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Mountain Portraits | Scottish Avalanche Information Service
Throughout Winter, we will be showcasing a collection of commissioned portraits by Lukasz Warzecha, as part of our Mountain Portraits series, an attempt to highlight some of the key characters who give meaning to our work. This week, our attention turns to Kathy Grindrod, forecaster for the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, and her unique mountain routine.
Find out more about our relationship with Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
Words by Kathy Grindrod
Scotland’s mountains are home to some of the most complex avalanche conditions in the world. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) was set up in 1988 to provide accurate and up to date snow pack information for climbers, mountaineers and skiers. Now covering 6 of the most popular mountain areas of Scotland, the SAIS site has become an essential part of planning any winter day.
Mountain Equipment have been working closely with the SAIS team for 10 years. Kathy has worked for the SAIS since the late 90’s and is now a forecaster for the Northern Cairngorms area. Out in the mountains most days, whatever the weather, it’s far from a normal working day:
7am: I live down in Aviemore, not far from the ski area at Cairngorm. The first thing I do every morning is look out of the window to see what the weather’s doing in the hills and whether any more snow has arrived overnight. That’s closely followed by getting some coffee on and checking the overnight data from the Cairngorm weather station.
Cairngorm is only 1245m, pretty small compared to mountains in the Alps, but the weather can regularly be as serious as you’ll find anywhere in the world. Winds well over 100mph aren’t uncommon on the plateau and that’s a big part of why the snow conditions change so fast.
8.30am: It takes me about 20 minutes to get to the SAIS office in Glenmore if the roads are ok but if there’s been snow overnight I’ll often leave the house much earlier to leave time for digging out the drive and a slower journey. If it’s really hard going I’ll get a lift in with Mark Diggins who has overall responsibility for the service in Scotland, his Land Rover can get us through most things! On the way in I’ll always be looking up the hill, assessing the weather and starting to make a plan for where we’re going to go that day.
9am: By the time I get into the office I’ve usually got a pretty good idea of where I’m going but we’ll always look again at the forecast before filling in the daily log. I do sometimes go out alone but if conditions are really bad I’ll join up with Mark or an assistant. If the snow cover allows we prefer to travel on skis, if it’s good weather we’ll get as far as we can but on the worst days we’ll only battle as far as we need to make our observations.
10am: Once we’re out on the hill it’s a constant process of evaluation, looking at what’s changed since the previous day and how things are developing. In places like Canada or the Alps the snowpack can sometimes stay the same for weeks with stable weather, our island climate means it’s not unusual for things to change completely in a matter of hours. Like anyone going out in winter we keep our plans flexible to ensure we’re travelling as safely as possible and I’ll always have options if things aren’t as we expect.
Sometimes we’ll use the funicular railway or a ski tow to gain height fast but often it’s just a case of skinning up. If the weather’s really terrible we might not even make it to the ski car park and that can mean a lot of extra walking to get started!
12pm: As part of our observations we’re usually digging a snow profile by midday, the exact location and aspect for this is often based on what we’ve seen both in previous days and on the way in. To enable us to get the big picture of conditions we continually make observations as we travel. I’ll often eat my lunch before I even set off if the weather looks rough and just snack on jelly babies, nuts and anything else that doesn’t freeze. On the rare blue-sky days, we’ll try and find a spot with a view and get the flask out, it’s infrequent enough we need to appreciate it!
2.30pm: If we’re on skis it doesn’t take long to get down and we’ll try to be back in the office by mid-afternoon to start writing up the report. The weather forecast for the next day comes in from the MET office and we’ll also check the data from the Cairngorm summit station again. As we finish our reports the forecasts start to come in from the other 5 mountain areas of Scotland that the SAIS operate in, either Mark or I check these over and chat to the other forecasters if there are any queries.
We then write a blog for the day which will generally include some pictures or video to illustrate conditions, this has become an increasingly popular tool for extra information to help people to make good choices.
5pm: We’ll always try to have the next day’s forecasts on the website by 5pm at the latest so that people can begin to plan, that’s especially important on a Friday when people will often be travelling from all over the UK and making a decision on the best place to climb or ski over the weekend.
6pm: I’ll often head home via the supermarket in Aviemore where you always run into guides and instructors fresh off the hill and happy to share the conditions they came across, all valuable information as I start to think about the following day. If it’s a Friday we’ll sometimes head to the Doo below bar for early drinks, always a good chance to catch up with friends, but if I’m out again the next day I’ll try not to stay too late!
10.30pm: I generally do some yoga before bed, it really helps to keep me loose with all the time in the mountains, and I’ll always have a last check of the forecast and a look out the window. If snow’s forecast I’ll often look again during the night in case I need to get up earlier to do any extra digging to get the car out!
Learn More About Scottish Avalanche Information Service
Based in the heart of the Cairngorms, each forecaster that’s part of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service are in action every day from mid-December until mid-April. Mountain Equipment are proud supporters of the service, who have to operate often in some of the most savage conditions imaginable. Perfect testing and proving ground for our products.
Learn more about the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, here.