Wednesday 28 November 2007

Winter Comes To The Cairngorms

Snow has lain on the high tops of the Cairngorms for over two weeks now, with storms sweeping the hills on an almost daily basis. The snowline has risen and fallen as warm and cold fronts have passed over, bringing rain and a thaw then snow and a freeze, but the summits have stayed white. I first ventured up into this winter world soon after the first snow fell, a thin covering above 700 metres. The ground was frozen, the lower paths ribbons of ice. Walking was easiest in the dry, cold snow high up, hardest in the forest where the paths were slick with wet fallen leaves as well as ice. The light was hard and grey and a cold west wind swept the hills. I climbed past frozen Lochan na Beinne and up the long northern ridge of Cairn Gorm to Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, whose summit cairn sparkled with white frost feathers. The temperature here at 1150 metres was -5C. I carried an ice axe and crampons but didn’t need to use them, though the crampons could have been useful if the paths had been icier.

Two weeks later I returned to the high tops, this time on skis, with climbing skins attached for the ascent of the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais, the long rocky ridge that forms the west wall of Coire Cas, which lies directly below the summit of Cairn Gorm. The ascent soon took me into thick damp mist. Higher up the air was colder and the moisture on my clothes and hair froze, leaving me plastered with frost and ice. A bitter north-west wind brought snow and visibility was soon reduced to 10 yards or less. A pair of ice climbers appeared out of the mist and clanked down past me, crampons on their feet, helmets on their heads, ice axes in their hands. “Nasty up there”, one said, “we’re going down for mugs of hot tea”. I pushed on; glad I had a flask of hot spiced ginger cordial in my pack (Rocks Organic Ginger – my favourite cold weather drink). A compass bearing for Cairn Gorm was needed from the big cairn at the top of the ridge to ensure I missed the steep slopes at the head of Coire Cas. Skiing up Cairn Gorm I traversed round rocks and across hard, wind-blasted icy snow, glad of the steel edges on my skis. Six walkers appeared descending, the leader kicking steps in the snow. None had ice axe or crampons or even trekking poles.

On the summit it was difficult to see the automatic weather station from the cairn, a distance of about 20 yards. I sheltered behind the weather station while I had lunch and warmed myself with hot ginger cordial. The wind was gusting to 25mph. The temperature was -7C. My plan of crossing the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben MacDui was abandoned. Struggling into this cold wind on compass bearings would be slow and unpleasant. Instead I skied back down to Coire Cas, difficult enough in the flat light, happy after the first ski tour of the season. I hope there will be many more.

The first photo shows the Cairngorm Weather Station in the dense mist. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm IS lens at 21mm, f8@1/800, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro

The second photo shows Beinn Mheadhoin and Ben MacDui, seen across the Loch Avon basin from the north ridge of Cairn Gorm. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm IS lens at 18mm, f8@1/160, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.

Friday 16 November 2007

Between Two Worlds: Glenmore Forest

Dusk was falling along with the rain as I descended into Glenmore Forest after a wintry day on Cairn Gorm. The narrow muddy path was overgrown, steep and greasy with wet fallen leaves. Slithering down this slick trail I used trees and shrubs as handholds as I struggled to keep my balance. Far below a line of orange lights traced a bright line through the now dark forest. Then strange music echoed through the trees, a repeating snatch of tune played on what sounded like bells and flutes. Emerging on the wide track on the floor of the glen I discovered that this was part of Between Two Worlds, a Forestry Commission Scotland event for the Highland Year of Culture.

A few days later I returned to experience the event in full. Between Two Worlds was created by sculptor and environmental artist Diane Maclean and light and sound artist Malcolm Innes with music by Bob Pegg to “celebrate the beauty and mystery of Glenmore Forest”. The event involves a two mile walk along a track and some purpose-laid boardwalks past various lighting installations while eerie acoustic music ripples through the trees. A river of silver light led out to a pool of light in an open boggy area, coloured lights turned trees red, purple and green, lights playing on a concrete bridge gave the illusion of walking on the water flowing beneath, lights shone through pine needle fronds to create curious patterns on the track. The centrepiece of the event took place at lovely An Lochan Uaine – the Green Lochan. Spotlights dimmed and coloured fountains and water spouts to erupted like liquid fireworks, creating fast moving patterns of light, while ethereal and unearthly music range around. Here the two worlds were meant to be our world and the world of faerie, there being a legend that fairies living in the hill above came here to wash their clothes, which turned the water green.

Another two worlds touched on were those of humanity and wild nature. Two square lights set against darkness gave the illusion of a cottage, lit from within. A woman singing rang out from the forest dwelling. And from deep in the trees came the sound of wolves howling. Away from the cottage into the depths of the forest pairs of bright orange-yellow lights flicked on and off, the eyes of the wolves. Behind them a long shaft of pale light mimicked the moon shining through the trees. The last sight brought back memories of walking and skiing through a moonlit forest without any lights or cottages. I’d prefer that to this event but it was entertaining and atmospheric and imaginative and worth seeing. I hope that when it is over all traces of it vanish from the forest though – 18 days is long enough to have long cables, generators and the rest of the paraphernalia intruding into the natural scene. I also hope that those who have enjoyed the event will venture out into a forest at night and experience the real mystery and wonder found there.

The photo shows lights playing on pines. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm IS lens at 28mm, f4@1/15, ISO 1600, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro. The shot was taken handheld. Without the Image Stabilizer lens I doubt I could have taken a sharp image. Even with IS I still underexposed by three stops.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Autumn Light In The Highlands

Driving down to Perth for a Mountaineering Council of Scotland meeting late one afternoon last week I was struck by the beautiful light as I left cloud-covered Strathspey and began the climb up to Drumochter Pass. Momentarily the clouds dissipated and the low sun shone below the drifting remnants turning the moorland and hillsides golden brown. The dusting of snow on the summit of The Fara, a long hill running alongside Loch Ericht, sparkled and the sky had a lustre not seen in summer. The whole landscape glowed. Stopping to view the scene I wandered up a bank away from the car and the road, a cold wind belying the apparent warmth of the light. A few minutes later I was back on the road and the clouds were sealing the sky, cutting out the light and returning the world to a harsh, dull greyness. By the time I reached Drumochter the summits were in cloud and any sense of enchantment in the landscape had vanished. Many hours later, crossing Drumochter at midnight on my way back north, snow was falling, flashes of white streaming through the headlights towards the windscreen, a different sort of magic. These moments of storm and light, snow and sun, are one of the facets that make the Highlands a very special place. Sometimes the beauty is overwhelming, even from a car.

The photo shows the late afternoon light on The Fara, with Dalwhinnie to the left. Photo info: Ricoh GR-D, f8@1/160, ISO 64, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Photoshop Elements 5.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Alladale Again: Bothy Closed, PR Machine Ramped Up

The despicable plan to fence the Alladale Estate in NW Scotland and turn it into a safari park that I wrote about on August 15 and September 16 has taken a step forward with the closure of Alladale Bothy, a shelter maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, on November 1. The MBA were informed just two weeks earlier, which is very short notice when there is a need to publicise it and let people know they will now find no shelter in Alladale. Heading for the bothy in a November storm and finding it locked would be unpleasant and possibly dangerous if it was being relied on. Clearly Paul Lister, the estate owner, has little concern for walkers.

In an expanding PR campaign Lister has called for the public to make a sacrifice and give up the right of access to his estate so his “visionary” plan can go ahead, a story covered in two of Scotland’s newspapers recently, The Scotsman and The Sunday Herald. This attempt at overturning the access legislation, fought hard for over many years, must not succeed. There is no need for access to be given up in order for habitats to be restored and animals reintroduced. Landowners closed off the hills for deer in the past, they must not be allowed to do so again for wolves.

Lister says “it would not be practical to have people walking around Alladale while wolves roam". In fact there is no reason why people and wolves couldn’t coexist as they do in many other parts of the world. I’ve walked 1,000s of miles in wolf terrain in North America and seen wild wolves and heard them howling at night, which are wonderful experiences. I’d love to do so in the Highlands. Reintroducing wolves to the Highlands is a great idea but would only work with public support and in areas where the habitat is suitable. I’d like to see more wildness in the Highlands but not a safari park.

Not that everyone will be excluded. For £27,000 you’ll be able to stay for a week and for £50 a day visit the estate in the company of a ranger. So much for the freedom of the hills.

Thanks to R Webb, who posted a comment on my September 16 blog saying it would be interesting to see an update for reminding me that this issue needs airing regularly, until Lister’s plans are defeated. There are two interesting ongoing discussions on the TGO Forum - Alladale Bothy Closed and Species re-introduction or just another zoo?

The photo shows the summit of the Munro Seana Bhraigh, which lies on the estate, in spring. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Tamron 11-18mm lens @ 11mm, f8@1/500, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Photoshop Elements 5.