walkhighlands


The Winter Without End: A Review

Ben DolphinMid May would normally seem a late time of year to reminisce about the winter we’ve just enjoyed/endured (delete as appropriate), but it was only a few weeks ago that my road was blocked by 3ft snowdrifts. That’s lovely for someone like me, who feels most alive in the coldest months of the year, but I realise not everybody shares my affliction. I therefore thought I’d best play it safe and wait till the public mood had been mellowed by the first narcotic aromas of grass cuttings and charred burgers before unleashing nostalgic photos of ice and blizzards onto an unsuspecting readership.

But I doubt even lawnmowers, bumblebees and barbecues have put enough distance between most folk and the recent winter, because come March I detected more fatigue than normal in the population at large. Even in benign winters there’s a steady background grumbling about the dark, the cold, the greyness and the lack of colour, and a palpable yearning for spring. But this year people REALLY seemed to be yearning after what they said had been a loooooooong winter, a winter without end. Even some snow-loving allies online broke ranks, saying enough was enough and could we have some warmth now please?

Was it unusually severe? According to the Met Office, meteorological winter (Dec, Jan and Feb) in Scotland was 0.4C below the 1981-2010 average with 88% of average rainfall and 127% of sunshine. But winter rarely obeys such rigid scheduling, so I doubt many of you remember it being predominantly cold, dry and sunny. My own evaluation as to the quality and duration of the winter depends mainly on how many splendidly wintry days of walking I got, which is, I admit, an excuse to walk you through winter as I experienced it in Fife’s Lomond Hills, hopefully emerging with a clear conclusion at the end.

November

• Colder than normal nationwide; dull and wet on north facing coasts but drier and sunnier than normal elsewhere, especially in Central Scotland.
• 4th coldest November of past decade in Lomond Hills but last year was colder.

I saw my first snow of the winter, a dusting on Aonach Mor, on the 4th. It was a cool month but it wasn’t till winds veered northerly in the third week that snow started falling in earnest. Sutherland, the Cairngorms, Moray and Aberdeenshire got a pasting but, as is typical of northerlies, the Cairngorms gobbled up all the precipitation and Fife got days of unbroken sunshine instead.

Clockwise from top left: first snow in Fife; exquisite Geallaig Hill; peaceful Craigendarroch; brutal Geallaig Hill

A lone snow shower finally made it through on the 23rd, depositing barely an inch on Fife’s highest hill, West Lomond, giving me my first snowy walk of the season. A long weekend in Ballater then allowed me to dust down my snowshoes on Geallaig Hill, where I got my annual shock at just how brutally cold Scotland’s windchill can be. Conversely, that same brutal walk gave me one of the most exquisite experiences of the whole winter when I sought refuge among pine woodland just below the ridge line where, in gorgeous light and deep snow, it felt more like snowshoeing in British Columbia.


The next day I roamed an eerily quiet Craigendarroch for hours, enjoying the soft and silent snowfall among the oaks and pines. It all boded well but I’m wary of November snow because it is often a false dawn. November 2016 afforded two wonderful snowy walks in quick succession but come January I was atop Sgor Gaoith in just a base layer, with barely a snow patch to be seen anywhere in the Cairngorms.

December

• Normal temperatures nationwide; much drier than normal in Eastern Scotland; abnormally dull in northwest but sunny elsewhere, especially in the south and Shetland.
• Coldest December in Lomond Hills since 2014, and 5th coldest of the past decade. Less snowy than normal.

It reached 10C in the Lomonds on the 7th but temperatures plummeted on the 8th and didn’t recover for over a week. On the 10th I recorded -4.5C in the Lomond Hills, my coldest temperature since -6.3C in March 2013. Much of Scotland turned white in the northwesterly wind but Fife stayed stubbornly green. The clear, snowless skies did however mean Fife got achingly beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and stunning accumulations of hoar frost on shady surfaces. I therefore spent much of that week crawling around on all fours with my bum in the air, camera pressed up against exquisite ice formations!

Clockwise from top left: Fife sunrise; hoar frost in West Lothian; Southern Uplands from Tinto; the Falkland Estate

The cold relented in the week before Christmas but not before drizzly rain fell on frozen surfaces and turned much of Scotland into an ice rink. NHS Grampian alone recorded a 200% increase in admittances to A & E across just three days.

Heavy snow returned to southern Scotland at the 11th hour on Christmas Day, but Boxing Day morning was no second Christmas in Fife, where I awoke to a mere sprinkling of icing sugar. Unusually, I therefore had to head south instead of north to find the best snow, and on the 27th Tinto delighted the senses with six inches of snow, blue skies and a nose-tingling -9C in Symington.

FINALLY, on the 29th, we got our first proper (but fleeting) snow in the Lomond Hills, but given the raging blizzard I stayed low among the picturesque woodlands of the Falkland Estate.

January

• Cold everywhere but especially in the north; wetter than normal in the southwest but drier than normal in Aberdeenshire and South Uist; dull in far southwest, sunnier than normal Lochaber northwards.
• Coldest January in Lomond Hills since 2015, 5th coldest of the past decade. Less snowy than normal.

Storms Georgina and Eleanor made their presence known farther west, but high pressure kept the Atlantic at bay and it stayed cold right up to the 10th. Scotland again turned white from the northwest before annoyingly stopping just 25 miles away from me at Dunkeld.

The 7th, a Sunday, was forecast to be one of those rare days with deep snow AND blue skies. The whole of Scotland would doubtless be heading to the hills, so to avoid the crowds I snowshoed my way around the broad, quiet plateaux above a -13C Amulree. The lack of footprints made trail-breaking difficult, but under deep and level snow the landscape and solitude felt arctic in scale, creating the best winter conditions I’d seen in five years. Farther north that day, unlucky snow enthusiasts found themselves stuck in a seven-mile traffic jam on Rannoch Moor, but judging by the hillwalking photos on social media that evening, everyone came home on a dizzying high that would last for weeks.

Clockwise from top left: buried fence line and arctic vistas in Perthshire; rimey West Lomond; unblemished Beinn Dorain; Am Bioran ascent

A milder week followed but nothing balmy enough to start a thaw on the hills, before much of the south disappeared under almost a foot of snow on the 16th, stranding drivers overnight on the M74. Fife mostly missed out yet again but the strong winds and low cloud turned its wee summits into rime-encrusted wonderlands.

On the 20th, for the second time in as many weeks, fresh snow and a stellar forecast coincided with a weekend. The joy of widespread snow is you can enjoy ‘lesser’ hills under the kinds of conditions normally reserved for the Munros, so I used the opportunity to climb a diminutive, arrow-headed peak above St Fillans called Am Bioran. It’s only 616m high but it was surprisingly challenging, with a thrilling final haul with the ice axe.

The month closed with the briefest of thaws at altitude, consolidating the snow for a walk on old favourite, Beinn Dorain, where I needed crampons for the first time in two years. Massive cornices on eastern aspects showed how much snow had fallen so far that winter, and the contrast with the snowless January 2017 was stark.

February

• Colder, drier and sunnier than normal everywhere. Central Highlands particularly dry, and northwest highlands & islands almost twice as sunny as normal.
• Coldest month of the winter in the Lomond Hills, and the 2nd coldest February of the past decade; frostier and snowier than normal.

More snow and road closures…….but not in Fife. The Glensherup horseshoe in the Ochils gave me a local snowy fix before the mildest week of the winter descended and I found myself sat on East Lomond without a jacket for the first time in months. Hearing my first skylark on the 21st foretold the inevitable transition to something more spring-like, but under blue skies and with little or no precipitation the days remained cool, and the hill snow firmed up nicely for a memorable outing on Beinn a’ Chrulaiste with Helensburgh and West Dunbartonshire Ramblers. The crampons came out for only the second time that winter, and with world-class views down Glen Coe and across Rannoch Moor, it was as good a hill day as I’d ever had.

And then… someone flicked a switch.

Clockwise from top left: spring’s false start in the Lomond Hills; rambling up Beinn a’ Chrulaiste; meeting the Beast; Falkland being engulfed.

February closed with unusually cold air surging westwards from eastern Europe, a high of -5C in Braemar, and no shortage of media hysteria about something called ‘the Beast from the East’. That term has been used in weather circles to describe these easterly set-ups for as long as I can remember, but for some reason this year the media found it and went to town with it.

On the 27th, heavy snow showers barrelled inland on a bone-numbing wind and formed ‘streamers’ – lines of showers that follow the same trajectory all day. These can bury swathes of the country while leaving areas either side of them with little or no snow at all, and I watched incredulous as the dense patchwork of showers in the North Sea coalesced into two streamers over Fife – one just south of the Tay and one just north of the Forth. The Lomond Hills, slap bang in between, got little more than dandruff.

When I went to bed on the 28th our road was still clear, but an unprecedented red weather warning issued by the Met Office for east central Scotland suggested it might not stay that way.

March

• Much colder than normal everywhere; western half of country drier or much drier than normal, eastern half wetter with twice normal monthly rainfall along the coast; Lochaber and the Hebrides very sunny, dull everywhere else.
• Snowiest month of the winter in the Lomond Hills, with 18 days with snow falling and 13 days with snow on the ground. With a mean of 2.3C it was the second coldest March of past decade, but nowhere near as cold as 2013’s 0.7C.

The first day of meteorological spring was anything but. I ventured out in ski goggles, balaclava and four layers of clothing to experience the maelstrom and quickly discovered that what little of the dry, polystyrene-like snow we’d had, which now amounted to five inches max, had been scoured from the fields and was now in-filling the space between the stone dykes that run either side of our road.

I caught sight of my neighbour vanishing into the blizzard, struggling to make his way down the road to the village. He later told me how he’d got disorientated when the visibility deteriorated, and genuinely feared for his life just a couple of hundred metres from his house. It rammed home just how precarious the line between pleasure and peril can be, and sadly others weren’t so lucky in retuning home from their outdoor activities that week, or in the wider winter more generally.

Clockwise from top left: My neighbour on our road; cut off for six days; Ben Lui and much needed Vitamin D; Winter has come to Maspie Den.

The Lomonds stayed bone dry thereafter, whereas nearby Kelty, Cowdenbeath, and even the terminally snowless East Neuk were under snow showers all day every day. Nevertheless, the drifting cut us off for six days after three attempts to clear our road ended with the diggers getting stuck. Relishing the enforced isolation, I roamed the Lomond Hills in full-on mountaineering garb, and watched the local waterfall in Maspie Den come close to freezing for the first time in eight years.

The rest of March was milder, but with keen east winds it stayed cool and depressingly dull, with the surreal sight of snow patches persisting in roadside ditches in coastal Fife for weeks afterwards. I ventured west to a very alpine Ben Lui on the 19th to escape the overbearing greyness and felt instantly revitalised by the blinding sunshine bouncing off all that hard neve.

The curlews returned to the Lomond Hills on the 20th and, like the skylarks before them, brought a renewed promise of spring.

April

• Milder everywhere; drier than normal in the north, wetter than normal in the south; sunnier than normal in most places except the southwest.
• 1st to 14th April was much colder and snowier than normal in the Lomond Hills, but still milder than 2013.

On the 2nd the east winds and snow returned with a vengeance, and by the 4th our road was again blocked by massive drifts and stranded vehicles, the only time I can remember this happening twice in one winter. I think most people had truly had enough by this point, but I walked out the door on the 3rd and stravaiged for 20 gloriously monochromatic kilometres around the Lomonds in intermittently atrocious conditions.

The final snowy walk of winter came on the 5th, and goodness me it ended with style! It was the ONLY ‘sunshine and snow’ day of the whole winter in Fife, but with the temperature forecast to climb quickly from mid morning onwards, I made a point of heading out well before sunrise so that I could enjoy cold, dry conditions before the inevitable thaw. Winter closed with a truly memorable snowshoe over East and West Lomond, and I hadn’t seen my wee hills looking quite so epic since 2010.

Clockwise from top left: spring tries again at Kinghorn Loch; winter returns to the Lomonds; snowshoeing West Lomond; sprindrift on East Lomond.

The Verdict

I think the profusion of snowy, icy goodness speaks for itself: calm cold days when snow fell quiet and deep in woodlands; brutal days when I thought my nose might fall off; snowshoe days; frosty days; mild blue sky days and dull days….plus a good few days when I had to pinch myself that it was really happening. Overall it’s been my best walking winter since 2012/2013, not least because by the end of November I’d already had more quality snowy walks than in the whole of the previous winter combined. But was it a long winter?

I’ve recorded weather data at home for eight years now, and our first sustained drop into single digit temperatures (along with the first lying snow) came in the third week of November. There were naturally peaks and troughs thereafter as our weather flip-flopped between mild and cold, but I didn’t record a sustained (i.e. longer than five days) re-emergence into double digit temperatures until 14th April.

It’s an entirely arbitrary means of bookending the winter of course, which focuses on just one variable (the cold) and so clearly wouldn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, but for fun I’d therefore say Fife’s ‘winter’ lasted 143 days. That’s more than a third of a calendar year, which sounds a monstrously long time but I don’t think the length of the chill has been that extraordinary, as I’ve always perceived November through till late March as being the core cold period in Scotland. Using the same arbitrary assessment for the previous seven winters, they come in at 129, 79, 116, 139, 170, 97 and 119 days respectively. So while this winter was certainly longer than most, it wasn’t wildly different to some of the others we’ve experienced in the past decade.

However, our experience of winter isn’t defined purely by air temperature. The wind, rain and sunshine (or lack thereof) also determine how we perceive it, especially as we move into March and April, which tend to be seen as kinder, drier months. Spring months. That’s true to some extent. With skylarks singing and lambs frolicking, with the evenings getting lighter and any snow melting faster under a stronger sun, those first mid-teen days tease with promise. Statistically though, snow is more likely to fall at Easter than Christmas, so while we’re entitled to be disappointed when it snows on our easter eggs, we really shouldn’t be surprised.

However, while spring cold isn’t unusual, the severity of the two or three easterly outbreaks this year definitely made it feel more prolonged and kept the hills in winter condition longer than we’re used to these days. And perhaps ‘these days’ is the key. Winters of the last decade or so have tended to be mild with cold spells, rather than what we got this year which was cold with mild spells. But it’s widely recognised that as recently as the turn of this century, most plant-based signs of spring were occurring two or more weeks later than they are now, and the growing season in Scotland is apparently five weeks longer today than it was in the 1960s. Given our run of oddly mild winters and early springs in the modern era I think maybe we’ve forgotten just how subdued the cooler months of spring once were.

As the old saying goes, ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be oot’. Some take ‘May’ to be referring to the month of May and ‘oot’ to mean ‘over’, while others take it to be referring to the mayflower (hawthorn) and ‘oot’ to mean ‘flowering’. Depending on where you are in Scotland the hawthorn can flower in late May anyway, so either way the basic advice is the same – don’t put your winter clothes away until June!

But to finish, and as a concession to those of you who are wired the opposite way to me, I’ll offer you some glimmer of hope. The last time we had a freezing cold east wind in March, back in 2013, the subsequent summer positively sizzled. And while I won’t begrudge any of you the chance for a hot summer, I comfort myself in the knowledge that October and the first good chance of lasting snow is just 19 or so weeks away. Yay!




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