Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Great Outdoors November issue: boots, classic Polartec fleece, Primus stove, & a book review

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. In it there are reviews of three-season boots for men and women by me and Judy Armstrong. I also try the Primus PrimeTech stove unit; look at the history of  Polartec fleece; and review John D.Burns excellent book The Last Hillwalker.

This issue has details of the 2018 TGO Challenge along with pictures from this year's event. Staying with the Highlands Robert Wight celebrates the Munros after completing them and Jim Perrin argues the case for Sgurr nan Gillean being the finest British mountain. Drew Collins starts in the Highlands too with Ben Nevis but then walks south to Scafell Pike and Snowdon, much the best way to do the Three Peaks.

English and Welsh hills turn up again with Vivienne Crow describing a four-day circular walk in the Yorkshire Dales; David Lintern traversing the Carneddau; and Nick Hunt looking for the Helm Wind on Cross Fell.

Far from Britain and British weather Ian R. Mitchell describes the rugged landscapes of West Texas, a fascinating sounding region.

The Hill Skills section is a guide to scrambling by Carl McKeating, co-author of the updated Scrambles in Snowdonia from Cicerone.

Also in this issue Hannah Lindon interviews Kerran Traynor and Graham Donald about their upcoming swim across Scotland; and Roger Smith looks at how legislation meant to protect wild places is failing and reviews Peter Fiennes interesting-sounding Oak and Ash and Thorn.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Where have all the pheasants gone?

A wet pheasant in the garden, June 2016

I saw a pheasant today. That would have been a commonplace statement six months ago, when I was seeing pheasants every day in the garden, as I had done for many years. But this pheasant, which burst out of the undergrowth on the edge of the woods as I was admiring the first touches of autumn in the leaves, was the first I've seen since late winter. I don't know the actual date of the last sighting as it took a few weeks before I began to notice their absence but it was sometime in March.

Pheasants are bred for shooting not far away and this time of year often sees dozens of released birds congregating on the roads looking confused and presumably wondering where the hell this big world has come from, if pheasants can wonder at all. Maybe these pheasants will appear soon.

But there have always been wild pheasants in the woods and fields anyway. On any walk I'd see several. And some of them just about lived in our garden, often nesting there, and feeding on seeds and nuts dropped from the bird feeders. Occasionally one would balance precariously on the mesh seed trays and manage to grab a few seeds from the feeder before falling off. The ground under the feeders was always bare dirt as the pheasants scratched up any plants. Now the ground is greening over.

The pheasants have gone. I have no idea why.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Wildlife Photography & Backpacking

Red deer stag. Sony NEX 7 with 16-50mm E lens, 1/125 @ f8, ISO 400. Cropped.

Encountering wildlife is one of the joys of backpacking and hiking. Often all we catch are glimpses – an eagle high in the sky, an otter slipping into the water, an owl skimming past the tent – but sometimes there are longer, clearer views – a herd of deer grazing on a hillside, a heron fishing, a snow bunting hopping round a summit in hope of crumbs from your lunch. Over the years I’ve seen all these, some many times, and many more creatures including bears, wolves, moose and bison on walks outside the UK. 

Bison in Yellowstone National Park. Canon EOS 350D with 80-200mm lens. 1/500 @ f8. ISO 200.
Whilst seeing wildlife is an integral part of backpacking it’s not easy to take successful photographs of animals and birds. Wildlife photography requires patience and staying in one place for long periods watching and waiting. Big heavy telephoto lenses and specialist equipment like hides and remote camera triggers are standard equipment. Backpackers only stay in one place for long overnight and don’t carry the big lenses or other equipment unless wildlife photography is the main aim of the trip.
The full picture from which the one at the head of this piece was cropped.

Now I’m not a wildlife photographer. But I do take wildlife photos when the opportunity arises and over the years I’ve learnt various ways to improve the quality of these that may be of use or at least of interest to others. These photos are all opportunistic in that I didn’t set out to find the animals and birds nor did I spend time stalking them. Indeed, I think it best not to approach or scare creatures. Many have a harsh enough life anyway. If I can’t take a decent photo from a distance then I don’t bother. That said, as I’ll show below, a photo that doesn’t appear that good as the subject is rather small can often be cropped with surprisingly good results. Also, showing an animal in its habitat rather than as a close-up is often interesting.

Heron in the River Annan. Canon EOS 450D with EF-S 55-250mm lens. 1/1000 @ f5.6. ISO 800
I think the best cameras for backpackers are lightweight ones with sensors smaller than full frame, which is a sensor the same size as a frame of 35mm film. The cameras I use have the next size below full frame, known as APS-C. These cameras also have a great advantage for wildlife photography because telephoto lenses can be much lighter for the same equivalent focal length than full frame ones due to what’s known as the crop factor, which means that less of the image is recorded on the sensor so it appears larger. (A good explanation of this can be found here). Now the focal length of a lens doesn’t change when it’s used on different cameras. However as full frame is often regarded as the norm (because 35mm film really was) the focal length is often given as the 35mm equivalent. Thus my Sony E 55-210mm lens when used on my APS-C sensor cameras is equivalent to an 82.5-315mm lens on a full frame camera. There are similar lightweight telephoto zoom lenses for other APS-C cameras. 

Pheasant in the snow. Sony NEX 6 with 55-210mm lens. 1/320 @ f8. ISO 800.
 An alternative I haven’t used could be a ‘bridge’ camera, which is a camera with a smaller sensor than APS-C and a fixed zoom lens with a huge range, up to 2000mm equivalent. The ones with the biggest range are quite heavy but you don’t need to carry different lenses.

The 55-210 weighs 379 grams, which is light enough to carry on most trips. On walks where I’ll be carrying many days food or water I don’t take it though and just use my 16-50mm (24-75 35mm equivalent), knowing I won’t get some shots and may have to crop some drastically.

Sony NEX 7 with 55-210mm E lens & 1.7x tele conversion lens.
Recently I’ve bought a Sony 1.7x tele conversion lens (second-hand as it’s a discontinued model) which turns the long end of my 55-210mm lens into a 535.5mm 35mm equivalent telephoto lens. Although not designed for the 55-210 the tele conversion lens fits fine with a step-ring. Once in place I then use the lens as normal. It weighs 243 grams with the required step-up ring though so I probably won’t take it on more than overnight trips. From the shots I’ve taken so far the image quality looks about the same as crops from 210mm images but it has advantages for composition and focusing. 

Sparrowhawk. Sony NEX 7 with 55-210mm lens & 1.7x tele conversion lens. 1/640 @ f6.3. ISO 400.
Wildlife photographers generally use heavy tripods to support their big lenses. The few backpackers who carry tripods, like me, use small lightweight ones. These will just support lightweight tele lenses like my 55-210mm. Most wildlife encounters take place whilst walking anyway and don’t allow time for setting up a tripod. There’s usually no time for getting camera gear out of the pack either. Having it to hand can make a difference between getting or missing a picture. Except in heavy rain I have my camera gear in accessible pouches slung across my body or in stretchy pack side pockets. If you use trekking poles there are various camera attachments that clip onto the handles that can make a difference, as shown in my picture of the bison. In camp shelters make good hides and I often have my camera on a tripod in the doorway.

Practising wildlife (and other photography) is always wise. I try out new lenses photographing wildlife in my garden, usually on the feeders. Red squirrels make subjects. They're rarely still for long and they're very entertaining! I can watch them for hours with the pretense that I'm practising photography.

Red squirrel. Sony NEX 7. 1/400 @ f6.3. ISO 400

Here are some more full size photos and crops with technical information. All were shot as raw files and processed in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. They were taken over quite a few years, hence the change from Canon to Sony cameras. All the cameras are APS-C. To find the 35mm equivalent focal length the Canon lens focal lengths should be multiplied by 1.6, the Sony by 1.5.

Mallard, River Spey. Sony NEX 7 with 55-210mm lens. 1/250 @ f8.ISO 100
Crop from above

Great spotted woodpecker feeding young. Sony NEX 7 with 55-210mm lens. 1/320 @ f7.1. ISO 400

Crop from above

Red deer stag. Canon EOS 450D with 55-250mm lens. 1/320 @ f5.6. ISO 400.

Crop from above

Ptarmigan in winter plumage. Canon EOS 350D with 18-55mm lens. 1/250 @ f8. ISO 100.

Cairngorm reindeer. Semi-domesticated these reindeer are relatively tame and quite easy to photograph. Canon EOS 450D with 18-55mm lens. 1/30 @ f5.6. ISO 400.

Cairngorm reindeer. Sony NEX 7 with Sony E 30mm lens. 1/160 @ f8. ISO 100.

Fire salamander. Sony a6000 with 16-50mm lens. 1/50 @ f5.6. ISO 800

Friday, 15 September 2017

Book Review: The Top 500 Summits

The Top 500 Summits: A Lifetime Of Hillwalking
by Barry K. Smith
Where2Walk Publishing, £25

Hill lists abound these days and here’s another. This one is of more interest than most however as it covers the highest 500 mountains in the British Isles with a drop of at least 500 feet on all sides. Hence the top 500. This book isn’t just a dry list of names or a guidebook either. It covers all 500 summits and there is a list of them all at the back (with metric heights) but the main body of the book consists of photographs and accounts from the author’s ascents of each peak. Routes are briefly described and there’s a personal view on each hill or group of hills with opinions and stories from days out. The book is well laid out and excellent for browsing.

The bulk of the summits are in Scotland of course with Ireland, Wales and England only having 70 between them. The 500 foot drop criteria means that all the Corbetts are included but not all the Munros, which throws up some interesting results. Looking at the hills I know best- the Cairngorms – I see that Mullach Clach a’Bhlair isn’t included even though it’s a long way from the nearest higher peak, Sgor Gaoith, while the circuit of peaks around Loch Avon includes Creag Mhor but not Cairn Gorm. I’m sure readers will find other curious results. I also noted that the author keeps the English names of two Cairngorm Munros (neither in the 500) rather than the Gaelic now commonly used and found on the latest maps. So if you’re confused Angel’s Peak is Sgor an Lochain Uaine and the Devil’s Point is Bod an Deamhain.

I didn’t know what to make of this book at first. It’s not a guidebook but it’s not a trip account either. It’s a bit of both. However once I started dipping into it I kept finding interesting snippets and stories as well as some inspiring photos. I think most hillwalkers will find it of interest whether peak baggers or not.

This review first appeared in the September 2017 edition of The Great Outdoors.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Twenty-five Years Ago On My Scandinavian Mountains Walk

Camp by Lakavatnet in Blafjella-Skjaekerfjella National Park

On this day in 1992 I was having a rest day at Abisko at the northern end of the Kungsleden on my Scandinavian Mountain Walk. It was the 79th day of the walk and I'd walked 2008 kilometres. In a weeks time I'd finish the walk.

Camp in Tjakjavagge on the Kungsleden

The weather had been wet and windy for much of the previous month but I had had some fine days and some splendid camps. The temperatures were colder now with frosts at night and autumn colours were starting to appear.

Note: the pictures are from Fuji Velvia transparencies photographed on a lightbox with my Sony a6000 camera and Sony E 30mm macro lens. My camera gear for the trip consisted of Nikon F801 and FM2 SLRs, Nikon, 24mm, 28-70mm, and 70-210mm lenses, Cullman tripod, and CCS cases. Total weight 3.9kg.

A Walk In the Salzkammergut Mountains in Austria

View from Predigstuhl

As a gear reviewer for The Great Outdoors I’m invited on a quite a few press trips every year, mostly for the launch of a new product or material. I rarely go on these trips due to the time they take and the fact that often there’s no outdoor component at all, just factory visits, product presentations and nice meals. A trip this last week to trekking and ski pole make Komperdell in Austria promised to be different, with a mountain walk and a stay in a mountain hut, so for once I accepted. 

The cliffs of Predigstuhl
Komperdell is based in Mondsee, a lovely rural area of Austria that is part of the Salzkammergut range in the Northern Limestone Alps. It’s an area of forests and cliffs, rising to 2,000 metres. After an interesting tour of the factory (I never knew making poles was so complex) we headed out into the hills, or more accurately into the woods, to try various new trekking pole designs on an ascent of 1278 metre Predigstuhl. The mountain walk to the Dachstein glacier and the stay in the alpine hut had been abandoned due to the weather forecast, which was for thunderstorms, heavy rain and low cloud. 

Forest carving

The high mountains were indeed cloud-shrouded but lower down there were many layers of drifting mist that made for an ethereal and mysterious landscape. Much of the time we were in the forest, itself somewhat strange and magical in the hazy air. This is a rich and lovely mixed forest with much undergrowth. The first autumn colours were evident and there were many fungi pushing up through the damp soil. Early on in the walk there were many carvings beside the path to add to the fairy tale atmosphere.

Sheltered from the rain

From the lower forest we traversed the face of the great cliffs on a ledge cut into the mountainside. Here the first rain reached us and there was the only clap of thunder of the day. Overhanging walls shielded us from the downpour. 

Cliff edge
Beyond the cliff the path wound up and down through the woods, sometimes with cables and ladders on steep rocky sections, to the summit of Predigstuhl, marked by a large cross. Set right on the edge of the cliffs there was a magnificent view of the surrounding lakes, forests and mountains even though the highest peaks were still hidden in the clouds. 

Wet ladder
Further rough walking through rocky forest led through a huge landslip strewn with giant boulders to the Gasthaus Hutteneck-Alm and welcome beer and food. 

Through the landslip
This was a good walk for an introduction to the beautiful Austrian countryside. Whilst the forests feel remote whenever there’s a viewpoint you look down on towns and farms and neat fields. This is wild country but not wilderness. We saw little wildlife but with a group of eight not moving quietly that wasn’t surprising.  We did see several fire salamanders, their exotic colouring making them stand out.

Fire salamander