Getting high in Scotland’s mountain winter wonderland

Every year thousands of winter sports enthusiasts take to the hills and mountains of Scotland to enjoy the atmospheric snow-capped peaks and frost-dusted landscapes.

  • Full feature in Issue No. 11

On Schiehallion in winter snow near Perth, i

Photograph by: Gerry McCannOn Schiehallion in winter snow near Perth, i

Many are following in the footsteps of world class mountaineers such as as Harold Raeburn, Dougal Haston, W.H. Murray, Hamish Macinnes, Tom Patey, Tom Weir, and Malcolm Slesser.

They, like the members of the Ladies Scottish Climbing club – Monica Jackson, Betty Stark, and Evelyn Camrass – who made the first all women expedition to the Himalayas and accomplished the first ascent of a 22,000 feet mountain, all share a common bond.

In addition to having made great contributions to world mountaineering, including the first ascents of fearsome Alpine faces and forging new routes in the Himalayas, they cut their teeth on the accessible mountains of Scotland.

Like thousands of climbers before and since they honed their winter skills using ice axes and boots with tricouni nails, and later, crampons on the challenging peaks of Glencoe, Skye, Torridon, the Cairngorms and Ben Nevis. They mastered essential techniques on the snow and ice in, sometimes, Arctic conditions which even today bring Alpine guides to the Big Bad Ben to try their skills.

“In winter the mountains seem to regain their primitive, virginal pride….,” said
the enigmatic Douglas Haston in summing up the appeal of Scotland’s snow-capped peaks.

 trying descent techniques wearing crampons and carrying ice-axe.

Photograph by: Gerry McCanntrying descent techniques wearing crampons and carrying ice-axe.

And you don’t even have to go very far North to see for yourself.

In recent years The Pentland Hills just outside Edinburgh have had enough snow to get walkers out on skis and snowshoes. The Cobbler, Ben Narnain, and Ben Ime in the Arrochar Alps are only an hour from Glasgow and provide an exhilarating introduction to Scotland’s outdoor winter attractions.

Glencoe, at first sight may appear daunting but well equipped walkers have a feast of winter trails. The most accessible goes from roadside over the Devil’s Staircase and on to Kinlochleven by an old military road. And right in the middle of the Pass is a route which goes first into Coire Gabhail, or the Lost Valley where, so legend has it, the MacDonalds hid their rustled cattle.

The valley itself is large and flat and those who carry on can get access to Bidean nam Bian, and Stob Coire Sgreamhach. From either of these summits the views in all directions are stunning but none more so than the one to the North over the Aonach Eagach Ridge to the Mamores and to Ben Nevis itself.

At the start of winter the days are short and the weather is very unpredictable. So canny walkers who have not had crampons on since the previous May choose shorter routes.

Torridon, Scotland.

Photograph by: Gerry McCannTorridon, Scotland.

Near the Rest and Be Thankful is a car park, already at 246 metres , which marks the start of a fun route on sometimes rock and ice goes which to the top of Beinn an Lochan at 901 metres.

Further West in Perthshire, car park at 331 metres gives meandering access to the beautiful Schiehallion, or Fairy Mountain at 1083 metres. This munro is also known as The Maiden’s Pap, or more worryingly Constant Storm.

The views from both of these mountains are spectacular. On clear days The Arrochar Alps stretch out and from Schiehallion and even Ben Nevis is visible. Gaining ground and height on fresh days in the Scottish winter landscape has rewards as compelling as the views in the French Alps.

As winter goes on the days become longer and it becomes possible to tackle the larger mountains.

Big days out are feasible on the Ben, perhaps by the Carn Mor Dearg Arrete, and further North on the Torridon giants of Liathach, Beinn Eighe and Beinn Alligin.

In the Cairngorms there are the Arctic fastnesses of Ben Macdui, Ben Avon and Cairn Toul.

Some sections of the fabled Skye Ridge are accessible for those with no climbing skills. And then there are long and spectacular trails through the mountains such as the Lairig Ghru and the route through Glen Affric goes into the remnants of the ancient Caledonian Pine Forest that once covered much of the Highlands.

All in all the beautiful and changing winter landscape of Scotland has a lifetime of challenges.