Saturday 29 April 2023

Managing Clothing To Stay Comfortable On A Cold Day In The Cairngorms

Top of the Fiacaill a' Choire Chais

On the cold day out in the Cairngorms described in my last post I needed, as so often, to adjust my clothing frequently to stay comfortable – that is, to regulate my body heat so I never felt too hot or too cold. Now when the weather conditions vary – sometimes windy, sometimes not, warmer temperatures lower down, colder ones higher up – and exertion does too – climbing steeply, resting, descending – this can be impossible to do perfectly but by paying attention to how your body feels and altering your clothing to suit it is possible to never feel uncomfortable for long.The key to this is to have several layers that fit over each and have options for ventilation.

On this trip I set out in a cool breeze in intermittent sunshine with temperatures just above freezing (the snow was wet in the car park) on a roughly 600 metre ascent to the Cairngorm Plateau. I was wearing a thin merino/polypropylene long-sleeved base layer, thin but tightly woven wool shirt (EDZ Merino Wool Flannel Shirt), and a cotton windproof jacket (Klattermusen Loride - my review here) that is much more breathable than a waterproof. On my legs I had tough, heavy-duty softshell trousers (Keela Scuffers). As the occasional sunshine was in my eyes I also wore a mesh baseball cap with a big peak (it also kept my hair, which needs trimming, out of my eyes).

On the Plateau

On the ascent I soon started to feel hot and unzipped my jacket, undid the top buttons on the shirt, and unzipped the thigh vents on the trousers. I was then just warm enough until I reached the big cairn at the top of the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais where the temperature was well below freezing and the breeze stronger. The trouser vents, shirt buttons, and jacket zip were all quickly closed, and the baseball cap swapped for a warm double-layer beanie, a very old Craghoppers one with a 50/50 wool/acrylic outer and a polyester microfleece lining. My hands were cold by the time I’d done all this and unwrapped and eaten some chocolate so I also dug out my old Pertex/pile Buffalo Mitts. These provide almost instant warmth and whilst you can’t do much with your hands with them on they can be taken off and put back on very quickly. Mitts are warmer than gloves too as they keep your fingers together.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda & Cairn Lochan

Dressed like this I headed over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and up Cairn Lochan. The wind came and went. My temperature went up and down. The mitts and hat came on and off – stuffed into my jacket pockets when not worn.  My jacket hood went up and down too as the wind occasionally cut through the beanie.

On Cairn Lochan

On Cairn Lochan the east wind was much stronger and colder. I had a longer break here, just west of the summit for a bit of shelter. Here I donned a light synthetic insulated jacket over my other layers (Outdoor Research SuperStrand Hoodie – my review) and pulled up the hood. With four layers on my body and three on my head I was warm enough while I ate a sandwich, drank some hot ginger cordial, and wandered as near as I dared to the edge of the cliffs to look into the depths of Coire an Lochain.

When I set off I kept the insulated jacket on as the wind was strengthening and light snow was falling. I expected I’d need to remove it after ten minutes or so but in fact kept it on almost all the way back to the car as the wind grew colder and colder. I did lower both hoods but that was it until I was on a level with the car park and starting to feel a little too warm.

On the descent

At no point during the walk did I get sweaty so my base layer stayed dry. I did feel chilly occasionally, but clothing adjustment soon solved this. If I’d had longer stops I’d probably have put on the down jacket I had in the pack. I also had waterproofs in case of wet snow or, lower down, rain. They would have added extra warmth too if needed. In particular the overtrousers would have added a windproof layer for my legs and I did think about putting them on during the descent as I could feel the occasional gust of cold wind through my trousers.

I also had liner gloves, Primaloft insulated gloves, and waterproof overmitts in my pack along with a Paramo Cap and spare socks. In case of a very long stop or even a benightment I also had a bivi bag, a bothy bag, and a short closed-cell foam mat. 

I've given brand names of the ckothing I wore for those interested. There are of course plenty of alternatives that also work well.

Thursday 27 April 2023

Winter's Back In The Cairngorms


Late April and snow has returned to the Cairngorms. The day after I returned from sunny Glen Affric last week (see this post) it rained heavily for hours. The mountains were hidden in dense clouds. Over the next two stormy days there were glimpses of shining white summits. Winter was back.

With more stormy weather forecast Wednesday the 26th looked like the best day of the week to visit the snow without being blasted by the wind and lashed with spindrift. I went up onto the Cairngorm Plateau and walked over Stob Coire an-t Sneachda and Cairn Lochan admiring the wind sculpted snow and the rime ice streaking the rocks.

White snowfields stretched out to Ben Macdui. Under an undulating blanket of cloud the land was frozen, the air crisp and sharp. At times a bitter wind, not strong but piercingly cold, cut through my layers of clothing. Spring felt far, far away.

Flurries of snow drifted down. South and east the clouds were lower, darker, shrouding the hills. 

Descending from Cairn Lochan I wandered over to the edge of the Lairig Ghru. The black clouds were closer now. Snow was streaking down not far away. Soon Cairn Gorm was hidden, then Cairn Lochan. The wind grew stronger. The gap between storms was ending. More snow is coming.

Wednesday 26 April 2023

Book Launch: republication of Rock Climbs by Richard Frere


This Thursday I will be taking part in the launch of a new edition of Rock Climbs by Richard Frere, first published in 1938 when the author was just 16.

The launch will take place at Inverness Library at 5.30. Details here

Subtitled A Guide to the Crags in the Neighbourhood of Inverness the book describes the climbs that the author and five friends pioneered in the area in the 1930s. Richard Frere went onto become a well known Highland writer. His book Maxwell's Ghost, about his friendship with naturalist Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water, is still in print.

The book launch is on the anniversary of Richard Frere's death on April 27, 1999. It's open to everyone.

The new edition includes additional material by the editors, Peter and Kenneth Wright, setting the book in context and lookin at climbing in the 1930s and a chapter by the author's daughter, artist Jane Frere, about her father's love of nature and her climbs with him. Jane created the linocut print for the cover.

Proceeds from the publication will help Trees for Life to restore nature in the hills Richard loved and knew so well. 
Rock Climbs is a wonderful book about the adventures of six teenagers in the hills and crags. That they achieved so much is astonishing. The book is also far more than a guide to the climbs. The lovely descriptions of nature and the landscape really capture the feeling of the beauty and wildness of the places and the power they held over the author.  

Rock Climbs is published by Ribbon of Wildness at £9.99.


Tuesday 25 April 2023

Spring Backpacking In Glen Affric

I woke to a tent crackling with frost. Outside mist hung low over the mountains. The sun was already breaking through though, picking out distant summits with bright gold light. 

I’d walked in the day before on the Kintail-Affric Way, here a forest track, above Loch Affric. The forest was glorious in the spring sunshine, the walking easy, and there were good views over the trees and the loch to the mountains.

Well beyond the last trees I camped near the river Affric. Sand martins recently back from wintering in Africa prospected for nest holes along the sandy banks. The sun set over silhouetted mountains, bathing them in golden light. A lovely, calm, peaceful evening.

The night was crisp, cold, and starry. There was no wind and the tent was soon damp inside and out from condensation and dew, dampness that quickly froze. I crunched around on the frozen grasses marvelling at the sky, the stillness, and the quiet.

By the time I was ready to set off the sun had dispersed the mist and the day was warming up. I climbed the long track up to a high pass, the Bealach Coire Ghaidheil, where I could look down to Loch Mullardoch and to mountains all around.

The first part of the ascent was beside a deer fence enclosing the banks of the Allt Coire Ghaidheil. Inside the fence trees, outside no trees. The ground vegetation looked healthier and more profuse inside the fence too.

The map showed a path from the bealach making a traversing ascent across the slopes of the hills above before ending without reaching anywhere in particular. I couldn’t remember ever taking this path so rather than leave it after a short while and climb directly to the ridge above I followed it as it meandered round the hillside with excellent views of Mam Sodhail and Carn Eighe, the two highest summits north of the Great Glen.

Towards its finish the path became more dramatic, running along the edge of steep craggy drops. When the path faded away it was only a short climb up onto the south ridge of Mam Sodhail and then to the summit with its massive circular cairn, built by the Ordnance Survey in 1848, and tremendous views. The wind up here was strong and cold. A haze was beginning to develop in the distance. The first sign the weather was changing.

I had intended on descending by the path into Coire Coulavie and camping somewhere in this long corrie. However a big bank of hard snow blocked the start of the path down the corrie headwall. Without ice axe, crampons or footwear suitable for kicking steps I decided going down this was unwise. Instead I took the long ridge out over Mullach Cadha Rainich to Sgurr na Lapaich, a much better option on a sunny day anyway as the walk is excellent and the views superb. There were snow patches along the ridge but they were small. The hills felt in spring mode, winter long gone.

But for the fierce wind I would have camped somewhere on this ridge. As it was I took the intricate, cunningly designed narrow path through little crags on the steep south-east slopes of Sgurr na Lapaich to the flatter, boggy ground around the Allt na Faing.

The wind was just a breeze down here. However finding flat ground that wasn’t oozing with water proved difficult and I ended up walking further than planned, much further than if I’d taken the Coire Coulavie route, and camping just in the forest amongst big old pines. Not far away was a deer fence with many young trees inside it. Around my camp there were no saplings and the ground was trampled by many deer. This part of the forest is not regenerating.

The next day I woke to a dry tent and a stronger wind. The sky was overcast, the tops hidden in cloud. A very short walk led down to the car. I drove home in light showers. My first spring backpacking trip this year was over and so was the first extended spell of fine weather. The following day it poured down, the day after it snowed. The hills are white again.