Tuesday 31 October 2017

A Wander Up Craigellachie

After spending the best part of the last two weeks with a very bad cold that made going up and down the stairs exhausting I finally made it into the hills with a gentle amble up Craigellachie. The birch woods here are always lovely, but especially so in autumn. With a light breeze just causing the leaves to move in the hazy, damp air the trees looked insubstantial and magical, a wash of colour.

At the back of Aviemore, just before the underpass that takes you under the noisy roaring traffic on the A9, a heron posed for me by a pond. Then it was into the Nature Reserve and the start of the woodland walk on a wet path.

The woods shimmered. I listened and looked for the peregrine falcons often found here but heard and saw nothing. The grey sky high above was quiet.

The path started to narrow and steepen as it began the climb out of the woods. The ground was wet and slippery with fallen leaves and greasy rocks. Above, the clouds started to break apart and become ragged, torn by the wind. Patches of blue appeared. Maybe the summit would be clear. Maybe.

Now I was on the edge of the woods, looking over the trees as they rippled into the distance in waves of colour.

Above the trees the wind caught me, strong and specked with rain. It wasn't cold though - a light jacket and shirt was enough to keep me warm. The clouds raced me to the top and of course won. There were no views. Rain started to  fall. I didn't mind. The glorious woods were uplifting. Content, I descended in the dusk.

The blurring on my jacket is wind movement caught by a slow shutter speed. It was dark in the mist, the light already fading on this last October day.

Some Thoughts On Lightweight Flexible Footwear In Winter

On the Cairngorm Plateau, November 2016.

The first snow is on the tops. There are noticeably more hours of darkness than light. Winds bite more, rain feels colder. This is the time of year when my hill footwear of choice changes from trail shoes and, in the warmest weather, sandals to lightweight boots.

The advantages of lightweight footwear have become more accepted in recent years, at least for summer use. However there is still a view that heavy stiff boots are needed in winter, on the basis that you need the stiffness for security on snow and so that crampons can be used when necessary. In fact, the reasons for wearing lightweight footwear – less tiring, more comfortable, allowing the feet to move naturally – are just as valid in winter. Boots are often labelled 3, 3-4 or 4 season, with the idea that only the last two categories are suitable for winter, and 3-4 season only just. Actually, all this labelling tells you is how stiff footwear is and whether it’s suitable for winter climbing. For hill walking these categories are meaningless. A 4-season boot is really a snow and ice climbing boot not a winter walking boot.

Warm and Dry without Weight

Wet feet, which are no more than a nuisance in summer, are much more unpleasant when it’s cold. Keeping your feet warm and dry doesn’t have to mean heavy, thick boots though. There are other, more comfortable, ways of achieving this. If you rely solely on your footwear to keep your feet comfortable when it’s cold then heavy boots can do this. However careful choice of socks plus the use of gaiters can mean that your feet stay warm even in light non-waterproof footwear. Many years ago I spent two weeks backpacking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in October. The weather was stormy, with wet snow falling most days, and the trails were ankle deep in slush. My trail shoes were soaked most of the time yet my feet stayed warm because I was wearing waterproof/breathable Sealskinz socks. By the end of each day these were damp inside and my feet felt cool when I stopped to camp so in the tent I changed into thick merino wool socks. Turned inside out the SealSkinz socks dried overnight in my sleeping bag and were ready for wear the next day. They didn’t stay fully waterproof but they kept the wind out and so my feet stayed warm. When cold weather backpacking I always have dry thick socks or insulated booties for camp wear. Sometimes I take both.

In the White Mountains it wouldn’t have made any difference if my shoes had had a waterproof/breathable membrane lining (they didn’t) as the slush came over the ankles at times. However a waterproof lining can help keep feet dry and warm in the cold and I don’t mind footwear with a waterproof lining then, though I find one too warm outside of winter conditions. Of course you need to keep snow and water out of your footwear, whether membrane-lined or not, if you don’t wear waterproof socks. Gaiters are the answer here of course and the combination of waterproof lined lightweight boots, thick wool socks and gaiters is very effective. For gaiters to be effective they must cover the uppers of the footwear, which means most don’t work well with low-cut shoes though they’re fine with mid-height boots. I don’t really like wearing gaiters though so they often stay in the pack, only being worn if the snow’s deep or there are bogs or mud to wade through.

On Ben Macdui
Above the Snowline

For much winter walking the main concerns are keeping your feet warm and dry. However once there is snow and ice on the hills everything changes and walking becomes much more serious. The main concerns then are safety and security, which means being able to negotiate snow slopes and ice patches without slipping. This is where some people insist that heavy, stiff boots are the only suitable footwear. Indeed, whenever I suggest that lightweight footwear can be used safely on snowy hills I’m accused of giving dangerous advice. So let me make it clear in what conditions I find lightweight footwear okay. I’m talking about hill walking and backpacking on the same terrain those activities are carried out in summer. I accept that for technical snow and ice climbing stiffer footwear is required. But most walkers don’t venture onto such terrain and don’t require heavy, stiff boots let alone specialist mountaineering ones.

Kicking steps in snow might be required in places though so footwear with hard toes is a good idea. Footwear that’s reasonable stiff side to side is useful too as it’s easier to kick the edges into the snow when traversing. However there’s no need for stiffness toe to heel, as this just makes walking harder and more tiring. Flexible footwear is fine in the snow.

On Ben Macdui

Hard snow and ice requires crampons and here the voices demanding heavy, stiff footwear become more vociferous. There’s still a strong belief that crampons can only be fitted safely to stiff or semi-stiff boots. It’s not true. It’s always been possible to fit walkers’ crampons to flexible boots. Often boots are given a rating that is supposed to say whether they can be fitted with crampons or not. Lightweight boots and shoes always come in the B0 category, meaning unsuitable for crampons. In fact they’re not unsuitable for crampons at all and I recommend ignoring these ratings. Shops often use them and say they can’t or won’t fit crampons to lightweight footwear. In that case I’d take your custom to a more enlightened store where the staff don’t say you must have heavy, uncomfortable boots to use crampons. Such advice can itself be dangerous. I’ve met people in the hills without crampons in conditions that warranted them who after being told they needed expensive stiff boots to wear crampons decided they’d do without and go anyway.

In fact there are now crampons designed to fit almost any footwear, even running shoes. Walkers’ crampons have a flexible bar connecting the front and rear of the crampons, which means that the crampons can flex with footwear. Stiff crampons require stiff boots because if the boots flex and the crampons don’t the crampons could come off or even break. I’ve used quite a few different types of flexible crampons with flexible boots without problem. The lightest are made from aluminium. These aren’t very tough however. I’ve blunted a pair of aluminium crampons in a few hours when walking over icy rocks. Steel is harder and also easier to sharpen. If you’ll be wearing crampons much I’d go for steel ones.

Crampons need to fit of course and you should be able to pick up the footwear by the crampons and shake it without the crampons coming loose. In use it’s best to keep as much of the crampon in contact with the ground as possible so that all the points bite. Here flexible footwear is useful as it allows you to flex your ankles. Balancing on the front points of the crampons is hard work if at all possible and not very stable – you do need stiff boots for this. If you’ve not worn crampons before it’s best to practise on safe slopes.

Often crampons are only needed for short periods when crossing hard snow or ice. In soft snow they can be a nuisance and it’s best to take them off unless you know you’ll need them again soon. Sometimes however crampons are needed all day and despite what many people say they can be worn comfortably with flexible footwear for long periods of time. Once I wore a pair with Keen Targhee Mid boots for a crossing of the Cairngorm plateau to Ben MacDui and back. There was little snow but sheets of ice between every rock. Without crampons walking was difficult and dangerous. I put the crampons on long before I reached the plateau and kept them on until I was almost back down. The terrain was difficult and unforgiving – rock, ice or frozen ground – and much harder to walk on than snow yet throughout the day I felt secure and the boot/crampon combination was very comfortable. 

A lighter alternative to crampons are micro spikes and similar. These are okay on gentler terrain and can be used on steeper ground with care. On an ascent of Bynack More on hard icy snow I reckoned I’d reached the limits with a pair of these. I had to tread more carefully than with full-size crampons and I made sure my ice axe was firmly thrust into the snow before each step.

Sunday 29 October 2017

'Out There' reviewed in Wild Land News

"This is a book to savour ... extremely well-written .... Chris is a compelling and engaging author .... too many delights in its pages to describe in a brief review, I suggest you read and enjoy it".

Beryl Leatherland in Wild Land News Autumn 2017.

I'm delighted to that Out There has received another positive review. As it came out last year I wasn't expecting any more. This review is in the excellent magazine of the Scottish Wild Land Group, Wild Land News, which you can read online here. The review starts on page 35. Do please read the whole magazine. It's all good stuff.

Talk on my Scottish Watershed Walk to the Scottish Wild Land Group, Dunkeld, November 4

View across Rannoch Moor from the Scottish Watershed

On November 4 I'm giving an illustrated talk on my Scottish Watershed walk for the Scottish Wild Land Group. The venue is the excellent Birnam Arts and Conference Centre in Dunkeld. The talk should start about 2.45, straight after the SWLG AGM. You don't need to be a member to come to the talk.

Friday 27 October 2017

Photography: How many megapixels do you need?

Ama Dablam

When I changed from film to digital nearly fourteen years ago I asked book and magazine editors what their minimum technical requirements were. Six megapixels and an APS-C sensor was the reply from them all. I didn't then know what these terms meant but I duly went out and purchased a Canon 300D DSLR with those specifications. Since then I've stuck with the APS-C sensor but have gone through 8, 12 and 14 megapixel cameras. My current ones are 24 megapixels, four times that of the first Canon.

Do I need this many megapixels? I guess if I was producing billboard posters I might even need more though billboards are usually viewed at a distance so fine detail isn't required. But for book and magazine publication I don't. Six is still fine unless the images are cropped, when more more megapixels are useful. A quarter of one of my current pictures is roughly equivalent to a full size one from the 300D and so should have the same quality.

These thoughts were brought on by the wonderful new book Great Hiking Trails of the World, that I described here. I have four pictures in that book, all taken with the 300D. Each covers a page and a bit and measures 35 x 25.5cms. They've been reproduced well and look fine. The original raw (unprocessed) files are around 7mb each. After processing in Lightroom the TIFF files I sent the publisher are 36mb, the highest quality I can output from the raw files. I rarely use TIFF files though as they are so big, taking space to store and time to send. For magazines I usually send best quality JPEGs, which run from 2 to 15mb, depending on the camera used. Online I use much smaller JPEGs. One of my images from the book is at the head of this piece. It's 657kb, not even 1mb, which is roughly the size of all the images I post online.

That images taken with a 6 megapixel camera give such good results is pleasing. Those editors fourteen years ago are still right! And since then not one editor has asked me how many megapixels my camera has.

For those interested the technical information for the above photo is Canon EOS 300D camera with Canon EF-S18-55 f3.5-5.6 lens at 18mm, ISO 200, f8 @ 1/160. Raw file processed in Lightroom 6 with highlights reduced and contrast, clarity and vibrance increased.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Scandinavia for Backpacking & Ski Touring

A fine camp on my Scandinavian Mountain Walk

There's a new piece by Alex Roddie on The Great Outdoors website called 'Why are British backpackers heading for Scandinavia?'. It's an excellent feature, with contributions from several experienced backpackers in praise of the Scandinavian outdoors. I'm delighted to see it but I must admit that one of my reactions was 'it's about time'. I've been promoting Scandinavia for walking, backpacking and ski touring since my first visit there in 1987 but there's never been much interest from many people. Eleven years ago I wrote a general introduction to the area for The Great Outdoors, which I posted here. If backpackers are now starting to discover Scandinavia that's great news.

Back in 1982 I walked the length of Norway and Sweden. As it's the 25th anniversary of this 2200km walk this year I posted some pictures and a few notes about it here, and  here. I never wrote much about this walk - just one magazine article I think - or gave many talks as there just wasn't much interest. Yet it was a magnificent walk with spectacular scenery and wild country.

Reading Alex's piece revived ideas for another long walk in Scandinavia. I haven't been there for five years and my last trip was a short one as a judge for the Scandinavian Outdoor Award. It did involve a wild camp and two days walking, which I wrote about here and here. In the last piece I discuss the differences between the Swedish and Scottish hills. That Scandinavia is like the Highlands on a vast scale is a theme in Alex Roddie's piece, where some walkers say that they feel the Highlands are too damaged by developments for enjoyable long-distance walks now. I disagree - try the Watershed! - but it is true that the Scandinavian mountains are mostly more natural in terms of vegetation and the sheer size means that avoiding developments is easier than in Scotland.

Scandinavia is a superb place for backpacking but the season is short due to the northern location. There is even more scope for ski touring. During the 1990s I worked as a ski leader, mostly in Scandinavia, and led many trips, mostly hut-to-hut, but some camping. When the land is snow-covered travel is often easier than in summer, as long as you have skis or snowshoes. Lakes and rivers become highways instead of obstacles. Dense vegetation is buried.

My last ski tour in Scandinavia was eleven years ago when I led a hut-to-hut trip in the Halingskarvet and Hardangervidda region for the Inverness Nordic Ski Club. I must go back!

Monday 23 October 2017

A Year Ago Today In Death Valley

The first rays of the sun reach the Panamint Mountains

Sitting at my desk trying to finish a review of trousers for winter hillwalking while recovering from a bad cold that has keep me indoors for the best part of a week I found my mind wandering to a year ago today. Then I woke alone in the vastness of Death Valley and sat watching as the sun rose through thin clouds and lit up the peaks of the Panamint Mountains some 10,000 feet above me, mountains I'd been on just the day before.

My last camp

This was the last camp on my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk. Packing my gear for the last time I set out across the flat heart of Death Valley, surrounded by desert and mountain. A sign and a road on the far side and my journey was complete. The world changed. That evening I found myself in a hotel in Las Vegas, only a few hours away from Death Valley in distance but a different planet in feel.

A year later I think about this walk frequently. The wonder, the pleasure, the beauty, the intense experience of being in the wilds have all deepened with time.


Here are some more pictures from that last strange and glorious day.

In the morning
In the evening

I wrote about the whole walk here.