Sunday 31 January 2021

A Month of Snow in Pictures

The Cromdale Hills, January 23

For the first time in many years there has been snow on the ground throughout January. Snow has fallen on most days too, sometimes thick and heavy, sometimes just a fine trickle. Temperatures have rarely been above freezing, even at midday. However winds have mostly been light. There's not been much sunshine and often there has been dense mist. January can be a dark month when there's no snow and little sunshine. Not this year. The snow has given a lightness to the landscape.

Due to the lockdown every trip has been from my front door and I've never been more than a few miles from home except when driving the five miles into town once a week for groceries. 

Mist, January 3

The snow was thin  down in the glen at the start of the month, though somewhat thicker a few hundred metres higher as I found when I went up a local hill and wished I'd taken snowshoes.

View to the Cairngorms from Tom Mor, January 6

Birch in snow, January 7

At the end of the first week the snow began to build up lower down; heavy, wet snow that clung to the trees and thickened the air.

Pines in snow, January 8

Throughout the month the peanut and sunflower feeders in the garden have emptied every day. As well as many birds red squirrels visit regularly, sometimes five at a time, and rabbits come to the door for food. The snow looks lovely but makes life harsh for wildlife.

Squirrel in snow, January 11

The high Cairngorms, some twenty miles away, were often hidden but looked spectacular when they rose into view above the misty forest.

Cairn Gorm, January 15

In the middle of the month there was a slow thaw for a few days though not enough to remove most of the snow. 

Thawing, January 16

When the snow returned it was heavier than ever, leading to the deepest of the month. Walking became difficult and I turned to skis.

Skis, January 22

Ski tracks at sunset, January 24

Squalls of snow swept the land for several days, interspersed with bursts of sunshine.

Snow squalls, January 29

The month has ended with calm, cloudy weather, the snow still deep. Will it last through February?

Old ski tracks, January 31

Saturday 30 January 2021

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2021


With snow lying since late December and temperatures rarely rising above freezing for over a month our feeders have been emptying fast every day so I expected to see far more birds than last year when the weather was mild for this year's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. In fact though there were only three more birds than 2020 and one less species. 

Looking through previous years results I think this is because last year's numbers were high given the mild weather rather than this year's being low. 

The species missing this year that we saw last year and in previous years is the greenfinch. Until a few weeks ago we were seeing several every day but since then there hasn't been a single one. We also haven't seen any siskins for many weeks but these do come in waves - many for a few weeks then none for a while.

Coal tits were the commonest bird this year with sixteen individuals. As they dart in and out so fast counting them is difficult and I suspect the figure is an underestimate. Chaffinches are usually the commonest by far - twenty last year and only four of any other species - but this year there were only nine. 

Here's the full list of this year's birds.

Coal tit                                   16
Chaffinch                                  9
Blue tit                                     5
Great tit                                   4
Blackbird                                 4 
Great Spotted Woodpecker       3
Robin                                      3
Dunnock                                  2

Monday 25 January 2021

Desert Island Peaks

On one of the peaks

"If you were marooned alone, with only a few hills for company, which would you choose?" I was asked this question by UKHillwalking as part of a lockdown Desert Island Peaks series. I found the exercise quite interesting. My choices and the reasons for them can be read here

John D.Burns and  Keri Wallace have also given their selections. I'm sure there will be more to come.

Sunday 24 January 2021

The Great Outdoors February issue


In the shops now the February issue has the results of the 2020 Readers Awards. Over 12,000 votes were cast for the thirteen categories, which range from pubs and campsites to books and apps.

In the gear pages David Lintern and Lucy Wallace review nine pairs of winter mountaineering boots. 

Winter comes up in this month's skills piece too in which Rebecca Coles describes an ascent of Bidean nam Bian in Glencoe and the skills needed for this. 

Two other winter trips appear in this issue. Helen Isles climbs Cadair Idris in Snowdonia while David Lintern makes a three-day traverse of the Western Fannichs in the NW Highlands.

The magazine opens with a splendid winter photograph too, taken by William Wilson during a traverse of the Aonach Eagach in Glencoe.

Far from the British winter Anna Richards makes a challenging trek through a spectacular glacial landscape in Patagonia. 

If you're longing for a long-distance walk (aren't we all?) Ben Lerwill suggests ten possibilities from Egypt and Canada to Shetland and Australia.

Closer to home High Willhays on Dartmoor features in Jim Perrin's Mountain Portrait. 

In the Comment pages Kerri Andrews, author of Wanderers: A History of Women Walking, says that the pioneering role of women in the history of hillwalking has been overlooked, while Roger Smith and Alan Hinkes remember top mountaineers Doug Scott and Hamish MacInnes, who both died recently.

For the first time in thirty years I have nothing in this issue. I don't use big mountaineering boots (and they rarely fit me) so I opted out of that review, feeling others could do the subject more justice. I have pieces in the next and following issues though. Also my online reviews, put on hold back in March due to the pandemic, have restarted this month. My first two reviews are the Patagonia R1 Air Hoody fleece and the Inov-8 Roclite Pro G 400 boots.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Backpacking Webinar on YouTube


Yesterday's Alpkit webinar on backpacking is now available to watch on YouTube

I really liked taking part and wished I could have answered many more of the questions that came in from the 1,000 people taking part - thanks to all of you. (I also wished my poor broadband hadn't given up a couple of times. Sorry about that). 

As well as talking about long walks, something I always like doing, I enjoyed listening to the views of Al Humphreys and Athena Mellors. It was great to have different viewpoints.

Thanks to Alpkit for organising the event.

Monday 18 January 2021

Backpacking webinar this Wednesday


This Wednesday (January 20) I'm taking part in a webinar on backpacking organised by Alpkit. Here are the details:

Spend the evening with Al Humphreys, Athena Mellor and Chris Townsend as we talk about the joy of journeys by foot and the freedom that ultralight backpacking gives us. Join for stories and tips for your own adventures.

The Alpkit Night In - Journeys by foot

Wednesday 20th January, 7:30pm

Who's there?

Alastair Humphries, Writer, Adventurer, Blogger

Athena Mellor, Storyteller, creator

Chris Townsend, Passionate hillwalker and author of over 20 books

Zoom link:

Sunday 17 January 2021

Book Review: Corrour Bothy by Ralph Storer

I didn’t expect a book on a bothy, even one as iconic as Corrour, to be so enjoyable that I’d read it in a rush but that was the case with this book. After it arrived, I started flipping through the pages, got hooked on various passages and then decided I’d better start at the beginning. Reading it straight through I was captivated, fascinated and excited. Corrour was one of the first bothies I ever visited, and I have stayed there many times, but I think this book will be enthralling for every lover of wild places whether they have been there or not. (And note that if it makes you want to visit, as is likely, Corrour is very popular – best take a tent).

The author tells the story of the bothy,  of how it was built as a deer watchers house in 1877 and then quickly used by walkers and climbers after the last watcher left in 1920. He describes its splendid setting in the Cairngorms and gives advice on approaches to it and walks from it. The first renovation in 1950 and subsequent ones are described and there are tales of the building of the first bridges over the  rivers and burns that have to be crossed to reach Corrour. Before these existed visitors suffered regular soakings and, sadly, one man drowned in 1950 on the final crossing of the Dee just below the bothy, an event that led to the first bridge being built. There are many interesting photographs of renovations and bridge building from 1948 right up to 2018 along with photographs of the bothy and its setting by the author from his many visits.

Whilst the story of Corrour is fascinating, even more so are the entries from the bothy books, which date all the way back to 1928. Ralph Storer deserves credit for his painstaking research into these. Reading through his selections from the books builds up a picture of an outdoor and mountaineering community that stretches back over ninety years, bringing to life the characters who wrote them. The pleasures and hardships are all there, from the beginning, and little has changed, apart from those bridges.

Some of the entries tug at the heart, others made me laugh out loud – especially some in the Bothy Cuisine chapter. One from 1939 gives a detailed recipe for a meal of corned beef, baked beans and oatmeal, then finishes “dig a hole at a safe distance from the bothy and bury the lot”.

Those who feel midges have got worse in recent years should note that there are comments on being bitten to death by them from 1939. The problem of litter isn’t new, either, with the first complaint coming from 1929. The weather, of course, is a major topic, as is pack weight. Some of the entries could make the non-hill goer astonished that anyone would put themselves through all this voluntarily. Just why is explained in an entry from PE Shand in 1930: “Magnificent scenery, enchanting mists – and soaking rain. What scenery, what weather! What pleasures can match those of the unorthodox insanities of the lovers of the high places, the magnificent madness of the mountaineer?” Hear, hear!, PE Shand, hear, hear!

I could quote endlessly from the bothy entries, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll recommend this wonderful book to anyone who likes bothies, hill culture, and the Scottish Highlands. It’s one of the best outdoor books I’ve read in a long while, a love letter to Corrour Bothy.

Corrour Bothy is published by Luath Press and costs £10.99

Thursday 14 January 2021

My Photography in 2020: a favourite for each month

January: Clouds over the Cairngorms

Most years I do a round-up of my favourite photos. Last year was an unusual year due to the pandemic of course - for four months I never went further than five miles from home and not once did I leave the Scottish Highlands and only rarely the Cairngorms. My planned long walks for May and June never took place. There are always big spikes in the number of photos in the months when there's a long trip. There are no spikes for any month in 2020. There are no dips in the lockdown months either. I found plenty to photograph close to home. 

February: Cloud-capped Cairngorms

Rather than my absolute favourites for the year here I'm going to post a favourite from each month. These are photos that mean something to me and bring back memories of a strange year in which each month has its own resonance. Usually my memories of a year, along with my photos, are dominated by long walks. Last year was different.

March: Snow & Light

March saw my last trips to the snowy hills until the autumn. The snow remained high up for weeks but lockdown made the big hills out of reach and I could only admire it from a distance. Instead I had the spring to follow and watch at home.

April: Forest & Mountain, Green & White

May: Spring Birches, Spring Sky

June: Cairngorms Evening

July: A Touch of Rainbow

August: Cairn Gorm Sunset

Of these twelve photos six were taken less than two miles from my front door, the other six in the Cairngorms. 2020 really was a year for staying home.

September: Fire in the Sky

October: Mist in the Lairig Ghru

November: Cairn Lochan Gully

December: Sunset from Meall a'Bhuachaille

Photographic Notes. The images were taken on my Sony a6000 camera with Sony E 18-135 lens. All twelve images were taken at different focal lengths, from 18 to 128mm. I believe in using a zoom lens to the full! The aperture was f8 in all images bar July's, which was f5.6. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/15 to 1/1600. The ISO was 100 except for August, which was 200, and July, which was 400. All photos were handheld.

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Outdoor & Nature Books 2020 Review


Every year sees a wealth of outdoor and nature books published and 2020 was no exception.  Here are brief descriptions of the ones I enjoyed most, in no particular order, along with a few that were published in previous years but I hadn't got round to reading until last year and a couple of classics. 

As every year I also dipped into old favourites from authors like Edward Abbey, Colin Fletcher, John Muir, Nan Shepherd, and Hamish Brown. New books don't replace old ones!

Corrour Bothy: A refuge in the wilderness by Ralph Storer

The last book I read in 2020 as it arrived just before Christmas. A love letter to a Cairngorms bothy. History, anecdotes, geography, bridge building, walking routes and many, many excerpts from 100 years of bothy books. I found it intriguing and fascinating. A longer review will follow soon.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

This was the first book I read last year. A magnificent and dizzying tour de force it looks at every aspect of humanity's involvement with the underworld in myths, history, literature and today. The author carries you along on exciting and sometimes terrifying underground adventures, all described with profound understanding of the meaning of the places explored.

The Big Rounds: Running and walking the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsey Rounds by David Lintern

Three challenging multi-summit hill circuits in England, Wales and Scotland described for walkers as well as runners with interviews and stories from the exceptional characters who first undertook them. Beautifully illustrated with the author's excellent photographs. Longer review here.

Marram: Memories of sea and spider-silk by Leonie Charlton

A lovely lyrical account of a journey on horseback through the Outer Hebrides tinged with sadness as the author grapples with memories of her fraught relationship with her late mother.

Red Sixty Seven curated by Kit Jewitt

A lovely collection of essays and paintings inspired by the Red List of the most vulnerable UK birds. Review here

Walking Through Shadows by Mike Cawthorne

Gripping story of a tough walk through the Scottish Highlands in winter in memory of a friend who died in the wilds. Captures winter in the hills superbly. Review here

Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict Macdonald

A deep look at the decline of birds in Britain and what can be done about it. Challenging, provocative, and, ultimately, optimistic.

Walking the Great North Line: From Stonehenge to Lindisfarne by Robert Twigger

Entertaining story of a walk through England along a line connecting historic sites. Humorous, philosophical, and fun. Review here.

The Unremembered Places: Exploring Scotland's Wild Histories by Patrick Baker

Journeys to islands, mountain passes, caves and more in search of history in wild places. Fascinating and informative. Review here

Wanderlust Europe: The Great European Hike by Alex Roddie

A collection of lavishly illustrated walks in Europe from Iceland to Georgia. A book for dreaming and inspiration. Review here

Mountains of the Moon: Lunar Nights On Scotland's High Peaks by Alan Rowan

Exciting and entertaining account of a night ascent at every full moon of the year. 

Keeping Dry & Staying Warm by Mike Parsons & Mary Rose

A detailed look at staying comfortable in the outdoors. Packed with information. I was a consultant for the book. More here.

Life On The Mountains by Terry Abraham

Outdoor film maker Terry Abraham tells his story. Beautifully illustrated with his wonderful photographs. Review here.

Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse by Adrian Trendall

The best guidebook I've seen to the formidable Cuillin. Excellent route descriptions, advice and photographs. Review here

Sky Dance: Fighting for the wild in the Scottish Highlands by John D. Burns

Conservation, mountaineering and bothies all mixed together in this comic novel with a serious message. Review here.

Our Place: Can We Save Britain's Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? by Mark Cocker

Thought-provoking look at the history of conservation organisations and legislation with analysis of what went wrong and the radical steps needed to change this. Review here

The Munros In Winter by Martin Moran

New edition of a classic first published in 1986 with a new foreward by Joy Moran. An epic Scottish winter adventure climbing all the Munros in one winter for the first time. I have an original edition I haven't read in decades. It's proved well worth reading again.

Call-Out by Hamish MacInnes

Following the sad death of mountaineering and mountain rescue pioneer Hamish MacInnes last autumn I pulled my copy, dated 1978, off the bookshelves and reread it. The stories are terrifying and sobering and the author's ingenuity in finding ways to rescue people very impressive.




Saturday 9 January 2021

Lockdown in the Snow

Dusk, January 8

So here we are again. With a new lockdown. And this time in the coldest months with only short hours of daylight. Outside it’s -8.5°C and the snow lies deep. Ah, yes, the snow. Transforming the world, bringing its fragile beauty to a familiar landscape, creating a magical but hostile environment. The snow has brought joy to the first days of the year, the lockdown has not. Neither is a surprise.

Since the first lockdown ended in the hot days of last July I haven’t felt too restricted. I could travel anywhere in the Highlands to go walking and camping, cafes and shops were open. My partner, trapped down south for eight months due to the pandemic and personal events, returned home. I still avoided crowded places, wore a mask in shops, reduced my visits to cafes, but I still felt much freer than last spring. 

The Cromdale Hills, January 8

I still do to some extent as the new lockdown in Scotland is not as severe as the first with regard to the outdoors. There are no restrictions on how long or how often you can exercise this time. If necessary you can travel five miles outside your council area to start your exercise. That should be a boon to those living in small heavily populated areas. Here in the Highlands it doesn’t really matter. Highland Council covers a huge area. I can drive over 100 miles without leaving it. I don’t think I should though. I can walk into hills and fields and woods from my front door, so, as in the first lockdown, that’s what I’ll do. All the photos here were taken within a few miles of home. It’s all about reducing the risk of spreading the virus. The fewer people any of us see the better, sad to say. 

Ben Rinnes, January 6

I could say that any travel to the mountains was for work but that doesn’t feel right. I don’t need to do it. I can try out gear for my reviews for The Great Outdoors here and I have enough trips I haven’t written about yet to fulfil any requirements. I do have book work that means I will have to go further afield, though still in the Highlands, but I can do that later in the year when, hopefully, the pandemic will be easing. 

Birch in snow, January 7

Every day this year snow has fallen. Walking has been a joy. Until the snow became deep. Then I dug out my old cross-country skis and relished again the pleasure of gliding through the snow. A few days before this I admired a dramatic dawn from a local hill, the glen below filled with cloud, the distant high Cairngorms edged by a glowing sky. 

Cairngorms at dawn, January 6

In the woods the trees are heavy with snow, bowing down under its weight. The snow falls silently. There has been little wind. It is quiet and still.

Trees and snow, January 8

The only activity has been around our bird feeders which are a flurry of wings all day as a mass of birds try to eat enough food to get them through another freezing night. There are red squirrels too, and rabbits, all eager for peanuts and sunflower seeds. 

Trees & Mist, January 3

Living here I’m very aware that I don’t feel the effects of the lockdown like people in towns and cities, especially those who love the hills and wild places. I miss not being able to see my stepdaughters, but not much else. It makes me realise what is most important to me. Nature is what I can’t do without. 

Dawn, January 6

As in the spring I’ll continue to post pictures from my outdoor trips. I have considered not doing so, as some people felt seeing them made their situation feel worse. However far more people have said my pictures help them. I hope that is so.

Stay safe.