Monday 28 April 2014

The Pleasures of Long Distance Trails

Another piece from several years ago, edited slightly. This first appeared in TGO in 2010.

With the summer backpacking season about to begin I have been musing on long distance paths and the attraction they have for many walkers. What is it about these narrow strips of dirt that seems so magical? Just the names alone can call out and conjure up images of wild landscapes, spectacular camps, red sunsets, cool dawns and the joy in the simple act of walking all day every day. The Pennine Way, West Highland Way, Kungsleden, Tour of  Mont Blanc, Pyrenean Haute Route, John Muir Trail, Everest Base Camp Trek, Annapurna Circuit and many more – all with their own special qualities, attractions and difficulties, all enough of a challenge that completing them is an achievement but never so arduous or dangerous that the pain and fear outweighs the pleasure (though those who’ve tramped the peat bogs of the Pennine Way in constant rain or gazed down the chains leading down cliffs into the Cirque de Solitude on the GR10 in Corsica may disagree).

On the GR20 in Corsica. Note waymarks!

Long distance paths are a product of the boom in leisure time and the rise of outdoor pursuits in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first named recreational path was the Long Trail, which runs for 273 miles along the Green Mountains in the state of Vermont and was built between 1910 and 1930. Of course such long distance paths are in no way essential for long distance walking. Before they existed there were long distance walkers – those, that is, who hiked for pleasure rather than from necessity. John Muir himself, for whom one of the most beautiful and spectacular trails is named, hiked 1000 miles from Indiana to Florida in 1867 - choosing the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find” – and undertook many long walks in his beloved Sierra Nevada in California, where his eponymous trail now runs. Creating your own path like this is very satisfying – many of my long distance walks are my own personal routes, with no guidebooks or waymarks. But there is a particular delight in following a long distance path, especially if the route has been well-designed. In many areas hiking would be difficult, dangerous or even impossible without long distance paths. Forest routes like the Long Trail would be desperate bushwhacks through dense vegetation if there was no trail while high mountain routes like the dramatic and exposed GR20 in Corsica would be mountaineering routes requiring technical expertise and equipment. A simple narrow path can open up an amazing wilderness world. Britain’s first long distance path, the Pennine Way, was conceived at a time when the Pennine grouse moors were banned to walkers. Writer and walker Tom Stephenson’s vision of a trail from Derbyshire to Scotland along the Pennine hills was one of freedom and access at a time when attempting such a walk would have meant trespassing, dodging gamekeepers and risking arrest.

Most long distance paths are a few hundred miles in length and can be walked in a few weeks.  Some, however, are ultra long distance and take many months to complete, stretching for thousands rather than hundreds of miles. The first of these was the Appalachian Trail running for 2178 miles along the mostly wooded Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia, which was built between 1923 and 1938.  In Europe there are long distance paths known as E routes, made by connecting shorter trails, such as the 4960 kilometre E1 from Sweden to Italy and the 10,000+ kilometre E4 from Spain to Greece. The routes sound interesting. The names are not. There is no magic in them. More attractive and romantic names would make these routes far more appealing. Britain has no waymarked or official ultra long distance paths but Land’s End to John O’Groats can be seen in the same light, especially now there are guidebooks to suggested routes and it’s possible to link shorter long distance paths almost the whole way.

The most ambitious long distance path of all is the International Appalachian Trail, which is intended to run through all the landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic that were once part of the ancient Caledonian Mountain range that split apart as the Atlantic formed. This means a trail running from the south-east USA through Canada, Greenland, Norway and the Scottish Highlands to finish in Spain. As an international endeavour the IAT cuts across governments and nation states and speaks to the shared values of all walkers. I hope it prospers.

In my view the main aim of long distance paths is to open up nature and wild places so people can enjoy them. For many the human side of long distance paths is as or even more important though – the meetings along the way, the sharing of experiences, the new friendships, the reunions. On popular paths walkers meet regularly in towns and at camp sites along the way. Current description of walks along the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail (arguably the finest of all the ultra long distance paths) often sound like a party on the move. (When I hiked the PCT in 1982 it was much less popular – there were only a few parties and not many people at them!) And away from the trail long distance paths can act as a short-hand amongst walkers. Establish you have both hiked the same long distance paths and new acquaintances suddenly have much in common to discuss and experiences and places to compare.

For walkers long distance paths are a wonderful resource, for dreaming and planning and poring over maps as well as for actual walking. I think they also have a greater value and significance that reaches far beyond those who walk them. By revealing the beauty and glory of the natural world and the wild land they run through long distance paths create a body of people to defend and protect that land. Having a named path can give an identity and meaning to a landscape that makes it easier to argue against despoliation and for preservation and restoration. People who love a long distance path are in an ideal position to fight for its continued existence, which means protecting the landscape through which it passes. And the length of a long distance path is a boon here as it means protecting or creating a continuous corridor over a great distance, rather than just an isolated spot. Official government involvement can mean something other than signposts too. Officially designated long distance paths are not necessarily superior in any way to unofficial ones – in fact they may involve compromises that reduce the potential of the route. Because of landowners objections the Pennine Way follows the South Tyne Valley rather than the northernmost summits of the Pennines. In Scotland the finest long distance path is undoubtedly the unofficial Cape Wrath Trail. But once government has made a path official it’s agencies are then meant to conserve and promote it – agencies to which pressure can be applied if they neglect this, a lever that can be used to defend long distance paths. And that is to the benefit of us all.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Perceptions of Wilderness: John Muir Trust Journal

The latest issue of the excellent John Muir Trust Journal has a piece by me about the development of how I see wilderness. For those of you not in the JMT (please join!) here's a pdf of the feature.

Here's the link for a download.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

The Year of John Muir

The coast at Dunbar where John Muir first explored the outdoors

With the official opening of the John Muir Way last weekend as part of the John Muir Festival and much attention being paid to John Muir in the media (even an editorial in The Guardian) here's my contribution - a piece I wrote for The Great Outdoors earlier this year. The John Muir Way was opened by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. Hopefully he will heed the words of Muir and protect Scotland's remaining wild land. Otherwise this gesture is meaningless. 

This year is the centenary of the death of John Muir, arguably the most influential defender of wild places ever and whose legacy is still relevant and important today. Born in Dunbar in Scotland, Muir emigrated to the USA when he was eleven and lived there the rest of his life. He's still not that well-known in Britain, unlike the USA, where he is regarded as the 'father of National Parks'. In Martinez in California where he settled there are John Muir roads and businesses and the house where he lived is now the John Muir National Historic Site. The Sierra Club, which Muir founded in 1892, is one of the USA's leading conservation organisations and does much to keep Muir's memory alive. Scotland is slowly catching up with John Muir's Birthplace, a statue of the young Muir and the John Muir Country Park in Dunbar plus now the John Muir Way. And of course there is the John Muir Trust, founded in 1983 to campaign for wild land.

I discovered Muir many years ago, not with a sudden revelation but slowly as I came across the name again and again and he seeped into my consciousness. I didn't really pay him much attention though until I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, which in the High Sierra in California runs through the John Muir Wilderness and follows the John Muir Trail (which must be one of the most beautiful backpacking routes in the world). Just who was this John Muir who was so clearly important I wondered.  From signs and leaflets and talking to other hikers I began to learn a little about the man. A few years later I came across a second-hand copy of The Mountains of California (books by Muir were hard to find in the 1980s) and began to read Muir's own words. Immediately I was taken with his passion and devotion to nature and wild places. I went on to read his other works, some several times. The language can be flowery for modern tastes in places but his eye for detail and his love of everything natural shine through. (I'd recommend My First Summer In The Sierra as a first book to read - all of them are available on the Sierra Club website). I also read books about Muir, wanting to know more about this iconic figure. I think the best of these is Michael P. Cohen's The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, which goes more deeply into Muir's dilemmas and contradictions than other biographies.

Muir is to be admired not just as a conservationist, not just for his love of nature, key though these are to his greatness, but also for his outdoor adventures and experiences. Long before any of the equipment we take for granted, or the guidebooks, maps and paths, Muir would head off into the wilderness on long solo treks and climbs. From a boy scrambling on the cliffs and castle walls of Dunbar to the adult mountaineer making a daring first ascent of Mount Ritter deep in the High Sierra (a climb described superbly in The Mountains of California) Muir revelled in exploring wild places. He didn't just look at them or study them he went into them - climbing trees in a storm, edging out on narrow ledges to look down a waterfall, climbing rock faces, crossing glaciers, sleeping out wrapped in a coat (his minimal equipment makes today's ultralight backpackers look burdened down). He walked long distances as well - A Thousand-Mile Walk To The Gulf describes his journey from Indianpolis to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867. And when he arrived in California a year later he walked from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley. There followed many trips into the then still little-known Sierra Nevada mountains and in later years further afield, especially Alaska (as told in Travels in Alaska).

Muir was not just concerned for the conservation of wilderness for its own sake and the sake of the animals and plants that lived there. He was also concerned for its conservation for the sake of humanity. He was not a conservationist who wanted to exclude people but one who wanted to share his joy in nature with everyone. He led trips for the Sierra Club and his writing was aimed at encouraging people to visit wild places as well as persuading them they needed protection. He wrote in The Yosemite 'Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike' and in Our National Parks, a book intended to encourage visitors to the parks, 'Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.'

Much will be written and said about John Muir this year. What should be remembered is that his vision of the necessity of wildness and nature is as valid now as it was 100 years ago.

Monday 21 April 2014

Terry Abraham's Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike

Terry Abraham filming in Upper Eskdale

Terry Abraham's new film Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike has just been finished and I've been privileged to have an early look at it. I'm very impressed. I've not seen a film that covers all aspects of a mountain before - landscape throughout the seasons, people at work, people at leisure, people who live below it, wild camping and more - and Terry's film does this with vivid and spectacular filming and entertaining and interesting interviews. Now I must admit that I might be biased - Terry is a good friend and I have a small part in the film (see this blog post) - but I don't think so. This really is a special film about a special place.

The film has it's premiere at the Rheged Centre in May (and it's on the next day) and will be available on DVD. If you can see it at Rheged I would though - it'll look amazing on the big screen there. Unfortunately I'll miss it as I'll be on the TGO Challenge. Terry will be there too, introducing the film and doing a Q&A.

Friday 18 April 2014

Wild Camp Thoughts

Camp under the stars in the Superstition Mountains on the Arizona Trail

Waiting for the sun to bring warmth after the frosty night on the Moine Mhor a few days ago (see my last post - April Igloo) I thought, as I often do, about how much I enjoy wild camping. I've written about this quite often as it's one of my favourite subjects. Here's a piece from several years ago, with an ending that applies accurately to this weeks trip.

The finest roof when camping is the open sky. Falling asleep watching the stars and the ragged silhouette of mountains etched against the sky then waking as the first pale light glows in the east and the sun rises, bringing colour and light back to the world, is the most thrilling way to spend a night in the wilds. In dry areas such nights can be the norm.  During both my two month long Arizona Trail walk and a five week hike in the High Sierra I spent more nights under the stars than in a shelter. Sleeping out like this means keeping in touch with nature, in touch with the world. Breezes ripple the sleeping bag and brush your face; the sounds of animals scurrying nearby are loud and clear. If you stir and, half-awake, open your eyes you see stars, trees, rocks, grass and the whole spreading natural world rather than nylon. And when you wake at dawn you are already outdoors with no need to unzip the tent to see what’s happening.

Camp under the stars in the High Sierra

Of course there are nights when the wind blows too hard or the rain starts to fall or, worst of all, biting insects launch an attack. Then you need a shelter. Even those scurrying animals can force you under cover. One night in the Grand Canyon mice running over my sleeping bag kept disturbing my sleep until, in the early hours of the morning, I pitched my tent and sealed myself inside. After the open sky the next best shelter is a roomy tarp pitched so you can see out all around, followed by a tent with doors that open wide, again providing a good view and some contact with the outside world. Only when high winds blow and heavy rain or snow falls or the midges are biting do I close up a tent. I don’t go outside to be inside.

Using a tarp to keep the wind off on the Arizona Trail
Sometimes, though, stormy nights can be pleasurable. Lying in a warm sleeping bag listening to the rain rattling on the flysheet and the wind roaring past in great gusts can be strangely relaxing. Feeling snug and secure inside a tiny shelter is satisfying. But few such camps are really unforgettable; the lack of contact with the outside reduces them to simple enjoyment in being able to survive happily in a storm, with nothing distinctive to remember them by. Sometimes, though, camps in poor weather can become surprisingly memorable. Having spent a long frustrating day zigzagging through dense forest in rain on my walk through the Yukon Territory I was faced with a dismal camp in a dark, viewless, dripping spruce forest. Here the presence of bears turned what would have been a forgettable night sealed in the tent into a special, magical one. Because the bears that live in this vast wilderness might be attracted by the smell of human food it’s wise not to sleep where you cook, eat or store food so I slung a small tarp I’d brought as a cooking shelter between two trees. The place was still cheerless and dull so to make it friendlier I lit a small fire in front of the tarp. Instantly the atmosphere changed. Shadows danced and flickered around the flames. The black trunks of the trees were now walls, protecting my little bright and warm space. The falling rain sparkled in the firelight. I felt content instead of fed-up and stared into the fire for long hours, reluctant to leave it for my tent and sleeping bag.

Camp in the sunshine on the Scottish Watershed last summer

More usually wild camps are remembered because of a combination of a beautiful or spectacular situation and weather that don’t force you into a closed tent. Camps where the tarp or tent is just a bedroom are ideal. After that I like ones where I can look out from my shelter, protected from wind and rain but not cut off from the outside. Whilst sleeping under the stars is not possible that often in Britain (and by sleeping under the stars I mean just in a sleeping bag with the hood open, not sealed in a bivi bag, which I find more confining than a tent) camps where you can sit outside or look out from your shelter occur surprisingly frequently when camping in the British hills, especially outside of summer. The last may seem surprising but the one horror that can force me inside a tent with the doors shut tight are the ravenous hordes of midges that roam the hills searching for campers in the summer months. Midges are usually associated with the Highlands but I have memories I wish I could forget of midge-ridden nights in the Lake District too. Outside of midge season wild camping in the British hills can be a delight. The number of possible sites is legion. I discover new ones every year and the list of ones I’ve passed by but intend returning to would last several lifetimes.

Morning after a night of wind, rain and snow in the Lake District this February - sometimes a tent is welcome.

Taking pleasure in camping means that I rarely walk from dawn until dusk as this allows no time to enjoy a camp site. For me contemplation and slowly absorbing my surroundings are an important part of backpacking. Staying in one place gives the opportunity to notice the little details, the subtleties of the land, that are easily missed while walking. Wildlife is more likely to be observed from a camp too, another reason not to be closed away from the outside. Tents and tarps make good hides. On one TGO Challenge I camped on the edge of a small pine wood and woke at dawn to the strange bubbling calls of black grouse at a lek. Lying in the tent I watched these magnificent birds strutting and preening and fanning their wide tails as they competed for mates, a wonderful way to start the day. On other walks in other places I have been woken by a moose splashing high-legged through a shallow lake, deer grazing in a meadow just feet from the tent and porcupines shuffling through the grass.

Having time in camp means being able to watch how the passage of the sun and the fading and strengthening of the light changes the landscape, altering how it looks and how it feels. In the evening the shadows grow and colours fade, hills turn dark and lose detail, sunset turns clouds pink and orange before the sky blackens and the first stars appear. The world becomes mysterious and hidden. Then at dawn the darkness fades as the still hidden sun lightens the sky. The flat black featureless hills start to change, revealing shape and detail as ridges, cliffs and gullies appear. The first sharp rays of the sun touch a hill top, turning it red and gold. Slowly the sunshine creeps down the mountainside and across the land, approaching camp and bringing the promise of warmth and life. Just a few days before writing this I lay in my sleeping bag on a frosty morning in the Highlands watching the sun turning the white, shivering land a warm, sumptuous golden brown.  Gradually, oh so gradually, the sunshine slipped towards my frosted tent. I relished the anticipation of its warmth then revelled in the sudden heat and light. I never tire of those moments, the return of light and life to the world. They alone make wild camping an incomparable joy.