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WILD IS THE WIND


The worst weather day I've ever had on the hill was a traverse of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a' Chroin one May. The odds are on your side at that time of year but on this occasion there was lying snow right down to the glen, cloud down to 300 metres or so and at road level it was raining depressingly. I was dropped off by Loch Lubnaig and headed up the track over towards Edinample. Once above the trees the rain turned to snow, and there was already 20cm or so on the ground. It wasn't too windy at first, even up on the first summit, Beinn Each. In the thick mist with any paths covered navigation on the complex lumpy ridge beyond was tricky, though the odd fence post helped. By the time I got to the top of Stuc a' Chroin the wind had got up and was blowing me about. It was northerly so the way up Ben Vorlich was sheltered at first, but as the angle slackened off the wind did the opposite. The snow high up had been wind-hardened and my ice axe started to become more than a walking stick. Soon the inevitable happened and a gust whisked me off my feet. The axe stopped me being blown anywhere and I attempted to stand up again. The wind blew me flat straight away, and another go produced the same result. By then the summit was only 100 metres away and I was pig-headed enough to still want to reach it. Crawling was the only realistic option, so that was what I did. At one point it even involved pulling myself along with the axe, not just using it as an anchor. I retraced my steps by the same method, then switched to shuffling along on my backside as the slope steepened.


Ben Vorlich

Ben Vorlich on a much less windy day


Thankfully the snow quickly became much softer as I descended and soon it was supportive enough to stand up in. Glen Ample was almost sheltered, but it was still snowing heavily, and I plodded down wet snow to where the bridge was marked on my map. It wasn't there. Assuming that it had been washed away I waded the river, about knee deep. A few hundred yards down I arrived at the spot where the new bridge had been built 😠. Grrrr! If I'd been carrying a newer map and the snow hadn't obscured the trodden route I wouldn't have had the problem. To add insult to injury the hotel where I had arranged for my friends to pick me up had burned down the week before and I had to spend the next half hour standing in a telephone box waiting for them.


Sgurr a' Mhaim

Sgurr a' Mhaim, I descended the RH skyline


Like most people who have spent much time on winter hills I've been blown over a few times. The scariest was while taking a rather ill-chosen descent slanting across the north flank of Sgurr a' Mhaim in the Mamores. I was crossing a steep patch of hardish snow when the gust knocked me over. I whacked in my axe and hung onto it grimly. Disturbingly I didn't hang straight downwards as the wind was blowing across the slope and my legs were being blown out at an angle. What do you do when your only effective point of contact with the slope is one axe? A series of jerky slides down leftwards was the answer, lying on my front and jabbing the axe in as soon as I had taken it out, each time sliding/being blown a few feet across and down. Half a dozen jabs and I was onto snow that I could kick into and stand up. I invested in a pair of crampons not long afterwards 🙂. They wouldn't have stopped me being blown over but the descent would have been much simpler.


Hecla, Beinn Coradail and Beinn Mhor, South Uist

Hecla, Beinn Corradail and Beinn Mhor on the morning of the gale


I've only been actually picked up and thrown once though, while doing the classic trio of Beinn Mhor, Beinn Corradail and Hecla (Thacla) in South Uist. It had been a gorgeous morning as I crossed the moor from the Staoinebrig road end, with lovely views of the three hills. As I reached the minor summit of Spin it started to rain, then by the time I reached the main ridge of Beinn Mhor it had become very windy. I know now that in September the Western Isles often get strong winds, but this was my first experience of a Hebridean equinoctal gale. On the narrow part of the ridge I had to stay on the windy side as the other side is a huge cliff, but I could keep just below the crest to avoid being blown over it. On the way back from the summit I was being battered around a bit and the raindrops were hammering into my face. I had expected that as I lost height I would get some shelter as the slope faced east, but this wasn't the case. The wind was funnelling through the gap of Bealach Sheiliosdail and just got even stronger. Being young and stupid I didn't do the sensible thing and escape northwards down Gleann Dorchaidh, just carried on with Plan A.


Beinn Mhor, South Uist

The Beinn Mhor ridge on a calm day


The ascent to Beinn Corradail was steep enough for using my hands to be natural, but at times I was hanging onto the slope to avoid being blown over. There was a brief moment of almost calm once I was over the crest at the top of the slope, where the wind was being deflected straight upwards, but once on the gentler shoulder above it resumed full blast. I was just starting up the short rise to the summit when a stronger gust than usual came along and suddenly I was 30 feet down and sideways. It happened so fast that there wasn't time to be scared, and as I hit grassy ground at a slant I didn't get hurt (and adrenaline probably helped). My main feeling was annoyance that I was going to have to reclimb the slope I had just struggled up.


Hecla and Beinn Corradail, South Uist

Hecla with Beinn Corradail in front. The spot where I was picked up is the short grassy rise just before the summit


Descending the leeward slope wasn't an option as it led down into empty country, so the quickest way into shelter was over the summit. To avoid a repeat performance I crawled the last 100 yards or so to the cairn on hands and knees, then shuffled down into the top of a scree gully on my backside. Calling this sheltered would be pushing it, but it wasn't anything like as bad as outside the gully. Down on the open slope below this the wind finally started to slack off, although the down side was that the rain got heavier. I could have easily descended to the road from here but being a stubborn so-and-so I carried on and slogged up the uninteresting slope to the top of Hecla. By the time I reached the top the wind had dropped to just ordinarily windy, but the heavy rain was still unpleasant. There were no views and I was by now getting wet and cold, so I didn't stop and just headed down by the quickest route I could. It was a wet splodge across the by now full bogs alongside Abhainn Rog, feeling like the road was never going to arrive. The mile along the road back to the youth hostel seemed interminable too, but at least there was a fire going when I got there. I discovered later that wind speeds of 80mph had been recorded at sea level, so presumably the ones at 600 metres were even stronger.


Wind, Meall Garbh, Ben Lawers

Bob Maclean on Meall Garbh, not quite at his most extreme angle 🙂


If I've been leading clients I've usually stayed off the tops in 50mph or more, but there have been exceptions. I've had a few trips with Bob and Marilyn Maclean, a fit and keen American couple who had done a lot of Scottish hills and were prepared to push things out a bit in marginal conditions, so we had a few 'interesting' days. On Meall Garbh near Ben Lawers one April I looked back and Bob was walking at a good 20 degrees off the vertical, and on Ben Wyvis we had to hang on to Marilyn (who is quite small) to prevent her being blown away. Wyvis was Bob's 100th Munro, which is good going from a base a continent away. On another occasion I was down on the Cornish cliffs with a group including a very small New York lady, who was wearing a poncho. A sudden gust got under the poncho and lifted her right off her feet. Three of us quickly grabbed her to prevent her being blown away.


Sprinkling Tarn, Lake District

Sprinkling Tarn, I was camped just right of the tarn


I've had a few escapades with camping in big winds and had my tent blown over a few times, usually at some godawful hour in the morning. Once up at Sprinkling Tarn in the Lakes a pole snapped at about 4am and after packing as quickly as possible I set off to walk over to Langdale. The wind was behind me and it was beginning to get light so it wasn't too bad. I got to the road by the Old Dungeon Ghyll at 8ish and a car turned out of the hotel entrance as I arrived. The driver offered me a lift and turned out to be going all the way to the Midlands, dropping me at the foot of my parents' road in Lichfield!


High Cup Nick, Northern Pennines

High Cup Nick, the gorge is off left


Another time I was backpacking around the Northern Pennines when a hurricane was forecast for the next morning. I found a great sheltered spot to put up the tent in Maize Beck Gorge above High Cup Nick, which worked a treat. The next morning it was raining violently so I just went back to sleep. A couple of hours later I could still hear it hammering down from inside my sleeping bag, but it was obviously sunny. I stuck my head out of the front of the tent and imediately got very wet. After an instinctive retreat a moment's thought told me something was odd here. Sticking my head out again for slightly longer, I realised that it wasn't raining, but the wind was picking up the waterfall at the head of the gorge and depositing it on my tent! It also became obvious that staying put wasn't an option as the gorge was gradually filling with water. I packed in a hurry and headed off. It was much windier outside the gorge and I was being blown around so much that it took 4 hours to stagger 7km down the valley. I'd had enough by then and settled down in another sheltered spot near Cauldron Snout. The falls were in impressive condition, but still paled in comparison to High Force the next day, easily the fullest I've ever seen it, with both branches of the fall swollen and even water spilling over between them.


A fairly full High Force, copyright Les Hull, from Geograph. On the occasion described the RH fall was also full, and surges were even coming over the middle rock!


Most of these experiences weren't fun at the time but I'm glad I had them, so I suppose they qualify as 'Type 2 Fun', though in the case of the ones where my tent was destroyed even that's debateable. Don't mess with big winds, should be the message (bet I still carry on doing it though 😁).







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