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

Creag nan Gabhar and Loch Callater

Having bailed earlier than I’d intended on my work’s Christmas ‘do’, I was home and bedded way before pumpkin time, thus waking bright eyed and bushy tailed (or as close to that as I ever get!), and happy enough to hear that golf (his) was off as the course would be on winter greens. Winter greens = no eclectic competition and playing off mats, so I’m reliably informed there’s not much point. Thus the decision was made that I’d accompany him on Plan B, a trip to the hills.

Rucksack packed, breakfast thrown down my throat, showered and out within the hour, I was pretty impressed by myself.

Out the road we went, spotting the hill tops appearing further out towards Ballater, and discussion was had about where to head. We opted for Braemar as the skies were looking clear, a positive contrast to the forecast of foggy tops, and came upon a light dusting of snow on the roadside from around Crathie. Passing the snowgates at Braemar, the road suggested there had been snow this morning. Thankfully we didn’t have to go much further.

Parking up, it took about 10 minutes to get winter ready. Ice axe fastened to the rucksack, winter boots on (and off – too loose – and on again), waterproofs and gaiters on. It was pretty chilly feeling, even with my 4 layers on top and 2 pairs of gloves! Thankfully this feeling didn’t last once I was moving.

Heading along the track towards Loch Callater, we walked for just over a mile before heading up onto the ridge that meanders along and up to Creag nan Gabhar. I became significantly warmer as we headed upwards but in time the wind picked up and the temperature did feel cooler due to the wind chill.

The snow higher up was patchy with tiny drifts on the path, the heather still peeping through in most places, although there were some deeper sections here and there.

We opted to skirt around Creag nan Gabhar, nearly at the top, as the wind was quite strong, the snow blowing across us and the chill biting our faces. We took a wee cross country diversion here, making our own way down towards the main path.

Heading down from Creag nan Gabhar

Ahead, we saw another couple who appeared to be going a very different direction. Talking to them later, they’d avoided a more icy section by taking a detour. Meanwhile, we opted to practise our ice axe arrests, sliding down a steeper, more compacted section on our fronts and using the ice axe to slow down and stop repeatedly. It was rather good fun and definitely a good place to practise, safe in the knowledge that we weren’t going anywhere dangerous. The only unpleasant part was when my jacket rode up – I’m sure I could feel the coldness of the snow through my many layers!

Continuing downwards we finally reached the track and stopped for a bite to eat with the other couple. My soup was very tasty, and having learned from last time I found that shaking the flask before each serving meant I never got to the point of needing to eat it by the handful! There’s nothing like homemade soup for being a meal in itself!

The wee cairn marking the path down to the bridge was either missed or missing – not sure which. Again, we moved cross country with the notion of where we wanted to go from previous experience. Skies were clear so we didn’t bother taking a bearing knowing we’d happen upon the bridge soon. This bridge isn’t visible from the path and on previous occasions we have wondered if we’ve missed it, suddenly stumbling upon it.

Safely across, we wandered a little further before reaching Loch Callater, not yet frozen for the winter. Another stop was had outside the Bothy, another snack. This Bothy is really well maintained and very comfortable with composting toilets on site. Well worth a visit.

Back along the track, it’s about 3 miles to the car park. This was easy walking with just the odd patch of ice today, most of it covered by a thin dusting of snow. Last stop of the day, The Bothy in Braemar for a well deserved coffee and cake.