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Ben Dolphin: Even in spring a hill walk can quickly morph into mountaineering

Even in spring, snow can prove hazardous on our hills.
Even in spring, snow can prove hazardous on our hills.

“On this day FOUR YEARS AGO”, it said.

A Facebook memory, deviously designed to diminish my attention span and make me linger longer online.

In this case I didn’t mind because the ‘memory’ looked glorious – a huge, sun-kissed snowy amphitheatre, its headwall rising steeply towards a Himalayan-blue sky. Massive cornices curled off the summit, frozen like breaking waves of thick ice cream. And in the foreground…..oh…..a solitary figure bizarrely spread-eagled on all fours on the ground?

Ah. The memories came flooding back. This chap was very cagily edging down the hill as I was walking up it, and as we passed we briefly chatted.

He’d come up from down south for some hillwalking, but because it wasn’t winter he hadn’t packed his winter gear. No crampons, no axe, but still he couldn’t resist.

It’s easier to walk up a slippy slope than down

I could well understand the lure that morning. From the glen, the hill looked alpine. The March sun was so strong, the glen so warm, that it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that the spring snow would be soft and wet.

But it wasn’t. It was rock solid, impenetrable to anything but spikes. And while the surface wasn’t glazed smooth like an ice rink, it was nonetheless slippy enough to mean that even on the most modest of gradients, boots would be taken from under you.

He was aware of that, to be fair, which is why he’d only set himself the target of getting into the coire rather than up the hill itself. But it’s easier to walk up a slippy slope than it is to walk down it, and so even in the coire he’d walked himself into a predicament where it was no longer possible to stand upright.

Focus on runaway bag left me nervous

Twenty minutes after that encounter, on a slope so slight you’d barely notice it, my empty (and therefore very light) camera tripod bag fell off my rucksack. Hearing the soft impact, I turned to watch the inevitable.

It was comical how slowly it slid, daring me to chase, but I refused to indulge it. I naively assumed that it would quickly grind to a halt on this imperceptible incline. Instead I watched as it gleefully and veeeeery slowly put an enormous distance between us.

“Ach, it’ll stop soon”

Nope. On it went, steadily sliding across seemingly flat ground. I was torn between the desire to run after it, and a fatalistic fascination in seeing just how far it would go. By the time it had found enough truly flat ground to lose momentum and stop, it was so far away that I almost considered not bothering. It took me over 10 minutes to retrieve it and walk back again.

Spring snow can be hazardous

Had that not happened, I mightn’t have been quite so nervous as I ascended the increasingly steep slopes up to the summit. I had excellent grip from my crampons, and my axe for added security, but even so it was one of those days when walking quickly morphs into mountaineering without realising. Occasionally I’d pause, look down and wonder what would happen if I slipped. Yep, I’d go fast. For hundreds of metres.

It might seem odd that spring snow can be so hazardous, but this is a common set-up in Scotland this time of year. Clear skies and subzero nights help preserve the snowpack, but the sun is strong enough to melt its surface. Overnight, the snow freezes again. The next day it melts, and again refreezes, and with every cycle of freeze-thaw in this glorious weather, the snow gets smoother. Harder. Slippier.

2018 was a particularly snowy March, but the hazard persists even in leaner springs like this, when relatively small patches of hard snow obstruct your path. Sometimes it’s a distance of just 20 or 30 metres, so you look and think…… “oh I’ll be fine, it’s not far”.

Think twice before heading out without the right gear

The temptation to cross them without the right gear, even though you know you shouldn’t, can be overwhelming. But think twice before doing something that you know in your gut probably isn’t safe.

Bullet-proof spring snow and lack of crampons were, after all, to blame for my one bad hillwalking accident. Not because I walked across the snow and slipped, rather because I deliberately avoided it.

The rock hard snow that day was a hazard, yes, but the dangerously steep and unstable rocky alternatives weren’t any better. I could have, should have, just turned back. But I didn’t because I thought: “It’ll be fine. It won’t happen to me.”

But it wasn’t. And it did.

Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast, countryside ranger and former president of Ramblers Scotland

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