Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Summer Heat in the Cairngorms

The Feith Buidhe and Lochan Buidhe on the Cairngorm Plateau

The last two days have been hot and sunny in the Cairngorms, a wonderful change from the generally dull and cool weather of the last six weeks or so. On the 17th two of us went across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui under a rich blue sky with splendidly clear views all around. There was a fairly strong wind that meant it didn't feel too hot and which, I guess, helped keep the air so clear.

Coire Domhain, Carn Etchachan & Derry Cairngorm

Whilst the higher ground was dry and crunchy underfoot the corries looked wet and all the streams were running strongly. We saw no snow apart from a few small patches high up in An Garbh Coire across the Lairig Ghru. I can't remember when there was so little snow left at this time of year.

Cairn Toul & Sgor an Lochain Uaine

There were snow buntings around the cairn at the top of the Fiacaill a'Choire Chais and on the summit of Ben Macdui waiting for any crumbs we dropped, the males handsome in their black and white summer plumage. A ptarmigan scuttled low across the rocks, probably trying to lead us away from her chicks though we didn't see any. A young wheatear bobbed from rock to rock beside the path, its dappled brown plumage good camouflage but its white rump quite distinctive. The grasses were bright green and there were red and yellow splashes of moss in the damp areas. A bumblebee fumbled across the stones, blown up by the wind we assumed. Summer on the Cairngorm Plateau. Short-lived but glorious while it lasts. On a day like this it was hard to remember the arctic feel of winter or even the rainswept greyness of recent weeks. For today it was benign and friendly, basking in summer perfection.

Looking across the Plateau to Ben Macdui with Lochan Buidhe on the left and the headwaters of the March Burn on the right and the path crossing the narrow low watershed between the two

We met maybe a dozen or so other walkers, fewer than expected on such a fine day. The only camp we saw was in Coire an Lochain where three people were swimming in the lochan, which made my companion, a keen wild swimmer, jealous as we had no time to descend into the corrie.

Miadan Creag an Leth-choin & Cairn Lochan

Monday, 17 July 2017

Favourite Outdoor Gear

Tilley Hat, Paramo Katmai shirt & Pacerpoles on my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk last autumn

Looking through old files recently I came across this piece I wrote for The Great Outdoors in 2010. Back then I choose eight pieces of gear as my absolute favourites, based on years of usage. Surprisingly, seven years later I’d still pick all bar one of them, the GoLite Pinnacle, which isn’t available anymore but for which there are now alternatives I prefer, such as the Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus. The Inov8 Terroc shoes are also no longer around either, sadly as I haven’t yet found an alternative I’m really happy with.

Do I still use these items regularly? Yes. Good design lasts. Would I add anything to the list? Yes, the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar and the Paramo Katmai shirt. Do I still use these items regularly? Yes. Good design lasts.

Having tested hundreds and hundreds of items gear over the years I’ve had a unique opportunity to find out which ones I really like. These often creep up on me slowly. After a test is complete I find that I keep selecting one of the items for trip after trip until I realise it has become a real favourite. With other gear I know immediately that it’s something special so I’m not surprised when it becomes a favourite.

Favourite items can be surpassed by newer ones in terms of weight or performance of course but sentiment keeps them as favourites even if I don’t use them as much as previously. Memories are important and gear that has been on many trips collects them. I can look at a hat or a stove on a shelf and be transported back to a spectacular camp site or a wonderful day on the trail. One of these items that now mainly serves as a decoration is my old Optimus Svea 123 petrol stove. Back in the 1980s I used this little stove on the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, the longest walks I have undertaken, and just looking at it takes me back to those marvellous wilderness adventures. There are many lighter weight and more efficient stoves now though and I haven’t used the Svea for over a decade. Maybe I’ll take it out for a nostalgic weekend soon.

In some cases it’s groups of products rather than specific items that are favourites. To be fair to the ones that fall into this category here they are: Paramo (waterproofs), Rab (sleeping bags, insulated jackets, waterproofs), TarpTent (tents), Western Mountaineering (sleeping bags, down clothing), Mountain Equipment (down sleeping bags, down clothing, waterproofs), PHD (down sleeping bags, down clothing), Berghaus (clothing), Therm-A-Rest (mattresses), Exped (mattresses), MSR (stoves), Optimus (stoves), Primus (stoves, cookware), Montane (waterproofs, trousers), Icebreaker (wool clothing), Teko (wool socks), Smartwool (wool clothing), Superfeet (footbeds), Patagonia (clothing), Terra Nova (tents), Lightwave (packs, tents), Mountain Laurel Designs (tarps, tents, packs), Granite Gear (packs), Petzl (headlamps), Silva (compasses), ViewRanger (GPS mapping). All these companies make products I have enjoyed using and will continue using.

Here, though, are my absolute favourites, gear that I have used again and again and found near perfect.

Hilleberg Akto

Hilleberg Akto in the NW Highlands

I have to start with the Akto, in which I’ve camped on hundreds of nights including my continuous round of the Munros and Tops and several TGO Challenges. For me this single hoop tent has been just about ideal. It’s strong, durable and lightweight with enough room inside for gear storage and cooking. I can sit out a storm in it without feeling claustrophobic. I also know it so well that I can pitch it in a few minutes without much thought or effort, which is useful when tired after a long day. Since the Akto first appeared over twenty years ago lighter weight tents based on the same design have appeared. Some of these are very good but I doubt any will prove as durable as the Akto. I still think that if you want a tough solo backpacking tent that will last the Akto is a great choice.

Tilley Hat

I discovered Tilley Hats in 1990 ago at the start of my walk through the Yukon Territory in northern Canada. Over the years I’d tried and discarded several sun hats but not found any that were really comfortable. The Tilley felt right immediately and I bought one within minutes of trying it on despite the high price. It was worth the money and the hat was worn for much of the walk, fending off rain as well as sun. Since then the Tilley has been around the Munros and Tops, along the Arizona Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail, across Corsica and to Everest Base Camp as well as on many other trips. When I bought mine there was only one style. Now there are many styles. The model I prefer is called the T3. I like the fact that it’s cotton, despite the weight, as this breathes well and is cool in the heat. Soak it in water and it keeps your head cool for a long time. I like the tall crown, which doesn’t press on the head and so is more comfortable and cooler than ones that do, and I like the wide, stiffened brim, which shades the face and neck better than floppy ones.

Caldera Cone Stove System

Caldera Ti-Tri & Evernew 900
On my first long distance walk, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, I used a Trangia meths stove. Although it worked well I never took it on another long walk due to the weight and bulk plus the need to carry lots of fuel. Now after years of using petroleum fuel and cartridge stoves I’ve returned to meths for long distance walks. This is due to the ingenious Caldera Cone, a curved cone of thin metal that acts as a wind shield for a drinks can meths burner and as a pot support. It works just like a Trangia at a fraction of the weight. It’s fuel efficient too and boils water quite quickly for a meths stove. The basic Caldera Cone, made from aluminium, is excellent. The Ti-Tri titanium version is even better as you can also burn wood in it. And best of all is the Ti-Tri Inferno, which has a smaller inverted cone that fits inside the Caldera and makes burning wood much more efficient.

Evernew 900ml Pan

This simple titanium pan was another love-at-first-sight item. Having gone through several sets of aluminium pans, which soon became dented and scratched, I’d changed to heavier but tougher stainless steel when I saw my first titanium pan in a US outdoor store well over twenty years ago. It looked wonderful and felt even better as it was so light. The price was high but I bought it anyway. That pan has been used extensively ever since and is still in fine condition. I think it will easily outlast me. It’s also just the right size for my kind of solo cooking.


My conversion to poles came through ski touring. After a few years it dawned on me that I didn’t need to be on skis for poles to be useful and I started using them when walking. There didn’t seem to be much difference between various brands until I discovered Pacerpoles with their specially shaped handles. These felt natural and comfortable to hold and I liked not having to use straps. I also found them easier to use and more efficient. Eventually I came full circle and started using them for ski touring, where I discovered they were better than standard ski poles.

GoLite Pinnacle Pack

I’m a minimalist when it comes to packs. I prefer simple, clean designs without lots of bells and whistles. The Pinnacle fits this description well and has all the features I require – a pocket for small and light items, mesh side pockets for water bottles and maps and side straps for attaching bulky or long items and for compressing it round a small load. It’s also very light yet made from a very tough material. With 72 litres capacity it’s very roomy, which I like because it means I can carry many days food if necessary and I don’t have to pack it carefully if I’m tired or packing in a storm. I find it comfortable with loads up to 20kg and it will handle more if necessary.

Inov8 Terroc shoes

Drying sodden Inov8 Terrocs on the Pacific Northwest Trail

When I first tried Inov8 Terroc shoes five years ago I was astounded at the light weight. It felt almost as though I had nothing on my feet. I was even more impressed when I found the shoes excellent for hillwalking and backpacking. I’ve worn them frequently since and they are the most comfortable walking footwear I’ve used. The grip is excellent, they are very breathable, they dry fast and the toes and heel are quite tough. They’re obviously not as durable as a pair of leather boots but they’ve outlasted some other trail shoes and the same pair did three TGO Challenges plus other walks for a total of over 600 miles.

Grand Shelters Icebox

Building an igloo on the Moine Mhor, Cairngorms

Perhaps the most fun piece of gear I’ve used in recent years is the Icebox, a unique tool designed for building igloos. With this shaped plastic form you can make an igloo from any type of snow from powder to slush. Building your own snow shelter is exciting and satisfying. The Icebox is also practical. Igloos are strong, windproof, silent, very roomy and warmer than any tent. I’ve done three trips into the Rocky Mountains in winter without a tent but with an Icebox and have been warm and comfortable in an igloo every night, even when the temperature fell to -35ºC in Yellowstone. I’ve also built several igloos in the Scottish Highlands. The Icebox weighs 2.2kg and can be easily strapped to a pack or a sledge. I’ve also built several igloos in the Scottish Highlands.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

On July 16, 1992, I had a spectacular camp on my walk the length of the Scandinavian Mountains

Twenty-five years ago I was camped high on the side of Utladalen in the south-west corner of the Jotunheimen National Park looking across at the alpine peaks of the Hurrungane. It was the twenty-third day of my walk the length of the Norwegian and Swedish mountains and I had completed 555 kilometres. The final total would be 2200.

To reach this point I had traversed the Setesdaleheiane and Hardangervidda mountain plateaux in mixed weather and crossded many snowmelt-filled streams and remnant snowfields. I’d enjoyed much wild and beautiful scenery but nothing to compare to the grandeur of the Hurrungane. In my journal I wrote ‘Hurrangane spikes and towers by far the finest peaks I have seen’. The weather cleared as well for the first time in over a week and I also noted that I had ‘almost dry boots’! 

My camp site I described as ‘magnificent’ and for once I was able to sit outside to cook and eat and relish the view. This fine weather would hold for the next few days as I made my way through the Jotunheimen. 

Note: the pictures are scans from Fuji Velvia slides.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

July 15, 1982, I was in Northern California on the Pacific Crest Trail

Larry Lake crossing one of the last snow patches on the Pacific Crest Trail with Mount Shasta in the distance

In Northern California the snow that had made travel arduous and sometimes hazardous on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982 finally began to dwindle away. Suddenly it was summer.  Hot temperatures and too much dirt road walking had me changing back from boots to my now very worn running shoes. On the 15th July I walked 13 footsore miles from McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, where the impressive falls were duly admired, to Peavine Creek where I camped with Larry Lake on a 'well-used spot just off the road' and complained in my journal that there were too many logging trucks passing by.

Burney Falls

Against that I wrote that most of the walk was through pleasant woodland with Douglas firs and oaks and that there were many birds. I was still enjoying myself! It was my 104th day on the trail and when I made camp I'd walked 1267 miles - nearly half way. I knew though that to finish before the first winter snows I was going to have to speed up. Now that the snow had gone I hoped it would be easy to do so.

When the trail emerged from the trees the views were excellent too. I was now in the southern Cascade mountains, whose summits didn't rise above timberline except for the first of the great strato-volcanoes, Mount Shasta. These huge mountains would be dominant in views all the way to Canada.

Dusk in Northern California with Mount Shasta in the distance

The hot weather made staying cool difficult and I ended every day soaked in sweat. Washing this off made for a more comfortable night and I discovered I could use my water bag for a makeshift shower, though I couldn't always hang it in the most convenient spot.

The full story of my PCT hike is told in my book Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles.

Photographic note: all pictures are scans from Kodachrome 64 slides taken with a Pentax MX SLR camera and Pentax 50mm and 28mm lenses.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

And now in colour: on Ben Avon & Beinn a'Bhuird

Sunset in Glen Quoich

Following my last monochrome post here are some colour photographs from the walk over Ben Avon and Beinn a'Bhuird. Apart from brief touches of yellow, orange and pink on both evenings plus a patch of blue sky on the second one the dominant colour was green - green woods, green grasses, and green tent. Sometimes the green was tinged with the brown of heather, sometimes tinged with yellow on the tops, but the overall impression was always of a subdued green landscape under a grey sky and broken up by grey and brown rocks and grey and white water.

Camp in upper Glen Quoich
Stob an t-Sluichd, an outlying Top of Beinn a'Bhuird
Ben Avon
Coire nan Clach, Beinn a'Bhuird
A distant late shaft of sunlight, camp on Beinn a'Bhuird
The brightest colours of the trip well after sunset on the second night

The Linn of Quoich

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Under the Clouds: Camping & Walking in the Eastern Cairngorms

The green landscape says summer, the brooding, dark, clouded sky says November. July in the Highlands. And much of June this year too. Rise above the trees and the hills are almost colourless, the flat grey light subduing and overwhelming any brightness. Monochrome mountains.

With this in mind here’s an account of a trip from a few days ago with black and white pictures. I’ll do another post with colour ones – the two don’t mix well.

With the forecast for clear tops though the sky remaining overcast I went to the Eastern Cairngorms for the first time in half a dozen years to walk through the splendid pinewoods of Glen Quoich and then climb to the vast plateau-mountains of Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird.

The first night I camped in Glen Quoich, above the trees and in the wind to keep off the midges. Across the glen Coire na Ciche rose to pointed A’Chioch and the South Top of Beinn a’Bhuird. The only sound was the wind in the grasses and the soft trickling of the burn.

On the way up the glen to The Sneck, the narrow neck of land separating Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird, I passed a backpacker resting by a burn and then stood aside for two day walkers hurrying down. They were the only people I saw on the hills. Then it was up onto the vast and always slightly strange Ben Avon plateau with its many isolated rocky tors. There is no other hill like it.

At the summit the wind was strong and cold so after sheltering briefly for a snack behind the rough granite rocks – coarse enough to rub skin off your fingers – I was soon on my way back down to The Sneck and then warming up on the climb to Beinn a’Bhuird, staring out over the great eastern corries back to Ben Avon and across Deeside, where the clouds were thicker and swirling round the tops.

My second camp was high on the mountain near the headwaters of the Alltan na Beinne. Here there was just enough of a breeze to keep the midges away. To the west I could see the tangled mass of the central Cairngorms, the broad dome of Ben Macdui dominating the lower summits. Specks of snow dotted its flanks, very little for this time of year. Maybe this summer it will all go. As I watched the mountains a distant shaft of sunlight cut through the clouds and lingered for a few minutes, the only sign of the sun all day.

Sleep was disturbed by the popping of bits of my air bed, which sounded like an explosion when happening under my head, so I had a very early start the next day. The clouds were lower now, my camp only just below them.

Over Deeside strands of mist drifted across the land, white and ephemeral. Somehow during my descent I managed to stay out of the clouds though patches were often below me. Once back in the trees I admired the old pines and the new growth but kept moving after one brief stop brought the midges out.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Young wildlife in the garden

June and July are busy days in the garden for the local wildlife. First they're feeding their young in nests and dreys and burrows and need to eat plenty, then they're bringing their young to our feeders and trying to get them to feed themselves. The latter seems easy with the squirrels and rabbits - they don't appear until they can feed themselves - but not with some of the birds. Often fledglings will chase any adult of any species roughly the right size mouths wide open  - sometimes with success, we've seen coal tits feeding blue tits and greenfinches feeding siskins - or else sit and look at the food, peck at it tentatively and then stare again.

Young great spotted woodpecker wondering how to get at those peanuts

For the first time this year we've been delighted to have regular visits from young goldfinches and jays along with the usual siskins, chaffinches, greenfinches, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, robins and blackbirds. Missing this year are pheasants, which often nest in the garden. In fact there hasn't been an adult pheasant in the garden for many weeks and there are few in the fields and woods. There have been masses of rabbits but a few weeks ago there was a sudden bout of myxamatosis and after a few days of seeing ill ones there were none for a day or so before number started to build up again.

Young goldfinches
Young blue tits

Back in May several nursing squirrels were regular visitors so it wasn't a surprise when young squirrels started to appear. What is unusual is their choice of food and where they feed. We put out peanuts and mixed seed in different feeders and until this year the squirrels always went for the peanuts and generally fed hanging upside down. This years youngsters prefer the seeds and to either sit in the trays or feed on the ground - the birds scatter much seed. The older squirrels still choose the peanuts.