MID-DECEMBER in Glen Doll. We had been hoping for snow, and we got it. Lots of it. The first real fall of the winter.
But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, and this was one of those times. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, or indeed, like a British Rail excuses manager, this was the wrong kind of snow. For our purposes anyway. That deep, white powder that makes progress nigh impossible.
We knew from the minute we stepped off the coach that it would be tough going but the joy of walking into a pure white landscape never fails to dampen the enthusiasm. For a short time, at least.
It had already been decided that plans to do a circuit of the Munros Cairn Bannoch and Broad Cairn were too ambitious for the conditions. In theory, we had nine hours, but that would likely include a couple of hours walking out in the dark. Instead we aimed for the more modest pairing of Tolmount and Tom Buidhe.
In summer conditions, we would likely have been on the first summit within three hours. Instead, those three hours saw us still trying to struggle uphill out of the glen. It had taken nearly two hours just to go the three kilometres through the woods to reach the open corrie. An hour later and we were going nowhere fast, ploughing unsuccessfully up the deeply buried line of Jock's Road.
The snow was pristine, no footprints, no disturbance. The silence was absolute. No one else had passed this way since the most recent fall. The virgin drifts were beautifully sculpted, high mounds with perfect swirled crests, the light revealing a subtly creeping contrast between the palette of white and icy blue.
The lower trough of the glen was in shadow, but the tips of the high tops along each side were glowing gold. On the horizon directly ahead, there was a throbbing line of nuclear white, a distant ridge caught and bleached by the low sun, standing out against its shaded lower neighbours. It was a siren song daring us to keep going while at the same time taunting and mocking in the knowledge that it would always remain beyond reach. We were determined to get to these sunlit uplands but were struggling to make any headway.
This was a classic example of post-holing – one second we would be ankle-deep, the next mid-calf. There was no consistency of step, no chance to gain any momentum. One of our group plunged through the snow into an icy stream, another sank up to his waist in a drift, needing help to get free.
As a last hurrah, we decided to take a higher line on the slope to our right, aiming for areas where we could see faint signs of vegetation peeking through. But every time we made a little progress, we would then have to divert further up to try and outflank the intervening hollows.
High above us were hundreds of deer. They had found a feeding spot among rocky terrain in a more sheltered, sun-kissed patch. Ordinarily, they would have taken off at the sight of our approach, but it was as if they knew we would never reach them. They carried on browsing without any sign of concern.
It soon became apparent that our efforts were pointless. In these conditions, exhaustion sets in quickly. We had spent an hour and had travelled only a short distance. The glowing peaks still seemed as far away as ever. We made the only sensible decision – retreat, and head for the pub. Despite having our own broken trail to follow, the route back wasn't much faster, plus we had an extra four kilometres to walk down the road to reach the climbers' bar and its roaring fire.
We arrived to find two of the other groups already ensconced having also taken the decision to abandon their routes, one from the Bachnagairn circuit, the other from a futile attempt to reach Broad Cairn. Most of the group who set off up Corrie Fee for Mayar and Driesh also bailed out, although two impressively did manage to reach the summit of Mayar before turning back.
We may have failed to reach our objective, but in the mountains you can always take something from the experience. Despite the purified beauty of the day, we could appreciate that this was a sobering reminder of the problems winter can throw at you.
We were out in calm, clear weather. There were no navigation issues. Trying to keep ploughing on in deep, fresh snow is extremely hard work for small progress, and in wilder conditions the party could quickly be overtaken by exhaustion and uncertainty. Decision making is key.
There is no such thing as winter hillwalking in the high ground of Scotland. It's winter mountaineering and you have to be prepared for whatever is out there.