Tuesday, 14 July 2020

In The Beginning: First Long-Distance Walk & First Cairngorms Backpacking Trip

Camp below Rakes Rocks, Pennine Way, April 7, 1976

Going through more of my boxes of old photos I found an album with photos from my first backpacking trips in the 1970s. I'd forgotten I had this. The photos were taken on a Kodak Instamatic, a basic point-and-shoot camera. I wasn't a serious photographer back then and knew nothing about cameras or photography. I took snaps as momentos. I'm glad I did.

Having undertaken a number of one and two night backpacking trips and enjoyed them I was keen to try a longer one. I settled on the Pennine Way and the month of April because I was a student and most of the month was in the Easter holidays (we didn't have vacations back then, just holidays!).

On the train to Edale before the walk started I wrote in my journal: "Anticlimax and anticipation. The doubts. Is the pack too heavy? Can I do it in 15 days? Am I healthy enough? Most important, can I mentally cope? Well, there's only one way to find out".

Camp by Top Withens, Pennine Way, April 9, 1976

Fifteen days I arrived in Kirk Yetholm and wrote "This is definitely the way to live! I'm glad I did it. I expect I'll do it again and lots of different walks -Everest Base Camp, Land's End to John O'Groats, Appalachian Trail, Munros - what a future. I know now I can handle 2 weeks backpacking solitary. This is not really the end, this is just the beginning ... "  

It would be two years before my next big walk - Land's End to John O'Groats - but the next year I made a shorter backpacking trip with some friends that would be as influential as the Pennine Way as it was to the Cairngorms, a place I fell for immediately and which has been my home for the last thirty years.

In the Lairig Ghru, July 14, 1977

I had no car or much money so I hitch-hiked to Aviemore from Manchester, where I was living. That took a day and a half and I spent a damp, misty night in a plastic survival bag somewhere outside Perth. Then it was into the hills for a week.

Outside Corrour Bothy with my friend Alain
We went through the Lairig Ghru, up to Loch Etchachan, down to the Shelter Stone, into Gleann Einich, and climbed Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui, Braeraich and Cairn Toul. The last two were on "one of the wettest days on the hill for ages .... went up Braeriach, wandered about in the storm getting slightly lost but eventually finding Cairn Toul from where I took a compass bearing onto the Loch Einich path and walked directly at it - & came out only 100 yards away". All those place were new then. They're very familiar now, visited every year, often many times. The magic has never gone though. I'm still as enthralled by them.

Looking over Loch Etchachan, July 15, 1977

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Lakes, Rivers & Forest. Stage 3 of my Yukon walk, July 2 - July 12, 1990 .

Pilot Peak

After two days in Whitehorse I set off on one of the longest single stretches without resupply on my Yukon walk, eleven days to the little settlement of Carmacks. The route took me across a land of lakes and rivers and forest. There were mountains but they lay away to the east and west of my route, which went northwards, roughly, across the undulating Yukon Plateau.

There were old abandoned trails in places, in others I bushwhacked, sometimes with great difficulty. Whilst some trails were marked on my maps many weren't and I often had to guess which was the best one to take. There were campsites too, sometimes recently used and sadly strewn with garbage, but I met no-one. I had rivers to ford, sluggish and dark and often thigh-deep, and swanps to wade.

The weather was mixed with heavy rain and hail at times and often a cool breeze. Despite often being in trees there was a great feeling of space. This wilderness was vast. I was well into the walk now and feeling a sense of completeness. This is where I wanted to be. This is what I wanted to be doing.

Campsites were pleasant rather than spectacular. Their joy came from being here. I had brought a tarp as a cooking shelter, the presence of bears meaning it was unwise to cook in or near my tent - I saw fresh grizzly tracks and, once, fresh bear droppings close to camp. Where there were used fire pits I cooked over wood, saving my stove fuel. One of my most memorably camps was in dense black spruce forest on a wet night. I lit a fire in front of the tarp and sat gazing at the flames, relaxed and content.

Despite the often tough terrain, the uncertainty about a route, and the initial heavy load the many rivers and lakes gave a soothing feel to the walk, a gentleness not there in big mountains. This was placid country. There was much wildlife too and I saw beavers, red fox, bald eagles, golden eagles, common loons, goldeneye, red-winged blackbirds, and gray jays. One night I heard wolves howling, a wonderful wild sound. This really was wilderness.

I reached Carmacks on July 12 , checked into the one hotel and had my first proper wash in eleven days. Then it was a day of chores - laundry, mail, resupplying, and, crucially, finding information on the next section which would take me to the abandoned settlement of Fort Selkirk, where I would meet the Youcon Kat river boat with my supplies, and then on through the Kondike to Dawson City.

Previous reports as I relive this trip here and here

I wrote a book about the walk. It’s long out of print but I expect there are second-hand copies around.
Photographic Note: I carried two SLRs, the Nikon F801 and FM2, plus Nikkor 35-70 zoom, Nikkor 24mm and Sigma 70-210 lenses, and a Cullman tripod. Films were Fujichrome 50 and 100 slide ones. The total weight with padded cases was 4kg. To digitise the slides I photographed them on a lightbox with my Sony a6000 with a Sony E 30mm macro lens.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Sometimes the woods .....

I was almost in Aviemore when I heard the word 'thunder' on the radio. I was planning on a walk high in the Cairngorms, up on those bare, open, exposed slopes. But the forecast seemed to have changed. I stopped and checked . Rain and maybe thunder. Suddenly a walk in the woods seemed very attractive. I've had enough close calls with lightning, most recently in the Colorado Rockies last year, not to want any more.

Plan changed I went to Loch an Eilein. As I set off round the loch the hills were fading into thickening clouds. Spots of rain fell. By the time I was opposite the ruined castle on its little island the dark sky was dramatic and ominous.

The forest though was lovely, midsummer rich and verdant. I took the narrow path round reedy Loch Gamhna, soaking my trousers as I pushed through the vegetation.

Halfway round this second loch the rain started, dappling the water. The shelter of the trees gave some protection. It wasn't cold anyway and the dampness on my head was refreshing. The air felt alive, sharp and invigorating.

Up in the hills, on a long walk, or if camping out I would probably have pulled on waterproofs, not wanting my other clothes to get wet, but I was only out for a few hours. A little rain wouldn't hurt.

By the time I was completing the circuit of the two lochs it was more than a little rain. There were big puddles on the road back to Aviemore. I stopped to buy food and sat in the supermarket car park wondering whether to put my waterproof on for the dash across the open space to the door. I didn't bother and got wetter than I had in the woods.

I never heard any thunder. I didn't mind. The woods and the rain and the dramatic clouds were enough. If I'd gone up high I'd have had that word 'thunder' at the back of my mind, hurrying me on, keeping me on edge. The woods were a better choice.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Gear I Used On My Long Walk In The Colorado Rockies

Last year I spent 29 days walking around 400 miles (644km) through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado on the Continental Divide and Colorado Trails. Most of the time I was above 10,000 feet (3048 metres). I camped on 25 nights, of which 18 were above 11,000 feet (3353 metres), the highest 12,460 feet (37987 metres). I was usually at or above timberline so many camps were exposed. For the first two weeks the weather was dry and mostly warm and sunny though there was sometimes a cool wind. Nights were chilly though, with overnight lows mostly between 0 and 5°C.  The second half of the walk was stormier and cooler with thunderstorms, heavy rain and hail. Nights were a little colder too, with sub-zero temperatures on three.

As on any long walk my gear needed to be durable and light while being able to cope with hot days, stormy weather, and chilly nights. My selection was a mix of tried and trusted items and new ones I felt would prove reliable. Here’s how they performed.



Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60L /£165/1200g/ www.sierradesigns.com  /****1/2

I’d used this pack on several one- and two-night trips and reckoned it would be fine for the Rockies. At 1.2kg it’s lightweight rather than ultralight and designed to handle 20kg loads. It has a rigid curved internal frame that creates an air gap between your back and the pack. In hot weather this really did reduce perspiration. There are six small external pockets and a flat lid that zips open, with no drawcords or internal sleeves. Organising gear so I had access to often needed items was easy. Straps can reduce the volume from the maximum 60 litres to 40 litres. I never needed to do this; I just didn’t compress items so much when it wasn’t full. With 6 days food inside the pack carried well. Nine days food , which meant a total weight of around 25kg, was pushing it a bit as the hipbelt tended to slip. With that much food I had to strap my shelter on the outside – one disadvantage of the zipped lid is that it can’t be raised. Overall though the pack performed well and proved durable with little sign of wear at the end of the walk.


Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar/US$230/482g/ www.mountainlaureldesigns.com /*****
Oookworks Trailstar Nest/380g/no longer available/**** 16 pegs 143g

The Trailstar has been a favourite shelter for many years and the veteran of three previous long-distance walks plus several TGO Challenges. Easy to pitch with trekking poles and with a vast amount of room it always feels like home. After hundreds of nights use it’s as wind and waterproof as ever, withstanding some torrential rain and gusty thunderstorms. 

I took the Nest rather than just a groundsheet because there were likely to be mosquitoes for the first week or so. It too was a veteran of several long works and is still in good condition. After ten days there were no more mosquitoes and I sometimes used it just as a groundsheet, mostly I still pitched it though but left the doors open. 

Sleeping Bags & Mats

PHD M.Degree° 100 K Sleeping Bag/£371/245g/ www.phdesigns.co.uk /*****
PHD Filler Bag/£317/240g/ www.phdesigns.co.uk /*****

Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Uberlite Regular/£185/245g/ www.thermarest.com /***

 Therm-A-Rest Ultralite ¾ /482g/ no longer available *****

OMM DuoMat/£22/135g/ www.theomm.com /****

Expecting a wide variation in overnight temperatures I decided to use PHD’s Sleep System, as I had on my two previous long-distance walks, except that this time I took an even lighter outer bag, the M.Degree° 100, rated to 10°C.  Combined with the Filler K inner bag, rated to 15°C, I though this would keep me warm to -5°C and on colder nights I’d wear the PHD down smock, trousers and socks I was carrying as well. In fact, overnight temperatures only varied from -1.2°C to 9°C. I alternated between the Filler bag and the clothing, mostly based on what I was wearing in the evening. If I had the down clothing on I kept it on. The M.Degree bag is a simple mummy bag. I found it comfortable and the very low weight and packed size were welcome. 

My sleep mat when I set out was the ultralight NeoAir Uberlite. I found this airbed very comfortable as long as I didn’t inflate it hard, as then I tended to roll off. However, after thirteen days it deflated in the middle of the night due to a split in the top surface of one of the tubes. Given that only my sleeping bag was on the mat I can’t work out how this happened. Maybe there was already a weakness or the start of a tear (it has gone back to Cascade Designs for examination). Trying to sleep on the flat mat (just two thin bits of nylon), the thin foam DuoMat and clothes wasn’t successful.

Luckily that was the one-night Andrew Terrill joined me, bringing up my supplies for the next week, and I was able to borrow his old Therm-A-Rest UltraLite self-inflating mat. This was a model I’d used on long walks back in the 1980s and dated from a time before cored foam and curved mats. It was nearly twice the weight and bulk of the Uberlite but just as comfortable. It was only three-quarters  length, but I’d also brought an OMM DuoMat for use as a sit mat and its thin closed cell foam was fine under my feet and lower legs. 


Pacerpoles Dual Lock/£107/570g/ www.pacerpole.com   *****

Constant companions on long walks for many years I regard Pacerpoles as indispensable. I used them every day when walking and every night for holding up the Trailstar. Tough, reliable, comfortable.



MSR Pocket Rocket 2/£35/75g/ www.msrgear.com   *****

For many years I’ve used the Trail Designs Ti-Tri alcohol/wood stove on long walks. I didn’t take it this time because if there were forest fires stoves without on/off switches could be banned, as they were the previous year. Instead I took the tiny Pocket Rocket 2 canister stove. It worked really well and proved really fuel efficient, a 250g canister lasting eight or nine days. As it happened there were no forest fires.


My pots did remain the same, the Evernew 0.9 litre and MSR 0.7 litre titanium ones I’ve used on every long walk for well over twenty years. Together they weigh 220 grams.



Altra Olympus 3.5 shoes/£130/680g/ www.altrafootwear.co.uk    *****

Altra’s wide forefoot design fits me well and I’ve used its Lone Peak shoes on quite a few walks. For Colorado I thought I’d try a different model, the Olympus 3.5. These have extra thick cushioning plus a Vibram sole. I found them extremely comfortable. The cushioning feels bouncy on hard smooth surfaces like pavements. I didn’t notice this on trails. The grip was good, and the sole had a little tread left at the end of the walk. The uppers are in fine condition. The latter are mesh and the shoes were cool in the heat.


Point 6 Hiking Essential Light Mini Crew/£15.95/70g/ www.point6merinosocks.co.uk   *****

These light ankle socks were a revelation and some of the best socks I’ve ever worn on a long walk. I wore them every day and only washed them twice and they were comfortable throughout. There are a few thin areas on the outsides, but they’ll still do for more walks. They’re made from 58% merino wool, 37% nylon and 5% spandex. 


Paramo Katmai/£65/210g/ www.paramo-clothing.com    *****

I wore my  first Katmai shirt on so many long walks it fell apart. I love this design! The fabric is soft and comfortable, shifts sweat, and dries fast. The pockets are roomy. The cuffs are wide so the sleeves can easily be rolled up. An ideal hiking shirt. I wore it every day. 


Mammut Runbold Pants/£90/310g/ www.mammut.com   ****
Slazenger Woven Shorts/£7/165g/ www.slazenger.com     ****

I wore shorts most days when walking. These Slazenger ones I picked up in Fort William on the TGO Challenge the previous May when I found the weather too hot for long trousers. I didn’t expect them to last but as they were okay afterwards I took them to Colorado. They’re still fine. They’re made from soft polyester and have a mesh inner, elasticated waist with drawstring, and two hand pockets. They were very comfortable.

The Runbold Pants were mostly worn in camp for warmth. On stormy days I wore them under my waterproof trousers. They performed well.


Tilley Hiker’s Hat/£85/105g/ www.tilley.com   *****

I’ve worn a cotton Tilley Hat on every long walk for thirty years. I wouldn’t be without one. They are comfortable and tough. This latest one is made from organic cotton and has an evaporative insert in the crown. Soak it in water in hot weather and it takes even longer to dry, helping to keep you cool.


Patagonia Houdini/£90/105g/ www.eu.patagonia.com       ****

Windier weather than I expected meant that I wore this windshell quite often. Most days I found it all I needed over the Katmai shirt. The fabric is comfortable and quite breathable, and it is very light. A larger pocket would have been good, along with cuffs that aren’t elasticised so the sleeves could easily be rolled up, but overall it served its function.


Alpkit  Gravitas jacket/£160/165g   www.alpkit.com    *****

Montane Minimus Pants/£100/153g www.montane.co.uk    ****

I took ultralight waterproofs as I knew I probably wouldn’t need them often, if at all. The big storms of the second half of the walk meant I used them more often than I’d hoped. When called on they did perform well, even though some of the storms were severe, and I never got more than slightly damp in them (from condensation). The wired hood of the Gravitas was especially good in driving hail. Both garments were comfortable. I could just get the Minimus Pants on over my shoes – slightly longer zips would be useful.


Berghaus Vapourlight Hypertherm Hoody / 224g/ no longer available  *****

I’ve taken this synthetic insulated wind-resistant ultralight jacket on my last three long-distance walks and it’s become a firm favourite. It provided just the right warmth and weather resistance on cool days and at rest stops. It’s a real shame Berghaus don’t make it any more.

PHD Wafer Ultima K Down Pullover/£337/ 200g/ www.phdesigns.co.uk /*****

PHD Wafer Down Trousers K Series/£285/151g/ www.phdesigns.co.uk /*****

This down clothing did double duty as warmwear in camp and sleepwear on cold nights. Both garments are astoundingly warm for the weight and very comfortable. I ended up sleeping in them more often than intended as I was often reluctant to take them off before going to sleep.

Navigation and Electronics

For paper navigation I had National Geographic Trails Illustrated topographic maps to the Colorado Trail and the Weminuche Wilderness (324g – though I didn’t carry all of them at once), and The Colorado Trail Databook (210g).  I took my Silva Ranger compass (34g) of course. I don’t remember ever using it.

Just as important for navigation was my Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone. On this I had mapsets and guides from the Continental Divide Trail Coalition and Guthook Guides. 

To charge my phone I had a GoalZero Nomad7Plus solar panel (380g) and GoalZero Venture30 powerpack (255g). The solar panel was clipped to the pack during the day and put out in the sun in camp. On hot clear days it charged the powerpack around 80%, enough to almost twice charge the phone. On cloudy days or ones when I was in the forest for hours it only charged the powerpack a few percent. Overall, it was just adequate. 

For sending OK messages home and in case of emergency I had an original SPOT GPS Messenger (132g). I sent a simple OK and my location home every evening so my partner knew I was fine and could see where I was.


As always, the list of accessories is long, but everything was needed. It included 2 2-litre Platypus water containers (79g), a GoLite 700ml water bottle (87g), Sawyer Mini Water Filter (47g), Smartwool Beanie (56g), Lifeventure Drybags (100g), Petzl Actik and e+Lite headlamps (119g), Leatherman Micro multi-tool (50g), notebook and Space pens in Alosak bag (175g), reading glasses and cases x 2 (195g), Lifesystems Light & Dry Pro First Aid Kit (172g), repair kit (50g), Kestrel 4500 Weather Station (102g), wash kit/medication/toilet paper (174g), Samsung Fury dark glasses and case (125g), Kindle Paperwhite e-reader (263g).

 All the photos were taken on the walk. You can read more about it and see more pictures here

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

What I've Been Reading Online No.22

Late evening view of the Cairngorms, July 1

Here's what I've found worthwhile to read online over the last few weeks.


Why We Won't Be 'Staying  In Our Lane' When It Comes To Race And The Outdoors

Jack Clayton explains why website Mpora won't "stick to action sports" when it comes to racism. 

Diversity is not a hashtag: an open letter to the outdoor community

Long distance hiker

Skin Deep | Why The Outdoors Has A Race Problem And How It Can Be Fixed

Phil Young asks "Why, given the inroads that people who look like me have made throughout British culture, is the outdoors so white?"

Diversity in birding:why it matters

Jamey Redway of the British Trust for Ornithology talks about the barrier to enjoying nature for ethnic minorities.

No Country for Brown (Wo)Men?
Travel writer, adventurer and human rights barrister Faraz Shibli looks at the sadly negative social media reaction to a Countryfile report on ethnic minorities and access to the countryside and considers what can be done.


End of an era

Outdoor magazine OE is no more. Ex-editor David Lintern describes the magazine and  his progressive approach.

How could sweeping NTS redundancies impact Scotland’s landscapes?

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which owns iconic landscapes like Glencoe, Torridon and Mar Lodge has placed 75% of its ecologists and rangers at risk of redundancy. The Great Outdoors looks at what this could mean.

One Minute Mountain: Fairfield

Alex Roddie describes 'a fell of massive presence and stature'

A Sense of Place

Merryn Glove describes her year as writer in residence in the Cairngorms National Park


Twilight, June 26

I wish I had swatted it

Environmental consultant Jonathan Wallace on anti-predator prejudice.

39 hen harriers "missing" or confirmed killed since 2018 

Rapter Persecution UK on the shocking toll of hen harriers in recent years, almost all on or near grouse moors.

The Beaver and the Bee

Conservationist Lucy Hodson on how "bringing beavers back also opens the door to a whole diverse mix of invertebrate life."

Wild Moment

Climber Peter Reynolds is inspired by the restoration of Harknott Forest

Why we need sharks: the true nature of the ocean's 'monstrous villains'

Writer, marine biologist and broadcaster Helen Scales on the real story of sharks.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Book Review: The Big Rounds by David Lintern

David Lintern's first book is an unusual guide to three hill running challenges in the Lake District, Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands, each named for the originator of the route. The best known is probably the Bob Graham Round which goes over 42 Lake District tops with a distance of 98.8km and an ascent of 8,160 metres. The first continuous run was way back in 1932. The Paddy Buckley Round goes over 47 Snowdonia tops and is 100.5km long with 8,700 metres of ascent. Although Paddy Buckley came up with the idea and prospected the route the first continuous run was by Wendy Dodds in 1982.  The Charlie Ramsey Round takes in a circuit of 24 summits around Glen Nevis and Loch Treig, including Ben Nevis. It's 92.8km long with 8,800 metres of ascent and was first run in one go in 1978.

The Big Rounds has details of the routes plus the practicalities involved, with suggestions for runners and walkers doing them over several days, but it's far more than a guidebook. There are stories of how each round came to be and fascinating interviews with many of those involved including Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsey plus Wendy Dodds, Nicky Spinks, Helene Whitaker, Jasmin Paris and more. And the book is packed with the author's mouth-watering photos.

Even in my long-gone hill running days I never attempted anything as challenging as these routes (the Lakes 4 3,000' peaks was my longest hill run). However I have done the Ramsey Round as a backpacking route. It took me four days - this was during my walk over the Munros and Tops and I was very fit. David Lintern suggests a six day itinerary, which sounds good. Reading his description of the route makes me want to go and do it again.

All three Rounds would make superb backpacking trips, whether done in single trips or a series.

The Big Rounds is inspiring and informative and a highly recommended addition for any hill lover's library.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

A Glorious Return To The Hills On Meall a'Bhuachaille

Bynack More & Cairn Gorm

The weather forecast was correct and there was an evening of clear weather between two days of rain. So on the first day back on the hills after lockdown I didn't set off until 8pm. The rain had stopped by the time I started out through the dripping woods for Ryvoan Pass. In the trees there was little wind and the midges were out so I didn't linger, pausing only for a brief look at shadowed An Lochan Uaine. I feel it would be sacrilege to pass this lovely lochan without stopping, even though I've been here many, many times.

An Lochan Uaine

The wet woods were rich and green, splendid with the life of high summer. In marshy meadows orchids and buttercups shone amongst the thick grasses.

Once out of the forest I was in the wind and there were no more midges.  The highest summits were still wrapped in clouds, only Bynack More clear. Further west the clouds were thicker and looked more turbulent, swirling around Braeriach. This was the place to be.


As I climbed into the sunset the hills began to glow gold and the sky became streaked with pink and orange. The wind strengthened and the feel of summer faded.


As the sun sank below the horizon the moon, two days off full, rose hazily into the clouds.

The moon over the north ridge of Cairn Gorm

On the summit it was cold - my thermometer read 5.7C and the wind was strong, gusting to 22mph. Straight after taking this quick phone photo I had my hood up. A brief stop in the summit shelter for a hot drink and snack and it was time to move again. If I'd been high up for longer I'd have needed more clothes. It felt so good to be there though, after all the weeks away from the hills.

The hills were darkening as I began my descent, the golden glow gone, but out to the north-west the last rays of the long gone sun were still colouring the clouds.

Quickly out of the wind I soon reached the edge of the forest for a last view of the moon over Cairn Gorm before I plunged into the trees.

Back home I had a celebratory glass of Laphroiag whisky. I could not have had a better return to the hills.