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Mark Selby won the Masters – on the ‘red button’

Saturday
Most people woke to the tragic news that former Dundee, Rangers and Dundee United midfielder Ian Redford had been found dead, aged just 53.

Ian Redford - RIP

Ian Redford – RIP

Redford was the most expensive transfer between two Scottish clubs when he moved from Dens Park to Ibrox in February 1980 for £210,000 – ten grand more than the figure Rangers had rejected by Dundee the week before!

Arguably however, his best days came with Dundee United, part of Jim McLean’s team that reached the UEFA Cup final in 1987, Redford scoring the winner in the semi-final against Borussia Monchengladbach. And he wasn’t finished as a winner either, helping Raith Rovers to both the First Division title and most famously, beating Celtic in the League Cup final in 1994.

I go back to his Rangers days though, a time which for Redford yielded medals and some truly wonderful goals, outrageous in their delivery, sheer gallus in their execution. A time when he was often paired alongside Davie Cooper. Coop was genuinely amused with how disinterested Redford seemingly could be at times with football, and once admitted he thought that if Ian ever won the pools, he’d buy Ibrox and turn it into a nature reserve and deer park.

Like Cooper, Redford has left us far too early. Like Cooper, perhaps we didn’t realise how good some of the players of that generation were, Ian Redford definitely being one of them …

Sunday
TV companies, cameramen and producers, do like to focus in on managers these days, often coming up with a study of gritted teeth and nasal hair. And on occasions, something they had hadn’t bargained for.

Alan Pardew (Picture from Wikipedia)

Alan Pardew
(Picture from Wikipedia)

Like Alan Pardew’s language during the Newcastle United – Manchester City game when the irate Magpies boss was seen to mouth several obscenities in the direction of his opposite number – Manuel Pellegrini – including use of the ‘C’ word. Oh yes! Pardew apologised later, but not quite as much as the various Sky commentators and presenters had to.

I’ve mentioned before, especially in boxing, that if you stick cameras and microphones under the noses of sportsmen, coaches and managers in the heat of battle, you are asking for trouble. Maybe it’s time that kind of edit was hidden behind the red button?

Talking of red buttons, it only took one afternoon of The Masters before snooker fans were being instructed to reach for the remote in order that they could watch the deciding frame of the match between defending champion Mark Selby and Mark Davis. Ski Sunday, a recorded highlights package, was apparently more important than live coverage of the sudden-death 11th frame, which Selby won. I know most TV’s and devices are fitted with the red button facility. But why not stick the skiing on there and leave the snooker uninterrupted?

Or are there few snooker fans amongst BBC execs?

Monday
Cristiano Ronaldo wins the Ballon d’Or, beating Lionel Messi and Franck Ribery. It was the outcome most predicted given the year the Real Madrid star has had.

I have to admit I was more interested to see who the various managers and captains voted for. England boss Roy Hodgson and his captain Steven Gerrard both went for Ronaldo, while Scotland coach Gordon Strachan and international skipper Scott Brown voted for Messi.

I suppose it’s all about personal taste – or being able to identify winners ahead of also-rans …

Tuesday

Andy Murray

Andy Murray

Andy Murray is relatively untroubled in beating Japan’s Go Saeda to get his Australian Open campaign off to a winning start. I say relatively untroubled if you ignore the searing temperatures which has ball boys fainting, some of the women players burning their bottoms on the uncovered seats, and Murray himself claiming that if players were asked to continue in such heat, the consequences could be tragic.

It was nice then, given the extreme conditions, to see Murray being watched by one gentleman in a ‘See You Jimmy’ bunnet and wig. Nothing like being properly attired for the setting …

David Goodwillie

David Goodwillie

Wednesday
After Dundee United had shipped loan striker David Goodwillie back to Blackburn, Rovers boss Gary Bowyer stated he wasn’t sure what the next move could be for the Scotland striker, but that he could even be in his squad for the FA Cup tie against Manchester City, managed by the ‘old c***’ Manuel Pellegrini. In the end he wasn’t, and City won 5-0. I couldn’t help thinking though that had Goodwillie played, it would still have been 5-0 …

Thursday
Once again I am honoured to be invited on to Scotland Tonight presented by Rona Dougall as a guest, this time to talk about the Rangers players refusing to accept a 15% wage cut.

Once again, that dreadful ‘C’ word appears. But rest easy, not over the airwaves thankfully, but on my Twitter timeline, as in ‘you’re never aff the telly ya **** talking about Rangers.” Of course, such a perceptive comment didn’t come from a fan of the Ibrox club. Neither did it come from anyone very perceptive either given that I have appeared on the show talking about drugs in sport, snooker, the Commonwealth Games, the SPFL, the Tartan Army, ‘Ballboygate,’ Sir Chris Hoy, Andy Murray and Celtic, twice.

This would also slightly dent the observation that the programme is ‘always talking about Rangers,’ – although that was made by a follower of that club, for a change …

Dunkin’-Donuts-Logo CroppedFriday
Liverpool announce a global sponsorship partnership with Dunkin’ Donuts, which immediately sparks protests from some quarters that this send out the wrong message to children and ultimately could cause lasting health issues.

Well, I have news for those individuals concerned about what those round delicacies might do to you. A couple of dozen Dunkin’ Donuts a week, even a day, wouldn’t be as detrimental to your wellbeing as a round or two with Duncan Ferguson. And no-one complained about him being in the city. Liverpool I mean, not Glasgow …

Anyone who is Scottish and a skier and, most importantly, skis in Scotland, will know all about the gamble that involves trying to plan ahead. Scotland is quite clearly not like mainland Europe, where both snow and good weather tend to be both frequent and consistent. Sometimes, like the situation just a day or so ago, there is plenty of snow in Scotland, so much in fact that the roads are impassable and no-one can get to the ski centres. At other times, the snow is there but so is the wind and this too makes skiing impossible. Then there are the thaws. This time last year Scotland was basking in lovely summer sunshine, the snow retreated and so did the skiers.

But there are occasions when everything comes right. Mid February this year was one of those times.

When we booked our children into ski school at the Cairngorms for the February half term, it was November 2012 and we knew we were taking a big chance. It was so far out that there was no way we could predict what sort of weather would be around three months later. There could be snow but terrible weather, or blue skies but no snow.

Archi eSkiing smallThen we arrived to find sunshine, no wind, plenty of snow and the best conditions I have ever experienced in many years of skiing in Scotland.

To say it was ‘Alpine’ does not do it justice: it felt better than that. So good was the weather, on the back of decent snow falls, that almost everyone there suddenly found themselves too hot.
Everyone had dressed for a day in the Scottish mountains in February only to find themselves sweating in the sunshine and having to take one, or two, layers of clothing off: it was that good.
What I didn’t realise was that the ski school at Cairngorm is right at the top of the mountain. The slopes are gentler there, the snow tends to be thickest and it is in range of cafes and facilities – pretty important when there are hundreds of children around – so it tends to make sense. But the winds are worst up there too which can make it difficult for the youngest ones learning to ski.

The winds can be severe. Indeed, the chances are that when you step out of the funicular station, you’ll be hit by a blast that is almost always enough to fling stinging snow in your eyes and sometimes fierce enough to knock you off your feet. But this year, for those few days in mid February, it was glorious and, for children who are just starting out, that was crucial.

It can’t be fun learning to ski – what with all that stop-start, falling down, picking yourself up again routing – in strong and biting winds. So the absence of any wind and the presence of glorious blue skies was fantastic: indeed, it was as it was supposed to be.

As it was half term, the ski centre was packed with children but the staff dealt with everyone swiftly, efficiently and good humouredly. If there was one feeling that characterised the three-day visit we had there it was of an easy family friendliness.

I have never skied in mainland Europe but those who have said that the atmosphere can sometimes be a little cold, a little intolerant of learners. But, at Cairngorm at half term, there were so many learners, so many children and so many in ski school that everyone else just eased up and went with it.

There was the odd selfish boarder barrelling down oblivious to all but themselves and paying little heed to struggling children who needed room and consideration but everyone else just went along with what was.

There were skiers who weren’t that happy with the conditions though. Several were grumbling about the ice – and they bad a point. Glorious sunshine and no fresh falls of snow did affect the slopes. The snow melted on the top then turned to ice overnight, leaving the runs very icy in the morning. But when they had been pisted by a number of skiers through the morning, they did improve.

The White Lady, for instance, was closed for most of our second day because of ice so, while the conditions were perfect for learners, they were perhaps not ideal for everyone. We had two days of glorious sunshine then, on the third day, the wind picked up and it became like the old Cairngorm once again. Visibility went down to a few metres at the top, it got cold and distinctly less pleasant.

By this time, though, the ski school children had learned enough to be able to cope with the slightly bigger and steeper slopes half way down the mountain, away from the worst winds at the top.
The only problem now is, however, that our children think that skiing in Scotland is always about blue skies, sunshine, beautiful conditions and no wind – oh, do they have a lot to learn.

The outdoor specialist, Tiso, has been in business for over 50 years. From modest beginnings in 1962, it’s been serving climbers, hill walkers and others with a specialist service, providing high quality equipment and clothing as well as first-hand advice on increasingly technical equipment. The company, founded by Graham Tiso and his wife Maude in the back room of a boat shop, has grown organically since then and now has several outlets across Scotland, with more in England and Northern Ireland. But it hasn’t always been easy.

Graham Tiso himself was killed in a boating accident in 1992. His son Chris took over, aged just 22, in the middle of a recession. Chris himself was hospitalised in 1999 with a brain haemorrhage which, on his recovery, forced him to rethink the way the business was run.

The firm has faced other challenges as well, especially the arrival of competition from low-cost outlets such as Go Outdoors and Decathlon. It’s also had to take some tough decision during the current recession, closing some of its stores and making changes to the management team.

However, as Chris Tiso told the Power Lunch Club, the business has come through leaner and meaner and in good shape for the future:

The Power Lunch Club is a membership organisation for business owners and senior executives which helps them further their business interests and gain commercial insight by listening to talks, currently in Edinburgh and Glasgow, by high profile & in several cases world class business people.

Painted haveli in Nawalgarh <em>Picture: Michael Clarke</em>

Painted haveli in Nawalgarh Picture: Michael Clarke

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Christmas is the silly season for a great many people, where all normal rules of engagement with the family go awry. Pressures are brought to bear by feuding divorcee parents, overbearing in-laws and sundry ageing relatives to cooperate, fit in and accommodate until the temporal artery pulses with the stress.

If you want to escape the clutches of extended family, and do a selfish runner, it’s actually not too late. Here are some alternative ways to give Christmas the Vs, and go off and do your own thing.

Captains Courageous in India
Riding in Rajasthan has to be about as far away from a traditional Yuletide that you can get. Assuming you have the funds, and can sit a canter (if you don’t know what a canter is, then this trip isn’t for you), spend your days riding on Marwari horses to explore ancient forts, marbled palaces and carved temples.

Special mounts, the Marwari are an indigenous breed descended from the splendid war horses that served the ruling families and warriors of feudal India, from the beginning of the country’s history.

Up to six hours in the saddle each day might leave your backside a tad raw, but it’s got to be worth it to view the wildlife and to experience the culture and colour of rural India.

Christmas Day is spent riding to Nawalgarh and visiting the frescoed havelis, with Christmas dinner and an overnight stay in the Roop Niwas Palace. Bonnie, Arun and Vipin are the friendly and knowledgeable guides who make the trip special.

Unicorn Trail’s Christmas Ride in India is £2,929 per person (based on two sharing), and there is still availability on the 2011 departure (21 December – 3 January).

Stac Pollaidh <em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Stac Pollaidh Picture: Anne Burgess

Hot tubbing in the far north-west
Take the kids, and the dog, to the wilds of Achiltibuie, breathe in the salty air and feast on the dramatic Wester Ross scenery. If it’s chucking it down, you don’t even have to step outside, as the architect-designed glass-fronted cottage offers uninterrupted views to the Summer Isles, and the Cuillin of Skye beyond.

Pull on a pair of walking boots and scramble up Stac Pollaidh to work off the plum pudding gut. Or don’t. Alternatively, send the kids out to hunt for chocolate Santas while you imbibe your favourite Christmas tipple reclining in the gurgling outdoor hot tub.

Underfloor heating, a wood-burning stove, sauna and integral entertainment system (TV in each room) should ensure the festive holiday is cosy, intimate and not lacking in luxury. And not one relative in sight.

If you’re still not sure, consider this: the famous Summer Isles Hotel and bar is within easy staggering distance.

Stac Polly cottage (sleeps eight) is available from 21 December for a week. The normal rate is £1,595, but with a cheeky £399 reduction to Caledonian Mercury readers, that’s £1,196.

Sri Lankan turtle <em>Picture: Aidan Jones</em>

Sri Lankan turtle Picture: Aidan Jones

The only gift is a portion of thyself
A lot of folk out there could do with a bit of a hand over the festive period. Close to home there are projects to help the young, elderly, the disadvantaged and the homeless, and each would leap at the chance of some support.

Missing the 4,000-calorie turkeyfest, the gruelling soap-special TV and the family disputes for one Christmas, in order to help others – surely that is embracing the real spirit of things?

If you are blessed with the holidays of an academic, take a month out over Christmas and really give yourself over to a challenge. Outreach International has a few interesting voluntary posts that need filling:

● Care for children at a day centre helping street children in Ecuador, while their parents work on the rubbish dump.

● Volunteer for Coastal Animal Conservation in Mexico. Work with vets, collect injured animals from the beach and generally do as asked.

● Phnom Penh Orphanage in Cambodia could do with some bright and fun individuals to teach the kids English, sports, football and dancing.

● A turtle conservation project in Sri Lanka is perfect for anyone interested in getting involved with marine conservation. Volunteers are needed to patrol the beaches, marking and recording turtle nests. They also teach the local people and tourists about sustainability.

<em>Picture: Vacacion</em>

Picture: Vacacion

MacSki – and a wee dram or two – over Moray way
Who needs France, Italy, or Austria to enjoy a good festive ski break? Take Hillview, a luxury holiday home that nestles next to the Glenlivet whisky distillery: pleasant, uncramped accommodation with an ample sufficiency of bedrooms for 12 inebriated friends to lay their heads after a tasting session. Add the Cairngorm and Lecht ski resorts, and you have a perfect MacSki holiday.

The absence of guaranteed snow should not detract from the overall enjoyment. Most fair-weather skiers are happy to forgo sleety whiteouts, sheet ice and neck-breaking rocks, windburn and hypothermia on the mountain.

Aviemore is only 30 minutes’ drive away and has a selection of pubs and eateries to ease the disappointment if there is no white stuff. Dog-sledding (using a wheeled contraption when there is no snow) through the woods, a squadron of B52s in the bar, reindeer to feed on the hillside and a Christmas Eve torchlit procession through the town all give that authentic ski holiday experience.

Available from 21 December for a week, the normal rate of £1,699 has a Caledonian Mercury reader discount of £425, so getting 12 folk in at £1,274 makes it a comfortingly cheap MacSki week.

Plane Castle

Plane Castle

Lock thyself in a tower – and dine like royalty
Eschew the whole business of pleasing the family at Christmas and lock yourself away in a keep for the duration. No, really, just get holed up in a stone tower for a whole week and have a fantastically romantic and indulgent time of it.

The Tower at Plane Castle, to the east of Stirling, is a medieval set where you can indulge your medieval fantasies, run around naked in a veil and circlet and joust without risk of intrusion. So much more festive, and fun, than a double-whammy of Eastenders.

Or, I suppose, you could sit in your 13th-century tower and watch the Queen’s speech and read a book.

Best of all, dine like a king and queen at the refectory table in the Great Hall while the carved stone fireplace spits and roars with flame, or head up the spiral staircase to the battlements, and inspect your policies together. From here you can view the Ochils.

Available over Chrismas, the tariff is in the region of £1,600, Friday–Friday.

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Cairngorm ski tow <em>Picture: Kathryn Mair</em>

Cairngorm ski tow Picture: Kathryn Mair

By Val Hamilton

Snow still lies deep and extensive on the slopes of the Cairngorm ski area, topped up by fresh falls this week. Concerted efforts by the pisting staff have seen it manoeuvred into ribbons running all the way down to car park level.

This not only allows the marketing of “top to bottom” skiing even after earlier thaws, but also provides access to the upper slopes via the drag lifts, easing pressure on the funicular railway – which is, for many, the default means of ascent.

It has been another good season, and Colin Matthew – operations manager with Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (CML) – comments on YouTube that they are “well up on budgeted skier days”.

As well as avoiding the queues, skiers who use the tows are not required to remain in the ski area: the restrictions on access to the Cairngorm plateau apply only to those who use the funicular. The snag was that, until last week, the only way to use the other lifts, unless you had a season ticket, was to pay the full £30.80 for a day pass. An hour or so spent plodding uphill with skins on your skis suddenly becomes a more attractive option in such circumstances.

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CML have now, however, introduced a “Ski Mountaineering Ticket”. This costs £10, and allows the use of two surface lifts up to the Ptarmigan restaurant level at just below 1,100 metres.

The cost is virtually the same as a return funicular journey (£9.75) and a little cheaper than the Aonach Mor gondola (£11). A single ride on the Cairnwell chairlift at Glenshee remains a bargain at £4.

The new Cairngorm ticket restores the opportunities for ski-tourers to pre-funicular times, when a cheap, single chairlift ticket was available. There is a choice of tows, but using them does require some skill – fair enough, as a good level of skiing ability is a prerequisite for off-piste touring.

From the base station area, the Car Park T-bar is easy to access but has an unnerving descent section, something skiers who spend their holidays in the Alps may never have come across. It trundles you fairly gently up to a point that is – annoyingly – about 25 vertical metres of side-stepping below the M1 poma, located at the mid-station level.

The other lift from the car park area, the Fiacaill Ridge poma, requires an uphill walk to reach it and – because it is more exposed – is often icy. But it does allow you to then ski down to the M1 poma. This in turn is notorious for its fierce “kick” as the tension is taken in, allowing you little time to recover before being launched up the hill almost as quickly as the funicular.

The benefits of mechanised uplift are greatest at the beginning of the season, when days are shorter. But given the vast extent of snow cover again this year, the new special ticket is likely to be popular.

Last weekend saw dozens of skiers enjoying the wide expanse of whiteness stretching over to Ben Macdui and beyond, under blue skies and skin-searing sun on a wind-free day. Admittedly the snow was rock-hard in places, but it was one of those great-to-be-alive days with enough concentration required to clear the mind of mundane matters.

Few Scottish skiers would have counted on two consecutive good winters – but, for tourers, they have been quite different in nature. Although there was low-lying snow in November and December 2010, the 2011 level has been much higher than early in 2010, meaning fewer days with “skis on at the road”, or even at the door.

There has been no repeat of the conditions which allowed Roger and Finlay Wild to achieve a 155km Scottish Haute Route over seven days in mid-March 2010, travelling from Ben Nevis to Ben Avon via 16 other peaks. Their account in February’s Scottish Mountaineer is well worth reading.

In January and February 2010, most of my own skiing was done from the house, at 250 metres. In 2011, by contrast, it has all been piste-skiing at Cairngorm. The quality of the snow has been different too, with the thaw-freeze cycle this year leading to widespread “boiler-plate” snow off-piste. Even the best skiers tend not to enjoy being rattled round in conditions one described as “not just loosening your fillings but your teeth as well”.

There is, though, still plenty of time for some great touring days as the weather improves and the daylight lengthens. The Ski Mountaineering Ticket initiative should allow a few more people the chance to experience the snowy Cairngorm plateau on a beautiful day.

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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.

Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.

Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.

Edinburgh, the Athens of the North, is famed for many things: festivals, history, broon sauce on chips. Great skiing is not one of its claims to fame. However, the heavy snows have seen some of the denizens of Auld Reekie hit the slopes of Arthur’s Seat and Telemark along Portobello beach – as these videos from YouTube show: