On Saturday 17th March whilst driving into the village of Tarland, we remarked on how good the hills to the north looked. This broad and undulating ridge separates the Howe of Cromar from upper Donside and is a fine viewpoint, particularly the "Graham" of Pressendye - the highest point in this image.
I decided that if the weather held on the following day, I'd climb Pressendye - normally a couple of hours walk with a modest amount of ascent.
Overnight into Sunday 18th March there was another dump of snow, the latest in a run of weather systems borne on a cold easterly airstream. An additional 10cm fell, turning the whole landscape back to winter. Nevertheless, it was a bright and breezy day and I drove the short distance to the start of a route I've used before.
The route goes initially up a farm access road, past the farm of Pett. I stopped to chat with the farmer who was loading sheep feed pellets for his animals. This latest blast of winter could scarcely have come at a worse time for him as his ewes are just starting to lamb - getting them in safely and keeping them sheltered will be a constant worry for the next few weeks.
Above the farm the track enters a pine forest and the snow lay a little deeper.
The higher up the forest I went, the deeper the snow became. At about 400m height it was above my knees and progress began to be really laborious. I emerged through a particularly deep drift onto the broad forest road which takes a curving line west then north towards the higher ground. The prints of Roe deer crossed the track at various points - and, thrillingly, the tracks of a Wildcat; one of the rarest and most elusive of Scotland's mammals.
The track continued to climb, the snow continued to get deeper.....
...and in parts was thigh deep. Progress slowed to less than a kilometer an hour as each step sank deep into the unconsolidated snow. On this flank of the hill I was sheltered from the strong easterly wind, which was in part why the snow was lying to such a depth. I estimated that there would be much less above the treeline where the wind would have been getting at it.
The scene was outstandingly beautiful though, and taking photographs every couple of hundred meters at least gave an excuse to pause from what was becoming really hard going.
On the final rise out of the forest the snow was at its deepest and I was more wading than walking, each uphill step a real effort. I pressed on, hoping that my theory about the wind having removed most of the snow from the higher ridge would prove accurate - any kind of distance in this depth of snow would be a real battle. Another gasping stop - purely to admire the beauty of snow covered trees against a blue sky of course!
At last I got above the treeline and onto more open ground - almost immediately there was a change underfoot. Less depth of snow and what was left was packed into a consolidated, squeaky consistency like polystyrene. On steeper and more exposed ground I'd have been concerned about the formation of windslab, a layer of such snow that can shear away from the layers of snow underneath and avalanche. There was no risk of that here fortunately, and I made better progress though still with an occasional jarring when the surface layer broke and my leg plunged through to the thigh.
At about this point I changed hat and gloves to the warmest I had with me and battened down. The wind was about 40mph from the ENE and absolutely frigid, the still-air temperature at this height of about 500m was minus 5 Celsius.
The steady direction and strength of the wind over a couple of weeks has created some great snow sculptures. In the lee of each dwarf pine (this one bent to the ground by weight of ice) graceful waves and fins of snow extended downwind. They looked fragile but were surprisingly well bonded.
Above, a white banner against the gunmetal grey of a passing snow shower showed the effect of the wind as it whirled a groundstorm across the flank of the slope. The contrast between the conditions I was experiencing today and the gentle nature of a summer walk on this hill could scarcely be more pronounced. In winter, every Scottish hillwalk can be a mountaineering outing; even those on the smaller hills.