Monday, 12 February 2018

Celebrating the Lives of Two Very Different Figures: Charles Darwin & Nan Shepherd

Today is the anniversary of  the birth of Charles Darwin, born early in the nineteenth century in 1809. Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Nan Shepherd, born late in the nineteenth century in 1893. Two very different people whose key works - On the Origin of Species and The Living Mountain - have influenced me greatly. Darwin of course changed the whole world. Shepherd's influence is much smaller, though growing, but her words are just as important to me.

Whilst the English scientist and the Scottish writer may not seem to have much in common I think what they shared was a profound understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Just consider these two quotations.

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved”. Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species. 

"Imagination is haunted by the swiftness of the creatures that live on the mountain – eagle and peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare. The reason for their swiftness is severely practical: food is so scarce up here that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches of ground may hope to survive. The speed, the whorls and torrents of movement, are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity.” Nan Shepherd. The Living Mountain.

I wrote much more about Darwin's importance to me in this piece nine years ago. I haven't yet written much about Nan Shepherd. I must remedy that this year.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Great Outdoors March Issue: winter sleeping bags, a visit to Komperdell, slope angle measurer

The March issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. In it I review a dozen cold weather sleeping bags and the Slope Angel measuring device plus describe last autumn's visit to Komperdell in Austria. Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong looks at three pairs of winter boots at different price points.

The theme of this issue is winter in the Highlands, very appropriate this year as snow conditions have been wonderful and look like continuing so for some time. Alan Rowan has a challenging stormy day on Creag Meagaidh, David Lintern visits two lesser known Glencoe hills, and Cameron McNeish talks about the pleasures of the winter hills in an extract from his new book There's Always the Hills. These mouth-watering winter pieces finish off with a glorious photo-essay on Glen Affric by Damian Shields.

Away from Scotland Hanna Lindon interviews mountaineer Andy Kirkpatrick, Roger Smith looks at the UK government's environment plan, Jim Perrin celebrates Arenig Fawr in Snowdonia, Stephen Goodwin describes a winter circuit of Bowfell and Crinkle Crags in an excerpt from his new book Winter Walks In The Lake District, Laurence McJannet has a slow adventure on the Coleridge Way in the Quantocks, and Ed Byrne scares himself on the Honister Slate Mine via ferrata.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Igloos in Glen Affric and a magical winter mountain day

For several years the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club has held an igloo building weekend early in the year. This year the meet was held in Glen Affric. Due to a good forecast I decided to go a day early, hoping to have a fine winter camp under starry skies. It was not to be. I drove to Glen Affric under leaden skies, walked in on a slushy, muddy track and camped amongst young pines on wet snow. During the night it rained, heavily. Walking back down the track to meet the others early the next morning under a dark sky I was contemplating going home. I was to be very glad I didn’t.

In the spindrift

The eagerness of the rest of the party to get up into the hills and build igloos shook me out of my rather gloomy mood – a mood made worse by the appalling state of the bulldozed hydro works track up Gleann nam Fiadh. Once we were climbing into appropriately named Coire an t-Sneachda – the corrie of the snows – I was looking forward to the day despite the still overcast sky and an increasingly cold wind.

Igloo building
On the side of the corrie at around 730 metres we found a good site for the igloos. The snow here was at least two metres deep. As there were seven of us we decided to build two igloos and out came two of Grand Shelters wonderful IceBox igloo building tools, one of my favourite pieces of gear and one that really is unique. The cold wind and frequent blasts of spindrift kept us going and the igloos were complete in around four hours, quite a good time, especially when some people had never built one before. Inside we were soon warm and comfortable and cooking our meals. 


Dawn came with a hint of red in the sky though still much cloud. This quickly cleared and the sky turned blue. The wind dropped and stoves and breakfast were taken outside, a rare occurrence in the Highlands in winter.

Three of us decided to head up Toll Creagach, some 320 metres above the igloos. This Munro isn’t particularly distinctive but it is a grand viewpoint and at its best when under snow. On this day the vista was superb with snowy hills rising sharp and clear above brown glens. Under the deep blue sky the feeling was alpine. The sun was warm too and there was no need for hats, gloves or jackets on the summit. 

Toll Creagach
I wandered the extensive summit area revelling in the mountains, the colours, the brightness. For once the winter hills felt friendly and welcoming. There was a peaceful air and a sense of wild beauty.

Ben Nevis from Toll Creagach

Eventually we had to depart and return to the igloos. I was on snowshoes and simply walked straight back down. The others had skis and swept back and forth across the slopes, reaching the igloos a fair while before me – they had the stove on for a brew by the time I arrived. 

Skiing down
Before departing we climbed onto one of the igloos using an ice axe as a foothold, the only time one was used. Then we packed our gear, said farewell to the igloos, and headed down in the sunshine, arriving back in Glen Affric at dusk. It had been a magical day, a glorious day of mountain perfection. What a privilege to have been there.

View across Loch Mullardoch

The igloos

Thanks to Andy Ince of IBSC for organising the meet and to Andy and the other igloo builders for making it a great trip.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Books Update: Canadian Rockies & Yukon ebooks, Scottish Watershed book

In the Richardson Mountains on the Yukon Walk

Some thirty years ago I did two long walks in Canada, the length of the Canadian Rockies (the first time this had been done) and the Yukon Territory from south to north. The walks resulted in two books - High Summer: Backpacking the Canadian Rockies and Walking the Yukon. These have been out of print for many years. I'm delighted to say that they'll be republished together as an ebook by Sandstone Press later this year. I signed and sent off the contract today.

In Waterton Lakes National Park near the start of the Canadian Rockies walk

I am also currently writing a book on my Scottish Watershed walk, which should be out late summer or early autumn (if I finish it on time!). After much discussion and thought this now has the title Along the Divide: Walking the Wild Spine of Scotland. Again the publisher will be Sandstone Press.

In the Fannichs on the Scottish Watershed walk

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Big Garden Birdwatch: A Plethora of Coal Tits

This year's Big Garden Birdwatch saw far more birds than last year, probably because the weather has been cold and wintry where last year it had been unseasonally mild for many weeks. Today though it was mild, +7C, overcast and drizzly.

Coal tits were the dominant birds with so many flying in and out that it was hard to count them. I definitely saw eleven at one time though I reckon there were far more than this. These hyperactive tiny birds rarely stay on the feeders for long. Chaffinches, the commonest bird the last two years, were down to just four.

In total nine species appeared, two more than last year. Eight are ones I've seen every day for many weeks now so not a surprise. There was a siskin though - I haven't seen one of these for many months.

It's always a pleasure taking part in the Birdwatch and actually recording what I see. I always look forward to the results too. Bird watching was one of my first outdoor activities and I've never tired of it. Birds are such an essential part of nature. We need to look after them and recording numbers is part of doing that.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Past Winter Days: Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour

The summit

Looking through old files I found this story of a long ago winter visit to Garbh Bheinn  of Ardgour. I really must go back one day.

Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour is one of the great neglected Highland hills. Many will have looked west to its dramatic dark ragged pyramid from Glencoe and Ballachulish but far fewer take the Corran ferry across Loch Linnhe and set foot on its rough slopes, even though it’s one of the finest hills in the West Highlands. The reason is simple. Garbh Bheinn misses Munro status by just 30 metres; enough to explain why it’s disregarded by most hillwalkers. 

Garbh Bheinn

I first headed to Garbh Bheinn early one year. As often on short deep winter trips with brief daylight hours I planned on setting up a wild camp below the hill one afternoon, climbing the peak the next day then walking out that evening.

The forecast was for cloudy weather with temperatures around zero at night in the glens and perhaps a little snow high up with light to moderate winds. The weather had been cold for several days and I knew there was snow and ice high up. My gear was selected for the likely conditions on the hill and with long winter nights in mind, when I like to have enough warm clothing that I don’t have to lie cocooned in my sleeping bag all the time plus a gas or candle lantern for a little warmth and to light up the tent porch.


My camp was in Coire an Iubhair, a fine curving corrie between steep mountain slopes. From here I climbed up the steep rocky side of the long ridge of Sron a’ Gharbh Choire Bhig and then to the summit of Garbh Bheinn. It was a very rough ascent. Low down the ground was frozen in places though soft in others, and there were patches of ice. Above 450 metres everything was frozen with increasing snow cover as I climbed. Mostly this snow was quite thin but there were some deep drifts and I went thigh deep into one. In places the snow was packed hard by the wind and I had to kick steps. Otherwise thin ice glazing on rocks, frozen icy turf, burns frozen into slippery bobbles of ice and skims of snow hiding sheets of ice meant constant care was needed. Slipping was easy; staying upright a little harder. There were many small crags and big boulders that might make interesting scrambles in summer. Alone on a cold January day they seemed best avoided so I wound a way up shallow gullies and between the rocky outcrops into the cloud swirling round the summit. The SW wind was cold and the temperature on top -1°C. I had intended descending the north ridge to the head of Coire an Iubhair but this is steeper and rockier than the ascent route so, given the mist and the ice, I decided it was prudent to return the same way. 

Loch Linnhe from the Corran Ferry

The piece first appeared in TGO magazine,accompanied by a much longer one about the gear I used.