A month or so ago long distance backpacker Keith Foskett initiated me into some strange, but fascinating, blog chain exercise. Basically, I have received a series of eleven questions (like a mini interview) from Keith. I have to respond to these and then refer and completely new and original set of questions to eleven bloggers of my choice.
You can see how Keith made his own response here.
Anyhow, Keith I’m sorry for the delay but there’s only so much time in the day! Anyhow, here goes!
Here are my answers. I’ll post my questions and eleven new respondents later on.
Is it the freedom, the scenery, the solitude, the inspiration, the adventure? What is it about being in the outdoors that you are passionate about?
It is about all of those things for me. I love the sense of freedom and openness. I love just having a predominantly natural landscape to cruise through. Sometimes, I enjoy the company of others although I do believe the true natural state of the backpacker is solo mode.
Being outdoors for extended periods is a real stress crusher. Sometimes you just have too many practical things to consider to worry about the world too much, route planning, camp site selection and so on. In other ways I find backpacking a great way of working through problems and difficult issues. I suppose the important thing here is that yo are on your own and can address the issues you are thinking about in your own way without anyone standing over your shoulder and without any other ridiculous pressures.
I do find landscape inspirational but I also enjoy the company I find along a trail or on a walk. The traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin once said that even though he loved landscapes — and he travelled on foot all over the world —he thought landscapes had always been shaped by human communities. For him a landscape didn’t exist without its community. I can understand what he means. When I’m walking I can choose to be alone when I want to but then I do enjoy company. And I’m especially interested in the communities of the mountains or the region. I’m fascinated by their customs and traditions and, especially, their own relationship with their land.
In addition, I love the international nature of trail walking. Walk in the Pyrenees or the Alps for example and you will come across not only the French and the Spanish but people from all parts of the world. You meet them during the day and in the evenings at refuges, campsites and mountain huts. Everyone is different and yet everyone is bound together by the same love of self powered travel and the hills. Of course, in Scotland you do meet a lot of Ditch people desperately seeking out gradients — but I love them all!
One encounter always sticks in my mind. I was in France and setting out to cross over the Pyrenean ridge into the Ara Valley on the Spanish side. It was reasonably early in the season and there was a lot of snow to navigate. The Col des Mulets navigates a huge scree slope, a narrow path cut into the steep sides of the mountain. The path takes the walker to either the Vallée d’Osaau in France or down into the Ara. As I started making my way along the path I could see two walkers lying down on the slopes of the scree. There had been a tremendous storm the night before but by now the sun was shining. All around them was strewn bits of tents and other kit drying in the sun. When I got to them I stopped for a chat. One of them was a Spanish guy and his friend told me he was a Sherpa. They had met while the Spanish walker was on a tour of the Himalaya. they had hit it off and the Sherpa was keen to travel and to see other mountain areas. It might have seemed a busman’s holiday but the Nepalese suddenly announced in English (our only common language) “Isn’t this simply wonderful”. Mountains have their own international language. And mountain ranges are also places of international comradeship and this is something to be treasured and protected.
Funnily, the sense of adventure comes before or after the walk but not on the walk itself. Planning a trek is also exciting and often slightly scary. But when I am on the ground there’s often too much to think about and deal with to really consider the adventure. There are hazards to deal with, sharp scrambles to navigate, rivers to cross and so on. It’s only when I am back home writing up journals and processing photos that I really take in the sense of the adventure!
What part of the world do you live in and where is the local place that you always go back to?
I am based in the English Midlands in Birmingham which is a major international city and centre of manufacturing. There are few hills nearby which is a bit of a challenge. However, it is nowhere as bad as living in London as I once did!
My local hills are the hills of South Shropshire and of the Welsh border country. It is not a great area but is one that provides a remarkable amount of variety. Away from the main tourist routes it is still possible to walk on your own all day (especially during the week) and there are lots of great wild camp sites, but I am keeping them to myself! A good day in these hills can involve a 10 kilometre walk and ascent of over 1,000 metres — bugger days than most of those I take on the TGO Challenge. I love the fact that for much of these hills I don’t need to carry a map at all. Although I have been walking these hills for most of my life I am still discovering new tracks, hidden valleys and new wild camp sites are always revealing themselves to me!
My local mountains would be those of Snowdonia in North Wales. The highlights of these hills are now really too popular. I haven’t walked the Grib Goch path on Snowdon or climbed Tryfan for years; tee are just too many noisy people about. But like anywhere else a little planning of the beaten track can bring solitude. Once a year I do a variation of the same walk. I take the train up to the North Wales Coast and then simply walk into the hills, wild camping next to some high lake or stream. Then I continue walking over Carnedd Llewellyn (Welsh Munro height), before descending to the Ogwen Valley. I’ll then continue to walk along the Mowleyn ridge which although not the highest walk in the area has spectacular views and is quiet! I’ll camp alongside some high tarn and descent the next day to the village of Beddgellert and take the bus and train back home. I will have only camped for three evenings but it always feels like a mini epic!
The Scottish Highlands now feel like home. I’m often there for the TGO Challenge but even on Challenge-free years I am still spending time there. Thinking about it, during the last twelve months I have spent almost five weeks walking in the Highlands on four separate trips. I shall be back up in the Cairngorms in a few weeks time.
Where and what would be your dream hiking trip and why?
Heaven knows! I used to think a lot about this but as I get older I realise that there is just too much walking to do in the world and I’ve stopped worrying about it. I think walking the length of the Eastern spine of South America would be cool!
Assuming you expect good weather on a mid-summer trip, would you prefer boots or trail shoes?
Trail shoes every time. I moved to trail shoes about ten years ago after reading an article by Cameron McNeish. I was fascinating but sceptical. I phoned Chris Townsend who, in his usually helpful way, pointed out that even if I didn’t like them I would have a good pair of trainers!
I will never go back to heavy boots!
Name the one night you camped that sticks out in your mind as being the best
There are just so many but only those who wild camp will properly understand that comment!
Two come to mind, both very different.
The first was in the Knoydart, that remote peninsular in the Scottish Highlands (you can only get in there by boat or on foot). There was no plan; I was just ambling around. From Soulies Bay to followed the inlet stream north, wading through the river in some of the most accessible stretches. The path climbed away from the river and began to move slightly east as I cleared the source of the stream. I was heading for the shores of Loch Quich but if honest was a bit knackered. I spied a small lochan down below the path. At one end was a pristine stretch of sandy beach. I made my way down through the heather and pitched the tent at the side of the water. Opposite me, across the lochan, was a natural cirque. I noticed print going down to the water and suspected that deer drank her. I ate and then turned in for the night. I was woken by the sound of some animal standing next to the tent. It was big. Or it has the worst case of smoker’s cough I have ever heard. It snorted a lot. A serious case of heavy breath. The animal then made its way to the water’s edge. It then let our a series of terrifying cries. It was a dominant stag using the natural acoustics of the cirque to exercise his natural authority and supremacy. I never quite had the courage to open up the tent door but he stood next to for what seems like ages. A magic encounter in a magic place. (I’m happy to send pitch coordinates if anyone wants them.) The next day I walked on to Loch Quich but it wasn’t a patch on my pitch!
The second was in the High Pyrenees not far from the GR10 footpath. We came across a small mountain hit and refuge that offered cold beers. We sat with the refuge pig, under the shade of pines, to drink our beer. We were joined by a large group of Dutch teachers (I think). They were children without children. They may have been retired. But they were intent on making the most of every minute. We left them to find an idyllic camp spot on the other side of the lake shore to the refuge. It was a lovely sunny and warm evening. As we ate we were disturbed by this group of about 30 Dutch men and women who — no doubt feud by drink — rushed down to the lake, threw off all of their clothes and set off to skinny-dip in the cool waters. It was a scene of pure joy and happiness and something that was lovely to share. Mountains are like that!
. . . and the worst?
Again there are many. Wild campers will understand that as well !!!
I’ll give more than one again.
The first was also in the Pyrenees. We had been walking the High Route and were in need of a rest day and some proper food somewhere. We reached the famous refuge at Wallon. we had the choice of descending to the trailhead town of Cauterets but for some reason we decided to climb high and have one more night camping an altitude. We climbed to the Lac d’Aratille. This is a high tarn sitting in amongst an almost lunar landscape of boulder fields. The path continues to climb towards the boxer ridge. Above the lac — and hidden out of view — is a flat plateau area which makes for great camping. At the end of the lac, besides a waterfall that filled it, we spied a spit of flat grass that stuck out into the lac. It was lunchtime and the heat of the week was turning to sticky humidity. We pitched the tent and then spent a wonderful afternoon reading books, washing out clothes and cooking our evening meal. There is no twilight here and we were soon ticked up in the tent. As we lay there the wind began to pick up and the humid increased. I heard a storm approaching from a distance. Pyrenean storms are legendary and the best way to experience them is at a lower height. The thunder and lightening ran right before us and at times the tent poles began to buzz! We didn’t quite have to abandon the tent but spent all night expecting to ha ego run at any time. Rather carelessly we were pitched next to a sharp rock face which seemed to me idea for attracting lightening.
The full storm was one of the worst I have ever experienced. It struck me quite forcibly that I might be about to die — I have other friends who have felt the same way in high Pyrenean storms. It was truly scary. We made it through the night, broke camp as soon as light came. And we descended to Cauterets, to real food and a safe campsite!
The second was in the Highlands on the TGO Challenge a few years ago on a day that has gone down in Challenge history as Stormy Monday. I had been due to cross to the tiny village of Struy crossing the hills to the North. The weather forecast had been so bad that I had taken a low route and camped alongside Loch Monar. Next day I set off walking the long road East to Struy. The wind and the rain were horrible and they were coming from the West. There was no protection from the elements at all. My waterproofs decided to stop being waterproof. After eighteen miles of wind battered walking I approached the Eskadale Moor which was to be my home of the night. I was behind schedule. Some idiot in a cottage has blocked off access to the hill that had to be climbed. I spent ages climbing over wire fences and stamping down others — my friends below seem not to have heard of the right to roam. As the winds raged I realised I wouldn’t reach my planned campsite. I found a clearing in the woods which I figured was big enough not to have me dodging falling trees. It was near a stream t which a number of deer paths converged. That night the winds battered my cube tarp tent so much that I had problems cooking. I spent most of the night trying to adjust the pitch as the little cuben tent was simply tossed around in the wind. I didn’t seep a wink. It was by far the worst night I have spent in Scotland. Next day I moved on across wager logged moorland. I was very pleased to be leaving Eskadale. But Eskadale had the last laugh. That evening I sat and dug out fourteen or fifteen ticks from my legs!
Oh, there is another!
Last summer I went for a few days stilling around the Cairngorms with mate Alan Callow. We left cam,p at Derry Lodge and climbed up to Derry Cairngorm. The sun shone but the winds were high and at times uncomfortable. We walked on the summit of Ben Macdui. We had planned to walk on but as we sat in the army shelter near the summit we realised we had probably done enough for the day. It was then we hatched our cunning plan. We would stay high, drop down as little as possible, so that we could quickly regain Macdui before walking on. I figured we would camp alongside the shores of Loch Echechan. But half way between the summit and the Loch we spied a small patch of water with some grass around it — the highest place it is possible to camp up here. We found one patch of water-soaked grass but it was only really big enough for one shelter. I took myself of to the other side of the water to a site that was exposed. The ground was too hard to take pegs. I then thought I’d lost my pole extender, critical for my pyramid tent. After an hour of facing around I found it in my tent peg bag. It’s what happens when you are tired. I had no choice but to pitch next to Alan on this little patch of waterlogged land. I was so tired I forget about the pole extender. I should have placed a rock underneath it. But I didn’t. As night fell Alan and I amused ourselves by calculating that the winds would fall as the heat of the day disappeared. Wrong. The winds thrashed the tents to within an inch of their lives. I couldn’t understand the lack of stability until I realised that the pole had sunk into the soggy grass. A pyramid tent need height for stability. I thrashed about outside with a min tofu trying to tighten guy lines but was unable to gain the height or stability. I wait inside the tent clinging on to stretches of cuben fibre. The only slightly satisfying thing about the evening was that Alan’s conventional tent seemed to be in as bad a state.
At daybreak we quickly packed up. Just loading the packs made us cold and tired. As we descended we realised we’d actually been sheltered! Our descent to Loch Avon was one of the most unpleasant stretches of walk I have done. The winds remained high and we decided to abort, making our way over the saddle of Strath Nethy and walking on to Glenmore. That evening we chatted to the barman in the Mountain Centre — I think we’d been his last customers a few days previously. He asked where we had been and where we had camped. He went white. You camped there? They were forecasting 100 mile an hour winds last night. Quite!
This question may seem a little strange but it relates to a blog post I have coming up. Would you be capable of finding your way, without a map, on a circular route around the town where you live? If you live somewhere huge, like London, I’ll let you off this one.
Yes. I wouldn’t bother with the moss on the sides of trees and so on. I’d simply look to see which direction the buses were travelling in and calculate a circular route accordingly. This may seem like cheating but experience tells me that crafty improvisation is the key to navigation wherever you are. When you are lost there are always clues!
What is the best bit of advice you have ever been given in relation to hiking, and who gave it to you?
You walk long distance by walking long and not walking fast. Use the full-length of the day if you need to. Don’t hurry on; you can always catch up. And you can always have off days. You should know your comfortable walking speed and stick to it. Mistakes are made when you are tired. It is a simple notion but a very powerful one.
Who told me? I’m not sure but I think its something I’ve always seen in magazines like The Great Outdoors (TGO).
On my first TGO Challenge route better Bernie Marshall kept reminding me “Your on your holidays _ enjoy yourself”. He’s right. Route marches are not really fun. Take an extra day to get somewhere of need be. Backpacking should be fun and not a trial.
You’re on a remote stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in the High Sierra and you get lost. You manage to get reception to make a call to search and rescue but it could be up to 6 days before they find you. What would be your first plan of action?
I should be so lucky!
The first thing I would do is make camp, brew up a cup of tea and have a good meal (assuming water and food were to be found). It’s amazing how much clearer things look when you are fed and watered. Those clues of the landscape that seems absent beforehand will reveal themselves. The compass and the map will make more sense. Try and calculate where you are. Take stock. How much battery is there in the mobile? What about food and water? Make a plan and create a route but be clear about the break points in it — if you haven’t found a feature within so much time then stop of retreat. Always make sure you can retreat to the position you were in when you called in.
There are times when I suppose staying still would be the safe option but I can never simply do that. I know! It will be the death of me!
When are you next due to go hiking and where will it be?
In two or three weeks — a trip to the Cairngorms with Alan again. Next year it will be the TGO Challenge again and a trip to the Pyrenees — I’ve not been back there for a while now and I’m missing it.
What would be your perfect evening meal on trail?
I would be in the Pyrenees. It would be warm and dry. I would have collected enough wood for the evening, nighttime campfires and for the next morning. The wood burner would be fired up.
In my stuff sack I wold have real food. There would be that mountain cheese that is designed to last for days. There would be ham (which last surprisingly well buried in the pack). There might be mountain sausage. There might be a pack of from age rappé (grated cheese). There would be some fresh tomatoes handsome fresh garlic and maybe an onion. There would probably be some dehydrated soup and some pasta or couscous.
I would start with some soup. I would have bread with me of course. French bread is made for the side pockets of your pack. Then I would empty some olive oil from a small container into the base of my titanium pan. (Olive oil is a great source of carbohydrate and energy.) I would sauté the garlic and onion. I’d add tomato roughly diced with my swiss knife. I’d add any ham or sausage and maybe some mountain cheese. I would o course have a container with some mixed herbs, salt and pepper. Once the sauce developed some consistency I would add the pasta and then just enough ager to cook it. As I would be using wood I wouldn’t have to worry about rationing fuel but could take my time.
I’d then throw in some special ingredients. Firstly, there would be the view. There may be some mountain animals grazing on a mountain side. There may be birds of pretty running the early evening thermals. There would be the soothing sound of a gently running mountain stream. My feet might be dipped into the water. My water bottle would be cooling in the stream.
I’d longer over the meal. As night fell I’d probably put on my down jacket (always carried in the mountains even in summer). I’d sit beside the still roaring wood burning stove and gently munch bread and cheese as the stars came out. I’d complete my meal gazing at the full spend our of the milky way — a view you only get from the mountains on a clear night.
If I was just a day out of town — and there had been a good butcher — I might have cooked a good steak!
Will that do?