Winners and Losers

I’m a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, which runs an annual awards ceremony. The Guild has some extremely experienced members and I find it useful to be a member myself, to ask advice and share information in a friendly, non competitive spirit.

Awards are competitive though, and I’m uncomfortable with blowing my own trumpet, not keen on celebrity and how it plays a part in outdoor culture. What matters is the work, always. But the squeaky wheel gets the oil, so I’m bound to show and tell as part of that work. I’m ambivalent about it.

I received two certificates this year. The first was a very bittersweet win in Digital Media, for a collaboration with Tim Parkin (of On Landscape magazine) for the Save Glen Etive website. Bittersweet because we won a gong from our peers despite losing (at least for now) the campaign to prevent environmentally damaging run-of-river Hydro schemes being built in the Glen. Tim deserves most if not all of the credit here, and is among the most professional people I’ve ever worked with. We built the entire thing from scratch over one weekend (he on the web design, myself on the text, including much discussion with the other team members of course), ahead of a deadline decision by the Highland Council.

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The second was a ‘highly commended’ (runner up) for a piece on Night Navigation in The Great Outdoors magazine. Again, this was notable as a collaboration with Heather Morning of Mountaineering Scotland, one of my own personal heroes. Heather lives 100% in meatspace. She’s not on social media at all, and is one of the realest people you’ll ever meet!

Both of these were journalistic pieces of work. The point of this work was and is to furnish others with the tools to make their own decisions… not to make us look good.

The winner in Technical Feature was for Jen Benson. I haven’t read her winning piece but I have read some of her other work. Take a look - I think this is wonderful.

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The lead photo used in my article might be of interest. The judges described the photos as ‘good, dark, muddy’ (!) Photography was obviously going to be extremely challenging: moving subjects in pitch black, lit only by head torches. I shot on the move at extremely high ISO’s and with the aperture wide open (F2.8). Autofocus was impossible in the dark and with spindrift everywhere, and so I was focusing manually. As conditions deteriorated further, the camera grew sluggish and was very slow to write shots to the card - I think my newer Sony A7R3 would fare better now, but as a rule mirrorless systems still struggle to match a DSLR in really severe weather, I think (and I’m a Sony user). Burst shooting was impossible. I had to be very calculated as the camera would ‘black out’ for several seconds after each shot .

Right from the beginning, I had a shot in mind. Talk about ‘previsualising’ can come off a bit elitist but I did have the foresight to bring some additional lighting with me. A regular flashgun was out of the question, it needed to be something that was small, but would withstand minus double digits and windspeeds gusting to 40-50mph. While the crew were orientating for the summit, I saw my chance to deploy a high powered, off road bike light, and ran around to backlight them for the photo above. I managed to push the shutter just as Heather moved into the light. I may feel a bit squeamish about awards and certificates, but I was pretty pleased with that shot!



Return to Skye

I recently spent 3 days with Bernard from Lyon in France, crossing Skye twice and discussing photography and ‘wild’ camping techniques, as well as the inevitable politics, whisky, life and art! Teaching is always thought provoking for the teacher (if I’m doing it right) but I really enjoy these slightly longer trips, and find the cultural exchange enriching, wherever people are from.

Below are a few photos I took along the way, most often as teaching aids or part of what we were discussing or working on… as well as the testimonial Bernard kindly offered afterward. Please do get in touch via the contact form if you want to do something similar yourself.

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“I spent three marvelous days with David, hiking and camping on the Isle of Skye. I learned a lot - I thought technically I was more or less proficient, but David pushed me to switch to manual exposure and this was a huge impetus to be more careful and involved in what I was doing. He also stressed the importance of framing and composition techniques, and we applied this approach to various photo opportunities we encountered. I came away with a lot to mull over, and a deep desire to continue improving my photography. In addition, despite the occasional rain - part of the experience actually, the hiking was great and the landscape magnificent.

Three splendid days of learning in good companionship. Very highly recommended!”

Bernard Frangoulis


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Photographing the local, global climate strike

Here are a few photos from my local Climate Strike event, in Aviemore, 20th September 2019. I wondered if maybe the best way for me to make a contribution to the local effort was to ‘work’ through the strike with my camera, but I will let you be the judge of that.

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Over two hundred people attended the Aviemore march, across the generations. It was an empowering and inspiring thing to be a small part of. A banner building gathering beforehand was a further means of fostering community. I think it is a sort of magic to make these things happen. For me, the organisers are magicians in a very real sense.

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There are some critics, of course. A trendy neoliberal focus on individual carbon footprints swerves the point. Friends of the Earth point out that 15% of the UK population take 70% of the flights - the fact that I choose to use a bamboo toothbrush won’t change the fact that in a finite world, a small number of us spend while the rest pay. It doesn’t address corporate culpability, institutional inequality or endless growth. A realisation that social justice is also environmental justice prompted me to change the focus of my own work from community education to environmental conservation. The climate movement has grown up this year to include issues of social equity and biodiversity loss, and both poverty and immigration are becoming considered environmental issues. Equity - the redistribution of abundance - is the radicalism now at the heart of this new environmental movement, and why it’s so intimidating to the old guard.

There’s another, similarly flattering strand of thought that without government leadership, youth now have to lead. But the community always leads, leaders always follow. It’s always been this way. They won’t lift a finger without all of us telling them to. The cynical say it won’t make any difference and nothing ever changes, but they are not paying attention. Justice is never given, it is always fought for and taken; see the labour and civil rights movements. People died for the rights some of us now casually discard; the ultimate sense of entitlement. Those that lament a loss of community cohesion are the same people that dismiss any effort to reclaim the commons as childish naivety.

So be visible, dig where you stand, and never mind the naysayers. Better to signal virtue than indifference.

The photos were gifted to the good folk of Aviemore. A small fee for use in the local paper was also gifted to a local community group. The full set is on facebook, here.

Stories from the Rounds, 3: Above the Glen

Over the last few weeks I’ve shared stories from the 3 Rounds covered in my Big Rounds book.

This last one is a story I wrote for TGO magazine in 2016, called Above the Glen. It focuses on the Tranter Round, later expanded by Charlie for his own Ramsay Round.


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Above the Glen

However you cut your hillgoing cloth, the mountains that circle the Ben and its glen are spectacular country. On the south side of Glen Nevis; the Mamores, interspersed with some fairly magical lochans, on the north side; the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, the Ben Nevis itself. Linked by a wild and lonely watershed, these are high places that provoke challenge and ambition when taken in singly or in pairs. But join them together in a continuous walk and I’d argue there’s a beauty and elegance of line that can hold its own against any other in the world. There are 18 Munros here, 7 of them over 1100ms. Collectively they are known as the Tranter Round, after the author of the first continuous 24 hour round here, Philip Tranter. Even as a backpack taken over 3 or 4 days, it’s no mean feat.

This area has kept me busy in the years since moving north to live in Scotland, and there’s a TGO connection too. A fell runner called Charlie Ramsay got in touch a few years ago, after seeing a photo of mine from Knoydart in this magazine (TGO). Charlie used Knoydart as part of his training in order to extend Tranter’s round with an additional 5 Munros around Loch Treig to create his own Round. He was after my photo for an illustrated talk. So, we got talking, and I tried the Ramsay Round myself as a backpack. I failed the first time. To be honest I found it brutal, and simply ran out of time, energy and good weather. To be brutally honest I ran out of me. But my consolation in that failure was discovering the smaller, older Tranter Round for myself. For his fell running record, Charlie was going for 24 Munros in 24 hours, but should the ground rather than numbers be our governing logic, then Tranter’s Round is by far the more obvious, and perhaps even the more pleasing line.

Mick was waiting for me at the start of the route, or near enough – just up the road from the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. It was his first time on 1 or 2 of these hills, and my third or fourth for most. Approaching the route anticlockwise means beginning with the slightly gentler slopes of the Mamores at the beginning, leaving the biggest climbs - over the Aonachs and Nevis - until the end. For me, this is the only way to do the route justice. It’s the way that Tranter did his round, and Charlie did his. It’s not the way the majority of runners tackle the 24hour challenge, but if you’re carrying a backpack it probably makes sense. Especially if you are carrying as bag as big as Mick was.

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The first Munro, Mullach nan Coirean, is a boggy beginning, but once up on top, the height is maintained around a beautiful coire strewn with red screes. We were blessed with perfect conditions; clouds casting cooling, dramatic shadows across the plateau, a gentle breeze and no midges. We made slowly for the first of the two hills named Stob Ban on the Round, charmed by a layer cake trifle of pink granite, white quartzite, chocolate coloured earth, straw and lime coloured grass. Just these two Munros make a lovely circuit by themselves, but the joy of a big walk is in the scale of the thing. After day two, I begin to lose count… hills rise and fall and me with them, hypnotized by rhythm and repetition.

We weren’t in that groove yet, though. Stob Ban did rise and fall – but very slowly. I realised we wouldn’t make the ideal camp spot by the evening, so my plan B became plan A. We took a big drink at the Lochan Coire nam Miseach before schlepping up to the bealach for the first of two out-and-back spurs on the main ridge of the Mamores. For us it was a relief to take the backpacks off and weave our way along the thin crest. For the couple we meet on the Ring of Steall circuit (which includes this Munro), it felt exposed and a little edgy.

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A couple of hours later we made camp under that other spur – An Gearanach. There’s only 40ms of descent to collect water from the coire spring, but it was a tiring walk back to my shelter. Mick seemed similarly shattered after the hot, steep and loose ups and downs of An Bodach. As the sun set, the wind dropped, a chill in the still air just enough to keep the midges at bay. Ben Nevis cooled to a blue-black bruise in the shadows, and we slept.

By 8.30am we were picking our way up An Gearanach, and by 9 on the summit, already shedding layers in the heat. Back at the bags, today’s sun cream was applied to yesterday’s sunburn and water was collected, all watched over by a hind, herself in the shadow of our next objective. Na Gruagaichean was an exhausting and uncompromising slog for both of us, but the arête after lifted my spirits. This is one of my favourite sections of the round and a taste of the more dramatic ridges on the north side of the glen. We waited for a large group to pass on the summit of Binnein Mor before picking our way gingerly along the blocky ridge.

I could hear shouting, and then a crash below us. The group was throwing rocks into the coire. My hackles rising, I shouted as clearly and carefully as I could manage “Hey there. Please stop. It is dangerous. Thankyou”. I felt uncomfortable and bossy, but it seemed to work. Then, we contoured slowly and steeply to the lochans under Binnean Beag, a top we’d both done before and choose to forego this time.

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The beautiful stalker’s path to the foot of Sgùrr Eilde Mor wasn’t enough to prevent Mick deciding he’d had enough. His heavy load had caused a nascent back problem to flare up. It was wise to call it here – he could easily bail into Kinlochleven and then onto the West Highland Way back to Fort William. The last hour together had begun to feel a little funereal so I reminded him that he’d walked 8 Munros in a day and half – hardly a bad effort! The weather changed as we parted company, reflecting my own sombre mood as I dragged my heels up the screes of Sgùrr Eilde Mor to meet a freezing shower on the upper slopes. 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. Maybe I should call it a day, too?

Thankfully the shower soon passed and after a text home and a layer change I made speedy progress on the mossy lower slopes towards the Glen Nevis watershed in brightening sunshine. A short while later I felt fine; better than fine, in fact – great! Down, then up, rising and falling… I remember this from last time. This maybe familiar territory but it’s still a challenge, with it’s attendant mind games.

I reached the glen floor by 7pm and wasted a good deal of time finding the stalker’s path that handrails the brilliantly named Allt nam Fang. It was gone 9 by the time I reached the foot of the second Stob Ban on the route, which was time to call a halt. The first 300ms of grassy slope in the morning were fairly sluggish, but after that first top of the day, I climbed through a claustrophobic cloud inversion and was up on Stob Choire Claurigh by 10am. From here was downhill joy. For the first time, I had good visibility on the Grey Corries, with that dramatic inversion swirling at my heels until it burned off completely on the blocky and spectacular quartzite arête of Caisteil. I corrected previous mistakes I’d made on Stob Coire Easian in the past and dropped down into the coire, albeit a little too early. It was going well, but I knew the crux of the round awaited.

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After the shapely and straight forward Sgùrr Choinnich Mor, things become more complex. My way onto Stob Coire Bhealaich has always been by what runners know as ‘Spinks’ ridge’ (after the fell runner and double Bob Graham record holder Nicky Spinks) and this time was no different. The upper section  offers disorientating and incredible views of the most contorted geology on the Round. Exciting, yes… but the ground is increasingly eroded and very unnerving with a backpack. So much so, I was determined to find a better way. Topping out, I dropped my pack and headed down and around, exploring the slopes just to the north of Sgùrr a’ Bhuic for another hour or more, which confirmed to me that I’d been worrying myself unnecessarily all this time. Especially if you have a pack - go around to the south, not straight up!

By the time I was back on track, it was early evening. The path to Aonach Beag is always a slow grind, but easier today now the heat of the day was gone. I left Aonach Mòr to itself – I’ve been on it every year for the past 4, and that’s 3 too many for me! Finding the cairn, I descended carefully to the bealach on horribly loose ground and made a cold, late camp under the final big climb to Carn Mòr Dearg.

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I shalt say more about the CMD and it’s arête here, because more than enough has been said elsewhere, and because some wonders shouldn’t cease until you see them for yourself. A little mystery should be left intact, because along with the Skye Cuillin, it’s one of the most complete and satisfying alpine experiences a hill walker can have in the UK. Choose your weather window well, start early and take care – this time around, I was having so much fun hopping from boulder to boulder, at one point I almost lost my balance. It’s a cliché, but complacency really is when accidents happen. Once around the dogleg and at the cairn, only the very last, merciless drag up the enormous hunched shoulders of the Ben remains.

It’s always a surreal, rude return to twenty first century reality, the Ben summit via the CMD… and the path down to terra firma stranger still. This time: Hipsters in plimsolls, shirtless jocks, underprepared dads and exhausted kids, a stationary girl with partner in waiting, theirs a silent tableau. Huffing grandmas, thirsty dogs, hobbling, gear-heavy euro trekkers, Japanese teens weighed down with tripods and iphones… my now empty food bag slowly filling with other people’s rubbish. If I sound a little misanthropic, forgive me – to see so many, so quickly and in this otherworld of rock and snow was a jolt to the quieted headspace of a big walk. But once over that surreal surprise, it’s also heartening to see so many out on a beautiful day, making the effort. It’s always friendly here on the mountain, with a common goal in mind. People say hi, smile and ask, and I try to be truthful but gentle about how far it is to the top. As I finally reached the shade of the birch trees with my own set of grumbling knees, I thought again that the long path down from the UK’s highest mountain would be longer and duller still, without the company. Thankfully, it still takes all sorts. 

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It’s funny how these things develop until they become huge parts of our lives; the fragment of an idea, a random contact out of the blue, the pieces of a puzzle coming together not by design at all, but through some kind of synchronicity. It’s good to mark that, I think. These mountains are friends of sorts to me now, but I’m not so familiar that there aren’t always new things to learn. The Tranter Round has all the qualities of a through-hike in miniature - big ascents, high-level camps, long days and some interesting decision-making. It takes a tough, elegant line that makes complete sense topographically. It always challenges, but in different places each time. I’ve tried to let myself be open to it, and it’s given back again and again. I like that walking it has taught me to do just that - to be more open - very much indeed.

Thanks for reading. You can purchase your copy of The Big Rounds here