Sunday 31 May 2009

TGO Challenge 09 Part 3: Winding Down

I always feel as though I am leaving the hills when I wander out of Glen Doll and down Glen Clova. The big hills, the Munros, are behind and slowly dwindling heather moors line the glens. Showers and a cool breeze accompanied me and the Glen Clova Hotel was a welcome sight, the first open hostelry since Dalwhinnie five days previously and one with a Climber’s Bar for outdoors people with muddy footwear and wet clothes. I dodged the wind and wet for a while over coffee and scones, it being too early in the day for a beer and also too early for the hotel to be serving meals or even sandwiches. Beyond the hotel the last big climb of the walk led up to Loch Brandy, set in a deep corrie below craggy slopes and alive with the sight and sound of common gulls. Above the loch I crossed the moorland to the last hill, Ben Tirran. Here a depressing sight met me – a double fence, one part still under construction, running along the crest of the hills and passing just below the summit. A gap for 4WDs, which had left ugly scars on the hillside, allowed me through but I could see no sign of a stile or gate for many miles. What price the access legislation when such barriers are being built? This needs to be stopped. Descending north to the long Water of Saughs glen I became depressed and angry again. An old narrow landrover track ran up this glen to a small stone shelter, a track mossy and grassy with age and not really much of an intrusion. Now a new two lane packed dirt road is being built, a cambered road with deep ditches either side. Two huge diggers were at work scraping away tons of peat and rocks and hurling it in great gobbets to either side. The new road runs at over 600 metres for many miles, a great scar high above the glen. Spur roads, equally hideous, ran up to summits and down to the river. I had come this way on the very first Challenge. I will not do so again.

The Water of Saughs leads to West Water and the start of the final road walk to Montrose. Actually, West Water is a pleasant quiet glen, with little traffic, and the road is less of an intrusion than the high level one above the Water of Saughs. I wandered down the glen under clearing skies admiring the meandering river and the changing pattern of clouds over the moors and watching the birds in the meadows – lapwings, curlews, oystercatchers and more. Near the foot of the glen the land becomes fenced. Just before this point I dropped below the road to pitch the tent y the river on a rough grassy bank shaded by birches, a pleasant final wild camp.

The road walk to Montrose, via a café in Brechin, passed uneventfully. With fast traffic roaring close by at times it was probably the most dangerous part of the walk. Soon though I was treading the familiar streets of Montrose to the Park Hotel, heading upstairs to the TGO Challenge control room and being congratulated by Roger Smith, just as I had twenty-nine years earlier. Then it was an afternoon and evening of talking, drinking, eating, and listening to the roll call of successful Challengers at the dinner, a crowded, social end to another fairly solitary crossing. I was happy to be meeting old friends, making new ones, discussing experiences, sharing stories. This communal gathering is an essential part of the Challenge and I would not want to miss it.

Photo info: West Water winding its way out of the hills. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@20mm, 1/250@F5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Monday 25 May 2009

TGO Challenge 09 Part 2: The Wind, The Wind

The dominant feature of the 2009 Challenge was the bitterly cold easterly wind, which had sprung up on my fifth day and which lasted the final nine days. Usually the wind is from the south-west, driving you on from behind. This year it was in my face, pushing me back. This makes walking much harder, especially when the weather is wet as well, as it was when I crossed the Bealach Dubh from the camp beside the Uisge Labhair. Descending rapidly from this dark dramatic pass I headed for Culra Bothy and some shelter for lunch. As I reached the door two walkers came out, TGO Deputy Editor Emily and her partner John, the first Challengers I’d met. Later in the day I caught them up on the track to Dalwhinnie and then spent an evening with them and another Challenger, Jeremy, in the bar, watching the rain crash down outside. I was to meet no other Challengers until I reached the finish. Heavy showers and thick mist saw me over Meall Chuaich and on to the head of Glen Bruar the next day. Then came a break in the storm, although the wind hammered on, and I had a glorious day of sunshine as I crossed Beinn Dearg and Carn a’Chlamain to the head of Glen Tilt. Great towering white cumulus clouds soared into the sky, the last snow patches on the high Cairngorms to the north shone in the bright light and the hills were alive with mountain hares, ptarmigan and golden plover. It was my last fine day on the hills. There followed the two wettest, stormiest days of the walk as I crossed the hills to Loch Vrotachan and the highest camp of the walk and then continued on over Glas Maol to Jock’s Road and Glen Doll. The land was saturated and finding dry camp sites was difficult. A bumpy bank above the outlet burn was the best I could find near Loch Vrotachan, whilst a patch of short heather ominously close to flooded grassland had to do in Glen Doll. Only two days remained though, days of descending to the lowlands and joining the other Challengers in Montrose.

Photo info: Camp in Glen Doll. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, 1/100@F5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Sunday 24 May 2009

TGO Challenge 09 Part 1: The Sunny West

This year was the 30th TGO Challenge, that unique backpacking event that goes coast to coast across the Scottish Highlands. I was on the first Challenge, way back in 1980 (29 years ago, not 30 – there was no Zero Challenge!), and this year was my 13th crossing. Extremely stormy weather marked the first two days of the event and many Challengers had a rough start. I didn’t begin until the second evening however and caught just one last sharp shower as I walked up Gleann Beag from my start point at Glenelg. There followed five beautifully clear sunny days. The light was sharp with even distant hills standing out distinctly. In the glens it was hot during the day but a breeze kept the summits cool while clear skies meant near freezing temperatures at night. I wandered towards the Great Glen over a series of fine hills - Beinn Sgritheall, which has some of the finest sea and mountain views in the Highlands, Beinn na h-Eaglaise, Beinn nan Caorach, Sgurr a’Mhaorich, Gleouriach, Spidean Mialach and Meall na h-Eilde. Other than a couple of day walkers I saw no one during this time. The glorious hills were all mine. The campsites were wonderful too, though finding dry ones took a little time in places, the ground saturated with the rain and snowmelt of recent weeks. No midges and no rain meant I could sit outside watching the play of the light on the hills, the shimmering of the water in the burns and the subtle colours of the spring grasses. As the days passed the gentle southerly breeze swung to the east and began to strengthen. On Meall na h-Eilde it made walking hard and I abandoned my plan of climbing the two Munros to the east and instead dropped down the lovely Gleann Cia-aig with its scattering of ancient birch trees, fresh with spring green, and the burn bubbling and foaming in a series of cascades, water slides and little falls. Down in the woods of the Great Glen it was hot and sticky despite the wind. The next day I climbed out of Glen Spean past the sparkling Grey Corries to the high pass of the Lairig Leacach. Now the wind was so strong it stopped me moving at times. Three walkers coming down said they had retreated from the Grey Corries due to the wind. My intention of climbing the Easains had already been blown away on this wind blasted, wind scoured day. Instead I rushed down the muddy path to Loch Treig and on to Loch Ossian, exhilarated by the wind, to eventually camp in the Uisge Labhair glen after what turned out, at 37 kilometres, to be the longest day of the walk. During the night the wind brought rain and cloud. The nature of the land had changed as I left the Western Highlands. Now the nature of the walk would change with the weather.

Photo info: Camp in Easter Glen Quoich. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@32mm, 1/125@F5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Irvine Butterfield

Just yesterday, on finishing the TGO Challenge, I heard the sad news that Irvine Butterfield had died. Irvine will be known to most British hillwalkers as the author of the excellent The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland: A Guide for Mountain Walkers, which covers all the 3,000 foot summits (he completed the Munros in 1971). I have a well-worn, not to say battered, 1986 first edition that I often use for reference and inspiration. There was to be a second volume covering the 2,500-3,000 foot hills but although completed it unfortunately never found a publisher. I also have Irvine’s much less well known A Survey Of Shelters In Remote Mountain Areas Of The Scottish Highlands, a spiral-bound volume published back in 1979. Many of the shelters described here are long gone but others are still useful, and not all are recognised bothies. Irvine’s other books include the sumptuously illustrated The Magic of the Munros and the Call of the Corbetts plus The Famous Highland Drove Walk, following the trail of cattle drovers from Skye to Crieff and packed with historic information. Whilst these books were Irvine’s public face they are only a small part of the major contribution he made to the knowledge and conservation of the Scottish hills he loved. Over the years he was deeply involved with the Mountain Bothies Association, the Scottish Wild Land Group, the John Muir Trust, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and, most recently, the Munro Society. All these organisations are indebted to Irvine for the time and effort he devoted to them. Last year the importance of his work was recognised by the John Muir Trust with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Irvine was only the fourth person to receive this honour, following Tom Weir, Adam Watson and Doug Scott. He also received the Golden Eagle Award from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, of which he was a long time member, in 2000.

Over the years I met Irvine many times at various meetings and events and accompanied him up a few hills. Always entertaining, whether castigating outdoor and conservation organisations for failing to live up to his high standards or telling stories of his years working as an excise and customs man (and I really hope someone recorded the latter tales), he was a gruff and outspoken yet genial companion. He could be caustic and blunt but always in the service of the mountains and always with the intention of prodding people into doing more and not taking the easy or comfortable way.

Irvine’s death has been well covered with heartfelt obituaries in outdoor cyberspace, not something he himself ever turned to, including Irvine Butterfield, giant of Scottish hillwalking, by Dave Hewitt on the Grough site; In Memory of Irvine Butterfield (Hill Gangrel, champion of Scottish mountains and MCofS ‘Writer in Residence’) by Kevin Howett on the Mountaineering Council of Scotland site and Irvine Butterfield by Cameron McNeish on Cameron’s own site. The Guardian also published an obituary by Ed Douglas in its May 21st edition, which can be found on the web here.

Saturday 9 May 2009

Book Review: Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne

The story of the earth and its life has always fascinated me. From my first childhood ventures into nature I’ve always had a desire to understand how the places, animals and plants I saw came to be. Brought up on the Lancashire coast at Formby I quickly learnt that the landscape and its wildlife were not permanent. Shifting sand dunes, “slacks” that flooded after rain and turned dusty in droughts, a maze of tidal channels that varied constantly and could easily trap the unwary, visiting flocks of waders that could number hundreds one day and a handful the next – all these and more showed me that nature was always changing. When I first read about the formation of landscapes and the evolution of life it made perfect sense. What books I read back then I cannot remember now, maybe it was the ones I still have – “The Observer’s Book of Geology” by I.O.Evans (no date but purchased sometime in the early 1960s) and “Fossils Amphibians and Reptiles” by W.E.Swinton, British Museum of Natural History, Third Edition 1962.

Since those days I’ve read, at intermittent intervals, a series of books on geology and evolution by a variety of authors. I’ve particularly enjoyed the writing of Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Richard Fortey, E.O.Wilson and Steve Jones. However, marvellous though the works of these writers are, there is none that serves as a basic introduction to evolution that could be recommended to anyone who wants to learn about the subject. Now that gap has been filled admirably by evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, a well-written account that covers clearly and logically the over-whelming evidence for evolution. The fossil record, vestigial traits, embryology (I’ve always been intrigued and delighted by the way embryos show links with distant ancestors and Coyne covers this particularly well with some wonderful examples), imperfections that could only come from bad design if there was a designer but which are perfectly explicable by evolution, biogeography, natural selection, sexual selection, speciation and the evolution of homo sapiens are all covered thoroughly yet succinctly. Anyone who can read this book and not accept the evidence for evolution must have a closed mind. I found it an enjoyable and interesting read, with many examples I had not come across before despite all my previous reading. It also makes a good book for reference and quick revision.

The author provides a good further reading list that includes online sources. One that has appeared since the book was published is Jerry Coyne’s own blog, with the same name as the book. It’s well worth a look.

Friday 1 May 2009

Wind Rivers Ski Tour With Igloos

Two weeks have passed since I returned from the Wind River Range and in between writing articles for TGO, visiting Edinburgh for the Richard Dawkins lecture and the Anatom Academy (see the two previous posts) and enjoying the freshness and colour of the slowly developing spring woodlands I’ve been sorting the nearly 1000 images I took on the trip and letting my memories settle. Ten nights in the snowbound woods and mountains is an intense experience, made more so on this trip by the absence of any other people.

The Wind Rivers are a relatively remote range and access isn’t easy, especially in winter when most of the approach roads are closed by snow, so we began on the margin between civilisation and wilderness at the White Pine Ski Resort, a pleasant, friendly place. The chair lift took the six of us up Fortification Mountain and the first ski run was down a piste. Soon though we were crossing the tape marking the edge of the resort and entering the untracked woods.

Ed Huesers, inventor of the ingenious Icebox igloo building tool we used to build our snow homes, had done the route planning using Google Earth and this worked really well, especially in regard to our three igloo sites, which were all spectacular. We spent four nights at the first site, where we built two igloos, as most of the party were not continuing after this time. Exploring the ridge we were camped on and skiing the nearby slopes and woods without having to tow a heavy sled was a joy. The views east to the long rippling line of the main Wind River summits were superb and the snow was just soft enough to make turns easy without being too unsupportive when gliding on the flat. We prospected two routes towards the second igloo site and discovered the markers for old abandoned cross country ski trails.

Wishing that they could continue with us Ed and I said farewell to our companions – Roy Wagner, Tony Condon, Pat Huesers and Mike Meyer - and skied into the woods, emerging after a long day to build an igloo on an open slope with a view to the southern end of the Wind Rivers. Up to now the weather had been mostly pleasant with a mix of sun and clouds and some light snow. At igloo 2 this changed to low cloud and heavier snow. Reaching the site and building the igloo had taken until the early hours of the morning so the first stormy day we spent resting and exploring the immediate environs of the igloo. By the following day the clouds were even lower, brushing the tops of the trees and drifting through the meadows, giving the wilderness a mysterious air. Seeing nothing but mist, snow and trees we broke trail to Eklund Lake. Returning the next day the clouds had lifted a little and the mountains had reappeared, if still a little hazy. Beyond the lake we hauled our sleds up a knoll, a difficult task as the bases iced up badly so we had to stop and scrape them clean then treat them with wax to try and stop it happening again. Once up at 10,500 feet with a fantastic view of the high peaks we built our third and most splendidly situated igloo. Swirling clouds, deep red sunsets, golden dawns and magnificent timberline trees surrounded by a complex world of glacial knobs and moraines cloaked in dark forest and split by white meadows and frozen lakes and all backed by steep granite peaks made this one of the finest snow camps I’ve ever had.

After a day around igloo 3 we returned to igloo 2 via a dramatic view into the depths of cliff-lined Fremont Canyon for a last night before the ski out to White Pine. The first snow free ground was just appearing round the base of some of the trees as we skied through the last meadows in the now soft and sticky snow. Winter was ending and I knew I’d be putting my skis away until next season.

Photo info: Dawn on Fremont Peak. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS@250mm, 1/160@F5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.