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

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.


Friday, 11 April 2014

Ultralight Backpacking? Some Thoughts.



Tarp camping in the North-West Highlands


Another piece from the past. This is an edited version of one written eleven years ago.

Backpacking is about experiencing and enjoying the freedom of wild country, about living in the hills for days at a time. Carrying your home on your back and staying out overnight means you can go deep into the hills, immersing yourself in the natural world. Being self-sufficient for many days also means you can cover long distances without having to leave the hills for shelter or to resupply.

But to do this you have to carry shelter, sleeping gear, cooking equipment and all your supplies, which can soon add up to a heavy load that may detract from the pleasure and freedom of backpacking. As anyone who’s hauled a heavy pack long miles across the hills will know the weight of your load can have a profound effect on your trip. The heavier the pack the slower you walk (especially uphill), the more often you need to get the weight off your back and rest, and the sooner you need to stop and make camp. Too heavy a load and your back and shoulders may ache, your hips feel sore and your legs weary. Every backpacker quickly learns that paying attention to the weight of their gear can make a big difference to enjoyment and comfort.

STANDARD BACKPACKING

The average UK backpacker, with a selection of the gear found in every outdoor shop, probably ends up with a pack for three-season use that weighs between 25-40lbs/11-18kg without food and water. At the end of last year’s TGO Challenge (2002) I hefted many of the packs lining the outside of the Park Hotel in Montrose. My pack wasn’t that light – it weighed around 32lbs/14kg – but all the packs I lifted weighed more. Whilst they may choose gear that doesn’t seem too heavy or bulky most backpackers don’t check the weight of every item let alone, to use the old clichĂ©, drill holes in their toothbrushes. As long as the pack doesn’t feel too heavy it’ll do seems to be the general view. Many people put together their kit over a number of years without consciously thinking of the weight of every item and without looking for the lightest option.

THE ULTRALIGHT CHALLENGE

How much does your pack weigh?
All those Challengers in Montrose were carrying standard backpacking gear, as I was myself. It’s the stuff that’s well proven, and, while the names and details may change, the basic items have weighed the same and given much the same performance for decades. Recently though a new philosophy has arisen, inspired to a great degree by Ray Jardine, most recently in his book “Beyond Backpacking”, who argues that there’s no need to carry heavy loads, that pack weights can be cut drastically without compromising safety or comfort and that by doing so backpacking can become more enjoyable. Ultralight backpacking means cutting every possible fraction of weight off every item. The resulting loads are more like daypacks than backpacks. By choosing the very lightest gear and only carrying the absolute essentials ultralight backpackers can get the weights of their basic loads (that is, without food and water) to well below 20lbs/9kg. Indeed, 20lbs/9kg could be said to be the upper limit of an ultralight load, going up to 30lbs/13.5kg with food and water.



MOUNTAIN MARATHONS

Mountain marathon runners have carried very light loads for years of course. When I took part in such events back in the 1980s my pack usually weighed 11-12lbs/5-6kg. Mountain marathons only involve one night out however and the sole aim is to cover the course as quickly as possible. To do so competitors are often prepared to put up with discomfort that they wouldn’t accept for a longer trip where speed and distance were not the only concerns. I certainly never considered carrying the light mountain marathon loads on backpacking trips, feeling that having such a light pack wasn’t worth the disadvantages. Now however proponents of ultralight backpacking say you can stay out for weeks and even months and still be comfortable.

A BIT OF HISTORY

Backpackers have travelled ultralight before now. When Hamish Brown made the first continuous traverse of the Munros back in 1974 his load averaged 23lbs/10kg including food. Some of the ways he achieved this low weight are very similar to those used by ultralighters today. His pack had no frame, hipbelt, padding or pockets. His tent was a single skin nylon one, weighing just over 3lbs/1.3kg. And his sleeping mat weighed nothing – he didn’t have one. “Except on snow these are just bulky extras”, he wrote in his account of the trip (Hamish’s Mountain Walk). As well as the big items he paid attention to the details too, using his pan lid as a mug and sharpening the edge of his spoon so that he didn’t need a knife. For part of the walk he used a solid fuel stove.

Jumping a decade to 1984 we find Colin Fletcher writing in the third edition of his seminal backpacking handbook “The Complete Walker III” that “a tide race has set in toward ultralight gear”. In fact that tide receded for over a decade before surging forward again in the last five years. Wanting to see what it was about Fletcher made an ultralight trip with a load that weighed 15lb 11oz/7kg without food and 19lbs/8.5kg in total. That included a frameless pack weighing just 1lb 6oz/625 grams and a tarp weighing 1lb 4oz/567 grams. Fletcher found that “the light load was a joy, especially uphill and obstacle-crossing”. However he remained concerned about the performance of ultralight gear in severe conditions, writing that “if you know you may find yourself alone in a mountain storm, three days from roadhead, then false weight-economy could prove fatal; and you had better forget the gossamer game and lean heavily towards Old Wave ruggedness”.

Way back when recreational backpacking was in its infancy there was an interest in lightweight travel too. In his 1921 book “Camping & Woodcraft” Horace Kephart describes a summer backpacking load weighing 18lbs 3oz/8.25kg without food. This included a 2lb 4oz/1.02kg pack and a 3lb/1.3kg blanket that was used as back padding in the pack as well as for sleeping plus a 2lb 4oz/1.02kg tarp and, for cutting wood for fires, a 12oz/340 grams tomahawk. Kephart calls this load medium weight. He also describes a “featherweight” 10lb/4.5kg load that includes pack, tent, down sleeping bag and spirit stove. Interestingly he says this is an English system and not suitable for American wilderness. Today the question is whether American ultralight gear is suitable for British conditions.

Tarp camp in the High Sierra, California

PROS & CONS

The attractions of a light load are obvious. Backpacking with what feels like a daypack means you can go further with less effort and with little risk of sore shoulders, hips or back. It also means greater mobility, especially when crossing rough terrain, making the walker a light dancer rather than a lumbering dinosaur. The load doesn’t impinge on your consciousness either and you can enjoy the hills without noticing the weight on your back. Proponents of ultralight backpacking argue that it can be safer too as a heavy load can lead to injury as it makes you less mobile and puts more stress on your body. With a light load you can move fast if the weather changes, descending far more rapidly when a thunderstorm erupts or strong winds blow in than you can with a heavy pack.

A heavy but comfortable pack on the Arizona Trail
Those who favour more standard loads respond to the last by saying that you have to move fast with an ultralight load as you don’t have the gear to cope with a storm. And if an injury slows you down or even forces you to stop you could be in trouble with ultralight gear. This is a big concern. Not every one is fit or nimble enough to move fast in bad weather. It is possible to carry an ultralight load without compromising on safety by carefully selecting items suited to the conditions but this requires experience and skill.

Heavier loads can also mean more comfort in camp. A roomy tent to protect you from bad weather and midges, a thick self-inflating mat for a comfortable nights sleep, candles or other lights for illumination, books to read and luxury items of food and drink can all make for enjoyable camping and are worth the weight to many people.

Those who are happy with standard loads say that backpacking is about far more than load carrying, that there are reasons to go backpacking that are far more complex than just wanting to cover ground easily and quickly. But light loads are worthwhile whatever distance you cover or speed you travel, say the ultralighters, and you don’t have to be a fast mover to appreciate a light pack.

DURABILITY

A big concern with ultralight gear is that it won’t last. With modern materials this isn’t really a problem as long as items are well made and aren’t abused. Ultralight gear doesn’t just involve using lightweight materials either. It also means simple designs with minimal features.
Much standard gear is too complicated and made from unnecessarily heavy materials. Packs are a classic case. For backpacking 1000 denier heavy duty fabric that will withstand being hauled up rocky gullies just isn’t needed. Neither are masses of pockets and compartments. These may be nice for organising your gear but every zip, flap and panel of fabric adds weight. And for loads under 30lbs/14kg complicated frames and back systems are unnecessary too.

Sometimes ultralight fabrics can be stronger than heavier ones. The silicone elastomer nylon used in the lightest tents and tarps is actually much tougher and longer lasting than the polyurethane-coated nylon and polyester found on heavier tents. Some old materials are durable too. An ultralight down sleeping bag will last far longer than a heavy, bulky synthetic one.

Waterproof clothing is probably the only area where ultralight garments won’t last as long as heavyweight stuff. It’s still tougher than the standard weight garments of a few decades ago however and much less expensive than top quality heavy garments. Also, if you wear a windproof top and trousers in breezy, showery weather and save your rain gear for continuous rain it will last much longer.

AIMS & DESIRES

The ultralight approach is likely to appeal more to those with a Spartan approach to backpacking than to hedonists. It also appeals to those for whom the walking is more important than the camping. If you want to cover high mileages or walk for many hours each day then a light load is obviously a good idea. And if you want to spend hours in camp relaxing and watching the landscape and the wildlife then carrying more can help ensure comfortable camps.


FOOD & WATER

However light your basic pack weight food, fuel and, sometimes, water have to be added. With care most people can get food down to around 2lbs/1kg a day. Some can manage on 1.5lbs/680 grams though this is cutting it a bit fine for walks of more than a few days. It’s easy to carry more than 2lbs/1kg if you don’t choose food carefully however.

It’s not just the type of food though but also how many days food. Once you go beyond two or three days the weight of food adds up. At around 2lbs/1kg a day a week’s food weighs 14lbs/7kg. And when you start adding those weights to a pack it ceases to be ultralight. On the Arizona Trail in 2000 I travelled for a week or so with another hiker who had ultralight gear. His basic pack weight was 12lbs/5.5kg. Once he added six days food his pack weight doubled. Much more than a weeks food and however ultralight your basic gear your total load will not be ultralight, especially when you add in stove fuel and any water you have to carry.

The answer to the problem of food weight is to resupply more often. This was Ray Jardine’s solution in his first ultralight hiking book, “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook”. He argued that by carrying a very light load a hiker could cover more miles per day with no extra effort and therefore travel between supply points more quickly, thus reducing the amount of food that had to be carried. This is fine if you’re happy to do high mileages and to leave the wilds every few days. However staying out for long periods of time with no contact with civilisation is appealing and can make for a deeper contact with nature and a more satisfying experience. For some of us it’s worth the extra burden, at least some of the time.

Jake carrying water on the Arizona Trail
If you have to carry much water then the weight of your pack will rocket. Luckily this is not something we often have to do in the UK. However on the Arizona Trail last year I had to carry up to three gallons at times, which, at 30lbs/13.6kg including containers, made a mockery of going lightweight never mind ultralight. Large amounts of water can also destroy the comfort of ultralight packs. When Jake, the hiker I travelled with in Arizona, had to add three gallons to his load along with six days food his ultralight 12lb/5.5kg pack became a 54lb/24.6kg monster. His simple frameless pack simply couldn’t handle this weight and felt very uncomfortable, while my heavy fully specified one felt fine, even though my load was some 13lbs/6kg heavier.

To go ultralight on a long walk then you need to be able to resupply with food frequently, certainly at least once a week, and not carry much water.

ADOPTING THE ULTRALIGHT APPROACH

Ultralight backpacking is not something most people can simply undertake without thought or practice. It’s probably actually easiest for those who’ve never done any backpacking before as they don’t have preconceived notions as to what equipment should weigh or even look like. However a really ultralight load is not for novices. To be able to cope safely in bad weather with minimal equipment you need some basic walking and camping skills and experience.

To those used to standard weight loads and conventional gear ultralight techniques and equipment can seem off-putting, even dangerous. Certainly I wouldn’t advise even an experienced backpacker to head off into the hills with a sack full of ultralight gear without having tried it first close to home and learnt how it works. This particularly applies to tarps. And until you know the limits of your equipment it’s best to err on the side of caution and take that extra item of equipment just in case you need it.

If the ultralight approach appeals you can start by going through the gear you already have and ruthlessly pruning any excess weight. Just putting everything on the scales can make you realise just how heavy some items are and make you determined to replace them. Think about what you really need too. As Ray Jardine says, not taking an item reduces its weight by 100 percent.

Replacing heavy essential items with lighter ones is the only way to really reduce the weight though. According to Hamish Brown: “The biggest weight accumulators are things like waterproof trousers and jacket, bivy bag, tent, rucksack, stove and sleeping bag”. Get the weight of those down and your whole load will be much lighter.

You don’t have to replace everything at once though. Ultralight gear can be integrated with standard gear. My first step towards ultralight backpacking was when I first changed from heavy boots to very light shoess. That was the only change I made for over a decade but then I made two long trips (a round of the Munros and Tops and the Arizona Trail) on which, for very different reasons (the amount of ascent on one, the amount of water I would have to carry on the other) heavy gear seemed inadvisable. On both those trips I reduced my basic loads by some 10-13lbs/5-6kg from what I’d carried on previous long walks, a significant amount.

Ultralight backpacking can be described as a state of mind, an attitude, as much as an activity. Those with an ultralight mindset will always consider the weight of an item first, putting this ahead of function, performance and durability. They will also always question whether an item is needed at all. The ultralight point of view looks at limiting the weight of the load as the first requirement. Conversely if you favour the standard approach you will, in the words of Colin Fletcher, “launch yourself along a gear-selecting curve that opts for safety and comfort” so that “no matter how hard you think you are paring away at each item your choices are calibrated for a “heavy” regimen”.

Finally, remember that no way of backpacking is better than any other, despite what zealots on either side may say. It’s a personal choice. It’s what suits you and your desires and aims and it’s what you are comfortable with that matters. After all, the reasons for going out there are to have fun and to enjoy the natural world. How you do that is up to you.


Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Glen Quoich & The Eastern Cairngorms


Beinn a'Bhuird

An chat on Twitter with @CairngormTreks about Ben Avon reminded me of trips to this fine mountain and it's equally fine neighbour Beinn a'Bhuird so I dug out this piece on an overnight trip to these hills that first appeared in The Great Outdoors several years ago.

The big hills of the Eastern Cairngorms, Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird, form two huge plateaux between Glen Dee in the south and Glen Avon in the north. They lie far from roads and the round of the pair in a day is a long, strenuous undertaking. A two day trip with an overnight camp is a far more enjoyable way to appreciate these magnificent hills. Being in the hills early and late means experiencing the sometimes subtle, sometimes spectacular, light of dawn and dusk as well, with no worry about walking in the dark.
  
Double rainbow in Glen Quoich

Glen Dee gives the quickest approach to the hills via Glen Quoich or Gleann an t-Slugain. I prefer Glen Quoich, mainly due to the splendid ancient pine woods, though it is also slightly shorter, and it was up this glen that I set out from Linn of Quoich under a dark sky with heavy showers hammering on my waterproofs and pack. Underfoot the ground was sodden and the streams were all bursting with run-off.  A cold north-west wind had me cinching my jacket hood tight and striding out fast to warm up my muscles. I reassured myself that the forecast for the next day, when I would be on the summits, was for sunshine. There was little sign of the sun that first day though as evening drew on short bursts of light pierced the clouds and brought rainbows curving over the forest. 
 
Camp in upper Glen Quoich


Leaving the trees behind I reached the heathery slopes of the upper glen and found a grassy spot near the stream for my camp with excellent views down the glen and into Coire na Ciche on Beinn a’Bhuird. A chilly night with the temperature dipping near freezing showed that the clouds were dissipating and I woke to a calm, clear dawn and warm enough temperatures to sit outside. Off early I was soon climbing the path between the encroaching slopes of Beinn a’Bhuird and Ben Avon to the narrow neck of land between the two called The Sneck. Here the wind caught me again and I had to don my windshirt. Rough slopes led to the Ben Avon plateau where, as always, I marvelled at the vast space and the scattering of rough granite tors, the highest of which, called Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe (bed of the yellow stag), is the summit. After the short, easy scramble to the top of this tor I returned to The Sneck and headed up the slopes of Beinn a’Bhuird, a smoother, grassier plateau with no tors and just a small cairn marking the North Top, the summit of the hill. The glory of Beinn a’Bhuird lies in the great cliff-rimmed corries that cut into its eastern slopes and the best walk on the hill is along the edge of these. Here I met the only other walker I saw on the hills. Clouds were building up from the west as I turned away from the cliffs for the path down the spur of An Diollaid back to Glen Quoich, a path that has replaced the old bulldozed road that once scarred the hillside here but which has been removed by the National Trust for Scotland. 

The Eastern Corries of Beinn a'Bhuird

After fording the Allt an Dubh-ghlinne at the base of the hill, a stone-hopping exercise during which I just kept my feet dry, I followed the track on the west side of Quoich Water down through the pines to Linn of Quoich. The first rain was just starting to fall as I finished the walk.


Saturday, 5 April 2014

Shadows & Reflections

Loch an Eilein


The last week has been misty and mild and damp with layers of clouds draped over the hills and filling the sky. Grey is the prevalent colour with little sign of the brightness of spring. In these conditions water often brings life to the landscape so with that in mind I headed for Loch an Eilein, a lovely little loch set in the ancient pines of Rothiemurchus Forest. The sky was banded with thin bright clouds through which the sun almost broke interspersed with much thicker, heavier and darker clouds. The forest was sombre and the hills mostly silhouettes. But the water was full of reflections and shadows, echoing the sky above and giving the landscape a subtle beauty.

Loch of the Island

I wandered along the shore looking out at the ruined castle on the island that gives the loch its name. In the distance white snowfields hung below the ragged edge of the clouds. All was calm in the trees. Out on the water ducks - goldeneye, mallard - paddled and dived. Two geese - greylags I think - disturbed the loch with a wing-flapping, honking, water thrashing landing. The woods rang with bird song, the only real sign of spring. 

Braeriach & Sgoran Dubh Mor
 
Passing little Loch Gamhna I climbed steeply up through the pines beside the rushing snowmelt-filled Allt Coire Follais. As the trees thinned the first snow patches appeared, soft and wet. The last snow bridges, just inches thick, spanned the stream. Above the stony hillside was mostly snow free with just the bulky tor of Clach Mhic Cailein (The Argyll Stone) breaking the long flat horizon. On reaching the broad ridge I was met by a cool southerly wind. Time, finally, for a jacket. To the south Braeriach and Sgoran Dubh Mor were cloud-capped and snow-streaked, dark under the brooding sky. Walking that way didn't look attractive so I turned my back to the wind and followed the ridge slowly downwards to Cadha Mor and a steep pathless descent back to the forest.

Loch an Eilein from Cadha Mor

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Great Outdoors Latest Issue: Regenerating Forests, Camping in the Rain, The Atholl Expedition, Monadh Liath picture, Overtrousers, Tent review

Camping in the Caledonian Forest, Glen Feshie

The May issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. My contributions are a double page picture of the Monadliath under snow, thoughts on rewilding and forest regeneration, a review of Alex Roddie's excellent novel The Atholl Expedition, advice on camping in the rain, a review of 12 pairs of overtrousers and a review of the Force Ten MTN2 tent I used when filming in the Lakes with Terry Abraham for his Scafell film. (See this post).

Also in this issue Tom Bowker finds quotes about hills in Shakespeare (I particularly like 'Bowing his head against the sleepy mount/To climb his happiness' from Timon of Athens); a selection of writers choose less well-known alternatives to popular hills and walks; Giles Trussell goes canoeing to mountains in Scotland; Jamie Grant looks at the legacy of John Muir, a piece illustrated with the first publication of photos of Yosemite National Park by the late Irvine Butterfield; also on Muir Roger Smith describes the new John Muir Way in Central Scotland; Ed Byrne tries natural navigation with Tristan Gooley; David Gray climbs Canigou in the Eastern Pyrenees; Robert Macfarlane introduces a selection of Nan Shepherd's poetry; Carey Davies feeds his inner hamster with a walk in the Carneddau; Roger Smith ponders the effects of storms on the coastline; Jim Perrin praises Ben Humble's The Cuillin of Skye; instructor Graham Uney describes the new Hill and Mountain skills scheme; Sarah Howard gives advice on photographing bluebells; the Patagonia EVERlong trail shoes are reviewed by James Reader; mountaineer Bonita Norris describes her favourite gear; and Daniel Neilson tests 12 techical  mid layers (which turns out to mean various alternative to simple fleece tops).

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Salomon Fury Sunglasses Review

On the summit of Ben Macdui
For the last few months I've been trying a pair of Salomon Fury sunglasses. There's been plenty of bright sunshine and snow at times to really test them. My review has just appeared on The Great Outdoors website here.