Andrew Beaven reveals why, despite the cold, winter is his favourite season to go walking
Here on the roof of the world, the first snow of the season lies brilliant and unblemished. With every step towards the summit, we crunch through a frozen layer of crystals then sink into soft powder.
Waves of mist have flooded the valleys, and only the mountaintops rise like islands above the sea of cloud. Caught in the low-slanting sunlight, the pure white peaks around us glisten and shimmer. The air we’re sucking in as we walk is thrillingly cold and the afternoon light has an almost unreal clarity.
You could travel halfway round the world in search of a mountain landscape as achingly beautiful as this. Yet this is not the Himalayas or the highest Alps. This is actually an unexceptional corner of Scotland – transformed by the first snowfall of winter. My mate Steve and I set out last weekend to climb two modest hills above Lochearnhead, a wee village an hour away from Glasgow. Truth be told, we were looking forward to a normal Scottish day out yomping through the heather; the white stuff on the hilltops as we drove north was something of a shock.
After more than two hours of yomping up the glen then the lower slopes of Creag Mac Ranaich, we crossed the snowline. Suddenly our footsteps squeaked and crunched as we broke trail through the undisturbed snow. We cast blue shadows. We threw snowballs. We picked ankle-numbing lumps of compacted snow out of our boots. Welcome back to the weird and forgotten world of winter walking.
By the time we reached the top, the sun was fighting to break through the mist that had been hanging around all morning. The views were non-existent, but – hang on – what’s that? There, standing in the clouds just beyond the summit cairn was a ghostly figure haloed by a double circle of rainbow colours. We waved, and our mysterious man of the mist waved back.
Luckily we’re not unduly superstitious and recognised it, not as a paranormal visitation, but as one of winter’s rarest and most unusual phenomena: the Brockenspectre. Apparently, in certain conditions, the powerful rays of the winter sun are focused into the clouds to produce a circular rainbow called a glory. And if you stand in the right place between the sun and the cloud, your shadow is projected into the heart of the rainbow. It’s named after the Brocken, the highest peak of Germany’s Harz Mountains, where the spectre was first recorded by 19th century mountaineers.
Admittedly, it was an impressive sight, but nothing like as impressive as the one that greeted us as we descended our first hill and started up towards Meall an t-Saillaidh, our second summit of the day. As we arrived on the ridge that would lead us to the top, we finally climbed above the low-lying mist and into the intense golden light of the afternoon sun and a jaw-dropping panorama.
Yes, winter may bring dark and drizzle and chills. But when it also brings such dazzling days as this, it will always be absolutely my favourite season of the year.