Year of the Snake

I swore blind to a friend I wasn't going to do this, but as I glance furtively at the year ahead with a mix of anxiety and anticipation, it seems right to cast an eye back over 2013.  Hopefully this isn't too indulgent, and makes for interesting eye candy via the links.

2013 was the year we stopped being visitors in Scotland, and made it our home.  The honeymoon was definitely over, but our comprehension deepened.  Whatever (y)our personal views, Scotland in the year before a vote on Independence is a land full of debate and potential - a vibrant and exciting place to be.  That spirit of engagement is worth celebrating.

Our personal lives grew complex for a time, but slowly we grew alongside.  And I was also outside alot, and for the first time that meant work as well as play.  This was very definitely not a bad thing.  I cut my teeth on some new tricks and (I hope) got better at some old ones.  The new year holds new unknowns, but I guess that isn't new.  In the meantime, here are some personal highlights:

January, and my first Hogmanay in Scotland.  We also built an igloo with some new friends.

February, and I met up with Fraser in the wintery heart of the highlands, for two beginner's mountaineering routes that ended up as a feature in the December issue of The Great Outdoors Magazine.

March, and another winter weather window.  T, phil and I went back to the Cairngorms for Easter.  Our almost alpine weekender ended up featuring in the recent British Moutaineering Council's (BMC) Summit Magazine.

April was busy, first Arran to see family and get blown off Goatfell, Italy for The Great Outdoors, and then back to the Isles for Outdoors Enthusiast magazine. Our squally trip around the 'lost coast' on Skye made for a reflective way to round out the month.

May, I gave a talk about the HRP in London, and we had A Rum One.  On reflection, this was probably the most satisfying trip of the year personally - the right mix of fun, weather, history, exertion and relaxation.  It's due in The Great Outdoors Magazine in Spring 2014.  I also wrote up a route for Walk Highlands across the Rum Cuillin.

June, I learnt how to Packraft in Inverpolly with Backcountrybiking.  Or at least, began to learn.  Articles appeared in The Great Outdoors and Outdoor Enthusiast in the autumn.

In July, there was a heatwave on Ben Lawyers, and an attempt on a classic round that challenged mentally and physically.  A different take on this was written up for Mountain Pro Magazine in the autumn.  I got the gig for the feature by email as I stood on the 18th Munro of the circuit. 

August, I went walking in the Rhinogs on a photo shoot, and then photographed Todd and Phil looking heroic in the Alps.  Our tale of 3 men in a Bongo should be popping up in Outdoors Enthusiast next year.

September saw a trip to the Bridge of Orchy Munros on two wheels, talking at the Edinburgh Night of Adventure about... nights of adventure, and a pitch perfect bushcraft trip across Loch Lomond led by Tam from Wild by Nature.  Another for Outdoor Enthusiast, spring 2014.

October, I was out twice and both times with friends - once on the ridges and scrambles around the glens of Affric and Shiel, and then onto Loch Maree and Torridon with a packraft.  One or both of these are slated for The Great Outdoors Magazine as features next year.

November was spent exploring the gentler parts of Perthshire, and I took a trip around Glen Lyon that I'm hoping will pop up somewhere soon enough.  The packraft section of that trip didn't exactly work out as planned.

December, and a 3 day packraft trip on the River Dee during a huge thaw meant some choppy water and honing some skills, working my way past dangerous to amateur.

May the trail rise up to meet you.  Forward, Avanti!

The Outdoor Anarchist's Guide to Photographic Practice

There was some online chat the other day about photographic practice, which inspired me to write the following.  Initially sparked by a tweet about an image of mine that appeared in a magazine recently, it ran and ran whilst I ate my tea.  Here's the untreated capture, with the picture as it appeared in the magazine underneath for comparison.  (techie guff: full frame sensor, RAW capture, 24mm lens, 2 stop hard grad filter, processed in Adobe Lightroom 4)

RAW capture

Image as sent to magazine

In summary (and hopefully I'm not doing anyone a disservice here, that's not the intention) the views expressed online covered - what priority should be given to in-camera skills versus editing, virtues of different types of format in digital capture (RAW vs JPEG), owning the creative process, professionalism, importance of equipment used especially lenses, understanding light and a grounding in film technique.  Some value laden terms like 'mastery' and 'aesthetic limits' were also used.

What underlies all of the positions taken is some basic assumptions about what photography is, and what is it for, which have stalked the form since the earliest days of pinhole, silver nitrate, cyanotype or whatever - assumptions about the representation of the 'real'.  In Outdoors Photography (a shorthand for landscape, wildlife, nature, adventure and overlapping with street/documentary) these ideas are further knotted together with other assumptions about what is 'natural'.  It all gets pretty messy pretty quickly.

All that being said, I thought I'd lay out where I stand on taking photographs, and making images.  I've shied away from doing this before now because it seemed like the height of arrogance, and there are many other camera users out there who have been developing their practice for much longer than I have.  Be warned: this may take some time, and it's a purely personal view.

Vanity quote 1: ''I don't consider myself a photographer, I am using a camera, but there are millions of photographers… I'm just a human'' - Cartier Bresson

The first thing to say is I try to give labels like 'photographer' and 'professional' as wide a berth as practically possible.  I'm not sure if 'professional' means a gold standard (and if so what that is, and what kind of medal they give out when you get there?!) or if it means getting paid for your work full time.  I'm running with the latter.  Before we go any further, let's not pretend for a second that whether we get paid for doing something has any bearing AT ALL on whether we're any good at it.  I can think of a few professionals whose work as image makers/writers/musicians leaves me cold, but they make a living from it.  And others whose unique view of the world blows my mind but doesn't provide them a living wage.  What I 'like' counts for nought where hard cash is involved.  Some pedestrian practitioners get paid for their work (although well paid outdoors creatives are rarer than Capercaillie), whilst others continue in itinerant poverty, get over it.  There are so many reasons why this might be the case it's impossible to go into now.  All this doesn't mean I'm devaluing creative work, just that there are hardships and compensations in everything, and money is not the only way of valuing creative output - so let's get the cart and the horse in the right order.  I say this out of necessity, because the one thing that is guaranteed to kill creative application stone dead is status anxiety.

Good, now that we've taken some ego out of the equation, let's get to those representation issues.  Secondly, there's an idea persisting in outdoors photography that what you capture at the moment of pressing the camera shutter button is somehow the truth - an absolute reflection of natural reality as it was at that moment.  Let's be crystal clear -  this is not creatively accurate, and is it isn't technically accurate.  Before pushing the shutter button, the camera user has made decisions about what to point at and when to point at it.  Yes, even when using the Auto settings.  S/he chooses to point at the tree and not the stream, the sun and not the storm, whatever.  Later on, if we add in the other variables at our disposal as we get further into photography - aperture, shutter speed, light sensitivity (ISO) and focus, we can see that there's alot to make decisions about, all of which affect the outcome of the photograph at the point of capture.  Then there's focal length and filters used, and alchemical oddities like depth of field - let's not even go there.  So, if I think we're all looking at and seeing the same thing, and responding in the same way, I need a reality check of my own.  This maybe 'reality', but only as one camera-user sees it.  What I point at, when and how are my decisions, and yours will be yours, and different... and thank heavens for that.

It may help to think of everything up to this point as in-camera editing, and everything that happens next as post-camera editing.

Vanity quote 2: 'Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights' - Ansel Adams

Third, despite these obvious technical and creative facts, another related belief  lingers like a musty fart that the photographer's job is to show reality - that there is a moral obligation to show not what you see how you see it, but 'what's actually there'.  From here it's a short hop to 'post processing in photoshop is bad', because the photographer is perceived to be changing what actually happened at the point of capture.  Again, let me disappoint you.  Photographers have been tweaking reality after the fact forever.   Even today, many photographers prefer to shoot film, and may spend hours or days in the darkroom doing the jobs digital photographers do using lightroom or photoshop.  Either that, or they will scan their analogue images and post process in digital software for convenience.  Some of this is merely technical work, because even the best cameras in the world are rubbish compared to the human eye, especially when it comes to accurately recording the difference between light and dark (a.k.a dynamic range). Errors created by the machinery itself might need to be corrected.  And some of this changing in post is creative, because any photographer is making a creative statement about what they noticed and when they noticed it (whether they think they are or not).  Why would we want to do this?  Because we want the photo to represent at least as much as it did to be there - we want the image to convey feeling and meaning.  Would it be more 'real' to take an accurate capture and then make a bland image? Would that be honest to the feeling of being there?  I'd argue that personal subjectivity is only a 'bad' thing in a medical photograph: everywhere else, it's the core activity.

RAW capture
how I chose to process at the time

For both technical and artistic reasons, post processing is not the sin against 'truth' many perceive it to be.  There are many famous historical examples of post camera processing made in the analogue world.  From Bresson to Adams to Man Ray, our 'authentic' camera heroes from days gone by loved to dodge and burn every bit as much as contemporary digital power users do: lighten some bits of the shot, darken others, crop and even montage from other photos entirely.  Frankly, they had a ball toying with their own and our expectations, and carved their own truths in the process.  So, try not to confuse the digital world with artifice, and the analogue with truth - they are not simply the same things by necessity.

One further point before I move on.  ''Real or 'shopped?'' is a question I often see.  Aside from the false dichotomy here, I wonder if people are overestimating what outdoors photographers are prepared to tweak.  I don't know any who prefer to manipulate in photoshop instead of resolving as much as possible in-camera.  I don't use photoshop at all unless I am doing design work.  That doesn't make my images any more real or fake than someone who does though.  We are asking the wrong questions of our practitioners.

As with nearly all activity, what matters is why we are doing what we're doing, and whether the end result is effective in achieving our aim.

Lastly, there is an idea that gear matters.  As with most technical things, including painting, music, plumbing, architecture, backpacking, baking and roadbuilding, this is true... to a point.  A good lens is good to have.  The skills to use that lens are also good.  However, one does not beget another.  It's better to have a bad camera than no camera at all, and it's better to have some technique than none.  However, a bad camera with no technique doesn't mean I can't record some of the good stuff with my eyes and that machine, any more than a Zeiss lens worth £1k+ makes me a (ahem) 'professional photographer'.  But wait, what's technique?  I'll share my definition:  Good technique is the efficient and creative use of tools.  When we get technically good at bakery or backpacking or photography, we can forget about the nuts and bolts of what happens next and engage in the creative.  This is called 'flow'.   I think anything is art when it's done with flow, but good plumbing matters because drinking bad water will stop me concentrating on the pictures I need to take next.  Conversely, there is less boring plumbing than boring photography.  This is because the aim of photography is (generally) to inspire and inform, whereas the aim of plumbing is (generally) to stop my bathroom stinking.

I'm not talking about sewerage - I'm talking about the function of our activity, and our aim.  Our first job as someone who takes pictures is to understand why we are taking them, and who for.  But because photography is so ubiquitous, this is often the last question we ask.

Vanity quote 3:  'Reality is what you can get away with' - Robert Anton Wilson

Let's recap.  A practitioners ability to make a living from their work is not the only useful way of judging quality.  There is no absolute truth being captured, and there is no way to capture it, since both the camera user and the camera used affect the outcome.  Image manipulation is as old as camera technology is.  'Reality' has been edited in every photo ever taken, both in-camera and post-camera.  Therefore, in photography, there is no technical authenticity, only technical artifice.   And when I say this, I am thinking every bit as much of Ansel Adams as I am of Instagram.

Sorry.  No sacred cows allowed beyond this point.

Does this mean it's all been a lie, that there is no photographic truth?  No, of course not.  It means freedom.  It means letting go of traditional (Modernist, Victorian) notions of objectivity and shooting what you feel, and how you feel it.  It means how you use the tools is more important than the tools themselves.  It means it's personal, and you can relax and enjoy the process.  This is the kind of truth and honesty I think we respond to in creative camera use.

I shall now subject you to my 6 rules when taking photographs and making images - actually they aren't rules but guidelines, and are only there to bend or break.  But since you've stuck with it this far, on we go:
  • By far the most important one is honour thy subject.  Ignore the camera, this is a conversation between you and the subject.  Your role is to interact honestly with the subject, be it animal, vegetable or mineral.  I generally go on gut/heart/instinct to tell me what I am 'allowed' to change about those pictures afterwards in post, if anything.  It might be nothing, or something, or everything, only the subject and I knows what constitutes an effective interaction, because only we were there, having the conversation.  This doesn't mean you have to be sycophantic or even sympathetic, but the subject must be honoured, completely and utterly.  No exceptions.
  • The second is I use the biggest sensor camera I can afford without it being so stupidly heavy I can't be bothered to take it with me. Why?  Because dynamic range is king and the technical limitations of the machine are as much an 'edit of reality' as the deliberate (if unconscious) ones made by the camera user we've looked at above.  (Note: horses for courses permitted, but availability of 'mirrorless' systems with full frame sensors may likely change my position on this in the next 3 years.)
  • The third is that if I think I can fully 'master' or 'understand' any creative form I'm an idiot - it's at least 40% magic and accident, so I'll need some humility.  No - more humility than that, smart ass.
  • The fourth is that I take lots of photographs.  Given that alot is down to chance (see rule 3), I can up my odds of getting something good if I shoot loads of photos.  I might take 200-400 shots, but use 5-30.  My ratio gets better when the only thing I'm doing is taking photographs, but it's still pretty low.  I know better photographers who have a higher ROI, but they aren't doing this outdoors unless they're doing nothing else but taking photos - they aren't participating, they're watching.  I have no problem with that approach whatsoever, in fact it's definitely more efficient and probably more creative...  But regardless of the details, what is most important is being there, and being there with my camera ready to go is a good chunk of that other 60%.  All this adds up to alot of time outdoors with a camera.  Go figure.
  • Number five is that the edit matters.  Since I am taking alot of pictures, I need to cut the crap and get to the point.  No one wants to see the same piece of rock from 20 ever-so-slightly different angles, or at least, I don't.  I want to see 1 shot that sums up the experience of looking at that rock for that person at that moment in time.  There's such a surfeit of images in the world that reduction is a key skill - that's what contact sheets are for, comparing and contrasting.  Those other shots aren't wasted, they are my sketchbook, what it took to get the one killer shot.  Be warned though, choosing 1 shot from 20 is hard, often much harder than taking the shot.  Sometimes it's easier if I leave a gap between taking and making, so I can be calmer and more objective about my choices.  This whittling down process is one of the simplest factors distinguishing a 'happy snapper' from a 'good photographer'.  What's great is that getting good at doing this post-camera actually starts to inform what you shoot in-camera, so your ratio of 'good' to 'meh' improves.  The big boys and girls call this 'visualisation'.  Back in post-camera land, many professionals in both film and photography employ a third party for the edit.  Friends, family or fellow camera-users can also help with a fresh pair of eyes.  But however I do it, the general public doesn't need to see just how average I am with a camera most of the time. 
  • The sixth and final reminder is to get out of my comfort zone.  Look at lots of other people's photos, especially offline, in books and galleries, and even more importantly, photographs from different styles and context to my own.  Most of the time I'm bored rigid by landscape pornography, um I mean photography, and wildlife safari shots... don't get me started.  The way to stretch what I do is to look at stuff that confuses the hell out of me, and then try to work out why.  I don't have to like everything, but engaging in lots of different work broadens my outlook. 
Learning by doing
Once you've taken the shots (capture), you select (edit), and then start making the images (develop) in the darkroom (be that analogue or digital).  But you aren't gonna have any to choose from unless you shoot some photos.  Forget about all the rules, yours and other peoples and especially mine.  Keep shooting, make mistakes and learn from them.  Even regret that you missed the shot is a great teacher.  Shoot in RAW or shoot in JPEG, read about analogue film techniques and then burn the book and the art college that housed it, own the creative process and then sell it off to buy more booze and camera parts, understand light and how the camera won't deal with it and then try and take the shot anyway - but keep shooting, to keep learning.  Shoot in and out of focus, shoot with the histogram all out of whack, shoot without knowing what a histogram is, shoot film and shoot digital, shoot photos of other people shooting photos of you shooting photos, but keep shooting.  Don't dumb down deliberately, but do experiment without knowing what will happen next.  Above all be brave, both with capture and in post.  Try everything.  Eventually you'll get something you like, and then you'll have to figure out why you like it and if you want to do it again, how you can replicate the same feeling...

...which is where it gets interesting.  Talk is cheap.  The real friction in photography is wordless and ambiguous.  Composition (= light + form + time) is the maths, but at it's best it's an emotional resonance, a whispered question, a nagging reminder of our humanity.  This questioning resonance is the 'real' elephant in the (dark)room, especially for outdoor camera users.  We've seen so much corporate eye candy, we've got visual diabetes.  Training our eyes to see past our cataracts takes work, alot of time and practice.  In the meantime, all the talk of lenses and limits is for the critics.  Don't be a photographer, and for g*d's sake don't be a critic - be a human first, go outside and shoot some pictures.

Stay Frosty

Out on the hill yesterday, it's getting cold out there.

This was a gear test for a few bits and bobs, and a dose of conditioning before a pre christmas bid for freedom in the Cairngorms next weekend.  Day trips are always worth doing of course, but especially at this time of year.  I'm always surprised at how much harder winter is, physically and mentally - its easy to forget just how tough it is on the body, how little light/time there is to do the trip.  It pays to be reminded.

We were in the borders, walking White Coombe and a few others around Loch Skeen.  The snow was soft enough to make it hard going, and thigh deep in places.  The wind was fierce.  We postholed nearly all the way round, weren't pacey enough and walked out in the dark. T was tired, slipped and got very wet crossing the fast running outflow from the Loch.  Not the best time of year to go for a dip.

Today, our bodies hurt, alot.  Winter hill walking is incredibly physical.  Coming up to White Coombe was all cylinders at full pelt, body knocked around in the gale, kicking through the hard crust, falling over a few times...

A few memory aids for me (and maybe for you):

  • Get out of the wind for lunch, or get worn out fast.  I now always carry waterproof over mitts and put these on to dig a basic snow burrow in soft snow.  Out of the wind it's quite comfy.
  • Keep eating and drinking - all day.  Don't be lazy about that, just because it's a hassle to get at the water or snacks.  You don't want to energy slump and start being dumb at 4pm, just when it counts.
  • Take an axe at least, even in marginal conditions.  You probably can't see the real tops from the base, so judging it on sight from the bottom is potentially risky.
  • Make sure everyone has a (fully charged) head torch.
  • Carry some spares - more gloves, another hat at least.  After T got soaked to the waist in the river crossing I persuaded her to put on her waterproof over trousers, which saved her leaching energy through exposure to windchill.  Suddenly they weren't dead weight any more.
  • I'm more convinced than ever that this recreational nonsense we get up to is at least 80% mental, and coming off steep ground in the gloaming is fine provided you stay calm.  Part of the reason I go out is I enjoy the learning curve, it's time to reflect and a good mirror for how I deal with the rest of life, but the winter hills are no place for unnecessary baggage. 

Be safe out there, look after yourselves.  It's a purple and orange wonderland at this time of year, but can be pretty uncomfortable or worse, if you're not prepared.

Variety Pack

When I started this blog, the trips were so far and few between, I think the posts were a way of prolonging the enjoyment, holding on to the experience.  Now, I can't keep up.  Since we moved north of the border we are out every week, day hikes or overnighters, one thing or another.  Life has changed, my relationship to the outdoors has too.   I think the blog will have to follow, but I'm not sure how as yet.  I've grown quite attached to the secular confessional.  In the meantime, a quick flypast to some of the more memorable moments of the last few months...

The trips to Aberlady Bay continue.  I've grown very fond of it there, and will continue to go back and learn more.

Schiehallion is an interesting walk that took me a little by surprise.  It begins on a broad track, so broad and well built I was unsure how to feel about it.  Is this the future for Scotland - motorways on mountains, like parts of the Lake District?  I understand the reasons for substantial pathwork - footfall on popular hills causes real damage to mountain ecology, and organisations like the National Trust and the John Muir Trust are leading practical action and research in protection... but I don't like conveyor belts.  So, I started out warily, but slowly changed my mind.  It's ingeniously done.  About half way up, the main path peters out, and the last 200ms are a mess of boulders left in their natural state.

We went up after lunch, and met so many coming down who were having a real adventure, a proper challenge - it's a popular hill which draws all abilities, but the carefully constructed route had held their hand in just the right way until the mountain top began in earnest, where they learnt not to wobble on their own two feet.  There's just enough path to prevent damage from footfall, and no more.  What's more it follows the long line of the hill, rather than sitting as previously on broad (northern) flank, minimising both erosion and any visual impact.  Very clever stuff.

It's also a deceptively long ascent - don't take it for granted.  Finally, there's the mountaineering history, which for those who understand the attraction makes this Munro pretty much an essential visit.

On our way back we saw the Beuly Denny construction in full effect.  Are we 'in deep symbiosis' with our environment when we do this, as I saw someone comment recently in a newspaper article about wild land industrialisation?  Another person commented that these things shouldn't be done in wild places, but since we'd already trashed it all it didn't really matter....  I'm not a Luddite - I have an issue with the infrastructure, not the technology - with a centralised grid and volume, not with electricity, climate change science or renewables.

For me, it's a problem of capital - and yes I know what happened to Trotsky - but some are just brought up to think they can keep all the sweets in the jar to themselves.  Money, not the environment is the driving force in the Scottish countryside - historically and now, from the clearances for sheep, then deer, to forestry and hydro, to nuclear and the current industrialisation by wind.  Money has crow-barred human identity from its rightful place grounded in the physical reality of earth, to the point that even some wild land advocates unwittingly use the language of misanthropy - the tongue of the oppressor!  Divorce land from identity and language will reflect the schism.  Note the huge growth in food growing and allotments in recent years: people are endeavouring to find a connection with the soil again, on a smaller scale.  Scale is a money problem, and the answer is local.  There is very little nature in the picture below - instead there are layers of industrialised extraction required by a centralised grid.  The picture could be so different. 

Meanwhile, we went on holiday.  Holy Island is not in Scotland, but near enough to the border and chock full of history.  A weekend with my parents, September sun, a trip to the islands on a boat surrounded by Seals and Ganets.  Lindisfarne got alot more commercial in the 20 odd years since last we visited, but the landscape and it's position in the bay is still something else.  I like the borders alot, it's where my grandad was from.

The lighthouse at St. Abbs head was built by the Stevenson family (of 'kidnapped' fame), perched on the very edge of high cliffs backed by odd swirling mounds and lots of nosey sheep.  You can rent a cottage here, apparently. 

Oh yeah, and my mum brought her new dog along, who strained at the leash under herringbone skies.  It was cute.

The Disenchanted Forest  Generally speaking I try to keep things positive here (unless I'm whinging about the environment) but this warrants a special mention.  The Enchanted Forest is run by Highland Perthshire as a tourist exercise, and it works.  Truly vast numbers of visitors are bused into the 'venue' (a small loch near Pitlochry) throughout October to complete a circuit of pretty lights, sounds and other distractions for the princely sum of £15 per head.

Gangly, tongue tied teenagers in Druidic getup fell over their scripts to tell us about types of wood and their uses in 'ancient' times - I felt bad for them, the pseudo mysticism was toecurlingly awkward.  They stood in front of bastardised 'celtic' symbols which represented the language of trees, apparently.  Are you thinking what I'm thinking?  There is no art here, just artifice - for this to be art it would have to be about something more than pretty lights.  We consulted the leaflet given to us on the coach for assistance - what we are seeing seems to have something to do with... trees.  Though what, we are not exactly sure.  Dawn, dusk, and the 'pulse' of nature?  Why not just go into the woods and enjoy what's there?

We also had real questions about how much energy is used lighting all those trees.  This felt like a really wasteful experience, nature mediated, rendered through electronic viewing goggles.  Complicated, not simplified.  The final slap in the face for me was the musak, which was plain awful, switching between balafon loops at home in an elevator or endlessly uplifting major chord pomposity.  If this was going to be like a rave without the stimulants, pretty but vacuous, at least the tunes had better be good.  Instead, it was like one giant O2 advert, or those William Wallace tea towels I saw in Stirling with Mel Gibson's face on them - sickly, slickly disturbing.  This was about money, not about art and not about nature.  Will the last person to leave the forest please switch off the lights...

Loch of the Lowes is mostly great.  The Scottish Wildlife Trust run a fantastic visitor centre near Dunkeld, with large viewing window, a good hide and lots of information.  There are otters, red squirrels and ospreys here.  I'm not at all happy about the branding though... is it just me?

Ben Vrackie is another fairly local one for us, and a really enjoyable hill with great views of some hills we'd walked earlier in the year.  Busy with people on a Sunday morning, but none the worse for that.  It's steep too, the last bit anyway.

It's not the de rigeur position for an outdoors blog to take, but I love seeing people enjoying themselves out for a walk, connecting in their own way.  All shapes, ages and sizes, a kid questioning me if I only did Corbetts or did I do Munro's as well?  Oh, so young people are all stuck inside on their Nintendos are they?  Mmm. The lake below is just stunning as well, wild swans and jumping fish, a fine spot for a wild camp within striking distance of town.

I was just at the TGO Awards for work, and managed an overnighter and a damp trip to Great Gable.  This was supposed to be a 4 day trip but I bailed after 1 night - partly the weather, partly a case of manflu made worse by the weather, and partly because I missed my girlfriend!  You know you're an old hand when you are going in when everyone else is coming out, and when you are so complacent you make a 45degree wrong turn but keep going knowing you can correct it later (that is not a boast!)  The light was ferric, and the weather promised to improve in a day's time, but my heart just wasn't in it.

After 12 hours of sleep, I went up to the Westmoreland Cairn in heavy clag, paid my respects at a poppy covered memorial (a crying shame, a bloody waste - the liberals prayer) and dropped out at Windy gap.  Instead of the main path I jumped across the river and found a thin track leaning out precariously high above the falls - still some fun and excitement to be found in the Lakes.

Last but definitely not least in this little roundup, beloved Skye.  We managed an overnighter either side of our trip to Harris in October, and were blessed with good weather, great camps and fine walks.  When you get off the boat from Harris it feels like the mainland, so built up in comparison, but it's hard not to love it there, and I enjoy taking T to different areas, some I know and some I  don't.  Glenbrittle was new, and the golden hour was golden indeed.

This time, we took a tiny, spiny track that threaded its way up an incredibly good value Munro in the east of the Cuillin, which allowed us to lean over the alpine abyss and finally access the main ridge at last!  Each time I go back I'll be chipping away at this project now, who knows if I'll ever do the whole ridge, much of it looks terrifying, but it's an awesome sight on top, really.  This was a good day, a really good one, it allowed us to get up close and demystify just enough to make other things possible in the future...

On the way out, something more gentle.  A really beautiful coastal wild camp near the point of Sleat under the watchful gaze of Rum and Eigg.  The lighthouse has been rebuilt since I last went 10 years ago.  Steel girders and solar panels are more efficient I know, but I wish they had built it round and not square.  The MLD Supermid continues to impress, more than stable enough and a luxurious amount of space, footprint not really any bigger than the Trailstar.  Gusts in a rain storm on the Cuillin camp did yank a corner stake out of boggy ground, but the beauty of these tarps is no stretched fabric or damaged poles - just repeg and all's well.  Otherwise, rock solid, even in coastal winds - a really enjoyable and functional unit for 2-4 people.

We drove home out over moorland to tiny crofting townships on the north side of the Sleat Peninsula, with incredible views over both ranges on Skye, both the red and the black mountains, which made them appear almost as one range, which was a geological education in itself.  Days like these, the west is the best.