08 December 2017 by Matthew Jones
Festive frolics and epic adventures
There is something magical about winter. I first discovered this as a small boy, when heading out on family walks. On the coldest days I could transform myself into a cloud-breathing dragon, with the ability to huff out plumes of billowing ‘smoke’. Ok, I’m sure my dad explained that this seemingly miraculous phenomenon was simply water vapour from my breath condensing in cold air, but I still preferred to think of myself as the fearsome Smaug from the Hobbit. Even now, I love to head out for a good walk on a cold day – there is surely no better way to blow away the cobwebs.
Indeed, the Boxing Day walk has long been a bit of a festive tradition in my family, as I’m sure it is for many others. After a leisurely start to the day, we all pull on wellies and head out for a tramp across the frosty fields of the Weald of Kent – slipping and sliding along field-edge paths, chatting and laughing together, as the low winter sun casts its long, strange shadows. Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it.
I reckon that sense of collective tradition must at least partly explain the enduring popularity of the Ramblers Festival of Winter Walks, which returns this year from Saturday 23 December to Sunday 7 January. That’s 16 days of winter walking, and I know thousands of you will brave the chill, armed no doubt with Thermoses full of tea, mince pies, and possibly even a hip flask discreetly stowed somewhere about your person too.
It’s great that so many people will avoid the temptation to stay in and hibernate, even though the shorter days and cold weather often mean that we curtail our walks slightly. Of course, this can be a sensible precaution, particularly if out walking with groups of mixed ability.
For more experienced walkers, however, there is no reason that winter should prevent you from venturing out on to the hills. As I discovered last winter, it can actually be a great opportunity to challenge yourself, provided you learn the right skills and are suitably prepared and equipped.
Back in January, a memorable two-day adventure in the Black Mountains – the wilder and more rugged western half of the Brecon Beacons national park – proved to be one of the highlights of my year. The conditions underfoot were fairly challenging, requiring walking crampons and an ice axe, while navigation was similarly tricky in near white-out conditions. It wasn’t without its trials – I distinctly remember that at one crucial moment, the fog lifted just for a second, revealing the broad expanse of water at Llyn y Fan Fawr and offering some much-needed navigational reassurance. But, safe in the knowledge that I was properly prepared, equipped and that I (pretty much) knew what I was doing, I found the experience of being just at the edge of your comfort zone truly exhilarating.
Despite the snow, cold and wind, I stayed warm and well protected thanks to good gloves, sensible layering and a decent waterproof jacket. After all, braving that kind of weather is what Gore-Tex was designed for. I’m not ashamed to admit I topped off the ‘winter mountaineer’ look with my favourite bobble-hat too.
And the Black Mountain in its winter coat was a majestic sight indeed – all snow-blanketed slopes and towering escarpments. Gripping the trig pillar on the summit of Fan Brycheiniog as I was buffeted by the wind felt like a genuine triumph and a truly epic moment. There were tiny moments of wonder too, like spotting icicles as long as my arm dangling from the rocky outcrops that buttress the cliffs beside Llyn y Fan Fach.
The whole experience inspired me to make the most of the coming winter, and I’ve already stepped out into the snow. Last weekend I duly caught the Friday evening train to Edinburgh and stayed with some friends overnight. We piled in the car before first light on Saturday morning and headed for the Trossachs, where we were lucky enough to catch near enough the first snow of 2017, enjoying a fantastic long walk over the twin Corbetts of Ben Ledi and Benvane. We set out from Callander and finished in Strathyre, where the landlady of the Munro Inn offered us a very warm welcome (and even chucked our sodden gear in the tumble dryer).
I think I’ve been well and truly bitten by the winter walking bug. I’ve already planned two further trips in the coming months – a week in Snowdonia in early December, and then a UKML winter mountaineering course in the Cairngorms in February, which will be a real opportunity to develop my technical winter skills. I can’t wait.
Taking my winter walking one step further has been a real revelation. But I’ll still enjoy that Boxing Day stroll with family, and will also aim to get out with some local Ramblers groups as part of the Festival of Winter Walks. Whether you’re planning a festive walk or an epic winter adventure, I hope you get the chance to enjoy all that winter has to offer.
Don’t forget to check out walk magazine’s winter walking masterclass, which tells you what to wear, carry and know when heading out into the hills this season.
Magazine of the Ramblers