Roger Cox: Chasing weather windows

Skiing in a blizzard isn't much fun
Skiing in a blizzard isn't much fun
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Weather forecasters may not get the same level of recognition as more high-profile public servants like doctors or fire fighters – you don’t often hear small boys saying “when I grow up I want to be a weather man” – but as far as I’m concerned, the guys and girls at the Met Office are more-or-less gods. These islands of ours, with their mischievously unpredictable maritime climate, must be one of the toughest places in the world to try and second-guess Mother Nature, and yet day after day, month after month, year after year, these unsung heroes manage to give us incredibly precise information about what’s coming our way.

So far January 2015 has been mostly storm and tempest, but there have been occasional breaks in the weather, and thanks to the accuracy of the Met Office’s hour-by-hour predictions, (combined with the more mountain-specific information provided by the Mountain Weather Information Service) with a little patience and flexibility it has been possible to make the most of these fleeting moments of calm.

True, grabbing a few hours of hill time in between blizzards is no substitute for a full day, but like most skiers and snowboarders, I find sliding downhill tends to be significantly more fun when you can see where you’re going. You don’t need the weather to be perfect for very long, either. If it’s snowing hard and blowing a hoolie as you hike along a well-marked trail to gain access to your hill of choice, who cares? Ditto when you’re walking back along the same trail in the opposite direction. The bit you need your weather window for is the bit in the middle, where you pick your line, climb up it and then slide down. If the sky clears for that portion of your day, you’ll happily put up with pretty much anything for the rest.

And once you start getting into it, chasing weather windows can actually be fun – almost an end in itself. Just as storm chasers in the Midwest get a kick out of putting themselves in the path of oncoming tornadoes, so weather window chasers get a kick out doing almost the exact opposite: carefully timing their expeditions to coincide with that precious couple of hours when the snow/rain/hail/sleet lets up and the wind dies down.

Having said all that, it would of course be deeply irresponsible to go weather window chasing without being prepared for the worst. The conditions in the hills often bear little relation to conditions in the valleys, and while the forecasting gods at the Met Office may well have nailed the weather for, say, Aviemore, those predictions won’t necessarily hold true for the Cairngorm Plateau (in fact, they almost certainly won’t.)

I say all this as a weather window chaser who recently had the smile wiped unceremoniously off his face after a decent winning streak was brought to an end by a forecast-busting blizzard. Following a Saturday night of screaming gales, the Sunday morning seemed to promise a usable-looking few hours before more wind, sleet and snow moved in at around midday – certainly more than enough time to get a slide in before lunch.

The ideal end to a day of weather window chasing goes like this: jump into the car, slam the door, turn on the engine and then watch as the wind picks up and the first few snowflakes from the storm you’ve just dodged are hurled onto the windscreen. Unfortunately we experienced that in reverse: the snow and wind started just as we pulled into the car park. We decided to go anyway, initially hoping that this was just a rogue squall – either a straggler from the night before or an outrider of the afternoon’s fun and games. But no, we soon realised this was our weather window slamming shut. Conditions for the drive had been perfect – calm, and if not exactly sunny then at least fairly bright – but conditions on the hill were anything but. We had sleet for the early part of the climb, a roaring blizzard of fat, wet snowflakes at the top and then sleet again for the return to the car. In terms of weather window chasing, it was an abject defeat, but it did at least allow us to pinpoint the places where our gear was shipping water. Next time we miss our window, at least we’ll stay dry.