It has been the fastest few months of my life, certainly some of the busiest and undoubtedly some of the best!
It seems a long time ago from when I first heard about the Nightwatch scheme; whilst in the Lakes on my Summer ML assessment chatting to the course director as a fellow candidate led us around Bowfell on a sunny March day two years ago. He asked me where I ideally saw my outdoor career in 10 years time and I was at a loss initially, whilst I knew at the time I wanted to be in the industry, I hadn't really considered the longer term until that point. We walked along in silence for a few minutes and after some time I concluded that adult based skills coaching at a high level would be my ideal. He described something called the Nightwatch scheme at Glenmore Lodge, and after a bit of chat I distinctly remember thinking at the time that it sounds perfect for me. 24 hours later and I received my 'sticker' confirming me as a mountain leader and I was on my way with my first 'big' outdoor qualification and another milestone on my journey towards the Lodge.
To try and maximise my opportunities to up-skill, get outdoors with like minded people, work towards my qualifications and gain access to kit; I enrolled on the Certificate of Physical Activity and Adventure Leadership at Perth College UHI. I actually had quite a fight to get on the course; my background at this point had been that I was running my own draught beer services company for a number of years and had previously completed university degrees up to masters level, so applying to a college course academically geared towards school leavers raised a few eyebrows! A long discussion with the course leader ensued, where he attempted to dissuade me from continuing with my application. I was undeterred.
I subsequently enrolled on the Advanced Certificate in Outdoor Leadership at West Highland College UHI (after a similar conversation with the course leader!) and moved to Fort William. Whilst there I submitted my first Nightwatch (unsuccessful) application for the 2013/14 intake. After taking on some telephone feedback from Nigel Williams (Head of Training), and with my range of qualifications broadened and instructional experience gained in the intervening year, I dusted off and updated the old application form for the 2014/15 intake.
On joining the Instructor Development Scheme (aka Nightwatch), the six of us were delighted and privileged (and quite relieved!) to join the scheme for its 31st year. Not least, due to the 4 day interview process; involving a day of maintenance, a day of paddlesport, a day on the mountain and a more standard interview at the end. With 13 interviewees and 6 spaces available the odds were good, however there was a very eclectic mix of abilities, experience and backgrounds and personalities amongst the candidates and distinctly remember that my confidence was not particularly high on the long drive back to Edinburgh!
So what do we do?! We will spend the year manning the reception desk in the evening and are the front line of the facilities and stores departments during the day and work on various projects in the office all on a rotational basis.
Much of the first month involved familiarisation and training on everything, from mountain rescue involvement to trailer driving and cherry pickers (with a reasonable amount of less fun stuff like van cleaning, rubbish crushing and office procedures!). Looking at our Facebook timelines our friends would be forgiven for thinking that we just live the high life and spend time having adventures but who wants to take (or look at?!) photos of sorting recycling or window cleaning!
The toughest task of the first month was definitely to self-plan our rota for the forthcoming year until Christmas. The issue is it involves a complex juggling of 6 people needing to fill certain shift patterns, whilst also accommodating everyone's course wishlist, taken from a brochure of around 250 courses to which we have (almost) unrestricted access! In saying that, we're unlikely to get much sympathy for this hardship!
Now I am a sworn in member of the Nightwatch, it's time to take the training wheels off and for the fun to really start!
It has been a busy few weeks, I have been doing a lot of associate work recently for Blairvadach, a Glasgow LEA centre.
Primarily it has been P7 groups and last week was certainly a challenge but a fun week none the less. Whilst not 'bad' kids they just had a shorter attention span than normal and it really was limited to 3-5 seconds. I was glad that climbing was scheduled for the end of the week where their listening skills had slightly improved!
It was also an adventurous week for me as I got to discover a couple of venues I hadn't been to before. An exploration of the gorge which branches off to the right proved interesting early in the week, as it involved a relatively large walk back around via the top of the hill as the gorge to the left is uncrossable until quite high up, I wish I knew that before hand! But in the spirit of adventure the group enjoyed it and got to meet some horses and friendly pigs which got up close and personal and followed us up the hill.
An enjoyable hill day with the group on Cruach Tairbeirt was had, more in hindsight than at the time for some! A hill above Arrochar at 415m should be ideal for this group, but having never been there before and no marked paths on the map higher up the hill through the forestry plantation, some experimental route finding and bog hopping was required to lead us clear of the trees. The short steep ascent led to some groans which dissipated as we cleared the trees to find another of our groups and a fantastic view over Loch Lomond.
The weekend brought with it some late teens for some fun, bonding and teamwork focused ropes course and climbing activities, as part of a Malawi Young Leaders group who were undertaking a customised programme. During the day they also helped contribute to a film for Glasgow schools about Fair Trade so it was also a school day for me. A nice relaxed way to end a week.
A quick conditions update from a pair of returning walkers and we were ready to set off shortly before sunset. With heavily scoured southern facing slopes and an emergency shelter packed we set off up towards Glenlochsie Lodge ruins upon where we entered the snow line and onto the southern slopes of Glas Tulaichean.
After some difficult navigation in largely featureless whiteout conditions and a strengthening wind we approached the top and with some quite tricky aiming off and hand railing of cliff tops we hit the summit marker at 8.30pm without issue, admittedly to our slight surprise.
Already poor summit conditions continued to deteriorate as we searched for a suitable spot to construct our home for the night. A rapid search led us down to an easily angled scarp slope just off the summit plateau, about 1000m, and with some probing we commence construction about 9.30pm.
After two physical hours of construction, in what can only be described as annoyingly 'sticky' snow, our snow hole was now liveable.
With dinner done by around midnight, unfortunately a restful nights sleep was not to be on the cards. With gales filling the door of our accommodation with snow at an alarming rate of over 30cm per hour, we decided to clear it every half an hour throughout the night, taking turns to suit up and brave the elements, gradually extending the work cycles up to an hour.
After a pretty sleepless night, whiteout conditions greeting us in the light; a slow start to the day ensued and ambitions for Beinn Lutharn Mhor were quickly abandoned. With gale force winds and little visibility and constant snow/rain a very physical and mentally challenging day was guaranteed. Goggles on from morning til night, we battled some of the most sustained and most aggressive weather I have encountered in the mountains, regularly getting thrown around by the wind.
Heading down from our snow hole near Glas Tuilaichean's summit to the North and heading towards Carn an Righ through knee deep snow and howling winds, with physically draining and painstakingly slow progress. we eventually summited the peak and returned via Loch nan Eun and into Gleann Taitneach before darkens fell once more and a two hour walk out into the driving rain. The boggy ground, generally atrocious conditions an end of the day in sight and a rapidly approaching overdue time conspired to a lack of caring about wet feet when the many fords were encountered and a quick and wet approach was taken getting helping to get us back to the car by about 5.30pm. The following two hill days we had originally planned were quickly abandoned in favour of a more restful weekend!
It is easy to think that with harsh winter weather conditions and a remote barren landscape that you are being a truly adventurous and hardy mountaineer as you trek off into the unknown as countless explorers before. Our illusions were thoroughly shattered upon meeting Hugh.
Our exped started much like any other with lots of back and forth to try and find 'new' hills and areas for our winter log books and as is common the best laid plans were continually revised from the moment we arrived at the Coire Ciste car park until our return the following day. So it was on the Sat 23rd Nov that myself, Craig and Michael set off with a (cosy) two man tent and an optimistic outlook.
The soft underfoot conditions dictating a radical rethink of what was possible whilst still in sight of the cars. Contouring across we crossed the Strath Nethy without too much trouble (or wet feet) and climbed the shoulder to Bynack Beg and in the cloud with firmer underfoot snow completed the ascent of Bynack More. A vicious wind but good progress at higher altitudes made for an uncomfortable trade off but our 1kph progress of earlier was not ideal either. Crossing the plateau and following a relatively direct but steep descent to the Loch Avon basin placed us in sight of the Fords of Avon refuge, a halfway point by a previous version of the plan, with darkness in sight a plan was made to stay the night.
Hugh greeted us upon arrival as it rapidly became clear that 4 in a B&Q shed was not ideal. Michael would have the pleasure of forgoing the warmth and security and instead would enjoy setting up and residing in his tent after dinner it was decided. Talking to our host, our questions were met with some surprising answers. Hugh is an offshore worker and with an abundance of downtime that goes with the trade was in the process of a three and a half week exped which is seeing him cover virtually all of the bothies of the Cairgorms and over towards the Monadliath and the Great Glen. Carrying a bergen containing 35kg at the start of his journey and 3 weeks of food it was hard not be impressed as his endeavour. With the modern focus on light and technical design of kit, it was eye opening to see someone not just survive but thrive with an old military bergen, a pair of army surplus boots with almost no tread and a hardy nature.
After well needed carb laden dinners (two as I underestimated first lot of pasta!) we grudgingly opened the door and helped him set up the tent, Craig just keen to try his new snow saw to be honest. Nearing completion of the fortress erected to protect the tent from the elements I was keen to test out the tent myself much to Michaels relief. After the four of us watched a comedy film on a tablet I brought in the refuge to bed it was.
There was ice around the rocks as Hugh waded the Fords barefoot, suited and booted we managed to rock hop keeping our feet dry, but no complaint from Hugh and we went our separate ways; his towards Findouran and our a fast and light ascent of Beinn a'Chaorainn and a brief view of Beinn Bhreac (again from a previous revision of the plan). Back across the Fords to retrieve stowed kit and for the extremely slow and difficult traverse to The Saddle from where the firmer snow conditions made for an easier ascent towards Ciste Mhearad. A nearby large snow bank was chosen after a lunch and crampon stop to have a play.
With 40min on the clock we decided to give snowhole practice a go, and dug and cut our way to something which was a great temporary abode, with perfect snow conditions we managed impressive results in the time and wouldn't have taken much more effort for a luxury hillside mansion. If only we had an extra night to spare... A quick pop over to the ski area to hear the painful scrape of skis on ice and down the shoulder to the Ciste car park just before dark brought a tough but great exped to its conclusion.
Following my Oban trip I headed north to Fort Bill for the night and despite a very grim Friday I prepped for a two night exped to somewhere...
With a slight lack of enthusiasm (I had a window and a forecast at my disposal) a plan was hatched which had the makings of an epic, to walk into Ben Alder hills that night and back out Sunday with a few hills under our belts. We met at the distillery in Dalwhinnie about 9pm and a quick look at the map (my first for this plan) brought home reality of the 40km involved in just the walk in and out, never mind doing any hills! After a rapid reappraisal of our situation it was decided that the far north west of Scotland was the obvious choice!
Arriving in Inverness late on a Friday night and not a map could be found so we decided to head towards Ullapool with the idea of getting one first thing and making a two day exped out of it. After a soothing night of gale force winds rocking us to sleep in the car, the picture in the morning was not much better with winds forecast up to 95mph so back to sleep and a leisurely day ensued taking in the spectacular Corrieshalloch Gorge.
Map in hand and a much better forecast, our time may have been shorter but our ambition remained. A quick check on Walk Highlands showed a 4 munro circuit of the Ullapool hills north of the Fannichs, but we figured that number 5 could be a goer.
A 5am alarm saw us leaving at 6.20am (omelette issues!). With a clear sky and full moon we made good progress (it was also Craig's first proper hill day in months) ticking off the first three munros in an anti clockwise sequence from the large bealach seperating them, heading off to number 4 to the north and had our planned reappraisal of the plan, head back now and we will be back at the car by dark, or add on an extra 10k, some difficult ground and get back to the car about 9. So after a quick check in phone call we headed for the last peak and with tiring bodies made the difficult return to our planned descent path by retracing our difficult outward leg from the last top with an even more difficult return leg in the dark and following a relatively easy if unending path to the car park, arriving back just over 15hrs after we set out having covered 36km and 2.25km of ascent/descent. If only the long drive south could have waited!
Click here for all of the photos from the trip.
After a trip to the Oban area last week, I extended the excursion for a few days however encountering some of the wettest and windiest weather Scotland has ever thrown my way in the process.
A bit of an ad hoc road trip ensued seeing me do and afternoon start on Ben Cruachan (primarily to avoid weather in the morning but a bit tired also!) and managed to avoid most of the high winds until on the ridge for the last section where I was getting thrown about on the snow, not fun. A beautiful sunset from the summit and returning via a nice moon rise and back at the car by tea time. Only one shower for 10 min but a brutal 10 min it was! It was good to get up into the snow line again and some decent footwork was required on some pretty solid stuff. See more of our photos here.