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First snow of winter

First snow of winter

Well here it is, the beginning of December and the first snow has arrived, causing much excitement on Twitter and, and, well not much else. The gritters have been out and the Sunday morning traffic is moving normally.

First snow of winter

It is more like a normal winter, although we have just have the warmest November on record with hardly a sign of frost. As I write, I can see Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) growing out of doors untouched by frost. All this is rather unlike last year when there was a week of sub zero temperatures in November, with the daytime temperature struggling to reach -1° C. When the snow did arrive, the ground was deep frozen. It settled straight away and wasn’t going anywhere, also it was heavy snowfall, 20-30cm at a time, not the 2cm we have had this morning. Sadly I can’t see there being any ski touring on Arthur’s Seat this December (which I have just noticed was exactly a year ago today). Meanwhile in the Alps, many of the ski resorts are still waiting for snow…

Ski touring Arthur’s Seat

Ski touring Arthur’s Seat

Having previously taken a low level tour of Holyrood Park, we felt it was time to take a high level tour. It was mid afternoon before we set out, about 14:00 (the dark comes early at this time of year). Walking the skis to Holyrood Park and entering by the west gate, we crossed the road above the roundabout and put on the skis, then skied across to the now well pisted sledging area. From there we wanted to continue up Queen’s Drive, but didn’t want to stop and put on climbing skins for such a short climb, so we just zigzagged up the hill, joining the road higher up. Shortly after rejoining it, we met a pair of x-country skiers coming in the opposite direction. They expressed an interest in our skis, asking did we have skins? We said that we were carrying skins, but weren’t using them on the shallower gradients. We also pointed out the metal edges on our Telemark skis, which make it easier to turn when descending. They looked a wee bit worried about the prospect of descending Queen’s Drive on x-country ski.

Queen’s Drive was now flattening off and we were able to get a kick glide going, as we followed the road above Duddingston Loch. We stopped to take a few photos of the frozen loch below, there was no one skating there today. In past centuries, Duddingston Loch was a popular location for ice skating in winter, where Sir Henry Raeburn painted his famous picture the Reverend Robert Walker skating. Indeed, this was one of the Edinburgh lochs which was used by the Edinburgh Skating Club, the first organised figure skating club in the world.

Dudingston Loch from Queen's Drive

Photos taken, we carried on to just short of Dunsapie Loch, were we stopped to get out the climbing skins, it was time to start the real climbing up the east side of Arthur’s Seat. While we were fitting the skins our skis, someone walked past us, carrying a pair of short downhill skis and we saw him walk uphill. There was a narrow piste, formed by repeated sled runs, and we decided to skin up the side of this. About half way up, the guy who had been carrying his skis up, came storming down again.

Reaching the small flat area below the summit, we stopped again to take photos, and I was just too slow to catch a ski bike setting off down the hill. We set off again and worked our way around under the summit to the Col on the west side, which we had seen skiers and snowboarders launch themselves off yesterday. Having looked down, I decided that I didn’t fancy trying it.

Looking down from the Col

Then on, up onto the Lion’s Haunch, for more photos and to watch the sun setting.

Ski touring on Arthur's Seat

Sunset on a winter's day

After sunset, it was time to head back down again. It was at this point that I found that long skinny tele skis are are not as floaty in deep snow as the carving skis I use in the Alps. As a consequence, I left a few deep hollows in the snow, but, by the time we reached the road again, I was starting to get the hang of it. We followed Queen’s Drive back the way we had come, snow ploughing down to the roundabout in the dark, then off across the park…

There is a map of our route here.

Heavy Snow

Heavy Snow

The news on the BBC has been dominated by stories about “heavy snow” affecting England and Wales. Apparently snow fall of up to 15cm (yes a whole 15cm!!) have brought large parts of England to a grinding halt. Why?

When I hear of “heavy snow” I think back to winters past.

In February 2001 I got up one morning to find there had been a blizzard overnight and there was 1m of snow lying outside. At that time I was working at the Bush Estate near Edinburgh (home to a number of research institutes and a very famous sheep), and before setting out to work I decided to phone and check that the roads were clear out there. Instead of getting a ringing tone, I heard an error message and deduced, rightly, from this that the storm must have brought down the power line and the building would be closed. When I went in the next day, I found that there was a large “snow sculpture” by the bus stop. A number of my colleges, who hadn’t checked before catching the bus the day before, had arrived to find the building closed and had an hour to wait for the bus home, so they built the “snow sculpture” to keep themselves busy. After all, a meter of snow in winter in Scotland is not considered to be unusual, yet.

Thinking further back, I remember in my youth, when I was living in Sussex, taking great delight in taking out my bike and cycling through 18” (about 45cm) of fresh snow. This was great fun, although I did need to stop every so often to clear the snow from under the mudguards. The road which my family lived on was unadopted, so the local authority never cleared it. Consequently when it snowed, the snow was not cleared and was packed down by cars driving over it. When I came to learn to drive, I leaned under true winter conditions and have been happy driving in snow ever since.

Another winter in Sussex, I was working through a temp agency and found myself working on the bins. We were welcomed in the small villages, as the dustbin lorry was the first outside agency to arrive since the snow had started. In one house, the occupiers had had to climb out of an upstairs window in order to clear the snow from their front door. The snow had drifted up against the front of the house, covering the door and windows.

The most impressive snow drifts I have ever seen were in Norway. In the 1980’s I lived and worked on a farm in western Noway for three summers. In April 1985 I hitch hiked from Oslo to Hardanger. When I set out from Oslo, I was expecting to have to catch a train from Geilo, as the road to Eidfjord across the Hardangervidda was normally closed in winter. Instead, I was surprised to find the road open. That winter they had started using new snow blowing technology, and for the first time in history the road was kept open all winter. It was truly impressive, in places the road passed though 4m high snow drifts, it is something I will never forget.

So when I hear the BBC talking about 15cm (6”) as “heavy snow”, I can’t help thinking it ridiculous. As I have found from recent experience, I know that at least 20cm (8”) of snow is needed to form a ski piste and this amount never stops the skiers getting to the pistes. Let’s keep a sense of proportion. The major problem is that people are too reliant on cars, buses are better able to cope with the snow. If more people were to use public transport (and more effort was made to maintain public transport infrastructure), there would be less congestion and less vulnerability to such events.

Here in Edinburgh there has been very little snow so far this winter, but the weather forecast says that is about to change…

Frustrated skier

Frustrated skier

If you go to the Austrian Tyrol in the middle of January for a spot of skiing, you kind of expect (or at least hope for) some snow, but not this year. As we flew in over the Alps on a clear sunny day, the view from the aircraft window was alarming, where was all the snow? It looked more like March than January, the north sides of the mountains only had patchy snow cover and the south faces were largely clear of snow.

In January snow is not always guaranteed in the Tyrol (especially early January), as it can often be quite dry around the new year. However, the low temperatures mean that any snow on the upper slopes stays, so some limited skiing is usually available, but not this year. Not only has the weather been very dry but also very mild, so the lower pistes were clear of snow. On the upper pistes, where there was some snow, the surface of the snow had melted and then frozen. The first few days there were an unusually large number of yellow helicopters flying along the Inn valley, which is not a good sign. The local news told us that the hospitals were reporting a larger than normal number of upper leg fractures, shoulder and back injuries. For an intermediate skier like me, the opportunity of skiing on the ice of the upper pistes was not an appealing prospect.

My normal fallback position in this situation is to take the train to Seefeld and go x-country skiing. Seefeld is on a high plateau (above 1000 m). Unfortunately for me, there was little snow in Seefeld due to the dry conditions, and what little snow there was, was in use for the Nordic Combined Championships. Now while I am a competent x-country skier, I am not anywhere near that good and I can’t ski jump. So Seefeld was out.

Then came the storm. Before the storm there were warnings of high winds of up to 100 km/h all across western Europe. Coming from Scotland, where wind of 60 mph are normal in winter, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, and in the Tyrol the general attitude was that it would be no worse than the Föhn, but just to be on the safe side many ski uplifts were closed and everything lashed down. When the wind did arrive, it seemed a bit of an anticlimax, as it was relatively light in Tyrol. The TV news on the other hand showed a trail of damage across Europe including other parts of Austria. Turning to BBC World it was briefly mentioned that there were 13 dead in the UK before moving on to more World news. To find out more, I tried Sky News, only to be told at length about the goings-on in the Big Brother House.

Unlike the Föhn which is usually followed by heavy snow, during this storm the temperature rose reaching a record 20°C in Innsbruck (remember this was in mid January in a place where -20°c is not unusual). So it was that I found myself out mountain biking in a tee shirt up a x-country ski track which a year previously I had taken great delight in skiing down (and back up).

ski track leading to Maria Larch

For those whose German is not so good, the sign says:
The ski track leading to Maria Larch [Mary of the Larches, a small church] 2.6Km, the middle part is difficult, stay in the right hand track, you use this track at your own risk.

Now addiction is a terrible thing, especially when it is one which can only be satisfied for a few months each year (and no, skiing on artificial snow in a big shed is not the same thing, especially if it is in Dubai). Walking through the woods looking at the spring flowers is all very well but is something I would much rather do in April or May.

Fortunately two days before we left there was a just enough snow at Gschnitztal (shown below) and then locally, at Gnadenwald, to get some skiing in.


Winter is here!

Winter is here!

This morning I got a sign that winters here, it wasn’t a frosty chill in the air (it is worryingly mild at present), it wasn’t the dark morning (I was a wee bit late in getting up), it was the arrival of the Braemar & Cairngorm Mountain Sports winter catalogue (well that and Ulli sending the first ski race results of the season)! At is the time of year when my mind turns to thoughts of the white stuff and dreams of skiing. It is that time of year when I start to regularly look at the Cairngorm webcams (and cursing global warming). It’s time to work up my fitness and make sure I am fit to ski. It’s time to dig out my gear from whichever safe place it was put in at the end of last season, where ever that!

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