Wednesday 31 July 2019

Off to the Colorado Rockies! Unfinished Business on the Continental Divide Trail

View from James Peak, September 12, 1985, Continental Divide Trail

Back in 1985 I hiked the Continental Divide Trail from Canada to Mexico. Winter came early to the Colorado Rockies that year - on September 7 I crossed the inappropriately named Farview Pass in a blizzard in the appropriately named Never Summer Wilderness. After that snow became more and more of a problem, forcing me to take lower routes and often meaning I saw little. This entry from my journal is typical 'took three hours struggling up to 12,700' unnamed pass, last 6-700' in knee-deep breakable crust snow .... saddle on far side corniced. No chance! Snow just impossible'.

Eventually I conceded that I had to stay lower where the snow was thinner and I was out of the clouds and bitter wind. That meant much road walking, often in rain and wet snow. Rather than enjoying the mountains I was looking forward to leaving the Rockies for the lower, drier deserts of New Mexico.

I've meant to go back and see the mountains I missed ever since and finally this summer I'm going to do it.

Camp on the shoulder of James Peak, September, 1985

In 1985 there was no set route for the CDT in Southern Colorado. The first guidebook only came out a year later, Volume 5 of Jim Wolf's Guide to the Continental Divide Trail. I'd used the first four volumes and before the walk had contacted Jim who was very helpful with my planning. The route I tried to follow in Southern Colorado was suggested by Jim. The year after my walk he sent me a copy of the Southern Colorado guide. This summer I'm finally going to use it. My plan is to walk the route in the guide from Copper Mountain to Cumbres Pass, a distance of some 410 miles.

On this trip I'll be supported by my Colorado friends Andrew Terrill and Igloo Ed, both of whom I hope will be able to join me at times. My original plan had been to walk the Colorado Trail, which coincides with the CDT in places and goes through the same areas. However on hearing of this plan Andrew commented that the Colorado Trail 'seems to miss the best of the regions it passes though, skirting the finest parts of the Lost Creek Wilderness, the Holy Cross Wilderness, the Collegiate Peaks, and the Weminuche', all  areas I wanted to see. On looking at the maps I saw he was right and that the CDT took a higher line more in the heart of the mountains, so that's what I'll be doing. Snow permitting.

Before the snow. On Lost Ranger Peak in Northern Colorado

Saturday 27 July 2019

Wildlife is wildlife, never 'vermin'

The indefatigable conservation campaigner Chris Packham has written an excellent piece on Vermin. He's also offering a t-shirt design. I might well get one made as this is something I feel very strongly about. Words are so powerful. Here's what I wrote about these destructive words in Along The Divide. 
'I shudder when I hear anyone refer to ‘vermin’ or ‘pests’ in reference to any creature that might eat other creatures that hunters and gamekeepers want to kill. These negative words essentially say that such creatures aren’t worth anything and it’s fine to slaughter them, indeed it may be a duty to do so. That way hen harriers, eagles, red kites, foxes, stoats, pine martens and more can all be dismissed. Often those saying this claim their aim is to protect wildlife. This is to divide wildlife into good wildlife and bad wildlife, rather like the deserving and undeserving poor of the nineteenth century (and a view that hasn’t gone away unfortunately). Wildlife is wildlife. All wildlife. No species is more deserving than another.' 

Photograph of the fox taken in my garden earlier this month.

Thursday 25 July 2019

Thoughts on long-distance hiking and a review of sorts of The Great Alone

Autumn comes to the North Cascades on the Pacific Crest Trail, September 1982

Tim Voors walked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016. I walked it thirty-four years earlier, in 1982. We’ve both written books about our walks. Tim Voors The Great Alone was published earlier this year. My book, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, in 2014. Both books describe a continuous walk of the trail from Mexico to Canada yet they are very different. Partly this is due to the numbers hiking the trail. 120 thru-hike permits were issued in 1982 and 11 hikers finished the trail. In 2016 3493 thru-hike permits were issued and 753 hikers finished. (See the Pacific Crest Trail Associationwebsite for more information like this). These figures make a huge difference to the trail experience, especially for hikers setting off around the same time, as most do to take advantage of the longest weather window between winters. I often went several days without seeing another person. Voors writes ‘there is always someone who will pass you within a few hours if you need help’.  He also writes ‘the PCT is all about community’. The number of other hikers doesn’t explain the big differences between Voors experiences and mine on its own though, or rather what each of use found the most important experiences.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that I enjoyed The Great Alone and think it’s a good book worth reading by anyone interested in long-distance hiking and the effect it has on people. Voors writes well and describes how the trail and the people he met changed him. He also discusses various aspects of PCT life from trail angels to survival skills. Photographs, drawings and paintings by the author conjure up the trail well. The book also stimulated these thoughts, which is what a good book should do.

So this isn’t meant to be a negative review. However, as I read The Great Alone I began to wonder about the title. There are so many people, so many town stops, so little time actually alone with nature. Later in the book it becomes apparent that Voors did feel alone when he only met people at camp and hiked all day by himself. Indeed, he sometimes felt lonely and hurried on to catch people up or reach a road or town. His definition of being alone and mine are very different. I’ve never felt lonely on any long walk. If I meet people during the day and especially if I camp with them I don’t feel alone.  I did hike with others through the snowbound High Sierra on the PCT for security and I did enjoy this but for well over half the trail I was alone and happy to be so. So for me the title of Voors book is a little misleading though maybe others without long-distance hiking experience may well feel the title is right. 

A companion in the High Sierra on the PCT, June, 1982
Much of The Great Alone concentrates on roughly the first thousand miles with the last sixteen hundred passed over quite quickly. I wonder if Voors was losing interest by then – or maybe he was just running close to a word limit for the book. Either way the deserts and High Sierra dominate the book with the Cascades rather rushed through.

As I read I also felt an absence. There’s very little about the actual landscapes, little about natural history, geology, conservation, human history. Because I’ve walked the trail I could envisage where Voors was and fill in many of the missing details. I think if I’d never walked the PCT I’d have felt frustrated. I’d want to know about the forests, the desert ecology, conservation designations, the San Andreas Fault, John Muir, strato-volcanoes, the story of the trail itself, the towns along the way. Instead the book is very much about people and about Voors himself. There’s not actually much about the trail or the land it passes through. 

Mount Adams, a 3743 metre stratovolcano. PCT, August 1982
There is much in The Great Alone about the toughness of the PCT, about the suffering and endurance involved in a thru-hike. Now a 2600 mile desert and mountain backpacking journey is always going to be strenuous and involve some aches and pains but I never went through the physical and mental injury and anguish that Voors and many of the hikers he met did. Partly this is due to individual natures, but I think a fair amount is due to preparation and experience. Many of today’s PCT hikers seem to have little of either. When I hiked the trail I’d done a fair amount of long-distance walking in Britain, including two 500 miles trips in the Scottish Highlands. I had far worse weather and difficult walking conditions on those trips than anywhere on the PCT. I reckon if you can handle long-distance walking in the Highlands you can manage anywhere! A few years ago one very experienced long-distance hiker did some walking in Scotland and announced the country was unsuitable for long-distance walking due to the lack of decent trails and facilities. Scottish walking is tough! The hikers I teamed up with to go through the High Sierra on the PCT had all hiked the 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail in the eastern USA. 

I don’t think there need be a conflict between a trail being about community and nature or about people and solitude. Some people find a few hours alone quite enough while others, like me, are happy with days or weeks on their own. The longest I’ve been without seeing anybody or even any sign of humanity was ten days on my length of the Yukon Territory walk. I wasn’t even aware I’d be alone that long until I worked it out. I never felt lonely though, there was so much to see and do.
Sharing the experience of a long walk is valuable and creates bonds between people, often people from such different backgrounds and places that they would otherwise never meet. On the trail everyone is equal. This year I took part in the 40th TGO Challenge crossing of the Scottish Highlands (see this post). This was my sixteenth crossing and I was also on the first, 39 years ago. Over the decades I’ve watched the event become more popular and much more people-centred. It’s still possible to take part without meeting many other Challengers – just as I’m sure it’s possible to hike the PCT without being part of the crowd (or moving party as I’ve heard it described, a description that fits some TGO Challengers too). I rarely meet any other Challengers until the finish. Once there I do enjoy meeting others and talking about our crossings. 

'Interesting' weather on this year's TGO Challenge

I walk to experience and be in nature. I am happy to be alone. Others find meeting people and even being part of a group important. Both approaches are valid. There is no right or wrong way to do a long-distance walk. All that matter is to leave little trace of your passing. 

Sunday 21 July 2019

Thinking About The Pacific Crest Trail

Castle Crags, July 21, 1982

Thirty-seven years ago today I was on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Castle Crags Wilderness Area in Northern California. I've been thinking about the PCT again as I've just finished reading Tim Voors' The Great Alone about his recent PCT thru-hike. I'll review the book more thoroughly soon but the main thought it leaves me with is how different the views of a long walk can be. My experience was very different to his. Compared with the PCT in 1982 The Crowded Trail would have been a better title for his book! I went for nature, wildness and the freedom of the outdoors. Voors did the same but seems to have most enjoyed the people he met.

Read my account of the PCT along with Voors and I think the contrasts are clear.

Saturday 20 July 2019

The Great Outdoors August issue

Here's a brief look at what's in the latest issue of The Great Outdoors. Following Emily Rodway's departure this issue is edited by online editor Alex Roddie, who's currently away hiking the Pyrenean Haute Route. Next month new editor Carey Davies takes over.

This issue has details of The Great Outdoors Awards 2019. Get your nominations in!

My gear review is of fourteen sleeping mats ranging from minimalist closed cell foam ones to thick insulated ones as comfortable as your bed at home. Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong reviews six pairs of women's lightweight boots.

The opening spread is a lovely misty dawn photo of Suilven from Stac Pollaidh by James Roddie. 

The BMC's successful Mend Our Mountains fundraising campaign (organised by TGO's new editor) offered various prizes, including days out with well-known walkers and climbers, or, in the case of Alan Rowan, a night out. Alan describes how the bidder for the night walk with him was Carles Ibanez, who he'd met in a bothy a year earlier. There's an interview with Carles too.

Following the 40th TGO Challenge organisers Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden (who did the Challenge herself this year) look at what makes the event so special.

Jim Perrin looks at Lakeland outlier Black Combe, a hill that inspired writer Harry Griffin, in his Mountain Portrait column.

Up in the Highlands Cameron McNeish writes about Kinlochleven as a perfect base for for walkers.

In Snowdonia Sarah Stirling goes swimming in mountain lakes and describes her favourite lake walks.

Daniel Neilson is in Snowdonia too and the Peak District and the Cairngorms as he goes in search of places with the devil in their name.

Tom Prentice has written a new guidebook to the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye and describes the explorations he undertook researching the book.

In the Lake District rain cuts short an attempt by Paul Beasley to follow a river to the sea.

Alex Roddie returns to the Mettelhorn in the Alps after a decade and finds that the retreat of the glaciers has changed the landscape greatly.

Sunday 14 July 2019

Trains, trade shows, thunderstorms.... and the peace of nature

Foxgloves and greenness. Strathspey, July 13.

Last week I was down south in Manchester at the Outdoor Trade Show, wandering hot, stuffy windowless halls looking at gear designed to be used in the open air and wild places. The contrast strikes me every year. The best aspect of these shows is meeting people, old friends and new. And some of the gear is interesting too - it'll be reviewed in The Great Outdoors over the next year (some isn't available until next spring).

View from the train.

After the three days of the show I was happy to make the long train journey north. Thunderstorms were forecast but the view from the train showed a sunny day. Texts from home told of torrential rain and damage to the track to our house. And the train was delayed due to flooding on the line. Then when I got home I found lightning had taken out landline and broadband, leaving just a very weak mobile signal.

Needing to escape from the frustration of trying to work on the phone I went for a walk. The day was muggy, drizzly and dark, the hills swathed in thick clouds. But there were flowers, many flowers, and wildlife - roe deer, buzzards, red squirrels, rooks and more. And the rich greenness of the grasses and trees was soothing. Calmed by nature I returned home in a more accepting frame of mind.

Sunday 7 July 2019

Inverness, Edinburgh, Manchester - Sandstone, DofE Gold, Outdoor Trade Show - July non-outdoor travels.

After sunset from a high camp, June 2018
The first half of this month is busy, very busy, with travels to different events all connected to the outdoors but all taking place indoors.

First came a trip to Inverness where my publishers Sandstone Press were holding a party to celebrate moving into new bigger offices. There I enjoyed talking to many people including fellow Sandstone authors Cameron McNeish and John Allen - the latter's Cairngorm John was Sandstone's best seller until recently. Now, unsurprisingly, it's Man Booker winner Jokha Alharthi's Celestial Bodies. There's a new updated edition of Cairngorm John due out soon - maybe it will regain the top spot!

Before the Sandstone party had even finished I had to dash off for the last train to Edinburgh as the next day I was a presenter at the big DofE Gold Awards at Holyrood Palace. When I say big I mean huge. There were twenty-four presentations (I did two) to almost 1000 young people. Handing out the awards to the eighty young people in my groups I reckon I was photographed at least four hundred times! It was a rewarding, interesting and tiring day. I was well out of my comfort zone too - I had to wear a suit and shirt and tie, for only the second time in many decades. (Mountaineer Alan Hinkes, another presenter, has photographs!).

Back home very late in the evening from Edinburgh I've had two days to get ready to head to Manchester for the three-day Outdoor Trade Show where I'll get sore feet  - it's always more tiring than any hillwalking - wandering round the exhibition halls looking at new outdoor gear. I'll be posting snippets of anything interesting on social media. At the show I'll also be meeting The Great Outdoor's new editor, Carey Davies, along with online editor Alex Roddie and various people from the magazine's publishers.

Once home from the show I'm hoping normal business can resume and I can get out in the hills and gaze at scenes like the one at the top of the piece. That's what it's really all about.

Thursday 4 July 2019

What I've Been Reading Online No.8

Backpackers in the Cairngorms, June 27

Here's the next selection of items I've enjoyed reading online, covering the last two weeks.


The Longest Straight-line Walk in the World
A fascinating mathematical exercise works out the longest you could theoretically walk in a straight-line is 11,241km from China to Spain.

A revisit: The PCT Hiker's Handbook
Paul Mags looks back at a seminal book of the modern lightweight backpacking movement.

The Case for Hiking with a Heavy Pack  
A somewhat controversial piece. Interesting but I think makes generalised and inaccurate assumptions about lightweight backpacking.

Time to retire 

Barefoot Walking Gives You Calluses That Are Even Better For Your Feet Than Shoes, Study Suggests
We didn't evolve to wear shoes. Calluses are good for you!

Another Afghanistan: Trekking in the Wakhan Corridor
Yes, you can go walking in Afghanistan. Sounds good too.

Common Spotted Orchid, June 23


Can planting billions of trees save the planet?
Patrick Barkham looks at TreeSisters and its work on reforestation. A heartening story.

Trophy hunting 'imperial' and 'unsustainable' 
Well-argued piece showing elephant trophy-hunting is not about conservation.

The weight of the law?
A powerful piece by Guy Shorrock of the RSPB about traps and snares catching non-target birds and animals.

'We are losing the web of life': why the global nature crisis is as dangerous as climate change. 
A worrying analysis.

Connections on Cairngorm
Peter Cairns of Scotland:The Big Picture describes the important and encouraging work of Cairngorms Connect to restore and revitalise wild nature.

Utopia isn't just idealistic fantasy - it inspires people to change the world
Why utopianism matters.

What Does Climate Change Really Mean for Cumbria? 
Excellent look at climate change in general and its effect on Cumbria in particular by environmental scientist Sir Martin Holdgate.

The legalised persecution of wildlife in our National Parks and the Protecting Scotland's Wild Mammals bill   
Nick Kempe of Parkswatch Scotland looks at the problem of wildlife persecution, especially of mountain hares, and questions whether proposed new legislation will work.

The Psychology of Wolf Fear and Loathing 
An interesting look at why people are so scared of wolves.

Welcome to the fastest-heating place on Earth  
On the Svalbard archipelago global warming is taking dangerous hold. 

The Voices of Birds and the Language of Belonging  
Lovely piece on bird songs and calls and us.

Global beef trade 'destroying the Amazon'  
The destruction of the Amazon rain forest speeds up as the demand for beef increases.

One of the Wells of Dee, high in the Cairngorms, June 28
The Unseen World Beneath Us: Places of Beauty, Danger and Wisdom
A wonderful review of Robert Macfarlane's Underland by Terry Tempest Williams.

'The Underland is A Deeply Human Realm' Getting Down with Robert Macfarlane
A fascinating interview with Robert Macfarlane about his new book.

After sunset, June 19

Strì an Fhearainn: Story of the Land
The importance of the land and who owns it in Scotland's culture and community.
Communing with the Dead: I followed the Grateful Dead to escape and ended up finding home
Social psychologisty Amy Cuddy finds a community with Grateful Dead fans.