Exploring the intersection between winter mountaineering and environmental data collection

Posted by Katy Shilladay on 15/11/2023
Image: Ray Wood, The British Mountaineering Council

Robbie Blackhall-Miles, the Vascular Plants Officer for Wales at the wild plant and fungi conservation charity Plant Life, sat down with Tom Carrick, the BMC’s Welsh Access Officer, to discuss the significance of the BMC Winter Monitoring System.

As Robbie discusses his role within Plant Life and the broader collaboration with organisations under the Natur am Byth program, he sheds light on the critical conservation efforts aimed at protecting nearly 70 different species across Wales, particularly focusing on the rare Arctic Alpine plants in Snowdonia.

The conversation unfolds to highlight the intricacies of Arctic Alpine ecosystems and the potential impact of winter climbing activities on these delicate environments. Robbie explains the installation of turf temperature sensors and their role in preserving arctic alpine plants, emphasizing the importance of ensuring proper freezing conditions for the safety of both climbers and the vulnerable plant communities.

The interview concludes with insights into where climbers can access the temperature data and the broader implications of understanding climate change through this monitoring initiative. His interview offers a comprehensive exploration of the intersection between conservation, winter mountaineering, and environmental data collection.

READ: All about the BMC Winter Monitoring System

Hello, we're here today talking to Robbie Blackhall-Miles and we’re here to talk about the winter monitoring system which we are installing on the 24th of October. Robbie, can you tell me a little about your background and the organisations you work for?

So I work for a charity called plant life, we are a wild plant and fungi conservation charity, so we work not just in Britain but all over the world to make sure that wild plants and fungi get their place in the sun and are properly protected, most of our work is in the UK, and I’m the vascular plants officer for Wales for this charity, we have just joined a partnership organisations as part of a program called Natur am Byth, which means nature forever, and in Natur am Byth there are nine conservation organisations working with Natural resources Wales (NRW) to make sure that nearly 70 different species across Wales are conserved properly, my job in that is to work with all the plant stuff in that program, and I lead on a program call Tylysau Mynydd Eryri, within Natur am Byth and that means Mountain Jewels of Eryri (Snowdonia), and that’s a program looking at changing fortunes for some of our rarest Arctic Alpine plants ten of them in total and two arctic alpine invertebrates, the arctic Pea Clam and the Snowdon Rainbow Beetle.

So, you’ve spoken about Arctic Alpines a couple of times, for those who might not have heard of them before, what are they?

Arctic Alpines are a group of organisms that are very specifically linked to the arctic environment or the alpine environment, when I talk about alpine, I’m talking about alpine in its European sense, but any high mountain environment across the world can be alpine, this particular group of organisms in Britain are linked to the European Alps or the Pyrenees, and the Arctic the boreal zone in the arctic circle. There are remnants here from before the glaciers retreated after the ice ages, so they were left behind, when the glacier left our landscapes.

When we head up to install the equipment we are going to be putting different tuff temperature sensors in the ground. How is this going to help protect those arctic alpine plants?

Well I’m a mountaineer, I particularly like winter mountaineering, and I know when I use all my kit when I go winter mountaineering if the turf isn’t frozen properly I can do a lot of damage, some of the routes we have here in Eryri the winter climbing routes go through areas that are really valuable to the arctic alpine plant communities, and if we climb in those areas when the conditions aren’t perfect, we can do a lot of damage to these sites with our tools, so by installing these turf temperature sensors we can ensure that people have the information at their fingertips to whether the turf we want to climb on is frozen sufficiently, and whether its frozen hard enough onto the rock.

Some people might be wondering, if the arctic alpines are there whether it's frozen or not, why is it ok to climb there when they are fully frozen?

When it's fully frozen that turf is properly stuck to the rock, the arctic alpines are all dormant and at that time of year they are under snow and ice, these species are really well adapted to sitting under snow for long periods of time, so they’re quite happy in those conditions. If the turf isn’t frozen solid enough onto that rock then it can slip off very easily, but when it's fully frozen to the rock actually that’s pretty secure so it's not a problem for us to go climbing up it. So disturbance in the right conditions at that time of year isn’t a big problem, but it is a problem if a huge lump of turf is pulled off. Some of these plants are so rare that just one ice axe in the wrong condition and that little bit of turf coming off means that 10% of a population of something very rare is lost.

There are three different temperature sensors being installed, one at 5cm one at 10 and one at 30cm is there a reason for the different depths?

Yes actually a very important reason for those depths, the turf that’s on some of those ledges on Eryri’s cliffs isn’t in some places that deep, maximum depth can be as little as 30cm, and if turf is frozen solidly all the way down to 30cm then the chances are that turf is going to be absolutely stuck to that rock, but think about where our ice screws, ice axes are going to be going into the turf, their going to be going into a maximum of depth of 15cm and an axe or crampon isn’t going to go any deeper than 5cm, so knowing how deeply frozen the turf is for different routes can aid your choices about which routes to climb and whether that rock and turf is properly stuck together or not, is the turf frozen solidly enough to be able to take an ice axe and crampons, the temperature depth data is going to be really integral to whether a route is going to be good to climb.

Where can climbers be able to find the information?

The information will be available on the BMC website. There is a new page dedicated to the Clogwyn Y Garnedd data, added onto the already-existing page for the Cwm Idwal and Cwm Cneifion data on the BMC website. You can find it also by googling "Cwm Idwal BMC" and with this one you can google "Clogwyn Y Garnedd BMC" The site has graphs that show different temperature lines across different time periods across the website.

Is there anything else you’d like winter climbers in particular to use this data in-terms of their general habits whilst they are going out climbing?

Well yes, its not just about the winter its also about the summer, as well the temperature data is going to give you much more accurate data about the crag and air temperature, but also understanding this temperature data helps us to understand climate change we now from the Idwal temperature monitoring stations have 10 years worth of data on what the turf temperature is, and climate change for the Artic alpine plants is a really big deal, some of these species are being pushed higher and higher up the mountains, and eventually they wont have anywhere else left to go, because of the changing climate, so looking at this temperature data is helping us understanding, but also to help climbers understand year on year the turf temperature data is changing, one of the things I find really interesting about this is historically we used to get some very deep freezes into the turf, now when the snow lies on that turf the turf is often not frozen solid, and the snow itself insulates the ground, so keeps it unfrozen, there is a lot we can learn as mountaineers and climbers from understanding this data, and that what we see on the surface isn’t necessarily what is happening under the soil.

So interestingly there you mention climate change data, last year we updated all the Cwm Cneifion and Cwm Idwal sensors with your help, Natur am byth and Data Cymru, after looking at that data through the winter, there was definitely some winter climbing going on but did the turf temperatures ever drop below zero?

No they didn’t really drop below zero really, and if they did it wasn’t much below zero, and the deep temperatures weren’t getting very cold at all from that data, we were a bit taken by surprise by the very early snow last year and we weren’t able to get the monitoring going quite in time for quite a busy season for winter climbing, and actually and if climbers had payed a bit more attention to what was happen in that turf maybe some different choices may have been made.

So one final question is there a particular reason why Clogwyn Y Garnedd has been chosen?

Clogwyn Y Garnedd the face of yr Wyddfa is really important for a number of reasons, one is that it holds a significant population of some of our rarest arctic alpine plants, and it's also one the most important sites for the Snowdon Rainbow beetle, which is one of Britain's rarest invertebrates. Secondly the trinity face is one of the best and most climbed winter routes in Eryri and this turf temperature monitoring is going to give us literally because of where its positioned, real time data of what is actually going on on the Trinity face rather than it being data from somewhere else that won't have the exact same micro climate as the trinity face has, the face also faces a slightly different direction from most other routes in Eryri, and hold onto its snow and ice for a lot longer than other winter climbing sites.

We both live quite close to the mountain, and debating the conditions on the face while we are on the highstreet is a popular pastime in the winter, so this along with a weather forecast is going to give us a really good idea of conditions without actually being up there.

So yes we are lucky being in Llanberis and being local, and we can get a quick bus up to the pass, but actually more than that it's about people looking from further afield seeing that there has been snow in Eryri and coming from a long distance and they don’t want to change their route choice once they are here, so if your are coming from further afield have access to real time data can make better choice about what routes they do or if they come up at all. 


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Is the guy on the right really wearing his crash helmet back to front, or is this a new design?

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