Saturday 28 June 2014

A Meeting on the Moine Mhor

Loch Einich and Braeriach from Sgor Gaoith

In a week of mostly low cloud and dull weather I have outdoor blogger Martin Rye to thank for getting me out on the two sunniest days. I’d been in contact with Martin through Twitter (he’s @rye1966 and has a good blog) for quite a while and we have some friends such as Terry Abraham in common but we’d never met before. Martin was coming up from Norfolk for a three day walk through the Cairngorms from Blair Atholl to Aviemore and suggested we could meet up at his second camp on the Moine Mhor. This sounded a great idea and a good excuse for a night out (not that I need one) so I was happy to accept.

The Allt Beanaidh

Phone calls and office work delayed my departure until late afternoon, by which time early clouds had cleared, leaving hot sunshine for my initial walk through beautiful Rothiemurchus Forest. Ahead the hills were coming and going in drifting clouds. Below the track the Allt Beanaidh foamed and frothed, still full and fast with snowmelt. The ancient Scots pines glowed in the slanting sun.
Beyond the trees the boggy expanse of Gleann Einich faded away into shadow. By the time I reached Loch Einich I was under the clouds though behind me the sun still shone over the forest. This loch is in a grand, grim situation, filling the narrowing glen between steep ragged crags and splintered ribs and buttresses. There is no easy way onto the heights. Scanning the two paths that lead up onto the tops through binoculars I could see that the one on the flanks of Braeriach ran into a steep snowbank near the top. I wouldn’t be going that way. Instead I took the intermittent slanting line of Ross’s Path below the dark cliffs of Sgor Gaoith and then climbed a very steep grassy slope up to the slopes of Carn Ban Mor and the edge of the Moine Mhor plateau. Somewhere out there Martin should be camping.

Camp in the morning as the mists begin to clear

Martin had given me two grid references, one close to Tom Dubh, a rounded bump in the heart of the plateau, and one further north towards Gleann Einich. However despite, I thought, visiting both locations and criss-crossing the ground in between I could not find him. This is a complex area of knolls and hollows and I knew he could easily be hidden below a bank or round the back of a rise. I also knew his shelter was grey. There are myriads of grey boulders up here. From high points I surveyed the area with my binoculars, homing in on any distant rocks that just might have been tents. Nothing. Finally I headed for a flat area of high ground where I thought Martin should spot me the next day and made camp. 

Martin on the slopes of Sgor Gaoith

Sure enough I’d only been awake a short while when a voice hailed me. Martin had been camped by a stream by Tom Dubh. Somehow I’d missed him. Clouds had blown in during the night but these were now dissipating and by the time we set off for Sgor Gaoith the sky was brightening. A fine walk along the whole of the long broad Sgorans ridge above Gleann Einich followed, with superb views down to Loch Einich and across to Braeriach, and much conversation. Where the ridge died away we cut down rough slopes back into the glen and the walk out through the forest. I was back at my car within 24 hours of leaving it, but as always those hours in the hills had been well worthwhile.

Braeriach, the Moine Mhor and Sgor Gaoith from Sgoran Dubh Mor

Wednesday 25 June 2014

The Future of Wild Land in Scotland: Some Thoughts on Government Planning Policy

Wild Land: Bidean nam Bian, Glencoe

June 24, 2014, was a landmark day for wild land in Scotland, possibly. Scottish Natural Heritage, the government body charged with looking after the environment, issued their latest map of wild land areas and the Scottish Government itself issued a new Scottish Planning Policy and Scotland’s Third National Planning Framework. Unsurprisingly the wild land map received much publicity. Maps are always interesting to look at and you can quickly see what they show. However, welcome though it is, the wild land map is far less important than the much more boring policy and framework documents. The map, after all, is just a map. As SNH are careful to point out the wild land areas it shows are ‘not a statutory designation’. They are described as ‘nationally important in Scottish Planning Policy’ but that doesn’t actually mean anything concrete regarding what happens to them.

Headlines on the 24th proclaimed that wind farms had been banned in national parks and national scenic areas. The word ‘banned’ doesn’t appear in the government literature though. Moving on from headlines and the wild land map I’ve been reading through the planning documents to see just what they do say about wild land. I’ve been looking both for intentions and firm commitments. Most of the stuff isn’t about wild land of course – planning covers everything everywhere – but there are some significant passages amongst the mixture of fine words and jargon (actually for government documents these aren’t as wooden and dense as many I’ve read – I didn’t feel the need to clean my mind and read something well written after reading them).  

No Longer Wild Land: A Wind Farm In The Southern Uplands

That word ‘banned’ in the headlines is based on a section of the Planning Policy which states “Areas where wind farms will not be acceptable: National Parks and National Scenic Areas”. I guess that’s close enough. It’s also highly significant as the 40 NSA’s and the 2 National Parks cover 13% of Scotland, including the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, Ben Nevis and Glencoe (see map here). This is further emphasised in the Planning Framework which says ‘we do not wish to see wind farm development in National Parks and National Scenic Areas’. I think it’ll be hard to justify wind farms in these areas now and I hope that developers won’t even bother proposing them.


This 13% isn’t everywhere on the wild land map though, which covers 19% of Scotland, and the wild land map omits some areas I, and others, would argue are worthy of protection (Trotternish on the Isle of Skye was the first place I noticed). In those wild areas outside the 13% ‘wind farms may be appropriate in some circumstances’ if  ‘any significant effects on the qualities of these areas can be substantially overcome by siting, design or other mitigation’. I can see this leading to some tough battles up ahead. One argument will be over ‘landscape and visual impacts, including effects on wild land’, which the policy says should be taken into account. I know from the Allt Duine wind farm debate that developers will always say there are no visual impacts even when there clearly are. However later on the policy says ‘Wild land character is displayed in some of Scotland’s remoter upland, mountain and coastal areas, which are very sensitive to any form of intrusive human activity and have little or no capacity to accept new development. Plans should identify and safeguard the character of areas of wild land as identified on the 2014 SNH map of wild land areas’. This is an important and welcome statement. I expect it will be quoted much in the future. Unfortunately it is qualified by another paragraph: ‘In areas of wild land, development may be appropriate in some circumstances. Further consideration will be required to demonstrate that any significant effects on the qualities of these areas can be substantially overcome by siting, design or other mitigation.’ Just what ‘significant effects’ are remains to be seen. Apart from wind farms I would argue that bulldozed roads and fences come under that heading and there should be no more on wild land. In the Planning Framework it says ‘we also want to continue our strong protection for our wildest landscapes – wild land is a nationally important asset’. The last half of that sentence is another to be remembered and quoted, the first half rather begs the question as to how there have been wind farms and bulldozed roads on wild land if there is already strong protection.

Destroying Wild Land In The Eastern Highlands

Having read and considered the documents I am cautiously optimistic about the future of wild land in Scotland and I’m happy to praise the Scottish government for the positive statements about wild land. I think they have listened to what many of us have been saying. There will be threats and, I’m sure, losses in the future but hopefully this means much wild land will now be protected. And not just from wind farms. We mustn’t forget bulldozed roads, fences, over-grazing, hydro schemes and other developments. I am quietly celebrating though. I think those of us who love wild land and understand its importance to everyone have made some progress. I raise my glass (malt whisky of course). Here’s to wild land.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Extended Review: Six Moons Design Fusion 65 Pack

My review of the Six Moon Designs Fusion 65 pack is now much more detailed and about four times as long as the first short version. It's up on The Great Outdoors website here.

There are plenty of straps for attaching wet gear!

Monday 23 June 2014

The Great Outdoors July Issue: TGO Challenge, Tunnel Tents & Summer Sleeping Bags, Six Moons Design Fusion 65

Force Ten Nitro Lite tunnel tent on test in the Cairngorms

The July issue of The Great Outdoors has just appeared, with something of a camping theme. My backpacking column is about crossing the Highlands on this year's Great Outdoors Challenge. Challenge Co-ordinator John Manning also writes about the Challenge with an overview of this year's event. Roger Smith touches on it too in his Environment column in which he rightly bemoans the approval for a huge windfarm at Stronelairg in the Monadhliath. In the future, he says, that as a route-vetter for the Challenge rather than encouraging people to cross this area as he always has in the past he's now likely to advise against doing so. I understand why. I walked there on this year's Challenge. When the wind farm is built I won't go back.

In the gear section I review 9 tunnel tents and 15 summer sleeping bags (a rather loose description covering bags rated from +15 to -5C) along with the Six Moon Designs Fusion 65 pack. Daniel Neilson reviews a whole range of gear for car camping and base camps, everything from a giant polycotton tent to tables and chairs and an inflatable wash bag. Daniel also gives advice on camping with kids. The Hill Skills section has a piece on choosing a shelter, whether for solo backpacking or car camping.

Away from gear and kids there is much to encourage getting out in the hills, starting with a lovely double page photograph taken from the summit of Lochnagar by Mark Hamblin. There are more fine photographs from Terry Abraham too in a piece on making his film Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike, and from Yorkshireman Carey Davies as he describes the attractions of his home county - God's Own Country. Carey also visits the Arrochar Alps and enjoys mixing with the crowds there. James Reader goes bivouacing, packrafting and hillwalking in 24 hours in Snowdonia on a 'micro-adventure' with author and explorer Alastair Humphreys. David Lintern spends rather longer in the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, a story that opens with a spectacular photograph. Further afield Ian Battersby suggests things to do in and around Chamonix in the Alps. 

Jim Perrin often chooses favourite books or authors of mine for his Hillwalkers' Library. This month I am particularly pleased that he is recommending John Hillaby's Journey Through Britain as this was the book that led to my first long-distance walk from Land's End to John O'Groats. The book is out of print, sadly. Second-hand copies are well worth seeking out.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Summer Backpacking in the Lake District

Terry filming the temperature inversion from our third camp

Derwent Water shone, the trees glared green, the steep path was dusty underfoot, sweat poured down my face. Just over a year since my first visit I was climbing up beside Cat Gill in the Lake District towards Bleaberry Fell to camp again with Terry Abraham and Mark (of Mark’s WalkingBlog and, very recently, @markswalking). The air in the trees was still, stuffy and humid and it was a relief to reach the open hillside and a gentle breeze. Soon I reached the others and our camp site looking across Borrowdale to the North-Western Fells. 

Camp on Bleaberry Fell

Dusk came slowly with a gradual fading of the details of the hills and a deepening pink wash over the western sky. Just a few days from the solstice and there was no real darkness, just enough for a few stars to appear. Dawn was softly beautiful too with a warm cast over the land that hardened and brightened as the sun rose higher. 

After sunset, Bleaberry Fell

Heading south along the broad ridge over rounded summits with stops for filming, the purpose of this trip being to start work on a film about backpacking in the Lake District, I marvelled at the landscape spread out around us, both its beauty and its compactness. To the north the Solway Firth was visible, to the south Morecambe Bay. Eastwards the distinctive summit of Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales was prominent. Only to the west did the hills seem to stretch far, though I knew this was not so. There was cloud this way too, rolling over the Western Fells.

Camp on High Raise

On the side of High Raise we made our second camp, looking out over Langstrath to ranges of ragged hills. Here we were joined by Dan Richards, son of Mark Richards with whom Terry is also making a film, who arrived late in the evening on a mountain bike. Again dusk and dawn were magnificent, the land bathed in the warmth of the sun. The breeze mostly faded away and the following day was soon hot and growing hotter. Sunhat, shirt sleeves and sandals weather. At Stake Pass, where we stopped for water and food and more water, my thermometer recorded 42°C in direct sunlight. To the west though the clouds were still rising and falling over Bowfell and Esk Pike. 

Terry approaching Angle Tarn

Angle Tarn was half in sunshine, half shaded by the clouds. I’ve always found this a magical place. I first came here on a school trip. I was about eleven years old. I’d never been to the Lake District before, never seen hills like this. A lake below a cliff. Just wonderful! It still is.

From Angle Tarn we took the well-worn (and now well-repaired) path up and down past Sprinkling Tarn, the false Esk Hause* and Styhead Tarn before camping not far from but out of sight of the last with a tremendous view down Wasdale and across to the Scafell range. Here we were joined by another friend of Terry’s, Philip, so for the second night there were four shelters pitched. It’s been quite a while since I camped with so many people.

Our third camp, looking to the Scafell range

As the sun sank behind the western hills a faint haze could be seen in the valley below, a haze with a distinct upper edge running along the hills. Philip had just said that he’d never seen an inversion when the haze began to thicken and in just a few minutes had turned into a dense white mist that filled the valley and billowed up the sides of the hills, a quite magnificent sight. Over a few hours the temperature inversion rose and fell, with the lights of Wasdale Head coming and going, before it faded completely.

The clouds sank on the hills though and early morning was cloudy. The sun started to break through later, just as Terry filmed me in my role as BMC Ambassador for Hillwalking for a piece for BMC TV. Richard Fox of Fix the Fells arrived, also to be filmed for the BMC, then Mark and I packed up and wandered down to Borrowdale, leaving Terry to relax in camp for the day before heading down to Wasdale. 

The weather and the light and the company made this a wonderful trip. I’m looking forward to seeing Terry’s footage.

*At least that’s what I’ve always known it as. Neither Terry or Mark had heard it called that before.