Sunday 29 March 2020

Another memory from twenty years ago on the Arizona Trail

On this day in 2000 I walked through the splendid White Canyon Wilderness on the Arizona Trail. Again much of the route was cross country following cairns. The views were tremendous and this was one of the most impressive sections of the walk. In the evening I wrote in my journal "fine desert canyon and mountain scenery all day". The seemingly dead dry sticks of the tall ocotillo shrub had burst into life and were covered with tiny emerald green leaves and topped by nodding red flowers. The hedgehog cactii had bloomed too with bright purple flowers. Vultures soared overhead, quail scuttled over the ground and flew low and fast over the rocks. Bright lizards raced for safety. A squirrel watched from a bush, a snake slid away. The air was full of the sound of crickets chirping. It was a magical place to be.

That night I slept out under a brilliant starry sky in  a desert garden of paloverde, sagebrush, ocotillo, century plants, prickly pear, barrell cactii and tall saguaro cactii. A desert in name but full of life. An owl called in the darkness. Dawn came with bird song and a woodpecker drumming.

Thursday 26 March 2020

Far away and twenty years ago: On the Arizona Trail

Antelope Peak

On this day twenty years ago I was on a cross-country section of the Arizona Trail, walking through the desert below Antelope Creek. Part of the day was spent in aptly named Bloodsucker Wash, though the bloodsuckers plants not vampires. In my journal I wrote "slow going picking a way through cactii and spiky catclaw and mesquite bushes. Teddybear cholla especially bad as lots of small pieces on the ground - stabbed several times, used poles to remove them".

Monday 23 March 2020

Some reading for when we can return to the hills

With plans for walks long and short on hold for the foreseeable future I'm spending time thinking about where I'll go when all this is over. Daydreaming is a way to cope.

Over the years I've posted dozens of features on all aspects of walking on this site. They're all free to read and maybe they can give some inspiration and enjoyment during this difficult time. I've gathered lists of some of them together. Here they are:

Lightweight Backpacking


Backpacking Photography

Sunday 22 March 2020

Music Review: The Woods by Hamish Napier

Music is always a solace in difficult times like these. Much music is inspired by the outdoors and that's the case with a new album I've been listening to over the last few days, The Woods, by local musician and composer Hamish Napier. Commissioned by Cairngorms Connect The Woods is inspired by the Caledonian Forest.

There is a tune for each of the eighteen letters of the Gaelic alphabet, traditionally taught as the old names of native trees, plus ones for various forest fauna and flora. The music, which Hamish Napier says is 'rooted in traditional Scottish folk dance tunes forms', is rich and complex, a weaving together of many elements, just like a forest. It's repaying many listens.

A booklet accompanies the CD with a page on each tree packed with information plus lovely artwork by Somhairle MacDonald and photos by David Russell.

This is a tremendous piece of work and highly recommended. It can be bought from Hamish Napier's website. 

Friday 20 March 2020

A spring equinox walk in the woods, thoughts on a dark time

A beautiful sunny spring equinox, the air sharp and crisp after a deep frost. I went to see how spring is faring in some favourite local woods. It's barely noticeable. Only clusters of hazel catkins show any change from winter. There are no flowers on the forest floor, not even any green shoots. Leaf buds are tight and brown. But this will all change soon. Despite the chill east wind the sun felt warm on the skin. Every day its power grows.  Far across the trees the Cairngorms rose, shining white. More snow now than at any time this winter. Curlews called from a meadow, back from the coast to nest. They know the seasons are changing.

Alone in the woods I could forget for a while the deep crisis affecting the human world. Whilst I was in the trees the government ordered all bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs, gyms and more closed, to try and halt the spread of coronavirus. The world in turmoil. Social distancing, self-isolation. I'm used to solitude and can probably cope more easily than most. I saw no-one all day and was quite happy with this.

Everybody is affected in some way though. For the outdoor world - my world - it means a closure of facilities from outdoor centres to walkers pubs. Many people are self-employed and working as much for love as for money. What now when the work ceases? I know guides, instructors, cafe owners and others who are seriously worried about the future. No-one knows what support will be available. Even the experts can't say how long it will last. Three months? A year? Too long, for certain.

I've only lost a little work so far. Books and magazines are still for sale. For those far from the hills this could be a time to catch up with outdoor reading and support the many self-employed outdoor writers. 

Nature brings solace, for those of us within easy reach. I am thankful I live here, on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. Is it responsible to go out? I think so, as long as little contact is made with others. Advice from Mountain Rescue, Mountaineering Scotland, the British Mountaineering Council and others is that going to the hills is healthy and good but risks should be avoided. Sticking to familiar places and safe routes is wise.

I hadn't meant to write about the coronavirus crisis but I've found it's all-pervasive at present. We will have to live with it for quite a while. Once restrictions are eased supporting people and businesses will be important. Outdoor guides, cafes, pubs, campsites, accommodation will all need lots of customers.

I wish everyone as easy a journey as possible as we move through this dark time.

Sunday 15 March 2020

Snow, clouds, sky, light.

A few days ago I wandered up onto the hills above Glen Feshie. The sky clouded over as I reached the snow and the light was shining and grey. The lines of the hills were accentuated by the low sun cutting under the clouds. I was fascinated by the shapes and shades, the curving lines, the cold northern feel.

The snow was deep in places, hard going even with snowshoes, and there was a bitter wind sending waves of spindrift spinning across the landscape.

Towards the end of the day as I dropped down below the snow there was finally colour in the landscape, orange and yellow in the western sky.

The Great Outdoors April Issue

The April issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. My contribution is a review of ten head torches. Also in the gear pages there are pieces by two new testers - Lucy Wallace reviews five pairs of women's waterproof trousers and Mark Waring tries four packrafts. Mark also has a feature on the trip in Knoydart on which the packrafts were tested, with photographs by David Lintern.

The opening spread of this issue is a wonderful photo by Simon Atkinson of a winter sunset over Liathach in Torridon, taken from high on Beinn Eighe.

Aside from packrafting the big features are a piece on four Lake District horseshoe walks in winter - Fairfield, Kentmere, Newlands and Coledale - by Ronald Turnbull; James Roddie climbing Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete; and Mikaela Toczek snowshoeing in Slovenia's Julian Alps. All the features are illustrated with mouth-watering photos.

Elsewhere in the magazine Hanna Lindon gives advice on how to climb Mont Blanc; Roger Smith considers calls for more national parks in Scotland and reviews John Murray's Reading the Gaelic Landscape; Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden look at what makes for good company on a long-distance walk; and Jim Perrin praises Dduallt in Snowdonia.

Saturday 14 March 2020

Video interview with The Trail Hunter

A few days ago I sat in the Craigellachie birch woods getting wet and being filmed and interviewed by The Trail Hunter for his YouTube channel. By the end of the interview I was getting rather cold, especially my hands, but I didn't mind as I was happy to indulge in reminiscences about the Pacific Crest and other trails and about my life as an outdoor writer.

Russ - The Trail Hunter - is on his way to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Somehow he found time to edit and post the interview before he left. Here's the link.

An interview with Chris Townsend - Pacific Crest Trail and Writing for a Thru-hike

Monday 9 March 2020

The story of my Arizona Trail walk twenty years ago

The Arizona Trail, which I began twenty years ago (see previous post), is one of my favourite long-distance walks. I really enjoyed both the walk and then writing about it.

My book, Crossing Arizona, is still available. If you've read it and like it do please put a review on Amazon (and for any other of my books you like!). Such reviews really do help.

In the Superstition Mountains on the Arizona Trail

On this day twenty years ago I set out on the Arizona Trail

First camp

On March 9, 2000, I left the Mexican border to hike some 800 miles through the state of Arizona to the border with Utah. I was excited and apprehensive. A desert walk was challenging. I knew from information from the excellent and helpful Arizona Trail Association that the winter had been dry and the always scarce water sources were less reliable than usual. I'd arrived in torrential rain though and spent a day picking up supplies wandering round Tucson in waterproofs as rain crashed off the gutter free buildings. Maybe there would be more water than I expected. There was. And snow.

At the border

The first day was tough, probably the hardest start to a long-distance walk I've ever done. The trail climbed steeply up for 4,880 feet with no water en route and nowhere flat to camp. I had a gallon of water in my pack and I needed it as it was very hot at first. Halfway up I encountered the first snow, which gradually became deeper and deeper until I was wading through a foot of it.
Looking back into Mexico

I looked back to dry brown lands stretching into Mexico. Ahead lay 9,466-foot Miller Peak, the highest in the Huachucas Mountains. The first water source was beyond the summit. On the map it said Bathtub Spring. I hadn't expected an actual bathtub though but there it was, sitting surreally in the snow. The water was frozen but a tiny trickle came out of the spout feeding into the bathtub.

Bathtub Spring
My first camp of a desert walk. In the snow. In trees - big magnificent ponderosa pines. As I was to learn the significant timberline here is the lower one, the point at which the desert starts to fade and trees start growing. The mountains aren't high enough to have an upper timberline and the summits are forested.

The walk had begun.

Photographic note: pictures taken with my first digital camera, a 2.3mp Ricoh RDC-5000. I also had two film cameras, an SLR and a compact, and shot over fifty rolls of film. I haven't scanned any of these yet though.

Sunday 8 March 2020

Getting used to skiing again as the weather changes

Cairn Lochan

With the fine weather of the last week due to break Friday night I set out for a day in the snow and, I thought, sunshine and calm. I took skis as I knew there was plenty of snow. I haven't skied that much in recent years due to low snow cover and, I must admit, laziness. Snowshoes are so much easier - no need to take them on and off to cross snow free areas, no problem to carry on the pack, no need for special boots that are hell to walk in. For many years I've reckoned that if I wasn't going to be on skis most of the time then I'd take snowshoes. With complete snow cover down to car park level I had no excuses this time. Skis it would be.

Cairn Lochan

In the car park another ski tourer was unloading her gear. Her skis made my old ones look like matchsticks. They'd been regarded as wide when I got them, but that was twenty years ago. I wondered, not for the last time, what it would be like to use such wide skis. I'd put climbing skins on mine back home so was soon heading up to the Cairngorm Plateau. The sun was warm, the air still. Hat and gloves were soon shoved into pockets. To the south-west Cairn Lochan was sharp and clear. I hoped to cross the summit, maybe even go on to Ben Macdui.

My plans changed with the weather before I reached the Plateau. A strong cold wind came out of the west. Cairn Lochan became hazy, the sky overcast. The weather was changing sooner than forecast. 

'Good to see real skis', a climber descending commented. Appreciation for my old skis! I was pleased.

I decided I would go with the wind not against it, east over Cairn Gorm, not west to Cairn Lochan. Where the broad ridge steepened near the top my skis started to slip and I had to side step up, using the metal edges to bite into the hard snow. I could do with new climbing skins, I thought. I'd has these for many years. Since my first trip to Yellowstone with Igloo Ed in fact, when I'd bought them in an outdoor store in Boulder, Colorado.

Walkers on the Cairngorm Plateau

Looking back I could see Cairn Lochan disappearing into the mist. Walkers crossing the Plateau enhanced the sense of vastness I always feel up here. Soon I too was in the mist, visibility vanishing. Light snow fluttered down. The Cairngorm Weather Station loomed up, snow and ice encrusted.

Cairngorm Automatic Weather Station

The building gave some shelter from the bitter wind, a place for a snack and a hot drink. Several others arrived. Climbers with ropes and harnesses and crampons, ski mountaineers with those wide skis again. One stripped off his climbing skins. They looked twice the width of mine. I could climb anything in those!

As I drank my hot ginger cordial (a wonderful drink for warming up) and ate my flapjack I looked up at the fantastic rime ice decorating the weather station tower. Three skiers took off into the mist. I contemplated my skis. Keep the skins on, I thought, at least until out of the mist. I didn't feel confident.

Skis ready and waiting

As on other occasions skiing downhill with skins on was awkward, the skis slipping then grabbing in stop-start jerks. I should have remembered. The skins came off and suddenly the skis felt free, sliding across the snow unencumbered. I let them drift down with me to the top of the ski tows of the Cairngorm ski resort, taking wide sweeps across the slopes linked by slow gentle turns.

The ridge on the far side of the pistes was wind-scoured and rocky. I'd be walking a fair bit if I descended that way. For the first time in many years I decided to descend the runs. At first I was cautious, tentative, clumsy, but as I descended my muscles remembered and turns started to flow and feel natural. Snowboarders and alpine skiers raced past me, but then they always had. I've never been a fast skier. Touring requires care, especially solo. When I finally removed my skis I felt pleased. I could still ski. I must go out on them again soon.

Friday 6 March 2020

Stars & Frost & Snow: A Winter Camp in the Cairngorms

Light snow trickled down, gentle, soft. An evening in the tent would be restful but I had hoped for stars. I half-closed the tent door to keep the snow, drifting on a breeze, from entering. Soup, dinner, a book to read. The soothing trickle of the nearby river.

Looking out I could see a solitary star and brightness behind the clouds that must be the moon. Not much later I heard movement, footsteps. My companion, Alex Roddie, was outside taking photographs. The sky was clear. I soon joined him. Orion, the Plough, Cassopeia, Venus, the Moon; all sharp and clear. The hills white and black and silent and calm. The universe vast.

Frost and cold and peace. I wandered around slowly watching the sky, the silhouettes of trees, the pale snow. Beautiful and alien. I loved it. I wasn't really there. Not consciously. I felt absorbed into the wild world. Time passed. I was reluctant to return to the tent but eventually tiredness persuaded me. I left the door open so whenever I woke I could see the stars.

Dawn came with a pink glow and a hard frost. Alex wanted to be away early, hoping for summits and another camp high up. I was only out for the one night. Our camp was packed away before the sun reached us.

Heading up Bynack More we soon needed sunglasses. And snowshoes. The deep snow was still quite firm but did break underfoot occasionally. The snowshoes made progress easier. Deep boot prints showed how difficult walking was when the snow was softer, as it would be later in the day.

Ahead the final summit pyramid of Bynack More rose steeply, the rocky hill of summer looking alpine. The snow was glazed and hard here. Climbing in the snowshoes became more awkward and it seemed the place for crampons. And ice axes. How stable was the snow? Alex dug an avalanche pit. A top block broke away quite easily. Not this way then. A walker passed not far away on a gentler slope. Maybe that was a better way. We traversed across and Alex made another pit. The snow here was much more stable.

I paused and decided this was far enough. I was coming back the same way anyway and wondered how stable the slope would be when the sun had been out several more hours. I was also feeling the effort of climbing with a big pack for the first time in several months and whilst still regaining fitness after being ill most of January. I could have left the tent up and most of my gear in camp. But down there I'd thought I might do a longer route and not return the same way.

I watched Alex climb to the crest above and then disappear from view. Late the next day I heard he'd had a superb high camp and two great days. I'd like to have had more time but overall I was content with my overnight trip. I couldn't not be after that camp. Heading back down I stopped for lunch by some rocks and swapped crampons for snowshoes. Away to the east lenticular clouds were building over Ben Avon.

Once past the camp site I was soon in the woods, walking through shadows and brightness. My mind was back the night before, still entranced by the beauty, mystery and magnificence of that camp under the stars.