Saturday, 18 September 2021

A Look At The October Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The October issue of The Great Outdoors has just come out. My contributions this month are reviews of the Nemo Riff 30 sleeping bag and the Keen Ridge Flex boots.

Also in the gear pages David Lintern and Lucy Wallace review five fleece/midlayers apiece and David also tests three cleaning and waterproofing products. 

As every October this is the TGO Challenge issue and there are stories and pictures from this year's event as well as info for 2022.

In the big features this month Dougie Cunningham traverses the Mamores (beautifully illustrated), Carey Davies goes wild camping on Helvellyn, David Lintern backpacks across Ben Alder, and Emily Woodhouse breaks records in Spain's Sierra Nevada.

The opening spread of this issue is a wonderful photo of Castell y Gwynt in Snowdonia by Alan Novelli. 

The Sky Walks flagged big on the cover are TGO's pick of ten ridge walks in Britain and Ireland. It's a good selection but no Aonach Eagach? Really?

Separate to the picked Sky Walks Alex Roddie describes the Ring of Steall, a superb horseshoe ridge walk in the Mamores. 

On serious issues Hanna Lindon asks some climbers, hillwalkers, and mountaineers about climate change in the run-up to COP26, and Lucy Thraves describes a long walk in response to violence against women. 

In the Hill Skills section Alex Roddie and Plas y Brenin instructor Dave Evans explain how to use pacing and timing in part three of TGO's navigation basics series.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

25 years ago my Munros & Tops walk was complete

 

Twenty-five years ago I was mentally still coming down from my 118 days walk over all the Munros and Tops, which I finished on September 12. Adjusting took some time. Even after I was home I still woke each morning expecting the walk to continue. It had become a way of life. As I wrote about my feelings on that last summit: "Surely I would go down, find somewhere to camp, then climb more hills the next day? Wouldn't I?".

But no, I wouldn't. The wonderful mountain-packed summer was over. " Now, at the end, it was all important to me, all significant, all worthwhile. Every summit, every camp, every drop of rain, every blast of wind, even, in the euphoria of completion, every midge".

On that last day I was accompanied by Cameron McNeish and the late, sadly missed, Chris Brasher, who on the top produced not just champagne but crystal champagne glasses to drink it from. Cameron took the picture, which is from my book about the walk, The Munros and Tops.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Contrasting Days In The Hills: Quinag & Sgurr Mor

Alex Roddie approaching Sgurr Mor in the Fannaichs

Some days hill weather is kind, some days it's cruel, many days it's a bit of both. On two days last week I had the first and the last. The first was on a walk on Quinag with Alex Roddie and Rob Finch, a trip that had been long in the planning. Last autumn Alex ran a charity fundraiser for the John Muir Trust, auctioning a copy of his new book Wanderlust Europe and a day out on the hill with him and me. Rob won the auction and said, appropriately, that he'd like a trip to a JMT property. Due to the pandemic and being rather spread out - Rob in Southampton, Alex in Lincolnshire, me in the Cairngorms - it took a while before we finally sorted out dates. It would be early September. And Quinag would be the hill.

Alex on Spidean Coinich, Quinag

Alex on Sgurr Mor, Fannaichs      


We met at the excellent Forest Way Bunkhouse, where we stayed for two nights. The forecast was mixed but suggested an 80% chance of clear summits the afternoon of our first day after a cloudy morning with drizzle. We decided to go for Quinag. It might be worse the next day. The morning certainly brought cloud and rain. The afternoon didn't bring clear summits. The afternoon was just the morning continued.

Rob and Alex on Sail Gharbh, Quinag

Most of the day on Quinag we were in the cloud. Much of the time it rained. Much of the time it was windy. All of the time it was damp. The wettest day on the hills since sometime in April for me. And the coldest. I wore three layers and wished my base layer was thicker and had long sleeves. I hadn't worn that much clothing since April either. Preparation for the changing seasons, I thought.

Rob and Alex somewhere on Quinag

This was one of those days when I was glad of company. I suspect I'd have given up and gone down fairly soon if on my own. But with others the day was still enjoyable. Neither of them had been to Quinag before. Now they'd been up two of its three summits but not seen it. Something for them to look forward to! (You can see what Quinag looks like in this post).

Back at Forest Way we discovered that we'd picked the wrong hill. Another party staying there had been on An Teallach. It was cloudy but dry. On Seana Bhraigh Rob's friend Matt had views and no cloud or rain. He could see the big cloud sitting on Quinag.

Rob and Alex somewhere else on Quinag

Thankfully Forest Way has a good drying room or we'd have had a soggy start the next day. Not that we stayed dry for long, though the reasons were very different. Rob and Matt were going off to do hills further north. Alex and I headed east to the Fannaichs, an area I think very under-rated. The forecast suggested a hot day. The forecast was right. It was very humid too and calm. Sweating occurred. On Quinag we had seized every brief respite from the wind to pause and rest. Here we longed for a breeze. The few times one blew we stopped and relished it. My t-shirt, too thin the day before, now felt too thick. My feet, chilly on Quinag in mesh trail shoes and thin socks, now felt they were exploding out of those same shoes, swollen with the heat. Indeed, before we reached the main ridge my feet were aching so much I stopped and removed the insoles and my socks, much, I think, to Alex's surprise. It worked. My feet felt much better the rest of the day.

Alex in the Fannaichs

Whilst the summits were clear and there was sunshine at times the air was mostly hazy. It felt thick. Views faded into pale shadows. The sky was streaked and dappled with grey. And very bright, making for challenging photography. But at least photography took place. On Quinag quick grab shots with my smartphone were enough, my camera ending up in the pack. 

As we approached Sgurr Mor, the highest Fannaich, we had dramatic views of Sgurr nan Clach Geala, second highest but most impressive, with Alex admiring its huge gully-riven cliffs.

Sgurr nan Clach Geala

From Sgurr Mor we descended to a bealach past a small stone hut - duck when you enter - and then along an old stalkers path where the rocks had been cleared to either side to make a path that was, as Alex said, almost a holloway in places. We thought of the huge effort required to shift all those boulders, some of them really big. 

As the afternoon began to turn to evening the clouds thickened and the haze grew. Shaded layers of hills receded into the solid air. Bands of gossamer-like mist began to form, spreading out below the distinctive outline of An Teallach.

An Teallach

We needed headlamps for the last hour or so, again the first walking I've done with one since early spring. Despite the heat the day had felt autumnal. The grasses were turning red and yellow. The haze didn't feel like one of high summer. And there were only a few midges.



Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Pacerpoles

Northwest Highlands, 2021.

The second recent query from a reader (see last post for the first) was about Pacerpoles and whether I still used them and if so how I managed with tarps. The answer is yes I still use them and I have used them with a variety of tarps and tents that use trekking poles over the years and have never had a problem. 

Northwest Highlands, 2007

In fact I've used Pacerpoles on every long-distance walk I've done in the last fifteen years and they've never let me down. Occasionally I try other poles and am reminded why I like the unique Pacerpole handles so much. I can hold them naturally with no wrist strain and no need to use straps. 

High Sierra, 2016

When I first used Pacerpoles there was only one model, a 3-section alloy one. Now there are two more. I changed to the 3-section carbon-fibre model when that appeared because it weighed less and the Dual Lock when that appeared because the adjustment system is easier to use.

Pacerpoles are one of my favourite items of gear and always first on my list. I can't imagine a long walk without them. Anyway, here's some more Pacerpole pictures from my archives.

Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010

The Cairngorms, 2010

The Northwest Highlands, 2007

Colorado Rockies, 2019

TGO Challenge, 2012



Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Pots for Backpacking

 

I've recently been sent queries by readers on cooking pots and trekking poles so here to end August are two posts I hope give adequate answers. First, an edited piece on pots that first appeared in The Great Outdoors two years ago.

Backpacking kitchen utensils can range from a single pot and spoon through to a multiple pot set including frying pan and more. Most people generally end up somewhere between these two extremes. My backpacking cooking is fairly simple and my solo cook kit usually consists of a 900ml titanium pot, a 600ml titanium pot that doubles as a mug, a lid that fits both pots, 2 spoons (just in case of loss or breakage), and water containers. In winter I swap the 600ml pot for an insulated plastic mug (sometimes I carry both). If sharing with others I carry a plastic bowl and mug.

 

With cooking pots the main choices to be made are the capacity, the material, and the weight. For solo use an 800 ml to 1 litre pot should be ample. Some backpackers who only boil water for instant meals get by with a smaller pot. For two 1.5-2 litre pots should be fine. The biggest pot I have is a 5 litre one that I used for cooking for ten on ski tours. Most people won't need a pot that big! Note that capacities are for pots filled to the brim, which isn't a good idea. Practical capacities are usually at least 100ml less than that stated.

Which material is best depends on the type of cooking you do. For boiling water and fast cook meals with plenty of liquid any material will do. For more complex cooking with thick sauces or sticky foods like porridge and for frying hard anodised aluminium or non-stick pots are best.

A third consideration is whether to have a pot with a heat exchanger welded to the base. These do reduce the amount of fuel needed and speed boiling times but also add weight. I like a heat exchanger pot in winter for snow melting but otherwise I find a standard pot fine. Heat exchanger pots often have cosies round them to further retain heat in the cold.

If weight is critical then untreated aluminium and titanium are the lightest materials (and also the cheapest and most expensive respectively). A bit heavier but in the middle regarding price is hard anodised aluminium, which may well be the best all-round choice.

 

Some pots come with folding handles, some require a pot gripper. I don't think either is better than the other. Handles need to be insulated - silicone tubing can be used to replace insulation if it wears or burns off - and to be secure when the pot is full. Some are a little wobbly, which is not good. Grippers need to hold firmly too and be strong enough to support a full pot. 

For carrying it’s useful if pots nest inside each other – they don’t need to be a set, my favourite two- pot nesting combination for many years comes from two different companies. You can also store other items – small stoves, brew kits, dishcloths – inside the pots. One advantage of tall pots is that gas canisters often fit inside too. Wide pots usually aren’t tall enough for this.

SHAPE

The shape of cooking pots does make a difference regarding stability, efficiency, and ease of use. Care is needed not to tip over tall narrow pots, especially with small stoves. Stirring meals is harder in narrow pots too and food is more likely to stick. Theoretically more fuel is needed to boil water in a narrow pot as a smaller area is heated directly than with a wide pot but with the small pots used for backpacking I haven’t noticed a significant difference. Wide pots are more stable and much easier for stirring food and eating from and I prefer these. With a tall pot a long-handled spoon for stirring and eating is useful.


MATERIALS

Three metals are used for backpacking pots – aluminium, titanium, and stainless steel. The first comes in uncoated, hard anodised, and non-stick versions. Titanium comes in plain and non-stick. Steel is usually plain.

Uncoated aluminium

The cheapest material is uncoated aluminium. However, if used regularly pots soon become dented and scratched unless great care is taken. I used to go through a set every year. Acidic and salty foods can also damage the material. Uncoated aluminium pots do conduct heat well and are lightweight but unless cost is an issue I would choose something else. Because aluminium conducts heat well it’s not suitable for mugs as the rim will stay hot and can burn your lips.

Advantages              

 ·        Lightweight

·         Good conductor of heat

·         Inexpensive

Disadvantages

 ·        Easily dented and scratched

·         Unsuitable for cooking acidic or salty food

·         Cools slowly – unsuitable for hot drinks.

 

Hard anodised aluminium

To overcome the relative softness of uncoated aluminium it can go through an electro-chemical process that results in a hard finish that doesn’t dent or scratch easily. Hard anodised aluminium still conducts heat well and is lightweight but does cost more than uncoated aluminium.

Advantages

·         Hard finish

·         Doesn’t react with acidic food

·         Corrosion resistant

·         Good heat conductor

·         Less expensive than titanium

Disadvantages

·         Not as light as titanium.

·         Cools slowly – unsuitable for hot drinks.

 

Non-stick

Non-stick coatings can be applied to aluminium and titanium pots. The big advantage is of course that food doesn’t stick – or at least not much. However, the coatings can be scratched (and then food can stick horribly) so care is needed in use.

Advantages

 ·       Non-stick

·         Good heat conductor

 Disadvantages

 ·        Unsuitable for use with metal utensils as these can scratch it.

·         Not durable

 

Titanium

If weight and durability both matter then titanium pots are the ones to choose. Titanium isn’t a good heat conductor though, which does have one advantage. The rim cools quickly so it’s a suitable material for mugs, unlike aluminium.

Advantages

 ·       Ultralight

·         Durable – weight for weight stronger than steel

·         Corrosion-resistant

·         Cools quickly so suitable as a mug – no burnt lips

Disadvantages

·         Poor heat conductor so heats unevenly and liable to hot spots

·         Expensive

 

Stainless steel

Advantages

·         Durable

·         Cools quickly so suitable as a mug – no burnt lips

·         Corrosion-resistant.

Disadvantages

·         Heavy

·         Poor heat conductor

 


Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Munro Reminiscences: Approaching Liathach on my Munros & Tops walk 25 years ago


Twenty-five years ago on August 24 I had an easy day on my Munros and Tops walk with no summits climbed. The previous day I'd walked over Beinn Liath Mhor, Sgorr Ruadh, and Maol Chean-dearg and camped by Loch an Eion where I had the worst midges of the trip so far in the evening. The night was cold and clear and I woke to a tent soaked in condensation and the thrilling cry of red-throated divers out on the loch. The sun soon dried the tent and I had a wonderful walk down to Torridon with Liathach shining in front of me. I would traverse it in two days time. 

The picture is from my book about the walk, The Munros and Tops (Mainstream)



Sunday, 22 August 2021

A Visit to BrewDog's 'Lost Forest'

There is much woodland on the lower part of the estate

Earlier this year it was widely reported that brewing giant BrewDog had bought the Kinrara estate in the Monadh Liath hills just outside Aviemore with the intention of restoring a ‘lost forest’. This being a fairly local place and one where I’ve walked many times I decided to go and have a look at it with thoughts of a ‘lost forest’ in mind.

An estate track known as the Burma Road runs up the centre of the estate over the watershed between the rivers Spey and Dulnain. The smaller southern section is in the Cairngorms National Park and this is where I went, adding the short ascent of Geal Charn Mor to my walk and descending the same way.

I was just about to leave the parking area when a walker greeted me. It was Gary Hodgson of Tarmachan Mountaineering. He’d been up the hills photographing mountain hares, something he does regularly here. He posts great photos of these lovely animals on social media and on his blog, They’re well worth a look. 


After we’d chatted about the future of the estate and more, I set off, noting that under the old Scottish Rights of Society sign a smaller one had been added with a link to find out more about the proposed new native forest. At least the proposals aren’t being kept secret. 

A fenced forest along the Burma Road

Initially the Burma Road runs through healthy-looking birch and pine forest – no lost forest here. A network of fencing protects the trees, looking as though it’s been erected at different times over the years. In places one of the problems with this approach can be seen. Young trees crowd against the fence while on the other side is open treeless moorland. 

A lone pine on the hillside above the Burma Road. The pale area is old muirburn.

As the track climbs higher a pattern found in too many damaged Highland glens can be seen. Strips of woodland run down the sides of burns where the steepness of the slopes protects them from grazing. On the hillsides above a few old pines are all that’s left of what must once have been a magnificent forest. 

Young pines, old pines 

There are signs though that the forest could return. All the way up I saw tiny pines, birches, willows, and rowans poking up through the heather and grass. Not many, but they were there. The forest is trying to return, and maybe is returning, albeit slowly. Even at the top of the road at nearly 700 metres there were a few little pines. Remove enough deer to stop overgrazing and cease heather burning – areas of dead white heather show this has taken place not so long ago – and the trees will return. The forest isn’t lost. It’s just waiting to come back.

How big will these little pines be able to grow?

It’s a steady pull up the Burma Road and it’s a favourite test piece for mountain bikers. Not for the cyclist who passed me though. He wasn’t pedalling, just sitting there letting his electric bike do the work. I plodded on, very briefly envious but not really. I prefer the world at walking pace. And I do wonder when an electric bike becomes motorised transport rather than an aid to cycling.

A tiny pine at almost 700 metres

From the top of the road I took the eroded path over the moorland to the summit of Geal Charn Mor. This is a splendid viewpoint for the Cairngorms but today clouds hung low over the tops, those over the Glen Feshie hills looking quite ominous. Rather here than there, I thought.

View to the Glen Feshie hills from Geal Charn Mor

Walking back down I pondered the future of the estate. Just what will BrewDog do with it? Whatever it is it’ll almost certainly be better than keeping it as a shooting estate. The potential for rewilding is exciting.

This forest could expand. Looking back down to Strathspey from the Burma Road

Back home I had a look at the proposals on the link from the notice and also read Parkwatch Scotland’s detailed posts on the subject. The first thing I noted is that the plans have been drawn up by Scottish Woodlands, which is basically a commercial forestry management company. As Parkwatch Scotland says BrewDog would have done better to talk to those with expertise in native forest regeneration and restoration such as Wild Land Ltd, who own the neighbouring Glen Feshie estate. As it is, the proposals do talk about encouraging natural regeneration and also about ‘expansion of ancient woodland sites through creation of appropriate woodland types and species mixtures’. However, Parkwatch Scotland has looked at the detailed proposals, not just those in the graphic from the link on the notice, and says the plan is for mass planting and fencing. This might do something quickly – look at all our new trees! But it’s not the best way to restore a natural forest. Regeneration may be slower but as the seed source and even some infant trees are there it might surprise BrewDog at how effective it is. A forest requires space to spread naturally too and not be confined inside a fence.

To really allow the forest to return deer numbers need to be reduced and heather burning and grouse shooting stopped. Then patience is needed. Just wait. The forest will emerge.