Saturday 27 February 2010

Hill Tracks Campaign

Whilst much attention is given to the damage that pylons, wind turbines and hydro schemes do to the Scottish hills another less well-publicised and in many ways more insidious form of vandalism has been slowly increasing in recent years. This is the construction of wide tracks high in the hills and up remote glens. These tracks, often in fact wide bulldozed dirt roads, scar the landscape, sully the beauty of the hills and destroy the feeling of wildness. From a distance they can stand out as unnatural lines winding up the hills, attracting the eye and disturbing the natural harmony of the mountain landscape. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has been concerned about these tracks for some time and has made representations to the Scottish Government for much stricter regulation (there appears to be no regulation at all in some areas). Some MSPs have now taken up the issue and there is now a Hill Tracks Campaign with a petition calling for greater controls on the building of hill tracks. Personally I think that removing tracks and restoring the landscape is needed but stopping new ones being built would at least be a start to ending this vandalism. I urge everyone who wants to see the splendour and wildness of the Scottish Highlands preserved to sign this petition.

Photo info: New track being bulldozed along the Water of Saughs in the Angus Glens, May 2009. Canon EOS 450D, 18-55@18mm, 1/250@ f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Friday 26 February 2010

The Big Snow

Even in a winter as snowy as this the heavy snow of the last two days will be remembered. For 36 hours it snowed steadily with barely a break. The sky was a dark steel grey and the air thick with wet snow flakes driven on a bitter north-east wind. Sticky and damp the snow plastered trees and buildings and built up in great drifts. This was not the bright, light, fluffy cold power of earlier in the winter but denser, wetter snow with a dull off-white finish rather than a glistening sparkle. As the snow eased in the afternoon of the second day of the blizzard I ventured out on snowshoes and ploughed a way down the track from my house. Even with the snowshoes I sank ankle deep into the snow in places. Without them the snow was knee to thigh deep except in places where the wind had blown great clouds into the fields and woods. In the trees it was gloomy and dark, almost oppressive. The leaden air felt heavy and ominous. The public road had been ploughed, though there were still several inches of snow on it. I spent an hour digging a wide trench between the road and my car, left here many days ago as the track to the house was already impassable to vehicles. Cardboard under the wheels enabled me to move the car its own length close to the road. If the wind fills in my trench I’ll have less digging to do tomorrow when I shall see if driving into town for supplies is feasible.With snow lying for well over two months now this winter is becoming one that will be talked about for years to come.

Photo info: Trees weighed down with snow, February 26. Canon EOS 450D, 18-55@18mm, 1/200@ f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Birks of Aberfeldy Hydro Scheme Rejected

Last autumn I described the threat of a hydro scheme in the beautiful ravine of the Birks of Aberfeldy (see posts for November 12, November 22 and December 16). Now I am very pleased to say that the committee of the Common Good Fund, which owns the Birks on behalf of the local community, has rejected it. The developers will probably propose a modified version of the scheme but for the moment the water will continue to flow unchecked through the Birks.

Photo info: Ice and cascade in the Birks of Aberfeldy, November 2009. Canon EOS 450D, 18-55@53mm, 1/20@ f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Monday 22 February 2010

A Perfect Winter Camp

Dawn came with a cold blue light on the snow-covered landscape. The temperature was -7.7ºC. A cool breeze drifted over the tent. Rocks were black against the whiteness. The only sound was the gentle trickling of the half-frozen stream. Then the sun came and a warm wash of pale pink light swept over the snow. I brushed the frost off the hood of my sleeping bag, having slept with the tent wide open and just the sky above my head, and watched the winter night turn to day. The warm early sunlight cooled and the snow turned back to white. Above the sky was a brilliant Alpine blue streaked with light clouds. My companion Alastair and I had walked in at dusk beside Loch Muick the previous evening under a cloudy sky and pitched our tents in the dark. Slowly stars appeared in the black sky and a crescent moon shone through the fading clouds. Only in the morning did we realise just how magnificent a setting we had chosen for our camp.

The last clouds cleared and there followed a perfect day to match the perfect camp. We hiked past frozen Dubh Loch with its massive snow-spattered cliff rising above the far shore then climbed to the rounded summit of Carn a’Choire Bhoidheach and a tremendous view of the snow-covered Highlands. The mountains were etched sharp against the deep blue of the sky, shining in the bright sunlight. The snow was crisp and firm, making walking easy. We wandered on to Lochnagar, where tracks in the snow radiated from the summit, showing the focus for most walkers. Some, like us, still lingered, reluctant to leave this mountain glory. Leaving the summit and the other people we headed back to our camp as the sun touched the horizon and deep blue shadows crept across the hills below the bright touches of the last sunshine.

Photo info: Camp beside the Allt an Dubh-Loch. Canon EOS 450D, 18-55@18mm, 1/800@ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Sunday 14 February 2010

A Slow, Slow Thaw

For a week now the snow has slowly receded, the land returning to the grey-green of winter meadows and forests. Usually this looks dull and faded but after weeks of monochrome even the most subdued colour seems unnaturally bright. With night temperatures just below freezing and daytime ones only struggling up to 5 and 6ºC the thaw is very gradual and there are still large expanses of snow, some quite deep, that make walking awkward and slow. At lower levels the snow is too broken for snowshoes or skis however so today I stumbled through the snowfields, my route an erratic zigzag as I linked patches of open ground. Drizzle trickled down out of the overcast sky and just occasionally a burst of sunlight lit up a corner of a field or a patch of forest from a strip of blue sky. There was no wind and little sound. A few chaffinches called from high in the trees, a pheasant crashed away squawking but otherwise nature was silent. A buzzard drifted slowly overhead, scanning the ground for carrion. The distant high hills were indistinct and cloud-capped, the damp air seeming thick and hazy, softening the edges of the world. There was no clarity to the views or crispness in the air. For once it could be described as mild. Damaged trees were everywhere, snapped branches hanging downwards, broken by the weight of heavy wet slabs of snow. Some are still bent double, their tops held down by the last snow.

Heavy snow is forecast for two days time. The winter has a long way to go.

Photo info. Birch tree damaged by the snow, February 14, 2010. Sigma DP1, 1/50@f8, ISO 50.

Monday 8 February 2010

Loch Lomond Roadside Camping Problems

For the last few years there have been problems with unofficial camping close to the road on the eastern side of Loch Lomond with much damage caused and trash left by vandals. This is not wild camping, though it has been called such. The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority is now calling it “informal camping”, which is a better description. The access legislation that gives a right to wild camping was not designed to include roadside camping but many have interpreted it as doing so. As the legislation only grants access rights to those who behave responsibly the people trashing the shores of Loch Lomond are clearly outwith the legislation anyway. In order to end the vandalism the national park is proposing byelaws to ban informal camping on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond close to the road. Once beyond the road end the byelaw will not apply. The vandal-campers don’t walk far and aren’t likely to cause damage far from the roadside (the national park says that informal research shows that most people will not go further than 29 metres from their car to camp – these are not backpackers!). Before enacting the byelaws the park is carrying out a consultation. See the information on the park website here. Having seen some of the damage caused to a beautiful and accessible place I am in favour of the parks proposals. I don’t think that byelaws to stop roadside camping are in breach of the access legislation or in any way a threat to real wild camping. In fact I think that dealing with this problem is a way to protect wild camping and reduce the likelihood of any blanket ban. It should also return the area to locals who currently have to put up with having their home vandalised and to visitors who really appreciate it and don’t cause damage.

There has been some concern expressed on outdoor blogs (see Whitespider and Walkabout in the UK) that these byelaws could penalise backpackers and West Highland Way walkers who just want to camp quietly without leaving a trace. The national park proposals do address this legitimate concern saying “there is still a need to provide an informal camping experience in the area. The informal camp area(s) would provide basic facilities (toilet, firepit, bin provision) but it would still be a wilder camping experience than that of established formal campsites.” There are also commercial camp sites in the area too. And of course you can just walk beyond the road and have a real wild camp.

Photo info. Two wild camps on the eastern side of Loch Lomond. Top: on the southern slopes of Ben Lomond overlooking Loch Lomond; bottom: in the woods close to the West Highland Way and Rowchoish bothy. Both pictures: Sigma DP1. Top 1/160@f8, ISO 200. Bottom 1/25@f5.6, ISO 400.

Friday 5 February 2010

Lurchers Gully White-Out

Just a lowering of the cloud or a slight increase in the speed of the wind can make a huge difference to the weather in winter and a huge difference to a mountain experience. A few days ago I set out from Coire Cas in the Cairngorms on skis intending to climb up to the plateau and ski across to Ben Macdui or, if the weather wasn’t promising, along the edge of the Northern Corries. The forecast suggested some cloud, a little wind and brief snow showers but also a fair chance of good visibility. The high tops being hidden in cloud I decided to stay fairly low at first and cut across the foot of the Northern Corries before climbing up beside Lurchers Gully. The cloud, I hoped, would lift, at least a little. Even below the pale mist the light was flat and the snow covered landscape ill-defined. Orange goggles helped give a little definition to the terrain. In the mouth of Coire an t-Sneachda I brushed the cloud, losing sight of everything more than a few metres away. A slight descent and the hazy world reappeared. Still hoping for better conditions I took shelter behind a boulder while I warmed up with some hot ginger cordial and lunched on egg sandwiches and chocolate. The temperature was -3ºC. A few figures appeared out of the mist then quickly faded from view. A gusty wind sprang up and by the time I set off again my skis were half-buried in spindrift. Climbing the shoulder above Lurchers Gully I navigated from rock to rock as visibility vanished. Soon I decided there was little point continuing and started descending into the gully. The rocks slipped out of view. The snow and mist merged. Ripples in the snow just beyond my ski tips were all I could see. Edging down slowly I felt disorientated. Only the slow slipping of my skis told me I was descending. Keeping the speed low was essential in case of banks or drop-offs and my leg muscles strained as I held the skis back, turning into the hill when I hit patches of fast, icy snow down which the skis wanted to race. Time seemed suspended. I could imagine spending eternity just descending this endless, bottomless slope. Nothing else existed. Snow began to fall, blown against me by the strengthening wind. A sudden drop in temperature and everything damp froze, including my goggles. Iced-up and useless I took them off and strained to see into the clinging whiteness. But there was nothing to focus on, nothing solid or real. Finally, the mist thinned and shivered, dark patches appeared, the forest far below. The world grew and the white-out was over. The cloud was much lower than when I had entered it and the sky was dark and heavy with snow. I hadn’t gone far, just a few kilometres, but it had been an intense experience, alone in that unreal world.

Photo info: A walker in the mouth of Coire an t-Sneachda. Canon EOS 450D, 18-55@55mm, 1/400@ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file cropped and converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Thursday 4 February 2010

New TGO - Continental Divide Trail and GPS

In the March issue of TGO, just out, my backpacking column is about the Continental Divide Trail, the longest hike I have undertaken. In gear I review GPS mapping units and look at the future of GPS for the outdoors. Elsewhere Judy Armstrong reviews waterproof jackets for women, John Manning tests the new Osprey Manta 25 pack and Cameron McNeish describes the gear he used on a backpacking trip at the end of last December in bitterly cold weather.

Other interesting features are Jim Perrin’s column on Thoreau (great to see the latter being promoted but I disagree completely with Jim’s denigration of John Muir), an interview with Helen McDade of the John Muir Trust, a gripping account of being avalanched in the Lake District, the North Pennines explored by Dan Bailey. Paddy Dillon on the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland, the story of a recluse who lived in a remote bothy for over 30 years, Bill Birkett’s favourite Langdale walks and a philosophical piece on the attractions of natural landscapes

Photo info: On the Canada/USA border at the start of the Continental Divide Trail. Pentax MX, Tamron 35-70 lens, Kodachrome 64 film. No exposure details. Scanned slide tweaked in Lightroom 2.5.