Wednesday, 21 October 2020

A Glorious Cairngorms Trip Above The Clouds


Sometimes tiny details in the weather forecast are worth pursuing. Towards the end of last week the gloomy outlook was for overcast skies and the clouds well down on the hills. But in the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) Cairngorms forecast I noticed a mention of the possibility of areas above 1100 metres rising above the clouds. There's only one place with much land above that height and that's the Cairngorm Plateau. A high camp called.

Shrouded in mist I climbed onto the Plateau and started to wonder if I should find somewhere to camp soon. I'd left late and it would soon be dark. I could see little anyway. Then a hazy brightness appeared away to the west, gradually strengthening into an indistinct sun. The land began to glow gold, the mists began to sink away. I was above the clouds. All thought of stopping vanished. I headed for Ben Macdui.

Through the thinning mists I could see Braeriach rising above the cloud-filled Lairig Ghru pass. From Ben Macdui the Cairngorms were an isolated archipelago floating above a white sea. No other hills were visible. There was no wind, no sound except the crunch of my boots on gravel and patches of old snow. As darkness fell I dropped below the summit to camp at 1200 metres, well above the clouds. 

The night was dark, cold and starry. There was no moon. I've rarely seen such a brilliant display of stars. The sky was alive. I wandered round gazing in awe before retreating to the warmth of my tent and sleeping bag. I left the doors open though so I could stare out at the sky. I woke once to see Orion had risen, the constellation of autumn and winter.

Dawn came with a sharp frost. Ice in my water bottles. And a pink tinge on the horizon with blue sky above. Cairn Gorm rose above the clouds. Beautiful. Forgetting about breakfast I was up and out in minutes, watching the still hidden sun lighting slopes above me. The early light was glorious. 

Back on Ben Macdui I gazed again across the Lairig Ghru. The clouds were lower now with some distant hills poking through. The Cairngorms were no longer alone. 

Back at camp strands of thin cloud were drifting past, giving an insubstantial feel to the landscape. Then a fogbow formed, curving above my tent. I'd only ever seen one a couple of times before so I stood and stared for a while, feeling glad I'd seen this fairly rare phenomena. Little did I know what the day was to bring.

Camp packed I returned to Ben Macdui then started back across the Plateau, meeting many walkers heading up. To the west cirrus clouds traced delicate patterns on the blue sky, the precursor to a change in the weather. Ahead I could see that the clouds still covered the northern Plateau. I'd be back in them soon.

The splendour of the day was not over yet though. Another fogbow materialised, an arch I would never reach, never pass through, but which was always there in front of me, never coming closer, never retreating. I walked towards it, mesmerised. 

I lost the fogbow when I entered the mist, which was cold and damp. The world shrank to a few metres.  But then as I approached the edge of the Northern Corries the cloud started to thin and a fogbow started to appear again, this time with hints of colour in it. 

Peering down the steep slopes of Coire an t-Sneachda I could see a bigger fogbow and in its centre a Brocken spectre, my shadow thrown onto the fog. I'd seen this more often than a fogbow but the sight of one is always magical. It was a final touch of wonder before I descended into the clouds and a grey world.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

What I've Been Reading Online No. 25

View up the Allt Druidh, Cairngorms, October 2


Another month passes. Autumn is well under way. And here's my next selection of online reading I've enjoyed.



Paths of glory: How 96-miles of the West Highland Way have been Scots’ happiest trail for 40 years

On its fortieth anniversary Fiona Russell looks at the story of the West Highland Way.

Miles and isles: our big Scottish bike ride

Cycle touring and camping in the Highlands and Island with Kevin Rushby.

How to walk across Scotland 

Advice from Ronald Turnbull on how to walk coast to coast across the Highlands

Tackling Jock's Road: a dramatic walking adventure in the Scottish Highlands 

Patrick Baker on the challenges of a splendid high mountain crossing. 

Field Journal: Wanderlust Europe: An Interview With Alex Roddie

Interview with the author of the new book Wanderlust Europe, which I reviewed here.

Country Diary: an ancient forest offers protection from the elements

Carey Davies on the morning after a night in Glen Feshie, on the trip I wrote about here

Autumn colours, Strathspey, October 6


Loch Insh Osprey

Merryn Glover on the ospreys of summer, now departed.

The Oaks of Sunart

David Russell is revitalised in Ardnamurchan.

Nature has its own original music and the wreckers are those who set traps
Trenchant comment and interesting words from Jim Crumley on the slaughter of wildlife by 'sporting' estates.
How beavers became North America's best fire fighters
Beavers can create fireproof refuges says Ben Goldfarb.  

Britain needs to grow more trees - are sheep farms the answer? 
Environmental researcher Connie O'Neill and biologist Colin Osborne on turning land overgrazed by sheep into woodland. 

Re-wild to mitigate the climate crisis, urge leading scientists
Research in the journal Nature shows the value of rewilding writes Guardian Environment correspondent Fiona Harvey.

Nature Notes: wildlife photography, summer 2020
Alex Roddie looks back at last summer
Sunset, Rothiemurchus Forest, Cairngorms, October 2


Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Great Outdoors November issue


Bivvying, backpacking, wild camping, coastal walking, the Himalayas, and more. The November issue of The Great Outdoors is packed with exciting features.

My contribution is a review of ten 50-60 litre size packs. Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong reviews six women's waterproof jackets. 

The bivvying comes from Hazel Strachan who describes nights out in the Highlands. In Glen Affric David Lintern goes wild camping with his family. Far to the south Tim Gent follows ancient footsteps as he backpacks the Perambulation of Dartmoor. For coastal walking Vivienne Crow picks eight of the most rugged and spectacular sections of the Wales Coast Path. 

Overseas Ed Douglas describes his first visit to the Himalayas in an excerpt from his new book Himalaya: A Human History, and James Forrest explores the Giant Mountains in the Czech Republic.

Also in this issue MWIS forecaster Garry Nicholson gives advice how to predict cloud inversions; James Forrest is interviewed about the planning for his recent two-week record breaking round of all 214 Wainwrights; Roger Smith is shocked by crowds and a scuffle on Snowdon and appeals for respect for nature; Leena Taha describes a walk with her father in the winning entry in a collaborative writing competition run by Black Girls Hike and The Great Outdoors; TGO Challenge organisers Ali Ogden and Sue Oxley describe how next year's event will be run; and Jim Perrin praises Helvellyn.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Review: Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro - a smartphone for the outdoors


When I first bought a smartphone over ten years ago I chose an Android one over an iPhone for one reason - the Android phone had a replaceable battery so I could carry several on long trips and swop them over as needed. My second smartphone was like this too but when that died in 2015 phones with replaceable batteries had just about disappeared. 

They might not have replaceable batteries but some phones were now waterproof, which seemed a good idea, and I chose one of these, the Samsung Galaxy S7. This has been a good phone. It's been on every trip, long or short, for over four years and never failed. Last year though the battery started to fade and I had to charge it more and more often. I had the battery replaced but the new one soon faded as well. I started to think about a new phone.

Then Samsung announced earlier this year that there would be no more security or software updates for the S7. I decided it really was time for a replacement. But what to buy?

Now I'd always used a protective case with the S7 and treated it as fragile, something I assumed was standard for phones. Until 2018 when Land Rover sent me its new Explore phone to test, a phone that was designed to be tough - waterproof, dustproof, shockproof. I took it on the GR5 Trail Through the Alps and really enjoyed having a phone that didn't need much care or even a case. (You can read my review on the TGO Website). My S7 was still working fine so I didn't replace it with the Explore. But I did think my next phone would be a similar one. *

So when I started looking for a new phone this year I concentrated on rugged models, of which there are a surprising number, most of them big, chunky and heavy. I wanted one that was reasonably light and not too bulky though but which still had a decent sized screen and a battery that would last. None seemed to be like this.

Then I discovered the Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro, which was launched last January. This looks like an ordinary phone but is designed for use on construction sites and so is very rugged (IP68 rating). And, wonder of wonders, it has a replaceable battery. After my usual dithering about a major purchase I bought one. I've had it about a month now and so far it's excellent, having been used in rain, sleet, and freezing temperatures. No case is needed. I have put on a screen protector but I'm not sure that's really necessary.

The XCover Pro comes into the mid-range smartphone category, costing around £450. It does everything I want and does it well. It works with gloves and the screen is visible in bright light. I've been using it with ViewRanger and it works just like the S7.

It weighs 232 grams, which is lighter than most rugged phones. My smaller S7 weighs 192 grams with case. The XCover Pro is a little thinner than the S7 with case too. 

The XCover Pro has a 160mm/6.3" screen. It's comfortable to hold in one hand but anything bigger would probably be awkward for me (and my hands aren't small - I take large in gloves). The battery is quite big at 4050 mAh and so far has lasted for well over eight hours in the hills. A spare battery weighs 76 grams. Swapping batteries over is quick and easy and you can have a fully charged phone again in less than a minute. A spare battery is much lighter and more compact than a battery pack too.

There are two front cameras - 25 megapixel wide angle and 8 megapixel ultra wide angle - and a rear 13 megapixel selfie camera. The images are similar to those of the S7, which in its day was regarded as one of the best camera phones. I'm sure today's top phones have better cameras (as they should have at twice the price) but this wasn't a major concern for me as I use a separate camera anyway. As it is I'm more pleased with the XCover Pro images than I expected to be and a few have already been used in The Great Outdoors magazine.

The XCover Pro has plenty of storage space with 64GB built-in and a slot for a MicroSD card up to 512GB in size (I have a 128GB one). I won't detail all the other technical specifications - you can see them on the Samsung website. Suffice it to say everything works fine for me and I haven't noticed any difference with the S7, except that the touchscreen is less sensitive, which I prefer.

Because of the replaceable battery the XCover Pro should last many years. It comes with four years of security and software updates too - many phones only come with two. I'm surprised it hasn't had more coverage and interest. It's an excellent phone for the outdoors. I love not needing a case, not needing to treat it as fragile, and knowing I can swap the battery over if it runs out of power.

*Ironically, shortly after I bought the XCover Pro Land Rover launched a new rugged phone, the Explore R, and sent me one to test. So far it's performed fine. It is designed specifically for the outdoors with useful apps that you don't get with the XCover Pro. It doesn't have a replaceable battery though. Full review to come.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Book & Map Review: Tour Du Mont Blanc Guidebook & Guidemap


Last spring Vertebrate published a guidebook and a map to the most famous and popular walk in the Alps, the Tour Du Mont Blanc. With the pandemic it wasn't the best time for new guides to walks abroad though some people did make it to the Alps in the summer. Now though is the time for planning for next summer, when hopefully travel will be back to normal or close to it, and if you're thinking of the Tour Du Mont Blanc both these items are worth a look.

The guidebook is by International Mountain Leader Kingsley Jones, who has guided walking and running groups on the Tour over fifty times, and raced it many times, spending well over a year in total on the trails round Mont Blanc. The book is illustrated with his excellent photographs taken on these trips.

The book has all the usual information and advice for walking the Tour plus clear route descriptions along with 1:40,000 maps. As a standard guidebook it's fine. There's one big addition though that makes it different and special and that's personalised timings using something called the Jones-Ross formula. Now timings are one of my bugbears with guidebooks, especially those that give times but not distances. In the guidebooks I've written I've either only given distances or, when the publishers have insisted, approximate broad times such as 8-10 hours as well. 

With this new formula Kingsley Jones has worked out timings for four different groups - walkers, trekkers, fastpackers, and trail runners. The route has been split into 165 waypoints, 34 of which are also timing points. A chart gives suggested times for the different groups between the timing points along with the distance. Looking at the timings for the section of the Tour I have walked (the bit that coincides with the GR5 trail) I did them a bit faster than a walker and a bit slower than a trekker. I think this timing method is useful and should be easy to adapt to actual experience. No more cursing the guidebook writer for being superfit or wondering if they ever stopped.

Most guidebooks split treks like this into days between places with accommodation, which doesn't always fit with how you want to do the walk (it certainly didn't for me on the GR5 as I was camping and didn't want to reach an alpine hut or a village every night). This guidebook doesn't do that. Instead you can use the timing points to work out where you want to reach each day and how many days the walk will take. There is a list of accommodation at the back with the nearest timing point to each. 

The guidebook is compact and weighs 182 grams so it can easily be carried in a pocket. 

The guidemap contains much of the same information and advice as the guidebook, including the personalised timings and the timing points, plus a link to download a TMB GPX file. What you don't get is the detailed route description. What you do get are five 1:40,000 map sections, each of which shows far more of the route than the many little maps in the guidebook. I prefer this as it's easier to see the overall picture of the landscape but the guidebook maps are perfectly adequate.

The guidemap is printed on tough waterproof material and weighs 45 grams. 

Given the combined weight of 227 grams I'd probably carry both book and map. They're both excellent.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Lovely autumn weather between the storms but the burns are in spate

Rothiemurchus Forest & the Lairig Ghru

After a day of rain yesterday was forecast to be dry and bright before a weekend of more rain. With the midges gone and the autumn colours developing a walk in the forest appealed with an ascent of one of the lower Cairngorm hills, Carn Eilrig, a superb viewpoint. Wet from the rain Rothiemurchus Forest glowed in the sunshine as I strolled along the path towards the Lairig Ghru pass looking down at the swollen Allt Druidh, which I was hoping to ford higher up.

The Allt Druidh

As the land rises the river cuts a deep gorge through the forest. Here the path climbs to run along the edge of the ravine. Ahead Creag an Leth-choin towers over the mouth of the Lairig Ghru. For the ascent of Carn Eilrig I left the path and descended steep rough slopes of heather and bracken to the river. The sound of the water grew to a deafening roar as I approached. I picked a slower-looking spot for a ford and stepped in. The river tugged at my legs, the stones in the river were slippery. Below me the water crashed over boulders, white and fast. One more step. I could see the river was deeper ahead. I backed off. A struggle along the bank in dense vegetation laced with little streams and patches of bog and I tried again. With the same result. This was not a day for Carn Eilrig, not by this route.

The Allt Druidh winding down from the Lairig Ghru

Turning away from the river I clambered back up the steep sides of the gorge to the path then continued up easier ground to Castle Hill, which sits opposite Carn Eilrig, the two rising above the edge of the forest to form a gateway to the Lairig Ghru. The trees are climbing higher though and there's a scattering of tiny pines and low junipers on Castle Hill. The wind was strong on the summit and I was glad I hadn't planned on higher hills. Down below Loch Morlich was a deep blue.

Loch Morlich

Steep slopes led back down into the forest and the path. Late afternoon and the light was changing, shadows deepening, colours richer. The walk out felt different to the walk in. A different direction, different light. This forest is marvellous. Always.

The top of the forest

Looking back Braeriach was gold in the low light, its corries dark above the shining forest.


Down in the forest birches caught the sun, the soft green tinged with the first yellow of autumn.

As I neared the end of my walk the sun was just about to set, casting long bright rays across the land, the sky orange, a peaceful fading of the light.