Thursday 28 February 2019

The Cairngorm Plateau, late February

Lochan Buidhe & Cairn Gorm

After the big thaw and warm weather of the last two weeks of February I walked across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui. The day was warm and mostly calm. On the ascent I didn't need a jacket, on the Plateau a light windproof was enough to deal with the occasional breeze. Dark glasses and a hat were needed to cope with the bright sun. Ice axe and crampons stayed in the car.

Most of the snow has, unsurprisingly, gone. I have seen the hills this bare of snow at this time of year before but I can't remember it ever being this warm. Mostly the walking was on stones and boulders. Just occasionally a patch of slushy snow had to be crossed.

As the day wore on clouds began to thicken in the west, the first signs of the change in the weather that's forecast - a change to colder temperatures and snow. Gazing down the Lairig Ghru from Ben Macdui I could see mist starting to form in distance glens.

The curve of peaks around the huge hollow of An Garbh Choire looked as dramatic as ever as the clouds above began to turn orange.

The dusk colour increased as I returned across the Plateau, giving hopes of a fiery sunset. But then the clouds began to thicken, with just a faint tinge of pink above Cairn Toul remaining.

A last surprise awaited me. Unexpectedly the sky suddenly roared into life, streaks of red and orange shooting out above the darkening hills. The effect was startling and brilliant. And brief. A few minutes and it was over.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Good review of Along The Divide - and no, there isn't any product placement!

"An enjoyable and readable account of his travels."

"Discusses land use and conservation with passion".

"A neat and concise writer who entertains and informs".

These quotes are from a very nice review by Ian McPherson in the Spring 2019 issue of Backpack, the Journal of the Backpackers Club. Thank you!

At the end of the review Ian McPherson comments that he has one gripe, the frequency with which I name-check my shelter, and he wonders if there is a degree of commercial promotion. There isn't! I hadn't realised I'd named the shelter that often - and no-one else has commented on it - but doing so was because that's what I call it. Ironically, unlike most of the shelters I use, which are provided for test, I actually bought this one! (For those wondering it's the MLD Trailstar).

I'd like to state firmly that if I did any commercial promotion or product placement I would say so up front.

Sunday 24 February 2019

In Torridon with Alex Roddie on his winter Cape Wrath Trail walk

Below Meall a'Ghiubhais

Last week I joined my colleague and The Great Outdoors online editor Alex Roddie on his winter Cape Wrath Trail walk (see his blog for details). Now, long-distance walking in winter in Scotland is always an unpredictable challenge as the weather can vary between blizzards, severe cold and deep snow, and mild, wet and snowless. Other than at the start Alex has had the latter and so was ahead of schedule when I caught up with him in Glen Torridon as the walking was easier than if there had been snow.

Although warm for February the weather was also wet and windy with a big storm on the way. Having seen the forecast Alex had decided it was time for a rest day. This turned out to be very sensible. We camped on the boggy Torridon campsite, on slightly raised ground to avoid the puddles that had already formed. The rain hammered down all night. As it did the next day. Coffee and scones in the excellent Torridon cafe kept us out of the wet for a while then we headed round to Loch Maree as Alex fancied a stroll up the Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail. Climbing through the lovely woods and admiring the raging torrents crashing down through the trees we were sheltered from the wind. Once we left the forest we felt it though, driving the rain against us, so we decided to return the way we'd come. A few hours in this storm was enough. Back at the campsite the pools of water were approaching the tents. Thankfully though, after twenty-four hours, the rain eased off.

In Coire Mhic Nobuil

The next day was blustery with light showers but far calmer than the previous one. I accompanied Alex up Coire Mhic Nobuil between the great mountains of Beinn Alligin, Beinn Dearg and Liathach and then below equally fine Beinn Eighe to Allt Toll a'Ghuibhais. Unfortunately low cloud meant we only saw the lower slopes.

The Allt Coire Ruadh-staca

The last few hours of the walk were cross-country over rough terrain of bogs, boulders and tussocks. Despite the name the Cape Wrath Trail isn't a trail all the way and good route-finding skills are needed in many places. There were streams to cross too and whilst none were hazardous we did have to carefully pick spots to ford. Keeping boots dry was impossible.

Late afternoon light on Meall a'Ghuibhais
As the day wore on the clouds lifted a little and the sun cut below them lighting up Meall a'Ghiubhais, not normally a hill that catches the eye given the magnificent higher peaks all around. They were still in the cloud though.

Camp by the Allt Toll a'Ghiubhais

The flatlands around the meandering Allt Toll a'Ghiubhais looked suitable for a camp - if we could find some ground that wasn't waterlogged and that gave some shelter from the fierce wind. A little searching and an area of dryish ground slightly above the river and partly sheltered by a bank looked promising. It was and our camp was surprisingly comfortable. Gusts of wind did occasionally hit the tents but generally it was quite calm. And the location was spectacular.

Alex heads off

In the morning Alex set off for Kinlochewe and I set off back the way we'd come. The clouds had lifted though the sky was still grey. All the hills that had been hidden on the outward journey were now rising stark and ominous, ragged ridges of rocky teeth. The weather suited them. The wind was very strong and I had to fight into it until well down Coire Mhic Nobuil, realising just how sheltered our camp had been.


I heard from Alex a day later, a brief text saying he was almost at Inverlael. I hope the weather improves for him and brings some real winter conditions - frosty mornings, crisp sunshine, even snow. Whatever, to walk the Cape Wrath Trail in February will be a big achievement.

Sunday 17 February 2019

Thoughts on the Cairn Gorm fiasco

Cairn Gorm

Cairn Gorm, the sixth highest hill in Britain and one that gives its name to the whole mountain area and to a national park, is the centre of a fiasco. This has been brewing and bubbling for many years, ever since the controversial funicular railway that runs up its slopes was first proposed in the 1990s. 

The story of the murky goings on when the funicular was built are well-told in this Parkswatch Scotland piece by Dave Morris, one of the key opponents of the scheme at the time. Since then, as Dave shows, the funicular has continued to soak up public money as a series of companies has managed it and the ski resort on behalf of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), who own the Cairngorm estate. 

The most recent of these companies, Natural Retreats (or maybe another of the web of companies behind this name), failed to do much other than cause further damage to the area before going bust last November when it turned out that the funicular, which was closed after faults were found, was going to remain shut for far longer than they hoped. It cost HIE £447,540 to buy back the assets from the administrator. In 2014 Natural Retreats had paid £231,239 for the previous company, Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (a name HIE has revived for the new company now running the resort). More public money gone amidst further murky goings, again covered well by Parkswatch Scotland in this piece by Nick Kempe. 

Currently the funicular is closed for the foreseeable future. How much will repairs cost? We don’t know. Who will meet the cost? Us the public, I suppose. How long will the repairs take? Again, we don’t know. Is the funicular worth repairing? Maybe not. Should it be removed? Maybe it’ll have to be. Who’ll pay for that? The public again. Nick Kempe says an independent inquiry is needed into what’s gone so badly wrong. He’s right. It’s been needed for quite a while.

Meanwhile the ski season staggers on with a resort unable to take skiers to the higher slopes except on drag lifts for which artificial snow has to be made when there’s no lower snow. Why? Because chairlifts were removed as everyone would use the funicular. But now the funicular’s out of action ……

All this is happening in a national park (and what does the park think? – nothing, it seems) and on a significant mountain. The local Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust want a community buy-out. I certainly agree that the estate should be taken off HIE. The aims is for the resort to be revived for skiing with chairlifts reinstated and that there will be summer activities too – a mountain coaster and mountain bike trails have been proposed. Where will the money come from for these developments? The public again?

Is there another way? In an excellent article on the Walk Highlands website Cameron McNeish suggests that maybe the whole resort including the road from Glenmore to Coire Cas could be removed and the area returned to its natural state. Cameron envisages “an integrated wildlife and adventure playground … in Glenmore, with forest trails, cross-country ski loops, and mountain bike loops all linking with trails that climb into the Northern Corries”. It’s a tempting vision. And I like the boldness of Cameron’s further suggestion that lynx, and wolves, and beaver could be re-introduced to the regenerating forest.

Cameron’s words echoed in my mind. Searching my bookshelves, I found a book I haven’t looked at in over two decades – Jim Crumley’s 1991 A High and Lonely Place: The Sanctuary and Plight of the Cairngorms (still available in a revised edition).  It’s a lovely book I shouldn’t have neglected for so long, perhaps the most eloquent writing on the Cairngorms after Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. It’s also a call to action. “A hundred-year Government commitment to the restoration of the Cairngorm wilderness ……. the dismantling of every man-made artefact in the mountains”.

Glenmore Forest & Loch Morlich
Jim Crumley was writing before the national park or the funicular existed. The first has done some good but not enough, the second has led to the current fiasco. We must not forget though that the Cairngorms as a whole are far more, far, far more, that one side of Cairn Gorm itself. Much is happening towards restoration of wildness. Most recently Cairngorms Connect has been established – “a partnership of neighbouring land managers, committed to a bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park.”  That’s 100 years more than Jim Crumley called for! 

Cairngorms Connect doesn’t include the Cairngorm estate and the ski resort. It could and should. Two of the organisations involved, the RSPB and Forestry Commission Scotland, have land that is adjacent to the estate. 

The Cairngorms have been my local hills for nearly thirty years. I feel passionately about them. I can see Cairn Gorm from my house. I watch it often in all its ever-changing glory. This is a precious and unique landscape. It deserves our best care. It’s not getting it.

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Remembering Steve Perry

Steve Perry on the summit of Ben Hope at the end of his winter Munros round

Last week a mountain accident on Ben Hope shook the outdoor world. Deaths in the mountains are always tragic and sad but this one affected more people than most as the two mountaineers involved, Steve Perry and Andy Nesbit, were very well-known and well-liked. I didn't know Andy, though I had heard of him through his amazing number of first ascents. I did know Steve, though I hadn't seen him for quite a few years. Here I want to remember him and his achievements.

John Manning and Steve Perry on Ben Hope

Steve Perry bridged the worlds of long-distance walking and mountaineering. I met him through my friend and colleague John Manning, Lakeland Walker editor and former TGO deputy editor, who had been a close friend of Steve's for many years. At the time Steve was undertaking some phenomenally long and hard walks. First he walked from Land's End to John O'Groats taking in every 3,000 foot peak along the way. Then came what is arguably the toughest walk ever undertaken in Britain, a continuous round of the Munros in winter. Previously only Martin Moran had done the Munros in one winter, a great achievement, and he had van support and did most of them as day walks. Steve did them as a backpacking trip. No-one has repeated this astonishing journey. Steve wrote about it for The Great Outdoors and the piece has recently been republished on the TGO website. The determination, strength of mind, and skills needed to do this trip astonish me.

I was honoured to be invited to climb Ben Hope, the last peak on the winter Munros round, with Steve and a party of friends. The weather was stormy, with cold rain low down and sleet and snow high up. The traditional champagne wasn't opened until we were back down in the glen.

Steve Perry after completing his winter Munros round

I saw Steve quite often for a few years and we had many long talks on walks and mountains and gear and plans for the future. We were kindred spirits, sharing a love of mountains and wild places. 

The news last week left me stunned. It's taken a while to sink in. Writing this has been difficult but I wanted to say something to honour someone I liked and admired. Steve's achievements are astonishing. Knowing him was a privilege. He will be missed. And Ben Hope will always be his mountain in my mind. I'll never go there or even hear the name without thinking of him. 

Saturday 9 February 2019

Video on gear for winter hillwalking

About to start talking!

I've just uploaded a video of the gear I use for winter hillwalking. My first video like this. Took three attempts - frozen camera, inaudible audio, wind noise all problems. There's a weird colour change two-thirds of the way through that I can't get rid of or explain. I'll learn! Anyway, here's the link:

Thursday 7 February 2019

Gear from long ago performs well

For the first time in a few years the snow has been deep enough for local skiing so I retrieved my oldest skis from the garage. Bought in 1987 for a six-week ski tour in the Canadian Rockies these have become the ones I bring out for skiing from home as they're the only waxless skis I have and for short trips I don't want to mess about with waxes. I don't mind if they get scraped or scratched either. I thought they'd have collapsed long before now. Not that I have any new skis. My most recent pair are eighteen years old.

In their day these Asnes Nansen skis were wide. They look narrow now. As I was using such old skis I also got out my Swix Mountain poles, which are a bit younger, dating from the early 1990s. These non-adjustable poles are very tough and have big baskets with leather cross-pieces and leather grips. My boots are the same age as the poles - Garmont Tours, which are really just leather walking boots with a sole with that square toe that clips into three-pin bindings. There are supergaiters permanently attached to the boots. I haven't removed them for decades. I just flip off the toes to stop the tension curling the boots.

To go with the old ski gear I dug out some old clothing. Most ancient of all was a Helly-Hansen double-pile jacket dating from 1982 and which I took on the Pacific Crest Trail. Fleece wasn't around then and fibre-pile jackets were standard for walkers and climbers though not for general wear as they very quickly looked scruffy - the rough soon outers covered in balls of fibres, known as pilling. The double-pile jacket didn't suffer from this as it has pile on both sides, as the name suggests. This makes it very warm for the weight (580 grams). It's longer than most modern fleece jackets and has cuffs with thumb loops, an extended back, handwarmer pockets and chunky zips. I wore it a great deal in the 1980s but haven't done so for many years. It's still in good condition.

To go with the pile jacket I found a ragg wool hat and a Ventile jacket, both from sometime in the 1990s. The hat is double-layer and very warm. The jacket is double-layer too. It's called the Snowsled Wilderness and is longer than most modern jackets, which I like. It has a good wired hood and five roomy pockets. Ventile is soft, quiet and breathable and excellent for cold, dry conditions. I remember it does keep out rain but goes stiff when wet and takes ages to dry. I found the Wilderness jacket very comfortable. It's heavy at 1.19kg but I didn't notice this when skiing.

All this old gear performed well, just as well as modern gear would, on a ski tour in sub-zero temperatures and with a gusty cold wind at times. It's all lasted well too. Good gear has always been durable. Taking this stuff out reminded me that I was as comfortable in the 1980s and 1990s as I am now.

Tuesday 5 February 2019

The Great Outdoors March issue

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. I've contributed to a piece on favourite gear for winter along with Judy Armstrong, David Lintern, and Alex Roddie. I also review ten of the latest headlamps.

Unsurprisingly several features have a winter feel. Stefan Durkacz describes an interesting snowy backpacking trip to the remote hills south of Achnashellach. Conditions were perfect and David Lintern captures the splendour of the areas in his photos illustrating the piece.

David Lintern also writes about a winter navigation course in really challenging conditions in the Cairngorms, also illustrated with his dramatic photos - it takes great skill and commitment to get good pictures in such weather.

A frozen Pendle Hill is climbed by Jim Perrin for his Mountain Portrait page and he also looks at the history of this famous hill.

Further south Rich Bunce recalls venturing out in Wharfedale during 'the Beast from the East' storm last winter while in the Lake District James Deboo has a winter packraft trip on Ullswater.

Much, much further south Judy Armstrong praises ski touring in Greece, not a country I'd ever thought of for that before. Judy makes it sound very appealing.

Away from snowy stories Richard Baynes visits the new Kingshouse Hotel at the head of Glencoe, TGO Challenge co-ordinators Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden celebrate the bonds forged on the event, and Roger Smith looks at the proliferation of small hydro schemes in Scotland.

Sunday 3 February 2019

On Meall a'Bhuachaille in the snow

Cairn Gorm & the Northern Corries from Meall a'Bhuachaille

Leaving behind the magical forest described in my last post I started the climb up Meall a'Bhuachaille. How quickly the world changed and opened up, the views vast, the confines of the trees vanishing far below. My interest now stretched to far horizons over rolling white mountains. Underfoot the snow was soft. Off the path it was deep and I was glad others had beaten down the path the summit. I met a walker, descending past me and taking a direct line through the soft snow, easy enough going down. I stayed on the path.

Walker descending to Ryvoan Pass

Even though the temperature was below zero there was no breeze and climbing was hot work Once on the summit I quickly realised how cold it was and was glad I'd brought a down jacket. It was an hour before sunset and I was planning on staying to watch the light change.

On the summit

The panorama from the summit was superb. This is one of the great viewpoints of the Cairngorms. Out along Strathspey layers of mist shrouded the towns and roads. Over there was my home. It looked as though it was under a grey gloomy cloud.


Down in Glen More sparkling Loch Morlich was almost completely ice-covered, a pale lozenge in the dark forest. Far to the west the sky was beginning to turn pink as the sun slid towards the horizon.

Loch Morlich

Out beyond the Cairngorms thin mist was forming in the glens as the hills darkened into ethereal silhouettes. Clouds on the horizon caught the last of the sun.

Mist forming

Sunset came with a flash of orange. Pink light briefly suffused the snow. Then it was cold and grey, the only brightness in the thin band of clouds above the now hidden sun. Time to go. I crunched down the snow, aware of the increasing cold.


The brilliant colours on the horizon held my eyes as I descended towards the forest, pulling me on. As I reached the first trees there was a final glorious burst of brightness then it was into the dark forest, my headlamp needed to light the way.

Last light

Meall a'Bhuachaille is a favourite hill. I climb it several times a year. Every time is different, every time is enjoyable. But this was special.

Saturday 2 February 2019

In the Winter Forest

With a promise of sunshine and clear views I headed out intending to climb to the Cairngorm Plateau and revel in the snowy mountains. But driving to Aviemore and then down Glen More I was distracted by trees, trees shimmering and glistening with fresh snow, magical in the clearing mist and first shafts of sunlight. The idea of walking in the winter forest was enticing. The trees were calling.

By the time I reached Loch Morlich my plans had changed. The forest had won. I would wander through the trees to Ryvoan Pass and then head up Meall a'Bhuachaille, combining forest and hill.

Sun and snow and trees, a magical combination. Scots pines heavy with great slabs of snow, birches delicate and fragile, dressed in thin silvery shards. There was no wind, no sound. My boots were noisy on the crisp snow. Stopping often I absorbed the silence, the quiet adding to the feel of another world, the familiar landscape transformed by snow.

Lochan Uaine was frozen, the ice covered with snow, a white lochan now. Tracks showed where people had been out on the ice. Frosted trees stood silently round the shore, waiting maybe, but for what?

As the trees began to thin it was the last birches that stood out, entrancing jewels shining in the sunshine.

An icy path led out of the trees. I looked back, down through the forest and out to distant hills. Now it was time for the hills. But that's for my next post.