As a professional weather forecaster, I am acutely aware just how mild this winter has been. Where I live in North Yorkshire, December broke plenty of climate records…and all of them were bad. It was the warmest and wettest winter month on record, with only one frost logged. Not the festive welcome I had hoped for froam ‘The North’ (I only recently moved up from Devon). My folks are based in Perthshire, Scotland, and I had even brought my ski-touring kit south to Yorkshire in the hope of laying down some English turns forthe first time in my life. As 2015 rolled into 2016 that dream looked unlikely to become reality.
In fact, it wasn’t until the start of March this year, when winter had officially given way to meteorological spring, that the hills nearest me saw a decent snow base that lasted more than a day or two. Such is the fickle nature of our upland climate.
The cause was a late-season low-pressure system tracking across the south of England, which threw a slow-moving weather front over the Pennines and northern England. A cold easterly wind undercutting this precipitation allowed wet snow to fall on the hills for almost 36 hours non-stop, with the accumulations then freezing as the weather system cleared away. There then followed a few sunny days, and on the second of these I had the afternoon off work so decided to head to Coverdale (my closest ‘dale’) to see what was on offer.
Not hoping for too much I nonetheless headed out to the car with my skis, boots, and sunglasses, enjoying the strong spring sunshine and comparatively mild temperatures. After fielding a few questions from colleagues about why I was carrying skis, and where in the Alps I was going on holiday, I was in the car and on my way.
As I neared the border of the national park it was clear that there was plenty of snow on the higher fells, with a well-marked snow-line at around 400m. Parking just outside a small farmhouse I strapped my boots and skis onto my bag and headed up the valley for a half mile before climbing steeply onto the apex of a long ridge that would lead me up a hill called ‘Little Whernside’. It was hard going.
As I travelled higher up the hill it seemed like I was travelling back a season. Down in the valley, with the snowdrops and daffodils flowering and birds singing in the afternoon warmth, it had felt distinctly spring-like; laden with the promise of warm months ahead. By the time I reached the snow-line, however, I was back in winter. It was cold, despite the sunshine, with a strong northerly wind blowing, and in the low humidity the snowpack had set up hard and icy; perfect for ski-touring. As soon as the snow cover was deep enough, I hopped onto my skis and quickly skinned up to the summit of the hill, just in time to catch the day’s final rays of sunshine lighting up the western horizon and reflecting off the frozen scenery all around me.
It was the most beautiful view of the Yorkshire Dales National Park I have experienced since moving up here. The bright snow-fields, turned pink in the setting sunlight, framed the harlequin valley basins, and the hills cast long shadows to the east, as if reaching out for the darkness that was coming. Skiing around in this pastel-coloured landscape was both invigorating and relaxing. It was 40 minutes’ drive and a world away from my work.
When I eventually returned to my car, the farmer whose house I’d parked at was back from his day’s work. He stuck his head out of the second floor window and asked (in an accent Wallace and Gromit would have been proud of) what on earth I’d been doing “going up t’hill with them planks on yer back”? I told him that I was just trying to make the most of a sunny afternoon off work; I’d been waiting for a day like this all winter so I wanted to seize the moment before it was too late. At this he just smiled and said “fair enough, was it worth it”?
I considered this briefly, thinking back to my ski-down from the summit. As the sun had finally dipped below the Howgill Fells, I’d finished my flapjack and donned my skis to claim my long-desired English turns. It had been a sketchy, icy descent and twice I’d been forced to stop and carefully step over partially buried sheep-fencing. There were maybe just two turns that I had made in what could be described as ‘powder’.
But in my opinion judging a ski-tour purely on the quality of the snow misses the point somewhat. I thought back to the final section of my ski, of dodging grassy patches and nonplussed sheep as I hared across the frozen snowfields with the setting sun at my back, gazing down the green strip of Coverdale to the grey stone villages beyond. I thought of how few people will have skied in this landscape this year and perhaps ever, with its distinct Yorkshire scenery.
Undeniably, it was low-quality skiing. But it was unlike any skiing I had done before. It was completely English. It was absolutely worth the effort.
Please follow my instagram account @matthay44 for more photos of the Yorkshire Dales.