Saturday 30 May 2020

The Great Outdoors May issue

Here's a belated look at the May issue of The Great Outdoors, which I've only just seen. As the June issue is already out this issue has gone from shop shelves but you can still buy it direct from the publishers

My gear pieces in this issue are a review of the gear I used on my Colorado Rockies walk last year and a report on eight solo tents.

Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong reviews six pairs of women's walking trousers.

I also contributed to a piece on best wild camps along with eight others including Alex Roddie, James Forrest, Phoebe Smith, and Terry Abraham.

The other big features are Ronald Turnbull on crossing Rannoch Moor, and Ellen Tort camping on a portaledge in the Wye Valley.

Also in this issue there are suggestions for keeping up your spirits during lockdown, with the perspectives of some outdoor enthusiasts including myself; a readers group led by Hanna Lindon discussing Andy Cave's Learning to Breathe; Roger Smith on the importance of the outdoors for all of us; Roger again on the first spring for 40 years without a TGO Challenge; and Jim Perrin praising magnificent Bla Bheinn on Skye.

Friday 29 May 2020

Memorable Mountains 5: Ben Nevis

Fifth in this occasional series of memorable mountains I've been thinking about while the hills are out of bounds is one I've climbed more than a dozen times, summer and winter. Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland.

I first climbed the Ben, as it's known, over forty years ago by way of the standard walkers route, a long but rewarding slog up a stony path. I didn't then appreciate the true grandeur of the mountain, I was just aware of its bulk and height.

A few years later I began to grasp just how spectacular and glorious Ben Nevis is when I took a winter climbing course. Walking up to the great north face and then climbing through the crags and gullies to the summit plateau was a revelation. The complexity of the giant cliffs sucked me in. Here was world of its own, self-contained, aloof from any other reality.

I climbed two routes with an instructor. My notes are rather sparse - I was probably too tired to write much. Of the first, Garadh Gully, graded II, which means quite easy, I merely noted "2 small ice pitches proved interesting". The second was a little different. "Did what we thought was Jubilee Gully", I wrote. That was another Grade II climb. But the terrain we found ourselves on was much harder than that. "Second pitch a vertical ice wall, bulging at the top - desperate! While on it weather changed and suddenly we were enveloped in a warm wet cloud. Above the ice pitch we moved rapidly together as stones and bits of ice came whistling down". We reached the summit plateau over a large cornice. There was a wide, deep crack some thirty feet from the edge. An exciting day!

Many ascents and years later I had my best day and night on Ben Nevis one May during the TGO Challenge. I went up in the evening after the heat of the day had dimmed and camped on deep snow on the summit. The last of many day walkers passed me descending just above the Halfway Lochan. I was alone with the mountain and would be for the next fifteen hours.

A brilliant sunset lit up Loch Eil and the far western hills. The cliffs of the north face glowed in the last light of the day. I wandered round the summit, lost in the marvellousness of it all.

Dawn came with damp mist and I thought the splendour was gone. But as the sun strengthened the clouds rose and began to dissipate.

Saturday 23 May 2020

The Grand Canyon twenty-five years ago. In black and white.

In 1995 I spent two weeks walking in the Grand Canyon, one of the most intense and fulfilling trips I've ever done. I've been to the Himalayas, the Alps, the Rockies and more and all are impressive but none startled and shook me as much as the Grand Canyon.

In a piece I wrote about the walk that appears in my book Out There I wrote "I still feel in awe of it. The Grand Canyon is the most incredible place I have ever been".

Those feelings returned unexpectedly when I was sorting through old photographs, one of my lockdown activities, and discovered some black and white prints of the trip. I had forgotten I'd even taken them. Here's a selection.

Photography note. My camera for these prints was a Nikon FM2 SLR. Lenses were Nikkor 24mm, Nikkor 75-150mm and Sigma 28-70mm. Film was Ilford FP4 Plus. I photographed the prints with my Sony NEX 7 with Sony E 35mm lens and processed the raw files in Lightroom. If I developed the negatives again I could probably get better results. I may get round to that one day!

I also had a Nikon F801, which I used for colour slides.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Book Review: The Unremembered Places by Patrick Baker

Patrick Baker's new book, The Unremembered Places, follows the same pattern as his previous one, The Cairngorms A Secret History, which I reviewed here. This time he covers places throughout Scotland. The approach works well, mixing personal journeys by foot and canoe with stories of the places visited. Many islands are covered along with mainland places from the fascinating Bone Caves of Inchnadamph to the wild and exciting Jock's Road from Braemar to Glen Clova and the grim graveyard of navvies who built the Blackwater dam above Kinlochleven. The stories are well told, entertaining and informative, and the author's adventures, which don't always go smoothly, bring reality to the situations  in which the historical events took place.

For anyone interested in the Scottish outdoors and the history of its wild places this is a great read. I thoroughly recommend it.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

The TGO Challenge, pictures from the first two events and this year's "virtual" Challenge

Outside the Lochailort Inn about to start the first Challenge in 1980.

Since I wrote about the first TGO Challenge on May 8 I've located and scanned some of the photos from that trip and the 1981 Challenge. Back then I didn't take many photos - film was expensive and I didn't carry many rolls. I wish now that I'd taken many more!

A camp on the first Challenge. I'm not sure where! The tent is a Field & Trek Pathfinder.

Looking at my journal for the trip I see I wore stiff, heavy leather boots and slept on a 3mm piece of closed cell foam. I can't imagine doing either of those!

View from the Mamores over the Aonach Eagach to Bidein nam Bian

At the time of the first Challenge I was on my first round of the Munros and I used the walk to climb 56 new ones including the Mamores, Ben Alder, the A9 Munros, the Southern Cairngorms, and Mount Keen. That first Challenge was three weeks long so I had plenty of time to do this. No-one else took more than two weeks however and the event was shortened to that the next year. In 1981 I climbed 36 new Munros including the Ben Cruachan range, the Ben Starav hills, the Blackmount, the Beinn Dorain hills, the Ben Lawers range, and the Glen Lyon hills.

A camp on the second Challenge in 1981. I really have no idea where this is!

I stuck with a 3mm foam pad for the second Challenge so I must have slept okay on it. I changed the tent for a lighter weight Ultimate Solo Packer though and saved even more weight by not taking the inner. My boots were half the weight of 1980 too and much more flexible. I was learning! I also saved weight with my stove, taking a cartridge one (Alp S7000 - a long gone brand) rather than the efficient but heavy MSR GK petrol/paraffin stove I'd used the year before.

Somewhere on the second Challenge!

As the actual Challenge was cancelled due to the lockdown I've been sharing these and other photos from previous Challenges on social media, along with many others, after Challenge Co-ordinators Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden set off on a virtual Challenge and invited others to join them. People have retraced Challenges they've done and created new ones at home, often amusingly, with garden camps, ice axe climbs, wheelbarrow crossings of Loch Ness and more. Sue and Ali have written about the first week of the virtual Challenge on the TGO website. With 700 posts, 2,500 comments, 23,000 likes and 3,400 photos on Facebook alone in the first week this has been a successful event. Positive and joyful, it shows just how important the Challenge is to many of us.

Challenge camp, 1989

Photography notes.

The 1980 and 1981 photos were taken on Kodachrome 64 slide film. I digitised them by photographing them on a lightbox with my Sony a6000 camera and Sony E 30mm macros lens then processing them in Lightroom. I can see more detail on the digital images than in the original slides. The camera I used in 1980 was a fairly heavy and hefty Pentax S1a SLR with a 55mm lens. This was my first proper camera, bought second-hand. After it was stolen I replaced it, courtesy of the insurance, with a much lighter and smaller Pentax ME Super with 50mm lens. This came with me on the 1981 Challenge and for the first time I had a smaller camera as backup, a Rollei 35 35mm compact.

1989 Challengers

By 1989 I was taking photography much more seriously - my pictures were being published regularly in magazines and had appeared in my first book - and the weight of my camera gear went up. I now had a Nikon F801 SLR (which had the great advantage of a 30 second self-timer) and on the Challenge I also carried 28mm, 35-70mm, and 70-210mm lenses plus an Olympus XA compact as back-up. Film was Fujichrome 100.

Outside the Park Hotel, Montrose,at the end of the 1989 TGO Challenge

Sunday 17 May 2020

What I've Been Reading Online No 19

Bynack More & Beinn Mheadhoin. May 11.

Another collection of pieces I've enjoyed reading online recently. The pandemic dominates the world at present so as last time many of the articles are about Covid 19 or reference it. One theme I've noticed in some of these and other pieces is the solace provided by nature and an increasing joy in its details.

Alex Roddie also posts interesting links to his online reading. He's more organised than me and manages to post weekly.

What I've been reading this week 


A Very British Bog

Ronald Turnbull on his experiences with "quagmires, morasses, bogs, fens, flows, sloughs and other soggy bits of Britain".

Covid Dreams 15: Glory and madness

One of a daily vignette about the Cairngorms by Neil Reid - they're all worth reading but I particularly enjoyed this one about a wander on a frozen Loch Avon.

The gear that I would have taken on the 2020 TGO Challenge

Alex Roddie describes the gear he'd selected for this years TGO Challenge before lockdown caused its cancellation.

I've Never Climbed ...

Dan Bailey asks some outdoors folk which "blindingly obvious" hills they haven't climbed

Central Buttress of Scafell - Mabel Barker & C. D. Frankland. August 1925

Mabel Barker's account of the first female ascent of a major rock climb from a 1925 climbing club journal.

What I Learned From Walking Round The World

After a year and a half walking 10,000km as part of his walk round the world Tom Fremantle why he's doing it.

The Grahams: a journey I never intended to take

Multi-Munroist Anne Butler discovers the Grahams aren't as dull as she thought and to her surprise climbs them all.

The bittersweet story of Marina Abramović's epic walk on the Great Wall of China

A long-distance walk as performance art, by David Bramwell.


Sunlight in the Forest. May 6.

The Bureaucrats and the Beavers 

A powerful polemic by Derek Gow about what's wrong with Natural England's plans for beavers.

Guest blog: Kevin Cumming project leader Langholm Community Buyout

Kevin Cumming describes the wonderful and inspiring project to buy Langholm a grouse moor in Southern Scotland for regeneration and ecological restoration.

Beautiful creatures in breathtaking close-up

Ben Dolphin watches a hare family right outside his house

Fungi's Lessons for Adapting to Life on a Damaged Planet

Merlin Sheldrake, author of fascinating-sounding new book about fungi Entangled Life, talks to Robert Macfarlane.

The opulence of confinement light and the determination of dandelions

On her croft in NW Scotland Annie O'Garra Worsley finds hope and solace in nature and the coming of spring.

'The bliss of a quiet period': lockdown is a unique chance to study the nature of cities

With cities in hibernation we can look at what is happening with nature in them says Phoebe Weston. 

Muir's legacy lives on

Central Scotland Green Network Trust Chair Keith Geddes reflects on Muir’s relevance today.

Garden birds. May 15


 'Savour solitude - it is not the same as loneliness'

Sara Maitland praises solitude and says she's enjoying lockdown.

Listening, noticing, knowing  

David Lintern enjoys the details of his local natural spaces.

The voices of birds: a greening of lockdown

Lockdown has created the chance to build a closer relationship with the wildlife all around for Alex Roddie.

Friday 15 May 2020

Always Another Adventure Podcast: TGO Challenge, Arizona Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail

On the Pacific Northwest Trail

Recently I recorded a podcast with Simon Willis of Always Another Adventure. It's just appeared online and you can listen to it here. In it I discuss planning for the TGO Challenge and my walks on the Arizona Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail.

Corrections: the introduction says I am the first person to climb all the Munros in one trip. I'm not, that was Hamish Brown, who wrote an excellent book about it - Hamish's Mountain Walk. I was the first to climb all the Munros and Tops (subsidiary summits) in one walk.

I'm also not one of the organisers of the TGO Challenge. 

Sunday 10 May 2020

Memorable Mountains 4: Mount Assiniboine

The fourth in a series of memorable mountains I'm thinking about is one I've never climbed but have sat and stared at for hours. Mount Assiniboine is a dramatic 3618 metre mountain in the Canadian Rockies. The photo above was taken on a ski tour in 1987. I found the rather battered negative of this picture a few days ago while sorting through some old photos. I coudn't find the print so I photographed the negative on my old lightbox and processed it in Lightroom.

Mount Assiniboine appears in two of my long-out of print books. I described the ski tour mentioned above in Wilderness Skiing and Winter Camping and described Assiniboine as a "magnificent soaring spire ... a classic mountain, a mountain of dreams, the perfect mountain of childhood memories".

A year after the ski tour I walked the length of the Canadian Rockies, a trip that took me past Mount Assiniboine. I wrote about this trip in High Summer: Backpacking the Canadian Rockies. The picture above is from the book. I camped with a superb view of the mountain and spent the evening watching the light change on its slopes. Unforgettable.

Saturday 9 May 2020

Thunderstorms & Sunshine: Return to the Colorado Rockies

Hunt Lake & Mount Aetna. Day 11.

Last year I went on a 400 mile walk in the Colorado Rockies. Here is a piece I wrote about the walk for The Great Outdoors. 

Returning to a place you’ve dreamed about for years has risks. Maybe it won’t be as wonderful as you imagined. Returning for a long walk could be even more disappointing if your expectations aren’t fulfilled day after day. I knew this might be the case when I finally went back to Colorado to walk 400 miles along the Rocky Mountains, thirty-four years after traversing the state during my Canada to Mexico Continental Divide Trail hike. On that walk winter had come early and deep snow and blizzards had forced me down to a lower route for the southern half of the trail in Colorado. I’d been in forest most of the time and hadn’t had more than glimpses of the mountains. Now I was going back to walk the high route I’d missed and experience what many say is the finest landscape on the whole CDT. 

Igloo Ed & Andrew Terrill above Beaver Ponds in the Guller Creek valley. Day 1.

The Colorado Rockies are high, the highest in the whole Rocky Mountain chain, and I would be above 10,000 feet most of the way. Eager to be up in the mountains as soon as possible I chose the ski resort of Copper Mountain as my start point. This was a mistake. Copper Mountain lies at 9,800 feet and the trail climbs to over 12,000 feet in the first 10 miles. I soon felt the altitude and could only walk at half my usual pace. I didn’t mind. I was in the company of two friends, Andrew Terrill and Igloo Ed, and happy to climb slowly and camp early. The landscape was lush and lovely with beaver ponds along the creek, luxurious flower meadows, and magnificent conifer forests. I relished every step. It would be many days though before I was somewhat acclimatised to the altitude and I was slower on ascents than I am at home for the whole walk. 

The first pass. Too high, too fast! Day 2.

The second day we climbed above the trees and the world opened up with alpine tundra stretching to rugged mountains in every direction. This was to be the pattern for the walk – climb through forests to high mountain passes, traverse the high country then descend back into the trees. Sometimes the trail would barely brush the forest before returning to the high country but there was always much climbing every day. 

Andrew Terrill looking to Mount Aetna. Day 11.

After two days I was alone, as I would be for the rest of the walk other than one day when Andrew kindly came up to a high camp to resupply me – and cook a delicious meal of fresh food. This meant I could do a twelve-day section without having to leave the mountains to buy food. Keeping my pack weight down was welcome. Even more was staying in the wilds for such a long time. I loved this immersion in the mountains so much that when I eventually had to descend to resupply I decided to carry nine days food so I didn’t have to do so again even though this meant a heavy load.

Although I hiked alone I did meet a few people most days. The Colorado Rockies are fairly accessible and the Colorado Trail is quite popular.

Thunderstorm over Rio Grande Pyramid. Day 27.
One initial concern I had was the threat of thunderstorms. These occur regularly every afternoon in the Colorado Rockies during the summer, fading away as autumn approaches. I hoped my mid-August start would mean the worst of them had passed and so it seemed for the first half of the walk. After a few rumbles on the second day the sky was clear for two weeks and I became used to deep blue skies and sunshine. 2019 wasn’t a typical year however and in September I had eight days with thunderstorms. They were unpredictable too, occurring at any time from dawn until dusk, so the standard advice to be over high passes by noon was worthless. I quickly learnt to watch the sky, assessing whether the dark clouds I could see were coming my way and trying to estimate how quickly they’d reach me if so. A few times I stayed in the forest until a storm had passed and a few times I was caught out in the open far from any shelter. All I could do then was walk fast and hope the storm didn’t come too close. 

The most frightening thunderstorm clearing away. Day 27.

Only once did I have a really frightening close call. Rain had turned to stinging hail and I was in mist when a bolt of lightning flashed right in front of me and there was a deafening clap of thunder. Retreating rapidly, I dropped down the narrow rocky ridge I was climbing to a wider area then left the trail for a shallow bowl. Shaken, I waited until the storm I could see raging not far away had moved on. 

Bull moose. Day 22.
The unusual summer did have rewards, as did the thunderstorms. There had been very late heavy snowfall – parts of the trail were still snowbound a few weeks before I set out – and this meant the alpine flower meadows, usually in decline by mid-August, were still beautiful and remained so throughout my walk. I have never seen such wonderful displays. Due to a thunderstorm I also had an excellent view of two magnificent moose. I was about to cross a big meadow when a flash of lightning warned me this might not be wise. Instead I dropped deeper into the forest and found shelter from heavy rain in a dense clump of small firs. Peering out of these I saw a bull moose grazing not far away, soon joined by a second one. I watched them for half an hour from my natural hide. 

Porcupine. Day 24.

The wildlife was one of the joys of the walk. The diversity and abundance were a stark contrast to the Scottish Highlands and showed just how impoverished the latter sadly are. In the forests I saw squirrels, chipmunks, jays and many smaller birds I couldn’t identify every day. In the meadows there were marmots and pikas (a small mammal related to rabbits) while in the sky I often saw hawks and eagles. One familiar bird was the ptarmigan, a different species to ours but looking much the same.

Of the bigger mammals I only had glimpses of elk and just one good view of mule deer, though I saw plenty of droppings. Beaver ponds were common in many valleys but again I only once had a glimpse of an actual animal. Black bears I didn’t see at all, despite there often being droppings, some of them fresh, on the trail. I did see a porcupine, staying out of reach of its quills while it shuffled off, and a flock of rocky mountain sheep on a steep mountainside.

Lovely rainbow, sad forest. Day 23.

The only melancholy note came during the last section of the walk. Bark beetles have killed vast areas of spruce trees and it was saddening  to look down on valleys full of dead trees. This is a natural phenomenon though the current outbreak is the worst on record.
Creede. Day 20.

Whilst many names were familiar, I didn’t recognise any of the landscapes I walked through, even in places where my CDT hike had been close by. One place I did recognise. The old mining town of Creede, my last resupply point, which didn’t appear to have changed much. I’d enjoyed staying here on the CDT and I enjoyed staying here again. I even stayed in the same motel and bought fuel and supplies in the same outdoor shop.

In the Weminuche Wilderness. Day 26.

From Creede I entered the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains. This was an area I had really been looking forward to experiencing. It didn’t disappoint. Not far into the region I finally left the Colorado Trail, which had coincided with the CDT since Copper Mountain. The Colorado Trail is clear on the ground and well waymarked. The CDT sees far fewer hikers and signs are rare. Once I left the Colorado Trail the path became rougher and, in many places, unclear. I had to fight through dense brush and take compass bearings in meadows, the first real navigation of the trip. It seemed appropriate. The Weminuche Wilderness isn’t tame. 
High level walking in the Collegiate West section. Day 9.

The Weminuche Wilderness was a highlight of the walk, as I expected it to be. The other highlight was the Collegiate West alternative of the Colorado Trail. This stays above timberline for many miles and has tremendous views of the mountains. The trail winds along the Continental Divide itself in places and is often only just below it. The weather was perfect here too. 

Camp at the junction of the Collegiate West and Collegiate East branches of the Colorado Trail. Day 13.
As always, my camps were as important as the walking and I had many splendid ones above the trees and many peaceful ones down in the forest. Relaxing in wild places is one of the great pleasures of long-distance walking. 

The finish! Day 30.
After 29 days and 400 miles the walk ended at Wolf Creek Pass where Igloo Ed was waiting to greet me. It was my birthday. The last month had been the most wonderful present. I hadn’t been disappointed. Rather the opposite. The walk had been even more glorious than I’d hoped.

The Route & The Challenges

The Continental Divide Trail from Copper Mountain to Wolf Creek Pass is 400 miles long. For much of the way it coincides with the Colorado Trail, including the Collegiate West option. This is a high route mostly above 10,000 feet and reaching over 13,000 feet so the altitude has to be taken into account. Don’t expect to walk as fast as in the British hills! The summer climate is benign with long hours of sunshine, but thunderstorms do occur regularly, so you need to watch for these. In a few areas water is scarce so knowing where the next source is and carrying enough to get there is important. Navigation isn’t difficult on the Colorado Trail section as this is well-marked and the path is clear. Once the CDT diverges from the CT the trail is less clear in places and there are fewer waymarks. Care is needed not to get lost – especially as the maps are sometimes unreliable (I found the online ones correct, the print one showing the trail incorrectly).

Printed maps 
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Colorado Trail North, Colorado Trail South, Colorado Trail Collegiate Loop, Weminuche Wilderness
Online maps and guide

Big Walks in Colorado

My walk was only along half the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in Colorado. In total it stretches 800 miles from the border with Wyoming in the north to the border with New Mexico in the south. This is a great walk the whole length of the Colorado Rockies. The 486-mile Colorado Trail coincides with the CDT for much of the way. For one section south of Twin Lakes there are two alternatives for the Colorado Trail, Collegiate East and Collegiate West, which can be combined to make a 163-mile route, the Collegiate Loop. The CDT follows the higher Collegiate West. There are many other trails in the Colorado Rockies that can be linked to make a long route. The State has over 3.5 million acres that are protected in 41 protected wilderness areas and 4 national parks. Peak baggers could set out to climb the 58 Fourteeners (peaks over 14,000’), which can be linked in long walks. A few do require technical climbing skills. Then there are 580+ peaks over 13,000’.
The Colorado Trail, Official Guidebook of The Colorado Trail Foundation (Colorado Mountain Club)
The Colorado Trail Databook (Colorado Mountain Club)