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.

Trail (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JEREMY ASHCROFT

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.

FOR­MA­TION

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.

LO­CA­TION

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

moun­tain as­pects.

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.

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