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Helen Rennie

The UK shrouded in snow. <em>Picture: NEODAAS/University of Dundee</em>

The UK shrouded in snow. Picture: NEODAAS/University of Dundee

There is no such thing as a standard Scottish winter – but, if there is something approaching a traditional format, one seen more often than others, it is roughly as follows.

First comes wild-and-mild stormy weather in the couple of months before the festive season, but with not much snow apart from on the really high ground, 1,000 metres-plus. Occasional ice and mixed (or messy, or thin, or however you want to label it) conditions on medium-sized hills, and nothing much more serious than overnight frost at lower levels.

January brings the main snow-dumps, with the third week of the month tending to be seen as the critical stretch. Then February settles down into lovely anticyclonic weather, the lower ground starts to feel almost springlike, while the hills – now with a substantial base of January snow – go through freeze-thaw cycles such that everyone is happy and there are great on-hill conditions for walkers, climbers and skiers right through until after the clocks change.

That’s the template, sort of. But by pretty much any assessment, whatever it is we’ve been having this time around, it’s very much not that.

There has been a lopsidedness to proceedings. Late November until early January saw plenty of snow at all levels and disruptively low temperatures. Then the bulk of January was mild and placid, with a retreat of the snowline rather than a bulking-up of the snowpack. And now, the current wave of gales and stormy mayhem notwithstanding, it looks like we could end up viewing this as a wrong-way-round winter, a curiosity rather than a classic.

Or will we? At the start of December, The Caledonian Mercury took soundings from a couple of well-informed people as to how they saw the weather and outdoor-activity prospects over the coming weeks. Now seems a good time to go back and ask for a reassessment.

“It looks like we will be back into a spell of wet, windy and relatively mild weather for the next month or so,” says Alison McLure – former BBC weather reporter, now the national officer for Scotland with the Institute of Physics. “I suppose that will be a relief for the general population, but I miss the stunning clear blue days with crisp snow on the ground.

“I was surprised at how quickly the snow melted from the hills, although hopefully the higher climbing routes will stay in good condition. It feels like we are back to the more ‘normal’ winters of the last 20 years or so. However, if you look into the history of Scotland’s weather and climate, we have lived through a remarkably stable period of weather in recent decades. Professor Alastair Dawson’s book, So Foul and Fair a Day: A History of Scotland’s Weather and Climate, makes fairly gruesome reading, with a litany of storms and extreme cold spells followed by famine. No wonder we Scots are thought of as a dour lot!”

McLure points out that the Met Office has a good explanation of the end-of-year cold spell, with the complex La Niña phenomenon being seen as significant. (La Niña is the counterpart of the better-known el Niño, and results from sustained lower-than-average sea-surface temperatures in the central Pacific. Its effects can be felt worldwide, and it appears to have been a factor in the recent extreme weather in Australia.)

“What I wonder,” McLure says, “is why the weather has returned to a more mobile pattern where we get the mild air off the Atlantic. Has la Niña faded, or have other factors such as sea-ice extent, sea-surface temperatures etc reimposed their influence? Maybe we’ll see a return to colder weather later on. Certainly last year saw a final fling of winter in March.”

In terms of the more localised effects, experienced mountain guide Andy Nisbet suggested in early December that he was “torn between thinking this will be the coldest winter since 1947 (or even colder), or merely cold until some time in January.”

He now sees the latter as much the more likely. “The pattern is similar to 1982,” Nisbet says, “following a very cold autumn 1981 and early January 1982. Not that the winter ended in January, just that only the higher cliffs stayed in good condition. And with plenty of snow in the high Cairngorms at present, there’s no need to feel despondent.

“Atlantic air does seem established, and the Scandinavian high only an optimistic dream. So that’s my prediction: milder than average now, but places like Braeriach and the Northern Cairngorms still good.

“In February 1982, I climbed Ebony Chimney in Coire Bhrochain of Braeriach, one of the best routes I’ve done. Plenty of snow, but also several gentle thaws producing loads of ice which made this deep chimney climb memorable.”

Then there is the skiing. It’s been a great first half to the season, both at the commercial centres and for touring in the forests and on the quieter hills – but what of the lead-up to Easter and beyond? Helen Rennie – one of The Caledonian Mercury’s outdoors people of 2010 – was asked for her thoughts.

Even though she describes herself as “the eternal optimist who will ski on postage-stamp sizes of snow,” Rennie is sure there are some good days ahead, despite the general retreat during January.

“Certainly at Cairngorm the base on the upper part of the mountain has been there since November,” she says. “It has undergone many freeze-thaw cycles and been has repeatedly packed down by the piste machines and skiers, so should be solid enough to withstand some mild weather.

“I’ve kept a log of the days I’ve skied since 1996 when I bought my first season ticket after having my children, as they were both at secondary school then so I had more opportunities to ski. The patterns show that February is usually as good as or better than January, the exceptions being 2001 and 2004. March has always had more ski days that January or February, while April has had more ski days than January apart from 2005.

Rennie mainly skis at Cairngorm. “As for the other resorts,” she says, “I don’t feel quite so confident to predict the future. However, from experience, Nevis Range usually skis well in March and April, as does Glencoe. Glenshee, like Cairngorm, has had an excellent start and the base should be compacted – but it tends to have a shorter season.”

She has put together a five-minute YouTube film of the skiing during 2010 (see end of article). “It certainly brings home what fantastic cover we had over the year,” she says.

For now, though, we’re back into a stormy, unstable flow (a gust of 131mph was recorded on Aonach Mor at 5pm yesterday), with fresh snow being laid down on the middle-to-upper altitudes, but with no clarity as yet as to whether this will quickly be washed away/blown off, or whether some cool-weather stability will create a genuinely wintry February.

At present, the Met Office 30-day prediction doesn’t look promising – talk of settled weather from the middle of the coming week, but also “mild”, “southerly flow”, and “above average temperatures”.

As ever, it remains to be seen. This has certainly been a strange and memorable sequence of seasons, whatever now happens. One remarkable statistic about 2010 – a year that saw two serious winters within one cycle of the calendar – was that five of the 12 months saw temperatures drop to at least minus 18C somewhere in the UK.

That doesn’t happen very often – not since at least the 19th century, it is believed.

The UK shrouded in snow. <em>Picture: NEODAAS/University of Dundee</em>

The UK shrouded in snow. Picture: NEODAAS/University of Dundee

There is no such thing as a standard Scottish winter – but, if there is something approaching a traditional format, one seen more often than others, it is roughly as follows.

First comes wild-and-mild stormy weather in the couple of months before the festive season, but with not much snow apart from on the really high ground, 1,000 metres-plus. Occasional ice and mixed (or messy, or thin, or however you want to label it) conditions on medium-sized hills, and nothing much more serious than overnight frost at lower levels.

January brings the main snow-dumps, with the third week of the month tending to be seen as the critical stretch. Then February settles down into lovely anticyclonic weather, the lower ground starts to feel almost springlike, while the hills – now with a substantial base of January snow – go through freeze-thaw cycles such that everyone is happy and there are great on-hill conditions for walkers, climbers and skiers right through until after the clocks change.

That’s the template, sort of. But by pretty much any assessment, whatever it is we’ve been having this time around, it’s very much not that.

There has been a lopsidedness to proceedings. Late November until early January saw plenty of snow at all levels and disruptively low temperatures. Then the bulk of January was mild and placid, with a retreat of the snowline rather than a bulking-up of the snowpack. And now, the current wave of gales and stormy mayhem notwithstanding, it looks like we could end up viewing this as a wrong-way-round winter, a curiosity rather than a classic.

Or will we? At the start of December, The Caledonian Mercury took soundings from a couple of well-informed people as to how they saw the weather and outdoor-activity prospects over the coming weeks. Now seems a good time to go back and ask for a reassessment.

“It looks like we will be back into a spell of wet, windy and relatively mild weather for the next month or so,” says Alison McLure – former BBC weather reporter, now the national officer for Scotland with the Institute of Physics. “I suppose that will be a relief for the general population, but I miss the stunning clear blue days with crisp snow on the ground.

“I was surprised at how quickly the snow melted from the hills, although hopefully the higher climbing routes will stay in good condition. It feels like we are back to the more ‘normal’ winters of the last 20 years or so. However, if you look into the history of Scotland’s weather and climate, we have lived through a remarkably stable period of weather in recent decades. Professor Alastair Dawson’s book, So Foul and Fair a Day: A History of Scotland’s Weather and Climate, makes fairly gruesome reading, with a litany of storms and extreme cold spells followed by famine. No wonder we Scots are thought of as a dour lot!”

McLure points out that the Met Office has a good explanation of the end-of-year cold spell, with the complex La Niña phenomenon being seen as significant. (La Niña is the counterpart of the better-known el Niño, and results from sustained lower-than-average sea-surface temperatures in the central Pacific. Its effects can be felt worldwide, and it appears to have been a factor in the recent extreme weather in Australia.)

“What I wonder,” McLure says, “is why the weather has returned to a more mobile pattern where we get the mild air off the Atlantic. Has la Niña faded, or have other factors such as sea-ice extent, sea-surface temperatures etc reimposed their influence? Maybe we’ll see a return to colder weather later on. Certainly last year saw a final fling of winter in March.”

In terms of the more localised effects, experienced mountain guide Andy Nisbet suggested in early December that he was “torn between thinking this will be the coldest winter since 1947 (or even colder), or merely cold until some time in January.”

He now sees the latter as much the more likely. “The pattern is similar to 1982,” Nisbet says, “following a very cold autumn 1981 and early January 1982. Not that the winter ended in January, just that only the higher cliffs stayed in good condition. And with plenty of snow in the high Cairngorms at present, there’s no need to feel despondent.

“Atlantic air does seem established, and the Scandinavian high only an optimistic dream. So that’s my prediction: milder than average now, but places like Braeriach and the Northern Cairngorms still good.

“In February 1982, I climbed Ebony Chimney in Coire Bhrochain of Braeriach, one of the best routes I’ve done. Plenty of snow, but also several gentle thaws producing loads of ice which made this deep chimney climb memorable.”

Then there is the skiing. It’s been a great first half to the season, both at the commercial centres and for touring in the forests and on the quieter hills – but what of the lead-up to Easter and beyond? Helen Rennie – one of The Caledonian Mercury’s outdoors people of 2010 – was asked for her thoughts.

Even though she describes herself as “the eternal optimist who will ski on postage-stamp sizes of snow,” Rennie is sure there are some good days ahead, despite the general retreat during January.

“Certainly at Cairngorm the base on the upper part of the mountain has been there since November,” she says. “It has undergone many freeze-thaw cycles and been has repeatedly packed down by the piste machines and skiers, so should be solid enough to withstand some mild weather.

“I’ve kept a log of the days I’ve skied since 1996 when I bought my first season ticket after having my children, as they were both at secondary school then so I had more opportunities to ski. The patterns show that February is usually as good as or better than January, the exceptions being 2001 and 2004. March has always had more ski days that January or February, while April has had more ski days than January apart from 2005.

Rennie mainly skis at Cairngorm. “As for the other resorts,” she says, “I don’t feel quite so confident to predict the future. However, from experience, Nevis Range usually skis well in March and April, as does Glencoe. Glenshee, like Cairngorm, has had an excellent start and the base should be compacted – but it tends to have a shorter season.”

She has put together a five-minute YouTube film of the skiing during 2010 (see end of article). “It certainly brings home what fantastic cover we had over the year,” she says.

For now, though, we’re back into a stormy, unstable flow (a gust of 131mph was recorded on Aonach Mor at 5pm yesterday), with fresh snow being laid down on the middle-to-upper altitudes, but with no clarity as yet as to whether this will quickly be washed away/blown off, or whether some cool-weather stability will create a genuinely wintry February.

At present, the Met Office 30-day prediction doesn’t look promising – talk of settled weather from the middle of the coming week, but also “mild”, “southerly flow”, and “above average temperatures”.

As ever, it remains to be seen. This has certainly been a strange and memorable sequence of seasons, whatever now happens. One remarkable statistic about 2010 – a year that saw two serious winters within one cycle of the calendar – was that five of the 12 months saw temperatures drop to at least minus 18C somewhere in the UK.

That doesn’t happen very often – not since at least the 19th century, it is believed.

spyke05-300The Caledonian Mercury Outdoors Person of the Year for 2010? There’s been plenty of choice.

Around 170 pieces have appeared in these pages since we opened for business in January, and the cast list has been impressive and entertaining, with a healthy supply of heroes, villains and those in between.

Every reader will have their favourite stories and characters from the year, but it falls to your correspondent to make a choice, so here goes. In the time-honoured style, the top three are presented in reverse order.

Third place goes to Helen Rennie from Inverness, who skied on Cairn Gorm in every month of 2010. This says something about the weather-severity of a year boasting two harsh winters – one that started in the final fortnight of 2009 and continued well into an almost non-existent spring, then an early here-were-go-again onset in late November.

It was a dream year for winter sports enthusiasts – so long as the roads allowed access to the slopes and crags – and Rennie took full advantage. Her efforts were both opportunistic and heart-warming, not least because she underwent surgery for oesophageal cancer just three years earlier.

Skiing in most of the months was straightforward, given the long first winter, but the warm spell in May and June did its work and the critical Coire Cas snow wreath was shrinking drastically come August. Rennie filmed her series of visits, and by the end of the month – when she managed just five turns on 26 August before scuffing down into the boulders – it was clear that September would be touch and go.

The patch survived just long enough – three turns were managed on 2 September. A week later it had gone, but the job had been done, and the regular early snows allowed October to be skied. November and December were, well, fun.

The runner-up is another woman, and another story from the north-east. Pat Cook had an unwanted encounter with a rogue reindeer in late November, having gone for what was intended as a routine wander up Carn a’Ghille Chearr in the Cromdale hills. She met the creature – named Magnus (“I’ve started so I’ll finish”) by its owners at the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd (CRH) – near the top of the 710-metre hill, and two hours of sharp-antlered prodding and jabbing ensued.

Cook regards herself as having been lucky to escape with nothing worse than aches and bruises, given the extent to which she was repeatedly stabbed by the Laplandish lout, as a jab to some critical organ could well have been the end of her.

The Caledonian Mercury broke the story just two days after the attack itself (thanks go to Colin Wells for the tip-off), and in due course the rest of the press pack – or should that be herd? – caught on.

It might have been a nightmare for Cook, but it was a dream seasonal story, and there were some entertaining headlines, eg the Sunday Post’s “Lone walker survives horror reindeer attack – They’re not Santa’s little helpers”, and “Crazed reindeer stalks, attacks Scottish woman with antlers – Victim forced to jettison lunch in festive horror chase” on The Register.

Cook even found herself on Fred McAulay’s Radio Scotland show – taken to another reindeer farm in an attempt to get her to conquer her demons. More importantly, there have been discussions as to how to avoid any repeat or worse, with Tilly Smith of the CRH meeting officials from the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland.

This has led to a review of “reindeer management procedures”, such that non-castrated reindeer bulls will now be kept in secure enclosures until their antlers drop off naturally or they have them removed.

As for Pat Cook, she’s likely to receive a higher than average number of reindeer Christmas cards for years to come.

After the runner-up, it’s appropriate that the winner is someone who runs up things. The 39-day Munro round achieved by Stephen Pyke, aka Spyke, was a phenomenal effort. He started in late April, ended in early June and did it self-propelled-style, getting round the 283 hills by walking, running, cycling and – for the Sound of Mull and Loch Lomond crossings – paddling a canoe.

Nine days were carved off the previous best time set by Charlie Campbell in 2000 – itself an astonishing achievement, and Campbell does at least retain one aspect of the record in that he swam the various watery bits.

Spyke’s round combined willpower, physical strength, technical know-how, a flawless support structure and remarkable luck with the weather. It seemed almost reckless to start with a series of massive days when there was still extensive snow on the Munros, but the Staffordshire runner knew what he was doing and the early momentum flowed into summer.

The record could well remain unbroken for decades to come. Angela Mudge, another monumentally strong hill runner, reckons 39 days could be the limit – “I don’t think the record can go any lower,” she said. Both Spyke and Charlie Campbell, however, think it could come down by a further couple of days. “The Munros in a month is now going to become the Holy Grail of British ultra hill records,” said Campbell when contemplating Spyke’s success. This will be mind-boggling to anyone who has approached Munro-bagging via the more normal timespan of years and decades.

The hill-running world traditionally sees its great achievements – and there have been many – go unheralded, as it’s a non-mainstream, non-televised, uncommercial sport. But that doesn’t make its heroes any less able or athletic than the more familiar names we see in the media. Take a look at the short-list for this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year. All very fine sportsmen and women, for sure, but in terms of what they achieved during 2010, is any of them fit to tie the laces of Spyke’s Inov-8 X-Talons? It’s debatable.

And so The Caledonian Mercury is delighted to name Stephen Pyke as its Outdoors Person of the Year for 2010. Now, what will 2011 bring?

hrennie3

Helen Rennie in Coire Cas

There was a brief dusting of fresh snow on various of the higher Highland peaks last week. Nothing unusual for late September, and it gave no real clue as to how severe or how mild the coming winter might prove to be. It was, however, enough to set the hearts of Scottish skiers beating just that little bit faster with anticipatory excitement.

Not that every skier had a complete break over the summer months. Helen Rennie, a secondary school teacher from Inverness, filmed herself skiing the snow patch at the head of Coire Cas – the main commercial-skiing corrie on Cairn Gorm – on five days in August and early September.

Rennie got the idea for the video on 29 July, at the end of a session skiing with friends on the remaining snow in Ciste Mhearad, high on the east side of Cairn Gorm. Later, heading down in the funicular, one of the friends suggested that the Coire Cas headwall might also be skiable.

“It hadn’t figured in my mind,” says Rennie, “as I’ve always headed to the snow patches in Ciste Mhearad or beneath the tor near the summit of Cairn Gorm once the lifts have closed. However this year, because there had been so much snow on the headwall, there was still cover and it seemed like something worth trying at the start of August.”

Her friends couldn’t come, so Rennie headed uphill alone on Monday 2 August, “intending to give it a go if it was safe”. A video camera was wedged between rocks at the top of the slope, and the patch proved big enough to allow 11 turns.

“The headwall was really good fun to ski,” says Rennie, “much better than Ciste Mhearad, so I enjoyed the day. I hadn’t been very impressed with the dreich summer, so when the last day of the school holidays [15 August] turned out to be a beautiful day I headed back up and took another video.” The patch had shrunk during the intervening fortnight, and only allowed nine turns this time.

Rennie decided to keep this going, and to film it each time, for as long as the patch lasted. “It struck me that there are probably not many people who have skied the headwall in August, and even fewer who have recorded it. On Winterhighland there is a very keen group who monitor the remaining snow patches, so I thought it would be of interest to them. I was really hoping it would last into September and it did – just!”

Rennie works part-time, so was able to take her skis back to the patch on three successive Thursdays: 19 August (when she managed seven turns), 26 August (five turns) and finally 2 September (just the three turns – but hey, it was skiing all the same).

“I went back up on 9 September,” she says, “but all the snow had melted on the headwall by then. I skied on Ciste Mhearad, but by then it had shrunk considerably.” That was her 99th day of Scottish skiing in the 2009/10 season, the first having been 28 November. “I was temped to try for the 100, but with the Ciste Mhearad patch being so small I didn’t want to jeopardise it lasting all year by scuffing it up.” (Rennie reports the Ciste Mhearad patch as still being there as of the last day in September, albeit only about one metre by five metres in size.)

The Coire Cas patch – which, as snow expert Adam Watson has pointed out, has a name, Cuithe Chrom, meaning “crooked wreath” – proved to be the longest-lasting piece of skiable snow Rennie has seen on Cairn Gorm. “The latest I’d skied on a snow patch up until this year was 17 August on Ciste Mhearad in 2007,” she says. “I was hoping to manage to ski the 12 continuous months that year, but lack of snow in October prevented that.”

“Oh yes,” she says when asked if there were any funny looks from walkers who saw her carrying skis uphill in high-summer weather. “Quite a few people took photos and video. One French couple wanted to know if it was a small glacier. I ended up on our ITV local news on 2 September as they happened to be in the car park as I headed up.”

Rennie learned to ski in February 1977. “Inverness was snowed in and I was in my second year of teaching. Four of us borrowed school skis and tried in a field at Daviot only to be thrown off by an angry farmer. Undeterred, when the A9 opened we went to Cairngorm and I became hooked.”

These days, she mixes ski mountaineering/touring with downhill. “I always have my skins in my rucksack, so will quite often wander off from the pistes for a couple of hours during a day. This year I skied some local hills around Inverness as the cover was so good. I don’t ski abroad, as my husband’s hobby is salmon fishing on the River Nairn.

“I usually have a few trips to Nevis Range and maybe one or two to the Lecht most seasons. I’ve never skied Glenshee or Glencoe simply because of their distance from Inverness. I was introduced to ski touring in 2001 and converted to Fritschi bindings in 2002, so from then on I would walk up and mess about on the remaining snow patches after the lifts had ceased to operate.”

Since 2000, Rennie has also been one of the voluntary ski ambassadors at CairnGorm Mountain (CML).  “You commit to being there on at least one regular day – mine is Saturdays – every week throughout the season, starting around 8am. In reality, I’m there much more frequently. You help customers in the car park until it has cleared of people, then you are on the slopes. We offer a tour, help organise lift queues and generally ski about looking out for anyone who might need help.”

It might not be a paid job, but there are perks: “You get a free season pass and a free bowl of soup and a roll for lunch, plus staff prices on other food. For me, the main advantage is being involved in something I’m passionate about and getting to know so many people with a like interest.”

As for last week’s taster of the coming winter, was she out on the slopes? “I didn’t go up – hedge-cutting took priority! However I will be hoping to ski on fresh snow in October, because that would make it the first time I’d have skied for 12 continuous months.”