THE clocks may have taken us forward into spring but winter is still refusing to pack its bags and head off for a well-deserved rest.
It’s a dangerous time of year. The fine conditions of one day can be swiftly replaced by a return to gales, heavy rain and blizzards the next.
Just ten days ago, I was sitting on Ben More having lunch, basking in the warmth of the sun. There was hardly a cloud in the sky and the views stretched out uninterrupted. It could have been summer.
Six days later I was wading through knee-deep snow on a wind-blasted plateau to reach the deep frozen cairn of Beinn Dearg.
In between, the weather had swung 180 degrees and back a few times. This is no time to discard the winter gear. Even if the sun is shining it’s too easy to get caught out. Our Ben More walk highlighted that.
The snow had largely melted away but what was left behind was more treacherous. From our summit vantage point we could see ice glistening on the path snaking its way up Stob Binnein. The remaining pack hung in a thick scarf just off the ridgeline, clinging on in its twilight hours, unpredictable in its stability. One misstep could bring it crashing down.
Proof of this lurking menace was highlighted just a few days’ earlier when there was a massive avalanche on Glas Tulaichean, hardly an accident blackspot. Further snowfall over the last few days has added to the uncertainty and the avalanche risk in many areas has risen substantially.
And yet the mountains were swarming with people, many getting their first taste of the year. They had been sitting out the winter, but now the sun was out and so were they.
We passed two groups on the way up, neither looking like they were prepared for winter conditions. As we reached the final slopes, the path became iced and at one point I needed to cut steps in a bank of solid snow with my ice axe. It was obvious from where we were sitting that anyone considering going on to climb Stob Binnein would need crampons for safe progress.
My two companions decided they would go back down the way they came, but there were others who pushed on regardless. By the time I reached the start of the icy climb, a couple had decided it looked too dicey. Good move - there was no give in the ground and it would be too easy to slip.
When I got to the summit, there was a group of four sitting there, reluctant to start back down. They had obviously found it challenging in the upper reaches and were now questioning the wisdom of not turning back.
Next day, the winds were raging in again from the north-west and that false dawn of spring was blasted away. There was a bit of seesawing for a few days and then I found a small weather window. The sun was out briefly at Blair Atholl but this time the hills were empty as I made the 18-mile round trip into Beinn Dearg.
By the time I reached the Allt Sheicheachan bothy, the wind was starting to bite and the path was hidden in part by huge snow walls. The walk across the plateau to the summit was taken on a compass line, no visibility, no landmarks, just a sea of shifting whites filling the entire canvas.
So be warned - it may be Easter but winter is not ready to quit just yet. Check the weather and check the avalanche forecasts. And if in any doubt, sit it out.