Sunday, 23 February 2020

A Stormy Walk on Craigellachie

Weeks of stormy weather. Snow, thaw, rain, snow. And worst of all wind, howling shrieking wind that roars through the tree tops and crashes down mountainsides, deafening disorientating wind that upsets the balance of body and mind. Day after day after day. 

Searching the forecasts, trying to second guess the next blast, hoping to seize any brief lull for a day in the hills that isn’t too much of a struggle. A week ago I managed this for an afternoon. A week later I didn’t. There was a suggestion of less stormy conditions for a few hours, at least on the lower hills. Meall a’Bhuachaille, I thought. Always good for a half day and the walk in and out is in the forest.

Blue sky and touches of sunshine looked promising on the drive to Aviemore. At first. The snow came in fast and hard, within seconds I was crawling through a blizzard, following the just visible taillights of the vehicle in front. 

In Aviemore I sat in a café watching the snow swirling. Meall a’Bhuachaille didn’t seem attractive now. Neither did a longer drive. A shorter walk from here appealed. Craigellachie, that steep, wooded, craggy hill that rises above the town. Most of the walking would be in beautiful birch woods, sheltered from the wind.

I set off in driving snow, the air thick with flakes. The woods across a little lochan were hazy and half-hidden by the blizzard. The muddy path wound through the trees, a dark line between the snowy trees. 

Above the woods the path was snow-covered. The wind was fierce and harsh, stinging my face. On the summit I gazed onto a bleak arctic landscape, a different world to the town that lay not far below. I didn’t linger.

On the descent the snow eased briefly. Some hazy sunshine gave a touch of warmth to a rugged knoll. Back down in the forest the trees were silent, mysterious, encompassing, welcoming. 

Friday, 21 February 2020

This rollercoaster winter, updated 22 February

February 9

Two days ago it snowed heavily, the fields and and woods were white. Overnight the temperatures rose. Yesterday morning it rained heavily and the snow had gone. Overnight temperatures dropped and today there have been heavy snow showers. That pattern has been repeated over and over again this month, accompanied by near constant strong winds. I often take photographs looking towards the Cromdale Hills from my study window. Here are five taken this month, showing the rapid changes in snow cover.

Snow-thaw cycles are not unusual in Scottish winters. I can't remember them being so rapid in previous years though.

February 14

February 19

February 21
February 22

Thursday, 20 February 2020

What I've Been Reading Online No 17: Outdoors - hillwalking, long-distance hiking, mountaineering

Winter Tree, February 10

The last few weeks I've found a fair amount of interesting stuff to read online so again I'm splitting the piece in two, starting with outdoors

The Quest in Scotland's Hills

John D Burns goes in search of a bothy in the Monadhliath. A tale in pursuit of a dream.

Why They Walked: Portraits of 2019 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers

Fascinating stories and photos of Appalachian Trail hikers as they near the finish.

Thoughts on hiking solo

Pacific Crest and Arizona Trail thru-hiker Joan West praises solo hiking and gives some advice. 

A Triple Crowner’s Advice for Following Through on Your Hiking Goals

Triple Crown (Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Appalachian Trail) hiker Effie Drew gives some good advice on long-distance hiking.

Frozen In Time

Former President of the American Alpine Club Alison Osius describes the mountaineering disaster on Peak Lenin in 1974 in which fifteen people died.

What was Your First Ice Axe?

Mountain Rescue Expert Heavy Whalley looks at the development of ice axes in the 1970s. My first axe? In 1977. I can't remember the model.

The Future Is Female: Women in Ultralight Backpacking 

"As more people take to the trail, I’m calling for a quieter, less extreme version of ultralight." 

 Five Bad Days on the PCT and How I Got Through Them

On a long-distance walk every day can't be perfect. Some will be difficult.

10 Best Lightweight Backpacks

Some good packs in this review by sectionhiker. I'be used five of them and a larger version of one of the others.

Norway End-End 2018

Photo-blog by Tramplite. Inspiring photos and words, useful information.

The Trans-European Alpine Route

Description on how to hike this route, which is approximately 6250km long and which traverses 6 mountain ranges and passes through 16 countries and 16+ national parks.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Between the storms: a snowshoe walk in the Cairngorms

Storm Ciara fades away, Storm Dennis approaches. For one day the mountains are calm. Before the fury erupts again. Taking advantage of this brief lull I wandered across the foot of the Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm and up to Miadan Creag an Leth-choin. The snow brought by Ciara was deep, although many areas were wind-scoured, and I was on snowshoes all day. The air was chill but there was little wind and I never needed an outer jacket or even hat and gloves much of the time. 

Whilst the weather was quiet there were still great sheets of dark cloud drifting over the summits. Coire Cas was busy but once out of sight of the car park and ski area there were few people and those there were looked well prepared for winter. Walkers coming down were wearing crampons. Higher up I realised why as I encountered large areas of rippled, refrozen, icy snow. My snowshoes have metal edges and crude crampons underfoot and bit easily into the ice. 

I had planned on going to the top of Creag an Leth-choin for the view down the Lairig Ghru and across to Braeriach but as I neared the broad flat top of Miadan Creag an Leth-choin (the name means Meadow of the Lurcher’s Crag) the clouds swept in and I was quickly shrouded in mist. 

Leaving the summit cairn – if this slightly raised spot can be called a summit – I crunched northwards towards Creag an Leth-choin. This was familiar country but in this mist I could see very little, just rocks and snow and ice fading into nothingness and occasional brief glimpses of distant peaks. Above blue sky came and went but the mist stayed.

With steep slopes falling into the Lairig Ghru not far away I paused to check my exact location on my phone then took a compass bearing. It would have been easy to go astray here and wander round in circles. Standing still I felt the complete silence wrap round me. There was nothing but the mountain, nothing but snow and rock. Peaceful and hostile at the same time. A world of harshness and beauty.

A short descent took me to the head of Lurcher’s Gully. Ahead and not far above was Creag an Leth-choin. I turned away, seeing no point in ascending this oft-visited peak and seeing nothing. The snow in the broad gully was deep. I followed ski tracks down then cut out of the gully to head back to Coire Cas. 

As dusk fell the clouds on Cairn Lochan and Cairn Gorm began to lift and disperse. The mountains glowed pink then slowly turned blue and cold. Ahead Meall a’Bhuachaille was pale, floating, mist wreathed. 

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Book Review: Walking Through Shadows by Mike Cawthorne

Mike Cawthorne is no stranger to the Scottish hills in winter. His first book, the excellent Hell of a Journey, is about a continuous winter walk over all the 1000 metre summits. Walking Through Shadows is also about a winter walk, but a very different one. In it the author and a companion set out from Whiten Head on the north coast to walk south to Knoydart with as little contact with habitations and people as possible. 

Their route is tough, eschewing easier options for the remotest ones. In summer it would be challenging. In winter, with blizzards, bitter cold, short days, long nights, and deep rivers, it’s really testing, especially for Mike Cawthorne’s companion, Nick, who isn’t as fit and who suffers daily from sore and blistered feet. That they finish the walk together is a testament to their friendship.

The hardship and tough going are intended. The walk comes across as a mix of pilgrimage, penance and wake. It’s undertaken in memory of a close friend, Clive Dennier, who died at their destination, and whose body wasn’t found for months. His story is told in bursts of reminiscences throughout the book, his presence always there. 

Walking Through Shadows isn’t an easy read but it is a worthwhile one. The harshness of the Scottish winter and the sorrow for a lost friend are intermingled. The descriptions of the landscape reveal both its stark beauty and its hostile bleakness. What it’s like to walk and camp in this cold land day after day is captured well. 

The nature of the land and how damaged it is comes up again and again. Isolated and remote it may be. Untouched it isn’t and there’s no pretence that this is anywhere near a pristine wilderness. At the same time the author obviously loves and cares for it.

Walking Through Shadows is an unusual, thought-provoking and very worthwhile addition to the literature of the Scottish hills.