One of Highgate’s many co-curricular courses, ‘Winter Skills’, offers those pupils with a love of hiking and outdoor challenges a chance to tackle the mountains in winter conditions. Director of Outdoor Education, Mr Blackshaw, reports here on their recent trip to Scotland, as they put those skills into practice.
11 sixth formers and 3 staff set off in the early hours of January 2nd for the long drive up to Fort William in a minibus packed to the rafters with mountaineering kit. The drive was surprisingly uneventful and before we knew it we were in Fort William, which sadly meant a premature ending to the game of ‘ravioli, sandwich or salad’ that had kept the group entertained since Gretna Green services.
That evening we purchased supplies for the days ahead, checked into our hostel and sorted out hire boots, fitting them with crampons that would allow us to walk safely on snow and ice.
On the first day we headed up above Glen Coe in search of snow to learn the techniques of moving safely on snow and ice using crampons and ice axes. Despite pretty poor conditions (high freezing level and rain) we eventually found the snowline and began our ascent up Stob Mich. It was a good chance to practice ice axe arrests, kicking steps, using the ice axe as well as general winter mountain safety and the importance of things like clothing and food. We arrived back at the bus pretty damp but in good spirits ready for the next day when the weather looked set to improve.
On Wednesday we had an early start to begin our ascent of Ben Nevis. Making our way up the mountain path as the sun rose, the group were treated to stunning views of the highlands, with the winter colours in full bloom below the snowline. When we reached the famous ‘zig zags’ we donned helmets and crampons and got out ice axes. As we reached the shoulder of the summit plateau we entered the clouds and experienced a full Scottish winter white out with freezing temperatures and poor visibility. This was the group’s first experience of ‘proper winter’ and they all loved it, getting the chance to experience using crampons on freezing snow crust. We got to the summit cairns and shelter in very good time (4’30) in freezing temps, but the low winds made for quite pleasant conditions. We stayed on the summit for 20 mins before beginning our descent which we finished in the dark by headtorch. After 8 hours on the hill we made it back to the warmth of the fire in the hostel, tired, but elated at the day’s achievements.
On the final day we went back to Glen Coe and ascended the twin peaks of Buachaille etive Beag summiting Stob Dubh – our final Munro of the week. Conditions gradually worsened throughout the day and we summited in pouring rain just as the winds were building. The day gave a different challenge with some interesting ridge walking and a couple of steeper steps that allowed the group to put into practice all they had learned so far in the week. With the weather rapidly deteriorating we made a speedy descent back to the bus so we could pack and dry kit that evening before the long drive home the next day.
A fantastic week with some challenging conditions but all our objectives were achieved and the group did brilliantly.
Some of the pupils from the trip reflected on their experiences.
Jemima in Y13 said, “We learned so much on the trip, from how to do an ice axe arrest and walk with crampons, to the dangers of cornices and the importance of many layers and a thermos of warm apple juice! Summiting Ben Nevis was definitely a highlight, as was descending as the clouds cleared, gradually revealing the lochs and peaks ahead of us. The trip has sparked an interest for winter mountaineering in me, and I really want to go back to the highlands for some more!”
Monty in Y12 added, “Some great trips up mountains in the Scottish highlands with some brilliant views, sandwiched between some immensely fun evenings. It was great to be in Scotland over the bitterly cold winter. Very well run by the staff and had some great laughs along the way. 11 hours in the coach flew by!”