Thursday 20 March 2008

Wild Cairngorm Weather

After drifting through the Yellowstone Wilderness in sunshine, gentle snow showers and the occasional gust of cold wind returning to the wet cold brutality of the Cairngorms was a bit of a shock. My first day out on my home hills was a short venture up little Meall a’Bhuachaille above Glenmore on a day previously spent sitting in the Mountain CafĂ© in Aviemore staring out at torrential rain. Flashes of blue sky and an easing of the rain stirred me out of my lethargy and onto the hill where a brisk cold wind kept me moving. On the summit I was leaning into the wind and looking across the Glenmore woods to clouds tearing across the big Cairngorm summits. I was glad I had gone no further and no higher. By the time I was back down in the glen the rain was pouring down again.

A week later a reasonable weather forecast lured me out again, this time on skis and intent on the crossing of the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben MacDui, one of the finest ski tours in the area when conditions are good. The forecast had said the effect of the wind would be “negligible”, a statement I remembered as a bitter north-easterly blasted me up onto the plateau through squalls of hail and wet snow and into dense damp clinging mist that condensed and froze on my clothing and equipment, coating my poles with ice. Hood up over a warm hat, overmitts over my gloves, goggles on my face for better visibility and for protection against the stinging wind, I was wearing more than I ever needed while skiing in Yellowstone. Temperature isn’t everything, this damp cold penetrated and chilled far more effectively than the dry air of the Rockies. A navigation exercise across the plateau and a return into the storm didn’t appeal so I headed for Cairn Gorm instead, needing a compass bearing to navigate the few hundred yards to the start of the summit slopes as I was in a complete white-out. Rocks scoured clean of snow by the wind gave depth to the hillside and confirmed that I was still climbing. When the ground and sky merge it can be very disorientating. Soon the terrain flattened out and I glimpsed the surreal snow plastered contorted shape of the Cairngorm Weather Station, behind which I sheltered for a quick snack and a warming drink of hot Rock’s Organic Ginger cordial from my flask. A thinning and lightening of the clouds suggested the air might be clearing. A touch of blue flickered above, astonishingly bright in this otherwise black and white world. Revived by the hot ginger and visibility that stretched farther than ten yards I skied over to the rocky top of Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, a wonderful viewpoint for the deep straight cleft of Strath Nethy which led out beyond the snow clad hills to the green and brown fields and moors of the lowlands, a different, colourful world. The wind was still strong and cold so soon I turned and skied carefully back down the wind blasted snow. The weather had been wild and unforgiving but for a few minutes the wind had torn apart the storm and revealed some of the beauty and majesty of the Cairngorms, reminding me of why I love these hills despite the rain and wind and snow.

The picture shows the weather station on the summit of Cairn Gorm. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 18mm, f8@1/2000, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Saturday 8 March 2008

Yellowstone Podcast with Cameron McNeish

Yesterday I recorded a podcast with Cameron McNeish that has just appeared on his web site. On the podcast I talk about the reasons for my Yellowstone trips and the gear I used. The podcast can be downloaded from Cameron's site or via iTunes.

The photo shows the second igloo camp in the Firehole River valley on this year's trip. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS @ 24mm, f8@1/640, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.

TGO Gear Issue

The April TGO magazine, just published, is a special gear issue. It’s not however full of long lists of gear. In fact there are no lists at all. Instead there are masses of gear reviews, trip reports of how gear performed and interviews with outdoors people about the gear they use. There’s also a piece I wrote on the ethics of outdoor gear, which was an interesting piece to research and write and more encouraging than I initially expected. Other work of mine in this issue is a trip report on new gear used on a high camp in the Cairngorms (GoLite Xanadu 1 tent, MontBell Ultralight Super Stretch Down Hugger #3 sleeping bag, Primus EtaExpress stove, GoLite Trail Fly shoes & Mountain Equipment Compressor insulated jacket – all items shown at the Friedrichshafen show a few months before the trip), a trip report on the gear used on my Yellowstone ski tour last year (much of which was used again on this year’s trip), a piece on safety and lightweight gear in which I argue that the latter can be just as safe as heavy gear and eleven gear reviews including the FurTech Talon jacket, Baffin Mountain Boots, GoLite Shangri-La 3 shelter, Wild Country Sololite tent and the Inkapen. Small items are important too! There’s much else by other people too including Cameron McNeish’s latest contribution to the Alladale estate proposals, which I’ve commented on in several blog entries. The issue is introduced by Cameron in a short video on the TGO website.

The picture shows the camp on the Moine Mhor during testing for the “High Camp in the Cairngorms” TGO feature. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm @ 55mm, f8@1/500, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Yellowstone Wilderness

Deep snow, smoking rivers, geysers throwing water and steam high into the freezing, sparkling air, bubbling mud pots, magnificent old growth forest, winding canyons, vast pristine meadows – Yellowstone National Park in winter is a very special place, which is why I returned there last month for a second year’s ski touring and igloo building. For ten frosty nights I marvelled at the enormous starry skies, the brilliant waxing moon and the dark outlines of the forest before retreating to the cosy (really!) confines of an igloo for hot food and a comfortable night’s sleep. During the days our party of five skied through the forests and meadows, towing our gear on pulks between igloo sites, and touring with light daypacks from the igloos. We ventured down steep-sided river canyons, explored remote thermal basins and wandered across little-visited meadows. Eleven days of refreshing wilderness and natural beauty. Shoshone Geyser Basin was weird and wonderful, coloured thermal pools and steaming bare ground lying beside snow covered meadows below trees and rocks thickly coated with the frozen damp air from the thermal features. Lone Star geyser blasted water and steam high into the air at three hourly intervals, a display we could watch from outside our igloo. The high meadows at the headwaters of the Firehole river were quieter and more subtle, rippled white fields stretching for miles between dark forests to the final cliffs above Madison Lake. To reach the meadows we skied through silent groves of giant Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, tremendous trees soaring into the sky. Wildlife was scarce in this harsh snowbound land but we were visited by foxes and pine martens, intent, sometimes successfully, on raiding our food supplies. One pine marten bravely ventured into our igloos while we were away, showing a great liking for chocolate. At another site a less bold marten hissed and chattered at us from a pine tree. Coyote tracks were everywhere but we never saw one of these wild dogs. Gray jays and Clark’s nutcrackers visited every igloo site, on the lookout for any scraps of food. Surprisingly, one of the commonest birds we saw were mallard ducks, which were often encountered in the creeks and rivers, open despite the bitter sub zero temperatures due to the warmth from the thermal features.

Ski touring in winter Yellowstone was a deep wilderness experience, an immersion into a wild, natural world. It will live with me for many years.

The picture shows the Lone Star geyser erupting just after sunset. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS @ 29mm, f8@1/30, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.