False starts and frustrations

Female ptarmigan at restA female ptarmigan at rest in deep fresh snow in the Cairngorms on the 27th December


I love and hate this time of year in equal measure. The constant changes in light and conditions in the hills are stimulating, but when the change always seems to be for the worse, keeping up momentum with my projects can feel like an uphill battle.

To say that the start of the winter has been challenging would be an understatement, with good conditions for photography and winter climbing brief and almost always coinciding with me being unavailable. Snowfalls have almost always been followed by rapid thaws taking things back to square one, and mild temperatures dominate the weather pattern. Optimism is essential for Scottish winter photography in the mountains and ‘false-starts’ are an inherent part of the season, but by any standards it isn’t shaping up well. I can’t help but reflect on winters past and occasionally bury my head in nostalgia.

Opportunities for photography in the conditions I’ve wanted have often lasted only a matter of hours, sneaked into weather windows between thaws. My first trip this season to photograph the mountain hares in the snow saw me retreating off the hill after less than an hour – the snow falling so heavily that the road was at risk of becoming impassable. The next visit was far more fruitful however and I managed to get some images of a young hare in the snow that I’m very happy with.


Mountain hareA young mountain hare in deep snow up high in the Monadhliath.


Around the same time a bigger dump of snow arrived but failed to accumulate much on mountain ridges or buttresses due to strong winds so my plans for winter climbing were shelved. However atmospheric conditions in the Cairngorms looked promising for an image I’ve been trying to get in Rothiemurchus Forest since 2008 so I ended up here instead. Despite being frustrated at failing to get out climbing, I had an extremely productive day in the forest and was delighted to find precisely the conditions that I’d been hoping for.


Rothiemurchus ForestThe Lairig Ghru seen over Rothiemurchus Forest. I had been trying to get this particular composition since 2008 but this was the first time the combination of the fog layer and snow-fall came together.


Yet another rapid thaw arrived the next day with summit temperatures of +10 degrees C and heavy rain, and set about melting almost all of the snow. I tried to turn my attention to other things but the relentless grey and dark was starting to get to me in a way which I’ve rarely experienced before. A morning spent photographing one of the local otters yielded poor results as I could only access usable shutter speeds by resorting to stupidly high ISOs.

The 27th December finally delivered some respite. The Torridon SAIS blog hit the nail on the head by calling it ‘The Day Long Coming’, with unbroken sunshine, thick snow cover and light winds. With conditions still poor for climbing I headed up high in the Cairngorms for some ptarmigan photography and a Vitamin D fix.


Sliding aroundA male ptarmigan sliding down a snow-covered boulder.

Female and male ptarmiganA female and male ptarmigan at rest in deep powder snow. A few individual birds are starting to be seen at lower altitudes on the hill now.

The beautiful scene of a female ptarmigan at rest in a freshly-made ‘form’.

Female ptarmiganAt this time of year the ptarmigan’s camouflage is remarkably effective, as are all of its other adaptations.

Low winter sun in the CairngormsLow winter sun and cloudless skies in the Cairngorms, the almost complete opposite to the current status quo.


Despite my frustrations I’m aware that winter is synonymous with difficulty, and that the challenges presented by the season are largely responsible for my fixation with it. Going in to the new year things look to be turning colder and more wintry. Hopefully I can make a start on my winter climbing photography projects and try and make up for some lost time. Experience tells me to remain optimistic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we are rewarded with a fine late season or a cold spring. We’ll see.

James.

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