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Winter Warriors – The Beginnings

Some say that climbing friendships are unique. That you won’t find anything like it anywhere else in the world. Gemma & Charlie tell us their beautiful story of coming together in the mountains, forging a partnership as strong as the hills, and as deep as the valleys. 

Just an ordinary friendship?

Everything has a beginning. A start. A point of change. A first step, a first moment, that leads to the present situation you find yourself in. For us, winter now runs through our blood. By October, the excitement starts to build; we count down the days until we can meet, messaging each other, organising dates, daydreaming of plans. But how did we get here?

It was never a normal friendship;  the ones where you meet, you get on, you hang out and things grow. It just didn’t happen that way. In Australia we both worked for an outdoor education company, often finding ourselves on the same programs, riding in four-wheel drives into the outback, sharing ideas about group facilitation whilst madly scribbling our lists and thoughts. Program after program, we would chat for hours about what we were planning to do, or how it had gone, but outside of work, nothing. We didn’t hang out and didn’t see each other until the next ride to the outback. 2009 came to an end and we both returned to the UK, picked up where we left off with our previous work and with no intention to see each other again. 

Months later, at an expedition leader interview, the fire alarm sounded and as I followed the crowd outside, Charlie appeared, here for the same reason – to venture into the great world of expeditions. After catching up on work and aspirations, we discovered that Scottish winter was calling us both and no sooner had we left the expedition leader conference than we had booked our first winter skills course with the Jonathan Conville Trust

Learning the Hard Way

Venturing into the Glenfeshie hills, alone for the first time, with only each other for the decision making, we looked like we’d followed a bride’s traditional ‘good luck’ list; something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. At the time, we were totally unaware of what we were getting into, both in the outdoors and with our friendship. The conditions were less than ideal, thin snowpack and classic cairngorm winds. We learnt the hard way, me, testing the limits of our new friendship when a large gust lifted my leg, flinging my foot in the direction of Charlie, slicing her new waterproof trousers with my beautiful sharp crampons. Undeterred, she stated she still wanted to head out to a bothy with me the next day and from there, we quickly discovered how much we enjoyed the chat, as much as the winter experience. Satisfied with ourselves romping around in crampons on the tops, we plodded back to the bothy, sore feet, ill fitting boots, but completely happy.

And so began the madness!

It was a bit like an impassioned love story from the start, with Charlie in Devon, me, wherever I could park my van. It was a time-pressed mission at the weekends, picking a location to meet, Charlie charging up after work on a Friday, dumping a vehicle wherever we could and heading north as fast as we could. Sometimes random villages off the M6 were left with one of our vans for the weekend, and other times for reasons still unknown  to us, staying at youth hostels in Glasgow. Glasgow, that’s not even the hills! What were we thinking?

The stuff friendships are made of

Each trip, each experience, built our friendship and the winter bond even tighter. We made mistakes and we learnt. We pushed ourselves no matter the weather, leading to some interesting scenarios. High winds, heavy rain and wet snow on Ben More combined with an old waterproof jacket led to my first and only experience of hypothermia. I’m glad Charlie was there, forcing me to eat and showing the strength we had as a team to deal with challenges. The next time,  consistently high winds and sleet battering the side of us on Schiehallion, meant that when we reached the top we both had a thick layer of ice concreted up one full side of our bodies – jackets, gloves, hat and bags.

Building the winter bond

We loved it. With each trip we learnt each other’s strengths and played to them. It was always an open dialogue. Every situation and challenge was, and is, shared and discussed. The more we went out together, the more we wanted to get back out for more, like a drug. Sometimes things went to plan and other times we were completely blindsided by an experience. The memory lives on of our first circuit of the Cairngorms, when, looking up from our axes, locked down on the ridge after being airlifted two metres towards the edge, both of us stared at each other in sheer excitement at the same time as shouting ‘we need to get the hell out of here’. We trudged an extra 10 km around the ridge and down the glen getting to Corrour Bothy late that evening. The group of men at the bothy stared on in disbelief as we explained how we’d just been blown around the broad ridge of Ben Macdui. They thought we had been on the lovely valley walk from Braemar!

Weekend Winter Warriors

Trip after trip, blasting up the M6, we squeezed in whatever we could, whatever the weather. True weekend warriors. Each time testing our kit, testing our knowledge and our skills. Making mistakes and not repeating them. Wearing cheap green scarves from Morocco with dye that leaked in the sleet and coated our skin, so we returned looking like Shrek. Each trip worth it. Each one memorable. We laugh. A lot. We laugh when the wind is so strong Charlie’s head gets stuck to the slope, because the only place we can hear each other, is hunkered close to the ground with our heads on the snow. We do it alone and we need to. 

We are ying and yang. We compliment each other. We love the winter. We love the challenge. We know we can manage. We know we are strong and resilient and no matter what winter throws at us we will thrive. This is what we do to feel human, to feel strong, to feel tested, to know our capabilities and then stretch a little bit beyond. We may not see each other much in summer, but come winter, our friendship comes out of hibernation and we are roped together again. We feel lucky to have this relationship. Lucky to have a winter best mate to share the highs and the lows, to chat to the early hours, to brace the weather with and count down the days to the next snows.

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