Magic Winter Moments in the Mamores

© Richard Haszko

"You set out at the beginning of the day and you just never know what's going to happen." Valerie's aphorisms, whilst perhaps not possessed of great philosophical insight, do have the undoubted quality of being true. I suppose it's another way of saying that the uncertainty of outcome is what gives mountain days their special flavour.

Late light on Ben Nevis, from the Mamores  © Richard Haszko
Late light on Ben Nevis, from the Mamores
© Richard Haszko

Hill walking does not commonly fall into the category of having uncertainty of outcome, even in winter: you set off on your walk and there is a very high probability that you will complete it in good order. However, what can never be predicted is the sort of day you are going to have. Sometimes it will be very unpleasant, eyes glued to the ground in persistent cloud and rain. Other days will be glorious with good company, great views and fine weather. Yet others will be just so-so. But sometimes, just very occasionally, there will be one that stands out, one in which something remarkable happens: you will have a Magic Moment.

Mid February in Scotland had proved fairly disappointing in terms of good snow conditions and weather for some years and this year looked like it wouldn't be much different after weeks of mild, wet winds, but we went up anyway encouraged by the forecast of a cold spell in midweek. Somewhat unusually it looked as though the forecast and weather might actually coincide for one day so we made plans for a walk in the Mamores. These are very attractive mountains, many of which happen by the strangest of coincidences, and not remotely of any significance of course, to be Munros.

The massive bulk of Ben Nevis glowed gold. The wind dropped to nothing and our shadows lengthened across the rippled summit snows. A few black-bottomed clouds floated above us. All around were snow-capped mountains rising out of darkening valleys

We worked out a circular walk starting from Mamore Lodge above Kinlochleven and Valerie set the alarm for 7.30. I was a little concerned about this as I have a theory about start times for walks and I'm sure most people will have experienced the weather changing as the day goes on. If it starts fine chances are it will turn bad later. On the other hand, if it starts bad then there is a good chance it will improve. So, if you start early in fine weather you may well be caught out high on the mountain, get wet or worse, possibly have to retreat, and almost certainly be down too early to go straight to the pub for a celebratory/reviving pint. If you start late you will be low enough to change your plans and do something that doesn't involve anything character enlarging. Conversely, a late start on a bad day will have you high up for the improvement. You will be on top for a splendid sunset while everyone else is well on their way down and you will have missed the worst of the weather whilst still enjoying a cup of tea in bed. The odd descent in the dark is but a small price to pay. Opinion differs on this theory so we compromised and found ourselves setting out from Mamore Lodge at 10.30.

Exciting ground on Na Gruagaichean  © Richard Haszko
Exciting ground on Na Gruagaichean
© Richard Haszko

Our first objective, Na Gruagaichean, was drifting in and out of cloud but we were pleased to see a fair amount of snow high up and it was reassuringly cold. A small path led off the Land Rover track. "Are you sure this is the right way?" Valerie enquired. "Not completely, no." "Why not, you read the guide." "Ah yes" I replied, "But you do know my memory is a thing of the past." Fortunately it was the right way and we rejoined the track after 20 minutes or so after a useful short cut. Discussion of the way on was remarkably short, there being but one option – straight up the North East Ridge on steep grassy slopes for 1500 ft. It was a straightforward shut-your-brain-off and plod sort of slope enlivened after 20 minutes or so by passing a man, dog and two boys sitting on some rocks. Feeling not even slightly competitive we passed them, occasionally turning to admire the ever-expanding views down Loch Leven until we reached a shoulder at the foot of a rocky ridge.

Weaving in and out and occasionally over the rocks the ridge narrowed and became snow covered so it was time to put on crampons."You're learning Richard" Valerie remarked to remind me of several tricky moments in the past when I had confidently asserted that crampons would not be necessary and we had nearly died. I had no wish to repeat the frank and open discussions that had ensued on these occasions.

We were on the summit in a few minutes, delighting in the frozen snow as cloudbase lifted and the views opened up. After a few minutes view appreciation we turned to look at the way on. The mountain dropped away remarkably steeply. So steeply we couldn't actually see a way on. The guidebook had mentioned a very steep descent but I hadn't expected it to be nearly overhanging. Tentatively advancing to the edge of the precipice, I began to wish I'd put on proper winter footwear instead of seriously bendy walking boots and old strap-on fully articulated crampons. I teetered down, trying to find a route that felt less than vertical, thinking how ignominious it would be to die here. I looked up and shouted to Valerie "It's at times like this I wish I'd listened to what my father said." "Why" she replied, "What did he say?" "I don't know. I didn't listen." Dodging the snowballs she threw at me I carried on down. It was unnerving, toes at 90 degrees to heels, and I was very glad to get to easy ground, self-esteem not helped by Valerie who was strolling down confidently behind me in plastic boots and modern crampons. "It's really quite alright" I called up, "I was just facing in and going slowly because of the burdens of leadership."

We were now on a narrow col with the ridge ahead rising very steeply. There was great exposure on one side and a worrying amount on the other. Valerie set off first, muttering darkly about trying to get her killed and what made me think I was in her will anyway but it turned out to be much easier than it looked and provided a fine scramble on snow and rock, soon taking us to the North West top of Na Gruagaichean. Looking back to the main summit we could see the other, much younger party reversing their route of ascent. Naturally we didn't feel the slightest pleasure that they had opted not to follow us.

Magic moments on Stob Coire a ' Chairn  © Richard Haszko
Magic moments on Stob Coire a ' Chairn
© Richard Haszko

We didn't linger, moving quickly along the level top and down to the wide col at the head of Coire na Ba. Even though we were now mostly on grass it didn't seem worth the effort of removing crampons only to refit them a little further on but it was definitely time for lunch and obviously not far to the summit of Stob Coire a' Chairn so we parked ourselves and had a bite to eat. There was no-one else in sight. "I bet we meet someone on the summit" Valerie said. "It's uncanny isn't it? You can go all day and not see a soul but as soon as you reach the top you'll meet someone." I had to agree with her, it did seem to happen with extraordinary frequency. "It's a bit like walking along a road. There can be no traffic for hours but as soon as one car comes towards you there will be another coming the opposite way and they will meet exactly where you are so you have to jump out of the way."

Finishing our sandwiches and discussion of the peculiarities of life we set off towards the final slopes of Stob Choire a' Chairn. It was a broad, easy ridge and we were soon cramponning up glorious neve. With the clouds dispersing we reached the summit at a quarter past three. Just at that moment four people hove into sight, coming up the ridge from Am Bodach. "Told you so" Valerie murmured as they joined us. They didn't linger and we soon had it all to ourselves. The sea glinted in the distance. The massive bulk of Ben Nevis glowed gold, clear now in the late afternoon sun. The wind dropped to nothing and our shadows lengthened across the rippled summit snows. A few black-bottomed clouds floated above us. All around were snow-capped mountains rising out of darkening valleys. It was completely silent.

"Richard, it's one of those magic moments isn't it" Valerie whispered. She was right. It was one of those rare instances when a day on the hills becomes something very special. We just looked around, not speaking, feeling very privileged to be in such a place at such a time. It was a feeling of deep happiness, of a kind that is rare in life but all the more precious for that. No photograph can do justice to these moments, they have to be recognised when they happen and locked away in memory to be retrieved and savoured in the bad times. It was with great reluctance that we turned to go down, back to that other world.

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