Wednesday 30 November 2011

Skiing Yellowstone With Igloo Ed

 With snow falling in the hills and winter finally starting in the Scottish Highlands I'm looking forward to ski touring and igloo building. As a taster for winter adventures to come here's an account, which first appeared in TGO, of one of the most extraordinary and enjoyable ski tours I've ever undertaken.

Cold, icy mist drifted over the Firehole River, a freezing grey wall hiding the land. Crossing the bridge over the river we skied into this dawn mist and my weirdest start to a wilderness trip ever. On the far side lay Biscuit Basin, an area of geysers, hot springs, bubbling mudpots and mineral stained crusted smoking ground through which a snow-covered boardwalk threaded a narrow way. Geysers exploded into the air, sending up vast plumes of steam that mingled with the mist. Skiing through the warm clouds of steam dampened us. Then when we emerged back into the freezing air the moisture froze, coating us with frost and ice.

Biscuit Basin lies on the main south-north road through Yellowstone National Park a few miles north of Old Faithful village. You can’t drive there in a car in winter though. The roads are snow-covered and closed to non-tracked vehicles. We’d come in the day before on a snowcoach, a noisy, bone-shaking journey made enjoyable by our entertaining companions, our informative driver/guide Sarah, the splendid scenery and regular stops to visit waterfalls and thermal features. Our snowcoach friends, like many winter visitors to Yellowstone, were going cross-country skiing on cut tracks. We were heading into the untracked wilderness and would see no-one for the next week. My companion on this adventure was Ed Huesers from Colorado, who makes a tool for building igloos called the Ice Box. Our plan was to live in igloos and explore the wilderness west of Biscuit Basin, a vast, steep sided, undulating region around 8,500 feet high known as the Madison Plateau that contains several remote thermal areas.

Yellowstone, the first national park in the world, is a supervolcano sitting atop one of the largest masses of molten rock lying close to the earth’s surface that exists, known with great understatement as a hotspot. The supervolcano last erupted some 630,000 years ago, though there have been smaller lava flows since. The Yellowstone landscape is formed by the lava and ash spewed out in eruptions and then shaped by glaciers and water. The volcanic forces are still active, as evidenced by over 10,000 thermal features, more than anywhere else in the world. One day the Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt again. One day.

Our immediate concern though as we left Biscuit Basin was to find a way up the steep slopes of the narrowing Little Firehole River valley to the undulating wooded plateau above. A deep basin cutting back into the slope looked a possible weakness, though there was a band of low cliffs around the rim, and we headed up this slowly, dragging sleds packed with winter equipment and supplies behind us. The snow was soft and deep in the trees, hard and icy in open areas. Dead trees and boulders lying just beneath the snow caught skis and sleds, bushy young trees snatched at pole baskets and sled straps. At times the sleds slid back down the slope pulling the hauler over. Climbing skins on the skis strained to maintain grip while dragging the sled back up. Finally we breached the cliffs and reached the rim of the plateau and the reward of a splendid view of the Upper Geyser Basin stretching back to Old Faithful, with columns of steam rising into the now mist-free air from a stark monochrome landscape of snow and dark conifers.

Turning away from the views we skied through dense forest, making slow progress in the mix of breakable crust and deep sugary snow and further hampered by the many areas of fallen trees. These were from the great fire of 1988 that burned much of Yellowstone’s woods. Many of the dead trees still stood, grey and skeletal, their limbs snapped off. But there were also many young trees, often packed closely together, showing that life had returned. In the late afternoon we selected a spot on the rim of the plateau and started to build our first igloo. To do this shovelfuls of snow are heaped into a form and then pressed down to form the blocks of the igloo. However the sugar snow we had to work with was very slow to consolidate and each block took a long, long time to make. It was well after midnight before we finished and could crawl into the igloo, melt snow and make dinner. We finally lay down to sleep at 4 a.m. after an exhausting 23 hour day.

Inside the igloo it was surprisingly warm, -3ºC, with the stove going, -7ºC without. Outside it was -23ºC.  It was drier and roomier than a backpacking tent too, with no condensation, room to sit up on the sleeping platforms with feet on the floor and a table for cooking. Outside sounds were cut out completely but daylight percolated through the walls.

Unsurprisingly a slow, leisurely day followed, during which we broke trail through to Little Firehole Meadows then returned to the igloo. After all that effort we weren’t going to abandon it after one day. The morning was sunny but clouds rolled in after noon and light snow was falling by evening. There were many tracks of all sizes in the forest. None were clear. Fox, coyote, wolf, moose and ground squirrel were all possible. However the only wildlife we saw were little mountain chickadees (a type of tit) and big black ravens, both year round denizens of the forest.

The following day our tracks made for a speedy return to Little Firehole Meadows, this time with the loaded sleds. The meadows were extensive, spreading out amongst groves of trees with steep wooded slopes rising all around. The slow meandering Little Firehole River wound its way through the snow-covered meadows, fed by little creeks, all open despite the low temperatures due to the thermally heated water. To continue through the meadows we had to ford the river. This was a new situation to me. I’d skied across many frozen rivers and lakes but had never had to cross open water in such cold temperatures. The day before we’d cleared snow to make a platform on the bank and here we loaded our sleds and skis onto packs ready for the crossing. I went first, barefoot with trousers rolled up, into water that appeared only knee-deep. However a thick mat of green water plants covered the river bed, which consisted of soft, deep mud. The plants gave way disconcertingly under my feet, causing me to wobble under my top heavy load, and once through the vegetation I sank into the mud. Soon I was wading thigh-deep, my trousers soaked. I didn’t feel cold though. That came when I clambered out onto the snow-covered bank. The shock of freezing air and snow on my wet, bare legs was excruciatingly painful and left me gasping. Perched on my foam pad I hurriedly rolled my trousers down, pulled on my socks and boots and swigged hot lemonade from my flask. Ed, watching, removed his trousers and started across. His load was taller and less stable than mine and it began to lurch to one side almost immediately. He still made it almost the whole way across before he started to topple over, desperately trying to dump his load on the bank. I grabbed the nearest object to me, a ski, but it began to pull out of the load so I had to release it and seize the top of the sled itself. As I did this the load pushed Ed down so that his face was in the water momentarily. Once free of the load Ed had to cross back to collect gear he hadn’t been able to manage on the first ford. By the time he’d made his third crossing his feet and legs were turning numb and I had to help get his trousers and boots back on. Then we harnessed up the sleds and strode across the meadows to warm up. Luckily Ed’s load was dry, only the front of his waterproof jacket and his wool shirt were wet.

Out in the meadows we found a lovely situation for our second igloo, on a big snow drift on the edge of a grove of trees looking out across the meadows to the steep slopes of the Madison Plateau. The snow was more powdery here, still slow to form into blocks but better than the coarse sugar snow in the forest. It was still after dark when we finished the igloo. We woke to snow falling and a bitter north wind and spent a few hours breaking trail across the meadows to the slopes lying below an area known as Smokejumper Hot Springs before retreating to the warmth and comfort of the igloo. There was little to see in the swirling snow but some fine big lodgepole pines and some big grey grouse. That evening the clouds cleared and a full moon shone in a cold blue sky. Tree shadows were sharp on the snow and the visibility was greater than it had been during the day. The temperature plummeted. Our boots squeaked in the snow and sharp cracks rang out across the meadows, wood splitting as sap froze in the trees. Later we heard that the temperature in West Yellowstone, some 25 miles away, had fallen to -36ºC.

There followed a day of snow and wind and low cloud and a bizarre, weird and eerie mix of thermal features and atmospheric conditions. Heading for Smokejumper Hot Springs we climbed out of the meadows up a steep thickly wooded gully. Suddenly we emerged out of the trees into a narrow smoky chasm, an unexpected thermal area not on our maps. A steaming stream ran past hot springs and warm pools. The clouds of steam condensed on the trees into grotesque shapes. Gingerly we picked a way through this fascinating terrain, hoping the ground would not give way and pitch us into hot water or mud, then climbed out steeply through deep, soft snow. Back in the silent forest we climbed on to reach the mist-shrouded plateau. A whiff of sulphur swept by on the cold wind. We sniffed, turned and followed the smell to the hot springs, the first time I’ve ever navigated with my nose. Snow was falling, mist drifted through the trees and steam rose from the springs, pools and smoking cracks in the earth that faded in and out view. 

Back at the igloo the snow fell and the wind roared, a cold and stormy end to the day.  Dawn came with a rising sun and clear sky though the gusty wind was pickup up spindrift and blasting it across the meadows. Leaving our igloo home for the last time we skied into the woods and headed back towards Biscuit Basin. Part way there we picked up the waymarks of the Summit Lake Trail, a path I’d walked on my first visit to Yellowstone on the Continental Divide Trail 22 long years before. Then it had been summer and the forest had not yet burned. No memories came back. It all felt new. Steep wooded slopes led down to the Firehole River valley, across which we could see the big bulge of Mallard Lake Dome and, far in the distance, the ragged outline of the Beartooth Mountains. A final delight awaited us. At the base of the slopes on the edge of Biscuit Basin bison and elk were grazing, scraping away the thin snow around the heated ground. We watched them for awhile then skied on to a final challenge, a branch of the Little Firehole River that wasn’t bridged. A logjam provided a way across, the main difficulty being sliding the sleds across the snow on a latticework of precarious logs. Then it was through the thermal area, much more visible now without the morning mist. Back on the road Ed stuck out his thumb. A snowmobile soon stopped and then a snowcoach and soon we were ensconced in the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful having a celebratory drink after one of the most intense and strange ski tours I’ve ever undertaken.


Yellowstone National Park


Trails Illustrated 1:168,500 Yellowstone National Park
Earthwalk 1:106,250 Hiking Map & Guide Yellowstone National Park
Trails Illustrated  1:63,360 Southwest Yellowstone - Old Faithful Trail Map


Yellowstone Official National Park Handbook by David Rains Wallace (NPS)

Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks by Bradley Mayhew, Andrew Dean Nystrom & Amy Marr (Lonely Planet)


Letters From Yellowstone by Diane Smith (Penguin)

Ed’s Ice Box

Friday 25 November 2011

Finally, Winter Arrives.........Maybe

Today the snow came. Heavy and wet in the glens, dry and windblown on the hills. Overnight a gusty wind rattled round the house and I woke to sleet falling and an edging of whiteness on the lower slopes of the Cromdale Hills, their summits shrouded in the grey clouds that ripped across the sky. I drove to Aviemore in squalls of heavy snow, huge flakes sweeping over the road and building up on the wipers even when they were moving. For three weeks the weather has paused, a prolonged autumn, sunny, calm and warm. Now perhaps winter is really starting.

After a morning meeting during which I could see snow driving past the windows of the Mountain Café I had a need to venture into the hills and at least feel a touch of this wintry weather. With only a few hours before dark I headed up the track known as the Burma Road that runs from just outside Aviemore over the eastern Monadh Liath hills to the Dulnain River and is the easiest route to 824 metre Geal-charn Mor, the highest hill in this part of the range. In the pleasant pine and birch woodland at the start of the climb wet snow was scattered over the vegetation, some sticking, some thawing. There was still colour in the landscape, especially the fading golden brown of decaying bracken plus the last few green leaves on streamside shrubs.

 Soon though I was heading out of the trees into a monochrome world where sky and land were shades of grey, merging together in the frequent blasts of almost horizontal snow. The wind was strong and cold. The lying snow was still soft and gave gently underfoot, a welcome feeling. Ahead the track snacked up the hillside, a ribbon of almost unbroken white. Either side dark sprigs of heather still pushed through the snow, giving the land a pied look. Breaking trail through fresh, untouched snow for the first time since last winter was a joy, even if I was on a Landover track. 

Between the snow storms I could see the hills, noting the waves of spindrift blowing off their crests and the build-up of snow on the lee slopes. The snow on the track became firmer and harder, packed by the wind. Puddles were lightly iced over, with snow flakes building up on the soft ice. At the highpoint of the route, at 700 metres, the track was suddenly bare gravel, the snow blasted off by the wind. Down below I could see the dark slash of the Dulnain glen. I looked across to the gentle slopes of Geal-charn Mor, only 124 metres higher and just a kilometre away. I knew it was not an easy walk though as there was no path and the terrain was a mass of heather tussocks. It was arduous in summer. With snow filling and hiding the spaces between the tussocks it would be even more so. I looked at my watch. Sunset in less than half an hour. Did I want a navigation exercise in the dark on snowy terrain in strong winds and probably a blizzard as well? I could feel spindrift blasting against my legs. Occasionally the wind whipped it up in my face. I watched the swirls off snow blowing off Geal-charn Mor turned and headed back down the track and into the darkening woods. A winter summit could wait. This was enough for today. I had ventured out into the snow and tested winter.

I would return here when the snow was deeper and ski over Geal-charn Mor, the easiest and most enjoyable way to traverse this hill. This won’t be in the next few days though. Winds gusting to over 100mph on the summits are forecast for the next two days, dropping to 80mph after that. More snow is forecast as well though so maybe in a week or so the first ski tour will be feasible. I hope so.

Thursday 24 November 2011

BBC Alba Interview on the Proposed Allt Duine Windfarm

Yesterday I went over to Aviemore to be interviewed on behalf of the Save the Monadhliath Mountains by Debby Waldron for BBC Alba. The subject was the proposed Allt Duine windfarm. We agreed to meet in the excellent Mountain Cafe and that's where, due to the weather, we stayed, Debby setting up her camera and recording gear in a corner and interviewing and filming me while I tried to ignore the stares of other customers. After three weeks of dry, mild and often sunny weather I'd woken - not unexpectedly, as it was forecast - to high winds, dark low clouds and rain. Any likelihood of an outdoor recording or of going somewhere we could see the Monadh Liath was gone.

The interview will probably be broadcast on both radio and television on BBC Alba (in English - I don't speak Gaelic) and possibly on Reporting Scotland next Tuesday, November 29th.

Monday 21 November 2011

Review of The Backpacker's Handbook Fourth Edition

I'm pleased to say that the first review I've seen of the fourth edition of The Backpacker's Handbook has appeared on and the reviewer likes my book. Thanks!

Saturday 19 November 2011

TGO Challenge 2008 Revisited

On the saddle between Aonach Mor and Sgurr Choinnich Mor

The TGO Challenge is a unique backpacking event that takes place every May and involves crossing the Scottish Highlands from coast to coast. The letters of acceptance for the TGO Challenge 2012 have just been sent out to those successful in the draw for places so many people will be poring over maps and guidebooks as they start planning their routes. 2012 will be my 14th Challenge. As yet I haven't decided on a start point, let alone a route, though the latter will involve many hills, as always. Here I've posted a feature I wrote for TGO on the 2008 Challenge to give a taster as to what the Challenge - or indeed any long walk in the Scottish Highlands - can be like.


Thinking back to previous Challenges as I set out this year on my 12th I realised that I categorised them according to dominant features, usually weather related. The hot, the cold, the sunny, the wet, the dry, the windy, the snowy, the tent free (bothies most of the way), the sociable. What, I wondered, would this year bring. The answer was to be surprising. It was the Challenge of the Camp Sites. Now camp sites are important on every Challenge for me. I’m not one of those backpackers for whom the overnight camp is just a necessity. I take great pleasure in wild sites and in being able to stay overnight in the hills. For that reason I don’t plan very long days - they average around 15 miles - as I want to have time to enjoy my camps. There are memorable camps on every Challenge but on some the weather had forced me into the tent for longer than I’d like while on others my route hasn’t been the best for scenic sites. This year however the route, the weather and wonderful camps all came together.

The start was not encouraging. I left Lochailort on a humid evening with the clouds low over the hills and camped after a few hours beside Loch Beoraid. Some early midges seeking first blood drove me into the tent. Rain fell during the night and I woke in the morning to mist around the tent. Shrouded in damp cloud I plodded up Sgurr na Coireachan. Unexpectedly, as I approached the summit, the world changed. I came out of the dense mist to sudden space and light. Dark peaks were rising out of the cloud-filled glens all around. High above more clouds swirled, parting briefly at times to reveal patches of blue sky and to allow bursts of sunshine to escape. The walk to Sgurr Thuilm was magical, the solid ridge seemingly suspended in the air above the insubstantial drifting mist. I had intended on camping down in Glen Finnan but I was reluctant to descend back into the mist so instead I pitched the tent not far below the summit of Sgurr Thuilm with a fine view back to Sgurr nan Coireachan, the first fine camp. Heavy rain again fell during the night and again the morning was misty. Compass work was needed to cross the ridges to the east and climb Gulvain. Dark clouds made the thought of Glensulaig bothy tempting but the view from the saddle below Meall a’Phubuill was too good to pass by and I camped amongst the peat hags with a view back to the long dipping ridge of Gulvain. Two heavily laden walkers passed by. Challengers obviously. Di Gerrard and Ngomo Charles Karugu were heading for the bothy. Maybe see you tomorrow, I said. In fact it would be Montrose before I saw them again and I met no other Challengers the whole way across. This could have been the solitude Challenge, except that there have been others when I’ve met no one at all (never intentional – I just seem to pick unpopular routes!). Looks like rain, they said as they departed. Black clouds were pouring in from the east. Within minutes heavy rain was hammering down. After an hour it ceased, leaving a lovely refreshed evening. Later I heard that Challengers further east in the Grey Corries were caught in a big thunderstorm, the edge of which had just brushed my camp.
On the saddle below Meall a'Phubuill just after the storm
The Druim Fada ridge, much the best way to reach the Great Glen from the west, led to the Caledonian Canal and a hot and enervating Fort William where I spent the best part of a day browsing in shops and nibbling in cafes. I wanted to climb Ben Nevis but not in this heat. Although I’d climbed the Ben on other long walks I’d never done so on the Challenge, turned away at different times by snow, wind and cloud. Late in the afternoon I set off, my pack the heaviest it would be with six days supplies inside. Dozens of people were descending. Many just gave me strange looks (some directed at my sandals). Others commented on the lateness of the hour and warned me there was snow on the summit. “I know”, I replied to the first, and “good” to the second. The latter met with surprised looks. But it was the snow that had me climbing the Ben in the evening. Looking at the snow-capped mountain from the Druim Fada the day before I’d suddenly realised that the snow meant a soft bed for camping and a water supply. When snow free the summit of the Ben is a huge boulder field on which pitching a tent would be extremely difficult and sleeping comfortably even harder. There is a small, dark, smelly and rubbish-filled shelter but the idea of using this had always struck me as unpleasant.

By the time I reached the summit the last day walkers had long descended and I was alone. I pitched the tent on deep snow near the trig point then wandered round the summit plateau watching the hills all around slowly sinking into night. Across Glen Nevis the Mamores turned a rich red and gold. Beyond the dark cliffs of the north face Loch Eil shone in the last sunlight. A raven wheeled overhead and a snow bunting hoped about on the snow, hoping for crumbs. A half moon rose and the first stars glittered. All was calm and silent. The snow made for the softest and least bumpy pitch of the whole walk and I slept well, waking to a gusty east wind, drifting mist and a hazy sun. When I finally left the cloud had sunk down into the glens and bright sunshine shone on the Ben. I’d had the summit to myself for 14 hours. After crossing the Carn Mor Dearg arête I looked back at the vast magnificent north face of Ben Nevis and marvelled that I’d camped on the summit. It was the high point of the walk, both literally and emotionally.

On the summit of Ben Nevis
The fine sites were not over though. That night I camped on the saddle between Aonach Beag and Sgurr Choinnich Mor and then, after traversing the Grey Corries, beside Loch Treig, where dawn saw an absolutely calm loch with beautiful reflections. Two nights later I was in Gaick Pass after being briefly lashed by hail on Carn na Caim. I woke to ice in my water bottles, frost on the tent and a temperature of -2˚C. But outside the sun was starting to warm the hillsides. Two red deer grazed nearby, glancing at the tent nervously. A snipe drummed overhead. I breakfasted outside as the tent dried. Four nights remained, of which two were memorable. One was Tarf Bothy, now renovated and roomy, the other beside the Water of Mark, high on the moors before the final descent to the lowlands and the coast.

In Gaick Pass

The night on Ben Nevis was one of the finest wild camps I’ve ever had anywhere, enough on its own to make this year’s Challenge special. Combined with the other excellent wild camps it explained yet again why I keep coming back. Every Challenge is unique and every one has something exceptional and memorable about it. I wonder how I’ll remember next year’s.

 By Loch Treig

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Pacific Northwest Trail book to come - 'Grizzly Bears & Razor Clams'

In the Selkirk Mountains on the Pacific Northwest Trail.

I'm delighted to announce that I have a publisher for a book on my Pacific Northwest Trail walk and that the publisher is here in the Scottish Highlands - Sandstone Press. The book will be published next summer and will have many photographs as well as my words. The title is Grizzly Bears and Clam Shells: Walking America's Pacific Northwest Trail, for which, appropriately, I have the trail's founder Ron Strickland to thank. Now I'd better return to actually writing the book!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

A Year in the Life of the Cairngorms - Illustrated Talk in Grantown-on-Spey

This Thursday, November 17th, I'm giving an illustrated presentation about my book A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorms at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey at 7.30 p.m. Everybody welcome!

Sunday 13 November 2011

A Year With The Sony NEX 5

Last autumn I wrote a post about choosing a new camera for backpacking (see Cameras for Backpacking Decisions). The camera was the Sony NEX 5 which I’ve now been using for just over a year, taking well over 3,000 images. Most of the ones that have accompanied this blog since last October have been taken with the NEX 5 and images have appeared on other websites (especially my Southern Upland Way and Annandale Way route descriptions for WalkHighlands), in TGO magazine and, in black and white, in the new edition of The Backpacker’s Handbook.

So, after a year, how happy am I with this camera? The answer is very happy. Is it the best designed and ergonomic camera I’ve ever used? No. That is still the Ricoh GR-D. However the NEX 5 produces better quality images than my DSLR. The GR-D images are noticeably inferior. And the handling of the NEX 5 seems much better now I am used to it. Initially I found it a little awkward simply because it was different to my Canon 450D. Now I find the 450D slower to use than the NEX 5 because I don’t use it as much. Is there anything I don’t like? Well, the video button is in an awkward place as I sometimes press it accidentally and start shooting unwanted video. And the battery life could be better. But that’s it.

I also find it more stable flipping up the screen and holding the NEX 5 against my chest than I do holding the 450D to my eye. And I like the 100% view on the screen and the exposure information, especially the histogram, so I can make adjustments before taking a picture. Having set the camera up to suit the way I work I can quickly change the settings I use most – aperture, speed and ISO. The real joy though is in the light weight and compact size. The 450D seems like a monster.

NEX images are good up to 800 ISO and usable at 1600. 3200 is passable. I like being able to crop images and still have good results. I do try to take the perfect composition in camera but lens length and location sometimes make this impossible. Here’s an example, shot for this post.

The only lens I use regularly with the NEX 5 is the 18-55 kit lens, which I find fine. I have a cheap adapter, bought off eBay, so I can use my Canon lens, though without aperture control or auto focusing, and I have played with this but it’s too clumsy to bother with outdoors.

I did think I might miss a viewfinder but this hasn’t happened. Indeed I bought a little folding viewfinder that fits over the screen so you can put it to your eye but I rarely use this. Even in bright sunshine the screen is usable if held against the chest.

Despite all this praise I don’t think the NEX 5 will be my first choice camera for much longer. That’s because of the new Sony NEX 5N and NEX 7 cameras, which both sound even better than the NEX 5. I’d like two NEX bodies anyway as I always carry two cameras on any trip where pictures are important. At present that’s the NEX 5 and the 450D. Either the 5N or the 7 will replace the latter. A decision will be made when I’ve had the chance to handle them both – which could be several months away as NEX 7 availability had been postponed due to the tragic floods in Thailand, which have affected Sony factories.

When I have two NEX bodies I will also swap my Canon 55-250 lens for the Sony 55-210. That will leave me short of a wide angle zoom, which Sony say they will introduce next year.

I’m looking forward to trying the new NEX cameras and lenses and in carrying a lighter load of camera gear whilst still taking the same quality pictures. I think the NEX system is ideal for backpacking if you want DSLR quality images without the bulk and weight of DSLR gear.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Good Advice for the Winter Hills from the MCofS

Winter hill walkers on Sgor Gaoith in the Cairngorms with clouds approaching.

Mountaineering Council of Scotland Winter Safety News Release
MCofS Chief Officer, David Gibson, says: “There is a poignant quote that goes: Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement. Having considered a selection of typical winter pitfalls, the MCofS has developed a Winter Check List which we hope will help hill walkers and climbers to enhance their ability to make good judgements and return home safe from enjoyable days in the mountains.”
The MCofS ten point winter check list is:
1. Check your head torch and GPS batteries are in good condition, renew them if they’re fading and always carry a spare set of batteries in your rucksack. Always check that everyone you go on the hill with has a head torch.
2. Carry a mobile phone whenever possible, but be aware that you won’t always get reception in remote places. Register with the SMS Emergency Text Service by visiting
3. Carry an emergency survival bag or bivvy shelter with you in winter.
4. Check that your crampons fit your boots before using them, and get into the habit of putting them on before you reach icy ground.
5. Carry your ice axe and know how to use it. Why not attend a MCofS Winter Skills Course?
6. Carry a big enough rucksack in winter. Using the same rucksack that you carry in summer is a recipe for an uncomfortable day when you are carrying extra winter kit.
7. Carry sufficient extra layers of clothing in winter. The temperature drops quickly as darkness falls and you should plan for unexpected delays and the possibility that you could be out on the hill for an extended period in the event of an incident.
8. Always check the mountain weather forecast before going out and be prepared to change your plans.
9. Always check the sportscotland Avalanche Information Service avalanche forecast and modify your route when the forecast indicates avalanche conditions on your planned route.
10. Know when to turn back: the summit is only the half-way point of your journey.
MCofS Mountain Safety Adviser, Heather Morning, said: “Now that the clocks have turned back it is time for anyone who goes out onto the Scottish hills in winter to give serious thought to preparing themselves and their kit for the season ahead. If there are one or two points in this list of ten that you hadn’t previously thought about then do something about it before your next trip to the hills.“
For further information contact Mike Dales on or go to the MCofS website at:

Wednesday 9 November 2011

New TGO: Winter Sleeping Bags, Night Hiking, Ben Macdui and Bynack More, Planning Food Supplies

Sunset in the Northwest Highlands with Quinag on the horizon.

The December issue of TGO has just been published with a host of articles relevant to the short days, long nights and cold of winter. I review 15 down sleeping bags designed to keep you warm on sub zero nights while Judy Armstrong looks at ice axes and crampons for hillwalkers. There's a feature on big hills that can be climbed on short winter days. My contribution is on Ben Macdui. Other hills covered include Blencathra and Tryfan. And for those times when staying out in the dark is unavoidable or even desired my backpacking column is about the pleasures of night hiking. In the Wild Walks section I describe a walk over Bynack More on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms, a long day that would definitely mean beginning or finishing in the dark in midwinter. Elsewhere in the Hill Skills section I discuss how to plan food supplies for a backpacking trip, with a picture from my Arizona Trail hike - UK readers please note, you won't find most of the food shown here in the local supermarket!

The rest of the magazine has much good stuff, including Cameron McNeish hoping the Ramblers will return to their former campaigning glories; Ed Byrne trying orienteering; Carey Davies canyon and walking in the Brecon Beacons; a profile of Ranulph Fiennes; Andy Stothert escaping to the fells above Patterdale in the Lake District; Lizzie Shepherd on Zagoria in Greece with some mouth-watering photos of an area I'd never heard of before; John Manning taking on the Yorkshire Three Peaks; Jim Perrin praising Patrick Monkhouse's On Foot In The Peak and Cameron McNeish rather far from his usual haunts in Shropshire.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Bright, Dry and Snow Free: A Day on the Cairngorm Plateau

By coincidence yesterday I found myself following the pattern of a piece I’d recently written for TGO magazine on big mountains that can be climbed on short winter days (which will be in the next issue – out very soon). A morning meeting was cancelled at the very last minute so as the day was fine I decided to head for the hills instead. However it already being 9.30am I was unlikely to actually start walking before 11 at the earliest and with sunset at 4.20pm that didn’t leave much daylight. So, following my TGO article, I decided on the Cairngorm Plateau and Ben Macdui from the Coire Cas car park as the latter is at over 600 metres.

The day was warm with just a gentle breeze during the ascent and I had my sleeves rolled up, which is unusual in November. Indeed, my most important item of gear was a pair of sunglasses, which I wore all the way to Ben Macdui as I was heading straight into the low sun. The last time I had worn them was in late August, which was also the last time I was in the hills on a clear sunny day. One word dominates all my journal entries since that trip – cloudy – so it was a joy to be out on a clear day. And what clarity! From the summit of Cairn Gorm I could see a great sweep of mountains from Lochnagar to the south right round the western horizon to Ben Wyvis to the north. Every one stood out sharp and distinct. Crossing the Plateau to Ben Macdui I was struck by the lack of snow – just a few tiny patches lurking in shaded hollows on north-east facing slopes. There was more snow than this in August. Indeed I think the hills are more snow free now that at any time this year. The pale brown arid stony plateau could have been a desert landscape rather than an arctic-alpine one. There were hints of winter though, with ice on the edge of pools and frozen puddles between the boulders. And the wind on the Plateau was keen, necessitating a jacket.

On Ben Macdui I could see that mist filled the glens far to the south and east, creating what must have been superb inversion conditions for anyone on the hills. Here though there was no mist and I could look down the wide gash of the Lairig Ghru to the summits beyond. The bright sun had lit the hills wonderfully all day but it was on the return across the Plateau in the late afternoon that the real glory of the day emerged. As the sun sank towards the horizon, sending long dark shadows across the landscape, it turned the hills a rich golden colour. Then the first touches of pink appeared on the scraps of cloud drifting across the sky. As planned I reached the northern edge of the plateau, above the great scoops of Coire an Lochain and Coire an t-Sneachda, as the sun set, knowing that at this time of year with the sun sinking into the north-west there was a likelihood of a vast sweep of colour across the distant horizon. And so it proved. The intervening ridges darkened into shades of blue and black whilst a sharp rippling line of silhouetted hills ran across the horizon below a sky slowly deepening into orange and red.

Meanwhile a big waxing moon rose in the south-east, with enough light to throw pale shadows. The combination of the last daylight and the first moonlight gave a strange purple cast to the hills.

By the time I reached the start of the descent down the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais the colours in the western sky were rich and deep while the hills were black below them. I stared as the last orange and red shades began to fade then made my way down the stony ridge and back to the dark empty car park. It had been one of the best days on the hills of the year. I’m glad that meeting was cancelled.