Wednesday 31 October 2012

The Cairngorms in Winter with Terry Abraham: A Kickstarter Project

Today I am very pleased to announce the launch of a Kickstarter project with outdoor film maker Terry Abraham. This exciting project will see us venturing into the Cairngorms in winter, one of the most beautiful and potentially one of the most severe mountain environments in the British hills, to show the spectacular winter landscape and look at how to enjoy it safely. We'll be camping and hiking in all conditions to bring you a real feel for the power of winter in this tremendous place. As I write this I am looking out on the distant hazy snow-spattered  high tops of the Cairngorms. I can't wait to get started!

Here's a taster:

Terry has written about how this project came about on his blog here.

Please visit the Kickstarter page to see the details and what's on offer for various pledges.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Reviews Round-Up: Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams

Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams, the story of my hike on the Pacific Northwest Trail continues to receive good reviews. There have now been ten of these, which I hope will encourage those of you who haven't yet read the book to give it a try.

Here are the latest two reviews plus a round-up of earlier ones.

America's Library Journal says "Townsend makes every word count. Readers interested in the Pacific Northwest and wilderness backpacking will enjoy the combination of nature writing and practical advice."

Geoff Gafford has reviewed the book on his Litehiker blog and in the autumn issue of Backpack, the Journal of the Backpacker's Club. Geoff says "he writes well and manages to make this far more than the "I got up early ..." type of account and my interest was sustained throughout .......... I enjoyed this book. It is well written and an engrossing read. It made me want to be on the next flight across the Atlantic!".

Previously in The Seattle Times  a short review mentioned 'the gorgeous color photographs included on nearly every page' while on Frank R. Ward, who reviews many hiking and outdoor books, 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'.

Over on Hiking in Finland Hendrik Morkel says "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".

On the My Outdoors website the reviewer writes "Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams reveals his real and total love of the wilderness .... if you like a good story there's plenty to keep your attention and if you like something with a message you'll find more than a touch of John Muir in the author's love for and feelings about the wilderness world".

Popular outdoor blogger Andy Howell on his must be this way blog says "Chris captures beautifully the relationship that a walker develops with the land that he or she is hiking through ...........Chris’ insights into the plight of the natural environment can be quite profound but never are they easy and entertaining read about a wonderful trip".

On another popular outdoor blog, Blogpacking Light, Robin writes "good travel writers have a knack of transporting you into their journey, making you feel like you are participating in their adventure. Chris does this well with pithy descriptions of landscape, flora, fauna and his own feelings and emotions."

One of the first reviews came from the creator of the Pacific Northwest Trail himself, Ron Strickland, who writes on his blog "Paging through Chris’s beautiful pictures is a pure delight .... his writing’s magical moments will ensure that I return to Grizzly Bears And Razor Clams for years to come

Finally, Tony Hobbs writes on Amazon  " we were allowed into Chris's mind in this book and it was a quite wonderful experience .... It is hard to fault the book, so I won't even bother trying. It was wonderful. Simply the best!"

Saturday 27 October 2012

A Touch of Winter

It began two evenings ago, gently and slowly, the snowflakes drifting down, touching the ground with white. The following day the storm intensified, driven by a strong north-west wind that brought squalls of dense snow filling the air. The sky was a dark sheet of unbroken grey cloud. Just occasionally between the snow storms a touch of sun would slice through and light up a section of woods or hillside. Then the clouds would close again and snow start to fall again.

I ventured out into the woods and fields, feeling the sharp bite of the wind and the cold stabs of the snow on my face. A buzzard called overhead and a flock of fieldfares, the first I've seen this year, flew low across a windswept field, appropriate on this day for these winter migrants from Scandinavia. Amongst the trees all was quiet with no signs of animal or bird life, not even any tracks. The snow trickled down through the trees, settling on branches and leaves. The golden autumn colours took on a hazy, indistinct appearance, blurred by the falling snow.

Today dawned cold and cloudy with the snow still lying but during the day a slow thaw set in and the wind shifted to the south-west. By dusk drizzle was falling and there was little snow left. The first touch of winter was over.

Friday 26 October 2012

Ultralight, Lightweight, Traditional ... Or Maybe Just Backpacking?

On the Pacific Crest Trail, 1985

Over the last few weeks there’s been a debate on backpacking blogs about the trend in recent years for putting backpackers into categories – ultralight, lightweight, traditional and so on. Now over the years I’ve mostly ignored this as not really anything to do with backpacking itself, though I have been mildly concerned at times by both the holier-than-thou and competitive aspects that sometimes appear in the ultralight approach. Backpacking should be about the experience not the tools and there’s nothing “superior” about any weight of load (I have an old book that says that loads under 60lbs don’t really count – real backpackers carry heavy!).

On the Continental Divide Trail, 1985

The current discussion was started by Andrew Skurka on his blog. After reading this I wrote a piece for the September issue of TGO. As there’s obviously interest in this topic below is an edited version of this feature. Since Skurka’s piece appeared as well as my article there have been blog pieces by Martin Rye, Dave Chenault, Jaakko Heikka plus another piece by Andrew Skurka. All have interesting points of view. I like Martin Rye’s comment “we are all backpackers in the end”, as that exactly sums up my view. It’s why my book is just called The Backpacker’s Handbook.
On the Arizona Trail, 2000

I don’t think the descriptions “ultralight” etc will die, though the emphasis on fixed cut-off weights and rigid definitions will hopefully fade away. A few years ago I wrote a piece for TGO about the history of lightweight backpacking, showing that it long predates Ray Jardine (and in fact goes back much further than described in my article). You can find this on my blog here. There will always be those who want to experiment with cutting weight to the minimum and there will always be those who carry very heavy loads. And most backpackers will continue to be in between the two.

Anyway here’s my TGO article.


Backpacking only has one definition: hiking with camping gear so you can stay out overnight. Whether it’s a one night trip or a six month long distance hike, whether you camp on a campsite next to a pub or high in the hills, whether you walk all day or just a few hours, whether you sleep under a tarp or in a bivi bag or in a geodesic dome, whether your pack weighs 5 kilos or 25 kilos it’s all backpacking. There are no rules and style and gear are a personal choice. Labels are arbitrary and have no real significance. What it comes down to is choosing the right gear for the circumstances and being able to use it properly.

On the GR20, Corsica, 2005
This brings up the question of what is too heavy and what too light. In recent years “ultralight” has been a big trend, to the extent that it has sometimes seemed that all that mattered was getting below a certain weight rather than considering how well the gear would perform. This has led to some people suffering sore backs from inadequate packs, cold nights from too-thin sleeping bags and cold, wet days due to insufficient clothing. Long distance adventurer Andrew Skurka (his impressive Alaska journey involved skiing and rafting as well as hiking shows he’s more than a backpacker) discussed this recently on his blog under the eye-catching heading “Stupid Light” ( In the past he has been a big proponent of ultralight backpacking. Now he admits that this meant that at times he took gear that was too light for the conditions and omitted gear he should have carried, hence “stupid light”. Whilst still travelling light he now carries a little more and says he is more efficient for doing so. He’s discovered fleece clothing, trekking poles, inflatable mats, gaiters and more. It’s good to see such a well-respected and influential hiker saying this. I hope people listen. Weight isn’t the only criteria for backpacking gear.

On the TGO Challenge 2009
Of course there is a converse to “stupid light”, namely “stupid heavy”, and I have to admit to doing this in the past. I have only gone “stupid light” a few times and that was for short trips when testing gear. However I’ve carried unnecessarily heavy loads too often, sometimes for days on end on long walks. Partly I think this was because I’m a British backpacker and therefore had to deal with rain and wind. Staying warm and dry was more important than the weight of gear. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Andrew Skurka discovered that his ultralight approach didn’t work so well when he encountered wet and windy conditions. When they are the norm you have to carry more.

However whilst I may have been carrying more weight than necessary, sometimes much more, this did not really affect my enjoyment of trips. Most of my long walks from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s were done with packs weighing 40-60lbs. That sounds heavy now. It seemed the norm at the time. I might have done the trips more quickly with a lighter load but that’s the only difference it would have made.

On the Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010
For many years now I have carried gear I think will comfortably cope with expected conditions. I want my load to be as light as possible but I also want to be comfortable and definitely don’t want to be cold, wet, aching or hungry. The right selection of gear, chosen on the basis of function and weight and not just the latter, that is suitable for the expected weather is the way to go. Choice comes into this – boots or shoes, tent or tarp, down or synthetic, foam pad or inflatable mat – but what matters is that the gear performs as you require and that you are comfortable with the weight you’re carrying. There is nothing “right” or “better” about meeting an arbitrary weight target. It’s purely to do with comfort.  

On the TGO Challenge 2012

Thursday 25 October 2012

Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards 2012: Environment Nomination

Much to my surprise I've been nominated for the Environment Award in the 2012 Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards. If you wish, you can vote for me here.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Allt Duine Wind Farm Inquiry - My Evidence

Rainbow over Allt Duine Country

Another day at the Allt Duine Inquiry in Aviemore. This time though I was more than an observer as I was giving evidence, which is to say, reading my precognition, as it's strangely called, which had already been submitted to the inquiry to add to the massive pile of documents, before being cross-examined by counsel for the  developers, RWE, and the representative for Kincraig Community Council, who support them. As my evidence is personal and subjective there wasn't much for them to question - mainly numbers of those who go there. I spent as much time commenting on the location of the photographs of mine such as the above, which were submitted by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland as part of their evidence. Ron Payne, the MCofS representative, gave evidence immediately before me. Finally the Reporter asked for information on a number of points, including the nature of the TGO Challenge. I then went back to being the audience, with one diversion to give a quick interview and have my photo taken for tomorrow's Press and Journal newspaper.

The section of the inquiry on landscape and visual impact is now complete. Still to come are policy, wildlife (mainly eagles, I think), tourism and recreation. This should all be completed by the end of next week. Then we wait for the Reporter to give her decision.

Below is the evidence I presented.


  1. I am a writer and photographer on outdoor activities, especially hillwalking and wild camping. I am very concerned with the conservation and restoration of the diminishing amount of wild areas in Scotland. Before the Cairngorms National Park was established I served on the Cairngorm Partnership’s Recreation Forum on behalf of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. I then served on the MCofS’s Access and Recreation Committee for many years and I am now on its successor, the Landscape and Access Advisory Group. I served as the President of the MCoS from 2008-2011.
  2. I have written extensively about the Scottish hills in magazine articles and books. I am the author of World Mountain Series: Scotland, a detailed look at the Scottish hills; The Munros and Tops, an account of a summer long walk over all these hills; and A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorms, a pictorial record of the area. I walk and camp in the Cairngorms and the Monadh Liath regularly, and have lived in Strathspey for the last 23 years. It is this background of knowledge and experience that I bring to my evidence.
  3. For the last year I have been the spokesperson for Save the Monadhliath Mountains and have given many media interviews on behalf of this group. I have also visited the Allt Duine application site many times in the last year, camping in the hills and climbing the summits. For this Inquiry I have agreed to be a witness on behalf of Pitmain and Glenfeshie Estates. In giving this evidence I make no pretence at trying to carry out any technical assessment of the landscape and visual impact of the proposed wind farm development. Rather, I will simply speak to my own views, based on the above general and site specific experience, of the special qualities of the Allt Duine site and the mountains that surround it.
  4. The application site lies in the heart of the Monadh Liath mountains, between the two Corbetts (summits between 2,500 and 3,000 feet/962 and 914.4 metres) of Carn an Fhreiceadain and Geal-charn Mor.  Not far to the west lie higher Monadh Liath mountains, the Munros Carn Sgulain and A’Chailleach, while to the south and east are the Northern Cairngorms with the Munros Sgor Gaoith, Braeriach and Cairn Gorm. The application site is clearly visible from all these hills - not just the summits but also the connecting ridges and some of the lower slopes. Should this application be approved and built those climbing these hills – and they are all important to hill walkers – will be faced with a view that will include the massive turbines instead of one of more hills and mountains.
  5. The Monadh Liath is a subtle landscape of curving gentle slopes, vast sweeps of moorland, lonely pools and trickling burns; 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.  The attraction is in the wildness and remoteness, the sense of space and freedom rather than dramatic peaks or spectacular rock scenery. Here hill walkers can feel part of a wild natural world with little or no sign of humanity. The area is vast and you can walk all day without descending to roads or villages and then camp under the stars with just the moors and hills spreading all around.
  6. Yet, this mountain area is also easily accessible. The application site is usually approached on tracks and paths from Strathspey that climb up through attractive pine and birch woodland. These tracks will be turned into wider roads for the wind farm if it is built and the quiet forest beauty of this approach will be lost. The tracks lead to the watershed between the rivers Spey and Dulnain which is also the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park. From here the view is of rolling moorland hills spreading into the distance. If the wind farm is built this view will change to one of a mass of huge turbines in the immediate foreground and the wonderful sense of the vastness of nature will be lost. 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 structures towering into the sky and the scars of the bulldozed roads built to service them and the main sound will be the whirring of the turbines. Currently there is a good walk along the watershed between Carn an Fhreiceadain and Geal-charn Mor. If you, Madam Reporter, have not already undertaken that walk I would urge you to do so. With the presence of 31 turbines the whole beauty of that walk would be changed utterly. At present it is a lovely and slightly challenging walk across moorland hills with nothing manmade in sight other than a few tracks that are crossed. If the wind farm is built people in the future will not be able to gain the pleasure I and others now gain from this land. Please walk this route in its current condition to appreciate what I am saying.
  7. The application area can also be approached from the west, over the Monadh Liath Munros, and from the north over another Corbett, Carn na Saobhaidhe, and the River Dulnain. This is a popular route for backpackers, especially on the annual TGO Challenge cross Scotland event in May, who cross the Monadh Liath from Fort Augustus or Loch Ness, camping en route. If the wind farm is built the turbines will be in view for much of this walk, destroying its core attractiveness in my view.
  8. The Allt Duine itself, by which I’ve camped, is an attractive moorland stream running through steep banks of heather and blaeberry, with occasional little rock outcrops. The view is of distant, flat-topped hills and a huge spreading sky. Again this would be lost if turbines dominated the landscape.
  9. For hill walkers this is a special place. The Monadh Liath is still one of the largest roadless areas in Scotland. Here you can relax in nature, away from the stresses and strains of modern society. The construction of wind turbines in this area would destroy this key perceptive quality of this landscape.
  10. One of the main reasons for walking in the Scottish hills is to experience the natural beauty and vastness of the mountains. Any human artefact is an intrusion into this and the bigger it is, the more of an intrusion it is. Wind turbines are very noticeable and visually very intrusive in such a mountain landscape. Seeing a mass of them breaking the skyline destroys the sense of wildness and the closer they are the greater the effect. Turbines in the Allt Duine area would be very visible from the popular Northern Cairngorm hills, impacting on the view across Strathspey, and so they would affect walkers and mountaineers in the National Park as well as those who visit the application site and the hills immediately around it.
  11. To sum up: the Allt Duine is a precious and remote area, yet also accessible and popular, where walkers go to experience nature and the sense of wildness away from roads and towns and society. Wind turbines here would destroy this sense of wildness that is absolutely key to the quality of this landscape for mountaineers, walkers and campers. Also, because the turbines would stand out in views from neighbouring hills, including the Northern Cairngorms, they would impinge on walkers and mountaineers in those areas too.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

From Allt Duine Public Inquiry to the glory of nature

A strange day, beginning with the Allt Duine Wind Farm Public Inquiry, three TV interviews and much discussion and ending with nature screaming out how spectacular it can be. It began misty and frosty with ice to be scraped off the car and care needed as I drove in and out of thick banks of fog to Aviemore and the Inquiry. Sitting in the big conference room all that was visible out of the windows was the mist, blocking all views, cutting off the world. Inside the inquiry began and slowly progressed. As with other public inquiries I’ve attended it had a Dickensian feel rather than a 21st century one. Big ring binders were stacked up behind the participants. Every reference, and there were many, required changing binders and finding the right page and paragraph. Quietly assistants darted about bringing binders and sometimes maps or photographs to the tables. The only signs of modern technology were the microphones for speakers and the electric lights plus one or two laptops amongst the press and public. Most people, including myself, were making notes with pen and paper.

So this crucial inquiry, which will determine the fate of the Allt Duine area of the Monadh Liath, right on the border with the Cairngorms National Park (see this post), has begun. It’s scheduled to last two weeks then we have to wait for the reporters decision. On this first day the lines were clearly drawn regarding the landscape. The developers, the local community council and the estate that owns the land say the Allt Duine area is not of significant importance and the wind farm will have little effect on the national park. We – Cairngorms National Park, Highland Council, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the John Muir Trust, two adjacent estates and the Save the Monadhliath Mountains Campaign – say the opposite. I’m to give evidence and will be appearing to state my case and be cross –examined later in the week.

A break for lunch came late and I spent it doing three interviews in quick succession for the BBC and STV. Filming again, though very different from that in the Corrieyairick with Cameron McNeish (see this post). Outside the mist was clearing and the sun shining. To sit in the inquiry and drift through the afternoon or head for the hills? The sunshine decided me, plus a strong feeling I needed to remind myself why this inquiry is, sadly, needed, so out of the door I went and into nature.

Ten days earlier I had intended climbing Meall a’Bhuachaille above Glenmore after my meeting with Berghaus. Low cloud and steady rain discouraged me then and I returned home instead. This occasion could not have been more different. I set off through a shining forest with the pines a rich green and every birch glowing gold. The light was sharp and clear. In shaded areas frost still lay on the grasses but in the sun it was hot and I walked with shirt sleeves rolled up. Once through the trees I began the ascent of this favourite hill, one I’ve climbed several times every year for well over two decades. Familiar yes, but never dull or boring and especially not today. As I climbed the high Cairngorms appeared, spattered with the remnants of last weeks snow fall. To the west clouds were gathering. The summit was calm and the views extensive. 

Descending towards the bright ragged lozenge of Loch Morlich I watched the sinking sun start to bring colour to the thin streaks of cloud. The sunset should be good, I thought. How good, though, I had no idea. As the sun vanished and the soft peach of the clouds turned pink then orange I wandered down to Loch Morlich. The water shone with the reflected clouds. I sat on the beach and watched as the sky darkened and grew richer and more colourful. Air and water were on fire with a dazzling brightness. The landscape was putting on a spectacular show, as if to say this is what I can do, this is how glorious I am. A few months ago I went to a Symbolist Landcape exhibition as the National Gallery in Edinburgh. Many of the paintings were superb and I spent several hours there and came out dazed by the power of the art. But nothing there compared with this show. 

Monday 22 October 2012

New from Berghaus

The Berghaus stand at the Outdoor Show in Friedrichshafen last July

Recently a team from Berghaus came up to Glenmore Lodge to show me some of their new products. We had an interesting day looking at some innovative new gear - water-resistant down garments, ultralight trail running shoes, a lighter Bioflex pack system, auto venting waterproofs. I've written about the products on the TGO website here.

Scotland End-to-End ... Something Else To Watch Out For....

The Spey Dam loch
Films seem to be in my life at present. After posting a hint about a proposed film on the Cairngorms in winter with Terrybnd (see last post) I spent yesterday with Triple Echo Productions and Cameron McNeish filming for a BBC programme on Scotland End to End. Together with producer Margaret Wicks and cameraman Dominic Scott, Cameron I went up to the Spey Dam loch and Garva Bridge and then walked most of the way up to the top of the Corrieyairick Pass (I reckon Cameron and I covered three times the distance as we repeated sections two or three times for different camera angles). The weather was reasonably kind with a fine dappled sky early on and then touches of sunshine and a slow build-up of cloud with the first rain drops falling just as we finished filming. Stags were roaring in the corries, the hillsides were golden brown and wreaths of mist curled across the slopes, making it a real autumn day.

Filming beside the Spey Dam loch
In between the walking Cameron chatted with me about long distance hiking, trails, Scotland, wild land and more. I set up a brief camp near Garva Bridge, finding it hard to concentrate being filmed pitching my shelter. How much of this will appear in the programme is another matter of course.

The End to End route, which runs from Kirk Yetholm to Cape Wrath, looks a good one, passing, as it does, through some of Scotland's finest and, so far, still unspoilt landscapes. The book of the walk, by Cameron McNeish and Richard Else, Scotland End to End, is already out. Rather than a simple guide book it's full of anecdotes and stories with just short route descriptions. There's plenty of colour photographs to inspire you too.

By Garva Bridge
The film will be shown in two hour long episodes over the Xmas and New Year period. Mine will only be a small part of course. The whole route is 470 miles long. The Kingussie to Fort Augustus section, of which this filming was a part, is only 32 miles of that. Cameron has many other guests on the programme, one of them being photographer Colin Prior, who was filmed on An Teallach. You can read about that on the Mountain Media blog here. I must admit being envious of Colin, An Teallach being somewhat more attractive than the Corrieyairick Pass! Especially as the latter, already spoilt by a line of pylons, is being further disfigured by the construction of much bigger pylons. None of these are actually in place yet but the ugly wide bulldozed roads needed for the construction vehicles are already there.

Friday 19 October 2012

Something to watch out for .....

Sgor Gaoith, Cairngorms National Park
Watch out for this exciting project that I hope to be working on with acclaimed outdoor filmmaker terrybnd ..... with your help.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Autumn Leaves

After yesterday's TGO Award judging (see last post) I found myself in Grantown-on-Spey with a little free time so I wandered through the town under a steel grey overcast sky looking at the last traces of frost on the trees. The colourful leaves were damp with melted frost and shone brightly, a great contrast to the dull light.

Many leaves had fallen and more were swirling down, brittle and fragile, making the ground a wonderful mosaic of shapes and colours.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

TGO Awards Judging Day

The view from my window early this frosty morning

Today dawned cold and frosty with the distant mountains white with fresh snow. I was not heading out into the chill however but instead sitting in the warm and having a phone conference with the other judges of the gear section of the TGO Awards. The discussion was interesting, thoughtful and detailed as we discussed the shortlist. Decisions were made after careful deliberation and will be announced on November 15. I think people will be surprised at some of the awards. Andy Howell, one of the other judges, has written a nice piece about the judging on his blog. Thanks for the compliment Andy!

The non-gear award shortlist is judged by readers. That closes on October 20 so there's still time to head over to the TGO website and vote for your favourite outdoor book, retailer, pub and more.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

'A Year In The Life Of The Cairngorns' Highly Commended Award

The Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild has just announced the Awards for Excellence for 2012 and I'm delighted to find that my photo book on the Cairngorms has been Highly Commended in the Outdoor book category. The judges said "this is stunning photography of a stunning region. The photographer's obvious feeling for the area is extremely well expressed through his pictures".

For those interested in my last post on cameras and photography the images in the book were taken over a number of years on Canon 300D, 350D and 450D cameras with Canon 18-55mm, Canon 55-250mm and Tamron 11-18mm lenses plus a Sigma DP1 camera. The photo of the cover was taken a few minutes ago with the Sony Nex 7 and Sigma 30mm lens, 3200 ISO, f2.8 @ 1/60.

Controversy 3: The Best Camera, The Best Carrying System

The Canon 450D & tripod ready to photograph evening light on the summit of Ben Nevis. Ricoh GR-D, ISO 100, f2.8@1/25.

I hadn’t thought of camera choice and method of carriage as controversial but having become involved in a discussion on this over on Andrew Mazibrada’s excellent The Journeyman Traveller blog  and associated Twitter posts after Andrew posted a piece called Carrying Your Camera Up A Mountain I realised that for some people it is. So as with other controversies I decided to state my views here where I can expand on them rather than just in comments and Tweets in response to others.

Firstly, there is, of course, no “best” camera, no one camera that is better than any other. There are a huge number of variables involving not just picture quality but also aesthetics and ergonomics plus, crucially, what pictures you’ll be taking and where you’ll be taking them. I take outdoor photos of usually fairly static or slow-moving subjects – landscapes, camps, wildlife if still enough, flowers, trees, rocks, hikers. I take photos while on the move so I want a camera that is lightweight and reasonably low bulk. I want to be able to carry it so I can access it while wearing a pack. I also need images of publishable quality and prefer to have a choice of lenses. For a quarter of a century this meant film SLR cameras plus a range of lightweight lenses (I never bothered with pro lenses – far too heavy). Often I carried two SLRs – one for colour, one for B&W – even on multi-month trips such as the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. Then, when magazines no longer wanted B&W, I substituted a compact camera for an SLR, carried purely in case of failure with the latter. The lenses I carried varied but the key one was a mid range zoom – 35-70 in the early days, 24-70 when these became available.

On the Continental Divide Trail in 1985. Pentax MX SLR with Tamron 35-70 zoom lens, Kodachrome 64 transparency film

Digital arrived but the quality looked poor and any half-decent camera heavy and expensive. Dipping my toe in very gingerly I carried a 2.3mp digital compact on the Arizona Trail in 2000, along with a film SLR and film compact. That’s the only trip on which I’ve carried three cameras. I sent the smartcards back so images could be uploaded to a website. That worked quite well but I could see that the quality of the images was nowhere near that of my 35mm film photos. It was another four years before I took the plunge and bought a DSLR – chosen both because of price and weight. It was 6mp, which back in 2004 seemed enormous. The images looked good. They still do, especially after processing in the latest software. Initially I was still unsure about digital so I carried a film SLR as well and took every picture on both media. Going back to two SLRs meant the weight of my camera gear was now going back up. Soon though I realised that digital quality was fine for my purposes so I swapped the film SLR for a film compact. Ideally I wanted a digital compact as back-up but none had the same size sensor as my DSLR and the image quality of the ones I tried wasn’t adequate. 

On the GR20 with 2 SLRs. Canon 300D, 18-55mm lens at 22mm, ISO 200, f5.6@1/100

Then came the first affordable compact with a DSLR sized sensor and a fixed lens. The images were wonderful, the ergonomics terrible and the durability poor. It lasted less time than any other camera I’ve owned. I didn’t replace it because very light and small interchangeable lens cameras with DSLR size sensors had appeared and looked much more versatile and far better designed. That is what I now use, both as my main camera and as back-up.

At the start of the Pacific Northwest Trail. Canon 450D, 18-55mm lens at 29mm, ISO 400, f8 @ 1/100

I haven’t mentioned brand names up to now quite deliberately because when it comes down to it they don’t matter. Over the years I’ve had cameras from Pentax, Nikon, Olympus, Canon, Ricoh, Sigma and Sony. I have no loyalty to any brand. I’m aware that at any time during my photographic career I could have used different brands and it would have made no difference as long as the cameras were roughly equivalent. My current choice is based on the same criteria I’ve always used. What is the lightest weight camera that gives the image quality I require. That whittles the choice down to a handful of models. Then it becomes a matter of ergonomics, aesthetics, price and lenses. I described how I came to my current system here and my current models here and here. Whilst I really like these cameras I know I could have made different choices and been happy with the results. 

Sony NEX 7 set up at dawn at a camp in the Cairngorms. Sony NEX 5, 16mm lens, ISO 400, f8 @ 1/50

Image Quality: Raw, manual and tripods

The camera and lens is only the start for top quality images. Obviously you need to know how to use it – and that means use it manually. Stick it on auto everything and you’ll get some good shots in good light but many more that are poor. I use manual exposure most of the time and use the histogram for guidance rather than the meter. I also shoot raw and then process the files on the computer. Not to use raw is to throw away much of the capability of a camera.

I also always carry a tripod. It’s lightweight and compact but still capable of supporting a light DSLR with a zoom lens. In low light at dawn and dusk it’s just about essential and I also use it for self-portraits – there usually being nobody else to photograph. 

Twin SLRs. Crop from GR20 picture above.

Carrying the Camera

Over the years I’ve tried various belts, chest harnesses, pack harnesses, clips, buckles, straps and other contraptions designed to keep a camera handy while carrying a pack. Early on I discovered that slinging a padded case across my body so it rested on my hip worked well. I still find it the best method for the cameras I use. I’ve never carried a pro DSLR with pro lens like this – perhaps that would be too heavy – but for my cameras and lenses it’s fine. It’s also uncomplicated and completely separate from my pack. Sometimes I attach a padded lens case to the strap so I have access to it. Mostly I don’t.  As with cameras the best carrying system is the one that works for you. This one works for me.

Monday 15 October 2012

Snow on the Cromdale Hills

The Cromdale Hills at dusk, October 15, 2012
A day of rain and low clouds and cold. Just +2C. The hills were hidden but up high it must surely be snowing. Then as the grey daylight faded the clouds lifted a little and the Cromdale Hills across Strathspey appeared capped with white. The snowline looks about 500 metres, the lowest it has been this year.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Autumn Rain, Autumn Colours

The road through the wood

The rain began late in the afternoon as the world turned grey and the hills vanished into the solid clouds. Thirty-four hours later and it is still raining, the sky still dark and dense. I drove to Glenmore Lodge to meet people from Berghaus and look, appropriately, at new hydrophobic down clothing, lightweight waterproofs, trail shoes and packs (of which more anon). Outside the mountains were hidden and the rain streaked the windows. Inside was a good place to be. I abandoned plans for an afternoon walk. Driving home every dip in the road was flooded. I was pleased to make it through some of the deeper pools. The River Spey was overflowing its banks, not for the first time this wet year.

Gold and green

Before the rains came I wandered the local woods and fields to see how the Strathspey autumn colours were developing. Some birches are gold, some still mostly green. The rowans are rich with berries; their leaves a mix of red and dark green. The larches and beeches have barely begun to turn. Many exposed trees have been stripped of their leaves by last week's gales. Underfoot the ground is soft and spongy. The distant hills are brown, the green tinge of summer, which always seems superficial, long gone.
The Cromdale Hills rising above a beech and larch wood still mostly in summer green. The birches in the foreground know it's autumn
The colours are changing almost by the hour. After a few more frosts they should be at their peak before the slow fade into winters starkness begins. By mid November the last leaves have usually fallen.

The golden wood

The distant Cairngorms rising above the forests at dusk

Birch and pine

Rowan red, rowan green


Tuesday 9 October 2012

Storms over Glen Affric

View west from Mam Sodhail

Hood up, head down, I crouched as the next blast hit me, clinging onto my trekking poles. The wind was roaring up out of the corrie far below, hurling stinging hail and freezing sleet into my face. Thick clouds swirled all around. Shattered rock pinnacles rose out of the mist, stark and alien, suspended in the air. I slithered on the wet, greasy rocks and muddy grass. I was on the east ridge of Carn Eige in the Northwest Highlands. This narrow rocky section of the crest, called Stob Coire Dhomhnuill, is no more than a walk but in this storm, which threatened to blow me off the mountain and down into the depths of the corrie far below, it was challenging and exhilarating.

Camp in Gleann nam Fiadh
I’d set out the day before, walking up Glen Affric on a rainy evening and then over boggy moorland to Gleann nam Fiadh, where I managed to find a fairly dry area by the river to camp. The roaring of rutting stags rang round the hillsides, guttural and savage. The forecast was for the rain and wind easing with a promise of much sunny weather for the next two days. Dawn came with a clearing sky and a fresh breeze. The clouds racing overhead were just brushing the highest summits. I followed the delightful river, all bright cascades and foaming waterslides and dark pools, upstream a little way, my pleasure in the water somewhat allaying my dismay at a freshly gouged multi-channel off-road vehicle track that ploughed through the soft ground, obliterating the old path. 

Mam Sodhail
Soon I left the river and the glen and climbed rough, steep slopes into Coire Mhic Fhearchair and then onto the ridge where I felt the full force of the storm. There was little sign of blue in the sky now and sleet and wet snow was sticking to rocks and to my clothing. The lower legs of my trousers, wet from rain-soaked vegetation, began to freeze. Three subsidiary tops lay between me and the shelter of the big cairn on Carn Eige. Counting them off was impossible though as any bump could have been a summit. Eventually the slopes broadened and the wind, though still very strong, was less gusty as it was no longer squeezed between corrie walls. Soon the summit appeared and I was able to crouch behind the cairn and have a little food. The air was damp and cold, my thermometer recording just 2ÂșC, so I didn’t linger but was soon on my way down the slopes towards Carn Eige’s invisible twin, Mam Sodhail, the pair making up the two highest hills north of the Great Glen.

The summit of Mam Sodhail
As I descended I came out of the mist to a sudden view down to Lochan Uaine far below and the dark slopes of Mam Sodhail with torn dark clouds ripping round its summit rising ahead. A hooded walker passed me heading the other way and we shared brief greetings and smiles, the only other person I saw all day bar a distant silhouetted figure on the ridge above as I ascended Coire Mhic Fhearchair. Mam Sodhail was wind-blasted but cloud-free and again I sheltered by the summit cairn. Looking back Carn Eige and its long east ridge were still hidden in the clouds.

Evening Light over Loch Affric on the descent from Sgurr na Lapaich
I descended via the east ridge over two more subsidiary tops, the last one of which, Sgurr na Lapaich, dominates the view up Glen Affric. I had intended to camp somewhere on this ridge or just below it but the fierce wind changed that idea and instead I went straight down from Sgurr na Lapaich to Glen Affric, a route that proved slower and more awkward than anticipated as it was mostly on steep slopes, slippery with rain and moss and covered in half-hidden rocks and miniature crags. Out to the west there were pink-tinged clouds and patches of pale blue sky as the sun faded away. Eventually as the evening grew dark I reached easier ground and then the strip of woodland along Loch Affric. Here the wind was gentler and broken by the trees though I could see white lines of wind-blown foam out on the loch while high above the clouds were still tearing across the sky. The forest floor was mostly boggy and bumpy but I found a dry heathery hummock just big enough for my shelter and here I spent a peaceful night. The stags were roaring from the hillsides and the wind rattled the trees but these sounds didn’t stop me from sleeping deeply after a hard but satisfying day in the hills.

Camp in the woods above Loch Affric
The rising sun shining in the shelter door woke me. The forest was alive with light and brightness, the wet vegetation shining and sparkling. The birches and bracken were turning gold and orange, the sky was deep blue. After a grey and white day colour had returned to the world. 

Glen Affric camp