Saturday 25 February 2012

Upcoming Talks: Igloos & Munros

Next week I'm giving two illustrated talks. The first is for the Inverness Nordic and Ski Touring Club and is about the three igloo ski tours I've made in Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  It's in the Glen Mhor Hotel, Inverness at 8pm on Wednesday February 29th. Entry is free for INSC members and £2.50 for non-members.

The second talk is down in Dundee and organised by the local Tiso branch. This will be about my summer-long walk over all the Munros and Tops. It's on March 1st at 19.30 in the D'arcy Thompson Theatre, University of Dundee. Tickets are £6 and proceeds go the Dundee University Rucksack Club. Further details here.

If any readers of this blog can come along to either talk it would be great to see you. Do come and say hello afterwards.

Friday 24 February 2012

Allt Duine Wind Farm: Time to Object Again

View across Strathspey to the Allt Duine hills
A week ago I was looking across Strathspey from the slopes of Carn Ban Mor in the Northern Cairngorms to the snow-covered Monadh Liath,a soft line of rolling white hills. If the Allt Duine Wind Farm is built this view will be dominated by huge turbines and another part of the glorious wildness of the Scottish Highlands will be lost. Following the rejection of the wind farm proposal by Highland Council the decision is now in the hands of the Scottish Government. A public enquiry is now very likely but the result would not be binding on the government. I think it's important that those of us who feel that this wind farm is very much in the wrong place and should not be built tell the Scottish Government how we feel. Objections can be sent to quoting the application reference 11/00853/S36. There is a template letter on the Save the Monadhliath Mountains website (scroll down to find the link). 

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Winter Returns, Briefly

After a week of thawing and mildness the weather turned abruptly and a north-west wind brought snow and freezing. A day and night of snow turned the land white. The strength of the storm fading I set out for Glen Feshie and the vast upland expanse of the Moine Mhor – the Great Moss. It being Sunday the minor roads had not been ploughed or gritted and the drive was slow and slippery. Perhaps that was why there were few vehicles in the car park in Glen Feshie. The sign for the Cairngorm ski resort said the car parks there were full. Those roads are ploughed of course, to ensure the skiers and tourists make it to the funicular railway, the ski lifts, the shops and the cafes. There are, thankfully, no commercial facilities where the road ends in Glen Feshie, just the river and the forest, the meadows and the hills.

Glen Feshie
The track up onto the Moine Mhor was snowy and icy and frozen hard. Across Strathspey the Monadh Liath hills glistened in the patchy sunlight. The air was calm and the sun warm as I climbed out of the trees but soon I felt the north-west wind that was driving the clouds across the sky. Once on the heights I headed for the great rounded hulk called Mullach Clach a’Bhlair (summit of the stone of the plain) that dominates upper Glen Feshie. Crossing the Moine Mhor was awkward as the snow varied from soft, and in places ankle and more deep, to hard and icy and was mixed with areas of scoured crunchy black peat and protruding granite stones. Zigzagging across the slopes, I tried to search out the firmer ground where I could stride out rather than the energy sapping soft snow that slowed me down. All the while the biting wind lashed against me and the clouds rolled and twisted across the sky.

View across Strathspey to the Monadh Liath
The summit reached I paused momentarily to take in the view but there is no shelter here, just a small cairn, and I was soon heading down the long Druim nam Bo ridge that led down into Glen Feshie, passing frozen Lochan nam Bo, its surface grey with the slush of snow that had started to melt in the afternoon sun and was now turning to ice. Thick clouds in the west meant sunset was no more than a brief golden flash as the sun passed between two layers. As darkness fell I reached the first trees and turned up the glen in search of a camp site, soon finding one on a gravel bank close to the River Feshie itself. There was no wind down here and the clouds faded away, leaving bright stars. Owls called from the scattered pines as I pitched the tent and there was an air of peace and cold beauty.

Across the Moine Mhor to Mullach Clach a'Bhlair
As I dropped off to sleep the temperature was below zero and ice was forming in my water bottles. The cold and calm was not to last. Not long after midnight I was woken by the wind rustling the tent flysheet and a feeling of stuffiness. I was too hot. The temperature was now a few degrees above zero and I needed to open the hood and the top of the zip of my -9°C rated sleeping bag. Cooler again I dozed off only to wake an hour later as the strengthening wind buffeted the tent even more. A continuously disturbed night followed as tiredness and the noisy tent fought each other for dominance. Dawn came with a shower of rain and general sogginess as the snow was melting fast. Packing up I headed back down the glen, my mind more on reaching the car before the light showers turned to heavy rain and on the cafes of Aviemore. The rippling waters of the Feshie were a pleasure to watch as always though and I was delighted at the rampant regenerating Scots Pine that were springing up everywhere. Glen Feshie never fails to delight.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Book Review: Hike Your Own Hike by Francis Tapon

Francis Tapon is an experienced backpacker and traveller. He was the first person to hike the Continental Divide Trail twice back to back (known as a yo-yo hike) and has also hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Recently he spent three years travelling in Eastern Europe and is soon to set off on a three year journey in Africa. In between these trips he’s written a couple of books and produced an all singing and dancing website.

His first book, Hike Your Own Hike, is based around his Appalachian Trail walk. It’s not just the story of the hike however, as can be guessed from the subtitle – 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America. In fact it’s a combination of a self-help book and a hiking book, with the author hanging the “life lessons” around the story of his walk. Now, I’ve never read a self-help book and have always viewed them with suspicion. Reading or hearing occasional interviews with self-help “gurus” has confirmed my view. They seem to be a way to package the obvious and sell it, to the benefit, mainly, of the author. I do read and enjoy hiking books however and I knew of Tapon’s long hikes so it was with interest that I started on this one. Finishing it left me feeling somewhat confused and I have been deliberating over this review on and off for many weeks. Parts of the book are excellent and I really enjoyed them. Other parts appeared to be in a world unknown to me, a world of rather rigid self-analysis and programmed goals. I just don’t think like this and don’t think I want to either. The book is, thankfully, leavened with humour and a refusal by the author to take himself too seriously. If it wasn’t I would probably have thrown it across the room in fury.

I have to admit that I am probably not the target audience for any self-help book, and probably beyond any help of this sort, but it did seem to me that the advice given here is very general and mostly commonsense. In fact the most important lesson is contained in the title of the book – “hike your own hike” – in other words go your own way and live your life the way you choose. Some of the advice managed to both amuse and infuriate me, especially the financial advice, which comes early in the book. If I followed most of this I’d never have done a long walk! Saving a year’s worth of expenses as a buffer? Probably sensible but I don’t think or work like that (which may be why I’ve never had much money but then I set out to do not to earn). I think in this section the fact that the author has an MBA from the Harvard Business School comes through and the advice is how to live your life as a business. To which my response is no thanks.

Once through the money stuff the book did improve from my point of view. I’m not annoyed at being advised to “hike with passion” or “learn from trail lore”. I did read the book in fits and starts though, slowing down when the author veered away from the Appalachian Trail, speeding up when he returned to hiking. In the blurb on his website Francis Tapon says the book “provides an entertaining, flowing tale as a backdrop” and that for me is the problem. I don’t want the hiking story to be the backdrop, I want it to be the main feature. Tapon also says the book is “about 75% self-help and 25% trail narrative” and not a book about how to backpack. However much of the self-help advice is actually related to backpacking with some good stuff on trail magic, health and pack weight.

Overall I’m not sure who this book is aimed at. I can’t imagine anyone uninterested in hiking reading it while walkers and backpackers are likely to want more specific advice, information and trail stories. It’s definitely worth a look though and you can read the introduction and first chapter on Tapon’s website for free to see if you like it. I will say this for Hike Your Own Hike – it’s the most unusual hiking book I have ever read.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

A Monadh Liath Munro

Glen Banchor

After a week of low cloud and a slow thaw a few days ago there looked to be a brief gap in the dull weather before the next depression headed in from the Atlantic. The forecast suggested some sunshine – a rarity in recent weeks – though with cloud likely to remain on the summits. Deciding climbing any of the high Cairngorms peaks could mean hours in the mist I headed for the lower Monadh Liath hills – ones I have decided to visit more often before Dumnaglass, the first of many proposed wind farms, is built.

From the road end in Glen Banchor there was a lovely sunlit view along the glen to cloud-covered, snow-spattered hills; a promising start to the day. Turning up the long side glen of the Allt a’Chaorainn the walking was easy until I reached an old wooden footbridge across a deep ravine. The bridge was mostly in shadow and partly-covered with snow and ice. Parts of the handrail had broken and the whole bridge looked as though it wouldn’t last long. On the far side the path leading steeply up a bank was a sheet of thick rippled ice. I edged across the bridge then scrambled up the steep heather beside the path. I could have used crampons but the ice was only some fifty or so feet long so I’d have been removing them within minutes. This set the pattern for the rest of the day. Large patches of snow remained after the thaw. These were mostly soft enough for my boots to bite into them. The problems came from stretches of ice on the narrow paths, some of it hidden in the vegetation, and I was glad of my trekking poles.


Higher up the walking was easier as the vegetation was low and the ice clearly visible. Although there was blue sky above and much sunshine the summits remained cloud-capped and shortly before reaching the big cairn on A’Chailleach the world faded away as I entered the mist. A cold wind blew across the slopes and the ground was frozen hard. The thaw here was over. On the summit I had lunch in the wind shelter by the cairn and watched the cloud thinning and thickening. Blue sky was tantalisingly visible for brief periods but the cloud never cleared. Nearby a family of four were poking round in the rocks. My look of puzzlement attracted their attention and one of them came over to explain that they were searching for a geocache, telling me that this was one of the remotest locations.

The Allt a'Chaorainn 

Accepting that the cloud would not lift I left the summit, skirted the crags to the east and descended directly down to the Allt a’Chaorainn, a pathless, tussocky descent. Down in the glen I forded the stream on icy boulders, having decided I didn’t want to make the steep descent down to the bridge in the gorge. Here if I slipped getting a little water would be the only penalty. A rough path led back down the glen, sometimes climbing steep banks from which there were good views along the stream and back to A’Chailleach, a scene of wildness and lonely beauty.

Thursday 9 February 2012

New TGO: Ski Backpacking, Digital Mapping & Cold Weather Kit

Descending from The Window, Creag Meagaidh

The March issue of TGO is in the shops now. My backpacking column is about ski backpacking, something I hope to do more of this winter and spring. I also write about kit for cold weather in the Hill Skills section, test the Teva Forge Pro Winter Mid WP boots and review 10 digital mapping programmes.

Elsewhere in Judy Armstrong reviews 12 pairs of trekking poles, though not my favourite Pacer Poles; Cameron McNeish tests the Montane Dyno soft shell jacket, which sounds excellent; and Ronald Turnbull answers a query about about keeping dry in the rain when bivvying – basically, avoid it if at all possible as it’s “not nice”! I knew there was a reason I liked tents. Ronald also discusses reasons for eating muesli with cold water – powdered milk blows away or gets in your gloves. Not if you mix it in with the muesli at home it doesn’t, something I do regularly, summer and winter.

There’s much else that looks good in this issue. The Almanac section opens with a lovely photograph of a cloud inversion and a wonderful sky in the snow-clad Ben Lawers hills by Peter Sandground. Cameron McNeish backpacks through the Minigaig Pass; Ian Battersby stays in a Lake District camping hut with his young son; Kevin Walker explores old mining villages in central Wales; Emily Rodway tries dog sledding in the Cairngorms; Ed Byrne learns some winter skills in the Glenshee hills; Ed Douglas visits Kinder Scout; Carey Davies describes the TGO Readers’ Trek in Aladaglar and Capadoccia in Turkey; Judy Armstrong goes walking and mountain biking in the North York Moors; and Cameron McNeish praises Great Gable. I particularly enjoyed Jim Perrin’s Hillwalkers’ Library as he writes about one of my favourite outdoor books, Colin Fletcher’s wonderful The Man Who Walked Through Time, describing it as “one of the outright classics of walking literature”. And finally Terry Abraham, aka blogger terrybnd, describes how redundancy led to his new life making videos of the Peak District (and excellent videos they are too).

Tuesday 7 February 2012

A Few Days In Holland

A quick trip to Holland to give a couple of talks on the Pacific Northwest Trail last weekend just happened to coincide with the coldest, snowiest weather of the winter, both in Britain and in The Netherlands. I’d been invited to give the talks at the annual Royal Dutch Mountaineering and Climbing Club (NKBV) Mountain Sports Day (Bergsportsdag) in Utrecht. The event itself was fine with several hundred people attending my talks and asking plenty of questions afterwards, which is always enjoyable. The travelling was not so good however. Hearing of icy roads and possible snow for central Scotland on the Saturday morning I abandoned my plans of a pre-dawn start and hastily booked a hotel close to Edinburgh airport and caught the train Friday evening, arriving at the hotel after midnight. The next day there was no snow or ice but at the airport I discovered the flight was an hour late due to adverse weather in Holland. I read the paper and stared out at the sunshine. What a day for the hills! The flight to Schipol is only a touch over an hour long so why do they serve a drink and a snack? I’ve been wondering that for years on short flights. Safely in Holland the travel difficulties began. Dutch railways were in chaos due to the cold and snow with trains cancelled, rerouted and delayed, apparently due to frozen points. The direct train to Utrecht takes 50 minutes. Usually. Last Saturday it required linking three trains with long waits between them and the journey took 31/2 hours, much of it spent either standing on freezing platforms or crammed into overcrowded carriages. On Amsterdam station there were regular announcements in four languages advising passengers not to travel to Belgium, France or Germany.

Finally in Utrecht I settled into a bland, corporate but adequate hotel. I always find such places a little unreal, a little detached from real life, a little soft and fuzzy and unfocused with no centre, heart or soul. Too much time in one and I imagine you could melt into nothingness. The only spark of individuality, though I guess these are found in many Dutch hotels, was the no smoking notice, which gave as much attention to marijuana as tobacco. I liked the artistic touch of having the marijuana leaves curve over the red prohibition bar.

Feeling confined and deflated by some 36 hours in hotels and transportation I decided to walk to the conference centre where the Bergsportsdag was being held. The hotel receptionist looked it up on Google for me – it would take forty minutes. The temperature was -9°C. I set off wearing hat, gloves and insulated jacket, crunching through the snow and feeling a little more in touch with the world. The route followed main roads, almost empty early on this frozen Sunday morning, giving them an eerie, deserted feel. The verges were soft with snow and the walking wasn’t actually that easy. Soon enough, though, the conference centre appeared, Bergsportdag marked by NKBV pennants, a rather lonely looking inflatable Mammut mammoth and a portable climbing wall. I never did see anyone using this last structure. Inside the world suddenly came alive with stalls, climbing walls, events, cafes and a mass of people – some 2,800 attended in total. My talks were held in an interesting long lecture hall with four active screens, a setup I hadn’t seen before. I liked it as it meant no one was far away at the back looking at tiny, distant images.

The journey home was uneventful with no delays or interesting weather. It was odd arriving in Edinburgh and feeling too hot as it was some 10° warmer than Amsterdam. By the time I was back in Aviemore the temperature was below freezing again and at home it was only +6°C inside. Lighting the solid fuel stove brought me back to reality. No more trains and planes and hotels for a while now. The next trip will be to the hills.

Friday 3 February 2012

A Walk by the River with the Sony NEX 7

55mm, ISO 800, 1/50 @f9

Somewhat to my surprise a Sony NEX 7 arrived in the post the other day. I had ordered it so it wasn’t a total shock. However I’d been told that I’d be added to the list of orders and would be notified when it was actually available, which was likely to be at the end of February at the earliest. (This is known by the dreadful term “pre-ordering” – you’re not ordering before you order you’re just ordering once so adding the “pre” is stupid).

Why did I decide on the NEX 7 rather than the NEX 5N? I was persuaded by the mass of adulatory reviews, especially those from DxOMark, Luminous Landscape and knew I liked the NEX approach after a year with the 5 and I wanted a second body so I could dispense with carrying the Canon 450D, which now seems big and clunky, and just have two NEX bodies and lenses. Those reviews convinced me that the 7 was worth the extra cost over the 5N.

Having played with the camera for a few minutes – and finding the controls fairly intuitive (helped by having had the NEX 5 for over a year - see my blog post for Nov 13, 2011) – I took the camera, fitted with the Sony 18-55 lens, for a short stroll by the River Spey on a bright, frosty day with strong shadows and sparkling sunlight. These are my initial impressions. Firstly it’s only a smidgeon bigger and heavier than the NEX 5 despite having an electronic viewfinder and a built-in flash, both of which the 5 lacks. Secondly the new Tri-Nav controls, utilising three dials, make exposure adjustments quick and easy. These dials can be customised, which I haven’t done yet and may not do at all. Certainly when using manual exposure, as I almost always do, having different dials for shutter speed, aperture and ISO is wonderful, these being the three controls I use most of all. As I also always shoot raw I stick to average white balance and ignore all the different settings for varying JPEG output. I think it may now be easier to shoot raw than JPEG! Certainly there are far fewer choices to be made.

The EVF I am unsure about. In low light it does flicker a little disconcertingly. But it is good to be able to see exposure details and ISO in the viewfinder and be able to adjust these without removing the camera from my eye. But the image is quite small compared to the screen (something I’ve found when looking through the Canon 450D optical viewfinder too) and I’ve become used to flipping the screen up on the NEX 5 and holding it against my chest. Somehow it feels wrong and part of the past to put the camera up to my face!

Now I have the NEX 7 the 5 will be relegated to second body status. To supplement my 18-55 lens I have ordered a 55-210 one. I’m told it won’t be available until the end of the month so I’m surprised it didn’t arrive today. Then it’ll just be a case of waiting for Sony to launch a wide angle zoom (and for it to be affordable) and I’ll have a complete NEX system. In the meantime I have a cheap adaptor so I can use my Tamron 11-18 lens – though without any exposure control or auto focus. For the latter the NEX’s focus peaking makes manual exposure easy. There is a new adapter from Metabones – Conarus that gives all controls other than focusing that I would like, except that the first run has sold out so waiting is again required.

Overall the NEX 7 looks an ideal camera for backpacking when high quality images are required. Eight years ago I bought my first digital SLR, the Canon 300D, it cost a touch under £1000 (the first DSLR to do so), was big and bulky and had 6mp. The NEX 7 also costs a touch under £1000 but is less than half the size and weight of the 300D and has 24mp. I think that’s called progress.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Igloo Over Glen Affric

Slushy snow and a boggy path made for a squelchy start to an overnight trip in the Glen Affric hills. There was more heather than snow visible so the skis went on the packs, making for awkward loads. However not far above we could see the hills were streaked with big drifts and the corries and gullies were filled with snow. This was an Inverness Nordic and Ski TouringClub trip with the aim of combining ski touring with igloo building using Igloo Ed’s wonderful Ice Box. The numbers of intended participants dwindled as the weekend grew closer and in the end just three of us set off. Luckily three just happens to be the best number for igloo building.

Finding a long stretch of snow in a shallow burn gully we happily shed the skis from our packs, attached climbing skins and climbed more easily uphill. Crossing the burn to a huge bank of snow we decided this was a good site for the igloo. Not far above the land faded into the high mountain mist. Here we had views of the surrounding hills, a grand scene. There was also ample snow – the drift was twenty feet deep in places – which meant we could dig a big door for the igloo, making access easier. The air was still, the temperature a little above freezing, so there was no hurry to complete the igloo and we stopped for hot drinks with it half built and took time to admire the wild surroundings. As darkness fell the clouds dissolved and a crescent moon and the large bright circle of Jupiter appeared in the sky, soon followed by the constellation of Orion and a myriad stars. A chilly katabatic wind blew down the slopes above and the temperature dropped to -2.5°C. Shovelling snow is warm work though so the two of us doing this were in no danger of freezing while Mike, the snow block maker, was now protected by the rising igloo walls. The cloud clearance was temporary however and by the time the igloo was finished the sky was overcast and the temperature had risen to -0.5°C. Soon we were inside the igloo making hot meals and drinks and relaxing after the efforts of constructing our shelter. Andy produced red wine to celebrate our igloo and a very civilised evening ensued as we discussed outdoor literature and activities.

Dawn was damp and chilly with the cloud still clinging to the hilltops and the temperature around freezing. Reluctant to abandon the comforts of our igloo we lingered over an extended breakfast before finally venturing out for a short up and down ski tour. Deciding that navigating in the cloud didn’t appeal we skied up to its edge then turned and skied back down, a good descent with many turns, for me the first of the season. Then it was time to pack up and leave our little home and descend back to the glen. If it remains cold the igloo will remain though and I hope to return in a few weeks and see if it’s still usable.