Thursday, 23 November 2017

The snow's here! Skis or snowshoes?

Ski tourer on the Cairngorm Plateau

The first big snowfall of the winter combined with the arrival of a pair of snowshoes to try had me thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of skis and snowshoes. I use both and I like both but there are times when one is a better choice than the other. The big plus point for either is flotation on snow. I reckon that once snow is more than halfway up your boots then walking starts to become arduous. Once it’s well above your boots walking is very arduous. When it approached knee-deep post-holing, as it’s known, becomes a great way to exhaust yourself and make your legs ache without actually getting very far. Stay on the surface and progress becomes much faster and less laborious. That’s where skis or snowshoes come in. I’m always surprised when the snow lies deep on the hills how few people I see using them.

On snowshoes on the Pacific Crest Trail. No poles!
I discovered both snowshoeing and ski touring in California on the Pacific Crest Trail over thirty years ago. The mountains were deep in snow and post-holing over the small ranges in Southern California quickly taught me that I’d never get through the hundreds of miles of the much vaster High Sierra like that. American companions were using snowshoes and I could see just how much easier these made snow travel. For the High Sierra two of them swapped their snowshoes for cross-country skis. Learning to ski with a huge load whilst hiking the PCT didn’t seem a good idea so I bought some snowshoes and was very glad I did so as they enabled me to cross deep snowfields fairly easily. Skiing looked much more fun though and I was envious of my friends as they swooped off into the distance whenever the terrain allowed. The next winter I took a ski course. And fell in love with ski touring. This was the way to travel over snowy terrain! 

Ski touring in Norway

I then spent a decade leading ski tours, mostly in Norway, but twice back in the High Sierra. At home I skied in the hills whenever there was enough snow. For a while snowshoes were forgotten. Then a pair arrived for test and I discovered I did quite enjoy using them. Since then whether I use skies or snowshoes depends on conditions. This is a key point. When there’s continuous or near continuous deep snow cover on the hills I much prefer skis – gliding over the snow gives a wonderful feeling of freedom, of lightness, of having escaped from being earthbound. However when the snow is broken and skis have to constantly come on and off or ways picked round rocks and convoluted routes devised to link snow patches then I prefer snowshoes. Whilst rocks and stones can wreck skis and skiing across anything other than snow is difficult snowshoes can be kept on regardless of the terrain. I’ve even forded streams in them. I like snowshoes in dense forests too as the length of skis can be unwieldy in the trees. If I have to walk far to and from the snow snowshoes are also better as they are much easier to carry on a pack and don’t act like a sail in the wind or catch in branches. Now if I reckon I’m not going to be on skis at least 75% of the time I take snowshoes.

Snowshoes on Ben Macdui

Skis on Ben Macdui

If you’ve never tried either snowshoeing is much easier to learn than skiing. Really, there’s nothing to it other than ensuring your feet are far enough apart that you don’t catch the snowshoes on each other. Mostly you just walk. Trekking or ski poles are a good idea – something I didn’t realise back in the High Sierra all those years ago – but no special gear is needed. You can wear your ordinary boots and snowshoes come with bindings built-in. This makes snowshoes much less expensive than skis too. And they’re also lighter weight.

Snowshoes are easy to carry on a pack

For ski touring you need boots, bindings and climbing skins as well as skis. Whether you choose Nordic or Alpine gear (I’ve always used the former) techniques take a little time to learn, which is best done on a course.

A ski descent in the Glen Affric hills

Whichever is chosen skis and snowshoes make snow travel much easier and much more enjoyable. I can’t imagine it without them. And tomorrow I’ll be trying out the new snowshoes.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

If you're looking for an outdoor Xmas present ....

My books and DVDs for walkers and wilderness lovers.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Stark Grandeur of the November Cairngorms

Cairn Lochan & Coire an t-Sneachda

Much to my astonishment when I climbed up onto the Cairngorm Plateau today it was for the first time in three months. That must be the longest gap between visits except when I’ve been on a long walk for many, many years. Trips elsewhere – Austria, the Lake District, the NW Highlands – and, for the last month, a debilitating cold are the reason. In fact the last has meant it’s been a month since I’ve been up any big hills, something I was very aware of as I climbed somewhat laboriously up to the Plateau. I need to get fit again.

The Cairngorm Plateau

Not so many days ago the Cairngorms were cloaked in the first substantial snow fall of the winter. But then came a sudden warming and a rapid thaw.  Snow is fickle in the Cairngorms, coming and going tantalisingly. The melt only lasted a day but it was enough to strip most of the snow before freezing weather returned. Today winter had returned.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda & Cairn Lochan
A cold wind greeted me as I climbed the last few hundred feet to the Plateau to look out over a mottled landscape, the dark rocks and brown vegetation laced with snow and speckled with frost. In places larger snow patches remained, refrozen and crunchy. Down in Coire an t-Sneachda the lochans were sheets of ice. Away to the south Ben Macdui was hidden in rolling clouds. Not today I thought. Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and Cairn Lochan would do, a short round to ease me back into the mountains. A few others were about, heavily clad in thick jackets, hats and gloves and moving fast, the cold wind piercing and stinging. 

On Cairn Lochan
At the col at the head of Coire Domhain, between the two peaks, I huddled behind a boulder for a quick snack, glad of the down jacket I’d bundled into the top of my pack. The mist was sweeping towards Cairn Lochain now. By the time I reached the top it had enveloped me. Ahead two silhouetted walkers faded into the greyness. A dark shape croaked overhead. Raven. One of a pair. Another shape, paler and indistinct, raced over the rocks and across a snow patch where it became suddenly clear. A mountain hare, half-brown, half-greyish white – ideal camouflage on the dappled ground. 

Looking back to Cairn Lochan

Descending out of the cloud I looked up at the great cliffs of Cairn Lochain rising into insubstantiality, harsh and cold. In these conditions the mountains seem more forbidding to me than at any other time, even a white-out or a blizzard. Stark, uncompromising, fierce. There is grandeur here but it feels alien. There is no shelter. No snow to burrow into or build into walls or igloos. An exposed windswept landscape. I love it!

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Book Review: Among The Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson

Summer snow, the remnants of previous years’ snowfalls, is a rarity, found only in a few places high in the Scottish Highlands. Most years a little of this snow lasts right through until the next winter’s snow begins to fall. This year it didn’t, for the first time since 2006 and only for the sixth time in eighty-four years. For it to disappear in 2017, the year this wonderful book by Christopher Nicholson was published, is somewhat ironic as one of the main themes of the book is about loss and the symbolic importance of summer snow to the author’s well-being. As I finished reading the book I wondered how different it would have been if Nicholson had searched out the last summer snow this year rather than last before writing the book. On his final visit to Garbh Choire in the Cairngorms late in the summer of 2016 he writes ‘I needed to know if the snow had survived’ and then when he sees the last patches ‘oh good, good, good, a thousand times good’.

Nicholson’s fascination with summer snow and the significance it came to have for him are the core of the book. Mixing accounts of his trips to find the snow, stories of summer snow from the past, and personal reminiscences that are both sad and uplifting this is an unusual and thought-provoking book and one to savour slowly, taking it in gradually, rather as the summer snow slowly melts away. Beautifully written, it is both elegiac and optimistic, a meditation on life and death. The descriptions of the snow patches are wonderfully detailed, the determination involved in reaching them familiar to anyone who walks in the hills.

One of the best outdoor books I’ve read this year – and it has been a good year for them – Among The Summer Snows is, I think, destined to become a classic of mountain literature. Superb.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Out Now - The Great Outdoors December issue: the story of the Therm-A-Rest, trousers for winter, Macpac tent review ....

The December issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. In it I tell the story of how two redundant engineers who also happened to be mountaineers brought comfort to wild camping with the first self-inflating mat. I also review eleven pairs of winter hillwalking trousers and the Macpac Minaret tent. Elsewhere in the gear pages Judy Armstrong looks at three down jackets at different price points.

The issue opens with a glorious photo of dawn on Pen y Fan by Drew Buckley. There are more stunning images in a piece by Dougie Cunningham about his favourite pictures  from his new book Photographing Scotland, which sounds superb, and by David Lintern in Stefan Durkacz's interesting story of an autumn walk across Ardgour.

Also in this issue Jim Perrin walks on Cnicht in his Mountain Portrait series; James Forrest avoids the crowds by going Back o'Skiddaw; Rudolf Abraham introduces a new long-distance trail in the Balkans; Andrew Galloway explores the Staffordshire Moorlands; and there's an exclusive extract from Richard Else's new book Wainwright Revealed, another book that sounds unmissable.

In books there are also reviews of Chris Bonington's Ascent by Noel Dawson and Christopher Nicholson's Among the Summer Snows. I've just finished the latter book myself and will be posting a review here soon.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Winter Gear Laid Out

Winter Hillwalking Gear

Back in September after I posted what turned out to be a popular post on the gear I use in the winter hills I was asked if I could post a photo of the gear. I haven't taken such a picture yet this year - I'll do so soon - but here's one from two years ago. With winter conditions on the hills now it's an appropriate time to post it.

From top left the items on the outside of the picture are insulated jacket, shell jacket, rucksack, ice axe, headwear, handwear, gaiters, winter trousers, fleece top. In the centre are boots, thick socks and snow shovel. On the foam pad from top left are insulated flask, crampons, smartphone, map,compass, first aid kit, headlamps, dark glasses, and snow goggles with a whistle in the centre. To the right of the mat are bothy bag and bivi bag.

Missing are trekking poles, insulated trousers/long johns, spare socks, and food. They'll be in the next photo!

The specific models are far less important than their function. Many equally suitable alternatives could be substituted for all of them. As I'm always testing gear I rarely go out with exactly the same equipment. You'll never see me on the hills with exactly this set of gear!

This is for a trip on foot. If the snow was continuous and deep I'd have skis and ski boots. If the snow was deep and discontinuous I'd have snowshoes.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Interview on Long-Distance Hiking for MightyGoods

On the Pacific North-west Trail

An interview with me on long-distance hiking has just appeared on the MightyGoods website.