Saturday 25 February 2023

Signalling in an emergency in the hills: low tech and high tech devices.

Browsing the internet this morning I came across two items in quick succession both to do with signalling in case of an emergency on the hills. There was a huge contrast between them, one being about a very simple and low-tech device, the other a highly complex and very hi-tech one. Reading them set me thinking about emergency signalling devices and what I carry and why.

The first piece was about whistles on by Dan Bailey with input from Mountain Rescue expert David ‘Heavy’ Whalley, who points out that earlier this month a person missing for three days on the Isle of Skye was located by the sound of his whistle. The second piece was in The Guardian and was about a new low-cost device that will allow a smartphone to send texts via satellite.

Low-cost is a relative term of course. You can buy a safety whistle for £3. The Defy Satellite link costs £99 on its own and £149 when bundled with 30 messages a month and an SOS assistance service for the first year, which is much less than other devices that do something similar. There is a button for sending an SOS message but for any other messages you need to link it to a smartphone. Regardless of cost both devices could be lifesavers in the hills.

The Defy Satellite link comes from Motorola, who make the Defy rugged smartphone I reviewed in 2021.

After the whistle the next cheapest signalling device is a torch or headlamp. The light from one of these can be seen from very long distances, far further than the loudest whistle is likely to carry.

With whistle or headlamp the Alpine Distress Signal should be used to call for help - six blasts or flashes repeated every other minute. If responding it’s three blasts or flashes every second minute. And when you receive a response don’t stop signalling as locating your exact position may be difficult.

Whistles should be loud to be effective. Many rucksacks come with whistles built into the chest strap. I’ve tried a few of these and they’re a bit feeble. A standalone whistle is better. Mine weighs all of 10 grams so it’s not exactly a burden to carry.

I’ve carried a whistle and a torch or headlamp ever since I started hillwalking. They’ve been recommended safety items for many decades. I’ve never needed to use the whistle but it’s always to hand. The headlamp is used regularly anyway. The smartphone became part of my kit back in 2010, a satellite communicator much more recently. I currently have, and like, the Garmin inReach Mini, which I reviewed last year. At £350 plus subscription it’s much more expensive than the Defy Satellite link but it also does much more (tracking, GPS location and navigation, email) and can be used as a standalone device as well as with a smartphone.

I’ve ended up then with four signalling devices, all with different advantages. The basics are the whistle and headlamp. These should be in everyone’s kit (and easily accessible). Smartphones are now common but not everyone has one or wants to carry one. Satellite communicators are the latest devices. I’ve had one the last five years.

Some people argue that having such a device detracts from the feeling of remoteness in the hills. I haven’t found it so but would still carry one if I did, not for myself but for the peace of mind of my family. Before mobile phones they accepted that I was sometimes out of touch for days, even weeks, at a time and they had no real idea of where I was. But now smartphones and satellite communicators exist they like to hear from me regularly, even if it's just a simple ‘all Ok’.

Friday 24 February 2023

Conversation with Andrew Terrill and Alex Roddie now online

 On Sacred Ground live with Andrew Terrill, Chris Townsend and Alex Roddie

The above conversation is now online here.

It was an enjoyable discussion covering a host of topics. Ran a little over time but could have gone on for much longer!

Thanks to Tim at Adventurous Ink for organising and hosting it.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

A Look At The April Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The April issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. In it I have a trip and gear feature on a four day wet and windy Cairngorms trip last October plus a review of three men's daypacks. In the same piece Fiona Russell reviews three women's ones. Fiona also reviews four pairs of 3-season women's boots while Peter Macfarlane reviews four men's pairs. Elsewhere in the gear pages James Forrest gives advice on using personal locator beacons and satellite communicators and looks at five models.

The magazine opens with a wonderful photo of the last sunlight on the Scafells and the Wasdale screes by Ben Cannon. This picture was taken on a walk with TGO editor Carey Davies and in his feature on the venture Carey finds out if you can go for a walk in the Lakes and not pass a single other walker. 

Also in the big features Ryan Simpson describes the Mournes in Northern Ireland in an article packed with his superb photographs. Over in Wales Andrew Galloway explores the Carneddau in winter. Away from the hills ecologist Katy Ellis takes a long walk on the surprisingly wild coast of East Anglia. Far over the North Sea Jilly Sherlock describes a wonderful-sounding challenging ski tour in the Swedish Arctic. 

In shorter pieces campaigner Jon Moses looks at the Right to Roam movement in England in the aftermath of the Dartmoor willd camping affair and six outdoor enthusiasts share what Dartmoor means to them. Carey Davies looks at concerns raised over crowdsourced data used by popular hiking apps. Alex Roddie reviews Jenny Tough's Solo: What Running Across Mountains Taught Me About Life. In his Mountain Portrait Jim Perrin describes the Twelve Bens of Connemara. On her walk round the UK coast Emma Schroeder ponders the phenomena of 'desire paths'.

The Wild Walks pages sees Ian Battersby walking the chaotic coastline from Yesnaby Cliffs to Stromness on Orkney, Craig Weldon walking The Brack and Cnoc Coinnich in the Arrochar Alps, and Ronald Turnbull going from High Doat to Dale head in the Lake District. Also in the Lakes Norman Hadley ascends the SSW ridge of  Red Screes SSW, while over in the Pennines James Forrest explores Nine Standards Rigg. A little further south Vivienne Crow links Arant Haw and Winder in the Howgill Fells. In Wales Andrew Galloway walks to Carnedd y Filiast from Llyn Celyn and Roger Butler takes a rollercoaster route over Y Garth and Allt yDdinas in Powys. Down in southern England Fiona Barltrop hikes the Hampshire 'highlands' and over in Northern Ireland Peter Wilson does the Annalong Round in the Mourne mountains. 

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Online chat with Andrew Terrill and Alex Roddie this Thursday

On Sacred Ground live with Andrew Terrill, Chris Townsend and Alex Roddie 

This Thursday at 8pm I'll be talking about long-distance walking with fellow outdoor writers and long-distance walkers Andrew Terrill and along with Tim Frenneaux +and the Adventurous Ink book club. It's a free Zoom conversation and open to all. 

If you'd like join us here's the link.

Monday 20 February 2023

Mist & snow on Geal-charn Mor

Woods & hills fading into the mist

Storm Otto brought damaging winds resulting in thousands of power cuts (our electricity was out for five hours). The weather station on Cairn Gorm recorded a gust of 120mph. Otto was short though, over in less than 24 hours, and behind it came cold weather and a night of snow, the first at low level for several weeks. The next day I woke to a calm white world.

The forecast for the hills was simple – fog all day. Light winds though, a gift in this windy winter, before storms returned the next day. I went to Geal Charn Mor, a Corbett (Scottish mountain over 2,500 feet/762 metres and 3,000 feet/914.4 metres), in the Monadh Liath hills on the Kinrara estate where Brew Dog is creating its “Lost Forest”. I wrote about that ill-thought out project after my visit last August.

The sun not quite breaking through

My aim this time was partly to see if there had been any further developments since then though mostly to enjoy a hill walk in the fresh snow. As it was, not much had changed though the fencing I’d seen was now complete. There was a scattering of heavy machinery along the estate track known as the Burma Road I took into the hills, but that was it.

The unfriendly sign

I wasn’t impressed by the sign on the gate at the end of the public road though. Who are these "visitors"? Not hillwalkers I presume. I guess it means those going to the Brew Dog plantation in some official capacity. It could easily put off walkers and cyclists though and maybe that’s the intention.

Birch in the mist

Shaking off my dislike of the sign I headed up the Burma Road in soft slushy snow. Two sets of boot prints went ahead of me. The clouds were low, brushing the tops of trees high on the hillside. Distant views quickly faded into nothing. Two walkers passed me, heading done. Soon the edge of the mist envloped me and the views became even hazier.

Blue sky over the Dulnain glen, briefly

Above the trees the snow hardened and walking was less slippery. At the top of the Burma Road I peered down into the glen of the River Dulnain where I could see the old pinewoods that could regenerate and spread if Brew Dog wasn’t so keen on planting an instant forest. There was blue sky in that direction and the clearest views of the day. Two walkers were descending. I saw no-one else.

Not really sunny but the glare ....

Leaving the Burma Road I headed up the gentle slops to Geal-charn Mor. A faint sun was just visible in the mist. The glare still was enough for me to don dark glasses. The wind, gentle lower down, was stronger and colder so a jacket went on as well.

Once I left the Burma Road there was nothing definite in the world. Tips of grasses and heather and the tops of rocks gave me something to focus on, along with the occasional line of mountain hare tracks. It wasn’t quite a white-out but it wasn’t far off. Somehow walking in this enclosed insubstantial world was relaxing and calming. Just myself, the mist, the snow, and the wind.

The snow was deep enough to level out the boggy ground but not firm enough to support me, making walking quite hard work. Higher up I trod on hidden stones at awkward angles, lurching from side to side. Above were tantalising hints of a clearance that never developed.

Summit without a view

On the summit I stopped for a snack, a hot drink, and in the hope the mist might clear a little.  It didn’t. 

There's something in that cloud

However on the way back down hazy mountains, or at least crags dark enough to show through the mist, appeared across Strathspey, fading in and out but never sharp enough to be really clear. Phantom mountains hanging in the white air.

That's better!

Lower down as the first trees appeared the views cleared just slightly as bands of mist rose and fell. The snow was thawing fast now and the walking less slippery. I hadn’t seen much in the sense of grand views and vast panoramas but that didn’t mean I hadn’t seen or felt anything. The mist, the snow, the sense of remoteness, the ethereal distant cliffs, all part of the mountain experience.

The Burma Road winds down into the forest

Friday 17 February 2023

Save Dartmoor Backpack Camping - Appeal Fundraiser

In Scotland, where wild camping is a legal right
The Dartmoor Preservation Association is backing Dartmoor National Park Authority as the official focus for donations in its appeal against a ban on backpack camping. The Association wishes to see a rights-based not a permission-based system on Dartmoor. 
For those not familiar with the story of how campers lost their rights on Dartmoor earlier this year I wrote about it here and here
You can donate to the appeal here:
Dartmoor National Park is now using the term 'backpack camping' rather than 'wild camping' to emphasis that the activity involves carrying all your gear in a pack and does not mean camping by the roadside with gear you'd never carry far, which is what many people understand wild camping to mean. 

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Back in time to 1978 on my first long-distance walk - Land's End to John O'Groats

Sorting out a box of random stuff - I have lots of boxes of stuff needing sorting, it happens when you've lived somewhere long enough and don't like throwing anything away just in case - I came across a small print that reminded me that's it's 45 years since I did my first really long walk, 1250 miles from Land'End to John O'Groats.

In the picture I'm on the Offa's Dyke Path consulting Mark Richards guidebook, which I still have (I said I don't thrown stuff away). The photo must have been taken by my friend Graham Huntington who accompanied me for a few days on this section with my small basic compact film camera. It's a small print - 12.5 x 9cm - and quite soft and grainy. The colours haven't faded though. 

For those interested I'm wearing a wool shirt, Rohan Super Strider breeches, and Scarpa Bronzo boots. The pack is a Berghaus Cyclops Serac.

Tuesday 14 February 2023

Ten years ago Countryfile filmed a short piece with me in the Cairngorms - it's being shown again on February 26th

Back in December 2013 I was filmed walking and camping in the Cairngorms for Countryfile's Winter Special. Unfortinately the weathe was more wet and windy rather cold and snowy than but we did find a patch of old rotten snow for me to wander about on insecurely with ice axe and crampons. You can see it in the picture below.

I wrote about the trip here

The short piece was shown on the 19th January 2014. I'd forgotten all about it when I had an email saying that Countryfile were going to show it again as part of a compilation episode in commemoration of the ascent of Everest in 1953, with links to mountain walking and how you can stay safein the mountains. The episode, to be shown on 26th February, will feature other material from the Countryfile archives. So if you missed my little snippet ten years ago or would like to see it again, along with other outdoor stuff, here's an opportunity. 

After the piece was shown there were some comments from people obviously unfamiliar with winter camping and tarps. I used the Trailstar and one viewer berated Countryfile, asking "why did you make that poor man sleep under a sheet!".

Sunday 12 February 2023

Book Review: Scottish Wild Country Backpacking by Peter Edwards, David Lintern and Stefan Durkacz

This guide to backpacking routes in the Highlands and Islands is an excellent introduction to the possibilities for overnight and multi-day walks in this glorious landscape. I’ve done most of the routes, either as described or as part of other walks, and this is a good selection. At the same time it is only a selection. There are dozens more routes that could be added. Those familiar with the area can enjoy thinking of favourites that have been omitted. If you’ve not backpacked in the Highlands before poring over the book deciding which walk to start with would be very enjoyable while those with a little experience will find many mouth-watering ideas for further adventures.

The book is big and heavy so not one for the pack. Unless you’re spending months walking many of the routes consecutively you’ll only ever need one section with you anyway. Photographing the relevant pages is the way to go if you want the route description with you. Or you could rip the pages out, but that would be to desecrate a lovely book. Don’t do it!

The book has 1:100,000 maps that show the routes clearly. But as the authors point out you’ll need more detailed OS and Harvey maps to go with them. The relevant ones are listed at the start of each walk description.

I think, anyway, this is far more than a guidebook. It’s a book for inspiration and encouragement, showing the beauty and variety of the places described. This is enhanced by the wonderful photographs which show the landscape, the wildlife, backpackers, camps, places and more. Hours can be spent dreaming over them.

There’s a long thoughtful and informative introduction – almost a quarter of the book – about the Scottish Highlands and backpacking here. The first part briefly discusses Highland history, the concept of wilderness, and land ownership – quite weighty matters for a guidebook – before looking at the important matter of access and the authors approach to what ‘wild country’ is and means. Wildlife, plants, and geology are all covered too.

The second part of the introduction is more practical, dealing with travel to and around the area, equipment needed (some excellent advice here), bothies, weather, winter, environmental impact, safety, route finding and more.

Anyone who loves the Scottish Highlands and backpacking should enjoy this book. I recommend it.