Saturday 26 January 2013

Collapsing Igloo, Stormy Mountain

Strath Nethy

The days following the building of the igloo described in my post for January 19 were stormy with high winds and much snowfall. Then on the fifth day came a forecast for good weather – calm, clear, sunny – and I went out to see how the igloo was faring and to climb Bynack More, the nearest high mountain.

The immediate change from the previous visit was the snow, which now lay deep and continuous. I set off on skis rather than on foot. Once I climbed out of the trees I found many big drifts across the track, some of them waist high. Walking would have been hard work. The weather however seemed little different, with a cold wind whistling down from Cairn Gorm and ragged clouds swirling across the sky. There was little sign of the sun. 

Stac na h-Iolaire

Skiing down the last little slope to the igloo I thought it looked an odd shape. On reaching it I realised that one side was now inverted. This side faced east and I can only assume there was must have been enough heat in the rising sun one morning to cause it to sag. It was now frozen hard. The inside still had room for a couple of people but didn’t look very appealing. I had intended to spend the night here but now decided to ski on with all my gear and maybe camp somewhere else.

Above, the very top of Bynack More was hidden in the clouds and I could see spindrift blowing across the slopes. Climbing onto the broad north shoulder of the mountain was arduous as there was much soft snow to cross. The wind grew fiercer and colder. I met a walker coming down, the only person I spoke to all day. He told me he’d reached the long rocky summit ridge and then turned back as conditions were so atrocious. “I nearly turned back earlier,” he said, “as some of the drifts were almost waist deep”. He looked at my skis. “I need some of those”. He also told me that there was a surprising lack of snow high up – “it’s all blown down into the forest”. 

Do I really want to go up there?

Looking up I could see large scoured areas of mountainside. Choire Dhuibh, the big bowl between Bynack More and its lower neighbour Bynack Beg that is the best ski route both in ascent and descent, only had patches of snow. I would have to walk some sections, which wouldn’t be very comfortable in my plastic ski touring boots. Carrying skis in strong winds isn’t that easy either. 

Bynack More

I continued across the shoulder to the base of the corrie and the northern ridge of the mountain. Clouds were still covering the sky and the summit. The wind was tearing at my face. It would be arduous going higher up, probably for little reward. My will wavered and I knew this was as far as I was going. I’d been up Bynack More many times before. But today was not a day for the summit. Turning I skied back down to the igloo. The snow was firm at first, making for fast, easy skiing. Lower down it was softer and my skis broke through so I slowed down and took care with turns. At the igloo I made a second decision. With a forecast for stronger winds and heavy snow coming in overnight I decided not to camp but to head out. So then it was back along the track in the dusk watching a hazy moon coming and going in the racing clouds.

A hazy moon over Creag nan Gall

Thursday 24 January 2013

The Igloo Again - Building Pingu Palace

David Lintern has posted the entertaining time-lapse sequence he shot while we were building the igloo described in my post for January 21st. You can find it here under the wonderful title Building Pingu Palace. If only igloos could be built that fast!

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Behind the Scenes: The Cairngorms In Winter

Terry Abraham has posted a report on his first trip for the Cairngorms in Winter film with some dramatic photos plus a short video as a taster of the film to come (scroll down to the end of his blog post for this)

Monday 21 January 2013

Cairngorms Filming with Igloo

Strath Nethy Igloo

The first igloo and first camp of the year plus the first filming for the Cairngorms in Winter project  all occurred in the past two days. TerryAbraham had already been out for several days filming in pretty severe conditions when we met up in Aviemore. As the forecast was for more stormy weather with high winds and snow we decided on a low level forest and moor route rather than venturing on the high tops.

Terry filming at Lochan Uaine

We also combined our filming trip with an igloo building one consisting of outdoor writer Phil Turner, owner of a brand new Icebox, Helen and Paul Webster from Walk Highlands and outdoor blogger David Lintern and Tanya. The prospects of building an igloo didn’t look good as we wandered through Glenmore Forest past frozen Lochan Uaine to Ryvoan Pass, as there was less snow than expected. 
However when we reached Strath Nethy we found a good flat area for the igloo and soon realised that the snow in the surrounding heather was quite deep. We just had to get it to the igloo site. This was achieved with the use of survival shelters, a really good idea (not mine I must admit). 

Terry's camp
I’d not built an igloo on just an inch of snow before – and I was the only person there who’d ever built an igloo. All previous igloos had been on deep snow. Making a door would be interesting, I thought, as this would have to go through the igloo wall rather than under it. First though the igloo had to be high enough to need a door. With five people intending to sleep in the igloo it needed to be big (Terry and I were camping). And big it was, growing upwards and upwards and upwards. Soon even the six footers amongst couldn’t reach into the Icebox to make blocks. A rubble sack full of snow solved the problem though standing on it did require good balance as it slid around on the icy ground. Falling through the igloo wall would not have been popular. 

Tanya and Helen making blocks
As the igloo extended into the sky night fell and with it came wind and snow. Headlamps flashed, warmer clothing appeared and still the igloo grew. The time came for a door to release Phil from the inside. I extracted the snow saw conveniently located in the handle of my shovel and carefully cut a small door, cautiously pushing out little blocks of snow. The igloo stayed intact, a great relief.

The igloo rises in the snow and the dark
The igloo was finally completed in a rather unorthodox manner by Paul and Phil, who were, unfortunately for them, the tallest amongst us and thus the only ones who could reach the top even with the aid of the rubble sack. At one point Paul was holding up the Icebox with his head. Finally the last snow was patted down. The igloo was complete. And it wasn’t even midnight. A quick celebration inside with some nice whisky then it was time for a very late meal followed by welcome sleep.

Big tents, little igloo?
The snow had faded away as the igloo neared completion and little fell during the night. The lowest temperature in my shelter was -2.6C. It would have been warmer than that in the igloo. The sky was patterned with layers of cloud which hid the highest summits. A chill wind swept the campsite. The igloo five set off for a forest walk. Terry and I headed back to Ryvoan Pass, discussing filming to come. It had been an interesting two days.

Friday 18 January 2013

Squirrels & Robins & Snow

Cold weather and snow always brings more wildlife to the feeders but the last few days have not seen the usual mix of creatures. The coal, blue and great tits and the great spotted woodpeckers have been around as always but there have been no greenfinches, just one solitary siskin, and only a few chaffinches. The red squirrels have been very active, with five present quite often. There have also been five robins, which is the most at any one time. Generally one or two is the most we've seen together.

The robins have also been working out how to hang on feeders, though they prefer the ground, on which I've been scattering seed mix. Several blackbirds are currently regular visitors too, along with a couple of dunnocks. It will be interesting to see what other birds arrive if the cold weather continues, as is forecast.

Thursday 17 January 2013

The Cairngorms In Winter film ... the beginning

The Cairngorms, 4pm, January 17
Terry Abraham's Kickstarter funded Cairngorms In Winter project has begun. Terry has been up in the Cairngorms the last few days learning just what wintry conditions can be like here. He's already had to deal with strong winds, spindrift, snow and difficult terrain with snow hiding the rocks - a typical Cairngorms winter week. Added to that has been a deflating air bed and a gas stove reluctant to work in the cold plus a 30kg pack full of video gear. Having progressed along the northern edge of the mountains from Cairn Gorm to Cairn Lochan with two high level camps winds strong enough to blow him over and a weather forecast for blizzards persuaded Terry to leave the hills for a camp in the forest, where the wind is still strong. Here at 300 metres and some 20 miles from the mountains the winds were gusting fiercely when I took the above picture.

I'll be joining Terry in a few days time for some filming - probably in the glens and forests given the forecast. I'm looking forward to it.

Monday 14 January 2013

After the Thaw, Winter Returns to the Cairngorms

Late afternoon light

After ten days of warm weather the big thaw is over and winter has crept back, slowly re-establishing its dominance. It began with a frosty night, a sharp edge to the air and ice edging the puddles. The low clouds faded from the evening sky and the stars returned, sparkling in the vast blackness. At first there was no fresh snow, just freezing temperatures, but last night the snow began to fall and now there is a thin white coat over the land. More snow is promised over the coming week.

Looking over Coire an t-Sneachda

Before the first snow of the year fell I went up onto the Cairngorm Plateau with a friend on a visit from down south (Manchester). As we climbed we soon entered freezing air and a bleak but beautiful frost-coated land. Every rock was faced with a skim of white while the grasses were bundles of thick frost feathers. Between the stones and the tussocks any water was frozen hard. Large snowfields remained from the December storms but we mostly walked on the frosted ground, stepping carefully over iced rocks and frozen puddles. 

Walker on the Cairngorm Plateau

Above, the sky was dappled with layers of broken cloud through which the sun shone intermittently. The glens to the south were full of slowly flowing mist, its rippling patterns mirroring those of the clouds in the sky above. On the icy and frosty rock walls and snow-filled gullies of the cliffs of the great Northern Corries – Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain – there were many climbers, struggling their way up the harsh, hard rocks. Other walkers passed by, plus a few skiers with their skis trapped to their packs (whilst skiing some of the snow patches might have been fun I wouldn’t have wanted to spend most of the day carrying skis over such slippery terrain). It was a good day to be in the mountains. The sun almost felt warm and there was no wind. Walking it didn’t feel too cold at all but once we stopped for a snack and drink on Cairn Lochan the chill started to bite and we were glad of the down jackets in our packs.

Cairn Gorm & Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

We came back down below the Coire Lochan cliffs, watching the low sun light the top of the rocks and illuminating the almost-snow free west slopes of Cairn Gorm. The first winter hill day of the year was over.

Cairn Lochan

I’ll be back in the mountains soon to meet up with Terry Abraham to begin work on the Cairngorms In Winter film. There might be an igloo too. The forecast for more snow and continuing cold temperatures should make for ideal conditions.

On the Cairngorm Plateau, Ben Macdui on the horizon

Thursday 10 January 2013

In Praise of Night Hiking

Crescent moon above Strathspey

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for TGO magazine on the delights of night hiking, something I do often at this time of year. For two very different reasons I’ve been reminded of this piece and have decided to post it, slightly edited, here.

The first reason is that this autumn and winter there has been a string of stories about walkers needing rescuing because they’ve been stuck in the dark without a torch. Maybe it’s just that they’re reported more often but it seems to me that there have been more of these incidents than in other years. Now, hiking without a torch or headlamp is indeed foolish, as mountain rescue teams repeatedly point out. I carry one year round. However most of the rescue stories make the assumption that night walking is to be avoided if at all possible. I disagree. Walking in the dark is part of the whole outdoor experience and something to be relished not feared.

The second reason is that for the last three nights I’ve been watching the excellent Stargazing Live on the BBC and have been inspired to go out and watch the night sky. On two of the evenings the sky was clear and after the programme I went out and looked up at the great winter constellation of Orion, the brilliant planet Jupiter and the myriad stars of the Milky Way and thought with astonishment of how much we know about this unbelievably vast universe and how we are slowly exploring it.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on walking in the dark.


Early in the autumn of 2011 I was camping high in Coire Garbhlach above Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms when I was woken by a powerful gusty wind shaking the tent. Reckoning I would get no more sleep and knowing it would be light in an hour or so I packed up and set off into the black night. Slowly the darkness started to resolve itself into shades of grey. The hills were almost black against the slightly lighter overcast sky. The ground was mottled, tussocks of grass pale, clumps of heather dark. I could see just enough to walk without my headlamp, though I did stumble a few times on the uneven ground. Once my eyes had adjusted to the dark I began to enjoy being out in the night, out in a mysterious world that held the promise of innumerable possibilities. The coming of dawn, with flat light and a grey sky, was a disappointment. The world was ordinary again.

Crescent moon above the Cairngorms at dusk

Having walked in the night many times I wasn’t concerned at the idea of hiking down the rough corrie in darkness though I knew I would need to take care and progress would be slow compared to daytime. Time passes differently when walking in the dark anyway. The concentration required, even on easy terrain, means that the minutes flash by unnoticed. This is when walking without a light. Once you switch on a torch or headlamp you are locked into its beam. All that exists beyond that cone of light is blackness, broken only by faint silhouettes of trees or hills. Inside the light the world is familiar but it is so small and restricted that I find it confining and much prefer to allow my eyes to adapt to the dark and to walk in the night not apart from it in an LED bubble. Only on the darkest nights or in the densest forests do I use a light when walking. I always have one handy though so I can switch it on if I walk into a black space under a tree or boulder and suddenly can’t see. I may need it to check the map too. Whilst a light does affect night vision a little I find my eyes recover in a few minutes if I only have it on briefly.

When there’s a big bright moon a light may not be needed anyway, especially on open terrain where the ground is visible though rather pale and eerie and you can see faint shadows. Walk into a forest however and the bright moon can be a problem. Where it shines in open glades and meadows the walking is easy. But as with the light from a headlamp outside the moon’s light all is black and invisible. I sometimes use a light more walking under a full moon than on a moonless night. Walking under a bright moon is wonderful though, with the landscape a shadowy reflection of its daytime self. The yellow-white light shines off pale rocks, birch bark, pools of water and anything light –coloured so they shimmer softly. Shadows are solid black with no detail – anything could be in them. Lit areas are cool, bleached of colour and tone. The world is lovely and mysterious.

When there’s no moon and the sky is a brilliant mass of stars walking is harder, not because you can see less but because that great canopy of the universe is distracting, luring the eyes upwards to gaze out into the infinite. I stop frequently then to star watch without risk of falling. At other times the sky is overcast and holds little of interest unless the wind tears the clouds apart to reveal a solitary star or planet, suddenly bright and sharp in the black sky, or a half-hidden moon. Mostly, though, an overcast sky brings the eyes down to the landscape, to the dark columns of trees and the unusual shapes of boulders. 

After sunset on Meall a'Bhuachaille

Whilst there is much more to see at night than is imagined by those only used to lit streets and buildings or who always use a torch or headlamp one of the joys of night hiking lies in the amplification of the other senses. Hearing becomes much more acute. Tread on a stick and the crack as it snaps sounds like a gun shot. The rustle of a mouse in the grass sounds like a deer is crashing through the undergrowth. (This loudness of sounds makes night hiking in bear country, which I have done quite often on walks in North America, interesting. Concentration and stillness is required to adjust sounds closer to daytime reality and realise that a bear would be making much more noise and it’s a small rodent you’re hearing). The sense of smell is stronger too. I’ve often smelt the rankness of a deer or the sharp stink of a fox without ever seeing the animal. The aromas of trees and vegetation are distinctive and sometimes I can identify what plants are around me by the smell.

Sometimes night hiking is unintended, as in the anecdote with which I began this piece. Often though I set out to walk in the night, especially in the winter months when darkness is long. Rather than cram as much as I can into the seven or eight hours of daylight I set off before dawn and walk long after sunset. Because finding a camp site in the dark can be difficult I usually select an area in advance where I know there will be some suitable ground and then cast around for the best area when I reach that spot. This doesn’t always work out in unknown country though. On the Pacific Northwest Trail last year I lingered on a summit to watch a dark red sunset. From the map I thought there should be flattish ground and water not far from the top. But the trail led down a broad ridge with nowhere to camp and no water. An almost half-full waxing moon appeared in the sky followed by a single bright star. I followed the stony trail as it zigzagged down, just able to see it against the darker undisturbed ground either side. Below a ragged edge of dark forest rose to meet me. Once in the trees I was in and out of the moonlight and the walk became hypnotic as I descended thousands of feet for several hours before finally reaching a meadow and a creek. It was a glorious descent and tired though I felt I was glad I hadn’t found a camp site any earlier.

Sunday 6 January 2013

First TGO of 2013: Winter backpacking, photography tales, base layers, PHD Design Your Own Down Jacket, Polartec Alpha, ProTrek socks

Winter backpacking in the Cairngorms
The first 2013 issue of TGO magazine is out - given the odd way magazines work it has February on the cover. My contributions are a feature on winter backpacking that tells the stories of a camping trip in the Cairngorms and an igloo trip in Glen Affric; photographic mishaps and thoughts in my backpacking column; a review of PHD's Design Your Own Down Jacket website feature; a first look at Polartec's new Alpha insulation and some ProTrek socks; plus a review of twelve base layers.

Elsewhere in the gear section of the magazine I liked Daniel Neilson's review of Smartphone apps - there's a few I'll be downloading. Daniel looks at the recharging problem but doesn't mention that if you have an Android phone you can just carry spare batteries, which are very light weight. Also reviewed by Daniel are Montane's Polestar down jacket and The North Face's Polar Hooded Power Shield jacket.

Away from gear and into the hills Carey Davies spends a winter night in a bothy in the Lake District; the retiring wardens of the remote Black Sail Youth Hostel in Ennerdale are interviewed; and Ed Byrne goes rock climbing with Andy Kirkpatrick. In The Hillwalker's Library Jim Perrin praises Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a book I don't know but will be searching out -I can't resist that title! Roger Smith worries about threats to Natural England in his Environment column. The Hill Skills pages cover ice axe arrest; bad weather navigation; cold injuries (with a wonderful picture of a chilly-looking John Manning) and lightning.

Friday 4 January 2013

Strong Winds, Big Thaw, First Hill

Descending to Ryvoan Pass

The start of the New Year has been marked by exceptionally warm weather, leading to a big thaw of lying snow, with strong westerly winds sweeping the hills. The 3rd was the first day I had the opportunity to mark the dawning of 2013 with a hill walk. Unable to start until late in the morning I decided on an old favourite, Meall a’Bhuachaille above Glenmore in the Northern Cairngorms, as this hill can be traversed in half a day. The forecast was for very strong winds too – with the wonderful prediction of a lull in the afternoon when the wind would drop to 35mph – so a lower hill (Meall a’Bhuachaille is 810 metres) looked like being more enjoyable than a windblown stagger across the 1000+ metre giants.

Into the Forest

Down in Glenmore Forest there was no wind and a bright sun was warming the air. The sky above was bright blue. It could have been May rather than January. I followed the always tempting path into the woods. I just love trails leading into the wilds. Even ones I know well seem to offer hidden wonders. The forest was quiet and lit by shafts of low sunlight. Even in the shade it was warm and I soon had my sleeves rolled up.

Early January?

Leaving the trees I looked back over the forest to the distant snow-streaked ridge of Sgoran Dubh Mor and Sgor Gaoith. The sky to the west was cloudy and the cloud was spreading eastwards. Turning back to Meall a’Bhuachaille the sky was still mostly clear and a wonderful deep blue. It really was hard to remember it was early January. Only as I approached the summit did I climb into the wind, gusting hard and chilling my sweat-dampened clothing and skin. On the summit I recorded a blast of 36mph and a steady speed of around 30mph, just enough to make walking a little difficult. I was glad to be no higher. The temperature was +4ÂșC. Other walkers were sheltering behind the big summit cairn and looking out over the spreading greenness of Abernethy Forest.

View across the Forest to Sgor Gaoith

The wind was bringing the cloud and the sun was fading as I set off down the path into Ryvoan Pass. In front of me rose snow-spattered Bynack More. Just a few days ago this 1090 metre peak had been completely white. Then towards the end of the walk I looked across the trees to the long northern ridge of Cairn Gorm and was surprised at just how little snow was left. Winter conditions were retreating fast. But it’s early in the season and the snow will return before the spring arrives. 

Cairn Gorm

Wednesday 2 January 2013

New Year's Day: Looking Forwards, Looking Back

A reminder of summer: Quinag in the North-West Highlands, June 4, 2012
Now is the traditional time to look back over the last twelve months and ahead to the next twelve.


Last year was a very varied year with much happening every month. The highlights ranged from trips to books to awards to films to conservation.

The year started well in January when Highland Council rejected the plans for the Allt Duine wind farm in the Monadh Liath mountains. As spokesperson for the Save the Monadliath Mountains campaign I gave many interviews to TV, radio and newspapers. This was only the beginning though and the campaign is not yet over. The council's rejection triggered a public inquiry, which took place in the autumn and at which I gave evidence. We are still waiting for the Reporter's decision. I visited the Allt Duine area several times to gain a feel for the area, trips that culminated with a splendid three-day backpack in July, some of the photographs from which were used at the Inquiry to show the beauty of the area. For my campaigning on Allt Duine I was nominated for the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award in the Environment category, which was a pleasant surprise. I didn't win but did attend the very flash awards ceremony, which was an unusual and entertaining experience. At the ceremony a video of me walking about the Craigellachie woods was shown, which I'd enjoyed making.

During 2012 I made three trips abroad. None were to go hiking though one did involve a little time in the mountains. In February I went to the Netherlands during some very stormy weather that made travel interesting to give a talk on the Pacific Northwest Trail to the Royal Dutch Mountaineering and Climbing Club. Then in June I went to Sweden as a judge for the Scandinavian Outdoor Awards. This did involve a night out in the woods and a short hike to try out the nominated gear. My travel arrangements left me with the best part of a day free too, which I spent on a pleasant walk over Areskutan mountain. Just a few weeks later I was tramping the huge halls of the Friedrichshafen exhibition centre in Germany looking at new gear. I camped there too but it was as far from wild camping as you can imagine.

As well as hiking in Sweden I also ventured out of Scotland for a walk in Wales on the Berwyn Hills in April. For the rest of the year my outdoor trips were all in the Scottish Highlands. A dearth of snow meant there was less skiing in the first few months than for many a year. However when the snow finally came I had a wonderful May Day ski tour to Ben Macdui, a tour I repeated when the snow returned in December. May also saw my 14th TGO Challenge crossing of the Scottish Highlands, from Torridon to Montrose, my longest backpacking trip of the year. The weather was very stormy the first week, which made the trip live up to its name. I sent back reports on the 17th, 19th, 22nd and 27th. Not long after the Challenge in early June I had the best short trip of the year - three days in glorious weather in the North-West Highlands during which I climbed Beinn Leiod, Meallan a’Chuail and Ben Hee. The sunshine was so inspiring I even enjoyed the drive home.

Also in June Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams, my book on my Pacific Northwest Trail hike, was published. I was delighted with the design by Sandstone Press and pleased when it received good reviews. I was also pleased when my photo book A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorms was Highly Commended in the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guilde Awards and then gained second place in the Scottish Nature Photography Awards. To cap this success - all good for my ego and to keep me writing and photographing - TGO Readers voted my Backpacker's Handbook - the fourth edition of which was published in the autumn of 2011 - their Book of the Year in the first TGO Awards.

Whilst I'd made several short appearances in videos and TV programmes over the years these had been at long intervals and had never led to anything more. That changed in 2012. I was frequently interviewed about Allt Duine and the proposed wind farm for news programmes. On a few days I did half a dozen back to back interviews and more.The first actual outdoor filming was a night in a bothy for the BBC Landward programme in early May.

Then in the summer I was asked by my old friend Cameron McNeish to be one of his guests for a TV programme he was making about his Scottish National Trail. We finally filmed this in October in the Corrieyairick Pass area and the programmes were shown between Christmas and New Year (and are now available on iPlayer). 

Also in the autumn film maker Terry Abraham approached me about a film on the Cairngorms in Winter he wanted to make and hoped to fund via Kickstarter. I was delighted to be involved as Terry's films look great. Making a full-length feature would be interesting and challenging too. First though the money had to be raised and the last three months of the year were spent watching the pledges grow until with a week left the minimum amount of money had been raised and we could go ahead. And so 2013 begins.


During the first three months of the year Terry and I will be making the Cairngorms in Winter film. We hope to show the full grandeur and power of the mountains in winter in all conditions from storm to sunshine and from the forests to the summits. We'll be posting blogs and photos during the filming to keep everyone updated with our progress.

In April I'm hoping to go on a ski and igloo tour with Ed Huesers in Glacier National Park in Montana. I've been to Glacier twice, as it's where both the Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail start. Exploring this spectacular area of the Rocky Mountains on skis should be exciting.

Next year's big trip though will be at home in Scotland - a walk along the watershed from the border with England to Duncansby Head. I'll be doing this in May and June.

And the rest of the year? Who knows! There will be other trips of course and much writing and photography - for this blog and of course for TGO magazine and maybe elsewhere. I like not having everything too planned.

So here's to 2013. May it be a good one for everybody.