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, 22 July 2014

The Paps of Jura

Beinn a'Chaolais from Beinn an Oir

Searching through my images recently looking for ones of horseshoe walks for the current issue of The Great Outdoors I came across some I'd taken on a round of the Paps of Jura several years ago. This reminded me that I'd written about the walk for TGO at the time. Here's that short piece.
The three distinctive steep rocky peaks known as the Paps of Jura dominate the rugged landscape of the Isle of Jura and stand out from afar. I set out to climb them on a day of rapidly moving clouds, gusting winds and bursts of sunshine, a suitably wild day for wild hills on a wild island. The summits were hidden in the clouds as I followed the muddy path, marked by a signpost, that led from the old arched bridge over the Corran River to Loch an t-Siob. 

Beinn Shiantaidh and the Corran River
The forbidding slopes of the most easterly Pap, Beinn Shiantaidh, towered above the loch, now free of cloud. A rough path led up steep grass to the scree and boulder cone of the summit and a scrabble up loose ground to the cold windswept top. The mist had rolled in again and there was no view. I scrawled my name on a bit of the decaying visitor’s book contained in a plastic bottle inside a wooden box. Then I dropped down steep scree slopes towards the col with the next and highest Pap, Beinn an Oir, a Corbett. Not far above the col I reached a long unbroken crag blocking my descent and was glad to find a rough path down a gully at its north end. The gully provided some respite from the cold wind, which was welcome too. From the col I climbed the steep stony east face of Beinn an Oir on a meandering path. A distinctive feature on this face is a brown basalt dyke, which stands out against the pale quartzite scree. The path reaches the summit ridge north of the top close to two walled enclosures then follows an unusual cleared path between rough quartzite walls, apparently built by OS surveyors. On the little summit I munched on a few snacks, hoping for the mist to clear, but was soon driven on by the cold wind. The descent to the next col began on open scree slopes but lower down became a tortuous route on narrow ledges through small crags. 

Beinn an Oir and Beinn Shiantaidh
As I picked a way down the mist finally rose above the summits and I could see just how grand and mountainous these hills are, something I knew from the terrain under my feet but which had not been clearly visible before. Out over the Sound of Islay rose the Rhuvaal lighthouse on the NW tip of Islay, distant and white. More scree led to the third and final Pap, Beinn a’Chaolais, from where I could see the peaks of Arran rising beyond the Mull of Kintyre. To the north though all was still in cloud. Scree and grass led down to the last col from where it was a boggy walk down into Gleann an t-Siob and the path from Lochan an t-Sion back to the start.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Great Outdoors August Issue: Lake District Backpacking, Wild Camping, Backpacking With A Small Pack, Shorts, Freet Shoes

Wild camping in the Lake District

The August issue of The Great Outdoors has just appeared. Appropriately, given the current hot weather, my main contribution to the gear pages is a review of 16 pairs of shorts. I also review some interesting 'minimal drop' shoes, the Freet Mudgrip. Elsewhere in the gear pages Daniel Neilson reviews 16 25-35 litre packs, the Barefoot Shepherdess Alison O'Neill describes her favourite gear, and James Reader visits Osprey Europe and talks to founder Mike Pfotenhauer.

My backpacking column is about the trip I made last month to work on the Backpacking In The Lake District film with Terry Abraham (in the blue duvet jacket in the picture above). In the Hill Skills sections I've given some tips for novice backpackers and for backpacking with a small pack. There's also a scattering of my photos throughout the magazine, including a frontispiece taken at the same time as the picture above and a recent one of noctilucent clouds that illustrates Carey Davies' column, which considers these clouds and the whole concept of 'nature's wonderful strangeness'.

Elsewhere in this issue Carey Davies pops up again describing a backpacking trip in Knoydart, Tim Gent goes backpacking on Dartmoor and Paul Beasley revisits the Lake District after a 23 year absence. Much further afield Suzy Bennett walks the Cinque Terre path in Italy. Back in Britain Roger Smith bemoans the weakness of protection for our finest landscapes and habitats and suggests there should be 'no major development' zones for all designated areas. Hear, hear! In his Hillwalkers' Library Jim Perrin recommends a novel I have to admit never having heard of before, Manda Scott's Stronger Than Death. This climbing whodunit sounds excellent and has been added to my reading list. Jim also reviews Tristan Gooley's The Walker's Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs, a book I am currently reading and will review myself eventually.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Thoughts on Stealth Camping

Out of sight on the Annandale Way

Having been asked a few times recently about stealth camping and wild camping I thought I'd post this piece from a few years ago that originally appeared in The Great Outdoors.

Stealth camping, as the name suggests, is camping where you are unlikely to be seen. I’ve practised this since I began backpacking, long before I heard the term itself. I like it though; it suggests quietness and a lack of disturbance. It came to mind frequently a few years ago when I chose to stealth camp a few times on the Southern Upland Way  and on Annandale Way. Scotland’s enlightened access legislation, which gives a right to camp wild, meant I didn’t have to hide my camps but as both paths run through farmland and lowland woods at times I preferred to be out of sight of paths, roads and farms so I could enjoy camping in peace with little risk that anyone would disturb me or even know I was there. South of the border in England stealth camping is rather more of a necessity in many areas as wild camping isn’t a legal right. High in the hills it’s usually accepted but in many lowland areas it’s wise to be out of sight. Long ago I learnt much about stealth camping on a Land’s End to John O’Groats walk, including making camp late and leaving early. At the same time I also found that passing by a prospective site because I wanted to walk a few more miles could mean difficulties in finding anywhere to camp so sometimes I stopped early.

A stealth camp is one where you are unlikely to be seen by others because you are out of sight of roads, buildings, footpaths, bothies and popular wild sites. If there are clear signs that people camp regularly then it’s not a stealth camp site. Along most long distance paths there are popular wild sites that are used almost every night in the summer. There are similar sites in popular walking areas – Styhead Tarn in the Lake District and Loch Etchachan in the Cairngorms for example. Yet by only venturing a short distance it’s usually possible to camp in solitude in these areas, out of view of other tents. Finding a stealth site is a combination of studying the map and studying the terrain. In lowland areas woods are excellent for stealth camps. Just wander away from the path and find a flat area. This doesn’t necessarily mean being surrounded by trees with no views either. Just being out of sight of likely human presence is often enough. Towards the end of one of my TGO Challenge routes, as the eastern Highlands decline from moorland to farmland, there is a spot beside a fine rushing river with a lovely view back up the glen to the hills that is hidden from the nearby road by a steep wooded bank. I’ve camped there four times and have never seen another person. (And no, I’m not going to tell you where it is!). In open hill country stealth camping can be more difficult. I look for wrinkles and dips in the terrain in which tent can be pitched that can’t be seen except from close by or maybe a distant hillside. Sometimes such spots can lie surprisingly close to footpaths.

A stealth camp on the TGO Challenge. Despite the open view it was hidden from a nearby road and houses.
In my view the main reason for stealth camping isn’t to hide from other people though (I’m not that anti-social!) but to be in closer contact with nature. I’m out in the wilds to experience the landscape, the wild life, the trees, the flowers and the whole magnificent natural world and I want that to be part of the camping as well as the walking. In my ideal camp I can sit and watch birds and clouds and study the details of vegetation and rocks. I don’t want the wildlife to be disturbed by people walking by, as can happen when camping near a footpath, or by other people talking, as can happen at popular wild sites. I don’t want to look at other tents either or hear vehicles on a road or tractors in a field. On this theme when looking for a stealth camp if I see another tent I give it a wide berth and camp well away and out of sight, assuming those campers are also seeking solitude. Not everyone does this. Once in a big corrie I deliberately went well away from the path and the used camp sites beside the lochan and camped out of sight behind some boulders. The next morning I went for a stroll up a nearby hill. When I returned to pack up camp there was another tent only fifty feet or so away from mine. In all that vast area, which could have held a dozen or more tents all hidden from each other, they had chosen to camp next to the only other tent there. I packed up and left, as intended, hoping that the other campers didn’t think I’d taken offence and moved because of them. Mind you, if I’d been staying a second night I might have moved camp!

Stealth sites are usually undisturbed and pristine. They don’t look like camp sites and ideally there is nothing human made visible. They certainly don’t have rings of stones, flattened vegetation, bare patches of earth, stone windbreak walls or camp fire scars. Sites with these are the opposite of stealth ones, showing over-use. I try and pass them by or, if I do use one, restore it a little by breaking up stone rings and demolishing structures. When leaving a stealth site it should look as though no-one has ever camped there. Perhaps there’s some flattened grass, but this will quickly recover if it was used for one night only. The idea is that if someone else does camp in that area they probably won’t choose exactly the same spot so a new visible site doesn’t appear. For that reason stealth camps should be for one night only and new paths shouldn’t be trampled from the nearest footpath or to the nearest water (something more likely with groups). Indeed, stealth camps may not be near water at all. I’ve often carried enough water for camp for the last hour or two to a fine but waterless site. Such places will never become popular as most people prefer to camp within a short distance of water. I carried water for camp twice on the Annandale Way and each time found a lovely, quiet and relaxing woodland site.

Quiet, hidden site on the Annandale Way
No special equipment is required for stealth camping but a dull green or brown-coloured tent is useful, especially when camping in open country. There’s nothing like vivid red or orange nylon for attracting the eye. That said, I used a quite bright gold-coloured tent on the Pacific Northwest Trail last summer and had several stealth camps in lowland and logging areas simple by heading off into dense forest and thick undergrowth. Despite the colour of the tent anyone would have had to be fairly close to spot it.

I think stealth camping is in fact the natural form of backpacking camping. It’s what wild camping should be.

Monday, 14 July 2014

I'll be at the Harris Mountain Festival in September

On the Clisham Horseshoe

This September I'll be on the isle of Harris for the Harris Mountain Festival where I'll be introducing The Cairngorms In Winter film and answering questions afterwards on September 17th and then leading a walk over the Clisham Horseshoe on the 18th.

The whole Festival runs from September 13th to 20th. There are many different events including walks, a hill race, a raft race, kayaking, hill skills training, talks, and photo workshops with natural history photographer Laurie Campbell. The full programme isn't finalised yet so it's not on the Festival web site. It should appear soon.

Harris is a beautiful island with a magnificent coastline and dramatic mountains. This will be my third visit and I'm delighted to be going back. I gave a talk at the Festival last year but was unable to spend long on Harris (I describe the trip here). I hope to stay longer this year.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Finished! My Pacific Crest Trail Book.

On the Pacific Crest Trail in the High Sierra, May 1982

I've finally finished writing Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, the story of my Pacific Crest Trail walk, and sent it to the publisher at Sandstone Press. I hope he likes it!

Although the writing is over producing the book isn't. My next task will be to caption the photos that will appear in the book (all scans from Kodachrome 64 slides) and allocate them page numbers so they appear in the right place. Then there'll be the final check of the edited manuscript. And all being well the book will be published in October.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Ospreys & Otters: A Visit to Loch Garten

Loch Garten

Out on the loch beyond the water lilies a goldeneye duck and duckling floated in the sunshine below the cloud-dappled blue sky. A peaceful scene. The only sound the gentle ripple of water on the shore. Abruptly a duck, a mallard, skittered out of the reeds and across the water, wings flapping, legs thrashing wildly, quacking loudly. Just behind it a fluffy duckling paddled frantically, trying to keep up. Something dark surged in the water behind the duckling. A rounded head emerged briefly then a curving body slicing through the water. An otter. There was flurry in the water. Otter and duckling vanished. The duck continued alone. Further out the goldeneyes drifted serenely. Within seconds the scene was calm again, the brief life-and-death drama over.

Loch Garten

This was the one moment of excitement on an otherwise tranquil wander beside beautiful Loch Garten and through the pinewoods of Abernethy Forest on a lovely sunny day. Everything glowed with warmth and life. White water lilies spread round the edges of the loch, more than I’ve ever seen here before. The first blaeberries were appearing in the woods. Nature at its most relaxed and welcoming. Then there was that sudden flash of violence, the sudden ending of a duckling’s brief existence. A reminder of the reality of how much of nature works.

Live video of the osprey nest in the visitor centre.

Earlier we had visited the RSPB’s Loch Garten Osprey Centre not far from the loch, our first visit of the year and rather later than usual. The three young ospreys were almost ready to fly, standing on the edge of the nest and flapping their wings. Their mother perched on a nearby tree, watching.  Using the powerful centre telescopes we were able to watch them and marvel at their grace and power. There are also live videos in the centre that show them closely. Like the otter these are hunters as the piercing eyes and hooked bills showed. Soon they will leave the nest and then Scotland, heading south to West Africa for the winter. Seeing the ospreys and reflecting again on their return to the Highlands and the work that went into protecting them is always inspiring and gives hope for the future of wildness and nature.