Thursday 30 December 2010

Rab Infinity Review

A down jacket has been ideal for keeping warm in the freezing weather of the last five weeks. A new one on the market this winter is the Rab Infinity, which I've been testing. My review is now up on the TGO website here.

Photo info: the Rab Infinity keeping me warm in freezing weather in Strathspey. Canon 450D, Canon EF 50mm f1.8 lens, 1/1000@f4.5, ISO 200, raw file processed in Lightroom 3.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Destroying the Wild: the Dunmaglass Wind Turbines

A huge, remote and lonely moorland plateau lies to the north of the Cairngorms, filling the massive roadless area between the A9 road in the east and the Great Glen in the west. This is the Monadh Liath, the grey hills, an area of rolling heather upland with vast skies and an awe-inspiring sense of space and wild nature. In the heart of the area is the Dunmaglass estate, bordered to the west by one of the remotest Corbetts (peaks between 2500 and 3000 feet) in the Highlands, Carn na Saobhaidhe. Although not distinctive in itself this flat-topped hill gives extensive views all around, across the Monadh Liath to distant peaks. There is an amazing feeling of being deep in the wilds and far from the works of humanity. It’s a place for solitude, reflection and peace. But it won’t be for long. Today the Scottish government gave permission for an enormous wind farm on the Dunmaglass estate. Thirty-three giant turbines will tower above the landscape over a four-mile square area, each one linked by power lines and bulldozed roads. The landscape will be industrialised, ripped apart, trashed. To what end? “Green” power says the Scottish government, which begs the question as to why here when there are many other possible sites and also as to just how useful wind farms are when they produce no power during periods of calm, cold weather such as we’ve had the last month. Money says absentee estate owner Sir Jack Hayward, who will pocket millions without raising a finger or spending a penny. Money too, says RES, the company behind the wind farm who will benefit to the tune of £120 million from the tax payer.

And so that the 1/125th richest man in Britain, who already has £160 million, can become even richer in his Bahamas tax haven and a construction company, part of the McAlpine group, can make even more money a unique and beautiful area of wild land will be destroyed, along with the wildlife that lives there. I find this sickening, appalling and depressing, an act of barbaric vandalism. It’s also worrying because if this is how the Scottish government responds to this application what will happen to other applications for environment-destroying wind farms? How much more will we lose? The Dunmaglass wind farm was opposed by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (you can see our objection here) and the John Muir Trust (objection here). This is a defeat but we have to fight on and it’s through these organisations that we can do so. Please support them.

Late night edit: excellent posts on the Dunmaglass obscenity by Cameron McNeish and Alan Sloman can be found on their blogs here and here.

Photo info: A wild camp on the Monadh Liath. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55@21mm, 1/80 @ f8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Top Ten Favourite New Items of Gear for 2010

Looking back at the new gear I’ve tried for the first time this year a number of items stand out. Unsurprisingly many of them were used on my Pacific Northwest Trail walk over the summer.

Caldera Inferno Ti-Tri Sidewinder cook system

This is a great cooking system that I really enjoy using, especially as a wood burner. Lightweight, compact, efficient and works whatever the weather. On the PNT I used it mostly with wood for the first 6 weeks and then with alcohol most of the wet final month. It worked fine with both fuels.

Pacific Outdoor Equipment Ether Elite 6

Despite it springing a leak on the PNT this airbed became a favourite due to the comfort, light weight and low packed bulk. POE have replaced it with the Peak Elite AC. I have one on test and will be reporting on it for TGO soon.

Rab Demand Pull-On

This eVent waterproof smock kept me dry on many wet days during the last month of my PNT walk and was light and compact to carry during the first six weeks when it was rarely needed. I think it’s an ideal waterproof top for long distance backpacking.

Pod Ultralite Drysac and Lifeventure Dri-Store

These roll-top, seam-sealed, silnylon waterproof stuffsacks are superb. I don’t like pack covers and prefer to pack gear into waterproof bags inside the pack. These stuffsacks, which seem identical, are lightweight and tough. They kept my down quilt and jacket, spare clothing and other water-sensitive gear completely dry on the PNT.

Petzl Core USB Rechargeable Battery

With this unit, which fits neatly into Petzl’s Tikka, Zipka and Tikkina headlamps, the output and the battery life can be programmed and the headlamp used in regulated mode so the power remains constant. There’s some clever software so you can adjust the modes on screen. I’d have taken this on the PNT if I’d had one then.

GoLight Quest

I used this pack on the second half of the PNT and came to really like it. I’d used the Odyssey with the same back system as a winter backpacking sack for a few years so I knew it was comfortable. On the PNT I felt the Quest was an ideal combination of size, light weight and comfort with moderate loads.

Steripen Adventurer Opti

In the Scottish hills I don’t bother with water treatment. But in some places abroad it’s essential. On the PNT some sections were in ranching country where every water source had been trampled and muddied by cattle. I used this little UV light purifier to treat this water and never got sick so I guess it worked. No chemicals are involved and no complex, slow to use filtering either so when I have to treat water this is the purifier I would choose.

HTC Desire/ViewRanger

On the PNT I wanted to minimise the number of devices I carried so I took a smartphone with GPS plus ViewRanger software with US topo maps. This was a great success on the many occasions when I needed to locate my position in dense forest.

Sony NEX 5

This camera takes better quality pictures than my DSLR whilst being much lighter and more compact and so is better for backpacking. I wish I’d had it for the PNT.

Rab Infinity

I’ve been wearing this lovely, snug down jacket a fair bit this cold autumn and winter. It’s lightweight and packs small and so is ideal for cold weather backpacking. A detailed review will appear on the TGO website early in the new year.

Photo info: the Ti-Tri Inferno in use at Waterton Lakes campsite in Glacier National Park during my Pacific Northwest Trail hike. Canon 450D, Canon 18-55mm lens@28mm, 1/60@f5.6, ISO 800, raw file processed in Lightroom 3.

Friday 24 December 2010

Season's Greetings

River Spey with Snow and Swans

The River Spey in Strathspey is wide and fast. It doesn’t freeze easily and even after three weeks of mostly below freezing temperatures the river is still running strongly with ice confined to the margins and quiet pools and eddies. The water is dark, flashing silver when it catches the light, but the rocks that break the surface and the reeds and grasses in the shallows by the banks are white with hoar frost and snow. The banks are wooded and the leafless trees are also snow covered. Underfoot the snow crunches and the paths are only visible as tunnels running through the woods. Out on the water whooper swans drifted with the current or stood on patches of ice and rocks. I heard them calling before I saw them, a high trumpeting that gives them their name. A dozen or more were on the river and their calls grew much louder when four more wheeled overhead, their huge wings beating slowly. A tiny movement attracted my attention away from the great white birds – a tiny dipper, plumped out against the cold, bobbing on a rock, watching the swirling water. Also on the river were mallard ducks, paddling sedately in a calm backwater, then clambering out onto an ice floe. With the lakes freezing over and the hard frost continuing water birds need the open water of the rivers.

Photo Info: Top: the River Spey at Grantown-on-Spey; bottom: whooper swans on the River Spey, December 23, 2010. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@18 & 55mm, 1/200 & 1/160@f8, ISO 200, raw files processed in Lightroom 3.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Winter Sunset

A snowy winter landscape is mostly monochrome. There is little colour, often no more than the subtle patterning in the rocks or the dull dark green of conifers. At a distance trees and boulders look black, etched against the pale snow. When the sun shines the blue sky adds a wash of cold colour above the cold whiteness. Twice a day though there is the possibility of brilliant red and vivid orange searing across the sky and suffusing the landscape with warm colour. At dawn and dusk the rising and setting sun can light the clouds and cast a purple tinge over the white mountains. That has been the case several times in the last few weeks and many dull, cloudy days have ended in a blaze of hot colour belying the freezing temperatures. Such sunsets and sunrises occur when there is no snow of course but the cold and the snow makes them seem more intense and powerful.

Photo Info: Dusk over Bynack More. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 55 -250 lens@250mm, 1/250@f5.6,ISO 800,raw file processed in Lightroom 3.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Sometimes it makes sense to turn back.....

A brilliant sunset with the snow-covered mountains sharp against the sky had me longing to be skimming over those summits on skis. The forecast was mixed and somewhat confusing, with a threat of complete cloud cover but the promise of superb visibility. Wind speeds would be low and precipitation unlikely. The next day the clouds were there but patches of hazy blue sky suggested clearances were possible. I decided to be optimistic and set out up towards the Cairngorm Plateau, the climbing skins on my skis sticking firmly to the crunchy, crusty snow. Soon I was entering the cloud and the hints of blue had faded. The chilly breeze became a cold wind bringing sleet and drizzle. I zipped up my jacket and pulled up the hood. The sleet became heavier and soon froze on my clothing and pack. The slope grew steeper, the snow icier. The skins started to slip, a backwards jerk that tugged at the groin. A ski pole skidded off hard ice. Finding a flattish spot beside some rocks I decided crampons made more sense than skis. Changing from one to the other was not a simple procedure however. Balancing on one ski I unclipped my boot from the other one and slid it into the crampon whilst the wind whipped the sleet against me. Threading the crampon strap through the attachment rings and tightening it was finger-freezing work, my thin gloves inadequate for warmth and becoming wet from the sleet. I was glad I didn’t have the multi-strap crampons of old. Finally I had both crampons on and felt more secure as they bit into the icy snow. My fingers grew colder as I strapped the skis to my pack and swapped a ski pole for my ice axe. Setting off I regained some warmth with the effort of climbing and of resisting the wind which caught the skis and tried to blow me sideways. The cloud thickened, the sleet grew denser, the wind strengthened. All I could see was the white slope rising ahead and the occasional rock. Head down against the stinging, scouring, freezing, wind-blasted wet sleet I struggled on for a short while then stopped. I hadn’t reached the plateau yet. The wind would be stronger there, the visibility no better. These weren’t the conditions or the place to ponder long. Once the thought of turning back had occurred I knew it was the right thing to do. The wind was behind me, out of the north-east. I faced into and began the descent, relying on the points of my crampons to prevent me slipping. Once I reached the softer snow the crampons sank in and caught on rocks and bits of ice, becoming more of a hazard than a help. Time for the skis again. Changing back took even longer as the straps on my crampons and pack had frozen and had to be rubbed between my fingers before they would slide through the buckles. I ripped the skins off the skis and stuffed the wet, half-frozen bundles of sticky nylon into my pack. My gloves were sodden now and my fingers numb, a reminder of why I always carry several pairs in winter. Dry fleece gloves and weatherproof overmitts felt delightful. I skied carefully downwards, unable to see much detail in the snow and making big slow turns. The cloud base had lowered and I was still in it when I reached the car park. There was sleet here too and a colder, stronger wind than when I’d set out. The promise of that fine sunset had been false. I felt relieved at having turned back and surprised at how intense and demanding a few hours in a storm had been.

Photo info: The sunset over the Cairngorms that lured me out the next day with the hope of good weather. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250@100mm, 1/400 @ f5.6, ISO 800, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Wildlife in the Snow

The deep snow and bitter cold has made life hard for wildlife. Within hours of the first snowfall the number of birds visiting the feeders in the garden soared and the amount of food consumed each day soon tripled. Animals have become tamer too and start to watch out for food arriving. The rabbit in the picture appears as soon as I go outside and comes within a few feet of me to feed. The pheasants come running on seeing me too. Ground feeding birds like robins and dunnocks make mostly futile attempts to hang on the feeders. That's one reason I scatter some food on the snow each day. Then the small birds have to dart in and grab seeds before the rabbits and pheasants gobble them up.

These photos were all taken handheld through windows with the Canon 450D and 55-250 zoom lens on 400 ISO.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Grantown-on-Spey in the Snow

Yesterday I ventured into Grantown-on-Spey, half a mile on foot down a snowed-in track and five miles in the car on icy roads, for some needed supplies. While there I took some photographs of the frozen town. Much of the snow has been shovelled away now but there was still enough along with the icicles on shop fronts to give a wintry feel. With more snow forecast and no sign of a thaw for the next few days the town will continue to look and feel frozen.

Again wanting to see what the results were like I shot the pictures at ISO 12,800 on the Sony NEX 5. Shutter speeds were 1/2000 and 1/2500 and f stops f11 and f18. The results are surprisingly good for the huge ISO speed, though there is much noise. I'm amazed at what this sensor can produce.

Monday 6 December 2010

The Wireless Office

The wireless office sounds a great idea but doesn't seem to have arrived yet. This photo shows the clutter under my desk. Just out of sight are a pile of chargers and cables for GPS, phone, cameras, headtorch and rechargeable batteries. What a mess!

I actually took this shot while playing with the Sony NEX 5. It was taken handheld in low light at 1/30 at f3.5 at 18mm and ISO 12,800. It's noisy of course - about as noisy as a photo at ISO 800 on my Canon 450D or ISO 400 on the Ricoh GR-D compact. But this is ISO 12,800. Astonishing!

Sunday 5 December 2010

A Ski Tour in Strathspey

With complete snow cover from my front door to the tops of the nearest hills and the roads icy and slow to drive a local ski tour seemed a good idea rather than heading for the bigger mountains further west. Packing a flask of hot ginger cordial and a down jacket in my daypack and digging out an old pair of waxless skis and my leather touring boots, with the supergaiters that have been on them for over a decade, I set off down through the woods and across the glen to little 484 metre Tom Mor, which lies at the end of a broad and rather indistinct ridge of rounded heathery hills at the north-east edge of the Cairngorms National Park. It’s a nondescript top but does give good views across Strathspey to the higher Cromdale hills and, further west, the Northern Cairngorms. Ironically, the name means big hill. In a straight line Tom Mor is less than three kilometres from my house. With a large boggy meadow, a stream, two minor roads, several fences and a dense plantation in the way that’s not a good route however. My more roundabout way was nearly three times as long but meant I didn’t have to remove my skis to overcome any obstacles. The snow was a mix of deep windblown powder which deadened and slowed the skis and crusty, icy snow over which the skis skimmed fast or else broke through and sank, sometimes knee deep. Higher up the wind had whipped the snow into undulating waves, some soft, some hard. The air was bitingly cold and on the summit a brisk wind had me feeling chilly as soon as I stopped. I was glad of that hot drink and the snug warmth of the down jacket. The weather was mixed with short periods of sunshine and patches of intense blue sky but also sheets of grey clouds and occasional flurries of snow. I didn’t linger long on the summit but was soon swinging down the wide snowfields below the summit, a more direct line than my ascent route. I would like to say I swooped down in graceful turns but the combination of crusty snow and my old gear meant I played safe and descended in a series of long traverses linked by slow, careful turns. Returning up the glen I had the best light of the day as the low sun shone under the clouds, turning the snowfields a delicate shade of pink.

Photo Info: View across Strathspey to Carn a' Ghille Charr in the Cromdale Hills, December 5, 2010. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@55mm, 1/80@f8, ISO 200, raw file processed in Lightroom 3.

Saturday 4 December 2010

New TGO: Pacific Northwest Trail Final Report & Gear Review

The latest TGO (January 2011) has the last of my Pacific Northwest Trail reports plus a feature on the gear I used and how it performed. There’s also a nice review of my Scotland book by Roger Smith.

Elsewhere in the magazine Roger Smith calls for a national trails network for the whole of Britain, Emily Rodway interviews Nat Severs about his walk round the British coast, Andrew McCloy discusses the National Trust’s plan for fences on Kinder Scout and what that means for walkers and the landscape, Andy Stothert photographs a wintry Buttermere, Cameron McNeish explores Glen Etive, Andrew Terrill enthuses about bothy and hut life, Edoardo Albert visits Alderley Edge and Jim Perrin celebrates aimless wandering. In gear John Manning reviews socks and, like me, finds he prefers those with a high merino wool content, while Eddy Meecham convinces himself that an expensive customised Cuben Fiber tarp is justified.

Photo: The Belly River valley in Glacier National Park near the start of the Pacific Northwest Trail. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@24mm, 1/320 @ f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Friday 3 December 2010

Paramo Torres Sleeves TGO Review

TGO magazine carries comparative gear reviews every month and occasionally individual reviews. Space is limited in a paper magazine of course and reviews may not appear for several months. Websites don’t have space restrictions and starting today some of my reviews will appear on the TGO website (which already has hundreds of reviews that have appeared in the magazine which you can find here).

The first review is of the Paramo insulated Torres Sleeves.

Photo info: Torres Sleeves in use on Beinn Udlamain. EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@21mm, 1/200 @ f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Thursday 2 December 2010

ViewRanger on the Pacific Northwest Trail

On the Pacific Northwest Trail as well as paper maps I used ViewRanger software with topo maps on an HTC Desire phone. This worked really well and made navigation much easier in difficult terrain like that pictured where I was sometimes hiking cross-country and was often on old little-used and obscure trails. I've written a short account of using ViewRanger for the ViewRanger blog which you can read here.

Photo info:The Purcell Mountains. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@25mm, 1/50 @ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.