Wednesday 21 March 2018

Drifting along on Pressendye

The easterly wind was roaring across the upper ridge of Pressendye, louring clouds alternating with shafts of sunlight in a stroboscopic effect.

A deer fence is a useful guide towards the summit in poor visibility.  Today it was decorated with frost feathers and buried to half its height in wind-packed snow.

There was real exhilaration in being up here in such wild weather; the wind was absolutely freezing and driving along spicules of snow in whirling drifts.  Underfoot there was no more of the deep powder of lower down the hill - here the ground was either packed snow or iron-hard ice, grey with a dull sheen and requiring crampons for safe movement.  Full winter conditions and I wasn't yet above 2000ft!

At the corner of the deer fence a large drift had enveloped the 2 meter fence completely.  Packed hard by the wind, it offered no obstacle to deer or anything else.  Conditions like this are just one small example of why Paul Lister's plan to fence 50,000 acres of the highlands to create a "game reserve" in order to make money is so robustly opposed.  Anything inside a fence would, eventually, simply walk over the top in a bad winter.

Where the snow had been scoured away the heather was encased in ice; each clump resembling a coral reef or a glass sculpture.  This winter has, after a run of mild years, brought "proper" conditions and a reminder of the capability of the weather to create beauty from savagery.

The 619m/2031ft summit was touched with weak sunshine, the light all the more remarkable against a graphite grey sky - I was so glad that I'd pressed on through the heavy snow to reach the top.  I was absolutely the only person on Pressendye on this day, and it was no worse for that.

To the west the broad ridge undulates across Broom Hill, Green Hill and (appropriately) Frosty Hill and White Hill.  It would have been good to follow the ridge, but it would have made for a long day in these conditions.

Heading back to the angle of the fence, the view over Cromar was very wintry and it looked that there was more snow inbound.

A change in the light brought out the striations on the top of a frozen wave of snow - it looked delicate but was really unyielding

Descent to the top of the forest was quick, and in comparison to the climb, effortless.  Crampons bit into the surface and provided all the traction required until the snow became a little deeper.

A very grand sky overhead, a snow covered landscape all around; it was a really fine afternoon to be out and about on the hill.

I took a different line down through the forest than the one I'd used on the climb - partly to make a bit of a circular route and partly because it just seemed better to walk through undisturbed snow.  Across the Dee valley Mount Keen was prominent in sunlight; a useful headmark on the drop to the B9119 road a kilometer or so from the car, ending a great short walk.  The contrast between conditions on this wee hill in late Spring and in "early Spring" just a couple of days short of the vernal equinox had been very marked!

Monday 19 March 2018

Pressing on to Pressendye

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.

Thursday 8 March 2018


Despite the heavy snow and fierce cold of recent weeks, the season is beginning to turn towards Spring.  Winter is often thought of as a dark time with little in the way of colour; but there have been occasional moments of real beauty - as in every winter.

The dazzling, sparkling purity of snow covered hills against a cloudless blue sky is probably the best example of this and there's been more snow than in recent years too, a "proper" winter.  On this day above Deeside we could see for many miles through the clearest of air.

Earlier in the season when there wasn't so much snow but plenty of frost. There was contrast between shaded forest which held a frost haze most of the day, and the warmer colours brought to life by sunlight on the slopes of Lochnagar.  The scene in the mountain's great corrie was altogether more monochrome though.

The winter saw a series of "supermoon" events where the full moon was bigger and brighter than usual due to its proximity to the earth.  The pale blaze of this moonset at home was a beautiful sight, and prompted me to get out and experience the arclight brilliance of this rare event.

One of the features of the winter landscape is the blonde shades of the fields, grasses and barley stubbles bleached by the frost and wind.  Lit by low sunlight, these apparently lifeless fields take on a remarkable shade.

Back among the hills, as a freezing night gave way to a sunny day with a fierce north westerly wind. With a combination of frost haze in the glens and searing morning sunlight plus suspended dust from the wind, the view across the Dee valley towards Mount Keen was one of silhouettes softened into shades of light and shadow, the sky almost devoid of colour.  Processing this image in black and white made it actually more true to the view I experienced.

Days are short in the north of Scotland through the midwinter, the sun remains low for the six or so hours it's above the horizon.  The low angle means that sunrise and sunset can seem quite long, and the delicate lighting of dawn in particular can be quite beautiful.

Even when the cloud is down and there's apparently little definition, the play of shifting light can be quite magical.  We sat on the moors above Glen Gairn and watched as cloud and sun performed a "dance of the veils" - alternately hiding and revealing the hills and moorland slopes.  The eye was drawn to the geometric shapes of field boundaries in the foreground as a point of reference, but all around us light shifted and changed.

Spring is on the way bringing a riot of bright colours, but winter isn't so dark and monotone after all.....