Thursday 29 December 2011

Top Ten Favourite New Gear Items 2011

Going through the many items I’ve tested for TGO magazine in 2011 I’ve come up with my favourites. They’re not necessarily the best in their class – though several of them are – but they are ones that have impressed me most this year.

I’ve only included gear that is generally available (though with one item this does mean ordering from the USA and then waiting awhile) so I’ve omitted Colin Ibbotson’s superb range of Tramplite Skins packs (see      my post for April 21 and April 22) as Colin has decided that producing these at present would interfere with his long distance walking plans. Much as I’d like to see his packs on the market he definitely has his priorities right.

The items are in no particular order.

Rab Stretch Neo Jacket in Polartec Neoshell

After a decade with no significant developments in waterproof/breathable fabrics 2011 saw two new ones launched. The first of these was Polartec Neoshell. I had the chance to test a Rab Stretch Neo jacket in this fabric back in February on a two week trek on the Southern Upland Way and was impressed with the performance. Neoshell is certainly as breathable as eVent, the best fabric so far, and maybe more so. The Neo Stretch is a well-designed jacket too, especially for mountain storms.

Gore-Tex Active Shell

Not to be outdone Gore-Tex came up with its own new fabric called Active Shell. Only available in garments weighing 400 grams or less this is more a fabric for summer use and lightweight backpacking. I tried two garments, the Berghaus Velum and Haglofs Endo, and found the fabric as breathable as Neoshell or eVent. Of the two designs I preferred the Velum, mainly due to the big chest pockets.

Patagonia Ultralight Down Shirt

At a mere 158 grams – lighter than many base layers – and compressible into a tiny ball Patagonia’s down shirt is astonishing for the warmth provided. It’s also one of the most versatile down garments as it can be layered with a synthetic fill or fleece top in cold weather or used on its own as camp wear in summer. Indeed, the weight is such there’s no reason to ever leave it behind.

PHD Hispar 500

I like to sleep comfortably and have never been one for saving weight on a skimpy sleeping bag. At the same time I don’t want any more weight than necessary. At 948 grams the Hispar 500 is much lighter than most other bags with the same temperature rating. It’s currently my favourite winter bag.

Terra Nova Laser Ultra 1

Despite the frightening expense and a somewhat fragile groundsheet I just had to include the first cuben fibre two-skin tent from a mainstream tent company due to the ridiculously low weight (anything from 580 to 800 grams depending on pegs used – after ditching the toothpicks that came with the test model I ended up with a weight of 788 grams including stuffsacks). I used the Laser Ultra 1 on the Southern Upland Way and whilst a roomier shelter would have been nice for the long winter nights it kept out the weather.

Boilerwerks Backcountry Boiler

Innovative, ultralight and fun to use this modern take on the venerable chimney kettle is an excellent meths/wood water boiler for backpackers. The history of its design and development is fascinating too.

Jetboil Sol Ti

I liked the original Jetboil stove because it was innovative and fuel efficient. However it was still quite heavy for backpacking compared with alternative stove/pot combinations.  The Sol Ti is much lighter at 248 grams (347 grams with all accessories) and a joy to carry and use.

Primus OmniLite Ti

The third stove of the year is Primus’ lightweight version of the excellent OmniFuel. Usable with gas canisters, petrol or paraffin it’s a versatile stove for backpacking abroad. It’s also powerful enough for cooking for two or three and light enough for solo use, especially when used with canisters, which can be inverted for better performance in freezing weather.

GoLite Terrono 70 pack

GoLite’s fully featured Terrono pack may seem a strange choice due to its 1.95kg weight. Whatever happened to lightweight? For a comfortable carry with heavy loads this is light weight though. I used it on my winter walk on the Southern Upland Way and had 24kg in it at times. It felt fine and I was glad to have a pack with such a supportive harness.

Nemo Meta 1P tent

My full review of this tent won’t appear until sometime next year but in the meantime I can say I like it as it’s roomy, light weight and quickly pitched with one trekking pole. It also has better breathability than most single-skin tents whilst still keeping out the weather.

And finally a quick thumbs-up for the Jetboil CrunchIt, a little tool for puncturing empty gas canisters so they can be flattened and recycled. A great device.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Daisies, Ice & Mice; Canoes, Reindeer & Flaming Torches: An Unusual Christmas

 So Christmas has come and gone. Warm weather, no snow, green countryside – it has not felt like winter, other than the short days and long nights. Christmas here in Strathspey began with the arrival of stepdaughter Hazel and boyfriend James up from Edinburgh until early January to the delight of Hazel’s mum Denise and me.

The day before Xmas Eve we ventured into the woods and finding a pine brought down in recent storms acquired some branches for Hazel to bind together into a thick, bushy and aromatic ‘Christmas tree’. Back home we brought out the box of Xmas decorations for its annual emergence into the light only to find that mice had been nesting in it and had ruined many of the decorations. The result was an austere minimalist tree, though still attractive with glass stars and silvery lights. And a resetting of the mouse trap – a metal box they can enter but not escape from (except for some damn clever ones that have managed it somehow). Since obtaining this new trap a month ago well over 30 mice have been caught and released into the woods. Maybe some are the same ones returning. Or maybe there are just masses of them, far more than in previous years.

The day also saw a first visit from our new neighbours, who I expect we’ll be seeing again as they run the company Backcountry Survival. Their visit also explained the presence of a large canoe in a ditch near our house. They’d moved in during the recent stormy and wintry weather and it had blown away and then frozen into place.

The Christmas feeling continued that evening with the Grantown-on-Spey Torchlight Procession with flaming brands and Santa in a sledge pulled by reindeer from the Aviemore Reindeer Centre and led by a pipe band, followed by carol singing in the town square. The air wasn’t as frosty as usual but the bright torches and the reindeer did create a sense of midwinter celebration.

Xmas Day we always go for a short walk after opening presents (outdoors stuff – well, I did get a calendar with pictures of bears!). Often it’s in the snow; usually it’s in frosty, wintry conditions. This year the mild weather that had swept away the snow in one huge thaw a few days earlier meant it felt more like September than December even though there was a brisk wind. The fields were green and in one we even found daisies in flower, an astonishing first for Xmas. Surprisingly there was still ice on some of the puddles, though most of the ground was soggy and muddy, released from frost and snow back into the saturated state it’s been in much of the year.

Dinner, Dr Who, charades, friends round on Boxing Day, cutting wood for the fire, mince pies, Xmas cake, Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather DVD – Christmas continued as a mix of excitement, entertainment, eating, conversation and overall satisfaction. Now for New Year, and maybe snow.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Allt Duine Wind Farm Protest & Deferment, along with some ice

December 20th was the day Highland Council was to decide whether to accept or reject the proposed Allt Duine wind farm, which would see 31 turbines, the majority 125 metres (410 feet) high, erected only a few hundred metres from the borders of the Cairngorms National Park (see my post for September 24 – Allt Duine: A Landscape Under Threat). To make the point that this is a wind farm too far the Save the Monadhliath Mountains campaign asked objectors to gather outside the Council offices to show our feelings before the meeting took place.

Having been agreed to be a spokesperson for the campaign I was asked to arrive just after 8 a.m. to do a live interview for BBC Radio Scotland before the demonstration or Council meeting began. Now this may not sound unduly early but to get there by that time I had to walk by torchlight down the half-mile track from my house to the nearest road where my car was parked as the track was too icy for it, scrape the ice off my car, hope that it would start and then drive 40 miles on icy pre-dawn roads. As the first 20 miles were on ice and snow covered roads that hadn’t been gritted they were rather slow and I turned up a little late to find a lone reporter standing in the dark freezing car park wondering where the hell I was. Due to my lateness there was no time to prepare and I went straight into the interview. I’m told it sounded okay!

The reporter then departed and I was the one standing alone in the cold. Hanging around feeling cold in an empty car park seemed an unattractive idea so I went off in search of a coffee. The exercise warmed me up, especially as I struggled to stay upright on icy pavements, though no coffee was forthcoming. The spreading pink dawn reflected in the swollen River Ness was pleasant to gaze at however. Back at the Council offices I found the first batch of demonstrators, a half dozen or so, clustered outside. Then we discovered that the Council meeting had been put back so the Councillors could go on a site visit to a smaller wind farm they were also to discuss that day. Having waved them off on their tour bus we decided hot drinks were a good idea whilst they were gallivanting so another café search was undertaken. It now being past 9 a.m. this was successful and we were soon warm and hydrated and ready to return to the fray.

Back at the Council again we found more demonstrators with placards and signs and the coffin from the Wake for the Wild event back in May plus the media in the form of TV, radio and newspaper reporters. Clearly the publicity about our action had attracted attention. As the spokesperson it was my job to be interviewed. Beforehand I had carelessly assumed this might mean three or four quick chats with reporters. Looking at the TV cameras and reporters queuing up I realised it wouldn’t be quite so easy going. In less than an hour I then gave around a dozen interviews, losing count as they came thick and fast. Throughout I tried to emphasise that this was a pro-landscape movement, that we were here to defend wild land and call for its protection and that the key word was location and in the case of the proposed Allt Duine wind farm the location was destructive and completely wrong.

Interviews over I joined the other demonstrators in the Council chamber to listen to the debate, the councillors now back from their site visit. That wind farm, for 20 turbines at Moy near Inverness, was rejected, on the advice of the planning officer, mainly because of the visual impact, particularly from the A9 highway and the Perth to Inverness rail line. It was then proposed that the Allt Duine wind farm decision should be deferred so the councillors could make a site visit. Why they hadn’t done this already seems a mystery as they had already deferred the decision once before so there had been plenty of time. As it is, they now hope to make a site visit early in January – if the winter weather allows of course. As well as visiting the proposed site I hope they will also visit various places in the Cairngorms National Park from which the turbines will be clearly visible and very intrusive and not just be concerned with the fact that the turbines won’t be visible from the A9 corridor in Strathspey, which is the line the developers are pushing when they say the wind farm will be unobtrusive. Overall though I think a deferment is a good outcome, given that the planning officer had recommended that the Council accept the application – even though the same criteria for rejecting the Moy wind farm apply far more strongly to Allt Duine. The planning officer did accept that there would some visual impact, saying that to avoid this the turbines should not carry any signs or logos, which is a bit like saying you can rip a work of art to bits but mustn’t then discolour the remnants as that would spoil it.

Now we wait to see what happens next year. The story has a long way to go yet.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Ron Strickland comments on Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams: Updated 22/12/11

View from the Pacific Northwest Trail on the High Divide in the Olympic Mountains.

Ron Strickland, the creator of the Pacific Northwest Trail and author of the PNT guidebook and the excellent Pathfinder, had a look at the blurb on the publisher's website for my book on the trail and decided it didn't really cover everything so he put in a passionate and eloquent suggestion of his own. I won't reproduce it as Sandstone Press has published it on its and you can read it here. I must say though that I've never been compared to Burton or Speke before! And I love the idea of the American Congress making me a special gift of the trail. Thanks Ron.

The book itself is virtually finished. The last pages will be with Sandstone Press tomorrow.

Update: Some good comments on the Sandstone blog. Thanks!

And the book was finished on time. 

Thursday 15 December 2011

Grizzly Bears And Razor Clams: Coming Next Year!

Above is the cover of my book on the Pacific Northwest Trail, designed by Heather MacPherson for Sandstone Press. I like it very much. Thanks Heather! The picture was taken in the Pasayten Wilderness in the Cascade Mountains. The book will be published next year. The Sandstone Press announcement can be found here.

Monday 12 December 2011

Thoughts of Winter

With the first big storm of winter just past I've started thinking about trips in the snow and winter camping and walking so I thought I'd post this piece which I wrote for TGO a year ago after the first big winter storm of 2010. My thoughts haven't changed.


 As I write this in late November the snow lies deep across much of Britain and winter has set in hard with record low temperatures. The weather has brought the usual chaos to the roads but once it settles down the hills and wild places should be superb for winter backpacking. For me this snow has brought a feeling of excitement and desire that never comes with grey skies and rain, the norm on too many winter days. I have visions of climbing pristine white slopes with a perfect mountain world spread out all around and then camping beneath a star-filled sky with a crisp frost sharpening the senses and making every sound ring. I relish the thought of lying in my warm sleeping bag with a mug of hot chocolate watching the snow drifting gently across the landscape. Winter camping can be a joy. And when the wind picks up and rattles the tent and sends swirling snow into every crevice I love feeling secure inside my tent, listening to the storm thrashing the land.

Before the snow that closed the lowlands came there was already snow in the hills and I had made two overnight trips into the frozen mountains. Both of these brought the pleasures of winter backpacking and also the pains. The first was to a favourite spot of mine, the great cliff-ringed bowl at the head of Loch Avon, arguably the finest corrie in the Cairngorms. The forecast was for clearing weather but the hills were shrouded in dense cloud and drizzle was falling when I set off. The wet summer and autumn and recent heavy rain meant the lower ground was saturated and the streams full. I climbed up the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais into the wet mist, crossed below the invisible summit of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and descended into boggy Coire Domhain from where a badly eroded stony path lead steeply down to the corrie and long Loch Avon. As I dropped out of the cloud the loch appeared, grey and windswept, while whitewater streams roared down the hillsides. The floor of the corrie was sodden and I had to pitch on damp ground, choosing a spot that didn’t squelch too much under my boots. As the chilling drizzle continued I was soon inside the tent in my sleeping bag with a hot drink wondering what had happened to the drier, clearer weather. During the early part of the night gusts of wind shook the tent and rain rattled on the nylon. Awake before dawn I noticed whiteness around the edge of the porch, a light dusting of snow. The temperature was now below freezing and there was ice on my water bottles. Looking out I could see stars. Daylight came with a bright sky, hazy sunshine and dappled clouds. The mountains were spattered with snow, stark and dramatic. The tent was frozen to the ground. Back up on the Cairngorm plateau the sky was blue and I could see far out to the west. The fine weather didn’t last long though and by the time I reached the summit of Cairn Gorm the clouds had rolled back in and all I could see was the weather station, plastered with frost and snow. The rain returned as I descended back to the car. I didn’t mind. The glorious morning had made the trip worthwhile.

My second trip was to Creag Meagaidh and another favourite spot, Coire Ardair with its little lochan nestling under huge jagged cliffs. Again the forecast suggested fine, cold weather. Again it was only partly correct. I camped beside cold, dark Lochan a’Choire with the rock walls, shattered pinnacles and stony gullies rising above me into grey clouds. There was only a smattering of old snow on the corrie floor but not far above the slanting slabs were white. Venturing into one of the wide stony gullies I could see long icefalls spreading over the cliffs high above.

During the night there were flurries of snow and when I woke the ground was frosty and crunched underfoot. Clouds still hung over the summits and a chill wind blew. Not wanting to move camp higher in these conditions – especially as the tent was a previously untried test model – I made a round trip to Creag Meagaidh, a real winter excursion requiring use of ice axe and crampons. I kicked steps up the crusty snow filling the wide steep cleft leading up to the notch called The Window. Above this the snow was thinner and icier so I used crampons for security on the slope up to the huge gently tilted plateau of Creag Meagaidh. I was in the cloud now and found it hard at times to distinguish between the air and the ground. Both were white and hazy with only ripples in the snow and the occasional rock giving me anything to focus on. Compass bearings led me to the summit and a sharp cold wind. Chilly though it was I welcomed this wind as it sometimes tore apart the whirling clouds to give brief views of the surrounding peaks and down to dark glens. A silver sun pulsated weakly through the clouds. The light and the clouds changed every second and the world felt very unstable. Only the snow-encrusted rocks of the summit cairn seemed solid and fixed. I followed my steps back across the plateau to The Window then dropped below the cloud and back to camp. From above my little grey tent looked tiny and fragile against the immensity of the landscape. It had kept off the wind and snow however and provided a warm shelter for a hot drink before I packed up and descended out of the mountains.

As with many winter trips there were only short periods of clear weather on these ventures and the tops were often in cloud. However one of the delights of winter backpacking is being out there in the wilds during times of magical light, clearing skies and frosty sunshine even if these are brief. This is very much the time of year to welcome any sunshine, any abatement of the wind, any clearance of the clouds. It’s also a time to enjoy the comforts of camp. In summer with the long hours of daylight I resent spending much time in the tent, impatient to be outside and walking. In winter I’m happy to lie in the tent, warm and snug, listening to the wind, watching the snow fall, staring out at the ice-bound landscape. I don’t close the tent up unless the weather is really stormy, unlike in summer when midges often force me to zip myself in, and so don’t lose my contact with the outdoors. And when storms do mean closing the doors then I’m happy to lie and read a book and make endless brews and mugs of soup. Even in bad weather winter backpacking can be fun.

Thursday 8 December 2011

New TGO: Bothies, Fleece, Keeping Warm At Night & Primus OmniLite Ti review

The January 2012 issue of TGO is out - so of course, given the odd way magazines use dates, it contains a Christmas Gift Guide. Amongst the suggested items is the latest edition of The Backpacker's Handbook, which keeps me happy.

In this issue my backpacking column, headed Shelter from the Storm, is about bothies while in the Hill Skills section I look at how to keep warm at night when winter camping. In the gear pages there's my test report on the new Primus OmniLite Ti multi-fuel stove, which is excellent, and a review of sixteen fleece jackets, which is good timing as winter weather has just begun.

Also useful for the cold is John Manning's review of fifteen down jackets, which is illustrated with some entertaining pictures of Mr Manning bundled up in various of the garments.

Keeping with the cold theme there's a section on Winter's Magic that includes winter walks on various mountains such as Snowdon, described by Jim Perrin, and Creag Meagaidh, described by Cameron McNeish. Also in Winter's Magic is advice from Heather Morning, the Mountain Safety Adviser for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, on skills and gear for the winter hills. In the Hill Skills section, but very relevant to winter, is a useful piece by John White on driving in freezing conditions and preparing your vehicle for the cold.

Elsewhere in the magazine, which is a fat one at 130 pages, Mark Diggins describes his work as co-ordinator of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service; Roger Smith is rightly concerned at plans for a new town in the Cairngorms National Park; Ed Byrne tries his hand at fishing; Cameron McNeish says let Mallory and Irvine rest in peace; Ronald Turnbull praises Rannoch Moor; Carey Davies tackles the Fairfield Horseshoe; Andrew Terrill has a chilly Christmas long-distance walk in the Dolomites; Jim Perrin celebrates George Borrow's Wild Wales; Nathan Skinner explores the Black Mountains and extreme climber Andy Kirkpatrick ponders reconciling adventure and fatherhood. It'll take me a while to get through all of that!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

First Tracks

More snow overnight and some consolidation of the lying snow by the wind made conditions look good for the first ski tour of the year, a short venture into the woods and fields round home. December 7 is very late to start skiing. Most years I expect to ski in October. But the season has started and I am pleased. The snow was good in the open fields, packed down by the wind, and I could glide quite well. In the forest the snow was softer, deeper and stickier and skiing was hard work and slow. But still fun and easier than walking would have been.

The trees were heavy with snow, their branches touching the ground in places. Here they were surrounded by rabbit tracks as the animals came out to gnaw on the twigs and bark. A few rabbits streaked across the snow at my approach, sending up little puffs of snow. A cock pheasant shot into the air squawking loudly from almost under my skis. Nothing else stirred on this cold, windswept day.

The sky above was clear but in the west and north heavy, dark clouds hid the hills. At dusk – 3.30pm at this time of year – there were some faint pink touches on the streaks of cloud in the eastern sky but these soon faded as the sun was overwhelmed by the thick north-western darkness. An almost full moon shone above the land as I made my way home. 

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Interviews for BBC Radio Scotland Out of Doors

In Okanagon country on the Pacific Northwest Trail

Today I was interviewed by Mark Stephen for the Out of Doors BBC Radio Scotland programme about my A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorms book and about my Pacific Northwest Trail walk. The first interview should be broadcast this weekend - the programme goes out at 6.30 am on Saturday, repeated at 11.05 am on Sunday - and the next a week later. The programe will also be available on iPlayer.

As Mark was coming from Aberdeen and I was coming from Grantown-on-Spey we met in Keith, where we had an excellent lunch (brocolli and stilton soup) in the wonderfully named Boogie Woogie Cafe before finding a quite spot for the interviews. Getting to Keith was quite interesting given the snow which, despite it being December when snow in Scotland is hardly unexpected, has caused some problems on the roads. I had five miles of minor roads before reaching the A95 main road. None of those minor roads had been cleared of snow and every bend (and there were plenty) was quite slippery even though I have snow tyres fitted. Not once did I go above 15mph or get out of second gear. The A95 had been ploughed and gritted but there were still slippery snow patches on some of the sheltered stretches deep in shady hollows. I was more concerned though by some of the other drivers, especially those who decided that because of snow on the edges of the road they should drive down the middle, expecting anything coming towards them to get out of the way. I crept along the verge a few times while the other vehicle sailed past taking up most of the road. But the journey there and back was completed safely, even if it did take much longer than expected. More snow is forecast, perhaps up to 10cms, so I'm glad I don't have to drive anywhere tomorrow. Maybe it'll be time for skis or snowshoes instead.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Out In The Snow

Flurries of snow at low levels have come and gone over the last week, mostly just leaving a dusting that vanished within hours. Last night though the big thick flakes were settling and by midnight the ground was completely white. By this morning the snow lay some eight centimetres deep. Not yet enough for skis or snowshoes but enough to say ‘this is winter’ and enough to tempt me out to walk in the fields and woods. In many places there were deeper drifts as the snow had come on a strong north-west wind. Today there were snow flurries, dark clouds and bursts of sunshine with layers of brightness and colour in the sky. The land was quiet with only a few rabbits venturing out into the snow, though I saw plenty of tracks of rabbits, pheasants and roe deer. High overhead a skein of geese flew past, calling wildly; an appropriate sound for the snow, which brings wildness and freshness to the landscape.

The temperature never rose above freezing today and with cold weather and more snow forecast for the next few days these wintry conditions should be around for some time. For the first time today I could try some of the insulated boots I have to test. I hope I’ll be using them much more in the near future.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Skiing Yellowstone With Igloo Ed

 With snow falling in the hills and winter finally starting in the Scottish Highlands I'm looking forward to ski touring and igloo building. As a taster for winter adventures to come here's an account, which first appeared in TGO, of one of the most extraordinary and enjoyable ski tours I've ever undertaken.

Cold, icy mist drifted over the Firehole River, a freezing grey wall hiding the land. Crossing the bridge over the river we skied into this dawn mist and my weirdest start to a wilderness trip ever. On the far side lay Biscuit Basin, an area of geysers, hot springs, bubbling mudpots and mineral stained crusted smoking ground through which a snow-covered boardwalk threaded a narrow way. Geysers exploded into the air, sending up vast plumes of steam that mingled with the mist. Skiing through the warm clouds of steam dampened us. Then when we emerged back into the freezing air the moisture froze, coating us with frost and ice.

Biscuit Basin lies on the main south-north road through Yellowstone National Park a few miles north of Old Faithful village. You can’t drive there in a car in winter though. The roads are snow-covered and closed to non-tracked vehicles. We’d come in the day before on a snowcoach, a noisy, bone-shaking journey made enjoyable by our entertaining companions, our informative driver/guide Sarah, the splendid scenery and regular stops to visit waterfalls and thermal features. Our snowcoach friends, like many winter visitors to Yellowstone, were going cross-country skiing on cut tracks. We were heading into the untracked wilderness and would see no-one for the next week. My companion on this adventure was Ed Huesers from Colorado, who makes a tool for building igloos called the Ice Box. Our plan was to live in igloos and explore the wilderness west of Biscuit Basin, a vast, steep sided, undulating region around 8,500 feet high known as the Madison Plateau that contains several remote thermal areas.

Yellowstone, the first national park in the world, is a supervolcano sitting atop one of the largest masses of molten rock lying close to the earth’s surface that exists, known with great understatement as a hotspot. The supervolcano last erupted some 630,000 years ago, though there have been smaller lava flows since. The Yellowstone landscape is formed by the lava and ash spewed out in eruptions and then shaped by glaciers and water. The volcanic forces are still active, as evidenced by over 10,000 thermal features, more than anywhere else in the world. One day the Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt again. One day.

Our immediate concern though as we left Biscuit Basin was to find a way up the steep slopes of the narrowing Little Firehole River valley to the undulating wooded plateau above. A deep basin cutting back into the slope looked a possible weakness, though there was a band of low cliffs around the rim, and we headed up this slowly, dragging sleds packed with winter equipment and supplies behind us. The snow was soft and deep in the trees, hard and icy in open areas. Dead trees and boulders lying just beneath the snow caught skis and sleds, bushy young trees snatched at pole baskets and sled straps. At times the sleds slid back down the slope pulling the hauler over. Climbing skins on the skis strained to maintain grip while dragging the sled back up. Finally we breached the cliffs and reached the rim of the plateau and the reward of a splendid view of the Upper Geyser Basin stretching back to Old Faithful, with columns of steam rising into the now mist-free air from a stark monochrome landscape of snow and dark conifers.

Turning away from the views we skied through dense forest, making slow progress in the mix of breakable crust and deep sugary snow and further hampered by the many areas of fallen trees. These were from the great fire of 1988 that burned much of Yellowstone’s woods. Many of the dead trees still stood, grey and skeletal, their limbs snapped off. But there were also many young trees, often packed closely together, showing that life had returned. In the late afternoon we selected a spot on the rim of the plateau and started to build our first igloo. To do this shovelfuls of snow are heaped into a form and then pressed down to form the blocks of the igloo. However the sugar snow we had to work with was very slow to consolidate and each block took a long, long time to make. It was well after midnight before we finished and could crawl into the igloo, melt snow and make dinner. We finally lay down to sleep at 4 a.m. after an exhausting 23 hour day.

Inside the igloo it was surprisingly warm, -3ºC, with the stove going, -7ºC without. Outside it was -23ºC.  It was drier and roomier than a backpacking tent too, with no condensation, room to sit up on the sleeping platforms with feet on the floor and a table for cooking. Outside sounds were cut out completely but daylight percolated through the walls.

Unsurprisingly a slow, leisurely day followed, during which we broke trail through to Little Firehole Meadows then returned to the igloo. After all that effort we weren’t going to abandon it after one day. The morning was sunny but clouds rolled in after noon and light snow was falling by evening. There were many tracks of all sizes in the forest. None were clear. Fox, coyote, wolf, moose and ground squirrel were all possible. However the only wildlife we saw were little mountain chickadees (a type of tit) and big black ravens, both year round denizens of the forest.

The following day our tracks made for a speedy return to Little Firehole Meadows, this time with the loaded sleds. The meadows were extensive, spreading out amongst groves of trees with steep wooded slopes rising all around. The slow meandering Little Firehole River wound its way through the snow-covered meadows, fed by little creeks, all open despite the low temperatures due to the thermally heated water. To continue through the meadows we had to ford the river. This was a new situation to me. I’d skied across many frozen rivers and lakes but had never had to cross open water in such cold temperatures. The day before we’d cleared snow to make a platform on the bank and here we loaded our sleds and skis onto packs ready for the crossing. I went first, barefoot with trousers rolled up, into water that appeared only knee-deep. However a thick mat of green water plants covered the river bed, which consisted of soft, deep mud. The plants gave way disconcertingly under my feet, causing me to wobble under my top heavy load, and once through the vegetation I sank into the mud. Soon I was wading thigh-deep, my trousers soaked. I didn’t feel cold though. That came when I clambered out onto the snow-covered bank. The shock of freezing air and snow on my wet, bare legs was excruciatingly painful and left me gasping. Perched on my foam pad I hurriedly rolled my trousers down, pulled on my socks and boots and swigged hot lemonade from my flask. Ed, watching, removed his trousers and started across. His load was taller and less stable than mine and it began to lurch to one side almost immediately. He still made it almost the whole way across before he started to topple over, desperately trying to dump his load on the bank. I grabbed the nearest object to me, a ski, but it began to pull out of the load so I had to release it and seize the top of the sled itself. As I did this the load pushed Ed down so that his face was in the water momentarily. Once free of the load Ed had to cross back to collect gear he hadn’t been able to manage on the first ford. By the time he’d made his third crossing his feet and legs were turning numb and I had to help get his trousers and boots back on. Then we harnessed up the sleds and strode across the meadows to warm up. Luckily Ed’s load was dry, only the front of his waterproof jacket and his wool shirt were wet.

Out in the meadows we found a lovely situation for our second igloo, on a big snow drift on the edge of a grove of trees looking out across the meadows to the steep slopes of the Madison Plateau. The snow was more powdery here, still slow to form into blocks but better than the coarse sugar snow in the forest. It was still after dark when we finished the igloo. We woke to snow falling and a bitter north wind and spent a few hours breaking trail across the meadows to the slopes lying below an area known as Smokejumper Hot Springs before retreating to the warmth and comfort of the igloo. There was little to see in the swirling snow but some fine big lodgepole pines and some big grey grouse. That evening the clouds cleared and a full moon shone in a cold blue sky. Tree shadows were sharp on the snow and the visibility was greater than it had been during the day. The temperature plummeted. Our boots squeaked in the snow and sharp cracks rang out across the meadows, wood splitting as sap froze in the trees. Later we heard that the temperature in West Yellowstone, some 25 miles away, had fallen to -36ºC.

There followed a day of snow and wind and low cloud and a bizarre, weird and eerie mix of thermal features and atmospheric conditions. Heading for Smokejumper Hot Springs we climbed out of the meadows up a steep thickly wooded gully. Suddenly we emerged out of the trees into a narrow smoky chasm, an unexpected thermal area not on our maps. A steaming stream ran past hot springs and warm pools. The clouds of steam condensed on the trees into grotesque shapes. Gingerly we picked a way through this fascinating terrain, hoping the ground would not give way and pitch us into hot water or mud, then climbed out steeply through deep, soft snow. Back in the silent forest we climbed on to reach the mist-shrouded plateau. A whiff of sulphur swept by on the cold wind. We sniffed, turned and followed the smell to the hot springs, the first time I’ve ever navigated with my nose. Snow was falling, mist drifted through the trees and steam rose from the springs, pools and smoking cracks in the earth that faded in and out view. 

Back at the igloo the snow fell and the wind roared, a cold and stormy end to the day.  Dawn came with a rising sun and clear sky though the gusty wind was pickup up spindrift and blasting it across the meadows. Leaving our igloo home for the last time we skied into the woods and headed back towards Biscuit Basin. Part way there we picked up the waymarks of the Summit Lake Trail, a path I’d walked on my first visit to Yellowstone on the Continental Divide Trail 22 long years before. Then it had been summer and the forest had not yet burned. No memories came back. It all felt new. Steep wooded slopes led down to the Firehole River valley, across which we could see the big bulge of Mallard Lake Dome and, far in the distance, the ragged outline of the Beartooth Mountains. A final delight awaited us. At the base of the slopes on the edge of Biscuit Basin bison and elk were grazing, scraping away the thin snow around the heated ground. We watched them for awhile then skied on to a final challenge, a branch of the Little Firehole River that wasn’t bridged. A logjam provided a way across, the main difficulty being sliding the sleds across the snow on a latticework of precarious logs. Then it was through the thermal area, much more visible now without the morning mist. Back on the road Ed stuck out his thumb. A snowmobile soon stopped and then a snowcoach and soon we were ensconced in the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful having a celebratory drink after one of the most intense and strange ski tours I’ve ever undertaken.


Yellowstone National Park


Trails Illustrated 1:168,500 Yellowstone National Park
Earthwalk 1:106,250 Hiking Map & Guide Yellowstone National Park
Trails Illustrated  1:63,360 Southwest Yellowstone - Old Faithful Trail Map


Yellowstone Official National Park Handbook by David Rains Wallace (NPS)

Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks by Bradley Mayhew, Andrew Dean Nystrom & Amy Marr (Lonely Planet)


Letters From Yellowstone by Diane Smith (Penguin)

Ed’s Ice Box

Friday 25 November 2011

Finally, Winter Arrives.........Maybe

Today the snow came. Heavy and wet in the glens, dry and windblown on the hills. Overnight a gusty wind rattled round the house and I woke to sleet falling and an edging of whiteness on the lower slopes of the Cromdale Hills, their summits shrouded in the grey clouds that ripped across the sky. I drove to Aviemore in squalls of heavy snow, huge flakes sweeping over the road and building up on the wipers even when they were moving. For three weeks the weather has paused, a prolonged autumn, sunny, calm and warm. Now perhaps winter is really starting.

After a morning meeting during which I could see snow driving past the windows of the Mountain Café I had a need to venture into the hills and at least feel a touch of this wintry weather. With only a few hours before dark I headed up the track known as the Burma Road that runs from just outside Aviemore over the eastern Monadh Liath hills to the Dulnain River and is the easiest route to 824 metre Geal-charn Mor, the highest hill in this part of the range. In the pleasant pine and birch woodland at the start of the climb wet snow was scattered over the vegetation, some sticking, some thawing. There was still colour in the landscape, especially the fading golden brown of decaying bracken plus the last few green leaves on streamside shrubs.

 Soon though I was heading out of the trees into a monochrome world where sky and land were shades of grey, merging together in the frequent blasts of almost horizontal snow. The wind was strong and cold. The lying snow was still soft and gave gently underfoot, a welcome feeling. Ahead the track snacked up the hillside, a ribbon of almost unbroken white. Either side dark sprigs of heather still pushed through the snow, giving the land a pied look. Breaking trail through fresh, untouched snow for the first time since last winter was a joy, even if I was on a Landover track. 

Between the snow storms I could see the hills, noting the waves of spindrift blowing off their crests and the build-up of snow on the lee slopes. The snow on the track became firmer and harder, packed by the wind. Puddles were lightly iced over, with snow flakes building up on the soft ice. At the highpoint of the route, at 700 metres, the track was suddenly bare gravel, the snow blasted off by the wind. Down below I could see the dark slash of the Dulnain glen. I looked across to the gentle slopes of Geal-charn Mor, only 124 metres higher and just a kilometre away. I knew it was not an easy walk though as there was no path and the terrain was a mass of heather tussocks. It was arduous in summer. With snow filling and hiding the spaces between the tussocks it would be even more so. I looked at my watch. Sunset in less than half an hour. Did I want a navigation exercise in the dark on snowy terrain in strong winds and probably a blizzard as well? I could feel spindrift blasting against my legs. Occasionally the wind whipped it up in my face. I watched the swirls off snow blowing off Geal-charn Mor turned and headed back down the track and into the darkening woods. A winter summit could wait. This was enough for today. I had ventured out into the snow and tested winter.

I would return here when the snow was deeper and ski over Geal-charn Mor, the easiest and most enjoyable way to traverse this hill. This won’t be in the next few days though. Winds gusting to over 100mph on the summits are forecast for the next two days, dropping to 80mph after that. More snow is forecast as well though so maybe in a week or so the first ski tour will be feasible. I hope so.

Thursday 24 November 2011

BBC Alba Interview on the Proposed Allt Duine Windfarm

Yesterday I went over to Aviemore to be interviewed on behalf of the Save the Monadhliath Mountains by Debby Waldron for BBC Alba. The subject was the proposed Allt Duine windfarm. We agreed to meet in the excellent Mountain Cafe and that's where, due to the weather, we stayed, Debby setting up her camera and recording gear in a corner and interviewing and filming me while I tried to ignore the stares of other customers. After three weeks of dry, mild and often sunny weather I'd woken - not unexpectedly, as it was forecast - to high winds, dark low clouds and rain. Any likelihood of an outdoor recording or of going somewhere we could see the Monadh Liath was gone.

The interview will probably be broadcast on both radio and television on BBC Alba (in English - I don't speak Gaelic) and possibly on Reporting Scotland next Tuesday, November 29th.

Monday 21 November 2011

Review of The Backpacker's Handbook Fourth Edition

I'm pleased to say that the first review I've seen of the fourth edition of The Backpacker's Handbook has appeared on and the reviewer likes my book. Thanks!

Saturday 19 November 2011

TGO Challenge 2008 Revisited

On the saddle between Aonach Mor and Sgurr Choinnich Mor

The TGO Challenge is a unique backpacking event that takes place every May and involves crossing the Scottish Highlands from coast to coast. The letters of acceptance for the TGO Challenge 2012 have just been sent out to those successful in the draw for places so many people will be poring over maps and guidebooks as they start planning their routes. 2012 will be my 14th Challenge. As yet I haven't decided on a start point, let alone a route, though the latter will involve many hills, as always. Here I've posted a feature I wrote for TGO on the 2008 Challenge to give a taster as to what the Challenge - or indeed any long walk in the Scottish Highlands - can be like.


Thinking back to previous Challenges as I set out this year on my 12th I realised that I categorised them according to dominant features, usually weather related. The hot, the cold, the sunny, the wet, the dry, the windy, the snowy, the tent free (bothies most of the way), the sociable. What, I wondered, would this year bring. The answer was to be surprising. It was the Challenge of the Camp Sites. Now camp sites are important on every Challenge for me. I’m not one of those backpackers for whom the overnight camp is just a necessity. I take great pleasure in wild sites and in being able to stay overnight in the hills. For that reason I don’t plan very long days - they average around 15 miles - as I want to have time to enjoy my camps. There are memorable camps on every Challenge but on some the weather had forced me into the tent for longer than I’d like while on others my route hasn’t been the best for scenic sites. This year however the route, the weather and wonderful camps all came together.

The start was not encouraging. I left Lochailort on a humid evening with the clouds low over the hills and camped after a few hours beside Loch Beoraid. Some early midges seeking first blood drove me into the tent. Rain fell during the night and I woke in the morning to mist around the tent. Shrouded in damp cloud I plodded up Sgurr na Coireachan. Unexpectedly, as I approached the summit, the world changed. I came out of the dense mist to sudden space and light. Dark peaks were rising out of the cloud-filled glens all around. High above more clouds swirled, parting briefly at times to reveal patches of blue sky and to allow bursts of sunshine to escape. The walk to Sgurr Thuilm was magical, the solid ridge seemingly suspended in the air above the insubstantial drifting mist. I had intended on camping down in Glen Finnan but I was reluctant to descend back into the mist so instead I pitched the tent not far below the summit of Sgurr Thuilm with a fine view back to Sgurr nan Coireachan, the first fine camp. Heavy rain again fell during the night and again the morning was misty. Compass work was needed to cross the ridges to the east and climb Gulvain. Dark clouds made the thought of Glensulaig bothy tempting but the view from the saddle below Meall a’Phubuill was too good to pass by and I camped amongst the peat hags with a view back to the long dipping ridge of Gulvain. Two heavily laden walkers passed by. Challengers obviously. Di Gerrard and Ngomo Charles Karugu were heading for the bothy. Maybe see you tomorrow, I said. In fact it would be Montrose before I saw them again and I met no other Challengers the whole way across. This could have been the solitude Challenge, except that there have been others when I’ve met no one at all (never intentional – I just seem to pick unpopular routes!). Looks like rain, they said as they departed. Black clouds were pouring in from the east. Within minutes heavy rain was hammering down. After an hour it ceased, leaving a lovely refreshed evening. Later I heard that Challengers further east in the Grey Corries were caught in a big thunderstorm, the edge of which had just brushed my camp.
On the saddle below Meall a'Phubuill just after the storm
The Druim Fada ridge, much the best way to reach the Great Glen from the west, led to the Caledonian Canal and a hot and enervating Fort William where I spent the best part of a day browsing in shops and nibbling in cafes. I wanted to climb Ben Nevis but not in this heat. Although I’d climbed the Ben on other long walks I’d never done so on the Challenge, turned away at different times by snow, wind and cloud. Late in the afternoon I set off, my pack the heaviest it would be with six days supplies inside. Dozens of people were descending. Many just gave me strange looks (some directed at my sandals). Others commented on the lateness of the hour and warned me there was snow on the summit. “I know”, I replied to the first, and “good” to the second. The latter met with surprised looks. But it was the snow that had me climbing the Ben in the evening. Looking at the snow-capped mountain from the Druim Fada the day before I’d suddenly realised that the snow meant a soft bed for camping and a water supply. When snow free the summit of the Ben is a huge boulder field on which pitching a tent would be extremely difficult and sleeping comfortably even harder. There is a small, dark, smelly and rubbish-filled shelter but the idea of using this had always struck me as unpleasant.

By the time I reached the summit the last day walkers had long descended and I was alone. I pitched the tent on deep snow near the trig point then wandered round the summit plateau watching the hills all around slowly sinking into night. Across Glen Nevis the Mamores turned a rich red and gold. Beyond the dark cliffs of the north face Loch Eil shone in the last sunlight. A raven wheeled overhead and a snow bunting hoped about on the snow, hoping for crumbs. A half moon rose and the first stars glittered. All was calm and silent. The snow made for the softest and least bumpy pitch of the whole walk and I slept well, waking to a gusty east wind, drifting mist and a hazy sun. When I finally left the cloud had sunk down into the glens and bright sunshine shone on the Ben. I’d had the summit to myself for 14 hours. After crossing the Carn Mor Dearg arête I looked back at the vast magnificent north face of Ben Nevis and marvelled that I’d camped on the summit. It was the high point of the walk, both literally and emotionally.

On the summit of Ben Nevis
The fine sites were not over though. That night I camped on the saddle between Aonach Beag and Sgurr Choinnich Mor and then, after traversing the Grey Corries, beside Loch Treig, where dawn saw an absolutely calm loch with beautiful reflections. Two nights later I was in Gaick Pass after being briefly lashed by hail on Carn na Caim. I woke to ice in my water bottles, frost on the tent and a temperature of -2˚C. But outside the sun was starting to warm the hillsides. Two red deer grazed nearby, glancing at the tent nervously. A snipe drummed overhead. I breakfasted outside as the tent dried. Four nights remained, of which two were memorable. One was Tarf Bothy, now renovated and roomy, the other beside the Water of Mark, high on the moors before the final descent to the lowlands and the coast.

In Gaick Pass

The night on Ben Nevis was one of the finest wild camps I’ve ever had anywhere, enough on its own to make this year’s Challenge special. Combined with the other excellent wild camps it explained yet again why I keep coming back. Every Challenge is unique and every one has something exceptional and memorable about it. I wonder how I’ll remember next year’s.

 By Loch Treig

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Pacific Northwest Trail book to come - 'Grizzly Bears & Razor Clams'

In the Selkirk Mountains on the Pacific Northwest Trail.

I'm delighted to announce that I have a publisher for a book on my Pacific Northwest Trail walk and that the publisher is here in the Scottish Highlands - Sandstone Press. The book will be published next summer and will have many photographs as well as my words. The title is Grizzly Bears and Clam Shells: Walking America's Pacific Northwest Trail, for which, appropriately, I have the trail's founder Ron Strickland to thank. Now I'd better return to actually writing the book!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

A Year in the Life of the Cairngorms - Illustrated Talk in Grantown-on-Spey

This Thursday, November 17th, I'm giving an illustrated presentation about my book A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorms at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey at 7.30 p.m. Everybody welcome!

Sunday 13 November 2011

A Year With The Sony NEX 5

Last autumn I wrote a post about choosing a new camera for backpacking (see Cameras for Backpacking Decisions). The camera was the Sony NEX 5 which I’ve now been using for just over a year, taking well over 3,000 images. Most of the ones that have accompanied this blog since last October have been taken with the NEX 5 and images have appeared on other websites (especially my Southern Upland Way and Annandale Way route descriptions for WalkHighlands), in TGO magazine and, in black and white, in the new edition of The Backpacker’s Handbook.

So, after a year, how happy am I with this camera? The answer is very happy. Is it the best designed and ergonomic camera I’ve ever used? No. That is still the Ricoh GR-D. However the NEX 5 produces better quality images than my DSLR. The GR-D images are noticeably inferior. And the handling of the NEX 5 seems much better now I am used to it. Initially I found it a little awkward simply because it was different to my Canon 450D. Now I find the 450D slower to use than the NEX 5 because I don’t use it as much. Is there anything I don’t like? Well, the video button is in an awkward place as I sometimes press it accidentally and start shooting unwanted video. And the battery life could be better. But that’s it.

I also find it more stable flipping up the screen and holding the NEX 5 against my chest than I do holding the 450D to my eye. And I like the 100% view on the screen and the exposure information, especially the histogram, so I can make adjustments before taking a picture. Having set the camera up to suit the way I work I can quickly change the settings I use most – aperture, speed and ISO. The real joy though is in the light weight and compact size. The 450D seems like a monster.

NEX images are good up to 800 ISO and usable at 1600. 3200 is passable. I like being able to crop images and still have good results. I do try to take the perfect composition in camera but lens length and location sometimes make this impossible. Here’s an example, shot for this post.

The only lens I use regularly with the NEX 5 is the 18-55 kit lens, which I find fine. I have a cheap adapter, bought off eBay, so I can use my Canon lens, though without aperture control or auto focusing, and I have played with this but it’s too clumsy to bother with outdoors.

I did think I might miss a viewfinder but this hasn’t happened. Indeed I bought a little folding viewfinder that fits over the screen so you can put it to your eye but I rarely use this. Even in bright sunshine the screen is usable if held against the chest.

Despite all this praise I don’t think the NEX 5 will be my first choice camera for much longer. That’s because of the new Sony NEX 5N and NEX 7 cameras, which both sound even better than the NEX 5. I’d like two NEX bodies anyway as I always carry two cameras on any trip where pictures are important. At present that’s the NEX 5 and the 450D. Either the 5N or the 7 will replace the latter. A decision will be made when I’ve had the chance to handle them both – which could be several months away as NEX 7 availability had been postponed due to the tragic floods in Thailand, which have affected Sony factories.

When I have two NEX bodies I will also swap my Canon 55-250 lens for the Sony 55-210. That will leave me short of a wide angle zoom, which Sony say they will introduce next year.

I’m looking forward to trying the new NEX cameras and lenses and in carrying a lighter load of camera gear whilst still taking the same quality pictures. I think the NEX system is ideal for backpacking if you want DSLR quality images without the bulk and weight of DSLR gear.