Published 27th January 2020, 11:28

    WE all dream of those blue sky winter mountain days, leaving our footprints on pristine sheets of white while the sun beats down, the views running on forever.

    The reality for much of the time is vastly different, a strength-sapping battle against the elements through uneven and unpredictable snow cover, waist deep in places, scoured away to bare, icy ground in others with everything in between.

    Crampons are a necessity one minute, a nuisance the next. Visibility can swing wildly from perfect to zero in a matter of seconds, white-out conditions instantly rendering the line you were confidently following invisible. And all this time you are being battered by the wind, a howling fury that seems to have risen from nowhere, knocking you sideways, reducing your gait to a drunken stagger.

    The combination of these factors can reduce progress to a crawl. Suddenly, that planned time of three hours has gone out the window. Book times are for summer conditions, not a walk in the teeth of a raging blizzard and sub-zero temperatures. Now it's just a case of getting off the hill safely, no matter how long it takes, no matter whether you have reached your summit or not.

    Knowing when to turn back or cut short a walk is still one of the most valuable mountain skills to possess. It's important at any time – in winter, it's vital. If you are walking with a group, it's also crucial to take into account the strengths and physical condition of everyone else in the party. You may be still in your comfort zone, but that doesn't mean others are. Pushing on while one person struggles is only going to lead to bigger trouble further down the line.

    Living in Scotland means that most of the Munros are within a maximum of four hours away so I'm quite happy to bail out early if necessary and try again another day.  Perhaps it's more understandable that those who have to travel vast distances and have limited days in which to get on the hill may debate whether to take the risk and push on into the danger zone. Frustrating though it can be, it's just not worth the risk. That tick will still be waiting for you.

    I like to tell myself it's a new-found maturity rather than age which has caused me to turn back on a few hill days recently. Sometimes it just doesn't feel right.

    Many years ago, I left work in Glasgow at midnight and drove to Achnashellach where I had a short nap before tackling Moruisg and Sgurr nan Ceannaichean. It was a freezing night and I woke abruptly before first light with the feeling that something was wrong.

    At first, I was convinced there was someone in the car with me. Then when I looked out the window I could see menacing skies over the snow-streaked dark faces of Sgurr nan Ceannaichean. I was shivering. The likelihood was that I had had a bad dream but I couldn't shake the foreboding.

    After about 20 minutes of internal wrangling, I decided to go with my initial gut feeling and abandon the walk. It meant I had done a nine-hour round trip just to sleep in an ice-cold car on a roadside verge, but I have never regretted the decision.

    Recent abandonments have been for more mundane reasons. I cut short a late autumn jaunt after reaching the summit of Beinn Fhada in Kintail, reckoning that trying to tag on A' Ghlas-bheinn on ice-covered slopes in dying light would be harassment I didn't need.

    I bailed out halfway round the Corryhully Horseshoe a few weeks later, but that was down to sheer exhaustion brought on by no sleep, a four-hour drive in darkness and a ridiculously overladen winter pack and heavy gear.

    It's an old cliché that no battle plan survives after the first shot is fired. The same can be said about winter walking in Scotland. It all seems fine sitting at home with the maps spread over the table, but within a few steps, it can change fast.

    That's why it's vital have two, three, or preferably multiple variations on a plan, to factor in the possibilities of worsening weather, fewer hours of daylight and the realism of times allowed and the difficulty of the terrain. You should also study problematic river crossings, slopes likely to be at a higher risk of avalanche and wind direction.

    Even then, there is always the chance of the unexpected. Paths that are obvious most of the year can become impassable with banked snow, forcing a move on to more difficult ground. One of the most notorious is along the east side of Mullach Fraoch-choire under the pinnacles. We recently came across a similar problem on Stuc a' Chroin. 

    Good planning is important, flexibility even more so. In winter, you should be prepared to curb your ambitions. Stay safe.