Thursday, 14 January 2021

My Photography in 2020: a favourite for each month

January: Clouds over the Cairngorms

Most years I do a round-up of my favourite photos. Last year was an unusual year due to the pandemic of course - for four months I never went further than five miles from home and not once did I leave the Scottish Highlands and only rarely the Cairngorms. My planned long walks for May and June never took place. There are always big spikes in the number of photos in the months when there's a long trip. There are no spikes for any month in 2020. There are no dips in the lockdown months either. I found plenty to photograph close to home. 

February: Cloud-capped Cairngorms

Rather than my absolute favourites for the year here I'm going to post a favourite from each month. These are photos that mean something to me and bring back memories of a strange year in which each month has its own resonance. Usually my memories of a year, along with my photos, are dominated by long walks. Last year was different.

March: Snow & Light

March saw my last trips to the snowy hills until the autumn. The snow remained high up for weeks but lockdown made the big hills out of reach and I could only admire it from a distance. Instead I had the spring to follow and watch at home.

April: Forest & Mountain, Green & White

May: Spring Birches, Spring Sky

June: Cairngorms Evening

July: A Touch of Rainbow

August: Cairn Gorm Sunset

Of these twelve photos six were taken less than two miles from my front door, the other six in the Cairngorms. 2020 really was a year for staying home.

September: Fire in the Sky

October: Mist in the Lairig Ghru

November: Cairn Lochan Gully

December: Sunset from Meall a'Bhuachaille

Photographic Notes. The images were taken on my Sony a6000 camera with Sony E 18-135 lens. All twelve images were taken at different focal lengths, from 18 to 128mm. I believe in using a zoom lens to the full! The aperture was f8 in all images bar July's, which was f5.6. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/15 to 1/1600. The ISO was 100 except for August, which was 200, and July, which was 400. All photos were handheld.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Outdoor & Nature Books 2020 Review


Every year sees a wealth of outdoor and nature books published and 2020 was no exception.  Here are brief descriptions of the ones I enjoyed most, in no particular order, along with a few that were published in previous years but I hadn't got round to reading until last year and a couple of classics. 

As every year I also dipped into old favourites from authors like Edward Abbey, Colin Fletcher, John Muir, Nan Shepherd, and Hamish Brown. New books don't replace old ones!

Corrour Bothy: A refuge in the wilderness by Ralph Storer

The last book I read in 2020 as it arrived just before Christmas. A love letter to a Cairngorms bothy. History, anecdotes, geography, bridge building, walking routes and many, many excerpts from 100 years of bothy books. I found it intriguing and fascinating. A longer review will follow soon.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

This was the first book I read last year. A magnificent and dizzying tour de force it looks at every aspect of humanity's involvement with the underworld in myths, history, literature and today. The author carries you along on exciting and sometimes terrifying underground adventures, all described with profound understanding of the meaning of the places explored.

The Big Rounds: Running and walking the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsey Rounds by David Lintern

Three challenging multi-summit hill circuits in England, Wales and Scotland described for walkers as well as runners with interviews and stories from the exceptional characters who first undertook them. Beautifully illustrated with the author's excellent photographs. Longer review here.

Marram: Memories of sea and spider-silk by Leonie Charlton

A lovely lyrical account of a journey on horseback through the Outer Hebrides tinged with sadness as the author grapples with memories of her fraught relationship with her late mother.

Red Sixty Seven curated by Kit Jewitt

A lovely collection of essays and paintings inspired by the Red List of the most vulnerable UK birds. Review here

Walking Through Shadows by Mike Cawthorne

Gripping story of a tough walk through the Scottish Highlands in winter in memory of a friend who died in the wilds. Captures winter in the hills superbly. Review here

Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict Macdonald

A deep look at the decline of birds in Britain and what can be done about it. Challenging, provocative, and, ultimately, optimistic.

Walking the Great North Line: From Stonehenge to Lindisfarne by Robert Twigger

Entertaining story of a walk through England along a line connecting historic sites. Humorous, philosophical, and fun. Review here.

The Unremembered Places: Exploring Scotland's Wild Histories by Patrick Baker

Journeys to islands, mountain passes, caves and more in search of history in wild places. Fascinating and informative. Review here

Wanderlust Europe: The Great European Hike by Alex Roddie

A collection of lavishly illustrated walks in Europe from Iceland to Georgia. A book for dreaming and inspiration. Review here

Mountains of the Moon: Lunar Nights On Scotland's High Peaks by Alan Rowan

Exciting and entertaining account of a night ascent at every full moon of the year. 

Keeping Dry & Staying Warm by Mike Parsons & Mary Rose

A detailed look at staying comfortable in the outdoors. Packed with information. I was a consultant for the book. More here.

Life On The Mountains by Terry Abraham

Outdoor film maker Terry Abraham tells his story. Beautifully illustrated with his wonderful photographs. Review here.

Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse by Adrian Trendall

The best guidebook I've seen to the formidable Cuillin. Excellent route descriptions, advice and photographs. Review here

Sky Dance: Fighting for the wild in the Scottish Highlands by John D. Burns

Conservation, mountaineering and bothies all mixed together in this comic novel with a serious message. Review here.

Our Place: Can We Save Britain's Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? by Mark Cocker

Thought-provoking look at the history of conservation organisations and legislation with analysis of what went wrong and the radical steps needed to change this. Review here

The Munros In Winter by Martin Moran

New edition of a classic first published in 1986 with a new foreward by Joy Moran. An epic Scottish winter adventure climbing all the Munros in one winter for the first time. I have an original edition I haven't read in decades. It's proved well worth reading again.

Call-Out by Hamish MacInnes

Following the sad death of mountaineering and mountain rescue pioneer Hamish MacInnes last autumn I pulled my copy, dated 1978, off the bookshelves and reread it. The stories are terrifying and sobering and the author's ingenuity in finding ways to rescue people very impressive.




Saturday, 9 January 2021

Lockdown in the Snow

Dusk, January 8

So here we are again. With a new lockdown. And this time in the coldest months with only short hours of daylight. Outside it’s -8.5°C and the snow lies deep. Ah, yes, the snow. Transforming the world, bringing its fragile beauty to a familiar landscape, creating a magical but hostile environment. The snow has brought joy to the first days of the year, the lockdown has not. Neither is a surprise.

Since the first lockdown ended in the hot days of last July I haven’t felt too restricted. I could travel anywhere in the Highlands to go walking and camping, cafes and shops were open. My partner, trapped down south for eight months due to the pandemic and personal events, returned home. I still avoided crowded places, wore a mask in shops, reduced my visits to cafes, but I still felt much freer than last spring. 

The Cromdale Hills, January 8

I still do to some extent as the new lockdown in Scotland is not as severe as the first with regard to the outdoors. There are no restrictions on how long or how often you can exercise this time. If necessary you can travel five miles outside your council area to start your exercise. That should be a boon to those living in small heavily populated areas. Here in the Highlands it doesn’t really matter. Highland Council covers a huge area. I can drive over 100 miles without leaving it. I don’t think I should though. I can walk into hills and fields and woods from my front door, so, as in the first lockdown, that’s what I’ll do. All the photos here were taken within a few miles of home. It’s all about reducing the risk of spreading the virus. The fewer people any of us see the better, sad to say. 

Ben Rinnes, January 6

I could say that any travel to the mountains was for work but that doesn’t feel right. I don’t need to do it. I can try out gear for my reviews for The Great Outdoors here and I have enough trips I haven’t written about yet to fulfil any requirements. I do have book work that means I will have to go further afield, though still in the Highlands, but I can do that later in the year when, hopefully, the pandemic will be easing. 

Birch in snow, January 7

Every day this year snow has fallen. Walking has been a joy. Until the snow became deep. Then I dug out my old cross-country skis and relished again the pleasure of gliding through the snow. A few days before this I admired a dramatic dawn from a local hill, the glen below filled with cloud, the distant high Cairngorms edged by a glowing sky. 

Cairngorms at dawn, January 6

In the woods the trees are heavy with snow, bowing down under its weight. The snow falls silently. There has been little wind. It is quiet and still.

Trees and snow, January 8

The only activity has been around our bird feeders which are a flurry of wings all day as a mass of birds try to eat enough food to get them through another freezing night. There are red squirrels too, and rabbits, all eager for peanuts and sunflower seeds. 

Trees & Mist, January 3

Living here I’m very aware that I don’t feel the effects of the lockdown like people in towns and cities, especially those who love the hills and wild places. I miss not being able to see my stepdaughters, but not much else. It makes me realise what is most important to me. Nature is what I can’t do without. 

Dawn, January 6

As in the spring I’ll continue to post pictures from my outdoor trips. I have considered not doing so, as some people felt seeing them made their situation feel worse. However far more people have said my pictures help them. I hope that is so.

Stay safe.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Munro Anniversaries this year

On Ben Lomond at the start of my 525-mile, 55 Munro walk to Ben Hope in 1981

This year sees the fortieth anniversary of my first round of the Munros and the twenty-fifth anniversary of my continuous walk over the Munros and Tops. Such a long time with these hills as an important part of my life!

My inspiration for Munro bagging, as with many people, was Hamish Brown’s classic book Hamish’s Mountain Walk, about the first continuous walk over these 3,000-foot Scottish summits. From that superb book, which I’ve read many times, I didn’t just get the desire to climb all the Munros but also a desire to do so on long backpacking trips. I loved climbing hills, I loved long camping walks. What better than to combine them.

I climbed my first Munros in 1977. By the end of 1978 the total was twenty, not many as experience for a long Munros walk. But in 1978 I also walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats and learnt a fair bit about backpacking in the Highlands. The next year I set out on my first long Munros trip, walking 525 miles from Corrour Station on the West Highland Line to Loch Glascarnoch on the A835 Ullapool road. My twisting route took in the Grey Corries, Ben Nevis, and Knoydart and then north to Torridon and the Fannichs. The journey was a joy, and I was hooked on long distance Munro bagging. (There’s a chapter on this walk in my first book, long out of print, The Great Backpacking Adventure). 

Then in 1980 a new walking magazine The Great Outdoors, with which I’ve been associated for as long as I have with the Munros, launched a coast to coast walk across the Highlands. The creation of Hamish Brown, the Ultimate Challenge, as it was then (now the TGO Challenge) immediately appealed. I took part in the first two events in 1980 and 1981, climbing 56 and 36 Munros respectively. 

Ben Hope

That left 55 mainland Munros unclimbed. As these included the southernmost and northernmost Munros, Ben Lomond and Ben Hope, clearly a walk between the two was required. This was another 525-mile trip and another wonderful experience.

On these four long backpacking trips I climbed 239 Munros. Most of the remaining 45 had been climbed on shorter winter trips and while working for Outward Bound Loch Eil, where I led treks through Knoydart and across Skye to Glen Brittle. The final few, all in the Cuillin on Skye, were climbed in August 1981, the final one being Sgurr nan Gillean. 

Sgurr nan Gillean

Fifteen years later I decided I wanted to do a continuous walk over all the Munros, tying together all the previous walks and adding in the Tops, few of which I’d done, for added interest and challenge. That walk from Ben More on Mull to Ben Hope over 517 summits took 118 days and covered 1770 miles. The story is told in my book The Munros and Tops.

Camped on the slopes of Stob Coire Easain on the Munros and Tops walk.

In the quarter of a century since I finished that continuous round I have not tired of the Munros or the Scottish Highlands. There have been many more TGO Challenges, a walk along the Scottish Watershed involving a fair number of Munros, and many shorter trips. Some hills I’ve been up dozens of times, some only a few. I’ve probably done all the Munros at least a third time and maybe a fourth. I need to get my records up to date and find out!

This year will involve more Munros, more walks in the Highlands. Every year does.