ON THE LAST SUNDAY in March, during the soggy spell when those near-perfect winter conditions had at last broken down, I drove from TAC Towers to Loch Tay in need of a few hours on the hill regardless of conditions. Meall Corranaich was the chosen one, the next-to-last Munro on the western arm of the Lawers horseshoe. It's one of those chunky Highland hills that would be lauded further south but which tends to get lost in the mix up north. It's high - five metres higher than Carnedd Llewelyn, for instance - and steep in places, and with just enough complexity to be satisfying. But it's seen as a mere add-on to bigger things just along the way, and rarely features in write-ups or photographic selections.
I like it, though (this was my tenth time up), and I particularly like the southwest ridge that snakes down to the Lochan na Lairige dam. This has a steepish step at half height, and eventually emerges at a false-top cairn that must have tricked a few people in its time. From there, at 941m, it's half a kilometre of high-level stroll to the top, passing a second false cairn just before the true summit.
I went this way in March, having parked at the Tarmachan turnoff, the road beyond being blocked by drifts. Cloud was at 600m or so, and although the forecast was for improvement it didn't look promising. Still, I wasn't caring, so plodded up ribbons of soggy snow into the prevailing dreichness. An ice axe was useful, and within 15 minutes it was in my hand, in walking-stick / mild-protection mode on the steepening snowfields. The false tops and the true summit duly came, without any sign of conditions brightening and with enough of a southwesterly breeze to make the question of where to stop for a snack a non-trivial one. The summit cairn is only shin-high, so I ambled down the north ridge, looking for a place to duck down into the lee of the eastern slope.
A couple of minutes along, still over 1000m, I could see a couple of outcrops below to my right, 30m down. Chances were one of these would have a little shelf of level ground behind it, ideal for lunch out of the wind. So I stepped off the ridge and kicked down to where one of the outcrops did indeed provide reasonable shelter (although I could have done without the dripdrip of thaw-water from the crag above). I did this with scarcely a thought, and certainly not with any fear or concern: the axe was the perfect tool for the job, plunging in each time it was planted, with deep bucket steps being kicked as well. It was only when I worked my way back to the ridge after lunch that I was struck by the slope being pretty steep, around 35º, the kind of angle that causes a slight crick in the neck when trying to look upward.
WHY DESCRIBE this ordinary half-day with no particular incidents and certainly no alarms? Because, on regaining the ridge, I realised how good an example it had been of the fundamental difference between carrying an axe in winter and - as is increasingly the trend - carrying a trekking pole, or possibly two. With the axe, I thought nothing of the down-and-up diversion, and it allowed lunch to be eaten in relative comfort. No doubt the same manoeuvre could have been made using a pole - the snow was soft - but not with the same confidence with regard to safety: it wasn't a place to slip, the slope continuing at much the same angle for a fair way below. Yet more and more people seem to be making their way around big Scottish hills in winter armed with poles rather than axes. And my point is this: it worries me.
I'm on record as being unconvinced about the modern hillwalker's love affair with the trekking pole, but my intention here isn't to debate the merits of pole-use in summer, even though it seems a remarkable fad and the greatest commercial coup hillgoing has seen in the last 15 years. (Should any one person hold marketing rights, that person will be very rich by now, and good luck to them.) For summer walkers with genuine hip or knee problems, fair enough. But orthopaedic afflictees form only a small percentage of those to be seen marching round not just the streets of Ambleside or Keswick wielding two poles apiece, but inside the shops too, in a way they wouldn't dream of doing back home in Basingstoke or Basildon or wherever. It's all a bit bonkers.
But that's summer; this is winter. That's the Ponds - where all sorts of weird gearism goes; this is the Highlands. Over the past three years I've climbed more Munros than in the whole of the previous decade, and a good many have been in winter conditions (which isn't necessarily the same as climbing them "in winter"). My preferred method is to sneak up by some obscure, off-path route, then emerge on to well-trodden terrain before ambling down by one of the more guidebookish routes. And in doing this over the past few winters, I've repeatedly reached a Munro's busy zone only to find myself feeling bizarrely overequipped. Again and again I climb a moderately steep corrie wielding an axe and wearing crampons, and pop out on to an icy ridge populated by walkers with no ironmongery at all: just a pole or two or, in an increasing number of cases, absolutely nothing.
As with pole-use generally, this poles-rather-than-axes trend appears to have moved north from the bumpier bits of Albion's Plain. It's to be seen on pretty much any southern or central Munro these days, and for all I know (I'm less frequently in such parts) on the rockier hills of the north as well. Yet - to use a mathematical analogy - axes and poles are not commutative. There are many situations where an axe serves perfectly well as a walking stick. But it doesn't follow that poles fulfil the function of an axe. This should be self-evident, as poles don't have well-designed braking devices engineered into them. Poles also lack the solidity and chunky weight that an axe provides when driven deep into snow. Anyone who has ever used a vertically-buried axe will know that gripping it can feel as secure as holding on to a metal fencepost - whereas a pole rammed into deep snow, even presuming the snow-basket allows such a thing, has a worrying tendency to slice sideways like a wire through cheese and thus provide no support at all.
Poles limit the scope of what the walker can do and where they can go. Stob Binnein, February. Again I was alone, on firm snow above 800m on Meall na Dige. Crampons were clipped on shortly before Stob Coire an Lochain. It wasn't an essential-crampon day - I was wearing them for early-season practice on very kickable snow - but the first person met on the main ridge likewise had them on, as did several others. It was certainly, however, an axe-at-least day, so it was alarming to encounter several poles-only walkers plus three nothing-at-all people. These would probably have been fine, if a little discomforted in places, so long as they stayed on the main path. But what if the cloud had closed in and the path been lost? What if the path had become hard-packed and icy due to the passage of many feet - a particular problem on popular hills? A pole wouldn't have been much use then. And as for exploration - the snowfields on either flank were full of interesting and inviting corners open to anyone equipped with axe and crampons, but these were no-go areas to those without. Which, even leaving aside the question of safety, is a shame. Most hillgoers vehemently resist being locked into linear corridors, and rightly so, yet more and more people, in winter at least, seem to voluntarily opt for this.
The stick-to-the-path mentality lies at the core of why winter pole use is on the increase. A great many hillgoers now take their navigational prompts not from maps but from guidebooks and from the route descriptions that overload modern glossy mags. There's nothing innately wrong in these, and there's certainly nothing innately wrong in enthusiastic-but-inexperienced people being encouraged to take to the hills, winter or summer. But there is something worrying about the downplaying of difficulties, the almost casual "Yes, you too can climb a winter Munro!" attitude that often underpins the presentation of standard routes. And it's ironic that, in an age when equipment-obsession is greater than ever, when people are spending small fortunes on GPSs, fancy cagoules and so on, an axe and a set of crampons - which together are still cheaper than many cagoules - are often seen as too expensive to merit.
Safety should be paramount, but safety tends to be seen in subjective terms. Whenever I see an underequipped walker floundering on a slope that would be trivial with axe and crampons, I'm tempted to ask if they would just have happily driven to the hill that morning in a car with no brakes.
I should stress here that I'm no hill tiger. I feel confident venturing out on certain winter hills alone (indeed I couldn't imagine life without that); and, as anyone who has ever been on the hill with me tends to know to their cost, I'm unusually tolerant of poor or even foul weather. (Don't believe what the picture-books claim. The only real wildernesses in Scotland are when the clag is down and the wind is howling.) But I'm no great scrambler and certainly not a climber, even less a "winter mountaineer". Every now and then I'll stray into Grade I territory, and will usually enjoy it, but I'll always breathe a sigh of slight relief when the terrain eases back to what could be called Grade 0.5.
The reason I say this is because some people seem to be deterred from learning basic axe/crampon technique because they regard this as the domain of the Serious Mountaineer and - especially - because they've been convinced by the guidebooks (written by these selfsame SMs) that climbing any big hill in winter is automatically several orders of desperateness harder than it would be in summer. Clearly if your winter targets are such as the Coe, Torridon or the inner Cairngorms then that is indeed the case. But one of the great joys of gradually becoming accustomed to climbing Scottish winter hills is finding that there are routes for all preferences and abilities. A lot of the time, given an awareness of weather and of underfoot conditions, a willingness to adapt and adjust, a canniness about fall-lines and - crucially - the right metalwear, all sorts of impressive hills can be climbed and descended without the day being particularly intrepid at all. Indeed, the Lawers Munros provide good examples of the variations: An Stuc is undoubtedly serious if linked with Meall Garbh. Ben Lawers itself, and Beinn Ghlas, tend to be straightforward so long as the wind isn't putting an icy top on things. Meall Greigh is a pleasant grassy pudding (although I'd still take an axe rather than a stick). And Meall Corranich and Meall a'Choire Leith are somewhere between, straightforward given care and common sense.
THERE IS MUCH else that could be said here if space allowed, but a few brief points should be added:
FINALLY, back to Ben Lawers or thereabouts. Another day from the past winter, January this time, found Warbeck and me on the Tarmachan ridge in thin but firm snow and considerable amounts of ice. We - or, rather, I - made such an arse of the navigation that we ended up traversing a whole chunk of the ridge in both directions, but that's not the issue here. It was a nailed-down midwinter day, and the skiddyness and narrowness of the ridge meant it was crying out for crampons. And, glory be, every one of the 20 or so people we met was wearing them, and had an axe as well. OK, so a dozen of these were clients on some kind of winter skills course and would have been fitted out with the firm's metalware, but never mind that. A full 100% use of proper winter kit was reassuring to see. It isn't always like that, but at least some people do seem determined to get it right, and the hope has to be that their numbers increase.
TAC 68 Index