Taking to the hills in winter requires a whole new skillset, as Nicole Webber discovers as she ventures out to climb her first winter Munro with her more experienced partner
You have to start somewhere... Standing at the bottom of Ben Wyvis with my axe in my hand and a foreboding feeling that I had literally gotten myself in too deep (the snow was up to my thighs) I seriously contemplated turning around and trudging back to the snowy car park.
However, the sun was shining and I had a new hat that said Mountaineering Scotland on the front. I was not about to give up quite so easily.
To start with we followed the signs from the A835 to the Ben Wyvis car park north of Garve.
The path that followed looked like the entrance to a winter wonderland and it was so still and perfect that I expected Mr Tumnus to appear at any moment.
The path towards the Munro crosses a few burns and a romantic-looking footbridge takes you across Allt a’ Bhealaich Mhoir. The path goes through a gate and takes a right turn before continuing straight ahead over a farm track. It was at this point that ski tourers started to appear from nowhere and a few fellow walkers caught us up.
As much as it was wonderful walking over untouched snow we were more than happy to let them overtake us and start flattening a path. Two men in military gear and two Munro veterans that have probably been hillwalking since before I could toddle started making their way up ahead of us.
While I was concentrating on not falling in burns and letting these crazy ski tourers past I almost never noticed the trees fall away behind me and the country around me open up.
We were walking away from the river and towards An Cabar. The winter sun had risen properly now and was illuminating the east face of the hill.
It looked steep but the flat area in front of me was more of a conundrum. I knew there was a path under there to help us avoid the bogs and burns. However, the snow was coming up to my knee and it felt like walking through custard powder.
Rather than cutting our own path we decided it was wise to follow in the footsteps of the seemingly more experienced towards the base of the hill.
An Cabar stood in front of us like a giant birthday cake covered in butter icing. I was aware that there were steps zigzagging across the hill and thanks to the confirmation of both a map and a GPS device I knew I was on top of them.
The problem was that they were covered in knee deep snow and I had also never used an ice axe before. It felt alien in my hand and I wished I was using my walking poles instead.
I would dig it into the snow in front of me and then, kicking my feet in, would try to move upwards – but without the purchase of my axe on anything more than snow I would start sliding back down.
This was my learning curve. I had to get quicker, feel through the snow for something to hold onto and scramble up faster than a rat escaping a sinking ship.
Every time I thought I was getting the hang of it I realised I had fallen behind. I would get distracted, and end up sliding downwards. It was not elegant and I apologise if you heard me screaming in frustration but those ahead were making it look too easy.
I got to the summit of An Cabar and in all honesty I almost turned back. At this point it had taken us just over three hours. My legs were burning and I was questioning (again) whether I could do it quickly enough, given the short daylight hours.
The view from the top of An Cabar was stunning but in the distance the true summit of Ben Wyvis, Glas Leathad Mor, was hidden in cloud. I could not see anyone in front of us any more, just their footsteps disappearing in the snow.
I stood debating with my walking companion whether I had the bottle to go on. I watched two skiers sort out their gear and head off the south side of An Cabar. I held my breath until they disappeared into the distance. They were so close to the edge it looked terrifying and spurred me on to keep going.
I swapped into my crampons for the first time as the windswept snow on the ridge between myself and the summit was more compact and icy. It turns out that crampons are less flexible when the plastic is cold and it really is not the same as practising fitting them in your garden. I vowed to buy myself some liner gloves and wise up. Halfway across the very wide and slightly dipped ridge I fell out of my crampons and landed face first in the snow, so I gave in and let my partner help me put them on properly.
The going is a lot easier between An Cabar and the summit and we reached the cairn at the top a lot quicker than I expected. Given the near white-out conditions and the trig point being covered in snow, I might have missed it if it was not circled by a yellow-coated ring (thanks, guys).
Hidden behind the low shelter wall it was calm enough to grab a snack and a drink before heading back the way we came.
On our return over the ridge the weather cleared and we finally got some views. I practically skipped across thanks to the knowledge that the hard bit was over and I could now enjoy the descent of my first winter Munro.
The sun was starting to go down and turn the sky pink from around 2.30pm. At the steepest part on the way down we were passed by a hill runner who, rather than zigzagging along the path, decided to do a mountain goat gallop and slide-cum-run down through the snow.
I was impressed but decided that I would stick to the trail until we had passed the rocky steps.
Eventually it got less steep and the path returned to heather underfoot.
It was at this point that I stopped to look up at the path we had created and realised that something was following us down the hill.
Thanks to more than 12 people walking in each others’ footsteps up and down from An Cabar we had created a smooth path with snow at knee height on either side. Sprigs of heather stuck out where 24 legs had brushed past.
A vole was making its way down the hill, stopping every so often to nibble the heather. It was going a lot faster than I was and did not seem to be particularly bothered by us. It was getting closer and closer to the back of our legs so we stopped to let it pass.
Further down on the flat we spotted another vole using the path in the same way but it ran off quickly when I squealed in excitement!
We were losing light fast but the path from the base of An Cabar was mostly flat or down gentle slopes and I was chatting about what hills we should do next and how excited I was to be doing a winter mountaineering and navigation course at the end of the month.
That is how I managed to slip off a tiny bridge about two kilometres from the car park. I ended up knee deep in a snow-melt burn and winded after hitting my chest on the wood I should have been walking over. I screamed and laughed as my tired legs struggled to push off the slippery rocks beneath the bridge. After a bit of floundering I was dragged upright onto dry land and enjoyed a soggy walk back to the car.
Distance 8.75 miles / 14km
Terrain Deep powdery snow covering up paths; winter navigation and hill skills required
Time 7.5 hours
Ascent 3070ft / 935m
Start/finish Ben Wyvis car park, off A835
Map OS Explorer 437, Ben Wyvis and Strathpeffer
A winter Munro with some vole-watching to boot