The Snowman’s return: stepping back in time to 1899

Ben DolphinLast week I found myself accompanying fellow lifelong snow enthusiast Iain Cameron to Creag Meagaidh for a second time. Our first visit (and indeed our first meeting) had been back in October 2014 when we headed to Raeburn’s Gully, high up in Coire Ardair in search of an unusually long-lasting patch of snow. That encounter inspired me to write an article for Walkhighlands about Scottish snow patches – the semi-permanent remnants of winter that last all the way through the summer months until the first lasting snow covers them up again in the autumn. But the article was also about the people who study them, people like Iain, for whom the waxing and waning of snow on our hills is the most intriguing of Scotland’s natural rhythms, and whose lives are in no small part governed by the annual appearance of fragmented and scattered white blotches on the hills.

oire Ardair (Creag Meagaidh) in August 2016, with the snow patches visible in Easy Gully.

Coire Ardair (Creag Meagaidh) in August 2016, with the snow patches visible in Easy Gully.

Our objective this time around was to reproduce a photo taken in 1899 by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, one that had acquired iconic status by virtue of its use as the cover of ‘‘Cool Britannia’, a book by Adam Watson and Iain Cameron on the subject of long-lying snow in Britain. The grainy black & white image had been taken in September of that year and shows a huge volume of snow remaining in Easy Gully, one of Creag Meagaidh’s immense rocky defiles that rises 400m above Lochan a’ Choire. We would be visiting in August, a month earlier but 117 years later, so I was excited to see just how much snow we would find.

Rise of the snow patches

The trip gave me the opportunity to quiz Iain on what I perceived to be a surge in interest in Scotland’s snow patches since we last met, not least his two appearances on the BBC in the space of one week. The first was on BBC1’s daily magazine The One Show, and the second was on the summer special of Countryfile, the channel’s flagship programme for environmental and rural affairs. To my mind these appearances represented the natural culmination of something that had been quietly bubbling away under the surface for decades but which had, for whatever reason, never really come to the attention of mainstream media either in Scotland or the wider UK.

Something has changed, and Iain confirms as much when I ask him how many queries he now receives. He’s noticed a significant spike in attention, from within Scotland certainly but increasingly from England and Wales, and even as far afield as the United States. Journalists now want to accompany him to the hills, although somewhat amusingly they seem to get cold feet when they realise they’ll actually get cold feet! As someone keen to share both his knowledge and his passion for his pursuit, Iain is clearly delighted with the increased profile snow patches are receiving but he admits he’s not got a succinct answer as to why they have come under greater scrutiny of late.

He acknowledges that the rise of social media has undoubtedly played its part but he also reminds me that 2014 and 2015 were two consecutive bumper years for snow patches. They’ve been more widely seen, photographed and reported by the public than ever before and in turn have generated their own interest, but I suggest it is the photographs of strange, subterranean snow tunnels that have really caught the public’s imagination. All of a sudden, snow patches are no longer just flat two-dimensional features on the hillside, instead they have form and structure, offering the tantalising prospect of a rare alpine beauty concealed beneath.

Formed when running water penetrates or runs underneath a snow patch and melts it from the bottom upwards, these cold, ethereal chambers are unlike anything else in the Scottish natural world. Varying thickness and density of snow creates shades of white and blue more commonly associated with glaciers, but exploration of a snow tunnel is certainly not to be taken lightly. They can be fragile things and although not as dense or hard as glacial ice, any falling chunks or a collapsing roof could easily injure or even kill.

One of Scotland’s exquisite snow tunnels. © Iain Cameron.

One of Scotland’s exquisite snow tunnels. © Iain Cameron.

The best examples form above burns and waterfalls, along which warmer air from the outside world is drawn and subsequently carves strange indentations all along the tunnel as the snow melts from the inside out. I can well imagine people looking at photos of them and thinking…..”Wow, is that really Scotland!?”

Last year a national news agency saw the potential, approached Iain to use his photos and before he knew it they were splashed across people’s screens from Thurso to Truro. A dedicated Facebook page with nearly 1100 members has capitalised on that momentum and now the profile of Scottish snow patches is higher than it has ever been.

Not everybody is so enthused of course, highlighted by some of the Twitter responses to Iain’s One Show appearance. Reactions ranged from incredulity to ridicule to downright rudeness but happily there appear to be no shortage of converts in this newly acquired audience. Some of those will doubtless be content with simply spotting patches from the roadside, while more adventurous types will be motivated to inspect them close up. But as much as the publicity drive has furthered Iain’s work and opened up new possibilities, the effort and distances involved to reach our most remote places mean that Scotland’s longest lying snow is likely to remain the preserve of the few.

Scottish snow starts the spring as a common and widespread feature and is therefore accessible to most hillwalkers, but ease of access diminishes as the weeks wear on and the snow retreats to the darkest, highest, steepest recesses of our hills. These are the kinds of places that can deter even the most seasoned of hillwalkers, a lesson I was about to learn first hand!

Into the gully

I’ll be honest, I’m not a climber. I’ve not ventured into many, if any, of Scotland’s grand old gullies and certainly not into the mammoth defiles favoured by winter climbers. So despite being a seasoned roamer of Scotland’s wild places, as we ascended into Easy Gully I felt woefully inexperienced.

The ground was an appalling mix of gravel, boulders and mud – the messy jumble of debris brought down by weathering and avalanches. None of it was firmly consolidated or bound together, and every step I took seemed to liquefy the ground beneath my feet. There was water everywhere. Waterfalls cascaded from the enormous vertical walls, the burn tumbled noisily down the centre, and up ahead were the frozen remnants of precipitation that fell seven or eight months ago. Blocks of snow the size of cars and probably twice as heavy.

It was truly magnificent to behold but it was a forbidding place, monstrous in scale with a peculiar sense of menace that had me looking around, behind and above me every so often, keeping my guard up against some unseen foe. Easy Gully? Hardly!

Iain makes his way up the magnificent and forbidding Easy Gully.

Iain makes his way up the magnificent and forbidding Easy Gully.

I watched as Iain nimbly clambered about the chaos of rock and prodded the snow with his trekking pole. It was a completely different endeavour from our last visit when we’d approached Raeburn’s Gully from the summit plateau and dropped down only a short distance onto steep but stable ground. This was a more serious undertaking and I couldn’t help feeling respect and admiration for the effort that he and others like him put in, year in year out, to observe and catalogue Scotland’s snow patches.

Matching up

Long lying snow tends to accumulate in the same favoured places year after year, so when we reached the first snow patch in the gully it was reasonable to assume that we were in broadly the right location for the photograph. 117 years earlier the photographer most likely hauled some ludicrously fragile, expensive and bulky equipment up to this lofty location, but on our visit Iain needed only to swipe at his phone to bring up the grainy image they’d clearly worked so hard to produce.

With the photograph held up in front of us we looked beyond it to check the corresponding view to the east. The lack of snow before us was the glaring difference even though we were standing there a full month earlier than our Victorian counterparts had done. The undulating line of hills in the distance matched but there were features on the gully walls and the coire floor that didn’t. We needed a key in the foreground to unlock the exact location so we wondered how far the course of burns could have changed over the years, or to what extent the gully could have changed in appearance after 117 cycles of freezing and thawing, of rocks being weathered and fractured, and of falling debris smashing against the walls. The general shape of the gully would be the same but surely the finer aesthetic details would have changed beyond recognition?

We took a photo based on a close match but neither of us were entirely convinced. Iain ventured higher up the gully and then, after some more comparisons confidently declared that he’d found the key. It wasn’t much, just a small right-angle shaped fracture in the rock towards the top right of the 1899 image, but it was an unmistakable match. We took another photo, this time confidently, although Iain couldn’t stand in the exact same place as his counterpart because our snow was closer to the camera than theirs had been, and he would have been hidden from view. Some minor artistic licence on our part.

Easy Gully in September 1899 and August 2016. Former reproduced with kind permission of Scottish mountaineering club Journal.

Easy Gully in September 1899 and August 2016. Former reproduced with kind permission of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal.

Spot the difference

You’re probably expecting me to say something scientific about climate change given the obvious differences between the depth and extent of snow in the two photos. But it’s difficult to draw conclusions from two photos taken from random years at either end of a 117 year timespan, because even in past centuries when we know anecdotally that snow lingered longer than it does now, you would still have had bumper years and lean years in succession because of the natural variability of our climate.

That variability happens today regardless of any longer term climate trends in the background. For example had Iain and I taken the photo on the same day in either of the previous two years we would surely have seen less of a difference compared to 1899. But that’s because the events that made those two years notable were exceptional. 2013/14 was Scotland’s wettest winter on record and although it was a very warm winter with little or no snow in the lowlands, above 600m it was cold enough for snow. As a result 21 patches made it through the whole of 2014 to the first lasting snows, by far the highest number of survivals since 2000 when 41 patches survived.

The following winter of 2014/15 was similarly record-breaking. Scotland’s 6th wettest winter was followed by its 2nd wettest spring, which was crucially also slightly cooler than normal. This ensured constant top-ups of mountain snow all the way into May and beyond, meaning a whopping 74 patches survived 2015, many in locations unseen for decades.

By contrast this year (2016) is expected to be rather lean, which is perhaps surprising because, as I’m sure you will remember all too well, winter 2015/16 was VERY wet indeed. It smashed the record set two years ago and was by far Scotland’s wettest winter since records began in 1910. Is anyone noticing a theme developing here, by the way? It was also a tad cooler than in 2013/14 so you could therefore be forgiven for thinking that a re-run of the exceptional snowfall we saw that winter would be on the cards. But no. While both winters were comparable in terms of rainfall, in 2015/16 very little of that precipitation fell as snow even at altitude. And whereas the cool spring of 2015 kept the snow coming on the hills, spring 2016 was warmer and drier than average. The result this year is a noticeable reduction in the number of patches, although it’s too early to know how many are likely to survive.

Iain in his natural habitat, eyeing up the snow in Easy Gully.

Iain in his natural habitat, eyeing up the snow in Easy Gully.

To see a genuine trend in snow cover at Easy Gully through photographic evidence alone, you would have to take a photo in the exact same spot at the exact same time of year, every year since 1899 or at least at regular intervals. But scientific revelation was never the purpose of this trip. It was just to reproduce a famous photo regardless of the conditions, and of course have a nice time in the great Scottish outdoors. Never the less, I can’t deny that the photo comparison does very little to alter the general perception these days that our climate isn’t what it used to be.

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