Walking in the Air

The Cairngorms – soon to be wrapped in winter snow
Pictures: Penny Haywood Calder

Arctic wind rasps my face. It’s November. I smile and think, somewhat guiltily, that nobody in Scotland should celebrate weather that dumps leaves on the line for commuters, smears ice across the path of the shop-bound elderly and chills the homes of those who can’t afford to heat them, especially in today’s harsh times. However, my heart, like those of tens of thousands of skiers, walkers and climbers, hums with delight as the promise of winter sport gets closer.

There's already a chill in the air on the higher ground
There’s already a chill in the air on the higher ground
The eye-stropping wind has shuddered through glens and over tops, pursued by anvil-black thunderclouds. Whenever I’m up here, listening to the grinding of ice axes on rock or how the mulch reeks in thawing cracks, there’s a sixth sense at work. Each decision I make, either edging me further into my personal unknown or back to civilisation, is tempered by an argument that I cannot see or hear. But it’s one I always heed.

Although I describe myself as a climber, I’ve done lots of walking in the Highlands, particularly to write the Pocket Mountains series. For my Cairngorms title, I did most of the research over the winter of 2002-03. The intention had never been to make life so hard, but the publisher’s deadline held me to account. At first the weather seemed constant only in its determination to drive me out. One day, I began a long circuit in horizontal rain and gales to Loch A’an via Beinn Mheadhoin, its summit tors stripped by warm westerlies. The burns were near impassable. The next week I visited Bynack More in waist-deep snowdrifts and a whiteout where the only thing visible was myself. Finally, many similarly unphotogenic adventures later, my luck changed.

Heading up above the snow line
Heading up above the snow line
One plan involved cycling from Inverey (Braemar) to walk the peaks beyond Glen Ey. The start was auspicious at minus ten before dawn. As I pedalled upwards, southwards, the sky shifted through shades of scarlet. I left my bike behind a dry-stone wall at the snowline and continued on foot. Not a cloud shadowed the land, the air was still and ice crystals glistened. I could see every peak for miles around. Sweeping hills led to high plateaux. I walked slowly, off path, noticing how the insulated heather catapulted me forward and the silence gave flight to my worries. Every scene was worth a picture, or at least one in the mind.

I rarely saw another soul on my travels in the hills that winter. On Saturdays and Sundays, there might be parties on Cairn Gorm or Lochnagar, but I mostly went mid-week or chose less-frequented places. The solitude was one of the appeals; I could laugh or cry and nobody would think I was crazy. At other times, I might bring along a friend. Together, we’d enjoy the quiet and mark a meandering trail that would be gone in the next thaw.

The harshness of the mountains is exaggerated in winter. Daylight hours are short. The ground can be sodden or snowbound. Navigation is trickier with numb fingers. It’s a challenge to be able to walk and climb through this terrain, especially to move fast and safely when necessary. But it’s an absolute pleasure when you get it right, like Walking in the Air.

How to enjoy the mountains in winter

An axe and crampons and the knowledge of how to use them are necessary in winter conditions. Always take waterproof and windproof kit, no matter how good the skies at the time of starting out. If you want to feel strong all day, it’s best to eat high quality food little and often, and carry extra in your bag for an emergency as well. In the Cairngorms, much of the ground seems quite benign, but steep corries hide cliffs where climbers play and the unwary have accidents. Skills with a map and compass are therefore essential. Finally, check the weather forecast and the avalanche predictions before you set out: all this can be found online.

Good mountain sense is a pre-cursor to success and enjoyment, but this can only be won by going out in the hills over a period of time, in a range of conditions and with experienced people. The Mountaineering Club of Scotland runs winter training courses. In addition, freelance guides also operate across the Highlands and there are plenty of clubs where you can meet like-minded individuals to appreciate the mountains as well as learn the skills they demand. It’s up to you to be as fit as you can and to take responsibility for your actions: when you do, that’s when you can really taste the freedom of the hills.

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Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. In his professional life, Nick works in corporate communications and information strategy. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline