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Ben Dolphin: Magic moments in our wintry mountains

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I haul my rucksack on to my back, and it’s a weight I’ve not experienced all season.

It’s one of those days when you take everything with you because you could encounter just about any variety of snow and ice up there.

The March days might be long and the sun might be warm in the car park, but it’s important not to be fooled. The snowpack thaws and refreezes in the rollercoaster temperatures, compacting it down and turning its surface into neve – a solid substance somewhere between snow and ice. Crampons and ice axe packed, just in case. But heavy falls of softer snow can also still occur at this time of year, in which case skis or snowshoes can come in handy as well. I’ve brought the latter, hence a rather heavy rucksack.

Ben Dolphin

It’s only 8am as I set off up the hill, but already the world is blinding. The track, the moors, the hills, everything is white and reflective beneath a bright blue sky. Game Of Thrones famously has its “Long Night”, and while Scotland can’t quite match the Westerosi winter for its darkness, our greyness and sogginess are second to none. Emerging from the Lang Dreich therefore feels amazingly restorative, and I can almost feel the vitamin D surging after weeks of soggy grey storms.

The first few kilometres pass by effortlessly in shallow snow, but with height the snow deepens and before long I am “post holing” like a very heavy giraffe, in stilettos, across very soft polystyrene.

Snowshoes on, and instant improvement. I still sink a bit but only half as much as with boots alone, and before long I’m steadily and rhythmically ascending a massively wide snowfield between two Munros. Under a warm sun, it all feels very alpine. The grandeur takes my breath away, but the absence of any rocky blemishes makes distances hard to gauge.

The scale of the place is revealed only when I spot another walker heading downhill, about 500 metres away. It’s too tiring in the snow to go out of our way to meet, and so we slowly pass one another no closer than 200m, waving silently as we do so like ships signalling to one another. Keeping our distance feels a bit weird, given neither of us is likely to see anyone else all day. But with just three days to go before social distancing becomes the new way of life, it’s an ominous portent of what is to come.

The views expand as I climb higher, revealing snowy ridge after snowy ridge, each one higher than the one before. The nearest has buckled under the volume of snow, forming cracks and crevices that perfectly imitate a fractured glacier. I happily embrace the illusion, imagining Scotland as it might have looked 15,000 years ago.

Crossing the final plateau, the castle-like summit cairn finally rears up ahead and I clamber up the last few metres. The view is massive, and deceptive. Our hills might be “wee” in global terms, but when the snow’s down you’d never know it. Everything looks bigger. I linger for 20 minutes or so before the summit wind persuades me otherwise.

The gentle descent is, in a word, heavenly. The snowshoes never fully compress the snow beneath them and so it feels like I’m floating instead of walking.

Fwumff… fwumff… fwumff… fwumff…

It’s the best sound in the world. I don’t make a habit of walking around smiling to myself, but I’m keenly aware that I am beaming from ear to ear. I look down at my feet as I make my way across the white expanse, the snowshoes kicking up powdery snow as I go.

For 20 or 30 steps I’m mesmerised by the repetitive action, the blurring of hard and soft, and the way they kick the snow up around them. It’s oddly relaxing to watch, almost hypnotic, and for a moment I think about filming it and selling it to BBC Four as one of those trendy “Slow TV” things. Any takers?

All too soon the snow gets too thin for snowshoes. I sit on a boulder to remove them and stow them on my bag. My gait feels ridiculously spindly and unstable now, but my mood is sky high as I wind my way back along the track to the car.

As I walk I tell myself it’s a shame that conditions like this are so rare, but then I tell myself I probably enjoy them 10 times more than I would if they were commonplace. Because when something is rare and precious, it feels like a gift. It feels like a privilege.

But now it’s four days later, and everything has changed. Just 96 hours ago I felt utterly free, lighter than air, floating through snow on a high that could have carried me up into the clouds. Now… well, these are weird and unsettling times, and though I don’t doubt we’ll come through them eventually, I find that the memories of my day in the snow have become far more precious and important to me than I ever could have imagined.

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