Ice picks, crampons, and the obligatory bite of haggis.

I had a whole series of little journal articles that I wrote while on my latest adventure to Scotland with the mountaineers detailing every day’s triumphs and struggles, lessons learned and number of snowballs thrown (many). All in all it was an entirely fantastic trip! No one lost any extremities, stabbed themselves with a crampon or got an ice ax to the face so we’ll chalk that up as a success.

Monday- Awake the ‘Craic’en

As I’ve mentioned before, the word ‘craic’ (pronounced ‘crack’) means a good time in Irish slang. As we woke up balls-early to begin our journey to Scotland I was exhausted, but oh so excited. Traveling is my crack and my craic. Getting to go and see new places is what excites me more than almost anything else!

The club had rented a minibus that, by all intents and purposes, was going to get us all the way to the little town of Aviemore in Scotland. Aviemore is about 4 hours northeast of Glasgow if my shoddy memory of Scottish geography is correct. This bus was the physical representation of the struggle bus- the side door didn’t quite close all the way, the lights flickered, and the driver’s side door couldn’t be opened and everyone had to crawl in via the passenger side door. Ha! Despite the struggle we loaded up and were soon on the Stena line ferry to Scotland.

Now, this ferry was rocky. I am not used to big boats- our little Puget Sound ferries in Washington are cute, quaint, and decidedly not on the open ocean. Plowing through the Irish Sea and feeling the rocking motion of the ocean wasn’t something my brain or body was used to… thankfully there were comfy chairs to pass out in for the 2 hour journey.

Back in the bus we meandered our way to Aviemore through Glasgow, got a bit lost, hit a cool outdoor gear shop for some last-minute purchases, got lost again, and took a few blurry pictures of the beautiful Scottish countryside. Snow eventually joined the sun that was shining and we were in the mountains! A few of us rented boots in Aviemore so gear shop stop number 2 was in full swing. We had to get boots that you can use with crampons, which means they feel like a cross between a hiking boot and a ski boot- the bottoms are very stiff!

Tired and sore bodies piled out of the bus at a place called Badaguish, an outdoor center with lodges and located in the middle of a snowy forest. Our lodge is class, and huge! And warm, a nice change from the bus. That broken door wasn’t fun to sit by… Bags deposited, we met our guides (Johnny, John and Paul) for the next few days, got groceries, and kicked about till we drifted away to sleep…

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Tuesday- It’s miserable, but I love it.

Bags packed for a day on the hills and breakfast eaten we freshers headed out for a day of winter skills with the guides while the more experienced mountaineers began climbing routes in the Cairngorms. We drove up to the base Cairngorm Mountain, where lo and behold there lay a wee little ski hill! Although there wasn’t a ton of snow it looked like fun. I don’t envy the skiers and snowboarders trying to balance up the very long runs with just a t-bar to hold on to!

The guides set us up to learn how to walk with our ice axes (hold them in your uphill hand in case you fall.. but just don’t fall), how to walk in crampons (like John Wayne), and how to recognize different types of snow to determine avalanche risk as well as the best places to walk on the mountain. We learned how to do ice ax arrests, which basically is how to position your ax to dig into the snow if you fall. Again, just don’t fall.

Despite the weather, which was fairly sunny and cold, I kept warm. I guess I can’t hate on all the years I spent freezing on chairlifts or waiting for the morning bus to get to work in Colorado… Haha.

We walked up and down hills and gullies, never stopping for too long because everything starts to get too cold. At some point I thought, ‘this is miserable… but I love it!’ I exited the mountain with a smile on my face, day one of winter skills accomplished with no ankle twists or crampon tears in my trousers.

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Wednesday- Not Freezing, Day 2

Day 2 of the fresher’s Winter Skills course involved hiking back into the ski hill and learning to dig bucket seats for winter belay anchors. The wind was whipping and the clouds were coming in, but I felt a strange sense of pride as I snuggled down into my bucket seat and learned how to make an anchor with my ax and a sling.

The guides then pointed up a nearby gully and said, ‘let’s go up there!’ While my heart and brain were willing my calves whimpered, ‘noooo.’ But up we went anyways. Crampons were on, snow was falling and wee rivers beneath the snow were narrowly avoided. Layers piled on and off and we began to gain a bit more dexterity putting things on with BFGs (big fat gloves). We learned the fine art of ‘daggering,’ or the technique you use when climbing up or down a very steep slope by stabbing your ice axes and the toes of your crampons into the snow. My calves ached, and then we did it again. The muscles…..! I got to lead the group going up the gully and learned that the key to not being discouraged by the distance we still had to walk was just to look at your feet and try not to trip.

The ridge was windy and walking was just as difficult! We stopped for snacks and pictures as we could see the nearby town of Aviemore, the surrounding mountains, Loch Morlock and other fantastic views from where we were. I found it really interesting to learn about how to analyze the weather conditions, how to determine avalanche risk, where the best route to walk is and what elevation the freezing level and clouds will be at that day.

Despite all this knowledge I fell over myself on the way down… but at least I didn’t fall in the flat parking lot like another one of our group!

Day 2 accomplished, still smiling and still keeping warm thanks to a great pair of gloves and a little face mask that makes me look like a silly blue ninja.

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Picture courtesy of Johnny Parr

Picture courtesy of Johnny Parr

Thursday- I climbed a thing!

Thursday was the fresher’s first day out on the mountain without the guides. I headed out with another one of the more experienced mountaineers to a place called Coire an Snachda (pronounced, roughly, Coir an Shnakda) in the Cairngorms. We headed up to a series of climbing routes called Mess of Pottage (great name) with a few others on a beautiful day, geared up, and were soon side stepping our way up the slope to the base of the route. We did a climb called The Slant which went swimmingly aside from a little trouble I had on the first pitch with a tangled rope. So annoying! Once that was settled, though, I had a great time on my first ever winter lead belay and first time seconding another climber. Woo new skills!

We made it to the top of the fairly easy route (started at a good level for my first day) and walked down with our friends who topped out of their climb around the same time. The wind at the top of the ridge was brutal, scouring the sides of the mountains of snow. Walking over rocks with crampons? Not always easy. My very well used club crampons, held together by a strip of duct tape (class) broke so I made my way down the steep ridge line very precariously!

The day was tiring but oh so much fun. I climbed a thing, after all! I was pleasantly surprised to not be scared, even when hanging out over some pretty steep stuff- if you had told me I would be doing this a few years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.

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Friday- I climbed another thing! or, The Craic is Mighty.

Today I acquired a new harness (a guide had one and it was half off, fit me, so… you do the math) and got to climb in it. Brilliant! And it’s blue so that makes me happy. Unfortunately my camera was out of battery for this climb, but the guide took a few that were really good. So, the photos after this little post are all thanks to Johnny Parr Photography! Go like his page and if you’re ever in Scotland, hire him to do mountainy things. He’s great.

Another mountaineer and I had the chance to climb with a guide today which was great for learning some of the techniques of winter climbing. We went to Coire an Snachda again and the walk in, about 45 minutes, was more brutal than the day before. My legs aren’t long enough to keep up with the guys, so I essentially had to break trail all by myself. Meep meep. I could feel the fatigue more today but the route we climbed was amazing. The walk in ended up being the hardest part!

Once warm and climbing I was happier. Johnny would climb first while Peter and I belayed from below, and then Peter or I would climb after one another. Belaying with a buddy is fun and there was much singing and dancing about to keep warm. Belaying on your own, in the cold, waiting for your partner to set up an anchor is a good way to think about your life, get songs stuck in your head and evaluate the choices that got you halfway up the mountain in the winter in the first place.

We climbed a route called Hidden Chimney which was rated 3-4 on the Scottish winter mountaineering scale. Not too hard, but certainly a challenge. This route involved using your ice axes in rock cracks to haul yourself up, crampons scrabbling for purchase on slick rocks, and somehow managing to do it with a tad bit of grace. I made it!

No fallsies no diesies.

Coming off the route I was still moving slow but that’s ok. Back in the car I nommed on all the snacks that had semi-frozen in my rucksack during the day and was content. Never have I been more thankful for warmth!

Every night we cook and drink, appreciate the glory of hot showers and hang out will we all eventually start dropping from exhaustion. We’ve played rounds of Cards Against Humanity, Bananagrams has become a huge hit and I’ve laughed hard at the antics of my friends. I’m also hoping this trip knocks my sleep schedule back into pre-jetlag normalcy… one can hope!

It snowed like mad all day and hasn’t shown signs of stopping, so we all agreed that Saturday would be a rest day. I was happy about this, because my body needed it but my brain wouldn’t have agreed to not take advantage of another day of climbing if people had gone out.

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Saturday- A forced and much appreciated rest day.

Today was indeed a rest day as it snowed all night and the avalanche risk was too high. Can’t complain about sleeping in! We all meandered our ways out of bed and eventually succumbed to the pull of the winter wonderland outside. We had an epic snowball fight before a couple of us decided to build a snowman. We pushed and pulled our massive snowballs around and then geared him up- mountaineering snowman! Once back inside we made obligatory cups of tea (so much tea on this trip) and watched a movie while relishing the silence brought by the departure of the sled dog team that had been camped in the lodge next door to us for the last few days. Cute but loud!

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Sunday- Hotshowerhotshowerhotshowerhotshower

Today was the last climbing day of our trip. It all went by so fast! Today my mantra of ‘hot shower’ began earlier than every before… on day 1 of climbing it was on the 3rd pitch, on day 2 the middle of the climb, and this day it began as we geared up at the bottom of the slope. I was still tired but the rest day did improve my muscles and morale enough to motivate me to put my boots on and get ready this morning. We all started late due to general inefficiency and people not knowing if they wanted to climb or not, but eventually our walk into Coirne an Snachda was begun for the last time this trip.

We walked in with a couple of the other women on the trip and I realized the importance of finding your mountaineering sole mate- those people who walk about your same speed and stride so that you can walk in their trail. No more unsteady giant steps!

My rope was heavy, gear was clumsy and weather was freezing. I questioned my choices as Matt and I headed up to a route that claimed to be easy called Jacob’s Edge. Long story short our rope got knotted and stuck, again on the first pitch, so I climbed precariously to untangle it which wasted a good portion of the afternoon’s good weather. I stood at the bottom frustrated, unable to yell loud enough over the wind to communicate with him that I was ready to climb. Too much slack. The person I was trusting not to let me fall was less than 10 meters away and I couldn’t communicate to see what was wrong, and vice versa. I was mad, and frustrated, and concerned. Eventually I climbed up, saw the problem, and we were able to move on. Thankfully his GoPro video didn’t last that long… I wasn’t happy!

Spin drift blew up the back of my jacket, up my nose and down my neck. My hands were warm but my eyelashes were frozen. We yelled over the howling wind, yanked each other up steep sections and stumbled through bits of the route covered in many inches of fresh powder. What should have been a simple dander into the hills ended up taking us many hours, but we met our buddies at the top of the route and were able to walk down with them. The weather was blowing in and visibility was crap. Walking over areas of deep powder only to have your crampon hit a rock two inches below the surface makes for cautious walking in the midst of being oh so tired.

I can tell when my brain isn’t keeping up with my body when I’m tired- like in derby, my footwork gets clumsier and my balance is ridiculously terrible. Keeping your brain focused when you’re exhausted physically and mentally is a tough things that you have to be able to control during moments like this in order to not hurt yourself or others. Very nearly walking back in the dark we eventually saw the beautiful lights of the ski hill, made it to the car, and finally got to put our bags and ourselves down. I don’t regret going out at all, but man was it harder than I expected!

Upon our return to the lodge we discovered those who hadn’t gone climbing had made an epic blanket fort, which was soc cool! Adulthood- doing it right. Hot cocoa in the fort consumed I headed off to a shower which, due to the number of other people using the hot water, turned out to be cold.

NO.

NOT OK.

I DID NOT SUFFER IN THE SNOW TODAY FOR A COLD SHOWER.

Eventually my internal monologue quieted as the water warmed up. But I almost lost it for a second there.

Our last evening was spent in a little pub in Aviemore that felt like any other American bar. We walked in and what would you know- the Superbowl was playing! It was hilarious to see the Seahawks playing from a Scottish pub. As it also turned out Sunday nights are karaoke nights… and I do not sing in public. No. Nope. Not happening. However, our dear token fresher Andrew broke the ice by singing ‘Hallelujah’ in a brilliant Christopher Walken impression without breaking once, and we all laughed till we cried!

The pub was a great way to rest, relax and catch up with our friends knowing that the physical part of this trip was over. We laughed, told stories from the mountain, teased each other and eventually made our way back to the lodge for some much needed sleep before our departure back to Belfast the next morning.

Oh, and we all sang karaoke. 🙂

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Monday- Back to Belfast

This morning was a scramble to get tired, hungover bodies out of bed and lodge cleaned by 10am. I’m not sure if that actually happened but we gave it our best go! I am sad to be leaving Scotland, a sentiment shared by others who wanted the vacation to continue, but it was a great trip all in all. A week sans makeup, computer, and phone was a blessing.

We returned boots in Aviemore, stopped at a couple more gear shops in Glasgow (of course) and took pictures of the sunset over the water. Fish and chips constituted dinner and I got to try a bite of fried haggis which I can see the appeal of, but wouldn’t want much more than a bite before getting on the tippy ferry!

Moral of the story- if you or someone you love is thinking about taking up mountaineering, here’s what I suggest. Go to your local football stadium in full gear (crampons, axes, snowpants, helmet, boots, all your layers, harness and rope and climbing gear in your rucksack) and walk up and down the steps 20-30 times. While doing this get your friends to shove ice cubes and ice water down your boots, up your jacket and down your neck while fans blow cold air at you from all directions. If you can deal with that, go ahead and try climbing a mountain. Haha!

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