The Alpine Seasons: Defying the Calendar
Everyone I know seems to have a favourite season, and my social media feeds are always full of anticipation in the lead-up to the first of March, June, September, and December. There's always so much hype surrounding the first calendar days of each season, and in some senses having a set day is symbolically and perhaps metaphorically important: we get to leave something behind, and embrace a new period of time.
We're all attune enough to recognise that the calendar does not, by any means, dictate how and when the weather and environment change. The first of September, for instance, doesn't immediately mean that there'll be no more gloomy cold, wet winter days; the first of December isn't always a bright, warm, sunny day; the leaves don't obediently begin to change colour and fall on the first of March; and it doesn't always snow on the first of June. And yet for many people I know, it's a fantastic excuse to celebrate the end of something, and the start of something else; an excuse to shed one skin and reveal a new one.
Living and working in the mountains, though, has given me a new and very different appreciation of the transition of the four seasons, to the point where I break it down rather broadly into two umbrella periods: the "green" season, and the "white" season. From a work perspective this is important: when there's snow on the ground I can't pursue the types of work I do when the hills are devoid of the white frozen water we have come to love so much as people who cherish adventure and leisure, and so I work in a very different capacity. And it's funny, in talking to my snow-time colleagues, that we always ask each other what we do in the "summer," in a way that suggests that there are only two seasonal variations! Many of them take off north in pursuit of an eternal winter; the others return to their "real lives" in the cities or on the coast, or - like me - stay in the mountains to enjoy how our alpine neighbours look when they're not dressed in white.
The reality as I see it, though, is that the mountains - these mountains, our mountains, Australian mountains - don't often play the arbitrary season game. Coming out of winter and into spring I see this perhaps more than between the other seasons. As far as I'm concerned for a number of reasons, winter is going to continue through September and into October. Why? Because there's still two metres of snow on the ground, meaning I will be at winter work for at least another four weeks, and because the roads leading to my favourite trail heads don't open again until the first week of November. For me, therefore, the "green" season as I have come to refer to it, begins then. And thusly it continues, usually until some time in late May, and officially until the middle of June when the roads close again and the "white" season sees me head back to Buller for another snowy pilgrimage.
In between those dates, though, it is a delight and privilege to observe how the changing seasons affects the alpine environment, from weather patterns to faunal and floral activity. Various points of time in the year will yield totally different aspects and reveal new and beautiful sensory experiences, and certainly don't like to adhere to the arbitrary definition of when the seasons should start and end.
Depending on how prosperous the winter prior has been, the start of the green season can be as late as the start of November. Usually we will at least see a shift in the weather, with days and nights becoming consistently warmer towards the end of September. The start of September, on the other hand, often presents us with tumultuous weather that can often bring some of the best snowfalls of the year. Once we finally get to see the sun for more than two consecutive days in a row, and when we can look at the radar and not see any large, swirling Antarctic lows heading our way, we know we are heading out of the white and into the green.
Early green season sees the rivers and creeks swollen with sweet snowmelt. Water is abundant - now is a good time to be out on the trails as there's no need to be concerned about the availability of hydration! Up high, though, nights are still cold, and the days are still reasonably short.
Then November morphs into December, and becomes what we might conventionally call "spring." The air feels a little more dense than the fine, frozen lace that we feel caress our faces in winter, and the smell of warmth is getting more intense. Increasingly, the local wildlife are shaking off the winter and embracing the sun and the vitality it brings - we start to see more bird activity down low, and our slippery serpent friends start to make themselves a little more lively.
And then something happens in December - the ground bursts open and spurts of colour appear abundantly across the Alps. Wildflowers in all their manifestations scatter the landscape with vibrance. Fields of white, purple, pink, and yellow open up before our eyes and form something of a guard of honour for us as we wander along the trails. It's truly an amazing time to be amongst the hills: the days are getting longer and warmer, the weather is consistently drier, and yet we can often be surprised with sudden downpours of rain and even snow. December and January are arguably the true "spring" month of the mountains, some two or so months later than down lower.
It gets very hot in February and March, the heat apex of our year. Being up high in the hills is a welcome reprieve from being in the valleys or the lowlands, though even then the thin air can almost be stifling. In some recent summers this has also been complemented with an almost tropical humidity, having some of us question when we traded our temperate Victorian alpine climate with our cousins in Far North Queensland! Summer storms in drier years can be destructive for many reasons, not least of all the damage caused by the winds they bring with them, but most of all in a dry year the very real threat of bushfire caused by lightning. On one hike I was on a few years ago, a storm brewed above us. A kilometre or so across the valley on the adjacent range, we watched as lightning struck, and was shortly followed by a plume of smoke. Needless to say, we did not pursue the hike further! A degree of sensibility is required when out in the field over this time. And yet, the nights of this time of year make the long, hot days worthwhile: to sit out and watch a late sunset from a peak soaked in the golden glow of summer twilight, or to finish a long hot day by treating yourself to a natural spa in a flowing river rapid is the ultimate experience.
The tail end of the green season can be some of the best conditions of the year, due to their mild temperatures and exciting variety. It is not uncommon to be chased by a snowstorm in April, and to have this be complemented the next day by bright, warm sunshine that reveals the beauty of pre-winter alpine life. The wildflowers may have retreated in preparation for another snow season, but the plant life all around us seems to be standing tall, readying for the cold, showing off the most stunning contrasting colours that make even the mistiest, greyest days just as incredibly beautiful as the sunniest. At this point in the year, the days are comfortably mild, and the nights fresh. This is the mountains at their gentlest and most welcoming.
The first flakes will start to fall in late May, and perhaps for some this can be mind-blowing, maybe even a sign of defiance. You can't snow yet, some may think. It's not winter yet! And yet the mountains themselves define what happens, and when. So if they're ready for snow to fall, it's going to happen. Just as in September, May has historically yielded astonishing snow dumps.
And then late-May to early-June can then turn around and decide that nah, it's not time for winter yet. And we will go for weeks without any snow activity; just fruitless, blustery, wet and cold winter days. From a human perspective this can be a fascinating time. There are entire industries dependent on nature behaving herself and snowing on command, being cold on command, being cooperative on command. And yet that's not how she works. She is not at our mercy; we are very much at hers.
Typically she comes to the party and delivers, with consistent yet perhaps small dumps of snow beginning towards late-June, even early-July - a far cry from the "official" start of winter when her human subjects are expecting there to be snow on the ground to facilitate their leisure pursuits. August and into September is when we will see the best snow conditions in a good season - and even then, sometimes we won't "see" them at all due to blankets of fog being draped over the mountainscapes. Weeks can go by with no sight of the sun. And yet the white mist creates a beauty that is truly unparalleled - something eerie, and oddly calming.
But then the sun comes out. And...words cannot encompass the beauty of a sunny winter day in the Australian alps, especially at dusk. The vivacity of the alpenglow at both ends of the day seizes the emotions in a unique and overwhelming way.
In the mountains, the seasons define themselves, and manifest in diverse and downright unpredictable ways. There is one thing that is consistent amongst them all: the beauty they bring to the alpine environment in their own unique ways.