Monday, 16 October 2017

OWPG Award for Technical Feature


I've just returned from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild AGM weekend in a wet and windy Lake District where I was very pleased to receive the Award for Excellence for a Technical Feature 2017 for my piece A Lightweight Approach to Big Hills in The Great Outdoors.

Over the weekend a group of us made an intrepid ascent of Causey Pike (at least that's what it felt like given the conditions) and the next day retreated east to Hadrian's Wall and more views and less cloud and wind. I'll post more about those trips tomorrow. In the meantime here's a couple of pictures.

One of the few views on the ascent of Causey Pike

Hadrian's Wall

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Great Outdoors November Issue: headlamps, Hilleberg Niak & M.A.Harper book review


In the latest issue of The Great Outdoors, just published, I've tested ten headlamps and the Hilleberg Niak tent and also reviewed M.A. Harper's Lured By Mountains.

The theme of this issue is autumn walks and Jim Perrin recalls a glorious October day on Brandon Mountain in Ireland's County Kerry; Ronald Turnbull says Dalmally to Ben Nevis is a perfect autumn backpacking route; Vivienne Crow takes a colourful low level autumn walk through the Lake District; Ed Byrne goes on a hunt for the last of the snow on Braeriach just before it melts; and Mark Waring explores the autumnal forests and lakes along the border of Norway and Sweden.

Also in this issue there's a superb photo essay on cloud inversions by Andrew Terrill - some mouth-watering pictures here; Hannah Lindon interviews James Forrest about his round of the Nuttalls - 446 peaks in England and Wales; David Lintern reviews Art of Freedom:the life and climbs of Voytek Kurtyka by Bernadette McDonald, which sounds well worth reading; Roger Smith looks at the problems facing farmers; Hannah Lindon tackles the Bochlwyd Horseshoe in Snowdonia; outdoor instructor Myles Farnbank looks at leaving no trace in the hills; and Judy Armstrong reviews three windshirts at different price points.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Nan Shepherd Biography Launch In Grantown-On-Spey


The first biography of Nan Shepherd, author of the classic book on the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, will be launched in the Cairngorms National Park at Grantown Museum on November 7th.

Into the Mountain by Charlotte Peacock is a detailed look at an intensely private woman about whom little was previously known. I have an advance copy and will be reviewing it in The Great Outdoors. Looking through the book and having read the first chapter I think I'm going to really enjoy it. The Living Mountain is one of my favourite outdoor books and I'm looking forward to learning about its author

Tickets for the launch are £5 and are available from The Bookmark in Grantown-on-Spey. I'll be there.

A Quiet Corner Of The Cairngorms


Camp near the head of An Garbh-choire

My plan had been to climb Bynack More and camp somewhere on its slopes. Low cloud shrouding the summit and a stronger wind than forecast changed my mind soon after I set off from Glenmore. Winding my way through the autumn colours of the forest I decided to visit a little-known corner of the Cairngorms and make my way up a narrow corrie with a little ravine at the top that I remembered descending many years ago. This isn’t named on most maps or mentioned in most books on the Cairngorms. It does have a name though – An Garbh-choire, the Rough Corrie – shared with the much, much bigger and better known one on Braeriach. The ravine at the top has a name too – Eag a’ Garbh-choire, the Notch of the Rough Corrie. The only map on which I can find these names is the Ordnance Survey Explorer 1:25.000 Cairngorms & Aviemore. The only mention in a book is in Adam Watson’s SMC District Guide to The Cairngorms in which he writes that the on the descent of the long north ridge of Cairn Gorm to Ryvoan you will see “several crags and valleys, now almost dry, which were cut by great rivers flowing out from when the huge Glen More glacier was hemmed in here by Cairn Gorm and Meall a’Bhuachaille. Particularly striking among these are Stac na h-Iolaire and Eag a’Gharbh Choire”.

An Garbh-choire
 
Whilst little-visited An Garbh-choire is regularly passed by walkers heading for Bynack More or the Lairig an Laoigh. The wide track to these crosses the burn running out of the corrie but all that can be seen is a little glen with a few trees that doesn’t look like it goes far at all. That’s because it twists and turns and most of it is hidden. Even so, from the track to the moorland above the corrie is only a little over a kilometre. It’s a rough, exciting kilometre though. There’s no path and as the name suggests the terrain is rugged, all tussocks of grass and heather lower down, and gradually becoming rocky as the slopes rise. There are trees and crags and a little lochan in the lower corrie, making for a lovely secret world that feels cut-off and remote even though a popular path isn’t far away. 

Eag a'Gharbh-choire

After a steep grassy climb I arrived at the Eag a’Gharbh-choire, a narrow boulder-filled ravine that echoes the much bigger and well-known Chalamain Gap away to the west. Here I had a surprise. Old stone walls blocked the ravine to form an enclosure, with a small gap at one end. More stone walls marked the remnants of a building. A summer shieling. I could see that animals could easily be driven into the enclosure and held there. Today the bright yellow flowers of ragwort were all it contained.

Shieling walls in Eag a'Gharbh-choire

Above the ravine boggy heather covered the broad flat col between Mam Suim, the northern terminus of Cairn Gorm, and the spur of Creag nan Gall that rises above An Lochain Uaine in Ryvoan Pass. After all the recent rain the ground was waterlogged and it took me a while to find a dryish area for my camp. The wind died down as I pitched the tent and a light drizzle fell. I thought how hellish this place would have been just a month before when the midges would have been swarming.

Almost in the mist

During the night heavy rain woke me several times and once I looked out to find myself camped in a wet mist. By dawn the rain had ceased and the clouds had risen a little. I watched them streaming fast across the sky and wondered why there was barely more than a breeze here. Setting off I found that by chance I’d had a sheltered camp. Within five minutes I was walking in a gusty wind that soon quelled any idea of going up Cairn Gorm. Instead I headed for Creag nan Gall, just 50 metres higher than my camp and at 622 metres only half the height of Cairn Gorm. It’s a fine little top though with excellent views down to Ryvoan Pass, west over Glenmore and Rothiemurchus Forests and north to Abernethy Forest. All those trees! Just wonderful. Also wonderful were all the young trees scattered over Creag nan Gall’s slopes, the forest advancing again. 

Ryvoan Pass
 
I descended the steep southern slopes of the hill over rocks and tussocks and then plunged into the forest and down even steeper slopes. I picked up a narrow path here, one I remembered coming down before. Wet and slippery, in places a mudslide, I thrashed down it clinging onto branches, heather roots, and rocks and occasionally sliding on my backside. The forest was a dense tangle of branches and roots, dark and colourful at the same time. 

An Lochain Uaine

Emerging on the broad Ryvoan Pass track was a surprise. Suddenly the going was easy. People appeared – neat, clean-smelling people with shiny boots and smart clothing. I was sweat-soaked, muddy from the knees down, and dishevelled. I’d been out one night and had only walked around ten miles but the rugged terrain had taken me far from paths and easy walking both physically and mentally. I felt as I did when encountering day or weekend walkers for the first time after weeks on a long-distance trail. I didn’t know I could do that on a 24-hour trip. It was quite a nice thought.

View down An Garbh-choire

Monday, 9 October 2017

Hill Tracks & How To Stop Them: Parkswatch


The proliferation of new and enlarged hill tracks in recent years is a real threat to the wildness and beauty of our hills. I've written about these tracks over the years, as in this piece from 2013 and this one from 2014. The situation is getting worse.

Now Nick Kempe of Parkswatch Scotland - an excellent site always worth reading - has written an important piece on the subject with detailed advice on the steps walkers can take to report new hill tracks, many of which are built without planning permission. The Proliferation Of Hill Tracks And How To Stop It is an essential reference tool that applies to all wild places in Scotland not just our national parks. The place to report tracks is via the Scottish Environment LINK Hill Tracks campaign. Unfortunately this link is broken in the Parkswatch piece (hopefully it will be restored, I have reported it - update 10th October, it's fixed).

Ideally take photos, especially of diggers as these show the track is new or being enlarged. And don't assume a track has planning permission. As Nick Kempe says "how many hillwalkers must pass track construction works on the hill  and assume that all is legitimate. If you care about the landscape, report it!."

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Joys of Autumn Camping

October on the Cairngorm Plateau

In a few days I hope to be camped in the hills for the first time this autumn. Thinking of this here's a piece I wrote for The Great Outdoors a few years ago.

Sitting outside the tent one evening gazing at the brilliant night sky I realised just how much I relish the coming of autumn and winter, especially for the camping side of backpacking. Summer camps are not often ones for enjoying the view. If it’s calm the midges are likely to be biting. If it’s stormy you want to be under cover. Sunset and sunrise are so close that to see both means only a few hours sleep. And those are times when the midges are often at their worst too. Unless it’s raining and the sun is hidden. Watching the stars doesn’t feature in summer backpacking either. To see them you have to stay up late – and, yet again, cope with the midges – and even then the sky never seems fully dark. Generally in summer it’s light when I fall asleep and light when I wake.
 
A November night in Glen Feshie

Come the first frosts and all this changes. The nights are lengthening, the midges are disappearing. Soon no sleep need be lost to see the sun set and the sun rise. Night skies are truly dark too so the stars are bright when it’s clear. Once past the equinox there’s no need to be asleep in daylight. Indeed, it’s best not to be as there’s no longer seemingly endless time for walking, the one boon of summer. At this time of year I’m often up before dawn and not making camp until dusk. 

Dusk at a November camp on the Rannoch hills

Camping is a different experience without the midges too. No need to cook in a steamy porch with a mosquito coil filling it with fumes and condensation running down the walls because outside the midges are battering themselves against the flysheet. No need to lie sweating in a zipped up double-skin tent on warm humid nights. In autumn and winter I only close the outer door when the weather is stormy. The inner tent door stays open unless spindrift is blowing in. In fact I often don’t have an inner door as I use just a flysheet or tarp and a groundsheet, enjoying the freedom this brings. I feel more in touch with the world than in summer through not having to seal myself inside.

October in Glen Affric

The choice of campsites expands too. In summer I avoid camping in forests or sheltered spots and seek out places that are breezy in order to try and avoid the midges (but always aware that if the wind drops they will appear instantly). Now I can venture deep into the trees and know I can sit outside the tent watching them as they become silhouettes as night falls.

A frosty October morning on the slopes of Sgor Gaoith
 
Summer is usually seen as the season for camping because it’s the warmest time of year. I prefer autumn to spring though and not just because of the lack of midges. Yes, it is colder, sometimes much colder and with snow, but the right clothing and sleeping equipment deals with this. I prefer anyway to feel slightly chilly than too hot. The crisp touch of frosty air on the face is enlivening. Waking to see a frosty world is stimulating and exciting too. I love watching the first rays of the sun touch the summits and then slowly move down towards my camp. The landscape glows and warms as the sun sweeps over it, coming to life and sparkling in the brightness.
 
A snowy November camp in the Cairngorms

The colours of nature become more varied and interesting in autumn too. Late summer they are uniform, a mass of green and brown. Once the leaves and grasses start to turn yellow and orange the woods and hills are brighter and more distinctive. On frosty days the sky is a deeper blue, without the haze often found in summer. Then as autumn turns to winter and the colours fade as the snow falls, changing the landscape again and creating a monochrome world that is just as beautiful.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

My Camera Set-Up

Sony a6000 & Sony E 16-50 f3.5-5.6 zoom lens

Back in August I collected together the various pieces on backpacking and photography that I've posted over the years and said that I'd add a post on my current set-up. Here it is.

Firstly I'd like to point out that I'm not suggesting that this is an ideal or best set-up, just that it's one that works for me. I use mirrorless cameras with APS-C sensors because they are small and light, not because I think they produce better pictures than DSLRs with the same size sensors. I use Sony mirrorless cameras because of the only four makes available when I changed from DSLRs I liked the rangefinder style Sony NEX 5 best as I explained in detail here. Back then in 2010 Fujifilm hadn't launched their mirrorless X series, which I would certainly consider if making the change now. As it is I'm happy with my Sony cameras and don't see myself changing systems anytime soon.

Of course whether your photographs are ones you're happy with depends on many factors. A good quality camera and lens should mean your pictures are technically okay once you know how to get the best out of them but that's all. Composition and light are key to a good photo. 

CAMERAS

Sony a6000 & Sony NEX 7   384 & 374 grams (with battery, memory card & strap)

These two cameras go on almost every trip. Both have 24 mp sensors. In theory the a6000 produces slightly better images than the NEX 7. In practice I can't see any significant difference when used with the same lens. I normally use manual exposure settings - guided by the histogram rather than the light meter - and can change aperture, speed and ISO without having to delve into menus.

Sony NEX 7 & Sony E 10-18mm f4 zoom lens



LENSES 

Over the years I've acquired seven lenses and a tele conversion lens. I haven't ever carried all these lenses, even on a day hike. Indeed, mostly I carry just the first two, sometimes the third as well, and less often again, the fourth.


Sony E 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 zoom       117 grams

Sony E 10-18mm f4 zoom                 266 grams

These are the two lenses I almost always carry. On long trips like the one from Yosemite Valley to Death Valley that I undertook this time last year they are the only lenses I carry. Two bodies and two lenses means I never have to change lenses and risk getting dust on the sensors. The 16-50 is tiny and I can carry it on the a6000 in a pocket. If I only take one camera and lens - which is rare - it's that combination. The 10-18 is a fair bit bigger but I love the wide angle picture opportunities it gives.

Both are zoom lenses, which I prefer for fine-tuning composition. When I did an analysis earlier in the year I found that I did use the zooms to the full. And when I've been out with just a fixed focal length prime lens I've found it frustrating as there are always pictures I can't take.

Sony E 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 zoom     390 grams

My third zoom lens comes along when weight isn't too important - day walks and one or two night backpacking trips when I'm not planning on high mileage. This is always the lens whose usefulness I weigh up before a trip, often feeling reluctant to leave it behind. For a telephoto zoom it's very light but even so it's more to carry. Sometimes photography wins and I take it, sometimes the weight of my load is uppermost in my mind and I leave it behind. Recently I bought a Sony 1.7X Tele Conversion lens (254 grams) to extend the reach of the 55-210. It works well but won't be coming on any backpacking trips.

Sony NEX 7 & Samyang 12mm f2 NCS CS E

Samyang 12mm f2 NCS CS E        291 grams

This is the most-used of the four prime lenses I've managed to acquire. I bought it for its reputation for night photography and I haven't been disappointed. It's sharp and has a fast aperture. It's fully manual with no autofocus and I use it with focus peaking on the a6000, which makes focusing easy. It's a lens I always think I should use more. It usually comes on overnight trips if  starry skies are likely but rarely on day trips.

Sigma 30mm f2.8 EX DN E            162 grams

This lovely little lens hardly ever gets used. If there's one lens I should dispense with it's this. The 16-50mm zoom covers the same focal length and is far more versatile. As it was inexpensive I'll probably keep it though.

Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN E                  236 grams

Regularly praised for its performance I bought this inexpensive prime lens on the basis of reviews. And it really does produce superb results, especially portraits. Even so, as with the 30mm, I haven't used it much.

Sony E 30mm f3.5 Macro              162 grams

The only lens not intended for outdoor use I bought this for photographing my old transparencies on a lightbox. It does this pretty well though a longer focal length would make it easier. I have taken it on walks occasionally for photographing details of trees and flowers and more but generally it stays indoors.

From left: Sony 1.7x Tele Conversion lens, Sony E 55-210mm zoom, Sony 30mm Macro, Sigma 60mm, Sigma 30mm

CASES

For the last few years I've carried the a6000 & 16-50mm lens and the NEX 7 & 10-18mm lens in ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover 5 and 10 padded bags (192 and 302 grams).  These little bags have rain covers and pockets for memory cards and batteries. What I find most useful though are the magnetic flap closures, which make accessing the cameras quick and easy, and mean the zips under the flap only need to be used when it's rainy or dusty. So far the cases have proved tough.

ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover bags


Spare lenses are carried in Zing! neoprene bags that weigh 80 grams each.

TRIPODS

I always carry a very light tripod for low light, night, camping shots and self-portraits. As I'm usually alone in the hills taking pictures of camp activities means a tripod is essential. Currently this is a now rather battered Velbon V-Pod (281 grams). I wrote about tripods earlier in the year.

FINALLY ... SAMSUNG S7 SMARTPHONE     155 grams

I do always have a third camera with me, my smartphone. I use it often too, for the photos that I post on Instagram and occasionally elsewhere. In good light it takes pretty good pictures. I've never explored its potential fully but overall I'm pleased with it for snapshots and selfies.

AND NEXT .....

I'm happy with this set-up and feel I should try and get more out of the lenses I have before considering any others. However I am thinking about another body, a Sony a6500, for two reasons. Firstly the NEX 7 is quite battered now and may not last too much longer. Secondly the Samyang and Sigma lenses aren't stabilised, something I have to remember when using them as my other lenses have this very useful feature. The a6000 and NEX 7 aren't stabilised either but the a6500 is and so would extend the usefulness of those three lenses. I'm in no hurry though.