Wednesday, 20 November 2019

A Glorious November Day on Sgor Gaoith

Lone walker crossing the Moine Mhor

November isn't noted for clear sunny days or for deep snow in the hills but both do occur and when they coincide a November day can be wonderful. Monday the 18th was one such day this year. The forecast looked good, the day was even better as it was less windy than predicted.

Sgor Gaoith 

I decided to head for Glen Feshie and climb high above the always inspiring regenerating forest to Carn Ban Mor and Sgor Gaoith. Strapping snowshoes to my pack I took the long track above the Allt Fheamagan to Carn Ban Mor. On reaching the snow I donned the snowshoes and followed the wide tracks of a snowcat and wondering what this vehicle was doing up here.

View across the Moine Mhor to Beinn a'Ghlo

Once I reached the vast expanse of the Moine Mhor the snowshoes were really useful as the snow was ankle to knee deep and soft under a thin crust. Two walkers on foot had left a line of deep holes as they headed for Sgor Gaoith. They passed me later, returning the same way. I only saw one other person, heading out across the Moine Mhor.

The views were extensive and astounding, distant hills crystal clear under a blue sky. The snow crunched  and crackled under my snowshoes. When I stopped the silence was profound. The air was chill but there was only a light breeze.

On Carn Ban Mor

Beyond Carn Ban Mor a waft of cloud passed over me. The world suddenly shrank to a ten metres or so. In many places I'd have needed to take compass bearings and to walk carefully in such minimal visibility. Here I could just see the edges of the broad ridge leading to Sgor Gaoith and anyway I had the line of boot holes to follow. It was a reminder though that the weather can change very quickly and should never be taken for granted. This can be a challenging and hostile place.

Buttresses on Braeriach appear out of the mist

The mist cleared in a few minutes and soon I was looking at the cornices building up on the steep eastern edge of Sgor Gaoith. Far below shadowed Loch Einich was a black hole in the snowy whiteness. Braeriach rose above, massive, buttressed, enormous, one of the great hills of the Cairngorms.

Braeriach

Returning to Carn Ban Mor I turned to see the clouds turning peach pink over Sgor Gaoith. The snow had a blue tinge. The short hours of daylight were fading.

Sgor Gaoith at dusk


Monday, 18 November 2019

In Praise of Snowshoes

Snowshoes on Sgor Gaoith

Today was my first day out in unbroken snow in the hills this winter. I took snowshoes as I knew from reports that the snow was quite deep high up and walking could be arduous. I could have taken skis but I didn't feel like carrying them to the snow or walking in ski boots. I suspected too that lower down the snow might be too broken or shallow for skiing, as turned out to be the case.

Snowshoes tracks (mine) and boot tracks today

Making travel in deep snow easier is the main reason for using snowshoes. Of course skis do that too - and I love ski touring - so why do I sometimes use snowshoes?

  • Snowshoes are lighter than skis for carrying
  • Snowshoes are easy to strap on a pack - no long waving skis catching you in the back of the legs or snagging on branches.
  • Snowshoes can be used with your ordinary boots - no need for ski boots or bindings.
  • Snowshoes can be worn when crossing areas on thin snow or even bare ground - no need to keep taking them on and off. I have waded streams in them!
  • Using snowshoes is easy, just remember to keep your feet wider apart than usual. No need to take courses or learn skills.
Snowshoes on my pack today

I wrote a longer piece about snowshoes and skis a few years ago - The Snows Here? Skis or Snowshoes. I reviewed the snowshoes I used today for The Great Outdoors two years ago.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Saturday, 16 November 2019

What's in the December issue of The Great Outdoors

The December issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. In it I review nine hats and ten pairs of gloves - there's been plenty of suitable weather for testing these!

I also review the Sprayway Torridon Jacket, a modern take on a classic Gore-Tex jacket. Elsewhere in the gear pages Judy Armstrong reviews six women's insulated jackets.

The theme of this issue is how to love British mountain weather. I have a love/hate relationship! Beautiful autumn weather with a cloud inversion is shown in the lovely opening picture spread of Dyffryn Mymbyr and the Snowdon massif by Alan Novelli. It's impossible not to love  weather like this.

The climate is undergoing long-term change of course, and not in good ways. Hanna Lindon looks at eight ways this could change our mountains.

Sticking with the month's theme Carey Davies writes about how to endure or even enjoy our ever-changing weather, including tips for large amounts of cake and visits to the pub! Paul Beasley crosses Dartmoor despite ferocious winds and possible thunderstorms.

I never thought I'd see an article on commuting in The Great Outdoors but there's one in this issue, and very interesting it is too as Neil Adams undertakes different ways to get to his work in Lochaber. including kayaking, swimming, skiing and walking the Lochaber Traverse over the Grey Corries to Aonach Beag and Aonach Mor. Now there's a commute!

In the Lake District Ronald Tunrbull goes in search of the sublime in the footsteps of the Romantic poets and suggests three walks from Wasdale.

Far away in the Colorado Rockies Andrew Terrill goes backpacking with his ten year old and learns much.

Elsewhere in this issue Roger Smith writes about positive environmental news in his column; TGO Challenge organisers Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden praise the volunteers who make the event happen; Jim Perrin visits Errigal in Donegal; and there are reviews of three excellent books - David Lintern's The Big Rounds, Alan Rowan's Mountains of the Moon, and Andy Howard's The Secret Life of the Cairngorms.

Testing hat and gloves in the Cairngorms

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

After the rain - frost and mist


After two days of rain and low cloud - the sky solid grey, the land drenched, the air sodden - today came with frost and mist and glimpses of snow-capped hills.


Wandering in the local fields I stopped abruptly, realising I could see nothing beyond the frosted grass stretching out all around. No walls, no fences, no trees, nothing. Once I'd looked round for a few minutes, staring hard into the mist trying to discern something, anything, I realised I'd lost any sense of direction, something I wouldn't have thought possible here in these familiar fields. I knew I wouldn't have to walk far before the edge of the field appeared but for a few seconds it was disconcerting. On a mountain I'd have been using map and compass. Here I just walked for five minutes until a well-known tree appeared


Late in the afternoon the mist rose and fell, thinned and thickened, revealing hazy bands of pink and orange in a blue sky far above. The forest was mysterious and insubstantial, magical.


The frost lasted all day, decorating the reeds and grasses, beautiful and fragile. A touch of wind and it would be gone.


As the light faded I ambled home after a quiet meandering walk.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Along the Divide: Upcoming talks on my Scottish Watershed walk

On the Watershed in the Fannichs

This month I'm giving two illustrated talks on my Scottish Watershed walk and signing copies of my book Along the Divide.

The first talk is at Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries on Friday 22nd at 7pm.

The second talk is on the 30th at Hilltrek in Aboyne between 1pm and 4pm.

Everyone welcome!

Friday, 8 November 2019

Snow arrives in Strathspey


Last night snow fell. Today the world is white. There have been light snow showers before this autumn but they thawed within a few hours, temporary glimpses of winter. This snow has stayed.


During the morning the snow fall faded away though the sky remained dark and overcast, the clouds low. Walking in the woods and fields, I watched mist drifting across the land, enjoyed the crisp feel of the frosty air, and relished the last dull gold of birches and larches. Soon there will be little colour.


The air was still, thick and hazy. There was no sound. A few rabbits scuttled back to their burrows as I approached. Nothing else moved. No birds crossed the sky. The landscape felt mysterious.






Thursday, 7 November 2019

Drifting clouds, snow and cold on Cairn Gorm

Coire na Ciste

An overcast sky solid with dense grey cloud didn't seem to offer much for a mountain day as I headed for Coire na Ciste and the north side of Cairn Gorm. Typical November. Dark, damp and cold. But up high there was said to be snow and I wanted to see it.

Swirling clouds

Arriving at the car park  I looked up Coire na Ciste. Hazily, through shifting clouds, I caught glimpses of rugged mountainsides fading in and out, mysterious and insubstantial. But to the north there was blue sky above the mists shrouding Strathspey. Bands of cloud drifted across the forest below Meall a'Bhuachaille.

Meall a'Bhuachaille and Loch Morlich

A muddy path led upwards. It was soon spattered with white and then faded away as the snow cover grew more extensive. Pools were frozen, the air chill. Frost feathers decorated the grasses. This wasn't the monochrome of deep winter though. The last colour in the grasses still glowed. The land was dull gold as well as white.



The higher summits remained in the cloud. I entered it as I approached the summit of Cairn Gorm. The weather station emerged from the mist in its winter coat, as familair and eerie as ever.


There would be no sunset. I didn't linger long. As the sky darkened I set off down past the forlorn empty Ptarmigan Restaurant, waiting for a train that may now never arrive again. It's over a year since the last one. Beyond Meall a'Bhuachaille mist covered Strathspey.


Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Book Review: Sky Dance by John D. Burns

Novels about hillwalking and mountaineering are rare and those that do exist are often hardcore adventure stories. Comic outdoor novels with a message are virtually non-existent, which makes John D. Burns first novel especially welcome. Combining serious concerns with humour could easily result in an uncomfortable mis-match. Not with this book. Burns deftly mixes the two, never dwelling on the message too long or taking the comedy too far. The balance he achieves works well.

This isn't a subtle book. The message is spelled out clearly in the subtitle - Fighting for the wild in the Scottish Highlands - and different aspects of it appear throughout the book. These are current concerns - rewilding, landownership, bulldozed tracks, grouse moors, lynx reintroduction. The books title refers to the bird that has become the symbol of opposition to the destruction of wildlife, the hen harrier.

The story is about two mountaineers, Rory and Angus, and their growing dissatisfaction with the state of the wild places they love and their determination to do something about it. Opposed to them is Lord Purdey, standing for every arrogant elitist landowner. Supporting them is a new hippy landowner, Tony Muir. The names are not accidental of course, Purdey being the British maker of the guns used to slaughter wildlife. Muir should need no explanation. Both are comic caricatures. I think Purdey works best. He is over-the-top but some landowners and their followers aren't that far from him. Muir doesn't come across as quite as real, but then his role isn't as important.

I found the story compelling and entertaining. I usually read for a while to unwind before going to bed. A sign of a good book is when I stay up much later than intended. I did that for several nights with Sky Dance. I enjoyed the descriptions of days out, wild places, bothy life and the mountains; I nodded my head at the polemics; and I wanted to know what happened next. That's a great combination.

At the start of this review I said novels like this are virtually non-existent. I can only think of one - the late great Edward Abbey's wonderful The Monkey Wrench Gang. It's long been time for a similar comic romp about our wild places. John D. Burns has provided it.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

What I've Been Reading Online Recently No. 11

Dusk, October 30

Three months have passed since I last posted links to pieces I've enjoyed reading online. With five weeks away and then catching up with everything back home time has slipped rapidly away. Anyway, here's some recent reading.

What does a ranger actually do? 
Ben Dolphin looks at the varied work he does as a ranger at Mar Lodge in the Cairngorms.

The Cape Wrath Trail - What Went Wrong
Andy Wasley looks back at his walk last spring and why he didn't complete it.

Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard talks about the sustainability myth, the problem with Amazon - and why it's not too late to save the planet
Fascinating and thought-provoking interview.

Should this tree have the same rights as you?
Robert Macfarlane on the movement to grant legal rights to natural phenomena.

Never Underestimate the Intelligence of Trees
Intriguing interview with Professor Suzanne Simard, an expert on mycorrhizae: the symbiotic unions of fungi and root, on how trees communicate.

The lost river: Mexicans fight for mighty waterway taken by the US
Story of how the Colorado River dried up in Mexico and the campaign to restore it.

Climbing against repression: the Afghan women with high mountain dreams
Inspiring story of the Afgham women who've taken up mountaineering despite massive obstacles.

The meaning of life? A Darwinian existentialist has his answers
Thought-provoking philosophy.

The Sphinx is dead - long live the Sphinx!
The disappearance of year-round snow in the Scottish Highlands and climate change.

Wild Words: Gaelic place-names in Callander
Dr Ross Crawford, the Cultural Heritage Adviser for 'Callander's Landscape' project, shares what Gaelic place-names can tell us about the natural and cultural heritage of an area and how Gaelic folklore, poetry and, song instils a sense of “belonging” in the landscape.

The real David Attenborough
The story of the man who's been showing us nature on the television since the 1950s.

For Rachel Carson, wonder was a radical state of mind
Rachel Carson and her ethic of wonder.





 



Sunday, 3 November 2019

Through the Alps on the GR5: How Wild is Wild?

Camp in the valley of the Ruisseau du Charmaix

This piece on my GR5 walk in the Alps first appeared in the June 2019 issue of The Great Outdoors.

Across the deep blue water of Lake Geneva, I could see the mountains rising, mountains I would soon be walking through as I headed south along the GR5 trail to Nice and the Mediterranean. Soon the train would pull into the little town of St Gingolph and I would walk from Switzerland into France and look for the first GR5 signpost. Until a few weeks earlier I hadn’t expected to be here. I had expected to be hiking the Colorado Trail in the Rocky Mountains. However, a series of reasons ranging from wildfires closing sections of the trail to minor ailments had meant I’d run out of time. Setting off late in the summer would have meant early snow might prevent me finishing the trail. I’d need to hurry to try and avoid that. I didn’t want to hurry. I didn’t want that pressure. I’d had to deal with blizzards and snow in the Colorado Rockies many years earlier on my Continental Divide Trail walk. A main reason for hiking the Colorado Trail was to see the areas I’d missed then by taking a low-level route. 

I still wanted to do a long walk though, something taking a month or so. The GR5 through the Alps looked suitable, being some 645-725km (400-450 miles) in length (there are some different route options). As with the Colorado Trail the first autumn snow might prevent my completing the trail but in this case I would just accept it, or so I believed. 

Cornettes de Bise

As I considered it a long walk in the Alps began to appeal. It was, I thought, something I should have done already. The longest trips I’d undertaken were a week’s walk on the Tour de Queyras and a week’s ski tour in the Vanoise National Park. Why hadn’t I done anything longer? Why had I neglected the greatest mountain range in Western Europe and one of the most famous in the world? In my head the Alps were too developed, too tame, too lacking in wildness. If I was going abroad to walk I wanted vast open spaces, unspoilt wilderness, majestic wildlife. I didn’t think I’d find those in the Alps. On the GR5 I’d discover that I was both right and wrong and that what constituted wildness was rather more complex than I thought.

Only deciding to walk the GR5 two weeks before I set off didn’t leave much time for preparation. I bought Paddy Dillon’s Cicerone guidebook, some 1:100,000 scale maps for overviews, and downloaded 1:50,000 maps to ViewRanger on my phone. Like all GR routes the GR5 is waymarked throughout with horizontal white and red stripes on boulders, trees, signposts, and buildings. I wasn’t expecting to have any navigation problems and in fact my compass (I never go without one) never came out of the pack.  Food I’d buy along the way. The gear I’d planned for the Colorado Trail would do. I skimmed the guidebook on the long train journey from the Cairngorms to the Alps. My first supplies came from a supermarket at the train station in Geneva. 

Camp in the valley of the Ruisseau d'Anterne

In summer it’s possible to stay in accommodation every night. There are many refuges in the mountains and villages every few days. The refuges start closing down mid-September though and I knew most would be shut after the first week or so of my walk. I was planning on camping most nights anyway. As always, I wanted that closeness to nature that only staying out overnight brings. What I didn’t know was that the small villages mostly close down as well, with no shops or accommodation available. Some of them felt like ghost towns.  

I liked not knowing too much about the route. I never do much detailed planning, but I did know more about the Colorado Trail than the GR5. I’d learn much along the way. I knew enough to decide walking south was the best option as I’d be through the higher mountains where early snow was more likely first. Also, further south where it was drier and warmer the summer heat should have eased by the time I was there.

The section through the Alps is the final and most popular part of the GR5, which starts far away on  the coast of Holland. Except for a short dip into Switzerland the Alpine stretch is all in France. I wondered what my rusty schoolboy French, unused for many years, would be like. Pathetic, it turned out. 

The first day set a pattern for the whole walk, except in regard for the weather, which was very hot, as it was to be the first five days. I sweated uphill, the pack feeling heavy, my legs leaden. The town gave way to woods, the woods to open mountainside. The first pass appeared, the Col de Bise. Down the far side I camped on the first flat ground with a splendid view of the limestone peaks of the Cornettes de Bise. Cow bells clanged all around.  That type of day – steep climb from valley through forest to high col then down to camp – would be repeated again and again. In all I crossed 44 named cols and climbed 1200 metres plus almost every day. I also encountered many cows, more than I’ve ever seen anywhere, and, in the southern part of the walk, equal numbers of sheep. On most days there were electric fences to cross too. Easily movable ones so that herds and flocks can be moved from area to area, reducing over-grazing. 

Mont Blanc

Although the general pattern of the days was similar the days themselves were not. There is a huge variety of scenery on the GR5. The common image of the Alps is of snowy mountains and there are some of these, especially in the northern part of the route, which passes Mont Blanc itself. But there were fewer than I expected, and the overall impression was of rock not snow. I was not in the Rocky Mountains, but I was in rocky mountains, the bare bones of the world showing through. Walking in the autumn meant virtually all the snow from the previous winter had gone. In the summer much more is left, and the mountains probably do feel snowier. I only ever walked on a few small patches. Mostly the trail was stony. The rocks themselves are a mix of sedimentary and metamorphic, the first often pale limestone and both crumbling and unstable. Some descents were quite exciting on narrow decaying paths of rubble and rock chips. The shape of the landscape was carved by glaciers, most long-gone but leaving behind the usual distinctive features – aretes, corries, U-shaped valleys, moraines.

The first ten days of the walk I passed many refuges. These all function as restaurants during the day and it took will power not to call in at every one and in the cafes in the villages. I had to forget the long-distance walker’s adage of never passing by anywhere selling food as on some days I’d have spent longer eating than walking. There’s no need to carry much in the way of supplies here.
Further south is different as there are fewer refuges, on some days none. They were all closed when I was there anyway, and I hadn’t expected to use them. I had expected to buy food in villages though and the shops and cafes being closed did present a problem. Not expecting this I almost ran out of food, which would have been ironic here. Happily, I found one tiny épicerie open in a little hamlet called Fouillouse. There wasn’t much choice and for several days I’d eat panettone for breakfast, chocolate, trail mix and Nestles concentrated milk for lunch and as snacks, and packet soups and cheese for dinner. I didn’t mind. It kept me going.

On the fifth day the weather broke with rain arriving in the evening. Although there were many warm days to come none were as hot as those at the start, which was a relief. I found the heat enervating and once it had eased off walking became much easier. Rain when it came was often short-lived but very heavy with thunder and lightning. The coldest day though was clear and sunny but with a bitter wind sweeping the open expanses of the Vanoise National Park.  I just missed the first snows, waking one morning at a forest camp after a night of heavy rain to see white streaks high on the mountains I’d crossed the day before in cloud and a cold wind. For the last week of the walk I stayed ahead of the snow, often looking back to see it on the mountains. Seeing it took away my feeling that I wouldn’t mind if I didn’t finish the walk. I realised the trip would seem incomplete if I didn’t complete it now I was not far from the end. The heat I’d been concerned about as I descended slowly to the Mediterranean didn’t materialise and my last two days were cloudy, wet and cool. 

Lac de Grattaleu
 
Initially the refuges, roads, livestock and other signs of humanity did detract from the walk, but I soon realised that these were part of this landscape and had been so for many generations. This is an inhabited land. There was much walking away from them too, especially in the high country above the forests and in the forests themselves, which were glorious and often the wildest places.  Silent dark forests of pine and spruce, lighter forests of larch and in the south sweet chestnuts, were a pleasure to walk through.

Most of the refuges and villages were built of local stone and wood and blended into the landscape, Only the modern ski resorts seemed alien. Coming out of the Vanoise high country and staring down at the cluster of tower blocks of Val Chalet and Tignes I exclaimed out loud. From above they looked like terraformed settlements on another planet in a science-fiction film. The ski tows and chairlifts were an intrusion too. However, there were far fewer of them along the GR5 than I’d feared.

Col de la Leisse
 
Wildlife is often taken as an indicator of how wild somewhere is and here the French Alps score highly. I saw wild animals and birds every day, often in large numbers. Of the mammals marmots were the most common. These big plump rodents live in high meadows above the forest and in some areas I saw dozens of them at a time, standing up to look for danger, then emitting shrill warning whistles before scuttling over the grass to their burrows.  Bigger mammals are the wild goats known as ibex or bouquetin and the smaller goat-antelopes called chamois. I saw herds of both. The first ibex appeared on the first day as I reached the first col, startling me. A pair of thick curved serrated horns rose above a bank just a few metres away. Then as the head came into view the ibex saw me and sped away. 

In the woods I saw squirrels, black squirrels. They are in fact the same species as our red squirrels but here have much darker coats. Lynx, roe deer and red deer also live in the forest. I never saw these, but I did hear the red deer stags roaring, just as they would have been back home in the Highlands.
Another animal I never saw was a wolf. I’d love to have seen one but just knowing they were there was exciting. I did see a wolf kill. I was descending a long valley in the Vanoise National Park when I met three people standing on the path looking at the far hillside. I looked too and saw a flock of vultures circling. ‘A wolf has killed a sheep’, they told me. Through my binoculars I could see the bloody remains which the vultures were tearing apart. I wondered where the wolf was and whether it was watching us. There are hundreds of wolves in the Alps and they are protected, with compensation offered to farmers when livestock is killed. There are no wolves in the Colorado Rockies. I was beginning to wonder which place was the wilder. Maybe it wasn’t the Rockies after all. Maybe wolves were the key.

Chateau-Queyras
 
The huge vultures were impressive in themselves. I saw many on other days, often solitary and drifting high above, watching for carrion. I saw golden eagles on several days too, more than I’ve ever seen before, including a dozen or more circling above a high col, a glorious sight.
The GR5 through the Alps is a popular route but walking in the autumn as the refuges closed I only caught the end of the summer season. Once I was past Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley the numbers of other walkers dwindled. On some days I saw none. The mountains are quiet in the autumn. The second day of the walk I came down to a crowded car park at the Chalets de Bise where I met my friend Lionel Morel, who lives not far away. There are restaurants here. The first was booked up for hours. Walkers were heading off in every direction. Would it be like this the rest of the walk I wondered? A month earlier it would have been. 

Evening light in the Parc National du Mercantour
 
The final flourish of high country on the GR5 is in the Mercantour National Park. A variation here stays high until a final sharp descent to Menton and the Mediterranean. With unsettled weather and fresh snow on the summits I decided not to take this. Instead I stayed with the main route wandering slowly down through wooded hills and along steep terraced mountainsides to a surreal final walk through the streets of Nice to the sea where crowds sunbathed. It felt a long way from the mountains.
I’d set off unsure whether I’d like the GR5 or whether I would find it lacked wildness. I was surprised to find I enjoyed it far more than expected. It isn’t a wilderness trail; it isn’t remote except in a few places. There are ski resorts, refuges, bulldozed roads, and far too many cows, sheep and electric fences. But then there are the magnificent forests, the spectacular mountains and the rich wildlife. I was glad I’d experienced these. 

The Mediterranean