Tripping around my mind

We are just sheep on a mountain

Since it’s still winter I thought I’d take advantage of the cold and snowy weather and travel to Scotland for some winter training. I wasn’t expecting a full-on survival camp but what was waiting  took me by surprise. I thought these weather conditions existed only in the Alps above 4000 meters. Well, that’s not always the case there but it’s definitely the case in Scotland. The Scottish mountains are brutal. And they hardly rise above 1200 meters. There aren’t many high mountains in Britain but the ones they have  are all in Scotland.

Surprisingly, my journey to Scotland went without a hiccup. My trip was exceptionally smooth. I wasn’t late, I went to the right airport at the right time. I rented a car in Edinburgh and headed to Aviemore which is in the Cairngorms Mountains about a 2.5 hour drive from Edinburgh. I cannot say many things about the city as I explored the whole of it in about 10 minutes. Twice. However, I was surprised to see more outdoor retail stores than pubs.  Obviously, they are counting on the idiots who arrive without any proper equipment. It was also convenient for me as I didn’t want to spend £700 on a pair of mountaineering boots so I rented a pair for the week. The rest of the gear like ice axes, crampons and helmet were provided

I stayed in a hostel as I wanted to mingle with like minded people. And it was also cheap and conveniently located in the city where we would meet every morning. Fortunately, the course took place during weekdays so the hostel wasn’t packed and I only had to share my room with another guy. I didn’t get to know him well but he always stayed in the room reading a book by Stephen King and polishing his black shoes. Why? I have no idea why. I thought he might be working in a restaurant or hotel. But he never left the room. Unfortunately, at the weekend the hostel was full and the room held a full-on snoring contest. Ce la vie dans une hostel. But everyone, except the guy with the black shoe, came for the same reason, to climb somewhere or something. Some of them using only legs, someone on all fours, and most of them with the help of ropes. And fortunately, it was snowing for a few days so everyone could do their planned business.

I met the other participants of the course and our leader on Monday morning. We formed a team of six. A Dutch couple, a British couple and a kid from Newcastle. I say kid, because he was only 19. Still a kid. No offence Alex! You can call me old. Our leader was a 20 something girl, Emma, who has been teaching for only a year or so, but had many years of experience and as far as I know she came from a real mountaineering family.  

Over the five days we were hoping to get a better picture of how to find our way in the mountains during winter. I can navigate pretty confidently during summer, at least when you can actually see the mountains. In winter that’s another story. In fact, snow changes the scenery pretty dramatically. It’s hard to decide the depth and the quality of the snow and whether there is a mountain beneath it or not. That was new for me. There might not be any mountain beneath the snow. The wind blows the snow together creating a little pedestal. You walk on it and you fall. You cease to exist.

We spent most of the time learning as much as possible about the snow and the weather. Which is almost impossible as some learn it for years. Yes, there is a snow faculty. I learned one thing for sure. If something looks suspicious then it definitely is. So stop right there and think. Every morning we sat down together and studied the weather and the avalanche forecast for the day. And we discussed what an avalanche is in the first place. I had a completely different picture in my head about avalanches. I mean I know what they are but I never thought about why or how they occur. I thought they just happen because the snow is too heavy or the side of the mountain is too steep and that’s it. But avalanche can occur on a 30 degree slope as well. And even a 5meter wide avalanche can bury you. One of the most important things in the mountains is the weather. Especially the wind speed. If the wind is around 30mph than it’s still OK to hike. Anything above 40mph is dangerous. If it’s above 60mph than you have to be plain stupid to go for a walk. I learned a lot and I also learned that whatever I had known already wasn’t the right stuff.

The first day the wind was expected to be around 40mph and the avalanche hazard was moderate. But we still wanted to climb one of the highest mountains in the area. We started our ascent from a ski centre about 500 meters above sea level. Once we marched the first 100 meters it was obvious we wouldn’t get far that day. The wind was blowing the snow so hard we had to wear ski googles and still we couldn’t see shit. We were also knee depth in the snow. It’s frickin’ hard to move in a snow that deep. The person who was at the front broke the path and then when he got tired, which was under 10 minutes, the person behind him took his place and he went back to the end of the queue. When it was my turn at the front I understood what it meant to break the path. Each step required as much power as kicking in a door with a big slam. Although I never kicked in a door I’m pretty sure that’s how it would feel. On average, a person can walk 4-5km/hour on flat terrain in summer. As it was snowing and the wind was harsh we guessed we could do 2km/h. After 1 hour we only managed a mere 500 meters. It wasn’t a question any more if we could climb to the top or not. Enter plan B. There’s another mountain which we could try. It was only 6km away. Well, it didn’t happen either. At 700 meters we got into a gentle snowstorm which meant we had to abandon every plan for the day and we had to return home before we got knocked down by the wind. There was no point in dying on that day. We still had 4 days for that. We hoped the following day would be better. It wasn’t. Mountains (versus) Humans 1:0

The weather was pretty much the same the following day and we didn’t even try to hike up to the same mountain so we picked another more manageable mountain range. It was a bit better but we still couldn’t attack the peak. But we didn’t give up that easily. We stayed on the mountain, in snow, in frost, in a wind storm and tried to learn a bit more about winter navigation. In summer when you know what  is around you it’s easy to navigate. But when you wear ski googles, two gloves and you are trying to work out from a laminated map where you are going it’s a different story. You are not even sure where you are let alone try to figure out how to get somewhere. But practice makes perfect, so we tried. Obviously, Emma was in charge, so we didn’t get lost but we knew we had to do the same in the following days. Mountains-Humans, 2:0.

On the third day the weather forecast predicted a wind of 20mph and a few sunny hours. Well, that day was the shittiest  out of the 5 days we spent on the mountains. It was really nice and sunny when we started our ascent but as soon as we got up to around 500 meters we came face to face with what’s called a “total white-out”. It basically means you see shit. Zero visibility.  I didn’t see further than 2-3 metres. But there is a way to navigate when you don’t see your own hand. We knew, at least we hoped we knew, where we were. We also knew where we were heading to. We had a compass, a map and feet. That’s all you need. We picked a path on which we had to walk 500 meters to get to another mountain which was  probably lower than we were so we were hoping to get out of that white-out. Once you get your bearings you start counting your steps. Of course you have to take into account that you are walking in deep snow on an unknown terrain so you have to compensate for it. Navigation is pure maths and trigonometry. And it works. We didn’t see shit for 20 minutes but we got out and got down to a point from where we could see the other peak. The sun was out too. We looked back where we came from and we saw nothing. I mean we saw the clouds and guessed  that our mountain must be behind it.

Since the weather still wasn’t too welcoming it was time for our descent. Luckily, we found a nice snow patch where we could learn how to self belay which means how to stop yourself from sliding down on the mountain and get injured. We learned how to walk with crampons and how to cut footsteps into the ice/snow while walking on slippery surface. And then the real fun began. Learning to slide and stop ourselves with the ice axes. Sliding is the easy part, stopping is a different story. It’s really easy. when you slide on your bum you just roll to one side and smash the ice axes into the ice or snow and put all your body weight onto  your sternum. But there is a catch. The axe has two ends. One is a blunty bit, on which you should lean, the other one is a toothy pointy sharp thingy. If you lean onto that bit, well, let’s say you can call mountain rescue as you just stabbed yourself in the heart. Once we mastered it we were ready for the next level shit. Head first on our tummy. You kinda need to do the same thing but first you have to have your leg facing the slope. Ice axes go into the ice and you pivot around it and do the same as before. Done. Easy. Next level. Facing down but on our backs. Now that was the scary one. Gazing at the sky while you’re sliding into the unknown. Same principles. first you have to have your legs pointing down then turn and finally lean and push. Not impossible but definitely the hardest. And we didn’t even have our backpack on. Naturally, I went for a few more round with my backpack on. Just to try every possible scenario. I managed to stop myself from sliding. But still it was a controlled slide. I knew I was going to slide. But in real life I wouldn’t know. I’ll see how much I remember the next time I slip… Mountain-Humans 2:1.

On Thursday morning, unfortunately, the climbing community received really bad news. Two highly experienced climbers died on Tuesday night. Which clearly shows that decades of experience is still not enough. And the two of them together had at least 60 years of experience. The mountains are not joking around. It’s not a playground. There is no second chance there. No one knows what really happened but the best guess is that they didn’t secure themselves enough and a gust of wind might have caused the tragedy. It is very common to take a short cut when you are experienced. They knew the mountain, they climbed a lot in the area. It wasn’t enough. Even if you are 3 meters away from safety you have to secure yourself for those 3 meters. Experience is not enough on its own. Every year around 7-8 people die in the Scottish mountains alone.  Some of them are complete beginners who climb with no knowledge at all. Some of them don’t even have a map. Just because the sun is shining at 500 meters it doesn’t mean it will do so at 550meters. The weather can change in 2 seconds. Rest in peace… Mountains-Humans 3:1

Apart from the bad news we had a really great time and the weather  could finally stick to Plan A and we could climb the mountain we had hoped for. And we didn’t have to eat our lunch in a snowstorm. We could further practice our sliding skills and self belaying skills and we ran into a herd of wild deer too . Everyone got the chance to navigate too. We survived and had  great fun . Mountain-Humans 3:2.

There wasn’t much left to learn on the last day we only practised what we had learned so far. Unfortunately, it was raining instead of snowing which is much worse so we cut our last day short. But we managed to dig a few emergency shelters and cozied up. In the evening we said our goodbyes and off we went. Perhaps  a little wiser and more confident. Emma was a really good guide and I can only say good things about the course provider too. Everything was as they promised. My team was a bunch of amazing people. We got on really well. No one freaked out we were roughly at the same level in terms of knowledge . We worked really well together. I would happily go out to the mountains with any one of them.

A few words about the other inhabitants of the hostel. I spent my evenings drinking beer and finishing my blog about my Norway trip. Which is kinda funny as I am finishing writing this blog in Sri Lanka. I hope one day I’d write about the country where I am actually in. I found a nice cosy chair in the living room of the hostel and used it as an office. I had a few little conversations about everything with everyone. They were mostly climbers and mountaineers so we mainly talked about that kind of stuff. The others were Scottish people. I didn’t really talk to them as they were more interested in drinking and watching rugby on TV. I guess they just wanted to get away from their family and get drunk. But there was a particularly interesting team. Father, son and a friend of the father. They drank a whole bottle of whisky every night. Every. Fucking. Night. Except for the boy as he was under aged. In normal circumstances a man would sit down, drink, watch TV and shout. But not them. They played scrabble. Scrabble. Pissed. I had to leave the room on a few occasions as I was laughing out loud and I didn’t want to bother them. They were arguing and swearing all the time. They got upset and started a fight about how to spell a word. ‘you fucking moron that’s not how you spell relearn. There is a hyphen. it’s not one word!’ Genius!’ Two 60 something men fighting over a word. Once they realized that’s not gonna work they swapped to another game. Domino. Playing fucking domino at midnight. I couldn’t wait for 8pm every day to see these guys again. They were relatively sober til 8.15 and massively drunk by 10pm. Sometimes they tried to play billiards but once they realized they couldn’t even walk let alone stand they just went to bed. Swearing on the way. But, by 8am the next morning they were casually having their breakfast like nothing happened. I just hoped they wouldn’t leave the hostel and try to hike up the mountains. Luckily they were there only to get drunk. It was their tradition for the last 30 years or so. Every. Fucking. Year. Since the one of them had a son, he also tagged along. I must go back to that hostel and see what happens once the kid turns 18 and starts drinking with them.  

I had two extra days to kill in Aviemore after the course ended but I didn’t really want to do much. 5 days was enough of the shitty weather in the mountains. I went to Inverness to climb a little bit in an indoor climbing gym and I watched a movie. But that’s kinda it. On my final night I went to a pub and had a feast. Mussels, haggis burger, sticky toffee pudding, Guinness and single malt were on my menu. The dinner cost more than my whole grocery shopping for the week. But it was worth every penny.

The week passed. I survived, I learned a lot and had an amazing time. And that was the whole point. On Monday I got back to London to get changed and get ready for my trip to Sri Lanka. I was about to experience what it is like to travel from -5C to +30C. And I managed to surprise myself again. Travelwise. Since I am used to flying with only hand luggage I completely forgot that I had a bag so I casually walked out without collecting my bag. Anyone who has flown before knows there are huge signs saying: “Did you fucking collect your bag as there is no return from this point!” Without the fucking, obviously. But I think they should write it with huge letters. Those signs are for dummies, I always thought. How could you forget your bags. Very easily. You just don’t remember. I thought I’d find someone and explain the situation but it would have involved me admitting  that I’m really stupid. So I chose another way. To sneak back. The only thing with this plan was that it is relatively difficult to sneak back into an airport. Apart from that tiny detail it’s also an offence which means punishment. But my main worry was to get through the doors which only opened from the other side. But I’m smart. I waited until someone opened the door and quickly ran back. I only had to go through five other doors like that. I wasn’t suspicious at all. Rushing back the opposite way. And more signs: “It’s an offence to go the other way” or something like that. But I got back and found my bag. Like nothing happened. I’m not proud of it but hey desperate measures at desperate times. What is more worrying is that noone stopped me while I was getting through 5 doors. I’m happy they didn’t catch me but still.. But who gives a shit. I’ll be in Sri Lanka in two days. …once I find my passport. But that’s a different story….

Items left behind

  • lenscap
  • thermos flask (I hated that thing anyways…)
  • balaclava (I loved that thing unfortunately…)


Plane ticket: £80
Car rental + petrol: £160+60
Hostel: £140
Food: £150
Course: £350
Equipment hire: £60

Total: £1000


Airline: Ryanair
Car rental: Enterprise
Hostel: Aviemore Youth Hostel
Food: Cairngorm Hotel, The Old Bridge Inn, Mountain Cafe Aviemore
Course: Cairngorm Adventures Guides
Equipment hire: Braemer Mountain Sports

Comments (1):

  1. Rasa

    February 23, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    Amazing story and photos!As usual:)


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