Tuesday 14 July 2020

In The Beginning: First Long-Distance Walk & First Cairngorms Backpacking Trip

Camp below Rakes Rocks, Pennine Way, April 7, 1976

Going through more of my boxes of old photos I found an album with photos from my first backpacking trips in the 1970s. I'd forgotten I had this. The photos were taken on a Kodak Instamatic, a basic point-and-shoot camera. I wasn't a serious photographer back then and knew nothing about cameras or photography. I took snaps as momentos. I'm glad I did.

Having undertaken a number of one and two night backpacking trips and enjoyed them I was keen to try a longer one. I settled on the Pennine Way and the month of April because I was a student and most of the month was in the Easter holidays (we didn't have vacations back then, just holidays!).

On the train to Edale before the walk started I wrote in my journal: "Anticlimax and anticipation. The doubts. Is the pack too heavy? Can I do it in 15 days? Am I healthy enough? Most important, can I mentally cope? Well, there's only one way to find out".

Camp by Top Withens, Pennine Way, April 9, 1976

Fifteen days I arrived in Kirk Yetholm and wrote "This is definitely the way to live! I'm glad I did it. I expect I'll do it again and lots of different walks -Everest Base Camp, Land's End to John O'Groats, Appalachian Trail, Munros - what a future. I know now I can handle 2 weeks backpacking solitary. This is not really the end, this is just the beginning ... "  

It would be two years before my next big walk - Land's End to John O'Groats - but the next year I made a shorter backpacking trip with some friends that would be as influential as the Pennine Way as it was to the Cairngorms, a place I fell for immediately and which has been my home for the last thirty years.

In the Lairig Ghru, July 14, 1977

I had no car or much money so I hitch-hiked to Aviemore from Manchester, where I was living. That took a day and a half and I spent a damp, misty night in a plastic survival bag somewhere outside Perth. Then it was into the hills for a week.

Outside Corrour Bothy with my friend Alain
We went through the Lairig Ghru, up to Loch Etchachan, down to the Shelter Stone, into Gleann Einich, and climbed Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui, Braeraich and Cairn Toul. The last two were on "one of the wettest days on the hill for ages .... went up Braeriach, wandered about in the storm getting slightly lost but eventually finding Cairn Toul from where I took a compass bearing onto the Loch Einich path and walked directly at it - & came out only 100 yards away". All those place were new then. They're very familiar now, visited every year, often many times. The magic has never gone though. I'm still as enthralled by them.

Looking over Loch Etchachan, July 15, 1977


  1. Great memories,Chris;I used a Backpacker II around the same time,not on such ambitious or life changing trips though!!. All the best from Mark& Helen xx

  2. Great memories. I think Lockdown has had a few of us delving (more mundanely in my case) into the past. I have recently scanned some photos from a trip to Suilven over 50 years ago, and it has been great to re-connect with all four companions from that trip, though probably of little interest to anyone else, and very ordinary pictures.

  3. Great Chris. I don't like to say 'At least something positive' can come from lockdown, but if as a 'byproduct' of lockdown we can rekindle memories and reconnect with friends, it is not a waste of time. I'm really glad I too took snaps of my first forays outdoors. Although they're Definitely Not for framing/hanging, they trigger memories. I wonder what the Chris Townsend on the Pennine Way in '76 would have said if he could have predicted his future?! What would the Chris of today say to the Chris back then I wonder? What a marvellous journey you've been on, writing and photography too..

  4. Thanks Jay. I think myself in 1976 would be both astonished and pleased at how the future worked out. All those plans and hopes came true! With a few surprises along the way. Looking back I think all I'd say to myself back then was 'keep going, you've found your path'.

    My photos from back then are certainly not for framing or hanging. The landscape ones are dull. The ones of interest are those with people or camps. It was another five years before I began to take photography seriously.

  5. Chris, I really appreciate your hypothetical quote to self "keep going, you've found your path'. Just two days ago I sent an important email to my mum with photos attached of a European city I'm currently in before I embark on a two-month hike. This city is important to mum as she had a lovely holiday here with a childhood friend. Mum emailed the photos to her friend, but was concerned she hadn't had a reply, as they'd spoken only a few days before agbout returning to this beautiful city. Mum got an email from her friend's daughter saying that sadly, her mother had died unexpectedly a few nights before.

    I went back to the same city square they loved and raised a glass to mum & her friend, taking a photo of it. I sent it to mum and a message saying 'Time is our most precious resource, which is why it is vital that we find our path in life, and walk it with vigour'. Mum was touched, and forwarded it to the daughter who was also touched replying 'That would make mum smile'

    I may have packed in my career for good to spend time hiking, but I've 'Found my path, and am walking it with vigour'. I've met many kindred spirits who inspired me to take this path.. Good to know I'm not alone/crazy!