Monday 30 April 2018

A visit to a favourite place: Coire an Lochain in the Cairngorms

Coire an Lochain, the easternmost of the Northern Corries, is one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms. Although not far from Coire Cas and the Cairngorm Mountain ski resort it feels remote. The paths into the corrie are rough and stony - it's not that easy a place to reach. The flat floor of the corrie, much of it filled with Loch Coire an Lochain, comes on you suddenly. The great cliffs that tower far above the lochan are distinctive and can be seen from afar - they're visible from Aviemore. But only when the loch starts to appear does the full magnificence of the scene burst into view.

In winter this is a wild place, often swirling with snow that hides the cliffs. The frozen lochan is invisible. Avalanches crash down the gullies and rock slabs. It can feel ferocious and terrifying. Come spring and the snow begins to melt, colour comes back to the land, the loch thaws and there's a feel of softness amongst the harsh rocks. That's when I think the corrie is at its finest.

I went up there late this April to see how the spring was progressing. Snow lingers here and distant views showed the steep headwall below the cliffs still mostly white. What would the loch be like? As the snow melts ice floes float around on the water, sometimes into May and June. Cold weather in recent days with a touch of new snow on the summits would have slowed the recent rapid snowmelt though as I approached I saw that the stream pouring out of the corrie was full and white and fierce. Then I came over the outer lip of the corrie to see a pool of water clear of snow and ice. This small lochan is shallow and dries up completely in hot summers. Today it led the eye to the snow and the cliffs reflected in the shimmering water.

Soon the bigger loch appeared. A few small ice floes remained, a few snow banks still ran into the water from the slopes above. And there was a skim of soft ice over part of the surface. The loch was freezing again. At one end broken sheets of snow and ice were up on the grass, driven there by the wind.

Mountain hare tracks laced the snow on the soft marshy ground at the edge of the loch. I wasn't going to rely on it holding my weight and stopped my circuit of the water here. On the far shore snow slopes running down from the cliffs were cracking and breaking into the water. They'd have stopped me anyway.

I sat on a rock and stared into the clear water, the boulders under the surface sharp and colourful, and across to the snowfields and the dark cliffs. I felt relaxed, at peace, calm. After a while, reluctantly, I turned to go, and wandered slowly out of this mountain haven, looking back frequently until all I could see were the cliffs rising into the sky. I'll be back.

Sunday 29 April 2018

The Great Outdoors May issue is out now

The May issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. In the gear pages I look at seventeen new outdoor companies offering everything from sleeping bags to solar powered lights, packs and waterproofs, and review the Millican Fraser 32l rucksack. Judy Armstrong looks at technical gear for scrambling.

There'a guide to comfortable wild camping in which I cover planning a sleep system and choosing a comfortable site. Alex Roddie looks at routines for a comfortable night and what to wear in a sleeping bag and Ronald Turnbull gives suggestions for bivvying.

This issue opens with a wonderful mouth-watering photo by David Lintern of a camp on Sgurr na Stri with the snow-covered Cuillin stretched out on the horizon.

A theme of this issue is adventure on your doorstep and with this in mind:

Ronald Turnbull asks whether the Arrochar Alps are like the actual Alps.

Patrick Kinsella explores limestone scenery along the West Mendip Way.

Vivienne Crow goes walking in Northumberland.

Steph Cooke looks for walks in the East Midlands.

Paul Beasley goes backpacking in East Sussex.

Jon Sparks traverses Pendle Hill.

And in the rest of the magazine:

Hanna Lindon interviews Everest mountaineer Mollie Hughes.

Roger Smith discusses reintroducing lynx into the Highlands, with reference to David Hetherington's book The Lynx and Us.

Jim Perrin praises the Malvern Hills.

Jack Southern treks the Dolomites.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Rivers in spate & wild camps in the Cairngorms

River Feshie

Rivers are one of the delights of wild land, bringing dynamism to forests and hills as they slice through the land, twisting and turning and surging. I love following rivers and streams to see where they go, to see what lies along their banks. They’re particularly wonderful in spate after heavy rain or snowmelt when their power can be both scary and invigorating. One of my favourite Cairngorm rivers is the Eidart, which is remote and little-known though a key watercourse as it drains the Moine Mhor, that vast plateau on the western side of the range. The Eidart almost splits the plateau in two, running from close to the northern edge some ten kilometres down to a confluence with the River Feshie.

I’ve walked a circuit from Glen Feshie to the Eidart then back to the glen across the Moine Mhor a few times. It’s a superb trip. I’d never done it at the height of the snowmelt though so last week as the first really warm weather of the year was stripping the snow almost visibly from the hills I set out. Every stream was rushing furiously and I had several knee deep fords in the first few miles up Glen Feshie. My boots were quickly sodden and stayed that way throughout the trip.

Camp in Glen Feshie

I didn’t go far that first afternoon as I wanted to camp amongst the trees in Glen Feshie for the first time this year. I passed the refurbished bothy at Ruigh-aiteachan thinking it seemed a bit too clean and characterless. I guess the bothy atmosphere will soon return. A couple of miles further up the glen I camped with a view of trees and crags, a lovely wild spot. I had hoped for stars but the sky was overcast. I fell asleep listening to owls hooting.

Packing up in Glen Feshie

The sky cleared overnight and I woke to a deep blue sky. The sun was on the crags across the river but the glen floor was still in shade and the temperature was near freezing. I went and looked at the Feshie, all white water and roaring. The latter sound would be with me all day even when I couldn’t see the water. 

River Feshie

The rough path round to the Eidart leads out of the forest and onto open moorland. There are still trees though, hanging onto the steep banks above the river out of reach of deer. As the forest continues to regenerate and expand in the lower glen hopefully it will start to spread up here.

Eidart Falls

The confluence of the Eidart and Feshie was a clash of white water. Just upstream I could see a cloud of mist rising into the air. As I approached I realised it was spray from the Eidart Falls, crashing down below the Eidart Bridge. I couldn’t remember seeing the waterfall this powerful before.

River Eidart

I thought the same about the Eidart as a whole as I continued past a succession of smaller falls, water slides, and rapids. The river was sparkling, alive, boisterous. I watched dippers skimming the water, the little birds perfectly at home in the white water. 

The Caochan Dubh
In its upper reaches the Eidart splits into three branches. Previously I’d followed the longest of these, the Allt Sgairnich, which rises on the slopes of Carn Ban Mor on the north side of the Moine Mhor. This time I wanted to explore the westernmost branch, the Caochan Dubh, which took a twisting route up a narrow ravine into the heart of the Moine Mhor. 

Caochan Dubh camp

That was for the next day though. I camped beside big snowbanks not far from the mouth of the Caochan Dubh. The sky had clouded over during the day and rain started just as I finished pitching the tent. It continued hard and sharp, its drumming on the nylon waking me during the night.

Early morning, Caochan Dubh camp

The storm had passed by dawn, though the sky still looked angry, with dark clouds racing overhead. The Caochan Dubh ravine was rocky and there were big banks of hard icy snow. Eventually, as it grew steeper, I decided to clamber up the side onto flatter ground. This brought me, unintentionally, to a superb viewpoint, a little knoll at the end of the northern arm of Coire Mharconaich. Here I could look back down the Eidart to the hills on the far side of the Feshie and up the eastern of the three feeder streams, the Allt Luineag to cloud-capped Cairn Toul. Ahead of me lay the gentle undulating Moine Mhor.

The Caochan Dubh
There was less snow remaining than I had hoped for up here but the now shallow course of the Caochan Dubh was still unbroken white and I was finally able to don the snowshoes I was carrying for a few kilometres. As I neared the northern end of the snow and the end of the now hidden Caochan Dubh I saw a figure on the track that runs along the ridge above, the first person I’d seen since setting out the day before. 

The Caochan Dubh on the Moine Mhor
Reaching the path that leads back to Glen Feshie I stopped to remove the snowshoes. The walker came across the snow and I recognised multi-Munroist Hazel Strachan. She’d just done a walk round the seven Munros in the area, with a bivvy on the slopes of one, and was now heading back to Glen Feshie. Standing there in the midst of the huge expanse of the Moine Mhor we talked of the mountains, the weather, the snow, boots, waterproof socks and more then Hazel was off speeding up the path at a faster rate than I could manage while I packed away the snowshoes before following rather more slowly.

The snow covered Caochan Dubh
The clouds had slowly lifted during the day though a bitter wind nullified any warmth from the sun. The light was sharp though and the views west to Ben Alder, Ben Nevis, Creag Meagaidh and more from the descent were excellent. I was also entertained by a glider swooping silently over the slopes. Then it was dry shoes and socks and Aviemore for a late lunch after what had been an excellent trip.

Glider over Glen Feshie

Monday 23 April 2018

In Praise of Ravens

Raven page from the excellent Collins BTO Guide To British Birds
A rush of air. I looked up. A raven. Flying low some fifty metres away. The bird turned effortlessly and flew back past me, having a good look. Ravens are curious birds and know that people often leave tasty scraps of food. Later I heard it's harsh 'crark' cutting through the windy air, one of the thrilling sounds of the mountains.

I was on the vast plateau of the Moine Mhor in the Cairngorms just two days ago when I encountered that raven. I returned home to learn that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) had issued a licence for a five-year mass cull of ravens in an area of Perthshire noted for wildlife crime. This is appalling and has led to an outcry, as it should. It's been covered thoroughly by Raptor Persecution UK and the RSPB has said it is outraged. There are two petitions to sign - one on the Petition Site and one on More importantly letters of objection can be sent to Mike Cantlay, SNH Chair, calling on him to withdraw the licence with immediate effect. Emails to:

There seems to me no justification for this slaughter. It's noteworthy that SNH worked with gamekeepers, farmers and estates on this but no wildlife or bird organisations. Not the RSPB, or the Scottish Raptors Study Group, not the Scottish Wildlife Trust - no-one in fact who might have argued against the proposal.

The killing of birds of prey to protect other birds so they can be shot always sickens me. This proposal has upset and angered me more than most as ravens are a favourite of mine. One of the symbols of wild places their harsh cries always inspire me. They are brilliant fliers and I love watching them and find their behaviour fascinating. They are very curious and often unwary around people. Sit and watch and they'll perform superb aerobatics as they keep an eye on you in return. Look back and you'll often see them land where you've been sitting, hoping to find something edible.

Ravens are found in wild areas worldwide. I've seen them everywhere from the deserts of Arizona where I startled a flock of them feeding on a dead cow and Makalu base camp high in the Himalaya where another flock was enjoying teasing a dog. The last case showed just how much ravens like having fun and how clever they are. The dog had tagged along with us for several days, feeding on scraps chucked to it by the kitchen crew. At base camp I was sitting on a rock watching some ravens picking about on the ground when the dog suddenly appeared and ran at the ravens, which flew up in the air cackling loudly. They didn't just fly off though. Instead they settled on a boulder and watched the dog. Then one of them flew down onto the ground near the dog and turned its back to it. The dog duly charged the raven which flew off to the sound of loud cackling from the other ravens. Another raven then repeated the performance. Then another. The ravens were clearly finding the poor dog very entertaining.

In Scotland many mountain features are named for the raven. There's a Creag an Fhithich (rock of the raven) on Ben Lawers, a Biod an Fhithich (pointed top of the raven) in Kintail and an Eas an Fhithich (waterfall of the raven) in Strathglass plus many more. It was and is an important bird of mountains and wild places. It should remain so, unpersecuted.

Monday 16 April 2018

Forty years ago, April 16, 1978, I set out from Land's End to John O'Groats

First pages of my Land's End to John O'Groats journal

On this day forty years ago I set off from Land’s End to John O’Groats, my first long-distance walk. I had no idea of course whether I could do such a walk or, more importantly, whether I’d enjoy it. I knew the answer 1255 miles and 71 days later. Yes, I could do the walk, and yes I really did enjoy it. I could happily have gone on for weeks more.

Even on a walk like this, much of in England, there was a sense of isolation back then. Unlike today with its tracking devices, mobile phones and the internet there was no option but to be out of touch for long periods. Contact was via phone when there was a phone box and, mostly, via the mail. Postcards were my standard means of communication. Only friends, family and work colleagues knew what I was doing and they rarely knew exactly where I was. There was no social media.

My gear was good, as it should have been given that I was working in an outdoor shop at the time and I’d learnt a great deal from a Pennine Way walk two years earlier. I’ve written about the equipment I used and what I’d take today in the latest issue of The Great Outdoors, which also has its fortieth anniversary this year. Long-distance walking and The Great Outdoors were soon to become intertwined in my life.

I hadn’t started writing seriously and it didn’t occur to me that I might want photographs of the walk. I did set off with a cheap compact (film of course, digital was decades away) which duly broke by the time I’d reached Bristol. Where the few photos I took are I have no idea. 

After the walk I wrote my first feature for a magazine, a long-gone publication called Camping World. The editor told me I really needed to supply photos as well as words so I bought a second-hand SLR camera and taught myself, slowly and painfully, how to take publishable pictures. I really wish I’d done so before the walk.

The Great Backpacking Adventure

I did however keep a journal, as I’d been doing for all walks for many years. That was to prove extremely valuable, both personally – I’d have forgotten much without it, and because eight years later I got my first book contract. The Great Backpacking Adventure covered seven backpacking trips, including some 20,000 words on Land’s End to John O’Groats. Without my journals I couldn’t have written the book.

Since then I haven’t written or thought that much about the walk until this year. Digging out my journal – the ink still legible, I must have used a good pen (this was before I discovered Alwych notebooks and space pens which I’ve mostly used since) – I was surprised at some of the stuff in it, especially the lists I kept. Not just the route but where I stopped every night, with the prices for camp sites where I used them (10p for Dale Head Farm in the Yorkshire Dales, a whole pound for the Pine Woods Caravan Site in Tyndrum), and the birds and flowers I saw.

Where I camped
At the end of the walk I wrote ‘now comes the hard part, the return to Manchester. I feel strangely lost. I wandered amongst the people at John O’Groats not quite sure what to do. I feel both glad and sad, that I’ve done it and that it’s over. Tomorrow it will seem real. Tonight in the tent it is just as normal. I like living in the tent.’

I still have those feeling at the end of every long-distance walk but now I know there will be another one. I solved the problem of returning to the world by making the outdoors my world. And whilst the world in general has changed greatly in the last forty years long-distance walking hasn’t. Moving slowly and quietly through the countryside and wild places, watching the clouds, wildlife, trees, rocks and the whole natural world, is still as fulfilling as ever.