FRESHLY-FORMED cornices, avalanche warnings, white-out conditions: the calendar clearly shows May, but the reality in the mountains paints a different picture.
It's as though we've tuned in to watch the latest edition of Springwatch only to find it replaced at the last minute by a rerun of Winterwatch.
It's not unusual for the seasons to become momentarily confused around this time, but May is shaping up to rival Theresa's praying mantis dance routine at the Tory party conference as one of the most peculiar ever.
The naturalist Edward Way Teale said all things were possible in May. He wasn't wrong. When it comes to the hills, the fifth month of the year seems to lack a neutral gear.
For nearly 20 years – pre-Covid, of course – our walking group has held its annual weekly mountain get-together at this time. On virtually every occasion, we have experienced the extremes of either Med-style heatwaves or sub-Arctic blasts. We originally chose the first week in May as the weather was likely to be better and the days longer, the hills quieter and the midges not yet wakened. Mostly, that has gone to plan: we often have the summits to ourselves and have remained unbitten.
We did briefly experiment with moving to one week either way but that proved as random as trying to pick winning lottery numbers. It was pointless trying to second guess the elements a year in advance. Not that we're complaining. Far from it. Brilliant blue skies and sunshine, or knee-deep snow, blizzards and beautiful snow lines, either is preferable to the bland, low-cloud and drizzle conditions that make you want to reach for the service revolver. And if you can land a combination of the two, then your luck is really in.
The only blip over the last 12 years was in 2011 at Corrour when the high point for the week was supposed to be my second completion of the Munros. One friend had even arrived from Boston for the celebration. Unfortunately, most of that week was lost in torrential rain and floods and his flying visit turned into a wash-out as we retreated from swollen rivers. By the time the weather calmed down, five days had passed, so it was a more low-key finish on a misty Aonach Beag with a much depleted squad.
Sometimes, you can be lulled into a false sense of security. In 2008 we spent a week on the Black Cuillin with the sun beating down every day. The rock was bone dry and the scrambling confident, and there was much sitting around on the tiniest of summits drinking in the forever views. Two years later we got more of the same while based at Gairloch, forays into Fisherfield carried out with hardly a cloud in the sky. It was starting to feel like this was the way it would be forever, and the rush was on to sign up for next year.
Squeezed in between, we were battling knee-deep snow in the mountains of Affric. We only managed two days' walking at height, the conditions getting wilder as the week wore on. There was a brief window of Alpine splendour on Beinn Fhionnlaidh, however, one of these special moments which manages to compensate for the overall feeling of disappointment.
Heavy snow banked on the ridges of Glen Shiel saw some of our traverse plans curtailed in 2012 and 2016, Mullach Fraoch-choire proving to be a familiar offender. Waking up to a blanket of fresh snow in Plockton was also a rare experience. Crampons and axes were necessary on our Cairngorms excursions in 2015 and 2019, but these mountains are always at their finest in winter conditions and I can't help thinking these weeks would have been far less memorable without that constant presence of white.
Our week at Arisaig in 2014 was more suited to sunbathing on the beaches, the heat reaching ridiculous levels for the time of year. Consecutive years in the far North-west also came with heat hazes and shimmering landscape, rock mirages popping up everywhere. Perhaps the finest week of all was back in 2005 when we were based at Glenelg, and winter changed to summer in a matter of minutes.
The first three days were spent in bitter winds on ice-sheathed slopes. Then, as we descended from Sgurr an Airgid above Loch Duich, we had to strip off our full winter kit piece by piece as the temperature soared. The second half of the week was spent sweating our way up the likes of Bla Bheinn in blistering heat.
There's never any guarantees at the start of the fifth month. May it always be that way.