The first time I visited the Cairngorms I nearly lost my hands. I’d only taken my gloves off for a couple of moments, just the length of time it took to re-tie a loose crampon strap. That minute-and-a-half, it turns out, was enough. I looked down at my fingers in fascination as they just stopped working. There was nothing dramatic about it. The wind-driven cold was so keen that they simply couldn’t function any more. Eventually pulling my gloves back on - a vicious Catch 22, since both hands now had the dexterity of frozen spades - I felt that numb tingling and the slow return of blood to cherished extremities which unquestioningly reassures you that Everything’s Going To Be Alright. It was only afterwards, back in the hermetically sealed comforts of civilisation that I first saw
wind chill charts such as this one and realised that 0 deg C days plus 20mph winds equals minus 16 deg C on your exposed bits. Nasty stuff if you plan on keeping them intact.
But just in case that short tale implies some innate competence in the outdoors, consider this second cautionary tale: of the first time I climbed Snowdon. It was a foul November day, the drizzle was total and the visibility was nil. Not that this mattered to me I had never heard of the
Mountain Weather Information Service, or in fact any of the routes on Wales’ highest peak other than the Ranger path. I’d got that route description off a pub website. It was only through a companion’s admirable reserve of common sense - and quite despite my confident insistence that it wasn’t needed - that we’d brought a map. When we’d finally made it, panting, to the summit - our eyes blinded and nostrils smarted by a swirling maelstrom of what seemed to be upwards hail - our inappropriate kit and, it felt, bones too were drenched. We were only being kept alive by the fuming exertions it had taken us to get there. Quite undeservedly back at the car in one piece it was far from a sure thing whether or not my frozen fingers could start the life-saving ignition and get the blower going.
There’s a third story to tell, too, if you can bear it. A few years after both of these events I felt very smug while wild camping on the side of an autumnal Aran Fawddwy. My pack had been unusually light and manageable on the walk in and I’d become increasingly convinced that I’d finally mastered the art of lightweight backpacking. It was only when I started to set up camp that I noticed I was missing my sleeping bag. A night in all my clothes, shin deep in my rucksack, was the reward for such hubris.
Why am I telling you this? Well, three main reasons really. The first is to show that the wilder, higher and more open parts of the British landscape can be frighteningly stark, breathtakingly beautiful, and worth all manner of sacrifices to get out there and explore yourself. The second is to highlight that if someone who decides to climb an unfamiliar 1,000m+ mountain in the pouring rain, zero visibility and a Top Man jacket can not only survive but go on to
become a Mountain Leader and usher other people into those same environments, then anyone can.
And finally, I’m telling you this because this is the first instalment of a new blog series, created for the fine people at Lifesystems. In the coming months I’ll be covering a big range of accessible outdoor activities in the UK’s hills, and examining the skills you’ll need to pursue them yourself. If you’re already an
aficionado then you’ll hopefully smile to read of some shared experiences, and may even discover some useful gear that you never knew you needed. If you’re new to the hills then I hope you’ll find a little serving of inspiration in these posts. Either way, thanks for reading!