Sunday, 21 October 2018

A Stormy Day on Beinn Eighe with Torridon Outdoors

In the mist

Unusually my first venture into the hills after my GR5 walk wasn't in the Cairngorms but far to the west in Torridon. Back in the spring I'd been offered a couple of nights in The Torridon hotel and The Torridon Inn plus a day out with one of their instructors/guides, the deal being that I'd write about the experience. (There'll be a follow-up post on the hotel and the inn). I'd forgotten about this until a reminder came in just as I returned from the Alps. So a week after returning home I was away again for a couple of untypical luxury nights, with a day of storm inbetween.

View from the lip of Coire Mhic Fhearchair

The forecast being for very wet and windy weather that should ease a little in the afternoon the Head of Torridon Activities at Torridon Outdoors, Charlie Burrow, suggested Beinn Eighe as there's a long walk-in so the worst of the storm might have passed by the time we were high up. The walk-in certainly was wild with a gusty wind, heavy rain, and low clouds shrouding the hills.

The summit clears, briefly

On reaching Coire Mhic Fhearchair,a place that never fails to inspire and impress, the rain eased, though the wind was cold, and we stopped for a rest and a snack and the opportunity to admire the wild surroundings, the wave-swept lochan, and the great cliffs of the Triple Buttress, which faded in and out of the clouds.

In Coire Mhic Fhearchair

Threading a way through the rocky corrie we began the climb up the steep slopes to the col separating the high point of the mountain, Ruadh-stac Mor, from the main ridge. Looking back down the corrie we could see sunshine on hills to the north, which gave us hope the summit might clear.

Looking back across Coire Mhic Fhearchair

The ascent finishes up a loose scree and rock gully. We found the left-hand side a bit easier than the loose centre, with solid rock steps in places. The top of the gully disappeared into the mist and on emerging from it we also felt the full force of the wind. As it wasn't far now we went to the summit - and stood there in the mist a short while. It wasn't going to clear.

In the gully

Turning away we went onto the main ridge where we decided to see if there was a direct way down to join the outward path in Coire Dubh Mor. Both of us believed there was, though in my case my memory was faulty as the terrain I remembered from a descent on another wet misty day was nothing like as steep or stony as this turned out to be. A series of rock steps, steep loose scree chutes, and boulders had us traversing back and forth across the slope searching out the safest way. Far below we could see a path snaking across scree slopes. It took a while to reach. Much of the ground was so loose it slid beneath the feet. Care was needed! Lower down the larger rocks and little crags disappeared and there was just scree to slither down.


Whenever we paused and looked up - when moving eyes to the ground were essential - the great mass of Liathach reared up before us. This really is a dramatic landscape, as fierce, wild and magnificent as anything I saw in the Alps.

On the descent

Despite the weather it was a great day out and it was good to have a companion for once. I learnt a bit about Torridon Outdoors too. A huge range of activities is on offer including mountain biking, sea kayaking, canoeing, wildlife watching, and gorge scrambling as well as guided high and low level walks. You don't have to stay in the hotel or inn to take part in them either. There's more about Charlie and Torridon Outdoors in this Q&A post from last year.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Camping on the GR5 Trail through the French Alps

Camp opposite the Pointe de la Selle

When I set out on the GR5 I intended to camp as often as possible. I knew that you can stay in accommodation every night as there are many mountain refuges and settlements along the way but camping in wild places is a major part of long walks for me and I had no intention of not doing so. As it was after the second week of September most of the refuges and even hotels in towns were closed. An autumn walk on the GR5 requires camping.

First day, first camp. Below the Col de Bise

The walk took me thirty-two days, two of them rest ones. I ended up camping on twenty-one nights, eighteen of them on wild sites, one on an open commercial campground, and two on closed campgrounds that might as well have been wild sites. Ten nights were spent in hotels and guest houses.

En route to the Col de Chesery

Finding camp sites wasn't quite as easy as it is in some areas and I quickly learnt I had to think about the terrain and water sources. Much of the GR5 is on steep slopes with few places to camp. Water sources are sometimes many hours walking apart, especially in the southern half of the walk. I found it was better to stop early if I found a good site as pushing on could mean walking well into the night and crossing high cols in darkness, which I did a couple of times. I also soon started to fill up my water bottles late in the afternoon and carry water the last hour or two so I could use sites far from any water.

Clearing skis at a camp by the Ruiseau d'Anterne after a night of thunderstorms and heavy rain

Mostly, once away from villages and farms there were no restrictions on camping, as far as I could tell. Exceptions were in the two national parks, the Vanoise and the Mercantour. In the first camping is forbidden except next to some refuges, which weren't on my route. I camped just outside the park on two nights and spent a third in a guest house. In the Mercantour National Park camping was forbidden but bivoacing was permitted between the hours of 7pm and 9am. As I'd already learnt a bivouac in the French Alps means using a shelter in which you can't stand up - so backpacking tents and tarps are fine.

Camp en route to the Col de Brevent

Whenever possible I chose sites with spacious views. Sometimes though stormy weather made it more sensible to head down and camp deep in the forests. These sites were also enjoyable - I love trees - and the quietest of them all. Partly because there were no cows. Most of the uplands crossed by the GR5 are used for grazing cattle and sheep. I saw many hundreds of both. Often the animals wore bells, which could be heard jangling from far away. A few times I used ear plugs to reduce the noise. Sometimes I woke to find cows all round my camp. Another result of all these animals was that I often camped on ground liberally covered with cow and sheep dung. By the end of the trip my groundsheet stank, something I've never experienced before.

The GR5 was a great walk that I really enjoyed and I had many splendid camps. The Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, a well-used shelter that had been on two previous multi-week walks and many shorter ones, was ideal, giving masses of room and resisting wind and rain. Here are some more of my camps.
En route to the Refuge les Barmettes

Below the Col de la Vallee Etroite
Opposite the Pointe de la Selle

A frosty morning below the Col des Fourches
En route to the Col de Crousette

Below the Col des Deux Caires
My last camp on the GR5, above Utelle

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Great Outdoors November Issue: GR5 Gear & Other Stuff

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors has just been published. In it I describe the gear I used on my walk through the Alps on the GR5 Trail, a venture I finished just a few days ago. The piece was written eight days into the walk, when the weather had been warm and mostly sunny, though with some thunderstorms and torrential rain. The next three weeks did see colder weather and some strong winds and more prolonged rain. How did the gear hold up? I'll be writing about that soon.

Also in this issue there's a Beginners Gear Guide in which I make recommendations for day walking and backpacking gear and Judy Armstrong looks at gear for women.

The shortlists for the TGO Gear of the Year are announced. These come from products put forward by gear companies. Over the next few weeks I and the other five judges will be testing the products and deciding the winners in each of the seven categories.

The issue opens with a superb moody and evocative double page spread of dawn in Torridon by James Roddie. Further into the magazine Roger Smith considers the problem of vehicle tracks in the hills and looks at the recent excellent LINK Hilltracks report Changing Tracks. Jim Perrin gives a portrait of Bleaklow - 'one of the truly marvellous places in the British hills'. David Lintern traverses vast Ben Avon in the Cairngorms and has a cold camp high on the mountain. Judy Armstrong walks an unnamed ridge in the French Alps. In South Wales Phoebe Smith walks the little known Bwlch with Altitude circuit. Further north in Southern Scotland Ronald Turnbull undertakes the relaunched and in some places rerouted (a road section has been replaced with one over the Ettrick Hills - hurrah!) Southern Upland Way - 'the toughest waymarked trail in Scotland'. Just to the south in the Lake District photographer Dave Fieldhouse shows the changes in the seasons in a glorious photo essay. Finally, Sandy Paterson of Glenmore Lodge gives advice on scrambling.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Out now: my latest book, the story of my Scottish Watershed walk, Along The Divide.

Whilst I was away walking the GR5 trail through the Alps my book on a previous long walk, the Scottish Watershed, was published. Now I'm back I need to get on with promoting it so here's a plug!

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

GR5 completed

After 32 days of tough but superb mountain walking I reached the Mediterranean and the GR5 through the Alps was complete. The walk has been a great experience. I'll be posting more in the next few weeks, including many photos taken with my cameras. I'm looking forward to downloading these. There'll also be a piece in The Great Outdoors. In the meantime I can certainly recommend the route, including the finish to Nice, which I really enjoyed though the final walk through the city to the crowded beach feels rather surreal.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

GR5 Storms and Supplies

Six days out from Briançon and storms and food supplies have dominated the walk. After two days I had what will probably be the finest camp of the trip on the edge of the forest looking towards the dramatic twin summits of the Pointe de la Selle. The night was starry with a bright half moon and I was up for an hour taking pictures. I'll be interested to see how those turn out when I get home. By dawn a frost covered the ground, the first of the walk. The clear skies didn't signal continuing good weather however.

During the day clouds built up and the wind became ferocious. I crossed two high cols and was nearly blown off my feet. I camped in woods down in the valley as lightning flashed all around and thunder crashed and roared. Torrential rain hammered on my shelter.

By first light the rain had stopped. The air was misty and damp. As the clouds rose I could see fresh snow high above and was glad I'd camped in the valley. I was down in the woods again the next night after a day of bitter winds and spits of snow and hail.

The day had solved a food shortage though. I'd left Briançon with just about three days supplies. I knew the refuges would all be shut now but I hadn't expected whole villages to be so too. Brunnisard, Chateau Queyras, Ceillac, Larche. No restaurants, hotels, shops open. Then in the tiny hamlet of Fouillouse a little epicerie said ouvert. It was a joyous moment! In the three days since then everywhere has been closed until here at St Etienne de Tinee where I've resupplied for the last four or five days to Nice and the Mediterranean.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

GR5 The South Approaches

After nineteen days and around 330 kilometres plus enormous amounts of ascent and descent I've arrived in Briançon, the biggest town on the GR5 and a fascinating place with huge walls and forts. I've had a day off here, the second of the walk, the first being in Les Houches ten days ago. I find that after this long I start to slow down unless I take a day off. Briançon is ideal for this. As well as very interesting it has all facilities, including a much needed laundrette.

The walking has mostly been superb with excellent mountain paths through outstanding landscapes. I'm familiar with the pattern now - a steep climb through forest to open country and a col or two and then an equally steep descent into the next valley. Finding cars parked at the top of some of the ascents still feels a little disappointing but I'm getting used to it.

Mont Blanc seems along time ago and even the Vanoise, where I was four days ago, is receding fast. Every Col brings a new world and a farewell. I always look back, relishing the land I've crossed.

Tomorrow sees the start of the last ten days or so. The Mediterranean feels close, Lake Geneva distant. I hope the weather continues to be kind.

Monday, 24 September 2018

GR5 camp

Last night's camp. Down in the forest as it was very stormy with bursts of torrential rain and blasts of high wind. I was glad to reach the trees after crossing a high pass. Camp was quiet and peaceful, the forest floor soft and comfortable.

Seems I can post pictures one at a time but not in batches. Progress!

GR5 update

Nearly half way on the GR5 through the Alps. Heat, cowbells, long steep ascents and descents, restaurants, electric fences, cows, ski resorts, lovely forests, glorious mountains, fine wild camps. My impressions so far. Wild in spots developed in others. From one to the other and back again most days.

I'm posting pictures on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. Would post some here but Blogger won't agree. I will when I can! Two weeks to go.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Packed and ready for the GR5 Trail through the Alps

After humming and hawing over gear selection I'm finally packed for the GR 5, which is good as I'm leaving on the sleeper to London tonight!

I've mostly ended up taking tried and trusted items - main changes from my last long walk are pack (lighter weight, I won't be carrying a bear barrel and gallons of water), shoes (previous ones too worn), waterproof jacket (more substantial - it might rain!) and some electronics (I have a smartphone and a watch to test). I also have the new Dual-Lock Pacerpoles - my old ones are fine but I prefer this design - and the new Kojin burner for the Caldera Cone as it's more efficient. I'll be writing a piece about the gear and how it performs for The Great Outdoors.

The walk will actually start on Saturday after trains to London, Paris, Geneva and St. Gingolph. During the journey I hope to work out the complexities of the smartphone and the watch! Then it's three to four weeks of walking.

Book Review: Highland Journal 1.The Making Of A Hillwalker

Tales of the hills are always interesting and this collection is no exception. The author describes his journey from innocent novice asking what a Munro is before ascending his first, Carn Dearg in the Monadhliath, and realising that cotton trousers and a cheap waterproof are not ideal, to experienced climbing Cuillin peaks. The stories involve many others and are entertaining and often humorous. Whilst they're told in a linear fashion this is a book you can dip in and out of as well.

The book is illustrated with the author's drawings and maps and these are delightful. As well as mountain scenes they feature wildlife, skills, and plenty of minutiae. At the end of the description of the Carn Dearg ascent there are sketches of all the gear the author is promising himself.

I discovered this book when given a copy by Marjorie, probably the best bookshop owner anywhere, and owner of Grantown-on-Spey's excellent The Bookmark. The author had been in distributing copies.  If you like it please write about it, she said. Well, I do and I have.

Highland Journal is published by Matador at £15.99

Friday, 31 August 2018

Off through the Alps on the GR5 after summer plans go awry

If my plans for the summer had worked out, by now I would be approaching the half way point on the Colorado Trail in the Rocky Mountains. As it is I'm planning on setting out on the GR5 trail through the French Alps next week. Events and circumstances have conspired to make me change my plans. Firstly the dreadful fires in Colorado earlier in the summer, which closed sections of the Colorado Trail, meant I didn't book flights as early as I'd intended as I didn't know if the trail would open again this year (it has). This turned out to be fortuitous for me as some minor ailments meant a round of health appointments, blood tests and X-rays. By the time I had clearance for a long walk it was getting a bit late for the Colorado Trail. A shorter one seemed a good idea. I also thought it wise to go somewhere easier to retreat from, not so expensive to reach, and where I wouldn't be disappointed if I didn't complete the route. Europe rather than North America.

I'd always thought that one day I'd do a long walk in the Alps and this looked like the right opportunity. A two week autumn walk many years ago on the Tour du Queyras is the sum of my Alpine walking experience. A quick bit of research (the web makes this so easy!) and I decided on the GR5. I haven't done much planning yet but it looks the sort of route where this isn't needed. I'll find out! I am planning on camping the whole way (I gather I may have to use a hut for one night in the Vanoise National Park) and treating the walk as I would one in a remoter area.

Connections permitting I'll be posting updates here and on social media and longer pieces once I'm back in early October.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Classic Gear: Therm-A-Rest

Camp on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982, my Therm-A-Rest in the foreground

Fourth in the Classic Gear series that appeared in The Great Outdoors last year. This time, a mattress that revolutionised sleeping comfort.

Back in the 1970s, when I began backpacking, sleeping mats were all closed cell foam. These were bulky and not very comfortable but also nearly indestructible and good insulators. Bright yellow ones – the ubiquitous Karrimat – could be seen strapped on every backpackers pack. However the same decade saw change coming from far away Seattle in the Pacific Northwest, where, in 1971, climber John Burroughs suggested to two mountaineering friends that he’d like a better mat. At the time engineers Jim Lea and Neil Anderson had just been made redundant so they were able and keen to take up this idea.

Therm-A-Rest prototype in sandwich maker

The breakthrough that would lead to the first ever self-inflating mat came when Jim Lea was gardening and noticed that the foam cushion he was kneeling on let air out when he shifted his weight. Seal that foam in an airtight fabric and you’d have a comfortable mat he realised. To make a prototype he and Anderson used a sandwich maker to melt the fabric onto the foam. They then added a valve so the air could be sealed in and squeezed out and their first mini mat was complete. 

First series Therm-A-Rest
Further work improved and refined the design, which was patented in 1972. Two years later production began under the name of their new company, Cascade Designs, founded by Burroughs, Lea and Anderson. 

As with many innovative products in those pre-Internet days knowledge of the Therm-A-Rest mat was slow to spread and it didn’t arrive in the UK until the end of the 1970s. In the 1980s it became popular worldwide however. A manufacturing plant was opened in Ireland in 1984. In the beginning there was just one model, simply called the Therm-A-Rest. It was 47 inches (119cms) long and weighed 1lb 7oz (652 grams). This was considerably heavier than a closed cell foam mat. However the difference in comfort was so great that I took one on my Pacific Crest Trail walk in 1982 and found it excellent. It lasted the whole trip, was very comfortable and kept me warm sleeping on snow in sub-zero temperatures at altitudes above 10,000 feet (3050 metres). I also liked the fact that when compressed it was compact and could be stored inside my pack rather than strapped on the outside. I used one again on the Continental Divide Trail in 1985. 

Early Therm-A-Rest advertisement

That first mat had a solid foam core, a plain nylon shell, a metal valve and a rectangular shape. Today the name Therm-A-Rest covers a whole family of mats in different weights and lengths that have cored foam, curved sides, different fabrics top and bottom, plastic valves, and different models for women and men. The closest to the original mat is probably the Prolite Plus. The 72 inch (183cms) Regular size weighs 592 grams. 

Today there are many companies making self-inflating mats and it’s difficult to realise just how revolutionary the first Therm-A-Rest was. All the current mats derive from that 1972 model though and from the ideas of a climber kneeling on a gardening cushion. Without Therm-A-Rest wild camping would be far less comfortable.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Stoves I've used for long-distance walking over the decades

In the Grand Canyon on the Arizona Trail. Stove: Optimus Nova

Back in the spring I posted pieces about the packs and shelters I’ve used on long-distance walks. I’ve been meaning to follow these with ones on stoves, sleeping bags, footwear and more but it’s taken a while to find the time. Here’s the first of those: stoves.

Unlike with other items choosing a stove for a long-distance walk is partly dependent on an external factor – what fuel can you buy along the way. This has changed over the years but is still an important consideration. When I began backpacking in the 1970s the fuel choices were almost the same as today – cartridges, meths/alcohol, paraffin, and petrol/white gas. The big difference was that cartridges were butane only, which was less efficient, especially in the cold, than today’s butane/propane mixes. Cartridge stoves have another disadvantage, which remains today. Most can’t be easily repaired in the field. Combined with fuel availability that’s the reason I’ve only used cartridge stoves on one long-distance walk. As it is my stove choice has gone full circle from meths/alcohol ones through various petrol/paraffin pressure stoves with one diversion into cartridges and back to meths/alcohol.

My original Trangia
On my first long distance walks, the Pennine Way in 1976 and Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1978 I used a Trangia methylated spirits stove. I couldn’t find out if cartridges were available along the way (this was long before the Internet of course) and anyway didn’t like the cartridge stoves I’d tried. Petrol or paraffin pressure stoves were an option, but I’d never used one of these and was a little nervous of them. As it was, while heavy and bulky, the Trangia worked fine in all conditions. I still have it.

With the Svea123 on the Continental Divide Trail

For the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide walks in 1982 and 1985 I used a Svea 123 white gas stove, as this was the model recommended by Colin Fletcher in his superb The Complete Walker, which I read to learn about backpacking in the Western USA.  Alcohol stoves hadn’t yet caught on in the USA – that was to come two decades later – and general advice was that white gas in various forms – gasoline, Coleman Fuel, generic white gas – was the only fuel I’d find everywhere. The Svea, an upright brass tin can in appearance, worked well, once I’d got used to priming it with liquid fuel and realised I needed a separate windshield for strong winds, though using it with leaded petrol, which I did a few times, was always a little unnerving as it flared badly. 

In the Richardson Mountains in the Yukon Territory with the MSR Whisperlite

I stayed with white gas  but changed stoves for my 1988 Canadian Rockies and Yukon walks. MSR had brought out the Whisperlite Internationale, which was lighter than the Svea and came with an encircling windshield and a separate fuel tank attached by a long hose. Again it worked really well.

In the Jotunheimen on the Scandinavian Mountains Walk with the MSR X-GK

For my Scandinavian Mountains Walk in 1992 I changed to a different MSR stove, the X-GK II, because the only fuel available everywhere was paraffin in various forms and the X-GK ran well on this relatively dirty fuel and was easy to clean. Mostly I used lamp oil, a clean type of paraffin, but I did use some paraffin that smoked badly and clogged up the stove so being able to strip it down and clean it quickly was a boon.

All these stoves were quite heavy and I wanted something lighter for my next walk, the Munros and Tops, as this would involve a great deal of ascent. This was the first walk when I really tried to keep the overall weight down. I reckoned a cartridge stove would be okay in Scotland as it would be easy to replace if it failed and I’d manage for a few days on cold food if I had to. Cartridge stoves were a bit heavier than today back then but still very light compared to the stoves I had been using. I took one of the lightest then available, the Coleman Micro, a simple screw-in burner. The first one of these did fail. The second was fine. 

A chilly camp on the Arizona Trail with the Optimus Nova

I really liked the light weight and ease of use of a cartridge stove but the failure had confirmed my views that relying on one on a remote walk wasn’t a good idea so for the Arizona Trail in 2000 I went back to a pressure stove, the Optimus Nova. This was a bit easier to use than the MSR models, so I used it again on my 500-mile circular walk through the High Sierra two years later.

The Caldera Ti-Tri at a wet camp on the Pacific Northwest Trail

During the 2000s the ultralight backpacking movement took off in the USA and with it came a wealth of alcohol stoves made from drinks cans. People also realised that various forms of alcohol suitable for stove use could be found in hardware stores and gas stations and that this availability made it an excellent fuel for long-distance walks. I tried a few of these little stoves and really liked the Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri, which was like an ultralight version of the Trangia but could also be run on solid fuel tablets or natural fuel.  

In the NW Highlands on the Scottish Watershed with the Ti-Tri
In 2010 I took the Ti-Tri on the Pacific Northwest Trail and was so delighted with it that I used it on my next two long-distance walks, the Scottish Watershed and Yosemite Valley to Death Valley. I’ll almost certainly use it on the next one too, though with the new Kojin burner rather than the 12-10 one as the Kojin is more durable and can retain unused fuel. I think I’ve finally found the ideal stove for long-distance walks. 

Ti-Tri at a desert camp on the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk