Five Winter Weekendersby Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com Feb/2012
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If you're new to snowy hills and not sure where to start then consider these winter weekend suggestions.
Winter walkers are an odd bunch. The daffodils are out and the hills are turning mushy in the warm breath of spring, but far from welcoming the thaw we're bemoaning the lost opportunities it represents. By rights we should still be waving ice axes about and doing battle with snowbound ridges, not strolling around in T-shirts. Maybe we'll get our chance yet. Don't let the current weather put a dampener on things, and don't mothball your crampons just yet. There's still plenty of time for the snow to make a comeback, and when it does then you can squeeze maximum value out of it with a weekend trip. Try these ideas:
Winter makes proper mountains out of our wee molehills. If you're new to the game then your first trip to the snowy peaks will be an eye opener, but only if there's actually any white stuff to be found. Decent conditions are most likely in the north, up high. The best bet would be one of the bigger Scottish Munros, preferably well inland away from the warming influence of the sea. But snow, ice and steep slopes make an unforgiving combination, so choose your target with care. Assuming all things are equal with variables like the weather and avalanche risk, then it's obvious that some Munros are going to be more amenable than others.
A beginner-friendly winter biggie will be a hill without too many cliffs, or narrow scrambly ridges, or obvious navigation black spots such as a featureless plateau. It'd be best to stick to more accessible peaks too, avoiding the seriously isolated hills until you've got more experience. Though snow may obscure any trails it's also worth picking a summit with an easy, well-travelled standard route. Factor in all these requirements and the field narrows from a total of 283 Munros to perhaps a few dozen obvious contenders. The hills of highland Perthshire are a good place to start. Try this route on Ben Lawers - a giant, but a fairly gentle one. For day two, other local possibilities include Schiehallion or the Carn Mairg group.
Perhaps you're drawn by the beauty and challenge of the winter hills, but lack the skills and confidence to take your first steps alone? A course could offer the leg-up you need. These are available in every mountain area of the UK. The National Mountain Centre at Plas y Brenin or Glenmore Lodge, Scotland's National Outdoor Training Centre, would be good places to start.
Plas y Brenin's two-day Welsh Winter Skills course focuses on the two main essentials for travelling in the British mountains in winter - navigation and security on winter terrain. You'll be out on the hill both days, and over the course of each mountain journey the topics covered include: gear selection; use and choice of axe and crampons; self arrest; terrain and route choice and winter navigation.
No prior experience of winter hillwalking is needed, but you should have a summer hillwalking background, and since winter days tend to be more strenuous a reasonable level of fitness is important too. You might strike it lucky and find the hills in perfect crisp alpine nick, but that's very much a best case scenario and it's wise to keep your expectations realistic.
'The Welsh winter can be fickle, and snow and ice conditions cannot be guaranteed' say Plas y Brenin. 'Throughout the course we will have a flexible approach to the programme to make the best possible use of the prevailing conditions. If there is no snow the course will still run.' There's plenty to learn whatever the weather, and even if the snow doesn't put in an appearance a course would make an enjoyable winter weekender, especially if you can rope in a few pals.
Apparently it doesn't have to be fun, to be fun. Whether you're shuddering in a snowhole, getting Baltic in a bivvy bag or pitching your tent on an icebound bog, winter nights out give you ample opportunity to test this cliché - and your sense of humour. There'll be hot aches, cold feet, and lashings of old fashioned suffering of the kind that made Britain great. Stiff upper lip? Frozen solid, probably. Sleeping in the snow would be hard to defend as an end in itself when you can achieve much the same effect just staying at home in a bath of ice cubes; but we endure the faff and discomfort as a means to a greater end. The attractions, in case you were beginning to wonder, are the same as camping in other seasons: the freedom of the open hills; the chance to go longer and further; to really get away from it all (whatever 'it' is); the close, clammy contact with nature; all that starlight and frosty silence. Instead of two separate day walks from a valley base, overnighting in the wild allows you to complete a single extended journey. That always seems more worthwhile, somehow. If you're melting snow for brews and considering the merits of the pee bottle, then your weekend can really take on the feel of a mini expedition.
'It doesn't have to be fun, to be fun; and winter nights out give you ample opportunity to test this cliché'
More than at other times of year the weather will make or break the trip, so tailor your accommodation to suit the forecast. In real storms go for a bothy or a howff, or don't go at all. If it's reasonably rainy, slightly snowing or only medium-windy then a decent tent will be fine, though picking a sheltered spot is often a primary concern. Bivvying out in the open is only fun in reasonable weather, while the ultimate in winter novelty, the summit bivvy or camp, is best saved for those rare nights of perfect crisp calm.
Combining the rush of downhill skiing with the wilder rewards of hillwalking, ski mountaineering (aka touring) is the winter sport for anyone with soul. Freed from the shackles of ski tows and pistes, tourers can travel to where snow cover is deepest and the hills most deserted. Scotland's wide open spaces are ideal touring terrain, but there's a lot to learn and beginners would be best off finding a course or instructor. The only requisites are some winter hillwalking experience and the ability to ski blue or red pisted runs in control.
'When there's snow on the hills there is no better way to travel'
'When there's snow on the hills there is no better way to travel' says Doug Cooper, an instructor at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland's National Outdoor Training Centre.
'Make the ups easier, travel further, see more and then of course those knee hurting descents at the end of the day for the hill walker become the highlight of the day for the ski tourer. It opens up a whole new dimension in the mountains with as much challenge as any individual chooses - either travelling big distances or skiing steeper slopes.'
Weekend introductory ski touring courses at Glenmore Lodge cover a lot of ground: equipment; uphill skinning techniques; route choice; avalanche awareness; transceiver use; navigation on skis; off piste downhill skiing techniques and perhaps revisiting some on-piste techniques. All touring kit is provided, including some of the latest skis, boots and transceivers; a good way for newcomers to try stuff out before buying anything elsewhere
'The great thing about Lodge courses are the staff, the venue and the equipment' says Doug. 'Our highly qualified, motivated staff have all been ski touring around Scotland and the rest of the world for many years. In the heart of the Cairngorms we have some of the most reliable snow and a fantastic variety of ski touring options, getting to the summits of some of the highest peaks in Britain and then of course skiing back off them!' 'Oh and I nearly forgot the legendary Glenmore Lodge cakes waiting for everyone as they come off the hill at the end of the day!'
Who was it said there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing? Well they lied. When blizzards and gales engulf the summits or, like this week, there's a mega washout in progress, it's tempting to give up on hills forever and take up golf or recreational shopping. But don't do anything that daft; just aim lower for a while. Even if tops are off the agenda, getting out for a face-full of Atlantic is always going to beat yet another weekend wasted at the retail park. So swim up a glen, battle the wind across a remote pass or go for a wade in the woods.
Fighting the elements in the relative safety of a valley is a slightly masochistic sort of enjoyment, but it's not going to be as edgy as a dirty storm on The Ben. The worst that's likely to happen is you'll get wet pants, and some people probably pay good money for that pleasure. Rain hosing like a water cannon; downdraughts bowling off the slopes to knock you for six; burns swollen to raging, uncrossable torrents... it's all good character building stuff. Why not bring the kids? They'll thank you for it. One day. A valley walk needn't mean a geriatric potter though. Full days out are still possible. Whole weekends, even. Just as on a hill walk, the challenge and distance are entirely up to you. Of course glens and passes aren't exclusively for bad weather; they can be just as good in wall-to-wall sunshine. Here are a few suggestions:
Cairngorms: The high plateaux may be spindrift hell, but even in hostile weather the weekend can still be salvaged with a round trip through the two Lairigs. The famous Lairig Ghru and the less celebrated Lairig an Laoigh both cut through the wild heart of the range, each serving as a through-route between Glen More and upper Deeside. Combining the two creates a truly great 'low' level backpacking circuit, though with a high point of 835m, potentially dicey river crossing and lots of windswept nothing-at-all you'll probably find it harder than most summit-bagging rounds.
Cumbria: With its radiating pattern of dales and a network of historic through-routes Lakeland could have been made with pass-hopping in mind. There are too many options to list, but a weekend that involved Langstrath, Esk Hause, and the spectacular mountain fastness of upper Eskdale would be hard to top.
Snowdonia: The wide open spaces and empty cwms of the Carneddau offer a lot of scope for sub-summit walking. Try going from Capel Curig to Dolgarrog via Llyn Cowlyd, maybe returning along Cwm Eigiau and over Bwlch y Tri Marchog too if you've enough oomph.
Glens Affric/Cannich/Strathfarrar: These huge inter-linked glen systems run between 1100m massifs to give an almost limitless network of low level hikes through some of the most isolated country in Scotland. A long weekend without meeting a soul is easy to arrange here; even a full week.
Torridon: Each of Torridon's great mountains stands alone, and the glens dividing them give some stunning walks in rough, remote surroundings. If the weather puts a dampener on your planned winter traverse of Liathach then the low level alternative between Coire Dubh Mor and Coire Mhic Nobuill is a classic in its own right.