As I write, it’s currently our third day in a row stuck in the office as the mountains are stormbound yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time this winter. This reindeer herder is very much ready for spring…
Visitors to the Cairngorms often have a hard time understanding just how unpredictable and harsh the weather can be here, particularly in the months of December to March, but often encompassing November and April too. The Cairngorms are the only area of the UK with a sub-arctic habitat, and our weather here is a whole different kettle of fish to the rest of the country. No problem for the reindeer who have evolved to live in such a hostile climate, but the reindeer herders certainly feel the effects of such long winter seasons.
Just now it’s mid-March, and while much of the country is thinking about spring, we are still held firmly in the grips of winter. It’s very cold outside and snowing lightly, but to be honest the weather down here in the glen is fairly benign compared to that which the reindeer are currently dealing with up on the hills. A glance at the Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk) shows the current temperature at -8°C but with the windchill dropping that to -23°C. The highest windspeed on top of Cairngorm itself in the last 24 hours was 99mph, but it hit 127mph two days ago. You can find some good videos on our Facebook page each winter (click on ‘Videos’ on the left hand side of the page) of the wild weather, though videos still don’t capture quite how it actually feels.
While we’re closed to the public in January, from February through till the end of April we run our 11am Hill Trip out to the free-ranging reindeer on the mountains daily, as long as we can locate the herd, but also only if the weather is ok. And it can be a big ‘if’. If you’ve visited us at this time of year before you might know the scenario first-hand – you’ve driven a couple of hours to get here, the weather seems ok, you’ve brought your warm clothes, the roads are fine…only to find an apologetic and slightly fraught reindeer herder here in the shop doing their best to explain to everyone that there will be no Hill Trip until tomorrow. Or possibly tomorrow. Maybe not. Ask us in the morning.
From our point of view it can be very difficult to describe to people just how different the conditions will be above the treeline, away from the shelter and safety of the glen – over the years I’ve had many an angry parent trying to convince me that their two year old would be fine, when I know full well that the parent themselves would barely be able to stand upright, let alone their toddler. It can be extremely hard to turn people away. Sometimes our last line of persuasion is to tell them to drive up to one of the ski carparks first where the weather will be more like it will on the Hill Trip, and then to come back if they’d still like to book on. Invariably, they never do.
But if we can, we will always run the Hill Trip, although sometimes only with adults, or even only with adults if they are wearing ski gear – jeans don’t keep anyone warm and are useless in winter. We don’t want to turn people away if we can help it though, so over the years I’ve led trips in howling gales, sideways blizzards, zero visibility, and in extremely slippery conditions where the whole group has crept around like Bambi on ice. There was a memorable trip in -10°C one year. In general visitors can be very game when there is the prospect of a herd of reindeer to see, but I often wonder in years to come, whether it will be the reindeer they remember or the weather conditions.
Sometimes the decision about whether or not the Hill Trip can run and whether it’s safe to take visitors on the hill is taken out of our hands, as the snow gates on the road just beyond the Reindeer Centre close. Depending on where the reindeer herd happen to be will depend on how far up the road we need to drive, and even if the gates are closed the Cairngorm Mountain staff will often let us herders up the hill as far as one of the lower carparks. This way at least we can still give the reindeer some feed and check them over, and keep them in the habit of being fed at the same time each day, making our lives easier in the long run. If the reindeer stayed in the area where we walk up to on the Hill Trips there wouldn’t be such a problem, but unhelpfully they are moving about two miles away each night just lately, making us head much further out into the mountains in order to retrieve them. Right now though, it’s so windy that we haven’t even bothered trying to get up the hill at all for the last three days, knowing we’ll not be able to stand up on the ridge due to the wind, let alone get right out to where the reindeer are likely to be. (Update: We’ve just tried. We had to turn back.). So after three days of being stuck in the house cabin fever has set in, but on the plus side the bathroom is now freshly painted…