Wednesday 31 December 2014

A Winter's Day on Sgor Gaoith

Spindrift blowing off Sgor Gaoith

The shining snow, sharp frosts and bright winter light ended today, December 30th, with a big thaw. The glens are mostly green and brown again, the hills only streaked with white, the sky grey. For now winter had left the land.
Looking across Strathspey to the Monadh Liath

Yesterday, whilst the big freeze continued I headed to Glen Feshie and up onto Sgor Gaoith. Although sunny the air was freezing, as it had been for many days, and the paths leading through the woods and into the hills icy and hard. The snow down here was shallow and sparse. But once I left the last trees it soon became deeper, hiding the tussocks and heather and rock. With no freeze-thaw pattern or strong winds to harden it the snow was unconsolidated and powdery so I broke through at every step, mostly ankle deep, sometimes into the knee. Climbing was arduous and the convex slope frustrating with the plateau and easier ground seemingly always just fifty metres ahead. The views though were splendid, back over a frosty Strathspey to the cloud-streaked Monadh Liath.
Walkers heading for the summit of Sgor Gaoith

Eventually the great west face of Braeriach began to rise above the slope ahead and I knew the main ascent was over. And as I came out onto the north-western end of the vast high plateau of the Moine Mhor I also came into the full force of the wind, with gusts strong enough to make walking difficult. Swirls of spindrift were twisting and hissing over the snow and the icy cold blasts of wind scoured any exposed skin. Along the steep eastern edge of Sgor Gaoith I could see great blasts of spindrift pouring over the corniced edge in hazy clouds. Across the gulf of Gleann Einich Braeriach looked calm and peaceful. 


The exposed summit was not a place to linger in these conditions so I was soon heading down again towards the lower summit of Meal Buidhe. In the col between the two I was able to find a reasonably sheltered spot for a much needed snack and warming drink of hot ginger cordial. Then it was into the wind again as the sun sank towards the horizon and the snow began to turn pink in its last rays. A half-moon rose into the darkening sky. 

Swirling spindrift at sunset
Back down in the trees and out of the wind it felt warmer though the temperature was dropping rapidly now the sun was gone. Winter seemed to have a firm grip on the land. How quickly it would change. For a last walk of the year this had been a grand venture though and I returned home with aching limbs and wind-blasted face but deeply satisfied inside.



Last traces of sunset

Saturday 27 December 2014

Images of Frost & Ice: A Cold Boxing Day

View over Strathspey to the Cairngorms

An overnight temperature of -7C ensured the hard frost continued. Frost on frost in fact as the new frost extended the old. No sunshine on Boxing Day meant no melting of the frost anywhere. On pools and puddles the ice grows thicker. Whilst strands of low cloud drifted in the valleys the dense mist of yesterday was gone and the high clouds were well above the mountains, which stood out across Strathspey in the flat light. The birch trees were a ghostly white, the bare branches coated with frost.

Frosted grass

Shapes in the Ice

Silvery birches

Frosted leaves

Friday 26 December 2014

Christmas Day Crescent Moon

Late afternoon. Above the mist and frost a new moon hangs in the sky.

A Frosty Christmas Day Stroll

Across the mist to the Cromdale Hills

Christmas Day has been quiet and cold with mist filling the valleys and frost coating the ground. Early afternoon saw a few hours of sunshine on the slopes above Strathspey. Underfoot the ground, frozen and white, crunched with every step. Puddles were frozen. Gates and stiles slippery with ice. The glare of the bright sun hid the high Cairngorms to the south. Across shrouded Strathspey the Cromdale Hills rose into a blue sky. Drifting cloud came and went over the summits. The mist rose and fell, at times threatening to envelop us. A buzzard flapped lethargically from a fence post as we approached, soon settling again a few hundred yards further on. In the field it was watching rabbits ploughed dark trails through the frosted grass.
Remants of the last snowfall

The woods were dark. We peered in but stayed out in the fields, in the sunshine. There would be other days for exploring the sombre winter forest. Today the sun was welcome though there was no warmth in the brightness. In areas shaded from the south-westerly winds and rain that brought the big thaw last week crisp snow still covered the ground.
The mist rises

As we turned for home the mist was thickening below and starting to rise up the hillsides. Soon after we were inside and warm with hot drinks in front of the fire it surrounded the house. Just a few hours of sunshine then. But a lovely few hours.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

John Muir Centenary

The great conservationiost, wilderness lover and mountaineer John Muir died on December 24th, 1914. At the beginning of this centenary year I wrote the following appreciation of him for The Great Outdoors.

This year is the centenary of the death of John Muir, arguably the most influential defender of wild places ever and whose legacy is still relevant and important today. Born in Dunbar in Scotland, Muir emigrated to the USA when he was eleven and lived there the rest of his life. He's still not that well-known in Britain, unlike the USA, where he is regarded as the 'father of National Parks'. In Martinez in California where he settled there are John Muir roads and businesses and the house where he lived is now the John Muir National Historic Site. The Sierra Club, which Muir founded in 1892, is one of the USA's leading conservation organisations and does much to keep Muir's memory alive. Scotland is slowly catching up with John Muir'sBirthplace, a statue of the young Muir and the John Muir Country Park in Dunbar plus the 73 kilometre John Muir Way along the East Lothian coast. And of course there is the John Muir Trust, founded in 1983 to campaign for wild land.

I discovered Muir many years ago, not with a sudden revelation but slowly as I came across the name again and again and he seeped into my consciousness. I didn't really pay him much attention though until I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, which in the High Sierra in California runs through the John Muir Wilderness and follows the John Muir Trail (which must be one of the most beautiful backpacking routes in the world). Just who was this John Muir who was so clearly important I wondered.  From signs and leaflets and talking to other hikers I began to learn a little about the man. A few years later I came across a second-hand copy of The Mountains of California (books by Muir were hard to find in the 1980s) and began to read Muir's own words. Immediately I was taken with his passion and devotion to nature and wild places. I went on to read his other works, some several times. The language can be flowery for modern tastes in places but his eye for detail and his love of everything natural shine through. (I'd recommend My First Summer In The Sierra as a first book to read - all of them are available on the Sierra Club website). I also read books about Muir, wanting to know more about this iconic figure. I think the best of these is Michael P. Cohen's The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, which goes more deeply into Muir's dilemmas and contradictions than other biographies.

Muir is to be admired not just as a conservationist, not just for his love of nature, key though these are to his greatness, but also for his outdoor adventures and experiences. Long before any of the equipment we take for granted, or the guidebooks, maps and paths, Muir would head off into the wilderness on long solo treks and climbs. From a boy scrambling on the cliffs and castle walls of Dunbar to the adult mountaineer making a daring first ascent of Mount Ritter deep in the High Sierra (a climb described superbly in The Mountains of California) Muir revelled in exploring wild places. He didn't just look at them or study them he went into them - climbing trees in a storm, edging out on narrow ledges to look down a waterfall, climbing rock faces, crossing glaciers, sleeping out wrapped in a coat (his minimal equipment makes today's ultralight backpackers look burdened down). He walked long distances as well - A Thousand-Mile Walk To The Gulf describes his journey from Indianpolis to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867. And when he arrived in California a year later he walked from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley. There followed many trips into the then still little-known Sierra Nevada mountains and in later years further afield, especially Alaska (as told in Travels in Alaska).

Muir was not just concerned for the conservation of wilderness for its own sake and the sake of the animals and plants that lived there. He was also concerned for its conservation for the sake of humanity. He was not a conservationist who wanted to exclude people but one who wanted to share his joy in nature with everyone. He led trips for the Sierra Club and his writing was aimed at encouraging people to visit wild places as well as persuading them they needed protection. He wrote in The Yosemite 'Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike' and in Our National Parks, a book intended to encourage visitors to the parks, 'Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.'

Much has been and will be written and said about John Muir. What should be remembered is that his vision of the necessity of wildness and nature is as valid now as it was 100 years ago.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Twenty Tips for Winter Camping

A winter camp high in the Cairngorms

Another one from the archives. This piece was written for TGO over ten years ago. The advice still stands though so here it is again, with a few modifications (stoves designed for use with inverted canisters didn't exist then, nor did e-readers, smartphones and tablets). Apologies for the wonky formatting - there's a limit to how long I can stand trying to get Blogger to align things!

Winter camping might seem a pursuit for the hardy, the ascetic, even the masochistic. Severe cold, blizzards and long dark nights sound most unattractive. With the right skills and equipment winter camping can be enjoyable though, especially when the frost is sharp, the mountains white with snow and the skies clear with bright stars shining in the blackness. Lying in a warm sleeping bag with a mug of hot chocolate watching the winter world is a wonderful experience. In fact freezing weather is the best for winter camping. It’s easier to keep warm when it’s dry and cold than when it’s wet and cold. In Britain wet cold is more common of course and when it rains rather than snows winter camping can seem just like summer camping, only with longer nights and cooler temperatures and, a major factor, no midges. 

1)   Remember that keeping warm is easier than getting warm. When you stop to make camp put on  
      warm dry clothing before you start to cool down. 

 2)  Valley bottoms and depressions are likely to be chillier than hillsides as cold air sinks. Flat areas on the sides of hills are the warmest places to camp.

A good winter camp site
3)   Wind whips away warmth. Look for sites protected from the wind by crags, boulders, banks or trees. A snow shovel can be used to build snow walls on the windward side of the tent and to heap snow round the base of the flysheet to reduce the effects of wind. 

4)   When camping on deep snow stamp out a platform then leave it a short while to harden before pitching the tent. This helps prevent the snow from giving under you when you get in the tent, which results in a lumpy bed. If you have a snow shovel – which I recommend carrying when there’s more than a thin cover of snow – then it can be used to flatten the snow.

Moonlit winter camp with skis and poles used to support tent
5)   Standard tent pegs pull straight out of soft snow if used as normal. Instead tie the guyline round the peg and bury it horizontally, stamping the snow down on top. Lengths of cord can be attached to pegging points without guylines. Better than standard pegs are long wide curved snow stakes, though these are only worth buying if you snow camp frequently. Buried pegs will freeze in place and can be hard to dig up. An ice axe helps with this, though be careful not to damage the tent. An ice axe can also be used as a tent peg, as can trekking poles and skis. 

6)   It’s very important to keep moisture out of the tent. Brush off snow before getting in and strip off any wet garments in the vestibule.

7)   Condensation can be reduced by leaving vents and, if the weather permits, tent doors open. The tent will be cooler but moist air will be able to escape.

8)   A candle or gas lantern can help dry out condensation and also gives off a little warmth. The soft light is soothing too. Make sure that any burning light is kept well away from tent fabric or any other flammable items. Keeping a lantern in the vestibule rather than the inner tent is wise.

9)  Winter nights are long and dark. An e-reader, smartphone or tablet for music or radio, paperback book or a pack of cards helps pass the time.

A comfortable winter camp
10)  Your sleeping bag can make an excellent warm garment. If you feel chilly get in it and pull it up under your armpits, using the shoulder baffle or hood drawcord to keep it in place. In sub zero temperatures you can cook, eat, read, write and watch the landscape while in your sleeping bag.

11)  Hot food and drink warms you up so eating and drinking immediately before going to sleep can help ensure a warm nights sleep. Fatty foods are good as these release heat slowly and so keep you warm for longer than sugary ones. Eat plenty too. If you’re hungry you’re more likely to feel cold.

12)  If you feel chilly during the night and your sleeping bag is fully done up don some dry clothing. A warm hat and socks can make a big difference. If there isn’t room in your bag for bulky clothing such as insulated or heavy fleece jackets spread them over the top.

13)  Most heat is lost to the ground, especially when it’s frozen or snow covered. If you feel cold where you touch your mat put clothing under you. If your mat is only a three-quarters length one put clothes under your feet. Mats that are warm most of the year may not be thick enough when camping on snow or frozen ground. Two mats are often better. A foam mat under a self-inflating one is a good combination.

14)  When you wake in the morning bring your clothes inside the sleeping bag to warm them up before you put them on. 

Insulating a stove from the snow

15) Insulate your stove from the ground with a piece of closed cell foam, the blade of a snow shovel or even a book. If the fuel canister or bottle is separate from the stove insulating it is more important than insulating the stove.
16) Butane/propane gas doesn’t vaporise well in below freezing temperatures so many gas stoves can be very slow or even not work at all. The best for winter use are ones where the canister can be inverted to turn them into liquid feed stoves. With other stoves heat output can be increased by warming cartridges inside clothing or your sleeping bag. You can warm them by putting your hands round them when they are being used too – it’s best to wear thin gloves when doing this as cartridges can get very cold. Heat exchanger pots also speed up boiling and snow melting times. Meths, petrol and paraffin all work fine in the cold though the first can be slow when melting snow.

An inverted canister stove

17)  Avoid melting snow whenever possible, as it takes a long time and uses lots of fuel (as much heat is needed to produce a litre of water from snow as to boil that water). Dig down to a stream or pool if the snow is really deep or look for open sections. Carrying water a half mile or so is still quicker than melting snow. Take care not to fall in when collecting water.
18)  When melting snow put a little water in the bottom of the pan first. Otherwise the pan may scorch and the water will taste burnt. If you haven’t any water start with a small amount of snow and stir it rapidly until it melts. Don’t pack a pan tightly with snow – this will soak up any water and then the pan with burn.

 19)  Water will freeze overnight unless insulated from the cold. Fill thermos flasks in the evening so you don’t have to melt snow in the morning. Water bottles can be insulated by wrapping them in clothing and keeping them off the ground. In your rucksack or in your boots are good places. Standing bottles upside down means the mouth shouldn’t freeze even if some of the water does. Wide mouthed bottles are best in winter as any ice that forms can easily be shaken out. Insulating covers for water bottles can be made from duct tape and closed cell foam. If the snow is deep burying your water bottles in it will stop the water from freezing as snow insulates well. Fill pans with water during the evening. If the water freezes just pop the pan on the stove to thaw it out. Breakfast cereals like porridge oats or muesli can be added to the water in the evening and then cooked in the morning.

20)  Use a pee bottle so you don’t have to leave the tent during the night. Make sure it’s marked clearly so it isn’t mistaken for a water bottle. When you pee into snow cover the place up as yellow snow looks unsightly. Digging through deep snow or frozen ground to make a toilet pit may not be possible (though an ice axe can break up the latter). Consider packing out faeces in doubled plastic bags. If you do leave faeces on the ground site your toilet well away from any water sources (check with the map if these aren’t visible), anywhere someone might camp and any footpaths. Burn or pack out toilet paper or else use snow.