With winter upon us, I have decided to head up to the highlands of Scotland to get amongst the white stuff. I've been up here for 5 days now and have managed to get out on the hill a couple of times already, but the weather is keeping most sensible people indoors. A succession of deep low pressure systems have been lining up and marching across the country, bringing with them warm, wet air (rain low down, snow higher up) and very, very strong winds. Having been blown over and breaking some bones in my foot a year ago last November, I have a big respect for the power of the wind and nature, so I have been careful to keep an eye on the weather and avalanche forecasts. It would be extremely foolish of anyone venturing out into the Scottish hills in Winter not to check the forecasts, especially as they are readily available in this technological age. Prehaps the best sources of information are the Mountain Weather Information Service website, which provides detailed weather forecasts for the mountain regions of the UK, and the Sports Scotland Avalanche Information Service website, where experienced forecasters are out on the ground, checking the snow conditions every day. Only a fool goes out without checking this information and there have been plenty of incidents this season already, where people have been caught out, including, sadly, some fatalities. REMEMBER, TO BE FOREARMED IS TO BE FOREWARNED!
Having been to the AGM and Annual Dinner of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors on Saturday, I decided to go for a little walk to stretch my legs and reaquaint myself with the hills. I always struggle with the first day out - not taking the right kit, putting gloves in the wrong pockets, forgetting lipsalve etc and this time was no exception. I always find the first day out in the winter a bit of a faff, as far as personal admin is concerned, but by having an easy first day helps to iron out some of the problems. I had spent a couple of days previous 'winterising' my kit, the most useful being tying 'idiot cords' to gloves, mapcase and compass, so they could all be physically attached to me, and not get blown away in the wind...a simple and cheap thing to do...and a lifesaver?
My little walk started from Glenmore Lodge and over to the delightful Ryvoan Bothy, before heading up the slopes at the end of the North Ridge of Cairngorm. I found it hard going to start with and my foot felt stiff with the exhursion, but I just kept up a steady pace and I slowly made progress. The ridge had almost been stripped bare of snow low down by the wind and thaw, which made things a bit easier. Higher up, the wind picked up in strength. Fortunately, I had a set of walking poles with me. These too, are an essential piece of kit for winter, although it must remembered that they are not a subsitute for an ice axe, which must be carried, and used when moving on steep ground.
By the time I got back to Glenmore Lodge, my foot was beginning to protest a bit, which was to be expected after over a year of being away from the hills. Fortunately it felt ok the next day, well enough to head out on the hill again, with my mate Heavy Whalley. Heavy has spent a lifetime in the Scottish hills and in Mountain Rescue.. He is certainly a character and once met, he is never forgotten!
Our hill for the day was the mighty Ben Rhinnes, a great wee hill to the North East of the main Cairngorm massive and a relatively easy hill for a short day. The forecast was for the wind to increase in strength throughout the day, so we started early. It had been very cold overnight and, although the main roads were clear, the minor approach road was covered in sheet ice, which meant slow progress. Eventually we arrived at the small carpark and set off up the hill. With all our various ailments, it was slow progress. The ground was frozen and the wind had stripped back a lot of snow, and although we didn't wear crampons on our way up, we decided it would be safer to put them on for the first part of the descent, as the wind had begun to pick up considerably. Walking over frozen ground is hard enough, but when combined with strong winds, it can be easy to loose you footing. Crampons help by biting into the ground, therefore giving the wearer purchase on icy/slippery ground. The winds were very strong (50-60mph) and it was hard work to stay on our feet. The summit arrived all to quickly, but fortunately there are some big summit rocks, where we could find shelter from the wind and grab a bite to eat. Strong winds and cold temperatures causes Windchill where exposed skin can freeze, causing frostnip, and in severe cases, frostbite, so it is important that you cover up as much as possible. Ski goggles are another winter mountaineering must. There are a few worse things in life than having windblown snow stinging your face and eyes! Heavy and I beat a hasty retreat back down the hill, just as the wind increased in strength. We were glad of our crampons on and our walking poles.
My foot felt stronger after our day out, and I was keen to get out on the hills again, but the forecast is looking grim. I am sat in Heavy's house on the Moray Firth, listening to the winds howling outside. It's due to be worse tomorrow...I hope nobody is out in it. Stay safe folks!