Thursday 29 December 2011

Top Ten Favourite New Gear Items 2011

Going through the many items I’ve tested for TGO magazine in 2011 I’ve come up with my favourites. They’re not necessarily the best in their class – though several of them are – but they are ones that have impressed me most this year.

I’ve only included gear that is generally available (though with one item this does mean ordering from the USA and then waiting awhile) so I’ve omitted Colin Ibbotson’s superb range of Tramplite Skins packs (see      my post for April 21 and April 22) as Colin has decided that producing these at present would interfere with his long distance walking plans. Much as I’d like to see his packs on the market he definitely has his priorities right.

The items are in no particular order.

Rab Stretch Neo Jacket in Polartec Neoshell

After a decade with no significant developments in waterproof/breathable fabrics 2011 saw two new ones launched. The first of these was Polartec Neoshell. I had the chance to test a Rab Stretch Neo jacket in this fabric back in February on a two week trek on the Southern Upland Way and was impressed with the performance. Neoshell is certainly as breathable as eVent, the best fabric so far, and maybe more so. The Neo Stretch is a well-designed jacket too, especially for mountain storms.

Gore-Tex Active Shell

Not to be outdone Gore-Tex came up with its own new fabric called Active Shell. Only available in garments weighing 400 grams or less this is more a fabric for summer use and lightweight backpacking. I tried two garments, the Berghaus Velum and Haglofs Endo, and found the fabric as breathable as Neoshell or eVent. Of the two designs I preferred the Velum, mainly due to the big chest pockets.

Patagonia Ultralight Down Shirt

At a mere 158 grams – lighter than many base layers – and compressible into a tiny ball Patagonia’s down shirt is astonishing for the warmth provided. It’s also one of the most versatile down garments as it can be layered with a synthetic fill or fleece top in cold weather or used on its own as camp wear in summer. Indeed, the weight is such there’s no reason to ever leave it behind.

PHD Hispar 500

I like to sleep comfortably and have never been one for saving weight on a skimpy sleeping bag. At the same time I don’t want any more weight than necessary. At 948 grams the Hispar 500 is much lighter than most other bags with the same temperature rating. It’s currently my favourite winter bag.

Terra Nova Laser Ultra 1

Despite the frightening expense and a somewhat fragile groundsheet I just had to include the first cuben fibre two-skin tent from a mainstream tent company due to the ridiculously low weight (anything from 580 to 800 grams depending on pegs used – after ditching the toothpicks that came with the test model I ended up with a weight of 788 grams including stuffsacks). I used the Laser Ultra 1 on the Southern Upland Way and whilst a roomier shelter would have been nice for the long winter nights it kept out the weather.

Boilerwerks Backcountry Boiler

Innovative, ultralight and fun to use this modern take on the venerable chimney kettle is an excellent meths/wood water boiler for backpackers. The history of its design and development is fascinating too.

Jetboil Sol Ti

I liked the original Jetboil stove because it was innovative and fuel efficient. However it was still quite heavy for backpacking compared with alternative stove/pot combinations.  The Sol Ti is much lighter at 248 grams (347 grams with all accessories) and a joy to carry and use.

Primus OmniLite Ti

The third stove of the year is Primus’ lightweight version of the excellent OmniFuel. Usable with gas canisters, petrol or paraffin it’s a versatile stove for backpacking abroad. It’s also powerful enough for cooking for two or three and light enough for solo use, especially when used with canisters, which can be inverted for better performance in freezing weather.

GoLite Terrono 70 pack

GoLite’s fully featured Terrono pack may seem a strange choice due to its 1.95kg weight. Whatever happened to lightweight? For a comfortable carry with heavy loads this is light weight though. I used it on my winter walk on the Southern Upland Way and had 24kg in it at times. It felt fine and I was glad to have a pack with such a supportive harness.

Nemo Meta 1P tent

My full review of this tent won’t appear until sometime next year but in the meantime I can say I like it as it’s roomy, light weight and quickly pitched with one trekking pole. It also has better breathability than most single-skin tents whilst still keeping out the weather.

And finally a quick thumbs-up for the Jetboil CrunchIt, a little tool for puncturing empty gas canisters so they can be flattened and recycled. A great device.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Daisies, Ice & Mice; Canoes, Reindeer & Flaming Torches: An Unusual Christmas

 So Christmas has come and gone. Warm weather, no snow, green countryside – it has not felt like winter, other than the short days and long nights. Christmas here in Strathspey began with the arrival of stepdaughter Hazel and boyfriend James up from Edinburgh until early January to the delight of Hazel’s mum Denise and me.

The day before Xmas Eve we ventured into the woods and finding a pine brought down in recent storms acquired some branches for Hazel to bind together into a thick, bushy and aromatic ‘Christmas tree’. Back home we brought out the box of Xmas decorations for its annual emergence into the light only to find that mice had been nesting in it and had ruined many of the decorations. The result was an austere minimalist tree, though still attractive with glass stars and silvery lights. And a resetting of the mouse trap – a metal box they can enter but not escape from (except for some damn clever ones that have managed it somehow). Since obtaining this new trap a month ago well over 30 mice have been caught and released into the woods. Maybe some are the same ones returning. Or maybe there are just masses of them, far more than in previous years.

The day also saw a first visit from our new neighbours, who I expect we’ll be seeing again as they run the company Backcountry Survival. Their visit also explained the presence of a large canoe in a ditch near our house. They’d moved in during the recent stormy and wintry weather and it had blown away and then frozen into place.

The Christmas feeling continued that evening with the Grantown-on-Spey Torchlight Procession with flaming brands and Santa in a sledge pulled by reindeer from the Aviemore Reindeer Centre and led by a pipe band, followed by carol singing in the town square. The air wasn’t as frosty as usual but the bright torches and the reindeer did create a sense of midwinter celebration.

Xmas Day we always go for a short walk after opening presents (outdoors stuff – well, I did get a calendar with pictures of bears!). Often it’s in the snow; usually it’s in frosty, wintry conditions. This year the mild weather that had swept away the snow in one huge thaw a few days earlier meant it felt more like September than December even though there was a brisk wind. The fields were green and in one we even found daisies in flower, an astonishing first for Xmas. Surprisingly there was still ice on some of the puddles, though most of the ground was soggy and muddy, released from frost and snow back into the saturated state it’s been in much of the year.

Dinner, Dr Who, charades, friends round on Boxing Day, cutting wood for the fire, mince pies, Xmas cake, Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather DVD – Christmas continued as a mix of excitement, entertainment, eating, conversation and overall satisfaction. Now for New Year, and maybe snow.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Allt Duine Wind Farm Protest & Deferment, along with some ice

December 20th was the day Highland Council was to decide whether to accept or reject the proposed Allt Duine wind farm, which would see 31 turbines, the majority 125 metres (410 feet) high, erected only a few hundred metres from the borders of the Cairngorms National Park (see my post for September 24 – Allt Duine: A Landscape Under Threat). To make the point that this is a wind farm too far the Save the Monadhliath Mountains campaign asked objectors to gather outside the Council offices to show our feelings before the meeting took place.

Having been agreed to be a spokesperson for the campaign I was asked to arrive just after 8 a.m. to do a live interview for BBC Radio Scotland before the demonstration or Council meeting began. Now this may not sound unduly early but to get there by that time I had to walk by torchlight down the half-mile track from my house to the nearest road where my car was parked as the track was too icy for it, scrape the ice off my car, hope that it would start and then drive 40 miles on icy pre-dawn roads. As the first 20 miles were on ice and snow covered roads that hadn’t been gritted they were rather slow and I turned up a little late to find a lone reporter standing in the dark freezing car park wondering where the hell I was. Due to my lateness there was no time to prepare and I went straight into the interview. I’m told it sounded okay!

The reporter then departed and I was the one standing alone in the cold. Hanging around feeling cold in an empty car park seemed an unattractive idea so I went off in search of a coffee. The exercise warmed me up, especially as I struggled to stay upright on icy pavements, though no coffee was forthcoming. The spreading pink dawn reflected in the swollen River Ness was pleasant to gaze at however. Back at the Council offices I found the first batch of demonstrators, a half dozen or so, clustered outside. Then we discovered that the Council meeting had been put back so the Councillors could go on a site visit to a smaller wind farm they were also to discuss that day. Having waved them off on their tour bus we decided hot drinks were a good idea whilst they were gallivanting so another café search was undertaken. It now being past 9 a.m. this was successful and we were soon warm and hydrated and ready to return to the fray.

Back at the Council again we found more demonstrators with placards and signs and the coffin from the Wake for the Wild event back in May plus the media in the form of TV, radio and newspaper reporters. Clearly the publicity about our action had attracted attention. As the spokesperson it was my job to be interviewed. Beforehand I had carelessly assumed this might mean three or four quick chats with reporters. Looking at the TV cameras and reporters queuing up I realised it wouldn’t be quite so easy going. In less than an hour I then gave around a dozen interviews, losing count as they came thick and fast. Throughout I tried to emphasise that this was a pro-landscape movement, that we were here to defend wild land and call for its protection and that the key word was location and in the case of the proposed Allt Duine wind farm the location was destructive and completely wrong.

Interviews over I joined the other demonstrators in the Council chamber to listen to the debate, the councillors now back from their site visit. That wind farm, for 20 turbines at Moy near Inverness, was rejected, on the advice of the planning officer, mainly because of the visual impact, particularly from the A9 highway and the Perth to Inverness rail line. It was then proposed that the Allt Duine wind farm decision should be deferred so the councillors could make a site visit. Why they hadn’t done this already seems a mystery as they had already deferred the decision once before so there had been plenty of time. As it is, they now hope to make a site visit early in January – if the winter weather allows of course. As well as visiting the proposed site I hope they will also visit various places in the Cairngorms National Park from which the turbines will be clearly visible and very intrusive and not just be concerned with the fact that the turbines won’t be visible from the A9 corridor in Strathspey, which is the line the developers are pushing when they say the wind farm will be unobtrusive. Overall though I think a deferment is a good outcome, given that the planning officer had recommended that the Council accept the application – even though the same criteria for rejecting the Moy wind farm apply far more strongly to Allt Duine. The planning officer did accept that there would some visual impact, saying that to avoid this the turbines should not carry any signs or logos, which is a bit like saying you can rip a work of art to bits but mustn’t then discolour the remnants as that would spoil it.

Now we wait to see what happens next year. The story has a long way to go yet.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Ron Strickland comments on Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams: Updated 22/12/11

View from the Pacific Northwest Trail on the High Divide in the Olympic Mountains.

Ron Strickland, the creator of the Pacific Northwest Trail and author of the PNT guidebook and the excellent Pathfinder, had a look at the blurb on the publisher's website for my book on the trail and decided it didn't really cover everything so he put in a passionate and eloquent suggestion of his own. I won't reproduce it as Sandstone Press has published it on its and you can read it here. I must say though that I've never been compared to Burton or Speke before! And I love the idea of the American Congress making me a special gift of the trail. Thanks Ron.

The book itself is virtually finished. The last pages will be with Sandstone Press tomorrow.

Update: Some good comments on the Sandstone blog. Thanks!

And the book was finished on time. 

Thursday 15 December 2011

Grizzly Bears And Razor Clams: Coming Next Year!

Above is the cover of my book on the Pacific Northwest Trail, designed by Heather MacPherson for Sandstone Press. I like it very much. Thanks Heather! The picture was taken in the Pasayten Wilderness in the Cascade Mountains. The book will be published next year. The Sandstone Press announcement can be found here.

Monday 12 December 2011

Thoughts of Winter

With the first big storm of winter just past I've started thinking about trips in the snow and winter camping and walking so I thought I'd post this piece which I wrote for TGO a year ago after the first big winter storm of 2010. My thoughts haven't changed.


 As I write this in late November the snow lies deep across much of Britain and winter has set in hard with record low temperatures. The weather has brought the usual chaos to the roads but once it settles down the hills and wild places should be superb for winter backpacking. For me this snow has brought a feeling of excitement and desire that never comes with grey skies and rain, the norm on too many winter days. I have visions of climbing pristine white slopes with a perfect mountain world spread out all around and then camping beneath a star-filled sky with a crisp frost sharpening the senses and making every sound ring. I relish the thought of lying in my warm sleeping bag with a mug of hot chocolate watching the snow drifting gently across the landscape. Winter camping can be a joy. And when the wind picks up and rattles the tent and sends swirling snow into every crevice I love feeling secure inside my tent, listening to the storm thrashing the land.

Before the snow that closed the lowlands came there was already snow in the hills and I had made two overnight trips into the frozen mountains. Both of these brought the pleasures of winter backpacking and also the pains. The first was to a favourite spot of mine, the great cliff-ringed bowl at the head of Loch Avon, arguably the finest corrie in the Cairngorms. The forecast was for clearing weather but the hills were shrouded in dense cloud and drizzle was falling when I set off. The wet summer and autumn and recent heavy rain meant the lower ground was saturated and the streams full. I climbed up the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais into the wet mist, crossed below the invisible summit of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and descended into boggy Coire Domhain from where a badly eroded stony path lead steeply down to the corrie and long Loch Avon. As I dropped out of the cloud the loch appeared, grey and windswept, while whitewater streams roared down the hillsides. The floor of the corrie was sodden and I had to pitch on damp ground, choosing a spot that didn’t squelch too much under my boots. As the chilling drizzle continued I was soon inside the tent in my sleeping bag with a hot drink wondering what had happened to the drier, clearer weather. During the early part of the night gusts of wind shook the tent and rain rattled on the nylon. Awake before dawn I noticed whiteness around the edge of the porch, a light dusting of snow. The temperature was now below freezing and there was ice on my water bottles. Looking out I could see stars. Daylight came with a bright sky, hazy sunshine and dappled clouds. The mountains were spattered with snow, stark and dramatic. The tent was frozen to the ground. Back up on the Cairngorm plateau the sky was blue and I could see far out to the west. The fine weather didn’t last long though and by the time I reached the summit of Cairn Gorm the clouds had rolled back in and all I could see was the weather station, plastered with frost and snow. The rain returned as I descended back to the car. I didn’t mind. The glorious morning had made the trip worthwhile.

My second trip was to Creag Meagaidh and another favourite spot, Coire Ardair with its little lochan nestling under huge jagged cliffs. Again the forecast suggested fine, cold weather. Again it was only partly correct. I camped beside cold, dark Lochan a’Choire with the rock walls, shattered pinnacles and stony gullies rising above me into grey clouds. There was only a smattering of old snow on the corrie floor but not far above the slanting slabs were white. Venturing into one of the wide stony gullies I could see long icefalls spreading over the cliffs high above.

During the night there were flurries of snow and when I woke the ground was frosty and crunched underfoot. Clouds still hung over the summits and a chill wind blew. Not wanting to move camp higher in these conditions – especially as the tent was a previously untried test model – I made a round trip to Creag Meagaidh, a real winter excursion requiring use of ice axe and crampons. I kicked steps up the crusty snow filling the wide steep cleft leading up to the notch called The Window. Above this the snow was thinner and icier so I used crampons for security on the slope up to the huge gently tilted plateau of Creag Meagaidh. I was in the cloud now and found it hard at times to distinguish between the air and the ground. Both were white and hazy with only ripples in the snow and the occasional rock giving me anything to focus on. Compass bearings led me to the summit and a sharp cold wind. Chilly though it was I welcomed this wind as it sometimes tore apart the whirling clouds to give brief views of the surrounding peaks and down to dark glens. A silver sun pulsated weakly through the clouds. The light and the clouds changed every second and the world felt very unstable. Only the snow-encrusted rocks of the summit cairn seemed solid and fixed. I followed my steps back across the plateau to The Window then dropped below the cloud and back to camp. From above my little grey tent looked tiny and fragile against the immensity of the landscape. It had kept off the wind and snow however and provided a warm shelter for a hot drink before I packed up and descended out of the mountains.

As with many winter trips there were only short periods of clear weather on these ventures and the tops were often in cloud. However one of the delights of winter backpacking is being out there in the wilds during times of magical light, clearing skies and frosty sunshine even if these are brief. This is very much the time of year to welcome any sunshine, any abatement of the wind, any clearance of the clouds. It’s also a time to enjoy the comforts of camp. In summer with the long hours of daylight I resent spending much time in the tent, impatient to be outside and walking. In winter I’m happy to lie in the tent, warm and snug, listening to the wind, watching the snow fall, staring out at the ice-bound landscape. I don’t close the tent up unless the weather is really stormy, unlike in summer when midges often force me to zip myself in, and so don’t lose my contact with the outdoors. And when storms do mean closing the doors then I’m happy to lie and read a book and make endless brews and mugs of soup. Even in bad weather winter backpacking can be fun.

Thursday 8 December 2011

New TGO: Bothies, Fleece, Keeping Warm At Night & Primus OmniLite Ti review

The January 2012 issue of TGO is out - so of course, given the odd way magazines use dates, it contains a Christmas Gift Guide. Amongst the suggested items is the latest edition of The Backpacker's Handbook, which keeps me happy.

In this issue my backpacking column, headed Shelter from the Storm, is about bothies while in the Hill Skills section I look at how to keep warm at night when winter camping. In the gear pages there's my test report on the new Primus OmniLite Ti multi-fuel stove, which is excellent, and a review of sixteen fleece jackets, which is good timing as winter weather has just begun.

Also useful for the cold is John Manning's review of fifteen down jackets, which is illustrated with some entertaining pictures of Mr Manning bundled up in various of the garments.

Keeping with the cold theme there's a section on Winter's Magic that includes winter walks on various mountains such as Snowdon, described by Jim Perrin, and Creag Meagaidh, described by Cameron McNeish. Also in Winter's Magic is advice from Heather Morning, the Mountain Safety Adviser for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, on skills and gear for the winter hills. In the Hill Skills section, but very relevant to winter, is a useful piece by John White on driving in freezing conditions and preparing your vehicle for the cold.

Elsewhere in the magazine, which is a fat one at 130 pages, Mark Diggins describes his work as co-ordinator of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service; Roger Smith is rightly concerned at plans for a new town in the Cairngorms National Park; Ed Byrne tries his hand at fishing; Cameron McNeish says let Mallory and Irvine rest in peace; Ronald Turnbull praises Rannoch Moor; Carey Davies tackles the Fairfield Horseshoe; Andrew Terrill has a chilly Christmas long-distance walk in the Dolomites; Jim Perrin celebrates George Borrow's Wild Wales; Nathan Skinner explores the Black Mountains and extreme climber Andy Kirkpatrick ponders reconciling adventure and fatherhood. It'll take me a while to get through all of that!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

First Tracks

More snow overnight and some consolidation of the lying snow by the wind made conditions look good for the first ski tour of the year, a short venture into the woods and fields round home. December 7 is very late to start skiing. Most years I expect to ski in October. But the season has started and I am pleased. The snow was good in the open fields, packed down by the wind, and I could glide quite well. In the forest the snow was softer, deeper and stickier and skiing was hard work and slow. But still fun and easier than walking would have been.

The trees were heavy with snow, their branches touching the ground in places. Here they were surrounded by rabbit tracks as the animals came out to gnaw on the twigs and bark. A few rabbits streaked across the snow at my approach, sending up little puffs of snow. A cock pheasant shot into the air squawking loudly from almost under my skis. Nothing else stirred on this cold, windswept day.

The sky above was clear but in the west and north heavy, dark clouds hid the hills. At dusk – 3.30pm at this time of year – there were some faint pink touches on the streaks of cloud in the eastern sky but these soon faded as the sun was overwhelmed by the thick north-western darkness. An almost full moon shone above the land as I made my way home. 

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Interviews for BBC Radio Scotland Out of Doors

In Okanagon country on the Pacific Northwest Trail

Today I was interviewed by Mark Stephen for the Out of Doors BBC Radio Scotland programme about my A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorms book and about my Pacific Northwest Trail walk. The first interview should be broadcast this weekend - the programme goes out at 6.30 am on Saturday, repeated at 11.05 am on Sunday - and the next a week later. The programe will also be available on iPlayer.

As Mark was coming from Aberdeen and I was coming from Grantown-on-Spey we met in Keith, where we had an excellent lunch (brocolli and stilton soup) in the wonderfully named Boogie Woogie Cafe before finding a quite spot for the interviews. Getting to Keith was quite interesting given the snow which, despite it being December when snow in Scotland is hardly unexpected, has caused some problems on the roads. I had five miles of minor roads before reaching the A95 main road. None of those minor roads had been cleared of snow and every bend (and there were plenty) was quite slippery even though I have snow tyres fitted. Not once did I go above 15mph or get out of second gear. The A95 had been ploughed and gritted but there were still slippery snow patches on some of the sheltered stretches deep in shady hollows. I was more concerned though by some of the other drivers, especially those who decided that because of snow on the edges of the road they should drive down the middle, expecting anything coming towards them to get out of the way. I crept along the verge a few times while the other vehicle sailed past taking up most of the road. But the journey there and back was completed safely, even if it did take much longer than expected. More snow is forecast, perhaps up to 10cms, so I'm glad I don't have to drive anywhere tomorrow. Maybe it'll be time for skis or snowshoes instead.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Out In The Snow

Flurries of snow at low levels have come and gone over the last week, mostly just leaving a dusting that vanished within hours. Last night though the big thick flakes were settling and by midnight the ground was completely white. By this morning the snow lay some eight centimetres deep. Not yet enough for skis or snowshoes but enough to say ‘this is winter’ and enough to tempt me out to walk in the fields and woods. In many places there were deeper drifts as the snow had come on a strong north-west wind. Today there were snow flurries, dark clouds and bursts of sunshine with layers of brightness and colour in the sky. The land was quiet with only a few rabbits venturing out into the snow, though I saw plenty of tracks of rabbits, pheasants and roe deer. High overhead a skein of geese flew past, calling wildly; an appropriate sound for the snow, which brings wildness and freshness to the landscape.

The temperature never rose above freezing today and with cold weather and more snow forecast for the next few days these wintry conditions should be around for some time. For the first time today I could try some of the insulated boots I have to test. I hope I’ll be using them much more in the near future.