Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Good News for Scottish Wild Land?

Will areas like Allt Duine in the Monadh Liath hills now be protected?


After years of campaigning by many organisations and individuals the Scottish Government has finally decided to protect most of Scotland’s wild land. Today draft proposals for a new planning policy have been published that specify where wind farms will be prohibited. The key passages in the Government statement are the following:

For the first time Scottish Planning Policy will include references to maps of Scotland’s wild land – drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage.

In relation to wind farms, proposals also include strengthening environmental protection in the 31 per cent of Scotland covered by our wildest and most scenic land, including no wind farms in the 19 per cent of Scotland covered by National Parks and National Scenic Areas.

At the same time Scottish Natural Heritage has published its map of wildland with details of how this was done. SNH says:

The Scottish Government has proposed that our work to map areas of wild land (that will in time replace the 2002 map of search areas), be used to identify 'core areas of wild land character' which need to be given significant protection from wind farm development under Scottish Planning Policy. 

The combination of National Scenic Areas and core areas of wild land, which overlap but are not exactly the same, should mean that most of Scotland’s magnificent landscape is protected from wind farms (and, hopefully, any other destructive developments). It is interesting to compare the two maps – wild land and NSAs. If all the land covered by them is protected it will be wonderful.

I think the Scottish Government is to be congratulated for listening to those of us who have called for such protection and for realising the importance and value of wild land. The new planning policy won’t be finalised until the end of the year. I hope that no new wind farms in wild land will be permitted before then. The proposals are now open for consultation and I expect that many people and organisations will want to comment.

Unsurprisingly many conservation, environmental and renewable energy groups have already reacted online – and far more will I expect. Amongst those who have responded are Cameron McNeish, who has been directly involved in discussions with Scottish ministers, with an excellent piece in his Walk Highlands column, along with RSPB Scotland (who welcome the proposals though with some reservations) and ScottishRenewables (who aren’t happy).

Monday, 29 April 2013

Next Book: The Pacific Crest Trail

Below Mount Jefferson on the PCT in Oregon

My next book will be an account of my 1982 hike from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. It'll be called Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles  and will be published next year by Sandstone Press, which has already listed it on its website, though I haven't yet started writing it. I have however sorted through my old Kodachrome 64 slides, many of which will appear in the book, and looked through my journals, which will form the basis of the book. As the PCT has changed in some respects, particularly in popularity, since my walk I'll be including updates plus a history of the trail. 

The PCT was the most personally significant of all the long distance walks I've done, the one that set me on the path of explorin wild places. I'm really looking forward to writing this book. I won't be starting until the summer though. I have the Scottish Watershed to walk first.


Snow camping in the High Sierra on the PCT

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Heavy Snow Falling


Heavy snow falling, Strathspey, 5 p.m., April 28, 2013

New The Great Outdoors: Pacific Crest Trail, Backpacking Abroad, Stoves Review & Load Monster Pack Test

High Sierra scenery along the Pacific Crest Trail
Just out: the latest The Great Outdoors magazine. This is the Spring issue, sandwiched between April and May. A main theme is hiking overseas and my contribution to this is a big feature on my Pacific Crest Trail hike, illustrated with my old Kodachrome slides (another one of which you can see above), which have mostly scanned very well. My backpacking column is also about hiking overseas, in particular to places with guaranteed sunshine. In the gear pages I review 13 stoves - four meths burners and nine canister stoves - plus the big Osprey Xenith 88 load monster pack.

On the overseas theme this issue also has suggestions for ten great trekking destinations ranging from the Himalaya to Norway from Ben Lerwill (I've been to six of these and would recommend them all) plus, in the Hill Skills section, advice on dealing with high altitudes from  Nancy Chambers and Nigel Williams of Glenmore Lodge and on staying healthy in general overseas from Helen Barnard of Plas y Brenin. In the same section Kev Reynolds looks at trekking in the Himalaya and Tom Shearman at trekking in the Andes.

This issue isn't all about foreign travel though and there's plenty of British stuff. This includes an excellent feature on a first backpacking trip to Knoydart by David Lintern and suggestions for weekend walking in the Lake District from Hanna Lindon.

Elsewhere in the magazine Ben Lerwill describes the mountaineering history of the Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel in Snowdonia; various writers, including myself, consider digital technology in the mountains; Ed Byrne tries bushcraft in a wood somewhere in deepest Oxfordshire; Roger Smith looks at the privatisation of the Search and Rescue helicopter service and also discusses what appears to be a shift in the Scottish government policy on wind farms on wild land; Jim Perrin praises Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes; Daniel Neilson reviews seven sub £140 waterproof jackets; and Judy Armstrong tests six pairs of women's walking trousers.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Fresh Snow in the Cairngorms

The Cairngorms, April 27, 2013 - from left Bynack More, Beinn Mheadhoin, Cairn Gorm, Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, Cairn Lochan


After three days of cold, showery weather with a brisk north wind, night frosts and hints of hail and sleet in the air last night more prolonged rain set in, rain that was snow above about 500 metres. The clouds lifted today to reveal the mountains clad in white again. Winter is not yet over in the Cairngorms.
 

Cairn Gorm, April 27, 2013

Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams Book Review


Seatttle Backpackers Magazine has published a lengthy and positive review by Karen Sykes of my book Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams. You can find it here.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Cairngorms In Winter on the Big Screen


Thursday, 25 April 2013

April Squalls on Meall a'Bhuachaille


The Northern Cairngorms from Meall a'Bhuachaille


Spring progresses slowly. At least this year. Yesterday I walked through Ryvoan Pass and over Meall a’Bhuachaille. There was no sign of leaves appearing on the birches, rowans and willows, no buds on the tips of the pine branches, no new green shoots amongst last year’s faded dead grass, no colour in the brown heather. I did though find the first frogspawn of the year; a thick, gelatinous mass in a shallow ditch.

The first frogspawn
 
The waters of An Lochan Uaine were ice free, unlike three weeks ago when it was frozen solid. The waters were rippled by a cold north-west wind, a wind I felt once I left the trees for the open slopes of Meall a’Bhuachaille. The bulk of the hill blocked the full force of the wind though and it was only as I approached the summit cairn that it really hit me and I needed to zip up my jacket and don a warm hat. The temperature was just +4ºC and the wind was gusting to 32mph. That makes for a windchill factor of around -8ºC and my face certainly felt very cold. If I’d stayed long I’d have needed more clothing.

An Lochan Uaine

Meall a’Bhuachaille is a splendid viewpoint for the Northern Cairngorms, showing the great dark green sweep of Glenmore and Rothiemurchus Forests rising up to the high corries and the Cairngorm Plateau. Far below I could see the wind ruffling the surface of Loch Morlich. The mountain tops were still snowy. Up there the wind would be fiercer. I was glad I was going no higher than Meall a’Bhuachaille’s 810 metres.

Cairn Gorm & the Northern Corries from Meall a'Bhuachaille

Out over Strathspey I could see grey squalls streaking across the land; hazy masses of precipitation. One arrived just as I was leaving the summit with a quick blast of hail soon followed by wet snow. It was over in minutes but a reminder that winter still lingers. Buffeted by the wind I was happy to descend back to the trees and shelter. On the edge of the forest a walker was sitting under a big pine and heating water over a fire of pine cones in a wood-burning stove. We chatted for a while and then walked together back down into the glen. It had not been a winter day but it had not felt like a spring one either.
  

Squalls sweeping over Loch Morlich

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The First Daffodil and a Stroll in the Woods on John Muir Day




The coast at Dunbar where John Muir learned to love Nature

On a blustery day of sunshine and showers, some of them of hail, the first daffodil came into flower in our wild garden, over a month later than last year. The winter really has lingered. On the bird feeders and the ground below them there are now flocks of chaffinches plus a few siskins, which we rarely saw during the winter. The various tits are less common now, presumably because there are more insects around. Red squirrels and great spotted woodpeckers still come every day.

The first daffodil, April 21

As appropriate on John Muir Day, the first ever in Scotland, on the 175th anniversary of his birth we went for a stroll in the local woods. Sheltered from the wind all was quiet under the trees. Spring has not arrived here, with no sign of green on the birches and larches. In the shallow pools that fill depressions in some of the old overgrown tracks pond skaters darted over the water and little black beetles scurried and dived. There was no frogspawn though; again a sign that spring has yet to really begin.

High above a buzzard wheeled, dark against the racing white clouds. The wind swelled and boomed in the treetops, a smooth, soothing sound. A few days ago it was raging and roaring, like a fierce sea pounding a rocky coast.

John Muir's birthplace, Dunbar
The Scottish Government are making John Muir a central part of the Year of Natural Scotland. They would be wise to read and understand his words and also consider an excellent article by Susan Wright of the John Muir Trust in today’s Sunday Herald newspaper. John Muir Day means nothing if nothing is done to conserve and protect wild places.

Statue of the young John Muir in Dunbar

















In her article Susan Wright gives two of my favourite John Muir quotes: 

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

“Keep close to Nature's heart - and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods".

I’ll add a third.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”


Friday, 19 April 2013

Playing with Tarps


Today being the first day for a while without storm force winds and showers I spent the afternoon enjoying the sunshine and playing with some tarps and shelters for a feature for the June issue of The Great Outdoors that will cover everything from basic flat tarps to almost-tents (no inners, no sewn-in groundsheets). Compared with tarps tents are easy as they have a fixed shape. However as tarps can be pitched in various ways trying different configurations is necessary to test them. This is especially so with shaped tarps. I'll be out again tomorrow, pitching them in other ways.

Tarp in use on the Arizona Trail

I like tarps and have used them extensively, though mostly on long walks abroad as they can be difficult to use in Scottish sideways wind-driven rain that changes direction during the night and on our usually exposed sites. In the USA I've done long walks with a tarp - the Arizona Trail and a 500 mile walk in the High Sierra. On both those I could usually find a sheltered site on the rare occasions stormy weather threatened. In Scotland I've used tarps on several overnight trips in settled weather but only once on a long walk - last year's TGO Challenge. This was the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, which I reckon is a shaped tarp as it has no door or zips and can be pitched in many ways. The design makes it suitable for the worst Scottish weather without requiring an uncomfortably restrictive pitch or the use of a bivi bag.

Tarp camp in the High Sierra

On Miller Peak on the Arizona Trail - the snow was unexpected!


Photographic Note: the Arizona Trail pictures were taken on a 2.3mp compact camera - this was long before I had a digital DSLR. The High Sierra picture is a quick scan from a Fujichrome 100 slide.





Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Big Thaw, Filming Finished, Cairngorms In Winter




The Lairig Ghru, April 15

After weeks of freezing temperatures and easterly winds the weather changed a few days ago with rain and warm winds arriving from the south-west. Strong winds too, shaking the trees and scattering twigs and a few branches. With this sudden arrival of spring weather the thaw has been rapid with the lower hills quickly stripped of snow. The melt and the rain have brought flooding too, with streams bursting their banks and riverside meadows turning into shallow lakes. Higher up the deep snow is still there though brown patches of hillside are starting to appear even on the summits.

Meall a'Bhuachaille, April 15

Appropriately, as winter fades Terry Abraham and I had our last day of filming for the Cairngorms In Winter. The high level camps and the tours on skis and snowshoes were behind us already, what was left were interviews and more relaxed low level filming. We sat in the Glenmore Café while I flipped through some old photos (I found one from the Pennine Way in 1976!) and a few of my books and drank hot chocolate then bemused other customers as I was twice filmed walking in the door.

Then we went to Whitewell in Rothiemurchus Forest with its splendid view across the massed pines to the Northern Cairngorms. Here there is a real feel of the size of the woods and the scale of the mountains. In fact I think it’s one of the best viewpoints for this landscape yet it is relatively unknown and little-visited. I sat on a rock, stared at the view, wrote some notes and reflected on the winter’s filming - an exciting, surprising, sometimes arduous and always fascinating experience.

Cairn Gorm, April 15

Filming over we celebrated with Cairngorm Gold beer in the Cairngorm Hotel in Aviemore. Now Terry has to return home and undertake the work of editing and cutting and assembling all the shots for the final film. My part is over now, other than for some voice overs. Overall though the filming is complete, just as spring comes to the Cairngorms.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Scottish Wild Land At Crisis Point




Wind turbines & power lines in the Southern Uplands


The future of wild land in Scotland is at a crossroads. Recent statements and events suggest that the next few months, perhaps just the next few weeks, will determine how much wild land will survive and whether wind turbines with their accompanying power lines and bulldozed roads will destroy even more than they have already.

Back in 2009 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the government body meant to look after the landscape, stated that the area of wild land in Scotland had dropped from 41% in 2002 to 28% and that wind turbines were the main cause. SNH are supposed to be producing an up-to-date map of wild land which they have been working on for over two years. This week a committee of Members of theScottish Parliament (MSPs) will meet with SNH to ask how the mapping is progressing. This follows a debate in the Scottish Parliament on a petition from the John Muir Trust (JMT), one of the leaders in the campaign for wild land. This mapping is crucial as it would determine which areas need protection. This may seem obvious to those of us who go out into the hills but for the purposes of designation lines on maps are required.

Wind turbines on the Southern Upland Way

At the same time in a piece for Walk Highlands (who report regularly on wind farms and wild land campaigns) Cameron McNeish says that he has seen the initial mapping and that the area of wild land is still around 28%. Cameron also says that as a Scottish National Party (SNP) member he has had conversations with First Minister Alex Salmond about wild land and that he “is not averse to the idea of setting up turbine-free areas in Scotland”. This sounds promising and would be a good political move for Salmond and the SNP, especially as this is the Year of Natural Scotland which should really have conservation at its heart if it is to have any meaning.

Any move to protect wild land, only a third of which has any statutory protection, needs to be done soon as wind farm applications are coming in thick and fast and some that would be disastrous if built have been given the go-ahead by local councils. In particular this applies to the giant 67 turbine Stronelairg wind farm proposed for the Monadh Liath hills above Fort Augustus and the Great Glen which was approved by Highland Council recently and Glencassley wind farm in Sutherland which will be considered by Highland Council soon. The final decision for these huge industrial developments lies with the Scottish Government. If Ministers are serious about protecting wild land and about the Year of Natural Scotland then all such wind farms should be rejected.

Bulldozed road in the Eastern Highlands

Setting up designations to protect wild land, something that could be a long drawn-out bureaucratic process, needs to be done quickly. Expanding National Scenic Areas that already exist could be the answer in the short term. Over a longer period more national parks have been proposed by the Scottish Campaign for National Parks (SCNP) and the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland (APRS) covering The Cheviots, Galloway, Glen Affric, Harris, Mull and parts of Lochaber including Ben Nevis and Glencoe. I’d expand that greatly to include virtually all the Highlands, including Skye. 

The Beauly-Denny Power Line under construction

At this crisis point for wild land the balance could easily be tipped either way. To push it towards protection and conservation contacting Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government to call for turbine-free areas is well worth while. It can be done here and here. Every little bit really can help and time is short. If we want wild land in the future we have to make an effort to save it now.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Strange Days of Snow & Blood: Cairngorms In Winter


 
Terry Abraham filming at Stag Rocks
 

It began with a nose bleed. After half an hour of nose pinching it was over and I forgot about it. Just one of those things. Not worth bothering about. The next day I was due to meet Terry Abraham for a trip up onto the Cairngorm Plateau for more filming for the Cairngorms in Winter. We were now at the stage of filling in bits and pieces and redoing some audio.

Terry filming on the Cairngorm Plateau

I was putting my ski touring boots on in the Coire na Ciste car park when the next nose bleed began. Suddenly thick drops of blood were staining the snow. This one was heavier than the day before but was still over in half an hour or so. Once on the hill I forgot about it. We climbed to the Cairngorm Plateau, Terry with crampons, me with climbing skins on my skis. The sky was overcast but the clouds were above the summits. There was no wind but the temperature was below freezing. However, as soon as we reached the top of the ridge a bitterly cold east wind hit us. It was certainly still winter up here. In fact there was more snow and ice than there’d been in February when I was last up here with Terry.

Terry crossing Coire Raibert

Removing the skins I skied round the curving sides of Coire Raibert to the top of the Stag Rocks that overlook the Loch Avon basin, a lovely fast traverse. Terry was soon far behind, tramping along on foot. There was no wind at Stag Rocks and I sat on a bare rock looking down into the depths of the narrow corrie far below with the great cliffs of Carn Etchachan, the Shelter Stone Crag and Hell’s Lum rising into the sky. Beyond the dark rocks of the crags the higher summits of Ben Macdui, Derry Cairngorm and Beinn Mheadhoin were hazy white domes fading into the pale sky. Loch Avon was a pure white slash between the hills, the ice covered with a blanket of snow. I watched as two tiny figures crossed the centre of the lake. 

Loch Avon

Returning across the Plateau I swapped skis for crampons for the start off the descent of the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais as there were too many boulders showing for safe skiing. Once below the rocks it was back on with the skis for a good descent down to the now empty pistes and then all the way beside the ski road to the car park. By now Terry was far behind again so I drove back up the road to collect him. It had been a successful day.

The next day was an indoor writing one. It was accompanied by another nose bleed. Again once it stopped I forgot about it. The following morning I was in the Rothiemurchus Café waiting for Terry. A friend from the past I hadn’t seen in many years turned up. I was just speaking to her when the next nose bleed started and this one was copious and long. Terry turned up and said, as he had the other day, that I should see a doctor. I ignored this advice. The nose bleed eventually stopped and off we went to Lochan Uaine and Ryvoan Pass. The frozen lochan was patterned with cracked ice and sheets of snow, contrasting with the green pines and the brown shores. We wandered through the pass to the bothy, the ground here snow free now though there was ice on the puddles.

Lochan Uaine

Another writing day saw another nose bleed. But this one, late in the evening, did not stop. Eventually I phoned for medical help. Terry had been right. There followed a rather surreal three days in which I was seen by six different doctors, had my nose cauterised three times, went to two health clinics and spent two nights in hospital. During all this I attempted to join Terry again, along with his friend Mark, one of our big Kickstarter supporters. I was wandering through a boggy forest in search of their camp when my nose, which had been cauterised once at this point, started to bleed. A hasty retreat ensued and then a rather blood-stained drive back to the nearest clinic where the doctor decided I needed hospital treatment. (I must add that my care by all the NHS staff who dealt with me was excellent and made me yet again grateful that such a wonderful service exists – so thanks to the staff at Raigmore Hospital, Aviemore and Grantown-on-Spey Medical Practices and the Scottish Ambulance Service).

After eight days of problems two days have now elapsed since the last nose bleed. I hope it’s over and I can join Terry in a few days time for some more filming. (While I’ve been dealing with this minor but annoying medical problem Terry has been out in the Cairngorms dealing with white-outs, thawing snow and avalanche conditions.) It has been a very strange time.

Terry filming at Lochan Uaine

Thursday, 4 April 2013

New TGO - 35th Anniversary Edition - Solo Tents, Sleeping Mats, Backpacking Food, Two Perfect Wild Camps

The best solo tent? The Scarp 1 in use on the TGO Challenge
The latest issue of The Great Outdoors, just out, is, amazingly, the 35th anniversary edition. There are contributions from all the past and present editors of the magazine - unusually there have only been four (plus the current Acting Editor) and two of those, Roger Smith and Cameron McNeish, still write in every issue. There are also some previous covers, including that from the first issue, which I remember well - a Robin Adshead photo of a rural camp featuring a Camp Trails Ponderosa external frame pack (I had one of those) with a Backpacker's Club badge on it and a Karrimor Marathon single-skin tent (a good design someone should revive as it had a square front with two poles - trekking poles could be used now) plus a balaclava and insulated jacket clad backpacker pouring water out of one of those highly impractical shallow rectangular mess pans. I remember too the excitement in the backpacking community when that first issue came out - there had never been a monthly magazine devoted to walking and backpacking before.

The Karrimor Marathon tent is long gone but I reckon it would stand up quite well against the current crop of solo backpacking tents, ten of which I review in this issue. I also consider nine inflatable mats, a category that didn't exist 35 years ago. Elsewhere in the gear pages John Manning reviews six two-person tents costing under £200 and Daniel Neilson rounds up an eclectic set of camping accessories, tests a luxurious sounding but ludicrously expensive cashmere top and describes OutDry, a new and more effective way of attaching waterproof membranes to various products.

My backpacking column describes the two perfect camps I made in the Cairngorms with Terry Abraham back in February which I described in my blog post for February 28 (more words in The Great Outdoors, more pictures in the blog). In the Hill Skills section I write about food for long backpacking trips with a list of what I mostly eat.

The magazine opens with some wonderful double-page pictures from Glyn Davies, Damian Shields and David Lintern. There's a look at six bottled beers, two of which I've tried and like. But Black Isle Red Kite really should be in there as well! Other short pieces include an interview with Alan Hinkes and the first of a series on Walking Class Heroes by Roly Smith, in this case Benny Rothman of Kinder Trespass fame.

Two of the big features are by Acting Editor Daniel Neilson and recently departed Assistant Editor Carey Davies (he's gone off to be Hillwalking Development Officer for the BMC). Daniel has an exciting first taste of alpine mountaineering on Austria's highest peak while Carey climbs Ben Nevis by the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, the finest ascent route. The sixtieth anniversary of the ascent of Everest is also celebrated this year and Cameron McNeish has a look at the history of British mountaineering from the ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854 to this year's ascent of Ulvetanna. On a different theme, that of conservation, Mark Gilligan looks at the Rewilding Ennerdale scheme with photos from past and present to show the changes that are already visible. Also on conservation Roger Smith considers whether there are too many deer. He says not many of us would want wolves reintroduced. Well, I would! Jim Perrin writes about Seton Gordon in The Hillwalkers' Library (and gets in what now seems his obligatory dig at 'new nature writing'). I've read and enjoyed many of Seton Gordon's writings but not the book Jim praises here - The Charm of the Hills.




Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Anticipating Spring


The Equinox has come and gone, the clocks have gone forward, April has begun. Yet the winter continues with snow and ice the dominant feature of the mountains. Spring, it seems, is on hold. A few years ago I wrote a piece for TGO about the joys of spring and the excitement of watching it development. This seems a good time to post it here.

April camp in the Black Mount Hills

Anticipating Spring

The sun was warm but the wind was chill
You know how it is with an April day
Robert Frost   Two Tramps In Mud Time
 
Backpacking is a year-round activity. There is no backpacking season and every time of year has its attractions and rewards. However one time of year is special and that is now, the early spring, the months of April and May. If there was a season for backpacking this would be it. Spring is traditionally the time for journeys. The reawakening of nature, the return of life to the woods and hills with fresh greenness, bird song and the first flowers, the strengthening of the sun, the lengthening of the days all stir the desire for adventure and travel. “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” as Chaucer wrote in The Canterbury Tales before his travellers set out in April for Canterbury. My pilgrimage is to go into nature, to watch the spring develop and restore the world to life.

The short days of winter, the blizzards and storms, the bitter cold, the long dark nights, the monochrome landscape are all fading and the prospect of warm sunshine, endless daylight and the bright colours of summer are approaching, soon to arrive. This is an exciting time, full of anticipation for the joys to come, of days spent enjoying the weather rather than fighting it and time in camp spent sitting watching the world rather than huddled in the tent away from the snow and cold, days where an eye no longer has to be kept on the time for fear of being caught in the early dark, days where you can walk for hours over the hills free from fear of avalanche, ice and blizzard. 

The Last Snowfields: On the Cairngorm Plateau in May

Of course spring days can often be wet, windy and cold. Snow may fall and night frosts chill the air. But in my head the winter has gone and there is a feeling of lightness and freedom. I know the dark cold is fading, I know the sun is growing more powerful. The hills may still be snow clad but they shine in the sun brighter and sharper than in the dead of winter. The sun is now high in the sky, rather than creeping along not far above the horizon, and there is warmth in its rays not felt earlier in the year. Winter is retreating even if frosts and snow linger on.

Long winter backpacking trips are challenging and arduous. Most people make short forays into the wilds, a night or two here and there, then retreat to the warmth and security of solid walls. After a short time long dark stormy nights in a tiny tent can lose their attraction. In spring there is always the hope that tomorrow will be sunny and dry and the awareness that the hours of darkness are shrinking day by day. Even snow camping, usually thought of as a winter activity, is more enjoyable as winter weakens and spring takes hold.

April camp in the Fannichs
Once summer is in full possession of the world, once the days are so long that darkness is slept through, once the concern is that nights might be too hot rather than too cold then the excitement and anticipation fades. Summer is fulfilment, satiety even. And at the back of the mind is the tiny but growing thought that the direction is now for light and warmth to diminish as the year moves towards autumn and winter. Summer is fine but spring is finer.

In spring the energy-sapping heat of hot summer days and nights is absent. There is still a sharpness and bite to the air that encourages striding out. And whilst new life is burgeoning and the fecundity of nature is everywhere to be seen biting insects are still to come and you can sit outside the tent on calm evenings without head nets, insect repellent, mosquito coils and tightly woven clothing – paraphernalia that usually drives me into the tent. Sunrise and sunset can be viewed in the fresh air rather than hazily through insect mesh or not at all due to the hordes of midges hovering just outside the tent. One of the main reasons for holding the TGO Challenge in late spring in May is because it’s before the midges (I know in recent years a few have appeared in a few places but I have never been bitten on the Challenge nor ever carried any insect repellent).
Relaxing on a summit in May sunshine on the TGO Challenge

Spring is the ideal time, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, to undertake a long walk, a pilgrimage to the wilds, a celebration of nature and the eternal turning of the seasons bringing restoration and revival. My first long distance walk, long ago, was the Pennine Way in April, a walk that saw every type of weather (though mostly wind and rain) including snow at Tan Hill but which always had that promise of more warmth, more sunshine. A few years later I followed the spring north from Land’s End to John O’Groats, keeping pace with the fresh growth, the first flowers and the increasingly vocal birds from the wild Cornish coast to the even wilder Scottish Highlands. Others have felt spring is the right time for long walks too. Two of the books that inspired me when I began backpacking tell of spring backpacking trips – John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain and Hamish Brown’s Hamish Mountain Walks. Both started in April and walked through the spring, Hillaby from Land’s End to John O’Groats, Brown over all the Munros. Neither gives a clear reason for choosing spring. I guess it just seemed the natural thing to do. A later inspiration, John Muir, reckoned spring was the best time to visit his beloved Yosemite Valley. And Henry David Thoreau says that one reason he went to Walden pond was “to see the spring come in”. The power of springtime is great.

April camp by Loch Skeen in the Southern Uplands

The real joys of spring can be summed up in two words: warmth and light. The return of the sun is the key to these and everything else to do with spring. Increasing sunlight causes natural processes, dormant through the autumn and winter, to start into life, to recreate the world. In northern countries it’s not surprising that the return of the sun has always been marked with festivities and celebrations. It is a sign that the world is not ending, that the growth of plants and wildlife will begin again, that there will be food. Today we no longer live so close to nature. Winter is not a time for food shortages or fear that crops will never grow again. But it is still a time of darkness and cold and we still carry the memories of past generations stretching back to the dawn of humanity. We still feel the excitement, relief and joy when spring arrives. The power of nature still surges through us. For walkers this can be celebrated in long backpacking trips, in feeling close to, perhaps part of, the new life and brightness of the soaring sun. Spring is a wonderful time to be in the hills and the woods and to glory in the beauty of life renewed.