Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Quiet Camp, Quiet Hills

A few days ago I walked up a long curving corrie and pitched my tent below long curving ridges. A burn rattled past over water-smoothed stones. Otherwise all was quiet and still. It was my second camp of the year and the first since the beginning of January, the day before the latest pandemic lockdown began. Oh, how I've missed the simple pleasures of camping in a wild place, cooking over a little stove, sleeping in a tent, waking to look out at stars, sitting watching the dawn bring the world back to the light. 

 
For this first backpacking trip in over three months I decided it was wise not to be too ambitious. I knew I'd lost some fitness and wasn't sure how my body would react to carrying a big pack. There was snow on the hills too, soft deep snow. I wanted to break myself back in with an easy trip. A short walk, a pleasant camp, a walk up some lower hills. I picked two Grahams - hills between 2000 and 2500 feet (610 and 762 metres) - that I hadn't been up before. Carn |Breac and Beinn na Feusaige lie on the edge of the Torridon hills and reputedly had great views whilst not themselves being at all distinctive. On the map the walking looked easy on wide slopes with no obstacles. On the map ......
 

The first morning came with a hard frost and clouds quickly obscuring the sun. The terrain was boggy and tussocky, making climbing up to the broad ridge above camp quite hard work. As I gained height more and more snow patches appeared, far more than I'd expected at this elevation. Similar hills back home in the Cairngorms were mostly snow free. High up the snow patches were soft and deep and often unavoidable. Not that the bogs between them made for much easier walking. On these little-frequented hills - unsurprisingly I saw no-one all trip - there were no paths and I weaved about trying to find the easiest line between soft snow and squelchy ground. The views however were, as promised, superb, especially those of Liathach and Beinn Eighe, white and alpine.

Peat hags made the going even worse as I approached the second summit. A herd of deer watched me and then wandered off, probably thinking that such a clumsy, lumbering thing couldn't be a threat. I love seeing deer but I was well aware that these hills shouldn't be as bare as they are and that over-grazing was the reason for that. The slopes below would be wooded with fewer deer.

A very steep descent down heather thick slopes brought me back to the corrie floor. At the tent I slumped with relief and revived myself with hot chocolate and then minestrone soup. I was asleep early. Another frosty starry night ensued but the next morning I was woken by the sun shining on my face from a cloudless sky. I lingered over a breakfast of muesli and coffee, just listening to the stream rippling and watching the hills glowing, before packing up and heading back down to the car. A tougher trip than expected but a good one. They all are.

There will be a full report on this trip including a look at the gear I used in the May issue of The Great Outdoors magazine.



Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Dealing With The Challenges Of Long-Distance Walking

 

With lockdown ending and warmer weather and longer days arriving many people are thinking about long-distance walks – I certainly am. I’ve had a few queries about this recently so I thought I’d post an expanded version of this piece I wrote for the BMC several years ago.

Good luck to everyone setting off on a long walk this year.

The whole point of long-distance walking is enjoyment. Overcoming the challenges involved is part of that enjoyment, or at least it should be. This said, during a walk of many weeks or months there will be times when the mental or physical challenge can seem overwhelming and you feel like giving up. For newcomers to long-distance walking here are some suggestions for dealing with this and its various causes.  

  • Don’t let feeling tired the first few days get you down. You will get fitter as the walk progresses. It’s best to plan for a lower daily distance at the start than you hope to average throughout. By the end of the walk you’ll be doing more than that average without any appreciable extra effort. I reckon on a week to ten days to really get going so I plan a lower mileage for that time.
  •  Familiarise yourself with your gear before the walk. After you’ve set out is not the time to discover your tent is awkward to pitch or your pack uncomfortable. A shakedown trip or two is a good way to check this and to see what daily mileage feels comfortable.
  • When selecting gear think of the weight. Extra bells and whistles may seem attractive but are they worth extra weight? 

On a 500 mile walk in the Colorado Rockies          

  • Sleeping well is very important for morale and your physical condition. If you’re not sleeping well because your mat is too hard or your sleeping bag too cold or too hot make changes when you can, even if it means buying new gear. Don’t suffer unnecessarily.
  • Take care of your feet. Blisters and sore feet are probably the main cause of unhappiness and distress for long-distance walkers and the main reason people give up. Having good, properly fitting footwear at the start is of course important. However, days and weeks of constant use can change footwear internally. If you start getting blisters or your feet start to ache badly think of changing your footwear. I like to have two pairs – trail shoes and sandals – with me and sometimes swap them over during the day. If you don’t want to carry a second pair you can have one sent ahead in supply boxes. If blisters and hot spots do occur treat them straight away. Ignoring them only makes them worse and longer lasting.

  • The length of a walk can seem daunting if you view it as a whole. A finish that is hundreds or thousands of miles away can seem an impossible goal, especially when just reaching the next camp site feels like a challenge. To overcome this feeling break the walk into sections and just think about the next stage. All long walks have resupply points. These can be used as the start and end points so that the walk becomes a series of shorter walks.

Wet misty weather at the start of the Scottish Watershed

  • At times during any long walk various factors – the weather (there’s nothing like day after day of stormy weather to discourage you), sore feet, a headache, tedious terrain, a stretch of road walking – can make you feel like giving up. This is when you need to be psychologically strong and tell yourself that this will pass and the best way to get through it is to keep walking.
  •  Physical exhaustion can be a problem if you insist on doing high mileages every day. Unless you’re out to break a record, in which case you need superb mental strength, plan to have some easier days and some rest days when you don’t walk at all. At times you may feel as though you’re running down, with less energy each day. This usually happens to me after 10-14 days. Then it’s definitely time to take a break.

  • Listen to your body and your mind. If you feel lazy in the morning (my usual state!) don’t feel you have to rush breakfast and dash off down the trail. Have another brew, relax and set off when you feel like it. Similarly, if you feel like stopping early do so. There’ll be other days when you’ll feel like walking into the night. If your legs ache have an easy day.

On a 500-mile walk in the High Sierra, California

  • Develop a schedule that suits you. Some people like to walk the same miles each day, some like to have a short break every hour, some like to walk a few hours before breakfast, some to have dinner on the trail and then walk on for a few hours before camping. I do none of these. My daily mileage varies depending on my mood, the terrain, the weather (and good weather doesn’t mean I go further – it can mean I stop to enjoy the view more often) and the landscape. If I have, say, 100 miles between supply points and I allow six days for this I may walk 10 miles one day, 25 another. As long as I complete the section before I run out of food the daily mileage doesn’t matter. As for breaks, I take them when I feel like it, sometimes walking for hours without a break, sometimes stopping frequently. And meals are almost always eaten in camp. This works for me. To get the most from a long walk you need to find what works for you.
 
  • Treat yourself at resupply points, especially with food. Chances are you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in. Eating plenty in restaurants helps restore your body for the next stage. And remember the long-distance hiker’s rule – never pass by a café or restaurant! 
At the finish of the Pacific Northwest Trail
 
  •   Finally, remember, you’re doing this to enjoy yourself!

Friday, 2 April 2021

Return to the Hills Again: Meall a'Bhuachaille Again

 

Today the second pandemic lockdown was eased, the 'stay at home' message changed to 'stay local', which means in your local authority region. As mine is Highland masses of hills are now within reach. As I said in my Lockdown In The Snow post in January I decided that as I could walk from home in woods and fields and on lower hills I couldn't justify going afield. In the last three months only twice have I walked from the car, once beside the River Spey on a shopping trip to Grantown-on-Spey and on the hills above Aviemore on a similar trip.


With the change in the regulations I decided to end my absence from bigger hills on Meall a'Bhuachaille, just as I had when the first lockdown ended last July. I celebrated this in a post called A Glorious Return To The Hills On Meall a'Bhuachaille, as the weather was superb. The forecast was for clear and sunny skies this time as well. It wasn't to be. The sky stayed resolutely cloudy. Above the trees the east wind was cold. The high Cairngorms came and went in the cloud. My stay on the summit was brief - a quick snack, some hot ginger cordial, and it was time to descend back into the forest. 


Rather than take the usual path I descended directly down towards Glenmore. Soon the first little pines appeared, the regenerating forest climbing back up the hills, then I was amongst the bigger trees, ancient sentinels standing guard over their your offspring. Seeing this is always invigorating and inspiring, whatever the weather. New trees, new life. A whirring of wings and a capercaillie sailed low through the trees, big and bulbous. This world was still glorious, sun or no sun.

Photographic note: the light being flat and the weather dull I never got out my camera. The images here were all taken with my phone.


Tuesday, 30 March 2021

A look at the Spring Issue of The Great Outdoors

 
The  latest issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. In it I review three tarps from Kelty, Hilleberg and Alpkit, plus the Osprey Talon Pro pack and The North Face L3 50/50 down jacket. I also have a look at what's happening to ViewRanger and consider how to pitch a tent in cold and hostile weather.

Elsewhere in the gear pages Judy Armstrong and David Lintern each review five pairs of three-season boots.

In the main features Nicola Hardy walks 325 kilometres from her Sheffield birthplace to her new home in Cumbria, Craig Weldon argues for taking the 'wrong' way up hills, Alex Roddie finds solitude on a December backpack through Knoydart, and Faraz Shibli undertakes a 1000-mile camel assisted trek across the Gobi Desert.

Also in this issue James Forrest gives some good tips for avoiding crowds in the hills, Hanna Lindon looks at the exciting possibility of lynx being reintroduced to Scotland and talks to Boardman-Tasker winner Jessica Lee about nature writing, Alex Roddie asks if outdoor culture has become too detached from nature, Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden start planning a backpacking trip, Jim Perrin praises the magnificent Buachaille Etive Mor, and Plas y Brenin instructor Brad Reed gives his tips for beginner hillwalkers. 

As well as excellent reading the magazine is full of mouth-watering photographs. I especially like the one of Alex Roddie in his brightly lit tent on a dark Knoydart night - it really captures the peace of a night out in the wilds and makes me look forward to being able to do that again soon. The image of the vast sand dunes of the Gobi Desert with a tiny figure walking along the crest of one of them also drew my attention and made me long for a desert trip.



Saturday, 27 March 2021

In search of a track that was probably never there and finding an old path that almost isn't

Summit for the day. 434 metre Sgor Gaoithe

The highest hill within walking distance of my home is 549 metre Carn na Loine, a massive heathery lump in the midst of a large grouse shooting area. It's a slog through boggy heather to the top and I don't go up there often. My only memorable ascent was in February 2009 when I camped on the summit after skiing there right from my front door. It's definitely a hill that's far better under deep snow. 

 
On a cold blustery day late this March I headed that way again though I didn't climb to the top. My walk was inspired by a vague memory of seeing a track angling up across the hillside. Was that track really there? I went to find out. 

Walking up the little glen below the hill I could see no sign of this track. I did note though that three deep gullies running down the lower part of the hill still had large snow patches in them and also much green vegetation that stood out against the winter brown of the heather all around. One day I'll go and have a look at those gullies, I thought.

Climbing gently out of the glen I reached it's head to a view north over the Dava Moor to the Moray Firth, a huge landscape. Just above lay Sgor Gaoithe, its little summit decorated with a cairn. The short walk up through the heather tussocks reminded me of how difficult walking was off the few tracks in this area. The rocky top - unusual here - is a great viewpoint, hence the cairn I expect. Carn na Loine lay two pathless kilometres away. The walk was not appealing. Today, I decided, would be the day I'd investigate those gullies. If I traversed the hillside, crossing each of them, I'd come across the track I'd set off seeking if it existed, which I now doubted.


The going was rough at first. Then I came across an old path running across the hillside. Overgrown and very faint it still made for easier walking. Sometimes I couldn't see it under my feet, just it's gentle depression in the heather some way ahead. The path was a bit clearer where it cut down into the first gully and climbed the far side. There were old birches here and a surprising amount of juniper bushes plus big firm snow patches. Further down there were willows too. The path remnant led to the second gully where the juniper was really prolific. Sheep graze these hills. I guess there's enough food for them not to need to descend steeply into these gashes in the hillside.


On the way to the third gully the path vanished completely and it was back to heather and bog bashing. The third gully had fewer juniper bushes but the biggest snow patches. Given the low level, around 350 metres, and the completely snow-free slopes all around I was surprised at how much snow was left.


Tired of the heather and convinced now that the track I'd set out to find was a figment of my imagination - maybe I'd seen sunshine picking out a line in the snow and mistaken it for a track - I decided it was time to head home so I descended beside the gully to a farm track and so to the road. All the way back I had splendid views south to the high Cairngorms, shining with new snow.

Back home I looked at the oldest map I have of the area, a 1980 OS 1:25,000 sheet. The track that wasn't there wasn't on it, as I knew. Neither was the old path I'd found. But it is there, just. 

The track not being there didn't matter.It had just been an excuse for a bit of local exploration. I'd had a grand walk with grand views on a day of snow showers and sunshine. As well as finding an ancient path I'd seen buzzards and pied wagtails and the juniper in the gullies. I felt refreshed.


Wednesday, 24 March 2021

A Memorable Camp On Ben Nevis

 

Last year I was asked, along with several others, to write a short piece for The Great Outdoors on my most memorable camp. Now that's impossible to decide as I've had many wonderful camps over the years. So, as I do when asked to make similar impossible decisions, I went with the first that came to mind. And that was a camp on Ben Nevis thirteen years ago. As soon as I thought of it the memory of that special night came back. I've written about it before and no doubt will again. I'm never tired of remembering it. Here's what I wrote for the Great Outdoors.

The idea of camping on Ben Nevis came as I was sweating my way east on the TGO Challenge in blazing sunshine towards its cool and alluring snowy white dome. Usually I wouldn’t consider camping on the Ben as the summit is a waterless boulder field. But snow meant water and comfort. After lingering in Fort William until the evening to avoid climbing in the heat I set off. Dozens of walkers descending passed me at first but long before I reached the summit plateau I was alone. 


Unusually there was no wind. I pitched my tent not far from the trig point and the emergency shelter – the latter dark and dirty but a potential refuge if the weather changed. A snow bunting sang by the summit cairn. A raven wheeled overhead. After supper I wandered round the plateau, staring down the huge cliffs of the north face of the mountain. Away to the west Loch Eil was a golden ribbon of light leading to an orange sky above the silhouettes of the Western Highlands. Crossing the plateau and looking south the Mamores fronted a mass of peaks fading into the distance.


The night was silent. I woke a few times to stare out at a half moon and bright stars. The air was chilly. Dawn came with mist and a gusty wind. The tent was damp, the world grey. The splendour wasn’t over yet though. A pale sun appeared, shining softly through the clouds, then a patch of blue sky that grew and grew as the mists sank into the glens. In bright sunshine I wandered round the plateau again. The Mamores rose above the clouds, sharp and clear. When I finally left, I’d had the summit to myself for fourteen glorious hours.


 

First camera trap wildlife: a pine marten.

 

Having seen an increasing number of camera trap wildlife images online in recent years I decided to try this myself and ordered a trail cam. It arrived a few days ago and I set up in the garden and left it overnight as a test. The first morning revealed a good shot of the first chaffinch arriving on a bird feeder and something very blurred at the edge of some bushes. At least it was working.

The second night I was surprised and delighted to see the above image of a pine marten having a good look at the trail cam. This was exciting!

We had seen a pine marten in the garden once, quite a few years ago, and occasionally seen droppings, so kew they were around. I suspected they were rare visitors to the garden though and if I did get a picture of one it might take weeks or months. To get one so quickly suggests that they might visit quite often. This one is only a few feet from the house too.

My plan had been to see what a few nights in the garden captured and then move the camera into nearby woods. I'm going to keep it in the garden a bit longer now. I want to see if a pine marten comes round again. I'll try video soon too.

For those interested I bought my trail cam from NatureSpy, which I found via a web search. Knowing nothing about these cameras I used the camera chooser on the site, looked at ones that had good image quality, read a few reviews, and selected the Browning Recon Force Elite HP4. It proved easy to set up (though I got the date wrong at first, as you can see in the image) and comes with a wide locking strap to attach it to posts and tree trunks.