Friday, 30 October 2020

Very wet and windy in the Cairngorms - not the day to try and make a video.


With a forecast for cloud on the highest tops plus a strong wind and showers, sometimes of snow, I thought I'd head again for Carn Eilrig, which is some 500 metres lower than the high tops of the Cairngorms, having failed to reach it due to the burns being in spate at the start of the month. That had otherwise been a good autumn trip with sunshine and fine views. Given that it's been very wet ever since I expected the rivers to be even higher now so I planned to climb the hill from Gleann Einich - there's a bridge across the river! 

Rain started as I took my first steps but as the prediction was for showers I hoped I wouldn't need my waterproofs all day. Five hours later the rain eased enough for me to lower my hood. It turned out to be one of the wettest days I've been out in for quite a while.

The forest is always a joy even in the rain and whilst some of the birches and rowans have lost their leaves and others are fading to a dull brown there was still enough bright autumn colour to raise the spirits. And in the background the brooding hills, dark outlines rising into the clouds. 

As the path rose to run above the Am Beanaidh I looked down on the swirling white water and was glad of that bridge. Carn Eilrig lies on the edge of the hills above the forest with the Am Beanaidh on one side and the Allt Druidh on the other. They converge some 2 kilometres north of the summit. A descent this way looks appealing but it's a terrain trap, leaving you between the two rivers with no bridge.

Once out of the trees I met the buffeting wind, driving the rain down the glen and into my face. Carn Eilrig was behind me now but I was heading for that bridge first. Once across I was glad to turn away from the storm as I climbed boggy slopes to the col south of the summit .

The wind strengthened as I approached the little cairn, blowing me sideways and sending me staggering several times. Without poles I'd probably have fallen. If it was like this here, at 742 metres, what was it like at 1296 metres on Braeriach, which I could see fading into the clouds to the south, a streak of bright white marking a swollen burn crashing down the dark slopes. 

Wondering if I could make a short video showing the conditions even on this lowly top I pulled out my phone. It's waterproof, unlike my camera. Trying to hold it still when I could hardly stand still myself proved too challenging. The short clip at the top of this post was the only half-usable footage I got. 

Returning to the col straight into the storm was hard work, the wind wanting to blast me back up the hill and the rain, halfway to hail now, stinging my face. Turning down into Gleann Enich gave some relief but I only finally relaxed when back in the shelter of the trees. I'd only been out of the forest a couple of hours. It was long enough.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Alex Roddie launches a fundraising auction for the John Muir Trust - bid for a copy of Wanderlust Europe and a walk with me and Alex.

Alex Roddie, author of Wanderlust Europe (see my review), has launched an online auction in aid of the John Muir Trust

The winning bidder will receive a copy of the book and a day out on one of the John Muir Trust's mountain properties with Alex and myself (possibly an overnight camp too). 

There's an interview with Alex about the thinking behind this fundraiser on the John Muir Trust website and Alex has written about it on his blog

All proceeds go to the John Muir Trust. You can bid here

I think this is a great initiative by Alex and was happy to agree to give my time for a day out with the winning bidder. I've supported the John Muir Trust for many years (and been a Trustee for the last five) and I agree completely with Alex's words: "If, like me, you are concerned about the future of our mountains, wild places, and rural communities, I believe that supporting the John Muir Trust is one of the most positive ways you can make a difference.”

I'm looking forward to accompanying one of you in the hills!



Monday, 26 October 2020

Gear For A Recent High Camp In The Cairngorms

Last week's account of my overnight trip to Ben Macdui elicited a number of enquiries as to the tent used and the gear I take winter camping so I thought I'd write a longer piece rather than just give short answers on social media. Because I test so much gear I rarely take exactly the same items on trips so this isn't meant to be a first choice list. I wasn't too bothered about weight either as I wasn't walking long distances and I was only going out for one night, so I took some items that were heavier than I'd choose for a longer trip. Here's a brief overview of the main items I took.

Tent: Nigor Wickiup 3

This is single pole pyramid tent has been a favourite for several years now. It's very roomy for one with good headroom. It wasn't tested on this trip as it was calm but on other trips it has coped well with stomy weather. I reviewed it for TGO in 2016. I used it with the half-size Inner Tent, which I reviewed later the same year. The total weight is 1625 grams.

Sleeping Bag: Sierra Designs Cloud 800

I reviewed this for The Great Outdoors earlier in the year. I hadn't tested it in cold conditions until this trip though. It has a comfort rating of -3C and the overnight temperature in the tent fell conveniently to that temperature. I was mostly warm enough but I could feel ground cold in a few places, which I think was probably more to do with my mat than the bag. The Cloud 800 does have a section under the body with no fill, just a sleeve for the mat, and maybe a bag with a complete fill would have been better. It wasn't a big problem though. I donned extra clothes and slept well.

Sleeping Mat: Sea to Summit Etherlight XT Small   

The Etherlight XT is a very comfortable mat. It only has an r-value of 3.2 though, which basically means it's not warm enough for winter. I wasn't expecting full winter conditions on this mid-October trip but my camp at 1200 metres was on very cold wet ground - there was snow lying not far away - and I think that's why I could feel ground cold. If I use this mat in freezing conditions again - and it really is wonderfully comfortable - I'll take a closed cell foam pad to put underneath it.

Cooking Gear: Soto Windmaster stove, TOAKS 1.3 litre titanium pot, titanium mug, insulated mug

At 67 grams the Soto Windmaster stove is very light. I've been using it on and off for two years, since I gave my initial impressions here, and I've found it works well in the cold. In strong winds a windshield is needed and I took a foil one with me. On this trip I didn't need it as there was barely a breeze. I used the stove with a part-used gas canister and it lit first time and boiled water quickly in the morning after being left on the ground overnight.

My pot was a TOAKS 1.3 litre one, which is very light at 162 grams. I took it to try after it came in too late for a cookware review I did for TGO earlier in the year.  It worked fine but I don't need a pot this big (my standard one is 900ml and I rarely fill that). I also took the old MSR titanium pot that doubles as a mug outside of winter conditions. It weighs 63 grams. As I was expecting freezing conditions overnight I also took a plastic insulated mug I've had for longer than I can remember. It weighs 125 grams and is worth every one. I like my morning coffee to stay hot! (And my evening hot chocolate too).

Down Jacket: Rab Microlight Alpine

This jacket arrived earlier in the autumn for a review of insulated jackets that will appear in the December issue of The Great Outdoors. It weighs 465 grams and is filled with hydrophobic recycled down. It kept me warm in camp and for the hour I spend wandering round looking at the cloud inversion and taking photographs at dawn.

Pack: Osprey Aether 65

The latest version of this pack arrived just before the trip so it was an ideal opportunity to try it out. This is a fully featured pack with a complex adjustable harness and many features. It weighs a hefty 2.35kg. My total load was 15kg and it handled this with ease. I expect it could carry far more.

Footwear: Inov-8 Roclite Pro G 400 GTX

These boots were another item that arrived just a few weeks ago. As it was a short trip I took the risk of wearing them depite little prior use and happily they were fine. They have Inov-8's graphene sole that's meant to be phenomenally hard wearing. I'll need many more trips to assess this. The grip is good though. I crossed wet grass, wet rocks, dry rocks, loose gravel, mud, tussocks, hard snow and soft snow and felt secure. The uppers are a Schoeller ceramic-coated fabric that is also said to be very durable. After this trip I was impressed to see that they are unmarked. They didn't absorb any moisture either and I did walk through some boggy areas. They are Gore-Tex lined and I found them warm enough woth midweight wool socks. They are very light, my pair of size 9s only weighing 840 grams.


As the air was still much of the time I walked in a wool/polypro base layer, Alpkit Woodsmoke shirt, and Fjallraven G1000/softshell trousers. When in damp clouds and a breeze I also wore a windproof jacket. I had waterproof jacket and trousers with me of course but never took them out of the pack. I also took some old Rab PrimaLoft trousers that I wore in camp. I prefer these to long underwear as you can pull them on over your walking trousers. They are very warm.

For head and hands I had two warm hats (wool beanie, lined cap) and four pairs of gloves/mitts (thin liner gloves, medium weight insulated gloves, thick insulated mitts, waterproof shell mitts). These will come on every trip from now until May.


Other items included Pacerpoles and two headtorches (easier to swap them over than change batteries or charge them) plus the usual other stuff. I didn't take ice axe, micro spikes, crampons or snow shovel but I hope I'll need these soon, along with skis or snowshoes. 

Cameras and Electronics

Expecting superb conditions for photography I took two camera bodies, three lenses and a tripod. I used tham all. I also took two smartphones which ended up being mostly used for photography as well. Why two smartphones? Well, I have one to test - the Land Rover Explore R - and thought I'd compare it to the Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro I bought last month (and reviewed here).

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Food Review: Rollagranola

 Reviewing food is difficult so I rarely attempt it. Everyone's tastes are different. However when I was offered some granola to try earlier this year I couldn't resist. Granola or muesli has been my breakfast on every backpacking trip whether overnight or multi-month since my first one over forty years ago. Cereal like this is my commonest breakfast at home too. I'm always happy to try new versions.

Rollagranola comes in twelve varieties, available in either 300 or 350 grams at £4.99 each. All of them are vegan and gluten-free and contain no artificial additives or added sugar.

Rollagranola's recommendation of 40 gram servings provides around 150-200 kcalories depending on the variety. That's about half what I want for breakfast in the hills so each box contains three to four servings for me. I add dried milk powder and sugar too. I find a filling breakfast is important when walking.

Two of the varieties I've tried are oat-based - Absolutely Chocolate and Awesome Almond. The first of these is 11% chocolate. I found the taste delicious but overwhelming. It's great for eating a handful as a snack but for breakfast I prefer to mix it 50/50 with porridge oats for a less strong taste.

Awesome Almond is my favourite of the four I tried. Mixed with dried milk and a little sugar this makes a satisfying breakfast. The basic ingredients are oats (34%), almonds (16%), and dates (13%). It also contains sunflower seeds, dessicated coconut, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, flax seeds, apples, avocado oil, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. I'd be happy to eat this for breakfast day after day on a long walk. 

The other two I tried, Berry Caveman and Zesty Caveman, are both cereal-free 'paleo' ones. I found them quite tasty but better as snacks than for breakfast unless mixed 50/50 with porridge oats or muesli. Both have very high nut contents (over 39% for Berry Caveman and over 44% for Zesty Caveman) plus seeds, dried fruit and more. The Berry Caveman is the sweeter of the two. The Zesty Caveman has ginger in it and quite a spicy kick. Both are strong tasting and good as trail mix, either on their own or mixed with other ingredients (I'd add dried fruit). 

Rollagranola will certainly find its way into my pack again, especially the Awesome Almond, and I'll try some of the other varieties too. Pecan Maple Twist sounds good.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

A Glorious Cairngorms Trip Above The Clouds


Sometimes tiny details in the weather forecast are worth pursuing. Towards the end of last week the gloomy outlook was for overcast skies and the clouds well down on the hills. But in the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) Cairngorms forecast I noticed a mention of the possibility of areas above 1100 metres rising above the clouds. There's only one place with much land above that height and that's the Cairngorm Plateau. A high camp called.

Shrouded in mist I climbed onto the Plateau and started to wonder if I should find somewhere to camp soon. I'd left late and it would soon be dark. I could see little anyway. Then a hazy brightness appeared away to the west, gradually strengthening into an indistinct sun. The land began to glow gold, the mists began to sink away. I was above the clouds. All thought of stopping vanished. I headed for Ben Macdui.

Through the thinning mists I could see Braeriach rising above the cloud-filled Lairig Ghru pass. From Ben Macdui the Cairngorms were an isolated archipelago floating above a white sea. No other hills were visible. There was no wind, no sound except the crunch of my boots on gravel and patches of old snow. As darkness fell I dropped below the summit to camp at 1200 metres, well above the clouds. 

The night was dark, cold and starry. There was no moon. I've rarely seen such a brilliant display of stars. The sky was alive. I wandered round gazing in awe before retreating to the warmth of my tent and sleeping bag. I left the doors open though so I could stare out at the sky. I woke once to see Orion had risen, the constellation of autumn and winter.

Dawn came with a sharp frost. Ice in my water bottles. And a pink tinge on the horizon with blue sky above. Cairn Gorm rose above the clouds. Beautiful. Forgetting about breakfast I was up and out in minutes, watching the still hidden sun lighting slopes above me. The early light was glorious. 

Back on Ben Macdui I gazed again across the Lairig Ghru. The clouds were lower now with some distant hills poking through. The Cairngorms were no longer alone. 

Back at camp strands of thin cloud were drifting past, giving an insubstantial feel to the landscape. Then a fogbow formed, curving above my tent. I'd only ever seen one a couple of times before so I stood and stared for a while, feeling glad I'd seen this fairly rare phenomena. Little did I know what the day was to bring.

Camp packed I returned to Ben Macdui then started back across the Plateau, meeting many walkers heading up. To the west cirrus clouds traced delicate patterns on the blue sky, the precursor to a change in the weather. Ahead I could see that the clouds still covered the northern Plateau. I'd be back in them soon.

The splendour of the day was not over yet though. Another fogbow materialised, an arch I would never reach, never pass through, but which was always there in front of me, never coming closer, never retreating. I walked towards it, mesmerised. 

I lost the fogbow when I entered the mist, which was cold and damp. The world shrank to a few metres.  But then as I approached the edge of the Northern Corries the cloud started to thin and a fogbow started to appear again, this time with hints of colour in it. 

Peering down the steep slopes of Coire an t-Sneachda I could see a bigger fogbow and in its centre a Brocken spectre, my shadow thrown onto the fog. I'd seen this more often than a fogbow but the sight of one is always magical. It was a final touch of wonder before I descended into the clouds and a grey world.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

What I've Been Reading Online No. 25

View up the Allt Druidh, Cairngorms, October 2


Another month passes. Autumn is well under way. And here's my next selection of online reading I've enjoyed.



Paths of glory: How 96-miles of the West Highland Way have been Scots’ happiest trail for 40 years

On its fortieth anniversary Fiona Russell looks at the story of the West Highland Way.

Miles and isles: our big Scottish bike ride

Cycle touring and camping in the Highlands and Island with Kevin Rushby.

How to walk across Scotland 

Advice from Ronald Turnbull on how to walk coast to coast across the Highlands

Tackling Jock's Road: a dramatic walking adventure in the Scottish Highlands 

Patrick Baker on the challenges of a splendid high mountain crossing. 

Field Journal: Wanderlust Europe: An Interview With Alex Roddie

Interview with the author of the new book Wanderlust Europe, which I reviewed here.

Country Diary: an ancient forest offers protection from the elements

Carey Davies on the morning after a night in Glen Feshie, on the trip I wrote about here

Autumn colours, Strathspey, October 6


Loch Insh Osprey

Merryn Glover on the ospreys of summer, now departed.

The Oaks of Sunart

David Russell is revitalised in Ardnamurchan.

Nature has its own original music and the wreckers are those who set traps
Trenchant comment and interesting words from Jim Crumley on the slaughter of wildlife by 'sporting' estates.
How beavers became North America's best fire fighters
Beavers can create fireproof refuges says Ben Goldfarb.  

Britain needs to grow more trees - are sheep farms the answer? 
Environmental researcher Connie O'Neill and biologist Colin Osborne on turning land overgrazed by sheep into woodland. 

Re-wild to mitigate the climate crisis, urge leading scientists
Research in the journal Nature shows the value of rewilding writes Guardian Environment correspondent Fiona Harvey.

Nature Notes: wildlife photography, summer 2020
Alex Roddie looks back at last summer
Sunset, Rothiemurchus Forest, Cairngorms, October 2


Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Great Outdoors November issue


Bivvying, backpacking, wild camping, coastal walking, the Himalayas, and more. The November issue of The Great Outdoors is packed with exciting features.

My contribution is a review of ten 50-60 litre size packs. Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong reviews six women's waterproof jackets. 

The bivvying comes from Hazel Strachan who describes nights out in the Highlands. In Glen Affric David Lintern goes wild camping with his family. Far to the south Tim Gent follows ancient footsteps as he backpacks the Perambulation of Dartmoor. For coastal walking Vivienne Crow picks eight of the most rugged and spectacular sections of the Wales Coast Path. 

Overseas Ed Douglas describes his first visit to the Himalayas in an excerpt from his new book Himalaya: A Human History, and James Forrest explores the Giant Mountains in the Czech Republic.

Also in this issue MWIS forecaster Garry Nicholson gives advice how to predict cloud inversions; James Forrest is interviewed about the planning for his recent two-week record breaking round of all 214 Wainwrights; Roger Smith is shocked by crowds and a scuffle on Snowdon and appeals for respect for nature; Leena Taha describes a walk with her father in the winning entry in a collaborative writing competition run by Black Girls Hike and The Great Outdoors; TGO Challenge organisers Ali Ogden and Sue Oxley describe how next year's event will be run; and Jim Perrin praises Helvellyn.