Sunday, 16 December 2018

Restoring Spirits in Glen Feshie

Some places are special, guaranteed to raise my spirits and remind me that there are good things in this world. Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms is one of those places and a visit always raises my spirits. With a seeming torrent of bad news recently, both local, national and international, - the slaughter of raptors and mountain hares, the increase in bulldozed roads in the hills, the debacle of Brexit, onrushing climate change – I felt a need to seek solace in the forest and spend a night listening to the sounds of the wind in the trees and the river hurrying over its stony bed. 

The weather was not conducive to venturing high in the hills. Thick clouds covering the tops and a roaring wind made staying in the glen seem both attractive and wise. Brief glimpses of the hills were all I had as I walked through the woods and beside the silvery river. The water was low. It’s been a dry year. The side streams pouring into the Feshie could all be crossed with no danger of my feet getting wet. They were more stones than water.

I camped amongst ancient pines and junipers below ragged craggy hillsides that vanished into the clouds. A splendid spot. The wind in the trees surged and boomed. The night was black. No stars, no moon, just dense nothingness, impenetrable and empty. The wind woke me a couple of times, then rain just before dawn. I was warm, comfortable and relaxed though. The hours of darkness passed surprisingly quickly – preparing food, writing my journal, reading, staring at the wind-shaken silhouettes of the trees, sleeping. 

Soon after dawn the rain ceased. I wandered down to look at the river and admire the many young trees appearing everywhere. Glen Feshie is beautiful but this returning forest makes it especially magical. This is what wild Scotland should be like.

The wind was increasing in strength and the clouds dropping down the mountainsides so after making a couple of very short videos, which you can see in my last two posts, I walked back down the glen, refreshed and content. A short trip, but very worthwhile. Yet again the natural world had restored my equilibrium.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

In Glen Feshie, second little video

Here's my second attempt at making a video. The wind had increased again by this time - I really must get a separate mic if I'm to make any more of these. Maybe I should have waited for better weather for my first try!

A video clip from my camp this week in Glen Feshie

I've been meaning to start making video clips for a while now and in Glen Feshie a few days ago I finally got round to it. I hope to make many more - and to work out how to improve the sound quality, which was affected by the wind.

The clip was  made with my Sony a6000 camera with Samyang 12mm f2 lens and edited in Lightroom. The slow speed of my PC and Broadband means it's taken a while!

Comments welcome.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Classic Gear: The MSR XGK Stove

The original MSR Stove as pictured in the 1973 MSR catalogue
Next in the Classic Gear series that first appeared in The Great Outdoors last year: a revolutionary stove design.

The remote burner stove with a fuel tank at the end of a long hose is now a standard design. Every stove company makes at least one and there are models that run on butane/propane canisters as well as liquid fuels like petrol and paraffin. These stoves are efficient and reliable, especially in cold weather.  However back in the 1970s they didn’t exist and burners sat on top of fuel tanks. Such stoves were okay for summer use and with small pots but weren’t that good in sub-zero temperatures or with big pots. 

This was all to change when a new company in Seattle called Mountain Safety Research (MSR) set out to design a more practical and efficient stove, in particular one that could easily melt snow when winter mountaineering. After much testing MSR worked out that a remote, pump pressurised fuel tank was the answer and in 1973 the original remote burner stove was launched, using a fuel bottle as the tank. Originally just called the MSR Stove, soon changed to the MSR Model 9, this stove revolutionised stove design, though it took a while for the idea to spread. The Model 9 ran on white gas such as Coleman Fuel plus unleaded and leaded petrol. Apparently meths could be used too ‘if the air inlets of the burner are mostly closed with foil’. It weighed 340 grams, which was very light for a liquid fuel stove.

The MSR Model G, introduced in 1978
Since 1973 MSR has continued to improve the stove. The Model G and Model GK stoves replaced the Model 9 in 1978 and had field-maintainable fuel-lines, a big breakthrough. The GK version could also burn paraffin, diesel and some aviation fuels as well as petrol. These two models were merged in 1982 as the X-GK.

The MSR XGK II Shaker Jet
The next major improvement was in 1994 when the Shaker Jet was introduced in the X-GK II. This involved putting a weighted needle in the jet that pushed any dirt out of the jet when the stove was shaken or moved but which didn’t interfere with fuel flow when the stove was in use. Before the Shaker Jet a jet pricker had to be used. This was a very fine wire needle on a piece of aluminium that had to be prodded into the jet to dislodge dirt if it became blocked. Jet prickers were awkward to use, especially with cold fingers and by torchlight, and easy to break or lose – I used to carry two or more and once had to resort to using a toothbrush bristle when I mislaid both. Jet prickers also pushed the dirt back into the fuel line from which it could rise up and again block the jet.

Today's MSR XGK EX
From the Model 9 to the X-GKII all the stoves had rigid metal fuel lines. These were tough and easy to clean but rather awkward to pack. In 2005 MSR changed this to a flexible line in a braided metal sheath. This makes packing the stove much easier and is still stiff enough for easy cleaning.
A significant extra advantage of MSR’s design was that because the burner was separate from the fuel tank it could be fully surrounded by a windshield. To this end MSR introduced the now ubiquitous lightweight and compact folding foil windscreen.

The XGK continues as a workhorse stove, ideal for melting masses of snow and boiling big pots of water. I used one regularly when I led ski backpacking trips and cooked for ten or more people at a time. I took one on my length of Scandinavia walk back in 1992 too as I didn’t know what fuel would be available along the way and I wanted a multi-fuel stove that would work with dirty fuels and was easy to clean. I ended up mostly using paraffin and needed to clean the fuel line every so often. The XCK never let me down on any of these trips. 

Whenever you use a remote burner stove remember MSR and the Model 9 and XGK. That’s where it began.

Friday, 7 December 2018

The Great Outdoors January issue

The results of the 2018 Great Outdoors Awards feature in the latest issue. They are split into the Readers' Awards (Campaigner of the Year and much more) and the Gear Awards, which were judged by a panel of five, of which I was one. We had long discussions over this and all the gear was tried out, making for a rigorous process.

To mark 40 years of The Great Outdoors we also selected 40 items for Special Awards to celebrate forty years of innovation. Choosing these made for an interesting and intense discussion.

In the gear pages I review eleven down jackets, the interesting Andrew Skurka designed Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor pack, and two smart watches. The last are part of a joint review with Alex Roddie and Daniel Neilson who also review two watches each.

The issue opens with a splendid Snowdonia sunset by Alex Nail, a picture that combines the warmth of the sun with the chill of a landscape covered in rime ice. There's also a review of Nail's splendid photographic book, Northwest, by David Lintern (you can read my thoughts here).

Away from books to films Alex Roddie reviews Final Ascent, a fascinating-sounding tribute to the great mountaineer, gear innovator, mountain rescue pioneer and author Hamish MacInnes.

On conservation matters Roger Smith looks at six current threats to the outdoors. The final one is about Cairn Gorm and this is covered in depth in an excellent article by Richard Baynes.

Up in the hills Jim Perrin praises Cader Idris, David Lintern celebrates the first snows on an overnight trip to the Beinn Dearg hills in the NW Highlands, Ronald Turnbull has an early start for a round of eight of the smaller hills around Borrowdale, and Roger Butler visits frozen Tryfan and the Glyderau.

There's also a fascinating interview with Hazel Strachan by Alan Rowan who accompanied her on the last summit of her tenth round of the Munros.

Finally, far to the north Phoebe Smith walks the Arctic Trail in Greenland, a route that sounds wonderful.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

If you're looking for an outdoor Christmas present....

My latest book or maybe one of my other books or a DVD.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Winter Returns To The Cairngorms

Cairn Lochan

After several weeks of mild weather that quickly swept away the snow of early November the high Cairngorms are white again and the air is crisp and cold.

With a forecast for calm weather and an upcoming couple of days sitting inside at John Muir Trust meetings I decided to go up to the Cairngorm Plateau and see the new snow for myself - I find a day in the hills immediately before JMT meetings focuses my mind and reminds me why sitting indoors at formal meetings is important. It's to help ensure that the hills and wild places are there in the future.

The sun rising over Cairn Lochan

Walking below the Northern Corries before starting my ascent up the west shoulder of Cairn Lochan I noticed the sun emerging hazily through thin clouds above the top of the Coire Lochain cliffs. It was 11.50 a.m. This was almost as high as the sun would rise. This low light gives a special quality to the mountains in deep winter, a feeling of the far north. It's a constant reminder that daylight is limited and must be cherished.

As I crossed from the brown lands to the white lands the world lightened. Without snow midwinter is a dark time. Looking down from the mouth of Coire Lochain I could see mist filling Strathspey, a grey dullness through which I'd driven earlier. From up here it looked fine.

Crossing the western shoulder of Cairn Lochan I gazed across the Lairig Ghru to Cairn Lochan and Sgor an Lochain Uaine. Clouds just brushed their summits. Braeriach and Ben Macdui were completely shrouded. I had thought of heading for the latter but the cloud dissuaded me. Instead I turned and headed up Cairn Lochan

A party of climbers were just packing up their ropes and other gear as I approached. Cornices overhung the snow-plastered cliffs. Facing north these crags receive no sunshine in winter and snow and ice builds up to great depths. Every year the patterns of snow are different and it's always interesting to see the complex forms they take.

Away from the steep rocks the snow was thin and patchy, blasted by the wind over the cliffs. Only in hollows and areas protected from the wind was there much depth. That made the walking easy across the broad gentle slopes.

On Stob Coire an t-Sneachda climbers were finishing routes, their ropes trailing down the mountainside. There was less snow here, more bare rock. I wandered round to the top of the Fiacaill a'Choire Chais. Looking back the top of Cairn Lochan had vanished into thickening clouds. The chill breeze was strengthening. The weather was changing.

The snow at the top of the descent was hard, packed down by the wind. I kicked the edges of my boots into the crisp surface. One foot slipped slightly. I stopped. Time for the ice axe. With it in hand I felt much more confident and was soon down on gentler slopes with softer snow.

As I reached home rain was starting to fall. The temperature was 2C. It'll be snow higher up. The hills will soon be different again. Winter has so much to offer.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Food on the GR5 trail through the Alps

A mix of food from an organic food store in Mondane

On long-distance walks I like to resupply as I go along. There are many reasons for this. One is that it's the easiest option and doesn't require packing and sending food boxes. Another is that I find it interesting to see what I find and end up eating. It becomes part of the adventure. And if there is something I don't like I just don't buy it again. Buying food as I go along also contributes to the local economy.

On the GR5 I had no idea what food suitable for backpacking I would find along the way. For the first few days I bought food at a supermarket in Geneva before catching the train to the start. The coffee and dried milk I bought then lasted almost the whole walk as small quantities weren't available. The muesli, granola bars, chocolate, trail mix, and pasta meals - my usual trail diet - were gone by day three.

My friend Lionel Morel at the Chalets de Bise

Amongst long-distance hikers in the USA there's a saying that you should never pass a cafe or shop without buying something to eat. That's because these are rare. If I'd done that on the first half of the GR5 I'd have been eating much of the time as I passed several restaurants every day. Earlier in the season that would have applied to the whole walk. Setting off as summer ended I found most of the mountain refuges, which operate as restaurants during the day, and even restaurants and shops in villages closed after mid-September.

Most days during the first two weeks I did stop at a restaurant once or twice, which meant I didn't need to carry much food.. Being vegetarian there were not many options and I mostly ate bread and cheese (and the varieties of the latter were amazing) or omelettes with cheese or mushrooms.

Dried meals commonly found in supermarkets and village stores in the UK and the USA like macaroni cheese or pasta & sauce were absent from most shops along the GR5. All I could find were pot noodles, two of which were needed to make a full meal. Some places I couldn't find even these and ended up with packet soups and bread as my evening meal.

A side trip to Chamonix on day 5 meant I could shop at outdoor stores as well as supermarkets. The former had specialist cook-in-the-pouch meals and small packets of muesli. I was not impressed with the taste of either - nor the high price!

Lac de Cristol

Tortillas and cheese at the Lac de Cristol

One of the joys of the generally good weather on the GR5 was having lunch outdoors with a superb view. Sometimes it was hard to start walking again.

In a few places there were picnic tables. At the one above in the cool of the woods I made a hot drink, nibbled raisins, and wrote my journal.

On day 21 I left Briancon with two to three days food, expecting to find restaurants and shops open in villages over the next week. Four days later I was rationing food as everywhere was closed. Some of the villages felt like ghost towns. Then I came to the tiny hamlet of Foullouise. I was not expecting anything to be open in such a small place and was not surprised when the gite and the bar/restaurant were closed. The guidebook didn't mention a shop so I was delighted when I came upon a little epicerie, especially as it was open.

The epicerie had limited supplies but enough for the next few days. Big packets of soup made two evening meals each with cheese added. Trail mix and chocolate did for lunch. The shop had no plain bread, crackers or biscuits, just a large panettone so that became my breakfast for several days. You have to be adaptable when buying food along the way!