Winter has arrived. The hills have their snowy hats on. And an afternoon’s walk in the hills becomes a whole different ballgame.
A period of cold, clear and settled weather has meant that the first few days of December have provided perfect winter walking conditions. More snow fell on the hills just a couple of nights ago, providing a powdery white topping on a frozen base.
Getting out in the hills again in such magnificent conditions is uplifting: a fantastically white hillside against a deep blue sky; light fluffy snow that makes galloping downhill a joy; the deadening silence of the snow; the crisp, sharp air.
But there are frequent reminders of the discomforts and potential dangers that exist: black ice under a seemingly inocuous powdery blanket; the seering wind chill on bare cheeks; blinding spindrift whipped up by a gust; aching fingers slowly warming after being hastily exposed to the elements.
I headed north to Killin, an attractive town at the western end of Loch Tay at the confluence of the rivers Dochart and Lochay. There, you’ll find a sturdy, multi-arched bridge just beside the Falls of Dochart, with the snowy Tarmachan ridge of mountains punctuating the skyline.
I’d climbed all of the munros around here in Summertime but not in Winter, and hadn’t banked on having to change my plans. My original plan was to climb the Tarmachan Horseshoe, a short walk from Lochan na Lairige south to the Tarmachan ridge, up over Meall nan Tarmachan (the munro at 1044m or 3,422ft) and back to the lochan via its northern ridge. However, I soon found the steep, single-track access road to the Ben Lawers National Reserve impassable. My van tyres lost traction a few times until I reached a line of parked cars beyond which the road was simply covered in sheet ice (freezing rain on cold tarmac).
So instead I opted for an up-and-down ascent of Meall nan Tarmachan via the well-constructed path from the car park – adding an extra 30 minutes’ walk from my parking place further down the hill and taking extra care not to actually step on the hazardously icy road. (Unbelievably, a dozen cars did press on up the road, spinning their wheels to keep moving …).
I made good time. Up on the ridge, there was a stunning view of Meall Corranaich (left) and Meall Garbh / Ben Lawers (right), standing out above the snow line to the northeast.
Looking southeast, the snow emphasised the knobbly character of the Tarmachan ridge.
Beyond this point my camera stayed firmly in its case. Or more precisely, my hands stayed firmly in their gloves for the wind whipped up a severe wind chill. It was hard work picking my way up through the snow, following others’ tracks and taking care not to slip on the ice beneath.
I stopped for lunch at the bottom of the last steep incline, sheltering from the gusts blowing spindrift high up into the air. But my hands were numb with the cold even after ten minutes, taking much longer to warm up (and enduring the aching pain you get when the blood slowly returns to the extremities). I didn’t hang about on the summit. It was very cold and blowing a gale. Ominously dark clouds loomed to the north and south.
This photo really shows the character of the day. You can see the spindrift whipped up by the strong wind, looking south over Loch Tay in the shadow of a dark cloud.
But further down off the ridge and out of the wind, the atmosphere changed markedly. Here, it was simply a crisp winter’s day again.
I returned to the van, hoping to take advantage of the light on the drive home now that the sun was becoming low in the sky. Sure enough, the clouds began to turn salmon-pink once I’d driven past Killin, Lochearnhead and down towards Strathyre.
I parked the van beside Loch Lubnaig and brewed up a cup of tea (the flexibility of a camper van!), watching the last of the sunlight disappear behind Ben Ledi. A calm scene after the harshness that Winter can throw at you.