I’ve often thought that learning the basics of anything, is the toughest part of the gig! Learning to ride a bike, or ride a horse, or balance in a kayak – they all involve periods of instability and discomfort, while you learn the basic skills. Then once you’re rocking and rolling – you have two choices. Continue practicing the basics PROPERLY or rush to the next stage of having fun, the adhoc way, just making things work to get further and faster, as quickly as possible. The second option is probably the easiest – but then you end up running out of steam when the going gets tough. Like throwing a javelin badly, it arcs high and falls short, and unless you go back to examine your grip and body position, you’re not likely to improve.
I felt a bit like that when I ended up on a snowy hill with Keith McDonnell from ExtremeIreland.ie. I’ve walked with crampons and ice-axe before, and I’ve walked on snow and ice. But I knew my winter skills needed work ahead of my big challenge on Elbrus later this year. Heading out to my first Munro after flying into Edinburgh a couple of hours earlier, I was amazed to see how quickly we drove from green fields to snowy mountains.
I first met Keith, on my first hike up Lugnaquilla in Wicklow with Mountain Rescue’s Ronan Friel and some other mates. That was a couple of years ago, but ironically, that was a snowy trip too. This time, Keith and me weren’t just hiking – this was a training mission. I quickly realised that Keith is big on basics. We hit the snow line, and Keith showed me different walking techniques for going up and down snow and ice. But we left the crampons in my bag! Now that was tough. No nice, sharp, spikes to grip in – instead it was down to me, my boots, my basic technique and the strength of my kick! Despite the freezing cold wind, I was sweating in minutes and had to lose a layer of clothing before we continued. Before long the crampons and ice-axe followed, and as we got higher, we lost visibility.
I’ve read about ‘white-outs’ and written about ‘white-outs’ – but I realised in Scotland that I hadn’t a clue what a white-out meant, until I was caught out in the spooky, scariness of not being able to see a thing in the distance. Google or Wiki will tell you that a white-out is caused by blowing or falling snow, low-lying mist, or an atmospheric condition where the light coming off the land is equal to the light around it, making shadows disappear, and with them, the horizon.
Unless you’re walking in those conditions, you really can’t imagine how strange it feels. My nerves were stretched tight to screaming point. I felt the snowy ground under my feet would disappear at any moment, into a gaping chasm. I felt any moment that I would walk off the edge of the cliff, and plummet down the 900 metre slope that I knew was lurking out there in front of me….. so I walked behind Keith!
Later I told the poor man that I had a complete rescue-strategy formed in my mind for when he disappeared into oblivion. In other words, I would dig a snow-hole, like he’d shown me earlier, get warm and comfy, out of the wind and mist, and hope that my phone had a signal to phone for help. Lame? perhaps, but at least I was able to tell him where we’d gone on the map – and that, for me, was a major step forward and a credit to his navigation tuition. When it came to navigation, I was seriously impressed. Following a map on a sunny day in Wicklow is one thing, but pacing in a whiteout and finding your way off a spur, around invisible rocks, and back onto a spur to retrace your way back down off the snowline – with no visible markers – that was remarkable. Well for me it was remarkable. I want to be able to do that, to have the confidence to use map and compass, and come out on point. That’s a skill worth having.
Other skills include walking effectively and safely in crampons on ice. I need to perfect these skills before I head to Russia this Summer, to climb Elbrus – Europe’s highest peak and one of the Seven Summits. I need to know how to walk in steep, icy conditions without slipping, and if I slip, I need to know how to safely ice-arrest, and stop my slippery slide to the bottom of a slope. That means being able to correct myself and stop my fall by getting the ice-axe into the snow as a brake – without stabbing myself in the process or letting my crampon spikes catch in the ice to break my legs. I need to be able to do that regardless how I fall or how I slip; that could mean head-first on my back heading down a mountain and gaining speed with every second. Ok, maybe I’ll stop thinking about that for a little while. I’ve made a start, and the next stage is working on my fitness and practicing that ‘digging in’ kick. I obviously don’t have snow to work with here in Ireland, but I have an idea that climbing sand-dunes might give me an opportunity to get the power into my legs.
My first Scottish Munro was an experience, which I’m anxious to repeat. The challenge is there Keith. Next year, I’ll join your regular winter walkers, and I’m determined I’ll keep up. You might even get me to navigate…..
Onwards and upwards….