Lessons learned about winter walking on Beinn Stacath
The snow on the Corbett, Beinn Stacath, from Glen Buckie, on Sunday was not the first of the season, but it was certainly the most I’ve encountered for a year. The weather also threw up blizzards, whiteouts, high winds and chilly temperatures. It was my walking friend Ben’s first proper encounter of winter conditions and it offered a good reminder of why we need to be more prepared for the coldest season.
It was a beautiful walk and I love seeing the mountains covered in a blanket of pristine white stuff. I also enjoy the extra challenge and exertion of winter walking. But there are important things to remember to stay safe when winter walking.
My winter walking tips
Winterise your kit: After a summer of walking with a relatively light pack, at the start of winter it is important to think more carefully about what you will carry in your rucksack. Read this blog about how to winterise your rucksack.
Essentially, you need more clothing for warmth, thicker gloves, full waterproofs, a buff and goggles for face protection when it is windy or snowy, ice axe, crampons, head torch and extra food and drink.
Other items that I have discovered are a good idea include spare socks (mine ended up soaked after stepping through snow into a stream) and a flask of sugary hot tea. Heated gloves are another bonus if you suffer with poor circulation.
Check the weather forecast – and check again: Most walkers will check the weather forecast in the days leading up to a walk, but it’s a good idea to do so again on the morning of the walk. Scotland’s weather can be fickle and it might suddenly change for the worse.
Always be prepared to do a plan B walk or to turn back if the conditions turn out to be too difficult.
Thanks to many years of experience, I know how to cope in winter conditions – and when I need to turn back for home. The weather was snowier, windier and mistier on Beinn Stacath on Sunday than forecast, but it was not so tough as to force us to turn back.
I think that, on reflection, Wispa the Wonder Whippet would have preferred to stay on the sofa although I had wrapped her in two jackets and brought lots of food for her.
Winter walking takes longer: In summer conditions, we reckoned the walk would take about four hours. In snow, it took six hours. It is much slower breaking trail through snow that reaches, at times, up to the chest!
We were a group of four – and we met two other walkers on the mountain – so we were able to work together to create a path through the snow but, even so, it was slow and challenging.
Deep snow drifts also meant that we needed take a more zig-zagging route up the slope.
It gets dark earlier: Make sure you have planned for there to be enough daylight for the walk. I always have a head torch in my pack in case I end up walking as the sun goes down but it’s better to start earlier or to choose a shorter route for your winter walk.
Be prepared for snow in your face: Falling snow looks pretty but if it is caught by a little wind it can be sore as it hits face skin and eyes. I had forgotten about the benefits of wearing ski goggles, as well as a buff over the lower part of the face, until I saw my friend Gus pulling out his goggles from his rucksack.
Make good use of winter kit: I wished many times over that I had packed my snowshoes for the walk of Beinn Stacath. It would have made it much easier and quicker. For some reasons – and despite knowing there would be snow on the Scottish mountains – I had forgotten about this brilliant item of winter kit.
In fact, it would have been possible to ski a lot of the Corbett on Sunday but it’s not always easy to know this ahead of the approach to the higher slopes.
A few words about crampons and ice axes: Winter walkers should not only carry these items in case the slopes become precariously steep or icy, but they should also know how to use them. It’s a good idea to join a winter skills course for instruction on how to use this vital winter kit.
Good navigation is critical: At times on Beinn Stacath it was difficult to see more than 50 metres ahead. Blizzards and mist reduced visibility and it was therefore important to have the ability to navigate by map and compass.
I also had the out-and-back route as a download on my OS map app but you can’t rely on this because the cold can affect the battery life of a phone.
Walking in a whiteout can be disorientating and snowy steps created earlier are quickly covered if it is snowing or windy.
Pack extra food: The cold and extra effort of walking through the snow burned a lot more calories than normal and I was grateful for the food, snacks and hot tea that I had packed in my rucksack. Ben had a bag of Christmas sweets that helped with energy at various intervals.
Go with a friend: I know that many people do walk solo in the mountains, but I feel that it is safer to go with others, especially in the winter. I also throughly enjoy a walk with friends. It’s good to chat, share experiences and catch up on each other’s lives.
On Sunday, I walked with Ben, another friend Gus, who I met while walking Munros in Torridon some years ago, and Gus’s pal Dave (they also met while walking Munros). We bumped into two other walkers. It turns out they are members of my Facebook group Munroaming. It’s a wonderful small world in the Scottish mountains.
- Thanks to Gus for some of the photos.