Saturday, 19 August 2017

Outdoor Thoughts from the Past

On the Continental Divide Trail in 1985

Thirty years ago at the end of my first book (see this post) I wrote some thoughts on long-distance walking and backpacking and how they were part of my life. I hadn’t reread these for many, many years. Doing so recently made me realise just how prescient they were as to the path my life would take. So here, thirty years, many books, and many walks later, are those long ago thoughts. I’ve edited them slightly, including leaving out sentences relating to the rest of the book and the proposals for long walks that never took place, as I think this strengthens the overall sense of the piece. I’ve resisted the temptation to rewrite sections though – I’d use different words today - and have let the language I was happy with back then stand. 


When I walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats to John O’Groats in 1978 Tom Waghorn, writing in the Manchester Evening News, called the walk the ‘dream of a lifetime’. I’m writing this in July 1986 the day after giving a slide lecture on my Continental Divide walk. ‘A dream of a lifetime’, one of the audience called it. This turning of a particular walk, the ‘dream’, into something separate from ‘life’ is, however, precisely what I am striving to avoid. Travelling in the mountains, in the natural landscape of the earth, the world which sustains use and allows us life is not for me a ‘dream’, a tiny capsule totally cut off from my ‘real’ life that I can take out and look at every so often. Rather it is my life, it’s what I do, what I think about, what I live for. A time when I am not planning or thinking about another backpacking trip does not exist. And the next weekend’s adventure is just as important and exciting as the next six-month one. 

My first love is long-distance mountain backpacking and as my wilderness treks are not one-off ‘dreams of a lifetime’ I am planning several more …. the start of a never-ending list of places I’d like to visit, wildernesses I’d like to explore if I have the time and the chance.

On my 1000-mile walk theough the Yukon Territory in 1990

Being ‘escapist’, ‘selfish’ and ‘unable to cope with the realities of everyday life’ are some of the criticisms aimed at backpackers and other regular explorers of the natural world. Yet our modern detachment from nature, from the force of which we are a part, our futile attempt to prove ourselves separate from and superior to the ecological system that allows us to live, our view of the world as an enemy to be conquered, and a bottomless treasure chest to be exploited, are the very selfish and escapist attitudes that have led us to the brink of the abyss of annihilation on which we are poised. Re-establishing our place in the natural scheme of evolution and the real world is essential if we are to have a future. And this cannot just be done intellectually, the process must go far deeper. An intuitive understanding of our oneness with the life of the earth and the forces of nature, with the rocks and rivers, mountains and deserts, with the other animals and plants must be the starting point for a return to the earth from the remote ivory towers of the so-called reality we have imprisoned ourselves in.

Backpacking is my way of doing this. Every trek through a wilderness, every night in the mountains under the stars far from roads, cars, bright lights and the other trappings of civilisation releases the tensions and pressures of our false and stressful lifestyle. Of course I know that I carry the products of modern society on my back but then I am not advocating a denial of tools. That would take me back beyond the Stone Age! Humanity is a tool-using species and tools are essential to our life but in modern society the balance has become such that it seems more as though humanity’s purpose is to provide a market for tools rather than tools being produced to improve humanity’s way of life.

Wild camping in the Cairngorms earlier this year

So when the confusions become too much and I feel locked into an unnatural life of concrete, forms to fill in, and sterile logic, I pack up a rucksack and head off into the hills to pitch my tent, gaze at the sky, feel the wind and rain on my face, the rocks and earth under my feet and bring my life back to the only thing that exists, the present.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

On August 15 1982 I entered the Three Sisters Wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail

Broken Top

Mid-August 35 years ago and I entered the Three Sisters Wilderness on my Pacific Crest Trail walk. Much of the hiking was in forests, as it had been for many weeks, but here the ragged glacier and snow clad volcanic peaks rose above the trees and sometimes the trail did too. I camped by lakes with the mountains rising above them, watching as the morning mist burnt off and the sun made the rocks glow.

The PCT leading towards North Sister

'Glorious mountain country and fantastic volcanic features' I wrote in my journal, 'lava flows, curling rivers of frozen basalt and huge mounds of pyroclastic cinders'. It was all marvellous. I'd been on the trail 135 days and had walked 1775 miles and I was revelling in every day.

The PCT winds up the slopes of Collier Cone

You can read the full story of my PCT adventure in my book Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles.


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Wild Forest, Wild Hills : A Quiet Corner of the Cairngorms

The forest at dusk

Remoteness, wildness, solitude, time to be alone with nature. These are not hard to find if you're prepared to wander away from paths and popular summits. I wanted a challenging walk that would thrust me deep into the natural world after a week of intense desk work. The word forest recurred in my mind.

Loch an Eilein

I began at Loch an Eilein, my first visit since being shocked at the felling back in March (see this post). As expected there were many people wandering round the loch. As soon as I left the main path and headed off beside little Loch Gamhna the others vanished though. A couple of mountain bikers passed me then I was alone. At the Allt Coire Follais I turned off the path and headed up into the forest. There is an old path here, half-buried in vegetation and hard to follow. Few come this way. Often a depression in the hillside is the only sign of it. The walking was hard now. Steeply up over tussocks and stones hidden in deep heather and bracken.

A forest pool

The beauty and power of the forest held me entranced though. I didn't mind the tough terrain. This was raw nature. Soon the trees began to thin. The dense vegetation didn't though, the ground just grew boggier. Looking back I could see the shining line of Loch an Eilein far below.

Looking back

Out onto open moorland I revelled in the summer colour. From afar these slopes look brown and green, tinged with the purple of heather. Close to they shimmer with a mosaic of colour. The yellow-green grasses red-tipped, the bright yellow stars of bog asphodel rising through them.

Summer colour

Finally the vegetation thinned and the walking became easier. Then I was on a broad ridge, views opening up all around. Across Gleann Einich Cairn Gorm, Cairn Lochan and Braeriach were a long line of corrie-bitten hills. A cold wind swept the stony slopes, drying my sweat-soaked clothes and causing me to shiver and zip up my jacket.

Cairngorm hills

Ahead rose the granite tor of Clach Mhic Cailein (The Argyll Stone), an important landmark on this featureless ridge. Today it provided shelter for a snack before I continued on northwards, the wind behind me, over Creag Dhubh to Cadha Mor.

Clach Mhic Cailein

The first trees appeared, tiny Scots Pine almost prostrate on the slope, stuggling to exist in the thin soil and the cold windswept terrain. Outliers far above the forest.

Scots pine

I plunged down boggy slopes, skidding on moss-covered stones. The descent was steep. Soon I was back in the dense heather and grass, wading waist-deep at times through greenery. I stumbled into holes and tripped over roots. Loch an Eilein grew closer.

Loch an Eilein

Down in the trees at dusk as the sky darkened and shafts of late sunlight, the most of the day, cut through the clouds. The walk hadn't been long, six hours or so, but the submersion in the forest and the moor had been intense, a far different experience from walking a path. Hot, sweaty, and scratched I emerged from the trees onto the track back to the car park. For a while the world had been wild.