Friday 30 March 2012

May TGO: Pacific Crest Trail, Bivi Bags, NeoAir Xlite, Tent Pegs, Green Outdoor Gear & Backpacking with Ed Byrne

At Campo on the Mexican border at the start of the Pacific Crest Trail

Ready for the snowbound High Sierra with 23 days supplies and snow and ice gear.

Volcanic country along the PCT in Oregon with Mount Washington in the background

Thirty years ago this April I set off on the Pacific Crest Trail, my first long distance walk outside the UK. It was to be a life-changing experience. In the May issue of TGO, just out, I describe my walk (briefly!) in my backpacking column. Just writing it up and looking at my old slides sent shivers down my spine. How exciting it was!

A rather different backpacking trip is described by Ed Byrne, who I took wild camping in Glen Feshie. I described this trip, without mentioning Ed, in my blog for March 1.

On gear I review a selection of bivi bags, try the new NeoAir XLite air mattress and answer a question on tent pegs while Judy Armstrong tries a dozen pairs of women’s 3-season boots and Daniel Neilson likes the Arc’teryx Gamma SL Hybrid Hoody.

I also write about gear and the outdoor industry in general in a piece called The Green Outdoors in a special supplement, Tread Softly, about greener hillwalking. Elsewhere in this supplement there are pieces on caring for gear; reusing and recycling gear; key figures in the outdoors industry describing their work – Nick Brown of Nikwax/Paramo, Rohan co-founder Sarah Howcroft on her Recycle Outdoor Gear project and Debbie Luffman of Finisterre on Bowmont sheep (UK wool that could rival merino); suggestions for car-free walks and plane-free travel; leave no trace tips and Tanya Bascombe of the European Outdoor Conservation Association describing its work.

In the actual magazine itself the theme, as daylight hours grow, is big days out. Dan Bailey, who has a new book on the subject called Great Mountain Days in Scotland that looks good, describes ten big summit days in the Highlands; Tim Gent suggests a long peak-bagging walk on Dartmoor and Ronald Turnbull recommends the Caldew Circuit, a long walk over the Northern Fells including Blencathra and Skiddaw.

Away from the summits Cameron McNeish describes organising his own trek in the Himalayas; Daniel Neilson tries scrambling and climbing in Snowdonia and Jim Perrin write passionately about the Kinder Trespass on its eightieth anniversary and, in his Hillwalkers’ Library column, about a book I haven’t read, Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees, that sounds interesting. In the Hill Skills section Kevin Walker describes search techniques for finding an obstinately hidden objective; Tom Durham looks at how to deal with soft tissue injuries; Chris Highcock looks at why you get tired and what to do about it and Chris Fenn describes some delicious sounding and looking trail mix. 

Note: the PCT pictures are scans from Kodachrome 64 slides taken with a Pentax ME Super SLR camera with 28mm and 50mm lenses.

Sunday 25 March 2012

The First Hills of Spring

The March equinox may mark the beginning of spring but it’s often hard to see much sign of change from winter in the Scottish Highlands. High in the hills the lengthening daylight hours are often the only indication that winter is fading. This year is different though, with warm sunshine, bright skies and vanishing snow making late March seem more like May. To celebrate the sunny weather and the turning of the year and unable to resist the clear views and blue sky I headed up into the high Cairngorms for the first summits and the first mountain camp of the spring. Wandering across the Cairngorm Plateau in thin summer shirt and trousers and mesh trail shoes and with sunscreen and sunglasses the most important items of equipment I found it hard to believe it was really this time of year, especially as the hills were golden brown in the sunlight with the last snow patches restricted to steep north and east facing slopes.

I crossed the bare, stony, snowfree summit of Ben Macdui then dropped down a few hundred metres to the nearest stream, fed by some big snow banks. Here I pitched my shelter, facing across stony slopes to the big, rounded summit of Cairn Gorm, where I had stood a few hours earlier. As the sun slid below the ridge above my camp the air began to cool and I felt the chill of the breeze sweeping down over the snow. The illusion of summer was quickly gone. High above the constellations appeared along with bright planets, the big disk of Jupiter dominant. The night was magnificent with the land a series of shadowed ridges and pale snow fields and the sky a brilliant mass of diamonds.

Dawn came with frost on the grass and thin slivers of ice on the edge of the stream. Far to the north-east a thin dark red line spread across the horizon. I photographed it from inside my shelter, my sleeping bag pulled up to my chest, with the tripod set up in the doorway while water came to a boil on the stove for the first warming drink of the day. Outside the sun crept down the snowfields, turning them faintly pink, then slid across the cold grass to finally light my camp. I always love this slow wakening of the natural world, this return of heat and life to the cold stillness of night. I wait for the sun to stir me before I stir. Then it is up and out into the bright air and away back up the hills with the joy of sunshine driving me on.

By the time I was back on the summit of Ben Macdui the sky was deep blue and the hills were shining and splendid. To the south and west I could see clouds though and a gradually spreading haze. The glory would not last. The wind was picking up too, a chilly wind that had me donning a windshirt. I dropped down into the great gash of the Lairig Ghru pass, admiring, as always, the dramatic mountain wall encircling the huge scoop of An Garbh Choire – the rough corrie. Crossing the stony heart of the pass beside the cold Pools of Dee I felt exhilarated and stimulated by the sparkling little streams that vanished into boulder heaps then suddenly bubbled up again, rippling and surging over the clean mica-speckled granite boulders. Two ptarmigan, wisely lying on a snow bank as their plumage was still winter white, gave themselves away by flying up loudly as I passed too close for their nerves to hold.

Leaving the straight cut of the pass I followed the recently built stone staircase path up to boggy moorland and then the boulder-filled chasm of the Chalamain Gap, in which narrow notch I met the first other walkers of the day, clambering over the rough boulders. Just a rough walk across heathery slopes and my spring journey was over. 

Thursday 15 March 2012

Light & Water: A Walk At Findhorn

The coast at Findhorn is a favourite place for a walk by the sea because of the ever-changing seascapes under huge spreading skies. Always present is a sense of the vastness of the world as the land, sea and sky vanishes into far distant horizons. On this latest visit, on a mild March day, the tide had just turned, leaving the first strip of firm, wet sand below the long strips of surf sorted pebbles Wind-ripped clouds spread over the sky, their ragged streaks a contrast to the ruler straight lines of the beach. The sea was visually calmer with gentle waves breaking weakly on the sand, their power ebbing as the tide drew back. This apparent serenity was broken by the roar of the waves, the dominant sound on a day with no screaming gulls and few other birds. Just one little dunlin racing on its clockwork legs away from the waves and a cormorant perched on a rotting post far out from the shore.

As we rounded the dunes into the mouth of Findhorn Bay the sea thunder began to fade and we heard another sound, the mournful, slightly eerie calls of seals, a large group of which we could see on the beach on the far side of the water. The water in the bay was still and quiet, little ripples washing over the pebbles at its edge. The sun was brighter here and other than the hint of chill in the brisk breeze it could have been summer.

The ravages of winter storms were visible though in the ragged remains of a windsock that stands atop the dunes on the headland between the sea and the bay. We had seen this many times over the years, always bright orange and solid. Today it was torn and faded and shredded.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Trailstar Wars

From left: Cricket, Cuben Fibre Trailstar, Silnylon Trailstar

Backpacking shelters can be curious things. Following my trials with Tony Hobbs' Cuben Fibre (CF) Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar tarp (see posts for March 1 and 4) I was interested in seeing the silnylon version, especially as I couldn't pitch the CF one to look like the images I'd seen of it. Luckily, Colin Ibbotson who has a silnylon Trailstar was keen to see the CF version so we decided on a day walk together with shelter pitching at its heart.

On a pleasant, mild spring day we headed up the little hills above Grantown-on-Spey, wandering up nice little wooded dells then across some broken ground recently planted with saplings to a heathery summit with excellent views across Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills and the Cairngorms. Now we needed somewhere to pitch the shelters. So far the ground was all too steep, too boggy, too tussocky or too wooded. We headed down to a little burn but the main result was wet feet as the land was saturated. Further down the glen we finally found some rough pasture that was suitable for pitching the Trailstars.

The results were interesting and to me quite surprising as we found it impossible to pitch them the same way even though the only difference is the fabric. It soon became clear the silnylon version is more functional, more versatile and easier to pitch. Initially we pitched them both with 120cm poles. The edges of the silnylon one were down to the ground, the CF edges were high above the ground - so any wind would blow straight in. Later Colin tried pitching the CF one down to the ground. It proved possible - as long as you were happy with a door that was a tall, narrow slit with almost vertical side walls that would catch the wind. Pitching it with a sensible door like the silnylon one is impossible. Next I pitched the CF with a 100cm pole. With this the edges will go down to the ground. However the door is still quite tall with side panels that would catch the wind if it came from the side and a big entrance that let in rain if it came from the front. Pitching it with a low protective door, as is easy with the silnylon Trailstar, wasn't possible.

My conclusion is that the silnylon Trailstar is a superb shelter but that the CF one, whilst pretty good in some respects and certainly much lighter weight, has some flaws that would prevent me choosing it.

Colin also brought a Mountain Laurel Designs CF Cricket shelter, which has a fixed shape. This looks excellent for sheltered sites - it would have been fine on the Pacific Northwest Trail - and shows that with some designs CF can be pitched quickly and tightly. Talking it over we decided that CF is best for fixed shaped shelters or flat tarps but that for flexible shaped ones like the Trailstar the complete lack of stretch makes it unsuitable.

Update: following comments and requests I'd like to make it clear that I'm judging the two Trailstars on suitability for UK wild camping, and anywhere else where exposed sites and stormy weather are expected, as I think this is the big strong point for the Trailstar design.

From left: Cricket, Cuben Fibre Trailstar, Silnylon Trailstar

Tarp pitching practise over we ambled back down the glen to Grantown-on-Spey, pausing to wonder at the stupidity of a pheasant that thought crouching down in a ditch made it invisible, admiring a heron flapping slowly overhead and being entertained by a mass of toads on the track, many of them mating, and all heading for an unsavoury looking dark and reedy pool, which I guess I'd find attractive if I was a toad.

Saturday 10 March 2012

April TGO: GPS, Altimeter & Waterproof Reviews, Camping in Stormy Weather, Cloud Inversions & A Competition for My 'Scotland' Book

View Over A Cloud Inversion To The Mamores From Ben Nevis

The April issue of TGO is out now. I seem to have a great deal in it! In the Gear section my main review is of 8 GPS units. There's also a review of the Suunto Core altimeter watch while in the Almanac section I have a First Look at the ultralight Montane Minimus waterproof jacket. My Hill Skills piece is on camping in stormy weather, something I've been able to practice rather too often in recent months, while my Backpacking Column is on cloud inversions and other cloud and mist magical phenomena, something I've not experienced enough of recently with the cloud staying firmly clamped on the summits. Finally there's a competition to win a signed copy of my Scotland book. 

There's plenty more in the magazine of course, including Ronald Turnbull on the attractions of Cumbria outside of the Lake District; Ed Byrne trying ski mountaineering on Ben Lawers; Andrew Mazibrada hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc; Cameron McNeish climbing two marvellous Munros: Beinn Liath Mhor and Sgor Ruadh; a photo essay by Adrian Hendroff on Celtic Twilights with some lovely rich light; Carey Davies visiting the Tan Hill Inn (and doing some walking in the Pennines); Andrew Galloway bothying below Arenig Fawr and contemplating this less visited peak; Jim Perrin praising Eric Shipton's Nanda Devi; Kevin Walker suggesting some navigation games; questions answered on drinking water from streams and lakes and personal locator beacons; Chris Fenn's advice on planning meals for hillwalking; John Manning's review of 16 30-litre daypacks and Tristan Gooley on becoming a "natural explorer" (I'm reading his book of that title at present - review to come).

Friday 9 March 2012

Harvey British Mountain Map Schiehallion, Ben Lawers & Glen Lyon Review

This morning in the post I found the latest map in Harvey's excellent 1:40,000 British Mountain Map series. Designed specifically for climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers these maps are printed on waterproof polyethylene so no map case is required. This material is really tough and long lasting and easily withstands the worst Scottish weather. This new map covers the area bounded by Bridge of Orchy in the west, Loch Rannoch in the north and Loch Tay in the south and east. There are 26 Munros on the main map, though three are close to the bottom edge so routes from the south are not shown. On the reverse side is a smaller map covering Ben Chonzie. Fifteen Corbetts are also highlighted. There are topos of five crags showing rock climbing routes with grades too. The map is easy to read and names gullies and crags not marked on other maps.

On the back of the main map there is a geological map and information on geology and the landscape plus information on Maskelyne's 1774 Schiehallion experiment to measure the density of the earth and the invention of contour lines, important ever since for mountaineers and hikers; map and compass use; access advice; and first aid basics and emergency procedures. There's also details of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the British Mountaineering Council, with whom Harveys has produced the map, along with the British Geological Survey. The map can be bought from the MCofS or the BMC with any profits used to fund their work programmes.

This is a lovely map that has made me itch to visit this area again, if only so I can use it in the field. If you're visiting the area or just love maps it's highly recommended.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Cuben Fibre Trailstar

The Trailstar tarp pictured in my last post has attracted some attention, including requests for other pictures so here is a selection. The first four were taken in the early morning in Glen Feshie after I'd lowered the Trailstar during the night due to a strengthening wind. The centre pole height was about 1 metre. Thanks again Tony for the loan of this tarp! 

These two photos show the first practice pitch with the centre pole at 1.2 metres.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Winter Lost, Revisiting Glen Feshie

Eight days after my wintry camping trip to Glen Feshie and Mullach Clach a'Bhlair I returned to the area again with a companion up from the south who wanted to camp wild and climb a new Munro. As he'd already climbed Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui and we only had around 24 hours Mullach Clach a'Bhlair seemed a good choice. This time, due to a latish start, we walked up the glen and camped and then climbed the hill, which ensured we weren't making camp in the dark. The forecast was for mild, cloudy and windy weather. The thaw that had begun the morning of my previous trip had continued all week but I was still surprised at just how much snow had gone. Down in the glen there was none, on the hills just tiny patches. Compare the picture above and the top picture on my blog post of February 21 to see the difference.

Camp made we climbed the Druim nam Bo ridge to Mullach Clach a'Bhlair. Lochan nam Bo, which had been frozen solid the week before, was open water with just one collapsing snow bank above one corner. Higher up there was no snow, just thick damp mist and soft, sodden ground. The summit cairn was sitting in a pool of water. One week of mild south westerly winds and all was changed.

Having tested an unfamiliar tent on the first trip and had a disturbed night due to the wind shaking it I resisted the temptation to take an old trusted tent this time, instead trying a Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, lent to me by Tony Hobbs. The Trailstar has received praise from many experienced backpackers, including Colin Ibbotson, whose knowledge of shelters and how they perform in Scottish conditions is great (he has designed his own tarps that outperform many tents - see my blog post for July 14, 2009). The Trailstar is a five-sided tarp available in silnylon or Cuben Fibre. Tony's is made from the latter material. Initially I pitched the Trailstar with a high central pole and door for maximum headroom and ease of entry and exit. There was a gusty wind but it wasn't affecting the shelter enough to be of concern. A few hours after I fell asleep the wind strengthened though and woke me as it swept under the edge of the shelter and rattled the fabric above the entrance. This time I could do something about it however. I lowered the central pole and adjusted the pegging round the perimeter so it was at ground level and then lowered the entrance pole. The shelter became quiet and only the odd stray breeze drifted inside. I slept well. Quite impressive.