Sunday 3 December 2017

Sometimes even an easy hill can be a challenge.

Ryvoan Pass from the ascent of Meall a'Bhuachaille

The first day of December turned out to be the last day of the recent cold spell. By the end of the day a big thaw was underway. Before this warmer weather arrived I thought I’d savour the last of the snow and the cold with a gentle walk over Meall a’Bhuachaille. With the thought of deep snow high up I took snowshoes and in case of icy patches or hard snow ice axe and crampons. Probably overkill but better to have gear I didn’t use than need it and not have it.

In the snow forest
In the forest the trees were heavy with snow. On the slopes above they faded into mist, as if they were dissolving into the sky. An Lochan Uaine was a black pool edged with white. Down here there was no wind and I was warm without gloves or hat and with jacket undone. 

The forested lower slopes of Meall a'Bhuachaille

As I left the trees a cool breeze picked up. Time to zip up and don thin gloves and woolly hat. The snow on the path up Meall a’Bhuachaille was thin at first, trampled by boots. As I left the last little trees behind the snow began to deepen. A couple came down, the only people I saw on the hill. “It’s deep up there”. “Good. I can use my snowshoes”. My trekking poles were already in use, helping with balance on the slippery path.

Ryvoan Pass
Soon the air was thickening and swirling, views becoming hazy and ethereal. With the mist came icy rain and sleet. Up went my jacket hood. The snow was deep enough now for snowshoes. It was a relief to get the weight of them off my back and onto my feet. By the time the snowshoes were on my gloves were soaked and my hands chilly. I shoved the gloves in a pocket and pulled on the next pair up in warmth and thickness. These were windproof too. These typical Scottish winter conditions - wet, cold, windy, temperature hovering around zero - are some of the hardest for staying warm and dry. Colder weather is actually easier to deal with as it isn't damp.

On the edge of the mist, sleet falling
Even with the snowshoes on climbing became quite difficult in places and progress slowed. The path vanished, leaving just a line of deep holes where people had walked. The heather here was covered by snow but the latter had no solidity and I kept breaking through, sometimes knee-deep. I quickly learnt to avoid any vegetation poking through the snow and weave a way up on the large areas of unbroken snow where I could more often stay on the surface. 

My hard-working snowshoes having a rest on the summit
Nearer the summit the snow became thinner again and there were more rocks and less vegetation. The sleet was colder now, the wind stronger. The effort of climbing through the snow meant I was sweating and my inner layers were getting damp. I couldn’t remove any layers though. My windproof trousers were wet and my legs chilly. 

On the summit

The big summit cairn came into view. I’d already decided I would stop and rest and have a snack and a hot drink. Knowing I would cool down quickly once I stopped I pulled a thick down jacket from my pack and put it on. Instant warmth! Up here the temperature was below freezing and the moisture on my clothes was turning to ice. I was glad the jacket was filled with water-resistant down though as it had to cope with being donned over damp clothes. Sitting on my pack I stretched out my legs. I didn’t remove the snowshoes as I didn’t want the inevitable cold fingers from unfastening and fastening the bindings. Ice was slowly forming on my damp trousers but the down jacket was so warm my legs no longer felt cold.

View down to Loch Morlich on the descent

My second pair of gloves were now wet so when I set off I donned a third even thicker and waterproof pair. As soon as I stood up in the wind I knew I’d keep the down jacket on until I was lower down and feeling very warm. The snow was much the same on the descent and although faster than the ascent it was still slow as I kept plunging deep into it. The path was again buried. Only when I reached the first trees did I remove the down jacket. Soon afterwards the snow thinned and the snowshoes came off too. Then deep in the trees and out of the wind I didn’t need the gloves or hood. I even unzipped the top of my jacket and let some hot air escape. It was hard to believe how savage the weather had been not far above.

On reaching my car I checked my watch. The walk had taken four and three-quarter hours. I was surprised. Normally it takes two and a half hours. I had been reminded just what a difference winter conditions can make and how a usually easy walk can become a serious outing.


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  2. Hi Chris,
    Recently I've been unable to see the photos on your blog posts, just the text between them. It may be an issue with my ISP but I just wondered if anyone else is having the same problem.
    Kind regards,
    PS. This is one of my favourite walks and usually involves a hot chocolate at the Pine Marten café!

    1. Sorry to hear that. I haven't heard of it as an issue with anyone else. I've checked the site on three browsers on a PC and a smartphone and the photos appear each time.

      Hot chocolate at the Pine Marten cafe is a favourite!

    2. Hi Chris,
      It's definitely a problem with my IPS at home. Now in the Dolomites and everything is coming through on the server here so I'm enjoying catching up on your posts while the snow is falling here. Out on the snowshoes later :)

  3. Enjoyed the description of the outfit changes, its a mundane thing but rings so true with winter weather & varied terrain! Went for a walk up Beinn Vuirich last weekend and my hat and gloves were on and off like a strobe light at a disco.