A winter walking weekend

By Kevin Riddehough

Kevin won a winter walking weekend in Vango's Site of the Month competition run in October in conjunction with walkscotland.com. Here he reports on his experiences on the course, based in the Grampian mountains and run by Highlander Mountaineering.

Thanks to walkscotland.com and Vango I had a terrific early Christmas present. I was informed that I had won the winter walking weekend for two in the Scottish Highlands. A friend of mine, Neil, agreed to accompany me on the weekend and it was then a matter of choosing the date and stocking up on more winter gear. February 25 - 27 was chosen and the weeks came and went until S-Day (that's Scotland day) arrived.

We set off early enough so we could take a leisurely drive up from Lancashire. We left bright sunshine and by the time we reached Cumbria we were passing through some serious cloud. Undeterred, we plodded on and saw some great sights as we nearer the Scottish border. No pictures in any books I have read have done justice to the grandeur of the Cairngorms and we had a really enjoyable drive through the mountains with many view stops along the way.

We arrived in Tomintoul, a lovely little village on the A939 Lecht Road. At an elevation of 1,160 feet, on the fringe of the Cairngorm mountains, it is the highest village in the Highlands. Our hotel was the Glenavon, situated in the village square. This is a hotel with a superb bar area frequented by both locals and climbers alike, giving quite a nice cosy atmosphere. Neil and myself checked in and by 7pm we were enjoying a meal in the bar where we met a group of four people who had just finished a week's winter climbing tuition with Pete Hill of Highlander Mountaineering and Tony Halliwell. Much was discussed about what we could expect the following day.

Saturday morning began with an early morning alarm, a 7.15am shower and a superb full breakfast served by an absolutely wonderful lady who also packed our lunches and filled our flasks. She declined to go out and do the walk for us!

At 9am we meet in the Glenavon lounge where Pete Hill and Tony Halliwell introduce themselves and we in turn did the same with a brief background history.

The day's activities were outlined by Pete and then Tony took over for the day. Saturday was spent in the Hills of Cromdale and we started at the Bridge of Brown tearoom car park. For the next two hours we worked our way using timing, pacing and land/feature recognition towards a col just below Carn a Cloiche, Sgor Gaoithe. After a pleasant lunch stop spent admiring the magnificent scenery, we set off towards the east side of Carn a Cloiche. En route Tony showed how to use the leapfrogging technique. We came across a snow-filled gully where Tony gave us a chat about avalanche assessment and showed us how to test for them and we were also shown how to dig a snow hole. The day in the gully ended with a great snowball fight before we headed off on a compass bearing back to the tearoom where we met Pete and enjoyed a delightful coffee. Back to the Glenavon Hotel and, over a few drinks, Pete gave us a lengthy and informative discussion on crampons and ice axes - what to look for in buying them and what to avoid. After being told what to expect the following day, we spent a second pleasant evening in the bar.

Sunday morning started with another excellent breakfast which set us up for the day ahead. We drove round to Cairngorms and walked from the car park below Coire Laogh Mor, up the ridge and then traversed over to the coire. We found a reasonable snow slope, dropped our rucksacks and began the day's tuition of ice axe braking. The snow came and went but didn't dampen our enthusiasm for what was being taught. After a couple of hours with the axes it was time to don our crampons and watch while we were shown how, and how not to, walk with them, safety being of paramount importance at all times. A further coffee break was followed by an introduction to step-cutting with our axes, cutting steps both diagonally and directly up and downhill.

Overall it was a very intense course, enjoyed by all present, and my thanks go to both Tony and Pete.

I found Pete Hill of Highlander Mountaineering to be a very thorough, patient and competent teacher. I feel quite confident that whilst I won't recall every word and action shown over the weekend, what I will remember will be more than enough to ensure my safety whilst operating on snow or ice in the future. I can personally recommend Pete's winter walking weekend to anyone who, like myself, finds themselves coming across winter conditions from time to time. The course was not only great fun but extremely informative and professionally organised throughout.

For more information on walking and mountaineering courses run by Highlander Mountaineering, visit their website at www.highlander-mtn.co.uk

For more information on the Vango product range, visit their website at www.vango.co.uk