Monday, 1 March 2021

Heralds of winter's end

After a long, cold start to the year some glorious days at the end of February have brought a hint of the coming Spring.  Warm sunshine and clear skies seem to have set everything off - remarkably this "winter" barley crop was under almost a metre of snow just ten days previously.

Even more remarkably, the Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) on the banks of the River Don were not only under huge volumes of snow, but once that melted they were submerged in a torrent of fast flowing icy water as recently as five days ago when the river couldn't contain the volume of snowmelt.

These welcome heralds of winter's end seem to flower as soon as they emerge from the snow - delicate in appearance but incredibly hardy.

The river banks are carpeted with drifts of Snowdrops.  Although some bulbs were torn out by the surge of water, the flood also left lots of rich silt as it receded - perhaps one reason they are able to not only survive but thrive here.

Against a neighbour's south facing garden wall is another very early flower, the White Butterbur (Petasites albus) with its almost alien flower spike.  Later in the year the leaves of this strange plant can reach over 90cms across - it seems to do really well in the north east of Scotland.

A clump of Crocus in a tub against the wall of the house have responded to the warmer weather and simply shot up; in just a couple of days the flower buds emerged and then the flowers opened as soon as the morning sun warmed them.  Within hours, two Honey Bees had visited and taken advantage of this early bonus of pollen.

It's just the first day of March and there will no doubt be more hard weather to come; this month has a reputation as a wintry one in Aberdeenshire.  But for a few days at least it seems that Spring isn't too far away - and that's a great thought.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

In the "white room"

When the snow here in Aberdeenshire was at its deepest, I set out straight from my house on a ski tour across the fields with no definite destination in mind.  The forecast was for strong winds later in the afternoon but I hoped to be back off any higher ground before that as the unconsolidated snow would be blown around quite a bit. 

The depth of snow cover was immediately apparent, this large drystone field boundary is 1.5 metres high and 2 metres across and I was able to ski comfortably along it.

In the higher fields the wind was a strong breeze which had already been at work on the snow - one of our neighbours had been up this way a day previously and his tracks were clear on the surface.  The raised effect is a result of Les skiing through powder snow and compacting it where his skis passed; the wind has then removed the loose snow from the area leaving the compacted ski tracks raised on the surface.

Not just human tracks either; the trace of a Hare was absolutely plain on the surface of the snow - a sort of Strava for beasties!

Getting to the top of the fields brought two obstacles, first a barbed wire livestock fence which was mostly buried in snow, then immediately above that a 3 metre high deer fence enclosing a new forest.  I was able to step across the barbed wire, but needed to climb over the deer fence.  This presented a bit of a problem; stepping out of the ski bindings landed me chest deep in the snow!

Having climbed the fence, getting back onto ski was a real challenge, more akin to re-entering a sea kayak from the water.  Eventually and with the aid of the deer fence as a climbing frame I managed it, but have since added one of these to my ski touring kit for just such a situation.

Heading up into (or rather over) the plantation, I was surprised to see two other skiers appear from the whiteness above.  James and Linda are locals who share most of the same interests as me, and who ski...lots!  They reported that the wind on the Correen ridge was very severe and that they'd modified their planned route to stay below the skyline and out of the worst of it.  This was useful information and informed what my plans might be.

 I decided on making Manabattock Hill my target; a hill of just 419m/1375ft and less than 3km from my living room.  The ground between the nearby Cranniecat Hill and Manabattock has been planted with small conifers and the preparation has left the ground really difficult to cross on foot.  Not today though, it was mostly a smooth cover of snow.

I zigzagged up steadily, finding the best lines to suit my fishscale base XC skis and made good progress.  I was conscious that it was getting windier and mindful of the forecast but things were looking good for a pleasant tour and my thoughts turned to a swift descent.  When the wind really got cold I pulled on goggles and battened down my outer layers....and was glad to have done so.

The wind increased quite rapidly and within minutes there was a lot of blowing snow; this vortex leaping off the hill was particularly impressive!

Towards the top of the hill it became apparent that the wind was now very strong.  I pushed on up but just at the crown of trees which top the hill found myself in the "white room" - where the groundstorm reduced visibility to almost zero.  I could no longer distinguish the slope aspect and was losing sight of the tips of my skis for minutes at a time.

At just 250 metres above and less than 3km from my house, I found myself in a real battle with the conditions.  The trees were straining in the wind, I was being knocked about and had almost no visibility.  Despite the ferocity of the conditions and the strength of the wind, I stayed comfortable inside my shell clothing, but the margins for error were very thin here.  My internal alarm started sounding - this was no place to be in these conditions.

All thoughts of that swooping ski descent were literally gone with the wind; as I couldn't see the slope aspect in the driving snow there was no safe way to turn downhill and let the skis run.  Descent was mostly an inelegant side-slip and I was grateful that my back-country style skis have metal edges which assisted a degree of control.  Back on more level ground I was able to return to a semblance of kick-and glide but right down the fields to home the wind remained strong and the drift quite severe.  A veil should be drawn over my climbing of the two top fences, a lateral distance of 10 metres which involved over 20 minutes of wading/swimming through a deep drift and some salty language.....

For all  the effort and the ferocity of the weather, it had been a great outing; I learned some more about ski touring and gained some useful experience XC skiing in the "white room"!

Thursday, 11 February 2021

A white world

Over a week of heavy snow has left much of Scotland under a thick blanket of snow.  Here in Aberdeenshire we've measured an even cover of 54cms/21 inches, mostly unconsolidated as the temperatures have been so low.  

The drifting has been quite spectacular on higher routes and even at lower levels the quantity is remarkable.  This part of Scotland is one of the snowiest, and February has a reputation as a snowy month but the present amounts are unmatched for ten years.  Mobility has become a challenge....

...unless of course you can adapt your mode of mobility! The quality of light in the very low temperatures, particularly around sunset,  has been really special.

The night of 10-11 February was exceptionally cold.  Just after daylight we registered -21.4 Celsius on our weather station and nearby Braemar recorded -23C.  This makes it the coldest February temperature since 1965, and the lowest temperature of any night since 1995.  To put it into context, -21C is four degrees colder than the inside a domestic freezer!

Stepping outside in the morning was to step into a gripping chill.  Fingers exposed for more than a few seconds became painful and unresponsive.  Many vehicles wouldn't run because the winter engine coolant which is commonly used here may not be quite extreme enough, or because diesel fuel has become waxy. 

Image courtesy of Alastair Murray

Extreme as the cold has been, it's so beautiful.  The frost has been so intense that the crystals are the size of small postage stamps, panes of crystal brilliance.  Trees have become works of art in this white world.

Look carefully and there's beauty everywhere; a strand of barbed wire on a fence has become a twisting string of the most delicate crystals.

The frosted stems of last year's Rosebay Willowherb are now a piece of abstract art.

At the edge of the River Don, the white world seemed even more intense, the air completely frigid to the point that any exertion caused the throat to burn as cold air was inhaled.  Here the trees were frosted to a depth I've not previously encountered, it was like white fur.

Ice floes have formed on the sides of the river and the water itself has partially frozen, a rare sight in Scotland.

 The fields which in late summer are a golden bounty of ripe barley have become white sheets of deep powder snow; crossed with the evidence of animals which normally would go unnoticed. Many folk here own XC skis and we've had more use out of them in the last 20 days than perhaps in the last 20 years! The opportunity to ski right from the front door and make long tours has been most unusual.

The build-up of snow may have reached a peak and the extreme temperatures are due to moderate over the coming days.  The conditions are certainly causing difficulty for many, but this white world is certainly dazzlingly beautiful.

Monday, 8 February 2021

Beneath the blaze of Orion

In one of the best winters for XC skiing in many years, it often hasn't been possible for me to get out during the day due to work commitments.  Once work was done though, evening skiing was certainly an option!

Setting off as the sun is setting might seem counter-intuitive, but really isn't. Embracing the hours of darkness in a Scottish winter opens lots of options, and offers some fantastic experiences.  The following pictures are a compilation from several different evening ski tours through the forest and onto the hills very close to home, either done solo or with one other person.  

Lorna skiing deep powder snow onto the Correen Hills as the sun sets, with crepuscular rays striking up from behind a cloudbank, prelude to a great show of  evening light

A blood red sunset seen through a narrow band of clear air below snow-laden clouds


On another evening, chillingly cold clear air, fortunately with no wind, and a lovely quality of light.

Alone on the ridge - just a set of tracks in the dusk, and realising what a very special experience this was

A winter sunset like a Turner painting, smouldering into the dusk.

Allan and I skiing into the darkness of a winter night in a chalky dusk, with a band of the palest colour imaginable in the air above us - perhaps linked to the hard frost that evening.

 And skiing on into the night until it was fully dark - but in no way black.  Above us, Orion's blaze, dominating the winter sky.  Later on during this evening we switched our head torches off on the way back through the forest and just stood, absorbing the stars, a swathe of the milky way and the silence of a deep frost in the snow-stilled forest - it was an intense and wonderful experience, and reason enough to be out.

This short video clip is a panoramic view just as our route out of the forest arrives on the Correen ridge. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Ski tour - ski more!

Conditions for XC ski touring here in Aberdeenhire have continued to be exceptionally good - so good that I've been doing lots of skiing and not much blogging!  Repeated snowfall and overnight temperatures well below freezing have combined to build a really deep and stable snowpack.  In the forests the tracks are skiing really well.....

...on compacted tracks where there have been lots of traffic.  Off the usual routes the snow has a good crust, and is very pretty, but is just failing to hold my weight on forest skis.

Out on the open hills the views are really enhanced by snow cover, Tap o' Noth's summit hillfort is standing out particularly well.

All the high ground has good snow cover - and since this image was taken in the last week of January there have been further heavy falls to build up the snowpack.

It's a different world up here on the Correen ridge, just five minutes drive and 300m altitude separates the ridge from my house, but up here the wind is stingingly cold and the temperatures are lower by day - it's quite arctic.

Whenever I've been up doing short tours I've met other skiers - and in the spirit of the latest Covid lockdown almost all have been neighbours, friends and locals.  And really, if you have conditions like this on the doorstep, why travel any distance?!

So, skiing has taken centre stage for now while the good conditions last!  Under a blue sky it's marvellous, but if the touring by day has been good, touring during evenings and nights has been superb.....


Sunday, 24 January 2021

Evening tour

Cross country skiing in Scotland is often marginal with thin, icy or sticky snow the norm in recent years - not this season though!  Large amounts of snow have built up on most of the high ground in Aberdeenshire, the latest dump courtesy of Storm Christoph added some 40cms.  It's not been necessary to travel in order to find good ski conditions; the forest just a couple of kilometres up the road from home has continued to give terrific skiing.  A brilliant winter day was settling into early evening when I clipped into skis and set out for an evening tour.

The forest tracks have been popular with skiers and families sledging over this weekend but by setting out as everybody else was heading home I had the entire forest to myself - and what a beautiful evening it was to be out.  The temperature was already below freezing and whilst in the forest I was sheltered from the keen north westerly wind - perfect conditions really.

A few kilometres up the forest track a small firebreak path slants off uphill which is my normal route to this end of the Correen Hills.  It's been many years since I've seen so much snow locally - in places it's lying a metre deep.

It was already well after sunset when I broke out of the forest and onto the open hill above.  The snow here was lying deep and unbroken and I'd expected it to be unconsolidated powder as it had been a week previously so it was a pleasant surprise to find that a wind crust had formed which was strong enough to support the skis as I pushed uphill.

The cairn at Peter's Prop is a great viewpoint and was the target for this evening tour.  The wind up here was both strong and bitterly cold as it blew across the snowfields.  I'd missed sunset but was treated to the afterglow and a lovely quality of light.  This was no place to be lingering this evening though, my fingers were "nipping" from just a few moments exposure while I changed settings on the camera.  I clipped back into the skis and headed back down using an energetic kick-and-glide to regain some warmth.

By the time I got back to the main forest track the dusk was deepening and a bright half moon was climbing higher.  Down here there was no wind and the only sounds were the swish of ski and my breath as I strode out.

 The snow immediately in front of me quickly lost definition as darkness fell so although the light levels were quite good I needed a headtorch to ski safely.  The torch beam picked out the diamond glitter of the snow and made for a really atmospheric run.  Taking a different route back offered a swooping downhill section of a full kilometre which my GPS watch told me had been covered in a shade under six minutes giving my speed on that section as 10km/h.  There was a price to pay in a climb back to the car, but well worth it for the fun.  

I arrived back at the car some two hours after dark with the temperature at -7 degrees Celsius having enjoyed a great evening tour of just over 10km/6 miles - on some of the best snow I've skied.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Hidden treasure in Strathdon

For a winter day with a cold wind and weather which was due to briefly brighten into early afternoon sunshine I looked for a walk close to home so that it would be in line with Covid restrictions whilst being a route I hadn't previously explored.  A circular walk in Strathdon taking in some forest and open country above the River Don looked to fit the bill perfectly.

The first part of the route used forest roads which were icy but sheltered from the chilly wind.  After a steady climb things levelled off and ahead a dazzling snowy and sunlit hillside promised views opening up.

And open up they did.  The Don in it's upper reaches is a comparatively small river and with temperatures in the hills which form the catchment well below freezing it was quite shallow.

As the forest was left behind, the views went widescreen - and what views!

Rounded heather hills can look somewhat dull until either the heather comes into bloom, or the snow comes.  Under snow this landscape is transformed, every feature accentuated by the hard, low winter light.  2020's lockdown restrictions had been a revelation in helping find wild country, beauty and interest close at hand - and 2021 has started on the same theme.  I never take for granted what we have on the doorstep, but have certainly come to appreciate things more fully during this dreadful pandemic.

The ridges reaching northwards from the hills of the Mona Gowan ridge looked utterly majestic under full snow cover and alternating light and shade. A pair of distant Golden Eagles working across a ridge, hanging on the wind as they looked for unwary hares was an absolute bonus. To this point the going underfoot had been really good with hard, icy snow which was wind scoured.  From the summit of Tom a Bhuraich back to the forest was a different story, a slog downhill in deep powder overlying even deeper heather - sadly no chance of finding any 13th century silver coins today, but never mind - this walk was treasure enough!

The downhill "plowter" through the snow was accompanied by a complete change in conditions.  To the north east, clear air took on an almost lemon shade as a frost haze set in.

A glance over the shoulder showed much more hostile conditions beginning to arrive.  The snow and wind held off long enough to get back to the car, which hadn't seemed likely.  

Once again a local route had given a terrific day's walk and some great views.  At 12km/8 miles, with modest ascent and a high point of just 561m/1840ft it packs a lot of variety and interest.  The whole route is on OS Landranger Sheet 37 (Strathdon and Alford), there is space for a couple of considerately parked cars at the side of the minor road at NJ 334 103