Day 1 of the KSMRT winter skills course.
“Don’t walk back up in the snow slide otherwise it will lose its slipperiness,” Graham advised.
He had just demonstrated an ice axe arrest on a perfect patch of snow. At a good angle and with enough of the white stuff, he had crafted a suitable slide from the top of the slope to the bottom. And he didn’t want it spoiling.
“Go over to the side and come back, up to the top from there,” he went on, following his own advice.
We looked at each other.
Who would go first? Who would lay face down in the snow under a howling gale holding the business end of an ice axe within kissing distance of their face and use it to stop a sliding fall?
We were at the start of a winter skills training weekend as part of the Kirkby Stephen Mountain Rescue Team and those of us with little winter walking experience were being given a crash course in how to navigate the hills safely.
The eight of us were standing side by side on a carved out snow ledge at the top of the slope, clad head to toe in waterproofs and topped out with helmets. I sensed a resemblance to penguins as we shuffled sideways to allow two of our number to take the first trip after our leader.
“Right, that’s it, feet up, axe adze into your shoulder, elbows in and off you go,” Graham directed Rick and Nick who had gingerly inched onto the slope. It wasn’t steep but it was slippery and we were needing to focus on kicking boots and planting the axe in in order to prevent an unintentional run to the bottom.
Getting face down on snow with the axe lying crossways under your body took some doing. We had to let ourselves slide for a short distance before applying the brake. Which basically means using your body weight to ram the axe pick into the snow, thereby bringing yourself to a halt.
As penguins are wont to do, once one has gone over the edge, we too all followed suit.
Not content with starting with the face down, feet down position, Graham quickly prompted us into how to arrest from falling on your back or even head first. He did well to manage our childlike glee as we hurled ourselves in waves down the snow.
The slide was getting suitably polished by this point and we began to notice the effects of our technique and clothing on slide speed and arrest distance. Rick’s waterproofs, a matt textured material, slowed him down sufficiently that the axe was almost immaterial. Steve, however, found he needed the deceleration heather zone at the bottom of the slope to bail him on out on one occasion. His landing there was a joy to behold!
We traversed to a steeper slope after lunch, one that was deemed suitable for crampon use. Having been warned by Graham in no uncertain terms of the dangers of crampon misadventure, we moved into pandemic distancing mode, walking with a careful spaced shuffle up, down or across the slope.
It certainly wasn’t a place to take a tumble with the slope stretching intently down into a stream fed gully. Our banter petered out as we focussed on each step and in keeping ourselves and each other safe.
The walk back to the minibus involved the more traditional Scottish path character of mud in all it’s forms. We hopped, skipped, slipped and slid our way over, through and around the best sludge the Cairngorms could offer.
John and I brought up the rear, chatting our way down, and I was reminded of a new term he had suggested earlier as a play on the word slippery.
Slipperty felt an appropriate term for our snow’s features today; a substance that, on the one hand, kept us on our cramponed toes, especially as we also analysed avalanche risk. However, as I watched my colleagues stride to the car park looking at least ten years younger, it had also brought out the child in all of us. And I’d say that’s enough for a new addition to the Oxford English Dictionary.