Welcome to my blog. I'm an outdoor writer and photographer with a passion for wilderness and mountains. Use the links above to find out more about me and my books and walks. Click on a blog heading to see any comments or to add your own. -Chris Townsend

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Pacific Crest Trail

Siberian Outpost in the High Sierra

Following the publication of my book on my Pacific Crest Trail hike, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, I've been asked about the trail and what it's like. Of course the way to find out is to read my book but in the meantime here's a piece I wrote for The Great Outdoors a few years ago with some photos taken on my walk.




One sunny April morning nearly thirty- four years ago I took my first steps north from the Mexican/USA border. I had begun my walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, a walk that would end 174 days and 2700 miles later when I reached Canada. En route I would walk through deserts, forests and mountains and watch a vast wilderness unfold. I would see black bears and rattlesnakes, moose and coyotes, strange Joshua trees in the deserts and giant firs and pines in the mountains, smoking volcanoes and bubbling mud pots. I would experience searing heat, deep snow, tremendous thunderstorms and dangerous creek fords. I would learn to carry a gallon and more of water in the desert, the hassle of hanging my food to protect it from bears and the need for snowshoes or skis when hiking through deep, soft snow. My pack would be heavy, my feet often sore and my skin burnt and frozen but at no point would I wish to be anywhere else. The beauty, tranquillity, power and magnificence of the landscape would overcome all difficulties and discomforts.

Since hiking the PCT I have undertaken many other long distance walks and hiked in wild areas in many parts of the world from the Arctic to the Himalaya. But if there is one route, one experience, that sings in my mind above all others it is the PCT. Maybe because it was the first big walk in real wilderness, the first one outside the UK, but mostly, I think, because it is such a superb route with such a wonderful variety of landscape and terrain. 

Desert Mountains

The PCT runs through the States of California, Oregon and Washington, following the line of mountains that rises up east of the Pacific Ocean, hence the trail’s name. In Southern California this long chain of mountains breaks up into little ranges split by big sections of desert. Here there is heat and a lack of water, even in April. Cacti and rattlesnakes are everyday companions and the location of water sources is key to comfort and safety. Only when the trail climbs to cross the east-west running steep Transverse Ranges – the Lagunas, San Jacintos, San Bernardinos and San Gabriels – is there shade and water and coolness. This splintered section, forever changing between flat desert and steep mountain, ends with a crossing of the Mohave Desert amidst the weird Joshua trees, which are giant yuccas rather than real trees.

From the Mohave Desert the PCT climbs into the glorious Sierra Nevada mountains, which it follows for 1000 miles. The name means the Snowy Range and it was appropriate for my PCT hike as the mountains were still deep in snow when I reached them in mid-May, the previous winter having been exceptionally long and snowy. For the 500 miles of the High Sierra, the highest part of the range, I plodded through the deep snow in the forests on snowshoes and climbed icy slopes to high passes on crampons in the company of three American hikers I’d joined for safety in this winter mountain wilderness. The trail was buried and hidden but we could follow the rough line, though we walked across frozen lakes rather than round them and crossed one ridge by the wrong pass. The wilderness was empty and we saw no other people or any tracks for the twenty-two days it took to cross the high country to Yosemite National Park. The high point, literally and emotionally, of this snow trek was the ascent of 14,494 foot Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous States. In summer you need a permit to climb Whitney as the mountain is so popular. In May we were alone.

In the Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon
 
In the Yosemite backcountry the snow began to melt and there were many swollen torrents to ford either with a safety rope or by crawling along wet slippery fallen trees. The week spent here was the most hazardous of the walk and probably the most dangerous seven days I’ve ever spent in the wilds. Beyond Yosemite the snow slowly melted away and the terrain was lower and less remote though still magnificent. The Sierra Nevada fades away too, into the southernmost Cascade Mountains, a range typified by the string of massive volcanoes that stretches all the way to Canada. In Northern California I went through Lassen Volcanic National Park where I saw my first geysers and bubbling mud pots and then passed lovely Mount Shasta, its shining white cone prominent in the views for many days.
 
After 1500 miles the PCT leaves California for Oregon, where the walking is perhaps the easiest of the whole route, with many level forest trails. The volcanic landscape is still impressive though, standouts being the pristine blue waters of Crater Lake, set in the huge caldera of an ancient volcano; the spiky rock fangs of Mount Washington, Mount Thielsen and Three-Fingered Jack; the rippled peaks of the Three Sisters; and the bigger volcanoes of Mounts Jefferson and Hood, the former set in beautiful timberline meadows. Oregon ended with a descent to the Columbia River via spectacular Tunnel Falls where the narrow trail is cut into the side of a deep gorge and passes behind a tremendous waterfall.

In the North Cascades
 
The final section of the PCT, through Washington State, is the most rugged and steep and has the stormiest weather, a fitting finale. From high pass to deep valley to high pass the trail threads its way through the North Cascades, a dramatic tangle of alpine mountains clad in glaciers and snowfields. The big volcanoes are still here – Adams, Rainier, Baker – but not as dominant as further south due to the welter of other impressive mountains, especially Glacier Peak, surrounded by flower meadows and tree groves. Then there is the last splendid high level walk along the Cascade Crest in the Pasayten Wilderness. All too soon Monument 78 on the Canadian border arrives and there are just the last few miles to hike to the nearest road. The PCT is over.

Pacific Crest Trail Association  http://www.pcta.org/


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Between the Storms

The Cromdale Hills at dusk, December 8, 2014

After two days of snow, wind and cloud a quiet day in Strathspey. A pause before the next storm, forecast for tomorrow. But for a day the sun shone, the sky was blue and only a gentle breeze swept the land. The air was chill though, barely above freezing even at midday. The only sound was the crunch of my boots in the snow. When I stopped the silence was palpable, strong and powerful; a silence I could almost hear.

In the fields and woods little stirred. Back home the birds were more active than they have been in weeks, a flurry of blue tits, coal tits, great tits and chaffinches coming and going to the feeders. Great spotted woodpeckers flew in and hammered at the peanuts almost frantically. Blackbirds and dunnocks and a cock pheasant scoured the ground for seeds and bits of peanut falling from above. The days are short, the nights long and cold. For small birds finding enough to eat, enough for warmth in the darkness, is crucial for survival. The world is not quiet for them.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Great Outdoors Latest Issue: Pacific Crest Trail Gear, Talladh a Bheithe wild land or wind farm, Winter sleep mats, Socks

Pacific Crest Trail Pack

The January issue of The Great Outdoors is out this week (now in digital form, in a few days in paper). To go along with my latest book, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, which tells the story of my 1982 Pacific Crest Trail hike, there's an article on the gear I used back then and what changes I'd make now. There's a nice review of the book by Roger Smith and he also chooses it as his outdoor book of the year along with my Pacific Northwest Trail book, Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams. I chose Alex Roddie's The Atholl Expedition as my book of the year. In my backpacking column I write about my visit to Talladh a Bheithe, a wild area of the Highlands threatened by a wind farm.

Also in gear I review four sleeping mats and ten  pairs of socks while Daniel Neilson gets excited about four portable coffee making options and tries nine sleeping bags to see how suitable they are for winter.

Elsewhere in this issue there are wondeful snowy pictures of the Lairig Ghru and a winter camp on the Moine Mhor (I'm the small figure in this one), both by Terry Abraham. The theme of the issue is winter and Carey Davies describes a magical winter's day in the Cairngorms, Roger Smith suggests a selection of  First Winter Munros, David Lintern looks at winter camping, Daniel Neilson goes on a winter skills course at Glenmore Lodge and I suggest Meall a'Bhuachaille for a first winter walk in the Cairngorms. There's also an extract on ice axes and crampons from Terry Adby and Stuart Johnston's A Hillwalkers Guide to Mountaineering and advice on winter photography from Mark Gilligan. The most exciting piece is from Chiz Dakin who describes her first winter wild camping experience - in a storm high in the Lake District.

Away from the snow Ed Byrne tries sailing off the Norfolk coast, Peter Coombs goes canoeing and wild camping with Ray Mears in Ontario, Carey Davies praises Bleaklow, Roger Smith writes about ancient woodland and undergrounding electricity cables, and Jim Perrin praises Wainright's A Pictorial Guide to the Fells.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Winter Returns to the Cairngorms



Camp in the moonlight

White mountains, sunshine. A perfect winter’s day. I set off up into the Cairngorms staring across the shining new snow. The first real winter’s day. The snow had fallen two nights previously, the first night of December, coming on strong winds that had left it in drifts piled up against banks, rocks, tussocks. I soon found that although the snow cover looked thin, with stones and grasses poking through, in many places this was not the case and as the snow was soft and unconsolidated I broke through constantly. Walking was not easy but then in true winter conditions it shouldn’t be.

After sunset, Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine

I crossed the Cairngorm Plateau with no sound but the occasional rasp of a ptarmigan and the distant voices of a few climbers in the Northern Corries, which quickly faded away as I headed for Ben Macdui. The high lochans and streams were frozen, the rocks were glazed with ice and frost. The low sun gave a warm glow to the land but the air was cold. Visual warmth only. I reached the summit of Macdui just before sunset. To the south, west and north a blanket of cloud covered the hills with blue sky above it. The Northern Cairngorms seemed the only range shining in the last rays of the sun. Across the Lairig Ghru the peaks of Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine appeared to be holding back the rolling white cloud that covered the rolling uplands of the Moine Mhor.

After sunset, Ben Macdui
 
The sun sank below a shoulder of Cairn Toul and the warm glow was gone from the mountains. Only in the sky did colour remain as the hidden sun lit the clouds. To the east an almost full moon rose and the light changed, pale and cold rather than bright and warm. I stayed on the summit until the last pink tinge left the sky and the first stars were appearing. Then I headed down to Loch Etchachan. The moonlight was bright enough that I didn’t need a headlamp. On the shores of the loch I pitched my tent and stared across the water to the cliffs of Carn Etchachan where the snow glowed in the moonlight. 

Loch Etchachan

To the east below the moon bright sparks flashed on the surface of a small lochan as if there were stars in the water. These came and went as I moved about, creating a magical scene. Only the next morning did I see that the lochan was frozen and that the ice was cracked and broken. Tiny facets of it must have been catching and reflecting the moonlight.

Frost appeared on the tent and ice in my water bottles. The air was crisp, cold and calm. Reluctantly I finally slid into my sleeping bag and fell asleep, with the moonlight shining in the open door.

Sometime in the night a wind sprang up and blew cold air on my face, cold damp air. I looked out. Nothing. Thick mist surrounded the tent. I zipped the door closed and drifted back to sleep. By dawn the gusty wind was noisy, rattling the tent. The mist had risen, capping the peaks but leaving my camp clear. 

In the morning
Contrasts on Ben Macdui, above day 1, below day 2

I returned over the Plateau in the opposite conditions to the day before, struggling in the strong wind that threatened to knock me over as I balanced across icy rocks. I was in dense mist most of the day too, using compass bearings to navigate my way. Snow was falling, thin hard flakes blasted by the wind. The summit of Ben Macdui, a good landmark to take bearings from, was hazy and more snow had piled up against the big cairn. Only when I dropped below the Plateau did I start to leave the mist and escape the wind.












Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Go Lightly In The Hills



Walkers on a hill path in the Crianlarich hills

Spending a fair amount of time in the Lake District this year I noticed the number of worn paths and a few over-used wild sites. I see both in the Scottish Highlands too but generally more spread out and so less obvious. However whether common or rare we should do our best to avoid creating such damage. Industrial developments – wind farms, pylons, bulldozed roads - may well be the biggest threat to wild places, especially outside national parks, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to minimise our own impact. Here’s a piece I wrote on this for TGO over a decade ago. The advice is basic but I think it still stands.

A Saturday on Skiddaw. An almost continuous line of people head up the main path to the summit. Considering the numbers who use it the path is in surprisingly good condition though it is quite wide in places with eroded edges and the steeper sections are worn down to bare scree and rock. Spur paths have appeared in places too along with grooves in the hillside where walkers have taken short cuts in descent. The problem is numbers. With so many people some damage is inevitable. The Lakeland hills are so popular that eroded scars rather than paths are found in many places. Some wild camping spots, such as Styhead Tarn, are over-used too and look worn and shabby. Yet everyone who walks and camps in the Lakes loves the hills and the landscape. It happens elsewhere too. In fact go to any popular hill and there’ll be signs of damage on the main paths. It’s called “loving it to death” and it’s a growing problem throughout our hills.

A well-used path in the Lake District
Much of the damage is done through ignorance. Many people simply do not know how to treat wild country with respect. Some of the ways to minimise your impact are not that obvious and even experienced walkers can do unthinking harm. In the UK not enough advice is given on how to walk and camp softly in the hills, leaving little or no trace of your passing. In the USA there is a whole organisation for this called Leave No Trace (LNT) that publishes leaflets and books and trains people in LNT techniques. LNT is a great scheme but it relates to the American wilderness and not the British hills so some of the advice is inappropriate. More emphasis in the UK on minimum impact (a phrase I prefer to “leave no trace”, as the latter is only possible if you stay out of the hills) is sorely needed.

The basic principle is to take nothing and leave nothing. All litter should be taken home and it can help if you carry a plastic bag to put other people’s rubbish in too. That’s a start but on its own it’s not enough.

PATHS 

Hill paths are a mixture of purpose built paths, old stalkers’ and shepherds’ paths, sheep and deer tracks that walkers have turned into paths and paths that have arisen because walkers have followed each other, usually up and down the quickest, most direct route. Well-located and well-constructed paths can withstand countless pairs of boots. However most paths are not well designed or built and are easily damaged.

A narrow path in the Torridon hills

The ideal path is only wide enough for one person, as that has the least impact on the land. To ensure narrow paths stay like this walkers should go in single file. Walk side by side and you break down the edges, widening the trail, damaging vegetation and leading to erosion and unsightly scars. Multiple trails through bogs and soft ground mar too many places. Often the cause is a desire to keep your feet dry. The original line of the path slowly sinks under the pressure of boots and, sometimes, mountain bike tyres and water begins to collect in hollows, forming puddles and muddy sections. To avoid the expanding bogs people walk round the edges, widening the path and allowing the water to spread. Over time the trail becomes a wide muddy morass with many bypass trails curving out to the sides as walkers try to keep their feet dry. To avoid this think of the path rather than your feet and stick to the main line even if it does mean muddy boots and possibly damp feet. Where the old path is impossible to find in the deep churned up mud try not to spread out at the sides but stay on the already damaged ground. If you really want to keep your feet dry wear waterproof footwear, gaiters or waterproof socks rather than tiptoeing round the edge of boggy paths. Alternatively, splash through the first puddle and get your feet wet. After that it doesn’t matter.

Some paths are so eroded they can be seen from miles away. This one is on Carn Liath, Beinn A'Ghlo.
Zigzags or switchbacks are often found on stalkers’ paths and paths that have been realigned. They are easier to ascend and less likely to break down due to erosion than paths that go straight up. A zigzagging path can be a joy to climb and is much easier on the knees in descent than a steep one. However too often people choose a direct line and cut the corners of zigzags. This damages the vegetation, which results in the soil breaking down and ruts appearing, down which water runs, soon turning the shortcut into a wide scar. On some paths it can be hard to follow the original line so many shortcuts have been made. As well as not using shortcuts you can block them off with rocks or stones to discourage others from using them so the land has a chance to heal.

Path maintenance and construction is costly and many agencies have little money for this. Where path repairs are being undertaken following the requests of the work party can prevent further damage being done. And when repairs have been done please stick with the new path so that damaged areas can recover. New paths can stand out and may initially appear worse than the scars they replace but in time they should weather and blend into the hillside.

CROSS COUNTRY

Leaving paths behind can be exciting and adventurous. It also brings you into a closer contact with the land, no longer held at arms length by that strip of brown earth or grey scree. However the potential for damage is greater too. The main thing to avoid is creating a new path. This means not building cairns that others might follow. A group should spread out too and not walk in single file, as this could leave the beginnings of a path. Quite a few paths developed because a few people took a particular route and others then followed the faint trail they made.


WILD CAMPING
A good low impact site in the Cairngorms
Regularly used sites in the hills are all too often very obvious due to the rings of stones on the ground, patches of bare dirt or flattened vegetation and litter sticking out from under rocks. Often there is network of paths too, leading to the nearest water, back to the main path and off into areas used for toilets.

When using a site like this the aim should be not to spread the damage and, if possible, to reduce it. Not using these sites may seem a good idea but if all it means is that you camp close by it could spread the damage, which would be even worse. If possible well-used sites should be tidied up and any litter removed. Rings of stones, often used to hold down tent pegs – usually unnecessarily – can be broken up and the stones returned to the nearest pile of rocks or put in the nearest stream. Rings of stones pockmark vegetation and destroy the wild feel of a place. Over the years I must have spent hours dismantling such rings.

Much wild camping takes place on little or never before used sites. With these the idea should be to leave no sign of your camp.  Firstly, this means camping on durable ground that won’t be easily marked. Dry ground or at least well-drained ground is best for this as soft ground is easily marked. Grass is ideal. Such sites are more comfortable too. If your site does start to flood move rather than dig drainage ditches.

A good site is found not made. If you need to clear vegetation or rocks to turn somewhere into a campsite it’s better to go elsewhere.

When walking round a site or going to fetch water stick to hard ground if possible and try not to create the beginnings of paths. If you carry a large water container you can collect all you need in one go so you don’t tramp back and forth to the nearest stream or pool, possibly damaging the bank and making a path that others may follow. In bad weather this makes camping more comfortable too as you can stay in your tent.

Unless there’s no choice don’t camp right next to water however, especially small upland lakes, as you may disturb animals and birds that live there and depend on this habitat.

Wild sites should ideally only be used for one night. If you want to stay in the area longer move your camp unless it’s on a really durable surface such as bare ground. Staying in the same place for several nights can damage the vegetation under your tent, leaving a scar, and a string of little paths round the site.

Before leaving a site check nothing has been left behind, including any scraps of litter, and fluff up any flattened vegetation. It should look as though no one has camped there.

COOKING

Campfires are traditional, romantic and potentially very damaging. First there is a general fire risk in dry conditions, especially in areas with much peat or in woodland. Then there is a shortage of fuel in many wild areas and what dead wood there is should be left for the animals, birds and insects that live in it. No standing wood, alive or dead, should ever be used for a camp fire.

An example of what not to do - fire burnt into grass, a ring of stones, branches ripped of living trees, half-burnt logs. This appalling mess was in Glencoe.
Unless carefully built and sited fires leave scars too, blackening rocks and leaving patches of bare burnt earth in meadows. The only place it’s really acceptable to have a campfire is on the seashore or below the high water mark on a stony river bank if there is plenty of washed up wood. Away from such water cleansed places fires should only be built on mineral soil and there should be no trace left afterwards. Instead of a fire it’s best to rely on a stove for cooking and clothing for warmth.

Low profile stoves can scorch vegetation however so it’s best to find a flat rock to stand them on or else carry something to use under them. If the midges and the rain let you cook outside your tent porch look for a kitchen site that will stand being used regularly. Bare ground or rock is ideal. Soft vegetation is easily damaged.
A good minimum impact kitchen site
Alterations to kitchen areas should be unnecessary. If you want a seat sit on a rock or your foam pad. Try and keep the kitchen area clean as spilt food and litter may attract scavenging birds like crows and gulls that may then prey on local species. If you do drop or spill anything it’s best to pick it up straight away. It’s easy to forget otherwise. (This applies to lunch and snack stops too. There is evidence, for example, that the crow and gull population in some parts of the Cairngorms has increased in part because of food scraps left by walkers). Food scraps includes food that has burnt onto your pan. Scrape this off and into a plastic bag and take it home for disposal. Wash dishes and pans away from water too and dump the wastewater into vegetation.

SANITATION


Too often at a wild camp site or a good lunch spot one of the first things you see is the unappetising and ugly sight of strands of pink toilet paper creeping out from under a shit stained rock. It’s even worse if this is in the middle of the site or next to the stream you are planning on drinking from. As well as unsightly it’s potentially unhealthy. We still have clean water in our hills. If we want it to stay this way then sensible toilet practices are essential. What this means is burying faeces and toilet paper or, preferably, carrying the latter out in a sealed plastic bag. (Loo paper can be burnt but only if there’s absolutely no chance of starting a fire.) Toilet sites should be situated at least 30 metres from running water if possible (difficult in some wet areas). They should also be well away from paths and anywhere people might camp or stop for lunch. Carry a small trowel to dig a hole (a large tent peg can be used too). In winter an ice axe can be used – though there’s no point is just burying excrement in snow that will melt in the spring so you’ll need to find some bare ground or somewhere where the snow cover is thin.

CONCLUSION

We have beautiful hills to walk and camp in but they are under pressure from ourselves. The more people who follow the guidelines outlined above the less the hills will look worn out and over-used.