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Sperrin Mountain Snow Devils - January 31st 2016

Saturday morning February 1st 2016 and I was up early checking the online reports in anticipation of a good snow fall. GFS the night before had indicated a post frontal cold Wly veering NWly flow with freezing air aloft and -7 uppers above the surface with showery precipitation falling as snow periodically throughout the night. My predictions for the best snowfall where Tyrone, Donegal, Sperrins and Mournes for daylight hours and as the first snow began falling over Cookstown at 3am I happily retired from my lamp post watching and went to sleep for what could be a busy morning out in the cold. The next morning when I checked the online situation I was initially surprised, there were no exciting reports however Armagh and Down seemed to be getting the best of it however the good old Sperrins had a nice dusting so our photo shoot was still going ahead, I just would have liked to have woken to a pristine layer of snow at lower levels, that's always a joy to wake up to, however today was going to be a case of chasing to get the good stuff so in a nut shell we needed higher ground where temps would be lower to hold the overnight snow shower deposits.

Roisin, my Dad and I did some shopping in town then by early afternoon all three of us hit the road. Dad was driving so we were in the Kia and my Berlingo got a lucky day off to rest. I was excited because the Met Office had a yellow warning out for snow and ice and with exposed areas capable of producing blowing snow and blizzard like conditions. My expectations were not high today due to the lesser snow coverage than what I had expected so my goal was simple and that was to get nice landscape snow images or video, we could just as easily have stayed home this day however the truth was that once you get out into the snow you just never ever know what you are going to see, and besides we all loved snow and craved the clean air and white visuals. There was also another reason to justify our mountain snow hunt, Dad and I had just purchased a 'Phantom 3 Advanced' quadcopter and we hoped to get it's maiden flight over snow if we could find a good place to stop. By 12.30 we where driving N along the carriageway with the intention of targeting Glenshane Pass however when the mountain came into view it was a disappointment with a light dusting on top and not worth pursuing any further so we turned around and took the back roads through Draperstown and Feeny and down into the Glenelley Valley but it was obvious that the mountains to the SW where the best place to be for they were covered in what looked like a beautiful layer of icing sugar so we moved onto high ground above the Moneyneany area.

This was truly the middle of nowhere on narrow mountain roads, high elevation, roads full of put holes, ruts, mud, cattle grids and eventually persistent snow. The good thing about someone else driving is that you can get a chance to shoot scenes while in transit without stopping, I put down the passenger window and fired off a few 10mm wide angle stills as the Kia worked its way over the powdery snow. Can you feel the cold here?, open landscape with a bitter wind blowing and passing snow squalls, the shower in the distance was moving R to L and putting down another layer with a hint of mammatus on the back side.

Later we were as high as we could get on this stretch of meandering road where the snow was deeper and the Kia was starting to spin at times, it wouldn't be problematic however there were peaks and troughs on the road while bending at the same time which required keen acceleration to make it to the crest of the next hill, if we didn't we could get stuck here, the roads were narrow and we didn't want to meet any other traffic head on. Once we rounded this corner I asked Dad to stop as I just had to shoot this beautiful scene so all three of us got out with our cameras, Dad was shooting with his camera, Roisin with her Samsung Galaxy S6 and myself with the Canon 600D at 10mm, I just loved this scene with the snow on the Sperrin peaks lit brilliant white by the sun with curtains of fresh snow falling aloft.

I love being in the zone like this out in the elements, the air was crisp and chilled, the landscape pure and gleaming with snow, the low winter sun shining on my face, the light was good, however the clouds were racing in and about to shut off that light so I worked swiftly adjusting aperture and shutter speed to get my shot and those menacing curtains of snow were approaching us, it felt so good to be out again.

A few miles later the snow shower stopped and a clearance appeared which justified another stop and shoot. We could feel the temperature dropping as we passed the mid point of the short day and soon ice would be reforming and the fresh snow laying again and our roads would become more troublesome so we moved on. An hour later we were still driving along mountain roads searching for a place to fly the drone however it was hard to find somewhere away from farm houses, private fields, and where we could safely park the car, furthermore the wind was still strong so flying conditions were not suitable and more snow showers on the horizon added to the elemental battle so we kept driving for miles and miles.

Suddenly as we where driving along the Glenedra road we passed a group of trees and entered a clearing offering us a clear view along the eastern flank of the steep mountain, it took me a second to figure out what was happening, my brain had noticed something that was different from the terrain we had been viewing for hours, my adrenaline began pumping, at a first glance there looked to be a concentrated vertical plume of white powdery smoke on the mountain just below the summit, it looked incredibly out of place and unusual, one second later I knew what I was looking at, I shouted ''snow devil...look...look..up the mountain...stop the car''. It was my first ever snow devil, they have been on my photography list for a very long time and suddenly now, this day, entirely unexpected and it was sitting there on the snow spinning swiftly like a white tornado debris bowl. I had seconds to react to record it, at times like this it pays to know your gear inside out, its advantages and limitations and which tool suited the job, this phenomena could be gone in a second, DSLR too slow for video and manual focusing, Go Pro to wide and attached to window, so I instantly grabbed by old faithful Samsung Switch Grip video camera from the kit bag which offered auto focus, auto exposure and high zoom facility.

I put down the window half way and in my haste I almost put my hand and video camera clean through the glass, I tend to excited like that in the heat of the moment when nature is showing off, then I zoomed in and began recording with a slightly trembling hand. Above is a frame grab from the video footage, don't be deceived by it's size, this is zoomed in far up the slope of the mountain a large distance away so in reality it was a big feature. A snow devil is the same as a dust devil on dirt or a steam devil in mist/fog over lakes, it is a vortex or whirlwind phenomena, they tend to happen completely at random so seeing them when conditions are ripe are very rare indeed. I have seen perhaps four dust devils before, two during a hot Summer's day in Maghera near my home in 2005 and two larger entities a few years back near Beaghmore Stone Circles however I have never ever seen a snow devil before. I have spent a lot of time over the years out in snow during daytime and on moonlit nights and have never witnessed a single one so imagine my shock when I saw one during this moment, straight in my face. This one was spinning like mad with snow spraying through the air in a beautiful white pinwheel and as I watched through the LCD screen I could see both cyclonic and anti cyclonic rotation from several embedded interacting vorticies, it was like a tornado without the storm base and condensation funnel aloft and if it wasn't for the snow then their presence wouldn't have been seen at all. Nature was good to us, we happened to drive along this road on the rite day at the rite time when there was snow on the mountain when atmospheric conditions were just perfect for a snow devil formation, the odds of that happening are very low indeed, this sighting was meant to be.

Just as the first vanished over a descending mountain stream a second devil formed then weakened, we barely had time to breath when a third even larger vortex appeared. At first it looked like a veil of white on the summit then it began descending down slope and rotating into a big column of snow, this was the largest one yet, while the first was a concentrated vortex this one had a much broader circulation on the mountain and as it grew larger we could see that it was heading straight for us.

Compare these two video grabs in relation to the bushes and you can see how the devil has got closer to the camera. This was absolutely fascinating to watch, big swirls of snow spinning across the mountain and moving down the steep slope towards the ground, Dad was just as excited as I was, he was out filming while leaning across the car roof, I saw an opportunity and something I have always wanted to experience, so I climbed over the gate and jumped into the field and ran into it's centre, in front of me the devil arrived at the far end of the field and in a thrilling audible ''swoosh'' a large swirl of snow spun rapidly across the field and impacted me head on!!!, I felt a rush of air and got hit in the face by ice crystals and snow as the vortex passed through me, I yelled with joy as it did so, I turned around, saw it cross the remainder of the field, over the hedge, cross over the roof of the car causing Dad to duck, cross the road, then reform in the adjacent fields behind us, that was bloody amazing!, when I sipped my honey brew this morning I never would have thought that I would be seeing a snow devil, never mind getting impacted by one. The wind chill was deadly though, raw and freezing, I sheltered in the car for my fingers to warm up then Dad and I went back out for more, I got hit by another one and so did Dad, the wind strength was obviously nothing severe however it was strong enough to freshen your complexion when it hit, lift more snow into the air around you and shake the trees as it passed, the experience was unreal, a combination of excitement and absolute fascination for nature. Roisin got some nice wide video footage on her phone while sitting in the back seat, at one stage she said it passed straight through the car covering the upholstery with snow!.

Much to our astonishment we witnessed not one but a dozen different snow devils, perhaps even more. They formed on top then raced down the flank of the mountain, some where small, some large, some rotated for a few sec's and were gone while others made it all the way from the top of the mountain to the bottom, our eyes were glued to the hills. At one stage a hiker appeared on the mountain walking through the snow with his dog and I hoped a snow devil would form near him or even hit him, I wasn't being spiteful it just would have made for a great scene and a sense of scale, the hiker was out of frame to the left and moving higher, I'm sure he was just as entertained by these whirlwinds as we were. We drove around the corner a little more and got a new angle then stopped for more images. This time I put my video camera in my pocket and got out the 600D with 100-400mm lens for some still images which don't do them justice however I had to get a record. Here's a solitary snow devil moving across the snowy landscape like a ghostly apparition, check out the translucent vortex above the snow spray, here it almost reaches the top of the frame so at this distance at 400mm it must have been fairly tall indeed.

Same snow devil, compare images to see it's swift motion to the lower left. Before this we were seeing them face-on but now we were viewing them side-on. It was cool watching the bushes sway significantly when the vortex hit them, Roisin said she could see Rabbits and Sheep running when the whirlwind approached where they grazed.

The sun was lowering behind the crest of the mountain, the light was falling and so were the temperatures, however the scene kept getting more dramatic. The number of snow devils were reducing however the straight line winds blowing across the landscape were turning spectacular as they whipped curtains of snow horizontally in great white glowing bands back-lit intensely by the low sun.

Blowing snow and compact snow devil racing down slope from R to L simultaneously. If you were standing within that band it would be a white out with blizzard-like conditions, if you stepped 10ft outside the band you would enter clear air with a spinning whirlwind of snow passing you by, what a sight that would have been.

Images don't to this scene justice, check out the video just after the snow devil section to see the manner in which this blowing snow was moving and the way it was lit, the motion was sideways with downward cascading waves. With last light approaching and aching fingers we decided to move on. Miles later, just as we were passing through Draperstown I went into a panic, the video camera I had used to film the snow devils was missing!, we pulled over and did a thorough examination of the car, coats, and camera bags, but all we did was confirm it was missing, I couldn't believe it. After all that excitement and experiencing this rare phenomena there was no way I was coming home empty handed. Dad kindly decided we would drive all the way back up the mountain in the hope that we would remember where we had stopped and that we would find the camera. We took the scenic route through Dungiven onto Glenshane Pass then across the dramatic Birren road, by now the roads were covered in deeper snow, the roads were getting slippery and everything was freezing, the hills and drops over the winter road reminded us of Ice Road Truckers then we noticed that diesel was getting low too, I felt the apprehension building, would I find the camera again?, would we even see it?, maybe it will be too dark when we got there, maybe it was hidden under fresh snow or perhaps someone had stolen it.

We arrived just as the sky began to cloud over and fresh snow began falling from the sky, we made several passes near our second position when Dad suddenly spotted it laying on the side of the road, very well spotted!. I went outside and grabbed it then realized that the camera had fallen into a stream of constantly flowing water which had been running down the side of the road for over an hour since we were away, I gave it a quick shake and turned it on, it made a noise which sounded like it's final breath so I switched it off to rest, I extracted the damp SD card which had grit on it but otherwise was fine, at least I had my video footage rescued and if my camera did stop working at least I could say it had served me well for years above and beyond the call of duty. This camera had been out in hot sun, cold snow, severe winds, been blasted by sand, sea and salt and hailstones for years and it always seemed to survive the exposure even though it isn't even waterproof at all, I have been proud of its service to me and if this was it's final day then I couldn't be happier because it went out in a blaze of glory capturing snow devils, I couldn't have asked for more.

A few miles up the road we found a good open location in the mountains and flat ground so we got the Phantom 3 Advanced set-up for it's maiden flight. Dad took the controls and guided it up, the experience was amazing, soon it was 100ft high and showing us live video of the snow-covered mountains through the tablet, our adrenaline was soaring, such a combination of emotions flying a quad copter ranging from anxiety to overwhelming joy and excitement, it sure put a smile on our faces as we yelled with delight.

Still from the video above, the snow was only patchy here but you can appreciate the potential. Dad did a superb job flying it for his first time and seemed a natural, then the sky darkened behind us as a new snow shower moved in so we brought the phantom back down to Earth, what a successful day this was, an emotional rollercoster of ups and downs with beautiful snow scenes, snow devils and now our quadcopter flight over the winter landscape. The drive home was full of high spirits as recounted the whirlwinds and drone flight, we celebrated that night with a well earned fillet steak.

Video footage of our adventure on the Sperrins with the snow devils and Dad's maiden flight of the Phantom 3 during last light. We were filming with nine different devices this day ranging from dash cams and Go Pro to DSLRs, phones and drone platforms. I left my video camera in a bag of rice overnight beside the hot press and amazingly the next day it switched back on again, I couldn't believe it, there may be some life left in my old work horse yet. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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