Thursday, 19 May 2022

A Look At The June Issue Of The Great Outdoors


In the June issue of The Great Outdoors, out now, I've contributed a a piece on two favourite Cairngorms hills to a big feature on Classic Hillwalks. Also describing their favourites are James Roddie, Vivienne Crow, Hanna Lindon, and Ronald Turnbull.

In the gear pages I just have two reviews: the BAM 73 Zero Insulated Gilet and the Vaude Wizard 24+4 daypack. More daypacks appear in a comparative review in which Lucy Wallace reviews five for women and Peter Macfarlane five for men. Alex Roddie also reviews three drybags.

In other long features this issue James Forrest fastpacks a section of the proposed England Coast Path in Yorkshire, Stefan Durkacz backpacks over some Corbetts in the Killilan Forest area of the NW Highlands, and Richard Hartfield attempts a 1200-kilometre hike across the Greater Caucasus mountains, a contested region on the Russian border. 

In shorter pieces sound artist Simon Opit is Creator of the Month; James Forrest gives a route guide to Mam Tor and the Great Ridge in the Peak District; Hanna Lindon asks Calum Maclean about his 80km straight line walk ascross the Cairngorms from the Pass of Drumochter to Corgaff, the longest possible without crossing a road; there's an interview with Stephanie Harris of The Old Forge Community Benefit Society about the successful campaign for a community buy-out of this remote Knoydart pub; Paul Besley says better access could be a benefit for nature; Alex Roddie reviews Simon Ingram's The Black Ridge: Amongst the Cuillin of Skye; and Jim Perrin praises Cross Fell in the Pennines.

In the Wild Walks pages Stefan Durkacz climbs Fuar Bheinn and Creach Bheinn in the West Highlands, Geoff  Holland goes to the Breamish Valley and Hedgehope Hill in the Cheviot Hills, Vivienne Crow is on Dale Head and Hindscarth in the Lake District, Ronald Turnbull is also in the Lake District and visits Dovedale and Deepdale, and James Forrest walks the Carneddau in Snowdonia.

Saturday, 14 May 2022

Forty Years ago on the Pacific Crest Trail: Approaching the High Sierra

 

A few days ago I posted the above picture as it was taken on the Pacific Crest Trail forty years ago on the same date. It shows two of my companions approaching the snowbound High Sierra, which you can just see in the far distance. Scott and Dave had picked up skis and internal frame packs they'd sent ahead for the High Sierra section. Up to this point they'd had external frame packs and snowshoes. My other companion Larry and I went through the High Sierra with snowshoes.

The post attracted some comments, including requests for more pictures and queries about the change of packs and why external frames anyway. Here are two more photos taken during the approach to the High Sierra. 

Scott at a camp by the South Fork of the Kern River. My tent, a Wintergear Eyrie, is on the right.

 

Myself fording the Kern River. Scott is on the far bank so either Dave or Larry took the photo with my camera.

With regard to external frame packs these were standard at the time for hiking in the USA and had been since they first appeared in the 1950s.Internal frame packs, introduced by Lowe Alpine in the late 1960s, were still regarded as for mountaineering and skiing rather than trail hiking. In the UK however internal frames were already becoming standard as so many of our hill paths are steep and rugged. I'd used an external frame pack on the Pennine Way in 1976 but switched to an internal one for Land's End to John O'Groats two years later, the advantage being better balance and stability on rough terrain.

Scott and Dave with their external frame packs on Mount Baden Powell earlier in the walk. I'm sitting on my internal frame pack.

My internal frame pack did break much later in the walk, due, I think, to descending a steep snow slope on its own, and the only replacement pack big enough I could find was an external frame one. I walked the last 1,000 miles of the trail with this and it was fine. I still have it and keep thinking I must take it out one day and see how it feels now.

My external frame pack much later in the walk.

After all these posts about long ago trips this month my next one will be about a trip I am about to make. This blog isn't just about ancient hiking history!

 

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

An old photo brings back memories of a tough day on the Continental Divide Trail in 1985


Sorting out some papers the other day I came on this print which long ago must have somehow become separated from related photos. I wasn't sure where it was taken but luckily I had written on the back "Camp in the Never Summer Range, Rocky Mountains, Colorado, Continental Divide Trail". The words brought memories flooding back. It was the first snow of a very early winter in 1985 that would result in my taking a lower route in the southern half of the State and then returning in 2019 to walk the high level section. 

The photo was taken on September 8, 1985, after a stormy day and night. From my journal written in the tent on the 7th: "Rain turned to hail ... hail turned to snow ... I found a staff* ... inches of snow on the ground now & my feet soaked and frozen - I must get some boots - but grip good** .... a real winter trek - up featureless slopes in driving snow & wind & thick mist. Entered Never Summer Wilderness at one point, how appropriate. Climbed to 12, 126 feet on Farview Mountain then turned off down to col - no far view today. Reached 11,900 foot Farview Pass - cleared snow off sign to see where I was - & descended to Parika Lake where I'm camped by some stunted spruce at 11.300 feet. Quite an epic getting tent up and keeping inside moderately dry ... Lessons from today - I need some boots & an ice axe & possibly gaiters plus maybe a thermal shirt & long johns.*** This will probably happen again. Anyway, time to cook a big hot curry!"

The day I took the photo the weather improved and I had a magnificent walk with the landscape looking spectacular in the snow.

I do like coming on old photos by surprise!

*This was before trekking poles. The staff is holding up my pack in the photo,

** I was hiking in New Balance running shoes. The weather had been dry and warm for many weeks. Two days later I bought some leather boots.

*** The little outdoor store where I bought the boots didn't have thernals, gaiters, or an ice axe. "It's still summer!". I wouldn't get those items for another three weeks.

Friday, 6 May 2022

New book coming soon


My next book will be published July 15th. It's a guide to the huge region of dramatic mountains between Glen Carron and Little Loch Broom in the NW Highlands of Scotland. All the big names are in of course, as shown in the title and subtitle, but the book also includes all the other hills in the area and some of the smaller ones are real gems. There's 50 routes in all. 

The book is also packed with my photographs, mostly taken over the last two years. Indeed, getting the photographs was more difficult than researching the routes. The latter could still be done on dull or misty days. A book full of cloud-shrouded hidden hills would not be a good idea (there are some) so I made many visits to take pictures in good conditions. 

My greatest success was on An Teallach. I'd traversed the mountain several times and visited it many more in the past but not once had it been clear. It seemed that whenever I went near it the clouds descended. With a forecast for clear weather I walked in one evening last July and camped not far from the mountain which was shining gold in the late sun. I didn't want just a long shot of its line of jagged peaks though, I wanted pictures taken on the mountain itself, showing it in all its glory. The next day the mist was down. My heart sank. Maybe this would be another ascent seeing nothing. 

On An Teallach

Then the mists began to clear high above and sink down below the summits. I climbed out of them to a brilliant sunny day, sharp, clear and perfect for photographs. I felt energised - and relieved. I wrote about that trip here.

The book can be ordered direct from the publishers -  https://www.cicerone.co.uk/9781786310286

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Crossing the Mohave Desert on the Pacific Crest Trail Forty Years Ago

 

In early May 1982 I crossed the Mohave Desert on my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike with three companions I'd met along the way. In just a few weeks the walk would change completely and we would be hiking through the deep snow of the High Sierra. But first we had to cross the hot Mohave Desert, complete with snowshoes, ice axes and crampons!

The desert was beautiful and fascinating but as much of the walking was on flat dirt roads, and sometimes even paved, roads it wasn't the most exciting part of the walk, despite the rattlesnakes. Back then there was no official trail through the region so hikers strung together a mix of roads, tracks, trails and bits of cross-country (beware the spiky vegetation!). 


Sometimes, on seeing a road stretching out dead straight into the far distance I would take out my natural history guide to the High Sierra and read this as I walked, much to the amusement of my companions, who borrowed my camera to take a picture.

I knew a great deal about the High Sierra by the time I got there!


As well as no trail in 1982 there were no trail angels putting out water caches so for many miles we followed the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brings water from Owens Valley below the High Sierra to the dry city. Every mile there was an inspection shaft and we could remove the cap and lower water bottles weighted with pebbles on a length of cord into the cold rushing water. You can see Scott doing this in the picture above. In the heat of the day we often had long stops by these water sources, finding it easier to walk early in the morning and then in the cool of the evening.


With ample water we were able to use it to cool down! 

Soon keeping cool would not be a problem.





Sunday, 1 May 2022

Saturday, 30 April 2022

An Unusual Press Trip: Taking A Stretcher Up Stac Pollaidh

 

On the way up Stac Pollaidh, Suilven in the background

Outdoor company press trips can vary from exciting to mundane, depending on how much time is spent in the hills and how much on indoor product promotions and factory visits. Recently I went on one for Helly Hansen that definitely fell into the exciting category. It was also interesting and informative, not to say unusual, as it wasn’t just about gear or, indeed, even mainly about gear. Instead “the aim was to raise awareness of the incredible work the Mountain Rescue Teams do across the UK to keep everyone else safe in the mountains and enjoying the outdoors.” To that end myself and other outdoor writers were invited to spend a day on Stac Pollaidh in the NW Highlands with members of Assynt Mountain Rescue, one of five mountain rescue teams sponsored by Helly Hansen, and learn a bit about their work.

Stac Pollaidh

After a night at the excellent Summer Isles Hotel we met the mountain rescuers at the foot of Stac Pollaidh, which is only a little hill (it’s just 612 metres high) but one that bristles with dramatic rock pinnacles and crags along its long narrow ridge. Here we discovered we were to carry a stretcher up the mountain and we soon learnt just how tiring this is as we all – writers, mountain rescuers, members of Helly Hansen’s PR team – took turns. 

Getting steeper

The weather was just about perfect, with high clouds, bursts of sunshine, and an occasional cool breeze. The latter meant the Helly Hansen jackets provided were needed at times. It wasn’t tee-shirt weather. The air was clear and the views spectacular with Suilven, Cul Mor, and Cul Beag standing out above the lochan-spattered lower ground. This landscape never fails to impress.

Cul Beag

Once on the ridge the mountain rescuers decided we should practise taking the stretcher up steep rocky terrain with someone in it. Firstly, a volunteer was strapped in and the casualty bag inflated around them so they were really secure then we learnt how to move the stretcher up a rocky gully hand over hand, a slow but efficient method that meant you were only holding the stretcher when your feet were secure and stationary. Each time the stretcher had moved up along the four pairs of us holding it the rear pair would move to the front and the exercise was repeated. Once we reached the top of the gully we then reversed the process and took the stretcher back down. It was hard work. There was a top rope so the stretcher couldn’t go anywhere if we proved incompetent. 

Ed Smith at work, Cul Mor in the background

As I was moving the stretcher I have no photos of taking the stretcher up and down the gully. However, there will be some as we had a professional photographer along with us, Ed Smith, whose website is well worth a look. I’m looking forward to seeing his pictures of this episode. 

Steeper still

Leaving the stretcher behind we then clambered along the narrower, rockier ridge towards the summit. I opted out of the more difficult scrambling to the actual summit as my hands were aching after the stretcher carrying and the easier scrambling as they haven’t fully recovered from the operations of last year. And I hadn’t done so much with them since before those operations. Once I’d grasped a few holds and my hand had instinctively recoiled due to soreness I lost any confidence I had and preferred to sit and watch the hills and the view. It was a great day for just sitting and contemplating.

The drone inspecting gullies

Once the others returned from the top and we were back at the stretcher the mountain rescuers deployed their drone and showed us how it could be used. Tim Hamlet, the team leader and a mountain guide (Hamlet Mountaineering) , disappeared round a corner to hide in a gully. The drone was then used to scan the hillside in infra-red mode and quickly picked up the heat from Tim’s body. Using the drone rescuers could scan a hillside riven with gullies quickly and without risk to themselves. Without the drone they would have to rope down each gully, which would take time and involve risk. There was also a Virtual Reality headset, which gave a much bigger and clearer image of the view the drone had than the small screen on the control panel. It was also somewhat unnerving to use! When the drone raced away from the ridge so the people on it shrank into the distance I really felt as though I was being projected out into the air beyond the mountain. 

Drone control

The drone exercise over there was just carrying the stretcher back down the mountain and the day was over. For me anyway. The others were going on a paddle in canoes on a nearby loch. I don’t do water stuff!

View from Stac Pollaidh    
  
 

 

This was a very enjoyable day, and my knowledge of mountain rescue increased greatly. This is how to organise a press trip! The weather helped too. The Helly Hansen clothing didn’t get much of a test but I will be trying items for review for The Great Outdoors in the weeks to come. I’m particularly interested in finding out how the good-looking Odin 1 World Infinity waterproof jacket performs.

Helly Hansen is also working with mountain rescue teams to “build a connection between the end-user and Helly Hansen’s professionals” by way of a website called Trail Finder which will have recommended trails from Mountain Rescuers both in the UK and around the world.

In Conversation With Tony Hobbs - Sunday 8pm Live

 

Tony Hobbs on the TGO Challenge

 Tomorrow, May 1, I'm having a livestream conversation with Tony Hobbs at 8pm. Here's the link

 We'll be discussing a variety of outdoor topics. I don't know what they'll be!

Pacific Crest Trail Podcast on Just Up The Trail

 

A few weeks ago I recorded a podcast about the Pacific Crest Trail with Rob Jones of Just Up The Trail. This is his first podcast and it'll be launched this Sunday, May 1.

And on the PCT itself on this day in 1982 I reached the little town of Acton. Ahead lay the Mohave Desert and then the High Sierra. I spent May 1 visiting four outdoor stores in Los Angeles, courtesy of a lift from someone in Acton, where I purchased snowshoes, crampons, gaiters, and insulated bootees in preparation for the snowbound High Sierra, all of which I would haul across the desert for the next week.

Joshua Tree shade. Mohave Desert

Friday, 22 April 2022

Woods, Winds, & Water: A First Spring Overnight Trip That Didn't Go Quite According To Plan

Shelter at last

Sometimes trips don’t go quite according to plan, and sometimes trips give rewards that weren’t expected. My first spring trip of the year was both those. With warm weather forecast and most of the snow below 1000 metres gone a trip with a lighter pack without the ice axe, crampons, snowshoes, and winter camping gear I’d been carrying since November appealed. I wanted the freedom of not feeling burdened down.

View across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Lairig Ghru

Not wanting to drive far for an overnight trip I decided on the northerly extension of Braeriach, a big wedge of ground between Gleann Einich and the Lairig Ghru in the Cairngorms that’s mostly between 600 and 700 metres high. This is little-frequented pathless country so once away from the main track in Gleann Einich I didn’t expect to see anyone else. 

In Gleann Einich

The air was warm, the sky bright, and the mountains shining as I set off. There was a strong breeze though, even down here in the forest. The woods were still peaceful and the walk to Gleann Einich relaxing. I appreciated the lighter load too.

Once I left the last trees the wind was fierce, roaring straight down the glen into my face. Dark ragged clouds ripped across the mountains. Two mountain bikers with skis on their packs passed me cycling out. They’d gone to ski a line called The Escalator on Braeriach but had only skied part of it as the wind was just too strong high up. I was glad I wasn’t going that high.

Once I turned off the track the going became tough, the terrain all tussocks and bogs. Having been here before I knew it was like this and didn’t expect to make fast progress. The wind hindered me too, strong enough to knock me sideways occasionally. I’d planned on camping near a lochan on this open moorland and then going up the tops not far away, perhaps watching the sunset from one of them. The wind ended that idea. I could find nowhere sheltered and didn’t fancy a night in a shaking noisy shelter. The wind was coming from the south. On the far side of the hills just above the lochan was a shallow glen running north-east. Maybe there would be more shelter in it. 

Old tree, young trees

There wasn’t. The wind was funnelling straight down the glen. I went right up to its head. Here I found the remains of a long-abandoned shieling. No-one came here often now but once they did. I guessed there was a path long ago. Turning away I followed the burn gently downwards. There were stumps of long-dead trees in the peat, A lonely pine appeared, a surviving remnant of the forest that was once here. No, not lonely. As I neared I could see a scattering of little pines, no more than a metre or so high, around the old tree. As always, seeing the forest returning was uplifting.

The glen steepens

Still battered by the wind I continued past the pines and into the narrower lower glen. The terrain became stony, scoured by floods and snowmelt. The banks either side grew steeper. I decided I should climb up to the moorland above while I could before I reached a drop I couldn’t descend and had to retreat. The scramble up steep slopes of heather and rock was hard work. Knees and elbows came into play at times, and I was glad of the strength of some of the heather.

Once up and on flatter ground I realised to camp anywhere sheltered I would have to go down again, down to the Allt Druidh, which drains the north side of the Lairig Ghru. The descent was down even rougher slopes than those I’d just climbed with big boulders hidden in the heather, some covered with slippery moss. 

Creag an Leth-choin at dusk

Once down the terrain was no easier. The river was a raging torrent. The Lairig Ghru path lay not far up the other side but there was no way I could ford safely. I went downstream into the first trees, searching for a camp site. After climbing another steep rough bank and descending again to avoid a crag I found a lovely spot beside some old birches. With relief I made camp. I’d now been searching for a camp site for several hours and was far from where I’d planned to be. There’d be no hills this evening. Sunset came with a touch of colour amongst the racing clouds.

A peaceful camp

The night was warm, especially after the wind died down. I could hear the river roaring but even so this was a peaceful place. I lingered in the morning, admiring the old trees. And because I knew there was hard work to come. To cross the river I needed to go back upstream, beyond some feeder streams to where the Lairig Ghru path crossed it on steeping stones. To get there meant climbing back up the steep banks above camp and then crossing rough undulating moorland. Then I’d be on the path that lay just a few hundred metres away across the river from camp.

Allt Druidh

The ascent required more use of knees and elbows and more pulling on heather stems. Once out of the trees the wind was blasting against me again. I was now heading into it, across heather and boggy moorland that seemed even rougher than the day before. There were many little young pines to keep my spirits up. I weaved in and out of little stream gullies, trying to contour and not lose or gain much height. The river became a shallower stream and much less powerful as it flowed over flatter ground. I forded it before I reached the path at a wide pebbly stretch. The water was ankle deep and cold. My boots were sodden from all the bogs anyway.

Clouds over the Lairig Ghru

Once across I soon reached the path and could stride out, for the first time since I’d left Gleann Einich. Back in the trees I paused and gazed across the white thrashing river far below. There on the far side was the campsite I’d left three hours earlier. Now the hard work was over there was just the pleasant walk back through the forest to my car. 

Looking back across the river to my campsite

 
No summits were reached, and only short distances walked yet this was an arduous trip due to the wind and the terrain. The joy was in the regenerating forest and in the lovely camp site. A good start to spring.