Friday, 26 November 2021

Wildcats in the garden?


There was great excitement in early November when the trail cam in the garden captured the above image in our garden. Could this be a wildcat? I posted the image on social media and was contacted by Saving Wildcats who wanted to know more. Since then I've been in touch with Jamie Sneddon, the Saving Wildcats Project Officer. I told him that we have woods on three sides of the house and feed birds, red squirrels, and rabbits in the garden. He was particularly interested in the rabbits. "Rabbits usually equal cats". 

Twelve days later the trail cam captured more cat images. I sent these to Jamie who reckons it's a different cat - "if you have rabbits you’re likely to have multiple cats" - and definitely a hybrid wildcat/domestic cat. 


I then moved the trail cam to see if I could get any larger pictures. I didn't but I did get cats on more nights, three in succession. 




I'm very interested to see what Jamie Sneddon makes of these. And what the trail cam picks up next.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Silver & Gold: Autumn Returns

Eleven days ago the hills were silver, yesterday they were gold. The first touch of winter has gone, autumn has returned. On a day of drifting mists and a sometimes bright, sometimes hazy sun I wandered up the long, quiet north ridge of Cairn Gorm. 

Approaching the ridge I passed Lochan na Beinne, calm and unruffled in the still air. Underfoot the ground was wet and muddy after all the recent rains. With no wind and temperatures well above freezing I didn’t need a jacket, let alone hat and gloves. 

On the ridge grey boulders protruded through the gold and red grasses. The ridge is a lovely walk with many little rocky tors and the ground become stonier and stonier as you climb. On the east side steep slopes fall away into deep Strath Nethy. In clear weather following the edge of these slopes rather than the path in the centre of the ridge is well worthwhile. The mountain feels more dramatic here.

As I gained height a cold wind began to sweep across the slopes, and I remembered it was mid-November. On with jacket, hat, and gloves.  

Thin clouds streaked the sky, thin sunshine kept the ground golden. The sun was low now and some hills were becoming dark. I was in shadow as I headed up the final slopes to the summit of Cairn Gorm. The sky beyond was turning red and gold. Three figures were silhouetted against the sky as they climbed towards the Cairngorm Weather Station.

We reached the summit at the same time and I recognised Gary Hodgson of Tarmachan Mountaineering who was guiding two people on a navigation and wildlife photography day. “We’ve finally met,” he said. We’d almost done so eleven days ago. He was one of a pair of walkers I almost caught up with far out on the Cairngorm Plateau, before I’d stopped to put on microspikes. No need for those today, there wasn’t a hint of snow or ice. As on that day Gary and his party were the only people I saw on the hills. We’d both posted photos of our trips and realised we’d almost met up.

The temperature was dropping on Cairn Gorm but so was the wind and I lingered to watch the glorious colours after the sun had set, and the banks of cloud rippling and rolling over the hills below a darkening sky. An almost full moon rose, shining palely through streaky clouds.

Gary and his party headed off to practise night navigation then descend to Coire Cas. I had some night navigation of my own locating the path down to the Coire na Ciste car park. A headlamp lit descent was all this walk had in common with the one eleven days earlier. The mountains were the same. And quite different. Winter then, autumn now. 

 

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Thoughts On Ice Axes And Crampons For Hillwalkers

Descending from The Window on Creag Meagaidh

The first snow on the hills this winter has gone now but more is forecast. On a walk on the Cairngorm Plateau last week before the snow went I wore heavy duty microspikes (Hillsound Trail Crampons) as the snow was hard and icy. I had an ice axe as well but didn’t use it – the snow was not deep enough for it to be any use and trekking poles were better for balance. I wouldn’t have left it at home though as I could have needed it if there’d been any deep drifts to cross.

In fact, if there’s snow on the hills I always carry an ice axe and crampons or microspikes. Both are important for safety. Which is best depends on your activities. For hillwalkers with no aspirations for technical winter climber the simplest ice axes and crampons or spikes designed for walkers are fine, and that is what I’m writing about here.

Hillwalking on snow and ice is a mountaineering discipline and needs extra skills. Being able to use an ice axe and crampons correctly is a major part of this. Just carrying them does not make you safe. Using an ice axe to protect yourself from slips and to stop falls if they occur requires training and practice. Similarly, how to walk in crampons and how to use them on different slopes whilst not difficult is not something to try and learn high in the hills in a blizzard. A course at an outdoor centre or with an instructor is the best way to learn.

In the Cairngorms 

ICE AXES

Ice axes are rated CEN-B (basic)/UIAA Type 1 or CEN-T (technical)/UIAA Type 2. These ratings are decided by several tests to assess the strength of the axe. Unsurprisingly, CEN-T axes are stronger than CEN-B ones. Does this matter? Not for hillwalking and general mountaineering. B rated axes are fine for these activities and usually lighter and less expensive than T rated ones.

Picks

For hillwalking axes usually have a slightly down curving pick (sometimes called a classic curve), as this is good for self-arrest and for climbing steeper slopes where you swing the pick into the snow. Up curved picks are for technical climbing. A row of teeth under the pick helps it to grip.

Shaft

Until recently straight shafts were the norm for walking axes, curved ones again being the province of ice climbers. Now though some walking and general mountaineering axes have curved shafts. When climbing steep terrain using the pick above your head a curved shaft helps stop your knuckles bashing against the snow or ice. There is an argument that curved shafts give more leverage for self-arrest. I can’t say that I’ve noticed any significant difference when trying different axes and for hillwalking I would say straight and curved shafts are both fine. All axe shafts have a spike at the end for thrusting into the snow and this is the feature that gets the most use when hillwalking.

Rubberised coatings on shafts can make them warmer to hold and more secure to grip. These should be slim, so they don’t impede thrusting the axe into the snow. Some axes have indentations in the lower section for better grip.

Adze

The adze doesn’t get much use compared to the pick and the spike. If you’ll be doing much step-cutting – unlikely if you have crampons – or digging a snow shelter and you don’t have a snow shovel then a wide adze is more effective than a narrow one.

Material

Most ice axes have aluminium shafts and steel heads. The very lightest have aluminium heads. The latter are fine for occasional use and often used by ski tourers who probably won’t use an axe from one day to the next. However, aluminium isn’t as strong as steel and blunts more easily. For regular use a steel head is best.

Weight

Two other important factors are weight and length. The lighter your ice axe the less burden it is to carry. For hillwalking when the axe is held by the head almost all the time low weight is fine. However, if you’ll be doing much step-cutting or climbing using the pick then a light axe is more tiring to use.

 

In the Cairngorms

Length

Length is contentious. The trend in the UK (it’s not the same everywhere) is for short 50-55cm axes even for hillwalking. I prefer a much longer axe (60-70cms) as it feels more secure on easy angled slopes where a slip could still be dangerous as I don’t have to stoop to reach the snow with it, which feels particularly unstable when going downhill. I also find it easier to thrust a long axe into the snow to prevent a slip becoming a slide. Some say short axes are better for self-arrest. Maybe if that’s what was used when learning. I learnt with a long axe and am perfectly happy using one for self-arrest. I think an axe that reaches the ankle or even almost to the ground is best for hillwalking.

Whatever length or weight of axe you choose the most important factor is knowing how to use it properly. No ice axe is much use if you don’t know what to do with it.

Leashes

Leashes and wrist loops come with many axes and can be fitted to others. They mean that if you drop the axe it doesn’t disappear down the hill. However, they also mean that when changing direction you have to change the wrist loop from hand to hand, which can seem a nuisance if you have to do it often. 

My favourite ice axes. From the left: Camp Corsa (250g), an ultralight all aluminium 60cm axe I take when I don't expect to need an axe but just might (I once carried it coast to coast across Scotland on the Southern Upland Way in February and never used it once); Camp Nanotech Corsa (285 grams), same as the Corsa but with a steel tip to the pick and a steel spike, I use it when ski touring and backpacking; Grivel Helix (485g), a good 66cm general purpose axe with a plastic head cover for warmth and comfort that I take on day and overnight trips when I expect to use an axe; Petzl Glacier (410g), an alternative to the Helix, slightly lighter and slightly longer at 68cms. I can't decide which I like best. 

CRAMPONS

On hard snow rubber soles have little if any grip. It can be difficult to stay upright on the flat, let alone on a slope. Sheet ice is even more slippery. Put metal spikes on your boots and suddenly that slipperiness vanishes and hazardous terrain becomes easy and safe. Even after decades of wearing crampons every winter the first time I put them on in the autumn I’m still amazed at the difference they make. If there’s snow on the hills I don’t go without them. In fact, I reckon I use crampons or micro spikes more than an ice axe, as often there’s not enough snow for an axe to be any use but enough ice to make walking tricky and even dangerous. On one occasion I wore crampons the whole way to Ben Macdui and back without taking my ice axe off my pack as the whole Cairngorm Plateau was a sheet of ice. 

Alex Roddie cutting a quick avalanche pit to check the stability of a slope on Bynack More, Cairngorms

Footwear

Rigid mountaineering boots are usually recommended for winter hillwalking. If you’ll be doing anything approaching technical climbing then they are a good idea. I don’t think they’re necessary otherwise. Boots that have some forward flex are easier to walk in and less tiring on the feet. Many walking and general mountaineering boots will fit these. Indeed, some will fit just about any outdoor footwear, including trail shoes. I prefer boots though because I don’t like cold, wet feet and they allow me to kick steps if I’m not wearing crampons.

Whatever footwear you choose it’s important that your crampons fit them properly and that you know how to put them on securely. Practising this at home is a good idea. Trying to figure out the strapping system with cold fingers as a blizzard closes in is not a good idea. Crampons aren’t all the same shape, and neither are boot soles, so they need to be compatible. Checking the fit in the store when you buy new crampons or boots is the best way to do this. A properly fitted crampon shouldn’t come off when you hold it upside down with the boot attached and the straps undone and shake it.

Types of Crampons and Micro Spikes

Tiny spikes linked by chains and attached to footwear by stretchy harnesses are the simplest form of crampons. Often called microspikes they work okay on level and gently sloping ground and they are excellent on icy paths. The short spikes don’t grip as well as the longer ones found on full crampons but are easier for balance when the ice is thin. Once slopes begin to steepen microspikes become less effective and awkward to use. I carry them when I don’t expect to encounter much snow or ice but there might be the occasional patch I have to cross. Sometimes conditions mean I wear them for longer, as I did a week before writing this, when I put them on to cross an icy snow slope on the Cairngorm Plateau and then kept them on for the descent as they made walking so much more secure. The snow and ice cover was thin though.

Full crampons attach more firmly to boots and have longer points. They may be rigid or flexible. The first are designed for rigid boots and technical climbing and aren’t suitable for use with walking boots. Flexible crampons are made of two sections linked by a bar and can be used with flexible boots. These are known as general mountaineering, trekking, or walking crampons. The flexible linking bars come in different degrees of stiffness. With some crampons you have the option of more or less flexible ones.

Crampons usually have ten or twelve points though ice climbing ones may have more and simple walkers’ ones less (and some micro spikes more – I have ones with 18 points). Ones with points that angle outwards from the front (called front points) are useful for climbing steep slopes when you can just stick them in the snow for grip. Points should be spread out along the boot sole for maximum grip. The length of points is not a major consideration, but shorter ones are more stable when walking on rocks or bare ground, something often done in the British hills when the snow and ice is patchy.

Crampons with a view, Cairngorms

Materials

Most crampons are made from heat treated steel as this is hard wearing and the points stay sharp for a long time and can be easily sharpened. The lightest crampons are made from aluminium. These don’t stay sharp very long and aren’t as tough as steel ones. However, they are fine for most walking use.

Attachments

There are various ways of attaching crampons. Plastic cradles that mould round the heel and toe of a boot and are then held in place by a single strap can be used with flexible boots and are quite easy to fit. Clip bindings with a heel lever and a front bail, usually linked with a strap, are even easier to attach but will only fit boots with a pronounced welt at the toe and heel. They are also best used with rigid boots as they can spring off flexible ones. Some crampons come with heel levers and front cradles, a good compromise.

Balling Up

Soft snow can stick to crampons, leading to large clumps building up underneath them. This is known as balling up and makes walking uncomfortable and can be hazardous. The traditional way to get rid of this snow is to tap the side of the crampons with your ice axe. This works but may need to be done frequently. It can also be awkward on steep slopes when you need your axe for safety and balance. Much safer and more efficient are anti-ball plates, usually made of rubber or plastic, which fit underneath the crampons. All crampon makers offer these, and an increasing number are supplying them as standard. 

My favourite crampons. Clockwise from top left: Hillsound Trail Crampon Pro, 700g with ten steel points a little shorter than on many crampons and with a ratchet closed cradle harness that's the easiest to attach that I've used - ideal for most uses; Black Diamond Neve Pro, 600g 10-point aluminium crampons with wide bails to fit telemark and nordic ski boots (most crampons are too narrow); Grivel Air Tech Light, 590g aluminium 12-point crampons suitable for steeper slopes; Kahtoola KTS Steel, 690g 10-point steel crampons with short points and webbing straps, designed for flexible footwear; Hillsound Trail Crampons, heavy duty microspikes with 11 carbon steel points.

 

Thursday, 11 November 2021

A Look At The December Issue Of The Great Outdoors

 

The December issue of The Great Outdoors is out now with a supplement on Winter Skills. My contributions this month are a review of Iain Cameron's excellent book The Vanished Ice and test reports on the Montane Prism insulated jacket, the ThruDark SF Skirmish waterproof jacket, and Faff coffee bags.

Also in the gear section Lucy Wallace reviews six ice axes, David Lintern reviews three pairs of crampons, and they each review five pairs of walking trousers.

In the main features six outdoor writers and photographers tell of their winter adventures in Lochaber in the West Highlands; Alex Roddie tackles the Munros above Glenfinnan in winter conditions; Vivienne Crow looks at some easier winter walking in the Lake District; while away from winter James Roddie goes backpacking in Glen Feshie. All these features are illustrated with wonderful photographs.

The issue opens with a lovely photo too - early morning mist in the Gwydir Forest from Clogwyn Mawr in Snowdonia by Alan Novelli.

Also in this issue James Forrest describes the Mosedale Horseshoe in the Lake District; Anna Richards asks three outdoor insrtructors how they've made ends meet during the pandemic; Alex Roddie reviews Alastair Humphreys new book Ask an Adventurer; and Jim Perrin reflects on Corndon Hill in the Welsh borderland. 

In the Wild Walks section Alan Rowan climbs Carn a' Choin Deirg in the North-West Highlands; Ronald Turnbull goes up Humbleton Hill in the Cheviot Hills; Megan Carmichael walks a White Peak circuit; Vivienne Crow walks over Crag Fell in the Lake District; and Fiona Barltrop visits the South Downs National Park.

The Winter Skills supplement, edited by Alex Roddie, is packed with expert advice - an interview on staying safe in the hills with Lake District fell top assessor Zac Poulton; how to be avalanche aware by Jon Jones, the Head of Rock & Mountain at Glenmore Lodge; Plas Y Brenin instructor Will Nicholls on the essentials of winter navigation and 16 steps for avoiding mistakes in winter; mountaineering instructor Rebecca Coles describing the skills for a winter mountain trip using a route on Bidean nam Bian as an example; Mountain Scotland Mountain Safety Adviser Heather Morning's guide on what to do if things go wrong; plus Hanna Lindon on how to climb Mont Blanc; and information on winter skills courses.

Sunday, 7 November 2021

John Muir Trust Wild Nature Diary & Wild Nature Calendar 2022


Every year the John Muir Trust publishes a desk diary and a calendar packed with beautiful photographs of landscapes, wildlife and plants. Both items are edited by nature, wildlife and adventure photographer John Beatty, who supplies many of the photographs for the diary.

The Wild Nature Diary has a stunning cover photograph of the Am Fasarinen pinnacles on Liathach. Inside there's a foreword by poet Kathleen Jamie, who became Scotland's Makar this year, a preface by John Beatty, and a message from Dave Gibson, Chair of the JMT plus a wealth of pictures from various top wildlife and landscape photographers. The Diary has one page and photo per week.

Photo page from the Wild Nature Diary 2022

The Wild Nature Calendar has a picture per month. 

I think these would make lovely presents for anyone who loves wild places and nature or you could buy them for your own office or study. Purchasing them helps the Trust too as all profits goes towards its work.

The Wild Nature Diary costs £15, the Wild Nature Calendar £12, or you can buy the two together for £26. They're available from the John Muir Trust online shop.

Friday, 5 November 2021

A Winter's Day In The Cairngorms, The First Of This Season

A brief view in the mist

Winter has returned to the Cairngorms and I had my first taste of the new season on a magical day of clouds and mist. Despite views being rare and short-lived it was glorious to be out in winter conditions again. The Cairngorm Plateau frozen with rime ice and snow. The grass covered in ice bubbles, the rocks with a white sheen. A severe beauty.

A shoulder of Cairn Lochan

With the forecast for a strenthening north-west wind I walked across the foot of the Northern Corries and then up to Miadan Creag Leth-choin so I could head east when up high and have the wind at my back at least some of the time. As I skirted the corries Cairn Lochan came and went in the mist, white and dramatic. There were few people about, just two pairs. One stopped and asked me if there was any way back other than the way they'd come up. They didn't appear to have a map and although dressed for the conditions only had one tiny rucksack between them. After a brief discussion they decided to return down the path. A sensible decision.

Cairn Lochan reveals itself

The other couple were looking down into the Lairig Ghru. They they turned and also started back along the path they'd come up.

Almost Cairn Toul

From the path across the west shoulder of Cairn Lochan I also had views into and across the Lairig Ghru. Braeraich remained hidden but Cairn Toul almost appeared through the swirling clouds. Further south I looked over the top of Bod an Deamhain to distant Beinn a'Ghlo. The weather looked better there.

View to Beinn A'Ghlo

Then it was into the cloud and the world closed in. I crunched across the frozen grass and icy snow patches. Two figures came past Lochan Buidhe from the direction of invisible Ben Macdui. 

I'd intended to go over Cairn Lochan but as soon as I left the path the going became much harder with breakable crust underfoot. A step, your boot holds, put weight on it, crunch, through it goes. Progress slowed I turned away and cut across to the path on the east side of the mountain. A circuit of Cairn Lochan would do. What mattered was being here.

I'd considered putting on micro spikes a few times and reckoned I'd definitely need them for the descent when I came to a section of path across a steeper slope that was banked up with hard rippled snow. I could see the slight marks where others had crossed, some going way off the path in search of easier terrain. I teetered a few steps. This was silly. Stopping I donned the micro spikes. Setting off again I was surprised at the huge difference they made, as I do every year the first time I use them or crampons, despite it being over forty years since I first did so.

Confident now I crunched over the frozen ground, enjoying the sensation. 

Beinn Mheadhoin briefly catches some late sun

Across the Plateau to Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and then the Fiacaill a' Choire Chais there was just one fleeting view as the low sun cut under the cloud and lit up Beinn Mheadhoin. A few seconds and it was gone and I was back in the greyness. As I reached the edge of Coire an t-Sneachda the wind blasted over me, cold and strong. My hood went up, my overmitts went on. Yes, this really was winter.

By the time I was down in the silent, empty Cairn Gorm ski resort it was growing dark. As soon as I left the last snow and ice behind I needed my headtorch to light the suddenly black ground. The car park was dark and silent.


Sunday, 31 October 2021

Hats & Gloves Time


Warm hats, gloves and mitts are back in my pack now and will stay there until next summer. I expect to wear them just about every day. Here’s an extended version of a piece about them I wrote for The Great Outdoors a few years ago.

As winter sets in warm hats and gloves or mitts become important items in your kit. A cold head and cold hands are painful and unpleasant and can be dangerous. A warm hat makes a dramatic difference as much heat can be lost through an uncovered head. Cold hands can make opening and closing packs and garments and handling map and compass difficult or even impossible.

Hats

The big choice in hats is between windproof and non-windproof ones. The former mean you need to put up your jacket hood less often and they are usually warmer for the weight. The latter are often softer and more comfortable though. I carry one of each. I like a non-windproof one on days with little wind and in my tent when camping. Having two hats also means I have a spare if one gets soaked or even blows away. To prevent the latter neck cords are useful. Windproof hats often have them, non-windproof ones rarely. 


For windproof hats I find cap styles with a peak and ear flaps best. These have a weatherproof shell and a fleece or softshell inner. I don’t like windproof fleece hats as these aren’t as breathable. For non-windproof hats I have half a dozen wool or fleece beanies to choose from, some thicker and warmer than others. Double-layer ones are warmest but which one I wear depends on which I lay my hands on first. An old hat I’m very fond of – it’s been on many trips – is a WindPro fleece one with a wicking lining. This has earflaps and a neck cord and resists moderate winds. I haven’t seen anything like it for a while. With beanies I like ones big enough to pull down over my ears if needed. 


Gloves & Mitts

With gloves and mitts I carry three pairs – thin, thick, and shell – sized to go over each other so I can wear them all in the worst weather. I also carry a fourth pair – usually midweight – as a spare. Mitts are warmer than gloves as they keep your fingers together, but they also limit dexterity much more. Simple shell mitts are good for pulling on over gloves for protection against wind, rain, and snow – they are pretty waterproof if the seams are taped. The thinnest gloves, often called liner gloves, allow you to use your hands easily but aren’t as warm as thicker ones. Thick gloves or mitts give less dexterity but are much warmer. Often these have a waterproof membrane in them. I’ve never found them totally waterproof though.

For use with trekking poles and ice axes gloves or mitts with reinforced fingers and palms last longest. Soft fabrics without this can wear through very quickly.


Gloves with an inner layer only sewn on at the wrist, a feature of many ski gloves, can be very difficult to get on when your hands are cold or wet as you try and push the inner fingers into the outer ones. I’d avoid them.

To prevent heat loss and rain or snow entering gloves and mitts should work with your jacket cuffs so there’s no gap here. Thin gloves usually fit inside even the tightest jacket cuff. Thicker ones may not do so. Gauntlet type mitts and gloves should fit over any cuffs. Some gloves have zips at the wrist so they can be tightened to fit under cuffs or opened to go over them.


In recent years my most worn gloves have been thin synthetic insulated ones with windproof shells. These are surprisingly warm for the weight and allow good dexterity. They’re not waterproof but do dry quickly. In blizzards I wear shell mitts over them. For maximum warmth I carry gloves or mitts with thick synthetic insulation. These are great for warming up my hands if they get cold. I often put them on after lunch and photography stops when I only wear liner gloves so I can use my hands, which then get cold. After an hour or two walking my hands get hot and I take the very warm ones off. On milder days I may not wear them at all. I never leave them at home though.

When you need to use your fingers thick gloves and mitts usually have to come off. To stop them blowing away and to keep them warm it’s best to stuff them inside your clothing, preferably in a pocket. Putting them on the ground is a good way for a gust of wind to send them soaring away into the distance. Wrist loops are useful when you’re only removing your gloves or mitts for a short while.