rain. A friend who works in one of the shop learns I’m doing the course this Wednesday and winces. My stomach twists.

The news calls it Storm Brendan. It’s always bad news when the weather has a name.

I’m shown a series of ice axes and Alistair and the staff cheerfully demonstrate the necessary grip to arrest your fall and discuss the pros and cons of leashes. Pro: you don’t lose it. Con: if you fall without getting a grip, the thing is bouncing around and can hit you in the head. The good news is that Mountaineering Scotland will issue us with helmets. The bad news is that my head is already throbbing.

I haul waterproof trousers over my jeans and hubby points out best features for keeping rain, snow and wind out. I silently note that, even in the sale, these are more expensive than any dress I’ve ever bought. We end up in Tiso’s where I plea for time out in the cafe. With tears dripping into my hot chocolate I confess my anxieties. “Do I need to do this? Do I need to buy all this stuff?” It all just seems so scary and expensive.

Alistair is gentle. “No, you don’t have to do the Winter Skills course on Wednesday.” I almost howl with relief. “But yes, if you want to explore the Scottish hills in winter, you need to be safe. For that, you need proper equipment and better skills. You do need this stuff and it will last for years. And there are other opportunities to get the training, so don’t worry.”

Come Wednesday morning I can’t resist another sneaky peak at the mountain weather forecast. It still has those devastating predictions of 100mph gusts and ‘atrocious conditions’ but now includes these lovely lines:

HEADLINE FOR CAIRNGORMS NP AND MONADHLIATH

Stormy winds. Snow & whiteout, focused W Cairngorms NP

HOW COLD? (AT 900M)

-2 or -3C. Wind chill on higher terrain close to -20C.

So I’m sitting snugly – and smugly – at my kitchen table watching the garden trees whipping about and contemplating nothing more adventurous than a dog walk. But I am wearing-in a pair of spanking new leather winter boots that are warm and strong and quietly reassuring me that together, we’re going to move mountains.

Golden retriever looking out window with hiking boots beside
Sileas, our Golden, yearning to get me out there

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