How I learned to stop worrying and love winter

Posted by Carey Davies on 27/10/2014
Let it snow: winter mountains are danger, fierce weather and beauty

Carey Davies always hated winter. Then one day, faced with a bad step on the side of a Scottish mountain, something clicked…

We huffed and puffed up Stob Ban’s northern ridge in thigh-deep snow. Matted tussock grass poked out of the powder here and there. The snow got harder as we climbed, turning into crunchy slab that cracked under our feet like the top of a meringue, revealing mushy blue depths.

The low winter sun was hidden for a long time, and then dawned blindingly over a field of névé, amplified to extremes in the glassy surface of the ice. The wide, whaleback ridge narrowed until it became a slim curve, where a malevolent wind knocked the breath out of us and lacerated any exposed flesh. For ten minutes or so we staggered through, heads down. Thankfully its full fury was confined to just one spot. A short walk further and we were beyond it, could look around at the world again.

But then the previously smooth ridge became a lot more vertical, a jumbled scramble up ice and snow-covered rock. Soon we reached a narrow ledge between a large boulder and a long drop. A sheer slope covered in polished névé fell away almost vertically to the right. There was little to hold on to for security on the left. It was a matter of stepping on to the icy rock and trusting your feet to stay attached.

It was only one or two footfalls, but they were wicked ones. I realised with a sickening sense of vulnerability that all it would have taken was a wobble or a trip stepping over to send me hurtling down the side of the mountain, to serious injury or death.

For a long moment, I wondered how I got to be in such a situation. I was poised high above the ground on a frozen mountainside, exposed to gravity’s clutches, getting an insight into mortality I was sure I could have done without, and doing it in the teeth of an angry Scottish winter. This was a situation which, only a year previously, I swore I’d never get myself into.

PUT SIMPLY, I’ve always hated winter. I dread it coming and loathe it bitterly when it arrives. As soon as the first leaves flutter from the trees I enter a mean depression. I hate cold feet, cold hands, cold anything. I hate how the air makes my nose pour. I hate the dark drudgery of rising before the sun does. Most of all, I hate the poverty of light, the shrinkage of daytime into seven miserable hours, promising at best a blink of low, obscured sun between ages of interminable darkness.

Five winters ago, I took evasive action. I left the country in early October and didn’t come back until May. In doing so, I avoided the coldest winter for three decades. I watched endless news footage of cars crawling along ice-covered roads and towns being engulfed by snow from places where the most hostile thing likely to fall from the sky was a coconut. While my friends struggled through blizzards and my father went for two months without running water because the pipes under his street had frozen, I was floating lugubriously down rivers in South East Asia, tramping around New Zealand and playing Christmas cricket on the beach in Australia.

That, it seemed to me, was the only sensible way to deal with winter – go to the other hemisphere. Yes, it snowed in Britain, which seemed to cause some excitement – at least until the novelty wore off – but I’ve never understood the popular infatuation with snow. Snow is just rain in disguise; it’s so cold the rain has frozen. This seems to trick people into thinking something mysterious and magical is happening, but I was never fooled.   

So as an idea, going into the hills in the middle of winter never held that much appeal. Winter is bad enough when all you have to do is walk to the shops. The idea of climbing into the place where winter was at its snow-blinding, wind-blasting, frostbiting, hypothermia-inducing worst was always going to have a hard time winning me over. Hence my evasive tactics; I couldn’t believe that winter held any appeal at all, even in the mountains.

Somewhere in a balmy part of New Zealand, reading the umpteenth report from Britain about Siberian cold fronts and excruciating cold, I vowed never to endure another winter again. Somehow, I would avoid it, through non-stop travel or some sort of job that involved switching between the hemispheres every year. I had no idea what that would be, but I was confident my sheer determination would deliver an opportunity. It had to; if I had to face another winter I was sure I would die.

BUT THEN it all went wrong. I returned to Britain in spring and shortly after that I got a new job. Try as I might, I couldn’t persuade my new employers to send me to the other side of the world, all expenses paid, for six months, come October. Also, I had to move to Scotland.

Scotland, as we all know, is a different place to England. Winter in Scotland is darker, colder and longer than it is down south, on its own enough of a grim prospect. But when you look at the hills, the difference is magnified further still. For a start, only a handful of peaks in the highest parts of the Lake District approach the sort of scale common to hundreds of mountains in the Highlands. Winter conditions among Scottish summits are a serious proposition.

I hadn’t had much experience of those kinds of conditions before then, for obvious reasons. I’d always avoided them. But it’s much easier to do this in England or Wales than it is in Scotland – the terrain is generally more forgiving, the weather slightly less harsh, the snow rarer. And whereas snowfall in Scotland can transform even the most innocuous summer hill into a mountaineering expedition, snow in the likes of the Yorkshire Dales usually just means spending long sections of walk up to your thighs.   

But Scotland was my new home. Not going into the hills wasn’t an option. Before I knew it the nights were drawing in, foliage was abandoning the trees and the mercury was plummeting. Long-term forecasts predicted a winter as brutal as the last, with Siberian winds obliterating the warming effects of the Gulf Stream.

It became clear a reckoning was going to happen. I would have to face the winter I’d been dreading, or endure several dark months of exile from the mountaintops. The former was unpleasant, but the latter was unthinkable.

THE FIRST snow came during the last week in November, catching everyone on the hop. Society was tipped into the usual infrastructural chaos. Hundreds of hapless drivers got stuck on the M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow for 10 hours; in Sheffield many gave up and abandoned their cars in a two foot-deep blizzard. More waves followed, sparing nowhere, with temperatures dropping to nearly -20C even in southern England.

But while ‘ordinary’ society was a mess, outdoor enthusiasts were celebrating. The ski resorts were already having a bumper season and fans of winter hillwalking and climbing were revelling in the conditions. Here was a new phenomenon; I discovered there were people who actively looked forward to winter, and who rejoiced when it arrived. I remained mystified by this strange, topsy-turvy thinking.

And then I found myself in the Mamores in early December, in a frozen Glen Nevis car park, about to do something I would have recoiled in horror at a year ago. I’d tagged along with one of my colleagues and her partner for my first go at proper winter walking in Scotland.

We hauled up Stob Ban’s ridge and came to the point where this article began, the bad step across the evil drop. Both my companions stepped across first. Then it was my turn.

If I’d been alone, I would have gone back. What was the point? What could anyone hope to accomplish by jeopardising their existence like this? A strange, vivid dread welled up; I became convinced disaster awaited if I went further.

I said I couldn’t do it. “Yes you can,” assuaged the others, waiting on the other side. I kept standing there, looking at the step. I was ready to turn around.

But instead of turning around, I stepped over to the snow beyond.

The views from that point on as we climbed towards the top became wonderful, awe-inspiring. I reacted to them by issuing a torrent of four-letter words. The sight of ridge after Highland ridge stretched out before us in pin-sharp clarity, frozen, while the setting winter sun infused everything in deep orange and vibrant pink, was too much to handle with polite language.

But the peak of elation had occurred below, after the step. The summit itself almost felt incidental. And the real wonder was directed inward, with the realisation that the fear I’d felt before the step, which seemed so ominously real, had been proven wrong, exposed as little more than a frightful spectre. All it took to overcome it was to walk a little bit further.

Maybe, I thought, this winter won’t be so bad after all.

Many thanks to The Great Outdoors magazine for the use of this article, which was originally published in their February 2012 edition. To subscribe, click here.

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