Hill Walking 2012 Monday December 31, 2012

As I review my activity this year we’re having day after day of thick grey clouds and rain. The temperature is mild but all else is grim. Last year was bad but this year has been worse. There were floods back in May and there are floods again now in December. It’s hard to write something upbeat so I’m not going to attempt it. As I write – this is completely truthful – the rain starts to drop again like lead from impenetrable clouds. It is daytime but it’s like a dystopian world where the sun is now extinguished. It’s going to flood again because this is yet another downpour. I do enjoy British walking but let’s be honest here – this is crap. That concerns British hills for me 2012, although there were exceptions in terms of both sunshine and photography.

As so often then I reflect on the windows of fun, the moments of blue, the sunshine relief and where and how it occurred. It did occur – briefly – and back in May it was actually exceptional. I enjoyed two weeks in early season Scotland in hot weather with relatively few midges. Ah yes, midges: the other accursed fact of the British outdoors, or rather the Scottish outdoors, because I’ve never found them especially problematic anywhere else. It was wonderful in Scotland while it flooded in Kent. Then the sun disappeared, like a joke, and we were left with another wet grey year with no more sustained sunshine: just a day or two, here and there, or a valiant morning burst then back to normal.

However because it was such a fabulous trip and I explored the wonderful north west of Scotland I will, paradoxically, rate 2012 quite well. It was hot – beautifully hot, and you think in such conditions you don’t need to go abroad. British hills are modest in the general scheme of things but more than satisfactory. You don’t need the greater height of other places, a chap said to me, as he laid in his tent in the Arrochar Alps settled for a pleasant evening. I pondered this and decided I more or less agreed. The stunning altitudes you find in the Alps and even the Pyrenees are undeniably wonderful. “It goes on forever” an American couple said to me once, in a Swiss hostel. The Lauterbrunnen Valley was impressive in itself, remininding him of Yosemite. But it didn’t stop there – Wengen is already very high at 1274 metres but then you climb to Mannlichen at 2230 metre, or walk or get the train to Kleine Scheidegg and then the train to the Jungfraujoch glacier which is 3454 metres where you find Japanese tourists in oxygen masks. I panicked – I couldn’t breathe properly but then realised you can breathe, but with a different and slower rhythm. Nonetheless, you feel on the edge of suffocation.

British hills are more manageable and that is part of their attraction. The Alps and Pyrenees are more serious expeditions. Scotland walking is the best. Let’s not be coy about it. In the Scottish highlands you have the highest peaks, all 284 of them, and by far the best dramatic scenery. This year I got great photographs of Ben Alligin, Slioch, Bein Eighe, An Teallach, and more. Last year I had a good time in Scotland too, again at spring time with summer-like heat. “It’s miraculous!” a local chap said to me on Skye. And as I chatted with a walker on the South Glen Shiel Ridge he made disparaging remarks about Wainwright and the Lake District. It was all about scale – there’s so much more in Scotland, it gets ridiculous wittering on about some old duffer who made pen and ink drawings. Wainwright is a fine introduction to the Lake District and I used to enjoy his books when I was starting out. But that was a long time ago. And now I find the mention of Wainwright again as rather tedious. It’s milked, repeated, and mythologised – there’s no doubt about it – for commercial and tourist reasons.

The above is not, incidentally, to deride the Lake District. I love the Lake District. It’s a remarkably scenic place, in regard to its compact proportions. Indeed, I wrote a photo article about this which featured at the US based web site, Section Hiker. I went to the Lake District a few times in 2012 and got some of my best ever shots at Helvellyn and – new for me – video footage at Kentmere. I also went to Wales once or twice, and the Peak District a few times, made notable for some photographs I obtained at Bradwell Edge which changed, in fact, my ideas about mountain and outdoors photography. I obtained subtle shots featuring nothing more than empty flat fields, but with beautiful light. I enjoyed this very much. It was more about photography in essence, rather than walking. The walking was modest, just a ramble of a few hours. But the photographs were very rewarding, concerned with light more than the hills.

The other significant part of 2012 was my fifth visit to the Pyrenees, in a trip of nearly three weeks. This time most of my walking was in Spain, undertaking what Ton Joosten describes as the hardest section of the Haute Route. I started at Vielha and finished in Andorra. In fact – I’m being honest again not writing some silly froth – I didn’t have such a great time this year. As with carnal relations and take away curries so with the hills: walking is not always fun. I think I’ve walked the best of the Pyrenees in previous years and this year, and partly last year too, I was filling in some gaps and trying too hard to explore somewhere else which I knew would be unsatisfactory. Walking for me is all about the experience not completing routes or bagging peaks. That experience, in turn, is very much aesthetic: it’s all about the scenery. You inevitably get good scenery in the Pyrenees almost wherever you are. Nonetheless it varies in quality and for that reason, and because I found this years walking quite gruelling, it wasn’t a great trip. Indeed, I enjoyed a lovely easy walk at Edale when I got back, and found myself comparing it’s gentle delights to the challenge of the mighty Pyrenees: an odd comparison, but that’s what happened. I did however – and this is the important point – expand my Pyrenees photography portfolio. Of all mountain areas it’s probably the best I’ve now got, with Scotland a close second. Although if you like the Lake District you will rate that collection the best…and so on.

For me then 2012 consisted of a wonderful time in Scotland – Torridon especially – nearly three weeks in the Pyrenees which I did enjoy but with reservations, and a few modest trips and walks with an overnight camp or none at all: such moments can be equally memorable and photographically rewarding.

As such, it was quite a good year for me. But the grey clouds and rain, the background characteristic of 2012, has been truly dreadful. How very British moaning about the weather, but it’s hard not to. Photographically I’m happy with 2012 and what I added to my collection. British walking this year has however been – to put it in mild British terms – rather wet.

Lake District

Wales

Scotland

Alps

Pyrenees

Peak District

Comment

  1. Couldn’t agree more with much of what you say here James. It’s all about the scenery. Have you not thought perhaps that that’s influenced by your photography and vice versa?

    I think it has for me in recent years, no doubt. I used to be all about the ticking lists and mileage. None of which appeals to me anymore in the slightest.

    I like to savour my time in the outdoors now. And it doesn’t matter where it is. Obviously I have favourites but that’s all subjective.

    Anyway, nice post mate and Happy New Year!

    terrybnd · Jan 4, 12:24 PM · §

  2. Yes indeed Terry – I usually prefer to walk at places where you get good photographs. And sometimes, just one or two good photos makes a day worthwhile which otherwise I didn’t enjoy. In a brief moment of light, that kind of thing.

    I’ve never really been into peak bagging. And last year for example on the South Glen Shiel Ridge I could have bagged another Munro if I’d diverted back slightly, only for about 30 minutes, which is a must-do for the baggers. Couldn’t be bothered – because there was no scenery reason to do it.

    Happy New Year!

    James Lomax · Jan 5, 12:59 PM · §

 
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