Wednesday 30 November 2016

Update: Gear I've reviewed for my column on the TGO website

Snugpak Snugnut hat

Over the last few months I've reviewed a fair amount of gear for my Gear Editor's Column on The Great Outdoors website, some of the pieces submitted during my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk. Here's what I've been trying, with links:

Care Plus Anti Tick

Thule Covert CSC Sling

Matador Freerain 24

Powertraveller Extreme

Treksta Mega Wave

Sherpa Kailash

Uneaq All-Terrain

Snugpak Snugnut 

Keela Sherpa

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Cold, Snow & Treacherous Heather on Sgor Gaoith

Sgor Gaoith & Loch Einich

Sometimes the weather and underfoot conditions conspire to make a walk a little harder and more challenging than expected. Such was the case a couple of days ago when I headed up Sgor Gaoith from Glen Feshie. The forecast suggested light winds, a little sunshine, a bit of cloud, good visibility, no precipitation, freezing temperatures. The last was correct. Underfoot I had no idea what to expect other than some remaining snow after a couple of days of a slow thaw.

The temperature at home was -5°C and there was a thick frost as I set off for the Cairngorms. There’d been no change in temperature when I arrived in Glen Feshie. The tree-shaded parking area in the glen was slick with ice and a thick ribbon of the stuff covered the track through the trees. Reluctant to put on crampons – micro spikes would have been better – I hugged the edge of the ice, my trekking poles stopping the occasional slip from becoming a fall. Higher up the ice turned to crunchy snow and the going became a little easier.

The track in the forest

Eventually the track became a path and the path grew thinner and thinner until it faded away altogether on a snow and heather covered hillside. More snow and it would have been crampons and ice axe but although there were extensive patches there were also big sections of heather with only a little snow on top that I broke through with every step. Crampons would have been a liability here. Zigzagging erratically across the slope I linked the heather, where a fall wouldn’t have meant a slide, with smaller snow patches where I wouldn’t slide very far. 

Extensive snowfields remain after the thaw
Once the terrain eased off and I reached the broad ridge south of Sgor Gaoith the snow was just about continuous. It was quite firm and walking was now easy, the easiest of the whole day in fact. However the bitter wind made it feel extremely cold and bands of damp cloud swept over me, adding to the chill. Most of the peaks were shrouded but Sgor Gaoith itself was cloud-free and I was thrilled yet again with the tremendous view 600 metres down the shattered cliffs to Loch Einich. I will never tire of this view.
Sgor Gaoith

I didn’t linger though. There’s no shelter on the tiny summit and the wind was strengthening. The Peak of the Winds was living up to its name. I headed north for Sgoran Dubh Mor but on reaching the low point between the two peaks decided climbing it in the cloud and wind wasn’t worth the effort. Instead I turned off for the wide rocky ridge that runs over the two subsidiary tops of Meall Buidhe and Geal Charn. The stones were slippery with frost and ice and the patches of snow a mix of breakable crust that wouldn’t hold my weight and icy refrozen snow that was as hard as rock. The south-west wind was strengthening and pushing me sideways as I stumbled over the unforgiving ground. On Geal Charn I was in the densest mist of the day, a grey cloud that hovered over the grey frost and refrozen-snow covered rocks, an eerie scene.

On Geal Charn
Descending from Geal Charn I plunged into the most difficult terrain of the day. Deep heather and soft snow made the walking arduous and treacherous. I never knew how deep each step would go. Despite trying to avoid hollows and channels that might hold water I suddenly plunged in over my knee with one leg and felt the cold icy water rush into my boot. I stumbled on as darkness fell, heading for the relief of the outward path. My wet foot didn’t feel too cold until I reached the car. I had dry shoes but had neglected to bring dry socks. By the time I reached home my foot was painfully cold. I won’t forget the socks again!


Despite the weather and the tough terrain, or maybe because of them, it had been a satisfying day. A familiar walk had become unfamiliar and a surprising test. It’s always good when that happens.

Sunday 27 November 2016

An Afternoon at Findhorn

A kayaker heads out to sea

Sometimes the sea rather than the mountains calls. The wide open space of a vast beach and the surging sea stretching into the distance can feel as wild as any summit. The coast at Findhorn is the nearest to my home and a place I visit several times a year, each time thinking I mustn't leave it so long before I return again.

Findhorn Beach

On this late November afternoon the sky began blue with a bright sun then slowly faded to grey as clouds swept in from the west, thin at first and then gradually thickening and darkening. The tide had just turned and was still high on the beach, roaring against the shingle. Out beyond the crashing waves in calmer water rafts of common scoter ducks floated on the sea, their dark mass dotted with splashes of the white of eider ducks. Oystercatchers ran along the water's edge and gulls soared overhead.

The tide surges

The tide retreats

I wandered down to the sea's edge. The foaming water raced over the sand to lap against my feet then slid back across the barely sloping beach, leaving streaks of white.

By the time I reached the curving shingle spit that marks the curving narrow mouth of Findhorn Bay the sky was mostly clouded, the water pale and shining. A lone kayaker let the racing tide carry his craft out towards the open sea. Out on a sandbank lay the dark silhouettes of seals, their mournfall cries carrying across the water.

The mouth of Findhorn Bay

Some Good Conservation News: Scottish Beavers Can Stay

Beaver ponds on Vinal Creek in the Purcell Mountains, Montana

All too often conservation news is bad. It's about dead raptors, mountain hare slaughter, the destruction of wild land by developments, about a desperate-seeming struggle to try and protect what's left. Occasionally though there's a positive story, a story that gives hope for the future, that eases the burden of concern. That was the case this week when the Scottish Government announced that beavers are to be officially recognised as a native species and that the two populations already existing in Scotland - those in the official reintroduction trial in Knapdale in Argyll and the unofficial ones along the River Tay - can remain.

The last beavers were exterminated in Scotland in the sixteenth century. Now, after 400 years, they are not only back but protected. This is very significant as it's the first formal reintroduction of a mammal ever in Scotland and the whole of the UK.

I think this is excellent news for the beavers, for wild land, and for the future. It sets a precedent that mammals can be reintroduced. It's the most cheering news for quite a while.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust was one of the lead partners in the Knapdale trial. There's much more information on the SWT website.

Saturday 26 November 2016

A Week of Frosts & Wonderful Sunsets

After sunset, November 24

Today in Strathspey it's misty and damp with the hills hidden in cloud, a more typical November day than the previous week which has seen hard frosts at night and brilliant sunsets. There's no frost today and the snow is vanishing from the lower edges of the hills visible under the ragged edges of the grey clouds.

But the weather has been glorious.

A spot of colour in the frost
Crunchy leaves
A last rosehip hangs on
After sunset, November 25

The Great Outdoors December issue: Yosemite Valley to Death Valley, Hats & Gloves

Lake of the Lone Indian, John Muir Wilderness

In the December issue of The Great Outdoors, in the shops now, my backpacking column is about my recent walk from Yosemite Valley to Death Valley. This is in fact my last backpacking column. In 2017 I'll be writing other stuff, as you'll see.

In the December gear pages I review nine warm hats and eight pairs of gloves and mitts while Will Renwick looks at six tents suitable for stormy weather. I also try the Thule Convert CSC Sling camera bag.

Elsewhere in the magazine Alan Rowan - 'Moonwalker' - discusses the Corbetts (I'm reading his new book about his Corbetts round - A Mountain Before Breakfast - which I'll review soon); Mary-Ann Ochota describes her favourite upland archaeological spots (I have a copy of her new book Hidden Histories which I'll also be reviewing soon); Dan Aspel sleeps under the Shelter Stone and climbs Ben Macdui; Vivienne Crow has less spartan accommodation at Skiddaw House as she traverses Blencathra and Skiddaw; Ed Byrne tries paragliding; Grant Hyatt has a beautiful photo essay on the Brecon Beacons through the seasons; Jessica Tradati treks to Gokyo Ri in the Himalayas; Carey Davies revisits The Rocks on the Chevin; Roger Smith discusses energy production and the outdoors; and Jim Perrin writes about Eric Newby's hilarious A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush, one of my favourite outdoor books, but which he doesn't seem to like much. The Hill Skills section is all about weather, an important topic at this time of year.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Fine light over Bynack More & Beinn Mheadhoin this evening.

After a lovely sunny day the evening light over the snowy Cairngorms has been beautiful. Desk work has kept me in all day apart from a brief stroll - sometimes it's frustrating writing about the outdoors when the outdoors is calling! Now at 4.30pm it's already dark. The first stars are just appearing.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Fogbows, Mists, Sunshine & Snow: An Extraordinary Winter's Day In The Cairngorms

The fogbow appears

Sub-zero temperatures, snow on the hills, blue skies. The last few days have seen excellent winter weather in the Scottish Highlands. Unable to resist I tore myself away from my desk despite looming deadlines and headed for the Cairngorm Plateau to the walk over to Ben Macdui, a favourite trip anytime but especially when snow makes the mountains seem vaster and grander and more beautiful.

Arrival on the Cairngorm Plateau

Strathspey was under a layer of cloud as I drove to Coire Cas. Only as I passed Loch Morlich did the sunshine break through. The northern edge of the Cairngorms shone under a clear sky. It looked like being a wonderful day. Just how wonderful I had no idea. I climbed up the long ridge that leads to the Plateau, crunching through the snow. Once there I looked back to see clouds covering the valley.

A walker descends towards cloud-covered Strathspey

A few strands of mist drifted across the hills to the south but mostly the sky was clear as I set out for Ben Macdui. Many climbers were finishing routes on Stob Coire an t-Sneachda. There was no wind and in the sun the air was warm though the ground was frozen solid.

As I looked across the Plateau the mist began to rise and thicken and the sun became a huge ball shining hazily through the thick air. The world started to feel a little insubstantial.

The Cairngorm Plateau

The mist moved slowly over the snow, creeping up slopes and slipping over the rocks. At times I could see little, at other times the brightness was harsh yet distant hills were vague and soft. At one point I was under a blue sky and sharp sunshine yet all around rose walls of mist, making me feel I was at the bottom of a deep hole, not a usual feeling high on a mountain plateau!

Then the fogbow appeared, a giant white arc over the eastern sky. It stayed there all the way to Ben Macdui, fading occasionally, showing signs of colour at times, but always there, dominating the landscape. I've never seen one so big, so clear or for so long before. It was truly extraordinary.

The fogbow

To the west the mountains came and went in the mist. Cloud draped their shoulders then rose to envelope the summits before sinking or drifting away. Nothing felt quite real. A word came to mind. Phantasmagorical.

Hazy hills

Underfoot the snow varied from soft and deep to sparse and icy. I didn't crampons or ice axe but was glad I had them. A slight hardening of the surface and they'd have been necessary. On Ben Macdui the sun shone whilst the mist shrouded the hills to the east.

As I returned across the Plateau the mists cleared a little and the world looked a little sharper though sudden surges of cloud reminded me this was not a 'normal' day.


The shadows were lengthening and stretching out to Cairn Gorm, which glowed in the low sun above glens filled with cloud, as I left Ben Macdui behind.

Cairn Gorm

Crossing the slopes of Cairn Lochan as dusk fell and the now hidden sun lit up distant clouds I looked down into a sombre grey Lairig Ghru pass stretching out into mist-filled Strathspey. Soon it was dark and an extraordinary day was over.


Sunday 20 November 2016

Signs Along The Way

Sorting through the images from my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk I found I'd taken many pictures of signs and notices. These vary from informative, like the one above, to instructional, directional and commanding. Here are a selection. Every one brings back memories and stirs dreams.