Wednesday 22 October 2008

Strathspey Autumn Colours

Reports suggest that the woodland colours this autumn are especially spectacular. I find them impressive every year and haven’t noticed any big difference in Strathspey, just the small changes that make each year interesting and unique. Wandering round the woods yesterday I noticed that the aspens, often flashes of brilliant yellow, have already lost their leaves and stand grey and bare, stark winter trees. Last week their foliage was still green so any colour has been brief. Bird cherries, which can be a brilliant red, have lost many leaves too and aren’t as glorious as in many years. In contrast the larches are only just beginning to turn, their needles fading from dark to pale green and showing just the first hints of yellow, their magnificent peak still to come. Rowans, which in some years show little colour other than the red berries and lose their leaves quickly, are turning a deep bronze red, that looks rather like dirty rust close to but stands out as a burst of intense colour at a distance. The real beauty lies with the birches though, which glow bright yellow and gold, though the strong winds of recent days have stripped leaves from the most exposed trees and branches, leaving them bare and with the purple tinge that marks them out in winter. Whilst many individual trees are worth stopping to contemplate and admire I find a big sweep of woodland with a mix of the dark green of conifers and the dazzling autumn colours of the deciduous trees the most striking and inspiring. At this time of year the forest, which has been a mass of uniform dull green for months, comes alive and shines in the landscape. Beyond and above the trees snow lay on the slopes of the high Cairngorms and the sky was swept with fast-moving squalls of cold rain and sleet. The forest was the place to be.

Photo info: Strathspey Woodland. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS@109mm, f5.6@1/60, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Stormy Weather on Ben Lomond

With talks in Glasgow and Edinburgh bookending last week,rather than return home for the short intervening period I spent a few days in the Loch Lomond area, somewhere I rarely visit as it’s the most distant part of the Highlands from my home. The forecast was for stormy weather and this time it was right. However rather than the blanket of cloud hiding the hills and the constant rain that stormy weather can mean I had three days of fast moving violent squalls with bursts of heavy rain, tremendous winds and flashes of sunlight, which was invigorating and exciting. The first afternoon I walked along the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, following the West Highland Way, watching the clouds tumbling over the Arrochar Alps and the wind-driven rain crashing on the stony beaches. The woods were dripping with moisture and I had a damp camp deep amongst the autumn-tinted trees, sheltered from the wind but not the rain. Leaving the forest the next day I climbed up onto the boggy ground to the north of Ben Lomond, where my overtrousers were needed to keep the waist high reeds from soaking me as well as shedding the frequent showers as I crossed the sodden land to the north ridge, which in turn led to the top section of the rocky Ptarmigan Ridge. Blasts of storm force winds had me clinging to the rocks in places to avoid being blown off the mountain. Dense wet cloud enshrouded me long before I reached the top. Hoping there might be a clearance I found shelter on the steep slopes east of the summit cairn and sat down to wait and a snack of grain bars and water. Another walker bemoaned the lack of a view. Then a touch of blue appeared for a second as a swirl of cloud parted. Hazy shapes appeared in the distance. Soon the dense ever-changing mass of cloud was writhing and twisting above the hills, ripped and torn by the wind. Loch Lomond spread out to the lowlands, a shining grey and hard silver with gold flashes where the sun touched it. Standing still was difficult and I took photographs lying down. The dramatic sky accompanied me down the south side of the mountain to a high camp partly sheltered from the wind. Intermittent heavy rain ensured that my tent, soaked from the night before, stayed wet despite the wind. The storm now came from the north-west and the temperature fell. There was ice round the edge of the tent at dawn. As I descended back to Loch Lomond and the drive to Edinburgh the still savage storm gave rainbows over the distant hills, curves of colour against the grey clouds and silhouetted slopes. The whole trip had barely lasted 48 hours but it felt far longer due to the intensity of the weather and the constant feeling of exhilaration.

Photo info: Loch Lomond from Ben Lomond. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@28mm, f5.6@1/1250, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival

Next weekend, October 17-19, it’s the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. I’m giving an illustrated talk on my ski and igloo trips in Yellowstone National Park on the Friday evening at around 8.30 p.m. The evening programme starts at 7 p.m. with some interesting sounding films – Via Bearzi, about Mike Bearzi’s alpine style climbs in the greater ranges; Seeing Red, the story of an escape from the backcountry with a major injury; and Grit Kids, about two young kids who climb E6 and E8 (which sounds extraordinary!). Saturday features a whole day of films plus talks from trad climber Niall McNair and round the world cyclist Mark Beaumont. There’s more films Sunday afternoon and evening plus talks by expedition kayaker Justine Curvengen and the star of the festival, Sir Chris Bonington. The whole event looks very interesting and it should be a great weekend. Some of the films sound fascinating. I particularly like the sound of An Stac, a film about a winter ascent and a camp near the summit. I presume this is the An Stac in Moidart and not the one in the Cuillin!

Photo info: Lone Star Geyser and igloo. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@24mm, f8@1/120, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

A Few Days on Skye

The weather forecast said sunny, the midge forecast said negligible so I headed to the Isle of Skye for a few days wild camping and gabbro scrambling. The midges on Skye can be ferocious so it’s somewhere I usually avoid during summer. By late September they are usually calming down and I had that midge forecast to reassure me. Even so I packed repellent and mosquito coils. Arriving in early evening I walked down Glen Sligachan as the sky darkened on a clear evening with just a faint hint of chill in the air and not a murmur of wind. Entry into the wild was between the towering sentinels of Sgurr na Gillean and Marsco, two of the magnificent mountains of Skye. As the light faded the stars started to shine and soon I was walking under a spectacular sky, another sign of the coming autumn. There are no skies like this in summer; the sky never darkens enough for the Milky Way to stand out so brightly. Revelling in the dramatic night with the stars sparkling between the black silhouettes of the hills I walked without a light, just able to follow the faint, pale line of the thin, twisting path. I did need a headlamp to stumble through the bogs to the narrow strip of dry ground beside Loch na Creitheach where I camped for two nights.

The next day dawned grey and flat with no sign of the sun. The thick bank of cloud was just brushing the summits. I wandered up little Sgurr na Stri, one of the finest viewpoints in the whole of the Highlands, and stared down to Loch Scavaig and Loch Coruisk and up to the curving ramparts of the Cuillin, a familiar but always exciting ragged line of rock peaks. Tour boats from Elgol puttered around the head of Loch Scavaig. A kayaker paddled to an island on Loch Coruisk. The air was calm and everything was peaceful. Staying above Loch Coruisk I made a way over the rough terrain of the Druim nan Ramh, the going hard as the rock strata cut across the line of the ridge, making for many little ascents and descents. Right in the heart of the Cuillin Druim nan Ramh is another superb viewpoint, though little visited it seems as there’s no path. The mountains hung grey under the gloomy sky.

Back at camp I sat outside the tent contemplating the gently rippling waters of the loch and the huge mountains. Skye is marvellous whatever the weather. Then the midges arrived. In numbers and hungry. I cooked and ate in the tent with the doors zipped tight shut, glad it was midge proof, then read the evening away, unwilling to collect any more bites. The midge forecast could not have been less accurate. The midges were still waiting for me the next morning and the clouds were hiding the summits. I breakfasted in the tent then packed everything except the tent itself. Once outside I took the tent down, glad that this only took a few minutes, bundled into a pack pocket and headed back to Sligachan and the long drive home. The forecasts for sun and no midges were wrong but Skye had still worked its relaxing magic and I felt renewed and refreshed.

Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@42mm, f8@1/160, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.