THE first scars of winter were in evidence on Ben Wyvis at the weekend, a light coating of snow and ice filling the ruts along the wide summit ridge.
There were other scars too. A lot of work is going on to try to reverse the damage caused to this fragile terrain by the passage of thousands of boots.
Unlike the narrower, more defined ridges of the other north-west mountains, the main route along Ben Wyvis can be more difficult to stick to precisely, especially when there’s lying snow.
It’s too easy to step to the side to find better ground, and these wider options have led to a series of parallel lines doing immense damage to the mossy carpet which covers this long whaleback. But the fightback is in full swing.
There have been big changes already. The path leading up from the car park north of Garve takes a leisurely approach through the trees before reaching the open hill.
There it switches to solid, well-drained zig-zags which take easy-angled lines on the lower section of An Cabar. This is in stark contrast to the bog trot many of us remember from years ago.
On my first ascent, in the middle of the night of course, I decided against the waterlogged option and carried on up the glen before coming at An Cabar on grassy slopes from the rear.
Higher on the newer path, there are big boulder steps on the final push, keeping walkers out of the muddy, badly worn trenches of the old line. When you finally reach the cairn on this summit, you will notice a sign detailing repair work and asking you to stick to the main path line to the main summit, Glas Leathad Mor.
There’s a small cairn at the start to set you right and another marker further on. There are also sheets of jute netting to protect and hopefully restore damaged ground, and at some points flagstones have been laid, a rare sight on a Scottish mountain.
But sticking religiously to this path wasn’t that easy with the strong, icy wind blasting across the top of the hill, destroying any chance of a regular step. It was a case of head down, plough on, blindly staggering along, a line of walkers looking like Saturday night drunks heading home.
Every time I was knocked offline by the wind, I felt I was guilty of a misdemeanour, a crime against nature.
Swift redemption was at hand however. The next night I was doing a talk for Breakaway, the University of St Andrews’ mountain club, and after the main event the club’s Green Week committee asked me to make a small environmental pledge. My message on their pledge board? I pledge NEVER to walk off path on Ben Wyvis. It even turned out that one of the club had been working with the Wyvis repair team.
Not that he would have been up there on the Saturday. I had planned to be, a small diversion en route to Grantown-on-Spey for the Munro Society’s annual dinner, but forecast gusts of 100mph knocked that on the head.
Sunday was the better option, sunshine, blue skies and lighter winds, and it seemed many others had the same idea. It was easy to understand how the hill has suffered.
There is a quieter option for ascending this sprawling mountain, a lonely approach from the east, but Ben Wyvis is very much a community hill and the main drag is a big local favourite.
The only problem is that this iconic mountain is in danger of being loved to death, so let’s all stay on the right line.