Scottish Winter Hill Walking

It was a challenging, exhilarating three days in the snows of the Scottish Cairngorms. There was leg-testing, wind-blasting and snot-streaming (sorry, but it’s true). But it was an unforgettable place to GetOutside.

This, my first experience of the Scottish winter hills, led to an article for the British Mountaineering Council. It covers the safety issues, challenges, rewards  and lessons learned. It also features how you too can get up into the winter hills. For that article click here.

For the story and pictures behind the article, read on …

 Creag Meagaidh Range

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Leading the way on Creag Meagaidh

This is us high the Creag Meagaidh Range. My friend, Ellie, is guiding us from Carn Liath, via Stob Poite Coire Ardair and The Window to Creag Meagaidh. It’s a route of around 20km with an ascent of 1080m.

As you can see, it’s beautiful. What you can’t necessarily see is that the avalanche hazard is Considerable on certain slopes. That the temperatures on the tops are -6C, with winds of 30mph bringing that down to around -18C.

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Cold then, with a stinging wind (hence the snot-streaming), some energy-sapping slogging through shin-deep snow and sometimes-treacherous gusts.

Wind-blasted, tested and awed by this environment. I can still see these views …

Hunting for Homer’s Head

This is us, a few days earlier, high in the hills of the Glen Feshie range, gathered round Ordnance Survey maps.

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Checking the route

You’ll notice the full winter kit, including crampons. What you might not realise is that we’re looking for Homer’s Head. Not Homer the ancient Greek philosopher; but Homer the cartoon character. Why? Well, because although OS’s surveyors quite possibly didn’t have it in mind when they plotted the contour lines, these brown wavy marks do bear a sneaking resemblance to the profile of Springfield’s bright yellow patriarch.

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Whiteout

So why are we so set on finding ‘Homer’? It’s partly because Ellie, who’s leading us, wanted to do a micro nav exercise – when you navigate short legs in difficult conditions, when accuracy is key. But now we’re up here, it’s more than an exercise. Because, as expected, low cloud and snow now means dramatically reduced visibility. In fact we’re in the midst of a whiteout – where you can’t see features or the horizon. Today – you can’t see them at all.

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And these hills are full of very real hazards, some of these slopes today carry avalanche risks. And as those contour lines suggest, some of the ridge edges here are pretty sheer. But, our navigator nails that circuitous micro nav route spot on;  skill and prolonged concentration mean she leads us back to precisely the right point – the path we came up, where we can still make out our earlier foot prints in the snow.

 

Lessons Learned

The biggy is having the utmost respect for people and place: serious hills and serious conditions require serious preparation, equipment and skills.

For more on the specific lessons learned and the ways you could prepare to GetOutside in Britain’s winter hills, see my BMC article here.  The Ordnance Survey website has a wealth of hiking tips and location guides – start your explorations here.

By the way, there wasn’t room in my article to discuss the best ever winter hill snack. I’m putting down a vote for peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches. You?

What are your British winter hill walking experiences; your favourite places & tips?

A huge thank-you to Ellie, Taff, Sarah and Sally, who helped me get up into the hills 🙂

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