Some people have been hiking Scotland’s winter hills all their lives. But what’s it like to experience this environment for the first time. And how easily could you get up onto the high ground in the snow? We asked Belinda Dixon to investigate.
The wind hurts, blasting icy air into my face. My eyes are smarting, snot is streaming, my goggles are in my pack. My feet, clumsy in crampons, skitter on loose rock – I feel as wobbly as a foal on ice. Welcome to the Scottish winter.
We’re in the Cairngorms, somewhere in the Creag Meagaidh range. I don’t know precisely where, but am incredibly lucky to be with experienced friends who do; friends with the skills to stay safe in these conditions. Because this is my first taste of hillwalking in a Scottish winter. And I’m painfully aware of just how little I know.
The friend who was leading us would have been able to tell you the details. That our walk was from Carn Liath (1,006m), via a south-westerly route to Stob Poite Coire Ardair (1,054m), down to The Window, onto Creag Meagaidh East Top, then Creag Meagaidh (1,130m). An ascent of 1,080m, a distance of around 20km/13 miles. The avalanche hazard was Considerable on north-west through to north-east aspects above 800m. There were spells of bright sunshine, the ridge temperature was around -6C - wind speeds of about 30mph, plus gusts, brought that down to around -18C.
WATCH: Route choice and what's different in winter on BMC TV
Which explains why even taking gloves off momentarily felt so cold. Why one side of your face felt like it was in a freezer. And why at the ridge top the gusts became so fierce I fleetingly felt out of control. It was time to copy the others: stop, crouch, dig in with crampons, ice axe and pole, lean into the wind. Step, brace, lean, repeat. For me, the novice, this was scary although those used to these hills would probably simply shrug and nod. Welcome to the Scottish winter.
WATCH: Walking in crampons on BMC TV
This winter challenges but also rewards. Trudging through snow that’s up to your shins and knees is strength-sapping, especially for the person at the front (I never was). But it leads you to ridges and plateaus with wrap-around views of snow-covered hills. There’s something monumental, elemental, vast about this landscape. Being high up in it among encircling peaks intensifies that – you’re not looking at a mountain scene, you’ve walked into it. It creates a personal cinematography to replay in your head.
This was the third of three days heading up into the snow. On the first, in the Glen Feshie range, a friend navigated us through a whiteout – where visibility is so reduced you can’t see features or the horizon. Leading people successfully into a white void amid significant hazards takes huge courage and skill. Which brought my biggest lesson: the utmost respect for this environment and for those with the experience to be safe within it.
WATCH: Winter navigation tips on BMC TV
Other insights gained included realising the importance of (although not personally mastering):
Pacing – Knowing how many of your steps constitute 100m, so you can gauge accurately how far you’ve walked. Affected by gradient and ground; for a beginner very hard to get right.
Avalanche Risks – Checking which slopes are likely to be worst affected and to what extent. What to look out for on the ground.
Temperature Management – Famously ‘be bold, start cold’ really pays off.
Crampons – Putting them on quickly and effectively matters and needs practice.
Packing – Having snow goggles at the bottom of the rucksack in a dry bag isn’t wise. Water bottles stored in external side pouches will freeze.
Snacks – Keeping them in easily-accessible pockets. You can eat more chocolate and nuts than you think.
WATCH: Travelling in the winter hills on BMC TV
Getting Out in the Winter Hills
Expert guidance is essential. The BMC website has an overview under Walking>Skills. On the ground, two- and multi-day Winter Skills / Hillwalking courses cover things like: planning winter days using weather and avalanche forecasts; navigation and safety in winter conditions and on winter terrain; cutting steps; use of ice axe and crampons; self-arrest; route choice and winter equipment selection.
Firms offering courses include:
Glenmore Lodge in Scotland
Plas y Brenin in Scotland and Snowdonia.
Winter skills providers say previous experience of snow isn’t necessary, but you do need summer-hill walking experience. The 300 BMC clubs in England and Wales are good places to gain that.
Endings and beginnings
There’s a moment after Creag Meagaidh at the bottom, as we race the fading light to get to the van, when we look back on the ridge and I can’t believe we were all the way up there. I am wide-eyed – at my friends’ skills and also that we hiked that far in the snow. It makes you a little wiser and walk a little taller. And now, looking back on my first Scottish winter? I’m wondering what on earth took me so long. And I’m planning a return.
Belinda is a writer, broadcaster, and adventurer. Follow her Always Exploring blog on her website.
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