Sunday 31 January 2016

Calm Between The Storms

Storm Gertrude blew out with a night of snow. Tomorrow Storm Henry is forecast to blow in with very strong winds, rain and snow. Today the air was still and the land calm. The sky remained overcast but no snow fell. The temperature stayed below zero. Thin mists drifted over the glens. The snow was soft and shin deep, maiing walking quite arduous. Unlike yesterday many animals had been out searching for food. Rabbit, deer and fox tracks laced the snow.

Tomorrow a thaw, maybe.

Big Garden Birdwatch

Taking part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch always makes for an interesting and somewhat hectic hour. Trying to count masses of small birds flying in and out to the feeders is surprisingly difficult. This year there were no surprises with all the birds we see every day except for pheasants turning up. The soft snow on the ground may have discouraged the latter. None of the species that only visit occasionally - goldfinches and siskins in particular - appeared and neither did the red squirrels, though these were around earlier. Here's what we saw during one hour this morning:

Chaffinch                                 12
Coal tit                                    10
Great tit                                    5
Blue tit                                     4
Great Spotted Woodpecker        3
Robin                                       3
Greenfinch                                3
Dunnock                                   2
Blackbird                                  2

A Very Snowy Day

Midnight. Outside the temperature is -1C. Light snow is falling. Our tracks from an afternoon venture are buried. For twenty-four hours now it has been snowing most of the time. Until a few hours ago this snow came on very strong winds and formed deep drifts in places with others scoured almost bare. Now the wind has dropped and the snow is settling more evenly. Already this is the deepest snow this winter here at 300 metres in Strathspey.

Out in the open the wind and snow blasted across the landscape under a featureless grey sky. The hills were hidden. We soon sought the edge of the forest where we were protected from the north-westerly storm. The trees were plastered with snow on the windward sides. This felt like a northern boreal forest.

There was little sign of wildlife, the animals and birds sheltering from the ferocity of the storm. One set of roe deer tracks crossed our route but, unusually, there were no signs of rabbits. Nothing moved in the sky. We walked with hoods up, jackets fastened tight. Just once there was a brief lull and the snow stopped and the wind eased. Suddenly a little too warm for a short while we could unzip and look round with getting savaged by the wind and snow.

The weather for next week is forecast to be stormy with rapid changes in temperature, just as it has been for the last few months. Maybe the snow will stay this time, maybe it will all be gone this time tomorrow.

Friday 29 January 2016

A Sparrowhawk Feeds

Sparrowhawks have occasionally raided our bird feeders for many years. Usually all we see is a blur of wings as the hawk suddenly flashes round the corner of the house, scattering the feeding birds, then disappears. Often we can't even tell if it's made a kill. Sometimes when it hasn't succeeded a young sparrowhawk will sit atop a feeder looking round, as if wondering where its prey has gone. What we've never seen before is a sparrowhawk feeding. The most we've seen is one flying off with a small bird in its talons. Sometimes a scattering of feathers lies on the ground afterwards.

Yesterday was different. We didn't see the kill. The sparrowhawk, which has been seen a few times in recent days, was first spotted on a low mossy boulder close to the feeders and the house with a small bird - a coal tit I think - in its talons. For a few minutes we watched as it fed voraciously, tearing off feathers and demolishing the bird extremely quickly. Virtually nothing was left afterwards, just a few tiny fluffy feathers. Once there was nothing more to eat the sparrowhawk moved to another rock where it cleaned its beak and then looked round as if searching for more prey before flying off.

Watching the hawk feed was a great privilege. I was surprised that it fed out in the open and close to the house. Photographing it was difficult. A low sun was shining straight towards the house and there was too much glare to take decent pictures from a low viewpoint so I ended up shooting downwards from my upstairs study window, pressing the lens against the glass for stability. The sparrowhawk was moving most of the time, pecking away at its prey, so taking shots without too much blur was difficult. Every so often it would raise its head to look around and for a fraction of a second it was still. That was the time to take a photograph.

Wednesday 27 January 2016

Loch Lomond & The Trossachs Extended Wild Camping Ban Approved

 A wild camp high above Loch Lomond

The Scottish Government has approved an extension of the controversial wild camping ban along the east side of Loch Lomond to other roadside areas in the national park. The ban won't come into effect until the spring of 2017 to allow time for the 'introduction of 300 low-cost camping places through a combination of new and improved camping facilities and camping permits to allow informal lochshore camping at sustainable level'. Camping permits? How ever will these be issued or policed?

Unsurprisingly this news has been greeted with dismay by various groups and individuals including Cameron McNeish, The Ramblers,and The Mountaineering Council of Scotland. There's a report with a map of the zones for the camping bans on The Great Outdoors site and other informative reports on Walk Highlands and grough

The proposal to extend the camping ban first came up a year or so ago. I wrote a piece for The Great Outdoors back then which I've posted below. I haven't changed my views since then other than being even more opposed to the ban now than I was then. Now that it's going ahead it's a question of ensuring it's not extended elsewhere and that innocent wild campers, such as someone walking the West Highland Way who runs out of energy and just wants to camp quietly overnight, aren't penalised.

Just What Is Wild Camping?

Defining wild camping may not seem important. We all know what it means anyway, don’t we? To us walkers and backpackers it means camping in wild places away from roads and buildings. But to others it simply means camping anywhere other than an organised camp site. So the people who camp next to their cars on roadsides and leave litter and destruction behind them are described in the mass media as ‘wild campers’. And that gets us a bad name. 

This came to a head a few years ago on the east side of Loch Lomond. To deal with the problems of car campers causing damage the National Park authority introduced byelaws against ‘wild’ camping along roadsides plus, more positively, a basic campsite. Along with many others I reluctantly accepted the byelaws as necessary due to the vandalism that was going on. Now the issue has flared up again with proposals from Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park to introduce similar byelaws in many other areas. This I think is going too far. I also think it needs to be made clear that this is about car camping and not wild camping. Self-propelled travellers, whether by foot, bicycle or canoe, should not be treated the same as car campers.

Loch Lomond

There is evidence that the problems on the east side of Loch Lomond are occurring in other places, both inside and outside the Park, but I don’t think that new byelaws are the right answer. Vandalism and anti-social behaviour is already illegal anyway and anyone involved in such activities forfeits their access rights under the access legislation. Enforcement of the current laws would help reduce the problem without penalising backpackers, climbers and others who just want to pitch their tent for a night and then move on and who leave little impact. A blanket ban puts everyone in the same category and is a crude instrument for dealing with the issue. It’s also dangerous in that it could be used by those landowners who would like to ban true wild camping to argue for bans on their land.
One proposal from Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park that is positive is for the provision of more basic campsites alongside roads in the parks, sites that would have facilities such as toilets and litter bins. In fact it would be good if more such facilities could be provided along roads anyway – not all the litter or used loo paper comes from campers. Creating camp sites has been the answer to similar problems in the past. I can remember when people camped anywhere they liked in Glen Torridon, near the Sligachan Inn on the Isle of Skye, and near the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe. Whilst most of the campers were walkers and climbers and not there just to party there were problems with litter, the lack of toilet facitilies and damage to the ground due to over-use. In Torridon and at Sligachan basic camp sites were set up whilst at Glencoe the National Trust opened a rather grander site some distance away. It’s rare now to see roadside camping in these places. 

Doesn’t that take away from the pleasure of wild camping though? Isn’t part of the freedom of wild camping being able to just stop and pitch where you like? Here we come back to how wild camping is defined. In my view roadside car camping isn’t wild camping. I would happily use a simple site with facilities designed for tent campers if one was provided. And if not I’d head away from the road to camp out of sight.

Sunday 24 January 2016

Out There - new book coming in March

My next book will be published on March 17th. It's a selection of essays on a wide range of outdoor topics and trips, edited to bring them up to date and link together, that have appeared in various magazines over the years. I'll be doing some interviews and talks around the time of the launch. I'll post details here.

The book will be published by Sandstone Press. More information here

Friday 22 January 2016

John Muir Trust Suilven Path Appeal

Back in October I posted about the John Muir Trust's success in winning £18,000 for footpath repairs on Suilven in Assynt in the North-West Highlands and reposted a report on a backpacking trip over this magnificent mountain.

Now the Trust is seeking to raise another £50,000 towards the total cost of around £200,000 via a public appeal. If this money is raised the rest of the funding will be provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Natural Heritage. The path repairs will be carried out by the John Muir Trust and the Assynt Foundation (which manages the land for the local community) under the umbrella of the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape (CALL) Partnership, one of Europe's largest landscape restoration projects.

Why is this work needed? The John Muir Trust says 'due to increasing popularity, fragile soils and a harsh climate, the most popular approach to Suilven, beginning at Glencanisp, is rapidly deteriorating. The Suilven path restoration project will set out to repair an eroded 2.5km section of the route to prevent further damage and maintain public access, helping support tourism in the local community. It also aims to protect this rare habitat of peat bog and wet heath, and the plant species and wildlife it supports.'

Donations can be made here.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

'A bit of a pea souper': In the clouds in the Cairngorms

View over Strathspey

Murky. The best word to describe the weather this year so far. Grey skies thick with cloud, flat light, drifting mists. Snow yes, but even that has looked muted without the brightness that comes with sunshine. There has been subtle beauty in the layers of mist and cloud, an ethereal feel to the lack of contrast and definition, but you have to look to find it.

Yesterday, the 19th, looked as though there might be a touch of sun, looked as though the clouds would lift from the summits, at least according to one forecast. Another suggested the mist would remain. I decided to ignore that one. I really wanted a high level ski tour in clear weather, wanted to skim across the Cairngorm Plateau surrounded by a bright white snowy world.

The start wasn’t promising. Overcast skies and hidden tops. Maybe the clouds would slowly clear I thought as I set off upwards, climbing skins on my skis. At least there was plenty of snow. The air was still and I was soon unzipping clothing and removing hats and gloves despite the freezing temperature. Below me I could see strands of thin mist moving lethargically along Strathspey. 

Soon I reached the indistinct edge of the cloud cap and the landscape started to waver and fade. There was a wind now, icy and piercing. Soon I could see no more than a few metres. Navigation was no problem. Just keep heading upwards. Every so often others loomed out of the mist, waving or calling a greeting before vanishing again. 

Eventually the big cairn at the top of the broad ridge came into view. I sheltered behind it while I adjusted my clothing and donned my goggles. The wind here was bitter and snow was starting to fall. My plans to head across the plateau to Ben Macdui had already been abandoned. Instead I’d take a shorter route over the tops of the Northern Corries – Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and Cairn Lochan – and then descend via Lurchers Gully. 

The view just before I turned back
I headed down the gentle slopes to the base of the first peak. The cloud thickened. I could see nothing. My skis picked up a little speed and I instinctively braked. I knew what the terrain should be like but I couldn’t see it, couldn’t see any rocks poking out of the snow, couldn’t see if I’d veered off course. I stopped and thought. This looked like being a slow careful route finding exercise. With such minimal visibility my familiarity with the terrain meant nothing. I’d need compass, map and GPS and I’d need to consult them frequently. I checked the time. Unless the clouds cleared and I could speed up I’d be descending in the dark. Was it wise to continue? Did I want to continue? No was the answer to both.

Turning I skied back to the big cairn, only seeing it when I was almost there. Slowly I went down the ridge, staying in the centre, peering into the mist. I still had the skins on. I didn’t dare let the skis run. Occasionally I stopped to stare into the whiteness, trying to pick out something, anything. Three walkers went past. ‘Bit of a pea souper’, said one before they were absorbed back into the greyness. Watching them at least gave me an idea of the angle of the slope. The cloud was descending with me, slowly sinking down the slopes.

Walkers about to disappear into the cloud

Finally the view opened up, stark and monochrome. Loch Morlich was cracked and pale, frozen hard. Far to the north a touch of colour in the sky showed that somewhere the sun was breaking through. Removing the skins I picked up speed and made the first turns of the season. Soon this first ski tour was over. I looked back. The mountains were still hidden in the cloud. I’d made the right decision.

View over Loch Morlich

Monday 18 January 2016

Craigellachie: One of the great viewpoints of the Cairngorms

View over Lochan Dubh

Craigellachie, that rugged little hill rising above Aviemore, is one of the finest viewpoints in the whole of the Cairngorms National Park. A short though steep and stony path leads through lovely birch forest onto open moorland and the summit.

With just a few hours before nightfall two of us set off through the trees on an unplanned spontaneous trip up the hill. There was a scattering of snow on the ground and ice on the paths. The air was freezing but down here it was also still and the climb kept us warm.Above ranks of icicles hanging from the crags that give the hill its name ('crag of the rocky place') showed how cold it really was.

Once we left the trees an unexpected biting wind had us zipping up jackets and donning hats and gloves. This hadn't been forecast. Across Strathspey the Cairngorms were draped in cloud, their snowy slopes fading into the pale sky. The path was steeper here and slick with ice, some of it hidden under a dusting of snow. Micro-crampons and trekking poles would have been useful but as we had neither, this not being a planned trip, we just took care and edged round the icier bits.

As we approached the summit the world opened out. A vast sweep of the rolling Monadh Liath hills rose above long wide Strathspey which vanished into the hazy west where a weak low sun shone through the clouds. To the south the Northern Cairngorms were split by the Lairig Ghru with the dark crags of Creag an Leth-choin standing out. Sgoran Dubh Mor was a white cone above the dark forests. Just below us Lochan Dubh was a sheet of snow dappled ice. A small pool near the summit was frozen enough to bear weight.

The Northern Cairngorms
Far below Aviemore stretched out beyond the trees with the hills fading away to the east and the Meall a'Bhuachaille - Creagan Gorm ridge a distinct massif rising above Glen More.

View over Aviemore
The wind made lingering on the summit for long unattractive and soon we were skittering back down the icy path to the shelter of the trees, thinking of hot drinks and food in Aviemore. It had been a quick  and fun wintry adventure.

Sgoran Dubh Mor

All photos taken January 17.

Note: January 18. A friend has pointed out that the photos look flat with no contrast on his screen. That's what it was like! Flat light with sky and snow merging. I could process the photos to increase the contrast but they would then be far from the reality at the time. 

Saturday 16 January 2016

Subtle Days of Cold and Snow

Two days of quiet weather. The land still, frozen hard, snow-covered. The sky pale with clouds in delicate shades of blue, grey and pink. Tracks cover the ground, scatterings of rabbit prints darting towards exposed clumps of faded dry grass, purposeful straight lines of a fox, running then walking then running again. A buzzard wheels high overhead, silent. From inside the wood comes the harsh chatter of a jay. The only other sound is the crunch of boots on crisp snow. Frost feathers are growing on the tall dead grass and reed stems. Distant hills are smooth and white, textures hidden by the snow and the soft light. This is winter at peace.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

The February issue of The Great Outdoors: wild camps of 2015, TGO Gear Awards reviews, Creag Meagaidh

Camp above Loch Avon in the Cairngorms, October 2015

In the shops now, the February issue of The Great Outdoors has, unsurprisingly, a wintry theme. To that end I've described a snowy walk on Creag Meagaidh as my contribution to a feature on perfect winter hill walks that also has pieces from Alan Hinkes, Jim Perrin, David Lintern and others.

My backpacking column is a look back at my wild camps of last year - some of them quite wintry! In the gear pages I review the items that won TGO awards back in the autumn.

This issue has some great photography including a double page spread of dawn on a snowy Blencathra by Terry Abrham and some tremendous images by Alex Nail of a winter camp and traverse of An Teallach. There are also enticing pictures in Andrew Terrill's account of a winter trip in the Mount Evans Wilderness in Colorado.

Sticking with the winter theme Ronald Turnbull goes bivvying on the snowy Eskdale hills and Ed Byrne makes a December trip up Helvellyn with Fell Top Assessor Jon Bennett. The Hill Skills pages cover ice axe and crampon use in the company of Glenmore Lodge instructor Giles Trussell. And in gear Judy Armstrong reviews six women's down jackets.

Also in this issue Carey Davies ponders dry stone walls in the Lake District; Roger Smith asks what can be learnt from the recent destructive storms; Jim Perrin recommends Hilda Murrell's Nature Diaries and reviews Ed Douglas's Statement: The Ben Moon Story.

Sunday 10 January 2016

Full Winter Conditions in the Cairngorms

Coire an t-Sneachda, January 9

With a few hours to spare before darkness fell I decided to wander into Coire an t-Sneachda to see what conditions were like after the snow of recent days. Coire Cas was crowded, it being Saturday. Bands of mist drifted over Strathspey below while to the north there was clear sky and sunshine lighting up distant clouds.

View over Strathspey from Coire Cas

Walking into the corrie I quickly found that much snow had fallen. Even on the lower path which had been beaten down by many pairs of boots there were deep drifts. An icy wind blew down from the mist-shrouded tops. This late in the day everyone else was descending. Dozens and dozens of people tramped past. I reckon there must have been queues on the popular climbing routes on the corrie’s cliffs. 

Descending climbers
As I entered the mouth of the corrie the wind picked up, spindrift swirled all around and patches of mist swept over me. Visibility came and went. At times I was in a near white-out, only the rocks free of snow giving any definition to the landscape, along with the occasional groups of descending climbers. The drifting snow quickly filled in boot prints and hid holes between rocks. Stumbling was easy. In other places the wind-glazed snow had a breakable crust – firm until you put your weight on it. This was the real winter Cairngorms.

Near white-out conditions
By the time I reached the stony heart of the corrie below the great cliffs I was alone. The snow-spattered crags came and went in the mist. If I hadn’t know the place the scale would have been hard to grasp. Perhaps those rocks rose thousands of metres into the sky? The sky already darkening I turned and plunged back down through the snow.