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 arĂȘte 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.