Are you a keen summer hill walker? You are! What can a Winter Mountain Leader do for you?

07 Dec 2021

In winter, Scotland’s mountains take on a completely different character to summer, and can be Arctic in nature. Covered in snow and ice with freezing (and well below!) temperatures, strong winds, horizontal precipitation and cloud cover, walking in Scotland’s mountains during winter can be a daunting prospect. If you’re a summer hill walker and the idea of sitting out the winter doesn’t appeal, have you considered what a Winter Mountain Leader* can do for you?

* Winter Mountain Leaders have been trained and assessed in the skills and techniques necessary to lead walking parties on the hills and mountains of the UK and Ireland under winter conditions, excluding roped climbing on technical terrain.

Regardless of the time of year, hill walking in Scotland’s mountains should not be underestimated. Anyone who has gone hill walking in Scotland during the summer will, more than likely, have noticed that the weather in the mountains can be poor. In winter, however, poor weather takes on a whole new meaning! Short daylight hours add to the challenges of walking in Scotland’s winter mountains, as do the very real hazards of avalanches and snow cornices. Navigation is harder and specialist equipment (and the knowledge of how to use it) is required too, including crampons and an ice axe. All the extra equipment, clothing etc. creates a heavier rucksack and, with underfoot conditions generally harder in winter than in summer, a good level of fitness is required, alongside careful planning and route choice and good decision making whilst undertaking your journey.

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom, and with these greater challenges comes increased reward and amazing feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction when it all comes together. What might be considered a modest summer hill walk is transformed in winter conditions, and it’s just possible that you might even enjoy it! Hit the jackpot with the weather and there is nothing to beat the sight of snow-covered mountains under a deep blue sky spread all around you with the crisp winter air biting the end of your nose.

For many, winter is a magical time to be in Scotland’s mountains. However, if you currently lack the knowledge, skills, experience and confidence needed to walk safely in Scotland’s winter mountains, hiring a Winter Mountain Leader might be a very sensible thing to do. A day of guided winter hill walking may well allow you to experience and achieve something which you feel unable to undertake on your own. Alternatively, fit, keen summer hill walkers looking to expand their horizons and go winter hill walking under their own steam, may wish to learn the essential skills needed to walk safely in Scotland’s winter mountains. These skills can then be taken away and honed with experience, opening up a whole new world of adventures.

Hire of specialist equipment is included in the cost of all my winter walking activities, meaning you don’t need to rush out and spend a small fortune on stuff that you may not use subsequently. (It’s not everybody’s cup of tea!) What’s much more likely, however, is that you really enjoy it and go away to purchase your own. This will be a much more informed purchase if you spend time in the winter mountains using good quality hire kit, when you can practice using it and seek advice about what you should be looking for, based on your current needs and future aspirations.

Having a leader with you does not just mean following my rucksack up a hill! I love engaging with my clients and enthusing about Scotland’s incredible mountain landscapes. I love pointing out things of interest, be that mountain flora and fauna, a bit of geology, or places of historical significance. I am extremely passionate about introducing people to Scotland’s incredible mountains and wild places, so much so that I gave up a career as a fisheries scientist in order to do just that - a story told in my debut book, “A Quest For Fulfilment”.

Below is a small insight into some of the many thoughts that will be going through my head as I make my way back safely across the Cairngorm Plateau in winter. Looking forward to seeing you up a snowy mountain soon!

Crunch, crunch, crunch. My boots squash the snow beneath my feet. It feels as if the snow has been my sole companion for the past few hours. I suppose it has really - snow, and the inside of a cloud. I feel a great sense of satisfaction. I have just navigated my way successfully across the brutally-unforgiving, yet at times beautiful, Cairngorm Plateau to the summit of Ben Macdui, Britain’s second highest mountain, in a whiteout, without the aid of any electronic wizardry. Complete snow cover from 1,000 m has combined with thick cloud cover to give me no visual clues whatsoever as to my whereabouts for several hours. Only by combining accurate contour interpretation and compass work with pace counting and timing, have I had the confidence to know my position in this world of white. I can feel myself tiring at the end of a long day, darkness is approaching rapidly, and the bitter northerly wind, unusually quiet up until now, is beginning to blow freezing ice particles straight into my face with painful ferocity. I am very glad I am wearing my ski goggles. Somewhere inside several hoods, I begin a familiar conversation with myself ...

“61, 62, 63, 64, stop. That’s me up on my pacing. Can’t be too far from the cairn now. It must be here, somewhere. Don’t want to overshoot on distance, just in case I’ve wandered slightly off my bearing. Don’t be silly, I haven’t, I was bang on my bearing all the way from Windy Col, and the ground has certainly flattened out now. Just a few more paces to make up for the shortened stride length in the snow. 13, 14, 15, 16, surely the cairn is just there … yes, that’s it!”

The cairn marking spot height 1,141 m is barely visible today, but I’d recognise it anywhere, a bit like an old friend who lives far away - whenever you meet there is instant warmth, a familiar and friendly connection once more. Marking a safe exit from the “white room” back to so called civilisation, I am relieved to have located it, and inwardly I breathe a sigh of relief. The conversation with myself continues …

“Right, time for a very quick drink and then get the crampons on. This soft powder has been fine to walk on across the plateau, but the steep, wind scoured ridge I’m about to descend is going to be quite icy and potentially lethal in the failing light. Best take a fresh bearing too, just to make sure I don’t wander too far right and accidently on to the cornice. I must stick closely to the crest of the ridge as the steep slope on the right is dangerously loaded with windslab just now and could be avalanche prone. I’m going to pop my headlamp on too. Although I don’t need it just yet, it’ll be much easier to put it on here rather than half way down a steep, icy ridge. Better to be prepared. I might even treat myself to a pair of dry gloves for the last hour. Ah, bliss!”


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