Friday 27 January 2012

TGO Insulated Boots Review

This last few months I've been wearing insulated boots whenever the weather has been cold enough, as I've done for several winters now. I've been trying two new pairs - the Keen Revel and the Teva Forge Pro Winter Mid - and have written a review for TGO that's on the TGO website here. As TGO has put up a picture of the Teva boots I've put up one of the Keens so you can see what both look like.

Now I'm just hoping there'll be enough cold weather over the next few months for me to wear them much more.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

A First Cairngorm Experience

The cliffs of Cairn Lochan

It’s many, many years since I first reached the Cairngorm Plateau and gazed in wonder at the vast mountain expanse stretching out before me, then by far the biggest I had ever seen. After over 20 years living in the area with a view of the Cairngorms from my windows and trips on the hills most months the Plateau is a familiar friend. The Cairngorms are my home hills. My sense of wonder hasn’t diminished though. I still find them as splendid and overwhelming as ever. The first startled and magical impression faded long ago of course but hints of it are rekindled when I take someone on their first trip to the Plateau. I also now feel a totally unjustified sense of pride at seeing their reaction. These are my hills. I like people to be impressed.

Yesterday was particularly gratifying in this regard when I took Rhodri Lewis of Nordic Life, importers of Brynje clothing from Norway (a brand I remember from the past but haven’t seen in the UK for many years), up on to the Plateau on his first visit to the Cairngorms. Rhodri had come up from the deep south (somewhere in Southern England, an area of mystery to me) to show me Byrnje products and have a day out. After an hour or so looking at clothes and piling them precariously on a table rather too close to coffee cups and milk jugs in the Mountain CafĂ© in Aviemore we drove up to Coire Cas. The sky was cloudy and a cold wind swept the car park. The forecast though was for clearing and even some sun during the afternoon, after snow in the morning. The snow never came and we didn’t see much of the sun. The wind did continue and the cloud continued to envelop the Plateau. On the ascent the wind increased in strength and spindrift blasted in our faces. Maybe, I thought, this would be a short trip. However on reaching the big cairn on the edge of the Plateau the wind eased a little and the spindrift vanished.

 Rhodri Lewis on the Cairngorm Plateau

Not wanting to venture into the heart of the Plateau and follow compass bearings through the cloud, seeing little, we followed the edge of the Northern Corries over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and Cairn Lochan. The cliffs abutting these summits were plastered with hoar frost and rime ice and dotted with the dark figures of winter climbers. The cloud sweeping the Plateau broke and dispersed as it passed the edge of the cliffs so that we often had views of the grand rock scenery below us and out over the dark pine forests of Rothiemurchus and Glenmore and the pale waters of Loch Morlich to the distant snowy Monadh Liath. To the south the cloud hung low and we had no views. Crunching over the thin snow and ice on the stony ground, and occasionally through deeper, wind-sheltered snow drifts, we revelled in the wild landscape and the wild weather, which was just on the edge of challenging without being severe enough to impede our delight in being there. Rhodri was captured by the area and bought a map when we were back down to see where we’d been, emailing me later to say he would be back soon. The Cairngorms had worked their magic again.

As to Brynje, Rhodri was clothed head to toe from the skin out in the stuff – everything except boots in fact - and stayed comfortable and dry in what were fairly difficult weather conditions with high humidity (my beard was full of ice much of the time and dampness was freezing on clothing as well) and temperatures oscillating around zero. I’ll be trying some of the garments soon for test reports in TGO magazine (and probably on the TGO website too).

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Allt Duine Wind Farm Rejected

"Little To See" - looking over Glenmore Forest and Loch Morlich to the Monadh Liath from the road to Coire Cas

Rejection! By 9-3. That was the decision of the Highland Council Planning Committee about the proposed Allt Duine wind farm. A wonderful result.

I attended the debate and was impressed by the overall standard. I was also aware of growing tension – at least amongst the watching public – when it came to the vote. Although more councillors spoke against the scheme than for it I wasn’t sure how the vote would go, especially as the Planning Officer had recommended acceptance. The result left me feeling relieved and then aware that now we have to prepare for the coming public inquiry when all the same arguments will come up again.

The meeting began with a Planning Officer explaining why the Council should accept the scheme. His argument was not very convincing – at times he even seemed to be promoting the opposite view. He did say that the wind farm wouldn’t significantly affect Cairngorms National Park as most people wouldn’t see it. The visual impact would be confined to hillwalkers. So Highland Council’s Planning Officer thinks that hillwalkers, major contributors to tourism, can just be dismissed? It seems so. I wasn’t alone in being unimpressed with the Planning Officer and the report to the Committee suggesting acceptance. One Councillor, Roderick Balfour (Independent– I’ve given political affiliations to show this isn’t a party political issue), described one section as “meaningless spin” and said the report gave no real reasons for acceptance.

Of the contributions to the debate the most impressive came from David Fallows (SNP) who echoed the views of all of those of us objecting to the scheme (he represents my ward – I think he might have my vote!). He spoke lucidly but also passionately. This is a man, I thought, who understands. And not only about the visual impact but also the about the place itself, about the Monadh Liath and the Allt Duine. He talked of cresting the watershed and seeing the wildness and a beauty he described as esoteric. He also pointed out that wildness was an emerging issue in debates over landscape and that this was a wild place. Summing up he said there were two key points: proximity to the National Park and the wildness of the area. Exactly.

Stuart Black (Liberal Democrat) backed up David Fallows, saying he too appreciated the wildness of the area and that it was a place for solitude and long walks. The Monadh Liath, he said, were connoisseur’s hills and ones that could easily be spoilt and lost. Bringing up another important point Donnie Kerr (SNP) said he was concerned about golden eagles. He also mentioned the effect on tourism and said the area could be blighted by the number of wind farms planned, asking whether the Great Wood of Caledon would be replaced by the Forest of Wind Farms.

I was heartened by hearing these comments. It’s good to know there are councillors who understand the importance of wild places.

Those who spoke in favour of accepting the wind farm seemed mostly to say it was in order to follow the advice from the Scottish Government, which I think begs the question as to why there should be a Council at all. Why not just bureaucrats to carry out Holyrood’s wishes?

Thomas Prag (Liberal Democrat) gave a rather puzzling speech in favour of acceptance in which he seemed to say the wind farm both would and wouldn’t have visual impact and that in the future people would find it odd that the Highlands had been industrialised. I felt sorry for Jimmy Gray (Labour) who also supported acceptance, as he said there was little to see from Coire Cas. Little to see. The vast sweep of the Monadh Liath rising above the loch dotted forests and Strathspey. How terrible to look at that view and feel there was little to see.

After the meeting I did a quick round of interviews with TV and newspapers and discussed with a few other activists what happens next. There will be a Public Inquiry and we agreed that different groups needed to work together on this. Such Inquiries are hard work and require both funds and time – the developers have the money to employ expensive advocates. We don’t. But we are right. And that, I think, counts for a great deal.

Update: 19/01/2012  Alan Sloman has pasted a link to the recording of the debate here and listed the comments of the councillors in favour of the wind farm. Thanks Alan.


For three days now the temperature has barely risen above freezing during the day and at night there have been hard frosts. Everything is white – grass, trees, rocks, soil – and the frost forms intricate and beautiful patterns. The sun has shone in the sky but only south and west facing slopes have received enough of its warmth for the frost to melt. The sun is too low in the sky even at midday to shine downwards. Instead the light slants across the land making long dark shadows.

Roaming the meadows and woods for a few hours I marvelled at how the cold and frost had transformed familiar places. The ground, so often muddy and slippery, was frozen hard and my boots crunched through the crisp frost and banged down on the stiff earth. Walking was easier than in the wet, as long as I avoided the ice in the hollows. Rabbits browsed on icy grass out in the fields. Once a pheasant broke the silence, squawking loudly as it crashed up into the air. A flock of fieldfares flew raggedly low over the ground to perch in a lonely birch tree and then flap off again as I approached. Mostly though the land was silent and subdued, held quiet by the frost. In the distance, across the valley, the high Cairngorms hune, pale silhouettes against the dark of the forest. This is winter.

Monday 16 January 2012

Allt Duine Update: Radio, Newspapers & Outdoors Magic

Tomorrow Highlands Council will accept or reject the Allt Duine wind farm proposal so today I've been talking to the media for last minute news pieces and publicity. I've been interviewed for the Independent and Moray Firth Radio and I'm waiting for a call from BBC Radio Scotland (missed them earlier - I'd gone out for a walk. It was a lovely day!). Jon Doran of Outdoors Magic contacted me too and has written a piece for OM, which you can see here, including quotes and pictures from my blog posts. Thanks Jon!

Now we just have to wait for the councillors to make their "site" visit (which doesn't actually go anywhere near the site), debate the issue and decide. In less than 24 hours we'll know. I'll be at the Council meeting and talking to the media afterwards. Fingers crossed!

Cairn Gorm Walk, Allt Duine View

 Walkers in the Cairngorms

This Tuesday, January 17, Highland Council will pronounce on the proposed Allt Duine Wind Farm, giving it approval or rejection. Before debating and deciding members of the planning committee will visit various places in Strathspey from which the turbines will be visible. Today I did just that along with photographer John Paul from Inverness, there on behalf of The Independent newspaper, which will be running a piece on the wind farm on Tuesday. The turbines will be clearly in view from the Coire Cas car park but to get photos without any intervening hills we wandered over to the slopes of little Airgiod-meall from where you can look over Rothiemurchus Forest and Loch an Eilein to the Monadh Liath and the line of moorland on which the turbines are planned to be built. Unfortunately high clouds had made the light flat and dull. The best light was behind us over the Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm rather than west over the Monadh Liath.

 Sgor Gaoith at dusk

Once our photographic jaunt was over I set off up to the Cairngorm Plateau. As it was well past one o’clock I only had a few hours of daylight left so I didn’t plan on going far. I just wanted to see the high tops in winter garb and perhaps see a fine sunset. Although there were only patches of snow left masses of frost, ice between the stones and boulders and freezing temperatures ensued it really felt like winter. On the windy summit of Cairn Gorm overmitts were needed along with my jacket hood.

Cairn Lochan after sunset

By mid-afternoon the low sun was already turning the streaked clouds orange and pink. Sunset and dusk was long and slow with ever-changing colours and patterns, making the descent a chilly joy. Those grey clouds that had dulled the sky and the land were now gloriously exuberant.

Friday 13 January 2012

Reviews of A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorms

Cairn Gorm in full winter raiment

My photo book on the Cairngorms has been out for nearly half a year now and I've delighted to have received many positive comments about it. Most recently reader David Byers emailed me to say he'd reviewed it on Amazon. Reading his review I was flattered and pleased to be mentioned in the same breath as Nan Shepherd's wonderful book on the Cairngorms The Living Mountain. There are three other reviews on Amazon, all of them giving the book five stars. Thank you everybody. Receiving such reviews really makes all the time spent sitting at the computer writing and editing photographs worthwhile.

Here in the Cairngorms the snow has been melting fast the last week and only patches are left. However there was a little new snow today and the weather has turned much colder. Outside it is freezing. The strong winds that have been blowing most of the winter so far have dropped too and the next few days look like they may be calm and clear. Time to visit the high tops again I think. I'll let you know how I get on.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

New Year, New TGO: Show Shelters, Waterproofs & Warm Feet

An igloo in the Wind River Range, Wyoming

The New Year starts with a new issue of TGO, dated February 2012. (In fact it arrived on the last day of 2011 but it's taken a few days to escape the festivities and write about it). My backpacking column is about snow shelters, something I'm hoping to build with some others in the Cairngorms later this month if there's enough snow (and it's falling steadily at present). In the gear section I've reviewed 14 waterproofs suitable for winter, which is to say not minimalist and ultralight, and in the hill skill pages I've looked at keeping feet warm in the snow.

The rest of the magazine is pretty well packed with good stuff. Cameron McNeish and Carey Davies go on a pub crawl in the Lake District (and climb some hills along the way), which brought back some memories for me, as I've spent many nights in some of those bars, including a good few New Years Eves. Carey Davies also learns to love cold snowy mountains (how could anyone not do so?) on Stob Ban in the Mamores while Cameron, perhaps still with pubs rather than hills in mind, thinks about comedy and songs with outdoor themes in his On the Hill column. Cameron mentions Ed Byrne who himself visits Stanage Edge and learns a bit about landscape photography with Chiz Dakin while wielding an alarmingly large looking camera. Returning to winter in the Highlands editor Emily Rodway describes a grand weekend just after the hurricane last month spent climbing Ben A'Ghlo and Ben Vrackie in Highland Perthshire. Elsewhere John Gilham traverses Cadair Idris from Barmouth to Dolgellau, which sounds an interesting trip. February's Photo Essay is a stunning set of photos of the Northern Lights by Bjorn Jorgensen, which had me thinking of the times I've seen this spectacular display in the Yukon and Norway. In fact much of this issue seems to have stirred old memories as Jim Perrin's Bookshelf is about an old favourite of mine, W.H.Murray's Mountaineering in Scotland. I'm surprised Jim doesn't also mention Murray's Undiscovered Scotland, an equally fine book in my opinion. I have the two in an old Diadem omnibus edition that is much thumbed and much treasured. Sticking with the Scottish hills Graham Forbes asks what's the point of climbing Munros in bad weather, making the excellent point that rather than travelling a long distance to climb a hill in the clag you might as well climb a local hill and save the time and petrol. 

On Bynack More

Other gear articles are a review of the curious Bergmonch combination folding bike and rucksack by Nathan Skinner and an overview of footwear for various seasons and activities by Judy Armstrong. In Hill Skills Kevin Walker describes the aspect of slope navigation technique; Jay Nicholson gives advice on avoiding emergencies in the winter hills; Chris Fenn reviews soups; Dave Price gives Nathan Skinner some tips on using a mountain bike and Dylan Baker describes compact system cameras, which I think are the best ones for walkers who want high quality images. I disagree with the writer about the zooms for these cameras though as I use one all the time and find it fine - as well as being slow Dylan Baker says these lenses "ruin the aesthetics and portability". Well, compared with a DSLR a CSC with zoom lens is very portable and as for the looks of my camera, I don't give a damn. 

I must admit though that the piece that gave me most pleasure in this issue is a short Hill Skills one on the latest research into stretching by Chris Highcock. Why should a piece on the boring activity of stretching delight me so much? Because it says that it's pointless and may even "make you slower, weaker and less efficient". Yippee! I've thought that for years, based on nothing more than personal experience and an intense dislike of the activity. Now I have academic research to back me up. Many years ago when I regularly did long hill runs and mountain marathons I tried stretching because all these super-fit runners I saw at the start of events were doing it and saying it was essential if I wanted to avoid injury. The only result was that I ached more the day after running and stretching than after the days when I didn't stretch at all so I soon abandoned it despite dire warnings as to the results. I can now not stretch and feel that this is a positive approach. That makes me happy.