Storm dodging in the CNP

Winter has arrived late, but my friend Tim, who escapes from that London but once a year, was right on time. Plans for the first route of a new book were abandoned as being too high, too dangerous, which in the end was OK by us - sometimes it’s best to stay down. I spent three days showing off the Western Cairngorms to Tim and Mick. It’s somewhere I’m getting to know more intimately now, but it’s always different, never the same. A day of sometimes chilly forest walking was rewarded with a visit to the refurbished bothy cum glamping arrangement in Glen Feshie, where we were greeted by a good measure of whisky and Lyndsey the MO, up for the weekend from that Glasgow.

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Friday’s promised visibility didn’t materialise, but by then we’d forgotten that advice about staying down and were already committed. The Mhoine Mhor was a surreal white wind tunnel, and Glen Gives-as-good-as-it-gooshikens was as brutal as I remembered. Corrour was full of happy Danes so I spent the night outside, sleeping with one eye open, occasionally grabbing the tent pole and watching Tim being slapped in the face by a corner of Silnylon. All at sea.

We flushed ourselves out by the Ghru, accompanied by Luke, a green, keen and determined young’un up from that Swindon, in beautiful but coruscating conditions. Heavy, wet snow followed our sandblasting, finished off with a christmas-card-like sun-dappled walk out and a pint of Stag at the Old Bridge Inn.

After a few weeks bouncing off the walls as a small cog in the Save Glen Etive campaign, a simple 57km stumble in fantastic company was a perfect tonic to the politrics back at the desk. My daughter calls it scantavanting, after stravaiging I suppose, but whatever we call it I’m deeply grateful for good friends and big country in these miserly, ridiculous times.

Thin Ice

I count myself lucky to tell stories as part of how I earn a crust. I love stories, I think they are as important as food and shelter, but then I would say that wouldn’t I.

I have a new story about a very special place in the April ‘19 TGO magazine - a hill called Streap. I get to quote Captain Beefheart and not have it cut in the edit - how cool is that?! However, there are always more photos than can be shown due to simple pagination limits, and so here’s a few that didn’t make it, including two of my personal favourites from 2018.

“My wintery perch overlooked Loch Beoraid, its blank headwall lost in matt shadows. Above that inky blackness, an orange fire reigned over Eigg and the Skye Cuillin.”

“My wintery perch overlooked Loch Beoraid, its blank headwall lost in matt shadows. Above that inky blackness, an orange fire reigned over Eigg and the Skye Cuillin.”

“Broader slopes for a while, light and dark as the skies above danced to their own tune…”

“Broader slopes for a while, light and dark as the skies above danced to their own tune…”

“The mountain drew me on, and I felt that curious sense of inevitability that high places can engender; a simple wellbeing, a rightness in being there, some kind of mountain blessing.”

“The mountain drew me on, and I felt that curious sense of inevitability that high places can engender; a simple wellbeing, a rightness in being there, some kind of mountain blessing.”

It's become quite trendy to talk about ‘thin places’ - places where earth and heaven meet. I like the idea, but it’s something I'd avoid in a magazine like the plague because it smacks of nature-writing-bandwagon- jumping. Who wants to go to a mountain party with a self important student rapping on palimpest or some such?

But that is what these places are: thin. We get to be gods for the day, we get to be protagonists in our own story. Yay, us.

The other thing about thin places is that they are delicate. Finely balanced. Our interaction with them is fragile, and they are acutely vulnerable to our follies. They exist without us, but we threaten them.

Thin places must be protected from the bulldozers and their greedy, cretinous drivers. We must descend from the land of gods, go down from the mountain and defend them.

“The middle ground bowed before rising to the final summit and the bottom corner of that big, beautiful Z. In here I was protected from the gusts, and that feeling of openness and gratitude returned.”

“The middle ground bowed before rising to the final summit and the bottom corner of that big, beautiful Z. In here I was protected from the gusts, and that feeling of openness and gratitude returned.”

“Streap is old school, its name expressive of more innocent times; before hilltracks and footpath erosion, before mapping apps and Goretex and Vlogging it all to death. It is pure mountain romance, a lifeboat of modernity in our otherwise complicated adult world.”

“Streap is old school, its name expressive of more innocent times; before hilltracks and footpath erosion, before mapping apps and Goretex and Vlogging it all to death. It is pure mountain romance, a lifeboat of modernity in our otherwise complicated adult world.”

Achadh nan Seileach

In February 2018, Stef and I spent 3 days in Achnashellach. Stef’s piece on the trip has just appeared in the March 19 issue of The Great Outdoors, alongside some of my photos. I’ve included some more below. Stef is a good writer, I’m a fan, an advocate and I hope a friend.

Everything coincided for us - timing, weather, conditions - to make this an unrepeatable trip in a remarkable place. I’d not long buried my stepdad, so it was good to be reminded of who I am when I’m myself. It felt as though I’d come up for air after 6 weeks of holding my breath.

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Within 24 hours of us getting home, news spread of a man that had gone missing in the same area. His name was Stephen Mitchell. I’ve told some of this story in another article (BMC Summit, winter 18). For all my ambivalence, even antipathy towards social media, in this case it was a boon. While it didn’t save Stephen’s life, it did allow myself and one or two others who’d been walking in the area to connect with each other, Stephen’s family and the police.

We shared information via a Facebook group and then privately. For a week or so, I became very caught up in the information exchange. We had walked very literally in Stephen’s footprints for much of the weekend. We had been so close. I felt personally responsible when the search came to nought. After the BMC piece was published, a reader emailed to tell me he was the one who had eventually found Stephen, in the spring.

These connections matter. I know Stephen will have been full of love for life, pinching himself at the beauty of it all, just as we were and just a few hours ahead of us. I know because his daughter told me he took great comfort in the mountains, that he’d be called there all his life. And I know his family took some comfort in knowing that although we were strangers, a wider family of stravaigers got involved and gave support where we could.

My friend Stef doesn’t do social media any more. He became disillusioned with it - the straw men, the backbiting, the jealously, the endless distraction. Certainly a wiser man than I. Then again, it’s not really us, it’s the machinery talking. At it’s best, the medium isn’t the message and it’s a means, not the end. It allows us to share the stories we forge out of ourselves and these breathtaking places. New alloys and allies are made from these raw elements, even the sadness, that sustain us when we return home. If we don’t look after each other and these places, then who else will?

For Stephen Mitchell, 1961-2018

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This photo is a collection of work and play photos, or a photo diary from the last couple of months. Some may have appeared in your viddy before now, via Instagram.

This Photo was taken in the final weeks before Christmas, a slightly abortive family trip out into the forests near home. We took a path that had been taken back into the forest for want of regular use. For those of us who live in the Highlands, in December we live in the mountain’s shadow. It can feel quite sombre and subdued, so it’s important to get out for fresh air and whatever vitamin D is there.

This Photo was taken in the final weeks before Christmas, a slightly abortive family trip out into the forests near home. We took a path that had been taken back into the forest for want of regular use. For those of us who live in the Highlands, in December we live in the mountain’s shadow. It can feel quite sombre and subdued, so it’s important to get out for fresh air and whatever vitamin D is there.

This Photo is from the back of our local hill, looking over Newtonmore, a glorious family walk. Christmas eve was brighter. I’ve started using the 40mm Voitlander again for local stuff. It’s cranky but I love the colours, and a prime is good discipline.

This Photo is from the back of our local hill, looking over Newtonmore, a glorious family walk. Christmas eve was brighter. I’ve started using the 40mm Voitlander again for local stuff. It’s cranky but I love the colours, and a prime is good discipline.

This Photo is from the same walk, at dusk. I am slowly feeling out a photo project or series based around local birch trees called  The Silver Darlings . Birch are early colonisers, and support more UK wildlife than any other tree species bar Oak.

This Photo is from the same walk, at dusk. I am slowly feeling out a photo project or series based around local birch trees called The Silver Darlings. Birch are early colonisers, and support more UK wildlife than any other tree species bar Oak.

This Photo is another one I’m looking at with the same project in mind, but I don’t think it’s there yet. I like the shadows in this version but the highlights need something else. I remember when this branch came down last year. I like the way the woods have embraced the fall.

This Photo is another one I’m looking at with the same project in mind, but I don’t think it’s there yet. I like the shadows in this version but the highlights need something else. I remember when this branch came down last year. I like the way the woods have embraced the fall.

This photo was taken on a very damp workshop, while discussing tone. Although the subject here is very conventional, the exposure and processing reflect that conversation.

This photo was taken on a very damp workshop, while discussing tone. Although the subject here is very conventional, the exposure and processing reflect that conversation.

This Photo was taken on an old road above the new road. If you know your classic Scottish photography, you’ll know this spot. Conditions weren’t right for a straight ahead shot, so here’s a crop which I quite like. There are further crops possible inside this one.

This Photo was taken on an old road above the new road. If you know your classic Scottish photography, you’ll know this spot. Conditions weren’t right for a straight ahead shot, so here’s a crop which I quite like. There are further crops possible inside this one.

This Photo was taken as my student was looking in the opposite direction. I was aiming at the light, but I like the car in this photo just as much.

This Photo was taken as my student was looking in the opposite direction. I was aiming at the light, but I like the car in this photo just as much.

This photo, and the one below were taken in-between rain showers in Glen Etive, a powerful place.

This photo, and the one below were taken in-between rain showers in Glen Etive, a powerful place.

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This Photo was taken on the same workshop. I knew the river further down but this exact spot was new to me, and a real find. It’s one of 7 rivers that Dalness estate are looking to build Hydro on, which would be a total disgrace. I believe it’s our job to witness these places, and to tell others what we’ve seen, a controversial position for some. Anyway, conditions weren’t great this time, but I know where it is and will return and try and get a photo that does the place some kind of justice.

This Photo was taken on the same workshop. I knew the river further down but this exact spot was new to me, and a real find. It’s one of 7 rivers that Dalness estate are looking to build Hydro on, which would be a total disgrace. I believe it’s our job to witness these places, and to tell others what we’ve seen, a controversial position for some. Anyway, conditions weren’t great this time, but I know where it is and will return and try and get a photo that does the place some kind of justice.

This Photo is from the Cairngorms. I don’t think I’ve ever had great conditions here, and this is as close to a decent shot of the ridge as I’ve come. Suddenly, the angles slid into place, ‘landscape’ photography as movement.

This Photo is from the Cairngorms. I don’t think I’ve ever had great conditions here, and this is as close to a decent shot of the ridge as I’ve come. Suddenly, the angles slid into place, ‘landscape’ photography as movement.

This Photo and the one below were taken at the end of a fairly obscure ridge, in the north, in November, one section of which was particularly testing. File under  Vanishing Point . Since then it turns out that a new book may be happening, so this route warrants a return visit in more conventionally scenic conditions. There’s a good circuit to be completed around a haunted glen. I met a fox in the dark at the bealach.

This Photo and the one below were taken at the end of a fairly obscure ridge, in the north, in November, one section of which was particularly testing. File under Vanishing Point. Since then it turns out that a new book may be happening, so this route warrants a return visit in more conventionally scenic conditions. There’s a good circuit to be completed around a haunted glen. I met a fox in the dark at the bealach.

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This Photo and the two below were taken in well known spots near Aviemore at dawn and at dusk, to facilitate discussions on subject and abstraction. What are we aiming for when we take a photograph? What do we hope to achieve and what’s the best way of describing where we are? Most people come ready to ask those kind of questions, some less so, but it’s all good. Everyone’s answers are theirs.

This Photo and the two below were taken in well known spots near Aviemore at dawn and at dusk, to facilitate discussions on subject and abstraction. What are we aiming for when we take a photograph? What do we hope to achieve and what’s the best way of describing where we are? Most people come ready to ask those kind of questions, some less so, but it’s all good. Everyone’s answers are theirs.

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This photo and the one below were taken to facilitate a discussion on composition. Students will often be familiar with ‘the rules’ (thirds, leading lines and all that) but are often less sure how to play with or against them in the field. When the lochans are under ice, there’s more opportunities to work with curves, but even so, the pictures don’t take themselves. We have to move ourselves and the camera.  Teaching is about helping others to articulate what they ‘see’ and then make it happen on the ground.

This photo and the one below were taken to facilitate a discussion on composition. Students will often be familiar with ‘the rules’ (thirds, leading lines and all that) but are often less sure how to play with or against them in the field. When the lochans are under ice, there’s more opportunities to work with curves, but even so, the pictures don’t take themselves. We have to move ourselves and the camera.

Teaching is about helping others to articulate what they ‘see’ and then make it happen on the ground.

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This Photo and the one below are both local to me and taken in autumn, but in different places. More  Silver Darlings  to finish seems appropriate. This scene is a wood local to Grantown, the other is on the slopes of the Feshie Hills, which are regenerating as the deer numbers come under control. Photographing trees is an excercise in relationships and simplicity. Keeping complex things simple a life skill worth practicing as much as I possibly can!

This Photo and the one below are both local to me and taken in autumn, but in different places. More Silver Darlings to finish seems appropriate. This scene is a wood local to Grantown, the other is on the slopes of the Feshie Hills, which are regenerating as the deer numbers come under control. Photographing trees is an excercise in relationships and simplicity. Keeping complex things simple a life skill worth practicing as much as I possibly can!

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