Outdoor Discoveries

What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!

Now that an arctic visitor has departed

22nd January 2010

One night last week, after I had tired of trying to break up ice on the footway outside my house, I finally got to watch my copy of the BMC’s Winter Skills DVD. That act may have brought a wealth of information my way but I have no intention of launching a full-scale incursion into hill country whenever weather like that which we had for the last month arrives. What I am planning to do with the information is to use it as a stepping stone to more learning experiences. Knowing the basics regarding crampon and ice axe usage along with a smattering of avalanche and winter navigation awareness is only ever a beginning. While winter hillwalking is my interest, there was climbing content in there too but I’ll give that possibility a miss with my head for heights not being what it might be.

In among all the expected winter skills stuff was a discussion of winter weather trends. The DVD was made a few years back and the winters at the start of the century were of the milder variety. With the wider awareness of global warming, some of us were beginning to think that cold winter weather, like what we had recently, was set to become a memory. At this point, I have to say that included me, but these things now look cyclical after the last few winters having longer spells of snowy weather and it appears that it has been like that for a while. There was a mention of the green winters of the 1950’s and they were followed by much colder ones in the early years of the next decade. This was all before my time but I do remember cold snaps during the winters of the 1980’s with my being unable to get to school for the most of a month one winter and the water to my parent’s house being frozen for a similar length of time during another. The last decade of the twentieth century wasn’t one with much in the way of snowy winters if I recall correctly and I was living in Edinburgh at the time.

It seems that every time that hefty snowfall visits us, travel chaos results and a whole cacophony of media comment ensues. That may amaze those from places that have cold weather every year such as Montreal or Berlin, but the maritime climate of Britain and Ireland must mean that we see such things less frequently anyway. Not only does that mean that it is difficult to justify investing in measures to deal with the sorts of conditions that prevailed from last year into this one but it must also mean that we are not so practised when it comes to dealing with them either. This thinking also sets me to asking question of my own skills and experience. Spending my early years in the milder rain-soaked part of the world that is the south-west of Ireland would mean that I wouldn’t get to sample as much of the white stuff as others do elsewhere. One consequence of that is that I only recently took a bicycle for a spin on snow, an act that taught me the importance of maintaining good contact between the tyres and the road through any skids were arrested by planting a Hedgehog-shod foot squarely on the ground.

In a way, I suppose that what we got was a rare experience for many of us. An Irish television meteorologist was heard to opine on air that a retreat to the record books was to see how the length of the cold spell was compared with previous forbears. In Britain, many were cut off by a covering of several feet of snow with an excursion for a Christmas turkey in the far north of Scotland taking a month longer than expected. The hills of Cheshire and Derbyshire were so plastered with snow that many were cut off by closed roads and I know a few of them. In the middle of all this, I got to read Joe Cornish’s experiences of walking in deep snow in the Lairig Ghru without skis or snowshoes. Whatever I may have made of his exploits, his latest book, Scotland’s Mountains, is well worth a look and the images in there amaze me with their lighting and sharpness. My own attempts are pale reflections in comparison. All of this was causing the usual questions regarding personal preparedness to bubble up in my mind.

It wouldn’t be the first time because I penned an entry on the subject over a year ago after another snowy visitation and recycling of content is not really my style if I can help it. This winter’s arctic episode, it was on with a semi-retired pair of Scarpa boots for getting to and from work, a job that they did with aplomb until everywhere became icy. Before that point, I made good use of what lay on the ground for confidence building and I am not just talking about a certain pre-Christmas constitutional. Well, there was a lunchtime¬†amble about Nether Alderley and that piece of reconnaissance that took me to Buxton and Bakewell, both in the first full week of the year. It was because the snow on the pavement outside my house had become packed and even turned to ice that I was out with that spade.

Now that I have come to thinking of ice, I am minded to add a set of Kahtoola Microspikes to my gear collection because snow usually doesn’t stay long and the customary icy aftermath is always both a danger and a nuisance. In fact, they even might come in handy for low-level trips in hill country too; I feel the need to add to my experience of snow-covered terrain but without rashly putting myself in the way of danger. On the same subject, there’s also Icebugs’s Trail BUGweb with steel carbide studs for gripping on ice and they do footwear with the same type of thing integrated into their soles, an interesting innovation though I see it having more use in their home country of Sweden.

St. Mary's Church, Nether Alderley, Cheshire, England

Nether Alderley Mill, Cheshire, England

Pavilion Gardens, Buxton, Derbyshire, England

It’s all very fine talking about walking on level ground, but uphill gradients are another matter. It’s then that the sight of ice really does concentrate the mind like it did when I went exploring the Howgills near the end of 2008. After all, you don’t want to slip and end up careering downhill towards a stone wall or worse. Though noting the amount of effort expended in travelling over about a foot of snow played a part in my rethinking of plans on that outing, it was the ice lower down that really constrained my upland wandering. Walks over some hills between Buxton and Macclesfield when snow lay underfoot haven’t troubled me as much, but that may be down to local knowledge and experience as much as anything else. However, on the whole, I think that a certain glimmer of confidence is creeping upon me with regard to winter conditions. The acquisition of an ice axe is being pondered though I don’t intend going beyond the softer snow of lower reaches for now. That isn’t going to make the ideas of having an appropriate boot/crampon combination go away or do the same with the idea of getting in some training. The recent conditions may have added to my level of experience and that DVD supplied me with additional information, but there’s a good way to go yet. Quite how the desired experience is going to accumulate is a journey whose course is as yet unknown.

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