Last weekend the weather man suggested that there might be a short break between the storms that have been battering the UK for the last couple of months. So I had a quick gander at one of my OS maps and choose a nice route near the town of Crianlarich. As is always the case in winter, time was the main concern. If you’re lucky you might get six or seven hours of walkable daylight. But you’ll probably have to get up several hours before dawn if you’re going to get to the hill by the cutomery mid-morning.
The weather got progressively more dodgy the further west I went, but there were enough breaks in the cloud to suggest that things might hold off for a while. After a few minutes spent discovering that the layby I was in wasn’t the one on the map, I found the trail and strode off up the glen. The pack was a little heavy today. Crampons, ice axe, food, water and all the necessary clothing layers mean my typical winter bag weighs something like 9-10 kilos. Heavy, but nothing compared to the climbers who have to take all their ropes and gear. It’s enough to get the ticker pumping briskly, which you soon realise is pretty important because it can feel a little chilly when the wind is gusting to 50mph.
The day turned out to be a pretty good lesson in what’s fantastic and frightening about winter hill walking. The most striking thing was how localised the weather can be in the mountains. For most of the walk up the glen the first hill was cloud free and the snow brightly reflected light around the corrie. But the hill next door, just a couple of hundred yards away, was awash with dark brooding storm clouds and flurries of snow. It was the sort of day where navigation is really important. It’s incredibly easy to get thinking that a spell of clear weather means you can forget worrying where you are. But the next batch of weather can come through so fast that before you know it there’s a white-out and you can’t work out where that cliff face was supposed to be.
As it turned out one of the ‘next batches’ of weather ambled by as I reached the first cairn, so some careful compass work duly preceeded the jaunt along the pondering ridge. When I got to the the end of the ridge, the map told me to expect a little scramling to get down. At this point some of the clouds lifted enough to show the gaping corrie below. A little bit of inventive ice axe work and the difficulties were soon overcome and a beautiful little lochan was the reward. The thought of trout living up here was difficult to resist, but in reality it’s got to be unlikely. Trout can live in some pretty exceptional places but this was a little excessive. Much more hopeful for trout was the pretty burn running down the glen. As I had walked along it earlier in the day images of backcountry New Zealand rivers came to mind, clear and swift and extremely fishy. I always wonder about these little remote burns. I know they contain trout, and one day I’ll find one that contains trout longer than my finger.
The next hill was a long gentle ridge. On a good day the view would be terrific, but today the weather reached its peak ‘shitness’ quotiet right as the summit was reached. The wind picked up to face-peeling level, and the eye-watering sleety-snow and flapping bag straps were a nice reminder that central heating, hot tea and houses might have their place after all.
Sometimes there’s a special time near the end of a walk where the hard uphill slogs have come and gone and you start to think about other things. Things like dinner and your aching knees and that burning hot spot on your left heel. But if the weather feels like it there might be a brief moment where the white-out softens and you see across the glen towards the dropping sun, and the lingering clouds get dyed orange and pink. It’s like you’re in a giant windy watercolour painting and you suddenly remember why you’re there.
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