When's a good age to start ice climbing? Having an adventure with an 11 year old put it all in perspective for mountain guide Mark Walker.
I had the pleasure of taking an 11 year old ice climbing last winter. The aforementioned little lady was Esme, sister to one, daughter to two and an inspiration to all. Now Esme accepts no prisoners in her life, her killer death stare could floor you at 4ft. A pretty handy by-product of all this is a driven and mature little hero. An old head on young shoulders, one may say.
I love working with young people but exposing such a little one to the Cairngorm winter environment was not a task to take lightly. Now Esme is not your average little girl and nor was the weather that day. With the obvious heightened duty of care, ensuring safety was only one priority in my day. To send her away thinking the mountains are worth coming back to was the real challenge. Creme eggs were to form a central role in this.
Horses also have a central role in Esme’s life, namely one nag called Lucky. I'm not one for horses, but equine banter kept us going as we wandered into the Northern Corries, and we soon arrived at the bottom of Esme’s chosen route, Fiacaill Couloir. Creme egg break number 1.
Now Esme is a special little girl but I don’t take any chances on icy snow slopes so we harnessed and cramponed up and moved together on the steeper slopes heading to the narrows. There were a few teams around and I must admit I was rather proud to be tied to this little lady as she carefully and efficiently dealt with the ground before her. Throwing her a few coaching tips we arrived at the first belay for creme egg break number 2.
The corrie was wall to wall with traditional climbers, sporting moustaches you needed licences for. Hirsutely speaking, Esme could not compete, but that did not stop her pumping her axes deep into the bomber ice and cruising to the top of the first icy step.
Children, as many will know, can go from elation to total disaster in a matter of moments. Keeping the flow with buoyant optimism is the key. Happy happy happy…’Creme eggs are ace, horses are for making glue, ice climbing for 11 year olds is normal’…flow, flow flow kiddo…. Pitch after pitch continued with me avoiding the faff at belays - there was another grown-up along, Mr Berry, offering some simple but effective words of encouragement and horse-banter, with Esme lapping it all up.
Arriving at the col prior to the final pitch and facing a mini descent with the abyss below, the wheels wobbled a fraction. This merited a change of strategy for me. With Esme super close to me, ably supported by a sensitive Mr Berry we used a short rope to gain access to the notch. With creme egg break number 3 offered and immediately refused, this strong little hero pinned her ears back, engaged forward thrusters and topped out on her first ice climb.
As a mountain guide, I’ve had the pleasure of working all over the world on rock, ice and snow. What a privilege it is to help others achieve their life time aspirations. Despite this, as I look at this little hero making up for lost time with the creme eggs, I wonder if it is possible to have a more rewarding day in the mountains.
If we want young people to succeed in life we must allow them to experience challenge. Society shelters children from hardship and potential failure. They can handle it and they grow from the experience. Too much failure is, of course, counterproductive but without challenge they will never know how far they can go.
I look forward to my next adventure with Esme, perhaps she'll be leading me next time.
Mark Walker is the Mountain Training England Development Officer and works independently as an IFMGA Guide.
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