Cairngorms Revisited

The Cairngorms are a very special. Geologically and climatically the high plateau is like no other place in the UK. The Cairngorms are also very special to me personally. It was a trip to the Cairngorms that got me hooked on backpacking and wilderness travel. Although I've been involved in outdoors-sport in one way or another since I turned eleven I'd turned twenty-one before I went out and stayed out. For many years I orienteerd, ran and day-walked the fells from youth hostels, outward bound centres and camp sites. I didn't know what I was missing. In the middle of my finals, after weeks of nervous revision, couped up in a clammy cramped student house, between the piles of unwashed plates and underware, I was invited to join a group of friends for a midweek trip to the Cairgorms. The idea was to do a round of the 4000'ers and bothy and bivvy for a few nights. At the time not exactly my thing but given my circumstance the thought of the fresh air, space and freedom was irresistible. I didn't take a lot of persuading.

It's now eighteen years since that trip and I now realise, with a great deal more experience under my belt and garage bursting with kit, that we realy struck gold that weekend. It was June but we were treated to a dump of snow and the range was transformed to an addictive mix of winter mountain, blue summer sky and short-sleeve temperatures. As we walked back out to Breamar, resplendent in foul stinking Helly-Hansen base layers, I was carrying something I hadn't taken with me: the need to spend time in wild places. I still don't know exactly what threw the switch, not just the views, not just the company, not just the activity but something about the rhythm and simplicity of moving through and bivvying self-supported in wild country.

Considering how deep an impression the Cairngorms had made on me it still surprises me how long it took me to get around to going back. My list of things to do and places to visit is just too long. Fourteen years passed before I found myself sitting down with a (different) group of lads to plan a trip to the Cairngorms. By that time the first trip had been elevated to mythical status by the mists of memory and, in truth, I was concerned that the repeat wouldn't live up to the original. I needn't have worried.

I promised to post some of my trip accounts. I'm going to start with an account of that second Cairngorm trip. However, the fact that I'm incapable of keeping things short poses a problem: I think some of my ramblings, including this one, are just too long to post as blog. For that reason I've decided to upload and link to the files. For those who are still interested, the Cairngorm account can be found here: Cairngorms 2005.


New Stuff

March has turned out to be a bumper month. Not only did my Haglofs Oz pully arive in the post but my PHD Ultra pully followed hot on its heels. I'm blown away. The OZ looks and feels fantastic. Take a Gortex jacket, bring it to the boil, simmer until you're left with just the essence of hard shell and this is, I expect, what you get. Just enough to function right and no frills. With some gear you just know that it's right from the off. This is one such piece of kit (appart from the daft pocket a use for which I'm yet to dream up. Was this just an excuse for the designer to put another flash of green on the chest?). The Ultra Pullover also has me grinning from ear to ear. I went for dryshell (in a fetching black) which adds a little to the advertised weight but brings with it peace of mind.

This spending spree (taking ruthless advantage of the credit crisis and the weak pound) has bagged me two great pieces of kit, taken a whopping 300g off the weight of my shell and doubled the isulation of my down layer for an addition of just 80g. A net saving of almost a quarter of a kilo, a significant extension to the functionality of my layering system and a bucket full of outdoor fun without getting out of my lazy armchair. Now I just need an excuse to use them.....


Indoor Ice-Wall The Hague

The horizontal ice has gone. It left us after just one weekend. Talk of the elfstedentocht has subsided and Holland has taken to the bike once more. It’s a pity. When the canals are frozen, Holland, a land not best suited to outdoor-sports, is a fun place to be. Somehow, the lowlands come into their own in a freeze. The layer of ice seemingly tying the land together into something that makes sense. Balancing the equation. There’s still ice to had though. Better still, its vertical!

On a Thursday night after work, each having wangled a night off at home, the five usual suspects meet at the Beversport in The Hague. It was Thims idea. Thim’s expecting his first child any day now and seems to be clutching at any opportunity to get his fix of hill-sport before the big, life changing, event. Apparently this is his second time on the ice-wall in as many weeks. I’ve always fancied ice climbing so didn’t take a lot of persuading. Though admittedly, for me the appeal lies more in the location than the technique. As a student in Sheffield I rarely rock-climbed but if I did you could bet it was on Stanage edge rather than The Edge. Why climb indoors when you could climb with the sun on your back and the peak district for a back drop? Applying the same reasoning, I never expected my first ice-climb would be in an outgrown chest-freezer but I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.

So, swapping the long walk in for a short train ride and two circuits of the shop, I get kitted-up for a couple of hours of swinging axes and front pointing. Even before it all starts, cutting a pose in Class D boots, winter gloves, softshell and visored climbing helmet, I begin to understand the attraction. Given our current location, my attire is a bit over the top but, as a self-confessed gear freak, it doesn’t really bother me. Winter climbing gear is, quite simply, the coolest outdoors gear available! You’ve got this stuff on you mean business.

Entering through the door I find myself at the top of a spiral staircase looking across at a wall of ice. The wall is 12m high. From this perspective it doesn’t look at all intimidating. However, that’s a problem easily solved. Simply descending the staircase brings with it a whole new outlook. Standing at the base of a 12m vertical wall of ice, head back, looking upwards, the adrenal glands begin to do the necessary. We get our crampons and axes and take a few minutes to accessorize. We then get a two minute instruction in going up and coming back down and the wall is ours. I do the decent thing: since I’m holding the camera I use it as an excuse and let the others go first.

Thim is first up and owing to his recent practice makes it look easy. Theo, Willem-Maarten and Jeffrey follow in a similar style. After just a few minutes its my turn. I get clipped in and step up to the wall. The climbers motto “put your faith in friction” flashes through my head. Now, the science of ice is not something I know much about, however, I have stood on enough of it to know its slippery. What’s more, I do remember enough O-level physics to know that, in this configuration, I also have to contend with the maximum resolved gravitational force. Right now, a low friction surface and the worst gravity can do don’t seem like the best combination. Still, there’s only one way to go and that's up. I place the front points of my right foot, stretch high and place my axe and hammer and step up. The feeling is a strange one. My whole weight is resting on two tips of steel. A natural inclination to shift weight to my arms kicks in, at the same time my heel starts to lift. The lads are clearly watching my every move because, in chorus, they shout “keep you’re heels down”. It’s immediately apparent that it’s going to take some time to develop the trust and finesse needed to do this thing properly. Still, I’m here to learn, and more by brute force than skill a put some distance between myself and the floor. I don’t reach the top rail. Not by a long way, I’m pumped in less than half the time it would take me to get there. After a pause, I step back , spread my arms like a shotgunned grouse, and drop to the floor.

The night continues along this vein. The others climb to the top and I work my way up and down the lower half of the wall. After two hours and a handful of goes we’re back up the stairs and changing back into civvies’. It’s been an experience. Ice climbing always looked so controlled and laid back. Here I am feeling like I’ve had a major workout after just a few minutes on the ice face. I leave having had a taster, sufficiently encouraged to want to try again, but with a new found respect for the sport.


Amsterdamse Waterleiding January 2009

A lot of what I do in the outdoors is quite tame by most standards. This comes partly from the Dutch topography and partly from the fact that I have a toddler. Before Emily, now 22 months, was born I planned to carry on as usual. I've got several hundred pounds worth of all-terrain buggy and child carrier to prove it. However, the life-changing event has proved more life-changing than anticipated. I now realise you have to temper your ambition when heading outdoors with kids. Going into the outdoors with kids will be a recurring theme here. The following is a description of a typical weekend walk with Emily in tow:

We’re a long, long way from the mountains but occasionally mountain weather comes to us. Hoar frost covers everything in view from the bedroom window and the canal is frozen solid. Holland is in the grip of the longest freeze in five years. The omens are good and it appears that the ice will stay for the weekend. I like the ice. In Holland, even though it’s of the horizontal variety, it changes the landscape. Places, otherwise inaccessible, become accessible and the myriad of canals become a Nordic skaters paradise. In the west of Holland there is more water than land (I once read that 90% of the area is water) and the network of frozen waterways is far more extensive than the road network. When it freezes the Dutch really do take to the ice. The first of many are skating past my house before breakfast is finished. Some of them will be out for the day and will cover many kilometers before nightfall, or diary appointments, drag them back home.

My thoughts are however elsewhere. Today would be a good day to go for a walk with Emily and Jane. This being Holland there are no hills to walk on but we do have the dunes and frost and ice have a way of transforming landscapes. With a bit of luck I’ll stumble across some cameos which evoke grander landscapes. Hoar frost on heather perhaps. In any case, for Emily, at just 20 months and 90cm, everything is an adventure. Besides, if the Dunes are good enough for Woomble they’re good enough for us.

It’s just a ten minute drive and we’re at the entrance to the Amsterdamse Waterleiding Duinen. The area is used to collect water for the city of Amsterdam. Water collection has had mixed consequences for this relatively young dune landscape (the dunes were formed in the 11th to 18th centuries). On the up-side, this is one of the largest undeveloped areas of dunes on the Dutch North Sea coast. Donald Trump won’t be made welcome here any time soon! However, the landscape we’ve inherited is a heavily managed one. The water table is much lower than it would be without intervention and the landscape is thus much drier than it should be, none-native pines have been planted to stabilize areas of dune, greater demand has lead to importing nutrient-rich water from the Rhine and heards of sheep, cows and deer are used to control undergrowth in large areas. That said, things are changing, and since 1990 the water company have been responsible for both water-management and conservation and there is a move to re-create the original wet dune landscape. The landscape is different to the lakes and the highlands but it seems to me that the problematic is remarkably similar.

A few minutes walk from the car park and already I see our effort is not wasted. The sky is blue, seemingly bluer than normal, and provides a stunning backdrop for sand, tree and grass all of which are sugar-coated with hoar frost. The air is sharp but feels the cleaner for it. Every few steps I feel compelled to raise my camera to my eye. Holland is a land of big skies and long views but today there is foreground interest around every corner.

We progress slowly, in short hops, pausing for me to take another photo or for Emily to inspect the next object of wonderment. We’re on a good path, in places paved, but for little legs its practice enough. It also seems we’ve chosen the right route since as we turn a corner we stumble across the sheep herd. “Sheep” is one of Emily’s words. She can practice walking and talking. It’s turning out to be a bumper day.

We turn another corner and find ourselves on an incline. We’re hill-walking in Holland! Granted, it’s not such a spectacular hill, there are no iconic tops to be found in this vicinity. The highest point in the province, a dune called the vlaggeduin, is within walking distance and is a meager 37m above sea level. Still in a country in which you find yourself more often than not below sea level its something. It would be possible to start an ascent of the vlaggeduin at -7m.

The dune in front of us may be a mere pimple but it’s interesting to see Emily take on the slope. Her usual shuffle is interrupted by a couple of uncertain wobbles but she makes the summit. I like to think she’s learning to control muscles that she’ll later put to good use on something more substantial.

Jane spots two white tails disappearing into the trees. They belong to a pair of fallow deer. These are easier to spot than you might imagine here. Their number is estimated at 1200 at present and the population is growing at some 30% per year. On a cold day such as this the deer most probably outnumber the visitors. The animal rights movement in Holland has succeeded in imposing a 5 year ban on culling and there are still 3 years to go. This is turning into a something of a controversy as hungry animals begin to impinge on the surrounding villages and farms. Worse still, on my morning commute I regularly see dead deer along the side of the road. I can’t help but feel the pressure on the environment is becoming too great. Do-gooding is, I think, doing no good hear.

I leave the path in the direction Jane is pointing in the hope of getting a photograph but my reward is a second fleeting glimpse of the white tails. Emily, follows me into the rough. She copes surprisingly well but finds progress is easier with a steadying hand from mummy. She seems captivated by the world beyond the path. I hope that’s something that stays with her!

All good things must come to an end and that end comes quickly when you’re routine involves an afternoon sleep. Emily is far from happy about turning around. I understand her frustration. I too prefer the path ahead to the path already trodden. She complains loudly as we struggle to put her into the pushchair for the stroll back to the car. I think it’s more about the loss of control than the pushchair itself. After all, who wouldn’t want to take their breaks whilst being chauffeured around wrapped up against the cold in a warm sleeping bag? The complaints are short-lived however. Deployment of the secret weapon, a slice of ginger cake, ensures a quiet ride back to the car.

Photos Here


Mont-bell Down Inner Modification

Of all my insulating jackets the Mont-bell down inner is my favourite. I love this piece of kit. At a shade over 200g it provides warmth way out of proportion to its weight. The numbers are crazy: just 55g of 800 fill down in a superlight, 150g , DWR treated nylon shell with high collar and full zip. Surprisingly for a Japanese garment the cut is also good. Although I need an XL (I'm usualy an L), the sleeves are super long. It's about the only piece of kit I've got that's long in the arms and that's very welcome. In combination with a 200g marino base layer, micro fleece and shell I'm comfortable sitting around camp down to 1 or 2 degrees. It also gives my sleeping system a welcome boost when bivvying high. Thats not to say it doesn't have its limitations, it does: as with all down clothing measures need to be taken to keep it dry, when the temperature dips down to freezing it puts me on the edge of my comfort zone and the zip is small, fidley and is left to right which makes zipping up with cold fingers tricky. However, of all its faults the worst is that it has no drawstring in the waste. Consequently, it hangs open at the bottom and any movement pushes hard-won warm air out at the waist. By my reconning this drasticaly reduces the efficiency of what is otherwise an impressively put together piece of clothing.

Late winter can be a grind in Holland. Grey, dismal, wet weather generally keeps me indoors since going outside in it doesn't pay back. Such weather wouldn't have the same effect on me in the right setting, the highlands for instance, since the pull of the landscape is sufficient to get me over the threshold. Such weather does however often encourage me to play with my kit. Sitting around at home on just such a dismal grey day I decided something had to be done about the shortcomings of my down inner. Taking a sharp knife I attacked the hem to make entry and exit holes (three in total: two adjacent to the zips and one at the vertical seam on the edge of the right hand side front pannel), then stitched around the incisions to prevent them becoming a god-awful unraveled mess in the near future. Then using an upholstery needle I threaded two lengths of fine elastic, one runing from the right hand zip to the exit hole at the seam and a longer one in the other direction from the left hand zip to the same exit hole. A few stitches where added to hold the elastic in place at the zipper ends and the two lengths of elastic were passed through a micro toggle and knotted together at the exit hole. Hey presto, a down inner with elasticated waist, and whats more, my kitchen scales don't register a weight change. I've not used it in anger yet but just noodling around in the garden suggests its quite an improvement.


Lets get started......

So here we are. First post on my shiny new blog. Why blog? Well, since I've been writing accounts and collecting photos of my trips for my own enjoyment, it doesn't take much effort to make them public. Why share these things? That in turn is because I spend a good few evenings here in Holland trawling the web and following the blogs and web pages of others. I enjoy and learn from the material others make the effort to share with me so, I figure, why not put something back. There are a great many outdoor blogs out there. Do I have something worth sharing? Who knows, thats up to you decide. I'm going to do it anyway.

Whats the plan? Well thats under development. I have an idea that I'll post some trip accounts, both backdated and new (although new trip accounts will appear infrequently since I only get out a couple of times a year), some thoughts on gear (reviews and modifications) and some plans for the future. I both backpack and canoe so there is likely to be a mix of wet and dry. Will things pan out this way? Who knows. How often will I post? Well that depends to a large extent on mood, family and work. Watch this space.


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