THEY’RE in the bag as always but so far this winter my crampons have made just one brief cameo appearance.
Even that was probably just me erring on the side of caution. There was deep soft snow but never really any threat on the climb up the final slopes of Cruach Ardrain.
I did a wee survey that day. Not one of the ten other walkers I met was wearing crampons. There were some patches of more frozen ground on the run over to Beinn Tulaichean and I felt the spikes speeded up my traverse but I probably could have got away without them.
It was the same on subsequent outings to Carn a’ Chlamain and Ben Chonzie; everyone had them but no one was wearing them.
Ironically, crampons probably would have been more use on the initial walk-ins. The track up to the lower slopes of Ardrain was sheet ice and involved a lot of teetering around like a new-born fawn. Similarly, the road leading up Glen Tilt was treacherous in places. One of our party took a tumble, landing on his backside with a fair old thump but otherwise unhurt.
It would be unthinkable for anyone to be walking at any height in conditions like this without crampons so why not use them for the walk in? Probably for the same reason that people often wait too long before putting them on - it seems like too much hassle.
After spending ten or 15 minutes getting ready at the car for the big winter walk, no one wants to stop soon after to put on crampons which will then likely have to be taken off again 20 minutes later.
That’s often the problem on the higher slopes as well. The ground may be getting harder and the warning signs starting to appear but too often the attitude is: Ach, I can manage another few steps before I have to put them on.
Miscalculating that first step can lead to disaster. I decided a long time ago that the first time my boot couldn’t kick into the snow, the crampons would go on.
In the early months of 2010 and 2011 for instance, when there was a lot of hard-packed snow from about 600 metres up for months on end, it was a no-brainer to fit them early. Walking with crampons on terrain like this is a delight, often easier even than in the height of summer.
But in periods of freeze and thaw cycles, when the snow is lying deep one day and then washed away the next, it all becomes a bit more uncertain. Long stretches of muddy, waterlogged ground interspersed with short sections frozen by running water make it hard going whatever the footwear.
It’s like using snow chains on your car tyres - great in Norway where winter arrives and stays for four months but not here where we can swing from Arctic conditions to heatwave every alternate day.
But like every piece of hill kit, you need to know how to use crampons. It may seem obvious, but you need to have them set to the correct fitting for your boots before you venture out.
Practise putting them on quickly, while wearing thick gloves if possible. You don’t want to lose vital seconds with frozen fingers on a wind-blasted mountainside and a blizzard rolling in.
You need to get used to walking with a different gait, keeping your legs wider apart than normal. The hills are full of John Wayne walkalikes in winter.
And you need to make sure you keep kicking them clear of excess snow so they don’t ball up. Walking in mixed snow depths can cause a huge build-up on the soles which can be lethal.
Back in 2001, a friend and work colleague and a superb climber, had been making his way down after completing a climb on the north face of Ben Nevis. His climbing partner watched in helpless horror when he slipped after his crampons became balled up with packed snow and he slid a long way down the mountain.
His death left us all stunned. It was a mountain lesson I am never likely to forget.