The mental game by Joe McCarthy

Its difficult to summarise what is required of an individual when it comes to backcountry travel and survival. It is something that I continue to ask of myself. It keeps me on my toes; forever searching for new methods that will benefit how I experience nature. In their broadest form (and in no particular order) I've narrowed it down to these four:

  • Equipment (and knowing how to use it!)
  • Skills & Experience
  • Physical Fitness
  • Mental Fortitude

But which of these attributes is of highest importance? Equipment can be bought, physical fitness improved from hours spent exercising, and outdoors skills gained from attending training courses, reading books and leaving suburbia behind. Mental fortitude is something that we are taught far less about. Being mentally focused is the glue that binds the other attributes together; from which we can make clear decisions as the circumstances of each trek change. With the recent high profile male suicides of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell its become apparent that us men are not as thick skinned as once perceived, and thats okay. We have been programmed from a young age to repress our emotions; an unhealthy way of being in the wild. It is crucial to approach difficulties with a positive mindset and a problem solving attitude, to understand that mistakes will be made when learning,to communicate clearly with yourself and to the group you travel with.

In my life I have found that anxiety is healthy if kept in its place, panic is to be avoided at all costs, and fear is a welcome mechanism that enables the body and brain to work at their best.
— Ranulph Fiennes - Fear: Our Ultimate Challenge

And so why the focus on this psycological aspect? In all honesty it was something I spent very little time on until recently. In May I found myself in the Eastern Cairngorms with an awfully negative mindframe and a lack of commitment to the challenge at hand. After 3 days with no human contact I was depressed and lonely (remember I chose to walk in an area which sees a low footfall so this should hardly have come as a surprise). The dry conditions of the land after weeks without rainfall did all but lift my spirits:

The ground snaps with each step. I stop and look down at the pitiful heather; a bare skeleton of bleached, leafless twigs. As I ascend further the heath is replaced with pockets of pink gravel and clumps of dry, yellowed grass that resemble wire brushes. Over the winter months little snowfall has been able to settle as brutal winds scour the flat-topped plateau lands. Here only the hardiest of plants can survive. The delicate upland flora has lain unprotected in its important time of hibernation and it shows. Open to the elements and unwatered for much of this dry spring the place has become a sorry, yellow land.

Even in May a steady northerly still bites. I climb down into a peat bog to avoid the worst of the wind; looking for any diversity of life. There is no wet softness to the bog as I jump down from the heath. No slick, oily mud waiting to swallow my boot as I walk. Just the rock hard ground, cracked from a severe lack of rain. The burn that winds its way down into the glen below is no more. Just a dry, jagged scar remains, peppered with more pink. The land screams for water and the sun beats down. I rue my decision not to carry extra water into the uplands (not for the first time!) and after another hour and four sips my water bottle shows 100 measly millilitres of tepid water. I continue on, a lonely nomad wandering across the crunchy, beige sea.

Creeping Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens)

Creeping Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens)

Spring arrives late here on the sub-arctic plateau and the only specimen of flowering plant I can find on my ascent is the dwarf shrub Creeping Azalea: clinging to the windswept, gravel slopes of Beinn a' Bhùird. Creeping Azalea is an extremely hardy plant which can withstand temperatures and scathing winds down to -40C. Because of its hardiness it doesn't require the protection of the snow blanket in the winter months and each plant can live for up to 60 years. I sit and eat my lunch, appreciating the minuscule pink flowers amongst the surrounding vastness of brown, tan and yellow...

The moment the door shuts behind me I switch into an expedition frame of mind, and so should you. From that point forward you must pay proper attention to the journey, run over the details so that you are completely au fait with the minutiae. You must become active and sharp, spotting signs in the airport ahead of others, and thereby preparing yourself for the kind of alertness that makes the difference when you are in the bush. You must become willing to adapt to new circumstances and bend with the flow of the journey, like the proverbial tree on the mountain.
— Ray Mears - Essential Bushcraft

With this quote in mind i think back to my application to this walk and realise the importance of a positive mental attitude in the wild. Leave your worries and misgivings at home, focus fully on knowing where you are at all times and on planning escape routes for when the weather turns. Check once and then twice your kit and provisions for the journey ahead (I mistakingly left half of my rations at the car on this one). Train yourself physically to deal with any challenges that may arise. And lastly, engage with the landscape around you, just because it is dry and wind beaten doesn't mean that it is completely dead. Embrace the place! Embrace the struggle! Use the creeping azalea as inspiration, for the smallest flower can thrive if only you take the time to look for it.

The Cairngorms: A Winter Immersion by Joe McCarthy

We checked the mountain weather forecast daily, wishing for snow, wishing for winter. The climate of the British Isles is incredibly variant and the freakishly warm January weather continued to cast doubts on our plans of a multi-day snowshoe trip. It was not until we crossed the border that our uncertainty began to ease as a typically wet snow splattered upon the van windscreen; dancing into the full beams from the Scottish night. Our winter immersion had begun.

We set off through the deathly quiet of a native Scots Pine forest, weighed down with 6 days of provisions as well as layers and equipment for winter travel. The chosen destination was Garbh Coire Bothy: an uninsulated mountain shelter nestled in a small, upland glen in the heart of the Cairngorms. Even as the forest thinned the silence was all powerful, with just the muffled crunch of each footstep and the uninterrupted tapping of a million snowflakes falling to the ground. There was a noticeable lack of wind and the snow clouds hung heavy. Time stood still.

Snowshoeing is an ideal method of travel for beginners to winter exploration. It does not require the same level of knowledge and technical skill as mountaineering, ice climbing or cross-country skiing. The winter landscape poses certain risks, ones that the 3-season hiker need not consider. Avalanche, white out and the greater risk of hypothermia were all to be considered as we made steady progress towards the Lairig Ghru. As we left the forested glens behind we were confronted with our first test as the visibility dropped and we found ourselves navigating in a featureless landscape.

Once in the Lairig Ghru the snowy mist lifted to the tops, allowing us a clear view of our refuge for the night: Corrour Bothy. The bothy was a mere spec next to the sheer granite bluffs of one of my favourite mountains: The Devils Point. Its Gaelic name 'Bod am Deamhain' literally translates to 'Penis of the Demon' but was anglicised to a less graphic 'The Devil's Point' by famous ghillie: John Brown upon the royal visit of Queen Victoria to the area in 1865.

Charged by the prospect of warmth we stupidly began to plough through deep snow in a straight line in what proved to be a long and agonising hour. The sighting of shelter tired us, always a taunting beacon on the horizon. We observed the tracks of mountain hares and various birds in the snow alongside our own. Soon after we sighted some black grouse, standing as sentinels, looking side on from rocky vantage points along the valley bottom. Their calls of "coo" and "glug glug glug" followed by a frantic beating of wings and an uncoordinated take off became common place en route to the bothy.

Black Grouse by Edward Lear

Black Grouse by Edward Lear

After a night spent under four walls and a roof we continued further into the Lairig Ghru. The gradual rise in the valley floor brought with it a severe drop in temperature along with a stronger wind and the visibility worse than the previous day. For the goggle-wearing trail blazer it was a struggle, with nothing but white in front you begin to lose perspective of your surroundings. Incline, decline and flat merged to leave us stumbling into ditches and moraine like drunkards. Each step forward was preempted with a sharp stab of a walking pole to give some sort of inclination as to what we were walking into. We mistook every dark boulder under the snow blanket for the bothy, until finally we sighted the doorless front ahead of us. We kicked in steps at 45 degree angles as we ascended the last part of the steep slope, the aching sensation of lactic acid in our legs increasing with each step.

As we approached the bothy our eyes began to adjust to the gloom inside and we noticed a corpse like shape in the doorway. The whistle of the wind whipped snow into the darkness, piling up against what we soon realised was an abandoned sleeping bag. Upon entry we discovered further items including crampons, climbing axes, rope, a smashed helmet and the empty packet of a foil lined blanket. What happened here? A failed climb in the corries above us maybe? The mysterious circumstances of the neglected climbing hardware was a sobering reminder of the unmerciful landscape that we were immersed in. After shovelling out most of the snow and reinstalling the door we soon relaxed, ready to enjoy the shelter of this bothy. Or so we thought.

It is a constant fight to stay warm in what would be best described as a stone-walled freezer. First we layer up with all of our insulated clothing. We use our roll mats as cushions to insulate our feet and arses as we sit, taking our boots off in the process. A big mistake; for within half an hour they have frozen solid. My gloves are the same; each finger chilled into a miniature freezer of its own. As I leave the blessed ‘warmth’ of the shelter Matt battens down the door using an assortment of wooden slats, reminiscent of the Tarantino film: ‘The Hateful Eight’. Angry swirls of spindrift sting my exposed face from the dark valley floor below. We drink one smouldering drink after the other. Hot chocolate, tea, coffee, soup. For each drink another trip outside is needed to relieve yourself and the vicious cycle is complete, for you are as cold as you were in the first place. The candle dies and the winter’s night is upon us. The snow casts the inky blue of the sky into the bothy and with sudden gusts of wind we feel euphoric; as if flying through space in our sleeping bags, relishing the cold that we have so sought after.

With our main destination reached we now had to make the long journey back to our starting point. We unbarred the bothy door to find ourselves surrounded by a foreign sight: a cloud free Ben Macdui and blue skies! It was much welcomed after 3 days without sun. There was now a glazed sheen to the snow and this crust made for much better snowshoeing than the soft powder of days before. After making quick, crunchy progress down to the valley head we were finally walking in direct sunlight. We basked. We walked in t-shirts. We put on suncream; the smell taking me back to school ski trips in the French Alps. We cut through streams and corniced snow, through a maze of lumpy moraine, pretending that we were in fact traversing across the crevasses of polar glaciers. We saw not a soul, not a footprint. The Lairig Ghru was ours.

Gnùig - Pejorative for slope with a ‘scowl’ or ‘surly’ expression.
— Robert Macfarlane - Landmarks

As we neared our lunch stop at the Corrour Bothy the Devils Point loomed large. I thought of the Gaelic word: Gnùig. It seemed an appropriate word to describe the mountain's east face, for it certainly scowled as it became silhouetted by the sun, casting us into shadow. The temperature plummeted and within seconds my uncovered arms and hands burned bright red with cold. I picked up the pace and as I reached the bothy threw on my extra layers in an attempt to warm up again. Winter had returned in an instant.

We left the snowy wilderness of the Cairngorms, content with the solitude and simplicity that the winter landscape had shared with us. Our circadian rhythm was reset away from the modern distractions of phones, television screens, and the artificial light that disturbs our sleeping patterns daily. Removed from these we had entered a timeless place where the weather rules supreme; for what appeared to be simple at a first glance was not so. The range of conditions that we encountered each day transformed the landscape. From oppressing pinewood, to the subarctic, to brilliant alpine. The cold Scottish winter truly has it all.

What is Winter? by Joe McCarthy

I do not claim to be an expert in winter travel. In my last post I shared with you my naive introduction to snowshoeing at the tail-end of a Canadian winter. My travels since then have taken me to some far away and wild locations, but never have I undertaken a true winter epic. With this in mind I headed for Snowdonia in early December hoping to gain cold-weather experience and to test out some equipment before a snowshoe trip planned for 2017. My plans were thwarted when I arrived to find only a meagre dusting of snow on the summit slopes of Snowdon. Where are you winter!?

Equipped with a borrowed ice axe and some piss poor crampons (just in case) I ascended up and into the Cwm Tregalan. The sun was setting as I came across an old ruin from the long gone days of a slate mine. Man's influence had created a bizarre setting of slate piles spilling out from the hillside, separating like giant fingers upon the wild scrub; with a scattering of rough shelters and caves that swallowed my torchlight. After some home maintenance, including laying a new stone floor free of sheep shit I bedded down in my bivvy with a hot chocolate and my latest read: Jack Kerouac's On The Road. If it was calm when I went to sleep it definitely wasn't when I first awoke in the night. A chilling gale launched itself in bursts through the large opening at the shelter's front, whistling eerily at a thousand pitches through a thousand gaps in the stonework. My night was a restless one, filled with dreams and visions as I continuously drifted in and out of a wind induced stumour. "I do this to myself" I said to my porridge in the morning. My porridge looked back, silent and grey.

I walked where my boots led me, my spirits lifting as the sun rose. After undertaking mostly well planned day-hikes in Scotland in the summer (thanks to walkhighlands: a delightful website of detailed hiking routes!) I felt that a lack of route planning and direction would help to keep my navigation sharp and my journey pure for the next 3 days. The only constraint was the daylight hours and I pondered on how different the situation could be if visibility was poor and conditions tough. But for now the weather was truly beautiful, with sun drenched peaks to climb and a wind-buffeting scramble on Mynydd Drws-y-coed. That sent the pulse racing (and the nose running)!

After 3 days in the hills I descended through a mist into Bedgellert. The sights and sounds of structure returned. A farmer driving his pick up down a tree-lined dirt road, passing me with a no nonsense nod as he went about his daily routine. The 9 o'clock bell rings shrill as I descend further into the town; the school children stood to attention in the playground like miniature soldiers. I hear the mother tongue of Welsh spoken by neighbours outside terraced houses. The normalities of village life seemed foreign and strange after my isolation with nature.

So my borderline-obsessive pursuit of winter had honed my senses, not just on my return to civilisation but also on the hill. I was constantly reading the landscape, searching for the elusive traces of cold in this mild December: frost and ice accumulating in the shadows of drystone walls, the whipping cracks created by frozen grasses clashing at the lakeside, the half frost-clad pine trees showing the arcing movement of the days sun, the bitterly cold westerlies on the windward slopes. With these subtle reminders of a winter yet to come I left Wales having been blind to the warning signs. Maybe there is yet hope for my snowshoes!

Let it Snow by Joe McCarthy

As the colder months start to set in most suburbanites are falling into the hibernation routine; wishing bitterly for warmer days than winter. Not me. I'm pouring over various maps of the Scotland wilderness, tea in hand. With winter comes snow, and that is what I'm looking for! I want to immersify myself in winter, to understand the change in landscape, to feel the bitter cold, to see the bizarre sculptures that form when wind and water combine. With these desires in mind in early 2017 me and my fellow wild-place enthusiast Matt will be taking the long drive north to Aviemore: the door to the Northern Cairngorms. From there we plan on taking a multi-day snowshoeing trip, using the local bothy infrastructure to explore the huge U-shaped valleys of the Lairig Ghru and Glen Derry, with a detour planned to the summit of Ben Macdui.

So why snowshoeing? Two and a half years ago we both embarked on a road trip of Vancouver Island, and the Canadian Rockies. In between long days of driving we would undertake some short day walks to satisfy our newly-found lust for pure, untouched scenery. For one particular day walk we drove up to the Mount Washington Alpine Resort on the recommendation of an extremely enthusiastic New Yorker turned Vancouver Islander. The resort was deserted. The season was over, yet the snow remained. From the car park we wandered towards the fringe of a nearby pine forest, soon experiencing the struggles of walking through powder snow. After milling around for a couple of hundred metres it was obvious we were going nowhere and so we resorted to diving and swimming around in the snow.

Matt enjoying a bit of snow wading.

Matt enjoying a bit of snow wading.

A deserted Mount Washington Alpine Resort. Suits us!

A deserted Mount Washington Alpine Resort. Suits us!

The sure sign of an inexperienced traveller. The snowshoes are somewhere in that pile...

The sure sign of an inexperienced traveller. The snowshoes are somewhere in that pile...

As we stood back at the car contemplating our miraculously short walk we saw them for the first time. A mother and son levitated past us, effortlessly disappearing into the snow dusted pines that we had just spent near on an hour trying to reach. In a snow shoe induced panic we left Mount Washington and gunned it along Highway 19 to Nanaimo, catching the night ferry back to Vancouver. After replenishing our supply of BC bud we began our sporadic search, the snow season was finished and this made our search all the more difficult. After picking up a pair in Valhalla Sports (and Matt a used pair in a climbing shop) we began our journey towards the Rockies. We would make good use of our new purchases there! We didn't. The Rockies are no place for 2 inexperienced city boys with little knowledge in map reading, wild camping, and survival skills to go galavanting off in snowshoes. 

This was the nature of our trip. Our minds, dominated by a lifetime of tarmac, concrete, and farmed field were constantly being blown by the raw nature of Canada and the ways in which it could be explored. In the two and a half years since we have constantly been pushing our comfort zones in the search and exploration of mountain, moor and forest. You learn through experience. And so now seems to be a good time to blow the dust from my snowshoes and finally put them to proper use!

Merry Christmas and happy planning for future adventures in 2017! What have you got up your sleeve for the year ahead?

Gday! by Joe McCarthy

Welcome to my blog! This is the perfect time to start sharing more than my photographic work with you. In July I returned to the UK after travelling Australia and New Zealand, before heading to the wilds of the Scottish North-West for a month of hiking in September. I am feeling fresh and inspired by the beauty of the outdoors. 

My time in Australia was spent doing typically Aussie activities: watching cricket, drinking tinnies and sunning it on the beaches. After 2 months in Sydney with my family I took the hop over the Tasman Sea to Queenstown; where I spent a couple of weeks hitchhiking to the various trailheads of Mount Aspiring National Park. This was what I'd come for! And so after relying on Kiwi good-will I purchased my own car, so as to access the most remote areas of NZ with a certain degree of comfort and flexibility. 

The road was however just half of the journey. I will be sharing a selection of my favourite hikes with you in the coming months, as well as some other hill and mountain routes that I have undertaken in the UK as part of my Mountain Leader Training Award.

What next? For the winter months I plan on taking a few multi-day trips into Snowdonia where I will be testing new cold weather clothing and equipment. All in preparation for the next big one: a 7 day snowshoeing trek into the Cairngorm winter and its mountain bothies. But more about that another time...

A worthwhile stop whilst driving the West Coast Road. The drive is one of New Zealand's most spectacular and is one of only a few paved roads to link the west and the east coast of the South Island. Mountain views are in abundance here with the Southern Alps surrounding!

A worthwhile stop whilst driving the West Coast Road. The drive is one of New Zealand's most spectacular and is one of only a few paved roads to link the west and the east coast of the South Island. Mountain views are in abundance here with the Southern Alps surrounding!