Friday, 16 December 2011

Review Kahtoola Microspikes®

Purchased 2010 Price £45.00 weight 360g

It has to be said when it comes to the outdoors, I am an outdoors person first and photographer second. I came to photography via my love of nature and mountains and not the other way around. This approach is often reflected in my choice of outdoor equipment when I am in the hills photographing. In winter when it comes to dealing with ice and snow I have always carried my mountaineering axe and my Grivel 12 point crampons. This kit is perfect on a steep mountain, or when I plan to climb an easy gully or ridge on my own, but if I am simply on walking terrain they are a bit of overkill. The 12 point crampons are also fairly heavy as well and considering I am carrying a load of camera gear on top of my outdoor kit, the rucsack eventually begins to feel a bit of a burden. With that in mind I have to be pretty weight conscious with regards to what should be carried. A further consideration is that I end up having to wear my full mountaineering boots as the Grivel's are not suitable for bendy boots.

03D-0775 lose up View of a Pair of Kathoola Microspike Crampons in Use on Snow UK
Copyright David Forster

Last winter I decided to get a set of  for the days when I was simply out and about in the hills but did not expect to come across too much in the way or steep ice or snow. This meant I could carry a bit less, still enjoy the comfort of wearing my 3 season walking boots and of course still be able to deal with any patches ice or hard snow I may encounter.

I looked at several makes but the Kahtoola's seemed to offer the most aggressive grip in varied snow and ice "walking" conditions. I highlight walking because they are not designed for the sort of mountain terrain where you will experience really steep ground where you need to front point. That said I suppose if you came across the odd really steep bit you could certainly cut steps. I have experimented with them going up and down on pretty steep ground and you eventually get to the stage where the rubber banding that goes around the boot begins to stretch. In this situation your boot tries to slide off the base and places a lot of strain on the rubber. That said this was simply an experiment to find out what the limitations were and is not really a criticism. Price wise at £45.00 they do seem a bit expensive, especially as you do not even get a bag to store them in.

So what are they like in practice? Well initially I was a bit concerned when I took them out of the box and they fell apart. On inspection I noticed that one of the rings that hold the chains on had not been fully crimped. This was easily resolved and all I needed to do was reattach the chain and crimp the ring fully. On inspection the rest of the attachment rings were ok so assume it was one that was overlooked. It did however cause me some concern at the level of quality control.

Attaching them to your boots could not be easier and all you have to do is step the front of your boot into them (they are marked front) and then stretch the rubber backwards over your heel. A quick adjustment to make sure they are aligned correctly and away you go.

Obviously they are not as aggressive as a mountaineering style of crampon with front points and therefore will not provide as much security on steep ground. One aspect I do like is the balance of the points across the foot. They have a 10 point design with 8 of the points spread out over the front part of the foot and only 2 points on the heel. Considering it is the front part of the foot that does the work when going steeply up hill it is common sense really. Going downhill also feels pretty secure although you need to ensure you place the foot fairly flat onto the ground as opposed to stepping down on your heel - again common sense.

Balling is where soft snow builds up on the sole of the boot and between the points of crampons. This can lead to a situation where the actual points do not contact the snow and you loose grip and can end up slipping or falling over. A quick tap of the ice axe shaft on the side of the boot soon clears this, but when you are tired or loose concentration it can be very dangerous; especially so if you fall on hard or steep snow/ice, or near a large drop. It has to be said that balling could be a problem in this respect in soft conditions. Another thing I did notice was that when balling did take place the weight of snow sticking to the crampon points tries to drag the microspikes from the boot. This loads the rubber banding directly, which over time could tear the rubber where the chain ring fits. On other occasions where the snow was changeable I also noticed that when walking I could feel the chains slapping against the sole of my boot (under normal conditions no slap occurs). This "slap" occurs when the points stick into the snow and as you step forward the rubber stretches. When the points break free from the snow they then slap against the sole. This again must place a lot of strain on the rubber banding, however despite this I have not noticed any damage or wear.

On mixed terrain point wear is not too bad and while a little more fiddly to sharpen than standard crampons they are pretty straightforward. The important thing to remember here is that just like all crampons you must not over sharpen the points as they will become blunt much quicker. As far as preparation for emergency repairs on the hill I simply carry the same few cable ties I normally carry with my mountaineering crampons.

In has to be said that in the UK the snow is very variable and you can experience a wide range of snow conditions, even over a few hundred metres. For example yesterday I experienced everything from knee deep soft snow, hard neve, ice, wind slab, sastrugi and more, so they stayed on all day. I have to say that most of the time I hardly notice I have them on they are so light. Another plus point is that the points are set inboard from the edge of the boot and snagging on gaiters or trousers does not appear to be much of an issue. In other words I could walk normally without the "crampon gait".

All in all the I feel these are a decent piece of kit, yes they do have their limitations and I do have some concerns over balling and the durability of the rubber banding. That said they have survived ok so far and only time will tell. These concerns are outweighed by the fact they are light, compact, easy to fit, comfortable and can be worn on anything from trainers to boots.
My Rating - 4 out of 5

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Sheffield Pike - Lake District

Leaving the road that runs along Ullswater and entering Glencoyne Wood the light of my head torch seemed barely adequate for the task ahead. At 5.00am in the morning the last thing I wanted to do was make a wrong turning and end up walking up the drive of one of the houses that were marked on the map. Fortunately it does not take too long for the eyes and senses to adjust to the darkness and I managed to avoid any navigational errors.

As I walked towards the buildings of Seldom Seen and began to climb the wooded slopes above, a Tawny Owl screeched a warning to intruders, a few minutes later across the valley the single bark of a fox indicated I was truly among the seldom seen. I am sometimes asked if climbing up and down mountains on my own in the dark bothers me. While there are occasions where it feels a bit spooky and you sometimes get that feeling of being watched I am not really bothered by the noises of the night. Indeed I tend to find them comforting and would rather be out here alone in the dark than in some urban jungle where nocturnal predators from my own species are much more likely to be prowling around.

Gaining height steadily I eventually left the confines of the wooded lower valley and could clearly see the dark outline of my intended mountain, Sheffield Pike (675m) to my left. Navigation now was easy and all I had to do was follow the field intake wall on my right and when it ended, trend up a well-worn track to the col at Nick Head. Shortly after arriving at the col I thought I heard a stag roaring to the east and sat quietly for several minutes with my torch off listening. Nothing, perhaps I was mistaken, but then again I know there are Red Deer around Haweswater and the hills above so it was certainly possible. After a quick break and a drink I made the short climb to the summit with plenty of time to spare.

Standing among the summit rocks I gazed out over the still dark valleys. To the south west and much higher than my summit the familiar outline of Helvellyn (949m) blocked the view, although in the darkness it was impossible to pick any details of its famous ridges. To the north along the length of Ullswater and above the lights of Penrith I could clearly see the dark mass of the Pennines. There floating above the Eden Valley on a band of mist stood Cross Fell, Little Dun Fell and Great Dun Fell, each outline clearly etched against the pre-dawn sky. I could even spot the shape of the Civil Aviation Radar on Great Dun Fell itself. To the right of these I could also pick out Knock Fell, Meldon Hill and Mickle Fell - all mountains I have had the privilege to stand on at one time or another.

04D-0067 Boundary Stone on the Summit of Sheffield Pike at Dawn with Ullswater and the Distant Pennines, Lake District Cumbria UK
Boundary Stone with Ullswater and the Distant Pennines to the North. Sheffield Pike, Lake District Cumbria UK. Image Copyright David Forster

Eventually very slowly, almost imperceptibly, night began to give way to day. Using pastel shades and sweeping brush strokes of light Mother Nature slowly began painting her canvas from the east. Firstly starting at the horizon the stars slowly faded as she gently dissolved the darkness using soft shades of yellow, then a warm flush of red was gently added to help create an impression of warmth to come. This though was only the foundation and eventually the colours began to merge creating an orange glow that spilled over the eastern horizon. In that moment the onlooker and the surrounding landscape become a part of the scene absorbing the light and warmth of a new day. There is something truly primeval and hauntingly beautiful about standing on a mountain summit watching a sunrise. I could easily understand why our ancient ancestors placed such reverence on its passage throughout the seasons. At that very moment as the light spilled across the land I felt there was a spiritual link right back through time, an unbreakable thread between myself and those who walked this land thousands of years ago.

Once the sun appears the light changes very quickly and I always have the urge to rush the image making process. I can see so many possibilities yet know I will only have time to produce a few images before the light, transient as it is, will simply become a fading memory. On each occasion I have to make myself slow down and be more thoughtful in my compositions. Typically though some don't work quite as I hoped and I have to make a decision, do I persevere and take the risk of not producing that illusive perfect image, or cut my losses and look for a better composition.

Sometimes due to the topography of the ground and the direction of the light there must be compromises and this morning was no different. In the image below I would have loved to have avoided the blank area to the right and have had the rock spikes in a more central position, unfortunately a man made low shelter wall just out of frame to the left and the tumble down cairn next to it would not allow it. Still I think it works ok.

04D-0039 Ullswater and the Distant Pennines From the Summit of Sheffield Pike in Early Morning Light Lake District Cumbria UK
Ullswater and the Distant Pennines From Sheffield Pike, Lake District, Cumbria UK. Image Copyright David Forster

Before the sun got too high I turned my attention to Helvellyn and Raise.

04D-0097 The Mountains of Helvellyn and Raise Viewed From the Summit of Sheffield Pike in Early Morning Light Lake District Cumbria UK
Helvelln (centre) and Raise (right) from the Summit of Sheffield Pike, Lake District, Cumbria UK. Image Copyright David Forster

I then moved a little way south east from the summit to get a better view of Ullswater.

04D-0169 Boundary Marker on Sheffield Pike with Ullswater and the Distant Pennines Behind in Autumn Lake District Cumbria UK.
Ullswater and the Distant Pennines From Sheffield Pike, Lake District, Cumbria UK. Image Copyright David Forster

Eventually when the light became too harsh I headed down into the valley to capture some autumn scenes along the wooded shore of Ullswater.

04D-0352 Autumn Oak Trees and Norfolk Island on Ullswater Lake District Cumbria UK.
Autumn Oak Trees and Norfolk Island on Ullswater, Lake District, Cumbria UK. Image Copyright David Forster

04D-0404 Autumn Trees Ullswater Lake District Cumbria UK
Autumn Sunburst, Ullswater, Lake District, Cumbria UK. Image Copyright David Forster

All text and images copyright David Forster

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Autumn Rut

Below is a quick video edit from a wonderful Autumn day filming the rut. We set out just before first light and watched a misty sunrise slowly burn off the overnight frost. There was lots of noise from roaring stags (Fallow and Red Deer), but unfortunately we did not get to see any battles between dominant males.

I have also added a few of my favourite stills from the day at the end of the clip.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

We regularly get visits from a male and female Sparrowhawk to our garden. Hedge hopping their way across the fields they arrive on silent wings, cause a few seconds chaos as the birds scatter from the feeders and then leave as silently as they came. Very often the only visual sign of their passing are a few feathers from one of the unfortunate victims.

I have to admit that despite my interest in wildlife I came to dislike the pair of Sparrowhawks that came into my garden and began I felt, to decimate the bird population. From the feathers left behind I knew they had taken a few Blue and Great Tits and thought - well its nature. Then over a number of weeks our Sparrow population was reduced somewhat. Knowing how much the House Sparrow is struggling my attitude changed to more of concern. The final straw came when they took one of the pair of woodpeckers that visited the feeders. Those bloody hawks are going to wipe out all my birds was all I could think.

For some reason I found it difficult to accept the fact that these birds were treating my garden as a takeaway. When I really thought about it though and rationalised my feelings I was concerned more because they were taking my birds, birds I had come to know, birds that trusted me and would happily feed only a few feet away as I moved around the garden. It took a little while to realise that actually it was me who was at fault. After all by feeding the birds I had created a Sparrowhawk takeaway, they were just doing what was necessary to survive and bring up the next generation, nothing more, nothing less. It wasn't for fun, or for profit - it was simply for survival. It was me who had tipped the natural balance by encouraging all their prey into a small area and they were simply taking advantage of the situation.

Female Sparrowhawk sitting on our fence. Image Copyright David Forster

Male Sparrowhawk on the Woodpecker feeding post (notice the colouration and size difference between the male and female. The male is significantly smaller and has a slate grey colouration). Image Copyright David Forster
There is another side to this predator story though and that is your cute favourite little birds are also affecting the natural balance in the garden. A few weeks ago I noticed that dozens of Bumble Bees were dying on our path. At first I thought that they had been affected by some sort of poison, but on closer inspection noticed that they all had their insides missing. It was a real "who done it" and I was initially at a loss as to what was going on. The mystery was solved a week or so later when I disturbed a Great Tit and subsequently a Sparrow who both appeared to be taking the Bees. A quick check on the web and I found out that it is quite common for Great Tits in particular to predate Bumble Bees in this manner. The fact that Sparrowhawks take these birds helps to keep this natural balance as well, a balance that very often we see little evidence of first hand and therefore do not always fully understand. Like it or not even the cute and timid are predators just like any bird of prey, we simply see little evidence in our normal daily lives.

So how do you enjoy the birds you feed in the garden, yet also allow birds of prey a living as well? The first thing is to accept that birds of prey are just as vital to the diversity of the garden habitat as your favourite garden birds and they will not wipe out every one. I have to admit it has taken me a little while to accept this, however from my own observations it does appear that in reality they make little impact on our garden birds in the long term. In fact this year has been our best year for our Spuggies and we have a healthy population of around forty or so. No doubt the winter will reduce the numbers somewhat but they are certainly up on previous years despite regular visits from the Sparrowhawks.

At a practical level you can do several things to give your favourite birds a sporting chance. For example by placing feeders near natural cover such as trees, thick bushes or hedges the birds will have somewhere to escape to. Don't be surprised to see a Sparrowhawk fly at full tilt into a tree or bush if it has managed to get within striking distance, their skill and agility in such a confined space is incredible.

You can also grow plants or add natural obstacles that do not allow birds of prey an easy line of attack. That said the last thing you want to do is place anything in the way that puts any of the birds at risk. Netting for example should certainly not be used. Personally I think a well planted garden is best, but if you cannot add any natural cover the RSPB has some tips on manmade deterrents that you may find useful.

Finally whatever you do and regardless of its success enjoy the fact that your garden must be a prime habitat in order to attract one of our top garden predators.

Images and text - Copyright David Forster

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Catrigg Force Yorkshire Dales

The weather was pretty wet in the Yorkshire Dales over the weekend and the streams and rivers were in spate. Have they been anything else lately? The walk up to Catrigg Force from the village of Stainforth was fairly steep and muddy in places, but it was certainly worth the effort. As waterfalls go it is fairly small, but set as it is in a narrow wooded gorge it has a secluded feel to it and in spate conditions is still pretty impressive. I used a long exposure to create a sense of movement in the water and to help prevent the upper section of the image from burning out I used a graduated ND8 filter. I also produced a short video sequence using the 5D to give you an idea of what the location is like.

03D-7203 Catrigg Force Waterfall in Early Autumn Stainforth Ribblesdale Yorkshire Dales UK
Image Copyright David Forster

Text and images copyright David Forster 2011

Friday, 9 September 2011

River Tees in Flood Conditions

Throughout its journey the River Tees passes though some wonderful scenery. From its birth in the High Pennines below Cross Fell to the crashing violence of waterfalls such as Cauldron Snout and High Force the Tees has much to offer the photographer. That is not to say the middle and lower reaches of the Tees are less worthy, it's just that in its upper reaches the surrounding landscape feels so wild.

The path from Bowlees over Winch Bridge and upstream to High Force is in my opinion one of the best short walks in this area - its certainly my first choice when I feel like a wander for a couple of hours to blow the cobwebs away. After last night's rain I was certain the river would be quite high, so the plan today was to get both still and video footage of the waterfalls of High and Low Force. As I left the car another heavy rain shower rolled off the Pennines and it was straight on with the waterproofs. This pretty much set the scene for the day and the waterproofs stayed on until I returned to the car four hours later. Not that I am complaining, this type of weather does produce some great lighting conditions and I would rather be out here than in an office all day.

Approaching the stile leading into the wood at Low Force I could hear the roar of the river below and knew I was in for a spectacular sight. Making my way down the path through the trees the river came into view. Looking upstream it appeared as a boiling, foaming, peat stained brown mass, the colour of strong tea. Looking towards Low Force itself instead of being the usual ten-foot high waterfall it now appeared as a smallish three or four-foot waterfall. Clearly overnight a lot of rain had fallen higher up the dale. This contrasted sharply with my experience of two weeks ago when I photographed canoeists expertly dropping over both sides of the fall.

03D-6157 Canoeists on the River Tees at Low Force Upper Teesdale County Durham

03D-6140 Canoeists on the River Tees at Low Force Upper Teesdale County Durham
Canoeists enjoying the river a couple of weeks ago. Copyright David Forster

03D-6556 The River Tees at Low Force Waterfall in Flood Conditions Upper Teesdale County Durham UK
Today the river was much more intimidating. Copyright David Forster

A quick inspection of the rocks close to the river's edge showed that there was a wet debris line about six inches or so above the current river level, this indicated that the flood water was actually receding. The Tees is notorious for the speed at which it rises and falls so there was little time to hang around if I wanted to get the best out of the day. My first task was to get some video footage of the fall itself. Once I was happy I had captured some decent footage I slowly made my way up upstream. From the viewpoint high above the river High Force was certainly an impressive sight as it thundered over the Whinsill into the pool below. Normally the whole of the river is channelled into the left hand side of the fall, however when in flood it flows over the right as well. This was by no means a major flood though, as it can often cover the whole centre section. Being the first of the autumn it was still a pretty impressive sight and certainly worth documenting. I then spent a frustrating hour or so trying to get some footage that was not spoiled by spray on the lens and filters.

03D-6622 The River Tees at Low Force Waterfall in Flood Conditions Upper Teesdale County Durham UK
High Force always looks impressive after heavy rain. Normally the river only flows over the left hand fall. Copyright David Forster

This is the video produced from today's footage.

The River Tees after Autumn Rains in Upper Teesdale, County Durham UK from David Forster on Vimeo.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Cross Fell in Winter

I have explored the area on and around Cross Fell on over a dozen occasions and only recall having a view from the summit plateau twice. On the first occasion I mountain biked up to the bothy known as Greg's Hut with 3 friends and then walked up to the summit. We considered ourselves lucky in that we managed to get a few brief glimpses of featureless moorland through fast moving cloud that was being shredded by a bitter northerly easterly wind - and that was in summer.

On the second occasion I was part of a search team looking for an experienced walker who became disorientated and eventually benighted somewhere near the summit plateau. We searched during the night probing the slopes in a howling wind and driving rain before being forced to take shelter ourselves for a couple of hours in Greg's hut. Come the dawn we were back on the plateau being battered by a gale so strong it was impossible to communicate with team members only feet away. The wind was a continual bully roaring in our ears, pushing, pulling and twisting our bodies as it gusted and tore at our clothing and equipment. Then all of a sudden the wind would drop or change direction and still leaning we would be pitched forward or sideways only for it to begin all over again. Hunched up, tripping and staggering like drunkards we continued searching conscious that in these conditions anyone injured would not survive very long. As we searched I became very aware of just how variable the wind was. In the middle of the plateau the wind while still incredibly strong was pretty constant. In contrast the nearer we got to the plateau edges the worse it became. Here the harrying nature and increased velocity became much more extreme as it rose over the scree and boulder fields to the north and east before accelerating across the plateau and down into the Eden valley. Perhaps we were experiencing the birth of the "Helm Wind" a local and very powerful air stream noted for its ferocity and ability to cause localised destruction down in the Eden Valley. However such musing were cut short when we heard on the radio that missing person had been found on slightly lower and more sheltered ground to the north west of the summit. He did bear some scars from his night time adventure though, with a cut to his head and a broken compass as a result of being blown over. Surprisingly despite his night out he was only suffering from mild hypothermia - his slightly lower elevation and more sheltered location clearly made a considerable difference.

What of the view then? Well just before leaving the summit the cloud began to break and we had extensive views east down into upper Teesdale and south across the Eden Valley. However by then we could not have cared less about how good the view was, we were all too cold and tired. To add insult to injury in those few hundred meters to the hut the wind dropped to much more manageable levels and even allowed the helicopter to recover the casualty from the hut itself. I knew though that the "helm wind" - if that was truly what it was - would be still at work up there scouring and shaping the summit just as it has done for thousands of years. Experiencing such conditions really does reinforce the need to respect these mountains even when conditions in the valleys appear benign.

Another opportunity to enjoy a view from the summit came during the winter when a friend of mine offered to be a porter for the day and help carry up some of the camera equipment.

The forecast was ideal with clear overnight skies and a hard valley frost predicted. Leaving the car in Kirkland we could see Cross Fell and its neighbours had a good covering of snow and with the predicted clear skies being correct we had high hopes of some extensive views. I even dared hope that this would be the time I would stand on the 2930ft (893m) summit with views all around and nothing other than the pin drop silence you are sometimes lucky to experience in the British mountains perhaps once in a winter.

Picking our way around frozen puddles and some more extensive ice patches running across the track we made good time up to the band of scree, crag and boulders that mark the edge of the summit plateau. This area can be quite awkward to negotiate when wet and slippery but fortunately most obstacles were buried under fresh snow which made the going relatively easy. Progress however was a little slow as the extensive views called for several photo stops. Capturing pure landscape images that demonstrated just how wild and barren this part of the Pennines can be under snow was quite a challenge though, as the lack of identifiable features made it difficult to convey a sense of scale. This can be solved by placing someone in the frame and provides a better perspective for the viewer, so with Alan acting as model we slowly made our way towards the top.

09-9785  Hill Walker on Cross Fell and the View Towards Great Dun Fell and Beyond. North Pennines
The final snow slope that leads to the edge of the summit plateau. Image Copyright David Forster

On reaching the summit plateau itself my hopes of quietude were completely blown away. Here evidence of the winds work was all around. Spindrift forced on by a bitter northerly wind streamed across the ground. It hissed and wormed its way through wind carved sastrugi which in turn squeaked and crunched as we made our way around the plateau edge to get better views of Great Dun Fell. Only then did it hit me that I had never truly seen a view from Cross Fell. Ahead I could see the golf ball dome of the Civil Aviation Authority radar on Great Dun Fell with Knock Fell and Meldon Hill behind. Further to the east the bulk of Mickle Fell could also be seen, but views to the north were limited by a band of cloud and mist. Below but unseen the infant river Tees flowed into Cowgreen reservoir.
09-9897 Hill Walker in Winter on the Summit Plateau of Cross Fell and the View Towards Great Dun Fell. North Pennines

Alan on the summit plateau of Cross Fell with the view towards Great Dun Fell. Image Copyright David Forster

Making our way over to the Summit trig point the mountains of the Lake district came back into view, but views into the Eden valley were obstructed by the plateau rim. Frustratingly the strength of the wind put paid to any good quality summit images using a tripod. It whistled through the tripod legs and rattled the camera to such an extent that low ISO and therefore slow shutter speed images with a decent depth of field ended up completely blurred. Handholding produced a hand full of record shots, but that was all and none met the quality I needed to get them published. Instead with numb fingers and the threat of getting seriously chilled we retreated to the low walls of the summit shelter. After hot drinks and a bite to eat we then made our way north towards Greg's Hut to pick up the path that would take us back to Kirkland. All in all it was a successful trip and I came away with some decent images, some of which were later published in various magazines.

What of the mountain experience - well cold and windy it seems will always be my abiding memory of Cross Fell. Perhaps next time I will visit at night to capture a star lit sky and then with luck capture the sunrise above mist filled valleys. Who knows I may even enjoy that level of quietude that only those who walk above the clouds can ever experience.