Hiking Scotland’s winter mountains

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

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