Iain Cameron, Snow Hunter

Natural History
Iain Cameron.

Iain Cameron is what people with big vocabularies sometimes call a chionophile. It means a snow lover, someone or something that thrives in snow and cold. Snow has long obsessed the Scotsman. He has spent over 15 years building an odd reputation as the UK’s top snow hunter.

Cameron was only nine years old when he spotted his first snow patch. He and his parents moved to a house near Port Glasgow which had a perfect view of the rolling hills surrounding the Firth of Clyde. It was there that he saw a “big blob of snow still left” on a hill during springtime. Ever since, he has kept a meticulous record of surviving snow patches, marking the day they melted.

Snow patches linger for a longer time than other seasonal snow cover. Sometimes, older snow is buried under new snow and lasts even after the new snow melts in summer and autumn. A snow patch’s lifespan depends on six key factors: the volume of snowfall, wind direction, the strength of the wind, freeze/thaw cycles, fresh spring snow, and mean summer temperature.

Cameron grew up to have a day job as an environmental compliance officer for a house building company. But in his spare time, he moonlights as a snow patch hunter. While it doesn’t pay, his dedication and findings have gained respect from scientists. Even the Royal Meteorological Society has published his annual reports on snow patches in Scotland for several years. Climate-change researchers have also found his work helpful.

Types of snow patches

There are two types of patches: seasonal, in which the patch melts over the summer, and perennial, where it lasts for two years or more. You can consider perennials to be the beginning stages of a glacier.

As snow and ice grow where temperatures are too low for them to melt, the weight causes the patch to move down-slope and accumulate. A rocky ramp, like a sort of terminal moraine, eventually develops along the lower margin of this patch. This eventually becomes a rock glacier. 

A spring snow patch on top of the hills in the Scottish Highlands. Photo: Shutterstock

Cameron’s main inspiration in studying snow patches was academic powerhouse, mountaineer, and fellow chionophile Dr. Adam Watson, Scotland’s authority on snow patches in the Cairngorms. Watson had studied them since the 1970s. Cameron discovered Watson’s writings and contacted him to learn more.

Watson mentored him, and the two conducted surveys on the patches every year and even published academic papers together. Watson died in 2019, but his legacy lives on.

Together, he and Cameron have inspired hundreds of people to hunt for patches around Scotland, climb the hills, and even ski the larger patches. Two member-packed Facebook groups document snow patches throughout the UK. This use of social media helps Cameron find hidden gems, including snow tunnels beneath the patches hollowed out by water flow. 

Iain Cameron discovering a snow patch tunnel. Photo: Iain Cameron

Some snow patches are 100s of years old

Cameron is busiest in summer when he can document a snow patch’s last moments before it melts. So far, his findings have determined that snow has vanished completely from Scotland just six times since the 1700s. Some patches are hundreds of years old and have been given names like the Pinnacles or the Sphinx, which is the UK’s longest-lasting snow patch. The Sphinx is located on Braeriach mountain and has completely melted seven times over the last three centuries. Cameron has also found that snow persists in the Ben Nevis Range, the Cairngorms, the Ben Alder mountains, and Glencoe. 

While on his excursions to the Scottish mountains, he has come across many geomorphological and material gems. He has found ice axes, helmets, and hats, including some valuable ones. Once, he stumbled across a can of Schweppes that had not been manufactured for the last three decades. Despite the excitement, finding so much garbage in the Highlands casts a shadow.

According to him, snow patches act as a barometer of climate change. Scotland’s snow patches have been disappearing faster and faster. 

Ben Nevis from Mullach nan Coirean in summer, showing snow patches from the previous winter. Photo: Shutterstock

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself why Cameron is so interested in snow patches in the first place. The answer will most likely disappoint you. He said he was simply interested. Full stop. Some people, it seems, are just born chionophiles, whether Iain Cameron or Vermont farmer Snowflake Bentley in the late 1800s. They are simple souls looking to learn something new every day, and snow is the book from which they read. 

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About the Author

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago.

Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb.

Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb's Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world's natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration.

Although she isn't a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.

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mona
mona
2 days ago

Kristine, thanks for this beautiful and surprising story!

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