THERE IS THE ODD THING that Johnny Foreigner can teach us: the Catenaccio Defence, the Copenhagen formulation of quantum mechanics, how to make decent lager, etc. Doubtless the Ed would throw in the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit while pointing out that most Italian coaches have moved to zonal marking. Addressing the more pertinent subject of hillwalking, it is a big factor in persuading my wife to labour above the treeline that the continentals have got places called Hütten and refugios selling designer beer at altitude. Not to mention leather shorts and hats with feathers in. However, to stir up the TAC faithful, they also have crosses on summits, red-and-white waymarkers and funiculars all over the place.
During my rare excursions to the Alps, one of my favourite things (note the Sound of Music allusion) is the hilltop camera. Sitting in your hotel room you can choose your day's hillwalking from the 360°-panning live cameras on about five nearby mountains. It's usually good weather on them all.
All the more reason, given the somewhat variable climate of Scotland, for us to get some sort of heads-up on our weather in a similar way. If, as we're told, Ben Nevis is in cloud five days out of six, it would be advantageous to be able to check its cloud status early in the day before setting out for a stroll along the CMD arête. Thus, the Ed has commissioned a review of hill webcams.
Legend has it that the first-ever webcam was a view of a filtered coffeemaker in some Cambridge Yooni physics lab, allowing the boffins to avoid a premature trip. Given the relative misery of a four-hour traipse in the rain compared with a short walk along a laboratory corridor, the value of a hill webcam is obvious. In the case of Ben Nevis we're actually OK - it has a decent webcam. And it does refresh as advertised. But sadly the good news more or less ends there. At various points while writing this piece I checked, and it was often current. But right now, just as I run the final spellcheck, it's two days out of date. And why - when these cams are out of date - does the last picture always happen to be a Colin Prior-esque glorious sunset? Google Glencoe right now and chances are you'll see the Kings House view of the Buachaille - but when I started writing this there was no live Glencoe webcam. It's currently back up, but 24 hours out of date. Either that, or those two West Highland Wayers have expired and are being held in place by rigor mortis. So that's two of Scotland's premier hill areas and neither has a 100% reliable webcam.
Am I being demanding? I don't think so. Webcams are now so standard a piece of kit that one could amuse readers by looking for the most trivial application. I was recently offered a view of some distant relative of my wife's wandering around a children's petting zoo in Canada. (What the hell kind of a zoo is that? Sounds well dodgy - Ed.) Purely for the research for this piece I checked. Forgot to factor in the eight-hour difference and it was dark - with a hint of street-light - so it must have been live.
The whole point of a webcam is surely its live status. But how does one know the image is live? Often there's a stunning vista, but proof is needed. A date-stamp on the video feed is common, but more often than not it's microscopic and blurred.
Let's perform an experiment. I am shortly to take a bunch of medical physicists on an evening ascent of Ben Donich at the Rest and be Thankful. We have all day to peruse our favourite weather sites in order to avoid a wet event. But cast-iron sunshine from a webcam picture would be reinforcement. Googling "ben donich webcam" is obviously naïve. What about "ardgartan webcam"? Nope. Surely "loch lomond webcam" will bring up something? It does: http://www.loch-lomond.net hosts one. Currently down and in fact never up during the last few weeks.
There are a few cherries to be picked, and when Nevis and the Coe are working there is a vicarious pleasure in knowing the current conditions - especially if you are stuck at work and it's raining on them all. But the coverage just isn't there for a uniform resource that could be used to inform any outings. A quick skip round the country reveals the following: Sligachan - good camera but no date stamp. (Suspicious.) Camvista Skye bridge - five days out of date. (Blue sky again.) National Parks page: Gorms down. Luss down. Cairngorm Mountain - two pics, one a few hours out, one a few days. Torridon and Shieldaig: webcam now offline. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig College on Skye looking out to Knoydart, run by the BBC. Nice view, but a day out of date. A day-old photo can be nice, but it might as well be one of Walt Poucher's.
Off to Johnnyforeignerland and it's a different story. Denali, Zermatt, the Eiger, Mount Cook, Yosemite. Mount Fuji. All working, most date-stamped. I got a bit excited when promised Everest, but that was a red herring. All manner of fjords - pined for or otherwise - eg Geiranger with a big cruise ship. Speaking of cruise ships, there's fun to be had there. Every one of the Princess Cruises fleet has a bridge webcam.
In summary, we're lagging behind the entire world. There are obvious reasons: our hostile climate, the lack of infrastructure in our wild places. But that doesn't seem to have stopped mobile-phone masts appearing everywhere. Maybe they should all be forced to host a webcam to offset their nastiness.
For a few webcam URLs, see http://www.warbeck.f2s.com/TACwebcams.htm
Users of Google Earth will find an excellent add-on for UK webcams on this page.
Ed. - Possibly my own favourite Scottish webcam is the one at http://www.trafficscotland.org/ that shows the A9 road conditions just north of Drumochter. Click on "Live-Eye-Views" and then on two successive A9 icons. In summer this is dull fare unless you have a fondness for watching freeze-frames of cars and vans. But in winter, if you're about to head for Strathspey and are worried about snow conditions at the pass, there's no better way of checking - and it seems more reliable than most.
Incidentally, a webcam on Catstycam in the Ponds, pointing at the ridgy side of Helvellyn, would be a Catstycamcam. Similarly, a website devoted entirely to Coniston Old Man could be called www.com.com
TAC 71 Index