Tuesday 30 May 2017

Meetings & Mountains

Stob Coire Easain, Sgurr Innse, Stob Ban & Stob Coire Claurigh from Cnap Cruinn

Last weekend I was in Fort William for the John Muir Trust AGM and Members’ Gathering. As last year this was inspiring and thought-provoking. The amount of work the Trust staff do is impressive and humbling. We heard about wind farms, peatlands, talking to politicians, forestry, footpaths, deer management, the John Muir Award, membership numbers (they’re up!),  Glenridding and Helvellyn, fund raising and much more. There was an open forum with many interesting questions and responses. The event closed with an interesting presentation by the Nevis Landscape Partnership. There was of course plenty of time to talk to delegates, other Trustees and staff as well. It’s an intense time.

JMT Head of Policy Helen McDade talking at the AGM

In between the AGM bit and the evening events a group of us went to the Lochaber Geopark Visitor Centre for an interesting talk  - and one that left me wondering why this and the North West Highlands Geopark are struggling for funds while Highlands and Islands Enterprise pours millions into the continuing shambles at Cairngorm Mountain.

Stob Coire na Gaibhre & Aonach Mor from Beinn Chlianlaig

With much to think about and absorb a walk in the wilds seemed a good way to start digesting it all so on the way home, after lunch at the excellent Darwin’s Rest in Roybridge, I went up little Cnap Cruinn, a hill I hadn’t climbed before. Surrounded by much bigger, much more impressive mountains it’s easily overlooked. However like many small hills separated from bigger ones by deep glens it’s a superb viewpoint with splendid vistas all around that I savoured on the walk along the broad ridge to the subsidiary summit of Beinn Chlianlaig. 

View to the Easains and the Grey Corries from Cnap Cruinn
There were many birds too – piping golden plover, white-rump flashing wheatears, and rasping ptarmigan. The hill flowers were appearing – pink moss campion amongst the stones on the tops, white cloudberry amongst the heather, yellow tormentil on the sheep-cropped grasslands. In Inverlair Forest at the foot of the hill I could see the work being done by the Corrour Estate to turn the plantations into more diverse forestry with improved biodiversity. Conservation and restoration in action. 

View over Inverlair Forest from Cnap Cruinn

Friday 26 May 2017

The Great Outdoors June Issue: Trail shoes, the Nikwax story, headlamps, Paramo jackets, book review

The June issue of The Great Outdoors has just been published. My big review this month covers fifteen pairs of the latest trail shoes. I also tell the story of Nikwax, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, plus review three headlamps and the Paramo Bentu windproof and fleece combination. Away from gear I review Alan Rowan's A Mountain Before Breakfast.

The long days of summer are with us now, along, at least for the moment, with sunny weather. Appropriately this issue describes ten big day walks for long days. I've done nine of them and they're all excellent, though I must admit that five of them took me two days with an overnight camp.

Much, much longer than these walks is an amazing winter round of the Corbetts by Will Copestake, which he finished shortly before writing this feature.

Also in this issue Jim Perrin gives a portrait of Great Gable; Andrew McCloy describes a new long-distance path round the perimeter of the Peak District National Park; Scottish Bothy Bible author Geoff Allan has a bothying adventure on the Isle of Rum; Sean McFarlane scrambles up Innderdalstarnet in Norway; Daniel Neilson, author of CAMRA's new guide Wild Pub Walks, visits Cadair Idris and a pub; and David Lintern goes climbing at Stanage with the owners of Outside in Hathersage

The Hill Skills section is all about sharing your outdoor experience with interviews with Terry Abraham, four outdoor bloggers, and self-published author Mark Horrell; plus Alex Roddie on using social networks, a look at Instagram,  and suggested video and photo editing apps.

Finally I must mention Lizzie Shepher's stunning photo of the sunset from Cnicht in Snowdonia.

Thursday 25 May 2017

Sleeping Bag or Quilt: Is One Better Than The Other?

In my sleeping bag at a camp in Death Valley National Park last October

When I began backpacking the question of whether to use a sleeping bag or a quilt didn’t arise as suitable quilts didn’t exist. A couple of decades ago the first backpacking quilts were pioneered by Ray Jardine. Since then quite a few have appeared at the specialist ultralight end of the market and they are often touted as superior to sleeping bags.

Airing my Pacific Northwest Trail quilt

Are quilts actually better than sleeping bags? There is no right answer. Both work okay. If a quilt works best for you then it’s the right choice. My preference though is for a sleeping bag. Maybe this is due to the many hundreds of nights I’d slept in one before quilts came along. I have given quilts a good try however. Indeed I took one on the Pacific Northwest Trail and used it on sixty nights. I think that’s a fair trial. I had no problems sleeping under it and found it very comfortable. So why have I never used a quilt since?

Sitting in my sleeping bag at a chilly camp in the Cairngorms earlier this year

The main reason has actually nothing to do with sleeping. It’s to do with how I use a sleeping bag when not sleeping, which is as an item of warm clothing. I like to pull the bag up under my armpits and tighten the neck drawcord so I can sit up or lie on my side while cooking, eating, reading, looking at the view, writing my journal or any other activity I can’t easily do lying flat. You can’t really do that with a quilt. Yes, you can wrap it round you but it doesn’t stay in place well, at least not in my experience. I missed sitting in my sleeping bag on the PNT and so decided not to bother with a quilt again.

The arguments for quilts are generally that they save weight and that they let you sleep with more freedom, especially if you’re not a back sleeper. I don’t think the weight argument is very valid – there are ultralight versions of quilts and bags. As to how you sleep well I’m a front and side sleeper who shifts a great deal during the night and I have no problem sleeping comfortably in a sleeping bag unless it’s too close-fitting. Yes, I often end up with the bottom of the bag on top (which is why I don’t like bags with less fill in the base) but I don’t find this uncomfortable. I also like the ease of using a bag – no need to tuck it in or arrange it in the right way, just slide in and tighten the drawcords if necessary (my ideal bag doesn’t have a zip – I like simplicity). 

Snug in my sleeping bag
This is not meant to knock quilts – as I said they work fine – but I just wanted to give a counter view to all the praise quilts receive. There’s no need to feel guilty or inferior if you prefer a sleeping bag!

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Mount Whitney, May 22, 1982 & October 13, 2016

Mount Whitney, 2016

On May 22nd thirty-five years ago I climbed Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous States, as a side trip from the Pacific Crest Trail, along with three companions. Last October I climbed the mountain again as part of my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk. The two ascents couldn’t have been more different.

Climbing Whitney in 1982

The crest in 2016

In 1982 the High Sierra was still deep in snow. We climbed Whitney with crampons and ice axes, the summer trail only visible in places.  The long narrow rocky crest that leads to the summit dome was banked up with snow and ice in many places. The drops either side were at times terrifying as we edged across gaps. On reaching the big rounded summit we decided not to return the same way. Instead we descended south on steep slopes then slid down one of the long gullies that split the face of the mountain. The 18 mile round trip from our camp at Crabtree Meadows took 13 hours. The view from the summit was alpine – snowy peaks stretching out into the distance.

Scott Steiner sliding down the gully in 1982

Last autumn the mountain was bare of snow, a world of rock. I followed the same route but this time on a clear trail the whole way. Without realising it I took a photograph through one of the gaps in the crest that almost matches one from my first climb. 


Oddly, the summit was colder on my second ascent than on my first as a cold wind swept the mountain. In 1982 the air was still and I’m on the summit without a hat. In 2016 I’m wearing the hood of my insulated jacket. The distant views are of granite peaks rather than alpine mountains.
On the PCT side trip we took two packs between the four of us (we only  had huge backpacking ones) so half the time I was carrying nothing. Last year I took my full pack to the summit and then all the way down to Whitney Portal on the east side of the mountain, a trip of 15 miles that took 10 hours.



Looking at my old Kodachrome transparencies I can see how the deep snow transformed the mountains. It’s the same place I was last October and yet a different one too. I’m the same person too, and also a different one with 35 more years of wilderness wandering to look back on. Mount Whitney was magnificent in 1982. And in 2016.

Summit plaque 2016

Saturday 20 May 2017

Remaining Snow in the Northern Cairngorms

View across Coire Domhain to Cairn Toul

After nearly two weeks of hot dry weather I thought I’d have a look at how much snow remained in the Northern Cairngorms so on May 18 I headed up to the Cairngorm Plateau. I could see specks of white from far away but it’s always hard to tell from a distance how much is hidden in gullies and corries.

Coire an t-Sneachda
There wasn’t that much visible in Coire an t-Sneachda, though the snow at the top of the Goat Track was unbroken, but once I’d crossed its eponymous peak I was surprised at the extent of the remnant snow patches, especially in Coire Domhain where the line of snow holes that are dug every winter was still visible. The big drift these were on is several feet deep in places with cracks in places where the snow has started to creep downhill. Approaching the snow holes I could see that these too ran back into the drift for two or three feet. 

Remnant snow holes in Coire Domhain
I wandered down the corrie to the edge of the steep drop into the Loch Avon basin. Here I sat a while entranced as always by the dramatic view of rock and water. There were some high patches, though not as many as in most years. Below them the waters of the Feith Buidhe, Garbh Uisge Beag and Garbh Usige Mor thundered down. This snow is going fast. 

The head of the Loch Avon basin

The head of Corrie Cas

Snow patch on the path out of Coire Domhain

The top of the Goat Track above Coire an t-Sneachda

Cracks in the snow, Coire Domhain

Coire Domhain snow holes

In lower Coire Domhain