A skier’s record-breaking 10-year downhill run hangs in the balance because Scotland’s year-round snowfields are melting, finds Sandra Dick.

Every month without fail for almost exactly ten years, skier Helen Rennie has snapped on her skies for a remarkable slide down a stretch of snow-covered Scottish hillside.

It’s an astonishing commitment that’s seen her scrabble over loose scree and steep slopes in summer sun and winter winds, carrying ski boots and with skis slung over her shoulders hunting for tiny strips of so-called ‘eternal snow’ that have defied rising temperatures in sheltered corries.

A personal challenge that began when she was 55 and recovering from cancer, her bid to ski Scotland all year round for as long as possible is now reaching a landmark point.

Next month should, in theory, see her conquer her 120th run. It would mark an incredible unbroken decade of Scottish skiing and, surely, be a time of celebration.

However, fears are mounting that Scotland’s ‘glaciers’ – normally resilient layers of years-old snow which in some cases are thought to have melted only a handful of times – are now so thin that they are unlikely to survive the coming weeks.

One, known as Scotland’s Sphinx, at Garbh Choire Mor on Braeriach in the Cairngorms which is historically the longest-lasting snow patch in Scotland’s mountains, has now shrunk to below 9m long and 9m wide.

Believed to be under 1.5m deep, it’s on the verge of disappearing entirely for the third year in a row.

Its loss would be unprecedented: records dating to the 1700s suggest it has only melted a total of eight times. Worryingly, should it vanish in coming weeks, it will be the third year in a row that snow has completed disappeared from the site.

It’s a similar story at Scotland’s other summer snowfields such as Pinnacles, just 50m away from Sphinx. When climbers checked last week it was only 18m long, 9m wide and around a meter deep however, that was prior to the weekend’s soaring temperatures which hit 23C in the Aviemore area.

Fears for the snow patches, which are normally were made up of decades worth of packed snow, were raised following a recent survey of well-known sites across the country which revealed just eight patches compared to 27 recorded over the same period last year.

The figure is also dramatically fewer than every year since 2008 apart from 2017, when a particularly mild winter failed to produce enough snow to ensure the summer survival of all but a tiny number of patches.

According to snow patch expert Iain Cameron, who collates information on the snowfields and feeds his findings into papers published by the Royal Meteorological Society, a further five snowfields have vanished since August’s survey.

Along with Sphinx and Pinnacles, a third patch measuring 14m by 8m at Aonach Beag on Ben Nevis remains, but he believes all will struggle to survive the coming weeks unless there is an early October snowfall.

“It’s an absolutely dire situation. We were in unchartered territory last year when the Sphinx melted for the second year in a row,” he said.

“It’s even worse this year and absolutely unprecedented.

“Since the 1700s until the end of the 1900s this snow had only melted a couple of times. For it to be lost three years in a row is really worrying.

“These patches of snow are a barometer of what is happening to our climate.”

Helen, a former schoolteacher from Inverness, said: “Four years ago, the snow lasted right through until the following year, but the past three years in particular have been difficult.

“It’s become more of a challenge to find summer snow.

“I can see that there’s a definite difference in the quality of the snow and the climate.

“There can be a fall of snow, but almost immediately temperature rockets upwards and it starts to thaw. You just don’t get the same build up of snow that you need.”

She skied on the rapidly disappearing Aonach Beag patch earlier this month having first climbed down a steep scree-covered slope to reach it.

She added: “When I skied that patch in 2013 it was much bigger, with fresh snow lying even later on in the year.

“Normally the snow is a lovely granular texture which is a delight to ski on and gives you a good grip to push against. Skiing on snow patches can be great fun.

“But this time the patch was rock hard and full of stones – possibly the hardest I’ve come across and well out of my comfort zone.”

She decided to attempt to ski at least once every month in Scotland after having been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2007.

She added: “When I’m in the mountains it’s like all my senses are firing on full power and any worries disappear.

“I love skiing, but if there is no snow next month, then I’ll just go up in November instead.

“I wouldn’t go on manmade snow just to get to the record going.”

Scotland’s snow patches have a loyal following among hundreds of climbers and skiers who particularly enjoy the thrill of skiing or climbing through fields of snow which are often isolated and surrounded by blooming Alpine flowers and wildlife.

Some snow patches create snow tunnels and deep caves as they thaw, providing dramatic but ephemeral natural features.

While the Sphinx is normally so consistently covered with snow, that the rocks and soil beneath have rarely even seen sunlight.

Records show the snow patches have fade in dramatic numbers over recent years. In 2008, there were 77 recorded in August with 42 in Cairngorm and 28 in Ben Nevis. However, the following three years saw that number halved.

They increased significantly in 2014 and 2015 thanks to heavy winter snowfalls, but in 2017 the few that were recorded in the annual survey thawed within weeks - marking the first time there had been no snow anywhere in the UK for 11 years.

Mr Cameron, from Stirling, said the patches have fascinated people for centuries, making them among the most analysed snow fields in the world.

“They are infectious,” he added. “They tend to be out of the way, Munro baggers are never really close to them because they sit in difficult places to get to. People tend not come into contact with them at close quarters.

“From a distance they are tiny. But once you’re close up they can be quite large and full of interesting features like tunnels.

“And because they often take the same shape every year, you get to know them quite well.

“They’re a bit like visiting an old friend.”