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

Monday, 22 September 2014

Cloud Inversion in the North Harris Hills

The sun almost breaks through

Sometimes light in the mountains can be astoundingly strange. Such was the case one day last week when I accompanied a group of seventeen round the Clisham Horseshoe as part of the Harris Mountain Festival. We set off under grey clouds which soon enveloped us. Every so often a hazy sun threatened to burst through but never quite did so. However driving to the start from Tarbert we had seen the summits poking above the clouds into a blue sky so we hoped that we would eventually climb through the mist and look down on a cloud inversion.
Climbing An Cliseam

And so we did but not exactly as expected. The glens below us were mostly rippling with clouds but the sky above was not often blue or the sun very bright. Sheets of clouds spread across the sky, thickening and thinning over and over again as we wandered the ridges and peaks, marvelling at the ever-changing light. Sometimes walls of cloud rose up and almost engulfed us, only to sink back down. At one point there was a fog bow – a white bow caused by the sun shining through the fine droplets of moisture that made up the mist. The sun almost appeared many times but always more fine clouds drifted across, dulling its light.

Fog bow

Surging mist

In between the undulating mist below and the shimmering clouds above we walked the fine rocky summits that ring the glen of the Abhainn Scaladail. Mostly the walking was easy, with some simple scrambling and boulders to negotiate in places. The views, when they appeared through the shifting clouds, were tremendous, out over the ocean to distant islands, down to lochans far below and across the white clouds to floating peaks. It was a grand day and one to remember for a long time.

A narrow path on Mulla-Fo Dheas

View from An Cliseam with Todun poking through the clouds

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Great Outdoors latest issue: Cairngorms 4000-footers, stream crossings, synthetic insulated jackets, TGO Challenge

Ben Macdui & the Cairngorm Plateau

The October issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. This is the TGO Challenge issue with reports from this year's event and the application form for next year's. If you want to take part buy a copy now!

For those for whom two weeks is rather too long a time for the Scottish hills - for whatever reason - this issue has a big feature on weekend trips.In the lead item I cover the round of the five 4,000-foot peaks in the Cairngorms. I also describe the circuit of Glen Tilt and Beinn A'Ghlo plus the walk from Fort William to Corrour. David Lintern describes the Arrochar Alps plus Ben Lawers and the Tarmachan Ridge while Max Landsberg describes Ben Nevis and the Mamores, the Glen Shiel Ridges and Knoydart's Munros.

Over on the gear pages I review 16 synthetic insulated jackets, clothing that will be useful soon as we head into chillier days. Something else that will be needed more soon is a headlamp (though I carry one year round) and Daniel Neilson reviews 13 models. My review of the new Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 shoes also appears. Continuing the series on how gear is made and tested James Reader visits Gore-Tex in Southern Germany to see how footwear is assessed for waterproofness.

My backpacking column is a little different this month as it covers indoor activities - three plays about the outdoors that I saw at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. In the Hill Skills section I give some tips on stream crossings where there are no bridges or they've been destroyed by floods, as several were in the Cairngorms last month. Also in the Hill Skills pages Glenmore Lodge instructor Phil Sanderson gives advice on how to keep safe and warm if you're stuck in one place in the hills for several hours or more. There's also advice on deer stalking in the Scottish Highlands and estimating how far you've walked.

Elsewhere in this issue are two impressive opening spreads - a misty, atmospheric shot of Loughrigg Tarn from Loughrigg Fell by Stuart Holmes and a sunrise shot of Ben Nevis and the Carn Mor Dearg Arete by John Parminter; an interview with Lorraine McCall about her continuous round of the Corbetts; photographer Mark Gilligan on his favourite Lake District waterfalls; John Manning on the Lyke Wake Walk; and ten overseas treks ranging from the Himalayas to the Canadian Rockies. In their monthly columns Carey Davies compares the British hills with the Alps, Roger Smith argues for more National Parks in Scotland (hear ,hear!) and Jim Perrin praises Ida Gandy's An Idler on the Shropshire Borders (a book I have to admit I'd never heard of before).

Monday, 15 September 2014

Outdoor Trade Show - The Most Interesting Items of New Gear

Displays at the Outdoor Trade Show

Last week I spent a few days wandering round the Outdoor Trade Show in Stoneleigh in Warwickshire (furthest south I've been this year) looking at gear whilst outside the sun blazed down. Yes, I'd rather have been in the hills but there was quite a bit of interesting stuff that I'm looking forward to trying. I've done a round-up of the gear that most caught my attention for The Great Outdoors (I was there on the magazine's behalf) which you can read here. It includes brands like Force Ten, MSR, Primus, Therm-A-Rest, Primaloft and Sea-to-Summit and items including packs, sleeping mats, stove fuel and insulation.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Harris Mountain Festival: Walks & Films In the Outer Hebrides

On the Clisham Horseshoe

Next week, whilst a rather momentous decision is being made in Scotland, I'll be on the Isle of Harris at the Harris Mountain Festival.  On the 17th I'll be introducing The Cairngorms In Winter film and answering questions afterwards. (Terry Abraham's other full length film Life of A Mountain: Scafell Pike is also being shown, on the 16th).

On the 18th, the day of the Scottish Independence Referendum, I'll be walking the Clisham Horseshoe with a  group from the festival. This is a wonderful steep and rocky circuit of several hills with superb views of hills, lochs and ocean.

There's much more on at the Festival - walks, hill race, raft race, kayaking, hills skills training, talks, photo workshops and more. It's well worth a visit!

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Filming in the Lake District with Terry Abraham

The camp on Grey Knotts

I’ve just returned from a few days away with Terry Abraham doing more work on our next video, Backpacking in the Lake District. As on our first trip (see here) the weather was kind with light breezes, mild temperatures and occasional sunshine. There were clouds, especially on the last day, but these were mostly above the summits.

Terry at work filming me taking photographs of Terry at work filming me .......

After surprising a few early morning tourists with some filming in Keswick (when you walk up and down the same stretch of pavement several times people do notice, especially when someone is pointing a large video camera at you) we risked our heads being lashed by tree branches by sitting upstairs in an open-topped bus that took us down Borrowdale.  Having survived the bus journey we wandered up Grains Gill, past Sprinkling and Styhead Tarns, and onto the Climbers Traverse across the south face of Great Gable. I’d not been on this narrow dramatic and often sketchy route for many, many years and I’d forgotten how impressive it is as it winds across steep rocky slopes below the huge shattered cliffs of the mountain with stupendous views across Lingmell Beck to the Scafell range and down to neat green fields of Wasdale.

Terry on the Climbers Traverse

Easier terrain led below the north face of Great Gable to the long undulating grassier hills that stretch out towards Honister Pass. Here we met Phillip, who’d come out for one night on the last filming trip, and camped with him close to the summit of Grey Knotts. The evening light was beautiful and there was a fine sunset, making this a lovely camp. The next morning was rather duller with high clouds but still okay for filming the camp and for me to do some talking about backpacking, wild camping, wild places and more.

Sunset on Grey Knotts

A shorter day’s walk followed with many stops for filming (progress is never quick when filming anyway), the main effort being the steep descent and ascent in and out of Honister Pass to the long ridge that runs over several summits on the west side of Borrowdale.  We camped close to another summit, High Spy, and again filmed the camp and did recorded me chatting. A final day saw a descent down to Borrowdale and back to Keswick. 

Terry filming me in the tent
Terry did much filming and much recording. I walked, stood and spoke as directed, often repeating stretches of path so Terry could film from different angles. Terry’s huge pack with all his video gear was much heavier than mine but at the end of one day he remarked that we’d probably expended the same amount of energy because of the extra distance I’d walked.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Off to the Lake District again for more filming with Terry Abraham

I'm packed and ready to head down to the Lake District where I'll be doing more filming with Terry Abraham for the Backpacking In The Lake District video.

We've already had one filming session, which I wrote about here. The weather then was perfect. The forecast suggests it might be similar this time. Terry posted some stills from the video we made then on his blog.

The video should be available this autumn.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Scottish Independence Referendum: Why I'm Voting Yes

Today my ballot paper arrived for the Scottish Referendum. It felt a special day. Tomorrow I’ll vote Yes to Scottish Independence and send it off. I’m voting by post because on the 18th September when the Referendum actually takes place I’ll be on the Isle of Harris climbing Clisham with a group from the Mountain Festival. Being on a Scottish mountain that day somehow seems appropriate.
Voting in this Referendum feels like one of the most significant political choices I’ve ever had. A Yes vote really could change things, and not just for Scotland. I’ve never had great expectations when voting in elections – general, Scottish or local – and have often voted for what seemed the least bad option. This vote feels different.
So why am I voting Yes, something I knew I would do as soon as a referendum was first mooted?  I’m not from Scotland, I’m from England, but I’ve lived in Scotland for 25 years and it’s home now. I feel I belong here. I’m not a nationalist though. I’ve always liked the address John Muir wrote in his notebook – “John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe”. I’m voting Yes because, whilst internationalist in outlook, I also think decision-making and political power should be as close to people as possible. My political views are decentralist, democratic, egalitarian, libertarian. The standard straight-line left-right spectrum is too narrow to express this. One of the best methods I’ve seen for doing so is The Political Compass, which has two axes - authoritarian/libertarian and left/right. I’m down in the bottom left corner – libertarian and left. How this political position relates to the Scottish Referendum and what it entails has been expressed well by Andy Wightman in this blog post.
I don’t see narrow, separatist nationalism as being part of the Yes campaign – I would be worried if it was - but I do see it growing in Westminster and England with the rise of UKIP and the move towards anti-European and anti-immigrant positions in the other parties. I want to be part of a country that looks out to the world and wants to be part of it not one that wants to close the doors and shut the world out.
I think a Yes vote could open the way to a different sort of politics, one that is more participatory and more involving. The many strands of the Yes Campaign – despite what the mass media tends to say it’s far more than the SNP and Alex Salmond – have encouraged these thoughts as there has been a great upwelling of ideas, a great feeling of community. Whether the vote is Yes or No, whether politics returns to ‘normal’ or not, I can’t imagine this energy and involvement simply disappearing. And even if there is no big realignment after a Yes vote and Scottish politics continues its party political way changing things will be easier and power will be closer than in the UK, where Scots only make up a small percentage of the population. I think too that the Scottish electoral system is already more democratic than that of the UK. No House of Lords and a form of proportional representation ensures that.
Some, I know, will say that I’m being idealistic, that it’s safest to stick with the status quo and not take any risks. Idealism is good is my reply. Without ideals how would any progress be made? And the status quo is a mirage. Whatever happens things will change. It’s a question of how much control we want over the changes and how much we’re happy to leave them in other hands. I like being independent. I want my country to be independent. As to risk, well I’d never have undertaken all my outdoor adventures if I was averse to risk. I’d probably not have done them without being idealistic either. Also, is independence any more risky than staying in the Union? I don't think it is. Having less control over the future is hardly a safe option.
I think a Yes vote will have much wider repercussions too. Scotland won’t just exit the UK, leaving the rest to continue as usual. Others in the UK will look at the centralisation of power and wealth in the London and wonder if they too can break away. Declining numbers of votes at elections shows disillusion with a degenerating and corrupt over-centralised and over-big system. Scottish independence could be the trigger to change this for the benefit of all in the UK or at least set an example for others to try and follow.
This is a time of optimism and the potential for positive change. I hope enough of us vote Yes to make it happen.