Monday, 29 January 2018

Books Update: Canadian Rockies & Yukon ebooks, Scottish Watershed book

In the Richardson Mountains on the Yukon Walk

Some thirty years ago I did two long walks in Canada, the length of the Canadian Rockies (the first time this had been done) and the Yukon Territory from south to north. The walks resulted in two books - High Summer: Backpacking the Canadian Rockies and Walking the Yukon. These have been out of print for many years. I'm delighted to say that they'll be republished together as an ebook by Sandstone Press later this year. I signed and sent off the contract today.

In Waterton Lakes National Park near the start of the Canadian Rockies walk

I am also currently writing a book on my Scottish Watershed walk, which should be out late summer or early autumn (if I finish it on time!). After much discussion and thought this now has the title Along the Divide: Walking the Wild Spine of Scotland. Again the publisher will be Sandstone Press.

In the Fannichs on the Scottish Watershed walk

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Big Garden Birdwatch: A Plethora of Coal Tits

This year's Big Garden Birdwatch saw far more birds than last year, probably because the weather has been cold and wintry where last year it had been unseasonally mild for many weeks. Today though it was mild, +7C, overcast and drizzly.

Coal tits were the dominant birds with so many flying in and out that it was hard to count them. I definitely saw eleven at one time though I reckon there were far more than this. These hyperactive tiny birds rarely stay on the feeders for long. Chaffinches, the commonest bird the last two years, were down to just four.

In total nine species appeared, two more than last year. Eight are ones I've seen every day for many weeks now so not a surprise. There was a siskin though - I haven't seen one of these for many months.

It's always a pleasure taking part in the Birdwatch and actually recording what I see. I always look forward to the results too. Bird watching was one of my first outdoor activities and I've never tired of it. Birds are such an essential part of nature. We need to look after them and recording numbers is part of doing that.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Past Winter Days: Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour

The summit

Looking through old files I found this story of a long ago winter visit to Garbh Bheinn  of Ardgour. I really must go back one day.

Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour is one of the great neglected Highland hills. Many will have looked west to its dramatic dark ragged pyramid from Glencoe and Ballachulish but far fewer take the Corran ferry across Loch Linnhe and set foot on its rough slopes, even though it’s one of the finest hills in the West Highlands. The reason is simple. Garbh Bheinn misses Munro status by just 30 metres; enough to explain why it’s disregarded by most hillwalkers. 


Garbh Bheinn

I first headed to Garbh Bheinn early one year. As often on short deep winter trips with brief daylight hours I planned on setting up a wild camp below the hill one afternoon, climbing the peak the next day then walking out that evening.

The forecast was for cloudy weather with temperatures around zero at night in the glens and perhaps a little snow high up with light to moderate winds. The weather had been cold for several days and I knew there was snow and ice high up. My gear was selected for the likely conditions on the hill and with long winter nights in mind, when I like to have enough warm clothing that I don’t have to lie cocooned in my sleeping bag all the time plus a gas or candle lantern for a little warmth and to light up the tent porch.

Camp

My camp was in Coire an Iubhair, a fine curving corrie between steep mountain slopes. From here I climbed up the steep rocky side of the long ridge of Sron a’ Gharbh Choire Bhig and then to the summit of Garbh Bheinn. It was a very rough ascent. Low down the ground was frozen in places though soft in others, and there were patches of ice. Above 450 metres everything was frozen with increasing snow cover as I climbed. Mostly this snow was quite thin but there were some deep drifts and I went thigh deep into one. In places the snow was packed hard by the wind and I had to kick steps. Otherwise thin ice glazing on rocks, frozen icy turf, burns frozen into slippery bobbles of ice and skims of snow hiding sheets of ice meant constant care was needed. Slipping was easy; staying upright a little harder. There were many small crags and big boulders that might make interesting scrambles in summer. Alone on a cold January day they seemed best avoided so I wound a way up shallow gullies and between the rocky outcrops into the cloud swirling round the summit. The SW wind was cold and the temperature on top -1°C. I had intended descending the north ridge to the head of Coire an Iubhair but this is steeper and rockier than the ascent route so, given the mist and the ice, I decided it was prudent to return the same way. 

Loch Linnhe from the Corran Ferry

The piece first appeared in TGO magazine,accompanied by a much longer one about the gear I used.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The difference a day can make

The Cormdale Hills, January 20

The last weekend has seen a huge contrast in weather and conditions. Saturday was calm and crisp, the air well below freezing. High thin clouds drifted across a blue sky. The hills and woods shone. The day ended with a golden light. The snow underfoot was firm, boots biting in just enough to give good grip.

Snow falling, the Cromdale Hills hidden, January 21

Overnight the temperature fell to -9C. Then the weather changed. Sunday began with grey skies and a flat light, the hills hidden in the cloud. A bitter wind brought heavy snow showers. Underfoot the snow was icy. Saturday it was a joy to wander in a beautiful landscape, pausing frequently to watch the trees, the animal tracks, ice on pools, patterns in the snow. Sunday it was demanding coping with the weather and stopping even briefly was not appealing.

The Cromdale Hills, January 20

The Cromdale Hills, January 21

This is one of the pleasures and challenges of the Scottish weather, especially in winter. Hope for weather like Saturday's but always be prepared for weather like Sunday's.

Here's some more pictures of the two days. The ones from Sunday have not been converted to Black & White!

Castle Grant, January 20

Looking towards the Cromdale Hills, January 21


The day ends, January 20



Snowing, January 21


Thursday, 18 January 2018

Winter Collection


Over the years I've posted quite a few pieces on the skills and gear and pleasures for the winter hills. As they are scattered throughout the blog I've put together links here.

Wild Camping In Winter

Survival In Winter

Lightweight Gear In Winter

The snow's here! Skis or snowshoes?

Ski touring

Snow Shelters

Twenty Tips for Winter Camping

Ski Backpacking

The Joy of Winter Backpacking

Some Thoughts On Lightweight Flexible Footwear In Winter 

Some Thoughts On Ice Axes

Winter Is Coming! What I Wear And What I Carry

Winter Gear Laid Out


Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Scottish Access Rights: The Freedom of the Hills

Freedom

This year sees the fifteenth anniversary of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, passed in 2003 after many years of debate and campaigning. For outdoors people the most significant part of this Act is the access legislation, which establishes a statutory right of responsible access to virtually all land regardless of who owns it. This is one of the most enlightened rights of access in the world. It is something Scotland can justifiably be very proud of and something that needs guarding carefully. On January 11 campaigners, politicians, and outdoors representatives celebrated the anniversary at the Scottish Parliament at an event organised by RamblersScotland. That should be an annual event to remind current and future politicians of the importance of the legislation.

The Act only came about after the Scottish Parliament was re-established after 300 years in 1999. Before then any suggestions for access legislation were snuffed out by the landowners in the House of Lords (as was any idea for national parks in Scotland). The story of how the legislation reached its final form, and the ironic part the foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2003 played in it, is well-told by Cameron McNeish in this piece. BBC Radio Scotland's Out of Doors programe also had an excellent edition on the subject in general.

Before the legislation there was a de facto right of access, especially to the hills and wild places, but this was severely restricted in many lowland areas and in the hills during deer stalking. The oft-seen ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Keep Out’ signs held no legal authority – there was actually no law of trespass in Scotland - but were undoubtedly off-putting to many people.

The access rights, or ‘right to roam’ as it’s popularly known, are not unconditional. Responsibilities come with them. These can be summed up as do no damage, leave the land as you find it, and don’t disturb wildlife or people working in the outdoors. Much more detail can be found in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. 


Whilst the access legislation seems to be working pretty well it’s important that it’s not taken for granted and that any attempts to limit access rights is reported to local councils and access forums. Signs do still appear forbidding access or intimidating people by suggesting the wildlife is dangerous or high-powered rifles are in use. These can be ignored but should also be reported. 

 
Few countries have access rights anything like those of Scotland, Norway and Sweden being the main ones. Others, especially in the USA, are taking notice though. Outdoor clothing and environmental campaigning company Patagonia released an excellent video called Right To Roam about two American snowboarders learning about access and bothies and the Scottish Hills. And just recently the long-established and influential American magazine Backpacker published a long piece called Right To Roam: In Scotland, Hikers Can Go Anywhere by US park ranger and author Ken Ilungas (whose latest book Trespassing Across America sounds good) on whether the USA can learn from Scotland’s access rights. Ilungas hiked a section of the Cape Wrath Trail and talked to many people for this thought-provoking piece.

Our access legislation is to be cherished and protected. And we should never forget those who made it possible. Thanks to them all.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A bad weather retreat rewarded

Loch Morlich

The forecast wasn't good but as I had to be in Aviemore anyway and then drop off some snowshoes at Glenmore Lodge I thought I might as well go for a walk in the hills. A slow retreat ensued. In Coire Cas the car was rocking in the wind. I could see a small group practising ice axe braking on a nearby snow patch and other figures staggering in the wind. Fast moving clouds hid the summits. I ventured across the car park braced against the gusts. Maybe the Sugarbowl car park and a lower level walk to the Chalamain Gap was a better idea.

A brief, hazy, wind-shaken view of Creag an Leth-choin

The Sugarbowl was a sheet of ice. Sliding about holding onto the car while I unloaded my gear I wondered if I'd get out of the car park. Skirting round the edge I managed it. The path, thankfully, was less icy and sheltered from the wind as it crossed the deep ravine of the Allt Mor. Once up the other side the wind was ferocious. Some gusts stopped me moving, others blew me sideways. Bits of snow, gravel and heather lashed my face. Dim hill shapes came and went in the writhing clouds. I clung to my trekking poles. After nearly being blown over for the third or fourth time I decided this was foolish and I could injure myself - which would leave me feeling stupid if it happened on an easy path like this! Down to Loch Morlich I thought and a wander along the shore. Forty-five minutes after setting off I was back at the car.

The Allt Mor, Ryvoan Pass & Meall a'Bhuachaille

The loch was my reward for being sensible and retreating from the hills. The wind was sending big waves crashing onto the sandy beach where people sun themselves on hot days. In one corner shattered plates of ice had been driven onto the shore, remnants of the recent big freeze. Further out rafts of ice splinters surged up and down on the dark water. I'd never seen the loch like this before. Usually I only come here when the weather is good and the hills shine in the distance. Mostly I drive by on my way to and from the hills. Today I was glad the wind had persuaded me down here.

Mallards on Morlich

As I wandered the loch shore in the increasingly strong and cold wind I came across a large flock of mallard ducks bobbing on the water close to the shore. They seemed quite serene and unmoved by the weather as they rose and fell with the swell of the waves. Cold and wind-blasted I headed for Aviemore and hot coffee.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Great Oudoors February Issue: ice axes, Rohan Bags, OEX down jacket


The February issue of  The Great Outdoors is out now and unsurprisingly has a wintry feel. On that theme I review ten ice axes and Judy Armstrong reviews six pairs of crampons. I also review the OEX Zenon Ultralight Down Jacket, which has kept me warm on some freezing days in the Cairngorms.

The featured winter mountain in this issue is Helvellyn, with a feature by Felltop Assessor Graham Uney including six ascent routes. Other seasonal features, all with mouth-watering photos, involve Phoebe Smith on a winter night alone on the summit of Ben Nevis; Dan Aspel undertaking a snowy scramble on the Y Gribin ridge in Snowdonia; and David Lintern on the wonderful Ballachulish Horseshoe on the edge of Glen Coe. There's a guide to winter conditions too, from Glenmore Lodge Senior Instructor Derek Bain.

Away from winter, I tell the story of Rohan Bags, the trousers that started the lightweight legwear revolution. The piece is illustrated with some pictures of me wearing Bags on the Continental Divide Trail back in 1985. In two of them I'm on snow and holding an ice axe so I guess there is a winter connection!

Away from the snow for those looking for warm sunshine rather than winter hills Vivienne Crowe goes walking on Gran Canaria. In his Mountain Portrait column Jim Perrin looks at Pen-y-ghent in the Yorkshire Dales. Alex Roddie reviews Hamish Brown's Walking the Song and Roger Smith reviews Ashie Brebner's Beyond the Secret Howff, a book I'm looking forward to reading. Roger Smith also looks at the Thirlmere zipwire proposal, concluding that 'commercialisation such as this cannot be permitted'.

This year The Great Outdoors turns forty. This will be celebrated through the year. There's a reader survey so you can tell us what you want from the magazine, either online or via the cut-out form.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The year begins, the first hill


 
The first hill walk of the year always seems special. The turning of the year marked by the as yet imperceptible lengthening of the hours of daylight, the thoughts of the seasons to come, the plans for walks and camps, the feeling that there is a whole year ahead to begin again, to be optimistic and hopeful. And it all starts with that first hill.

Deep snow in the Cairngorms and a companion inexperienced in such conditions meant that this year I wouldn’t venture far. Relatively safe terrain, plenty of escape routes, and a short distance seemed wise. As it was the conditions meant that I probably wouldn’t have done much more if by myself.

A forecast for a fine day and it being Sunday popular areas would be busy. Whilst Coire Cas and Cairn Gorm were likely crowded the north ridge of the hill is usually quiet so we headed that way. A dearth of cars in the Coire na Ciste car park suggested few people and indeed we met no-one other than a couple right at the start. There were distant groups on the slopes far to the south but on our climb up the east spur of Coire Laogh Mor we didn’t see any tracks other than those of mountain hares, grouse, snow bunting and fox. 

The unconsolidated snow meant we donned snowshoes almost immediately. Even with these on our feet progress was slow and arduous at first as the snow lying deep on the heather collapsed at every step. As the heather thinned, the snow became firmer and the ascent easier.

 
A bright sun at the start soon faded behind gauzy clouds. The temperature was well below freezing but there was no wind and the ascent kept us warm. Crossing little half-frozen streams we admired bulbous icicles dripping from yellow grasses.
 

On the climb the best views were behind us – always a good excuse for a quick rest – with Meall a’Bhuachaille shining white above Glenmore Forest and the dark woods stretching out to the pale line of the Monadh Liath. Ahead there was just snow and rock and sky and a curving horizon that never seemed to grow closer.


Eventually the slope eased and views to the south and east opened up. The great wedge of Bynack More appeared above the great gash of Strath Nethy. The sun was very low in the sky now (not that it’s ever very high in midwinter) and sunset colours were starting to appear. On the north side of Bynack More a band of deep pink stretched out, on the south side the sky was paler and yellow. With the mountain blocking the gradual merging of these two colours it seemed as though there was a different sky either side of it.

 
This view demanded to be watched so we took a break on the wide open ridge and sat and stood and stared for a while. Then we continued the short distance to Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, this subsidiary top of Cairn Gorm the first summit of the year and the only one of the day. Here a cold wind swept over the snow so we didn’t linger but soon started back down, heading for the west spur of Coire Laogh Mor. 

 
The sun set below the western skyline, the last rays colouring the clouds. The first stars appeared. The snow though was bright enough that we didn’t need headlamps until the last few hundred metres down a steep icy path.

The first hill of the day wasn’t a major summit, just an almost unnoticeable top few people bother to climb, and we hadn’t ventured far. The walk was only five miles long, though in the deep snow and with almost 600 metres of ascent this took us five and half hours. However the deep winter cold and the snowy landscape had a feeling of remoteness and mountain magnificence that belied the distance. And the first hill was still special and the day a fine one. After the walk I felt 2018 had really begun.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Outdoor & Nature Books Review 2017



There were many excellent outdoor and nature books published last year, quite a few of which I haven't got round to reading yet. Here are brief reviews of the ones I have read and enjoyed most.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

This is a wonderful, magical book, ideal for losing yourself in. It's described as 'a spell book for conjuring back these lost words' - the words being those of the natural world that are disappearing. The book does this through lovely pictures and words of enchantment that lend themselves to being chanting out loud. Spells indeed.

Castles in the Mist: The Victorian Transformation of the Highlands by Robin Noble

A fascinating book showing how the Victorians turned the Highlands into the vast sporting estates that still dominant the landscape today. The author describes the impacts this change has had and is having on nature both through history and through his travels to many of the estates. Invaluable for understanding the Highlands.

Among the Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson

A superb account of the author's fascination with summer snow in the Highlands and his excursions to find it, intertwined with meditations on memory, loss, death, ageing and more. I reviewed it more fully here

Lured by Mountains by M.A.Harper

A diary-style, stream of consciousness account of the author's astonishing outdoor life. M.A Harper has been a mountaineer, kayaker, outdoor instructor, skier and trek leader and has travelled all over the world. In this book she describes a wealth of adventures from a first ascent in the Himalayas to climbing the Munros and walking the TGO Challenge.


Walking the Song by Hamish Brown

This collection of essays by Hamish Brown doesn't disappont - he is after all one of the leading outdoor writers of the last forty years. The book covers his life from the years of the Second World War through to recent ventures. As well as his own walking, climbing, skiing and kayaking adventures there are history, biography and nature pieces. Some very amusing tales too!


The Red Squirrel: A Future In The Forest by Neil McIntyre & Polly Pullar 

A book full of beautiful photos of red squirrels accompanied by a text packed with information about the life of these delightful animals. Also a call for the conservation and restoration of the forests on which red squirrels and other wildlife depends. Longer review here.

Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock

Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain, about the Cairngorms, has become one of the iconic books about the hills. Before this biography it was hard to find anything about Nan Shepherd herself. Charlotte Peacock has done a wonderful job of piecing together Shepherd's story, setting it in the social and economic milieu of the time and showing how the author came to write her major work.

The Last Hillwalker: A sideways look at  forty years in Britain's mountains by John D Burns

Entertaining and thought-provoking this book tells the story of the author's progression from bumbling hillwalker to serious mountaineer to his current life as a bothy-bagger. There is wry humour throughout but also a deeper tone below the surface. There's a fuller review here

Great Hiking Trails of the World by Karen Berger

A lovely coffee-table book packed with mouth-watering photos and descriptions of tempting walks. A book to dream over. It's aim is to inspire. It does. More thoughts here

Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls

This a book I'm currently reading and I haven't progressed very far yet. However I've read enough to find it fascinating and comprehensive, setting Thoreau in the social and intellectual world of the time and showing just what his achievements were and how he is still relevant.

An Orogenous Life: Memoir and Reader by Ben Gadd

Ben Gadd is the author of  the excellent and comprehensive The Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, a copy of which I bought from him back in 1987 and which inspired me to walk the length of that mountain range a year later (carrying his book the whole way). Here he tells the story of his life as a mountaineer and naturalist. I've only dipped into it so far - it arrived just before Christmas -but it looks a fascinating read. I get a mention too and a photograph taken on my walk that I've never seen before, which was a surprise.

All the above are actual paper books and were mostly read at home or on train and plane journeys. With no long walks in 2017 I read far fewer ebooks than usual. Here are two that did keep me entertained during long stormy nights in a tent.


Backpacking with Peewiglet: A solo backpacker's adventure in the UK and abroad 
by Shirley Worrall

Full of backpacking stories that really capture the day to day reality of long-distance walking and wild camping in a down-to-earth fashion this is a book that inspires and informs.




Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age by Sue Thomas

Outside revelling in nature or inside interacting with a computer? Is there a conflict between the natural and digital worlds? Do you need to give up the latter for the former? No, says Sue Thomas in this entertaining and thought-provoking book.