Friday 27 May 2011

Farewell to Roger Smith: TGO Challenge Dinner 2011

Last night a dinner for the TGO Challenge coast-to-coast walk across the Scottish Highlands was held in the Park Hotel in Montrose, as it is every year on the last Thursday of the event. This year was special though as Roger Smith was standing down after 20 years as co-ordinator. Roger has actually been involved with the Challenge since it began in 1980, when he was the first editor of the then new walking magazine The Great Outdoors, and has stamped his enthusiasm, organisation and personality on the event. He will be missed - though happily he is intending to stay involved and hopefully now free to do his own third crossing. As usual Roger praised all the 2011 Challengers and gave awards to those who had completed their tenth crossing and to others for special achievements. This over it was Roger's turn to be praised by a succession of speakers, both colleagues at TGO and Challengers plus Hamish Brown, the originator of the Challenge himself. Gifts were showered on him, toasts drunk, hands clapped until sore. The outpourings of warmth, affection and sheer love showed just how he is regarded by all involved with the Challenge. It was a pleasure to be there and to be involved.

The photo shows Roger Smith speaking at the dinner with new Challenge Co-ordinator John Manning opposite him, current editor Emily Rodway immediately to his right and Hamish Brown standing in the background.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

A Stormy May

The mountains are shrouded in cloud, heavy showers sweep across the land, trees shake in the wind. The air is thick, heavy and dark. This has been the norm this May in the Scottish Highlands. More often May is one of the driest and sunniest months. This year the sun came early, in April. The fine weather broke as May began. There has been little sunshine and much wind and rain. The stormy weather reached a pinnacle on the 23rd with winds over 100 miles per hour and fierce squalls of torrential rain. There was disruption to travel with many trees down and many power cuts - ours went for half an hour, many people were cut off for longer. The temperatures have been low for May too, with fresh snow on the tops. Through all this some 250+ backpackers have been making their way coast-to-coast across the Highlands from west to east on the TGO Challenge. I have done this walk 13 times and have encountered snow, storms, high winds and much rain along the way but I can never remember such prolonged wet weather. I must admit I am glad I decided not to do the Challenge this year and I have great admiration for those who have done so. Tomorrow, the 26th, I am going to the Challenge finish in Montrose for the send-off for Roger Smith, who is retiring this year after organising the event since it began. I'll meet many of this year's Challengers there. I am looking forward to hearing their stories.

The photos were taken on the 24th, a windy day with frequent showers. Snow is just visible on distant cloud-capped Cairn Gorm and the River Spey has burst its banks, flooding the trees on its banks.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Wake for the Wild

Yesterday, May 17, I joined a group of walkers and lovers of nature and wild land on the Wake for the Wild, organised by Alan Sloman. With about 40 others, many of them, like Alan himself, on the TGO Challenge, we carried a coffin from Loch Mhor over a rough, heathery ridge to Dumnaglass Lodge (where we were met by the police, called out just in case we were dangerous) then on up to the wild moorland that will be destroyed by the Dumnaglass wind farm. The day started with a fiddler playing a lament over the coffin before it was rowed across the loch to the start of the walk. Near the Lodge we stopped while Alan said a few words about the purpose of the trip and his belief that the last of Scotland’s wild land will soon be no more and at the high point we toasted the wild with a variety of whiskies (including some from England!) and Janet Donnelly, an authorised celebrant for The Humanist Society of Scotland, said some moving and valedictory words about wild land, ending with a quote from John Muir.

Throughout the day the gentle beauty of the rolling hills, the soft light, the every-changing clouds, the first summer moorland flowers and the vast vistas of hills and sky were a reminder of what we will lose and what future generations will never know.

An ironic note to the walk was provided by the Dumnaglass Estate, which had posted notices especially for us headed “Wake for the Wild” which asked us to be careful not to disturb nesting birds and to “avoid damage to the ground”. If only the Estate would follow its own advice. As it is, I don’t think the effect of 40 walkers respectful of nature and the land will be noticeable compared to the 12 kilometres of bulldozed high level roads, 1000 tons of concrete and 33 giant turbines the Estate will build, effectively trashing the landscape and its inhabitants.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Next Book: A Year in the Life of the Cairngorms

My next book will be a collection of images of the Cairngorms, to be published this summer by Frances Lincoln. The pictures were taken over the last six years and cover each season, hence the title - A Year in the Life of the Cairngorms. Every aspect of the region from the glens, forests and lochs to the mountain summits is illustrated in the book.

Friday 13 May 2011

Book Review: Pathfinder by Ron Strickland

Back in the early 1970s a young backpacker named Ron Strickland had an idea for a trail from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. Decades of work followed, during which Ron campaigned for the trail, recruited supporters and trail builders and went out and worked and hiked on the route himself. Finally, in 2009, the Pacific Northwest Trail was designated a National Scenic Trail. Ron’s latest book Pathfinder is in part the story of the creation of this trail. However it’s not an account of endless meetings and masses of paperwork, tediously essential though these must have been, but rather a series of snapshots of various events and experiences that occurred during those years plus some digressions into hiking lore and literature (with a chapter on favourite backpacking books, which include one of mine – thanks Ron!). It’s a thoroughly entertaining read which can be enjoyed by anyone who loves backpacking and wild places, even if they’ve never been near the Pacific Northwest. Ron tells tales of hiking the PNT, including “bucking the brush” (an esoteric pleasure that I had a taste of during my PNT hike last summer), and of trail construction in tough conditions. Throughout the book there is a parade of larger-than-life characters from homesteader Ralph Thayer and gold miner Glee Davis and even a would-be terrorist who was unwittingly recruited as a trail builder through to modern day adventurer Andrew Skurka, the first person to hike the Sea to Sea route across the northern USA, another of Ron’s ideas. Interwoven with these people and a variety of wilderness adventures is Ron’s own love story, which makes the book a very personal story in a different way.

Overall this is one of the most enjoyable outdoor books I’ve read in many years. It really captures the experience and camaraderie of the outdoors and Ron’s love and devotion for the wilderness and hiking. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Dales Outdoor Weekend/Backpacker's Club

Last weekend I was at the Backpackers Club AGM and Dales Outdoor Weekend, at Stanhope in Weardale in County Durham. I arrived via the Weardale Railway (and four other trains from the end of the Annandale Way before that), a wonderful, locally revived line whose staff even erected a special short platform near the field in which the event was held, saving the road walk from Stanhope station. Stanhope itself is an interesting unspoilt stone-built town and provided good beer in several pubs (some of which had what looked like an exciting night life for such a small place!). The surrounding moors and woods are attractive too but I had no time to explore them, spending most of my time talking to people (and answering many queries - especially about tents). Much of Saturday was spent on the Cicerone stand where I signed some books, got to know my publishers better and chatted to outdoor writer Paddy Dillon. I also found time to wander round the gear displays, where there was a good range of tents and lightweight backpacking equipment.

The Saturday evening after the AGM there were a couple of slide shows before the talking began again. John Manning, a long time friend and fellow long distance hiker and outdoor writer, showed pictures of the trail angels who assist hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. Having hiked this magnificent route many years before John I was very entertained by his talk and pictures, which appeared to be about a totally different experience. When I h the PCT there were few other hikers and few trail angels (regular ones that is - local people were helpful throughout the hike). John showed pictures of water caches put out in the desert sections for hikers. I would have welcomed some of those!

But events like this are really about people, about the opportunity to talk with other like-minded backpackers about long trails (everywhere from Offa's Dyke to the Pacific Crest Trail), camping, outdoor gear and the whole outdoor experience. Thanks to everyone I met, old friends and new, those I talked to at length and those with whom I exchanged a few words. I enjoyed it all.

Update: Cicerone has put up a blog post about the weekend here.

Monday 9 May 2011

New TGO - Terra Nova Laser Ultra 1 and other reviews

The June issue of TGO is out with my review of the gear I used on the Southern Upland Way back in February, including Terra Nova's astonishingly light Laser Ultra 1 tent, the Rab Neo Stretch jacket in Polartec's new waterproof/breathable Neoshell material, Pacific Outdoor Equipment's Peak Elite AC air bed, GoLite's Terrono 70 pack, the PHD Hispar sleeping bag, Edelrid Kiro Ti stove, Western Mountaineering Flash XR down jacket and more plus a full kit list. In the same issue I've also reviewed first aid kits and other safety items and written about the launch of Neoshell in the Dolomites. Also in the gear section Judy Armstrong reviews women's trekking sandals.

Elsewhere in this issue Simon Yates is interviewed about parenthood and mountaineering, Kevin Langan describes his East Highland Way that links Fort William and Aviemore, Emily Rodway lools back at last years TGO readers' trek in Morocco, Emily Rawlins links the 3000 foot Lakeland summits by bus, Vivienne Crow takes an outdoor first aid course, Cameron McNeish praises the hills of Glen Shiel and Jim Perrin writes about access and those who wish to restrict it.

Thursday 5 May 2011

The Annandale Way

Just finished a six day walk along the Annandale Way, an interesting route in southwest Scotland. Following the River Annan from its source in the hills to the Solway Firth the walk is a mix of moors, forests, fields, rivers, lochs and coastlines. The walk is particularly rich in bird life - I was glad I'd taken my binoculars - and, at this time of year, wild flowers. As a backpacking route it has challenges - finding wild camp sites and, even more, water required time and effort. But I did find three excellent wild sites and two quiet camp sites at Lochmaben (a lovely lochside spot) and Castle Haddom. I'll be writing a detailed route description for

The picture shows my camp site on Sorrysike Moor.