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

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Interview & Gear Choices in BMC's Summit magazine

I've been interviewed about long distance walking for the spring issue of the British Mountaineering Council's magazine Summit.

I've also selected some of my favourite gear for long distance walking (gear that's available hence no Inov8 Terroc shoes).

There's much more of interest for walkers and scramblers in this issue including an excellent piece on scrambling by Hanna Lindon and Ben Williams' behind-the-scenes look at Glencoe Mountain Rescue.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Perth & Kinross civic reception marks John Muir Trust double success

Deputy First Minister and local MSP John Swinney was presented with a painting of John Muir by the artist John Byrne

On March 20th I went down to the John Muir Trust's wonderful Wild Space Visitor Centre in Pitlochry to represent The Great Outdoors magazine. The occasion was a Civic Reception by Perth and Kinross council to mark two recent achievements for the JMT - winning the TGO Outdoor Campaigner of the Year Award 2014 and delivering the 100,000th John Muir Award in Scotland (which really is magnificent).

The reception was addressed by Perth and Kinross Provost Liz Grant and local MSP John Swinney (who is also Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth in the Scottish Government). Mr Swinney praised the role of the Trust in standing up for wild places and getting people involved with nature and said “I’ve always been proud that the charity which looks after some of Scotland’s most magnificent landscapes – not least Schiehallion in Perthshire – is based in the heart of my own constituency.” I hope Mr Swinney relays these views to his government colleagues!

Liz Grant said: “The John Muir Trust has a long history of working in Perth and Kinross to raise awareness and help protect our areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is only right that their campaigning work has achieved national recognition in this way. I was in particular pleased to be able to acknowledge the efforts of the Trust in supporting over 100,000 people to achieve a John Muir Award certificate. This approach to engaging people from across Scotland to take an active role in protecting their nature and wide places is to be encouraged.”

John Muir Trust Chief Executive Stuart Brooks with the TGO Award plaque in the Wild Space Centre.

Recently elected JMT Chair Peter Pearson also spoke, saying: “We are delighted that Provost Grant and Perth and Kinross Council have honoured the John Muir Trust by hosting this Civic Reception. Although we work across Scotland, England and Wales, we are proud of our long association with Perthshire. We have owned and managed the magnificent Munro, Schiehallion, for the past 15 years, and have been based in Pitlochry for more than a decade. Two years ago, we opened the Wild Space centre, which has grown into a popular attraction for visitors and locals alike.”

Other guests included local MP Pete Wishart, regional list MSPs Jayne Baxter and Richard Simpson, and local councillor Kate Howie, as well as representatives from Education Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, and Scotland’s two national park authorities.

Staff and students from Pitlochry High School also attended the event to celebrate their commitment to the John Muir Award scheme, which includes regular active outdoor journeys and conservation volunteering activities such as tree planting, footpath maintenance and building nest boxes.  

As the reception wound to an end I took the opportunity to have another look round Wild Space, which is always worth a visit. Browsing the book display I realised I already had most of them. Even so I found a book to buy - Mary Colwell's biography John Muir. And I already have many books on Muir, including three biographies!

Thanks to Alan McCombes, JMT's Media Manager, for the photograph of John Swinney, the details of attendees and quotes from the speeches. I didn't take notes myself!


Friday, 20 March 2015

A Walk On Meall a'Bhuachaille with Paul Kirtley

The Cairngorms from the slopes of Meall a'Bhuachaille

Fifteen days after struggling over Meall a'Bhuachaille in a winter storm I was back again, this time with bushcraft instructor Paul Kirtley to record a podcast for his Blog. The weather was spring-like and we sat and looked at the view and recorded my words on the slopes where I'd been struggling to keep my feet as snow hammered down and the wind blasted me sideways. Across Ryvoan Pass the high Cairngorms, stripped of much snow, glowed under a bright sun.

The circuit of Meall a'Bhuachaille from Glen More usually takes two to three hours. On this occasion it took over twice that as we had a couple of long recording sessions. Not that we stopped talking the rest of the time as we both have a great passion for wild places, ski touring and wilderness travel and we found much to discuss, making for a day that was just as invigorating as the one in the storm though in a completely different way.

Paul says the podcast will probably appear sometime next month. I'll post a link when it does.

Bynack More from Meall a'Bhuachaille

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Following Rivers in the Cairngorms: Glen Feshie & the Eidart

Camp by the Allt Coire Bhlair

Not having been to one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms yet this year I decided to pay an overnight visit to Glen Feshie a few days ago. My rough plan - amenable to alteration or abandonment due to the weather, my mood or just a random whim – was to walk through the glen and camp somewhere beyond the forest for a change (I love camping in the big old pines but sometimes it’s more interesting to do something different) and then make a way up onto the Moine Mhor plateau and cross this back to the lower glen, a circuit that would make a long day but in this case would be split into an evening and a day (the actual walking took ten hours in total).

The weather forecast wasn’t wonderful but it wasn’t terrible either. No storms were predicted, nor was any sunshine. The tops should be clear of cloud though and the only rain was meant to fall during the night (and it did). As it was, due to various delays, it was only an hour before dusk when I set off on a calm evening with an overcast sky. Dribbles of drizzle trickled down on and off as I wandered up the glen, enough to occasionally have me pulling up my windproof jacket hood but never enough to have me putting on my waterproof jacket.

By the time I was entering the old pine woods around Ruigh-aiteachan it was quite dark. The path was wide and firm though and I could see well enough so my headlamp stayed in a pocket. The trees became silhouettes, clumps of bushes dense blocks of blackness. An owl hooted softly away in the trees. The only sound was the rush of the snowmelt swollen river. The path began to narrow and climb as the always meandering river curved in towards the bank. I pushed through invisible bushes, feeling them brushing my clothes and pack. As the slopes eased I saw a red light off to the side and then a faintly lit tent. I strode past, lifting my trekking poles without thinking so they didn’t click on any stones. Although early the darkness and quiet made it seem late and I felt I shouldn’t disturb the tent’s occupant.

A dark night in the tent

The path rose again onto steeper slopes and crossed some washed out gullies. I was aware of steep slopes falling away to my left into darkness with only the white-flecked tips of waves in the river showing that anything lay below me. I kicked a large rock then tripped on a trailing root. It was time for the headlamp. I switched it on and the world changed. The wide beam illuminated trees and rocks in a circle of pale light outside of which all was now solid black, the vague shadows and shapes of trees and rocks gone. 

Walking on I left the forest for heathery flats fading into distant slopes. I’ll camp soon I thought. A side stream rushed down to join the Feshie. My light picked out a few trees along its banks and some steep rocky slopes nearby. A flat area recently washed by snowmelt and flood invited a camp. The waters were fairly low now. I didn’t think the area would flood again. As I pitched the tent the drizzle finally turned into real rain. Perfect timing, I thought, thought aware it was nothing to do with me. Inside the tent lying half in my sleeping bag and with water heating on the stove I enjoyed again the familiar pleasure of listening to the rain beating on thin nylon walls whilst warm and comfortable inside.

So this is where I'm camped ......
Although I quickly worked out from the map that I was camped by the Allt Coire Bhlair I didn’t know just what I’d see the next morning. That’s one of the joys of camping in the dark, waking to a world you haven’t seen before but which you are already immersed in. Dawn showed the site to be delightful. The Allt Coire Bhlair poured out of a narrow rocky ravine with little trees hanging on every tiny patch of earth then ran into the River Feshie, itself racing between stony banks and overhanging trees. Steep heather slopes rose to distant snowy tops. I stayed a few hours. It was too good a place to rush off. A heavily laden backpacker came up the track – the camper I’d passed the night before, I guessed – and waded straight through the shin deep stream. I’d rock hopped the night before but I had trekking poles and he didn’t. He came over for a brief chat and then vanished up the glen. I saw no-one else all trip.

The Eidart Bridge

Finally moving on I followed the now moorland glen to the River Eidart. Not much farther on the Feshie doubles back on itself and heads into some really remote little-visited country. I hadn’t time to go there this time. Continuing east I would come to a very narrow and shallow watershed (the map shows no contours) and then the Geldie Burn. I didn’t go that way either. Instead I turned north to follow the long River Eidart right into the heart of the great Moine Mhor plateau. Guessing, rightly, there would be more snow on the western side where the slopes were protected from the sun and the south-westerly winds that had brought the big thaw a few days earlier I crossed the narrow Eidart Bridge and made my way up the east bank. There’s no path but the route-finding is easy – just follow the river. Gradually the moorland slopes steepened and became more mountainous. The glen narrowed, more and more snow appeared. High above big cornices rimmed the steep walls of Coire Mharconaich. After nine kilometres the Eidart splits into two feeder streams. One, the Allt Luineag runs down some five kilometres from high on the flanks of Braeriach. The other, my stream today, the Allt Sgairnich, descends four kilometres almost from the summit of Carn Ban Mor. 

The upper River Eidart

Coming out of the lower narrow Allt Sgairnich glen I suddenly found myself in the middle of the Moine Mhor, somewhere that from any other direction requires crossing a large expanse of high ground. I knew I would arrive here. It was still a shock. I didn’t feel as though I’d climbed up here yet here I was. The weather was a surprise too. I’d assumed there would be a wind once I left the protection of the deep glens. It was absolutely calm. A thick grey cloud lay not far above, covering the summits of the highest hills, Braeriach and Cairn Toul. Across the white expanse of the Moinr Mhor I could see the hazy pointed summit of Sgor Gaoith. It didn’t seem quite real. The whole place didn’t seem quite real. Standing still there was no sound. No wind, no running water. Moving my boots crunched in the snow. Sweat trickled down my back, down my arms. What is this weather, I wondered? I searched for a word. ‘Muggy’ appeared in my mind. Yes, it was muggy. No, part of my mind objected, it can’t be. Muggy is for horribly humid hot summer nights not for a snow-covered mountain plateau in March. But muggy it was.

Across the Moine Mhor to a hazy Sgor Gaoith

I crossed the snowy expanse towards Carn Ban Mor. The cloud thickened. Visibility faded. A compass bearing was needed to find the start of the path back down to Glen Feshie. On the edge of the plateau there was, briefly, a breeze. I was back down at the car some 25 hours after I’d left.  I thought about the trip. Enjoyable, yes. Interesting, yes. But also unusual.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Book Review: The Cairngorms A Secret History by Patrick Baker

Many, many years ago Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui were the first hills I climbed in the Scottish Hills and the Cairngorms have been one of my favourite places ever since.  Having lived in the area for over 25 years I know the mountains fairly well, though of course there is much I’ve not experienced and much I don’t know, so I was interested to read this book, which promised a secret history of the Cairngorms. 

The author describes a series of ventures into the Cairngorms in search of long-gone shelters, traces of gem mining, the remnants of aircraft crashes, the source of the River Dee, the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui and more. Are these stories secret? Not really. They appear in many sources (quite a few are listed at the back of the book) and I’ve known most of them for years and have visited many of the same places, though not in Baker’s intentional way but more as part of my general wanderings. This is not to detract from the book though, which is entertaining and very readable as Baker mixes stories of his own explorations, not all of which are successful, with the history of the various places and people and vivid descriptions of the landscape. Baker has done much research too and provides many details I hadn’t heard before, especially on matters like gem stone mining that I’ve never looked into.

Exploring a landscape like the Cairngorms that doesn’t offer many traces of human passing is an interesting exercise and having these stories gathered together does show that there is a little more history here than might be expected. Anyone interested in the Cairngorms or just human involvement in wild landscapes should find this book interesting.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Latest The Great Outdoors: Ethics of Wild Camping & Trekking Poles

The April issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. My backpacking column covers the ethics of wild camping and minimum impact techniques. In the gear pages I review eleven pairs of trekking poles.

Also in gear Judy Armstrong looks at six women's softshell jackets and Daniel Neilson tries the Ecco Biom Trail FL shoes, which sound excellent. Daniel also gives a run down of the most interesting new gear he saw at the ISPO show in February.

The issue starts with the now usual set of enticing double-page photographs, three very different ones this time - David Lintern's atmospheric Lake District shot from Great Gable, Dougie Cunningham's dramatic rocky image of Bla Bheinn from Marsco on the Isle of Skye and Geoff Barton's colourful summer meadow picture taken near Edale in the Peak District. Geoff has been the TGO designer for quite some time. This is his last issue. He'll be missed.

Also in this issue The Great Outdoors has teamed up with the European Outdoor Conservation Association and readers can be involved in choosing which of six conservation project gets funding this year. In the Highlands Hanna Lindon tackles the splendid and challenging Aonach Eagach and Stefan Durkacz walks the 290-mile River Tay Watershed. Much further afield Daniel Neilson takes on the scary looking via ferrata to the Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain, and Steve Bull goes backpacking in the Hornstrandir region of Iceland. I know which of those two adventures I'd prefer! Carey Davies is also abroad in his Mountain Magic column, exploring the countries of the Mediterranean. Meanwhile down in England, right down in England in the flatlands south and east of the hills, Edoardo Albert finds some surprisingly wild places. Away from walking trips Roger Smith considers the important role of local communities and conservation and Jim Perrin praises Heart's Desire by Edward Hoagland, an author but not a book I've heard about before.

Finally in the Hill Skills pages Mark Gilligan gives advice on photographing sunrise and sunset, doctors Jim Duff and Peter Gormly give a protocol for outdoor accidents and Tim Gent gives tips on loading a canoe for a camping trip.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

A Wild Winter's Day

Across Glenmore Forest to the Cairngorms from the slopes of Meall a'Bhuachaille

Spring is here, at least according to the mass media. In the mountains the story is very different as I discovered on a trip up Meall a’Bhuachaille above Glenmore in the Cairngorms. As so often I’d chosen this favourite walk because the forecast suggested stormy weather on the main Cairngorm summits (Meall a’Bhuachaille is 810 metres, some 400 metres lower). Heavy snow in Aviemore suggested maybe I wouldn’t have to go that high before conditions became difficult and so it  turned out.

In the forest
In Glenmore Forest fresh snow carpeted the woodland floor, hiding all but a few hints of green. Down here it was calm, the air crisp and cold. As soon as the trees began to thin I felt the wind though. Waves rippled across dark Lochan Uaine. Above the hills clouds surged across the sky bringing flurries of snow. Once I climbed out of Ryvoan Pass and started the ascent I was being buffeted by the bitterly cold wind and only the effort of the ascent kept me warm even though I was well-clad.

Lochan Uaine
The path was icy and slippery, the wind having scoured away any soft snow, just leaving old hard drifts and ice glazes on the stones. Soon the gusts were moving me sideways – without trekking poles I would have been blown over. Spindrift began to whirl over me, more than head high, stinging my face. I climb Meall a’Bhuachaille several times a year and have done every year for the twenty-five years I’ve lived in this area. Probably over 100 ascents in total. Not once can I remember ever considering turning back. This time I did. Staggering along in a white whirlwind of snow with the wind threatening to send me flying with very step I began to wonder if I could reach the top. I also became aware that being knocked over could mean landing hard on rocks and stones and possibly injuring myself. I moved off the path onto the heather beside it. The snow was deeper and softer here and the deep vegetation would, I hoped, cushion any fall.

On the summit

Whilst my mind pondered turning back my body, ignoring my thoughts, plodded on, determined and stubborn. Eventually the summit came into view and the broken-walled windbreak round the cairn became my aim. All I wanted was to get there and hide from the wind. Reaching it I felt a surge of relief. I really was at my limits. Cowering behind the rock walls I had a snack and donned overtrousers and thicker gloves as my legs and hands were starting to feel cold. My nose had gone numb too and my cheeks stung. Reaching over the edge of the cairn I held up my anemometer. The wind was gusting between 40 and 50mph, with one blast reaching 52mph. The windchill was -14°C.  Out of the wind the temperature was -2.5°C. 

Loch Morlich
Reluctantly I returned to fighting the wind but at least I was descending now, again sticking to the heather and soft snow. Once I’d left the main ridge – any thought of continuing to the next summit had long gone – the wind began to ease and I dropped out of the swirling mixed spindrift, snow and mist (which it was impossible to separate). Across Glenmore the high Cairngorms were under dark clouds. Loch Morlich was a shimmering moving mass of wind ruffled water. Reaching the forest I finally relaxed after one of the toughest days of the winter.