Saturday, 21 October 2017

Book Review: The Last Hillwalker by John D. Burns


Sometimes a book comes along that captures the essence of what it means to love mountains and to love being in mountains. This is such a book. In it the author describes his journey from bumbling would-be hillwalker and long-distance walker through rock climbing, alpine mountaineering, winter climbing, and mountain rescue team member to disillusion with the hills and finally a rekindling of the spirit with bothy hunting. Throughout a love of nature and wild places shines through. Along with mordant humour and a cast of friends, acquaintances and chance meetings that enliven the stories, whether it’s as a novice on the Pennine Way or ice climbing in Glencoe. The author laughs at himself and his misadventures and pokes gentle fun at friends – there’s nothing malicious here.

The disillusion is with climbing rather than with the hills. ‘I no longer believe’ writes Burns. Instead he turns to the stage, first as a stand-up comedian then as a playwright and actor with his own one-man show about occultist and mountaineer Aleister Crowley. (Later he writes and performs another one-man play Mallory: Beyond Everest, which I’ve seen twice – it’s excellent). Looking for another writing project he decides on a book about his outdoor life, ‘a farewell to the hills’. But that’s not what this book is as his hill life is restored with a love of bothies and then a decision to walk the Pennine Way again, forty years later. The book ends there, tantalisingly, but on a positive note. There is more joy in the hills to come, more adventures, more stories. You can read, listen and even watch some of them on Burn’s website - www.johndburns.com.

The Last Hillwalker is well-written and entertaining. Beneath the humour and the excitement there are passionate feelings and self-analysis. The author is a man who has thought carefully and deeply about the hills and his place in them. Having raced through the book once, carried away by the adventures and the desire to know what happens next, I’ve read it again, this time noting what the author is going through, what lies behind the tales. I’m sure I’ll read it again. It’s one of the best hill books I’ve read in many years. 
 
The title? It puzzled me and isn’t explained until the end when the author meets a young man called Alec and tells him he thinks hillwalking is dying out and the hills will soon be empty. Alec doesn’t agree. After he’s gone Burns thinks ‘maybe I just met the last hillwalker’. Happily I think he’s wrong but that’s no reason not to read this wonderful book. 

This review first appeared in the October issue of The Great Outdoors

Friday, 20 October 2017

Lake District rain and wind, a ruined priory, and Hadrian's Wall: a weekend with the OWPG


On Causey Pike in the rain and wind

Rain hammering down. Well, it was the Lake District. In October. The Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild always holds its AGM weekend somewhere scenic and this year it was at the Newlands Adventure Centre in Stair in the Newlands Valley. Right above us steep bracken and grass slopes rose into the mist. Somewhere up there was Causey Pike. The morning of the AGM six of us decided to climb the hill despite the weather. After all, why come to the Lake District and not venture into the hills?

A bit of a view from the climb up Rowling End
 
The ascent was enlivened by easy scrambling on the initial steep slopes of Rowling End, the rocks greasy from the rain. Waist-high bracken hanging over the path ensured that those of us not wearing overtrousers quickly had soaking wet legs. It wasn’t very cold and I reasoned I’d have been nearly as damp and probably more uncomfortable with overtrousers than without. My camera is more water-sensitive than my legs and stayed in its case. For photos I used my smartphone, which is waterproof.

Getting wet legs

Occasionally the clouds thinned to give hazy views of shadowy hills, green fields and shining Derwentwater. The rain came and went. Hoods went up and down. The mist was damp anyway. Staying completely dry wasn’t possible, especially as the wind grew stronger as we climbed. On the summit I recorded gusts of 48mph. Enough we thought and cut down to the path by Stonycroft Gill. One hill would do.

En route to Causey Pike

The next day the weather was no better with the hills still hidden. The forecast was for rain, low cloud and high winds. I was glad I’d put myself down for a trip east to Hadrian’s Wall, somewhere I hadn’t been since the 1980s. The day began though with a visit to 12th century LanercostPriory, which is partly built with stones from Hadrian’s Wall. This gaunt ruin is quite dramatic, as is its history, and there’s a particularly fine vaulted undercroft.

Part of the undercroft
 
After Lanercost came the Wall itself and a walk from Cawfields Quarry to Sycamore Gap that took us over Winshields Crag, the highest point of the wall, and which gave excellent views of the Wall undulating over the hills. We looked at mile castles and the dead straight line of the Vallum, thought about patrolling the Wall in Roman times, and learnt much from our guide Mark Richards, author of the Hadrian’s Wall Path guidebook. The weather was blustery but with only spots of rain until we left the Wall. To the west dark clouds hid the hills. This was the place to be. 

Hadrian's Wall
 
Dropping down from the Wall in the rain we walked to The Sill, a futuristic-looking building that is the Northumberland National Park’s National Landscape Discovery Centre. Wet and starting to get chilly – soaked legs again – I’m afraid we were most interested in hot drinks, feeling we’d discovered enough landscape for the day.


Hadrian's Wall and Crag Lough

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Great Hiking Trails of the World by Karen Berger


A lovely book full of mouth-watering words and pictures arrived today. Great Hiking Trails of the World by Karen Berger is a coffee-table book covering 80 trails of varying length and character, everything from the Pacific Crest Trail to the Hadrian's Wall Path, the Kungsleden and the Annapurna Circuit. The author has walked many of these trails herself, some 18,000 miles in total. Others were suggested by fellow walkers. The aim of the book is to inspire and it certainly does that. Flipping through it I've already found half a dozen trails I'd like to do and been enticed to return to ones I've already done.

The book is packed with spectacular photographs, a few of them by me. Readers will probably recognise some of the other photographers names too.

Many years ago I met Karen Berger at a hiker's gathering in the USA and we spent an enjoyable evening discussing long-distance walking. As a dedicated hiker, lover of the outdoors and experienced writer I can't think of anyone better to write a book like this. Much research has gone into the book too with legends, history, culture and nature all appearing.

Anyone who likes walking should find this book a delight. As Karen Berger says in the Introduction it's about "walking, then walking some more".

Great Hiking Trails of the World is published by Rizzoli and costs £35.


Monday, 16 October 2017

OWPG Award for Technical Feature


I've just returned from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild AGM weekend in a wet and windy Lake District where I was very pleased to receive the Award for Excellence for a Technical Feature 2017 for my piece A Lightweight Approach to Big Hills in The Great Outdoors.

Over the weekend a group of us made an intrepid ascent of Causey Pike (at least that's what it felt like given the conditions) and the next day retreated east to Hadrian's Wall and more views and less cloud and wind. I'll post more about those trips tomorrow. In the meantime here's a couple of pictures.

One of the few views on the ascent of Causey Pike

Hadrian's Wall

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Great Outdoors November Issue: headlamps, Hilleberg Niak & M.A.Harper book review


In the latest issue of The Great Outdoors, just published, I've tested ten headlamps and the Hilleberg Niak tent and also reviewed M.A. Harper's Lured By Mountains.

The theme of this issue is autumn walks and Jim Perrin recalls a glorious October day on Brandon Mountain in Ireland's County Kerry; Ronald Turnbull says Dalmally to Ben Nevis is a perfect autumn backpacking route; Vivienne Crow takes a colourful low level autumn walk through the Lake District; Ed Byrne goes on a hunt for the last of the snow on Braeriach just before it melts; and Mark Waring explores the autumnal forests and lakes along the border of Norway and Sweden.

Also in this issue there's a superb photo essay on cloud inversions by Andrew Terrill - some mouth-watering pictures here; Hannah Lindon interviews James Forrest about his round of the Nuttalls - 446 peaks in England and Wales; David Lintern reviews Art of Freedom:the life and climbs of Voytek Kurtyka by Bernadette McDonald, which sounds well worth reading; Roger Smith looks at the problems facing farmers; Hannah Lindon tackles the Bochlwyd Horseshoe in Snowdonia; outdoor instructor Myles Farnbank looks at leaving no trace in the hills; and Judy Armstrong reviews three windshirts at different price points.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Nan Shepherd Biography Launch In Grantown-On-Spey


The first biography of Nan Shepherd, author of the classic book on the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, will be launched in the Cairngorms National Park at Grantown Museum on November 7th.

Into the Mountain by Charlotte Peacock is a detailed look at an intensely private woman about whom little was previously known. I have an advance copy and will be reviewing it in The Great Outdoors. Looking through the book and having read the first chapter I think I'm going to really enjoy it. The Living Mountain is one of my favourite outdoor books and I'm looking forward to learning about its author

Tickets for the launch are £5 and are available from The Bookmark in Grantown-on-Spey. I'll be there.

A Quiet Corner Of The Cairngorms


Camp near the head of An Garbh-choire

My plan had been to climb Bynack More and camp somewhere on its slopes. Low cloud shrouding the summit and a stronger wind than forecast changed my mind soon after I set off from Glenmore. Winding my way through the autumn colours of the forest I decided to visit a little-known corner of the Cairngorms and make my way up a narrow corrie with a little ravine at the top that I remembered descending many years ago. This isn’t named on most maps or mentioned in most books on the Cairngorms. It does have a name though – An Garbh-choire, the Rough Corrie – shared with the much, much bigger and better known one on Braeriach. The ravine at the top has a name too – Eag a’ Garbh-choire, the Notch of the Rough Corrie. The only map on which I can find these names is the Ordnance Survey Explorer 1:25.000 Cairngorms & Aviemore. The only mention in a book is in Adam Watson’s SMC District Guide to The Cairngorms in which he writes that the on the descent of the long north ridge of Cairn Gorm to Ryvoan you will see “several crags and valleys, now almost dry, which were cut by great rivers flowing out from when the huge Glen More glacier was hemmed in here by Cairn Gorm and Meall a’Bhuachaille. Particularly striking among these are Stac na h-Iolaire and Eag a’Gharbh Choire”.

An Garbh-choire
 
Whilst little-visited An Garbh-choire is regularly passed by walkers heading for Bynack More or the Lairig an Laoigh. The wide track to these crosses the burn running out of the corrie but all that can be seen is a little glen with a few trees that doesn’t look like it goes far at all. That’s because it twists and turns and most of it is hidden. Even so, from the track to the moorland above the corrie is only a little over a kilometre. It’s a rough, exciting kilometre though. There’s no path and as the name suggests the terrain is rugged, all tussocks of grass and heather lower down, and gradually becoming rocky as the slopes rise. There are trees and crags and a little lochan in the lower corrie, making for a lovely secret world that feels cut-off and remote even though a popular path isn’t far away. 

Eag a'Gharbh-choire

After a steep grassy climb I arrived at the Eag a’Gharbh-choire, a narrow boulder-filled ravine that echoes the much bigger and well-known Chalamain Gap away to the west. Here I had a surprise. Old stone walls blocked the ravine to form an enclosure, with a small gap at one end. More stone walls marked the remnants of a building. A summer shieling. I could see that animals could easily be driven into the enclosure and held there. Today the bright yellow flowers of ragwort were all it contained.

Shieling walls in Eag a'Gharbh-choire

Above the ravine boggy heather covered the broad flat col between Mam Suim, the northern terminus of Cairn Gorm, and the spur of Creag nan Gall that rises above An Lochain Uaine in Ryvoan Pass. After all the recent rain the ground was waterlogged and it took me a while to find a dryish area for my camp. The wind died down as I pitched the tent and a light drizzle fell. I thought how hellish this place would have been just a month before when the midges would have been swarming.

Almost in the mist

During the night heavy rain woke me several times and once I looked out to find myself camped in a wet mist. By dawn the rain had ceased and the clouds had risen a little. I watched them streaming fast across the sky and wondered why there was barely more than a breeze here. Setting off I found that by chance I’d had a sheltered camp. Within five minutes I was walking in a gusty wind that soon quelled any idea of going up Cairn Gorm. Instead I headed for Creag nan Gall, just 50 metres higher than my camp and at 622 metres only half the height of Cairn Gorm. It’s a fine little top though with excellent views down to Ryvoan Pass, west over Glenmore and Rothiemurchus Forests and north to Abernethy Forest. All those trees! Just wonderful. Also wonderful were all the young trees scattered over Creag nan Gall’s slopes, the forest advancing again. 

Ryvoan Pass
 
I descended the steep southern slopes of the hill over rocks and tussocks and then plunged into the forest and down even steeper slopes. I picked up a narrow path here, one I remembered coming down before. Wet and slippery, in places a mudslide, I thrashed down it clinging onto branches, heather roots, and rocks and occasionally sliding on my backside. The forest was a dense tangle of branches and roots, dark and colourful at the same time. 

An Lochain Uaine

Emerging on the broad Ryvoan Pass track was a surprise. Suddenly the going was easy. People appeared – neat, clean-smelling people with shiny boots and smart clothing. I was sweat-soaked, muddy from the knees down, and dishevelled. I’d been out one night and had only walked around ten miles but the rugged terrain had taken me far from paths and easy walking both physically and mentally. I felt as I did when encountering day or weekend walkers for the first time after weeks on a long-distance trail. I didn’t know I could do that on a 24-hour trip. It was quite a nice thought.

View down An Garbh-choire