Monday, 11 December 2017

A Perfect Snowy Winter Day

View across lower Coire Ruadh

As the storms moved south and the weather in the Highlands calmed down I went up into the hills to see what the last blast of winter weather had brought. The roads were icy and the drive to Glen Feshie slow but there was compensation in the winter landscape, especially the trees heavy with snow.

From the upper glen I climbed the path towards Coire Ruadh, snowshoes on from the car. The air was cold - the car thermometer said -8C - but still and as the snow deepened and progress became more strenuous I discarded hat, gloves and finally jacket. Above the sky was a deep alpine blue and the sun shone, though no heat could be felt.

Not wanting to stay in the shaded glen when there was sunshine high above I changed my original plan of heading up the corrie and then returning over the tops. I wanted to be up there now. This last minute change led to a slower and more difficult ascent though and I didn't get as far as I'd hoped. Not that this mattered on such a glorious day. Just being here was enough.

As I neared the top of the pine forest a pair of grouse flew low and fast through the trees soon followed by two more. They made no sound. Black grouse maybe. Red grouse are usually noisy. Soon I could see where they'd been walking through the snow and the wing marks in the snow where they'd taken flight. There were mountain hare tracks too and I saw two of these, barely visible when stationary so good is their camouflage. My snowshoes were making rather larger impressions than hare or grouse in the soft white landscape and I felt clumsy and ponderous as I watched a hare dart across the snow.

High above faint wild cries broke the silence. As they grew louder I gazed upwards. A skein of geese, black and white against the deep blue sky. Their sound that of nature and wildness and beauty.

From a high col I turned south-east towards Geal Charn, now regarded as a subsidiary Top of Sgor Gaoith though it was listed as a separate mountain in the original Munro's Tables. This was my poor route choice. The recent storm had come from the north-west, the strong winds dumping snow on southern and eastern slopes. On northern and western slopes the snow was much thinner and here on Geal Charn's stony steep north-west face that meant many rocks poking through the snow with thick heather between them. Every hollow and dip was evened out by the snow filling them in. Sometimes I was scraping my snowshoes on rocks, sometimes sinking through unconsolidated powder into the heather below. Looking at my phone later it gave my average speed as 1.1mph. I could believe it. On the ascent it was nowhere near that.

The summit of Geal Charn

The arduous climb was worthwhile though. I reached the summit as the low sun lit up the bigger hills to the east, the snows glowing pink. Up here a faint breeze, barely noticeable, crept across the snow. With a temperature of -8C it was enough to chill me and hat and gloves were soon back on along with a down jacket as I replenished my energy with flapjack, chocolate and hot ginger cordial. With only a few hours of daylight left I decided this summit was enough. The glorious day required no more. I would go down.

A mix of tracks - boots, skis, crampons - led away from the summit and down into Coire Ruadh. I followed these and found deeper more consistent snow that I could plunge straight down on my snowshoes, ramming their tails down hard. I should have come up this way.

The sun sank in the west and a distant line of peaks were silhouetted against a red sky. The corrie and the woods below were shadowed now, cold and hard. As the last light faded I reached the first trees and finished the day walking by headlamp in their dark shadows.

Friday, 8 December 2017

The Joy of Winter Backpacking

The roaring wind is bringing great waves of snow to the Cairngorms. This is the biggest storm of the winter so far. When it calms down I'm looking forward to my first high camp of the season. In the meantime here's a piece on winter backpacking I wrote for The Great Outdoors two years ago, along with some photos of previous camps. I hope I have several more like this soon.

As I write this the hills are quiet and the snow deep for the first time this winter. After weeks of storms and freeze-thaw cycles the weather is more settled, the temperatures cold and the snow looking as though it’ll last more than twenty-four hours. A crescent moon hangs in the sky and the stars are bright. Whilst many may shiver and turn to indoor warmth, especially at night, I have the opposite reaction. This is real winter! This is exciting! I’ve been waiting for conditions like this, waiting to camp high in the hills on frosty nights and skim over the snow on skis. When it’s like this winter backpacking is truly wonderful.

Thinking of a first high level winter camp my mind turned to ones from the past, glorious camps on the Cairngorm plateaux, on Creag Meagaidh, on other Munros and Corbetts, and on lower hills. The starry skies, the vast expanses of snow, the distant horizons are what matter, not the particular hill. One of the freedoms of snow camping is that you can pitch your tent anywhere. There’s no need for flat ground or terrain into which tent pegs can be pushed. Stamp the snow flat for a comfortable pitch even on a slope or a boulder field where you would never camp when it was snow free. Skis, snowshoes, poles and ice axe can all be used as long secure pegs. Normal ones can be buried and stamped down. You don’t need to camp near a stream or pool or carry water either. Snow melts.

Whilst long evenings watching the stars and the pale hills can be deeply satisfying my real delight is in the dawns, is in waking warm and snug in my sleeping bag and looking out to see light return to the land, to see the hills turning from shadow to brightness, to watch the last stars fade and the sun turn the horizon pink and orange before it bursts into view with golden brilliance. Reach out a hand and light the stove. On with the down jacket and warm hat. Tighten the sleeping bag round the chest. Steam appears, clouds of it swirling in the frosty air. The hot drink – chocolate or coffee or a mix of the two – sends heat surging through my body. A pan of frozen muesli, set out the evening before, melts and starts to bubble. Soon there is thick warming fruity porridge for breakfast. Fortified by the food and drink it’s time to finish dressing and venture outside, crunching over the icy snow and stretching my arms to the heavens to welcome the new magnificent day. The distant white peaks beckon now. It’s time to pack and set off.

Backpacking over snowy hills can be arduous if you’re on foot and the snow is more than a few inches deep. That’s when skis or snowshoes make an astonishing difference. Especially skis. Gliding over the snow and swooping down slopes is exciting and liberating. With snowshoes you’re still walking but on the surface rather than sinking in with every step. Of course sometimes the snow may be so soft and deep even skis and snowshoes sink in but even then progress is easier than it would be on foot. At other times ice and hard snow may mean crampons are more secure (I always carry these) and the skis or snowshoes have to go on the pack. All these tools give a freedom that isn’t there for the walker without them. For me they’re part of my winter backpacking kit.

Also vital is a snow shovel, a hugely versatile item. Snow is extremely malleable. Wind shelters can easily be constructed for lunch stops, tents protected with walls, trenches dug in porches so you can sit up, snow shelters dug if the weather becomes stormy, snow gathered for melting. Shovels make good tent pegs too. 

The winter mountains under snow. Just glorious for backpacking.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Sometimes even an easy hill can be a challenge.

Ryvoan Pass from the ascent of Meall a'Bhuachaille

The first day of December turned out to be the last day of the recent cold spell. By the end of the day a big thaw was underway. Before this warmer weather arrived I thought I’d savour the last of the snow and the cold with a gentle walk over Meall a’Bhuachaille. With the thought of deep snow high up I took snowshoes and in case of icy patches or hard snow ice axe and crampons. Probably overkill but better to have gear I didn’t use than need it and not have it.

In the snow forest
In the forest the trees were heavy with snow. On the slopes above they faded into mist, as if they were dissolving into the sky. An Lochan Uaine was a black pool edged with white. Down here there was no wind and I was warm without gloves or hat and with jacket undone. 

The forested lower slopes of Meall a'Bhuachaille

As I left the trees a cool breeze picked up. Time to zip up and don thin gloves and woolly hat. The snow on the path up Meall a’Bhuachaille was thin at first, trampled by boots. As I left the last little trees behind the snow began to deepen. A couple came down, the only people I saw on the hill. “It’s deep up there”. “Good. I can use my snowshoes”. My trekking poles were already in use, helping with balance on the slippery path.

Ryvoan Pass
Soon the air was thickening and swirling, views becoming hazy and ethereal. With the mist came icy rain and sleet. Up went my jacket hood. The snow was deep enough now for snowshoes. It was a relief to get the weight of them off my back and onto my feet. By the time the snowshoes were on my gloves were soaked and my hands chilly. I shoved the gloves in a pocket and pulled on the next pair up in warmth and thickness. These were windproof too. These typical Scottish winter conditions - wet, cold, windy, temperature hovering around zero - are some of the hardest for staying warm and dry. Colder weather is actually easier to deal with as it isn't damp.

On the edge of the mist, sleet falling
Even with the snowshoes on climbing became quite difficult in places and progress slowed. The path vanished, leaving just a line of deep holes where people had walked. The heather here was covered by snow but the latter had no solidity and I kept breaking through, sometimes knee-deep. I quickly learnt to avoid any vegetation poking through the snow and weave a way up on the large areas of unbroken snow where I could more often stay on the surface. 

My hard-working snowshoes having a rest on the summit
Nearer the summit the snow became thinner again and there were more rocks and less vegetation. The sleet was colder now, the wind stronger. The effort of climbing through the snow meant I was sweating and my inner layers were getting damp. I couldn’t remove any layers though. My windproof trousers were wet and my legs chilly. 

On the summit

The big summit cairn came into view. I’d already decided I would stop and rest and have a snack and a hot drink. Knowing I would cool down quickly once I stopped I pulled a thick down jacket from my pack and put it on. Instant warmth! Up here the temperature was below freezing and the moisture on my clothes was turning to ice. I was glad the jacket was filled with water-resistant down though as it had to cope with being donned over damp clothes. Sitting on my pack I stretched out my legs. I didn’t remove the snowshoes as I didn’t want the inevitable cold fingers from unfastening and fastening the bindings. Ice was slowly forming on my damp trousers but the down jacket was so warm my legs no longer felt cold.

View down to Loch Morlich on the descent

My second pair of gloves were now wet so when I set off I donned a third even thicker and waterproof pair. As soon as I stood up in the wind I knew I’d keep the down jacket on until I was lower down and feeling very warm. The snow was much the same on the descent and although faster than the ascent it was still slow as I kept plunging deep into it. The path was again buried. Only when I reached the first trees did I remove the down jacket. Soon afterwards the snow thinned and the snowshoes came off too. Then deep in the trees and out of the wind I didn’t need the gloves or hood. I even unzipped the top of my jacket and let some hot air escape. It was hard to believe how savage the weather had been not far above.

On reaching my car I checked my watch. The walk had taken four and three-quarter hours. I was surprised. Normally it takes two and a half hours. I had been reminded just what a difference winter conditions can make and how a usually easy walk can become a serious outing.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Essential Gear For Winter Weather

Now that winter is well underway and cold days and even colder nights are the norm the contents of my pack have changed. On a winter day walk I always want to have enough gear that I could survive an unplanned night out. In summer with short hours of darkness and reasonably warm temperatures that doesn’t require much stuff. In winter it’s a different story. Nights are long and cold and can be very stormy.

Below are items I always carry regardless of the weather forecast or the conditions when I set off. Of course when there’s snow and ice on the hills I add ice axe and crampons and if the snow’s deep either skis or snowshoes and a snow shovel. (See here for my thoughts on ice axes, and here for skis and snowshoes).

My friend Mark well bundled up in a Cairngorms winter storm

Cold weather means cold hands and cold heads unless you have good gloves or mitts and warm hats. In summer I don’t carry gloves and often no hat either. If I do carry the latter it’s a Buff or a thin wool beanie just in case it’s a little chilly. This time of year I add a thicker hat and at least three pairs of gloves or mitts – thin liners, light fleece/softshell, waterproof shell mitts, thick insulated ones. Why so many? Well, to cope with different conditions to start with. Thin gloves are often adequate on their own if it’s not too cold or stormy. Light softshell or windproof fleece gloves come next and are the ones I wear most. In rain or snow waterproof shell mitts over either of these keep your hands dry and warm. And in really cold weather a thick pair of insulated gloves or mitts may be needed - I sometimes only wear these for short periods to warm up my hands but when I do I’m always glad I carried them. Also, having several pairs means if I lose a glove (I’ve had one blow away in the wind) or if a pair gets soaked I can still keep my hands warm.

In colder weather I wear thicker trousers and jacket and often wear my light fleece all day. That means I need more clothing to keep me warm when I stop so I always add an insulated jacket to my pack. This also means I have an extra layer for extreme cold. I very rarely actually walk in an insulated jacket but when I have it’s been really necessary.

Admiring the view on a cold day. The thick mat and insulated flask were very welcome.

I also carry a spare pair of socks in case the ones I’m wearing get wet and a pair of insulated trousers – I wore the last regularly during the filming of The Cairngorms In Winter as I was often standing round for long periods, usually they live in the pack just in case of extreme cold.

Long dark nights require light. Being cautious I carry a headlamp year round. In summer it’s often a very tiny minimalist one however as I know I’m unlikely to need it. Once the hours of darkness are longer than those of daylight I bring out a bigger headlamp with a more powerful beam. Every autumn and winter people are caught out by early darkness and have to be rescued as they don’t have a headlamp or torch. Having a decent one is important. I carry a spare too – it’s much easier to swap headlamps than batteries, though I do carry the latter as well.

I also carry a sitmat and a bivi/survival bag year round (I said I was cautious!). Again, though, these are usually minimal ones in summer – a thin small bit of foam and a plastic survival bag - and I do sometimes forget one or both of them. This time of year I carry a thicker, bigger foam pad – sometimes a full-length one - and a proper waterproof/breathable bivi bag plus a bothy bag in which I can sit up. I’ve never spent a night in the latter but I have used it as a lunch shelter a few times in storms. The warmth it provides is surprising, even when there’s only myself in it. Larger bothy bags for groups can get quite hot inside. 

Stinging spindrift sometimes makes goggles essential

For bright sunshine reflecting off the snow dark glasses are essential. These provide some protection against cold winds and blown snow but they’re not adequate in a blizzard, as I discovered many years ago when a descent took much longer than I thought because the snow kept blowing in behind my glasses and cutting my vision. Since then I’ve always carried snow goggles. Because these are usually worn in flat light I like ones with yellow or orange lenses as these help with visibility in these conditions.

A comfortable rest with a hot drink
Winter walking requires more food than in summer too both due to its strenuousness and the need to keep warm so I carry more, especially snack foods and trail mix that I can eat whilst walking. In a winter storm I don’t want to have to deal with sandwiches. If I have the latter they are sometimes only eaten when I get down. In really cold weather a hot drink can be really warming and reviving so I carry a thermos flask filled with spicy ginger cordial or, sometimes, a stove and packet soup or sachets of hot chocolate.

A version of this post appeared in The Great Outdoors many years ago.