Monday 30 April 2012

A Trip to Wales: the Berwyn Range and Llangollen Hills

The summit of Y Foel with the Berwyn range on the horizon
Some of my first hillwalking was in Wales, on school trips to Snowdonia, and later I was at college in Lampeter and explored the Pumlumon hills and climbed Cadair Idris. I’ve walking in the Black Mountains too and the Brecon Beacons. However I’d never been hillwalking in the steep country of north-east Wales around the attractive little town of Llangollen. Some old friends having moved to the area I visited it recently and was surprised and delighted at the ruggedness, steepness and height of the hills. This is splendidly complex country; a wonderful tangle of winding rivers, moorland hills, limestone escarpments and beautiful woods.

While staying with my friends I climbed three of the local hills; two of them easy short ascents, one a real mountain day. Firstly Denise and I with our friend Alain went up a gentle little moorland hill called Y Foel. Only 522 metres high and no more than an easy stroll this top still has a rough stony summit that gives it the feel of a bigger hill plus spreading views in every direction, views enhanced on my visit by the wild skies and racing clouds. Squalls could be seen sweeping across nearby hills and we were glad to be back down before the rain came.

Cadair Berwyn
The big hills in this area make up the Berwyn range, a long moorland ridge with some big craggy corries (or rather cwms as this is Wales) on its eastern edge and a high point of 830 metres on Cadair Berwyn. On the southern side of the range is the great waterfall of Pistyll Rhaedr, at 80 metres the highest in Wales and England, which crashes dramatically down a wooded gorge. There’s a car park here and a good cafĂ©. After fortifying ourselves with coffee and cake (it was raining) Alain and I set off into Cwm Nant Y Llyn, bracing ourselves against the keen wind and heavy showers. Ahead dark clouds were ripping across the hidden summits. As we climbed the wind strengthened and I wondered if we’d make the tops. Suddenly below us the dark waters of Llyn Lluncaws appeared, tucked into a rugged bowl. Two tents were pitched on the far shore, a fine wild site.

On the ridge above the little lake the rain turned to sleet and hail and gusts of wind threatened to blow us over. Struggling on we reached the gentler slopes of Moel Sych where, surprisingly, the wind was less strong. In thick mist now we followed the edge of the crags to the summit of Cadair Berwyn then turned to cross Moel Sych and descend a long heather and bog broad ridge back to Pistyll Rhaedr. As we dropped down the clouds began to lift and there was even a touch of sunshine. Behind us we could see the hills we’d climbed.

Castell Dinas Bran
Two days later Alain and I walked down through the woods from his house to Llangollen. Across the valley we could see the ragged ruins of an old castle on a steep hilltop. This is Castell Dinas Bran, a medieval castle that commands an extensive view on all sides. From afar the jagged crown of stones reminded me of Amon Sul in the film of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, where the Black Riders attack the Hobbits, which has a similar ruin on its summit. From the town we climbed the steep grassy slopes to the summit and admired the remnants of the castle and the tremendous vista on all sides. Looking down the Dee valley to the flatlands of England it was clear that an approaching army would be seen many miles away.

I have to admit I didn’t know the country round Llangollen was so rugged or interesting. I feel I have discovered a new outdoor world. I’ll be back.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Robert Saunders - Tent Maker

I was saddened to hear recently of the death of Robert Saunders, one of the pioneers of modern lightweight tent design. Back in the 1970s he was the first British tent maker to design lightweight nylon tents suitable for backpacking. My first proper backpacking tent was a Saunders Backpacker II, a tapered ridge tent with a thin breathable nylon inner and a large porch that weighed around 2kg. It pitched flysheet first and stood up to some wild weather on a Pennine Way walk one April, my first walk longer than a weekend. As the 'II' suggests it was designed for two people. There was a smaller Backpacker I but I've always preferred roomy shelters and the weight of the II was hardly prohibitive for solo use.

The Backpacker tents tapered ridge design has remained a functional one every since and has been given a new lease of life with the popularity of trekking poles, which were unheard of when Bob Saunders came up with it. The tent I used on the Pacific Northwest Trail in 2010, over 30 years after my Pennine Way walk, was nearly identical to my old Backpacker II. Good designs remain good designs.

The Backpacker tents were made with polyurethane coated nylon that eventually stiffened and cracked, meaning tents had a relatively short life (it was far inferior to today's PU coated nylon but all that was available). Dissatisifed with this material Bob Saunders was on the look out for something better. He found it too. At a trade show sometime in the 1980s I remember him showing me some new tent material. "Go on, tear that", he said. I couldn't. He handed me a piece of heavier PU coated nylon. It tore easily. The new fabric was silicone nylon, then unknown to UK backpackers. Soon Bob had a range of tents made from this innovative new material, with the lighter Jetpacker replacing the Backpacker. The Jetpacker was his lightest tent but more popular was his roomy single hoop Spacepacker, the first single hoop design to appear. Silnylon tent fabrics and single hoop designs are common now. Back then they were revolutionary.

Through the 1970s and 80s Saunders was one of the names in lightweight tents. Bob also supported the then new Backpacker's Club, advertising regularly in the club journal and turning up at AGMs with a display of tents. He also founded the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon, which I took part in several times in the 1980s and which is still run today.

Robert Saunders Tents ceased trading a few years ago. Now Robert himself has gone, at the grand old age of 82. His name and designs should live on in the history of backpacking and lightweight camping equipment. He really did make a difference.

I am pleased to see other reminiscences and obituaries elsewhere on the web - see My Outdoors, Outdoors Magic, The Outdoor Warehouse.

Friday 27 April 2012

Innov-Ex 2012: A Belated Report

Design Award Winner Jenni Campbell
Disappearing off to Wales (of which more in a future post) after the Pertex sponsored Innov-Ex Conference means that it's a week since I left Lancaster with my head buzzing with ideas and thoughts. This conference on the outdoor industry is always interesting and stimulating, both in the formal talks and discussions and in the conversations over coffees, food and beers.

The speakers I'd been looking forward to didn't let me down. Don Gladstone of ExploreRED described his project to track the life of outdoor garments and to look at mechanisms for moving them on when they are either no longer needed or worn out, including the idea of a reuse initiative in outdoor stores so retailers could resell restored gear. Don also raised one of the dilemmas of consumerism and the environment. Making less stuff saves resources and energy and reduces pollution. But what happens to those people whose living depends on making that stuff?

Phil Sorrell of Social Hiking
The other talk I was particularly interested in was Phil Sorrell - Daylight Gambler - on Web Apps, the Outdoors & Social Media. Phil ran through the development of social media and looked at all the options available today - some of which I have to admit to never heard of before (bambusa, foursquare?) before going on to describe his own Social Hiking app. He also asked the audience which social media they used and virtually everybody was on Twitter and Facebook with slightly fewer on Google +. Appropriately several people, including myself, were tweeting during the conference using the hashtag Innov-Ex. Phil's talk was fascinating but I needn't describe it in any more detail here as he has put his presentation on his website here.

On the subject of Twitter Veronica Legg, in her interesting talk on designing outdoor clothing and the surveys she has undertaken to see what users want, said that it was useful for gaining information from expert users unlike Facebook. She talked of analyzing what people wanted as democratising innovation and pointed out that 50-70% of outdoor gear was designed by lead users.

Veronica Legg was the winner of the Innov-Ex Design Award back in 2010. This year's winner was Jenni Campbell, a graduate of Strathclyde University, for her Cleat Feet, a system by which a running shoe can be quickly converted into a cycling shoe, something very useful for adventure racers. I was one of the judges and we were impressed by the practicality of the product and the fact that it was a finished item and not just a prototype or an idea. I expect to hear more of Cleat Feat and Jenni Campbell. The formal announcement of the award is here

Thursday 26 April 2012

Latest TGO - Delights of Camp Fires, Packing for Long Distance Walks, Compasses, Hiking Shirts, Montane Medusa 32 Pack

In the Teton National Forest on the Continental Divide Trail, 1985

The latest TGO is out. This is the extra issue for this year, called the Spring issue and sandwiched between the May and June issues. My Backpacking Column, called Dreaming the Fire, is about the joys of camp fires, from traditional ones in stone fire rings like that pictured to modern mini-ones contained in ultralight wood-burning stoves.

In gear I review a dozen hiking shirts and a half-dozen compasses and have a first look at the new Montane Medusa 32 pack (more than a first look really as I've been using it since last autumn). Elsewhere John Manning covers 12 two-person geodesic tents.

The theme of this issue is long-distance paths and in the Hill Skills section I've given some suggestions for packing for a long-distance walk. On the actual paths themselves Alf Alderson recommends ten sections of the new Wales Coast Path, Stephen Goodwin hikes the Hadrian's Wall Path and there's an overview of Britain's National Trails.

There's much more in this issue of course including Carey Davies visiting the Lake District for a scramble along Striding Edge and some dinghy sailing on Ullswater; Ed Byrne having fun with a food dehydrator; Judy Armstrong trekking across the Vanoise National Park; Emily Rodway meeting the Ramblers new boss Benedict Southworth; Cameron McNeish doing a circuit of the summits of Bidean nam Bian in Glencoe; Jim Perrin praising Howard Hill's Freedom to Roam; Kevin Walker looking at what to do when "navigationally challenged"; John White suggesting ways to predict the weather and guest columnist Simon Yates considering how modern communications have changed the experience of mountaineering.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Innovation for Extremes Conference 2012

Innov-Ex organisers Mary Rose and Mike Parsons speaking at the 2011 event

Later today I'll be heading down to Lancaster for the 2012 Innovation for Extremes (Innov-Ex) conference, which looks at innovation and sustainability in the outdoors industry. For the third year running I'll be there as one of the judges of the Design Award. However I'll also have an opportunity to listen to the talks and I'm particularly looking forward to hearing Phil Sorrell of Social Hiking on web apps, the outdoors and social media and Don Gladstone of ExploreRED on recycling outdoor gear. Details of the conference with the full agenda can be found here. The conference is available on a live webstream for a £40 fee.

As well as the formal business much of the enjoyment and inspiration of the conference comes of course from meetings over meals and drinks, both with those I only meet at events like this and those I've never met before. I'm anticipating much information and stimulation from these as yet unknown conversations.

Saturday 14 April 2012

April Showers, April Snow

On the descent from Meall a'Bhuachaille

After the heat wave of March, the winter of April. Snow on the hills, frost in the glens, a chill in the air. This is how winter should be. The weather has turned and spring is on hold.

View down Ryvoan Pass to the Northern Cairngorms

Having a few hours to spare in Aviemore before a meeting I decided on a taste of the changed weather with an ascent of Meall a’Bhuachaille above Glenmore, a favourite walk that combines many of the features that make the Cairngorms so wonderful – ancient pine woods, a lovely lochan, a fine summit and a great sense of space – yet can be easily done in half a day. The frosty morning threatened fine weather with clear skies and touches of sunshine over Glenmore Forest, though the high tops of the Cairngorms were cloud-capped, just the ragged white edges protruding below the greyness showing the snow that had fallen overnight. As I admired the regenerating forest spreading up the slopes either side of An Lochan Uaine I knew that the forecast was for heavy wintry showers. The Green Lochan itself lived up to its name, glowing a rich green with the reflection of the pines on its shores. At one end a new construction – a wooden viewing platform on a steep slope with a pseudo-rustic bench and rail – was a jarring reminder of some people’s inability to leave nature alone. Why ever was this completely unnecessary edifice constructed here? I guess when the bright new wood weathers it will be less brash and obtrusive but that’s no justification.

An Lochan Uaine

Beyond the lochan the trees started to thin out and I could feel the chill edge of the north-east wind. By the time I was on the climb up Meall a’Bhuachaille the first slashes of sleet were whipping across my face. Soon the sleet turned to snow, great wet flakes driven sideways on the wind. Visibility shrank as I entered the cloud and I felt as though I was inside the storm. The summit cairn and stone windbreak was rapidly disappearing under the settling snow. I lingered briefly, wondering if this was a squall that would soon pass, but soon decided the dense cloud and icy blast was here to stay and skittered off down the slippery stones of the descent path. Below two hazy walkers were also making their way down. Beyond them a shining patch of lighter air was all that was visible of Loch Morlich.

The summit of Meall a'Bhuachaille

Back down at the forest’s edge it was still snowing, though I was out of the cloud. Glad of the shelter of the trees I walked back down to the glen floor, the snow soon changing to rain. Later in the afternoon a quick clearance showed the hills shining white with new snow, as wintry as they’ve looked all year. 

Sunday 8 April 2012

And The Rain Came

Dusk at the First Camp

Following the sudden return to winter, (after which I went cross-country skiing from the front door for a few hours for only the second time this season), the weather forecast looked reasonable, predicting frosty nights and a mix of wintry showers and very clear air, especially in the west. Not having visited the North-West Highlands much since researching my book on the area (Guide to Walks in the North-West Highlands) I decided it was time to go back to this favourite area and in particular beautiful Loch Maree and the Letterewe hills.

Snow showers were still falling in Strathspey and some roads to the south and east were still blocked but the way west was open as I set off for Kinlochewe and the start of the walking. The western skies were bright too, luring me onwards away from the clouds and greyness. The hills around Loch Maree were snowy and shining in the late afternoon sun. The walk along on the northern shore of the loch, below the great walls of Slioch and with the sinking sun glowing on the water was magical. At the head of the loch the gorse was in brilliant flower, yellow and glorious. Wild goats browsed on the thorny bushes. I watched one large flock, noting how they munched for a few minutes, then lay chewing for a while and then ambled on to find another tasty-looking bush. Although I’d seen wild goats in this area before, most memorably high on Slioch when a pair had appeared ghost-like in the mist seconds after their pungent smell had warned me of their presence, I’d never seen this number before, some twenty-six in all.

Goats & Gorse

Wandering down the loch side I came upon several tempting camp sites. The evening was too wonderful to stop before dusk though and the sun was just touching the horizon when I finally pitched my shelter on a small knoll looking over the loch to the snowy crags of Meall Ghiubhais and the westernmost peaks of Beinn Eighe standing stark against the slowly darkening sky. An almost-full moon and the first stars were lighting the sky as I fell asleep, the temperature a touch below freezing.

Camp 1 Evening

Cold rain woke me about 4 a.m., blowing in the open tarp door. The wind had shifted 180 degrees. The temperature was +4°C. The hills were cloud-hidden. A brief excursion outside was needed to move the door to the other end of the shelter, away from the wind, then it was back to sleep, only to be woken after dawn by rain on my face again. The wind had moved back. The clouds were thicker and heavier, the rain stronger. I deliberated over a prolonged breakfast that ran into an early lunch. Walk out or walk on? I felt reluctant to depart. I was here now. I would continue, in the hope of better weather.

Camp 1 Morning

It was the afternoon of the next day when I arrived back at my car. It was still raining. I’d climbed one hill, camped in the remote wildness of the Letterewe Forest and hiked back over a pass to Loch Maree. And all the time it had rained. With rain and water all there was to see I noted the varieties of rain – fine and misty; thick, spattering globs; steady, driving sheets; insistent drizzle. New streams and waterfalls sprang up on the hillsides. Paths became rushing rivulets or long, muddy pools. Stream crossings became a problem. A couple of times I had to work a way upstream to find a safe-looking ford and then struggle knee-deep through the surging water. My second camp was near such a torrent, on slightly raised ground I hoped would be clear of any flooding. It was, just, with pools forming all around by dawn. 

View from the tent, Camp 2, morning

Whilst the sunshine, clear views and snowy summits I’d hoped for had disappeared in the storm the wet weather was in its own way invigorating and exciting. The constant roar of the streams and rivers, the thrashing white cascades, the constantly shifting clouds – all spoke of a mobile, impermanent world and the amazing power of water to carve and shape the landscape. 

The river in Srathan Buidhe

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Fine Weather Faded, Spring On Hold

Snow After Dark, April 2, 2012
The heat wave with its record temperatures, deep blue skies and dry air has slowly faded over the last few days, ending this evening with heavy snow falling. Winter has returned and the early signs of spring will need to be resilient to survive the cold and snow. A few days ago, as the sun hung on in a hazy sky, I explored the local woods in search of the first flowers and found primroses and lesser celandine, bright against the debris of the forest floor. Those flowers will be under snow now. 

Lesser Celandine

On Bynack More
A day later I headed out for what was intended as a last sunny and warm day in the hills before the weather returned to normal for the time of year. The clouds were thicker than forecast though and the wind stronger and colder. I wandered up Bynack More on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms. The gusty, skin-tingling west wind swept across the long north ridge and I dropped down to a path on the eastern side rather than following the crest. On the summit the wind was gusting to 36mph and the temperature was 7.5°C. Instead of sitting in the sunshine as I had five days earlier on Ben Macdui I sheltered behind one of the many rough granite boulders that decorate the top for a snack and a drink before heading back down out of the wind.

The next day light drizzle heralded the final end of the exceptional weather. Overnight the temperature fell to zero. Snow was forecast. And yesterday evening it came, at the time predicted, starting out fine and thin but soon turning heavy and wet as darkness fell. By midnight the snow lay thick and deep and it continued to fall. The change is abrupt, the sunshine and warmth of a week ago already a fading memory, a story to tell of March days that felt more like summer. Now we wait to see how long the new winter will last.