A selection of the best books about travelling on foot, from arduous hikes in far-flung lands to rambles much closer to home, and meditations on the nature of walking.
A few years ago I learned about the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, which translates into English as the Christmas book flood, and was immediately hooked by the intention. Icelanders gift family and friends with new books on Christmas Eve, with the idea that the evening is spent reading together in cosy company gathered around the fire, while sipping hot chocolate, mulled wine, or a traditional Icelandic concoction of ale and soft drinks known as Jolabland*.
*It sounds very much like a shandy made of Guinness and Fanta if you’re tempted.
So for this festive instalment of my Armchair Travel Series, I encourage you to cosy up by the fire among friends and family, and crack open the spine on a new book about an adventure on foot (or given the lateness of this post, treat yourself to an e-book download). The list includes feats of endurance in remote and challenging environments, more gentle rambles close to home rich in observations of history and nature, and some journeys on foot where the landscapes tramped are as much internal insights as outwith the mind.
Here’s my selection of the best books about walking.
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 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?
Autumn in the Cairngorms is absolutely sensational. The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Birch and bracken glow gold against the dark of the pines, and the woodlands blaze with reds and oranges.
I had a little holiday around the area with friends that came to visit, staying in a holiday cabin on the other side of Braemar from where I live, and taking a campervan tour of the eastern Cairngorms and Aberdeenshire. I also arranged a couple of wildlife watching trips, going on a beaver watching trip in Perthshire (great success), and visiting Spey Bay to search for dolphins (no luck, though there was some great birdwatching at the river mouth).
My 40th birthday in September was a small family affair, the only opportunity for us to get together this year before Scotland’s COVID guidelines limited the size of groups we were able gather in. It was a joint celebration with my Dad and nephew Joe who had their birthdays in August, when the City of Aberdeen was in local lockdown and they were unable to have any visitors themselves. We had a BBQ in my parent’s garden to give enough space for physical distance between households, and fortunately the sun shone, and the windbreak I spent most of the morning constructing held up.
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 Linn of 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 behind tussucks on the plateau, sheltering from the low autumn sun.
My seasonal job with the Cairngorms National Park Authority came to an end at the beginning of November, which left me with some free time of my hands. I’ve been out exploring more of the areas that lie on the periphery of my usual patrol routes, making the most of the fair weather and trying to keep up with the amount of walking I was doing during the summer, usually between 10 and 15km per day. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge with the lure of the indoors in wet and wild weather.
I’ve always found it a bit harder to do things at this time of year, with the combination of short daylengths and wilder weather making me feel like curling up in bed and hibernating for the rest of the season. I’ve got a natural daylight lamp for the time I spend indoors on the computer, and I’ve been making the effort to spend at least some time outdoors every day this month, as I know how much benefit it brings me. I’m aiming keep it up all through the winter.
My other interesting reads from this season can be seen here.
Podcast: January this year marked the 200th anniversary of the first sightings of Antarctica, and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust had planned a programme of events to celebrate the occasion. Due to the pandemic, those which could go ahead were shifted online and a new podcast, A Voyage to Antarctica, was created, with contributions from filmmaker Ruth Peacey, writer Sara Wheeler, and UKAHT’s CEO Camilla Nicol.
Clothing: In anticipation of winter, I’ve splashed out on a pair of the toastiest wool slippers from Glerups. After a day out walking in the hills, they’re a delight to slip my feet into to pad around the house in the evenings.
Self-care: I’ve picked up a lipsalve from Burt’s Bees to last through into the winter. It’s a lovely, tingly peppermint flavour.
Equipment: I started using a natural daylight lamp, the Lumie Vitamin L lightbox, in early October to help with seasonal affective disorder. I put it on for half an hour or so after my alarm sounds in the morning, and read a few pages of my book soaking in the light before getting up. And now I’m not going out to work everyday, I’ll put it on for an hour or so in the afternoon while I work on the computer.
Treat: It’s got to be mince pies. As they appear in the shops in late September, usually the week after my birthday, I try to get a selection of the different supermarket varieties for a taste test, to work out my preferred brand for the rest of the season. Currently in the lead position are the ones from the Co-op, although the proximity of the shop has also had a big influence. The ideal accompaniment, for a wintery weekend afternoon, is an amaretto-laced coffee, with my favourite Bird & Wild blend.
My plans to visit the New Forest and the Isle of Wight in November, then catch up with friends around the south of England have been put on hold again with the COVID lockdown in England. I’ll keep my fingers crossed things might improve by the New Year to allow me to reschedule.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for a bit of work in January, joining the refit of one of the boats I’ve worked on previously. And hopefully that will also bring the opportunity for a short holiday afterwards, though again that all depends on open travel corridors from the UK to Portugal.
In the meantime, I’ve thrown myself into planning a few long walks in my local area and further afield, completing a few online courses, and appreciating winter comforts close to home.
What have you been up to over the last season? How are you affected by the current COVID guidelines where you are?
Remember I’m always here if you need a friendly ear to listen; I’d really love to hear from you.
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*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
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.
The Caledonian Forest once covered much of the highlands of Scotland, spreading over the land as the last glaciers retreated and eventually disappeared. But over many thousands of years of human activity that manipulated the wildland, only around 1% of the original temperate rainforest coverage remains in Scotland.
Remnants of the Caledonian Forest are unique habitats, home to some of the rarest species in the British Isles, like the endemic Scottish crossbill, secretive pine martens and wildcats, and the majestic capercaillie. In fact, around 5,000 species have been recorded in areas of old-growth forest, ranging from the towering Scots pines to the tiny beetles living under the bark of the trees, with plants, lichens, fungi, and other wee beasties in-between.
Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve on Speyside protects a huge area of Caledonian Forest, as well as rivers, lochs, moorland, and montane plateau. The nature reserve in Cairngorms National Park extends all the way to the summit of Ben Macdui, at 1,309m (4,295′), the second-highest summit in the British Isles.
Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie are beautiful forest lochs, fringed by granny pine trees on three sides, with views of Bynack More and the Cairngorm plateau in the southeast reflected in the dark water. In spring and summer, the lochs are excellent for watching ospreys fishing.
Abernethy Forest Two Lochs Walk from Boat of Garten
Route length: 10km (6 miles) circular route
Ascent: 118 metres (387′)
Approximate hiking time: 2.5 – 3 hours
A walk to Loch Mallachie and Loch Garten from Boat of Garten. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.
From the steam railway station in Boat of Garten follow signage for the Speyside Way trail towards Nethy Bridge, crossing Garten Bridge over the River Spey on the way out of the village. Across the junction of the road is a small carpark with interpretation panels and maps of waymarked routes into the forest.
Follow the red route for approximately 1km, then take the right-hand track at the fork, heading south for a further kilometre. At the next junction, take the narrow left-hand fork, and head in an easterly direction. The path undulates and sweeps round to the southeast through the trees, towards Loch Mallachie. Ignore the myriad paths along the lochside, turning sharply north when you reach the last one, to lead to Loch Garten, the bigger of the two lochs.
From the carpark alongside Loch Garten, it’s possible to make a diversion along the road at the top of the loch for around 700m to the RSPB Osprey Centre. It’s a must-do in spring, while the birds are sitting on their nest. Otherwise, follow the blue waymarking northwest alongside the road for a couple of kilometres to meet up with the Speyside Way.
Cross the road to follow a wooden walkway for just over 150m. This was constructed on the edge of a small forest lochan, to give a closer view of the habitat. Look out for spawning frogs and tadpoles in the spring and darting dragon and damselflies in summer.
From here you have two options: continue to follow the Speyside Way alongside the road back to the forest carpark, or pick up the forest trail with red waymarking just as you reach the first cottage on the road. The red route is just under 2km through the trees, and returns to the carpark where you entered the forest.
Retrace your route back over Garten Bridge and into Boat of Garten. There are a few cafes and coffee shops in the village where you can find refreshments, such as the Gashouse Café and Cairngorm Leaf & Bean, though some will close for the winter. There’s also the Boat Country Inn if you need something stronger after your walk.
Getting to Boat of Garten:
The village of Boat of Garten is connected by a scenic stream railway to Aviemore (nearest mainline railway station) and Grantown on Spey. Trains run between the Easter and October school holidays.
The bus service between Aviemore and Grantown on Spey will stop in the village, and on the roadside approximately 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the RSPB Osprey Centre.
Route 7 of the National Cycle Network connects Boat of Garten to Aviemore or Carrbridge, with options for on-road or largely off-road cycling.
What to look out for in Abernethy Forest:
Spring: Red squirrels; crested tits, siskins and endemic Scottish crossbills; frogs and frogspawn in pools and puddles; and the arrival of the first ospreys in mid-March.
Summer: Ospreys fishing on the lochs; great spotted woodpeckers, tree pipits, and redstarts; tree-nesting goldeneye ducks; woodland wildflowers; and dazzling dragonflies and damselflies.
Autumn: The roar of rutting red and roe deer; wild greylag and pink-footed geese coming in to roost at dusk; wildfowl like teal, wigeon, and whooper swans; and incredible fungi formations.
Winter: Gnarled, lichen-encrusted ancient pine forest, with views of the sub-Arctic tundra plateau of the Cairngorm Mountains across the iced-over lochs.
Tips for Responsible Watching Wildlife in Abernethy Forest:
The Two Lochs walk is a popular route in Abernethy Forest, especially during the osprey season, so to help protect the forest and wildlife you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and RSPB on any signs.
If you’re hoping to see capercaillie, the best way is to walk on the forest trails in the early morning as they will often come to the paths to gather grit. Bear in mind that for this part of Scotland that will be between 4am and 5am in May, June and July. Avoid leaving the paths in the forest as you could be disturbing ground-nesting birds.
In drier areas of the forest, you’ll see big mounds of pine needles, which are the nests of wood ants. These can grow up to a metre high, and can be home to well over 100,000 individual ants. Standing deadwood is as valuable to wildlife as living trees, especially the invertebrate life of the forest, and a good indication of the quality of the habitat.
Wildlife refuge areas should be given a wide berth if you choose to go wild swimming in either of the lochs; these are the sheltered bays, particularly at the southern and eastern sides of the lochs, especially in the autumn when the lochs are important roosts for migratory birds.
Want to try this walking route for yourself? Why not pin this post for later?
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.
As someone who loves hiking and camping, and has been doing it since I was a child, of course I’ve had a poop in the great outdoors. But set all squeamish sniggering at this statement aside, this is an essential declaration. We can’t ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t happen when we’re outdoors for extended periods.
As a ranger in the Cairngorms National Park through the summer of 2020, I’ve unfortunately seen the impact of irresponsible hikers and wild campers at some of the most beautiful places in the country. Quite frankly, it’s disgusting, it spoils the outdoor experience of everyone else visiting the area, and I’m fed up of having to clean up toilet paper and baby wipes. I just don’t want to see it anymore*.
*And for chat with my ranger colleagues to revolve around more than the biggest jobbies we’ve seen this week.
Dealing with human waste in a hygienic, environmentally sensitive way is a vital outdoor skill, and not just for expert or elite-level outdoors folk. Anyone spending a long time out hiking, or camping overnight will have to face up to the inevitable. And as most of us are accustomed to flushing toilets, it’s a skill that needs to be learned like any other.
Talking about how to pee and poop properly in the outdoors raises awareness of the issue of environmental contamination from human waste, and hopefully will spread understanding of the most responsible way to manage our bodily functions while hiking or wild camping.
Also, I hope it will also go some way to resolving any fears or discomfort some may feel about going to the toilet away from the usual facilities, fears that may stop them from trying longer trips. I’ve shared a few of my toilet tips about how and where to go when hiking or wild camping to ease your worries and help you prepare for your next outdoor experience.
So here’s my guide on how to go to the toilet outdoors, to help you plan for your next hiking or camping trip. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below. I’m here to help.
If you’re serious about spending any length of time outdoors, then it’s essential to be prepared for wet weather. Even in the height of the summer season showers and persistent rain can be forecast (there’s a reason our countryside is so green and lush in the UK), and quickly turn a fine day out in the hills into a miserable slog if you haven’t packed your waterproofs.
While a waterproof jacket is probably the most important piece of your kit, you’ll be thankful of a good pair of waterproof trousers to give additional protection from the elements and keep you comfortable for longer.
So what do I want from a pair of waterproof trousers? Obviously they need to keep the wind and rain out, but in most cases they’d stay tucked up in my pack in hopes of fine weather, so need to be lightweight and packable. Once the heavens open, they need to be simple and quick to pull on, so long zips are important, and other features I’d look for in my waterproof trousers would be POCKETS! and vents or two-way zips.
How I tested the Rab Firewall Pants
I think I gave Rab’s Firewall Pants an extremely thorough testing, well beyond the usual realms of outdoor equipment testing. I rocked a pair of these waterproof trousers during the 19/20 season at Port Lockroy, Antarctica, and thoroughly put them through their paces, wearing them daily for around 12 hours at a time over the four months of our season.
In general, the conditions I experienced were relatively mild, given our extreme location; temperatures ranged between -7°C and + 15°C, though winds reached in excess of 40 knots on occasion, and we experienced days of persistant heavy rain and occasional blizzard conditions.
Our daily routine mixed high levels of physical activity, changing through the season from shovelling snow and cutting paths and steps, to scrubbing guano and sluicing rocks with buckets of water hauled up from the shore, with time engaging with visitors to Base A, the first permanent British base on the Antarctic Peninsula, now operating as a living museum.
As the wildlife monitor I also had the additional task of counting penguin nests, which involved lots of bending and kneeling, avoiding pecks and pokes from curious penguins, and occasionally crawling into guano-filled spaces under buildings.
The Women’s Firewall Pants are waterproof trousers with a degree of stretch, made using Pertex Shield® 3-layer fabric. Rab claims this makes them ideal for use in alpine or winter conditions where freedom of movement is essential.
The Firewall Pants are designed for active use in mixed environments, with 3/4 length fully waterproof YKK® AquaGuard® 3-way side zips to allow for high levels of breathability. The trousers have a part elasticated gripped waistband and knee articulations for comfortable movement.
The trousers are compatible with winter boots with under-boot cord attachment loops, and a regular fit allows for a baselayer to be comfortably worn underneath. They weigh 296g (10oz).
The Firewall Waterproof Pants are also available in a men’s fit.
Though the pants are lightweight, I found that the fabric was hardwearing and durable, and the regular fit gave plenty of room for additional layers worn underneath without being too flappy around my legs on windy days. I’d usually wear them over a pair of midweight softshell pants, with an extra pair of merino leggings on particularly cold days, though occasionally conditions were warm enough for shorts or lightweight leggings underneath during physical activity.
The articulated knees, slight stretchiness in the fabric, and elasticated waistband meant I had little restriction of movement, which was exactly what I needed for my work, especially the penguin monitoring. The gripper strips in the waistband helped to stop the pants from slipping down as I moved around.
The long three-way zips on the outside of the leg made it easy to pull them on or off over my boots, and to vent at any position (the ideal position being just above the top of a long rubber boot, but not so low down that a penguin could nip the back of my knees).
The ankles have a shockcord to cinch the hem, and a loop to connect to bootlaces, so that they would remain secure while hiking, though I always wore rubber boots and didn’t make use of this feature.
With a limited supply of freshwater on the island, I could only keep them clean with seawater. Though it was far from the ideal way to care for my kit, I had no problems with the taped zips seizing up with salt. Even with this abuse, they remained fully waterproof for the duration of the season.
Worth the money?
The Firewall Waterproof pants cost £135, putting them at the more expensive end of the range of products on offer. On a tight budget, you can find decent waterproof trousers for around £50, though you would compromise on features like breathability, venting, and ease of donning. However, the performance and durability of the Firewall pants make it a worthwhile investment.
I wasn’t too familiar with Rab products, previously only owning a pair of Gore-Tex gaiters, but the Firewall Waterproof Pants were well designed and comfortable, with several little touches that gave a very good performance in tough conditions. I wore my Antarctic pair to the absolute limit through the four month season, and will definitely be replacing like for like now I’ve returned to the UK.
Disclaimer: Rab provided the outdoor clothing that formed part of the uniform for UK Antarctic Heritage staff based in Antarctica for the 2019/20 season. This is my honest review after months of use.
If you’ve got any questions about finding the right waterproof trousers, leave a message in the comments below.
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At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.
In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion. Continue reading “Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain”