Thursday, 15 March 2018

Dense mist, black night in the Cairngorms

A brief sunset

Darkness all around. No light, nothing. Visibility about ten feet. The headlamp beam bounced back off the dense mist. Where was I? I thought I knew. I checked ViewRanger. Coire Cas. At the car park. Really? Where were the buildings? The lights? Even at night there is usually much brightness here. I followed some footprints through the snow. Suddenly they turned and climbed a steep bank. I went up too. The footprints vanished. I walked on slowly. 

The ground underneath crunched. This wasn’t snow. I looked down. Gravel. I must be on a path. I shone the headlamp around. A very wide path. I couldn’t see where it ended in any direction. I walked further. This was too wide. Maybe it was the car park? A sign appeared. It was. I could still see nothing else. My car only appeared when I was close by. I drove down the hill very slowly, barely able to see any further with the car headlights than I had with the headlamp.

I’d never been out in such blackness before. All the way across the familiar terrain from Lurcher’s Gully to Coire Cas it had been like this. There was nothing to guide me, no landmarks, no bright lights in Glenmore and Aviemore, no glow from the ski resort, nothing. The tracks of boots, skis and snowshoes shot off in all directions as I grew closer to the car park. I followed those I thought were heading the right way, checking ViewRanger frequently. I was always on the right line but I could have been anywhere. This was a new experience. 

A glimpse of blue above Cairn Gorm

Several hours earlier I’d set out intending to be on the tops for the sunset, which the forecast suggested might be impressive. I'd be descending in the dark but I'd done that many times before and this was well-known country. There was no mist in Coire Cas then but it wasn’t far above and I was soon enveloped by its greyness. It wasn’t as dense as it would be later though and every so often I caught glimpses of distant figures, hazy crags and, rarely, flashes of blue sky. People descending said it was clear higher up, encouraging me on. 

The Lairig Ghru

On the edge of the Lairig Ghru I came into clear air and could look down this mist-filled pass and along to half-hidden hills. I was between two layers of cloud and visibility soon faded again as I continued up Cairn Lochan. On the summit the mist came and went. I looked down on great curling wreaths of snow, cornices hanging above the cliffs. Away across the Cairngorm Plateau Ben Macdui was an insubstantial white dome. Nothing felt quite real, quite solid.

Cairn Lochan cornices

I skied cautiously back down to the head of Lurchers Gully. The snow was rippled and hard enough to make my skis chatter while the flat light made seeing bumps and dips difficult. Alone in the cloud I didn’t want to take risks. Across the Lairig Ghru the sun finally cut under the upper clouds, a thin strip of red and gold. The tops of the clouds below me were tinged with pink. A few minutes and it was gone and the world was black, white and grey again.

Ben Macdui

Then came the long dark trek back to Coire Cas.

Cairn Lochan

Friday, 9 March 2018

The Great Outdoors April Issue: windshells, gearing up for trekking, Nigor Kamao 2 tent

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. My contributions are a review of nine windproof tops, some advice on gear for overseas trips, and a test report on the Nigor Kamao 2 tent. Also on gear Judy Armstrong reviews six pairs of women's walking trousers; Emily Rodway and Daniel Neilson pick interesting items from the recent ISPO outdoor trade show; and Glenmore Lodge instructor Nathan White gives advice on looking after your kit.

In the rest of the magazine there's a stunning photo of Tryfan from Pen yr Ole Wen by Dan Struthers; Hanna Lindon interviews barefoot long distance runner Aleks Kashefi; Andrew Galloway reviews the play Black Men Walking; there's information on for which will projects will receive funding from the European Outdoor Conservation Association; Roger Smith looks at how voluntary conservation bodies do work that the government should do; Jim Perrin praises Schiehallion; James Deboo goes in search of the places that inspired Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District; James Urquhart wanders through the Cairngorms on a five-day trip; Joly Braine walks the longest section of the England Coast Path so far completed; Paul Beasley goes scrambling in Snowdonia; and Alex Nail snowshoes through the Beinn Damh area in the NW Highlands. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Keep It Wild! Campaigning Conservation Organisations

Wild places need the support of everyone concerned about landscape, wildlife and nature. I put a list of organisations, individuals and websites I think are worth supporting at the end of this piece on conservation. Join, follow, share posts, take part in campaigns. Everything helps.

Below is the list again with a few additions. I'll update this at times.

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.
OneKind  Campaigns for wildlife and animals in general
The Woodland Trust   Woodland conservation and restoration

George Monbiot  Provocative journalist with much on wild land and the environment. Makes you think!

Rewilding Britain Campaigns for rewilding, as the name suggests.

Rewilding Scotland website for discussing rewilding in Scotland

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Swans & Snow on the River Spey

For the last five days the clouds have been low, hiding the hills. From the grey blanket light snow has fallen constantly. Today the temperature crept a touch above freezing and lying snow began to slowly melt while the falling snow grew thicker. The damp air and brisk wind made it feel colder than when it had been sub-zero and dry and crisp, that wet cold that seems to penetrate any clothing.

The River Spey was a silvery band under the dark sky. Out on the water I could see birds - cormorants, mallard, and four whooper swans, a family floating together on the water.

This was a spur-of-the-moment stroll - I was in Grantown-on-Spey to pick up a box of bird seed left at the local garage by a courier who couldn't get up our snowy track - and I only had my 16-50 zoom lens with me. This isn't that sharp so crops aren't always that good - especially when the air is full of snow and not that sharp either! The above picture is cropped from the one below. Maybe I should always bring my 55-210 zoom lens. Maybe I will now.

Crossing the bridge to reach the garage I thought the Spey looked rather fine in the snow so I'd stopped to take a closer look. Spotting the dark shapes of cormorants perched on rocks in the water and the swans in the distance I decided to go a little further. The narrow riverside path was very slippery with a mix of melting snow and mud and a couple of times I had to take care not to end up in the river. Seeing the swans was wonderful and really made the decision to have a look at the river  a good one. I was only there for half an hour. Sometimes that's enough for nature to work its magic.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Desert Solitaire is 50

“The weather does not look suitable for crossing a steep 12,800+ foot pass. I should remember the quotation from Desert Solitaire ‘when traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe’"

The date was September 20, 1985, and I was lying in my tent looking out at falling snow when I wrote the above in my journal. It was the 114th day of my Continental Divide Trail hike and I was reading Desert Solitaire for the first time. The book was having a big impact on me, as it has continued to do.

I’d never heard of Edward Abbey or Desert Solitaire until earlier in the same walk when it was recommended by Scott Steiner, my companion for the first 500 miles who I’d met three years earlier on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d been looking out for the book ever since, finally finding a copy in the mountain resort of Copper Mountain in the Colorado Rockies. Now just three days later I was using Abbey’s words to get me out of my comfortable camp and up and over South Halfmoon Pass.  It worked and with a stout stick for support – this was before the days of trekking poles – I crossed the pass in continuing snow and slithered down the steep, slippery, far side. That evening I was back in the tent reading more of Desert Solitaire

Since then I’ve read this fierce paean to wilderness and freedom many times. It never pales. Abbey’s words always ring true. I think it’s as relevant now as it ever was, perhaps more so. Desert Solitaire is a hard, rough book about the desert lands of the American Southwest but it’s also a book about the universality of the need for wilderness, nature and liberty and an attack on urbanisation and tameness. The writing is lucid, beguiling, provoking, passionate. Abbey wants to make you think and by god he does. This is not a book you can read lightly.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Desert Solitaire, a good excuse to read it again, not that one is ever needed. My old copy is quite battered now but should withstand being read a few more times. Even so I think I’ll replace it in May when an anniversary edition with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane is being published. 

In the first draft of this piece I finished with some favourite quotes from the book. But out of context they don’t really work, fine though they are. The book needs to be read as a whole. So no more quotes – read the book!