Sunday 31 March 2013

Testing Backpacking Stoves

Testing backpacking gear usually means taking it out into its environment - the outdoors. However with some products it's worthwhile also using them together in a more controlled situation. Yesterday I spent several hours doing this with camping stoves for an upcoming feature in Spring issue of The Great Outdoors magazine (I must remember to call it now that it's changed back from TGO). Although it was a sunny day I chose a shaded spot as I didn't want the warmth of the sunshine to affect the test. As it was, the shade temperature was just 7 C. The water, from my kitchen tap, was 6 C.

Testing the stoves involves finding out how easy it is to set them up with cold fingers, how quickly they boil a set amount of water and how much fuel they use in doing so. I also tried a few stoves with pots with and without heat exchangers to see how difference this made, if any. I'm now writing up the results.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

After the Storm, A Quiet Day: Cairngorms In Winter

Terry filming beside Loch Morlich

Following the excitement and effort of the stormy days when we failed to cross the Lairig Ghru (see last post) I had a much more relaxed day’s filming with Terry Abraham beside Loch Morlich. The clouds were still racing past high above and the highest tops were mostly hidden but down in the forest there was no more than a chill breeze. High up conditions were still severe though with signs announcing that the Cairngorm ski resort was closed again while snow ploughs tried to clear the access road.

Loch Morlich shimmering in the sun

Down at the loch sunshine came and went, though any heat was whipped away by the wind and the temperature remained below freezing. Oystercatchers flew low over the water piping loudly then ran along the golden sandy beach that curves round the head of the loch. There were pied wagtails too and mallard ducks out on the water. Across the loch the snow-covered hills of Meall a’Bhuachaille and Creagan Mor shone in the bright light.

Creagan Mor and Meall a'Bhuachaille

The wind was too noisy to record my voice out in the open so we retreated into the shelter of the pines with a view over the Allt Mor, the main feeder for the loch and here a slow, placid and dark stream very different from the raging mountain torrent it is for most of its length. Dippers bobbed on the branches of fallen trees out in the water. Under the trees the air was very cold and I was glad to finish the recording and finish and head off for a warming mug of hot chocolate in the nearby Glenmore Café from whose windows we watched chaffinches and coal tits and, just once, a crested tit feeding on the many peanut-covered tables. There were no red squirrels on show though, unlike the last time we had been here.

A welcome refuge

Warmed and refreshed we ended our quiet day at the far end of the loch filming the Cairngorms rising above the woods and water. 

Terry filming at the end of the day

Saturday 23 March 2013

Retreat from the Lairig Ghru: Cairngorms In Winter

Terry beside the Allt Druidh

The big storm came in hard and fast, with the winds increasing earlier than forecast. I went out anyway as I’d arranged to meet Terry Abraham for more work on the Cairngorms in Winter film and he was already in the hills. However the Sugar Bowl car park on the Cairngorm Ski Road, where I’d planned on starting, was blocked with snow – I nearly got stuck on the edge of the road turning the car round – so I ended up walking in from much lower down and farther away. Terry would have to wait a while.

Walking through Rothiemurchus Forest I admired the pines, which down here were shining in the sunlight. I couldn’t feel the wind but I could see white clouds racing across the sky. There was only a thin covering of snow at first but as I climbed towards the mouth of the Lairig Ghru pass, where I was to meet Terry, the snow grew deeper and I stopped to put on my snowshoes. Even wearing these I was occasionally sinking in knee deep as the fresh snow was dry and unconsolidated.

Snowshoe tracks

As the trees thinned out the wind hit me, cold and sharp. Ahead I could see dark clouds filling the big defile of the Lairig Ghru though to either side the hills were still in sunshine. This is often the case here, the high narrow pass acting as a funnel for winds and clouds. 

The Lairig Ghru

By the time I joined Terry the wind was even stronger. Clouds of spindrift were hurled into the air, whirling and swirling in spinning columns or racing across the ground in shimmering sheets. We headed on towards the stormbound Lairig Ghru, though my confidence in reaching it was rapidly dwindling. On the snowshoes I made good progress through the thick snow and was soon beside the half-frozen Allt Druidh stream right in the jaws of the pass. Terry had no snowshoes though and was finding the going slow and arduous.

Terry filming beside the Allt Druidh
A quick discussion and we decided retreat was a sensible option. The wind was now bitterly cold and the lashing spindrift painful. There was still over two hundred metres of ascent to the top of the pass. The wind would be stronger there and the snow deeper. We’d be in the cloud too. And the storm was forecast to grow in strength the next day.


With relief we turned our backs to the wind and descended to the shelter of the trees. Our upward tracks had already disappeared in the blown snow. Terry did short bits of filming, made difficult by the wind and the spindrift, which kept covering his lens even when the camera was pointed away from the growing storm.

Once down in the trees we found a good campsite on grassy ground in a grove of magnificent and massive ancient pines. Situated in a shallow wooded bowl it seemed sheltered. When we pitched the tents there was only the occasional gust of wind though we could it roaring high above.

A sheltered site?

Late in the evening though the wind began to increase, buffeting the tent. As the night went on so the wind grew stronger, blasting down in great gusts that shook the tent. I could hear the roaring as the wind approached before each wave hit. Light snow began to fall too; cold, dry snow that was picked up by the wind and blown through the tent’s mesh vents and under the edge of the flysheet. Soon most of my gear was covered in white. I dozed and slept fitfully, repeatedly woken by the noise of the wind.

Terry sheltering from the wind and spindrift

Come dawn and it was as windy in camp as it had been in the mouth of the Lairig Ghru. I ventured out to see the rear of Terry’s tent flattening in each gust then springing back up. The wind was still growing in power, one gust sending me staggering sideways.

Back in my tent I was packing my gear when a really ferocious blast hit the tent. Three pegs ripped out of the ground on one side and the fabric tried to take off. As it did so the pole bent. Before the whole tent collapsed on me I managed to replace one of the pegs and adjust the pole. I was very glad this had not happened in the night or before I was dressed and up.

In this storm we were not venturing back up into the hills. Instead we walked out to Loch Morlich and a welcome second breakfast in the Glenmore Café. The trip was over a day early. But that’s winter in the Cairngorms. Sometimes it’s just not wise to continue.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

The Cairngorms in Winter - filming continues

Terry on the Cairngorm Plateau

Today may be the official first day of spring but in the Cairngorms winter continues unabated. Indeed, conditions at present are some of the most severe so far with blizzards raging and very cold temperatures. The Cairngorm Mountain ski resort has been closed due to storms the last few days. Despite the conditions I'm heading out for more filming with Terry Abraham though I don't think we'll be sitting round in the sunshine as in the picture above, taken back in February. In fact I doubt we'll get onto the summits at all, not with winds of 80-90mph forecast. We are planning on going through the Lairig Ghru, the finest pass in the Cairngorms and one of the very best in all the Highlands. The Lairig Ghru is spectacular at any time, in stormy weather it's really dramatic. The high point of the pass is at 800 metres and the snow can lie deep there. Tomorrow we'll see if we can cross it.

Monday 18 March 2013

Far Distant Hills

A few days ago I was surprised to receive an email from hillwalker and photographer Bryan James, who I had not had any contact with before, with one of my images attached. The picture was taken from this blog post and annotated with the names of distant hills that Bryan had identified. I didn't know these hills were visible in the picture and I'm delighted that Bryan has taken the trouble to locate them. I hadn't realised such detail was visible. I should maybe look at my photographs more closely!

The hills of the far North-West picked out by Bryan are a favourite area of his, as can be seen from his Flickr album, which features quite a few photos taken in the area, including a lovely shot of Arkle at sunset.

Photo info: For those interested the image was taken from the northern edge of the Cairngorm Plateau on November 7th, 2011, at 17.30 with a Sony NEX 5 camera and Sony E 18-55 lens at 55mm, handheld with manual exposure. Settings were 1/40@f5.6 and ISO 400. The online image Bryan used to identify the distant hills is a 320kb JPEG converted in Lightroom from a 13.93mb raw file.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Out of Doors Interview Online

The interview about Walking the Scottish Watershed that I did for BBC Radio Scotland's Out of Doors programme is now online. It's available for the next six days. I haven't listened to it myself so I can't tell you where in the broadcast it appears!

Next week I'll be on the programme again, talking about the Cairngorms National Park along with others on its 10th anniversary.

Saturday 16 March 2013

The Cairngorms At Dusk

The hills have been mostly hidden in the clouds for many days now. Here in the glen rain has been falling, rain with touches of sleet and snow in it. Higher up it must be snowing. Next week I shall go and see. Until then here's a photograph of Bynack More and Beinn Mheadhoin taken just after sunset in February.

Friday 15 March 2013

Interview on BBC Radio Scotland Out of Doors about Walking the Scottish Watershed

A few weeks ago I spent a few hours wandering in Glenmore Forest with Mark Stephen on BBC Radio Scotland's Out of Doors programme. We recorded a number of items including one about my forthcoming Scottish Watershed walk. I've just heard that this will be broadcast during tomorrow's programme (March 16), which starts at 6.30 a.m.

When the programme's available on Listen Again I'll post a link.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Interviewed by Keith Foskett

Recently I was interviewed, via the wonders of the internet, by long distance hiker and outdoor writer Keith Foskett. That interview is now online on Keith's blog here.

Keith has hiked the El Camino de Santiago in Spain, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. He's currently planning on hiking the Continental Divide Trail. His blog is full of good stuff about his walks and plans plus there are details of his two books, The Journey in Between about the El Camino and The Last Englishman about the Pacific Crest Trail. I've read the first of these and it's very entertaining. I'm looking forward to reading the second.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Amongst the Clouds

Dawn, Stob a'Ghrianain

The last week has been cloudy and misty with the hills mostly hidden. Watching the clouds drifting past I thought I'd post the following piece, originally written for TGO magazine. Clouds and mist can be glorious!

Amongst the Clouds
The air was damp and chill and thick with mist. With visibility down to a few metres I wondered whether to go on climbing. Was there any point when I could see nothing? But above there were hints of brightness and a blue sheen to the greyness. Maybe up there the sun was shining. I climbed on and the mists did indeed begin to dissipate as a cool breeze blew and a watery sun appeared high above. Soon the mists were gone, the last tattered shreds speeding away on the strengthening wind and dissolving in the now dazzling sunlight. The world exploded outwards from a few hazy boulders and the patch of damp grass at my feet to a startling vista of ranks of mountains fading into the far horizons, mountains that floated in space for below them was the rippling blanket of white cloud that I’d climbed through. I sat on the summit and stared out across the land. Everything above 700 metres or so was sharp and clear, everything below that height hidden. The visibility was superb; the clarity unreal.

Cloud inversions like this are one of the joys of our humid climate and a particular pleasure of camping high in the hills. A few years ago I camped on the snow-covered summit of Ben Nevis. There was a lovely sunset with just a little cloud out to the west and the night looked like being clear and frosty. However I woke to find the first grey light filtering through thin mist that drifted round my camp. Out to the east a pale insipid sun was just visible on the horizon. Slowly the sun rose through the clouds, putting out more heat and power, and the mist faded and sank down the mountain’s flanks, leaving a bright world with tremendous views of the hills all around. Below the glens were thick with cloud. Above ranks of cumulus clouds drifted across the sky, covering and then revealing the sun. The world felt fantastically alive, almost unreal in its mobility and sharpness.  

Sgurr a' Mhaim from Ben Nevis

Dawn is often the best time to see such atmospheric delights, before the sun’s heat dispels the clouds; an advantage of high level camps. Sometimes, as on Ben Nevis, the cloud-filled glens are unexpected, sometimes the mist can be seen forming at sunset. Once I camped just below the summit of Glas Maol above Glen Shee on a dull cloudy evening. As I lay in the tent I watched fingers of mist slowly creeping up from the glen below and crawling across the slopes towards the tent. They reached me just as I was falling asleep and I felt the first touch of dampness on my face and saw the first drops of condensation forming on the tent. I closed my eyes thinking that the next day could be one of compass navigation in the clouds. But I was woken by brightness and heat. A newly risen sun was shining straight into the tent door. The mist was shrinking back into the glens, which were still thick with cloud. For a few hours I walked over dew soaked grass watching the clouds gradually thin and fade until the glens too were shining in the sun.

Against the days of magic and wonder must be set those when the mist doesn’t clear. Particularly frustrating are those times when it feels as though the thin cloud could disappear at any minute and there are tantalising hints of blue just above and glimpses of sunshine. Often it seems that if only the hill was just a few metres higher you would be in clear air. On other occasions the mist thickens and rain falls and it’s quickly apparent that there will be no clearance. I experienced this on a camp on Beinn Eighe (which has surprisingly large areas of smooth, flat turf for a Torridon hill). The forecast was good and there had been a lovely sunset with a deep red sky. I woke once in the dark to find the open tent full of damp mist and drips falling from the roof. By dawn it was raining heavily and the cloud was thick. I abandoned my intended traverse of the mountain and set off down to the glen. By the time I was off the mountain the burns were foaming with water and the rain was lashing down. 

Beinn a'Bheithir

Then there are those days of playing cat and mouse with the cloud, dipping in and out as it hangs on the side of the hills, occasionally sneaking across a col or drifting over a summit. I traversed Beinn a’Bheithir above Ballachulish and Loch Leven in conditions like this, sometimes in bright sunshine with views stretching many miles, sometimes in dense cloud with visibility just a few metres. To the south the cloud wall never wavered, thick and white and implacable. Rising up the side of the mountain it broke on the ridge, spiralling up into the sky and breaking into ragged tendrils. Each time I was enveloped I wondered if the mist would stay but then I would suddenly walk out of it and the world would be revealed.

Perhaps the most unusual and magical night above the clouds was on Stob a’Ghrianain above Glen Loy. In the evening I’d watched a huge orange moon rising over the Great Glen and the darkening bulk of Ben Nevis towering above the sparkling lights of Fort William. Then dawn came with a fiery red sky as the sun lit up thickening clouds. Below this dramatic sky all the long lochs to the south and west were totally covered by thick mist, tinted pink by the sunrise, but the dark land was clear with the silhouetted peaks purple in the early light. The powerful lighting lasted an hour or so and then began to weaken along with the clearing mist over the lochs. Only those who spend their night high in the hills would have seen the red sky and the mist-covered lochs. Perhaps I was the only one.

Friday 8 March 2013

Latest TGO: Long Distance Walks In Scotland, Boots, Down Gear and Cairngorms in Winter

Cairngorms In Winter: Sunset at the camp on Mullach Clach a'Bhlair
The April issue of TGO is out now. My backpacking column is about long distance walks in Scotland - really long distance walks that is, one that take a month or more. I describe four routes, ranging in length from 470 miles to over 2,000 miles. In the gear section I review the Patagonia Ultralight Down Jacket (which really is superlight) and the Rab Infinity 500 down sleeping bag, which I praise for keeping me warm at -2C. Since writing the review it's kept me warm at -8C so I'm even more impressed with it now. I also look at 18 pairs of three-season boots to which Judy Armstrong adds 6 pairs of women's four-season boots.

There's a double-page spread on the Cairngorms In Winter film with photos from Terry Abraham, including a superb dawn shot from the summit of Cairn Gorm.

Elsewhere in the magazine I'm delighted to see a big feature by David Lintern on his traverse of the Haute Route in the Pyrenees. There's also a look at how to keep the costs of walking trips down with Hanna Lindon having a weekend in the Peak District from London for under £50.  Of course one way to save money is by wild camping. It's also a way to escape the crowds as Daniel Neilson discovers on a trip to Snowdonia. Over in Lancashire John Manning goes on a history expedition to walk the Clarion House Way and find out about Clarion House itself and the socialists who spawned an outdoor movement in the early twentieth century. In the same social history vein though a bit later in the century Jim Perrin praises Eric Byne's and Geoff Sutton's High Peak, the story of walking and climbing in the Peak District, a book I remember from when I lived in Manchester and Bleaklow and Kinder Scout were the hills I walked on regularly.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Exclusive Clip: Cairngorms In Winter

Camp on Mullach Clach a'Bhlair, Terry preparing to film

Terry Abraham has been working on the Cairngorms In Winter film and has released a clip, which you can see on YouTube. It shows some of the filming we did on Mullach Clach a'Bhlair last week.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Cultural Interlude: Richard Thompson, Vikings & Cloud Atlas

 Straight after my days in the hills with Terry Abraham working on the Cairngorms in Winter film I took the train to Edinburgh for a quick visit during which I attended a concert, an exhibition and a film in less than 24 hours, an urban cultural interlude.

The concert was by Richard Thompson, arguably Britain’s greatest living songwriter and guitarist. He played with a band, unlike last summer when I also saw him in Edinburgh, and the emphasis was on electric guitar, to go along with his new album Electric, from which he played half a dozen songs. He also went through a selection from his now vast back catalogue and threw in a superb version of Hendrix’s Hey Joe as a nod to sixties power trios. The songs, with Thompson’s witty, thought-provoking and sometimes downright disturbing lyrics, were all excellent but it was the musicianship that stood out with Thompson playing some astounding guitar and the drummer and base player adding flair and skill of their own. There are still some UK dates left – I really recommend going if you can.

The exhibition was Vikings at the National Museum of Scotland, which features over 500 objects from the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. This well-laid out and designed exhibition tells the story of the Vikings and their explorations and shows that they were far more than just raiders and fighters (though they were definitely these). I found the exhibition fascinating, with the displays really bringing the artefacts to life. Some particularly stood-out. One was a tiny Buddha from Northern India, excavated from a Viking site in Sweden. This really spoke of the connectedness of that world of over a thousand years ago and the trade that linked Scandinavia and India. On the outdoors side I was intrigued by the little spikes the Vikings used to get grip on ice and hard snow. Micro spikes are not new! There was no mention of skiing though, which was used for travel over snow in Viking times.

The film was Cloud Atlas, based on the novel by David Mitchell, which I had read and enjoyed last year. The film has had mixed reviews. I think it is superb. However as it consists of six stories set in six different periods, two of them in the future, and the actors play several roles each, appearing in each story in a different guise, it does require some concentration. The novel has different literary styles for each story. Reflecting this, the film has different cinematic styles for the stories and jumps rapidly from seafaring sagas through slapstick comedy to dystopian sci-fi. I picked up many film references and probably missed many more. One of those I did get was Bladerunner and like that film I think that Cloud Atlas will take time to be a success but will eventually become a highly-respected cult film. It’s beautifully filmed and acted –  I reckon the actors must have really enjoyed playing so many different parts in one film – and a real visual delight (there is some good outdoors footage too, shot on Majorca). I’m looking forward to seeing it again. I’ll reread the book soon too.