Just when you thought climbing the Munros couldn’t get any tougher, along comes winter to add another few layers of difficulty beyond the usual slog.Snow, ice, windchill to -20 (or worse) as a regular occurrence; short days and benign slopes and slips turning into treacherous death slides. And avalanches. Why bother?
Why indeed I thought as Chris and I set off along the snowy/icy track to 2 Glenshee Munros – 1019m Carn an Tuirc (pron.Toorc; stony dome of the boar) and 1064m Cairn of Claise ( pron. clash.Meaning unknown.Corrupted from the Gaelic. ) We had enjoyed these years ago in high summer on a glorious day of hazy heat without even a zephyr of wind.They had been the first 2 of 4 Munros we enjoyed that day on the White Mounth , as it is known; a seemingly endless plateau of moorland grasses with golden plovers piping their mournful little warning as we approached their unseen nests. Sitting at around 800 metres or 2,500 feet above the road through the glen, the plateau makes for delightful walking with views to distant Northern Cairngorm summits and beautiful Lochnagar. It was a day when being out in the hills feels like paradise.
But in deepest darkest January, the white dusting of this so-far mild winter’s first snow had me shivering in the car park above Glen Clunie as I donned gaiters and decided whether to walk in my mega cosy Duvet jacket or not.In half an hour I would of course be boiling hot, sweltering with the effort of ascent.But I am so averse to feeling chilly that I can never stand the thought of walking cold – initially – with thinner layers. Wimp that I am , the Duvet jacket won.So Nanook of the North set off behind my younger son Gregor and his fiancee Lucy and my husband Chris, with the treacherous thought – ‘I hate walking in snow!’
My feelings came from a Munro we did just two days before in the Monadhliath, near Newtonmore, the perfectly easy A’Chailleach which turned out to be an utterly exhausting slog through deep, virgin snow.I haven’t got round to writing it up yet as ‘failure’ is attached to it in my mind – while we made the summit eventually, we had to forego walking to the second Munro as darkness may have caught us out.Bad planning! We’d needed a full day to recover from that escapade.
Now, I was lured by the chance to enjoy a day in the hills with Son No 2, a Munro convert (therefore fanatical) and his future wife; Lucy herself having a mightily impressive 182 Munros (out of 282) under her belt despite only being in her mid-twenties.I currently stand at 107, a measly number given a lifetime of enjoying The Great Outdoors.With Chris also keen to keep up the Munro tally (his target this year is to do 26 and unlike me, he doesn’t care if they are new ones or ones we’ve ‘bagged’ already), this was going to be a fairly easy, shortish day on benign slopes with 2 ticks on Chris’s list for our efforts.
My worry this time – there’s always at least one, usually a cluster – was that we would hold the two youngsters back and they would regret us tagging along.We are much slower than they are in summer conditions , despite still reaching summits ourselves in less than Scottish Mountaineering Council guide times.So in winter…..well, I began to dread us holding them up too much.They are young and fit and stride effortlessly across all terrain and indeed set off along the Glen Clunie track like a couple of hares, gliding along the snowy, rocky path.We were soon well behind, as I negotiated the worst of the ice; I should have put my spikes on right away to give a little more grip. It’s amazing how much more wary I have become of a fall now. As if your mind knows the body is not quite up to nimble little mountain goat standards any more plus injury takes a lot longer to recover from.
My heart sank as I saw them waiting for us to catch up on a couple of occasions though they seemed quite relaxed.I know too that Lucy quite enjoys us pulling Gregor’s incredibly fast pace back a bit, so that she also can enjoy the day out at a more ‘normal’ speed.I think Gregor’s next move will be fell running!
Another concern was the forecasted snow showers arriving already and covering the summit in heavy white cloud. One thing about the plateau is, in mist it can be very tricky to navigate and too easy to get completely lost if you are not careful.
I’d noticed a couple ahead of us that we had already caught up with a bit though suddenly they headed off way to the left to climb the final slopes to the top.But it looked like a horrible route and I thought the easier route lay straight ahead and slightly right.The ground looked better, more easily zig-zagged.Sure enough, with the young folk willing to try that route instead, we quickly found a very good path which took us easily up onto the summit plateau.Had a glimpse of a couple of ptarmigan, always a joy to see those hardy Arctic birds.
Wow it was cold up here! Not much shelter behind the cairn but we all managed to scoff a sugary snack or two and enjoy our first Munro.Well, what little we could see of it anyway! The forecast had promised an hour or two of hefty snow showers and cloud and it looked like they’d settled in nicely already.
Looming out of the mist, a lone walker appeared suddenly at the cairn, a tall man who introduced himself as Russian.He was very unsure of his whereabouts and mentioned joining up with us but Chris talked him through the route and off he went, swallowed up by the cloud in seconds.Then The Couple arrived, a good 10 minutes after us confirming that we had definitely picked the right line up. From the car, it had taken us I hour and 40 mins to this point, good going as that was the time given for summer conditions.
A couple of guys appeared (they’d set off after us) and we chatted for a while. Surprisingly, they were heading WAY out on the plateau to tick off a 4 Munros round, the same quadrangle we’d done all those summers ago.Didn’t envy them that in these conditions – very easy to get disoriented without being careful with the navigation. Of course Sat Nav on phones and downloading offline maps with the route plotted, has revolutionised things quite a bit but that’s ok as long as your phone doesn’t pack in! Plus deep snow drifts in the remote hinterland could pose a problem.If you lay injured in these conditions, it could be very serious indeed. But off they went with great enthusiasm and we hoped they’d have a good safe day.There is such camaraderie on the hills, I think everyone is so happy to be up in the high, wild country, even the briefest conversations are always uplifting and positive.
It is VERY cold sitting around on these mountain tops being whipped by snow and icy winds from the Arctic.A northerly or northwesterly wind brings some good weather in summer and brings great light too in winter but wow, it is cold.Gregor too – tall and ultra slim and the walk so far having barely made hm break sweat – was already feeling his hands chilled and was cooling down in general; time to move.
Chris decided to put Lucy on navigation duty and Sat Nav on phones was banned; good old compass work only, to get to our next Munro! Off she set after a few calculations of bearing and distance and time; micro navigation, firstly to pick up, just off our route, a useful old land rover track (though barely visible) as a navigational aid.Expertly carried out as in the calculated 25 minutes, she found it.Then Gregor took the next leg, to the summit of Cairn of Claise, ESE bearing and a calculated 25 minutes tramp. The wind at times was ferocious and bitingly cold with that dreaded combination of dampness and windchill which causes hypothermia.
I now had my spikes on and found the walking on crunchy snow very comfortable as we finally headed up on a faint track to the 2nd Munro of the day. The book time for this traverse is 40 mins in summer conditions so we were still pretty good. However, still no views! Another quick snack to fuel up a bit – I rarely feel hungry on a walk but now force myself to have something – this time Honey Roasted Cashew Nuts, heaven and a major sugar hit.Chris then decided to navigate a route back INTO the wind for a bit, re-tracing our steps, to pick up the faint outline of the track again as directly off the summit is a deep, steep corrie bowl though I thought he was being too cautious.Walking into that blizzard was a nightmare, even for only 5 minutes! How easy it would be to become exhausted in such conditions, battling the force of the gale, getting chilled.Lucy had now donned her goggles as had I. Thankfully we soon turned onto the almost invisible path and headed in the correct direction, with the wind behind us. We could now see the faint outline of the Monega road,(a path) the highest drove route in the Highlands at over 3,000 feet and coming up from Glen Isla. We would follow its direction down the spur of Sron na Gaoithe, the Nose of the Wind and back to Glen Clunie and the car.
And then, just above our heads, through the whiteout, I spied a patch of blue .
Suddenly, the snow cloud thinned and ghostly shapes of distant hills began to emerge in silvery light.The promised ‘improvement in the afternoon’ was happening!
Our surroundings now took shape and looked wonderful! Away to the east we could see Dreish and Mayar , two Munros in the beautiful under-visited Angus Glens.The cliffs above the Caen Lochan appeared to our left across the plateau.
This was more like it, reminding me of why winter walking on snow is so worth it! The light was ethereal, mysterious and atmospheric and I was soon lagging behind, taking countless photos.
We walked over to the corrie rim, partly lined by an old drystane dyke wall and admired it all in the brilliantly clear conditions and checked out our descent route ahead. It was all very easy, very benign but no less beautiful for all that.The distant Northern Cairngorms were emerging from the blizzard, sitting proud above endless empty country and looking very impressive.
To our right were the 3 Glenshee Munros we’d explored in November, when the four of us enjoyed a fine day out on The Cairnwell, Carn Aosda and Carn a’ Gheoidh. All of this area forms the Southern Cairngorms, within the National Park.
With all our navigation exercises, dawdling under the now- blue skies and my endless photo-taking (it’s amazing that smiles are still managed once the groans of aw God not ANOTHER photo subside:)) our time for the walk was way beyond the 3.5 hours suggested for the route. But it was now just great fun and a joy to be up here on this snowy winter wonderland. Lucy began trying to roll a super snowball before giving up (it was too dry) and we ambled our way down the gentle, wide hillside with, finally across the corrie, a better view of the two domed summits we had just traversed.
The couple who had tailed us were now way ahead.We’d had a brief chat with them at one point as we detoured to the corrie edge and they had said they might add on another possible Munro – Glas Maol. Clearly, that idea had got binned, as they often do!
I was in hillwalking heaven wandering back down, the hard work, such as it was, behind us, two tops ‘bagged’ (terrible word) and the car beckoning.A lovely, successful day on the winter mountains and no-one worried about pace or timings.We arrived back at the cars at 2.30pm, 5 hours 20 mins after setting out.The only disappointment was the ‘closed’ sign on the excellent little Glenshee tea- room, 20 mins down the glen, when I’d been sure it opened all year round. Ah well, a fond farewell was said to Gregor and Lucy as they headed off for Edinburgh and prep for work next day; and we sauntered down the A9 to dear old Glasgow, back in love with the winter mountains again.