Stamping my boots in the car park on a frosty February morning, I studied our route to the summit of Ben Lawers (1,214m, 3,983ft), one of the highest mountains in the southern Highlands, and mentally prepared for the contours ahead. I’d tackled a Munro before, but never in the snow, and the idea thrilled and intimidated me in equal measures.
To learn the skills to stay safe, but mainly to enjoy Scotland’s snowy conditions, I decided to take a winter walking course with instructor Ryan Glass.
You need to be well kitted up to climb mountains at any time of year – but in winter, dressing in warm, weatherproof clothing is essential.
“The weather can throw high winds, blizzards, low visibility and much more at you,” Ryan told us. “Scotland is famous for a freeze/thaw cycle that gives excellent conditions for winter climbing but it also means that you can get wet during the day when the temperature rises above zero before dropping below again and chilling you to the core.”
Sure enough, as we plodded along the rocky path, the car park drizzle morphed into fine snow. Within 10 minutes, we were huddled together in a blizzard.
“With conditions like this, it’s essential to know how to follow a bearing,” Ryan told us. “Like a pilot at night, you must navigate on your instruments.” Ryan taught us how to count steps – a surprisingly accurate way of measuring distance in low visibility. First, we worked out our pace count for 100m, and then we estimated when an unmarked track, shown on our map 1.5km ahead, would appear to our left. The group fell into a rhythmic plod, counting under our breaths, before coming to a standstill within a few feet of each other.
An hour later, we reached the snowline. After the security of the path, the first few crunchy steps made me nervous. When traversing a slope, Ryan taught us how to kick a slim angled wedge into the snow that acted as a step. When our path became completely snowbound, we attached crampons to our boots and stepped boldly out on to the snow.
“The Scottish Highlands are a dangerous environment,” Ryan told us. “Even a small slip could turn into an uncontrolled slide.” Fortunately, most slides can be halted with an ice axe arrest. With this in mind we found a sheltered, snow-filled corrie (a bowl shaped scoop at the top of a valley) to practice our ice axe arrests – in short, this involved throwing ourselves down a slope and trying our best to stop.
First off, we practiced stopping a slide without an ice axe, which involved rolling on to your front, raising your bum in the air and digging your feet into the snow like a cat on a hot tin roof. Nervous, I launched myself downhill and, sure enough, came to a stop. “Good, but next time get up more speed,” said Ryan. Brushing myself down, I scrambled up the hill to try again.
Confident with our new skills, we started our attempt on the summit. We zigzagged across the back corrie then, as the hill steepened, used a technique called front pointing, kicking our front spikes into the snow. It was slow progress and it helped to not look down.
Once we reached the ridge, it was a matter of following a path to the peak. The hard part over, we scrambled to the summit cairn and looked out over the frozen landscape we’d just conquered.
As a gap opened in the cloud, exposing views over Loch Tay and a ripple of mountains, I asked Ryan what it was he loved about Scottish mountains. “They feel wild and alien to urban life,” he told me. “Conditions vary from still, silent and frost-bound to storm-lashed. Sometimes they’re stunningly beautiful, sometimes harsh. Either way, it’s a chance to witness the beauty of nature in all its awesome power.” Having experienced more weather – and exhilaration – than I thought possible in one day, I couldn’t agree more.
How to get there
Ben Lawers is about 14 miles south-west of Aberfeldy. There is a car park at grid ref NN 608 378. From Killin, take the A827 and turn left on an unmarked road just after Milton Morenish.
Find out more
The route up Ben Lawers takes five-six hours and, in winter, should only be attempted by well-equipped, experienced walkers or with an instructor/guide.
Winter skills and mountaineering courses start from £50 per person per day, in a group of four-six, to £130 for 1:1 instruction.
Always check the weather and conditions before venturing
on to high ground in winter.
Balnearn Guest House
Crieff Road, Aberfeldy
01887 820 431