Wednesday 29 September 2021

Some fine clouds and a chill wind on Meall a'Bhauchaille

Dense clouds over Braeriach

The last week has seen a run of very windy days with cloud down on the tops. A friend up from Glossop for a week was keen on a day or two in the Cairngorms but we kept putting it off due to the forecast until there was only one day left. So we went anyway. Thick clouds swathing the Cairngorm Plateau and a fierce wind at glen level persuaded us that Meall a'Bhuachaille, some 400 metres lower, sounded attractive.

Looking across the Ryvoan Pass to the Cairngorms Plateau

The approach through the always magnificent forest in Ryvoan Pass was sheltered and the air felt quite warm. Once we were climbing above the trees the wind quickly stripped away any heat though. Over the high Cairngorms clouds swirled and twisted, racing across the sky. Shafts of sunlight cut through briefly. Flashes of blue came and went. The air was alive. mobile. 

On the summit

The forecast was for showers and we could see squalls in the distance. None reached us though. On the summit the wind was very strong and very cold. For the first time since spring I donned an insulated jacket. Summer is definitely over. I kept it on for most of the descent and wasn't too hot.

Loch Morlich

We came down looking at shimmering Loch Morlich, its surface rippling in the wind. The first trees gave shelter for a more relaxing stop. As so often it felt a different world down here.

Mark beside a fine old pine tree

Thursday 23 September 2021

The nights are lengthening - time for headlamps

Winter sunset over Braeriach from the Cairngorm Plateau

Coming down from our walk inthe Fannaichs two weeks ago Alex Roddie and I needed our head lamps for the last few kilometres, the first time I’d used one for walking since early spring. Now the equinox is past the nights are drawing in quickly. Sunset in the Cairngorms is now 7pm. I carry a tiny headlamp right through the summer just in case but very rarely use it. For the next six months I’ll carry a more powerful one and expect to use it quite often (and have a spare in the pack). 

Having a good head lamp gives more freedom as you can start or finish walks in the dark and is also important for safety in case you’re out longer than planned. Every autumn people without head lamps or torches are rescued because they’re caught out in the dark. A good headlamp is the first item I add to my pack as the nights grow longer (soon followed by gloves, hats, and extra warm clothing).

Here’s a revised piece on headlamps I wrote for The Great Outdoors a few years ago:

Head lamps are becoming more powerful every year and that power is often the feature flagged up in promotions. Some models are extremely bright, up to 900 lumens, and can throw a beam 200 metres. But how much power do you actually need? From my testing of quite a few head lamps in recent years I think 300 lumens and a beam that goes 75-100 metres is fine for hillwalking. Indeed, much of the time even that much brightness isn’t needed. To save battery life it’s best not to use full brightness unless absolutely necessary.

Other factors need considering when choosing a head torch, not just power. Battery life, battery type, ease of use, variable lighting, size, and weight are all important.

Battery life depends in part on the type of battery and the weather. Companies, unsurprisingly, give the figures from the longest lasting battery in warm temperatures. Lithium batteries usually last longest, followed by alkalines, and then NIMH rechargeables. Built-in rechargeable batteries tend to have long life but must be recharged from a power bank or the mains. This can take a long time and not something to do when out on a walk, except overnight in camp. Being able to change the batteries is an asset. Even better is to have two head torches so you can just swap them over if one fades. I still carry spare batteries and/or a power bank though.

Head torches should be easy to use. Coming off the hill on a dark night in the rain feeling weary is not the time to try and remember a series of button presses in order to switch from spot to flood or increase or decrease brightness.

Having spot and flood beams does make a difference. The first can be used to light the route far ahead, the second to see what’s around you or light up a tent. I like low-tech mechanical means of varying between the two, just twisting the lamp housing is easier than remembering button presses. The latest technology involves lighting that automatically adjust brightness and beam spread according to where and what you’re looking at. This works well but can be a little startling when you quickly raise and lower your head and the light changes abruptly.





AAA or AA are the most common size batteries for headlamps. Alkaline batteries are standard, and many headlamps come with these. NIMH rechargeable batteries are the most economic and the most environmentally friendly. Lithium batteries last longer, especially in the cold, and weigh less though they are more expensive. However not all headlamps can use these. Check if the manufacturer says they are ok. Some headlamps come with rechargeable batteries. These may be removable so ordinary batteries can be used if necessary or else fixed in place with USB connections for recharging.

Ease of Use

Buttons and switches should be easy to operate when wearing gloves but should not be easy to switch on accidentally. Some headlamps have locking devices to ensure the latter can’t happen. The modes sequence should be easy to remember. Changing batteries in the dark and with cold fingers should be simple to do.


Head straps need to be soft, comfortable, and easily adjustable. They should fit over a hood or hat.

Pivoting Lamp

The lamp housing should pivot easily so the beam can be directed.

Usable Light

LEDs will continue to glow feebly if there’s a smidgeon of energy left in the batteries. This isn’t much use. Companies’ maximum times are often those at which the light is just strong enough to be useful. Changing or charging the batteries before this stage is reached is a good idea.

Light Levels

All bar the simplest headlamps have different light levels so you can have a very bright light for night hiking or identifying distant objects and less bright lights for close-up use and longer battery life.


Beams can be flood or spot. The first is useful for lighting an area such as a campsite or tent, the second is useful for throwing the light the farthest distance and pinpointing a distant object. Many headlamps have both flood and spot beams. The distance a beam shines is determined by the power of the LED and the batteries. With regulated headlamps there is a constant flow of electricity to the LEDs and after an initial decline the light will maintain the same brightness for a set amount of time and then decline again rapidly. With non-regulated headlamps the brightness declines quickly at first and then more slowly throughout the life of the batteries.

Saturday 18 September 2021

A Look At The October Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The October issue of The Great Outdoors has just come out. My contributions this month are reviews of the Nemo Riff 30 sleeping bag and the Keen Ridge Flex boots.

Also in the gear pages David Lintern and Lucy Wallace review five fleece/midlayers apiece and David also tests three cleaning and waterproofing products. 

As every October this is the TGO Challenge issue and there are stories and pictures from this year's event as well as info for 2022.

In the big features this month Dougie Cunningham traverses the Mamores (beautifully illustrated), Carey Davies goes wild camping on Helvellyn, David Lintern backpacks across Ben Alder, and Emily Woodhouse breaks records in Spain's Sierra Nevada.

The opening spread of this issue is a wonderful photo of Castell y Gwynt in Snowdonia by Alan Novelli. 

The Sky Walks flagged big on the cover are TGO's pick of ten ridge walks in Britain and Ireland. It's a good selection but no Aonach Eagach? Really?

Separate to the picked Sky Walks Alex Roddie describes the Ring of Steall, a superb horseshoe ridge walk in the Mamores. 

On serious issues Hanna Lindon asks some climbers, hillwalkers, and mountaineers about climate change in the run-up to COP26, and Lucy Thraves describes a long walk in response to violence against women. 

In the Hill Skills section Alex Roddie and Plas y Brenin instructor Dave Evans explain how to use pacing and timing in part three of TGO's navigation basics series.

Thursday 16 September 2021

25 years ago my Munros & Tops walk was complete


Twenty-five years ago I was mentally still coming down from my 118 days walk over all the Munros and Tops, which I finished on September 12. Adjusting took some time. Even after I was home I still woke each morning expecting the walk to continue. It had become a way of life. As I wrote about my feelings on that last summit: "Surely I would go down, find somewhere to camp, then climb more hills the next day? Wouldn't I?".

But no, I wouldn't. The wonderful mountain-packed summer was over. " Now, at the end, it was all important to me, all significant, all worthwhile. Every summit, every camp, every drop of rain, every blast of wind, even, in the euphoria of completion, every midge".

On that last day I was accompanied by Cameron McNeish and the late, sadly missed, Chris Brasher, who on the top produced not just champagne but crystal champagne glasses to drink it from. Cameron took the picture, which is from my book about the walk, The Munros and Tops.

Sunday 12 September 2021

Contrasting Days In The Hills: Quinag & Sgurr Mor

Alex Roddie approaching Sgurr Mor in the Fannaichs

Some days hill weather is kind, some days it's cruel, many days it's a bit of both. On two days last week I had the first and the last. The first was on a walk on Quinag with Alex Roddie and Rob Finch, a trip that had been long in the planning. Last autumn Alex ran a charity fundraiser for the John Muir Trust, auctioning a copy of his new book Wanderlust Europe and a day out on the hill with him and me. Rob won the auction and said, appropriately, that he'd like a trip to a JMT property. Due to the pandemic and being rather spread out - Rob in Southampton, Alex in Lincolnshire, me in the Cairngorms - it took a while before we finally sorted out dates. It would be early September. And Quinag would be the hill.

Alex on Spidean Coinich, Quinag

Alex on Sgurr Mor, Fannaichs      

We met at the excellent Forest Way Bunkhouse, where we stayed for two nights. The forecast was mixed but suggested an 80% chance of clear summits the afternoon of our first day after a cloudy morning with drizzle. We decided to go for Quinag. It might be worse the next day. The morning certainly brought cloud and rain. The afternoon didn't bring clear summits. The afternoon was just the morning continued.

Rob and Alex on Sail Gharbh, Quinag

Most of the day on Quinag we were in the cloud. Much of the time it rained. Much of the time it was windy. All of the time it was damp. The wettest day on the hills since sometime in April for me. And the coldest. I wore three layers and wished my base layer was thicker and had long sleeves. I hadn't worn that much clothing since April either. Preparation for the changing seasons, I thought.

Rob and Alex somewhere on Quinag

This was one of those days when I was glad of company. I suspect I'd have given up and gone down fairly soon if on my own. But with others the day was still enjoyable. Neither of them had been to Quinag before. Now they'd been up two of its three summits but not seen it. Something for them to look forward to! (You can see what Quinag looks like in this post).

Back at Forest Way we discovered that we'd picked the wrong hill. Another party staying there had been on An Teallach. It was cloudy but dry. On Seana Bhraigh Rob's friend Matt had views and no cloud or rain. He could see the big cloud sitting on Quinag.

Rob and Alex somewhere else on Quinag

Thankfully Forest Way has a good drying room or we'd have had a soggy start the next day. Not that we stayed dry for long, though the reasons were very different. Rob and Matt were going off to do hills further north. Alex and I headed east to the Fannaichs, an area I think very under-rated. The forecast suggested a hot day. The forecast was right. It was very humid too and calm. Sweating occurred. On Quinag we had seized every brief respite from the wind to pause and rest. Here we longed for a breeze. The few times one blew we stopped and relished it. My t-shirt, too thin the day before, now felt too thick. My feet, chilly on Quinag in mesh trail shoes and thin socks, now felt they were exploding out of those same shoes, swollen with the heat. Indeed, before we reached the main ridge my feet were aching so much I stopped and removed the insoles and my socks, much, I think, to Alex's surprise. It worked. My feet felt much better the rest of the day.

Alex in the Fannaichs

Whilst the summits were clear and there was sunshine at times the air was mostly hazy. It felt thick. Views faded into pale shadows. The sky was streaked and dappled with grey. And very bright, making for challenging photography. But at least photography took place. On Quinag quick grab shots with my smartphone were enough, my camera ending up in the pack. 

As we approached Sgurr Mor, the highest Fannaich, we had dramatic views of Sgurr nan Clach Geala, second highest but most impressive, with Alex admiring its huge gully-riven cliffs.

Sgurr nan Clach Geala

From Sgurr Mor we descended to a bealach past a small stone hut - duck when you enter - and then along an old stalkers path where the rocks had been cleared to either side to make a path that was, as Alex said, almost a holloway in places. We thought of the huge effort required to shift all those boulders, some of them really big. 

As the afternoon began to turn to evening the clouds thickened and the haze grew. Shaded layers of hills receded into the solid air. Bands of gossamer-like mist began to form, spreading out below the distinctive outline of An Teallach.

An Teallach

We needed headlamps for the last hour or so, again the first walking I've done with one since early spring. Despite the heat the day had felt autumnal. The grasses were turning red and yellow. The haze didn't feel like one of high summer. And there were only a few midges.

Wednesday 1 September 2021


Northwest Highlands, 2021.

The second recent query from a reader (see last post for the first) was about Pacerpoles and whether I still used them and if so how I managed with tarps. The answer is yes I still use them and I have used them with a variety of tarps and tents that use trekking poles over the years and have never had a problem. 

Northwest Highlands, 2007

In fact I've used Pacerpoles on every long-distance walk I've done in the last fifteen years and they've never let me down. Occasionally I try other poles and am reminded why I like the unique Pacerpole handles so much. I can hold them naturally with no wrist strain and no need to use straps. 

High Sierra, 2016

When I first used Pacerpoles there was only one model, a 3-section alloy one. Now there are two more. I changed to the 3-section carbon-fibre model when that appeared because it weighed less and the Dual Lock when that appeared because the adjustment system is easier to use.

Pacerpoles are one of my favourite items of gear and always first on my list. I can't imagine a long walk without them. Anyway, here's some more Pacerpole pictures from my archives.

Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010

The Cairngorms, 2010

The Northwest Highlands, 2007

Colorado Rockies, 2019

TGO Challenge, 2012