Wednesday, 24 April 2019


The cornice picture! Even in poor snow years impressive features can form.  I took this shot of fellow avalanche forecaster Graham Moss in early February. 
Well, that is another winter over. As described in my previous blog post, it was, in general, a poor winter in terms of conditions. From a personal climbing point of view it was also poor, it was the first winter since I was at school which I have failed to do any winter routes for myself.  There were a number of reasons for this beside the poor conditions. However, I won't go into those here.
As usual my main jobs through the winter was as a forecaster for the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.  During the lean snow periods the work is definitely a lot easier, but less satisfying, than during periods when there is a significant avalanche hazard.

Doing snow science on Aonach Mor in February. Very pleasant!
I also did some work for the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS). The purpose of this work is to improve the snow depth measurement of their SIMBA device ( )
SIMBA is a device which essentially automatically measures snow and ice depth, and relays the information back in essentially real time. They have been used to sea ice for a number of years, there are quite a few deployed around the arctic, and now there is progressively more interest in using them for snow depth measurement. We had one of these devices out in a couple of locations on Aonach Mor, and because I was regularly up there was able to check the readings it was giving. It produced some interesting results that need a bit of interpretation at times, something I have enjoyed working on.
What the Alps should be like, snowy and sunny. The final steep approach to the Aosta hut (Photo Adam).
At the end of the winter I decided to head out to the Alps for some ski touring. I enjoy hut based ski touring, it is an enjoyable way to travel through the mountains. Also allowed me to get a bit of skiing done, something that it feels like Scotland has failed to deliver this season.
Challenging conditions on the Otzal tour. 
This trip I teamed up with another Fort William resident, Adam Macintosh. Adam was planning to head out to the Alps for over a month in his van, and was willing to pick me up at the airport.  The Eastern Alps had had a lot of snow back in January, and so we decided to head to Austria. I had never done the Otzal tour, so we decided to do that. Unfortunately, when I arrived the weather forecast for the whole of the Alps was poor. However, we decided to head up into the mountains and try a slightly shorter version of our planned tour. In the end it all just about worked out and we had a decent tour despite some challenging weather and snow conditions.  At one point Adam announced it was the worst snow he had ever skied! Although it was pretty bad, he later admitted that perhaps he had seen worse at Nevis Range. On the final day we did manage to summit Wildspitze, the second highest mountain in Austria, just before the weather deteriorated again.
Sally, myself, Casper and Adam on top the the Tete de Valpelline. Dent d'Herens and the Matterhorn in the background. 
Lunch stop on the Vallee Blanche. 
Next it was over to Italy where we met up with another couple of Fort William residents; Sally and Casper. Again conditions were quite challenging with a high avalanche forecast issued. However, we did manage a two day tour above Aosta including an ascent of the Tete de Valpelline. This gave great views over to the Dent d'Herens and to the Matterhorn. Finally it was through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Chamonix where on the last day of the trip (for me at least) we skied the Vallee Blanche, a classic long ski decent which I had not done before, on a lovely day and found some good snow.  After that Sally, Casper and Adam headed their own ways (to do some more skiing), and I headed back to the Fort William to start my summer job. That however, is for a blog about another  season.
The walk way up off the glacier to Montenvers. On the way up they have plaques on the rock showing the level of the glacier at different times. I was shocked to see how much had gone since I was last there. This shot is taken at the level of the glacier when I was last on the Mer de Glace in 2001. I would estimate the glacier had lost not far off 100 metres of thickness since then!

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Snow Patch Predictions 2019

The North Face of Ben Nevis on the 1st of March. Not very wintry!
Although the exact date will vary from year to year, it is around this time of year that the volume of snow in the higher Scottish coires reaches it's maximum. Snow cover is something I am interested in and have written about previously on my blog. However, during the past couple of years I have been away in the Antarctic for long stretches of time, and thus have not been a bit less focused on Scottish snow. This year I plan to remain in Scotland for the summer, and am taking a bit more of an interest in Scottish snow.
This winter has been an unusual one to say the least. There were periods in late February when there was very little snow on the hills. In fact conditions felt more like the early summer than the middle of winter.  In early March winter returned with a vengeance with loads of snow falling over about a ten day period. However, was that enough to catch up with other winters in terms of snow volume? Below is a picture of Coire an Lochan of Aonach Mor taken a few days ago. 

Coire an Lochan. 23rd of March 2019. 
How well the snow patches last into the summer, and whether they survive into the following winter depends a number of factors. However, I would say that snow depth at this time of year is the strongest predictor of how much snow if any will survive through to the following winter. This is particularly the case when the snow depth is either unusually large or small.

Below are pictures of the same place for every year going back to 2008. All the photos were taken late March or early April. I would say that this year has the least snow. Other poor years are 2017 and the years 2010-2012.

In 2017 all the snow melted in Scotland. In the summers of 2010 to 2012 snow patches did survive through the summer, but in general they were very small by the time that lasting snows of the following winter came. A slightly warmer summer, or if the lasting snow had fallen a week or so later, then the patches may not have made it.

Despite the fact that it is a low now year, there is actually a fair mass of snow there see a post I wrote for the SAIS Lochaber blog;
However, I think it would take a combination of an unusually cold snowy Spring followed by a cool dry summer for any snowpatches to survive through to next winter. I don't think it is likely they will survive this year, but am hoping to be proved wrong about that.
2018- One snowpatch survived the to the following winter.
2017-No snow survived to the following winter.
2016-Seven snowpatches survived to the following winter.
2015-A good year!.Seventy four snowpatches survived to the following winter.
2014-Also a good year. Twenty one patches survived to the following winter. 

2013-Six snowpatches survived to the following winter. 
2012- Six snowpatches survived to the following winter. 
2011-Two (tiny) snowpatches survived to the following winter.
2010 Six snowpatches just survived to the following winter. All were very small. 
2009 Six snowpatches survived to the following winter.
2008-Twelve snowpatches survived to the following winter.

Saturday, 5 January 2019


North Cove on a calm day.
It is just after New Year and I have been back from Antarctica for just over a month now. I am doing a few days avalanche forecasting and seem to have settled back into life in Fort William.
When I initially returned I had headed out to Spain for some sports climbing. From a grade point of view this was not a particularly successful trip. However, from the point to view of enjoying some warmth and remembering the feeling of moving over rock it was great success. It made me realise how much I had missed rock climbing during the past few years of living constant winter.

Since returning I have been thinking about the two winters I did in Antarctica, and whether I would do another one. At the moment I have no fixed plans to return to Rothera, BAS have a full selection of field guides employed for next Antarctic winter. However, who knows what opportunities might arise in the future.

At the moment I am content to be back in Scotland despite the current lack of winter conditions. I now have access to many of the things I missed at Rothera; the freedom to go out when and where I want, fresh fruit and veg, a climbing wall. If I get bored of Scotland, then there is plenty of things I would like to do around Europe from ski touring trips to more sports climbing. However, over time the appreciation of those things will fade as they become part of normal life and I suspect I will start thinking of Antarctic.

I found life in Rothera over the winter is quite easy. The work was not too stressful, the working day not too long,you didn't have to worry about shopping and there was a professional chef to prepare meals. These things made life at Rothera pleasant, but  they are not the things I will dream about. What I think I will miss about Antarctica is a bit more subtle, something I find harder to describe; the crisp clarity of the air during an Antarctic dawn, the empty silence of a frozen sea, the sense of smallness in a very large and very empty content. Perhaps it could be best described as a sense of awe of the place. Whether or not I go back, I have selected some photos which to me show this sense, I hope that you like them.
Mountaineering on Orca.
Skiing on Bond Nunatak 
A winter trip camp by moonlight
Mountaineering in the Stokes Peaks.
Nacreous Clouds
Rhyder Bay by moon light. 
A lonely figure drags a sledge across the sea ice.