Winter walking on South Uist
In the Hebrides, snow is rare and fleeting. In 2021 the first real winter conditions arrived on South Uist in late January - worth getting out the boots for an excursion to Thacla.
Beinn Mhòr, also known as Gèideabhal, is the highest hill on Uist. At 620m, it just manages to attain Graham status, the only one in the Outer Hebrides outside Harris.
Beinn Mhòr together with its northern satellites, Thacla and Beinn Choradail, comprise South Uist’s ‘Three Peaks’.
In summer, these hills are great for walking - varied terrain with few paths - and they provide a genuine feeling of remoteness and isolation. The views are stunning: south to Barra and Mingulay; east over the Sea of the Hebrides towards Skye, Rhum and the Scottish mainland; and west across the machair and the Atlantic to St Kilda.
The relative mild winters, courtesy of the North Atlantic Drift, ensure that snow is rare and, when it does come, its stay is fleeting. For walkers who enjoy the added spice of winter, it is essential to gain the snow-clad summits quickly, before the rain intervenes and the hills revert to their default condition.
I recall a rare exception, on the neighbouring Isle of Barra in the mid 1980s. A longer cold snap had not only provided snow cover on Sheabhal, Barra’s principal hill, but after repeated freezing, the snow had become firm.
One moonlit night conditions were just perfect, crisp snow and expansive views; even the lights on Benbecula, 50km to the north, clearly visible from the summit. The descent, a combination of short glissades terminated by soft landings in deep drifts, was memorable.
In 2021, genuine winter conditions returned. There had been snow in the intervening years, particularly on the higher South Uist hills, but usually soft and mushy, often blending with the underlying peat bog to make progress particularly wet and challenging.
In 2021 the snow first arrived in late January - worth getting out the boots for an excursion to Thacla. Given recent pandemic restrictions, it was great to be allowed access to the local hills, all looking superb in their winter apparel.
However, underfoot the going was less attractive. As I plunged a walking pole into the squelchy morass, it first bent and then broke as it resisted extrication. Only the summit was truly frozen, and, in its rocky, elevated situation, like an eagle’s eyrie, it offered a wonderful place to linger and enjoy the panorama.
A long, damp descent followed and I reconciled myself to the fact that winter on the Uist hills seemed to be over for 2021.
Amazingly, however, this brief foray turned out to be just an appetiser. Although the snow quickly vanished on the low-lying machair, it survived above 200m. As a cold, easterly wind prevailed during early February, the snow not only consolidated, but slowly developed a firm, hard crust. Time to check out the hills again and this time it was Beinn Mhòr’s turn.
The forecast for the Monday was promising; a clear, sunny window in the weather before the milder weather was due later in the week.
I arrived at Sniseabhal, at the foot of the hill, by late morning and surveyed the most obvious route, across undulating peat bog, followed by the ascent up the broad north-west ridge. Better take the ice axe, just in case.
The initial boggy approach was still frozen, and I didn’t take long to reach the lower, heathery slopes. Tongues of snow filled the shallow gullies, but these were quickly softening in the midday sunshine. Was the axe really necessary?
On the ridge itself, however, the ground changed to rock and snow. Patches of ice covered the rocky slabs. The snow provided the most reliable route, just firm enough to avoid sinking in. Indeed, as I gained height, I noticed a trail of footprints meandering upwards across the snow. Maybe there would be other folk on the summit ridge enjoying this great day on the hill.
Looking east from the cairn on the south-west summit, the narrower ridge to the main summit appeared inviting, the snow sculpted into waves by the icy wind. An easy scramble in summer, it shouldn’t take too long.
However, the footprints, which had been a helpful guide, suddenly petered out. On the northern, shaded side of the ridge, the snow was much harder - maybe the steps had left no imprint.
The way ahead was uncertain, the ground falling away steeply to the corrie floor below. Kicking a path across the snow provided little security. I unfastened the axe. By cutting steps across the slippery surface, I gingerly moved forward to reach more comfortable ground. Then, by transferring to the south-facing, sunny side of the ridge, I reached softer snow, deep drifts masking the route of the summer path.
With more peace of mind, I was able to relish the stunning views, the snowy, upper slopes contrasting dramatically with the patchwork of water and machair down below. A final snow slope to negotiate, and there was the summit trig. point. I brought out the camera to record this amazing day, but alas the memory card was faulty!
The forecast was not promising for the Tuesday, and the weather was due to break seriously on Thursday. On Wednesday I would have one more chance to experience these great conditions, only this time, hopefully, a bit better prepared.
I carefully inserted a new memory card in the camera and packed crampons, well past their retirement age. Leaving early, I hoped to gain the summit ridge by sunrise.
For this trip, I decided to choose a slightly different route, from further south, to make a moonless approach a little less hazardous. It seemed best to avoid the peat cuttings with their sudden drops and deep, dark pools. Even with a head torch, it would be hard to remain upright.
Starting just after 6am, and trying to limit the use of artificial light so as not to alert the emergency services, the initial, heathery introduction went okay, but after a while, the combination of darkness and featureless moorland gave rise to a feeling of disorientation. Suddenly the ground appeared to give way, revealing an underground stream to trap the unwary.
With the arrival of faint twilight, navigation became easier and I soon reached the snowline. The snow was patchy at first, but by the time I reached Spin, a southern shoulder of Beinn Mhòr, snow cover was almost complete.
The view east across the Sea of the Hebrides showed that dawn was beckoning. Hopefully, it would still be possible to reach the summit ridge as the sun was rising. Crampons were duly attached and from there it was onwards and upwards.
Within a few minutes however, the crampons, strangers to my new boots, were loosening. I lost precious time securing the crampons and, despite an extra effort from ageing calf muscles, the sun was there before me, already rising over Rhum. After basking in the morning sunshine absorbing the views, I headed for the top.
The final climb to the summit was a real pleasure and, this time, even the camera obliged.
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