Wednesday 30 September 2020

Book Review: Wanderlust Europe by Alex Roddie


Yesterday a big book arrived and I've been browsing through it ever since. Wanderlust Europe is a collection of walks throughout the continent from Iceland to Georgia, the Canary Islands to Arctic Norway. It's for all walkers and includes day walks, weekend walks, and multi-week walks. It's not just the big names either. Indeed some, like the Tour of Mont Blanc, are not included. There are many tempting walks here I've not heard of before - Fagaras Mountains Traverse, Slovenian Mountain Trail, and Trancaucasian Trail amongst them.

I must declare an interest in the book as it is compiled and much of it written by my friend and colleague Alex Roddie who asked me to contribute some photos for two very different walks, Rothiemurchus Forest and the GR20 on Corsica. Eight of my pictures were chosen, three of them appearing as double-page spreads. There are many other photographers from the British outdoor world whose work is included too - David Lintern, Colin Ibbotson, James Roddie, Andy Wasley, Emily Woodhouse, Lizzie Shepherd, Paddy Dillon, Andrew Locking, Gavin Macfie, Gillian Price amongst them - and there are many images from Alex Roddie himself.

Each of the profusely and beautifully illustrated fifty walks has a descriptive essay, information page, and map. It's a book for inspiration and encouragement not a guidebook though. No one will ever carry this in their pack - indeed, there are probably ultralight hikers whose full packs weigh less than this tome! This is a coffee table book for browsing and daydreaming.  And as such it's wonderful. 

Tuesday 29 September 2020

The Great Outdoors October Issue

Scrambles, dogs, Cairngorms, paddlepacking, Mercantour Traverse, waterproofs and more. There's lots of good stuff in the October issue of The Great Outdoors.

My contribution is a review of eleven waterproof jackets.

The scrambles are Ledge Route on Ben Nevis, the Cwm Uchaf Horseshoe on Snowdon, and Howling Ridge on Carrauntoohil, and there's advice on tackling them from mountaineering and climbing instructor Rebecca Coles. 

Alex Roddie also encounters some scrambling high in the Alps on the Mercantour Traverse. His account of this long-distance walk is thought-provoking and his photos are mouth-watering.

A very different long-distance walk is undertaken by Stefan Durkacz in the Cairngorms - a four day circular route from Tomintoul through wild country but without ascending any summits.

Dogs are the subject of a feature by Helen Mort who looks at how canine companions can become an important part of mountain days.

In an unusual feature Anna Richards describes a combination of activities I'd have said was very unlikely - paddleboarding and wild camping. 

Also in this issue there's a splendid opening spread of An Teallach at dawn by James Roddie; Josephine Hall's winning entry in a writing competition run jointly by The Great Outdoors and Black Girls Hike UK; an interview with Nick Hayes, author of The Book of Trespass, about the propsed new law to criminalise trespass; Roger Smith on the need for environmental education to be at the heart of our culture; TGO Challenge coordinators Sue Oxley and Aki Ogden on the future of the event; and Jim Perrin on Irish summit Galtymore.

Monday 28 September 2020

Face Masks: Reusable not disposable! Please!

Keen face mask for protection against hail on the Cairngorm Plateau


We are all wearing face masks now. Or at least those of us who can should be wearing them. This means there millions and millions of face masks around. And many of them are disposable, which is becoming a big problem. "Disposable masks contain plastics which pollute water and can harm wildlife who eat them or become tangled in them." (BBC report). Too many litter roadsides, car parks, and other places. I've seen the blue scraps in the Coire Cas car park in the Cairngorms. I've not seen any in the hills yet but others have reported doing so.

Disposable masks are cheap. That's their one and only advantage over reusable ones. However washable reusable ones are far better environmentally and although disposable ones may be initially more expensive repeated use reduces the long term cost difference. 

Tilley face mask


Some outdoor companues have started making face masks. In recent months I've been trying washable reusable cloth ones from Keen Footwear and Tilley.  Both companies are making the masks from factory offcuts that would otherwide be discarded as waste.

Keen masks are made from two layers of cotton canvas and have adjustable ear loops. They come in two sizes and seven colours and a pack of two costs £10.  

Tilley masks are available in two layers of cotton or a hemp/organic cotton mix at costs of £20 and £25 for packs of two. They have a slit for inserting a filter and come in a variety of colours and patterns, including camouflage! I've been using the double cotton mask.

Both masks are soft and comfortable and easily washed. In cold weather they're good for keeping your face warm. I wore one on the Cairngorm Plateau for protection against wind driven hail and it worked well for this. I'll be carrying one in the pack throughout the winter now.

Sunday 27 September 2020

Thrunotes - a waterproof notebook for thru-hikers

Back in March I did a video interview with Russell Hepton, aka The Trail Hunter, just before he set off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and, of course, just before the Covid-19 pandemic started to really affect our lives. With trail towns locking down and the PCT Association advising hikers to get off the trail Russ made the very difficult but sensible decision to abandon his hike and return to Britain. 

Using the savings left over from his PCT hike he set about designing a notebook specifically for thru-hiking as he couldn't find one he liked, saying that all those he tried were "too wide, too tall, too heavy and would fall apart after a few days". His aim was a notebook that was "strong, lightweight, waterproof and environmentally-responsible". The result is called Thrunotes.

Thrunotes is small - 13 x 9 cms - and light - 27 grams. It has 32 pages, of which 25 are for recording your walk. The remainder are for emergency information, contacts, trail angels, trail family details, and resupply points. The notebook is made from a recyclable waterproof tear-resistant synthetic material called YUPOblue and printed in England by Ashley House Printing Company, which has excellent environmental credentials. Clearly a great deal of careful thought and design has one into this product.


Thrunotes is designed so you can put the day number and mileage in the corners and then quickly flip through to find entries. There are circles you can use to highlight other information too. 

I developed an index system for my walk notebooks many years ago but it's never involved a flip-through method like this, which I can see being very useful. As all the waterproof notebooks I've seen before have tear-out pages, which I don't want in a notebook that's intended as a permanent record, I've mostly used notebooks with waterproof covers but ordinary paper pages. Thrunotes is the first notebook I've seen with sewn-in pages.

If you only keep brief notes one Thrunotes might last 25 days. I'll probably fill three or four pages or more per day. Looking through my notebooks, which are bigger than Thrunotes, one 90 page book covers around 50 days. I'd probably need four Thrunotes for that long. They would weigh 108 grams. My 90 page notebook weighs 130 grams. 

I think Thrunotes is excellent. I like the idea of a tough waterproof notebook I don't have to look after carefully. I'll be using it on my next long walk. What about day walks and short backpacking trips though? A similar notebook for those is promised soon. 

Thrunotes cost £7.99 and can be bought from the Thrunotes website, which has masses of information including some interesting little videos.

Friday 25 September 2020

A Wintry Day In The Cairngorms


A week ago I wandered over the Cairngorm Plateau. The day was warm and I described the Plateau as 'benign, friendly, and welcoming'  and wrote 'hard to imagine the blizzards raging here but they will be soon'. (See this post). A week later and all has changed. The wind raged, clouds swirled, hail and snow fell. Gloves, hat, hood, waterproofs. No wishing I'd worn shorts on this walk! This felt like the start of winter.

The sky was grey, the land dark and sombre, colour drained away. The golden hills of the week before just a memory. Yet I enjoyed the walk just as much. Indeed, the contrast was wonderful. How different the same place can look when the weather changes. The hills have many moods. They are all to be experienced and revelled in.
This was not one of those days when you walk into the cloud and wander through the greyness seeing little nor one of those days when you walk through the cloud into sunshine and see the mountains floating above a sea of mist. This was a day of constant change, the wind ripping and tearing the clouds, sending them spinning and whirling round the corries and over the summits. The landscape did not feel static. It felt mysterious and mobile. Cliffs appeared and disappeared in seconds. Distant views opened up then vanished. The world shrank then expanded then shrank again.

The ever-changing light was fascinating. I saw the mountains in a new light. Features I'd never really noticed before suddenly stood out, sharp and clear. Occasional bursts of sunshine lit up patches of distant hillside. On Cairn Lochan traces of snow and frost formed a pattern of windblown white against the stones.

Away from the edge of the cliffs the wind faded away though I could still hear it roaring, coming up the corrie with such force that it must have burst into the sky above and passed over the lee slope. Every time I went near the edge or crossed a low point the wind caught me, sometimes sending me staggering sideways. Across the Plateau Ben Macdui was spattered with snow.

Then as my high level walk was nearing its end blue sky appeared above Cairn Gorm and the clouds beyond the mountain turned white. The colour and brightness was dazzling, the grey world gone. Temporarily.

As the clouds shifted the sun picked out patches of distant hillsides, illuminating shapes I'd never seen distinctly before. 

I started down debating whether to take my gloves off. A few minutes later I was shielding my face with my gloved hand as another squall blew, blasting hail at me. The brief lull was over. I kept my gloves on until I reached the car. Away to the west I could snow on Braeriach.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Book Review: Walking The Great North Line by Robert Twigger

Any book that jumps around between Stonehenge, Jack Kerouac, Wittgenstein, Pacerpoles, Edward Abbey, stealth camping, T.S.Eliot, Buffalo clothing and a myriad other subjects suggests an author with a lively, intellectually curious, and eclectic mind and that certainly applies to Robert Twigger. His book about walking from Stonehenge (actually Christchurch but then the first line does say “I didn’t start at the beginning”) to Lindisfarne along a straight line linking a series of ancient sites is one of the more unusual walking books I’ve read.

The book’s subtitle includes a reason for the walk: to Discover the Mysteries of Our Ancient Past. Does the author succeed? I have no idea! And I’m not sure Robert Twigger does either. But he does have a good walk with many entertaining companions, encounters and experiences.

Describing himself as a natural nomad the author is happy to trespass where he can without getting thrown off and camps in woods and other hidden spots, sometimes lighting a fire to sit round. Much of his walk is in what’s generally regarded as rural English farmland, yet he manages to find many wild places - though he does also walk through Birmingham.

I found accompanying the author on his walk  interesting and enjoyable. Never being sure where his magpie mind would jump to next was always intriguing. This is a curious but worthwhile addition to the literature of walking. Recommended!

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.


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


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.


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.