“Let’s go and find some snow!”
You’d be forgiven for thinking those words were spoken by a young child, giddy with excitement at the prospect of making snowmen or hurtling down a hill on a home-made sledge. They were, in fact, uttered by my fifty-something self, driven by nostalgia and the desire to recreate childhood memories of impromptu trips to the Peak District when icicles formed on our Jack Russell’s whiskers and snow drifts exceeded the height of our family campervan.
The 90-minute drive to Derbyshire was deemed necessary in order to find proper snow. Not the light, fluffy stuff that fell on our historic (but very flat) home town of Coventry. No, we wanted scenic mountains, hardy sheep and frozen rivers. And five decades later, I wanted the same thing.
So, we packed up our campervan and headed north, stopping off at Pitlochry before continuing our journey to Aviemore the next morning. Thanks to Storm Gerrit, the weather had been a wee bit wild, and the forecast promised wind and heavy rain for our hour-long drive.
Despite the wet conditions, we made good progress up the A9. But then the weather changed – very quickly – and the rain turned to snow. We watched the snow poles reduce in height as the snow began to settle and we soon found ourselves in a queue of stationary traffic. The mountainous scenery was wiped out by the blizzard and a feeling of unease descended in the confines of our campervan.
“Well, you wanted to find some snow!”
Mr S is known for looking on the bright side of things but despite the humorous intent, his statement was edged with trepidation. And rightly so. As the minutes and hours ticked by, and the snow crept up the marker poles, the prospect of us reaching our intended destination became less and less likely.
We were buoyed by the arrival of a snow plough some three hours later which allowed us to make precarious progress, but we were soon held up again by other stranded vehicles: a BMW with two bold front tyres, an electric car with no charge, and a gas tanker whose driver thought better of continuing.
To make matters worse, we had no means of communication – no phone reception, no radio signal, no Wi-Fi. “Be careful what you wish for” remained unspoken but was loud enough for us both to hear.
As darkness fell, we were stranded just short of Drumochter Summit. At 460 metres above sea level, it was no surprise we were unable to continue and we began to prepare ourselves for a night on the A9. It wasn’t ideal but we were in a better position than most: we had blankets, plenty of food, and the ability to make hot drinks. We were also more than happy to share these essentials with others.
And we weren’t alone. In addition to the long line of other stranded drivers, we could also see the flashing blue lights of the emergency services – a welcome and reassuring sight. With their presence came information. We were told the snow plough was stuck behind a jack-knifed lorry and that the northbound carriageway would remain impassable. A game of Chinese whispers then ensued, the driver at the front imparting details to the driver behind, until everyone was up to speed with progress (or lack of it).
Eventually, we were told that all northbound traffic would be sent back to Pitlochry. We were hoping this particular whisper would prove to be inaccurate but, alas, this was not the case. Still, driving back to Pitlochry was preferable to spending the night on a cold, dark dual carriageway.
What happened next was nothing short of miraculous. Four snow ploughs appeared from nowhere and began to clear the southbound carriageway. In addition, three tractors emerged from a snow-covered farm to assist with the rescue operation. They lumbered up the hill like a trio of St Bernard dogs, each wearing a head torch, before digging their way through the snow drifts. To us, this was (hopefully) a once in a lifetime situation. But they’d obviously done this many times before, this particular stretch of the A9 being exposed to the wintry elements. Watching them clear the snow was like watching a perfectly choreographed dance, not dissimilar to what you’d see on Strictly. All that was missing was the music.
As entertaining as it was, the seriousness of the situation remained. This was indeed a rescue operation. In fact, unbeknown to us, Police Scotland had declared a major incident due to the miles of vehicles stuck in the snow between Drumochter and Dalwhinnie as a result of the severe but unexpected snowfall.
I don’t mind admitting I was embarrassed to be caught out by the weather. Would I have climbed a mountain based on that morning’s weather forecast? Probably not. Should we have reconsidered our journey before leaving Pitlochry? Probably. It certainly reminded us of how quickly the weather can change and, if unprepared, how dangerous that weather can be.
It also reminded us how courageous and selfless some people are. Not just those representing the emergency services but the likes of those farmers who spent hours clearing the snow, and the driver who went out of his way to let everyone know about the welfare centre that had been set up in Pitlochry. Their willingness to help others was admirable.
And so, having spent eight hours on the A9, we found ourselves driving back to Pitlochry and ending up exactly where we started! A day to be forgotten but one we will never forget.
The following day (my need to see snow no longer a priority) we considered driving home. Unsure if we could face the A9 for a third time, and still not quite over our stranded predicament, it seemed easier to retreat than to advance. However, the weather forecast was actually worse south of Pitlochry than north, with serious flood warnings in place. And we’d come this far…
So, on we went, back up the A9 towards Aviemore. And what a difference a day makes! There was still plenty of snow on the verges (those snow poles a stark reminder of events) but the road was perfectly clear and the snow-capped mountains were back to their beautiful best. We were even able to spot the tractors from the night before and to show our appreciation with a round of applause.
The decision to continue turned out to be a good one. Just like that trip to Derbyshire half a century before, we were rewarded with scenic mountains, hardy sheep (and reindeer), frozen rivers, and so much more – including my first ever sighting of a red squirrel. We were thankful for our few days away, but equally thankful to those who had made it possible.
As for the A9, I don’t think we’ll be heading that way again any time soon.