Friday 25 April 2008

Perfect Spring Skiing in the Cairngorms

Every year I usually make the traverse of the Cairngorm Plateau from Cairn Gorm to Ben Macdui at least once as it’s my favourite ski tour. Despite the many weeks snow has lain on the hills this winter and spring it seemed as though this year would be one when the right conditions eluded me. Each time I set off I met a combination of strong winds, minimal visibility and blizzards that had me turning back. The Cairngorm Plateau is high and exposed, a little piece of arctic tundra, and navigation can be difficult and travel against the wind impossible in a big winter storm. Cliffs and avalanche prone slopes rim the plateau so finding the right route is essential for safety. I’ve skied across the plateau in a blizzard and it’s a slow, hard journey. I have no wish to do so again if it’s not necessary so on each venture so far this snow season I stayed on the northern edge of the plateau and only spent a few hours high up.

Waiting for the right time and weather is always worthwhile but when April arrived I thought that the opportunity for this year had passed. I certainly didn’t think that it would arrive as late as April 21. However late April came and the snow still lay deep on the hills. As always I was watching the weather forecast day by day and noting that although pressure was high and temperatures cold there was a strong east wind and much cloud, not the right weather for an enjoyable ski on the Cairngorm plateau. I did make a trip on skis into the Monadh Liath, the grey hills on the far side of Strathspey from the Cairngorms (originally the Monadh Ruadh – the red hills), and the strength of the wind on these lower hills was enough to make me glad not to be any higher. Then came the forecast for April 21 - lower wind speeds and a possible cloud clearance late in the day. Trusting in the predicted timing I set out at 2.45 p.m. as the skies started turning a deep blue and the snow began to shine in the strengthening sun. A few people descending passed me, stomping down through the snow towards cafes and bars and indoor warmth. By the time I reached the plateau it was deserted and I had the whole white cold world to myself. The ski to Ben Macdui was a delight, with more snow than I remember for many years. Sections that are often rocky, such as that from Stob Coire an t-Sneachda down to the col with Cairn Lochan were white and firm, beautiful spring snow on which to make turns. It was 7 p.m. when I reached the summit of Ben Macdui and wandered west to the edge of the summit dome and the tremendous sight of Cairn Toul and Braeriach rising out of the depths of the Lairig Ghru and An Garbh Choire, one of the great views of the Scottish Highlands.

Leaving the summit I meandered back across the plateau as the sun sank low in the sky and blue shadows were cast across the snow. A descent of Lurchers Gully on now refrozen crusty snow was entertaining in the fading flat light, as was the zigzag route round bits of open water, scraps of bog and boulders and clumps of heather as the snow slowly ran out. Finally linking ever smaller patches of snow became too difficult and I walked the last half mile back to the car as the first stars appeared in the black sky.

Cairn Gorm from the lower slopes of Ben MacDui, late in the afternoon on April 21. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 51mm, f8@1/125, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Chris Joins Backpacking Light

I’m very pleased to have joined the editorial team of Backpacking Light as Senior Gear Editor. I have been a regular reader of the both the BPL website and the paper magazine for several years and have contributed the occasional piece. I’m excited at the prospect of being involved in this innovative project. This doesn't mean that I won't be writing for TGO magazine, just that you'll now find my stuff in two places.

My first feature for the Backpacking Light website since joining the editorial team has also just appeared. It isn’t a gear piece though but an illustrated account of the ski and igloo tour in Yellowstone a group of us undertook in February (see my posts for March 4 and March 8).

The picture shows me backpacking light in the Glen Affric hills earlier this month (see post for April 14). Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS @55mm, f8@1/800, ISO 100, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Spring in Strathspey: Waders & Ospreys

Whilst the snow still lies deep on the hills there have been signs of spring in the glens and straths for several weeks now. At a glance the land still looks bound by winter, with no leaves on the trees, no flowers and no green grass, just the faded browns and greys of last years dead vegetation. A closer look does show buds on the trees and touches of green on open ground, faint hints of spring. It’s not to plants that I look for the first signs of winter’s fading however but to birds. In the rough pastures outside my home the waders have returned to breed and the bubbling calls of curlews, the piercing whistling of oystercatchers and the softer double note cries of lapwings fill the air. It’s the first sight of these birds that signifies spring for me, especially the lapwings, wheeling and swooping over the fields, their broad, fingered wings rushing through the air.

Even more significant is the return of another bird to Strathspey, an iconic symbol of the wild (and now the logo of the Cairngorms National Park). This is the osprey, a fish-hawk that winters in Africa and flies north to the Highlands to breed every spring. Extinct for many decades due to persecution ospreys returned in the 1950s to nest near Loch Garten in Strathspey. They have come back every year since, using the same nest in the same tree, and the Loch Garten Osprey Centre in Abernethy Forest is one of the RSPB’s major attractions in the Highlands. Ospreys now breed in many other places in Scotland but the Loch Garten nest has a special significance and the return of the ospreys and the progress of the breeding season is widely reported in the media and followed by many people, including myself. This year the first Loch Garten osprey returned on March 26 and a second on April 13. Last week I made my annual visit to Loch Garten to see the ospreys, a spring ritual I have followed for nearly two decades. The osprey centre is set well back in the trees from the battered old dead pine holding the big tangled bundle of sticks that is the nest. Telescopes are provided for viewing the distant birds without disturbing them. The female osprey, known as EJ and here for a fifth season, was perched on a nearby tree overlooking the nest, gazing across the forest.

Loch Garten is set in Abernethy Forest, a remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest, a remnant that is now regenerating and expanding under the ownership of the RSPB. Leaving the Osprey Centre I walked through the silent pines past Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie. Rich ground vegetation fills the spaces between the trees, a contrast to the sterile dark confines of a plantation. Out on the lochs goldeneye were drifting with the breeze, vanishing every so often as they dived for food. These distinctive ducks, named for their yellow eyes, breed in nest boxes on trees at the water’s edge. Beyond the lochs rose the snow-covered Kincardine Hills, a reminder that winter was not over yet.

View over Loch Mallachie and Abernethy Forest to the Kincardine Hills. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Tamron 11-18mm lens@ 14mm, f8@1/500, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.

Monday 14 April 2008

Spring Snow in the Highlands

The snowiest winter for many years continues into the spring with deep snow on the hills this April. A two night trip to Glen Affric a few days ago showed that the snow isn’t just confined to the Cairngorms. Indeed, the extensive views showed snow covered peaks in every direction. Above 700 metres the cover is just about complete except where the sun has melted the snow from rocks and exposed banks. In places the snow is thigh deep and soft, in others crusty and thin, making for slow hard going. Not wanting to carry skis up to the snowline I walked into the hills. In places skis would have been easier but in others there were too many rocks for comfortable skiing. Recent heavy rain and snowmelt had left the ground saturated and finding a dry spot for a camp was difficult. Eventually I squeezed the tent onto a patch of not too sodden moss beside some large boulders on a slight rise. Wild geese called as they flew north low over the camp and the occasional grouse cackled in the heather. Faintly in the distance I could hear the rushing waters of the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh. Otherwise all was quiet as I sat outside the tent as the white peaks darkened and a crescent moon grew bright.

Although the sky was mostly overcast, just the occasional burst of sunshine or flash of blue sky colouring the monochrome scene, the clouds stayed above the summits and the air was sharp and clear. I wandered up Toll Creagach, leaving a madly meandering trail as I tried to avoid the deepest snow (not always successfully), and gazed on the mountains all around, a beautiful, wild sight sweeping round the horizon. To the south-west though the view, and my mood, was sullied by a new wind farm, a row of monstrous turbines running along the snowy hills above Glen Moriston, destroying the landscape and the environment. There are already too many of these industrial horrors in the Highlands. As well as fighting to prevent more being built I think it is time to argue that ones like this should be torn down and the land restored, as far as that is possible, not sometime in the future when profits can no longer be made by the developers but now. Destroying wild land in order to save the environment is a contradiction. Anything that reduces wild land and biodiversity is not environmentally friendly, whatever wind farm developers claim.

The self-portrait was taken on the col between Tom a’Choinich and Toll Creagach with Sgurr na Lapaich in the background. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 24mm, f8@1/500, ISO 100, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Friday 4 April 2008

Memories & Iron Men

Last week I returned to the flat Lancashire coast where I was brought up for a family gathering. Here on the vast beaches and amongst the sand dunes and pinewoods – without a mountain in sight – my love of nature and wild places developed. On this visit I discovered an old journal, perhaps my first, kept in the 1960s and headed “Outings” and recording outdoor trips, mostly local. Many of the entries are lists of birds and plants – I had a hankering to be a field naturalist – and there is little to suggest what I was feeling. That I kept going back is all there is to show how important these walks were. A touch of excitement and pleasure does show in an account of a school trip to the Lake District, where we climbed Scafell Pike, which must have been one of my first ascents, in late March. I record that from Angle Tarn “we were walking on snow that covered the whole ground and it was very, very hot …. so hot that we had taken to eating snow and rubbing it over our hands and faces”. I thought the view from the summit “magnificent” and regretted that we couldn’t stay longer but did write that “happy and weary, we set off down the mountain”. My joy in climbing hills began early and has not abated in the slightest over the years.

On this return visit my brother John drove me and my partner Denise past the still familiar pinewoods and sand dunes to Crosby beach, where the wide expanse of sand stretching out to the distant sea under a gigantic spreading sky also felt familiar, as if I had been there just yesterday. We had come here to see Anthony Gormley’s Another Place installation, which consists of 100 life size iron figures cast from the artist’s body spread across two miles of beach and all facing out to sea. Initially I couldn’t distinguish these figures from the dog walkers, joggers, families and other people scattered on the sand. Then I noticed that some of the people were strangely rigid and still. Approaching the Iron Men – as they are popularly known – showed them to be strange indeed, and becoming stranger with every tide. The tidal range is huge here with the sea almost disappearing into the horizon at low tide. The Iron Men are scattered between the high and low tide marks. Each one is covered by the sea for different lengths of time and this has had a marked effect on how they have changed in the three years they have stood facing the ocean. All of them are slowly becoming part of nature and less like statues. Barnacles and seaweed are colonising these new rocks. Creeping around the lower legs of those close to the high tide mark, shrouding the heads of those out at low tide. Some are slowly sinking, their feet vanished, as if in quicksand. Faces are fading and smoothing on others, the features dissolving into rust. They reminded me strongly of the dead sailors on the Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, human figures that are merging with the creatures of the sea, a curious connection between Anthony Gormley’s artworks and a Hollywood blockbuster. The presence of the Iron Men on the beach creates an air on unreality and strangeness. What are these silent figures looking for, endlessly staring out to sea?

The photo of the Iron Man was taken on a Ricoh GR-D, f8@1/320, ISO 64, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Photoshop Elements 5.