Wednesday 30 January 2019

What I've Been Reading Online Recently No. 2

The snow returns. Strathspey. January 27.

Here's the second instalment of interesting pieces I've been reading online. This covers the last two weeks.


The winter Cape Wrath Trail gear list 

Nest month Alex Roddie sets out to walk the Cape Wrath Trail. Here he lists the gear he'll be using and his thinking behind his choices.

How to go Munro bagging by train

Fiona Outdoors describes some excellent Munro walks that can be accessed by train.

What is a thru-hike?

Paul Mags looks at possible definitions of thru-hiking.

The CDT Gear Guide: Class of 2018 Survey

A detailed look at the gear used by Continental Divide Trail hikers last year. It's very different from the stuff I used in 1985 when I hiked this magnificent route.

How Does The Insulation In A Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Work?

Philip Werner explains how these air mattresses keep you warm.

How Scotland can create a network of world-class walking routes 

Some ideas from Scottish Wildlife Trust chief executive Jonny Hughes

Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Uberlite sleeping pad review

Comprehensive review and test report of this astonishingly light new sleeping mat by Andrew Marshall.


Trust pays tribute to legendary mountain ecologist Adam Watson

Adam Watson: an appreciation

The sad death of mountaineer, conservationist and Cairngorms expert Adam Waston is marked in these tributes from The John Muir Trust and Cairngormswanderer.

Insect collapse: "We are destroying our life support systems"

Disturbing piece about the disappearance of insects

It's time to make space for nature

Jonny Hughes of the Scottish Wildlife Trust worries about the homogenization of nature

What is a wildcat?

Dr Andrew Kitchener of Scottish Wildcat Action looks at the different types of wildcats

Is wilderness our home?

Thought-provoking essay on the dangers of idealising wilderness

Oceans Are Warming Faster Than Expected

Worrying climate change report

Evolution is Not the Cause of Selfish Capitalism

Douglas Rushkoff says nature is a collaborative act

Thursday 24 January 2019

Adam Watson R.I.P.

Today the sad news of the death of Adam Watson was announced. Mountaineer, naturalist, conservationist, writer, expert on the Cairngorms Adam Watson has been a key figure in the Scottish outdoors field for many decades.

I never met him personally but I did attend a number of events at which he spoke. I particularly remember a rally in Glen Feshie protesting about the way the then owner was mismanaging the estate. Adam Watson have a fiery speech packed with passion and intellectual rigour.

His books are key for anyone wishing to understand the Cairngorms. I have several of them, my favourite being his SMC Guide, which I refer to often. I'll be reading it tonight.

For a much longer detailed account of Adam Watson's life and importance see this excellent piece by Bob Reid. 

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Two Little Video Clips on Cairn Gorm

On my trip in the Cairngorms described in my last post I took a couple of very short video clips both to show the wonderful views and weather and to see how I managed hand holding the camera. I need to practise! I also need to clean the sensor. I can't work out how to get rid of that dust spot in the videos.

Snow & Sunshine in the Cairngorms

After Sunset on Cairn Gorm

Sunday 20 January 2019

Clouds & mist & sun & snow: a glorious day in the Cairngorms

A distant Creag Meagaidh rises above a sea of clouds

Some days the weather is perfect and grey skies, bitter winds and dull light are forgotten. Such was yesterday. A day of deep blue skies and vast views. At least high in the Cairngorms. To the south and west clouds filled the glens. Down there the day would be dismal and damp.

A summit just pokes above the cloud in Strathspey

On the tops the air was calm, cold and bright. The only sound the crunching of my boots in the thin crisp snow. The hills felt vast as they stretched out to fade away in distant horizons.

On Cnap Coire na Spreidhe

As I headed up Cairn Gorm I watched a long cloud forming over Meall a'Bhuachaille and Creagan Gorm. I wandered over for a better look. This was a day for meandering, for going where my curiosity rather than following a set route. This cloud was unusual, just sitting along the summits. I've not seen this here before. Someone on one of those lower hills would think the day misty yet only a short way in any direction they'd have clear views.

Cloud on Meall a'Bhuachaille

On Cairn Gorm several groups were leaving the summit as I arrived. They missed the best of the light. The summit to myself, I wandered round, absorbing the views and the beauty. The moon, almost full, rose into the sky above a line of darkening pink.

Cairn Gorm Weather Station

The sun sank into the clouds. Beyond the now shadowed Cairngorm Plateau Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochan Uaine rose into an orange sky.

Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochan Uaine

I lingered until the final colour began to fade, reluctant to leave. A final flourish of searingly bright red far out to the west and it was time to head down into the moonlit night.

Last light

Thursday 17 January 2019

Out Into The White World

The snow fell, the wind dropped, the air stilled. A frozen afternoon, the snow crisp underfoot. No sound other than my boots crunching through the whiteness. Pause and the absolute silence was vast and shocking. The world is rarely so quiet.

Trees dark against the pale ground. Only a few had caught the snow from the wind. In the distance the hills, almost insubstantial, faded into the sky.

The land felt empty. There were no birds in the sky. Nothing moved bar a few rabbits scurrying into their burrows. Fox tracks cut in a straight purposeful line across the fields and vanished into the trees.

The sky was grey and flat, streaked with thin clouds. As I made my way back home as the day faded into night the light deepened into a cold blue. A waxing moon shone through the thin hazy clouds.

Winter has come.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

The snow's back!

After a mild and snowless first half of January the snow returned late this afternoon. Light rain turned to thin sleet, then wet snow, then big flakes, then, as the temperature dropped below zero, steady fine dry cold snow. By 10pm there was about an inch lying here at 300 metres in Strathspey. I'm due to go on an igloo building trip this weekend. It looked like being cancelled. Maybe it'll take place after all. We'll decide tomorrow evening.

Yesterday I went for a stroll by the River Spey, which was fuller than I've seen it for many weeks. With no snow visible on the Cromdale Hills and the temperature well above freezing - no need for hat or gloves - it felt almost spring like. It will be different tomorrow.

Photo notes: the top photo was taken on my Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone at 4.35 pm  - it was getting dark and snowing heavily, not ideal conditions for this camera. Settings: 1/13 second at F1.7. ISO 800.

The River Spey images were taken on the Sony a6000 with Sony E 55-210 lens at 55mm.. Settings for upper photo: 1/160 second at F8, ISO 400. Settings for lower photo: 1/50 second at F8, ISO 400.

Monday 14 January 2019

What I've Been Reading Online Recently

Hazy January Cairngorms

This is the first in an occasional series covering pieces I've read online that I think worth sharing. I've pinched the idea from Alex Roddie who's been running a regular 'What i've been reading this week' for some time now. I share pieces I like on social media already but it's occurred to me that posts there are often ephemeral. They should be a bit longer lasting here.


Warm baths and soggy underpants, and getting #AdventureSmart 

Entertaining and informative piece by Judy Whiteside about mountain rescue and the changes since the 1940s.

SUL Sub-3lb Winter Backpacking List 

A clever piece designed to make backpackers think by Paul Mags.

I Know Where I'm Going - but does anyone else? 

Following break-ins at the Glen Feshie car park Cameron McNeish looks at protecting your car and how to let people know where you are.

Unbalancing Act: Reflections on Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

A realistic look at long-distance hiking and it's aftermath by thru-hiker Kara Kieffer. It doesn't have to be life-changing or bring revelations to be worthwhile.

Skills: Gaelic for Hillwalkers

Kevin Woods looks at how understanding the Gaelic names of hills and topographical features can enhance the enjoyment of hillwalking.

Britain's 44-mile walk where you won't cross a road - what's involved? 

Robin Wallace considers the recent claim that you can walk a 44-mile straight line across the Cairngorms without crossing a road.


The Spellbinding Power of Reading Nature's "Lost" Words Aloud

An in-depth review of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris's The Lost Words by Lila MacClellan looking at the amazing effect this wonderful book has had.

Off the chart: the big comeback of paper maps 

Stanfords travel bookshop can print any map you want and says paper maps are on the way back says Kevin Rushby.

Jonathan Franzen's Controversial Stance on Climate Action

Interview with the novelist by Serena Renner about his views on environmental issues and his new non-fiction book The End of the End of the Earth. 


The New Wild 

Anna Tsing writes about 'invasive' species and how we react to them.

When the ice melts: the catastrophe of vanishing glaciers

Mountaineer Dahr Jamail on the disastrous changes climate change is having on the world's mountains.



Saturday 12 January 2019

Water for winter camps when there's no snow

As we all know, when the temperature drops below zero water freezes. And that can be a problem for winter camping if there's no snow to melt. Fill your water bottles at night and find them blocks of ice in the morning. Insulate them from the ground, wrap them in spare clothing, turn them upside down so any water can still be accessed. These all work to some extent. But they can all be awkward, inconvenient, and inefficient. Much easier to just let the water freeze and then melt the ice.

I do this in two ways. Firstly I fill my pots at night and then put them on the stove in the morning. I don't carry big pots though so this doesn't give me that much water. So I also carry flexible water carriers with wide openings. If these freeze overnight I just break up the ice by bashing them with a boot and then shake it out. This doesn't work well with rigid bottles! I have two flexible Platypus containers I use for this, the latest being the Water Tank.

Of course you can carry an insulated flask and fill this at night. I often do. But again it doesn't hold that much water. Or you can leave your tent and go and collect water from a nearby source if there is one. On a freezing stormy morning this isn't very appealing though. I much prefer to have hot drinks and breakfast without leaving my sleeping bag. Plenty of ice is the way to do that.

The picture was taken in the morning at my camp on the Moine Mhor in the Cairngorms earlier this month and described here.

Tarptent Moment DW Review for The Great Outdoors

I've just posted my review of the 2019 version of the Tarptent Moment DW in my column on the TGO website.

Thursday 10 January 2019

Outdoor & Nature Books Review 2018

There were many excellent outdoor and nature books published last year, many of which I haven't got round to reading yet (and may never do so - there's only so much time). Here are brief reviews of the ones I have read (or started to read) and enjoyed most, in no particular order. Some were printed books, some e-books.

There's Always The Hills by Cameron McNeish

My long-time friend Cameron McNeish's 'autobiography of sorts' is entertaining and packed with stories of the hills and outdoors people. 

In The Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov

I have to admit I'd never heard of this book before. It was given to me as a birthday present by my partner after she was enthralled by a play based on it she saw at the Edinburgh Fringe. It's the gripping story of a disastrous and tragic Russian arctic expedition in the early twentieth century told by one of the only two survivors.

The Lynx And Us by David Hetherington

This is an important and beautiful book. The author makes an excellent case for reintroducing lynx into the Scottish Highlands. The book is full of lovely and dramatic photographs of lynx by Laurent Geslin.

Bothy Tales by John D.Burns

Entertaining stories of bothies and adventures by the author of The Last Hillwalker Full of wry humour and over-the-top escapades with a touch of gentle sadness. I read it in camps on the GR5 and felt it an ideal book to have with me.

High and Low by Keith Foskett

Long distance hiker Keith Foskett's latest book tells how he dealt with depression whilte walking the length of Scotland. It's an honest account of a challenging time for the author. It's not a depressing read though. There is much humour and the overall feel is life-affirming and positive. I wrote the foreword and was very pleased to do so. 

The Nature of Autumn & The Nature of Winter by Jim Crumley

Two books by a great nature writer with his usual mix of personal recollection and detailed descriptions. Makes the seasons come alive.

On the Trail with Boots McFarland by Geolyn Carvin

Witty and amusing cartoons about long-distance hiking by a long-distance hiker. Every walker should recognise themselves somewhere!.

Trekking the GR5 Trail Through the French Alps by Paddy Dillon

My guide on the GR5. I probably read most of it several times. Informative and very useful.

Scaling the Heights: Measuring Scotland's Mountains by The Munro Society

Full of fascinating details about the Munros and measuring mountains. 

Northwest by Alex Nail

A sumptuous book packed with magnificent photographs this can be looked through again and again. The words are good too, with some interesting adventures in the NW Highlands described. I wrote the Introduction and I feel honoured to have done so.

Mrs Moreau's Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names by Stephen Moss

The fascinating and intriguing story of why birds have the names they do. Some are really surprising! A mix of natural history, history, etymology and literature all tied together entertainingly and informatively.

Snow The Biography by Giles Whittel

Everything you could want to know about snow: the science, the avalanches, the stories. Informative and enjoyable.

Our Place: Can We Save Britain's Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?  by Mark Cocker

A passionate and important book that covers the story of our conservation bodies and laws, what has gone wrong (and for nature to be in the state it is much has), and what can and should be done. Sobering, anguished and serious it should make anyone think about the future of wildlife in Britain.

The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare by Andy Howard

The author, a wildlife photographer, says that mountain hares became an 'engulfing passion' and it shows in his wonderful pictures. Every aspect of hares lives is shown and described. Lovely!

Scotland A Rewilding Journey by Susan Wright and Peter Cairns

Another important book packed with tremendouts photographs Scotland A Rewilding Journey covers every aspect of rewilding and argues well why it is essential that this takes place. 

A History of Scotland's Landscapes by Fiona Watson

This was a Christmas present and I've only dipped into it so far, but enough to know that I'm going to enjoy reading it and also learn a great deal. I'm looking forward to it.


Wednesday 9 January 2019

The Great Outdoors February issue

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. In it I review a dozen synthetic insulated jackets, the Primus Omnilite Ti stove, and the excellent Scotland A Rewilding Journey by Susan Wright and Peter Cairns.

There's eighteen pages of useful winter mountains skills advice from Glenmore Lodge instructors. We just need some snow to go with it!

In features David Lintern has an interesting snowy adventure on Ben Lui, illustrated with his usual superb photographs; Alex Roddie makes a poignant and moving trip over Fairfield and Helvellyn; Laura Jeacocke visits the island of Lundy; and Mark Waring describes 'hot tenting' in the Scandinavian winter.

Elsewhere former TGO editor and TGO Challenge coordinator Roger Smith looks back over four decades of the Challenge as we approach the 40th event. Roger also reviews a new edition of Erling Kragge's book Silence In The Age Of Noise and writes in his comment column about how every single environmental cause is worth fighting for. And in his Mountain Portrait column Jim Perrin praises Goat Fell and the rocky peaks of the Isle of Arran.

Finally I should mention the stunning opening shot by James Roddie, which shows a group of walkers on the snowy Cairgorm Plateau dwarfed by the towering ridges of Braeriach.

Friday 4 January 2019

Hoar Frost & Freezing Fog: First Hill and First Camp of the Year

On the summit of Sgor Gaoith

My year in the hills began with an ascent of a favourite in the Cairngorms, Sgor Gaoith, and a camp on the vast expanse of the Moine Mhor plateau. I love the huge views, the sense of endless space, the dizzying depths falling to Loch Einich, the feeling of an arctic wilderness. This trip only the last occurred and not in the usual way.

The forecast was for high pressure but in the depths of winter this can mean dull cloudy weather rather than clear skies and sunshine. There was some brightness in Glen Feshie as I set off  but the hills were shrouded in grey. The air was cold but still and as I climbed towards the clouds I was soon warm and off came hat and gloves and sleeves were rolled up.

As I reached the plateau I entered the cloud and a brisk chilling wind. Reverse the clothing changes, quickly. Then stride off fast to warm up. Crossing the plateau I dipped in and out of the cloud. Reaching the Allt Sgarnich I left the path and followed this stream upwards over frozen peat bogs, eventually camping on crisp icy grass not far from the water.

Camp on the Moine Mhor

The ground was white with frost. Old banks of snow lined the stream. I couldn't see far but the sense of vastness was there. Inside my little tent I settled down for the night. Water boiling on the stove filled the air with clouds of steam. Cuppa soups, a pasta 'n sauce meal, hot chocolate, writing notes, reading about Colin Fletcher. A quiet cosy evening.

During the night the wind picked up and rattled the tent, waking me a few times. The cloud of freezing fog was damp and the tent was slick with frozen condensation inside and out. Opening the door to look out at dawn brought a shower of ice crystals on my face. There wasn't much to see other than frost so I quickly closed the door again and retreated inside for breakfast. The water in my pots had frozen solid. The temperature was -4C.

Comfortable in the tent

Full of muesli porridge and coffee I ventured outside. The wind was bitter, the landscape frozen and bleak but also starkly beautiful. Nothing stirred, the only sound the wind rustling the icy grasses.

A cold world

I packed up all my gear inside the tent, wishing I had a roomier one for ease of movement and organisation. The tent itself went in an outside pocket where the frost and ice on it wouldn't soak into other gear when it melted. My trekking poles, left standing outside overnight, were white with frost.

Heading for Sgor Gaoith I checked my position on my smartphone map then used my compass for a bearing, a combination of old and new navigation technology that works well for me. I knew roughly which way to go but also knew I could easily turn the wrong way in this minimal visibility.

The best view of Sgor Gaoith

Eventually I came to the rough, well-used main path and followed this to the summit. Occasionally I had glimpsed of rocky aretes falling away into the mist. On the top the wind was bitter. My beard was wreathed in frost and ice and once I stopped I quickly felt chilly and realised I was quite damp from the wet freezing fog. A brief glimpse into the depths of Gleann Einich and I turned and headed for Carn Ban Mor and the track down to Glen Feshie.

View into Gleann Einich from Sgor Gaoith

A walker approaching the summit greeted me. 'I guess it cleared for great views on top', he said sarcastically. I shook my head, amused. 'Thought so'. He asked if I was going across the plateau to Mullach Clach a'Bhlair, the second Munro above Glen Feshie. I shook my head again. One Munro was enough for today. This year there will be more, maybe a hundred for the hundredth anniversary of Munro's death.

Carn Ban Mor

A snack on Carn Ban Mor, where the summit stones were intricately patterned with frost, and then down the track into Glen Feshie. As I dropped out of the cloud I also dropped out of the wind. Suddenly it was calm and I could see the glen below and the land reaching out into distant greyness. People coming up were hatless, one in a t-shirt. That would soon change!

Frost patterns on Carn Ban Mor

Down in the glen I looked back up at the hidden hills. The trip had not been as expected, though I always know this may be the case. It had been satisfying though. And challenging. And It had taken me into a unique world of frost and cold. A good way to start the year.

Tuesday 1 January 2019

Munros & Challenges: Looking Forward to 2019

Sgurr nan Gillean, final Munro on my first round in 1981

This year sees two significant events. The first in March is the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Hugh Munro, compiler of the Tables of Scottish Mountains over 3000' high that are named after him. The second is the 40th anniversary of the TGO Challenge walk across the Highlands. Both the Munros and the Challenge have been entertwined in my life and have special meaning to me.

I started climbing the Munros after reading Hamish Brown's superb Hamish's Mountain Walk, about the first continuous trip over all of them. Inspired by this I set out in 1979 to hike the Munros in a series of long backpacking trips. Then in 1980 the then new magazine The Great Outdoors promoted a new challenge walk, a crossing of the Highlands from coast to coast, devised by the same Hamish Brown. I entered and undertook a route crossing 56 Munros, all of them first ascents. The Challenge and the Munros were now firmly connected in my mind.

Ben Hope, final Munro of my continuous round in 1996

I finished my first round of the Munros in 1981. In 1996 I undertook them again in a continuous walk and added all the subsidiary Tops. Will I complete them all again? Maybe. In fact I suspect I've probably done a third round. I have to confess my records are not up to date.

Camp on my 1996 Munros & Tops walk

I've completed the Challenge fourteen more times since that first one, always including some Munros along the way. Next May I'll be taking part in the fortieth one. I won't be repeating my 1980 route though. That year, for the only time, the Challenge was three weeks long. It's been two ever since. I don't think I could do in two weeks what took me three forty years ago. I am planning a shortened version of that route though. With plenty of Munros.

Camp on the TGO Challenge, 2007

In the meantime my first action of 2019, after toasting the New Year with a glass of Ardbeg whisky, was to fill in my application for membership of The Munro Society. I've been meaning to do this for several years. A hundred years after Munro's death seems an appropriate time to do so.