Friday 27 October 2023

Three Days In The Cairngorms: A Venture Into The Snow, VIdeo Making, Photo Shoots

Coire an t-Sneachda

This week has seen three outdoor trips but few miles walked and not many photographs taken. Two of the outings were to shoot videos and take photographs for The Great Outdoors magazine. I was the model for these rather than the photographer so didn’t have many opportunities to take photos myself. Sandwiched between these trips was an excursion to visit the snow that was brought to the Cairngorms by Storm Babete.

Badan Mosach waterfalls

On the first venture I was videoed with a review pack by Jordan Tiernan and photographed with various items of gear by James Roddie. For this we went to Glen Feshie where we wandered over to the always impressive Badan Mosach waterfalls and then up through the forest to the open hillside. 

Snow above, forest below

High above the fresh snow shone on the tops. I really wanted to reach that snow.

Windy!

The next day I did, and discovered it was deeper than I expected. Combined with a fierce wind that meant I didn’t go that far. Snowshoes would have helped. My ice axe and crampons were unneeded. The wind stopped me taking many photos too.

Before I reached the Cairngorm Plateau I tired of climbing straight into the wind and plodding through the soft snow, which was ankle to knee deep. The sight of a thick band of cloud running along the edge of the Northern Corries wasn’t encouraging either. I probably wouldn’t see much up there.

View west to Sgoran Dubh Mor

As I headed up I met mountain and wildlife guide Gary Hodgson of Tarmachan Mountaineering coming down. He and his companion had camped up high the previous night. The dawn was wonderful, he said, the wind only picking up and the cloud rolling in as they headed back. (You can read Gary’s account here). I should have been out early.

View over Loch Morlich & Glenmore to a distant Ben Wyvis

But as I wasn’t I headed for some boulders to shelter from the wind and then decided to head down into Coire an t-Sneachda rather than continue upwards. Out of the wind the mountains looked peaceful and calm under their blanket of snow. In the wind they felt rather savage.

The descent into the corrie was tougher and slower than I expected. The slopes I went down were bouldery and on this day the rocks were partially covered with snow, snow that also filled in the gaps between them. I spent much time prodding snow with my poles to see if it had a rock or air underneath it. Even so I lurched wildly a few times. Care was needed. Hence the slowness. You don’t have to go far to find rugged terrain in the Cairngorms!

Young trees & Cairn Lochan

Once in the corrie I turned away from the wind and walked out to the car park, passing many of the young trees springing up here, a forest returning.

Despite the wind this first experience of winter in the mountains this season was wonderful. In fact, I suspect the wind and the hard going enhanced rather than detracted from the day. I would have liked calm weather and sunshine though. And snowshoes.

Loch Morlich

The third day out was with James Roddie for more photography. Shooting the video having taken most of the first day – I’d forgotten how slow making one can be – we still had much to do. This time we went to Loch Morlich and wandered about in the woods and along the shore. The mountains were in cloud but down here the autumn colours were wonderful. Rain threatened but held off until the last photographs were taken.

Loch Morlich

Sometime soon the video will appear on The Great Outdoors website. I expect the photos will appear there too. I’ve got to write a bit about the gear first though.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Remembering John Hinde & Skye Trek

Skye Trek students on the narrow path above Lochan Leum an t-Saigairt in Glen Pean, 1983

Back in the early 1980s I spent three summers working for Outward Bound Loch Eil leading backpacking trips across Knoydart and the Isle of Skye to Glen Brittle. The course was the brainchild of the late John Hinde and was called Skye Trek. John was a top mountaineer and a veteran of RAF Mountain Rescue. I learnt a great deal from him on those trips. Each course consisted of three groups, all setting off from different points on the edge of Knoydart. Given the terrain of both Knoydart and Skye these were tough walks for the teenage participants, many of whom had never been camping or hillwalking before.

Skye Trek group in Glen Pean, 1983

By coincidence I had recently found a couple of old B&W prints of one of my Skye Trek groups when I read this post  by David 'Heavy' Whalley, another mountaineer and ex-RAF Mountain Rescue leader, in which he mentions John Hinde and refers to a blog of John's diaries put together by John's daughter, Fiona Wild. This blog contains an account of a 1983 Skye Trek on which I was one of the group leaders. Reading it brought back many memories of John and those trips. I had been thinking about Skye Trek earlier in the year too, when I followed much of the Knoydart sections of the treks, as described here and here. With Tony Hobbs I followed the same route through Glen Pean shown in the photos from forty years ago.

In his Course Director's Notes John writes "several Primus stoves were damaged by irresponsible students, and it is suggested that Trangias might be more “student-proof” alternatives for next year" (this did happen). The Primus stoves were the old paraffin type with the burner sitting atop the fuel tank which had to be pressurised with a pump. This brought to mind an incident when John and I had retired to our sleeping bags upstairs in Pean Bothy leaving the students chatting downstairs. Suddenly there was an almighty bang and a big thump on the floor. Charging downstairs we discovered that the students had blown the burner out of the stove by seeing how much they could pump it. Luckily nothing caught fire. 

By another coincidence I was thinking of this episode when I read a news report  today of a gas stove catching fire and being thrown out of a bothy where it exploded. Take care with stoves in bothies! (And tents). 


 

Saturday 21 October 2023

Black & White photos from the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982

 

Camp with Larry Lake by Chicken Spring Lake in the High Sierra

Sorting through old film prints - I have boxes and boxes of them - I was delighted to come across some black & white ones from the Pacific Crest Trail, which I thru-hiked in 1982. Back in the 1980s I always carried two cameras, one for black-and-white, one for colour, (and in case of breakage or failure - on the PCT one of them failed about half way). 

Somewhere in Southern California!

The prints are on glossy paper and good quality. The film was Ilford FP4, ISO 125. I digitised them by photographing them handheld with the Sony a6700 camera and Sony E 35mm f1.8 lens at f1.8 and 1/15 second at ISO 125 (out of nostalgia for the original film!). This isn't a good combination for high quality images, though processing the raw files in DxO PhotoLab 7 did improve them (and this latest version of PhotoLab is far better for monochrome work). 

This time I just wanted an idea of what digital versions of them would be like. In future I'll use a tripod and aperture of f5.6 or f8 and spend more time on the processing. For now I have to get back to seeing what else I can find in those boxes.

View from the tent in the High Sierra (just below Muir Pass I think)

As always it was wonderful to see these photos again. I'd forgotten I had them. 

Larry Lake fording a creek in the High Sierra






Friday 20 October 2023

Before Storm Babet: A Walk Through Ryvoan Pass And Over Meall a' Bhuachaille

View across Ryvoan Pass to Cairn Lochan

Two weeks ago I was in the Eastern Cairngorms bivvying outside a shooting lodge to shelter from very strong winds as Storm Agnes approached. The next day I was camped in a forest after crossing the hills on an equally windy day. That evening the rain began, rain that was to last the next two and a half days and bring floods to eastern Scotland. With Tony Hobbs I walked through the start of these floods. (See
this post for the story of the whole trip).

Now Storm Babet has arrived and again there is flooding in Eastern Scotland along with very strong winds. This time I’m at home. Here we’ve had a day of rain, winds strong enough to blow you sideways, and one power cut, which thankfully only lasted just over an hour. Others are not so lucky. The storm is forecast to last another two days.

An Lochan Uaine

Before the storm blew in I went on a favourite walk through Ryvoan Pass and over Meall a’ Bhuachaille. I love this walk at any time of the year but the autumn colours make it even more special than usual. The day started out sunny and warm. Thin high clouds drifted over the sky later on but the air remained warm. There was no breeze. The contrast with the two big storms was immense. The same world but so, so different.

Blaeberry autumn colour. It's not just trees!

The track to An Lochan Uaine and Ryvoan Bothy was busy with families and cyclists (it’s the Scottish school holidays), all enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful landscape. The reflections in the lochan were gently rippled by an almost undetectable breeze.

At Ryvoan Bothy I met Paul and Helen Webster of Walk Highlands, also intent on a good walk before the storm arrived. I followed them up Meall a’ Bhuachaille as thin clouds started to form. 

Clouds & smoke

Away to the south-east there was an unusual double-layer of low clouds. When I posted pictures of these on social media I had a reply from Steve Carver (@landethics) saying “looks like smoke from muirburn coming up against a boundary layer and flattening out as it moves downwind”. I had wondered if some of it might be smoke but wasn’t sure as I couldn’t see the source. Thanks Steve!

Muirburn

Away to the north on the moors above Grantown-on-Spey there was no doubt that muirburn was happening with great plumes of smoke rising into the sky as heather moorland was burnt for the sake of grouse shooting, destroying all other life.

Ryvoan Pass

As I climbed higher I could see back down to An Lochan Uaine and Ryvoan Pass, as always looking far narrower and enclosed from up here than it feels when walking through it. Further west across Glenmore and Rothiemurchus Forest the cliffs of Cairn Lochan were spattered with snow. And everywhere the yellow and gold of autumn birches shone against the green of the pines.

Paul and Helen Webster on Meall a' Bhuachaille

Paul and Helen were just leaving the summit as I arrived. Not far from the top a couple were pitching a tent, a lovely site in good weather. I sat by the summit cairn for a while absorbing the view and feeling peaceful and calm.

On Meall a' Bhuachaille

To the west I could see along Strathspey all the way to Ben Nevis, the distant hills in layers of different shades. For once I’d taken my big zoom lens up a hill. It was worth it just to photograph this view. I can’t decide whether it looks better in colour or black-and-white so I’m posting both.



That view stayed with me for most of the descent, only disappearing when I reached the first trees. Soon this always fine walk was over. I’ll be back.

Back in the forest


Wednesday 18 October 2023

The Gear I Used On The Stormy Eastern Cairngorms Trip: Interview By Tony Hobbs


On the last night of our five day trip in the Eastern Cairngorms earlier this month that I described in this post Tony Hobbs interviewed me about the gear I was using for his YouTube channel. Here's the first part, in which I discuss clothing, shoes, stove, sleeping bag, pack and tent. 

This was the only time we could comfortably do an interview on the trip. An hour or so later the rain began, rain that then lasted all the next day. Before that it was either too windy or too rainy. 

And here's the second part in which I discuss tents, camera gear & camera bags, and trousers.



Sunday 15 October 2023

A Wild Camp & A Hill In The Cairngorms Last October: With A Look At The Gear I Used


On the recent October Cairngorms trip I described in my last post Tony Hobbs did an interview with me about the gear I was using. This should be on YouTube soon. I’ll post a link when it appears. In the meantime this is a gear and trip piece about an overnight Cairngorms trip I did last October. It first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine. I’ve done some minor editing and updated prices.

Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms is special at any time of the year but especially in the autumn. The colours are spectacular, the air is crisp, the haze of summer is over, the midges gone.

This trip I walked down the glen, camped in the mouth of the side valley called the Slochd Mor, and then climbed 857-metre Carn Dearg Mor, an isolated Corbett.


The early afternoon rain had stopped and the sun was breaking through the clouds as I set off along the glen. There was just one more brief shower. which ended with a rainbow curving over the hills. Birches in their bright yellow autumn raiment stood out against the dark pines.

Leaving the main glen I turned into the Slochd Mor and camped out in the open, away from the forest. The sky was still cloudy but soon cleared as the almost-full moon rose. Jupiter shone brightly but the moonlight was too bright for many stars to be visible. I spent several hours outside, relishing the beauty and peacefulness, and left the tent door open overnight so I could look out to the sky whenever I woke. The night was quiet, the silence broken just once when a skein of geese called loudly as they raced overhead.

The overnight temperature didn’t quite reach freezing. I woke to a tent soaked inside and out with dew and condensation. The gentle breeze at dawn was strengthening as I set off and I wasn’t far up the Slochd Mor before I needed my shell jacket, the now strong wind funnelling down the steep-sided narrow ravine.

At the top of the glen I turned towards Carn Dearg Mor. The map showed a path and a track leading up to the ridge. They barely existed. The hillside here has been planted with saplings as part of landowner Wildland’s plan to restore the Caledonian Forest. The traces of overgrown tracks I found suggest these were fading long before this recent planting.  The walk up the hillside isn’t difficult anyway. 


On the ridge I joined a rough vehicle track that led to the little pile of stones marking the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, the fierce wind driving me along. The views are extensive from this isolated hill. To the west clouds shrouded the summits. Across Glen Feshie the Western Cairngorms were dark and sombre. High above a golden eagle drifted in the wind.


The broad ridge descending slowly to Carn Dearg Beag was a delight with easy walking and splendid views. Surprisingly this top has a trig point unlike the higher Carn Dearg Mor. 


I descended from the ridge directly into Glen Feshie, wanting to walk through the bright autumn colours I could see below. Tussocks and deep heather made for quite arduous walking here and I stumbled in hidden holes a few times. The forest was worth the effort though, ablaze with gold and yellow. Some of the big old birches were breathtakingly magnificent. 


 

PLANNING & PREPARATION

Glen Feshie was familiar terrain but I hadn’t been up Carn Dearg Mor for many years and could remember little about it. The map didn’t suggest any difficulties. Whilst the forecast wasn’t for wintry weather I took gear I knew would be adequate if conditions worsened. Longer nights meant more time in camp and possibly walking in the dark so I took two headlamps (easier to swap them over than change batteries) and enough clothing to keep me warm if temperatures dropped below freezing. I swapped the trail shoes I’d be wearing all summer for boots and added warmer clothing, including thick gloves and hat, to my pack. I did save a little weight as out, thankfully, went midge repellent, mosquito coils, and head net. I’ll be happy not to see those again until next summer. Knowing I might be spending twelve hours or more in the tent if the weather was stormy I chose a roomy shelter, saving a little more weight by not bothering with an inner tent, again not needed when there are no midges or likelihood of snow.

EQUIPMENT

Kl├Ąttermusen Ymer Pack    2.8kg           £509     ****

 

  • Likes                         comfort, pockets, recycled fabric
  • Dislikes                     heavy, expensive
  •  
  • Capacity                   75+15 litres
  • Materials                   Retina®, Econyl® – 40% Polyamide, 30% Post-Consumer Recycled       Polyamide, 30%  Pre-Consumer Recycled Polyamide, 400D, 251 g/m²
  • Closure                     detachable lid, L-shaped front zip, zipped bottom
  • Back System            external aluminium frame, harness adjustable in height and width
  • Hipbelt                      pivoting, dual-density foam
  • Pockets                    external lid, internal lid, 2 zipped side, mesh side water bottle, 2 hipbelt
  • Features                   front and top bungee cord, front and top attachment webbing, side straps,
  • Size                         adjustable fit, body back length 42 - 54 cm.
  •  https://www.klattermusen.com/

External frame packs just about disappeared over thirty years ago so I was surprised when I was offered one to test earlier this year. The last time that happened was in 1987! The Kl├Ąttermusen Ymer is a huge pack designed “for longer treks and hikes with a heavier load” and as well as the external frame has a thickly padded hipbelt, lumbar pad, and back pad. I first tried it in the winter with a very heavy and unwieldy load including snowshoes and an Icebox igloo-building tool and found it as good as could be expected floundering through boggy tussocks and patches of soft snow before I could use my winter tools. I didn’t think that was really a fair trial though and wanted to use it on a normal backpacking trip before reviewing it. 


This first autumn trip required enough gear to justify using it, though it wasn’t full. Comfort was good as was stability on the rougher terrain. There are plenty of pockets and I liked having zipped side ones rather than open-topped mesh. For big heavy loads and long trips this is a good pack. It’s made from recycled fabric too. It is heavy and expensive but it should last well.

 

Bach Wickiup 3 tent     1300 grams (with groundsheet)        £720       ****   Recommended  


  •  Likes                    roomy, stable, light (without inner)          
  • Dislikes                 expensive, not available without full-size inner         
  •  
  • Flysheet                siliconized ripstop nylon    
  • Pole                      TRX Eco Duralumin Jumbo 6 19.5      
  • Dimensions            275cm x 220cm, 155cm high point
  • https://www.bach-equipment.com

The Wickiup 3 pyramid tent has been a favourite since I first used it seven years ago. Back then it was branded Nigor. That company has since been taken over by Bach Equipment. The Wickiup 3 hasn’t changed however. I especially like this tent when the nights are long as it’s very roomy.

The Wickiup 3 comes with a full-size inner, which pushes the weight up to 1920 grams, and is designed to sleep 3.  There is a 550-gram half-size inner tent for solo use available as an extra. I use this in midge season. Otherwise I just take a silnylon groundsheet, which keeps the weight down to a reasonable 1300 grams for solo use. The groundsheet can be moved around according to the weather too – at the back of the tent away from the door if it’s stormy, angled into the door if it’s calm. I did the latter on this trip, enjoying the views.

Stability is excellent – it has stood up to some big storms over the years – and it sheds snow easily. I didn’t need it for either of those this time but the space was welcome.

The cost is high but it should last well and it is versatile.

 

Sierra Designs Cloud 20 sleeping bag               875g       £300    *****    Best Buy


  • Likes                          lightweight, comforter design, foot vent
  • Dislikes                      expensive
  •  
  • Fill                              800fp DriDown
  • Shell                           15D nylon ripstop
  • Construction                box wall
  • Zip                              no
  • Length                        regular 198cm, long 213cm
  • Rating                         comfort -3C, comfort limit -10C
  • https://sierradesigns.cm

This sleeping bag has become my favourite in recent years because of the comfort and versatility.

There’s no zip but the bag still opens wide at the top as there’s a wrap-around comforter than runs over the top half of your body. You can easily wrap this round you for warmth or open it up to cool down. It combines the protection of a sleeping bag with the freedom of a quilt better than anything else I’ve used. I just love being able to fling the comforter aside and sit up and not have to fumble for a zip or a drawcord toggle. On the bottom there’s a large uninsulated sleeve designed for a sleeping mat. I don’t use this as it restricts movement. I find the bag roomy enough that I can move inside, and it stays under me. On this trip the temperature fell to 2° and I didn’t need to close the hood to stay warm. In previous reviews I’ve said the Cloud is one of the most comfortable bags I’ve ever used. It’s not. It’s the most comfortable bag I’ve ever used.

 

Optimus Vega stove       180g                   £105  *****    Best Buy


  • Likes                            lightweight, pre-heat tube, inverted canister support
  • Dislikes                        nothing

  • Fuels                            butane/propane
  • Burner diameter            4.5cms
  • Pot supports width        14.5cms
  • Power output                3700 watts/12,624 BTU
  • https://www.katadyngroup.com

This stove has been a favourite for cold weather use for many years. It can be used with an inverted canister, which works better in the cold as liquid fuel is fed to the burner where it is turned to gas via a preheat tube that runs through the flame. The Vega has flip-out legs to hold the inverted canister in place. I wasn’t expecting very cold temperatures but I did have a partially used canister of Primus Summer Gas to use up. This is designed for 15 to 40°C and it certainly wasn’t going to be anywhere near that warm. As it was the stove was sluggish until I inverted the canister so it was a good choice.

The low-profile makes the Vega very stable. It’s compact when packed as the combined pot supports and legs curve in round the burner. There’s no built-in windshield but it comes with a separate foil windscreen. The weight is low for this type of stove.

 

BOOTS

 

Keen Circadia Mid  WP      1.28kg (9)     ***1/2                    £115


  • Likes               fit, grip, breathability, cost
  • Dislikes           forefoot cushioning doesn’t protect against stones
  •  
  • Uppers            leather/fabric
  • Midsole           air-injected high-density foam
  • Outsole           Keen.Fusion rubber
  • Sizes              6.5-14
  • https://www.keenfootwear.com

Keen says the Circadia Mid is a simplified version of the well-proven Targhee boots designed for “beginner outdoor adventurists”. In use I couldn’t tell the difference between the two boots except in the case of the midsole. With the Cascadia I could feel stones through this. I can’t with the Targhees. On this walk I wasn’t on stony ground much so it wasn’t a big issue and otherwise the boots were fine.

The fit is typical Keen with a wide toebox and a narrow heel, which just happens to be right for my feet. The uppers are leather with fabric inserts. Inside there’s a waterproof membrane. In the mostly cool conditions of this trip breathability was good. The terrain varied from forest tracks to steep boggy moorland and wet grass. The grip was fine throughout. The toe bumper is big and hard, which was useful on the descent when I kicked a few rocks hidden in the heather. Overall the comfort was excellent.

These are good boots at a good price. I prefer the Targhees though, simply for the underfoot cushioning.

 

CLOTHING

 

Keela Talus synthetic insulated jacket         570g  (L)      £145       ***1/2


  • Likes                 hood, cost
  • Dislikes             weight, bulk, fleece side panels
  •  
  • Shell                  ripstop nylon
  • Insulation           60gsm Primaloft Gold, stretch-fleece side panels
  • Hood                 adjustable, wired peak
  • Pockets             2 handwarmer, 1 chest, 1 inner
  • Cuffs                  elasticated
  • Sizes                 men XS – 3XL, women 8-20
  •  https://keelaoutdoors.com

Expecting a chilly night and hoping to spend some time outside if the sky was clear I wanted an insulated jacket that would keep me warm standing round star watching. The Talus was a test jacket I hadn’t worn before but I was pretty sure it would be warm enough due to the Primaloft fill. It was too, keeping me comfortable over a thin fleece and base layer. I don’t think it’s one for temperatures well below freezing but in the ones just above zero on this trip it was fine.

The design is fairly standard for an insulated jacket. The best feature is the hood, which is adjustable and has a wired peak, far better than the simple hoods found on many similar jackets. The handwarmer pockets are cosy but cut off by a pack hipbelt which wasn’t a problem as I didn’t wear the jacket while walking. The chest pocket is smartphone rather than map size, again not an issue on this occasion. Also not an issue but it could be on other trips are the fleece panels on each side as these aren’t windproof. They are thick, warm, and very breathable but I’d rather have a jacket that was completely windproof.

The Talus kept me warm and I liked the hood. The price is low too. It’s quite heavy for the warmth provided and bulky when packed though.

 

Berghaus Paclite Dynak Jacket   355g (L)     £180   **** Recommended


  • Likes                          lightweight, hood, cost  
  • Dislikes                      no chest pockets 
  •  
  • Materials                   2 layer polyester/Gore-Tex Paclite      
  • Hood                         adjustable/stiffened peak  
  • Front Closure            water-resistant zip with inner flap
  • Pockets                     2 handwarmer
  • Hem                          drawcord
  • Cuffs                         Velcro  
  • Sizes                         men XS-3XL, women 8-18 
  • https://www.berghaus.com

The Dynak is a lightweight waterproof jacket at a good price. The design is basic but functional.  It’s not a full winter jacket but it is more substantial and a little stiffer than many other lightweight jackets. I thought it would be ideal for this autumn walk when I wasn’t expecting wintry weather but rain and wind were likely. In fact there was only the occasional short shower and I didn’t really need a waterproof jacket for that. However the wind on the second day was cold and strong and the Dynak did a great job of keeping it out and also proved quite breathable.

The hood gives better protection than many on lightweight waterproofs and has a peak stiff enough not to deform in the wind. The pockets are clipped by a hipbelt but still usable. I would have liked a chest pocket but that’s a minor complaint. There are no underarm zips but the adjustable cuffs are quite wide.

 

BAM Newal Bamboo Walking Trousers  575g (36)   £79 ***1/2


  • Likes               comfort, pockets, environmentally friendly
  • Dislikes          slow drying, heavy
  •  
  • Fabric             350gsm 65% organic cotton/33% Viscose bamboo’2% Elastane
  • Pockets           2 open hand, 2 zipped cargo, 2 open rear
  • Waist              belt loops
  • Sizes               men 30-38
  • https://www.bambooclothing.co.uk

I have mixed feelings about these trousers. They are very comfortable and pleasant to wear. But they also soak up moisture and are slow to dry, as you’d expect, given they’re made from cotton and viscose, both very absorbent materials. This was the first overnight trip with them and the legs did get wet setting up camp as there was plenty of damp vegetation around the site and I did kneel on the wet ground a few times. The next day when I put the trousers on the wet areas felt cold though they soon warmed up and once I was walking eventually dried in the wind. I think overtrousers would be needed more often than with quick-drying trousers in showery weather. I wouldn’t wear the Newals again if much rain was likely.

The trousers are also quite heavy and warm. On hot days I’d quickly overheated in them. On this trip they were ideal. My legs never got sweaty or cold. The fabric isn’t fully windproof – I can blow through it with a little effort – but it was adequate for the cold wind high up.

I like the open hand pockets – no zips to grate on cold hands – and the cargo pockets are useful. The fabric has a slight stretch so they move with you. The fit is quite loose anyway.







Photographic note: images taken during the trip with the Sony a6000 camera and Sony 18-135 and 10-18 lenses, and the OPPO Find X5 Pro smartphone