Hot aches and cold snaps

Reflections of Scottish winter from the wider BASE community

Feature type Story

Read time 10 min

Published Mar 23, 2022

Hannah Mitchell BASE Digital Writer Hannah is a Lake District-based journalist and all-round outdoor lass with a particular fondness for rock faces.

In the UK’s northern quarters, weather is an unpredictable beast. For those who call Scotland home, adventure will often mean dropping everything at a moment’s notice to make the most of fleeting conditions, and it’s often within these volatile systems that fun of the type two variety resides. It’s also where reward tastes the sweetest.

As the days grow longer and the sun stronger, snow on the hills dwindles, but here, the cold can deceive, with snow flurries not unheard of in any month of the year. As the old Scottish saying goes: ‘Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May be out.’ Loosely meaning, don’t go getting rid of your winter woollies before May is over.

Below, we check in with some of the wider BASE community to hear how their winter season has been and take a closer look at some of their highlights.

Nearing the summit of the CMD Arête under stunning blue skies. © Adam Raja

Outdoor Instructor

Annie Lloyd-Evans

Ardent bikepacker, Annie is a mountain bike and rafting guide based in the Highlands of Scotland. Over the last ten years, Annie has combined bikepacking with packrafting as a means to see the world. Despite its volatility however, she sees something special in the winters of home that keeps her here year after year.

‘Scottish winter is a frustrating beast,’ says Annie. ‘Here one day, gone the next. Add in almost constant storm-force winds and sometimes I wonder why any of us bother. Inevitably though it only take a day or two of calmer conditions for us to be back in love with our mountains and stoked on adventure!’

Armed with a saw and shovel, this year, Annie explored the snowy slopes of her homeland by fat bike, fully immersed in all that the season brought as she slept in self-dug snow holes.

‘Cruising the crust’ – Annie enjoys some rare, quality fatbiking conditions in the Cairngorms. © Annie Lloyd-Evans

‘Better than any hotel room could ever be.’ – Annie settles in to her self-dug snow hole after a day of fatbiking in the mountains. © Annie Lloyd-Evans

Reliant on the perfect alignment of the elements, finding the perfect conditions for any winter sport is notoriously difficult in Scotland. The perfect terrain for backcountry fat biking it seems, can be equally evasive.

When it comes to getting the conditions to fat bike up high, well that’s like winning the lottery

‘A good day in Scotland is so much more valuable than other parts of the world for the rarity alone, although I can’t say I’m not jealous of those with a more settled winter climate,’ continues Annie. ‘There’s a bond of respect between those of us who venture out in all conditions – not many folk bother riding outside all year round.

‘When it comes to getting the conditions to fat bike up high, well that’s like winning the lottery. To be able to cruise the crust, soaking up the infinite feeling horizon and ride effortlessly in any direction is just indescribably wonderful. The few days where the weather settles and it feels like anything is possible, somehow make up for the misery of the rest. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being excited to see the first dusting of snow.’

Enjoying the sound of rubber on snow. © Annie Lloyd-Evans

Annie digs herself a home for the night. © Annie Lloyd-Evans

Photographer and Guide

Mike Chestnutt

A seasoned leader of water and outdoor sports, Mike combines his enthusiasm for such activities with a love of photography, endeavouring to capture and combine landscape, light and the adrenaline of adventure. This year’s season, along with two companions, Mike embarked on his first winter mountaineering experience, a traverse of Liathach in the Northwest Highlands. A brief weather window and exceptional winter conditions aligned, allowing for a memorable day in the hills. 

Summit lunch and a brew with a view at 1023m on Mullach an Rathain. The snow-covered Beinn Damh is peeking out in the middle and Loch Torridon is on the right. © Mike Chestnutt

Descending ‘The Grey One’, as the approaching storm drives whipping winds and stinging snow upwards on the western slopes of Liathach. © Mike Chestnutt

‘Known as The Grey One, Liathach lies in the heart of Glen Torridon. It’s justifiably one of the most popular routes in the area,’ explains Mike. ‘Although embarking on it in full winter conditions definitely requires experience using an ice axe and crampons, it is a very accessible adventure.’

First experiences such as this tend to be make or break, particularly somewhere with such fickle conditions. Fortunately for Mike, the suitability of his location choice aligned perfectly with the day’s weather.

Mike’s hiking companion James attaches his crampons in comfortable conditions overlooking the col. © Mike Chestnutt

‘Beanies and gloves on, ice axes easily accessible and heart pounding in my chest, but in a good way. Staring up at this impenetrable looking hill in full winter conditions, I was awe-struck!’ he remembers. ‘This was my first experience of mountaineering in the depths of winter, and it has certainly fuelled my passion to explore and experience the outdoors in different conditions.’

As far as first-time winter mountain days go, Mike couldn’t have asked for more. Spectacular conditions allowed for a successful ascent with ample photographic opportunities and a chance to gain some valuable mountain skills.

‘It was an exciting mix of experiential learning combined with brand new opportunity. I could have spent the whole day just capturing stunning images of this spectacular glacial valley,’ he says. ‘The sun’s light piercing through the clouds, creating spectacular projections and vivid effects across the snow, I was enthralled.

‘The ice-covered water in the glen began to glisten, but all too aware of my hiking companions and our narrowing weather window – the ultimate decider of the planned route – we pushed for the summit.’

Photographer, journalist and co-founder of Wandering Workshops

Hannah Bailey

Hannah is a photographer and journalist based in the Cairngorms, her passion for creating societal change through action sports and championing women in the outdoors inspired the creation of Wandering Workshops alongside Olympic snowboarder Lesley McKenna – an initiative to make splitboarding and ski touring more widely accessible. The workshops combine mountain skills with yoga and meditation, and have been widely successful despite typically Scottish, fickle conditions.

Journalist and long-time supporter of women in action sports and the outdoors, Sam Haddad hikes up Cairn Gorm on a rare clear and sunny day in February. © Hannah Bailey

‘The weather can be very unpredictable in Scotland and the snow isn’t always reliable, it was a pretty quiet season here in the Cairngorms in that respect, definitely in comparison to last season where we enjoyed endless weeks of ski touring,’ tells Hannah. ‘Lesley and I came up with the idea  for Wandering Workshops whilst out touring on Meall a Buachaille last season. Sadly it had to go on hold owing to Covid. But this year we were delighted to finally able to launch our first event on a windy weekend in February. Whilst the snow was variable, we had a wonderful bunch of women and long-term friends of the industry including Sam Haddad on hand, and it turned out to be a total success!’

‘The wind was wild, gusting at 60mph! We only made it halfway up the Ciste and then flew back down in seconds.’ Lesley McKenna slashes down the Ciste Gully with Loch Morlich in the distance. © Hannah Bailey

Aside from a couple of social ski tours on Cairn Gorm and a trip to The Lecht, Hannah’s touring time on the mountains this year was almost entirely devoted to Wandering Workshops, through which she hopes to open up snow sports to new and more diverse perspectives.

‘A personal highlight this season was definitely getting out on the hill again with Lesley. She has taken me under her splitboard wing for two seasons now and really shown me the lay of the land here in Aviemore!’ says Hannah.

‘Truly though, the biggest highlight of all for me was getting these amazing ladies out on the snow together, facing obstacles that touring threw their way, and seeing them overcome each one. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved and excited to show the industry what we have created, along with our plans for the future.’

The wind was wild, gusting at 60mph! We only made it halfway up the Ciste and then flew back down in seconds

Wandering Workshop participants head up Cairn Gorm for a second day of touring. © Hannah Bailey

Photographer and Marketing Manager for Protect Our Winters

Adam Raja

Glasgow native, Adam is an outdoor photographer, climber and advocate for diversity in the outdoors. He also works as Marketing Manager for Protect Our Winters UK, a climate action charity that encourages outdoor people to become climate advocates and ultimately a force for positive change.

‘I love struggling in the mountains – especially in the depths of winter, surrounded by snow and ice, when the peaks are at their most beautiful and stakes are at their highest. My first early winter mission this season was on Bidean Nam Bian and it was definitely a good one,’ says Adam, whose days spent in the snow have seen him pick up new skills and a few tips along the way.

‘You’ll never regret chucking ski goggles in your pack for a day on the mountain in Scotland. Spin drift can be pretty debilitating without them!’

the winter conditions have been dramatically fickle, even for Scotland

 

Striding through spindrift on Bidean Nam Bian. © Adam Raja

When he isn’t working, Adam can often be found foraying up some of Scotland’s most formidable mountains, camera in hand, or swinging axes with the Scottish Dry-Tooling Club. The relatively mild temperatures of this winter and scarcity of snow in Scotland have been startlingly apparent this season and are undoubtedly a cause for concern for all snow and mountain sport enthusiasts.

‘This winter season has been a bittersweet one. I’ve hit more routes and higher grades than years prior with a wonderfully diverse group of people,’ he says. ‘But, the winter conditions have been dramatically fickle, even for Scotland. It really puts my work with Protect Our Winters UK into sharp focus.’

 

Curved Ridge in conspicuously lean conditions. © Adam Raja

As the days grow longer and the weather warmer across the Northern Hemisphere, most will be celebrating the extra daylight hours, the potential for more time spent outdoors and the call for fewer clothes! For some however, spring means a reluctant farewell to their beloved winter sports for another year.

Whether you’re mourning the end of bluebird days on snowy slopes, or you simply can’t wait to see the back of the short dark days, spring brings with it new opportunities. With that in mind, we’d love to hear from you: what made your winter? What new adventures are you planning for the season ahead and what unfinished business do you plan to return to next year?

The turn of the season is a chance to both reflect and look forward  – just don’t cast your coats aside yet.

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