Sunday 26 February 2017

Out There - The Pictures 2: Traversing Corsica on the GR20

View across the Ladroncellu valley from the Bocca Piccaia

This is the second in an occasional series of photos illustrating stories in my book Out There, which has no illustrations. The first covered Trekking to Makalu Base Camp. This one covers the GR20 in Corsica, a challenging rocky route that I walked with Cameron McNeish - so he appears in many of the pictures!

Traversing below Capu Ghiovu   

Camping below the Refuge diu Piobbu
Climbing to the Col de Pedru
Descent into the Cirque de Solitude

In the Golo valley

Lac de Capitellu, Lac de Melu & Monte Rotondo 

Descending the Manganella valley

Traversing below the Punta della Cappella on a misty windy day

Monte Alcudina

En route to Monte Alcudina

The Aiguilles de Bavella

Punta di Ferriate

All the photos were taken on a 6 megapixel Canon EOS 300D DSLR with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Igloos & Spindrift

This year’s igloo trip with members of the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club took place last weekend. Rather than some of the remoter places we’ve been to in the past this time we headed for Coire Laogh Mor on the north side of Cairn Gorm. Easy access meant that more people came along and eight of us set off on a cold windy day – though only six were planning on staying in the igloos. The snow was soft and broken with much vegetation showing through. Most people were on skis but for once I wasn’t as I had a pair of snowshoes to test (you can read my review here).
As we climbed into the corrie we spotted a big rock on the far side that looked like it had a large wind scoop round it, which meant deep snow. The weather being somewhat unkind with low cloud over the tops and gusts of strong winds blasting spindrift across the mountainsides we hoped to find a suitable site with deep snow not too high up and this looked like it could be it. It was.

Only two of us had built igloos with the IceBox tool before so there was some learning to do and some trial and error in the building that meant it was after dark before the two igloos were completed. The weather didn’t clear and there was little in the way of views. Watching spirals of spindrift whirling across the snow and blowing high into the air was entertaining though. Less fun was when the spindrift clouds hit us, sometimes with a wind so strong that all you could do was brace yourself against it and turn your head away with a gloved hand protecting your cheek from the stinging snow.

These conditions were ideal for showing just how comfortable igloos are – once inside all was calm and quiet and secure. Brewing up, eating, talking, relaxing and then sleep. Come morning and a slow breakfast with more brews. Outside the wind drove on, stronger than before. The clouds had risen a little and we could see across Glen More to Meall a’Bhuachaille but the high mountains were still hidden. 

The skiers set off upwards, hoping for improving weather. It didn’t happen and they didn’t go far. This wasn’t a day for the tops. 

I dug my gear out of the spindrift. I’d left my pack, shovel, IceBox, snowshoes and poles in the wind scoop – there wasn’t really room for them in the igloo and I didn’t need them inside anyway – and the spindrift had poured into it and buried them completely. I did pack up inside the igloo though before donning my snowshoes and heading back down after a successful trip. We’re hoping to do another one in a month or so. Perhaps then it will be sunny and less windy. Perhaps.

Friday 10 February 2017

Yosemite Valley to Death Valley: The Gear

Along with the feature about the walk itself that I posted on February 8 I wrote a piece about the gear I chose that appeared in the same issue of The Great Outdoors. Here it is:

Selecting gear for a long walk always means looking at likely conditions and also possible extremes. The High Sierra has a very benign climate when compared say to the Scottish Highlands but in autumn there are sub-zero nights and a possibility of the first snowfall. In the desert temperatures should be cooler than in summer though still hot for anyone from Britain. Strong winds are a common feature of desert nights.

This all meant that I needed gear that could deal with both freezing and very hot weather plus strong winds and maybe snow. Rain was very unlikely. In fact during the walk it snowed on one day and never rained (though it poured down during the car journey from Death Valley to Las Vegas!). Of the twenty-six nights I camped the temperature dropped below zero on ten with the lowest being -7.5°C.  On only two nights were the lows above 10°C, both at low level camps in the desert.

Whilst my equipment was not very bulky or heavy I knew that I would need to carry six days food at times in the High Sierra and that this would have to be in a big and weighty bear-resistant container (these are mandatory in Yosemite National Park and some other areas). I also knew that in the desert I would have to carry ten plus litres of water. I needed a pack that would handle the weight and into which a bear-resistant container could easily be packed. The 1.4kg ULA Catalyst fitted the bill, being a bit roomier (72 litres including pockets) and more supportive than most lightweight packs, and wide enough at the top for the bear container to fit across it.   The Catalyst proved comfortable and stable and a good choice. I only weighed the full pack once and it came to 15kg with the bear-resistant container and three days food.


Having learnt on past trips that having two sets of footwear was wise I took trail shoes and sandals. I ended up wearing the latter – Teva Terra-Float Universal – most of the time and was very impressed with how tough they proved given that they only weigh 462 grams. After around 350 miles of rugged terrain with a full pack they are still in good condition. They proved very comfortable too with superb cushioning.

The Treksta Mega Wave shoes proved just as comfortable and were also very light at 628 grams. They are now rather battered-looking however. To be fair the company did say they weren’t designed for long distance backpacking and I did wear them on the very roughest terrain including the rocky ascent of Mount Whitney and the 2750+ metre cross-country descent from Telescope Peak, the first 600 metres of which were down steep loose scree and rocks, terrain that could make a mess of any lightweight footwear.

In the shoes and in camp I wore ultralight Teko Merino Trail Walking socks. These weren’t new and proved both durable and surprisingly warm. I also had some medium weight wool socks but didn’t need them as I had down socks for camp wear – I could get the sandals on over the latter.

Trekking Poles

As on every backpacking trip for many years I used Carbon Fibre Pacerpoles (535 grams) and as on the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Scottish Watershed these also doubled as poles for my shelter and to turn my pack into a backrest. I can’t imagine a long walk without them.


Although I hoped to sleep under the stars most nights I knew that I’d probably need a roof on windy nights and if it snowed or rained so I took a well-proven favourite, the 482 gram Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar. I ended up using this on eight nights in the wilds when it was breezy – though it was only really needed on two when the wind was very strong – and on five nights for privacy on campgrounds. I also used a Luxe Tyvek groundsheet that weighed just 142 grams and had the advantage of not being slippery like silnylon and the disadvantage of showing the dirt as it’s white. A bag of assorted pegs weighed 177 grams, giving a total weight of 801 grams for a roomy shelter with a spacious groundsheet.

Sleep System

Until this walk I’d always preferred a sleeping bag warm enough for the coldest likely temperatures and mostly slept in little or no clothing. However, having tried the PHD Sleep System earlier in the year I was impressed and decided the lightest version would be ideal for this trip. It consisted of the 328 gram Ultra K sleeping bag, the 240 gram K Filler bag, 246 gram Wafer jacket with hood, 151 gram Wafer K trousers and 50 gram Wafer K socks, all filled with 1000 fill power down. The Ultra K bag is rated to +8°C so as most nights were colder than that I also slept in either the Filler bag or the clothing. I never needed both, even at -7.5°C. I found the system really comfortable and thought of the clothing as my down pyjamas. In the High Sierra where my kitchen was sited away from my bed in case of visiting bears the clothing was great to wear on chilly mornings and evenings. 

For ground insulation I took the 230 gram Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite S airbed and the 135 gram OMM DuoMat that I’d used on many previous trips including the Scottish Watershed. After a week of sub-zero temperatures in early October I wasn’t convinced that these mats would keep me warm enough if it got even colder so I bought a cheap, thick and bulky full-length foam pad. It weighed around 400 grams. After I bought it there were no more freezing temperatures! However it proved useful in the desert for protecting the NeoAir pad from sharp thorns and stones which I think would have penetrated the groundsheet.


For cooking I took the same tried and trusted system that I’d used on the Pacific Northwest Trail, the Scottish Watershed and many other walks, namely the Trail Designs Classic Ti-Tri plus Inferno insert and my 25 year old Evernew and MSR 0.9 and 0.7 litre pots. Together with two spoons the total weight was 476 grams. In the High Sierra I mostly cooked on wood as I usually camped in the forest. Having a mini camp fire when it was cold was very welcome. For above timberline camps and in the desert I used denatured alcohol in the tiny burner. 

In the High Sierra food was carried in a 1.27kg 10 litre Garcia Machine Backpacker’s Cache bear-resistant canister that I rented in Yosemite Valley. I could just cram six days food inside. It was convenient in camp but I was very glad to send it back from Lone Pine as it wasn’t required for the desert section.

For water I had an old 79 gram 700ml GoLite bottle that did during the day and two 2 litre Platypus bottles that weighed 120 grams for camp. For the desert I added extra bottles as I needed to carry 10+ litres.


My basic clothing every day was my T3 Tilley Hat (156 grams), a pair of Mammut Explorer shorts (65 grams) and a Paramo Katmai Light shirt (207 grams). Both the hat and the shirt were old favourites that I’d worn on the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Scottish Watershed. The shirt is very comfortable in the heat and surprisingly effective as a base layer under other garments in cold weather. The big pockets held maps and phone. If it was chilly I also wore an Arc’teryx Squamish windproof jacket (168 grams) or, if I needed more insulation, the Berghaus Vapour Light Hypertherm Hoody (224 grams). I could probably have managed without the Squamish. The Hypertherm Hoody was essential. It replaced a fleece and had the advantage of being windproof. It was also very breathable and very comfortable and I walked in it in the coldest weather. In camp I wore it under the down jacket when it was below freezing. For camp and days when it was too chilly for shorts I had Salomon Wayfayrer trousers (292 grams). 

I also took a Rab MeCo long-sleeved base layer top and Montane Primino long johns. I didn’t need either but might have done if the weather had been colder. As it was I wore them in resorts when my shorts and shirt were being washed, as I did the old GoLite Reed overtrousers (110 grams) I took in case of rain. On the one day of snow the Salomon trousers and Arc’teryx windproof were adequate so I didn’t need the Berghaus Hyper waterproof jacket I carried. At 106 grams and rolling into a tiny bundle it didn’t add much to my load anyway. I did wear it once – when I went out for a meal in Las Vegas after the walk as it was raining!

In camp and on cold days I wore a Smartwool Cuffed Beanie (53 grams) that was also a veteran of the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Scottish Watershed. It’s lasted really well and is comfortable on its own and under a hood. I had Bridgedale Primaloft Lite gloves too but rarely wore them.


I had paper maps (well, waterproof plastic actually, digital maps on my Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone courtesy of ViewRanger and a Silva Ranger compass. In the High Sierra where I was on trails most of the time I mostly used the excellent Tom Harrison Trail Maps, which fitted neatly into a shirt pocket, occasionally glancing at ViewRanger to see exactly where I was on sections of trail in dense forests. This changed completely in the desert section where I was often going cross-country and any trails were unsigned and often faint. Here I used ViewRanger frequently. I often needed a rough compass bearing too. For this I found the digital compass on my Suunto Ambit watch was adequate. The Silva compass was never used.


Autumn days being quite short I often walked into the night, making my Petzl Tikka XP headlamp essential. I also had a tiny Petzl e+Lite headlamp as backup. This was useful when I needed to change the batteries in the Tikka in the dark.

Solar Panel

A big success on the walk was the Powertraveller Extreme solar panel and 4000 mAh power pack (600 grams). I hung the solar panel on the back of my pack and most days it fully charged the power pack which I then used to charge my smartphone and occasionally my watch, Kindle Paperwhite e-reader and camera batteries. I never ran out of power. Of course it was sunny almost every day.


Other items were a Fox 40 emergency whistle, a SPOT GPS Messenger that I used to send OK messages most days, notebook and pens, reading glasses, Salomon Fury dark glasses (32 grams) that I wore every day, a first aid and repair kit, sunscreen, and an assortment of waterproof stuffsacks and Aloksak bags.

One particularly successful item was the Matador Freerain 24 pack, which I’ve reviewed in my Gear Editor’s Column on The Great Outdoors website. This 149 gram pack has sealed seams and a roll top and doubled as a travel bag for air travel, a shopping bag, and a stuffsack for my down gear.


My cameras were the Sony a6000 and NEX 7 with Sony 16-50 and 10-18mm lenses, plus my smartphone, which was used for images I uploaded to social media and sent to The Great Outdoors website. With ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover cases my camera gear weighed 1.75kg. 

I posted a set of camp site pictures from the walk back in November and a piece on food for the trip in December.

Thursday 9 February 2017

Out There reprint ... and future books

It's almost a year since my collection of essays on the outdoors was published. To my delight it's just been reprinted. The cover now has an acknowledgement of the award the book won last autumn too.

I've also started work on my next book, which will be centred round my Scottish Watershed walk but which will  also about the Scottish outdoors in general and about the changes I've undergone in over 25 years of living in Scotland after moving here from England. This book, which doesn't have a title yet, should be published in spring 2018.

Before then there'll be an ebook combining my long out-of-print books on my two long walks in Canada - Walking the Yukon and High Summer: Backpacking the Canadian Rockies. Copies of both are being torn apart and copied at present, after which I'll be doing some minor editing (there are tiny errors/mistakes in both books that have been irritating me for a quarter of a century!).

Wednesday 8 February 2017

From Mountains to Desert: Yosemite Valley to Death Valley

Lone Pine Canyon & Mount Muir, High Sierra

Back in October I finished my long walk through the mountains and deserts of California, a glorious walk that ranks as one of the finest and most enjoyable I've undertaken. Whilst I posted here during the walk and afterwards I didn't write anything about the walk as a whole. So here is a feature that first appeared in the January issue of The Great Outdoors. I also wrote a piece about the gear I used which I'll post tomorrow.

Yosemite and Death Valley. Two iconic American national parks. One mountain, one desert. Both wild and glorious. They lie 170 miles apart in California, Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada, Death Valley in the Great Basin. The landscapes of the two valleys are completely different. Yosemite is a narrow forested valley hemmed in by huge pale cliffs with a lovely river running through it. Death Valley is wide and flat with little vegetation and sombre dark mountains rising either side.  Between the two lie the tangled mass of mountains making up the High Sierra and a series of desert valleys and mountain ranges. 

Desert mountains in the Darwin Falls Wilderness
The High Sierra rises to 14,495 foot (4,421 metre) Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous States. Death Valley drops to the Badwater Basin, 282 feet (86 metres) below sea level. These two places are only 85 miles/137 kilometres apart so linking them in one trip is an obvious challenge. For some years there’s been an annual road race, though this only goes as far as the base of Mount Whitney. There’s also a backcountry route that runs some 130 miles/210 kilometres all the way to Whitney’s summit (see L2H ). As soon as I heard about the Lowest to Highest (L2H) route I knew I wanted to see what it was like. I’d been to the High Sierra several times and it had become a favourite area. I’d never been to Death Valley though and it had been on my list of places to visit for many years. If I was to travel that far I wanted to do a longer walk however and spend more time in the High Sierra (on the L2H I’d only be there for 2-3 days). Where to begin then? Yosemite Valley to Death Valley had a nice ring to it. It would also mean crossing the High Sierra from east to west, which was appealing.

A problem with the L2H route is that the best time for avoiding snow in the High Sierra is summer but then Death Valley is far too hot for walking with temperatures often over 49°C. Autumn and spring are cooler in the desert but can mean snow in the High Sierra. Studying the data I realised that autumn would be best as the date of the spring snowmelt varied far more than that of the first winter snowfall. To reduce the chance of heavy snow and increase the chance of cooler temperatures in the desert it made sense to start in Yosemite Valley and to reverse the L2H route. This plan was logical and gave me the best chance of success. I was almost caught out at the start though.

Liberty Dome & Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park
I left crowded Yosemite Valley on a hot morning, a very hot morning. The sun blazed down and the steep climb out of the valley was exhausting. The unfamiliar altitude had an effect (I was soon over 9,000 feet (2750 metres)) and maybe I wasn’t as fit as I could have been but it was the heat that really affected me. Plus the lack of water. Many creeks were dry. Once I realised this I carried more water than I’d expected to, adding to my load. Was it really exceptionally hot or was it just me? After six days I arrived at Reds Meadow Resort, my first resupply point. ‘I’ve never known it this hot’, one of the owners told me. 

From Yosemite Valley the John Muir Trail runs all the way to Mount Whitney. I didn’t want to follow this popular trail (and probably wouldn’t have got a permit anyway) – though in places it was unavoidable. I’d walked it previously and was more interested in visiting new areas and following less-used trails. I quickly found that away from the JMT there were few people and that some of the trails are fading back into the landscape. Yet the scenery is just as spectacular and the opportunities for wild camping away from others much greater.

En route to Reds Meadow I climbed the first two of the nine 10,000 foot+ (3,000 metres) passes I’d cross in the High Sierra. Red Peak Pass and Isberg Pass were both above timberline and gave wide-spreading and glorious views of the rocky peaks and the dark forested valleys dotted with lakes. This was the start of three weeks in the incomparable beauty of the High Sierra. Once I’d recovered from the tough start I revelled in the forests and lakes and peaks. I especially loved timberline, that junction between worlds where the trees fade away into rocks and roughness and little lakes reflect the summits and the woods.

Colby Lake, Kings Canyon National Park
From Reds Meadow I made my way to Vermilion Valley Resort and then King’s Canyon. This second week brought a change in the weather. Nights grew colder and the days cloudier and windier. As I climbed up the lovely Bear Creek valley snow began to fall and I crossed Selden Pass in a storm, glad that it was one of the less steep high passes but concerned that if this was the start of a big storm I might have to retreat to lower ground. That didn’t happen though and I had no more precipitation for the rest of the walk. And beyond Kings Canyon I had no more frosty nights either. Unexpectedly the hottest days, coldest nights and only stormy weather had come in the first half of the walk.

Two more passes led me to the base of Mount Whitney. Avalanche Pass was low enough to be in the trees and was just a broad saddle, belying its name. The trail to it switchbacked up some steep slabs with big drops on one side though. I guess this is where the avalanches occur. It was exciting enough on dry sunny day. I wouldn’t go up it in the snow. Colby Pass, at 12,000 feet (3,658 metres) gave the most splendid views so far with nothing but wilderness all around. Just forests and mountains without end.

Colby Pass
Below Mount Whitney I had my highest and most spectacular High Sierra camp near Guitar Lake, well above the trees at 11,640 feet (3548 metres). Most nights I’d been in the forest where the camps were pleasant and peaceful and I saw deer and many birds but there wasn’t usually much in the way of views. At Guitar Lake the scenery was harsh and rocky and the vistas expansive. The terrain was beautiful but also challenging. I looked up at the long steep west face of Mount Whitney, a pinnacled ridge running up to the huge summit dome. Thirty-four years earlier I’d climbed a snow-covered Whitney on my Pacific Crest Trail walk. Staring at the rocks and scree I couldn’t imagine how I’d done it. 

Timberline Lake & Mount Whitney
Switchbacking up the steep rocks to the Mount Whitney Trail the next day I realised that under deep snow this slope had been less steep and much smoother. With crampons on it was probably easier in the snow than it was now. The Mount Whitney Trail, which runs up a long valley to the east and then follows the crest to the summit, is the most popular path in the High Sierra. As soon as I joined it I met many people. The walk along the narrow ridge, mostly below the crest, gave the first views down to Owens Valley, 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) below, and across to the Inyo Mountains, the first desert range I would cross. From the summit of Whitney I looked out over the vast expanse of the High Sierra but also to desert mountains stretching to the east. Somewhere over there was Death Valley.

The Mount Whitney Trail
Leaving the High Sierra I descended to little Lone Pine, the only town on my route. Here I sent my rented bear-resistant container back to Yosemite Valley, glad to be rid of its weight and awkward shape. I’d only seen bears once, on the very first day. I’d left the Yosemite Valley crowds behind and was alone when I noticed a bear watching me close to the trail ahead. Then came a scurry in the bushes and two cubs clambered up adjacent trees. A mother with young. I stopped. The bear hissed at me and ran forward a few steps. I backed off slowly until almost out of sight. The mother bear moved away from the trail and towards her cubs. I continued along the trail watching her watching me. As I passed she hissed again, warning me to leave her cubs alone. Soon she was out of sight in the trees and I could relax. I knew an actual attack was extremely unlikely but having a bear threaten me was still a little unnerving.

First view of the desert: Owens Valley & the Inyo Mountains from the Mount Whitney Trail

Although the bear-resistant canister was gone the weight of my pack went up on leaving Lone Pine as I was carrying eleven litres of water. The next guaranteed water source was 55 miles away. I was not in the High Sierra now. The maintained and signed trails vanished too. A mix of cross-country routes, indistinct trails, and dirt roads would take me to Death Valley. Trees were small and scattered where there were any at all. The mountains were coloured red and black, the volcanic rocks contorted as if just solidified. The pale granite of the High Sierra gives a light airy feel to the range. Here it was the opposite. Sombre and dark. Between the ranges are wide valleys, some almost bare of vegetation, others, like Lee Flats, dotted with the strange giant yuccas called Joshua Trees. 

Panamint Valley

After three and a half days I was looking down steep scree slopes to a slash of bright green. Darwin Canyon, in which I’d find water. I slithered down the loose terrain to reach what felt like a jungle after the sparseness of the desert landscape. A tiny creek ran through a dense tangle of willows, aspens, bushes and rushes. I followed it to pretty Darwin Falls, a delicate waterfall tumbling down a small cliff. Gulping down water I felt relieved. I’d carried enough but only just as I’d felt a little thirsty every day. I still had 65 miles to go but there were two reliable water sources along the way so I wouldn’t need to carry as much water again.

Darwin Falls
From Darwin Falls I crossed the huge Panamint Valley. Here I encountered salt flats for the first time. These are made from salt deposited from the shallow ephemeral lakes that form when there is any precipitation. Walking on this dried lake bed, cracked in the sun and laced with dried-up water channels I kept getting the feeling that water would start to sweep in at any minute. I was taken back to the sands at Formby where I was brought up, sands that stretched huge distances at low tide but where you had to be careful as channels could fill up and cut you off as the tide came in. In Panamint Valley I felt as though the tide come in at any minute even though the sea was hundreds of miles away.

The Panamint Mountains from Telescope Peak
A final mountain range lay between me and Death Valley itself. In the Panamint Mountains lies the highest summit in Death Valley National Park, 11,050 foot (3368 metre) Telescope Peak. I climbed this from my last high camp at around 9500 feet (2900 metres). The views from the summit were superb, desert and mountains stretching to the horizon on every side. Then I had a 9000 foot+ (2750 metre) cross-country descent down steep slopes to a final camp on the edge of Death Valley. 

Death Valley
The last day came. I was alone in the vastness of the desert. I crossed Death Valley on sticky salt pans and crusty solidified mud. Eventually I could see tiny figures in the distance. People at Badwater and a road. I was stared at, a freak appearing out of the desert. Have you walked across there, I was asked. Yes, and a little bit more. A lift was offered. The walk was over. Now it was just a wonderful memory, an adventure that would live on in my mind forever.

Looking back to the High Sierra from the Inyo Mountains