What makes the perfect winter walk? Here are a few suggestions from us…
For me a truly memorable cold-weather walk is one where you get up onto the tops and feel apart from the world below. A temperature inversion always helps – bursting through the fog to and yourself walking above clouds is an experience that is more than worth the effort of an early start. Aim for the loftier summits, for curvaceous rolling ranges rather than spiky ridges, somewhere you can get high and stay high. Once you’re up on the tops, the sight of all those white hills thickly smothered with fondant feels like an invitation – to stomp ever onwards, to skip and dance and celebrate the fact that you’re party to a secret. There’s a winter wonderland up here, and you’re one of the lucky ones who know how to find and it.
Emily Rodway, Editor of The Great Outdoors
The mountain that has everything
Where: Craig Meagaidh, Central Highlands
Chosen by: Chris Townsend
Creag Meagaidh, that huge, complex mountain in the heart of the Highlands, is at its best in winter conditions. Starting at the Aberarder car park on the A86, my favourite walk takes in the best of the mountain, starting with the path through wonderful regenerating forest in lower Coire Ardair. Above, snow-clad slopes rise to rolling ridges. As the last trees are left behind and the corrie curves to the west you have the first sight of still distant cliffs. These grow in stature as you walk towards them, towering above the dark waters of Lochan a’ Choire.
A major winter climbing venue, they are some of the biggest in Scotland. For walkers the ascent lies up a wide gully that leads to a notch in the mountain called the Window. The exciting climb to this and then onto the Creag Meagaidh plateau is steep enough to require an ice axe and, if at all icy, crampons. Look back down from near the top of the Window and the lochan is suddenly far below and you realise there’s a long way to slide if you slip. Doing this route in reverse I once turned back here as a member of our party didn’t have crampons and the snow was rock-hard.
Once the terrain eases the world changes. Gone is the closed-in feeling of the corrie. Now the landscape is vast, stretching out to far-off hills. The summit of Creag Meagaidh is still over a kilometre away across featureless terrain where good navigation skills are required in poor visibility. From the summit, head for the top of the Coire Ardair cliffs and follow their edge – not too close, big cornices form here – round to the minor top of Sron a’ Choire from where a descent can be made down open slopes to a bridge over the Allt Coire Ardair and the start.
An unforgettable outlook
Where: Craig Cerrig-gleisiad, Brecon Beacons
Chosen by: Will Renwick
It doesn’t take long for the roaring of the A470 to be left behind and replaced by the noise of the brooks converging after their fall from the great wall of the Brecon Beacons. You would think that man, in want of red sandstone, created the wrapping cliff of Craig Cerrig-gleisiad, but it’s all natural; the mountainside was in fact scooped away by an Ice Age glacier.
It’s north-facing: dark and always cold; cold enough, in fact, to act as the most southerly outpost in the UK for a rare arctic plant, the purple saxifrage – not seen again before the Alps. There’s a similar cliff that can be discovered by following the track that bends around to the west. This is the smaller, narrower Craig Cwm-du. A stream is squeezed between it, one that usually cascades, but on a cold winter day it will likely be paused, the Brecon water thrown into jagged icicles.
On top of Fan Frynych the source of the stream can be found, a collection of forever frozen ponds mirroring the rest of the Brecon Beacons features: maybe in the west the cresting wave of the Black Mountain, or better still the twin peaks of Corn Du and Pen y Fan to the east. Their bright white tops can draw you along this perfect viewing platform towards them, only until the platform runs out at the dizzying edge of Craig Cerrig-gleisiad.
Image by Dan Santillo/Alamy
A moorland adventure playground
Where: The Roaches & Ramshaw Rocks, Peak District
Chosen by: Roger Butler
Some time during the winter, the radio will probably announce that snow has closed the road between Buxton and Leek and this usually means the high Staffordshire Moorlands have once again taken a plastering of the white stuff. This western chunk of the Peak District is surprisingly exposed and the wildly sculpted gritstone on the Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks can be quickly transformed into a wintry adventure playground of deep drifts, long icicles and empty horizons.
Some people say the wind, up here, blows straight from the Urals and after a long cold snap the moors are often frozen solid. Snow fills the narrow lanes and sweeps unhindered across the high buttresses and jagged escarpments that rise like defensive ramparts from the pale pastures of distant Cheshire. Silent footsteps inch their way through fresh accumulations in the pine trees below the Roaches and climb the slippery stone steps that magically sneak through a gully leading up to the main ridge. There’s a crunch as boots gingerly test the ice on Doxey Pool – you wouldn’t want to fall in because the water is supposedly bottomless – and, looking beyond the frosted rushes, waves of moorland stretch north to prominent Shining Tor and pyramidal Shutlingsloe.
It will be quite a walk over to Three Shires Head, where the secretive waterfalls are no doubt decorated with long fingers of dripping ice. Even the place names sound lonely and cold: Wildstone Rock and Bareleg Hill; Wolf Edge and Hangingstone Farm. One February, a short descent from the jagged crest of Ramshaw Rocks almost became an exercise in Antarctic training. The snow had melted, frozen, melted, frozen, melted and re-frozen to form a thick layer of dusted glass on top of deep wiry heather. My feet punctured the ice every second or third step and spiky shards cut at my calves – progress was painfully slow but the dazzling sunshine was suitable compensation.
Easy access to challenging ridges
Where: Blencathra, Lake District
Chosen by: Alan Hinkes
Descending Scales Fell late one wintry afternoon I met The Great Outdoors columnist Carey Davies coming up for a late-in-the-day snowy walk. I was tempted to turn around and go back up with him to enjoy a mountain-top sunset. That’s the thing about Blencathra – ease of access makes it ideal for anytime walking. Sometimes in November and December I set off after dark for an evening winter bimble, or I might leave at 3 or 4pm and be on the summit for a magical sunset, before descending in the dark.
Under snowy conditions with a clear sky and bright moon I don’t even need to switch on my headtorch. I’ve had some gnarly winter night scrambles on Sharp Edge: full-on, testing mountaineering challenges with ice axe, crampons and ropes. Other times I’ve scrambled more easily up it in big snowy footsteps. Usually I’m back in the pub by 10pm. A winter night walk is much better than watching telly, more exciting than the gym and even preferable to spending a night in the pub – oh, but we do end in the pub, for a quick well deserved pint.
What can beat the view of Blencathra as you approach it along the A66 from Penrith? That massive whaleback lump of a great mountain: the Saddleback. A very good linear walk is to set off from near the Field Studies Centre and walk up Blease Fell to the summit with Hall’s Fell Ridge falling steeply down to the A66. There are big drops on your right, it’s easy walking, but be careful near the edge. Returning by the same route you get fine views to Keswick and the Central Lake District beyond Borrowdale. Blencathra has ease of access with a big mountain feel. I like it in winter for its challenging ridges and superlative views. When snow falls on the Lake District fells, Blencathra is hard to beat.
A sensational scramble
Where: Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mor, West Highlands
Chosen by: Judy Armstrong
It ranks among the most beautiful mountains in Britain: a glorious cone of rock, spliced with gullies, bolstered by buttresses, guarding the entrance to a high-walled valley. The Buachaille Etive Mor, at the head of Glen Coe, is the stuff that dreams are made of. In winter, with the rocks rimed with ice and a crust of snow on the long, sinuous ridge, it’s an exhilarating sight.
The main top, and the first one in view, is Stob Dearg (1,022m); behind it are three more, which can be linked to make a glorious, high-level walk. Even more exciting is a direct approach to the pyramid: Curved Ridge, a fun summer scramble, is a challenging adventure in winter. Rated a Grade 2 climb, it can be a notch easier or harder, depending on conditions. The walk toward the mountain, crossing the river from Altnafeadh and bearing left under the Buachaille’s rock flanks, allows time to eye up the ascent.
It’s an obvious route following the valley to summit ridge. The start point is in a sensational position below Rannoch Wall and the enormous rock known as the Water Slab. For me, the start of a winter climb is always daunting: keeping hands warm enough to work ropes and protection, balancing the adrenaline to excitement rather than fear. But the beauty of Curved Ridge is that it acts like a magnet: it pulls you in the right direction, following a hard move with an easy one, building confidence until suddenly you are high on the crest of the ridge.
A big cairn marks the top of Curved Ridge and the foot of Crowberry Tower; now crampons bite into snow slopes, a delicious feeling after scratching and sparking off icy rock. A duo of gullies both lead to the summit rocks and the world’s best view over Scotland’s mountaineering heartland. I like to stay roped up for the hike along the Buachaille’s spine and steep descent via Coire na Tulaich* – it allows me to relax and absorb the sensation of space, wilderness and happiness born of a winter’s day in paradise.
NB. Coire na Tulaich has been the site of several avalanche incidents in recent years.
Image by John A Cameron/Shutterstock
The solitary side of Snowdonia
Where: Moel Ysgyfarnogod and Foel Penoleu, Rhinogydd
Chosen by: Jim Perrin
Guidebook writers tell of how the northern Rhinogydd are rough as ever hills can be. Ignore hearsay. Dismiss reputation. With the Rhinogydd, it’s how you read the lie of the land. Opt for compass bearings, SatNav, straight lines, and likely as not you’ll end up neck-deep in heather with a broken ankle or worse.
Better to work with geology, study the terrain, forego the direct approach. If you want the summits of Moel Ysgyfarnogod and Foel Penoleu – hill of the hare and the hill at the head of light – then take the ancient trackway that ran from Mochras (“Shell Island”) to Trawsfynydd and beyond. You can drive to where, above Harlech, it branches from a minor road and runs as green way through wild landscape to Bryn Cader Faner – the most beautiful Bronze Age monument in Britain, a crownshaped ring-cairn on a low hill’s brow.
The next stream east of this flows down past hut-circles from the col between our two peaks. They tell you good routes seldom follow streams. Here’s an exception that proves the rule, giving easy access to a unique ridge of ice-scoured bare rock, scattered erratics, abrupt outcrops, views that take in all the shapely peaks west of Snowdon, and the whole long arm of the Lleyn peninsula too, running down to Ynys Enlli (or Bardsey) at the pilgrims’ journey’s end.
When you descend at the end of your day past sculpted gleaming rocks with the sun setting and the mountains hulking down into night all around, the sands of the Dwyryd estuary below are one of Eryri’s great sights – an intricate, ever-changing, light gathering, complex Celtic pattern of curving sandbanks, whorls and spirals where the wild geese call and cry, as though giving voice to the generations of spirit-presences in this elemental, haunting landscape.
Image by Jonathan Dorey/Alamy Stock Photo