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.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Winter Comes To The Cairngorms

Snow has lain on the high tops of the Cairngorms for over two weeks now, with storms sweeping the hills on an almost daily basis. The snowline has risen and fallen as warm and cold fronts have passed over, bringing rain and a thaw then snow and a freeze, but the summits have stayed white. I first ventured up into this winter world soon after the first snow fell, a thin covering above 700 metres. The ground was frozen, the lower paths ribbons of ice. Walking was easiest in the dry, cold snow high up, hardest in the forest where the paths were slick with wet fallen leaves as well as ice. The light was hard and grey and a cold west wind swept the hills. I climbed past frozen Lochan na Beinne and up the long northern ridge of Cairn Gorm to Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, whose summit cairn sparkled with white frost feathers. The temperature here at 1150 metres was -5C. I carried an ice axe and crampons but didn’t need to use them, though the crampons could have been useful if the paths had been icier.

Two weeks later I returned to the high tops, this time on skis, with climbing skins attached for the ascent of the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais, the long rocky ridge that forms the west wall of Coire Cas, which lies directly below the summit of Cairn Gorm. The ascent soon took me into thick damp mist. Higher up the air was colder and the moisture on my clothes and hair froze, leaving me plastered with frost and ice. A bitter north-west wind brought snow and visibility was soon reduced to 10 yards or less. A pair of ice climbers appeared out of the mist and clanked down past me, crampons on their feet, helmets on their heads, ice axes in their hands. “Nasty up there”, one said, “we’re going down for mugs of hot tea”. I pushed on; glad I had a flask of hot spiced ginger cordial in my pack (Rocks Organic Ginger – my favourite cold weather drink). A compass bearing for Cairn Gorm was needed from the big cairn at the top of the ridge to ensure I missed the steep slopes at the head of Coire Cas. Skiing up Cairn Gorm I traversed round rocks and across hard, wind-blasted icy snow, glad of the steel edges on my skis. Six walkers appeared descending, the leader kicking steps in the snow. None had ice axe or crampons or even trekking poles.

On the summit it was difficult to see the automatic weather station from the cairn, a distance of about 20 yards. I sheltered behind the weather station while I had lunch and warmed myself with hot ginger cordial. The wind was gusting to 25mph. The temperature was -7C. My plan of crossing the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben MacDui was abandoned. Struggling into this cold wind on compass bearings would be slow and unpleasant. Instead I skied back down to Coire Cas, difficult enough in the flat light, happy after the first ski tour of the season. I hope there will be many more.

The first photo shows the Cairngorm Weather Station in the dense mist. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm IS lens at 21mm, f8@1/800, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro

The second photo shows Beinn Mheadhoin and Ben MacDui, seen across the Loch Avon basin from the north ridge of Cairn Gorm. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm IS lens at 18mm, f8@1/160, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.

Friday 16 November 2007

Between Two Worlds: Glenmore Forest

Dusk was falling along with the rain as I descended into Glenmore Forest after a wintry day on Cairn Gorm. The narrow muddy path was overgrown, steep and greasy with wet fallen leaves. Slithering down this slick trail I used trees and shrubs as handholds as I struggled to keep my balance. Far below a line of orange lights traced a bright line through the now dark forest. Then strange music echoed through the trees, a repeating snatch of tune played on what sounded like bells and flutes. Emerging on the wide track on the floor of the glen I discovered that this was part of Between Two Worlds, a Forestry Commission Scotland event for the Highland Year of Culture.

A few days later I returned to experience the event in full. Between Two Worlds was created by sculptor and environmental artist Diane Maclean and light and sound artist Malcolm Innes with music by Bob Pegg to “celebrate the beauty and mystery of Glenmore Forest”. The event involves a two mile walk along a track and some purpose-laid boardwalks past various lighting installations while eerie acoustic music ripples through the trees. A river of silver light led out to a pool of light in an open boggy area, coloured lights turned trees red, purple and green, lights playing on a concrete bridge gave the illusion of walking on the water flowing beneath, lights shone through pine needle fronds to create curious patterns on the track. The centrepiece of the event took place at lovely An Lochan Uaine – the Green Lochan. Spotlights dimmed and coloured fountains and water spouts to erupted like liquid fireworks, creating fast moving patterns of light, while ethereal and unearthly music range around. Here the two worlds were meant to be our world and the world of faerie, there being a legend that fairies living in the hill above came here to wash their clothes, which turned the water green.

Another two worlds touched on were those of humanity and wild nature. Two square lights set against darkness gave the illusion of a cottage, lit from within. A woman singing rang out from the forest dwelling. And from deep in the trees came the sound of wolves howling. Away from the cottage into the depths of the forest pairs of bright orange-yellow lights flicked on and off, the eyes of the wolves. Behind them a long shaft of pale light mimicked the moon shining through the trees. The last sight brought back memories of walking and skiing through a moonlit forest without any lights or cottages. I’d prefer that to this event but it was entertaining and atmospheric and imaginative and worth seeing. I hope that when it is over all traces of it vanish from the forest though – 18 days is long enough to have long cables, generators and the rest of the paraphernalia intruding into the natural scene. I also hope that those who have enjoyed the event will venture out into a forest at night and experience the real mystery and wonder found there.

The photo shows lights playing on pines. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm IS lens at 28mm, f4@1/15, ISO 1600, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro. The shot was taken handheld. Without the Image Stabilizer lens I doubt I could have taken a sharp image. Even with IS I still underexposed by three stops.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Autumn Light In The Highlands

Driving down to Perth for a Mountaineering Council of Scotland meeting late one afternoon last week I was struck by the beautiful light as I left cloud-covered Strathspey and began the climb up to Drumochter Pass. Momentarily the clouds dissipated and the low sun shone below the drifting remnants turning the moorland and hillsides golden brown. The dusting of snow on the summit of The Fara, a long hill running alongside Loch Ericht, sparkled and the sky had a lustre not seen in summer. The whole landscape glowed. Stopping to view the scene I wandered up a bank away from the car and the road, a cold wind belying the apparent warmth of the light. A few minutes later I was back on the road and the clouds were sealing the sky, cutting out the light and returning the world to a harsh, dull greyness. By the time I reached Drumochter the summits were in cloud and any sense of enchantment in the landscape had vanished. Many hours later, crossing Drumochter at midnight on my way back north, snow was falling, flashes of white streaming through the headlights towards the windscreen, a different sort of magic. These moments of storm and light, snow and sun, are one of the facets that make the Highlands a very special place. Sometimes the beauty is overwhelming, even from a car.

The photo shows the late afternoon light on The Fara, with Dalwhinnie to the left. Photo info: Ricoh GR-D, f8@1/160, ISO 64, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Photoshop Elements 5.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Alladale Again: Bothy Closed, PR Machine Ramped Up

The despicable plan to fence the Alladale Estate in NW Scotland and turn it into a safari park that I wrote about on August 15 and September 16 has taken a step forward with the closure of Alladale Bothy, a shelter maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, on November 1. The MBA were informed just two weeks earlier, which is very short notice when there is a need to publicise it and let people know they will now find no shelter in Alladale. Heading for the bothy in a November storm and finding it locked would be unpleasant and possibly dangerous if it was being relied on. Clearly Paul Lister, the estate owner, has little concern for walkers.

In an expanding PR campaign Lister has called for the public to make a sacrifice and give up the right of access to his estate so his “visionary” plan can go ahead, a story covered in two of Scotland’s newspapers recently, The Scotsman and The Sunday Herald. This attempt at overturning the access legislation, fought hard for over many years, must not succeed. There is no need for access to be given up in order for habitats to be restored and animals reintroduced. Landowners closed off the hills for deer in the past, they must not be allowed to do so again for wolves.

Lister says “it would not be practical to have people walking around Alladale while wolves roam". In fact there is no reason why people and wolves couldn’t coexist as they do in many other parts of the world. I’ve walked 1,000s of miles in wolf terrain in North America and seen wild wolves and heard them howling at night, which are wonderful experiences. I’d love to do so in the Highlands. Reintroducing wolves to the Highlands is a great idea but would only work with public support and in areas where the habitat is suitable. I’d like to see more wildness in the Highlands but not a safari park.

Not that everyone will be excluded. For £27,000 you’ll be able to stay for a week and for £50 a day visit the estate in the company of a ranger. So much for the freedom of the hills.

Thanks to R Webb, who posted a comment on my September 16 blog saying it would be interesting to see an update for reminding me that this issue needs airing regularly, until Lister’s plans are defeated. There are two interesting ongoing discussions on the TGO Forum - Alladale Bothy Closed and Species re-introduction or just another zoo?

The photo shows the summit of the Munro Seana Bhraigh, which lies on the estate, in spring. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Tamron 11-18mm lens @ 11mm, f8@1/500, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Photoshop Elements 5.

Wednesday 31 October 2007

A Day At Hilltrek

Last Saturday I ventured south, “over the hill” as we say locally, from Strathspey to Aboyne in Deeside for the Hilltrek Event (see post for Oct 24).. Chatting to customers was a pleasant way to spend the day and I enjoyed myself. As a writer I spend a great deal of time alone at the keyboard. Meeting other outdoor folk is always welcome. One of those was Aktoman, who has already blogged about our meeting, with whom I had a long and interesting conversation. I also enjoyed meeting the Hilltrek people and seeing their store and workshop. Hilltrek makes some good looking clothing – and when I say make I mean make, right there on the premises. You can see some sewing machines behind me. Hilltrek uses top fabrics, including Karisma, in my view one of the best fleece fabrics but now mostly abandoned by bigger manufacturers for less functional but more fashionable fabrics. Karisma (which some readers will probably know under its Mountain Equipment name of Ultrafleece) is a very hard wearing fleece that is more wind resistant than standard fleece but still very breathable, unlike windproof fleece. Reminded of it by my visit to Hilltrek I dug out an old pair of Karisma trousers and wore them today for a walk in the dusk on a cold breezy day. They felt great. It’s good to see someone still making garments with Karisma. Hilltrek also makes garments from Ventile, including a useful looking single skin windshirt, Symapatex, Pertex and Nikwax Analogy, as well as being a major stockist of Paramo clothing. Hilltrek offers a made to measure service, which looks great for those of us who aren’t standard sizes (trousers are nearly always too long for me).

The picture was taken by Dave Shand of Hilltrek.

Sunday 28 October 2007

John Manning - New Life, New Website

John Manning, a good friend of mine, was for many years the Deputy Editor (“Deputy Dawg”) at TGO magazine, as many readers will know. As equipment editor for TGO I worked with John on many gear features and we visited quite a few trade shows together, including one in Manchester where we stayed in a very strange hotel! We also had many good trips in the outdoors - and hopefully have many more to come. Now John has taken a deep breath and jumped from the security of a 9-5 job to the randomness of freelancing, where you can twiddle your fingers one day and work 24 hours the next. He’s also moving from the busy streets of Glasgow to the quiet lanes of the Yorkshire Dales – though he’ll still have a pub within a few yards.

As part of his new freedom John has a website, Outdoors Manning, that looks entertaining and informative. John’s an experienced backpacker, a stalwart of the TGO Challenge and a Pacific Crest Trail thru’ hiker in 2004 – 22 years after my thru’ hike, which led to some interesting discussions on the changes in that time – and has many tales that should ensure his website is of interest for years to come.

The photo shows John at a wild camp during a backpacking trip in the Moidart region of the Scottish Highlands. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens @ 30mm, f5.6@1/100, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

Appearing in Aboyne, Hilltrek Event

Appearing in Aboyne, Hilltrek Event

This Saturday, October 27th, I’ll be at Hilltrek in Aboyne on Deeside to talk about gear, hillwalking, backpacking and anything else anyone is interested in. I’ll also be signing copies of my books. Hilltrek is a specialist outdoor clothing company who make their own products from Ventile, Nikwax Analogy, Pertex and other fabrics as well as selling products from companies such as Paramo (which I'm wearing in the photo)and GoLite (whose Odyssey pack I'm carrying in the photo). If you’re in the area do pop in for a chat. I should be there from 11am until 3pm.

The photo was taken at Smokejumper Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park last February on a cold, misty day. Ed Huesers took the picture with my camera as I sheltered under a beautifully frosted tree. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens@28mm, f8@1/200, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Saturday 13 October 2007

Dreaming of the Desert

Rain and mist lashed down out of the darkness as I drove over the Pass of Drumochter in the middle of the night, on my way home from giving a talk on the Arizona Trail to the Air na Creagain Mountaineering Club in Ardrossan a few days ago (an enjoyable evening with friendly people and some unintended extra entertainment when the roof of the bar we were in started leaking). After talking about the heat and light of the desert and showing my slides of the walk, image after image with clear blue skies, hot red and yellow rocks and a sharp clarity to the landscapes, my mind was far from the swirling dampness of a Highland night. I was dreaming of deserts, dreaming of wide open spaces, a harsh sun, bare stony mountains, nights out under vast star filled skies, walking along dusty trails through cacti gardens. It’s seven years since I walked this trail and I hadn’t thought about the desert since I did a podcast with Andy Howell for the Outdoor Book Club (Book Club No.3) last year about my book on the walk, Crossing Arizona. Reliving my walk I wanted to go back, to walk again in the desert and feel the hot sub beating down on me (a desire probably enhanced by the wet, cloudy summer just gone). Many years ago I’d planned a walk from Arches National Monument in Utah for 1,000 miles roughly following the Colorado River. Nothing had come of this plan and since then two Utah hikers had prospected their own 800 mile trail in the same area, which they called the Hayduke Trail, after a character in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. In 2005 my friend Brian Frankle of ULA Equipment did the first through-hike of the Hayduke Trail, which you can read about on his website here. Musing on the Hayduke Trail, the Arizona Trail and my old plan I started to put together an idea for a long desert hike of my own, combining parts of all three. Just thoughts so far, but exciting ones and that’s where adventures come from.

The photo shows me on the Arizona Trail below Picket post Mountain. Photo info: Ricoh RDC-5000, auto exposure – f6.7 @ 1/181, JPEG processed in DxO Optics Pro

Monday 8 October 2007

October: The Colourful Month

As the year heads towards the greyness of winter there’s a final burst of colour as leaves turn yellow and red. In the Scottish Highlands October is the most colourful month, at least in those areas with much deciduous woodland, like Strathspey in the Cairngorms, where I live. Dominant in these spectacular displays is birch and great swathes of golden trees can be seen throughout the strath, dotted here and there with the reds of rowan and gean (wild cherry) and the paler yellow of aspen. The needles of larch, an introduced species, turn a brilliant yellow too, enlivening the plantations where it is found. During September the first changes start to occur but it’s in October that the full glory is usually revealed. Some years the colours are extremely bright, an unsubtle riot of poster paint tints. Other years the colours are more subdued, but also richer and deeper. Dry warm summers and cold autumn nights produce the most dazzling displays, wet summers and warm autumns the darker tones. This has been one of the latter years. Walking in the local woods yesterday I found the colours gorgeous but restrained, the gold of the birches darker than in some years, the reds of the rowans tending to russet. Some trees, especially aspen, are still mainly green, others have already lost most of their leaves. There is more to come as long as the wind holds off. Most years the display lasts for several weeks, until the first big autumn storms strip the leaves and scatter them.

The photo shows autumn woodland in Strathspey, photographed on October 7 this year. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens @ 55mm, f8 @1/125, ISO 200, raw file converted to aJPEG, processed and cropped in Photoshop Elements 5.

Friday 5 October 2007

Summer’s Over, Here’s The Sun: Walking the Western Cairngorms

Autumn in the Highlands has begun brightly with sunshine and sharp, clear views; a great relief following a dismal, grey summer of rain and low cloud. After a day of sitting in committee rooms discussing Mountaineering Council of Scotland business I was keen to head into the hills. The sunshine continued the next day but by the time I was climbing the path up Coire Fhearnagan from Glen Feshie the clouds were rolling in and drizzle was drifting down. Enveloped in mist I crossed the boggy expanses of the Moine Mhor (Great Moss) to camp on a patch of not-too-wet ground above Loch nan Cnapan. Rain was beating on the tent as I fell asleep but I woke to the heat and bright light of the newly risen sun. The mist and rain drenched land shone and sparkled. Rutting red deer stags bellowed nearby, the wild, guttural sound of the Highland autumn. The little pointed peak of Sgor Gaoith glowed in the long-angled sunshine. Far below Loch Einich lay in shadow. Leaving the wet tent to dry I climbed the big 1200+ metre peaks to the east: Braeriach, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul, treading the rim of magnificent An Garbh Coire above the remnants of the first snows of the winter, which had fallen a few days before. Across the great cleft of the Lairig Ghru big, bulky Ben MacDui, the highest peak in the Cairngorms, was shedding the last of the clouds. Turning from the high tops I cut back down to the tent, packed up and retraced my steps down Coire Fhearnagan as the sun set and mists began to form in the glens, filling the spaces between the blue hills that stretched out into the west. A glorious day, indeed.

The photo shows the view over the Highlands just after sunset on the descent to Glen Feshie. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens @ 54mm, f5.6@1/80, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro and cropped in Photoshop Elements 5.

Friday 28 September 2007

A Hawk Hunting

A Hawk Hunting

The hawk whipped round the side of the house too fast for me to even register its approach. Also too fast for the greenfinch pecking at peanuts in a feeder hung by a wall just outside the kitchen window. The speed of the sparrowhawk’s attack was so great that its momentum carried it on a few feet to crash into the window with a loud crack and a flurry of feathers. Standing maybe eighteen inches away at the sink I flinched at the noise and the sudden blur flashing into my face. Unhurt the young sparrowhawk turned and flew off round the side of the house. Knowing that a favourite perch was on a bird table outside the living room window, where I had photographed it less than half an hour earlier, I moved slowly and quietly into view. The bird was there, gripping a still struggling greenfinch in its talons. After a few minutes the hawk took off, slowly now, and flapped steadily away into the nearby woods. All was quiet. The drama, the violence was over. On top of the bird table a few soft feathers fluttered in the breeze.

The photo shows the sparrowhawk on top of the bird table shortly before the hunt. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF 80-200mm lens @ 180mm, f5.6 @ 1/200, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Capture One Pro.

Monday 24 September 2007

The End of Summer, a grey day on the Cairngorm Plateau

Grey air swept past on a cold wind, damp with thin drizzle. A few remnants of the previous day’s snowfall lingered between cold grey rocks. I put my hand on a patch of the cold whiteness, touching the first sign of winter. Grey mountains stretched away into the grey sky. The clouds only brushed the highest summits though, leaving the Cairngorm Plateau clear with sharp views that had been unusual during the hazy, misty summer. Four of us wandered into stony Coire an t-Sneachda, the cliffs at its head dark and threatening. Five pools lay on the corrie floor, revealing the wetness of the now fading summer. Often by mid-September there is barely one pool left. The steep Goat Track led up the corrie headwall to the plateau and a traverse across the slopes of Coire Domhain to the rushing waters of the Feith Buidhe. We stood on hard, cold granite slabs gazing down to long Loch Avon stretching out between craggy mountainsides, one of the great vistas of the Scottish Highlands. A sheltered corner below boulders provided a scenic lunch spot before we turned to face the wet wind and climbed gently beside the stream to the pool at its source, jackets done up, hats pulled down, gloves on hands, then crossed the bulky shoulder of Cairn Lochan before dropping out of the cold into Coire an Lochan.

The photo shows the view down to Loch Avon. Black and white captures the feel of the day better than colour. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens @ 21mm, f8 @ 1/200, ISO 200, raw file converted to a JPEG and processed in Photoshop Elements 5.

Sunday 16 September 2007

Blog Comments & Interviews: Alladale Revisited and Love In A Tent

Back on August 15 I wrote about plans to turn the Alladale Estate in Northern Scotland into a safari park. Since then the idea has continued to generate comment and there are interesting discussions on the TGO magazine blog and in two entries on Andy Howell's blog (following an editorial by Cameron McNeish in the October 2007 TGO magazine) - here and here. I expect further vigorous discussion in the future.

I have recently been interviewed for another blog, Maple Kiwi's Love In A Tent, about hiking and camping with my partner. Under her non-blogging name Michelle Waitzman Maple Kiwi has written a book called "Sex in a Tent: a wild couple's guide to getting naughty in nature" (Wilderness Press, Oct. 2007) that should be useful reading for any hiking couple (and not just for information on sex!).

The photo shows wild goats in the woods below Seana Bhraigh - not on the Alladale Estate but not far away. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens at 55mm, f8 @ 1/80, ISO 100, raw file converted to a JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Thursday 13 September 2007

Misty Days in Glencoe

What a dull summer this has been! The last time there was more than a day or two of sunny weather in the Scottish Highlands was back in April, over four long months ago. Low cloud and rain has been the norm, the hills gloomy and mist-shrouded. Recently I spent a few days in Glencoe, climbing Beinn a'Bheithir, Bidean nam Bian and Buachaille Etive Mor. Damp clouds clung to the ridges and summits and I saw little once I had climbed out of the glens. The hills still felt majestic though, their steep, rocky slopes giving an air of seriousness to the ascents. Despite the plethora of paths navigation can be difficult. Indeed, in places it's the existence of paths that can be the cause of problems. On Buachaille Etive Mor I met a succession of people who had followed a path south from the subsidiary summit of Stob na Doire and found themselves on steep dangerous terrain above waterfalls and crags. All had then sensibly climbed back up and located the correct path, which runs south-west from the summit. Stob na Doire is approached in a southerly direction when traversing the mountain from north-east to south-west, as most people do, and I guess it's easy just to continue on south down the path if you don't check the map. Elsewhere I found the new path in the forest below Sgorr Dhearg on Beinn a'Bheithir a lovely scenic walk compared with the steep muddy horror of the old path, which drops down slimy grooves in dense forest(and down which I once slithered in the dark on a cold winter's night after a wonderful traverse of a snow-covered Beinn a'Bheithir). However finding the start of the new path in descent is quite hard as it fades out in the open corrie above the trees and it would be easy to go down the old route instead. This new path, along with another further east, has been surveyed by Mike Newbury for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and his detailed, illustrated report is worth reading by anyone heading for Beinn a'Bheithir.

The photo shows Coire Gabhail, Bidean nam Bian. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens at 41mm, f8 @ 1/160, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Capture One Pro.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

Pheasants and Feeders

Since the last post I have been watching the young cock pheasants that have taken up residence in the garden. In just a few days their plumage has changed with the sharper, brighter colours of the beautiful adult males starting to come through. The first green is appearing on the neck and head and a few thin tail feathers have emerged on some of the birds. The pheasants prefer to stay on the ground, scratching and pecking for seeds, but they are aware of the feeders and seed trays above them and occasionally one will extend its head upwards, looking at the food, then make an ungainly leap, often falling back down with a feeble fluttering of wings but occasionally managing to get its claws around the edge of the seed tray and hang on. Clearly nervous at being so exposed the bird then pecks madly at the seeds, constantly looking up, before losing its nerve or balance and tumbling to the ground. When disturbed the pheasants skulk, lowering their heads and extending their necks then creeping slowly away through the undergrowth. If really startled they run, snaking through the grass. I have yet to see any of these youngsters fly. Watching them I've found they seem more and more alien and I find harder and harder to imagine what life might be like for them. Beautiful aliens from a different world, even if it is my garden.

Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF 80-200mm lens at 200mm (effectively 320mm), f5.6 @ 1/60, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Capture One Pro. Hand held.

Sunday 2 September 2007

Pheasants and Stoats, A Garden Drama

Late every summer the fields and woods around my house are alive with young pheasants, released from their rearing pens so they can attempt to become at least semi-wild before being shot. Used to being fed by the gamekeeper they're relatively tame and clearly not sure how to cope in the wild. They often congregate on roads and it can be quite hard not to knock them down. (As an aside I regard this breeding of pheasants in order to release them in the wild and then pretend they are wild birds and shoot them as bizarre and unpleasant). This last week some of these pheasants have taken up residence in our garden, feeding on seeds and scraps that fall from bird tables and feeders (and occasionally trying to fly onto these, usually unsuccessfully due to their size). Not yet in full plumage the young birds looks quite strange with a mixture of soft fluffy feathers and the growing bronze smoothness of the beautiful adult feathers. Many of them have rather bare heads, which look even more reptilian than usual, a hint of their dinosaur ancestry.

I was watching three of these pheasants pecking around below a feeder outside the kitchen when they suddenly froze, lowered their heads and looked away from the house, all of them taking up identical poses, a rather strange sight. Smaller birds vanished and all was quiet, usually a sign of a predator around. Suddenly a stoat erupted from the heathers immediately below the kitchen window and raced away, pursued closely by a second one. Ignoring the pheasants, which were facing in the other direction and never saw them, the two stoats ran round the side of the house and disappeared. The pheasants relaxed and started to move and look less like statues and the first small birds returned to the feeders when, just a few minutes later, a sparrowhawk flashed round the corner of the house and swooped on a coal tit that just escaped, flying off with the hawk just inches behind it. Stoats and sparrowhawk in quick succession - it was an eventful time in the garden and I was glad I'd been watching the pheasants.

The action described took place too quickly for me even to think about grabbing a camera. I later took this picture, through the kitchen window, of a young cock pheasant in the garden. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF 80-200mm lens at 200mm (effectively 320mm), f8 @ 1/250, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Monday 27 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival Review Part 3


This adaptation of Mervyn Peake's weird and macabre Gormenghast trilogy, written by playwright John Constable, was exciting, noisy, colourful and, appropriately, mysterious. It's a promenade production with the actors moving round and through the audience between different stages. The venue was moved at the last minute. I don't know what the original one was like but the replacement seemed too small and too low without the space and high stages needed for such an energetic production. Even moving round with the actors it was difficult to see everything. Despite this it was a fine production, visually stimulating and well acted by the young female cast. Some of the acting and costume design seemed influenced by the excellent and under-rated BBC TV Gormenghast series, which is no criticism. Peake's story of a decaying aristocratic family - the Groans - and their downfall at the hands of sinister young upstart Steerpike was portrayed as much by action as words and it would probably be difficult to follow for anyone not familiar with the story. Although there was the occasional lapse into mere recitation the lines were mostly delivered confidently and with passion. I was particularly impressed by Amelia Peterson as the seductive and manipulative Steerpike and Alice Hodgson as the Wild Child, who gibbered and cried furiously, while Camilla Thompsell as Swelter the evil cook was suitably disgusting.

Escaping Hamlet

The last theatre production we attended begged the questions as to how many interpretations of Shakespeare there can be. An unlimited number it seems but I doubt many are as unusual and original as this Italian production by Teatro Dei Borgia / Compagnia Delle Formiche and Andy Jordan Productions, directed by Giianpiero Borgia and written by Natalia Capria and featuring an Italian/British cast. It's set in a surreal world that slips between Shakespeare's Denmark (the Swedish army is approaching throughout the play) and the world of today(actors wearing iPODs, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and different versions of "My Way" ringing round the theatre). The themes of the play are duty, destiny and the nature of theatre. Two of the principal characters are transvestite performers who don't performer (played well by Alessandro Sciusco and Antonello Taurino) but whose image of themselves as on the stage is central to their identity. Rather than avenge his father Hamlet wants to run away from the alcohol fuelled debauchery of Denmark to Paris and become an actor. The tone of the play shifts from comedy to pathos and tragedy and back again, sometimes with confusing speed. The costumes and set are splendid and the acting confident and compelling, drawing the audience into the mad dream world of this fantasy Denmark. Jessica Sedler is excellent as Kate, a servant who is also a voice of sanity, and Charlie Palmer is suitably doubting and uncertain as Hamlet.

I Served The King Of England

This was reckoned to be one of the highlights of the Film Festival. Based on a novel by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabel the film is directed by Jiri Menzel and set in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. It's a satirical film that tells the story of Dittie, whose ambition is to own a hotel and become a millionaire, and who works his way up to this position, mostly as a waiter. An innocent in many ways Dittie is happy to accommodate anything that aids his dream, including the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, until the Communist takeover after the war sees him sent to jail. The story is told by Dittie as an older and wiser man, after nearly 15 years in jail, but the key character is him as a young waiter. The film is lavish and opulent, beautifully shot with echoes of Peter Greenaway. The lushness, the graceful choreography, the light-hearted piano music contrasted with the cattle trucks full of prisoners and the war imagery gives the film a moral ambiguity that is disturbing (one of our party hated it, feeling it was a deeply immoral film). Is Dittie a hero? Should the film maker evoke sympathy for someone who joins the Nazis (though without any real understanding of what they are) and doesn't oppose the war? Perhaps Dittie should be contrasted with the head waiter at the hotel he works in when the Nazis take over who is eventually taken away, head held high, as he refuses to salute Hitler and accept the Nazi dominance. That the film raises such questions and challenges the viewer gives it a depth that belies some of the pretty filming and tinkling piano.

Martha McBrier: so you think you're a good heckler?

Edinburgh was awash with comedy shows (are there that many funny people around?) and I was assured that going to a late night comedy show was an essential part of attending the Festival. On the somewhat flimsy basis that she apparently once knew John Manning of TGO magazine and TGO Challenge fame we went to see Martha McBrier, a Glaswegian comic with a show with a rather provocative title. For some of the audience it was a bit of a challenge though sitting at the back of the cavern like room (with drips falling from the rough brick roof) we mostly missed her attentions. McBrier was everything I expected a late-night stand-up comedian to be - crude, rude and (mildly) shocking. The show wasn't so much about heckling as audience participation with McBrier getting us to vote and comment on her jokes (some good, some appalling). The humour, and much of the show was very funny, lay in her interaction with the audience rather than the jokes themselves and she did find a few people who delighted in sparring with her. The show was light relief after all the rather serious drama we saw but enjoyable and worthwhile for all that.

The picture shows a street scene in Edinburgh during the festival. Photo info: Ricoh GR-D, f9 @ 1/640, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Photoshop Elements 5 and processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Friday 24 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival Review Part 2


Arriving in Edinburgh at Waverley Station we made our way through the sudden and startling throng to the Half-Price Hut on Princes Street and bought tickets for a play called Babble that my partner had marked as sounding interesting in her Fringe guide and about which I knew nothing. Within a few hours of arrival we were in a small, dark, almost claustrophobic room listening as a strange, dark, somewhat claustrophobic monologue unfolded. Babble is about a world consisting of an endless library full of books no one can understand, a nightmare world of futile quests for meaning. A disturbed and disturbing Gothic figure welcomes us in and tells us, haltingly and with many asides, about his tragic and seemingly futile life. This sounds potentially depressing and possibly dull but in fact the play is engrossing and thought-provoking and there's an excellent performance by Jonathan Clarkson as the at times sinister, at times pathetic Librarian. The play was written by Eric Conway, based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. As an introduction to the Fringe it was a serious and intense work, presaging much of what was to come.

The Last South: Pursuit of the Pole

A few days later we saw another play that was, in its own way, about meaning and purpose. This tells the story of Scott and Amundsen's race for the South Pole and was adapted from expedition diaries by GM Calhorn. The two protagonists, played by Adrian Lukis (Scott) and Jamie Lee (Amundsen), describe the planning and execution of their journeys, at times directing comments and looks at each other. Lukis and Lee, dressed in appropriate polar costume, even down to old ski boots, are superb, capturing well the different personalities of the two explorers and their feelings of trepidation, exhaustion, excitement, wonder, triumph and despair. The final tragedy is poignantly told. The world of the Antarctic is captured well too and at times I expected to see the audience shivering, as I was inside. An excellent interpretation of one of the epic stories of exploration that made both men more human and sympathetic than they are often portrayed in books.

Richard Long: Walking and Marking

This exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was the only show I had planned on seeing in advance. Ironically it was the only one I found disappointing. Fascinated by the idea of walks as art works and liking the idea of art that explores relationships with landscape I really wanted to like this exhibition but it just didn't make any significant impression on me. I went round twice, in case I'd missed some vital clue or connection, but to no avail. I saw some nice patterns and some intricate circles and spirals but these had less effect on me than a well-made dry-stone wall let alone a rock face or a tree. The photographs, snapshots in the main, left me unimpressed. Many had words about the walks and the places written on them and some of the art works were just words. None of these conjured up anything. Some just seemed statements of how many days Long had walked and how many miles in a day. I can see that some of the works were fun to do. Throwing muddy water at a pristine gallery wall and letting it drip down to form streaky patterns was probably entertaining. The result left me cold though - to my eyes it looked like what it was, muddy drips on a wall. A map of Britain consisting purely of rivers did stir me a little. If that had filled a wall I might have been impressed. And at the end of this extensive exhibition there was a short poem that touched me. Finally the artist had succeeded in communicating a love of wild places. I'm sure Richard Long enjoys his walks and they are meaningful for him. But if I want to be inspired or made to think about walking and wild places I'd rather look at photographs by people like Colin Baxter, Colin Prior, Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell or read the works of Colin Fletcher or Edward Abbey.

Outside the gallery is a lawn leading to sculpted grass terraces reflected in curving pools. This is an art work by Charles Jencks called Landform. I found it soothing and graceful, a modern reminder of the great landscape gardeners of the eighteenth century. The image above shows part of Landform.

Photo info: Ricoh GR-D, f9 @ 1/200, ISO 100, raw file converted to a JPEG in Photoshop Elements 5 then processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival Review Part 1

Urban landscapes are not my favourite places but as cities go Edinburgh is one of the most diverse and interesting. And it has the Festival, a summer of art and entertainment. I'd never visited the Festival until this year, always preferring the hills, but invited down by friends and with my partner going I decided to risk a few days of city life. I went open-minded, with no real idea what to expect, and came home replete with artistic satisfaction and delighted with most of the shows I had seen. There are many festivals of course - official, fringe, film, book, art. The Fringe is the big one, with over 2000 shows, of which we saw six - five theatrical, one late night comedy. One art exhibition and one film added brief visits to those festivals. There was an outdoor element - one play was about Scott and Amundsen, the art exhibition about walking.

Edinburgh itself becomes part of the event, with crowds wandering its old and twisted streets and gathering to watch street performers. Characters in costume amble out of their venues for sustenance, barely meriting a glance. Posters, often plastered with reviews, scream for attention and show promoters thrust leaflets at you constantly, the most vigorous and determined street sellers I've seen outside Kathmandu. It's all very colourful and exciting but eventually I did find pushing through the hordes and the roar and smell of the traffic wearing and I was glad to seize an hour away from the clamour and climb Arthur's Seat in the rain to look out on a misty Edinburgh fading away into greyness. This little 250 metre rocky volcanic remnant had been my first ever Scottish hill back when I was eleven and here on a school trip. I'd sneaked off with a friend, drawn by what seemed a huge mountain, and we'd found our way to the top, returning to a telling off by worried teachers that washed over me. Nothing could crush the feelings of wonder and triumph. Brought up on the flat Lancashire coast and never having climbed anything higher than a 20 metre sand dune before I was astounded at this little hill. All I remember now is how good it felt to climb it, to be there on a summit, above everything else.

Of the shows I saw one had the same stunning effect on me as Arthur's Seat all those years ago.

Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? Biuro Podrozy.

Held in the open air in the cobbled Old College Quad this Polish theatre production was an astonishing sensory feast that has left strange images floating in my mind that I suspect I'll never forget. Black robed witches, their faces hidden by white veils, stalked the cobbles on stilts, sinister and powerful. Macbeth and Banquo were gun toting soldiers roaring round on motorbikes. Snatches of Shakespeare floated in the air at times and there was some powerful singing but overall this was a visual show. Fires flared from posts and walls, gun shots rang out, tall poles toppled and fell, representing deaths. Lady Macbeth went to pieces, seen hazily naked as she tries to wash out all that blood. Earlier a naked prisoner in a cage symbolised the victory of Duncan. Macbeth and Banquo, on foot, shoot the witches, now down from their stilts, repeatedly only to find them leaping back to life. Banquo's son tempts Macbeth with a crown rolled along the ground on a stick as a child's toy, a strangely unsettling image. At the finish the tall poles appear again, now as Birnam Forest come to Dunisinane, and Macbeth burns in his blazing castle. Intense and absorbing, this surreal drama drew me in and held me spellbound. I'd love to see it again.

The photo shows people watching a street show in the drizzle on the High Street. Photo info: Ricoh GR-D, f9 @ 1/320, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Photoshop Elements 5 then processed in DxO Optics Pro.

A Wild Sea On Islay

Whilst Islay doesn't have the highest or most exciting hills in the Hebrides it does have splendid beaches and magnificent cliffs, making it a good island to visit for those who like coastal walks. Laggan Bay is a five mile stretch of golden sand backed by dunes and machair facing the Atlantic Ocean with complex low broken rocky cliffs at either end. The picture shows a wild wind-driven sea crashing over the rocks at the southern end of the bay. I was balancing on the slippery rocks right at the edge of the surging sea with waves breaking on either side and at my feet, an exhilarating, exciting and noisy place to be. I took many photographs but particularly like this one of the water running back off the rocks after a huge wave had broken over them. In the background can be seen the long golden line of the sands.

Researching information on Islay before my visit I managed to miss Armin Grewe's excellent website and blog. Indeed, if he hadn't commented on my first post on Islay and Jura I still wouldn't have known his site existed. If you're interested in Islay this informative and entertaining site is worth a long look. You can even buy Islay themed T-shirts!

Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm lens @ 21mm, f8 @ 1/400, ISO 200, raw file converted to a JPEG and processed in Capture One Pro.

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Fencing Munros, a dastardly proposal: Seana Bhraigh and the Alladale safari park

Seana Bhraigh, one of the remotest Munros, lies in a vast wild area in the Northern Highlands. To the east the land is part of the huge Alladale Estate, which the current owner, millionaire business man Paul Lister, wants to turn into a safari park with wolves, bears, elk, lynx and other animals that once lived in the Highlands. The low ground of Alladale is badly overgrazed by red deer with few trees and no forest regeneration. Lister intends on restoring the forest, which will be essential to provide habitat for the animals. Now all this is admirable. I'm very much in favour of forest regeneration and the reintroduction of wild animals, as long as the habitat is suitable. However Lister also plans on keeping the animals on his estate by means of a high electrified fence and then charging visitors to enter. This would end free access to the estate and put Seana Bhraigh out of bounds. It would also mean an unspoilt wild area would be sullied by the fence. This isn't restoring a wild area but making a safari park. True re-wilding, to use the current phrase, would not involve fencing. So far Lister has enclosed a 400 acre area and successfully applied for a dangerous wild animals licence. He is also doing a great deal of PR for his scheme - most recently a feature in The Observer newspaper.

Fencing Alladale would be illegal under the Land Reform Act which gives a right of free access to land in Scotland. I cannot imagine that the Scottish Executive will allow his fence to be built. Indeed, it is outrageous that a landowner can act as though he can do this without needing to bother about the law. However I still think it is necessary to counter his PR and point out that the fence is against the access legislation and will be an eyesore. To that end I have written to The Observer about their article. I suggest others do the same. Those in Scotland could also contact their MSPs and Ministers, those without Scotland could contact the Executive.

Seana Bhraigh is a wonderfully wild hill. I was up there in March for a few days, camping by frozen lochans and climbing over the last snow fields of the winter. Not far from the summit, at a height of 3000 feet, I saw a badger foraging between the patches of snow, the first time I've seen a badger this high and this far from woodland. A fence up here would be an insult to nature.

The photo shows the summit of Seana Bhraigh in spring. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Tamron 11-18mm lens at 11mm, f8 @ 1/640, ISO 200, raw file processed in Capture One Pro.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

The Paps of Jura

In a comment on my last post Armin asked if I was going to post any pictures of the Jura and Islay hills. Here's one, showing two of the three Paps of Jura. Three is a rather unusual number as Paps means breasts. It makes me think of Eccentrica Gallumbits, the Triple-Breasted Whore of Eroticon 6, in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, long favourites of mine. The two in the picture are Beinn an Oir (on the left) and Beinn Shiantaidh, viewed from the slopes of the third, Beinn a'Chaolais, the only one from which I had clear views.

Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens at 18mm, f8 @ 1/320, ISO 200, JPEG straight from camera, no post processing.

Thursday 9 August 2007

Five Distilleries, Four Hills: A Sojourn on Islay & Jura

Over the years I have slowly been visiting the islands of the Hebrides and climbing their mountains. Islay and Jura, the southernmost islands, had been on my list for some time but the distance from my home in Strathspey and the attractions of the many fine mountains in between kept me away until last week. The two islands are a great contrast, Islay being mostly low lying with vast peat moors and only a few hills, the highest rising to just 491 metres, while Jura is mountainous with little flat land and three summits - the Paps of Jura - rising to over 700 metres. Islay is not an island to visit for the hillwalking but it does have many fine beaches and eight whisky distilleries. The only ferry to Jura goes from Islay anyway so to visit the latter you have to visit the former and the Paps of Jura are superb, steep, rocky hills that every hillwalker will relish. We stayed in Port Ellen, where the ferry from the mainland docks, and visited five of the distilleries, three of which - Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig - lay only a few miles from the ferry terminal. Bowmore is a little further and Kilchoman further still. If you haven't heard of the latter - and I hadn't until I reached Islay - it's because it's brand new and it'll be a few years before the first bottles of whisky are available. In the meantime you can taste the basic spirit - which isn't bad actually - and have an enjoyable tour of the first new distillery on Islay for 124 years. In fact all the distilleries have interesting guided tours, of which we thought Ardbeg was the most informative. After the tours there are whisky tastings, with Bowmore the most generous. Of course once you've tasted the whisky it's hard not to buy some and we came home with four bottles of malt, a dram of one of which - the unbelievably gorgeous Laphroaig Cask Strength 10 Year Old - I am sipping as I write this.

In between distillery visits I did manage some hill walking, ascending Islay's highest peak, Beinn Bheigier, which gives excellent seascape views, and the three Paps of Jura. The latter are rugged, quartzite hills with some almost-scrambling sections, much scree and places where careful route-finding is needed, especially in mist, which came and went during my walk. Unlike the Islay hills the Paps of Jura feel like real mountains, rising precipitously above beautiful lochans and deep corries. To their north stretch equally rough though lower hills in a remote area that looks well worth a few days exploration with a tent, a good reason to go back. Along with the three distilleries I have still to visit.

The photo shows stills in the Laphroaig distillery. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens at 18mm, f3.5 @ 1.60, ISO 200, flash, raw file processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Friday 27 July 2007

Mountain Weather Information Service

Here's a nice sunny picture for the end of July! Still, snow looks better than rain. It was actually taken in February on the Cairngorm Plateau in a blizzard. The white streaks are horizontal wind-driven snow. I've posted it as a reminder of what conditions can be like in the Scottish mountains and why a good weather forecast can be invaluable for safe planning. For several years I've found the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) to be the most accurate and the most detailed. This summer I've used it to grab sunny weather windows between the murk and rain, twice being on the tops before 5am in bright sunshine, then descending mid-morning as the clouds closed in. MWIS has been in need of funding for some time now and a campaign has been run to gain government support, with much good work being done by Roger Wild, the Safety Officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, so it was with great delight that I learnt yesterday that the Scottish Executive is providing the necessary funds.

The photo shows my companion at the top of the Fiacaill a'Choire Chais in the Cairngorms. Photo info: Canon EOS 300D, 18-55mm lens at 35mm, f8 @ 1/1000, ISO 200, raw file processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Tuesday 24 July 2007

After the Friedrichshafen Outdoor Show

Four days away from the endless rain of this British "summer" in the heat and sun of Friedrichshafen has been welcome, even if most time was spent indoors looking at equipment and talking to the outdoor trade. Merrell's tipi village was a good place to relax and gave an appropriate outdoor feel to the event. A tipi proved a far cooler place to sleep than last year's hotel too. The show itself is huge, 712 exhibitors filling ten giant exhibition halls. Even in four days there's only time to see a little of what's on show.

So what was interesting? A surprising amount for the lightweight backpacker, especially in shelters and shoes. GoLite has a completely revamped tent line, with some nice looking shelters that erect with trekking poles, Mountain Hardwear has an ultralight solo semi-geodesic, Terra Nove an even lighter single hoop and Mountain Equipment and Hilleberg lightweight solo winter tents. In shoes there are more models without membrane (hurrah!) and even, from Lowa amongst others, some with leather linings, which don't stink like synthetics. There are some good ultralight sleeping bags from Rab (the new Top Bag looks superb) and Mountain Equipment and a 418 gram stove with heat exchanger called the EtaExpress from Primus. There are brief descriptions of some of this gear on the TGO website by Cameron McNeish, who spent his afternoons at the computer while Judy Armstrong and I roamed the halls, and proper test reports will appear in TGO magazine over the next year as actual products become available.

The photo shows Cameron McNeish and Judy Armstrong relaxing in the Merrell tipi village. Photo info: Ricoh GR-D with 21mm lens adapter, f8 @ 1/250, ISO 100, JPEG, processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Preparations for the Outdoor Show, Friedrichshafen

This weekend sees the Outdoor Show in Friedrichshafen, Germany. It's the biggest outdoor trade show in Europe and the place to see all the new gear. I'll be there for four days, wandering the halls looking for interesting items and talking to myriads of designers, marketeers and PR people. Shows like this are exciting, entertaining and exhausting. I reckon a long day on the hill is far less tiring than a day at a trade show. I always need to go for a walk afterwards to recover. I like to go to the hills beforehand too, just to remind myself what it's really all about - which isn't gear. So a few days ago I climbed Ben MacDui in the Cairngorms by way of Loch Avon and Loch Etchachan on a day of much cloud and brief sunshine with spits of rain that only turned heavy ten minutes before the walk was over. The hills glowed and glowered under the clouds and flashes of sun, fresh with the green of summer and sparkling with water from the recent rains. I was surprised at how many snow patches remain, given the warm and wet weather of the last two months. Some were big enough for a few ski turns. Refreshed I'm now prepared for a long weekend inside. Actually it won't be totally inside as I'll be staying in a tipi in a village of such tents provided by Merrell footwear, which could be interesting.

Once I'm back from Friedrichshafen I'll post an overview of the show. Test reports of interesting new gear will then appear in TGO over the next year. So far I've heard of interesting developments from GoLite, Terra Nova and Primus. I'm sure there'll be more.

The photo shows the head of Loch Avon, Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone Crag at 14.30 on July 15. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55 lens @ 18mm, f8 @1/1 25, 2 stop graduated neutral density filter, ISO 100, JPEG. No post processing.

Tuesday 10 July 2007

Mountaineering Council of Scotland Podcast with Cameron McNeish

A few weeks ago I was elected President of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, a privilege and a responsibility that I am still coming to terms with. Yesterday I recorded a Podcast on the MCoS and my role with Cameron McNeish, the editor of TGO. The podcast can be found here and also downloaded from iTunes. We recorded the podcast sitting in the sunshine looking out across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorm mountains on the first dry day for many weeks. After we'd finished I wandered up Meall a'Bhuachaille via Ryvoan Pass and lovely An Lochain Uaine - the little green lake - which was living up to its name by reflecting the colours of the pines and birches rising above its stony shores. Meall a'Bhuachaille is another fine viewpoint for the Cairngorms and the great pine forests of Strathspey, with Loch Morlich shining amongst the trees. Looking at out this superb vista, as I have done many times before, reminded me of why bodies like the MCoS are important if we want future generations to have the same pleasure. We cannot take the conservation of wild lands or freedom of access to them for granted.

The photo shows the view from Meall a'Bhuachaille. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Tamron 11-18mm lens @ 11mm, f8 @ 1/320, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG and converted in DxO Optics Pro.