There is one activity us mountaineers don’t talk about much. It gives us such joy that we’re afraid that if we let the cat out of the bag thousands of people would head for the hills just to take part in this, one of our favourite parts of winter hill climbing. I felt, however, that it is perhaps time to own up to what gives us such pleasure. I am referring, of course, to what is known in the trade as snow plodding.
There’s nothing quite like it, it goes something like this. “I take one step forward and my leg disappears into the snow. I put my weight on my foot and it vanishes further, sliding back behind my other leg so that I am, in effect going backwards.”
I’ve been doing this for an hour now, several thousand times and, if you look really closely, you’ll see that the boulder I set off from sixty minutes ago is at least two meters further way than when I started. I step forward again and this time the snow decides upon a merry jape and collapses complete projecting me face down into the snow where I get a whole mouthful of the white mush that has become my world. My heart fills with song.
It’s a long time since I visited the hills above Loch Quoich and it’s my first time here in winter. It’s a huge area; the little road that sets off from the main road between Invergarry and nowhere in particular runs for about 22 miles before it gives up trying to find somewhere to go and dives into the sea at Kinloch Hourn. Loch Quoich, I remember, is not to be trusted, it’s the sort of expanse of water you shouldn’t turn your back on, in fact, it shouldn’t be where it is at all.
Let me tell you why. Many moons ago I and my two Merseyside friends, Joe and Mr Jones, set off to back pack from Glenfinnan to Shiel Bridge, a walk of around three days. It feels like half a lifetime ago now, in fact, it is half a lifetime. We carefully calculated how much food we should carry and kept the weight were are carrying down to a minimum trying to compensate for the old canvas tent that was pressing us down into the heather with every step. On the last day of our walk, all food consumed and our packs at the lightest, I crested the ridge of Sgurr Beag, a little ahead of my friends, expecting to see before me a gentle descent into the glen with, a few miles beyond that, a short climb to take us out to Glen Shiel from where we could access the flesh pots of Kyle of Lochalsh. Pubs and chip shops beckoned me.
Instead a huge stretch of water barred our way. At first I looked away and then back thinking it must be some optical illusion, a sort of Highland mirage, but no, when I looked back it was still there. Mr Jones’ old cloth map was consulted, perhaps we were in the wrong place. No, we were in the right place, it was the loch that was wrong. In the end it dawned on us that, since the map had been printed, the loch had appeared behind the newly constructed dam. It clearly had no right to be there. Despite this Loch Quoich stubbornly refused to move and we were forced to walk around it and had to spend an extra night in the hills without food. The following day as we walked out to civilisation our minds focussed entirely on the one thing we didn’t have, something to eat. We discussed the various merits of different kinds of chocolate biscuits and the feasts we would devour when we eventually hit the tarmac. I’ve never trusted Loch Quoich after that.
My mind wandered back to that trek as I struggled through the snow towards the summit of Spidean Mialach when suddenly I heard voices behind me. A couple were following in my tracks up the hill. I did the only sensible thing and stopped to take a photo, fasten my gloves, or something else. It didn’t really matter as this was a ruse to get them to pass me and began making the trail for the last few hundred feet. This, much to my joy, they did and the final ascent was much easier, thanks to them.
I realised I have neglected this area over the years, my obsession with winter climbing having taken me back again and again to the same icy corries and forced me to ignore such great tracks of wilderness. “I must come back here,” I thought, now I have the whole place to explore again. This time, however, I’ll make sure that there are no large bodies of water wandering about waiting to surprise me. This time I’ll take a new map.