Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Two Mountains: Liathach and Ben Macdui


Back in 2018 I, along with other regular contributors, wrote about our favourite mountains for The Great Outdoors magazine. Now choosing a favourite is actually impossible. There are so many fine mountains. But I had to pick ones so I went for two key mountains from two of my favourite areas of the Scottish Highlands -  Liathach in Torridon and Ben Mavdui in the Cairngorms. These are two very different mountains. Here's what I wrote about them.


Towering above Glen Torridon in the North-West Highlands a great ragged rock wall some 8 kilometres long Liathach is one of the most dramatic and impressive mountains in the UK. More a mini mountain range than a single mountain Liathach is built of layers of dark reddish Torridonian sandstone, the highest points capped by pale quartzite. Its name comes from the latter, Liathach meaning the grey one. There are two Munros on Liathach – 1055 metre Spidean a’Choire Leith (peak of the grey corrie) and 1023 metre Mullach an Rathain (summit of the pulleys) – plus four subsidiary Tops. Sir Hugh Munro listed it as just one mountain though – Mullach an Rathain wasn’t granted Munro status until the 1981 revision of Munro’s Tables.

The classic view of Liathach is across Loch Clair, which lies to the east. This make a perfect mountain scene with the mountain reflected in the water which is fringed with trees and reeds. Easy access means that this view is much photographed. Only the eastern end of Liathach is seen however and the full size of the mountain is hidden. To see the whole southern aspect of Liathach in all its glory you need to go further and higher, up into the hills south of Glen Torridon from where the whole magnificent mountain can be seen stretching out. 


From Glen Torridon Liathach looks impregnable, the sandstone terraces very steep and only split by narrow gullies, and there are indeed only a few ways up for walkers and these are not easy. The finest route is the traverse of the whole mountain. This involves some Grade 2 scrambling if the dramatic Am Fasarinen pinnacles, which lie between the two Munros, are taken direct. The rock is rough though and the holds good. There is a narrow traversing path on the south side but this is very exposed and eroded in places, especially where it goes round the head of gullies. It’s slippery when wet too. Looking down into Glen Torridon the tiny cars on the road seem to be almost directly below. This mountain really is steep. If you don’t fancy the pinnacles or the path each Munro can be climbed separately but this is to miss out the essence of the mountain.

Spidean a’ Choire Leith is a great cone of angular quartzite blocks. The usual ascent is via a very steep stony path that leads up Toll a’ Meitheach from Glen Torridon to Coire Liath Mhor and a dip in the ridge between the easternmost Tops of Stuc a’ Choire Dhuibh, which gives superb views of Beinn Eighe across Coire Dubh Mor, and Stob a’Choire Liath Mhor. Rocky walking leads over the latter to Spidean a’ Choire Leith.  From the ridge there are spectacular views into the northern corries and across a wild watery landscape to primeval looking hills. There are other routes to Spidean a’ Choire Leith from Glen Torridon but these are pathless and require good route-finding skills.

From Spidean a’Choire Leith the whole of the mountain can be seen. What really draws the eye are Mullach an Rathain and the Northern Pinnacles, a spur of the Munro running out to Meall Dearg. The last is the most difficult Munro Top on the mainland. The traverse of the loose Northern Pinnacles is a difficult and exposed scramble, with some sections Moderate rock climbs. Dropping down into the corrie to the east and then climbing steep slopes to the col between the Pinnacles and Meall Dearg is much easier but the ascent still involves some scrambling.

The sting in the tail of Meall Dearg only concerns completionists collecting Tops as well as Munros. For everyone else the difficulties of the traverse are over once the Am Fasarinen pinnacles are climbed or bypassed. The walking to Mullach an Rathain is the easiest so far, the ridge broad and less rocky. Once the summit is reached there are splendid views west to Beinn Alligin, Loch Torridon and the distant Isle of Skye.

The southern slopes of Mullach an Rathain can be ascended or descended anywhere west of the Allt an Tuill Bhain right down to Torridon village.

The north side of Liathach is very different to the south. Instead of an unbroken wall there are deep corries and long spurs. This complex side of the mountain is well seen from the path running up Coire Dubh Mor and then down Coire Mhic Nobuil. Coire na Caime with the Am Fasarinen pinnacles at its head looks particularly splendid from this path. Once out of sight of the road in Glen Torridon the feeling is one of remoteness and isolation. The landscape is chaotic and unforgiving, dotted with boulders, lochans and rushing streams. There are many possibilities for spectacular wild camps. This side of the mountain is one for exploration, for wandering into the great corries below the mountain walls to revel in the wildness of a mountain sanctuary. Few people venture here.

Under snow Liathach looks truly alpine, a tremendous white mountain soaring into the sky. There is no walking in these conditions, just mountaineering. The ridge traverse is a Grade II winter climb. Just climbing either of the two Munros requires winter skills and knowledge. Liathach is a serious mountain at any time but especially when there is snow and ice.

Ben Macdui 

The highest summit in the Cairngorms and the second highest in Britain 1309 metre Ben Macdui is a great sprawling complex mass of a mountain covering a huge area. Far from roads and with many lower peaks close by Ben Macdui isn’t easily visible from the valleys of Strathspey or Deeside and when it is picked out it just appears as a rounded bump. You need to climb high in the hills to realise just how splendid it is.  From Lochnagar and the White Mounth to the south-east it appears as two gentle domes rising above huge Coire Sputan Dearg. Seen from Braeriach and Cairn Toul to the west it’s a rolling plateau falling steeply into the deep cleft of the Lairig Ghru. These two views reveal the bulk and height of the mountain in a way that cannot be seen from lower down.

The northern side is different. Here Ben Macdui is the final rise of the vast Cairngorm Plateau which is itself mostly above 1000 metres. Approach this way from Cairn Gorm and there’s a feeling of the arctic even in summer as you cross a landscape of gravel scree, boulders and sparse arctic-alpine vegetation. In mist it’s a mysterious place where careful navigation is needed. When snow covers the Plateau it really feels as though you could be in Greenland or Antarctica. Only the trig point on the summit of Macdui shows you are in Britain, if it’s not buried in the snow that is. In winter conditions Ben Macdui is also potentially very dangerous. In a white-out the terrain is featureless and there is no shelter for a long way. Good mountaineering and navigational skills are needed when it’s snowy.


The south and the east give very different ascents, both requiring long walk-ins, and both showing the complex nature of the mountain. The climb up the long Sron Riach ridge from Glen Luibeg has tremendous views into Coire Sputan Dearg, that from Glen Derry winds past Loch Etchachan, set in an impressive bowl below the cliffs of Carn Etchachan, then above the Coire Sputan Dearg cliffs.

The views from Ben Macdui are spectacular and wide-ranging but the best ones are not from the very top where there is a large cairn with the trig point on it plus a panoramic viewfinder erected in 1925 by the Cairngorm Club. However the big gently rounded summit means that views are cut off and only the tops of nearby hills can be seen. Walk a few hundred metres south or west until the slopes start to steepen and the views open out. The most tremendous is straight across the Lairig Ghru to the massive east face of Cairn Toul while to the south there’s a long view down the lower Lairig Ghru and out over lower hills to distant Beinn a’Ghlo.

Monday, 10 May 2021

The Benefits of the Wild

This piece was written two years ago for Scotland The Big Picture's Think Like A Mountain newsletter, well before Covid-19 arrived. After the lockdowns it seems even more apposite. So many more people have discovered how important nature is to them. If I was writing the piece today there would be many references to the pandemic. As it is, I decided to just mention that in this introduction and leave the piece as written.

The forest path stretched into the distance, walled by the dark green trees. The feeling was calm and placid, almost soporific. Walking was relaxing, effortless. I was barely aware that was what I was doing. My mind was floating through the woods, detached and tranquil. Nature can do that, even in a forest like this, which wasn’t spectacular, awesome, glorious, exciting or any other of the Instagram-essential hyped-up descriptions. Just a pleasant wood with a little path weaving through it. But its effect was magical. I was in another world, far from the problems of the bigger one outside those trees. The walk left me feeling refreshed, revived, and much more able to cope with that often overwhelming and frightening human-made world.

That nature and walking in nature can have such a healthy effect has become widely accepted in recent years, with many studies backing this up. For those of us who’ve revelled in nature and wild places all our lives this isn’t new. It became part of me when I was a child, exploring local woods and fields. It’s something I’ve always known, though it took me many years to realise this was something special and important. Wild places matter for our mental and physical health. They take us away from the frenetic, noisy, confusing world of cities and industry and return us to our true home. Over a hundred years ago John Muir wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” This is as true today as it was then and even more urgent as now even fewer people have much contact with nature while our wild places are diminishing even faster than in Muir’s time just as more of us are discovering how important they are.

In the words of Joni Mitchell “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Some of us do know but not enough and it’s important we do everything we can to spread this knowledge and get more people committed to protecting and restoring wild places. We are part of nature. Forgetting this can only lead to disaster.

The peace of wild places, the comfort of nature, can soothe the mind. Physical activity in these places can keep the body healthy. Walking, mountaineering, kayaking, swimming; the actual activity matters less than where it’s carried out. All those who take part in these outdoor pursuits gravitate towards wilder places, and not, I think, just because of their aesthetic qualities but also because the wildness feels right, helps make the physical activity feel appropriate, helps make the experience complete and whole. When I walk through wild places, especially day after day, I feel I belong, I feel part of where I am, the detachment I feel in cities disappears. The physical and mental benefits of wild nature combine to give a feeling of contentment.

It might seem this doesn’t matter to most people. That it’s just a few outdoor lovers and wildlife enthusiasts who are concerned. That this isn’t so was brought home to me during the foot and mouth disaster many years ago. Much of the countryside, including even the wildest places, was closed. Tourism fell away. If people couldn’t leave roads and experience nature, even if only for a stroll or a picnic in a wood or field, they didn’t come. Just looking at the landscape wasn’t enough. They wanted the freedom of being in nature, not just observers of it.

During that sad time I met two walkers from England on the summit of Cairn Toul, deep in the Cairngorms. With access to the English hills still restricted they’d come up here for the freedom of walking in hills that weren’t regulated and controlled, where they could wander at will. Wild places are free places. We need them. “Wildness is a necessity”.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Photography Post: The Biggest Lens I've Ever Owned & Some Photographs Of Birds & More.

Bynack More, May 7, 2021. Sony a6000, Sony E 70-350mm @ 350mm, 1/1000 & f8, ISO 200

Until last year the longest zoom lens Sony made for its APS-C range of cameras was the 55-210 f4.5-6.3, a lightweight lens at 379 grams and one that produces reasonable quality images, especially given its low cost. I've had this lens for over ten years and have been generally happy with the results, even when cropped (quite a few have been published). However I have at times wished for a longer reach and several years ago I purchased a Sony 1.7x tele conversion lens that increases the long end of the 55-210 lens to 357mm, which is equivalent to 535.5mm in full frame/35mm terms. The combination works reasonably well in good light but is a bit clumsy and awkward to use and I haven't actually used it much.

Sony E 70-350 with lens hood reversed, Sony a6000

Then last year Sony issued one of it's rare new APS-C lenses, the 70-350 f4.5-f6.3. This received excellent reviews, as it should given the cost. As well as expensive I noted it was heavy and dismissed it from my thoughts. However during the lockdown periods of the last year I took many photos at home and on local walks and started using the 55-210 more often, both for wildlife and for a different perspective on familiar scenes. I got out the 1.7x tele conversion lens as well but found that the image quality really wasn't good enough for big crops. My thoughts returned to the 70-350. Maybe there would be secondhand versions around now. There were and I bought one described as in good condition for much less than the cost of a new one. It looks as good as new anyway.

From the top, Sony 18-135, 55-210, & 70-350

At 697 grams the lens is heavy. It's big too, by far the biggest lens I've ever owned. I doubt I'll be taking it on long backpacking trips. However it doesn't feel too clumsy on my little Sony a6000 and NEX 7 cameras even when fully extended.

It's a slow lens, which means combinations of low ISOs and very fast shutter speeds need bright light, as in the photo at the top of this post. However the lens has Sony's Optical Steady Shot stabilisation and with care I can get sharp shots at shutter speeds down to 1/100 second and lower if I lean on something. Of course with a tripod this isn't a problem, though the lightweight one I take on walks won't support the weight. I do have a much heavier tripod which I might end up taking out at times.

Sand Martin. Sony a 6000, Sony E 70-350mm lens at 70 mm, 1/400 @ f8, ISO 200. Cropped.      

After some initial trials I took the lens on a short walk beside the River Spey hoping to see some birds  photograph with the intention of cropping the images. The walk on a dull day beside the swollen river was a joy and I took photographs of pied wagtails, common sandpipers, goldeneye ducks, and, sand martins. The last were very difficult to photograph as they never stay still, except for fractions of a second as they hover above the water to seize an insect. Watching them was a delight - there were at least twenty - and I was quite happy to get one passable image, especially as it's a huge crop, as you can from the full image below.

Other photos that were much easier to take also cropped well. Here's a selection with the full originals, all taken the a6000 camera and all handheld, sometimes leaning on a bridge.

Common Sandpiper. 350mm, 1/40 @ f8, ISO 200

Willow. 93mm, 1/60 @ f8, ISO 200

Pied Wagtail. 350mm, 1/250 @ f8, ISO 200

Goldeneye. 350mm, 1/320 @ f8, ISO 200