Tuesday 29 November 2022

Winter in the Cairngorms, at last: a day on Cairn Lochan

Cairn Lochan

The first real winter weather this year finally arrived in the Cairngorms last week, which is very late. November has mostly been wet, windy, cloudy, and, for the time of year, warm. Now the weather has turned frosty, cold, clear, and calm, at least for a few days, which is wonderful.

Cairn Toul

Taking advantage of the sunshine I headed up onto the Cairngorm Plateau to see how the frost and snow was changing the landscape. As the morning was forecast to be misty I set off late, intending to stay up high for the sunset.

Walkers on Miadan Creag an Leth-choin

Reaching the Plateau took longer than expected as the stony paths were slippery, with a thin glaze of invisible ice on many of the rocks. Trekking poles kept me upright, but I did slip off one boulder at a stream crossing and added some unwelcome cold water into a boot. Despite the freezing weather my foot stayed warm as I never stopped for long. I expect my thick merino wool socks helped too.

View down the Lairig Ghru

A surprise as I gained height was to look across Strathspey to thick clouds burying the Monadh Liath hills and stretching out along Strathspey. Aviemore was cloud-free but just to the west the strath was blanketed in white.

Cairn Lochan

As I rounded the side of Cairn Lochan and looked along the Lairig Ghru I could see more clouds filling the land beyond with just the highest tops of Beinn a’ Ghlo poking through. For once the Cairngorms was sunny when other areas were not.

Cairn Toul after sunset

High up the walking became easier as the rocks were ice-free. The ground was frozen solid. There was much frost to crunch through and some patches of hard snow left from a recent fall to cross. I had microspikes with me but didn’t need them as previous walkers who’d crossed when the snow was softer had left nice big bootprints.

Cairn Toul & Sgor an Lochain Uaine

I paused on the summit of Cairn Lochan for a snack and a hot drink. There wasn’t a breath of wind. The streaks of cloud high in the sky were turning yellow, orange and red as they caught the last rays of the setting sun.

Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda

By the time I was descending the colour was fading from the sky. A waxing moon rose over Derry Cairngorms. The first stars appeared. I left it as long as possible but eventually had to switch on my headlamp.

A great winter’s day out at last. I hope there will be many more in the next few months.

Sunday 27 November 2022

A Look At The January Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The January issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. The theme is natural wonders and how to see them with short pieces by six writers. I've written about seeing moose in the Rocky Mountains. Foxes, cloud inversions, owls, Brochen Spectres, and pumas are described by Ryan Simpson, Kirstie Smith, David Lintern, Andrew Terrill, and Phoebe Smith. There's also a long feature on golden eagles by James Roddie, illustrated with his wonderful photos.

I have rather more than usual in the gear pages with reviews of the Danner Panorama boots and the Peak Design Travel Backpack, a look at waterproof jackets costing under £200, advice on how to look after your waterproof jacket, and a gear trip report on an overnight trip in Glen Feshie. Also in the gear pages David Lintern reviews six trekking poles, Kirsty Pallas reviews three pairs of gaiters, and Francesca Donovan looks at how to stay dry when hiking.

In the main features Minreet Kaur describes a transfomative climb of Snowdon with a group of South Asian women, Dan Aspel has a winter bothy trip in the Cairngorms,there's an excerpt from Andrew Terrill's wonderful new book On Sacred Ground (I'll be reviewing it soon), and Alice Morrison shares an insider's view of some of the best walking in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. 

Also in this issue the Creator of the Month is Colin Woolf who uses tiny bird pin-feathers to create artworks of the natural world, Mary-Ann Ochota asks if we should stop dreaming of a white mountain Christmas, Andy Wasley reviews Raynor Winn's Landlines, and Jim Perrin considers Rhinog Fawr. 

There's a list of all the entries for the Reader Awards 2022 too. Fifteen categories from walkers' pubs to apps, retailers, and campaigners. You can vote here

Finally, in the Wild Walks section there are wintry visits to White Coomb and Loch Skeen in the Southern Uplands by Stefan Durkacz, Buckden Pike in the Yorkshire Dales by Ian Battersby, and Farelton Fell and Hutton Roof Crags in Cumbria by Roger Butler, and less wintry visits to Aber Falls and the North Wales Path in Snowdonia by Andrew Galloway and the Lulworth Ranges and Jurassic Coast in Dorset by Fiona Barltrop.

Saturday 26 November 2022

Talk at the Scottish Wild Land Group AGM, Dec 3

Ryvoan Pass, Cairngorms

I'm giving an illustrated talk on 'Wild Land in the Cairngorms and the NW Highlands: a comparison from a walker's perspective' at the Scottish Wild Land Group AGM in Perth on December 3 at 14.45. My talk and the rest of the day's events are open to everybody so if you're interested do come along.


Tuesday 22 November 2022

A Camp in the Forest

The first three weeks of November have been warm, windy and wet, with little sign of winter conditions even high in the hills. Very strong winds along with low clouds had me putting off a camping trip on almost a daily basis. Finally I resolved to go anyway but to stay in the glens and only venture high if conditions improved. Glen Feshie was the obvious choice. It always is. I never tire of this beautiful glen with its magnificent old pine trees and, in recent decades, wonderful forest regeneration.

I was joined on the walk by Kelly Lander (@KellyLander3). After lunch in the excellent Explorers CafĂ© in Aviemore we headed for the car park in Glen Feshie, with me wondering how high the burns that lay on the route would be as the previous day had seen torrential rain and where we could camp if they proved impassable. Happily they were no more than shin deep. The resulting wet boots and feet weren’t a problem as the temperature was well above freezing.

We made camp at dusk beneath some of the ancient pines at the at the narrowing of the glen between the steep craggy jaws of Creag na Gaibhre and Creag na Caillich. This is the heart of Glen Feshie; wild, spectacular, beautiful. 

Darkness falling soon after 4pm and lasting for some sixteen hours at this time of year means a long time in the tent if the weather is stormy. I’d brought a roomy tent so I wouldn’t feel too confined if I didn’t emerge until dawn and an e-reader with a small library on it for entertainment. As it was, after some instant soup, a good way to replace liquid and salt, I drifted off for a couple of hours, lulled to sleep by the wind rushing through the treetops and the gentle patter of rain on the tent. 

Waking late in the evening to quiet I ventured out to see the night forest. The wind had eased, and the rain stopped. I wandered amongst the trees, my headlamp lighting up patches of the seemingly impenetrable dark ahead of me. Forests at night always feel mysterious. I walked slowly, carefully, trying to make no noise, avoiding stepping on twigs, though there was no need to do so. It just seemed natural, perhaps an ancient memory of a need not to alert predators, or other humans.

Rain was starting to fall again as I returned to the tent and the wind soon picked up, roaring rather than sighing through the branches. I made supper – instant noodles – and browsed the e-reader. An attempt at a bit of The Silmarillion, a book I’ve been trying to read on and off for decades but just can’t get involved with, a chapter of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, a dip into The Best of Edward Abbey. I love e-readers for camping. A whole library for the weight of one paperback. Of course I could read on my phone, but I find a book-sized and less glaring screen much preferable.

The storm was raging when I fell asleep again towards midnight, the rain lashing the tent. By dawn the wind was gentle and the rain over. I could hear the River Feshie now. 

The summits were in mist and the clouds racing overhead so we decided to just have a wander further up the glen, and then return, pack up camp and head back to the car park.

The Feshie was brown and racing, white-capped waves crashing over hidden rocks. It always feels alive, an impression enhanced by the great gouges it has carved out of the banks, and out of the path in places, and the big trees it has undermined and brought crashing down, to lie stark and ragged in the water. This is an untamed wild river. The smaller streams flowing into it can be just as violent, as we saw when crossing the flood scoured channel of the Allt Garbhlach.

The hills remained mostly in cloud, but we did have glimpses of higher slopes white with fresh snow. Down here the temperature had stayed well above freezing, even overnight. Not up there though. Up there it was winter, at least for a while.


Monday 14 November 2022

Backpacking In The Lake District: A High-Level Borrowdale Circuit

Sunset, Grey Knotts

As a youngster the Lake District was a place of magic for me long before I ever went there. Through Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons books I fell in love with the fells, the lakes, and the thought of camping amongst them. I so wanted to do that! And when I did many years later it was just as wonderful and special as I had imagined. My early backpacking and wild camping all took place in the Lake District and whilst there must have been rainy days in my mind it was always dry and sunny. In the summer of 1976 that was actually true for weeks on end. I visited the Lake District with friends many times that year and had many superb high camps. 

One of my 1976 camps. Taken with a cheap film camera before I was a photographer!

My backpacking journeys soon took me far from the Lake District for long walks in much bigger, far wilder places. I moved to the Scottish Highlands and visits to the Lake District dwindled. Then Terry Abraham, with whom I’d made a film about winter in the Cairngorms, suggested making one about backpacking in the Lake District. I agreed, wondering if the magic would still remain. And if it would rain.

We came up with a high-level backpacking route that went round Borrowdale and only crossed a road once. It could be done in two or three days (or half a day by fell runners) but filming is a slow process, so we took a little more. It’s not a walk to hurry anyway. There’s too much to see.

Camp on Bleaberry Fell

The first day was hot. I left Derwent Water to climb beside Cat Gill to join Terry and another friend Mark (of online outdoor retailer Valley and Peak) to camp on Bleaberry Fell. The evening was lovely. Dusk came slowly with a gradual fading of the details of the hills and a deepening pink wash over the western sky. Just a few days from the solstice and there was no real darkness, just enough for a few stars to appear. Already the magic of the Lakes had returned.

Dawn was softly beautiful too with a warm cast over the land that hardened and brightened as the sun rose higher. We were reluctant to leave but eventually packed up and headed south along the broad ridge on a dry, sunny day. I marvelled at the landscape spread out around us, both its beauty and its compactness. To the north the Solway Firth was visible, to the south Morecambe Bay. Eastwards the distinctive summit of Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales stood out. Only to the west did the hills seem to stretch far, though I knew this was not so. There was cloud this way too, rolling over the Western Fells.

Camp on High Raise

Our second camp was on the side of High Raise, looking out over Langstrath to ranges of ragged hills. Again, dusk and dawn were magnificent, the land bathed in the warmth of the sun. The following day was even hotter. To the west though the clouds were still rising and falling over Bowfell and Esk Pike. Our route was turning in that direction. Soon we’d be heading back north.

Angle Tarn was half in sunshine, half shaded by the clouds. I’ve always found this a magical place. I first came here on a school trip. I was about eleven years old. I’d never been to the Lake District before, never seen hills like this. A lake below a cliff. Just wonderful! It still is.

From Angle Tarn we went past Sprinkling Tarn, the false Esk Hause and Styhead Tarn, places that felt very familiar as I’d been here so often even though my last visit was many years earlier. Close by but out of sight of Styhead Tarn we camped  with a tremendous view down Wasdale and across to the Scafell range. Another friend joined us. There was ample room for four tents.

Inversion, Wasdale

As the sun sank behind the western hills a faint haze could be seen in the valley below, a haze with a distinct upper edge running along the hills. Soon this began to thicken and in just a few minutes had turned into a dense white mist that filled the valley and billowed up the sides of the hills, a quite magnificent sight. Over a few hours the temperature inversion rose and fell, with the lights of Wasdale Head coming and going, before it faded completely.

This was the end of our first filming trip and the next day we descended. The weather had been perfect, the Lake District as wonderful as I remembered. This had been a trip to match those in 1976.

Back again weeks later we sweated up Grains Gill on a heavy, hot, and humid day. Soon we were back on our route. A gentle breeze now mitigated the humidity, but it was still hot. Past Sprinkling Tarn we descended into another heat cauldron in the bowl containing Styhead Tarn. Above us reared the massive distinctive bulk of Great Gable. Climbing its steep slopes didn’t seem attractive in these temperatures. Instead, we took the dramatic Climbers Traverse across the steep rocky southern slopes of the mountain. I’d not been on this narrow, dramatic and often sketchy route for many, many years and I’d forgotten how impressive it is as it winds across steep rocky slopes below the huge, shattered cliffs of the mountain with stupendous views across Lingmell Beck to the Scafell range and down to the neat green fields of Wasdale.

Terry Abraham on the Climbers Traverse, Great Gable

I’d also forgotten that care is needed to find the easiest and safest route as in places there are several paths. ‘Keep to the lower ones’, said Terry, who’d been along it much more recently than me. We did, yet still found paths below us. There were some very easy bits of scrambling but nothing very exposed and the surrounding rock scenery and views down Wasdale were magnificent. Eventually, after we crossed one more steep wide scree slope, we came on Moses Trod and followed this reputedly illicit whisky distillers’ path below dark and foreboding Gable Crag on the north face of the mountain. Rather than complete the girdle of the mountain we then turned away, heading north along the broad undulating ridge towards Honister Pass.

Camp on Grey Knotts

On the boggy, pool-dotted summit of Grey Knotts we stopped and made camp, finding dry pitches on the east side with superb views back to Great Gable and the Scafell range. The sunset was wonderful with dappled clouds slowly turning pink and reflecting in the pools. 

Evening on Grey Knotts

Dawn however came with an overcast sky. The summits were still clear though, just flat and hazy rather than sharp and dramatic. We descended a rather loose and stony steep path to Honister Pass and then climbed up the equally steep but grassy far side. My plan had been to camp at Dalehead Tarn, which I remembered as a pleasant spot. Terry had intimated that this might not be a good idea. When we arrived I could see why. The tarn fades away into reed-filled marshes and the area is very boggy. That camping here was to be avoided was confirmed when we stopped briefly to get water and have a rest and were immediately set upon by biting insects, the only ones of the whole trip. We moved on up to High Spy, another indistinct, rambling summit with, again, plenty of dry spots to camp, though water was further away and the shallow little pool we drew it from rather muddy. I rarely filter or treat hill water. Here I did.

Just a descent back to Keswick was left. The steep path from Catbells was hard on the feet and took us back into the heat and humidity and stifling air. Keswick was reached with relief.

This walk brought back to me the joys of backpacking in the Lake District. I think it’s a superb route, staying high and wild. I’d happily do it again. 

This piece first appeared in Lakeland Walker magazine last year under the title Journey Through The Past.