Hugh MacDonald explores why climbers are driven to the slopes in the mind-numbing cold and treacherous conditions

MY retreats to the Highlands in the winter are regularly accompanied by a soundtrack that takes my attention away from the melodic noises emanating from the CD player of a nine-year-old Ford Fiasco.

As one chunters down the depths of Glen Coe or skirts the Five Sisters of Kintail, there can come a clattering of helicopter blades and the disconcerting flashing light of an emergency vehicle. A mountain rescue is in operation.

Scottish Mountain Rescue had about 1000 “activations” in 2015 and there were 579 incidents with 12 deaths and more than 500 people injured. The ambulance that cruises past or the helicopter that hovers ahead are the visible sign of one of these but, of course, they give no clue to the seriousness of the incident or, more intriguingly, to the thoughts of rescuers or rescued.

The banal question of why climbers climb is routinely answered: “Because it is there.”

But why climb when it is treacherously, snowy, numbingly cold and the risk of injury is sharp and occasionally fatal? And what of the rescuers? How do they feel about risking their lives for people who are risking their lives?

There is a simplicity to these answers but a profundity, too. Mountain rescuers have no problem with going out to help climbers who have been caught out in adverse conditions. One told me, anonymously, that his “frustration” was with the amateurs who take on Ben Nevis in trainers and tracksuit. The mountains of Scotland in the winter, in contrast, are largely populated by people who are experienced, well-equipped and have consulted weather forecasts and avalanche risks.

“They are kindred spirits,” said the rescuer of the rescued. “They have just been caught out and that can happen to anyone any time.”

But why choose winter to scramble up a piece of rock, trek across a plateau, slither along a ridge? Those who know the mountains simply state that it is the best of times.

Alan Rowan, the author of Moonwalker and a Mountain Before Breakfast, has spent 30 years making expeditions across Munros and Corbetts, many done under the early morning light. He is an all-year climber but one who relishes the advent of winter.

“If you properly trained, and take the proper precautions, it is not dangerous. Indeed, it can be more dangerous in the summer when people can go out underprepared. You do not get novices going out in the winter in Scotland,” he says.

Rowan is quietly lyrical of what faces the adventurer in the Scottish mountains in winter: “The attraction to me is almost primeval,” he says. “The first blast of winter really excites me. The air is crisp. You feel your feet cracking the skins of ice on the water. The light is completely different, much better. You either get glowering skies or clear, blue ones.

“This completely changes the landscape. Everything is stark: white peaks against blue skies. In the summer you can be looking at rolling hills but go to the Cairngorms in the winter and you see these big plateaus with big snow.

It is beautiful. The peaks look even bigger, more dramatic.”

It is, of course, more than a challenge. “I do not look at it as dangerous,” he insists. “With axes, crampons, and the proper information, you can negate most of the risks. You can always get caught out but you can get caught out in the summer. You do your homework.”

Rowan is vastly experienced in all conditions and admits he has had “narrow escapes”, but his most serious accident came in the summer when he “bust” his ankle and had to be taken down by helicopter from an expedition in Wales.

He tells of one winter accident when slipping on crampons but points out his fellow inhabitants of the winter hills are almost exclusively experienced. “Most clubs will not allow members to go out in the winter without proper training and equipment,’’ he points out.

So would he say his best days in the mountains have been in the winter? “Generally, yes,” he replies quickly. “It is harder? Yes? Does it give you more satisfaction? Absolutely.”

This sentiment is reinforced by Heather Morning, mountain safety advisor with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. Now in her mid-50s, she has spent 40 years as a climber and has no doubts about the attractions of winter expeditions.

“It is absolutely awesome,” she says. “I have had some of the best days of my life on mountains in Scotland in winter. It is challenging, it is hostile, it is beautiful.”

This all said by one who has an intimate knowledge of the dangerous bite of natural beauty. But Morning regards this danger as integral to the climbing experience.

She says: “One of the big things for me is that there are very real consequences to your decision- making. We live in a sanitised society with all sorts of health and safety decisions taken away from us.

“But when we go into the mountains, we have to equip ourselves with the skills, knowledge, expertise and kit to make sure we get it right because if we don’t get it right then there is the potential for something to go very wrong. But that is the attraction for a lot of people. It is not a controlled, managed environment like the rest of the namby-pamby society that we live in.”

This is far from a gung-go manifesto. Morning, after all, makes her living from preventing other people meeting their deaths. She accepts there are risks.

“I have made wrong decisions but most of us learn from our mistakes,” Morning says. “Sadly, sometimes people make mistakes but do not get the opportunity to learn. And sometimes we are just lucky. But every risk is calculated on experience and knowledge.

It is all about managing those risks and going out and enjoying yourself in a progressive manner. The Scottish mountains in winter are no place for the novice and we only get a few who venture out without proper preparation. It is mostly experienced climbers who know what they face.”

These indomitable souls relish the test. “This is ingrained in me,” says Morning. “It is not only my job but it is what I choose to do in my free time.”

Her words carry a wistful air no doubt enhanced by the fact she is sitting in an office while the mountains glint in a wintry sunshine. But can she put this almost mystical allure into words? “I like the physical challenge but I love the mental challenge,” she says.

“It is beautiful, it is remote, it is about getting away from civilisation. It is pretty special.”

It has to be experienced. It has to be lived. And sometimes it has to be confronted in the shadow of death.

It is the quintessential flip of the coin of existence. One assesses the odds, manipulates them in one’s favour and then heads out on to the hill.

It is intoxicating and seductive.

But not for the man in the Ford Fiasco who ventures north for a stiff wander around a lochside or a breenge into woodland.

There is wonderment in the theory and the view. The practice can be left to others.