real winter reminiscences

Wed, Oct 17, 2007

With the winter 20078 forecast out, the threat of yet another half-winter got me thinking about days of old.

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a real winter. I remember my dad taking me on the old diesel engined snow plough across Rannoch Moor in 1984. This was a massive affair. A gigantic snowplough that tapered to a slender point, driven from behind by two big diesel engines. Those old engines you used to get on the West Highland Line. I miss those engines and I remember the new DMUs (Diesel Multiple Units) coming in. They were absolutely terrible. No bike space and they screamed when they went round corners. Something to do with the track. The screaming noise was deafening and I used to think we were about to career off the tracks. Anyway, back to the winter of 1984. The drifts on Rannoch Moor were so big the two engines had to reverse up the line and take a run at them. Sometimes (not on my trip though) the front engine would be derailed as it was lifted clear of the tracks. At times we were below the tops of snow canyons we’d cut through the snow and if you go to the Bridge of Orchy hotel, you can see pictures from that winter on the wall in the bar. When we broke through to Corrour we couldn’t get out of the engines as the ice had welded the doors closed and the stationmaster came out and actually stood on the front of the engine and hacked at the ice on the windows with a pick axe. I remember him clambering up on a ladder and swinging the pick at the windows then the doors, so we could see for the next section and get out and stretch our legs. We’d worked through the night to clear the line from Helensburgh and the early morning light on Rannoch Moor at Corrour was just fantastic. I remember hanging out of the engine window and gazing on a lunar landscape of rolling snow dunes as far as the eye could see. It was just stunning. At Fort William, I jumped out of the engine as we stopped before the station and was immediately up to my waist in snow!

The winters in those days were real ones, with real snow but the last real one I seem to remember was 1995. I was in the Orion MC back then and we had a club hut near Bridge of Orchy, MacDougall’s Cottage and we’d had an all night party on the Friday or Saturday and then headed up into Coire an Dothaidh for some ice climbing. There was so much snow the whole coire seemed ready to avalanche and we had excellent sport on Salamander III/IV. At the top of the route we hit the weather, a screaming blizzard in which we could hardly walk. Great plates of squeaking snow broke off on every footstep and at the bealach with Beinn Dorain we took a group decision to take the long way back, via Auch Gleann. So bad was Coire an Dothaidh with the threat of avalanche. It was desperately long and tiring trudge round the back of Beinn Dorain, in deep snow underfoot and heavy snow falling from a leaden sky. I remember sitting on a rock on the WHW, not far from the hut, night having descended several hours before. I had stopped snowing and the stars had come out. I was shattered, starving and extremely tired after leading the whole route after an all night party. A train went by, its warm interior lights softening the hard snows that surrounded me and disappeared into the cold and clear night. That night I met my future wife and my ice climbing came to an abrupt halt! Not that I minded as climbs post-1995 seemed to be either torquing on bare rock or wobbling up grade IV ice pitches on what should have been grade II climbs!

Winter these days consists of a dump of snow which doesn’t get time to consolidate before it melts so you’re continually wading through the stuff. It won’t be long before the crampons get consigned to the museum and the ice axe gets used as a novelty door handle. I look forward to bouncing my grandson/daughter on my knee and reminiscing, well, let me tell you about the time we ploughed the line across Rannoch Moor…

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