where has winter gone

Wed, Feb 25, 2009

A couple of weeks ago there was a massive amount of snow on the hills but with lots of minor highland roads shut due to the amount of the white stuff drifting around, I couldn’t get across to the Cairngorms to meet up with the Orion MC and bag a few climbs in the Northern Corries. Then a week in Devon ensued, which was great and very relaxing and I come back to find all the snow gone! Every last drop! Apparently there’s snow above 1000m in the ‘gorms, no ice and the easier gully lines are being described as “waterfalls”. There’s an international climbing meet at Glenmore Lodge and it’s definitely a case of “you should have been here last week!”. There’s a cold front moving in tonight with the freezing level expected to come down to 750m and the avalanche category for all areas is set to jump from 1 to 3, as the old slush refreezes and new windslab forms on top of it. Not nice. But it’s speculation at the moment. No-one’s sure whether it will be snow or heavy rain on the summits as the timing is uncertain. If it’s heavy rain it could wipe out what’s left of the snow cover. And it’s still February!

So what does this mean for my Winter ML aspirations? Part of the requirement for assessment is a log book of at least 10 graded winter climbs of Grade I and above. I have more than enough but they’re mostly from years ago, so I’ve added some of the Cuillin ridges I did over the last couple of winters. They’re not graded in any guidebook but there’s an acknowledgment that almost any route in the Cuillin is at least Grade I in winter. So in the absence of graded winter routes they’ll have to do for now.

It raises an interesting question though. If your logbook is marginal, are you more likely to put yourself in danger by attempting Grade I gullies in marginal condition, knowing that there’s only a small window before it melts? I hope not! My logbook has enough climbs of I - IV to not bother too much about chasing routes but what about others with less routes logged?

Winter ML is a walking award and the graded routes requirement is there to make sure you can cope with steep winter ground in case you need to use it in an emergency, perhaps descending No.4 Gully on Ben Nevis to escape a storm. Better planning would be the answer to that though. It’s not there to let you go up graded ground. That’s the territory of the MIC. So with the less wintery winters we get these days and the consequent lack of climbing opportunities for weekday desk bound walkers to add to their graded logbooks, I wonder where the Winter ML award will go? With the extreme dumps of snow we seem to get now, followed by severe melting and more dumps on top of it, avalanche awareness is going to be far more important than dealing with steep ground. In fact, the avalanche danger these days keeps a lot of folk well away from steep ground.

A friend who was up Glen Ey at the weekend reported impassable rivers full of meltwater and side burns at knee depth. Not something you normally associate with winter conditions. Giant cornices are teetering above the Creag Meagaidh gullies and what little routes are still climbable are crowded and becoming staircases of bucket steps. Rock fall is the predominant danger at the moment for parties in gullies. We wait with anticipation of what weather will arrive overnight on the tops.

Whither winter and the Winter ML?

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