Whist down in the glens, thoughts are turning to spring, snow drops busy pushing their way to the surface and the first of the ticks have started to emerge, the mountains are still cloaked in winter.
As a mountain runner this can be a frustrating time, waiting for the snow to soften enough to run on safely or to clear completely from some routes. However winter running is one of my favorite times especially now as the sun gains some strength and the hills gradually let us back in.
I love running in snow, twisting up into the dark woods as big snowflakes fall and plaster tree trunks, masking the usual features and turning the night into a fairy land where goblins and pixies are going about their business just outside the pool of light from my head torch. The snow softens every sound, masks traces of other humans, and can make it feel like you are the first to ever venture here. It also reveals the tiny footprints of the forests inhabitants and their intricate pathways.
Snow running in the hills can be even more inspiring and an incredible experience, although of course it has some added risks and knowledge is essential. As you head higher into the hills the wind creates stunning artwork, ripples and dancing ridges where its blown and carved the soft snow. Icy crystals sprout from every surface and rimed up boulders have fragile, delicate decorations growing out into the wind. When the sun catches the mountains it causes them to glint and sparkle from every direction like a glamorous prom queen. The landscape is transformed under snow and it feels like exploring an entire new world, a blank sheet of paper to draw your own path.
Its hard work, trail breaking in fresh powder, lifting feet high and breaking through a crunchy crust. Lungs fight to suck in the icy air and the vapour billowing out makes us resemble dragons. However the simple joy of being out on a good day makes every sweaty stride worthwhile. If you are lucky enough to have a compacted path to run on, the going can be faster than over the rocks in summer and descending can be a cushioned dream, far less jarring than stone.
Even if the bad weather rolls in it can be exhilarating racing down the hillside with the next snow shower chasing you down. Fighting the elements can be one of the most satisfying parts of fell running and being able to be out there and navigate safely while the sleet is slicing into your cheeks and the wind pushing and pulling really makes it feel like you earned your tea!
Snow can of course be a danger, avalanche hazard, harder navigation and icy snow with much colder temperatures can all have a big impact on our route or plan. More than in summer the temperature difference between the valley and summit can be huge and windchill also has a greater effect. Although whilst moving it might feel like the tropics, bodies will be super cooled the minute one stops and even when the sun is shining we can quickly be in trouble. Whilst in summer a twisted ankle is a nuisance, we can usually hop down safely. In the cold in winter it can be potentially life threatening.
Top things for your winter pack
- a proper warm top, e.g. primaloft.
- good taped waterproofs, perhaps sturdier than those you might take in summer.
- a map and compass (and being able to use them!)
- a good headtorch not just a tiny spot.
- a fully charged phone.
As always the most important thing is to use your common sense and make good decisions based on the conditions. Even if its warm in the glen, higher up the hills might still be in full on winter conditions and that mild breeze might be an icy gale. No one wants to get stuck at the top finding it too slippery to get down in fell shoes! Remember its always easier going up.
Whilst it may still be some time till we can get into the big mountains, for the moment at least, the smaller summits are becoming accessible. Just watch out for the lambing storms. Get out and play!
Good websites to use in winter, for weather and mountain forecasts:
For avalanche advice and awareness: http://www.sais.gov.uk/
Thanks to Huw ( https://topofests.wordpress.com/ ) getting some great photo practice in!