Wednesday 28 February 2018

Surprising Reminder Of A Past Winter Climb On Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis

The power of social media to put people in touch and bring back long-forgotten memories sometimes amazes me. This evening I received a Facebook note from a Peter White in Canada saying he'd been looking through old guide books and that on this day 35 years ago we climbed the Right-Hand Variation of Central Gully on Trident South Buttress. He finished by remarking that I probably didn't even remember him. Initially he was right - I not only didn't remember him but the name of the climb meant nothing to me. So I googled South Trident Buttress, found it was on Ben Nevis, and suddenly it all came back.

In February 1983 I took a snow and ice climbing course at Outward Bound Loch Eil, where I worked occasionally in the summer leading backpacking trips. And on the 28th instructor Peter White led me up this climb on a day of fine weather. It's a grade IV, harder than anything I'd done before, and I remember finding one pitch extremely tough, my arms aching from pulling on the axes which I was hitting too hard into the ice. I also remember the elation at finishing the climb. It was a great day.

That remains the hardest winter climb I ever did as that same February I also took a cross-country ski course with Cameron McNeish in the Cairngorms and skiing easily won over climbing. I really enjoyed the winter climbing I did but once I'd been ski touring I was hooked and snow in the mountains meant swooping over the snowfields rather than climbing up the steepest slopes.

I'm grateful to Peter for reminding me of this climb. I don't appear to have kept any notes at the time - the course was probably too intense - though I may some have some slides somewhere - and I could well have forgotten it forever. Being reminded of that day and that course has made for an upbeat evening.

Recent Gear I've Reviewed on The TGO Website

Testing snowshoes in the Cairngorms

Here's what I've been testing for TGO over the last few months, with links to the reviews.

Merrell Chameleon 7 Mid Gore-Tex Boots

Sprayway Roola 1/2 Zip Base Layer

Slope Angel 

Fimbulvetr Hikr Snowshoes

Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX Boots

Osprey Levity 45 Pack

Nigor Kamao 2 Tent

Thermonet Buff

Luci Pro Series: Outdoor 2.0 Inflatable Solar Light

Tuesday 27 February 2018

A Day On The Hill Before The Big Storm Arrives

View over Glen Feshie from Carn Ban Beag

Since the igloo trip three weeks ago I’ve not been on the hills this month, partly due to getting on with writing the book on my Scottish Watershed walk and mostly because I caught a bad cold and am only just now recovering. Seeing snow on the hills and much sunshine has been very frustrating! I have been out for local walks in the woods and fields but never for more than a few hours. Finally I decided I was well enough to venture onto the tops again. With severe weather forecast for many days to come I wanted to enjoy some sunshine and gentler weather.

It being Sunday I knew there would be many people out with the most popular car parks full so I headed for Glen Feshie, which is usually one of the quieter places. Even here there were many vehicles in the small car park near the end of the public road. 

Carn Ban Mor

Walking up through the woods I could feel the warmth of the sun though a brisk wind in open areas suggested it would be cooler higher up. Once out of the trees the east wind sweeping down from the snowfields was still much colder and stronger than I expected. The tops ahead were wreathed in white cloud but otherwise the sky was deep blue and the sunshine bright.

Shelter from the wind
There’s a deep cleft in the col between Carn Ban Mor and Carn Ban Beag that provides shelter from the wind. I was very glad to reach this and be able to have a snack and don extra clothing without being frozen by the blasting wind. Two others were already here, poring over map and compass, and two more soon joined us. There’s not much shelter on these big rounded hills. The only other people I saw were distant dots on faraway snow slopes and ridges. 

At the col I had reached the snowline. There was some below this, especially on the track, but mostly the lower slopes were bare. I’d brought snowshoes with me and although I didn’t really need them on the crunchy snow I put them on, reckoning it was easier to walk in them than carry them. As it was there were icy sections where I’d have needed crampons if I hadn’t been wearing snowshoes. 

Out of the wind

In the wind

As it was my first day out for a few weeks and I wasn’t yet fully recovered from the cold I decided I wouldn’t continue on to Carn Ban Mor and Sgor Gaoith, my original plan, but would go over lower Carn Ban Beag, shortening the walk and the amount of ascent. This decision was made easier as the highest stops were still in cloud and the wind was strengthening. If it had been calmer and clear I’d have been tempted to go on. I was tired enough when I got back to the car to realise that to do so wouldn’t have been wise.

The broad ridge over Carn Ban Beag roughly paralleled my uphill route. The wind helped blow me along and I was very glad to have it at my back. It was the coldest day I’ve been out this winter. The views over Glen Feshie were superb though, the low sun dazzling and brilliant, the snow shining. Two ravens circled overhead, one flying past only ten metres or so away, close enough that I could see the massive bill and the glossy sheen of its feathers. A thin piping rose out of the heather and there was a golden plover fluttering low across the ground. There were many hare tracks in the snow but none of the creatures themselves.

Sunset over Glen Feshie

The sun was just setting as I left the ridge and started to descend towards the trees. There was little snow now and the ground was soft and boggy. Crossing the wet ground between two of the last snow patches I realised that the snowshoes were keeping me from sinking in. I kept them on until I reached the path on the edge of the forest. I’d never considered doing that before but it worked well. I’d have gone through into the mud and watery holes and had soaked boots and feet without them. There’s always something new to learn.

Now we await the big storm. The stories in the media have been extraordinary –‘beware beast from the east’, ‘stay indoors warning as killer freeze hits’, ‘snow chaos’, ‘deadly storm’. The storm will really have to be massive to live up to all the hyperbole. In Scotland Wednesday is apparently the big day for snow. Tonight as I write this on Monday evening it’s -4°C outside, hardly unusual for late February, with a bright moon and a clear sky.

My local road, February 2009

If the forecast snow does come maybe it’ll be like 2009 and 2010 when we had deep snow at the house for several weeks and I went on ski tours from the front door. I hope so!

View from the front door, February 26, 2010

Friday 23 February 2018

Just One Lens: A Photography Gear Post. Updated July 28.

Since I wrote this piece in February I've found that I'm using the 55-210 zoom lens more than before as the limited reach of the 16-50mm often feels frustrating. I don't like changing lenses and I don't want to carry the 55-210 on long trips so I've almost decided to get the Sony E 18-135 mentioned in the last paragraph before the postscript. Almost.

Whilst I haven't bought the 18-135 yet I have bought another fixed focal length lens, the Sony E  35mm f1.8 (52.5mm 35mm equivalent). This weighs just 201 grams. I bought it for low light use. It's faster than the Sigma 60mm and is stabilised, which the Sigma isn't. How much will I use it? I'm not sure yet. It's been on one backpacking trip where I took the image below with it.

Ironically  in June Alex Roddie, who started this train of thought about fixed focal length lenses, posted  that he's ditched his Fuji gear for a much lighter Canon PowerShot G9x Mk II with a 10.2-30.6mm zoom lens (28-84 35mm equivalent). It's near the bottom of this interesting piece on the electronics he carries.

Anyway, here's the original post with minor edits.

As I've written before my favourite lenses are zoom lenses. It's over thirty-five years since I last took fixed focal length lenses on a long walk. That was on the Pacific Crest Trail where my most used lenses were Pentax 28mm and 50mm ones (I did have a 75-150mm zoom but that took a dunking in a creek and never recovered before I was half way). Back then wide angle and mid range zooms were generally regarded as poor quality. I wanted one though and just three years later I had one, a Tamron 35-70mm zoom that was judged pretty good. I took it on the Continental Divide Trail along with another Pentax 75-150 zoom and was pleased with the results. I missed a wider option though and over the years changed to 28-70mm and then 24-70mm lenses. These were always by far my most used lenses, as is my current Sony 16-50mm, which is equivalent to 24-75mm in 35mm/full frame terms.

However for quite some time I've been thinking about fixed lenses after reading a piece by Alex Roddie in which he said he saw the world at the 35mm (53mm full-frame equivalent) focal length and his favourite lens was a 35mm one*. I tried to imagine going out with just one fixed length lens and couldn't. When I analysed the 3500+ images I took last year I found that only a few hundred were taken around 30-40mm (see this post) so I clearly don't see the world in that range. My most used focal length by far was 50mm (75mm full-frame equivalent), a short telephoto length, so maybe that was how I saw the world.

*Update: after reading this Alex Roddie commented on Twitter 'I've gravitated towards 23mm (35mm FF equivalent) in the hills, as 50mm equivalent can sometimes be too tight, but still prefer 50mm for most other subjects. I rarely carry more than one prime lens now.'

To find out I've taken just one lens on several local walks in the last week. This is the Sigma E 60mm f2.8, which is equivalent to 90mm on full-frame. It's a sharp lens but one that I hardly use. I took just 36 images with it last year. At a weight of 215 grams it's very light but I've only ever used it on walks from home. All the pictures accompanying this piece bar one were taken with this lens on the Sony a6000 camera.

Just using one fixed lens surprised me. I didn't find it as restrictive as I thought and after the first day I started to 'see' at its focal length, that is I saw compositions that suited it and there were fewer times when I couldn't take the picture I'd seen because I didn't have the right focal length. I could, I thought, manage with this lens alone if I had to.

So will I start carrying and using the Sigma 60mm regularly now? Maybe. For a while. What this exercise has really taught me though is that the 50mm end of my 16-50mm zoom isn't long enough. In the hills and on long walks I usually just take that lens and the Sony 10-18mm wide angle zoom. I do have a Sony E 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 zoom that I sometimes carry and which gives me a huge reach as it's equivalent to full-frame 82.5-315mm. Maybe I should carry it more often. I prefer to have just two lenses and two bodies though, especially on long walks. Both are in cases and accessible while I'm walking and never changing lenses protects the camera sensors from dust and dirt. So ideally I'd like a lens that goes from wide angle to longer than the 16-50mm. Sony has offered a couple of these for a few years but they are quite heavy and bulky. There is the Sony Zeiss 16-70mm f4 lens that is lightweight and compact. It's very expensive though and reviews are mixed with most saying it's not worth the money.

This year though there's a new Sony E 18-135mm (27-202.5mm full-frame equivalent) that sounds like it might be ideal. It's quite compact and weighs just 325 grams. Reviews have been mostly positive. Maybe this is the lens to pair with the 10-18mm. It would certainly give me a much greater range than the 16-50mm at a penalty of 200 grams extra to carry and more bulk. In the meantime the Sigma 60 and the Sony 55-210 are likely to see more use. Otherwise I'll miss that extra reach.

Postscript. Sometimes blog posts bring up entertaining and valuable responses. This one led to interesting threads on social media. Amongst these was this fascinating and useful comment from photographer and writer David Kilpatrick on Facebook  "The 60mm Sigma is a superb lens. It's the one I picked for my article on macro - add extension tubes to it and it beats most macro lenses. I think it is a natural fit. After all, the 'Mountain Elmar' from Leica was 105mm, and the 'Lightweight Elmar' which inherited that title was a 90mm f/4 in a special skinny lightweight mount for alpinists - 90mm being considered the ideal field of view for peak-to-peak photography (the view from the ground always diminishing the apparent height of the mountain or hill - best to get half way up the height of the target). The 60mm is lightweight, and exactly that angle on the A6000." 

I never knew that about 90mm and mountain photography. I'll definitely be taking the Sigma 60mm on my next hill walk. I'd never thought about using extension tubes with it either. I've now ordered some. David's article on macro is on the PhotoclubAlpha site here. David has just started a blog too - so far the only post is a link to this article!

Sunday 18 February 2018

Thoughts on the Conservation and Restoration of Nature in Scotland

Gleann nam Fiadh, February 3, 2018

Walking up Gleann nam Fiadh in Glen Affric at the start of the igloo trip earlier this month (see this post) I was shocked by the state of the bulldozed track, constructed for a hydro scheme higher up the glen. The slopes for quite a distance either side of the track have been scoured of vegetation, including many young trees, leaving a muddy mess. The encouraging feeling of walking through a new woodland I remember from my last visit has gone. Back in July 2016 Mountaineering Scotland were assured ‘contractors on site are meeting planning obligations relating to protection of the environment, and that the works will be reinstated in accordance with the conditions of planning permission once complete’. Well, the obligations must be pretty minimal given the damage and I wonder when the reinstatement will take place. Update. Paul Webster of Walk Highlands says he thinks this is the reinstated track. In which case I'm truly shocked!

Earlier in 2016 Alan Watson Featherstone, the founder of Trees for Life, which has done much forest restoration work in the area wrote, in his blogI find it hard to comprehend that a small-scale hydro scheme is even contemplated for this watercourse. It’s in the heart of the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve(NNR), which is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Natura 2000 scheme and a National Scenic Area (NSA). It’s one of the most designated areas of land in Scotland! Glen Affric is often cited as being the ‘crown jewels’ of the National Nature Reserve system, and is supposed to be managed for the ‘primacy of nature’. If it can’t be protected from industrial energy extraction, what hope is there for any area in Scotland?” A good question and one that needs answering.

Woodland on the slopes of Quinag, owned by the John Muir Trust

Whilst the Gleann nam Fiadh track is depressing there is much that is positive in the conservation and restoration of nature in the Scottish hills and elsewhere in Britain. Not enough certainly but looking at what is being done can counter the feelings of despair when more damage occurs. It can also encourage a desire to help protect what is left and restore what we can. Public pressure is what counts here. I doubt many politicians would do much without it (there are a few who would, perhaps). It’s easy to think that one person can’t do anything and that signing petitions, sharing and commenting on posts on social media, and writing to representatives achieves nothing. However any effect from these actions is cumulative. If enough people take part then sometimes a momentum can build towards something happening. The alternative is to give up.

As well as taking part in these activities joining and supporting conservation organisations can make a difference. It’s not just the membership fee, though funds are always in short supply, it’s also the numbers. The more members a body has the more notice is likely to be taken by those in power. 

The returning forest in the Pass of Ryvoan
So what positives are happening? I think the slow spread of natural forest regeneration is the prime one. Every time I walk through the Pass of Ryvoan or through Glen Feshie and see the young trees spreading up the hillside and poking up through the heather I feel uplifted. From Abernethy to Knoydart, Carrifran to Quinag, trees are returning and with them much richer flora and fauna. This is being done by various conservation organisations such as the John Muir Trust, RSPB, Trees for Life, and the Borders Forest Trust, in some places by Forestry Commission Scotland, and by enlightened private landowners. One of the last, Lisbet Rausing, wrote an excellent post for the Scottish Wildlife Trust recently on the work being done on the Corrour Estate. 

The reintroduction of wildlife is equally important. That beavers are returning to the rivers is wonderful. The success of the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles and red kites is also greatly heartening. Hopefully other species will follow. I doubt we’ll see wolves in my lifetime, though I think they will be back eventually. Lynx are much more likely. The spread of previously persecuted species like red squirrels and pine martens is also very welcome. Places are not wild without wildlife.

Red Squirrel

Wildlife diversity and habitat restoration of course go together. Each enhances and helps the other. The big obstacle to forest and hill flora recovery in the hills is over grazing, mainly by domestic sheep in the Southern Uplands, mainly by red deer in the Highlands, which are at unnaturally high numbers as there are no natural predators. This means control has to be done by us – either by fencing or culling. Fencing results in blocks of restored land and breaks the continuity of wild land essential for wildlife. It may be temporarily necessary in some places but I think reducing grazing pressure is the answer in the long term. I don’t like the idea of shooting deer but it’s the only way currently to reduce numbers to less damaging numbers.

A large herd of red deer in the Fannichs

I also view the growth of campaigning by organisations and individuals on conservation issues as a positive. Again, it’s the numbers. More people, more pressure. To that end below I’ve listed those whose words and work I think worth reading and sharing. They are all on social media and post on Twitter, Facebook and more.

Wind turbines on the Southern Upland Way

And the negatives? Wind farms and hydro schemes in the wrong place (anywhere wild land is damaged), bulldozed roads in the hills, overgrazing, raptor persecution, grouse moor industrialisation, golf courses and new towns on wild land. There’s much to campaign against.

Website & Organisation Links

John Muir Trust. Campaigning for wild land and named for the great conservationist regarded as the ‘father of the national parks’ in the USA. The JMT owns land where restoration is taking place in the Highlands and on Skye, and is now managing the Glenridding Estate in the Lake District. I'm currently a Trustee of the JMT.

Scottish WildlifeTrust. Owns several estates and campaigns for wildlife.
MountaineeringScotland. Representative body for mountaineers, does much good work on access and conservation.

RSPB. The biggest wildlife conservation body. Owns some big estates including Abernethy, the largest nature reserve in the UK.

National Trust forScotland. Owns much wild land including the Mar Lodge estate in the Cairngorms, Glencoe, Torridon and Kintail.

Ramblers Scotland.Walkers organisation that does valuable work on access and conservation.

The Big Picture. Photographers group campaigning for rewilding.

Raptor Persecution UK. Campaigns for raptors and posts detailed information and analysis on raptor persecution.

Parkswatch Scotland. Incisive and trenchant detailed comment and criticism on Scotland’s two national parks.

Trees for Life.  Dedicated to restoring the Caledonian Forest.

Mark Avery. Very active campaigner for wildlife.

Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels. As the name suggests!

Scottish Wild Land Group. Works to protect and enhance Scotland's wild land.

Border Forest Trust.  Works to restore native woodland in Southern Scotland.