Saturday 29 September 2012

Between Storms, Just

Dawn came with quiet and a subtle beauty. Slowly the sky lightened and a weak sun rose through thin layers of cloud. There was no burst of glorious red or brilliant light but the rain had stopped and the dense low clouds had gone. This day was forecast to be a brief interlude in the run of storms that has marked the early autumn. I’d set off in the dark and rain the evening before, wanting to wake in the wilds and make the most of this day. Deep pools on the track, which in places was running with water, reminded me of how wet it had been. My headlamp, essential in the deep darkness, picked out sparkling rain drops on the trees and the grasses and the heather. Once two bright spots caught the beam. I turned to see a deer, motionless, watching me.

I had a camp site in mind at the mouth of the long valley of Strath Nethy. There used to be a crude bothy here called Bynack Stables where I stayed once on a wild November night long ago. Some seven years past, after a big winter storm, I came here to find the bothy demolished by the wind and snow. Soon after the remnants were removed by the landowners, the RSPB, and all that is left now is a flat patch of grass. On this occasion I arrived to find the ground saturated and covered with puddles. Water oozed up through the grass at every step. I pitched my shelter right on the edge of the flat area, where the ground was relatively dry though bumpier than I would have liked, then crawled inside, away from the rain. Outside I could hear the River Nethy roaring past.

Although I was off early the next morning clouds were already starting to build up. The patches of sunshine only lasted a few hours and were never strong. I was heading for Bynack More, that 1090 summit on the north-eastern edge of the Cairngorms that gives splendid views of the higher mountains to the south-west and is also a nice rocky hill itself. As I climbed the long north ridge I watched rolls of cloud drifting over the even longer north ridge of Cairn Gorm across Strath Nethy. Cairn Gorm itself was buried in dark clouds, just a steep dark mountainside visible, rising to who knew what peak.

Gaining height I looked back and saw that wisps of cloud were trailing across the ridge behind me, driven by an increasingly strong north-west wind. From the summit the views were curtailed as the clouds were thick and continuous over the Cairngorm Plateau. The wind was gusting strongly now and much colder, bringing with it stabs and slashes of rain. On the lower top of Bynack Beag I sheltered behind granite boulders for a snack then descended steeply into Strath Nethy, where I was out of the wind but not the now steady drizzle. I collected the tent and walked back out to the forest and the car. The promised fair weather had shrunk to less than a day but the dawn and the clouds had made the trip worthwhile.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Controversy 1: Smartphones & GPS in the Hills

Many years ago when the first handheld GPS units appeared I was called a Luddite, old fashioned and out of touch by those keen to boost this new technology because I said that they didn’t replace map and compass. Much more recently I’ve been criticised for promoting smartphones for navigation and for not saying that they weren’t any use and that map and compass was all that was needed. Yet over this time my views haven’t changed much, just adapted to new technology, and I’ve never been as anti or pro any method of navigation as some people thought. Here, in the hope of making it clear, are my views on navigational tools.

Firstly, and most importantly, is that word ‘tools’ for that is all that maps, compasses, GPS units, smartphones and tablets are, tools that can be used for navigation. None of them hold any magic qualities that will navigate for you. If you know how to use them they can all be useful, if you don’t they are all useless. Just carrying a compass or a smartphone won’t help you navigate if you don’t know how to use it. As with any tool you need to know what it can and can’t do.


The basic tool is a map of course. A map with contours and other symbols that, when you can read them, show what the terrain is like. I love maps. I can spend hours poring over them, studying landscapes and planning routes. I do nearly all my navigation with a map. As long as visibility is good I can quickly locate my rough position on the map and identify surrounding features even if I haven’t been paying much attention for my whereabouts for a while.


I always carry a compass though it may not be used most days. When visibility is poor it comes into its own, either just giving me a rough direction or the more precise one of a map bearing. In white-outs high in the mountains and in forests where no features are visible I’ve walked for hours with the compass in my hand. I do check the local geology though. Long before GPS came along I was taught that compasses are infallible. Then I walked off the wrong side of Ben More on the island of Mull, following a compass bearing, and discovered that if there are magnetic rocks around compasses can be 180ยบ out. Oops!


When GPS arrived I could immediately see the usefulness of a device that gave you a grid reference you could plot on a map to see where you were, which was much quicker and easier than the various compass techniques (angle of slope, triangulation and more). You needed to understand grid references of course and not muddle up eastings and northings. And you needed a compass with a roamer scale (or a separate protractor) to plot the grid reference on your map. You could also input a series of waypoints into those early GPS units and then follow this route. I once, as an exercise (not an intentional one – I forgot the map), recorded my route up a hill with the GPS and then used the GPS to retrace it. Doing this I realised an advantage of a GPS over a compass. If you move off the line of a compass bearing due to some obstacle or other you have to take a new bearing as the original one will now be inaccurate. A GPS will point towards the next waypoint from wherever you are.

GPS took a big leap forward when maps could be downloaded onto a unit. Now instead of a grid reference there was your position on the map. Wonderful! In mist and the dark this made navigation much easier. Now if I’m unsure of my whereabouts my first action is to check the GPS map.

Smartphones and Tablets

The latest controversy surrounds the use of smartphones for navigation (and will probably soon include tablets). When small mobile phones first appeared they were criticised because a very few people used them to call for help instead of learning how to navigate. However it soon became apparent that they could be a great boon in calling for rescue when it was genuinely needed and in helping rescue teams locate someone quickly. The controversy died down. Then smartphones arrived. Phones with mapping and GPS receivers. Back came the controversy because again a few people are misusing them and think that they can navigate in the hills with the basic maps provided. You can’t. Or at least no more than you can with a road atlas. But it’s not the device at fault. It’s the operator.

Unfortunately some people are criticising smartphones and giving out myths about them. It was in trying to clear these up that I gave the impression to some people that I was championing phones over map and compass.

One rescue team member was quoted as saying that smartphones were only suitable for urban walking because in the hills they ‘invariably’ fail due to lack of reception and poor battery life. Now the first isn’t true and the second shouldn’t be. Any smartphone with a GPS receiver has as good or better reception than any standalone GPS unit (and the latest models of both are far better than GPS units of just a few years ago). I can’t remember when I last couldn’t get reception, which isn’t surprising as I can get it inside buildings and vehicles, unlike with early GPS units.

As for batteries the answer is simple: carry spares, just as you would for a headlamp or torch (I presume no-one is advising against one of these because of poor battery life). If you have a phone with a non-replaceable battery (a stupid design) then there are various devices that will recharge it. Also, turn off functions you don’t need (I put my smartphone or tablet into airplane mode) and switch off the smartphone when you’re not navigating with it. My current smartphone lasts 6-7 hours like this, which gives several days of use if I don’t keep it switched on. My tablet lasts three times as long and I often leave it switched on to record my route (which has the advantage that if absolutely necessary I could use the tablet to retrace it, though I’ve never done this).

Of course you need to have proper maps on a smartphone for it to be useful for navigation. This isn’t a problem as OS maps are available, visually exactly the same as the paper maps. 

The problem is that anyone who thinks that a smartphone with road maps is adequate for navigation won’t have any navigational skills. Educating people that they need these skills is important. Telling them that smartphones are useless in the hills is unhelpful though and could have a negative effect if accompanied by misinformation. If someone knows they can get a signal but a so-called expert tells them they can’t why they should believe anything else that person tells them?

To conclude: good navigational skills are of course essential in the hills and wild places. And the key one of these is being able to read a map, whether it’s on paper or on a screen. The latest tablets and smartphones are efficient GPS units and with good maps can be used for navigation. Indeed, being able to pinpoint your position on a map on the screen should make it harder to get lost. That said, carrying a paper map and a compass as well as a GPS is wise. Apart from anything else if one fails (and I’ve seen maps shredded by the wind, blown away and dissolved by rain) you still have the other.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Praise for 'Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams'

I'm delighted that more good reviews of my book Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams have appeared, this time in the USA, where the book is distributed by Dufours Editions (who give a nice mention of another of my books Crossing Arizona).

A short review in The Seattle Times mentions 'the gorgeous color photographs included on nearly every page' while on Frank R. Ward, who reviews many hiking and outdoor books, has posted an interesting review entitled A Good Scottish Effort at an American Art Form in which he writes 'if you take some time with this book, you too can vicariously enjoy Townsend's experience. His was a hike worth sharing'.

These reviews and others can also all be found on the publisher's website in The Sandstone Blog section.

Monday 24 September 2012

The Peak of the Winds

With one last day of reasonable weather forecast before big storms arrived I headed for Glen Feshie to see how the autumn was progressing there and to visit one of the most dramatic viewpoints in the Cairngorms for the first time this year. Down in the forest all was quiet with just a gentle breeze softly brushing the trees and rippling the grasses. In open areas the bracken was changing colour from the dull dense green of summer to the brighter yellows and russets of autumn. Some of the birches were showing yellow tints too and the first fallen leaves lay on the path. The rowan leaves were still green but their clusters of bright red berries showed the season.

On the hillsides above the last trees spiky clumps of deer grass gave an orange sheen to the landscape. Higher still the hills were brown and grey with summer’s greenness gone. I wound through the fading heather and up onto the stony slopes where the short coarse grasses were tawny and yellow. As I climbed the breeze became a strong wind and then, as I reached the first summit, a screaming gale. The sky was dappled with high thin clouds. Out west the views were hazy. On reaching the crest of the hills I could see far to the east for the first time and there the clouds were thick and dark, rearing up into the sky. A mountain hare streaked over the stones. Soon it will be in its white winter coat.

Buffeted by the cold wind I climbed the last slopes to the little pointed summit of Sgor Gaoith. Today the peak of the winds was aptly named. Far below my feet lay Loch Einich and out of its corrie the wind came roaring, surging over the summit in great gusts. The view was magnificent but this was not a place to linger and I was soon heading back down to drop suddenly out of the wind and into warmer air.

As I approached the first trees three deer bounded down the slope in front of me. Soon the stags will be roaring as the rut begins. Today they were silent. Also quiet, unlike their red cousins, were a pair of black grouse that flapped out of a clearing in the trees. Soon I was back in Glen Feshie after what felt like the first real autumn walk of the year.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Controversies & A Note on Social Networking

In recent weeks I’ve engaged in a number of debates and discussions about several topics on various social networking and web sites. At times I’ve found myself getting repetitive as the same points came up again and again. I don’t think this is useful or interesting (I’m sure with some of the discussions everyone bar those posting had left long before the threads faded away). Also, some of the criticism aimed in my direction suggests I haven’t made myself clear and have misled others about my opinions. On those topics important to me and, I think, to the outdoors I intend posting my views on this blog over the next week or so to make it clear where I stand.

It’s not controversial but I’ll start by explaining how I use social networking sites. I regularly use three – unsurprisingly these are Twitter, Facebook and Google +. I don’t however actually look at these sites that often, except when I am responding to a comment on something I’ve posted. This blog is linked to all three sites so that any post appears on them within seconds of being published without my needing to do anything except click on a Google + message asking if I want my post to appear on that site.

Most of my other posts are links from emails I receive or websites I visit. Anything I find of interest I share via Add This or buttons on the site. Again I don’t have to actually visit the social networking sites to do this. Anything I share on Twitter or Facebook automatically appears on both sites. When comments are made on anything I’ve posted I get emails. That’s when I go to the sites.

One point I’d like to clear up is that when I post something it does not necessarily mean I agree with all or any of it. I post things that I find interesting and think others may do so too. I may disagree, have no opinion, or even be unsure as to my view. That doesn’t matter. If I “like” or “agree” or “favourite” something then I do mainly agree with it. Otherwise I may or may not.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Mists & Softness: A Quiet Walk on Cairn Gorm

On the north ridge of Cairn Gorm

The autumn equinox came during a period of unsettled weather. The winds were too gentle for it to be called stormy but there were clouds down on the summit and many heavy showers. On the tops these were falling as snow according to reports and hazy images of lightly snow-spattered misty hillsides appeared on websites. To see just what it was like I wandered up Cairn Gorm on a chilly, drizzly day. I went via the long unfrequented north ridge, a lovely wild place with only sketchy paths and a delightful mix of granite boulders and rich vegetation. 

View over Strath Nethy to cloud-capped Beinn Mheadhoin

 A line of broken crags lines the steep slopes above the deep valley of Strath Nethy and I followed the edge of these, staring down into the depths and across to the dark wedge of Bynack Mor, its summit draped in drifting clouds. 

Strath Nethy
With distant views non-existent and even the middle distance quite hazy the pleasures of the walk were in closer details. The rough textures of the quartzite- streaked rocks, the rich colours of the autumnal vegetation, the tumbling burns. Ptarmigan, not yet in winter plumage, fluttered low over the ground. In boggy areas the marsh plants glowed in the soft light.

Bog vegetation

The ridge led up to the summit of Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, a minor top marked by a tiny cairn atop a jumble of stones. It’s hard to believe that this lonely, wild spot is only a short distance from the top of the Cairngorm ski resort. Passing above the Ptarmigan Restaurant at the head of the ski runs I saw the first other people of the day, a few hooded walkers on the waymarked path leading up to Cairn Gorm.

Snow near the summit of Cairn Gorm
I continued up the pathless slopes away from the resort, soon entering the mist. The drizzle that had been falling on and off changed to sleet and light snow that drifted down slowly in tiny white specks. On the ground patches of windblown snow lay amongst the rocks and clumps of fading grass. The summit was thick with cloud and the air was cold. Half a dozen walkers were studying a map. Feeling damp and chilled as soon as I stopped I didn’t linger but was soon heading back down out of the mist and down the ridge above Coire na Ciste.

Soon the hazy views opened out again. To the north I could see sunshine and blue sky over the Moray Firth. Maybe I should have gone to the coast. Maybe not. It had been a gentle day but as always the Cairngorms had given much. The subtle beauty of the landscape was enhanced by the mist and the soft light, giving yet another perspective on these marvellous mountains.

Wednesday 19 September 2012 Interview

Recently I gave an interview to about backpacking and US National Parks. You can find the interview here.

Sunday 16 September 2012

TGO Awards

TGO Magazine has launched The Great Outdoors Awards this autumn which will cover all aspects of the outdoors scene. Nominations for the awards have closed but the voting for those categories open to everyone has now started. Categories include retailers of the year, accommodation, pub/restaurant, environmental/access initiative, outdoor book and outdoor personality. You can vote here.

Four equipment categories will be judged by a panel, including myself. You can see who's on the panel here

Friday 14 September 2012

Sony NEX Camera Updates

Following last month's popular post on the Sony NEX 7 camera here are some thoughts on the recent Sony NEX new products launch. Of course I haven't actually seen let alone used any of these products so these are only opinions.

For me the most exciting new product is the 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 pancake lens. In my NEX 7 review I said that I was looking forward to this as it covered the range I used most. I'm delighted to read that the weight is just 116 grams (the 18-55mm lens weighs 220 grams) and that it really is tiny. I shall definitely be ordering one as I think with the NEX 7 it will make a perfect lightweight combination for long walks and quality photography. My only complaint is that it seems it's not available until January.

Sony also announced a 10-18mm f4 wide angle zoom that is also lightweight at 225 grams, especially compared with my Canon-fit Tamron 11-18 lens at 397 grams. It's expensive though at £749 so I'll wait to see some reviews before deciding whether to buy it. I may well decide that the 12mm of the 16mm/Wide Angle Adapter combination I already have is all I need for shots wider than 16mm.

There's a new NEX 6 camera too, with the same viewfinder as the 7 but different controls and a 16.1mp sensor. It looks good. I'm glad though that it didn't come out before I bought the NEX 7 as I might have bought it instead and missed out on the big advantage of  the 7's 24mp, namely being able to crop images without much quality loss and thus greatly increasing the scope of a standard range zoom lens. As I have an NEX 5 as a back-up to the 7 I won't be getting the 6.

The details of the these and other new Sony products can be found on many photo and camera sites including PhotoClubAlpha (by picking up on my NEX 7 review this site boosted my readership and made me some new contacts that led to some interesting email exchanges including one with a photographer from Canada who shares my love for the works of Colin Fletcher and John Hillaby - such is the way the web works).

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Latest TGO: TGO Challenge, Autumn, Lightweight Boots, MSR Stove

Camp below Fuar Tholl in Achnashellach Forest on the TGO Challenge

The October TGO is the annual TGO Challenge issue, with reports from this year’s event and entry forms for next year’s. My contribution is an account of this year’s stormy crossing and a look at the gear I used.** Also on gear in this issue are my test report on 17 pairs of lightweight boots and my initial thoughts on the new MSR Whisperlite Universal stove, an update of an old favourite. My backpacking column is on the theme of autumn, a wonderful season for backpacking with beautiful colours and no midges. There’s also a review of the latest edition of my Backpacker’s Handbook by John Manning (along with Andrew Skurka’s The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide).

Appropriately for the Challenge issue the theme of this TGO is backpacking. Cameron McNeish discusses the appeal of lightweight camping and long distance walking and suggests ten UK backpacking routes plus two overseas ones. Sweden’s marvellous Kungsleden isn’t one of the latter but it appears anyway in Carey Davies description of the mass backpacking event (2,000 participants!) that is the 110km Fjallraven Classic. The Hill Skills section sticks to the backpacking theme with advice on choosing a wild camp site, selecting the right tent, the uses of a trekking pole, repairing gear, multipurpose kit, tips for minimising the load and planning stove fuel.

Away from backpacking Ed Byrne tries mountain biking; Andrew Galloway practises his navigation on Y Migneint and the Arenig mountains in Snowdonia; Jim Perrin celebrates a collection of A.Harry Griffin’s excellent Country Diary essays for The Guardian, A Lifetime of Mountain; and outdoor blogger (and TGO Challenger) Andy Howell calls on the government to prioritise outdoor activities for all rather than competitive and elite sport. In the gear section Cameron McNeish tries five pairs of hillwalking trousers and likes them all while Daniel Neilson tests Fjallraven’s Alv Lite jacket and Mammut’s Ajungilak Sphere Spring sleeping bag.

** My full itemised gear list can be found on the TGO website here.

Monday 10 September 2012

Nexus 7 - A Tablet for the Outdoors?

When tablets first came to my notice with the much-hyped launch of the iPad I didn’t take much notice as they didn’t seem to offer anything that made them preferable to the netbook I already owned for general travel while they were too big and heavy for carrying in a pack. Smaller tablets appeared but the few I gave a cursory glance to didn’t seem to offer much. (By the way, I still find using ‘tablet’ this way feels wrong – in my head tablets are bloody great Biblical stones or tiny medicinal pellets – put tablet in a search engine though and the results are all for the computer version).

Then Google launched the Nexus 7, which garnered rave reviews and looked far superior to other small tablets. As it sounded like it had possibilities, in a fit of acquisitiveness I bought one. At first, playing with it at home it seemed just that - a toy. Fun to use but not offering anything that my other collection of electronic devices didn’t already provide. I couldn’t work out just where it fitted and certainly had no thoughts of taking it out in the hills.

Soon though I began to see its potential. The Nexus 7 has a GPS receiver and I noticed that it picked up signals quickly even indoors. Maybe with proper topographic maps it could be useful outdoors? I discovered that the excellent ViewRanger software with Ordnance Survey maps, which has all the capabilities of a standalone GPS and which I already used on my smartphone, was available for the Nexus 7. I loaded it and was immediately delighted by the clarity and the extra area shown by the larger screen compared with the phone – 15 x 9.4cms as opposed to 8 x 5cms.

It was time to take the Nexus 7 for a walk. Some form of protection was needed though. I already had an Aquapac Whanganui waterproof case for my Kindle e-reader and found that this fitted and that I could operate the Nexus 7 and see the screen clearly through it. Turning off the wi-fi, which I had learnt could quickly drain the battery, I put the Nexus 7 in the top of my pack, set ViewRanger to record my route and set off on a six hour walk. Would the battery last was the big question. It did. In fact there was 72% charge left. I was astonished. My smartphone battery just lasts 6-7 hours when recording a route. The Nexus 7 looked like it would last around three times as long. This needed checking so I took it for another walk, this time 61/4 hours long. Charge left: 67%. Now normally I don’t leave my GPS on all day. I just switch it on when I want to check my position, using a paper map the rest of the time. Used like this the Nexus 7 battery could last weeks.

Isn’t it heavy for a GPS though? Not as much as you’d think. It weighs 340 grams. The Satmap Active 10, the best standalone GPS I’ve used, weighs 231 grams but has a screen smaller than the one on my smartphone. The Nexus 7 is much more than a GPS of course and all its other functions can be used anywhere there’s wi-fi (on multi-day journeys the charging cable could be sent ahead or even carried – with travel plug it weighs 84 grams). Compared with the smartphone I’ve found typing on the Nexus 7 easy and web pages look so much better at the larger size. It can be a music player too and an e-reader. Download books and music and the wi-fi can be switched off for these too. The screen isn’t matt like the Kindle though and so is hard to see in bright sunlight.

Compared to my smartphone, netbook and PC the Nexus 7 is very fast. I’m impressed with the Android software, even if it does have the silly name of Jelly Bean, and the Nexus 7 is now my first choice for browsing the web and social networking. Would I take it on a long walk? Probably not. The Kindle is a better e-reader, my smartphone an adequate GPS and their combined weight is 313 grams. But I’ll certainly carry it on day hikes and weekend trips.

Saturday 8 September 2012

A Day of Contrasts on Lochnagar

Sunshine, a rarity this summer, filtered down through the pines. The air was hot and still. Out of the trees the waters of the loch and the river shimmered in the bright light. High above the dark crags of the mountain rose into the deep blue sky. I was on my way up Lochnagar, the finest hill in the southern part of the Cairngorms National Park. Above the cliffs white clouds were spreading across the sky – just enough to break the blueness and make it more interesting. I hoped they would amount to no more.

As I climbed the stony path through moorland where the heather was still purple but the grasses were red-tipped and fading into autumn colour a gentle breeze sprang up, taking the edge off the almost-stifling heat. As the ground grew rockier I reached a col and suddenly the wind, sweeping up from the lochan in the deep corrie below, was colder and stronger. A faint slanting path led down to the head of the wind-rippled lochan, the actual Lochnagar whose name has become applied to the mountain in whose arms it lies. 

Above the loch rose the great splintered and gully-riven cliffs, impressive and grim. The clouds were thickening and darkening now and the cold had me donning a windshirt. The summer’s day was over, at least up here. Those white clouds were the leading edge of solid greyness, hidden from below by the mountain.

Rounding the loch I set off up a broad shoulder, linking bits of paths through the rocks. This led to the summit plateau just a step away from the little pile of boulders of the highest point. From the crest of these I gazed north and west to cloud-capped hills. The sunshine and blue sky had retreated far to the south and east. 

Turning away from the windswept summit as the first tendrils of mist began to drift across the rocks I followed the edge of the cliffs, high above the lochan, revelling in the change in perspective, which is one of the great joys of walking in mountains. Not long before I had been down at the water’s edge gazing up at the crags. Now I was high above, gazing down those same crags to the lochan far below.

Reaching the col I had crossed on the ascent I began to retrace my route back down. I’d only dropped a short distance below the col when the temperature changed abruptly and I was suddenly far too hot, sweating inside the windshirt. The cold wind was now a warm breeze. I stopped to remove the windproof and within seconds the midges had found me and my arms were covered in bites. A hasty descent ensued under the overcast sky with no sunshine to deter the wee monsters.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Hiking in Finland reviews Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams

Hendrik Morkel has given my book on the Pacific Northwest Trail an excellent review on his Hiking In Finland site. Hendrik writes "such a good read that I had a hard time to put Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams down" and "an easy read, well written and has fantastic photos". Thanks Hendrik!

Sunday 2 September 2012

Planet Lem: A Sci-Fi Theatre Extravaganza

The most visually extraordinary show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe was a production called Planet Lem by Polish theatre group Teatr Biuro Podrozy who I had seen give a stunning version of Macbeth in 2007. (See this post). Based on the works of Stanislaw Lem the show took place out of doors in a courtyard where the company were able to use lights, smoke and flares to create an unreality as convincing as any in a big budget film. The story was somewhat confusing as there was little dialogue, though a black and white recording of an interview with Lem that appeared on one of the screens explained some of what was unfolding. I still had no idea what some of the scenes were about though! This didn't really matter though as it was a visual feast. Non-flash photography was allowed  so here are some of my photos of this amazing show. (Note for photographers - these were all taken with the Sony NEX 7 and Sigma 30mm lens at 3200 ISO).