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

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Perceptions of Wilderness: John Muir Trust Journal

The latest issue of the excellent John Muir Trust Journal has a piece by me about the development of how I see wilderness. For those of you not in the JMT (please join!) here's a pdf of the feature.

Here's the link for a download.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Year of John Muir

The coast at Dunbar where John Muir first explored the outdoors

With the official opening of the John Muir Way last weekend as part of the John Muir Festival and much attention being paid to John Muir in the media (even an editorial in The Guardian) here's my contribution - a piece I wrote for The Great Outdoors earlier this year. The John Muir Way was opened by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. Hopefully he will heed the words of Muir and protect Scotland's remaining wild land. Otherwise this gesture is meaningless. 

This year is the centenary of the death of John Muir, arguably the most influential defender of wild places ever and whose legacy is still relevant and important today. Born in Dunbar in Scotland, Muir emigrated to the USA when he was eleven and lived there the rest of his life. He's still not that well-known in Britain, unlike the USA, where he is regarded as the 'father of National Parks'. In Martinez in California where he settled there are John Muir roads and businesses and the house where he lived is now the John Muir National Historic Site. The Sierra Club, which Muir founded in 1892, is one of the USA's leading conservation organisations and does much to keep Muir's memory alive. Scotland is slowly catching up with John Muir's Birthplace, a statue of the young Muir and the John Muir Country Park in Dunbar plus now the John Muir Way. And of course there is the John Muir Trust, founded in 1983 to campaign for wild land.

I discovered Muir many years ago, not with a sudden revelation but slowly as I came across the name again and again and he seeped into my consciousness. I didn't really pay him much attention though until I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, which in the High Sierra in California runs through the John Muir Wilderness and follows the John Muir Trail (which must be one of the most beautiful backpacking routes in the world). Just who was this John Muir who was so clearly important I wondered.  From signs and leaflets and talking to other hikers I began to learn a little about the man. A few years later I came across a second-hand copy of The Mountains of California (books by Muir were hard to find in the 1980s) and began to read Muir's own words. Immediately I was taken with his passion and devotion to nature and wild places. I went on to read his other works, some several times. The language can be flowery for modern tastes in places but his eye for detail and his love of everything natural shine through. (I'd recommend My First Summer In The Sierra as a first book to read - all of them are available on the Sierra Club website). I also read books about Muir, wanting to know more about this iconic figure. I think the best of these is Michael P. Cohen's The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, which goes more deeply into Muir's dilemmas and contradictions than other biographies.

Muir is to be admired not just as a conservationist, not just for his love of nature, key though these are to his greatness, but also for his outdoor adventures and experiences. Long before any of the equipment we take for granted, or the guidebooks, maps and paths, Muir would head off into the wilderness on long solo treks and climbs. From a boy scrambling on the cliffs and castle walls of Dunbar to the adult mountaineer making a daring first ascent of Mount Ritter deep in the High Sierra (a climb described superbly in The Mountains of California) Muir revelled in exploring wild places. He didn't just look at them or study them he went into them - climbing trees in a storm, edging out on narrow ledges to look down a waterfall, climbing rock faces, crossing glaciers, sleeping out wrapped in a coat (his minimal equipment makes today's ultralight backpackers look burdened down). He walked long distances as well - A Thousand-Mile Walk To The Gulf describes his journey from Indianpolis to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867. And when he arrived in California a year later he walked from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley. There followed many trips into the then still little-known Sierra Nevada mountains and in later years further afield, especially Alaska (as told in Travels in Alaska).

Muir was not just concerned for the conservation of wilderness for its own sake and the sake of the animals and plants that lived there. He was also concerned for its conservation for the sake of humanity. He was not a conservationist who wanted to exclude people but one who wanted to share his joy in nature with everyone. He led trips for the Sierra Club and his writing was aimed at encouraging people to visit wild places as well as persuading them they needed protection. He wrote in The Yosemite 'Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike' and in Our National Parks, a book intended to encourage visitors to the parks, 'Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.'

Much will be written and said about John Muir this year. What should be remembered is that his vision of the necessity of wildness and nature is as valid now as it was 100 years ago.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Terry Abraham's Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike

Terry Abraham filming in Upper Eskdale

Terry Abraham's new film Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike has just been finished and I've been privileged to have an early look at it. I'm very impressed. I've not seen a film that covers all aspects of a mountain before - landscape throughout the seasons, people at work, people at leisure, people who live below it, wild camping and more - and Terry's film does this with vivid and spectacular filming and entertaining and interesting interviews. Now I must admit that I might be biased - Terry is a good friend and I have a small part in the film (see this blog post) - but I don't think so. This really is a special film about a special place.

The film has it's premiere at the Rheged Centre in May (and it's on the next day) and will be available on DVD. If you can see it at Rheged I would though - it'll look amazing on the big screen there. Unfortunately I'll miss it as I'll be on the TGO Challenge. Terry will be there too, introducing the film and doing a Q&A.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Wild Camp Thoughts

Camp under the stars in the Superstition Mountains on the Arizona Trail

Waiting for the sun to bring warmth after the frosty night on the Moine Mhor a few days ago (see my last post - April Igloo) I thought, as I often do, about how much I enjoy wild camping. I've written about this quite often as it's one of my favourite subjects. Here's a piece from several years ago, with an ending that applies accurately to this weeks trip.

The finest roof when camping is the open sky. Falling asleep watching the stars and the ragged silhouette of mountains etched against the sky then waking as the first pale light glows in the east and the sun rises, bringing colour and light back to the world, is the most thrilling way to spend a night in the wilds. In dry areas such nights can be the norm.  During both my two month long Arizona Trail walk and a five week hike in the High Sierra I spent more nights under the stars than in a shelter. Sleeping out like this means keeping in touch with nature, in touch with the world. Breezes ripple the sleeping bag and brush your face; the sounds of animals scurrying nearby are loud and clear. If you stir and, half-awake, open your eyes you see stars, trees, rocks, grass and the whole spreading natural world rather than nylon. And when you wake at dawn you are already outdoors with no need to unzip the tent to see what’s happening.

Camp under the stars in the High Sierra

Of course there are nights when the wind blows too hard or the rain starts to fall or, worst of all, biting insects launch an attack. Then you need a shelter. Even those scurrying animals can force you under cover. One night in the Grand Canyon mice running over my sleeping bag kept disturbing my sleep until, in the early hours of the morning, I pitched my tent and sealed myself inside. After the open sky the next best shelter is a roomy tarp pitched so you can see out all around, followed by a tent with doors that open wide, again providing a good view and some contact with the outside world. Only when high winds blow and heavy rain or snow falls or the midges are biting do I close up a tent. I don’t go outside to be inside.

Using a tarp to keep the wind off on the Arizona Trail
Sometimes, though, stormy nights can be pleasurable. Lying in a warm sleeping bag listening to the rain rattling on the flysheet and the wind roaring past in great gusts can be strangely relaxing. Feeling snug and secure inside a tiny shelter is satisfying. But few such camps are really unforgettable; the lack of contact with the outside reduces them to simple enjoyment in being able to survive happily in a storm, with nothing distinctive to remember them by. Sometimes, though, camps in poor weather can become surprisingly memorable. Having spent a long frustrating day zigzagging through dense forest in rain on my walk through the Yukon Territory I was faced with a dismal camp in a dark, viewless, dripping spruce forest. Here the presence of bears turned what would have been a forgettable night sealed in the tent into a special, magical one. Because the bears that live in this vast wilderness might be attracted by the smell of human food it’s wise not to sleep where you cook, eat or store food so I slung a small tarp I’d brought as a cooking shelter between two trees. The place was still cheerless and dull so to make it friendlier I lit a small fire in front of the tarp. Instantly the atmosphere changed. Shadows danced and flickered around the flames. The black trunks of the trees were now walls, protecting my little bright and warm space. The falling rain sparkled in the firelight. I felt content instead of fed-up and stared into the fire for long hours, reluctant to leave it for my tent and sleeping bag.

Camp in the sunshine on the Scottish Watershed last summer

More usually wild camps are remembered because of a combination of a beautiful or spectacular situation and weather that don’t force you into a closed tent. Camps where the tarp or tent is just a bedroom are ideal. After that I like ones where I can look out from my shelter, protected from wind and rain but not cut off from the outside. Whilst sleeping under the stars is not possible that often in Britain (and by sleeping under the stars I mean just in a sleeping bag with the hood open, not sealed in a bivi bag, which I find more confining than a tent) camps where you can sit outside or look out from your shelter occur surprisingly frequently when camping in the British hills, especially outside of summer. The last may seem surprising but the one horror that can force me inside a tent with the doors shut tight are the ravenous hordes of midges that roam the hills searching for campers in the summer months. Midges are usually associated with the Highlands but I have memories I wish I could forget of midge-ridden nights in the Lake District too. Outside of midge season wild camping in the British hills can be a delight. The number of possible sites is legion. I discover new ones every year and the list of ones I’ve passed by but intend returning to would last several lifetimes.

Morning after a night of wind, rain and snow in the Lake District this February - sometimes a tent is welcome.

Taking pleasure in camping means that I rarely walk from dawn until dusk as this allows no time to enjoy a camp site. For me contemplation and slowly absorbing my surroundings are an important part of backpacking. Staying in one place gives the opportunity to notice the little details, the subtleties of the land, that are easily missed while walking. Wildlife is more likely to be observed from a camp too, another reason not to be closed away from the outside. Tents and tarps make good hides. On one TGO Challenge I camped on the edge of a small pine wood and woke at dawn to the strange bubbling calls of black grouse at a lek. Lying in the tent I watched these magnificent birds strutting and preening and fanning their wide tails as they competed for mates, a wonderful way to start the day. On other walks in other places I have been woken by a moose splashing high-legged through a shallow lake, deer grazing in a meadow just feet from the tent and porcupines shuffling through the grass.

Having time in camp means being able to watch how the passage of the sun and the fading and strengthening of the light changes the landscape, altering how it looks and how it feels. In the evening the shadows grow and colours fade, hills turn dark and lose detail, sunset turns clouds pink and orange before the sky blackens and the first stars appear. The world becomes mysterious and hidden. Then at dawn the darkness fades as the still hidden sun lightens the sky. The flat black featureless hills start to change, revealing shape and detail as ridges, cliffs and gullies appear. The first sharp rays of the sun touch a hill top, turning it red and gold. Slowly the sunshine creeps down the mountainside and across the land, approaching camp and bringing the promise of warmth and life. Just a few days before writing this I lay in my sleeping bag on a frosty morning in the Highlands watching the sun turning the white, shivering land a warm, sumptuous golden brown.  Gradually, oh so gradually, the sunshine slipped towards my frosted tent. I relished the anticipation of its warmth then revelled in the sudden heat and light. I never tire of those moments, the return of light and life to the world. They alone make wild camping an incomparable joy.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

April Igloo

Igloo climbing - the ice axe was used as aid (thanks to Andy for taking the picture)

Mid-April and finally an igloo! This winter it really looked as though one wasn't going to appear, for the first time in many years. But a last-minute trip with Andy and Roy from the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club, re-arranged to fit in with what looked like a brief weather window between storms, resulted in an igloo, and a fine one too.

Nearly finished.

Andy and Roy were on skis, at least when we reached 1000 metres and there was some snow. Feeling too lazy to carry skis up I walked, meeting the others on the slopes of Carn Ban Mor on the Moine Mhor in the Western Cairngorms, an area that often holds snow late into the spring. Sure enough there was ample snow - at least three or four feet deep - to build a good igloo with a big doorway dug into the slope below it. The snow was heavy and wet, ideal for making blocks and we made good progress using Igloo Ed's Icebox tool. A cool wind blew as we built the igloo so we weren't worried about it thawing or the sun, which appeared every so often, burning a hole in it, as happened a few years ago. At dusk the wind dropped and so did the temperature. Soon it was below zero and the igloo was setting hard. Overnight it fell to -3.5ÂșC. The next day we tested the strength of the igloo by climbing onto the top. It was really solid.

My camp at dusk

As I had a tent to test I camped rather than slept in the igloo, which made more room for Andy and Roy. The tent was soon white with frost as I watched the mountains turn pink and a pale moon rise into the sky. It was a beautiful night to be out and I left the doors open.

The Mountains and the Moon

The Moine Mhor was dappled with huge white snowfields and brown and green patches of moss and grass, looking half-way between winter and spring. We lingered the next morning, eating breakfast outside and watching the hills light up as the sun rose above a band of clouds. The skiers decided to head across the Moine Mhor to Monadh Mor as it looked as though they could link snowfields the whole way. I watched as they telemarked down the slope below the igloo then I turned and headed the other way, up Sgor Gaoith, as that way there was little snow and I could be on stony ground most of the way. Although the slopes leading to the summit were mostly bare of snow on the steep edge that drops down to Loch Einich there were huge sagging cornices with crevasse-like cracks in them. I wouldn't like to be on or under those when they finally fall.

Sgor Gaoith

From Sgor Gaoith I looked across the great trench of Gleann Einich to Braeriach then back across the Moine Mhor to Monadh Mor. Two tiny figures were advancing slowly up a snowfield.

A cold wind swept the summit as I crossed back over Carn Ban Mor and began the descent. The first day walkers were heading up the path. Those lower down were in shorts and thin tops, a great contrast to my windproofs, warm hat and gloves. I soon learnt why though as I dropped out of the wind and into a red-hot glen where it felt like high summer rather than early spring. On the last stretch of road to the car I felt completely over-dressed even though I was down to my mountain trousers and merino wool shirt. Down here shorts, t-shirt and sandals would have been far more sensible. Back in Aviemore Easter visitors were sitting outside and strolling in the sunshine eating ice cream. It was hard to believe that we'd built an igloo the night before.

Early morning igloo

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Raptor deaths protest in Inverness

Over the last few weeks nineteen dead raptors - fourteen red kites and five buzzards - have been found near Conon Bridge in the Scottish Highlands Tests have shown that twelve of them had been poisoned. I'd be surprised if this didn't turn out to be the case with the other seven. This is now the biggest case of mass poisoning of wildlife in the UK. Whilst all such deaths are appalling the death of red kites, which were re-establishing themselves following reintroduction, is particularly upsetting.

Today a protest organised by RSPB North Scotland was held in Inverness. Around 100 people were there - a good number I think for such a protest, especially as it was at fairly short notice. There were nineteen large cut-outs representing the red kites and buzzards. The protest started with a bagpipe lament which was followed by several short speeches. I hope that this solemn occasion plus the petition we all signed and all the online activity will result not only in the perpetrators being caught and appropriately punished but also in more being done to crack down on the poisoning of raptors, of which there have been many cases in recent years.