Monday 29 November 2010

TGO Videos on Winter Layering & Hats & Gloves

The videos we made last week on winter clothing (see my last post) are now available on the TGO website. The first one covers layering systems, the second hats and gloves. As you can see the weather was suitably wintry when we filmed the videos. The temperature was below freezing and there was a chilly breeze to add to the realism. Also on the TGO site Deputy Editor Carey Davies has posted on his blog about the two days we spent learning about and making videos.

Photo Info: -25C at the start of a ski tour in January in Yellowstone National Park. Ricoh GR-D 1, 1/100@f8, ISO 200, raw file processed in Lightroom 3.

The snow, the snow

Winter has arrived fast and furious with blizzards, heavy snow, bitter winds, freezing temperatures and even thunder and lightning. Four days ago I woke to a few inches of snow. Today there is a level eighteen inches and several feet where the snow has drifted in the north-east wind. The morning of the first snow I drove to Newtonmore where I was going to learn about making videos along with the TGO editorial team. Our tutors were Richard and Meg of Triple Echo Productions, who have made many outstanding outdoor films, including last summer’s Great Climb, and who currently make BBC 2 Scotland’s Adventure Show. The first five miles to Newtonmore were on slippery roads that hadn’t been gritted but once on main roads there was little snow and in Newtonmore there was none. However it did snow that night and I woke the next day to a couple of inches. This was just enough to give the hills a wintry look for the video we made, in freezing weather, about clothing for winter walking. This video should appear, in two parts, on the TGO website sometime soon.

That evening I was due to give a talk on my Pacific Northwest Trail hike to the Inverness Nordic Ski Club. As I left Newtonmore late in the afternoon the snow began to fall heavily and the journey to Inverness took much longer than expected. I arrived in time to give the talk however. Then I had to get home. The main A9 road had a light covering of slushy snow but had been gritted and ploughed. Once I left it I was on deeper snow and roads that hadn’t yet seen a gritting lorry. Careful driving in the snow, which was now falling heavily, took me to the last two miles, which are along a single track road. The snow here was deep and my car was almost stuck several times. At times the front bumper acted as a crude snowplough, flinging up masses of snow onto the windscreen that temporarily blocked my view. If the snow hadn’t been very soft I wouldn’t have made it. As it was I finally slid into a passing place at the bottom of the track to my house and the car stuck firmly. So at 1 a.m. I trudged the half mile up to the house through knee-deep snow and a blizzard. Despite the late hour I lit the solid fuel stove as the temperature in the house was just +8ºC. Outside it was -6.

The next day I stomped down the track on snowshoes to check on the car. It was now partly buried in fresh snow. The road still hadn’t been ploughed so there was no point digging the car out of its drift. Even with snowshoes on I was sinking deep into the snow and the going was hard. The woods were beautiful though with great gobbets of snow weighing down the branches. Today I went out on skis for a few hours and found that they were even harder to use than the snowshoes as I ploughed a knee deep furrow through the soft snow. There were few animals or birds moving. The snow was too soft even for them. I’d seen a pheasant wading through the snow in the garden, just its head and neck visible. High above the woods a buzzard mewed and a flurry of wood pigeons exploded out of one tree but otherwise the woods were silent.

With more snow forecast and a hard freeze every night this could be the start of a long, cold winter. Or of course a warm spell could strip away the snow in a few days and leave the hills bare. But until then winter is truly here.

Photo Info: Strathspey in the Snow, November 28, 2010. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@33mm, 1/400@f8, ISO 200, raw file processed in Lightroom 3.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Book Review: Cairngorm John by John Allen

This is a book I’ve been meaning to read since it was first published last year, partly because of the many good reviews it received (it was short listed for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature) but also because it’s about mountain rescue in the Cairngorms, my home mountains. John Allen was a member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team for 35 years and team leader for the last 18 of those years. Cairngorm John was his call name when talking to RAF rescue helicopters. His book describes the development of the rescue team during those years and the vital role it plays in saving lives. Many examples of rescues are given, some when lives were saved, some when they were not. Some I remember following in the news at the time. Even when I knew the outcome I found the stories gripping. The writing is both terse and stark yet at the same time conveys well the feelings of the author and the intensity of a rescue. The dedication and professionalism of the rescue team comes across clearly as well, reminding me of how lucky climbers and walkers are to have such people prepared to come out in appalling conditions to help anyone in trouble in the hills. In all cases bar one there is no criticism or condemnation of those who need rescuing. Instead there is an understanding that accidents can happen to anyone. Indeed Allen describes an accident he himself suffered – though in this case he and his companion managed to effect a self-rescue.

The book is also valuable in giving a clear account of how a mountain rescue team works and the complex logistics involved. The close relationship between the civilian team and the RAF Search and Rescue teams is shown too. Anyone wanting to know about mountain rescue – even if there is no interest in the Cairngorms – will learn much from this book. I highly recommend it. At a time when the RAF Search and Rescue is to be replaced with private teams and it is unclear what will happen to the rescue centre currently based at Kinloss it should be required reading for those politicians who appear to have little understanding of mountain rescue or its importance.

Photo info: Looking down into mist-filled Coire Lochain from Cairn Lochan on the northern rim of the Cairngorm Plateau. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55@18mm, 1/400 @ f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

A Quiet White-Out on Creag Meagaidh

High pressure in winter can often mean dull calm weather with sheets of grey cloud covering the sky. Such was the prediction for the Cairngorms a few days ago. Further west though the forecast suggested the clouds might break and allow some sun through. With that in mind I decided to head for Creag Meagaidh, a big mountain in the heart of the Highlands that I hadn’t visited for a few years. Sure enough as I drove west patches of blue sky did appear and the clouds only capped the summits rather than hanging low over the whole landscape in a sombre grey blanket as they had in Strathspey. Leaving the car I wandered through the young woodland in lower Coire Ardair, woods that have sprung up since Creag Meagaidh became a national nature reserve in 1985 and grazing by sheep and deer was reduced. Leaving the trees I followed the curving path into the upper corrie where the great cliff at its head comes into view. One of the biggest mountain cliffs in Britain the Coire Ardair headwall is a dramatic tangle of buttresses, spires, ridges and gullies. At its foot lies Lochan a’Choire beside whose dark cold waters I camped. The ground here was wet but not far above the mountainside was white with snow and when I clambered into the lower reaches of a wide gully high above the lochan I could see massive icefalls decorating the grey rock walls. That night a gentle breeze brought occasional flurries of snow and racing clouds high above meant there were only glimpses of the stars. I left the tent door open so when I woke my first sight was of the great mountain wall rising above me.

Leaving the tent I headed up to the cleft known as The Window that separates Creag Meagaidh from hills to the east. The ascent is steep in places and I was soon kicking steps in the crunchy snow. I had my ice axe ready in case of a slip but the greater danger was of going through the snow and banging my leg on a hidden boulder. Alert to this I climbed slowly, testing each foot placement. Once beyond The Window the terrain eases and I was soon on the huge plateau that stretches some one and a half kilometres from the top of the Coire Ardair cliffs to the summit of Creag Meagaidh. The wind that had whistled through The Window was gone and all was quiet and calm, the only sound the crunch of my crampons in the icy snow. A thick mist covered the plateau and the snow and sky merged into one just a few hundred metres in front of me. Only wind blown ripples in the snow gave any definition to the ground and stopped me feeling disorientated in this quiet white-out. Eventually the summit cairn loomed up in front of me and I felt a bitter wind searing my face. The clouds swirled and broke about the mountain, suddenly revealing for brief seconds dark glens and lochs far below and distant white peaks. Occasionally the sun shone through the clouds, casting shadows on the snow, and lighting patches of hillside. I lingered in the chilly air, captivated by the magical impermanence of the light, then turned and plunged back down into the dense mist and made my way back to camp.

Photo Info: Camp in Coire Ardair. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@18mm, 1/50@f8, ISO 200, raw file processed in Lightroom 3.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Radio Scotland Out of Doors Landscape Debate

Following on from BBC Scotland’s interesting Making Scotland’s Landscape TV series BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme held a debate on Scotland’s landscape that will be broadcast this weekend. I was in the audience on behalf of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and asked a question though this may not be broadcast as far more material was recorded than will be used. Overall I found the debate disappointing as the voice of outdoor and conservation bodies was barely heard. There was no-one representing these interests on the panel, which was dominated by the National Farmers Union and the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, whose general line was that all was well with the landscape, which was cared for well by farmers and landowners, and that developments like bulldozed roads, pylons and wind turbines were acceptable. And anyway people would get used to them.

I will be interested to hear which parts of the debate make it to the final broadcast.

Note. The date of the broadcast has changed and it will now be the coming weekend, Sat 27 and Sun 28th November.

Photo info: Acceptable development? Pylons in Corrieyairick Pass. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55@47mm, 1/640 @ f8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Monday 15 November 2010

A Real Winter's Day

Dawn came with a hard frost and a clear sky. The evening’s rain had frozen into hard, sharp whiteness on every surface. The ground was rippled with rock solid ice-bound mud. The forecast was good, with light winds and maybe the occasional shower predicted. The mountains shone white in the low early sun. Time, I thought, to go and see how much snow was up there. In the glen a breeze flickered, cold and piercing. Once I was on the mountain, above the trees, the wind was much stronger, sweeping chilling spindrift across the slopes, a hazy mass of moving snow slithers that undulated over the ground like water. Within half an hour of setting out I was labouring through knee-deep drifts and my hands and head were cold. I stopped to clip on snowshoes, don overmitts and pull up my jacket hood. As I climbed the wind strengthened and gusted, sometimes blasting the spindrift head height. The landscape was mobile, flowing with the wind. In lulls distant views were suddenly clear and distinct. Loch Morlich steel blue amongst the dark green of the forest. The white summit cone of Meall a’Bhuachaille a bright white above brown moorland. Then the wind whipped the spindrift up into the air and the views dissolved into indistinct and muddled shapes. Distance became hard to judge and boulders loomed up like huge cliffs. The eastern slopes of Cairn Gorm gave some protection, the full blast of the south-west wind muted by the mountain. Then on the summit all was grey and white as cloud and spindrift mingled and swirled together. The weather station came and went in the shifting mist, a rime ice plastered strangeness. The wind was bitter and powerful and I didn’t linger but continued west down from the summit. The sun was a silver orb, brightening and dimming as the clouds shifted. For brief moments the Northern Corries appeared under a blue sky. Then I was back in the icy air, struggling to stay on my feet and not be blown over the rapidly growing cornice into Coire Cas. Struggling on into the wind seemed both unwise and unpleasant so I dropped down into calmer air and gentler weather. Back down in the glen the sun shone and the pines hardly moved in the breeze. The white mountains looked calm and serene with soft white clouds drifting over the summits. But up there, I knew, it was a real winter’s day.

Photo Info: Top: Cairngorm Weather Station. Bottom: Across the Northern Corries from the western slopes of Cairn Gorm. November 15, 2010. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@52mm & 18mm, 1/4000@f9, ISO 800, raw file processed in Lightroom 3.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Wild Camp, Wild Weather

After a week of dreich weather the forecast suggested there might be a short window in the storms with an afternoon mostly free of clouds followed by a frosty night. Not having been camping since my return from the Pacific Northwest Trail a month ago I was keen to spend a night in the wilds and this seemed a good opportunity. For my first wild camp back in the Highlands I wanted to be somewhere special. The image that came immediately to mind was that of the magnificent cliff-ringed bowl at the head of Loch Avon in the Cairngorms so it was there I would go.

I set off in drizzle with the hills draped in thick mist hoping the forecast was accurate. Soon I was in the clouds but being on familiar ground I didn’t need map or compass. The ground was sodden from recent rain and the burns were racing down the hillsides. A steep, rough, eroded path led down out of Coire Domhain and out of the mist. Below me boulder-strewn slopes stretched out to long Loch Avon. The Feith Buidhe and Garbh Uisge burns roared down the ragged hillside between the big cliffs to merge into a whitewater stream that raced through the little meadows and heathery knolls of the corrie floor to the loch.

Down by the stream I sought a dry camp site but everywhere flat oozed water at every step. Choosing the least squelchy spot I could find I pitched the tent. Thin but wetting drizzle filled the air. Soon I was inside and dry and warm in thick clothing and sleeping bag with water heating on the stove for a mug of hot chocolate. The temperature was +4ºC. Heavier rain and an increasingly gusty wind kept me in the tent reading all evening. So far the weather forecast was looking badly wrong.

During the night I was woken several times by blasts of wind shaking the tent and by drips of condensation shaken off the fabric onto my face. At 4.30 a.m. I noticed that the ground round the edge of the tent porch was white. The rain had turned to snow. The wind was also waning and I didn’t wake again until 7.30, when the eastern sky was glowing with the dawn and there were stars high above. Only a few thin clouds remained. A light splattering of wet snow covered the ground, the edges of the tent were frozen and there was ice in my water bottles. The temperature was -1ºC and the air was crisp instead of soggy. Watching the wild landscape come to life as the light strengthened was the highlight of this short trip, the time when I was glad to be out there, glad to be a witness to a new day in the mountains. By the time I left, after a few hours of scenery watching and photography, the sky was clouding over and the brightness had died away. The break in the stormy weather had arrived in the early hours of the morning and was slipping away by midday. By the time I had climbed back up to the Cairngorm Plateau I was in clouds again. By early afternoon the rain had returned – and I was in a café in Aviemore looking out at the busy streets.

Photo Info: Early morning at the camp in the Loch Avon basin. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@22mm, 1/125@f8, ISO 250, raw file processed in Lightroom 3.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

New TGO: Scotland book, Through the Cascades on the Pacific Northwest Trail & Petzl rechargeable battery review

The latest issue of TGO – December 2010 - has just been published. There’s an illustrated excerpt on the Cairngorms from my new Scotland book with an introduction about how I came to be so involved with the Scottish mountains and what writing the book involved. My Backpacking Column covers the Cascade Mountains section of my Pacific Northwest Trail walk. Since my return from the trail I’ve begun gear testing again and this issue has my first post-walk review, covering Petzl’s innovative Core USB rechargeable battery and programmable headlamp.

Elsewhere in gear John Manning looks at 13 insulated hats – a good topic for the time of year and which reminded me to look out my Lowe Mountain Cap, Judy Armstrong reviews 15 pairs of waterproof overtrousers, Cameron McNeish praises Vaude’s ultralight Power Lizard tent and Eddy Meechan is taken with Terra Nova’s ultralight Cuben Fiber Ultra 20 pack.

Also in this issue Vivienne Crow looks at how repairs to the Lakeland fells are progressing a year after the 2009 floods, Cameron McNeish praises smaller hills, Emily Rodway meets walking artist Hamish Fulton, Dan Bailey explores the landscape between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks, Stephen Venables follows in the footsteps of the great mountain explorer Eric Shipton, Carey Davies meets the mountain measuring men of G&J Surveys and Jim Perrin celebrates Cwm Pennant. There’s a reader survey too so you can tell the editors what you think of the magazine.

Photo info: Mount Baker in the North Cascades during the only 12 hours of sunny weather I had in ten days.. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@55mm, 1/250 @ f8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.