Saturday 30 October 2010

Reviews: World Mountain Ranges Scotland

The first review of my new Scotland book has appeared on Andy Howell's Must Be This Way site - here. It's a detailed review that describes the book well. I'm really pleased that Andy likes the book, saying

"Chris has the knack of using just enough words to give us a proper flavour of the place ...... this is a book that should grace the bookcases of all hillwalkers and mountaineers that love the hills of Scotland."

Another review has appeared on It's another detailed positive and detailed review and again I'm delighted that the reviewer, Dave Mycroft, really likes the book, saying that it's

"set to become the definitive resource ..... in its own way an object of beauty and desire .... absolute essential for anyone with even a passing interest in Scotland's mountains and the default bookshelf reference work for at least a generation".

I feel somewhat overwhelmed by these reviews! They make all the hard work that went into the book really worthwhile.

Update: a short review has appeared in Walk, the Ramblers magazine. The reviewer says "it’s an invaluable planning tool and inspiration for Scottish hillwalkers".

Update Dec 8: My old friend Cameron McNeish has reviewed Scotland for the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, saying "this is a book that will thrill newcomers to the Scottish hills while at the same time give great satisfaction to those of us who are a little bit more long-in-the-tooth and will undoubtedly find many nuggets of information." Thanks Cameron!

Update: Dec 21. Another nice review on Outdoors Magic - "A cracking book that should be on every mountain walker and mountaineer's book shelf."

Update: Dec 28. Good detailed review on Hendrik Morkel's excellent Hiking in Finland blog."After I got the book I wasn't able to put it back down........mandatory for all those who plan to spend time outdoors in Scotland".

Photo info: Bidean nam Bian at dusk. Canon EOS 300D, Canon EF-S 18-55@55mm, 1/100@f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 4.

Pacific Northwest Trail interview

I've just been interviewed about the Pacific Northwest Trail by Jörgen Johansson for Fjäderlä You can read the interview here.

Fjäderlätt is an interesting site as it's about lightweight backpacking but from a Swedish rather than an American perspective. No hot deserts or sunny Californian mountains here. That said, the last month of my PNT hike was more like hiking in Scandinavia or Scotland than any other walk I've done in North America with rain and low clouds most days.

Photo info: A rare sight in the North Cascades during my hike - a mountain almost appearing out of the clouds. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@36mm, 1/250@f8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Friday 29 October 2010

Cameras for Backpacking: Decisions, Decisions

Long distance walks in wild country can take their toll on bodies and equipment. On the Pacific Northwest Trail it was my camera gear that suffered most, with one camera failing completely and the lens on the other losing a major function. Before the walk I had considered buying one of the new smaller cameras, known variously as interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) or micro systems cameras (MSC), such as the Sony NEX 5, Panasonic GF1 or Samsung NX10, that produce the same quality images as DSLRs in order to save weight. However I decided that, quite apart from the extra cost, I’d rather have cameras with which I was familiar and wouldn’t have to think about during the walk so I took my Canon 450D DSLR plus my Sigma DP1 digital compact as a back-up. To keep the weight down I took just one lens with the Canon, an 18-55mm zoom. Both cameras were well-used before the walk, too well-used it seems, given what happened. The DP1 lasted just ten days before the lens stuck in the open position and the whole camera froze. Fresh batteries made no difference. The camera was dead. I did have a camera on my HTC Desire smartphone that would do as a back-up though I doubted the results would be very good. In fact, although nowhere near the quality of the 450D or DP1, the phone camera images looked fine on the web and when printed fairly small in TGO magazine. Using the camera quickly depleted the battery though so I didn’t take many pictures with the phone. The Canon worked fine for the first half of the walk and then the autofocus on the lens started malfunctioning before failing completely. I then had to use manual focus, which was difficult due to the very narrow and very sensitive focusing ring. I had no choice but to persevere with this for the rest of the walk but I knew I would have to replace the lens. Apart from anything else in cold weather manual focusing with cold fingers or when wearing gloves would be just about impossible.

So back home I was faced with the choice of repairs or replacement. The DP1 went to Sigma who quoted £125 to repair it. As the DP1 was a discontinued model with much I didn’t like about it and I could buy the improved DP1s for £100 more I felt reluctant to pay to have it mended. A new Canon lens would cost around £100. As I’d now gone through two of these kit lenses in five years I didn’t expect a replacement would last long. So, £225 to keep the old cameras going. The alternative was to buy a replacement camera for the DP1 that had an 18-55mm lens or equivalent. At this point I’d never actually seen any of the ILC cameras except in pictures. Before making a decision I wanted to handle them so I was pleased to discover that Jessops in Inverness stocked virtually every model. Just viewing the cameras proved instructive. Although I’d seen pictures of them next to DSLRs they were still smaller than I’d realised. Holding them was also instructive. In the hills I want a camera that feels secure in the hand and that I can grip firmly while taking photos. One of the cameras was rejected immediately. It actually felt slippery, the slight curve of the grip seeming to have been designed for your hand to slide off. The models that look like mini DSLRs did have positive hand grips but these were also the bulkiest and heaviest ones. Of the compact style models the Sony NEX 5 had the best grip. It was also the smallest. And in lab tests it had excellent dynamic range – better in fact than many DSLRs including the 450D as well as all the other ILCs. As dynamic range is important for outdoor photography where bright skies and dark foregrounds are common this was a big plus point. The one drawback was the lack of a viewfinder. There’s not even an electronic one available as an extra. I didn’t like the idea of holding the camera out in front of me and trying to keep it steady in the wind or in low light. However the NEX 5 has a tilting screen and I realised I could hold it by my chest with my arms tucked in, which should be as steady as holding it to my eye. The metal-bodied NEX looked pretty solid too and the metal 18-55 lens looked much higher quality than the plastic Canon one. After a few days pondering the decision was made and it was back to Jessops for an NEX 5.

Replacing the DP1 with the NEX 5 means that the 450D will now be used with my 11-18 and 55-250 lenses and carried when weight isn’t too important. Eventually I may replace it with another NEX model and lenses, which will cut weight further. As it is, the NEX 5 plus 18-55 lens weighs 520 grams while the Canon 450D plus 18-55 lens weighs 786 grams and is considerably bulkier.

So far the NEX 5 has only been used on a couple of short walks in dull weather and I haven’t made a direct comparison with the 450D. However the first images suggest that the quality is at least as good as the Canon at low ISOs and much better at high ones. I think I’m going to like this camera. And I’m sure I’m going to like the low weight and bulk. The NEX 5 could be the ideal backpacking camera.

Photo Info: Top: Anagach Woods, Grantown-on-Spey. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@18mm, 1/60@f3.5, ISO 250, sweep panorama function, JPEG tweaked in Lightroom 3.
Bottom: Autumn Leaves. Sony NEX-5,18-55 lens@44mm, 1/50@f5.6, ISO 400, JPEG tweaked in Lightroom 3.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Strathspey Autumn: Colours and Snow

Dreich weather with low cloud and rain squalls over the last few days have kept the world grey and sombre and provided little incentive to venture outdoors. Yesterday however the clouds thinned for a few hours, allowing bursts of sunshine to light the autumn trees and bring colour to the woods and hills. The high Cairngorms remained hidden, the cloud only rising just enough to show snow on the lower flanks of Bynack More and Cairn Gorm. Across Strathspey the lower Cromdale Hills and distant Ben Rinnes shone white with fresh snow. I wandered through the local woods, where the birches glowed gold. A lone buzzard circled above the woods, mewing loudly. In every dip and hollow the ground was sodden, saturated by the recent rains. There was no wind and the woods were silent apart from my boots rustling the fallen leaves and squelching in the mud. In the sunshine it was warm but in shaded areas the cold had me zipping up my jacket and thrusting my hands in my pockets. When the storms cease this is a glorious time of year, a period of brightness and beauty before the winter sets in. Soon the leaves will fall and fade, shredding the land of colour ready for the monochrome of winter.

Photo Info: The photos show Ben Rinnes (top) and the Cromdale Hills rising above the Strathspey woods, October 23, 2010. Both photos: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@55mm, 1/320 (top) & 1/100 @ f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Friday 22 October 2010

New Book - Scotland

My latest book is just out – “Scotland” in Cicerone’s World Mountain Ranges series. It’s a big book – 557 pages - covering all the Scottish hills from the Southern Uplands to the Outer Hebrides and illustrated with hundreds of my photos and some excellent maps put together by Cicerone. “Scotland” is the product of seven years of research, writing, photography and hillwalking, far longer than I expected it to take. My opinion on how much I knew about the Scottish hills turned out to be completely wrong!

The writing and photography are my own but I do owe Cicerone my thanks for the work they have put into the book. I think it looks excellent and I’m very pleased with it. I hope others like it too and find it interesting and useful.

You can see details of the book on the Cicerone website here.

Photo Info: The cover photo shows Ladhar Bheinn and Loch Hourn. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@55mm, 1/100 @ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

The Hills of Home

Even after a summer long trip it doesn’t take long before I feel the need to walk in wild places again. So ten days after returning from the Pacific Northwest I took a day out from clearing the backlog of work and headed for my local hills, the Cairngorms. After a week of low cloud and occasional rain the forecast was for a day of sun and clouds with good visibility after which the stormy weather was predicted to return. My favourite walk in this area, one I do several times a year, is across the great Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui. There are many possible variations to this walk. Back in June on a two day trip - the last one before I undertook the Pacific Northwest Trail – I’d climbed to the plateau from Loch Avon and descended into the Lairig Ghru. This time I stayed high throughout, crossing the plateau from Lurchers Gully and returning via Stob Coire an t-Sneachda. I set off in drizzle with swirling clouds on the tops but within half an hour a bright sun was shining hazily through thin clouds and I had my sleeves rolled up and dark glasses on. The clouds rose above the tops and the visibility was indeed good, as promised, though the light was flat and dull. Even so the tremendous power of this vast mountain landscape made me feel intensely pleased and grateful to be there. Every time I return from a venture to higher mountains and more remote wild country I wonder if the hills of home will have the same effect on me, will seem as grand and impressive. They have never failed to do so yet but I don’t take them for granted. If I did I suspect that one day I would be disappointed.

As so often the final hours of the day saw the light change and give a last burst of beauty and colour before the darkness came. I had already started for home when I saw the clouds clearing and blue sky appearing. Knowing that at this time of year the low afternoon sun shines along Loch Morlich, lighting the water, the woods along the shore and the backdrop of hills, I stopped for a stroll along the lochside. By luck rather than intention I’d timed it perfectly. The sun was slanting across the hills, which were reflected in the calm water along with the woods on the far shore, where the gold of autumn birches stood out against the dark green of the pines. Drifting clouds added to the depth and complexity of the scene. The lovely light didn’t last long as the angle of the sun soon meant the hills were dark and a breeze sprang up and ruffled the reflections. For a few minutes though all had been perfection. The hills had welcomed me home.

Photo info: Loch Morlich & the Cairngorms, 16th October 2010, Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55 IS@18mm, 1/25 @ f5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Pacific Northwest Trail reports

A week after returning home from the Pacific Northwest Trail my summer adventure is already fading into the past. Dealing with a failed hard drive (the one with the operating system of course) and the aftermath of restoring files and software has proved an unwelcome distraction. Downloading my images has been welcome, though seeing the images on screen further confirms that it really is over.

Reports on the trail will continue though. Long reports are being published each month in TGO, the first ones in the October and November issues. I’ll be describing how my gear performed in a feature in the January issue too. Short versions of these articles plus the videos I made before the walk can be seen on the TGO website.

There’s also a gallery of images, all taken with my phone camera, on my Facebook page.

Photo Info: Photo info: Clouds & Sun in the Five Lakes Basin, Olympic National Park. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, 1/250@F8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.2.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Through the Olympics to the Pacific

The last nine days of my Pacific Northwest Trail hike encapsulated the walk as a whole. I had days of sunshine and days of torrential rain, dense clouds hiding the peaks and clear skies with sharp distant horizons. I walked on busy highways, logging roads, remote trails and, on the coast, tough trailless terrain. The Olympic Mountains came and went in the mist, though Mount Olympus itself remained hidden. Along the ocean I scrambled over boulders, seaweed and big logs and strode along sandy beaches. I camped in the majestic giant trees of the Bogachiel rain forest and on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Finally I reached Cape Alava and the wonderful adventure was over. Both sad and elated I turned away from the trail. It was time to go home.

The picture is at trail's end at Cape Alava. There are more pictures on my Facebook pages and TGO magazine is running a series of longer articles on the walk.