It was a fairly spontaneous idea. Sometimes the best plans are just that: not very well planned. A quick message to a friend and a skim through the MWIS forecasts were enough to plan things out.
Albeit the weather was telling us the first real snow of the season would be falling at low levels, in the back of my head was Alfred Wainwright telling me, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
Our clothing was on point, at least we had that much sense. Often climbing a mountain in winter contains one part sense, three parts daring. Really, we weren’t all that daring; Schiehallion in the relatively wintery conditions forecasted wouldn’t be too bad.
Leaving first thing in the morning, we hit the icy roads from Stirling and headed north. The world grew progressively Scandinavian as we drove north; some of the trees were even courteous enough to bow to us in welcomer under the weight of the snow on their branches.
The land might be turning white, but the pines stayed green – a timeless reminder of an enduring landscape. Entering the Sma’ Glen is an experience every traveller has to have – this is when you officially enter the hardy country to the north.
The sun rose as we entered Aberfeldy, stopping in the Co-Operative for the bakery. The cinnamon swirl was, if not that warm, a sweet taster of the day ahead. It was also an opportunity to get out the car and say, ‘Ah! It isn’t that cold”, before proceeding to dash from shop to car, half of which spent performing as an amateur ice-skater.
It’s longer than you remember, getting to Schiehallion from Aberfeldy. Although the local in the town is named after the mountain, she’s still fair beyond the town, her presence evidently permeating the air between them.
Perhaps Charles Mason stopped at the pub on his way to find a mountain suitable to measure the density of the Earth. For him, it was summer 1773; for us, it was November 2017.
Arriving in the car park at the foot of the hill, our first sign the seasons had changed was the block of ice that was the parking meter. The buttons required some defrosting, and even at that it wouldn’t accept the new £1 coin.
One man drew up just behind us, but we never saw him leave the car. We only noticed he’d gone when we saw the car empty, and sighted him strolling away through an unmarked glen into the abyss. According to Ordnance Survey, he was in NN 74792 54314.
I was tempted to think the little specks of white falling around me were emanating from the trees, but as we left their sanctuary it was plain the forecasted weather for 11am had arrived earlier than we.
The path was encased in ice. It was as if the mountain was giving us an easy way out of this one, trying to send us on our backsides back to the car, not wanting you to find the buried treasure it had to offer.
We stuck fast, walking into her wilderness, keeping to the soft heather and shallow clumps of snow ticking to it. In parts, the snow would consume your leg, one of us falling knee-deep into this star-like powder. It shimmered everywhere, flashing its teeth and flaunting its bejewelled surface to us.
There came a point, though, when the whiteness consumed us both. It had been rolling towards us from the west for some time – gobbling up the landscape which dared stand before it.
We disappeared. One more step, and so did the sense of direction. It was as if the path for us had been painted over in white, the image of the step totally gone. Here I called upon memory, and felt my way through the snow with my feet, striking a manmade step here and there which marked the path.
As we continued to climb, another climber came level with us. “Are you going to the top?”, he asked.
“Hopefully”, I replied. It was pretty bleak, and sense had said it would be a good idea to turn around.
The other three parts of me wanted to beat this whiteout, because I felt that we might just be rewarded for it. In the end, we relented, and sought shelter behind a nearby rock. If nothing else, the walk had been full of laughter.
An indignant, “It’s frozen!”, came from behind me, as my companion indignantly waved her cereal bar at the biting wind. Then, “Has it got brighter?”.
Suddenly, there seemed to be more light in that blizzard. And then, “Look!”. Just above us, a patch of blue sky was emerging. And then another, and another. Just when we were ready to surrender, the weather had decided to call a truce.
It had waved its white flag, and decided we could pass this time. The sky suddenly cleared, and what a sight we were treated to. The waves of clouds crashed against the sides of the surrounding mountains; foaming and cascading across and down their sides into the glens below.
Often, one can see the beauty in this scene, and there was a beauty to it. But it was a fierce beauty: there was something especially raw and violent about the way the cloud had fallen below us, and was proceeding to swallow the smaller hills below.
Clearly, Schiehallion was too much of a mouthful for it, so it moved on to smaller prey. Yet, in the end, even these fought back, and they peered over the top of the clouds, reaching for the space-blue sky above.
The snow still billowed around us and above us, making that sky seem speckled with billowing galaxies. The rocks close to the top were a challenge, with our feet constantly being shoved side to side by protruding granite.
As we summited, the wind kept us bent low to the rocks, the rocks which would gladly send us slipping off of them. We spent a short while there, looking, not down, but out and beyond. We watched the wind like an artist using its palette of snow and cloud to shape the world before us.
It was in constant motion, carving the world into its image. And we, standing like an army of two – the last of a great defence – watching the enemy form its final attack. However, it did not.
We were allowed to pass through the gates and back to the foot of the hill, even if that did include the odd occasion where one of us would disappear into a snow drift. Amazingly, the path we had walked and created before was almost completely gone, so we made our way off-piste, through the heather, back down the mountain.
Here and there, a grouse would pop up its head, and stand as still as you like – perhaps waiting for you to take an updated photo for Famous Grouse whisky.
“Seriously,” he seemed to say, “you think that chap on the bottle has gone anything on me?”. Even the ptarmigans (now in their sneachdaire form), seemed unperturbed by our watching.
As we looked back, we could still see the artist finishing their painting, speckling the sky with stars, and carving their brush through the heather.