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Winter Unawares

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

Most of my summer has been spent on the road exploring new mountains and seeking out warmer weather than typically found in Scotland. Towards the end of the trip, however, the weather unexpectedly turned and unseasonal snow hit the ground. This is the story of a chilly weekend that made me excited to return to Scotland and reminded me to be prepared for all weather conditions.

We were in Switzerland for our last weekend in the Alps and keen for some final big mountain adventures. After weeks of oppressive heat and insects at most altitudes it finally felt like the seasons were turning. The Friday was spent hiking around and climbing la Maya (the haystack) on what felt like the first day of autumn: cool temperatures and persistent cloud meant we opted for the easier route and when we descended out of the cloud we were treated to a carpet of red leaves. As we strolled back to the van, munching on the final berries of the summer, we excitedly planned an autumnal run through the mountains for the following day. The weather, however, had other plans.

Overnight the temperatures plummeted and we awoke shivering in the van. Delaying emerging from the covers I opened my phone and soon realised that our run plans might have to change. A friend staying at a higher pass had sent a series of photos from their van that morning showing unexpected snowfall! I leapt out of bed and checked our surroundings - we only had a dusting but the blue skies overhead made me keen to head higher and see what winter conditions could be found.

The problem with unforecast weather, however, is that it often catches you off guard. We’d left Scotland in early August and had packed appropriately, which meant we weren’t necessarily kitted out for snowy conditions. We had one pair of leggings between us, and no microspikes to keep our feet secure on slippy snow. Furthermore, the route we had planned the evening before went up to nearly 3000m, but parked up at 1500m with no mountain views we had no idea how achievable that route would be.

After talking over our options we decided to stick to the original plan. We went over the route and identified points where we could bail out if the snow was too deep, temperatures too low or progress too slow. In our bags we packed all the layers we had with us, substituting usual winter items with the closest counterparts available (think mountain biking gloves, casual hoodies and many, many buffs). Our bags weren’t full of the usual winter stuff but we had enough to stay warm in most situations.

The route we had planned began by circumventing the mountains we had looked at the previous day. When we arrived at the start of the run it became clear that snow hadn’t fallen on these lower slopes and that the first part of the run would be manageable. Looking at higher slopes the snow didn’t seem too deep, but we didn’t know how stable, sloppy, or icy the snow would be once we got there.

Our first bail-out option would be the first col we reached, if it was impassable we would simply turn around and retrace our low level loop back to the van. If we were able to continue we would reach a slightly higher col. Ideally we would continue here to higher ground, but if that seemed too risky we would be able to go over the second col and return directly to the van.

In the end at every decision point we decided conditions were fine to continue. We crossed the first col with no problems and continued along a lovely contouring path to the second. The trail was clear of snow whilst the ground on either side shone white in the sun - it felt like a mini snow plough was just ahead clearing the way for us!

At the second col we decided that the snow was thin and soft enough to stick to the original plan. We continued to higher ground, albeit moving more slowly and cautiously than in warmer weather. It was a long slog up a steep climb where every step forwards involved a little slide backwards. Although hard work the route was safe, and the views were more than worth the effort! On top there was a slight breeze and temperatures felt very cold. Lots of layers went on, including gloves and all available buffs!

We kept an eye on the weather all day as the blue skies were constantly threatening to turn wilder, and as we reached our high point for the day we noticed thick cloud forming around the peaks around us. We decided to get moving and get down quickly before the weather turned, but in the end the sun stayed out all day and we had a very warm jog back to the van.

All in all it was an excellent day out in the mountains and a lovely way to bring our summer trip to an end. It also provided a good reminder of the extra thought that is required when going out in wintry conditions, all within the relatively safe environment of the Alps (higher mountains but much more accessible, much busier, and many more shelters available than in Scotland!). More than anything, it got me very excited for some wild, windy and wet winter adventures.

If you'd love to get out in the winter hills of Scotland but are concerned about having the skills, equipment or experience you need, then check out our winter courses - inlcuding Winter Skills 101 and Discover Winter guided trail running adventures.

If you're keen to meet other likeminded women, make a weekend of it or even try your hand at some Scottish winter climbing, then why not come along to our Women's Winter Festival on March 10-12th 2023 and get into winter with us this year!

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