Saturday 30 June 2012

Swedish Hills, Scottish Hills: An Ascent of Areskutan

Unexpectedly finding myself with the best part of a day free in Are on my Scandinavian Outdoor Award trip I took the opportunity to climb the nearest hill, 1420 metre Areskutan, which rises above the town. The Are ski resort lies on the southern and western sides of the mountain so I followed paths further east that kept me mostly away from the lifts. Initially I walked through a fine forest of pine, spruce and birch and then, as the trees faded, steep rocky slopes still splashed with big snowfields. There were touches of sunshine amidst the high white clouds at first but as I approached the summit the clouds lowered and thickened and the first drops of rain began to fall, swept in on a cold wind. There is a transmitter on the summit and a cafe serving coffee and waffles, a service provided since the 1890s. As the rain lashed down watching it from inside the hut whilst warming up with hot food and drink was an unusual and pleasant experience. Here, not far above the ski resort, I felt on the edge of the wild. To the north rolling hills dotted with lakes stretched into the grey horizon. That country I knew was remote and challenging. Twenty years ago I walked the length of the mountains of Norway and Sweden and walked through the hills to the north-west of here. I had not been back in summer since but the land still felt familiar and expected. Leaving the summit clad in waterproof jacket and trousers I followed trails through the ski resort, still on rough rocky ridges and steep slopes but always in sight of the vast metal towers and long cables of the gondola and cable car. Looking back I could see clouds capping the summit. I had at least had a view.

As I descended I thought about the mountains and the style of hiking compared with those of Scotland. The Swedish paths were marked with frequent high orange metal poles and red and white waymarks painted on rocks and every junction had signposts. There were several wind shelters as well as the summit cafe. I bought a map of the area but using the tourist sketch map with the numbered routes marked on it, corresponding to those on the signposts, would have been adequate unless I had left the paths. Indeed, the path numbers were not on the topographic map. I knew that such an organised path system was the norm in the Swedish hills. I would not like to see anything similar in Scotland. But in a much more important respect the Swedish mountains are wilder and more natural than the Scottish ones despite the signposts and waymarks. In Sweden the natural vegetation of the high hills is mostly intact. In Scotland it is not. This was strikingly evident during my ascent of Are. As the trees thinned out I entered an belt of wind stunted scattered small trees and rich thick undergrowth which then itself slowly faded into lower vegetation as I continued upwards. This natural progression is missing in too much of the Scottish Highlands, with the band of stunted trees and shrubs particularly missing. Although further north than the Highlands the mountains felt richer due to this vegetation. Restoring it in Scotland is a necessary part of caring for our wild places. This is being done in places of course and such vegetation can be seen on the slopes of Creag Meagaidh and Meall a'Bhuachaille and other hills. Too often though the fenced woods stop abruptly and above are over-grazed cropped slopes of coarse grass with little in the way of dwarf trees.

Friday 29 June 2012

Scandinavian Outdoor Award: The Event

Well, the Scandinavian outdoor award event is over and the jury has made its decisions, which will be announced soon. Until the official statement is made I've promised to keep quiet and not even drop a hint. I can say that I thought the whole process went well and that it was good to have a chance to actually try gear and talk through the pros and cons over a reasonable period of time. A wide range of products was submitted - tents, sleeping bags, stoves, boots, various items of clothing and one that was hard to classify but which would definitely have won the entertainment award, if there was one. Are in the Swedish hills proved an excellent place for the event, once we had all managed to get here. Even Erlende from Norway and Mikko from Finland didn't find the travel very simple.

Our base was in the fine Tott Hotel (where I am writing this in the lobby before heading to the station for the sleeper to Stockholm, the start of  my 47 hour journey home) in a little conference room with a panoramic view down the shining waters of Indisalven to distant snow-spattered hills. Much of the time was spent outdoors however, with an overnight camp in the birch woods of Ulladalen followed by a walk back to the hotel along the flanks of Areskutan, where we climbed, traversed and descended steep slopes of snow, mud, wet grass, wet rock, loose gravel and mixtures of all of them. For weather we had rain, cold winds and sunshine. For a trip that lasted about 18 hours we experienced a wide variety of weather and terrain, which of course was excellent for testing gear.

With jury members from 7 countries representing  8 outdoor magazines (two from Germany) there was a wealth of knowledge and experience (and strong opinons!) that I think gives the award credibility. Once the result is official I'll post about the products that have the award (one overall, one for sustainability) and those that received honourable mentions.

Pictures added July 2.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

TGO Challenge Gear Review

My report on the gear I used on this years TGO Challenge, which had extremes of weather from wintry to heatwave, is now available on the TGO website.

Monday 25 June 2012

Scandinavian Outdoor Gear Award

This week I'm off to Are in Sweden to take part in the judging for the Scandinavian Outdoor Award. With colleagues from Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Finland and Norway I'll be trying a wide range of products from companies like Bergans, Fjallraven, Optimus, Haglofs and Klattermusen. As well as day hiking we'll spend a night in the wilds so this isn't just a look at the products. The weather forecast is for showers so gear should be tested in damp conditions. As well as website there is a Facebook page on which some of the items we'll be testing will be displayed. I'm looking forward to meeting the others and trying this new gear. Reports to follow, perhaps during but certainly after the event.

Thursday 21 June 2012

New Book Published Today!

Today, June 21, my book on the Pacific Northwest Trail was published by Sandstone Press. I saw a copy for the first time this evening at the launch in Grantown-on-Spey and I must say I'm delighted with the production and design. Thanks to Sandstone Press and designer Heather McPherson of Raspberryhmac. The book tells the story of my hike along the trail and is illustrated with 138 photos plus maps showing the route.

Thanks to everyone who came along to the launch and for Sandstone Press and The Book Mark in Grantown-on-Spey for organising it. I'll be at Waterstones in Aviemore on July 18th talking about the book and I hope to announce other talks soon.

Colin Fletcher Revisited

A few years ago I heard that a hiker who had access to the late Colin Fletcher's notes and journals was planning to follow the route Fletcher took the length of Califormia back in 1958, a journey described in The Thousand-Mile Summer. That was the book that inspired me to visit the American West and hike the Pacific Crest Trail. It is still one of my favourite backpacking books and Colin Fletcher is still my favourite backpacking author so I was very interested to hear that someone was to attempt the same hike. It's 54 years since Fletcher set off up California but his story of the walk is as fresh and inspiring today as it was then.

However I'd forgotten about this plan to follow Fletcher's route until a few days ago when I was pleased to read a Tweet from @Lighthiker (Roman Ackl) that said the hiker, Andreas Cohrs, had completed the walk. Lighthiker also gave a link to Cohrs book on the walk California Serendipity – The Thousand-Mile Summer Revisited, which has just been published. Following the link I was delighted to find a site about Colin Fletcher with much biographical information and interesting information. From the site I ordered Andreas Cohr's book, which I am very much looking forward to reading.

I've written about Colin Fletcher before. For more on my thoughts here's a link to a piece I wrote for TGO magazine in 2007 and then posted on this blog the next year. Shortly after I wrote it I heard that he had died so this became my obituary for him. It's called Colin Fletcher The Man Who Walked Through Time.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Great Spotted Woodpeckers

Great Spotted Woodpeckers are regular year round visitors to the bird feeders in our garden. Every summer these delightful birds bring their young with them to feed. Whilst they can fly the youngsters usually can't work out how to get at the food, pecking desultorily at dropped bits of peanut but not yet realising the power they have. Instead they cling to the wire peanut holder or sit in the seed tray waiting for the parent to stuff food in their mouth. I have photographed these birds feeding their young before and posted one of the pictures four years ago in a piece headed Young Birds. That year the date was August 8. This year we saw the first youngster today, June 20.

Monday 18 June 2012

New TGO: Sandals, Stream Fords, Innov-Ex & Petzl NAO

Hiking in Sandals in the High Sierra
The July issue of TGO is out. My contributions are a review of my favourite hiking footwear - sandals, a report on the 2012 Innovation for Extremes conference, a first look at the innovative Petzl NAO headlamp and, in my backpacking column, some thoughts on river crossings.

This issue also has Carey Davies undertaking a five day circular  tour of the Lake District; Cameron McNeish describing his rather longer Kirk Yetholm to Cape Wrath Gore-Tex Scottish National Trail; Andrew Mazibrada tackling the Nantlle Ridge and Andrew Terrill pausing for 24 hours high in the Pyrenees. Away from trip descriptions Jim Perrin praises one of my favourite outdoor books, Hamish Brown's wonderful Hamish's Mountain Walk while in the Hill Skills section Kevin Walker looks at the pros and cons of GPS; David Coles gives advice for glasses wearers; Chris Highcock looks at how to get the most from minimum exercise and there's advice on dealing with midges and navigating by the stars.

As well as my test of eleven pairs of hiking sandals the gear section has an entertaining look at backpacking meals by John Manning, aided by a panel of experts of all ages, plus reviews of a Columbia wicking t-shirt and some Paramo shorts by Daniel Neilson (hopefully there will be weather for such garments soon - last time I was out on the hills I was wearing a fleece!).

Saturday 16 June 2012

Book Launch: Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams

Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams, my book on my Pacific Northwest Trail hike, will be published on June 21st by Sandstone Press. There will be a book launch at The Grant Arms in Grantown-on-Spey that evening - 7 for 7.30.  Everybody welcome! I'll be showing some images of the walk and there'll be a discussion afterwards.

Friday 15 June 2012

Review: Eden Quality XP 8x42 Binoculars

The first item of outdoor gear I really wanted wasn’t a tent or a sleeping bag or hiking boots. It was a pair of binoculars. I was around ten years old and very keen on wandering round the countryside and coast of west Lancashire watching birds and animals. I didn’t have conscious feelings about landscape or wild places. I just liked being in the outdoors. Clothing and footwear was whatever my parents provided. I had no interest in them. If my clothes got wet because it rained or I fell in a pond or investigated a ditch that was just something that happened. My first piece of outdoor equipment was probably a fishing net so I could catch pond life. These were cheap though and easily purchased with pocket money. Binoculars were expensive and unobtainable and thus lusted after. Eventually, when they accepted that my passion for nature appeared to be more than passing phase, my parents bought me a pair of 8x25 binoculars. With them I felt like a real naturalist, a real explorer.

Those binoculars are long gone but I’ve owned a pair ever since and taken some on every walk, however long. I like watching wildlife, examining possible routes or campsites, studying cliffs and other features and looking at the stars and planets through binoculars. I can observe animals and birds without disturbing them – or endangering myself when it’s a bear – and look for details in the landscape. I wouldn’t be without binoculars.

For well over a decade – long enough that I can’t remember when I bought either of them – I’ve had two pairs. A tiny 8x21 pair that aren’t very bright but which weigh only 149 grams are the ones I take on backpacking trips and long day walks. For shorter walks and around home I have a pair of 8x42s that are much brighter but which weigh 822 grams. They’re also very bulky and I’m always aware of their presence hanging round my neck. I wouldn’t want to walk a long distance with them. Both pairs look pretty battered and have been repaired. Neither is waterproof so in rain they have to go in the pack.

Given my love of binoculars I was delighted recently when I was offered a pair of Eden 8x42 XP Binoculars to test. I was even more delighted to discover that they are waterproof and quite compact for 8x42s – far more compact than my old pair in fact. They weigh noticeably less at 660 grams too (712 grams with padded neck strap). Even better is the performance as they are brighter and sharper than my old pair whilst having the same magnification and wide field of view. The reduction in weight and bulk is enough that they don’t feel that noticeable after several hours slung round my neck. And they take up less room in the pack when I need to store them – for scrambling say but not, as with my other binoculars, for rain. I will certainly be taking these hillwalking and on short backpacking trips. Indeed, I can see that it will be difficult to leave them behind even on long trips.

The binoculars look and feel high quality and should last a long time (they come with a 25 year guarantee). There are many details I like apart from the optical quality and the reasonable weight and bulk. In particular the dioptre control is very firm and stays in position – it slips easily on both my old pairs so I constantly have to adjust it. The extendable eye cups for use with and without glasses are good too. Being fairly narrow the XPs are easier and more comfortable to hold for long periods than my wide 8x42s. There are indentations to stop the fingers slipping too.

The cost is £245, which for good binoculars isn’t that expensive. On my usage so far I can certainly recommend them. More details here.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Book Review: Norway The Outdoor Paradise by James Baxter

Subtitled A Ski And Kayak Odyssey In Europe’s Great Wilderness this book tells the story of an amazing outdoor adventure. The author spent four months skiing 2,700 kilometres south to north through Norway and Sweden and then turned round and spent another four months kayaking back some 3,100 kilometres round the coast. That is an extraordinary achievement, especially given Scandinavia’s winter weather. Having done a great deal of skiing there I know what conditions are like and that a journey starting on January 1, as James Baxter did, means dealing with short daylight hours, bitter cold, blizzards and deep snow plus the weight of a pack loaded down with winter equipment. I wasn’t surprised to read that he set off with a 120 litre pack that weighed 28 kilos.

This is a big book, 450 pages in total, and I have to admit that I have not yet read the kayak section, this not being something I am very interested in. I enjoyed the skiing section though, as I think anyone interested in mountain journeys, ski touring or Scandinavia would. Detailing his experiences day by day the book is an exhaustive account of the trip and through the author's account you learn about skiing in difficult conditions, camping in the snow, snow shelters and more. There is much about the author’s physical state but surprisingly little about his mental one, given what he had to cope with. Whilst the landscape lies at the centre of the book he also describes the places he passes through and gives many interesting snippets of Norwegian nature, geology, culture and history. There are also a series of meetings with people along the way, including some who ski with him and the many who helped him. Each chapter has a map with each days stage marked on it, a great help in following the journey. There are hundreds of photographs too, showing everything from details of camps to vast landscapes. These pictures are all fairly small. It would have been nice to see some of the more spectacular ones in a larger size.

Baxter says that the book is intended to be an account of his adventure and also a guidebook. There is certainly enough information in the ski chapters to use these for planning a tour with details of the route, huts and other essential information.

The author also wants to promote Norway, hence the phrase ‘The Outdoor Paradise’ in the title, and I think he does this well. Having spent many months there myself, including undertaking a south to north walk roughly along the same route as Baxter’s ski tour, I’ve always felt that both Norway and Sweden are under-rated in Britain, especially by walkers. The landscape is dramatic, beautiful and challenging and on a vast scale. Reading this book made me want to go back. I recommend it.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Road Trip

Ben Stack rising beyond Loch More as I headed NW from Ben Hee

I don’t really like driving. I avoided learning to drive for as long as I could but eventually it became a necessity. Mostly I regard driving as a chore and my interest in cars is limited to having one that works properly most of the time and doesn’t cost too much to run. They’re just tin boxes to take you from A to B. My ideal car would be one where I can tap in my destination then sit back and let the machine take me there while I look out of the window, read, write, sleep or otherwise use my time more usefully than by driving. Unsurprisingly my favourite form of mechanical transport is the train, which I use for every journey I can.

Arkle rising above Loch Stack
Given this, I surprised myself when I decided to drive back from the walk in the NW Highlands described in the last post by a longer than necessary route. Why did I do this? Well, from the top of Ben Hee I could see sunshine out to the west along the coast and an overcast sky to the south and east. Also along the coast was one of the most spectacular and dramatic landscapes in Britain. I knew the shorter drive south east would soon become routine, especially under a blanket of cloud. The coast could be anything but mundane. I had plenty of time and so could drive slowly and stop frequently. The decision was made.

The great buttresses of Quinag

The drive, along the single track A838 to Laxford Bridge and then the slightly wider A894 and A838 to Ullapool, was splendid. These must be two of the most scenic roads anywhere. Most of the route is also on one of my favourite Ordnance Survey maps, Loch Assynt, which mainly shows hills, water and open space. The roads run through the heart of this special land rarely fenced and with mostly wild land to either side. Over every rise and round every bend there are more glories to be seen as mountain succeeds mountain and loch follows loch. And always there is the sea, the end of the land, the margin between the heights and the depths.

Ardvreck Castle, Loch Assynt and Quinag


The drive to Ullapool took half a day. I stopped frequently to stare at the hills and lochs and take photographs. There was a brisk NW wind that kept the air sharp and clear with no haze. There were clouds speeding across the sky but the sun shone often and the colours of land and water were amazingly bright. Picture postcard perfect in fact. And that’s what the photos show. All taken during the afternoon with the sun high in the sky there are no dramatic magic hour low sun shots or moody side lighting. But on a day like this that overhead light was fine, showing the landscape in all its finery and detail. All the photos were taken either from the roadside or no more than ten minutes stroll away.

Ben More Coigach and Ardmair Bay

Ten minutes after leaving Ullapool heading east I left the sun behind and the world turned grey. Soon drizzle was falling. Colour had left the land. I still had 100 miles to go. I didn’t mind. For once a road trip had been worthwhile in itself.

Ullapool - time for ice cream

Wednesday 6 June 2012

A Few Days In the NW Highlands

View west from Beinn Leiod with Ben More Assynt on the left and Quinag on the right

Just back from a few days in the NW Highlands, climbing some of the less frequented hills. While the car parks for hills like Quinag and Ben More Assynt were full I saw no-one on Beinn Leiod and Meallan a’Chuail and only one party on Ben Hee. In other areas these hills would probably be more popular. Here in the North-West Highlands they are overwhelmed by their glorious neighbours. Yet they have rewards of their own, especially in the views from the summits but also in the rugged landscape, the solitude and the feeling of wildness.

Before sunset; the tip of Ben Stack (left), Loch More and Arkle
 Beinn Leoid and Meallan a’Chuail are a linked pair of hills on the north-eastern side of the vast area of extremely rugged land lying between the A894 and A838 roads. This is rough country, full of bogs, boulders, ravines, lochans and streams. Ben More Assynt and Conival, are the centrepiece of the area for hillwalkers, the only two Munros in the area. Beinn Leiod and Meallan a’Chuail don’t rise to such heights but are fine hills nonetheless. Approaches from the west are long and complex but from the north old stalking paths lead to the foot of the hills. It was one of these I took, as it climbed steeply in tight zigzags between two plantations before fading away when easier ground was reached. Using the long nights of summer I didn’t set off until late in the evening and had the pleasure of watching the sun setting over the western hills with the land glowing gold in its last rays. The full moon was rising by the time I was setting up camp on a knoll above little Loch Cul a’Mhill.

Full moon rising above camp at Loch Cul a'Mhill
I woke to a chill north wind and a temperature of just +1°C. Midsummer may be only a few weeks away but the weather felt more appropriate to March than June. Leaving most of my gear in camp I cut across to another stalking path that led right up to the col between Beinn Leiod and Meallan a’Chuail. As I climbed the long eastern ridge of the latter the views opened up, a spreading array of fine peaks. The view from the summit in the sharp, clear air was breathtaking. Just mountains and water stretching out west to the ocean and east to the flatlands. This has to be one of the wildest and most spectacular landscapes in Britain.

From the summit I turned east to Meallan a’Chuail, the lower of the two hills but also the steepest and rockiest. From its top there is a view down broken crags to a chain of ragged lochans with the long silver line of huge Loch Shin stretching out into the distance beyond them.

Meallan a'Chuail
 The sharp cold wind kept me moving and I was back in camp sooner than expected. I had intended spending two nights here and climbing Ben Hee the following day. With six hours daylight still remaining I changed my plans, packed up and descended back to the car. A few kilometres along the road I set off again and was soon climbing the narrow glen of the Allt Coir a’Chruteir looking for a flat spot to camp. Again an old stalking path led up into the hills, frequently broken by landslips. Eventually a patch of rough grass on a bank above the stream made for a good camp.

Camp in Coir a'Chruiteir
 I was over half way up Ben Hee when I stopped and it took less than an hour to complete the ascent the next day. Ben Hee is a big rounded hill with crags and corries on its eastern flanks. I was climbing the more featureless western side and the climb was straightforward. The view from the summit was extensive but the light had changed and the sky was mostly overcast. Some hills were cloud-capped and I could see squalls passing across the land. Hints of a rainbow appeared as one little storm raced in front of Arkle and Ben Stack. There was little wind on the summit though, a change from the hills of the previous day. The views stretched from coast to coast, with the Dornoch Firth visible away to the south-east. I watched the hills and the water for a little while, marvelling again at the wildness, then turned and began my descent.

Camp beside the Allt Coir a'Chruteir