Highland Sauna

I managed a quick overnighter to the central highlands last week.  My greedy challenge was the Ben Lawers range one day, Tarmachan Ridge the next. 7 munros in 32 hours with my first bivi above 1000ms in the UK didn't seem too shabby after a month off.  It felt like inversion weather camped high on the unassuming Meall Corraniach and so it was - all of Loch Tay was submerged beneath a carpet of white at 6am.  I got up and wondered around for a while, but was so tired from the day before I went back to bed for 2 hours.  A bit short of hardcore then.

Ascending another 700ms to Meall nan Tarmachan was pretty uncomfortable in rising humidity.  There were a few stops, stoops and lots of tongue-out panting.  The ridge itself has a reputation but is not airy or exposed from my perspective, although in a stiff breeze things would be different.  There is a 'bad step' but it's more an 'awkward lunge' with a backpack - just have decent tread on your shoes, stow your poles and approach with patience - the rock is worn and a little slippery.

The main factors on this outing were controlling body temperature, water and food intake.  My energy levels were all over the place in the heat, it was tricky to find a balance.  Water was running very low at the bealachs and I'm still more than a little pink from sunburn.  All this qualifies as extreme weather for the Scottish Highlands!

Ben Lawers is managed as a nature reserve by the National Trust for Scotland, who have a real conundrum on their hands - balancing a working landscape with grazing access and extensive hydro use, with one of the most valuable habitats for flora in the world.  The upshot of this is alot of water infrastructure, double fencing, path erosion and sheep farming high on the hill.

The two ranges are split by a single track road and a dammed loch.  Small areas for regeneration are fenced off which has kickstarted regrowth, but vegetation is denied natural disturbance and seed movement by excluding animals in this way.  It's a painful compromise, and the fertile grasslands at high altitude give a hint of how many more trees and montane shrubs there should be here.

9000 years of human intervention may be a big legacy to deal with, but it would be a mistake to assume that Lawers has no sense of place or wildness value.  Above the natural treeline on the summit ridge, the mosses, rocks and alpine flowers just manage to hold sway over grazing sheep.

It reminded me strongly of the Ogwen Valley, or the more knobbly Cumbrian Fells around Honister.  But sitting with my back to the summit cairn of Ben Lawers at 6pm, finally with the heat of the day behind me and shadows lengthening, but still with 2 munros to go was a fine place to be - in and of itself.

I'm not sure I've ever seen the Scottish hills so benign - bright sunshine, not a breath of wind, and no midges - just what was going on?

Building Pingu Palace

Last weekend was full of firsts.  First time building an igloo (exciting and exhausting).  First time on a proper timelapse project (exciting and educational).  First time snowshoeing around the Abernethy Forest (pin drop quiet and stunningly beautiful).  Real boys and girls own adventure stuff.

A big thanks especially to Paul and Helen from Walkhighlands for looking after us on Friday night, Chris Townsend for being igloo guru and an inspired site foreman, and Phil Turner for making things happen and bringing it all together.  Oh, and Terry Abraham and Tanya Morgan for being there and as irrepressible as ever!  Terry was filming for his Kickstarter project 'Cairngorms in Winter', and I expect he'll have more for you on that front shortly.  I shoveled snow and did some driving.  And took a few pictures... about 1200 give or take.  983 of them are in the sequence above.

It was a good crew.  You can read about the build in detail from Chris here, and if you want the technical lowdown (i.e all the mistakes I made) on the timelapse, follow the direct video link here - but otherwise there's a few more shots from the weekend below.  Hope you enjoy.

Haute Route Pyrenees - the journey one year on

Just over a year ago, I finished walking 900km coast to coast across the Pyrenees from Atlantic to Mediterranean.  It was never just a walk, and it probably never is.  It turned out to be a life changing trip for me personally in ways I never foresaw.  But this post isn't about me.

Many of the readers here donated to the two charities I chose to walk for.  To date, you helped raise £3,527 (includes the gift aid) - for conservation and education.  I had no idea we could raise this much together just by doing a long walk, I am really grateful to you all.  The money was split between the John Muir Trust, and Soundmix.  I wanted to update you with how your donation had been spent and to say a massive thank you again for your support.

Soundmix is an education charity working with young refugee people without family support in the UK.  In the last year the charity began the process of moving venues from 2 community centres in which the project was based, to work with schools in the south London area where many of the young people live.  This enabled improved access to the music and arts services Soundmix provides.

An initial 6 week pilot project at one school led to regular classes in 2 neighbouring schools, a further 4 week project based at the Refugee Council, and now a new class on Saturdays working with Compass, a community group in the Croydon area.  There was a successful handover of leadership from the founding director to a new and very capable manager, with Trustees taking on more of a directorial role.  The two music staff are now aided by two previous students who volunteer as mentors, providing encouragement to the students and gaining valuable musical and tutoring skills themselves.

Soundmix is a small affair, and retention ranges from 37% to 88% dependent on the school/community centre client group, total numbers stand at 91 for the year, a mix of young people from (in order) Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan and Eritrea, amongst many other nationalities.  The age range is now lower than before, which reflects the new schools work, 68% being under 18 years old.  Given the client group, and the demands that resettling makes on their lives, these are excellent results.

The diverse mix of cultures, languages and musical influences continues as a healthy environment for the young people to study keyboards, guitars, vocals and composition, but also to gain confidence and other social skills useful to them in the wider world.  The group has performed live at a end of term concert with great success, but the long term improvements in well being, confidence and ability to interact are even greater.  This has a direct and proven impact on school attendance and ability to self sustain long term by engagement in employment, housing and further/higher education opportunities.

The John Muir Trust is a conservation organisation that aims to conserve, campaign and inspire.  They directly protect 24,000 hectares of wild land and contribute to community land partnerships across many thousands more.  They run an award scheme to encourage people of all ages to engage with and care for the natural environment.  They also campaign for better protection for wild and remote places, to protect habitat and wildlife against inappropriate development.

In the last year, the organisation continued to gain ground in its wild land campaign, contributing to Scottish National Heritage’s wild land mapping, an essential tool for protecting sensitive habitats against accelerating wild land industrialisation and planning deregulation.  There have been several representations to Scottish parliament, 460 delegates engaged at party conferences, 5 objections made to development threats to wild land, and the employment of a new advocacy officer based in London to bring the case to Westminster.

The education program remains a hugely energetic and vital part of the organisation, empowering many to experience nature sometimes for the first time.  Last year the Award worked with well over 23,000 participants, 27% from socially or economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  An audit of Award conservation work showed a staggering volume of voluntary engagement undertaken by participants, totalling close to £1million if valued monetarily - an area the size of 100 football pitches cleared of invasive species, over 82,000 bin bags of litter cleared, the list goes on...  The Award is a key 'in' to conservation and environmental concerns for the urban majority across the country and often the first point of contact and information for children and adults about these issues.

Work on the Trust properties continues apace, with productive partnership agreements made with Harris and Rannoch estates, a Wild Land Management Standard introduced across all the land in their care, (with an accompanying website launched in order to share information with other land managers), and a growing depth to the scientific monitoring of biodiversity across all the properties.  20km of path were maintained by staff and volunteers, with an increased level of coordination provided by a new paths officer, working Trust-wide to better balance access and conservation in this way.  On Knoydart, where volunteering activity has had the longest time to have an impact, exclosure fences were removed for the first time, allowing deer back into their natural habitat for the first time in years.  The native woodland is blossoming there.
I hope this update has been useful and not too long.  I think both of these charities are quite different in terms of scale, but not in terms of outlook.  What inspired my support (and maybe yours?) at the time of the walk is still true - both organisations are focused on refuge, and engagement through inspiration – providing a practical platform for change, 'digging where you stand'.

Funding is an ongoing challenge for both these charities. You can still donate if you feel moved to do so - by clicking HERE  In return you get detailed route info, screensavers, a gear report, and nearly 5 hours of audio trip report.  Also a copy of the video below.  Here are what one or two backpackers had to say about the Trip Report they received for their donation:

''David’s is one of several blogs that I referred to in preparing my own trek along the Pyrenees.  His is the best. It is different in that it is only available if you make at least a £10 donation to his charity page. The £10 donated to charity will help save walkers other, more rash expenditure.  I carried the notes on Joosten with me on my journey and found them very useful. Referring to them saved me from getting lost a number of times. David provides much additional information about where a short journey off route can save you days of carrying additional food and water.  The pictures form a slide show which is creatively  spliced with short video. The slideshow is inspirational and at times amusing. It records not just David’s journey but also the changing landscape of the Pyrenees''  Roger O Doherty 

''I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the audio reports; they captured a sense of the journey and provided some interesting insights into the highs and lows of the HRP.  Footsteps crunching up gravelly slopes, the clanking of cowbells, or the rumble of distant thunder were great audio markers for the passing of time and the occasional interview with someone else broke up the fascinating narrative nicely... I also enjoyed the slideshow, really appreciating the opportunity to see more of David’s excellent photography, and getting a better visual sense of the changing scenery and landscape... I found the kit list a useful reference. I’m sure that, though specific items may become outdated, the ideas and approach will remain valid.Nick Bramhall

"David’s pack of podcasts, slideshow and notes gave me an enjoyable way to gain some vicarious pleasure from a wonderful walk that I’ll probably never be able to do.  Some of the pictures were jaw dropping. For anyone wanting to attempt the route, David has provided some useful information with maps used, amendment notes to the guidebook he used and a kit list with comments. All in all, I’m happy to have contributed to some good causes and received a good report of his trip." Robin Evans
As a reward for reading this far (!) and to celebrate the route which many more people will have experienced for their first time this year, here's a slideshow of the trip.  Vive le HRP...


Knoydart, a self contained world of sea and summit, is a rounded peninsula in the North West of Scotland, sandwiched between Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn. 
It is a land of crow and deer and glacial debris, a world of water, a rain forest without trees, and a place where it is still possible to have a real, bona fide adventure.  The real magic lies high in the corries, in Coire Gorm under Ladhar Bheinn, and in the lochans between Luinne Beinn and Meal Buide.  In the bealachs and the corries small pools of water glint in the pale sun and gather water for easy drinking for the deer who retreat here to graze in the summer.  Oak, birch and willow line the gorges alongside every stream, and the eye grows used to waterfalls and whirlpools cut deep into the rock on every bend.  The hanging gardens blush with soft pinks and purples, vivid yellows and greens, the landscape is old with people and memory, but not full up like farmland.  The ghosts know their place here amongst the rock pools and the grass and heather steppe and keep quiet stewardship.  We got along just fine, and so will you.

I walked in from the very end of Loch Arkaig, over to Kinbreack in Glen Kingie, a beautiful and lonely place, the bothy immaculately kept.  Crossing the knee deep swamp in the centre of the glen, good grace demanding I ascend the corbett of Sgurr na Fhuarain on its east side, to begin the walk towards Sgurr na Ciche.  After heavy squalls the weather settled for a few hours and I was blessed with a ridge walk of a lifetime.  I was hugely impressed by Gharb Chioch Mhor, sitting on its haunches in a heavy grey tortoiseshell cloak, the fabric of the mountain laid out like the roots of a tree or the fingers in a splayed hand, the sudden chilly rain storm on my ascent, scrambling over cold, wet granite and a burning highland twilight afterwards.  Early the following morning I reached the peak of Sgurr na Ciche in heavy rain and high winds.  It felt more than a little pointless on the top, but I was camped too close not to try in the morning, whatever the weather.

I descended to the beach slowly over half a day, via a slippery, slightly treacherous path alongside a burn draped in cloud and moss and fern and cut down into Glen Dessary to join the track before the lochans filled with tiny slivery trout and whispering grasses.  Passed the ramshackle sea shanty of Soulies bothy and forded the river, walking late into the beautiful Gleann Meadail towards Inverie.  The sight of the sun shining on the sea from the pass an hour before darkness was beyond words.  The west will do that to you, wring your heart out and leave you speechless and hollow, at least it does to me.  In Inverie I spent some time at the community centre looking through old cuttings about the history of the buyout.  The township is famously remote, not connected to the road system.  But Inverie is not cut off, it faces the sea and has a new pier.  The community are forward thinking and newly liberated from centuries of oppression.  High above the town stands a stone memorial to their old landlord, Nazi sympathiser Lord Brocket.  But in the teashop local school kids sell their art projects on DVD, and in the grocers the dozing postman sells political posters, and North African sweets imported through Rotterdam.  It's their land now.  The self determination of the people here is profound and I left the village quietly and slightly in awe.

I moved up the Mam Li to camp amongst the lake labyrinth there, then went high into the Corrie Gorm under Ladhar Bheinn the following morning in good weather, seeing a huge herd of stags.  A vicious down climb off the greasy thin lines of the razor fin that is the Stob a`Chearcaill left me shaky and spent, but also stronger in mind and more confident, at least afterwards.  On Gharb Chioch Mhor and Meal Buide I faired better and remembered how to move on all fours: the feel of granite under my fingers, shifting weight, gauging balance, making the rock my friend.

I didn't see anyone at all for the first three days.  In some ways it was a hard trip.  I spent a while fretting about life outside the walk.  The night before I reached Inverie, the evening of my birthday, I finally arrived in the journey, and was fully present.  It was a relief.  After that night, flow was achieved, my metabolism reset to the walk and I began to engage moment by moment.  This trip was about the walk.  Knoydart is physically demanding and I still hurt a week later.  In the west you walk from sea level to the tops of the Munros, which feels like an extra 300 metres, because it is.  The mountains are steep, rough, and wet.  My bivy bag was overwhelmed with groundwater on one occasion and my feet suffered.  This trip was not about the camps.  The midges were obscene and I would not venture out again for a multiday trip in summer in the north west without an inner for my tarp.  My usual diet of dried vegetarian food was complimented with extra protein - mocca with midge, miso soup with midge, curried rice and vegetables with midge, cous cous with sun dried tomato and... a less funny and more irritating monty python sketch.  At Barrisdale the air simply vibrated.

A reminder again of something I always forget, a simple fact of living outdoors - that winds are solar.  In the evening as the sun set, it would drop to nothing and the hungry insects would redouble their efforts.  In the pre dawn light, I would open one eye and see the hordes just outside my bivy mesh, waiting for their breakfast in the shelter of my tarp whilst the breeze picked up until the sun, if it appeared, rose and the wind stopped again.  I was dreading my last camp but I pitched facing the sea and there was enough wind and rain to keep them at bay for an hour or two.  I walked out on the Glendessary track carved to pieces by a digger for no apparent reason, in the finest weather I had seen all week.  Meeting walkers coming in for a day or two I talked and felt like a veteran, and probably smelt like one too.

It's an utterly beautiful and genuinely magical place, some good estate practices and some not so, without a doubt one of the wildest places I have walked in the UK, whatever we understand that to be.  I experienced a genuine sense of adventure when choosing to venture off the beaten track.  And who needs paths, when there are animal tracks?  I  learnt in Knoydart to have more faith in my ability to wander aimlessly with intent, to stravaig.  Devoted for 6 days to exploring this place and this place only, I sought out rolling grades and contours of sticky rock and oozing moss, and followed the deer - they know it best of all. 

It is good to know there are a few places where the road does still end, where time still bends and a primaeval light can still hold sway.  If only for a few days, until the midges win and the food runs out.

The video?  Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn, the two worlds of water which form the natural boundaries and define the province of Knoydart, are sometimes translated as the Lochs of Heaven and Hell.  Its a dramatic place, hence the dramatic title.  Its feels pretty overblown to me now but I've erased the edit and this is the only version, so I'm stuck with it and so are you.  The two groundrules were: no panning, and tell the story of the place in nature, not the walk or the walker.  Failed then, on both counts.

  • Some history on the area here, it's well worth your time.
  • The music in the video is downloadable here, a thing from an afternoon of fooling around with guitars and loopers at a friend's house a few years ago.
  • The best of the rest of the photos are on flkr here.

This trip was written up as a feature in the May 2013 edition of The Great Outdoors Magazine.