A Winter Walk in Scotland

With only six weeks to go before I find myself standing on the sand at mile 0 in California, I spent the weekend crunching over sugary crystals of snow in the Scottish Highlands.


Winter walking in the Cairngorms turned out to be entirely different from any kind of trip I have done before, from the shoes to the views. Learning to walk in crampons is like learning to walk. Spiky foot-claws that weigh your foot down, and shred any flimsy waterproof trouser legs that get in their way (should have worn gaiters). Dangerous-looking walking axes conduct the cold and make the ends of your fingers freeze. The locals and guides there have a special reverence for winter. They talk about it with a capital W.

The alien crampons and axes make you feel less agile than a newborn giraffe, but once you’ve got the hang of it, everything changes.  Previously unattainable slopes fall within your grasp; running up the snowpack on all fours becomes your fastest way to the top (goodbye switchbacks); secure footing where before you would have swallowed your heart with every step. It is amazing how you can change the way you see your capabilities in relation to the environment. Although get ready to discover unused calf muscles that you never knew you had.


OK, so if you’re not on the PCT, where are you?


So the Cairngorms… “Where are they?” I hear the U.S. readers ask. My geography isn’t very good, but I checked Google and made a map to show anyone who isn’t sure.

In the U.K. it may be, but a world away from London, the south, and all that is familiar to me.

The week before had seen fierce storms in the Cairngorms, moving vast amounts of snow into hunkering drifts on northern aspects, and scouring the southern slope clean. But sharp sun was our weekend companion, meaning that we never “entered the ping pong ball,” to quote Mike Brownlow, mountain guide, great guy and backcountry extraordinaire.



The landscape describes itself.

To the south was a snowless vista looking over Loch Morlich and Aviemore: orange brown heathers and complex color gradients dropped away into the blue distance, as white snow transitioned to gray rock, then ground plants, and trees.

To the north, nothing but white mushrooms of snow. Fresh fallen in the previous week, it was picked up by the strong hands and wippy fingers of wind and dropped again in new and dangerous forms. Avalanche risk: considerable. A lone walker is likely to trigger an avalanche on some slopes. (Another helpful thought from Mike: “If it was likely that you would be knocked down in crossing a road, would you cross it?”)

The good news is no one triggered an avalanche that day, or the next, and with the weekend over, Monday brought rain (of course it did) and a long drive south.

To anyone considering getting some training with moving in mountains in winter, using crampons, self-arresting, winter navigation, or having a great weekend out in the snow, I can recommend Cairngorm Adventure Guides as a good place to start: wonderful people flowing with expertise and advice.

Here’s a washy sketch and some footage of the trip. Enjoy.


Hope to see you out there.

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Comments 5

  • Avatar
    Kevin : Mar 17th

    I see your map, but where is the UK?

  • Avatar
    Kevin : Mar 17th

    Also, you need a hell of a lot more than an inch of snow for “considerable avalanche risk” (or any avalanche risk at all). From what I can see there isn’t even an inch but probably half an inch. That is well away from the meters of snow you’d need for an avalanche.

    • Avatar
      Lizzie : Mar 17th

      yeah you’re right- the southern aspects got pretty scoured by the wind! That risk was more on the northen faces, so we made sure to avoid them

  • Avatar
    Phil : Mar 19th

    I remember learning Winter skills in the ‘Gorms, oh so many years ago. I still stand by the opinion that if you experienced walking and mountaineering in (“proper”) Scottish Winter conditions, everything else (glaciers aside) is easy by comparison: Snow in the Sierra? Pah, child’s play; A storm on Denali? Like “a good day on the Ben” (that’s Ben Nevis for the unaware) 🙂

    Really nice water colour by the way. I hope you have a fantastic time on the PCT. I have to wait an entire year before before my wife and I attempt it.

  • Avatar
    Barbara Ver Steeg : Apr 1st

    I am so thrilled for you, Lizzie! Can’t wait to hear about the journey and, best of all, to see it through your artistic lens.


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