Tuesday 30 March 2021

A look at the Spring Issue of The Great Outdoors

The  latest issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. In it I review three tarps from Kelty, Hilleberg and Alpkit, plus the Osprey Talon Pro pack and The North Face L3 50/50 down jacket. I also have a look at what's happening to ViewRanger and consider how to pitch a tent in cold and hostile weather.

Elsewhere in the gear pages Judy Armstrong and David Lintern each review five pairs of three-season boots.

In the main features Nicola Hardy walks 325 kilometres from her Sheffield birthplace to her new home in Cumbria, Craig Weldon argues for taking the 'wrong' way up hills, Alex Roddie finds solitude on a December backpack through Knoydart, and Faraz Shibli undertakes a 1000-mile camel assisted trek across the Gobi Desert.

Also in this issue James Forrest gives some good tips for avoiding crowds in the hills, Hanna Lindon looks at the exciting possibility of lynx being reintroduced to Scotland and talks to Boardman-Tasker winner Jessica Lee about nature writing, Alex Roddie asks if outdoor culture has become too detached from nature, Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden start planning a backpacking trip, Jim Perrin praises the magnificent Buachaille Etive Mor, and Plas y Brenin instructor Brad Reed gives his tips for beginner hillwalkers. 

As well as excellent reading the magazine is full of mouth-watering photographs. I especially like the one of Alex Roddie in his brightly lit tent on a dark Knoydart night - it really captures the peace of a night out in the wilds and makes me look forward to being able to do that again soon. The image of the vast sand dunes of the Gobi Desert with a tiny figure walking along the crest of one of them also drew my attention and made me long for a desert trip.

Saturday 27 March 2021

In search of a track that was probably never there and finding an old path that almost isn't

Summit for the day. 434 metre Sgor Gaoithe

The highest hill within walking distance of my home is 549 metre Carn na Loine, a massive heathery lump in the midst of a large grouse shooting area. It's a slog through boggy heather to the top and I don't go up there often. My only memorable ascent was in February 2009 when I camped on the summit after skiing there right from my front door. It's definitely a hill that's far better under deep snow. 

On a cold blustery day late this March I headed that way again though I didn't climb to the top. My walk was inspired by a vague memory of seeing a track angling up across the hillside. Was that track really there? I went to find out. 

Walking up the little glen below the hill I could see no sign of this track. I did note though that three deep gullies running down the lower part of the hill still had large snow patches in them and also much green vegetation that stood out against the winter brown of the heather all around. One day I'll go and have a look at those gullies, I thought.

Climbing gently out of the glen I reached it's head to a view north over the Dava Moor to the Moray Firth, a huge landscape. Just above lay Sgor Gaoithe, its little summit decorated with a cairn. The short walk up through the heather tussocks reminded me of how difficult walking was off the few tracks in this area. The rocky top - unusual here - is a great viewpoint, hence the cairn I expect. Carn na Loine lay two pathless kilometres away. The walk was not appealing. Today, I decided, would be the day I'd investigate those gullies. If I traversed the hillside, crossing each of them, I'd come across the track I'd set off seeking if it existed, which I now doubted.

The going was rough at first. Then I came across an old path running across the hillside. Overgrown and very faint it still made for easier walking. Sometimes I couldn't see it under my feet, just it's gentle depression in the heather some way ahead. The path was a bit clearer where it cut down into the first gully and climbed the far side. There were old birches here and a surprising amount of juniper bushes plus big firm snow patches. Further down there were willows too. The path remnant led to the second gully where the juniper was really prolific. Sheep graze these hills. I guess there's enough food for them not to need to descend steeply into these gashes in the hillside.

On the way to the third gully the path vanished completely and it was back to heather and bog bashing. The third gully had fewer juniper bushes but the biggest snow patches. Given the low level, around 350 metres, and the completely snow-free slopes all around I was surprised at how much snow was left.

Tired of the heather and convinced now that the track I'd set out to find was a figment of my imagination - maybe I'd seen sunshine picking out a line in the snow and mistaken it for a track - I decided it was time to head home so I descended beside the gully to a farm track and so to the road. All the way back I had splendid views south to the high Cairngorms, shining with new snow.

Back home I looked at the oldest map I have of the area, a 1980 OS 1:25,000 sheet. The track that wasn't there wasn't on it, as I knew. Neither was the old path I'd found. But it is there, just. 

The track not being there didn't matter.It had just been an excuse for a bit of local exploration. I'd had a grand walk with grand views on a day of snow showers and sunshine. As well as finding an ancient path I'd seen buzzards and pied wagtails and the juniper in the gullies. I felt refreshed.

Wednesday 24 March 2021

A Memorable Camp On Ben Nevis


Last year I was asked, along with several others, to write a short piece for The Great Outdoors on my most memorable camp. Now that's impossible to decide as I've had many wonderful camps over the years. So, as I do when asked to make similar impossible decisions, I went with the first that came to mind. And that was a camp on Ben Nevis thirteen years ago. As soon as I thought of it the memory of that special night came back. I've written about it before and no doubt will again. I'm never tired of remembering it. Here's what I wrote for the Great Outdoors.

The idea of camping on Ben Nevis came as I was sweating my way east on the TGO Challenge in blazing sunshine towards its cool and alluring snowy white dome. Usually I wouldn’t consider camping on the Ben as the summit is a waterless boulder field. But snow meant water and comfort. After lingering in Fort William until the evening to avoid climbing in the heat I set off. Dozens of walkers descending passed me at first but long before I reached the summit plateau I was alone. 

Unusually there was no wind. I pitched my tent not far from the trig point and the emergency shelter – the latter dark and dirty but a potential refuge if the weather changed. A snow bunting sang by the summit cairn. A raven wheeled overhead. After supper I wandered round the plateau, staring down the huge cliffs of the north face of the mountain. Away to the west Loch Eil was a golden ribbon of light leading to an orange sky above the silhouettes of the Western Highlands. Crossing the plateau and looking south the Mamores fronted a mass of peaks fading into the distance.

The night was silent. I woke a few times to stare out at a half moon and bright stars. The air was chilly. Dawn came with mist and a gusty wind. The tent was damp, the world grey. The splendour wasn’t over yet though. A pale sun appeared, shining softly through the clouds, then a patch of blue sky that grew and grew as the mists sank into the glens. In bright sunshine I wandered round the plateau again. The Mamores rose above the clouds, sharp and clear. When I finally left, I’d had the summit to myself for fourteen glorious hours.


First camera trap wildlife: a pine marten.


Having seen an increasing number of camera trap wildlife images online in recent years I decided to try this myself and ordered a trail cam. It arrived a few days ago and I set up in the garden and left it overnight as a test. The first morning revealed a good shot of the first chaffinch arriving on a bird feeder and something very blurred at the edge of some bushes. At least it was working.

The second night I was surprised and delighted to see the above image of a pine marten having a good look at the trail cam. This was exciting!

We had seen a pine marten in the garden once, quite a few years ago, and occasionally seen droppings, so kew they were around. I suspected they were rare visitors to the garden though and if I did get a picture of one it might take weeks or months. To get one so quickly suggests that they might visit quite often. This one is only a few feet from the house too.

My plan had been to see what a few nights in the garden captured and then move the camera into nearby woods. I'm going to keep it in the garden a bit longer now. I want to see if a pine marten comes round again. I'll try video soon too.

For those interested I bought my trail cam from NatureSpy, which I found via a web search. Knowing nothing about these cameras I used the camera chooser on the site, looked at ones that had good image quality, read a few reviews, and selected the Browning Recon Force Elite HP4. It proved easy to set up (though I got the date wrong at first, as you can see in the image) and comes with a wide locking strap to attach it to posts and tree trunks.

Saturday 20 March 2021

Beyond Craigellachie

Braeriach from Craigellachie

Over the years I’ve been up Craigellachie many times. The walk up through the lovely birch woods and onto the little summit with its grand view over Aviemore to the Cairngorms is a favourite if I have an hour or two to spare. Until recently I’d never gone beyond the summit though, always heading back down the same way.  If I had more time the higher Cairngorms had always called.

This time I determined to see what lay beyond Craigellachie so after wandering up through the birches, which were shimmering beautifully in the March sunlight, to the rocky summit I descended steeply on a faint path to little Lochan Dubh, which I’d looked down on so many times before. Wind rippled the water and the surroundings were boggy.

From the lochan I headed up long Creag na h-Iolaire – the Eagle’s Crag. I wondered how long since any had nested here. The going was rough, very rough, a mixture of bog and rock with only hints of a path. Several deep ravines cut across the ridge, making for many little steep ascents and descents. A fence follows the crest of the ridge, one of those that sticks to an improbable line, going up and down every obstacle. I couldn’t help but admire those who erected it in such tricky places. I also contemplated the futility of such territorial marking. The fence wouldn’t keep anything out. It’s purely a boundary marker. 

Beyond Creag na h-Iolaire I crossed open moorland to Carn Mor Dearg, the high point of my walk at 712 metres and one of the least distinguished of the hills with that name, though the view is excellent. The wind was stronger and colder now and the sun was spending more time behind the clouds. I didn’t linger.

A long broad boggy ridge runs north from the summit. As I descended this I could see an old Scots pine forest to my right, outliers straggling towards me. A high fence ran along the edge of the trees. A fence with purpose this time, being far too high for deer to jump. Slowly the ridge and the forest curved towards each other. I was heading for an old track that would take me down through the forest and back to Aviemore. The rugged terrain had taken longer to cross than I’d expected and the glow of dusk was on the hills before I reached the trees.

The track was rough, rutted, rocky, and muddy. The forest was silent and calm. I caught glimpses of a crescent moon above the trees, and, soon, the lights of Aviemore. I’d estimated three hours for the walk. I don’t often record routes on my phone but in this case I did, curious to see the details. 13.4km, 611 metres ascent, 5:39 hours. Average walking speed 2.4km. Further, longer in time and slower than I’d expected. Tougher too. But enjoyable, and that’s always the point. And I’d finally seen what lay beyond Craigellachie.

Thursday 18 March 2021

A Local Exploration


Like many people I’ve spent much of the last year walking from home and finding out much more about the local area. My most recent excursion was my partner’s idea. Some thirty years ago she and one of our daughters had come across a ruined farmhouse. Then five years ago she thought she’d go and see what had happened to it. But she couldn’t find it. Since then she’s been out another eight or nine times, a couple of them with me, without success. It clearly wasn’t where she thought it had been. Recently, when looking at the 1:25,000 OS map of the area she noticed two buildings that were in the right area but much further from the nearest road than she remembered. So off we went to see if one of them was the ruin.

Getting there involved crossing some boggy ground on a track that was barely there (Denise sensibly wore wellies, I was in walking boots), climbing a few fences, and wandering through woods and rough pasture where a GPS location kept us on the right line. I couldn’t remember coming this way before and enjoyed looking at familiar vistas, including the distant Cairngorms, from different angles.

Eventually a house appeared, a ruined house with a battered porch and the glass long gone from the windows. Was this it? The aspect was as Denise remembered. We approached. “This is it! There’s the big old holly I remember”. In one corner a magnificent thick-trunked holly tree rose right next to the wall, a holly tree part-hidden by a half-collapsed larch.  Denise was delighted.

Given that the house had been abandoned and in a poor state thirty years ago we were impressed at how well it had survived all those years. The heavily rusted corrugated roof was intact, though the skylights had no glass in them. Inside the plaster was peeling from the walls. Most fittings had gone, only heavy items remaining. A sink, a gas cooker. In a few places wallpaper picturing pot plants, including cacti. Denise remembered it from her first visit. I could see why. It was strange, incongruous. A flight of stairs led up into the attic rooms. Denise remembered going up them but this time decided they didn’t look safe. Looking up at a hole in a ceiling I agreed.

Who lived here, I wondered. When was it abandoned. Denise reckoned the wallpaper had a 1960s look. From C.J.Halliday’s useful book Place Names Around Grantown-on-Spey we later found it dated back to at least 1810. To how many generations had it been home? Who lived here? Why was it abandoned? It was a sizable building and there were low walls showing there’d been other buildings nearby, probably barns or cattle sheds. The sense of abandonment was enhanced by the lonely situation. The house lies about a kilometre from the nearest road. The faint track we’d followed was the only one on the map and it hadn’t been used for a very long while. The second building on the map, some hundred metres away was no more than low walls. The area all around was boggy moorland, a mass of tussocks, springs and little burns. It looked as though no-one ever came here.

Not far away lay the edge of a fenced plantation that was mostly felled over twenty years ago and which is now a regenerating forest of birch and pine. Leaving the ruined house we crossed the boggy ground to follow the edge of the wood round to a track and back to the road in our little glen as the first colours of dusk started to lace the sky. We’d never been much more than two kilometres in a straight line from home but it felt like a much bigger trip, one of exploration and discovery.