British mountains are, on the great scale of things, modest. The tallest – Ben Nevis, in Scotland – is a mere 4,409 feet (1,344 metres ) above sea level. In many parts of the world this would be considered a mere bump, a hillock, a minor inconvenience on the way to higher things. However, mountains are relative. That is, height is important, but only in comparison to adjacent heights. Indeed that’s as good a definition of what constitutes a mountain as you’re likely to find.
In any case, a mountain may have other important characteristics. British mountains, for example, are not difficult to climb – or indeed, to hill-walk. This is a considerable virtue. Another is that you can usually access them easily by road and climb them – and back – in a day, and as you climb them you enter a different world, especially if you climb early in the year when spring has begun below but it is still winter at the summit.
This was more or less the case when my brother Ivor and I climbed Skiddaw, the northernmost of the mountains of England’s Lake District. It is only 3,054 feet (931metres) high, but it rules its surrounds – Keswick town and Derwent Water to the South; Bassenthwaite Lake to the West. It is a long, rising ridge which is easily accessed from Keswick, which we came to by bus.
It was early in the year – February – but it was warm and spring-like already as we started our ascent, along with a number of other folk. As with most British mountains, the path was well worn and clear. We hiked slowly upwards, warmed first by the sunshine, then by our exertions. Still, there was a point when we put our windcheaters on rather than carrying them. The wind was not strong, but it now blew cold. Later on there was a point where patches of snow appeared, frozen in hollows to the slab rocks and scree. There were patches and clumps of long-dead grass and dry heather among the splintered rocks.
The summit of Skiddaw was a desolation of scree. Shattered fragments of grey stone at all angles, jagged, vertical, fallen. Or static rivers of rock pouring from the ridge and down the steep slopes on either side.
It was another world.
The wind was arctic.
The view was fantastic.
We looked down on dark forests, glassy lakes and patchwork fields marked out by dry stone walls running crooked lines on the valley slopes . We looked south and west at rounded ridges and peaks above deep, steep sided valleys. We looked across hills dropping away to the north, lit mistily by a late afternoon sun through shifting clouds. A toy landscape laid out below, fading to an ambiguous horizon.
But we needed to move. It was too cold to remain and late afternoon was rapidly on its way to early evening. According to the map there was a path down to the west which ought to get us back to the road sooner than retracing our long steps up. There was no sign of it, just a great slope of undisturbed scree. We launched ourselves down.
Fortunately the scree was such that the disturbance we caused it was minor. That is, we did not start an avalanche. We picked and slid our way down until the slope ended at a wide terrace of dry tussock-grass and black pools of peat-water rippling in the iced air. Another realm of desolation, still far above the homely fields and farms below. We made our way cautiously between the pools until the flat ended and the slope returned. We continued our descent. As we did so we began to see that the plantation of dark firs below, which had looked level and easily traversed from above, was in fact planted on its own hill. We would therefore have to go round rather than through it. By the time we were skirting the wood it was dusk. By the time we reached the road beyond it was quite dark. We walked the few miles back to Keswick and dined, customarily, on fish and chips.
Many years later I climbed with friends another Lake District mountain known as the Langdale Pikes – plural because it consists of a series of modest peaks. Very modest. The tallest point rises to 2,415 feet (736 meters) only. But, once again, it has splendid views. Of course all mountains are likely to have splendid views by their very nature. True. But not all are so easily attained. We climbed in Summer. No, we strolled up, chatting as we went, on well trodden ways.
But in summer, despite its many delights, this was not the other world Skiddaw in winter had been.
Ben Lawers is the eleventh-equal highest British mountain at 3,938 feet (1,214 metres). It sits north-west of the city of Perth and on the north shore of Loch Tay, in Scotland. We climbed it early in the year. In fact it was a long walk in from the road before we began to seriously climb. The weather was late-winterish, early spring. Neither warm nor uncomfortably cold. Sunny, with clouds. Very British. Some way before the summit the slopes were still blanketed in snow, hard and frozen underfoot.
This was even more another world than Skiddaw had been. I don’t recall the view. What grabbed my attention was the wildlife. There were coal-black ravens on the snow-covered rocks. There was a pair of golden plover, too early for full summer plumage, but still – black and gold on snow. Best of all, a pair of Ptarmigan, in winter dress. White as the snow except for black under the tail and from eye to bill, and a scarlet brow above each eye. Ptarmigan are birds of the arctic and the higher peaks of the Scottish Highlands and Islands are the only place to see them in the UK, winter or summer.
The same is largely true of the Mountain Hare. According to the archaeological record, the common Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) was probably introduced to Britain some 4,000 years ago – long enough to explain why it plays such a role in folk lore and mythology – including its connection with spring and Easter. However, the Mountain Hare ((Lepus timidus) is native, a survivor from the ice-age, but now confined to the inhospitable heights of British mountains. Both of them remnants of the arctic past. There were Mountain Hares on Ben Lawers, and I saw one. A pure white hare, winter-coated, on the snow covered slopes. This was the greatest gift of the climb.
The greatest problem of the climb was the descent. I was really not equipped for a winter mountain and on the way down my boots were not up to the necessary kicking of steps into the frozen snow. I lost my footing and slipped a number of times. Fortunately I was caught each time by my companions who were wearing proper hiking boots.
That climb was made many years ago when I was young and foolish – obviously. However, I made plans to climb Ben Lawers again last winter , before I become too old to do so. I bought a pair of proper hiking boots. I did a lot of walking. I made arrangements to climb with experienced friends. I hoped to see again the winter mountain wildlife that can only be seen by climbing.
It didn’t happen. Unsuitable weather and other commitments conspired against us. I plan to try again next year, but I may not be so lucky with the wildlife. Ptarmigan have been in decline in the southern parts of their range and may no longer be so easy to spot on Ben Lawers, one of the southernmost of their haunts. The Scottish National trust are asking visitors to report any sightings of this species. The status of the Mountain Hare, meanwhile, is unclear. However, according to the Hare Preservation Trust, it is widely shot for sport and it is also snared and shot in large numbers because it allegedly carries a tick borne virus which kills grouse chicks and is therefore seen as a threat to the lucrative grouse shooting industry. They also report a case where a refrigerated van was brought over by a party of Italian guns who intended to shoot 1,000 mountain hares and sell them in Italy to pay for the shooting holiday !
Hopefully, they left some for me.