Even the most humdrum and gently-contoured of Scotland's Munros is transformed by a blanket of snow into a much more interesting and challenging proposition for the intrepid hill-walker. Venturing into the winter wilderness however is a serious undertaking and not for the ill-equipped or faint-hearted but does yield some of the finest experiences to be had in the Scottish Highlands.
While firm snow provides solid footing and allows rapid progress, icy, convex slopes, such as on Meall a Burraidh in Glencoe and at the summit of Ben Nevis, are deadly traps for the unwary. Lifes of professional mountaineers have been claimed by avalanches on supposedly safe slopes.
Deep, soft snow, especially beneath a breakable crust, can render uphill progress frustratingly difficult and exhausting and put one's objective beyond reach - unless other methods are adopted.
In California I used snow-shoes for a springtime excursion into the Sierra Nevada of the Sequoia National Park and skis in Scotland to enable day trips to some of the remotest Munros.
With the obvious exception of the Skye Ridge and its Inaccessible Pinnacle, the vast majority of the Munros, from Ben Lomond, the most southerly, to Ben Nevis, the highest, are possible on skis. Many suitable routes are given in the excellent "Ski Mountaineering in Scotland" by the SMC - an embarassment of riches - too many for one lifetime - particularly in view of the short, January to May, season. April is normally the optimum month when granular spring-snow and longer days pertain.
My introduction to ski-mountaineering was a one-week course by the Scottish Council for Physical Recreation at Glenmore Lodge. The essential items of equipment are bindings that allow the heel to lift on the ascent and skins to give traction. The latter originally made from real seal skin are now of synthetic fibre. Like stroking a cat they are smooth when rubbed one way but rough the other thereby allowing skis to be slid easily uphill but not to slip backwards. They are removed for the downhill.
On my first foray away from the increasingly overcrowded pistes served by mechanical uplift I enjoyed exhilarating runs on perfect, untracked snow down the crests of long aretes on Meall Coronach, Ben Lawyers and Beinn Ghlas - not another skier to contend with - only a few surprised hill-walkers. The effort of the uphill carries on the steeper sections was far outweighed by the greater pleasures of the descent.
Some of the longest ski tours, and many opportunities for Munro bagging, are offered by the extensive plateau of the Cairngorms although navigation errors in bad weather on the vast, featureless expanse can have dire consequences.
From Achlean in Glen Feshie a well-graded path gives easy, skinned access to the western edge of the plateau and a host of peaks. To the north, close nearby, lies the gently-rising summit of Carn Ban Mor followed by a broad, flat-topped ridge to Sgor Gaoith. In heavy mist I was pleased to come across another set of tracks - until I realised they were my own - I had walked in a complete circle. A belated compass bearing brought me back on course.
Moine Mhor in the Cairngorms
On subsequent visits I ski-ed due east across the wide, shallow basin of the Moine Mhor ( the Great Moss ), skirting the deep trench of Loch Einich, to collect the remote Monadh Mor and south along the boundary of the plateau to Meall Dubhag and Mullach Clach A' Bhlair.
In the Dee Valley, on the other side of the Cairngorms, a pleasant bicycle ride on the estate road through pine woods and alongside the Quoich Waters gains the starting point for the long ascent to the South Top and spacious plateau of Beinn A' Buiridh. Gentle gradients lead over to the North Top surmounting great cliffs above the Dubh Lochan.
The Grey Corries
From the cairn I retreated round the corniced edge of the huge corrie to ski down open slopes before re-ascending to the rocky outcrop of Ben Avon - another of Scotland's remote Munros. A long downhill run, some five miles in length, ended a fine day's outing.
Greater challenges are presented by other summits. On Stob Choire Claurigh an ice-axe and crampons were necessary at the head of the corrie to climb the steep, snow ramp leading to the crest of the ridge to gain a splendid vista to the west of the outstretched, parallel arms of the Grey Corries and Aonach Mor. Beyond protruded the black summit of Ben Nevis.
A pair of "sawn-off", short skis were employed one Easter in Glen Shiel to ascend the dazzling-white, snow cone of Faochag and continue round the summit ridge to Sgurr Na Sgine.
A total of 38 ascents on skis contributed to my round of the Munros and this practice is commended to aspirant Munroists and skiers wishing to escape the queues and congestion of the piste to experience the freedom and pleasures of uncrowded, untracked slopes - it is even possible, as I have found, to have a whole mountain all to yourself.
( The Commentator, Glasgow HERALD, Saturday 22nd January 2000 )
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