Friday 30 September 2011

Meall a'Bhuachaille: Photo Essay

In the Cairngorms the surprising heatwave at the end of September - the hottest weather of the summer - came with strong gusty winds and mostly soft, hazy, humid skies. On the last day of the month rather than battle the wind and the heat on the high plateaux I settled on the ridge that runs north of Glenmore and which gives superb views of the Northern Cairngorms, Strathspey and Abernethy Forest. Layers of high clouds endlessly changing in depth and shade as the wind ripped through them, high humidity that made the air seem thick and heavy and which turned distant views into vague silhouettes and the bright autumn colours all made for an unusual, slightly unreal land scape lit by a mostly bright yet also diffuse light. Down in the forest the damp air was still and just walking on the level produced copious sweat. On the hills the wind dried the sweat but was not cold.

I took the high level path from Glenmore to Ryvoan Pass, which gave good views over the deep cleft of the pass from the tangled forest to the screes and scattered trees of Creag nan Gall

To the south the dense air gave a blue tinge to the north ridge of Cairn Gorm and the distant summir of Bynack More.

Leaving the track I descended through the rough forest into Ryvoan pass past many birches glorious in autumn colours.

The climb to Meall a'Bhuachaille, the highest of these hills, was sweaty and windswept. The light dulled and the sky darkened, with the big Cairngorm tops disappearing in the clouds. Along the ridge the sky changed constantly as the sun and clouds fought for dominance. The blustery wind made photography difficult but a sunny lull gave this view back south along along the ridge.

To the north cloud-filtered sunlight gave a soft but colourful wash over Abernethy Forest and lochs Mallachie and Garten. Beyond the flat forest plain the distand moorland merged with the misty sky.

Descending at dusk there was just a touch of colour in the sky over the dark Gleann Einich hills.

Thursday 29 September 2011

The Joys of Wild Camping

Here's another piece from the past. I wrote this five years ago. My views on wild camping haven't changed!

Rain falling on the flysheet. Hypnotic. Rhythmic. The sound rises and falls, speeds up, slows down. The tent shivers in the gusting wind. Cold air swirling across the thin nylon skin. Inside a candle burns in the porch, casting flickering shadows on the walls from its golden pool of light. A pot of thick soup sits simmering above the blue hissing flame of a tiny stove. I lie in my thick down sleeping bag, lulled almost to sleep by the rain. I am hungry though. I reach out an arm and spoon up a mouthful of soup. The vegetables are soft. It’s done. I sit up, shivering suddenly as my arms and shoulders hit the cool air. I pull on a down vest over my thin base layer and feel instantly cosy. The storm has changed. The wind comes in gusts now, each one accompanied by a staccato burst of heavy rain. I listen to the spattering on the flysheet and the dying sighs of the wind between the storm showers as I drink my hot soup. Then I drift off to sleep protected from the cold and wet by my skimpy nylon cocoon.

I find such nights in the wilds, sheltered from the elements but still in contact with them, magical and satisfying. The closeness of the storm makes me feel close to nature, close to the source of life, and strangely at peace. I tend to sleep long and deep in such weather. More exciting and keeping me more wakeful are calm nights with the sky full of stars when I can lie in my sleeping bag free from the constraints of a shelter and stare at the vastness of the universe, at the great wheeling black sky stretching from horizon to horizon and back, far back, to the very dawn of time and the creation of the universe. Such nights are best on a high isolated mountain top or a flat desert plain, places where the sky is big and the world small.

Then there’s the waking. The dawn. The wonderful realisation that I am in the wilds with the freedom of a day’s walking ahead of me. Sunrise is the coldest time of day and I have often lain in my sleeping bag feeling the frosty air drifting over my face and watching as the sun lights the rocks high on the mountain above, turning the dull grey red and gold, then creeps slowly downwards, bringing light and colour, until it suddenly bursts over me, a startling explosion of warmth and brightness. I never tire of such mornings, such beginnings. Then there are the mornings when you wake to a strange diffused light in the tent and an unusual sharpness in the air. Touch the flysheet and there’s a soft slithering sound. The light is suddenly clearer and brighter. Snow has fallen in the night and the world is untouched and perfect.

Wild camping, far from roads, towns, bright lights, noise, and all the rest of industry and society that separates us from nature, is a joyful experience, a delightful game, a thrilling simplicity. It puts us back in close contact with the real world, the natural world. It also puts back in contact with our prehistoric and primeval past, to the period – the long period, covering most of human existence – when everyone lived in the wilds, when there was no civilisation, no urban life and we were all nomadic. Then shelter was a tent of animal skins or tree branches, perhaps a cave, at best a simple hut made from natural materials. Cooking was done over a wood fire, the smoke drifting through the trees and out into the sky. Sleeping meant curling up in furs and skins in front of the same fire. Those times are there still there in our nature, part of our inescapable past. The feelings of wonder and joy when wild camping are, I suspect, in part an acknowledgement of this, a connection with our ancestors.

These feelings from the distant past also link in with one of the fun aspects of wild camping, which also comes from childhood: den making, home creating, building your own private hideout in which you can be secure and outside the world. When a child I used to build shelters from fallen branches and in tree wells and the roots of fallen trees and relished these secret lairs. I think camping, especially with a small backpacking tent, reflects such children’s adventures. The creativity of building the shelter may not be there but creativity exists in selecting a site and pitching the tent to resist the weather. And with a tarp it all comes back, perhaps why I find tarp camping more satisfying than tent camping. A tarp can be fitted into the landscape, pitched to follow the curves of a hollow or adapted to the shape of a huge fallen tree root or steep bank. Tents I usually pitch quickly. Tarps I may spend an hour or more playing with shapes and possibilities. There’s a sense of pride and success sitting under a tarp in a storm too, knowing that you pitched this sheet of nylon so it would resist the weather, choosing the shape and adjusting the sheet to make the best shelter.

Camp cooking also connects us with our primeval ancestors and with our childhood. There is a delight in being able to produce an edible meal in one pot over a small stove, even if it did come out of a packet and just needed heating up. That food provides warmth and energy, which seem much more essential in the wilds. The stove is the modern campfire and hence jealously guarded by many campers. Criticising someone’s choice of stove is like criticising their fire making ability and likely to be fiercely resisted. The stove is the heart of the camp because that is where meals and hot drinks are produced. In Britain I normally cook in or just outside the tent porch, often sitting in the tent to avoid wind and rain. In the Western USA and Canada, where there are bears that may raid your camp, I often cook some distance away from my shelter so any visiting bear will go to the kitchen area and not to me when I’m asleep. In such camps I spend my time in my camp kitchen by the stove, the tent becoming just a bedroom. If the weather is bad I erect a tarp as a kitchen shelter and sit under that.

You can’t stare away an evening watching a stove however. You can with a camp fire and in areas where they can be built safely and without doing any damage I still like to light one. There’s magic in the warmth and flickering flames that can’t be found in a stove. I can remember one night on a 1000 mile walk through the Yukon Territory, a walk on which I lit many camp fires, when I camped in forest in the rain at the end of a long day feeling rather fed up with the weather and the difficult going. I slung a tarp between two trees and lit a fire in front of it, putting my mini grill over one end so I could make a hot drink and cook hot food. Sitting under the tarp with a mug of hot soup listening to the rain hiss and spit as it landed on the blazing fire and looking out into the blackness of the forest, just shadowy, flickering tree trunks lit by the flames visible with beyond them the dark stretching to infinity, my mood changed and I felt calm and relaxed, pleased to be there, in front of my little fire, alone in the vastness of the wilderness. It turned into one of the most enjoyable camps of the walk.

Sometimes makeshift camps can be like that. Of course arriving at a spot you worked out in advance would be a good place to camp can be satisfying. There’s a challenge however in finding a site in unpromising places, especially when the selected one proves unusable. On a long walk in the Canadian Rockies I came to a lake whose shore I had thought would be a good place to camp. I was wrong. The lake was surrounded by tussocks and bog. After circling it and confirming there was no dry or flat ground I continued on down a narrow trail into steep dense forest, worrying about finding a site as the day was late and darkness would soon fall. The trail dropped into a narrow valley with a stream trickling down it. There was no flat ground beside the stream but it was the only water I’d seen for a while so I wanted to camp nearby, especially as it was now almost dark. I climbed a little way up the far side through the now gloomy trees and scouted round for a site. A gap between two pines looked just big enough. I lay down on the pine needles. There was barely enough flat ground. I squeezed the tent in between the trees, distorting the ends round their trunks. It would do. And it did. A wonderfully comfortable camp on soft pine needles in the quiet of a dense forest. I slept like a log, an appropriate saying given my surroundings.

On another occasion on my walk over the Munros and Tops I descended from Bidean nam Bian into the Lairig Eilde on a day of torrential rain and strong winds. The whole glen was waterlogged with pools of water on every flattish spot and cascades pouring down the valley sides. I stumbled through the wetness, cursing the rain and feeling glum as I searched for a site. I wanted warmth and shelter, food and rest. Eventually I found a flattish knoll that wasn’t too wet with just enough room for my little tent. I pitched it, tightening the guylines against the wind, stripped off my wet waterproofs, boots and socks and crawled in. Suddenly I had shelter. I donned a dry fleece sweater and slid into my dry sleeping bag. Now I had warmth. I lit the stove and made a hot drink. Outside lay a saturated world, the rain still hammering down. Now it looked wild and exciting though and I felt glad to be there. Wild camping is like that. Even the most unpromising even unpleasant situation can become pleasurable. I recommend it.

The pictures show camps along the Arizona Trail, in the Northwest Highlands, in the Cairngorms and in the West Highlands.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Summer Returns to Strathspey

After a cool, wet summer with much low cloud and grey skis and little in the way of sunshine the last few days have been a surprise. Summer may be over and autumn may have begun but this is the warmest, sunniest period of weather since April. Most of the day the sky was a clear blue and the hills shone in the clear air. Come late afternoon though and the low sun sent long black shadows across the bright land and the autumn colours became richer and deeper. Over the high hills to the west clouds gathered, rippling above the summits. Tomorrow white cloud and light rain is forecast but on Friday the sunshine is meant to return before heavy rain arrives on Saturday. For now this warm air is welcome. Well after dark the temperature is still 17ºC, more than the high on many days this summer, yet the sky is clear and the starts sparkle, which usually means a frost in late September.

The photo shows the view across Strathspey to the Northern Cairngorms. It was taken at 5.33 p.m. today.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Allt Duine: A Landscape Under Threat

Ever since the plan was announced for the Allt Duine wind farm in the Monadh Liath hills on the very edge of the Cairngorms National Park I had intended to visit the region and try and gain a feel for the landscape. I had been this way in the past, most memorably on ski tours, an activity for which the Monadh Liath are well-suited, but I only had a hazy memory of the nature of the land around the Allt Duine. This is not surprising as the Monadh Liath is a subtle landscape, one of curving gentle slopes, vast sweeps of moorland, lonely pools and trickling burns. The attraction is in the wildness and remoteness, the sense of space and freedom rather than dramatic peaks or spectacular rock scenery.

I approached the area from Strathspey, climbing up through attractive pine and birch woodland on tracks and paths to the Allt na Cornlaraiche, which I followed out of the woods and onto open moorland. Above the stream I reached the border of the national park on the watershed between the rivers Spey and Dulnain. The wind farm with its 21 turbines reaching a height of 125 metres would fill the whole area in front of me and away to the west. What I saw was a spreading, quietly beautiful, complex tangle of water and hill, heather and grass, land and sky. A natural place, home to birds, animals and plants and with a wonderful feel of quietness and peace.  Clouds raced over the sky, breaking in waves on the hilltops. Just to the east 824 metre Geal-charn Mor, the highest hill in the area, was shrouded in greyness.

I climbed to an indistinct top, marked on the map as Carn an Fhuarain Duibh, and looked out on this wild world. A few tall thin lines caught my eye. Anenometers, placed to measure the wind and show this is a suitable place for industrialisation, the first creeping signs of the proposed destruction. For this land, whilst looking rugged and tough, will be changed utterly if the wind farm is built. There will be no more peace, no more quiet. The sounds will no longer be those of wind and water and the calls of moorland birds. Instead the view will be filled with metal monsters towering into the sky and the scars of the bulldozed roads built to service them and the sounds will be the whirring of the turbines.

I gazed over the land, wondering how long this would be here and whether people in the future will have the opportunity to experience this wild beauty, then I turned and descended back into the woods. The sky had stayed overcast and there seemed little chance of a sunset but as I walked through the winds a sudden burst of bright orange and red lit up a patch of clouds. A few minutes later and it had gone.

I have written about the Save the Monadhliath Mountains campaign before. Support is still needed. Please sign the petition. If in doubt as to the impact of this wind farm have a look at Scotland-Landscapes, where there are carefully prepared maps showing just what is proposed, the area it covers and how it will be visible from many other places including the northern Cairngorms. Thanks to Alan Sloman for discovering Scotland-Landscapes.

Friday 23 September 2011

Interview & Pictures in Photography Monthly

There's an interview with me in the October issue of Photography Monthly (in the shops now) about my photography and my book A Year in the Life of the Cairngorms, with some photos from the book. You can see a mention bottom left on the cover. One of my Cairngorms photos has also been used as a double page spread on the Inspiration page at the front of the magazine. For each photo I've told the story of how I took the shot. Unfamiliar with Scottish mountain terms the editors have added translations in parentheses. I'm not sure where these came from as "coire" is given as "ravine"! (I guess the mistake could come from the photo, which shows a rather dizzying view down a gully into a coire.)

Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Ethics of Outdoor Gear

The article below was written for TGO in 2008. Some of the information will be out of date now but the overall tenor of the article is still vaid. It is rather long but I think the subject matter deserves serious consideration.

The photo shows porters on a trek in Nepal. One use for uneeded gear is to donate it for use by such people.


Many years ago I read an excellent book by top American mountaineer Yvon Chouinard called Climbing Ice, something I was trying to learn at the time, though not very successfully. Last year I read another book by Yvon Chouinard, a very different though equally excellent book called Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. When Climbing Ice was published back in 1978 Chouinard was boss of Chouinard Equipment, which made climbing hardware, much of it to Chouinard’s innovative design, and a fairly new clothing company called Patagonia. Chouinard Equipment was bought out by its employees in the late 1980s and became Black Diamond. Patagonia stayed under Chouinard’s wing and became the successful outdoor clothing company we know today. But Patagonia isn’t an ordinary company and that’s the story of Chouinard’s second book. “At Patagonia” writes Chouinard “the protection and preservation of the natural environment …. they’re the reason we are in business.” Chouinard sees Patagonia as existing to show that a company can be environmentally and socially responsible, a role model for other businesses. This began back in the 1980s when Chouinard first became concerned about the environment and felt that Patagonia should support conservation groups and also “look within the company and reduce our own role as a corporate polluter”. With that in mind Patagonia produced the first outdoor equipment catalogue on recycled paper and began to make regular donations to groups working to save or restore habitat. Then in 1986 the company made the commitment to give 10 percent of profits to these groups (later changed to 1 percent of sales or 10 percent of profits, whichever was higher), something it has done every year ever since. Patagonia also initiates campaigns and uses its catalogues and website to promote environmental causes. The company has a set of detailed “philosophies” covering everything from product design through production and distribution to image, finance, human resources, management, and, of course, the environment, all of which are described in Let My People Go Surfing. Chouinard isn’t unrealistic and says that “Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable nondamaging product. But it is committed to trying.” And it is setting a great example for everybody else. I think this is an important book that deserves attention, especially by those running companies. Reading it is not a chore either as it’s well-written, entertaining and packed with thought-provoking ideas.

Reading Chouinard’s book set me thinking about the ethics of outdoor gear, something that has concerned me for many years. I’ve always believed that a reason for buying good quality gear is that it lasts and therefore uses less resources as it needs replacing less often, that unwanted gear should be passed on or sold rather than thrown out and that gear that can be repaired should be. However the equipment world has become far more complex than when I realised, after a few soakings and uncomfortable camps, that choosing proper equipment was also a good idea for comfort and safety. Back in those days virtually all companies made equipment in their own factories which gear writers, whose ranks I soon joined, received regular invitations to visit. I saw gear being made, talked to machinists and warehouse people as well as owners and designers and developed a good idea of how companies worked. I learnt that setting up new designs was expensive and time-consuming so once an item was in production a company wanted to go on making it for as long as possible. All that has now changed. Only a few small companies make their gear in their own factories in their home country. Instead the industry has gone global and gear is made in many countries worldwide, often in the Far East but rarely in the developed west. Materials may be made in one country then transported across the world to another to be made into products which are then shipped to the country whose name is on them. A quick glance at a jacket I am about to review shows that the company is French, the fabric American and the factory Tunisian. Companies are now designers and marketers but rarely manufacturers. And designers want to design new products all the time and marketers want new products to promote all the time and the manufacturers who make these products are happy to make new ones all the time. In the past products only disappeared when sales dropped drastically. Today there may only be one production run of a successful product before it is redesigned or replaced, something made much easier with computer-aided design. The speed of design and production has soared, which means far more products far more often clamouring to be bought. Is this healthy? Do we need all these products? Choice is good but I think there are too many lookalike products where the only real choice is which logo is on the product. And often features are added to a product simply to make it different from rivals even though they have no practical use and may, indeed, actually reduce the performance.

The new system of production throws up new ethical problems. Just how damaging to the environment is shifting all the products and their components back and forth around the world? Just how well are those faraway factories run and the workers treated? Just what effect does the increased use of resources have on the environment? Of course there were ethical problems with equipment manufacture in the past too. Wastage of resources was probably greater than now and less thought was given to polluting the environment. But it’s the new globalised world we have to deal with today. What do outdoor companies think about the environment, about the people who make their products? What do they do to minimise the damage caused and to ensure proper treatment of workers? How many are like Patagonia? Which products do the least damage? Is natural best? Can anything be done with old worn-out gear other than adding it to the world’s waste mountain? There are questions here for companies and for us, the people who use their products.

Does it matter anyway though? Should we be concerned? Isn’t this an issue for politicians and bureaucrats, a boring matter of legislation and dull committees? Maybe we should just get on with enjoying the hills and forget about these ethical matters? Some people no doubt will. However concern for the environment in which we walk and camp is common amongst walkers and backpackers, many of whom support organisations working to protect wild lands and wild life. This is hardly surprising if we want to have beautiful wild places in the future but surely the same people – us – should also be concerned that the tools and toys we use in the outdoors are not adding to the forces that damage the environment.

For those who are concerned there is good news. The outdoor industry is collectively starting to address the questions I raised above and many individual companies are taking a lead in this. There are two big umbrella organisations, the American Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), and the European Outdoor Group (EOG), that represent outdoor companies and both have groups working on conservation and the environment, the OIA Eco Working Group and the EOG Association for Conservation. The first of these groups is most concerned with the actual practices of outdoor companies, stating that “we believe in a world where we live, recreate and do business in harmony with our land, air, water and communities. We are committed to finding solutions that will lead to positive and measurable societal change and significantly improve our environmental footprint and protect our valuable earth for future generations”. The EOG as a whole has a rather less grand aim: “to help establish platforms of ‘best practice’ on issues such as the environment, sourcing and other areas of common interest”. However the EOG also has an Association for Conservation, founded in 2006 with an address, on video, by Yvon Chouinard, that has the aim of “protecting wild areas that we care so passionately about” and raises money from member companies to donate to conservation groups. Although less than two years old the EOG Association for Conservation has over 29 members and has already provided funds to several groups including the John Muir Trust, proMontBlanc (an organisation for the protection of the Mont Blanc Massif), and Travel for Others Onlus (a joint Italian-Nepalese project to develop education, health, training, employment and environment in the Thame Valley in Nepal).

The Association for Conservation follows the example of The Conservation Alliance, founded by Patagonia, REI, The North Face and Kelty in 1989 to “engage outdoor businesses to help protect and conserve threatened wild places for their habitat and recreation values”. This organisation now has over 130 members and has donated more than £2.5 million to conservation projects in North America.

A wider based American organisation is One Percent for the Planet, set up in 2001 with Yvon Chouinard as one of the founders. The aim of this organisation is to “use market forces to drive positive environmental change by inspiring companies to give” and members donate 1 percent of sales to environmental groups. One Percent for the Planet has over 700 member companies, over 100 of them from Europe and many not outdoor companies. One Percent for the Planet, the EOG Association for Conservation and The Conservation Alliance are all clearly expanding on the programme of giving Patagonia set itself back in 1986.

There is less happening in the field of working practices and factory conditions. The EOG has its aim of establishing best practice in sourcing but that’s about it collectively in Europe. In the USA the OIA has a Fair Labour Working Group which has produced “Guidelines to Ethically Operate Supply Chains” and a Code of Conduct which it hopes all OIA members will sign up to. However some individual companies are active in this field. Timberland has its own Code of Conduct and has been recognised as in the top ten of 100 best corporate citizens by Business Ethics magazine. GoLite, whose shoes are made by Timberland, follows this Code of Conduct and says “we monitor our factories to ensure our products are made in workplaces that are fair, safe and non-discriminatory. We audit all our vendors, tanneries and major suppliers annually. The Code of Conduct requires all employment to be voluntary, prohibits child labour and sets standards for freedom of association, labour hours, compensation, workplace conditions and health and safety. The Code has been translated into over 20 languages and is provided to factories in their local language”. GoLite also endorses the OIA Code of Conduct.

One British company which is a leader in the field of working practices is Paramo. In 1992 Paramo founder Nick Brown came across a workshop in Bogota, Columbia run by the Miquelina Foundation to help desperate women, who would probably have otherwise ended up as prostitutes, learn skills and earn a wage, and decided to make Paramo garments there. Back then the workshop employed a dozen women and had two sewing machines. Today there is a factory with more than twelve dozen women and 120 machines that has a kindergarten and provides training and lessons in literacy for employees.
Paramo’s sister company Nikwax, founded by Nick Brown in 1977, has always made being environmentally friendly a central purpose and today says that “truly being green is about everything we do; the products we produce, our manufacturing techniques and protecting our planet by offsetting our carbon emissions and conserving endangered habitats with the World Land Trust”. Nikwax produces products without chemical solvents or fluorocarbons which when used prolong the life of outdoor gear and enhance its performance so that’s two environmental pluses.

Another British company, Howies, who make merino wool clothing amongst other items, are following the example of Patagonia with a playful yet serious attitude to work and responsibility. Howie’s “our beliefs” echo Patagonia’s “philosophies” and just like Patagonia they “pledge to give 1% of our turnover or 10% of pre-tax profits (whichever is greater) to grass-root environmental and social projects”, which they call an “earth tax”, as does Yvon Chouinard. And, says Howies, “we are in business……… make people think about the world we live in”. It would be good to see more British companies influenced by Patagonia, or indeed Howies, Paramo or Nikwax.

A significant company just starting on the ethical road is Berghaus, whose new “eco friendly” was announced as this feature was being written. The organic cotton clothing and recycled polyester rucksacks so far announced are travel and low level walking orientated rather than gear for the mountains but the important point is that Berghaus, one of the most respected names in outdoor gear in the UK, has taken this step. The company acknowledges that this is “not the definitive answer to sustainability in the outdoor industry” but says it is “the start of an important journey for Berghaus”.

Of course many other companies are working to become more ethical. Many are keen to talk about it too. It is, after all, good publicity. It would be naïve however to simply believe everything claimed. How do you know the fine words actually mean anything? Chouinard writes about how he discovered that some companies proclaiming how they gave 10% of their profits to environmental groups were carrying out accounting that ensured their profits were artificially low. That’s why Patagonia and members of One Percent for the Planet pledge 1% of sales not profits. One way to evaluate the claims of companies is to look at how much detail is provided. Do companies just state they are “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly” or do they detail what they are doing? If they donate to causes do they say which ones and how much? Are they members of 1 Percent for the Planet or the EOG Association for Conservation? Do they have independent audits carried out to see how they are doing? How much information do they provide on their web sites and in their catalogues?

Unsurprisingly Patagonia is again taking a lead in providing information with its Footprint Chronicles, a website that “that allows you to track the impact of five specific Patagonia products from design through delivery”. I chose to track the Wool 2 Crew, given that I like Patagonia’s wool products. A map shows that the wool comes from New Zealand then travels to Japan to be knitted into a fabric before being shipped to California to be sewn into a garment and distributed, a distance of 26,200 kilometres and that’s before the garments are sent out to shops. Total CO2 production per garment from manufacture and transportation is 21kg, 100 times its weight. The amount of waste generated is 255 grams, 56 grams more than the weight of a garment. And the amount of energy used per garment is 89 megajoules, enough to power an American household for 20 hours. There are good points: the wool is from sheep farms with stringent environmental standards and no heavy metals are used in the dyeing. However a huge bad point is the distance the wool travels, about which Patagonia says, frankly, “this is not sustainable”. There is the opportunity to comment on the Footprint Chronicles on the website and these comments make interesting reading.

An example of a British company taking matters seriously is inov-8 which says that “our first priority is to understand where we should focus our attention so the environmental impact of our products is as low as possible. We then find practical and creative solutions in our search for improvements, especially in those areas that we feel matter most”. To this end inov-8 had an audit to assess its ecological footprint and published the results for 2005-2006 on its website. Surprisingly staff travel turned out to account for 65% of inov-8’s carbon footprint, mainly due to flights (a disadvantage of manufacturing in distant countries). Freight was responsible for just 16% (presumably an advantage of making ultralight products!), materials and manufacture 14% and packaging less than 3%. Inov-8 go on to say what steps they are taking to reduce the figures, such as low use of cars, reducing road freight and minimising materials wastage. Nothing about fewer flights however. 

Of course some advertising and marketing is misleading. An example is the use of the word “natural” to suggest environmental purity and all round wholesomeness. There is an assumption by many people concerned with the environment that natural materials – cotton, wool, silk, leather – are automatically superior to anything synthetic. (Some have even claimed that wearing and using gear made from natural materials will enhance your spiritual appreciation of wild places, a view I find risible). Now natural materials may have many advantages – I certainly think merino wool is superb – but they aren’t necessarily environmentally less damaging than synthetics. Take cotton for example. What could possibly be nasty about it (other than that horrible cold clammy feeling of it against the skin when wet)? Nothing except for the 10% of the world’s pesticides and 25% of the world’s insecticides used to grow it, an amazing amount when you consider that cotton fields make up less than 3% of the world’s farmland. Do these chemicals matter? Well, there is much evidence to suggest that they pollute the soil, pollute groundwater and cause health problems for workers in the cotton fields.

Organic cotton is the answer to this of course. Patagonia switched to using only 100% organic cotton years ago and Howies also use nothing else while companies like Nike, Timberland and Berghaus use some organic cotton. Others however continue to promote conventional cotton as a natural, environmentally friendly material – Ventile, a fabric I like, for example describes itself as having “the benefit of cotton with environmental peace of mind” without any mention as to whether Ventile is made from organic cotton. Perhaps of more interest for outdoor clothing is wool, a favourite of mine. This can be harmful or relatively harmless, depending on where the sheep live, how they are treated and how the yarn is produced. Sheep can cause massive damage to alpine and forest meadows and desert lands – John Muir didn’t describe them as “hooved locusts” for nothing. He saw the damage sheep were doing to the meadows in the High Sierra in California. In many areas of the Scottish hills overgrazing by sheep prevents forest regeneration. However sheep in lowland areas, especially grasslands with damp climates, cause far less damage. Then there are the chemicals often used in wool production from pesticides in sheep dip to chlorine bleaches and heavy metal dyes, all of which are pollutants. And as for leather, well the tanning process results in masses of hazardous waste that can pollute groundwater and is dangerous for workers.

Wool, cotton and leather are still natural materials and not made from petrochemicals. Surely that makes them preferable? Again, not necessarily. Many of the chemicals used in the production of wool, cotton and leather are derived from petrochemicals anyway. Also, it wouldn’t be possible to produce enough wool and cotton to clothe everyone in the world. There isn’t anywhere near enough farmland. The damage that biofuel production is now doing by destroying rainforest, using vast amounts of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and utilising huge amounts of water shows the dangers of seizing on natural products as a simple answer to problems with petrochemicals.

Wearing products out and passing them on to others if unwanted is still part of the solution, as I thought all those years ago. That’s not enough though. Recycling is also very important, for both natural and synthetic materials. Recycled fleece, made from plastic drinks bottles, reuses synthetics derived from petrochemicals. Patagonia began using recycled fleece back in 1993 but its use has been slow to spread. I had one of the original recycled fleece jackets back in the 90s and couldn’t tell the difference between it and fleece made from new polyester. Much more recently, just a few months ago in fact, I was sent a Berghaus Activity Jacket in recycled Polartec 200 fleece. Again, I can’t tell the difference between this and non-recycled Polartec 200. Recycled materials are turning up in other products too, such as base layers (Patagonia, GoLite) and packs (Osprey, Lafuma, Berghaus). It still makes up only a tiny percentage of the materials used to make outdoor gear though. More recycled gear would be welcome.

As well as making products out of recycled materials there’s also the option of recycling the gear itself when it’s no longer functional. There are textile and shoe banks in many towns. However items donated to these are only recycled in the sense of being reused or shredded for use as fillers in various products. This is far better than sending them to a rubbish tip of course but even better would be to turn them back into raw material from which new products can be made. Vaude had this idea in 1996 when they introduced the Ecolog Recycling Network for the recycling of polyester products. More recently Patagonia introduced the Common Threads Garment Recycling Programme through which worn out Capilene baselayers, Patagonia fleece, Polartec fleece from other companies and Patagonia organic cotton T-shirts can be returned for recycling. Patagonia uses a process called the EcoCircle fibre to fibre recycling system to turn the old garments into new ones. This involves chopping the garments into tiny pieces then breaking these down and rebuilding them into raw polyester which is then turned into new fibre. Garments can be dropped off at a Patagonia Retail Store (unfortunately there are none of these in Britain) or sent to the Patagonia Service Centre, C/O CEPL BEVILLE Recycling Program, 7 avenue Gustave Eiffel,28630 Gellainville, France.

Much is happening in the outdoor industry to reduce its impact on the environment then. But far more needs to be done and could be done. Asking questions, encouraging those who are doing nothing to do something and those who are doing something to do more, are actions we can all take. In the words of Yvon Chouinard:

“Somewhere along the way individuals caused this whole mess and it’s up to us to fix it”.


Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard (Penguin, 2005)

European Outdoor Group Association for Conservation
One Percent for the Planet
Outdoor Industry Association
Patagonia Footprint Chronicles
Timberland Code of Conduct

Sunday 18 September 2011

Autumn Colours

With the hills mostly shrouded in cloud and wind and rain sweeping across the landscape the occasional burst of sunshine has been very welcome in this stormy early autumn. The woods are the most colourful and interesting places now with the first autumn tints showing wonderfully when lit by the sun. The birches have tinges of yellow but it's the rowans that are most brilliant, their red leaves contrasting with the greens of the pines.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Autumn Issue of TGO Out Now

The latest issue of TGO is out now. This is the Autumn issue, slotted in between the October and November issues. There's a special feature on the opportunities for using the train for a weekend in the Scottish Highlands. This brought back memories as when I lived in Northern England I often used the sleeper train for quick trips to the Highlands. In the feature I describe a wonderful walk through the heart of the Cairngorms from Blair Atholl to Aviemore via Glen Tilt and the Lairig Ghru, Cameron McNeish describes a backpacking trip in the Black Mount from Bridge of Orchy and Ronald Turnbull manages to climb both The Cobbler and Ben Lomond by using the ferry across Loch Lomond.

In the gear section I review insulated jackets and John Manning has a gear report from a trip in Bowland in dire weather. John liked his waterproof jacket but wasn't so keen on his tent. Also from John is an interesting analysis of the 2011 TGO Challenge gear survey, concentrating on shelters and packs and one Challenger's amazing sub 4kg base weight.

My other pieces in this issue are a look at the place of signs and waymarks in wild places in my backpacking column and advice on pitching a tarp in the Hill Skills section. Also in Hill Skills are Kevin Walker on grid bearings and magnetic variation, Rob Johnson on scrambling with a dog, Dylan Baker recommending medium format film cameras plus some fitness and nutrition advice.

There's much more in this issue of course. Jim Perrin reviews John Wyatt's The Shining Levels, reminding me that I should reread this excellent book, which I've had for many years. Away from books, films and TV are a minor theme. In his On the Hill column Cameron McNeish wonders why no one has made a TV programme about Alfred Wainwright while Alf Alderson describes five walks in areas where Hollywood films were made, four of which are in Wales. Elsewhere Andrew Terrill has an unexpected autumn adventure in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado when the weather turns wintry. Stormy weather also causes difficulties for Ed Byrne as he has to retreat from an attempt to cross Loch Glencoul in the Northwest Highlands by kayak. The skies look stormy in some of the pictures in Mark Gilligan's dramatic photo essay on Wast Water through the seasons too. Carey Davies has more luck with the weather on a round of the Edale Skyline in the Peak District as does Cameron McNeish on a weekend in Northumberland. Far from hillwalking and backpacking in the UK or even Colorado there's an interview with Richard Parks, the first person to climb the highest summit on each continent and reach each pole in one year. The picture shows me keeping warm in the PHD Minimus jacket, which is reviewed in the insulated jackets feature, on the summit of Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour on a bitterly cold January day.

Thursday 15 September 2011

The Joy of Long Distance Backpacking

Long distance backpacking has special qualities that are hard to explain to anyone who hasn't done it. David Lintern, just back from a walk along the Haute Route Pyrenees, describes it well in a recent post on his blog Self Powered. This reminded me of a piece I wrote a few years ago, which I've posted below. The photos show a camp on my length of the Canadian Rockies walk in 1988 and hiking on the Pacific Northwest Trail in 2010.

Long distance backpacking is my passion. Spending weeks and months in wild places brings a joy and contentment that underpins the whole of my life. I say backpacking rather than walking because the total experience is what matters, the camping as well as the hiking, the nights as well as the days. This is what distinguishes backpacking from day walking or hiking between accommodation inside solid walls whether mountain huts or luxury hotels.

Why long distance? Actually the distance doesn’t matter. What is key is time. Time to feel part of nature, time to feel the subtleties and details of a landscape, time to move slowly yet make progress and time, crucially, for backpacking to become a way of life not an escape from life. Long distance is almost a by product. Walk every day for week after week and you will cover many miles. I’ve never felt the actual distance was important. I’ve never set out to do daily big mileages; hundreds and thousands of miles accumulate with time not constantly pushing myself. Because being in the wilds, absorbing the intricacies of nature, listening to the wind, hearing echoes of the past in the rocks, observing flowers and insects and birds are all important I want to have the time to pause and look and listen whenever something beckons or seems interesting. Backpacking is not a race. I don’t want a schedule that says I have to walk ten or more hours a day with few if any halts and no time to enjoy the camping side of backpacking. I think backpacking is about living in nature not streaking through it.

It takes time to slip into backpacking as a way of life. On any trip there are niggles and concerns that dominate the first few days or even weeks. Worries about finding the route or water or a camp site; disturbing traces of the life left behind that need to be shaken off. Some of these, such as fussing over details of gear and wondering if this is the right stove or sleeping bag, perhaps mask deeper fears, hidden doubts about the walk as a whole and whether it really is feasible or wise to attempt it. Together these distractions act as a barrier to being fully involved, emotionally and physically, in the walk. Then as the days pass they fade away and become inconsequential. The walk becomes all. Part of this is a growth of confidence, part a shedding of a psychological state attuned to the unnatural hectic rhythms of the modern world – timetables, schedules, deadlines, appointments, fast track this, pay attention to that – be here, be there, be everywhere, now, at once, do this, do that, don’t stop, don’t relax, pressure, pressure, pressure, go, go, go! Phew! In the wilds, on foot, this is all put into perspective. Seemingly important concerns become trivial, high pressure essentials seem laughable.

I’ve mentioned the wilds and nature several times and these, the physical world in which backpacking takes place are of course very significant. Walks that are too close to what we call civilisation are less satisfying than those that venture into wilderness. I realised this on my first really long backpack, ten weeks walking 1250 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Apart from a few hours in the Pennines the walk only really became deeply fulfilling in the Scottish Highlands where I was away from roads and buildings for days at a time. Four years later I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada through deserts and mountains that took five and a half months. This walk was a revelation both to the grandeur and power of nature and wilderness and to the rewards and meaning that came from taking on the challenge and commitment of spending almost six months walking and camping in the wilds. Day after day I travelled through magnificent forests, jagged mountains, spacious deserts and towering canyons. I watched as the hot deserts and tree-clad mountains of the south gave way to cooler, bigger mountains with glaciers and bare granite peaks. The land unfolded, developed, expanded and was revealed. I grew familiar with plants from desert cacti to mountain conifers, with animals from shy mule deer to rattlesnakes and black bears. I grew to know the noises of the night and the forest and no longer woke, as I had in the first few weeks, to sounds that were unfamiliar and so frightening and potentially threatening. This is where time came in again. Time to become used to the land and its inhabitants, to its noises and moods. By the time I finished the PCT I felt at home in the wilderness. I also felt fulfilled and ecstatic, full of the glory and power of nature, of the amazing life of this tiny planet, this speck in the unimaginable vastness of the universe. The experience left me so deeply moved, so thrilled and so shaken with delight that I knew I had to repeat it. And I have done so many times since, though never with quite the impact of the PCT. The pleasures have become calmer with familiarity though no less intense. Where Land’s End to John O’Groats was like a trial run, the test to see how spending weeks solo walking and camping felt, the Pacific Crest Trail was the realisation, the completion.

Back home I felt refreshed and renewed. I also felt I had found a reason for living and an understanding of life, a feeling that possessions and a frantic urban lifestyle were superficialities imposed on and masking our place in the natural world, superficialities that could be dangerous, leading us to think that we were apart from nature not a part of nature. I had a desire to communicate the stories of my walks and the thoughts and feelings they engendered, a desire for others to share my joy and contentment through my writing and photography and also, most importantly, in reality by going out backpacking in the wilds themselves, whether for a weekend or a year. This is not just for the pleasure of the experience, though that is very important, but also because without wild places we are diminished. We came from the wild and it is still within us and without it we are nothing. Understanding this means understanding that protecting nature is vital. And walking and sleeping in nature is the best way to reach this understanding.

Long distance backpacking also satisfies our ancient nomadic instincts, relics from prehistory, from the time when all humanity was on the move, when we were hunters and gatherers forever traversing the wilds for food. Back then – which covers most of the time humans have existed – there was no possibility of a separation from nature, there was nothing except nature. These instincts within us need expression and there is no better way than by walking in the wilds, with its by-products of physical and psychological well being and low environmental impact.

Of course the challenge of long distance backpacking is significant and I do find satisfaction in completing a walk and in successfully overcoming any difficulties with terrain, route finding, weather and wildlife. But the challenges are not the prime reason for going; they just make the experience more intense and enjoyable. Having to concentrate on threading a route through dangerous terrain, finding a camp site in steep, dense forest, protecting food against wild animals and coping with a mountain storm all make contact with nature more immediate and powerful. That immediacy, of only being aware of the moment, comes with having to give all your attention to these essential aspects of the backpacking experience.

A challenge many people think must exist is that of being alone in the wilderness. How, they say, can you cope without anyone to talk to, without even seeing anyone for days on end? It’s not a problem for me so I don’t know how to cope with this. I may be alone in the wilds but I’m not lonely. There is always so much of interest in nature.

Planning a multi-week backpacking trip may seem a massive undertaking in itself. Actually it’s not really any different to planning a short trip. There’s just more of it. In fact in planning terms a long backpacking trip is simply a series of short ones linked together. Resupply points are the key. Breaking the walk into the sections between these makes it manageable. I don’t set off to walk hundreds or thousands of miles. Instead I set off to walk to the first supply point, then the next one and the next one and the next one. Supply points may lie on the route or may require diversions. Deciding whether to use the latter or carry more supplies between two of the former is an important part of the planning process. On my first long walks I was reluctant to leave my route unless absolutely necessary. This led to my setting off through the snowbound High Sierra on the Pacific Crest Trail with twenty-three days food and fuel plus crampons, ice axe, snowshoes and extra warm clothing. My pack, which I could barely lift, weighed well over 100lbs. The walk through the High Sierra was magnificent, one of the high points of all my walks, despite the horrendous weight. I’ve never done it again though. I reckon ten days supplies is an absolute maximum (preferably without all the snow gear). I did walk for twenty days between settlements and roads on a three month walk through Canada’s Yukon Territory but I was able to arrange for a river boat to take half my supplies to the midway point. The heaviest weight I’ve carried since that High Sierra overload was due to the need to carry water rather than food. That was on a six day section of the Arizona Trail through the Sonoran Desert where I started with three gallons of water and a total pack weight of seventy pounds. (These weights may seem ridiculous to lightweight backpackers and my basic gear would certainly be a bit lighter now. But water and food still weighs the same.)

Planning a long distance walk is now much, much easier than in the past due to the internet. Back in the 1980s it took weeks for letters and packages to travel back and forth as I enquired about maps, routes, supply points and more. Today I can find most of that information on the internet in less than an hour and send emails requesting anything I can’t locate and have replies within hours. Planning to hike an established trail is made easy by almost instant information. Planning your own route for which there are no guidebooks or websites still takes time as you have to decide on where you will go. This is the part of planning I most enjoy however. I can spend hours poring over maps, tracing possible routes, working out logistics and getting excited at all the possibilities. I know too that however detailed my planning it won’t all make sense on the ground and that I will have to adapt my route to the terrain, sometimes wondering how I could possibly have thought my original idea made any sort of sense. On my wildest, remotest walks – the length of the Canadian Rockies (especially the northern half) and the length of the Yukon – I often abandoned the red lines I had so confidently marked on maps back home and took what were obviously more logical routes once I could see the terrain. At other times I’ve deviated from planned routes for aesthetic or emotional reasons – I want to stay high on a mountain ridge or follow a wild river. So I think of my route plans as guides rather than fixed lines. This applies even when I walk named trails. I feel no obligation to stay with the “official” route. In fact, the long trails I have walked have all been in early stages of development with long sections unsigned and often without actual paths. Enjoying planning routes means that I always have ideas for future ones in my head, some of which I may never do or will alter so much if I do walk them that they will be unrecognisable from my original plans. At present I have a constantly changing idea for a long walk in the deserts and canyons of Utah and Arizona as there is so much there I haven’t seen and an even less formed idea for a high level walk in the High Sierra, which would in fact be a companion to a 500 mile forest and pass route I did there a few years ago. I hope to set out on one of these walks sometime in the next few years.

Monday 12 September 2011

Almost Ben Avon, With Rainbows

Sunday morning. 8a.m. Driving over the winding, hilly road to Tomintoul. Gusts of wind buffeting the car. Dark clouds hanging over the summits. I wasn’t feeling optimistic about leading a group up Ben Avon for the Tomintoul and Glenlivet Walking Festival. But the six would-be ascentionists (plus one dog) and my co-leader were enthusiastic and cheerful and keen to make the best of the day, whatever the weather.

After the long drive up Glen Avon to Inchrory (a privilege accorded to the Walking Festival as this private estate road is normally closed to vehicles) we assembled on the grassy expanse at the base of the mountain. The wind was chilly and the air damp. I think I was the only person not wearing hat and gloves and we all had waterproofs on.

Slowly we plodded up the gradually more indistinct track into an increasing wind and showers of horizontal rain. Great curving ridges and blurred rocky tors appeared and disappeared in the hazy light. Over Glen Avon patches of blue sky appeared but the mountains remained hidden. The rain grew harsher, lashing our faces. Walking became difficult with gusts threatening to blow us over. Eventually we took shelter at the base of Clach Bhan, the first of the big tors. We’d reached 900 metres. With no sign of the wind lessening and another 5 kilometres plus over 200 metres of ascent to go, all exposed to the weather, continuing seemed unwise. Being blown over onto the rocks was too great risk. I went back up into the wind as a last check to see if it had eased. My anemometer recorded gusts of 42mph and an average speed over 30mph. Higher up the wind would be stronger. The way to go was down. Rather than retrace our steps we descended directly into Glen Avon, down steep rough heathery slopes. Throughout the descent rainbows curved over the glen, their ephemeral beauty a contrast to the dark greyness of the sky and the subdued colours of the hillsides.

The world was different down in the glen; the rain gone, the wind greatly lessened and the roaring sound that of the swirling brown river rather than the rushing air in our ears. The bank above the river made for a fine lunch spot before we ambled back down the glen to the start, a fine walk above the waterfalls, rapids and dark pools of the River Avon. We hadn’t reached the summit but we had made the best of the conditions and had a good day out, a better one than I’d expected.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Autumn Feast

What do you do when you set out to collect edible fungi and discover you've forgotten to bring a bag? Make a basket out of rushes of course. At least if you're creative and artistic like my step-daughter Hazel who is visiting us for the weekend.

Hazel's work can be seen here.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Mountaineering Council of Scotland Presidential Change

Myself with Brian Linington at the MCofS AGM last weekend. Photo: Mike Dales.

For the past four years I have served as President of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. My time in this office ended last weekend at the MCofS AGM and Brian Linington has been elected as the new President. (See news item on the MCofS site, with comments from Brian). Brian has been an MCofS Board member for several years and I'm sure that he will make an excellent President. I wish him all the best.

For myself standing down as President will free up some time and mean far fewer long drives to Perth for meetings and far fewer lengthy documents to peruse. My email inbox will shrink too! I will still be involved with the MCofS as I'm remaining a member of the Access and Conservation Advisory Group. I am pleased to see that Brian says "a key challenge for me and for the MCofS – and for the many that simply enjoy the landscape of Scotland for its recreational value, or who gain a sense of well-being from the mountains – is the enormous threat to the mountain landscape from developers".

Monday 5 September 2011

Pacific Northwest Trail Gear Review

This time a year ago I was in the rain in the Cascade Mountains on the Pacific Northwest Trail. In less than a month it'll be the first anniversary of my completion of this marvellous route. I've thought about the walk many times since and it has grown in my mind. I think I appreciate it now more than I did when I finished. It was a privilege to spend a summer hiking through such a varied and beautiful landscape. I'm currently writing a book on the walk - inbetween all my other work so no publication date in view yet. Here I've posted a feature on the gear I used that first appeared in TGO.

The photos show me hiking below Mount Baker in the North Cascades and camping on Bald Mountain in the Pasayten Wilderness.

My 1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail hike took me from the Rocky Mountains through the dry, hot Purcell, Selkirk and Kettle River ranges to the wet and humid Cascade and Olympic Mountains. The weather is of course one of the main factors equipment has to cope with, the other being the terrain. During the 75 day trip I had to deal with thunderstorms, heatwaves and many days of low cloud and rain. In the first 49 days there was only significant rain on 6 days, and a little drizzle on a few others. In the last 26 days there was rain on 19 days, often heavy. And in those first 49 days the humidity level was usually quite low, with any rain quickly followed by dry, sunny conditions. Every morning I recorded the relative humidity and it only reached 100% eight times in the first period and sometimes dropped as low as 50%. In the last 26 days it was 100% every day bar one – when it was 99.4%. Often I camped and hiked in wet mist even when it wasn’t raining. I learnt later that the weather in September in Washington State, where I spent the whole month, was the wettest for thirty years.

Although it was often very wet during the second half of the walk I usually camped in forests so wind wasn’t a problem. In fact I only had three really windy camps during the whole trip. Whilst this meant the tent didn’t often have to stand up to big winds and I wasn’t kept awake by thrashing nylon it also meant that there was nothing to remove condensation on humid nights.

Temperatures were overall warmer than I expected, especially in September when many frosty nights are usual in the mountains. In fact the temperature only fell below zero twice the whole trip and then only slightly with the lowest temperature being -1.1°C. During the first part of the walk daytime temperatures were often in the 30s C and staying cool and hydrated was the main problem. For the last month the temperatures were twenty degrees and more colder and the rain and high humidity meant it felt chilly much of the time.

The terrain varied enormously from paved roads to pathless dense vegetation. Mostly I was on trails or disused dirt roads, both often overgrown with bushes that often reached shoulder high. When wet these could soak me far faster than any rain. This was nothing, though, to the bushwhacking through dense tangled vegetation, which was some of the toughest walking I’ve ever done. A mile an hour was good progress.

The story of my hike has been told in my backpacking columns, the final one in this issue. Here I’ll describe how my equipment performed.

Pack & Storage

I began the trek with a GoLite Pinnacle, a pack I’d used successfully on several TGO Challenges. And for three weeks it was comfortable and stable and I was happy with it. But then the shoulder straps began to twist in on themselves and became quite uncomfortable. At the same time holes appeared in the fabric and straps and seams started to tear. Concerned that the pack wouldn’t last the rest of the trip and not wanting to carry what was now quite an uncomfortable pack I contacted GoLite who immediately offered to replace it. I still had to nurse it through another ten days until I reached a Post Office and could collect the new pack, a GoLite Quest. Although the capacity is the same at 72 litres the Quest is some 500 grams heavier than the Pinnacle because it has an internal frame and a lid. I didn’t notice the extra weight though. I was just happy to have a comfortable pack. Each pack was used for half the walk and with loads up to 25kg (due to carrying 10 days food, fuel and maps plus several litres of water). The Quest was in fine condition at the end of the walk and I was very pleased with it. I think it’s an excellent lightweight pack for moderate to heavy loads. The Pinnacle has gone back to GoLite for examination. As both packs had just about the same usage in time and conditions, though the Quest had to cope with much more wet weather, I can only think that the Pinnacle was a rogue pack that slipped through quality control.

Both packs had excellent pockets for organising gear. The big rear pockets were good for clothing, especially wet waterproofs. The mesh side pockets held water and fuel bottles and the hipbelt pockets mini binoculars and snacks. The Quest also had a lid pocket, in which I kept small items like GPS/phone, headlamp, lunch food, notebook and knife.

Just before the walk I received some Pod Ultralite Drysacs and Lifeventure Dri-Store bags. Both types are made from waterproof nylon with taped seams and roll tops. Impressed with these I used various sizes for my sleeping bag, spare clothing and other water sensitive items. By squeezing the air out I could reduce the size of packed items more than with a conventional stuffsack. I didn’t use a pack liner and my sleeping bag in a 15 litre Lifeventure Dri-Store was packed at the bottom of the pack every day. In wet weather the outside of the stuffsack was often wet when I made tent but the sleeping bag was always dry inside. These are the best stuffsacks I’ve ever used for keeping gear dry.

I also had three clear Aloksak waterproof bags in different sizes, which I used for maps, notebook and phone. These bags are very flexible so I could easily fold the large one with the map for storage in a shirt pocket.


Wanting a shelter that could be pitched with my trekking poles I took a GoLite Shangri-La 1, which is a simple tapered ridge tent, plus the Shangri-La 1 Nest mesh inner tent. The tent can be pitched with just six pegs but I added four more for the extra guylines I attached. One of these, at the front peak, was very useful as pegging it out tightened the ridgeline for a tauter pitch and also meant I could open the whole front of the tent without it collapsing. The side guys were useful for stability on the rare windy nights and for giving better separation with the mesh inner but I didn’t often use them. The rear guyline wasn’t really needed. Four more pegs were needed to pitch the Nest.

I brought the Nest to keep off the mosquitoes I knew would be a problem early on in the walk and it did this well. Indeed, on some clear warm nights I used the Nest on its own, which gave me a good view of the stars and the landscape whilst keeping off the bugs. Once the mosquitoes faded away, from mid-August onwards, I had intended using the Nest as a groundsheet only. In fact I only did this on a few nights as I found that in wet weather the high waterproof walls of the Nest kept splashes of rain and condensation running down the inner tent walls off my gear as well as stopping it sliding off the groundsheet onto muddy ground.

Overall the Shangri-La 1 combination performed well and I grew to like it very much. It was just the right size for myself and all my gear and in heavy rain there was space to use the stove in the vestibule. It stood up to the few windy nights well and was in good condition at the end of the walk. It’s a great shelter for long solo walks, especially if you use trekking poles.

Sleeping Bag

On most trips I take a bag that I think will just keep me warm in average temperatures and plan on wearing clothes on colder nights. On the PNT I ended up taking a quilt that was much warmer than I needed, as the freezing temperatures I expected in September never materialised. The quilt was a GoLite Ultralite 3-Season, rated to -7°C. I should have taken the 580 gram 1+ Season Quilt, rated to +4°C, and saved 128 grams. Only ever having used a quilt on a couple of nights before the trip taking one was a bit of an experiment. The Ultralite quilt has straps underneath for attaching it to a mat so there are no cold spots at the sides and I found these useful on the few nights where the temperature fell below +5°C. However as most nights were well above freezing I never needed to sleep in clothes and usually just draped the quilt over me. On these mild nights I found the quilt fine and less restrictive than a sleeping bag. In freezing weather I suspect I’d still prefer a sleeping bag that I could cocoon round me though. Also when it was a little chilly I missed being able to easily use the quilt as a garment. With a sleeping bag I pull it up under my armpits and tighten the hood drawcord. Whilst I could wrap the quilt around me when I moved it often slipped to one side, leading to cold spots. That said overall it worked well and I was never cold or uncomfortable. This winter I shall try it in colder conditions.

Insulating Mat

With a quilt a good insulating mat is needed as there’s no fill underneath you. The new style air beds are the thickest mats and I took one of these, the Pacific Outdoor Equipment Ether Elite 6 2/3. It proved supremely comfortable yet weighed less than most thinner mats and packed up very small as it only has thin strips of insulation inside. In the mostly above freezing night temperatures it was warm enough though I suspect that on snow or frozen ground a warmer mat would be needed as well. My joy in this air bed only lasted 47 days however as on the 47th night it sprang a leak, just as the stormy weather of September began. I woke in the early hours with the hard ground poking into me. Once an air bed like this deflates you’re left lying on two thin strips of nylon with no cushioning and little insulation. I spent a chilly dawn forcing the air bed into the cold waters of appropriately named Frosty Lake in search of bubbles that would reveal the leak. Eventually I wrestled the mat under the surface and spotted the tell-tale signs. The tiny pinhole was along a seam. I covered it with glue from the tiny repair kit supplied with the mat but the next night it still went down, though only slowly. I added more glue and then a patch but the leak continued, spreading, I suspect, along the seam. After 18 days of blowing up the mat every 3 or 4 hours each night I gave up and borrowed an old Therm-A-Rest Ultralite ¾ self-inflating mat, which I used for the last 10 days. This didn’t feel as comfortable as the Ether 6 when lying in the tent but I slept on it just as well. It weighed 480 grams and was slightly bulkier when packed. The Ether has gone back to POE for examination.

At the last minute I also took an OMM Duo Mat to use as a sit mat and under my feet on cold, wet ground in the tent. At 143 grams it added little to my load and having a dry seat was very welcome during wet weather.

Stove, Kitchen & Water

The Caldera Ti-Tri Inferno stove was one of the great successes of the walk as I really enjoyed using it. For the first six weeks of the walk I used wood regularly as there were always tiny dry twigs and wood chips around my camp sites. Having a mini camp fire was fun and also efficient. Water boiled more quickly with wood than meths and I could also control the heat for simmering, something impossible with meths. In wet weather I did use meths, which I was able to buy in every town along the way, as HEET de-icer or rubbing alcohol. The titanium Caldera Cone and inner cone for use with wood were both in good condition at the end of the walk. The drinks can meths burner was a little dented but still usable.

I used my old Evernew 0.9 litre Titanium Pan with the Ti-Tri Inferno and it was as good as ever. My mug was an MSR 0.6 litre titanium pot, not new but not as old or well-used as the Evernew pot in which it nested. One advantage of using the Inferno with wood is that I could boil water in both pots as they sit on tent pegs inserted in the windshield high above the fire. With meths only the Evernew pan could be used as the pan has to fit precisely into the windshield.

For water I set off with two Platypus 2 litre bottles for camp use and a GoLite 700ml wide-mouthed bottle for on the trail. The latter proved far too small in the hot weather of the first six weeks as water sources were often many miles apart so I supplemented it with a 1 litre soft drinks bottle. For much of the walk I drank the water straight from streams and springs without treatment. However in the Kettle River Range and the Okanagan lowlands there were many cattle and water sources were often filthy. To treat this water I used a SteriPen Adventurer Opti, which uses UV light. It was easy and quick to use, far simpler than any filter. I presume it worked as I didn’t get sick and some of the water was badly polluted. The Adventurer Opti also has a small LED light in one end, which was useful when I needed to change headlamp batteries in the dark.


For most of the walk I wore Inov8 Terrocs and found them comfortable with a good grip. I went through two pairs, neither of which is completely worn out though the tread is wearing away at the flex point on both. During September the shoes were soaked for days on end but still remained comfortable. Only in the very hottest weather did I find them uncomfortable. Then my feet swelled enough with the heat that even without socks the Terrocs were too tight. The answer, I knew, was a pair of sandals but, to save weight, I foolishly hadn’t brought a pair so I was very pleased to find some Merrell ones in the little town of Eureka nine days into the walk. I wore them on the hottest days and in towns, around camp and on some of the road walks. The extra weight of 688 grams was well worthwhile for the freedom they gave my feet in the heat.

In the Terrocs I wore merino wool Teko Light Hiking Socks. Two pairs just lasted the whole trip, though both had holes in them by the end. In dry weather I could rinse out the socks and dry them on the pack. In the wet weather I wore the same wet pair for a week and more at a time, keeping the dry ones for tent wear. Even when wet the socks were comfortable and warm.


With weather ranging from hot days with temperatures in the 30s to stormy days with sleet and near freezing temperatures my clothing had to be very versatile. The one garment I wore every day of the walk was a polyester Paramo Katmai Light Shirt. This proved tough and comfortable. It survived all the bushwhacking and stayed remarkably clean and uncreased even after ten days without washing. It also wicked quite well and dried very fast when damp. In the heat the wide sleeves could easily be rolled up. I kept my folded map, compass and other items in the spacious pockets. Overall this is the best hiking shirt I have used. Under other garments it was fine except in the coolest, wettest weather when it became clammy and felt damp and cold against the skin. After experiencing this a few times I wore a merino wool Icebreaker Ultralite 140 T Shirt under it, which made for a comfortable combination. Mostly, though, the t-shirt was worn in the tent, if at all.

In the hot weather and open country I wore an old pair of GoLite Skyrunner shorts on my legs. These were comfortable and lasted the whole walk, though the inner brief did fall apart. For bushwhacking and in cooler weather I wore Montane Terra Lite trousers and these were excellent, surviving the lashing vegetation and keeping out wind and light rain.

In breezy but dry weather I wore a GoLite Kings Canyon windshirt over the Paramo shirt. This zip-fronted hooded windshirt worked fine and I wore it often. The hood was useful when my head felt a little chilly. I’d like to have had chest pockets for map and compass though.

For rain I had a Rab Demand Pull-On eVent waterproof top and GoLite Reed overtrousers. The Rab smock was superb, keeping me dry during the days of rain and breathing well. I was never more than slightly damp underneath it. The hood gave good protection and the chest pocket was big enough for a map. For lightweight backpacking in wet places I think this is one of the best waterproofs around. The overtrousers were worn less often but worked fine when they were needed, which was more for pushing through wet vegetation than to keep off rain. As the rain often came straight down my legs didn’t get very damp even without the overtrousers.

For warmwear I took my old faithful Jack Wolfskin Gecko microfleece sweater and a Mont-Bell Ultra Light Inner Down Jacket. The Gecko was worn most evenings and mornings and for walking in during the coolest weather. It was well-worn at the start of the walk but still looked fine by the end. Most of the time the Gecko was the only warm garment I needed, making the down jacket rather a luxury. I used the latter as a pillow every night but only wore it in the coldest weather. Given the wet weather a synthetic filled garment would have been a better choice, though it would have weighed more. I never got the down jacket wet though and I was never cold.

For the sun I took a cotton T3 Tilley Hat, which I also found effective against rain showers and for keeping vegetation off my face and out of my hair when bushwhacking. For cool weather I had a merino wool Smartwool Beanie, which was warm and comfortable while packing away into a tiny bundle and weighing little. I also carried a pair of old polypro liner gloves that I never wore, though I almost did a couple of times.


Navigation is difficult on much of the trail. Many times I had to find the line of an old trail, select the best route through dense forest or choose the right one in a maze of forest roads. My Silva 7NL compass was an essential tool and was used often. Of course good maps were required too and I had topographic maps in two forms. Long distance hiker Li Brannfors, who I’d met in the High Sierra many years ago, had hiked the PNT in 2009 and recorded his route on his GPS unit (which meant carrying loads of batteries – I’m glad someone else did this!). Li sent me A4 print-outs of topographic maps with his route and alternatives marked, with distances between points. These maps were my main ones and were carried, folded, in an Aloksak bag in a shirt pocket for quick access. I also had ViewRanger software with topo maps on my HTC Desire phone, which has a GPS function. ViewRanger worked well and provided all the features of a stand-alone GPS. I used it whenever I found locating the correct route with map and compass difficult as it made route-finding much easier and quicker. A few times I used it to find junctions with disused trails hidden in dense vegetation. To find these junctions I would switch on ViewRanger and follow the route on the map until I had reached the right point. Usually there was no sign of the trail but after I had followed its line a short distance signs of it would appear.

I also carried larger scale national park and Forest Service maps so I had an overview of areas and could place myself in the landscape and identify surrounding features.


My carbon fibre Pacer Poles were used every day of the trip as trekking poles and every night as tent poles and were excellent in both cases. They were particularly useful when bushwhacking for holding vegetation out of the way and stopping me falling when I stumbled over a hidden rock or root.

Later in the walk as daylight hours shrank I often made camp in the dark. Sometimes I walked in the dark for several hours too (on my longest day I walked in the dark for seven hours and made camp at 2 a.m.!) For light I took a Petzl Tikka XP headlamp, which worked perfectly throughout the walk and which I used with a flood beam in camp and with a narrow spot beam when hiking.

I don’t actually find much use for a knife blade when backpacking and use scissors far more often. The tiny Leatherman Style CS multi-tool has a pair of the best scissors I’ve found on a lightweight knife plus a sharp blade and a few other tools. It worked fine throughout the walk.

I like to keep a record of weather conditions such as wind speed, overnight temperature and humidity and for this I carried the Kestrel 4500 Weather Station, which is easy to use and very efficient. I ran it on old headlamp batteries and was surprised when batteries that barely produced a flicker of light were rated as having over 80% power by the Kestrel. They lasted for weeks too.

On the trail the HTC Desire smartphone was mainly used as a GPS though I sometimes used it as an e-reader in camp and on boring road sections. In towns I used it to send emails and reports and photos to TGO, update my blog, and even, occasionally, as a phone. I rarely got a hint of a phone signal in the wilds and never an internet connection. Overall I found the Desire useful and a versatile replacement for a standalone GPS. The phone battery lasted about eight hours and I carried two spare batteries plus a Freeloader Pico solar charger, which lived on top of my pack. I found it would half-charge the phone after two to three days of sunny weather. Of course I was often in the shade of the forest and it was often cloudy. I would expect it to be more efficient in hotter more open places.

Gear List


GoLite Pinnacle first half of walk 935g
GoLite Quest second half of walk 1400g


GoLite Shangri-La 1 & Nest 963g

Sleeping Bag:

GoLite Ultralite 3-Season Quilt 718g


POE Ether Elite 6 2/3 first 65 days 306g
Therm-A-Rest Ultralite ¾ last 10 days 480g


Caldera Ti-Tri Inferno 225g
Plastic fuel bottle 25g
Evernew 0.9 litre titanium pot 139g
MSR titanium 0.6 litre titanium pot/mug 82g
Pot stuffsack 27g
Sea to Summit Alpha spoon 9g
Backpacking Light long handled titanium spoon 17g
dishcloth 15g
FireSteel 26g
Platypus 2 litre water bottle x 2 74g
GoLite 700ml water bottle 79g
Steripen Adventurer Opti water purifier 103g


Inov-8 Terroc 330 698g
Merrell sandals 688g


Teko Light Hiking socks x2 182g
Montane Terra Lite trousers 311g
GoLite Skyrunner shorts 132g
The North Face Seamless Brief 50g
Icebreaker Ultralite 140 Merino T 162g
Paramo Katmai Light shirt 207g
GoLite Kings Canyon windshirt 139g
Jack Wolfskin Gecko fleece 225g
Mont-Bell Ultra Light Inner down jacket 212g
Rab Demand Pull-On waterproof 283g
GoLite Reed waterproof trousers 110g
Smartwool Cuffed Beanie 53g
T3 Tilley Hat 156g
Cotton Bandanna x 2 54g
Polypro liner gloves 40g


Pacer Poles 528g
Lifeventure Dri-Store 15 litre stuffsack 58g
POD Ultralite Drysacs 7 litre & 10 litre 75g
Aloksak bags x 3 46g
Petzl Tikka XP headlamp 76g
Silva 7NL Compass 24g
Fox plastic whistle 14g
Sunglasses 70g
Notebook, pens 195g
Passport, documents, wallet 100g
Paperback book c.175g
Reading glasses 143g
Maps c.100g
Guidebook sections 50g
First Aid Kit 150g
Repair Kit 85g
HTC Desire phone 160g
TechTrail Alterra altimeter/watch 74g
Kestrel 4500 weather station 109g
Freeloader Pico solar charger 49g
Leatherman Style CS multi-tool 42g
Wash/teeth kit 100g
Sirius mini binoculars 149g

Photography :

Canon EOS 450D camera + 18-55 lens 787g
Sigma DP1 camera 317g
Smartcards, batteries & filters 484g
Cullman Backpack tripod 597g

The total weight of all my gear was approximately 12.2kg. I usually wore or carried separately around 2.9kg so my pack’s base weight – without food, fuel or water - was about 9.3kg.