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, 28 January 2015

Pacific Crest Trail Gear in 1982 ... and what I'd take now

The North Face Back Magic II pack in the North Cascades

At the end of the film Wild (see my review here) as the credits roll there are pictures of Cheryl Strayed on her actual hike in 1995 which show just how accurately the film makers replicated the gear she used. Looking at these images and going through my slides for a talk on the PCT I'm giving in Inverness I thought again about the gear I used and what I would take today. Late last year I wrote an article about this that appeared in the January issue of The Great Outdoors. Here it is.

Thirty-three years ago I was planning my hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which I began in April 1982 and the story of which is told in my latest book, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles. Returning to a walk so long after it took place was an interesting experience. In my journal I’d listed all the gear I started out with, including its weight. Reading through this I was somewhat shocked at just how heavy it all was, some 43lbs (20kg) in total, and also surprised at some of the weights. How did my first aid and repair kits weigh well over a kilo? Today their weight is about a quarter of that. I wish I’d kept a list of what was in them!

All the gear worked fine though and most was fairly lightweight for the time. A few items could have weighed less and a few I could have done without but overall I doubt I could have cut the weight by more than 3-4kg at most. Today I would expect my gear to weigh half what it did back then, partly because over the years I’ve refined what I carry but also because it was my first long distance walk overseas and I was undoubtedly erring on the side of caution and taking everything I thought I might need, and because of new designs and, especially, new fabrics. In 1982 materials like Dyneema, silnylon, fleece, microfibers, Pertex, cuben fibre and titanium didn’t exist in outdoor gear. 

Here’s what I took – and what I’d take today.

PACK

With 23 days supplies for the High Sierra
I started out with a 100 litre capacity Berghaus Cyclops Scorpion, a tough internal frame pack with zip-off side pockets. I knew I’d be carrying two weeks food at times so I wanted a big pack. As it was the Scorpion still wasn’t large enough for the 23 days without resupply through the High Sierra when I had gear strapped all over the outside. It was comfortable though and handled ridiculously heavy loads quite well. It’s 2155g weight seems quite high today but was on the lighter side for a big pack at that time. And the current similar Berghaus pack, the 100-litre Vulcan weighs 2900g.  The internal frame broke after around 1500 miles – probably due to the pack bouncing down a pass at one point – and as I couldn’t get it repaired I replaced it with an 85-litre external frame The North Face Back Magic II, which weighed even more at 2700g but which was also comfortable.

Today I would look for a smaller pack as my gear would be more compact. I’d also look for a lighter weight one. The 60 litre Lightwave Ultrahike that weighs 1230g and which I used on the Scottish Watershed in 2013 would be one possibility. Others I’d consider are the 1200g Six Moon Designs Fusion 65 and the 1330g ULA Catalyst, or, if I thought I needed more capacity, the 1550g Lightwave Wildtrek 70 and the 1652g Montane Grand Tour 70. 

SHELTER

Told I might need a free-standing tent in places (this wasn’t so) I took a single-skin Gore-tex dome tent, the Wintergear Eyrie, which weighed a hefty 2268g. It was easy to pitch, stood up to the few storms well and was very roomy. Condensation was a problem at times in wet weather towards the end of the walk but otherwise it was excellent. Although nice to have I didn’t need such a substantial shelter though and could have taken a lighter, smaller tent – there were several available at the time. Today I wouldn’t take a tent at all but a shaped tarp like the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar with a mesh inner for mosquitoes, which were a problem early in the summer. The Eyrie still exists in slightly modified form and a very expensive price as the 2520 gram Terra Nova Gemini Bivi (Wintergear tents became Terra Nova ones).

Camp in the North Cascades near the end of the walk

I also took a fairly heavy Gore-tex bivvy bag, which was only used a few times to protect my sleeping bag from condensation in the tent. Today if I took one at all it would be something like the 210 gram Terra Nova Moonlite Bag Cover.

Knowing I should be able to sleep under the stars at times I carried a 425g reflective Sportsman’s Blanket to use as a groundsheet. This was well worth the weight as I slept out on many nights. Today though I’d take a much lighter silnylon groundsheet which I’d also use in my shelter.

Bivouac in the Yosemite wilderness with Larry Lake
SLEEPING BAG & MAT

At 1020g my down-filled Mountain Equipment Lightline, rated to -5C, wouldn’t seem very heavy today. It kept me warm, with clothes, in temperatures down to -10C and lasted the whole walk well. The Lightline still exists, the latest version weighing 1225 grams and with a comfort rating of -6C. It would probably prove excellent on the PCT today but I’d now take something lighter such as the 755 gram Mountain Equipment Xero 300, 860 gram Montane Featherlite or 874 gram Rab Infinity 500. 

Therm-A-Rest self-inflating mats were still new in 1982. In fact there was only one model, available in two lengths. The foam inside was solid so it was warm for sleeping on snow. The 709g weight was high though. Therm-A-Rest is now a big range of mats from which I’d take either the 310 gram NeoAir X Therm S or the 430g Prolite Plus S. 

KITCHEN

In 1982 I was advised that the only stove fuel I’d find along the way was white gas (such as Coleman Fuel) or petrol. Stoves running on these fuels were standard for backpacking then and I took the lightest available, the 539g Svea 123, which looks like a brass can. This was before the days of hose-connected fuel bottles and the Svea had a small tank under the burner that held 120ml. The stove worked fine throughout the trip, including for melting snow at high camps in the Sierra Nevada. It’s still available from Optimus and is a lovely stove. The weight would put me off taking it again though. Gas canisters and alcohol fuel are available now so I’d take a stove that runs on one of these, probably the 225g Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri that I used on the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Scottish Watershed.

As the Svea 123 held so little fuel I also took litre and half litre Sigg fuel bottles so I could carry enough for two weeks when needed. These were the only metal fuel bottles available at the time.

My aluminium pots and cup were quite light but were so badly scratched and dented by the end of the walk I never used them again. Today I’d save a little weight and take my much tougher titanium pots that are veterans of several long walks and weigh 220g.

FOOTWEAR

The lightweight footwear revolution was just beginning in 1982. Fabric boots and brands like Brasher didn’t exist and the first trail shoes weren’t yet in the shops. Heavy, semi-stiff leather boots were standard for backpacking. I’d worn a pair, Scarpa Bronzos, on my first long distance walk, Land’s End to John O’Groats, and I chose them again for the PCT. That this was a mistake I discovered very quickly. The PCT begins in hot desert country and my feet were soon swollen, blistered and very sore. Luckily I was carrying a light pair of New Balance running shoes for camp and town wear and quickly found that my feet were better with these on my feet and my boots in my pack. However there was much snow in the mountains when I often used crampons and snowshoes so my boots were needed. Eventually both boots and shoes wore out. Out of the snow and happy with the shoes I bought a pair of new-fangled trail shoes made by Asolo, despite the staff in the store warning me they weren’t suitable or safe for backpacking. These proved fine though and just lasted the final 1000 miles.

Asolo Trail shoes & torn Cool-T shirt in Oregon

CLOTHING

Wool and cotton were still the main materials for outdoor clothing in the early 1980s but new lighter fabrics were starting to appear. The first thin, lightweight, breathable, fast-drying and windproof clothing made from a 50/50 polyester cotton mix had recently been launched by Rohan. The outdoor trade was not impressed, saying the stuff wouldn’t last and was too insubstantial for the outdoors. I thought otherwise and was delighted when Rohan offered me clothing for the trip. I had trousers (Bags – still made of the same fabric in the same design today), breeches, shorts and a windshirt and they all worked well. Why I took both trousers and breeches I now have no idea! Rohan sparked a revolution in clothing and today such garments are standard. I’d take similar garments again, made from 100% synthetic fabrics though.

Rohan also supplied me with synthetic base layers (not that the term was used back then) that were faster drying and much more comfortable than cotton or the wool garments then available (merino, which I’d use today, was a long way in the future) but which I have to admit did stink after a while.

My warm garments were a Helly-Hansen nylon fibre-pile jacket, which looked like a shaggy type of fleece, and a down vest. The combination worked well and I’d use a similar one today.

For rain Rohan made me up a set of experimental lightweight Gore-Tex garments. They don’t seem particularly light now but at the time 800-1000 grams was standard for Gore-Tex. There was only one type of Gore-Tex too and no alternatives. The Rohan garments just lasted to the end. Today I’d take much lighter garments, probably no more than half the weight.

SNOW GEAR

I carried an ice axe the whole way. At a hefty 765g it was the lightest I could find. Today I’d take the 245g Camp Corsa, and probably not carry it the whole way either. For the High Sierra I bought crampons and snowshoes and needed both as it was a late snow year. Once out of the high mountains I dispensed with them. I didn’t have trekking poles, which hadn’t appeared then. I should have got some ski poles for use with the snowshoes but didn’t realise they’d be useful until it was too late.

GEAR LIST AT THE START
                                                             Weight             lb oz                   Grams
PACK
Berghaus Cyclops Scorpion pack                                   4  12                 2155
Pack liner                                                                          2                     57

CAMPING

Wintergear Eyrie Gore-tex tent                                      5    0                 2268
Mountain Equipment Lightline sleeping bag                    2     4                1020
Wintergear Gore-tex bivvy bag                                      1     3                  539
Sportsman’s Blanket                                                    -     15                 425
Therm-A-Rest ¾ inflatable mattress                               1     9                  709

Total                                                                         15    13                7173

KITCHEN

Svea 123 gasoline stove                                                 1      3                 539
Sigg 1 litre fuel bottle                                                             5                 142
Sigg ½ litre fuel bottle                                                            4                 113
Field & Trek Lightline aluminium pots & Sierra Cup                 11                312
Stuffsacks, spoons, pot grab, lighter, matches                        10                283
Field & Trek 2 gallon Water Bag                                              4                113
Sigg ½ litre aluminium water bottle                                          4                113
Wide mouth 1 litre plastic water bottle                                     4                113

Total                                                                            3      13              1728

FOOTWEAR

Scarpa Bronzo leather boots                                         4       8                2041
New Balance 420 running shoes                                    1       1                  482

Total                                                                            5      9                 2523

CLOTHING

Rohan Cool T shirt                                                                5                   142
Rohan Long T shirt                                                               6                    170
Gordale chlorofibre long johns                                                7                   198
M&S Viloft briefs x 2                                                            4                    113
Rohan polycotton shorts                                                       5                    142
Rohan polycotton Knickers (breeches)                                   9                    255
Rohan polycotton Bags trousers                                          10                    283
Helly Hansen Double Pile jacket                                     1     4                    567
Snowdon Mouldings Down Vest                                           14                    397
Rohan polycotton Action Jacket                                          12                    340
Rohan Gore-tex jacket                                                  1     5                    595
Rohan Gore-tex salopettes                                            1     3                    539
3 pairs wool knee length socks                                      1     7                    652
Field & Trek Viloft Thermclava balaclava                                3                      85
Goredale Chlorofibre balaclava                                              2                      57
Cotton sun hat                                                                    2                      57
Damart gloves                                                                     3                      85
Wintergear Gore-tex Overmitts                                             3                      85
Nylon Stop Tous                                                                 2                      57

Total                                                                        10     10                  4819

SUNDRIES

First Aid/Repair Kits in plastic tubs                            2        7                 1106
XL Food stuffsack                                                              4                   113
Simond Cougar ice axe                                             1      11                   765
Compass & whistle                                                            2                     57
100 foot nylon cord                                                           11                   312
Head torch + 3 sets batteries                                            14                   397
Sunglasses                                                                       3                    85
Notebook, pens, documents                                              12                   340
8x20 binoculars                                                                  8                   227

Total                                                                          7       8              3402

Grand Total                                                            43       5             19645

For the crossing of the High Sierra I added the following (no weights recorded)

Sherpa Featherweight Snowshoes
SMC 12 point crampons
A16 Gore-tex gaiters
Polarguard bootees

At Mammoth Lakes I added 120 feet of 7mm rope for river crossings.


After around 1500 miles I replaced my damaged pack and my worn-out shoes and boots with the following:

The North Face Back Magic II pack
Asolo trail shoes

Camera Gear (no weights recorded)

Pentax ME Super SLR
Pentax MX SLR
Pentax 28mm lens
Pentax 50mm lens
Pentax 75-150 zoom lens
Camera Care Systems cases
Kodachrome 64 transparency film

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

This Thursday: Pacific Crest Trail talk, Eden Court, Inverness,

Display at Eden Court

I'm talking about my Pacific Crest Trail hike and showing slides (the walk was in 1982!) at Eden Court in Inverness this Thursday (January 29th). I'll be signing copies of my book on the walk too. Tickets are £7 from Eden Court and the talk starts at 7pm.

The film Wild is also on at Eden Court (see my last post for my review) and you can watch it straight after my talk.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Wild: Film Review



Wild, the film of Cheryl Strayed’s book of the same name, is about a woman’s redemptive experience of hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s both a very personal story and a story about the transformative power of undertaking a major and difficult project and seeing it through. In this case that project is a very long wilderness hike and the story is also about the positive effects of long-distance walking and immersion in nature.

The film has proved controversial with some hikers who don’t like its portrayal of hiking while others have defended it by saying it’s not really about the Pacific Crest Trail anyway. I disagree with both points of view. I think it’s an excellent film that is about the Pacific Crest Trail, both from a general hiker’s perspective and from the intense personal experience of Cheryl Strayed, a novice hiker escaping from a horrendous life of drugs and casual sex and still bearing the trauma of dealing with the death of her beloved mother. 

Viewing the film as a long-distance hiker I did wonder what non-hikers would make of it. As well as the beauty of the landscape the film shows much of the daily detail of long-distance hiking.  Those who’ve hiked long trails will be familiar with many of the experiences, including some of the novice mistakes Strayed makes, and also appreciate the subtle ways in which she comes to enjoy the trail despite the blisters and sores. The film doesn’t flinch from the latter with close-ups of bloody mangled feet and red raw hips and shoulders. That hikers get dirty and smelly isn’t overlooked either – indeed the latter is mentioned several times – and Reese Witherspoon, who plays Strayed, certainly looks grimy enough. Some of the experiences – running out of water on a hot dry section, postholing through soft deep snow with a ridiculously heavy pack - matched those on my PCT hike enough for me to smile at the memories.. Supply boxes, trail angels, tent pitching, cooking, eating out a pot, hiking in the rain – they’re all there. 

But the rewards are there too in the landscape, which looks enticing and just crying out to be hiked. For various reasons the film wasn’t actually made on the PCT apart from a few shots but the landscapes chosen as substitutes replicate it pretty well.  Strayed’s hike took her from hot deserts to snow-covered mountains and all this is in the film. 

Strayed’s hike forms, appropriately, the spine of the film. Her previous life, from childhood and joy with her mother to degradation after her mother’s death, is shown in the form of flashbacks linked to Strayed’s thoughts as she hikes and works through her past. Having read the book I knew what to expect here. It’s a harrowing story though and I can imagine that for viewers who hadn’t read the book some of the scenes of heroin use and sex could be quite startling and shocking, especially if they were expecting a film just about hiking. Using flashbacks like this is effective though as the background to the hike is slowly built up.

Reese Witherspoon, who plays Strayed, is excellent and convincing as a long-distance hiker and as the anguished woman trying to shed her demons. It’s an intense performance that really makes the film. 

I thought the film as a whole was very good too. I’ll certainly watch it again. It fits in with those other outdoor journey-in-search-of-meaning films Tracks and Into The Wild and also, to a lesser extent, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. If you enjoyed those films I think you’ll enjoy Wild.
And on a final note – it really made me want to go on a long-distance hike.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Ordnance Survey 1" Tourist Maps: Cartography Works of Art



Maps are wonderful gateways into imagining adventures and travels. I can spend hours looking at maps and tracing endless journeys, most of which I will never undertake. Over the years I’ve built up a large collection of maps, many of them replete with memories of the places they took me to. Pulling out one of these maps and I can follow the routes I took many years ago, images of the mountains and forests, the lakes and rivers, springing to life from the lines on the paper.

Recently @Ordnance Survey posted an image of an old Tourist Map cover on Twitter and a few people @PhoebeRSmith, @FellBound @blgpackinglight), including myself, expressed praise for this long-gone I inch to the mile map series. This led me to look out some of my old ones. 

Back in the 1970s and early 80s I used these maps regularly, as I was reminded by the tatty covers and split seams, held together with now yellowing sticky tape. These maps were published in the mid-1970s from surveys made twenty years earlier – revision was much less frequent in those pre-digital days. They covered many popular walking areas and national parks and were much more useful than the standard 1 inch maps as they had extra information and one map covered a whole area. 

They were also much more attractive, works of art in fact. Each one had a colourful painting on the cover of a landmark – the Shelter Stone for the Cairngorms, with a stag posing in front of it (I’ve never seen deer there); the Three Sisters of Glencoe for the Ben Nevis and Glen Coe; Trossachs Pier for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. The maps inside were quite colourful too with shading used to indicate topography. The colours weren’t the same from map to map. Of the ones I have the Cairngorms is particularly bright with shading varying from fawn through red to purple. The other maps are a little duller but still very pleasing to look at.

These maps disappeared with metrication and the Ordnance Survey doesn’t do anything similar today. The nearest to them are Harvey’s excellent Mountain Maps, which also use shading, though somewhat more subtle, and cover useful areas.