THE clocks have turned and the temperatures are beginning to creep consistently downwards. The higher mountain tops have a dusting of snow but even the lower peaks seem to be bracing themselves for the inevitable covering of the white stuff.
It’s the change that sees many casual walkers pack away their gear and go into semi-hibernation until the warmer weather returns.
But for many this is the time of year when the mountains begin to reach their peak condition and present a whole new challenge.
There is no such thing as hillwalking in Scotland in winter - this is when it becomes mountaineering.
You have to plan more thoroughly for any outing and make sure your ambitions don’t overtake your abilities and strength. The days are shorter, the conditions can be more exhausting and the times taken to reach your goal longer. And your rucksack is much heavier.
I always strip out my bag around this time. Out go the lighter trousers and fleeces, in goes thicker, more appropriate layers. You switch to heavier boots, heavier trousers. The ice axe is strapped to the rucksack.
The crampons are dusted off and re-tested. It’s always a good idea to try fitting them to your boots again before you go out and to make sure you can put them on quickly and efficiently. Try to fit them to your boots while wearing gloves. You don’t want to have to be struggling to do this with bare fingers in a blizzard.
Make sure you have a torch in good working order and always carry spare batteries and bulbs. Having a back-up torch in your bag isn’t a bad idea either. And always make sure you have some emergency rations, even if it’s just a couple of Mars Bars stuffed in the bottom of your bag.
Check the weather conditions before you head out and the avalanche forecast where appropriate. When winter hits, it can hit hard and fast and it’s all too easy to be caught out.
The wet and windy weather over the last couple of weeks has thinned out the numbers on the mountains already, and now the tops are piling up with snow.
On a short jaunt last week up Ciste Dhubh, a Munro tucked away in Glen Shiel, I never saw another soul during the four and a half hour walk.
The dry, solid ground of early autumn had vanished; instead it was a bit of a bog trot, feet sinking in the sodden terrain and water running over the boots. It was only when I reached the higher parts of the hill that it became easier.
At least I reached the top this time. Last November a friend and I had battled up deep snow before reaching the crest of the ridge. One look along to the summit was enough to tell us to turn back - the slopes drop away steeply on both sides and the thigh-deep soft snow looked prime avalanche conditions.
This time out there were no such problems, but by the time I got back to the car, my trousers were soaked up to the knees and my boots needed packed with paper and left to dry out.
After a couple of days like this, it’s no wonder many can’t wait for colder, drier weather, where the paths provide a more solid footing.
(First published Daily Record, October 31, 2013)