Novice hill walker and long-time journalist Mike Merritt spent a spell on the hills with expert guidance from Glenmore Lodge
I HAVE hundreds of reasons to write this – but let’s just start with 10. That’s the number – at the time of writing – of hill walkers who have so far died on Scotland’s hills this year.
In more than 20 years of covering the Highlands and Islands, I have reported on hundreds of rescues – many of them avoidable, caused by a lack of basic preparation, planning, equipment, poor navigation and, bluntly, stupidity and ignorance.
I did not want to add to those statistics.
So that’s why I checked in at Glenmore Lodge near Aviemore – Scotland’s national outdoor training centre – for a three-day discover hills and mountains skills course. It was a revelation.
There were seven of us – ranging from an Australian physiotherapist and a Network Rail project manager in their 20s to a 62-year-old recently retired superfit sheriff and a blacksmith from Fife. All disparate backgrounds bonded by a love of the outdoors.
The man tasked with instructing us was Phil Sanderson, who together with his wife Pauline, became the first British married couple to conquer Everest!
But, as he stressed, Scotland’s hills can be even more dangerous than the world’s highest mountain.
As Phil asked each of us at the start of the course what we wanted to gain from it, one word came echoing from everybody’s lips “confidence” – to feel able to make the right decisions to enjoy Scotland’s greatest natural assets.
Over the three days Phil took the contortions out of contours, the pique out of planning and the disorientation out of direction. Mountains no longer became a meandering maze of mystery.
During those three days we put what we applied in theory into the reality of the real environment, walking more than 25 miles and taking in around 8000 feet of ascent.
We tackled all types of terrain, from well-defined hard paths to navigating by steps and pace across knee-deep heather and foot-deep snow – learning essential mountain skills, such as map reading, compass and electronic device use, meteorology, the flora and fauna of the area and how man and nature have shaped the environment over time.
Phil made us all realise that there is more to being a mountaineer than simply hiking hills. It is a relationship with your surroundings.
For some, reaching the summit of A’ Chailleach (930m/3051ft) in the Monadhliath Mountains was their first Munro. Their delight was palpable and, as Phil said as we set off, “this is our Everest today.”
As we stood on the windswept top he reassured, “you always feel vulnerable at the summit,” before warning not to lose concentration on the descent as often happens when people feel they have achieved their goal and done the hard work.
Meall a’ Bhuachaille (810m/2657ft), a reasonable hike from Glenmore, and Creagan a’Chaise (722m/2369ft) in the Cromdale Hills gave us completely different terrain and weather conditions.
But all the mountains had one thing in common – views that made you realise just how beautiful Scotland is and that the effort put into exploring them is well worth it.
Walking in good company is one of the greatest social pastimes and the skills learned at Glenmore will enhance that experience. A reasonable level of fitness is needed.
The hills we tackled were made on a careful assessment of the day’s weather – even down to where the wind would be on our ascent and at different stages of our trek. The mountain you planned the night before may not be your best choice on the day. Be ready to change with the weather.
Each sport has its golden rules – and Phil’s were the five Ds: design (of the walk), direction, distance, description and dead end (what tells us we have gone too far past our point?).
The course focused on the skills needed to pack and plan for day walks in the mountains with the majority of the time spent on the hill.
Informed decision-making in producing practical and achievable route plans, dealing with an emergency and understanding the role of mountain rescue were all tackled.
Planning to avoid water hazards and how to deal with them on the hill were also thoroughly highlighted – not least when we crossed a fast-flowing boulder-strewn burn. And nobody fell in!
The choice of clothing and equipment and how to use it properly was informative, practical and vital. I now have a different view of gaiters and walking poles – my new best friends.
We all ended the course inspired and more confident.
Mountains will always be unforgiving places – that’s why anybody who seeks to enjoy them would do well to spend some time at Glenmore.
And, as an incentive, there is also the centre’s legendary tea and cake at the end of a hard day! Don’t worry about the calories – you will have earned them!
Courses for all at Glenmore Lodge
Located in the heart of Cairngorms National Park, Glenmore is ideally suited to learn, develop or qualify in an adventure sport of your choice.
The staff all emanate a pervasive, relaxed, friendly and helpful atmosphere. The accommodation and meals are of a budget hotel class and the courses are incredibly good value.
Glenmore is not just for elite athletes – it is a true national centre, it exists just as much for complete novices like me.
There are also courses for under 18s and tailor-made opportunities.
Glenmore’s goal is to inspire adventure by teaching beginners, coaching intermediate/advanced participants and delivering training and assessment courses for leaders and instructors.
Accommodation begins the night before your course commences.
There is full board available during the course – including packed lunch. The food is homely and prepared daily by the centre’s chefs. Course transport and equipment are also included, but check what you are expected to bring.
One downside is that Glenmore has no mobile phone signal and the wi-fi is at best patchy. There are no TVs – which helps the ethos of being involved in the camaraderie of your group and being in tune with your natural surroundings.
Our Discover Hill and Mountain Skills course was £325 without accommodation and £400 with (including meals).
Glenmore offers a plethora of courses in a variety of outdoor sports from a day to a week and beyond. For more details visit www.glenmorelodge.org.uk