Saturday 30 June 2018

Heatwave in the Cairngorms

The heat has been extraordinary. 30°C in the glens, 20°C on the summit of Cairn Gorm. And much, much hotter in the blazing sun under cloudless skies. To take advantage of the conditions I wanted a night out in the Cairngorms, and to see dawn and dusk high in the hills. But I didn’t want to climb up there in this heat. I knew what it would be like – exhausting, enervating, a feeling of fighting through thick dense air, the heat almost palpable.

Cairn Lochan
To avoid this I decided to head up late in the evening, walking into the half-dark gloom that constitutes night at this time of year. I went for a long gradual ascent without any really steep slopes. Even so the air felt heavy and the walking was sweaty and arduous. Only after 10pm did the temperature start to slowly fall. The cliffs of Cairn Lochan were turning golden brown in the low sun as I passed below them before watching the sun set over Creag an Leth-choin.


I camped on wide open slopes in the heart of the Cairngorm Plateau with extensive views towards Cairn Gorm and Bynack More. The air was still. A big moon rose, just one day after full. The ground was dry and crunchy. I walked barefoot and sat outside. The last red haze from the sun stretched across the sky behind Cairn Gorm.

Before sunrise

After a few hours sleep I was up at 3.30am to watch the dawn. To the east the sky was paler. Red, yellow and orange streaks coloured the sky above Cairn Gorm. The air was cool, 10°C, and I needed a jacket. I watched and waited in the silence. Then the sun came, a red disc slowly climbing over Bynack More through thin clouds. 

After an hour I retreated to the tent for a little more sleep before the heat woke me. Even with the doors wide open my little tent was too hot once the sun was high in the sky. I sat outside for breakfast. It was 7.30am. A bird called and I could just hear the trickle of a stream. Otherwise silence.
Before departing I spread my gear out in front of the tent. It’s rare to be able to do this at 1150 metres in the Cairngorms. It’s usually too cold, too windy, too wet, or too midgey. Not today. Today was perfect.

By the time I left this idyllic camp the sun was savagely hot. The walk up Ben Macdui, only a kilometre and a 150 metres of ascent away, was draining. The pale stones underfoot felt hot and reflected the heat back at me. On the summit a man in shorts and boots – no shirt, no rucksack – appeared followed by a mountain biker carrying his bike. I met no others all day. I wandered to favourite viewpoints and stared down the Lairig Ghru to the dark outline of Beinn a’Ghlo.

View down the Lairig Ghru from Ben Macdui

On the slopes above the rushing Garbh Uisge Mor were many snow patches, some quite extensive. It’ll be a while yet before it all melts. Beside the burn and in boggy areas the ground was bright red and green with moss and vegetation. Away from the water the land was dry and dusty and bleached by the sun. I was reminded of the deserts of the American Southwest where there is the same pattern of fresh succulent water-given life and parched arid sand and rock but on a much greater scale. I’m not often reminded of hot deserts in the Cairngorms.

The Garbh Uisge Mor

At the top of the slabs running down to Loch Avon, a brilliant blue in the sunlight, I found a seat and sat and watched the landscape shimmering. On Hell’s Lum crag I could see pairs of climbers inching upwards, the sun shining directly on them. It must be so, so hot, I thought.

Crossing the Plateau again I startled two families of ptarmigan that scuttled away across the rocks, heads down, the mothers doing their broken wing act to lure me away, and a cluster of dotterel either side of a burn that relied on immobility as protection.

View down to Loch Avon

Even descending the heat was overwhelming even though there was now a breeze. The usually busy edge of the Northern Corries was strangely deserted for a dry summer day. There were few cars in the Coire Cas car park. Down in Glenmore I found out where everyone was. Loch Morlich with its golden sand beach. Cars were crammed along the verges, every car park full.

I posted the pictures of my gear laid out on social media and received quite a few comments, what tent is that, how do you get your gear so light, that gear looks heavy, what hat are you wearing. A few people suggested I should write about the gear and I will do that in a future post though not for a while as this weekend I’m finishing pieces for The Great Outdoors and then on Monday I’m heading down to Manchester to the Outdoor Trade Show to look at more gear. There was also a suggestion that I should do some YouTube videos. I’m thinking about it!

Monday 25 June 2018

Out Now: The July issue of The Great Outdoors

The July issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now with a wide range of interesting articles. My contributions are a bit less than usual this month - I've had much to do finalising my Scottish Watershed book - and consist of reviews of nine pairs of sandals and one hat. Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong reviews six women's day packs.

There's advice on planning a multi-day walk from writer Ronald Turnbull, TGO Coordinators Ali Ogden and Sue Oxley, and Glenmore Lodge instructor Phil Sanderson.

Railways feature in this issue both as transport and as walk routes. Hanna Lindon takes the sleeper from London to Fort William to climb Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. Jon Sparks follows the finest section of the Settle-Carlisle line on a two-day walk through the Yorkshire Dales. This piece opens with his truly stunning photo of the Tornado steam train in Ribblesdale. There's also suggestions for six  station-to-station walks.

Away from trains Roger Smith considers the review of National Parks and AONBs in England; Jim Perrin celebrates Bowfell; James Forrest visits the Berwyns and thinks about UFOs; Roger Butler wanders through three counties in the Peak District; James Deboo visits some little-known woodland tarns in the Lake District; and Andrew McCluggage describes the Brianconnais in the French Alps.

Saturday 23 June 2018

On this day thirty years ago I began my walk the length of the Canadian Rockies

At the Canada/USA border in Waterton Lakes National Park

June 23rd 1988 I set out on one of my most ambitious walks, to hike the length of the Canadian Rockies, which had not been done before. I was inspired to do the walk by Ben Gadd's superb Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, which I'd bought the year before when I was in the Rockies for a ski tour. That trip made me want to go back to these spectacular mountains. Ben's book gave me a goal. In it he wrote that a great challenge would be 'to hike the whole length of the Canadian Rockies, a distance of 1450km as the crow flies. It seems possible to do the whole hike in a summer'. As soon as I read those words I knew I wanted to do that walk. So I did. It took a bit more than a summer though. I ran well into the autumn, finishing in late October after 97 days and 2414km. I carried Ben's book the whole way and stayed with him in Jasper. He came and met me at the finish too. Thanks for that Ben and for the inspiration.

On the Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park

The walk split roughly into two. In the southern half I was mostly in national parks, which meant good trails but also permits and restricted camping (this section is now covered by the Great Divide Trail). In the northern half there were few trails and no parks, making the walk a much wilder and challenging proposition. I loved it! I met no other walkers at all once I left the parks. No-one out in the wilds at all in fact, just hunters in camps.

Looking over Keily Creek to the Great Snow Mountain Range in the Northern Canadian Rockies

Photographic note: the images are scans from Fujichrome transparencies. I took an amazing amount of camera gear on this hike - the most on any long walk I think. Two SLR cameras, 24mm, 28-70mm, and 70-210mm lenses, 2x Tele Converter, tripod. The total weight was 4.5kg. I took 3000 transparencies.

Book note:  This walk was the subject of my second book, which came out in 1989. It's been out of print for many years but should be republished as an e-book sometime in the next year along with Walking the Yukon, which is about a walk I did the length of the Yukon Territory two years after the Canadian Rockies walk.

Friday 22 June 2018

Blue Light, Blue Water, White Clouds: A Long Day from Friedrichshafen

The Bodensee, Friedrichshafen

The journey home from Friedrichshafen was long and mostly uninspiring (half was spent in Heathrow Airport waiting for a delayed plane) but there were moments of beauty and splendour, all painted in blue and white.

The day began well with an early morning stroll along the lake front in Frierichshafen looking out over the brilliant blue water to distant snow-flecked mountains. The rich colours were calming and peaceful. A lovely start to the day.

A zeppelin hangs above the Bodensee

The ferry across the Bodensee (Lake Constance) to Romanshorn was relaxing too, with the mountains drawing slowly nearer though still hazy in the early light. A zeppelin drifted high above. I watched it fade into the distance over Friedrichshafen, the place where these airships were born.

Swiss Alps

A pleasant train journey to Zurich - I love the double-decker Swiss trains with their wonderful wide views - and then the first flight. The Swiss Alps lined the horizon, magnificent and tempting.

Zooming in on the Swiss Alps

Then came Heathrow and the long wait. Cafes, people watching, Kindle reading (Richard Fortey's excellent The Wood For The Trees which is set not far from the airport physically but takes place in a different world of nature and slow history), writing, wandering, shop browsing (do I need a new lens, tablet, smartphone? No).

Above rippling clouds

Finally take off and up through the clouds to the late evening blue sky. Whiteness rippling below, the sky matching that above the Bodensee.

Then the plunge into the clouds, a warning of turbulence that didn't happen, and out into heavy rain and wet Inverness Airport. A drive through the storm on a dark Midsummer's Eve and home. A long day. It's the blueness I'll remember.

OutDoor At Friedrichshafen

Nikwax outdoor meeting 

Well, that's the last OutDoor Show at Friedrichshafen over. I went for three of the four days (and the journey there and back is quite something in itself - I'll post about that separately) which is quite enough. After a while pack back systems, brightly coloured trail shoes and lightweight waterproofs all begin to merge together (there were lots of all three). I've described the interesting stuff I saw in three reports for The Great Outdoors website. All were written on my smartphone with the EC Technology keyboard, the last one in Heathrow Airport where I had a rather long wait. This is a great combination when travelling, very light and compact.

The show didn't seem as busy as usual, which makes it easier for visiting stands though probably not good for the companies themselves. Much happens away from the gear displays as well. The Outdoors Blogger Network was very active and it was good to meet Hendrik Morkell (Hiking In Finland) and others, including Jotaro Yoshida, founder and designer of Locus Gear, who turned out to be an Outlander fan and very interested in the Scottish Highlands. I might see him on the TGO Challenge next year!

The big halls at Messe Friedrichshafen quickly get hot, stuffy and smelly when filled with bright lights and many people. It's always a relief to get outside into fresh air so I was very pleased that Lowe Alpine were taking people for short walks to try a new pack and that Nikwax held a meeting about the European Outdoor Conservation Association outdoors. Next year in Munich this mightn't be so feasible or pleasant.

Manchester next, for the Outdoor Trade Show.

Friday 15 June 2018

Off to the last OutDoor Show in Freidrichshafen

Tomorrow I'm heading out to Friedrichshafen via Inverness, Heathrow and Zurich for the huge OutDoor industry trade show. This is the last time the show is in Friedrichshafen. From next year it'll be in Munich - easier to get to, plenty of accommodation but no Bodensee (Lake Constance). I'll miss Friedrichshafen.

Whilst I plan on finding time to wander along the lakeshore, most of the trip I'll be wandering round the vast halls (I averaged eleven miles a day last year) looking at gear and hoping to find something new and interesting. I'll be sending reports back for the TGO website and posting comments and pictures on TGO's Twitter and Instagram feeds (both @TGOMagazine) and probably on Facebook too.

Thursday 14 June 2018

A High Camp, Finding A Path, Wild Flowers

Having finally finished the book on my Scottish Watershed walk and with a visit to the giant OutDoor Show in Friedrichshafen coming up a night out in the hills to clear my head seemed a good idea. With no plans I spread some maps out on the floor – always a pleasure in itself – to see if anything sprung out at me. It did. Beinn a’Chlachair. Or rather the long broad summit ridge of Beinn a’Chlachair. I remembered it was one of the many places stored in my memory as a potential spot for a night out ‘one day’. For Beinn a’Chlachair that day had come. The forecast sounded perfect – barely a breeze, perhaps some mist but mostly superb visibility. Ideal for a high camp and definitely not good for a low one in midge season.

Beinn a’ Chlachair is in the Central Highlands, opposite Creag Meagaidh, an hour and a half from home – well, it would have been but for a delayed lunch in Aviemore. I set out late under cloudy skies for the long walk-in. Beinn a’Chlachair sits well-back from the road. 

After weeks of dry weather the streams were low, the ground hard and dusty. Great swathes of white cotton grass covered flat marshy meadows. Ahead I could patches of snow high on the walls of Coire Mor a’Chlachair. Leaving the track I headed for the eastern arm of this corrie, a steep but easy way to the summit ridge. This is normally boggy ground. I was in mesh trail shoes. My feet stayed dry. 

Looking back I could see a band of golden orange light on the far horizon as the sun started to cut below the clouds. A sign of good weather for the next day. Maybe.

On the ridge I approached the final stony rise to the summit then pitched the tent on some mossy ground. There was no sound. Nothing. Not a whisper of wind, not a distant bird call. Just silence amidst the vastness of the hills.

The quiet wasn’t to last. The gentle patter of light rain woke me during the early hours. I peered out. Mist enveloped the tent. No dawn colours to get me up early. A few hours later I woke again. Still mist. Drops of moisture hung on every speck of moss, shimmering in a gentle breeze. I felt very peaceful.

The mists were beginning to lift as I wandered up to the summit of Beinn a’Chlachair. Distant hills appeared, flat and grey under the clouds. Looking back my tent was a tiny dark speck on the huge expanse of the mountain. 

Back in camp I had a look at the map before packing up. My plan had been to continue on to two more Munros, Geal Charn and Creag Pitridh, before descending back to Glen Spean and my car. Why? Because I’d always done these three hills together in the past so it seemed obvious without thinking about it. Between them lies the deep cleft of the Bealach Leamhain. The descent off the eastern end of Beinn a’Chlachair to this pass is steep and rocky – easier going up than down – or steep and grassy if you go off the northern side. On the map I spotted a path I didn’t remember from earlier trips going down the southern side and linking with the path through the bealach. Curious I decided to look for it.

Finding the top of the path was quite difficult. Even using Viewranger and GPS. The latter told me I was standing on the path. Maybe. I couldn’t see it though. I set off, smartphone in hand. I was on the right line and soon indications of a path appeared and then became clearer. It took a slanting line across the slope until the angle eased and then headed straight down. Mostly it was clear though little-used. Very occasionally there were cairns. An old stalking path I guessed, cleverly built. It deserves more use.

Soon Loch a’Bhealaich Leamhain appeared with Geal Charn rising above it. The path through the bealach runs high above the water, along a terrace through steep craggy slopes. Another fine line in a grand situation. Rocks, water, steepness, the circled head of the loch-filled corrie. Elemental. White stars caught my attention. I looked down. Four-petalled, dark centred flowers looked back up. Dwarf cornel. Masses of them spread over the hillside.

Emerging out of the rocks above the bealach the view opened out and gentler slopes spread out to the forests of Glen Spean with big bulky Beinn Teallach and Creag Meagaidh rising above them. There was just the long walk out left. I’d lost any interest in the other Munros. The day was hot now and plodding up more stony slopes didn’t appeal. 

The walk out was flower-rich but bird-poor. Yellow tormentil, bird’s foot trefoil, coltsfoot. The cotton grass dominating from a distance. Pale purple orchids rising through long grass. Purple wild thyme on stonier ground. Lower down tall foxgloves, white and purple. An occasional little frog hoped across my path, managing to stay green and wet despite the arid conditions. Damselflies and dragonflies skimmed over the flowers. Clegs tried to bite me but were easily swatted away. They weren’t as determined as they often are. Maybe the heat made them lethargic. There were no midges. A few meadow pipits fluttered across my path, brown and inconspicuous. Twice a skylark rose straight up, singing loudly. Up on the hill I’d seen a flock of a dozen ptarmigan. That was it for birds. No grouse in the heather, no waders in the bogs. I wondered why and came up with no answers.

Friday 1 June 2018

Suilven: Iconic Mountain of the NW Highlands

Suilven is in the news at the moment with the release of the film Edie, in which 83 year-old Sheila Hancock climbs the mountain. She couldn't have chosen a better one. Suilven is one of Scotland's most distinctive hills, a spectacular wedge of Torridonian sandstone rising out of a cnoc and lochan landscape.

There's an interview with Sheila Hancock and the director of the film Simon Hunter in the June issue of The Great Outdoors along with a piece of mine about Suilven. I also wrote an account of a backpacking trip over the mountain many years ago which you can find here.

Despite looking rugged and tough Suilven is a mountain that needs care. The only paths have become badly eroded due to the passage of many feet, and the film is expected to bring many more. The one from Glencanisp is currently being repaired by the John Muir Trust and the Assynt Foundation under the umbrella of the Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape Partnership. This work is important and well worthy of support.