Dominic Bates: Mountain scrambling in the Cairngorms

“This rope is OK for slithering down the mountain, and this one’s best if you’re falling into clear air,” says George the instructor, holding up two ropes – one half as thick as the other.

Gulp.

It’s an unnerving start to my two-day scrambling course at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms. Just moments earlier, I’d confessed to the group that I struggled with jelly-legs just walking close to a cliff edge, and now we were baldly talking about falling over them.

Dominic in action abseiling
Dominic in action, abseiling down Coire na Ciste

I wasn’t expecting to spend so much time quite literally learning the ropes before we head out onto the mountain. For several hours, we practice tying a bewildering array of knots – bow lines, figure-of-eights, clove and Italian hitches, reef and stop-knots – and continually uncoil, check and recoil our ropes.

I thought this course was just going to teach us how to use our hands more effectively when scrambling over rocks. But now, harnessed to my fellow students and belaying them across the room, I realise we’re essentially learning to be climbers and I feel way out of my comfort zone.

Fortunately, George has decades of mountaineering experience under his harness, leading many expeditions up the most challenging routes in the Alps. “Take small steps, that way you can always see your feet below you and adjust your stance to find the most stable position,” he says, demonstrating on a climbing wall. “Then check your hand holds are secure and power up through the legs”.

Rigid-soled walking boots provide more support for standing upright when only your toes are dug into the rock face, he advises. But softer soles can be better for walking up slabs, where the extra flexibility can offer more surface contact.

Confronted by my first rocky outcrop on the flanks of Coire na Ciste, at the foot of Cairn Gorm mountain, I shuffle nervously in my soft-soled boots and try to pick out the small steps that will shimmy me up the 50ft chimney of fissured granite as gracefully as George and my two fellow students.

“Climb when ready!” the call comes down.

“Climbing!” I shout back and begin hauling myself over ledges and jamming my foot into cracks, the slack in my lead rope tightening after each advance by my invisible belayer above. I feel far from elegant, but my progress is satisfying and swift.