Armchair Travel: 10 Books on Mountains

Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.

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The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up an a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…

  • Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer

Dispatched by Outside magazine to write about increasing commercial expeditions on Everest, journalist and mountaineer Krakauer becomes eyewitness to the 1996 disaster.  On summit day, with several teams tackling the mountain, a fierce blizzard left several climbers stranded in the death zone* (above 8000m / 26,000′), with eight ultimately losing their lives.

*The altitude above which atmospheric pressure of oxygen is so low, it is considered insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period.

  • Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane

A compelling cultural history of how we discovered our love for the mountains, at one time considered nightmare-inducing, monster-filled voids, and continue to indulge that magnetic fascination, alongside a personal account of Macfarlane’s attraction to climbing and eventual rejection of the pursuit of thrills.

What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.

Robert Macfarlane

  • The White Spider – Heinrich Harrer

A classic of mountaineering, detailing Harrer’s legendary first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, a notoriously challenging climb nicknamed Mordwand (Murder Wall, punning on nordwand, the north wall).  He provides accounts of several tragic expeditions in the history of the mountain to give context to the achievement of his team.

It was a hard decision to pick this book over Seven Years in Tibet, an account of Harrer’s escape from a PoW camp in British India into the Himalayas, where he becomes a mentor to the Dalai Lama.  It might make it into another list in future.

  • Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering – Rebecca A. Brown

The literary tradition of mountaineering may seem to mark out high-altitude peaks as a predominantly male space, particularly from the early colonial period of planting flags and appropriating land.  But women have been present from beginning of recreational mountaineering, challenging the historic societal belief that we are too delicate to just go out and do what we want to do.  This book gathers lesser known stories of awesome women from the early days of mountaineering, and reveals that their goals, the need for challenge, the longing to explore, are every bit as relevant and inspiring today.

  • My Side of the Mountain – Jean Craighead George

I think I was around 10 when I read this, and despite not really being as enamoured of reading as I am today, completely devoured it.  I still don’t really understand why I don’t live in the hollowed-out heart of a hemlock tree on the side of a mountain, with just a kestrel for company (though my childhood dog was named Kes…).  Give this book to any young people in your life, or read it together, to share the freedom of nature and the outdoors, and the excitement of an adventure.

Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.

Jean Craighead George

  • Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dylatov Pass Incident – Donnie Eichar

This is not a book for everyone, but this is EXACTLY the kind of book I’d recommend my sister, dad, and cousins.  But not my mam.  If you love true horror stories and the unexplained (and piña coladas), you might be aware of the Dylatov Pass incident and the mysterious disappearance of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains.  If not, be prepared for shredded tents, bare footprints in the snow, mysterious radiation, violent injuries, and no explanations for what happened on a winter camping trip on a peak called Dead Mountain.

  • Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Walk Home – Nando Parrado

You may know this story already.  The 1972 Andes air crash was written about in the book Alive, and turned into a film starring Ethan Hawk, but Parrado was one of the survivors, and this is his personal memoir.  His courage and perseverance in crossing the mountains to find rescue, and honesty and insight into survival in the aftermath of the crash, make for a moving and inspiring book.

  • The Ascent of Rum Doodle – W.E. Bowman

Some books can’t really be read in public, unless you’re prepared to be stared at for making great, snorting, guffaws of laughter that bring you to the point of accidentally peeing yourself (such as anything by Gerald Durrell, Tony Hawks, and this).  A genuinely hilarious parody of the classic alpinist mountaineering epic, it nails the spirit of the genre so accurately, it was thought that W.E Bowman was the pseudonym of a big time mountaineer rather than someone who never in their life ventured to the Himalayas.  Read it in companionship with No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.

  • Space Below My Feet – Gwen Moffat

Moffat is a remarkable woman, rejecting traditional gender-roles of post-war society and living a transient life in the wilder parts of the UK with several hitch-hiking expeditions to the Alps.  As a climber she broke new ground, tackling some of the toughest challenges in Europe and becoming the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide, paving the way for others to follow.  She often climbed barefoot in summer conditions, claiming better connection to the rock.  Now in her 90s, she recently contributed to a BBC Radio documentary based on her book, worth checking out if you can find it.

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  • The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

A little known book that was almost lost to time, this tribute to the Cairngorms is an outstanding piece of nature writing, transformative and heart-soaring.  A spare, sparkling reminder that when spending time in the mountains, there are times where gaining the summit is just an insignificant distraction.  It teaches us to slow down, look closely, and feel deeply to know our surroundings.  I’ve recommended this book to everyone I know.  READ IT NOW!

However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.

Nan Shepherd

A recent biography, Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock, explores more of her mountain exploration and writing.  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s firmly on my TBR list.

What is your favourite mountain book?  What would you recommend to me?
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RED January Round-Up

At first, RED January (Run Every Day), sounded like a ridiculous challenge; who can run every day for a month?  (How far do I have to go to count?) Who actually wants to?  But I really wanted something to kickstart my year, and needed something to give myself a bit of a boost through a difficult time of year.

Really it’s Do Something Every Day January, which doesn’t sound nearly as big or as scary.  The flexibility of the challenge let me set my own targets, such as being physically active outdoors for at least 15 minutes every day, and explore activities other than running to contribute to my goal.

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And so it begins… RED January 2019
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Running shoes at the ready
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Running into the North Sea on January 1st with my cousin Nicola
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It was just a quick dip, but my feet did leave contact with the sand, and a few swimming strokes occurred.

I was really starting to enjoy it.  Even the night runs in the rain.  Checking off the days in my calendar gave me a real kick*, and I began looking forward to parkrun on Saturday mornings (there’s a little smug feeling you get from running first thing in the morning and knowing you don’t need to do anything else for the rest of the day).

*And it also helps make you feel like you’ve accomplished something with your day, even if all it was was a walk around the park.

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The occasional sunrise run was brilliant for starting my day the best way
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Crisp, frosty mornings on the best days of winter.
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I much prefer trail running outdoors to being indoors on a treadmill. I think the fresh air and sunlight is just as beneficial as the activity.

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Winter weather was the biggest factor in the challenge, followed by dark evenings, making it difficult to summon the motivation to go outdoors at times.  However, I would feel a buzz afterwards, from that rush of endorphins, followed by a sense of calm and relaxation, and that’s what I tried to focus on.

I found some of the runs mentally tough, had heavy legs that made things hard going, and felt a few aches and pains over the month.  But tiredness from running and fresh air has helped me to sleep much better, which also helped with my mood.

The RED January community

One of the best aspects of the challenge is the community feeling created through social media.  REDers connect through the #REDJanuary hashtag and provide each other with encouragement to get active, or just the safe space to unload and work through thoughts and emotions weighing on them.

On the sleety, soggy winter evenings when the sofa was far too tempting, posts on Twitter and Instagram would give me the motivation to move.  Seeing pictures of others, soaked, mud-covered, sweaty, or reading their stories of feeling much too down, or anxious to go out, but still going anyway, helped me to go too.

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The best bit about running through the snow was coming home, taking a long, hot shower to warm up again, and putting on pyjamas for the rest of the day.

My 2019 RED January Stats

  • Distance run: 58km
  • Distance hiked: 39km
  • Practical conservation days: two
  • Open water swims: just one!
  • Parkrun PBs: two
  • Average time outdoors every day: 2 hours 20 minutes

Thank you for your support

While all charity challenges are about raising funds vital to continuing their work, for Mind, working on mental health, it’s just as important to raise awareness.  Getting people talking, opening up the conversation about mental health, and removing the stigma that pushes people into hiding conditions.

My fundraising target was just small, but January is a tough month for many, so I’m so grateful for everyone who donated to the cause.  And so happy to say that I met the target!

Thank you!

My Goals for 2019

Though I’m not a fan of making New Year’s resolutions, especially not of the New Year New You variety*, or keeping a bucket list of travels, adventures and destinations, I do find it useful to make a short list of things I hope to do over the next year.  It’s a simple exercise, and I scribble down notes in my journal to look back at through the year and help me focus on what’s important.

*breaking them is usually much more enjoyable, and far more achievable.

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My goals for 2019

Live more sustainably.  And travel sustainably as possible too.  Without getting overly morose, the clock is ticking and time to act is short.  A report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last autumn warned that we have only twelve years to ensure global warming is kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even a further half a degree will significantly affect the impacts of drought, extreme heat, flooding, and storms, on people and our planet.

Habitats and ecosystems are diminishing, oceans are overwhelmed with plastics, and species are disappearing.  And the vast gulf of inequality that exists between the poor and the wealthy means many millions of people on this planet will suffer terribly before I am more than inconvenienced.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Do a long-distance hike.  I think you learn so much more when you travel through a landscape at walking pace.  I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge in May, a backpacking challenge to cross Scotland on foot from the west coast to the east coast, wild camping as I go.  I’m planning on taking 12 days to complete the hike, so I’ll be looking to build up to that with shorter hikes over the next few months.

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Above Aberchalder and Loch Oich. Photo courtesy of John Creasey.

Watch the stars.  It means spending more time outdoors, away from the distraction of TV and the internet, and venturing out into wilder, more remote areas, where views of the night skies are unbroken by light pollution.

Dive.  I’m a qualified scuba diver, actually a BSAC Dive Leader (roughly equivalent of a PADI Dive Master), with over a hundred logged dives.  But it’s been years since I’ve been in the water, after suffering a dental barotrauma** on a training dive in Stoney Cove.  I’m well out of practice and all my kit is out of test, but I love being underwater and want to get back to it so much.

**Pressure changes and a badly-done filling by my dentist resulted in a cracked tooth.  Which then led to root canal treatment, almost eighteen months of faffing about, and a huge amount of anxiety about being in the water.  Then I split up with my main dive buddy, and everything was shelved for another few years.

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On the stern of the wreck of the Hispania in the Sound of Mull. 

Do something new every month.  Taking pressure off the beginning of the year, this will give me the chance to focus on something different every month; a brand new experience or challenge, learning new skills, or putting things I already know to the test.

 

So here’s to the New Year, full of things that have never been, and all the things that are yet to come.

What plans do you have for 2019?  Do you make a list for reference too?

RED January to beat the blues

Every year, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem, but still it’s often considered taboo when it comes to talking about it, and those that do often feel side-lined and stigmatised.

What is RED January?

RED January is a community initiative encouraging people to support their mental health by undertaking something physically active every day in January.  This can mean running every day, swimming, cycling, walking to work or any other activity you like to get your heart pumping and endorphins flowing.

After last year’s RED January, 87% of participants said they felt significant improvement in both their mental and physical health afterwards.  It is free to take part, and you can sign up here.

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Why is this important to me?

I’ve lived with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager.  I’ve experienced the inexplicable, irrational thoughts and crippling self-doubt that these bring.  I’ve felt the need to retreat, hide, build walls around myself when things hit hard.  When just getting out of bed for the day seems as big a challenge as scaling the Eiger.

I know, from my job as a ranger out walking on the coast of the Solent, that getting outdoors and doing something active can make a significant improvement in how I feel, especially at this time of year.

What am I going to do about it?

Every day throughout January I’m challenging myself to take part in physical activity outdoors.  I’m aiming to spend at least 15 minutes outdoors every day, running, hiking*, taking part in parkruns, and even outdoor swimming.  There may be some days where that all seems a bit too much, but then I plan on taking my yoga mat outside.

*Training for the TGO challenge in May, the biggest challenge I’ve got planned for 2019… so far

Getting outdoors for me is just as important as getting physically active.  A winter boost of vitamin D from natural light, and  a blast of fresh air to blow away negative thoughts.  A connection with nature, whether its just hearing the gulls cry from the rooftop, hearing the windblown waves hit the harbour wall over the road, or catching the scent of gorse flowers (which bloom all year round along the shore; when the gorse is in bloom, kissing’s in fashion).

I’ll be raising funds for Mind through the month.  Every year, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem, but still it’s often considered a taboo subject when it comes to talking about it. Mind believe no-one should have to face the challenge of a mental health issue alone, and provide a range of resources and support to help.

A donation of £15 can fund someone in crisis to take part in a group talking therapy session.

My fundraising target is small, only £150, but that could help 10 people.  Like me.  Maybe like you too, or a close friend or family member, or work colleague.

My Just Giving page is here.  Please consider making a donation, no matter how much you can spare, it all helps provide a vital service.

I’ll be sharing stories from my activities through the month on instagram, so you can keep track of how I’ve been getting on.

Thank you for your help.

10 Things to Get Through Winter

At this time of year, with the winter solstice just past, and New Year not too far ahead, I usually find myself in a reflective mood, thinking about all the things that have happened through the year, and what might be to come in the year ahead.

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Getting outside in winter has huge benefits for physical and mental health, but can be a real challenge.

I find this time of year quite challenging; living with depression sometimes I’m so lacking in energy and motivation through these months that just getting out of bed feels like swimming through treacle. I’m no fan of the resolutions that January brings, usually involving the denial of alcohol, caffeine and sugar; things that make the dark winter months that bit more enjoyable.

In my opinion, such extreme measures and deprivation are unlikely to do any favours in the long term. I think a more workable way to make lifestyle changes, and to manage the challenges of winter, is to introduce small, enjoyable, things that upgrade my everyday, and contribute to success without excluding anything.

So this a list of 10 small things I’m aiming to do through winter, to keep my body and mind fresh and focused, and work towards a healthy, happy, year ahead.

  • Drink more water (but ditch single-use plastic bottles). Hydration is important, but the health of the planet is even more vital. Investing in a reusable water bottle saved me money in the long run, and cut my plastic footprint from the start. It takes a bit more organisation, but so many places now give refills that it’s easy on the go. I have a Kleen Kanteen insulated bottle that keeps water chilled for hours, or lets me take a warm drink out for a winter hike.
  • Pick an audiobook or podcast. I love listening to the radio as I do things; driving, cooking, writing, and so on. But rather than listening passively to whatever plays, I’ve decided to be more pro-active in my choices. Plus, having tales of travel and adventure read aloud to me in the bath is the height of luxury. Try some of my favourites and see if you agree.
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A flask of hot blueberry drink and the best snacks for a long winter walk
  • Set aside a weekly life admin hour. Rather than letting stuff build up, which can pile on anxiety, designating a regular session for sorting paperwork, paying bills, and all the other dull stuff helps me manage stresses. I write down ideas and reminders through the week on a running to do list to make sure that I don’t miss anything important. It’s part of my strategy to turn down the volume on noise.
  • Get outside every day. Getting out in the fresh air and sunlight is vital for my mental health, especially in winter, event though the weather isn’t always as welcoming as I’d hope for. Good wind and waterproof outdoor gear makes it so much easier, so it’s worth spending on quality items that make the difference between getting out and about or moping under a duvet. These are my cold weather essentials for heading out.
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    Quick cook dinners for winter evenings, or a warm lunch outdoors on a cold
  • Learn three 15 minute recipes. Arriving home from work in the dark, after a long day, I know that I need to eat a meal within half an hour or I’ll be scoffing snacks all evening. It’s too easy to throw a plastic pot of something into the microwave, so my aim is to master three quick recipes and try to always have the ingredients at hand. My current favourites are gnocchi with pancetta, mushrooms and parmesan, spicy pepper and halloumi wraps, and a soy chili chicken rice bowl topped with a fried egg.
  • Plan regular digital admin dates. I rely on my laptop, phone and camera for work, blogging, and other projects, and it’s too easy to have hundreds of notes, photos and documents filling up the memory on my devices. So I’ve started a monthly habit to download, delete, file and back-up my files. It does sound incredibly tedious, but it’s also the chance to chill on the sofa for a few hours, listen to music or a podcast, perhaps with a glass or two of something.
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I set aside a regular hour or two on a Sunday morning or a weekday evening to organise various to do lists, download and back up files.
  • Master a mini-workout with three exercises to do anywhere. My fitness routine, well, just isn’t routine. With travelling, sailing, and unpredictable work hours, I can find it hard to fit in the gym or swim sessions and fitness classes that I know help my physical and mental health. So with three simple exercises I can do anywhere (squats, lunges and tricep dips), I have a basic workout to build on wherever I am.
  • Schedule some diary dates with friends. It can be too easy to put off catching-up with a coffee or glass of wine when the weather and darkness make heading home to hibernate such a nice idea. By making a loose arrangement to meet friends weekly at parkrun or yoga class, or for a monthly pub quiz or craft session draws us together without the extra effort of planning an event and rounding up the troops.
  • Take on a course to learn new skills, expand my knowledge, or revive an old passion. Over the past few years I’ve done an introduction to yoga, a printmaking class, and taken an adult improvers swimming course. I’ve also used online study to improve my Norwegian language skills and to spark an interest in maritime archaeology, using the Future Learn platform. In winter is seems to be a bit easier to allocate an evening a week to a new activity, which has the benefit of extending my social circle (virtually and in real life), and keeping my brain active.
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The TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland on foot, will be my biggest adventure in the spring of 2019.
  • Map travels for the New Year. Recently my travels have been quite spontaneous, taking advantage of the opportunities that cropped up through the year. But with a switch to a full-time freelance status I need to do some serious planning to balance income generating activity with income depleting activity. Plus, I love the process of planning out travels and fixing some dates and destinations for the year ahead.
Do you have any tips for making winter work for you?
How do you intend to relax and recharge yourself for the New Year?
Leave a message in the comments below to let me know.

Armchair Travel: 5 Travel Podcasts

This newest edition of Armchair Travel steps away from previous form, to bring you inspiration and escape from the everyday through some of the podcasts I’ve enjoyed.

I love the flexibility that listening to podcasts and audiobooks gives.  Unlike with reading a book, I can get deeply engrossed in a story or conversation as I walk or run, drive my car, or soak in the bath.  (I’m quite obsessive about the condition of my books*, and there’s no way I’d allow anyone, even myself, to risk taking them into the steamy, damp bathroom).  I even listen to podcasts while I’m working as a bosun on a ship, perched aloft in the rigging to serve, seize, and whip.

*Fold corners over?  You’re now on the list of people I don’t lend books to, along with other barbarians like my Dad and my oldest friend Shel.

So here are five of my favourite podcasts to travel without moving.

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  • From Our Own Correspondent.

Longform journalism podcast from the BBC that blends travel reportage, political analysis, and stories that lie behind recent headlines.  I love listening to this on Radio 4 as part of my Saturday mornings when I’m home, for the content, but also for the lessons in how to present an engaging piece of writing.  Listen live to BBC Radio 4, or follow here.

  • 80 Days.

Presented by three self-proclaimed “history and geography geeks”, the 80 Days podcast is dedicated to discovering lesser-known countries and territories around the world, through their history, politics, landscapes, and culture, including places like Rapa Nui, Sápmi, Birobidzhan**, and the Kuril Islands.  Dive in to the podcast here.

**Yeah, me neither.

  • Travel Tales Beyond the Brochure.

The Barefoot Backpacker dives into a different theme in each episode, talking about concepts like why bucket lists can be a bad idea, reverse culture shock, or travelling in your home town, as well as offbeat destinations like Vanuatu. Follow the conversations here.

  • She Explores.

A podcast bringing forth voices of women doing things outdoors, from exploration and adventure, working in outdoor industries, arts and music, to environmental awareness and activism.  It has a strong North American influence, but reaches out to cover women around the world.  Find it here.

  • Curiously Polar.

Presented by an experienced polar tour leader and a nature photographer, this podcast covers the colder corners of the globe.  Topics have somewhat of a science and exploration focus, ranging from the Global Seed Vault in Spitzbergen, the history of the whaling industry, how to walk in snowshoes, marine mammal sex, and where exactly Santa Claus lives. Find it here.

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Birds do it, bees do it, but just how do fin whales do it?  Picture courtesy of Mario Branco.

You can find all these podcasts through their own websites or via various playing platforms like itunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and Spotify.

Which travel podcasts do you follow?
Leave me your recommendations in the comments below.

 

My Cold Weather Essentials

first_foot_at_compton_smallAs a wildlife ranger I’d spend the vast majority of my working time outside, all year-round, whatever the weather. As autumn heads into winter, there’s a few additional things I rely on to make it easier to get out and do my job, and to make the most of adventures on beautifully crisp winter days.

A buff

I have several of these stretchy fabric tubes, and they’re some of the most useful things I own. For keeping my ears warm when it’s just not quite a hat day; stopping cold wind creeping down my neck; covering my face as I watch birds through my binoculars on a frosty morning; making sure my windswept hair under stays under control; or just wiping damp camera or phone lenses.

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Warming up from the inside with a Thermos food flask

A food flask

After a long day outside in low temperatures, there’s nothing better than a hot, home-cooked meal. Well, perhaps something warm to eat to keep you going during the day, or as you sit out to watch the winter sun go down. I have a wide-mouthed Thermos food flask, which comes with a folding spoon and a large lid. Perfect for soup, stew or a curry.

A portable battery pack

It seems like the cold drains the life from my phone at a ridiculous rate. It’s part of my lone working policy to have a working phone to check-in through the day, and I’d never want to be caught out at the end of the day without a way to call for help if I get into trouble. Plus, I use the camera all the time, and wouldn’t want to miss a beautiful sunset sky.

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A winter midlayer from Houdini Sportswear

Insulated Jacket

I love my Houdini Sportswear insulated jacket, with primaloft insulation. It’s a perfect mid-layer between my branded ranger polo shirt and outer two-part coat (softshell inner and waterproof outer) for early mornings and late evenings when temperatures drops, and tucks away in its own pocket to stuff in my bag while I don’t need it.

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Keeping warm with a Buff, Finisterre wrist warmers and Rab knit gloves

Merino wrist warmers and gloves

I need to keep my hands warm while I’m using my binoculars or telescope to watch birds, but also be able to do little fiddly jobs like fastening zips or adjusting focus on my camera easily. So I layer my Rab knit gloves over a pair of merino wrist warmers from Finisterre.  Both are fine enough that I could wear under my ski gloves if temperatures really drop, and the wrist warmers keep me warm and let me pick up shells and other strandline treasures from the beach without getting my gloves covered with sand.

Softshell trousers

In winter I upgrade my usual hiking trousers for a pair of softshell trousers, currently a pair of Craghoppers Kiwi Pro Stretch pants. The water resistant, windproof finish of the fabric makes a huge difference when you spend most of the day out on the coast, with the chance of drizzle, windblown sand, and low temperatures.

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What kit can’t you do without when the weather starts to turn wintry?
Share your tips in the comments below.