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.