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, 29 October 2014

Woods & Water: A Weekend In Snowdonia

View over Gwydyr Forest to Moel Siabod

From the Cairngorms National Park to Snowdonia National Park, a train journey of over ten hours, leaving in rain, arriving in rain. The reason for this trek south was the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild AGM Weekend at the Plas Y Brenin national outdoor centre. A rainy day indoors at the centre with interesting conversations, a workshop on the challenges of new media, a thankfully straightforward AGM, an excellent dinner and the awards ceremony. A good day, ending with a lift back to my B&B in Betws Y Coed (the friendly and cosy Grove House) courtesy of Mark Richards (thanks Mark!).

Rushing stream in Gwydyr Forest

Sunday morning and the rain still fell and the sky was thick and dark with low clouds. OWPG members were going for a walk. I might have joined them but missed the only bus to Plas Y Brenin. I didn’t mind. After a day with people I was happy to wander off on my own and the wooded hills round Betws Y Coed looked interesting. And so they proved. The woods aren’t old and much is plantation forestry but overall the mix of trees, including big oaks and Douglas firs, and the steep hilly terrain with many hidden crags makes for pleasant and varied walking. After all the rain the rivers and streams were splendid too. The rain kept up all day, starting as drizzle but becoming heavy in the afternoon, and the wet forest glowed in the soft light and smelt wild and wet.

Hafod mine

Whilst the woods now are quiet and gentle this is an old mining area as it is rich in lead and zinc. A hundred years ago it was heavily industrialised. The last mine only closed in 1963 though most were gone long before then. In the woods there are many remnants of the industry, dark barred shafts leading into crags, channelled streams rushing down leats and, in places, the last ruins of smelting mills. I wandered through the tiered remnants of Hafod mine and passed the site of Parc mine. The latter was the biggest mine and the last to close. Now it’s hard to tell it was ever here. In the sixty years since it closed the forest has taken over. The lakes in the forests were utilised for mining too, some purpose built, others enlarged. Now they add to the beauty of the landscape.

Llyn Parc

Rain dribbled down as I made my way to the railway station for the long journey home. The air was still sullen and heavy. Along the North Wales coast though the sun shone and the beaches were bright and the sky blue. It didn’t last and for most of the journey the rain lashed down. Aviemore station was dark and wet. I drove the last miles home with the wipers on full.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Award from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild

Last weekend I was delighted to receive one of the annual awards from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild. This was for a piece on Tarps and Shelters that appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine last year.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Out Now! Backpacking In The Lake District DVD ...... & a Box Set & Other Terry Abraham DVDs

Backpacking In The Lake District, the DVD that I made with Terry Abraham last summer, is available now from Striding Edge, price £14.99 (as are all the individual DVDs).

Also available is another new video from Terry: Helvellyn with Mark Richards, in which Mark goes on three walks on the mountain.

If you fancy both of the DVDs plus Terry's magnificent Life of a Mountain:Scafell Pike the three are available as a box set entitled The Magic of Mountains at £39.99. The Scafell Pike DVD is also available separately.

Finally, with winter coming Terry's first full-length film, The Cairngorms In Winter, which he made with me last year, could provide much inspiration.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Survival In Winter

A squall sweeps in on a windy day in the Monadh Liath hills.

With winter well on the way with shorter hours of daylight, colder temperatures and the first snow on the hills outdoor organisations have been giving out advice on how hillwalkers should prepare themselves for more severe conditions, as they do every year at this time. With that in mind here's a piece, slightly edited, that I wrote for The Great Outdoors over a decade ago that is still relevant.

"Snow showers, some heavy. Windspeed at 3000 feet: 35mph, gusts to 50mph. Cloud base: 2,000 feet, falling to 1,000 feet in showers. Visibility: poor in showers. Freezing level 500 feet. Temperature at 3,000 feet: -5 Celsius. Hazards: severe wind chill".

Such was the mountain forecast when I sat down to write this piece in early December over a decade ago. Those familiar with the hills in winter will be able to picture what it means - spindrift blasting across the ground as you stagger along, head down, hood up, leaning on your ice axe in the worst gusts as you try and keep your feet. The sky and ground merge into a whirling white cloud that makes navigation very difficult. Any bare skin is instantly chilled by the driving wind. Ice forms on eyebrows, hair, jacket hood. Fingers freeze quickly when you remove your thick mitts to handle maps, unzip pockets, unwrap snack bars. Stopping for more than a few minutes leaves you numb with cold. And all the time the wind roars round you, making it difficult to think.

When I know the weather is going to be like that I plan accordingly, choosing a lower route than I would in better conditions or even deciding to stay in the shelter of the woods. Often though the weather can change quickly when you are already high in the hills and you end up finishing your walk in a blizzard. Mostly this is no more than cold and unpleasant. Sometimes it can be exhilarating and strangely exciting despite the discomfort. What happens though if something goes wrong? You get lost, someone is injured or becomes exhausted, the walk takes longer than expected due to the weather and the sun sets with you still far from safety.

Surviving a night out or a long delay in winter depends  to a great extent on the equipment you are carrying. The ability to use that equipment properly is of course important but you have to have the equipment in the first place. Winter hillwalkers mostly all carry ice axes and crampons, extra warm clothing, hat and gloves, torch, plastic survival bag and food and drink in winter. Here I am going to look at items not so often carried that can make a big difference if you get stuck out and which can help ensure you don't do so in the first place.


A group shelter in use during a storm in the Norwegian mountains
A standard plastic survival bag may get you through a summer's night in no more than damp and chilly discomfort. On long, cold winter nights though condensation will freeze inside, snow will blow in the opening and you won't feel very warm. Far better is a waterproof/breathable bivi bag that can be closed up to keep warmth in and snow out. A basic design is best, with a weight in the 200-400 gram range. Insect netting, complicated openings and small hoops all add unnecessary weight and bulk unless you intend to use the bivi bag for nights out in summer. Bivi bags aren't just for overnights though. You can sit in one at rest stops if it's very cold.

Much better for this though is a group shelter or bothy bag, basically a large nylon bag that will shelter from 2 to 10 people depending on the size. The warmth and security provided by one of these in a blizzard is quite amazing. Inside you can sit up, eat, drink, change clothes and talk to each other. If someone is tired or hungry using a shelter can ensure that no one gets cold while they rest and eat. In winter I wouldn't be without a shelter. I even carry a 2-person one on solo walks, using my rucksack or trekking poles to prop up the end away from me.

Good though group shelters are when the snow is deep you can make a much quieter, more comfortable and warmer shelter with a snow shovel. I am amazed that more winter hillwalkers don't carry one. Being able to dig a snow hole has saved lives. Apart from a snow hole a shovel can be used to build a snow wall or dig out seats in a snow bank to protect you from the wind at rest stops. Also, if an avalanche occurs a shovel is essential for digging for victims. I never go out when there's much snow on the hills without a shovel.


Heads down into the storm

A shelter and a snow shovel are the two main items I think add greatly to safety on the winter hills. There are other bits of gear that are essential though.

Firstly, snow and frozen ground are cold to sit or lie on. A small closed cell foam mat can make all the difference. Rather than the tiny sit mat I carry at other times of the year I take one half the size of a full mat in winter. If your rucksack has a padded back you can sit on that of course.

Most walkers remember a torch or headlamp in winter. How many carry spare batteries though, or a back-up lamp? Winter nights are long. If you have to walk far without spares your light may fail, as I found out on a dark, wet night on Kinder Scout many, many years ago. I've never forgotten spare batteries since. It's wise to check your companions have them too though. I once had a difficult walk out through a dense forest as the battery in my companion's headlamp had failed and he had no spare (and mine was the wrong type for his headlamp of course). On another occasion when my companion turned out not to have a torch at all we had to spend an unintended night out in a bothy when it became too risky to continue over icy terrain with just one light.

Freezing conditions
Carrying a spare fleece or softshell top is normal in winter. This may be enough to keep you warm during short stops but probably won't be if you're stuck for hours or even all night. A down or synthetic filled garment can make all the difference here and I always carry one in winter along with long johns and dry socks for my legs and feet.

A hat and mittens are essential in winter. But these items are easily whipped away by the wind. I've seen it happen many times. The only time I've lost a hat to the wind, many years ago on Helvellyn, my head and especially my ears quickly felt so cold even with my jacket hood up that I had to go down. Since then I've always carried a spare hat in winter. I learnt the same lesson for my hands a few years later when a mitten, taken off so I could check the map, slipped from under my arm and soared away into the sky. With no spares my hand was soon very cold and again I had to descend. Now I carry spare mitts or gloves and have loops attached to them so they can dangle from my wrists when not being worn. If you don't have spares and you lose a mitt or your mitts aren't warm enough spare socks can be worn on your hands. I've done this a number of times and it's very effective.


Finally, a thought on how to travel over snow. It is now over three decades since I first strapped on a pair of snowshoes and discovered how easy it is to walk on snow rather than wade through it. Since then I've preferred Nordic skis to snowshoes though recently I've been trying the latter again.

Plodding through deep snow, postholing as it's called in North America, is slow and exhausting. It can be dangerous too. People have died because the effort of walking out through deep snow was too much for them. With snowshoes or skis you can travel much faster with much less effort, floating on the snow rather than sinking into it.

The big advantage of snowshoes for walkers is that you
can learn how to use them very quickly. Lessons aren't
needed. They're also much less expensive than skis and
can be used with ordinary walking boots. And they are much easier to carry on a pack than skis. Also, in deep soft snow snowshoes are better than skis as they don't sink in so far and are easier to manoeuvre.

With snowshoes you can walk at normal speed rather than be slowed down by deep snow. With skis though you can speed along, much faster than walking pace, in all but the deepest, heaviest snow. In bad winter weather speed can be a safety factor so both snowshoes and skis are preferable to being on foot.

I find skis far more fun and efficient than snowshoes but you do need to spend time learning how to use them, preferably on a course.

Monday, 20 October 2014

A Few Days in Dunkeld

View across the River Tay to the Atholl Arms and Dunkeld

Whilst a tent in the wilds is my favourite form of accommodation on outdoor trips that’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the comforts of a hotel now and again. Indeed I usually  have a few nights in hotels or B&Bs during long walks as these give the opportunity to dry and sort gear, communicate with the outside world, eat something other than dried food and, hopefully, drink some decent beer. Mostly though when I stay in hotels or B&Bs it’s when I’m attending trade shows, mountain festivals or other events. Usually there’s little time to actually spend in the hotel which is just somewhere to sleep and have breakfast. Recently though I was offered the opportunity to have a couple of nights with my partner Denise in the Atholl Arms in Dunkeld in order to write about the hotel and the outdoor opportunities in the area. There were no strings attached other than that I’d write about the trip and it would allow more time to relax in the hotel and enjoy being there.

Dunkeld Bridge

Dunkeld is in the heart of Perthshire’s Big Tree Country and whilst the area is lovely year round October is a particularly good time to visit due to the autumn colours. The Atholl Arms is a big old hotel, built in 1833, situated right by the River Tay and the magnificent Dunkeld Bridge, designed by Thomas Telford in 1808. We were privileged to stay in the huge Victoria Suite, which has a marble fireplace and impressive ceiling mouldings. I think this is the biggest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – the only one I can think of that compares in size was in the very modern Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City in Utah, where I stayed many years ago when attending a big outdoor trade show there. The Victoria Suite was very comfortable and even provided some exercise it was so far from one side to the other! Of course the other rooms – there are seventeen in total – aren’t as big but are, hopefully, as comfortable.

The Atholl Arms has a restaurant – the Riverview – and a bar – the Inn@Atholl. We ate in the restaurant both evenings and the food was excellent. I’m vegetarian and my partner is vegan and there were suitable dishes for both of us. The menu isn’t large but the quality is high. I also had a good pint of beer in the bar – a real ale called Head East from the local StrathBraan Brewery. There were two other real ales on tap that I didn’t try. Overall as a place to eat and drink the Atholl Arms is fine. Whilst in Dunkeld we also had lunch and snacks in various cafes and enjoyed them all. 

Loch of the Lowes

The real glory of Dunkeld is in the situation though, in the midst of glorious wooded hills beside the River Tay. There are big hills not far away, most notably Schiehallion, but on this occasion I wanted to see what the walking was like in the immediate environs of the town. The first morning dawned overcast but dry and we set out through the woods to the Loch of theLowes, a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve. The walk to the loch and back on roads, tracks and footpaths through mixed woodland was pleasant and the loch itself splendid. The ospreys that nest here in spring and summer were long gone but we were able to watch big flocks of goldeneye ducks, a Canada goose and a pair of great-crested grebes from the SWT’s observation hides.

The summit of Birnam Hill

In the afternoon while Denise explored Dunkeld I set off up Birnam Hill, which lies across the river opposite the town. Although only 365 metres high Birnam is a rugged, craggy little hill and the hike over it feels like a real hill walk even though most is in in woodland. The mix of trees on the ascent is delightful with some big Douglas firs low down and colourful larch around the summit. Birnam Hill lies right on the edge of the Highlands. Looking south and east the land falls away to the Lowlands, a view seen well from Stair Bridge on the southern slopes of the hill. From the huge summit cairn you can look north and west to bigger hills, with Schiehallion prominent behind a long string of wind turbines. I descended via the steep north slopes of the hill, pausing at a rocky outcrop for an excellent view over the Tay to  Birnam and Dunkeld and Loch of the Lowes.

View over Birnam and Dunkeld from Birnam Hill

The River Tay

Sunshine made the trees glow the next morning and we delighted in the vivid colours as we ambled along the river bank to DunkeldCathedral, now half-ruin, half parish church. The larger roofless part of the cathedral was undergoing safety work so we could only peer inside. We were able to go inside the square tower, which has an impressive vaulted ceiling. In the non-ruined section there is an interesting museum and display with much about the area as well as the cathedral. There’s also the tomb of the Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, notorious for burning down the towns of Forres and Elgin in 1390. This is a magnificent edifice with Stewart carved as a knight in full armour. 

The River Tay and Dunkeld Bridge

Denise having caught the train north to Aviemore (Dunkeld and Birnam Railway Station lies on the Perth to Inverness line, making Dunkeld easily accessible by train) I had one last walk beside the river as I wanted to see the famous Birnam Oak, a gigantic tree with massive boughs supported by props that is reckoned to be the last survivor of the Birnam Wood in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (though probably not from the time of Macbeth himself). There are other fine big trees in the wood here, their old gnarled appearance reminding me of the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (annoyed and disappointed by Shakespeare not really having a wood move, which he thought a marvellous idea, Tolkien has the Huorns of  Fangorn Forest coming to the relief of Helm’s Deep) though it was hard to imagine them going anywhere. 

The Birnam Oak

The visit over I headed back north to Strathspey. The softer landscape around Dunkeld had been a pleasant change from the Cairngorms and one to which I will return.