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snow

The week began with a fresh fall of snow. I dusted down the old wooden sledges that sit on the top shelf in my kitchen and raced up to Blackford Hill in the SnowBlackford Hill to enjoy once again the childish adventure of sledging down a smooth white slope. The sharp east wind brought snow showers and blue skies at ten minute internals in the constantly changing drama that is our northern weather.

Guests from Uganda, staying at a friend’s house near the Hill, were astonished to see snow for the first time. They must have thought they had landed on a different planet. And this sensation of other-worldliness has been the theme of the week.

I was to meet the Ugandans later in the week. The Watoto Children’s Choir, from Uganda, were giving a truly global performance of gospel songs and dances in the very Scottish surroundings of Liberton Kirk. Here was the Livingstonian legacy – now in its 200th year – coming back at us in a completely different form, from the other world of Africa.

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) (Creative Commons)

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) (Creative Commons)

The arrival of a new pope in Rome on Wednesday – from yet another world – had a particular significance in Scotland. The Catholic church here is currently in purgatory after the shock resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien in a gay sex scandal. But there is a feeling that Pope Francis will allow the church to make a fresh start. Alex Salmond said as much when he gave the new pope his blessing at first minister’s questions time.

There is, though, one awkward point. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is in favour of the Islas Malvinas becoming part of Argentina, despite last week’s referendum in the islands. So I think it’s time the SNP spelt out its policy on the Falklands. Would an independent Scotland support the islanders in wanting to remain British ? And what about the Shetland islanders, if they voted in our referendum next year to remain British ?

I only raise these disturbing questions to highlight the fact that so much of international politics these days is about oil. We were given another example of it this week with the publication of the SNP government’s predictions on “Scotland’s oil”. The first “Oil and Gas Analytical Bulletin” suggested that tax revenues from the oil fields in Scottish waters would total £57bn over the next six years. That compares with the Westminster government’s estimate of just £31bn.

alex-salmondAlex Salmond says his experts’ estimate is based on the oil industry’s own predictions, following a “boom year” in North Sea investment. The opposition parties say the SNP are using “fantasy figures” to suggest Scotland would be wildly rich after independence. They point to the volatility of oil revenues and say leaked cabinet papers admit that there will still be “tough choices” to be made on government spending after independence.

The UK defence secretary Philip Hammond entered the debate from the deck of the new aircraft carrier being built in Rosyth. Wearing his hard hat, he claimed that the Scottish shipbuilding industry would not survive independence and suggested Scotland’s defence forces would be reduced to “half a submarine and part of a Red Arrow”. The SNP said that was rich, coming from the man who was cutting Scotland’s share of the returning army of the Rhine from a promised 6,000 soldiers to just 600.

How these adult arguments go down with 16 and 17 year olds we will soon find out. This week the Scottish parliament began work on the legislation that will give them the vote in next year’s referendum. However the opinion poll experts tell us that young people’s views differ little from those of their parents, despite what the SNP might hope.

irn-bruAnother contribution to the independence debate this week came from the ever-adventurous advertising department of Irn Bru. It involves a staunchly Scottish father greeting his daughter’s “new fella” from England and his bulldog called Wembley. “Irn Bru get’s you through” is the reassuring catch phrase.

And continuing the theme of “other worlds”, Edinburgh’s International Science Festival is about to launch itself for the Easter school holidays with much to say about rockets and Mars. And the Arts Festival in the summer has just announced its programme with a distinctly universal theme. Among the highlights will be “Leaving Planet Earth” a spectacular show being staged in a disused quarry, now a rock climbing centre on the western outskirts of town. There will also be a version of Beethoven’s Fidelio set on board a doomed spaceship hurtling away from Earth.

I think, though, I’d rather remain on this planet. There are enough worlds contained within this strange, strange world to satisfy my sense of adventure.

Burns’ Cottage

“O wert thou in the cauld blast….” It seems right to start with one of Burns’ wistful love-songs on this cauld Burns Day. “Or did misfortunes bitter storms around thee blaw/ Thy bield (shelter) should be my bosom/ To share it a’.”

We’ve been having a cauld blast all week with roads snowed under, 150 schools closed in the North East and the Borders and lots of pictures in the media of children on sledges, cars buried in snow, dented vehicles by the roadside, pandas at the zoo making friends with snowmen, and Shetland ponies dressed in Shetland jumpers. Even the hedgehogs have been suffering from the cold, with a rising number being handed in to the Scottish SPCA (707 last year).

The snow has led to worst tragedies too. In one of the worst mountain accidents for years, four climbers were killed in an avalanche in Glencoe. They were swept a thousand feet down Bidean Nam Bian in what the first minister described as “an appalling accident”. Two of the party survived, though one of them was seriously injured. They were all experienced climbers, from various parts of the UK, and Glencoe mountain rescue team, who went to their aid, said afterwards that the party were simply unlucky and had not done anything foolhardy.

We also learned that two Scots were among the 38 victims of last week’s terrorist attack on the gas plant in the Algerian desert. The politicians have been saying that the attack highlights the need for greater security for oil and gas workers and for the West to focus more attention on the threat of Al-Qaeda-inspired groups swarming through North Africa.

The unemployment figures have shown another fall, to 207,000 or 7.8 per cent of the workforce. But it has not led to any rejoicing, since the figure disguises the fact that many people have simply given up looking for a job. The number in work is down 24,000. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that the number of young Scots out of work has doubled to 90,000 since the recession began and those in part-time employment has also doubled to 120,000.

Among the unemployed are the 5,000 Scottish construction workers who are said to be on an employers blacklist because of their trade union activities or simply because they have raised health and safety concerns. The blacklist only came to light when the Information Commission raided the offices in Droitwich of an agency calling itself the Consulting Association. Trade unions say 40 leading British companies have been using the Association to vet its prospective employees, including firms working on the new Forth bridge. Shocking.

It’s been another referendum week – not Alex Salmond’s but David Cameron’s. Mr Cameron promised that if re-elected, he would hold an in-or-out referendum on the European Union. Mr Salmond used question time in the Scottish Parliament to tease the Conservatives by saying it appears the only way Scotland could remain in the EU would be if it became independent. He accused Mr Cameron of “making for the exit door of the European Union” while at the same time urging the Scots to stay in the British Union.

The opposition parties brought him down to earth a little by pointing out that the latest opinion poll, based on the annual Social Attitudes Survey, put support for independence at only 23 per cent. That’s sharply down on the figure for last year (32 per cent) and the experts are attributing that to a rising “fear factor” as the economy worsens. However support for a stronger form of devolution remains high, with 67 per cent saying the Scottish Parliament should either make all decisions or all except foreign affairs and defence.

It will be interesting to see how the two referendums play out against each other over the next few months and years. Will they define the political debate or will they be pushed to the sidelines as people worry more directly about the economy. Both Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond will probably have to learn the lesson of Burns’ famous mouse about best laid schemes o’ mice and men ganging aft agley.

And if that’s not frightening enough, try the last verse of that poem, in which the mouse has the advantage over the man:

“Still, thou art blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee.
But och, I backward cast my e’e
On prospects drear
An’ forward tho’ I canna see
I guess and fear !”

We’ve had our first real cold snap of the winter. There’s been snow over the Highlands and the North East. Temperatures dropped to minus 8 degrees in places. In the cities, the pavements have been covered in black ice. I know this because I have joined the queues of cautious penguin-like figures edging along the slippery surfaces wondering when we are going to break a flipper. Later in the week it all turned to a kind of sleety rain, as it does in Scotland.

Inside, huddled round our TV sets, we’ve been watching the Chancellor’s bleak mid-winter message…the years of austerity will go on and on, beyond 2015 and until who-knows-when. In the Scottish parliament, the first minister Alex Salmond said “the poor will bear the brunt .” On average, he said, they will be £200 worse off as a result of the mini-budget. He welcomed the £330m of extra capital spending allocated to Scotland but reminded us that it only slightly reverses an overall 23 per cent cut in capital spending previously imposed by the Chancellor.

Everyone is now waiting to see what the extra money will be spent on. John Swinney, the finance minister, has a list of 33 “shovel-ready” projects which could begin by the spring. They include business developments on the Clyde and in the port of Leith, affordable housing in deprived communities, trunk road maintenance, college improvements, and Commonwealth Games legacy projects. A full list comes to a total of £800m which is what – says Mr Swinney- the government should be spending to get the economy going again.

The cold economic climate was reflected in the latest household spending figures which show a drop in Scotland – unlike in the rest of the UK. The Scots families are spending on average £440 a week, cutting back on holidays, new cars, televisions and furniture. House repossessions rose by 30 per cent last year, to 20 a day. We are even drinking less – there’s been a 5 per cent drop in sales of alcohol over the last two years.

The hard times are inevitably being used by the SNP to underline their case for independence. In a major speech in Glasgow on Monday, the deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “We are already half way there – we have brought half the powers home and made a success of it.”

She argued that the referendum in 2014 should not be about how “British” or “Scottish” we feel, but should be about what kind of country we want to be. It’s an interesting sign that the SNP’s pitch during the campaign will not be about constitutional matters – independence, membership of the EU or NATO or the Sterling zone – but about the economy and social justice. They will be campaigning on issues like government support for industry, free education, a free health service, free care for the elderly, all paid for by progressive taxation in a more equal society.

The unionist parties may thus be out-manoeuvred if they continue to stress the legalistic issues, as they have been doing this week. They made much of a leaked letter from Brussels suggesting that an independent Scotland would have to negotiate its way into the European Union rather than being automatically accepted.

Regular readers may remember me reporting a storm in the turbulent waters of the Scottish arts a few weeks ago. Well, it has blown away the chief executive of the new arts agency Creative Scotland Andrew Dixon. He resigned after months of criticism by leading artists, writers and musicians. It was never clear what they were complaining about, other than “ill-conceived decision-making and a lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture.” Could it be that their own projects were no longer being supported and that Mr Dixon is from England ? I only ask.

You will be glad to hear that the “high hedges bill” is back on the agenda in the Scottish Parliament. It is ten years since a limit on the height of garden hedges was first suggested and a backlog of some 5,000 cases has been steadily growing, as quick as leylandi trees. Committee members were told that hedges were being used as “weapons” in neighbour-wars over solar panels or planning applications. There is already a law against high hedges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the suggestion is that Scotland should follow suit with a limit of two metres on the height of any garden hedge.

Wildlife experts have warned however that we should not be too trimmer-happy and that individual trees should not be classed as hedges, as they provide valuable habitats for birds and insects. It is perhaps fear of the new anti-hedge law that has driven a robin red-breast to take up residence in a Tesco store in Inverness. Staff have been forced to close the store from time to time to usher him back to his hedge. The housing charity Shelter should feature poor Robin on this year’s Christmas card.

But I don’t want to end on bleak mid-winter news. So let us rejoice that Celtic have made it into the final 16 of the European Champions League. It may have been a last minute penalty which took them past Spartak Moscow but it shows that, despite the distressing state of Scottish football, there is hope that after a tough winter there will eventually be a Scottish spring.

The author (right) with Michael Wright, high on Ben Challum last Saturday Picture: Sarah Craig

To call it an “Indian winter” would be overstating things and probably not quite right anyway, but you’ll get my drift. What we’ve been having these past couple of weeks – with meteorological talk of it lasting until the end of April – is akin to an Indian summer in that a season which appeared to have ended is back for an unexpected extension. A lot of people – the winter sports enthusiasts, anyway – are quietly (and on occasion whoopingly) chuffed at receiving such a bonus.

Not everyone is liking it, of course – if you’re a gardener, the chilly winds and occasional overnight frosts aren’t good for your buds and blossoms, and various of the early flowering plants such as camellias seem to have been and gone already, lured out by the mild March, then cut off by the winter throwback of April. Farmers, too, with their crops – and more especially their lambs – will be casting a worried eye over the Countryfile and Landward forecasts.

But if you’re a skier, hey – the season had ended, the centres had gone into mountainbiking/mothball mode, when suddenly it’s all on again. Well, Cairngorm is on again, at least. The place might not be quite going like a fair, but it is going, as outlined by Colin Matthew in his video blog last Saturday. Matthew is clearly a piste half full kind of guy, and such positivity is good to see, but even his optimism is tempered with the reality that we’re well into spring: “The ground’s that warm underneath now, even under this – the ground’s all muddy so it’s melting from the ground up.”

Over west, the Nevis Range tows are closed at the time of writing but the gondola is working and some weekend action looks likely.

The people at Glencoe White Corries have this to say: “There is now enough snow on the main basin uptrack to run the tow, however the ground is still too soft and warm to piste the uptrack and runs so any skiing available will be unpisted. As long as we don’t lose too much snow we should be able to open this weekend. The forecast however is to turn a bit milder by the weekend so it may be that we miss our opportunity. We could open midweek if there is the demand. Please let us know by leaving comments on our Facebook page if you want us to try and gear up for opening Thursday/Friday this week.”

Glenshee is “Waiting on the snow returning”, and it’s worth checking the centre webcam – the second picture down, not the wishful-thinking first one – for current conditions. To be honest, even given the cold snap, it all looks a bit thin. The same applies to the lower-altitude Lecht – no tows operating, and Tuesday’s report read as follows: “Filling in slowly, but no drifting”.

With there now being loads of daylight and with the weather likely to warm up again before too long, it looks like there won’t be any great skiing-into-May bonanza, even at Cairngorm. But while there might be no real base to the snow, the revival will have helped to pay a few bills and put smiles on a few faces.

The ice climbers – or, more accurately at this time of year, the hard-packed gully climbers – have likewise seen some unexpected late-season action. You need to get pretty high and into the more enclosed recesses to find decent conditions, but there are still options, and this week’s lower snowfall won’t have done any harm – although the avalanche risk, as ever, needs to be watched.

There has even been a proper April snowfall on Skye, with the respected guide Mike Lates reporting “incredible amounts” having fallen overnight on Monday into Tuesday.

As for good old-fashioned hillwalking, it’s very variable, both in day-to-day terms and also by area and even by localised aspect. Last weekend was fantastic – your correspondent was out on Saturday with a couple of friends, and keen to seek out a bit of last-gasp winter action we went up the north-west ridge of Ben Challum, then down the usual way to Kirkton and back along the West Highland Way (where the teashop at the Auchtertyre wigwams was excellent – friendly and serving a proper-strength cup of tea).

There were snow showers, but we dodged them all apart from one at the very end, and the light was lovely. It’s a nice way up in snow, that back ridge, as it pops out right at the summit in the classic style. We got into snow about 800 metres, and the ironmongery – retrieved after having been consigned to the cupboard during March – was put to good use. There was enough breeze to firm up the snow cover, and although we could have coped with just axes and no crampons, the spiky feet made things a lot more comfortable given the long fall-lines on both sides. Just a week earlier my friends had been in Ghana, in 40C heat and 90 per cent humidity. This was a bit different.

From the summit onwards, however, there was much less sign of winter – by the south top we had reverted to bare boots, and the only real use of an axe on the downslope was to help maintain balance on thin, slithery, good-for-nothing snow before the hillside levelled off to moorland.

The surrounding hills were interestingly varied, with the upper chunks of Stob Binnein and – curiously, given that we were looking at its southern slopes – Beinn an Dothaidh especially white. But things have again changed markedly since last weekend: more snow fell on Monday night and into Tuesday, down to 200m for a while, and there now looks to be a decent covering from about 600m upwards, on the Highland-fringe hills at least. As with the snow on the south side of Ben Challum, however, it won’t be much use – there’s no real chance of lower-slope consolidation at this time of year, so it’s just a case of slipping around in it or waiting until a warm day burns most of it off again.

Two other late-winter thoughts before closing, both relating to the Ochils. When the long March mild spell first broke – if break is what mild spells do – there was an initial dump of snow, quite substantial while it lasted, with drifting and sculpting courtesy of a north-east wind. It’s the only time all winter that I’ve seen one particular slope buried almost to fence-level, and the snow was surprisingly consolidated – the drifts took my weight despite having only been there for a day or so.

But on the next visit, just a few days later, not only had the snow almost all gone but the ground was as dry as it had been in mid-March. Any weather or snow experts reading this might want to comment, but what appears to have happened is that the snow departed the aerial route – disposed of by sun and wind – rather than soaking into the ground. It was a striking effect, as if the hill had been hoovered clean and almost all traces of the snowfall hastily removed.

The second thought relates to something discussed here two years ago, when the first – and worst/best, depending on how you look at things – of the two genuinely severe winters was on the wane. A long-lasting snow-wreath, known as Lady Alva’s Web (or Veil or Coronet or Necklace), was in good shape in mid/late April that year, the fragmentary remains of a snowfield that had persisted from late December 2009.

And on the mid-April Sunday this year – during a legstretch to get the Ben Challum stiffness out of my system – it was to be seen again, in almost identical form, near-complete at its western end beneath the summit of Ben Cleuch, more fragmentary at its eastern end. But this has been a completely different winter to that of 2009–10 – whereas that was an old-style clampdown, solid and frosty at all levels for ten weeks or so, the 2011–12 version was on/off in terms of snow through January and February, then record-breakingly springlike through March. So although the current version of Lady Alva’s Web is composed entirely of snow that fell from the start of April onwards, the end product appears almost the same as after the hardest winter for a couple of decades.

Oh, and one other thought: has anyone in central Scotland (or elsewhere, for that matter) seen a swallow? Last year, so my notes tell me, I saw one in Stirling on 14 April. We’re now four days beyond that date, and despite having walked along the same bit of road this morning there was nothing to report in the hirundinidae department. Another sign, perhaps, that winter isn’t quite over just yet.

Trees catching the wind in Stirling today

Trees catching the wind in Stirling today

Blustery hardly covers it – and it’s not really been a day to be up a hill or out for a sail. Like a lot of other people, I’ve largely stayed put, at least since a mid-morning expedition to the wilds of Sainsbury’s – a couple of miles away – combined with a diversion to Bayne’s the baker.

This was warm, bright and cheery in the classic Scottish baker’s shop style, and I could have stayed in there all day – but the cautionary words of the weather forecasters won out over the lure of gleaming pastries and I headed home before the really big winds arrived.

Yesterday evening, journalistic scepticism inevitably made me wonder whether the big storm might turn out to be not quite as bad as predicted – especially when the pre-emptive school closures were announced. Might it not just be another way of boosting retail sales? That appeared to be the chief effect of last week’s “damp squib” public sector strikes, after all.

There does seem to be a trend of erring towards overstatement in weather forecasting (eg anyone using the Mountain Weather Information Service needs to bear in mind that, while undoubtedly useful, it does also have Jeremiah-like tendencies that could cause you to stay at home and miss a stonkingly good day); and it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that the Scottish government has put pressure on the BBC in the meteorological-coverage regard, given how miffed ministers were this time last year when one of their own had to take the rap for the big-freeze gridlock.

But today, to give credit where it’s due, does appear to be going with the prediction: it was a wild morning in central Scotland (I’m in Stirling), and at present, late afternoon, it doesn’t feel either safe or sensible to be venturing very far outside. My trusty old Suunto wrist altimeter is a good reference point in conditions such as this – and at present it tells me that the house is 250 metres higher up than it was yesterday evening, a sure sign for concern in terms of plummeting pressure and strong winds.

Thankfully in this part of town it’s not rubbish-collection day – the wheelie bins, especially when emptied, have an alarming habit of disappearing off down the road in weather like this, while the smaller recycling boxes – and their frisbee-like lids – can turn into dangerous projectiles.

As it is, I’ve parked the car in the street, as the risk of someone clattering sideways into it feels less than the strong likelihood of a slate or two skelping it in the driveway alongside the house. The mid-morning Great Shopping Expedition wasn’t too bad – the rural stretch near here was half-flooded and required a spell of EU-approved driving on the wrong side of the road, while a certain amount of weaving between tree debris was needed a bit further along. (The pieces never really exceeded big-twig size, however – and, on the one occasion they did, I pulled in, hopped out and scooped them up for firewood – waste not, want not and all that.) Whether it will still be twigs-only come evening is another matter – chances are there will be some proper branches down by then. (“There are some trucks blown over, and trees down at [Stirling] university,” a neighbour has just told me.)

Talking of trees, at least there is one significant improvement on the two big central-Scotland gales from earlier in the year: both the May gale (the bigger of the two) and the September, post-Katia edition swept through when the trees were carrying their leaves. That made them akin to ships in full sail, and the May gale in particular did a lot of damage (and, again, led to a lot of woodsheds being nicely restocked).

From a recreational point of view, the big question is what today’s gale will do to the snow conditions on the hill. This has been a very different early December from last year, which saw a big-freeze clampdown after a couple of initial heavy snowfalls. Then the winds, such as they were, switched into north-easterly mode, and that was that for a month or more: ice-plated pavements and glorious conditions up top provided you could find a road – and a parking layby – safe enough to allow access.

This December is serving up more traditional stormy/squally, on/off, “mixed” fare, but there were substantial snowfalls last weekend, with the bigger hills starting to come “into condition” – and the chatter level on the winter climbing noticeboards started to increase accordingly. I was away in the Lake District last weekend, so slightly lost touch with Scottish conditions (down there it was windy on all three days, with a thin covering of snow, accompanied by impressive spindrift, on Helvellyn on Friday). But a weather window and a gap in the workload yesterday afternoon prompted a quick scoot up on to the Ochils to see what was what – and to grab a piece of it before today’s proper storm swept in.

There was a fair amount of snow – I went from the woodland car park between Alva and Tillicoultry, up the Silver Glen track to the Ben Cleuch / Ben Ever col before slogging up the former and returning over the latter. The snowline had nudged up in the morning – there was almost nothing below 200 metres – but from 400 metres there was complete cover, although not to any great depth.

On the same hills a year ago the uphill sections required significant effort – thigh-deep drifts and the fenceline being used as a banister – whereas yesterday it was never more than calf-deep and the fence never came into play. (My hill notes for 8 December 2010 include mention of crampons being worn from the car, cornices higher up, and envy at a skier given that he was swooping downhill while I was in foot-soldier slog mode. Whatever this winter is turning out to be, it’s very different from that.)

The downside yesterday was the lack of consolidation – it was all early season soft snow, with not even a crust, never mind a hold-your-weight surface. But it was fun to stretch the legs, the wind was no more than a strong breeze, a couple of roe deer were lolloping about in the upper glen and the light – as so often in winter – was wonderful. Clear-blue to halfway up, then a skin of thin, clinging-to-the-hillside cloud that gave everything an eerie brightness.

That was yesterday, however: 24 hours later, the mild gale is having a major effect. Looking along the Ochils just before dark, mid-afternoon, there appeared to be almost no snow left: I can see up to about 550 metres from my desk and it was a case of almost-bare hillsides with just a few streaky snow-dregs.

Of course that means flooding in the flatlands beneath – pretty much the entire main part of the range feeds into the River Devon, which does a massive loop from the Frandy reservoirs, round by Crook of Devon then back along beneath the southern slopes. Bad news for the farmland – but fun, once the storms have passed, for the kayaking community.

As for the bigger hills up north, quite where the snow level lies after all this – and how firm the base will be – remains to be seen. The brutal gale could help the consolidation process – especially if, as forecast, a decent dose of sub-zero stuff follows over this coming weekend. A steady alternation of freeze-thaw is what winter walkers and climbers yearn for, and this week’s turbulence could – fingers crossed – provide something like that. The ideal situation – with the roads clear and hefty amounts of good firm snow above 600 metres – might be just around the corner.

But for now there’s still the rest of this gale to get through – and the real fingers-crossed concern is not about upland snow-and-ice conditions but about the avoidance of everyday, low-level casualties. If we get through this without anyone being killed or seriously injured by falling trees or masonry, or swept away by fierce waves or gusts, then that will be seen as a satisfactory result. Bridges can be reopened, roofs repaired – the people side of things is the real worry, and the next few hours, especially with the rush-hour in play, will be critical in that regard.

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Crocuses in Stirling <em>Picture: Tessa Carroll</em>

Crocuses in Stirling Picture: Tessa Carroll

Well, it suddenly seems to be spring in central Scotland, without a doubt. Actually, if there is a doubt, it’s that yesterday – in these parts at least – gave a passable imitation of early summer.

Along with three friends, I took a wander up Ben Chonzie from the Turret dam. Skies were hazy – although just sharp enough to be able to make out the broad white shape of the Cairngorms behind Beinn a’Ghlo – and it was pleasantly warm out of the breeze. Heather was being burnt on the slopes above the Loch Turret approach track, and the track itself had dozens of frogs and toads hopping and lumbering across it – we had to tread carefully not to squash them.

The hill was still carrying a fair amount of snow, but only in strips and patches. These were soft enough to take a nice kick and only at all problematic round the edges where there was solid ice. Although the crampons were left in the car, we carted axes round the five-and-a-half-hour loop – but never took them off the sacks.

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It was one of those days when you’re not sure until you actually reach the higher, steeper, tucked-away corners whether any ironmongery might be needed, so taking axes felt the right choice even in retrospect. Various people met at the summit, who had come up from the western side, didn’t have them and didn’t need them.

It was pleasant to amble back along the high ground in decidedly more amenable conditions than those provided by much of the past 15 months. Although both recent winter clampdowns have been spectacularly impressive and have served up some stunning days, it’s time for something a bit easier, for now at least.

It’s such a conflated, fast-change time of year, this. Only last Thursday, I popped out for a late-afternoon scoot up Blairdenon, western outpost of the Ochils – and found myself parking in snow at a mere 300 metres up on the Sheriffmuir road. The whole moorland approach-yomp – and then the main climb itself – was in soft snow that varied between ankle- and calf-deep. It felt decidedly late-winter-ish – except that there was enough daylight to set off just before 5pm, have five minutes on top and still be down before nightfall.

Then on Saturday I was on the Ochils again, a traverse along the main spine from Whitewisp to the Nebit with hard hillman Rob Woodall. Again it was arduous: after an hour of trailblazing through calf-deep snow on the Maddy Moss stretch, Woodall paused for a moment, looked across at the unbroken snowfields still to come, gave something approaching a quiet groan and said: “The novelty has worn off now.” It was good, though, in a final-fling-of-winter kind of way – and three days later there were only dregs of snow to be seen on the Ochils.

As for the lower, more lived-in levels, it’s certainly not now winter any more. It feels slightly too early for the swallows – but yesterday one was spotted at Fintry and two on Islay. A yellowhammer in a tree near here was giving it laldy this morning, the larks are similarly doing their stuff high above the farmland, while the cheeping of sparrow-chicks is rumoured to have been heard from the pyracantha on the back wall of the house.

The once-ubiquitous sparrow is said to be in serious decline in parts of the UK. That’s because something like 90 per cent of the national population has flitted to the east side of Stirling – we have dozens if not hundreds of them, and the local finches and tits can sometimes be seen looking rather beleaguered as they’re mobbed away from the feeders whenever they try and sneak a snack.

This is wader country, but the oystercatchers were late coming upriver compared with some years. A colony of 20 or so can currently be seen – and, more to the point, heard – on a riverbank near here most mornings. (Oddly, they tend not to be there later in the day – I’m not sure why.) A few curlews and lapwings have been seen in the local fields, but again it feels slow compared with some years.

Most notable river-related sighting of late, however, came a couple of days ago. A group of students armed with camera-phones could be see leaning over the parapet of the Cambuskenneth footbridge that crosses the Forth and leads into central Stirling. “We’ve just seen a seal”, one of the students said, sounding like she wasn’t at all sure she hadn’t been suffering pinniped hallucinations.

It had vanished by now, but from previous occasional sightings – I’ve seen three or four in a decade or so of living here – there was little doubt that it had indeed been a seal. It’s a good indication of the improving health of the river, presumably, as the seals wouldn’t come this far upstream unless there were fish to eat.

The flora, as with the waders, feels behindhand courtesy of the harsh first half of winter. The long-lasting snowdrops have finally wilted, while the much shorter span of the crocuses is also almost over. The daffodils have only just started flowering, however – it’s exactly a week since I saw the first of the season in Stirling (in our own garden, tucked into a sheltered, south-facing spot), but now there are plenty out – although lots more haven’t quite yet emerged.

At this rate, the daffodils will be out at the same time as various of the delicate early summer flowers – the fritillaries and the scilla – if the next couple of weeks stay mild and the annual April whoosh arrives on schedule.

Butterflies and various other bugs have been seen – the first butterflies emerged during yesterday’s summer preview. I had originally written that no bees have been seen as yet – but one buzzed past during a garden stroll halfway through writing this piece, and a few minutes later another very large one had to be rescued after it came in through the window of the downstairs loo.

As for the grass, it doesn’t seem to have started doing much if anything in the way of growing – but that didn’t stop the council mowermen giving it a first cut earlier this week. So much for sensibly targeted public sector cuts, eh?

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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.

Want more pieces on hillwalking and climbing? Consider donating to The Caledonian Mercury

<em>Picture: Mitch Barrie</em>

Picture: Mitch Barrie

The prevailing response to the story of Adam Potter – the 36-year-old landfill manager who fell 300 metres down the side of Sgurr Choinnich Mor on Saturday and survived without serious injury – is, quite rightly, that he was a lucky, lucky man.

It’s impossible to guess quite how many falls of that length would result in neither death nor paralysing injury – not least because all hill falls differ in terms of type of terrain, angle of slope, the casualty’s reaction, etc. But it’s hard to imagine that more than one in 100 could escape in the way that Potter did, quite possibly no more than one in 1000. Lucky indeed.

Because Potter’s plunge was widely reported in the mainstream media, the story was high on the adrenaline-rush aspects but low on the more technical, safety-related, what-can-be-learnt details that many regular hillgoers will have wanted to know.

One question being asked in the immediate aftermath was whether Potter had an ice axe and crampons with him – and, if so, was he using them? In general, the winter-hill situation for walkers (as opposed to climbers, and Potter was by his own admission out walking even though he climbs to Extreme standard in summer) divides into three categories. People have (a) axe and crampons in use; (b) axe and crampons still attached to their rucksack; or (c) neither implement, and are armed with either nothing or with just a set of walking poles.

Accidents can and do happen in each of these categories, but people in (c) are clearly at considerable risk if they stray into steep, icy territory, given that they have neither the means to avoiding slipping in the first place, nor to attempt self-arrest if they do slip. With neither the BBC nor Sky interviews providing any information on this, the worry was that Potter was a Category (c) walker, the numbers of whom appear to have been steadily on the increase since the popularisation of walking poles around 20 years ago.

It was left to the Daily Telegraph to clarify matters and confirm that Potter was actually in Category B. “The accident,” wrote Auslan Cramb, the paper’s Scottish correspondent, “happened seconds after [Potter] turned to his girlfriend Kate Berry, 30, and said they should stop and put on their crampons and take out their ice axes because the snow was getting icy. He then lost his footing and began tumbling out of control down the mountain while attempting to use his walking poles and his feet to slow his descent.”

Potter himself, posting on UKClimbing.com under the name “stunt climber” on Monday evening (by which time he had been released from hospital), added some more detail: “I had literally just said to the rest of the team: ‘Lets put our crampons on and get the axes off sacks now’. I was walking approx 5 meters to a boulder to a flat spot with shelter to re-kit myself and that is when I slipped.”

So Potter fell victim not to the recklessness (some would say stupidity) of going up wintry hills with no ironmongery, but to the type of error that pretty much every winter hillgoer – the present writer included – has made at some stage: not using the spiky kit early enough.

A good rule of thumb – or rule of foot – in such situations is this: as soon as the word “crampons” first enters your head, stop and put them on. Or, as a friend commented on hearing the Potter story: “My aim is never to say: ‘We should have put crampons on ten minutes ago on that nice flat bit’.”

Of course, from what Potter has said, it could be that he and his colleagues abided by this on Sgurr Choinnich Mor. But while only they will know what underfoot conditions were like in the preceding minutes, given their position high on a 1,094-metre hill in conditions of widespread ice and very hard snow, it does look as though they left it too late, and should have had the crampons on already.

Sgurr Choinnich Mor might not be the most spectacular hill in the country, nor a traditional accident blackspot, but it’s not to be underestimated. A curious, transitional peak, it stands halfway along the great ridge on the north side of Glen Nevis, not really part of the Grey Corries to the east and certainly not of a type with the heavy-duty Aonachs to the west.

Ralph Storer, writing in The Ultimate Guide to the Munros, says of it: “…the very steep exposed slopes of both Sgurr Choinnich Mor and Sgurr Choinnich Beag require great care when iced or snow-bound, especially on descent … It is a magnificent winter peak that affords Alpine views, but only competent and experienced winter walkers should tackle it.”

Adam Potter is certainly much more of an experienced winter walker than he was a few days ago. He is perhaps also now wondering whether Danny Boyle fancies making a short film by way of a follow-up to 127 Hours.

Crampons, axes, poles and the noble art of getting down alive

By coincidence, I was thinking about winter-walking equipment and safety this past Saturday, even before hearing of Adam Potter’s remarkable 300-metre fast-track descent.

I’ve worried previously in these pages about seeing people climbing Ben Vorlich, the 985-metre Munro above Loch Earn, in winter without ice axe and crampons.

Along with Bens Lomond, Ledi and Lawers, Vorlich is one of those southern-fringe Highland hills that has come to be seen as an any-time ascent, even by people who wouldn’t normally do much serious winter walking.

None of these hills should be treated lightly in ice or hard snow, and this particularly applies to Ben Vorlich. Whereas the standard routes up Lomond and Ledi take south-facing ridges, and that up Lawers comes in from the south-west, the main trog up Vorlich is a straight north ridge – a significant factor that appears to evade many of those who target it in winter.

Not only that, but while the lower slopes are straightforward, the upper chunk steepens markedly, is composed of thin, shaly ground, and has a bad fall-line – not straight back down the ridge (which would be bad enough), but away down a steep scarp slope on the eastern side.

On Saturday there was almost no snow below 600 metres, then patchy stuff to 800m or so – very hard patches, such that no one wishing to get further uphill could have been in any doubt that both care and equipment were needed. The critical upper 100m was as icy as I’ve seen it, needing careful crampon-placement. Halfway up wasn’t the moment to snag a front-point or to see a crampon skite off a glazed-over rock.

It was relief to reach the summit ridge and easier ground, and there is no way that I would have attempted that last 100m without an axe and – particularly – crampons. Even had someone offered to pay off my mortgage and throw a nice big yacht into the bargain if only I would attempt the slope in bare boots, I would have politely declined.

At the summit, however, were three cramponless blokes. I assumed them to be hill tigers steeped in the old arts of step-cutting – until, as I ate lunch at the far end of the ridge, I found myself wondering if they even had axes. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. What I do know is that on descent of the easier north-west ridge I overtook another threesome, one of whom had “fallen over” on the steep bit and only then decided to put his crampons on – Category B behaviour, “axe and crampons still attached to rucksack”, to use the terminology outlined in the above discussion of Adam Potter’s plunge.

These three had in turn chatted with the other three, one of whose number had fallen and slid ten metres before somehow stopping. It was his first Munro – and very nearly his last.

Earlier, approaching the steep bit, two friendly women said they had decided to leave their crampons in the car. I didn’t see them after that, but they spoke about only going as far as the final slope. This had to be the right decision on safety grounds, but it was a shame, given that they could so easily have reached the summit – as they had set out to do – had they brought the spiky feet with them.

I must admit to finding all this something of a puzzle. It’s axiomatic in the hills that there are no real rules, no requirements to take specific pieces of gear, but there is very much a requirement for common-sense and a close reading of conditions. Also, crampons aren’t expensive – they’re cheaper than many cagoules – and the basic technique isn’t hard to acquire. As to deciding to leave them down below – when the summit is in full view from the car, steep, white and north-facing – this just mystifies me.

In many situations a set of crampons is more important than an axe, to the extent that crampons-plus-poles can be a safer option than axe-but-no-crampons, at least for the humble non-expert, a category in which I include myself.

Prevention is more important than cure, and crampons greatly reduce the risk of falling in the first place (but without eliminating it – crampon-points can catch with catastrophic results). Even well-practiced axe-arresters tell of the difficulty of stopping on steep hard snow once any kind of speed has been picked up – which means, on slopes such as those down the side of Ben Vorlich or Sgurr Choinnich Mor, you have, ooh, a couple of seconds in which to make the axe do its work, otherwise you’re gone. Better, much better, not to slip at all.

Happily, all the people mentioned here survived to climb another hill. But what I’ve seen on Ben Vorlich, over several winter visits, makes me wonder if there aren’t more and more of these unnecessary risk-takings, with a lot of small fallings-over or ten-metre-slips going unrecorded and almost unnoticed.

Then again, given that people do seem amazingly good at getting away uninjured despite being seriously underequipped – I know of just one fatality on Ben Vorlich, for instance, and only a very few other incidents – perhaps it’s not really as risky as worriers such as me would have people believe.

My feeling, however, based on discussion with friends and colleagues and on-the-ground observation, is that carelessness and corner-cutting is on the increase. And after getting away with scrapes and squeaks, are people genuinely learning from what happened and modifying their behaviour and technique next time? I have my doubts.

To put it another way, even though one would assume that surviving a Category C (no axe/crampons) or Category B (axe/crampons still attached to rucksack) incident would almost always lead to someone becoming a Category A walker (axe in hand, crampons on feet), it’s not at all clear that this is universally happening.

It could even be that it’s the other way around, with Category C people steadily increasing as a proportion of the winter hillgoing population, precisely because they think they can get away with a minimal, casual approach. If true, that would be very worrying.

Surviving small accidents has always been part of the learning and experience-garnering process. It’s both essential and inevitable. All that can be done after any accident – be it an unreported small slip, or a monumental, media-hogging plunge – is to learn from it, take advice from friends, try and reduce the risk next time.

Going to the hill in winter is, ultimately, about having a good time while staying safe. It’s a brilliant pastime – on a crisp, clear day I know of none better. But it’s crucial to remember that you’re always learning – and hopefully always living and learning.

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Ben LediThe mid-January fortnight of serious thaw has affected various outdoor-recreation groups in radically different ways. The winter climbers came close to dismay, fearful of a complete collapse of December’s wonderful conditions on everything apart from Ben Nevis and “the Norries” – the high northern corries of the Cairngorms.

For a while it looked as if the hills might be stripped completely – but while the snowline rose massively, and while much of the ice duly disappeared away down the rivers, the thaw slowed just in time and conditions stabilised as the temperature dipped again. What’s left is actually quite good: a high snowline (800 metres if you’re lucky), with plenty of very firm snow in the gullies, although dodgy cornices need to be watched.

Non-technical walkers will have welcomed the easing of conditions, at least in part. It’s no good the top half of the Munros being in wonderful nick if it’s lethal to drive there and if it then requires several hours of soft-snow approach-slog. Road-level snow tends to be entertaining for a couple of weeks, but any longer and it becomes demoralising if not downright knackering.

Again, the current set-up – summer-ish conditions below half-height, then a band of water-ice with decent snow higher up – is perfectly useable, provided one has the necessary kit. It’s not the weather for trying to get up and down Munros or even Corbetts without a set of crampons, as there is almost no soft snow – what remains is tending to be on the hard side of brick-like.

For the skiers, the wonderful early season conditions (Glenshee was going like a fair on the day before Hogmanay) have faded a little as the snow turns ribbony lower down. All five centres are still operating, however, with conditions sounding especially good at the higher ones, Nevis Range and Cairn Gorm

As for the paragliders – the jumping off big icy hills paragliders, at least – they’re just confused

Among the people stymied by the severe weather were the road cyclists. Normally they are the most relentless and reliable of outdoor-recreationists, to be seen almost every weekend in club-sized groups or in ones and twos, covering huge distances then propping their machines outside cafes for a mid-run refuelling session. (At least one of the Fife clubs regularly trundles across to Corrieri’s café beneath the Wallace Monument before setting off back east.)

But when the snow is deep and soft, or hard-packed and skiddy, or when the roads are ostensibly clear but riddled with random patches of black ice – all of which delights were widely available during December – then it’s neither fun nor sensible to head out for a road-bike session.

So what do the 150-mile Sunday trundlers do when it’s like that? Stay in and watch old Tour de France DVDs?

“Cycling has become an indoor sport,” said Alan White of Forres Cycling Club during the bitter late-December weather. “We are fortunate as we own our own club premises. At least six days a week, between four and seven of us meet and do a hard turbo session in the clubrooms. We are all working to specific training programs and would, even in reasonable weather, mix indoor turbo training with road endurance rides.”

“It’s down to personal choice really,” said Ian Condie of Dunfermline Cycling Club. “Some stalwarts went out and stuck to main roads and said it was fine. Others use cyclocross bikes with knobbly tyres and try to find snow-covered roads to go on. Unless you go for spiked tyres though, nothing really grips too well on ice.”

As in Forres, the Dunfermline club turns to indoor “turbo sessions” as an alternative. Condie runs two of these each week, with four or five club members taking part. “I’m fortunate to have a Tacx i-Magic trainer. I’ll pick a Real Life Video from my collection and cycle somewhere sunny – Italy, the Alps, Mallorca, etc – and do a couple of hours on the turbo.

“The resistance adjusts to the gradient you’re climbing, and it is very realistic when you play it through a large-screen TV. It’s a clever bit of kit, and as well as the Real Life Videos, if the computer is linked to a broadband connection, you can race other Tacx owners anywhere in the world on one of their virtual reality courses. It certainly takes the boredom out of turbo training.

“As well as the turbo and software, you at least need a laptop, although I have mine rigged up through a PC tower and a 46-inch LCD TV. It’s not cheap, though – but still cheaper than a mid-range road bike, particularly if you buy second-hand. And you use your own bike on it, too.”

The turbo session is also the fallback for Glenmarnock Wheelers, “Glasgow’s oldest and most active cycle club”. “We will try to go out in the snow and ice,” said Glenmarnock’s Garry Quinn, “but I find myself more often having to make a judgement call on safety. It is sometimes just too risky, and in that situation I would look for something else to do indoor on my turbo trainer – not the best, but my only option.”

Even in milder winters than these past two, there is also the unavoidable problem of lack of daylight. “We just try to be as visible as we can,” said Quinn on the question of dark-evening cycling. “The brighter the better.”

Winter-road cycling is a school of hard knocks – literally. “Personally, I don’t feel it’s worth the risk of crashing and potentially breaking something just to get out on the bike,” says Condie. “Having had a fractured hip, and a smashed collar bone which is held together by pins and a plate, both sustained in very slippy conditions, I really don’t want to go there again. But it is down to personal choice.

“As soon as the snow starts to retreat, and the temperatures scrape above freezing, we’ll be back out in force. Even if it’s way below freezing but dry, we’ll be out. It’s just the combination of ice and snow makes most of us think twice.”

While none of the cycling clubs could ever be accused of lack of toughness, their members will have welcomed the milder spell. Had the coldest December for decades been followed by something similar in terms of January, there would have been countrywide outbreaks of severe cabin fever, Tacx i-Magic trainers or no.

But for now at least – it is still only late January, after all – the road-level snows have gone, the black ice isn’t such an early-morning problem as the daylight starts to stretch, and fast-moving huddles of bright-jerseyed cyclists can again be seen on the weekend roads. There’s a new peril to deal with, however – trying to avoid all the potholes.

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