Wednesday 30 September 2015

On Ben More Coigach

Early morning at the camp on Ben More Coigach

On a visit to Ullapool in the Northern Highlands earlier in the year I looked at the great south wall of Ben More Coigach rising above Loch Broom and thought, not for the first time, I must go up there sometime. And in late September, spurred on by a good weather forecast, I did. Calling it a ‘hill’ doesn’t do justice to Ben More Coigach though. It’s not that high – the two highest summits being 738 and 705 metres – but it is massive, measuring some ten by eight kilometres and with ten tops. A quick up and down of the highest point would hardly do the hill justice.

Instead I decided to spend a night on the mountain, always the best way to gain a feel for a place. A late start had me climbing the steep, rough, craggy and boggy slopes of the easternmost top, Beinn Tarsuinn, at sunset. I haven’t adjusted to autumn nights yet. In my head it’s still light for several more hours than it is. After traversing the long summit ridge I descended to a col and a deer fence – a huge area including Beinn Tarsuinn and the neighbouring peak Beinn an Eoin has been fenced to allow forest regeneration by the Scottish Wildlife Trust which owns Ben More Coigach. 

The night was dark, the full moon merely a faint glow behind the clouds, and the terrain very rough, very wet and very slippery. Camping on the col seemed sensible so I cast around for a site that wasn’t too wet or too bumpy amongst the muddy pools, peat hags, slimy bogs and tussocks. The spot I eventually settled on was just passable. It would have to do. I was soon asleep, only to be woken by a gusty wind several times during the night.

Lazy photography
Dawn came with a soft light and a pink tinge on thinning clouds. The air felt chilly and the wind was whipping past my shelter. Reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag I took some photos out of the doorway. That was a limited exercise though and soon my desire to see the mountains and the sky in full overcame my laziness and desire to stay snug inside. Outside the sun was shining hazily through the clouds streaking the sky. The huge eastern cliffs of Ben More Coigach stretched out in a series of buttresses. 

It was chilly outside
Climbing the steep slopes that break the southern and eastern walls of the mountain I soon reached the summit plateau and a very different world. The rolling open slopes and feeling of space reminded me of hills far to the east and south – the Cairngorms, Ben Alder, Creag Meagaidh. I walked the easy grass and stone terrain to the highest top, which gives its name to the whole mountain. Or is it the other way round? The views were spectacular, stretching out over distant mountains and lochs and the sea. 

View south to An Teallach 

View north to Suilven
Across a wide gentle bowl rose Sgurr an Fhidhleir, the second highest top. Curving round the bowl I crossed its boggy heart then climbed up Sgurr an Fhidhleir, easy on this side but in fact the top of a massive prow of rock, the Nose of Sgurr an Fhidhleir, rising abruptly from Lochan Tuath.
Lochan Tuath and the Nose of Sgurr an Fhidhleir

Below Sgurr an Fhidhleir a steep, loose, dirt and stone gully with a faint path led down to boggy ground and then the sandy shores of Lochan Tuath from where I could look back to the Nose soaring high above. A boggy walk on a rough path led away from the mountain and back to my car. Down here the air was still and humid, which brought out the midges. Stopping for even a second meant being enveloped in hordes of them and I reached the car soaked in sweat. Trapped inside with the midges swarming round the windows I looked at the steep boggy slopes of Cul Beag, my planned next destination. They didn’t look appealing. Staying in the hot airless car didn’t appeal either, especially as some midges were in there with me. I looked at the map and Quinag caught my eye. Not too far to drive and with options for refreshment on the way. Opening the windows to blast out the midges and refresh the stale air I set off. Quinag it would be.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

OWPG Award for Excellence for Cairngorms feature

Sgor Gaoith

I'm delighted that High and Wild, a piece about the Cairngorms in winter that appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Great Outdoors, has just been awarded the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild 2015 Award for Excellence for an Outdoor/Travel Feature.

The judges commented “A wonderfully written 360 degree look at a stunning region. Chris grabbed us from the off, giving a vivid picture of the landscapes, their power and beauty. We really felt his passion for the place, and the writing inspired the same. A great feature.” I love it when my enthusiasm for a favourite place can win an award!

This website also received a Special Mention in Digital Media, the judges saying "If it was for interesting content alone, then Chris, as always, is a stand-out entrant." I think there's a hint there that I need to do some work on the design.

Saturday 19 September 2015

The Great Outdoors Challenge - New Website and Pictures

Camp in the Gaick Pass, 2008

That unique backpacking event The Great Outdoors Challenge has a new website with details of the 2016 Challenge, masses of information and lots of inspiring pictures.

I'll be doing my sixteenth crossing of the Scottish Highlands next year and I've been thinking back to the previous ones, right back to the first Challenge in 1980 in fact.  It really is a great event and one that has been important to me for over 35 years now, which I find somewhat astonishing.

I took photographs on all the Challenges but I haven't scanned any of the films used in pre-digital days (note to self - I must do so) so I can't post anything from the 1980s or 1990s. I changed to digital in 2004 since when I've done six Challenges. Photos from these have appeared in posts before but I've gathered some together here. On only one of these crossings did I have a companion and I always seem to choose routes that mean I rarely encounter other Challengers so there's rarely other people or other tents in my pictures. Most are of camp sites. For me, the camps are as important as the walking and it these pictures that bring back the strongest memories.


Camp somewhere in the Central Highlands

On the edge of the hills, a day's walk from the East Coast.


Camp in Glen Affric
Camp with another Challenger at White Bridge in the Cairngorms


Camp on the summit of Ben Nevis

Beside Loch Treig


Camp in the Western Highlands

Challenge tents on the camp site in Montrose on the east coast


Snow on the Glen Affric hills

In Glen Feshie


Tony Hobbs in Gleann Gaorsaic

Camp with Tony Hobbs in the Monadh Liath

Thursday 17 September 2015

The Great Outdoors October Issue out now: The Great Outdoors Challenge, big packs, Grisport trail shoes, Wild Camping book review

Camp on the 2009 The Great Outdoors Challenge

As always the October issue of The Great Outdoors is the Challenge issue and there's a nine-page section with accounts from this year's event plus of course the all important entry form. My backpacking column is about the Challenge too. I'll be doing my sixteenth next year.

There's much about Scotland elsewhere in this issue. Alex Roddie gives an excellent account of his Cape Wrath Trail walk, a tough walk made even tougher by June's stormy weather, while Ronald Turnbull recommends the Munro Tops in his usual entertaining style. Ed Byrne goes canyoning near Fort William and finds it more exciting than he expected. Roger Smith considers Glen Roy and the tangle of countryside designations in Scotland (NNR, SSSI, SAC, LNR etc) and calls for a simpler system (yes, please!). In The Hillwalkers' Library Jim Perrin praises Argyll: The Enduring Heartland by Marion Campbell.

Away from Scotland Will Renwick visits a collection of interesting little hills on the fringes of the Brecon Beacons; Craig Weldon goes farther afield to climb the hills of the Faroe Islands;  Karen Lloyd looks for golden eagles on the Riggindale Horseshoe in the Lake District; and Carey Davies does some serious scrambling on Milestone Buttress in Snowdonia. The Hill Skills section is a special on outdoor photography by Dougie Cunningham with some excellent advice. On the books page I review Stephen Neale's Wild Camping.

In the Almanac section there's a report on archaeological discoveries in the Peak District and an interview with UK Adventurer of the Year Ash Dykes plan to walk the length of Madagascar. This section also includes details of The Great Outdoors Awards - nominations for the reader awards are now open.

In the gear pages I review twelve 60+ litre packs and a nice pair of trail shoes from Grisport. With winter coming on Kirk Watson reviews reports on seven waterproofs suitable for severe weather.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

25,000th John Muir Award in Cairngorms National Park Awarded

Environment Minister Aileen McLeod presents the JMT Award to Ms Grace Moir

The John Muir Award is one of the great success stories of the John Muir Trust. The scheme is aimed at helping people from all ages and backgrounds to become involved with wild places and it has proved very popular. In the Cairngorms the Award is carried out via the National Park. Recently the 25,000th Award in the Cairngorms was achieved by Grace Moir and she was presented with the Award by the Scottish Environment Minister Aileen McLeod at a ceremony at the RSPB's Forest Lodge in the heart of Abernethy Forest.

I attended as a representative of the John Muir Trust along with Trust Chairman Peter Pearson. It's always a pleasure to visit the wonderful Forest Lodge, even if finding it in the maze of roads in the forest always seems difficult! After the award ceremony we bumped off down Abernethy's rough tracks in a couple of vehicles to have a look at some of the work the RSPB is doing in the area (I wrote  about a longer visit with the RSPB here). We stopped at a high point to look over the regenerating forest to a cloud-shrouded Meall a'Bhuachaille while Jeremy Roberts, Site Manager for the RSPB, pointed out various locations to the Minister. The day was dull and still and the midges emerged in clouds. I was impressed by Aileen McLeod's coolness as she listened to Jeremy and looked at the maps and the landscape. The rest of us were flapping our arms and walking round in circles!

Further more formal reports that don't mention the midges can be found on the John Muir Trust website and the Cairngorms National Park website.

Monday 14 September 2015

Clouds & Colours & Shadows: Photos from Strathspey

Dark clouds over the Cairngorms

A day of shifting skies with clouds rising and falling and bright sunshine illuminating trees and fields and hills. The lush late summer foliage bright and shining, with just touches of the autumn to come. Against the rich green of the woods the distant Cairngorm hills dark and shadowed, the nearer Hills of Cromdale purple with heather.

Purple heather on the Cromdale Hills

Buzzards wheel overhead, a roe deer races for cover, pheasants and wood pigeons noisy in the trees, even with the roaring wind. A fine bracing day with the air and the views changing constantly.

Shadowed mountain, sunlit trees
Thicker clouds over the High Cairngorms
Ben Rinnes

Sunday 13 September 2015

Book Review: John Muir The Scotsman who saved America's wild places by Mary Colwell

There are many books about John Muir plus of course the extensive writings of the man himself. I’ve read most of them but there’s always something new to discover when a new book comes out. The latest, published last year, is one of the few by a British rather than American writer, which distances the content a little from the Muir and the American psyche approach of some US writers. It’s a straightforward biography, concentrating on Muir’s early life and the experiences that led up to him becoming a campaigner for wild places. As most other biographies concentrate on his later activist years this book is useful and humanises Muir – there is a danger of him being seen as an iconic other-worldly figure speaking from on high - by detailing his upbringing and the people who influenced him. Mary Colwell writes well and the book is easy to read whilst packed with information.

This isn't a critical book and it doesn’t go into much detail let alone analysis of Muir’s beliefs and writings. I think it makes a good companion volume to Michael P. Cohen’s The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness which does go deeply into Muir’s intellectual approach and how it developed and is, in my opinion, the best book on John Muir.

There are more of my thoughts on John Muir in this post from last year.