This year I spent January, February and March this winter in Scotland preparing for the British Mountain Guides (BMG) winter test that is based in the Cairngorm mountains there. I learnt to climb and ski there so I was no stranger to the place and love it to bits, but Scottish winter climbing is so unique that climbing in other ranges around the world does little to prepare you for the onslought of the sub-Arctic weather, or provide you with the cunning skills required to climb, and more importantly, protect heavily rimed and snowed up mixed climbs. Its fair to say that some of the climbing I have done there have involved the most technical trad protected leads that fully engage the mind.
The first week there was spent in the Cairngorms getting my eye back into climbing snowed up rock before relocating to Ben Nevis for a week’s winter training with the BMG. It had been mild and dry winter in the lead up but the trainers did a brilliant job making the most of the conditions to show us the guiding techniques for short roping, approaching climbs, guiding mixed and ice routes, descending, navigating and general client care.
Since I’d already spent years climbing in the Cairngorms, I decided to use some of my trip to explore some of the remoter areas of Scotland that were still 4-5 hours drive from where I used to live in Aberdeen. The beautiful region of the far North West known as Torridon was on my to do list and as it happens Martin Moran and his wife Joy have been running a guiding agency there for 32 years. When they offered me a job guiding in February I jumped at the chance and fellow trainee guide Guy Steven and myself were allocated to deliver the technical mountaineer course.
On week 1 I had the pleasure of Singaporeans Jie Ling and Arnette Wong. We visited Beinn Eighe, Ben Nevis, Skye and the Kintail, all being strong contenders for Scotland’s best scenery and climbing. On Week 2 I met Peter and Chris who were two strapping strong lads and we ticked off Beinn Eighe’s East and West Buttress, Cobalt Butress and Seamstress in the Cairngorms. On my final week I had the company of Californian Linda Sun and Londoner Guy Arnold and did Fruar Tholl;s Right End Buttress, Beinn Eighe’s West Buttress integral, Cobalt Buttress, Pot of Gold in the Cairngorms and finished with a big dry tooling session. Linda had come to Scotland lured by the promise of climbing icefall routes such as Poacher’s or Salmon Leap but with Scotland experiencing a dry winter there was no ice to be had and having never done any mixed climbing she took a little persuasion to swing her brand new picks into the frozen turf. However by the end of the week she was fully sold on subtleties of mixed climbing and was seconding grade Vs with ease.Brilliant. Despite Scotland experiencing a dry and mild winter it was still producing fantastic adventures with great company.
After 6 weeks in Scotland it was time for a quick trip home for the weekend to see Michelle and get a quick fix skiing. It was still low tide in the Alps with little change from when I left after Christmas but with spring like conditions we enjoyed a nice run down from the Aiguille du Tacul and another in Y couloir.
Then it was back to it and the final few weeks leading up to the test were spent in the Cairngorms practising guiding skills. The whole winter so far had been plagued by persistent southerly gales with temperatures bouncing up and down. Finally as the first group started their test it looked like winter had returned and should be set for us. Cruelly the temperature bounced once again and most of our test week was spent in positive temperatures. With atypical conditions that few had seen in 20 years, the test itself became more mental than physical making conservative safe decisions on where to go and what to do.
The 6 day test kicks off with an overnight expedition where the candidate gets to demonstrate their knowledge of climbing history, geology, snow and ice craft, snow science, night navigation, client care, bivi skills, and of course rope skills for protecting clients while moving through the mountains. Our journey started out from the Cairngorm ski centre and passed through Coire an t-Sneachda where some of our rope skills were assessed. After we travelled on to Coire Domhain where we had a brew in the snow holing zone. We set off on night navigation as the sun started to set and made our way around the Cairngorm Plateau navigating to the various locations requested. Once the assessor was happy with the navigation we dropped down to the Hutchinson Memorial Hut situated on the Braemar watershed side of the Cairngorms in Coire Etchachan. It had been twenty years since I had visited this mountain hut, or bothy as they are known, and it was good to see it newly renovated. After cooking some dinner for the team we settled down to a few hours sleep and got away early in the morning.
Day 2 dawned clear and mild as we made our way back onto the Cairngorm Plateau towards Carn Etchachan in glorious warm sunshine. There we were assessed on snow science and ability to manage a team descent down the steep terrain of Pinnacle Gully. We then held an ice skills class before returning over the plateau and making the short rope descent down the goat track and heading back to Glenmore Lodge for the debrief.
The mild weather was due to continue over the next 2 days which meant we needed to get the personal ice climbing day done as quickly as possible. That meant getting up at 3 am, driving an hour and a half followed by a 2 hour yomp up Ben Nevis to seek out any remaining ice before a warm band of rain past over at noon. With a few pitches of ice despatched we topped out on the Ben just as the monsoon started which ensured we were all wet to the pants by the time we got back to the cars.
Back at Glenmore lodge we all had our personal debriefs before demolishing dinner and getting an early night to catch up on lost sleep. The personal mixed climbing day was scheduled next but the forecast wasn’t looking good and sure enough the next morning brought storm force winds and positive temperatures. After some discussions the assessment team called the day off and left us to prepare for the 2 final client days. This meant that we would each have to come back the following week to sit the personal mixed climbing day.
Meanwhile we needed to plan and prepare what to do on the first client day and the weather was not cooperating. Summit temperatures had been above freezing for the previous 24 hours which would mean soggy turf, loose rock and out of condition climbs. My mind wondered through all the possible ridges available in the area to do as a mountaineering objective and I spent a lot of time asking all the instructors and guides at Glenmore Lodge about what had been done recently. Conditions on the nearby Moray coast at the sandstone crags of Cummingston would have been perfect for rock climbing. Ally and myself had already enjoyed 2 lush days sports climbing at Brin Rock in the middle of January but going rock climbing wasn’t going to pass us a mountain guide’s winter test.
I went to bed with some good ideas of what to do and decided to wait to the morning , meet my client and ascertain their fitness and ability and make a plan A, B, D and D to cover all eventualities. I really wanted to avoid focusing on an instructional day as it isn’t my background and delivering in a structured manor off the cuff doesn’t come naturally to me. After all it was a guiding exam and if at all possible I wanted to cover lots of ground while throwing in some teaching and coaching along the way where appropriate.
Next morning I met Paul Jackson who would be my client for the next 2 days. Paul is an ex-marine / Falklands war vet who now works in the Oil and Gas Industry as an asset manager. He falls into the category of an alpha male high achiever where time is a major commodity. The Fiacall ribs would provide safe climbing sheltered from the worst of the westerly gales and by the end of the day we climbed 3 mini routes covering a fair bit of ground and throwing in some snow science instruction along the way. This was by far the worst day of the exam for the candidates as it was difficult to pin down an inspiring option and doubt played heavily on the mind. Having seen my client move well on rock, I went to bed a lot happier knowing he was up for smashing a couple of grade IV/Vs the following day with the return of winter conditions.
Thankfully the final day of our week dawned clear and cold with light winds and it was back to normal winter conditions. All the doubts we had experienced about what to do on the previous day were gone and it was time to go mixed climbing. An early start from the Lodge allowed us to make the most of the day and comply with the non-negotiable return time of 4 pm. We headed for Mess of Potage to maximise the climbing to walking ratio and started up initial pitches of the Message before taking on the burly top pitch of the Melting Pot V,6. Having smashed this Paul just wanted more and we did the brilliant direct start to Hidden Chimney to finish the day.
Once we got back to the lodge there was time for a quick shower before our individual debriefs for the day. We all had to come back the following week to take the personal mixed climbing day and that loomed like a shadow over us. Despite this we all wanted to get debriefed on how the week had gone so far and adjourned to the bar for the long wait knowing the first results were unlikely to be given before 11 pm. By 9 pm we’d already had half a dozen pints and were all feeling somewhat jaded after a busy week with less than optimal amount of sleep. As we started to relax from the busy week, falling asleep at the bar was a real possibility and I went to get some coffee for the lads. By 11 pm its fair to say we were all wasted in every sense of the word and desperate for some sleep. Finally the examiners were ready and called the first candidate. We were all on tenterhooks and hoped we hadn’t made any major errors during the week and embarrassed ourselves. I continued to wait n tenterhooks as the second, third and fourth candidates were called and passed provided they passed the mixed day the following week. The pressure was mounting and with the initial candidates getting provisional passes it felt inevitable that someone would be deferred. My mind wondered if the mistakes I had made during the week would be viewed as minor or result in a deferral. During a week long assessment its unlikely that your performance will free from errors and the effect of exam stress comes into play an impacts negatively on performance.
At last I was called and prepared for the worst just kept quiet and listened to my feedback. As expected its started off with the things I had done well and I was braced for the shit sandwich only to hear, come back next week, do the mixed climbing day and you will pass! Relief and happiness washed over me with a new wave of fatigue. I was over the biggest hurdle on the way to becoming a British Mountain Guide and the mental burden of the Scottish winter test was being me. Afterwards I stayed up into the wee small hours chatting about the week and our experiences with my friends Jack Geldard and Ally Swinton before crashing out for a few hours well earned sleep.
I now had a few days off before the mixed climbing exam and went to see my Mother in Aberdeen. It was great to relax a little and eat well after a busy week and I needed a couple days to rest a pulled hamstring but all the time there was the final day in the back of my mind. 4 of the guys elected to do their final day on the Monday while Swinton an myself chose the following Wednesday. I drove back to Aviemore on Tuesday and met up with David Thexton to climb the good Burning and Looting mixed route on the Fiacall. On the Wednesday Ally and myself went into our final day knowing the other 4 had passed so the pressure was on not to fluff it at the final hurdle. The weather was kind and conditions good so we headed back to the Mess of Potage for a couple more laps. I kicked off climbing a big pitch combining Pot of Gold and the Message. All I had to do was climb steadily and not mess up the ropes and I would pass – I’ve probably never climbed so slowly, but steady and sure was the theme of the day. With my part done it was over to Ally who despatched the Melting Pot. As we walked out of the Northern Corries for the final time that winter we got given the news that we had both passed.
Ally and myself said our fair wells in Aviemore before hitting the road south. I ‘d hoped to get to Michelle’s work flat in middle England but the adrenaline of the day soon faded and was replaced by deep fatigue from the stress of the test and a long winter on the hill. Luckily for me my sister lives in the Scottish borders and I stopped off at theirs to celebrate passing with bubbles, beers and a dram or 2!