A couple of weeks ago I took a trip from London Kings Cross station up to the Cairngorms National Park in the middle of Scotland, located somewhere between Aviemore and… I don’t know… Middle Earth.

7 hours on a train sounded like a great opportunity to read and watch a few movies. However, my new movies hadn’t downloaded to my iPad and after a few chapters of Fight Club I remembered that reading on public trains generally makes me feel ill. So I settled on staring out the window, occasionally snoozing and an hour or so of an ex Navy SEAL barking in my headphones about building unbreakable mental fortitude… which become more and more appropriate as it got dark and the view disappeared!

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comMy final destination was Glenmore lodge: a training center with a long history as THE place for British mountaineers, climbers and adventurers to learn, develop and eventually qualify as mountain leaders. Glenmore Lodge also serves as a landing spot for mountain rescue and RAF helicopters and is generally the kind of place where nobody seems too bothered when Ben Fogel walks in with his production crew to borrow kit for a night sleeping in a snow hole.


Day One:

The lodge suggests 4000 calories a day to keep you fueled for the activities ahead, it’s even outlined clearly on the wall of the canteen. So after a full cooked breakfast, porridge, dried fruit and coffee, I grabbed my lunch as instructed:

  • 2 sandwich rolls
  • 1 chocolate bar
  • 1 piece of cake
  • 1 piece of fruit

I had picked up all of my equipment from the gear store the night before, so got suited up in thermals, fleeces and general layers of warm or waterproof items. My bag for the day is packed with an avalanche probe, transceiver, a shovel, ice axes, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 beanies, climbing rope, helmet, snow goggles, crampons and a climbing harness.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comFeeling excited for the day ahead I met up with my instructor Kev and climbing buddy for the course: Tom.

First thing… I’m asked if I have reviewed the weather forecast for the day from at least 2 reliable sources. I have not.

Kev takes us to the big weather screen in the corridor and talks us through snowfall over night, temperature over the last 12 hours and the wind speed and direction. Avalanche risk is moderate but there is a blizzard brewing as we speak and 80mph winds.

Kev calmly describes our conditions for the day as “similar to putting your head in a washing machine” but with the additional high winds, low temperature and low visibility. He seems nice.

Another group of 3 join us in a minibus and we head out. We have been told to be fully kitted up for the journey – gloves, goggles, the lot – as exiting the van once we are higher is expected to be unpleasant. After a short drive we are met by a large closed gate with a clear message across it: “Road Closed”. It is both a relief and cause for minor concern when one of the instructors jumps out and lets us through.

For the morning we work on basic mountaineering and tool skills in the lowlands; taking advantage of being mildly protected by the hill we are working on.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comAfter a few hours of work, I’m feeling surprisingly comfortable. Kev – the instructor – is extremely knowledgeable, patient and to the point. He is exactly what I would hope for in a mountaineering instructor – someone who will answer any question but also shout and let you know when you put yourself or others in potential danger.

We are back at the lodge for the afternoon: crampons on, perfecting our climbing technique on the stone walls within the grounds of the lodge. Finally a little rope work and correct abseiling technique before cake, coffee and debrief. Apparently climbers like cake.

Glenmore Lodge is definitely more ‘training center’ than ‘holiday resort’. My evening consisted of another huge cooked meal, two lectures on mountain hazards and avalanche safety, storing wet kit in the drying room and heading to my bunk for a much needed shower and sleep.


Day Two:

First thing, I check the weather forecast on the big screen before carrying on my way to starting my 4000 calories.

Day two is different – the sky is blue, temperature about -3 degrees celsius and the wind has dropped dramatically. Avalanche risk is higher today, but overall we have high hopes for a great day climbing.

It takes about an hour and a half to walk from the van and up into the high snow covered hills. Looking behind us we can see the end of the snow line and green forests, hills and lakes stretching into the distance; ahead are towering hill sides covered in fresh snow, ice and rock faces each with its own personality and distinct look. As we get closer and into the base of what feels like an enormous three sided bowl, we begin to spot pairs of small dots on the snow walls at different heights; these are other climbers taking on climbs of varying difficulty and one pair taking a questionable route up a north face which, thanks to our lecture the previous night, seemed to show a high risk of avalanche.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comAfter some time assessing the risks, our instructor selects our climb for the day. He points out the route up into the mouth of a long gully, across a rock face and then some suggestions of zigzag pitches (climbs) up the rock and ice covered face to finish on the peak.

We walked for another 15 minutes to the base of our climb before its time for another warm layer, check our transceivers are switched to ‘send’, get our crampons on, ropes prepared and a quick bite to refuel after the hike in. More cake.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comThe initial approach is a zig-zag walk up a steep incline. The first pitch is straight forward and, at a guess, moves from about 35 degrees to 45 degrees. This takes us into the entrance of the gully and to a stone shelf where we tie into the gear our instructor has put in the wall, reset the belay, pull through the ropes and prepare for Kev to lead the way across and up into the rock face.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comAlthough this is a rock face, the gaps between and on top of the large boulders are covered in a mixture of fresh snow, snow ice, water ice and patches of frozen foliage. The mixture of crampons (steel spikes strapped to boots) and ice axes are extremely effective in this kind of environment.

My footwork consists of either kicking the front crampon spikes into the snow/ice or using the spikes in cracks / on top of rocks. I quickly realise that managing where I put my feet and where I support my body weight is the key to maintaining my energy.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comThe ice axes can be used in four main ways:

  1. Holding the head and using the two handles in a similar way to (extremely short) walking sticks
  2. Gripping the neck of the axe just below the head and using the spike to climb more like spiderman. This is called ‘daggering’
  3. The classic technique that you will have seen in climbing magazines – holding the handle and reaching high to hit the head of the axe into ice, snow or frozen foliage. This often takes a few strikes to clear the fresh snow to get a sturdy hold in the older snow ice.
  4. Finally, you can hold the axe as in point 3, but use the axe in cracks and between rocks to create a handle

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comAt the end of each pitch we have a chance to move our focus away from what is needed to keep moving upward, to the amazing view below, above and into the distance. After three pitches we are about half way there. The sky is still clear but some clouds have drifted in to cover some of the nearby peaks. The wind had stayed manageable today but it’s clear that things can change quickly, especially when you are half way through a climb and tied to an exposed rock face.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comOur safety today is process driven. Each of us must follow a list of tasks at each point of each climb. Each belay anchor consists of two pieces of gear in the ice, cracks or a secure sling around a rock. The lead climber places gear at intervals during his climb: each one reducing the distance he will fall if anything happens. Once a new belay point is reached and he has placed the new anchor points and tied himself in, we communicate with a number of simple commands shouted into the wind so that we know when it is safe to climb. The following climber can then detach from the original anchor and remove the equipment as he reaches each point on the climb up. Upon reaching the new belay point he ties into the anchor, is removed from belay, prepares to belay the lead climber and re-piles the rope. This continues until the top.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comWhen I pull myself up over the top on our final pitch the view is amazing. I look down over what we have just climbed, out over the other rocky peaks and around the 360 degrees of rolling snow covered hills. Once Tom is up and ropes are packed away, it’s time to hoover up whatever is left of our lunch. It is now clear why we needed those 4000 calories.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.com

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.com

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comThe walk back down a long ridge is much less exciting than the way up but the view and the sense of achievement makes up for it. My hard plastic boots take their toll as we head past the nearby ski slopes, digging into my shin as every downward step pushes my feet forward slightly into the tightly laced and unforgiving footwear. Chatting with Tom, Kev and the other two climbers we met helps the time pass but ultimately this is just the hard work that usually comes with achieving something new and exciting.

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.com

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.com

Glenmore Lodge - Cairngorms - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.com

Glenmore Lodge - Ice Climbing - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comOne more cake debrief, one more lecture and a trip to the kit store to return my equipment and it’s time to head home. My 2 days feel like a week; I am exhausted but very happy. My train arrives at Aviemore station at 9.30pm that night and takes 10 hours to trundle its way back down to London. I arrive at 7.30am on Wednesday morning, which gives me just enough time to run home, dump my bag, have a shower and make myself look mildly presentable for my client meeting at 9am.

For more information about Glenmore Lodge and the variety of courses they provide visit www.glenmorelodge.org.uk


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