WE’VE all taken a bit of a battering in the last few weeks with a series of Atlantic storms rolling in on a low-pressure conveyor belt.
One after another they have rampaged their way across the country, gale-force winds damaging buildings, uprooting trees and leaving some roads impassable with debris, while heavy rain and snow has left rivers running high and the ground saturated.
But there is often a calm before the storm, or rather, between storms, and it’s the timing of these moments of relative tranquillity that can decide whether or not you can get out on the hills.
Taking advantage of weather windows is almost a mountain skill in itself, and during stormy spells you can be out and in of so many windows you end up feeling more like a burglar than a mountaineer.
Earlier this year, eight of us were staying at Spean Bridge. The forecast for the Sunday was for wind and rain for most of the day but there did appear to be a dry slot of about four hours around lunchtime. If we set off at this time, then we could be on our way down when the bad weather hit.
Four decided to go for two of the three Munros at Loch Laggan, the others chose to give it a miss and go in the other direction for shopping and a stroll at Fort William. We hit the jackpot, they got soaked.
We reached the summit of Geal Charn before menacing skies appeared. On our traverse to Creag Pitridh the mist closed in, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped sharply, but it didn’t rain. On the way down it cleared again and we stayed dry all the way to the car.
But sometimes you can get it wrong. During a stormy period a few years ago, I was champing at the bit to get out and I saw that the forecast was for a calm spell for 12 hours or so in the Cairngorms. I reckoned a midnight start from Braemar would allow me to circuit Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm comfortably and get back to ground level before the next storm blew in.
On the drive up to Linn of Dee car park there was an eerie calm, the trees motionless in the darkness, and that calm accompanied me all the way on the walk to derelict Derry Lodge. I was halfway up the Lairig an Laoigh path when the sun should have been starting to rise. Only it never really got light. It changed from a dark but starlit night to a black, unyielding morning.
There was a definite change in the air, and it was happening rapidly. From nary a breath of wind three hours ago, it elevated to a light breeze and then ever-strengthening gusts as I continued further into the heart of the mountains. Off to my right it sounded like an express train was coming through the woods as the trees bowed down as one as if in awe of this approaching force of nature.
The storm was coming in much faster than predicted. It was a battle to get to the summit of Macdui, the wind now blasting me off my feet at times. There was no way of carrying on. Retreat was the only sensible option. And it was no time to be strolling home either.
I ran down, chased every step of the way back to the car by a howling demon determined to put a brick through my weather window. So much for a peaceful morning.
(First published Daily Record, January 9, 2014)