Saturday 31 January 2009

In Praise of Smaller Hills: Meall a'Bhuachaille

Whilst the big mountains, the Munros, attract most attention Scotland is full of fine smaller hills that have much to offer walkers and lovers of wild country. Many of these lower hills – Stac Pollaidh, Suilven, Ben Loyal - are more interesting and dramatic than many Munros. Often they make better viewpoints than bigger hills too. Little Sgurr na Stri in the Cuillin has arguably the finest hilltop view in the Highlands (see my post for October 7 2008 titled A Few Days on Skye). Lower hills are also excellent for short days when time is limited and for days when the weather makes going higher unattractive. One of my favourite smaller hills is Meall a’Bhuachaille (shepherd’s hill) which rises above Glenmore and Loch Morlich in the Northern Cairngorms. I often wander up this hill when I have a few hours spare after meetings or other business in Aviemore or at Glenmore Lodge and I regularly take visitors with little time up there for a taste of the Cairngorms. The walk through ancient pine forests past An Lochan Uaine (the green pool) in the steep-sided V-shaped Ryvoan Pass is lovely and I always admire the returning forest that can be seen spreading up the slopes either side. Beyond the trees the path, recently rebuilt and realigned, climbs the open western slopes of the hill to the stone shelter at the summit. A few days ago I climbed this way on an afternoon of racing clouds and roaring wind when there was no time to venture into the higher Cairngorms (and no desire to do so in such weather). I reached the summit shortly before sunset and huddled below the crude stone walls of the shelter for a quick snack out of the bitter wind. As I began the descent the forest below me darkened and Loch Morlich sparkled in the fading light. Beyond the sweep of the trees the snow-covered Sgoran Dubh Mor – Sgor Gaoith ridge shone palely as the sky above turned yellow, orange and red. I lay in the heather to steady the camera as I photographed this magical scene then descended into the blackness of the trees.

Photo info: Dusk over the Cairngorms and Loch Morlich from the southern slopes of Meall a’Bhuachaille. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@44mm, 1/200@F6.3, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Winter in the Cairngorms on Backpacking Light

Last November I wandered across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben MacDui in wonderful winter conditions (see my blog post for November 3, 2008 First Snow on the Cairngorms). A photo essay on this walk entitled Winter in Cairngorms National Park has just been published on Backpacking Light here. All the photos were taken with the Sigma DP1 compact camera, which I was testing at the time.

Photo info: View across the Lairig Ghru from the slopes of Ben MacDui. Sigma DP1, f5.6@1/800, ISO 50, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Sunday 18 January 2009

PLanning for the 30th TGO Challenge

In the autumn of 1979 a small piece in TGO magazine advertised the first TGO Challenge (then called the Ultimate Challenge after the gear company who were the sponsors). I applied and in May 1980 set out on my first coast-to-coast crossing of the Scottish Highlands. Twenty-nine years later, to my great surprise, I have just sent in my route for the 30th TGO Challenge. This will be my 14th crossing and I still look forward to it with excitement and pleasure as well as astonishment that the Challenge is still going and has grown to be a major event in the outdoor year. Planning the route is still enjoyable too and the big problem is still the same. There are too many possibilities! I can spend hours studying maps and working out variations. As those planning a high level route, as I’ve always done, are required to submit a low level bad weather one as well I effectively plan two routes anyway. One change is that where I used to spread paper maps out on the floor and trace routes on them in pencil now I sit at the computer and draw lines on maps on the screen. The software gives the distance and ascent too so I no longer have to count grid squares and contour lines. Computer mapping has made planning much easier.

All those years ago my route started at Lochailort and finished at Montrose. This year I’m starting at Glenelg and finishing at Stonehaven. On the way I hope to climb 37 Munros stretching from Beinn Sgritheal to Mount Keen plus 5 Corbetts. Back in 1980 I climbed 55 Munros but for that year only the Challenge was three weeks long rather than two. Surprisingly when I looked at my 1980 notes I discovered that 21 Munros I climbed then are on this year’s route.

I haven’t really thought much about the gear I’ll take on this year’s Challenge but I think maybe I’ll be a little adventurous and avoid the safe choices from previous years that I know will perform well such as the Hillberg Akto tent and Primus Micron gas stove. To get my pack weight even lower I’m considering a single skin tent such as the GoLite Shangri-La 3 and for interest rather than weight saving a burner in which I can use meths or wood. In 1980 I used an Ultimate Tramp ridge tent, which weighed some 500 grams more than the Akto, and an MSR XGK liquid fuel stove that weighed as much as five mini gas stoves. Most shocking to me now though are the boots I wore – hulking great lumps of leather weighing 5lbs called Scarpa Bronzo. I haven’t walked in boots like that for over 20 years. The last two Challenges have been done in Inov8 Terroc shoes and I’ll probably wear those again this year. Where I did cut weight in 1980 was with my sleeping mat, which was just a piece of 3mm closed cell foam. I won’t be going that Spartan again. A thicker foam pad provides so much more comfort and warmth.

Photo info: Camp on the 2008 TGO Challenge looking towards the Grey Corries. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@28mm, f8@1/50, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Thursday 8 January 2009

Cold, Wet Backpacking in TGO, Golden Autumn Wandering in BPL

Last summer I spent a few days at the giant OutDoor trade show in Friedrichshafen strolling round the exhibition halls looking at the new gear for 2009(see post for 24 July 2008). In the following months various interesting items arrived for review and over a couple of wet and windy days last November I took them out for a group test in the southern Cairngorms. A description of this trip with reviews of the gear appears in the February issue of TGO, just published, under the heading Cold Wet Cairngorms. The most interesting items I tried were the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir sleeping mat, a modern airbed, and the Lightwave Wildtrek 60, a tough lightweight pack. Other gear included the Rab Momentum eVENT jacket, Primus TiLite stove, Coleman Falcon X1 tent, Mammut Ajungilak Sphere 195 sleeping bag and Mammut Courmayeur Pants.

The gear test trip was in dull, misty, grey weather – I got to practise my navigation skills yet again – though the autumn as a whole was quite sunny with brighter and deeper colours than usual (see post for 22 October 2008). A selection of my photographs taken on day walks in the woods of Strathspey has just been published under the heading Autumn in Cairngorms National Park on Backpacking You don’t need to be a subscriber to see this photo essay, which can be found here.

Photo info: Camp in Glen Baddoch on the Friedrichshafen gear test trip. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@30mm, f5.6@1/125, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

A Magical New Year's Day In The Pennines

The Pennines hold echoes for me as it was in these moorland hills that I first went backpacking, following the Pennine Way north from the Peak District to the Cheviots. For the first time in many years I returned to the area for a Christmas and New Year holiday with family and friends in the little stone built village of Heptonstall, high above the old mill town of Hebden Bridge in the Calder Valley. A steep five hundred foot climb leads up cobbled streets and stone steps from Hebden to Heptonstall, an ascent that helped keep me fit amidst the mince pies, Christmas cake and whisky, especially when carrying a pack full of groceries – probably a heavier load than I’d ever carried backpacking in the previous year.

Heptonstall Moor stretches out beyond the stone houses of the village, an undulating heather plateau cut by deep valleys. The Pennine Way runs across the moor and I walked a short section for the first time in decades, so long in fact that I had no memory of the path here though the flat rolling moors felt familiar. The weather was cold and crisp with much frost though little sunshine. The highlight of the holiday came, appropriately, on New Year’s Day, when we walked across Popples Common and down narrow stone paths through rough pastures to the narrow, wooded Colden Valley. Frost and rime ice sparkled on every twig and edged every leaf, turning the trees into silvery mirages floating in the freezing air. The world was magical and perfect. Crossing little Colden Water on an ancient stone bridge we climbed steeply out of the valley then followed a narrow path between deep banks of ghostly white shimmering vegetation to emerge in a tiny hamlet right in front of a pub called the New Delight Inn that proved delightful indeed as it brewed its own excellent real ale. Warmed and refreshed we wandered back through the still shining land at the end of a wonderful start to 2009.

May the New Year continue as wonderfully for us all. Happy New Year everyone.

Photo info: Frost on the trees in the Colden Valley. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@27mm, f5.6@1/50, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.