Client’s Eye View: Sam’s Story…

After a rather nasty leg break while backcountry skiing in 2015 that left me with a cutlery drawer’s worth of metal work around my right shin and ankle bones, I’d resolved to find a way to enjoy the mountains that didn’t involve chucking myself down them at high speed. So, in January 2016, following a recommendation from the interweb, I dropped a line to Neil at 360 Degrees Outdoors, enquiring about a winter mountaineering skills day in the Arrochar Alps. Close to Glasgow, and not expensive, this fitted the bill perfectly. A plan was made.
I met Neil at his base in Glasgow city centre, and after talking through the plan for the day, the weather forecast and, crucially, the avalanche forecast, we were off. Even on the car journey to Arrochar I was learning how to build a mental picture of the mountain in advance, drawing from clues in previous weather reports, forecasted wind direction, temperature, and understanding how all this would interact with the shape of the hill itself. These were important considerations that would inform safe route selection throughout the day.
Once up at the bealach between Ben Narnain and the Cobbler, the weather and visibility turned against us, highlighting the unpredictability of Scotland’s mountains in winter, and punishing those less well prepared. Neil demonstrated how to read the snowpack, and I was quickly tuning in to “sastrugi” in the snow, the sound of “windslab” under foot, and other subtle signs that informed our decisions and allowed for safe navigation on our route, round pockets of avalanche danger.
IMG_6459 - Version 2Crampons on, ice axes out, and correct usage of both honed under Neil’s watchful eye, we summited Ben Narnain, despite the poor weather. After greedily scoffing some calories, and a hot drink, more ice axe and crampon practice followed on the descent. Safely back at the car, despite aching legs I was in good spirits, with new skills acquired, and confidence built. I couldn’t wait for round 2.
A couple of weeks later I was out with 360 Degrees Outdoors again. This time I’d brought two friends along; Chris and Wim, persuaded by the heroic Facebook photos from my previous adventure, and the assurance that Neil’s craic was “quite good” too. Neil sorted kit hire for them, and as with my first day at Arrochar, they began their immersion in his well of knowledge, forging the skills of safe route planning and selection.
Our mountain of choice was Ben Vorlich, selected over Ben Lawers based on Avalanche forecasts, but even this ‘safer’ route still required careful reading of the snowpack, and proper use of crampons and axe. Hard work through tricky conditions was rewarded with some atmospheric summit views as the clouds parted.
An excellent day had by all. Wim and Chris were fairly experienced in the outdoors, but the day illuminated and subsequently filled many gaps in their knowledge, building significant confidence to do more.
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By this stage I had really caught the winter mountaineering bug. A superb day was had in late February when I joined a guided group with Neil on the famed Ptarmigan ridge route up Ben Lomond. Blue skies, and a spectacular alpine feel to the ridge made it highly memorable. By this stage in my winter mountaineering journey, ice axe and crampon techniques were becoming closer to second nature, and I was building the confidence for something a little more ambitious.
A plan was put together for the 19th March, and just a little over a year after my horror leg break I found myself with Neil at the foot of Ben Nevis, about to tackle the highest summit in the UK, via the Carn Mor Dearg arête route – a narrow spine of rock and ice, sweeping round a dramatic alpine bowl, and reaching skyward to the looming cornices and buttresses of The Ben’s northerly aspects.
This day had it all – crampons and ice axes tested while threading a route up the vast slopes of Carn Mor Dearg, scrambling along a precipitous  jagged ridge, stunning 360 views from the summit, blue skies above us, and a cloud inversion below us that evoked the lonely peaks of the Himalayas. Incredibly atmospheric, and utterly involving. The type of day you feel truly humbled to experience in the Scottish mountains.
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I’d certainly come along way since the first day in Arrochar with Neil and 360 Degrees Outdoors, with a wealth of newly cemented knowledge and skills, and my comfort zone significantly expanded. A number of epic photos for the Facebook and Instagram accounts were an additional bonus – looking is cool is of course an important aspect of mountain pursuits.

As winter turns to spring, I’m looking to my next adventure. Undoubtedly Neil will be asked to help if he’s not yet tired of my distinctly average banter. Building experience and skills in the outdoors is a never ending journey, but if the stages to come are as rewarding and memorable as those so far, then long may this journey continue.”IMG_8024 - Version 2