Saturday, 15 February 2020

Between the storms: a snowshoe walk in the Cairngorms

Storm Ciara fades away, Storm Dennis approaches. For one day the mountains are calm. Before the fury erupts again. Taking advantage of this brief lull I wandered across the foot of the Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm and up to Miadan Creag an Leth-choin. The snow brought by Ciara was deep, although many areas were wind-scoured, and I was on snowshoes all day. The air was chill but there was little wind and I never needed an outer jacket or even hat and gloves much of the time. 

Whilst the weather was quiet there were still great sheets of dark cloud drifting over the summits. Coire Cas was busy but once out of sight of the car park and ski area there were few people and those there were looked well prepared for winter. Walkers coming down were wearing crampons. Higher up I realised why as I encountered large areas of rippled, refrozen, icy snow. My snowshoes have metal edges and crude crampons underfoot and bit easily into the ice. 

I had planned on going to the top of Creag an Leth-choin for the view down the Lairig Ghru and across to Braeriach but as I neared the broad flat top of Miadan Creag an Leth-choin (the name means Meadow of the Lurcher’s Crag) the clouds swept in and I was quickly shrouded in mist. 

Leaving the summit cairn – if this slightly raised spot can be called a summit – I crunched northwards towards Creag an Leth-choin. This was familiar country but in this mist I could see very little, just rocks and snow and ice fading into nothingness and occasional brief glimpses of distant peaks. Above blue sky came and went but the mist stayed.

With steep slopes falling into the Lairig Ghru not far away I paused to check my exact location on my phone then took a compass bearing. It would have been easy to go astray here and wander round in circles. Standing still I felt the complete silence wrap round me. There was nothing but the mountain, nothing but snow and rock. Peaceful and hostile at the same time. A world of harshness and beauty.

A short descent took me to the head of Lurcher’s Gully. Ahead and not far above was Creag an Leth-choin. I turned away, seeing no point in ascending this oft-visited peak and seeing nothing. The snow in the broad gully was deep. I followed ski tracks down then cut out of the gully to head back to Coire Cas. 

As dusk fell the clouds on Cairn Lochan and Cairn Gorm began to lift and disperse. The mountains glowed pink then slowly turned blue and cold. Ahead Meall a’Bhuachaille was pale, floating, mist wreathed. 

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Book Review: Walking Through Shadows by Mike Cawthorne

Mike Cawthorne is no stranger to the Scottish hills in winter. His first book, the excellent Hell of a Journey, is about a continuous winter walk over all the 1000 metre summits. Walking Through Shadows is also about a winter walk, but a very different one. In it the author and a companion set out from Whiten Head on the north coast to walk south to Knoydart with as little contact with habitations and people as possible. 

Their route is tough, eschewing easier options for the remotest ones. In summer it would be challenging. In winter, with blizzards, bitter cold, short days, long nights, and deep rivers, it’s really testing, especially for Mike Cawthorne’s companion, Nick, who isn’t as fit and who suffers daily from sore and blistered feet. That they finish the walk together is a testament to their friendship.

The hardship and tough going are intended. The walk comes across as a mix of pilgrimage, penance and wake. It’s undertaken in memory of a close friend, Clive Dennier, who died at their destination, and whose body wasn’t found for months. His story is told in bursts of reminiscences throughout the book, his presence always there. 

Walking Through Shadows isn’t an easy read but it is a worthwhile one. The harshness of the Scottish winter and the sorrow for a lost friend are intermingled. The descriptions of the landscape reveal both its stark beauty and its hostile bleakness. What it’s like to walk and camp in this cold land day after day is captured well. 

The nature of the land and how damaged it is comes up again and again. Isolated and remote it may be. Untouched it isn’t and there’s no pretence that this is anywhere near a pristine wilderness. At the same time the author obviously loves and cares for it.

Walking Through Shadows is an unusual, thought-provoking and very worthwhile addition to the literature of the Scottish hills.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Outdoor Gear Coach: Keeping Warm and Dry,204,203,200_.jpg

Way back in November 2013 Mike Parsons asked if I'd like to be involved in a new project called Outdoor Gear Coach he was starting with Mary B.Rose. The idea was to provide independent information on products and how they worked for outdoor shop staff, instructors, writers, bloggers and consumers.

I knew Mike and Mary from the Innovation for Extremes conferences they'd organised and from their book Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers. I also knew Mike from his days as MD of Karrimor International and then founder of OMM. Mike is a keen mountaineer, skier, rock climber, hill runner, long-distance walker, and mountain biker and has an unparalleled wealth of knowledge about outdoor equipment. Mary is a hillwalker and retired academic historian. OGC sounded an excellent idea and I liked the idea of working with others so I agreed to take part. Chuck Kukla, a mountaineer, instructor and researcher in the Northeast USA, also came onboard as the US editor plus Alan Hinkes as high altitude advisor, and Marian Parsons as advisor and copy editor.

Over seven years later, and after more than 700 emails, numerous Google Docs, and a few meetings OGC has published its first book, Keeping Dry & Staying Warm Part 1, available from Amazon as a print or e-book. It's a collaborative venture but most of the work has been done by Mike and Mary who as well as the writing have done vast amounts of research. Working with others and exchanging ideas and information has been a fascinating and valuable process. I've learnt a great deal. I hope the results will help others to do the same.

Friday, 7 February 2020

The Great Outdoors March issue

The March issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. In it I review ten pairs of walking trousers and three insulated flasks. In a very interesting and informative piece Alex Roddie reviews the gear he used on his Cape Wrath Trail walk a year ago.

The issue opens with a splendid night shot of Glencoe under a vast starry sky by Dougie Cunningham.

Inside the magazine Hanna Lindon looks at the controversy on diversity engendered by Lake District National Park head Richard Leafe and talks to BAME outdoor leaders for their perspective, while Roger Smith worries about the possible change to trespass laws in England and Wales following the general election. TGO Challenge Coordinators Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden share some tips on enjoying your food on a long walk. In his Mountain Portrait Jim Perrin enjoys Skiddaw.

The main cover feature Move To The Mountains involves pieces by various people who've moved to the hills to live and work plus some advice on how to make this work (I did it nearly forty years ago and I'm still learning!). One of those who writes about moving to the mountains is David Lintern and he also has a thought-provoking feature about a winter walk in the increasingly damaged Monadhliath. Another winter walker is James Forrest, who undertakes the Cumbria Way.

Far from Britain Peter Elia visits Peru's spectacular Cordillera Huayhuash, an area threatened by climate change as its glaciers are disappearing.

The issue also has the results of the TGO Reader's Awards. There are eleven categories, running from Campaigner of the Year (Greta Thunberg) to Pub of the Year (The Clachaig, Glen Coe), Book of the Year (Mountain Man by James Forrest), and Clothing/Equipment Brand (Rab). I came third in Personality of the Year - thanks to everyone who voted for me. It was deservedly won by Sarah Jane Douglas, author of Just Another Mountain.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Glen Feshie: First Camp of 2020

Having spent most of January with an appallingly awful cold that left me unfit and lacking in energy early in February I finally managed to pack a rucksack and wander down Glen Feshie for the first wild camp of the year. Rain pounded down most of the day but by the time I set off in the afternoon it was easing and had faded away before I was far down the glen. Rain or not the old forest, the new forest, and the wild river lifted my spirits as always. The magnificent ancient pines, the glorious youngsters - pines, birch, rowan, willow, juniper and more - never fail to entrance.

I called in at the bothy where I knew a group of TGO Challengers were headed (Carl Mynott, Andrew Walker, Sally Phillips, and Keith Willer), Carl having invited me along. I wasn't planning on staying in the bothy - I wanted to camp and I didn't think my coughing and spluttering would be fair on others - so after a mug of coffee I headed up the glen to find a site. Later in the evening I returned to the bothy for a longer chat. By then there were another half dozen or so people there. 

I found a good site beside the fang-like stump of a long dead pine. At least, the stump was dead, branches that had partly split off were still green, growing along the ground rather than up to the sky. After all the rain the ground was sodden and the air damp. At dusk the temperature started to fall and a heavy dew appeared on the tent, soon to freeze. Stars and a bright half-moon appeared. The air was still and crisp and I stood for hours just watching the sky and the darkening forest. Orion stood out in the sparkling blackness.

By dawn the temperature was -6c. Clouds were beginning to cover the sky. There would be no sunrise. The frost lingered, the temperature barely rising above freezing. Mugs of hot chocolate and a pot of muesli porridge kept me warm.

The bothy folk were planning on an ascent of Mullach Clach a'Bhlair. I was tempted but didn't feel really up to it. Instead I spent a few hours ambling round the glen, content just to be here. The many old channels of the River Feshie, which changes its course regularly as it winds across the broad glen floor, were filled with cracked ice. The river itself was flowing too fast to have more than touches of ice along its banks.

By the time I wandered back down the glen clouds were covering the hill tops and sheets of snow and sleet were rushing down the glen, turning the landscape hazy and ethereal. 

The river roared fast and clear and powerful, with signs of erosion everywhere. The path along the glen has changed many times in the years I've been coming here. 

A few hours later I was in a cafe in Aviemore watching snow falling on the pavements. It had been a short trip but a good one. 

Friday, 31 January 2020

First Online Reading List, Part 2, Nature, conservation, rewilding.

Bynack More at dusk, January 26

Here's the second part of the online reading I've enjoyed since the turn of the year, covering nature, conservation and rewilding.

Book Review: Rebirding - Rewilding Britain and it's Birds by Benedict Macdonald

Praise for this book by Alec Roddie. I have it on order!

This can be the year when we recharge nature - and ourselves 

George Monbiot says as well as campaigning for nature we need to recharge ourselves.

A warm welcome? The wildlife visitors warning of climate disaster

New species arriving in Britain are not a good sign

The Return of the Taghan

Polly Pullar celebrates the return of the pine marten after centuries of persecution. Superb photography from

Lynx to the Past

Ross Barnett considers ancient DNA and says it can help inform the return of species that lived in Scotland.

A Wild Anniversary: 25 Years For Yellowstone Wolves

By bringing back the beaver, and allowing our rivers to freestyle through the landscape, we could revive these incredible ecosystems says ecologist Joshua Harris.

On the Trail of Beavers

Naturalist Dan Puplett goes in search of beavers in Knapdale and find plenty of signs.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Deer Working Group report calls for a reduction in deer numbers

Today the Scottish Government published the final report of the independent Deer Working Group, The management of wild deer in Scotland. It's a detailed 374 page document that I've only had time to skim through so far. There are 99 recommendations, of which the key one is probably the need for new legislation so that other recommendations can be implemented. I also picked out a few others:

"The Working Group recommends that the Scottish Government should ensure that the role of wild deer in increasing the risk of Lyme disease is given greater prominence in its policies for deer management in Scotland, and that greater priority is given to that risk in considering the need to reduce deer densities in locations across Scotland."

" The Working Group recommends that the Scottish Government should recognise much more fully than at present, the need for changes to the current statutory and non-statutory system for the management of wild deer in Scotland if the Scottish Forestry Strategy 2019-29 is to be implemented successfully."

"The Working Group recommends that the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Scottish Natural Heritage should have a much greater focus on the need to improve the management of wild deer in the Cairngorms National Park, to reduce deer densities in many parts of the Park to protect and enhance the Park’s biodiversity."

Scottish Environment LINK, whose own deer report I wrote about here, has welcomed the report.  Mike Daniels, Head of Land Management at the John Muir Trust, says "We welcome the courage and clarity of the report which confirms that Scotland’s existing deer management procedures and practices need major reform. If we were designing a new system of deer management today in the context of climate change, biodiversity loss and the depopulation of fragile rural areas it would bear little resemblance to the ‘traditional sporting estate’ model found in large parts of the Highlands.”

This is an important report whose recommendations should be implemented by the Scottish Government as soon as possible.