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Highland Hobo #3

Ice, sun and sky - at last!

Ice, sun and sky – at last!

Of what does a memorable mountain day consist? Good weather, great snow conditions, camaraderie?


A great day on the hill is the sum of its parts; it gains its integrity through an amalgamation of many small and different aspects that contribute to the whole experience.


Here are a few special moments from my last two days on the hill:


It was just before dawn on my expedition in the Grey Corries. A crimson colour was seeping across the sky with the rising of the sun.  All was still, soothed by a gentle cloaking of thin mist. I paused on the climb onto the flanks of Stob Choire Claurigh. Glancing over my shoulder, a stag had been silently observing me. More startled than I, it bolted, retreating to a safer distance to watch my progress.


One of my highlights during a winter day on the hill is the first snowpatch of the day. These normally linger in small hollows, and little irregularities in the hillside, shielded from the brunt of the milder weather that frequently sweeps past. The first snowpatch is, to me, a significant milestone, although small physically – a microcosm, which represents the spirit of resilience and strength in the face of adversity (winter must necessarily be tenacious in a maritime climate as Scotland). A small reminder each day to walk with a spirit of perseverance.


The Grey Corries ridge

The Grey Corries ridge

A trembling roar suddenly roused me from the steady rhythm of my short, regular steps up the slope. Initially I was anxious, the strident bellowing incongruous with the calm and restful atmosphere. However, the realisation quickly dawned that it was the  straining of the Fort William-London intercity express, pulling away from the outpost station of Corrour, several miles distant. No where is too far from wilderness or adventure, even London, and the overnight sleeper train will deposit you within reach of the Grey Corries or Ben Alder should you so wish.


Higher on the hillside, the softer tones of heather and grass became gilted with ice, as I passed through the freezing level. The pristine twinkle and sparkle of ice crystals brought memories of Christmas flooding back. The freshness and purity of the scene was uplifting. Later on the lustre and brightness of the rime was dulled by low cloud, the tones becoming monochrome and subdued. After several hours in the freezing clag, I dropped below the cloud level, and the world again came to life. Heather and grass regained their vibrancy, lit up by the sunshine and contrasting with the clear blue of the sky.


On top of the ridge a narrow crest of frost hardened snow snaked away for several kilometres. Although I was alone the paw tracks of a mountain hare accompanied me, marking the way forward for a remarkably long distance. The scene was humorous, reminiscent of something from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; I imagined myself following the March Hare, perhaps to a bizarre mid-winter mountaintop tea party with various nursery rhyme characters. Isolation is a fertile setting for the imagination to run riot.


So, looking forward. Winter is forecast to return with some bite. I will be in Glasgow for a first aid course for a couple of days, then a longer, five-day expedition to Ben Alder area with Sam. This should set the stage for some great outings in remote hill country.

Beautiful end to the day

Beautiful end to the day



Simon is the Morocco Director and an instructor with The Mountain People. He is currently preparing for his Winter Mountain Leader assessment, as chronicled by the ‘Highland Hobo’ series.

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Highland Hobo #2

View of Braeriach from the Chalamain Gap. Image courtesy of Andrew Last. Some rights reserved.

View of Braeriach from the Chalamain Gap. Image courtesy of Andrew Last. Some rights reserved.

I am now fed up with dehydrated and pasta meals, which means, I think, that I am starting to get accustomed to this expeditionary lifestyle. What is more, my feet and ankles no longer protest at their incarceration in plastic boots; the bruises on my shoulders and hips have diminished. In short, I’m feeling pretty fit and have managed some big days out as a result.


The turning point was day two. I made good progress from the Hutchinson Memorial Hut to Ben Macdui on what was the only pleasant morning (nevermind day) of the expedition: blood red skies, crisp snow and very still. Two choices lay ahead: descend to the Lairig Ghru and Corrour – a short day; or descend and then climb onto Braeriach and cross the big plateau. Time was with me, and so seemed the weather, so the second option it was. The trouble was that halfway to the plateau strong southwesterly winds arrived as well as low cloud. To retreat would mean failure, to carry on require extra reserves of will-power and energy.


The gauntlet had been thrown down.


Mind games required the greatest resolve to overcome – can I trust my navigation and map skills; is there enough daylight left; have I got it in me to make it across; and, whatever you do, keep away from the cornices. After a leg or two of point to point navigation, I settled down and the peaks and bealachs (low points between peaks) came and went. Whilst engrossed in following bearings and keeping check of the distance I was covering, I glanced sideways and to my surprise noticed two other walkers on the plateau. I briefly wondered why they were there and then continued – the thought was probably reciprocated.


One concession I had to make en route was Cairn Toul, also known as Carn an t-Sabhail, ‘the hill of the barn’. After already having made a lot of height gain, this was beyond me physically, and the desire to climb a barn or a barn door after tackling the Lairig Ghru straight on had inevitably waned. So, it was then a case of making my way down to the Corrour hut, past the ominous and looming Devil’s Point, which went without incident.


After six days out now, my only desire is that the weather and conditions return to a more acceptable state of winter. Although you have to take every day as it comes, most will admit that they would take the blue sky days and leave the murky, wet ones. Forecasts are now suggesting  a return of certain amounts of colder airflows, which will fit nicely with a quick foray into the Grey Corries before a first aid course in Glasgow.



Simon is the Morocco Director and an instructor with The Mountain People. He is currently preparing for his Winter Mountain Leader assessment, as chronicled by the ‘Highland Hobo’ series.

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Highland Hobo #1

The cliffs of Lochnagar. Photo courtesy of Nick Bramhall. Some rights reserved.

The cliffs of Lochnagar. Photo courtesy of Nick Bramhall. Some rights reserved.

Rather than sticking to a typically prosaic and bland title, for example, ‘WML Update’, I feel that ‘Highland Hobo’ better befits my current lifestyle and state of mind.


I write from the quaint, sleepy town of Ballater, having spent the last three days in the Lochnagar area. Southern Cairngorms. The conditions were rather lacking in the winter department, apart from New Year’s Day, which was was cold and viciously windy. Thereafter, the onset of a rather prolonged thaw brought rain and mild weather, depleting the snowpack and rendering most areas a soggy mess.


Nevertheless, I managed three big days, traversing Lochnagar south to north on day one; the plateau east to west on day two; and finally returning from Loch Callater to Loch Muick (pronounced ‘Mick’) yesterday. On all days I took in high Munros and the opportunity to practise WML (Winter Mountain Leader) skills.


The main challenge I found was the mental one – all elements, whether decision-making, risk assessment or potential for failure were reduced to a factor of one. There is no one to talk to, no one with whom to share thoughts or plans, no one to ease one’s anxieties and no one with whom to laugh. Solo winter hillwalking or mountaineering requires a great degree of self reliance and determination – something that is key in the UK outdoor ethic – all the more so when undertaking a multi-day expedition.


Still, the chance to savour the unique Highland scenery, beautiful light and wild weather was wonderful. I especially enjoyed the freedom in abandoning the continual temptation to check the weather and avalanche forecasts, consulting them once at the beginning with a three day outlook in mind, and then making my progress and choices based on current hill conditions. The snowpack was no doubt benign, but the three-day hill journey seemed to contain a greater degree of consistency and integrity as a result of focussing more on directly underfoot and overhead conditions than those gained electronically.


I am glad for a rest day and the chance to wash and shave (a sell-out hobo, clearly!), but keen to get out again tomorrow for the next instalment in the Northern Cairngorms. You can’t keep a hobo down…



Simon is the Morocco Director and an instructor with The Mountain People. He is currently preparing for his Winter Mountain Leader assessment, as chronicled by the ‘Highland Hobo’ series.

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Scotland, Skyfall & Ulysses

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone

My next six weeks will be spent in Scotland preparing for my Winter Mountain Leader (WML) assessment. The WML award validates the individual to lead parties on hill walks within the UK under winter conditions. I will spend the time undertaking a number of short expeditions to various areas, to gain winter experience, practise the relevant skills (such as ropework) and, of course, do plenty of navigation, which is key in tougher, wilder, winter weather.


It seems hubristic announcing this so openly, with the obvious expectation that I will pass (the WML is widely considered to be the hardest of the UK outdoor qualifications physically and mentally). However, I want to share the experience, as I am able, partly because of my sheer enjoyment of the outdoors and partly out of a love of writing about my experiences and the thoughts and feelings that they prompt.


With this in mind, I was inspired recently, having watched the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, which borrowed several locations from Scotland: Glencoe and Glen Etive. It included the wonderful shot of Buachaille Etive Mor from the Kingshouse-Rannoch Moor direction.  The current weather forecasts are rather depressing with massive low pressure depressions battering the country. However, it was impossible not to catch the sense of wild and adventure from the film and project it forward for my yet undocumented adventure.


Skyfall also drew my attention to the poetry of the great Lord Tennyson, quoting the final lines from Ulysses:


Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


What a joy, then, to hear poetry evoking the Classical era coupled with the fine landscapes of Scotland!


The speaker in the poem is, of course, Ulysses, probably known better by his Greek title, Odysseus, the hero who masterminded the downfall of Troy – well deserving of his heroic epithet, Sacker of Cities. He speaks of the end of his rule, the transfer of power to his son Telemachus. The tones are melancholic and mindful of the former glories, Odysseus all too aware that his strength is waning. However, the strength of his spirit remains powerful and resilient, and the call of his speech is clear: there is still much to be done!


Skyfall drew parallels with Odysseus and Telemachus (as well as Turner’s magnificent The Fighting Temaraire) to illustrate the dwindling influence of Great Britain – a nation with a great heritage, but facing an uncertain future – and the natural cycle of manpower within its constituent institutions. I particularly liked the appearances of the Union Jack bulldog – with its unmissable references to Churchill and British national spirit – precisely because, if you looked closely, it had been shattered, but put together again.


We often feel unprepared in life, unready for the works and challenges that lie ahead. This might be as a result of family circumstances, busyness, stress or fear. However, I think we should all draw from the example of Odysseus, as related through Tennyson: keep moving, don’t make an end, savour shared experiences with friends.


How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.


I am on the brink of what I consider a great personal endeavour, and cannot help but feel small. I take heart from Odysseus and encourage you to do so too. As I tackle each of my expeditions, I hope to share with you a small part of what I have endured, and hope that you will similarly be inspired.

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Key Tips for Mountain Photography

A compact will do to begin with – keep it simple!

Mountain photography is one of those things that, as a climber or mountaineer, you can appreciate, but invariably feel lacking in personal ability or opportunity.


One example of a mountaineer who both climbs and photographs, without compromising either is Chris, of Hiking, Climbing & Mountaineering (mostly) in Japan. Unfortunately, he is not currently active publicly, but has some helpful tips to share, and, if nothing else, take some time to browse his blog for examples and inspiration.


Here are just some of the key points from Chris, and you can find the full post here, which is highly recommended, and for access to the rest of the site.


  • Practice makes perfect. You need to exercise a skill in order to master it. A high volume of photographs taken does not equate to failure; some will turn out well, others will be discarded, but all contribute to achieving mastery.


  • Keep your camera handy. If it’s not in reach, it’s unlikely you will want to dig it out of your rucksack, especially when you are cold and tired. Plus, the moment may have disappeared by the time you do.


  • Get up early, stay up late. It’s no myth that the best light of the day is generally either in the morning or evening. This means you need to be there when, for example, the horizon seems to explode into a fiery red blaze. It’s a good discipline too, forcing yourself to think about the best time and position for a shot, as well as getting there to begin with.


  • Get out. This leads on from above. Don’t let life run you over. Plan to climb, walk, scramble or whatever, even if the weather forecast is bad. You may suffer a bit and not get any ‘money’ shots, but you’ll be doing what you love and at least stacking the odds in your favour for some good photos.


As mentioned above, don’t forget to check out the full article – – and if all of this leaves you feeling confused, you can’t go too far wrong by starting with a compact (point and shoot) camera, getting outside and doing what you love.

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