Friday, 17 March 2017

Photography Then & Now on the Yukon & Watershed Walks

Tombstone Mountain & Talus Lake, Yukon Territory

Following on from my post about the gear I used in 1990 and 2013 on my Yukon and Scottish Watershed walks here's some notes on my photographic gear for those trips.

The Yukon walk took place long before digital photography arrived and I took two 35mm film SLR bodies, the autofocus Nikon F801 and the manual Nikon FM2. These were quite heavy but tough and the F801 had one big plus - a thirty-second self-timer that made taking pictures of myself hiking or doing camp chores easy. In 1990 wide angle zoom lenses also hadn't arrived, at least not ones that were any good. My lenses were a Nikkor 24mm F2.8, Nikkor 35-70 F3.3-5.6 zoom, and Sigma 70-210 F4.5-5.6 zoom. I had a tripod too, called the Cullman Backpack. The cameras and lenses were carried in well-padded and tough Camera Care Systems bags. The total weight of my camera gear was just over 4kg (9lbs). In the appendices to Walking the Yukon, my book on the walk, I wrote that this was 'very light for an SLR system'. It sounds very heavy to me today.

All my pictures were taken on Fujichrome 50 and Fujichrome 100 transparency film. I shot 66 35-shot rolls during the 83 day walk, 2,310 images in total. Many were duplicates though as I couldn't see the results until after the walk and so often bracketed exposures. Films went ahead in resupply boxes and were sent home in batches for processing.

Sunset over the Yukon River

In 2013 my camera gear was completely different. I'd converted to digital ten years earlier and then changed from SLRs to smaller, lighter weight mirrorless cameras in 2010. My camera bodies now were the Sony NEX 6 and NEX 7, my lenses the Sony E 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 and 10-18mm F4  (35mm equivalents 24-75mm and 15-27mm). They were carried in Camera Care Systems and LowePro cases. My tripod was a Velbon V-Pod. The total weight was 1.85kg (just over 4lbs), less than half that of the Yukon gear. I didn't need to carry film (28.35 grams a roll ) either. Instead I had several memory cards that weighed less than one roll of film. I ended up with 1620 images for the 55 day walk, not including those I shot on my smartphone. I was able to check the images too and so could delete images and retake them if necessary.

View over Rannoch Moor from the Watershed

Last autumn I took almost the same camera gear on my Yosemite to Death Valley walk, the only changes being a Sony a6000 body instead of the NEX 6 and ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover 5 and Mirrorless Mover 10 cases. The light weight, low bulk, and the convenience of digital with no films to deal with, a histogram for exposure, and being able to check images makes this set-up far preferable for long-distance walking to my old film camera gear. I do miss that 30 second timer though.

A clearing storm in the Ben Lui range on the Scottish Watershed

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Mountain Aid Skills for the Hills in Glasgow - I'm giving a talk

On March 25 Mountain Aid is holding a Skills for the Hills event in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. I'll be giving a talk on Gear for the Hills on behalf of The Great Outdoors at 2pm (the event runs from 10am until 4.30pm).

Other speakers include Cameron McNeish on Words in the Landscape, and  Heather Morning of Mountaineering Scotland on Skills for the Hills, Discover your Adventure. There'll be a Q&A after each talk.

There will also be exhibits from a wide variety of organisations and companies including the John Muir Trust, The Great Outdoors, Walk Highlands, Scottish Avalanche Information Service, Adventure Medical, Harvey Maps, Anquet, Cicerone, Mountain Bothies Association, and the Mountain Weather Information Service.

Entry is £2. It looks like a great day out!

Mountain Aid is a charity dedicated to promoting safety in the Scottish hills.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Then & Now: Comparing Gear For Long Distance Walks

In the Tombstone Mountains on the Yukon walk

In 1990 I walked 1000 miles/1600km through the Yukon Territory from south to north. In 2013 I walked 700 miles/1200km along the Scottish Watershed. Both walks were in rough often boggy, often rocky country with few paths. In the Yukon my pack weight averaged 22-28kg, on the Scottish Watershed it was  12-18kg. Here I’ve looked at the gear I used for each walk and how it has changed.

In the Fannichs on the Scottish Watershed


Yukon: Vasque Summit leather boots weighing 3.5lbs/1.6kg that easily lasted the whole walk. I chose these boots because although I had already done much walking in trail shoes I wasn’t sure they’d stand up to the rugged terrain.

Watershed: Inov8 Terroc trail shoes weighing 1.5lbs/698 grams, less than half the weight of the Yukon boots. At the end of the walk the sole was quite worn down but the uppers were still in good condition. The Terrocs were far more comfortable than the boots. I wouldn’t go back to the latter.

Yukon walk gear


Yukon: Phoenix Phreeranger single-hoop solo tent with a PU coated outer weighing 4lbs/1.8kg. The tent coped well with strong winds, heavy rain and snow.

Watershed: Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, a shaped tarp, with an OookWorks mesh inner for a total weight of 1.16kg/2.5lbs. The Trailstar pitches with trekking poles, saving some weight, and is made from silnylon. The Trailstar is much roomier than the Phreeranger and very stable in strong winds.

Scottish Watershed gear


Yukon: Gregory Cassin 125 litre pack weighing 6.5lbs/2.9kg. Comfortable, huge and very heavy.

Watershed: Lightwave Ultrahike 60 litre pack weighing 2/7lbs/1.23kg. Comfortable, half the size, light.

Sleeping Bag:

Yukon: Mountain Equipment Lightline down bag weighing 2lbs 2.5oz/978 grams that kept me warm in temperatures down to -6°C

Watershed: Rab Infinity 300 down bag weighing 1lb 7oz/650 grams that kept me very warm down to +2°C.

Insulating Mat:

Yukon: Therm-A-Rest Ultra-Lite self-inflating mat weighing 17 ounces/482 grams. This kept me warm and lasted the whole trip.

Watershed: Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite Small airbed, weighing 8oz/230 grams. Not as warm as the Ultra-Lite but I wasn’t expecting sub zero temperatures.

Lunch stop on the Yukon walk


Yukon: MSR Whisperlite Internationale multi-fuel stove weighing 12oz/340 grams which I ran on Coleman Fuel and similar. I had two stainless pots also weighing 12oz/340 grams.

Watershed: Caldera Ti-Tri Inferno meths/solid fuel/wood stove weighing 8oz/225 grams which I mostly ran on meths. I had two titanium pots weighing 7.8oz/221 grams

Undercover kitchen on the Scottish Watershed

Trekking Poles/Staff:

Yukon: Tracks Chief of Staffs single aluminium staff weighing 1lb/454 grams.

Watershed: Pacerpole Carbon 3- section poles weighing 1lb 3oz/535 grams that doubled as poles for my shelter.

Waterproof Jacket:

Yukon: Craghoppers Cloudbreaker with polycotton outer and Sympatex lining weighing 1lb 9oz/709 grams.

Watershed: Rab Myriad Neoshell jacket weighing 15oz/430 grams. Both jackets provided the same protection and lasted the length of the walks.

In the Richardson Mountains on the Yukon walk

Comparing these major items from walks 23 years apart it’s noticeable that in all but one case the later items are lighter in weight. Why is this so? We didn’t try to carry heavy packs all those years ago! One of the major factors lies in materials development. Many lightweight materials that are now standard including silnylon and titanium either didn’t exist or were just appearing in 1990. Synthetic fabrics in general have become much lighter whilst maintaining their durability which has meant lighter clothing, lighter sleeping bag shells and, significantly, much lighter pack fabrics.

At the same time as materials were changing the ‘ultralight’ revolution started and with it the rise of small innovative cottage designers and manufacturers who experimented with new designs and materials to produce much lighter gear. This coincided with the rise of the Internet, which enabled these new companies to reach a large worldwide audience.

A wet start to the Scottish Watershed walk

Changes in hiking styles have also had an effect, in particular the growth in popularity of trekking poles. In 1990 using one staff was unusual. By 2000 many walkers were using pairs of trekking poles. And trekking poles meant that shelters with upright poles – ridge tents, pyramid tents, tarps – had a new lease of life having just about disappeared by 1990 after a decade of curved pole tents.

Lighter weight gear also means lower bulk gear and that in turn means packs can be smaller and lighter. On both the Yukon and Watershed walks I carried ten days food at times and had room in my packs. Everything I took on the Watershed walk would have performed well in the Yukon – indeed some of it would have performed better despite being lighter weight.

Comparing the items from these walks makes me very glad we have the gear of today, gear that is lighter yet just as functional as the gear from a quarter of a century ago.

This piece first appeared, in a slightly different version, in The Great Outdoors Summer Gear Guide last year.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Going Solo

Solo camp in the Cairngorms in February

Why solo walking and camping? What makes going alone special? I think it’s because it’s only when you are on your own that you can really experience the natural world, really experience the landscape. At least that’s how it is for me. Solitude allows me to feel aware of the world around me and in touch with nature. An obvious reason for this is the lack of distraction from companions. When I walk with others a key part of the trip is being with them and sharing the experience with them. Nothing wrong with that of course but it does create a barrier between you and nature, a barrier that’s there even if you walk in silence or far apart much of the time. Just the presence of another person changes the feeling of the walk and the connection with the wild. Alone I see more, notice more. The details of the world become clear. 

In the Fannichs in July on my solo Scottish Watershed walk

Going solo gives the freedom to make decisions on the spur of the moment, to change plans at will, without the need to consult a companion. This freedom makes me feel more at home in the wilds because I’m able to react immediately to how I feel and to the weather, wildlife, scenery and more. If it rains in the morning I can delay departure, lying in the tent listening to the rain on the flysheet. If my camp is in a beautiful spot I can spend an hour or more just sitting there or wandering slowly round the area absorbing the feel of the place before starting out for the day. Once underway I can stop whenever I like, make camp early because I’ve found a site too good to miss, or walk long into the night because I’m feeling energetic. 

This piece first appeared in The Great Outdoors last year.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Great Outdoors April issue - base layers, gaiters, pack history

In the latest issue of The Great Outdoors I review fourteen base layer tops, three gaiters at different price points, and look at the history of the first ever internal frame pack, the Lowe Alpine Expedition. Oh, and I review a Berghaus fleece jacket too.

The issue opens with some tremendous dramatic images - the Aonach Eagach in winter by Ed Smith and the Milky Way above Snowdon by Alyn Wallace. Away from photography there's an interview with artist Andy Beck and his project of painting watercolours of every view in Wainwright's seven Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells along with a small selection of the final 1509 pictures.

Elsewhere in the magazine Alex Kendall describes a long-distance route through Snowdonia from Machynlleth to Conwy; Alan Rowan experiences seasonal changes on Lochnagar; Alex Roddie goes backpacking in the Yorkshire Dales; and Judy Armstrong visits the Ecrins, France's largest national park.

The regular columnists have very varied stuff this month. The ever adventurous Ed Byrne tries bothying in the Cairngorms and ends up as a news story after helping a walker in trouble. Carey Davies has a hard time too when he's assaulted on the way home from the Pyrenees. Roger Smith ponders EU funding for access and what could happen if it disappears. Jim Perrin likes Paul Evans' Field Notes from the Edge, about Shropshire's hill country.

The Hill Skills section is about Walking with Wildlife with advice from James Roddie on not disturbing the creatures of the wild; a look at Wildlife Trust nature reserves; what you might see after dark; and a guide to upland birds from Jamie Wyver of the RSPB.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Snowshoes to Ben Macdui

Ben Macdui

Snowshoes or skis? There looked to be enough snow on the Cairngorm Plateau to make progress easier than walking with either of them. I scanned the hills through binoculars. A rash of dark spots was revealed – rocks poking through the snow. Not good for skis. Ascent routes looked rather snow free too. I don’t like carrying skis or walking in ski touring boots for any distance. Snowshoes it would be. This year has seen snow but not that much.

Stob Coire an-t Sneachda & Cairn Lochan

As I climbed up to the Plateau with my snowshoes strapped to my pack I already felt I’d made the right choice. The air was still, the sun shone in a deep blue sky. The terrain though was frozen and out of the sun it was cold. On the Plateau there was just enough of a breeze to need some extra clothing. Stob Coire an-t Sneachda was a mix of snow and rocks, with many climbers finishing routes on the icy cliffs. I kept the snowshoes on the pack until I’d crossed this peak and descended to the high col with Cairn Lochan.

Cairn Gorm & Stob Coire an-t Sneachda
Unbroken snow stretched out towards Ben Macdui so I donned the snowshoes. I was to keep them on for almost the rest of the walk other than on Macdui’s summit where I removed them while I wandered round mountain and sky watching. 

The Cairngorm Plateau stretching out to Ben Macdui

The Plateau was as vast and beautiful as always. It never ceases to impress. Distant views were hazy though the other Cairngorms peaks were clear. Wisps and curls of cloud drifted high above, outliers of the storm forecast to arrive that night. 

A few skiers linked big snowfields as I climbed the final slopes to Ben Macdui to have the summit to myself. I saw no-one else the rest of the day. To the south the haze was obliterating the view, spectacular when clear, while across the Lairig Ghru the snow-streaked east faces of Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine rose into the sky with clouds building beyond them. 

Cairn Lochan & Sgor an Lochain Uaine
Returning across the Plateau the wind began to pick up and by the time I was crossing the western slopes of Cairn Lochan the gusts were strong enough to drive little clouds of spindrift across the snow. The sun was setting now, lighting up the clouds in the west and turning the snow pink. 

Sunset begins
As I began the descent the wind rapidly increased in strength and the spindrift came in head high blasts that had me turning away from the stinging snow and bracing myself against my poles to stay upright. 

Linking snow patches I kept the snowshoes on until I was within half an hour of the Coire Cas car park. I was glad not to have to remove them until I was out of the strongest wind. As I finished the trip a crescent moon was high in the sky and Venus was just visible through thin clouds.