Sunday, 24 September 2017

On this day 35 years ago I finished my Pacific Crest Trail hike

Monument 78 in the rain, September 24, 1982
In recent days I've seen many pictures of people finishing the Pacific Crest Trail at Monument 78, which marks the border with Canada, and which has been enlarged since I was there as the PCT has grown in popularity. There'll be more pictures to come as this year's hikers complete the trail before the snows of next winter set in. I can share the feelings of those finishing even though it's 35 years since I reached the Monument. It was pouring with rain back then and no-one else was there. I don't have a picture of myself, just this one of my pack. No-one was to know I'd finished for several days. And few people saw any of my pictures for quite a while either in those pre-Internet, pre-digital days. But the satisfaction of completing a big adventure was just the same as it is today.

My journal is full of notes about what was to happen next. Where I'd stay, getting to Vancouver and so on. The only comment about finishing says 'fact that it's over hasn't registered yet and probably won't until I reach Vancouver or even London'. I also noted that it was 'an excellent way to spend six months'. It would be many years before I realised just how significant the walk had been.

Autumn colours at one of my last camps
The slow winding down of the walk had been going on for many days though, my mind jumping to life beyond the trail for the first time since I'd left Mexico almost six months earlier. The seasons were changing too. The mountains shone with autumn colours and a few times in the last weeks snow fell, a reminder that winter was coming and soon the trail would be buried deep. Finishing in the autumn after starting in the spring and walking through the summer felt appropriate. Nature was winding down too.

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

Friday, 22 September 2017

Misty Munros: Care Needed!

A brief glimpse through the mist on Beinn a'Chaorainn

Beinn a’Chaorainn and Beinn Teallach are not the most renowned Munros though both have their attractions, like all hills. In other areas they would be better known but with Creag Meagaidh on one side and the Grey Corries not far away they are often neglected for these grander hills, as can be seen by the rather sketchy and intermittent paths over the summits. No well-trodden walkers’ highways here. I admit to often passing by these hills myself and I hadn’t climbed them for many years until last weekend. It wasn’t my idea either. Fellow outdoor writer David Lintern suggested them, initially because he was interested in looking at the East Ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn, a summer scramble and winter climb. The weather forecast looked better west of the Cairngorms so I was happy to agree. I wanted a night out though, which David couldn’t manage, and so didn’t fancy an unknown scramble with a big pack. We’d stick to the walking routes we decided.

The promised fine weather – 90% likelihood of cloud-free skies – hadn’t materialised when we set off through soggy woods under a soft grey sky. The tops were in cloud and soon we were too as we approached the southernmost of Beinn a’Chaorainn’s three summits. The ascent up featureless heather, bog and grass slopes was enlivened by conversation about conservation, photography, gear and more. Although David had recently moved to Strathspey we hadn’t seen each other in quite a while. Occasional views back under the clouds to shining Loch Treig gave excuses to pause and catch breath.

Loch Treig
A brief stop at the first cairn and we set off for the central and highest summit. Or at least we thought we did. Despite the minimal visibility we were certain we knew which way we’d come up and therefore the direction in which we should go. The compass said otherwise but the direction it indicated was surely the way we’d come. Check with the GPS as we walked. Yes, the compass was right. We were heading completely the wrong way. Turning we followed the compass. It still felt wrong but we knew now it wasn’t. How easily we’d been turned through 180 degrees in the dense mist. Pay attention! Between the three tops big cliff-rimmed corries bite into the long summit ridge so care was needed not to stray on these slopes. In winter when cornices build up a few people have gone through them and fallen into the depths below. 

David Lintern contemplating the clouds
All we saw were occasionally glimpses of rocky slopes dropping into nothingness as the clouds swirled and rose and fell in a cold northerly wind. Rain began. So much for clear skies. We came out of the cloud on the descent to the col with Beinn Teallach then climbed back into again. Teallach is a smaller, lower hill though and the visibility quickly improved as we began to descend. 

A peaceful camp
David departed and I cast around for a camp site. Not too high as I wanted to stay out of the cloud and the strongest wind. Everywhere was sodden. My map showed peat hags on the southern slopes of Teallach and it was indeed very boggy. Every flattish area oozed water. I continued down. If I wasn’t to have the brilliant night skies and colourful sunset and dawn from a high camp Id been hoping for I might at least find somewhere comfortable. I ended up in the glen between the two Munros, pitched on dryish ground by the Allt a’Chaoruinn with good views south to the Loch Treig hills. The skies never cleared and the next day I just had a couple of hours walk back down the glen.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Great Outdoors October 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