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, 30 July 2014

Protect Scottish Wild Land! Object to a windfarm above Loch Rannoch.

View over Loch Rannoch from the Glen Lyon hills. Ben Alder is on the skyline on the right of the photo. The wind farm site is the mid ground between Loch Rannoch and Ben Alder.

Last month, on the same day that Scottish Natural Heritage launched a new Wild Land Map, a developer put in an application for a wind farm in the heart of wild land between Loch Rannoch and Loch Ericht.  If it goes ahead this Talladh-a-Bheithe wind farm will in my opinion, and that of many others, be one of the most damaging yet, destroying the feeling of wildness and natural beauty for miles around.

Looking at the maps it’s clear that the 24 proposed 125 metre high turbines will be visible from many summits including Schiehallion, and also the  A82 road and the scenic West Highland Railway. To see just how disastrous this wind farm would be see Alan Sloman’s excellent and passionate blog post, which has maps showing just how visible the wind farm will be and its proposed location, as well as links to some heartfelt objections. 

The John Muir Trust says that if this wind farm goes ahead it would ‘fatally undermine’ the wild land map. I agree. If the wild land map and the protection for wild land in the new planning policy (which I wrote about here) are to have any meaning or credibility this wind farm must not go ahead.

Tourism is vital to the economy and many of those involved are campaigning against the wind farm as it stands to severely damage or even wipe out their businesses. Visitors come to experience nature and the beauty of the landscape, not huge industrial developments. Local businesses are being supported by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland.

The company proposing the wind farm are from the Netherlands, Eventus BV. The Talladh-a-Bheithe landowner is a major shareholder of Eventus BV. I guess he stands to make a fortune. The company is also challenging SNH on the validity of the wild land map. 

More information is available on the Keep Rannoch Wild website. This organisation is well worthy of support.

Object Now! Just One Week Left.

Now is the time to make objections to the application for this wind farm. Indeed, the opportunity closes on August 5th. I urge everyone who cares about wild land and the Scottish landscape to object. Objections can be as long or short as you like. It’s numbers that count. Objections can be sent to representations@scotland.gsi.gov.uk.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Summit Camps



View over the NW Highlands from Coinnich Mor after sunset

My recent camp on the summit of Creag Meagaidh (see last post) reminded me of other nights on mountain tops. I wrote a piece about this for The Great Outdoors a few years ago. Here it is:

Wild camping is one of the great joys of backpacking. Indeed for me it’s a main reason for backpacking. Every wild camp has its positive aspects, even if it is merely the relief of being inside a tent whilst a storm rages outside. Ideally though a wild camp should be in a spectacular location and the weather should be fine so you don’t have to be cooped up inside. The most dramatic and stunning locations for wild camps are mountain tops and it is on these that I have had some of my most memorable nights.

Of course mountain tops also have the wildest weather and are usually not places it’s easy to escape from in a storm in the dark. That in itself makes summit camps special and gives them an edge and sense of uncertainty that is rarely felt in low level camps. Mountain top camps are often unwise or impossible due to the conditions too and lower sites have to be sought. On many occasions I’ve turned away from planned summit camps to look for somewhere sheltered. At other times though I’ve not intended camping on summits but fortuitous circumstances have led me to do so. Such was the case on the TGO Challenge in 2008 when I camped on the summit of Ben Nevis. This had not been in my route plan (and might have attracted comments from vetters if it had been!) and only grew as an idea as I approached the snow-capped mountain from the west. The summit of the Ben is a vast rock field with nowhere for a comfortable camp and no water. Snow however can make a comfortable bed and can be melted. Leaving Fort William on a sunny evening I climbed to the summit, passing many people descending, most of whom looked puzzled at seeing someone heading up that late in the day. Many warned me of the time and the snow on the summit. (Heading up late for a high camp does disturb some people – many years ago I was stopped by a walker in the Lake District who was furious that I was going up in the evening despite my big pack, informing me that I was both inexperienced and irresponsible). On Ben Nevis I think the fact that I was wearing sandals shocked some people too. As it was, by the time I reached the summit plateau and the snow I was alone. Unusually the weather was calm and I was able to sit outside the tent for supper and then wander along the summit edge as the sun set. The cliffs turned a rich shining russet colour and far below Loch Eil glowed gold below the pink of thin clouds in the west. A half moon rose in the sky and the first stars appeared. All was silent. I felt both excited and peaceful at being there in perfect conditions. Dawn came with wet mist and a gusty wind but the sun soon burned the dampness away and I was looking down on cloud-filled glens. After 14 hours alone on the summit I departed along the Carn Mor Dearg arĂȘte, still marvelling at my wondrous night.

Ben Nevis after sunset

Spending a night on a mountain can mean waking to a storm, perhaps in the middle of the night.  On Coinnich Mhor, one of the subsidiary summits of Beinn Eighe in Torridon (and whose name means “big moss”, a hint that it might make a good camp site) I was woken at 4.30 pm by heavy rain lashing the tent. Everything was damp with condensation running down the walls (a situation made worse by the fact that I was testing a not very good single skin tent – gear testing isn’t always fun!). I unzipped the door and looked out only for my head lamp beam to bounce back at me from the thick clouds surrounding the tent. I felt disappointed. I’d climbed Coinnich Mhor on a fine evening with a forecast for a clear night and sunny weather. There’s been a red sky at dusk too, with lovely colours over the hills of Fisherfield and pointed Ruadh-stac Mor, the highest peak on Beinn Eighe, which lay not far away. The rain didn’t ease despite the forecast and the next day was one of low cloud and downpours. The evening light had made the high camp worthwhile though (and I now knew a great deal about that tent!).

Corpach, Fort William and the Mamores from Druim Fada
 
There’s no need to climb the highest peaks for wonderful summit camps though. Lower peaks can offer just as splendid views and just as remote and wild a feel. North-west of Ben Nevis across the Great Glen lies a long flat-topped hill called Druim Fada (which means long ridge). The high point of only 744 metres is at the east end of the hill and is called Stob a’Grianain where I camped, a few yards from the summit, one early autumn evening after a long day. The weather was sunny but there was a cold west wind that kept the air sharp and clear. Below I could see Corpach and Fort William with Ben Nevis and the Mamores rising above them. In daylight the towns looked rather mundane. Looking away from them to the west all I could see was hills and glens. The feeling was one of being on the edge of the wild, between the worlds of civilisation and nature. As the sun set and the light dimmed the landscape became more mysterious and atmospheric. Ben Nevis glowed in the low late rays of the sun. Then a full moon, huge and orange, rose over the misty pale landscape of the Great Glen. The towns became daubs of bright lights, decorations rather than real places even though I could hear traffic whenever the wind paused. At dawn the towns were in grey shadow and Ben Nevis was cloud-capped but out west the sky was red and golden and pale mist filled the glens below the purple shaded hills. The day was hazy and dull but again it was the night that had worked magic.

Moonrise over the Great Glen from Druim Fada
 
Winter is a more serious time for high camps as nights are long and cold and storms severe. Snow can transform undistinguished hills though and make camping on them an exciting adventure. One February, when deep snow lay from glens to the summits, I went from my front door up little Carn na Loine, a heathery bump just 549 metres high in the far north-east corner of Cairngorm National Park. Snow free, this is a rolling moorland hill managed for grouse-shooting. Under snow it was more like an arctic wilderness. The sky was overcast as I pitched camp but at dusk the sun sank below the cloud, turning the snow pink and the western sky red and orange. Night brought a clearing sky, a full moon, stars and a temperature of -8ÂșC. I was glad of my down jacket as I stood outside watching the wildness and listening to the silence. Home was just a few miles away but it could have been on another planet. Indeed, it seemed as though it was. The world of the summits is different. Camping there takes you into a special place where the flatlands can be forgotten and wildness embraced.


Camp on Carn na Loine


.


Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Night On Creag Meagaidh




Hot weather in the Highlands might seem the ideal time for wild camping. And it is, as long as you can find somewhere breezy to keep off the midges. That means a high camp and a windy forecast. These two came together a few nights ago on Creag Meagaidh, that massive plateau mountain in the Central Highlands. I’d been thinking of camping on the summit for many years. This seemed the perfect time to actually do so. Up high I hoped the temperatures wouldn’t be too high for comfortable sleep while the predicted wind should keep off the midges.
 
View back to Coire Ardair

Wanting to avoid the steep climb to the plateau in the heat of the day I didn’t set off until the late afternoon. The initial walk through the lovely regenerating birch woods of lower Coire Ardair was energy sapping due to the high humidity and high temperature. However by the time I reached the lochan at the head of the corrie I was in shadow. The cliffs making up the back wall of the corrie still held a surprising amount of snow. I hope there would be more higher up.

After sunset on Creag Meagaidh

The steepest section of the climb over I returned to sunlight and a view of big snowfields strung out along the steep north side of the mountain. One of these would be my water source. As I crossed the plateau the sun subsided into distant clouds and the far hills turned hazy and grey. The promised breeze was sweeping the slopes, leading me to don long trousers and a windproof jacket as soon as I stopped. I made camp just 50 metres below the summit cairn.

Camp with Snowfield

Late in the evening as the sky grew dark and the first stars appeared I left the tent and climbed to the summit. All around hills faded into blackness. The breeze felt chilly now. Briefly as I set the camera on the tripod and began to take photographs the wind dropped. I felt the first bites seconds later and dived for the insect repellent. Thankfully the wind soon returned. It was after midnight before I slid into my sleeping bag and went to sleep. 

Still breezy in the morning

Dawn came softly with a hazy sun struggling through low clouds far to the east. The glens were filled with mist. Above camp the sky was clear. The night had been humid and the tent was soaked with dew and condensation. I was happy to wait for the sun to strengthen and dry it. This was not a place to leave quickly.
The early morning light became hard and harsh, losing its subtlety. The sun was high and hot and hammering down. I wandered back across the plateau and then walked the long fine ridge stretching out over Stob Poite Coire Ardair to Carn Liath. The wind kept me cool but every time I dipped into shelter I could feel the power of the sun. From Carn Liath I dropped down into the mouth of Coire Ardair. In the glen the air was sultry and heavy, the heat overpowering. Even descending felt arduous and I was soon dripping with sweat. My mind though was full of the high camp, of the glorious night on Creag Meagaidh. It had been a good trip.

A vast expanse

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Paps of Jura


Beinn a'Chaolais from Beinn an Oir

Searching through my images recently looking for ones of horseshoe walks for the current issue of The Great Outdoors I came across some I'd taken on a round of the Paps of Jura several years ago. This reminded me that I'd written about the walk for TGO at the time. Here's that short piece.
 
The three distinctive steep rocky peaks known as the Paps of Jura dominate the rugged landscape of the Isle of Jura and stand out from afar. I set out to climb them on a day of rapidly moving clouds, gusting winds and bursts of sunshine, a suitably wild day for wild hills on a wild island. The summits were hidden in the clouds as I followed the muddy path, marked by a signpost, that led from the old arched bridge over the Corran River to Loch an t-Siob. 

Beinn Shiantaidh and the Corran River
 
The forbidding slopes of the most easterly Pap, Beinn Shiantaidh, towered above the loch, now free of cloud. A rough path led up steep grass to the scree and boulder cone of the summit and a scrabble up loose ground to the cold windswept top. The mist had rolled in again and there was no view. I scrawled my name on a bit of the decaying visitor’s book contained in a plastic bottle inside a wooden box. Then I dropped down steep scree slopes towards the col with the next and highest Pap, Beinn an Oir, a Corbett. Not far above the col I reached a long unbroken crag blocking my descent and was glad to find a rough path down a gully at its north end. The gully provided some respite from the cold wind, which was welcome too. From the col I climbed the steep stony east face of Beinn an Oir on a meandering path. A distinctive feature on this face is a brown basalt dyke, which stands out against the pale quartzite scree. The path reaches the summit ridge north of the top close to two walled enclosures then follows an unusual cleared path between rough quartzite walls, apparently built by OS surveyors. On the little summit I munched on a few snacks, hoping for the mist to clear, but was soon driven on by the cold wind. The descent to the next col began on open scree slopes but lower down became a tortuous route on narrow ledges through small crags. 

Beinn an Oir and Beinn Shiantaidh
 
As I picked a way down the mist finally rose above the summits and I could see just how grand and mountainous these hills are, something I knew from the terrain under my feet but which had not been clearly visible before. Out over the Sound of Islay rose the Rhuvaal lighthouse on the NW tip of Islay, distant and white. More scree led to the third and final Pap, Beinn a’Chaolais, from where I could see the peaks of Arran rising beyond the Mull of Kintyre. To the north though all was still in cloud. Scree and grass led down to the last col from where it was a boggy walk down into Gleann an t-Siob and the path from Lochan an t-Sion back to the start.