Sunday 16 June 2024

My Cape Wrath Trail walk

Along the Allt Grannda

My Cape Wrath Trail walk started in sunshine and ended in rain, wind and cold that had me stopping three or four days from the end. There’s no set route. Start in Fort William and walk to Cape Wrath by whichever way you choose. There are suggested routes though, on websites, maps and in a guidebook, all giving various alternatives.

Start in Fort William

From Fort William there are western and eastern options. Having walked much of the western one in Knoydart last year (see this post) I decided to start with the eastern one which initially follows the Great Glen Way. This makes for easy walking and a waymarked path for the first day or so.

Mist rising from Loch Lochy. Early morning at my first camp.

I began at the end of the long hot dry spell in May and was in shorts and t-shirt for the first five days, which took me from Fort William to Morvich and Glen Shiel. After that those garments disappeared into the depths of my pack never to emerge again.

Loch Lochy in the Great Glen

The first section along the Caledonian Canal also provides many places for food and drink and I barely touched my supplies until the evening of the second day. The easy walking continues after the Great Glen Way is left and the route turns west along forest roads above Loch Garry. Once these roads run out at the end of the loch everything changes. An intermittent narrow and hard-to-follow boggy path runs through tussocks and heather. The going is arduous and it took me a while to find anywhere to camp. The landscape improves dramatically however, with a feeling of entering the mountains.

Waterfall on the Allt Grannda

The three days from Glen Garry north over the eastern edge of the Glen Shiel hills to the western end of Glen Affric and then west along the Allt Grannda were a delight with fine views, sunshine, and mostly good paths and tracks. The highlight was the narrow gorge of the Allt Grannda where the path winds across the steep hillside high above the river which crashes down in waterfalls and cascades. This section has been a favourite for many years and I was happy to return after too long away.

The excellent path above the Allt Grannda

At Morvich I ate some fresh food and came down with a stomach bug, which was ironic. I know exactly what it was! I spent a day feeling weak and unwell as the clouds rolled in and rain fell. The dry spell was over.

The Falls of Glomach

I left Morvich for a mostly wet walk to Strathcarron via the Falls of Glomach – as spectacular as ever -, Iron Lodge, Maol Buidhe bothy, and Bendronaig Lodge, a meandering route that would be excellent in good weather. As it was the clouds stayed low on the hills and rain fell frequently.

Much of the time after Morvich was like this

The wet cloudy weather continued as I walked through the Torridon hills and past An Teallach to Inverlael at the head of Loch Broom. However the clouds were often were broken and more interesting visually and there were occasional clearances and bursts of sunshine, especially in the evening. This is an area I know well so I could imagine the big hills that lay hidden all around.

Cloud fill Coire Mhic Fhearchair on Beinn Eighe in Torridon

An Teallach did appear though. An overcast sky made for dull, flat light but the mountain looked as splendid as ever. It was the first hill I’d seen clearly since leaving Morvich.

An Teallach

At Inverlael I had arranged to meet my friend Tony Hobbs who was joining me for the next section to Inchnadamph. I had planned on a day off in Ullapool, which is not far from Inverlael, and Tony had said he’d book somewhere. He had, forty miles away in Lochinver! Everywhere in or near Ullapool was fully booked. So we had a pleasant two nights in the Culag Hotel in Lochinver where we met another CWT walker, also here because everywhere else was booked. In Lochinver we heard the first forecast for the much colder, stormier weather to come.

Waterfall in Glen Douchary

Back on the walk we had good weather for our first camp in Glen Douchary though and for a splendid walk along the lovely gorge in the glen and another camp in the sun by Rappach Water.

Tony Hobbs and his dog Lassie in Glen Douchary

The stormy weather began the next day with heavy showers and an increasingly strong wind as we headed up Glen Oykel. Loch Ailsh was in the mist. The forest was dripping. We did find a small open area in the trees for a sheltered camp. No views, just big Sitka spruce, but we were out of the wind.

Tony and Lassie above the River Traligill after we'd come through the bealach 

Back in the full force of it the next day we continued up the glen and then up to the narrow Bealach Trallgil at just over 500 metres. As we came through the pass the wind was ferocious, blasting right in our faces, which at least meant it was unlikely to knock us off the narrow path into the rocky gorge below. Again that evening we were able to find a sheltered site. Here I began to have doubts about going on. The strong NW wind was meant to continue for many more days, bringing colder air down from the Arctic with snow on the tops.

Walking out to Inchnadamph on the last day

By morning my mind was made up. I didn’t want to struggle into this weather just to reach Cape Wrath. I’d stop at Inchnadamph and come back later for the final few days. I’d walked this section before, indeed I’d walked most of the whole route before, and I am in a position to return at almost any time. If this had been a one-off trip far from home I would have continued despite the weather, as I have done on other long walks. But here, only a few hours from where I live, there was no need.

I enjoyed the Cape Wrath Trail as I always enjoy backpacking, moving on each day, camping each night. It was interesting to do a mostly low level walk through the mountains rather than go over them. I’ll write another piece about my thoughts on the environment along the way soon.

I posted some pictures of my camps on the trail here and some pictures of clouds and mist along the way here.

Friday 14 June 2024

A Look At The July Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The July issue of The Great Outdoors is available now. I just have a couple of reviews in this issue - a smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy XCover 7, and a water bottle, the SilverAnt Ultralight Titanium. Also in the gear pages David Lintern reviews 8 solo tents and Alex Roddie tries 10 backpacking meals. 

The Skills section is in conjunction with Glenmore Lodge whose instructors cover summer weather, river crossings, and bivvying. There's also a piece on Scotland's first British Sign Language navigation course.

The heart of this issue is a powerful, grim. and salutory story by Francesca Donovan about the time her husband-to-be became seriously ill with heat stroke on a walk in Eryri/Snowdonia. This is a great essay. Read it and be warned.

In another emotional piece Norman Hadley reflects on what it means to inherit and pass on a love of the outdoors.

In the third long feature in this issue Charlie Jarvis tackles a historic section of the Alta Via 5 in the Dolomites, a story illustrated with some dramatic photographs by the author and Giulia Vidori. 

The issue opens with a wonderful photograph too, a beautiful dawn on the Isle of Mull by Eilidh Cameron.

Also in the magazine Adya Misra, paddle coach and founder of People of Colour Paddle, is Creator of the Month; Francesca Donovan reviews The Lost Paths by Jack Cornish; Mary-Ann Ochota asks whether walking and talking is a solution to mental health problems in the Opinion column; Jim Perrin praises Beinn Tarsuinn on the Isle of Arran in his Mountain Portrait; Vivienne Crow looks at what a weekend in Ambleside has to offer walkers; and in her Notes From The Edge Emma Schroeder argues that feelings of awe help when the walking gets tough.

The theme of Wild Walks is ones you can do using public transport. In the Scottish Highlands Stefan Durkacz takes the train to Corrour station on Rannoch Moor and climbs Glas Bheinn and Leum Uilleim; Alex Roddie's train journey takes him to Blair Atholl and an ascent of Beinn Mheadhonach; and Ian Battersby explores Ben Cruachan, the 'hollow mountain' from the Falls of Cruachan station. In the Lake District Vivienne Crow walks the long Helvellyn range, catching the bus to and from each end; James Forrest combines train and bus on another long linear walk, from Windermere to Patterdale; and Roger Butler takes the train to Broughton-in Furness, walks over Black Coombe to Silecroft, then catches the train back to Broughton. In the Yorkshire Dales Vivienne Crow uses the spectacular Settle-Carlisle Railway for a walk over Ingleborough and Ian Battersby does a circular walk over Blea Moor and Great Knoutberry Hill from Dent Station, England's highest mainline station. In Eryri/Snowdonia Fiona Balrtrop takes a train and a bus for a walk over the unfrequented Tarren Hills. Finally down in the deep south Nike Werstroh takes the train to the North Downs Way and Box Hill.

Thursday 13 June 2024

Podcast on the Cairngorms with John D. Burns

Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms, October 2023

Yesterday I recorded a podcast with John D. Burns about the Cairngorms. We covered the weather, the funicular, Glen Feshie, beavers, salmon, grouse moors, shooting estates, and tree planting, plus a mention of my fortcoming revised edition of High Summer, the story of my walk the length of the Canadian Rockies.

You can listen to it here

Monday 10 June 2024

June cold In the Cairngorms and why I was glad to leave the Cape Wrath Trail

Squalls streaking across the Lairig Ghru

A week ago I lay in my tent wondering whether to continue my Cape Wrath Trail (CWT) walk. I was just three or four days from the finish. But the forecast was for those days to be filled with strong cold NW winds, hail, heavy rain, thunder and lightning, and even snow above 600 metres.

The day I pondered leaving the trail I’d come through the Bealach Trallgil at just over 500 metres with Tony Hobbs, who’d been with me for the last few days, and we’d been faced with fierce winds roaring through the notch of the pass, winds that took your breath away and made walking arduous. I was glad the wind was in our faces and trying to blow us back up the pass as the narrow path wound above a steep drop. A crosswind or one behind us would not have been good.

Lower down the winds were very strong too and the rain showers heavy. I was glad to find a sheltered camp site. Walking into this weather for several days wasn’t appealing and maybe wasn’t even wise as I wasn’t equipped for cold wintry weather. I fell asleep still pondering. When I woke in the early morning and looked out at the dark clouds racing overhead the decision was made. I would go home. It was a wrench to leave the trail. I hoped I wouldn’t regret it.

A week later and that cold arctic airstream is still with us. For seven days snow has fallen on the summits. The wind is cold and strong. In the glens the rain showers are heavy. At home we’ve lit the fire every day. I made the right decision.

Cairn Lochan

That was confirmed when I went up into the Cairngorms to experience the weather on June 9. I went more dressed for January than June and it wasn’t too much. Gone were the mesh trail shoes, thin socks, thin hiking trousers and shirt, ultralight windshirt, baseball cap I’d worn on the CWT. In were boots, thick socks, thick trousers, wool shirt, thick Ventile windproof jacket, wool beanie, and three pairs of gloves. In my pack were heavier waterproofs than I’d carried on the CWT and a thick synthetic insulated jacket.

On Cairn Lochan

Climbing up to Cairn Lochan I soon had my hood up over my beanie and gloves on my hands. The wind was cold. Approaching the summit a stinging hailstorm blasted in and the wind came in savage gusts. On went the waterproofs, thicker gloves and shell mitts. This was winter. Snow lay underfoot. The hailstorm passed by, the cloud it came with didn’t and I completed the walk over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda in dense damp mist. Only when I was well down into Coire Cas did I come out of the clag.

The Vent on Cairn Lochan

This unseasonal weather is forecast to last for another couple of days. A touch of snow and cold happens sometimes In June for a day or two but for it to last over a week is very unusual. I’m glad I left the Cape Wrath Trail. I expect I could have made it to the end, but it would have been a struggle and I’d have been wet and cold much of the time. Most importantly, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. I’ll return in better weather.

All photos taken on June 9.

Saturday 8 June 2024

Clouds & mist on the Cape Wrath Trail: Some Photographs

Evening light over the River Garry

Sorting through the photos I took on the Cape Wrath Trail I noticed that a large number feature clouds, mist, and skyscapes, a result of the weather I experienced much of the time. There is beauty and drama in this weather and it certainly leads to more interesting pictures than endless ones of blue skies and sunshine however attractive those might be at the time.

Morning mist over Loch Lochy

Here's a selection of these moody scenes. I will soon get round to telling the actual story of the walk and also post my perhaps controversial thoughts on the environment along the way.

Clouds on the hills above Dorusduain Wood

Loch Lon Mhurchaidh in the rain

Allt na Doire Gairbhe before the rain

There's a forest in there. Above the Dundonnell River

Loch Ailsh & Benmore Lodge

Friday 7 June 2024

Kickstarter fund raiser for Mountain Style: The first illustrated history of British outdoor clothing – apparel that took us further, faster and higher, and became style classics.

A fascinating book on the history of British outdoor clothing is due out this autumn. The authors Henry Iddon and Max Leonard are seeking funds on Kickstarter to meet the costs of publishing. 

Advertising through the years

The book will be packed with illustrations from advertisements and magazines as well as archive photographs of the clothing in use in the British hills and further afield in the Alps and Himalayas showing just how styles and fabrics changed dramatically in the last half of the twentieth century. The authors have spent years doing detailed research and have interviewed many of the key figures involved in what was a period of rapid development and innovation.

Fylde Mountain Club, 1960s. Credit: Tony Iddon

As well as the clothing the book covers the rise of the main brands, both those still with us today and those long gone. I had clothing from most of those in the picture below.

Disappeared brands

I've written an essay for the book, looking at the clothing I wore on long-distance walks from the 1970s onwards and my involvement with the outdoor trade as a gear reviewer.

I think this looks a wonderful book that I'm very much looking forward to reading. Just the photos I've seen bring back many memories. It deserves support.

Troll 1980s and Peter Storm 1970s

There's much more information, including the rewards for different levels of support, on the Kickstarter page.  


Wednesday 5 June 2024

Camps along the Cape Wrath Trail

One of the main joys with long-distance walking for me is camping in wild and beautiful places. There are many opportunites for this on the Cape Wrath Trail and on my recent walk I had fourteen nights out in the hills and woods. 

I've started sorting through the 420 photos I took during the walk and it's the camping ones that bring back immediate strong memories so here's a few, quickly edited.

Update from the Cape Wrath Trail: The Heat Exchanger Pot Performed Even Better Than Expected

On the Cape Wrath Trail.

Since writing the piece below on heat exchanger (HX) pots I've spent 19 days on the Cape Wrath Trail (story to come) using the Jetboil Stash HX Pot and the Soto Windmaster 4Flex stove with a 230g Primus Power Gas canister. The results were surprising, not to say astounding. The canister lasted for 15 days. I expected 12 days at most and would have been happy with 10. The most I've ever had from a canister with a non-HX pot was 11 days and that was in warmer, drier, and much less windy conditions than on the Cape Wrath Trail. The regulated burner was also impressive as the falloff in power was barely noticeable with the stove boiling water fast right up to the point when the canister was empty. I was boiling 1.3 to 1.5 litres of water a day and occasionally simmering food for 5 to 10 minutes. 

Tony Hobbs at our third camp together.

Tony Hobbs joined me for four camps and used the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe stove with the Fire Maple Petrel Heat Exchanger pot I describe below (he didn't find he had to do much to get the stove pot supports to fit into the slots on the base of the Petrel, just not open them fully). We did one crude comparison boil with 300ml of water and Tony's setup took a whole 19 seconds longer. With no scales we weren't able to compare how much gas was used. I'll be testing this soon. I don't expect any difference to be significant. Tony did notice that if he had the stove on full flames did come out of the heat exchanger and lick up the sides of the pot, wasting heat, so he usually turned the stove down a little. This happens because the Petrel pot is quite a bit narrower than the Stash pot.

Here's the original piece on HX pots.

Jetboil Stash pot and stove

Heat exchangers are corrugated fins or vanes on the base of a pot that capture heat that would otherwise be lost to the air and up the sides of the pot and transfer it to the contents. Jetboil launched the first stove system with a heat exchanger (HX) pot twenty years ago. Since then I’ve used and reviewed several such systems, from MSR and Primus as well as Jetboil. I’ve always liked the fast boil times and fuel efficiency yet I never thought of taking one on a long-distance walk due to the weight and bulk (the lightest, the Jetboil MicroMo, weighs 349g). Until that is Jetboil launched the Stash, a basic burner and HX pot that at 200 grams could genuinely be called lightweight, back in 2020. I reviewed it for The Great Outdoors in 2021 and said I’d consider taking it on my next long walk. I’ve used it a great deal since then and I think it’s a wonderful unit for solo backpacking. I’m taking the Stash pot on the Cape Wrath Trail soon but maybe not the Stash stove, for reasons outlined below.

Jetboil Stash

It’s the pot that’s impressive with the Stash. It’s made from hard-anodised aluminium and holds 800ml. It’s not tall and narrow like many HX pots and so easier to stir and to eat from. It weighs just 140 grams. The Stash burner is also light at 60 grams but doesn’t have the performance of higher spec stoves as it’s not regulated and so power declines in the cold and as the canister empties. It also has no wind resistance at all so a windshield is needed in all but the gentlest breeze. It is still a perfectly adequate stove that I’ve used on many trips but there are better ones.

MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe with Jetboil Stash pot

After a year with the Stash, using it on every trip, I decided to try the pot with other stoves in cold and windy weather. The results were impressive. With the regulated MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe (PRD) stove water boiled faster than with the Stash burner, the power stayed high with an almost empty canister, and it didn’t need a windshield until the wind got quite strong. The Optimus Vega remote canister stove and Stash pot again outperformed the Stash stove. This setup also has the advantage of being low profile and more stable. However there is a significant weight penalty – it’s a 100g more than the PRD and 125g more than the Stash burner. With the Vega the canister can be turned upside down to turn it into a liquid feed stove in extreme cold though this does increase fuel usage. I only use it in winter.

Optimus Vega stove with Jetboil Stash pot

The Stash pot is superb, the best solo backpacking pot I’ve used. You can’t buy it on its own though, only with the Stash burner, and Jetboil warns that it should not be used with other stoves. When I asked why Jetboil said “the Stash pot was designed for high performance on the Stash burner as a Cook System. However, we cannot guarantee its performance or safety on all the assortment of burners and pan supports available, so we recommend only to use on Stash”. So if you use it with other stoves it’s at your own risk.

There is a big disadvantage in doing so anyway. The high cost - £155 at the time of writing. That makes for an awfully expensive pot! So what are the alternatives and are they any good?

Fire Maple HX Pots

The only standalone HX pots I knew about until recently were ones from Vango and Optimus that are too heavy for solo backpacking except on short trips, at least for me. The Vango Ultralight Heat Exchanger Cook Kit, which I have had for a few years, comes with two bowls and cutlery and has a cosy round the pot. The total weight is 387g, the pot alone 286g*. The Optimus Terra Express HE weighs 377g and has a non-stick coating. Both are worth considering for duos.

Soto Windmaster 4Flex stove with Fire Maple FMC-XK6 pot

Searching online for lighter standalone HX pots brought up some fascinating videos from Flat Cat Gear about the ultralight 800ml Fire Maple Petrel HX pot and an interesting article called  Superstove for Optimal Backcountry Cooking by Alan Dixon and Jaeger Shaw on the Adventure Alan website that recommends the 1 litre Olicamp XTS pot (which is identical to the Fire Maple FMC-XK6 HX) as the best alternative to the Stash pot and also mentions the Fire Maple Petrel HX pot. Curious to try them I bought both Fire Maple pots, at a combined cost less than a third that of the Stash.

Soto Windmaster Triflex fitted onto Fire Maple Petrel pot

Both the pots are hard-anodised aluminium with plastic lids – an excellent one on the Petrel, a poor one on the clumsily named FMC-XK6 (which I’ll call the FMC from now on). The Petrel is tall and narrow and not so good for simmering food or eating from as the wider and bigger FMC. The Petrel weighs 166g, the FMC 195g. The Petrel is unique in having slots on the base of the heat exchanger. These are designed to fit the pot supports of a Fire Maple stove but also just right for the Soto Windmaster with the Triflex three-pronged supports (the stove comes with a four-pronged support, the Triflex is an extra option). The Windmaster is a powerful regulated stove comparable with the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe (which won’t fit in the Petrel slots unless you do some modifications as shown in this Flat Cat Gear video). The only other stove I have that fits the Petrel is the Jetboil Mighty Mo, which in fact fits even more securely than the Windmaster but is a fair bit heavier – 98 rather than 68 grams. Of course you can just balance the Petrel on a stove without using the slots but that means it’s less effective, Having the burner inside the heat exchanger improves fuel efficiency, boiling time, wind resistance and stability.

Of the two pots I prefer the FMC as the width makes it easier to use than the Petrel. The FMC is 55g heavier and a bit bigger than the Stash pot. The combined weight with the PRD stove is 279g. The Petrel is 25g heavier than the Stash. With the PRD the total weight is 234g. Either of these is a good alternative to the PRD/Stash pot combination, which weighs 225g, or the Windmaster 4 Flex/Stash combination, which weighs 229g (the Triflex supports are too short to be stable with the Stash pot).

The Stash pot plus the PRD or Windmaster stove combines the best pot with the best canister top stoves that I’ve used. But for the price of the Stash you could buy six Fire Maple pots.

Why HX Pots?

Do HX pots really have advantages? That depends! Faster boil times are often touted as the big plus but I don’t think a few minutes difference really matters, and fuel efficiency is higher is if a stove isn’t run at full power. What is significant is reduced fuel usage, especially on long trips where there may be many days between resupply points. Heat exchanger pots also increase performance in cold and wind, which I also think more important than fast boil times.

From left: Jetboil Stash, Fire Maple Petrel, Fire Maple FMC-XK6, Jetboil MicroMo

HX pots are all hard anodised aluminium which may not last as long as titanium but which costs far less. Why not titanium? Jetboil did try this with the Sol Ti stove but there were problems with the heat exchanger fins melting and it was discontinued. No-one has made a titanium HX pot since as far as I know so I guess there are possibly insurmountable technical problems.

Three years ago I posted a piece on pots in which I said of HX pots “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”.  I’ve changed my mind. I now use an HX pot year round.

Heat exchangers. Clockwise from top left: Fire Maple FMC, Fire Maple Petrel, Jetboil MicroMo, Jetboil Stash

I can see no big disadvantages to HX pots. The size and weight increase over titanium pots isn’t that big. The Evernew 900ml titanium pot that I’ve used on every long distance walk for over twenty years weighs 137 grams, just 3 grams less than the Stash pot! The 900ml MSR Titan titanium pot is lighter at 125 grams but there’s still only a 16g difference. In comparative tests I found that on average using HX pots meant a fuel saving of about 4 grams per 500ml of water boiled. So the weight difference between the Titan and Stash pots covers enough fuel to boil 2 litres of water.

There is a view that HX pots are unsuitable for anything other than boiling water but I’ve found this is more dependent on the burner than the pot. This opinion may have come about because the first HX stove systems didn’t simmer well. This isn’t true of most current ones and certainly not of HX pots combined with regulated stoves. Having a stove and pot that aren’t locked together also helps as you can easily lift the pot off the stove to see the flame when you turn it down. I’ve simmered food without problems in HX pots with PRD, Windmaster, Stash, Vega, and other gas stoves.  

Testing, testing

Testing lab

I recently reviewed a selection of stoves for The Great Outdoors in which I compared boil times and fuel usage with HX and non-HX pots. The results further convinced me that HX pots are worth using. I then did a follow-up test comparing the Soto Windmaster Triflex with the Petrel pot, the Stash stove and pot, and the Jetboil MicroMo. The Soto had the fastest boil time, the Stash took 17 seconds longer to boil the water but used a gram less fuel. The MicroMo was between the two on both counts. Practically there’s no significant difference. However this was in warm calm weather with full canisters. The Stash stove doesn’t perform as well as the others when it’s windy or in the cold, especially with a less than half-full canister. As well as being regulated the Windmaster, like the PRD, has a small windshield round the burner, and is further protected by the Petrel heat exchanger.


Windshield round MSR Pocket Rocket 2 stove and Evernew titanium pot

A big problem with the Stash and similar stoves is that they aren’t wind-resistant. Anything above a gentle breeze can blow the flame sideways and reduce the performance significantly, sometimes preventing water boiling. A few stoves like the PRD and the Windmaster have tiny windshields round the burner that do make a difference though in strong winds the performance still deteriorates. The Jetboil system stoves like the MiniMo and MicroMo are much the same. The only stoves I’ve used that don’t require any wind protection are the MSR Windburner and the MSR Reactor stoves. These are great for winter use, especially snow melting, but weigh 425 and 432g respectively. With other stoves I use a foil windshield that can surround three sides of the burner and which comes part way up the side of the pot. It woirks well. I’ve never had a canister get hot doing this. My current foil windshield weighs 55g.

MSR Reactor. Great in the snow but heavy

There are windshields available that fit around the burner. I tried a few of these in the past and found them clunky, awkward and not as efficient as the foil windshield. However Flat Cat Gear has a range of windshields for different stoves that look effective and easier to use.

*All pot weights include the supplied lid. This could be replaced with a lighter one, such as a piece of foil. A lid increases fuel efficiency so I always use one.