Thursday, 17 May 2018

A Trip to Glenridding: John Muir Trust AGM/Members Gathering, a short cruise on Ullswater, Aira Force

View over Ullswater to Birks

Last weekend I was in Glenridding in the Lake District for a very enjoyable and productive time at the John Muir Trust AGM and Members Gathering. I was delighted to see so many members there and to chat to many of them along with JMT staff and fellow Trustees - I've just been re-elected for a second term. There were excellent informative and inspiring talks from staff members and from guests from the Patterdale Parish Council, Foundation for Common Land, Lake District National Park and Fix The Fells.

Rob Bushby, John Muir Award Manager, addressing the packed meeting

The whole weekend was extremely well-organised and as on previous occasions I was impressed by the dedication of the JMT staff. The locally provided food and drink was excellent too. Tirril Old Faithful golden ale was a refreshing welcome discovery!


Amongst all the talking, formal and informal, there was time to enjoy the outdoors and on the Saturday afternoon I joined a group for the short trip on an Ullswater 'Steamer' to Aira Force. This was a 'self-guided' outing, which meant that once off the boat you were on your own to make your way back to Glenridding any way you chose. A few people neglected to get off at Aira Force and ended up going all the way to Pooley Bridge at the far end of the lake and then back again on the boat!

Aira Force

I wandered up beside Aira Beck to the main waterfall, crashing down under an arched stone bridge and watched by dozens of people. This beauty spot - and it is lovely - is very popular as its easily accessible. Once above the bridge there were fewer people and a quieter more peaceful feel. Sunlight on the bright spring leaves created a light airy atmosphere that was soothing and relaxing. Wild flowers - bluebells, ramsons, wood sorrel, primroses - dotted the floor of this long narrow strip of woodland - it doesn't extend far beyond the beck either side.

Aira Beck

Always there was the gentle company of the beck, swirling in deep pools, tunbling down rocks in little cascades and gliding dark and deep through narrow miniature gorges. At the top of the path I set off across fields intending to walk back to Glenridding over the lower fells. At a stile I turned and looked down to the ribbon of green I'd just left. Ahead the hillside was brown with last year's bracken. I hesistated then headed back to the beck. I was enjoying the trees and the water too much to want to leave them so I forgot the hills and descended the path on the other side of the beck. Back at Ullswater I followed a path back to Glenridding through fields and woods and at times right by the lake. Although close to the main road I did enjoy this walk and for once I was glad I hadn't climbed up into the hills.


On the train north the next day I reflected on the weekend. It had gone very well, I thought, and the John Muir Trust was in good shape. It needs to be. Too much wild land isn't.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Take A Hike, with Cameron McNeish. Now on iPlayer.

Last year I spent a day with Cameron McNeish and cameraman Simon Willis in the Scottish Borders filming for a then untitled programme on the story of walking in Scotland. This is now called Take A Hike. If you missed it last week it's now available on iPlayer until May 16.

I wrote the following before I'd seen the programme. There was more material I filmed in it than I expected, which is nice. And I now know why Cameron's dressed like that.

I'm curious to see how much of the hours of material we filmed makes it into the actual programme. I'm not the only guest and star billing goes to a certain Sam Heughan of Outlander fame who is a keen hillwalker. I'm interested to hear what he and the other guests, who include outdoor author and historian Ian R. Mitchell and Mick Tighe of the Mountain Heritage Collection, have to say.

And I also want to know why Cameron's dressed as he is in the promotional picture above!

Friday, 11 May 2018

John Muir Trust Annual Members Gathering 2018 in Glenridding


Later this morning I'm heading south for the John Muir Trust's Annual Members Gathering and AGM. This year it's being held in Glenridding village on the edge of Glenridding Common in the Lake District, an estate that includes Helvellyn and which the JMT now manages - the first property the Trust has taken on outside Scotland.

I've just been re-elected for a second term as a Trustee of the JMT and I'm looking forward to meeting the other Trustees, JMT staff, JMT members and, especially, local people to discuss the future for wild places in Britain and this area in particular. We'll be hearing from Julia Aglionby, the Chair of the Foundation for Common Land; Rob Shepherd, Chair of Patterdale Parish Council; Joanne Backshall, Manager of Fix the Fells; and Pete Barron, John Muir Trust Land Manager for Glenridding Common. I'm sure they'll all have something stimulating to say!

There'll be time for the outdoors as well and Saturday afternoon we'll be heading outside. I hope the weather's good!

Thursday, 3 May 2018

40 Years On: Gear for Long-Distance Walks Then & Now

On May 3rd, 1978, I walked over the Severn Bridge and followed the Offa's Dyke Path to Chepstow, completing 323 miles of my Land's End to John O'Groats walk. It was my 18th day out and it was already the longest walk I'd done and there was still nearly 1000 miles to go. I wrote about this walk last month in a post on the fortieth anniversary of setting off. I also wrote the following feature on the gear I used back then and what I'd use now for the Spring issue of The Great Outdoors, whose fortieth anniversary is also this year. I wasn't a photographer back then, something I now regret. It's the only long-distance walk  for which I don't have pictures.

On April 16, 1978, I shouldered my pack and headed away from Land’s End on the South West Coast Path.  1255 miles and 71 days later I reached John O’Groats and my first long distance walk was over. I began the walk feeling nervous and agitated. It seemed an enormous undertaking. The distance was incomprehensible. At the finish I felt content and also sad. I didn’t want the journey to end. I knew then that I would do many more long walks. I had found something I loved, something that was deeply satisfying. I’d also learnt that reaching the end wasn’t what the journey was about. It was about what happened along the way, about the landscape, the wildlife, the walking every day, the camping out, the immersion in nature. The whole experience in fact. I’d found too that what I really relished were the wilder places. This was the walk on which I fell in love with the Scottish Highlands.

I planned the walk with Ordnance Survey maps and a few walking guidebooks – there weren’t many in those days. There were no guides at all to an End-to-End walk and no internet for seeking advice. There were some long distance paths but nothing like the number there are now. Along with half of the South West Way I walked half of the Offa’s Dyke Path, the Pennine Way as far as Hadrian’s Wall, and the then brand new West Highland Way (it wasn’t officially opened until two years later). Away from those trails I linked footpaths, tracks, and minor roads with occasional bits of cross-country. Sometimes I trespassed when paths on maps weren’t there on the ground, more often when I nipped over hedges or into copses for a hidden camp. Having hardly done any wild camping in Scotland and having heard stories of gamekeepers with guns throwing people off the land I was more concerned about there than England. The access legislation that is such a boon now was a quarter of a century away. In fact I although I wild camped almost every night, even in lowland England, I never had any problems though I did always try and camp out of sight of roads and buildings.

At the time of the walk I was working in an outdoor shop in Manchester – the now long-gone YHA Adventure Centre – and so could choose gear for the walk from a wide selection. Looking back there are a few changes I could have made but overall the gear was good and performed well. The main difference with today was that it was mostly much heavier. In some cases it was less durable too despite the weight.

My pack was a capacious 80 litre Berghaus Cyclops Serac made from tough thick Cordura. This had two huge side pockets, a single main compartment and an internal frame. The last had only been around in Britain for a few years. Just two years previously I’d been using an external frame pack (and one of these features on the front cover of the first issue of The Great Outdoors). I thought the internal frame would be more comfortable and stable and so it proved. The Serac easily held all my gear plus a week’s food at times and never gave me sore hips or shoulders. I liked it so much that four years later I set off on the Pacific Crest Trail with a pack with the same back system, the even bigger 100-litre Cyclops Scorpion.

The Ultimate Tramp at a snowy camp in Snowdonia the winter after the Walk

My tent was an Ultimate Tramp, a tapered ridge tent with an A-pole at the front. This was roomy and easy and quick to pitch. Hoop pole tents were just coming in at the time but the lightest backpacking tents were still ridge designs with rigid poles. Within a decade the Tramp would look old-fashioned but after three decades it would look up-to-date again as using trekking poles for tents meant ridges designs came back. I liked the Tramp very much and it stood up to some wild weather. It didn’t last for long after the walk though – the polyurethane coated flysheets of the day were not very durable.

My sleeping bag was not a good choice. Concerned by stories about down bags not lasting on long trips and how any dampness would ruin them I took a bag from Ultimate filled with a synthetic called P3. It was a mummy bag with a short top zip and designed for summer use. It wasn’t very warm to begin with and by the finish it was as flat as a pancake. It was light and did pack small but I spent too many nights sleeping in my clothes. I’ve taken a down bag on every long walk since.

Bright yellow closed cell foam Karrimats were the standard mats in the 1970s. They insulated well but weren’t very comfortable and also very bulky. The latter meant I strapped mine outside the pack. At the time there was no other choice – the first Therm-A-Rest inflatable mat had appeared in the USA but not yet crossed the Atlantic. 

The Trangia I used on the walk
Stove choice was determined by fuel. Finding gas canisters everywhere was unlikely and I didn’t want the mess of paraffin or the volatility of petrol so that left meths and the Trangia system. This was quite heavy and bulky but it did work well and finding fuel wasn’t a problem. Durability was superb. Indeed I still have the stove and it’s still in good condition. 

Heavy boots were standard wear for backpacking in the 1970s and I hadn’t yet discovered the relief of lightweight footwear so I wore Scarpa Bronzos, hefty semi-stiff one piece leather boots with a three-quarter length shank and a Vibram sole. They easily lasted the walk but did give me sore feet and the occasional blister, especially in hot weather and when road walking. I’d only wear such boots on snowy mountains now.

Berghaus Mistral Jacket - image courtesy of Berghaus

My waterproof jacket was made from a new seemingly magical material called Gore-Tex. The Berghaus Mistral jacket had welded seams and patch pockets. It was longer than most modern waterproofs, which was an advantage. This was the first version of Gore-Tex, which was very breathable but also eventually leaked when contaminated with body oils. My jacket lasted the walk but failed the following autumn. I was still impressed though. Early on in the walk I wore it over my wet polycotton jacket and was astonished when I took the Mistral off to find that this had dried out through the Gore-Tex.

The Rohan Pampas Jacket & Strider Breeches in use after the walk

The jacket I wore most on the walk was a Rohan Pampas double-layer windproof one made from polycotton. Rohan and polycotton were both very new then and many people thought such fabric was too light for serious use. They were wrong. The jacket lasted the trip and is still going.
Rohan also provided my legwear in the form of breeches called Striders made from stretch nylon. They’d be called softshell now but that name hadn’t been invented then.

Fleece and lightweight synthetic fills were still many years away so to keep warm I took a thick wool shirt and a Helly-Hansen fibre-pile jacket. My base layer was a synthetic Damart vest.

Whilst state-of-the-art at the time this gear was heavy and bulky compared to todays. My basic pack weight without food and fuel was around 30lbs/14kg. Silnylon, Dyneema, titanium, fleece, Pertex and other ultralight materials that we take for granted today didn’t exist back then. Today my pack would weigh less than half that. Here’s what I’d choose for the same walk now. Most of these items were used on my last two long-distance walks (some on my last three).


ULA Catalyst

Gear is not only lighter than 40 years ago but also more compact so I wouldn’t need as big a pack. My choice would be the ULA Catalyst, which I used on my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk and found excellent. It weighs 1.4kg, well under half the weight of the Serac, which weighed over 2kg. The Catalyst has an internal frame, a padded back, a wide padded hipbelt and big mesh pockets. On paper its 75 litre capacity doesn’t look much smaller than the Serac’s 80 litres. However the main compartment is only 42 litres, the rest of the capacity being in the pockets, while the Serac’s main compartment was about 80 litres. I’ve also found ULA’s litres on the small side compared to other makers. I’d say 60 litres was a more accurate capacity for the Catalyst.



Instead of a tent I’d take a shaped tarp – the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar. This can pitched with trekking poles and is very roomy for one. It’s also very stable. I used it on my Scottish Watershed walk and it coped with some severe storms. It only weighs 482 grams without pegs, a groundsheet or mesh inner. For April and May I’d just take a Luxe Tyvek groundsheet weighing 142 grams, making a total weight with pegs of 801 grams. For June I’d add a mesh inner in case of midges for a total of 1.15kg, which is still very light. The Ultimate Tramp weighed 2kg.

Sleeping bag

PHD Sleep System

Rather than a single sleeping bag I’d use the down filled PHD Sleep System that I took on the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk as this would cover the wide temperature variations likely between April and June. The lightest sleep system consisting of the Ultra K sleeping bag, Ultra K filler bag, Wafer jacket, Wafer K trousers and Wafer K socks weighs 1.015kg. I’d start out with the complete set but would send home the filler bag, trousers and socks as the nights became warmer, finishing with a weight of just 524 grams. I used this system on the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk and it coped easily with temperatures down to -7.5C. 

Sleeping mat

For much greater comfort and much lower bulk and weight than a closed cell foam mat I’d take the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Xlite S airbed. I used this on the Scottish Watershed and Yosemite-Death Valley walks and found it comfortable.

Stove & pots

Trail Designs Ti-Tri

On my last three long-distance walks I’ve used the Trail Designs Classic Ti-Tri stove and my now 27 year old Evernew and MSR 0.9 and 0.7 litre titanium pots and that’s what I’d take on a Land’s End to John O’Groats walk. Together this unit weighs 476 grams, and that includes two spoons. The Trangia 27 weighed 795 grams. Like the Trangia the Ti-Tri runs on meths (it can also be used with solid fuel tablets and wood) and has an effective windshield/pot support. The burner, made from old drinks cans, is ultralight.


Altra Lone Peak 3.5

I can’t imagine wearing heavy boots like the 2.25kg Scarpa Bronzos on a walk like this now. Indeed I wouldn’t wear boots at all. Instead I’d opt for trail shoes and, for warmer weather, sandals. Currently the shoes would be the Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Mesh, which weigh 622 grams, and sandals the Teva Terra-Float Universal, which weigh 462 grams and which I wore for most of the Yosemite to Death Valley walk, giving a total weight of 1.08 kg, just under half the weight of the Bronzos. My feet would be much more comfortable!


Jottnar Hymir

There are many good waterproofs today that weigh considerably less than the 570 gram Mistral, not that that was particularly heavy. My choice would be the 350 gram Jottnar Hymir, made from very breathable Polartec Neoshell. I like the smock design and the fabric feels durable, which is needed on a three month walk where there could be a great deal of rain.


Montane Lite-speed

As on other walks I’d expect a windproof top to be my most worn garment. The double-layer Rohan Pampas jacket I wore in 1978 weighs 750 grams, which seems extraordinarily heavy now. Today I’d go for the Montane Lite-speed, made from Pertex Quantum, which weighs 156 grams, and which I used on the Scottish Watershed walk. The Lite-speed has pockets and a hood and rolls up into a tiny bundle.


Berghaus VapourLight HyperTherm Hoody
The down-filled Wafer jacket from the PHD Sleep System would be my main warmwear in camp. For walking in chilly weather I’d take the Berghaus VapourLight HyperTherm Hoody, which only weighs 224 grams yet is as warm as a much heavier fleece. I used these two jackets on the Yosemite-Death Valley walk and the combination was excellent.

Trekking poles

Dual-Lock Pacerpoles

Back in 1978 trekking poles didn’t exist. I can’t imagine doing a long walk without them now. As on all my long walks for many years these would be Pacerpoles, now the new Dual-Lock model, which weighs 590 grams. 


In 1978 there really wasn’t any choice – it was OS maps and a compass. GPS wasn’t even dreamt of. I’d still take map and compass today but I’d also have OS mapping on my smartphone with the ViewRanger app, which I’ve used on my last three long-distance walks.

Monday, 30 April 2018

A visit to a favourite place: Coire an Lochain in the Cairngorms

Coire an Lochain, the easternmost of the Northern Corries, is one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms. Although not far from Coire Cas and the Cairngorm Mountain ski resort it feels remote. The paths into the corrie are rough and stony - it's not that easy a place to reach. The flat floor of the corrie, much of it filled with Loch Coire an Lochain, comes on you suddenly. The great cliffs that tower far above the lochan are distinctive and can be seen from afar - they're visible from Aviemore. But only when the loch starts to appear does the full magnificence of the scene burst into view.

In winter this is a wild place, often swirling with snow that hides the cliffs. The frozen lochan is invisible. Avalanches crash down the gullies and rock slabs. It can feel ferocious and terrifying. Come spring and the snow begins to melt, colour comes back to the land, the loch thaws and there's a feel of softness amongst the harsh rocks. That's when I think the corrie is at its finest.

I went up there late this April to see how the spring was progressing. Snow lingers here and distant views showed the steep headwall below the cliffs still mostly white. What would the loch be like? As the snow melts ice floes float around on the water, sometimes into May and June. Cold weather in recent days with a touch of new snow on the summits would have slowed the recent rapid snowmelt though as I approached I saw that the stream pouring out of the corrie was full and white and fierce. Then I came over the outer lip of the corrie to see a pool of water clear of snow and ice. This small lochan is shallow and dries up completely in hot summers. Today it led the eye to the snow and the cliffs reflected in the shimmering water.

Soon the bigger loch appeared. A few small ice floes remained, a few snow banks still ran into the water from the slopes above. And there was a skim of soft ice over part of the surface. The loch was freezing again. At one end broken sheets of snow and ice were up on the grass, driven there by the wind.

Mountain hare tracks laced the snow on the soft marshy ground at the edge of the loch. I wasn't going to rely on it holding my weight and stopped my circuit of the water here. On the far shore snow slopes running down from the cliffs were cracking and breaking into the water. They'd have stopped me anyway.

I sat on a rock and stared into the clear water, the boulders under the surface sharp and colourful, and across to the snowfields and the dark cliffs. I felt relaxed, at peace, calm. After a while, reluctantly, I turned to go, and wandered slowly out of this mountain haven, looking back frequently until all I could see were the cliffs rising into the sky. I'll be back.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Great Outdoors May issue is out now

The May issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. In the gear pages I look at seventeen new outdoor companies offering everything from sleeping bags to solar powered lights, packs and waterproofs, and review the Millican Fraser 32l rucksack. Judy Armstrong looks at technical gear for scrambling.

There'a guide to comfortable wild camping in which I cover planning a sleep system and choosing a comfortable site. Alex Roddie looks at routines for a comfortable night and what to wear in a sleeping bag and Ronald Turnbull gives suggestions for bivvying.

This issue opens with a wonderful mouth-watering photo by David Lintern of a camp on Sgurr na Stri with the snow-covered Cuillin stretched out on the horizon.

A theme of this issue is adventure on your doorstep and with this in mind:

Ronald Turnbull asks whether the Arrochar Alps are like the actual Alps.

Patrick Kinsella explores limestone scenery along the West Mendip Way.

Vivienne Crow goes walking in Northumberland.

Steph Cooke looks for walks in the East Midlands.

Paul Beasley goes backpacking in East Sussex.

Jon Sparks traverses Pendle Hill.

And in the rest of the magazine:

Hanna Lindon interviews Everest mountaineer Mollie Hughes.

Roger Smith discusses reintroducing lynx into the Highlands, with reference to David Hetherington's book The Lynx and Us.

Jim Perrin praises the Malvern Hills.

Jack Southern treks the Dolomites.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Rivers in spate & wild camps in the Cairngorms

River Feshie

Rivers are one of the delights of wild land, bringing dynamism to forests and hills as they slice through the land, twisting and turning and surging. I love following rivers and streams to see where they go, to see what lies along their banks. They’re particularly wonderful in spate after heavy rain or snowmelt when their power can be both scary and invigorating. One of my favourite Cairngorm rivers is the Eidart, which is remote and little-known though a key watercourse as it drains the Moine Mhor, that vast plateau on the western side of the range. The Eidart almost splits the plateau in two, running from close to the northern edge some ten kilometres down to a confluence with the River Feshie.

I’ve walked a circuit from Glen Feshie to the Eidart then back to the glen across the Moine Mhor a few times. It’s a superb trip. I’d never done it at the height of the snowmelt though so last week as the first really warm weather of the year was stripping the snow almost visibly from the hills I set out. Every stream was rushing furiously and I had several knee deep fords in the first few miles up Glen Feshie. My boots were quickly sodden and stayed that way throughout the trip.

Camp in Glen Feshie

I didn’t go far that first afternoon as I wanted to camp amongst the trees in Glen Feshie for the first time this year. I passed the refurbished bothy at Ruigh-aiteachan thinking it seemed a bit too clean and characterless. I guess the bothy atmosphere will soon return. A couple of miles further up the glen I camped with a view of trees and crags, a lovely wild spot. I had hoped for stars but the sky was overcast. I fell asleep listening to owls hooting.

Packing up in Glen Feshie

The sky cleared overnight and I woke to a deep blue sky. The sun was on the crags across the river but the glen floor was still in shade and the temperature was near freezing. I went and looked at the Feshie, all white water and roaring. The latter sound would be with me all day even when I couldn’t see the water. 

River Feshie

The rough path round to the Eidart leads out of the forest and onto open moorland. There are still trees though, hanging onto the steep banks above the river out of reach of deer. As the forest continues to regenerate and expand in the lower glen hopefully it will start to spread up here.

Eidart Falls

The confluence of the Eidart and Feshie was a clash of white water. Just upstream I could see a cloud of mist rising into the air. As I approached I realised it was spray from the Eidart Falls, crashing down below the Eidart Bridge. I couldn’t remember seeing the waterfall this powerful before.

River Eidart

I thought the same about the Eidart as a whole as I continued past a succession of smaller falls, water slides, and rapids. The river was sparkling, alive, boisterous. I watched dippers skimming the water, the little birds perfectly at home in the white water. 

The Caochan Dubh
In its upper reaches the Eidart splits into three branches. Previously I’d followed the longest of these, the Allt Sgairnich, which rises on the slopes of Carn Ban Mor on the north side of the Moine Mhor. This time I wanted to explore the westernmost branch, the Caochan Dubh, which took a twisting route up a narrow ravine into the heart of the Moine Mhor. 

Caochan Dubh camp

That was for the next day though. I camped beside big snowbanks not far from the mouth of the Caochan Dubh. The sky had clouded over during the day and rain started just as I finished pitching the tent. It continued hard and sharp, its drumming on the nylon waking me during the night.

Early morning, Caochan Dubh camp

The storm had passed by dawn, though the sky still looked angry, with dark clouds racing overhead. The Caochan Dubh ravine was rocky and there were big banks of hard icy snow. Eventually, as it grew steeper, I decided to clamber up the side onto flatter ground. This brought me, unintentionally, to a superb viewpoint, a little knoll at the end of the northern arm of Coire Mharconaich. Here I could look back down the Eidart to the hills on the far side of the Feshie and up the eastern of the three feeder streams, the Allt Luineag to cloud-capped Cairn Toul. Ahead of me lay the gentle undulating Moine Mhor.

The Caochan Dubh
There was less snow remaining than I had hoped for up here but the now shallow course of the Caochan Dubh was still unbroken white and I was finally able to don the snowshoes I was carrying for a few kilometres. As I neared the northern end of the snow and the end of the now hidden Caochan Dubh I saw a figure on the track that runs along the ridge above, the first person I’d seen since setting out the day before. 

The Caochan Dubh on the Moine Mhor
Reaching the path that leads back to Glen Feshie I stopped to remove the snowshoes. The walker came across the snow and I recognised multi-Munroist Hazel Strachan. She’d just done a walk round the seven Munros in the area, with a bivvy on the slopes of one, and was now heading back to Glen Feshie. Standing there in the midst of the huge expanse of the Moine Mhor we talked of the mountains, the weather, the snow, boots, waterproof socks and more then Hazel was off speeding up the path at a faster rate than I could manage while I packed away the snowshoes before following rather more slowly.

The snow covered Caochan Dubh
The clouds had slowly lifted during the day though a bitter wind nullified any warmth from the sun. The light was sharp though and the views west to Ben Alder, Ben Nevis, Creag Meagaidh and more from the descent were excellent. I was also entertained by a glider swooping silently over the slopes. Then it was dry shoes and socks and Aviemore for a late lunch after what had been an excellent trip.

Glider over Glen Feshie