Three weeks ago I travelled to Lochaber to walk to the summit of Aonach Mòr. The purpose of the trip was to locate an area on the mountain which contains a long-lasting snowpatch from last winter. I’ve visited similar areas in the Cairngorm mountains many times (see several previous blog postings and my website page about perennial snow), but this was my first trip to sites in the Lochaber area.
I was accompanied on the trip by Stuart Gordon and Iain Cameron, both of whom have a lot of experience of monitoring and visiting snowpatch areas in the Scottish mountains. Iain is something of an authority on long-lasting and perennial snowpatches in Scotland, having contributed a large amount to the research of these snowpatches in recent years, and is very familiar with all the main Lochaber snowpatch sites.
We did cheat slighly on the walk and took the Nevis Range ski centre gondola to an altitude of about 650m, walking the rest of the way to the summit plateau, but this did give us more time to locate and explore the areas we were looking for. We had an absolutely stunning day for the trip, with blue skies and a low autumn sun throwing deep shadows across the ridges and corries of the surrounding mountains. Views of Ben Nevis, the Mamores, the Grey Corries and the distant Rum Cuillin were all outstanding and there was some great photo opportunities. The sound of rutting stags floating up to us from the glens below the summit plateau added to the atmosphere.
We descended from the bealach between Aonach Mòr and Aonach Beag into An Cùl Choire on the eastern side of the mountain which was steep and bouldery with lots of loose scree underfoot. Being in shadow, the corrie was noticeably cooler than the sunlit summit plateau. We found the small snowpatch lying in a rocky hollow (see photo above). This is the latest long-lasting snowpatch I have ever encountered in the Scottish mountains, having survived into October from last winter (as of the date of writing this blog entry, 1st November, it appears that the patch is still there and covered by new snow, meaning that it can now be classified as a ‘perennial’ snowpatch for this year, one of only a small number this year).
Whilst Iain and Stuart took measurements of the snowpatch I took the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of the remarkable location (I feel that these places in the Scottish mountains where snow lies long into the year are quite magical places being very well-hidden and containing an unusual and little-known aspect of these mountains that hark back to the ice-age) and to examine the snow closely. The snow was actually highly compacted ice and Iain pointed out that the last time this patch fully melted was in 2006, so the ice in the patch is 4 years old. It reminded a lot of the ice I encountered underneath the Kjenndalsbreen glacier that I visited in Norway in 2003 (although obviously on a much smaller scale, see a photo I took of this glacier here).
The An Cùl Choire snowpatch is unusual in being at such a low altitude (about 920 m), and strangely, having gone largely unnoticed and unreported until the last decade despite being visible from the main walking route between Aonach Mòr and Aonach Beag. We speculated on this trip that this may well be because the snowpatch looks uncannily similar to large areas of quartz outcrops in the corrie, especially from a distance, and casual walkers may well have seen it many times but not realised that it was a long-lasting patch of snow.
An Cùl Choire has a distinct topography which may well contribute to the survival of snow within it well into autumn and often into the winter of the subsequent year – the southern wall of the corrie rises up so steeply that any snow lying at the base of this wall to the north may well see no direct sunlight throughout the entire year, even in midsummer (this is something I hope to investigate further using GIS software and digital elevation data).
On the walk back to the gondola, Iain and Stuart walked to another long-lasting snowpatch area on Aonoch Mòr, the protalus rampart in Coire an Lochain, whilst I took some photos of the site from the plateau above. There was no snow left at this site this year but it is a remarkable periglacial formation, being one of only a few like it in the Scottish mountains.
This was one of the most memorable mountain trips I’ve had in recent years. You can see all the photographs from the trip on my website here.