Saturday 29 May 2021

There's still snow in the Cairngorms, but not everywhere.

Looking over Cairn Lochan to Braeriach

This year the end of May sees more snow than most years high in the Cairngorms. On the 28th I went up to see just how much was left. I didn't have any goal in mind - this is all familiar territory. I just wanted to be there for a while.

Fiacaill a' Choire Chais

Bright sunshine was broken by drifting clouds, some quite dark and ominous though no rain fell. The sky was deep blue, the snow shining. The mountains looked peaceful and beautiful. There was a cold south-east wind though and the snow was soft and in places deep, making walking arduous.

Cairn Lochan

The Cairngorm Plateau was mostly white, an unbroken sweep of snow from Cairn Lochan to Ben Macdui. If I was going that way I'd want skis or snowshoes. The deep drifts I crossed on Cairn Gorm itself were hard enough going but none were very extensive. Away from the Plateau the hills were less snowy. It looked as though Bynack More, Beinn Mheadhoin and Derry Cairngorm could all be climbed without crossing much snow.

Beinn Mheadhoin & Derry Cairngorm

View over Loch Avon to Beinn a'Bhuird & Beinn Mheadhoin

On Cairn Gorm summit the snow was thin. It'll be gone soon. The Weather Station, plastered with snow and ice at the end of April (see this post), was metal, stone and wood, steel grey and brown. 

The summit cairn was bare too, and backed by blue sky and ragged clouds. I'm still not used to it, I still miss the old much bigger cairn, though this was torn down many years ago.

Wandering round the summit I stared over the whiteness to Ben Macdui. Maybe there's time to get the skis out again. The snow is thawing fast. But there is an awful lot to thaw.

Ben Macdui

Cairn Toul & Sgor an Lochain Uaine

A dotterel in the Cairngorms - the big lens goes up a hill.


Today I finally took my new big long lens (see this post) up into the hills. On my way up to the Cairngorm Plateau I spotted two dotterel moving slowly across the rough ground. Previously I'd have watched these lovely birds a while but not tried to take a photograph as they were too far away and I didn't want to disturb them by approaching any closer. This though was an opportunity to see what the big lens could do so I very carefully extracted it from its bag and took two picture before the birds moved further away and disappeared into the rocks. One image came out sharp and I have to say I'm pleased with it, especially as it crops well (the top picture). The full image is below.

There's a problem with the success of this image. I'll now feel I should carry the big lens on more hill walks!

For those interested in the technical photographic aspect of the image here are some notes. The weather was bright but the background to the bird quite dark. I had the ISO already set at 200 and the f-stop at f8, which gave a shutter speed of 1/320. A smaller f-stop and a faster shutter speed would probably have been better but I didn't know how long the birds would remain close enough to photograph. I have my Sony a6000 set up so the top dial alters the shutter speed so that's the setting I can change most quickly. I wasn't thinking of wildlife photography at this time. If I had been I'd have already changed the f-stop. A lesson for the future.

Thursday 27 May 2021

Online Reading No 21


In Torridon, May 15


Two months have flashed by since I last listed online reading I've enjoyed so I've had to be very selective with the links this time or the post would stretch into the far distance. 


A Journey Worth Taking

Andrew Terrill writes about the adventure of writing a book on his 7000 mile walk through Europe and the many years it took. The book, The Earth Beneath My Feet, is out on June 1. I'm reading it now and it's excellent. 

Going Further: Planning for Long Distance Walks 

Sensible advice and inspiring photographs from David Lintern. 

Nick Gardner, aiming for all the Munros at 81 

The inspiring story of an 81 year old climbing all the Munros for charity. Nick Gardner talks to Dan Bailey.

To Vegas With Igloo Ed

 Andrew Terrill spends a night in a lean-to shelter with Igloo Ed and it's just like Vegas ......

The Colour of Spring  

In this moving piece David Lintern works through grief on a trip in the Fannichs. 

Hill classifications and the people behind the lists 

An informative look at the Munros list and many more.


Gemma Smith visits Altnaharra in Sutherland and tells the story of this remote settlement. 

Millican Dalton - The Professor Of Adventure

Iona Glen tells the story of Millican Dalton (1867-1947), a self-styled 'Professor of Adventure' who lived in a cave in Borrowdale and led camping and climbing trips in the vicinity of Keswick.

Roe deer in a snowy meadow at dawn, May 5, 4.55 a.m. Camera trap photo.



It's Time to End Burning on Grouse Moors

Max Wiszniewski of REVIVE, the coalition for grouse moor reform, says ending 'muirburn' could boost both biodiversity and the fight against climate change.

Conservation legend Roy Dennis: ‘We’re facing an ecological crisis, but it’s exciting too’

Patrick Barkham talks to Roy Dennis about conservation and saving wildlife.

I finally bought my own trail camera!  

Ben Dolphin has exciting results from his new trail camera, eventually.

In Search of the Golden Eagle

RSPB nature reserve warden and wildlife photographer David Dinsley finds golden eagles and much more.

What we think about the Government’s announcements on trees, peat and nature recovery 

Rewilding Britain's Guy Shrubsole looks at the UK government's recent proposals for nature.

Rewilding: four tips to let nature thrive

Practical suggestions for rewilding in Britain from Sophie Wynne-Jones, Ian Convery, and Steve Carver

Marsh marigolds, River Spey. May 5.

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Book Review: Wild Guide French Alps by Helen & Paul Webster


Wild Guides are travel compendiums covering a wide range of outdoor activities and opportunities along with food, accommodation, history, geology and more. This latest volume on the Fench Alps by Helen and Paul Webster of Walk Highlands is packed with masses of exciting information along with inspiring photographs, most of them by the authors. 

There are suggestions for the best places in the whole of the French Alps for eleven topics, ranging from wild swimming and mountain scenery to forts & chateaux and local produce. The region is then divided into seventeen areas with again recommendations for different activities. The careful layout means it's easy to find your areas of interest amidst the wealth of information.

This isn't a mountaineering or walking guide. It's a general overview of what the Fench Alps has to offer to the visitor looking to experience everything the area has to offer. It contains an astonishing number of options - enough for several lifetimes. If you're visiting the French Alps it would be a great companion as well as a book to use for planning. I'll certainly be using it for my next visit. 


 Wild Guides French Alps is published by Wild Things and costs £18.99

Monday 24 May 2021

A Look At The June Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The June issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. In it is the first in an occasional series I'm writing about trips and the gear I used. This initial one covers the trip I wrote about here. I also review five sleeping mats (and Lucy Wallace does another five), the Black Diamond Highline Stretch Shell, the Klattermusen Brimer 24L pack, and the Millican The Smith Roll Pack 25L. And in part four of the Better Backpacking Guide I look at balancing weight, comfort and safety.

The theme of the issue is being outdoor with your family. Hanna Lindon looks at Outdoor Family Holidays, David Lintern backpacks the Deeside Way with his family, Roger Butler has a multi-activity family adventure in Slovenia's Julian Alps, and Plas y Brenin instructor Helen Teasdale gives some advice and tips on walking with kids. 

Other big features see Rebecca Coles walking the Snowdonia Slate Trail, and Ronald Turnbull enjoying the geology on Haystacks in the Lake District.

The issue opens with a dramatic photo of a scrambler on Crib y Ddysgl on Snowdon by Rob Johnson. There's an interview with Russell Moorhouse about becoming the first person to camp on all 214 Wainwright summits. Ten walks are recommendedin the Cairngorms - as this is my local area I can say they're all good ones but the top ten? Not really! In another interview Hanna Lindon talks to Amira Patel, the founder of The Wanderlust Women, a walking group for Muslim women. Ronald Turnbull says walkers should say yes to windfarms because of the climate crisis. Jim Perrin praises Ben Alder. There are two book reviews - Paul Richardson on Craig Weldon's The Weekend Fix, and Vivienne Crow on Women on Nature: 100 Voices on Place, Landscape and the Natural World edited by Katharine Norbury. 


Thursday 20 May 2021

Clouds, light, rocks, splendour, lessons from lower hills - a trip to Torridon

In a reversal to the usual weather pattern the forecast suggested it would be mostly fine in the west but wet and stormy in the east. So I went west and this turned out to be true, just. Throughout my trip to Torridon ominous dark clouds filled the eastern sky, sometimes approaching, sometimes retreating, but always there. Sometimes I felt I could reach out and touch them. On the fifth day they finally arrived and rain fell but that was my last day anyway.

My aim was to climb some of the lower hills I hadn't been up for many years, or in one case ever, and have some pleasant camps. The first two of the latter were spent on The Wee Campsite in Lochcarron, which is pleasant and quiet. I don't usually stay on camp sites but this one was situated just right for my first walks. After two nights I was ready for solitude and a remote camp though so I headed into the hills. For maybe the last time until the autumn I took my Trailstar tarp with just a groundsheet. Within a few weeks it will probably be too midgey for me to consider doing this.

However another aspect of the Trailstar I hadn't thought about was that my trekking poles were holding it up so when I went climbed a hill from camp I didn't have them with me. Now I often don't use poles on day walks and reckoned I wouldn't miss them. I was wrong. If I'd been on a big mountain with a good path - a Munro say - I'd have been fine without them. But I was climbing a lower, little-visited hill and there were no paths just steep slopes of bog, heather, tussocks and rocks. Clambering up and down this stuff I really longed for poles, especially when I went knee deep into one innocuous looking patch of ground. I was also learning that these lower hills are tougher than more popular higher ones. A path makes so much difference. 

So for my second camp I took a tent with its own pole - having driven to Torridon I had a car full of gear. Here I was joined by a companion, Liz Steel, who was spending a week backpacking in the area, and we camped together in a small grove of pines, a lovely sheltered site but not one for when the midges appear. Having pitched our tents we made our way up another lower hill that again gave tough terrain but also superb views.

The contrast between pathless and pathed hills was thrown into clear relief the next day. Liz went down to Torridon for coffee and cake and I went up a more popular hill, with a path and cairns all the way to the top. Even though there was more ascent and some quartzite boulders to cross the walking felt easy. No need to constantly look for the best route, no need to watch every step. I could walk along and just look at the hills and the clouds. I reckoned I went twice as fast with less effort.

This was the last day of fine weather. Indeed, the clouds thickened as I walked and the first drops of rain fell just before I was back at camp. The next morning the mountain was wreathed in clouds.

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Two Mountains: Liathach and Ben Macdui


Back in 2018 I, along with other regular contributors, wrote about our favourite mountains for The Great Outdoors magazine. Now choosing a favourite is actually impossible. There are so many fine mountains. But I had to pick ones so I went for two key mountains from two of my favourite areas of the Scottish Highlands -  Liathach in Torridon and Ben Mavdui in the Cairngorms. These are two very different mountains. Here's what I wrote about them.


Towering above Glen Torridon in the North-West Highlands a great ragged rock wall some 8 kilometres long Liathach is one of the most dramatic and impressive mountains in the UK. More a mini mountain range than a single mountain Liathach is built of layers of dark reddish Torridonian sandstone, the highest points capped by pale quartzite. Its name comes from the latter, Liathach meaning the grey one. There are two Munros on Liathach – 1055 metre Spidean a’Choire Leith (peak of the grey corrie) and 1023 metre Mullach an Rathain (summit of the pulleys) – plus four subsidiary Tops. Sir Hugh Munro listed it as just one mountain though – Mullach an Rathain wasn’t granted Munro status until the 1981 revision of Munro’s Tables.

The classic view of Liathach is across Loch Clair, which lies to the east. This make a perfect mountain scene with the mountain reflected in the water which is fringed with trees and reeds. Easy access means that this view is much photographed. Only the eastern end of Liathach is seen however and the full size of the mountain is hidden. To see the whole southern aspect of Liathach in all its glory you need to go further and higher, up into the hills south of Glen Torridon from where the whole magnificent mountain can be seen stretching out. 


From Glen Torridon Liathach looks impregnable, the sandstone terraces very steep and only split by narrow gullies, and there are indeed only a few ways up for walkers and these are not easy. The finest route is the traverse of the whole mountain. This involves some Grade 2 scrambling if the dramatic Am Fasarinen pinnacles, which lie between the two Munros, are taken direct. The rock is rough though and the holds good. There is a narrow traversing path on the south side but this is very exposed and eroded in places, especially where it goes round the head of gullies. It’s slippery when wet too. Looking down into Glen Torridon the tiny cars on the road seem to be almost directly below. This mountain really is steep. If you don’t fancy the pinnacles or the path each Munro can be climbed separately but this is to miss out the essence of the mountain.

Spidean a’ Choire Leith is a great cone of angular quartzite blocks. The usual ascent is via a very steep stony path that leads up Toll a’ Meitheach from Glen Torridon to Coire Liath Mhor and a dip in the ridge between the easternmost Tops of Stuc a’ Choire Dhuibh, which gives superb views of Beinn Eighe across Coire Dubh Mor, and Stob a’Choire Liath Mhor. Rocky walking leads over the latter to Spidean a’ Choire Leith.  From the ridge there are spectacular views into the northern corries and across a wild watery landscape to primeval looking hills. There are other routes to Spidean a’ Choire Leith from Glen Torridon but these are pathless and require good route-finding skills.

From Spidean a’Choire Leith the whole of the mountain can be seen. What really draws the eye are Mullach an Rathain and the Northern Pinnacles, a spur of the Munro running out to Meall Dearg. The last is the most difficult Munro Top on the mainland. The traverse of the loose Northern Pinnacles is a difficult and exposed scramble, with some sections Moderate rock climbs. Dropping down into the corrie to the east and then climbing steep slopes to the col between the Pinnacles and Meall Dearg is much easier but the ascent still involves some scrambling.

The sting in the tail of Meall Dearg only concerns completionists collecting Tops as well as Munros. For everyone else the difficulties of the traverse are over once the Am Fasarinen pinnacles are climbed or bypassed. The walking to Mullach an Rathain is the easiest so far, the ridge broad and less rocky. Once the summit is reached there are splendid views west to Beinn Alligin, Loch Torridon and the distant Isle of Skye.

The southern slopes of Mullach an Rathain can be ascended or descended anywhere west of the Allt an Tuill Bhain right down to Torridon village.

The north side of Liathach is very different to the south. Instead of an unbroken wall there are deep corries and long spurs. This complex side of the mountain is well seen from the path running up Coire Dubh Mor and then down Coire Mhic Nobuil. Coire na Caime with the Am Fasarinen pinnacles at its head looks particularly splendid from this path. Once out of sight of the road in Glen Torridon the feeling is one of remoteness and isolation. The landscape is chaotic and unforgiving, dotted with boulders, lochans and rushing streams. There are many possibilities for spectacular wild camps. This side of the mountain is one for exploration, for wandering into the great corries below the mountain walls to revel in the wildness of a mountain sanctuary. Few people venture here.

Under snow Liathach looks truly alpine, a tremendous white mountain soaring into the sky. There is no walking in these conditions, just mountaineering. The ridge traverse is a Grade II winter climb. Just climbing either of the two Munros requires winter skills and knowledge. Liathach is a serious mountain at any time but especially when there is snow and ice.

Ben Macdui 

The highest summit in the Cairngorms and the second highest in Britain 1309 metre Ben Macdui is a great sprawling complex mass of a mountain covering a huge area. Far from roads and with many lower peaks close by Ben Macdui isn’t easily visible from the valleys of Strathspey or Deeside and when it is picked out it just appears as a rounded bump. You need to climb high in the hills to realise just how splendid it is.  From Lochnagar and the White Mounth to the south-east it appears as two gentle domes rising above huge Coire Sputan Dearg. Seen from Braeriach and Cairn Toul to the west it’s a rolling plateau falling steeply into the deep cleft of the Lairig Ghru. These two views reveal the bulk and height of the mountain in a way that cannot be seen from lower down.

The northern side is different. Here Ben Macdui is the final rise of the vast Cairngorm Plateau which is itself mostly above 1000 metres. Approach this way from Cairn Gorm and there’s a feeling of the arctic even in summer as you cross a landscape of gravel scree, boulders and sparse arctic-alpine vegetation. In mist it’s a mysterious place where careful navigation is needed. When snow covers the Plateau it really feels as though you could be in Greenland or Antarctica. Only the trig point on the summit of Macdui shows you are in Britain, if it’s not buried in the snow that is. In winter conditions Ben Macdui is also potentially very dangerous. In a white-out the terrain is featureless and there is no shelter for a long way. Good mountaineering and navigational skills are needed when it’s snowy.


The south and the east give very different ascents, both requiring long walk-ins, and both showing the complex nature of the mountain. The climb up the long Sron Riach ridge from Glen Luibeg has tremendous views into Coire Sputan Dearg, that from Glen Derry winds past Loch Etchachan, set in an impressive bowl below the cliffs of Carn Etchachan, then above the Coire Sputan Dearg cliffs.

The views from Ben Macdui are spectacular and wide-ranging but the best ones are not from the very top where there is a large cairn with the trig point on it plus a panoramic viewfinder erected in 1925 by the Cairngorm Club. However the big gently rounded summit means that views are cut off and only the tops of nearby hills can be seen. Walk a few hundred metres south or west until the slopes start to steepen and the views open out. The most tremendous is straight across the Lairig Ghru to the massive east face of Cairn Toul while to the south there’s a long view down the lower Lairig Ghru and out over lower hills to distant Beinn a’Ghlo.

Monday 10 May 2021

The Benefits of the Wild

This piece was written two years ago for Scotland The Big Picture's Think Like A Mountain newsletter, well before Covid-19 arrived. After the lockdowns it seems even more apposite. So many more people have discovered how important nature is to them. If I was writing the piece today there would be many references to the pandemic. As it is, I decided to just mention that in this introduction and leave the piece as written.

The forest path stretched into the distance, walled by the dark green trees. The feeling was calm and placid, almost soporific. Walking was relaxing, effortless. I was barely aware that was what I was doing. My mind was floating through the woods, detached and tranquil. Nature can do that, even in a forest like this, which wasn’t spectacular, awesome, glorious, exciting or any other of the Instagram-essential hyped-up descriptions. Just a pleasant wood with a little path weaving through it. But its effect was magical. I was in another world, far from the problems of the bigger one outside those trees. The walk left me feeling refreshed, revived, and much more able to cope with that often overwhelming and frightening human-made world.

That nature and walking in nature can have such a healthy effect has become widely accepted in recent years, with many studies backing this up. For those of us who’ve revelled in nature and wild places all our lives this isn’t new. It became part of me when I was a child, exploring local woods and fields. It’s something I’ve always known, though it took me many years to realise this was something special and important. Wild places matter for our mental and physical health. They take us away from the frenetic, noisy, confusing world of cities and industry and return us to our true home. Over a hundred years ago John Muir wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” This is as true today as it was then and even more urgent as now even fewer people have much contact with nature while our wild places are diminishing even faster than in Muir’s time just as more of us are discovering how important they are.

In the words of Joni Mitchell “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Some of us do know but not enough and it’s important we do everything we can to spread this knowledge and get more people committed to protecting and restoring wild places. We are part of nature. Forgetting this can only lead to disaster.

The peace of wild places, the comfort of nature, can soothe the mind. Physical activity in these places can keep the body healthy. Walking, mountaineering, kayaking, swimming; the actual activity matters less than where it’s carried out. All those who take part in these outdoor pursuits gravitate towards wilder places, and not, I think, just because of their aesthetic qualities but also because the wildness feels right, helps make the physical activity feel appropriate, helps make the experience complete and whole. When I walk through wild places, especially day after day, I feel I belong, I feel part of where I am, the detachment I feel in cities disappears. The physical and mental benefits of wild nature combine to give a feeling of contentment.

It might seem this doesn’t matter to most people. That it’s just a few outdoor lovers and wildlife enthusiasts who are concerned. That this isn’t so was brought home to me during the foot and mouth disaster many years ago. Much of the countryside, including even the wildest places, was closed. Tourism fell away. If people couldn’t leave roads and experience nature, even if only for a stroll or a picnic in a wood or field, they didn’t come. Just looking at the landscape wasn’t enough. They wanted the freedom of being in nature, not just observers of it.

During that sad time I met two walkers from England on the summit of Cairn Toul, deep in the Cairngorms. With access to the English hills still restricted they’d come up here for the freedom of walking in hills that weren’t regulated and controlled, where they could wander at will. Wild places are free places. We need them. “Wildness is a necessity”.