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Ben Ledi

Prasad Prasad on his way to victory in this year's Conic Hill race Picture: Peter Grassl

It’s May, and the Scottish hill race season is about to hit its stride. The next two Saturdays see two of the key early season races – Stuc a’Chroin tomorrow, Ben Lomond seven days later – with the evening “sprint” of Dumyat sandwiched between.

The Stuc race is something of a monster: 1,500 metres of ascent, 22km of distance and some very rough ground. It doesn’t just take in the popular Munro of the name, but also the Corbett Beinn Each, the knobbly connecting ridge and a non-trivial double crossing of the shoulder between Glen Ample and Strathyre. That the course record – set in 1997 by the accomplished Bingley Harrier Ian Holmes – stands at only seconds under two hours says a lot about the arduous nature of the event.

This year’s race – which starts at 1pm in Strathyre – also sees a curiosity, in that one of the country’s best hill runners will be competing for the first time, despite having lived just along the road for much of his life.

Prasad Prasad is a seriously strong hill athlete – the obvious joke is that he’s so good, they named him twice. Born in Hampstead and brought up in Hertfordshire, he moved to Callander aged 12. “I’d like to do Stuc,” he says, “as it’s local and everyone thinks I’ve won it when I haven’t even entered it yet.”

The reason everyone thinks he’s won it is because his hill racing CV comprises a long string of first places and podium finishes, including a remarkable effort on Ben Lomond in 2010 – the only time he has run that race. Since the path alterations, the all-time Ben Lomond record (62 minutes 16 seconds by John Wild in 1983) hasn’t been threatened, but Prasad’s 65 minutes 51 seconds for the out-and-back from Rowardennan was not just the best by over two minutes on the day but also the fastest time in recent years.

“Ben Lomond was a bit of a surprise,” he says. “I’m very fortunate not to seem to need a lot of training to be pretty fit. I’d been suffering with shin splints and working on my feet all the time means that they take ages to clear up. I’d run only five times in the seven weeks before Ben Lomond, with the shin splints flaring up each time – my feet had even gone back to being soft-skinned and so I got some lovely blisters on the descent which never normally happens. I just went out hard from the start and hoped for the best – and it turned out OK.”

The 36-year-old works in a restaurant in the Trossachs and trains on both Ben A’an and Ben Ledi. Running over the latter en route to work is a world away from the frustrations of the standard morning commute. The guidebook walking time for Ben Ledi by the main path is two hours 20 minutes. Not if you’re a leading hill runner, however. “Ben Ledi is usually about 30 minutes up,” Prasad says, “timed from the wooden barrier at the bottom up to the trig point, although I’ve been just under 28 minutes. Equally it can take 34 minutes on a slow day!

“It’s close to home and good running, so I tend to run up there a lot. That said, no two days are the same up there, so I really don’t mind going up and down the same hill a lot. Also, we do a sport where there’s a lot of travelling for pretty short runs, so to drive a one-hour round trip to run Ben Vorlich in under an hour seems bit of a waste just to train.”

Prasad came to the sport late, initially via cycling. “As a kid I had really bad asthma,” he recalls. “As it got better during high school I liked a bit of hillwalking, but didn’t really think of it as exercise. I started cycling when at university aged about 19 and raced from about 20 – I seemed to be OK at climbing pretty early on but wasn’t a very successful cyclist for about four years – then got steadily stronger and better. I probably realised that I was actually OK at it in 2000.”

For such an accomplished athlete, he doesn’t train much. “I don’t tend to run many miles,” he says, “injury is never far away. I typically run two to four hours a week, although I do more now and then. I still do a bit of hillwalking and I’ve been out on the bike for a few two-hour rides to get a bit more endurance for Stuc, plus a few slightly longer runs at a steady pace. Training is largely dictated by the weather and who wants to come out – generally I’ll run hard on my own and then just run with whoever is about midweek.”

For all that he is unlikely to be far off the pace on Stuc a’Chroin, Prasad doesn’t necessarily see himself as a winner. Modesty plays its part, but the longer distances aren’t his favoured hunting grounds. “I’m better at short races,” he says. “I’m terrible at navigation and I run pretty much flat out in races, so don’t tend to pace longer stuff very well – but I like the feeling of running hard.

“I was a much more dedicated cyclist than runner. I had training plans, a coach, watched my diet and fluid intake, did intervals and all the rest – but tactically I wasn’t that good. I like working hard and suffering, so would work twice as hard as most folk in a bike race while they would sit in the shelter behind and pop out in the last few miles as I was tiring and beat me.

“Luckily running doesn’t work like that. If you’re strongest then at least in a short race you normally win and that definitely suits my racing style. So I’d say I took bike racing a lot more seriously but I have better running results – and I’m glad, as I don’t think I want to go back to 20-hour training weeks.”

As might be expected, Prasad has on occasion combined cycling and running to good effect. “I have done some off-road duathlons,” he says, “especially the Glentress winter ones, and I quite like them. I can run faster than most bikers and bike faster than most runners, so I do OK.” The third prong doesn’t appeal, however: “No triathlons, as my swimming is on par with my navigation skills!”

For footwear, he “gets on well” with the Salomon SpeedCross 2, while in club terms he’s a member of Squadra Porcini, “a Callander-based club originally cycling but now multisport. I used to bike-race for them – a nice friendly lot with no aspirations for anything but enjoying getting out, and a coffee at Dun Whinny’s after!”

Don’t expect to see him on all the high-profile race days. “I’m not bothered about chasing round to do lots of races this year,” he says. “Durisdeer looks like a nice route and as it’s a championships year should be a decent field, so I should give it a bash.” The Dollar hill race at the end of June is one of his favourites (he came second in both 2009 and 2010), while he represented Team GB at the 2010 world mountain running championships in Slovenia – placed 61st out of 149 finishers – and says he “might try for that again”.

He has never been up Ben Nevis, let alone run the race, neither has he run any of the Lakeland classics. “I wouldn’t mind trying Grasmere,” he says, “but it might be worth recceing a bit. Working most weekends, it’s pretty hard to get the time off to go down for the English races – a lot of the time I race and then go in to work after.”

All in all it sounds a well-balanced existence – keen and committed without letting the training become too life-consuming, and performing at a high level while retaining a strong sense that it’s meant to be fun. “No one in my family is particularly sporty and most of them think it unlikely that I am,” Prasad says. “Fortunately I have a sporty wife and so free time is usually a nice walk in the hills or a bike ride – usually to a cafe!”

When winter conditions interrupt the training routines, he simply switches to a different discipline: “I like getting up the hills if it’s snowy and so tend not to run as much when it’s proper winter stuff – running round a forest track seems like a waste. Hills are where I’m happiest.” The shin splints wouldn’t allow much road running anyway – “plus I find it really boring” – but as might be expected he’s no slouch on the roads when he does give it a go. Asked about his victory in last year’s Crieff 10K, Prasad jokes that 10K racing is his speciality: “I’ve done three and am undefeated so far – although that might be due to the fact that no one fast has been at any of those!”

Quite what tomorrow’s race above Strathyre will bring remains to be seen. The Glen Rosa Horseshoe is the longest race Prasad has run thus far – much the same ascent as the Stuc race, and a couple of kilometres shorter. He entered in 2010 and finished third. Tomorrow he is aiming for “somewhere around two hours 15 minutes”, but says he’ll be “happy to finish uninjured, so the time won’t matter”.

As for tactics, it will be like any other race: “I’ll start fast and hope that nobody else gets in front of me before the finishing line”.

● Results from Stuc a’Chroin here. Prasad won in two hours 10 minutes 34 seconds – which was 13 minutes 41 seconds clear of runner-up Craig Mattocks. Remarkable.

Race report from Duncan Ball of Penicuik Harriers.

Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.

Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.

We’ve collected pictures from across Scotland – and even up in space – to show how the big freeze is transforming the country.

Heavy going on Oui Oui

Climbing Oui Oui

David “Heavy” Whalley of Burghead took this picture of Dan Carroll – ex-RAF Kinloss mountain rescue team leader and Everest summiteer – climbing Oui Oui, a frozen waterfall at Creag Dhubh near Newtonmore last Monday. “You have to be aware of a huge chandelier of hanging icicles which could make your day!”, says Whalley. “As it is a waterfall it was fairly wet, but an amazing situation. The views were breathtaking and the sunset was wonderful on the way home.”

All in Vane

Vane Farm snow
Chris Tyler is working at the Vane Farm bird reserve near Kinross and took this picture of just one night’s dump of snow last Tuesday.

Snow on the Voe

Lower Voe
“I took this photo whilst driving through the snow to work on Wednesday morning,” says Peter Peterson, a communications manager with Shetland Council. “Trees are few and far between in Shetland, so this scene with the snow hanging on the branches of the Lower Voe trees was almost too good to miss!”

Arthur’s Seat: The Hard Way

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh
“Not Glen Coe, but Edinburgh,” says Richard Webb, a teacher from Cockenzie. “The summit of Arthur’s Seat is always exciting. On Thursday it was in full winter condition – no different to Highland hillwalking, save for the proximity of the nearest coffee shop.”

Frozen Forth

Ice on the Forth
“Ice was floating in the Forth at Stirling on Friday,” says freelance researcher and lecturer Tessa Carroll, “just as there was at the end of last year.”

Howzat!

Drumpellier cricket ground
Retired mathematics lecturer Ken Stewart photographed a ground mist hanging over the snow-covered Drumpellier cricket ground at Coatbridge on Saturday morning.

Nowhere fast

Edinburgh car
Going nowhere fast: an urban street scene snapped on Saturday by freelance IT consultant Oron Joffe in the Craigmount area of Edinburgh.

Bonnie Corbett

Ben Ledi
The trick on Saturday was to get away to the hills if you could. Your correspondent was on the summit of Ben Ledi at lunchtime…

Monumental journey

Wallace Monument
…but it wouldn’t be so easy to get there now – this was one of the roads out of Stirling as skies started to clear after Monday morning’s heavy snowfall.

White out

Dundee University satellite photo
This satellite image from Dundee University shows the whole of Scotland wrapped in the white stuff.

<em>Picture: North West Air Ambulance</em>

Picture: North West Air Ambulance

The most interesting days are often unplanned, and so it was last Saturday, when a few hours were earmarked for a legstretch on Benvane above Brig o’ Turk. I’d last climbed this in 2002, and had been up neighbouring Ben Ledi 21 times since then, so a slight restoring of balance was in order.

But only a few miles west of Stirling, the messy weather – clumps of cloud and strung-together showers – prompted a rethink. Half an hour later the car was parked at Ledard for the standard southern approach to Ben Venue – almost 100 metres lower than Benvane and with a better chance of staying dry.

What followed was about as close as a hillwalk ever comes to being genuinely action-packed. The glen approach was routine enough, although surprisingly squelchy. Not having been this way in something like two decades (all recent-ish ascents having been made from the Duke’s Pass or the Trossachs Pier side), I’d expected to find the path upgraded in the modern popular-hill style.

There was also the oddity of the crossing of the Ledard Burn, where a single girder gets in the way of the easiest long-stride route across. A few walkers must have fallen in here, having contrived to trip over the “bridge”.

It was in the upper glen, however, that things started to turn unusual. A medium-sized helicopter flew in from the south – heading for one of the fancy hotels, I assumed. So it was a surprise to come round the corner at the top of the glen – where that great initial view of Ben Venue proper suddenly appears – and see the smart yellow chopper parked neatly on a knoll not far below the summit.

Even from a kilometre away it was clearly an NHS air ambulance, and in due course I had a brief chat with the pilot. “They don’t tell me how to do the driving,” he said, when asked what was happening, “and I leave the paramedic stuff to them.”

They – two guys in green paramedic overalls – were further up the slope, attending to a groggy man who, so his five companions later said, had slipped and damaged his collarbone on the final approach to the summit.

Journalistic nosiness doesn’t extend to intruding on rescues, at least not while the medics are busy injecting the casualty with morphine, so I simply said hello and went to the summit for lunch.

Soon there was thrumming in the west and I stuck my head round the cairn to see the arrival of the red-and-grey Royal Navy Sea King. The power of these things at close quarters never fails to impress – I was no more than 100 metres from it, at the same level, and it was kicking out a hefty mixture of noise, fuel smells and rotor-blast.

Even more impressive was the close control of the aircrew: conditions were poor, with cloud all round and a sidewind shoving the big machine toward the outcrops. It held its position beautifully, doing the heavy-duty hummingbird thing as the winchman was lowered and then, a couple of minutes later, retrieved with the casualty on a double hoist.

The door slid shut and the chopper banked into cloud and away towards the Southern General – The Caledonian Mercury wishes the casualty well. His friends hunched behind rocks and took pictures of the action. Sod’s Law dictated that I didn’t have a camera with me.

Half an hour later the NHS helicopter likewise headed off, leaving the walkers to wander down after what must have been a strange and worrying couple of hours. I met them again at the car park – a friendly bunch, doing the very Scottish-male thing of obviously being worried about their friend while also making jokes about driving to Glasgow to take him for a pint.

It would be interesting to know how often this double-chopper technique is employed, given that the ability to get paramedics on site quickly via the air ambulance is now an option. Certainly the skill of the pilots was striking: in rugged country and iffy weather, they both made it look straightforward.

The Trossachs search-and-rescue people were also involved – their little red van headed back to Aberfoyle just as I reached the road – and it’s good to see that they’ve already posted an incident report.

The ease with which accidents can happen was made clear during my own descent. Rather than slither back down the glen, I crossed the corner bumps of Creag a’Bhealaich and Stob an Lochain – the former had some fine shaggy goats while the latter is home to one of the oddest high-level buildings in Scotland, a chalet-like shooting hut, built right beside the 684-metre summit.

From here a track took me along the south-east ridge to Beinn an Fhogharaidh, then I dropped south to reach the main track system leading back to Loch Ard at the old youth hostel.

Less than five minutes from the road, very much enjoying the woodland stroll – some of the easiest ground all day – a foot snagged on something and I toppled forward like a tree. Thankfully the reflexes did their job and my hands went out just in time; had another walker appeared, they would have wondered why someone was performing press-ups on an obscure piece of track.

There has been no lasting damage, just tight calf muscles and a stiff neck; it was more the kind of stumble that leaves you annoyed at your own carelessness. But I could have knocked out a couple of my few remaining teeth, smashed my specs – or jiggered a collarbone. These things are easily done.

Cornice on the Nebit

Cornice on the Nebit

Knowing when to give up and go home is among the most important skills in the outdoor world. It affects all activities – walking, climbing, caving, canoeing – and requires a mix of experience, self-awareness and the ability to convert ambition into humility. Give up too eagerly and you’ll miss some great days. Never give up at all and you might end up dead.

Whenever a big storm sweeps in, on land or at sea, hundreds of do-I-retreat cogitations take place across the country. And this present weekend, with its unusually high risk of avalanche, is another example.

The current situation on many Scottish hills is problematic. The severe winter has produced substantial amounts of excellent, hard snow – last weekend it was a joy to be out – but the past few days have brought masses of fresh stuff. It’s sitting there, shapeless and heavy, on top of the old smooth snowbeds. Just waiting to slide.

There has already been one fatal avalanche this week, and yesterday two skiers survived a massive snow-slope failure over the back of the White Corries ski-centre hills. They escaped through a mixture of skill and luck, riding the avalanche from summit to glen, and were intact enough at the bottom to dig each other out.

There are likely to be other incidents over the coming days, and not all will end so happily. And so, more than at most times, thought should be given just now to retreat, to openmindedness, to the modification of plans.

My own small version of this came yesterday morning. I fancied getting out for a few hours but had no intention of going near any of those big, bulky Munro things. Plan A had been Ben Ledi, but on seeing how snow-bloated the hills looked from Stirling when skies began to brighten, I didn’t fancy that, either. Not for the first time, I defaulted to the Ochils: nearby and not too high.

I opted to get at the highest Ochil, Ben Cleuch, via a mid-height bump called the Nebit: a mix of knee-deep soft snow, crunchy patches and an ankle-deep layer of skidpan stuff that wasn’t attached to the hillside by much. I was wearing Walshes – studded fellrunning shoes – and carrying an ice axe, but still didn’t like it. The western slope was corniced and there was a dribble of avalanche debris. This was at just 350 metres.

There was no great peril in getting up the Nebit, even if at one particularly skiddy spot I whacked the axe into the grass and was glad of it. But the angle soon eased and the summit came.

Now, what to do? Skies were clear but conditions felt bleak in a bitter easterly. Even at this level I was wearing everything (including three hats – don’t laugh), and 300 metres higher would not be fun. I was game for that, however, just as I was game for a dose of trailblazing: the only path up the next hillside was a cul-de-sac made by a huddle of lee-seeking ewes.

It was the stability that worried me. I’ve rarely seen such creamy, menacing-looking snow, and to reach Ben Cleuch would require tackling – or tortuously outflanking – a slope that has carried a band of hard snow since late December. Yesterday, with several large shedloads of unstable snow poised on that firm base, it was asking for trouble to go there.

So the decision was easy: I had summited an (admittedly small) hill, and that would do nicely. The hill would be there another day, and all those other commonsense clichés that get trotted out in such circumstances.

Except, slithering down the north side of the Nebit, to a track that would take me home, I was tempted. More than once I stopped and looked across to where the creamy menace was bulging. This wasn’t just silly, it was downright stupid. It wasn’t like I needed to go up Ben Cleuch for the umpteenth time. And I quite fancied getting home for cheese on toast. But the temptation was there. It would just be a slog, none of the slopes would give way, it would be great up top…

It was as if something was luring me, coaxing me to give the slopes a go. Everything looked lovely, after all, and I had to really force myself not to do it, to drag myself away and head downhill.

Another five minutes, with a chunk of height lost and some distance between me and temptation, and I was happy again. But gee whizz, it was a strange and strong feeling while it lasted.

It goes to show that backing off, even when you know it makes complete sense, even when you think you’re experienced and sensible and have grown out of such things, is one of the hardest things to do.

Ben Lomond

Ben Lomond

For many hillgoers, February is one of the best months of the year. The daylight is starting to stretch, the snow is – or at least should be – firming up nicely, and the roads aren’t – or at least shouldn’t be – quite as dodgy as they were during the dark days of December and January.

The snow has certainly improved in quality, apart from in the north-east where they still seem be getting industrial-scale skiploads of fresh stuff day and night. In the western and central Highlands, the wind has been blowing and the freeze-thaw cycle has been doing its work after that weird festive-season spell when heaps of snow fell and temperatures were Baltic but there was barely a zephyr to nudge it into shape.

It’s a couple of weeks since I’ve been able to get up a sizeable hill, so I’m lacking recent first-hand evidence. But even on my local-Ochil option of Ben Cleuch on Monday, what streaky snow there was had very little give in it. I was wearing Walshes – studded fellrunning shoes that are surprisingly good in skiddy conditions – and these were fine on a 700-metre hill with no more than 30 per cent snow cover.

Had I been on anything higher, however – even a straightforward plod such as Ben Ledi – I would have taken the big boots, the axe and the crampons.

It’s with this in mind that I find myself remounting an old hobbyhorse, to ask – no, to plead – that mainly-summer walkers don’t try to sneak up “proper winter” hills armed with just a pair of trekking poles.

This has become a modern trend, and it would be interesting to hear the reasoning from someone who does it on a regular basis. My own theory is that such people regard poles as “gear” – safety devices, in other words – but in a halfway-house kind of way. Better than taking nothing, but not as committing as the axe-plus-crampons combo.

I don’t dispute that poles have their place on the Scottish hills. They provide weight-bearing support for walkers with dodgy knees or hips, serve as aid when balancing across burns, and are of use when yomping across undulating snowfields. Where poles are neither use nor ornament is on steep icy ground when good grip is essential. Here they risk luring the walker beyond the point where they would have retreated had they been carrying nothing.

It’s with this in mind that I would ask you to study the photograph above. It was taken on the last day of January by an experienced winter walker, Jim C, who was tempted out by a good weather forecast “when others stayed home to watch Murray get trounced at the tennis”.

Jim went to Rowardennan and did the standard clockwise circuit: over Ptarmigan and up Ben Lomond by the north-west ridge. The last bit is quite steep and quite narrow, and needs care in winter. It’s pretty straightforward, pleasant even, in crampons, but can be a nightmare without them – and Jim’s photograph shows two men struggling to reach the summit. They had no ironmongery, just a pair of poles each, and were on all-fours at times.

On all fours on Ben LomondThe picture is – to my eyes – alarming. A slip here is going to mean work for the rescue team, and maybe also for the coroner. Thankfully the two men got to the top OK (I hesitate to say that they got up safely), and went down by the easier south ridge.

Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t wish to deny them their day’s adventure, and I’m not wanting to control hillgoing competence by any kind of legislation (and neither is Jim C). We all learn by our mistakes – I’ve made plenty – so long as we survive them relatively unscathed. That’s the best way to learn. But there must be easier, safer, less mind-shreddingly scary ways than this to learn about appropriate equipment and technique.

It’s impossible to truly tell someone’s mood from a rear-view photograph taken at distance, but neither of these men look happy to me – and, what’s really worrying, this kind of thing is becoming commonplace.

I’ve seen a poles-person picking their way downhill, cramponless, on ice on this exact same ridge, and another prime location is the “tourist route” up Ben Vorlich near Lochearnhead. In winter this is mostly a plod-cum-slog, but it steepens in its final 100 metres, crossing thin shaley ground that readily ices up. It also has a bad fall-line, off to the side rather than back down the ridge. Go here in winter and you will likely see pole-wielding walkers looking decidedly worried as they tiptoe up and (even more scarily) down the ridge.

One thing that is happening in both these places is that mainly-summer walkers are giving little or no thought to “aspect”, to which way the hillside faces. In July this scarcely matters, apart from trying to keep out of the worst of any wind. But aspect is central to planning from November to March, as north-facing slopes are always likely to be icier than south-facing ones.

Perceived expense seems to be a factor in some people not carrying crampons, even though a pair costs only as much as two or three tanks of fuel, and considerably less than many cagoules.

The whole issue – like the Scottish upland weather – can be very non-straightforward and subjective. In the past, I’ve found myself making almost the flipside of this argument, puzzled by people wearing crampons in places where the snow is too soft to merit them.

Generally, though, the point is that any decision to wear or not to wear them is redundant at 900 metres on a windy, icy, alarmingly exposed ridge if one doesn’t have a pair about one’s person. Better, surely, to spend a bit of money, learn a bit of technique (it’s fairly basic: tread carefully and don’t trip up), whereupon a whole world of sensible choices and safe progress will open out in front of you.