Wednesday 29 January 2014

Drifting Mist, Soft and Subtle

 A strange day. The night was filled with wind and spattering rain, rattling the windows and echoing in the chimneys. The morning began overcast and wet, the rain heavier, the wind easing. By early afternoon there was dead calm. The clouds thickened and darkened, a solid wall of grey filling the sky. Soon the snow began, big wet flakes drifting silently and slowly downwards. At first the wet ground absorbed them but soon they began to stick, making the land brighter than the sky as it turned white.


Not long before dusk the snow began to fade and mists began to appear, drifting in random bands across the hills, brushing the tops of the trees and sinking into the valleys. I walked across the frozen fields watching the silent and subtle light. Rabbits scurried away from feeding on grasses poking through the snow. Little else moved. A buzzard called high in the sky but was invisible in the mist. The harsh cry of a startled pleasant came from the woods. Underfoot the snow crunched lightly.

Slowly the mists coalesced into one thick band that crept over the snow towards me. Soon I was enveloped and as visibility faded I felt drops of moisture on my face. By the time I was home a steady rain was falling. Soon after dark I looked out. The snow had gone.


Monday 27 January 2014

Gear Reviews - The Great Outdoors

Nigor Zero G pack on a ski tour in the Cairngorms, November 2013

Every so often I'm asked why there are so few gear reviews here. The answer, as many people will know, is because I write gear reviews every month for The Great Outdoors magazine. This blog is for other stuff - anything I like as it's non-commercial.

This year there are changes to my reviews for The Great Outdoors. Under the direction of Daniel Neilson the Great Outdoors website is being expanded and amongst other changes it will feature more gear reviews and these will include ones that may not ever appear in the paper magazine and ones that will appear before they do in the paper magazine. As this development is new (and exciting) how it will work out exactly remains to be seen but it should mean that some of my gear reviews are available sooner online than they have been.

The first such reviews are online now and feature two packs - the Gossamer Gear Mariposa and Nigor Zero G. You can find the reviews here.

Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack on an overnight trip, December 2013

Saturday 25 January 2014

Another Stormy Day

Fresh snow on the Cromdales at dusk

The stormy winter continues. Today saw strong gusty winds, low dark clouds, rain, sleet, wet snow and bone-chilling cold. Here at 300 metres the temperature only reached +2C. The wind and damp made it feel much colder.

The hills were hidden in cloud much of the day but at dusk the clouds lifted a little to reveal fresh snow on the Cromdale Hills. The outlook remains stormy with the freezing level rising and falling. Oh for some high pressure!

Thursday 23 January 2014

Birds, Squirrels, Snow

Long-tailed tits in the snow

Despite the mild weather this winter the birds and squirrels have been devouring the food we put out for them. Today was more like winter with regular snow showers and temperatures barely above freezing. This brought out the birds in even greater numbers and there were several squirrels around most of the day - I saw three at one point and suspect there were a few more than this.

Red squirrel

A great delight has been a flock of new visitors - beautiful long-tailed tits. Although we occasionally see them in the local woods we'd never seen them on the feeders or in the garden until last week. Now they're appearing every day. They particularly like some fat balls that I first put out several weeks ago. The other birds didn't seem keen on them and I'd decided not to buy any more before the long-tailed tits appeared. I've changed my mind! 

Blue tits, great tit & coal tit
The other regular visitors this winter are coal, blue and great tits, chaffinches, great-spotted woodpeckers, blackbirds, dunnocks and pheasants. Greenfinches and siskins, common at some times of the year, are notable by their absence. Goldfinches are rare visitors at any time and we haven't seen any crested tits for several years.

Long-tailed tits, chaffinch & blue tits

At the weekend I'll be taking part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch. I really hope the long-tailed tits are around.

Great spotted woodpecker

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Fine Light, Fine Day

Bynack More

The year has begun dark, cloudy and stormy with little colour in the landscape and rarely any distant views. Gale has followed gale, thaw has followed freeze then freeze followed thaw. The snowline has risen and fallen on the hills. In the glens and forests there has been rain. Followed by rain. Today that changed. A brief ridge of high pressure brought sunshine and blue skies. The land leapt alive with brightness.
The long north ridge of Cairn Gorm

I wandered through the forest and Ryvoan Pass then climbed the wet slopes of Meall a'Bhuachaille. To the south the high Cairngorms shone with fresh snow. As I gained height a cold wind came out of the west and I could see a thick band of clouds hanging over the hills towards the low sun.
Loch Morlich and the Western Cairngorms from Meall a'Bhuachaille

On the summit of Meall a'Bhuachaille I was glad of the shelter of the summit cairn and the surrounding crude stone walls. In the forest I'd had my jacket unzipped in the almost warm sunshine. Up here I had my hood up and needed hat and gloves, the icy wind and a dusting of fresh snow reminding me it was winter.
Meall a'Bhuachaille at dusk

Protected from the wind I watched as the sun sank into the clouds and the sky began to darken. Drifting clouds glowed with the last sunshine. Then, munching some chocolate for energy and warmth, I set off down the rather slippery frozen stony path.
Loch Morlich and the Western Cairngorms

Below Loch Morlich sparkled and shone, a bright space in the growing blackness of the forest. There was colour still in the sky - drifting pale pink clouds in the vast blueness.

Tomorrow the storms are forecast to return.

Saturday 18 January 2014

Why Lightweight Footwear?

 Drying footwear on the Pacific Northwest Trail
The weight of footwear has been a contentious subject for many decades. I've written about it many times over the years. It surfaced again recently with some comments on my choice of shoes and sandals for the Scottish Watershed walk. It seems that some people just don't accept you can go hiking in anything other than big boots. Yet I've done so for over thirty years. Here's a piece from quite a few years ago. I think it's still relevant. 

What do your boots weigh? Do you know? Does it matter? I think it does. Or rather I know it does and have done for over twenty years. It took me a while to learn though. For many years I wore standard leather boots, weighing around 2 kilos (70oz) a pair, for all my walking, including a round of the Munros and a walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats. I noticed that my feet often felt hot and tired but I never put that down to my boots.
Backpacking in sandals in the High Sierra

Then I set off to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, 2700 miles from Mexico to Canada. I’d never attempted anything like this before and I was concerned that my feet stayed in good condition. Even in April southern California is hot and after a couple of days in my 2.25kg (5lb) leather boots with a 27kg (60lb) pack my feet were hot, sore and blistered and I was not at all happy. The terrain was fairly flat and I was mostly walking on wide trails or dirt roads so I decided, in desperation, to risk walking in the 480g (17oz) running shoes I was carrying for camp and town wear and which had been chosen purely for their light weight. The difference was astonishing. Released from the stiff, heavy blocks of leather my feet were cool and comfortable and felt much less pounded by the hard ground. Taking 1.8kg (4lbs) off my feet and putting it on my back turned out to be an excellent idea. I did wear the boots again in the snowbound High Sierra but once out of the snow I replaced both boots and running shoes with a pair of fabric/suede trail shoes that lasted the final 1,000 miles of the trail.

Wearing light footwear I can move faster and more precisely, gliding rather than trudging. I can also cover more miles for the same effort because I am lifting less weight with each step. Swinging heavy weights at the end of your legs is a good way to tire them. An old adage is that a pound on your feet equals five on your back (or, to put it metrically, 450 grams on your feet equals 2.25kg on your back). This may only be approximate but it certainly feels right. It means that on the PCT swopping my 2.25kg (5lb) boots for my 480g (17oz) shoes was equivalent to taking 7kg (15lbs) out of my pack even though my actual pack weight went up due to adding the boots.
Trail shoes on the Pacific Northwest Trail

In practice I’ve found over the years that my feet ache painfully after 20 kilometres (12 miles) or so in boots weighing 1350g (3lbs) and more. However I can cover twice that distance in footwear weighing half as much with little foot discomfort. This may seem surprising but just consider the difference in the weight lifted. My stride averages about 60cm (2 feet). That means I pick my feet up about 1660 times a kilometre (2500 times a mile), lifting 2240kg per kilometre (7500lbs a mile) with 1350 (3lb) boots but only 1120 kg (3750lbs) per kilometre (mile) in 675g (1.5lb) footwear. Over 25 kilometres (15 miles) that’s 56,000kg (112,500lbs) hefted with the heavier footwear but only 28,000kg (56,250lbs) with the lighter footwear. With that huge difference it’s not so surprising after all that heavier footwear is more tiring on the legs.

Those in favour of heavy boots argue that they provide ankle support and that stiffness and weight is required to deal with rough terrain and heavy loads. I don’t think either argument is valid.

Ankle support may indeed be necessary (though I think its importance is over-rated) but heavy boots aren’t needed to provide it. In fact, many medium and heavyweight boots offer no more ankle support than lightweight boots, trail shoes and off-road running shoes. To check the ankle support you can stand on the outer edge of a boot and see how much support your ankle has and how quickly it aches and feels the strain. The only boots I own that support my ankles comfortably in this position are my plastic ski touring boots. However these boots are very uncomfortable to walk in, as the stiff ankles restrict foot movement. When I have to walk in them I loosen the clips so my ankles can flex more freely.
In trail shoes on the GR20 in Corsica

Good footwear should hold your ankle in place over the sole but what is needed for this isn’t weight but a rigid support that cups the heel. Many years ago I tried a pair of boots without such supports. Despite the high ankles on rough terrain they offered no support at all and my ankles kept twisting sideways. The thickness of the sole makes a difference too. The closer your foot is to the ground the less strain on your ankle and the less likely you are to twist it. That’s why trail running shoes have thin soles.

Trail running shoes are also very light and flexible so your feet don’t tire and can quickly adapt to the terrain. Run in heavy, stiff boots and you’ll feel clumsy and unstable and your feet will quickly ache. The same effect isn’t felt so fast when walking but it is there. Flexible light footwear is better, even on steep rugged terrain.


The idea that splinting your feet in stiff heavy boots protects them and helps them support heavy loads puzzles me. I find that such boots restrict my normal foot movement so I feel more unstable and insecure than in lighter more flexible footwear. Footwear that doesn’t twist much along its length can be useful on rough ground, as it gives some support when traversing. However soles that don’t flex easily across the forefoot make me feel clumsy, as I can’t walk naturally or place my feet normally. Straining against the stiffness is tiring too. With flexible footwear I can place the whole of my foot on the ground, even on steep terrain, which I find more stable than balancing on heel or toe.

Rather than stiffness and weight what actually protect your feet are good shock absorption and a midsole that stops stones from being felt. With modern synthetic materials these need add little weight. They can be found on good walking sandals, as well as trail shoes and lightweight boots.
Backpacking in sandals on the Scottish Watershed Walk

The one exception to this is on steep hard snow or ice when crampons may be needed and a degree of stiffness is useful for kicking steps. Even then a fully rigid boot is only needed for technical climbing.

Overall, then, I think light footwear is more comfortable, less tiring and just as stable as heavy footwear. How light can you go? That mainly depends on the weather, particularly the temperature. From June to September I’m happy to walk in sandals anywhere in the British hills. One summer I walked the Southern Upland Way in sandals with no problems. In autumn and spring sandals can be a little cool though so then I prefer trail shoes or lightweight boots. I once spent ten days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in October.The weather was cold and it rained or snowed most days and I often walked in snow. I wore trail shoes throughout, backed up with SealSkinz socks in the snow, and my feet felt fine. This may be too light for many people, at least at first, and very light footwear can feel insubstantial if you’re used to heavy boots. Once you get used to the freedom and lack of restriction it’s the heavy boots that feel strange and wrong however.

The tradition of heavy boots comes from mountaineering, from the need to kick steps up alpine couloirs and keep the feet warm on long glacier traverses. Even mountaineers wear lighter boots now though and walking boots have become less weighty. Even so I still think that many people are still wearing heavier footwear than they need, leading to unnecessarily tired feet.The words “lightweight” and “heavyweight” don’t have precise definitions of course. In my view footwear is lightweight if it weighs a maximum of 1200 grams (45oz).  

How heavy are your boots?

Thursday 16 January 2014

Countryfile Winter Special

The Countryfile team in Coire an Lochain

The Countryfile Winter Special, for which I was filmed back in December (see this blog post) will be shown this Sunday, January 19th, at 7pm on BBC 1. Whether I get two minutes or ten minutes remains to be seen .......

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Ski Touring Talk for the North East Mountain Trust - January 15th

Igloo Ed in the Wind River Range

I'm giving a talk on ski touring in Aberdeen on January 15th for the North East Mountain Trust. It's at 7.30 pm at the Sportsman's Club. More info here. I'll be showing pictures from ski tours in Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Range in the Rocky Mountains plus a few from Scotland.

Monday 13 January 2014

And the Wind Came Early: Harsh Conditions in the Cairngorms

Dark clouds over Bynack More

A promising forecast lured me out for a first venture of 2014 into the high Cairngorms. Sunny skies - the Met Office gave a 'medium' level warning of strong sunlight - and fairly light winds until mid-afternoon sounded enticing. However a pink dawn quickly gave way to grey skies as the sun sank into ominous, fast moving, dark clouds. I went anyway, hoping these early clouds would soon clear. I hesitated just once, on leaving the car and being hit by strong gusty winds. If it was like that in the car park what would it be like on the tops?

There was no snow on the lower slopes, just hard frozen ground and patches of ice. I set off with snowshoes strapped to my pack, having decided that these would be better than skis given the rather thin looking patchy snow higher up. Snowshoes act less like sails in the wind too, though I could still feel gusts tugging at them. Struggling up the icy, rocky ridge I needed my trekking poles to avoid being blown over. Gradually the patches of ice grew and hard snow replaced the frozen ground. Skittering over one piece of bubbled ice I decided it was time for the snowshoes. Wearing them I was able to make better progress though they still skidded occasionally on rock-hard ice despite the metal studs in the base.

Winter equipment .... and a boulder for shelter

Soon there was more snow than ice and the wind was scouring the surface and lifting tiny fragments into swirls of spindrift, some more than head high. The blasted old snow was hard and sharp, stinging my eyes. Time for snow goggles, for the first time this winter. Down below in the snow-filled corries to either side I could see groups of people digging snowholes and practising winter skills.

Finally the slopes eased as I reached the broad crest of the north ridge of Cairn Gorm. A great sweep of wintry mountains opened up before me. Above them bands of clouds in varying shades of grey covered the sky. There was no sign of the sun. I could see other walkers heading for the summit of Cairn Gorm. I wandered over to a subsidiary top, 1151 metre Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, and a dramatic view over the deep trench of Strath Nethy to Bynack More and Beinn Mheadhoin. 

The winter Cairngorms

Turning away from the southerly wind I followed the ridge northwards, my snowshoes barely leaving a mark on the hard snow and ice, the wind roaring and whistling round me, though at least the spindrift was now at my back. In places the drifting snow had filled in shallow hollows and my snowshoes slid on the loose snow. Much snow build-up on the steeper icy slopes and avalanche danger could be high. Nothing would stick to this refrozen, rutted snow. On the steep slopes above Strath Nethy I could see cornices.

Cornice build-up

As the ridge rose to a slight bump the snow vanished, leaving just frozen gravel and ice-covered vegetation. I removed the snowshoes. But on the far side of the rise a steeper snow slope led down to boulders. I donned crampons for the descent. Another rise with sketchy snow amidst stony ground. Having learnt I kept the crampons on and linked bits of snow and tried to avoid blunting them on rocks or catching them in the heather. Sure enough beyond this rise was more snow on a longer, steeper slope. I swapped a ski pole for the ice axe before this descent. It was the last one on snow, now there really was only heather and frozen ground. With patches of ice hidden in the vegetation and glazed rocks I still had to take care as I descended to curving Lochan na Beinne. The little pool looked unusual. Half was frozen and smooth and pale, half was dark and surging with wind-driven waves.

Essential snow goggles

Leaving the lochan I had just a kilometre to go to the car. It was the most difficult walking of the day as the wind, as forecast, was strengthening rapidly. Hitting me from the side it blew me off the path several times, sending me staggering down the slope trying to keep my balance. Without trekking poles I'd have fallen many times. Just once as I fought against the wind I was forced down onto my knees by a fierce gust. In the car park the car was rocking.

Five hours in the winter hills, five hours of intense concentration and physical effort. What a great day!

Saturday 11 January 2014

Quiet & Cold

Two days of gentle chilly weather with light winds, night frosts, bursts of cold sunlight and drifting clouds has been a relief from the stormy start to the year. Down here at 300 metres there's no snow but the ground is crunchy, pools and ditches icy, and the frost lasts all day. The skies have been wonderful with the low sun lighting up the patterns and layers.

Not much wildlife is stirring. A roe deer trots across a meadow and into the trees. Wood pigeons explode from the branches above our heads. Pheasants run low, heads and tails down, skittering through the grasses.

Across Strathspey the Cromdale Hills are brown with only traces of snow. The slanting sun lights up fields and woods.

As the light fades a purple wash sweeps over the hills and a half moon appears in the sky. The cold begins to bite and it's time for home.

Tomorrow it's time for a first venture of the years into the High Cairngorms.

Thursday 9 January 2014

The Great Outdoors Latest Issue: the Winter Cairngorms, Entertainment in Camp, GPS & Communication Devices, Yak wool

Cairn Lochan in the Cairngorms

The February issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. I have a big feature in it about the Cairngorms in winter with many pictures. There's a great cover shot, taken by Terry Abraham, of our camp on Mullach Clach a'Bhlair when we were making the Cairngorms in Winter film. The little figure by the tents is me, also taking a photograph.

Given how difficult navigation can be in winter conditions in the Cairngorms it's good that this issue also has advice on this from Nigel Williams, the Head of Training at Glenmore Lodge, in the Hill Skills section.

My backpacking column is about entertainment in camp during storms or long dark winter evening and in the gear pages I review GPS and communication devices. The other big gear review is from Daniel Neilson and covers seventeen down jackets. He shouldn't be cold this winter! I also review the Kora ShoLa Zip base layer, a beautiful but expensive top made from yak wool.

Elsewhere in this issue is a wonderful double-page photo of Castell Y Gwynt in Snowdonia by Dave Newbould and a feature on 12 Welsh Ridges by Jim Perrin. Another excellent double-spread is Mark Gilligan's picture of Mosedale in the Lake District. In the Hills Skills section Mark gives advice on how to take good pictures in winter. A third mouth-watering double-page spread shows Loch an Eilein in the Cairngorms in winter conditions, taken by Ian Cameron. I've visited this beautiful little loch many times but have never seen it as wintry as this. A change in photography comes from Jamie Grant with a selection of black and white pictures of Glen Lyon.

Winter and photography continue as themes with Lizzie Shepherd's photo essay on ski touring in Norway. The minimalist opening spread showing a tiny skier crossing a frozen lake is wonderful.

Back in the magazine is former deputy editor Carey Davies, now the BMC's hillwalking officer, with a new column called Mountain Magic. In his first contribution Carey describes a night walk on Stanage Edge in the Peak District. Roger Smith, in his Environment column, considers wind power and calls for a complete block on wind farms in sensitive mountain areas. Hear, hear Roger! In the Hillwalker's Library Jim Perrin delves underground with Norbert Casteret's Ten Years Under The Earth

Tuesday 7 January 2014

New Video with Terry Abraham: Lake District Backpacking

Wild camping on Bleaberry Fell in the Lake District, May 2013
This year I'm going to be making another video with Terry Abraham, to be called Lake District Backpacking with Chris Townsend. We'll be filming it later in the year and it should be released in September.

For the film I'll be hillwalking and wild camping in the Lake District and climbing the four three thousand foot summits on a week long trip. As well as showing the beauty of the area and the joys of wild camping I'll also be demonstrating techniques and skills for enjoying the hills safely and comfortably.

You can read more about it on Terry's blog here.

Saturday 4 January 2014

Stormy Skies

The stormy weather of the last few weeks has brought a series of dramatic skies as clouds streamed across the sky driven on strong winds. Every so often the sun has split the clouds sending shafts of light onto the land below. Patches of blue sky have appeared briefly between the torn apart clouds. The land has been dark and wet, with only touches of snow and frost below 700 metres. Higher up there has been an almost bewildering freeze-thaw pattern with the hills pure white one day then streaked with brown the next.

Wandering up onto the moors of the north-east corner of the Cairngorms National Park we looked out across broad Strathspey to the distant snowy high hills. Today there looked to be fresh snow on the summits as they came and went in the racing clouds. A grouse broke cover and streaked low over the heather, calling loudly. Five deer appeared on the skyline then dropped out of sight. Otherwise the land was silent and empty, the only sounds the whispering of the wind in the grasses and the trickling of tiny streams.

With another intense Atlantic low pressure system arriving soon there is no sign to an end of this wild weather. As always there are rewards in the storms, with the ever-changing, multi-layered clouds being the highlights so far. Nature is never boring.