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Trek and Mountain: Winter Skills article

December 2011  'Trek & Mountain' (issue 23) magazine feature on Winter Skills and the advanced Winter Mountaineering courses with Talisman can be viewed on a PDF here (3.31 Mb)

Dreaming of climbs on towering white mountains and jaw-dropping cliff faces?

Dreaming of climbs on towering white mountains and jaw-dropping cliff faces?

Look what happens when you decide you're tired of sitting behind a desk ...

Well, you've got to learn to walk before you can run and a five day winter mountaineering course in the heart of the Scottish Cairngorm region might be the perfect way to get started on those peak-topping aspirations.

Experienced mountaineering instructor Ron Walker has been running winter skills and climbing courses with his company Talisman Activities for over ten years. For people like me, who work in offices but love the outdoors, the courses are an unforgettable experience and Ron is a knowledgeable and practical guide.

Based on the slopes of the 4,082 foot Cairngorm mountain during the unforgiving Scottish winter weather, the courses are also a chance to shake off a few cobwebs.

Ron makes sure that participants are well versed in vital mountain safety techniques. He aims to help people who may never have pulled on a pair of crampons before get to grips with skills that will allow them to feel confident tackling steep snowy terrain on their own.
As we made our way up the northern slopes of the mountain on our first day, it all seemed a bit too bright and sunny.

We headed for the higher snow-covered ground and it was not long but we had mastered our crampons and were hurtling down the snow in a variety of alarming positions to practice emergency braking with ice axes - an essential safety skill for all aspiring mountaineers. We learned the best ways of climbing up and descending impossibly steep-looking slopes, such as what Ron explained as the 'Tina Turner technique' - the 'legs wide apart, knees bent' stance. On the second day, we discovered some real Scottish winter weather as the cloud thickened, a harsh wind picked up and wet snow surged around us.
It can be a daunting experience trying to navigate on a steep mountain in a blizzard and Ron made sure that we all understood how to use a compass and step-pacing techniques to get us out of potentially disastrous situations.
A highlight of the day was building and having lunch in the snug snow-holes, which we had painstakingly dug out with our ice axes, and in which Ron assured us that we could pass a very comfortable night's sleep or sit out a heavy storm.

For those who stay on for the final three days of Ron's course, the emphasis is on putting the skills into practice and tackling some more complicated ropework that will allow you to take on the really steep snow and ice.
We learned how to set up longer rope-protected climbs using the snow and ice to secure ourselves with anchors and belays.

The climax of the experience was our final pitched climb where my climbing partner and I surmounted a long snow-filled gully, fixing our own belays as we ascended, under the watchful eye of Ron.

But as we trudged up the mountain again on the final day there was a final unexpected treat in store. Cairngorm mountain is home to the UK's only wild herd of reindeer.
About 15 of the Christmassy creatures took an inquisitive interest in our little party and decided to amble down the path behind us The remote surroundings are also home to the ptarmigan - we spotted many of these white grouse-like birds hiding camouflaged in the snow-covered hills.
The fresh air and constant exercise took their toll and I returned home from Aviemore fairly exhausted but totally exhilarated and feeling ready to take on some more of those towering white mountains.
More details of the courses are available at:

By Rachel Crolla Senior Reporter

Leeds Weekly News, Pudsey and Wharfe Valley Times 10th March 2005

Scaling New Heights Of Fun!

Do you fancy yourself as a dashing mountaineer but fear you lack the winter skills? Express Reporter GREG SWIFT discovers a winter climbing course in Scotland that can take you to the heights.

Few experiences in life can match that of labouring for hours through waist-deep snow to emerge on top of a sunlit mountain summit and marvel at the beauty all around. During a five-day climbing course in the Cairngorms I gloried in that sensation just once, but it was worth the other days of biting winds and lung-busting exertion when it was sometimes hard to see beyond a few feet.
On that day after a tortuous climb to the summit of 4,046ft Cairngorm, my climbing partner and I were overwhelmed by the glistening spectacle before us. Under a cloudless sky the serried peaks of the Cairngorm; stretched to the horizon in all directions an endless swathe of snow smothered summits, ridges and plateau.

It was the crowning moment under Ron Walker, an experienced mountaineer who has tackled some of the world's most difficult peaks. His Talisman Activities winter skills course, set up over 8 years ago, aims to take novices from the "what is an ice axe?" stage to comfortably belaying a partner over the edge of a collapsing cornice on just a slender rope. He chose the Cairngorms for his base because life saving skills can be honed on its moderately demanding slopes.

On our first morning we had a briefing on equipment and basic climbing techniques, then went to the mountains to learn the most vital of skills, how to stop a fall. Next came ice axe breaking: shooting down slopes head first before rolling into position and using axes to come to a halt. I discovered a childish delight in whizzing down a mountainside, knowing that you can stop yourself (in theory!) at any given moment.

Then we learnt to traverse icy slopes using crampons, kicking steps in snow or hacking them out in ice with an axe. And how to belay yourself or another climber over a ledge using just a short rope and anchor cleverly dug into snow. Navigation skills, too, are invaluable. especially when a sunny day can become whiteout within minutes. Techniques such as pacing knowing how many steps to cover 100 metres are carefully covered.

But the highlight of the week had to be the night spent in a snow hole. After a gruelling climb involving a navigation test, with only two and a half hours of daylight left, we start hacking at the wall of snow in front of us, pausing only to shovel the collected snow out of the way.
The knack to making a good snow hole is to build two rooms one with a low ceiling and a raised platform as a bed, the other deep enough so that two people can stand up and get dressed in the morning.

"...after five hours of digging and swearing we had carved out an impressively smooth bedroom and a large kitchen-cum-living room..."

Although you are surrounded by ice, a night in a snow hole is not uncomfortable. The temperature hovers around 0 degrees centigrade and after consuming enough food for four people it is comforting to slip into a sleeping bag for a kip.

The right equipment is a must, particularly entirely waterproof clothing, half the battle in the mountains is staying dry!!

Reporter Greg Swift: (The Express Travel Section 10th February 2001)

We Beat Our Fears!

Abseiling down a sheer cliff face may not be the obvious choice of activity for someone with an intense fear of heights.

But when Sally Lovell was offered the chance to do just that while on holiday in the Greek Islands two years ago, she took it. For once, she was determined not to let vertigo spoil her fun. Sally, a 38 year old BBC marketing manager from London, can't recall a specific trigger for her fears. As a child she could never climb trees or negotiate the ropes during gym class, and fairground rides were out of question. 'I remember feeling left out, part of me really wanted to join in’; she recalls. While a teenager, Sally visited New York and was persuaded up the Empire State Building. On the viewing deck she was overwhelmed with a stomach churning sense of panic. It was a feeling that was to return whenever she was at any height. 'I love trekking and would often go oft with friends, only to turn back when the route took us uphill; admits Sally. ‘I was convinced that I was going to fall and it made me shaky.’

In June 2000, Sally went on a singles holistic holiday to Skyros where activities were offered and she was looking forward to painting, yoga and sailing. When someone suggested she try abseiling, she laughed. Then she realised here was a golden opportunity to tackle her fears head‑on. 'As we approached the cliff I almost turned back. But it was such a beautiful day and I was enjoying being with the group, so I persevered; says Sally. The others scaled the 200 ft. cliff face ahead of her. Then the group's instructor, Ron Walker, helped Sally into a harness and coaxed her slowly over the cliff edge. 'It was terrifying but Ron talked to me all the time and I felt safe with the harness on; says Sally. 'To my amazement I felt OK. I even paused to admire the view. On the ground, Sally felt elated. I'd done something I would never have thought possible. It was like discovering a new me.

Inspired, she signed up for a holiday run by Ron of Talisman Mountain Activities the same year and found herself walking on Mont Blanc‑the highest mountain in Europe 4,000 metres from the ground "....It was terrifying but truly the best experience of my life.", says Sally.

 "Both holidays helped me to believe in myself. I'm so much more confident now. I don't think there's anything I wouldn't try, Mont Blanc was terrifying but the best experience of my life".

Reporter: Hollie Smith  Woman 55 (Summer 2002)

The fun is all in the preparation on a winter skills survival course

THERE’S something about throwing yourself head first backwards down a steep snow slope which appeals to the suicidal instinct: which must be why I’d actually paid to join five other ashen-faced hill- walkers on the lower slopes of Cairngorm this week. In fact, the intention is to stop you breaking your neck - or anything else. 

With an increase in winter mountaineering and greater publicity about safety, the demand for basic skills courses is surely welcome, and our own instructor, Ron Walker of Talisman Activities, proved patient and interesting.

Head first, feet first, backwards, for wards and roly-poly, we dived in the quest to brake, first with the ice-axe, then (more scarily) without it. Next, crampon practice: hallelujah .- they’ve now invented devices which don’t take 10 freezing minutes to untangle, before you realise you’ve forgotten from last season which way the tortuous strap ping and looping actually goes.

Next day, past bustling queues of skiers at the funicular, we trudged through soft, heavy snow towards the stunning cliffs framed by blue skies, a rock climbers’ paradise Coire an t-Sneachda. Climbers, ignoring avalanche warnings, crawled like beetles up snow gullies and clanked past us hung with vast ironmongery.

While spring may appear to have arrived in the lowlands, further north there is still a great deal of ice and snow. So it was that Ron showed us how to marvel at rare snow buntings and experiment on a huge bank or mini-ridge dense with drifted snow Someone volunteered to be buried in the stuff; we fell through cornices; we tried primitive abseils and snow belays; then we spent time and energy carving snow holes with ice axes and shovels into the side of the snow-banked mini hill. Ron promised, or threatened, us with lunch inside our own shelters!

"I proved hopeless. The secret is to make a small entrance you can barely squeeze through, but while the others whistled and hummed and built fantastic lintels, or heaved beautiful square snow blocks about, I fashioned the kind of cavernous entrance a force nine gale could swirl into, the snow fell to powder in my mitts and, most embarrassingly, I kept falling off my perch...."

It’s remarkable, though, when you do sandwich yourself into a well-made snow hole, how roomy and tough-walled it seems. On Ron’s longer 5 day courses, the group digs a massive hole for up to four hours, and stays there overnight It’s apparently one of the great attractions ….which shows how odd and masochistic people are! At least I felt cheered at sharing Ron’s verdict on those trendy, pricey, ubiquitous GPS navigation gadgets (global positioning system)........................

Reporter Sarah Nelson from the “Heralds” Weekend Living, Saturday, 22nd March 2003

Winter Wonderland

Winter Skills course

The snow was falling nicely as we made our way to Aviemore for the Winter Skills course, and it looked like it would continue throughout the weekend.  Temperature on the hills on Saturday was around –8, with a good wind blowing the snow off the tops. After being kitted out with ice axes, helmets and crampons we made our way up Corrie Cas alongside the ski lift and funicular.  Stopped to make ice footholds in a slope with the axe, then further on made snow holes to sit in for lunch.  Although it seemed warm out of the cold wind Ron advised that maximum temperature was probably around zero degrees. Feeling very cold in the fingers at this point – useful tip from Fiona was to swing arms round in a circle as if swimming, which pushes blood out to the fingers and warms ‘em up in no time.  Afternoon saw us performing (and I use that term very loosely) Ice Axe arrests on the slopes with the use of the ice axes to stop us.  This involved throwing ourselves downhill head first, feet first, sideways, and every other possible combination known, with a few new ones not previously seen before on the slopes.... Great fun was had by all, once the initial fear had gone.  We then tried out the crampons on icier slopes further up, perfecting the ‘John Wayne’ walk and various other methods, again some previously undiscovered such as the 'Tina Turner' (but equally effective).

Day two saw the weather worsen and the hills were closed to walkers, so an alternative route took us up behind Glenmore Lodge.  Ron had brought a rope with him which drew suspicious looks from those of us who suspected a plan was afoot, however we were assured that it was just part of his kit for the day…hmmmm.

We did some navigation with compass, maps and pacing and then stopped for lunch. After lunch we found out what the rope was for, as Ron abseiled over a cornice on a nearby slope, closely followed by Fiona then myself.  Beautiful icy blue colours showed through underneath the cornice.  Stuart wisely declined to follow, and looked on from above while Ron dug out a snow trench to the top of the cornice. Things looked a bit dicey when the roof collapsed, causing a mini avalanche, however after a bit of digging we all emerged unscathed and laughing. We then looked at layers of ice and stress lines in the cornices, then down to the park to practice some more navigation (OK, maybe we didn’t all end up where we started but it was close!). Then it was back to Fiona's for a nice hot cuppa and news reports to check that the road at Drumochter was open again for the journey home.  Can’t wait until next year to do it all again!

By Susan Allan, 'Summit-Up', May 2003, Bank of Scotland Magazine.

UPWARDLY MOBILE: John scales Old Man of Hoy

May 2007.. And it was off to Orkney with John and James for a 40th birthday adventure to climb the Old Man of Hoy. We had mixed weather but on our third and last day, we hit a weather window of a few hours when it was dry and calm enough to safely complete the climb. John got a mention in his local Guardian newspaper and raised over a £1,000 for the Rathbone charity. More details and photos of John climbing the Old Man of Hoy can be found at

London Guardian 7th June 2007

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