SPRING may have finally arrived but in the mountains winter is still never far away.
The warmer and wetter conditions will blast away most of the snow from the slopes and ridges but the sheer accumulation this year will take a long time to fully clear.
In fact, there’s a high possibility of sheets of snow lying right through May and well into June, just like in the mid-1990s.
I remember having to kick steps in solid snow with ice axe at the ready as I climbed the final slope to the summit ridge of Bidean nan Bian in Glen Coe. It was June 13, 1994.
We needed our ice axes and we had crampons to hand, and I suspect it will be a while yet before they are packed away this year.
Winter conditions can strike at any time on the high peaks. The sun may be splitting the sky at ground level but 3,000 feet up you could be facing blizzards, high winds and near-zero visibility.
Anyone venturing out should be prepared for any eventuality. Always check the mountain weather forecast, leave a detailed route of where you are going and make sure you have extra warm layers and spare food packed in your rucksack.
This year has been bad for avalanches, so it’s also worth checking the Scottish mountain avalanche website - the service operates for five main areas and pinpoints potential danger spots.
And the best advice of all - know when to turn back. Too often people will plough on even when the wiser move would be to head down.
It can be tempting to keep going, especially when you have had long-term plans to climb a certain hill or have travelled a long way to get to it. But the hills will be there for another day - just make sure you are.
Last May a group of us were in Glen Shiel for a week’s walking. The first few days were sunny and calm and we didn’t encounter any problems. Then the weather turned.
First we had problems with hard-packed snow while ascending the Forcan Ridge on The Saddle. It was unexpected and meant we had to kick steps in places and sometimes look for alternative crossing points.
The next day we set off to tackle the bulky A’Chralaig and its shapelier neighbour Mullach Fraoch-choire on the north side of the glen.
As we made our way up A’Chralaig it started snowing, and with every step it got heavier. By the time we reached the huge summit cairn we had been wading thigh-deep in places and there was a pile of snow so high on the ridge line we couldn’t see the route ahead.
The forecast was for better weather to come in but at this point we couldn’t take the chance. The connecting ridge to the Mullach can be a real problem in snow and high winds.
We made the decision to turn back, and you’ve guessed it, about halfway down the ridge the snow stopped, blue skies appeared and the wind dropped.
It was frustrating, but deciding to turn our back on the Mullach was the right decision.
There was a sense of satisfaction from knowing that we were brave enough to admit defeat and keep that climb for another day.
(First published Daily Record, April 25, 2013)