Sunday 29 November 2009

A Touch of Winter

For the first time this autumn I looked out this morning to see a scattering of snow covering the ground. Most years this happens a month or more earlier but this wet and warm autumn has had little suggestion of winter until recently. Today was definitely wintry though with the temperature hovering around zero and squalls of snow and hail blasting in on a cold north-east wind. Thick clouds lay low over the hills and the sky was dark all day. Walking round the local woods and fields I felt the landscape was on a cusp between autumn and winter. The falling snow melted almost instantly on the trees and the sodden ground, only sticking on drier slopes and low vegetation. But with each shower a little more whiteness crept over the land. At dusk – 3.30 pm at this time of year – the ground began to freeze and there was the familiar and satisfying crunch of frosty ground and refrozen wet snow under my boots. An almost-full moon hung in the sky as the thick clouds parted. For a few minutes a subtle pink with hints of purple suffused the sky but the dense clouds to the west soon blocked the last rays of the sun. I tramped home delighted with this first touch of winter. And the forecast is for more snow.

Photo info: Dusk in Strathspey. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS lens @ 28mm, 1/20 @ f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

Saturday 28 November 2009

Snow - Memories & Anticipation

Snow is lying in the Cairngorms, maybe down to around 900 metres. I could see it glistening below the ragged edges of the clouds as I drove north to Inverness to give a talk on my Wind Rivers ski tour of last April to the Inverness Nordic Ski Club. Earlier, while selecting images for the talk I reflected on the last snow season and how marvellous it had been with heavy snow in Strathspey in February that enabled me to ski from my front door and camp on a nearby hill (see A Camp In The Snow, February 10 2009) as well as ski and snow shoe in the local woods and high in the Cairngorms. Then there had been the spring finale in the wilderness of the Wind River Range, living in igloos and skiing through the vast forests and rolling foothills with the alpine peaks rising on the horizon. What a joyous time it had been. Recently though it has felt very different. The wet but mild weather of this autumn with low clouds shrouding the hills, sodden ground and a general greyness to the landscape has not been very inspiring and I have not felt any excitement or desire to go up into the mountains. The magic of the Brocken Spectre on Schiehallion (see post for November 15) was wonderful but that came on the summit and I’d had no feeling of anticipation when I set out. But seeing the snow has kindled a spark. The hills have changed, the winter has begun. And more snow is forecast. Of course this snow will melt and the hills could be bare again in a week or two but just the sight of it has been enough to have me thinking of the first winter trip and wondering whether there will be enough for skiing or whether it will be a walk with ice axe and crampons.

Photo info: Peaks around Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250 IS lens @ 194mm, 1/1600 @ f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

Sunday 22 November 2009

The Birks of Aberfeldy Threatened

Having just returned home from two weeks in Aberfeldy during which I walked round the Birks of Aberfeldy twice and along the lower Birks into the town almost every day I was astonished to learn that the dramatic ever-changing waterfalls and rushing Moness Burn are threatened by a hydro scheme that would greatly reduce the flow of water. If this goes ahead the falls would be much less impressive and the huge variations in water volume that make the river constantly different would be far less. That this could even be proposed is shocking. That the Council planning committee has approved it is astounding. Even if these people have no feel or appreciation of nature and beauty do they really want to damage the main attraction that brings visitors to their town?

That the water flow makes a huge difference I saw every time I walked beside the Moness Burn in the Birks and it’s reflected in the two photographs to the left, which were taken from the same spot, the left one on November 11, the right one on November 19. It could be a different river. Losing this variety would make the Birks a poorer, tamer place. The Birks of Aberfeldy is one of my favourite woodland and waterfall walks in Scotland. I will not go there again if the hydro scheme goes ahead. It would sadden me to see the river controlled and the waterfalls restrained.

The Birks is owned by the local community and part of it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The latter would be damaged by the reduction of humidity caused by a lower flow of water, as would the whole of the ravine. Without the variations in flow with spates and dry period the natural history of the Birks would change.

It appears that another group of councillors has to approve the decision, a group that is meeting on December 16. Local opinion will be important of course but outside opinion can count too. While in Aberfeldy I was finishing a book on the Scottish Highlands in which a visit to the Birks of Aberfeldy is recommended. I shall be asking the councillors if I need to remove this section and say that once there were tremendous waterfalls here but they were sold for a pittance by the greedy. Anyone who’d like to object to this destructive scheme can email the following councillors:

Council Leader Ian Miller

Council Depute Leader George Halton

Cllr Ken Lyall

Cllr Kate Howie

Cllr Ian Campbell

Photo info: left, the Moness Burn on November 11, Sigma DP1, 1/30@f5.6, ISO 200. right: the Moness Burn on November 19, Sigma DP1, 1/6@f5.6, ISO400. Raw files converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Brocken Spectre, Schiehallion

Last Friday after a week of low cloud, mist and drizzle I wandered up Schiehallion - the fairy hill of the Caledonians - on what was forecast to be the last day of reasonable weather before big storms swept in. There was even a chance of sunshine and summits clear of cloud. For the first time in days there was a brisk wind and squally showers blasted across the lower slopes of the hill, some past and gone in just a few minutes, one lasting long enough to dampen my outer clothing. As the storm clouds raced away the sun would shine briefly before the next squall blew in and there was a succession of rainbows. Higher up the squalls were of hail and light snow. As I walked over the awkward, smooth, sharp edged quartzite blocks of the summit ridge the sun was coming and going as ragged clouds enveloped the mountain only to be torn apart seconds later by the wind and hurled over the steep edge to slide away into the glen. The wind was bitter and the ground frozen with puddles of solid ice and remnants of the snowfall of a week earlier between the boulders. As I approached the summit cairn the sun appeared again and I suddenly saw a giant shadow thrown out on the clouds below, a shadow ringed by a bright halo. I waved. The giant waved back for it was of course my shadow projected on to the clouds by the light behind me, a phenomenon known as a Brocken Spectre from the Brocken, the highest peak in the Herz mountains in Germany, where it is frequently seen. The apparently huge size of the shadowy figure is an optical illusion, caused by a lack of identifiable reference points. I was thrilled to see this Brocken Spectre, one of those unexpected magical moments of mountain light that make even familiar mountains exciting and inspiring. In this case seeing the Brocken Spectre from the summit of the peak so that it projected right from the tip of the shadow of the mountain itself made it even more special.

Photo info: Brocken Spectre, Schiehallion, November 13, 2009. Canon 450D, 18-55mm IS @55mm, 1/160@f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

Thursday 12 November 2009

The Birks of Aberfeldy

Days of low cloud, drifting mists and that damp air that chills the spirits as well as the bones have made the high tops unnatractive. Wandering in a cold wet fog with little to see has not appealed. Woods and waterfalls can be colourful and exciting on dark November days however and one of my favourite walks encompassing both is the Birks of Aberfeldy in Strath Tay, which I visited a few days ago. This is a deep wooded ravine down which tumbles and crashes the Moness Burn. After all the recent rain the burn was a whitewater torrent, the bigger falls sending sprays of water droplets fine as mist high in the air. In the confines of the narrow gorge the noise of the water was deafening. The mixed woodland - beech, oak, ash, hazel, larch and pine as well as the "birks" (birches) of the name - is beautiful at this time of year. Some leaves still cling to the trees, most golden, some still green, especially on the hazels. On the larches the needles were only just beginning to change colour. The woodland floor glowed bronze with fallen beech leaves, shimmering with drops of moisture. Despite the roar and rush of the burn it is a peaceful place, feeling hidden and protected from outside storms. It impressed Robert Burns who wrote his poem The Birks of Aberfeldy here and gave the ravine its name:

The braes ascend like lofty wa's,
The foaming stream deep-roaring fa's,
O'erhung wi' fragrant spreading shaws-
The birks of Aberfeldy.

The Birks of Aberfeldy walk ends right in the centre of Aberfeldy, where it was just a short stroll to The Watermill cafe and bookshop and a warming mug of hot chocolate and restorative slice of sticky flapjack. The Watermill, which is in the old Aberfeldy mill, is a wonderful relaxing place where you can browse the latest books and have a tasty lunch. At the end of a cold November walk it's very welcome indeed.

Photo info: the Moness Burn in the Birks of Aberfeldy, November 2009. Sigma DP1, 1/30@f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Friday 6 November 2009

New TGO - Summit Camps & Windshirts

The latest issue of TGO is just out. My backpacking column is about the pleasures of camping on summits with stories of snow camping on Ben Nevis, mist on Beinn Eighe and other high nights out. In the gear section I review one of my favourite categories of clothing – windshirts. I’ve probably worn a windshirt more than any other type of shirt or jacket and I’ve carried one on every long walk. Some people regard a windshirt as an optional extra. I regard one as indispensable. Elsewhere there’s a feature on photographer Joe Cornish and his new book on Scottish mountains, the story of Leo Houlding’s expedition to Mount Asgard, walking in Northumberland and the Black Coombe area of the Lake District. Other gear features are a review of women’s boots by Judy Armstrong and a trip report by John Manning with some interesting gear.

Photo: Dawn over the Western Highlands from the summit of Stob a’Grianain. Canon 350D, 18-55@55mm, 1/13@f5.6, ISO 200, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

Thursday 5 November 2009

A Frosty Autumn Day

Finally in this warm and wet autumn, typified by low clouds, grey skies and rain, the air cleared after another day of rain, the stars and moon appeared and the temperature fell below freezing. The next day dawned with an unfamiliar sharpness in the air and thick white frost coating the ground. In the distance a dusting of snow lay on the lower fringes of the still cloud-capped mountains. Spurred by the sunshine I set out on one of my favourite short walks in the Cairngorms, from Glenmore through Ryvoan Pass and up Meall a’Bhuachaille. The walk through the Glen More pine forests is always lovely, with its mix of ancient gnarled giants and crowded young saplings. New trees are now springing up in the plantation areas cleared some years ago and these ugly scars are slowly greening over. Above the forest on the glen floor more young trees are also advancing up the steep slopes of Creag nan Gall and Creag Loisgte. Sandwiched between these rocky hillsides is lovely An Lochan Uaine – the green lochan. Living up to the name the lochan reflected the pines on its shores, its surface shimmering slightly in a hint of a breeze. Beyond the lochan the trees fade away as the path climbs gently through Ryvoan Pass to little Ryvoan Bothy. Here I climbed more steeply, up the slopes of Meall a’Bhuachaille. The bright sun was surprisingly hot and I had my jacket off, sleeves rolled up and shirt collar unzipped. Suddenly An Lochan Uaine was a dark slash far below me, half-hidden by heathery slopes. Above the lochan the woods and hills rose to the high Cairngorms, an undulating brown and green landscape capped with a touch of snow. On the summit a cool westerly breeze ensured the jacket went back on again. Below the huge sweep of Glenmore and Rothiemurchus Forests stretched out below the mountains with the silvery waters of Loch Morlich standing out amongst the dark pines. Further west the sky was dark with clouds. By the time I was back down in the forest these were overhead and the sunshine had gone. But for a few hours it had been wonderful to walk in warmth, brightness and colour. It is easy to forget during days of rain and cloud just how the sun can transform the world.

Photo info: An Lochan Uaine, 4/11/2009. Sigma DP1, 1/160@f4, ISO 50, raw file converted to JPEG in Sigma Photo Pro and tweaked in Lightroom 2.5

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Beauly-Denny Action

Since my post on October 29 about the leaked news that the Scottish government was to give the go ahead to the Beauly-Denny Power Line, which will carve a horrific industrial slash through the Scottish Highlands, the groups forming the Beauly-Denny Landscape Group have called on their members and all those opposed to the line to write to Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister at

The John Muir Trust has a good piece than this on its website here. Emails to Alex Salmond could point out that the landscape the pylons would pass through is irreplaceable and finite and part of Scotland’s heritage and that there are alternatives in the east coast power line and sub-sea cables. Even a short email just objecting is worth sending.

Photo info: Camping with pylons. Canon EOS 350D, 18-55 @ 24mm, 1/400@ f8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JEPG in Lightroom 2.5

Sunday 1 November 2009

Rohantime Roundup

This year I’ve written three pieces for Rohantime about Rohan and the clothing I used on long distance walks in the late 1970s and the 1980s – Land’s End to John O’Groats, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. These pieces have now been gathered together on Rohantime and I’ve written a short Introduction about Rohan and how the innovations they introduced back then – stretch “soft shell” fabrics, thin lightweight windproof fast drying clothing, thin synthetic insulation – and for which they were mocked by some in the outdoor industry are now mainstream. Paul and Sarah Howcroft really did revolutionise outdoor clothing. The pieces can be found in the Rohan Flashback section of Rohantime under the heading Rohan – Back to the Future.

Photo info: On the Continental Divide Trail below the Chinese Wall in Glacier National Park, Montana. 1985. Pentax MX, Tamron 35-70 lens, Kodachrome 64 film. No exposure details. Scanned slide tweaked in Lightroom 2.5.