Sunday, 9 May 2010

Euology for the winter

Although I first mourned the passing of the winter over a month ago, observing the snow and ice receding from our mountains, the time has at last come to admit that the seasons have turned and summer is truly upon us. Light past ten o'clock in the evenings; the trees resplendent in their bright new green summer coats; the chatter of trekking poles and flash of sunglasses heralding the summer hordes. Perhaps most tellingly of all, the snow patches are in terminal retreat and now nothing can stop the passing of the ice.

Last year I found this a difficult time to come to terms with. Snow gives a mountain a certain formidable stature. In summer, any mountaineer may scale any one of the peaks in Glencoe, even the very highest, Bidean nam Bian: they are tamed and predictable, unchanging. After the first storms of the winter, the great mountains glower down at us, promising a different experience. Those first snows of winter are an incredibly exciting time and we eagerly measure the advance of the ice as it re-takes the high ground, filling the gullies, smoothing over the crags. The peaks are once again converted into the wild and austere cathedrals where we may test ourselves and, as often as not, are humiliatingly beaten. Our successes are more keenly earned in winter.

In July, a mountain is just a mountain. That same elevation in February is a question mark. What equipment will be necessary? How will conditions affect the speed and route of my ascent? Will a savage storm or avalanche force a retreat? To climb a mountain in winter requires greater skill, experience, fitness; it requires different equipment and a tougher mental attitude. Correspondingly, the rewards are increased a thousand fold.

Perhaps most importantly, the aesthetic quality of a mountain is improved beyond measure in winter. Consider the West Face of the Aonach Dubh in summer: a treasured rock-climbing crag, but aesthetically it is dull, just a huge lump of rock. On a bright February afternoon, however, the great peak rises from the dark glen and burns white and gold in the sun. On the high ridge-top, mountaineers may be spotted, through telescope, climbing to their audience with the summit; perhaps a plume of spindrift is dislodged by their passage and blows like a comet's tail into the sky. Below, on the face, ice thunders and falls in the gullies. We watch the waxing and waning of rime-ice on the wall as the days pass. The mountain is alive, a symbol and a challenge.

Sometimes I am accused of holding onto the winter for too long. Perhaps next time you see me standing by the side of a forlorn patch of snow in the baking summer heat, you will cast your mind back and remember when that soggy morass was part of a million tons of living ice, changing by the day, helping to furnish a great peak with the uniform it wears for more than half the year.

Photo (C) James Roddie 2010

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