Sunday 30 January 2011

Igloos, Spindrift and White-Out

This last weekend saw six of us from Inverness Nordic and Ski Touring Club on an igloo building overnight trip on the Moine Mhor in the Cairngorms. We climbed up into the hills on foot and then on skis on a day of clouds and touches of blue sky. By 900 metres we were in pale drifing mist and visibility was shrinking and expanding almost every minute. The occasional break in the cloud gave hope of clearing skies but only for a few late hours did the sun break through. We crossed the rounded summit of Carn Ban Mor then skied down soft snow lying on a hard crust into a shallow bowl at the head of a summer stream gully. Here at 1030 metres we built our igloos, using Igloo Ed's ingenious IceBox igloo tool.

Igloo in infancy during a couple of hours of sunshine late on Saturday, the only clear weather of the trip.

Dark comes early in January in Scotland and it was well after nightfall before we finished the igloos. The clouds returned and intermittently a fine drift of light sleet swept the landscape. Here the builders are close to putting on the final "cap", when snow is pile onto the horizontal form and patted down to close the roof of the igloo, followed by the seemingly impossible when the form is removed and the snow stays in place.

The night in the igloos was calm and only the flapping of the nylon doors and the occasional inrush of spindrfit told of the increasing wind outside. Venturing onto the bare mountain soon after dawn was a cold shock as the turbulent air sent the fine snow spinning into the air and lashing the face. High above clouds swirled and raced, occasionally revealing tanatalising shreds of blue sky.

Morning in one of the igloos, comfortable and warm with stoves, hot drinks and food. Soon we would have to venture out.

Sleet and wind scoured, with visibility fading fast, we used the igloos as shelter while we packed up and prepared to depart. The contrast between the inside and the outside of the igloos was startling, peace and quiet cocooned in the thin snow walls, storm thrashed on the mountain outside.

After crossing Carn Ban Mor on a compass bearing as visibility was minimal we were relieved to come out of the mist soon after starting the descent as then we could enjoy the skiing, though the two of us with IceBox tools strapped to our packs did find keeping balance during turns problematical at times. Once down the snow, which was fast and easy to ski, we strapped skis to the packs and plodded down the icy track to the forest, content after a night high in the mountains in shelters we'd built ourselves.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Heavy Rain, Rapid Thaw, Swollen River

After days of heavy rain and south-west winds that stripped the snow from the fields and woods I wandered down to the River Spey to watch the swollen surging grey water. The riverside path was under water in places and the river was on the verge of spilling over into neighbouring meadows. The power of the water felt immense, great dark swells heaving and pitching in a rush to the sea. Watching the fast moving river I felt disorientated as my eyes and brain tried to adapt to the constantly changing blurred water. There were flood warnings for the lower Spey, closer to the sea, and I knew there had been floods further south around the town of Perth, where several rivers pour down from the Highlands to converge on lowland plains. And of course for days the news has been of terrible floods in Australia, Brazil and the Philippines. Standing on the edge of the Spey in spate I could well understand how fast rain and snowmelt can turn a life-giving river into a fearsome threat and that thinking we can always tame and control nature is hubris.

Photo Info: The River Spey surging below the Old Spey Bridge, Grantown-on-Spey, January 17, 2011. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@36mm, 1/20@f8, ISO 400, raw files processed in Lightroom 3.

Monday 10 January 2011

New TGO: Soft Shells & Winter Camping

The latest TGO (February 2011) is just out. My backpacking column is about the pleasures of winter camping. I've also reviewed a bunch of soft shell jackets and written a piece on the advantages of trekking poles. And if you don't have any poles and are persuaded by the latter John Manning has reviewed a selection. In his Lighten' Up column Eddy Meecham looks at dehydrated food. On my Pacific Northwest Trail walk last summer I ate a great deal of dehydrated food of various sorts so I was interested to read Eddy Meecham's take on this ideal backpacking grub.

Elsewhere in this issue there's plenty of good reading - and some superb photography. The future of the Forestry Commission and the forestry sell-off proposals is considered by Carey Davies, Roger Smith looks at the carbon cost of travel, Keith Fergus profiles John Rooke Corbett, winter comes to Yorkshire for Ian Battersby, Stephen Venables goes ski touring on three continents, Cameron McNeish makes a nostalgic return to Eskdale, Andrew Terrill enjoys a long winter walk in the Peak District, there's a whole section on getting fit for the hills and Jim Perrin is taken with Thoreau and a raven

Photo info: Winter camp below Creag an Dubh Loch. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55@18mm, 1/160@f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Friday 7 January 2011

First Hill of the New Year

A week into 2011 and a first, if short, hill walk. A bad cold over New Year has prevented earlier outings. Today I had a morning meeting at Glenmore Lodge so what better than a stroll up Meall a’Bhuachaille in the afternoon? Staring out of the lodge windows at the mountains shining in the sun I was longing to be out there in the snow. It was time to test just how much my cold was fading. Everywhere was frozen hard and the air had that biting frosty deep winter feel as I set out. The temperature had been -9ÂșC when I left home. The track through Ryvoan Pass and above Lochain Uaine was a wide thick band of ice in places. I thought about crampons but decided to edge along the heathery sides until a dusting of snow appeared to dull the slipperiness. The air was calm and the sun bright though I could feel no heat from it. Shaded Lochain Uaine was completely frozen over. Some one had cut a hole in the ice. It had frozen again but blocks of ice eight inches thick had been left on the edge. Further on little Ryvoan Bothy shone gold in the rays of the low sun shining straight through Ryvoan Pass onto its walls. I crunched up the snowy path to the summit of Meall a’Bhuachaille. Part way up a chilly westerly wind swept across the slopes but it had gone before I reached the top. At the cairn I paused and stared out over the pale Cairngorms. The sun was close to setting and the clouds in the west were turning orange and red. Frozen Loch Morlich was a dull white against the dark forest with just a splash of silver where a streak of open water lay at one end. The descent was a mixture of skidding on icy patches and trudging through ankle deep drifts. I considered crampons again but the ice never lasted long. I was glad I had them with me though. By the time I reached the forest again the light had almost gone, with just a dull red glow in the western sky. A thin crescent moon was bright against the deep blue. A short walk only but a fine one to start the year, with perfect winter weather.

Back home the layouts of my next book, a photographic record of a year in the Cairngorms, had arrived. There was Ryvoan Bothy in summer, surrounded by heather and brown hills. How different it had been today. Glancing through the layouts and feeling pleased with the design work of the publishers I realised something about the pictures and about my day out. A distinct lack of wind turbines. With Dunmaglass in mind and the likelihood of more wind farms to come I wonder how long my photos will be an accurate portrayal of the landscape.

Photo Info: Top: After sunset, Loch Morlich and the Cairngorms from the western slopes of Meall a’Bhuachaille, January 7, 2011.
Botton: Ryvoan Bothy and Creag Mhor.
Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@50 & 55mm, 1/125 & 100@f8, ISO 200, raw files processed in Lightroom 3.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Pacific Northwest Trail Photo Essay & review of Scotland book

The winter issue of Outdoor Focus, the journal of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild is out now, edited by John Manning, a long time friend - he describes our first meeting in his editorial! This issue contains a review of my Scotland book, in which my claim to have spent six years writing it is described by Mr Manning as "rubbish", and a photo essay on last year's Pacific Northwest Trail hike. Outdoor Focus is available on line as a pdf here and as an easier to read YUDU publication, with pages that swish when you turn them, here.