Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Mount Whitney, May 22, 1982 & October 13, 2016

Mount Whitney, 2016

On May 22nd thirty-five years ago I climbed Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous States, as a side trip from the Pacific Crest Trail, along with three companions. Last October I climbed the mountain again as part of my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk. The two ascents couldn’t have been more different.

Climbing Whitney in 1982

The crest in 2016

In 1982 the High Sierra was still deep in snow. We climbed Whitney with crampons and ice axes, the summer trail only visible in places.  The long narrow rocky crest that leads to the summit dome was banked up with snow and ice in many places. The drops either side were at times terrifying as we edged across gaps. On reaching the big rounded summit we decided not to return the same way. Instead we descended south on steep slopes then slid down one of the long gullies that split the face of the mountain. The 18 mile round trip from our camp at Crabtree Meadows took 13 hours. The view from the summit was alpine – snowy peaks stretching out into the distance.

Scott Steiner sliding down the gully in 1982

Last autumn the mountain was bare of snow, a world of rock. I followed the same route but this time on a clear trail the whole way. Without realising it I took a photograph through one of the gaps in the crest that almost matches one from my first climb. 


Oddly, the summit was colder on my second ascent than on my first as a cold wind swept the mountain. In 1982 the air was still and I’m on the summit without a hat. In 2016 I’m wearing the hood of my insulated jacket. The distant views are of granite peaks rather than alpine mountains.
On the PCT side trip we took two packs between the four of us (we only  had huge backpacking ones) so half the time I was carrying nothing. Last year I took my full pack to the summit and then all the way down to Whitney Portal on the east side of the mountain, a trip of 15 miles that took 10 hours.



Looking at my old Kodachrome transparencies I can see how the deep snow transformed the mountains. It’s the same place I was last October and yet a different one too. I’m the same person too, and also a different one with 35 more years of wilderness wandering to look back on. Mount Whitney was magnificent in 1982. And in 2016.

Summit plaque 2016

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Remaining Snow in the Northern Cairngorms

View across Coire Domhain to Cairn Toul

After nearly two weeks of hot dry weather I thought I’d have a look at how much snow remained in the Northern Cairngorms so on May 18 I headed up to the Cairngorm Plateau. I could see specks of white from far away but it’s always hard to tell from a distance how much is hidden in gullies and corries.

Coire an t-Sneachda
There wasn’t that much visible in Coire an t-Sneachda, though the snow at the top of the Goat Track was unbroken, but once I’d crossed its eponymous peak I was surprised at the extent of the remnant snow patches, especially in Coire Domhain where the line of snow holes that are dug every winter was still visible. The big drift these were on is several feet deep in places with cracks in places where the snow has started to creep downhill. Approaching the snow holes I could see that these too ran back into the drift for two or three feet. 

Remnant snow holes in Coire Domhain
I wandered down the corrie to the edge of the steep drop into the Loch Avon basin. Here I sat a while entranced as always by the dramatic view of rock and water. There were some high patches, though not as many as in most years. Below them the waters of the Feith Buidhe, Garbh Uisge Beag and Garbh Usige Mor thundered down. This snow is going fast. 

The head of the Loch Avon basin

The head of Corrie Cas

Snow patch on the path out of Coire Domhain

The top of the Goat Track above Coire an t-Sneachda

Cracks in the snow, Coire Domhain

Coire Domhain snow holes

In lower Coire Domhain

Friday, 19 May 2017

Thoughts on Tripods for Backpacking

On the summit of Ben Nevis

Following an interesting thread on Twitter prompted by AlexRoddie’s follow-up review of the Trailpix ultralight tripod I’ve been thinking about tripods and backpacking.

The first question is of course whether you need one. Say no to that and you’ve saved some weight and bulk but also limited the scope of your photography. I didn’t carry a tripod for quite a few years. In fact it never occurred to me to do so. Looking back at my pictures of the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail I wish it had. Two types of image are missing from those trips. Low light shots –dawn, dusk, night skies – and many self-portraits. The few of the latter I have were taken by people I travelled with or by balancing the camera on a boulder, tree stump or pile of stones - that’s why I’m quite often sitting down in the few pictures I have! 

On the Pacific Crest Trail - camera balanced on a rock
So the two reasons for carrying a tripod are low light images and, for solo backpackers, self-portraits that go beyond close-up selfies. Often I’m taking pictures of myself not as a selfie but to show someone hiking, cooking, pitching camp and doing other activities. 

Modern cameras with in-built stabilisation and good results from high ISOs do mean that reasonable images can be taken in low light conditions where it wouldn’t have been possible with low ISO films but even so I’ve not found I can handhold them for starry skies or even a dark sunset.

It was after my 1985 CDT walk that Peter Lumley, the publisher of Footloose, an outdoor magazine I was then editing, asked me why I didn’t use a tripod. I suspect he’d have liked more pictures of me for my articles on the trail. I remember that I replied ‘too heavy’. Rather than argue Peter showed me his own tripod. I don’t remember much about it except that it felt amazingly light. I borrowed it for a forthcoming trip to Iceland and was delighted with the opportunities it opened up. I’ve carried a tripod on every trip ever since. 

On the Moine Mhor

Looking for my first tripod after the Iceland walk with an arbitrary maximum weight of 1kg I quickly realised that most tripods were indeed too heavy, and that included ones described as ‘lightweight’. Only a few budget and ‘travel’ tripods seemed worth considering. I ended up with a Slik 500G tripod which, as the name says, weighed 500 grams. I took it on my walk the length of the Canadian Rockies in 1988. By the end of the walk the centre column wouldn’t tighten anymore but I had taken quite a few pictures I couldn’t have taken otherwise. I replaced that tripod with a 600 gram Cullman 2101 Backpack tripod which I still have and which has proved excellent. It went on five multi-month walks and dozens of shorter ones. Eventually the ball head would no longer hold the camera firmly but given the use the tripod had had I couldn’t complain. At some point I’d also purchased an expensive Gitzo Loisir tripod as a possible replacement. It was more compact than the Cullman but heavier at 790 grams and not as tall. It did have a good ball head though so I transferred this to the Cullman. I still have the Loisir but haven’t used it in many years. 

When I changed from SLRs to smaller, lighter mirrorless cameras some seven years ago I started to think about a smaller, lighter tripod and eventually bought a 281 gram Velbon V-Pod. This has also proved excellent and has lasted longer than I expected. I used it on my Scottish Watershed walk and it’s been on many other trips. 

Night in the Lairig Ghru, taken using Velbon V-Pod tripod
There are of course limitations to lightweight tripods. They don’t have the height of heavier tripods and there’s little point extending the centre column as it’ll almost certainly wobble. The V-Pod extends to 80cms without using the centre column which I find just adequate. Only extending the legs as far as necessary is wise too, again to avoid the chance of it wobbling. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of light tripods is the lack of wind resistance. If there’s more than a breeze they can easily blow over. Something heavy like a stuffsack full of stones can be attached to the bottom of the centre column to stabilise them but this doesn’t stop them shaking in a strong wind. I long ago accepted I wouldn’t be taking tripod shots when it was very windy

What about mini tripods? I’ve tried a few of these and I do have a Joby GorillaPod. I rarely use it though. I find such tiny tripods too low for most uses. Anything much shorter than the V-Pod would be too limiting for me.

From the left: Benro A530F, Manfrotto Digi, Cullman Backpack, Gitzo Loisir, Velbon V-Pod

I also have two heavier tripods, one of which I very occasionally take on day walks. The Manfrotto 724B Digi Tripod weighs 1432 grams and was bought for use at home photographing gear, books, magazines and other stuff. Then just last year I bought a 1330 gram Benro A350F tripod for a very specific purpose – photographing transparencies on a light box, which requires a reversed centre column. I can’t imagine taking either of these tripods on a backpacking trip. I’m aware though that many regard these as lightweight tripods.

From the left: Manfrotto Digi, Benro A530F, Cullman Backpack, Gitzo Loisir, Velbon V-Pod
Good though it has been my V-Pod is somewhat battered now. I hope it lasts a fair bit longer but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t so I’ve been looking for a replacement. Read Alex Roddie’s post to see why I’m not considering the Trailpix. I’d buy another V-Pod but it’s been discontinued. The nearest Velbon offers now is the Summit Tripod at 396 grams. That’s the heaviest I’d consider. Maybe I’ll buy one before it disappears too.