Learning some outdoor skills can make the difference between a fun excursion in the hills and a hazardous day out. Nick Williams explores how understanding more about the mountains â€“ and your own abilities â€“ can greatly increase your enjoyment
The wild places of Scotland offer fantastic opportunities for escape: arguably an unparalleled combination of good access and classic adventure. They are justifiably popular, from the day-tripper picnicking in shady dells to the seasoned climber balancing on small edges, but the fickleness of the weather and complexity of terrain means that it is easy to meet with adversity even within sight of civilisation.
At 19, headstrong and full of grand plans for the winter, I set off with three friends to climb North East Buttress, one of Ben Nevis’ giant ridges. The weather forecast warned of blizzards and, right on cue, we sank waist-deep into drifting snow. Ice axes in hand and trudging interminably into the storm, our resolve kept pace with the hastening wind. We spent a miserable night trying to bivouac and never even made the base of the mountain. I would love to say we learnt from our experience.
All manner of people take to the hills. Some are foolish, like the youth described above; some are overly cautious; some pragmatic. Observing group dynamics during such outings makes for fine people-watching, but the pressing issue is whether the party can return safely. Whether you are the alpha male or the walker who doesn’t mind bringing up the rear, there are some basic skills you might consider learning. And if you think you already know them, you can always learn them better.
There are three main avenues to increased proficiency in the dark art of mountain craft: self-taught; through a club; and via structured learning.
Doing it yourself
There are dozens of good handbooks on the market, covering everything from tying your boots to selecting a camping spot. Mountaineering literature, such as Chris Bonington’s classic Everest the Hard Way can be a source of inspiration for grander designs, and although the writers of this genre may be published as experts, they all started somewhere. And of course there is nothing to beat a good map for bedtime reading.
Now you are shining with enlightenment but still only walking the hedgerows of Fife. There will be large gaps in your understanding and you need to get out there and try the real thing. It may be hard to choose with whom to go or even finding anybody at all. A reliable family friend, relative or a colleague could all give you some pointers and companionship on a first adventure.
It is fine to select a gentle valley walk or an indoor wall for your initial outing: if you go unprepared it is not a big deal. The high peaks, on the other hand, do not suffer fools gladly. The first big trips are the most jaw-dropping, not only for sheer awe of the terrain, but for the drama that can sometimes unfurl.
But let us imagine that you have gone on one trip and returned alive: once you have recovered, take a step back and analyse what you can learn from your experience to make the next one better. I performed this exercise on a recent climbing trip to the Cairngorms, and reviewed that I was badly dressed (did not zip up pocket and lost cereal bar) and sloppy with the footwork (tripped on the approach whilst playing on mobile phone). Minor indiscretions admittedly, but small issues could mean the difference between success and failure, or between failure and not coming back in one piece. Conversely, congratulate yourself on anything done well: in this case we had started early to reach our route well before the crowds, and therefore returned early enough to sunbathe by Loch Morlich.
For those with the confidence to venture into society, there are a whole bunch of organisations you can join and learn many of the skills. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme caters for young people up to the age of 25, and the â€˜expedition’ is one of the necessary
components to its several awards. You will get the opportunity to learn campcraft, navigation and other skills, as well as making decisions and communicating in more challenging environments.
According to Barry Fisher, Assistant Award Director for Scotland, the drive is for participants “to understand how to be safe in the outdoors”, and the scheme is undeniably popular with over 145,000 young people a year entering awards. Fisher confirms the current buzzwords are â€˜resilience’ â€“ an ability to bounce back from adversity, and â€˜self-efficacy’ â€“ a belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations. The mountains provide the ideal testing ground for such characteristics.
The Scouts, Guides and Boys’ Brigade offer the chance to get stuck in to many different outdoor sports, and activities offered will often depend on the interests of the leaders of the local group. Some of my first adventures were with the Scouts, and our troop, as well as busily erecting patrol tents in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire was, bizarrely, very active in the mountains. Trips to North Wales and the Lake District were commonplace: Scotland was almost off the map and reserved for special occasions. At the age of 13, I led my first winter route; our instructor was nowhere to be seen in the white-out. Above my jumper, I wore a purple vest of which I was very proud and this served as a windcheater. I think it is fair to say that such unfettered opportunity is rare these days.
Many institutions of further education provide a home for outdoor societies. Kat Torr, President of Glasgow University Mountaineering Club, maintains that the “ability to plan your day and make the appropriate adjustments to it is crucial”. Along with the talent to read the terrain (especially predicting avalanches), the skills most lacking in novices are navigation and map-reading, she says. In order to rectify this, more mature members are very happy to share their knowledge, and the club offers courses in navigation in the summer, as well as beginner and advanced courses, outsourced to mountain guides, during the winter.
And there are many other routes to learning the ropes. The Ramblers Association convenes walks across the UK, and local enthusiasts volunteer their time to take out groups. Nominated leaders are certainly experienced, and although they do not have to be qualified, they are encouraged to take courses: for example, leaders from the Edinburgh Group team up with the Pentland Rangers and local colleges to benefit from lessons in navigation. Signing up for a walk may give you the perfect introduction to the hills.
In addition, there are many local walking and climbing clubs that visit the hills throughout the year. The Scottish Mountaineering Club maintains links to clubs across the country and overseas, too.
However, if you seriously want to improve your game, you should think about registering for some professional training. Course providers range from individuals giving one-to-one tuition, through to government bodies.
Dave Craig runs Outwardly Mobile, a first aid training company based in Newtonmore in the Cairngorms. Most of his attendees work in the outdoors, pursuing careers such as ski and mountain instructing or forestry, and the organisation provides tailor-made courses, too. Dave is convinced that “first aid should be a life skill” and, amongst other things, teaches you how to be organised, communicate well, and take stock in a crisis.
Elsewhere, Glenmore Lodge, near Aviemore, is sportscotland’s National Outdoor Centre and runs 200 different types of course. Nigel Williams, Head of Training, sums up the ethos as “staying healthy, and enjoying and connecting with the landscape”. The Lodge’s mountain bike skills course, for example, teaches the use of gears and brakes to use your bike to maximum efficiency and for least environmental damage. Of the 4,000 students a year, about 40% are novices, and about a third are pursuing qualifications themselves.
One course run by the Lodge is the Mountain Leader (ML) certification. It is designed to build on an individual’s existing experience of mapwork, campcraft, negotiating complex terrain and weather interpretation, and aims to produce competent leaders. Assessment follows further personal practice. The ML has both a summer and winter component as part of a wider scheme managed by Mountain Leader Training UK: you can progress, after much dedication, to mountain instructor or guide.
Beyond the horizon
So now you have read every book on technique, found a dozen partners to climb with, gone out with a cornucopia of clubs, and taken every course under the sun. You should be a mountain machine by this time, and hopefully, your hard work could pay off in other ways. All those skills should be readily transferable to home and work life: if you can pick your route across untrod ground, then you should be a good decision-maker; if you can keep up the spirits of your team through the white-out, you must be a good motivator; if you just scaled the north wall, how frightening is it to ask your boss for a pay rise?
And that is the added beauty of the outdoors: once you have met your challenge in hostile climes, normal life does not seem so tricky. But before you start sharpening your ice axe for the trek round the mountain, whether for your first adventure or for your five hundredth, you just need to check you are holding it the right way up.