The last of Scotland’s snow
You’ll find them in unusual places, hidden away and hard to reach. Getting there has a satisfaction matched only by the wonder of what you find – a small patch of winter in the height of summer.
The intriguing world of the chionophile: the hunters of summer snowpatches in our highest, coldest places.
S now in summer isn’t reserved for high altitude peaks or back of the wardrobe countries. You can find it here in the UK. Some areas of our mountains are so high, and fall so perpetually into shadow, that the snow which lands there in winter crisps, shrivels, glistens and drips but never melts entirely away. All year it sits, clinging to high edges or caked into a dark corrie, surviving rainfall, blazing sunshine and high winds until the planet turns and the temperature drops enough for snow to fall again. It beds down under a covering of fresh snowfall until summer comes and its ancient veneer is revealed again. Some snowpatches are so resilient that they’ve been named on the map, near-permanent features of a mountain environment. We do, in this country, have a land of everlasting snow.
Seeking it out has mainly been the pursuit of a handful of scientists and hardy enthusiasts, but it doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t, remain so. Snow under a summer sky changes the nature of the landscape around it. It affects all the senses, altering sound, smell, and light. The change is apparent the moment you approach. Brighter light rebounds from the pale surface and the air temperature drops. Acoustics are muffled, trickling meltwater echoes from within and the streams form extraordinary tunnels beneath the snow.
High on the edge of the Cairngorm plateau, at the southern reach of Braeriach and close to Sgor an Lochan Uaine, is a modest little rise named Carn na Criche. Over a winter season, vast quantities of snow will be deposited here, though very little of that will land directly from the sky. High-speed winds scour the plateau, tearing fallen snow over the cliff edge. Here, the air slows, sheltered by the corrie wall, and snow is deposited across slopes or caught on lower crags. The difference in depths between the high plateau and lower corrie can be dramatic. Depths of up to 23m have been recorded. In Garbh Choire Mor, directly below Carn na Criche, a drift forms which has been known for centuries and which holds the title for ‘Scotland’s longest lasting snow’. Snow in the mountains can be deep and crisp but is rarely even. This process of shifting and depositing snow doesn’t just characterise our mountains in the short term, they were key to the formation of mountain glaciers, which shaped our hills. During the
colder points of Earth’s climate cycle, when temperatures in the UK were more consistently close to or below freezing, this repeated deposition of snow slowly formed glaciers. They raked across the landscape, carving out corries and grinding down spires. In the formation of our current, smaller snowpatches, you can see features in common with glacial structure – névé, blue ice, bergschrunds (gaps between snow and side or head walls) and small crevasses.
Though at present, our average annual temperature is too high to allow enough of a build-up to form glaciers, some cooler aspects of the hills can accumulate massive depths of winddriven snow. Here, snow mass is so great and thaw rates are so low that the patches can linger well into summer or, in some instances, survive all year round. In 2015, which had a cool spring and snowfall as late as June, 73 patches survived until the following winter.
However, over recent years the frequency of snowpatches lasting from one winter to the next seems, overall, to be decreasing and this year there’s a high chance that they could melt away entirely. Some estimate that, thanks to an extraordinarily mild winter and a hot summer, it could all be gone by September. This is likely an effect of climate change and, if so, means that snowpatches may well become much rarer over time, which is an even greater reason to search them out now.
Clearly, in order to find summer snowpatches, you’ll need to go to cold places. This generally means heading north geographically and to north-facing
Obviously, it will also help to venture high. This generally means starting on the Cairngorm plateau, the highest large landmass in the UK. It’s here, in Garbh Choire Mor below Carn na Criche, that one of the longest lasting patches lingers: though this year, it’s shrinking fast.
Lochaber can also hold snowpatches late into the year. The cracks and gullies on Ben Nevis’s north face are well known and some patches here are even named. The summit of Carn Mor Dearg provides an excellent viewpoint or a walk up the Allt a’ Mhuilinn towards Coire Leis should get you a glimpse. Patches can also be found on neighbouring Aonach Beag, at the col which links Aonach Mor. Several patches are known on this hill – such as the Protalus patch, said to be the closest the UK has to a glacier. Tucked below its north-east ridge on An Cul Choire is one that rarely disappears. One on the north face of Ben More near Crianlarich is a snowpatch so enduring it is named on the OS map: the Cuidhe Chrom (crooked wreath).
Long-lasting snow can also be seen in England and Wales. The gullies of Snowdon’s north face and a feature known as ‘the Deep Cut’ on Carnedd Llewelyn can usually be relied on. In the Lake District, Helvellyn and Great End are renowned for their snow-holding capacity, while over on Cross Fell in the Pennines and The Cheviot there are sheltered depressions that have the ability to resist thawing. Years of snow are layered into some of these patches; currently one on Aonach Mor contains snow from 2011, a physical history of the mountain weather. But if it all melts
this year, we’ll be right back to year zero. With climate change bringing warmer temperatures, this pattern could continue. So now is definitely the time to hunt out the last of the summer snow.
[ LATE JUNE 2016 ] It’s not only in the deep corries where snow hangs on. This patch is adjacent to the path down from Cairn Toul towards Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir.
The north face of Ben Nevis is highly complex, made of a series of corries and bays, intersected with ridges, so many of its snowpatches are not safe to approach. This patch is in No 2 Gully and is best viewed from the grade 1 scramble, Ledge Route.
Aonach Beag snowpatches can be seen from above at the col between Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag.
‘Deep Cut’ on Carnedd Llewelyn holds some of Wales’ longest lasting snow.