Friday, 18 September 2020

On the Cairngorm Plateau

 

There are many summits on the Cairngorm Plateau, most notably Cairn Gorm itself and Ben Macdui. These summits are high points but not really separate mountains. They may look like it from below but once you are up on the Plateau they are just bumps in the vastness. The mountain is the Plateau. It can be enjoyed, explored and revelled in without visiting any named tops. It is a world in itself. Up here on this huge mountain there are rivers, lochs, glens, corries, grasslands, rocks and more. 


I felt this strongly a few days ago as I wandered the Plateau in sunshine and stillness. I had no clear destination, no summit to reach. Or rather the Plateau was the destination. I went late when I knew it would be quiet and the light warm and golden. I thought it would be cooler too but climbing to the Plateau the heat slowed me down. I met many people descending. One stopped for a chat. “My legs are gone” she said. She’d been down to Loch Avon then up Beinn Mheadhoin and was returning the same way. “A nine-hour day”. There’d been climbers on the cliffs in the Loch Avon basin, but they said the rocks were too wet.

Once I reached the Plateau I was alone and saw no-one else the rest of the day. The heat spoke of high summer, but the fading and reddening grasses spoke of autumn. I looked down on Loch Avon and across at the great cliffs of the Shelter Stone Crag and Carn Etchachan, monumental glacier-carved rock architecture. A distant red spot was a tent not far from the top of the latter. I wondered if this belonged to the climbers I’d heard about. A superb camp site anyway. 


On Hell’s Lum layers of wet overhanging slabs glistened. I ventured as close as I dared to the edge of the narrow gully that splits the cliff and gives its name. Far out beyond the dark slit the silvery waters of the Feith Buidhe crashed down gentler slabs. 


In the shallow valley above the tumble down to Loch Avon the Feith Buidhe was a shining thread stretching out to Lochan Buidhe. Beyond the waters rose Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine, the eastern edge of another great plateau on the far side of the hidden Lairig Ghru pass. 


Clouds drifted by high above, one brushing the top of Cairn Gorm, another making a half-hearted attempt to become a thunderhead. The air was warm. In these conditions the Plateau is benign, friendly and welcoming. Hard to imagine the blizzards raging here but they will be soon.


On the slopes of Cairn Lochan the low sun lit up thin grasses, the seed heads nodding in the gentle breeze. Such delicate plants. Yet they survive up here, survive in the gales and rain, the snows of winter, the frosts and ice. Delicate and tough at the same time. Easily crushed. Storm resistant.


I left the Plateau as the sun approached the horizon. The hills glowed gold. Out towards the sunset they became outlines, layers of dark silhouettes. I reached the car just as the first stars appeared. I’d reached no summits, climbed nothing I could tick off in a book, but I’d had a grand mountain day.



Tuesday, 15 September 2020

What I've Been Reading Online No. 24

 The Cairngorm Plateau, September 6

The Cairngorm Plateau, September 6    


Another month has passed since I last shared online pieces I've enjoyed reading. Here's the next selection.

OUTDOORS, MOUNTAINS, WILD PLACES


Sensible look at this summer's problems with 'dirty camping' and littering by Andy Wightman MSP. 


Heavy Whalley looks at why we go to the hills. 


FionaOutdoors finds the Cuillin Ridge challenging.


A controversial piece from historian of mountains in Europe Dawn Hollis. I don't agree with it all (for a contrast see the Heavy Whalley piece listed above). It is thought-provoking though.


James Roddie has an overnight on one of the finest ridges for hillwalking - even though it has no Munros!


Heavy Whalley describes a tough rescue in the Cuillin in the days before modern gear and helicopter assistance.


The Munros in 31 days 23 hours? That's the record set this summer. Fiona Outdoors interviews Donnie Campbell and looks at the story of fast Munro rounds.


Ben Dolphin on the power of smell to take you places


An interesting interview with an amazing mountain runner by Alex Moshakis. 


Heavy Whalley again. In praise of maps.


Birch, September 5

NATURE & CONSERVATION 


Ros Coward says rewilding should begin in our houses and gardens.


Tom Hill looks at Dom Ferris's projects Trash Free Trails and Selfless Isolation Project.


Phoebe Weston profiles Derek Gow


Mark Cocker looks at nature, access, and land ownership with short reviews of several recent books including Nick Hayes' The Book of Trespass. 


A guest writer on Mark Avery's blog describes her encounter with the dismal reality of the game shooting industry.


Environmentalist Subhankar Banerjee on Trump's war on nature and the communities fighting back.

OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHY


Mike Prince writes about the lie that a better camera will make you a better photographer. 


Good advice from professional wildlife photographer Craig Jones.


More good advice, this time from James Cox on making smartphone videos.


Friday, 11 September 2020

A Stormy Trip to Glen Feshie and Mullach Clach a'Bhlair


With a forecast for stormy weather and plenty of work to do at home I hadn’t planned on anything but a few short local walks this week. Then I heard from Carey Davies, editor of The Great Outdoors. He was coming up to the Cairngorms for a few days’ hillwalking and camping. Yes, I said, I could come along, especially as it was to Glen Feshie, a place I’m always happy to visit whatever the weather. 


So after hastily packing a rucksack I met up with Carey at the Auchlean car park for the walk up the glen, past the bothy, and into the woods where we camped amongst a wonderful mix of ancient and new pines, a forest reborn. The evening was dry with enough of a breeze to keep the midges off. At first. Then the wind dropped and out they rushed. The air was warm and humid, just the right conditions. The breeze stirred again occasionally but kept fading away, so we were soon zipped into our tents and cooking in the porches. With a temperature inside of 17°C and clouds of steam wafting around my tent soon resembled a sauna. Better that than let the midges in! If only it had a two-way door zip so I could let some of the steam out at the top I thought.  

Soon after night fell heavy rain started and hammered down for several hours. At first, I couldn’t sleep in the hot, stuffy tent. Then the rain eased off and the temperature began to fall, a great relief. I woke at dawn to a cloudy sky and enough of a breeze to deter the midges. It was still warm. The overnight low was only 9°C and even though there was no sun the thermometer soon rose to 15°C.


Overhead the clouds raced past, rising and falling over the hills. There was a light shower and more rain seemed likely. However there were bursts of sunshine too, brightening the landscape. Above the glen rose the steep bulky eastern slopes of Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, the first Munro I’d climbed on my first camping trip after the Covid 19 lockdown was eased back in July. It had been stormy on top then. Perhaps today there’d be a view, if we could stand up in the wind. 


After another bout of rain the skies started to clear as we walked up the track to the Moine Mhor. A walker descending said ‘looks like you’ll be there at the right time’. We paused to look into the depths of Coire Garbhlach, the only distinctive and rugged corrie on this side of the Cairngorms. 

The blue sky and touches of sunshine didn’t last long. We reached Mullach Clach a’Bhlair in driving rain and a very strong cold wind. There’s no shelter on the summit, just a small cairn, and there were no views. We didn’t linger but were soon heading down the Druim nam Bo ridge. An estate worker in an ATV stopped and told us he was counting deer and had seen many in the corries to the south. We’d seen none, no wildlife at all in fact. Later though we twice had sightings of golden eagles high in the sky hanging in the wind along the edge of the glen. A raven hassled one of them but failed to drive it away. Eagles! Always exciting.

As we descended the visibility began to improve though the rain and wind didn’t lessen. This was more than a shower. Dark hillsides appeared under the clouds tearing across the sky. Waves raced across little Lochan nam Bo. A hollow provided shelter from the wind so we could finally stop and have a snack and a drink. As so often I was surprised at how dropping a few feet below a bank suddenly cut the wind. Sitting there in the heather it was hard to believe how powerful the wind was just above. 

The rain only stopped as we reached the first trees. It was much warmer down here too and we were soon stripping off layers of clothing. On the floor of the glen there was no wind at all and back at camp the midges were biting. I packed up and set off down the glen, leaving Carey to spend another night in the forest. There were two more showers before I reached the car, and two more bursts of warm sunshine. I’d lost track of how many times my waterproofs had been on and off. My shoes and socks were soaked and the pleasure of donning dry ones at the car was unreasonably satisfying.  

Despite the changeable weather, or maybe in part because of it, I’d enjoyed the trip. Having a companion, for the first time since early March, had been a key factor too. I wouldn’t have been there otherwise and if I had been here alone I certainly wouldn’t have gone up Mullach Clach a’Bhlair in that weather. Carey had never been to Glen Feshie before either and I always love introducing people to this special place.

  

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Into the Arctic and the Winter: The Final Stage of My Yukon Walk, September 1- September 8, 1990

 

When I left the Eagle Plains Hotel (see my last Yukon post) I knew I was on the last part of the walk but I didn't know exactly where I would finish or how long it would take me to get there, wherever it was, so I set off with two weeks supplies and the heaviest pack of the trip. I was pretty fit of course and the load was not the burden it would have been at the start of the walk.

My plan was to follow the remote Richardson Mountains north at least as far as the pass where the Dempster Highway crossed them into the Northwest Territories. Autumn colours and cold temperatures showed that summer was over. Chilly rain fell frequently and I was glad of the tarp I'd brought as a cooking shelter.

After crossing the Arctic Circle I climbed up into the Richardson Mountains. These are built of sedimentary rocks and form long undulating ridges that make for superb walking and I had one of the best days of the whole trip striding along the crest.

The weather however did not let me stay on the crest for long. Snow began to fall and soon a blizzard was raging. I was blown off my feet once and could then only progress by almost crawling. This, I realised, was crazy so I descended cautiously down steep and slippery moss and boulders to easier terrain. I camped in heavy rain and strong winds on open ground with little shelter. The storm battered the tent, easing towards dawn as the rain turned to snow.

I left that camp in a white-out and slogged through soft deep snow to a final camp. Somewhere during the day I left the Yukon Territory. Another desperate day in driving snow and hail staggering through ankle- to thigh-deep snow led to the Dempster Highway. A truck slowed and stopped. The walk was over.

The walk had taken 83 days and I reckoned I'd walked well over 1,000 miles, though as I couldn't trace some of my route exactly on the map I didn't know for certain. The distance didn't matter though. It had been a great adventure.

I wrote a book about the walk. It’s long out of print but I expect there are second-hand copies around.


Photographic Note: I carried two SLRs, the Nikon F801 and FM2, with Nikkor 35-70, Nikkor 24mm,and Sigma 70-210 lenses, plus a Cullman tripod. Films were Fujichrome 50 and 100 slide ones. The total weight with padded cases was 4kg. To digitise the slides I photographed them on a lightbox with my Sony a6000 with a Sony E 30mm macro lens.





Saturday, 5 September 2020

Book Review: Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse by Adrian Trendall

 

The most challenging hills in Scotland are undoubtedly the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, a tangled mass of spectacular rock architecture.  There is no easy way up most of the summits. Scrambling and in some places rock climbing are required to reach many of them. 

So much complex rock detail is crammed into this small area that maps cannot cover it adequately. This is the only mountain range in Scotland where I would say a guidebook is essential. Having been going to the Cuillin on and off for forty years I've a small library on the region, including a succession of guidebooks. This one came out earlier this year and is the best of them all. The author, Adrian Trendall, is a mountain guide on Skye and clearly knows the Cuillin intimately. He and his wife Bridgette run All Things Cuillin, a guiding and photography company, and a Facebook group with the same name.

The book is in two parts, both contained in a plastic sleeve. The first part covers necessary information such as navigation, grades, and logistics and then ten classic scrambles. Each route is described in detail and clearly marked on photographs and sections of  Harvey's Superwalker Skye: The Cuillin map. There's also a chapter on the Cuillin traverse in winter for those with the experience to attempt this. 

The second part is a detailed topo booklet to the complete Cuillin Ridge Traverse with Harvey 1:25,000 and 1:12,500 mapping and again routes marked on photographs. The information is well laid out and easy to follow. I wish I'd had this on my one almost ridge traverse (Sgurr nan Gillean to Bealach Mhic Choinnich where we bailed out as a storm began) and on shorter ventures along sections of it. 

The guide is illustrated with the author's excellent photographs, which show both the splendour of the scenery and the nature of the scrambling and climbing. 

A highly recommended book.


Thursday, 3 September 2020

A Spectacular Display of Clouds At Sunset

Evening is one of my favourite times and I often go out for a stroll at dusk and watch the day fade into night. Sometimes there is a red sunset, sometimes clouds glow with the last light, sometimes greyness just fades into black. And sometimes magic happens and the sly is ablaze with glory. 

That was the case on the second day of September. After a day of wind, rain and an overcast sky sunlight finally cut through the clouds, lighting up the Cromdale Hills. I wandered down the track through the woods below our house. A chat with a neighbour was cut short by the appearance of midges - they haven't gone yet. 


Leaving the woods now seemed a good idea so I walked back up the track and out into the fields, where I hoped the breeze would deter the midges. Looking back I could saw a rainbow arcing over the darkening Cromdale Hills. 

Towards the now vanished sun great swirls of cloud caught the last rays, turning orange and gold. The clouds were layers of twisting fantastic shapes. Out in the fields I stood and stared, entranced by one of the most glorious skies I have ever seen. This was magic indeed.









Wednesday, 2 September 2020

The last day of August in the hills - autumn colours appearing, brilliant evening light, bitter wind.

    

August ended cold with strong winds. On the last day of the month I went to Glen Feshie and climbed up through the woods to the bouldery summit of Geal Charn and a high level walk over Meall Buidhe to Sgor Gaoith. On the tops the wind was bitter and I wore hat, gloves, fleece top and windproof jacket. Summer, it seemed, was over up here. Two walkers descending were similarly clad. I saw no-one else.

The hillsides looked autumnal, the purple heather fading, the grasses turning yellow and red. Above the clouds were thick and dark, though above the summits. There was brightness in the sky though, to the west, east and north. But not here.

I didn't reach Sgor Gaoith until 7.30 pm. The sky was already darkening. Loch Einich was in shadow and the view down to the loch and across to Braeriach was strangely subdued. Usually this tremendous scene dominates but not today. The flatness of the light took away the drama. Instead my eye was drawn west to the rays of the low sun cutting under the clouds, sending down brightness onto Creag Meagaidh and the Monadhliath.

Throughout my descent in the dusk the light in the west shone bright, making it hard to keep my footing on the slippery, boggy, rock-laced pathless slopes, especially as the light faded. 

Reaching the path above the Allt Ruadh made the going easier as I could see the pale line cutting through the dark heather. The clouds were clearing and the first stars were in the sky as I reached the dark shadow of the woods. The edge of the last clouds turned bright silver and then the moon, almost full, rose, its bright shafts illuminating the ground between the trees. Shadowed areas became pools of impentratable black. I stumbled over an invisible root and relucantly switched on my headlamp. There was a chill in the air now, my breath visible. August, and maybe summer, was over.



Sunday, 30 August 2020

Return to the Mountains: Stage 5 of my Yukon Walk, August 6 to August 30, 1990

  

After the long crossing of the gentle wooded Yukon Plateau (see this post) I returned to the mountains on a section of my Yukon walk that had the most spectacular scenery but also some of the toughest terrain I've ever crossed. There were no towns north of Dawson City and just one hotel at Eagle Plains so I'd arranged food drops at two maintenance camps on the Dempster Highway, the only road, as I expected to be walking for at least another month. With autumn approaching and knowing I would soon be in the Arctic I had sent a down pullover, thick sweater, warm mitts, gaiters and thick wool socks to Dawson. My pack would be heavier but I would need them all before the finish.

North of Dawson I was looking forward to reaching spectacular Tombstone Mountain and its equally magnificent neighbours. Reaching it was tough though. Easy walking on dirt forest roads gave way to a desperate struggle through dense alder and willow thickets. At one point it took two hours to thrash two miles. Further hard walking in more dense brush and across boulder fields led into the heart of the mountains. Paradise! I camped at Talus Lake, looking across the shining water to Tombstone Mountain itself. 

The four days I spent in the Tombstone area were the highlights of the whole walk. I could have spent many weeks there. But I needed to reach my supply points and keep heading north. The landscape of the rest of the Ogilvie Mountains was still impressive and mountainous, though nothing like the Tombstone Range. The walking was often still tough too as I ploughed through muskeg swamps and black spruce forest. 

Two wildlife episodes stand out from this part of the walk. The first was seeing a grizzly bear and watching it foraging as I passed by on the other side of the valley. Magnificent and exhilarating! Later on I was watching the Ogilvie River when I sensed movement and turned to see two wolves. They were scavenging rubbish left by a horse packing party who had camped nearby. 

Then there was the night of the Northern Lights when I spent  an hour lying on my back oblivious to the cold ground watching great waves of green light sweeping the sky, by far the best display of the aurora I've ever seen.


Twenty days out from Dawson I reached Eagle Plains and settled into the hotel for a rest day. Ahead I could see the Richardson Mountains in the Arctic, the final stretch of my walk. Autumn was here and the first snow might occur anytime soon. 


I wrote a book about the walk. It’s long out of print but I expect there are second-hand copies around.


Photographic Note: I carried two SLRs, the Nikon F801 and FM2, plus Nikkor 35-70, Nikkor 24mm,and Sigma 70-210 lenses, plus a Cullman tripod. Films were Fujichrome 50 and 100 slide ones. The total weight with padded cases was 4kg. To digitise the slides I photographed them on a lightbox with my Sony a6000 with a Sony E 30mm macro lens.



Thursday, 27 August 2020

A great camp, fine hills, and thoughts on coping with midges

In my many years of wandering in the Scottish Highlands I’ve often looked at a spot and thought it would be a great place to camp. Usually I’ve then forgotten about it. However, looking at the map years later can bring back the memory and sometimes spur a return visit to actually camp there. This was the case with my most recent camp, which was by Loch a’Mhadaidh Ruadh below An Ruadh-stac in the NW Highlands.

On a cloudy evening I followed footpaths to the Bealach an Ruadh-stac then dropped down rough slopes to the loch, which is actually two and almost three lochs. The ground here is mostly boggy with a few stony patches. There are many tussocks and rocks. It’s a lovely spot but finding a passable camp site is quite difficult and I spent a while searching before settling on the top of a stony bump above the loch that was reasonably dry and reasonably flat. It would do. 

From this camp there were splendid views of the great rock pyramid of An Ruadh-stac, the long ridge of Meall Chean-dearg, and distant Ben Damph. Set in the heart of the mountains there was nothing to see but rock, mountain, loch, and sky – exactly why I was here. The evening was quiet and cool. The night was cold for August, the temperature falling to 3°C. The chill was probably why there were few midges around at dawn. There was lovely early light on the mountains, and I spent an hour ambling round taking photographs and revelling in the wild beauty.


Leaving camp set up as I planned on a second night here I spent the day on An Ruadh-stac and Maol Chean-dearg. The light faded a little with high thin clouds softening the views, but it was all still splendid. An Ruadh-stac is a dramatic peak. There’s only a sketchy path up it’s quartzite slopes and a little easy scrambling is required. It doesn’t quite reach Munro height and doesn’t seem often visited. I saw no-one. 

Maol Chean-dearg is a Munro and there is a path, steep and rocky and eroded in places but easy to follow, and I did meet a handful of people. It’s not as spectacular a peak as An Ruadh-stac but the views from the summit were the best of the day, especially dizzyingly down to Loch an Eoin and north to the line of the jagged Torridon peaks with Liathach seemingly merging into Beinn Eighe. Out across the sea the mountains of Harris were surprisingly sharp and clear. 

I lingered on the summit, speaking briefly to a walker who arrived, commented on how tough the boulder field was on the ascent , took some photos on his phone, then set off down. I was reluctant to leave this idyllic spot but after a while the midges found me and became irritating enough to get me moving. Devils in paradise!

Back at camp the midges were out in their millions or billions, or trillions, great clouds erupting around me. Insect repellent stopped them biting but the swarms were still irritating. It was late afternoon and still very warm. Retreating into the tent was not appealing, it would be hot, stuffy and sweaty in there. I knew rain and wind was forecast for the next day and my plan had been to return to the car then anyway. I might as well do that now I thought and escape the midges. Breaking camp required composure and gritted teeth. Every time I bent down to pull out a tent peg midges enveloped my head. I was glad when I was on my way, despite a rather badly packed rucksack. Back at the car the midges were just as bad. I had clean clothes to change into. That could wait until I was home!

This was the worst midge experience of the summer so far. On social media I’d seen many reports of people suffering similar attacks, some asking if the midges were worse than in other years. I can’t say if that is actually so, but I have had appalling midges too many times in previous years to feel this year is any different. The crucial factor is the weather. This summer has seen many calm humid days, which are ideal for midges. Stormy summers are less so. When I walked the Scottish Watershed some years ago I encountered few midges as the weather in the Highlands was generally wet and windy.

Over the years I’ve developed a strategy for coping with midges that just about makes life tolerable. This is based around three items – insect repellent, mosquito coils, and a tent with a large enough porch to cook in safely with the doors closed. As soon as I stop to camp the midge repellent goes on any exposed skin. Once the tent is up I light a mosquito coil in the porch. Water collected – I bring enough containers to only do this once – I shut myself in the tent. Except when cooking I keep the inner doors closed. The outer door is always shut.  On warm nights this can result in a very damp hot atmosphere with condensation pouring down the flysheet walls – I find this preferable to the midges. A pee bottle is useful too – going out in the night is not advisable!

If I wake to midges filling the porch and slithering down the tent walls I light a mosquito coil in the inner tent, unzip as little of the door as I need to slip the coil into the porch, then zip up the door again. Five to ten minutes usually sees the porch clear of live midges and I can open the inner door and start the stove. Breakfast over I then pack everything before leaving the tent. Then it’s a question of getting the tent down as quickly as possible, stuffing it into the pack, and walking briskly away.

This procedure requires efficiency and speed. I don’t like it but it’s the best way I’ve found of dealing with midges. Camping somewhere breezy is much better but not always possible.

Midge nets are an option I sometimes use if the midges are really unbearable. I find them hot and stuffy though and plain ones can be hard to see through. I have one called Netspex with built in glasses that is much better – unfortunately, it’s no longer available. I always carry it in midge season.

I never let the midges stop me going out but by the end of a summer when they are bad, I am longing for the first frosts. Roll on October!