Friday 29 November 2013

Cairngorms for Christmas ........ and some other ideas

As it's time for Christmas gift buying here's a few suggestions from my work for lovers of mountains and wild places. The first one is the film I made with Terry Abraham earlier this year - The Cairngorms In Winter - which is available on DVD with some outtakes and other extras from some outdoor shops and from Striding Edge - see box to the right.

If you like the Cairngorms and mountain photography there's also my book - A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorms - which is packed with images of these wonderful mountains

For the Scottish hills as a whole, including the Cairngorms, there's my big Cicerone World Mountain Series book, Scotland. This is also full of pictures plus information on suggested walks, geology, natural history and more.
Finally if you fancy venturing abroad there's my account of my 1200 mile walk along the Pacific Northwest Trail, Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

First Snow Camp of the Winter

With a thaw forecast a last venture out in the first big snowfall of the winter seemed very attractive, especially as there looked like being twenty-four hours or so of good weather. The idea of a snow camp, the first for eight months, was also appealing. As I hadn't been up it yet this year I decided to head for Bynack More, an outlier of the main Cairngorms massif.

The walk began in pine woods still dotted with yellow-leaved birch trees. Down here a thaw had already stripped away much of the snow, leaving a complex dappled pattern of light and dark, snow and tree and heather. Lochan Uaine was green with tree reflections. No ice yet. Beyond the trees the snow cover slowly spread and deepened. Once the climbing really began it was crunchy and unstable, sometimes supporting my foot, sometimes collapsing as I put weight on it. High clouds kept the light flat and dull and there was only a hint of pink in the western sky.

Above the long cleft of Strath Nethy I crossed the high moor below Bynack More. Somewhere here I would camp. It's not a place I'd choose in summer - the ground is either boggy or gravel and there's no water nearby. Snow can be levelled for a flat bed and melted for water, opening up many places for comfortable camps. This one I'd never used before and I was curious to know what the dawn would bring as I pitched the tent as darkness fell.


The evening was calm with the temperature just below freezing. I fell asleep watching stars coming and going between the high drifting clouds. Wet cold air brushing my face woke me hours later. A wind had sprung up and was blowing spindrift into the tent. Although the middle of the night it was lighter than when I'd gone to sleep. I looked out at a bright half-moon and a starry sky. The clouds had gone with the wind.

A Comfortable Camp
Hours more passed before I opened my eyes again. The light had changed. The sky was turning from black to blue and a yellow-orange line on the horizon spoke of the still-hidden sun. Bands of cloud again streaked the sky. The temperature was -4°C. I lit the stove and lay in my sleeping bag watching the sun rise over distant hills. The dawn was glorious. Reason enough to be here in this wild and beautiful world.

Ben Avon from the ascent of Bynack More

Leaving camp I headed up the long rocky north ridge of Bynack More. No more than a walk in summer, with some optional easy scrambling, it was rather more difficult covered with hard snow and rime ice. I stayed just below the crest, out of the cutting wind. As the slope steepened I stopped to put on crampons and swap a trekking pole for an ice axe. The going was easier on the firm surface than on the breakable crusty snow below however and I was soon on the windswept rocky summit looking out on the vast array of the Cairngorms. The weather was already changing with the clouds thickening from the west. 

View from Bynack More

Crampons biting securely into the shiny snow I crossed the lower top of Bynack Beg and descended steeply into Strath Nethy. Flocks of white ptarmigan flew low over the hillsides. As I neared the flat valley bottom I was catching the crampons in heather as often as I was stamping them into snow. Off with them. They were becoming hazardous. The River Nethy was low and easily boulder-hopped. An arduous climb through more patchy snow and clinging heather then it was a final skid down a steep little-used path through the woods. The whole trip had only lasted twenty-four hours but I had been transported into another more elemental world and the experience had been intense.

Strath Nethy

Sunday 24 November 2013

Cairngorms Snow Changes

Damp & Chilly

In the two weeks since I was last up on the Cairngorm Plateau conditions have changed. One of the fascinating aspects of the winter mountains is that they are never the same from one day to the next. Snow is an amazingly volatile substance, changing with the slightest variation in temperature or direction and strength of the wind. Although it has remained cold I knew as soon as I stepped on the first snow patch that there had been some thawing and refreezing. The snow was smooth surfaced and crunchy underfoot. Only the top few inches were hard though. Below it was soft, meaning I was often breaking through, sometimes knee deep, and walking was arduous. Strong winds had scoured the slopes too, ripping the snow off exposed areas and packing it into hollows, where it was sometimes several feet deep. Many rocks were showing through the snow and I was glad I hadn't brought my skis.

Snow-ice on pine twigs

The clouds were low on the hills and there was a dampness in the air. Lower down there was no wind though and I didn't need a jacket, especially as climbing required much effort. Walking without a jacket meant I got quite wet though, something I felt when I reached the tops and a cold wind cut through my clothes. An icy rain was falling too, freezing as soon as it landed.

Waterproof jacket on I turned away from the wind and climbed slippery, frost, ice and snow covered rocky slopes to the summit of Cairn Gorm. I had ice axe and crampons but there were few places I could have stopped a fall with an ice axe and not enough ice or hard snow for crampons. My trekking poles kept me from falling when I did slip.

Difficult slippery terrain

The cloud was thick and the weather station on the summit hung ghost-like in the sodden air. The temperature was around freezing, the wind bitter. This wasn't conditions for staying up high for long so I turned and descended. The exposed rocks were useful in the white-out as there was nothing else to focus on. I soon learnt to avoid unbroken patches of snow as I couldn't judge the angle on them. I'd only been out for three hours but it was enough in this damp cold weather.
Cairn Gorm Weather Station

Saturday 23 November 2013

A Trip to Kendal: The Great Outdoors Awards, Kendal Mountain Festival & a wet hill day

Kendal from Kendal Castle

A week ago a trip down south to Kendal on the edge of the Lake District for The Great Outdoors Awards and the Kendal Mountain Festival provided an intense four days of people, films, bars, beer, pizza and endless talking. I met many old friends and made some new ones. I won't mention them all here - that way I won't offend anyone by forgetting them!

The second Great Outdoors Awards saw the return of editor Emily Rodway from maternity leave and it was good to chat with her about plans for the magazine for the next year. That meeting was held over breakfast the day after the Awards. I can't remember the last time I had a breakfast meeting. Knowing it was coming certainly kept my beer consumption down at the Awards ceremony. The last was successfully conducted by Emily with Daniel Neilson, now The Great Outdoors Digital Editor, assisting. The results will be published in the next issue of the magazine. I was one of the Gear Awards judges along with Emily, Daniel, Outdoor Industries Association Chief Executive Andrew Denton and outdoor blogger Andy Howell. Our decisions had been reached a week before during a long conference call during which every item on the shortlist was discussed. All the items had been tested by at least one of us (apart from a few items that never arrived and were therefore discounted) and our discussion was detailed and thorough. We also discussed the nature of the Awards and whether any changes should be made, a discussion that has continued since. Andy Howell has written a couple of excellent thoughtful blog posts on the Awards that are well worth reading.

I was particularly pleased that we decided to make a special award to Sarah Howcroft's Gift Your Gear scheme, a wonderful innovative scheme for enabling unwanted gear to be used by organisations encouraging people, especially youngsters, to get outdoors. This was the most important award of all.

Terry Abraham

The Awards ceremony was held on the eve of the Kendal Mountain Festival, the premier event of its type in the UK. I was there because a forty minute festival edit of The Cairngorms In Winter film was being shown every day and together with Terry Abraham I was to say a few words before each showing and answering questions afterwards. It really was a few words too as the films come thick and fast and we only had a couple of minutes before and after the film. At the end of the Festival the film was runner-up in the Mountain Culture category, which is very pleasing. 

Into the Mist

Meeting people was great fun but after three days I felt the need to escape to the hills. I'd had a few short walks around Kendal, climbing up to the castle and the woods above the town, but I really wanted to get into the Lakeland fells. A bus journey to Ambleside and I was heading up into the hills with a vague idea of doing the Fairfield Horseshoe. The weather was not promising though with low cloud hiding even the lower slopes of the hills. There was no wind though and the air was surprisingly warm for November. The cloud was damp but I felt if I put on waterproofs I'd soon be soaked in sweat so I continued upwards in two thin layers, which soon became quite wet. It wasn't raining but the air was saturated. I felt as though I was pushing against wetness that was just hanging in space motionless. As I gained height and came onto a broad ridge with a tall stone wall along it the wind appeared and cut through my wet clothing. On with the waterproofs! And on up the invisible hills. Hooded figures occasionally looked up out of the cloud, muttered a greeting, and just as quickly vanished. I plodded on. A big cairn appeared, probably marking the summit of Hart Crag. I couldn't be bothered working it out. It was far enough anyway so I turned and descended back to Ambleside thinking of cafes and hot drinks. The cloud came back down with me. I reckon the cloud base was somewhere in Ambleside. I dripped into a cafe and restored myself with a cappuccino and scone. I'd had a walk in the Lakeland fells, the second one in a year, which is unusual these days. I hadn't actually seen the hills though. That would have to wait for another visit. This will probably be in January on an overnight camp with Terry Abraham for my part in his next film: A Year In The Life Of A Mountain: Scafell Pike.

Tree in Mist

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Winter Comes To The Woods And Fields

A last autumn flaring

This morning dawned with a soft pale light, a light I recognised, a light that comes with snow, subtle and pale and speaking of winter. I looked out to see the land blanketed in white below a cloud-streaked sky.

The light of winter

This is the first snow of the winter in the woods and fields. High on the hills it came several weeks ago but down here there has only been rain. The temperature never rose above freezing all day and the air felt bitingly cold when I ventured out late in the afternoon to explore the renewed snowy landscape. The leaves have mostly gone from the trees now though where there were any left the bright colours were startling against the otherwise almost monochrome scene.

A buzzard floated overhead. A rabbit raced for the woods. Nothing else moved but a myriad tracks of rabbits and pheasants showed the wildlife had come out in search of food. A line of fox tracks, straight and purposeful, cut through the random scribblings of the rabbits. I crunched through the snow, the previously wet muddy ground frozen now. A hint of pink appeared over the distant hills then was gone. The light started to fade and I turned for home, satisfied winter was here.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Last of the Autumn Colours

Late afternoon light. A wander in the woods and fields. In the sunshine it could almost be warm. In the shadows the frosty ground crunches underfoot. The wind chills, whispering through gaps in my clothing. Fingers, gloveless, are numb outside pockets. A buzzard calls. Looking up I see its silhouette on a tall thin tree. Another cry and it wheels away, gliding over the forest. Rabbits run for cover.

The forest is still golden, still glowing. But many branches are bare and the leaf-strewn ground rustles under my boots. The wind and the cold are taking away the colours of autumn. A flock of fieldfares launches from a lone birch tree and sweeps across the meadows, winter visitors down from Scandinavia.

And always in the distance the Cairngorms, white with snow and the promise of mountains.

Monday 11 November 2013

New TGO: Backpacking & Forests, Fleece Tops, Keeping Head & Hands Warm, Brynje Wool String Vest

Autumn Forest at Dusk

The December issue of The Great Outdoors is just out. My contributions are a piece on Backpacking and Forests, a review of 13 fleece jackets (I like fleece!), suggestions on keeping head and hands warm in winter weather and a test report on the Brynje Wool Micro T-Shirt.

This issue has much on winter, appropriate as the first big snowfalls grace the hills. David Lintern attempts his first winter mountaineering routes in the Ben Alder area, a feature illustrated with wonderful atmospheric photographs; more great photographs come from Stewart Smith who shows the Lake District hills after the first snowfall; Alan Halewood of Glenmore Lodge continues his advice on avalanche avoidance; and Pete Catterall of Plas Y Brenin writes about food for winter hills. The other gear reviews are winter-orientated too. Daniel Neilson reviews the four-season Fjallraven Akka Endurance 2 tunnel tent, which sounds pretty good for winter storms. John Manning reviews six synthetic-insulated jackets while Judy Armstrong reviews six women's down jackets. The Wild Walks section has some wintry trips. Dave Kirkpatrick describes his first winter camping trip in the Glen Lyon hills and discovers summer camping gear doesn't work that well when it's freezing. He still got some excellent photographs though. Roger Butler sticks to a day trip on the snow-covered Kentmere Pike and Harter Fell in the Lake District.

Elsewhere there's a superb double-page photograph of Cul Mor and Cul Beag in Assynt by Damian Shields (taken when he'd just arrived there for the first time! ); a look at eight of the best outdoor books of the year by James Reader; a celebration of whisky and the outdoors by Cameron McNeish; James Reader looking at old gear in back issues; Roly Smith on Yellowstone National Park and the reintroduction of wolves; Ben Lerwill walking Moel Hebog and the Nantlle Ridge in Snowdonia; a look at Ireland's first national wilderness, Wild Nephin, by Lenny Antonelli; Roger Smith looking at energy projects and the environment and calling for a national energy policy; Jim Perrin praising Thomas Pennant's Tour in Wales; and an identification chart for montane birds.

Finally, this is Daniel Neilson's last issue as Acting Editor. I think he's done a great job over the last year. From the next issue Emily Rodway returns as Editor. Welcome back Emily! Daniel isn't disappearing though. He's becoming Digital Editor and has exciting plans for the magazine's online presence.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Winter Is Coming

 Frosty nights, snow on the hills. Time to cut some wood.

And light the stove.

Friday 8 November 2013

Book Review: The Call of the Mountains by Max Landsberg

Subtitled Sights and inspirations from a journey of a thousand miles across Scotland's Munros this entertaining book tells the story of the author's discovery of the Munros (which he does via Google) and how they slowly drew him in until he'd climbed them all. It's also the story of how a novice hillwalker - he admits to being ill-prepared on his first Munro outing - develops into an experienced Munroist. Along the way Max Landsberg  becomes deeply involved in the hills with his passion for them shining through his writing. He also analyzes the various stages he goes through from becoming hooked at the start to being an out-and-out Munro bagger and finally to wanting high quality experiences and not just ticks on a list. The author's journey has become more important than his destination. I found this analysis interesting as I never went through such stages myself. I knew I wanted to climb all the Munros as soon as I knew what they were and I also wanted to climb them on backpacking trips rather than as day walks as I already knew such trips gave me the highest quality experiences. (In fact I did most of the Munros on my first round on four backpacking trips, two of them 500 miles in length). But then I wasn't a novice hillwalker when I set out on the Munros.

Max Landsberg is not a backpacker. Although there are a few camps and bivouacs most of the hills are done as day walks and nights are spent in hotels and B&Bs. The author doesn't sanitise the experience of hillwalking in Scotland and there's plenty of rain, mud, mist and midges. Every Munro is mentioned but many only very cursorily - I found it a little disorientating in places to see favourite summits passed over with barely a word - and every walk is described. There is much additional information as to the author's inspiration and motivation, including frequent references to Taoism, about which I must admit I knew nothing before reading this book. There's a fair amount of geology too, the author having a degree in Natural Sciences. This I found interesting as I think a little geological understanding greatly enhances appreciation of the hills.

Overall The Call of the Mountains is an interesting and worthwhile addition to the literature of the Munros and a book worth reading by anyone with an interest in the hills and hillwalking even if you have no intention of doing the Munros (but that's what many people say at first....). Those who have completed the Munros will find it entertaining and, if they are like me, smile or shake their heads as the author's experiences bring back fond memories. Those doing the Munros will find encouragement here even if they live far from the hills. Max Landsberg travelled many thousands of miles by car and train from southern England to the Highlands. His descriptions of these journeys sound more exhausting than the actual hillwalking - especially the time he forgets most of his gear and has to drive back south to collect it. Those beginning the Munros can also learn much about what it's like to climb them and travel with the author as he learns essential skills.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

First Ski Tour of the New Season: Winter comes to the Cairngorms

View east along Loch Avon

The glens are golden and green, crisp with frost and bright with autumn colours. Frozen leaves crunch underfoot. High above the mountains are white with snow, as they have been for several days now. Finally tearing myself away from desk work I set off to explore the new snowy landscape. And new it always is in winter, even when familiar, the snow and ice never the same. Today clouds raced across the sky and a bitter wind blew. The rippled snow showed it had been strong for a while, carving ridges and valleys, packing powder into soft sheets in every hollow.  A clear line marks the boundary between autumn and winter, an edge to the snow that can be traced for miles across the hills.

Wind rippled snow

I carried the skis a short while, where the snow was sparse and too many rocks and stones poked through. Soon though I could put them on and climb more easily without them catching the wind. As I gained height I could see that the clouds were thick and dark to the south and west, hiding the summits. Only the north-eastern corner of the Cairngorms was cloud free, just torn tatters racing overhead. Removing the climbing skins on reaching the Cairngorm Plateau and letting the skis run I found the snow required care and quick reactions as it varied greatly, sometimes icy so the skis picked up speed fast, sometimes soft and powdery so the skis slowed abruptly, sometimes breakable so the skis sank and stopped. Rusty from months of not skiing my progress was not elegant. No graceful swooping down in curving turns, leaving a neat pattern behind me, but rather a stuttering descent with a mix of skids and slips and a variety of turns. Survival skiing but I stayed on my feet. 

A glimpse of Loch Avon

Making my way over to the edge of the deep Loch Avon trench I ventured as close to the edge of a cornice as I dared and gazed down at the dark inky blue waters of the loch, not yet frozen. A small bank gave shelter from the wind for a short break then it was back on with the skins for an ascent of Cairn Gorm itself. As I climbed the clouds finally pushed eastwards and I was soon in a white-out with blasts of spindrift whistling past me. Judging the angle of the slopes became difficult and a couple of times I had to traverse off snow too steep to climb. Only the protruding rocks gave me something to focus on. Soon though the ghostly edifice of the Cairngorm Weather Station, plastered with snow and ice, appeared ahead, seemingly floating in the mist.

Cairngorm Weather Station

A rough, jolting descent followed, at first down wide slopes, then narrower ribbons of snow just free enough of rocks to ski. Eventually following the latter became too difficult to be worthwhile and the skis went on the pack for a final walk to the car park. It had only been a short tour but for a first day on skis for seven months it was enough and the winter landscape had worked its usual exhilarating magic. I returned home with wind burnt face and aching limbs but feeling so alive.

Cairn Lochan

Sunday 3 November 2013

Walks Around Britain Podcast Interview & Buxton Adventure Fesitval

On the Arizona Trail

Many months ago I recorded an interview about my long distance walks with Andrew White for his Walks Around Britain Podcasts. This has just appeared in the latest podcast which also features Kate Ashbrook of the Ramblers on their latest campaign and Dave Mycroft and Gareth Jones talking about walks in the Peak District. You can here the podcast on Audioboo.

Buxton Awash

I've also just been talking about long distance walking in a very wet and windy Buxton at the Buxton Adventure Festival where I was interviewed by the BMC's Carey Davies. Given that I usually stand up when giving talks I must say it was nice to sit in a comfy armchair for the interview! Anyone who's interested but who missed the talk will find a flavour of it on the Walks Around Britain Podcast.

After my interview I joined the audience to watch a gripping film - Crossing the Ice - about an unsupported trek to the South Pole and back I was impressed with the fortitide and determination of the explorers but there looked to be too much suffering involved for my tastes. Great film though.

The Festival was also a good place to chat to old friends and new, something I'll be doing again the week after next at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival.

Friday 1 November 2013

Talk at the Buxton Adventure Festival

View from the Scottish Watershed in the Northern Highlands

Later this morning I'll be heading south on a series of trains to Buxton in the Peak District for the Buxton Adventure Festival where I'll be talking to Carey Davies, the BMC Hillwalking Officer, about my long distance walks, including this year's Scottish Watershed, and the Cairngorms in Winter film. Clips from the film will be shown along with photos from my walks. The event is on Saturday at 12.30 in the Pavilion Arts Centre. I'm curious to know what questions Carey is going to ask me!

There's plenty of other interesting events at the festival including a film about an expedition to the South Pole that's on immediately after my talk and following that a panel of four British Mountain Guides talking about their work.

The Great Camera Challenge: Scottish Nature Photography Awards

Last autumn the organisers of the Scottish Nature Photography Awards asked me to take part in The Great Camera Challenge, which was to be one of twelve nature photographer who would each use a budget camera for a month and see what photos they could produce.  Intrigued I agreed to take part. My month was September so I had quite a wait before a tiny Nikon Coolpix L25 compact camera arrived in the post. Being so small it was no problem to take it everywhere with me and I took photographs in many places from the Isle of Harris to the Cairngorms.

At the end of September I sent the camera back so it could go on to the next photographer. One of my pictures along with a few comments on using it has just appeared on The Great Camera Challenge web page. The picture was taken straight from the SD card so no post processing has been applied. I think it looks a little washed out, certainly when compared with the photos I took at the same time with my NEX 7, which seems like a giant compared with the Nikon. Although the Nikon images are JPEGs - there is no raw option - they can still be tweaked. The picture above is the same photo after a little adjustment in Lightroom. I think it looks much better and is more realistic.
As well as on the web site images taken with the camera will appear in the 2014 Scottish Nature Photography Awards touring exhibition.

Below are three more pictures taken with the L25.