For most of us, climbing, mountaineering and hill walking are all nice ways to spend our free time, ways to stay fit and healthy and to give us a wee boost when we are feeling a bit down or when we need a bit of breathing space. For some people, spending time outdoors, in the mountains, climbing and walking is what keeps them alive. Some people have mental injuries so profound that they struggle to operate in everyday life like the rest of us. Some of these people have found that climbing is a powerful way to manage their symptoms and helps them to function in a relatively normal way.
Last week I spent some time climbing on Skye with a group of guys from Climb 2 Recovery and a group of guides and mountaineering instructors. Set up by wounded veterans for other wounded, injured and sick veterans and service personnel, Climb2Recovery is a charity that offers climbing courses to help with both physical and mental recovery. Much more than that though, through climbing they are building all-important support networks. This trip was supported by Patron Capital Charitable Initiatives and I got to climb with Keith and Aaron from Patron.
Many of the guys have PTSD and a couple of them have physical injuries. We were also joined by a couple of guys who have been presented with the George Cross. The stories of these guys were remarkable, both of their time in service and of its impacts afterwards.
We did a mixture of climbs at Neist where there is amazing single pitch climbing on sea cliffs and on the hillside above, big multi-pitch routes in the mountains, scrambling around the tops, a full traverse and a night spent in Coire Laggan. It was a bit damp on the first day but we had a dry two days in the middle for the full traverse and a few sunny days spent at Neist. In many ways it was just another week of climbing, but for these guys it was described as "transformative" or "life changing".
To me, the positive effect of climbing is no surprise. I have written previously about the idea that the natural environment has profound restorative effects on our wellbeing. “Attention Restoration Theory” tells us that the human experience of the natural world markedly assists in maintaining and fostering a strong sense of subjective wellbeing.
Modern day life in our urban, man-made environments, increases mental fatigue, stress and anxiety. Restoration of feelings of calm, relaxation, revitalisation and refreshment can be achieved by spending time in a natural environment. For it to be most effective, a natural environment should have three critical elements;
Removal from Normal Life
I’ve often said to people, hillwalking and mountaineering are like meditation. We are removed physically and mentally from our everyday lives. We get so involved in the moment, in the activity and its demands on us, that we very often forget all about our normal worries and anxieties. The more we are challenged by the activity, the less cognitive bandwidth we have for anything else. It’s only when we get back home that we remember about the outstanding bills, the anxiety caused by our work or any number of things that cause our mental fatigue.
Fascinating Sensory Elements
It’s really obvious that our mountains are full of astounding visual and sensory elements that are fascinating, beautiful, full of wonder and surprising. Over the last few years I have increased my knowledge of the natural environment massively. It’s also clear to me that there is a never-ending supply of new knowledge to gain, new insights to understand and new things to see. This understanding of the very small things in our landscape makes my enjoyment of the vast scale of the landscape even more rewarding.
It Should Be Expansive
By exploring the mountains that surround us in Scotland we get to feel the immense scale of the landscape, the power of the weather, and the never-ending nature of wildness, that can give us a proper sense of scale. In a blizzard on a summit with numb fingers and an unrelenting wind, when we have to take a bearing on our compass to walk off safely there is nobody else we can turn to, nobody else we can blame if we get it wrong, and no sympathy in the weather or the landscape. It is a good reminder that each of us is not at the centre of things with the world revolving around us. We need to learn some humility and to take responsibility for ourselves. This is surely the expansive nature of the experience that is required to make its restorative effects most profound.
In addition to the restorative effects of attention restoration theory, there is something about control, independence and responsibility that really benefits these guys. Recovering from PTSD as partly about regaining control of your life, something that we get a real sense of when we go climbing. There are few activities in which we are in total control of what we do, how we do it and what the outcome will be. We choose the challenge, focus on it totally and accept the responsibility of the outcome. After all, the outcome is totally dependent on our performace, nothing else. We can't blame the rock or someone else. If we can transfer some of this sense of self-responsibility and its effect of grounding us to our day to day lives, we will be better for it.
For me and the team of guides (Kevin, Hannah, Annie, Caspar and Rob) this was a wonderful trip to be a part of, a trip that had far more profound benefits to the people involved and one that brought home to us all just how basically good mountaineering is for all of us.
Over the weekend Miguel and I completed a Lochaber Traverse. For those of you that might not have heard of it, the Lochaber Traverse is a 32km route that takes in all of the Grey Corries (except Stob Ban), the Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and finishes on Ben Nevis. It includes 7 Munros plus a number of other summits, about 2,800m of ascent and kilometres of stunning ridge walking. Think of it as a far less technical alternative to the Cuillin Traverse! Some people complete the route in one very big day, but Miguel was keen to camp out so we opted to do it over two days.
Mist, midges and mizzly drizzle was the theme for Saturday morning when we met, but the weather forecast was set to improve and most importantly, there wasn't supposed to be too much wind over the two days. Perfect for being up high on, at times, very narrow ridges. We set off in low cloud and were kept moving by midges, but as we climbed higher we could see that the clouds were beginning to break. By the time we reached our first Munro of Stob Choire Claurigh the clouds had lifted enough that we were met with a beautiful view over the rest of the Grey Corries, with Aonach Beag far off in the distance. There was also a slight breeze so fortunately there was to be no more midges for the rest of the trip. The walking along the Grey Corries is just lovely. There are occasional little scrambly bits but for the most of it it is just really pleasant ridge walking. Over Stob Coire an Laoigh and Sgurr Choinnich Mor, before pitching our tents at the bealach between Sgurr Choinnich Beag and Stob Coire Bhealaich with stunning views across to the Mamores.
Waking up to rain on the tents was not ideal, but it stopped just as it was time to emerge. The weather certainly seemed to be on our side! The climb up out of the bealach towards Stob Coire Bhealaich is a tough one, particularly first thing in the morning, but meandering up through the mist and boulders, it didn't seem to take long at all to get up and over the final steep section and we were back on much easier ground. Wandering along the ridge we met a little ptarmigan desperately trying to distract us from her chicks, one of whom we saw scurrying off to hide amongst the rocks. Over Aonach Beag, and upon reaching the bealach the clouds once again began to lift and clear. Miguel really wanted to do the traverse in full so we did the quick out and back to tag Aonach Mor before making the steep descent to the foot of the East Ridge of Carn Mor Dearg.
With nearly 400m to reascend this felt like a big one, but the ridge and the views were distraction enough and we were on the summit of Carn Mor Dearg in time for lunch with only CMD Arete and Ben Nevis left to go. Clouds swirled dramatically around the North Face of Ben Nevis and ravens circled and cawed above as we made our way across the Arete. Scrambling up the final steep boulder field onto Ben Nevis we were serenaded by a snow bunting who seemed to follow us the whole way up, twittering his little song and clearing the clouds for us once again. With weary legs and after an incredible couple of days it seemed like a very fitting way to reach our final summit on the Lochaber Traverse.
Each year for the last few years we have run a Sea Stack Odyssey, a trip to climb the best sea stacks along the west and north coasts of Scotland. It's a trip that gets me super excited every time; my nerves jangle in anticipation, i love the whole experience of the trip, and the deep satisfaction afterwards. It's a big highlight of my year.
This year I was climbing with Barry and Stephen. We had to cancel the trip last year along with a lot of our trips, so Stephen was waiting a long time for this one. Stephen saw Old Man of Stoer one stormy November many years ago and wanted to climb it ever since. Barry found he had a week off at the perfect time and wanted to make sure he got the chance of doing these climbs in between a very busy work schedule. He had tried Old Man of Hoy ten years ago but found it impossible to bring together the weather, a climbing partner, fitness and days off altogether to make a successful trip. The three of us met up at Stoer light house and shared six brilliant days in the far north west of Scotland.
We dived in at the deep end with Old Man of Stoer. It's nice to have a warm up day to get to know each other and get into the climbing before we commit to a sea stack. However, the weather forecast ws looking wet for days 2 and 3, and it seemed like a good idea to make the most of the good weather on day 1. A few other people had made the same decision, and we arrived at Old Man of Stoer to find a tyrolean rope set up already, so no swim was needed. A good start!
We shared the climb with the other teams, happy to take our time. Most people there were from the south of England, a long way away from home. Old Man of Stoer has the best rock, the nicest climbing and fewest birds of all the stacks. It's a very good one to start with and we all got on great. The long and free hanging abseil down went well and we used the tyrolean to get back across again at the bottom. Someone else volunteered to swim after releasing it on the stack side.
We were off to a brilliant start and we drove round to Sheigra to camp, full of high expectations.
Sometimes the sea mist is dry, sometimes it is wet. This time it was classic warm front weather and everything was wet, the clag was in (Cloud Level At Ground) and it was pretty clear that we were not going to be able to climb Am Buachaille. We wanted to have a look though, just to be sure. The cycle in along the path was nice and we had a wee explore of Sandwood Bay beach, a wonderful long stretch of white sand in a very remote place.
Day three was wet too, but we used the time productively to relax, soak up the atmosphere of Sheigra, and to refresh some rope skills such as hoisting people up climbs, escaping out of a belay system when your partner is dangling on the rope and a few other useful things. The rain stopped and the rock dried out later on, enough for us to enjoy a couple of beautiful rock climbs at Sheigra. The rock here is, quite simply, perfect.
Day four is a transition day, a drive, two ferries (one big, one small), a taxi and a short walk to the bothy in Rackwick Bay. We got our first sight of Old Man of Hoy from the big ferry and a brilliant display of diving from the gannets just off the beach.
Having put up with two wet days, we were blessed with a perfect day for climbing Old Man of Hoy. It was warm, calm and the sun came out in the afternoon. We made an early start to make sure we got back to catch the last ferry to Stromness. Being first on the climb meant we climbed quickly and it was clear that we would have plenty of time to enjoy the experience. The scale of this stack is always very impressive. The bottom abseil (of three) is the same height as Old Man of Stoer. The second pitch is the crux and always provides a memorable climb of traditional chimneying and beautiful bridging up the corner above with a massive drop to the boulder beach beneath your feet.
The last pitch to the top is wonderful too. Solid rock with great protection and brilliant moves and positions lands you on the small summit of the stack. It becomes very apparent that the top is actually made of two separate stacks and you climb the corner and gap between the two. Razorbills nesting on the top welcomed us and we were circled by manic puffins nesting on the mainland cliff.
We hung out on top for an hour, to make the moment last for as long as possible and to enjoy the weather on this unique location. Just as rewarding as the climbing, making the abseiling go smoothly with no trapped ropes or stuck prussics is very satisfying. 60m ropes are very useful, well worth taking there just for this last abseil which turns into 50m free hanging straight onto the boulder beach.
We had time to spare before catching the small ferry back to Stromness and a fish and chip supper, back in the world of hostels and cafes, people and facemasks. Going climbing is such a perfect thing to transport you away from all the hastles of every day life, the commitments and obligations, expectations and things you have to put up with. It can be quite a jolt going back to normal life after a good climbing trip, but you always feel mentally refreshed even if you are physically tired.
We took the first ferry back to Scrabster and Stephen and I had time for one more climb. Barry had to make his way all the way back down south and had a very long drive ahead of him. Stephen and I stopped in at Sarclet to climb Sarclet Pimpernel, a wonderful pitch of climbing straight up a lovely arete from a belay hanging just above the sea. It was strange to be on rock with positive edges and hidden pockets after the rounded slopers and three dimensional moves of the sandstone. Beautiful warm weather, guillemots looking for fish and looking at us, and a perfect end to a brilliant sea stacks trip.
I'm off to buy a tide timetable to start planning next year's trip!
Last summer and already this summer we have seen unprecedented numbers of people camping informally, and lots of these people decide to camp close to the road or in popular places. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code does allow for this, but it also recommends that we help to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals and by keeping well away from buildings, roads or historic structures.
The problems with people camping close to roads include the visual impact, damage to the ground especially through fires and BBQs, and toileting. Many, many reports have been made of laybys and car parks being surrounded by little piles of poo, and even of people quite happily telling other walkers and local residents that they are just off to the beach for a poo. This is not responsible and unnecessary. If we carry on like this we might, eventually, find our access rights changed for the worse.
Of course there are solutions. Lots of local communities are building facilities for visitors to their areas. Nevis Landscape Partnership is building a set of dry composting toilets at the Lower Falls car park in the Autumn, similar facilities will go in to Glen Coe / Glen Etive thanks to the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, and there are already some very nice composting toilets at Traigh near Arisaig.
Use toilets when you can and be prepared to pay a little for them.
Building infrastucture is painfully slow though and many places will not even have this as an option. So, in places where there is a heavy impact from other people we should use poo bags. Those of us with dogs are used to using poo bags to pick up after our pets and those of us with a conscience put the bags in a proper bin afterwards. Different poo bags for humans are also readily available and offer a simple solution for packing out all of our waste and truly leaving no trace.
Check out Popaloo. The Popaloo toilet uses a dry powder waste gelling system and biodegradable bags. No nasty bottles of smelly chemicals. The loose blend of powders is in each bag and has the capacity to gel 2.5 to 3.0 litres of fluid and solid waste. Just hang the bag in a bucket or in their neat foldable toilet, do a poo or even a few poos, and tie up the bag for easy disposal in a proper bin. The whole lot will biodegrade and leave nothing very much behind at all.
Just don't hang the bags on trees like some dog walkers do.
What is even better is that Popaloo donates a proceed of every sale to Toilet Twinning, a UK based charity that provides toilets to some of the world's poorest communities. The Popaloo toilet is 100% made in GB too. Next time I go camping informally in a place that is not remote I am going to use these bags. We'll be using them on our Sea Stack Odyssey and a trip to Coruisk I have in July.
For the last month I have been delivering Summer Mountain Leader training and assessment courses. It's a lot of fun and very rewarding for Sally and me to be able to pass on some of the knowledge and skills we have learned over many years. One part of the syllabus is wild camping and one topic in particular always raises a giggle, how to poo in the wild.
On these courses we are really quite remote. We have normally walked all day to a camp site and we choose to go to different places most times. The sites we use are very rarely used by other people and we only use each site once or twice ever. So, the human impact on these sites is very low. Even so, we teach "Leave no Trace" best practices which involve digging a hole well away from streams, pooing in the hole, and replacing the turf. There are all the right bacteria in the ground and in your poo to break down the poo into harmless stuff so there is no trace at all in a few months.
In hot and dry areas (deserts) with little soil to dig into, there is the smear technique. Do a poo on the surface, smear it around a bit (I'm not sure of the best tool or technique for this part) and allow the UV light from the sun to kill off bad bacteria, and the heat to dry it out. In just a few days of hot sunny weather your poo will break down into dry dusty stuff that will blow away in the wind or wash away the next time it rains.
One of the worst things to do is to lift a rock, poo under the rock, and then replace the rock. This does not bury the poo deeply enought for bacteria in the soil to break it down, UV light does not get to it either, it does not dry out and the rain will not wash it away. It seems like an easy fix but it is all bad. Do not leave your poo under a rock. If we all did that we would all end up picking up rocks and finding someone else had used it already!
For most people in the UK who enjoy winter climbing, skiing and mountaineering, this was a winter to forget. Covid-19 travel restrictions made it impossible for people to travel to The Highlands. For those of us living here in the winter it was a different story; it was a very nice winter with lots of cold, dry weather, good snow cover, great climbing conditions, and good skiing. I was lucky enough to share the winter with Russell and Liss and, for them, it was their first taste of winter climbing. Following the winter with these guys, from scratching around in stormy December, to sunny ice climbing in April, was a real pleasure and a winter that will stay with them for very many years to come.
Liss and Russell are strong ski tourers with many years and very many trips to the Alps under their belts. However, walking with very different things strapped to their feet forced them to start from scratch. In early January we had three days of super cold weather with ice on the paths all the way down to the top of the forest line. We walked a couple of hundred metres up the Allt a'Mhuilinn path before we needed to put on crampons for the first time! So we had a lot of practice of walking with crampons, even before we got to Ledge Route as our introduction to winter mountaineering.
We built on core skills of movement, climbing together on a rope, belays and anchors in the snow, and lots of studying of the snow, learning its characteristics, how it is moved around and the signs it leaves behind of this, and how to spot avalanche hazards. We were introduced to the "hot aches" early on and rapidly beefed up the quality and quantity of our gloves! However, the pain of fingers coming back to life after being numb with cold did not put them off. In fact, it's fair to say that they were hooked!
January was cold and super snowy. Russell and I found Curved Ridge to be buried in soft snow, but bathed in weak winter sunshine. And we found a very tame stag waiting for us at the car park, perfectly happy to pose for a photo or two. January also brought into condition some crags that are rarely visited. The Mome Rath Face was one of these, on the East face of Gearr Aonach in Glen Coe. High above the Lost Valley, this is a wonderful place to explore, and we enjoyed Lost Leaper Gully.
February was even colder at the start. Low level cascades were freezing up and you did not have to go high to find ice. Liss and Caspar went to climb Sgurr Finnisg'aig Falls, around behind Nevis Range, to nudge the comfort zone a bit bigger. Ice climbing certainly seemed to be the direction to go in. Then we had two weeks of rain to the summits, washing the ice on Steall Falls, The Chasm and Elliot's Downfall into the loch. As ever, the ice factory that is Ben Nevis came up good, and the snow-ice climbs were suddenly in excellent condition. Liss and I went for Number Three Gully Buttress to build on exposure to exposure, of which this route has lots. We also worked out that bum sliding is the best way to descend!
Cold northerlies marched right through March giving us sunshine, cloud inversions, our one soggy day (climbing The White Line) and a bone dry day for rock climbing on Castle Ridge. Good Friday Climb above the clouds was a real treat. By now, with many days of great climbing, walking down Ledge Route was quite a nice way to descend, thinking back to how much harder it felt in January.
Instead of springing in to April with warm sunshine and blooming daffodils, we had the coldest days of the winter. -12C on the summit plus windchill! Winter was reluctant to let go, and still is. Spring is only happening in the glens; the summits are still in an icy grip. Our progression up the grades carried on too with Thompson's Route and Comb Gully getting us established in the grade IV climbs.
So, after a few days of what we thought would be our last winter climb, we climbed Tower Scoop as the final last winter climb of the season. It's grade III in the book, but it was the steepest bit of ice we climbed all winter and was a brilliant end to a wonderful introduction to winter climbing.
Climbing here for a week each winter gives a very good flavour of what it is all about, especially as each winter has a different character. However, one of the wonderful things about living here is following the winter from early season scratching on snow dusted rocks, through the full depths of winter, to the skinny lines of ice between dry rocks in the sunshine of the spring. As always, Ben Nevis holds on to the winter for longer than all other mountains in Scotland, and ice climbing is still going up there even though we are now into May.
So, to share this with Liss and Russell was a wonderful way to spend the winter, and to see them progress through the grades to climb steep ice with confidence and move well around the mountain made it even more satisfying. I think the winter climbing bug is with them, and I hope to explore more winter climbing with Russell and Liss in winters to come.
Last year, many people found that they felt a deep desire to find open spaces, to explore the beautiful landscape of Scotland, to get outside and to connect with nature. It is such a fundamental thing to do that is fundamentally good for us, in so many ways.
Lots of us did explore our wild places and, because they left no trace, nobody was aware of them being there. The people that we did notice were mostly very receptive to being offered a bit of guidance so that they minimised their impact on the land and on other people. If you are new to it, it is not obvious what we should do to behave in a way that does not impact on other people and on the nature of the landscape. A bit of help goes a long way to us all being able to enjoy the landscape of Scotland, and to kep it beautiful.
To maintain our stunning landscapes, we must ensure we protect, respect and enjoy our countryside, towns and cities responsibly by asking people to leave no physical trace of their visit.
Last year, many campsites were not open or did not have their shower/toilet blocks open if they were accepting campers. This made many people think of informal camping (AKA wild camping) as an alternative, and rightly so. It's a wonderful feeling, traveling around the most beautiful parts of Scotland and setting up a tent for the night, tucked out of anyone's way, and spending a night in the wild under the stars. With no light polution and with only the sounds of nature all around, it's a perfect escape from our cooped up lives.
It's also very easy to impact other people without even realising it. We have the right to go camping, as long as we do so responsibly. To make sure we are doing it responsibly we need to:
We DON'T have a right to roam. We DO have a right to responsible access.
Touring around Scotland in a campervan is awesome! It gives you the freedom to go anywhere, to find out of the way places, and to take all sorts of toys to be able to go biking, surfing, walking and climbing.
It is also very easy to have quite an impact on everyone else if you are not used to it. Hiring a campervan for your holiday brings the excitement of exploration, as well as the challenges of driving a bigger vehicle than you might be used to, on smaller roads than you might be used to, with all the hazards of sheep, deer and distracting views.
Try to use official campervan sites to stay at overnight, or stop-over points provided by local communities, Forest and Land Scotland or the national parks. Parking up and sleeping in your van is not covered by our access rights in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code but lots of the same principles should apply. Leave no trace, take all your waste home, don't empty your toilet waste or waste water anywhere other than a proper disposal point, and think about how intrusive you might be to local communities.
Visit Scotland is encouraging us to make a promise:
And they are helping us understand how we can keep the promise.
I promise to care for Scotland's nature. I will…
• Not disturb the incredible wildlife that has roamed this epic land for centuries.
• Tread lightly to protect their habitats.
• Be considerate to farmland and livestock.
• Keep my dog on a lead when needed.
• Stick to the marked roads, tracks and paths.
• Take my litter home with me.
• Take only photos and leave only footprints.
• Observe the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
I promise to care for Scotland's communities. I will...
• Slow down, and savour every moment of what there is to see, do and learn.
• Shop local to enjoy the best products and support Scottish makers and businesses.
• Respect the locals and their resources.
• Fáilte (embrace) and respect the Gaelic language.
• Sample the delicious, seasonal foods available all across Scotland.
• Seek out and respect the rich and diverse cultures that are found throughout Scotland.
• Avoid crowded places and come back when it’s less busy.
• Take care when exploring the great outdoors, and bring/wear the right equipment.
• Check ahead to see if there is access or parking.
• Park my vehicle safely and responsibly.
• Follow physical distancing guidance and wear my mask as required.
I promise to care for Scotland and the world's tomorrow. I will…
• Leave the car when I can and walk, cycle, paddle or use public transport instead.
• Hire an electric vehicle where possible and take advantage of the many charge points that are now available across Scotland.
• Check the green credentials of all of the businesses I use to travel, stay and explore.
• Enjoy the pure waters that run from the tap, not single-use bottles.
• Switch off the lights and look up at the stars.
Seems like a good plan to me.
While I was out for a walk recently I was talking about how helpless I feel about being able to do something about our impact on the planet. I feel like I can't do anything meaningful to help reverse human impact on climate change, biodiversity loss, polution, plastic waste and extreme weather events. Our climate emergency seems like such a huge problem it is difficult to see how anything I can do on a personal level will change anything. Why do I bother trying to recycle plastic when there are huge floating islands of it in the oceans and when supermarkets are increasing their plastic usage, not decreasing it. It seems like all the power to change things for the better lies with big corporations and governments. What difference can I make against such a massive problem?
The continued thaw and very slow relaxation of covid restrictions probably added to my feeling of helplessness. All the drive from the governments seems to be directed towards getting businesses back up and running, opening up the economy and getting us back to normal, forgetting that normal is what is wreaking havoc with our environment. Once I got home and wrote down some of the things that we can do and how much difference they will make, I started to feel a bit better. It also looks like we don't need to turn into vegan eco-warriors to make a difference (sorry to all my vegan eco-warrior friends, you're all lovely!). Here's what I think we can do.
First of all, let's talk about it. Make it normal to talk about issues of climate change, polution and our impact on the planet, as well as ideas of what we can do to help turn the tide. It is a big and scary subject and it is easy to fall into very depressing conversations about the most recent evidence of our destruction of the environment. So, let's talk about what we can do, share ideas and knowledge, make it normal to want to become sustainable as a population, and as individuals. One person's effort is tiny in the big scheme of things, but when everyone makes the same effort the change is huge.
Connect with nature. Not just a walk in the woods on a Sunday afternoon listening to a podcast. I mean make a real connection with nature. Doing stuff in nature like biking and climbing is very good but still might not create a real connection. Slow down, look at the details, study how they change through time, note when the snowdrops burst up through the ground, when the daffodils bloom, how many bees you see. Even in an urban setting, there are trees to become friends with, "weeds" (AKA wild flowers) that grow in the most unlikely places pushing their way through tarmac and cracks in the concrete. Learn about habitats, land usage and management. Ideally, grow stuff. Growing your own vegetables is a fantastic way to create a real connection with nature and has the additional benefit of reducing food miles. You can grow herbs on a windowsill, tomatoes on a balcony, potatoes in bags. You don't need very much space at all, but if you do have some garden space make the most of it. The value of garden and green spaces has been highlighted through lockdown so let's maintain that and nurture them.
The impact of global climate change and our impact on the planet is seen through nature and our open spaces, as well as changes in weather, especially in extreme weather events. To be able to see these changes and feel how they might impact us on a personal level, we need to have a personal connection with nature and our landscape. It's not surprising that we, as a population, have become completely disconnected with nature when modern lives deliver everything we need and everything we want at a touch of a screen. It's natural to want to make lives easier for us, but ultimately it is not healthy. Our disconnect with nature is a fundamental problem that needs to be tackled.
Change banks. Many mainstream banks continue to invest in unsustainable industries such as oil and coal. Barclays and HSBC have collectively invested over £149 billion in coal, gas, oil, tar sands and fracking since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015, making them the 7th and 12th worst banks in the world respectively, and the two worst in Europe, for financing climate change. By moving our banking to an ethical bank, and writing to tell the banks why we are moving, we can demonstrate what our priorities are and change what investment there is available for different industries. Once you have changed banks (with a seven day switch guarantee) there is little or no impact on you other than knowing that your savings are being put to good use. Have a look at BankOnOurFuture.uk/action
Change electricity supplier. Do some research and change your provider to one that generates power from renewable and green sources instead of coal or gas fired power stations. Again, once you have done it, there is little or no impact on you afterwards. You need to do some research though. The best providers are actively investing and building renewable power generation infrastructure while others offer very green looking tarifs which offset their carbon production by planting trees. Planting trees is a good thing but there have been many problems with big carbon offset schemes and ultimately we need more renewable generation infrastructure. Have a look here as a start - https://energysavingtrust.org.uk/advice/switching-your-energy-supplier/
Stop wasting food. Each year, one third of food produced in the world goes to waste, and it is responsible for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is a stunning statistic and one that horrifies me and puzzles me in equal measure. In my house, we buy what we need and eat it all. There is very little food waste at all, and the peelings and food scraps we do get rid of go into a compost bin and into the vegetable patch. Reducing how much food we waste would have a huge impact on the greenhouse gas emitions we are each responsible for. Research conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organizaton of the United Nations from 2013 estimates that if food waste was a country, then it would be the third highest emitter of GHG emissions. Each year, we waste 1.3 gigatons of edible food and this releases 3.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (without taking into account land use change). Buy what you need and make use of produce about to be thrown out if you can. Try this - https://toogoodtogo.org/en/
Eat less meat and be happy to pay more for good quality, locally sourced meat. Check where your fruit and vegetables come from to eat produce grown closer to home, and eat fruit and vegetables that are in season. In Fort William we are lucky enough to be able to buy venison from Jahama Highland Estates and all sorts of produce from local crofts through Food Lochaber . Do some research, you might have similar producers near you - https://www.farminguk.com/ - but remember that local doesn't always mean better. It's hard enough trying to work out what to eat to stay healthy, never mind trying to work out what to eat to keep the planet healthy. Soil is currently being destroyed 10 times faster than it is being created. The UK has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850, with the erosion continuing at a rate of 1cm to 3cm a year. It's a huge subject and there are no single, straightforward answers. If you want to learn (a huge amount) about it have a look at the Sustainable Food Trust. ‘Kiss the Ground’, currently streaming on Netflix, has huge relevance for the massive environmental and health problems we face today and gives a nicely balanced view on food production. It's a really engaging film, easy to watch, and is highly recommended.
Hire kit and don't fall victim to fashion. If you ski for a week or two each year, do you really need to own a full set of ski gear? Would that cupboard in your house be more useful to you if it didn't have all that stuff in it doing nothing for 50 weeks of the year? It's the same with winter climbing gear. It also makes a lot of sense to travel with fewer bags and kit. And just think about whether we actually need a new jacket in this year's colours when last year's jacket is still working well. https://www.scottishmountainhire.co.uk/
These are all pretty easy things to do that have little impact on your daily life. You can be an eco-warrior without having to look like one! But that's the point, isn't it? We all have to do our bit, it's mainstream, it's normal. Doing something to help the human race live sustainably on this planet is something we all need to do. We can't rely on other people to do it for us. We all need to do our bit.
Here's what we are doing as a business to improve our sustainability.
We have had unusually strong and persistent easterly winds for a week now bringing fresh snowfall and creating deep accumulations of snow and a High avalanche hazard in some areas. It has been a very difficult week to get out and do anything safely, so it's a good time to brush up on some more planning skills.
In Scotland, we are super lucky to have the Scottish Avalanche Information Service giving us detailed information on snow conditions and the avalanche hazard. SAIS is funded by Sport Scotland which itself is a Scottish Government funded organisation. The Scottish Government considers this to be an essential service for walkers, climbers and skiers. The people delivering the service are incredibly experienced and highly trained observers and the way the reports are presented is world class. We have an amazing resource here, make sure you know how to use it properly.
Pull up the avalanche forecast in a new window and have a map to hand while you read through this.
We need to build a picture of the snow cover and its history. Start by reading the Weekly Snowpack Summary, top right of the page. This describes the previous week's weather and what happened to the snow. It will give some background to what to expect on your day out, where the snow is, how the weather has changed it, and what hazard there is in general.
Have a look at the blog posts. On the right of the page, under the Weekly Snowpack Summary, you'll find the last few blog posts rom SAIS observers. These have photos taken while they were out working as well all sorts of points of interest. A photo of where you are going, or somewhere close to it, is really valuable so you know what to expect when you get there.
With a bit of an idea of what snow cover there is and its history, we now need more detail. You'll get this in the Observed Avalanched Hazard tab to the right of the Avalanche Hazard Forecast. This is exactly what it says, observed avalanche hazard, i.e. actual data not a forecast. The forecasters go to lots of different places on their day out, making observations of the snow and checking the hazard. This is observed data, the detailed starting point on which the forecast is based. It is occasionally different to what was forecast the day before.
Lastly, read the forecast. Read the text and take time to read the details on the avalanche hazard rose. Check the altitudes of the start of the snowpack and where the higher hazard is, as well as what the hazard level is.
So, what does it say? The avalanche hazard rose (AKA the wheel of fortune or the avalanche piechart) tells us where the hazard is and what level of hazard it is. Each aspect of the mountain is represented at different altitudes all the way up to the highest peak in the area of the forecast. You can work out which aspects of slope have less avalanche hazard and stick to those. You need to know what the hazard level is in each area too.
The avalanche hazard scale is available to see by clicking just above the avalanche hazard rose. Take time to read the descriptions carefully and really understand what each level is. The words have been very carefully chosen and developed to give us the information we need in a practical, usable way. The hazard levels described by "Low", "Moderate", "Considerable" and "High" are very specific levels, not just vague adjectives.
The descriptions talk about natural avalanches and human triggered avalanches. Natural avalanches are started by a natural trigger such as a rise in temperature or rapid accumulation of snow. Natural avalanches can be triggered above you and sweep down onto you. Large natural avalanches can travel below the area marked on the avalanche forecast rose. It is important to take notice of avalanche paths in case you are in a run-out zone when a natural avalanche occurs. You might be on relatively secure slopes but what is above you might not be secure.
Human triggered avalanches are what normally catch people out though. Most people trigger the avalanche that they get caught in. Triggering of an avalanche will occur if the slope is steep enough and if there is enough extra weight on the snow to act as a trigger.
In a Moderate hazard, human triggering is possible, but not likely. It's reasonable to cross these slopes with some care.
In a Considerable hazard, a single person load is likely to trigger an avalanche. Would you cross the road if you were likely to be hit by a car? Probably not, so don't go walking across steep slopes of this hazard level. Natural avalanches may occur, but are not likely.
A High avalanche hazard says naturally occuring avalanches and human triggered avalanches will occur and they could be large or very large. Don't go near the red areas!
How steep is steep enough? Anything more than 25° can avalanche, but the most likely angle for an avalanche is about 30° to 45°. Knowing how steep a slope is, is a useful skill to develop. You can start by using a clinometer on your phone or compass, or the tool in the Be Avalanche Aware app from SAIS.
It's time to start looking at a map. We need to transcribe the information on the avalanche hazard rose to the slopes we see on the map. We need to look at the contour lines and work out the aspect of slope and its gradient.
If you want an easy way to do this, use Fat Map. You can add a layer to the satelite image to show areas above a particular altitude, on particular aspects and gradients. In the image above I have selected SW, W, NW and N facing slopes above 700m and steeper than 25°. The green shaded areas in the image relate to the areas of considerable avalanche hazard in the forecast above.
You can do the same by looking at the contour lines. The easiest thing to do is work out areas above a certain altitude by finding that contour line. If you stay below this altitude and away from run-out zones, you will be pretty secure.
The aspect of slope can be determined by considering a line perpendicular (at right angles) to the contour lines, pointing down the slope. See the image below.
We can also work out the gradient of a slope from the contour lines. On an OS map, the index contour lines (the thick ones) are 50m apart vertically. 50m horizontally on a 1:25k map is 2mm. So if the index contour lines are 2mm apart, the slope is 45°. If the index contour lines are 4mm apart, the slope is just under 30° (26.6° to be exact). I'll spare you the trigonometry!
Looking at the forecast above, a good route to choose might be Castle Ridge on Ben Nevis. It faces east and the forecast says that east facing slopes at all altitudes will have a low avalanche hazard because the wind has scoured off all the soft snow. So far, so good.
Now think about how to get down. The common descent is down towards Lochain Meall an t'Suidhe. The picture above shows that this slope faces north west and the top of the climb is at 1050m. NW slopes at 1050m have a considerable avalanche hazard forecast for them all the way down to 700m. So, if this slope is steep enough, it is one to avoid.
The pictures below show how steep it is. Between the 1000m contour and 950m contour the gap is just over 2mm. So the slope here is close to 45°. If you want to be super accurate, the gap is 2.5mm on the map which is 62.5m in real life. Doing the trigonometry gives a slope angle of 38.7°, just about perfect for triggering avalanches).
Down at 800m to 750m the gap between index contours is 4mm making the slope angle just under 30° here, still of concern and to be avoided.
So, descending this slope after climbing Castle Ridge is not a good option at the moment. It might be better to go over to the top of Carn Dearg, past Number Four Gully and down the Mountain Track since the slope angle is less all the way down here, the slope stays below 30° under the track all the way to the Red Burn crossing. However, check the gradient of the slopes going from the top of Castle Ridge up to Carn Dearg and decide for yourself if you'd be happy walking up them right now.
So, we can look at the avalanche hazard rose and read which slopes have an avalanche hazard, and how high the hazard is. We can then look at a map and work out what areas on the map to avoid. So, why do we need to read so much on the avalanche forecast instead of just looking at the avalanche hazard rose?
This is because the forecast is just that, a forecast. It is right most of the time, but sometimes it is not accurate because the weather forecast it is based on was not accurate. Sometimes we find an avalanche hazard in a different area or of a different scale to what was forecast and we need to be able to recognise this. If we build up a really good picture of what the snow is like first, we have a much better chance of noticing if the forecast is right or if it is slightly different to what we are seeing.
75% of the decisions we make in a day of mountaineering should be made in advance, based on the weather forecast, the avalanche forecast, our experience and ability level and those of the people we are with. We should think about these things first and choose a route based on them when we are not so easily influenced by what other people are doing or tracks we might see in the snow.
Once we are on the journey, walking in to our objective, we should be observing and checking that what we see is in line with the forecast. Most of the time we will be able to stick to our plan, but about 20% of our decisions will be made based on what we see on the journey. By the time we are at critical decision making moments such as which gully to go up or which descent route to take down, we should be 95% sure of the decision before we get there.
Being able to see is a very valuable thing. In good visibility we can look for signs that the avalanche forecast is accurate and we can see evidence of instabilities. We should be able to recognise areas where snow has been accumulating, and areas where it has been scoured away. A crucial skill is to be able to recognise windslab under our boots and to be able to spot windslab from scoured stable snow ahead of us.
It's nice to be able to see cornices and evidence of recent avalanches, areas of safety and areas threatened from above. If you can't see because you are in the cloud and you don't know the terrain intimately, work on the basis that the avalanche hazard is one higher than the forecast. If it is a Moderate, work on the basis that it is a Considerable, and make decisions appropriately.
Many people get caught out by quite small avalanches, small areas of accumulated snow that are just big enough to avalanche and send people tumbling. Big corries full of snow are easy to see, but small areas of windslab in random locations can catch out anyone. The text on the forecast describes some of these locations. Cross loading of gullies and small slopes occurs when a wind blows snow across a slope allowing gullies in the slope to catch snow in the sheltered side of the gully. The avalanche forecast might say that west facing slopes are secure, but in that west facing slope there will be undulations, bluffs and gullies that can catch small areas of windslab and cause individual areas of avalanche hazard.
Being avalanched in Scotland is not an option. Burials are quite rare but injuries due to tumbles and the trauma caused by hitting rocks are often severe. We have a world class avalanche information service - make sure you use it properly and fully to help make good mountaineering decisions.
We know that for the vast majority of people right now the mountains are not within their local area but as soon as travel opens up you will want to hit the ground running. Make sure your skills are up to scratch and you know how to plan a safe and enjoyable winter mountain walk so you can get out and enjoy the mountains as soon as possible. If you have a bit of time to spare why not go through the weather and avalanche forecasts and have a think about which mountains and routes would be appropriate in those conditions.
When planning a walk it is very easy to fall into the trap of selecting a particular mountain days or weeks in advance and then just going with it, even though the conditions on the day are terrible. In this blog post we will take you through the steps to follow when planning your next walk.
What is the weather forecast?
You probably already have a rough area in mind, or a limit on how far you are willing to drive. So what is the weather going to be doing in that area? Firstly, you need to find the correct weather forecast - the weather on the mountain summits is very different to down in the towns. There are a lot of options so have a look at as many as you can. The forecasts will vary slightly from one another but by looking at all of them you will get a good idea of what is likely to happen. Here are a few that we use regularly:
The weather can vary greatly in different parts of the country so, if you are fortunate enough to live in the middle of Scotland, then you could go east or west to find better weather. The prevailing weather comes from the south west so when it is raining and snowing on the west coast you may well find sunshine in the Cairngorms (and vice versa if the weather is coming from the east). If you don't have that option and the weather is not ideal then you can pick a mountain that offers you some shelter for much of the day meaning you only have to be out in the wind and snow while you quickly tag the summit. Or do you need to go to a summit at all? It is possible to have a nice day out in the mountains without going to a summit. If you're desperate for a summit remember there are a lot of lovely smaller hills and mountains around. It's not all about bagging the Munros!
You should also think about the terrain that you will be on during your walk. If high winds are forecast or a particularly gusty wind then an exposed ridge is not going to be a good place to be. Sticking to broader, open slopes is a safer option for windy days. It is also worth thinking about which direction you do your walk. Will you be walking into the wind or with the wind when you are heading back to the car with tired legs? Is the weather going to improve or deteriorate through the day? If you are going onto a narrow ridge will it be better earlier or later in the day? Should you get an early start or would you be better off waiting for the weather to clear up a little before setting off?
There are lot of things to consider with the weather but with a bit of practice you can select routes that are appropriate for the weather, and still have a pleasant walk on some fairly wild days.
What is the avalanche forecast?
Here in Scotland we are incredibly fortunate to not only have excellent weather forecasting, but we also have daily avalanche forecasts for six different areas of the country. These are provided by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) and the areas covered are Glencoe, Lochaber, Creag Meagaidh, Northern Cairngorms, Southern Cairngorms and Torridon.
If you know you are going out at the weekend start reading the avalanche forecasts during the week so by the time it gets to the day of your walk you have a good idea about what is going on within the snow pack. So what are the key bits of information you need when you are planning your walk? (If you are not sure about how to read an avalanche forecast we will have a blog post about that soon.)
Firstly, READ THE TEXT! This will give you a lot more information than just looking at the diagram. So what is the avalanche hazard on different slope aspects (the direction the slope faces)? What is the altitude of the avalanche hazard and where does it change? What are the hazards? How will the hazard level change through the day?
Once you have all the information you will know which slopes you don't want to be on or under (even if the ground you are on is not going to avalanche it might be at risk of avalanche from above) and you can think about your safe options. With the prevailing wind coming from the south-west, quite often (but not always!) south, south-west and west facing slopes will be wind scoured and have a lower avalanche hazard. In a south-westerly wind the snow will be picked up and transported to north, north-east and east facing slopes, increasing the hazard level here. But this doesn't rule out every single slope that faces north, north-east and east. Look at the altitude of the avalanche hazard and perhaps you can stay below it. And remember that avalanches are most likely to occur on a slope angle between 30 and 45 degrees.
Before you send your brain into meltdown trying to count contour lines and work out the gradient, check out FATMAP. This is a fantastic and free tool that, with the use of the gradient layer, allows you to quickly see how steep the terrain is and which slopes you should be avoiding. By staying on slopes that are less than 30 degrees you will greatly reduce your chance of being caught in an avalanche.
Look closely at the terrain you will be on or under. Coires, or bowls, tend to collect a lot of snow so not only will it be really hard work to plough through a coire filled with fresh snow, but the avalanche hazard is likely to be higher. On the other hand, ridges stick up into the wind and get a lot of the snow blown off them, usually making them a safer option.
As with the weather there is a lot to know about snow and avalanches. If in doubt stick to wind scoured slopes, keep the slope angle down and remember that "ridges are bridges". If you want to learn more you can delve into the vast amount of information on the SAIS website or book yourself onto an Avalanche Awareness or Winter Skills course. You'll be amazed at what you'll learn about snow!
What about you?
You have read the weather and avalanche forecasts, but what about you and anyone who is joining you on your walk? It would be silly to plan a long day with lots of steep, technical terrain if you are just getting over a cold and your friend has never used crampons and an ice axe before.
Think about the group's ability and experience level and make sure you plan something that is suitable for every member. Are you confident and comfortable using crampons and an ice axe on steep ground? Can you navigate in a whiteout using a map and compass? Do you have enough warm and waterproof clothing for the conditions? Are you feeling physically and mentally up to the route that you have planned? What do you want to get out of the day?
It is really important to be flexible in winter and maybe have plans B, C, D etc to fall back on. The weather might not be as forecast, you may have woken up feeling unwell or perhaps the snow has been transported to unexpected places. Remember that there is no shame in turning around and the summits will always be there on another day.
Climbing Ben Nevis during the winter months can be incredibly challenging but if you get it right, your experience on the UK's highest mountain can also be very rewarding. Having the right kit with you, and knowing how to use it, could be the difference between having a safe and enjoyable experience and going home cold, wet and disappointed. Give yourself the best chance of success and make sure you go prepared for your winter ascent of Ben Nevis.
What clothes should I wear to climb Ben Nevis?
The key to staying warm in the mountains is layers, but you need to have the right type of layers. One of the most important things to remember when deciding what layers to wear is NO COTTON. While walking up Ben Nevis you will sweat and when cotton gets wet it is very cold. It also takes a really long time to dry so you will spend the rest of your day damp and cold. Synthetic or wool are the best materials to go for, and for your base layers we would recommend wool. It is much warmer when it gets a bit damp with sweat and it also dries fairly quickly. Next, go for a fleece, and then maybe a synthetic insulated jacket. Last of all will be your waterproof jacket, ideally with a nice big hood and wide cuffs so you can get your gloves tucked up inside your sleeves. For your bottom half, woollen leggings and waterproof trousers are probably all you need. Wear your waterproof trousers from the start so you don't have to faff around trying to get them on over your big winter boots and crampons. You will probably also start out the day wearing a woolly hat and thin gloves, which will get swapped for big, thick gloves when you get a bit higher. Everyone is different so it may take a few attempts to work out which layers and how many work for you.
What boots do I need to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
Getting the correct footwear for your winter ascent of Ben Nevis is absolutely vital. As we discuss in the next section, you should expect to need crampons, so you need boots that can have crampons fitted to them. Winter boots are rated B1, B2 or B3 and for Ben Nevis we recommend either a B2 or B3 boot. B2 boots are good all-rounders and B3's are more designed for climbing, but at least you'll know that they will definitely be up to the task. Both B2 and B3 boots have a stiff mid-sole so they can be used to effectively kick steps into short sections of harder snow, and they won't bend inside a crampon causing it too fall off. Summer boots tend to be quite bendy and flexible which means that crampons will just fall off, making them completely useless in the winter. Winter boots are also much thicker and warmer than summer boots so you will certainly appreciate them when you are standing on the summit in -10 degrees Celsius. Compared to summer boots, winter boots feel quite stiff and uncomfortable when you first use them but you will get used to them. If you're buying your first pair go to a good outdoor shop and try on as many different boots as you can. Then break them in with some shorter walks before heading for Ben Nevis.
Do I need an ice axe and crampons for Ben Nevis?
If you are climbing Ben Nevis between November and early May then you should plan to take crampons and a single mountaineering ice axe. Early in the winter season the snow cover will be thin and it will come and go, but it doesn't take long for the snow to build up and for crampons and an axe to become essential. You don't know if the snow will be hard and icy until you are up there, by which point it is too late to go back and get them! Make sure your crampons are fitted to your winter boots before you set off, and it is also good to practise putting them on while wearing thick gloves. They need to be real crampons rather than microspikes, which are next to useless on hard, icy snow. Just like boots, crampons also have a rating system - C1, C2 and C3 - so ensure you have the right crampons for your boots. B2 boots can take C1 or C2 crampons and B3 boots can take any kind of crampons.
What other equipment should I carry?
So you have your clothes, boots, crampons and ice axe sorted, but what else do you need?
What food should I take when I climb Ben Nevis?
Don't be shy with the food you take because the last thing you want is to run out. Take high calorie food that has a good balance of carbohydrates, fat and protein and is easy to eat when wearing gloves - peanut butter, cheese or sardine sandwiches, flapjacks, nuts, chocolate, sweets etc. Take tasty food that you know you like and will eat, and lots of it. It is really easy to get dehydrated in the winter so take hot juice. You will be much more likely to drink this than cold water, and will make you feel a whole lot better when the weather is wild.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.