Review: Every Day Above a New Horizon, John Davison

From the world of books you could easily get the impression that treks and trail walking are things of great extremes, undertaken by athletes who suffer significantly for their art! But, of course, it does not have to be like that and the mere mortals amongst us can still enjoy the thrill of a trek albeit one that is measured in weeks rather than months, where camping is often on campsites or where gites or B&Bs are used frequently.

New technology and the internet has made small run publishing — or self publishing — very popular over the last few years. I have reviewed a number of self published books in these pages, books that I have very much enjoyed reading. At the bottom of each review I include an Amazon link. This link allows you the reader to quickly check out other reviews and, if you choose to order the book via this route, I can see how many have been sold. By far the most ordered book from this site using the Amazon system is a self published book.  These books fill a real niche somewhere between a travelogue and a conventional guidebook; they can give us a good idea of life on a particular trail.

Every Day Above a New Horizon is another successful self published book which centres around a walk on the Stephenson Trail in France. A few weeks ago I reviewed Max Landsberg’s A Call of the Mountains a book which described the project of a Munro bagger; Max’s book while having a strong narrative also gave many hints and tips that will be useful to those beginning to Munro bag. In this book John Davison does much the same thing for trail walking combining a strong narrative with quite a lot of useful information about wild camping, treating water and so on.

Like John I have had the Stephenson Trail on my list of to do walks for years. The Trail has been developed to commemorate the walk undertaken  by Robert Louis Stephenson from the Massif Central to the South of the Cevennes just above the Mediterranean. Stephenson wrote a short book about his trip. Travels in the Cevennes with a Donkey is often considered to be the first modern travel book.

My problem with this trail is that I never seem to be able to find the time to slip this walk into my annual schedule. I have the route planned almost completely but there it sits until, well, one day …

I was pleased to read that John has had the same experience. He too harboured the dream of walking this trail for many years. He even carried around some text from Stephenson as a poster which sat on his office wall. It sat on a number of different walls over the years before he found the time and space to walk the trail.

So, Every Day Above a New Horizon, not only focus on this walk but on those trail expeditions that led up to it. In building up to the Stephenson Trail John walked and backpacked in Derbyshire, Wiltshire and in the Highlands. He then graduated to longer trails including the West highland Way, the Great Glen Way and the East Highland Way before moving on to tackle the big one.

The really great thing about this book is that John writes well. He has a sparse and simple style and is successful in avoiding the flowery language we get from many inexperienced writers. He has a nice gentle sense of humour and a keen eye for important detail. Anyone who has regularly trailed walked will recognise many of the experiences and characters that are encountered along way. There’s the gear bore who carries massive weights and dominates every meeting at a campsite. There are walking companions who value the pubs along the route more keenly than they do the landscape and who sometimes hail down a taxi and thumb a life to get from one place to the other. There are hotels and B&Bs who, faced with a smelly and muddy trekker, suddenly decide that they are full. And there are honest pieces about the horrible nature of the early stages of the West Highland Way which is often more reminiscent of a rubbish dump than of a national trail. I agree with John’s observation that the decision to ban camping in the Loch Lomond area has been a disaster as it simply encourages improvised bivouacs which leave behind tons of debris.

The Stephenson Trail takes up the second half of a book. For me, this gives a pretty open and honest account of a first time excursion on a French Trail, including that rather touchy issue of the French and their dogs!

The Stephenson Trail is not a particularly difficult trail in itself although some of the days are long. However, John makes it clear that UK walkers need to respect the upland areas many of which are higher than any territory in the UK and which can (often) be subject to pretty dreadful weather conditions. Although this is a trail that can be broken with very comfortable evenings in lovely villages it is one which needs to be prepared for properly.

I enjoyed reading this book. It had the right air of authenticity to it. As I’ve already mentioned John writes well and this is an easy book to digest; I read it in two sessions over a Sunday afternoon and earl evening.

If you are thinking of tackling one of these trails for the first time I think you would find this book useful. If you have a lot of experience of trail walking then there is also a lot to enjoy.

I think this is only available in paper cover at the moment, but it is easily bought through Amazon.

Review: The Call of the Mountains, Sights & Inspirations from a journey of a thousand miles across Scotland’s Munros, by Max Landsberg

Derry Cairngorm

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Derry Cairngorm, one of the magnificent Scottish ‘Munros’
 
It is not difficult to see why the mountains of the Scottish Highlands are so popular with walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Within a relatively small area the Highlands offer, arguably, the greatest variety of hills and mountains that can be found anywhere, from the sea and island dominated North West, to the brooding crags and corries of Nevis to the sub arctic tundra and wonder of the Cairngorms. Of course, the stars of the Highlands are the ‘Munros’, the hills that are over 3,000 feet high. There are 283 Munros at the time of writing (em, but we may have just lost another one due to scientific calculation -ed) many of which are easily accessible; as a result it is not too difficult to see how the collection of Munros becomes such a lifetime’s passion for so many.
 
There have been a lot of books written about the Munros. We have a whole library’s worth of guidebooks that will help you get up the hills. We have wonderfully illustrated coffee table books that inspire us and hep us get through our long winters. And we have the travel books, memories and diaries from those who have walked all of these hills in one continuous trek. So, do we really need yet another book about the Munros? Max Landsberg clearly thinks so and he has produced a book which, for me,
is distinctive; I can’t think of another that does the same job.
 
Max’s book is not a tale of great heroics and epic non-stop walks and neither is it a guidebook or something that you would slip into your rucksack. What Max has produced is a book that describes his own personal journey, his discovery of the hills, his growing obsession with them and then his quest to ‘tick’ off each of the Munros.
 
Max tackled the Munros — as many do — from a job and a base in England, in his case London. Regular readers will know that I am not a bagger and that I find the obsession with the Munros a little strange at times, but what I am sure about is that anyone who completes all of the Munro walks from England has really achieved something that is both difficult and special. If you are based in Scotland you might not  find this book all that impressive, but if you are a long distance bagger there is a lot here for you to enjoy and treasure.
 
It is not easy to pigeon hole this book but I shall try and give you a flavour of it.
 
This is refreshingly honest memoir of a hill walker. Max describes to us his early outings on the hills. He is badly prepared and not really sure what he is doing. He gets lost on one occasion and is saved by the Mountain Rescue Service talking him down off the hill using his mobile phone. His mobile phones get trashed by rain. His map print outs get turned into maché. And yet the magic of the hills takes hold and Max slowly begins to realise the Munros represent a challenge he has to complete. He learns quickly and develops his personal hill craft skills. The fascination becomes an obsession, the journey to the top becomes all important, more so than the appreciation of the surroundings he is walking through. There are snatched weekends, huge car journey’s from London and nights spent sleeping in the car. Gradually, he gains a greater sense of perspective and very much finds that he has become one with the hills.
 
This list of events may seem odd to some of you but what strikes a chord with me is that Max’s experiences are exactly parallel to those of friends of mine who have become English baggers. A few times over the last year I have written about excursions with my bagger mate Carl. He drives me mad at times not least because he is a driven man with a determination that I simply don’t share. But Max’s story is Carl’s story. In Carl I can see a Max developing and that alone makes me take the Call of the Mountains Seriously.
 
The is a book is that it provides much of the insight and information that new or would-be baggers need.  Here you will find information on the hills themselves, details of accommodation, a useful glossary of Gaelic names and mini essays on the history, geology and geography of the hills. There are features on he distinctiveness of landscape and on flora and fauna. Much of what you need to know if you are thinking of setting off on a life of bagging is here. And Max also provides some useful listings and resources for further reading and research.
 
If there is genus in this book it is in the way that Max introduces this information, it kind of fits in with his own Munro journey. His first sections cover at lot of the basics of hill walking in Scotland. As he progresses he studies the maps and wonders about all of those names — and so we have the description of gaelic place names. As he progresses he gets more curious about the various geologies of the Highlands as well as its history He begins to become more organised at planning his trips, begins walking with friends he has met on the hills, learns to use a mountain bike to tackle long approaches and so on. And then there are the big questions. Do you ever walk a hill twice?  (This one always kills me but it often seems to be a major concern of baggers). Which hill should be the last Munro? And after the Munros are finished, what next?
 
Max can be a bit mystical at times; in another life he is the author of business books, The Tao of Coaching and the Tao of Motivation. While I found some of Max’s mysticism  a bit flowery at times it never got in the way of the text. On some occasions I wish he would have written more about his thoughts.
 
A sub text to the main story is provided by Max’s side trips to the Himalaya which coincided with the Munro quest.  Max became fascinated by the walking technique of Nepali porters which seemed to him to be as efficient as possible. These have been studied by an Italian Professor Alberto Minetti and Max used these findings and brought them together with his own observations to develop his own walking style:
 
“Having practiced these techniques, they have gradually become more automatic in recent months…
 
 
“… I am able to forget the techniques completely, my body has become tuned and entrained. And then, as if by magic, I start to feel the walking is easier
 
“.. Words flit out of my consciousness, eventually forming a type of mantra:
 
“When the path strings up to meet your boot
the hill will life you on your route/”
 
I’d like to have known more about these techniques, but perhaps, I shall just have to search Prof Minetti out!
 
So, do we need yet another Munro book? Well, Max has succeeded in writing a very different book about the Munros. If you are based in Scotland it all might seem a little odd or mundane. But if — like Max — you are tackling the Munros from Southern England I think you will not only find a lot to identify with but a lot that is informative and fascinating.
 
If you are based well south of the border and are just starting out on Munro bagging, this is almost certainly a book you should add to your library.
 
The book is available as a relatively expensive hardcover (£20) or as a Kindle Book — the link below is to the Kindle version.
 

Review: A Pyrenean Adventure, Martin Banfield

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The growth of the internet and low cost digital technology has seen an explosion in ‘self publishing’ over the last decade. I’ve reviewed a number of self-published books here and a few of them have gone on to be very popular.

In all honesty, I do receive some pretty dreadful, self-published, books but this one, my friends, is a little gem.

Martin Banfield is a friend of mine, fellow blogger, hill walker, Pyrenean aficionado and TGO Challenger. This summer Martin walked the full length of the GR10, the long distance footpath on the French side of the Pyrenees. For much of the walk he was accompanied by his partner Sue and on other occasions his walking companions were a mixture of old and new friends; one of the great things about trails such as these is that you make many new friends as you walk.

Martin blogs as he walks, something that I have never been comfortable at doing. At the end of each day he sits down and writes his journal on his smartphone. When he has phone signal he turns his trail prose into blog posts, enhancing the with the photographs that he has taken on that very same smartphone.

The result of this technique is that the walking experience is shared with friends — real and virtual — in almost real time. The further Martin walked this summer the more this blog became a shared journey. Regular contributors added to the fun and humour of the trip and others who dipped in and out clearly took inspiration from Martin’s walk. As walked progressed I remember writing a post here describing Martin’s journal as one of the best, current, reads on the net. Reading this now is a reminder of how right that observation was!

Another fan of Martin’s walk was another TGO Challenger and print designer Humphrey Weightman. Humphrey was fascinated by what he saw emerging from Martin’s blog and decided that it would work — posts, reader comments and all — as a book. Humphrey knocked up some drafts and dummies and when Martin returned from France he found these proofs waiting for him at home. The two of them decided that the experiment had worked and over a few weeks Martin tidied up the text a little and spent a little time processing his photographs. Humphrey then laid down the page design, commissioned printers and — hey presto — this book was born.

The book takes the form of an A4, bound, soft cover. The larger A4 format works really well allowing most of the day entries and the accompanying photos and reader comments to sit on one page. I can’t remember a blog — comments and all — laid out this before, but the formula really works.

This is a more polished version of the blog (still available online) but the text has lost none of its spontaneity, vibrancy and humour. The many photographs that illustrate the adventure are well composed and provide readers with a real insight as to how these mountains look and work. The quality of the photographs are quite remarkable given that they were composed on a smartphone.

But it is in the reading that this book delights. It is a real account of a real walk, not an account of great heroics or deaf defying stunts, but the kind of experience that is well within the reach of all of us. If you are thinking of walking in the Pyrenees — planning anything from a full traverse to a week’s leisurely rambling — this book will give you a very good idea of what to expect.

Writer Kev Reynolds has recently said (in his new collection of memories from a life of mountain walking) the more he reflects on his adventures the more he recognises that great trips are made of up encounters with people and not just the appreciation of the sheer beauty of the landscape. Martin captures this trail comradeship really well here. We meet many new people along the trail and share with Martin his joy of meeting them again a little further on. There are some lovely vignettes of the town and villages a long the trail and stories of wonderful hospitality received from Inns and mountain hotels along the way. The trail is illuminated well as you would expect but Martin also shares with us the look and feel of the villages in which he stays to resupply and take a break. There is humour and quirkiness here, not least in Martin’s sub project to document the variety of tractors that are found along the Pyrenean ridge.

Over the last few years Steve Cracknell has had some success with his own account his walk along the GR10 (If Only You Walk Long Enough) and I’ve no doubt that Martin’s book delight many in the same way.

The idea to publish the text and the comments is a master stroke as, if you missed the trek at the time, you can still share the adventure as it evolved while also experiencing the banter between Martin and those who were following the trip.

I know many of you still appreciate the look and feel of the printed book and that   many of you are happy hunting down titles from specialist shops and supplier.

To get hold of a copy email Martin directly at:

martin@topwalks.com

The book costs £12 and this includes post and packaging.

European delivery costs £15.70 and shipping to USA and other international destinations will cost £18.

Martin accepts payment by cheque or bank transfer.

Anyone who buys a copy of the book will also be given a PDF version for their ereader if they request it.

The initial print run is limited — so get in quickly!

This is a lovely, lovely book that will sit well in any personal library of mountain literature.

5 Star Review: A Walk in the Clouds — 50 Years Among the Mountains, by Kev Reynolds

One of the unexpected bonuses of writing this blog over the last eight or nine years is that I have got to meet some of this country’s best and most prominent outdoor writers. I have found them all to be great fun, fascinating characters who are genuinely inspirational in many ways. Of all of these writers the one who has made the greatest impression on me personally has been Kev Reynolds. Kev’s guidebooks have seen me safely through all kinds of Pyrenean adventures and his mountain reference books to the Alps and the Pyrenees are some of the most well-thumbed books on my bookshelves.

Before I met Kev for the first time I knew I would like him. His oeuvre may be the guidebook but somehow from out from that restricted format shines an exceptionally warm person, a man who revels not just in high mountains but in the company of both mountain communities and fellow visitors. An encounter with Kev is always an experience to savour and memory to cherish. Kev’s stories are a delight as they entrance you with the magic and wonder of high and far off places. Within them there is always humour, writ and just the right amount of cheekiness. If you have heard Kev speak or give a presentation you will know what I mean.

Now Kev has distilled his 50 years or so of mountain walking into a wonderful new book, A Walk in the Clouds.

As Kev says himself in the introduction this is not a collection of stories of great drama and excitement but a series of memories at the gentler end of the outdoor spectrum. Kev’s long walk in the clouds has left him with a rich store of memories and as he puts it himself:

…(this) is collection is a celebration of wild places in all their seductive mystery — a commemoration of mountains and valleys; friends with whom some great days have been shared; people met alone the way; the generosity of strangers; humour plucked from the most unlikely situations. A celebration of life”

This is no autobiography biography but a carefully crafted collection of short stories most of which started off as journal entries written at the end of days on the mountain or at the end of a trip. This is not hard or intense reading and most of the pieces here are no more that three or four pages long. These stories are never anything but accessible but despite their brevity each them carries a lo, so much so that I found Kev constantly playing tricks on my mind. I would read some small piece or other only to find, when I finished it, that all kinds of memories and encounters from my own trips were flooding my mind.

The pieces are grouped in sections that follow the development of Kev’s own walking career. We start in the Atlas mountains Kev’s first excursion in the wild land of an unfamiliar country. Next up is the Pyrenees —mountains that Kev first saw on that trip to Morocco — which set the scene for Kev’s first groundbreaking guidebook Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees , a book which is still in print today and which I’ve used a great deal over the yeas. Following the Pyrenees comes the Alps, the Himalaya and, finally, a collection of memories from assorted trips around the world. In each of these sections you will find wonderful descriptions of high, wild and beautiful mountains, high passes and lowland pastures. There are nights spent in storms under canvass, convivial evenings in refuges, brushes with near disaster, stories from the leading of mountain treks and others featuring life long walking companions including, of course, Kev’s wife Min.

These short stories really do bring these mountains to life and they do so not least because Kev is so good at connecting with local people and with the communities that have lived there for generations. As Kev looks back over his career he is finding that the memories of the people he met along the way are becoming stronger and stronger and this is certainly something that I can identify with. I am reminded of the late writer and traveller Bruce Chatwin who said that a landscape was never properly illuminated for him until he had met the people who animated it. Here we encounter lonely shepherds, simple mountain pension owners, guardians of high refuges and a multi millionaire who tackled the great peaks of the Alps by private helicopter! We meet Pierre and Jean Ravier, two of the greats explorers of the Pyrenees and many of Kev’s long standing sherpa guides, good friends and comrades. There is also a fascinating encounter with a small Himalayan village community none of whom has ever left their own valley and who really cannot understand why you would need to know what was to be found further downstream! Kev’s publisher Jonathan Williams also has a few important walk on parts, some of which are too delicate to describe here!

If you have seen Kev speak you will find that many of his ‘greatest hits’ stories are here, most prominently the one where our hero ends up hanging in mid air following the collapse of his balcony. But most of the material here is completely new to me.

The great thing about this book is that it focuses on the kinds of experiences and observations that all of us will have when we venture out into the Alps, the Pyrenees or the Himalaya. In that sense there is nothing out of the ordinary here but of course, as all mountain goers know, everyday in the hills is a chance to experience the extraordinary. This is a quietly inspirational book, I say quietly because it inspire us all to get out and do things that we are all capable of doing!

In ‘A Walk in the Clouds’ Kev tells us that he never set out to become a guidebook and outdoor writer. Things just happened and opportunities arrived out of the blue that he simply took advantage of. You can see that Kev is a genuinely modest man but reading this book I’ve realised what makes him so special. Kev’s art is this quiet and gentle ability to inspire us all to do that little bit more and to unlock just a little bit more the potential within. Whenever I have chatted to Kev he has always quietly encouraged me to explore somewhere new or to return again to the Pyrenees (and provide him with even more up to date intelligence of conditions on the ground). I always go away from an encounter with Kev beginning to plan a new adventure in my head. Reading this book has given me the same experience.

Anyone who has used one of Kev’s guidebooks will delight in this collection of memories and mountain stories. If you don’t know Kev’s work you’ll still find this delightful and I would be amazed if you then don’t find yourself buying one of his guides and quickly planning to follow in his footsteps. And all readers — like me — will surely be heartened by Kev’s closing remarks that make it clear that there are yet more of these memories to be set down.

Kev’s inspirational cajoling continues until the very last paragraphs of the book:

“… all who go to the mountains have abundant opportunities to gather a harvest of memories worth reliving. Happily there’s no need to be a top-grade climber tackling the latest major vertical challenge, nor even to trek the longest or toughest routes, for with an eye for beauty and the ability to absorb the wonders of the world you, enrichment comes from simply being there.”

“I hope this message comes across in some of these stories in this book and will inspire you to gather a harvest of experiences and memory to underline the truth that life is a gift to be treasured and not wasted on ‘if only …’

Well, Kev, the message has certainly come across in this book. Even in the final paragraph you have inspired me to think afresh of many of the experiences I have had when travelling. You have given me the inspiration to explore new pastures of writing myself.

This is truly a wonderful gem of a book. With A Walk in the Clouds Cicerone have developed yet another dimension to their publishing and log may this spirit of experiment continue. I hope that a further collection of Kev’s writings will find its way into the future catalogue.

Go and buy this book for you will understand what is truly great about my friend Kev — at the end of these 200 pages he will be your friend as well!

Available now in book form, electronic versions following shortly.

Review: The Complete Lachlan by Grant Hutchison

One of the nice things about having produced this blog for so long now is that review copies of books turn up — unsolicited — quite regularly. I never know what to expect and sometimes I’m left a little speechless by what I read!

The Lachlan stories made their first appearance in The Angry Corrie — ‘Scotland’s Finest Hillwalker Fanzine’ — in 1993. As you might imagine these are stories that are centred around the rather mad and obsessive world of the munro bagger.

The hero — or more appropriately — anti-hero of these stores is quite a character. Lachlan is big character and a big man, short of social graces but big on imagination. He is never happier then when in hills, often chasing some bizarre idea or adventure. He’s a man of no nonsense habits I suppose you could say. Not for Lachlan the endless debate about whether eVent or Gore Tex is better or whether trail shoes are better than boots. This is a man who would spend the night in a black bin bag rather than an expensive bivy. He is what highland writer Cameron McNeish would call “a mountain bum”. (Come to think of it there is more than a little of Lachlan about Cameron — but I digress ….) Lachlan is not a man you’d really want to spend a night with in an isolated bothy.

But our hero is no complete idiot. He knows his Scottish history and many of his capers are anchored in Scots culture and a general antipathy to the English (no bad thing in my view). He has one great weakness (even more so than his personal hygiene habits). Lachlan can’t pass over a money making scheme. The twelve stories here all centre around some madcap caper hatched by Lachlan and faithfully recounted by the narrator, his long suffering bagger friend from childhood, playing Watson to our hero’s Holmes.

The stories are light easy to read and generally amusing but every now and then something in them really cracked me up in hysterical laughter. I have to hand it to Lachlan; his schemes cover a wide range of territory.

Here we follow our hero’s exploits such as the invention of bionic long johns which capture kinetic energy on downhill sections and use this to power an exoskeleton to speed him at impossible speed up the hills. There’s a search to discover the Stone of Destiny. Most people think the English took this to Westminster but Lachlan is convinced the canny Scots passed off the English with a pale imitation of the real thing. By a series of magnificent deductions Lachlan reckons he has found the original  in a warehouse in East London. He has the receipt and the couple of them travel to London to retrieve the item which they then return to the Highlands. Only something goes wrong — which is is no doubt why we have never heard of the return of the stone!

In other adventures Lachlan shows an uncanny knack of pre-empting mainstream inventions (the US forces of our course working on real bionic trousers). Lachlan’s GPS device kind of pre-dates the SPOT devices used today by many walkers, only he hasn’t quite got the design right. In other historical settings Lachlan thinks he has discovered a lost hoard of Roman loot and his explorations to retrieve it find him and his colleague sleeping overnight in an army shooting range.  Some of the adventures are more social. Does Lachlan really meet an alien? And there’s a hilarious reunion with a high school sweetheart — a high school fantasy of lust.

The stories are definitely set in the ’90s and can feel a little dated but Hutchinson has a great eye for a one liner. On a first excursion to London Lachlan is despatched to a phone box to find a room for the night. He gives up on the yellow pages but finds a really cheap room listed on a card stuck in the box. Much is predictable I guess but I loved the line when our two explorers finally make it to this really seedy hotel. What are complaining about — you’ve spent a night in Corrour bothy!

The story here about the two travellers finding them stranded in the Highlands after having lost all their money is eye-wateringly funny. Lachlan’s emergency plan involves ripping off the locals inn bars with dodgy magic tricks. I won’t mention how the story ends.

In general these stories made me smile rather than laugh out loud. But if any of this captures a bit of your imagination then why not hunt this down — it only costs £2.66.

If you regularly take a Kindle or e-reader with you on long nights in a tent of bothy then then you may well find a stroll through these stories is a perfect way to pass the time!

Review: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is one for those of you who are now putting the finishing touches to your first TGO Challenge. You may have read this before, perhaps as a child, but this is the perfect gripping yarn to have in your pack for a walk across the Highlands.

The plot is fairly simply. Our hero is David Balfour a young man from the Scottish lowlands who lives alone with his father since his mother has died. When his father died David is packed off to an uncle he has never met. The uncle proves to be a nasty piece of work and tricks David into thinking that they are both travelling to Edinburgh to secure his inheritance. Instead David is Kidnapped, or at least the uncle pays, to have him taken on board a ship bound for the Americas. 

As the ship makes its way around the coast of the Highlands it rescues a man from a shipwreck. The man rescued is a jacobite Stewart, Alan Breck, who is eager to reach dry land and to make his way back to Stewart territory. The Captain of the vessel aims to put the ship down near Mull to allow Breck to begin his journey. A storm blows up and the ship is wrecked. David manages to survive and as he struggles east across the barren heather moorland begins to meet people who convey messages left for him by Alan in case he had survived.

Alan and David are re-united and set off across the Highlands to travel on for David to re-claim his inheritance. Alan is a kind of terrorist freedom fighter and he and David have to work hard to avoid the Kings men and make for neutral ground.

As many of you all the TGO Challenge you will be following some of the Kidnapped route. This is great adventure story, not too long, written in short chapters (ideal for camp reading) and pretty easy to read. 

There is more to Kidnapped than good old adventures though. There’s a very poignant scene at a port where Gaelic speakers all joint together in traditional song, a large group on a transport ship being ‘cleared’ from their homeland and despatched for America. As at the story unfolds Stevenson tells us much about the traditional life and history of the Highlands.

At Ben Alder David and Alan take refuge in an ancient cottage that is built on the side of the mountain. Their host makes it known that Bonny Prince Charlie himself had sheltered there. You may find yourself in the same place on this year’s walk!

Kidnapped is perfect trail reading. And it is cheap — whether you buy as a paperback or a kindle book. To say anymore would be to spoil the plot. You can’t go wrong!

Review: Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis

Just when you think that everything that could be said about Mallory and Everest along comes Wade Davis who has produced a truly extraordinary book. Into the Silence won the Samuel Johnson prize for Non Fiction in 2012 and it certainly deserved to do so!

Davis has not simply written a book about Everest expeditions, he has asked the question why did people behave as they did? The expeditions came about in the wake of a truly dreadful World War. How did the war experience effect the expeditions and can they help explain the attitudes these mountaineers had to risk?

Into the Silence begins by juxtaposing two events. Firstly, we have Mallory and Irvine setting off on the morning of they fateful climb, the expedition planners looking on with perhaps a sense of inevitability; time was running out in the  race to get up to the summit before the Monsoon arrived. At more or less the same time, group was gathered at the top of Great Gable in the Lake District to remember the climbers and members of the Alpine Club who had died dying the great war.

British mountaineering had been decimated during the war and had lost many talented climbers. Those — like Mallory — who survived had witnessed extraordinary suffering and carnage. And, as we now now, many of the strategic planners and commanders never really appreciated the realities of the scale of loss that their tactics led to. During the early stages of the book Davis takes us through — in some detail — the war experience of those who were to become the key actors  on Everest through the three expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924. This first section is a pretty comprehensive and still shocking description of that war. We also see how the key strategists saw the war, with commanders like General Haig adopting a policy of not visiting the front because it effected his health _ it as Haig who famously asked whether it could really be true that so many men had been lost during the war.

It is clear that this British approach to the war, and the split of experiences, was replicated in the expedition planning. In simple terms (mine) those planing the expedition int he Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society had little experience of the horrors of war and of danger. Theirs was a world of honour and endeavour based almost on chivalry.

Davis takes his time to set the scene properly; then he moves on the expeditions themselves. 

In 1921 a survey mission left for the Himalaya under the command of Charles Howard Bury but although only a reconnaissance mission Mallory (first amongst then natural climbers) always hoped for a crack at the top. Mallory himself was a comfortably off if not wealthy school teacher, unhappy with his job and work. Even though Mallory’s experiences of the War were horrific we can see some of Britain’s history reflected rather unhelpfully in his views. Arguably, one of the heroes of this expedition was the Canadian climber and surveyor Oliver Wheeler. Wheeler was not only strong climber but someone skilled in the new Canadian skill of map mapping from photographs, which involved the carrying of less equipment. During the 1921 expedition Wheeler and his small team of Sherpas spent longer at high altitude than other members of the expedition. It was Wheeler who observed the rout that would be the key to finding a route to the top of the mountain. Mallory was dismissive of Wheeler’s work even failing to acknowledge its significance in official reports. As he wrote to his wife Ruth, he simply didn’t rate Canadians!

The expedition in 1922 aimed to get to the summit. Those such as Mallory who signed on again effectively had less than half a year with family and friends before going out again. Wheeler was not to go on this mission although the nature of his survey work ventrally found him to be head of the Indian Survey.

This time the expedition was led by Charles Bruce who in a sense had to learn about Tibet and the Himalaya from scratch. Davis gives an enthralling account of the expedition’s search for the missing route to the top. In 1921 the ageing mountaineer Alexander Kellas (who was a veteran of climbing who may have been there at all if younger men had lived) first raised the notion of using oxygen to support climbs although sadly Kellas dies on the 1921 expedition. In 1922 the Oxygen theme was taken up by George Finch, one of the outstanding Alpinists of his day. Like Wheeler Finch was never really accepted by the establishment indeed he had been blocked from taking part in 1921 inn the grounds of a rather dubious medical — it was clear he was not really wanted. Finch’s achievements in the Alps in 1921 made it more or less certain that he would be part of the expedition in 22. However, this scepticism of him and his character is evident and like Wheeler before him his talents were not properly appreciated — Mallory was initially dismissive of both Oxygen and Finch himself, although he did become very appreciative of Finch’s talents on the mountain.

Davis also gives a fascinating account of the business foundation of the expeditions. The expeditions had to generate cash not only to finance the next outing but to some extent to finance the lives of climbers such as Mallory who were not independently wealthy men. The ’21 expedition had made a fair surplus but the ’22 expedition had been nowhere near as lucrative. Mallory, for example, was despatched on a lecture tour of the USA and Canada that failed to break even. It was hoped that there would be an expedition in ’23 but in reality it was impossible.

Mallory himself nearly missed the fateful expedition of ’24. He was feeling the strain of being away from his young family so much. He found a job with the Workers Education Association which was more to his liking to teaching at public schools. Mallory prevaricated as to wether he would actually sign up for 1924 and there is some evidence that he hoped his boss would not give him permission to go. However, establishment intervention saw the WEA giving Mallory 6 months leave at half pay. there was no chance that he would not go.

In 1924 Bruce again headed the expedition although he his health was so ropey that his position was quickly taken by Edward Norton. The whole focus opt this expedition was a rush to the mountain and yet there were still few young and skilled mountaineers on the team. Irvine was young an inexperienced yet he made his way up the rankings on the basis of his strength and ingenuity — it was Irvine who took on the mantle of maintaining and operating the Oxygen. 

Davis gives fascinating, full and frank accounts of each expedition. This is a book that despite its size gets read through pretty quickly. Once the book moves into expedition territory the excitement of the expeditions really grabs you. Yet all the time the reader is conscious of the World War background to not only the expeditions but to the individual characters involved.

An epilogue sketches over the next set of expeditions which could only follow after the end of the second World War. The first man to the top was, of course, a New Zealander, Edward Hillary, something that would have been un-imaginable in the 1920s. Davis also follows the search to discover whether Mallory and Irvine actually reached the top of the mountain.

This is a magnificent book a far greater achievement than most books that look at mountain expeditions. For Davis the War experiences shaped the expeditions and the characters of those who were members of them. Talking of Mallory, Davis reflects at the end of his book:

He would have walked on, even to his end, because for him, as for all his generation, death was but a :”frail barrier” that men crossed, “smiling and gallant every day.” They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.

Top class writing. Recommended. Go buy it!

Review: The Munros, by Paul and Helen Webster

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It’s tempting to think that the last thing the world needs is yet another Munro guide, but then again …

Regular readers will know that I am not a Munro Bagger. However, I have to admit that I have been up quite a few of them and continue to do so — It’s just that I am not a completionist and I really don’t get a kick out of ticking boxes! A quick glance at my bookshelves reveal a whole host of Munro guides of various vintages.

I tend to rely on two sets of guides, the SMC series and the two volumes of Munro guides from Cicerone. Both of these have their problems. The SMC guides are basic and concentrate on the hills, their topography and geology. This is fair enough as these guides are designed to be in use for years. I find these invaluable for route planning but I have to combine them with other guides to learn about accommodation, transport options and so on. The Cicerone guides are fine but I’d much prefer to have the guides consolidated into one edition — every time  pick up one of these guides I find that the walk I want is in the other one! Somehow these guides also seem to me a bit dated. And — and this probably a weird personal thing — they seem to be written by curmudgeonly, miserable old git, hill walkers. This might be OK as a fair number of the Munro baggers I have met in hostels and an campsites can fairly be described as curmudgeonly, miserable old gits. (You know who you are). But even a miserable old sod lie me appreciates that there are some younger folks out on the hills. Something more contemporary would be welcome.

Paul and Helen Webster, it is safe to say, are not old gits. Paul and Helen are the team behind the excellent Walk Highlands website which has set out to provide a one-stop place for people wanting to explore the Highlands. many others have tried over the years but have fallen by the wayside while Walk Highlands has genuinely become central to the Hillwalker community. Paul and Helen chose to move to the Cairngorms to build their business and see out their dreams. They know their stuff.

So, how does their guide measure up?

First Impressions

First up, this is a single volume. All of the hills are covered in one volume. If you are familiar with Pocket Mountain Guides (the publisher) you will have a feel forth dimensions (see later). These guides are designed to fit into small pockets. This guide has the same basic dimensions but is very thick. All in all it looks like one of those boxes that iPhones come in. A quick browse through the book reveals crisp text, some lovely maps and a whole series of rule stupendous photographs. I really appreciate the photos. There’s no skimping here; they really want to make you jump on the sleeper and venture North. It feels like a quality piece of work.

The Guide

First up is the usual introductory section which gives you the background to the Munros, advice on access and accommodation and provides details of useful organisations and websites. You would expect this but I find this section is mercifully brief and the guide is all the better for that. Also, as you would expect, the hills are arranged or clustered together in sections.

Each section carries a brief introduction to the hill range and gives details of accommodation and refreshment places. The only slightly odd thing here is that there is no contents section to the book which would have been useful — actually Helen has pointed out to me that there is a contents section on the inside flap of the cover but I had missed it!. You can’t quickly locate your range of hills expect by join to the index. This doesn’t really cause too many problems though and the index is comprehensive. Both the front covers have flaps that can be used to bookmark pages.

On to the walks themselves.

I decided to test things out by looking at a few hills that I have walked a couple of times.

Each hill section starts with a table of basic information. There’s the hill’s height (obviously) and also a translation of the meaning of the name which is a very nice touch. Then we have the distance of the walk route described, the ascent and an estimation of the time taken in walking. There’s the start grid reference and details of the OS map covering the walk. There’s a quick reference to public transport links (which I always need except when I’m walking with my munro mate Carl — a miserable git who his wedded to his car). Finally, there’s few words on the terrain and the hazards you can expect to find.

This upfront summary is brief but yet cleverly written and gives me everything that I want to know when thinking about tackling the hill.  There’s a thorough description of the walk and where appropriate a quick section of alternatives. And there’s a map of the route of course. These maps are superb. They are carefully shaded to provide a 3D effect but the shading doesn’t get in the way of the route.

The first hills that I looked at where those of Beinn a Ghlo — a ridge that comprises of Carn Liath, Braigh Core Chruinn-bhalhgain and Carn nan Gabhar. This is a popular ridge walk that is easily accessed from Blair Athol.

When I first walked these hills with Colin Ibbotson I was shocked by the track running up Carn Liath — a real scar on the landscape for which I was unprepared. I smiled when I read Paul and Helen’s description:

The path is badly eroded as it stipend considerably up the heather slopes, but quickly brings you to the summit cairn.

Paul and Helen have clearly walked this way and recently!

The top section quickly told me the meanings of the names. I had walked over the rocky grey hill, the upland corrie of round lumps (bang on description) and the rocky hill of the goats (goats do get everywhere). The route is well described. The map gives you a good feel for the route and the steepness of its climbs. You can see the bits to avoid. It is very easy to take the illustrated map and use it to locate the route on a full OS map.

I then looked up a number of other Munros in a variety of regions and couldn’t fault these descriptions either.

The route descriptions are real works of art. They are very concisely written and yet give you everything you really need to know to plan your route. You won’t want to just rely on this but will want to study your maps well but the text gives a heads up for pretty much everything you would want. In terms of writing style these descriptions remind me of Chris Townsend’s Scotland — which is no bad thing at all.

You can tell that I like this book. It is a contemporary Munro guide and in many ways beautifully designed and produced. I’m pretty sure that the next time I’m planning a Munro walk I shall start with this book. It is a first class piece of work.

There is one downside though and it’s in no way a fault of Paul or Helen. It is the basic book design.

As I mentioned above the Pocket Mountain guides are small. This one is small in two dimensions but thick in three. I’m not sure this size form works properly for a guide of this type. The layout is classy and crisp but the text is pretty small, I would guess about 8 point (maybe smaller). This might be fine for young folks but remember those curmudgeonly, miserable old gits (like me). A lot of Munro baggers are my age or older and — no doubt — like me their eyes are not as good as they once were. I need to read this text in good light and even then it is playing havoc with my bifocals! If Pocket Mountain are to branch out like this they should really think about the form factor. One solution would be to sell an iPad and/or Kindle edition but these are not yet available. A Kindle edition would be very welcome (and not just by those of us with dodgy eyesight)!

This is a very good guide and to answer the question I posed at the beginning, well yes there is a need for a guide as well written and produced as this.

The guide is set to be published on December 7th and is available for pre-order from Amazon and from Pocket Mountain Guides directly.

Review: Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper

Without doubt Patrick Leigh Fermor was one of the most important travel writers of the second half of the Twentieth Century; for some he was the greatest.

Leigh Fermor’s reputation rests on the two books that detailed his mammoth  walk across Europe (to Constantinople) in the years just prior to World War 2: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The two great pieces of work had a long genesis — they weren’t published until the late 1970′s — and they tend to obscure Leigh Fermour’s earlier writing.

Artmis Cooper knew the great man and this is the result of an ‘authorised project’, although it was never to be published until after his death. Artemis Cooper is the granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper (Debo), the Duchess of Devonshire, who was a long standing and close friend of Paddy’s. In producing this book Artemis Cooper had access to Leigh Fermor’s notebooks and files (such as they were). Part of the fascination here is to get a feel for the last part of the journey which would have formed the basis for the third volume in what was to be a Constantinople trilogy. In this biography might we get a chance to understand what might have been if the trilogy had been completed?

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Review: Scotland End to End by Cameron McNeish and Richard Else

Since retiring from the Editorship on TGO Magazine Cameron McNeish has embarked on a  new series of media projects through his Mountain Media company developed with his co-author Richard Else. Central to this line is a series of guides on Scottish Trails including the new Sutherland Trail which I’ve set as a priority to walk one of these days.

Scotland End to End is the latest of Cameron’s new ventures and sets out a national trail for Scotland, a 470 mile walk from Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders to Cape Wrath in the far North West. This is an imaginative route that I’m sure is going to become very popular; this book is Cameron’s best yet.

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