Shrews and snow buntings – a post lockdown-easing diary

An amber list rare bird, the snow bunting, living high on its frozen mountain top was unaffected by the Covid lockdown. I was like a caged bird, Edinburgh city limits my territory. Snow falls over the winter, cloaking the Cairngorms and other Scottish mountain ranges richly. By late spring, watching from the roadside, this has all but receded out of view. By early summer high plateaus and deep gullies, such as Lurchers, retain significant amounts. By September only a few leathery dragon skin patinated dirty patches cling on. Time was not on my side.

In early February there was a large widespread dump of snow and there are some fine hills within Edinburgh city boundaries. I desperately bought a £75 pair of skis off the internet and proceeded to practice falling ungracefully. A small shrew came out to watch (see pic) and a friend, Fergus, offered tips and moral support.

Having previously walked in winter conditions in the Scottish mountains – I was keen to take this new parallel skillset to the peaks. Perhaps Glencoe, Nevis Range or Cairngorms – which were all boasting near perfect snow. The weeks passed with no restriction easing and instead I watched instructional videos on YouTube. Travel bans remained, the resorts did not open, proper second-hand touring gear was in hen’s teeth-type scarcity and meanwhile the snow was busy melting. May arrived and travel was allowed but it took me time to find suitable skis and bindings to penetrate deep into the mountains. Initially I adopted donkey mode – carrying heavy downhill skis – along with two pairs of big boots – to the top of mountains. Winning the admiration of many – if not in a flattering way.

This world of diminishing Scottish snow patches has become a pastime and fascination for many. This may never replace Munro bagging but it has informed a different way of seeing and exploring Scottish mountains. Forget peak fever and the race to the top, instead seek out remote hidden ravines and dangerous snow caves. Iain Cameron’s Snow Patches of Scotland Facebook page has 3,600 followers and he organises a volunteer group to conduct an annual survey, each year since 2008, collecting detailed data – on locations, sizes and weight. Slushy science in action, compiling records over the years, that may reveal how the climate crisis is affecting nature at altitude.

But before the month of May could quite close, I managed to make a purchase and take my new precious possessions: touring skis, touring bindings and skins – out to show to the curious snow bunting, that sits, chirpily, on top of Beinn MacDuibh (Scotland’s second highest mountain at 1,309m). With only 60 breeding pairs in the UK – they breed around the arctic from Scandinavia to Greenland – migrating south in the winter. There he cocks his head, squinting at the steady stream of summiting pilgrims and ever patient for the crumbs that fall from their sandwiches, surrounded by the finest of The Living Mountain. This being the title of Nan Shepherd’s celebrated Cairngorms book where she observes: “Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge.”

I have, so far avoided the scrape of that unforgiving wind but have sat patiently in thick mist, high up above Hell’s Lum Crag, totally blinded by a cloud of whiteness that makes any attempt to move on skis dizzy and giddy. Instead I have slowly eaten through the contents of my rucksack, washed down with hot black tea, waiting and waiting. Eventually it has always cleared, sometimes with the speed of a turning page.

I am not the best navigator but it is comforting to get the map out and read the descriptive names. Gaelic was my first language and when I run my finger along my route of the OS explorer, I feel I am being let back in on an ancient conversation: Coire an Leth-choin – is the corrie of the half dog and stob Coire an t-Sneachda gives the ever abundant snow a mention, there is a tailors stone and a soldier peak nearby. “A mountain has an inside,” wrote Nan, perhaps a soft voice too.

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