Every childhood winter was spent in a frenzy of longing for snow to fall. Granny said that it would snow if the clouds were tea-coloured. I would pester her: “Granny, is it going to snow?” But sometimes she would say with finality: “No, it is too cold for snow.” What law of nature, what observation, lay behind that statement of inherited generational wisdom?
I learned to watch the skies and had a regime of taking the air temperature four times a day. A maximum-minimum thermometer hung on the fence outside the back door, recording rises and plunges with its thin slivers of metal inside the glass tube. You magnetically drew these back to the current levels, observing the tide of mercury expanding and retreating. 34 degrees Fahrenheit, two degrees above freezing point, usually produced snow, whether the temperature was rising or falling. I would write entries in a ledger on the daily weather conditions, and note the barometric pressure too, pretending to take a scientific approach; and though nothing was ever done with the data, I became a snow observer, a snow steward, a snow celebrant.
The weather forecast on the radio at 5:55pm became the passionately awaited moment. On television, the Sunday afternoon , a BBC programme, “Weather for Farmers and Growers”, gave the five day Atlantic chart future. Moods, almost bipolar, would change depending on the probability of snow ahead. Snow was forecast, at least on the hills, when a strong blast of wind came from the north west or the north. But the most lasting and stable conditions for snow depended on a strong east wind, generated by high pressure over Scandinavia, and low pressure in the Bay of Biscay, bringing frigid air all the way from Siberia.
I had another motive for wanting it to snow: I had started skiing, and went to the Cairngorms in February half-term, and also at the weekends to Glenshee. While the commercial development of skiing was getting underway, the doyen of off-piste skiing in those days was Valdemar Axel Firsoff (V A Firsoff), whose book, published in 1949, had almost instant classic status: The Cairngorms of Scotland on Foot and Ski. He described his ski-touring explorations of the high Cairngorm plateaux and possible descents of remote corries on ski, using skins attached to the skis in order to climb up.
One of his sayings was: The Devil is not as black as he is painted. He used this to justify his habit of solo climbing and skiing; he was a loner. Received wisdom meant that this was quite risky, so ´the devil´ was the great danger of going it alone. As I was a bit of an evangelical Christian at the time, I found this idiom to be quite intriguing. I also found Firsoff’s accounts to be so inspiring that I started to study the map of the Cairngorms National Park, and became an armchair expert on what might be done. Later I would make some forays into the hills in winter, but not on skis it must be admitted.
Looking at the long list of books that Firsoff published, it is also intriguing that one of his interests was astronomy and cosmology. He was an amateur astronomer and may not have had formal training in these fields, but he was a prolific publisher of popular science books that speculated about the universe. This was quite unknown to me at the time I read his Cairngorm books, but it resonates now. I used to state a bit pompously at the age of ten that I was going to be an astrophysicist. His enthusiasm and dedication earned a mention from Patrick Moore at the time of his death in 1982. [http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1982JBAA…92..139M]
My appreciation of Mr Firsoff deepens. So, he was an amateur astronomer and a speculative cosmologist, who loved mountains and rocks. I had started a geology collection in the garden shed. Was he maybe of Norwegian descent? He did work as a translator of Scandinavian languages. However, he was born in the Ukraine. The long solitary walks I took during adolescence also tied in to those future forays into the Cairngorms. Mr Firsoff may have walked and skied alone, but he certainly took this reader with him. Meanwhile, from the small bedroom in Needless Road, Perth, I looked north past the apple tree and yearned for precipitation of a whiter variety.