Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Return to the Cairngorms

Morning at the camp below the Shelter Stone Crag

For the first few weeks after my return from my long walk in the Colorado Rockies I was content to wander round the fields and woods around my home. I also had much to do catching up with work stuff. Soon though I started to think about a camping trip to wilder places. The itch to do so soon returns.

Mark on the descent to Loch Avon

When Mark, a friend from down south, came to visit I suggested a day or two in the Cairngorms. I'd been missing them. On discovering that despite many visits over many years he'd never camped in the Loch Avon basin that was the obvious place to go. A late start start saw us descending Coire Raibert at dusk. The steep path down to Loch Avon was slippery and wet, with much fresh erosion. It felt harder and more precarious than when I'd descended it in snow and ice in March and we were glad to reach the lochside before it was totally dark.

Morning view
By the time we'd made our way along Loch Avon, forded several streams, and evaded flooded ground it was dark and starting to rain. I can't remember ever seeing it this wet here. We found a less saturated piece of ground and were soon making hot drinks in our tents. There was no wind and the rain fell steadily for hours. It was the night of the full moon but it was invisible through the dense low clouds. By dawn my tent was soaked inside and out, with condensation dripping from the flysheet. But the rain had stopped and the clouds were clearing from the summits.

Loch Avon

Packing our wet tents we set off up to Loch Etchachan and the path to Ben Macdui. More blue sky appeared and the rain was soon forgotten. Soon we were looking across Loch Etchachan to Cairn Gorm, the always splendid view enhanced by the delicate patterns of thinning clouds.

Loch Etchachan & Cairn Gorm

The clouds rose as we climbed and soon the summit of Macdui appeared. Distant views were still cloudy but the top was clear. Much of the cloud was below us, drifting round lower summits and along the glens.

Mark on the summit of Ben Macdui

The walk back across the Cairngorm Plateau was a delight. Only a slight chill in the still air and the red and brown colouring of the grasses showed it was no longer summer. We passed shining Lochan Buidhe, crossed the slopes of Cairn Lochan and Stob Coire an-t Sneachda then descended back to Coire Cas. Rain and sunshine. A not untypical twenty-four hours in the Cairngorms. It was good to be back.

Lochan Buidhe

Friday, 18 October 2019

The Great Outdoors November issue

In the latest issue of The Great Outdoors I review ten lightweight insulated jackets, three very different water filters, and the lovely but expensive Klattermusen Loride 2.0 jacket.

This issue features even more stunning photography than usual, starting with the cover, which shows the editor on Suilven in amazing light. Then just inside there's a beautiful double-page photo of a cloud inversion over the Ullswater Valley by Terry Abraham.

Suilven appears again in a splendid dawn picture of the Assynt hills taken from Stac Pollaidh by James Roddie, the opening spread of a photo essay showing the extraordinary landscapes of the area both above and under ground.

A dramatic starry sky is the opening for a feature on Bardsey Island by Helen Isles. The equally dramatic Torres del Paine begin a piece on trekking in Chilean Patagonia by Phoebe Smith.

Also in this issue, Sarah Stirling talks to mountain rescue teams in Scotland, Wales and the Lake District about accident blackspots in the mountains; Roger Smith considers the new report on England's protected landscapes; Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden look at how we use and should use paths; Jim Perrin praises Black Hill in the Pennines; and Carey Davies backpacks round Kinder Scout.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

OWPG Award for Along the Divide - the Certificate

The certificate for the Award for Along the Divide arrived today. I'm pleased all over again! Especially as the judges noted that "The Outdoor Book was particularly strongly contested this year".

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Food & Resupply in the Colorado Rockies

A key to planning on a long walk is knowing where you can resupply with food and other items. How many places are there? Will you have to leave the route to reach them? How many days food needs to be carried between supply points? How much are you prepared to carry?

On my recent month-long Colorado Rockies walk there were several options for resupply but all bar one were quite a distance from the trail, necessitating hitch-hiking or long road walks. However, thanks to the support of Andrew Terrill I only had to leave the mountains once. Andrew invited me to stay with him for a couple of nights while I finalised planned and took me round grocery and outdoor stores in his home town Golden so I could buy supplies. He also generously offered to bring supplies for me half way through a long section so I didn't need to leave the trail or carry a really heavy load. This made a huge difference to my planning.

Sorting supplies at Andrew's.

In Golden I bought twelve days supplies, leaving half for Andrew to bring in twelve days time.

After the first six days walking I arrived in the tiny hamlet of Twin Lakes (population 23), where I had a day off. Here I bought food for the next section at the hiker friendly General Store.

Twin Lakes supplies

As always at a town stop I ate plenty of fresh food, dinners (and beer) at the Twin Lakes Inn and snacks at two roadside takeaways. I stayed at the Twin Lakes Roadhouse Lodge, which provided excellent muffins for breakfast.

Civilised dining in the Twin Lakes Inn - veggieburger and beer.

Six days after leaving Twin Lakes I arrived at the little pool just below the Continental Divide that Andrew had picked as looking a good camp spot. It was. It was superb. Andrew was already there and welcomed me with a can of ginger beer that had been cooling in the water. After a hot tough sweaty climb this was very welcome.

Andrew cooking dinner

I'd been expecting to be on dried rations for another six days. Andrew had other ideas. He'd brought up the ingredients for a delicious fresh meal - salad followed by butternut squash pasta with a fresh veg and soya pieces sauce. It was the best meal of the trip.


It was then back on dried food until I reached my second town stop. This was the old mining town of Creede, where I'd enjoyed staying on my Continental Divide Trail hike in 1985. It didn't seemed to have changed much. Creede was ten miles from the trail and a long way down. I walked about half of that before someone gave me a lift.


I stayed in the same motel, the Snowshoe, which provided a good breakfast. Whether I ate in the same restaurants and cafes during the day I don't know, but they were excellent back then and excellent now. I did buy stove fuel and some backpacking food in San Juan Sports, as I'd done on my first visit. The rest of my supplies came from a couple of grocery stores.

Nine days supplies

In Creede I had to make a decision. I reckoned I was nine days from the end of the walk. Did I want to carry that much food? There was one road crossing where I could hitch-hike to another town about half way. Staying in the mountains was appealing though. I decided to carry all the food. Heaving my heavy pack on my back after a ride to the trailhead I wondered if that was wise. It was too late to change my mind. Thunderstorms would distract me from the weight the next few days. And when I reached Wolf Creek Pass at the end of the walk with no food left and after a minimal breakfast I wondered why I hadn't carried more. Happily Igloo Ed was there to meet me - it's good having friends like this - and I was soon having a veggie burger down in South Fork.

Monday, 7 October 2019

State of Nature 2019 report - sadly, not a surprise

Glen Feshie, part of the Cairngorms Connect area

The latest State of Nature  makes depressing but unsurprising reading. The overall conclusion, that the UK's biodiversity is declining, is not a shock to anyone interested in the natural world and conservation. A series of impressive reports and infographics packed with worrying detail shows just how serious the situation is. I plucked these figures out of the Scotland infographic - the populations of 48% of species have decreased in the last ten years, only 33% have increased, and 11% are threatened with extinction.

Why is this happening? The reports say the biggest single impact comes from increasing agricultural intensification and that climate change is having an increasing effect. After those hydrological changes (such as draining wetlands, straightening rivers), urbanisation, pollution, invasive species, and woodland management all play a part.

At the same time public support for conservation is growing - time given by volunteers has increased 46% since 2000 and the financial value of their time is estimated at £20.5 million per year. But in the last ten years public expenditure as a proportion of GDP has fallen 42%. So there's a mismatch between the public and the governments.

The report raises questions about the effectiveness of conservation bodies. These have higher membership numbers than ever before yet the State of Nature report shows they are not being effective. Yes, the report lists many successful and encouraging projects but clearly in recent years these have not been enough.

Two books I've read in recent years give some of the answers. Mark Cocker's Our Place: Can We Save Britain's Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? details the history of the conservation movement and shows why it has only had piecemeal success, finishing with some suggestions as to the way forward. George Monbiot's Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding is a little more fierce in criticising conservation bodies - I wrote about the book here.

One of the problems, I think, has been protecting small areas, leaving them as islands in the middle of devastated land. Instead landscape wide rewilding is needed, with a long term vision. This is starting to happen in the Scottish Highlands. In my own area there is Cairngorms Connect, whose ambitious and inspiring vision is "for habitat restoration ... unparalleled in its scope, scale and timeframe, in the UK. Our milestones over the next 200 years chart our plans to restore native woodlands to their natural limits, including high-altitude montane woodland; to restore peatlands, wetlands and rivers and to build support and understanding locally, nationally and internationally." Trees for Life has a similar vision - "a revitalised wild forest in the Highlands of Scotland, providing space for wildlife to flourish and communities to thrive."
Over the years I've written many posts on conservation and rewilding - links to them all here.  I also listed conservation bodies I think worth supporting in this post. I am still optimistic that the deterioration of nature can be stopped, but it won't be easy.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

OWPG Award for Along the Divide: Updated with judges comments

My book Along the Divide has just won the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild Award for Excellence: Outdoor Book. I'm very pleased!
The judges commented: “Chris Townsend's relatively slim volume on walking the Watershed of Scotland edged ahead by combining some beautifully crafted prose with personal insights and amusing detail. In the end his dogged pursuit of a seemingly arbitrary line revealed some very well-explained concepts of what wildness means in a modern Scottish concept. A wonderful book from an author who immerses himself in the landscape without feeling the need to "list tick" or beat any personal or other record”

Friday, 4 October 2019

Thunderstorms in the Colorado Rockies

A storm approaching the Rio Grande Pyramid

Thunderstorms are scary. At least they scare me when out in the open. I knew that in summer they occur regularly almost every afternoon in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and that it’s wise to be over any high places by noon. As the number of storms tails off as autumn approaches I hoped that by starting in mid-August I wouldn’t encounter too many of them. And initially it seemed as though they wouldn’t be a problem at all. Apart from a few distant rumbles of thunder and some dark clouds on the second day for nearly three weeks there was no sign of any storms. September came and I thought the threat was over. In fact, it hadn’t begun.

To leave the trees or not?

I was crossing open ground below San Luis Peak, a fourteen-thousand-foot peak I was considering climbing, when dark clouds rushed in and I heard the first rumbles of thunder. Thoughts of an ascent vanished and, as I wrote in my journal, ‘I scuttled over the high points pretty quick.’ There was thunder the next day too, and the one after that. In fact, it was stormy for eight of the next nine days and the thunder didn’t just occur in the afternoons and clear quickly. I had one storm at 8 a.m., just as I was setting out, and one at 6 p.m. as I was looking for a camp site. Others happened anytime during the day. 

Twice lightning flashed in front of me with thunder crashing barely a second later. Once when I was about to leave the forest for a high pass. I stayed in the trees until the thunder was fading into the distance. The second occasion was really frightening. The day was already stormy with a strong wind and rain and cloud down on the summits. As I climbed the rain turned to stinging hail.  I was following a narrow trail winding its way up a steep rocky ridge and was enveloped in the mist when a flash of lightning shot across the slope in front of me and deafening thunder cracked overhead. Without pausing to think I turned and ran back down to where the ridge broadened and I could drop down the side to  a shallow bowl, which probably offered little protection, but which felt safer than being on the ridge itself. I moved away from my trekking poles and sat on my pack. A flock of ptarmigan fluttered away. I could have been at home in the Cairngorms. After maybe half an hour the storm had moved away and I set off again, crunching nervously through the hail.

After the storm

Other thunderstorms stayed further away but were still unnerving, especially on the three-and-a-half-mile crossing of the vast plateau called Snow Mesa where there’s no shelter other than a few willow bushes in some shallow stream beds. I did sit in one of these for a while when the thunder seemed too close for comfort.

On Snow Mesa

During these days there was rain too, sometimes many hours of it, and my waterproofs, dead weight for nearly three weeks, were now essential. Much of the route is above the trees here and even when there was no thunder the rain and clouds made me feel edgy, constantly watching for lightning and looking for possible places to shelter. I walked fast too, partly to keep warm in the wind and rain, but also because the mountains no longer felt safe.

The nervous tension, the fear, the cold and the rain brought rewards though. The light was often startling and magnificent as the clouds towered up, lit by the sun. Several times I saw impressive mammatus clouds, very distinctive and spectacular but usually found with unstable cumulonimbus clouds, bringing thunder and lightning, strong winds, and hail. Seeing these clouds when far from any shelter really made me feel small, a tiny vulnerable dot in a vast mountainscape. 

Mammatus clouds