Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Stark Grandeur of the November Cairngorms

Cairn Lochan & Coire an t-Sneachda

Much to my astonishment when I climbed up onto the Cairngorm Plateau today it was for the first time in three months. That must be the longest gap between visits except when I’ve been on a long walk for many, many years. Trips elsewhere – Austria, the Lake District, the NW Highlands – and, for the last month, a debilitating cold are the reason. In fact the last has meant it’s been a month since I’ve been up any big hills, something I was very aware of as I climbed somewhat laboriously up to the Plateau. I need to get fit again.

The Cairngorm Plateau

Not so many days ago the Cairngorms were cloaked in the first substantial snow fall of the winter. But then came a sudden warming and a rapid thaw.  Snow is fickle in the Cairngorms, coming and going tantalisingly. The melt only lasted a day but it was enough to strip most of the snow before freezing weather returned. Today winter had returned.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda & Cairn Lochan
A cold wind greeted me as I climbed the last few hundred feet to the Plateau to look out over a mottled landscape, the dark rocks and brown vegetation laced with snow and speckled with frost. In places larger snow patches remained, refrozen and crunchy. Down in Coire an t-Sneachda the lochans were sheets of ice. Away to the south Ben Macdui was hidden in rolling clouds. Not today I thought. Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and Cairn Lochan would do, a short round to ease me back into the mountains. A few others were about, heavily clad in thick jackets, hats and gloves and moving fast, the cold wind piercing and stinging. 

On Cairn Lochan
At the col at the head of Coire Domhain, between the two peaks, I huddled behind a boulder for a quick snack, glad of the down jacket I’d bundled into the top of my pack. The mist was sweeping towards Cairn Lochain now. By the time I reached the top it had enveloped me. Ahead two silhouetted walkers faded into the greyness. A dark shape croaked overhead. Raven. One of a pair. Another shape, paler and indistinct, raced over the rocks and across a snow patch where it became suddenly clear. A mountain hare, half-brown, half-greyish white – ideal camouflage on the dappled ground. 

Looking back to Cairn Lochan

Descending out of the cloud I looked up at the great cliffs of Cairn Lochain rising into insubstantiality, harsh and cold. In these conditions the mountains seem more forbidding to me than at any other time, even a white-out or a blizzard. Stark, uncompromising, fierce. There is grandeur here but it feels alien. There is no shelter. No snow to burrow into or build into walls or igloos. An exposed windswept landscape. I love it!

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Book Review: Among The Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson

Summer snow, the remnants of previous years’ snowfalls, is a rarity, found only in a few places high in the Scottish Highlands. Most years a little of this snow lasts right through until the next winter’s snow begins to fall. This year it didn’t, for the first time since 2006 and only for the sixth time in eighty-four years. For it to disappear in 2017, the year this wonderful book by Christopher Nicholson was published, is somewhat ironic as one of the main themes of the book is about loss and the symbolic importance of summer snow to the author’s well-being. As I finished reading the book I wondered how different it would have been if Nicholson had searched out the last summer snow this year rather than last before writing the book. On his final visit to Garbh Choire in the Cairngorms late in the summer of 2016 he writes ‘I needed to know if the snow had survived’ and then when he sees the last patches ‘oh good, good, good, a thousand times good’.

Nicholson’s fascination with summer snow and the significance it came to have for him are the core of the book. Mixing accounts of his trips to find the snow, stories of summer snow from the past, and personal reminiscences that are both sad and uplifting this is an unusual and thought-provoking book and one to savour slowly, taking it in gradually, rather as the summer snow slowly melts away. Beautifully written, it is both elegiac and optimistic, a meditation on life and death. The descriptions of the snow patches are wonderfully detailed, the determination involved in reaching them familiar to anyone who walks in the hills.

One of the best outdoor books I’ve read this year – and it has been a good year for them – Among The Summer Snows is, I think, destined to become a classic of mountain literature. Superb.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Out Now - The Great Outdoors December issue: the story of the Therm-A-Rest, trousers for winter, Macpac tent review ....

The December issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. In it I tell the story of how two redundant engineers who also happened to be mountaineers brought comfort to wild camping with the first self-inflating mat. I also review eleven pairs of winter hillwalking trousers and the Macpac Minaret tent. Elsewhere in the gear pages Judy Armstrong looks at three down jackets at different price points.

The issue opens with a glorious photo of dawn on Pen y Fan by Drew Buckley. There are more stunning images in a piece by Dougie Cunningham about his favourite pictures  from his new book Photographing Scotland, which sounds superb, and by David Lintern in Stefan Durkacz's interesting story of an autumn walk across Ardgour.

Also in this issue Jim Perrin walks on Cnicht in his Mountain Portrait series; James Forrest avoids the crowds by going Back o'Skiddaw; Rudolf Abraham introduces a new long-distance trail in the Balkans; Andrew Galloway explores the Staffordshire Moorlands; and there's an exclusive extract from Richard Else's new book Wainwright Revealed, another book that sounds unmissable.

In books there are also reviews of Chris Bonington's Ascent by Noel Dawson and Christopher Nicholson's Among the Summer Snows. I've just finished the latter book myself and will be posting a review here soon.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Winter Gear Laid Out

Winter Hillwalking Gear

Back in September after I posted what turned out to be a popular post on the gear I use in the winter hills I was asked if I could post a photo of the gear. I haven't taken such a picture yet this year - I'll do so soon - but here's one from two years ago. With winter conditions on the hills now it's an appropriate time to post it.

From top left the items on the outside of the picture are insulated jacket, shell jacket, rucksack, ice axe, headwear, handwear, gaiters, winter trousers, fleece top. In the centre are boots, thick socks and snow shovel. On the foam pad from top left are insulated flask, crampons, smartphone, map,compass, first aid kit, headlamps, dark glasses, and snow goggles with a whistle in the centre. To the right of the mat are bothy bag and bivi bag.

Missing are trekking poles, insulated trousers/long johns, spare socks, and food. They'll be in the next photo!

The specific models are far less important than their function. Many equally suitable alternatives could be substituted for all of them. As I'm always testing gear I rarely go out with exactly the same equipment. You'll never see me on the hills with exactly this set of gear!

This is for a trip on foot. If the snow was continuous and deep I'd have skis and ski boots. If the snow was deep and discontinuous I'd have snowshoes.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Interview on Long-Distance Hiking for MightyGoods

On the Pacific North-west Trail

An interview with me on long-distance hiking has just appeared on the MightyGoods website.

Nan Shepherd Biography Launch

Charlotte Peacock signs a copy of Into The Mountain

It's not often that an event in Grantown-on-Spey is so popular that the venue has to be changed at the last minute but that's what happened with the launch event for Charlotte Peacock's biography of Nan Shepherd, Into The Mountain.

Well over a hundred people turned up to listen to Moira Forsyth of Sandstone Press and an author herself interview Charlotte Peacock about how an English woman in Suffolk discovered Nan Shepherd and became so entranced by her that she wanted to write her biography. This was followed by questions on the process of researching and writing the book and on the author's feelings about Nan Shepherd - the last coming across as a mixture of fondness and respect. I felt the author, who described Shepherd as reticent, was somewhat reticent herself at times here. A huge amount of difficult and impressive research has clearly gone into the book.

Following the interview there were questions from the audience - and what questions! There were people there who had met or been taught by Nan Shepherd and had fascinating and revealing stories to tell. Then there was the man who'd bought an old booklet about the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition published in 1907 and discovered Nan Shepherd had written her name in it. Wonderful!

After this really enjoyable and informative evening I now have to finish reading Into The Mountain and write a review. I'm well into the book now and enjoying it greatly. It's well-written and packed with interesting details. I'm going to be rereading The Living Mountain and then reading some of Nan Shepherd's other books for the first time too.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Autumn is fading into Winter

Over Strathspey to the Cairngorms

The nights are frosty now, the moon bright, the stars sharp. On the hills the first snow lies, late this year but more is forecast. October was mild and misty and damp and windy. Not summer but with little feel of winter. That’s changed with the coming of November. The wind is the north now.

Over autumn woods to the Cromdale Hills
Still recovering from the worst cold I’ve had in many years I haven’t yet felt up to climbing to the summits and touching the new snow. I’ve just watched the mountains whiten from afar. I have been out in the local woods and fields though, noticing a nip in the air, air that is crystal clear so distant peaks stand out sharp and distinct. October was soft and hazy. November has started hard and clear.

Castle Grant & distant Sgor Gaoith at dusk
In the woods many trees have lost their leaves, swept away in the last winds of October, and stand stark and bare. For them winter is here. Others though are still in their full autumn glory, brilliant against the greyness of their neighbours. 

Autumn is fading into winter. What sort of winter will it be? We won’t know for several months. Last year it snowed in early November. I climbed Meall a’Bhuachaille in a blizzard on the 4th. But overall the winter that followed was mild and with less snow than most years. For the first time in the near 30 years I’ve lived here I didn’t once go out on skis from the front door. There was never enough snow. Maybe, hopefully, this year will be different. In the meantime let’s enjoy the last colours of autumn.