Saturday 28 July 2018

New book out soon: Along the Divide

My next book is due out soon. It tells the story of my Scottish Watershed walk and the various thoughts and feelings it engendered, leading to many digressions into conservation, politics, the outdoors and more as I attempt to link together various facets of my life into a coherent whole.

There are pictures too!

Along the Divide is published by Sandstone Press. The official publication date is September 20.

Friday 27 July 2018

For National Parks Week: Pictures of the Cairngorms

View across the Lairig Ghru from the Cairngorm Plateau

This is National Parks Week so here are some of my favourite pictures of my favourite park, the Cairngorms. Any excuse!

Autumn, Ryvoan Pass

Loch an Eilein
Loch Muick
Castle Grant & Braeriach

Camp on the Moine Mhor, looking to Sgor Gaoith

Lochan Uaine, Ryvoan Pass

View down the Lairig Ghru from Ben Macdui

Camp in the Lairig Ghru

Ben Macdui from the White Mounth

Sunrise, Gleann Einich
Camp on the Cairngorm Plateau

Cairn Toul

Igloo on the Moine Mhor

Camp with Terry Abraham on Mullach Clach a'Bhlair

Camp above Loch Avon

Braeriach & Loch Einich
Camp in Glen Feshie
Sgor Gaoith

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Classic Gear: The Primus Stove

Second in the Classic Gear series that appeared in The Great Outdoors last year. This time, a revolutionary stove.

When explorers started venturing high into the mountains and far onto the polar ice in the second half of the nineteenth century they had a problem. How to stay hydrated. Melting snow required fuel and stoves and took time. Before then polar travellers were ship-based and terrestrial explorers stayed below the treeline most of the time and so had wood to burn. Various alcohol burning stoves were developed but these were slow, inefficient and required large amounts of fuel, which meant heavier loads to carry and a limit on how far explorers could go. The first paraffin (kerosene) stoves were only a little better and gave off soot and fumes.

An original Primus stove
This all changed in 1892 when Swedish inventor Frans W. Lindqvist developed the first sootless paraffin pressure stove. This stove had a burner mounted over a fuel tank. To pressurise the fuel there was a pump on the side of the tank. A valve on the burner released the pressurised fuel which rose up vaporising tubes to shoot out of a jet as a gas. Once this gas was lit it spread out round a metal plate in a ring of flames. This design makes very efficient use of the fuel and is the basis for every liquid petroleum stove ever since. It really was a revolutionary design. Lindqvist set up a company to market his invention and named the stove Primus – the Latin for first.

Primus factory in 1907

Explorers quickly recognised the value of the Primus stove, particularly the great Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. He knew the disadvantages of alcohol stoves from his crossing of Greenland, the first time this had been achieved, when he said he had suffered from ‘arctic thirst’. For his ‘furthest north’ expedition in 1883 he took Primus stoves, which were far more fuel efficient and burnt much hotter for melting snow. Later, in 1911, his protégé Roald Amundsen took Primus stoves to the South Pole. 

Primus stoves quickly became the standard for expeditions and remained so into the 1970s, being used by the successful 1953 Everest Expedition amongst many others. They became standard stoves for hiking and cycle touring too with different sizes being manufactured such as the popular 00 (1 pint) and 96 (half pint) models. In the early 1980s when I led backpacking trips for Outward Bound Loch Eil we used 00 Primus stoves that didn’t look that different from the original design of nearly 100 years earlier.

OmniLite Ti
At first glance today’s Primus stoves don’t seem much like the first ones or even the 00 or 96. The big change has been the move of the fuel tank from under the burner to off to the side with a hose linking the two. Modern stoves can burn several different fuels too and are made from materials such as titanium that weren’t available earlier. The basic principles are the same though, as can be seen by looking at Primus’s top of the line OmniLite Ti. There’s still a pump to pressurise the liquid fuel, a valve to release it, and a jet out of which vapour shoots upwards before hitting a metal plate and spreading out. This design has stood the test of 125 years of use. It looks like it’ll go on for many more.

Sunday 22 July 2018

The Great Outdoors August issue

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. In it I look at the new gear I've liked at recent outdoor trade shows I've been to and review a dozen backpacking stoves.

This issue has two pieces that really stand out. The first is Stuart McIntyre's photo spread of the Scottish hills and wild places at night. Of the many mouth-watering pictures I especially like the stunning one of the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

The other feature that really impressed me is Colin Ibbotson's account of his recent continuous backpack in the Lake District over all 330 Wainwrights and Outlying Fells. This sounds the ultimate Lakeland walk.

There's plenty of other good stuff in this issue too. The lovely opening spread of a misty Tryfan by Dave Fieldhouse is subtle and evocative. Andrew Galloway marks Emily Bronte's bicentenary with a walk across the Yorkshire moors that inspired Wuthering Heights in an interesting piece that also touches on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Jim Perrin praises a scrambling route on Moel Siabod in Snowdonia. Roger Smith looks at the problems of 4x4s using historic tracks and green lanes. Judy Armstrong visits the isle of Mull on a trip combining walking, kayaking and a campervan. Phoebe Smith describes twelve small hills with superb views for short days out, including one of my local favourites, Craigellachie above Aviemore. Far from small hills and Britain Gavin Mcfie describes a mountaineering expedition in Kazakhstan, which looks and sounds wonderful. Skills advice comes from Bill Turnbull of Glenmore Lodge in a good piece on the fundamentals of navigation.

Thursday 19 July 2018

Not much snow left in the Cairngorms

Last of the snow in Coire Domhain, a popular spot for snowholes in the winter

How much snow is left in the Cairngorms after the heatwave? When I was last there, nearly three weeks ago (see here), there wasn't very much. There's far less now.

A tiny speck of snow left in Coire an t-Sneachda

A walk over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and Cairn Lochan only revealed a few tiny patches. Maybe this year all the snow will go.

Cairn Lochan - one small and one tiny snow patch remaining

The hills are a mix of green and brown. There's still enough moisture in much of the ground for the grasses still to grow. The burns are very low though and areas of dried vegetation are starting to appear. Where there is enough water plus some shelter from the weather the growth is luxurious. I was surprised to find Scottish bluebells (aka harebells) growing at 1090 metres on the shoulder of Cairn Lochan.

One small snow patch next to the Great Slab in Coire Lochan
The snow patch in Coire Lochan

The day had mostly been cloudy with an intermittent breeze. On the summit of Cairn Lochan it was calm and there were midges. I didn't linger. As I reached Coire Cas and my car the sun began to break through. I stopped at Loch Morlich on the way home to look back to the mountains and the woods, shining now in the sun.

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Gear For An Overnight Summer Camp On The Cairngorm Plateau

During the longest spell without rain during this heatwave - ten days - I had an overnight trip on the Cairngorm Plateau, which I wrote about here. Afterwards I posted a picture of all my gear laid out at my camp, noting that being able to do this was extremely rare. People then asked me questions about items of gear – what it was, what it weighed, how it performed, and more. I promised to describe all the gear and my reasons for selecting it in a blog post. Here it is.

Firstly, I should say that because I test gear for The Great Outdoors I always have a wide selection to choose from. For this trip I took some items I was testing for forthcoming reviews, some items to see how they’d perform in the hot dry conditions, and some items because they seemed ideal for this trip. That said, any selection of gear for a summer trip, whatever the weather, wouldn’t vary much from this except in two cases (tent and waterproofs). For a longer trip the main change I’d make would be to drop some of the camera lenses to keep the weight down. The weight of my pack with food was 5.5kg without the camera gear. With lenses and tripod it was 7kg.

Pack: Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60. 

This is a pack I’m currently testing. It’s ultralight at 927 grams, roomy at 60 litres, and has plenty of pockets. It easily handles 15kg of gear and was nowhere near full. I found it stable and comfortable. It’s quite close-fitting and I did get a sweaty back. I think that would have been the case with any pack however due to the hot dry conditions. Also, I prefer body-hugging packs anyway as they are more stable on rough terrain.

Trekking Poles: Pacerpole Dual-Lock

I’ve used Pacerpoles on walks long and short for many years now and I can’t imagine being without them. The 590 gram Dual-Lock with the external length adjustment is the best version yet.

Tent: Big Sky Wisp 1.

I took this ultralight single-skin tent to see how it performed in the low humidity. On previous occasions when humidity was high, as is usual in the Scottish Highlands, condensation had been awful, with moisture streaming down the walls. Big Sky do say it’s not recommended for high humidity areas. On this occasion there was no condensation at all, not a drop. The air was just too dry. At 640 grams the Wisp 1 is very light for the space provided – there is room to store gear, cook under cover, and sit up. I like the design but wouldn’t choose to use it for most Scottish trips. For a desert walk it would be great.

Sleeping Bag: Sea to Summit Micro MCII.

I wasn’t expecting a cold night and this ultralight down sleeping bag – just 610 grams – with a comfort rating of 7°C and a comfort limit of 2°C was fine.  It has a full-length zip and a drawcord-closed foot, so it can be easily vented – I was more concerned about being too hot than too cold. As it was, the overnight low was 10°C and whilst I had the zip almost fully done up when it was that temperature I didn’t do up the hood and by early morning the zip was undone as was the foot. Mine is the first version of this bag and has a simple flat hood. The current one has a shaped hood and the down fill is now water-resistant.

Sleeping Mat: Therm-A-Rest ProLite 3 Small. 

I’ve had this self-inflating foam mat for many years. It’s light at 350 grams, warm enough in above freezing temperatures, comfortable, and quite compact when deflated.

Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket 2

This stove was being tested for a forthcoming review. It’s ultralight at 75 grams, very powerful and simmers easily. I took two almost empty 250-gram cartridges and only used one of them. The stove worked fine but given the temperatures and the still air – I had a foil windshield but didn’t use it – this was hardly a severe test.

Pots, pans, utensils: Evernew 900ml titanium pot. MSR 700ml titanium pot. MSR titanium spoon. Outdoors Grub polycarbonate spoon. Light My Fire Firesteel. Lighter. Microfibre cloth.

This is my standard kit and has been on many long-distance walks. The pots are over 25 years old. Total weight: 550 grams. It all lives in a small nylon stuffsack along with the stove.

Water containers: Cnoc Outdoors Vecto. Platypus 2 Litre. GoLite 700ml.

I don’t usually decide exactly where I’ll camp in advance, so I like to have enough containers that I can carry water to a dry camp. Flexible collapsible containers are ideal for this. I also like to have one rigid bottle for use during the day and because it’s easier to fill from a trickle or still water than a collapsible one. The three together weighed 194 grams. On this occasion I camped near running water and never carried more than 700ml as there were plenty of sources each day.

Trail Shoes:  Altra Lone Peak 4.0.

This was the first outing for these trail shoes. Having found the previous two versions of the Lone Peak excellent I was pretty certain these would be fine, and they were. Comfortable, good grip, good cushioning. My pair of size 9.5 weighs 678 grams.

Waterproofs: Berghaus Hyper 100 Jacket. Marmot Essence Pants.

With no forecast of rain I could have gone without waterproof clothing. However, I think I’d have felt underequipped even in a heatwave! And sudden changes in the weather are not unknown in the Highlands. So I went with the lightest waterproofs I have. Berghaus’s Hyper 100 Jacket weighs 106 grams and is extremely breathable. Marmot’s Essence Pants weigh 185 grams and are quite breathable. I doubt either would stand up to regular use but for trips like this they’re ideal.

Windproof: Patagonia Houdini.

I thought I might need a windproof more than a waterproof. In fact I didn’t and never wore it. Still, the Houdini only weighs 105 grams and so didn’t add much to the load.

Warm wear: Berghaus VapourLight HyperTherm Jacket

This is the original Berghaus ultralight insulated HyperTherm jacket. It weighs just 163 grams but is as warm as a midweight fleece and also wind-resistant. For trips where I expect to wear it often I prefer the heavier (224 grams) Hoody version which has a hood and pockets but for a trip like this where I don’t expect to wear it the minimalist design is fine. I did wear it in fact – when outside watching the dawn at 3.30 a.m.

Trousers & Shirt: Mammut Runbold Trousers. Rohan Expedition II Shirt.

Why didn’t I wear shorts? I forgot them! I hate driving in shorts as my bare legs stick to the car seat so I’d intended changing in the car park. That’s when I found I’d left them at home. So the Runbold trousers had an unintended test in the heat, which they passed easily, being comfortable, breathable and never too hot or too sticky. I’d originally chosen them because at 310 grams they’re the lightest trousers I have and I thought they’d spend all their time in the pack.

In warm weather I like loose fitting synthetic shirts with roll up sleeves and big pockets for phone, compass and other items. The 243-gram Rohan Expedition Shirt is one of the best I’ve tried. The fabric wicks moisture quickly and dries fast. It has an insect repellent treatment too, useful against midges. though there were none on this trip. The pockets are roomy and I like the Velcro-closed flaps as they’re easy to use. (Disappointingly I see the current version has buttoned flaps). The shirt was fine in the heat.

Hat: Tilley t5 Organic

I’ve worn Tilley Hats on long and short walks since I discovered the original version in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory 28 years ago. These cotton hats are tough, comfortable, breathable and generally excellent. This year I’ve been trying the 105-gram t5 Organic version and liking it very much.

Socks & Briefs: Dahlgren Ultra Light socks. Adidas Climacool Boxer Briefs.

Both socks and briefs were lightweight and fast wicking and worked fine in the heat.

Lighting: Luci Pro Outdoor 2.0 Inflatable Light. Petzl Actik headlamp.

With only a few hours of semi-darkness at this time of year a torch of headlamp isn’t really required. However I never go without one just in case I might need it during those darker hours. On this trip I took two because I wanted to take pictures of the tent during the night. The inflatable light, one of my favourite pieces of new gear, was to light the tent. It weighs 173 grams. The headlamp was to light my tripod and camera. It weighs 93 grams.

Smartphone & Charger: Samsung Galaxy 7. GoalZero Venture 30.

I used my phone as a camera, GPS, and for posting pictures to social media when I had a signal – which wasn’t much of the time. I charged it once during the trip. The phone is over two years old now and battery life has shortened.


Other items were compass, map, emergency whistle, dark glasses, sunscreen, midge repellent, head net, mosquito coils, Kestrel weather meter, SPOT, notebook & pens, reading glasses, repair kit, first aid kit, wash/toilet kit, Kindle.

Photography: Sony a6000 & NEX 7 cameras. Sony E 35, 16-50, 10-18 & 55-210mm lenses. Samyang 12mm lens. Velbon V-Pod tripod

As I had a light load and this was just an overnight trip I took more camera gear than usual. Normally I carry two lenses, not five. I wanted the fast lenses – the 50mm f1.8 and the 12mm f2 – for low light photography. The total weight with cases – ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover 10 & 20 for the cameras with zoom lens, Zing! Neoprene for the lenses – was 3.13kg.

Sunday 15 July 2018

Classic Gear:Lowe Alpine Expedition Pack

The original 1967 Expedition Pack

Last year I wrote a series of pieces on classic outdoor gear for The Great Outdoors. Over the next few months I'll post them here. Thr first one is about a pack that changed how we carry big loads.

Fifty years ago a new company launched its first product - an innovative pack that would revolutionise load carrying. The company was LoweAlpine, the product was the first pack with an internal frame. It was called simply the Expedition Pack and it came about when American climber Greg Lowe wanted a pack that would carry heavy loads and be stable enough for technical climbing so that he and his uncle could undertake long walk-ins to remote areas of the Teton range, part of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, and do alpine-style ascents. Back then in 1967 packs were either external frame ones that were great for hiking with big loads but awkward and unstable for climbing or frameless rucksacks that were stable but too small and too uncomfortable for heavy loads. 

Original Parallux back system
To combine the load carrying properties of external frame packs with the stability of frameless rucksacks Greg Lowe came up with a frame that fitted into the back of the pack. This was stiff enough to transfer the weight to the hipbelt whilst still being flexible and body-hugging enough for stability when climbing. To further improve the stability he added side compression straps, hip and shoulder stabiliser straps, and a sternum strap – all new features that are now standard ones. This design is still the basis of most internal frame packs today.

The back system involved two parallel aluminium staves in sleeves on the back of the pack that could flex and move with the body. This was called the Parallux System. The original version wasn’t adjustable, that came in 1977 followed by the Advanced Parallux System (APS) in 1993.
In the late 1970s Lowe Alpine pioneered women’s fit packs with the ND series. Originally this stood for Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in the Indian Himalaya and a Hindu goddess. Now Lowe says it stands for Narrower Dimensions to reflect the difference in design – a functional rather than romantic name. I know which I prefer!

As it was aimed at mountaineers rather than walkers it was a while before the internal frame pack was accepted as ideal for backpacking as well as climbing. By the 1990s though it had become the dominant design, with many variations from other companies as well as further developments from Lowe Alpine, all based on Greg Lowe’s original design. I think it’s fair to say that it’s one of the most important and significant developments in the history of backpacking and outdoor gear. 

A later version of the Expedition
In the 1980s and 90s I used Lowe Alpine packs with the Parallax back system regularly, including on a two-week trip in the steep and rocky confines of the Grand Canyon where a pack that balanced well was essential. Lowe Alpine also branched out from mountaineering packs as it realised the versatility of the internal frame. I still have and regularly use a 1980s Kinnikinnick travel pack with the Parallax back system. It’s proved amazingly tough and looks like it’ll never wear out.

Lowe Alpine has for many years made a wide range of packs in all sizes. The backpacking and expedition models clearly show their descent from the Expedition Pack that started it all.  The company has had several owners since the Lowe family sold it in 1988 but the line back to the original pack has never been broken. Today Lowe Alpine is British-owned and part of the Equip Outdoor Technologies group.