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

Friday 15 January 2021

Night walking

A catch-up post from November 2020, on an evening with a really bright full moon.  I set out from home well after sunset with the full moon up above the farmland of Aberdeenshire and the forecast of a clear night to come.  The plan was to take a night walk around the Correen Hills by night.  I expected to be using a head torch for much of the way, but in fact the torch stayed in my pocket the entire four hours I was out, so bright was the moonlight.

High on the ridge, three hours into my walk and four hours after sunset.  To the right of this image, the snow covered mass of Ben Avon, one of the Cairngorm giants, was clearly visible 50km away - the air was gin-clear and the moon was arclight bright; just a beautiful night to be out on the hill.

 From the summit of Lord Arthur's Hill, the village of Alford lay in a haze of frost and woodsmoke.  to the extreme left of this image are the distant lights of the city of Aberdeen - another world.  The top of the image shows a satellite pass in the long exposure - purely by chance.  

I'd forgotten how pleasurable walking by night can be. If you don't embrace at least starting and finishing walks and other activities in the dark during Scotland's winter months, it can be very limiting.  But deliberately setting out for a night walk is something I'd fallen out of the habit of doing, and I intend to do more of this in 2021.

If you want moonlight, the formula is fairly simple, given clear or reasonably clear skies:

Full Moon - rises near sunset, sets near sunrise - bright
3rd quarter (7d after full) - rises very late evening - reasonably bright
New moon (14d after full) - rises near sunrise, sets near sunset, dark skies
1st quarter (7d before full)- sets very late evening - reasonably bright

Saturday 9 January 2021

Sun, ski and sky

The last few days have offered the best conditions for Nordic skiing in this part of Aberdeenshire for several years.  Deep snow of just the right type, sub-zero temperatures and periods of bright sunshine have combined to give superb skiing in the forest just above the house.

Lots of local folk have been out enjoying the conditions, tracks are well established and make for really good going.

I've been out three consecutive days and enjoyed each one of them immensely.  On one afternoon run I went up through a narrow firebreak which is my normal walking route to part of the Correen ridge.  The amount of snow which has fallen was clear to see.  I was sheltered in the forest but knew that it would be windy above.

Deep powder snow was much harder to make progress though, but I managed up to Peter's Prop to get a view across wide snowfields.  This image doesn't show the bitter wind blowing across those snowfields!

 Less than three weeks after the winter solstice, sunset is still mid afternoon here.  While the sunset was a lovely smoulder in the southwest......

 ....perhaps the better colour was the gorgeous pale pink glow to the north east - just a beautiful quality of light.

Conditions look to be about to change in the short term, but the ability to get out on ski in these superb days has been a real tonic - hopefully there will be more days of sun, ski and sky this winter.

Thursday 7 January 2021

One good thing - an apres (work) ski

I'd received tip-offs from friends during a day of working from home that the snow conditions were great for nordic skiing in the forest above the house.  As soon as the final Skype meeting of the day was complete I grabbed my skis and boots and drove up to the top of the road.  The blue sky of earlier in the day had been replaced with a grey mist which had the feeling of more snow about it, and it was already past sunset.  No matter; if you don't embrace the darkness at this time of year in Scotland, you'll have short days out!

My friends had been up over a couple of days and there were good tracks to follow thanks to Les, Lorna and Linda, which made for fast skiing.   The rhythm of movement on ski came back gradually as I headed up into the forest.

I'm not at all elegant on nordic ski, but so good was the snow that even I was able to strike out in a fast kick-and-glide style; on level sections it was possible to get up quite a speed, and to glide the downhill parts of the forest roads.  It's been a long while since I've experienced "Goldilocks" snow of this sort - not too deep, not too thin, not too packed and not too powdery - it was great!

Soon I was well up into the forest and at the end of the forest road, well after dark.  A brief rest and it was time to head back, mostly downhill.  For about 15 minutes a light snowfall had been apparent, but it was about to get a bit heavier... fact quite a lot heavier!  My outward tracks were already filling in but were still good enough to give some speed, the head torch beam showing that this was no passing snow shower.

The last kilometre or so was slower as the amount of snow coming down meant that I was effectively breaking trail in tracks I'd made just an hour earlier.  It was all exhilarating, aerobic and the perfect after work exercise - what a privilege to be able to do this just a few minutes from home!

 Back at the car, it was plain to see how much snow had come down in a short period.  The drive back down the steep Suie road was....carefully done! So that was the "one good thing" about today, and it looks that conditions will be perfect for more of the same.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

One good thing - a winter glory

It was a very cold day here in Aberdeenshire.  The snow has gone from the low ground to be replaced by hard ice, the snow on the higher ground continues to build.  Freezing fog in the morning began to lift at lunchtime as I headed out for a walk; my timing was incredibly lucky.

The last tendrils of fog were dispersing and with my back to the sun an ethereal phenomenon appeared, just at the edge of vision.  A fogbow is an uncommon optical effect, similar to a rainbow but with the sunlight acting on mist rather than water droplets.  It appears as a pale arc and is just so beautiful.

The effect didn't last long before beginning to dissipate.  I've seen fogbows just a few times - the last during a crossing of the Sound of Gigha with my friend Douglas on another day of fragile beauty.

 The evening light was just lovely; a quiet, delicate pink which gradually faded to indigo and then deep inky black, studded with stars.

During the lockdown of 2020 I looked for "One Good Thing" to offset the tragedy of the Coronavirus pandemic.  We enter 2021 in a similar lockdown and maybe I'd thought that it would be more difficult to find natural beauty in winter.....I was so very wrong.

Tuesday 5 January 2021

Light and labour - a winter walk on Culblean Hill

The start of the year has seen some really cold conditions in northern and eastern Scotland.  For days either side of New Year the temperature has rarely been above freezing and there's been steady accumulation of snow, coming in showers on a north to north easterly airflow.  Sunday 3rd January looked to be a good day, so Allan, Lorna and I looked for a suitable hill to walk.

Given the prevailing wind and the complete snow cover on high ground we could see from our homes, we looked for a hill which had a north or easterly aspect to climb.  this would mean that the bulk of the snow would have been scoured off to be deposited on south to south westerly slopes, and so give us easier going underfoot.  We chose Culblean Hill - and it wasn't until after we chose that we realised Allan and I had climbed this hill three years previously to the day - in quite similar winter conditions though with less snow cover.

One of the hardest parts of the day was getting to the bottom of the hill - the roads were quite treacherous as there had been a re-freeze of lying snow followed by freezing rain and snow overnight - it was a slow and cautious journey to the starting point.  The initial track is quite steep, but in light powder snow cover under a blue-and-white sky it seemed no real effort; we stopped frequently to admire the views anyway!

Across to the north, Morven (Big Hill) retained cloud cover all day as forecast - which was another reason for choosing a slightly lower hill.  Just the lower shoulder stayed clear, the upper ridge of this super hill generating a cloud banner as cold air was forced upslope.

The view behind us over Cromar towards Pressendye opened up as we climbed - another hill which has given great winter days.  To the north clear air and bright sunshine predominated.....

...but over our shoulders a change was heading from the east as a big snow shower built up.

With the great majority of the climbing done we headed onto the flat and featureless summit area of Culblean Hill.  As we were on the northern edge of this mid-height plateau the snow cover was still quite light, having been scoured by the wind.

The good going didn't last and it was a real labour in knee-deep snow across the plateau towards the summit cairns.  The light was ethereal with shifting tones and constantly changing light levels as cloud streamed across close overhead.  A couple of compass bearings were needed to keep us on track as we waded through deep snow cover whilst trying to avoid the peat hags we knew to be hereabouts.

At the southern edge of the highest ground the view was quite a contrast to the sunny conditions up to the north.  Here, dark clouds with a defined edge lowered over the valley of the River Dee - the town of Ballater a darker patch below wooded hills.

To the west the views were of rolling snow-covered hills off into the far distance, much less clear than that day of three years ago but no less impressive.  It was wild, cold and utterly magnificent; a small hill of just 604m/1982ft giving us some really great winter hillwalking.

It's a truism that every winter hillwalk in Scotland should be treated as a mountaineering venture.  Our hills aren't as high or as remote as in many parts of the world, but have very changeable conditions and experience weather of a ferocity usually associated with much higher mountains.  We'd brought full winter gear including crampons and needed all our spare layers on a small hill.  We'd planned our route carefully to avoid the deepest snow, but still found hard labour - and we needed accurate navigation to locate the correct gully between two tracks we could use for our descent.

Just 200m of descent took us into a different world.  the snow cover very much lighter, the wind a whisper of what we'd felt on the high ground and visibility restored.  Still though, the play of light was in evidence with cloud streaming in from the North Sea trailing curtains of snow.  I tried to capture the quality of light on this walk, shooting lots of images which just failed to capture the wild, luminous light.  This image does no justice to the scale of the cloud streamer overhead - and I'm still not sure whether I prefer it in colour.....

 ...or in black and white!

Three years to the day since climbing this little hill in the earliest part of January, it had again given us a day to remember.  We'll be back - but with new Coronavirus measures limiting meeting up outdoors to just one other person, it may be a while before we can all get back on a hill together.

Friday 1 January 2021

First footing

New Year's Day dawned raw and cold, but mainly dry - a contrast to the grim conditions of the previous day.  Whilst "first footing"  family, neighbours and friends isn't allowed this year due to Coronavirus restrictions, first footing a local hill could certainly go ahead.

I chose Lord Arthur's Hill, the highest of the Correen Hills, partly because it's very close to home but mostly because during the most restrictive part of 2020's lockdown when travel was severely curtailed these were my "go to" hills and gave such a lot of space and exercise.

The approach track was very icy, higher up on the hill the snow was quite deep but sugary.  Sub-zero temperatures forecast for the first week of January will harden it and make for easier going than I experienced. Snow showers came and went as I climbed into the cloud.

It was bitterly cold at the summit with a raw northerly wind - and no place to linger; especially since there wasn't a view.  The new year was barely 10 hours old and I was definitely the first visitor of the year.  After a few minutes I headed off the summit by a different route than that I'd climbed to give a partial circuit.

 I headed down to a wood on the Fouchie Shank where I knew I'd find shelter from the northerly wind and where I've previously camped.  In under the trees it was calm if not particularly warm and I could sit and make cup of tea, pleased to have been the first foot on this "home" hill.