Tuesday 31 January 2017

A Real Winter's Day on Cairn Gorm

Bynack More

The snow that fell in the middle of the month (see posts for January 13 and 15) didn’t last long even high in the mountains and until a few days ago the weather had been mild. Then the temperature dropped, frost returned to the glens and snow to the tops. Will it last awhile? Maybe!

View down to Glenmore Forest and Loch Morlich
Watching the weather forecast closely it looked as though the eastern Cairngorms on the 29th were going to have the best weather – sunny and cold without really strong winds. Checking the Met Office summit forecasts (a really useful way to pinpoint the most likely tops for good conditions) I saw that Sgor Gaoith above Glen Feshie was predicted to be in cloud all day but that Cairn Gorm would be clear. Thinking about this I realised that I hadn’t been to the easily accessible but little-frequented long north ridge of Cairn Gorm for a while. That would be my destination.

Lochan na Beinne and Meall a'Bhuachaille
Climbing up to the ridge past frozen Lochan na Beinne was arduous. The fresh unconsolidated snow smoothed out the terrain, hiding holes and rocks and covering the heather. Wading through this stuff made for slow progress. I didn’t mind. The sky was blue, the snow shining, and there were lovely views over the forest to Glen More, Loch Morlich and Meall a’Bhuachaille. I was warm too as the air was still. It didn’t stay that way. On reaching the ridge I was hit by a bitterly cold wind. Time for more clothing.

View across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui and Cairn Toul
The walk along the ridge was rather jerky as I went through sometimes knee deep drifts, over hard windblown snow, and across icy rocks. Again the landscape more than compensated for the difficulties. The east side of the ridge falls steeply into Strath Nethy and across this deep valley rose Bynack More, looking very dramatic. From the northern top of Cairn Gorm, Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, more hills came into view, a great sweep from distant Lochnagar round to Cairn Toul. To the west and north the further hills were cloud-covered, even the Monadh Liath just across Strathspey. The Eastern Cairngorms really were the place to be. 

The Cairngorm Weather Station
Two people with two dogs passed by descending the ridge. ‘Hard going in the soft snow’, they called out. I saw no-one else until I reached the summit of Cairn Gorm where a party of four arrived from the west. The weather station was iced up but not as snow-covered as it often is at this time of year.

The Moon and Venus
The sun set into thick clouds as I descended. A thin crescent moon rose. High above it Venus appeared, shining brightly. Across the pale waters of Loch Morlich and the dark of the forest the orange lights of Aviemore glowed. It has been a grand day.

Loch Morlich and Aviemore

Saturday 28 January 2017

Big Garden Birdwatch

Chaffinches in the rain

The last three months of mostly mild weather has seen a big reduction in the numbers of birds visiting the feeders in the garden so I wasn't surprised when today's count for the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch produced the lowest total we've ever had. Just 16 individual birds and 7 species. Last year we counted 47 birds from 9 species. The two species not seen this year were great spotted woodpecker, though we do see one most days, and greenfinch - we haven't seen any for many weeks.

Rain has been falling all day with very low cloud and no wind. Many of the birds we did see were just sitting in the trees staring into space. More interesting to watch was a red squirrel on a nut feeder and three rabbits browsing on shrubs.

The figures for this year are:

Chaffinch  7
Great tit     2
Coal tit      2
Blue tit      2
Robin        1
Dunnock   1
Blackbird  1

Friday 27 January 2017

Wild Land Area Descriptions from Scottish Natural Heritage

Suilven in Wild Land Area 32 Inverpolly and Glencanisp. 'An awe-inspiring contrast of isolated steep rocky mountains that tower above open expanses of cnocan, peatland and water bodies, with a strong sense of naturalness.'

Scottish Natural Heritage has just published excellent descriptions of the 42 Wild Land Areas in Scotland. Each detailed description has a map and describes the geographical location and boundaries of the area plus its key attributes and qualities. The landscape, geology, ecology, archaeology and human activity are all included in the descriptions.

As well as a guide to the attractions and nature of the wild land areas, which should be useful to visitors, the descriptions also show why these landscapes should be protected. something that involves both local people and national government. Stuart Brooks, CEO of the John Muir Trust, said 'we believe these in-depth descriptions – which also clarify the distinction between wild land  and other beautiful landscapes where people live and work – can help persuade adjacent local communities of the benefits of protecting and enhancing Wild Land Areas.'
Cir Mhor in Wild Land Area 3 North Arran. 'Strong wild land attributes, especially within the remote interior.'

SNH has also published technical guidance for planners and developers, which will be key for conservation of the wild areas. Stuart Brooks said 'A core principle is that any assessment should consider the impact on Wild Land Areas, even if the physical footprint of the development is outside or on the edge of wild land. We are pleased to see that SNH’s guidance attempts to deal with this important issue.'

Coire Ardair in Wild Land Area 19 Braeroy, Glenshirra and Creag Meagaidh. 'A strong sense of naturalness across much of the interior, partly due to the prominence of geological features such as corries and glacier deposition, but also dynamic features such as land slips, deep cut gorges and watercourses'.

To mean anything for the future it is vital that these areas are conserved and that restoration is undertaken for, beautiful and spectacular as they are, many of them contain large areas of degraded and ecologically poor land due to past and current human activities. These descriptions should help with this and are to be welcomed. It's now up to the Scottish Government to take the lead in ensuring that our wonderful wild lands remain so.

Sunday 22 January 2017

Not much snow in the Cairngorms. Is this usual?

The Cairngorms, January 17, 2017

There's not much snow in the Cairngorms at present and some people are wondering how unusual this is. I've been asked about it by a few people and have seen comments on social media. Well, the answer is simple. No, it's not unusual. Most winters snow comes and goes. Some years there is unbroken deep cover for several months, some years the snow is mostly thin and patchy.

And sometimes change happens in a few days, as these pictures from this month show.

8th January, little snow

13th January, complete cover down to glen level - enough for me to go snowshoeing from home

16th January, a rapid thaw has stripped away most of the snow

Sometimes the change is from one month to the next. Here are two pictures from 2013.

Little snow on Cairn Gorm, January 11, 2013

The Cairngorm Plateau, February 19, 2013

Is this a low snow winter is another question people are asking?  It's far too early to tell! I'd say we won't know until May. Sometimes the snow comes late, very late. That was the case in 2012. There was some snow high up in January, February and March but it was thin and patchy and not enough for skiing, whether downhill or touring. Heavy snow didn't arrive until April. But it then stayed well into May, causing problems for some TGO Challengers on their way across Scotland. That year I had my best ski tour on May 1 when I skied from Coire Cas car park to Ben Macdui and back on deep snow.

Cairn Gorm, May 1, 2012

Ben Macdui, May 1, 2012

So there's still plenty of time for a good snowy winter!

Wednesday 18 January 2017

2016 Favourite Photos & Thoughts on Lenses & Focal Lengths

Camp on the Cairngorm Plateau, March 14. Sony NEX 7, 16-50 lens @ 16mm, ISO 400, f 6.3@15 sec, tripod

Last year I took 3,500+ images. Here are my 15 favourites - though at another time I might pick a different selection!

Whislt sorting through the pictures I remembered a lens review by Alex Roddie in which he wrote 'when I analysed all the thousands of photos I’d taken with my zoom lens, I found that most of them were at about the 35mm focal length (53mm in full-frame terms). It’s how I see the world.' What, I wondered, was my most-used focal length? Did I see the world in one particular way?

The Cairngorms, January 27. Sony NEX 7, 55-210mm lens @ 210mm, ISO 400, f8@1/1600 sec

Through the wonders of Lightroom I could find out. I knew that most images were taken on my 16-50mm lens as it's often the only one I carry and it's my main one when I take more than one lens. I wasn't surprised then to discover that over 2,800 pictures were taken with this lens. Of these just over 600 were taken at 16mm and at 50mm, which did surprise me a little. I hadn't realised I used each end of the zoom so often. That still left well over half the pictures taken at other focal lengths and here there's not much variation with the highest number being 108 images at 30mm.

Forest, mist & mountains, January 31. Sony NEX 7, 55-210mm lens @ 113mm, ISO 800, f8@1/80 sec

After the 16-50 lens my next used lens are the 10-18mm wide angle zoom and the 55-210mm telephoto zoom. The former I carry on most trips and it's a lens I like a great deal so I was surprised to find I only took 325 images with it, the most popular focal length being 10mm, with which I took 130 pictures. I really must use it more! In competition with the 10-18mm lens is the Samyang 12mm, which I bought for night photos as it's a f2 lens and so lets in more light than the f4 10-18. I took 50 images with this.

Cairngorms camp, February 27. Sony NEX 7, Samyang 12mm lens, ISO 400, tripod

With the 55-210mm lens I took 400 images, many of them of wildlife at or close to home - sometimes through a window! Unsurprisingly over half these were taken at 210mm.

Sparrowhawk, February 24. Sony NEX 7, 55-210mm lens @ 186mm, ISO 100, f6.3@1/250 sec

I also have a Sigma 30mm f2.8 lens which I hardly used, taking just 16 photos with it, and a Sony E 30mm f3.5 Macro lens, which I bought mainly for photographing old slides on a lightbox. I took 98 pictures with it. I intend taking many more this year, again of old slides.

Isle of Rum from Morar, May 13. Sony NEX 7, 16-50mm lens @ 50mm, ISO 100, f8@1/250 sec

My conclusion from this analysis is that I don't have a favourite focal length and that I like zoom lenses - which I already knew. It has made me determined to make more use of the 10-18mm lens though.

Anyway here are the rest of my favourite 2017 photos.

Evening in Glen Feshie, May 21. Nex 7, 16-50mm lens @ 27mm, ISO 100, f8@1/320sec

Rainbow over Victoria Bridge, Deeside. Sony NEX 7, 16-50mm lens @ 42mm, ISO 200, f8@1,000 sec

Glen Doll from Jock's Road, May 23. Sony NEX 7, 16-50m lens @ 17mm, ISO 100, f8@1/20 sec

Young chaffinch soliciting food from a greenfinch, July 5. NEX 7, 55-210mm lens @ 210mm, ISO 1600, f8@1/125 sec

Small tortoiseshell butterfly, September 7. Sony NEX 7, 55-210mm lens @ 210mm, ISO 100, f8@1/250

View from Red Peak Pass, Yosemite National Park, September 24. Sony NEX 7, 10-18mm @ 14mm, ISO 100, f8@1/250

Mirror Lake & Mount Whitney, Sequoia National Park, October 12. Sony a6000, 16-50mm lens @ 50mm, ISO 100, f8@1/250 sec

Guitar Lake & Mount Hitchcock, Sequoia National Park, October 13. Sony a6000, 16-50mm lens @ 20mm, ISO 100, f8@1/160 sec

Strathspey & the Cairngorms, December 27. Sony a6000, 16-50mm lens @ 28mm, ISO 800, f8@1/10 sec

Sunday 15 January 2017

Animal tracks on a wet day: always something interesting in nature

In the mist and drizzle

Thawing snow, wet mist, drizzle, +5C. A dreich day. Chilly and damp. Even the nearby hills were hidden, the woods were hazy and dark. Two buzzards flapped slowly over the snow, silhouetted against the white ground. Rabbits skipped out of sight.
Rabbit food

Even on a day like this there is something to see, something of interest. With no views I looked down. Here were signs of the wildlife I was unlikely to see in the poor visibility. Tracks laced the ground  showing where rabbbits had searched for places they could scrape through the snow and find food.

Rabbit tracks

At the edge of the woods roe deer tracks appeared. None ventured out into the fields, where I often see them - no point when the grass is snow-covered.

Roe deer track

A fox had been out in the fields though, the straight line of its tracks cutting across the tangle of twisting and turning rabbit ones. I followed the tracks for a while but lost them in a snowfree area so whether it caught a rabbit or a mouse or maybe a pheasant - I saw tracks of several - I didn't find out..


An unpromising day then but still much of interest to see, as there always is in the natural world.

For identification of tracks and signs for over decades I've used Animals Tracks, Trails & Signs by R.W.Brown, M.J.Lawrence & J. Pope. There is much excellent information online now of course, including by Paul Kirtley on his blog.

Friday 13 January 2017

Thoughts on Snow Trips Past & Future

Time for snowshoes

Today the snow was deep enough for me to try out some new snowshoes. I've been waiting quite a while to do this. Previous snowfalls haven't been deep enough but the recent snowfall is four or five inches deep everywhere and much deeper in many places where it has drifted.

Wandering the fields and woods in the snow I thought about future wintry trips and remembered previous ones. Next week I'll be heading into the Cairngorms for two nights with Peter Elliott of PHD to try out a winter version of the Sleep System I tried with him last summer (see this post) and then used with great success on my Yosemite to Death Valley walk last autumn. I'm hoping for really cold temperatures!

2016's Glen Affric igloo

Next month I'm planning an igloo trip with members of the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club. We did this last year above Glen Affric and had a comfortable night in an igloo in stormy weather. I wrote about the trip on this blog here and for The Great Outdoors. The latter piece has just been posted on the magazine's website.

Today the high Cairngorms were hidden in cloud. I hope to be up there in the snow soon and to have trips as memorable as this one last February. But for now the snow has made the fields and woods in the glens wilder and more exciting and tramping round them on snowshoes feels like a real winter adventure.

An elongated winter shadow        

View across Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills

Tuesday 10 January 2017

The Great Outdoors February Issue: mid-size packs, Yeti gaiters,Summiteer sleeping bag & winter skills

In the February issue of The Great Outdoors I review eleven 30-40 litre packs and the Summiteer Glow Worm 600 sleeping bag and write about Berghaus Yeti gaiters in the Classic gear section, for which I dug out my old very faded pair. Also in the gear pages is a discussion of socks by Outdoor Gear Coach.

Accompanying the magazine is a supplement on winter skills to which I've contributed my thoughts on what to wear and carry plus what to look for in ice axes and crampons. Also in the supplement Carey Davies goes on a winter skills course at Glenmore Lodge while Lodge instructors Giles Trussell, Jon Jones and Alan Halewood give advice on safe movement in the winter hills, ice axe and crampon use, and avalanche safety. There's also a cautionary tale of a stormy winter's day on the Black Mount by David Lintern and advice from Paul Besley, who suffered a serious accident when winter hillwalking in the Lake District.

David Lintern also has a piece in the magazine, an account of an Alpine mountaineering introductory course in the Spanish Sierra Nevada, and a fine and atmospheric photo taken on the snow-covered summit of Bynack More that shows the Cairngorms at their most wild and glorious. There are also equally fine wintry photo spreads of a rainbow over the Langdale Pikes from Blea Tarn by Dave Fieldhouse and Loch Achtriochtan in Glencoe by Graham Bradshaw. Elsewhere in the magazine there's an account of an icy round of the Snowdon Horseshoe by Dan Aspel; an exciting snowshoe and bothy trip over Carn Dearg and Sgor Gaibhre from Corrour station by Alex Roddie; a wander round a snowy High Cup Nick by Mark Sutcliffe; and a consideration of the Great Langdale hills in winter by Ronald Turnbull. All these articles are illustrated with wonderful mouth-watering photos.

Away from the snow and ice Ed Byrne canoes down the River Spey, an entertaining article containing the wonderfully understated 'our third capsize was more annoying'. Carey Davies enjoys woods rather than hills in his column; Roger Smith looks at the campaign to save the Scottish wildcat; and Jim Perrin describes Sherpa: The Memoir of Ang Tharkay.

Sunday 8 January 2017

Outdoor & Nature Books Review 2016

Here are brief reviews of the outdoor and nature books I enjoyed last year. I'm happy to recommend all of them.

Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher by Robert Wehrman

A book I'd been looking forward to for several years Walking Man is a fascinating biography of my favourite writer on backpacking and hiking. See my full review here.

Inglorious: Conflict In The Uplands by Mark Avery

A very readable damning indictment of the driven grouse industry Inglorious is packed with information and detail. An important book.

The Wood For The Trees: The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood by Richard Fortey

Fortey is one of my favourite popular science writers (Earth: An Intimate History and Life: An Unauthorised Biography are both superb). In this intriguing book he describes nature and the British landscape from the perspective of one small wood in the Chiltern Hills.

Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide To The British Landscape by Mary-Ann Ochota

The opposite of The Wood For The Trees this book is a guide to understanding the British Landscape and is packed full of useful information. A reference book for long term use.

Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard

An updated and expanded edition of Chouinards story of Patagonia and how he sees the company as a means for promoting environmental campaigns and ethical business.

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf

Excellent biography of a neglected but important figure.

A Mountain Before Breakfast by Alan Rowan

The first of two somewhat exhausting books on the Corbetts. Not exhausting for any negative reasons but for how they left me feeling! In this case the round involves many night walks, as you'd expect from the author of Moonwalker, and many long drives plus masses of excitement and entertaining events.

The Corbett Round; A unique continuous traverse of 219 Scottish mountains by Manny Gorman

In 2009 Gorman ran round all the Corbetts in a record 70 days. Reading the exciting story involving wild weather, injuries really brings home just how astonishing an achievement it was.

The Rainforests of Britain and Ireland: A Traveller's Guide by Clifton Bain

A useful reference guide to every remnant bit of rainforest left in Britain and Ireland.

Mountains and Rivers: Dee Valley Poems from Source to Sea by Brian Lawrie

A lovely little volume of hill and river poems.

The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland: A Companion Guide by Clifton Bain

A pocket size compact version of the excellent The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland for field use.

Wild America: A personal celebration of the National Parks by David Muench & Roly Smith

Last year was the centenary of the US National Park Service. Packed with wonderful photographs and tempting descriptions this book shows just why the national parks are so valuable.

The Range of Light: Night & Day On The John Muir Trail by Nick Foster and Scott Lange

Spectacular and dramatic photos by two astrophotographers from their hike along the John Muir Trail.