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!

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Podcast with John D.Burns


Just out, a podcast with John D Burns. In this we discuss the Cairngorms, the future of Cairn Gorm Mountain, grouse moors, the "wild camping" problems, real wild camping and more. I enjoyed our talk. I hope you do too.

Monday 17 August 2020

An Evening in the Cairngorms


Yesterday the sun shone. In the distance the Cairngorms were etched sharply against the blue sky. The air was hot and heavy. And I was trying to write a review of waterproof jackets. Concentration was hard. Too hard. How could I think about waterproofs in weather like this? I couldn't. I gave up and decided to go for a walk instead. It was late when I set off but I was happy with that as it meant the hottest part of the day was over and developing clouds meant there might be a colourful sunset.

As I climbed to the Cairngorm Plateau the clouds thickened with masses of shimmering mackerel clouds above sheets of grey. The air was humid, sticky. The midges were out. Two walkers ahead of me abandoned their ascent and turned round. "The flies are horrendous", said one. But once I reached the crest of the ridge there was a breeze and the midges faded away. Two descending rock climbers stopped for a chat. One showed me his orange helmet. It was spattered with black spots. Dead midges. 

Once on the Plateau I wandered up Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and then over to Stag Rocks. Despite the hot weather there were still substantial snow patches in Coire Domhain and on the headwall of the Loch Avon Basin. I could see the white water and hear the rushing of the Feith Buidhe and the Garbh Uisge as they tumbled down the rocks towards Loch Avon. Closer by ring ousels perched on rocks just below me and a family of ptarmigan scuttled across the stones.

As I looked down on the loch the sun sank below the thicker clouds and started to light up the slopes of Beinn Mheadhoin. Two tents were pitched on the sandy beach at the head of the loch. Midgey down there, I thought. Earlier I'd spotted a tent pitched high on the Plateau. That was the place to be.

As the low sun strengthened colour began to return to the land and the sky. I set off up Cairn Gorm, looking down on a hazy Strathspey as mist began to form. Further north lay a blanket of low cloud.

To the west layers of mountains were sharp and clear, Ben Nevis and Creag Meagaidh standing out.

I reached the summit of Cairn Gorm half an hour before sunset. The north-western sky was turning a brilliant searing orange. The air was still and quite cool now. Alone I watched the glorious sunset.

As the colours began to fade I started down. Ahead of me throughout the descent was a gradually narrowing band of colour. The details of the landscape vanished into darkness, leaving pale Loch Morlich and the lights of Aviemore dominating the view. Above me an owl circled, hoping, I guess, that I would disturb some prey.

I couldn't have had a grander evening. Refreshed I returned home and my thoughts turned back to waterproof clothing.

Thursday 13 August 2020

Save Beavers In Scotland - Please Sign The Petition

Image from @scotlandtbp (c)

The return of beavers to Scotland has been of the great conservation stories of recent years (and we really need positive stories). They are now a protected species, as they should be. However, despite this, last year one in five Scottish beavers were killed.

As well as being beautiful animals in their own right beavers create habitats, boost biodiversity, and help prevent floods. They are becoming a tourist attraction too. I haven't seen beavers in Scotland myself yet, though I have been to one of their habitats and seen gnawed tree stumps, but I have watched them in North America and Scandinavia. I've marvelled at their dams and the series of ponds they create, which support a wealth of wildlife, regulate water flow, and improve water quality.

Beavers cause few problems but they can damage crops, which leads some farmers to kill them. Until beavers received legal protection last year farmers could do this as they wished. That protection isn't complete however and licences to kill beavers can be obtained from Scottish Natural Heritage. 87 were shot in the last year.

Rather than shooting beavers they should be relocated. There are many suitable areas in Scotland. I'd love to see them here in Strathspey. However the Scottish Government does not permit this.

Trees for Life and the Scottish Rewilding Alliance have started a petition calling on the Scottish Government to allow the relocation of beavers. At the time of writing this has 7,593 signatures. Many more are needed. Please sign if you care about wildlife. Beavers could have a great future in Scotland.


Wednesday 12 August 2020

Beinn Bhan: Conservation - the good and the bad


Walking in the NW Highlands I'm always struck by the scarcity of trees. In the Cairngorms I'm used to walking through forests to the hills. In the NW this is rare, even though many walks start at sea level, unlike in the Cairngorms.

This lack of trees was especially noticeable on my recent camp and walk on Beinn Bhan in Applecross (see last post). Setting off from the River Kishorn just before it meets the sea I walked along a track through boggy ground with just two or three small willow and rowan trees poking through the heather. Once I started to climb there were no more trees, just heather, bog myrtle, bog asphodel, and coarse grasses. The reason was easy to see - there were deer tracks everywhere.  Now extensive woodland is unlikely on the blanket bog that makes up most of the ground below the summit ridge but the high numbers of deer ensures that overgrazing prevents even a scattering of trees appearing.


Climbing up to the ridge from my camp I looked up to see a herd of twenty-five or more deer watching me. Long before my sweaty ascent was over they'd moved away, just leaving fresh tracks and droppings in the mud. 


Near the end of my trip I could see woodland on the far side of the River Kishorn but on the slopes I was descending there was not even a bush. 


Other than overgrazing I saw no damage on Beinn Bhan. No bulldozed roads, no off-road vehicle tracks, no litter, no signs of anyone camping. I doubt anyone had ever camped where I did and I doubt anyone could find the spot once the flattened grass had sprung back. I'm not sure I could! The lack of human signs was pleasing. Even the summit was free of bits of litter stuffed between the stones of the low wind shelter.

The walking on the long summit ridge itself is easy and a relief after the bogs. The terrain is dry with areas of short grass and flat stones. It is a joy to walk along.

The view from the ridge is of sea and hills all around with little to mar the scene. Down in the glen the road to Lochcarron can be seen and to the south-west a communication mast is visible on the lower top of Sgurr a'Chaorachain. Only one thing really jarred - an ugly bulldozed road up a glen to the east.

Apart from the deer I saw little wildlife. Low down there were meadow pipits and a few wheatear. Higher up a raven called. Other than that the hill was quiet and still. 

Compared with many hills Beinn Bhan is unspoiled. Fewer deer would be good though.


On Beinn Bhan of Applecross


A recent trip west produced a wonderful camp, awful midges, tough boggy walking, brilliant views, spectacular rock scenery, and an early return home due to a forecast for thunderstorms.

Beinn Bhan on the Applecross peninsula is one of the most impressive Torridonian sandstone hills with its series of magnificent corries and some of the biggest and steepest cliffs yet because it doesn’t reach the magic Munro figure (by all of nineteen metres) its not very frequented, as can be seen by the lack of paths. 

I’d wanted to camp in one of the corries ever since my first visit and with a good weather forecast and a desire to roam a bit further than the Cairngorms this seemed the time. A drive across the country revealed no roadside tents and only a few campervans and I wondered just how localised the much-publicised problems actually are.

A good path, the only one of the trip, led away from the road for a few kilometres. I left it for a sketchy narrow path to Lochan Coire na Poite, situated between the towering rock faces called A’Phoit and A’Chioch. Here I wanted to camp. It is not an ideal place, however. Most of the terrain is boggy and tussocky. It took a fair bit of searching to find a fairly dry spot atop one of the many knolls around the lochan and once I stopped to pitch the tent clouds of midges rose up. As fast as possible I was inside, doors zipped shut and a mosquito coil burning. 

Heat woke me. In sunshine a closed nylon tent becomes a hothouse very quickly. I unzipped the doors and looked out. The sun had just climbed above a bank of cloud on the eastern horizon. The lochan sparkled in the early light. There were only a few midges. Quickly dressed I was soon outside, wandering round the loch, gazing at the water and the cliffs and taking photographs. Breakfast could wait.


By the time I set off thin clouds were slipping across the sky. The ascent up steep, boggy slopes laced with little crags was tough in the heat. There was no path and the rough terrain meant maintaining a rhythm was impossible. But the views to the Torridon hills behind me were wonderful and a justification for many stops. 


Finally, the angle eased, and I was on the long ridge of Beinn Bhan, which stretches some six kilometres. Suddenly the walking was easy. Out across the sea the ragged silhouette of the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye came into view. I followed the rim of the corries round to the summit of Beinn Bhan, staring down into the depths and marvelling at the vast stratified cliffs. 


The descent was less steep than the ascent but still tough due to the rough boggy terrain and fierce heat. I found traces of a path that came and went. In the distance four figures were descending ahead of me, the only people I saw all day.


I had planned on a second night out and another ascent but a forecast for thunderstorms had been at the back of my mind all day. After my experiences in the Colorado Rockies a year earlier I really didn’t want to be in the mountains in a thunderstorm if it could be avoided. I certainly wasn’t going to risk a high camp. But a low, sheltered one would mean midges and a thunderstorm could still be worrying. Home, I decided. I’d had a superb camp and a superb walk. It was enough.


Saturday 8 August 2020

What I've Been Reading Online No. 23

Strathspey, August 8


A month has flown by since I last posted links to online reading I’ve enjoyed. Where has the time gone? Wherever that is I’ve now enough links for two pieces. This one covers outdoor activities. Unsurprisingly there have been many articles on the recent and ongoing spate of damaging camping and I’ve grouped these together.



Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc backwards

Jonathan Williams of Cicerone describes walking the Tour du Mont Blanc clockwise.

Battle of Glen Tilt was just the start of fight for access rights as ScotWays marks 175th anniversary

John Davidson tells the story of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays) and looks at why it’s still needed.

A Homecoming

Lucy Wallace has an emotional post-lockdown return to the hills of Arran.

Out on a limb

Thought-provoking stream of consciousness piece from rock climber Nick Bullock.

Climbing the Corbetts – Harder than the Munros?

Dan Bailey talks to three  walkers who’ve completed the Corbetts.

Quarandreaming the Cairngorms

David Lintern takes a first post-lockdown overnight trip to his local hills, the Cairngorms.

Hidden Helvellyn

David Lintern visits Helvellyn with John Muir Trust land manager Pete Barron.

The Big Six

An entertaining run round the six highest Cairngorm hills with Ally Beavan. Whoever would have thought Star Trek’s Captain Kirk could be linked with Ben Avon?

Trio complete tough Mullardoch Munro round – and raise funds for MRT

Fiona Outdoors talks to three hillwalkers about their walk over the 12 Munros around Loch Mullardoch in aid of the Lomond Mountain Rescue Team.

Why I Still Carry an External-Frame Pack

External-frame packs still have a place says M.John Fayhee.

The Asian hiking group blazing a trail through Scotland's peaks

Nazia Parveen joins the Boots and Beards group of Asian Glaswegians for a wet walk.

Adrian Trendall of All Things Cuillin

Fiona Outdoors interviews mountain guide Adrian Trendall, who has just written a new guide book to the Cuillin.

What is a Colby Camp? Early days of Ordnance Survey. A bit of information.

There are ruins of stone huts high on some Scottish mountains. Heavy Whalley tells us what they are.

Trail Runners Vs Hiking Boots: A 30 Year Perspective

Cam “Swami” Honan on why he prefers trail running shoes to boots. A piece after my own heart! (And I get a mention).

Wherefore What3Words

Sally Seed and Judy Whiteside of Mountain Rescue England and Wales look at navigation and the advantages and disadvantages of what2words.

Navigating the grief of a lost Pacific Crest Trail thru hike..

A moving piece by Sally Phillips on coping with having to give up a long-planned PCT thru-hike.


All I left behind after my first post-lockdown camp



Lockdown Rubbish – A Crisis Or An Opportunity?

How should we encourage those new to the outdoors post-lockdown? Matt Heason has some good ideas.

Counting the cost of campfires to the countryside

Countryside ranger Ben Dolphin looks at the problems of campfires.

Free camping vs. wild camping

Mountain Guide Mike Pescod suggests some positive ways to reduce inappropriate informal camping.

Education and infrastructure key to nurturing responsible access

John Muir Trust Engagement Officer Ross Brannigan shares his thoughts on responsible access and the infrastructure needed.

Wild camping: changing the name won’t change the bad behaviour

Empathy and inclusivity are needed to deal with the camping problems says Alex Roddie.

Exploring wild Scotland, or making Scots wild owing to inappropriate access? The right to roam in a summer of staycations

Malcolm Combe, the Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Strathclyde considers the legal landscape and the current controversies.