Lessons on autumn hillwallking

Munros: Braeriach

Date walked: 30/10/2021

Time taken: 9 hours

Dusk is landing as I step off the hill path and begin to take the last few steps towards my waiting car. My body is in a state of bewildered fatigue. It moves forwards through habit rather than through a conscious effort to push it onwards. By the time I reach the car I am almost surprised to see it. You can sit down if you like, says my brother and walking companion, when I stare blankly at the boot. Yes, good idea, I say, as I slump wearily into the front seat.

Today has been a lesson on hillwalking in Scotland during autumn. The teachings come quick and steady with each vertical step taken and I note them down now in a state of newfound enlightenment. I note them down too, in an attempt to influence the smooth running of any future adventures…

This morning we woke to low cloud and damp air, two features that are not promising for a day of hillwalking. Still, the weather forecast promises brighter spells in the afternoon so we push on with our plans to scale Braeriach in the Cairngorms. Sunshine feels like a far-off memory, however, as we climb higher into the depths of the third highest mountain in the UK. Here the cloud tightens around our bodies, the wind sweeps and the temperature drops uncomfortably low. The rain, meanwhile, falls in a persistent drizzle.

The plan at the start of the day is to navigate a loop up, over and back down the mountain but in the poor visibility we are forced to re-think our route. We retrieve our plan B, which was hastily decided whilst walking the steep ascent, and decide to simply retrace our steps after a few obligatory selfies at the summit. Herein lies the first lesson of autumn hillwalking in Scotland: always have an alternative plan.

The change in route is a light disappointment as it means a longer and more repetitive walk. However, these feelings subside, at least, when the clouds suddenly lift on our way back down the hill. Now the impressive mountain range of the Cairngorms becomes visible in all its splendour. It feels as though these very mountains are opening their arms to us and welcoming us in. It is so different from the stifling cloud and wind faced earlier in the day. We meander along, taking picture after picture.

Still, to skip to the bright skies and pretty views would be a poor (though pleasant) representation of this particular hill walk. The ascent has been tough with its steep path, cold air and continuing dampness. This is where lesson two comes in. Have you got your notepad ready?

Waterproof trousers are an absolute must for hillwalking in Scotland at any time of the year but particularly in autumn. In a moment of error, I decide to wear my ordinary walking trousers for today’s walk, whilst my waterproof ones stay nice and cosy back at home. The result is that I am sodden and cold just a few hours into the walk. Fortunately for me, my brother passes over his waterproofs which I wear gratefully for the remainder of today’s hike. I scold myself, whilst slipping this pair neatly on. It’s a mistake I won’t make again.

Before the final push to reach an unofficial cairn at the top of Braeriach, we find ourselves in need of a quick energy boost. The area is exposed, though, and it is too cold to stop for a quick picnic so we are forced to bring out our emergency shelter. Here we quickly consume our flattened sandwiches and snacks from within its comforting throes. In this little orange hide-out, the wind quietens, the rain disappears and we are able to eat our chosen ‘pieces’ (Scottish slang for sandwich, for those not familiar) without them getting soggy with the perpetual dampness in the air. Here, I discover, lies lesson three. Always have an emergency shelter, even if it’s just to eat lunch in!

Even within this shelter, though, the temperature is cold. The body also chills further when it’s no longer pushing upwards. I am forced to rummage in my backpack for the few extra layers hidden in there. At least this is one area in which I am prepared. I pile on fleeces until I have the appearance of a stuffed teddy bear. I am practically cosy by the time I emerge from the orange shelter and begin the last surge to the top of the hill. Lesson four is, therefore, that you can never have too many layers for autumn hillwalking!

The weather, perhaps unsurprisingly given the points already listed, also influences the final lesson of the day. I learn this one not so far from the top of the hill as my hands begin to tingle and the damp seeps into my gloves. This is the second pair I have brought today. This is the second pair to become so sodden that the water drips out when I squeeze my fists together. I sigh and add a good pair of waterproof gloves to my never-ending list of investments for any future hillwalking expeditions.

These lessons are setting firmly in my mind as the car starts and the hills grow smaller in the rear-view mirror. If you are an experienced hillwalker, you may feel a little exasperated at my naivety towards hillwalking during Scotland’s autumn. You probably think my observations are obvious. However, I am still fairly new to the activity and, as I found out on this particular walk, I am still finding my feet in it. So, I am grateful for the teachings, and the opportunity to share my newfound knowledge. Mostly, though, I am just looking forward to putting them into practise whenever I next face the hills.

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Activity: Walker
Mountain: The Pap of Glencoe
Place: The Islands
Gear: Comfy boots - Mammut
Member: Glasgow Young Walkers
Mountaineering Scotland
Ideal day out: A Munro with idyllic scenes and the challenge of a steep climb.

Munros: 15
Long Distance routes: West Highland Way   

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Trips: 6
Distance: 199.7 km
Ascent: 944m
Munros: 7
Corbetts: 1

Joined: Aug 04, 2021
Last visited: Dec 05, 2021
Total posts: 7 | Search posts