Monday 22 December 2008

Book Review: Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths

Passionate, poetic, political, enraged, sensuous, scholarly, exciting, emotional – Wild is all these and more, a complex mix of experience and learning, personal feelings and hard facts. The author’s elemental journey takes her from the Amazon to Outer Mongolia via the Arctic, the South Seas, the Australian deserts and the forests and mountains of West Papua. She spent seven years travelling and working on this book and the intensity of this slice of her life shines through the writing. This is not a book about landscape, though landscapes feature strongly, nor about wildlife, though this is there as well, but about the nature, meaning and quality of wildness in every sense of the word. Much of the book is about people who still live close to nature, the Inuit in the Arctic, Australian aborigines, the people of the Amazon and West Papua. Griffiths shows great empathy with these people and expresses great rage about what has happened and is happening to many of them when “civilisation” has found them. Sometimes the book seems a political polemic on their behalf. At others it’s a study of the relationship about people and the wild. Then it changes to the author’s powerful personal feelings, whether joyful or miserable. The most uplifting passages are the descriptions of the coral reefs of the South Seas. Here the author seems to have found her paradise as she revels in ecstasy over the profusion and beauty of the sea life. Conversely she has an awful time in the forested mountains of West Papua, admitting when her multi-day trek comes to an end that she looked with love at the vehicle that would drive her away.

Griffiths also delights in language and writes extremely well. There are poetic passages where the sheer flow of words and images conjures up the sensations and places she is describing without the words needing to have any precise meaning. At the same time this is a well-researched book and her knowledge of indigenous peoples and the history of wilderness and exploration is impressive. Combining passion and emotion with scholarliness is not something many writers could do convincingly. In this she reminds me of Edward Abbey, though with a strong feminist perspective. She shares his belief in wilderness as being far more than landscape and wildlife, as being in fact the wellspring of life, essential for sanity and health. Griffiths however is an original writer and not really to be compared with anyone else. Wild is a big book with big themes and huge depths, making it one to read and dip into again and again. There is too much here to grasp in one reading.

Thursday 18 December 2008

Favourite Gear 2008, Backpacking Light Staff Picks

A few weeks ago Backpacking asked me to choose three favourite items of gear for the annual Staff Picks article. This has just been published. It’s not a subscription article so anyone can read it here.

I chose a new favourite, an old favourite and a recent favourite. The Caldera Ti-Tri stove system is the new favourite, an improvement on the already excellent Caldera Cone that can be used as a wood stove as well as with alcohol and solid fuel. The old favourite was the Jack Wolfskin Gecko microfleece, which has been on most trips year round for the last eight years. I haven’t found a better simple and light fleece top. The recent favourite is the Inov8 Terroc. I’ve used these ultralight and comfortable trail shoes on two TGO Challenges as well as many shorter trips.

Of course I have many favourite items of gear and after choosing three for Backpacking Light I thought I’d briefly list some others here. First must come the Hilleberg Akto tent, which I’ve used for hundreds of nights over the last 14 years. I think it’s still the best solo tent for wet and windy weather – but then I can pitch it in a few minutes and I know just how it will perform. The Therm-A-Rest Prolite 3 Short has been my first choice in mats for many years but I must admit that it is likely to lose that place to the new Therm-A-Rest Neo Air Regular Mat which is more comfortable yet weighs less. A review of the Neo Air along with other new items shown at the Friedrichshafen trade show will appear in the February TGO. For sleeping bags I am torn between the Rab Quantum series – I’ve used the 200 on several TGO Challenges and the 600 on two ski tours in Yellowstone – and PHD Minim and Minimus bags. They are all excellent. When not using the Caldera Ti-Tri I like butane/propane stoves and my favourite here is the Primus Micron Ti for three season solo use. In below freezing temperatures the Coleman Fyrestorm Ti is my choice when solo, the Primus Eta Power for two or more. With packs the ones I turn to most are the GoLite Pinnacle for loads under 15 kilos and the ULA Catalyst for heavier loads. And I still have a soft spot for my old heavy load monster, the massive Dana Designs Astralplane. If I was carrying 30kgs plus again I’d still use this pack. (It’s still available from Mystery Ranch under the name G7000).

With clothes Paramo waterproofs are favourites outside of summer and I also like the Montane Litespeed windproof, Montane Terra Pants, Teko merino wool socks, Smartwool and Icebreaker merino wool tops, my old GoLite Coal Polarguard jacket and three down jackets - Rab Neutrino Endurance, Western Mountaineering Flight, PHD Minimus.

Pacer Poles have been my favourite trekking poles since I first tried them and I really like the carbon fibre ones. I also use the 2-section ones for ski touring.

My ski tours in Yellowstone have made Igloo Ed’s brilliant IceBox igloo building tool and Ed’s Wilderness Systems Expeditions Sleds favourites for snow travel.

With photography I’ve been delighted with my third and so far best DSLR, the Canon 450D, and with Canon’s two Image Stabilisation lenses, the 18-55 and 55-250, which really do make hand holding at low speeds practical. I’m also very pleased with the Sigma DP1, the only compact that takes images comparable with a DSLR. My review of the DP1 will appear on Backpacking Light next month along with a series of photo essays.

Photo info: The Caldera Ti-Tri in use on a cold damp December morning in Glen Tromie in the Scottish Highlands (see post for Dec 15). Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, f5.6@1/20, ISO 800, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Monday 15 December 2008

A Wet, Cold Backpacking Weekend

Having recently written about cold, wet backpacking and spent time last week replying to comments on my Backpacking feature on that subject I suppose it was only appropriate that my latest backpacking trip should be one of the wettest of the year. It was only a short trip, an overnight with Cameron McNeish through the Gaick Pass in the western Cairngorms, but it rained steadily almost the whole time. Combined with much thawing snow this made for a trip with wetness at its heart. (Cameron has written about our trip on his site and you can read his account here).

For much of the way we plodded through several inches of wet, sloppy snow that deadened our footfall and gave no spring for the next stride, making for surprisingly hard going. The snow did give a little lightness to the otherwise dour day however. The sky was overcast with dark grey featureless clouds shrouding the summits and there was little colour anywhere. An occasional grouse crashed out of the heather at rare intervals, large herds of deer drifted across the hillsides, standing out on snow patches but hard to see against darker vegetation. At one point a golden eagle flew across the slopes, its huge wings beating slowly up and down before it caught an air current and glided out of sight. Mostly though nothing moved and it was calm and dull. Usually I walk solo and enjoy being alone but for once I was glad to have a companion and interesting conversation.

Gaick Pass lies between very steep-sided hills that crowd in around the narrowing glen whose floor is filled by a chain of three lochs. As we threaded a way through this wild defile past the half-frozen, silent and cold waters we felt we could have been in remote mountains anywhere, even the Himalayas, for the steep slopes rising either side into the clouds might have continued upwards for many thousands of feet to pointed, icy summits instead of the flat heather moorland hills we knew lay not far into the mist. The Gaick Pass is reputedly the most haunted place in Scotland with many stories of the supernatural and it was easy to see why on a shadowy dark day like this but it’s for a natural disaster that it’s remembered by hill goers. In January 1800 four men died here when the bothy they were sleeping in was destroyed by an avalanche, the site marked by a standing stone. Looking up at the hills towering above I was glad the snow was thin and patchy as we passed by.

With no danger of avalanches and no sign of the land of faery the biggest risk for us was slipping on an icy patch hidden under the snow or disguised by heather. Trekking poles were a great help in keeping our feet. We did see some strange lights as we descended after dark into Glen Tromie. They looked like the brightly lit windows of a house. Cameron, who knows the area better than me, was sure there was no house there. But there was, a brand new big house with lights blazing from every curtainless window.

Leaving the snow behind we camped in Glen Tromie near Bhran Cottage, an old barn, a pleasant enough site in such dark December weather with scattered trees round about and the rushing river nor far away. There was no wind, and had been none all day, unusual at any time of year, so the camp was calm and peaceful with just the gentle pattering of the rain on the tents and the occasional hiss of stoves and the bubbling of boiling water. The temperature had been a few degrees above freezing all day but during the evening fell to a few degrees below and the rain turned to sleet and wet snow. In the tent it was dry though, despite the condensation that quickly formed on the flysheet, and it felt wonderful to lie half encased in my warm sleeping bag propped up on one elbow with a hot drink and a good book, relaxing after what had been a tougher day than expected.

Photo info: Early morning at the Glen Tromie camp. Sigma DP1, f4.5@1/20, ISO 800, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Backpacking in Wet Cold Weather at Backpacking

Whilst British backpackers may complain about our wet and often cold weather it does have one advantage. Once you can deal with the worst British weather you can deal with wet cold weather anywhere. I learned backpacking in the hills of the English Lake District, the Pennines and the Welsh hills and quickly realised that staying comfortable in wet cold conditions was essential for both enjoyment and safety. Having lived in the Scottish hills for nearly 20 years now I’ve had plenty of time to hone my wet weather skills. During that period I’ve tested much outdoor gear too and so have been able to discover what combinations work well together, what gear works best and how to use it most effectively.

With all this in mind I wrote a piece for Backpacking on lightweight backpacking in wet cold weather. It’s only available to subscribers, who can find it here.

Photo info: Lightweight backpackers in cold damp weather in the Western Highlands. Canon EOS 350D, Tamron 11-18 lens @18mm, f5.6@1/320, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Friday 5 December 2008

Carrying Cameras

The latest edition of TGO magazine (January 2009, even though it’s early December) includes my review of a selection of camera bags (there’s lots of other good stuff including an excellent piece by Ed Douglas about the ridiculous media storm and the idiotic and disturbing statements by people you might think should know better such as the Cumbria director of public health on the recent Original Mountain Marathon). Unfortunately I could not include my favourite camera bags, which I’ve been using for over 25 years, because they are no longer made. Camera Care Systems (CCS) began making camera bags in the early 1980s and in my opinion nobody has bettered their designs. I’ve lugged their bags many thousands of miles through desert and forest and snow on long walks and they’ve always protected my cameras well. I’ve even had them bounce down a few thousand feet of ice and snow without damaging my cameras. But CCS are no more so for new bags people have to look elsewhere.

Writing about camera bags reminded me of a query that comes up regularly on outdoor and photographic forums, which is how to carry a camera when hiking. There are many options, some involving complex tangles of straps and buckles that look far to restrictive and time-consuming to me. I worked out a solution that I find comfortable when I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail many years ago and wanted two SLRs – one for colour film, one for black and white – easily accessible but protected in padded bags. After attaching the bags to my pack hipbelt and shoulder straps in various ways I discovered that it was best to keep them completely separate from the pack. I slung them bandolier style across my body on wide straps so the bags rested below my ribs and found this didn’t restrict movement and actually felt quite comfortable. I’ve carried my SLR cameras like this ever since, though on most trips I only carry one plus a compact as backup. This simple but effective carrying system can be seen in the photo, taken on the GR20 in Corsica a few years ago when I carried two SLRs again – one for digital, one for film this time. The cases are CCS ones but the method works well with other bags. I’ve recently carried LowePro, Zing, Ortlieb, Kata and Crumpler bags like this and found them comfortable.

Photo info: On the GR20 in Corsica. Canon EOS 300D, Canon EF-S 18-55 lens @22m, f5.6@1/100, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Paramo on Backpacking and Cold on Cairngorm

Backpacking Light has just published a feature of mine on Paramo waterproofs. You can find it here but you have to be a member to read it in full.

By coincidence I was out today in the Cairngorms trying the new Paramo Velez Adventure Light Smock. The day began calm, clear and sunny though the temperatures remained below zero Celsius. In the last few days fine cold powder snow had fallen and covered everything – heather, rocks, ice, old snow, bogs – which made walking arduous and slow. In places the powder snow was a foot deep but nowhere would it support my weight. Crossing the moor to the east ridge of Cairn Gorm meant plunging through deep snow-covered heather with no idea how far down each step would go and whether my foot would land on springy heather, hard rock or wet bog. Once on the ridge the walking was easier as the bogs and heather had gone and it was just the variable depth of the snow that was challenging. Across Strath Nethy Bynack More was shining in the sun. But out to the west a thin dark line of cloud was slowly advancing. By the time I reached the summit of Cairn Gorm the cloud was thickening and the sun had vanished. The wind was strengthening too and it was bitterly cold. I was wearing a fleece top under my Paramo jacket and had the hood up over my fleece hood and was just warm enough while walking. The descent was even trickier than the ascent as I came down a steeper slope and there was much ice under the snow so I was constantly slipping and skidding and hanging onto my trekking poles. I finished the walk under heavy threatening dark clouds that shrouded the summits. The weather forecast warned of heavy snowfall overnight as I drove home. For once I was glad to be off the hills.

Photo info: The outer edge of the big storm approaching the Cairngorm Weather Station on the summit of Cairn Gorm. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@23mm f5.6@1/60, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Monday 1 December 2008

A Spectacular Day in the Cairngorms

November is not a good month for bright sunny days and clear light in the Scottish Highlands. Storms are the norm, winds whip the last leaves from the trees, nights are long, daylight hours short and when the sun does appear it stays low in the sky and has no warmth or power. And the darkness lengthens as the month grows older and we head towards the depths of winter. But just sometimes the air clears, the winds drop and the mountains sparkle in unaccustomed sunlight. The penultimate day of the month was one of those days this year. After a hard frost – my thermometer recorded -7°C outside my house at 300 metres – Saturday dawned without a cloud in the sky nor a breath of wind.

Climbing up to the Cairngorm Plateau from the north I was in shade and I felt cold in the frosty air despite the effort. The ground was frozen hard and there was thick frost on the rocks. As I gained altitude patches of old refrozen crusty snow appeared edged with ripples of ice. I crested the plateau and was suddenly in dazzlingly bright sunshine that had me groping in my pack for dark glasses. The eastern and northern slopes of the hills, shaded from south-westerly winds, were white with snow and frost, the western and southern slopes dappled and streaked with brown and grey where the warm air, wind and rain of the previous week had thawed the thin covering of white. I traversed the slopes of Cairn Lochan, crunching through the deep drifts, then passed Lochan Buidhe with just one small circular hole of water amidst the ice, presumably where the spring that feeds the pool emerges from the ground. The northern slopes of Ben Macdui were icy and I stepped from granite boulder to granite boulder to avoid the slipperiness. From the summit I looked down on a gently swaying sea of cloud filling Glen Dee. Anyone under that grey clag would be thinking it a dull and dismal day. The cloud crept up the southern end of the Lairig Ghru to fade away below Bod an Deamhain. To the north Strathspey was in sunshine with clouds further north. Lochnagar, Beinn A’Ghlo, Ben Alder and Creag Meagaidh all stood out, sharp and clear. Across the Lairig Ghru massive Cairn Toul rose in shadow while Braeriach to its north caught the sun. I sat on the edge of Ben Macdui above the steep drop into the Lairig and gazed at the tremendous mountains rising out of the depths, looking bigger and more glorious than ever in this sharp light and low sun. The world felt arctic and cold, alien and inhospitable and warm and welcoming all at the same time. It was hard to imagine the blizzards that sweep these hills.

Leaving Ben Macdui to the last of the sun I crossed back over the plateau as the hills darkened and the light behind them turned pink and a deep red. Towering clouds caught the sun long after it had left the summits, pink confections soaring into the dark blue sky. The jagged rock arête of the Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda was etched black against the fading light. By the time the descent was over it was dark and the first bright planets appeared – Jupiter and Venus hanging above the south-western horizon.

Photo info: Looking across the Lairig Ghru from Ben Macdui to Braeriach. Sigma DP1, f10@1/80, ISO 50, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in Sigma Photo Pro.

Sunday 23 November 2008

Book Review: Grand Obsession, Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of the Grand Canyon by Elias Butler and Tom Myers

Continuing the Colin Fletcher theme of the last couple of posts I’ve been reading an engrossing biography of the man who provided Fletcher with most of the information for his walk the length of the Grand Canyon, mathematics professor Harvey Butchart. At the time of Fletcher’s walk in 1963 Butchart had been exploring the Grand Canyon wilderness on foot for seventeen years and, as Fletcher discovered, was the only expert in this field. When Butchart started hiking there in the late 1940s most of the Grand Canyon was little visited and unknown to walkers. In the past Native Americans, prospectors and explorers had ventured into the Canyon but routes and trails had faded and knowledge of them had been lost. Only a few rim-to-river routes were known and barely any traverses inside the Canyon. In a series of short but intense expeditions, mostly 2-4 days in length, Butchart explored the Canyon systematically, filling in gaps on the map as he covered some 12,000 miles. As well as finding ways down to the Colorado river he climbed many of the massive steep rock buttes that lie inside the Canyon. He kept detailed logs too and published short guidebooks under the title Grand Canyon Treks (now available in a single illustrated volume). All hikers and climbers in the Grand Canyon owe Butchart a huge debt for his efforts, which lie behind all subsequent guidebooks.

Everyone who has hiked in the Grand Canyon away from the maintained corridor route trails will know just how forbidding and serious, with steep cliffs, loose rocks and scree, frequent exposure, scarcity of water, heat and remoteness, it can be even though there are now detailed maps and guidebooks and often other backpackers. For Butchart it really was an exciting unexplored world replete with wonders and dangers and it became the main aim of his life to trace every possible route. A Grand Obsession indeed. In their book Butler and Myers tell the story of Butchart and how the Canyon came to be so important in his life. Canyon hikers and climbers themselves, the authors also set out to follow one of Butchart’s routes, the ascent of Wotan’s Throne (Grand Canyon features often have romantic names that fit the strange and glorious landscape). They used Butchart’s terse and minimalist description (his guidebooks are not the easiest to follow) and it takes them two attempts and gets them into some desperate situations. Interspersing their own adventure with Butchart’s and showing just how difficult hiking and climbing still is in much of the Canyon helps show just how determined, skilled and tough Butchart was.

A key part of the book is about the relationship of Fletcher and Butchart. When Fletcher announced he wanted to hike the Grand Canyon in one long walk Butchart had almost completed a traverse himself, though in a series of short walks spread over many years (Butchart didn’t think that he would like long trips, a few days at a time were enough). Butchart assisted Fletcher with his planning and then completed the last section of the traverse after Fletcher had started out, becoming the first person to do so and leaving Fletcher to become the first person to do so in one continuous walk. After his hike Fletcher and Butchart fell out, why not being clear, as Butler and Myers point out, but it does look as though Fletcher writing a successful and eloquent book about his hike was a major part of the reason, even though Butchart is praised and thanked extensively in it. Also the two men come across as very different in their writing and approach. Fletcher is romantic, expansive and able to express the beauty and wonder of nature and landscape and the joys of backpacking while Butchart is pragmatic and unemotional, describing the Canyon in terms of routes, statistics and physical challenges. Whilst both clearly wanted success Butchart often gives the impression that the achievement of doing new routes and climbs is his main impetus whilst for Fletcher it is the experience itself. Whatever the reasons for their falling out both are now part of the history of the exploration of the Grand Canyon.

Being Grand Canyon enthusiasts themselves means the authors understand just what Butchart achieved and they express this well in the book. For anyone who has hiked in the Grand Canyon (which is the most amazing place I have ever visited) this book tells the story of the pioneer who opened up the way for them. But it’s not just for Grand Canyon hikers. It’s for any outdoors lover who likes stories of adventure and exploration.

Photo info: Wild camping in the Grand Canyon. Photo info: Ricoh RDC-5000, JPEG processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Saturday 15 November 2008

Colin Fletcher: The Man Who Walked Through Time

Following my last post I thought I'd post the feature about Colin Fletcher that won the OWPG Award. This feature first appeared in TGO magazine last year.

“I stood for a while looking at the mountains and listening to the silence. Then I walked slowly out into the desert that for six hundred miles would be my world”.

The Thousand-Mile Summer

Few people in Britain have heard of Colin Fletcher, yet he is in my opinion the finest writer on backpacking and wilderness walking. Every time I read the words above a shiver runs through me as I know I am at the start of a literary adventure. Although living in California for the last half century Colin Fletcher, who died in June 2007, was British, born in Wales in 1922. Fletcher inspired thousands of American backpackers. An appreciation of his work in this country is long overdue.

Before reaching California and the start of his writing life Fletcher served in the Royal Marines in World War Two then farmed and built roads in East Africa before working as a prospector and road builder in Canada. Shortly after moving to California from Canada in 1956 he decided “that what I wanted most in life just then was to walk from one end of California to the other ….. I knew, of course, that the idea was crazy; but I felt almost sure I was going”. And go he did, within a month, on a journey that resulted in his first book, The Thousand-Mile Summer, which captures superbly the nature of wilderness walking and camping. I have to admit to a bias here as this book changed my life. I first read it nearly thirty years ago and it had a profound and inspiring effect on me. Fletcher’s descriptions of the deserts and mountains, of walking through real wilderness and camping under the stars started in me a hunger to do the same. Three years later I walked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and long distance walking had become my passion and my life.

Many people have written about long walks and backpacking but none have captured the experience so fully, intensely and personally as Colin Fletcher. He walked alone, and indeed shunned the company of others, coming across as quite a curmudgeon in some of his writing, but what he sought was “the gigantic, enveloping, including, renewing solitude of wild and silent places” (The Complete Walker). His books are mostly about nature and his thoughts and feelings rather than about groups or other people. Indeed, he says little about his private life or relationships outside of his journeys. But the reader learns much about his relationship to nature and wilderness. Here he is describing dusk in the California desert after going down to a lagoon to wash:

“I stood still, waiting for the light to go out over the mountains.

But the mountains were not yet ready. A line of golden peaks caught fire. Black canyons gouged their slopes and pierced the iridescent red with deeper hints of hell. The iridescence deepened, the hints broadened. And then – on the very threshold of revelation – the shadow reached out and quietened everything, and the world was only shades of grey.

I found myself shivering on the edge of the lagoon, still clutching a cake of soap”. From The Thousand-Mile Summer.

Colin Fletcher wasn’t bothered about distance (despite the title of his first book) or speed. His concern was with experience. Camping was just as important to him as walking and he described many camps with a loving detail that every backpacker will recognise. Perhaps the book that describes this best, along with the intensity of feeling his walking engenders, is The Man Who Walked Through Time, which describes his walk the length of the Grand Canyon, the first time this had been done. Fletcher gives a long description of his first camp on that walk, covering every detail, even down to where he places every item. Here is a sample:

“I unzippered the mummy bag part way, pushed my feet down into it, pulled the bag up loosely round my waist, and leaned back. It was very comfortable like that, with my butt cushioned on the pillow of the air mattress and my back leaning against the fully inflated main section, which in turn leaned against the now almost empty pack. I sat there for several minutes, content, relaxed, drifting – hovering on the brink of daydreams without ever achieving anything quite so active”.

Doesn’t that just make you want to be out in the wilds sitting there almost daydreaming?

Fletcher’s best known book (an ongoing success in the USA) is The Complete Walker, now in its fourth edition (though with a co-writer- I recommend one of the earlier editions for the full Fletcher approach and the pleasure of his delightful prose). Subtitled “the joys and techniques of hiking and backpacking” this is the most detailed and the most readable guide imaginable. Fletcher covers everything entertainingly and in places with humour. It’s a very personal book, describing what he does and what he uses, with the idea that others can learn from this. Some of his approach that has been described as idiosyncratic – such as preferring tarps to tents and using a staff – is actually in tune with current trends; however his hatred of trail guides is definitely unusual. The detailed descriptions of equipment are often out of date but this doesn’t matter: they are only examples anyway and it’s the overall approach to walking and camping that matters. This timelessness is also why The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time are fresh and relevant five decades after they were written.

Throughout his work there is a deep respect and love for nature and the wild and a strong desire for it to be protected. He’s not an out and out campaigner like that other great writer of the desert Southwest Edward Abbey, though The Man Who Walked Through Time does contain a moving epilogue about the threats to dam the Grand Canyon that existed in the 1960s. In it Fletcher warned that “unless we do something, you and I, we may soon find this book has become a requiem for Grand Canyon”. The depth of his feeling is shown when he writes “I suggest that we little men have no damned right even to consider such vandalism – for any reason at all”. The same feelings surface in The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher, a collection of essays on different walks, in the chapter entitled Among The Redwoods in which he is horrified by the destruction of ancient redwood groves and writes of the logging of old growth forests that it “left you ashamed … of belonging to a species that for personal gain waged war on its own planet.”

The four books I’ve referred to above are the key works for walkers interested in Colin Fletcher. Perhaps the most interesting of his other works is River, which tells the story of his trip, mostly by raft, down the length of the Colorado River at the age of 67 in 1989, another first, in which his journey down the river also stands for his journey through life. The book does contain one of my favourite Colin Fletcher quotations:

“I knew, deep and safe, beyond mere intellect, that there is nothing like a wilderness journey for rekindling the fires of life”.

His final two books, The Winds of Mara and The Man From The Cave, are both quite obscure and long out print. Devotee that I am, I hunted them down in second book shops on visits to the USA long before the Internet made finding such books easy. The Winds of Mara describes a return visit to Kenya on which he camped, with a vehicle, in the bush. He describes well the wildlife and the landscape and his interactions with people but it lacks some of the drive of his wilderness journey books. The Man From The Cave is a real oddity, a fascinating book that tells you more about its author than its subject. Fletcher discovers a cave in a remote part of the Nevada desert with some old possessions that showed someone had once lived there. The book is the story of his research into who the person was and why they were there.

Colin Fletcher writes mainly about the Southwest USA. His heart lies with the Colorado River and the surrounding landscape. Don’t let this put you off reading him. His backpacking tales are about the experience as much or more than the place and thus of interest to all who love walking and camping in the wild, whether the Scottish Highlands or the Grand Canyon. Be warned though the books might just stir a desire in you to go and walk in Fletcher’s country, as they did in me.


The Thousand-Mile Summer in desert and high sierra 1964
The Man Who Walked Through Time 1968
The Complete Walker 1968
The Winds of Mara 1973
The New Complete Walker 1974
The Man From The Cave 1981
The Complete Walker III 1984
The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher 1989
River: One Man’s Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea 1997
The Complete Walker IV (with Chip Rawlins) 2002

The photo shows the Grand Canyon from the South Rim near Grand Canyon Village. Ricoh RDC-5000 with 8-18mm lens @ 10.1mm. f7@1/350. JPEG processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Outdoor Writers, Colin Fletcher & John Muir

Last weekend I travelled down to Longhorsley in Northumberland where the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild Awards Dinner was being held at a rather posh hotel. I was delighted and honoured to win the Award for Excellence for Outdoor Feature for an article about the late Colin Fletcher called The Man Who Walked Through Time that appeared in TGO magazine last year. I was particularly pleased to win an award for this feature as Colin Fletcher is little known in British outdoor circles despite having been arguably the best writer on backpacking. Any excuse to mention him and encourage people to read his books is welcome! The title of my feature is also the title of, in my opinion, his best book, about the first ever backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon.

On my way home from Northumberland I called in at the little Scottish town of Dunbar where John Muir, another significant outdoor writer as well as an inspiring defender of wilderness and one of my heroes, was born in 1838 and where he lived before emigrating to the USA at the age of eleven. His birthplace on the High Street now houses a display about his life. Whilst this is interesting and informative it’s unfortunate that nothing remains of the house itself except the shell. Several years ago I visited the house in Martinez, California, where Muir lived for many years and wrote many of his books. The house is now a National Historic Site and has been kept as it was when Muir lived there. You can look at his study, complete with his writing desk and artefacts he collected in the High Sierra, and see a big fireplace he installed after the original was damaged in the San Francisco Earthquake so he could he have a real log fire. It is easy to imagine Muir there, reading before the fire or poring over his manuscripts.

The coast and fields around Dunbar are where Muir developed his love of nature and wild places. Here he studied the birds and sea life and climbed on the crumbling sea cliffs and the decaying walls of Dunbar Castle, learning skills that would prove useful in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada. I spent a few hours wandering along the cliff tops and on the beach watching the grey waves crashing on the rocks under hurrying clouds that spattered rain in great gobbets. Reminiscing about his boyhood in Dunbar he wrote “I loved… best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of old Dunbar Castle”. Dunbar has not changed much and you can still do this. I drove the long miles home thinking of Muir and the great debt all of us who love wild places owe to him and the need to continue his work in defence of nature.

Photo info: Waves breaking below the cliffs of Dunbar. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, f5.6@1/160, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Monday 3 November 2008

First Snow on the Cairngorms

Last week’s storms brought the first heavy snowfall of the winter to the Scottish Highlands. Yesterday I welcomed the return of winter by walking over the Cairngorm plateau to Ben Macdui. The snowline was well down the hills and above 600 metres the cover was complete and deep, more snow than I’ve seen this early in the winter for many years. The walking was arduous as the snow averaged two feet deep, though the tracks of other walkers eased the going in places. Initially a warm sun shone in a clear sky and I walked with sleeves rolled up and collar unzipped. To the south and east there was no sign of cloud and the hills were sharp and clear. However north and west a haze shrouded the summits and tendrils of clouds were drifting towards the Cairngorms. As I crossed the plateau a curving cloud spread over Braeriach across the deep pass of the Lairig Ghru and sent fingers of cloud down between the ridges, as if a giant beast devouring the mountain. Ben Macdui was still cloud-free as I wandered west of the summit to gaze at the great wedge of Cairn Toul rising out of the Lairig Ghru but as I headed back north the mist slipped across the snow and the world turned grey and insubstantial. Fine drizzle fell and the snow felt heavy and sticky rather than dry and crisp. There was no colourful sunset and all was dull as I descended below the cloud in the dusk to Coire Cas. The first winter hill walk was over. I hope there will be many more this season.

Photo info: Cloud crawling over Braeriach. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@55mm, f5.6@1/320, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Strathspey Autumn Colours

Reports suggest that the woodland colours this autumn are especially spectacular. I find them impressive every year and haven’t noticed any big difference in Strathspey, just the small changes that make each year interesting and unique. Wandering round the woods yesterday I noticed that the aspens, often flashes of brilliant yellow, have already lost their leaves and stand grey and bare, stark winter trees. Last week their foliage was still green so any colour has been brief. Bird cherries, which can be a brilliant red, have lost many leaves too and aren’t as glorious as in many years. In contrast the larches are only just beginning to turn, their needles fading from dark to pale green and showing just the first hints of yellow, their magnificent peak still to come. Rowans, which in some years show little colour other than the red berries and lose their leaves quickly, are turning a deep bronze red, that looks rather like dirty rust close to but stands out as a burst of intense colour at a distance. The real beauty lies with the birches though, which glow bright yellow and gold, though the strong winds of recent days have stripped leaves from the most exposed trees and branches, leaving them bare and with the purple tinge that marks them out in winter. Whilst many individual trees are worth stopping to contemplate and admire I find a big sweep of woodland with a mix of the dark green of conifers and the dazzling autumn colours of the deciduous trees the most striking and inspiring. At this time of year the forest, which has been a mass of uniform dull green for months, comes alive and shines in the landscape. Beyond and above the trees snow lay on the slopes of the high Cairngorms and the sky was swept with fast-moving squalls of cold rain and sleet. The forest was the place to be.

Photo info: Strathspey Woodland. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS@109mm, f5.6@1/60, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Stormy Weather on Ben Lomond

With talks in Glasgow and Edinburgh bookending last week,rather than return home for the short intervening period I spent a few days in the Loch Lomond area, somewhere I rarely visit as it’s the most distant part of the Highlands from my home. The forecast was for stormy weather and this time it was right. However rather than the blanket of cloud hiding the hills and the constant rain that stormy weather can mean I had three days of fast moving violent squalls with bursts of heavy rain, tremendous winds and flashes of sunlight, which was invigorating and exciting. The first afternoon I walked along the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, following the West Highland Way, watching the clouds tumbling over the Arrochar Alps and the wind-driven rain crashing on the stony beaches. The woods were dripping with moisture and I had a damp camp deep amongst the autumn-tinted trees, sheltered from the wind but not the rain. Leaving the forest the next day I climbed up onto the boggy ground to the north of Ben Lomond, where my overtrousers were needed to keep the waist high reeds from soaking me as well as shedding the frequent showers as I crossed the sodden land to the north ridge, which in turn led to the top section of the rocky Ptarmigan Ridge. Blasts of storm force winds had me clinging to the rocks in places to avoid being blown off the mountain. Dense wet cloud enshrouded me long before I reached the top. Hoping there might be a clearance I found shelter on the steep slopes east of the summit cairn and sat down to wait and a snack of grain bars and water. Another walker bemoaned the lack of a view. Then a touch of blue appeared for a second as a swirl of cloud parted. Hazy shapes appeared in the distance. Soon the dense ever-changing mass of cloud was writhing and twisting above the hills, ripped and torn by the wind. Loch Lomond spread out to the lowlands, a shining grey and hard silver with gold flashes where the sun touched it. Standing still was difficult and I took photographs lying down. The dramatic sky accompanied me down the south side of the mountain to a high camp partly sheltered from the wind. Intermittent heavy rain ensured that my tent, soaked from the night before, stayed wet despite the wind. The storm now came from the north-west and the temperature fell. There was ice round the edge of the tent at dawn. As I descended back to Loch Lomond and the drive to Edinburgh the still savage storm gave rainbows over the distant hills, curves of colour against the grey clouds and silhouetted slopes. The whole trip had barely lasted 48 hours but it felt far longer due to the intensity of the weather and the constant feeling of exhilaration.

Photo info: Loch Lomond from Ben Lomond. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@28mm, f5.6@1/1250, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival

Next weekend, October 17-19, it’s the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. I’m giving an illustrated talk on my ski and igloo trips in Yellowstone National Park on the Friday evening at around 8.30 p.m. The evening programme starts at 7 p.m. with some interesting sounding films – Via Bearzi, about Mike Bearzi’s alpine style climbs in the greater ranges; Seeing Red, the story of an escape from the backcountry with a major injury; and Grit Kids, about two young kids who climb E6 and E8 (which sounds extraordinary!). Saturday features a whole day of films plus talks from trad climber Niall McNair and round the world cyclist Mark Beaumont. There’s more films Sunday afternoon and evening plus talks by expedition kayaker Justine Curvengen and the star of the festival, Sir Chris Bonington. The whole event looks very interesting and it should be a great weekend. Some of the films sound fascinating. I particularly like the sound of An Stac, a film about a winter ascent and a camp near the summit. I presume this is the An Stac in Moidart and not the one in the Cuillin!

Photo info: Lone Star Geyser and igloo. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@24mm, f8@1/120, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

A Few Days on Skye

The weather forecast said sunny, the midge forecast said negligible so I headed to the Isle of Skye for a few days wild camping and gabbro scrambling. The midges on Skye can be ferocious so it’s somewhere I usually avoid during summer. By late September they are usually calming down and I had that midge forecast to reassure me. Even so I packed repellent and mosquito coils. Arriving in early evening I walked down Glen Sligachan as the sky darkened on a clear evening with just a faint hint of chill in the air and not a murmur of wind. Entry into the wild was between the towering sentinels of Sgurr na Gillean and Marsco, two of the magnificent mountains of Skye. As the light faded the stars started to shine and soon I was walking under a spectacular sky, another sign of the coming autumn. There are no skies like this in summer; the sky never darkens enough for the Milky Way to stand out so brightly. Revelling in the dramatic night with the stars sparkling between the black silhouettes of the hills I walked without a light, just able to follow the faint, pale line of the thin, twisting path. I did need a headlamp to stumble through the bogs to the narrow strip of dry ground beside Loch na Creitheach where I camped for two nights.

The next day dawned grey and flat with no sign of the sun. The thick bank of cloud was just brushing the summits. I wandered up little Sgurr na Stri, one of the finest viewpoints in the whole of the Highlands, and stared down to Loch Scavaig and Loch Coruisk and up to the curving ramparts of the Cuillin, a familiar but always exciting ragged line of rock peaks. Tour boats from Elgol puttered around the head of Loch Scavaig. A kayaker paddled to an island on Loch Coruisk. The air was calm and everything was peaceful. Staying above Loch Coruisk I made a way over the rough terrain of the Druim nan Ramh, the going hard as the rock strata cut across the line of the ridge, making for many little ascents and descents. Right in the heart of the Cuillin Druim nan Ramh is another superb viewpoint, though little visited it seems as there’s no path. The mountains hung grey under the gloomy sky.

Back at camp I sat outside the tent contemplating the gently rippling waters of the loch and the huge mountains. Skye is marvellous whatever the weather. Then the midges arrived. In numbers and hungry. I cooked and ate in the tent with the doors zipped tight shut, glad it was midge proof, then read the evening away, unwilling to collect any more bites. The midge forecast could not have been less accurate. The midges were still waiting for me the next morning and the clouds were hiding the summits. I breakfasted in the tent then packed everything except the tent itself. Once outside I took the tent down, glad that this only took a few minutes, bundled into a pack pocket and headed back to Sligachan and the long drive home. The forecasts for sun and no midges were wrong but Skye had still worked its relaxing magic and I felt renewed and refreshed.

Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@42mm, f8@1/160, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Sunday 14 September 2008


The nature of the light in the outdoors can make the difference between the mundane and the magical, the pleasant and the spectacular. Dull days with grey skies and flat light that takes away sharpness and clarity, reducing everything to an amorphous undefined mass, are often uninspiring and even dispiriting. Yet even on such days the light can change fast, transforming a scene from uninteresting to exciting. Such a day occurred last week. The weather forecast being for rain and cloud and the skies outside verifying this I headed for the local Hills of Cromdale rather than venturing further afield and plodded through the heather to the highest summit, Creagan a’Chaise. A cool wind swept the moorland and squalls of rain blasted in from the west, drenching the already saturated land. The high Cairngorms were hidden in dense cloud. I sheltered behind the big summit cairn for a snack and watched the rain storms blotting out the woods and fields below as they raced past. A rainbow curved over Strathspey then faded. Further away I caught a glimpse of colour beside the dark pointed peak of Ben Rinnes out towards the coast. The colour grew into a smear of rainbow hanging in the air. From below rays of white bright light appeared to shoot upwards, illuminating the rainbow. These crepuscular rays, sometimes called god beams, are shafts of sunlight contrasting with air in shadow. No sun was visible though and the sky behind the light beams was dark. The effect was quite unreal and strange, especially given the general colourless and insipid light all around.

Photographers often talk of photographing light rather than anything physical. Now whilst the right light is essential to a good photograph the subject matter is usually important too. In this case the light really was all and I isolated it with a telephoto lens to make the image above. As the land round about was grey and lifeless images I took at a wider angle do not have the same impact. I used a polarising filter to bring out the colours of the rainbow (in shots without the polariser the rainbow is hardly visible so the polariser helped make the scene more like the one I actually saw) but did not do any post processing of the image.

Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250 mm @250mm, f8@1/640, ISO 400, polarising filter, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Alladale & The Mountaineering Council of Scotland

Last weekend saw the Annual Gathering of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland at Glenmore Lodge. Outside the rain teemed down and the mist brushed the tops of the forest. With the hills hidden and the air sodden being indoors wasn’t much of a chore. The AGM and other business over we came to the main attraction of the day – guest speaker Hugh Fullerton-Smith, general manager of the Alladale Estate (which has just had a great deal of free PR courtesy of a BBC series). Owner Paul Lister wants to enclose the 23,000 acre estate with a high electrified fence and prevent access except for guided paying guests, something the Mountaineering Council is strongly opposed to (see the statement on the MCoS website). Hugh must have known that his audience was hardly likely to support these plans – his main defence of them seemed to be that they weren’t that likely to happen and that it might be a long time in the future if they did. After outlining his exciting and varied career before coming to Alladale Hugh talked about the work being done on the estate to restore the land, something with which the MCoS has no quarrel, and which does not require a fence or access restrictions. However Paul Lister would also like to reintroduce wild animals, including, ultimately, wolves and bears, and charge people to see them. At present he has small enclosures containing boar and elk. Questions and comments following Hugh’s talk made it clear that MCoS members’ opposition to the fence and any restrictions on access is deeply and fiercely felt. Hugh defended the current small fenced area, which does have stiles, though not as many as Highland Council would like (as a representative at the meeting made clear), on the ground that it housed a scientific experiment but with regard to the much bigger proposed fence could only say that Paul Lister wanted it for his Alladale Wilderness Reserve. This suggests that its only purpose would be to restrict access. Indeed, Hugh said that fencing the whole 23,000 acres would not be possible due to some of the high terrain and that only fencing 14,000 acres was feasible. As he also said that 23,000 acres was not big enough for wolves and bears what reason other than restricting access could there be for fencing 14,000 acres? My hope is that Hugh has taken back to Paul Lister the message that the MCoS is implacably opposed to the fence and will determinedly fight it if a planning application ever materialises.

There’s an excellent account of the talk and discussion on the Walk Highlands website. My previous blogs about Alladale were on August 15, September 16 and November 7 2007.

The photo shows a camp on the hills above Alladale. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm @18mm, f8@1/320, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Friday 29 August 2008

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008

Rather than head for the hills I spent last week in Edinburgh attending shows at the famous Fringe. Given that this has been the wettest August on record and I had spent a day in torrential rain on Beinn Eighe just a few days before heading for Edinburgh I was not unhappy to forego the wilds for a while. Especially as it rained heavily much of the time I was in the city, my rain jacket seeing more use than it often does during a week in the hills. I went to fifteen shows at the Fringe - three serious and grim Lorca plays, free and excellent folk music in the National Museum, the amusing Shakespeare for Breakfast (spot the references!), an energetic and intense solo performance of Beowulf, a rather less intense though still good solo version of Candide, an entertaining play based on Terry Pratchett’s Mort, two thought-provoking plays with music called Who’s Afraid of Howlin’ Wolf (one of my favourite singers – though none of his music was played) and Kerouac and All That Jazz (bringing back memories of a writer who influenced me greatly as a teenager), the strange and intriguing Henry IV by Pirandello, and one show by a star, Simon Callow’s engaging telling of two little known Dickens stories.

Unlike last year shows with outdoor themes were rare. One of the few was stand-up comedian Mark Olver’s Ramble On. As Mark walked 500 miles from his home in Bristol to Edinburgh I felt I really couldn’t miss his show if only to show support for another long distance walker. The show was based around the walk, which had clearly been a challenge for someone who hadn’t done any long distance walking before. Mark Olver was sponsored by Berghaus (and he thanked them profusely during the show) and there’s a blog on his walk on the Berghaus website. Some of the show was very funny. I loved the rant about using his tiny one-man tent for the first time in pouring rain, though I’m not sure which tent has so little room that you have to get in your sleeping bag outside! However some of the exchanges with the audience were a little too long and a bit predictable (is it required for stand-up comedians to question audience members on their sex lives?). Mark did say that some of his audience expected more about the walk (and I guess I might fall into that category) whilst some expected less so he had a balancing act to do to try and keep everyone happy. I wasn’t asked about my sex life but I was picked out as a serious rambler – and there was me thinking I looked the part of a sophisticated, urban arts lover (perhaps I should have left the rucksack and fleece jacket behind).

I also saw one show in a tent, albeit a big top, and the play was A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which is set in a forest. The production by the travelling Footsbarn Theatre Company was magical, with excellent acting, beautiful and strange costumes and banners, a lovely set, intriguing and atmospheric music and a sense of wonder and mystery. By the finish it was easier to believe there was a forest outside the tent than a city.

However the drama that had the most impact on me was Lorca’s Blood Wedding by the Colet Players, a young all-female company. This bleak and shocking story of love, revenge and death was portrayed with power and passion with a stand-out performance by the actor playing the Mother, one of the central figures. So compelling and potent was this actor that my partner and I felt overwhelmed and privileged to have experienced such a performance. We had a feeling that we had seen a great actor in the making. The rest of the cast were good too, especially the actor playing the Bride. Blood Wedding is the first in Lorca’s trilogy of rural tragedies and we saw the other two plays as well – Inside Yerma and The House of Bernando Alba. Both were good productions but neither had an actor with the presence or authority of the one playing the Mother in Blood Wedding. There were only 15 or so people at the performance of Blood Wedding and little information was available about the cast or the production with no promotional flyers or advertisements. It would be a shame if this production vanished due to this as it really was magnificent.

The photo shows Calton Hill, where the Footsbarn Theatre pitched their big top. Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@55mm, f8@1/320, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro

Sunday 10 August 2008

Young Birds

Watching the birds it attracts has always been one of the pleasures of having a garden for me. For the last few months the bird feeders have been visited by a series of fledgling birds, many looking as though they were just out of the nest, still coated in soft fluffy down, barely able to fly, confused by the feeders, the other birds, even the plants. Markings are unclear, blurred, often dull compared with the smart, sharp adults. Some, like the young robins with their brown speckled breasts, look like a different species until you notice the shape and size and characteristic movements. Some come alone, some with parents. Some manage to feed themselves, after staring at the nuts and seeds and pecking gingerly at them. Others wait for a parent to push a chunk of peanut or sunflower seed into their gaping beak. Some find perching and feeding at the same time difficult. A soft fluffy young greenfinch beating its wings wildly as it attempts to hang onto the wire mesh of a feeder and peck at the nuts before slipping and fluttering down onto the heathers below. Siskins manage better, grasping the wire firmly, and despite their minute size are prepared to fend off other birds. A young great spotted woodpecker tries to hang onto a nut feeder but eventually gives up and flops down into the seed tray below and waits to be fed, happy to let its parents hammer out the food. Many of these birds have grown a little now and are more adult-like and competent but there are second and maybe third broods even now in August. The woodpeckers still have the red head patches of youngsters but no longer wait to be fed. But there are finches and tits that are still small and unsure, learning how to deal with the wild world. Watching these birds I marvel at the speed of their development, the determination and vigour with which they tackle life away from the nest.

The photo shows a great spotted woodpecker feeding a youngster. Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250 mm IS@250 mm, f5.6@1/4000, ISO 800, raw file converted to JPEG and processed and cropped in DxO Optics Pro

Thursday 7 August 2008

Friedrichshafen Podcasts

Over on The Outdoor Station site Bob and Rose Cartwright have put together six interesting podcasts on this years Friedrichshafen OutDoor show that are well worth listening to by anyone interested in new outdoor gear. Included in the fifth podcast is a short interview with John Manning and me, made when we met Bob in one of the big "Tent City" halls. I admire Bob and Rose's stamina in putting these podcasts together. It's hard enough work just prowling the stands and talking to people without recording them as well.

The photo shows Terra Nova's new tarp with netting inner. The photo shows Terra Nova's new tarp with netting inner. Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@18 mm, f3.5@1/60, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Saturday 2 August 2008

New Books: Classic Munros Cairngorms & Glen Coe

Just published: two little books of mine called Classic Munros: The Cairngorms and Classic Munros: Glen Coe. These are walks guides to selected Munros. Not all Munros are covered so these aren’t guides for Munro baggers but rather for those visiting an area who want to undertake what, in my opinion, are the best Munro walks. With some hills more than one route is described if I really couldn’t decide between different ones. For example in the Cairngorms book there are two routes for Ben MacDui, Braeriach and Cairn Toul but none for Monadh Mor and Mullach Clach a’Bhlair.

The books are published by Colin Baxter Photography.

Wednesday 30 July 2008

TGO Challenge on TV

This year’s TGO Challenge will feature in The Adventure Show on BBC 2 Scotland and Sky Channel 990 next Sunday (August 3) at 6 pm. There will be interviews with Challengers during and after the crossing. I managed to miss all the filming during the walk (just as I managed to miss most of the other Challengers) but a month later I did do a piece on gear for the Challenge and similar long walks that will be in this programme. The idea had been to do the filming up in the hills but the day of the shoot saw clouds brushing the tree tops so we had to stay down in the glens, eventually settling on the shores of Loch Morlich. The weather was calm and humid and warm. Which meant midges, vast hordes of midges. Now normally the first hint of the wee beasties and I’d be on the move again. Filming takes time however and most of the shoot involved me taking gear out of packs and talking about it, something that can’t be done whilst walking. Trying to sound rational and calm while ignoring the clouds of midges trying to find a way through the copious repellent I’d plastered on was extremely difficult. Whenever filming stopped whilst the producer and cameraman planned the next bit the presenter and I strode up and down waving our hand about to shake off the midges at least for a while. Occasionally breezes drifted down the loch and at one point I stood on a tiny rock out in the water to avoid the midges on land. Overall this was the hardest bit of TV work I’ve ever done.

Also in this edition of the Adventure Show will be a Wild Walk up Ben MacDui with Cameron McNeish and the Cape Wrath Challenge.

The picture shows a camp in the Gaick Pass on this years TGO Challenge. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@23 mm, f8@1/40, ISO 100, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro

Thursday 24 July 2008

The 2008 OutDoor Show, Friedrichshafen

Last week I spent four days tramping the giant aircraft hangar-like exhibition halls in Friedrichshafen in Southern Germany looking at outdoor gear, old and new. It’s a strange activity, spending all day inside in noisy, echoing, crowded halls under glaring artificial lights examining products designed to take you away from just such places. On previous visits to the show the weather had been hot and sunny, which made the exhibition halls unpleasantly warm and sticky. This year the weather was cooler and wetter with frequent downpours and one spectacular thunderstorm, which at least meant the halls were cooler. Relief from the unnatural environs of the show was provided by the footwear company Merrell who for the second year running set up a tipi village in a meadow surrounded by woodland just ten minutes walk but a million miles in feel from the exhibition. The tipi village was a great place to unwind after the show and talk to writers from other magazines and other outdoors people. Last year the tipis were fitted with rather unstable camp beds. This year Aerobeds were provided, which I found the most comfortable camping mattress I’ve ever used. You wouldn’t want to carry an Aerobed far though (and it wouldn’t fit in an Akto!). The tipis are wonderful to sleep in, even if they did prove less than fully waterproof in torrential rain.

What though of the gear on show? With over 800 exhibitors there was much to see, not all of it very interesting. Here’s a quick run-through of some of the items that attracted my attention.

In packs there’s some good looking lightweight models from Lightwave – the 55/60 litre Wildtrek – and Osprey - the 46/58 litre Exos. Elsewhere there were a surprising number of similar packs with long water resistant front zips.

In shelters Integral Designs has a curious winter bivy bag called the Penguin Reflexion, which is made from a heat reflecting silver reflective version of Sympatex, and a tarp with a single hoop called the SilDome that begs the question as to what is a tarp. To me the SilDome looks like a tent flysheet. Terra Nova also has a shaped tarp that comes with an insect netting inner. This pitches with trekking poles and looks a bit more like a tarp than the SilDome. In tents the emphasis seems to be on large and light with Terra Nova showing a 2.7kg tent in which I can practically stand up and The North Face a roomy tent with almost vertical inner walls called the Minibus 23. MSR had some light tents with carbon fibre poles called the Carbon Reflex that look interesting too.

The luxuriousness of the Aerobed may not be portable but there were some comfortable-looking inflatable mattresses that you can carry in a pack. Cascade Designs showed an airbed called the Neo Air with a reflective barrier inside and an internal structure claimed to overcome the problem of cold air circulating. At 260 grams in the small size the Neo Air could be the most comfortable backpacker’s mattress yet if it really is warm. Alternatively there is Pacific Outdoor Equipment’s Peak Oyl Lite (so called because it’s made from palm oil rather than petroleum) which is said to be the lightest 1 inch thick self-inflating mat. The 2/3 length one weighs 360 grams.

An unusual device – it can’t be called a stove – is the Heatgear Heatstick, a gas-powered water heater that fits inside a water bottle. It’s not light – 329 grams for the 0.5 litre version including bottle – but there’s no flame and it’s said to work in any temperature. Maybe a replacement for a vacuum flask?

More conventional lightweight stoves come from Primus, with the 596 gram remote canister EtaPacklite complete with heat exchanger, windscreen and 1.2 litre pot, and Snow Peak with the 56 gram Lite Max, the lightest canister stove yet.

In clothing Rab has a new eVent jacket, the Momentum, at a light 340 grams, while Marmot had a very light Paclite jacket, the Nano at 228 grams. Not exceptionally light at 482 grams Patagonia’s Stretch Ascent N2NO jacket is interesting because it’s made from 100% recycled polyester.

There was much else of interest of course but these are a few of the highlights. Along with other items detailed test reports will appear by me and others in TGO magazine and on the Backpacking website over the next year.

The picture shows the Merrell Tipi Village in one of the brief bursts of sunshine. Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 33mm, f8@1/500, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro

Monday 14 July 2008

A Western Mamores Camp

Wet and windy, cool and cloudy. The northerly wind mocked t-shirts and shorts, the clouds lay low on the hills, sometimes brushing the tops of the highest forests. A time for deskwork and reading. And for scanning the weather forecast, watching for a hint, a sign, a suggestion of a clearance. There it was. “A brief ridge of high pressure”, clearer in the west than the east and probably lasting less than 24 hours before the wet clouds sank down on the hills again. So west I went, departure almost delayed by the final collapse of my old car (107,000 miles on the clock) and the necessity for a hasty replacement, hopefully more economic to run. With a new old car (only 60,700 miles on the clock) I drove through continuing heavy showers below invisible hills. Just how brief was this high pressure going to be? By Glen Nevis the rain had stopped and the wind had faded away. I stopped at the Visitor Centre. Someone was cooking over a large double burner. My eyes were drawn to the midge net covering their head and face. I didn’t get out of the car but continued up the glen to a quieter car park, though no less midge ridden. As evening walks often mean midges I was ready to leap out of the car, grab my pack and head off, little preparation needed. Within minutes I was climbing a rough footpath on the edge of the woods a little out of breath but free of the midges. Soon a big ladder stile led out of the forest and into the wide mouth of a deep corrie. I had thought of camping here but there was no wind and the ground was boggy. I didn’t wait to see if there were midges, certain there would be, but climbed out of the corrie onto a broad ridge. A breeze rippled the grasses. No midges. Further up the ridge a flattish area beside a big boulder looked a good camp site. I lay down. Yes, I thought, I can sleep comfortably here. I pitched the tent then headed downhill in search of water. After ten minutes I heard trickling and soon found a streamlet big enough to fill my bottles. I’d much rather camp where it’s midge-free and walk to water than have water and midges to hand. The evening was slow and pale as the light gently faded through shades of grey. Lower hills were cloud free, higher ones enshrouded. In the early hours of dawn I woke and looked out. The returning light was still dull with no hint of the sun. I slept a few more hours. The clouds were slowly lifting though and by mid morning only Ben Nevis was still hidden, as it was to remain all day. My peaceful and relaxing camp soon packed away I continued up the ridge to the summit of Mullach nan Coirean from where I could look east along the Mamores ridge, which is probably the finest on the Scottish mainland. Including its many spurs there are twenty summits, ten of them Munros, strewn along its twisting scalloped length. The traverse of them all is a superb one or two day trip, which I have done several times. Today just the western two Munros would suffice. From the red disintegrating granite of Mullach nan Coirean I wandered over two minor tops to the silver-grey quartzite of Stob Ban before descending splendid Coire a’Mhusgain with its deep stream gorge and scattered old birch and rowan wood. The clouds were thickening as I reached the car and the first rain drops fell as I drove back down Glen Nevis, just twenty hours after I’d arrived, twenty hours of freedom, restoration, peace and beauty.

View from the tent. Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 18mm, f8@1/200, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Friday 4 July 2008

Farewell to Old Cameras

How sentimental or affectionate should one be for old possessions? How much is invested in these physical links with events and adventures, times and places? How significant are the memories they hold? Over the years I’ve accumulated a collection of cameras, going right back to manual film SLRs and classic film compacts like the Olympus XA. There are cameras that travelled the length of the Canadian Rockies, through the Yukon Territory, along the Arizona Trail, to Everest Base Camp and on many more trips. In boxes of slide sleeves and now on hard discs I have the thousands of images taken with them, which are often referred to for articles, books and talks. The cameras themselves have been lying forgotten in old dusty camera bags in corners of my office, occasionally moved when in the way but mostly ignored. A decision to buy a new camera made me think about these old ones. Did I really need to keep them? Wouldn’t it better if they were with someone who would actually take pictures with them? I was considering selling those that still worked – not that there was much monetary value left in them – when my partner Denise mentioned that Hazel, my stepdaughter, had a friend at art college studying photography who might be interested in some cameras. As we were going down to Edinburgh to visit Hazel soon anyway I emailed her friend, who showed great excitement at the thought of the cameras so I took them all down with me, filling half a big rucksack with bodies, lenses, boxes, cases and accessories. We commandeered the back room of the excellent Scott’s Deli and after lunch I laid out my old gear on a long table. How does this one work? I fiddled with the buttons and levers. Like this, I think. Or maybe not. Can you get this lens on this body? Um, probably. I think it goes this way. Oh, it’s the other way. I may have used these cameras hundreds of times in the past but I could no longer remember exactly how they worked. Watching Claudine handle them with excitement, her eyes lighting up as she looked through viewfinders, zoomed lenses and played with the controls, I realised that these old cameras still had much to offer and that it really was a waste to keep them lying round as barely remembered souvenirs. So they stayed in Edinburgh where I hope they will take many more photographs. And I returned home to all the photographs I took with them and to my new camera, which I am still learning to use.

A table of camera gear in Scott’s Deli. Photo info: Ricoh GR-D, flash, program mode f2.4@1/30, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Adobe Camera Raw then cropped in Photoshop Elements 5.

Monday 30 June 2008

Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World: Film Review

Film director Werner Herzog likes strange people, from Klaus Kinski to Timothy Treadwell, and remote wild places, from the Amazon rain forest (Fitzcarraldo) to the Alaskan wilderness (Grizzly Man). And now, perhaps inevitably, he has made a film about the remotest, wildest place of all, Antarctica, and the strange, driven people who gravitate there. Lured south by images of the weird beauty of the ice and the southern ocean Herzog finds a land where dreamers and adventurers, eccentrics and scientists live huddled together in ugly industrial shanty towns amidst unbelievable natural grandeur. In Encounters at the End of the World Herzog explores the land and the people and his own reactions to it. Some of his findings are humorous, some disquieting, some tragic and he switches abruptly between these, keeping the viewer unsure of what is to come and sometimes thrown off balance, stifling a laugh as the tragic nature of an event is suddenly apparent. This makes for an engrossing, fascinating documentary unlike anything else I have seen or read about Antarctica. The landscape looks as vast and magnificent as ever and is beautifully filmed, especially some underwater sequences following the edge of an ice sheet as it meets the ocean, an unreal, dream-like world. But it’s the people who are most memorable. Philosophers working as fork lift truck drivers, scientists rocking out on top of their hut with discordant electric guitars to celebrate a new discovery, a group of people about to go out onto the ice discovering what a white-out is like by trying to find someone while wearing white buckets on their heads, a scientist showing B movie science fiction films to his team. Herzog looks for the quirky and unusual, the disturbing and the disturbed, and finds it everywhere. The characters he interviews – or rather allows to talk – come across as powerful, committed, larger than life. The director has a trick of holding the camera on their faces before they start or after they finish speaking longer than expected, sometimes revealing powerful emotions. Even the wildlife comes across as unusual. “Are there gay penguins?” Herzog asks a reclusive scientist who has spent years studying them and perhaps prefers their company to that of humans. “Do penguins commit suicide?” The film shows penguins heading for the ocean. One dithers then turns and heads inland, away from any food. “It will die”, says the scientist. Herzog has his answer.

I saw this excellent film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the only film I saw there this year. The performance was sold out. Unsurprisingly the film won Best Documentary at the Festival.

The book in the image was published in 1921 and picked up in a second-hand book shop many years ago. Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF 50mm F1.8, flash, program mode, f3.5@1/60, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

A Night On The Ben

When planning my TGO Challenge walk across the Highlands I never thought of camping on the summit of Ben Nevis. That idea only began to take shape after the walk began and I watched the Ben from the hills to the west, a huge snow-capped dome shimmering in the sunshine. It was the snow that caught my attention. In summer the summit plateau of the Ben is a mass of boulders and stones with no flat ground for a camp and no water. There is a small emergency shelter perched on the remnants of the observatory built back in the 1880s but it’s dark, damp and dirty and not somewhere I ever want to spend the night. Bivvying on the rocks has never been appealing either. But you can pitch a tent on snow and it makes a comfortable bed. You can melt it too so I wouldn’t have to carry water. As I approached Fort William at the base of the mountain and the fine weather held the attractions of a night on the summit grew. Climbing the mountain late in the day as it grew cooler seemed wise as well. Thirteen hundred metres of steep rocky paths without shade and with a pack loaded up with food for the next five days would feel more comfortable then.

With a late start in mind I spent most of a hot day in Fort William replenishing supplies – dried fruit, nuts and grain bars from a Julian Graves natural food shop, Crosse & Blackwell Pasta Sauce meals and a tube of Chilli Puree from Morrisons supermarket, “Murder in the Glen”, a novel by mountain rescue expert Hamish MacInnes, from the Nevisport outdoor shop. My feet having overheated on previous days even in thin socks and lightweight trail shoes I searched out a pair of budget walking sandals – Hi-Tec Tahoma – in a shoe shop and tried not to think of all the sandals I had back home. The Nevisport café and the Café Beag in Glen Nevis provided sustenance before I finally started up the mountain at 4 p.m. The sun was still high and hot as I started up the stony path. Although long and unrelenting it was the easiest ascent of the walk so far as the six hills I had already climbed had been boggy and pathless. Dozens of people passed me on the way down, many asking if I was camping out and telling me there was snow on top. They looked surprised when I replied “good”! This, the standard and easiest way up the mountain, isn’t the most exciting but there are good views of the Mamores on the far side of Ben Nevis.

Eventually the angle of the stones started to ease and patches of snow appeared as I reached the now deserted summit plateau. All was calm, most unusual on this normally stormy and windswept mountain. I pitched the tent not far from the summit trig point. The snow was deep and soft – there was a ten foot thick drift around the old observatory. Lacking snow stakes I stamped my thin pegs in hard and used my trekking poles to anchor the main guylines. There was no need to shelter in the tent though and I sat outside with my little stove purring away insulated from the snow on a flat stone. A snow bunting was singing by the summit cairn and a raven wheeled overhead. Dinner over I wandered along the edge of the great cliffs of the north face, staring down the snowy gullies and massive rock faces. A strange swishing noise came up from the depths. Staring down I spotted two climbers far below shovelling snow off a ledge on Tower Ridge. Later I saw them heading down into Coire Leis. Apart from these distant figures I was alone; watching as the sun slowly descended through thin clouds, turning them a gentle pink.

As darkness grew a half moon rose into the black sky and stars appeared. All was silent. No wind. No running water. I shivered with delight and amazement at being up here in perfect conditions. The night was chilly but the temperature in the tent didn’t quite reach freezing. I woke to a wet mist and a gusty east wind. The humidity made everything damp and the world was grey but I could see a pale sun through the clouds and occasionally there was a clearance and a patch of blue appeared. Soon the mist shrank back from the summit, filling the glens but leaving me in bright sunshine. I wandered round the summit again, reluctant to leave, but the walk had to continue and the warm rocks and graceful curve of the Carn Mor Dearg Arête beckoned. I had had the summit of Ben Nevis to myself for 14 hours. I could ask no more.

Evening on Ben Nevis. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 25mm, f8@1/500, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Sunday 25 May 2008

TGO Challenge 2008

The Park Hotel, Montrose last Thursday, May 22. A row of well-worn packs lines the outside wall. In the entrance hall lie a scattering of grubby hiking boots and trail shoes. Looking somewhat out of place, weather-beaten walkers in outdoor clothing stand round drinking beer, celebrating their walk across Scotland on the TGO Challenge. Everyone here has walked from the west coast by a wide variety of routes, along glens and lochsides, through passes, over summits. Upstairs is the heart of the Challenge, the organisation room where Roger Smith and a team of volunteers has monitored walkers, taking phone calls, sorting out problems and generally being helpful. Here walkers check in, their crossing officially over. Arriving at the Park Hotel is always a little overwhelming for me as I’ve usually seen few if any other Challengers on my walk and the sudden mass of people and welter of conversations is a shock, albeit a welcome one. This year, my 12th crossing, was no exception as I’d only met a few Challengers on the train to my starting point at Lochailort and then spoken to just two more during my crossing. That evening Challengers crammed into the hotel dining room for a celebratory dinner and a series of awards and acknowledgements for Challengers and all those who help with the event both here and along the way. It’s a warm, friendly and boisterous occasion and afterwards conversations continue long into the night. Whilst I am happy to see no one whilst out in the wilds I love meeting people here and swapping stories and experiences. As well as old friends there are new people to talk with and some who I only knew through email and blogs. One of the last was Darren Christie who deserves double congratulations, both for finishing his first Challenge and just a few days later racking up 2017 signatures by the end of the final day for his petition to legalise wild camping in England. You can read about this on his blog.

And the walk itself? It was enjoyable of course, as two weeks backpacking in wild country always is. Scottish weather is always unpredictable but I think this year’s was the oddest I’ve experienced. I set off in hot, humid weather under a blanket of cloud. A few midges were biting at my first camp beside Loch Beoraid, the earliest I’ve ever known them. There were no more, which was good as I didn’t take any insect repellent. The next day I sweated upwards through the damp, enervating clouds to emerge at 800 metres into fresh, clear air and spacious views over the spiky hills of Moidart and Knoydart. Below thick grey clouds filled the glens. By evening the clouds were thinning and this was the pattern for most of the first week – clouds and mist building overnight then dissipating during the afternoon and evening. This reversed abruptly the second week with the clearest weather now at dawn and clouds building during the day. Although damp when in them the clouds produced little rain and this was probably the driest crossing I’ve made. I only wore my waterproof jacket twice and the first time was only for an hour. The second was for most of a day as I crossed Lochnagar in heavy showers. Otherwise rain only fell at night, which is how it should be. After the first few hot days temperatures were on the cold side, with ice in my water bottles on four mornings and a cold east wind that made windproof clothing essential.

The highlight of the walk was camping on the summit of Ben Nevis, which I’ll write about in the future. But as always there was much that was intense and mesmerising, full of the wonder and glory of nature. Traversing the Sgurr nan Coireachan – Sgurr Thuilm ridge above a sea of clouds, waking beside Loch Treig to a clear sky and perfect reflections in the water, winding in and out of the clouds on the Grey Corries, watching two golden eagles circling, the amazing wealth of bird life in Glen Lee and Glen Esk. All these and much more are reasons for walking across the Highlands and why I keep going back.

The picture shows evening light over Loch Eil from the summit of Ben Nevis. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 51mm, f5.6@1/125, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Thursday 1 May 2008

Book Review: White River by Jamie Whittle

The Findhorn River rises in the remote heart of the Monadh Liath (grey hills) in the Scottish Highlands and flows 62 miles east to Findhorn Bay. Over its course this beautiful wild river runs from vast rolling heather and bog moorlands to lowlands rich with forests and meadows. I live some 10 miles from the Findhorn and often cross it on the A9 road as I head for Inverness and the hills of the north-west. I visit Findhorn Bay regularly too, my closest stretch of coast and a wonderful place for watching birds and seals and the great expanse of the sea and sky. And I’ve walked close to the Findhorn’s source when climbing rounded, boggy, isolated and little-visited Carn na Saobhaidhe and strolled along the gentler wooded banks at Randolph’s Leap much lower down the river. But I’ve never explored the Findhorn closely, never walked very far along its banks or thought much about its place in the landscape. Jamie Whittle, who was brought up close to the Findhorn and knows it well, has done both and describes two journeys along the river, by foot from sea to source and by canoe down the lower river to the sea, in this thought-provoking and interesting book. Whittle uses the journeys to discuss humanity’s relationship with nature and some possible solutions to the problems caused by dislocation from wild places and blends together history, myths, ecology, geology, psychology, philosophy, economics, politics and culture, all interspersed with snippets of poetry. Other writers are brought into the mix and he quotes widely - from obscure local history books to luminaries of wilderness thinking such as John Muir, Henry David Thoreau and, especially, Aldo Leopold. It is encouraging to see Leopold’s Land Ethic – “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” – applied to the question of wind farms in the Monadh Liath, and by implication the whole of the Scottish Highlands. Rightly, Whittle concludes that “these mountains are too fragile to absorb heavy industry” and answers the charge that biodiversity and wild land must be sacrificed in order to combat climate change by saying that this is a false choice and that “if in order to tackle the climate we destroy natural capital then we have failed”. At the same time that serious issues are discussed and faced the author also describes the joy in travelling through the wilds and camping out at night. His affection and closeness to the land shines through. There’s no need to have heard of the Findhorn or know where it is to enjoy this very readable book. For any one who loves wild nature and is concerned about what is happening White River is highly recommended.

The picture shows storm light over Findhorn Bay. Photo info: Canon EOS 300D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm@ 18mm, f5.6@1/251, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.