The Sound of Snow
Every year, old friends Steve and Nigel and myself head north for a week in the winter in search of snowy hills. We've been doing this for nearly thirty years now, usually heading for the fabulous North West Highlands of Scotland. Its fair to say that the weather has been mixed over all those visits, some years its been grim, and we've barely left the valleys, some years its been utterly fabulous and we've wandered over snow-clad mountains with views that went on forever.
This year, the Beast from the East was coming. I guess that didn't bode well but, by some miracle of good fortune, the one part of the whole country that it didn't have its greedy eye on, was the North West Highlands. Game on.
Staying at the legendary Gerry's Hostel in Glen Carron, as we have done so often before, is always part of the magic. Its a slightly scruffy but welcoming old place, for years the domain of Gerry himself, but now run by his son Simon, after Gerry's sad demise a few years ago. The heart of the hostel is very much the fire in the quirky lounge. Here we have sheltered many times from the wild weather outside, hearing it lash against the windows, and feeling the cold draughts on our backs as the heat of the hearth warmed our faces. This year, though, the weather was cold but benign. The skies were blue and, even better, there'd been heavy snow a week before, followed by several days of freeze-thaw cycles, perfect conditions for making perfect snow.
With the approaches frozen by the below freezing temperatures despite the sun, the walks in to the hills were quick and easy as we strode across normally boggy moorlands. As we reached the snow line, immediately we knew that the day would be good, for even the lowest snow was crisp and firm with an icy sheen.
These, then, are moments to savour. We don our crampons and take ice axes in hand, and step forward onto the shining white mass. Crunch, squeak. This is a sound that mountain lovers will know, the sound of crampon spikes pressing into perfect névé, the best type of snow there is. It gives just enough to provide a decent footing, but doesn't drain away your energy as so often happens as you wade through a sea of snow, fighting for every upwards step. The sound travels with you as you stride joyously forward over the glistening slopes, on the roof of the world as you gaze at the mountains all around.
Each day on the hills of Torridon and the Coulin Forest was a delight. We strode along the curving ridge of Beinn Damh, high above towering cliffs of red Torridonian sandstone. We climbed, calves burning, up the back of Coire Mainnrichean on the magnificent mountain of Fuar Tholl, just the spikes on our feet digging in to the snow as we made rapid, but tiring, progress upward. Everywhere we looked, snow-clad mountain ridges marched onward to the distant horizon.
The summits were places to savour where, unusually, we could sit in comfort wearing only a layer or two, the sun warming us though the air temperature was well below freezing. Nearby, cornice edges fell away hundreds of feet into wild, rarely visited corries, giving us a true "top of the world" feeling as we lingered long and gazed far.
Even the descents were mostly simple, as we linked snow patches together for as long as possible, dropping quickly and relatively painlessly down into the cold shadow of the hills as the evening approached.
The full story of our couple of days in this stunning part of Scotland can be read on the main site on the Places/Scotland pages here:
A couple of days that will live long in the memory.