Cold comfort

12 photos from an overnight visit to four Munros in the Ullapool area, a pilgrimage to the Northwest for the first snows of the season, and my first camp since Spain, well over a month before. What I appreciated most of all was the silence and solitude, which save for the chatter of an occasional Ptarmigan, reigned complete. A bath of cold silence, enveloping, renewing, an implacable space to empty my own chattery head.

Thanks for taking the time to visit. Here’s more information on the workshops in Scotland and Spain


Camplife on the High Sierra

My friend Mick and I are just back from the Sierra Nevada. Not the Ansel Adams one, the other one… the one the Californian range was named after. The idea was to traverse the range east to west before turning south, crossing as many of the 3000m peaks (of which there are about 30, plus another dozen or so subsidiaries) as possible. We managed most but not all of the 30.

Both of us have been visiting this part of the world for about a decade - on and off - Mick more than I - and it has personal, political and cultural significance for us both, but this was mostly new and chewy ground. These are still fairly untamed mountains; intermittent paths, no signage and plenty of wildlife, much of which is endemic to the range. The Spanish Sierra Nevada are the highest mountains in western Europe outside the Alps, but are much less busy and burdened with far less infrastructure.

Here’s a few throwaway snaps. Not the best pictures of the trip - to be honest, they’re some of the worst… but they already have some kind of emotional resonance for me. This is the material you don’t get from the big commercial operators (yadayada). An actual journey, yo. 7 days only, but at times in some challenging weather and some intense terrain. It’s a place where the lines between backpacking and mountaineering can get all fuzzy if you choose the right (or wrong?) line. A traverse of the Sierra Nevada is compact but sustained.

 How a journey starts - our drop at 2000m by friend and local guide Richard Hartley. This isn’t him, it’s some dude fixing up the ski tour place ready for the coming season. Cool and pine scented, anaemic and slightly surreal.

How a journey starts - our drop at 2000m by friend and local guide Richard Hartley. This isn’t him, it’s some dude fixing up the ski tour place ready for the coming season. Cool and pine scented, anaemic and slightly surreal.

 Cloud clearing the morning after the night before, on the eastern plateau, reminiscent of the eastern Cairngorms but around 1500m higher and covered in tufts of very sharp, spikey grass. A desert tundra.

Cloud clearing the morning after the night before, on the eastern plateau, reminiscent of the eastern Cairngorms but around 1500m higher and covered in tufts of very sharp, spikey grass. A desert tundra.

 Night 2, and we were settling in. So was the weather.

Night 2, and we were settling in. So was the weather.

 The practicalities. This was the first time I’ve carried tupperware and an ultrasonic motion sensor into the mountains. I was using an open tarp so the remainder of the food was stored in dry bags and stashed in my doorway. Foxes (Zorro!) have been known to shred tents to get at food, so better to be a good neighbour, not set bad precedents and keep the place a bit wilder for everyone.

The practicalities. This was the first time I’ve carried tupperware and an ultrasonic motion sensor into the mountains. I was using an open tarp so the remainder of the food was stored in dry bags and stashed in my doorway. Foxes (Zorro!) have been known to shred tents to get at food, so better to be a good neighbour, not set bad precedents and keep the place a bit wilder for everyone.

 Mick attempting to cram 10 days worth of kit into 5 days worth of rucksack, while my Spanish topo turns to Papyrus second by second.

Mick attempting to cram 10 days worth of kit into 5 days worth of rucksack, while my Spanish topo turns to Papyrus second by second.

 Mick later said he had an urge to return the head, which we found a few metres from the rest, to the body. He didn’t though, and that’s when the rain started.

Mick later said he had an urge to return the head, which we found a few metres from the rest, to the body. He didn’t though, and that’s when the rain started.

 Trying to dry everything out after a day of mixed weather - rain and hail. To think I nearly didn’t take a map case and waterproof trousers. The horror.

Trying to dry everything out after a day of mixed weather - rain and hail. To think I nearly didn’t take a map case and waterproof trousers. The horror.

 Later that same night. A sloppy photo with an overly long exposure but in an impressive location. Our stay was accompanied by lightning flashes and distant booms for several hours, but from many miles away, bouncing around abstractly in the high cirque.

Later that same night. A sloppy photo with an overly long exposure but in an impressive location. Our stay was accompanied by lightning flashes and distant booms for several hours, but from many miles away, bouncing around abstractly in the high cirque.

 Another evening, another cirque, another sloppy exposure…. and finally calm and clear after another all day soaking.

Another evening, another cirque, another sloppy exposure…. and finally calm and clear after another all day soaking.

 After that, conditions improved. Sunset on the lower flanks of the highest mountain in mainland Spain.

After that, conditions improved. Sunset on the lower flanks of the highest mountain in mainland Spain.

 … and the morning after. A ridiculous place to spend the night, and with fantastic photographic potential.

… and the morning after. A ridiculous place to spend the night, and with fantastic photographic potential.

 Mick still wasn’t quite feral by this point, and took some persuasion to assume the pose with this Ibex skull. His professional instincts (he’s a senior nurse) kicked in this time though, and he returned the upper jaw bone to it’s rightful owner after the photo. You won’t believe me (and he didn’t either) but this is a sincere ritual for me, and a mark of respect. We are all animal. See - told you - sounds like BS.

Mick still wasn’t quite feral by this point, and took some persuasion to assume the pose with this Ibex skull. His professional instincts (he’s a senior nurse) kicked in this time though, and he returned the upper jaw bone to it’s rightful owner after the photo. You won’t believe me (and he didn’t either) but this is a sincere ritual for me, and a mark of respect. We are all animal. See - told you - sounds like BS.

 My personal favourite doss of the trip, a place with a real and tangible resonance. Some places just ring like a bell, you have to stop and listen. It gets even better just around the corner.

My personal favourite doss of the trip, a place with a real and tangible resonance. Some places just ring like a bell, you have to stop and listen. It gets even better just around the corner.

 Not much of anything to anyone who wasn’t there, perhaps. Pre dawn light from my bivy bag on the final morning camped outside an old forester’s building, being slowly consumed back into nature. I love the heightened sense of life and growth after time in high places - the smell of damp earth, the noise of insect cities, the colour of flowers and the smell of herbs. We even had blackberries for breakfast.

Not much of anything to anyone who wasn’t there, perhaps. Pre dawn light from my bivy bag on the final morning camped outside an old forester’s building, being slowly consumed back into nature. I love the heightened sense of life and growth after time in high places - the smell of damp earth, the noise of insect cities, the colour of flowers and the smell of herbs. We even had blackberries for breakfast.

Richard Hartley (that guide I mentioned - who has literally written the book on the area) and I are thinking of running a week’s guided photography trip in late Spring, 2019.

We’ll steer clear of the more severe scrambles and the weather should be much more stable. A Spanish High Sierra photo tour has the advantage of being off the beaten track and can be run affordably. The group size will be no more than five. I’ll share more on it once we’ve finalised the details, but if you are interested, please get in touch by email.

hasta luego

A brace by bike

A few photos from a 24 hour trip from my door, by bike into the next glen for an outlying Munro and a Corbett. I'm still ticking, not religiously, but out of the corner of my eye. 

The last time I was up at the head of Tromie and Giack estates, it was grouse shooting territory and felt very bleak. Both estates have since been purchased by Anders Polvsen's Wild Land limited, and it'll be interesting to see what happens next. Coming in from Ruthven, there's plenty of birch, pine, rowan and juniper lining the river. I'm hoping for those natives to spread up the hillsides, which are still bare and barren aside from the old tracks for sport shooting. There's masses of potential here, though... and fossilised tree roots in the peat until about 620m. 

Polvsen is open to criticism from land reformers - he is the second largest landowner in Scotland after the Duke of Buccleuch, after all - but I'd quietly suggest a little more caution and a fraction less partisanship on that front. Until the SNP top brass get off the fence, people like Polvsen are allies, not enemies in a regenerating Highlands. To those who reckon it's all a tax dodge, note he pays taxes on all his holdings in Denmark... but not here. If you'd (quite rightly, in my own view) like those taxes to be spent in Scotland, then look to Westminster first, and Hollyrood second, and join Green MSP's like Andy Wightman in advocating for a land tax. That would start to break up the estates as well.

For me, these are the hills of home now. I'm no longer a tourist. As I type this, a few of the shinty boys are repairing the roof about a foot from my head. That's money in the community, where it's needed. 

The simplicity of a cycle to camp and a walk o'er the tops was much needed. Family life has been pretty tough in the last year; illness, death, plus the sleep deprivation that comes with two youngsters in the house. I shed a few tears of grief and relief on the rolling hills far above the village. Hills of home - not just places of escape, but spaces to take stock.

Soggy bottom boys

I have a feature in the September 2018 issue of The Great Outdoors, about a journey I haven't really mentioned here, so this is as good a time as any to share a few extra photos. Here's a fancypants quote from near the surprise end to whet your appetite...

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We floated in space, among the multi-coloured galaxies of a NASA photograph. The airless vacuum beneath our boats was so dense with life that we moved without splashing, pulling our way gently though this universe of water and timing our paddle strokes to avoid contact.  

 

 

Richard, David and I set off from Beasdale, paddled Lochs Morar and Nevis and finished in Inverie. It was a WET trip and there was plenty of squelchy walking and camping. The route choice was a little arbitrary and planned on the hoof to accommodate the weather, but in retrospect it's a pretty classic 3 or 4 day paddling route. Using the postie path along Loch Morar, and the crossing point at Tarbet (literally, gaelic for portage) is exactly how some of our forebears would have cut about the place... just with less expensive toys. Our train back was a local diesel, but if you timed it right, you could even return by steam train and keep the old skool atmosphere going right to the end.

Looking through these, I'm feeling all nostalgic for a wet bum and the shivers again. Now that normal Scottish summertime has resumed, a reprise is overdue.

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