Tuesday 31 July 2012

Allt Duine Exploration

Rainbow forming over the Allt Duine moors

Ever since I first heard of the proposal for a wind farm on the hills around the Allt Duine in the Monadh Liath mountains I’ve been planning on spending a few days and nights in the area to really gain a feel for what it is like. I’ve been up three times to view the area but these day walks always felt no more than touching the surface then turning away. Finally I decided it was time to go up there, camp and have a look round. The Allt Duine itself is a short hill stream, only around a couple of kilometres in length before it joins the River Dulnain. The area across which the wind farm will be spread if built lies between the Dulnain and its watershed with the River Spey, which is also the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park. Two Corbetts (Scottish hills between 2500 and 3000 feet/762 and 914 metres high) lie at either end of the Allt Duine area. It was my intention to walk the watershed between these hills and also follow the Allt Duine and the upper River Dulnain.

The forecast was for heavy showers and sunny periods with a north-west wind; a combination that can mean dramatic light and bright stormy skies. The evening I climbed up the Burma Road, an old track, from Strathspey wasn’t promising with an overcast sky and increasingly heavy rain. The cloud was down on Geal Charn Mor (big white hill), the easternmost of the two Corbetts, and a chill wind swept the summit. I didn’t linger but plunged down the rough, boggy moorland to the Allt Duine, where I made camp at the head of the stream in the dusk as rain fell steadily. I would look round in the morning. Unusually there were no midges

Camp above the Allt Duine

Dawn revealed an attractive moorland stream running through steep banks of heather and blaeberry with occasional little rock outcrops. My camp was on a knoll above the stream and I had a view downstream to distant, flat-topped hills and a spreading bright sky streaked with racing white clouds. I followed the Allt Duine down to its confluence with another little burn, the Feithlinn, then wandered up beside this stream to a bulldozed track that led over a moorland spur to the River Dulnain. As I picked a way through the wet meadows beside the Feithlinn I caught a glimpse of a large bird taking off from a bank above the stream. Turning I watched as a golden eagle flapped slowly up the glen, its huge wings beating effortlessly as it stayed low over the water. There were many other birds in these little stream valleys – curlews, wheatears, common sandpipers, carrion crows – but it was the eagle that stood out as a symbol of the wild, as evidence that this was a special place. 

The Allt Duine

Crossing the spur between the streams I passed close to a tall anemometer, one of many dotting the Allt Duine hills in preparation for the industrialisation that may come. Tethered by long silver wires the thin metal spire was an alien intrusion in this natural world. Down at the Dulnain I was back with just the wet meadows, moorland slopes and rushing river for company. Eventually I left the river to climb the long northern slopes of the western Corbett, Carn an Fhreiceadain (watcher’s cairn). Nearing the summit I was disappointed to find a new bulldozed road with a large cleared area next to it. This was a cambered road with drainage ditches either side. I could have driven my car up it. It went almost to the summit cairn. From the top I could look back over the whole Allt Duine area to Geal Charn Mor and west to the higher Monadh Liath hills. Across Strathspey the hills were hidden in dark clouds. From the north similar clouds were sweeping towards me. The first rain began to fall before I left the summit. I’d already had my waterproof jacket on and off four times as showers came and went. Now it went on for the fifth and final time. I’d wear it until I made camp.
The Allt Duine Hills
 From Carn an Fhreiceadain I followed the twisting watershed over a series of minor moorland tops – Beinn Bhreac, Meall a’Chocaire, A’Bhuidheanaich. Once the Fhreiceadain road was left there were no paths other than sheep and deer trods. On the summits the going was easy over stony ground and sparse vegetation. In the cols and on the flanks it was much harder with many steep-sided peat bogs to negotiate, some filled with black pools and dark trickling streams. Mountain hares, a favourite prey of golden eagles, darted everywhere while grouse called and often I heard the thin plaintive whistle of golden plover. A series of squalls passed by, leaving bits of rainbows in their wake.

Squalls over the Cairngorms
I made my second camp just below a col with a wide view over the Allt Duine area. Rain kept me in the tent however and it was dawn before I could really admire the wild scene. First light gave a dappled sky with a hint of pink and touches of blue but the clouds soon thickened and it was overcast when I set off back to Geal Charn Mor with mist creeping up the hillsides from Strathspey. The summit was clear though and I looked back over the Allt Duine hills to Carn an Fhreiceadain and down to the hidden River Dulnain. I felt I knew a little about this place now. Then I turned away and soon the Allt Duine area was lost to view and I was descending the Burma Road looking over the green Strathspey woods to squalls of rain sweeping across the Cairngorms. Then I was in the trees and at the car and soon afterwards sitting in an Aviemore café staring out at torrential rain hammering down.

Monday 23 July 2012

Sunday 22 July 2012

A Summer Walk in the Cairngorms

With a weather forecast for a dry day and the clouds above the summits, very unusual in recent weeks, I decided it was time to head up onto the Cairngorm Plateau, especially when I realised with a shock that I hadn’t been there since May Day, when I skied across a snowbound world. A whole series of events from the TGO Challenge to trips to Sweden and Germany have kept me away from my local hills. And when I have been home the constant low cloud has made wanderings in the forests and fields and beside the rivers more attractive than navigating through the mist high in the hills. I had a reason to visit the Plateau too, a reason that required clear views. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has asked me to take photographs of the Allt Duine area from various points in the Cairngorms and Monadh Liath for the Public Inquiry into the proposed wind farm. Yesterday was the first day when such photographs seemed possible.

From a surprisingly only quarter full Coire Cas car park, the site of my first photos, I climbed up Sron an-t Aonaich (now signposted as Windy Ridge by Cairngorm Mountain, who run the ski resort) to the Ptarmigan Top Station and my second set of pictures. From here there is a spacious view over forested Glenmore to the Monadh Liath rising above Strathspey. The line of barely undulating moorland where the wind farm may be isn’t distinctive; it’s only a small part of the view. It is central though and big turbines there would be the dominant feature in the vista, totally changing it.

I photographed the same view again from the summit of Cairn Gorm then set off to walk over the tops of the Northern Corries. There was much to see and much going on. The hills were green with summer growth watered by the rains, a complete contrast to the snows of May. Only two big patches in Coire Domhain were a reminder of the late winter conditions. 

A cool west wind swept the Plateau, keeping the clouds moving. Very occasionally there was a burst of sunshine and the air was suddenly hot. There were squalls too, hiding the summits as they swept over them. I only caught the faint hints of rain as one passed nearby though. Unsurprisingly for a Saturday there were quite a few people about, with a large party at the top of the rocky spine of the Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda and rock climbers on the cliffs of that corrie and those in Coire an Lochain. Down in the corries the little lochans were still full. Sometimes at this time of year they have shrunk almost away. 

Ptarmigan with chicks darted about amongst the stones, trying to remain hidden. On the featureless slopes south of the summit of Cairn Lochan – a good place to get lost in mist – a herd of reindeer grazed on the moss and lazed on the stones.

Below Cairn Lochan I wandered over to the edge of the great cleft of the Lairig Ghru pass and gazed for some time down this big slash in the hills to Cairn Toul, Bod an Deamhain and distant Beinn a'Ghlo. In the heart of the pass the Pools of Dee were shining and the slopes were green with vegetation between the ribbons of scree and boulders.

Descending the west wall of Coire Lochain I was disturbed then entertained by a big yellow RAF Mountain Rescue helicopter that flew over a few times then hovered above the Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda where it dropped a flare onto the slopes below then lowered down a winchman. A practise exercise I guessed. The walk ended with a walk across the soggy mouths of the corries, where the burns were in full flow.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

August TGO: 50-60 litre packs, Hilleberg Anjan and photographic thoughts.

Ready to photograph the sunset on Ben Nevis

The August issue of TGO is out now. My contributions are a test report on fourteen 50-60 litre size packs, a first look at the new Hilleberg Anjan tent and some thoughts on photography and memories in my backpacking column.

By coincidence my photography thoughts appear in the same issue as a truly stand-out photo essay from Glyn Davies called Sculpting the Light that features some outstanding images of Snowdonia from his latest book, Welsh Light.

Elsewhere in the magazine two long challenge walks are described, both of which I happen to have done. The first is Ramsey’s Round over 23 Munros including Ben Nevis, the Mamores and the Grey Corries. Fell runners do this 56 mile jaunt in less than 24 hours. In the trip described here Ian Battersby takes four days, which was my time as well. Whether one day or four it’s well worth doing. In my view it’s one of the best mountain backpacking trips in Britain. The second challenge walk is the Lakes 3,000-footers, a 45 mile trip that I did many years ago in my fell running days in a little under 14 hours. Roy Clayton takes a few attempts and a little longer and describes well what it feels like to undertake such a long day.

Strenuous exercise of a different sort is undertaken by Ed Byrne as he tries his hand at path maintenance on the Pennine Way in the Peak District. Also in the magazine are a profile of Everest climber Bonita Norris; thoughts on recent extremes of weather in the UK from Roger Smith; Jim Perrin on the wonderful poetry of Norman MacCaig; useful information on walking and camping with children, tick bites and grouse-shooting; and Jamie Whittle on the pleasures of walking by moonlight. In the gear pages Judy Armstrong reviews women’s base layers, Cameron McNeish likes the Mizuno Wave Strider GTX trail shoes and Daniel Neilson is eventually impressed by the Marmot Vapor Trail Hoody softshell.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Book Signing Aviemore: Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams

From 11 a.m. tomorrow I'll be at Waterstone's book shop in Aviemore to sign copies of Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams. If you're in the area and the rain's keeping you from the hills (the forecast looks nasty!) do call in.

Friedrichshafen Thoughts

Outdoor shows are strange places. In vast, hot, artificially lit, windowless halls of concrete and steel little stands are built and filled with gear designed to keep users comfortable and safe outside in the real, natural world that can only be seen in the pictures of mountains and forests decorating the stands. This year at the giant OutDoor show in Friedrichshafen I camped just a few minutes walk away from the exhibition centre along with hundreds of others, including colleagues from TGO magazine. Sleeping in a tent and waking to bird song and the smell of wet grass (it rained every night) added a touch of reality. One morning I looked across the packed tents to see distant jagged peaks rising into the sky, the edge of the Alps, the real world. Then I grabbed my shoulder bag and cameras and headed off into the show, to spend the day out of sight of the mountains but in constant contact with gear designed for climbing and living in them.

For two days I tramped the halls, visiting a succession of stands and seeing huge amounts of gear. Even so I missed much. Some themes became obvious though as the stands flashed past. Colour for one. Bright colours – sky blue, pink, orange, yellow – that repeated from company to company on everything from boots to packs. Trail running was another theme, with so much footwear and clothing aimed at it that you’d think it was the most popular outdoor activity. Light weight continued from past shows, though as before what is considered light varies enormously. Check the weights not the description!

So did I see anything of any real interest? Yes, I did. Detailed descriptions will appear in the September TGO (with some information on the TGO website before then) but here’s a taster. (There’s also some show reports from Daniel Neilson on the TGO site now).

In footwear there were some curious shoes from Teva called TevaSphere with a sole claimed to perform better on all types of terrain plus, from Hanwag, some boots for anyone with bunions, inevitably to be known as Bunion Boots. The Ecco Biom boots that won the Scandinavian Outdoor Award were also on show.

The most exciting tents were almost identical to the Terra Nova Laser models. Why exciting? Because the Wild Country Zephyros Lite 1 and 2 person tents are around half the price of the Lasers yet weigh only a little more and look, to my eye, just as good  (better in one respect as the fiddly pole sleeve has been dispensed with). Also very light is the 880 gram 2 person Nordisk Telemark 2 Carbon tent. Away from these ultralight backpacking tents Crux showed a single-skin mountaineering tent, the X1 Assault, made from a carbon incorporating fabric claimed to minimise condensation.

New ideas in sleeping bags would seem unlikely but two companies had come up with them. Nemo showed the unusual-looking Wave bag that is very curvy and designed to allow comfortable sleeping on your side or any other position. Cascade Designs had sleeping bags with straps underneath to secure them to sleeping pads as with quilts. These are full bags though. Other bags looked more conventional. Of these I particularly liked Lightwave’s first down bags as they are ultralight and the quality looks superb.

Montane launched their first packs at the show last year. For 2012 they have expanded the range with a bigger pack, the lightweight Grand Tour 55, that has some interesting features. Other good looking lightweight backpacking packs came from Arc’teryx.

In stoves there were two that I’m looking forward to trying. Primus has completely redesigned the EtaExpress with a windscreen that fits properly and a wider, lower profile pot while MSR has finally made a smaller version of the powerful Reactor.

Whilst there are plenty of new colourful base and midlayers in clothing it was two shell jackets that really caught my eye. In Gore-Tex Active Shell Berghaus has designed a jacket, the Vapour Storm, with the most thorough venting system I’ve ever seen. In Neoshell, my current favourite waterproof fabric, Rab has a new lightweight jacket, the Myriad.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

En Route to the Outdoor show at Friedrichshafen

An amazingly bland hotel room, somewhere near Edinburgh Airport. Tomorrow flight to Zurich then two trains to Friedrichshafen and my first appointment at 5.30. Then two days of looking at gear, walking the cavernous halls and talking, talking, talking. No more hotels though as I'm camping outside the show, which at least means no commuting. Time, wi-fi and charging points allowing there should be reports of interesting new gear appearing on the TGO website and maybe a mention here.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Scandinavian Outdoor Gear Award Winners

The Winners of the Scandinavian Outdoor Gear Award have now been officially announced so I can tell you what we decided at our meeting in Are in Sweden (see my post here) earlier this month. 

SOA Overall Winner: Ecco Biom Hike Boots

These boots won because of their combination of instant comfort, quality materials, solid construction and performance on rugged terrain. I wore them for the two days of the judging and was impressed by the comfort, not something I expect straight away from chunky boots like these. Indeed, at the campsite and during the walk the next day I quickly forgot I was wearing them, which is exactly how walking footwear should be. The other judges who tried them said the same. I also wore them on the walk over Areskutan the day after the judging (see this post), which further confirmed my view that these are excellent boots. The boots were worn on snow, mud, wet grass, wet rock and loose soil and stones and were secure with a good grip on all of them. They have a low profile sole that gives more of the feel of a trail shoe than a big boot. They’re made from yak leather, said to be three times tougher than cow hide, treated to be water-repellent and have a Gore-Tex lining. Certainly on initial use they are completely waterproof. Ecco say they will keep your feet warm down to -24ºC whilst walking. We weren’t able to test this (thankfully as it was June!) but the weather was fairly chilly with a cold wind and the terrain was wet with many snow patches to cross. My feet felt pretty warm, though not overheated. I reckon these boots will be fine for October to May use in Britain but too warm for summer (though maybe not in summers like this one so far).

SOA Sustainability Award: Fjallraven Keb Jacket

This is a substantial jacket made from recycled polyester and organic cotton. It’s windproof and very water-resistant and can be reproofed with Fjallraven’s Gwax and so should prove very durable. The design is good with a big hood with stiffened peak, big chest pockets and no shoulder seams. There are stretch panels so the jacket can be close-fitting without restriction of movement. I tried the jacket on but didn’t wear it during the field test. The judge who did found it comfortable and waterproof in the showers and drizzle we experienced. As it’s quite a heavy and bulky jacket that gives a great deal of protection I think in the UK it would be a cold weather garment; one to be worn all day rather than carried. I could see it being excellent in Scottish blizzards.

Honourable Mentions

There were three products that we felt were worthy of honourable mentions.

Haglofs Gram 15 Pack

This ultralight daypack is made from Blue Sign approved materials and all the components, including buckles and webbing, are colour-matched. As the colour of the test model was bright pink this made it easy to spot at a distance! (You can see it in some of my pictures of the judging day). The design is very stable and the pack and pockets can be opened with one hand.

Helsport Fjellheimen Superlight Tent

By marrying ultralight fabrics with traditional designs Helsport has produced the lightest fully specified tunnel tents yet made. There are 2, 3 and 4 person models. As the light fabric does move more in the wind than heavier ones we felt that the two person Camp 2 was the best model. This only weighs 1.65kg. I tried the much bigger 4 person model and found it easy to pitch by myself.

Thule K-Guard

This car roof kayak rack was the one item I couldn’t judge, never had a roof rack or a kayak, but those familiar with such things reckoned it made loading kayaks far easier and gave much better protection against theft.

Monday 9 July 2012

Allt Duine, the Monadh Liath & Wind Farms in The Scotsman

The feature I mentioned in this post is now available online on The Scotsman website here. It's the same text as in the printed paper but you miss the little picture of me looking a little windswept with the Allt Duine hills just visible in the dull weather behind me. It's no loss!

Saturday 7 July 2012

Book Review: Caledonia Scotland's Heart of Pine by Peter Cairns & Niall Benvie

This is a beautiful and important book. I first saw it last summer and thought then I must read it but it wasn't until a month or so ago that I actually bought a copy. I wish I'd done so sooner. The book is a description in words and pictures of the native forests of Scotland and a well-argued and impassioned plea for their conservation and restoration. The photographs, by Peter Cairns, are atmospheric, inspiring and artistic. Very well reproduced they cover everything from wide landscapes to details of plants and animals. They reveal a magnificent and wild forest that is complex and intriguing.

Niall Benvie's words conjure up the remnant forest well (little now remains) and cover the history and natural history plus the need for conserving and expanding Scotland's woodland. There is much information here and this is a book I will refer to again and again. The book finishes with a look at various estates where forest restoration is underway and wildness is returning. Caledonia is published by Northshots and costs £20.

I'll finish with a wise and apposite quotation from the book:

"What a mark for progress it would be if we came to value landscapes like this as much as we do economic growth, and that they didn't always come off second best when the chips are down".

Friday 6 July 2012

The Scotsman: Feature on Allt Duine Wind Farm Tomorrow

Looking back across Strathspey to the Northern Cairngorms from the climb to the Allt Duine hills. The track in the picture would become one of the access roads to the turbines. It is in the Cairngorms National Park
Three weeks ago I went up to the site of the proposed Allt Duine wind farm with Roger Cox of The Scotsman newspaper on behalf of the Save the Monadhliath Campaign. The day was overcast and windy with very low cloud and bits of rain - the picture above was taken during one of the clearer periods. Despite this I hope that Roger appreciated the wildness, subtle beauty and solitude of the area and realises the utter destruction of this that would be caused by the wind farm. His feature on our trip and the wind farm will appear in tomorrow's edition of the paper. I'm looking forward to seeing what he has to say.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Reviews: Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams

The first reviews of my new book have appeared and I'm delighted to say they are very positive. I am honoured that the founder of the trail, Ron Strickland, likes my book, which he has reviewed on his blog. As soon as I had copies I sent one to Ron, then waited for his verdict. It's Ron's trail and his approval of my book means a great deal. That he finds my writing "magical" and my pictures "a pure delight" is really thrilling.

I was also very pleased at the first review by a purchaser of the book - Robin of Blogpackinglight. As well as the content Robin praises the format (thanks publishers!) and says he'd like to see Crossing Arizona and Walking the Yukon in the same format. So would I! If Grizzly Bears is successful enough maybe it will be possible.

Update July 8

There are also two five star reviews on Amazon,  one from Tony Hobbs (thanks Tony!) and one from "Deep Reader". Tony says he would give it six stars if he could!

Update July 9

Andy Howell has published a very nice review on his website.  Two particular lines in the review really please me as they cover aspects of the writing that I worked hard to achieve:

"Chris captures beautifully the relationship that a walker develops with the land that he or she is hiking through."

"Chris’ insights into the plight of the natural environment can be quite profound but never are they preaching."

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Brynje Clothing Review

One of the first backpacking books I ever read advised wearing a string vest under a thin lambswool sweater for comfort in cold weather. I duly bought both items and found that the system worked quite well. The string vest was made by Norwegian company Brynje. Whilst remaining popular in Norway Brynje string vests and other clothing disappeared from British outdoor stores many years ago. Now Brynje is back in the UK, courtesy of new company Nordic Life. Last winter and spring I had the opportunity of trying some Brynje clothing - 2 hats, fleece and, of course, string vest. My review is now on the TGO website here.