Thursday 31 December 2009

Happy New Year!

The old year ends with storm and snow. Snow fell last night and during much of today. I wore snow shoes for a last walk of 2009 in the local fields and woods and still sank in shin to knee deep. Without snowshoes or skis progress would be extremely slow and arduous. Trees are weighed down with snow, their branches bent under the load. There was no wind and the woods were silent and still. Passing below the trees I was very aware of the great bosses of snow hanging above me. Lest I forgot twice I heard the sudden, sharp crack of a breaking branch and the gentle slither of the snow falling from it. Once I saw a big clump of snow crash to the ground, creating a cloud of snow crystals. Some of the snow is fresh powder, light and dusty, but some is refrozen, hard and icy, forming heavy blocks that could do serious injury if they landed on your head. I didn’t linger under the trees. The hills were cloud-covered and the sky grey but at dusk there was some colour in the sky and a strange blue light over the land. As has been the case for nearly two weeks now the temperature never rose above freezing. Now at 7pm it’s -4ºC and a hazy full moon hangs in thin, drifting clouds. The forecast for New Years Day is more snow.

Best wishes for 2010 to everyone.

Photo info: Dusk over snowbound Strathspey on New Year’s Eve 2009. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS @55mm, 1/100@ f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Looking Back at the 2000s

As the 2000s draw to a close I’ve been looking back at my outdoor activities over the last decade and thinking about some of the more memorable trips. The 21st century began in fine style in 2000 with a hike along the beautiful Arizona Trail, a two-month walk in desert, forest, mountain and canyon that was challenging and fulfilling. The next year I went ski touring in the Brandsetdalen region of Norway in the spring, traversed the Uinta Mountains in Utah in August (after attending the big Outdoor gear show in Salt Lake City) then did a circuit of Glacier Peak in the Cascades in Washington State in the autumn, a walk made special by the spectacular autumn colours. In 2002 I ventured north of the Arctic Circle for a ski tour in Sarek National Park in Sweden then spent 5 summer weeks on a circular hike in the High Sierra in California, a wonderful trip on which I slept under the stars almost every night. Dry weather didn’t allow for that on my two longest trips in 2003, a summer walk along the Southern Upland Way in Scotland and an autumn trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire enlivened by wet snow blizzards. Stormy weather continued for a ski tour I led for the Inverness Nordic Ski Club (now the Inverness Skiing and Ski Touring Club) in the Halingskarvet region of Norway in the spring of 2005 though we did have a superb final day with sunshine and perfect snow for an ascent of the Hardangerjokul ice cap. In the autumn I led the TGO Reader’s Trek to Makalu Base Camp in the Himalaya, a magnificent trek that is the finest of the three I have done in Nepal. In 2006 I hiked the rugged and rocky GR20 long distance route in Corsica with Cameron McNeish, an impressive trip in fantastic mountains though it is busy. Even more crowded is the trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, which I led for KE Adventures in the autumn. The mountains are stupendous but I’ve never done a hike amongst so many people. 2006 was the only year of the decade when I didn’t go abroad (though visiting the Western Isles almost felt like it). The last three years have seen ski tours in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming – in Yellowstone in 2007 and 2008, the Wind River Range this year – during which we built and lived in igloos.

As well as all these foreign trips I was also out most weeks in the Highlands on day walks and most months saw at least one backpacking trip. I spent two weeks in May on the TGO Challenge six times as well. In the second half of the decade the Highlands became the focus of my writing and photography. Crossing Arizona, published in 2002, told the story of the Arizona Trail hike and in 2005 the third edition of The Backpacker’s Handbook appeared but after that it was all Scotland. For the last six years my book work has been concentrated on a big Scottish Mountain Guide for Cicerone Press, which involved masses of research, in books, libraries and on the web as well as on the hills. I finally finished the writing just before Xmas and am now selecting the photographs. I also researched and wrote the Guide to Walks in the North-West Highlands for Aurum Press, which came out in 2007, and three little Classic Munros guides to Glen Coe, the Cairngorms and Ben Nevis and the Mamores for Colin Baxter Publications, which came out in 2008 and 2009. Once the final details of the Cicerone book are complete I’ll be working on further Classic Munros books (one on Skye is finished and should come out next year, then there’ll be one on the Southern Highlands) and a photo book on the Cairngorms.

And of course I’ve written gear reviews in all 120 issues of TGO that appeared in the 2000s along with other articles and my current backpacking column. In my next post I’ll have a look at the gear that impressed me most and which I’ve gone on using.

Photo Notes. During the 2000s I changed from film to digital. Initially I saw digital as a back-up to film with the convenience of easily downloadable images for the web. In 2000 I used a digital camera for the first time, a Ricoh RDC-5000 2.3mp digital compact camera, which I took on the Arizona Trail along with two film cameras. Pictures from the Ricoh appeared on the web (on the Bluedome outdoor site) but film ones were used for the book of the walk and in magazine articles as the quality was much higher. The photo here shows Picketpost Mountain and was taken with the RDC-5000 at 1/80@f6.7. The JPEG was processed in DxO Optics Pro. Film remained my main medium until 2004 when I bought a Canon 300D DSLR. For a while I still used film, often taking the same shot on film and digital, but slowly digital became the standard and film was used less and less. The middle photo here was taken in 2005 with the 300D on Kala Patar, the high point of the Everest Base Camp trek. The settings are 18-55mm lens at 33mm, ISO 100, 1/125@f9 and the raw file was processed in Lightroom 2.6. From the 300D I moved to a Canon 350D and stopped using film altogether and then my current cameras, a Canon 450D and a Sigma DP1. The last photo of the Wind Rivers in April 2009 was taken with the DP1 at ISO 50, 1/200@f8. The raw file was processed and cropped in Lightroom 2.6.

One change that I think will come early in the next decade is a change in cameras. The 450D and DP1 both take excellent images but the former is quite heavy and bulky while the latter has a fixed 28mm lens, which I find limiting. Until 2009 high quality images meant carrying the bulk of a DSLR and lenses or the DP1. The introduction of micro four thirds cameras has changed this now and the Panasonic GF1 and the Olympus EP cameras offer high quality images and interchangeable lenses with less weight and bulk than a DSLR. I expect to be using one of these or similar on my next long walk.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Merry Xmas

As the holidays begin and the year draws to a close I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Xmas and the hope for a good 2010. Here in Strathspey the snow is deep and the landscape in full glorious winter raiment. The track to my house is snowbound and the road into town icy and “passable with care”. Yesterday me and my younger step-daughter, who is home for Christmas, hauled supplies up to the house on a sledge and in heavy packs – the heaviest I’ve carried for a few years! And today we went skiing in the fields and woods, pushing tracks through the soft snow and admiring the drooping limbs of conifers heavy with snow and the fine tracery of ice and thin lines of snow on the birches. Across a dip in the fields Castle Grant rose grey and white, a sombre block of stone. As the land darkened the sky above the castle glowed pink with a strange luminosity and depth. This intense brightness only covered a small area of sky. Elsewhere the sky was fading into a dull and chilly blue-grey. A quarter moon hung high above the trees. We have been watching Sherlock Holmes stories on DVD on recent evenings and Hazel remarked that the castle and the light looked just right for an episode. I thought it looked similar to the castle in the Dr Who episode “Tooth and Claw”. We listened for the sound of werewolves or sinister hounds but none came. Just the silence of nature on a cold winter’s night and the gentle swish of skis on snow. It was, as always, enough.

Photo info: Hazel skiing. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS @40mm, 1/100@ f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

December sunset over Castle Grant. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS @55mm, 1/100@ f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG and cropped in Lightroom 2.6

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Birks of Aberfeldy on BBC Radio Scotland Out of Doors

Today I was interviewed by Euan McIlwraith about the threat to the Birks of Aberfeldy (see blog posts for November 12 and 22) for the BBC Radio Scotland Out of Doors programme. The piece should appear in this weekend’s edition. The programme is broadcast at 6.30am on Saturday and 11.05am on Sunday. It’s then available on BBC iPlayer for the next week.

The latest news on the affair is that the councillor’s meeting due to be held today to make a decision has been postponed until sometime in the new year. The Aberfeldy Community Council had a local ballot three weeks ago and received over 200 responses of which 70% were opposed to the scheme. And at a meeting of the Community Council early this month there was a 54-4 vote against the scheme. Normally only 10-15 people attend these meetings. Clearly local opposition to the scheme is strong and becoming vocal.

Photo info: The Moness Burn in the Birks of Aberfeldy after heavy rain. Canon EOS 450D, Tamron 11-18@ 18mm, 1/50@ f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG and cropped in Lightroom 2.5

Sunday 13 December 2009

Frozen Cairngorms

Today the Cairngorms were a frozen mountain world, a pale shimmering expanse of icy snow. All was held fast in the hardness of winter. Days of sun and nights of frost had thawed and refrozen the surface of the snow, turning it into a hard crust through which crampons and boots crunched satisfyingly. I crossed the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui revelling in the return of winter, the sharpness in the air, the piercing thrust of the north-east wind, the scouring of my face in the cleansing, abrasive air. Across the Lairig Ghru Braeriach and Cairn Toul were monochrome; just black rocks and white snow. Beyond them the sky held hints of pink and orange and yellow even in the middle of the day, the low sun of mid-December lighting up a thin layer of cloud. The clarity was immense and distant mountains stood stark and clear on the horizon. Only towards the coast, to the east, were there thicker bands of cloud. That way the snow comes, as it is forecast to do this next week. Few people were around on the mountains despite the fine conditions. I met only a handful returning north across the plateau and had the summit of Ben Macdui to myself. I turned back at dusk as the sky started to darken and colour and the sun slipped down behind the western mountains. Cairn Gorm was an unreal dusky white with a soft pink sky wrapped round the summit. In the west the colours were harder and fiercer, bands of deep red, searing orange and greenish yellow streaking the sky. The constantly changing glorious sky stayed with me as I traversed the slopes of Cairn Lochan then climbed over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda where the last ice climbers were coiling their ropes. Only on the final descent did the light really start to fade and the black of night sweep over the mountains. The first stars were shining as I finally switched on my headlamp, removed my crampons and left the snow for a final walk down to the car park on a dry, frosty track. A real winter day at last.

Photo info: Dusk over the Fiacaill Ridge, Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, Dec 13. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@ 55mm, 1/15 @ f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

Thursday 10 December 2009

Backpacking Columns on TGO Website

My backpacking columns that have appeared in TGO magazine this year are now available on the new TGO website, which is being updated every day. Topics include backpacking and wilderness, wild camping, solo backpacking, long distance backpacking, the Pacific Crest Trail, camping on summits, the pleasures of camp cooking and off-trail hiking. You can find the columns here.

Photo info: A high winter camp in the Achnashellach hills. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 @ 18mm, 1/100 @ f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

Monday 7 December 2009

Global Warming, Wind Farms and the Wild

With the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Copenhagen over the next two weeks the coverage of global warming in every type of media from blogs to newspapers is growing louder and more vociferous by the day. On the surface there appears to be a debate going on as to whether global warming is taking place at all and if it is whether human beings are in any way responsible. However when you look at what the experts say, the scientists who have studied this for years, then the vast majority say the climate is warming and that human activity is at least partly responsible, which means we can do something about it by changing out activity. All the major scientific organisations and societies worldwide are in agreement on this. Now, I’m not a climatologist or indeed any sort of scientist but when there is near consensus on something I think it is sensible for non-experts like me to accept it as true. The idea that all these different scientists and organisations could be part of some vast conspiracy to con the public into believing global warming was happening just seems ridiculous. Of course the science isn’t absolutely proven, nothing scientific ever is, but it is extremely unlikely to be wrong.

I’ve been following the global warming story for many, many years due to my interest and concern with conservation and the environment. It has not been a happy journey. There used to be agreement between conservationists and environmentalists on almost everything. Not any more. Enviromentalism now means global warming before everything. Groups like Friends of the Earth were hailing as a great victory for conservation the defeat of a proposed quarry on the island of Harris. Now they are in favour of giant wind turbines stretching mile after mile in the same place. Anything that can be seen to do something to combat global warming, however miniscule, is justified to environmentalists regardless of any other damage it may do. The idea of wilderness and nature having any value has gone. FOE founder David Brower, who spent much of his life fighting for wilderness protection and restoration, would be horrified to discover the group now favours industrialising wild places. I used to support groups like FOE. I find it hard to do so now. And when an environmental activist like George Monbiot calls for wind turbines on top of every hill in Scotland I think people like him are enemies of wild places and therefore my enemies too.

Global warming threatens humanity as we live at present, in our ever burgeoning numbers, and the natural world as it exists now. It does not threaten the planet or life in general. But it could wipe out many species and habitats as well as ruining our lifestyle. So I do think action needs to be taken. But that action must not also wipe out species and habitats. Environmentalists say that covering the hills in wind turbines, roads and power lines is necessary because otherwise the hills will suffer due to global warming. So destroying them now is okay because if we don’t they’ll be destroyed in the future? No, this is not okay. The price for combating global warming cannot be the trashing of wild places. To do so would be to so diminish the world that it would not be worth saving anyway. If wild places, the environment we come from and depend on, cannot be saved then what can? Wilderness, I truly believe, is essential to the human spirit. It’s not an add-on, not an option. We need it.

Photo info: The lower Khumbu Glacier in Nepal. It is estimated that this glacier is shrinking by 20 metres a year. Canon EOS 300D, Canon EF-S 18-55 lens @ 22mm, 1/125 @ f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

Sunday 6 December 2009

New TGO Website

TGO has just launched its new website with a host of interesting material. Still in beta form, the website isn’t fully populated yet but there’s still plenty there including some of my gear reviews that have previously appeared in the magazine. Brand new are some videos that I made with Cameron McNeish last summer. These cover types of shelters, selecting a campsite and some of my favourite gear. There’s also a piece on minimal impact by me and Cameron. My backpacking columns will appear too, with, eventually, some new material, and there should be more videos. The old TGO forum and community section hasn’t been transferred to the new site yet but this should be done fairly soon.

The website looks excellent and should turn TGO into a multi-media venture, which I think is essential these days. Pulling all the different media strands together has required hard work and I know that Cameron and Deputy Editor Emily Rodway have been putting in long hours for several months getting the website up and running while still putting together the paper magazine.

Photo: two of my favourite pieces of gear that appear in the TGO video: Hilleberg Akto tent and Caldera Cone stove. Canon 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@18mm, 1/200@f8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

New TGO - Head Torches & Backpacking Cooking

The January TGO has just appeared (yes, I know December has only just begun but that's how magazines work -it just seems even more bizarre than usual at this time of year). My backpacking column is about the Pleasures of Camp Cooking. However despite the cover description of me as "Backpacking's Naked Chef" you won't find any exciting recipes in it! Rather it's about the simple joys of basic hot food and drink in wild places. In the gear section I review 15 LED headlamps and Paramo's Velez Adventure Light Smock. Other reviews are lightweight fleece by John Manning, gaiter modification by Eddy Meecham and reviews of the Berghaus Liskamm down jacket by Cameron McNeish and the Rab Vapour-Rise Trail Jacket by Judy Armstrong. Elsewhere in this issue interesting features I haven't read yet look to be The Perfect Snowstorm by Andrew Terrill about a snowy trip in the Peak District, Three Peaks Friends and Foes by John Manning about plans for the maintenance of the Three Peaks Walk in the Yorkshire Dales, Way Out West by Dan Bailey on the wonderful mountain Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart, the Unending Quest by Peter Gillman about the frustrations of Munro bagging from London and Picos and Pongos by Stephen Venables about the mountains of Northern Spain. There's also the Wild Walks section, pieces on cross country skiing and safe winter walking (both appropriate as the first snow falls in the hills) plus the usual columns from Jim Perrin and Roddy Womble.

Photo info: Cooking at a winter camp in the Glen Affric hills. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 @ 32mm, 1/500 @ f8, ISO 100, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

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.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Beauly-Denny Vandalism

While I was spending a stormy night in the Glen Feshie hills (see last post, A Two Night Camp) the information was leaked to the BBC that the Scottish government will soon approve plans for the upgrade of the Beauly-Denny power line, which will mean giant 200 foot high pylons crossing the Highlands. This hasn’t been confirmed but I will be surprised if this despoliation of the environment isn’t approved despite the 18,000 objections and the public enquiry, whose findings have not been published. The pressure from big power companies for the cheapest and most profitable way to make money (ignoring options for undergrounding, subsea or taking the line down the east coast), aided and abetted by so-called environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and the Green Party who would once have been ashamed to be on the side of big industry, is enormous and the Scottish government will use the spurious excuse that by allowing the industrialisation of the Highlands they are somehow combating climate change. Destroying the earth to save the earth.

Back in April 2007 I attended the public enquiry on the day when the witnesses for the Beauly-Denny Landscape Group, a coalition of conservation and environmental groups still concerned with protecting nature, gave their evidence (see my post for April 24, 2007 Victoriana on the Beauly-Denny Line). I felt then that the enquiry was probably a charade and that a decision to approve the line would be made regardless of its findings.

The fight is not over however and the Beauly- Landscape Group has put out a strongly worded statement which you can find on the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s website here and will continue campaigning against the pylons. John Hutchinson, Chair of the John Muir Trust, one of the Beauly-Denny group members, said “Wind, tidal and wave energy may be renewable but Scotland’s precious landscapes are a finite resource”. And this is the point. Pylons will not just destroy the scenic splendour of the landscape but also any sense of wildness or natural environment. Enough of Britain is industrialised already. The little wild land there is left should be restored and protected not destroyed. If these pylons are built it will be a shameful and damaging act of vandalism.

Photo info: Pylons in the Scottish Highlands, Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55 @ 55mm, 1/500 @ f8, ISO 200, flash, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

Tuesday 27 October 2009

A Two Camp Night

Sometimes weather forecasts can be just misleading enough to lure me out in the hope of good weather even though it hasn’t exactly been stated explicitly that this will occur. Add to that being lured into a scenic but exposed high level camp site and all is set for an unintended adventurous and exciting time. Such was the case two days ago when, after days of wind and rain, the forecast suggested a dry day with the possibility of some breaks in the cloud due to a weak ridge of high pressure. I decided on a night out in Glen Feshie, a favourite Cairngorm glen, especially in the autumn when the colours of the woods and the roaring of the red deer stags make it a place of beauty and wildness. I just love lying in the tent in the dark listening to the stags challenging each other across the hillsides and then waking to see the golden sweep of autumn birches amongst the magnificent old Scots pines. It’s a special place. A very special place.

By the time I set off the forecast had changed and the good weather window had shrunk to the afternoon and early the next morning. So I set off late, with just four hours of daylight remaining. The rain had stopped but the sky was still overcast. A hint of blue and the clouds rising to reveal the edges of the summits persuaded me to go up rather than along and I climbed up to the vast plateau of the Moine Mhor. The higher tops were in cloud but the moor grasses were a deep rich russet red and the boggy areas still shone green. The colourlessness of winter was still to come. I rounded the edge of the deep defile of Coire Garbhlach, its dark depths and ragged rocks looking grim and foreboding in the dull grey light. From the summit of Mullach Clach a’ Bhlair, just a rounded bump but the highest spot in the south-west corner of the plateau, I began my descent back into Glen Feshie down the Druim nam Bo ridge, hurrying now as dusk was creeping up on me. The dark pool of Lochan nam Bo appeared, set in a low cleft in the hillside. Beyond the lochan I knew the terrain dropped away steeply in rough slopes of rocks, bog and thick vegetation. An old little-used stalkers path zigzags down this hillside and then through the woods to the glen floor. Finding and following this path could be difficult in the dark. There was good dry and flat ground near the lochan. The decision was made and I pitched the tent.

Dinner over and warm and comfortable I lay down to sleep. A gentle breeze caressed the tent. An hour later I was woken by the roaring of the wind and the drumming of the tent fabric. I lay and listened to the storm. A corner of the tent sagged a little. Looking out I saw a peg had come loose and a guyline was thrashing in the wind. A quick and chilly dash outside – the temperature was 3.5ºC – and the tent was stable again. For another hour I dozed and woke, dozed and woke. The wind was strengthening and the billowing of the tent was moving the air inside, causing the thin shell of my quilt to move against me. I had no concerns about the tent collapsing - it was a winter mountain model after all – but realising that I was unlikely to sleep much and with six hours until dawn I decided I’d rather be walking so I packed up camp and headed into the black night. The descent was intense and committing yet also felt slightly unreal. Without the headlamp I could see nothing. A compass bearing took me to the path, which I then found and lost many times, guessing where it might go, missing turns then hitting it lower down. I stumbled into holes and over rocks. Without my trekking poles I’d have fallen several times. Then the first trees appeared and the path became more defined though still rough and knee deep in heather. At one point three pale skeletal dead pines were picked out by my headlamp beam, an eerie sight as nothing else was visible. Finally the slopes eased and I was out on the grassland in the wide glen with the roar of the river in the distance and giant gnarled pines looming up all around. The descent had taken hours in my mind but when I checked my watch it was just an hour and forty minutes since I’d left camp. A half-dead old pine provided some shelter from the wind, less forceful down here but still gusty, for the second camp of the night. Drizzle was drifting down and everything was damp. Finally at 3.30 a.m. I fell back to sleep. Four hours later heavy rain hammering on the tent woke me.

The storm blew me back down the glen to the car. The path was running with water in places, the River Feshie a savage tumult of deafening, crashing water. Three streams cut across the path, all swollen with rain, none bridged. The first was braided and I skipped from rock to tiny grass islet to tussock and kept my feet dry. But the Allt Garbhlach was an unbroken furious whitewater torrent, rushing down out of the corrie high above. Crossing safely became the issue, not keeping my feet dry. It took time to find a reasonable looking spot for a ford. Then careful footing on slippery rocks, hanging onto the trekking poles and a lurch from knee deep water to the bank saw me across. The last stream was nearly as deep but not as strong. With relief I reached the car, just twenty- two hours after leaving it. And then as a final flourish from the weather the drive home was difficult with large pools on the roads, heavy spray from other vehicles and lashing rain.

Photo info: Camp 2 in Glen Feshie, 02.49 am. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS @ 18mm, 1/60 @ f3.5, ISO 200, flash, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

Friday 23 October 2009

After the Storm

Four days of low cloud, rain and a general gloom that made it dark at midday hasn’t encouraged ventures outdoors. The hills have been invisible, the air thick and grey. Even the autumn trees have seemed subdued. The rain fell thinly and steadily then became heavier and heavier, pounding on the windows and running down the garden path in rivulets. Finally it eased, just spitting lightly hour after hour. Thick clouds still swept over the sodden landscape from the south-east though. Then just as the day was ending the dull blanket of clouds began to break and shafts of light slid through. At first there was just a hint of brightness, a touch of pink on a cloud, a yellow beam of light. Then suddenly the sky was alight with swirling clouds turned yellow and orange by the sinking sun. A curving pink band of cloud hung over the Cromdale hills, edged by a tall slice of rainbow. In the west above the dark forest a firestorm raged. The birches and rowans were now rich and deep with glowing red and gold colours. Venturing out I strode across the fields marvelling at the swift change in the light, the sudden return of colour and brightness even as the night closed in. The magic only last half an hour but to be out in it, surrounded by that amazing sky, was a wonderful experience.

Photo info: Strathspey sunset. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS @ 55mm, 1/160 @ f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5

Monday 19 October 2009

In Praise of Trains

A few days ago I was sitting on the train watching the autumn colours of the Strathspey woods slide past the windows and feeling relaxed with a day of views, reading, talking and buffet cars ahead of me. As the woods gave way to moorland and misty hills and the train began the climb up to the Drumochter Pass I thought how much I relish train travel, how enjoyable it feels compared with the stress of journeys by car, whether as driver or passenger. There is a freedom in train travel that just isn’t there when confined to a tiny metal box hurtling along in a mass of other harassed tin cans. Train travel is civilised, in fact. Train travel does not require attention to be given to the mechanics of travel or the behaviour of those controlling other vehicles. On trains you can think, contemplate, imagine, learn. After a car journey of a couple of hours or more I need some time to recover and adapt. After a train journey I am ready for whatever comes next. And that’s despite the appallingly mismanaged mess that is the British railway system; though it barely deserves the last word, being a hotchpotch of inefficient competing and interlinked companies that resulted from the botched privatisation of the last Tory government. British Rail was far better than the current shambles even though it was in decline due to years of under investment by uninterested governments. A return to a single nationalised company is the only way to have an efficient railway run as a public service rather than to make money but I can’t see any of today’s unimaginative, managerial, blinkered politicians even contemplating this. There is a Facebook Bring Back British Rail campaign, which I welcome though I can’t see it achieving its aim any time soon.

Train journeys feel part of my backpacking and hiking in a way that cars don’t, even though I travel by car more often these days, at least in the Scottish Highlands. Once, though, all my walks started with a train journey – to Windermere for the Lake District, the North Wales coast for Snowdonia, Edale for the Dark Peak and north into the Highlands for the Cairngorms, Torridon, Knoydart, Arrochar and more. Using trains there’s no need to return to a start point so they are ideal for through routes. There’s time to watch the landscape and the wilds too. Looking at the beautiful woods alongside Loch Lomond and then sweeping across the open lochan-dotted expanse of Rannoch Moor en route to Fort William and Ben Nevis. And on from the Fort beside the golden sands of Arisaig and Morar to Mallaig and the ferry to Inverie and Knoydart. Wonderful journeys! Sometimes alighting at lonely Corrour station and walking through to Glen Nevis and Fort William or across the hills to Dalwhinnie station. There are many options, many possible adventures.

Other countries, other trains. One of my favourite train journeys is that overnight from Stockholm north to Arctic Sweden. The big wallowing train lumbers out through the suburbs, past factories and houses and industry, as you settle down to sleep. Then morning comes with a vista of vast conifer forests and distant snow-capped hills. During the night the world has changed and is suddenly magical. Several years ago I caught the train south through the Channel Tunnel and on across France to the Queyras Alps. I left the train at dawn and walked up into the hills from the station. Two weeks later I walked back down again and caught the train home. Once in the USA, not the ideal country for train travel, I caught the California Zephyr from Salt Lake City to Martinez in California across deserts, mountains and rich farmland. In Martinez I visited John Muir’s house then caught more trains to San Francisco and Merced, where a bus took me to Yosemite National Park.

I think we need more trains.

Photo info: Top – train approaching Achnasheen station on a frosty morning. Canon EOS 350D, 18-55 lens@49mm, 1/640@f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5
Bottom - Hebden Bridge station. Sigma DP1, 1/80@f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Autumn Days

Mid October and autumn is shining in all its glorious colours in Strathspey. Gone, for now, are the gales that swept through early in the month and the days are calm with mist drifting over the hills and filling the strath at dawn. The air is moist and hazy, the bright berries and golden leaves creating an impressionistic wash of colour across the landscape. The red berries of the rowans and wild roses still hang heavy on their branches and stems, the birches are in their full splendour. The larches and aspens are just beginning to turn with hints of yellow of gold amidst the fading green. At dawn heavy dew on the leaves makes them sparkle and glitter in the rising sun. The placid waiting scene calls to mind Keat’s Ode to Autumn and I read this favourite poem for the first time in many years. The first line sums up the feeling:

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.

The birds, quiet and hidden as the summer ended, are appearing at the feeders again, flocks of coal, blue and great tits squabbling over the nuts and seeds. The first greenfinches for many weeks have been seen too, along with a lone blackbird. From high in the trees robins sign loudly, competing for their winter territories. The last bees feed on the last heather flowers – big bumblebees and small honey bees. The active buzz of spring is gone though and the insects are quiet. A peacock butterfly drifts over the scene, still mobile in the warm sun. Keats describes this too:

“And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease”

But soon enough the autumn will fade and winter will come in force. The sun may be warm but in the shade there’s a chill in the air and the nights threaten frost. To the south the distant mountains are dark, etched against the pale sky. The early snow has gone. Soon it will return.

Photo info: Rowan berries and birch leaves. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS @ 55mm, 1/125 @ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

Saturday 10 October 2009

Book Review: The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins

Back in the spring (see post for May 9, 2009) I reviewed Jerry Coyne’s excellent Why Evolution Is True, a book that runs through all the strands of evidence for evolution. Last month Richard Dawkin’s book on the same theme, The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution, was published. This is a much bigger book than Coyne’s and illustrated with 32 colour pages. Whilst it covers the same ground Dawkins presents the material in a very different way with different examples and has a very different, more literary style with more digressions and anecdotes. There’s much more detail and information too. Early on Dawkins demolishes the idea that because it’s called the theory of evolution it isn’t proven and the rest of the book is about showing why it’s a fact. (As an aside, I’m not sure about his invention of the word theorum as a substitute for theory to avoid confusion with the non-scientific meaning of the latter as speculation or conjecture). Dawkins then goes on to discuss the gene pool and artificial selection (a nod to Darwin who began The Origin of Species with artificial selection); macro-evolution; natural selection; the measurement of time by tree rings, radioactive clocks and carbon dating; evolution in the laboratory (I was fascinated by the description of a long-term experiment with bacteria that shows evolution in action); the fossil record; human evolution; embryology; biogeography (with praise for Jerry Coyne for a “masterful treatment” of this in Why Evolution Is True); molecular biology, vestigial traits and much, much more. I found the book fascinating, satisfying and enriching as I think would anyone interested in natural history and how life evolved.

Richard Dawkins being a hugely successful writer and a somewhat controversial figure The Greatest Show On Earth has been extensively reviewed. I read many of these reviews before reading the book and again after reading it. With a few exceptions the impression I gained was of reviewers who had at most skimmed through the book, looking mainly for attacks on creationists, and then reviewed it based on their opinion of the author and his anti-religion book The God Delusion. Few discussed the book they were meant to be reviewing in any depth or detail. Some appeared not to understand what it was about or why it had been written. Happily, such is Dawkins popularity (which in itself seems to annoy some reviewers) the book has been a great success, which it deserves.

How does it compare with Why Evolution Is True and which one would I recommend to someone wanting to learn about evolution? Well, I’d recommend both! But to a complete novice with no knowledge of biology or natural history I would suggest reading Jerry Coyne first as his book is more succinct and the information is more simply presented. I can imagine the Dawkins being a little daunting if it was the first book on the subject someone had ever picked up. But it should certainly be read next, to provide more information and detail and just because it is a beautifully written and wonderful book.

Richard Dawkins has an interesting website with an active, entertaining and informative forum. Many of the reviews of the book I found on this website.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Carnachuin Bridge, Glen Feshie

Glen Feshie is one of my favourite glens in the Cairngorms with wonderful old pine forest sandwiched between steep slopes, craggy in places, and the braided river Feshie rushing through the trees. The Feshie is fierce and fast with many gravel banks and channels. After heavy rain it rises rapidly and becomes a powerful torrent. There are only a few bridges across the Feshie and one of these has now gone. The Carnachuin Bridge, a wide wooden structure, was swept away by a huge flood on September 3, as reported by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and Walk Highlands (with a dramatic photo taken by an estate worker during the flood). This bridge was regularly used by walkers and mountain bikers who had come along the estate road on the west side of the glen. Viewing the remains of the bridge a month after it had been swept away and with the Feshie in more subdued mood I felt a mixture of sadness and awe. Sadness because I had often crossed the old rickety bridge with its missing planks and twisted shape and have many memories of it, awe because of the power required to destroy the bridge, which stood many feet above the river when the latter was at normal height. The bridge was quite decrepit and there had been warning notices on it for many years so it was going to collapse eventually unless repaired but I don’t think anyone had expected it to go in such a spectacular way. The estate has said a new bridge should be erected in May or June next year.

Turning away from the shattered remnants of the bridge I climbed the slopes above to rolling Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, a big, bulky Munro. A walker was just leaving the summit. He’d walked down Glen Feshie to the Carnachuin Bridge, not knowing it was no longer there, after crossing the Feshie by the pony bridge 2.8 kilometres lower down the glen (a popular route as the road can be used on the east side rather than narrow footpaths on the west side). Finding the bridge gone he’d then walked back to the pony bridge and down the glen on the other side, adding 5.6 kilometres to his walk. He said there was a sign about the Carnachuin Bridge above the first bridge but he’d only seen it on his way back. Really there should be signs at the Glen Feshie car park and on the western side of the pony bridge.

Photo info: The remains of the Carnachuin Bridge. Canon EOS 450D, Tamron 11-18@11mm, 1/200 @ f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4.

Sunday 4 October 2009

First Snow of the Autumn in the Cairngorms

The first of the big autumn storms arrived two days ago, bringing rain at lower levels along with fierce winds. I never caught a glimpse of the mountains but a brief report on the Mountaineering Council of Scotland website described a light dusting of snow on Cairn Gorm and Braeriach. Yesterday the storm raged on, making the drive south to give a talk at the East Perthshire Walking Festival difficult at times as the wind tried to blow the car off the road and lorries sent huge waves of spray lashing across the windscreen. Again I didn’t see the hills. Those who were on them reported extreme conditions. In a comment on my October 2 AWalk In the Early Autumn Woods post Mike Fae Dundee said he had to crawl the last 100 metres to the summit of Bynack More, so strong was the wind. The Cairngorm Weather Station recorded a gust of 105mph in the middle of the day.

Today was calmer with sunshine to the east of the cloud-shrouded mountains. I spent the afternoon outside cutting firewood. I can see the Cairngorms from my garden and several times the clouds rose above the summits revealing a coating of snow on their flanks. The snow doesn’t look very thick but more big storms bringing more snow are forecast for later in the week. It’s time to change my thinking about the hills and to prepare for cold and snow and wintery conditions.

Photo info: Fresh snow on Cairn Gorm and Bynack More, viewed across Strathspey. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250 IS@250mm, 1/800 @ f16, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4.

Friday 2 October 2009

On & Off the Trail: November TGO

In the November TGO, just published, my backpacking column is about the pleasures of hiking off trail. In the gear section I review base layers, just in time for the winter, and a Furtech jacket and trousers, also good for cold weather. Also in this issue is a very interesting piece on making your own gear by John Manning that includes an interview with Colin Ibbotson and his homemade ultralight gear (see my post for July 14 – Ultralight in the Cairngorms). A page is devoted to Colin’s unique Skins pack. Also on gear Eddy Meechan looks at bivy bag/tarp combinations in his Lighten Up column, Judy Armstrong reviews multi-tools and Clive Tully worries about whether we might lose GPS signals in the next few years. Away from gear there are interesting looking articles (I’ve read none of them yet) on epic hill runner Lizzy Hawker, who holds the record for running from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu – just over 3 days!, by Ed Douglas; an attempt on the Greater Cuillin Traverse, endearingly entitled Nutters on the Cuillin; a return to Stanage Edge; Tony Howard and Di Taylor exploring Jordan; Cameron McNeish on Ben Loyal and a plea to save the wildcat by Peter Cairns.

Photo info: Off trail in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Ricoh RDC-5000. 1/180@f13. Interestingly, one of the pictures used to illustrate my backpacking column was taken with the same 2.3mp camera on the same trip. It’s only a 729kb image but looks okay printed at 12x7cm though it definitely has a more artificial “digital” look than the two accompanying 4 and 5mb images taken with a DSLR.

A Walk In The Early Autumn Woods

October has arrived with dark skies and rain. Autumn is firmly here now and summer feels long gone. The woods are slowly changing colour, the birches with swathes of yellowing leaves, the rowans red and orange. So far the changes are subtle and the colours mostly faded and understated. How they will turn is always something I await with keen anticipation. Will this year be one of great sweeps of brilliant colour or one of a slow washing away of summer’s greenness? Will the autumn gales strip the leaves before their full potential glory appears? Some years the gold of the birches dominates, in others the red of the rowan. Then there are the wild cherries, just beginning to show red hints, and the aspen, last to come into leaf in the spring and still green as if summer still reigns. The larches too show little sign of the changes to come. On open slopes the bracken is brown and golden and beginning to die back, creating easy walking instead of a thrash through the dense high ferns. The woods are quiet. Little stirs. Even the pheasants choose to run and hide in the undergrowth at my approach rather than explode noisily into the air. A flock of tits – another sign of autumn – piped shrilly as they explored a birch grove then were gone. A lone buzzard flapped lazily from its watch post on a tall pine and sailed effortlessly over the glen. Leaves, blown down in recent gales, carpet the paths and the only sound is the gentle swish as my shoes brush through them. There is a feeling of expectation, a hush before winter arrives. But the next gales are forecast to arrive soon.

Photo info: Rowan colours. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@55mm, 1/20 @ f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4.

Monday 28 September 2009

Munros Talk at East Perthshire Walking Festival

This Saturday (October 3) I am giving an illustrated talk on my summer long walk over the Munros and Tops at the East Perthshire Walking Festival. The talk is at the Royal Hotel in Blairgowrie and starts at 8pm. Admission is £3. This will be a traditional slide show – yes, projected film not digital images – as my walk took place in pre-digital times and I haven’t had the time, money or desire to digitise the photos of the walk. If you’re in the area please come along and say hello. I’ll be available for questions and conversation afterwards and will have some books for sale.

Photo info: The Munros of Knoydart, photographed on the TGO Challenge in May this year. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@29mm, 1/250 @ f8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4.

Friday 25 September 2009

Ricoh GRD III review

View over Strath Nethy to Bynack More from the slopes of Cairn Gorm. 1/640@f5.6. ISO 64. Raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

View over Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills. 1/1000@f.5.6. ISO 800. Raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

The GRDIII has now had a fair bit of use since my initial comments on the camera (see post for August 14). Other new cameras have appeared too, most noticeably the Panasonic GF1. Using the camera over the last month – in places varying from the Cairngorms to Edinburgh - has been a pleasure but the image quality, especially at high ISOs, is a drawback. Taking pictures with the GRDIII is a wonderful experience. Viewing them on the computer afterwards raises some questions.

The GRD III has a tiny sensor and in common with other small sensor cameras at high ISOs there is more noise than in cameras with bigger sensors and even at low ISOs results aren’t quite as detailed. I compared raw images from the GRD III and the Sigma DP1, which also has a fixed 28mm lens but a much larger sensor (subscribers to Backpacking can see my DP1 review here). At every ISO speed the DP1 images are sharper and more detailed. This becomes more noticeable the higher the ISO. At ISO 64 and 100 there is virtually no noise in the GRDIII images, they are just slightly coarser looking than those from the DP1. By 200 ISO noise is visible and by 400 it’s prominent. At 800 it’s intrusive. At 800 ISO the DP1 images are cleaner and less noisy than the GRD III ones at 400 ISO. For good results ISO 64 and 100 are best with the GRDIII. This is a criticism of all small sensor compacts of course and not specifically the GRD III. It must be said though that the DP1 images are noticeably higher quality. Ironically, the DP1 is a far inferior camera otherwise, awkward to use and with several poorly designed features. A DP1 size sensor in a GRD body would be a wonderful camera!

The big attraction of the GR series for hill walking and backpacking is the light weight and small size combined with high image quality for a small sensor camera. However the DP1 is only slightly bigger and heavier.

The GRD III is as easy to use as the original GRD with most settings accessible without having to delve into menus with a series of button presses. The main controls are a dial on the top of the hand grip and a rocker switch on the back of the camera. The first controls the aperture, the second the shutter speed, with a bar on the screen showing how changing them alters the exposure. There’s also a menu button the back surrounded by four arrow buttons, one of which switches the macro option on and off and one controls manual focus. When viewing images the arrows are used to scroll through them. Also on the back is a button that switches from live screen to image display, a combined self timer/delete button and a display button that varies what can be seen on the screen. With all options visible the screen shows all the information you could require, including live histogram, battery life, number of shots left on the memory card, ISO, shooting mode and, depending on the mode, aperture and shutter speed. New here is an electronic level, which is very useful for ensuring lakes and seas are level and not pouring out of the picture! The live histogram is very useful too – I use this as my main guide to exposure, which is usually set on manual. So you don’t have to go into the menus for all other controls four of them can be chosen to appear on the screen when the rocker switch is pressed. I selected ISO, White Balance, Image Quality and Focus for these. The screen itself is clear and sharp though as with every screen I’ve used it can be hard to see in bright sunshine. Ricoh offer an optional viewfinder – the GV2 - and I recommend this, although it is expensive at £95. Apart from being able to see what you are photographing clearly, using the viewfinder also means you can have the camera to your eye with your elbows tucked in at your sides, which is better for stability than holding the camera in front of you.

A new feature on the GRD III is the Dynamic Range Double Shot mode, first introduced by Ricoh on the CX cameras. With this the camera takes two shots at different exposures and combines them, gaining greater dynamic range (the range of brightness that can be recorded) than is possible with a single shot. When the sky is really bright and the land dark this is a useful feature. However you need steady hands and a high shutter speed to use it handheld. Ricoh advises a tripod. Also, it only works with JPEG not raw images. Test results with the DR feature shows that it does make a difference but not enough in my opinion to justify carrying a tripod.

The GRD III uses tiny SD or SDHC memory cards, which weigh a mere 2 grams each. A 4GB card will hold 204 raw images and 957 fine JPEG images. One problem with the original GRD was that it took many seconds to write images to the card (it’s surprising how long 13 seconds seems when you’re waiting to take another picture). With the GRD III even raw images only take a couple of seconds.

Power comes from a rechargeable battery. Ricoh say that fully charged it should last for around 370 images. That accords with my usage though I haven’t used the camera in cold conditions. Batteries weigh 26 grams so spares could easily be carried with little weight penalty.

The GRD III is not a point and shoot. It’s designed for the photographer who like control over their camera. For walkers who want this it’s worth considering, especially as image quality is good for a small sensor camera. However it is expensive at around £530 and there are alternatives that have larger sensors like the DP1 and the newer DP2 with 40mm equivalent lens and the micro-four thirds cameras with interchangeable lenses such as the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1. All these will produce higher quality images than the GRD III. When the original GRD appeared it was arguably the best digital compact, both in terms of ergonomics and image quality. The GRD III still leads with the first of these but no longer with the second.


Pixels: 10 million
Sensor: 1/1.7 inch CCD
Lens: 6mm – 35mm equivalent 28mm
Screen: 6x4.5cm – 920,000 dots
Shutter: 180 seconds to 1/2000 second
Aperture: F1.9 to F9
ISO: 64, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600
Exposure modes: Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter
Priority, 4 Scene, 3 My Settings
Metering: multi, spot, centre weighted
Focusing: multi auto, spot auto, snap, manual
Image Quality: Raw (DNG), JPEG normal, JPEG fine
Memory: SD/SDHC card
Battery: 3.7v rechargeable or 2 AAA alkaline/NiMH
Size: 10.9x6.1x3.1cms
Weight: 216 grams with battery and memory card

Sunday 20 September 2009

The First Hills of Autumn

Hoping to catch the last of the sunny weather of mid-September, the first settled spell since June, I headed out to the hills at the end of last week. Not having been there for a few years I went to the big hills that rise dramatically above the West Highland Railway as it starts the crossing of Rannoch Moor. Arriving late I walked along the track by the Water of Tulla in the dark. There was no moon and bright stars shone in the black sky. I needed a headlamp to avoid the holes and rocks on the rough track. Shining the light across the surrounding moorland I caught many pairs of bright eyes staring back at me, followed by the sound of animals moving away. Then came the guttural roaring of a rutting red deer stag, one of the thrilling sounds of a Highland autumn and the first I’ve heard this year. The air was chilly and every so often a band of damp mist drifted over me, making the beam of light from the headlamp bounce back at me and the world look hazy and unsharp. By the time I reached the little bothy where I would spend the rest of that night the mist had dampened my clothing. But the stars spoke of clear skies and sunshine.

It was not to be however and I woke to a grey day with a high sweep of cloud covering the sky. A chill wind swept down the glen. There were hints of yellow and red in the leaves of the trees lining the Water of Tulla and the rowans were heavy with red berries. I climbed hillsides of purple heather and grasses fading to pale yellow and red. On the tops the wind was bitter and I wore a warm hat and gloves for the first time in many months. The summits came and went in the clouds, giving brief views over the watery expanse of Rannoch Moor and of the dark shapes of other hills hanging in the moving air. I camped just below a col in the shelter of a small knoll. Or at least it was sheltered with only the occasional gust of wind when I pitched the tent, just as the first rain began to fall. In the early hours of morning I was woken by the wind shaking the tent. I dozed on and off until dawn, listening to the rain increasing in strength and feeling the wind moving the tent against me. Back on the col I felt the full force of the wind with gusts that were hard to walk against. I climbed one quick summit then decided the weather was too bad to be worth continuing. I was back at camp in an hour and heading down the hill half an hour after that. The first storms of autumn had arrived. On the descent I met a few parties of day walkers heading up, all clad in waterproofs and warm clothing. “Rain’s supposed to get heavier”, said the first. “Supposed to clear up this afternoon”, said the second. “Why does it always rain?”, said the third. I sloshed down the muddy trench of a path and drove north across an invisible Rannoch Moor, just grey sheets of rain sweeping over the road all that was in sight. Summer is over.

Photo info: A wet and windy camp below Beinn an Dothaidh. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@20mm, 1/40 @ f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Continental Divide Trail on Rohantime

Twenty-four years ago I spent nearly six months hiking 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico on the Continental Divide Trail, a wonderful wilderness adventure through the Rocky Mountains. Back then the CDT was a trail in name only with few signs and no waymarks. There were guidebooks with suggested routes to the northern sections but none for the southern 1,000 miles. In places there were long cross-country sections, at others road walks, though the latter were mostly quite brief. This made the walk exciting and challenging. That hike was supported by the outdoor clothing company Rohan, whose owners were good friends, and I wore Rohan’s then radical polycotton synthetic insulated clothing throughout the trip. A longer piece I wrote about the CDT and the clothing has just been published on Rohantime.

Photo info: In the Rocky Mountains, Montana on the Continental Divide Trail, 1985. Pentax MX, Tamron 35-70 lens, Kodachrome 64. Scan adjusted in Lightroom 2.5.

Landscapes in Space and Time

Last weekend was spent celebrating another decade of life passing by. Ten years ago a group of friends gathered in the hills of the Lake District for my fiftieth birthday. This year we went to one of the flattest places in northern England, the seaside resort of Southport on the Lancashire coast. I was brought up near here at Formby and my mother and one of my brothers and his family still live in the area. It was so that my mother could be present that I went to Southport. Saturday we gathered in a function room in a pub – the Blundell Arms – for talking, drinking and eating. Many of my old friends had not seen each other for many years and the air was thick with reminiscing. Ten years previously we had been in the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale. And the next day some of us had headed up onto the fells. This year the only hills within many miles were the little sand dunes abutting the wide flat expanse of the vast beach that spreads from Southport to Liverpool. It was to the beach we went, to Crosby where the 100 iron men of Anthony Gormley’s Another Place are dotted over the sand from high to low water. Once identical these figures are showing the slow effects of time in changes wrought by the weather and the sea. The iron is rusting, barnacles cover those parts more in water than air, seaweed crawls up legs and twists round feet, faces lose definition and become spooky and alien. Wind blown sand has started to bury some of the figures while with others the wind has scoured away the sand revealing the plinths on which they stand. Beyond the motionless, rigid, dark figures giant pale wind turbines rise out of the sea, slightly hazy, slightly ghostly. These too were still, despite a breeze. Beyond the turbines to the north the sand and sea spreads out to the sky and the simple trilogy of golden rippled sand, dark wave streaked water and paler cloud streaked air is vast, fading into the distance without ending. Turning south the landscape changes and becomes jumbled, complicated, a mass of confusing shapes that are all angles and hard lines. This is Liverpool and the shapes are cranes, cathedrals, sky scrapers and more wind turbines, these ones turning. It’s a much more intense, closed-in landscape than the spaciousness of the sea and skyscape. Turning from one to the other was turning from the freedom and wildness of nature to the restrictions and confinements of the city, both available at a glance. The first is where I live in my head and where I have spent much of my life but I would not be without the second. My friends and family had come together from all over Britain, some travelling long distances. I am aware that modern urban civilisation had made this possible. Reconciling the urban with the wild is a never ending, never completed task, a constant balancing of desires and dislikes as I move through both landscapes in time as well as space.

Photo info: Iron Men & Wind Turbines, Crosby Beach. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@55mm, 1/640 @ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

New (little) book - Classic Munros: Ben Nevis & the Mamores

Just out is a new little volume in the Classic Munros guidebook series. This one, Ben Nevis & the Mamores, covers 17 Munros in the area, with Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag and the Grey Corries as well as the hills of the title. It's illustrated with photographs by Colin Baxter (also the publisher), Alan Gordon and myself plus maps by Wendy Price. For those who wonder what constitutes a "classic" Munro (the series won't cover every Munro) the answer is that I decide (well, someone has to) and I base my decision both on my opinion of the hill and the quality of possible routes. The previous volumes in the series covered Glen Coe and the Cairngorms. Future ones will cover Skye next spring and the Southern Highlands next summer.

Thursday 10 September 2009

Munro Changes

So the great Munro revision has happened, and Sgurr nan Ceannaichean, a pleasant if not that distinctive hill rising above Glen Carron, has been found to miss the all important 914.4 metre (3,000 feet) altitude by one metre and so is reclassified as a Corbett. The other hills surveyed - Munro Beinn Teallach above Loch Lagan, Munro Ben Vane above Loch Lomond and Corbett Sgurr a'Choire-bheithe in Knoydart - all retain their current status, though only by 0.2 metres in the case of the first. The last misses Munro status by just under a metre. All this has been discoverd by The Munro Society in field surveys carried out earlier this year. The reason is to have accurate lists - and not to sell more guidebooks and maps, as some cynics have suspected. The Munro Society doesn't sell anything and its members spent their money and time to do the surveys - and will do so again next year to check other hills near the magic cut-off altitude. Of course the Munro and Corbett guidebooks are all out of date now but one page inserts should do to explain the new position at least until the Munro Society has finished its surveys. Then will be the time for new editions.

Does all this matter? Of course not. Except as part of the game of collecting summits. The hills don't change and I would argue strongly that the finest and wildest of the four hills resurveyed is the lowest. It`s certainly the remotest and hardest to climb. Having lists sets targets and can act as an inspiration to go out in poor weather - which in itself can result in some wonderful days as well as some miserable ones. Changes in the lists are not that important. Since I started climbing the Scottish hills over thirty years ago there have been several changes to both the Munros and Corbetts lists. And none has made any significant difference. Of course if you just dash up to the top by the shortest route and the tick in the book is all then one or two hills more or less might seem to matter. But ticking off the hills should only be the superficial reason for climbing them. Exploration, beauty, adventure, nature, wildness, freedom are all far, far more important. So don`t forget Sgurr nan Ceannaichean. It's just as worth climbing as it was two days ago when it was a metre higher.

Photo info: Sgurr a’Choire-bheithe. Canon EOS 300D, Canon EF-S 18-55@55mm, 1/125 @ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4.