Originally, this was to be a blog about my preparations to enter the TGO Challenge in 2012. For a variety of reasons that didn't happen, so this has now become the repository for my outdoor musings.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

A Day on The Black Mountain

I rearranged my work this week so I could take advantage of what looked to be a decent weather forecast for Wednesday. I shot over to the western side of the Brecon Beacons National Park and spent the day on the north eastern fringe of the Black Mountain (possibly the coolest name for a mountain?)

It was a fairly straightforward route, up the escarpment edge of Fan Hir to Fan Brycheiniog, then west along the edge to Bannau Sir Gaer, down to the Llyn Y Fan Fach and back to the start underneath the cliffs I'd previously been on top of.

It is a stunning place.

View from Fan Hir

Llyn Y Fan Fawr

Picws Du

Llyn Y Fan Fach

Bannau Sir Gaer

Llyn Y Fan Fach

Below Bwlch Blaen Twrch

Fan Hir

One other thing, what a difference a year makes. I was striding along, viewing the landscape with a wild camper's eye, and hatching plans. Anyone want to join me on the inaugural Brecon Beacons Three Peak Challenge..?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

I Like The Phrase "Neolithic Hippy"

The phrase “wind farm” provokes more of a reaction from the U.K. outdoor community than almost any other, being eclipsed only by “shall we stop here for a pint?” and “how heavy are your titanium underpants?”

Are they the right solution for renewable energy? Should they be stuck up all over the beautiful, wild parts of the country? How can I get a slice of the enormous pie? (I’m back to wind farms here, not titanium underpants.) All good questions, none of which it is my intention to answer here. Thinking about it, I may come back to the second one, we’ll see.

No, actually what I was going to muse over was the human impact on wild landscape generally. This was triggered in part by my walk in the Cairngorms but also by a number of things I have read recently. We like to immerse ourselves in wild places, to camp, walk, sit in these places and soak up their unspoilt beauty. When we’re not out there we like to talk about our experiences and to read those of others, to pore over photographs and maps, to plot and plan our next escape. Yet how many of the places we go to are as unspoilt as we think?

I found it surprising when I was in the Cairngorms (a National Park) at just how obvious the hand of man was on the landscape. Chris and I walked to Derry Lodge up a wide, well surfaced track. When we arrived we found four buildings (the Bob Scott Memorial Hut, the lodge buildings and the mountain rescue post). To get over the rivers there were bridges. Heading north we found fenced off areas of trees, and then the Refuge of Avon. Once we reached Faindouran Lodge (two buildings) we picked up another wide vehicle track. In places, where there presumably had been a need for gravel to level the track, great scoops had been taken out of the hillsides, which now were eroding away. We passed more lodges, tracks, bothies and bridges, and a truly spectacular mess of rock, pipes and tracks where the Allt an Laoigh joins the Avon. Then when you look up, many of the hills are zebra-striped with controlled heather burns. Certainly not unspoilt! Travel to other mountainous areas of the British Isles and if it’s not bothies and bridges then it’s sheep grazing, hydro schemes and hard surfaced paths to the summits of popular and convenient peaks.

Screen grab from Google Maps showing the pattern of heather burns north of Braemar.

I’m not knocking these things, the tracks, bridges and lodges made our journey much easier than it would have been without them. The heather burns and other landscape management are vital, so we’re told, for the ecology and economy of the area. But what struck me then, and has been emphasised since in my reading, is that these are simply the latest in a long list of landscape exploitation.

I found a copy of “The Shell Guide to Reading The Landscape” by Richard Muir, which is a fascinating and comprehensive discussion of human interaction with the British countryside. One of the points he makes early on is that the deforestation of the British Isles commenced in Neolithic times (2500 B.C.E.) and large inroads were made in to the blanket coverage of woodland that existed prior to that. I’m picturing in my head some sort of Neolithic Hippy, railing at the axe-wielding proponents of “advancement” as they levelled great swathes of the forest. Richard Muir suggests that by the time the Romans rocked up, they would have found England a land largely cleared of forest, with pockets of tended woodland. Interesting, I thought. In his “A History of Scotland” Neil Oliver describes the move to farming in the Highlands (4000 B.C.E?) which resulted in forests being thinned and eventually cleared. One final reference that I recently came across is found in Hamish Brown’s “Hamish’s Mountain Walk”. In the chapter “Fada-Fannich” he mentions the much later ironworks at Letterewe. Local oaks were felled to feed the furnaces, seven of which were burning at one point in history. How much fuel would an iron smelting furnace require a year? Hamish says that each one would consume 120 acres of Oak woodland in twelve months!

This leads me to the following, two part, conclusion. One: that the landscape we consider to wild, unspoilt, inspiring is largely that way because it’s been exploited like mad, then managed, then exploited, etc., etc. And the other point is that when “progress” or financial gain is involved it’s very difficult to stop people taking what they want from the landscape, with little or no thought for the long-term consequences. They’ve been doing it for 4000 years!

Rather than end on that depressing note, I think in some ways it should increase our resolve and determination to get out and joy the sights, sounds and smells of the hills, to appreciate what we’ve got, and perhaps to think about why it’s the way it is.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Thoughts on the TGO Challenge, and If It's For Me.

They say time is a great healer, and I guess I have to agree. It's been nearly seven weeks since Bev, Chris and I headed north for our foray in to the Cairngorms. Bev sensibly forayed from the comfort of the Fife Arms and a VW Golf, whereas Chris and I made progress by foot in to the hills. The blisters, achey legs and fatigued brains have been restored, leaving behind some niggly questions. Neither of us had a great deal of backpacking experience, so these three days raised quite a number of issues, some of which are surmountable and others which may not be. Read on, and let me know your thoughts.

Firstly, I think I'll talk about the Physical Aspects of our hike. I deliberately chose a route that wouldn't provide too much agro from a navigational point of view. Up one valley, along another and then south crossing from one valley to another. Land Rover tracks, stalkers paths with the odd bit of heather/bog trotting. So that wasn't too much of a problem. I did also want to see how we would cope with a long day, carrying hefty loads, and that definitely was a tougher proposition for us. The second day was quite committing as we had no shortcut back to anywhere if we found the going too much, so we really had to dig deep mid-afternoon. I think we both felt a little unsure about our ability to do those sort of distances for ten or twelve days running. One other aspect that would need to be honed is campcraft. I am pretty confident that, like anything, the more you do it the easier it becomes. Backpacking skills are a whole level (or two!) up from your usual dayhiking skillset, and getting them dialled makes the whole thing easier, safer and way more enjoyable, I imagine! We did ok, but I think a "smooth and by the numbers" routine when making/breaking camp is something we do well to aspire to. I suppose kit comes in to the "physical" side of things too, and overall I was pleased with how things worked. I need to practice rigging the Trailstar, and I need to cut down on weight which I think would be in three areas: clothing, food and paunch.

Then there were the Mental Issues. Hmmm, that doesn't look good! One of the biggest things that both Chris and I struggled with was the absence of wives. I know loads of people like getting away from their respective spouses/partners, but we were not of that type. Ensconced under flapping silnylon at Derry Lodge we both confessed, like the old soppies we are, that we missed our wives. And this feeling didn't go away. We were just as bad the next day. And the day after that. I'm not sure how you get round that, or indeed why you would want to. Unfortunately, neither of our girls has the health to join in on a 180 mile hike so this could be a challenge-buster, as I don't think we've got it in us to wave them off for the best part of two weeks. Another issue that raised it's head was that of the very nature of the TGO Challenge itself. We found at times that we were just head down, ploughing on for the next break or campsite and not really enjoying the experience of being where we were. Is a linear, timed (after a fashion) hike the right sort of event for us? Would we rather be a little freer in our scheduling, stopping where we want, exploring where we fancy, rather than grinding the clicks out? Especially when the last few days seem to be mainly an uninspiring trudge through the eastern flatlands (no offence meant to anyone who likes that bit of the walk, or indeed lives there)? I recall Cameron McNeish describing his feelings of unease as he headed away from the hills when he wrote about his first Challenge in TGO last year, and I can certainly understand them. West is best!

So questions to be answered:
1. Is our navigation up to the job? Pick the route according to you ability, do a course, practice, practice, practice.
2. Are our fitness levels were they need to be? Walk, diet, hike: simples.
3. Campcraft? Nothing beats getting out there and doing it I guess!
4. Kit-wise, some weighing and judicious choosing should get things a little closer to where they need to be.
5. Can we be wife-free for two weeks? I don't know, but I think not...
6. Do I actually want to do the TGO Challenge? Yes, and No. I love the idea of it, I love the wilds of Scotland, I love the idea of digging deep when things go pear-shaped, but I don't know if I love the idea of forcing those things to fit an organised, however loosely, event.
(To be frank, the first four questions can be answered fairly easily, I think it's the last two that are the clinchers...)

Please don't take this post the wrong way. I really enjoyed the experience I had seven weeks ago, and I completely understand why people come from across the globe, year after year, to be part of the TGO Challenge. I am constantly inspired by the blogs, photos and articles that Challengers post. As I type this I really feel the need to get out in the boonies somewhere and pitch up. I've got the gear, I've got some idea, and I definitely love the experience. The question is, do I want that experience to be on the TGO?

I guess only I can answer that.

P.S. If you haven't had the chance to read Chris' view of our hike then you could do worse than go here.