There is a phrase, used often by mountain guides and trainers, that there is no such thing as winter hiking, only winter mountaineering. This applies particularly to Scotland, where the weather can change in an hour, turning a benign day into a snow blinding navigational nightmare, where bone chilling winds turn blizzarding snow to icy darts, stinging exposed flesh.

The iconic Buachaille Etive Mor, in Glen Coe, catching the first light of day.

Steep, and rocky descents in summer can become banked out with snow in winter, turning into smooth icy walls that demand careful down climbing. Transported snow, blown by the wind, can settle on the lee slopes of ridges, forming wide cornices that look like firm ground to the unwary, but which are too easy to fall through.

And there is the threat of avalanches, much greater after recent snow or a partial thaw, demanding great care when planning and undertaking a hike in the winter mountains.

Looking down Glen Etive from the flanks of  Beinn Mhic Chasgaig.

 

So in any plan to visit Scotland in the winter you need to be prepared. The right equipment is vital, winter boots with compatible crampons, ice axe, insulated gloves, goggles, warm and windproof clothing and possibly a rope, are among the things to be carried in this sometimes inhospitable and dangerous environment.

Creise, at the head of Glen Etive.

 

Experience in the use of an ice axe and crampons are essential, as is the ability to navigate in poor conditions with a map and compass. However, once proper preparations have been made, and the right skills gained, winter days in the mountains can be some of the most rewarding you will ever have. When the wind drops and the sun shines on that pristine white landscape your senses will tingle with the sheer wonder of it, and the memory of the day will stay with you forever.

Stob Dearg from the descent of Beinn Mhic Chasgaig.

 

On a recent trip to Scotland I headed again to the Western Highlands, to Glen Coe and Lochaber, always popular with hikers, climbers and mountaineers, home to many mighty mountains, including Ben Nevis, the highest in Britain. This would be my fifth time in the area, but only my second during winter, and I was here to gain more experience of hiking these high exposed ridges and peaks under a cover of snow and ice.

The weather forecast for the week was good, high pressure was set to dominate, and we anticipated cold, crisp sunny days in the mountains. But mountains are fickle places, often exhibiting their own weather, where one mountain can be in bright clear sunshine and it’s neighbour be swathed in  low cloud.

The summit of Sgor na h-Ulaidh.

 

And so it proved to be that week in February. Some fellow mountaineers I met reported clear summits with wonderful views of peaks poking through the cloud of temperature inversions. Meanwhile, on a nearby ridge, I would be swathed in chilling cloud all day.

On the summit ridge of Sgor na h-Ulaidh.

 

Temperatures in the valleys were several degrees above freezing, and a partial thaw was in progress. This did not effect the higher slopes, still icy with good neve snow, but lower on the flanks of the mountains a mottled pattern appeared, like the camouflaged fur of a big cat, as snow melted from the bumps and undulations but remained in the hollows. Higher on the mountains cornices began to slump, though the continuing subzero temperatures ensured they stayed put, for now.

The bulk of Buachaille Etive Mor

 

Winds remained moderate throughout the week, ensuring the wind chill stayed within comfortable levels. And despite the poor visibility, (which did allow for some worthwhile navigation practice though not great photography), I had a very worthwhile and enjoyable time in this mercurial, ever changing landscape of mountains.

Even before I left Scotland I was planning my trip for next year. Maybe the Cairngorms? Or Glen Sheil?

Looking down the Larrig Eilde from Buachaille Etive Beag.

 

Learn more about the hiking trips Russell leads by clicking here: mountaintrails.ie

In summer, Ledge Route is a 450 metre grade 2 scramble that finishes at the summit of Carn Dearg, a 1221 metre subsidiary top of Ben Nevis. Under snow and ice it is a grade II winter route and reputedly the best of its grade on the mountain.

On 10th January this year, three of us headed up the valley of the Allt a Mhuilinn in the grey half light of a wet morning. The imposing massive wall of Carn Dearg rose to our right from the valley floor, its higher crags lost in the pale misty cloud, snow clinging to its flanks on ledges and in gullies, where it could get some purchase.

Allt a Mhuillinn and Carn Dearg

Patches of wet, soft snow slowed our progress as we gradually gained height on our approach to No.5 Gully, the start of our route.
There had been a lot of rain in Lochaber since Christmas, and at this altitude it had fallen as snow. This had become unstable in fluctuating temperatures and as we climbed the slope towards the start of No.5 Gully we had to pick our way over and around the previous weeks avalanche debris. This had refrozen to give us a safe, if awkward, passage.

The entrance to No.5 Gully

As Rob, the leader of our team, prepared the first belay stance and we put on harnesses and tied in, the snow began to fall anew, large white flakes falling from the pale grey sky. Strong winds were forecast from the southwest, but here on the north face we had reasonable protection, and the snow fell in a moderating breeze.

Ledge Route gets its name from a rightward slanting ledge that then sweeps back left to overlook No.5 Gully. Here the route turns right again to join the ridge proper, and leads to some very exposed situations.
The ledges and gullies were banked out with fresh deposits of snow lying over older and more consolidated material. It was decided to pitch this section of the route, and with Rob leading, we plunged our cramponed boots and ice axes deep into the steeply sloping snow to get purchase and made our way carefully up towards the ridge line.

Steady progress towards the ridge

Once on the ridge we could move a little more easily, and ‘moving together’, in Alpine fashion, we made steady progress along the sometimes very exposed ridge.
We stopped for a brief lunch on a small platform before continuing towards our goal, Carn Dearg summit.

Carn Dearg and the end of the climb

Icy cold strong winds and whiteout conditions greeted us as we topped out making the 2km walk to the summit of Ben Nevis itself an unpleasant option, so we quickly stowed our gear before navigating down the southwest side of the mountain to the Red Burn, a stream that in winter becomes a shallow, snow filled gully.

As we walked down and out of the cloud Glen Nevis opened up before us in shades of russet green and brown, the wind eased, and we had the pleasure of seeing several pairs of ptarmigan, an iconic highland bird of the grouse family, in their white coats. They called in alarm at our passing, their distinctive harsh, throaty staccato call filling the cold air.

Descending the Red Burn towards the Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe

We made our way back, firstly by the path running alongside the Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, and then over sodden, boggy heath to wade the Altt a Mhuilinn and return to our transport.
Our final destination for the day was the Nevis Range cafe, where we indulged ourselves with tea and cake, a fine end to a brilliant day.

Thanks and acknowledgement go to Rob Johnson of http://www.expeditionguide.com/ for leading the day and for some of the images, and to Mark Shaw for his good company.