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<em>Picture: Mitch Barrie</em>

Picture: Mitch Barrie

The prevailing response to the story of Adam Potter – the 36-year-old landfill manager who fell 300 metres down the side of Sgurr Choinnich Mor on Saturday and survived without serious injury – is, quite rightly, that he was a lucky, lucky man.

It’s impossible to guess quite how many falls of that length would result in neither death nor paralysing injury – not least because all hill falls differ in terms of type of terrain, angle of slope, the casualty’s reaction, etc. But it’s hard to imagine that more than one in 100 could escape in the way that Potter did, quite possibly no more than one in 1000. Lucky indeed.

Because Potter’s plunge was widely reported in the mainstream media, the story was high on the adrenaline-rush aspects but low on the more technical, safety-related, what-can-be-learnt details that many regular hillgoers will have wanted to know.

One question being asked in the immediate aftermath was whether Potter had an ice axe and crampons with him – and, if so, was he using them? In general, the winter-hill situation for walkers (as opposed to climbers, and Potter was by his own admission out walking even though he climbs to Extreme standard in summer) divides into three categories. People have (a) axe and crampons in use; (b) axe and crampons still attached to their rucksack; or (c) neither implement, and are armed with either nothing or with just a set of walking poles.

Accidents can and do happen in each of these categories, but people in (c) are clearly at considerable risk if they stray into steep, icy territory, given that they have neither the means to avoiding slipping in the first place, nor to attempt self-arrest if they do slip. With neither the BBC nor Sky interviews providing any information on this, the worry was that Potter was a Category (c) walker, the numbers of whom appear to have been steadily on the increase since the popularisation of walking poles around 20 years ago.

It was left to the Daily Telegraph to clarify matters and confirm that Potter was actually in Category B. “The accident,” wrote Auslan Cramb, the paper’s Scottish correspondent, “happened seconds after [Potter] turned to his girlfriend Kate Berry, 30, and said they should stop and put on their crampons and take out their ice axes because the snow was getting icy. He then lost his footing and began tumbling out of control down the mountain while attempting to use his walking poles and his feet to slow his descent.”

Potter himself, posting on UKClimbing.com under the name “stunt climber” on Monday evening (by which time he had been released from hospital), added some more detail: “I had literally just said to the rest of the team: ‘Lets put our crampons on and get the axes off sacks now’. I was walking approx 5 meters to a boulder to a flat spot with shelter to re-kit myself and that is when I slipped.”

So Potter fell victim not to the recklessness (some would say stupidity) of going up wintry hills with no ironmongery, but to the type of error that pretty much every winter hillgoer – the present writer included – has made at some stage: not using the spiky kit early enough.

A good rule of thumb – or rule of foot – in such situations is this: as soon as the word “crampons” first enters your head, stop and put them on. Or, as a friend commented on hearing the Potter story: “My aim is never to say: ‘We should have put crampons on ten minutes ago on that nice flat bit’.”

Of course, from what Potter has said, it could be that he and his colleagues abided by this on Sgurr Choinnich Mor. But while only they will know what underfoot conditions were like in the preceding minutes, given their position high on a 1,094-metre hill in conditions of widespread ice and very hard snow, it does look as though they left it too late, and should have had the crampons on already.

Sgurr Choinnich Mor might not be the most spectacular hill in the country, nor a traditional accident blackspot, but it’s not to be underestimated. A curious, transitional peak, it stands halfway along the great ridge on the north side of Glen Nevis, not really part of the Grey Corries to the east and certainly not of a type with the heavy-duty Aonachs to the west.

Ralph Storer, writing in The Ultimate Guide to the Munros, says of it: “…the very steep exposed slopes of both Sgurr Choinnich Mor and Sgurr Choinnich Beag require great care when iced or snow-bound, especially on descent … It is a magnificent winter peak that affords Alpine views, but only competent and experienced winter walkers should tackle it.”

Adam Potter is certainly much more of an experienced winter walker than he was a few days ago. He is perhaps also now wondering whether Danny Boyle fancies making a short film by way of a follow-up to 127 Hours.

Crampons, axes, poles and the noble art of getting down alive

By coincidence, I was thinking about winter-walking equipment and safety this past Saturday, even before hearing of Adam Potter’s remarkable 300-metre fast-track descent.

I’ve worried previously in these pages about seeing people climbing Ben Vorlich, the 985-metre Munro above Loch Earn, in winter without ice axe and crampons.

Along with Bens Lomond, Ledi and Lawers, Vorlich is one of those southern-fringe Highland hills that has come to be seen as an any-time ascent, even by people who wouldn’t normally do much serious winter walking.

None of these hills should be treated lightly in ice or hard snow, and this particularly applies to Ben Vorlich. Whereas the standard routes up Lomond and Ledi take south-facing ridges, and that up Lawers comes in from the south-west, the main trog up Vorlich is a straight north ridge – a significant factor that appears to evade many of those who target it in winter.

Not only that, but while the lower slopes are straightforward, the upper chunk steepens markedly, is composed of thin, shaly ground, and has a bad fall-line – not straight back down the ridge (which would be bad enough), but away down a steep scarp slope on the eastern side.

On Saturday there was almost no snow below 600 metres, then patchy stuff to 800m or so – very hard patches, such that no one wishing to get further uphill could have been in any doubt that both care and equipment were needed. The critical upper 100m was as icy as I’ve seen it, needing careful crampon-placement. Halfway up wasn’t the moment to snag a front-point or to see a crampon skite off a glazed-over rock.

It was relief to reach the summit ridge and easier ground, and there is no way that I would have attempted that last 100m without an axe and – particularly – crampons. Even had someone offered to pay off my mortgage and throw a nice big yacht into the bargain if only I would attempt the slope in bare boots, I would have politely declined.

At the summit, however, were three cramponless blokes. I assumed them to be hill tigers steeped in the old arts of step-cutting – until, as I ate lunch at the far end of the ridge, I found myself wondering if they even had axes. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. What I do know is that on descent of the easier north-west ridge I overtook another threesome, one of whom had “fallen over” on the steep bit and only then decided to put his crampons on – Category B behaviour, “axe and crampons still attached to rucksack”, to use the terminology outlined in the above discussion of Adam Potter’s plunge.

These three had in turn chatted with the other three, one of whose number had fallen and slid ten metres before somehow stopping. It was his first Munro – and very nearly his last.

Earlier, approaching the steep bit, two friendly women said they had decided to leave their crampons in the car. I didn’t see them after that, but they spoke about only going as far as the final slope. This had to be the right decision on safety grounds, but it was a shame, given that they could so easily have reached the summit – as they had set out to do – had they brought the spiky feet with them.

I must admit to finding all this something of a puzzle. It’s axiomatic in the hills that there are no real rules, no requirements to take specific pieces of gear, but there is very much a requirement for common-sense and a close reading of conditions. Also, crampons aren’t expensive – they’re cheaper than many cagoules – and the basic technique isn’t hard to acquire. As to deciding to leave them down below – when the summit is in full view from the car, steep, white and north-facing – this just mystifies me.

In many situations a set of crampons is more important than an axe, to the extent that crampons-plus-poles can be a safer option than axe-but-no-crampons, at least for the humble non-expert, a category in which I include myself.

Prevention is more important than cure, and crampons greatly reduce the risk of falling in the first place (but without eliminating it – crampon-points can catch with catastrophic results). Even well-practiced axe-arresters tell of the difficulty of stopping on steep hard snow once any kind of speed has been picked up – which means, on slopes such as those down the side of Ben Vorlich or Sgurr Choinnich Mor, you have, ooh, a couple of seconds in which to make the axe do its work, otherwise you’re gone. Better, much better, not to slip at all.

Happily, all the people mentioned here survived to climb another hill. But what I’ve seen on Ben Vorlich, over several winter visits, makes me wonder if there aren’t more and more of these unnecessary risk-takings, with a lot of small fallings-over or ten-metre-slips going unrecorded and almost unnoticed.

Then again, given that people do seem amazingly good at getting away uninjured despite being seriously underequipped – I know of just one fatality on Ben Vorlich, for instance, and only a very few other incidents – perhaps it’s not really as risky as worriers such as me would have people believe.

My feeling, however, based on discussion with friends and colleagues and on-the-ground observation, is that carelessness and corner-cutting is on the increase. And after getting away with scrapes and squeaks, are people genuinely learning from what happened and modifying their behaviour and technique next time? I have my doubts.

To put it another way, even though one would assume that surviving a Category C (no axe/crampons) or Category B (axe/crampons still attached to rucksack) incident would almost always lead to someone becoming a Category A walker (axe in hand, crampons on feet), it’s not at all clear that this is universally happening.

It could even be that it’s the other way around, with Category C people steadily increasing as a proportion of the winter hillgoing population, precisely because they think they can get away with a minimal, casual approach. If true, that would be very worrying.

Surviving small accidents has always been part of the learning and experience-garnering process. It’s both essential and inevitable. All that can be done after any accident – be it an unreported small slip, or a monumental, media-hogging plunge – is to learn from it, take advice from friends, try and reduce the risk next time.

Going to the hill in winter is, ultimately, about having a good time while staying safe. It’s a brilliant pastime – on a crisp, clear day I know of none better. But it’s crucial to remember that you’re always learning – and hopefully always living and learning.

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A mock-up of the proposed windfarm off Tiree by No Tiree Array group

A mock-up of the proposed windfarm off Tiree by No Tiree Array group

Tiree is known for its surfing beaches and its sunlight but it is the abundance of another natural resource around this tiny Hebridean isle – the wind – that has triggered such a major battle between residents and developers that it could derail at least part of the Scottish Government’s renewable energy plans.

ScottishPower Renewables wants to build an offshore windfarm just off the southwest coast of Tiree. The energy company insists that the Argyll Array, as it is known, is vital if Scotland is to meet its ambitious renewable energy targets.

However, plans for the Argyll Array have prompted a furious backlash from Tiree residents for two simple reasons: it is going to be really, really big and extremely close to shore, so close and so big, in fact, that campaigners believe it will overshadow everything on one whole side of the island.

If given the go-ahead, this proposal could see the erection of 180 turbines, each one 600-ft tall – the size of the Gherkin building in London. The turbines might end up being smaller that that, but if they are smaller then there will have to be many more them, perhaps as many as 500 of them.

The development would start just three miles from the Tiree coast and cover an area of almost 140 square miles. Given that Tiree is just 40 square miles in size, it is easy to why many residents are so concerned about the effect that this project will have on their community.

Members of the action group which has been created to fight the plans, No Tiree Array, insist they are not against windfarms. Indeed, they say they would welcome proposals to site the wind turbines 22 miles from shore.

They just don’t want them so close that they affect every view, every beach, the surfing, the wind-surfing and the fishing on one side of the island.

At the moment, the Argyll Array is part of the Scottish Government’s draft plan for offshore developments which ministers want to get through parliament before Holyrood rises for the election campaign at the end of March.

The minister pushing it through is Jim Mather, the energy minister, but also the SNP MSP for Argyll and Bute, the area affected by the proposed development.

No Tiree Array have already lodged a formal complaint with Mr Mather, complaining about the way the consultation over the draft plan was carried out and raising questions about his dual role: the MSP for area and the minister responsible for the draft plan.

This is a big, big issue for Tiree and, indeed, for Argyll and the Hebrides but it neatly encapsulates some of the dilemmas posed by the push for renewables.

If half our energy is to come from renewable sources by 2020, then the windfarms have to go somewhere. Also, some have to be very, very big indeed, with massive turbines generating significant amounts of energy.

The area around Tiree is windy. It is known for its wind and there are not nearly as many people there to be affected by a windfarm as there are say, in the Central Belt.

But Tiree is also beautiful, mostly unspoilt and an archetype of the sort of Hebrides which visitors want to see. It is also home to 800 residents and another 3,000 semi-permanent visitors who come every summer.

ScottishPower Renewables insists that the water is too deep to site turbines 22 miles offshore. The turbines have to be in close to make the operation work but many residents feel their community, their culture, their whole way of life will be destroyed if the project is given the go-ahead.

Dr Alison Kennedy, spokeswoman for No Tiree Array, said she believed this was a classic case of a small community being trampled over by big companies, by government and, ultimately, by a huge windfarm.

She told the Times she had not spoken to a single islander who supported the plans.

Dr Kennedy said: “The seascape from the south of Tiree is going to become one giant fleet of enormous turbines. Tiree is a beautiful little island with some of the best beaches in the world but the whole atmosphere, the whole shape of the island is going to change. It is going to be industrialised.

“These proposals are way out of proportion for the island itself and they are going to change the whole way of life for this tiny island with 800 souls. The community will be destroyed, tourism will be destroyed. I cannot understand why Alex Salmond wants to destroy the Western Isles, one of the world’s most beautiful areas.”

The campaigners claim they were not allowed to raise objections to the Argyll Array itself during the consultation process, just the general draft plan for the whole of Scotland.

But they believe that they should be able to object at this stage because, if they do not succeed in stopping the Argyll Array now, they are likely to lose the argument in principle and will not be able to defeat it at a later stage.

“The consultation process has been a complete farce,” Dr Kennedy said.

And she added: “I know we need energy and windfarms but I cannot see the logic of this. You have to place windfarms where you don’t destroy communities and this monstrous development will destroy this tiny island community.”

However, a spokesman for the Scottish Government defended the administration’s approach to offshore wind energy. “Scotland has massive renewable energy resources and is at the forefront of advances in offshore wind energy generation. The Scottish Government welcomes developments in the sector and with as much as a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind energy potential Scotland is well placed to become the continent’s green energy powerhouse. “

And Simon McMillan for ScottishPower Renewables, which is planning to develop the Argyll Array, said the water was too deep for the turbines to be sited at least 35km from the shore. He said they had to be within 22km of the shore to stay within Scottish waters and he stressed that the company had given an assurance they wouldn’t come within 5km of land.

He said: “This is a very important project. This is a key part in meeting our carbon-reduction targets and, as an offshore development, this is an excellent location.”

And Mr McMillan added: “We have a very good track record of working with communities and we will keep the community constantly in touch with the project as it develops.”

Members of the No Tiree Array group have vowed to keep fighting the development. They have also produced some startling, professionally designed images showing how close the turbines will be to shore and how, they believe, they will dominate the island. They are determined to win, believing the fate of their island is at stake if they lose.

balaclavaReading Hamish Macdonell’s thoughts on the decline of a once-common form of headwear set me thinking, given that the Road from Balaklava is one that I, like many other hillgoers, have travelled.

The balaclavas (balaclavi?) that seemed near-ubiquitous when I started climbing hills in the early 1980s were hellish itchy. Made from coarse wiry wool, they were undoubtedly warm, but wont to induce eczema-type ailments on the lower face and neck. One of my first hill companions, a dapper Church of Scotland minister named Alastair Lamont, asked his family for a birthday present of a high-quality (and high-price) silk underbalaclava, mail-order from some exotic overseas supplier, specifically to offset the corrosive nature of his standard woollen one.

A thick, bright-red, bebobbled balaclava was part of my hill kit when I started venturing out, as were various other standard items of the time – the Peter Storm cagoule and overtrousers (basically a pair of blue plastic bags equipped with limb-holes), tweed breeches (actually, I bought a pair of full-length tweed trousers, again very itchy), and some short-but-thick outer socks to be worn over the fancier loopstitch ones.

The wearing of double socks, like the balaclava, like the comedy tweeds, like the ultra-basic cag, might have faded away, but only three decades ago it was very much the done thing – to the extent that gruff old-timers met halfway up some corrie would express disapproval if they noticed any attempt to modernise these standard items of apparel.

Working out what not to wear is one of the key early aspects of an outdoors career, and there are parallels with deciding what is and isn’t a dietary essential on the hill.

My first Munro – Lochnagar on a hot day in the summer of 1982 with the aforementioned Reverend Lamont – saw an entirely bespoke attempt at solving the nourishment problem. For reasons that now escape me, but which must have made perfect sense at the time, I climbed the grandest hill on south Deeside armed with 24 salmon sandwiches and a six-pack of Tennent’s Special.

While that one day got the really inappropriate foodstuffs out of my system, so to speak, it merely prompted a switch to cheddar-and-chutney sandwiches and Mars Bars. These, again, accorded with the received wisdom of the time, and being young and stupid I went along with the idea – despite not really liking either item.

Cheddar was fine when toasted at home, but unpleasantly chewy after a saliva-reducing slog up some hillslope, smears of chutney notwithstanding. The Mars Bar seemed actively unpleasant and even dangerous: there was a real risk of losing teeth, given that the chocolate-and-caramel became a gooey mess in summer and a brick-hard block in winter. There were only two weekends each year, one in spring, one in autumn, when a Mars Bar was safe to eat.

I even tried Kendal Mint Cake – there’s nothing like playing up to the hillwalker-rambler stereotype – but that was unspeakably worse. You might as well cut out the hillwalk and drive straight to the dentist.

As with the clothing, it took a few years to establish what worked better on the food front – and, more to the point, what I actually liked. A moment of enlightenment came during my Glasgow years, while living in one of the heavily Asian parts of town. I suddenly twigged that the humble vegetable samosa was near-perfect hill food: self-contained, tasty, and decidedly cockle-warming when one was wedged in behind a windy summit cairn. The only downside was fragility: if you sat on your rucksack, you ended up with peas and flaky pastry everywhere.

The samosa remains my preferred hill snack (accompanied by a tin of fish, a flapjack and a banana), but I’ve had to adapt since moving to a part of the country where good subcontinental food isn’t so readily available as in Pollokshields. And, oddly, I’ve gone back to cheese – none of that dry cheddary stuff, but Stilton-and-lettuce in a wholemeal roll, mmm. What I haven’t tried again, however – and I can’t say I’m tempted – is the salmon-and-Tennent’s combo.

Anyway, back to the headwear. In due course I ditched the balaclava and experimented with a variety of millinery options. These were many and varied, to the extent that a friend named Jan came out with a line that another of my hill companions still gleefully repeats to this day: “He has a hat for every occasion, and all of them silly.”

Being bearded did away with half the need for a balaclava – plus beard-on-balaclava scraping makes a hair shirt seem cosy. Wearing specs also brought a gradual realisation that some form of peak was useful when rain was falling, especially given that wired cagoule hoods never do whatever job it was they were designed for.

For a couple of years at the start of the 1990s I was fond of a strange peaked woollen bunnet that made me look like a jockey out on some particularly chilly gallops. Quite where that came from is a mystery – probably found lying on some hillslope, given that a decent majority of my hats and gloves have arrived that way. But it was replaced by a simple if silly-looking combination of baseball cap with, if temperature or wind-speed demanded, a woolly or synthetic-thermal hat shoved on top.

This mix’n’match approach remains my chosen style when out on the slopes, and has been known to extend to cap, two woolly hats and ski goggles, all worn simultaneously. I really don’t care what I look like when I’m not jostling in the street.

So if you ever see a tall beardie bloke dressed like that on the Ochils or one of the southern Munros, do stop and say hello. If, however, you see someone sporting a scratchy balaclava, it won’t be me – but speak to them anyway, and ask what’s with the retro look.

<em>Picture: Vlad Genie</em>

Picture: Vlad Genie

Where have all the balaclavas gone? Back in the 1970s, sledging without a balaclava was almost unheard of.

I must admit, I had a red one with a bobble on the top and, not only was it distinctly uncool, it provided a far-too-visible target for snowballs. But all children had them then, or they seemed to have them anyway so I wasn’t that different from the rest.

Indeed, I can still remember the taste of damp wool and ice-balled snow from the bit which covered my mouth and the sense of security whenever a snowball hit the covering on back of my neck – because it would bounce off without troubling me in the least.

But then came the paramilitaries, the bank robbers and other assorted criminals and, suddenly, the balaclava was out of fashion: not necessarily with children themselves but certainly with their parents and then, latterly, with the authorities.

The persecution of the balaclava reached its nadir when, in August 2008, the police apparently confiscated a copy of the controversial War on Terror board game because, it was claimed, the balaclava it contained “could be used to conceal someone’s identity or could be used in the course of a criminal act”.

But given that we are currently enduring an unusually long stretch of cold weather and on the basis of predictions suggesting long cold winters may be something we shall have to get used to, isn’t it time to reclaim the balaclava?

They are still around. You can still buy them on the high street and online but I have been out sledging with my children for the past three weeks near our house and have yet to see anybody in a balaclava.

They are warm, they are comfortable, they keep your neck, chin, mouth and cheeks warm and they stop snowballs.

And although they started off in the Crimean War (named after the town of Balaklava), they are now used across a range of fields: some motorcyclists wear them, racing drivers wear them, special forces personnel wear them as do some snowboarders and skiers.

So why not give them to children? They are so warm, they can help the children stay out sledging for hours longer than they would do with a normal hat – and give them the chance to go on to raid the local post office when they’re done.

On second thoughts, maybe they aren’t such a good idea after all ….

<em>Picture: Chumley80</em>

Picture: Chumley80

By Elizabeth McQuillan

One can never have too many shoes. Or can we? On inspection, I possess an impressive array of shoes and boots, all fit for a purpose. Boots of every kind litter my hallway: boots for walking, boots for riding, and boots that just look damn fine. Add to this the warm-weather sandals and trainers to reduce my over-pronation when running, and my feet are very well catered for.

As consumers we spend millions of pounds on footwear and orthotic devices that claim to help with our gait, to improve athletic performance in any given field or make us more comfortable. However, there is a suggestion that we might actually be better off simply getting back to nature.

Going barefoot tickles our senses, evokes memories of childhood and brings with it a sense of freedom. Be it the cushioned transient sensation of warm sand between toes, cool damp grass generating a reflex curl, slipping over wet flat pebbles when paddling or even the ouch-factor when we step on gravel – they all fire the 7,000+ nerve-endings on the sole of the foot. These receptors have a very real function to perform and relay information to the brain about external factors, as well as working with the twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments to help our body move in a bio-mechanically effective way.

By binding our feet in thick socks and placing them into unyielding, solid structures it follows that perhaps our feet simply cannot function as they should. Perhaps we are having a negative impact on our natural way of moving and inadvertently causing unnecessary stresses and strains. Even the wearing of sensible shoes with a small heel will alter the natural alignment of our pelvis, hips knees and ankles, throwing us off balance and stressing joints. Shoes cannot flex at the balls of the feet to a sufficient degree when we take a step, so it would not take a great leap of faith to suggest this might reduce our propulsion with every step.

Indeed a small but growing number of elite athletes are throwing their trainers to one side and embracing barefoot running as the way forward, with many believing this will prove to be the future of the sport. Anecdotal evidence of injury reduction and improved recovery often provides the initial incentive to try things as nature intended.

For most of us, the prospect of standing on broken glass or a dog’s leavings at the local park, are enough to make us reach for our faithful footwear. Perhaps we don’t have to embrace the concept entirely, but I have tried to integrate a little “foot love” into my life by releasing my feet from their cages at every opportunity when at home. How sensitive the sole of the foot is, the nerve ending firing at every sensation having been exposed to nothing more challenging than a cotton sock and a sweaty shoe for years on end.

Although a little strange to begin with, and ultra-sensitive, I am now enjoying the sensation of stepping on different surfaces, and I particularly enjoyed this through the warmer months; bark chips (warm and yielding), freshly cut lawn grass (spikey). When I climb the steep bank in my garden it is intriguing to discover how my toes grasp the surface to assist in the task, and when I run the heel is no longer the point of impact and I land deftly on the ball of my foot.

Over the course of a few weeks, with the help of some dry weather, my home became a shoe-free zone. My calves and Achilles were a little stretched, my feet seemed to spread, but I felt lighter and more nimble and enjoyed the feeling of liberation. Wearing shoes now involves beating my feet into submission first.

For those who would like to try to enhance running performance, while protection their tootsies from the assault from grit and tarmac, a few manufacturers have produced a “sole” that fits over the underside of the foot and toes. Though they may look a little strange, these are gaining in credibility with athletes and according to the manufacturer of FiveFingers: “Outdoor enthusiasts have found FiveFingers to be the ideal crossover shoe for multiple sports and activities – from ChiRunning and bouldering to kayaking and windsurfing. Fitness enthusiasts use FiveFingers for core strength training, yoga and Pilates. Our customers continually discover new and creative uses for our alternative performance footwear.”

Harvard University studies certainly point to barefoot running as being a positive thing. After all Homo sapiens have did not require Nike trainers until the emergence of the jogging fad in the 1970′s, and managed very well without. As do many people and tribes in Africa and South America who are renowned for their running ability. Zola Budd excelled without the need for running shoes.

The study showed that runners who wore sneakers ended up landing heel-first 75 to 80 percent of the time. By contrast, barefoot runners usually land toward the middle or front of the foot.

The heel-landing without shoes means a painful collision force of 1.5 to 3 times human body weight. But cushioned sneaker heels have allowed runners to change their stride to high-impact running, and likely open up a whole world of pain involving foot and leg injuries.

It is a contentious issue, with a lot of a heated debate within the running world. If you want to give it a go do a bit of research first, start slowly and choose a forgiving surface (a beach is a good place to start) until your tootsies toughen up.

<em>Picture: Jason Rogers</em>

Picture: Jason Rogers

As part of the current push towards cost-cutting in public life, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Louise Casey, this week suggested that the right to trial by jury should be scrapped for various “lesser offences”.

Among these, she included bicycle theft: “Defendants should not have the right to choose to be tried by a jury over something such as the theft of a bicycle or stealing from a parking meter.”

Casey’s position only covers the jurisdiction south of the Border, where she would like to see the less significant cases being heard in Crown Court rather than in front of a magistrate. Bicycle theft doesn’t stop at the border, however – indeed there have long been rumours of a regular transfer of stolen bikes from Scotland to England, with the M74 used as a cross-border contraband conduit – and whether it qualifies as a lesser offence is debatable.

Bicycles can be expensive – it’s not uncommon to come across a keen mountain-biker who has forked out the equivalent of buying a small car or good holiday for their two-wheeled steed, and the more bespoke bespoked machines can cost remarkable amounts of money. Even if the cost of any theft can be recouped by way of insurance, there’s also the level of attachment that builds up between a cyclist and his or her machine.

As far back as 1967, in The Third Policeman, the Irish comic novelist Flann O’Brien noted the unusual extent to which cyclists can bond with their bicycles – and he was writing about ancient tourers and sit-ups, rather than fancy carbon-fibre models costing four or even five figures. For many people it remains a curiously profound connection, to the extent that the theft of a much-loved and well-used bike can be almost traumatic.

Statistics on bike-theft are confusing. The Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) flags up two sets of figures, both relating to offences south of the Border. Bicycle thefts recorded by the police rose to from 104,170 in 2008/09 to 109,851 in 2009/10, an increase of 5 per cent. By contrast, the British Crime Survey – which operates via interviews and systematic surveys – suggested a 9 per cent drop in thefts (to 480,000) between 2008/09 and 2009/10, but this came on top of a 22 per cent rise between 2007/08 and 2008/09.

The CTC also points out that only 41% of cycle thefts are reported to the police, according to Home Office estimates.

Victoria Hazael of the CTC argues that bike theft is a bigger issue than the statistics show. “The CTC would like to point out that bikes are worth a lot more than money you can get out of a parking meter,” she says. “More and more bikes are worth over £1,000 and many are worth more than a car. In addition, criminal gangs, stealing thousands of pounds’ worth of bikes, are often responsible for bike thefts. For cyclists who have been victims of bike theft this is not a petty crime.”

For an assessment of the situation in Scotland, The Caledonian Mercury contacted Mike Harrison, secretary of the Scottish section of the CTC. “In 35 years of cycling in Edinburgh I have never had a bike stolen here,” says Harrison, “and among all the cyclists that I mingle with I have heard very few reports of stolen vehicles.

“I have had two Bromptons stolen, one in Nottingham and the other in London – but they have a high resale value. My normal principle was never to leave a folder such as a Brompton outside, but on a couple of occasions when I was more or less forced to do this the vehicle was stolen!”

Precise or even reasonably accurate Scottish bike-crime statistics are hard to find, with the available figures being estimates and often tending to be generalised under headings such as “acquisitive crime” or “household theft”. However, the 2008/09 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey, in its Annex 1, estimates bicycle thefts in Scotland during that year as 30,749, with a confidence interval of 6,086 (ie the true figure is reckoned to be between 24,663 and 36,834). The most recent set of figures, the 2009/10 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey, estimates 26,502 bike thefts with a confidence interval of 4,863.

So the trend looks to be down, but with a large amount of leeway needed with regard to confidence – and 26,502 bike thefts in one year in a country the size of Scotland is still a heck of a lot. It’s around one theft for every 200–250 people.

As to the question of the significance or otherwise of bike-theft, Mike Harrison says that “while the theft of a bicycle can be inconvenient, emotional, stressful, I don’t think it could be described as other than ‘a lesser offence’.”

On the overall scale of such things, when compared to various forms of physical assault, having to suffer watching some opportunistic ned whizz off on your favourite bike is clearly not the worst thing that could happen. But former “Respect Tsar” Casey, in her comments, lumped stolen bicycles in with “the theft of tea bags and biscuits”, and there are unlikely to be many cyclists who view it quite as lightly as that.

Scamp the Harris hawk

Scamp the Harris hawk

A visit to Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park, just west of Stirling, is one of the better Scottish days out. It’s not pricey (£11.50; concessions £8) and the main-gate entry fee covers most options once inside.

There’s scope for unhurried wandering to look at the wide variety of animals, some cook-your-own barbecue stalls are available for sunny days (but drop any thoughts of munching a meerkatburger), and the place has a nice easy-going feel.

The animals have reasonable amounts of space, the staff seem cheery and content, and these days – with the chimps confined to an island in a loch – there’s no risk of leaving with your car’s wipers wrenched sideways unless you’re unlucky enough to encounter the more neddish denizens of Stirling on their annual day out.

The park includes a bird of prey centre, and one of the extra-cost options is a “Hawk Walk” in the company of a keeper and a sharp-eyed, hook-beaked creature with yellow talons. This proved to be a very pleasant sunny Sunday option for your correspondent and his partner (whose birthday treat it was) in late September.

Our guide and bird handler was Ross Bibby, head falconer at Blair Drummond. He fitted us both with thick leather gloves, then selected a very neat-looking Harris hawk named Scamp from the birds on display – which included several little hawks and falcons, a beautiful barn owl, and various massive things including a sea eagle and a turkey vulture, neither of which you would want to have sitting on your arm.

We then ambled round the quieter fringes of the park for an hour or so. Scamp would fly off to some nearby tree, then return to land – less heavily than expected – on an outstretched glove, on to which a morsel of chicken had been placed.

He would then fly off again, we would stroll along, and everything was repeated – a process known as “following-on”. It was all very leisurely and rather soothing – Sunday morning was a nice time to do it. At one point we encountered a dead collared dove. Bibby gave it the once over, shoved it into a gamekeeper-style pocket, said “waste not want not” – and we strolled on. It was that kind of day.

The only interruptions came when we passed beneath power cables and Scamp was kept on his keeper’s glove for a few strides, then when a couple of women with a dog walked by and the bird disappeared up into the foliage for longer than usual to keep an eye on proceedings.

The hawk was impressively hawk-eyed, as one might expect. Even at a considerable distance, he would swoop instantly when a tiny scrap of chicken was placed on the glove. The approach flight was always smooth, with a final dip below glove level followed by a very controlled upward landing – letting gravity serve as a brake for the final second or so.

While we dawdled along, Bibby talked about his work with these beautiful creatures. He is one of three full-time bird of prey staff at Blair Drummond, having come to the park in the spring of 2007 following spells with the Gleneagles falconry school, Leeds Royal Armouries and the Lightwater Valley centre near Ripon.

“I generally don’t get called in as such,” he says, when asked if he works regular hours, “but if I have any concerns about any of the birds I will come in on days off or in the evenings or early morning to do what I can or to take birds to the vets. Fortunately this is fairly rare. It’s one of those jobs that takes over your life and you can’t just leave it behind at the end of the day.”

Birds of prey are valuable, but when conversation turns to “intruders” Bibby doesn’t mean night-time rustlers. “During the demonstrations we have had a few problems,” he says. “When the young swallows are fledging the parents aggressively mob the falcons when we are flying them in the shows, and we had a thrush come right into a crowd of people to mob a tawny owl that we were flying.

“During the season we have buzzards nesting in the woods just near where we fly the birds. They are very aggressive at some points of the year, mobbing our sea eagle and at times striking her, and we also sometimes have an osprey mobbing her as well.”

Thus far only Harris hawks have been used for the walks. “They are ideally suited to the kind of following-on type of flying and pick it up very quickly,” Bibby says. “It might be possible with other members of the buzzard family, but it is rarely done and I haven’t tried it.”

The quiet days of winter – when the park is closed but the birds still need attention – can be among the most rewarding times. “We take the opportunity to rest some of the birds that have been working all year, and train up those that need training to get to the standard we require of them. We do need to be careful when it starts to freeze; some of the more tropical birds are susceptible to frostbite and related problems. But as long as they are given extra food or heat or allowed to perch high enough off the ground to escape the frost, we are generally OK.”

Bibby attends the annual BIAZA conference (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums), which provides “a good chance to meet others and to discuss management techniques”.

There is not, however, any regular breeding of birds at Blair Drummond. “We have bred some Harris hawks in the past,” Bibby says, “but there isn’t really the need for yet another person to produce these birds as they are so commonly bred – so we stopped. All our aviaries are a little too public, and I think that most birds would prefer less noise before they would settle down and breed reliably.”

Bibby used to deny having a favourite among the birds in his care – “they all had their own little quirks that made them interesting” – but admits that “Maddy the female Lugger falcon is my favourite to fly – mostly because she’s very good and a little unpredictable, which makes flying her a real challenge each day.”

Does he have any birds on his wish-list, a sort of Feathered Fantasy League? “I would love to get a couple of swallow-tailed kites for the centre,” he says. “They would be excellent display birds, and are stunning to look at.”

All in all, it was a very pleasant and informative morning – lovely surroundings, a knowledgeable and at-one-with-his-world keeper, and chance to spend time in the company of an impressive and unusual bird.

The Hawk Walk costs £35 including park entry. Blair Drummond starts its winter shutdown on 31 October, so there is still time for visit this year – or put it in the diary for the March 2011 reopening.

<em>Picture: Leigh McMahon</em>

Picture: Leigh McMahon

By Tom Morton

Forty years of motorcycling, and I haven’t fallen off once. Now here I am, in the deceptively sloping car park of Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland, lying underneath a Triumph Street Triple R. Six hundred and seventy-five cubic centimetres of rampant hooligan motorcycle has just toppled with a sickening crunch onto my legs and torso.

There’s no pain, not yet. There was a sense of awful inevitability as, swinging my leg over the heavily laden bike to get off, I caught my foot on the tailpack, fell heavily to the ground and watched the Grey Beast (the R in its name, signifying its uprated thrash-punk credentials, standing in my opinion for Ridiculous) teeter on its dodgy kickstand and then descend towards my aged body.

Gordon, distillery manager, and Rob, travelling companion, saunter (not rush; they’re laughing too much) to my aid. They lift the bike off my trapped body. Gingerly, I try to move my legs. I am Douglas Bader. No, I’m not. Everything works. Ankles, toes, knees. The Triumph’s ungainly rear footpegs, engine casings and protuberant indicators have born the brunt. To the tune, a dismayed Triumph factory will later inform me, of over £2,000 in damage.

It’s a press bike, one of two borrowed for a long-distance charity ride – the Barnard Challenge – which will take us around the UK and Ireland’s distilleries. Eventually we will cover 3,700 miles. For the moment, though, it’s out with the gaffa tape and off to Cork, then the ferry to Wales, down to Norfolk (again) and up to Scotland (again). 

It’s over now. We did it all (Norfolk–Leicester–Orkney–Stranraer–Belfast–Bushmills–Cork–Rosslare–Fishguard–Merthyr Tydfil–Norfolk–Inverness) in just over a week. Apart from that incident in Ulster, neither Rob nor I suffered a scratch. I sit now, the autumn howling in, my own bike (a Moto-Guzzi; Italian, rusty, lovely and medieval) securely stored in its winter shed. Thankful for surviving another summer on two wheels. Looking forward to the next.

Far too many other motorcyclists did not survive this summer. The A9, which Rob and I covered the length of three times in a week, has claimed more than its share of lives, none more affecting than that of 38-year-old mother of two Sharon Topping, from Moodiesburn. Having secretly taken motorcycle lessons as a surprise for her keen biker husband Stephen, the couple had travelled north to collect Sharon’s first bike, bought on eBay. Stephen was following Sharon down the A9 when she hit the central reservation and was killed. That happened the day after Rob and I tore down the road on our way to Stranraer.

It’s the reality of these personal tragedies that can be too easily forgotten in the reporting of the “yet another biker killed” kind. Bikers become anonymous to other road users, swathed in fibreglass and leather, visored, helmeted, sinister. Colin Rafferty, 51, and his son Keir, who was riding as a pillion passenger, were travelling along the A72 when their BMW bike left the road. They were on their way home from football practice. Both died. They both loved motorcycling, loved motorbikes.

Peter and Jacqueline Corris, from Leyland, killed on their way home, again on the A9, from the Thunder in the Glens Harley-Davidson rally. Two children survive them. Their funeral was thronged with Harleys, the snarling of poorly-silenced V-twins an ironic and, to many, ugly requiem.

Why? Why do it? Motorcycling is dangerous. Why put yourself at risk?

Well, per journey there’s as much chance of dying on an aeroplane flight as on a motorcycle. And, package-holiday fans, vice versa. But that’s not the point. People ride bikes not, on the whole, for necessity – the advent of the Mini in the late 1950s spelt the end of the motorbike as mass transportation, though the moped/scooter commuter market has expanded in recent years. People ride for the joy of it. For fun. For the thrill. For the fact that, balanced at speed on two wheels, every mile covered is two (numbed) fingers in the face of death.

The dirty secret is this: motorcycling is about death. Facing it, avoiding it. Using your skill and the power of the machine you’ve learned to master to navigate through the constant threat of destruction. It’s better than life. And if it isn’t. It isn’t.

And it has all this … stuff associated with it. In no other context can a mature man or woman wear leather trousers with impunity. The notion of “gear queer” may offend some motorcyclists, already wrestling perhaps, with the inescapable gay iconography of biker chic. But the term originated among post-Iraq special forces soldiers, for men – always men – obsessed with the equipment of warfare, and its fashionability. William Gibson has based an entire book on the subject.  In motorcycling, you can pay more for a German helmet and some groovy Scandinavian riding gear than for a good bike.

There is desperately unfashionable equipment, too. I wore a Leatt neck brace for the Barnard trip. This ugly Klingon slave collar was designed by a South African doctor who watched a friend die from a broken neck after a motorbike crash. The cheapest version costs £200. It makes you look stupid, and it did nothing for me in the Bushmills car park.

I wore a £2 Hi-Viz vest over my expensively black Cordura armour. A yellow flicker in the peripheral vision of some numpty on the M6 may have saved my life. Who knows? I was too busy concentrating. Because that focus is crucial to riding safely. There is no room for dreaming, no space for distractions.

Motorcycling is about becoming the eyes, ears, brain of the machine – and, as a consequence, it provides a deep sense of satisfaction and, after you stop, euphoria, which is utterly addictive. Somehow, you’re alive. It’s a drug. Even at the age of 54, when I for one should probably know better.

But sometimes you need to reduce life to its simplest. Sometimes you need to escape contemplation, self-consciousness, self-observation. (I have a theory that too many bad bikers spend too much time imagining what they look like on their bikes, preening. That way disaster lies.) Fail to focus, let your concentration lapse, and you will, at best, fall off. You may be killed. It’s elemental stuff.

It’s irresistible.

<em>Picture: Mike Beauregard</em>

Picture: Mike Beauregard

Amid all the discussion of the William Hague/Christopher Myers/twin beds story, only Stephen McGinty, in the Scotsman, appears to have touched on how utterly normal it is for two men to share a tent.

McGinty recounts an incident in which Jeremy Paxman and Robert Harris, reporting on the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, were obliged to cohabit under canvas (or under whatever passes as a modern tent fabric). Paxman did the orthodox thing and “snuggled into his sleeping bag fully clothed”, while Harris “unpacked a pair of striped pyjamas, a dressing gown, and a pair of slippers, then, once suitably dressed in all but a Willie Winkie nightcap, settled down to await the Sandman’s arrival with a hardback biography of Gladstone”.

Amusing, endearing, eccentric – but not at all raunchy, and no one appears to have suggested that Paxman and Harris indulged in the slightest bit of hanky or, for that matter, panky.

Same-sex tent-sharing is boringly normal. On any given weekend, hundreds of Vangos, Hillebergs and Terra Novas will be occupied by bloke–bloke or woman–woman pairings, often miles up secluded glens. Think what opportunity that allows – but never is there any suggestion of it being more than a companionly and load-sharingly effective way of tackling the following day’s climb, canoe journey, or mountain-bike adventure. (And so what if it is more than that? The Gay Outdoor Club is as respectable and well-regarded as any other outdoor-recreation organisation.)

This kind of thing has been going on for years. Take Hillary and Tenzing on Everest in 1953 – or, for that matter, the neglected-by-history team of Bourdillon and Evans, who almost made it to the top three days earlier. They shared tents, and quite possibly snuggled together for warmth, but no-one has ever questioned their motives.

Similarly, after Doug Scott and Dougal Haston reached the top of the same mountain in 1975, there wasn’t any suggestion that Everest the Hard Way – the title of Chris Bonington’s celebrated account of the expedition – was intended to convey any double-entendre or innuendo.

Had anyone hinted at an ulterior motive to Don Whillans when he and Bonington shared a tent during their attempt on the Eiger Nordwand in 1962, the Whillans fist would surely have been employed as a rapid and vigorous right-of-reply.

In more modern times, and away from the mountains, were Ben Fogle and James Cracknell at it when they spent 50 days together – often naked, gadzooks! – while rowing across the Atlantic in the winter of 2005–06? Nope. Yet what is a two-man boat if little more than a pair of decidedly adjacent water-beds?

Anyone, male or female, who has done any even vaguely serious outdoors stuff is likely to recognise this. My own experience is probably typical. For several years in the mid-1980s I was often to be found up some dark glen squeezed inside a ridiculously small Saunders Dalomite tent with my main hillwalking companion of the time, a big, bearded Aberdeen University engineering postgrad who subsequently, for reasons best known to himself, moved to Surrey.

(Actually, I know the reasons, and they’re perfectly reasonable: the earning of a decent wage and the love of a good woman. But Surrey??! It’s not really the place for one who has gazed on Suilven in the sunset.)

Looking back, it’s a puzzle quite how the two of us managed to live in such cramped confines for weekend after weekend. We were both over 6ft tall, and all manner of camping clutter had to be stashed somewhere – rucksacks, stoves, spare clothes, maps, the dog-eared pocket edition of The Joy of Sex (oh, hang on…).

Not a single thought of the rumpy-pumpy variety ever crossed our minds – nor, as far as I’m aware, did any of our friends regard us as gay when they saw us packing the car of a Friday evening. And anyway, the combined effects of uncleanliness, swarms of midges and those 1980s-style scratchy woollen balaclavas would surely have served to discourage any night-time grapplings and entwinings, even had we been so minded.

The only untoward incident I can recall from those nights spent together came deep in the Cairngorms when my friend – who was prone to sleep-talking – suddenly sat upright in his sleeping bag at 3am and groaned “Oh no! Not the rectangular pit!”, before lying down again and starting to snore. It was weird and more than a tad unnerving – what the hell had he been dreaming about? – but erotic it certainly wasn’t.

So, to return to the Rt Hon William Hague and the now-unemployed Mr Myers, would there have been anything like the same kerfuffle had they been discovered sharing a tent at, say, the Red Squirrel campsite in Glen Coe?

Yes, I know it’s not usually the case that one of the partners in a camping duo is the holder of a great office of state. And yes, I know the twin-room incidents are viewed, by some observers, as examples of political naivety and/or Yorkshire thrift.

But here’s another reason. It perhaps seemed completely normal to one or both of them, because they had happily camped with men (not necessarily each other) in times past. A far-fetched idea? Well, maybe. But the Foreign Secretary does have previous in the outdoor-adventure field: in 1997 he climbed Ben Nevis as part of that most manly and brazenly heterosexual of institutions, his stag weekend.

If – as is not impossible – he spent the previous night holed up in a tent with some rugged hill-loving bloke, would it have made headlines and led to the issuing of a lengthy and over-detailed personal statement? Almost certainly not.

Two blokes in a tent is normal behaviour, part of a world where a beard retains its innocent meaning as a hedgelike insect-trap, rather than a euphemism for a wife who serves as little more than a front for her husband’s sexual obfuscation.

They say there’s a downturn. They say there’s no spare money around. Well, on Portobello beach there’s cash to splash, as the suddenly popular video above shows.
The Porty jetski parking fail

It’s not clear quite which “jetski dudes” had the bright idea of parking their nice shiny 4×4 on the wrong side of the high-water mark, but there must surely be cheaper car-valet options in town.

It’s great the way that the footage starts with the jetskiers running out into the sea (shades of Chariots of Fire) towards a dark amorphous shape that could, for those first few seconds, be anything – Jaws, the Firth of Forth version of Nessie, a lost Trident sub – before the camera zooms in and it turns into £15k’s worth of half-submerged pickup.

The whole film is great, but the best bits are at the end. With some assistance from a winch, the jetski dudes shove the damn thing back ashore to a polite round of applause from the assembled watchers – very Portobello, that. Then the cameraman says “What a bunch of fannies.” Indeed. Who needs Last of the Summer Wine when you can have real-life stuff like this?

And what is it with the Lothians and underwater vehicles? Seven months ago it was this more downmarket version.