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

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A Few Days In The Lake District

Camp at the head of Scandale

This has been a year for visiting the Lake District, somewhere I hadn’t been for a decade or more not so long ago, and last week I made my sixth visit of 2014. I was there to attend the TGO Awards in Kendal and then the Kendal Mountain Festival as the BMC Ambassador for Hillwalking (you can read my thoughts on the last in this piece on Grough). In between these events, which mostly involved talking with friends and acquaintances old and new, I found time to spend a night in the hills along with friends Tony Hobbs and, for the first day only, David Lintern who had both been at the TGO Awards (David’s account of his few days in the Lakes can be found here, with some kind – and amusing - words about me – thanks David!).

View down to Rydal Water from the slopes of Heron Pike
After a visit to The Apple Pie, a marvellous bakery and cafĂ© in Ambleside (thank you David for introducing me to their delicious pies), to purchase lunch we set off round the Fairfield Horseshoe, a walk I hadn’t done for at least a couple of decades, other than an attempt at the same time last year that was quickly abandoned due to heavy rain, wind and thick mist. Having companions made for interesting conversation and an enjoyable walk on what was a dry but hazy day. By the time we reached Fairfield visibility had shrunk to fifty metres or less and we overshot the summit cairn slightly before remembering that we needed to backtrack a little and follow the cliff edge round to Hart Crag to reach the other arm of the horseshoe. Strangely, despite the years of absence and the lack of views, I could remember clearly that we needed to do this.

Tony and David pause for a snack

We started to leave the mist behind as we crossed Dove Crag but, due to a rather late start for the time of year, daylight was now starting to fade. Soon David left us to continue on down the ridge to Ambleside while Tony and I turned aside and dropped down to the head of Scandale where we found some good camp sites and made camp just as the last light vanished. The sky was still cloudy and a stiff breeze was blowing but it looked as though we could be comfortable here.

Tony keeping warm in camp

Later in the evening the wind ceased and the sky cleared. A heavy dew settled on my tent. The lack of noise from the wind had me looking out. Stars were appearing in the blackness. I thought I’d settled in for the night but the brilliant sky was best appreciated with a clear view all round so I was soon back outside staring up at the great white slash of the Milky Way and the constellation of Orion rising over the hills. Other than a faint glow on the horizon from the lights of Ambleside there was no sign we weren’t in a remote wilderness far from civilisation.

A chilly morning

Sometime during the night the cloud returned and dawn came dull and flat. It was still a marvellous place to be though, far removed from the hot stuffy hotel rooms of Kendal. Eventually we had to depart and set off over High Pike and Low Pike on rockier terrain than I remembered and down to Ambleside. We reached the town just as the rain began. Later in the day after Tony had dropped me in Kendal and was on his way back to Bristol I got soaked walking to the hotel. I’d stayed dry in the hills but the wet streets of Kendal were too much for me!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

After the Pacific Crest Trail

The end of the Pacific Crest Trail: Monument 78 in the rain on the USA/Canada border

Back in 1982 my Pacific Crest Trail hike, as described in my latest book Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, was the first long distance walk I’d undertaken overseas. When I set out I didn’t know if I could complete the walk, didn’t know how I’d feel if I did, and had no idea what I’d do afterwards. Although I’d had a few articles published I didn’t know if I could actually make any money from writing about the outdoors or, indeed, any other aspect of the outdoors. So when I finished the PCT the future was unknown. First though I had to get home. Here’s what happened.

The world became surreal when I finished the PCT. Surreal and unreal. Before the walk – a time that now felt distant and different – I’d enquired as to what I should do on entering Canada on a trail rather than at a border post. You’ll have to ring Customs and Immigration I was told. I’d carried the phone numbers from Mexico. I rang Customs. How many illegal drugs have you brought into Canada? I was asked. How many guns? The man sounded amused rather than serious and on my replying none said ‘Welcome to Canada. Enjoy your stay’. I rang Immigration. The man I spoke to was not amused. He sounded outraged and ordered me to immediately drive to a town called Princeton and go to the Immigration Office. I’ve walked here, I said, I haven’t a car. You must drive immediately to Princeton. The reply remained the same. Eventually I gave up. Princeton I discovered lay in the wrong direction. I wanted to go to Vancouver where I was booked on a train south to Los Angeles and my flight home. I like train travel and this journey particularly appealed to me as it would take me all the way back south to Southern California. There was a bus to Vancouver the next day. I decided to catch it and visit the immigration office there. I wasn’t to get the chance.

Before leaving Manning Park I discovered that Amtrak workers were on strike and there would be no train to Los Angeles. What to do? I had a plane booked. Go straight to the airport and talk to British Airways seemed the best idea. The bus journey passed in a blur. Concerned about getting home and bewildered at not being on the trail I couldn’t concentrate on the views or even doze. My mind just wandered along the PCT, remembering the events and sights of my great adventure. Arriving in Vancouver I somehow managed to find a bus to the airport. I was acting in a dream, not really convinced of the reality I found myself in. Everything seemed distant, slightly blurred. I went to the British Airways desk. The woman behind the counter asked me to wait a minute, disappeared briefly then came back and asked me to put my pack on the conveyor belt. Your flight leaves in half an hour. Suddenly I was standing there in my worn and dirty trail clothes clutching a boarding pass. I stumbled off to the boarding gate and found myself on a plane. 

Thirteen hours later I was in London half-asleep and confused. I’d dozed on the flight but not slept. I had no idea of the time. Passing through Immigration the officer looked at my passport. Where have you come from? Canada. But you haven’t got a .. He stopped. Oh well, nothing to do with me. No stamp in my passport. I’d never officially been in Canada. I felt I hadn’t been there too. I caught the train home to Manchester, where I was then living. Only when I dumped out the contents of my pack did I realise that I’d flown back with a stove full of petrol and another half-litre in a fuel bottle. No one had asked me about the contents of my pack. It had not been scanned or searched. Travel was different then.

Farewell to the trail: one of my last camps on the PCT
Long distance hikers often find life after the trail can be difficult. Adjusting to a static urban lifestyle that can seem hollow and meaningless takes time. I’d returned with no job, no money and no permanent home. There was no time to sit and wonder how I’d cope. However the PCT’s influence continued. I took a phone call. ‘Congratulations. Do you want a job?’ ‘Yes, what is it?’ The call was from Paul Howcroft, one of the founders of outdoor clothing company Rohan, then still a small business. I’d used Rohan’s new polycotton clothing on the PCT. It had performed well. At the time it was revolutionary though, being very light and thin. Outdoor shops had been reluctant to stock it, preferring to stick to traditional heavier wool and cotton. Rohan now had masses of clothing but few outlets and so Paul and Sarah Howcroft had decided to run a series of roadshows throughout Britain. I would go along to talk about the PCT and how good the clothing had proved. Every weekend for the next few months was spent doing this. Leaving Friday afternoon and not getting back until very late Sunday it was quite tiring. The clothing sold though and Rohan knew they just needed a way to reach customers more easily. Soon a mail order service was started and the next spring the first Rohan shop opened. I was offered work in the shop and helping with the orders on an as required basis, which suited me well as it gave me time to write and send out articles to magazines. When I did so I discovered that the PCT had given me credibility as well as something to say. My life as an outdoor writer and photographer had really begun.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A Colourful Half Hour in Strathspey

View over mist-filled Strathspey to the Cairngorms

Recent days have been dull, grey and wet - typical November in fact. The ground is sodden, the colours are rapidly leaving the trees. There's no snow and no frost. The chill is that unpleasant damp-cold that comes when the temperature is a little above freezing and the air is very humid. There's nothing sharp about it, nothing stimulating or refreshing. This is weather for sitting by the fire with a good book and a glass of malt whisky.

The first colour, the first mist, the magic begins

Sometimes though there can be a flash of colour and excitement, a brief interlude in the gloom. When such change does come advantage needs to be taken as it may only be brief, as it was late this afternoon (which means around 3.30 pm at this time of year). Looking out I could see a touch of brightness on the Cromdale Hills with curls of mist starting to form down in the valley below. A hint, maybe, of a fine sunset to come.

The first colour in the sky

Grabbing cameras and binoculars and donning jacket and boots I headed out. The wind had gone. The air was chilly but absolutely still. Squelching through the meadows I could see the sky turning peach and yellow above the distant Cairngorms as the sun sank into bands of thin cloud. Below the mountains the mist was thickening and growing.
On the edge of the mist

As the sky became red and orange the mist rose up to meet me. I tramped down the meadows towards the forest and the air grew hazy. Tendrils of mist were snaking around my legs. The mountains faded, trees looked insubstantial. The world shimmered.

Colour in the sky

I turned away, not wishing to enter the damp greyness I knew lay below, and followed the edge of the mist before climbing back up the meadow, just a few dozen metres of ascent taking me from haziness to sharpness. The sky in the northwest was now ablaze with bands of colour.

The last burst of colour before darkness

The colours intensified, the land darkened, as I watched the last of the sunlight on the thickening layers of clouds. Then the light began to fade, the sky grew dark, the colours shrank and grew pale. I turned and headed for home. The whole episode had only lasted half an hour. But what a wonderful half hour it had been.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Interview in Lakeland Walker & Competition for Book & DVD

The latest issue of Lakeland Walker has an interview with me on backpacking and making the Backpacking In The Lake District DVD with Terry Abraham.

There's also a competition to win copies of the DVD and my new book on the Pacific Crest Trail, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Great Outdoors December Issue Out Now: Winter is Coming, Ice Axes, Backpacking In the Lake District

Winter Walkers in the Cairngorms

As the first snows arrive on the tops the latest issue of The Great Outdoors has a winter theme. My backpacking column is about looking forward to the winter and I also review seven ice axes while Judy Armstrong reviews five pairs of crampons. Glenmore Lodge instructor Giles Trussell gives advice on planning and preparation for winter hillwalking and there's a gear guide to suitable items.

Going back to the summer there's an interview with Terry Abraham and me about the Backpacking In The Lake District DVD we made then. One of the double-page spreads at the front of the magazine is a sunset photo I took at one of our high camps while making the video. There are also superb double-page spreads of the South Glen Shiel Ridge by David Lintern and Cribyn in the Brecon Beacons by James Osmond.

More splendid photography from David Lintern turns up in his excellent feature on a backpacking trip on the Glen Shiel hills that didn't go quite according to plan. Away from the comforts of wild camping Ian Mitchell visits three iconic British Climbing Inns and describes their history and day walks based on them. Leaving Britain for warmer climes Alice Morrison joins Moroccan nomads on their annual journey with their herds into the Atlas mountains. Even further afield Carey Davies tells of the impact of a visit to the Southern Alps of New Zealand.

Back in Britain Daniel Neilson visits the Cairngorms to undertake the Summer Mountain Leader course at Glenmore Lodge. Related to this there's advice on Navigation Techniques by Steve Long and Plas Y Brenin staff and a piece by David Pegley on understanding windy weather.

Finally in this issue Roger Smith looks at the future of the Forestry Commission and Jim Perrin recommends Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Broken Road and reviews Martin Boysen's new autobiography Hanging On.

Monday, 10 November 2014

A Visit to Talladh a Bheithe

View across Talladh a Bheithe to Schiehallion

Earlier in the year a proposal was put forward for a wind farm at Talladh a Bheithe, an area of the Central Highlands lying between Loch Ericht and Loch Rannoch. It’s not well-known as it contains no Munros though it is overlooked by a remote Corbett (hill between 2500’ and 3000’), Beinn Mholach. However there are many Munros surrounding Talladh a Bheithe so any wind farm would be highly visible in many views near and far, a factor that has prompted many outdoor and conservation organisations to object strongly to the proposal. A group has been set up to fight the wind farm too. Called KeepRannoch Wild it has an excellent informative website with many links.

Beinn Mholach, looking towards a distant Ben Nevis

As it was clear from the map how obtrusive this wind farm would be I put in my objection as soon as I heard about it. I was aware though that I didn’t really know what the area was like. Indeed, although I had climbed Beinn Mholach and had looked across Talladh a Bheithe from many Munros I had no recollection of actually going there, nor was I even aware of the name. I decided to remedy this with an overnight visit and another ascent of Beinn Mholach so I could view the area from above. 

View over Talladh a Bheithe from Beinn Mholach

A predicted weather window of 24 hours or so amongst the long run of storms this autumn looked a good opportunity. I hoped the forecast was correct as I set off in the evening from Dalnaspidal on the A9 road in rain and wind and tramped along the track beside Loch Garry. Leaving the lochside as darkness fell the track deteriorated into a boggy morass. However as my feet grew muddier and wetter the rest of me started to dry out as the clouds cleared and the rain faded away. There was a sharp feel to the air when I reached the estate bothy Duinish at the base of Beinn Mholach and soon an almost-full moon rose into  the sky and a frost settled on the ground. I lit a fire in the bothy, which made the place feel a little more welcoming though did little to create heat, and settled down for the night.

Ben Alder from Beinn Mholach

Dawn came calm and clear. Just a few high thin clouds streaked the sky. I was soon away up the heathery, boggy slopes of Beinn Mholach. This 841 metre hill is big and complex with several subsidiary tops and several little rock outcrops (the name means shaggy mountain). As I climbed the landscape all around opened up. There are no other hills of similar height nearby so Beinn Mholach is an excellent viewpoint. To the south across Talladh a Bheithe and Loch Rannoch I could see the distinctive cone of Schiehallion, a mountain that would dominate the whole day, and the Glen Lyon and Ben Lawers hills. North and east were the A9 Munros, big rounded lumps. North and west Ben Alder was snow-capped with to the south two usually hard to see Munros, Carn Dearg and Sgor Gaibhre, clearly visible. Further away were many more hills including a distant very snow Ben Nevis. Beinn Mholach really does feel in the heart of the mountains. I could also look down to Talladh a Bheithe, an area of low hills and stream valleys to the south-west. Wind turbines here really would stand out and completely disrupt the feel of being in a wild place. There are no big manmade structures close to Beinn Mholach and so it should remain.

Ben Nevis from Beinn Mholach

I continued along the broad ridge stretching west from Beinn Mholach until I was directly above the proposed wind farm site. Here I descended beside the Allt a’ Choire Odhair Bhig, passing a small ragged plantation, into the centre of Talladh a Bheithe where I camped close to the stream, a peaceful spot on the edge of a wide flat boggy area and below rounded hills. The only sounds were the trickling of the stream over stones and the occasional guttural roar of a rutting stag from high in the hills. In the distance I could see Schiehallion. Dusk brought another hard frost and a crispness to the air that made the mountains all round stand out as sharp silhouettes. A wind farm here would totally destroy this peacefulness and subtle beauty.

Dusk at the Talladh a Bheithe camp

The weather window was just that and I woke to rain and wind and low cloud hiding the mountains. A five-hour head-down, hood-up march took me round the base of the hills and back along Loch Garry to my car. I didn’t mind. I’d seen Talladh a Bheithe, I’d had a lovely camp and I’d climbed a fine hill.