Ballater Weekend featuring Hillgoers Winter Skills Training

Lazy Saturday in Ballater

The ideal Christmas gift, a Winter Skills Day with Hillgoers, led us to Ballater at the weekend. Not being ones for doing nothing, we enjoyed a gentle stroll around the Seven Bridges, my favourite being Polhollick.

Polhollick Suspension Bridge, Ballater

Aside from this the walk was gentle and easy, a fine stroll where we marvelled at nature and the water levels that had been seen in the horrendous flooding of 2015.

The Bothy once again drew us in for coffee and cake, delicious as always, mainly due our feeling that mid-afternoon was not an acceptable time to go to the pub!

Later, having checked into our B & B we did just that; a busy night in the Balmoral Bar in Ballater! A decent meal saw us ready for an early night, looking forward to the skills day ahead.

Hillgoers Winter Skills

Meeting at The Bothy, this time in Braemar rather than Ballater, my fears were confounded when the other four participants in the group (husband included) were all male. Instructor Bill, however, very quickly allayed said concerns without even trying, introducing himself, getting the teas and coffees in, and settling us into a relaxed chat about the day ahead. Key to this was that the focus was on learning and support for one another.

After our initial chat, covering the planning and preparation stages of our walks including need to check the weather and avalanche forecasts for a few days prior, we headed out. Originally planned for Glenshee and postponed due to ridiculously strong winds last weekend – you’d have struggled to be upright, let alone hear anyone – again, the weather forecast was mixed and due to get windier, albeit not on the same scale, so we headed out to Glen Callater instead.

Loch Callater Bothy

The walk out to Loch Callater Bothy takes around an hour. It’s pretty much flat, along a good landrover track, and today had a decent covering of snow. This had fallen overnight and was reportedly better than the slushy conditions encountered by yesterday’s Hillgoers group.

Despite this, the snow made it a wee bit of a slog so it was a relief to come upon the bothy. As we approached, the snow began to fall lightly. This was especially welcome as Braemar was likely encountering rain if the aforementioned forecast was correct.

Into the bothy it was time for a snack, some hot chocolate, and the opportunity for Bill to check that we all knew how to put our crampons on and ensure they fitted our boots properly.

Loch Callater Bothy tucked into the slope

As is often the case, the world proved to be extremely small. Bill, having recognised me from running circles, transpired not to be the only runner. Others in the group also had links to friends through work and running interests, and it was entertaining establishing how we were all connected through mutual friends and interests throughout the course of the day.

The Fun Begins: Onto the hill

Refreshed, we headed out onto the hill. As we went up, Bill took the lead and did the hard work allowing the rest of us to follow behind, demonstrating energy saving techniques used when volunteering with Braemar Mountain Rescue Team. Second in line then also did some work, treading on the backs of Bill’s footsteps and creating a bit more of a channel, and so on. Being second last (or back of the pack)I enjoyed a stroll up the hill with minimal effort. I did feel somewhat guilty about this, but not guilty enough to move forward, the others seeming quite content and the distance to be covered relatively short.

I did appreciate Bill’s honesty and humour; when stopping for a mini lecture on conditions or technique, he admitted this was more due to the need for a rest after the exertions than urgency to impart information at this particular moment.

Boots as Tools

The first thing we practised was using our boots as tools, winter boots having harder soles with less flexibility making them better for kicking. We practised using the edges of our boots to gain stability while traversing across the hill, developing confidence in our movements. Quick movement downhill was also demonstrated and practised, including a technique for scree. I’m still not convinced I particularly wish to use this, but I may try it one day – I do ‘love’ a scree slope! Perhaps I should practise a bit more on snow first.

During this time the weather began to change, snow falling and, as the afternoon progressed, wind picking up. Having swithered this morning about my thermal leggings I was quite delighted to have put them on, at no point during the day feeling cold, and glad that I’d put up with overheating a little on the walk out.

The Real Fun: Ice Axes

Initially we practised the self belay, the idea being that this becomes instinctive and can effectively prevent a slip turning bad. Although the snow was pretty soft, this was an ‘easy’ technique to get my head around in the grand scheme of the day.

My initial attempts at self belay

The Inner Child

It doesn’t take much for me to find my inner 5 year old, so I was in my glory when it was suggested that we should all have some fun rolling down the hill in order to flatten the snow, creating an icy slide. One roly poly made me realise that my brain doesn’t work in quite the same way as it apparently used to; it was amazing how disoriented I felt, not sure which way was up and struggling to walk in a straight line! I found sliding down on my belly, head first, to be equally (if not more) satisfying!

Slide made, Bill then clearly demonstrated the techniques required to use our ice axes to arrest should we slip when walking. Previously for Bruce and I, these arrests had been taught through falling onto our fronts with legs pointing downhill.

Bruce in the act of arrest

Today was a whole new experience! Not many falls are graceful and easy; we therefore had to learn techniques for falling backwards and forwards, with both involving a headfirst slide.

The supportive environment and the group dynamic allowed us to have a lot of fun with this. Coordination is key – I’m not blessed on this front – but I do have an awareness of teaching physical skills and was quite comfortable practising the movements while upright and waiting my turn, aware that it will take lots of practise before this is in any way ‘unconscious’. Ultimately, the key skill was to master the initial control, getting the axe into position and the pick into the ground, thus allowing momentum to turn the body to the right direction before then stopping properly. It’s amazing how easy it can look when done by some accomplished! That wasn’t me!

I have a feeling I’ll be rolling around on the living room rug a bit over the coming week – here’s hoping I don’t impale my axe on the sofa!

Cutting Steps and Crampons

Lastly, our learning involved how to use our crampons effectively, the hope being that if we master this art we won’t need to do an ice axe arrest for real. Although using the ice axes was great fun in practise, all the other techniques should be the priority for safety on the hills.

I liked Bill’s analogy for using crampons: walk like a puppet, essentially trying to make contact with as much of the ground as possible, using all points on the crampon to increase grip and stability.

We learned to cut steps, using the ice axe as a pendulum, flattening a small step before moving onto it, thus theoretically allowing others to follow up or down in our footsteps. This is a useful technique if the weather conditions have changed the ground cover.

Back to the Bothy

Heading back down to the bothy, we kept the crampons on. Chat was very easy among the group by this point and it was a pleasurable short descent.

Safely ensconced in the bothy once again, it was time for more hot chocolate (still hot, courtesy of the Stanley flask) and another bite to eat. We were joined by a couple of students who had biked out – good effort – and a couple of lads who’d been out walking.

Finally, the walk back to the car. This passed quickly as we blethered, snow turning more slushy as we approached the car park again.

All in all, a great day out! I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to join Hillgoers on this excellent day, and sincerely thank Bill for his time and efforts. Here’s hoping if I see him again it’ll be a random bumping into at a race, or in the Bothy at Braemar, rather than on a dark hillside when he’s with the Braemar MRT! Thanks to everyone that joined us today – a pleasure sharing your company. Happy walking!

@Hillgoers Winter Skills Training Group

Metro Coast to Coast Relay: Leg 3, Culter to Banchory

The Metro Aberdeen Coast 2 Coast Relay is well underway as I write having started at 4:59 pm with the juniors dipping a hand or foot in the sea before setting off. They ran to Duthie Park, handing over to the Leg 2 runners who then carried the baton to Culter which is where we pick up.

I decided a couple of days ago that I’d run from home to Culter adding another 6 miles and giving me the 17 mile long run that the marathon plan has scheduled. For a fleeting moment I did contemplate meeting the Leg 2 runners on route and tagging along but they’re a bit fast, so I opted instead to run at my own leisurely pace, secure in the knowledge that I’d then be fit to make it to Banchory as planned.

As it transpired, I just made it to Culter in time! The forecast had suggested there was a risk of a rain shower and sure enough it came as I reached Milltimber. Knowing I had time on my side, I opted to shelter under a tree to allow the clouds to pass over. Unfortunately each time it appeared to be getting lighter it would then start pouring again. I finally got going and before long was approaching Culter Station.

Seeing the car park ahead I looked back to see the familiar Metro vests storming up behind me. No time to linger, it was literally a case of a quick hello to the assembled supporters before continuing on.

There were seven of us running Leg 3: Graham, Campbell, Alan, Grant, Jim, Vicki and I. We’d all been out on the recce run previously so knew what we were in for. I think we were all pleasantly surprised at how the evening panned out. Unlike last time when it was unseasonably hot, tonight we had a breeze and a lovely running temperature. We all agreed as time went on that it felt far easier than our recce – whether this was due to the cooler weather, there being a true purpose for the run or the promise of a post-run refreshment, we’ll never know!

Metro Coast 2 Coast Leg 3 on route: Culter to Banchory
Thanks to Tony McGarva for the photograph.

We took turns at carrying the baton with Campbell leading off and Graham handing over at the other end, rightfully so as they were our group leaders and a great job they did too.

We ran out along the old Deeside line with a couple of bits where you’re routed onto the pavement by the main road and it was good to see the familiar faces of Tony and Roy out with their cameras.

All went smoothly, the chat was good, and the group ran well together sticking to the planned pace for most of the way. Before we knew it we were approaching Banchory, and determined to finish together Alan suggested we all join hands on the run up to the handover point. This put a smile on all our faces and my only concern was that we might pull over someone with tired legs as enthusiasm kicked in and the pace picked up.

Handover done, we then headed to The Stag for a celebratory drink before being chauffeured in style back to Aberdeen. Many thanks to Graham, Jim and Alan for driving.

Celebratory refreshments in Banchory
Thanks to Campbell Hayden for the photograph.

Yet another of those great days where Metro Aberdeen show what a truly special club they are. Huge kudos to Tom and everyone else involved in getting this event together and safely onwards to those carrying the baton through the night and into tomorrow. A great team effort for great causes!

Huge thanks to Vicki for putting together this video montage:
It’s truly epic!!

Training with Braemar Mountain Rescue Team

You may recall in the not too distant past having your arm twisted to buy some fudge, relaxing on the couch for a session of Reiki, or maybe just being kind enough to make a donation to the very worthy cause that is Braemar Mountain Rescue in exchange for me running the Illuminator, the 15 mile trail race in Aboyne. The event itself was great, but what was even more exciting was that off the back of our fundraising Bruce and I were both invited to spend the day with the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team.

Trying to coordinate dates initially proved a minor challenge as everyone has such busy lives. However, as good fortune would have it today was the day, the weather was very much in our favour and we had a beautiful calm day, thankfully missing the challenging winds that would have made for bitter conditions yesterday! Thus, an early alarm (5:45 am!) woke me from a rather comfortable slumber and after porridge and a quick run through the shower I was good to go, or at least make lunch. Tomato soup (I’ve shared my love for this previously) and a tuna mayonnaise and egg bap – perfect!

The upside of an early morning was the ease with which we travelled out to Braemar. Arriving just in time for our 8:30 am rendezvous, we met with Nick and Derek, our Mountain Rescue hosts, and fellow fundraiser Callum and his dad, Gordon, Callum being the third person who’d raised over £1000.

Perfect hosts they were too! A team training day had seen the arrival and departure of the rest of the gang, and we were left to enjoy the tasty treats they’d not already scoffed, along with our coffee.

Nick led us through an interesting presentation on the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team and whilst I’d previously read and enjoyed the book, ‘Mostly Happy Returns’, that celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2015, the big screen really highlighted the ongoing dedication of the team, the extremes in which they operate, and the harrowing conditions that they face. The fact that everyone on the team chooses to do this on a voluntary basis is something that we should applaud them for. Albeit the role can be fun and exciting at times, it’s not much fun getting called out of your bed in the wee small hours or being out most of the night and getting only a few hours sleep before starting your ‘normal‘ day. (For clarification, that’s my take on it … both members of the team were clearly passionate about their role and its very much part of their lives however challenging it may be).



The next part of the day involved a tour of the station itself and a look st the rather impressive equipment and vehicles used by the team. I often have a wee moan about the weight of my rucksack, especially if I’ve not had it on for a while. Never again! I have no idea how these folks find the strength to carry this amount of kit up the hills – no wonder they speak so highly of the helicopters that sometimes assist!

Prior to heading out we had our crampons checked for fit and helmets issued for safety during training. Thereafter, we got a wee jolly in the Landrover. This was rather fun. I’ve often wished for a lift when walking in somewhere, and it was great being driven along the track to Loch Callater. A wee bit snowy in places it was interesting to see how the vehicle to some degree slipped around like any other car, the upside being a much greater clearance level!


Heading off to practise our winter skills, the main purpose of the day with my newly acquired (Christmas presents), ice axe and crampons, I was very much in the camp of ‘all the gear and nae idea!’ Under the careful guidance of Nick and Derek we had the opportunity to try out a range of techniques from moving along the hillside safely and using the ice axe to create better footholds, to ice axe belay and ice axe arrest.

These techniques were practised without crampons for safety. The reality is that you probably would be wearing crampons if encountering a situation where such a technique was deployed, but safety first in practise means no crampons to lessen the risk of bodily injury and expense of ripped clothing! The arrest technique in particular is one that I need to practise further so it may well be the case that as Bruce heads off up a munro I genuinely am found playing near the car park, sliding head first down the hill.

I’m aware that carrying an ice axe home from town requires a bag as it’s classed as a weapon in this context – perhaps one of the team could enlighten me as to whether sliding down the hill in the park practising an arrest while the local kids are sledging later in the week would be considered inappropriate? 🤣

This done, we stopped for the aforementioned lunch before getting the crampons on. This was another learning opportunity, practising using the ice axe to create a platform for standing safely on the slope, with reminders to keep your kit safe at this time. Very useful for someone with little common sense who would undoubtedly otherwise be seeing her rucksack slide out of view!

The lessons continued … walking up, down, and along the hill with crampons, before heading down a steep, albeit short, descent. At this point we were shown how to use the ice axe and crampons to descend safely backwards, then climbing up again (front pointing), to be informed that this would be a Grade 1 climb. Usually someone who would rather take a mile detour than face a scramble if at all possible (much to Bruce’s displeasure) I was somewhat chuffed with myself, although as Bruce said, it’s amazing how much more comfortable you feel knowing you’re out with the MRT!

More play in the snow ensued, now learning how to keep warm and find shelter for bad weather or emergencies. We dug out holes in the snow – not bad for 10 minutes effort – and I learned the importance of keeping your legs lower to ensure you’re not forcing cold blood back towards the heart. Derek’s was the most impressive effort, but he had the advantage of a spade! Perhaps the next purchase might be a rucksack twice very the size of my current daypack!

Finally we meandered back down to the vehicle to pause for photos before heading back to the centre. Another cuppa and some final chat saw the day come to an end.


I’d like to say a massive thank you to Nick and Derek for giving up their team training today in order to take us out. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did Bruce, and I very much enjoyed the opportunity to talk to you, hearing about your experiences and learning so much in such a short space of time! I will certainly check out the BMC videos you recommended as I’m sure they’ll make so much more sense in light of our training today. Thanks for such a brilliant experience!

Safe travels to you all!