Published 15th January 2021, 19:19

    MOST of our mountain years are defined by the four seasons but 2020 was quartered in a way that few could have foreseen.

    The winter storms that blew in at the start of another year were nothing compared to the microscopic but world-changing tempest that was brewing in the Far East, one that would see us forced to live under restrictions of movement that would last until summer.

    Instead of winter being split by spring, summer and autumn, we had normality, a sudden and rigid lockdown, cautious freedom and then a spiral back into various forms of restriction.

    Yet it all felt like business as usual as we welcomed the arrival of January: cold, calm days walking under painted skies with the sun a half-hearted participant, squeezed in between Atlantic cycles of fierce winds and heavy rain. We walked high above the shores of Loch Lomond with the snow-dusted slopes of the Arrochar Alps in our sights, then enjoyed blue skies and pinpoint clarity in biting, minus temperatures around the Angus glens. 

    February proved to be a real wild child, eclipsing the latter days of January in spectacular style. A weekend in the Cairngorms was spent at low level, the shelter of the forests the best place in which to watch the river torrents and imagine the furies scouring the high tops.

    Another weekend, another storm, mountain plans scuppered again. A week's incessant rain meant finding a route that stayed above the water level, not an easy task around Loch Lomond where sections of the West Highland Way were submerged, the landscape taking on the appearance of a Louisiana bayou.

    The flood waters receded, but the winds kept gusting but the consolation was some decent snow cover at last. A rare day of serenity in brilliant white led me to the Dubh Loch, a small bowl filled with frozen water with a snow cover rendering its shoreline impossible to discern with any certainty, the only clue to its parameters the rugged, streaked faces soaring above. 

    Looking back, that walk could be pinpointed as the calm before the real storm. The virus was heading our way, and it would throw every aspect of our lives into turmoil beyond anything we had ever experienced.

    A traverse of Jock's Road, from Glen Doll to Braemar, turned out be the last outing for a while. The first warnings of contagion had been issued and the day was wracked with some soul-searching and more than a little confusion as various club members called off or re-arranged transport. Our goodbyes at the end of the day were muted, a feeling of uncertainty of when we would next be able to meet. A few days later the country was in full lockdown.

    The next three months passed in a curious blur; the new exercise routine, the inability to venture too far from one's own doorstep, it all seemed to creep by, yet conversely I was surprised how time passed so quickly. 

    The beach became a place of comfort, familiar yet different every day, and the nature circuit threw up constant surprises. We watched the flora spring to life, the birdlife getting more raucous and varied by the day. We watched the swans build their nests, hatch their chicks and then move on as a family. We felt lucky to be where we were: it could have been so much worse.

    When restrictions were gradually eased, it was inevitable the journey back to the hills would be accompanied by apprehension. It also seemed inevitable that Buachaille Etive Mor would be my first port of call. For more than 20 years our group has made an annual pilgrimage to remember lost friends. This time I went alone.

    I made my ascent in the evening to avoid the crowds enjoying their restored freedom to roam. It worked – I met just a few stragglers coming down. I had the summit to myself and made it down before dark. Next day, my leg muscles let me know they weren't happy, the bill for three months of regular exercise but no mountains.

    The combination of the furlough scheme, the call to avoid shared transport and the cancellation of foreign holidays meant the hills and car parks were taking the strain so the rest of July was spent observing rules of crowd avoidance. The simplest way was to return to the tried and trusted method of walking at night. Once again I was sitting alone at summits waiting for the sun to rise. 

    August and September saw a return to the big ridges, Strathfarrar, Glen Shiel, the Alders and the Mullardochs. There were also early starts and great days on Ben More and Stob Binnein and in the Cairngorms, and an extended round on the Munros above Achnashellach.

    By October, with Covid cases back on the rise, it was just a matter of time before tighter travel curbs were re-introduced and a good long day circuit of the Corryhully Horseshoe Munros felt like a last hurrah. A less stringent tier system for different areas provided opportunities to stay on the mountains, and the underlying message about keeping it local led to a lot of fine days exploring places I had shamefully neglected in the past.

    There were a few gems: Craig Fonvuick, a rugged little hill near Pitlochry with expansive views; Creag Choinnich at Braemar with the revelation of its Lion's face crag; the Haunted Stag walk at Glen Tanar with an old friend; the Cairn Caidloch circuit above Loch Lee.

    But as autumn bade farewell and winter rolled in, we started to experience ever decreasing circles. First Perthshire and Fife were put out of bounds, then Aberdeenshire, leaving just my local authority area of Angus as the only option, and it feels inevitable that even that will start to close in if the situation continues to worsen.

    The virtual cancellation of 2020 means that many of our events calendars for 2021 already bear a striking resemblance to the previous year's. Whether that pans out, only time will tell.