Wednesday 30 May 2012

Vote For My Book!

A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorms has been selected as one of eight candidates for the Favourite Scottish Nature Photography Book in the Scottish Nature Photography Awards. This category is decided by an online vote so I'd be grateful if any readers who enjoyed my book would vote for it. Here's the link


Tuesday 29 May 2012

June TGO: Tent or Tarp, Synthetic Sleeping Bags, Micro Rocket, Norwegian Clothing

Tarp Camping on the Arizona Trail
The June issue of TGO is in the shops now. My contributions are a review of 12 synthetic sleeping bags designed for summer, a first look at the MSR Micro Rocket stove, a test report on some Norwegian Brynje clothing I tried over the winter (base layer, fleece and two hats), a book review and, in my backpacking column, a consideration of different wild camping styles.

The theme of this issue is summer, which is appropriate given the recent heatwave (though of course it might now rain for the next three months!). In the Almanac there's a wonderful sumptuous picture by Mike Kipling of a flower meadow in Upper Swaledale that sums up summer in the English hills. Cameron McNeish describes the new 230 mile Stevenson Way, which traces the route followed by David Balfour in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped from the Isle of Mull to Edinburgh by way of Rannoch Moor and the Trossachs, and suggests some weekend long sections. Dan Bailey takes his baby up Skiddaw and looks at hillwalking with a young child. Unburdened by children or summer Ed Byrne tries his hand at severe-grade rock climbing in Snowdonia on a cold, rainy day and discovers the agonies of the hot aches. Paddy Dillon goes to Tenerife, but not to sit on the beach, rather to walk the rugged GR 131 route, which looks wonderful. More contemplative is Robert Macfarlane, describing old paths and tracks, the subject of his latest book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, which is reviewed by Cameron McNeish. He starts and finishes his essay at Formby Point, of which there is also an evocative picture. Being brought up in Formby my first walking was here and I know this coast well. It's good to see it in TGO. This month's photo essay is of the land where I now live and walk: Scotland. Ted Leeming's images are evocative and inspiring, especially the opening spread of a misty Loch an Eilean in the Cairngorms. Elsewhere Roger Smith envisages a network of linked National Trails while Jim Perrin's Hillwalkers' Library looks at a book I must admit I have never come across before - Roger Lloyd Praeger's The Way I Went, about the author's walks in Ireland. Another one for my reading list. In the Gear section as well as my reviews John Manning reviews 13 pairs of gaiters. And at the back of the magazine Carey Davies ponders the significance of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass on its 80th Anniversary.

Sunday 27 May 2012

TGO Challenge 4: A Heatwave Finish

Day 13: Hot weather in the Glen Doll hills.

The hot weather expanded and grew during the last three days as I crossed the hills from Glen Shee to Glen Doll, Glen Clova and Glen Lethnot before a final foot hammering road walk to Montrose. The weather of the previous week seemed unreal as I strode across crunchy dry turf and heather, my main concerns being sunburn and blisters rather than being blown over, soaked and frozen. This really was a Challenge of contrasts. Below are a few images showing some of the variety. 

Overall for me it was an enjoyable Challenge, with only the three overcast days of low cloud and drizzle in the middle being at all dull. The rain, wind and snow and the ever-changing clouds made the first six days exciting, spectacular and challenging. The sunshine and clear views made the last five days delightful and relaxing (though I was glad when the final road walk to Montrose was over). 

The evening in the Park Hotel in Montrose was as enjoyable as ever, talking to old friends and making new ones, and listening to the speakers and awards. Having seen no other Challengers since the third day I heard many stories for the first time and realised that this year it really was an adventure. The drop-out rate was the highest ever at 53. Given the weather of the first week, especially the 100+mph winds and month's rainfall in 24 hours on the third day, I think that's actually quite a low number. 

Day 1: Snow, wind and cloud on Beinn Liath Mhor.

Day 3: The Allt Innis a'Mhuilt after hours of torrential rain.

Day 5: Spindrift and cloud on Toll Creagach.

Day 14: Last camp, Glen Lethnot

Tuesday 22 May 2012

TGO Challenge 3: Sunshine & Shimmering Hills

Day 10: Camp in Glen Feshie
Three days of sunshine and superbly clear air. The rivers glow with golden peat-stained snow melt and rain runoff. The hills are bright with snow, the sky and lakes astonishingly blue. The world is wonderful.

The northern Cairngorms looked too snowy so I came south to browner hills, though still with many white patches. From Glen Feshie to Glen Shee and next to Glen Doll, Glen Clova, West Water and finally Montrose.

The picture is of my camp in Glen Feshie.

Saturday 19 May 2012

TGO Challenge 2: Mist & Drizzle to Newtonmore.

Day 7: In Melgarve Bothy

Two days over the Corrieyairick Pass to Newtonmore in drizzle, low cloud and a bitter east wind. Hills mostly hidden but many birds and deer plus spring flowers low down. Read most of the way- a Kindle in a waterproof cover is amazing! Overnight in Melgarve Bothy where I slept on sofa cushions so no need for thin foam mat. Yesterday three knee deep fords in Glen Banchor as rain and snowmelt poured off the hills.

Last night in excellent Newtonmore Hostel where I heard tales of tents flooded, walkers swept down burns and waist deep snow in the Lairig Ghru. There will be stories told of this Challenge for many years!

Equipped with an old Therm-A-Rest, dropped off by friends in Newtonmore, I'm now heading for the Cairngorms to see what the snow is like.

Thursday 17 May 2012

TGO Challenge 1: Wild, Wet, Windy & Wintry.

Day 3: Camp after the big storm.

Fort Augustus. May 16. Rain. The 7th day of the Challenge. There has not been one wholly dry day or night but there have been gloriously sunny moments with the freshly snow clad hills sparkling. My camps have been good too, three in woods, squeezed in between spring birches and sombre pines. Of the two on open exposed sites on only one was it very windy and my shelter coped well. That was the night before the day of ferocious winds and continuous rain when I was nearly blown off my feet on a low level route. Then came the cold front backlash and a day of hail and snow and kicking steps over Toll Creagach in head high spindrift. Next comes a two day crossing of the Monadh Liath. The forecast is for rain.

My equipment has held up, all except my high-tech airbed, which burst internally, leading to a rather disturbing and unusable bulbous end. After two uncomfortable nights I have replaced it with a cheap thin foam mat. At least this can't burst.

Friday 11 May 2012

TGO Challenge 2012

Camp in Glen Quoich on the TGO Challenge 2009

In just over eight hours I'll be heading to Torridon in the Northwest Highlands for the start of the 33rd TGO Challenge backpacking hike across the Scottish Highlands. It'll be my 14th Challenge and my first since 2009. This year my route wanders over the Achnashellach, Strathfarrar, Mullardoch and Glen Affric hills to my first resupply point at Fort Augustus. I'll need six days supplies for this section but after that I'll not need more than three days worth at a time as I cross the Monadh Liath to Newtonmore and Kingussie and then the Cairngorms to Braemar and Ballater with a finish over Mount Keen and Mount Battock to Stonehaven.

There are 33 Munros on the route plus a handful of lower hills. How many of these I actually climb will depend largely on the weather. And the forecast is not good. Tomorrow the current stormy weather is meant to slowly clear, giving a fine afternoon and evening, which is when I'll be walking. Saturday looks good too. Then it all changes. On Sunday heavy rain and winds gusting to 80mph at 900 metres are forecast and the storms are predicted to continue through the next few days. On the summits the rain could be snow. And after that? The long range forecast is for more storms. Long range forecasts are notoriously unreliable. I am really hoping this one lives up to that.

The forecast is for it to be unseasonably cold too. With that plus the rain, snow and wind in mind I've modified my inital gear list, adding a warmer insulated jacket, a heavier waterproof jacket, long johns, overmitts, a second pair of spare socks. That's added a kilo or so to my load. With the initial six days supplies it's quite heavy at 18kg, including my cameras and tripod. I had hoped to carry less but I also don't want to be cold or wet. Balancing comfort with weight is part of the skill of backpacking.

I'll be reporting in TGO on the gear I use. Interesting items include the Mountain Laurel Designs silnylon Trailstar tarp with OookWorks OookTub groundsheet, Berghaus Mount Asgard Hybrid water-resistant down/Primaloft jacket and Westcomb Apoc Neoshell jacket. My pack is the old-style GoLite Quest and my stove the Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri, both veterans of my Pacific Northwest Trail hike. I don't think I'll be using wood as fuel that often on this trip though.

Now there's just time for some sleep before I leave. If I can get a connection and have time I may post during the walk. Otherwise I'll let you know how it went when I return.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Book Review: The Natural Explorer by Tristan Gooley

Tristan Gooley’s follow-up to the successful The Natural Navigator is subtitled Understanding Your Landscape and that’s what the book is about, if you take “landscape” in its widest context to include culture and philosophy as well as actual land. The author’s intention is to encourage travellers to be inquisitive about where they are in all its aspects, an intention which I happily endorse. Curiosity is an invaluable trait.

Whilst there are references to many explorers three nineteenth century ones run through the book, linked by their interest in everything they saw – Alexander Humbolt who explored South America from 1799 to 1804, Ludwig Leichhardt who explored north-east Australia from 1844-45 and Charles Darwin, who went round the world from 1831-36 (I recently read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, an interesting and thought-provoking book).

Aspects of the natural world – plants, mountains, coasts, ice, animals, sky, weather and more – make up almost half the book, after which the author ranges widely, covering subjects from cities and worldly goods to beauty, inner time and mood, and imagination and wonder. In all twenty-nine topics are covered, with facts and ideas crammed in, which does give a rather breathless feel to the text in places. Mountains are covered in just twelve pages, rivers in thirteen and time in fifteen. As the information rushes past, the facts piling on top of each other, it’s easy to lose track of much of it. For that reason I think this is a book to read slowly or to dip into now and then, leaving time to ponder and digest.

Inevitably in a book that covers so much so briefly there are some misleading simplifications (the description of the difference between the theories of Lamarck and Darwin is one) and some partial or dubious statements (pre-dawn starts for mountain ascents are not usually to reach the summit for the best views before clouds sweep in – avoiding avalanches and thunderstorms is usually more important!). I don’t think these matter though – in a book so stuffed full there are bound to be some errors. The whole point of the book is to encourage enquiry anyway. Go out and check!

Although designed to cover all types of journeys I think this book is particularly relevant to walkers. Walking is the right speed to see, contemplate and learn about landscapes. This book will help you do so.

Thursday 3 May 2012

May Day Ski Tour

On the summit of Ben Macdui      

Winter has come late, very late, to the Cairngorms. After months of mild, even hot, weather with much rain, light winds and only occasional snow that never lasted long the end of April brought heavy snow to the tops and frosty nights to ensure it has lasted. At last there was a chance to undertake my favourite ski tour, across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui. I usually do this tour at least once every season. This year had looked like being the exception. However on May Day I set off up the mountain, only needing to carry my skis for the first twenty minutes or so. Then it was onto the snow.*

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

And what snow! A complete deep cover stretching unbroken right across to Ben Macdui. High in the sky the hot sun shown down making the snow brighter and sharper than it appears earlier in the year. The sky was a deep alpine blue.**  Rarely do the hills look like this as such extensive snow cover is highly unusual this late in the spring. 

View across the Plateau to Cairn Gorm

The skiing to Ben Macdui was delightful, the spring snow being slick and fast so the skis slid easily across it. Several other skiers were out enjoying the magical conditions plus one pair of walkers. Looking at the deep holes their boots made in the snow I was glad of the freedom of my skis. Swooping and gliding rather than trudging and stumbling.

Across the Lairig Ghru pass the great peaks of Braeriach, Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine were all shining in the sun, white with snow. Looking west from Ben Macdui the farther hills appeared more snow free. Only south and east did they look as white. I sat on the summit in the sunshine watching a snow bunting pecking round for food scraps. Usually any stop here in the snow requires bundling up in insulated clothing. This time a light jacket to fend off the occasional cool gust of wind was all I needed. Sunscreen and dark glasses were more important equipment than warm clothing.

Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine

Back across the Plateau I crossed the shoulder of Cairn Lochan and had the best downhill skiing of the day, down lovely smooth slopes into the head of Lurcher’s Gully before linking the last patches of snow until finally I had to remove my skis for the last quarter of an hour. Above the mountains glistened. A perfect mountain day. A perfect May Day.

*Note for skiers. I used climbing skins for the ascent to the Plateau and then Swix Red Special grip wax, which worked perfectly, for the rest of the tour.

** Note for photographers. The sky really was that blue. No polarising filter was used nor have I boosted the saturation in editing software.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Bothy Talk on BBC Landward

Not the bothy in the programme!

A few weeks ago I spent a night in a bothy for the Landward programme on BBC2. I chatted to Dougie Vipond about various bothy experiences and was filmed sitting by the fire and being asleep in my sleeping bag! The programe itself goes out this Friday at 7.00p.m. on BBC2 Scotland, after which it will be available on BBC iPlayer for the next week. I'll be interested to see which of my stories are broadcast!