It’s week 10 of lockdown here in Scotland. I have had a reminder in my diary to write and then post this blog that has been transferred from one week to the next, but week after week this task has been left untouched. Why? Well, we each have our own way of coping with the restrictions placed on us during this time. Some rely on photos to trigger memories of epic mountain days. Others may read up and plan for that time when the freedom of the hills is allowed to beckon to them once more. Some may head out for the permitted local walks, and gaze longingly into the distance (if they’re lucky enough to be in an area which affords views of the [distant] mountains). I find the easiest way to deal with the lack of access to the mountains is to kind of ignore their existence. This was certainly the way I had to handle matters in early and late 2018 when I was ‘out’ due to injury. My answer was simply NOT to look towards the West, NOT to look towards those distant mountains (and yes, we can see them from our local paths on the outskirts of Aberdeen). But then I guess that we all have our own way of dealing with different situations. And so this is the reason that this blog has been greatly delayed – I just haven’t wanted to think about the mountains – or, for that matter, look at my photos. But now the time has come to write something ….
Winter proper did eventually arrive (around mid-February) and with it came many, many days of extremely windy weather. Getting out into the mountains is all about making careful judgments through monitoring weather conditions at the best of times – and in winter, it is also about being avalanche safe. I’ve been out in the mountains on enough windy days to know exactly what my limits are. Being physically knocked down by a gust really puts you in your place, while crawling on all fours or being pinned to a rock unable to move because of the wind encourages a healthy respect for this powerful entity. And – let’s face it – being out in the mountains in windy weather is plain old hard work.
There are rucksacks …. And then there are rucksacks … I finally managed to sort out my winter pack issue this season and my conclusion is that there’s no getting away from it: due to my very short back length, my options with regard to a suitable winter sack are somewhat limited, to put it mildly. The two knock-down bargains (i.e., purchased in various sales over the years) that were loitering in the loft – and that had I felt so very smug about acquiring – were piloted before the snow truly arrived and both proved to be useless. A back system too long for me (yes, yes, they were women’s back systems) meant the load ended up hanging away from my back with the chest strap making its very best effort to strangle me. Sigh. Back to the drawing board. Something large enough for winter kit and robust enough to take the weight of all the ironmongery, rope etc. was what was required. The eventual solution weighed in a whopping 2.6kg before I had even put anything into it. But the back system, set to its shortest setting for once truly fitted me. Conclusion: I just have to deal with hauling an extremely heavy load in winter and cutting a rather laughable figure as the sack looks disproportionately big when I am carrying it (‘What do you have in there???’ ‘Are you out overnight???’). And so it started – the gradual building up of carrying (what was for me) a very heavy load – and with a bit of time and patience, carrying the full rucksack was no longer an issue (an issue that featured a few years ago in When is Heavy Too Heavy?).
The World’s Best Faffer? Really, this is not an accolade of which to be proud. 2020 was my first winter season back on the hill for a while (I’d been forced to miss the past two years). The first issue I encountered was not really remembering what really worked for me in terms of clothing and kit – and also not recalling just how bad I was at faffing at the car in temperatures hovering around zero (I take far longer than in summer). It goes hand in hand with being a procrastinator and indecisive person to boot. The first winter day I was out proved to be a mahooosssive 45 minutes before I left the car. Kit was everywhere. I frantically tried to remember the order in which order I used to pack winter gear into a sack. Heads turned with incredulity to survey the wild array of equipment lying around the back of the car as others drove past that first morning. My situation wasn’t helped by the ground being very icy in that laybay, so I was desperately sliding around as I tried to repack the rucksack. And after a few weeks of this, there came the dawning realisation that I tend to semi pack the rucksack and then throw the rest of the gear in the back of the car the night before, thinking to quickly (ahem…) add it to the pack when I’m parked up at my starting point. Solution: Not to be so darned lazy the night before departure. I don’t do this when I’m guiding – everything is all organised and shipshape, ready to start my day ahead of departure time, so why allow this to happen at other times? … think about how much precious hill time I’ve been wasting….
And that’s not the end of it …oh no … the other faffing problem was out on the hill itself. One trip I actually attempted to keep track of how much time I was losing on an average winter hill day – also how many times I stopped. The numbers were rather embarrassing: at first I didn’t want to believe that I really could be that inefficient. Diagnosis: not having items to hand and ready to go. Just not being quick enough with changing over different items of kit. Indecision. Solution: pep talk – ‘JUST GET ON WITH IT’, awareness of bits of kit that have the potential to slow me down, thinking ahead – can I foresee that I will need another layer as I come out of a more sheltered area (seeing as I’ve stopped anyway)? (Debate: Grivel C2 crampons with LONG straps v. Charlet Moser C2s that are much less problematic. Debate: am I ever, ever going to wear the Grivels with those instruments of torture, the Scarpa Vegas (my double plastic boots) ever again – the only time I’m ever likely to need such long straps – or do I simply shorten them to a more suitable length??).
‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow….’ By late February I was in the disciplined mode of making sure that I went out for at least one QMD (quality mountain day) every week. Finding a suitable day often proved somewhat challenging as I had to work around other part time work commitments. As already noted, in winter, weather and snow conditions make assessment, planning and ‘being out there’ a dynamic situation. It involves endless tracking of weather and avalanche forecasts – and if you’re not sure where exactly you’ll be heading from one week to the next, this means tracking all forecast/avalanche areas in Scotland. This particular day had snow forecast, but not until later …. so I headed out to Braemar, calling in at the local mountaineering store to just run a quick further check on what local opinion was of the weather that day. It was already starting to snow as I headed to park the car at Linn of Dee and intermittent flurries continued all the way to Derry Lodge. As I headed up Glen Derry, it really started to come down, and as I headed for the col between Meall an Lundain and Beinn Bhreac it continued to get heavier. Underfoot conditions were incredibly hard going. I was constantly sinking up to my thighs in wet, heavy snow, hauling one leg out, shifting my weight only to sink deeply in again, this time on the other leg. Beinn Bhreac in summer is a nice easy and relatively short Cairngorm day, but on this occasion, it turned into a mammoth undertaking. It took me two and a half hours to cover the mere 2.5km to the summit. The falling snow was relentless, higher up the wind was really battering the top of Beinn Bhreac. The endless effort of taking steps was incredibly draining. As I slowly ploughed my way back to the main path it became evident just how much snow had come down while I had been out. The walkout from Derry Lodge was in the dark, by this stage the winds had dropped, the skies had cleared and the waxing crescent moon provided more than sufficient light for me to see where I was going.
Whiteout: The next objective was Monadh Mor ( Cairngorms, ) from Glen Feshie – crossing the Moine Mhor. A front was due to come in during the day, with low cloud predicted to gather on Western hills. For the Cairngorms wind speeds were supposed to be negligible with the odd snow flurries, but it was expected to stay dry for most of the day (70% chance cloud free Munros), but cloud base may be down to 800m in snow showers, perhaps more extensive in the afternoon, patches of sun (east), visibility good but reducing in snow flurries. Minus 3 at 900m, freezing level 500-600m during the day. Avalanche conditions: Low, moderate above 900m on N, NE and E slopes in Northern Cairngorms and N through to SE slopes for S Cairngorms.
Hmmm …. The weather changed pretty rapidly as we made our way up the trade route from Glen Feshie. Not long after we parted company (as Iain decided he wanted to head to Angel’s Peak – skimming rapidly along on snowshoes), the cloud base dropped to around the 800m mark – and anything above this was in whiteout. For both of us, on our respective journeys, this meant hours in the white room. This was totally disorientating at times, with no real idea of what was up or down. Distances, when the cloud thinned or dispersed were totally skewed. With no points of reference, walking on the compass bearing (solo) turning into a time consuming challenge. I was constantly needing to check that I was walking in a straight line by checking the back bearing. Slow progress. I reached my turn around time, but decided to ignore that – I had a head torch, I knew where I was, I had a realistic idea of my return route, I knew what the snow conditions were like, I knew which slope aspects I needed to avoid, I knew that I had to be alert (!) to changes in conditions, I was prepared to walk out in the dark – so I went on. Slow progress on Monadh Mor, but eventually, by my reckoning, I was on the summit ‘ridge’. Of course it was near impossible to see too much, but I located the summit cairn (heavily disguised by snow), took a very brief breather and started back down and across the Moine Mhor. The advent of night caught up with me as I was making very slow progress back to the col area near Carn Ban Mor. The moon showed itself briefly as I stopped for a couple of short breaks to deploy axe and crampons for descent – followed by the 5km walk out. Late back to the car (later than Iain) and very late back into Aberdeen (which is a long way from anywhere at the best of times).
Fresh Snow Fall: Drumochter Hills East. Fresh snow down to 400m, which made for hard going underfoot, particularly where the snow had collected on lee slopes. The day started beautifully, but the cloud gradually moved in and by the time I headed down, the wind had picked up sufficiently to be blowing the loose snow around, rapidly covering over any tracks left by those who had been out on the plateau during the day. It had that ‘I’m the last person out here’ feeling as I descended towards the road.
That ‘Perfect’ Winter Day: No words needed, really! Drumochter Hills West this time. Stunning, stunning day with amazing light conditions. It was so beautiful that it was ‘otherworldly’.
The conditions underfoot were not quite as tiring as the previous week, The crust of snow was not strong enough to support any weight, so I was constantly sinking in where there were accumulations, and the tops were scoured by (surprise, surprise) the high winds of the past few days, leaving an icy underlay with a light covering of snow over it.
The Last Day Out: The final fling. By this point we knew that it was inevitable that the mountains were going to be ‘closed down’. All the signs were there. We headed for the Eastern Cairngorms, where we climbed Beinn a’Bhuird. Conditions were pretty much perfect, and the mountain was pretty much deserted, even better underfoot than previously. The sight of the snow-bound, ethereal beauty of the main Cairngorm massif was deeply moving. It was a bittersweet experience, knowing that we would have to accept that we were not going to see these mountains for a very long time, but that we were incredibly privileged to be out there right there and then.
Winter was set to continue: the winter seasons are so inconsistent now that you can never know from one year to the next whether a proper winter in the mountains will happen at all. That’s why any opportunity needs to be seized – never wait, as in addition, winter conditions can be really fickle: here one day, gone the next. So to be aware that winter in the mountains was continuing as we entered lockdown was tough, as tough as effectively losing our freedom.* But in the end, as with most things in life, the present situation is only a ‘passing thing’ (J.R.R. Tolkien). I will be back.
*Of course, the lack of freedom is but a minor gripe (I am not unaware of this) when so many others are going through extremely difficult times due to the pandemic.
[Note: ‘Let it Snow!’ was written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1945 and has been released several times (Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were amongst those who recorded their own versions). J.R.R. Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee, on the miserable journey through Mordor, briefly sees a star appear: ‘[…] the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.’ (Return of the King).]
My thoughts are with all those whose lives have been impacted by the devastating effects of COVID-19.
Places Wild and High will resume guiding in accordance with the recommendation of government and professional bodies. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any queries relating to potential future guided days.