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, 24 November 2015

The First Winter Mountain Walk Of The Season

Cairn Lochan

The first real snow of the winter – snow that lies deep and lasts more than a few hours – fell a few days ago. Waking to a white world I wandered through the fields and woods admiring the sudden change of seasons. Underfoot the snow crunched. A bitter wind numbed exposed skin. In the distance the mountains looked dramatic and enticing.

The next day the wind had eased and the forecast suggested a lull in the November storm procession. Time to see what conditions were like up high. From the Coire Cas car park a beaten path led through the snow below the Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm. The snow was deep enough that I was glad of those that had gone before me. Above the clouds were moving fast but there were patches of blue sky and the occasional burst of sunshine. The air was freezing. I could feel its sharp iciness on my face every time the breeze picked up.

Cairn Lochan
The footsteps faded away as I climbed the western shoulder of Coire an Lochain and onto Miadan Creag an Leth-choin. Plunging through the snow was arduous and my pace slowed. Cairn Lochain looked magnificent, its cliffs plastered with snow. Dark dots were climbers moving slowly upwards. I climbed towards the summit in an increasing wind. Cloud swept in, enveloping me, and on the featureless broad summit plateau visibility shrank to a few metres. Almost a white-out though I could see a few rocks poking through the whiteness. I used the wind to direct me. Feeling it on my face again I realised I’d turned too far south. I put the wind behind me and soon the summit cairn appeared. 

Climbers in the mist
The views came and went as the wind brought waves of clouds. Climbers were finishing a route on the frozen cliffs. The going required care as there were areas scoured of snow with just an icy film over the rocks where I slithered and skidded, my trekking poles keeping me upright. On any southern or eastern slopes the snow was deep and I was wading rather than walking, stumbling at times over buried rocks. Flat light and blowing spindrift made judging angles difficult and a few times I was surprised when the ground fell away more than I expected. Moisture froze on my hat, my jacket and my beard. 

Real winter conditions
By the time I reached Stob Coire an t-Sneachda the light was fading. A faint tinge of pink far to the south marked the setting of the sun but the building clouds were too thick for anything more. Descending the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais I skidded frequently on the path as the stone steps were mostly hidden in the snow. Eventually I had to accept I needed to switch on my headlamp. I’d forgotten what a difference it made. Instead of peering into the growing darkness and trying to guess the nature of the terrain in front of me I could see clearly. Not for the first time I reminded myself I really should use it sooner.

The walk took longer than expected as the snow was deeper and the terrain more icy than I expected. That was good though. It made it a real winter mountain day, the first of the season.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A Stormy Trip to the Lakes

Terry on Threlkeld Knotts watching the storm approach

Outside it’s snowing heavily. The wind is whistling round the house. All day the hills have been shrouded in cloud and rain has turned to drizzle then sleet then back to rain and finally, after dark, to snow. The world is wet. But not as wet as it was in the Lake District just a few days ago. I was down there for the TGO Awards event, held in Kendal in the very nice Burgundy Bar, but travelling that far I wanted, as in previous years, to have a day or two out on the fells. When Terry Abraham suggested we have a wild camp before the awards I readily agreed. 

The forecast as I travelled down to the Lakes by train was not promising. Storms were predicted. I met Terry in Keswick and we conferred over beer and food in the Dog and Gun. Terry wanted the camp to be somewhere he could film for his next big project, Life of A Mountain: Blencathra, and had suggested the summit of Clough Head right across the valley from that hill. However 65mph gusts were forecast for the summit plus dense mist. ‘Threlkeld Knotts is a good alternative’, said Terry, ‘lower but still with a good view of Blencathra and there are lots of little knolls for shelter'.

Clough Head disappearing into the clouds

So to Threlkeld Knotts we went on a dull cloudy morning. The higher fells were clear when we set off but the clouds soon covered them. Arriving on the summit we felt the first raindrops. A reasonably sheltered site was quickly found. Or so we thought. Tents up I went off in search of water. It took a while as I scoured dips and gullies for a stream. The rain was now hammering down but there was no flowing water. The wind was strengthening too and when I eventually gave up the search and filled the bottles from a dark pool half the water was whipped away by the wind as I poured it from a wide mouth bottle into the narrow necks of the larger containers.

Stumbling back to camp dripping with rain, clutching heavy bottles with numb fingers and knocked about by the wind I began to wonder if camping here was a good idea. My tent appeared, one side pushed in and out by the gusts. Terry was outside, filming with his phone. His heavier more solid tent was moving less but he said the vibrating flysheet was really noisy. In my tent I’d have been hit repeatedly by the fabric. I held up my anemometer. The wind was 25-30mph with gusts to 54mph. We decided to seek a lower site and wrestled the tents down and into our packs. We were only at 470 metres here so there wasn’t much lower to go before reaching fields and farms though. The wind was strengthening as we descended. A prospective site was considered during a brief lull. Then the big gusts returned. No go, we decided. A full retreat was in order. Terry made phone calls and a B&B was booked in Scales. It took over an hour to walk there in the storm. Down in the valley the wind was as strong as it had been on Threlkeld Knotts. We’d made the right decision.

Terry on the wet walk from Scales to the Blencathra Centre

Scales Farm Country Guest House was warm and dry and welcoming as was the White Horse Inn a few yards away where we went in search of dinner and beer. Outside the storm raged on. Come dawn and it had not calmed down. There would have been no views, no early morning magical light, just wind and rain. We’d missed nothing. I realised Terry hadn’t produced his camera once, the first trip I’d been on with him where he’d done no serious photography. That remained the case as we walked through the wind and rain to Threlkeld and then the Blencathra Centre, where Terry was to stay while he continued his film.

That afternoon the Head of the Centre, Tim, drove us to Kendal for the TGO Awards. The rain
poured on. We drove through floods on the roads. Another room indoors to change again. Then an evening talking to old and new friends, a gathering of outdoors people. The rain was forgotten. I’d been wearing two of the garments that won awards – they’d performed really well. (You can see the full Awards list here).

Then came a dry day and sunshine and I was on the train back north with a rucksack smelling from the sodden boots and socks it contained.

It’s been a year for wet and windy trips. This was the wettest and windiest.

And now the snow has come.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Review: Mountain: A Podcast About Adventure Episode 1 A day at the skyrace

Stob Dearg, Buachaille Etive Mor. The Glencoe Skyline Race goes straight up that face.

Mountain: A Podcast About Adventure is a new series of podcasts by broadcaster and mountaineer Christopher Sleight, whose work will be familiar to anyone who's listened to BBC Radio Scotland's excellent Out of Doors programme.

The first podcast covers the UK's first skyrace, the Glencoe Skyline, which was held last August. A skyrace combines running with scrambling and mountaineering. The Glencoe Skyline certainly fits that description as it includes the Aonach Eagach and Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor. I cannot imagine trying to race on either of those.

The podcast covers all aspects of the race, concentrating on the winner Joe Symons but also including those who man the check points and provide sustenance for the runners (tea and bananas!). The sounds of the hills and the runners are often in the background and the podcast really captures the feel of being there. I particularly love the moment when Christopher describes suddenly seeing a sea eagle that's come to see what's happening, a touch that really brings the description of the event alive.

I really enjoyed listening to this podcast and it brought back memories of when I used to do long hill races - though never anything like the Glencoe Skyline. This is a great start to Mountain and I'm looking forward to future podcasts.

You can listen to the first episode here. And subscribe here.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Great Outdoors December issue: midge-free camping, winter base layers, GPS, Assynt pictures

A frosty morning on Sgor Gaoith

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. My backpacking column is about the pleasures of autumn and winter camping. Midge-free and you can see sunset and sunrise without losing sleep! In the gear pages I test 12 base layers, just in time for the first really cold weather and review two GPS watches plus have a  look at smartphones for outdoor use and navigation apps. In the same feature Will Renwick and Emily Rodway review three standalone GPS devices. Will Renwick also has a first look at Keen's new Liberty Ridge boots.

Pictures in this issue include a very dramatic double-page photo of Knott Rigg in the Lake District by Damian Shields; a surreal and evocative photo taken inside a snow tunnel in the Cairngorms by James Roddie; and some photos of mine of Suilven and other Assynt hills.

Also well-illustrated are David Lintern 's story of packrafting down Loch Mullardoch, camping on an island, and climbing the surrounding Munros; Ray Wood's account of bikepacking the Trans Cambrian Way; and Carey Davies trip by train to go walking in the Pyrenees.

Elsewhere in this issue Keith Fergus suggests some ascents of the smaller hills  in the Trossachs, and there's a look at other lower hills in the UK; Ed Byrne goes out filming with Terry Abraham and with Countryfile; Carey Davies ponders urban living as he prepares to move to Sheffield; and Roger Smith wonders about the value of the forthcoming climate change summit. In the book pages Jim Perrin praises Frederic Gros' A Philosophy of Walking and Roger Smith reviews A William Condry Reader, edited by Jim Perrin.

The Hill Skills pages are about staying safe with good pieces by Glenmore Lodge instructor Kevin Rutherford; Mountaineering Council of Scotland Safety Advisor Heather Morning; and Northumberland National Park Mountain Rescue Team Leader Iain Nixon.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Between Storms

The Cairngorms at Dusk

After days of wind and rain the weather calmed late in the afternoon. The wind dropped, the skies started to clear and the rain ceased. The fields and woods sparkled with wetness. The tracks and paths were slick with mud. To the south the big mountains were grey silhouettes backed by thick rolls of cloud. Remaining clouds were tinged with pink. A buzzard perched high and watchful in a tall pine. Wild cries had me looking up. A skein of geese, passing right overhead, heading west.

A Touch of Pink over the Cromdale Hills

The leaves have been stripped from most trees and they stand stark and bare, ready for winter. There is some colour left though, in the larches, often the last to fade, and in low willows protected from the wind.


Bare birch, yellow willow

After dark the rain returned though without the wind. That’s due tomorrow when a big storm is meant to blow in, the aptly named Abigail. There are weather warnings. There often are this time of year. Snow is forecast for the Cairngorm summits. Will it come? Will it stay? Is this the start of winter? We shall see.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A Wee Dram Under The Stars: SWIG Hip Flask Review

A wee dram of a good malt whisky can be be relaxing and warming at a remote camp. Or even on a cold mountain top - as long as it's only a small dram. Alcohol and hill walking don't really mix. Sharing a drink is also very pleasant when socialising, especially round a bothy fire. I rarely carry alcohol on solo trips though. One time I did was one New Year's Eve long ago when I ended up in a Cairngorms bothy with several others, all taking shelter from a blizzard. I was surprised and disappointed to discover I was the only person with any alcohol. My whisky didn't last long!

A proper metal hip flask is of course ideal for carrying whisky. I have met people who've decanted whisky into a plastic bottle - I would regard this as sacrilege with a decent malt! Recently I was offered a SWIG stainless steel hip flask to test - a nice change from outdoor gear! It's small, neat and well-made, holds 175ml and weighs 163 grams. It has a secure screw-on lid - I filled it and shook it vigorously upside down. No water came out (well I wasn't going to risk whisky). The little cap isn't attached though so care is needed not to mislay it (spare ones are available). Each flask is individually numbered and that number gives you entry to the SWIG Society.

As well as 'naked' the SWIG hip flask is offered with a variety of pouches including hand made leather ones from Morar in the Highlands, moulded leather ones from Spain and genuine Harris Tweed ones in several patterns. I chose one of the last as it seemed the most appropriate and because I thought it would be pleasant to hold. It is. It's warm and rough to the touch - good for cold nights when bare metal can be unpleasantly chilly and for ensuring you don't let the smooth flask slip. It weighs just 11 grams. You can buy extra pouches if you fancy different ones for different occasions. There are gift sets too and you can have flasks engraved. Prices range from £41 for just the flask up to £159 for a Scottish Heritage Gift Set. My flask with Harris Tweed pouch is £49.

I like the SWIG flask. It's light and compact and tucks away easily into a pocket or a corner of the pack. It is a luxury item, but then so is a good malt whisky.