Winter Skills: Saturday, January 19 (Day 1)

The weekend was very fun, and I’m really glad I signed up to do it!

The winter skills weekend began when our group of 12 students and 4 teachers met at the mountain rescue building at Gordonstoun on Friday night. We got our boots, crampons, and ice axes and we did kit checks to make sure we all had everything we would need. Then we drove about 45 minutes to a cabin near the Cairngorm Mountains. Once there, we divided up into our smaller trail groups. Mr Park (Gordonstoun’s outdoor education coordinator) and Mr Hall’s (Geography teacher) group consisted of 6 year 9 boys. My group was me, Fiona (year 13 from Yorkshire in Plewlands House), Naomi (year 12 from Germany in Windmill House), Callam (year 10 exchange from South Africa), Max (year 10 exchange from Australia), and Joe (year 10 from Duffus House), along with our leaders, Dr MacEwan (Biology teacher) and Miss Maxwell (outdoor education). It was really fun meeting the two older girls in my group, who are both in 6th form and from different houses; I wouldn’t have met them otherwise. After we split into the two trail groups, we talked about the route for tomorrow, the weather, and did another kit check. We talked a lot about avalanches and the dangers they pose, because they have become quite a problem in the Cairngorms recently. Our talk about avalanches was even more relevant after we got back to the cabin in the evening and received the news that 6 people got caught in a human-triggered avalanche in the Cairngorms that day, 4 of whom were killed and the other 2 in critical condition.

The next day, after breakfast and the drive to the base of the mountains, we parked and started our trip. It had snowed throughout the night, and the footpath we took was covered in fresh powder. I’ve never experienced hiking through snow before and it is a lot harder than just hiking in Yosemite during the summer. Every step we took we weren’t sure how deep it was going to be. At one point I was trudging through waist-deep powder. It was a toasty -6 degrees celsius, but adding the wind chill–which truly does make a difference–it was -22 degrees. The wind was blowing at about 30 mph, and with our hoods up, we couldn’t really hear each other over the wind. It was a windy and snowy trek on the way up the mountain, but once we got up and over the ridges, we stopped and had a snack at around noon. I really appreciated the hot tea we brought in a thermos, because it really warms you up.

After our snack we started making our way to a small lake or “lochen,” but in order to get there we had to scale some icy slopes, which meant we got to use our crampons and ice axes. About half way up the slope, when I was getting used to the techniques and having spikes attached to my feet, I felt the ice shift and both of my feet dropped about 8 inches into running water. I had hit a soft spot, and we discovered that we had been climbing up a river that had frozen over on top, but still had water running underneath. After we climbed off of the frozen river, we made our way over and down into the lochen, which was frozen enough to walk across. Then we had lunch and practiced building snow caves and other climbing techniques on the slopes near the lochen.

There aren’t really trails on the Cairngorms. After our break at the lochen it was time to start heading back. Our group was given the task of finding our way back based on everything we had learned. We successfully navigated our way back.

Even though the trek out to the slopes was long, once we got there and started climbing, it was really fun.