Monday, 29 April 2013

Fun vs. fundamentalism

Following the Tay watershed exactly will be possible for the most part, but not always. In the lowland sections, particularly the initial days from Broughty Ferry to the Highland boundary fault, I'll be threading a way through cultivated land, sticking to minor roads and farm tracks, and maybe the odd dismantled railway line. Forestry may get in the way at one or two points as well. The extent to which I have to deviate from the watershed (or not) in these early days will need to be figured out on the ground. Between Forfar and Kirriemuir the A926 follows the watershed almost perfectly for around three miles. I'm not sure I want to be faithful to this section though. Tramping along a pavement-free 'A' road doesn't appeal, especially when there are options to follow minor roads slightly north, and a combination of roads, tracks and a dismantled railway to the south. The success of the venture depends on it being enjoyable, after all.

There's one place where I may well have no choice but to leave the watershed completely. Between Glen Artney and the River Knaik headwaters near Comrie there's a firing range covering several square kilometres of undistinguished peaty hill country - highest point Ben Clach (533m). Accounts exist on t'internet of people walking these hills so it depends whether I get lucky on the day and the red flags aren't flying.

Whether these count as potential obstacles or not is unclear, but there are also two large windfarms right on the watershed: the monster Braes of Doune site, situated next door to the south west of the aforementioned firing range; and on the Ochils hilltops to the north of Glen Devon, roughly a couple of days' walk further on.

Windfarms are a huge source of controversy in Scotland at the moment as they intrude further and further into wild country - arguably Scotland's greatest asset. This picture of the Braes of Doune windfarm taken from Stirling gives an idea of the impact these turbines have on the landscape. It's not just the turbines though: there are also miles of access roads and pylons to be constructed.

The Ochils - hills close to where I grew up and therefore close to my heart - are under great threat from windfarms, as this summary from the Friends of the Ochils describes. Windfarm developers seem to be targeting the humble, unfashionable Ochils. Perhaps the reasoning is that it's easier to get away with there than in the renowned Highlands.

Even a single turbine can dramatically alter the landscape. Near my parent's house in Dunfermline a lone turbine was erected to local controversy, and dominates the view from the south over the town like nothing else.

Returning to the two windfarms en route, I expect I'll be able to walk through them, but I don't relish the prospect. I remember seeing wind turbines for the first time many years ago somewhere near the M6 in Cumbria. They looked fantastical and futuristic then; nowadays the novelty has worn off.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

No news is good news

Last week I was reminded of one of the things I'll be 'missing' by taking a month out to walk the hills and live in the open air: news. I'll be going for potentially days at a time without any access to information about 'what is going on in the world'. If WWIII breaks out, my first inkling could be a mushroom cloud on the horizon.

The thing that reminded me was a bit of debate in the Comment section of the Guardian last week. A Swiss novelist, Rolf Dobelli, wrote an essay on his website (reproduced in part on the Graun website) about his views on the dangers of obsessive and compulsive news consumption and why it's best to avoid news altogether. He has completely ignored news for four years. Not so much a diet as a new way of eating, if you will. Judging by the comments in response to the article, he struck a chord with many readers. Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting hit back with an earnest riposte which didn't really address Dobelli's arguments and made me wonder if she'd read the original article properly.

Dobelli identifies a number of ways in which consuming news is bad for your mind, body and soul. It lacks the power to properly explain and explore; in the mainstream news media there is no depth or proper narrative, despite the absurd pomp and portentousness of the news bulletins (parodied so effectively by the man pictured above). It's almost a truism to observe that the lurid falsehoods will be splashed over the front page of the paper one day, the corrections tucked away on page 19 the next. There's often no follow-through: 'stories' swell like bubbles on the surface of a pond, quiver for a few moments, then pop! - gone without a trace, displaced by the next offering of froth. News is addictive, works like a drug, causes stress and anxiety and subsequent psychosomatic effects; it steals time, kills creativity, is largely irrelevant to most lives, and encourages passivity by focusing on things that the average Joe or Jane has no control over.

The possible link between news 'addiction' and depression - and the direction of any causation - is certainly worthy of further exploration.

I think there's little to disagree with in Dobelli's analysis. Moreover, going beyond what he argues, in the more you think about "news" and media and who owns it and controls it and who decides how and what in the world is presented to us and for whose ends... the more you feel yourself slipping down the proverbial rabbit hole. The question always to bear in mind: who benefits from me believing this? Anyone can understand that news media is a portal to a tightly-controlled and mediated worldview. The fundamentally dishonest way in which the media purports to present their news as objective is almost laughable. "Here are the most important things that happened in the world today, in descending order of importance. Don't worry, we'll explain it all for you as we go along...".

You could argue that the way to counteract mainstream media news is to turn instead to the proliferation of alternative news and comment and conspiracy on the internet. I think that's right to an extent, and nowadays there's no excuse for not questioning the mainstream framing of events. However, I know from experience (a morbid obsession with Bush, Blair & co's wicked machinations leading to the Iraq war) that researching the alternative view can be just as addictive and leave you feeling helpless and angry.

Yet news becomes ever-more in-your-face and unavoidable. Screens displaying rolling news proliferate like plate fungi in public and other shared spaces and in workplaces (1984's ubiquitous 'telescreens' seem to be becoming a reality). Every radio station is riddled with news bulletins. Free newspapers are thrust at you outside every tube station here in London.

Of course, the standard charge levelled at anyone who questions the value of this rising tide of babble and wants to switch it off or turn away from it, is 'escapist'. You are turning away from the world, abdicating responsibility, sticking your fingers in your ears and going 'la la la!'. But the irony is that by switching off the news, you're escaping from a fake, shallow world, and the only place to go is back into the real world of your own senses. By switching off the noise you might find that you already know everything you need to know about yourself and your world, that a million hours of current affairs on the TV could never bring you close to understanding.

So, being away from it all for a month doesn't bother me. In fact I'm looking forward to it: looking forward to a clearer calmer head, preoccupied with problems I can influence, and experiencing the world with nothing more than my own five senses.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Freeze-dried Easter

A long weekend in Scotland with the family presented an opportunity to get out into the hills for a couple of days. At least I now have a new excuse: I'm in training! The venue was the complex little range of hills in the angle between Loch Arkaig and Loch Lochy. I was carrying a fairly heavy pack with ice axe, crampons and extra thermal clothing as well as all the usual gear - tent, sleeping bag, food for a night and two days, stove, gas canister and all the other bits and pieces. The weather:  benign with lots of sunshine and little wind; however it was very cold - the tail end of the coldest March in 50 years. Although the wind was generally light it was a biting easterly that was hard to ignore.
Looking south east over Loch Lochy to the Grey Corries, Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis
Aside from the pure pleasure of having a break from work and getting out into the mountains, this was a good chance to test my fitness and also various bits of gear I've gradually been acquiring over the last year or two. With the added metal bulk of crampons and ice axe, the pack was probably as heavy, if not more so, than anything I'll be carrying during the Tay watershed walk.

My first observation was that my fitness and stamina has continued to improve. Lugging the pack up steep slopes and across trackless moors from the south to reach Meall na Teanga (917m) was hard but far from exhausting work. My pace was steady and stops infrequent. The weight training is paying dividends: if I can't train by regular hillwalking, weights are the next best thing.

Grey Corries from Meall na Teanga
Whilst the southern slopes of the hills were largely snow-free, it was a completely different matter on the tops. Meall na Teanga's northern slopes and corries were full of snow and ice and overhung by big cornices. Traversing the narrow  ridge from the top of Meall Coire Lochan to Meall na Teanga had a real winter mountaineering flavour. Slung slackly between the peaks like a precarious rope bridge in an Indiana Jones film, it was covered in deep powdery-dry snow that had been blown into a sharp crest along much of its length. Beyond Meall na Teanga, where the ridge drops steeply to the Cam Bhealaich, crampons were necessary to cross steep slopes of hard, crystalline snow.

An unavoidable late start meant that by the time I reached the Cam Bhealaich it was too late to go on to Sron a'Choire Ghairbh and find a campsite before dark, so I focused on the latter and found a lovely grassy spot by the Allt Cam Bhealaich with a view to the craggy cone of Meall an Tagraidh ahead to the west, and the snowy bulk of Meall na Teanga and its tight complex of subsidiary peaks behind. I was also tired from the adrenaline buzz of the wintry traverse.

Freeze dried chilli con carne and rice followed by custard and berries were tested and found to be pretty darned tasty. The brand was Mountain House, bought from Tiso's superstore outside Perth on the drive north. I imagine freeze-dried food has been vile in the past but I could happily live on this stuff for a while, with the odd steak and salad and bacon and eggs thrown in now and then. The preparation is simple and ideal for situations like this where you're cold, tired and don't want to be faffing around: open the pouch of food, fill with boiling water, stir, re-seal, leave for a few minutes, stir again and eat. A hot meal worked wonders and I felt fully revived.

I'd looked forward to witnessing a stunning starscape; it was also not long past the full moon. However it had clouded over somewhat and there were snow flurries so I crawled into my sleeping bag and read until my eyes started to close. Sleep ended abruptly at 4.30am: the cold was intense and woke me up. My sleeping bag has an extreme limit of -10c (so probably will be fine for the early summer Tay watershed walk) and I reckon it must have been around that temperature or lower. Some sort of instinctive survival mechanism kicked in: I desperately wanted to sleep, but every time I was close to dropping off I was jolted awake.

Intensely cold early morning by the Allt Cam Bhealaich
The day dawned fine and sunny again and I had a long and trackless trek over the two Corbetts to the west that overlook Loch Arkaig: Meall na h-Eilde (838m) and Geal Charn (804m). The hills were surprisingly empty. I only met one couple on the path down to Loch Arkaig. The car park at Eas Cia-aig was quite busy though with walkers returning from the Loch Lochy Munros.

Frozen waterfall on Meall an Tagraidh

On the summit of Geal Charn looking west
Again, fitness and energy were good today despite the heavy pack. Back at the car in the late afternoon I certainly felt the miles in my legs - but it was a pleasant tiredness, not an exhausted tiredness.

Loch Arkaig from the Achnasaul path in the late afternoon

Next month I'm off to Fisherfield for three days and two nights of backpacking, which I'm now looking forward to with confidence rather than trepidation. In the meantime it's back to the weights.

View from Meall Coire nan Saobhaide over Glas Bheinn to Aonach Mor, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis