TWO mountain walks in a week, one a 30-kilometre circuit over Beinn a' Ghlo with 1300 metres ascent, the other, to Stuc a' Chroin, just over a third of that distance with less height gain.
The first walk took nine hours, the second, just five. Yet the shorter day in the Trossachs was by far the more tiring due to one factor – the wind.
Forget the differences in distance and ascent, battling a strong wind can quickly sap the energy and slow your pace dramatically. And we seem to have had more than our fair share of them recently.
High winds can be a killer in the mountains and over the last month or so, for safety reasons we have been forced to abandon or switch hill plans with a depressing regularity. A Black Mount traverse was lost, likewise a big day on Ben Cruachan, and ambitions for a four-day trip to Sutherland were severely restricted.
My day on Beinn a' Ghlo seemed like a novelty, an aberration, but normal service was soon restored. The weekend forecast was confused, but the general feeling was that Saturday was a better bet than Sunday, with the winds 'only' touching 40mph. Rain was a certainty, but there was the possibility of a dry window before things went pear-shaped again.
Early optimism had faded to dark grey by the time I arrived at Ardchullarie More, the rain thundering down on the steely surface of Loch Lubnaig. I gave it ten minutes then made a break during a brief lull, employing the hillwalkers' psychological trick of wearing full waterproofs to ward off further downpours.
If it did manage to fool the weather gods, it was only temporarily. As soon I had been blown to the first rise on Beinn Each, the rain came driving in and stayed with me all the way to the top. There were some powerful gusts which made me grateful for the wind direction pushing me into, rather than away from, the slope.
The promised but late running moment of clarity began to arrive at the summit, blurry shapes transforming into defined contours, the thinning cloud boiling and spiralling along the ridge ahead. Stuc a' Chroin was still trying to shrug off its grey blanket, but a rainbow arcing over Glen Ample suggested rapid improvement.
The undulating way ahead through outcrops and little rocky tops provided plenty of shelter as the wind kept trying to seek me out, a shunt sideways every so often a reminder that it was still a force to be reckoned with.
The real ambush came in the col just beneath the final climb, whipping along a narrow corridor in a relentless assault that made it hard to stand at times. A few staggered steps further and I was out of that channel, back in flat calm, but I began to question the wisdom of going higher. If the wind was knocking me over down here, what would be like 300 metres higher on the open summit plateau?
The answer was that it wasn't as ferocious and I was able to stay upright without putting up much a fight on my way to the cairn and back. I shouldn't have been too surprised. It's often the case that the worst gusts can be encountered just below the summits or on exposed ridges leading to the top.
Four years ago, we were forced to crawl between huge boulders to make any upward progress on Lochnagar from the whirlwind screaming around the corrie bowl, yet when we reached the plateau there was merely a stiff breeze. On another occasion we watched one walker have his glasses ripped from his face on the open slope in Glenshee. There was no chance of recovering them: an expensive day on the hill, and a trickier descent than expected with impaired vision.
Sometimes though, a strong wind can be used to advantage. On an ascent of Maoile Lunndaidh many years ago, I reversed my planned route and was assisted uphill and round the plateau with minimum effort. The descent was a different story – I was blown off my feet several times, pushed back up the slope.
We all check the mountain weather forecast before we set out, but the wind speed and direction can be the most crucial element in planning a route. It's far easier walking with the wind behind pushing you along rather than walking straight into it, especially if it is accompanied by rain or snow. It's also important to consider the terrain. Leave the pinnacled ridges for a calmer day.
There's a tendency to over-estimate wind speeds: 20mph is noticeable, 30mph enough to see you being knocked sideways and at 40mph you can be blown off your feet. And if the wind speed tops 60mph, it's more likely you will be flying rather than walking.