Monday 29 August 2011

The First Storm of Autumn?

Autumnal storms bring higher winds, colder temperatures and often the first snow. In the Scottish Highlands the first one usually occurs in late September or early October. This year it seems to have arrived a month early. The forecast for August 28th was for “unseasonal weather” with heavy rain, low temperatures and high winds and maybe snow on the summits. The first two certainly happened with steady rain all day and white streams of water running down the track outside our house. And with a late afternoon temperature of just 7ÂșC at 300 metres it could certainly have been snowing 800 or 900 metres higher up. The winds were gusty but not that strong, at least at this level. Gusts up to 65mph are forecast for the hills tomorrow, along with sleet. There was low thick cloud all day with even the lower hills completely hidden and the leaden sky and dull light along with the chill, damp air certainly made it feel like autumn.

The first autumn colours are appearing too. Rowan leaves are changing to russet and bronze and the berries are rich red. Birch leaves are beginning to fade with yellow tints appearing. The solid green of the high summer forest is breaking up, making for more varied and interesting tree cover.

Time soon to break out the cold weather clothing and think about adding hats and gloves to the rucksack.

Sunday 28 August 2011

The Last Flowers of Summer

Whilst the skies have been mostly grey and the wider landscapes rain swept and dull, when visible at all, this summer has seen a wealth of flowers in the woods and meadows. Look closely at the brown fields and stony banks and amongst the sodden trees and brightness transform the scene. White eyebright is everywhere, yellow tormentil, red clover and tiny blue forget-me-not hide amongst the grasses, purple vetch climbs the reeds. Also purple is Scotland’s flower, the thistle, many species of which rise above the long grass. The pale blue Scottish bluebell is prolific too, lining verges and woodland edges. In wetter areas creamy Meadowsweet and pink Ragged Robin give colour to the sedges and rushes. Perhaps my favourite of these flowers is the foxglove, whose pink spires stand out against the sombre tones of the conifer forest. But all the flowers are lovely and their presence gives colour and light to nature even in a dismal summer like this. There is always something to see. Now at the end of August the flowers are beginning to fade, soon to be replaced by the yellows and reds of dying leaves.

The picture shows a foxglove growing beside the roots of a fallen tree.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Tomintoul & Glenlivet Walking Festival 2011

Tomintoul and Glenlivet lie on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms, an area less visited than Strathspey and Deeside but one with a wealth of fine scenery and good walking. From the 8th to 12th September the Tomintoul and Glenlivet Walking Festival is being held here, based in Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands. Over the five days ten guided hill walks are on offer, including several Munros as well as lower hills, plus easier, lower level walks. On the 11th September I will be leading a walk up Ben Avon from Inchrory in Glen Avon. There will also be social events in the evenings and the whole festival looks an excellent introduction to this part of the Cairngorms and a good chance to meet other walkers. Further details here.

The photo shows Ben Avon, as seen from Glen Avon near Tomintoul.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

A Wander Round Ben Avon

After the days in Edinburgh I felt a need for the quiet and solitude of the hills. The forecast suggested the best weather would be in the east so I decided on a trip to the Eastern Cairngorms – Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird. This proved fortuitous as just hours before I set off I had a request to lead a walk up Ben Avon for the Tomintoul and Glenlivet Walking Festival in September (of which more in another post). Not having been on this hill for several years checking out the route would have been a good idea anyway. As it was I amended my plans to take in the route as suggested by the festival organisers.

Approaching Ben Avon from Tomintoul involves a 12km road walk along a private road up Glen Avon. A bicycle would be ideal for this section but my mountain bike having been neglected for the last few years I decided it wasn’t up to such a trip without a service so I opted to walk in. The evening light was soft with thin cloud cover through which the sun shone intermittently. The hills were purple with heather and the river shone as it twisted and turned through the glen. There was no traffic and the walk was relaxing and pleasant despite the road.

Eventually I came to the foot of Ben Avon and found a good camp site on its lowest flanks just above Glen Builg. A breeze had been blowing all evening but as I pitched the tent it dropped and the midges instantly appeared, forcing me to do the classic madman dance until I’d plastered myself with repellent. Once camp was established the breeze dropped and I was able to keep the tent doors open while I cooked and the sky darkened to blackness as the clouds thickened. There was hardly any sound; just the gentle swish of the wind in the grass.

Under a dark sky rippling with spreading clouds I left camp and climbed the very long north-east ridge of Ben Avon. The light was flat and dull, the air chill with hints of rain. The sky stayed overcast but the clouds remained above the tops and there were expansive if hazy views. Ben Avon is a strange hill, dotted with weirdly shaped granite tors. In this light it seemed grim and austere; a mountain of stone and coldness. Attractive, yes. Beautiful, no. From the summit I descended northwards over Stob Ban an Fhurain, past the impressive tors of Clach Bun Rudhtair and down into Glen Avon.

Back in camp the breeze dropped so the midges could make another attempt on my blood as I packed up the tent.

From the top the photos are:

A distant Ben Avon.
The camp in Glen Builg.
The River Avon just above Inchrory.
Clach Bun Rudhtair

Saturday 20 August 2011

New TGO: Friedrichshafen Show Review, Boot Fitting, Backpacking Accessories and the Joy of Spontaneity

The latest TGO (it says October on the cover) is just out. My backpacking column is about the joys of aimless wandering, of setting out without a definite aim or route in mind and just seeing where the world leads. My gear review meanders about a little too as it covers a disparate set of items I’ve been using for the last year or so ranging from fire starters to canister recycling tools (Jetboil’s excellent Crunchit) to notebooks and sticky tape, which I’ve collected together under the name Backpacking Accessories. I also look at the new gear shown at the Friedrichshafen OutDoor Show in July, while in the Hill Skills section I offer some advice for fitting boots and shoes. Elsewhere in the gear pages Dan Bailey reviews footwear for scrambling.

I haven’t done more than glance through the rest of the magazine yet but I like the look of Andy Stothert’s best views in the Lake District; Cameron McNeish being fascinated by waterfalls; Carey Davies scrambling on Buachaille Etive Mor and swimming in Glen Etive; Ed Byrne trying rock climbing; Ian Battersby wandering the Arenig and Aran mountains without a map; Jim Perrin discussing Nan Shepherd’s lovely book on the Cairngorms The Living Mountain; Judy Armstrong in search of Wolves in the Alps and Anthony Baxter on his film You’ve Been Trumped about Donald Trump and his controversial golf course near Aberdeen.

Oh, and this is the issue with the TGO Challenge 2012 application form along with some stories from this years Challenge.

The picture shows a camp on the Moine Mhor during an unplanned wander around the area.

Images of Calton Hill, Edinburgh

One of the joys of Edinburgh is that there are hills inside the city that you can escape to when the hard stone and incessant traffic of the urban environment become overwhelming. Arthur's Seat is the big one, a volcanic remnant with the feel of a real mountain. But when there's only an hour or two to spare Calton Hill with its curious collection of edifices is a wonderful place with soothing trees and grass and widespread and wonderful views. These photos were taken on Calton Hill late one afternoon during my recent trip to the city.

Friday 19 August 2011

The Right to Camp Wild ......

Whilst in Edinburgh I briefly escaped the traffic fumes and noise for a walk up Calton Hill. Strolling round the popular paths on the hill I was surprised to find someone camping. There is a right to camp wild in Scotland but I hadn't expected to find someone taking that right in the heart of the capital. Others passing by were amused by the tent, especially as the camper was inside, presumably asleep, with just his hand hanging out of the door.

Thursday 18 August 2011

An Urban Diversion at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Emerging from Waverley Station into the urban roar of Edinburgh is always somewhat disorientating after the quiet of the hills. The noise, smell, traffic speed, crowds and buildings all amount to an overwhelming sensory onslaught. This is even more so during the festival season, when the throngs multiply and there are buskers, entertainers and stalls crying for attention, not to mention the hordes of leafleters thrusting flyers for a myriad shows at you. But it was for the Festival Fringe that I had come to Edinburgh, for a few days dose of theatre and entertainment. And the carnival atmosphere is exciting and there is a feeling of creativity and imagination that ripples everywhere.

Choosing a tiny sliver of shows from the many hundreds available is a difficult task. Luckily my partner Denise likes going through the Fringe catalogue to see what catches her eye – and I am happy to go along with her choices. There are some companies whose productions we’ve seen before to look out for but overall it’s good to see new people. This year we saw several excellent shows and one real stand-out. The latter was The Girl With The Iron Claws by The Wrong Crowd, a powerful and atmospheric version of an old Nordic myth that involved puppetry, music and the clever and effective use of some simple props. This is an enthralling production that hung in my mind long after it was over. There’s an outdoor angle too – the iron claws are needed so the heroine can climb the Glass Mountain.

Also good, though not quite as compelling, was River People’s Little Matter, another show involving puppets and music. With elements of quantum theory and mythology included this play told the story of one man’s struggle to overcome his apparently miserable and dull life. The setting was interesting in itself – a wagon theatre set up in a cobbled courtyard. The tent-like covering for this little travelling theatre can be seen in the photo above. It was held in place with an interesting structure of poles and ropes. During the show there was a storm with rain and wind rattling the canvas, which added to the overall atmosphere of the play.

Shakespeare always seems to be a dominant presence at the Fringe and we saw four shows derived from his plays. Macbeth made up two of these, a fairly straight production by Flatpacktheatre that reminded me of how powerful the language of this great play is and Shakespeare for Breakfast, an entertaining version of the same play as a high school musical (and with free coffee and croissants). Also less serious was Shakespeare Bingo, a fun look at Titus Andronicus with bingo cards and some very good acting. Different again was Backhand Theatre’s acrobatic The Tempest with performers on ropes really creating the feeling of a magical world.

Perhaps the strangest show we saw was Belt Up’s Outland, an intense play about Lewis Carroll and the effect of his fantasy world on his health – or was it the other way round? Performed in a small room with most of the audience sitting on the floor round the walls it had a claustrophobic and slightly disturbing air, jumping abruptly from manic action and humour to quiet seriousness and sadness. There was an excellent rendition of The Hunting of the Snark but rather too much of Sylvie and Bruno, a work I hadn’t read and doubt many others have either.

Away from plays I was pleased to have a ticket for a recording of a favourite radio show, Just A Minute, courtesy of James Baster, whose Festafriend looks a good way to meet up with others if you’re in Edinburgh alone or would just like a companion for shows your friends don’t want to see. Just A Minute was excellent, as expected, and I was delighted that Paul Merton was on the show, as his sharp wit is always one of the highlights when he appears. It was good to share some of the humour that doesn’t make the radio version too!

The lunchtime before we left gave a dose of scientific humour from Robin Ince and others at a free event (part of the PBH Free Fringe) called Carl Sagan Is My God, Oh and Richard Feynman Too. This was a good mixture of comedy and science and very entertaining. There were even experiments!

Thursday 11 August 2011

Save the Monadh Liath Mountains & Cairngorms Wild Land Map

Two very different stories about wild land and the preservation of the Scottish Highlands have emerged recently.

The first is the formation of a campaign for the preservation of the Monadh Liath mountain range. So far this takes the form of a petition created by Save the Monadh Liath Mountains. This was instigated by the Allt Duine Wind Farm proposal, which, if it goes ahead will mean 31 giant turbines high on the southern edge of the Monadh Liath just across Strathspey from the Cairngorms National Park. The Monadh Liath is now threatened by an increasing number of wind farms (see Alan Sloman's excellent blog) and it looks as though the wild beauty and remoteness of this area, once the largest roadless region in the Highlands, will be lost forever. Saving what’s left is still worthwhile though so please sign the petition, which you can do here.

The second story is the production of planning guidelines on wildness by the Cairngorms National Park, using fascinating maps produced by Steve Carver of the Wildness Research Institute. These maps divide the Cairngorms into wild land zones, with the mountain core having a high wild land value. This is an excellent resource and it’s good to see the National Park recognising the value and importance of wild land. Yet at the same time just outside the park wind farms are planned that will be highly visible from many areas in the park and will substantially detract from the “naturalness, ruggedness, remoteness and the lack of modern human artefacts” that the park identifies as attributes of wildness.

That the Monadh Liath is not in a national park does not mean it’s unworthy of protection. But the fact that the destruction of its wildness will impact on a national park is another reason why the wind farms should not go ahead. There needs to be some connected thinking here. The Scottish government has two opposing objectives. Through the national park it wants to preserve and enhance wildness and prevent developments that could damage it. Through its energy policy it wants wind farms built that will destroy wild land. It can’t have both.

The picture was taken on a stormy day in the Monadh Liath.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

A Munro No More?

To be a Munro is simple. You have to be a Scottish hill 3,000 feet or higher. Easy it would seem. And for many hills it is. 3050 feet. Munro, 2950 feet. Sorry. Not a Munro. But what about those hills that might be 2999 or 3001 feet? Just how accurate is the measurement? The Munro Society has been finding out over the last few years with a series of surveys using modern accurate equipment and techniques. Two years ago they booted out Sgurr nan Ceannaichean above Glen Carron, discovering it was a full metre below the magic line (see my post, Munro Changes). And in keeping with metric maps the new measurements are metric, which means that line is 914.4 metres, a wonderful measurement that beautifully illustrates the craziness of the Munro game – which I love. I mean, who would compile a list of hills over 914.4 metres?. Today, the Munro Society announced its latest findings, having measured three hills in the wonderful and remote Fisherfield Forest back in July. The three hills were two Munros – 918 metre Ruadh Stac Mor and 916 metre Beinn a’Chlaidheimh – and one Corbett (hill between 2500 and 3000 feet) - 910 metre Beinn Dearg Mor. The first and last preserved their current status but Beinn a’Chlaidheimh came in at 913.96m, a full 0.44 metres too low. So logically Beinn a’Chlaidheimh is a Munro no more and joins the Corbetts. But not yet as there is another twist in the story. The guardian of Munro’s Tables, the official list, is the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC), for whom Sir Hugh Munro originally compiled them and the SMC has said that it “has been notified of these survey results and has undertaken to consider the implications for Munro’s and Corbett’s tables when the Ordnance Survey update its map of the area.” So Beinn a’Chlaidheimh is in the curious position of still being a Munro whilst not meeting the qualifications. A Munro, indeed, that is not 3,000 feet high. And it is now up to the OS to make the final decision. If its next map keeps the current 916 metre height then Beinn a’Claidheimh remains a Munro, if it accepts the Munro Society height then it isn’t. If Beinn a’Chleidheimh is demoted it will mean the famous (or infamous) Fisherfield Six Munros, one of the toughest Munro days out, will become the Fisherfield Five (and my Scotland book will be wrong – damn!).

So what is the poor Munro bagger to do? As always, climb them all. They’re all fine hills and all worth the effort. And anyone who makes it up to Fisherfield, which is a long way from anywhere, and has good weather would be wasting their journey if they missed any hills, regardless of height. But if time or sunshine is short and choices have to be made then I’d go for Beinn Dearg Mor first, a superb rocky hill in a fantastic situation overlooking Loch na Sealga and with a superb view of An Teallach. It may “only” be 906.28 metres (a new lower height from the Munro Society survey) but you’ll not notice the lack of 8.12 metres.

The picture shows A’Mhaighdean (left) and Ruadh Stac Mor – whose height according to the new survey is just 0.02 metres higher than previously thought.

Monday 8 August 2011

Gore-tex Active Shell Review - Haglofs Endo Jacket

Active Shell is claimed to be the most breathable Gore-tex fabric yet. It's also very lightweight. I've been trying Haglof's Active Shell Endo Jacket - and there's been plenty of rain for testing this summer! My review has now been published on the TGO website here.

Alan Blackshaw Remembered

Yesterday I was saddened to hear of the death of mountaineer and conservationist Alan Blackshaw. I was privileged to know Alan, first meeting him when he chaired the Cairngorms Partnership Recreation Forum on which I sat as the representative of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland over a decade ago. Since then I have met Alan at various meetings and corresponded with him on access and conservation matters, growing to admire his fierce intellect and determination. He was deeply involved in mountaineering organisations and served on many committees, contributing greatly to the position of mountaineering in Britain today. In particular he was an expert on access and played a major part in the debates that led to Scotland’s fine access legislation. Details of his career and other information can be found in the obituaries already published by Cameron McNeish and To Hatch A Crow. There will be many more.

Thinking of Alan I remembered his seminal book “Mountaineering From Hill Walking to Alpine Climbing”, first published in 1965, and dug out my old battered and well-thumbed copy, purchased in 1974. “Blackshaw’s Mountaineering”, as it was always known, was the mountaineering handbook of the time, a comprehensive volume by one of the then leading mountaineers. Flipping through it now takes me back to another time – a time of canvas rucksacks, wooden-shafted ice axes, cagoules, moleskin breeches and woolly balaclavas. The basic ethos of the book is still valid of course. The following quote from the book was true for Alan and, I hope, for many of us who have followed him:

“Mountaineering may come to mean something more than a sport; you may find in it a philosophy of living. If you do, and I hope you may, then you and the mountains will be inseparable through life”.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Adventure Travel Piece in Scotland on Sunday

Yesterday afternoon I was asked to write a piece for Scotland on Sunday about the value of adventure travel in the light of the tragic polar bear attack on Svalbard (in an area where I once led a ski tour - the only trip on which I've carried a rifle). The piece is in today's paper and can be found on the Scotland on Sunday here.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Sunshine, Clouds & Midges

Compared with the Western Highlands and islands like Skye the Cairngorms have a reputation for less fearsome midges. Now I’ve always felt this was exaggerated. Yesterday I found it to be completely untrue as I was engulfed in clouds of ravenous beasties within seconds of stopping to take water from a burn. I’d set out earlier for an ascent of Bynack More, the easternmost of the 1,000 metre summits of the Northern Cairngorms.

I left late as the forecast suggested the low damp mist of morning would clear to give a fine afternoon and evening. And so it proved. The long walk-in from Glenmore round the eastern edge of the hills was in some of the hottest weather of the summer so far with a blazing sun and a sharp blue sky. Yet to the north and east it was hazy and towering clouds suggestive of thunder heads drifted by.

Sweating heavily in the still air I climbed the final rocky north ridge to the jumble of boulders at the summit. A westerly breeze cooled me down as it dried the sweat on my t-shirt. South and west the mountains shone in the sun. Turning the other direction and the sky was grey and the hills indistinct. A giant cauliflower cloud was building just east of the top. This not being the place to be caught in a thunderstorm I didn’t linger but was soon cutting across the stony slopes to the lower top of Bynack Beg, whose north-east ridge I took down into Strath Nethy, a rough descent on sketchy gravel paths and through deep heather.

I was under cloud cover now and the air was hot, humid and heavy. It was during this descent that, having emptied my water bottles, I stopped for a refill and the midges found me. Using my sun hat as a whisk to repel the hordes I was very quickly on my way. Down in the glen I forded the shallow River Nethy and crossed the ridge above before descending into the lovely natural forest above the Ryvoan Pass path. This is an interesting and unfrequented route, with only traces of paths and much rough terrain that slows progress. On this occasion I rarely stopped to look around, let along take photographs, as the second I did the midges poured over me. Indeed, on the ascent out of Strath Nethy I could barely move fast enough to stay head of them. It was with relief that I reached my car and was just left with the problem of how to get in it without bringing in too many midges.

Pictures: from the top - the summit of Bynack More; clouds building up over the shoulder of Meall a'Bhuachaille above Ryvoan Pass; Bynack More and Bynack Beg; Strath Nethy with Bynack More top left.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Big Shakeout Weekend

For those down south in England there's an interesting sounding weekend in the Peak District on 14-16 October organised by Alpkit and Thornbridge Outdoors. There are activities and courses - including caving, climbing, conservation, bushcraft, photography and first aid - plus music, films and lectures. Last year's event had good reviews and it looks a great opportunity to try out different activities and meet others with similar interests. More info on the Alpkit website.