Monday 26 April 2010

Visionaries of the Wild

This piece first appeared in the December 2007 issue of TGO magazine. I was reminded of it while rereading Hamish’s Mountain Walk (see last post). I think I should have included Hamish Brown in the article.

“Love of the wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need - if only we had eyes to see”.

Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire

Abbey’s “eyes to see” can be found in the words of writers on wilderness and landscape, including Abbey himself. These “visionaries of the wild” are walkers, climbers, thinkers and philosophers who set out to inspire and educate with their love of the wild, and who, to a great extent, have built our view of the nature and value of landscape and wild places. I’ve been inspired by these writers for many years and re-read their works regularly, often lying in a tent or under the stars far from the noise of roads or the bright lights of the city.

There are writings on wilderness going back thousands of years but our modern visionaries really begin around two hundred years ago with the Romantic Poets, especially Wordsworth, who greatly shaped the way we see the landscape of the Lake District. British poets continued to write about landscape (Ted Hughes being the best late twentieth century example) and it appears as a backdrop in many novels. Direct, non-fiction British writings on landscape are rare though and it is to the USA we have to look to find an ongoing tradition of wilderness writing

The first major figure is this movement for wilderness is Henry David Thoreau in the mid-nineteenth century, living and writing beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts and exploring the forests and rivers of the North-Eastern States. Thoreau put forward the idea that “it would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies” and, most famously, “in Wildness is the preservation of the world”. Thoreau saw human beings as part of nature not apart from it and wilderness as having great value to humans, the beginning of a revolution in thinking about wild places. Although most noted for his contemplative sojourn at Walden Pond Thoreau also saw the value of walking. Indeed, in his essay entitled Walking, he wrote “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least--and it is commonly more than that--sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements”.

Six years after Thoreau died in 1862 John Muir, an immigrant from Scotland, arrived in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, a seminal event in the history of landscape and wilderness preservation. Whilst Thoreau had bemoaned the destruction of nature he did little to prevent it. Muir however used the power of words to describe, praise and defend the great landscapes of the Western USA, especially the Sierra Nevada. Muir was a long distance walker who walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico by the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way”, a mountaineer who made many first ascents in the Sierra Nevada, a scientist who showed that glaciers had carved the landscape of the Sierra Nevada and a campaigner who founded the Sierra Club, a major US conservation organisation, and wrote articles that led to the creation of Yosemite National Park. Muir wrote a vast number of books and articles (not all of them worth reading!) from which many quotations are regularly pulled, perhaps most often, “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad". Muir revelled in every aspect of wilderness, climbing trees in storms to experience them swaying from side to side, edging out to the brink of waterfalls to feel the shaking of the ground and the roar of the water and sleeping out on snowy mountain sides with just a coat to cover him. One of my favourite quotes, which I try to remember as more rain sweeps across the Highlands, is “when I heard the storm and looked out I made haste to join it; for many of Nature’s finest lessons are to be found in her storms, and if careful to keep in right relations with them, we may go safely abroad with them, rejoicing in the grandeur and beauty of their works and ways”.

After Muir a succession of American writers wrote in praise of wilderness, the most significant of which in the first half of the twentieth century was Aldo Leopold, an ecologist and forester and founder of The Wilderness Society. Leopold developed the ideas of an “ecological conscience” and a “land ethic”, now major parts of current environmental thinking, writing that “conservation is a state of harmony between men and land” and “we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”. Leopold saw wild land as being necessary for human beings saying “wilderness areas are first of all a series of sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing” in his classic book A Sand County Almanac.

At the same time as Leopold was writing A Sand County Almanac a Scottish climber by the name of W.H.Murray was writing an equally important book called Mountaineering in Scotland, a book written twice in prison of war camps, the first version being destroyed by guards. Through the 1930s Murray had made many first ascents on rock and ice in the Scottish Highlands and was one of the premier mountaineers of the time. However his climbing came out of a joy in wildness and his book is packed with wonderful descriptions of the mountains and the effect they had on him. After a night-time winter ascent of Buachaille Etive Mor he wrote “We had set out in search of adventure; and we had found beauty. Thus we had found both in their fuller sense; for in the architecture of hill and sky, as in great art and music, there is an everlasting harmony with which our own being had this night been made one. What more may we fairly ask of mountains?” Realising that his beloved Highlands were threatened by development Murray became an active conservation campaigner, his greatest victory, for which we should be very thankful, being the prevention of a hydro-electric scheme in Glen Nevis. Of industrial developments in the Highlands he wrote in Scotland’s Mountains that “they could invariably be sited elsewhere than the regions of outstanding landscape quality; sometimes at a greater cost in money, which civilized man should be prepared to pay” and lamented that “to find a wholly wild scene, unmarked by man’s building, one has to go ever farther into the hills”. That was written over twenty years ago. It is even truer today.

Much of Murray’s prose is evocative, romantic and emotional. In this he is more in accord with American wilderness writers such as John Muir or Edward Abbey than most British outdoor writers. And here I think lies one reason for the lack of passion about wild land, the lack of a tradition of landscape writing. British writers tend to be more detached, more cool about their subjects, more reticent about their feelings, which results in work that may be descriptive and informative but which isn’t inspiring or visionary, which lacks intensity. British writers can be divided, crudely, into two camps: nature writers and adventure writers. The former give intricate accounts of plants and wildlife, the latter factual descriptions of climbs and long walks. Neither usually presents a vision of wildness. Some nature writers, like Gavin Maxwell, approach this but none succeed like Murray or the Americans. Adventure writers still tend towards the cliché of the stiff-upper lip, eschewing feelings towards beauty or the wonder of wild places.

In the USA the 1960s saw the emergence of two very different writers who have been a major influence on wilderness thinking and wilderness travel: Colin Fletcher and Edward Abbey. Fletcher is the walkers’ writer, the backpacker who wrote about walking 1,000 miles through desert and mountain in California and for two months solo along the Grand Canyon. No one has captured the spirit of what it is like to walk and camp in a wild landscape better than Colin Fletcher. Here he is on his 1,000 mile walk: “High above the West Walker River, I climbed the final snowbank into a 10,000 foot pass …… Beyond the snowbank the mountainside dropped away again. And there below me lay the valley of the Silver King. Timbered slopes plunged down to a twisting V that held the creek. Two miles downstream, a meadow showed emerald green. Beyond, peak after Sierra peak stretched away northward to the horizon. There was no sign that man’s hand had touched a single leaf or a single blade of grass”. Whilst not a major campaigner Fletcher does make it clear that we have a responsibility to preserve wilderness. At the time he walked through the Grand Canyon this amazing cleft in the earth was threatened with being dammed and flooded. Horrified by this Fletcher wrote that it was “vandalism” and that we had “to shield from the blind fury of material ‘progress’ a work of time that is unique on the surface of our earth”, finishing “and we shall be judged you and I, by what we did or failed to do.”

The same year that Fletcher’s account of his walk through the Grand Canyon, The Man Who Walked Through Time, was published another book appeared that was to have repercussions for decades to come and introduce the world to the iconoclastic, controversial and distinctive voice of Edward Abbey. For the next 21 years until his death in 1989 Abbey was to be a provocative and challenging writer on wilderness and many other topics. Abbey’s love was for the deserts of the South-West USA where he walked, camped and paddled down rivers. His view of wilderness was that it was essential for human sanity and that preserving it came before anything else, writing “I come more and more to the conclusion that wilderness, in America or anywhere else, is the only thing left that is worth saving” and “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” Fond of disappearing into the desert for days or weeks Abbey noted that “a journey into the wilderness is the freest, cheapest, most nonprivileged of pleasures. Anyone with two legs and the price of a pair of army surplus combat boots may enter”.

Having regretted the lack of a British tradition of writing about wild land and landscape I’ve been delighted recently with a new author Robert Macfarlane. In his book The Wild Places Macfarlane explores the idea of the wild through wild places, large and small, in Britain. Macfarlane walked and slept in his wild places and at times his writing has the same intensity and power as Murray, Fletcher or Abbey. Of a camp on a November walk across Rannoch Moor he writes “we stopped there, for dusk was spreading over the Moor, and pitched a small tent. We lay talking in the dusk: about the ground we had covered, the ground still to go, about the odd mixture of apprehension and awe that the Moor provoked in us both. Our sleeping-place was cupped in a curve of the river, on a miniature flood-plain that the winter spates had carved out and flattened: a shelter in the middle of the Moor’s great space”. Macfarlane ends his book with the important insight for our small, crowded island that wild places don’t have to be vast and that small pockets of wildness exist almost everywhere – “there was as much to be learned in an acre of woodland on a city’s fringe as on the shattered summit of Ben Hope”. And that whilst wild places are under “multiple and severe threats”, these are temporary in the history of our planet and the wild will return – “the ivy will snake back and unrig our flats and terraces” – an image that reminded me of The Handsome Family’s wonderful song Peace In The Valley Again, which contains the lines:

Empty shelves will swarm with bees,
cash machines will sprout weeds,
lizards will crawl through the parking lot
as birds fly around empty shops.

Somehow I find these sentiments comforting and optimistic. Edward Abbey would agree.

Visionary writers on the wild are important, especially when we are far from wild places, both physically and spiritually. Read these authors, relish their words, turn over their ideas in your mind, let their visions inspire you. But above all go out into the wild and let it envelop you as it did them.

Suggested Reading

Henry David Thoreau Walking
John Muir My First Summer In The Sierra
Aldo Leopold A Sand County Almanac
W.H.Murray Mountaineering in Scotland
Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire
Colin Fletcher The Man Who Walked Through Time
Robert Macfarlane The Wild Places

Sunday 25 April 2010

Hamish's Mountain Walk: Book Review

In April 1974 experienced Scottish mountaineer Hamish Brown set out to climb all 279 Munros (3,000 foot summits in Scotland) in one continuous walk, something that had never been achieved before. After 112 days, 1639 miles and 449,000 feet of ascent he completed the walk. Continuous rounds have been done quite a few times since - sometimes in winter, in much faster times and with the addition of other summits - but Hamish Brown was first. Four years later the story of his pioneering walk was published. I bought a copy as soon as it came out and read it several times over the next few years. This is one of the books that inspired me and my hardback copy is dog-eared and well-thumbed. The book has been in print most of the time since 1978 but the last edition, published in a volume with Hamish’s Climbing the Corbetts, went out of print a few years ago. Now Sandstone Press has published a new and welcome paperback edition, making this classic book available to a new generation of mountain lovers.

Whilst the story of the Munros round is at the heart of Hamish’s Mountain Walk and is an inspiring and exciting tale in itself there is much more than this in the book as Hamish covers history, geology, natural history and more as well as stories of people he meets and from his past taking parties of schoolboys out in the hills. This mix produces an entertaining, informative and enthralling story that is written with verve and passion.

The latest edition has a new preface by the author and a selection of colour photos of the Scottish hills, many of which were clearly not taken during the walk. The original edition had black and white photos, which Hamish says are no longer available, which is a shame as they capture the feel of the walk well and show Hamish at various times during it, including on Ben Hope, the last Munro.

The appendices from the first edition have been omitted too and I miss these even more. The statistics of the walk and the equipment and food used are still of interest and valuable for planning. Indeed modern ultralight and lightweight backpackers could well study Hamish’s gear notes and realise that it was possible to travel very light back before most of today’s lightweight materials were available. Yet Hamish’s pack averaged around 23 lbs, including food, and only twice went above 30lbs. Most backpackers in the Highlands carry more than this today.

Despite these omissions I welcome the new edition. The story of the walk is still there, intact and untouched, waiting to inspire new walkers to explore the Highlands.

As the equipment list is missing from the new edition here are some notes taken from the first one. Hamish’s pack - a Tiso Special - was a simple frameless bag with no hipbelt, no back padding and no pockets. His tent was a single-skin nylon ridge tent with a floating groundsheet attached by elastic tabs that weighed “a bit over 3 lb”. The heaviest item was his down sleeping at 4lb, which he says “gave reasonable weight/quality ratio” – at that time light downproof fabrics didn’t exist. Weight was saved by not bothering with a sleeping mat – “except on snow these are just bulky extras. The rucksack, tent-bag, waterproofs and any spare clothes did just as well”. And this for a walk in the Highlands starting in early April. For cooking Hamish used a Camping Gaz Bleuet stove, changed for a solid fuel stove for a section where he used bothies instead of the tent, and a two pint pot whose lid doubled as a mug. His spoon was “edged sharp enough to cut” so he didn’t carry a knife or fork. His boots were “light, fairly soft” and with them he wore “good, soft wool stockings”. Clothing consisted of nylon waterproofs (non-breathable – this was before Gore-Tex), a long-sleeved Damart synthetic vest, a cotton shirt, a Shetland wool pullover, flannel trousers and a sun/rain hat. No gloves - long shirt sleeves pulled down did instead. Nor did he have an ice axe even though there was still much snow on the hills. Instead, when necessary, he used iron fence posts or even rocks instead.

Friday 16 April 2010

Photo Road Trip with Hills

Needing photographs of the Southern Uplands and the Black Mount in the Central Highlands for a forthcoming Cicerone Press Scottish Mountains book I decided to combine a trip to the two areas, despite the distance between them. Then it was a matter of waiting for the likelihood of several days of good weather. This arrived this last week so I duly set off for Glen Etive where I walked into the long, narrow and steep-sided glen of the Allt Coire Ghuibhasan. As darkness fell I was happy to find a small patch of flattish ground down by the stream for the tent. At the time I was just looking for anywhere that might make a comfortable camp before it grew too dark to see. The next day I looked out of the tent and down the rugged glen to the snowy peaks of Bidean nam Bian and realised I’d chosen a spectacular site.

The next day was spent following the long spine of the Black Mount from Stob Gabhar to Creise, a superb high level walk with tremendous views. Above 900 metres there was still almost total snow cover and the mountains felt alpine. The brightness of the sun and the glare from the snow made for an alpine feel too. The mountains shone in the spring light.

A second night in camp then it was down to the car and the long drive south to Moffat Dale. The sunny weather had me stopping many times before I left the Highlands for photographs of Rannoch Moor, Crianlarich, Ben Lomond and more. The Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum provided a nice lunch. The stops and the leisurely drive meant I reached Glasgow just in time for the rush hour and a tedious forty minutes stationary or at 5mph on the city motorway. Even when free of the congestion the motorway was crowded and I left it for Moffat with relief. The narrow winding road down Moffat Dale had little traffic and I reached the Grey Mare’s Tail car park more relaxed than I expected. Taking the opportunity of two trips in one to test various items of gear I set off with a different pack, tent, pair of boots, waterproof clothing and other items than those I had used just that morning. The Black Mount suddenly seemed far away in time as well as distance. But here I was heading up into the hills in the dusk again and feeling relieved when I found a little flat spot amongst the heathery knolls above Loch Skeen. The scenery isn’t as spectacular here as in the Highlands but it was another fine site, as I found when I woke to a view across the loch to White Coomb. The hot sunshine of the north had given way to cooler weather with a sharp east wind and I walked fast round the hills above the loch. Back at the tent by early afternoon with photos taken and walk done I decided to head home via Edinburgh, a longer route but with less time spent on motorways and the opportunity to stop at St Mary’s Loch and then in Galashiels for supper. Approaching Edinburgh I watched a deep red sun setting behind the Pentland Hills, its colour maybe enriched by the volcanic ash from Iceland. In the early hours of the morning I reached home under a brilliant starry sky.

Photo info: Both photos Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS lens, raw files converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6. Top photo: Camp in Coire Ghuibhasan, the Black Mount, 30mm, 1/500@ f5.6, ISO 100. Bottom photo: Camp by Loch Skeen in the Tweedsmuir Hills, 18mm, 1/50@f5.6, ISO 100.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Igloo Building on the Great Moss

Last autumn when I gave a talk to the Inverness Nordic and Ski Touring Club on my ski tour with igloos trip to the Wind River Range in Wyoming (see post for May 1, 2009) some members were interested in building an igloo in the Cairngorms. Despite the very snowy winter it was not until yesterday that an actual igloo trip took place. All the low level snow having gone four of us climbed up onto the vast Moine Mhor (Great Moss) above Glen Feshie and found a suitable spot where the snow was still several feet deep at about 950 metres on the eastern side of Carn Ban Mor. The situation was superb with nothing but snow-covered hills on all sides and a real sense of space and wilderness. I’d brought my Ice Box, that ingenious igloo building tool invented by Ed Huesers, and showed the others how it worked and how to construct an igloo. Never having taught igloo building before or indeed even built an igloo without other far more experienced igloo builders taking the lead I was very glad that the heavy damp spring snow formed blocks easily as this made the construction much simpler. Building the igloo took around four hours, during which time the hazy sky cleared and the late afternoon sun shone down. It was very hot. Too hot in fact. After we’d completed the igloo the sun melted a hole straight through one side, a neat circle directly in line with its beam. I later learnt that it was the hottest day of the year so far, the temperature reaching 19.4º in Aviemore. The hole wasn’t that big though and patching it seemed feasible, especially as the temperature fell rapidly after the sun had set. However I wasn’t staying the night and skied off across the plateau as Andy, Christine and Rob packed snow into the “window” in their igloo.

The snow on the descent of Carn Ban Mor was wonderful slick spring snow on which turns were fast and easy, the skis almost turning themselves. It was the best snow for downhill skiing I’ve experienced all this long season. Below the snow I stumbled down the rocky path in growing darkness as the stars came out and glittered in the black moonless sky. As I walked down the glen to my car I stared out at the unimaginable immensity of the universe. Our solar system, I thought, was just a tiny speck in the cosmos and planet Earth was just a tiny speck in the solar system and I, trudging tired, thirsty and aching down the road in the dark, was just a tiny speck on the surface of the planet. That I could know this, that I could even think of myself in relation to the cosmos, was somehow comforting or at least distracting, wrenching my mind away from my weariness. By the time I reached the car I felt surprisingly content.

Today I had an email from Rob saying that he had had a peaceful sleep in the igloo and that before retiring to bed they had stood outside star gazing. I was glad to know the igloo had been a success.

Photo info: Building the igloo. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS at 28mm, 1/1000@f5.6, ISO 100, raw files converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

A Rapid Thaw: From Winter To Spring

The two photos above were taken five days apart. The first was during a ski tour from home after the heavy snow that fell at the end of March. The snow was knee deep and it felt like winter, with a cold wind and the temperature below freezing. The waders that nest in the meadows in spring, which had been very noisy the week before, were gone, driven down to the lowlands and out to the coast by the blizzards and snow. Rabbits and roe deer had made tracks to grassy banks where they had scraped through the snow to gnaw at the frozen vegetation underneath. A few buzzards drifted overhead. Two roe deer high-stepped awkwardly through the deep snow in the trees. Usually they will speed away on seeing a person but for one of them this was too much effort and it sank down into the snow and simply watched me as I passed by. Then two days ago came rain and a warmer wind and a big thaw began, stripping the snow from the land and sending gushing streams down tracks and gullies and filling the meadows with pools of slush. Today I followed the same route and was amazed at how much snow had gone. The air was warm and there was colour in the land. The waders had returned and I listened to the cries of lapwings, curlews and oystercatchers and watched them whirling overhead. Songbirds called in the woods. There were catkins on the willows. Rabbits nibbled the freshly revealed grasses. No spring flowers had yet appeared, not even their leaves, but it did feel as though the season had changed. This time perhaps spring is really here.

Photo info: Both photos Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS lens, raw files converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6. Top photo 18mm, 1/125@ f8, ISO 100. Bottom photo 20mm, 1/160@f5.6, ISO 200.

Friday 2 April 2010

New TGO – the Arizona Trail, packs for backpacking and navigation techniques

The May issue of TGO is just out. My backpacking column is about the Arizona Trail, which I hiked ten years ago – I was in the Superstition Mountains on this date in 2000 – and which Colin Ibbotson is just setting out to hike (I had an email from him yesterday morning from Heathrow before his flight to Phoenix). The Arizona Trail was a marvellous walk and I’ll be interested to hear how Colin finds it. He’ll be travelling ultralight – which I definitely wasn’t – but water still weighs the same and much has to be carried at times. Modern technology that didn’t exist ten years ago (postcard were my main means of communication!) means he will be able to post blogs and even send back a track of his route. I hope to do something similar on a long walk later in the year. Colin’s hike can be followed here and the track here.

Elsewhere in TGO I’ve written a piece on navigation and reviewed 15 big packs, several of which would have cut the weight of my Arizona Trail load if they’d been available in 2000. There’s also a review of baby carriers by still relatively new father John Manning, kitting out kids by Ed Douglas, gear for hillwalking and via ferrata by Judy Armstrong who also has a piece on some new base layers with amazing claims, a look at how to deal with stinky synthetic base layers by Eddy Meecham (my answer is to wear merino wool instead), gear for trekking by Pete Royall, Cameron McNeish’s personal choice of backpacking gear, and an interview with the chief executive of the Outdoor Industries Association by Emily Rodway.

Away from gear Judy Armstrong describes a three day circuit in the Lake District, Ed Douglas looks at hillwalking with kids, Pete Royall treks in the Khumbu, Cameron McNeish links the Lairigs in the Cairngorms, Dave Willis tries out via ferrata in Corvara and Jim Perrin reflects on youth and maturity,

Photo info: In the Superstition Mountains on the Arizona Trail, April 3, 2000. The big pack is a Gregory Shasta. Ricoh RDC-5000 at 8mm, 1/250@ f6.7, tripod. JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Thursday 1 April 2010

Blizzard Aftermath

After two days of heavy snow and high winds the blizzard finally faded away sometime during last night and today has been sunny with high clouds and a NW breeze. Venturing outside I ploughed a way through the waist deep drift outside the front door. The bird feeders were almost touching the snow, enabling pheasants and blackbirds to peck at the peanuts. With snowshoes on I was able to walk over the garden gate, though I was still sinking in knee-deep. In the woods many more branches and trees have come down – the damage this winter has been severe. In the sunshine rabbits and pheasants were lined up on a bank at the edge of the wood nibbling the grass revealed as the top of the bank thawed in the sun. Great dollops of snow crashed down from the trees as they warmed up. The snowpack is wet and heavy and starting to pack down but there is so much snow it could still take days to thaw, especially as a hard frost with temperatures down to -10ºC is forecast for tonight. There is likely to be an icy crust on the snow tomorrow.

Yesterday evening as the blizzard still raged there was a power cut that lasted for two hours. Camping gear comes in useful here and I soon had soup heating up on a little gas burner and a lantern lighting the kitchen. With plenty of logs and coal for the solid fuel stove the house was warm and a wind-up radio kept me informed of all the closed roads, trapped trains and power cuts. For me this snow has been a minor discomfort, for others it has been a real problem. And for wildlife the whole winter has been terrible.

Photo info: The same scene as in the previous post, April 1, 2010. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS@28mm, 1/1000@ f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6