• THE LURE - AND THE FRUSTRATIONS - OF WINTER MOUNTAIN DAYS

    Published 28th January 2018, 16:14

    WELL done everyone who managed to get out on the hill in such glorious winter conditions last Saturday.

    I wasn't jealous at all, though. (Well, maybe just a wee bit). I had the more than ample compensation of spending the day sledging with my grand daughters. The hills could wait for another day.

    Anyway, who's to say I would have made it to my destination? At this time of year, often the biggest problem is not climbing a mountain, it's just reaching the starting point.

    I'm sure there were many grand plans left in disarray amid the traffic chaos and tailbacks around Glen Coe and the Nevis range. That's the problem with blue sky winter days – everyone wants to take full advantage.

    The shorter daylight hours mean a heavy concentration during the one time frame and there's little leeway. Climbers, walkers, skiers, snowboarders, they're heading in the same direction to the same places at the same times. 

    It's understandable. Fewer people have the luxury of getting out during midweek. There's always that pesky thing called work to get on with. I'm fortunate to be able to pick and choose, and I generally choose not to go out at weekends wherever possible. Call me selfish, but I much prefer to be out on the hills when there are less folk around.

    One of the added problems in winter is that many of the smaller access roads are untreated, and some of the higher ones, such as the Ben Lawers road for example, become impassable for most vehicles.

    The shorter day and the lengthier route, allied to deep snow, mean many of the normally 'easier' Munro day walks suddenly become impractical. It's frustrating, but it's all part of the winter mountain learning experience, and I have learned to be prepared to scale back my ambitions at this time of year.

    Planning, as always, is key. I check the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) site for a few days before every walk. I also try to glean some local knowledge on the conditions. For instance, I was indebted to the Torridon Mountain Rescue team for their advice over the festive period when I was heading for ascents of Beinn Alligin and Beinn Eighe.

    As I go solo much of the time, there are other precautions. I generally avoid north faces and any route that might involve a big river crossing. And on a purely practical note, I am prepared to stick to mountains accessible from main roads during the worst of the winter weather.

    A few years back, a friend had arrived from London for a short break desperate to get out in the hills for a day. We headed up the A9 but the piled-up snow at the sides of the road and the subsequent narrow corridors meant our first few attempts to park were impossible so we kept moving on.

    By the time we did find somewhere we could squeeze into, we had wasted valuable hours and it was nearly midday. We set off over deep crusted snow which kept collapsing with every other step, and eventually we admitted defeat with little ground gained.

    Ambitions have to be tempered with reality. An ascent of Ben Vorlich at Loch Sloy a couple of weeks ago was achieved in perfect snow conditions, but it took nearly an hour longer than it would in summer.

    Likewise, we had to miss out the top of Stob Law during a round of Dun Rig near Peebles a week later due to a lack of time and deteriorating weather. The underfoot conditions – crusty snow, sheet ice and glutinous bog - coupled with a strengthening icy wind meant we had taken longer than expected to hit our targets.

    In the days when I was regularly night walking, it was always the thought of the driving that scuppered the outing rather than hill conditions.

    It's no fun to spend an anxious three-hour drive just for your plans to be thwarted on arrival. Even worse getting stuck on a single-track and the possibility of calling for assistance. The rescue services have enough to cope with; they don't need 'joy riders' getting themselves into trouble just for the sake of a ill-thought out jolly.

    If it means staying closer to home or on lower ground during the worst of the weather then that's what I'll do. The mountains aren't going anywhere. I'm prepared to keep my powder dry for many great days still to come.