Welcome to my blog. I'm an outdoor writer and photographer with a passion for wilderness and mountains. Use the links above to find out more about me and my books and walks. Click on a blog heading to see any comments or to add your own. -Chris Townsend

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

An Igloo & Ski Tour in the Glen Affric hills

Igloo building under way
Last year the only igloo I built was indoors in Glasgow during a heatwave in July (see this post). Less than six weeks into this year and I’ve helped build one where it belongs, in the snowy hills, and spent the night inside. This took place last weekend when I set off into the Glen Affric hills with fellow skiers Andy, Graham and Chris from the Inverness BackcountrySnowsports Club. The forecast was for cold stormy weather, perhaps not so good for skiing but probably excellent for igloo living.

Climbing to the snow
There was little snow in the bottom of the glen or on the lower slopes and we had to carry our skis a fair distance, an arduous task when climbing through bogs and tussocky heather on steep slopes. It was a relief to reach fuller snow cover and be able to continue up the slopes of Toll Creagach,  the easternmost of the high Glen Affric hills, with our skis on our feet not our backs. 

On skis at last
A cold wind was blowing and bits of sleet and snow occasionally came with it. The summits were in thick cloud and the world was grey and white. A fairly sheltered spot below a gentle bank looked promising as an igloo site. Prodding the snow with my ski pole I found it came almost up to the handle. We’d build the igloo here. Igloo Ed’s Icebox was unstrapped from Andy’s pack and soon the first circle was well under way. Below a few inches of powder the snow was dense and solid and easily formed into solid blocks. 

The igloo begins
Nearing completion

Not long after dark the final snow was heaped onto the top of our home for the night and we could move in, marvelling as always at how quiet and still it was inside. Andy had organised the food and was soon heating up pasta and a tasty sauce. As usual it was cosy in the igloo, while outside the wind strengthened and a mix of sleet and snow with occasional rain fell.
Cosy inside

Dawn came with pale light slowly filtering into the igloo. No brightness, no sunshine. But then we hadn’t expected any. Hot drinks and pancakes warmed us up for venturing outside. Here a touch of hazy sunshine and patches of blue sky encouraged us to go for a ski before packing up so with light packs we headed further up Toll Creagach. The suggestion of clearing skies quickly faded and eventually we reached the edge of the cloud and the light became flat and hazy. Above us a stony, heathery broad ridge only partially snow-covered led into the mist. This was far enough we decided. Time to remove the climbing skins and ski back down. 

In the morning

The snow was reasonable but the light poor for the descent. My muscles soon made me aware that I hadn’t done any skiing for a long time. Still it was fun to link turns down the slope, even if some of them were rather wobbly and certainly not elegant. By the time we reached the igloo the wind and snow were becoming heavier. After more hot drinks we packed up and headed down, the skiing more awkward now with big packs and on wetter less consistent snow. Soon there were heather clumps to avoid too and eventually not enough snow patches to link together. Down here the snow had turned to rain too and it was a wet walk out to the cars.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Winter backpacking, floods, ice axes & crampons, portable rechargers: the March issue of The Great Outdoors

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now with a theme of Scotland in Winter. With that in mind my backpacking column is about winter backpacking in the Highlands and I review five ice axes and five pairs of crampons.

Continuing the Scottish winter theme David Lintern describes a three-day, tough-sounding, snowy trip in the Highlands, illustrated with some dramatic pictures; and Will Copestake tells of the even tougher challenges of the Cairngorms in winter during his amazing self-propelled year-long journey round Scotland.

Also snowy though not Scottish are Stewart Smith on photographing a Lake District winter with, of course, some wonderful images, and Hilary Sharp describing snowshoe trips in the Alps. The Hill Skills pages are devoted to the serious topic of avalanches - essential reading for any snowy hills.

Elsewhere in this issue I write about the devastating floods earlier in the winter and how we can find out about the damage they did to bridges and paths and how we can support the communities involved; Karen Lloyd describes a walk to Piel Island off the coast of Cumbria; Carey Davies goes far from the snow to India's Western Ghats; Roger Smith thinks about the importance of trees and reviews the latest edition of Hugh Westacott's The Walker's Handbook; and Jim Perrin is moved by The Great Soul of Siberia by Sooyong Park. In the gear pages I review five portable rechargers and Will Renwick has a First Look at the Rab Nebula insulated jacket.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Calm Between The Storms

Storm Gertrude blew out with a night of snow. Tomorrow Storm Henry is forecast to blow in with very strong winds, rain and snow. Today the air was still and the land calm. The sky remained overcast but no snow fell. The temperature stayed below zero. Thin mists drifted over the glens. The snow was soft and shin deep, maiing walking quite arduous. Unlike yesterday many animals had been out searching for food. Rabbit, deer and fox tracks laced the snow.

Tomorrow a thaw, maybe.

Big Garden Birdwatch

Taking part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch always makes for an interesting and somewhat hectic hour. Trying to count masses of small birds flying in and out to the feeders is surprisingly difficult. This year there were no surprises with all the birds we see every day except for pheasants turning up. The soft snow on the ground may have discouraged the latter. None of the species that only visit occasionally - goldfinches and siskins in particular - appeared and neither did the red squirrels, though these were around earlier. Here's what we saw during one hour this morning:

Chaffinch                                 12
Coal tit                                    10
Great tit                                    5
Blue tit                                     4
Great Spotted Woodpecker        3
Robin                                       3
Greenfinch                                3
Dunnock                                   2
Blackbird                                  2

A Very Snowy Day

Midnight. Outside the temperature is -1C. Light snow is falling. Our tracks from an afternoon venture are buried. For twenty-four hours now it has been snowing most of the time. Until a few hours ago this snow came on very strong winds and formed deep drifts in places with others scoured almost bare. Now the wind has dropped and the snow is settling more evenly. Already this is the deepest snow this winter here at 300 metres in Strathspey.

Out in the open the wind and snow blasted across the landscape under a featureless grey sky. The hills were hidden. We soon sought the edge of the forest where we were protected from the north-westerly storm. The trees were plastered with snow on the windward sides. This felt like a northern boreal forest.

There was little sign of wildlife, the animals and birds sheltering from the ferocity of the storm. One set of roe deer tracks crossed our route but, unusually, there were no signs of rabbits. Nothing moved in the sky. We walked with hoods up, jackets fastened tight. Just once there was a brief lull and the snow stopped and the wind eased. Suddenly a little too warm for a short while we could unzip and look round with getting savaged by the wind and snow.

The weather for next week is forecast to be stormy with rapid changes in temperature, just as it has been for the last few months. Maybe the snow will stay this time, maybe it will all be gone this time tomorrow.

Friday, 29 January 2016

A Sparrowhawk Feeds

Sparrowhawks have occasionally raided our bird feeders for many years. Usually all we see is a blur of wings as the hawk suddenly flashes round the corner of the house, scattering the feeding birds, then disappears. Often we can't even tell if it's made a kill. Sometimes when it hasn't succeeded a young sparrowhawk will sit atop a feeder looking round, as if wondering where its prey has gone. What we've never seen before is a sparrowhawk feeding. The most we've seen is one flying off with a small bird in its talons. Sometimes a scattering of feathers lies on the ground afterwards.

Yesterday was different. We didn't see the kill. The sparrowhawk, which has been seen a few times in recent days, was first spotted on a low mossy boulder close to the feeders and the house with a small bird - a coal tit I think - in its talons. For a few minutes we watched as it fed voraciously, tearing off feathers and demolishing the bird extremely quickly. Virtually nothing was left afterwards, just a few tiny fluffy feathers. Once there was nothing more to eat the sparrowhawk moved to another rock where it cleaned it's beak and then looked round as if searching for more prey before flying off.

Watching the hawk feed was a great privilege. I was surprised that it fed out in the open and close to the house. Photographing it was difficult. A low sun was shining straight towards the house and there was too much glare to take decent pictures from a low viewpoint so I ended up shooting downwards from my upstairs study window, pressing the lens against the glass for stability. The sparrowhawk was moving most of the time, pecking away at its prey, so taking shots without too much blur was difficult. Every so often it would raise its head to look around and for a fraction of a second it was still. That was the time to take a photograph.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Loch Lomond & The Trossachs Extended Wild Camping Ban Approved

 A wild camp high above Loch Lomond

The Scottish Government has approved an extension of the controversial wild camping ban along the east side of Loch Lomond to other roadside areas in the national park. The ban won't come into effect until the spring of 2017 to allow time for the 'introduction of 300 low-cost camping places through a combination of new and improved camping facilities and camping permits to allow informal lochshore camping at sustainable level'. Camping permits? How ever will these be issued or policed?

Unsurprisingly this news has been greeted with dismay by various groups and individuals including Cameron McNeish, The Ramblers,and The Mountaineering Council of Scotland. There's a report with a map of the zones for the camping bans on The Great Outdoors site and other informative reports on Walk Highlands and grough

The proposal to extend the camping ban first came up a year or so ago. I wrote a piece for The Great Outdoors back then which I've posted below. I haven't changed my views since then other than being even more opposed to the ban now than I was then. Now that it's going ahead it's a question of ensuring it's not extended elsewhere and that innocent wild campers, such as someone walking the West Highland Way who runs out of energy and just wants to camp quietly overnight, aren't penalised.

Just What Is Wild Camping?

Defining wild camping may not seem important. We all know what it means anyway, don’t we? To us walkers and backpackers it means camping in wild places away from roads and buildings. But to others it simply means camping anywhere other than an organised camp site. So the people who camp next to their cars on roadsides and leave litter and destruction behind them are described in the mass media as ‘wild campers’. And that gets us a bad name. 

This came to a head a few years ago on the east side of Loch Lomond. To deal with the problems of car campers causing damage the National Park authority introduced byelaws against ‘wild’ camping along roadsides plus, more positively, a basic campsite. Along with many others I reluctantly accepted the byelaws as necessary due to the vandalism that was going on. Now the issue has flared up again with proposals from Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park to introduce similar byelaws in many other areas. This I think is going too far. I also think it needs to be made clear that this is about car camping and not wild camping. Self-propelled travellers, whether by foot, bicycle or canoe, should not be treated the same as car campers.

Loch Lomond

There is evidence that the problems on the east side of Loch Lomond are occurring in other places, both inside and outside the Park, but I don’t think that new byelaws are the right answer. Vandalism and anti-social behaviour is already illegal anyway and anyone involved in such activities forfeits their access rights under the access legislation. Enforcement of the current laws would help reduce the problem without penalising backpackers, climbers and others who just want to pitch their tent for a night and then move on and who leave little impact. A blanket ban puts everyone in the same category and is a crude instrument for dealing with the issue. It’s also dangerous in that it could be used by those landowners who would like to ban true wild camping to argue for bans on their land.
One proposal from Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park that is positive is for the provision of more basic campsites alongside roads in the parks, sites that would have facilities such as toilets and litter bins. In fact it would be good if more such facilities could be provided along roads anyway – not all the litter or used loo paper comes from campers. Creating camp sites has been the answer to similar problems in the past. I can remember when people camped anywhere they liked in Glen Torridon, near the Sligachan Inn on the Isle of Skye, and near the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe. Whilst most of the campers were walkers and climbers and not there just to party there were problems with litter, the lack of toilet facitilies and damage to the ground due to over-use. In Torridon and at Sligachan basic camp sites were set up whilst at Glencoe the National Trust opened a rather grander site some distance away. It’s rare now to see roadside camping in these places. 

Doesn’t that take away from the pleasure of wild camping though? Isn’t part of the freedom of wild camping being able to just stop and pitch where you like? Here we come back to how wild camping is defined. In my view roadside car camping isn’t wild camping. I would happily use a simple site with facilities designed for tent campers if one was provided. And if not I’d head away from the road to camp out of sight.