Monday 29 February 2016

Superb Ski & Camp on the Moine Mhor

A frosty camp looking towards Sgor Gaoith

Sunshine. Cold. Snow. Just how winter should be. And for a few days it was. High level camping in winter is a joy in conditions like this. Deciding to combine such a camp with ski touring I headed for a favourite area for both activities, the Moine Mhor plateau above Glen Feshie. 

The Arctic landscape of the Moine Mhor

Once I reached the Moine Mhor a white Arctic-like world opened up. This world was white and vast with endless snowfields stretching out to distant peaks. As I ventured out onto the great whiteness the snow-free glens and the dark woods far below disappeared and all that was left was snow, broken only by occasional dark rocks poking through the white blanket.

Easy skiing led out into the heart of the whiteness. The skis skimmed over the snow. Long straight effortless runs let me admire the wild scene as I sped along. At times I made wide sweeping turns, the skis slicing through the soft snow. There cannot be an easier way to traverse a snowy landscape. 

Last of the sun on Braeriach

As the sun touched the horizon and long shadows started to spread across the snow I decided it was time to stop. In these conditions a camp can be made almost anywhere. I selected a shallow curve of deep snow. The high tops were turning pink in the last of the sun as I pitched the tent in rapidly dropping temperatures.

A starry sky

Later in the evening the sky was a mass of brilliant stars curving over the dark land. I fell asleep looking up at the constellation of the Plough directly above, my head in the open door of the tent. Brightness woke me at 1.30. The moon had risen and the hills were visible again. A heavy frost had coated the tent white inside and out. The temperature was -12.6°C. Crouched in the doorway I took photographs of moonlit Sgor Gaoith (you can see the shadow of my tent and tripod in the pictures) before dozing off again.

Sgor Gaoith by moonlight
When I next awoke the sun was just appearing over the horizon. The shadowed snow turned white again, the black sky lightened to a bright blue. The stars and moon had vanished. The temperature was still -6°C. It would take the sun a while to heat the air. A mug of hot chocolate and muesli porridge gave me the energy to leave my sleeping bag and wander round the camp watching the world come back to life.

A cold start to the day

Finally leaving my camp, one of the finest for many months, I headed to the shallow gully of the snow-hidden Allt Sgairnich, where I have built igloos in the past. Today the wind had carved steep banks above the stream and there were several well-built snowholes high up on these. Climbing out of the gully onto Carn Ban Mor I saw many people heading for Sgor Gaoith. Out on the Moine Mhor I’d seen one other skier, now I could see dozens of walkers and there was a well-tramped path leading to the summit. 

Allt Sgairnich snowholes
Everyone was rewarded for their efforts – and walking in the soft snow looked much harder than skiing – as the views were as superb as they always are in clear weather from the tiny summit of Sgor Gaoith. Far below dark Loch Einich was part-frozen. The peak of the winds lived up to its name and a bitter wind swept the summit. 

Loch Einich & Braeriach from Sgor Gaoith

A long traversing descent took me below the walkers’ route and across lovely snow where turns were easy to the col with Carn Ban Beag. From here it was just a walk back down into Glen Feshie, my mind full of the arctic landscape high above.

Friday 26 February 2016

Interview in The Scottish Mountaineer

There's an interview with me about my next book in the latest issue of The Scottish Mountaineer, the magazine of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland.

The magazine has had a redesign and looks excellent.

Thursday 25 February 2016

Sparrowhawk Views

The sparrowhawk that has been raiding our bird feeders in recent weeks (see this post) usually flies in and out quickly. Sometimes all we see is a blur of wings and a scattering of small birds. Yesterday though he perched for a while on one of the feeders, alert and observant, a magnificent sight.

After a while, he flew a short distance to a nearby tree where again he perched for a while, though this time he preened his feathers frequently and looked far less concerned with his surroundings. Maybe he'd abandoned hunting for now.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Moonlight & Snow

Halo round the moon as the clouds thicken

A gloriously bright moon with a bright Jupiter close by lured me outside on this calm frosty night. Twenty minutes before midnight and the temperatures was -3C and the sky mostly unclouded, though thick bands covered the hilltops. The moon, one day after full, was sharp and clear and Jupiter was equally brilliant. There were few stars visible anywhere in the sky such was the brightness of the moon. A light covering of fresh snow reflected the moonlight and there was no need of a torch. This was just intended to be a quick venture to see the moon and Jupiter in conjunction so I was soon back indoors. The beauty of the night distracted me though and I quickly realised I needed to see it again, more suitably clad this time.

The moon and Jupiter in conjunction, February 24.

By the time I was back outside thin clouds were starting to drift across the sky, softening the moonlight and at times obscuring Jupiter. A colourful halo appeared around the moon. Away from its light more stars appeared with Orion just starting to sink below the horizon. I stood and gazed and gazed.

Away from the moon, a few stars

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Guest Post: Hut Trails: The Ramblers Reply

A bothy can be a welcome sight on a stormy day in the Scottish hills

Back in December I wrote a piece about the Ramblers Scotland proposal for hut trails in the Scottish hills. Helen Todd, Ramblers Scotland Campaigns and Policy Manager, has responded with the following, which I'm happy to post as a guest blog. Comments welcome! You can read my original post here

Our idea of setting up Scottish hut trails has obviously sparked a few comments in the mountaineering fraternity, but since our original proposal was rather light on detail I thought it would be good to set out what we had in mind – and what we didn’t!  

The manifesto you mention in your blog was our draft for consultation with members and the political parties, and the final manifesto is due to be published at the end of February.  The idea of huts trails was one of the main topics which people picked up on, and it actually received a lot of support as well as some less welcoming comments from some mountaineers.  It remains in our manifesto going forward.

We don’t disagree with much of what you say in your blog. However, the proposal we are putting forward is very much for something that would work here in Scotland, within the Scottish context, learning from other countries but not replicating them.  We would be keen to explore this idea with others and would welcome a chance to sit round the table with a mix of community, third sector, public sector and recreation bodies to discuss further how it could work.  

Scotland’s ‘official’ long distance routes have been specifically designed to go through settlements and bring some economic benefits to those communities, so the stages tend to be walkable in one-day sections.  However, at some point along the route there could be the potential for a 2-day loop away from the main track with one overnight stop in a hut, in an initiative developed by that local community and with appropriate management of that hut.  It may only make sense to open the hut from May to September, with the option for larger groups to rent it out at other times.  Lots of our long distance routes are community initiatives – the Kintyre Way, Dava Way, East Highland Way – developed because local people saw the benefits of attracting walkers to their areas, so why shouldn’t there also be an option for a circular hut trail of 2-3 days if the community is able to develop it?  The planning system is there to make sure any development would be subject to public scrutiny.  The Cape Wrath Trail is not on this model and we certainly wouldn’t be calling for huts to be set up along that route.

Iungdalshytta in Norway
As for camping or bothies – yes these are options and will remain so, but frankly bothies don’t suit everyone.  Likewise, having spent a lot of effort campaigning to retain the right to camp wild in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, we are very supportive of camping, but (a) it’s quite an investment to buy gear if you are starting from scratch and aren’t sure if you’ll like it, (b) some people may not be able to carry a heavy pack for long distances – and lightweight gear is even more expensive, (c) tourists may not come to Scotland with all their camping equipment but be keen to get into remote areas overnight, and (d) let’s not forget those evenings when you feel you could cut the swarms of midges with a knife, and you’re stuck inside your tent from early evening.  In the 1980s I walked round the coast of New Zealand’s South Island on the Abel Tasman national park trail and also did the Routeburn trail, staying in basic huts and just carrying a sleeping bag and food.  I could never have had these experiences if I hadn’t been able to stay in huts, so why not have an option for people to do this in Scotland?

Hut on the GR20 in Corsica

As for the idea of somehow damaging our wild land by developing huts - we campaigned alongside other organisations to protect wild land, so we’re hardly likely to call for new developments to be constructed at high altitude in these areas.  However, there are dozens of derelict buildings in our glens, so why shouldn’t a few of these come back into use?  Let’s not forget these areas used to be full of people and it’s our current land ownership patterns which have led to empty landscapes we now experience.  It’s unlikely many traditional sporting estates will be keen to sell buildings to local communities for development into huts, but if communities buy land why shouldn’t they be able to develop a hut trail if they can find a strong business case to do so?  Each hut could be unique and very special in its own way, from the very basic through to the more comfortable, depending on community interest and the funding available in each case.  It would be great to see use of small scale renewables and energy efficiency measures to provide a cosy building with low running costs over time.  

Hope that helps to dispel a few misconceptions over what we are calling for.  Huts would not replace the Scottish mountaineering experience or make all the countryside less wild, and we are certainly not in a position to develop these hut trails ourselves.  However, as a charity which promotes walking for all, we do see them as giving another option to some people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience staying in remote places away from roads.

Sunday 21 February 2016

Book Review: Between the Sunset and the Sea by Simon Ingram

Everyone’s favourite mountains are different. Many factors come into the choices, some of them very personal. Trail magazine editor Simon Ingram’s selection in this book, subtitled A View of 16 British Mountains, is quite unusual but there are reasons behind his choices. In part it’s to illustrate different aspects of mountain culture in its widest sense – geology, history, science, art, adventure – and in part it’s to tell the stories of his own experiences on these hills. The book ranges from the Northwest Highlands to the Brecon Beacons by way of the Pennines, Lake District and Snowdonia. It’s divided into seasons but, more significantly, into single word topics such as space, weather, science, art, sport, with a hill for each one. Some are obvious – Schiehallion for science, Cross Fell for weather. Others are more esoteric – Ben Loyal for light, Ben Macdui for terror. Whatever the topic and mountain the author ties together his ascents and stories about the mountain well. There’s a great deal of information packed into the book in way that makes absorbing it easy. Subjects include the history of the Ordnance Survey, slate mining in Snowdonia, the beginning of rock climbing as a sport, the weight of the earth, art in the Lake District, mountain legends and many more. 

The author’s own experiences, whilst at times seemingly more fraught than necessary, help the disparate topics hang together to give an enticing picture of the wealth of Britain’s mountain culture. By describing his adventures Simon Ingram gives life to the factual information, entwining it with the mountains themselves so it enhances them. The mix is well done and the book is very readable. I enjoyed it greatly and will undoubtedly read it again.

The title comes from a poem by Geoffrey Winthrop Young by the way and there are many other literary references from a wide variety of writers – George Borrow, Ursula K Le Guin, Samuel Johnson, Margaret Mead, Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edmund Burke amongst them. This is a very erudite book. 

Saturday 20 February 2016

Trees & Traps & Sunshine: A Stroll Up A Local Hill

The Hills of Cromdale

Local hills can easily be neglected and it was with surprise that I realised it was two years since I’d been up Tom Mor just across the glen from my house. So on a recent cold but sunny afternoon two of us set off to visit this little 484 metre summit, actually the terminus of a long finger of moorland jutting out from an undulating heathery plateau in the north-east corner of the Cairngorms National Park. Tom Mor is a heavily managed hill, the slopes are used for sheep grazing and grouse shooting, and are covered with the scars of heather burning, There’s a forestry plantation on one flank too and a communications mast near the summit. I don’t often see much wildlife on Tom Mor other than red grouse and the vegetation is rather minimal, mostly heather and more heather. The reason for climbing the hill is for the views, which are extensive in all directions.

At least this is how it was. Now the hill is changing. There was little sign of this as we began to walk up the rough vehicle track that curves round its flanks, almost reaching the summit. Indeed the only visible additions to the landscape were rather dispiriting. On each of the little burns that ran across the track there were logs with spring traps in cages on them, five in total. None of the traps were set and they all looked pretty rusty. The logs showed that they had been placed fairly recently. 

Higher up, as the first patches of snow that remained from the thaw of a few days previously appeared, the changes were much more uplifting. Little pines were poking up through the heather, lots of them, the beginnings of a new forest. There must be fewer sheep on the hill, far fewer. As we climbed so the trees increased in number. The broad summit was covered with them. If left alone this will be a wooded hill in a few decades.

Young trees on the summit

For now the only shelter on the summit is provided by two large well-built cairns and as a bitter wind was sweeping out of the north we took cover behind one of these while we donned extra clothing. Across Strathspey the Hills of Cromdale were still snow-spattered while to the south the bright line of the River Spey led the eye through forests and fields to where the hazy, cloud-capped Cairngorms hung white against the blue sky. A waxing moon stood high in the sky and the wispy streaks of cloud began to turn pink and orange as the sun sank into thicker clouds far to the west.


The colour began to fade from the sky as we left the summit for a direct descent down rough tussocky slopes to the dark shadows of the pine plantation. Like the slopes above this wood has been left alone and is now slowly reverting to a more natural state. Once inside the trees it didn’t feel like being in a plantation. Or on an even hillside. Whilst from outside the forest looks like it’s on a uniform slope it’s not and inside there are valleys and hills and twists and turns. The contrast is great, and the wood is far more interesting than it appears. 

Below the wood a double somewhat rotten fence required careful negotiation before boggy fields led to the road. I looked back at the silhouette of the hill. Tom Mor may only be an over-managed little hill but those young trees will draw me back soon. Higher