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Cul Mor & Snowshoes

Cul Mor & Snowshoes – a walk in Coigach, February 2019

by Hazel Stachan

The conditions on the drive up to Ullapool on the Friday evening. giving me cause to rethink my hill plans. Fresh snow had fallen with a good depth of snow at the side of the road. The snow at such a low level in the glens, after that walking onhigher ground would be torturous with bigger volumes of snow. The summit of Seana Bhraigh might be a snowdrift too deep and too far for me to reach. I played with the soft white foam from the top of my latte as I looked at the Loch Assynt map: thinking time this morning. Finding a hill with a big open back or ridge where the contour lines, were not too closely spaced together to walk with my snow shoes. Traverses across steep ground were an option but one I didn’t relish undertaking as it could prove to be time consuming.

The conditions on the drive up to Ullapool on the Friday evening. giving me cause to rethink my hill plans. Fresh snow had fallen with a good depth of snow at the side of the road. The snow at such a low level in the glens, after that walking onhigher ground would be torturous with bigger volumes of snow. The summit of Seana Bhraigh might be a snowdrift too deep and too far for me to reach. I played with the soft white foam from the top of my latte as I looked at the Loch Assynt map: thinking time this morning. Finding a hill with a big open back or ridge where the contour lines, were not too closely spaced together to walk with my snow shoes. Traverses across steep ground were an option but one I didn’t relish undertaking as it could prove to be time consuming.

North of Ullapool are the haunting mountains. (Coigach and Assynt – Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Mor, Cul Beag, Suilven and Canisp). The remains of the process of glaciation from a far distant time. Their summits barely touched 840m in height. My eye was drawn to the contour lines which described the gnarly form of Cul Mor. This scenario was perfect – a moderate incline would take me up to Meallan Diomhain at 600m and onto a ridge. I would take my crampons with me as well; the ridge from 700m up to the summit was very steep. Besides I didn’t know if it was going to be a heavily boulder strewn ridge, unsuitable for wearing snowshoes or a smooth grassy ridge. The forecast was good. Any snow showers would dissipate by lunch time and there would be phenomenal views over to Suilven.

Looking over to Ben More Coigach and Sgurr an Fhidhleir.

“You don’t see many walkers using snowshoes in the Scottish hills.”

I’m in a minority. You don’t see many walkers using snowshoes in the Scottish hills. I’ve been using snowshoes for seven winters now and I would never go back to the arduous and often brutal game of ‘post holeing’. Which we seem to embrace so readily as an outdoor activity in Scotland. Most of my snowshoeing trips are undertaken in the early winter in areas such as the Cairngorms. (Drumochter, Corrour, Creag Meagaidh and the Monaliaths). When snow becomes consolidated and easier to walk on from late February I start exploring narrow ridges wearing crampons.

I first read about snowshoes being used on the Cairngorm Plateau in the snowy winter of 2010/11. Spending that winter as an armchair mountaineer as my physio started a big job on me. I was happy to be watching the hills. From afar reading blogs and reports on how walkers and climbers were coping with travelling in the deep snow. There had to be a better way to travel on snow than ‘post holeing’ a way to a summit. Snowshoes could be the possible solution: I can’t, and have no inclination to ski.

Modern Snow Shoes

Modern snowshoes have evolved in design over the years; being miles away of the simple tennis rackets that we think of as snow shoes. Steel frames produce a more durable frame and crampon than aluminum designs. Nylon plastic is used to make the platform. I use a pair of Women’s MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes. A very durable mountaineering snowshoe with excellent traction in all snow conditions.

I notice the 4lbs of weight (per pair) is on my back. Strapped to the rucksack and not on my feet. A small price to pay for the dividends they offer once I’m using them on snow. Two sizes of snowshoes are generally available. 80 kg of Combined weight of a person and gear, therefore 22″ would be recomended. Use 25’’ snowshoes are for heavier weights. The underside edges of the snowshoes are serrated to give additional grip while there is a large steel crampon positioned under the ball of each foot.

The snowshoe hinges. This allows the crampon to be kicked aggressively if required into hard snow on steep ground. Many models also have a heel bar. This can be locked at your heel to keep the foot horizontal. It is worth buying a pair of snowshoes that can be adjusted so that each footprint is parallel to the other if you walk with a pigeon footed gait. Otherwise you will trip up on your snowshoes and plant your face in the snow.

I walked through the gate below Knockan Crag opposite Cul Mor. The snow was almost knee deep. Taking my rucksack off, released the straps which were holding my snowshoes onto my rucksack and strapped my snowshoes onto my feet, pulling the straps round the back of my heels tight. I was still wearing my gloves as there was a sharpness to the cold morning. I wished I had replaced my summer stoppers on the ends of my walking poles for snow daisies; if I pressed hard on my walking poles I was going to find out how deep the snow was at a given point. I followed the deep footprints which someone had created with such a huge amount of effort. They had followed a route which is a good foot path when uncover by snow.

Looking up at Cul Mor. I was following footprints

Only once or twice the domed tops of tussocks indicated the edge of the path in an otherwise smooth white landscape. I flattened down the top of the prints with my large footprints. The snow was soft and light and very easy to walk on today. At times I walked beside the deep footprints, my prints only sinking down a couple of inches. It’s not always this easy though; at worst traversing thawing snowpack I can sink down to almost my knees but that is still better to sink this far rather than sinking down to my thighs in the same snow. The same goes for breaking through a frosty top crust into soft snow.

Showers coming into Suilven.

Ridges receded into the distance to the north east were the bulk of Braebag, Conival and Ben Mor Assynt blocked the views further across the wild country. Cloud was gathering on the summits, above me, the blueness of the morning sky had been replaced by the grey clouds of the snow showers which were driving in off the Atlantic. The feeling that the summit of Cul Mor would be enveloped in cloud.
Gaining a wide ridge below Meallan Diomhain, most of the snow had been blown from the ridge to reveal ice, last week’s snow before a brief thaw. I would be back walking on a good depth of wind deposited snow to the north of this tiny summit in a sheltered Corrie.  The stones on the ridge I had to weave through, sometimes following long runnels of snow which had been deposited in the sheltered areas.

All of a sudden Suilven came into view.

Firstly, There is no hill in Scotland like Suilven. Fore that matter, nor either in the rest of the world. Nothing! Suilven’s summit cap can be viewed from Lochinver to the northwest of Cul Mor, rounded, its rocky sides plunging more than 600m (2000ft) to the lochans which pepper the bog lands below. The hill’s unusual shape is a result of glaciation. In fact the Norse origin of Suilven translates as Pillar Mountain such an appropriate description for this mountain.

Looking over towards Suilven

I wonder how the Norse regarded the mountain – evil because it looked like a place where demon gods lived or simply a place of awe because of its unusual formation. From where I stood on Cul Mor, Suilven was almost 3km long seemingly unclimbable wall topped by a ragged edge of summits. I stood mesmerized watching the clouds empty their wintery contents at the western end of the pillar; Suilven was an obstacle stopping any clouds from moving across to the higher ground on Braebag, nine miles away to the east.

The wind had picked up for the first time in the day and I became cold – time to move on. After Meallan Diomhain, I was back to snowshoeing on a good covering of snow, which I was expecting, but I barely made a mark on the hard surface of the snow. The ridge would take a semicircular curve up onto the summit but increase dramatically in its steepness for the last 200m in height. I carried on snowshoeing until the steepness made me asses my situation.

Looking up at the steepening ridge: There did not seem enough room to maneuver the length of my snowshoes amongst the boulders. I kicked myself a platform in the snow and removed my snowshoes. The rest of the ridge looked like it would be best tackled by kicking the edges of boots into the icy snow, if needed, steps could be cut into the hard surface with my ice axe.

“out of the bouldery terrain”

I was out of the bouldery terrain. Now plunging my feet deep into the soft wind slab, a snowball’s through from the summit. The views opened out to the Coigach hills. (Cul Beag, Ben More Coigach and Sgurr an Fhidhleir) A truly spectacular collection of hills flanked by huge black cliffs, their feet submerged in deep lochs. Snow showers enveloped this area; no world existed beyond the soft horizon.

Looking over to Conival and Ben More Assynt.

I retraced my steps back to the snowy platform I had made earlier and then put my snowshoes back on. I walked back down Cul Mor with ease and at a fast pace, happily kicking up a plume of snow behind me. Perhaps this is the nearest feeling of absolute freedom a mountain hare feels as it bounds across a winter hillside. Give me a snowy hillside and a pair of snowshoes any day. This had been a wonderful day!

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The last ten Munros

Diary extracts from closing a tenth round of Munros, September to November 2018

photo by Craig Allardyce
photo by Craig Allardyce

Written by Hazel Strachan.

Photos by Hazel Strachan, Tim Hall and Craig Allardyce

Beinn Bhuidhe, Beinn Ime, Ben Narnain, Ben Vane, Ladhar Bheinn, Luinne Bheinn, Meall Buidhe, Ben Cruachan, Stob Diamh and Carn an Tuirc

‘Only ten Munros… Just ten Munros. That is all.’, I wrote in my diary in the middle of September 2018. I was on the verge of fulfilling an ambition to climb, to ‘complete’, all of Scotland’s 282 mountains over a heightof 3,000 ft for a tenth time. One ‘round’ of climbing all 282 mountains was never going to be enough for me. I was poised to become the fifth person,(first woman) to do this.

 It’s customary to throw a party or at least open a bottle of Champagne at the summit to celebrate the end of a journey climbing the Munros.

 How easily was Igoing to find it to climb these last hills? Was the weather going to take me bysurprise and prove to be the biggest challenge to planning abilities? It was early autumn, a season which can be counted on to providing some beautifulstill days in amongst incoming wet weather from the Atlantic.

Thursday 27thSeptember 2018.

Diaries out tonight. I’m a bit worried in case work spills over into the weekends because the weather has been abysmal this September to make any headway with outdoor work. I’ve set my ‘compleation’ party date for the 3rd November. The date feels far away just now but I may just need all the available time. I need three days to get into Knoydart to climb Ladhar Bheinn, Luinne bheinn and Meall Buidhe – the crux of the ten mountains. Their remote location and westerly situation could prove to be a problem If the weather isn’t reasonable. It’s agamble which goes with having to climb specific mountains within a time scale. Raincould shroud the far west from Mallaig up to Skye for days. Carn an Tuirc in Glenshee will be my last Munro – an easy short ascent with ample parking so my non-hillwalking friends can come along. It’s a central location to travel to from anywhere in the country, and being easterly there is a better chance of adry day.

Saturday 29th September. Climb Beinn Bhuidhe. 

I changed over the plans for each of the days of the weekend; poorer weather of low mist then rain for Saturday, brighter but gusty for Sunday. I’ll leave the better day to Climb Beinn Narnain, Ben Ime and Ben Ime as it is a longer day out. The views down Loch Lomond and Loch Long aretremendous, a vista worth saving for a good day.

I didn’t expect the mist to swath the hills almost down to the bottom of the glen. Once I left the track at Inverchorachan  I followed the small path up the side of the burn right up onto the face of the mountain. I relaxed and enjoyed the autumnal colours in the small world around me.Conditions were windless. I loved feeling the awareness of my body moving over the rough path. I ascended 3,000ft with ease.  

There was strong wind on the summit so I didn’t linger. Still no rain but the mist was damp.  I moved quickly down into the windless vacuum of the side of the mountain.

Sunday 30th September. Climb Beinn Narnain, Beinn Ime and Ben Vane

The best place to be at moment was lying face down on the steep ground. I hadn’t expected the strong gusts blowing between BeinnChorranach and Ben Vane. Showers blasted in with the wind and stung my eyes. Justas quickly as the wind came it disappeared. I had started walking fromInveruglass in the half light of dawn. The cold wind had been increasing as I had ascended Beinn Narnain. Cloud held off the summit until the last 200ft of Beinn Ime. A quick calculation of a compass bearing and it wasn’t long till I was back out of the greyness of the mist into the dull autumn colours. I had to adjust my hat and hood as the wind was blowing straight into my face. The Tyndrum Hills were shrouded in cloud. I was glad to be on hills so far to the south which, by their nature and location, didn’t hold as much cloud.

I picked myself up only to be knocked back onto to the ground.  I would be back on the ground orelse bracing myself against the wind a couple more times on the gnarly back off Ben Vane. The summit came quickly. Climbing into a notch between two rocks Iwas finally out of the grasp of the cold wind and I have a late lunch. To my amazement, as I descended down the gnarly twisting path, there was very little wind on this side of the mountain.

Saturday 22nd September. Climb Ben Cruachan and Stob Diamh.

I’ve not often traversed Ben Cruachan and Stob Diamh in the summer as I love saving it for a winter traverse. I walked out from a sea of cloud along the top of Cruachan dam. The summits rose up into the blueness of the noon sky. I hadn’t started to walk until mid – morning as the forecast waspoor. Unfortunately I was to summit Cruachan in thick mist; a band of cloud hadswallowed up the ridge. I climbed down the narrow chimney down onto the path,the usual route in winter as the south face is banked up with snow I followed the distinct path for the rest of my time on the ridge.

looking back to Ben Cruachan – 23rd September 2018
looking back to Ben Cruachan – 23rd September 2018

Not long afterwards the cloud cleared away to above the summits. It is only when  I was starting to descend from Stob Diamh that the summits became shrouded in cloud once again.I’ve been so lucky today, the wind speed is low, the views beautiful all around. It’s not easy fitting such a high west coast peak into a short timescale and getting good weather. I hadn’t been expecting to have left So Many West Coast Mountains until the end of the round but that is how it’s turned out. Today I’m lucky, very lucky.

Wednesday 3rd October.

The weather forecast is looking good; in fact it’s simply fantastic- a weather window sandwiched between days of endless rain and strongwinds.  A consistent line of ‘E’ forexcellent visibility in the weather forecast; wind speeds are dropping throughout Friday into Saturday. A summit bivvy is a distinct possibility; I feel excited at the possibility. Temps will be freezing and below, wind chilldown to -5C on the summits. By 8 pm I’m packed. I’ve remembered my down booties for additional comfort for the two nights I’ll be out. I’ve been through my check list in my head to make sure all is packed; route plans have been discussed with Ian, my husband, and he has a paper copy of my route.

Thursday 4th October.

I can’t remember the last time I was THIS tired after  a short week at work. I need a good sleep tonight. The next two days are going to be a lot of climbing and the last thing I want to be is tired before I’ve set off. I’m parked up at Kinloch Hourn, currently sitting in the boot of the car wrapped in my sleeping bag. It’s raining.

Friday 5th October. Climb Luinne Bheinn and Meall Buidhe.

I walked into Barrisdale Bay in sunshine. This must be one of the most beautiful bays in Scotland. Ladhar Bheinn was reflected in pools of water on the beach which had been left by the receding tide. Nobody around. I felt nervous – not because of the remoteness of this place but because of what walking over these three Munros meant to me. I’m never this nervous in the hills. I need to summit all three Munros or it might be hard finding the timeto get back here.

looking towards Ben Lomond from Ben Vane, 30th September

The first of the big hail showers hit as I was near the summit Luinne Bheinn: a huge dark grey curtain filled the glen. I turned to face theslope so the hail wouldn’t sting my eyes. There were to be numerous showers driving through for the rest of the day; double rainbows would fill the glensby nightfall.

Thin mist was tickling the summit of Meall Bhuidhe as I reached the summit of Luinne Bheinn. I was feeling happy and strong; the views were uplifting, simply stunning.  Another hour and the mist would have dissipated from the summit. I headed down into a wet bealach before weaving my way around bands of rock onto the connecting ridge.

Loitering is the best word to describe my half hour I spent on the summit. A view to Ladhar Bheinn finally opened up. It was beautiful – a huge mountain, ragged ground formed its ridges; beyond the high ground of Kintail formed the distant horizon. More sleet drove in on bands of showers.There was not enough shelter on the summit slope for an evening bivvy so I decided to head back down the ridge as I had spotted a couple of potential places to spend the night if the summit was going to be unsuitable.

lookingto Ladhar Bheinn on 5th October.

Saturday 6th October. Climb Ladhar Bheinn.

There was a light dusting of snow on the summit of MeallBuidhe. I slept right through last night’s weather. Cool morning but I was warm as I packed away my bivvy. Mirrored surfaces to the lochans, cloud starting to tease the surrounding summits as I headed for Mam Barrisdale. By lunchtime I was ascending up onto Stob a’ Chearchaill and cloud was swirling round about me. At times it lifted high above me, only to descend and obliterate the mountains around me. I would have loved to have reached the summit, like somany other times, with a view of the jagged horizons of mountains around me.

Hands on rocks, a couple of long reaches, a step and I was up on the summit ridge.

Sunday 7th October.

The first rain drops on my bivvy bag woke me up. Not even the noise of the tide could stir me from my deep sleep during the night. I wriggled out from my bivvy bag to be greeted by low cloud blanketing the mountains. By the time I had quickly packed up the air was heavy with fine drizzle. Only a two hour walk back to the car. I was changing my footwear at the car when a dog walker greeted me with ‘driving a car is the best place to be today’. It sure was, as I drove home in heavy rain. I feel calmness, a relief at being in a good place with how the month is progressing. What can possibly go wrong now?

bivvy site by Loch Hourn

Friday 12th October.

Storm Callum blew through today, the culmination to a week of incessant rain which was broken by an unexpected beautiful sunny day. An amber, be prepared for flooding warning was in force for wales and plenty of rain forthe rest of the UK.  If I hadn’t managed to get leave on Friday 3rd October I’ve have been toiling to squeeze Knoydart into a period of reasonable weather this month. Tomorrow I’m litterpicking on Ben Nevis on the Real 3 Peaks Challenge.

Real 3 Peaks Challenge 

Saturday 27th October.

A band of snow now swathes the mountains from Lochaber to the Cairngorms in the east. The Glenshee road was closed due to overnight snow.It’s October and this never happens in October! If I had scheduled to‘compleate’ today nobody would have been able to get to the bottom of Carn anTuirc let alone climb it. A lot of weather can push through in a week.

 Ladhar Bheinn

I bailed out of my plans for a bivvy up on Buachaille Etive Beag last night and stayed at home because the forecasted snow would extend through most of the evening. However the weather is stunning for today so head to Glencoe. I have a photo shoot with Andy Coxley from The Sunday Post in front of Buachaille Etive Mor. I never thought that I would be posing under the mountain which I completed on for a first Munro round thirteen years ago.

Monday 29th October.

There is a hint of bad weather for the weekend, the end of Hurricane Oscar is still lingering out in the Atlantic and there is uncertainty how much it will affect the UK.

Wednesday 31st October.

 I think I must have accessed every UK mountain weather forecast several times throughout the day for updates for the weather on Saturday. I’ve seen confirmation that there is a storm coming in on Friday night which would continue through out Saturday. Constant rain with wind gusts up to 60 mph are not conditions to be climbing mountains. By 6pm I had made up my mind to move the ascent of Carn an Tuirc to Sunday 4th November, the following day. It felt the right and obvious decision to make, a relief to take control of a disappointing situation. There can’t have been many Munro parties rescheduled over the years. Friends are travelling from all over. I was nervous messaging everybody about the change. I shouldn’t have worried. The feedback was extremely positive and many people hoping I would change the party day to the Sunday. I finally read the updated MWIS forecast – ‘winds 50-70, gusts 80 mph’ for Saturday – the best confirmation to move the day.

Saturday 3rd November.

A cake and coffee day in Ballater. Rain held off through theday. Wind increased just before bedtime and continued throughout the night. I woke up several times wishing the wind would drop.

Sunday 4th November. Climb Carn an Tuirc – final Munro

I pushed the car door against the wind to open it. The wind is strong but not as strong as what I was expecting. I had been worried aboutthe forecast – no rain now but winds 45 mph, gusts 55mph – still strong; walking still possible although likely to be arduous. Only when I started walking I was able to relax and realise that the day was manageable. I was more worried what the others would think and be able to deal with the conditions.

There were 20 friends with me. Once we had been walking foran hour there was a line of bodies were strewn out across the hillside. As Ilooked to the silhouette of the stony slope I knew just how little of the hill there was left to ascend. Thoughts about the strength of the wind disappeared; I was filled with a sense of happiness and peace.

I dropped my rucksack on to the ground. Not far now – 30 steps. There was the summit cairn before me. People moved and formed an arch from walking poles and then the cheering started.  I walked, focused on the pile of stones ahead. A big smile and a complete feeling of Joy. I touched the top of the pile of stones. All finished, all ‘completed’. A sense of relief that all had gone well today and on all the other days which I had been on the hills. What a marvellous journey I’ve had.

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First Snow 2017 in NW Scotland

Dannah introduces Hazel Strachan, Who has so far done the Munro’s 9 times.

A walk from Seana Bhraigh to Beinn Dearg in NW Scotland

It’s just before sunrise. The forecasted winds should be gusting 40 mph just now but the landscape is strangely quiet I know it’s been snowing. The distinct sound of heavy snow showers and strong winds which surrounded the small world of my tent for prolonged periods throughout the night has gone. I shift from the warmth of my sleeping bag. Opening the inner of the tent I see that over a foot of snow had blown up against the tent. I stretch and pull the zip on the fly sheet down. Sticking my head out from the tent I smile. There is bright light over by the lochans where a break in the clouds allows the sun to shine through. The world outside is white, nuances of white upon white only broken by the steepness of rocky crags where snow hadn’t been able to settle.

I’m camped at a height of 850m on the driest piece of ground I found just before sunset on Meall nan Ceapraichean. I’m spending the weekend indulging myself walking over five Munros from Seana Bhraigh to Beinn Dearg in NW Scotland. Seana Bhraigh is considered to be one of the remotest Munros. I feel excited to be walking over such a remote mountainous area. I’ve been here in summer when it was good to be up high to get out of the heat of the glen; the views over to the coast and the ancient mountains of Assynt stunning for their peculiar weathered shape. The first big snowfall of the autumn will blanket these mountains on my trip. It’s early November and this snowfall seems earlier than previous years on the mountains.

A light dusting of snow coated the highest summits. The snow looked grey as I started walking to Seana Bhraigh the previous morning. Cloud skimmed across the highest summits over by the Fannichs and An Teallach to the south. Taking a waterlogged stalkers path I was soon up on high plateau. Strong jagged shadows were thrown onto sunny hillsides; a dusting of fresh snow lingered on the tall shaded crags. The first snow showers were fast approaching from the west as I raced up the last slope of Seana Bhraigh to catch the view from the summit. Oh how the hail hurt my face and stung my eyes! I pulled my hood up and faced away from the onslaught of horizontal maelstrom while I zipped up my clothing. The bank of cloud was deep and enveloped the landscape around me. The bright orb of the sun disappeared and so did the views to the coast and the mountains. About fifteen minutes later the landscape returned to view, whiter than before.

For the next couple of hours I picked a route over wet ground standing on tussocks to try and keep my feet dry. Sometimes I retraced my steps which I had just walked to get out of a maze of pools of water. Snowflakes lay on the golden tussocks. As I climbed higher the snowflakes merged with each other to cover the vegetation. The distant horizon to the west turned into a dark steel grey: the land merged with the sky and then the air filled again with snowflakes. I took my gloves off. I stretched out my hand and caught the falling flakes. I caught a fleeting glimpse of their beauty and delicacy before they melted on my warm hand. What a joy! This was the start of winter, a time to marvel at the beauty of the changing season, the newly forming ice on the terraces which I would walk in less than an hour; the sheer beauty of fine snow turning to sparkling glitter as the light from the low sun hit it. And of course walking across the landcape is easiest in first snow. The savageness of winter would eventually dull the small details; movement across the mountains would become arduous.

As I reached the terrace on Meall nan Ceapraichean the light changed as I walked into mist. Snow covered all the top surfaces of the rocks leaving the sides of the boulders black where the snow hadn’t covered. If you’ve ever been in mist in snow you will know this light; it’s luminosity so beautiful. This small world with limited visibility is so peaceful. I picked my way up through the boulders, and out onto the summit ridge of Meall nan Ceapraichean. I flick snow onto the upper surface of my boots – it’s a game I play at the start of every winter. I noticed that the bottom of my gaiters and waterproof trousers were frozen . All of a sudden the mist cleared and I look down to a lochan which shimmers in the rose gold light of approaching sunset. I’ve lost track of time. I start to feel a strong wind come up from Gleann na Sguaib. I had to find a sheltered spot for the night to camp because the weather was to deteriorate through the night.

The summit dome of Beinn Dearg is shrouded in mist. The long summit ridge of Cona’ Mheall is just visible. I shake excess snow from the tent and pack it into the top of my rucksack.The temperature is just below freezing. I haven’t worn my boots for long but my feet feel cold from my damp boots. I start moving hoping to warm my feet. Snow blankets everything; a landscape of soft edges. Boulders have disappeared under the lumpy blanket. I step on tussocks to keep out of the deepest snow and away from the boulder strewn slope. As I reached the small lochan on the wide bealach wind howls up from Gleann na Sguaib. I realize how fortunate my choice for a camp had been. Waves race across the water and I climb behind the dyke and into the shelter of the slope. The wind is cold. Sunlight painted the crags a beautiful golden hue which melted into the greyness of the heavy mist on Beinn Dearg. Below me mountainside narrowed into a valley then fanned out into a larger landscape of rolling hills. For the first time I see where the snow line starts. A lot of snow had fallen as I slept soundly in my tent. A wave of excitement runs through me. I feel privileged to be here, to witness the beauty of the experience and the change in the landscape from autumn to winter. The wind picks up snowflakes and swirls them high into the air around me. The snowflakes catch the low sun which change from white to silver. I have no words to describe the beauty of the scene. I stand just looking; this is so beautiful.

A terrace leads me through a rocky outcrop over to the long stony slope of Cona’ Mheall. There is a hint of the high grassy edge of a well-worn path which I follow. It’s an easy day for me today in the mountains; well it is on paper anyway. I walked for 8 hours yesterday and today I will be walking for less. The walking is a little slower as I watch where I place my feet on the snowy blanket. I like a game of reading the landscape to find secure placements for my feet. Occasionally I will have to shift my balance to stop falling over as my feet sinks lower into the snow than I’m expecting but this seems rare and more an opportunity to see if I’m paying attention to the landscape. A change in slope texture on Conna’ Mheall gives me an easier line of ascent up onto the ridge.

It’s colder now on the summit ridge; the wind is blowing again. I pick a line through the last of the boulders to the summit cairn, weaving between the larger rocks to find flat slabs of rock to put my feet on. Sunlight illuminates the edge of the rolling plateau where I walked from yesterday. It looks so far away as there are no features to create a scale to the landscape, yet it’s less than 5 miles away. I stand behind the summit cairn and enjoy a late breakfast. Wind grabs the snow and spirals it up in huge vortex from below me in the coirie and then reaches a point where it suddenly leaves the spiraling body and dissipates into the air. Looking down the ridge there are many places where snow is being blown from the ridge; the horizon melts into softness.

It may be windy but my footprints aren’t filling in very quickly from windblown snow. I am able to retrace my route back up the terrace to the wall and lochans. I rarely have the convenience to follow my own footprints down off a mountain. Oh how easy this is! I can see in my footprints where the weight of my body has been thrown to one side because of the underlying ground; the depth of my footprint an indicator of the softness and depth of the snow.

I pick an exposed route up the rocky ridge beside the dyke to ascend Beinn Dearg. I can see the outline of Cona’ Mheall through the gaps in the dyke. The slope in front of me is like being in a maze. There are huge boulders, small boulders, boulders balanced on top of other boulders. I pick a route through the jumble of boulders. I balance on two edges of a side turned boulder and for the first time in the weekend I feel the weight of my rucksack. I’m not tired, just aware of the need to balance carefully on rocks in the wind. I clear the snow from mid-way up a large boulder and step up. The terrain starts to become easier to move through. I can see the turn in the dyke ahead of me, after that I’m on easy open wind scoured ground.

I step through a break in the dyke. Snow coats the back of the dyke; snow drifts form another dyke, albeit a soft one with beautiful sculptural lines. Thousands of walkers will have made the same step but I wonder if they ever give a thought to the history of the dyke. The line of the dyke stretches as far as I can see across the summit slopes onto a long open ridge. Its construction is crude; rocks balanced on top of other rocks with no thought given to creating anything neat and artistic unlike that of lowland dykes. In places the dyke is six foot tall – taller than I can lift any weight above my head. It’s over 170 years old, built by hungry men when labour was cheap and the highlands were in the grip of a food famine caused by a reliance on the humble potato. Food was given as wages – a man’s ration for a day was 24 oz. of oatmeal. This dyke will stand for another 170 years as reminder to us that the history behind the story of its construction should never be repeated.

The views are expansive from the summit. Cona’ Mheall is now bathing in strong sunlight; rolling snow covered hills merge with the distant horizon; towards Ullapool the sea merges with the steel greyness of the sky. Cloud skims the top of the highest mountains in the Fannichs.

One spring morning I stood here watching snow buntings swoop, glide and rise as a united group just above the summit; a timeless moment. The only evidence of wildlife today has been a short trail of ptarmigan tracks near the lochans. All the red deer will now be below the snowline foraging for any greenness amongst the amber coloured deer grass.

I’m now down at the snowline. I turn and look back to where I have just come from on the mountain. My footprints are the only ones to disturb the pristine layer of snow; I have had these mountains all to myself for the previous two days. The feeling of remoteness has been exhilarating, the beauty of first snow joyful, peaceful and heart-warming.

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The Real 3 Peaks Challenge 2017


A bag of chewing gum and an empty 1980s packet of peanuts were among 121kg (267lbs) of rubbish found on Ben Nevis.

Fourteen volunteers filled 21 bags during a litter pick on Scotland's highest mountain on Saturday.

The debris found on the hillside included a peanut packet with a best before date of January 1987 and a ball of chewing gum weighing 4kg (9lbs).

It was one of a series of events across the UK organised by the Real 3 Peaks Challenge.

A total of 570kg (1,256lbs) of waste was taken off seven peaks in Scotland, England and Wales. They were:

Ben Nevis

Scafell Pike (Lake District)

Snowdon (Wales)

Ben Lomond (Scotland)

Lochnagar (Scotland)

Ben MacDui (Scotland)

Mam Tor (Peak District)

Hopefully now, after this huge effort, and the continuing efforts from the Trusts, other charitable organisations, conscientious hill walkers , mountain professionals and land management agencies, these beautiful places will remain free from waste throughout the Winter and into the Spring Time…Until the Summer season starts.

Ben Nevis – 120kgs from 14 Volunteers plus members of the public.

Scafell Pike- 55kgs from 34 volunteers spilt into 4 parties.

Snowdon - 280KGs from 29 Volunteers plus members of the public

Lochnagar - 13.4kgs from 3 Volunteers

Ben MacDui – 7kgs from 4 Volunteers

Ben Lomond – 16kgs from 8 Volunteers

Mam Tor & Dovestone, Peak District – 77.5kgs from 17 Volunteers (2 were kids) plus 2 dogs.

This year’s Total….

570 KGs from 109 Volunteers… Not a bad day’s work, thank you all

We do believe that we have been making a huge difference to these wonderful places, being able to get down into the nooks and crannies clearing stuff that has accumulated over many years.

We have had lots of support and interaction on the hills with passers by offering to carry a bag for us, and picking litter on our behalf, some even asking to take a bin liner from us so they can carry more.

We would like to say thank you to the following individuals for their time and willingness to organise areas on the day (Plus the work before and after the Event), this couldn’t be done without any of you :-

  • Ben Nevis – Rich Pyne, responsible for the original idea, Mona Pyne, constant support and great ideas.
  • Scafell Pike – Kelvyn James, has been looking after The Pike since Day 1 back in 2013. Always a brilliant job, and a great friend.
  • Snowdon –Kate and Ross Worthington, both been here since Day 1, getting a very thorough job done every year, and they are great with spreading the word about our awareness campaign, thanks guys.
  • Ben Lomond – Mhairi Cameron, new this year, she offered to help out on one of her more local hills, and had managed a stirling job, you seemed to have the nicest weather out of all of us.
  • Lochnagar – Glyn Jones, Head Ranger on the Balmoral Estate and also his first time with The R3PC, looked after this fairly remote hill, giving it a really good going over.
  • Ben MacDui- Chris Taylor, working locally to Cairngorm, offered to deep clean the second highest mountain in the UK. A small but effective team had to deal with 74mph winds, those rubbish bags must of given a real fight!
  • The Peak District- Gill Gillybean Nott, was previously a volunteer on Scafell Pike, this year she was up for deep cleaning another area, with MamTor and Dovestone being selected. Incredibly effective, even pulling out a sleeping bag that was more moss than sleeping bag!
  • Goatfell- Steve Morley, super keen, but was unable to commence this year due to unforeseen family circumstances. Next year Steve, it will all be good.

Volunteers pick up 4kg of chewing gum discarded on Ben Nevis.

A bag of chewing gum and an empty 1980s packet of peanuts were among 121kg (267lbs) of rubbish found on Ben Nevis.

Fourteen volunteers filled 21 bags during a litter pick on Scotland's highest mountain on Saturday.

The debris found on the hillside included a peanut packet with a best before date of January 1987 and a ball of chewing gum weighing 4kg (9lbs).

It was one of a series of events across the UK organised by the Real 3 Peaks Challenge.

A total of 570kg (1,256lbs) of waste was taken off seven peaks in Scotland, England and Wales. They were:

Ben Nevis – 120kgs from 14 Volunteers plus members of the public.

Scafell Pike- 55kgs from 34 volunteers spilt into 4 parties.

Snowdon - 280KGs from 29 Volunteers plus members of the public

Lochnagar - 13.4kgs from 3 Volunteers

Ben MacDui – 7kgs from 4 Volunteers

Ben Lomond – 16kgs from 8 Volunteers

Mam Tor & Dovestone, Peak District – 77.5kgs from 17 Volunteers (2 were kids) plus 2 dogs.

Organiser Rich Pyne said it was "not a bad day out" for the 109 volunteers who took part in the nationwide clean-up."

Among the debris were lots of tissues, cigarette ends, banana peel, orange peel, bottle tops, tampons, sweet wrappers, foil, crisp and sandwich wrappers.

Some of the 150,000 people who climb Ben Nevis every year even abandoned walking poles, tents and flags on the mountain.

One volunteer also came across a horseshoe they believe belonged to one of the ponies which worked Ben Nevis in the early 1900s.

A horseshoe believed to date back to the early 1900s was among items picked up on Ben Nevis

My Pyne told the BBC Scotland website that they generally receive a good reaction from other hillwalkers during their annual litter picks.

"They always say thank you, they're always grateful," he said. "Quite often they ask if there's anything they can do and then they might pick up a few bottles on the way down."

The mountain guide, from Kinlochleven, set up the Real 3 Peaks challenge in 2013, in a bid to clean up the mountains before the winter snowfall.



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