Thursday, 15 November 2018

Mild & Windy in the Cairngorms

The first touches of winter have gone from the hills. The air is warm. The forecast has been for stormy weather but with mild southerly winds. Wanting to have some time in the hills before heading south for the Kendal Mountain Festival,  where I'll be on The Great Outdoors stand with Emily Rodway and Alex Roddie late Friday afternoon, Saturday and Sunday, I decided to wander up a favourite, Meall a'Bhuachaille. It's a good hill when the forecast is for stormforce winds and cloud cover on the higher Cairngorms.

Despite knowing the forecast was for mild weather the warmth still surprised me. A few strides into the forest and my jacket came off - and stayed off until I reached the summit. Just a base layer. In mid-November! That's not often possible in the middle of summer. The wind was strong too, gusting 30-35mph on the top. I was glad I hadn't gone any higher. The Cairngorm Plateau was enveloped in dense mist.

I'd left late hoping that at dusk the sun would cut below the clouds and give some good light, as happens quite often. It did, but only for a few fleeting minutes and then the greyness closed in again.

Cold weather is meant to return over the weekend. Maybe there'll be snow again by the time I return north. In the meantime if you're at the Mountain Festival stop by the TGO stand and say hello.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The Great Outdoors December issue: waterproof jackets, biodegradable PrimaLoft, FLIR Scout TK, lost on Ben More

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. In its pages I review a dozen four-season waterproof jackets and the FLIR Scout TK infrared monocular and look at PrimaLoft's forthcoming biodegradable synthetic insulation.

In the Hill Skills section I've contributed a short tale of going astray on Ben More on Mull. This is part of a feature called When Navigation Goes Awry which is full of useful tips from Mountaineering Scotland. In the same pages Bill Strachan from Glenmore Lodge gives useful information on what to do when things go wrong.

The magazine opens with a lovely moody autumnal picture of the Langdale Pikes by Mark Littlejohn that captures the essence of the season perfectly.

To mark the centenary of the Armistice James Forrest looks at the history of the Lake District mountain gifted to the nation as memorials for the fallen and walks over them all.

Alan Rowan has been climbing a hill in Scotland every full moon this year, a fascinating venture, and he describes some memorable nights.

Away to the south in Snowdonia there's a stunning photo essay by Nick Livesey. I particularly like the shot of Crib Goch at dawn.

Back in Scotland Stefan Durkacz goes for a long walk in the Trossachs and describes in a perceptive piece how he learnt a great deal about hills he thought he knew well.

Abroad Daniel Neilson visits Yosemite, one of my favourite places, and describes how it inspired John Muir and the modern conservation movement. Again there are some mouth-watering photos, especially one of the great cliff of El Capitan in evening light.

There's also an interview by Emily Rodway with Cam Honan who has trekked all over the world and who has a new book out called The Hidden Tracks; a piece on Munroist extraordinaire Hazel Strachan (she's just completed her 10th round and has done a round a year the last seven years); Roger Smith on the latest climate change report; and Jim Perrin on Errisbeg in County Galway.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

After The Walk

Towards the end of the GR5

Returning home after a long walk can be a complex process, not just logistically, but much more important, mentally. Indeed, a couple of days of buses, trains, and planes can be a useful time to separate slowly from walking every day to staying in one place. Adjusting to a new reality takes time, at least for me. Spend long enough walking every day and it becomes a way of life, it becomes reality. Time not distance makes the difference. For me two weeks is the cut-off point. After that walking is the norm, being at home the past. 

The sudden change from trail life to static life is never that easy. Even after four decades of long walks I have to prepare myself for each one to end. This actually starts during the last few days or weeks as my mind jumps ahead and starts to think of life beyond the trail. I used to try and suppress such thoughts, feeling that they detracted from my enjoyment of the walk. I don’t now as I realise that it’s needed for easing back into life after the trail.

The Mediterranean at Nice. The GR5 walk was over.

It’s now just over a month since I returned from my last long walk, the GR5 Trail through the Alps, which took me 32 days. I’ve just about adjusted to being home. It now no longer feels strange and the feeling of restlessness, that I ought to be walking every day, is fading. I have had five days out in the hills since my return, including two camps, but that doesn’t give the sense of a purposeful journey, of walking being what I do, that comes with a long walk. Without those days out, I think I’d be very frustrated and probably a pain to be with though. I need walks and the outdoors. I need the woods and hills.

Last camp on the GR5

Of course, the big joy of returning home is seeing family again. Without them I think I’d feel isolated and maybe a little lost. They understand why I’ve been away and what I’ve been doing. I know that long-distance walkers whose family and friends don’t have this understanding can feel alienated from their old life. I’m also lucky in that I return to writing about the outdoors, testing gear, and being involved in the outdoors world. I have woods and hills on my doorstep too. Back in a city with an indoor job unrelated to nature I would find very difficult. Realising that many decades ago is part of the reason I do what I do. I knew after my first long walks that I needed to stay in touch with nature and with the feelings engendered during those trips.

Lac Sainte Anne on the GR5

Long-distance walking is a simple life. Get up, pack up, walk, camp, sleep, repeat. Day after day after day. What’s important is in the details – where you are, what you see, how you feel - but the pattern doesn’t vary. Returning home can be overwhelming. There’s so much to do and no simple format into which it all fits. Where to start? What’s important? What can be ignored? Hundreds of emails, texts, piles of paper mail, phone messages. Help, my head’s exploding! Back to the hills please! Back to simplicity.

This is what it's all about. On the GR5

Not everything gets done quickly. I still have mail to open (most emails were deleted – there were simply too many of them to cope with) and I’ve only looked at a few of the 1500+ photos I took. At the same time, I think having plenty to do helps as it means there’s little time to dwell on the end of the walk, little time to feel sad it’s over. Being busy suppresses the feeling I always have that this new life isn’t real, a feeling of detachment, a feeling that really I’m still walking and will wake up tomorrow and continue. 

There’s another antidote to the latter feelings. Start planning the next walk. I’m thinking of my route for next year’s TGO Challenge – it’s the fortieth and I was on the first so I’m going to do a similar route to back then – and considering a longer walk for next summer. Onto the next trail!

Friday, 9 November 2018

Along The Divide: Some Good Reviews

I'm delighted that my latest book Along The Divide is receiving good reviews. Here's a selection - with links so you can read the whole review if you wish.

'There is a natural and captivating flow in his storytelling, while his palpable passion for his experiences transports readers into sharing his gruelling journey.

A highly recommended read for those who enjoy a bit of adventure.'

Alma Crespo The Scottish Field 

' There's something really magical about Chris's writing that transports the reader to another time and place in a way that works so well.

The blending together of the account of the walk itself with memories and reflections results in a book we would wholeheartedly recommend to walkers everywhere, whether you do your walking in boots or in an armchair.'

Undiscovered Scotland

'Along the Divide treads that skilful line between serious, important landscape writing and a damned good tale that you can kick back and read for the pleasure of reading.'

Alex Roddie The Great Outdoors 

'This is the first of Townsend’s books that I have read and it is not going to be the last .... thoroughly enjoyable travel book'

Paul Cheney Nudge 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Remembering Peter Hutchinson, the man behind Mountain Equipment and PHD

PHD Sleep System
Recently I was saddened to hear of the death of Peter Hutchinson, the founder of Mountain Equipment and PHD (Pete Hutchinson Designs). Back in the late 1970s and the 1980s when I was first learning about outdoor gear Pete was one of the key people to talk to due to his knowledge of down clothing and sleeping bags. As a designer he produced unsurpassed products that went on many major expeditions to Everest and other Himalayan peaks plus the Arctic and Antarctica and just about every mountain range there is. I had many conversations with Pete at the annual UK gear show in Harrogate and learnt a great deal. He was one of the true innovators and will be sadly missed.

Over the years I've used many Mountain Equipment and PHD items including an ME Lightline sleeping bag on the Pacific Crest Trail back in 1982 (pictured above) and much more recently the PHD Sleep System on my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk and just last month on the GR5 Trail through the Alps. Every time I use any of this gear now I'll think of Peter and thank him.

Peter was a supporter of Médecins Sans Frontières and a JustGiving page has been set up in his memory.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Stars & Snow & Clouds: Changing Conditions On A Walk In The Cairngorms

Lochan Uaine

One of the joys of darker nights is the return of brilliant starry skies. With such a night forecast a few days ago I decided on a short walk followed by a camp, allowing plenty of time to stop and gaze at the heavens. The sky was already dark when I set off for through the woods towards Ryvoan Pass. Above the dark silhouettes of the trees the stars sparkled. At Lochan Uaine they were reflected in the gently moving water – bright insubstantial streaks of light. I love being outside on nights like this – the world feels magical and mysterious, full of possibilities and subtle beauty. 

I camped by the River Nethy where Strath Nethy widens out, on the edge of two worlds. On one side lay the mountains rising dark into the sky, on the other rolling terrain stretched out to Abernethy Forest, whose outliers have already reached this spot now the forest is regenerating and spreading out under the auspices of the RSPB. 

The air was crisp, there was frost on the grass, and the sky was a mass of bright stars when I fell asleep. By dawn though, clouds covered most of the sky and temperature had risen. Leaving my camp to be collected on the way back I went up anyway, heading for Bynack More, its head still below the greyness, and was rewarded by the clouds fading away. 

I soon had the sun in my face and snow underfoot, snow that was becoming crisper and firmer now it was several days old. Not quite enough to need ice axe or crampons though there were a few places where I wondered about using the former. I was glad I had them with me. If the snow was only a little harder I’d have been wise to use them. The walking was wonderful with the vast mountains spreading out before me, seeming so much bigger and pristine under snow, as always.

On the long rocky summit ridge – after many ascents over many years it always seems longer than I remember – a bitter wind cancelled the weak heat of the sun. The granite rocks glowed gold but were freezing to the touch. Up here it was winter. Looking into the heart of the Cairngorms all was white. To the west clouds were building. I wandered over to the collection of tors known as the Barns of Bynack then turned and headed back down. The clouds were thickening now, shading the snow and removing its brightness.

By the time I reached camp the clouds covered the summits. Back in the forest the autumn colours were deep and rich, bronze and gold, under the shadow of the dark clouds. Soon after I reached the car rain began to fall. 

That night the weather changed. The temperature rose, the rain thrashed down, the wind blasted leaves off the trees. And in the hills the snow melted away. When the clouds lifted enough to see Bynack More, just two days after my walk, there were only streaks of whiteness left. The first touch of winter was over. There’s more to come.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Snow & Water & Wind, An Autumn Overnight in Glen Feshie

Dusk merging into night

Sometimes trips don’t quite work as planned. For my first overnight trip since returning from the GR5 trail in the Alps I planned to traverse the Moine Mhor plateau above Glen Feshie from Carn Ban Mor to Mullach Clach a’Bhlair and then descend back to Glen Feshie to camp. I always try and have at least one camp in the glen in the autumn. It’s beautiful year-round but the autumn colours and the stags roaring make this time of year special.

The first significant snowfall of the autumn had fallen just a few days earlier and the summits were white and shining in the sunshine as I set off for the Cairngorms. Packing an ice axe and crampons seemed wise. Summer was definitely over. In Glen Feshie the bright yellow birches glowed in the late afternoon sun. Having been up until the early hours completing work the night before I was late to rise and slow to get going. I didn’t mind. The forecast was good and snow walking under the stars is always magical.


Cold and unconsolidated the snow collapsed under my steps. Others had ploughed a path up to the plateau, making the walking reasonably easy even when the snow became shin deep. A cold breeze sliced across the snow chilling my face. To the west the sky was gold and orange as the sun set. Soon the sky darkened. Down Glen Feshie I could see cold white snowy slopes under a cold dark blue sky contrasting with the last warmth of the sun.

I reached the plateau. The myriad boot prints turned away towards Sgor Gaoith. Towards Mullach Clach a’Bhlair there was just one set of holes in the snow. I set off and quickly realised this was going to take a long time. Stars shone. My headlamp beam lit up sparkling snow. It was magical but for once the magic didn’t work. My heart wasn’t in this. It felt too arduous. I should, I thought, have brought snowshoes. I stopped and dithered. It was too cold to spend long over a decision. I might regret not turning back. I might regret not going on. But the former was easier and less committing. I turned and began to retrace my steps down the mountain.

I wasn’t happy with the decision, but I also felt I wouldn’t have been happy going on. By the time I reached the first trees I was fed up with myself and even considered just going home. That thought startled me. I certainly wasn’t going to do that. I wanted this night out. 

The Enchanted Waterfall. A grainy phone photo but it captures the feel. Nothing was distinct or sharp.
On a whim I turned down a narrow, overgrown side path I’d seen many times. Soon I could hear water rushing. The Allt Fhearnagan, the stream that ran down the corrie below the main path. I pushed through some bushes and suddenly there was a lovely waterfall in a little amphitheatre. In the light of my headlamp it glowed a greenish yellow and the vegetation round the water shimmered indistinctly. I was entranced. Here was the magic of the night. My mood changed instantly. How wonderful to be here. I crossed the stream below the falls then followed it downwards past more sparkling falls and silvery waterslides. The water was smooth and silky and noisy and rough all at the same time. But what I noticed most was the way it and the trees shone whilst all around was blackness. A secret world. An enchanted forest. 

Whatever else happened the trip was now a success. Just that first sight of the waterfall was all I needed. Everything else just amplified that moment. Eventually I left the water and walked through the trees to the next stream rushing down from the Moine Mhor. I followed this upwards until I found somewhere to camp close to two old Caledonian pines and sheltered from the cold wind by a steep bank. A bright waning moon cast a cool light.

A cold wind

Dawn came with racing clouds and a frost. The sun lit up distance slopes but the bank that protected me from the wind also blocked the rising sun. I made way back along Glen Feshie admiring again the brilliant colours of the birches. In the open the wind was fierce and bitter. I reached the car just as sleet and hail began to fall. My short, unusual, but ultimately excellent trip was over.  

In Glen Feshie