“Stick your axe out! Stick your axe out!” I could barely make out Mungo’s words before they were whipped away by the near gale-force winds. I was on my back skidding down the side of a snow-covered Scottish mountain towards the boulders at the bottom of the valley… Head first.
Using all my will-power to focus on the instructions being yelled at me, I threw my ice axe out to my side, two numb hands desperately clinging onto the metal handle, defying my damp gloves’ urge to lose traction. The pick feathered across the surface of the snow for a gut-wrenching moment, before finally gaining purchase. This was my cue: I swung my body round in one uncharacteristically slick movement until I was face-down, axe tucked neatly under my torso, my hips pressed into the snow and feet elevated comically behind me. This posture was the definition of ungraceful.
Believe it or not, it was my instructor Mungo who had just coaxed me down onto the snow, holding onto my feet while I lay down and manoeuvred onto my back, before not just letting go but actually giving me a fairly hefty shove, sending me flying towards those ominous boulders below.
I was in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, on a weekend-long winter mountaineering course with the Jonathan Conville Memorial Trust, a charity that offers subsidised mountaineering training to young adults. It was set up by the family of Jonathan Conville who tragically died while mountaineering at the age of 27. Thus here I was, in sub-zero temperatures, ferocious winds doing their utmost to blow our little group off the mountainside, learning about crampons, ice axes and winter rope work. A bit of a contrast to my regular 9-5 office job…
I’d met my fellow participants the evening before at the bunkhouse we were to call home for those few nights. We were a hodgepodge selection of different ages, nationalities and professions, all brought together by a passion for adventure and the outdoors. We soon realised just how quickly you can bond with a group of strangers when put in an unfamiliar and intense environment.
In addition to the 35mph winds, day one of the course brought gloriously clear blue skies and a distinct lack of snow. We spent the hours running up to lunchtime learning how to kick steps into the snow with our boots, bunny-hopping up and down the slope in our crampons until we fully trusted them (assured by Mungo that we didn’t look quite as daft as we felt) and practising cutting steps and platforms with our ice axes.
By early afternoon we were all so battered by the wind and frozen from being hidden from the sun by the ridge that loomed above us, that Mungo took pity. He suggested that instead of continuing to practise our ice axe self-arrests and step-forming technique we instead go for a “wee walk”, a proposition that we readily accepted.
We crossed the snowy patch we’d been practising on, giving us another opportunity to perfect our crampon technique before we removed them for the day. As we climbed our way up the ridge that had been blocking out the sunshine all morning, expansive views of the Cairngorms opened up all around. Layers of snow-capped ridges caught the afternoon sunlight before losing distinctness as they blended into the distant haziness.
As the sun came to the end of its slow march across the blue sky, we too came to the end of our own excursion. As we made our descent, the sun followed suit. Long after disappearing behind a high ridge, it continued to treat us to a beautiful sky, the warm hues on the horizon gently merging into the darkening blue of the evening sky above.
Back at the bunkhouse that evening, we were treated to something pretty special: Mungo had prepared a talk and slideshow of stunning photos from his career in the outdoors, primarily in mountaineering, climbing and as a commercial photographer. Our already great respect for this feisty and entertaining man increased infinitely as we sat on the edges of our seats hearing about his near-misses on haphazard escapades, his passion for living life to the full radiating from every aspect of his being.
The following day we returned to the mountains. It proved to be an even colder day and there were even a few flurries of snow, making me exceedingly grateful for my extra layers of thermal clothing. We made our way up gentle slopes and over precarious boulder fields, finally reaching our patch of snow for the day. Steep walls of mountain rose up around us, their high peaks cloaked in dense cloud. Occasionally, we could make out the bright clothing of climbers gradually picking their way up the craggy rock faces.
Mungo spent the day imparting an almost overwhelming amount of knowledge gained through a lifetime in the mountains; by the end of the day my brain felt like it had reached saturation point.
It was then time to return to the bunkhouse for a last hearty dinner before bidding farewell to a new group of friends. I can now safely say I feel far more prepared for whatever the mountains throw at me on my next trip… Which will hopefully be soon and accompanied by some of my new adventure pals!