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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Brass Monkeys in Glencoe

08 March 2000 16:34:34

[Pictures by Rachel Lynch]

I have never been so cold, tired and wet in my life.

It was great!

I flew into Glasgow late on Friday afternoon, picked up a hire car and drove three hours to the Altshellach hotel in North Ballachulish. There I met the course leaders and professional sadists that were to run my life over the next couple of days.

Each day we rose at the crack of dawn, 'packed a sack' and nade our way to the dining hall for a "full English". The full English consists of eggs, bacon, sausages, beans, mushrooms, fried bread and, optionally, black pudding. More lipids than I consume in a month and utterly revolting - but necessary.

The first day was a perfect mountain day. Bright sunny skies, cold air (-5 C) and fresh powdery snow. We started up into the Mamores behind Lochleven, a chain of 'munroes' running up the north side of the loch.

My team consisted of Lawrence , a six foot electrical contractor and Territorial Army sergeant, Rachel a fire fighter from Cork, Paul a London copper, myself and Phil George our instructor. Phil is a friendly Welshman who wields an ice axe like a rapier and can balance a pint on the point of his knee while telling endless stories of the world's climbing destinations.

We started off on Day 1 with a little avalanche theory : how to spot them and how to avoid them. Even in Scotland, avalanches are still the biggest squasher of people in the mountains. Avoiding them is not hard but surviving them is pretty damn difficult (so watch out if you're out walking on the lee-side of a hill, in a thaw, on a thirty degree slope, after heavy rain).

The rest of the day consisted of basic movement and ice-axe work. We learnt how to use crampons, kick steps in the snow, cut steps with an ice-axe and how to move safely roped together.

Then we learnt about ice-axe arrests.

An ice axe-arrest is used to stop yourself sliding over a crevasse or off a hill. You clutch the ice axe to your chest, fall on it and push it into the snow. Butit's not as easy as it sounds. Firstly, the ice axe has a bloody great spike on one side and an adze on the other. It's very important to getit the right way round when you fall on it. It also has a tendency to get ripped out of your hands, leaving you with a lengthy plunge while your axe remains safely embedded in the snow.

The other tricky bit is that you never seem to fall off a mountain in the right position. Hence the only way to get the hang of it, is to fall off a mountain in a variety of ways. This we did with gay abandon. We did feet first, head first, on your back, on your side, on your front and my personal favourite, face down head first.

Lawerence was the first to give it a go. He picked up his ice-axe, took a run up and disappeared down the slope in a flurry of arms and legs that seemed destined to end in a forty-foot snowball in the carpark. "Is he still alive?" asked Phil from behind his hands. "Not sure," said someone, "I can't see him anymore."

The second day proved to have less favourable weather. A front moved in bearing rain and the wind picked up across the mountains. The temperature warmed slightly, which meant that the snow started to melt and the rain descended in liquid form rather than as snow.

This, as the weather fax reported, was the ideal conditions for an avalanche.

It was also, our instructors informed us, the ideal conditions for training.

We went further afield and crossed Loch Leven into Glencoe. From there we strolled up to the snow line which was slightly higher. The wind blasted through this particular corrie like a wind tunnel and Phil affably informed us that if the wind down the valley was 40 or 50 miles an hour, then it could be expected to be 60 or 70 across the top of the col and more like 80 further up the peaks.

First, much to my delight, we donned crampons and ice-axes and experimented with a little ice climbing. In ice climbing you rely on the front two points of your crampons and the pick of your ice axe to keep you up in the air. Climbing is a simple (but tiring) matter of removing one of the three or points of contact, raising it and banging it back in. You then repeat this with a steady rhythym until you are at the top of whatever it was you were climbing.

The second set of training involved building an emergency shelter out of available materials, i.e. snow. There are a couple of variations but the one we settled on was to dig horizontally into the snowbank behind a rocky outcrop and chisel this out into a cave big enough for five of us.

The final bit of training we did that day was some avalanche assessment. You select a representative bit of snow, carve a hole in it and then jump up and down on the bit above it. If the whole lot collapses - you're in avalanche country. If on the other hand, nothing happens, then you're probably safe.

Our last day was a bit more restful. With the inclement weather continuing to drive the snow further up the mountains, the decision was taken to retreat to a sheltered glen and practise some rope-work. We finished the day off with some more technical lectures, a slide show and about six pints of Guiness in the pub.

Apparently compared to this the Alps are a doddle.

There you have to be off the snow by about 2pm due to the risk of plunging down a crevasse brought on by melting snow. This means that you have to start before first light but can spend your afternoon basking outside your chosen climbing lodge, cappuccino in hand.

(While I was in Scotland two people plunged off Ben Nevis and went splat in separate incidents. One woman coming down the tourist path stopped overnight with her friends but rolled out of bed during the night and ended up 2000ft below. Another professional climber apparently slipped off the bottom of a rope. Cautionary tales indeed!)