Friday, 11 December 2009

No Such Thing As Bad Weather

[photo: high in the Kepler Mountains, New Zealand]

[more thoughts on walking and weather]

My colleague and friend, Cathie, has waged a war of words with terms like “bad weather”. One of her favourite quotes is from Joseph Wood Krutch:

The good thing about the country is . . . that we don’t have any bad weather at all – only a number of different kinds of good.

And Cathie’s right. The wild parts of Tasmania, New Zealand, Alaska and places like them would not look as they do; would not have the same plants and animals; wouldn’t even have the same topography, were it not for the weather. Mountains, forests and fiords come at a climatological cost.

That’s not to say that we always want to be out in the wilds when it’s blowing a gale and sleeting or snowing. But we recognise that such weather in an inherent part of the wild country that is so attractive to walkers. We adapt to the weather, not the other way around. One way to do that is to have good all weather gear, and/or to develop a positive duck-like attitude. Another is to have the flexibility to walk when the weather is expected to be fine. In that regard long-range internet weather forecasts are a great thing. I use them all the time, and they have made a big difference to my walking. For a start they can give warning of extreme conditions that are best avoided, although some familiarity with meteorology and lots of experience of local conditions is still important.

My ideal scenario in Tasmania is to start a walk on the tail-end of a cold front, especially when it looks as though it will be followed by a large, slow-moving high pressure system. This will usually bring calmer conditions, cool nights, and clear days. So while you may start the walk in cloudy or rainy conditions, the promise is that the high will come to the rescue. If it does the result will be a few days of clear weather when you’re actually among the mountains. With the exception of masochists and wilderness photographers in search of “artist’s light”, this is bliss for a bushwalker. And occasionally it does work out that way, although the weather gods often have the last laugh, and a bushwalker’s best-laid plans go oft astray. In the end we have to accept that we don’t control the weather, and making the most of it bears more fruit than shaking a fist at it.

Four days on New Zealand’s Kepler Track, west of Te Anau in Fiordland National Park, proved a good example. In Fiordland you can wait a long time for a forecast indicating a spell of clear weather. This part of the world measures its annual rainfall in metres, not millimetres, and the roaring forties bite particularly hard around here. But in planning to walk the Kepler Track, I did have some flexibility with dates. So I sat on the long-range forecasts for days trying to pick a four day period that might translate into clear weather for at least the day spent in the alpine section, at around 1400m. As I read the forecasts, I prevaricated, planned, replanned, and prevaricated again. Yes, it was spring, but the procession of cold and/or wet weather systems seemed interminable. And not knowing how this would play out on local weather patterns made it hard to commit. I wanted to pay due respect to the potential for wild weather up in those mountains. But eventually taking both local advice and the plunge, I booked the walk. We chose to do the loop walk in the less usual clockwise direction. Forecasts indicated clearer weather for day 3, the alpine day. If we went in the other direction, we’d be up there on day 2, which looked dire.

It turned out my choice was both right and wrong. Wrong because it snowed on and off throughout our entire alpine day. And right because the day before did turn out to be a savage, wet and windy day. Walkers we met at the walk’s half-way point, the Iris Burn Hut, told us they’d been literally blown over by gale-force winds. Some had even lost equipment, blown off the mountain by the wind. And they’d seen almost nothing through the rain and flying cloud in the head-down hurry to get off the mountain. And our snowy day? Well that was the other part of being wrong. Had I been invited to walk for 8 hours through sleet and snow – more than half of it steeply up hill – I probably would have declined. Yet it turned out to be one of the most brilliant days of walking I’ll ever experience.
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