There’s something about walking. Studies continually show us that walking can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, in addition to the benefits to physical health from moving our bodies just to get around.
Cities, generally, are designed to be walked. Walking means we can dictate our own tour schedules, with no peak time travel charge, and possibilities open up beyond bus stops, tram routes, and metro stations. choosing to skip out on places or stop and linger longer. It means a journey from A to B can be just that, or run through the entire alphabet of diversions en route as we invent our own routes and build new connections.
I think there’s so much to be gained from setting out to stretch our legs and test our bearings whenever we visit new places, or become reacquainted with the old familiar streets. Here are my five top reasons why exploring cities on foot is the way to go.
December 11th is International Mountains Day (IMD); a day established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in 2003 and celebrated annually since.
Mountains loom large in some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes. But it’s not just about sharing gorgeous, inspirational mountain images on my social media (though I’m sure that won’t hurt). It’s about raising awareness of the importance of mountains, inspiring understanding and respect, and encouraging responsible access in mountain environments.
Five Facts for International Mountain Day
So, what do you know about the mountains?
Around 27% of the land surface of the earth is covered in mountains (that’s approximately 39 million km²).
Mountains are home to 15% of the global population (around 1.1 billion people), but it’s estimated billions more benefit indirectly from ecosystem services and mountain agriculture.
Of the 34 documented terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, 25 are in mountain areas (half of the world’s total), and they support around 25% of terrestrial biological diversity.
Over half of the world’s population rely on mountains as a source of freshwater, which provides drinking water, water for irrigation, water for sanitation, and is used in energy production.
Mountain settings support between 15 to 20% of the global tourism industry, from providing spectacular views, cultural tourism, and soft adventure trips right through to serious expedition travel.
Mountains matter as mountain ecosystems provide us with essential food and water, are vital in regulating the climate of the planet, and are key to the global water cycle. They provide a way of life for millions of people around the world.
Mountains Matter for Biodiversity
IMD 2020 is a day to celebrate the biodiversity of mountains and to address the threats it faces. Biodiversity embraces the profusion of ecosystems and species of flora and fauna, and the unique topography, compressed climatic zones, and geographical isolation of mountain environments have created the conditions for a rich variety of life, including many endemic species.
Think of rare and increasingly threatened species like the snow leopards of Central Asia, the mountain gorillas of Africa’s Virunga Massif, or the vicuña of the high Andes. And the incredible monarch butterfly, which relies on the mountain forests in Mexico for their winter habitat. And closer to home, the Cairngorms are the home of a quarter of the UK’s rare and endangered spacies, including capercaillie, pine martens, and elusive Scottish wildcats.
Mountains at Risk
There’s a range of factors that have led to the degradation of mountain habitats over time, from glacial retreat as a result of climate breakdown to changes in traditional land management practices. Wildlife and plant species are at risk of extinction, and loss of ecosystem services can have extraordinary consequences, for example, unsustainable forest extraction can increase the risk of flooding and landslides. This, in turn, reduces the capacity for water storage which sustains river flow to lowland ecosystems through dry seasons.
Why are the mountains important to me?
Although I grew up on the coast, studied marine biology, and work in sailing, the mountains are where I’ve always spent a large part of my free time. I’ve been heading up into the hills almost all of my life, from walks as a child up Clachnaben and Mount Battock, onto the eastern Munros of Mount Keen, Mayar, Driesh, and Lochnagar as a young teenager.
Hiking in the mountains, either alone, or enjoying the company of friends, makes me feel alive. It gives me a sense of achievement and quite literally, a new perspective on life. Having struggled with my mental health at times, the mountains are where I’m drawn when I need to de-stress and breathe fresh air again; to fade out my troubles with the focus on physical exertion, navigation and route finding, or just revelling in the awesome surroundings.
I’m most familiar with the mountains of Scotland, but have also spent time in the mountains in other parts of the UK, and elsewhere around the world. I’ve hiked in the mountains of New Zealand, Norway, and the Alps, I’ve skied and scrambled in the mountains, and there are so many more places I long to go.
How can you support our mountains?
I’ve compiled a few suggestions for ways to lend your support, and make sure your time in the mountains is sustainable. If you have any additional tips, share them in the comments below.
Leave no trace: I can’t believe that this actually needs to be said, but I’ve seen the evidence on the hills for myself. Don’t leave any of your waste behind on the mountains. Everything you take in, be sure to take it back out again. Anything left behind can fundamentally alter the ecosystem and cause harm to the wildlife it supports.
Follow the trails: On popular mountains trails (think Snowdon on a sunny bank holiday weekend), routes can get extremely busy and you might be tempted to head off the beaten track. This has the potential to exacerbate damage to the trail, increase erosion on the mountainside, and lead to the trampling of fragile vegetation. Contribute to the environmental management of the area by donating to mountain charities, paying tolls or parking fees, or lending your time to conservation initiatives.
Support mountain communities: When you visit the mountains, give thought to the local community and supporting their livelihoods. Use local businesses and buy from local shops, but be aware of the additional challenge of bringing resources into remote areas. Make a donation to the local Mountain Rescue service; you’d hope to never need their help, but if you do, you’ll want them well-trained and fully equipped.
As someone with a deep love for the mountains, and who regularly spends time in mountain settings, I feel the responsibility to share these messages and encourage others to do so too. Mountains are beautiful, inspiring, and, as International Mountain Day aims to show, vital.
Are you doing something to mark International Mountains Day?
Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
Did this post capture your imagination? Why not pin it for later?
Mountains have long held a kind of magic over many of us, both enthralled and appalled by their wild irregularity and the glimpse of danger deep in their embrace. Many peaks have great significance to different faiths and cultures, a rich folklore to explain their origin, or are places of pilgrimage for locals and visitors alike.
You are not in the mountains. The mountains are in you.
The most spectacular mountains in the world have captivated the imagination of those that have laid eyes on them. The endless play of light and weather creates views that melt and shift in moments. Dynamic landscapes that are at once intimate and vastly unknowable. Peaks that rake the sky and alter the perspective of those that attain the lofty heights. There is no getting accustomed to them.
To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
Whether you’re a seasoned mountaineer, passionate orographer or geologist, a photographer, or merely an inquiring traveller, there’s going to be a mountain on this list that will leave you spellbound.
Coordinates: 68°09’54” N 006°35’34” E
Location: Nordland, Norway
Elevation: 1,392 metres (4,566′)
This is Norway’s national mountain; its sheer granite walls soaring over Tysfjord to the distinctive summit, once described as the anvil of the Gods. Fishermen in the Lofoten Islands used its characteristic profile as a navigation mark. Pioneering British explorer and mountaineer William Cecil Slingsby called it the ugliest mountain he ever saw, though he may have been bitter after failing in his attempt to make the summit. I think we’d have to disagree.
Coordinates: 66°32’00” N 065°19’00” W
Location: Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada
Elevation: 1,675 metres (5,495′)
Thor Peak, in Auyuittuq National Park on remote Baffin Island, a towering wave of granite rising up from the Akshayuk Valley, is the location of the greatest vertical drop in the world, a staggering 1,250 metres (4,101′) high*. To put that into context, the Empire State Building is just 443 metres high and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest human-built structure in the world, is 830 metres high. Auyuittuq is an Inuktitut word meaning “land that never melts”. White knuckles and frozen fingertips guaranteed.
*It would take a spine-chilling 36 seconds for someone weighing 80kg to fall the 1,250m from the face below the summit all the way to the valley floor.
Coordinates: 64°48’21” N 023°46’23” W
Location: Snæfellnes, Iceland
Elevation: 1,446 metres (4,744′)
This 700,000-year-old cone-shaped stratovolcano at the western tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula inspired the adventure in Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Largely dormant since around 200 CE, Snæfellsjökull had long been topped by a compact glacier, indeed the name translates to “snow mountain glacier”. However, rising temperatures in the region mean that the summit crater has been ice-free since 2012. In clear conditions, it can sometimes be seen from Reykjavik, 120km away across Faxa Bay, and it was the last sighting I had of Iceland as I sailed into the west on the Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre.
Coordinates: 63°04’10” N 151°00’27” W
Location: Alaska, USA
Elevation: 6,201 metres (20,343′)
Denali means “The Great One” in the Athabaskan language, but this wasn’t the official name of this colossal massif until 2015. For most of its modern history, it was known as Mount McKinley, named for US President William McKinley. In mountaineering circles, it also goes by the nickname “Mount Mid-Life Crisis”, as one of the more accessible of the Seven Summits, however, it is reputed to be especially challenging due to unpredictable weather and extreme elevation from sea level. For those less inclined to bag the summit, spectacular views can be found along the Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3), and from Denali National Park and Preserve.
Coordinates: 60°24’59” N 044°30’44” W
Location: Kujallaq, Greenland
Elevation: 2,010 metres (6,594′)
Ketil is just one of the sky-high granite peaks lining the arrestingly beautiful Tasermuit Fjord in southern Greenland. Known as Uiluit Qaqqaa in Greenlandic, meaning “oyster shell mountain”, it’s common name harks back to one of the Norse settlers that arrived in Greenland under the leadership of the notorious Erik the Red. The west face of Ketil is one of the world’s biggest and most challenging near-vertical big wall climbs, soaring over 1,000 metres. Despite being well off the beaten track, it’s becoming increasingly popular with climbers in recent years.
Coordinates: 58°06′54″ N 005°08′13″ W
Location: Assynt, Scotland
Elevation: 731 metres (2,398′)
Suilven, or Sùilebheinn in Scots Gaelic, is diminutive in comparison to most of the others on this list, but in my opinion, it’s the most beautiful of them all. An inselberg with an iconic profile, it’s a steep-sided ridge carved by ancient glacial ice rising over a wilderness area of bogs, lochans, and rough moorland. From the highest point, known as Caisteal Liath (Grey Castle), the sheer sides reminiscent of the rocky ramparts of an impenetrable fortress, the panoramic views of Sutherland and the Hebrides are outstanding.
Coordinates: 46°39′39″ N 008°00′19″ E
Location: Bernese Alps, Switzerland
Elevation: 3,967 m (13,015 ft)
The Eiger is a mountain with fearsome beauty and a notorious reputation. The technically challenging North Face, first ascended in 1938 by a German-Austrian expedition, is one of the most deadly; at least sixty-four climbers are known to have perished on the face, earning it the epithet Mordwand, the “murder wall”. In 2015 legendary speed climber Ueli Steck scaled the Heckmair route up the North Face in an astonishing 2 hours 22 minutes and 50 seconds. For those less inclined to risk life and limb, mountain views can be glimpsed from the route of the Jungfraujoch railway or the après ski terraces of Kleine Scheidegg.
Tre Cime di Lavaredo
Coordinates: 46°37′07″ N 018°20′00″ E
Location: Dolomites, Italy
Elevation: 2,999 metres (9,839′)
In the Italian province of South Tyrol / Südtirol, the rugged Tre Cime di Lavaredo, also known as Drei Zinnen, as the name suggests, are three distinct peaks that make one of the most iconic views in the Dolomites. A 10km circular hike from Rifugio Aurenzo is one of the finest day hikes in the area, taking in spectacular views of the peaks, picturesque mountain lakes, and remains of trenches and tunnels from when the region was part of the Alpine front during WWI. It’s the ideal location to try your hand at Via Ferrata, and gain a new perspective in the mountains.
Coordinates: 45°58′35″ N 007°39′31″ E
Location: Pennine Alps, Switzerland and Italy
Elevation: 4,478 metres (14,694′)
One of the highest summits in the Alps, the near symmetry of the Matterhorn has enchanted visitors to the region since the advent of Alpine tourism in the mid-19th century. The iconic pyramidal peak was first summited by mountain pioneer Edward Whymper in 1865, though not without tragedy, and it now attracts hundreds of climbers attempting an ascent every year. Visitors to Zermatt can get closer to the mountain without climbing on the Gornergatt mountain railway, or gondola lift to the Kleine Matterhorn station.
Aiguille du Dru
Coordinates: 45°55′58″ N 006°57′23″ E
Location: Alps, France
Elevation: 3,754 metres (12,316′)
Appropriately, aiguille translates as needle, a fitting name for the arresting granite spire of Aiguille du Dru, in the Mont Blanc massif. The highest summit is known as Grand Dru, though it is a sub-summit, Petit Dru at 3,733 metres, that is considered one of the six greatest north face walls of the Alps. Many of the routes pioneered up the wall have been lost in rockfalls over the years that considerably altered the profile of peak.
Coordinates: 37°44′46″ N 119°31′59″ W
Location: Sierra Nevada, California, USA
Elevation: 1,444 metres (4,737′)
The iconic outline of Half Dome, towering over the eastern end of the Yosemite Valley, was made famous by legendary American photographer Ansel Adams in his striking black and white landscape images. The first technical ascent of the sheer northwest face took place over five days in 1957; the same route was completed free solo in a remarkable 1 hour 22 minutes by Alex Honnold in 2012 (see the documentary Alone on the Wall). Hikers can reach the summit of Half Dome on the Cable Route between May and October, though a permit is required from the Yosemite National Park Authority and it can be crowded on a summer weekend.
Coordinates: 35°46′00″ N 076°10′59″ E
Location: Baltoro Muztagh, Karakoram, Pakistan
Elevation: 6,286 metres (20,623′)
The Trango Towers are a series of soaring granite pinnacles in the Baltoro Muztagh, northern Pakistan, not far from K2 and the Gasherbrum peaks. The Towers feature some of the most immense sheer walls in the world, with the east face of Trango Tower claiming the title of the greatest near-vertical drop on earth at 1,340m. The region only opened to outsiders in 1975, allowing the discovery of some of the most challenging climbs ever completed, a combination of altitude, steepness, and the technical nature of the big walls.
Fujiyama (Mount Fuji)
Coordinates: 35°21′29″ N 138°43′52″ E
Location: Honshū, Japan
Elevation: 3,776 metres (12,388′)
There is a saying in Japanese; He who climbs Fuji is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool. Fujiyama is a captivating volcanic cone, capped with snow for almost half the year, that has enthralled and inspired artists through the ages. Almost 300,000 visitors troop to the summit annually, so the tranquillity of the peak is best appreciated from afar. The mirror lake of Kawaguchiko (Lake Kawaguchi) and the Edo-era buildings at the Iyashi-no-Sato open-air museum on Saiko (Lake Sai) offer the finest viewpoints.
Coordinates: 28°29′42″ N 083°56′57″ E
Location: Anapurna Massif, Nepal
Elevation: 6,993 metres (22,943′)
Machapuchare is named for the notched summit ridge and double peaks, reminiscent of a fishtail when viewed from the Annapurna sanctuary. The mountain is sacred to the Hindu religion, believed to be one of the earthly homes of the god Shiva. It’s long been claimed that no human has ever set foot on the summit; in 1957 an expedition led by British climber Wilfred Noyce reached within 150m (492′) of the summit before turning back. No climbing permits have been issued since. It’s rumoured that New Zealand climber Bill Denz made an illegal ascent in the 1980s, though he perished on nearby Mansulu in an avalanche in 1983, taking the truth with him.
Coordinates: 27°51′40″ N 086°51′40″ E
Location: Eastern Himalayas, Nepal
Elevation: 6,812 metres (22,349′)
With a name meaning “Mother’s necklace”, the arresting Ama Dablam appears to reach out in an embrace as two ridges reach out from either side of the main peak. It lies close to the route of the popular trek to Everest Base Camp, towering over Thyangboche Tibetan Monastery (also known as Dawa Choling Gompa), once home to Tensing Norgay before his mountaineering career took off, and often captures the hearts of those that pass by, enticing them to return.
Coordinates: 00°40′50″ S 078°26′16″ W
Location: Andes, Ecuador
Elevation: 5,897 metres (19,347′)
A stunning stratovolcano with a distinctive snow-capped cinder cone, Cotopaxi is the second-highest peak in Ecuador and can be seen on the skyline from Quito and while driving the Panamerican Highway. It’s also one of the most active volcanoes on this list, with 87 recorded eruptions since 1534, the most recent in 2015-16. The mountain and surrounding National Park eventually re-opened to visitors in late 2017, and with time for acclimatisation, the summit can be gained on a challenging but non-technical ascent.
Coordinates: 04°03′33″ S 037°21′12″ E
Location: Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania
Elevation: 5,895 metres (19,308′)
Kilimanjaro does not, in fact, rise like Olympus over the Serengeti; instead, the world’s highest freestanding mountain soars above the savannah of Tsavo and Amboseli, on the Kenyan side of the border. As one of the Seven Summits, it features on the to-do list of most mountaineers, but scaling the peak needs no technical skill and large numbers of people attempt the trek to the summit. Trails lead through a succession of ecozones with distinct flora and fauna, before emerging onto a rocky lunar world and the glaciated landscape of the summit.
Mount Roraima / Monte Roraima
Coordinates: 05°08′36″ N 060°45′45″ W
Location: Pakaraima Mounains / Sierra Pacaraima, Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela
Elevation: 2,810 metres (9,220′)
Spectacular Mount Roraima is the highest tepui, or table-top, in the Guiana Highlands of South America, a vast plateau bounded on all sides by 400 metre (1,300′) high cliffs. The national borders of Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana meet at a tripoint on the top, which was unexplored until 1884. The mysterious plateau is home to a unique diversity of flora and fauna, and often seen shrouded in mists, inspiring both the setting of Paradise Falls in the Pixar film Up, and the living dinosaur haven in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World.
Coordinates: 08°54′45″ S 077°39′07″ W
Location: Cordillera Blanca, Peru
Elevation: 5,947 metres (19, 511′)
Alpamayo is often named the most beautiful mountain in the world, and the near-perfect pyramid of ice and rock in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca is certainly hard to resist. Not even surveyed until the 1940s, due to its remote location, it was successfully summited first by a German expedition in 1957. The steep faces of Vienetta-like fluted ice require a high level of technical ice climbing ability, but superb views of the peak can be taken from the trek to basecamp, or the multi-day Alpamayo circuit route.
Coordinates: 13°09′27″ S 072°32′50″ W
Location: Andes, Peru
Elevation: 2,693 metres (8,835′)
Huayna Picchu is the iconic sugarloaf peak that looms over the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, forming the backdrop of the view from Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) and the final section of the Inca Trail route. Trekkers can follow a waymarked trail to the summit, with sections of scrambling with cable and railings for support, for a vertiginous perspective on the ancient city, named as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.
Pic d’Imarivolanitra (Pic Boby)
Coordinates: 22°11′42″ S 046°53′06″ E
Location: Andringita Massif, Madagascar
Elevation: 2,658 metres (8,720′)
Madagascar might be better known for its unique wildlife, but the sheer granite walls of the Andringita Massif often draw the comparison with the more well-known peaks of Yosemite, and have been a pull for big wall climbers since the 1990s. The towering presence of Pic d’Imarivolanitra, also known as Pic Boby, is Madagascar’s second-highest mountain, and a feature of trekking circuits through Andringita National Park and nearby Tsarnovo Valley. At around 2,000 metres (6,5652′) high the trails pass through a dreamlike landscape of rock gardens filled with colourful succulents, before descending into lush forest.
Coordinates: 33°57′26″ S 018°24′11″ E
Location: Cape Province, South Africa
Elevation: 1,085 metres (3,559′)
The stark profile of Table Mountain dominates the skyline of Cape Town, despite its relative lack of stature. While this entry on the list offers an easy route to the top via the Aerial Cableway, there are several hiking routes of varying difficulty that lead up the mountain and across the vast summit plateau, including through the beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and out to the shark fin of Devil’s Peak. The mountain is home to unique native vegetation, part of the designated Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site.
Coordinates: 41°40′48″ S 145°56′24″ E
Location: Central Highlands, Tasmania, Australia
Elevation: 1,545 metres (5,069′)
At the heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the rugged basalt peaks of Cradle Mountain rise over lakes carved out by ancient glaciers surrounded by alpine moorland and temperate rainforest. The area is home to unique Australian wildlife with absurd names; echidnas, wombats, quolls, pademelons, and the elusive Tasmanian Devil. There’s a darker history to the region too; following violent persecution by European settlers, the last free Aboriginal Tasmanians were sighted in the area in 1836. The Overland Track, an iconic bushwalking trail considered one of the world’s best, links Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair, the deepest in Australia.
Monte Fitz Roy / Cerro Chaltén
Coordinates: 49°16′16″ S 072°02′35″ W
Location: Andes, Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
Elevation: 3,405 metres (11,171′)
Named Fitz Roy in honour of Robert Fitz Roy, captain of HMS Beagle, who charted large stretches of the Patagonian coastline, this imposing shark-tooth peak sits astride the international border between Argentina and Chile. First ascended in 1952, the peak has drawn the attention of several notable climbers, including Tommy Caldwell (The Dawn Wall) and Alex Honnold (Free Solo), who traversed the 5km long ridgeline of Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks. For those less inclined to scale lofty heights, the peak is the spectacular backdrop to several trekking routes in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and day hikes around the village of El Chaltén. The routes lead through woodlands and montane meadows, to reach spectacular glacial lakes and rugged boulder fields.
Coordinates: 49°17′34″ S 073°05′54″ W
Location: Andes, Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
Elevation: 3,128 metres (10,262′)
Another peak often touted as the most beautiful in the world, Cerro Torre is an arresting pinnacle of granite topped with an otherworldly mushroom of rime ice. Its undeniable beauty is matched only by its colourful history. Declared an impossible summit by climbing pioneer Walter Bonetti, the Italian climber Cesare Maestri claimed success in 1959. His partner Toni Egger was swept away in an avalanche on the descent, taking with him the only camera recording the event. Further attempts using a variety of climbing techniques only brought more controversy and claims of desecrating the singular nature of the peak. A story worth delving into further for mountain buffs.
The granite peak of Ulvetanna, meaning “the wolf’s tooth” in Norwegian, is one of the most inaccessible mountains in the world. A captivating spire of rock in the Fenriskjeften Mountain, it rises like a fairytale castle over the white expanse of the ice sheet below. It was first climbed in 1994, but its remote location means it’s unlikely to make it on to your mountain bucket list unless you’re an experienced mountaineer with polar connections. Instead, you can vicariously explore it from the comfort of your home by watching The Last Great Climb, documenting the first ascent of the northeast ridge by British climber Leo Houlding and his team.
Why not save this dose of mountain inspiration for later?
Another small collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found over the past few months that I want to share with you. This season, they’ve mainly been inspired by thoughts of Antarctica, the Arctic, and the coming winter.
A masterful travel piece about the Falkland Islands by Larissa MacFarquhar, diving deeply into changes that have occurred over the past 30 years or so. One of the best destination profiles I’ve ever read.
A Condé NastTraveler article from early in the summer looking at the prosepect of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and the knock-on impacts of cancelling a 2020 summer season in the Arctic.
The uncertainty of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic may be the necessary pause to spark conversations about the future of the industry. This piece by Bella Lack asks questions about other potential consequences of this season.
In the two centuries since its discovery, Antarctica has seen a range of commercial, scientific, and diplomatic activity. This blog post from The Conversation journal looks at the ways natural resources have been exploited over time, and the impact of changes.
In positive news, a whale survey expedition recorded 58 sightings of Blue Whales, and numerous accoustic detections, around South Georgia in 2020, where the marine mammals were all but wiped out by the whaling industry.
A captivating National Geographic photoessay by Jennifer Kingsley and Eric Guth that travels across the Arctic, meeting people living and working in the far north, and reframing the perception of the Arctic as a remote, isolated and uninhabited region.
Who am I kidding? I’m going to be in Scotland this winter, and while there’s a chance of crisp, bright snow days, more than likely it’s going to be driech. So here’s a few beautiful paragraphs from great authors and poets to help me learn to appreciate the rain.
Autumn in the Cairngorms is sensational. Autumn is the season of transition, when days are honeygold and light, and nights are inky-dark, afternoons are sun-warmed, while mornings are crisp with frost. Autumn is when weather plays across the landscape, changing through the months and through the course of any one day.
The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Rowans extravagant with red berries. Birch and bracken glowing acid green and yellow against the dark of the pines, and the oak and beech woodlands blaze with a fire of reds, golds, and oranges.
“October is the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August. From the gold of the birches and bracken on the low slopes, the colour spurts upwards through all the creeping and inconspicuous growths that live among the heather roots – mosses that are lush green or oak-brown, or scarlet and the berried plants, blaeberry, cranberry, crowberry and the rest. “
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow tucked behind tussucks, sheltering from the low autumn sun.
The first snows of winter dust the high plateau from early October, replenishing snow that lies year round in dark hollows on northern slopes, and draping a silver cloak across dark hills beneath bleached out skies. In this transitional time, overnight snowfalls cover mountain trails and reveal tracks, deer, ptarmigan, hares, melting away just as quick.
In the gloaming, as the dark draws in earlier every day, and on days that are dull and overcast, the colours glow on the hills. The radiant magic of the trees in fall. A last brief blaze of sunlight as they retreat before the winds of winter that whip the leaves from their branches. Cool, wet south-westerly winds that sweep in from the Atlantic, that lay damp orange carpets of larch needles on the forest floor.
Night falls after short days, wood smoke-scented and velvet-textured, filled with a full moon and a scattering of stars.
Have you visited the Cairngorms in autumn? Share your tips for things to see and places to go with me in the comments below.
A long read from the Guardian newspaper exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the future of the global tourism industry, the hit to local economies, and ways to reinvent the sector in a more sustainable model.
A piece from the Washington Post in June that summed up the appeal of the late chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain, particularly his understanding that food was a common language to share stories across cultures and experiences.
Endurance runner Rosie Watson explores opportunities for new ways of working and living in a time of climate crisis and environmental change, following the enforced pause of the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdowns.
An article marking the 175th Anniversary of the formation of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays), and landmark legal challenges that ensured continued protection of ancient drove roads and passes through the Cairngorms.
A response to a newspaper article forecasting the death of the Gaelic language in Scotland by Charles (Teàrlach) Wilson, posing questions about deeper impacts of tourism on rural and island communities, and how people are central to rewilding a landscape.
After returning to the UK from Antarctica, I spent most of the previous season in COVID lockdown at my parent’s place on the coast of Aberdeenshire. I haven’t travelled much further afield this season either, just relocating to the other side of the county to start working for the Cairngorms National Park Authority as a Seasonal Ranger.
It’s been really exciting to get out and explore Royal Deeside, visiting sites that I’ve known since as a child, and discovering new places I’d never been to before. I’d been really worried about finding work this summer, with the sectors I usually work in completely closed down and existing staff finding themselves furloughed or even facing redundancy. So I feel extremely grateful to have this opportunity, especially when I thought working in the berry fields might have been the only option for the summer.
My only trip away from the area was a very personal one to spend a few days in Caithness, meeting up with family and friends to visit old haunts and remember times past. Despite the emotional circumstances of the visit, it was good to see the sea and sky in a different place for a short while.
What I’ve done
My current base in the Cairngorms, near Braemar, has been fantastic for getting out into the hills for hikes, and on most of my non-working days, I’ve been able to spend most of the time outdoors. I also stay very close to a couple of mountain rivers with excellent swimming pools, and have tried to fit in a dip at least a couple of times a week.
I’ve not actually done any overnight camps on my recent hiking trips, wimping out after seeing the midges that have been plaguing the campers I speak to on my ranger patrols. Although there are a few places that are always midge hotspots, it just seems like this is an especially prolific summer for the midges. I think I’ll wait for the end of the season before I venture out with my tent for a few nights.
I had the good fortune to meet the local ghillie fishing his beat while I was out on patrol one day, and managed to arrange a fly fishing lesson. There’s still a long way to go before I master my casting technique, and I’m pretty sure that if a fish ever took the fly it would end up with me screaming and falling overin the river, but it was a really enjoyable morning on the Dee, watching the fish and dragonflies, listening to the birds, learning to read the movement of the water.
My Summer Love List
Books: I’ve been getting down to some serious study and preparation for taking a Mountain Leader training course in the Autumn, so my Mountain Leader Handbook and the Navigation in the Mountains textbook have been indispensable.
I’ve also picked up the Cicerone guides Walking the Munros (volumes 1 and 2) to plan a few more hill days and mini-expeditions for my day’s off.
Interesting articles and blogs I’ve read can be seen here.
Podcast: I discovered theOut of Doorspodcast from BBC Scotland after they interviewed my colleague Duncan about the work of the Seasonal Rangers in the Cairngorms National Park. I got hooked by the eclectic range of subjects they discuss, and the warm, cosy feel of the show.
Clothing: Despite what you might think, summer weather in Scotland can be pretty warm at times, so a pair of lightweight but hardwearing trousers suitable to wear as part of my Ranger uniform was really important. My Rab Valkyrie trousers have a great fit, excellent quality, and meet my requirement for POCKETS!
Equipment: To go with the new trousers, my most essential piece of equipment this season has been a spray bottle of permethrin treatment which I use on my clothing. I work in areas where ticks, and other biting insects, are prevalent, and it’s really important to be aware of the risk of Lyme disease.
My only real vanity is sunglasses, and I found a great pair from a company called Waterhaul. As well as providing a good level of UV protection and looking good, I chose these as they’re made from recycled plastic fishing nets. The company are a social enterprise, and recover discarded nets from the beaches around Cornwall to turn into the frames. I love them so much.
I picked up a brand spanking new pair of hiking boots too, which I absolutely love. They’re Scarpa Peak GTX boots, and the blue and orange colour matches all the rest of my gear. Including my tartan pyjamas.
Treats: I picked up a bottle of my favourite Rock Rose gin from their gorgeous wee distillery shop, and a small bottle of their sloe gin, perfect for an autumn afternoon warmer when the weather turns a bit colder.
As rangers for the National Park, we get supplied with a few Clif bars to keep us going, so I’ve been testing out a few of the different flavours. My current favourite is Peanut Butter Banana. 10/10 would recommend for your next trip to the hills.
Autumn is my favourite season, and this year I’ve got a bit more to look forward to. It’s my birthday, and this year it’s a big one as I turn 40 in September. I can’t quite believe it.
I’m also in the process of booking a Mountain Leader Training course, to consolidate my skills and move on to the next level. I’m really excited about it, but also a bit nervous.
One of the things I love most about autumn in Scotland is cold, crisp mornings to go walking in the woods. Looking out for fungi and falling leaves, listening to the roar of deer on the hillsides, then finding a cosy spot by a fire to read and watch the weather out the window. I’ve got a few more days in hand this season, and some friends are planning to visit, so I’m really excited to be able to get out and show them around my home.
What have you been up to over the last season? Have you started to get back to some sense of reality?
Remember I’m always here if you need an ear; I’d really love to hear from you.
This post contains some affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I’ll make a small commission* on the sale at no additional cost to you. These help me continue to run the site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures. Thank you for supporting me.
*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that is the only way forward.
I’m from a rural area in the northeast of Scotland, and I have spent my career working in conservation, environmental education, and countryside access across the UK, with the occasional diversion into nature tourism and outdoor recreation in the UK and Northern Europe. I write here about my interests in travel, the outdoors, expeditions at sea and on land, and connecting with nature.
I occupy space in this world that is exceedingly white. I do not have to fight for my place in these areas due to the colour of my skin.
While I like to think I am not racist, I’m a beneficiary of the structural racism that winds through our society like bindweed, and that through my silence in not it calling out when I see it, I am complicit. It is vital we, as white people, start to see what has long been evident to Black people, however uncomfortable it may feel in the process; it’s time to grasp the nettle.
To start, we must educate ourselves. By being better informed, we can find a way to see more of the landscape that surrounds us, and be better allies to people of colour. We can start to open outdoor spaces that were once and are still exclusionary, and amplify the voices of those that are underrepresented in our fields.
An old Guardian article which probed the slave-owning history of Britain, and the legacy of fortunes made from the labour of enslaved people and the compensation for their emancipation. It ties into a two-part BBC documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, which is still available to view on the iPlayer.
An informative blog post by Eulanda and Omo of Hey, Dip Your Toes In! laying out ways in which we can learn from, support, and advocate for the Black people in our lives, and ensure others aren’t excluded from opportunities arising from our white privilege.
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.
Leah Thomas introduces intersectional environmentalism and sparks a conversation on the need for anti-racism to be a cornerstone of climate and social justice.
This is just a beginning. I understand that it will not be quick or an easy process, and there will be times where I get it wrong, but it’s time to be idle no more. No lives matter until Black lives matter.
Some of the things that have captured my attention over the past few months, inspired by similar blog posts by Alex Roddie and Chris Townsend. A collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful readings from around the internet that I want to share with you.
Well, like most of us, the answer for this season is nowhere much.
I returned to the UK from Antarctica in mid-March, via Ushuaia and Buenos Aires, before spending a week in Cambridge to wrap up the season for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. We reached the UK just as international travel restrictions came into place, and followed the difficulties that our friends on ships faced from afar.
It was a challenging couple of weeks as we reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do all the little everyday things that had been absent from our lives over those 110 days. On top of that was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona, and it now feels like it was just a lucid dream.
I headed up north to my parent’s place in Aberdeenshire, where I could live in the caravan at the end of the garden and be useful while they shielded my elderly granny in the house. Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined, but waving through the window as I stood outside in the garden, and chatted through WhatsApp.
The COVID-19 lockdown in the UK was put in place the day I arrived home, and I’ve been here ever since.
What I’ve done
Over the Easter weekend, I took to the garden for a few nights of camping out. As well as being up to watch the sunrise and listen to the dawn chorus, it also prompted me to finally get round to fixing the slow puncture in my air mat.
I’ve been really fortunate in that I live in a rural area, and have plenty of opportunities to get outdoors for exercise and to explore the nature on my doorstep. I’ve got a blog post in the works about that, which should go live at the end of June to include notes about #30DaysWild.
I used my time to volunteer for the Slow Ways project, an initiative to create a network of walking routes connecting settlements. Walking has immense benefits for health and wellbeing, for individuals and for communities, and integrating it into everyday life is a positive solution towards tackling the climate and ecological emergencies. I mapped around 50 routes in northern and northeast Scotland to contribute towards a total greater than 100,000km.
In mid-May, I should have been taking part in the 41st TGO Challenge, to cross Scotland from west to east. I’d decided on a more challenging route than last year, starting in Morar and taking in more hills on the way to Montrose. Instead, I joined with other would-be challengers in the first-ever #virtualTGOC, sharing stories and pictures from the last 40 years of the event and gathering inspiration for future years in the hills.
I was rather late to the sourdough party, but I was given a starter at the end of May and started to experiment. My first loaf could have done with a hatchet to break through the crust, but my cinnamon buns (Norsk kanelboller) were pretty good, and my rosemary and garlic focaccia was next level.
Around the same time, I was able to find work locally, starting as a fruit picker on a nearby farm. It’s not what I would choose to do, but at the moment it’s something, and will help to tide me over until my next opportunity for working or travelling is realised.
My Spring love list
Book: With the extra time available, I’ve finally read several of the books that were lingering in my “to be read” pile for some time, including most of these. My favourite read so far this year has been Horizon by Barry Lopez.
Magazines: I’ve recently discovered Sidetracked magazine, which combines incredible adventure and outdoor photography with inspired long-form storytelling. Dipping in for a read is pure escapism.
Film: Like everyone else, I’ve watched quite a few films during the lockdown. The one I’d most like to recommend was the incredible Climbing Blind, a documentary about Jesse Dufton as he aims to be the first blind person to lead a climb of the Old Man of Hoy, a sea-stack in Orkney. If you’re in the UK, you may still be able to catch it in the iPlayer.
Clothing: I really haven’t been wearing a great variety of things over the last couple of months. I’ve mainly been alternating between my fancy Seasalt pyjamas and Port Lockroy hoodie, and my running gear. It’s pretty strange wearing proper clothes again. And shoes, woah!
Equipment: Spending so much time on my own has been strange, after sharing the close living conditions of Port Lockroy and the even closer conditions on Irene of Bridgwater. I think its the quietness I find the hardest, so I love having the radio on in the background. I treated myself to a Roberts Play DAB digital radio, to make sure I can get BBC6Music as I read or write.
Before leaving for Antarctica I ordered a new case for my laptop but didn’t factor enough time for delivery. So on my return, I had a fabulous parcel waiting from Makers Unite, an inspiring Dutch social enterprise working with people from refugee backgrounds, teaching skills in product design and manufacture. My laptop case is made from recycled lifevests that were used in migrant travel.
Treats: It’s been hard avoiding the temptation of endless snacking during lockdown, so I’ve been making a conscious effort to be aware of the cookies, cakes, and chocolate I’ve been consuming. I’ve been setting a target of no sweet snacks until mid-afternoon, then stopping whatever I’m doing to make a pot of my favourite Russian Caravan tea to go with the treat.
What have you been up to over the last season? How has being in lockdown affected you?
I’m always here if you want to chat or leave a message in the comments below;
I’d love to hear from you.
This post contains some affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I’ll make a small commission* on the sale at no additional cost to you. These help me continue to run the site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures. Thank you for supporting me.
*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.