THE thousands of enthusiasts heading to the mountains over Easter have been warned to beware the changing conditions and old patches of snow hidden from the sun.
The Mountaineering Council of Scotland said that while the sun had been shining this week, it was not yet summer in the mountains, with a continuing risk of blizzards and avalanches.
Skiers and snowboarders remain out on the mountains as fresh snowfall means good conditions for winter sports enthusiasts. On the upper pistes at Cairngorms, there was as much as six feet of snow while the piste quality at the Nevis Range was said to be good.
But with dry and sunny weather elsewhere in the country, mountaineers warned people climbing or walking in the hills to take extra care before venturing out.
Heather Morning, mountain safety adviser with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, said: "At this time of year it is really difficult to know what to expect. One day on the hill could be warm, dry and calm with good visibility, the next you could be in a blizzard.
"The important thing is to be prepared and check out the weather forecast in advance to enable you to make a decision about what kit to take."
She said a particular risk lay in the underfoot conditions as the Scottish mountains hold snow long into the spring and early summer. These snow patches will often be hard and located high up on the shady, north side of the mountain. Many traditional mountain routes cross through such terrain and are the usual choice for Munro baggers.
Ms Morning said hill walkers were advised to treat these old snow patches with caution, particularly if the 'run out' below is over steep ground. She said: "Route choice at this time of year is really important and hill walkers should consider a 'snow free' alternative or simply turn around."
A classic example of a popular route still affected by snow was Coire na Tulaich on Buachaille Etive Mor, near Glen Coe. "In summer, Coire na Tulaich provides the trade route up this iconic Munro but the north-facing coire holds snow well after it has disappeared elsewhere and can be extremely dangerous," she said.
Carey Davies, the British Mountaineering Council's (BMC) hill walking officer, said: "When spring arrives a lot of people feel the pull of the mountains and want to get outdoors again. But sometimes people get caught out at this time of year. While it may feel like spring has sprung at low levels, up on the mountain tops it can be a very different story.
"If you're going into the hills remember you may encounter the white stuff - anything from the odd patch to large areas. So be prepared."
The sportscotland avalanche information service's (SAIS) daily reports for all five operational areas ended on Sunday. No more will be issued until December for climbers going to Creag Meagaidh, Glencoe, the Southern Cairngorms and Torridon. But there will be two tomorrow covering the Easter weekend in the Northern Cairngorms and Lochaber (Ben Nevis).
A warning on the SAIS's website said: "Avalanche hazard considerations should always be part of any winter hill goers daily plans and we would recommend that climbers, walkers and off-piste skiers currently venturing into the hills, continue to note snow and weather conditions in respect of any potential avalanche hazard. Be prepared to modify your plans accordingly."
According to the SAIS there were 29 avalanches in the mountains last month and 349 for the season since December.
It comes as around 1.6 million Britons are due to head abroad over Easter, with popular holiday spots including Spain and its islands, Turkey, Tunisia and Florida. Top city destinations are Paris, Dublin, Amsterdam, Rome and New York, while bookings for UK breaks are described by Abta as "healthy".
Over the Easter weekend, more than 100,000 passengers are expected to leave via the Scottish airports.