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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.