I’m going to tell you about a day I had recently which turned out to be one of the best mountain days of my life. It wasn’t a long day and in all reality, it was probably barely borderline wild, so why should it rank so highly in my mind as one of my best-ever days? Because of how it made me feel; completely and totally free.
I am new to ski touring and definitely still in the beginner stages of learning how to look after myself and be independent for winter mountaineering generally. So when sat warm and comfy behind my laptop in my home in Edinburgh, I spotted a weather window that looked like it would give me enough snow and some glorious sunshine to ski in but also that coincided with some days off, my heart basically exploded with excitement! My brain however, was a little more reserved…
But I don’t have anyone to go with, should I go on my own?? But it’s dark and really cold, where will I stay?? I probably shouldn’t go on my own…
You know, the usual chit-chat that an intimidated brain might produce.
Fortunately, the thought of getting my skis on proved to be too much and somewhere along the line the nagging ‘what if’s…?’ in my head were replaced with a resounding, ‘ah fuck it, let’s go and see what happens!’
Commited to going…
Between making sure all SD’s stuff is good to go (she’s a dog, why do I have so many jackets for her??) And making sure all my stuff is good to go (where are my skins?? Maybe I will just pack my crampons too, just in case I get stuck somewhere?!), getting organised seemed to take forever.
The only hostel that would actually answer their phone (November is off-season normally) and will take both me and Siula-Dog is in the middle of nowhere, full of workmen and the owners had a super awkward argument about me when I arrived, while I was standing right next to them. As put off as I was to start, I found a kindred spirit in one of the big and not-so-scary workmen and once the owners settled down they were even super excited for me to get out and keen to give me some beta on where to ski, it’s funny how things go!
Turn up on the day…
It’s 6am. I drag myself out of my cozy hostel bed into the darkness of minus 5 outside. ‘This is a terrible idea,’ my brain whispers to me, ‘It’s cold, it’s dark, the roads will be all slippy. Go back to bed, Jen, stop thinking you are brave enough to go out on your own.’
A million excuses as to why I shouldn’t go on my own but instead should stay in the nice cozy car and maybe just go for a coffee instead are trying to sneak through my head.
Siula-Dog however, is just SO EXCITED because OMG WE ARE GOING IN THE CAR! Her bouncing enthusiasm wins over my niggling head drama and somehow we ourselves in the car park at the ski centre.
Choose my route…
I am smart enough to recognise I feel intimidated so I set my success criteria low for the day. I choose to ski up around the back of the closed resort, around the right of the bowl (thereby missing out the only area where there would be even a hint of avalanche risk), up the ridge, onto the plateau, left up Cairngorm mountain and then ski down through the resort. I’ll be within easy retreat of the resort and on ground I know well. For day one I’ve consciously chosen a straightforward route that I would have to work to not succeed at.
The car park is busy with many other opportunistic people who clearly saw the same forecast as me. I can see a number of mountain guide vans parked up already and people getting ready to go out and climb in the Northern Corries.
All these people are watching me and thinking I look like an idiot. Oh for goodness sake, stop being silly and get out the car!
Kit up, skins on, dog ready…
Skis on. Shit how do these bindings go into touring mode again??
Is Siula-Dog going to be ok, did I bring enough stuff for her??
Skinning starts, shuffle stomp, shuffle stomp…
Barely ten minutes in skinning stops again… Man, I am too hot! I strip off some layers and call Siula dog to me and stick my hands under her jacket to get an idea of her starting out temperature. This is what deprecatingly might be called a kit-faff!
I spent the first hour of skinning picking dumb routes between rocks and generally remembering how everything worked. I even managed to avoid splatting on my face when I rediscovered the straight up angle limit of the skins.
Trying to keep a bouncing Siula-Dog on a leash whilst skinning and generally trying to avoid getting her tangled in my skis/legs/arms/hair/sandwiches is utter chaos. It’s a bit like short roping an octopus to start but eventually, we figure it out.
More skinning up and up…
Bootpack over the rocks.
A lone male tourer catches up with Siula-Dog and I. He is bursting with enthusiasm, almost as much as Siula-Dog is, and has today already been up and around the route I am going to do and this time around where I go East on the Plateau he is headed West to ambiguously, ‘See what Lurcher’s is like.’ Although we only chat for a few minutes before he is racing off ahead of me, I instantly like this man and his let’s-go-see-what-happens attitude.
Onto the Plateau…
We break over the top and onto the sweeping Plateau. It’s bloody beautiful. Clear blue skies, golden November light, sparkling hoar frost glitters all over the white plateau. I can see for miles.
While I take a moment to reflect, Siula is having the time of her life jumping around and trying to dig at the little rodents she can smell hibernating under the snow.
We begin to picking our way between rocks up the convex slope of the rounded Cairngorm mountain.
Some fog comes in quickly and I have a minor freak out before remembering, oh yeah, I can navigate. Funny how dumb fears creep up easy when you are not feeling entirely confident!
Get to the top…
Realise the fog patch I’m in is basically just the tiniest little cloud sitting on top of this mountain, not the certain death my brain decided it was during Freak Out A.
It’s lovely up here.
Oh and I can see the hut from here, no worries.
Oh shit, I’m going to actually have to ski now. Off piste! I haven’t skiied in a year! How do these skins come off again??
Siula! Why are you choosing to bark and go cray-cray now at the exact moment when I am distracted by trying not to glue my skins to themselves??
Nearly fall flat on my face because I forgot to clip my bindings back on.
Where’s the dog?? She’s racing behind, focused on nothing but keeping up with me. Well good.
Some more turns.
Start to relax.
Ah, the lumps are ice, not rocks. Well, that makes life a bit easier. The fog lifts and the sun comes out.
Some more turns… into powder.
Holy shit. This is glorious.
The resort wasn’t open but with some runs pisted Siula Dog and I slowly meandered our way down flicking between untouched snow and freshly groomed trails when we felt like it. We did a lot of practising; for me there was a lot of trying to concentrate on balance and weighting. For Siula we worked on teaching her to stay behind me and getting her to stop and sit, rock still, if she went ahead so I could ski round her. We stopped regularly because I wanted to make sure Siula wasn’t getting ragged down the mountain and also the quads of my forgotten-how-to-ski-legs were on absolute fire the whole way down, so letting her rest doubled as time for my muscles to release! Siula-Dog struggled with ice balls on the soles of her feet, poor girl, I was literally having to bite them off for her. We would ski another hundred metres or so and then they would have built up again so I’d have to her foot and gnaw the ice off for her, a very bizarre experience for anyone watching I’m sure!
Despite Siula’s icey paws, we skimmed on down her having the time of her life galloping after me as I cruised along saying hi to the occasional other tourer we met going up. Just me and my dog, in the snow, doing our thing.
This wasn’t an epic trip by any means, in reality, it was very tame as we were within eye- shot of the ski resort for the whole route. But it was mine. I made it happen, entirely on my own. I gave my dog a great day out and I gave me a little block into my winter bravery shed.
Together, Siula-Dog and I earned every single one of those inelegant, but utterly glorious, Scottish sunshine turns.