Friday 28 December 2007

A Glorious Winter Camp

A week ago I took advantage of the wonderful pre-Christmas winter weather to spend a few days in the Coulin hills between Glen Carron and Glen Torridon. I camped on a high col with spacious views and a sense of wildness and remoteness, a magnificent camp site. Many days of hard frost had left the ground hard and icy, though I was able to find a trickle of running water to fill my bottles. Dry weather meant I was able to leave the door of my shelter wide open and fall asleep lying in the entrance gazing at the stars and the almost-full moon. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a glorious and spectacular camp in December before. From my camp I had an exciting day on the hills, the going quite tricky due to ice covering paths, rocks and grass. Before the freeze the weather was very wet and the hills sodden, with a thaw of an earlier snowfall adding to the rain. The sudden coming of the frost had meant huge bubbles of ice rippling across the grass and running down crags where streams had burst their banks. Elsewhere a thin veneer of ice made rocks treacherous while long sections of paths were frozen into skating rinks. Only on the gravel and stone summits where there was no water to freeze was the walking easy. The sky was cloudless and the sun bright, though with little heat and always low down, making for dramatic side lighting even at midday. The air was sharp and cold and as clear as I can ever remember, with more detail in distant hills than I believed possible in our usually hazy air. The glens and straths were full of cloud however, a white canopy hiding roads and houses. Below my camp Coire Lair was full of cloud, which poured very slowly over the lip of the corrie and down into Glen Carron, like a waterfall in slow motion. From Sgorr Ruadh I watched the sun set and a dark red line spread out across the western horizon with the jagged silhouette of the Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye breaking into it. The next day I walked back down the icy corrie as the wind picked up and clouds spread across the sky, reaching the road just as the first raindrops fell.

The photo of my camp was taken late in the evening in a temperature of -5ÂșC. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Tamron 11-18mm lens at 11mm, f4.5@8 seconds, ISO 1600, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Outdoors Station Podcast on New Gear & GPS

A few days ago I did a podcast with Bob Cartwright, for The All New Podzine for 10/12/2007 on The Outdoors Station, talking about some interesting new outdoor gear and telling a story about a problem I had with a GPS unit earlier in the year. The same podcast also has Andy Howell talking about some outdoor books, including The Wild Places, which I reviewed in my last blog (6/12/07). You can find the Podzine here.

The photo shows the wide open spaces of the Ben Avon plateau in the Cairngorms on the morning when I couldn't get a GPS signal, as described in the podcast. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens at 27mm, f8@1/160, ISO 100, raw file processed in Capture One Pro.

Thursday 6 December 2007

The Wild Places- Book Review

My wilderness journeys and my love of nature and wild places are inextricably linked with my love of literature. The two intertwine and inspire each other. This goes back to my childhood when I was enthralled by the stories of Arthur Ransome and even Richmal Crompton’s “William” books, which often have woods and fields as their settings (I still find William’s adventures hilarious). As an adult it has been writers like Henry David Thoreau, Colin Fletcher, Edward Abbey, John Muir and W.H.Murray who I have read and reread, always finding something new and thought-provoking in their work. A few months ago I wrote a piece on these writers called Visionaries of the Wild for the January 2008 issue of TGO magazine (out now in early December and full of suggestions for Xmas gifts, despite the cover date – one of the strange quirks of magazine publishing). I finished that piece with a reference to a recent book, Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, in which the author seeks the wild in the British countryside, ranging from the Northern Highlands to Devon and East Anglia, in a series of short journeys, most involving a night or two under the stars. Macfarlane links these places with natural forces – the weather, geology, wild life – and the people who have inhabited the landscapes. He collects talismans – stones, feathers, shells, wood – that connect up the places in his memory and finds that these connections present a different map of Britain, a web of nature, to the road map most people are familiar with, a rigid structure that ignores nature. Macfarlane also discovers that wild places are not only remote and vast but can be found everywhere, that the natural state of the world is wildness and that to this it will return. Macfarlane’s discovery of wildness in little woods and lowland farmland brought me back to my childhood in the flat countryside of Lancashire where I discovered nature and freedom in such places. The book, a wonderful celebration of the wild, brought back other memories too and stimulated me to think anew about the meaning of wild places. It’s not a polemic in defence of wild places but the joy the author expresses in wildness shows the importance of these places and therefore the need to protect them (the author supports the Scottish Wild Land Group and does say “the contemporary threats to the wild were multiple, and severe”). The writing is compelling and enthralling, pulling the reader into the wild landscapes and the experiences of the author. Optimistic and life-affirming the book is a great antidote to the sense of despair and loss that can come with the experience of the destruction of wild places. As an old hippy-farmer friend of mine was found of saying many decades ago “nature will out”. That is the message of The Wild Places.