Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Scarpa Moraine Plus GTX shoes - Long Term Review

An outdoor company's designation of  "Approach shoe" can mean anything from an ultralight trainer style shoe to a semi rigid shoe almost suited to rock climbing.  A good pair of approach shoes (in my view) should sit somewhere between the two extremes and be suitable in a whole variety of situations They should offer day-long comfort, be reasonably hard wearing and offer good support without feeling rigid.

I've used Scarpa products for many years because they just seem to fit me well and although certainly not cheap the brand does make a quality product.  This review  is based on wearing the Moraine Plus GTX shoes for a full year.  Used daily for commuting and travel, they have also been worn on short walks, on long day walks at lower levels, around camp on sea kayak trips, for shopping, casual wear and just about everything else in between.  My original pair have just about got to the stage of being replaced - and I've purchased another pair of the Moraines.

Up to 2019 the colour scheme was a smart grey with blue trim - the 2019 version is brown with an orange trim.  The uppers are 1.6mm Nubuck leather with a Goretex Extended Comfort membrane lining.  For comparison, the R-Evo GTX walking boot from the same company has a 1.8mm upper.  The weight of a UK size 8 (Euro 42) pair is 930 grams, so these shoes don't fall into the lightweight category, but neither do they seem particularly heavy.

Construction is up to Scarpa's usually high standard.  The midsole is bi-density EVA which gives a good mix of shock absorption and support.  Straight from the box the shoes are comfortable and supportive.  Initially the heel strike feels quite firm but this isn't noticeable after a short time.  The walking action is nice and natural and I've experienced no discomfort or "hotspots" at all.  There's a TPU shank in the midsole under the central part of the foot for lateral support and this works very well - it can be seen clearly on airport X-Ray machines if you are required to remove the shoes at the security search area!

Perhaps the strongest point in favour of the Moraine Plus GTX is that I simply forget I'm wearing them.  They are comfortable even on long days and unlike some Goretex lined footwear I've not felt them to be over warm.  Within the limitations of a low-cut shoe they've also been waterproof; the only times I've experienced a wet foot is when water has come in at my ankle.

The style of the shoe is more substantial than a trainer and probably closer to a walking boot in design -in fact there's a mid height version available too.  The rubber rand at the toe does the job of protecting the Nubuck from bashes and scrapes.  The Vibram Dynatech 3 sole gives great grip on most surfaces (but be careful on shiny floors when they're brand new!) and the well defined heel breast is very effective when going down steep inclines.

After a years wear, I felt that it was time to replace my original pair of Moraines and after saving up a bit (see last paragraph!) I had no hesitation in purchasing another pair. 

In this image the new pair are nearest the camera with the well-worn pair farthest away.  Some abrasion and fading on the uppers is obvious but the shoes certainly aren't damaged in any way - all stitching is intact and there isn't even any fraying on the laces.

The soles have worn pretty well - I walk approximately 50km on a variety of terrain during a typical week (excluding any specific hillwalking) and the Moraines have been in daily use - so the wear shown here represents over 2500km of walking.  I wear the heel of my left foot more than any other part of a shoe due to my gait and (as expected) this has worn significantly; otherwise the level of wear is certainly not excessive.

I've found the Scarpa Moraine Plus GTX to be a well-designed, quality approach shoe which is comfortable on a range of terrain.  They've lasted well - the old pair will be relegated to gardening and will probably still be going for a long time to come.

Retailing at £155 in the UK for the 2019 version, the Moraines are pitched as a premium product.  For me, the quality, performance and comfort of these shoes outweighs the high price. 

Conflict of interest statement:  I purchased both pairs of shoes at retail price (less a small club discount) from a national outdoor equipment retailer and have no connection with Scarpa or the retailer apart from being a satisfied customer.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Bin it

I've driven past the sign on the A96 road near Huntly which points to the Bin forest car park literally hundreds of times and yet not visited - feeling that a walk close to a busy road would be spoiled.  I'm pleased to say I was totally wrong.

On a really windy Sunday morning we parked and headed out on one of the waymarked trails which climbs steadily up through the forest. 

The Bin was originally planted for timber using seeds brought to Scotland by the great plant collector David Douglas, and while still worked partly as a commercial forest there's much more to it.  It's been a long time since I've visited a forest with quite some much variety; open areas alternate with denser woods and mixed stands of wood are much in evidence.  In this image there are Spruce, Scots Pine, Birch and Rowan all within a few square metres.

There was plenty of interest in the small scale too, miniature forests of lichen and mosses with just as much variety as the big stuff.

We saw the first frog spawn of the year in a pool beside the path, possibly laid the previous week in the very warm (for February) conditions.  Whether this spawn will survive is questionable with sub-zero temperatures and some snow forecast for the first week of March.

A small group of Ladybirds, probably 7 Spot Ladybirds (Coccinella septemunctata) were sunning themselves in a sheltered spot on an old pine branch.  We've seen a lot of these bright little creatures this winter, our Christmas tree proved to have large numbers hibernating among the branches which we carefully took outside and placed in similar spots in the garden!

Near the top of the forest the view opens up and our attention switched from the small things at our feet to the wider landscape - this is a view to the Buck, a prominent hill above the Cabrach.

The high point of the Bin forest is the hill after which it's named, the Bin is 313m/1026ft.  "Bin" is probably a variant of "Ben", the Gaelic term for hill or mountain - there's another so named close by, the Bin of Cullen, which is almost exactly the same height.  There top is an outcrop surrounded by trees offering good views through breaks in the canopy.  A nearby pool is known as the "Gallon of Water" and was supposed to have healing powers, especially for children with Whooping Cough.  The walk to the summit followed by a "dook" in freezing water probably would have some effect, one way or the other!

We descended back down to the main track through a wood which little ones would recognise as good habitat for Gruffalo, and half glimpsed a strange creature through the trees....we're still not sure, but it may have been?

Other strange sights were present in this part of the wood - great mushrooms of mosses........

....and a split boulder through which the path winds.  Our route took the Yellow and White trails through the forest, the longest of the options and circling the hill to arrive back at the car park.  In total our walk was 10km and has around 200m of ascent, mostly on good forest rack with some smaller path sections.  For variety and interest the Bin has lots going for it - and is certainly not rubbish!  As a bonus, the nearby town of Huntly has a number of places to eat.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

A February day in Glen Quoich

February has continued to be unseasonably warm with temperatures more usually associated with late Spring than late Winter.  On a "normal" February day a walk up Glen Quoich would need most of the gear required for winter hillwalking, but certainly not this year.  The glen is entirely bare of snow and even the mountains only have patches of old snow.  So complete is the thaw that the Quoich Water is at a low volume - most of the snow having already melted.

There are some wonderful areas of old growth Caledonian pine forest in the lower part of the glen, standing deadwood mixed in amongst mature pines and, pleasingly, lots of young trees.  It's not so many years since you could walk in this area and see lots of Red Deer but very few young trees.  The National Trust for Scotland took a decision to reduce deer numbers on the ground and the result is a much more healthy regenerating forest.  A healthier forest will also be good for the deer going forward as they're animals of forests rather than moorland.

The spiral grain of a Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) can be clearly seen in the dead trunk above.  This is a characteristic of the species and seems always to spiral clockwise.  It's thought that spiral grain is an adaptation which strengthens the tree and enables it to resist wind stresses better.  Some mature pines have huge crowns and of course retain their needles through the northern winter so an adaptation to resist wind stress seems to make sense.

At the opposite end of the scale from the huge dead pine trunk, there are clear signs of the coming Spring, especially in the smaller trees like this Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), even though the colours of the wood are generally muted at this time of year it won't be too long before the fresh greens of Spring emerge.

Much more colourful was a large granite boulder covered in orange lichen - quite beautiful in it's own way.

At our feet we noticed a number of dark brown or black hairy caterpillars crossing the path.  I've not been able to identify the species - so if anyone knows what type of caterpillar this is please let me know!

As hazy sunshine began to break through we looked up to a great view.  Across upper Glen Quoich the southern spurs of the sprawling Ben a' Bhuird dominate the view. We sat and "brewed up" tea, enjoying both the view and the warmth of sunshine on our backs.

We kept close to the Quoich Water on our way back down the glen.  Flowing off hills of granite rocks, it's a clear lively river.  As can be seen by the landslip on the bank in this image, it's also a dynamic river which thrashes around in times of spate.

Near to where the Quoich flows into the River Dee is a favourite spot of ours. A series of small falls are formed where the river drops over shelves of rock.  One of these rock shelves has a waterworn hollow known as the Earl of Mar's Punchbowl.  Local legend has it that the Earl of Mar had this hollow filled with punch during a hunting trip to toast the Jacobite cause in 1715.  He'd be disappointed today though as one side of the hollow is worn through allowing water to pour out.

Below the Punchbowl a wooden bridge crosses over the river above the Linn of Quoich (a Linn is a narrow constricted channel) where the whole volume of the river roars onto a narrow gorge.  In spate this can be a fearsome sight.

Walking back up from the Linn of Quoich we looked back up the glen to see that a dark bank of cloud had obscured any sun.  The forecast was for afternoon rain and it looked like the forecast was absolutely accurate!

The rain passed through during the afternoon, and back at home we were treated to a fine show as the sun set.  It had been a very pleasant winter day.....

Monday, 18 February 2019

A hint of the Spring to come

A run of remarkably mild and sunny days in the north east of Scotland has brought a hint of Spring, in mid-February; and nature has responded.  Birdsong increased noticeably, where there had just been Robins singing they've been joined by Great and Blue Tits, and yesterday a Thrush belting out song from the top of a Birch tree.

The flowers have responded to some warmth too - Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) usually flower in February but have fully opened their flowers in the sunshine.

The Crocuses in a small flower bed next to a south facing wall visibly grew over two days, a couple of weeks earlier than expected they're much more a Spring flower than a winter one!

On a walk by the lower reaches of the River Spey, a sunny and sheltered spot in a wood was full ofa plant which seemed familiar, but not completely so.  We have Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) growing near to home and this was similar but somehow different.

A bit of research revelaed that the plants are White Butterbur (Petasites albus), a non-native variant introduced to Britain in 1683 from southern Europe.  It apparently thrives along watercourses in the north east of Scotland and can be invasive as it spreads via underground rhizomes and can out-compete other species.

There's no doubt more of winter to come, but it was certainly good to feel a hint of the coming Spring!

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

A gem of a winter day at Loch Muick

After Storm Erik had swept across Scotland there was a day of rare winter perfection; cold but not frigid, clear blue skies and crisp winter sunshine.  We decided to take a walk at Spittal of Glenmuick and drove the short distance from home through Ballater and up the single track road to the head of the glen.

Just as you approach the car park at the end of the road there's a great view across to Lochnagar, which was looking very fine under a full cover of snow.

You don't get to see all of Lochnagar from this angle though, the great corrie which is the defining feature of the mountain is hidden behind the upper slopes.  A cloud cap was streaming over the western arm of the corrie and then dissipating into the clear sky.

The term "Spittal" indicates the site of a medieval staging point for travellers on the drove road between Deeside and Glen Clova - termed as a hospital or hospice but having the meaning of a shelter from wolves and robbers.  There are some fascinating remains of quite a sizeable township, described on the Canmore site record.

The end of the road is a car park owned by Balmoral estate - there's a charge for parking which was originally quite reasonable but is creeping rapidly up - £4 per car currently.  There's also a small but very interesting visitor centre in a former cottage and some public toilets.

We'd originally intended to walk around Loch Muick but noticed an information poster indicating that a bridge over a large burn near the head of the loch has been washed away.   There would be no easy crossing of the burn so we decided to walk out along the west side of the loch and return the same way.  The loch is a real glacial feature, wild and surrounded by steep hills for most of its length.  Although a level, loch-side walk it needs to be remembered that Loch Muick is at 400 metres/1300 feet and can experience ferocious weather.  On this day, in the winter sunshine it was a stunning blue jewel among the muted winter hills and a perfect foil for the sky.

The River Muick drains from the end of the loch and flows north to eventually join the Dee near Ballater.  A dark brown yet not peaty, I've always found the Muick an interesting river - it starts sluggish and meandering and picks up speed well below the loch, tumbling and surging down a gorge to join the Dee - almost the reverse of most rivers.

Along the path every bit of moisture had been frozen hard, there were smears of hard grey ice and puddles crazed with beautiful crystal patterns.

On the warm coloured granite sand at the end of the loch there are signs that this was once a well wooded area - historic climate change and changes in land use have left it mainly bare, though the trees are beginining to return along the loch with help from the estate in fencing and reducing deer numbers.  Fifty years from now there should once again be a natural wood all along one side of the loch, extending up the slopes.

The track along the west side of Loch Muick is built to a very high standard with drainage ditches and retaining walls of pink granite blocks.  This was built to service a quite remarkable building and one which is quite unexpected.....

Glas-Allt Shiel was built on the site of a much smaller cottage for Queen Victoria who loved the place for its remoteness and peace.  Built after the death of Prince Albert, she seems to have preferred it because there were no associations with her late husband - she found Balmoral and the small hideaway of Allt-na Guibhsach too full of memories.  The name is taken from the burn which rushes  down off Lochnagar and into the loch - the Glas Allt (grey water)

Still owned and occasionally used by the Royal family, this is perhaps one of the best situated of all the great lodges.  At the rear, an outbuilding is an open bothy cared for by Dundee University and the Mountain Bothies Association.

We found a sheltered spot by the loch side in the wood surrounding the lodge and spent a pleasant half hour in the sunshine eating lunch - there was even some warmth in the February sun.  We left reluctantly; Victoria was right about the peaceful setting of Glas-Allt Shiel.

We strolled the 6km back to Spittal of Glenmuick in alternating cold winds and warm sunshine, the wind beginning to pour down from the higher ground.  From the car park we could see that the morning cloud had burned away to reveal the edge of Lochnagar's corrie - it had been a gem of a winter day.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Pale beauty

It's been a weekend of pale beauty here in the northeast of Scotland.  Driving towards Banchory we were in atmospheric mist with shafts of sunlight streaming through the trees - and I hadn't brought a camera!  We stopped on the road which drops from Queen's View towards Coull where there's a wide sweep of the Dee valley below.  A photo on a mobile phone gives an impression of the almost ghostly quality of light.  Beyond the Dee the easternmost of the Munros, Mount Keen, was prominent as a dome of brilliant white against the pale blue of the winter sky.

On Sunday evening I took a walk around the local area and was returning home as the moon rose above the farmland.  Initially a shade of golden yellow, it rapidly became a disc of pale beauty as it cleared the frost haze; the temperature plummeted below freezing and continued down to minus 6 Celsius.  This full moon was a bit of a special one too....

I was up and about before 5am in order to catch a flight for work - but also to try and catch something of the lunar eclipse which reached totality at 0512.  Given the catchy title of a "super blood wolf moon" because the moon was at perigee (closest to earth and so appearing 7% larger than normal), the blood term from the expected reddish colour and "wolf moon" is a name for a January full moon.

The eclipse was so total that the moon appeared for a while as a dark disc - and my camera simply wouldn't focus on it; the image is included here to show the extraordinary colour.  The difference between the conditions during this eclipse and the very special solstice lunar eclipse in December 2010 was amazing - the ambient light from the snow covered landscape on that occasion must have made quite a difference. 

In any case, my images this time mostly showed nothing but a blur of reddish-brown at totality.  What I actually observed was a disc of deep brown with a reddish edge all round - it was incredibly beautiful.

Gradually the terminator (I love some of the astronomical terms!) crept down and allowed pale light to flood around a portion of the moon, just as a haze of cloud arrived and softened the light.

A post of rather dodgy photos, but hopefully conveying something of the pale beauty of this winter weekend.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Bacon rolls, coffee and cake - the art of suffering on Loch Ailort

I slept well in Peanmeanach - a quiet building in a quiet place.  Stepping outside in the evening, it was immediately obvious that our fire wasn't the only glow around these parts. A herd of Red Deer hinds uses the meadow below the bothy and they generally gather in the evenings.  Our headtorches picked out dozens of pairs of glowing eyes staring back towards us - and the animals seemed very unconcerned if we walked close by.

We felt no inclination for an early start and so didn't rise until it was fully light - about 8.30am.  The weather looked to be similar to the previous day with a grey cloudsheet overhead, but it was dry and not too cold which is as much as you can ask from a January day in Scotland!

A leisurely breakfast including bacon rolls (thanks Donald!) and fresh coffee made for a pleasant start to the day, breakfast made easier by being able to cook inside the bothy.  Once packed up we cleaned through the building and cleared the fire ashes for the next visitors, then got dressed into paddling kit.

Back on the water by mid morning, we decided to paddle to the head of Loch Ailort before returning to Samalaman to end this short trip.  The colours on this third day of the year were very muted and the light levels quite low; our boats seemed to be the only spots of brighter colour anywhere. 

Loch Ailort is a shallow "S" shaped sea loch guarded by islands at its mouth and has more interest than is generally supposed.  There are islands, narrow channels which change with the tide height and even some faster moving water in places.  We explored at a leisurely pace up to the head of the loch where luncheon was taken at the public jetty near Inverailort.

We planned to arrive back at our starting point near Glenuig at or shortly after sunset so didn't linger too long before setting off back down the loch.

On the way we stopped at a spot I've paddled past may times but hadn't previously landed.  A glimpse of flat turf aroused our interest and we got out to investigate.  Aside from Peanmeanach there are few decent spots to wild camp in Loch Ailort, or so we thought.  You'll need to find the place for yourself, but we felt that two or three tents could be pitched here on good, level ground - a useful recce!

We paddled back out of the loch past Eilean nan Gobhar and out onto the Sound of Arisag; An Sgurr of Eigg ahead of us was streaming a cloud banner as moister air streamed past it - quite different to the conditions on the summer day when Mike and I last visited!

The last hour of our paddle passed pleasantly as we upped the pace a little to arrive back at Samalaman Bay in the gathering dusk.  We landed at almost high water so didn't have too far to move our boats, which is always a nice bonus at the end of a day.  Kit packed up and boats loaded, we couldn't resist the lure of coffee and cake at the Glenuig Inn before heading home - an other nice bonus at the end of a paddle!  we'd topped and tailed the day with good food and with fresh coffee....who said sea kayaking  trips mean "roughing it"?!

This first overnight trip of the year had been just 32km of paddling over two short days.  In familiar waters and benign weather we'd enjoyed a pleasant and relaxed introduction to another year of sea kayaking - and shared with our friends Allan and Lorna a return to kayaking after enforced lay-offs.  Here's to lots more trips in 2019!