THE mountains are never more beautiful than when coated in fresh snow with unblemished blue skies overhead and the sun on at full power.
There’s a real feeling of satisfaction when you are the first person to set foot on that virgin snow, leaving a trail for others to follow. But in these conditions it often pays not to be a pioneer: Breaking trail can be damn hard work.
I was recently out with a group for a traverse of The Fara, the long Corbett which sits above Dalwhinnie. We took turns in going first through the deep, unbroken snow which gave everyone a bit of respite.
We never saw another soul all day but later, when I posted pictures, three different groups got in touch. They had been on the hill later and wanted to let me know me they were delighted at being able to follow our steps in the snow.
Every time we step out we are following in someone’s footsteps, whether from yesterday or years before. In all but the driest weather, there’ are footprints left behind, an indicator of who passed this way and how long ago, and how many more might be ahead of you on the hill.
It’s a natural instinct to follow where others have gone but I long ago learned not to blindly rely on paths. Sometimes they can just confuse the picture and a direct compass line is a surer bet.
I have been out many times with friends who insist on trying to find marked paths which may only exist in the mapmaker’s imagination. It’s frustrating that people with the relevant hill skills would prefer to bet on someone else pointing them in the right, or wrong, direction.
I do make use of others’ efforts in deep snow, and I often appreciate that it saves some hard work, but once again following faithfully can get you into bother.
It was great to see so many people out enjoying the mountains at their winter best last weekend. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them. Family commitments meant my weekend had been booked ahead so I just had to look on jealously as the pictures piled in, perfect conditions, perfect views, from every corner of the country.
It might not have been so frustrating if my pre-emptive strike on the Thursday had been a similar success, but the promise of fine weather proved to be a mostly false one and as I headed west under grey skies my mood got more pessimistic by the mile.
I decided to cut my losses and settled on an old friend, Beinn Chabhair. It was dry and it was clear but the paleness of the sky had melted on to the snowy ridges of the mountain leaving an enormous white canvas with no true definition.
As I hit the snowline just before the loch, I saw the steps heading up on to the ridge. The route to the summit gains height over a series of knolls and I followed the steps along at first. Then I came to a halt.
I was faced with a steep drop down into a bowl. The footsteps went down there sure enough, but they were knee-deep and the angle seemed just a little too vertical for comfort, the snow pack too unpredictable.
Once committed on that slope, I would be beneath faces with massive snow overhangs, a winter ambush waiting for someone to pull the trigger and bring it all down. With the lack of light, all contours had been comprised in a sea of white making it difficult to gauge just how steep it actually was, but someone had, at some point, gone down there.
It wasn’t for me, though. I retreated back uphill on a different line, making my own footprints now, then picked up the ridge. I’m quite happy to be a follower sometimes, but give me independence any day.