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Rather than a trip diary, I thought that I’d try to sum up my 2016 TGO Challenge in 10 photos.  I decided on 10 photos deliberately so that this couldn’t just be 1 photo per day – it forced me to be quite ruthless in editing the images I’d taken.  These are not the 10 best photos that I took – rather, they’re the way of capturing what the Challenge was to me.

Lochailort-1

Lochailort, where I dipped my toes on Thursday 7th May. A beautiful place to start a Challenge.

 

Loch Beoraid. I think there is something about the shape of the loch and its relationship with the hills that makes this one of the most beautiful views in Scotland.

Loch Beoraid, which I first visited in 1963. I think there is something about the shape of the loch that makes this one of the most beautiful views in Scotland.

 

Photo of looking towards Glen Pean in the rain

After 2 fabulous days in Knoydart, the weather changed and I had a long trudge from Glen Pean bothy to the head of Loch Arkaig in driving rain. My idea of avoiding the road and doing a hill on the way was quickly abandoned.

 

Mamores

Apart from the first couple of days of good weather, no two days weather on this year’s Challenge were the same. After torrential rain, thunder and lightning on Monday morning, the skies cleared above the Mamores. Taken near Spean Bridge.

 

I wanted to revisit Loch Ossian on this year's Challenge and walked from Spean Bridge in the rain. But it started to change and this rainbow emerged over the loch.

I wanted to revisit Loch Ossian on this year’s Challenge and walked from Spean Bridge in the rain. But in the late afternoon, as I looked for a pitch (finally found at Corrour Old Lodge), the rain abated and this rainbow emerged over the loch.

 

This year, I decided to camp most nights and only spent a couple of nights under a roof. This was a lovely spot on the banks of Loch Rannoch.

This year, I decided to camp most nights and only spent a couple of nights under a roof. This was a lovely spot on the banks of Loch Rannoch.

 

My route took me from Loch Rannoch through the forest above Loch Tummel to Loch Bhac, from where I followed a path to Blair Atholl. I expected a blog flog but it was a delightful dry moorland walk with views to the Glen Tilt hills.

My route took me from Loch Rannoch through the forest above Loch Tummel to Loch Bhac, from where I followed a path to Blair Atholl. I expected a blog flog but it was a delightful dry moorland walk with views to the Glen Tilt hills.

 

We arrived in Ballater to discover that the old station had been completely destroyed by fire. I'd recently written about this as the culmination of the Deeside Way and I was sad to see the destruction. I do hope Queen Vic's loo survived.

We arrived in Ballater to discover that the old station had been completely destroyed by fire. I’d recently written about this as the culmination of the Deeside Way and I was sad to see the destruction. I do hope Queen Vic’s loo survived.

 

Portrait of me in the snow on Mount Keen

My route took me over Mount Keen, then high over the hills to the east. I hadn’t bargained on snow however. David Williams suggested that I abandon the route and come to Tarfside instead. He was right – 4 hours in the snow in trail shoes was really pretty grim.

 

Challengers and pints in the Marine at Stonehaven. A great finish to a great Challenge.

Challengers and pints in the Marine at Stonehaven. A great finish to a great Challenge.

I think that this is the first gear review I have ever written. I don’t have or buy much outdoor gear and most of the stuff I have is pretty standard (e.g. Montane Terra pants) and there’s nothing much I can say about it that hasn’t been said before.

However, this year for the TGO Challenge, I decided not to use my Paramo Velez smock because in some circumstances, it leaks quite badly. Instead, I decided to buy a jacket in the relatively new Polartec Neoshell fabric and, after some research, settled on the Rab Myriad jacket. I haven’t really seen decent review of this jacket so I thought that it might be useful to talk about my experience with the jacket and the companies that supplied it. Because we’ve had such a dry winter, I didn’t get a chance to properly test this jacket before I left.

Rab jacketGood things first. The fabric is fabulous. It is very waterproof but breathable at the same time. After several hours of walking in driving rain, my back under my rucksack was dry (breathability) as were my shoulders and arms (waterproofness). I wore the jacket in both wet and cold (but dry) conditions, and there was never a trace of condensation. The fabric is not 100% windproof, which adds to the breathability,  but even in very cold winds, I never felt that this was an issue.

Unfortunately, the design of the jacket lets it down. The zip is a so-called Aquaguard zip which is not 100% waterproof and there is no storm flap on the jacket. I found that even after a relatively short time in driving rain, the front of my base layer was damp. After several hours, I really was quite wet. So, advertisements that this jacket is waterproof are being rather economical with the truth. Although I don’t expect any jacket to withstand hours of driving rain, this one leaked almost immediately through an obvious design flaw.

Naturally, I contacted the retailer (Go Outdoors) where I bought the jacket and expressed my concerns that they were selling the jacket as waterproof when it was no such thing. I made clear that I understood that this was not their fault but that my dealings were with them and they sold an item which was not as described.

Their so-called customer service simply sent me a standard letter suggesting that I return the item to my local store (which is about a hundred miles away from my home) and suggesting that they would examine the ‘tent’ with me. They said that they could return the item to the manufacturer for assessment – which is something that I could do perfectly well myself. In short, they didn’t really read my email and weren’t in the slightest bit interested in my complaint because I’d had the jacket for more than a month. I won’t be dealing with them again.

Rab were no better. They had the grace to admit that the zip was not waterproof in driving rain but suggested that any rain that entered should follow the internal storm flap down the jacket. Apparently, the reason it leaked in my case was because I wasn’t wearing the jacket properly – I hadn’t checked the positioning of the internal flap. Maybe their jacket testers (I wonder if there are such people) are sent on a course on how to wear a waterproof jacket to avoid these problems.

Well, it seems to me that an internal storm flap on a jacket is a bit like an internal gutter on a house. It may be theoretically possible to avoid leaks but it’s much more effective to put the gutters on the outside of the house.  But if its theoretically possible for this jacket to be leakproof, then obviously the best strategy is to blame the customer for getting themselves wet.

Apart from the zip, I like this jacket. I’ll be keeping it to wear on showery days and around town. But I won’t be taking it on another Challenge. Basically, I don’t think this jacket is suitable for the kind of rainy weather that we get in Scotland, Wales or the Lake District. I’m still looking for a decent waterproof jacket.

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I’ve been thinking about how to capture my memories of the 2015 TGO Challenge, which I finished last week, walking from Lochailort to Stonehaven. I’m still not sure how to do this but as part of the process, I’ve been reflecting on outdoor blogs and what makes an outdoor blog readable for me.

Blogging is (or should be) a personal thing. I think that it is fabulous that individuals who love the outdoors can now publish their writing without the filter of professional publishers and that they can share their personal experience of the outdoors with others.   The best blogs are amateur blogs, especially when they are written by people, such as Alan Sloman, with strong opinions. Whether or not you agree with their opinions, their blogs are enlivened by their passion whereas I find ‘professional’ outdoor blogs to be mostly anodyne and dull. I rarely read them. Professional bloggers are driven by their advertisers or by maintaining their ‘image’ and, for some at least, I wonder if these advertisers have too much influence on blog content and style.

Because blogging is personal, there is no right or wrong way to write an outdoor blog. Probably the majority of these blogs are chronological trip reports, illustrated with photos of places where people have been. These can be entertaining if they are written in a self-deprecating way but I must admit that I mostly skip through them.  Blogging does not encourage brevity  and with modern digital photography, we all have lots of photographs. It’s easy to over-illustrate articles but pictures of boggy moorland look much the same wherever they are and, I think, are an exception to the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words. But, while I’m not really a fan of daily trip reports, you should write about your trip in the way that you want to remember it. The joy of blogging is that you don’t have to pay the slightest bit of attention to what anyone else thinks.

Blogging is personal but a blog is not a diary. It is written to be shared and, particularly when I first started on the Challenge in 2013, I found it incredibly useful to look at other Challengers’ experiences and to learn from them.   So, when we are writing our outdoor blogs, it is important to bear this in mind and at least try and make sure that readers can find useful, transferable information whether this is about the performance of gear, places to pitch their shelter or the availability of real ale. Pictures are important and inspiring although, as I have said, I think you lose impact with too many pictures.  Something that I learned many years ago is that pictures should be captioned – too many bloggers leave readers to try and work out from the surrounding text what’s in a picture. It only takes a minute to add a caption and it adds immeasurably to the reading experience. I prefer shortish rather than long posts but too many short posts don’t make for a joined up reading experience, so there’s a balance to be reached here.

And, of course, it’s more entertaining to remember and to read about the things that went wrong, rather than what went right. Some outdoor bloggers take themselves rather too seriously and prefer not to admit to doing daft things, falling over and failing to navigate in a competent way. But things go wrong for all of us and, in truth, these are the the experiences we look back on fondly rather than the uneventful days. So, these are the moments to capture both from a personal and from a sharing perspective –  they reassure readers that they are not alone in their lapses of competence.

Finally, the issue of political opinion can be controversial. Passionate bloggers will have their own political opinions and inevitably these will be reflected in their blog. But I have stopped reading bloggers who have partisan political opinions and who find it impossible as a consequence to criticise their favourite political party’s policies (if any) on the outdoors.   A little politics enlivens a blog – too much and too partisan (whatever the party) repels rather than attracts most readers.

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I’ve always taken stories of compass reverse polarity with a degree of scepticism as I’ve never personally noticed any problems. But, in preparing for this year’s Challenge, I was  thinking of keeping my compass in a hip belt pocket along with my camera so I decided to see what effect it had. My expectation was that any effect would be so small as to be irrelevant.  I was astonished – there is a major magnetic effect (about 50 degrees)as you can see in the pictures below. How long it would take to reverse the polarity, I don’t know but for sure it is a possibility.

Compass 1

Compass  with camera

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also tried other devices – a SPOT tracker which had no effect whatsoever and an iphone, which had a very minor effect. Probably too small to reverse polarity but I wouldn’t risk it. So – be careful and don’t keep your compass in the same pocket as your camera.

I am not a political animal. I’m not interested in the minutiae of politics or in partisan political views. Like a large number of people, I am sceptical of everything that politicians say and, in general, mistrust their motives. I don’t believe that all politicians are corrupt and/or self-serving but too many of them are in the pockets of others, be they trade unions or hedge funds, to trust them.

I decided to write this post because I am appalled by this general election campaign and the fact that our so-called ‘free press’ are not holding politicians to account. I don’t believe that the views of a great many people like myself are represented either by politicians or by their newspaper lackeys.  I have voted in 8 general elections and I can say without any doubt whatsoever that the quality of political debate in the 2015 election is the worst that I have ever seen.

There are lots of things that annoy me about this campaign but here are the top-five:

1.  The personal attacks, particularly on Ed Milliband and Nicola Sturgeon. This is simply disgraceful and demeaning to the attackers. I have spent 40 years disagreeing with people yet I have never once felt the need to comment on them personally.  It is to the credit of both Labour and the SNP politicians that they have not descended to this level of abuse.

2.  The failure of politicians to acknowledge that the points made by their opponents have any merit whatsoever. I can look at the policies of all of the current political parties (except perhaps UKIP) and see things I can agree with. No party has a monopoly on wisdom and politicians would gain much more respect if they acknowledged this and worked together rather than constantly bickering.

3. The obfuscation and spin around policies. There are difficult decisions to be made around economic policies and politicians should acknowledge this, accepting there will be both winners and losers, rather than avoiding questions on spending cuts and taxation and making up policies as they go along. Most voters are thoughtful and it is insulting to suggest that the only thing that affects their voting intentions is how much money they will have in their pockets.

4.  The lack of discussion on what seems to me to be a critical issue, which is the place of Britain in Europe. This is by far the most important question that we face in the next few years. I am unashamedly pro-Europe as I believe that larger rather than smaller economic units have more resilience in the face of economic shocks. Undoubtedly, reform of the EU is required but the fact that politicians are not discussing reforms and our place in Europe is appalling.

5. The lack of commitment by the major parties to ensure that our fellow citizens have enough to eat. Food banks are an utter disgrace and a sad reflection that ‘compassionate Conservatism’ has long gone.  But other parties cravenly refuse to say outright that they will adopt policies that will stop this abomination.

Disclaimer: I have already voted by post and I voted for the sitting MP in my constituency who is Anne Begg (Labour). She is a full-time MP (no other job) and on the occasions that I have contacted her, she has responded personally, quickly and thoughtfully. I would have voted for her, whatever her party as this is the kind of politician that we need rather than the arrogant and slippery individuals that are all too common.

Tis the season for the TGO Challenge where 300’odd (read that as you will) folk walk across Scotland on a variety of routes from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland. ‘Organised backpackers’ doesn’t apply to this though as the organisation is minimal and everyone does their own thing, choosing their routes then changing them on the fly. This is (I am told) somewhat frustrating for the minimal safety organisation that exists.

No, by organised backpacking I mean the remarkable organisation of some of the Challenge Tweetpackers (Backpackers on Twitter). Some have already tweeted that their gear for the Challenge is already sorted out and Paul started musing on gear as early as November 2014. Fitness regimes have been discussed – David is roaming the Lakeland Fells with a rucksack full of baked beans and John is yomping over all of the Welsh hills in a weekend. Next week, I expect he’ll report on his weekend walk to Nepal and Sunday hike up Everest.

Lots of Challengers are packing boxes with spare maps, food and clean underwear and are sending them on to various pick-up points across Scotland. Judith has produced a long and impressive list of things to do and check before she sets off. Some of these it’s fair to say would NEVER have occurred to me. Louise, who has a reputation for ultra-organisation claims to be more relaxed about planning. But ‘relaxed’ is clearly a relative term as planning a dry run still seems to me to be pretty high on the organised scale.

Andy is dehydrating dinners on an INDUSTRIAL scale. Andy is something of a gourmet so I have visions here of an enterprise something like Willy Wonkas chocolate factory but producing dried fish soup, boeuf bourguignon and small pellets of apricot pavlova.

Not only are these folks super-organised but some of them at least are gainfully employed and not a retired old codger like me who doesn’t set the alarm in the morning. Where do they get the time? I am genuinely truly impressed that people can be so organised as it’s completely beyond me.

I pretended on Twitter back in February that I was starting Challenge training but really I was just going out for a walk, which I do most weeks. And it has never occurred to me to spoil a perfectly pleasant walk by carrying a heavy rucksack when I don’t need to do so.

I don’t spend any time choosing gear cos I only have one of most things. However, I will be colour coordinated this year with a new black jacket (Polartec if you must know) to match my skinny black Terra pants and I’ll choose a fetching black buff as an accessory.  I could perhaps be taken for an outdoor hipster except I believe that they never actually go outside.

I love the idea of dehydrating food but I don’t think that it works if you shop the day before in Tescos and I did consider (once) posting on a box of stuff. Then I found that we’d recycled all the Amazon boxes so gave up on that idea too. I justify my approach to food provision by expressing my wish to support Highland communities but, to be truthful, it’s because I’ve spent a lifetime winging it at the last minute and can’t seem to change now.

When I first signed up for the Challenge a couple of years ago, I did wonder if my lack of organisation would mean ignominious withdrawal as I had forgotten some essential item of equipment or, worse, starvation as I didn’t have enough food. But I muddled through, although I would not like to depend again on trying to restock at the Well of Heads store.

So if you’re like me and lack the organisation gene, be thankful for the work of others.  We can simply use their to do lists and gear checklists without feeling guilty about not making lists of our own.  But don’t plan to take the last train north just in case (as happened to me) you forget something and  have to go home for it. I missed the Mallaig train and it was nearly midnight by the time I arrived.

Our house is right beside the Deeside Way, a walking and riding path that stretches from Aberdeen to Ballater (about 55km).  I walk on the Way every week that we are at home and have taken hundreds if not thousands of photographs on these walks.

I decided to set myself a wee project to write a short guide to the Deeside Way that was a bit better than the rather bland description on the official website. Most of the route follows the old Deeside Railway to Ballater which was used by Queen Victoria and subsequent royals on their visits to Balmoral Castle. The line closed as part of Beeching’s cuts in 1966. The current route starts at Duthie Park in Aberdeen and finishes at Ballater Station.

So here it is, my free to download guide to the Deeside Way.

From Aberdeen to Ballater on the Deeside Way

Lots of pictures so it’s about 40MB to download – be patient if it doesn’t open immediately in your browser.

Between Drumoak and Banchory

Between Drumoak and Banchory

River Dee near Maryculter

River Dee near Maryculter

From Potarch Bridge

From Potarch Bridge

Mid Hill Monstrosity

It was a cold and windy day today so I decided I’d have a walk where there was a bit of shelter, so went to Fetteresso forest. I thought I would check out possible camp spots for this year’s TGO Challenge and also have a look at the Mid Hill wind farm as some folks had wondered if there is still work going on.

I’m happy to be counted as a wind farm anti but, to be honest, I’ve only ever viewed these things from a distance and never got up close before. The ‘good’ news is that there’s no disruption from the wind farm construction and I think concerns about water pollution are misplaced. The water quality seems fine. The bad news is that, up close, wind farms are horrendous. You don’t really appreciate how big and horrible they are until you are standing under a turbine. In Mid Hill, it’s particularly bad as some forest areas have been cleared and the brash has been left lying around so the landscape is absolutely devastated.

Mid Hill - Turbines and brash leaving a devastated landscape

Mid Hill – Turbines and brash leaving a devastated landscape

I walked up Cairn Kerloch where you get a full view of just how extensive this wind farm is. This was never a place of exceptional natural beauty but was simply a place that could be enjoyed by all sorts of day walkers from the north-east of Scotland- not just experienced hill walkers.  Now it has been destroyed by the policies of a scientifically-illiterate government whose only concern is attracting city voters in the central belt.

Cairn and Mid Hill wind farm

Cairn and Mid Hill wind farm

The contrast between the old stones of the cairn on Cairn Kerloch and the turbines was a telling one. I was a little consoled by the fact that the cairn will still be there long after the turbines have gone and we have moved to a more sensible approach to electricity generation.

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The word ‘photography’ derives from two Greek roots, which roughly translated mean ‘light’ and ‘to draw’ so photography means ‘drawing with light’.  It isn’t ‘copying with light’ because when photography was introduced it did not reproduce what was in front of the camera exactly as seen. Individuals draw the same scene differently, emphasising what is important to them, and until not so long ago, the same was true of photographers – they interpreted and presented what was in front of the camera in quite different ways.

With the advent of high-resolution films and, especially, digital photography this changed, to a very significant extent. The camera can reproduce to a very high degree of fidelity, a scene as shot by the photographer and leaving aside differences in post-processing, two photographers faced with the same scene will produce very similar photographs. My photography reflects my interests in the outdoors so is dominated by landscape photographs and in this area there has been an explosion of high-quality representational images of mountain and coastal landscapes. Some of these are absolutely stunning images, which show the beauty and the grandeur of the outdoors.

Yet, I must admit I am tiring of both taking and looking at these images. They may be technically superb and visually impressive but they often fail to get over what the photographer feels about the landscape. As Niall Benvie, a Scottish photographer says in his book ‘You are not a photocopier’   these are often simply high-quality photocopies. His book is about photography and art and, while I don’t agree with everything he says, it is a provocative read. A particularly good point that he makes is that we should not necessarily present photographs on their own but that interpretative text can make these more individual to the photographer.

For some of my own landscape photographs, I’ve been thinking about how these communicate how I felt when I took these pictures and how to present this. I have decided that colour is a distraction – it’s easy to admire the prettiness and to fail to ‘see’ what’s really in the photograph.  With a black and white photo, it’s about the light, not the colours. So I have been converting the original images to black and white with a bit of digital manipulation. I haven’t gone to the extent of removing or adding elements to a scene, although I don’t have a problem in principle with this if this presents a better picture of what the photographer actually sees. But I have avoided the more extreme digital manipulations simply because I think these are mostly gimmicks that fail to do anything except impress the viewer with the skills of the programmer who developed these effects.  Captions, I think, are very important so I have thought about longer, explanatory captions that try to describe why I like the photograph.

Here are a few examples and I would appreciate any comments that the occasional viewers of this blog have.

Lairig Ghru

Looking east through the Lairig Ghru. 

Many writers remark on the beauty of the Cairngorms and, especially under snow, Cairngorms views can be superb.  But the Cairngorms are rough, harsh, unforgiving places which are often not conventionally beautiful but which awe the viewer with their majesty.I’ve been through the Lairig several times and what has always struck me at the summit of the pass is my insignificance in the landscape. I’ve tried to capture the harshness of the land in this image, which is dominated by rock yet at the same time reveal the attractiveness of these magnificent hills.

Morrone birchwoods

Morning sunlight, Morrone birchwoods

Outdoor folks in my experience tend to be quite taciturn about what they feel about the environment and they don’t talk much about the emotional impact of the outdoors. But I suspect, like me, one of the real attractions for them at least is the sense of joy and happiness that you sometimes get from being in a particular place (often but not always a summit) at a particular time. I experienced this on a walk through the Morrone birch woods near Braemar where I was struck by the spring sunshine coming through the fresh spring birch leaves. Trying to communicate happiness in a landscape photograph is pretty hard but the lightness of the leaves reflected my lightness of spirit that spring morning.

Road to Achiltibuie

Towards Fisherfield from near Achiltibuie

Sometimes when you are out, landscapes surprise you and this is one like that. We were heading to Achiltibuie on a mostly dull day when we came across this view to An Teallach and the hills of the Fisherfield Forest. What was so striking was the contrast between where we were (in the dark foreground) and the frieze of hills that were revealed. It was just one of these ‘wow’ moments that makes your heart sing.  Entranced by the view of the hills, I didn’t see the road furniture (passing place signs) and telegraph poles. Someone with better Photoshop skills than me could, I’m sure, get rid of them but I decided that I quite liked them as they showed this was a living landscape and not a calendar scene.

Emergence

Emergence

Sometimes, it’s the unexpected that makes your day. We started to walk up Ben Hee in Sutherland in dull, claggy unpromising November weather with a sprinkling of autumn snow on the ground. As we approached the summit, however, we started to get hints of a change and a few minutes later the clouds started to clear. The times when you realise that you are going to get great views are amongst the best in the hills and I’ve tried to capture the first few moments of the emergence of the landscape here.

I won’t stop taking ‘pretty pictures’ in the hills or, indeed, admiring such pictures taken by others because, sometimes, these are simply the best ways to document walks and trips.  But I also plan to think more about why I took a photograph, what it really means to me and how I can represent this. I have no pretentions to being an artist but I hope that by focusing on light rather than colour, I can better communicate what being in a landscape means to me.

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Sunlit Summit’, a biography of W.H. Murray. Murray was a pioneer Scottish climber in the 1930s who wrote what I think is the finest Scottish mountaineering book ever written – ‘Mountaineering in Scotland’. Murray and his pals were hard men – no modern fabrics, crampons, protection equipment in these days –  and they revived themselves after a long cold day with a concoction which they called ‘Mummery’s Blood’ (after A.F. Mummery, a famous Victorian mountaineer). In Murray’s words, Mummery’s Blood was made by ‘bringing half a pint of water to boil on the Primus, dissolving 3 Oxo cubes then adding 2 gill bottles of rum’.

For younger readers, a gill is a 1/4 of a pint (just over 100ml) so basically Mummery’s Blood consists of equal parts of hot, strong beef stock and hot rum.

Ingredients for Mummery's Blood

Ingredients for Mummery’s Blood

After a cold Sunday afternoon walk, I decided that rather than my usual effete cup of tea, I would recreate Mummery’s Blood. I didn’t have Oxo cubes but had some Knorr beef stock so I made this up double strength. I then took a large measure of rum (not 2 gills as this would have rendered me comatose for the rest of the evening), added an equal volume of the beef stock and brought it to the boil.

The finished drink

The finished drink

Well, it was certainly a reviving drink. I suspect it would taste better in a cold tent or bothy rather than a centrally-heated house but it wasn’t bad – it was a drink to put hairs on your chest. Hot rum is very potent and I floated upstairs to my computer to write this post. I’m not sure that I’ll repeat the experiment at home but would like to try it in the hills.

If you have never read Murray’s book, it’s still in print. I’d recommend it to all hillgoers. You have a treat in store.

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