Pontypool, South Wales:  ‘The Beast from the East’ meets Storm Emma

It doesn’t often happen but when it does it’s dramatic.  And fun.

In winter, cold weather comes to the UK from the continental land mass.  It’s a cliché but nonetheless has an element of truth, that the Welsh Mountains are the first high ground west of Siberia.  Dry, cold air builds over Europe and as it crosses the North Sea picks up moisture which falls as snow over Eastern England.  By the time it reaches South East Wales most of the snow has already dropped out and we get a few flakes, rarely amounting to much.  The xenophobia embeded in Brexit this year led to this airmass being dubbed by the mindless media ‘The Beast from the East’.

By contrast, weather coming from the West and South West over the Atlantic is wetter, warmer and often more vigorous.  With the increased influence of climate change and the more frequent and more extreme ‘weather events’ consequent upon it, the Met Office decided to name the increasingly frequently storms in the same way that hurricanes are named in the USA. The reasoning is that giving names somehow makes it more personal, encouraging us to take storms more seriously.  Like hurricanes they are named alphabetically, hence ‘Storm Emma’.

It’s all certainly the stuff of headlines. This was flagged to be the Clash of the Titans, the Beast and Emma.

When occasionally the cold continental airmass pushes west and meets the relatively warm, moist air coming in from the Atlantic the consequence is heavy snowfall where the two collide.

The most notable that I remember in Wales was in 1982 when two days of blizzards brought up to 20 feet of snow and everywhere to a standstill.   Cars were buried in our street.  At the top of the valley, houses were buried and people had to tunnel out of upstairs windows.  Unusually the continental high pressure stood its ground, became a ‘blocking high’.  There was no more snowfall as Atlantic air retreated but temperatures over Wales dropped to minus 20 and below for a week afterwards.

This time, after a brief skirmish The Beast retreated, leaving warm, moist Atlantic air in charge.  Before it did, a couple of feet of snow had fallen, drifting deeper in the strong winds. Panic-stricken shoppers cleared the supermarket shelves of bread. Householders desperately shovelled snow off their drives and onto pavements, blocking footways and even main roads.  Sadly, water mains froze and then burst leaving many homes without water.

It happens so rarely at home that I became excited and went out to play.  Not quite the Rockies but it had to be done.

Having washed but not yet put away winter thermal clothing after the trip to the Canadian Rockies, on three days I togged up and went up the mountain.  Living at the southern tip of the Brecon Beacons National Park means the ridge-top is normally only half an hour away on foot, another hour back home via the supermarket.  This time, in strong wind and drifting snow, it took over four hours each day.  But it was spectacular.

The path along the ridge from The Folly Tower to the Shell Grotto (two eighteenth Century follies) is flanked on both sides by fences and hedges.  It was blocked by drifted snow, in places over 8 feet deep.  At times I had no choice but to leave the path and go into fields on the downwind side.  On two days it snowed heavily the whole time I was out, the drifts continually sculpted into ever larger and stranger shapes.


Before I could get anywhere near the mountain, I had to negotiate the drifts outside the house.


At the top of the drive, a small cornice had formed.


Having negotiated a Range Rover (a toy Land Rover for rich people) stuck in a snow drift and blocking the farm track, I had to negotiate a small drift burying a plank bridge over a ditch and small stream.


Part way up the flank of the hill and looking back at the blizzard.


A little further on and disoriented sheep follow each other from nowhere to nowhere.


Reaching the ridge top and the path between hedges connecting the two follies is blocked by drifts, swirled and rippled by the wind.  The shallowest part of the drift was half way up my thighs.


Every step now became a struggle but a short distance and venturing into the deep part of the drifts, the Folly Tower comes into view, the gate to the top field almost out of sight under snow.


Struggling up the drift for a better shot


Passing the gate and I sink down into the drift to frame the next shot.


Looking North from the Folly Tower and the field is stripped nearly bare by the strong wind, snow collecting in deep drifts behind the stone wall until it is buried.


Heading back along the ridge path and the problem of negotiating the gate becomes obvious.


Then relief, the drifts become shallower at one side of the path.


…. but not for long.  These hedges are over 6 feet high and the path between them is blocked completely.


I force a way through a drift into a field on the west side of the hedge-lined path, the drifts still being sculpted by the horizontal snow in the blizzard.


On the down-wind side, the snow in the field is shallow, the drifts on the left 8 feet high, in places completely burying the hedge.


… topped by weird sculptured shapes.


Back on the path, drifts  form  canopies


…. and cave-like structures.


Then the path is completely blocked again.  This time there is no choice, it’s the beginning of a ‘sunken-way’, a 5-foot earth bank with 5-foot hedge on top – all buried.


I take to the field again by climbing up the snow-filled hedge and dropping down the other side., When I eventually slide down the bank and look back up the path, the footprints are in 4 feet of snow.

Wonderful!  Shame that this time the thaw set in on day four as the Beast from the East retreated back into the continent.

Posted in Hiking, Landscape, Mountains, Pontypool, Wales, Weather, Winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Banff, Canada:  walking on water

I’m back home now but still reminiscing about the trip to Banff.  It was comparatively mild compared to previous winters when we have been there, afternoon temperatures getting up to a toasty -50C though much colder overnight and most days afternoon temperatures between -150C and -200C.  Makes a mockery of ‘the beast from the east’ headlining in the UK with night time temperatures of -50C.

It snowed regularly, sometimes with falls of 15cms in a fairly short time.  It meant that this year I stuck to skiing midweek leaving the slopes to the hordes from Calgary rushing up at weekends to revel in the ‘pow-days’. On weekends I went trekking, sometimes on snowshoes, sometimes with ice cleats.  I rarely saw anyone else.

One snowshoe trek was upstream on the Bow River, frozen solid and snow covered.  It snowed much of the time I was out.  Apart from the pleasure of walking on snow in the snow in the vastness of the Canadian Rockies there were micro-moments when the small scale took centre stage.


The ironic start  of the trek, the Canoe Club at the confluence of the Bow River and 40 Mile Creek.


On the river, Bow River to the left, 40 Mile Creek to the right.


The Creek is faster flowing at this point and so there are vestigial runs of  unfrozen water, thick ice above the water level and covered in snow.


On 40 Mile Creek the edges of the ice collapse as the water level drops.  Tracks show it has been crossed but in my view best avoided.


Walking the dog on the thicker ice of the Bow River.


The thicker ice means that the river can be crossed at any point, here by a single set of prints


….. but there are also well worn trails across, shortcuts from housing on the west bank to downtown on the east.


Deep snow on the river ice makes the going hard work even in snowshoes, mine the only prints


…. until I come across fresh prints crossing the river.  Obviously a big cat as evidenced by the lack of claw marks, running cat-fashion back paws-to front paws, and very fresh with no sign of the fine powdery snow blown by the wind into the depressions.


Thankfully the size of the tracks indicated they were made by a lynx or bobcat and not the much larger and potentially much more dangerous cougar, seen in town only a few days earlier.



Further on, eddying wind has blown snow off the smooth ice showing bubbles of gas frozen like white mushrooms as they try to unsuccessfully to reach the frozen surface, the effect split by a crack-line.


Looking more closely at the frozen bubbles


Clear ice shaped into smooth curves as it froze swirling around a tree stump, acting like a prism and refracting the light into rainbow colours.


Walking back downriver on the Marsh Loop Trail, a footbridge crosses the always-flowing stream coming down from the hot spring at the Cave and Basin, the reason why Banff grew here.  Slightly ponded on the upstream side …..


….. on the downstream side of the bridge the open channel is narrower but still flowing.


By the time it reaches here, the hot water has cooled.  Now only a few degrees above zero it freezes on twigs and branches.


….. and creates intricate shapes at the water’s edge


Coming out of the forest and looking across the flat expanse of marshland towards the serrated ridge of Mount Rundle.

A great day.

Posted in Canada, Hiking, Landscape, Mountains, Nature, Photography, Wildlife, Winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Banff, Canada: Snow Art

Walking along the pavement (sidewalk) in Bear Street to do a bit of minor shopping, head down to watch out for undulations which would indicate patches of black ice under the trodden snow, I didn’t notice the barriers across the road.  But I couldn’t miss the six 3-metre cube wooden crates sitting in the middle a few yards further on. It was if they had been beamed down from space.  I overheard one grumpy Brit from the Sarfeast complaining “They’ve just dumped them in the middle of the street”.

An A-board next to the crates announced that they may have something to do with Banff SnowDays, an annual celebration of winter in January.

SnowDays usually features come-and-try-it ice skating on the playing field alongside the high school, flooded to create an outdoor rink in the winter, music provided in case you fancy yourselves as Torvill and Dean.  For a few years there has been ice-climbing on an artificial ice-wall in Banff Avenue.  One year, ice-sculptures were dotted around the town.

This year was obviously different.

Over the next few days the sides of the crates were dismantled to expose huge cubes of compacted snow, barriers were set up and artists from North America and Europe moved in armed with power saws, handsaws, rasps, files, scrapers and polishers.

The lumpen cubes of snow were transformed into giant works of art.   When finished the barriers were opened to allow people to get close to them. Fire-tables were lit, sparkling and crackling, giving off an unbeatable smell of wood-smoke.  After dark, coloured floodlights picked out the features.    Great experience.

I heard nobody else complaining.  Everyone loved it.  All ages waited their turn for a photo opportunity in front of the skier, or the buffalos, or the explorer in a rowing boat, or the winter-visitor-with-binoculars.  Most popular seemed to be the wolf’s head with the magic wonderland in the back of it.

I don’t offer comment on the sculptures, I don’t know enough about art.  But, in my philistinic opinion, as a municipal/community/international artistic event it was right up there with the best.

Maybe inspired by the idea.  Maybe anticipating it.  A nine inch high child’s creation on a  tree stump alongside the frozen, snow-covered river.


Across the planet and the seasons see: Nisyros: Beach Art


Posted in Art, Canada, Photography, Winter | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Banff, Canada:  The Hoodoos Trail

Though skiing has been the main focus of my visits to the Canadian Rockies since I first came for Christmas 2010 they have always been about more than that.  Especially so since I invested in a pair of ice cleats and a pair of snowshoes.

I love being in the high mountains in hard winter.  My experience of the Rockies is limited to Banff and Whistler.  On the west of the Continental Divide the Whistler/Blackcombe ski area has more snow than Banff on the east side though the snow is wetter and more unpredictable.  But more to the point, Whistler is a winter sport Disneyworld, an artificial creation, whereas Banff is an, admittedly touristified, ‘real’ town.  The nub of why I prefer Banff is that there are winter trails and treks which, as far as I could find out in the two weeks I visited, are completely absent around Whistler.

So, when in Banff I intersperse skiing with trekking winter trails.

After four days skiing my legs were screaming at me. Come Saturday, when hordes of Calgarians could be reliably predicted to descend on Sunshine Village and Lake Louise, orgasmic at the thought of fresh snow which had fallen for the previous four days, I chose to take to the trails on foot rather than queue for ski lifts and then dodge the crazies and incompetents desperate to get to the base to queue again.  A dangerous place to be.

On Friday evening I bought a pair of snowshoes to replace the ones lost along with everything else in the hotel fire in Banff 29 December 2016 and brashly bragged to those who asked me when I carried them back to the hotel that I was going to trek the Hoodoos Trail on Saturday.

Then an email from my daughter alerted me to the fact that a cougar had been seen in Banff the day before. Nevertheless, Saturday morning I togged-up ready for the trek. Maybe a trifle apprehensive, but more with a frisson of excitement at the prospect of encountering natural danger rather than being run over by a bus which would be a really boring end, I set out.  By instinct, habit and former profession I looked for any evidence available so checked it out with staff in the Parks Canada Office on the way along Banff Avenue to the start of the trail which follows the Bow River at the foot of Tunnel Mountain.  They seemed blasé.

Indeed, a cougar had been seen and tracked back into the wildlife corridor …… which I was now about to follow.  I’m told there are four cougars living in the Banff area around Tunnel Mountain.  It’s their habitat.  The day before, I had watched a Siberian Husky attack a snowdrift at the side of the main street in Banff and, resisting the tugging on the lead held by its owner, emerge triumphant with an empty Starbucks take-away cup clamped on its snout.  If a dog could detect that under a foot or more of snow I had no doubt that a cougar would smell me a mile off, though it may be confused by my shower gel and not recognise me as a life-form.

I’m told that the modus operandi of the cougar is to attack from behind.  Weighing as much as a man they hit the back of neck teeth first and it’s all over before you know anything about it.  Doesn’t hold out much prospect for a photo.  As defence, I carry trekking poles on my rucksack, point up behind my neck.

Once out of the town I strained my ears to pick up any sound, stopping periodically to hush the crunch of snow under my feet, and sniffed the air like a dog constantly.  On a previous trek along the ‘Bow Falls – Hoodoos Trail’ I had encountered coyotes but this time I heard and smelled nothing until, approaching the Hoodoos, I picked up raucous laughter behind me and spotted a group of three lads on the same trail.  Until then I had been in complete sensory isolation.  Except for the sound of my feet in the snow and heavy breathing when going uphill there was complete silence.  Not even a whisper of wind in the trees. My guess is that the cougar smelled and spotted me and decided that there wasn’t enough meat on the bones to be worth the bother.

I suspect I was being over-concerned about the cougar.  Few locals have seen one in many years of living around Banff.  Cougar attacks have been few and far between, apparently only 27 attacks and seven fatalities in Canada in a century, the last a fatality in Banff National Park in 2001.  But who wants to become a statistic!

However, it made me more aware of my surroundings which were very impressive.


The start of the Trail is along the Bow River to Surprise Corner on the cliffs high above the Bow Falls, en route looking down to the broken ice on the river as it accelerates towards the falls.  Sulphur Mountain behind.


Zooming in on one of the collapses in the icesheet


….. and on the snow sculpted by wind across the three-dimensional ice


The Bow River forks, the outside bend slower flowing towards the foot of the 1,690 metre (5,544 ft) Tunnel Mountain, frozen solid showing tracks where it was crossed by a herd of elk.


The trail narrows, deep snow to the right, short crags rising to the left, potential cougar ambush site.


Looking across the snow covered frozen river to Mount Rundle, mid-morning sun just peeking over the side.


A lone deciduous tree stands starkly pale against the ubiquitous lodgepole pine.


Rising up a short cliff, the view shows the sweep of clear ice delineating  the main flow-channel of the river.


Parks Canada has put pairs of red chairs at key viewpoints throughout the Banff National Park.  These are where the Hoodoos Trail reaches the road and a car park, others are more inaccessible.


Dry summer grasses survive deep snow and strong winds


A view of some of the pinnacles of rock which are the Hoodoos.


…. and another view


A few days after I did this trek a cougar was seen and photographed in Banff at 03.00 ….. in the street at the side of the hotel I’m staying in.   The RCMP officer who saw it trailed it down Elk Street, past my bedroom window (I was asleep, it was shut and in any case on the first floor) and onto Banff Avenue, the town’s main street. It then ambled past the entrance to our hotel and one of the guests who was outside having a smoke. (I have always said smoking is dangerous!) It went to the entrance of the hotel next door where it triggered the automatic door which opened.  It didn’t go in.  A spokesman for Banff National Park said “it didn’t bump into any attractants”.  Never thought of myself as a potential attractant.  View newspaper report

Posted in Canada, Hiking, Landscape, Mountains, Nature, Photography, Weather, Wildlife, Winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Banff, Canada: Sunshine Coast

Back in The Canadian Rockies.

It’s great.  Snow piled high along the sides and centre of Banff Avenue, the main street, scraped there early morning by snowploughs, a lot more moved out-of-town on huge trailers.  Still leaves a layer of compacted, very ‘slick’, snow on all roads in the town centre.  Not a problem as everyone drives carefully with consideration for other road users, especially pedestrians.  Quite alien to Grey, very occasionally White, Britain.  People climb over the snow piles to cross the road.

When I arrived temperature had risen to a toasty minus eight.  It was minus thirty for two weeks before I got here so locals think it’s like Spring has come early rather than the end-of-the-world, ‘Extreme Weather Event’ forecasts from the UK Met Office when minus 1 and 5mm of snow are in prospect.

Photos are of Sunshine Coast, a great ‘Blue’ run on Goat’s Eye Mountain, part of the Sunshine Village Ski Resort which boasts the best snow in Canada.  The access road to the base of the gondola is snow covered from the Trans-Canada Highway (the longest metalled road in the world). At 2800 metres (9,200 feet) and close to the Continental Divide the view from the top of Goat’s Eye is straight across to the summits of the many other nearby peaks.


Self-portrait on the level section at the top of the ‘steep’ drop on Banff Avenue, the easy ‘Green’ run introduction to a new season’s skiing, newly groomed fresh snow creating a corduroy surface.  Fabulous!


At the beginning of the long, easy run down from the top of Goat’s Eye, myriad other high peaks in view, not many below 9,000 feet.


Pausing to look at what is just off the side of the run.


Maintain momentum to get to the top of the fun bit on Sunshine Coast but ‘snow good, can’t help stopping to take in the beauty.


Looking back up towards the top of Goat’s Eye


…. and across to Eagle Mountain outside the ski boundary limit.  The only slightly less intimidating ridge to the right is a ‘Freeride Zone’ subject to special restrictions where only ‘experts’ ( a step up on Advanced’) drop of the cliffed edge into Delirium Dive.


For us intermediates on Sunshine Coast there is the steady glide down the ‘cat-track’ to the lift base and back up for another run.  Build up enough speed on the steep section and no need to ‘pole’.  Used to take me 20 minutes per lift/ski cycle, now 15 minutes and knackered legs … and shoulders when you stop to take photos.



Posted in Canada, Grey Britain, Landscape, Mountains, Photography, Winter | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Happy New Year

2017 was not  as eventful for me as 2016, my Annus Horribilis, which included a dislocated shoulder, diagnosis of a heart condition, Easter in a Greek hospital, skin cancer …..  and culminated in an 02.30 evacuation from a hotel fire in Banff and the loss of everything I had.   But it wasn’t great, not least because of the still not successful struggles to get compensation for the losses in the fire.

Looking forward to 2018 it’s perhaps as well that I don’t believe in portents.  One recent morning the sky was streaked vivid red, painting the Monmouthshire-Brecon Canal at the end of the garden.   Only lasted a few minutes but it was very impressive.

2018 will hold whatever it does, it’s in God’s hands not some old wives/sailors/shepherds omen.

So,  happy New Year.

2018 New Year w

Posted in Grey Britain, Landscape, Monmouthshire, Nature, Photography, Pontypool, Reflections, Wales, Weather | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Happy Christmas

Christmas in Grey Britain this year.  Weather unexciting but a couple of weeks ago we had a good fall of snow at home followed by a few days of blue skies and freezing temperatures.

Looking forward to going to Banff and a Rockies Winter in early January.  In the meantime – Happy Christmas.

2017 Christmas w

Posted in Grey Britain, Pontypool, Weather | Tagged | 4 Comments