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Get started with mountaineering in the Cairngorms

Join #GetOutside champion Sarah as she goes on a mountaineering course in the beautiful Cairngorms

Packing to go on holiday for a week is possibly one of the most annoying parts of going away, especially when choosing what to take. Add to that fact that you’re going on a mountaineering trip and you can’t really afford to get your packing essentials wrong. Back in February I went with a friend to the Cairngorms to brush up on my winter mountaineering skills at Glenmore Lodge National Outdoor Training Centre and so this was precisely the predicament I found myself in.

Thankfully the Glenmore Lodge site had listed the essentials; some of which I already had from hiking and trekking generally but winter skills require a certain amount more, not least the layers for the cold.

Lesson #1: The packing list is essential if you’re not to forget anything, it was the only way I could find out what I already had and what extras I needed (mittens!).

Image: Sarah Stead Image: Sarah Stead Image: Sarah Stead


Day one of our mountaineering course was very much about getting back to grips with the basics, familiarising yourself with the landscape and the equipment. It was safety first and checking that we knew how to use our avalanche transceivers; it was bizarre that a fun game of hide and seek through the forest has such vital implications and could save a life in the event of an emergency on the mountain.

When we got onto the mountain itself, the training session turned to finding our feet, learning the ways to make climbing steep slopes easier with and without snow and this meant using crampons! These contraptions are interesting to say the least, mainly because if you don’t know how to walk in them chances are you’ll either shred your waterproof trousers, stab yourself with a spike or end with painful calf cramp thinking your feet are invincible.

Lesson #2: Walk like John Wayne on the mountains!

Image: Sarah Stead

Image: Sarah Stead

During our week in the Cairngorms we were phenomenally lucky with the weather, apart from a couple of instances of cloud we had glorious sunshine, it was bright on the snow but we’d have been churlish to complain when it gave us such incredible views over the Cairngorms. It was utterly breath-taking. There is nothing quite like an impressive mountain range to give you a real sense of perspective, in every sense of the word. The vast expanse of landscape before you, and realising your small place in it, is very humbling and awe inspiring.

You need to appreciate where you are, not only is it good for the soul, it also helps you to get your bearings.

Lesson #3: It is always worth taking the time to stop and take a look around you even when you’re pushing yourself through the hardest physical challenges.

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I think one of the things I found most surprising when mountaineering is just how much energy you need, especially in winter. The cold can really take it out of you and make even simple tasks that much harder. Keeping hydrated and well fed is vital. I’m normally a three solid meals a day kind of person and try to avoid snacking on anything other than fruit (sometimes more successfully than others!). At the start of the week I pack myself a sandwich, a chocolate bar, a slice of cake and a banana.

By the end of the week, I had halved the sandwich as stopping for any length of time to eat cooled you off too quickly, I replaced the banana with an apple as there is nothing worse than finding squished banana all over your food bag, and cereal and chocolate bars were my new best friends (finally a valid reason to scoff chocolate!).

Image: Sarah Stead

Image: Sarah Stead

Lesson #4: Your food bag is an ever evolving thing, especially in the cold. You should always be willing to try new things and remember what works for you, it saves a lot of time!

One of the most amazing things about spending a week mountaineering in Scotland has to be all the things you learn. Obviously I was doing a course so if I hadn’t have learned anything then essentially it would have been a waste of my money (even if I’m spending time in the beautiful Cairngorms). Going out with ice axes and learning how to make best use of them when scrambling, and taking other equipment such as ropes, belay plates, harnesses and carabiners so that we could belay up the mountain side was exactly what I wanted to learn. I even learnt other new skills including some new knots.

But the hardest lesson of all when you’ve got that much kit, is learning how to pack your bag! It took several days for me to figure out the best way to make sure that my emergency kit was out of the way but still accessible; any additional warm clothes didn’t require fumbling with inevitably cold fingers; and meaning that I didn’t have to empty my bag to get to my harnesses etc.. I even had to make sure that the weight was evenly distributed so as not to cause unnecessary strain on my back. Every day we had a new route with different requirements and it wasn’t until day four that I finally realised that there was no point packing until I knew that day’s plan and not going on what yesterday’s had been.

Lesson #5: Plan ahead and know that even the best laid plans won’t necessarily go to plan, pack for the worst conditions and hope for the best!

The final lesson I learned was the most personally rewarding. Challenging yourself and learning new skills are amazing experiences but just how good that is for you is only ever as good as your own outlook. Embrace the challenges, accept that some will be harder than others and then roll with it. You’ll have an amazing time so just enjoy every minute.