Wednesday, 7 December 2016

First Winter Camp of the Season ... and some local poor weather

Local weather conditions can sometimes mean that a forecast for sunshine and blue skies can be correct almost but not completely everywhere. Such was the case for my first winter camp this season. Cold, crisp, clear weather with at most a light breeze was predicted for the Cairngorms. Ideal, it seemed, for a high camp. As it was I didn’t quite go high enough. Or, alternatively, I didn’t stay low enough.

The temperature was -5°C when I finished scraping the ice off my car windscreen and drove to Aviemore to meet photographer Anders Brogaard, with whom I’d had much correspondence for quite a while but had never actually met. As we’re both lovers of the outdoors there was much to talk about and a coffee in Aviemore became lunch in the Glenmore Café and a late start on the hill. Anders was heading off into the forest and staying low level for his first visit to the Cairngorms, probably wise as he had an enormous and heavy pack loaded with camera gear. 

I went up to Coire Cas for the quite short walk across the mouths of the Northern Corries and up to the western shoulder of Cairn Lochan where I camped at 1075 metres not far from the steep slopes dropping into the Lairig Ghru. The sky was cloudy but the forecast was for it to clear during the night. The ground was frozen hard with much ice on the rocks and big patches of old snow. I had to hammer the pegs in with a rock, bending a few in the process. Once the tent was pitched I gathered a pile of snow to melt for water, making this a real winter camp.

As there was a cold breeze and no sign of the cloud shifting yet I decided an early night and waking before dawn was the best plan. That way I might be able to photograph a starry camp and then the sunrise. When I woke though the clouds were thicker, occasionally enveloping the tent, and the gusty wind stronger. Light snow had fallen and a heavy frost plastered the tent inside and out. The temperature was -7°C. 

With no sign of a clearance, after a leisurely breakfast I packed up and started back down the way I’d come. If clear I’d been going to head over Cairn Lochan but I had no desire for a navigation exercise in a bitterly cold wind. I needed a compass bearing anyway to point me across the featureless flat expanse that lay between camp and the start of the ridge down. As I began the descent some day walkers passed me heading up. I looked back and could see them silhouetted against the cloudy sky through which the low hazy sun was shining. Then Cairn Lochan appeared, the clouds thinning and vanishing as they passed its western slopes.

Further down I came out of the clouds to see Cairn Gorm shining in the sunlight. Nearer to hand Creag an Leth-choin was still in cloud. Then suddenly I dropped out of the wind and into sunshine and went from just warm enough to overheating in a few minutes. Stopping to strip off some clothing I looked back again. Where I’d camped was still cloudy but everywhere else was sunny. The clouds seemed to be rushing up the Lairig Ghru from the south then rising over the long saddle between Cairn Lochan and Creag an Leth-choin, the very place I’d camped, before dissipating.

Back home I discovered from comments and posts on the Internet that if I’d climbed higher I could have camped above the clouds. Further west on the Moine Mhor there were reports of good camps too. And Anders had a fine time in the woods. I’d just been in the one place where the weather wasn’t so good. Still, it was a fine winter camp even without the stars or the sun.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

A Book for Xmas?

Out There, my latest book published earlier this year, would make an excellent present for an outdoor-loving reader. It's won two awards and has received many good reviews so some people like it!

Then there are my other books and some DVDs too. You can buy some of these from Amazon on this website (I must add my latest books!).


Friday, 2 December 2016

Yosemite Valley to Death Valley Podcast on The Outdoor Station Part 1

Looking down into Darwin Canyon

A few days ago I recorded a podcast with Bob Cartwright of The Outdoor Station about my recent long walk. We talked for a long time! So the podcast will appear in two parts. The first one has just appeared and you can listen to it here.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Update: Gear I've reviewed for my column on the TGO website

Snugpak Snugnut hat

Over the last few months I've reviewed a fair amount of gear for my Gear Editor's Column on The Great Outdoors website, some of the pieces submitted during my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk. Here's what I've been trying, with links:

Care Plus Anti Tick

Thule Covert CSC Sling

Matador Freerain 24

Powertraveller Extreme

Treksta Mega Wave

Sherpa Kailash

Uneaq All-Terrain

Snugpak Snugnut 

Keela Sherpa

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Cold, Snow & Treacherous Heather on Sgor Gaoith

Sgor Gaoith & Loch Einich

Sometimes the weather and underfoot conditions conspire to make a walk a little harder and more challenging than expected. Such was the case a couple of days ago when I headed up Sgor Gaoith from Glen Feshie. The forecast suggested light winds, a little sunshine, a bit of cloud, good visibility, no precipitation, freezing temperatures. The last was correct. Underfoot I had no idea what to expect other than some remaining snow after a couple of days of a slow thaw.

The temperature at home was -5°C and there was a thick frost as I set off for the Cairngorms. There’d been no change in temperature when I arrived in Glen Feshie. The tree-shaded parking area in the glen was slick with ice and a thick ribbon of the stuff covered the track through the trees. Reluctant to put on crampons – micro spikes would have been better – I hugged the edge of the ice, my trekking poles stopping the occasional slip from becoming a fall. Higher up the ice turned to crunchy snow and the going became a little easier.

The track in the forest

Eventually the track became a path and the path grew thinner and thinner until it faded away altogether on a snow and heather covered hillside. More snow and it would have been crampons and ice axe but although there were extensive patches there were also big sections of heather with only a little snow on top that I broke through with every step. Crampons would have been a liability here. Zigzagging erratically across the slope I linked the heather, where a fall wouldn’t have meant a slide, with smaller snow patches where I wouldn’t slide very far. 

Extensive snowfields remain after the thaw
Once the terrain eased off and I reached the broad ridge south of Sgor Gaoith the snow was just about continuous. It was quite firm and walking was now easy, the easiest of the whole day in fact. However the bitter wind made it feel extremely cold and bands of damp cloud swept over me, adding to the chill. Most of the peaks were shrouded but Sgor Gaoith itself was cloud-free and I was thrilled yet again with the tremendous view 600 metres down the shattered cliffs to Loch Einich. I will never tire of this view.
Sgor Gaoith

I didn’t linger though. There’s no shelter on the tiny summit and the wind was strengthening. The Peak of the Winds was living up to its name. I headed north for Sgoran Dubh Mor but on reaching the low point between the two peaks decided climbing it in the cloud and wind wasn’t worth the effort. Instead I turned off for the wide rocky ridge that runs over the two subsidiary tops of Meall Buidhe and Geal Charn. The stones were slippery with frost and ice and the patches of snow a mix of breakable crust that wouldn’t hold my weight and icy refrozen snow that was as hard as rock. The south-west wind was strengthening and pushing me sideways as I stumbled over the unforgiving ground. On Geal Charn I was in the densest mist of the day, a grey cloud that hovered over the grey frost and refrozen-snow covered rocks, an eerie scene.

On Geal Charn
Descending from Geal Charn I plunged into the most difficult terrain of the day. Deep heather and soft snow made the walking arduous and treacherous. I never knew how deep each step would go. Despite trying to avoid hollows and channels that might hold water I suddenly plunged in over my knee with one leg and felt the cold icy water rush into my boot. I stumbled on as darkness fell, heading for the relief of the outward path. My wet foot didn’t feel too cold until I reached the car. I had dry shoes but had neglected to bring dry socks. By the time I reached home my foot was painfully cold. I won’t forget the socks again!


Despite the weather and the tough terrain, or maybe because of them, it had been a satisfying day. A familiar walk had become unfamiliar and a surprising test. It’s always good when that happens.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

An Afternoon at Findhorn

A kayaker heads out to sea

Sometimes the sea rather than the mountains calls. The wide open space of a vast beach and the surging sea stretching into the distance can feel as wild as any summit. The coast at Findhorn is the nearest to my home and a place I visit several times a year, each time thinking I mustn't leave it so long before I return again.

Findhorn Beach

On this late November afternoon the sky began blue with a bright sun then slowly faded to grey as clouds swept in from the west, thin at first and then gradually thickening and darkening. The tide had just turned and was still high on the beach, roaring against the shingle. Out beyond the crashing waves in calmer water rafts of common scoter ducks floated on the sea, their dark mass dotted with splashes of the white of eider ducks. Oystercatchers ran along the water's edge and gulls soared overhead.

The tide surges

The tide retreats

I wandered down to the sea's edge. The foaming water raced over the sand to lap against my feet then slid back across the barely sloping beach, leaving streaks of white.

By the time I reached the curving shingle spit that marks the curving narrow mouth of Findhorn Bay the sky was mostly clouded, the water pale and shining. A lone kayaker let the racing tide carry his craft out towards the open sea. Out on a sandbank lay the dark silhouettes of seals, their mournfall cries carrying across the water.

The mouth of Findhorn Bay

Some Good Conservation News: Scottish Beavers Can Stay

Beaver ponds on Vinal Creek in the Purcell Mountains, Montana

All too often conservation news is bad. It's about dead raptors, mountain hare slaughter, the destruction of wild land by developments, about a desperate-seeming struggle to try and protect what's left. Occasionally though there's a positive story, a story that gives hope for the future, that eases the burden of concern. That was the case this week when the Scottish Government announced that beavers are to be officially recognised as a native species and that the two populations already existing in Scotland - those in the official reintroduction trial in Knapdale in Argyll and the unofficial ones along the River Tay - can remain.

The last beavers were exterminated in Scotland in the sixteenth century. Now, after 400 years, they are not only back but protected. This is very significant as it's the first formal reintroduction of a mammal ever in Scotland and the whole of the UK.

I think this is excellent news for the beavers, for wild land, and for the future. It sets a precedent that mammals can be reintroduced. It's the most cheering news for quite a while.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust was one of the lead partners in the Knapdale trial. There's much more information on the SWT website.