Wednesday 26 August 2009

Back In The Cairngorms


After a week in the big city with its bright lights, buzzing crowds, churning traffic, tall buildings and the exciting but exhausting feelings of speed and pressure it was a relief to be back in the Cairngorms and to spend a few hours in the hills. In a gap between early and late appointments I wandered up the long northern ridge of Cairn Gorm, a quiet, little-frequented place despite its proximity to Glen More and the Cairngorm Mountain resort. I passed a group huddled round a map – students from Glenmore Lodge practising navigation techniques I assumed (one of the few vehicles in the Coire na Ciste car park was a Lodge van) – and a lone walker heading for Cnap Coire na Spreidhe.and then no-one until the summit of Cairn Gorm. Just mountain hares and ptarmigan and a flock of snow buntings. Everywhere there was soil the ground was sodden from the heavy rains of previous weeks. The burns roared and seethed with white water. Yellow-green moss was spreading over the heather in many places, looking as though it was crawling over the ground. Along the eastern edge of the ridge there is a ragged scattering of rough granite tors, looming above steep, broken scree and boulder slopes falling into the deep, narrow trench of Strath Nethy across which rises the curving profile of Bynack More. Further south the scattering of tors on Beinn Mheadhoin can be seen, the slopes curving down to shining Loch Etchachan, cupped in its bowl in the hills. Above the loch the rough hillside climbs again to the rounded summit of Ben Macdui. Wonderful wild country, all wonderful wild country.

On the summit of Cairn Gorm I joined a dozen other walkers. A cold south-west wind swept across the top and I needed to don a warm jacket. Others were wearing hats and gloves. According to the automatic weather station data the temperature was 8ยบC and the wind was gusting to 35mph. The air was sharp and clear though and the views distinct and extensive. To the west I looked across Coire an t-Sneachda and Cairn Lochan to Braeriach, Sgor an Lochan Uaine and Cairn Toul, rippling brown curves of mountain rising and falling in the sunshine, wild and magnificent. Turning away I headed down towards the bright blue eye of Loch Morlich and the dark green of the pine forest, the savage confusion of the city blown away in the wind and the space and the freedom of the sky and the mountains.

Photo info: View across the Cairngorms from Cairn Gorm. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55@36mm, 1/250 @ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

Sunday 23 August 2009

Edinburgh Festival Fringe Reviews


Part of the delight of being in Edinburgh during the festival month of August is to roam the streets watching the jugglers, musicians, singers and actors performing, advertising their shows or just wandering about in costume (sometimes it’s unclear whether the gaudily dressed person ambling by is from a show or not – maybe they always look like that). Amongst the mostly vigorous and noisy performers there are always “living statues” dotted around, posing stationary on bollards and chairs. This year being painted head to foot with silver or gold paint was popular with many of them, as was occasionally moving, often to the surprise of observers. The highlight of the street entertainment for me this year was blues singer Richard Blues, who mixed sharp patter with neat guitar work and soulful singing. A few weeks before I heard him someone videoed him and uploaded it on to You Tube where there are several other videos of him in Edinburgh and London. He’s been in Edinburgh in previous years but somehow I’d managed to miss him. I shall look out for him in future.

Apart from the outdoor themed shows I’ve reviewed in my last three posts I saw eight other shows. (I must here give credit to my partner Denise for spending time going through the Fringe programme and selecting shows she thought I would like – she does enjoy doing this!). All were classified as theatre rather than comedy though several were funnier than comedians I’ve seen at the Fringe – this year we decided not to bother with comedy shows as too expensive for what they are unless you happen to hit on one that is really funny amongst the myriads claiming to be hilarious.

Having enjoyed it last year we again went to Shakespeare for Breakfast, where you get a hot drink and a croissant to go along with a lively and amusing interpretation of a play, this year A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream popped up again in Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, an amusing story of elves, witches and wizards that references Shakespeare frequently. Performed with gusto by a student theatre group from Southampton University this was a fun show with Terry Pratchett’s wit, humour and imagination providing good entertainment as always, with just that edge of disturbing seriousness that makes the stories more than just good romps. The performances were enthusiastic and lively. Magrat, one of the witches, and the totally balmy Dean of the Unseen University were played particularly well.

Long before Terry Pratchett another fantasy writer mixed humour with grimness. As a child I always found Lewis Carroll’s Alice tales disquieting and dark though I still loved them. In their stage version of Alice Through The Looking Glass Daysleeper Productions brought out some of the paradoxes and possibilities of the story and added touches of Victorian vaudeville and decadence. The small set consisting of a revolving wardrobe and various flaps and boxes worked well, allowing the excellent cast to conjure up the various scenarios of the story. The sense of mystery of the original was well caught along with the incipient cruelty and bullying. Never have flowers seemed so sinister!

Bullying turned up again in another version of a Victorian Classic. Broken Holmes by Robin Johnson has Sherlock Holmes as an arrogant and abusive drug addict who treats the sensitive and thoughtful Dr Watson appallingly. The play is a very funny farce, well-acted, especially by James Bober as the manic Holmes, and with many references to Holmes stories.

Moving back in the history of English literature Geoffery Chaucer Lives features two of the Canterbury Tales as told by actors playing four immortal alchemists who are travelling through the ages with Geoffrey Chaucer’s unconscious but still living body. The production is witty and entertaining and the crudity of the Miller’s Tale is a reminder that some of the “shocking” comedians at the Fringe are perhaps not as modern as they think!

Returning to myth and fantasy but without much in the way of humour Siege Perilous’s King Arthur was a serious play about political power. Written in blank verse by Lucy Nordberg it was at times hard to follow, partly due to the unclear and hurried diction of some of the cast. The story is fairly true to the Arthurian legends and only the modern dress suggests a link to today’s politics. I quite enjoyed it but felt it could have been done much better. It has received good reviews so perhaps the cast were having an off day.

The highlight of all the shows I saw was a modern drama about a very serious and depressing subject. In Search of Miss Landmine tells the story of an Angolan girl who loses a leg when she steps on a mine and then goes on to win a beauty contest for land mine victims. Woven around this are facts about landmines and the story of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. This doesn’t sound promising material for an enjoyable play and we probably wouldn’t have thought of attending if it hadn’t been for the company putting it on - Teatro Dei Borgia- who we had seen and been impressed by at the 2007 and 2008 Fringes. The high quality continued with Miss Landmine. The acting was superb – powerful, emotional and gripping. I’d be happy to see this company in just about anything.

Photo info: Living statue on the Royal Mile. Ricoh GRD III, 1/800@F5.6, ISO 64, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

Saturday 22 August 2009

Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Walden


Henry David Thoreau’s writings, especially Walden, his account of living in a cabin in the woods, have achieved iconic status amongst wilderness lovers and conservationists. His writings in the mid nineteenth century marked a transition point in attitudes to the wild. In Wilderness and the American Mind (essential reading for anyone interested in the development of ideas about wilderness, even if not American) Roderick Nash says “Thoreau led the intellectual revolution that was beginning to invest wilderness with attractive rather than repulsive qualities”. (Of course this had started earlier in Europe with the Romantic Movement and writers like Rousseau and Wordsworth).

Walden is an unusual book, a mix of autobiography, natural history and philosophy. Nothing much actual happens. Thoreau builds a simple cabin, grows beans, goes fishing and, mostly, watches the pond and the woods, observing the water and the wind, the birds and the animals, and meditates on every aspect of human existence. This does not seem a good basis for theatre so I was curious when I heard that Edinburgh company Magnetic North were putting on a production at the Fringe. Adapted from the book by Magnetic North’s artistic director Nicholas Bone the play is a solo performance by Ewan Donald. The setting is unconventional and designed so the actor can see and be in contact with all members of the audience. Indeed, he starts out as a member of the audience. Curved wooden benches form an oval that is open at each end. A pile of sand sits in the middle of the oval. With no rows of seats and no separate stage the feeling is one of community and closeness. Wherever you sit you are looking across at other members of the audience and never far from the actor.

Speaking lines from Walden the actor playing Thoreau (the notes for the play say “the actor should not think that he or she is playing Thoreau himself” but they clearly are with lines like “I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond”) addresses the audience some of the time and at others appears lost in a reverie, talking to himself or pausing to reflect. Using simple props – a wooden staff, the pile of sand, the benches – Ewan Donald acts out Thoreau’s life at Walden. The sand becomes the rows of beans and then the surface of the pond. The staff becomes a hoe and then the paddle of his boat as he strikes it against the end of a bench, which has become his boat. There are pauses and periods of silence when the words can sink in and the quiet of the room becomes the silence of solitude and thoughtfulness. The performance is slow, contemplative and immensely powerful. There in a room in the heart of a busy city the wilds are conjured by the words of Thoreau and the intensity of Ewan Donald’s acting.

Walden left me feeling relaxed and peaceful. Emerging from the theatre onto the noisy, crowded Edinburgh streets was a shock. Somehow the traffic, the buildings, the din, the smells, the hardness of urban straight lines didn’t seem real and I drifted through them towards the railway station. Walden was my last show of the 2009 Edinburgh festivals and I was returning home to my house in the woods and fields. After listening to Thoreau’s words it seemed the right thing to do.

Photo info: My old copy of Walden and the script of the Walden production. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II lens, 1/60 @ f2.5, ISO 1600, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

Friday 21 August 2009

Edinburgh Festival Fringe: The Tao of Everest


Edinburgh Festival Fringe: The Tao of Everest

Listed under theatre in the Festival Fringe guide and described as “an emotional and uplifting storytelling experience” the Tao of Everest is basically a climbing lecture and something I would more expect to find at a Mountain Festival than at the Fringe. Or perhaps performer/speaker Ian Woodall is just ahead of the field and we can expect to see a plethora of outdoor talks at arts festivals in the future. Andy Kirkpatrick would certainly raise more laughs than some of the comedians I’ve seen in Edinburgh.

Ian Woodall was leader of the controversial 1996 South African Everest Expedition and reached the summit of Everest via the South-East Ridge. Since then he has climbed the mountain again from the north side and been back there to lay to rest the body of a friend who died high on the mountain. There have been a number of failed attempts too and next year he’s going back to try an ascent without bottled oxygen.

Looking at the Tao of Everest website it appears that this presentation is usually designed for corporate events to inspire “leadership” in business people. There are somewhat over-the-top comments from organisations from Microsoft to the Atomic Energy Authority and Greater Manchester Police. I wonder if Ian Woodall has altered his presentation for an arts audience rather than a business one. The quotes on the website were all in the Edinburgh talk so maybe every audience hears the stories the same way. Only a few people had wandered through the rain to the talk on the night I went (it is a rather out of the way venue) but maybe other shows were better attended. The walk away from the bright lights of the city centre was worthwhile though as Ian Woodall gave a good performance, using a few simple props plus snippets of music, recorded speech and slides. He’s a demonstrative and entertaining speaker, moving around and using his body to show distance, slope angles, emotions and more. The stories of the climbs were interwoven with his personal love story (which was perhaps a little too sentimental – my stepdaughter certainly thought so) and the emotional effects of losing friends on the mountain. There was some humour mixed in with the seriousness and tragedy too. He puts a great deal into the performance, which lasts two hours plus extra time for questions. Doing this for 25 nights without a break, as he is, sounds exhausting. But then so does climbing Everest. The mountain looks wonderful in the pictures of course but hearing about long snow slogs up and down, up and down, carrying gear, installing camps, building a structure to allow for a summit attempt, doesn’t make me want to be there. I’ve trekked to Everest Base Camp and climbed Kala Patar at dawn to watch the sunrise but that’s as far as I would want to go. I have great admiration for those who go further, whether experienced mountaineers or paying clients. Ian Woodall makes it all to clear what the risks are and how hellish big mountain climbing can be. It’s clearly addictive though. It must be. He’s going back.

Photo info: Everest from Kala Patar. Canon EOS 300D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm @28mm, 1/100@F8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

Monday 17 August 2009

Edinburgh International Festival: St Kilda Island of Birdmen


Last night I went to see one of the star events at this years Edinburgh International Festival,the multi-media St Kilda Island of the Birdmen,which involves film, acrobatics, dance, music and song. The production tells the story in symbolic form of the people of St Kilda in the years leading up to the evacuation of the island in 1930. Visually it is stunning with acrobats climbing and hanging from ropes to show the St Kilda men collecting birds from the cliffs. The films, projected behind the cast throughout most of the performance,are a fascinating mixture of old films from the early twentieth century shot on St Kilda and modern film of the show performed there in 2007 plus pseudo-documentary sections of film makers returning to the island with a man playing a descendant of former inhabitants. The black and white film of the 2007 performance is cleverly merged with the old films of the actual islanders. Sombre music, much of it cello-based, adds atmosphere and the singing of Althy McCormack, who plays islander Catriona, is haunting and beautiful. There is also wonderful film of St Kilda with dramatic shots of sea stacks rising into misty skies. Some of this was filmed from a boat and the swaying of the water and movement of the islands adds to the realistic feeling.

Whilst I enjoyed the production and would certainly recommend it I did have one problem and that was the language, which was a mix of French, Gaelic and English. My ancient O level French was not up to more than a fraction of the French singing and my Gaelic is non-existent, though I did know a few words. This meant that following the story was difficult and some of the longer sung passages with no visual displays did have me starting to feel restless. Subtitles would have been welcome!

Four of us went to see the show and the reactions afterwards were interesting. My partner Denise thought it was wonderful. I thought it was good as did my stepdaughter Hazel whilst our friend Pat disliked it as too sentimental (a love story lay at the heart of the drama)and not a true reflection of what life would have been like on St Kilda.

Photo info: Adam Smith looks down on the festival crowds on the Royal Mile. Ricoh GRD III, 1/60 @f9, ISO 64, raw file processed in Lightroom 2.4.

Friday 14 August 2009

Ricoh GRD III: First Impressions


As I said in my post on cameras for backpacking (July 28) the original Ricoh GRD is the best designed digital camera I’ve used. In fact using the camera is a joy. Controls are easy to use and there’s no delving into menus or pressing buttons multiple times to change settings. However the camera is very slow at writing to the memory card (over 10 seconds for raw files) and images are noisy above ISO 100. The GRD II reduced the write times but did nothing much for the noise according to reviews (I haven’t tried one myself). Now there is the GRD III with a new 10mp sensor, a larger, brighter screen, a fast F1.9 lens and a dynamic range double shot mode as in the Ricoh CX1. I have a GRD III on test and my initial impressions are that it is a very good camera indeed.

Firstly the design is even better than the original GRD. The larger screen means the live histogram is bigger too and there’s room for a tilt indicator, useful for ensuring level horizons. All the settings you might use regularly can be changed on screen. Just playing with the camera was a delight – and really showed up the deficiencies of the Sigma DP-1 design. Indeed, the reason for these first impressions is that I’m quite excited by the GRD III and really enjoying using a superbly designed camera. I feel like I am working with the camera and not despite it.

What about image quality though? Well, at ISO 64 results are excellent, as they are with the GRD I. In the run of very wet weather there has been since the camera arrived there has only been one day when the weather was dry. The mountains were still shrouded in cloud so I went to Findhorn for a walk on the beach. The light was bright so I could use a low ISO. The shots I took are sharp and clear with no noise and the colours in the JPEGs are natural and quite well saturated. Raw files are duller but this is easily rectified during conversion to JPEGs or TIFFs. The dynamic range was well within that of the camera so I didn’t need the DR mode. I did try it and found that it over-exposed bright areas of the image (mostly sunlit clouds). This isn’t a fair test though and I need to try this in the right conditions.

Write times for raw files are 2-3 seconds, which feels instant after the GRD 1 and the DP-1 (8 seconds). The screen is brighter than that on the GRD 1 or the DP-1 but is still hard to see clearly in bright sunlight and there is no built-in viewfinder. To counter this I used the Ricoh GV-1 viewfinder, which came with the GRD 1. This clips onto the hotshoe, and is very clear and bright. Of course no information can be seen in the viewfinder so I checked the histogram and adjusted the exposure on the screen then brought the camera to my eye.

There is still much to find out about the GRD III, particularly with regard to image quality. I need to take pictures throughout the ISO range (64-1600) and check the noise in high ISO images. I want to see how the lens performs wide open. And see how the DR mode works when the sky is bright and the land dark. I shall also compare the images with those from the GRD 1, DP-1 and Canon 450D too. But the camera is so good to use that the results will have to be pretty poor to turn me against it.

Photo info: Findhorn beach. Ricoh GRD III, 1/800@F5.6, ISO 64, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

Monday 10 August 2009

Skye Sun, Skye Rain


A good weather forecast sent me off to the Isle of Skye at the end of last week. In August fine weather often means hazy conditions not conducive to sharp, clear pictures. However this forecast was for a mix of sunshine and showers with very clear air so if correct it sounded like an excellent opportunity to take some of the photos of the Cuillin that I need for various forthcoming books.

I considered camping at Sligachan or Glen Brittle, the two campsites that serve the Cuillin, but as soon as I saw the packed ranks of caravans, campavans and tents at the former I decided to head into the hills and camp wild. That evening I walked into Coire na Creiche and had a peaceful camp where the only sounds were the trickle of the burn and the gentle swish of the breeze, which was just strong enough to keep the midges down. At the head of the corrie the mountains glowed dark red in the setting sun. The wind faded during the night, allowing the midges to strike early the next morning. Breakfast in the tent and then a hurried packing meant I escaped with only a few minutes of irritation as clouds of them swarmed round my head and only a few bites where they found spots of skin I’d missed dousing with repellent.

Cutting round the shoulder of Sgurr Thuilm I was camped again within two hours, this time on a breezy site in Coire a’Ghreadaidh. Leaving camp I headed up little Coir’an Eich and onto the ridge of An Diollaid and then Sgurr na Banachdich. I stopped often to take photographs of the massive west face of Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh, which is well seen from this route. As I reached Sgurr na Banachdich great clouds poured up from the south-west, enveloping the peaks. Hoping these would be temporary I sat and ate lunch and stared into the greyness. Every so often the clouds would thin and part and there would be a flash of the bright blue of Loch Coruisk far below and the pinnacles and cliffs of peaks steep and dark against the pale clinging sky. Slowly the air cleared and just shreds of mist hung round the summits. Only Sgurr Alasdair, the highest peak in the Cuillin, remained cloud-capped, though all the peaks to the south stayed dark and dull under a sheet of high cloud. North and east though the sky was blue and the hills shone in the sunshine. I stayed on the summit ridge an hour taking pictures and watching the mountains. It was my first visit to the Cuillin in almost a year and I was, as always, amazed at how rocky and complex these remnants of ancient volcanoes are and how savage and contorted they look.

Back in camp I was able to sit outside and have some soup and coffee without the midges being much of a bother. In the evening I walked up Coire a’Ghreadaidh to the narrow notch of An Dorus. Again the evening light was lovely and the slanting light showed up the intricacies of the rocks. The great boiler plate slabs curving down from the upper corrie are magnificent and also make for easy walking, the rough gabbro very secure underfoot. I didn’t want to find a way through these slabs in the dark though so I went no further than An Dorus and returned to the tent just after sunset to be met with clouds of midges as the breeze went with the sun. A supper of ramen noodles was cooked in a closed porch and eaten in the tent.

After a few hours sleep I was woken by the hammer of heavy rain on the tent and the noise of wind shaking the nylon. Hoping it would pass I dozed for a few hours. It didn’t so I roused myself to the careful task of boiling water for a hot drink in the porch while the flysheet flapped and billowed in the wind. Outside the cloud was low on the hills and the burns roared and raced down the hillsides, fresh with white water. This time I packed inside the tent to avoid the weather not the midges. With no sign of a clearance I hiked out back to the car. The rain continued most of the way home. But the day on Sgurr na Banachdich was inspiring and invigorating.

Photo info: Camp in Coire a’Ghreadiadh. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, 1/125@F5.6, ISO 100, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Solo Backpacking in TGO

The September issue of TGO is out now. In my backpacking column I write about the joys and rewards of solo backpacking. I also review 16 two-person tents, report on the GoLite Jam, my current favourite pack, and describe an easy and lovely route up Sgurr a’Mhaim in the Mamores by way of an old fading stalker’s path that really deserves to be used.

In the same issue Andy Stothert also looks at solo walking but from the point of view of a loss of confidence after illness. Other features include Cameron McNeish on a route linking Trotternish with the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, which sounds fabulous; an interview with Heather Morning, the new safety office for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, by Emily Rodway; Ian Battersby strolling round the Bob Graham Round in the Lake District; Judy Armstrong wandering round Elba and reviewing backpacking meals; John Manning on the new gear on show at last month’s Outdoor show in Friedrichshafen; Jim Perrin recounting Coleridge’s fell walking and how climbing mountains can help with personal crises and Eddy Meechan looking at fire lighting tools (I’m pleased to see he likes the Light My Fire FireSteel, which I’ve been using for several years now).

Photo Info: On a two-month solo hike on the Arizona Trail. Ricoh RDC-500 at 9.3mm, 1/125@ f13, JPEG tweaked in Lightroom 2.4.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Summer Bounty, Summer Rain


One of the joys of living in the countryside is that of gathering wild foods when in season. A thousand feet up in the Scottish Highlands isn’t perhaps the ideal place for this but one foodstuff that is common in the area is edible fungi, found in the conifer and birch woods. Usually these start to appear during this month with September producing the biggest crop but this year large numbers have appeared very early and for the last three evenings I have dined on delicious chanterelles and birch boletes fried in butter or olive oil with a little tamari and black pepper added. I have to admit that I didn’t collect or cook these fungi myself. They were gathered by my partner Denise and my stepdaughter Hazel and prepared and cooked by Hazel. The early appearance of these fungi appears to be due to the fact that July was very wet, at least in the case of the chanterelle, which produces the most fruiting bodies in wet summers. And July really was wet. Strathspey Weather recorded 122.5mm of rain, which is not only by far the most for any month this year (February is second wettest with 72.2mm) but the most of any month in the nine years of records on the site (the second wettest month was January 2005 with 108.8mm). Whilst the fungi are very welcome I do hope the weather this month will be a little drier.

Photo info: Basket of Chanterelles. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@55mm, 1/500@F8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4