Sunday 23 November 2008

Book Review: Grand Obsession, Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of the Grand Canyon by Elias Butler and Tom Myers

Continuing the Colin Fletcher theme of the last couple of posts I’ve been reading an engrossing biography of the man who provided Fletcher with most of the information for his walk the length of the Grand Canyon, mathematics professor Harvey Butchart. At the time of Fletcher’s walk in 1963 Butchart had been exploring the Grand Canyon wilderness on foot for seventeen years and, as Fletcher discovered, was the only expert in this field. When Butchart started hiking there in the late 1940s most of the Grand Canyon was little visited and unknown to walkers. In the past Native Americans, prospectors and explorers had ventured into the Canyon but routes and trails had faded and knowledge of them had been lost. Only a few rim-to-river routes were known and barely any traverses inside the Canyon. In a series of short but intense expeditions, mostly 2-4 days in length, Butchart explored the Canyon systematically, filling in gaps on the map as he covered some 12,000 miles. As well as finding ways down to the Colorado river he climbed many of the massive steep rock buttes that lie inside the Canyon. He kept detailed logs too and published short guidebooks under the title Grand Canyon Treks (now available in a single illustrated volume). All hikers and climbers in the Grand Canyon owe Butchart a huge debt for his efforts, which lie behind all subsequent guidebooks.

Everyone who has hiked in the Grand Canyon away from the maintained corridor route trails will know just how forbidding and serious, with steep cliffs, loose rocks and scree, frequent exposure, scarcity of water, heat and remoteness, it can be even though there are now detailed maps and guidebooks and often other backpackers. For Butchart it really was an exciting unexplored world replete with wonders and dangers and it became the main aim of his life to trace every possible route. A Grand Obsession indeed. In their book Butler and Myers tell the story of Butchart and how the Canyon came to be so important in his life. Canyon hikers and climbers themselves, the authors also set out to follow one of Butchart’s routes, the ascent of Wotan’s Throne (Grand Canyon features often have romantic names that fit the strange and glorious landscape). They used Butchart’s terse and minimalist description (his guidebooks are not the easiest to follow) and it takes them two attempts and gets them into some desperate situations. Interspersing their own adventure with Butchart’s and showing just how difficult hiking and climbing still is in much of the Canyon helps show just how determined, skilled and tough Butchart was.

A key part of the book is about the relationship of Fletcher and Butchart. When Fletcher announced he wanted to hike the Grand Canyon in one long walk Butchart had almost completed a traverse himself, though in a series of short walks spread over many years (Butchart didn’t think that he would like long trips, a few days at a time were enough). Butchart assisted Fletcher with his planning and then completed the last section of the traverse after Fletcher had started out, becoming the first person to do so and leaving Fletcher to become the first person to do so in one continuous walk. After his hike Fletcher and Butchart fell out, why not being clear, as Butler and Myers point out, but it does look as though Fletcher writing a successful and eloquent book about his hike was a major part of the reason, even though Butchart is praised and thanked extensively in it. Also the two men come across as very different in their writing and approach. Fletcher is romantic, expansive and able to express the beauty and wonder of nature and landscape and the joys of backpacking while Butchart is pragmatic and unemotional, describing the Canyon in terms of routes, statistics and physical challenges. Whilst both clearly wanted success Butchart often gives the impression that the achievement of doing new routes and climbs is his main impetus whilst for Fletcher it is the experience itself. Whatever the reasons for their falling out both are now part of the history of the exploration of the Grand Canyon.

Being Grand Canyon enthusiasts themselves means the authors understand just what Butchart achieved and they express this well in the book. For anyone who has hiked in the Grand Canyon (which is the most amazing place I have ever visited) this book tells the story of the pioneer who opened up the way for them. But it’s not just for Grand Canyon hikers. It’s for any outdoors lover who likes stories of adventure and exploration.

Photo info: Wild camping in the Grand Canyon. Photo info: Ricoh RDC-5000, JPEG processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Saturday 15 November 2008

Colin Fletcher: The Man Who Walked Through Time

Following my last post I thought I'd post the feature about Colin Fletcher that won the OWPG Award. This feature first appeared in TGO magazine last year.

“I stood for a while looking at the mountains and listening to the silence. Then I walked slowly out into the desert that for six hundred miles would be my world”.

The Thousand-Mile Summer

Few people in Britain have heard of Colin Fletcher, yet he is in my opinion the finest writer on backpacking and wilderness walking. Every time I read the words above a shiver runs through me as I know I am at the start of a literary adventure. Although living in California for the last half century Colin Fletcher, who died in June 2007, was British, born in Wales in 1922. Fletcher inspired thousands of American backpackers. An appreciation of his work in this country is long overdue.

Before reaching California and the start of his writing life Fletcher served in the Royal Marines in World War Two then farmed and built roads in East Africa before working as a prospector and road builder in Canada. Shortly after moving to California from Canada in 1956 he decided “that what I wanted most in life just then was to walk from one end of California to the other ….. I knew, of course, that the idea was crazy; but I felt almost sure I was going”. And go he did, within a month, on a journey that resulted in his first book, The Thousand-Mile Summer, which captures superbly the nature of wilderness walking and camping. I have to admit to a bias here as this book changed my life. I first read it nearly thirty years ago and it had a profound and inspiring effect on me. Fletcher’s descriptions of the deserts and mountains, of walking through real wilderness and camping under the stars started in me a hunger to do the same. Three years later I walked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and long distance walking had become my passion and my life.

Many people have written about long walks and backpacking but none have captured the experience so fully, intensely and personally as Colin Fletcher. He walked alone, and indeed shunned the company of others, coming across as quite a curmudgeon in some of his writing, but what he sought was “the gigantic, enveloping, including, renewing solitude of wild and silent places” (The Complete Walker). His books are mostly about nature and his thoughts and feelings rather than about groups or other people. Indeed, he says little about his private life or relationships outside of his journeys. But the reader learns much about his relationship to nature and wilderness. Here he is describing dusk in the California desert after going down to a lagoon to wash:

“I stood still, waiting for the light to go out over the mountains.

But the mountains were not yet ready. A line of golden peaks caught fire. Black canyons gouged their slopes and pierced the iridescent red with deeper hints of hell. The iridescence deepened, the hints broadened. And then – on the very threshold of revelation – the shadow reached out and quietened everything, and the world was only shades of grey.

I found myself shivering on the edge of the lagoon, still clutching a cake of soap”. From The Thousand-Mile Summer.

Colin Fletcher wasn’t bothered about distance (despite the title of his first book) or speed. His concern was with experience. Camping was just as important to him as walking and he described many camps with a loving detail that every backpacker will recognise. Perhaps the book that describes this best, along with the intensity of feeling his walking engenders, is The Man Who Walked Through Time, which describes his walk the length of the Grand Canyon, the first time this had been done. Fletcher gives a long description of his first camp on that walk, covering every detail, even down to where he places every item. Here is a sample:

“I unzippered the mummy bag part way, pushed my feet down into it, pulled the bag up loosely round my waist, and leaned back. It was very comfortable like that, with my butt cushioned on the pillow of the air mattress and my back leaning against the fully inflated main section, which in turn leaned against the now almost empty pack. I sat there for several minutes, content, relaxed, drifting – hovering on the brink of daydreams without ever achieving anything quite so active”.

Doesn’t that just make you want to be out in the wilds sitting there almost daydreaming?

Fletcher’s best known book (an ongoing success in the USA) is The Complete Walker, now in its fourth edition (though with a co-writer- I recommend one of the earlier editions for the full Fletcher approach and the pleasure of his delightful prose). Subtitled “the joys and techniques of hiking and backpacking” this is the most detailed and the most readable guide imaginable. Fletcher covers everything entertainingly and in places with humour. It’s a very personal book, describing what he does and what he uses, with the idea that others can learn from this. Some of his approach that has been described as idiosyncratic – such as preferring tarps to tents and using a staff – is actually in tune with current trends; however his hatred of trail guides is definitely unusual. The detailed descriptions of equipment are often out of date but this doesn’t matter: they are only examples anyway and it’s the overall approach to walking and camping that matters. This timelessness is also why The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time are fresh and relevant five decades after they were written.

Throughout his work there is a deep respect and love for nature and the wild and a strong desire for it to be protected. He’s not an out and out campaigner like that other great writer of the desert Southwest Edward Abbey, though The Man Who Walked Through Time does contain a moving epilogue about the threats to dam the Grand Canyon that existed in the 1960s. In it Fletcher warned that “unless we do something, you and I, we may soon find this book has become a requiem for Grand Canyon”. The depth of his feeling is shown when he writes “I suggest that we little men have no damned right even to consider such vandalism – for any reason at all”. The same feelings surface in The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher, a collection of essays on different walks, in the chapter entitled Among The Redwoods in which he is horrified by the destruction of ancient redwood groves and writes of the logging of old growth forests that it “left you ashamed … of belonging to a species that for personal gain waged war on its own planet.”

The four books I’ve referred to above are the key works for walkers interested in Colin Fletcher. Perhaps the most interesting of his other works is River, which tells the story of his trip, mostly by raft, down the length of the Colorado River at the age of 67 in 1989, another first, in which his journey down the river also stands for his journey through life. The book does contain one of my favourite Colin Fletcher quotations:

“I knew, deep and safe, beyond mere intellect, that there is nothing like a wilderness journey for rekindling the fires of life”.

His final two books, The Winds of Mara and The Man From The Cave, are both quite obscure and long out print. Devotee that I am, I hunted them down in second book shops on visits to the USA long before the Internet made finding such books easy. The Winds of Mara describes a return visit to Kenya on which he camped, with a vehicle, in the bush. He describes well the wildlife and the landscape and his interactions with people but it lacks some of the drive of his wilderness journey books. The Man From The Cave is a real oddity, a fascinating book that tells you more about its author than its subject. Fletcher discovers a cave in a remote part of the Nevada desert with some old possessions that showed someone had once lived there. The book is the story of his research into who the person was and why they were there.

Colin Fletcher writes mainly about the Southwest USA. His heart lies with the Colorado River and the surrounding landscape. Don’t let this put you off reading him. His backpacking tales are about the experience as much or more than the place and thus of interest to all who love walking and camping in the wild, whether the Scottish Highlands or the Grand Canyon. Be warned though the books might just stir a desire in you to go and walk in Fletcher’s country, as they did in me.


The Thousand-Mile Summer in desert and high sierra 1964
The Man Who Walked Through Time 1968
The Complete Walker 1968
The Winds of Mara 1973
The New Complete Walker 1974
The Man From The Cave 1981
The Complete Walker III 1984
The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher 1989
River: One Man’s Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea 1997
The Complete Walker IV (with Chip Rawlins) 2002

The photo shows the Grand Canyon from the South Rim near Grand Canyon Village. Ricoh RDC-5000 with 8-18mm lens @ 10.1mm. f7@1/350. JPEG processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Outdoor Writers, Colin Fletcher & John Muir

Last weekend I travelled down to Longhorsley in Northumberland where the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild Awards Dinner was being held at a rather posh hotel. I was delighted and honoured to win the Award for Excellence for Outdoor Feature for an article about the late Colin Fletcher called The Man Who Walked Through Time that appeared in TGO magazine last year. I was particularly pleased to win an award for this feature as Colin Fletcher is little known in British outdoor circles despite having been arguably the best writer on backpacking. Any excuse to mention him and encourage people to read his books is welcome! The title of my feature is also the title of, in my opinion, his best book, about the first ever backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon.

On my way home from Northumberland I called in at the little Scottish town of Dunbar where John Muir, another significant outdoor writer as well as an inspiring defender of wilderness and one of my heroes, was born in 1838 and where he lived before emigrating to the USA at the age of eleven. His birthplace on the High Street now houses a display about his life. Whilst this is interesting and informative it’s unfortunate that nothing remains of the house itself except the shell. Several years ago I visited the house in Martinez, California, where Muir lived for many years and wrote many of his books. The house is now a National Historic Site and has been kept as it was when Muir lived there. You can look at his study, complete with his writing desk and artefacts he collected in the High Sierra, and see a big fireplace he installed after the original was damaged in the San Francisco Earthquake so he could he have a real log fire. It is easy to imagine Muir there, reading before the fire or poring over his manuscripts.

The coast and fields around Dunbar are where Muir developed his love of nature and wild places. Here he studied the birds and sea life and climbed on the crumbling sea cliffs and the decaying walls of Dunbar Castle, learning skills that would prove useful in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada. I spent a few hours wandering along the cliff tops and on the beach watching the grey waves crashing on the rocks under hurrying clouds that spattered rain in great gobbets. Reminiscing about his boyhood in Dunbar he wrote “I loved… best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of old Dunbar Castle”. Dunbar has not changed much and you can still do this. I drove the long miles home thinking of Muir and the great debt all of us who love wild places owe to him and the need to continue his work in defence of nature.

Photo info: Waves breaking below the cliffs of Dunbar. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, f5.6@1/160, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Monday 3 November 2008

First Snow on the Cairngorms

Last week’s storms brought the first heavy snowfall of the winter to the Scottish Highlands. Yesterday I welcomed the return of winter by walking over the Cairngorm plateau to Ben Macdui. The snowline was well down the hills and above 600 metres the cover was complete and deep, more snow than I’ve seen this early in the winter for many years. The walking was arduous as the snow averaged two feet deep, though the tracks of other walkers eased the going in places. Initially a warm sun shone in a clear sky and I walked with sleeves rolled up and collar unzipped. To the south and east there was no sign of cloud and the hills were sharp and clear. However north and west a haze shrouded the summits and tendrils of clouds were drifting towards the Cairngorms. As I crossed the plateau a curving cloud spread over Braeriach across the deep pass of the Lairig Ghru and sent fingers of cloud down between the ridges, as if a giant beast devouring the mountain. Ben Macdui was still cloud-free as I wandered west of the summit to gaze at the great wedge of Cairn Toul rising out of the Lairig Ghru but as I headed back north the mist slipped across the snow and the world turned grey and insubstantial. Fine drizzle fell and the snow felt heavy and sticky rather than dry and crisp. There was no colourful sunset and all was dull as I descended below the cloud in the dusk to Coire Cas. The first winter hill walk was over. I hope there will be many more this season.

Photo info: Cloud crawling over Braeriach. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@55mm, f5.6@1/320, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.