Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Classic Gear: Rohan Bags

Bags page in the 1987 Rohan Catalogue with pictures of me on the Continental Divide Trail

Third in the Classic Gear series that appeared in The Great Outdoors last year. This time, some revolutionary trousers.

Lightweight, windproof, fast drying, and comfortable walking trousers have been standard wear for many years. It wasn’t always so though. Back in the 1970s, when I started hillwalking and backpacking, walking legwear was quite heavy and made of wool or cotton so it was slow drying and uncomfortable when damp. It was bulky when packed too – you didn’t want to carry a pair in a rucksack. I remember getting cold legs in wet cotton corduroy trousers in summer and sore itchy legs from harsh wet wool rubbing against them in winter.

Thankfully this all changed at the end of the decade when a new innovative company called Rohan introduced trousers in a thin windproof and fast drying tightly woven polyester/cotton fabric they called Airlight. Where did the fabric come from? Knowing that the properties wanted weren’t available in standard clothing fabrics Rohan founders Paul and Sarah Howcroft looked elsewhere and discovered what they wanted in duvet covers! This imaginative look beyond the outdoor and clothing industries would change what we wear in the hills forever.

Bags page in the 1983 Rohan catalogue

The first trousers, called Trotters, quickly evolved into Bags, launched in 1979, with the distinctive design that has stayed the same ever since with its double-front pockets and tough zips. Bags were originally designed as travel and approach walk trousers for mountaineers and so needed to be lightweight, quick-drying and easy care whilst still being functional and hard-wearing. Of course this meant they were also excellent for hillwalking and backpacking. 

Wearing Bags on the Continental Divide Trail

Bags did take a while to become really accepted. Many found it hard to believe such thin trousers could perform well and stand up to outdoor use. I was quickly convinced – an early adopter in today’s parlance. When I first saw them I was delighted with the low weight (284 grams) and the tiny pack size. I’d never seen any outdoor trousers anywhere near that light or that tiny when packed and I realised that they’d be ideal for my upcoming 2,700 mile Pacific Crest Trail through-hike. They proved excellent on that 1982 walk so I used them again on the even longer Continental Divide Trail three years later. There was no way I was going back to heavy, itchy, slow-drying wool and cotton trousers.

Rohan ad in The Great Outdoors, February, 1987 showing how small Bags pack
Rohan started a trend with Bags and since then many alternatives have appeared from many companies and lightweight trousers with the same properties are now the norm. The original design is still available, along with insulated Winter Bags for cold weather and softshell Stretch Bags for those who like close-fitting trousers. All three share that same design from 1979. It’s just as practical now as it was then. That Bags are still in production after thirty nine years and still popular is testimony to the pioneering designs and fabric research of Rohan all those years ago. 

Book Review: Lonely Scotland A guide to hunting, trapping and wildlife persecution in Scotland

Hill goers often encounter traps in the woods and hills. How do you know if they are legal or not? This new guide from OneKind will tell you. A disturbing number of different traps are described, both legal and illegal, though note that the former are only legal if set correctly. This guide shows you how to check they have been and what to do if you suspect a wildlife crime. Every type of trap is illustrated with pointers as to what to look for to see if it's being used correctly. I don't like traps of any sort but whilst it's legal to use them it is important that this is done properly to reduce the suffering caused to victims.

The guide also contains information on different types of hunting and how they are carried out and on commonly persecuted species and what legal protection they have. Overall it's a very useful if grim little book packed with information on wildlife persecution. It's available from OneKind at no cost - a donation is requested.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Hen Harrier Day Highland 2018

August 12. The day red grouse are blasted out of the sky by people who enjoy killing small birds. And in the name of ensuring there are plenty of grouse to kill many other birds and animals that might eat the grouse are slaughtered year round. A wonderful graceful raptor, the hen harrier, has become the symbol of those of us who oppose this abuse of wildlife as there are far too few of these birds, especially on grouse moors.

In 2014 a new group, Birders Against Wildlife Crime, organised the first Hen Harrier Day as a way of raising awareness about hen harriers and their plight. Now Hen Harrier Day events are held all over Britain in the weeks leading up to the Inglorious Twelth. This year the one for the Scottish Highlands took place in the Grant Arms in Grantown-on-Spey on the twelth itself.

There were stalls from various groups including BAWC, the Scottish Raptor Study Group, OneKind,  and the RSPB, and six speakers, all of them interesting.  Andy Wightman MSP gave an excellent hard-hitting talk on land ownership and control, politics and power, the damage driven grouse shooting does to the land in general as well as to raptors, and the need for "a much more robust approach to those who break the law... If someone in another industry consistently breaks the law then they lose their licence to operate in that industry." 

Other speakers were raptor expert Brian Etheridge, who showed some wonderful pictures of hen harriers; zoologist and wildlife journalist Isla Hodgson, who spoke about her recent work on conservation conflict (it's much more complex than you might think); wildlife detective Alan Stewart, who offered some fascinating insights into wildlife crime investigations; OneKind director Harry Huyton, who talked about the campaign to stop mountain hare slaughter, and Grant Moir, CEO of the Cairngorm National Park, who talked about the park's work and what it hopes to achieve regarding wildlife.

I found the event invigorating, inspiring, and informative. I hope that this and all the other Hen Harrier Day events lead to a time when they're no longer needed.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Glen Etive Under Threat

Glen Etive is a lovely glen in the Western Highlands, surrounded by fine rugged mountains laced with deep narrow ravines and corries down which tumble fast flowing streams. The latter have attracted the eye of developers and there are plans for run of the river hydro schemes on seven of them. If allowed to go ahead these will completely alter the character of the glen and destroy its wild land feel. This is an area that should be left to become wilder with the pressures of overgrazing and commercial forestry removed not one sacrificed for a tiny smidgeon of energy.

All the proposed schemes lie in areas that are supposed to be protected - the Ben Nevis and Glen Coe National Scenic Area, the Glen Etive and Glen Fyne Special Protection Area and Wild Land Area 9 Loch Etive Mountains. If these designations are to mean anything these schemes should not go ahead. The developers of course say they'll leave no mark - a standard claim that's virtually never true. However much restoration is done - again always promised, not so often carried out - the landscape will not be the same, it will be sullied.

Of many trips I've made to Glen Etive over the years one stands out. Late one winter I walked up beside the Allt Chaorainn - one the rivers threatened with development - and camped beside it for two nights while I explored the surrounding hills. There was snow on the tops, frosts at night, and, once away from the road in Glen Etive, no signs of human developments. It should stay like that. All the photographs in this piece were taken on that trip.

For more information with a detailed analysis of the schemes and their potential impact plus information on how to object to them see this excellent post from Parkswatch Scotland.

The John Muir Trust has objected to three of the schemes - including Allt Chaorainn.  John Low, policy officer for Trust says: “These hydro schemes would introduce permanent new tracks and related works into the wild land of the Glen Etive Mountains. It’s clearly not the right place, the impact on the landscape and its scenic qualities would be significant.”

Mountaineering Scotland and the Grampian Club have objected too, especially in relation to a club hut that would be affected. For the Grampian Club David Gibson says 'if approved, these schemes would have a significant visual and physical impact on the wild land and amenity of the glen for walkers, climbers, photographers and canoeist'.

If you care about Glen Etive and wild places in general please object to these schemes. We cannot afford to lose more of the little wild land we have left.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Loch an Eilein and the Argyll Stone: a Cairngorms walk

The heatwave in the Highlands has decayed. Rain and wind have cooled the hills. Warmth comes in bursts now rather than blasting heat all day long. Loch an Eilein at the end of July was surging with windswept waves. Low clouds streaked across the sky, bringing distant squalls. The air felt heavy and sticky. Brooding.

There hasn't been that much rain though and the effects of the heatwave can still be seen. Above is a dried up pool in the forest. This is what it looked like a year ago.

The old steep overgrown path up Coire Follais is strenuous and rough but the rewards are the glorious forest, the rugged crags, and the tumbling burn, still rushing down despite the heatwave. This is a wonderful wild and secretive place.

In open areas there are views back over Loch an Eilein. The forest feels vast. It's easy to imagine it stretching out across the Highlands, mile after mile after mile. If only. At least we have this remnant. And it is slowly expanding.

As the trees began to fade as I climbed higher the heather took over, turning purple now. There were bilberries, deliciously sweet, but also a cold wind that kept me moving, my sweat-soaked clothes feeling chilly now.

Once I reached the long ridge separating Glen Feshie and Gleann Einich the wind battered me. Here I was just below the clouds. The higher hills were hidden. Patches of blue sky came and went, as did grey squalls of rain. Streaks of rainbows appeared and faded. I felt a touch of rain, no more. Soon I was heading down steep rough pathless slopes into the shelter of the trees.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Loch an Eilein revisited: how's the damaged forest?

In March last year I visited Loch an Eilein in Rothiemurchus Forest in the Cairngorms and was appalled at some logging that was taking place. I wrote about that here. Following that piece I was invited by the estate to come and talk to them. I did so and was given assurances that the logging was for conservation, that it was to open up the forest to more undergrowth and provide a better habitat for conservation. I was unconvinced. I still am. I can see no justification to damaging pristine pine forest.

On the last day of July this year I returned to Loch an Eilein to see what the logged area looks like now. I'd been told it would be tidied up and the signs of logging would soon start to disappear. Sixteen months later there's not much sign of that, as these photos show. It's still an ugly mess, an eyesore.

The damage will fade over the decades of course, though those vehicle tracks will remain scars for a very long time, but this should never have been done in one of the last remnants of natural Caledonian pine forest.

Meanwhile the estate is still asking walkers to stay on signed paths and saying 'we all care'. This sign is on the gate leading to the logged area. How long would it take walkers wandering off the paths to do this damage?

Last year I walked through the logged area at the start of my walk - I didn't know it was there - and it shook me. I thought about it most of the day. This time I did the same walk but went round the other side of Loch an Eilein so as to avoid the area until the end of the walk so the sight of it didn't spoil my day. I'll share some pictures and describe the walk in my next post.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

New book out soon: Along the Divide

My next book is due out soon. It tells the story of my Scottish Watershed walk and the various thoughts and feelings it engendered, leading to many digressions into conservation, politics, the outdoors and more as I attempt to link together various facets of my life into a coherent whole.

There are pictures too!

Along the Divide is published by Sandstone Press. The official publication date is September 20.

Friday, 27 July 2018

For National Parks Week: Pictures of the Cairngorms

View across the Lairig Ghru from the Cairngorm Plateau

This is National Parks Week so here are some of my favourite pictures of my favourite park, the Cairngorms. Any excuse!

Autumn, Ryvoan Pass

Loch an Eilein
Loch Muick
Castle Grant & Braeriach

Camp on the Moine Mhor, looking to Sgor Gaoith

Lochan Uaine, Ryvoan Pass

View down the Lairig Ghru from Ben Macdui

Camp in the Lairig Ghru

Ben Macdui from the White Mounth

Sunrise, Gleann Einich
Camp on the Cairngorm Plateau

Cairn Toul

Igloo on the Moine Mhor

Camp with Terry Abraham on Mullach Clach a'Bhlair

Camp above Loch Avon

Braeriach & Loch Einich
Camp in Glen Feshie
Sgor Gaoith

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Classic Gear: The Primus Stove

Second in the Classic Gear series that appeared in The Great Outdoors last year. This time, a revolutionary stove.

When explorers started venturing high into the mountains and far onto the polar ice in the second half of the nineteenth century they had a problem. How to stay hydrated. Melting snow required fuel and stoves and took time. Before then polar travellers were ship-based and terrestrial explorers stayed below the treeline most of the time and so had wood to burn. Various alcohol burning stoves were developed but these were slow, inefficient and required large amounts of fuel, which meant heavier loads to carry and a limit on how far explorers could go. The first paraffin (kerosene) stoves were only a little better and gave off soot and fumes.

An original Primus stove
This all changed in 1892 when Swedish inventor Frans W. Lindqvist developed the first sootless paraffin pressure stove. This stove had a burner mounted over a fuel tank. To pressurise the fuel there was a pump on the side of the tank. A valve on the burner released the pressurised fuel which rose up vaporising tubes to shoot out of a jet as a gas. Once this gas was lit it spread out round a metal plate in a ring of flames. This design makes very efficient use of the fuel and is the basis for every liquid petroleum stove ever since. It really was a revolutionary design. Lindqvist set up a company to market his invention and named the stove Primus – the Latin for first.

Primus factory in 1907

Explorers quickly recognised the value of the Primus stove, particularly the great Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. He knew the disadvantages of alcohol stoves from his crossing of Greenland, the first time this had been achieved, when he said he had suffered from ‘arctic thirst’. For his ‘furthest north’ expedition in 1883 he took Primus stoves, which were far more fuel efficient and burnt much hotter for melting snow. Later, in 1911, his protégé Roald Amundsen took Primus stoves to the South Pole. 

Primus stoves quickly became the standard for expeditions and remained so into the 1970s, being used by the successful 1953 Everest Expedition amongst many others. They became standard stoves for hiking and cycle touring too with different sizes being manufactured such as the popular 00 (1 pint) and 96 (half pint) models. In the early 1980s when I led backpacking trips for Outward Bound Loch Eil we used 00 Primus stoves that didn’t look that different from the original design of nearly 100 years earlier.

OmniLite Ti
At first glance today’s Primus stoves don’t seem much like the first ones or even the 00 or 96. The big change has been the move of the fuel tank from under the burner to off to the side with a hose linking the two. Modern stoves can burn several different fuels too and are made from materials such as titanium that weren’t available earlier. The basic principles are the same though, as can be seen by looking at Primus’s top of the line OmniLite Ti. There’s still a pump to pressurise the liquid fuel, a valve to release it, and a jet out of which vapour shoots upwards before hitting a metal plate and spreading out. This design has stood the test of 125 years of use. It looks like it’ll go on for many more.