There 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.