Review: Balancing on Blue, by Keith Foskett

It is not that difficult to write a mediocre trail journal, one that adds little to the many that have come before. What is more of an achievement is to produce a trail journal that is inventive and which brings something new to the genre. Fortunately for us, Keith Foskett slips into the latter category with his new book Balancing on Blue, an account of his walk on the Appalachian Trail, a 2,700 mile trail from Georgia in the deep South to Maine in the North.

Keith captures the reader right from the first few sentences. The book starts with a number of short pieces, not by him but by those he walked the trail with. This introduction gives us an insight into Keith’s walkers, their motivations for walking the trail and something about their background. There are those who have always loved the outdoors but have fallen into dead end jobs; they are looking for relief and for escape. There are others who have spent their young lives engaged in intensive academic studies. One is a professional juggler, dedicated to his task who’s talents eventually see him as a World Champion; this trip is his chance to experience a completely different world. And there is one character who’s life has been driven almost completely, firstly by his own family and secondly by that of his wife. He has of trekking the wilderness and so he wakes upon morning and announces to his wife he will be leaving for the next eight months of so!

Within the first few pages it is clear we are not talking you average trail journal! These initial vignettes give way to both the start of Keith’s journey but they also lead us into Keith’s story, naturally flowing from the introductions from the others.  Here Keith wants us to understand what drove him to travel, to explore the wilderness of the trail. As a young man he wasn’t suited to school and left early for a series of mind numbing jobs in offices. He had a difficult time in his twenties, a natural introvert he had difficult relating to groups bigger than four and difficulty forming lasting relationships. We might think of him as a loner but that would be unfair. Keith stands up for introverts. They take their time, they observe, they come up with solutions. The world owes much to the introvert.

Keith describes what sounds like a pretty miserable. It was travel — of all kinds and not just the trail — that saved him. Keith describes himself from someone partial to dromonania —  from the latin dromas (runner) and mania (excessive or unreasonable desire, even insanity). Dromonania is an uncontrollable impulse to wonder, but it is an obsession that you get the impression saved Keith.

No, if you thought this was going to be a book about the solitary life on the trail of a self confessed loner, you would be very wrong. This is a book about the trail community, about comradeship on the AT.

Walking any lateral trail will inevitably see you meeting up regularly with that group of hikers who move more or less at your pace. At the first miles are tackled the relationships come together and much of the book describes what comes to be recognised as a good trail team.  The team shares responsibility, looks after those of the group who suffer bad days or illness. They share technique, they share the challenge of overcoming obstacles, the share information about gear but mostly the share their love of the natural world and of the wide open spaces of the trail.

Of course, all the usual trail elements are here as well and I’m glad they are. The AT is, perhaps, not as well known — or as well written about in recent years — and the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT and the Continental Divide Trail go through western territory, crossing desert and mountains such as the high Sierra. In the main the AT forges a green corridor with most of the walk being in forest, with only the occasional glimpse of a vista or a break for mountain summit. The terrain dictates a different technique as well — this is as much (or more) the land of the hammock than of the tarp pitched on flat ground. Anyone looking to walk the AT, either on its own or as part of the ‘Triple Crown’ will learn a lot.

There is much that is common with other trails though. Trail head towns — big and small, lovely and dead — are remembered in detail and, of course, the search for a real breakfast dominates these pages as much as it does in other trail journals.

I could go on but I won’t spoil the fun. 

The book ends with a selection of reflections from those who were introduced to at the beginning. We learn of changed lives, of new inspiration, of new challenges and new goals. We see how for many life was never quite the same again after the trail. And Keith — modest to the end — slips in his own end story amongst those of his walking companions.

This is a trail journal yes but it is much more besides. It is entertaining, informative and — I think — more than a little brave. It is my outdoor book of the year, so far, of 2015.

 

Keith Foskett | Long Distance Hiker, Writer, Blogger

 

Review: Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles by Chris Townsend

In this internet age it is tempting to think that we know all about the great trails of the world even if we have never ever hiked them ourselves. There are many tells journals to read. There are many hikers who now blog or micro blog as they walk. We know all about the trail infrastructure, we can download the maps and, of course, we all now know about the famous Trail Angels of the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT.

Chris Townsend walked the PCT over 30 years ago. Back then the trail was a reality but it was nowhere near as popular as it is today. I think the year Chris hiked it only 11 people completed it. It has taken 30 years for Chris to produce this book and it seems he only embarked on the task after encouragement from his new publishers, Sandstone Press. Sandstone should take a bow as this is a very fine book indeed. When reviewing Chris’ recent Grizzly Bears and Razor clams (I think it was) put forward the view that Chris’ writing is just getting better and better. Rattlesnakes confirms this.

The PCT is an epic trail and 30 odd years ago walking it was even more epic as the trail infrastructure that we have today simply wasn’t there. To make things even more dramatic Chris walked the PCT after one of the heaviest snow falls recorded making much of the first section of the walk quite a challenge.

The PCT runs for 2,650 miles, starting at the Mexican borders and running North (at least that’s how most people tackle it) through California, Oregon and Washington States. The trail takes in the Mojave desert, the High Sierra Mountains, The Cascade Mountains and many of the great US forests along the way.

This PCT walk was Chris’ first mammoth hike and this book combines both the excitement of that youthful walk with a maturity of reflection that is simply beguiling. Above all else it is the natural drama of the trail environment that is the star of this book but the way Chris details the development of the PCT (both before and since his walk) is fascinating.

A modern journal on the PCT would inevitably feature a lot of words about gear and while this is a book about moving through landscape there’s enough to keen gear junkies happy. For this trip Chris was provided with some of the first Gore Tex waterproofs that landed in the UK. It was also on this trip that Chris saw the light and turned (mid trip) to lightweight trail shoes from heavy boots. There is the drama of a broken pack and the search for a replacement. But mostly this is about the walk.

The heavy snowfall results in a trip that seems a very different one to many accounts that I have read. Chris is famous for walking alone but the snow heavy sections dictated walking in small groups for safety. Not only was there a lot of snow to cross but tiny and often dry creeks had turned into raging torrents. What comes over nicely is the relationship that is built up amongst these trail companions. Chris remarks towards the end of the book tat he had walked much of a thousand miles with some of them and yet they ended up knowing little about each other’s lives back in the ‘real world’. However, you do get a great sense of the trail intensity of these friendships. While not having undertake a venture like this myself this — levelling of human experience — is a feature of any long trail walk and, I think, is one of the reasons for the longevity of the TGO Challenge where you often have little idea about the people you are walking with save for their own views of the immediate experience

A lot of the other usual ingredients are on show here, stories of serial breakfast eating in tiny, backwater, trail towns, the joys of a shower after weeks of walking and so on.

But what makes this a joy to read is the sharing of Chris’ discovery of life on a trail like this, the beauty of the desert, the joys of the high mountains, the fascinating variety of the forests and the glorious wildcamps along the way.  I wish I could describe this all a bit more eloquently but you’ll just have to go and read the book!

This was the trip that I guess formed the Chris Townsend that most of us know today. I’m glad that he took a long time to write this as I think we’ve ended up with a fascinating and probably more enduring book.

When I finished reading the book I rang up Colin Ibbotson who told me that the book had made him want to go out and hit the trail again. I know when he means. Putting the book down I had to go out for a walk and spend a night camping on the side of the hill, a far more modest experience without doubt but this is what Chris’ books do. They shake you out of lethargy and install in you that love of the natural world that keeps us all going.

This is very firmly recommended.

 

Review: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Over the last decade Robert Macfarlane has established himself as one of the UK’s most important writers about travel and the outdoors, through bestseller including Mountains of the Mind, Wild Places and The Old Ways,  I’m reluctant to pigeon hole Robert as a travel writer or his work as travel literature, though it is certainly very literate.

If you like literature and the art of writing this is a book for you. If you prefer your writing to be more simple, most often in the form of a trip report, then maybe this won’t be for you, but here goes.

This book is all about the relationship between literature and the land or more accurately I suppose the natural world and its elements. The environment and the land have inspired some of greatest writers, both of fiction and non fiction. But Macfarlane’s thesis is that the land — as experienced by writers — defines not only style but language itself.  It is this relationship that is central to the book.

Landmarks is broken down into a number of chapters or sections. Each one explores some aspect of the natural world through one (sometimes more) key writers. Macfarlane explains how these books work and why he was so personally inspired by them. His sections are works of literary criticism but as such they give great insights into how these writers experienced their own world and the landscapes they are famous for. Each section is completed by a glossary of words — collected from all over the English speaking world — that relate to the subject in hand.

In short, this is a book for people who are fascinated by language.

There are sections on flatlands, uplands, waterlines, coastlands,underhands, northlands, edge lands (around cities), earthlings and woodlands. The authors featured include some of the greats such as Nan Shepherd (author of the Living Mountain based on her life in the Cairngorms), Roger Deakin (the environmentalist who championed wild swimming (Waterlog) and Wildwoods.

The terrain featured includes the flat bogland of Lewis, the East Anglian broads, the Scottish Highlands, the coast and much more.  The glossaries at the end of each section are fascinating; for example, there are so many unique and descriptive words about bogs and wetland from all over the UK. The words listed are delightful. If this frightens you stop here. If you love the sound of some of the words, then here are some of my favourites:

Ammil — from Devon, ‘the sparkle of the morning sunlight through the hoar-frost’

Blinter — a Scots word meaning a ‘cold dazzle’

Seabhainn — Gaelic, a small pool in the rocky bed of a stream in which salmon get imprisoned

Lattin — Somerset, enough rain to make outdoor work difficult

Dropple — Northamptonshire, a sudden squall with heavy rain

Aggy-jaggers — Kent, a mist that forms along the sea edge

Hit the Grit — Suffolk, to start walking on a road

Rack — Cotswolds, a path made by hares or rabbits

Shepherd’s Lamp — (after John Clare) the first star that rises after sunset

Bishop — Herefordshire, an over-large heap of manure!

 

I could go on forever. The book ends with a meditation about our current relationships with the natural world. All is not well. Macfarlane is concerned that  the disconnection of children from nature is greater now than it has ever been. Apparently, nine out of ten children can identify a Dalek while only three out of ten can identify a Magpie!

This language is important precisely because it is the result of our experience of — and our interaction  with — the land. Macfarlane’s book is not only a fascinating exploration of literature it is a call to arms. This richness of language has not come about by accident. That the language itself is endangered is simply a warning of greater challenges facing us in preserving our landscape and our wild places.

 

Book Review —Ribbon of Wildness: Discovering the Watershed of Scotland, by Peter Wright

At the end of this year’s TGO Challenge I found myself (as is my want) in the rather lovely independent Montrose bookshop belonging to the estimable Henry Hoggs. I picked up the book Walking with Wildness: Experiencing the Watershed of Scotland. Sadly, this was not quite the book I was looking for. Walking is a guidebook that has been created on the back of Ribbon of Wilderness and this book was not in stock.

The Ribbon of Wildness is the book that inspired Chris Townsend to embark on his recent non-stop walk along the length of the Scottish Wilderness and I have long intended to read it. I found it quite difficult to get hold of it. I ordered it through Amazon and had to wait almost a month for delivery but it was well worth the wait.

There is something fascinating about watersheds and this one in particular, not least n the way that Peter Wright writes about it. In the main the watershed remains wild land with only one significant development along it, the new town of Cumbernauld. The sitka forests that have plagued the Highlands over the last century tend to hang of the sides of hills rather than spoil the watershed itself. The watershed is most often a land boundary and maybe that has preserved its quietness.

I suppose — to those who don’t know Scottish hills — this book might be puzzling but for anyone who has walked the Highlands regularly and combed the Munros this is a fascinating read. As Wright progresses along the watershed he talks us through geological development and change, local and national history. He looks at the local fauna and fauna and reflects on challenges to the landscape and the environment both traditional and new. Like me Peter is naturally ambivalent about wind farms, for instance, but the sheer scope of their growth and desecration of the environment has focussed his mind.

We have a lot of information on local history and culture, on the meanings of place names and the development of language. We have some fascinating passages which describe how communities that sit only a mile or so apart, but on different sides of the watershed, experience and see the world in very different ways.

In a sense this walk — which was made in a series of various forays (six weeks in all) — has allowed peter the time and space for a rather deep meditation about Scotland, its hills and people. I can see why Chris Townsend was so fascinated about it.

You don’t have to want to walk the watershed to want to buy this book but reading it will certainly make you think about exploring large chunks of it, if not all.

There is not really much point me going into more detail about the book. It is enough to say that it is amazing how much you can get from the observation that a drop of rain that falls few centimetres on the other side of the watershed to its companion can end up in a different ocean or sea.

This is recommended reading for all of those who love walking and backpacking in Scotland.

The accompanying Walking the Wilderness is a collection of short day walks and ideas for longer expeditions. A such this is an interesting companion to Ribbon, but it is with Ribbon that you will want to start.

(At the time of writing the Amazon server that provides me with my usual book links is down, but I shall place these as soon as they are available).

Ribbon of Wildness is published by Luath Press and priced at £14.99

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!