Thursday 29 September 2016

Hot Weather to Reds Meadow

After the last Scottish summer I wasn't prepared for the heat of a High Sierra autumn. The sun has blazed down every day with few clouds in the sky. Ascents have been arduous, especially as I've had to carry much water as many creeks are dry.

From Yosemite Valley I climbed up past Nevada Falls then left the masses on this popular day hike for the solitude of the Illilouette Creek valley. Here I met a black bear with two cubs close to the trail. The latter immediately scrambled up tree trunks and clung on while their mother hissed at me and charged a few steps. I backed away slowly until she was almost out of sight. Then she moved towards her cubs and further from the trail. I continued and she hissed one more time to remind me to keep away from her cubs.

Since then the walk has been uneventful. I've crossed two spectacular passes - Red Peak and Isberg -, wandered through magnificent red fir forest, gazed over beautiful timberline lakes, slept out under the stars, and then descended to this quiet resort and the luxuries of a cabin and a café.

From here I continue south to King's Canyon, wondering how long the heat will last.

Thursday 22 September 2016

In Yosemite Valley

After hour on planes and trains and buses I finally arrived in Yosemite Valley last night. The ground was wet after a day of rain but above the tall trees I could see stars and today the dawn was clear and cold. Despite the masses of people it was quiet and still as few were yet awake. I wandered through the silent forest and gazed at the reflections of the already sunlit cliffs in the waters of the Merced River. Soon I will take my first steps on the trail.

Sunday 18 September 2016

A Walk from Yosemite Valley to Death Valley

In a few days I'm off on a long walk in California. If all goes to plan I'll be going from Yosemite Valley through the High Sierra to Death Valley picking up a few peaks along the way.

The High Sierra is one of my favourite places and this'll be my first visit in fourteen years, which is far too long to stay away. I've been there in spring and summer before but never in autumn. I've never been to Death Valley before nor the mountain ranges surrounding it. I'm hoping to climb the highest summit 11,049 feet (3,367 m) Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range before descending to Badwater in Death Valley itself at -282 feet )-86m). I've wanted to visit the Panamints and Death Valley ever since reading Colin Fletcher's account of crossing the area in his wonderful book The Thousand-Mile Summer many years ago.

By going in autumn I'm hoping to avoid the first winter snow in the High Sierra and also the summer heat in Death Valley. My route across the High Sierra has been planned with the excellent Tom Harrison Maps and R.J.Secor's comprehensive book The High Sierra Peaks-Passes- Trails, which I'll have with me as an e-book, plus knowledge from my previous trips. Once I leave the High Sierra I'll follow in reverse Brett Tucker's Lowest to Highest route.

One aspect of the walk I'm particularly looking forward to is sleeping under the stars, something I rarely do in Scotland, especially in summer when the midges are biting. I'm hoping for camp sites like the one in this picture, taken on a 500-mile circular route in the High Sierra back in 2002.

I'll be posting updates and pictures here and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram when I can get a connection.

Thursday 15 September 2016

A Wander Over Helvellyn


A few weeks ago on a brief trip down south to the Lake District I spent a blustery sunny day walking over Helvellyn, a hill I haven't climbed for many, many years. I'd forgotten how its central position gives such wonderful spacious views over the Lake District and beyond to the Pennine hills, the Solway Firth and more.

The Vale of Keswick, Skiddaw and the distant Solway Firth
Our way into the fells led up through the old Greenside Lead Mine, which closed in 1962 but which in the 1940s was the largest producer of lead ore in Britain. Today the signs of the mining are slowly fading on the scarred hillsides. Climbing steeply beside Sticks Gill we entered the wide and long upper valley of that stream and followed the path to Sticks Pass on the main south-north Helvellyn ridge. This is surprisingly quiet country for the Lake District, without many people about even on a sunny August day.

View over the Greenside Mine to Glenridding and Ullswater

This changed abruptly as we reached the summit of Helvellyn. Suddenly there were people everywhere, most coming from the direction of Striding Edge. After gazing at the vast views we debated going down that rocky ridge but decided that the numbers of people meant progress would be very slow. There aren't many places you can easily pass others. Instead we went down the shorter Swirral Edge, along with many others, and then down to the foot of Red Tarn.

View down to Red Tarn and Ullswater

Crossing below Catstycam we lost most of the people and also the wind, making it a hot final walk back to the cars. As we took out last steps I thought of many previous trips on this fine big hill. Swooping along it on skis on a snowy day, skittering down an icy Swirral edge with crampons and ice axe, pacing a friend through the night on his Bob Graham Round, bivvying on the summit to watch the midsummer sunrise. It was good to return.

Looking back to Catstycam

Monday 12 September 2016

Update: Funding secured for three years. Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) threatened with funding cut

Difficult conditions in the winter Cairngorms
Update from MWIS on September 14. There has been a resolution and finding has been secured.

For many years now I have consulted the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) forecasts and made decisions about my hill activities based on them, especially outside of summer. I know of no other dedicated forecast that provides the same detailed information, let alone in such an easy to understand manner. That I’m not alone in this was shown over the last weekend when there was an outpouring of comment on social media after it became clear that the future of MWIS is threatened by a funding cut. I’ve rarely seen so many comments, shares and likes on any outdoor topic before. MWIS is clearly important to many people.

Statements have been made by Geoff Monks of MWIS, Mountaineering Scotland (formerly the MCofS), SportScotland (the funding body), and Shaun Roberts, Head of Centre at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre. These can all be found on The Great Outdoors website. Reading them makes it clear that there is disagreement between the various parties but that none of those disagreeing with Geoff Monks deny the plan to cut funding.

This, I think, is a serious situation. I agree with Mountaineering Scotland when it says that MWIS offers unique features that have earned massive support in the mountaineering community and made it the number one choice.' At present there is no credible alternative for forecasts that can be critical in winter. These forecasts are important for safe decision making. 

Whatever the causes of the dispute that is obviously going on it needs resolving fast. The first winter storms will soon be here. Given the amount of work Geoff Monks has put into MWIS it would be a shame if the service ceases. What is most important though is that we continue to have a dedicated mountain weather forecast service at least as good as MWIS. Nothing else is acceptable. This is a safety issue.

There's a petition about this here. Please sign if you'd like to see MWIS continue.

Saturday 10 September 2016

New Camera: Sony a6000

Sometimes I'm asked about the cameras and lenses I use and I have posted about them occasionally over the years. Yesterday I bought a new camera for the first time in many years so here, for anyone interested, are my thoughts about it.

For the last four years the Sony NEX 7 has been my main camera with an NEX 6 as backup. I'm still really pleased with the NEX 7 and although it's a little battered now I hope it'll last quite a few more years. The NEX 6 however, whilst okay as a backup, doesn't have as good image quality as the NEX 7 nor as easy to use controls and I've never been really happy with it.

Sony replaced both the NEX 6 and 7 with the a6000 a few years ago, having dropped the NEX name. At the time I didn't think it offered enough to justify upgrading. So why have I bought one now? With a big trip coming up (more on this soon) I want two 24mp cameras (the NEX 6 is 16mp) with a lens on each so I can use them alternatively and know the results will be the same quality. I did consider the a6300, Sony's latest camera in this series, but it's over twice the price of the a6000, which is currently available a real bargain, and its main advantages - 4k video and fast shooting - are not big concerns for me. It is weather resistant but my lenses aren't so that probably wouldn't be much of an advantage. From reading many reviews it seems the image quality is only marginally better than the a6000, if at all, and that's the main factor for me. I also briefly considered the full frame A7 which costs less with a 24-70 lens than the a6300 without a lens but I'm not convinced full frame has enough advantages to justify the extra weight.

I bought the camera from Jessops in Inverness - I always like to handle cameras to be sure I'm happy with them - and must praise the assistant there who gave good advice, listened patiently to my deliberations, and didn't try and push me towards the most expensive option. That's the way to get regular custom.

NEX 7 left, a6000 right
I bought the a6000 with 16-50mm lens even though I already have one of the latter. I think my old one is on the way out though - the focus/zoom ring no longer works - and I wouldn't want to rely on it on a long trip.

So my camera kit for long trips where weight matters will now be the Sony a6000 and NEX 7 bodies plus Sony E 10-18mm and 16-50mm lenses and Velbon V-Pod tripod. On other trips other lenses may come along - Sony E 55-210mm, Sony E 30mm Macro, Samyang 12mm, Sigma 30mm.

Initial tests with the a6000 suggest the image quality is much the same as that of the NEX 7 at low ISOs, as expected. Maybe at high ISOs it'll be a little better. The controls are better than those of the NEX 6 though I think I'll miss the top dual control dials of the NEX 7. The menu system is far more user friendly than that of the NEX cameras, which involves endless scrolling. I think I'm going to like this new camera, though it'll take a while to feel as familiar with it as I am with the NEX 7.

Thursday 8 September 2016

Some books I've been reading ......

The pile of books by my desk waiting to be reviewed has been growing for months now. With a long trip coming up and much to do before I go I’ve realised that if I wait until there’s time to review each one individually some or all will be missed. So here’s brief review of seven of them, in no particular order. All are recommended.

Inglorious: Conflict In the Uplands by Mark Avery, published by Bloomsbury, £16.99

The driven grouse shooting industry has become a big conservation issue in the last few years, in large part due to the passion and commitment of one man, Mark Avery. His book is a damning indictment of driven grouse shooting and its negative effects on the environment, and birds of prey in particular. Avery’s arguments are backed up by facts and careful analysis and this is a significant and important book. It’s also very reasable.

Mountains and Rivers: Dee Valley Poems from Source to Sea by Brian Lawrie, published by Malfranteaux Concepts, £9.50

This little book of poetry celebrates the river Dee and the Cairngorms in which it has its source. The author captures the hills and the river and the feelings of being there well in these sparse but powerful poems. A book for quiet contemplation. Some good photographs by Mick McKie too.

The Rainforests of Britain and Ireland: A Traveller’s Guide by Clifton Bain, published by Sandstone Press, £24.99

This is a companion volume to The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland, which I reviewed here, and covers the deciduous forests of the Atlantic edge. It’s packed with information plus travel details and tantalising photographs. If you’re heading west and like trees this book would be an invaluable companion.

The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland: A Companion Guide by Clifton Bain, published by Sandstone Press, £11.99

This little book is an abridged version of The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland and is designed to be carried in the pocket or the pack. It contains brief descriptions, travel notes, maps and photographs. Measuring 16 x 11.75 x 1.25cms and weighing 245 grams it’s no burden to carry.

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf, published by John Murray, £25

The story of Alexander Von Humboldt is fascinating. A huge name in science and culture in the nineteenth century he has since faded from view, hence the subtitle of this book. I knew of him from mentions in the writings of Charles Darwin and John Muir but had no idea just what an important and influential figure he was and still is, even if the latter isn’t recognised. Wulf tells his story well and this book should do much to reinstate him, especially with conservationists.

Grand Adventures by Alastair Humphreys, published by Collins, £16.99

Want to plan a really big adventure? Or just want to dream about one? This book is packed with information, advice and inspiration for making that dream reality. Apart from Humphreys himself fifty or so other adventurers, explorers, climbers and outdoors people give their stories and their suggestions for everything from bicycle trips to ocean crossings to mountain climbs. 

Let My People go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard, published by Penguin, £20

First published ten years ago this book by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has been extensively updated and expanded for a new edition. The author details his parallel development as a businessman and an environmentalist and how he sees the two as intertwined, describing how Patagonia is run for environmental aims. An important book that repays rereading.

Sunday 4 September 2016

Rewilding in Scotland

Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

With rewilding in the news again here's a piece I wrote earlier in the year for The National newspaper.

Rewilding has become a buzzword in outdoor and countryside circles in recent years, a word with enough power to really excite or annoy depending on whether you see it as positive or negative.  The concept was first developed in the USA in the 1990s and meant the restoration of huge wilderness areas by the reintroduction of big predators that have a crucial effect on biodiversity. Now that’s fine in North America where vast wilderness areas exist, many already with bears, wolves, and mountain lions. Some of these may have been wiped out in some areas (grizzly bears in California for example, where, ironically, it’s the state animal) but the right environment is there for them to return, either by themselves when persecution declines, as is happening with grizzly bears in the North Cascades, or by reintroduction, as with the successful return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. 

Black bear in the High Sierra, California
How though can the rewilding concept be applied here in Scotland where the whole country is only the same size as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and less than a fifth the size of California and where most of our native forests are long gone? And should it be applied anyway? As a long-time lover of wild places and supporter of nature conservation I have no doubts about the value of rewilding, of having greater biodiversity and a wilder landscape. That doesn’t mean I think we should try and rewild everywhere and certainly not productive farmland. However in the hills where farming is marginal if it exists at all and the land is already fairly wild the return of more varied wildlife and vegetation should be welcomed. I first realised how bare and impoverished many of our hills and glens are after walking through huge wilderness areas on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains of the Western USA. Here I spent week after week in beautiful forests that extended up the mountainsides before fading out as the trees shrank in size and number. There are few places here where you can see similar forests or a natural timberline.

Rewilding in Scotland means initially the restoration of a natural forest, something that’s been happening in some areas for many years. Back in the 1950s and 60s experimental work on forest regeneration and preservation began on the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. The late Dick Balharry, a key figure in Scottish conservation, was involved in this and then took the work forward in the 1980s at the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve, where the result is a flourishing woodland on what were once bare slopes. Changes in the remit of the Forestry Commission and the reforesting work of organisations like Trees for Life, the John Muir Trust, the Woodland Trust and the RSPB has seen other forests start to spread. These areas are still small though and much more could and should be done.

Ancient forest in the North Cascades

Returning forests can only be part of rewilding though. For a healthy, self-sustaining natural environment there needs to be much greater diversity of wildlife than we have now. In particular predators are needed to control grazing animals, not just by reducing numbers but also by affecting their behaviour so they move on more frequently and even avoid some areas completely, allowing vegetation to flourish and with it a greater diversity of birds and smaller animals. Ultimately the key species is the wolf, though much as I would love it now I think it will be a long time before we hear a pack howling in our hills, but the introduction of lynx, far more likely, would almost certainly make a significant difference. In the meantime over-grazing by deer can only be reduced by culling – we are their only predator - or by fencing. However whilst lynx are in the future and wolves far, far away sea eagles and beavers are already here. If they spread, as they should, this would be an important part of rewilding. 

No trees, many deer

Rewilding can seem to be about nature not people. It shouldn’t be. Rewilding is about both. We are part of nature. In fact there could be more people living in now-empty glens yet they could still be wilder than they are now. A forested glen with rich wildlife plus human habitations is preferable to a bare glen with ruins. Rewilding shouldn’t affect access to the hills in any way either. I am completely opposed to fencing huge areas for wolves to run around in whilst people are only allowed on vehicle safaris to see them. That would just be a big zoo not a restored natural landscape.

Natural woodland beside Loch Morar

In the end the question of rewilding is whether we want a healthier natural environment with richer plantlife and wildlife, whether we want our already spectacular landscape to be even more magnificent and beautiful. It could easily be so if the will was there.