Monday, 21 August 2017

The Great Outdoors September issue: fleece & softshell, waterproof overtrousers, Montane waterproof jacket & a book review

In the latest issue of the Great Outdoors I've reviewed fourteen fleece and softshell jackets, looked at three pairs of overtrousers at different price points, tested the Montane Minimus Stretch jacket, described interesting new gear I saw at the OutDoor show, and reviewed Barry Smith's book The Top 500 Summits.

Also in the gear pages David Lintern visits the new Craigdon Mountain Sports shop on the edge of Edinburgh and goes for a walk on the Braid Hills with manager Martin Quinn, while Emily Rodway reviews kit that her children have been using. 

Away from gear and reviews in this issue Alex Staniforth is interviewed about his Climb the UK challenge; Roger Smith considers the difficult balance between tourism and the environment; Jim Perrin praises the Forcan Ridge and The Saddle; Carey Davies braves Sharp Edge on Blencathra with his dad; Ben Lerwill treks round the island of Unst; David Lintern explores Dinorwig Quarry near Llanberis; Max Landsberg treks round Mount Kailash; and Jon Sparks looks at the landscapes that inspired J.R.R.Tolkien as we approach the 80th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit.

This issue also has information on how to nominate candidates for The Great Outdoor Awards 2017.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Outdoor Thoughts from the Past

On the Continental Divide Trail in 1985

Thirty years ago at the end of my first book (see this post) I wrote some thoughts on long-distance walking and backpacking and how they were part of my life. I hadn’t reread these for many, many years. Doing so recently made me realise just how prescient they were as to the path my life would take. So here, thirty years, many books, and many walks later, are those long ago thoughts. I’ve edited them slightly, including leaving out sentences relating to the rest of the book and the proposals for long walks that never took place, as I think this strengthens the overall sense of the piece. I’ve resisted the temptation to rewrite sections though – I’d use different words today - and have let the language I was happy with back then stand. 

When I walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats to John O’Groats in 1978 Tom Waghorn, writing in the Manchester Evening News, called the walk the ‘dream of a lifetime’. I’m writing this in July 1986 the day after giving a slide lecture on my Continental Divide walk. ‘A dream of a lifetime’, one of the audience called it. This turning of a particular walk, the ‘dream’, into something separate from ‘life’ is, however, precisely what I am striving to avoid. Travelling in the mountains, in the natural landscape of the earth, the world which sustains use and allows us life is not for me a ‘dream’, a tiny capsule totally cut off from my ‘real’ life that I can take out and look at every so often. Rather it is my life, it’s what I do, what I think about, what I live for. A time when I am not planning or thinking about another backpacking trip does not exist. And the next weekend’s adventure is just as important and exciting as the next six-month one. 

My first love is long-distance mountain backpacking and as my wilderness treks are not one-off ‘dreams of a lifetime’ I am planning several more …. the start of a never-ending list of places I’d like to visit, wildernesses I’d like to explore if I have the time and the chance.

On my 1000-mile walk theough the Yukon Territory in 1990

Being ‘escapist’, ‘selfish’ and ‘unable to cope with the realities of everyday life’ are some of the criticisms aimed at backpackers and other regular explorers of the natural world. Yet our modern detachment from nature, from the force of which we are a part, our futile attempt to prove ourselves separate from and superior to the ecological system that allows us to live, our view of the world as an enemy to be conquered, and a bottomless treasure chest to be exploited, are the very selfish and escapist attitudes that have led us to the brink of the abyss of annihilation on which we are poised. Re-establishing our place in the natural scheme of evolution and the real world is essential if we are to have a future. And this cannot just be done intellectually, the process must go far deeper. An intuitive understanding of our oneness with the life of the earth and the forces of nature, with the rocks and rivers, mountains and deserts, with the other animals and plants must be the starting point for a return to the earth from the remote ivory towers of the so-called reality we have imprisoned ourselves in.

Backpacking is my way of doing this. Every trek through a wilderness, every night in the mountains under the stars far from roads, cars, bright lights and the other trappings of civilisation releases the tensions and pressures of our false and stressful lifestyle. Of course I know that I carry the products of modern society on my back but then I am not advocating a denial of tools. That would take me back beyond the Stone Age! Humanity is a tool-using species and tools are essential to our life but in modern society the balance has become such that it seems more as though humanity’s purpose is to provide a market for tools rather than tools being produced to improve humanity’s way of life.

Wild camping in the Cairngorms earlier this year

So when the confusions become too much and I feel locked into an unnatural life of concrete, forms to fill in, and sterile logic, I pack up a rucksack and head off into the hills to pitch my tent, gaze at the sky, feel the wind and rain on my face, the rocks and earth under my feet and bring my life back to the only thing that exists, the present.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

On August 15 1982 I entered the Three Sisters Wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail

Broken Top

Mid-August 35 years ago and I entered the Three Sisters Wilderness on my Pacific Crest Trail walk. Much of the hiking was in forests, as it had been for many weeks, but here the ragged glacier and snow clad volcanic peaks rose above the trees and sometimes the trail did too. I camped by lakes with the mountains rising above them, watching as the morning mist burnt off and the sun made the rocks glow.

The PCT leading towards North Sister

'Glorious mountain country and fantastic volcanic features' I wrote in my journal, 'lava flows, curling rivers of frozen basalt and huge mounds of pyroclastic cinders'. It was all marvellous. I'd been on the trail 135 days and had walked 1775 miles and I was revelling in every day.

The PCT winds up the slopes of Collier Cone

You can read the full story of my PCT adventure in my book Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Wild Forest, Wild Hills : A Quiet Corner of the Cairngorms

The forest at dusk

Remoteness, wildness, solitude, time to be alone with nature. These are not hard to find if you're prepared to wander away from paths and popular summits. I wanted a challenging walk that would thrust me deep into the natural world after a week of intense desk work. The word forest recurred in my mind.

Loch an Eilein

I began at Loch an Eilein, my first visit since being shocked at the felling back in March (see this post). As expected there were many people wandering round the loch. As soon as I left the main path and headed off beside little Loch Gamhna the others vanished though. A couple of mountain bikers passed me then I was alone. At the Allt Coire Follais I turned off the path and headed up into the forest. There is an old path here, half-buried in vegetation and hard to follow. Few come this way. Often a depression in the hillside is the only sign of it. The walking was hard now. Steeply up over tussocks and stones hidden in deep heather and bracken.

A forest pool

The beauty and power of the forest held me entranced though. I didn't mind the tough terrain. This was raw nature. Soon the trees began to thin. The dense vegetation didn't though, the ground just grew boggier. Looking back I could see the shining line of Loch an Eilein far below.

Looking back

Out onto open moorland I revelled in the summer colour. From afar these slopes look brown and green, tinged with the purple of heather. Close to they shimmer with a mosaic of colour. The yellow-green grasses red-tipped, the bright yellow stars of bog asphodel rising through them.

Summer colour

Finally the vegetation thinned and the walking became easier. Then I was on a broad ridge, views opening up all around. Across Gleann Einich Cairn Gorm, Cairn Lochan and Braeriach were a long line of corrie-bitten hills. A cold wind swept the stony slopes, drying my sweat-soaked clothes and causing me to shiver and zip up my jacket.

Cairngorm hills

Ahead rose the granite tor of Clach Mhic Cailein (The Argyll Stone), an important landmark on this featureless ridge. Today it provided shelter for a snack before I continued on northwards, the wind behind me, over Creag Dhubh to Cadha Mor.

Clach Mhic Cailein

The first trees appeared, tiny Scots Pine almost prostrate on the slope, stuggling to exist in the thin soil and the cold windswept terrain. Outliers far above the forest.

Scots pine

I plunged down boggy slopes, skidding on moss-covered stones. The descent was steep. Soon I was back in the dense heather and grass, wading waist-deep at times through greenery. I stumbled into holes and tripped over roots. Loch an Eilein grew closer.

Loch an Eilein

Down in the trees at dusk as the sky darkened and shafts of late sunlight, the most of the day, cut through the clouds. The walk hadn't been long, six hours or so, but the submersion in the forest and the moor had been intense, a far different experience from walking a path. Hot, sweaty, and scratched I emerged from the trees onto the track back to the car park. For a while the world had been wild.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Signs & Notices along the Scottish Watershed

Sorting through the photos of my Scottish Watershed walk for a selection for my book on the trip I noticed that I'd taken quite a few of signs and notices along the way that had caught my attention, some of them informative, some quirky, some puzzling. Here's a selection.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Why Trekking Poles?

Trekking poles are mainly used for support, balance and to take some weight off your legs. The last is important. I find that my legs feel less tired when I use poles, especially on high mileage days or when carrying a heavy pack. Also, by giving a workout to the arms and shoulders trekking poles help maintain strength in these areas. Before I started using poles I found that my arms and shoulders would feel sore after my first few days ski touring at the start of each winter season as they hadn’t had much usage in the five or six months since I’d last skied. Once I started using trekking poles this soreness vanished. One reason I started using poles was because my knees had started feeling very sore after long descents, especially on hard and stony ground. They’d be sore by the end of the descent and then very stiff the next day. Poles, I reckoned, might reduce this soreness. They did more than that. After a while my knees stopped hurting at all. And that is still true over twenty years later.

My evidence for the benefits of trekking poles with regard to muscle soreness is personal and anecdotal of course. Naturally, trekking pole companies make the same claims, sometimes quite colourfully as when Brasher gave the weight saved on your legs in numbers of elephants. There was little actual research to back up the claims however and what there was came from lab studies of people on treadmills and not from actual outdoor use.

However a study at Northumbria University provided more concrete evidence that poles can significantly reduce soreness after a hill walk and also help maintain muscle function. This wasn’t an indoor study or just a brief walk up a slope. The 37 men and women in the study climbed Snowdon. They were split into two groups of equal fitness. One group didn’t use poles; the other group did and were taught how to use them. To try and cut out variables that could have affected the study the walkers ate the same meal the evening before the walk, had the same breakfast, carried daypacks of the same weight and took the same scheduled rest stops. During the hike the heart rates of the walkers were recorded, along with how they perceived their exertion rates. After the hike various tests were used to assess muscle damage and function. These tests were repeated at 24, 48 and 72 hour intervals. The results were in accord with my personal experience. The pole users had far less muscle soreness and a reduced loss of strength. They recovered more quickly too. Unsurprisingly the pole users felt less sore than the non-pole users. Levels of an enzyme that indicates muscle damage were found to be much higher in the non-pole group than before the walk but almost the same in the pole users, showing that any muscle damage was minimal.

This is only one study but it does confirm the personal findings of me and many other pole users. Trekking poles really are good for your muscles and the effects are noticeable after as well as during a walk. It’s nice not to wake with aching legs the morning after a walk. This is especially significant on multi-day walks when you want to enjoy walking every day and not have to take days off while your muscles recover. Also, soreness and strained muscles can make injury more likely so using poles can reduce the chances of hurting yourself while walking. Poles can also prevent injuries by preventing slips and falls. I have descended slopes in dense vegetation or after dark when my poles often prevented me tumbling over. And if you do suffer a leg injury poles can be used as supports while you limp along. I have walked out to the road with someone with a sore ankle who found trekking poles enabled them to hike out without needing help from anyone else.

Just having trekking poles doesn’t mean you’ll instantly gain all the benefits though. You need to use them effectively. I’ve seen too many pole users waving them around pointlessly or tapping the ground ineffectively. Poles need to be held correctly and placed where they will provide support and propulsion. Handles don’t need to be gripped tightly, which just results in sore fingers and wrists. With most poles the straps take the weight and support your hands (the exceptions are Pacerpoles which have shaped handles that can be held loosely without need of straps). To use a strap like this you put your hand up through the strap from below so the strap runs between thumb and fingers and over the back of your hand. With the straps like this you can swing the poles back and forth without holding them firmly as the straps makes them secure.

To gain the most from poles the force applied to them should propel you forwards not push you sideways or impede walking by pushing you backwards. Yet all too often I see walkers place poles off to the side or a long way in front with the pole handle angled back towards the user. The pole tip should be placed in front of you so it is closer than the handle. Your arm should go straight out in front and not to the side or across your body. A full reach isn’t needed though as this can make your arms ache. Keeping your arm slightly bent and fairly relaxed is far more comfortable. You then push down on the pole so it helps propel you forwards and walk past it, letting it swing behind you as you bring the other pole forwards. The idea is to get a rhythm going that is easy to keep up which feels relaxed.

Pole length matters too. Adjustable poles are adjustable for a reason. Many people use too long poles and have to lift their arms high each time they swing the pole, which can be tiring. On flat and gently sloping terrain you should be able to hold the pole pointing straight down with the tip touching the ground with your arm bent at right angles at the elbow. On steep slopes this can be too long, again forcing you to lift your arms high, which can make you lean back, putting you out of balance. Shorter poles are needed. On short ascents you can grasp the poles lower down. Some poles have foam or rubber round the shafts for this purpose. On long ascents it’s better to adjust the pole length so you can still use the straps and handles. On descents lengthening poles stops you leaning forward, which again can affect balance. If the descent is only short placing your hand over the top of the handle provides a little more length. On long descents lengthening the poles is better, again so you can use the straps and handles. On traverses you may want a short pole in the uphill hand and a long pole in the downhill one. Here gripping the pole lower down to shorten it and putting your hand over the handle are best unless it’s a very long traverse and you won’t be changing direction.

When trekking poles first appeared they were disliked, sometimes vehemently, by many walkers. (One reader objected to poles appearing on the cover of TGO, saying that showed the editors must be in the pay of the pole makers!). People seemed to feel that using them meant you were infirm or old. That attitude is less prevalent now, though it still appears every so often. My own view is the opposite. I think poles help prevent you becoming infirm. And while they can’t stop you getting older, they can mean that your legs are less likely to feel the effects of ageing so rapidly. Many people, as I did, start using poles because they have growing problems with sore knees or ankle or back. I think it’s better to start using them before you have any of these problems. That way you may never suffer them at all.

This piece first appeared in The Great Outdoors quite a few years ago. I've edited it a little.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Thirty years ago my first book was published

The cover shows Scott Steiner in Halfmoon Park in the Scapegoat Wilderness on the Continental Divide Trail

Back in the distant pre-Internet world of 1987 when print was the only place you could read anything my first book was published. The Great Backpacking Adventure was part of a series from long-gone imprint Oxford Illustrated Press whose editor, Jane Marshall, approached me to write the backpacking volume. I remember she said I'd been recommended. Who by I can't now recollect but whoever it was many thanks! At that point in my writing life I'd penned quite a few magazine articles and was editor of Footloose magazine (also long-gone) but had failed to find a publisher for any of my book ideas. I wasn't going to turn down an invitation.

That first book also brought about my introduction to computers. Up to that point I'd typed features, usually with many Tippex corrections, on a battered old second-hand typewriter. The contract for the book said I had to supply two copies of clean typescript. I knew that there was no way my minimal typing skills could produce a clean manuscript 80,000 words long. A bit of research - talking to other writers in person and on the phone, visiting electronics stores, looking at the small ads in writers' magazines - showed that paying a copy typist, buying an electronic typewriter, and buying one of these new-fangled personal computers would cost about the same. Thinking that computers would be the way forward I chose that option and was soon the proud (and confused) owner of an Amstrad PCW 8256. This had 256kb of RAM (that's not a misprint!) and a floppy disk drive. The word processing software was appropriately called Locoscript. The printer was a dot matrix one, very slow and prone to jamming. The Amstrad was sufficient though and I wrote my first two books on it.

Pictures from long ago Pyrenean trips

The book had eight pages of colour photos in the centre, all taken from transparency film. The eight walks described ranged from the Pennine Way to the Continental Divide Trail and were all written from my trail journals, which I started keeping long before I thought I'd be writing articles let alone books. I was glad I'd done so as I couldn't have written the book without them.

The Great Backpacking Adventure has long been out of print so anyone wanting to read it needs to find a second-hand copy. Looking back I can see that it sums up my first decade of long-distance walking as well as being the start of a whole series of books - I little thought at the time that thirty years later I'd be writing my twenty-sixth. Reading the Postcript for the first time in many, many years I see that I correctly predicted my life to come, writing that 'my wilderness treks are not one-off 'dreams of a lifetime' but a lifetime's occupation'. How true that has turned out to be.