Armchair Travel: 10 Books About Walking

A selection of the best books about travelling on foot, from arduous hikes in far-flung lands to rambles much closer to home, and meditations on the nature of walking.

A few years ago I learned about the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, which translates into English as the Christmas book flood, and was immediately hooked by the intention. Icelanders gift family and friends with new books on Christmas Eve, with the idea that the evening is spent reading together in cosy company gathered around the fire, while sipping hot chocolate, mulled wine, or a traditional Icelandic concoction of ale and soft drinks known as Jolabland*.

*It sounds very much like a shandy made of Guinness and Fanta if you’re tempted.

So for this festive instalment of my Armchair Travel Series, I encourage you to cosy up by the fire among friends and family, and crack open the spine on a new book about an adventure on foot (or given the lateness of this post, treat yourself to an e-book download). The list includes feats of endurance in remote and challenging environments, more gentle rambles close to home rich in observations of history and nature, and some journeys on foot where the landscapes tramped are as much internal insights as outwith the mind.

Here’s my selection of the best books about walking.
Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books About Walking”

Why Mountains Matter on International Mountain Day

December 11th is International Mountains Day (IMD); a day established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in 2003 and celebrated annually since.

Mountains loom large in some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes. But it’s not just about sharing gorgeous, inspirational mountain images on my social media (though I’m sure that won’t hurt).  It’s about raising awareness of the importance of mountains, inspiring understanding and respect, and encouraging responsible access in mountain environments.

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Heading for the unmistakeable outline of Buachaille Etive Mòr from Glencoe, Scotland.

Five Facts for International Mountain Day

So, what do you know about the mountains?

  • Around 27% of the land surface of the earth is covered in mountains (that’s approximately 39 million km²).
  • Mountains are home to 15% of the global population (around 1.1 billion people), but it’s estimated billions more benefit indirectly from ecosystem services and mountain agriculture.
  • Of the 34 documented terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, 25 are in mountain areas (half of the world’s total), and they support around 25% of terrestrial biological diversity.
  • Over half of the world’s population rely on mountains as a source of freshwater, which provides drinking water, water for irrigation, water for sanitation, and is used in energy production.
  • Mountain settings support between 15 to 20% of the global tourism industry, from providing spectacular views, cultural tourism, and soft adventure trips right through to serious expedition travel.

Mountains matter as mountain ecosystems provide us with essential food and water, are vital in regulating the climate of the planet, and are key to the global water cycle.  They provide a way of life for millions of people around the world.

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Ascending through the mist on Mount Karioi, near Raglan in New Zealand.

Mountains Matter for Biodiversity

IMD 2020 is a day to celebrate the biodiversity of mountains and to address the threats it faces. Biodiversity embraces the profusion of ecosystems and species of flora and fauna, and the unique topography, compressed climatic zones, and geographical isolation of mountain environments have created the conditions for a rich variety of life, including many endemic species.

Think of rare and increasingly threatened species like the snow leopards of Central Asia, the mountain gorillas of Africa’s Virunga Massif, or the vicuña of the high Andes.  And the incredible monarch butterfly, which relies on the mountain forests in Mexico for their winter habitat. And closer to home, the Cairngorms are the home of a quarter of the UK’s rare and endangered spacies, including capercaillie, pine martens, and elusive Scottish wildcats.

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The mountain landscape on the fringes of the Cairngorms in Scotland

Mountains at Risk

There’s a range of factors that have led to the degradation of mountain habitats over time, from glacial retreat as a result of climate breakdown to changes in traditional land management practices. Wildlife and plant species are at risk of extinction, and loss of ecosystem services can have extraordinary consequences, for example, unsustainable forest extraction can increase the risk of flooding and landslides. This, in turn, reduces the capacity for water storage which sustains river flow to lowland ecosystems through dry seasons.

Why are the mountains important to me?

Although I grew up on the coast, studied marine biology, and work in sailing, the mountains are where I’ve always spent a large part of my free time. I’ve been heading up into the hills almost all of my life, from walks as a child up Clachnaben and Mount Battock, onto the eastern Munros of Mount Keen, Mayar, Driesh, and Lochnagar as a young teenager.

Hiking in the mountains, either alone, or enjoying the company of friends, makes me feel alive. It gives me a sense of achievement and quite literally, a new perspective on life. Having struggled with my mental health at times, the mountains are where I’m drawn when I need to de-stress and breathe fresh air again; to fade out my troubles with the focus on physical exertion, navigation and route finding, or just revelling in the awesome surroundings.

I’m most familiar with the mountains of Scotland, but have also spent time in the mountains in other parts of the UK, and elsewhere around the world. I’ve hiked in the mountains of New Zealand, Norway, and the Alps, I’ve skied and scrambled in the mountains, and there are so many more places I long to go.

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On the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand.

How can you support our mountains?

I’ve compiled a few suggestions for ways to lend your support, and make sure your time in the mountains is sustainable. If you have any additional tips, share them in the comments below.

  • Leave no trace: I can’t believe that this actually needs to be said, but I’ve seen the evidence on the hills for myself. Don’t leave any of your waste behind on the mountains. Everything you take in, be sure to take it back out again. Anything left behind can fundamentally alter the ecosystem and cause harm to the wildlife it supports.
  • Follow the trails: On popular mountains trails (think Snowdon on a sunny bank holiday weekend), routes can get extremely busy and you might be tempted to head off the beaten track. This has the potential to exacerbate damage to the trail, increase erosion on the mountainside, and lead to the trampling of fragile vegetation.  Contribute to the environmental management of the area by donating to mountain charities, paying tolls or parking fees, or lending your time to conservation initiatives.
  • Support mountain communities: When you visit the mountains, give thought to the local community and supporting their livelihoods. Use local businesses and buy from local shops, but be aware of the additional challenge of bringing resources into remote areas. Make a donation to the local Mountain Rescue service; you’d hope to never need their help, but if you do, you’ll want them well-trained and fully equipped.

As someone with a deep love for the mountains, and who regularly spends time in mountain settings, I feel the responsibility to share these messages and encourage others to do so too.  Mountains are beautiful, inspiring, and, as International Mountain Day aims to show, vital.

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The 25 most beautiful mountains in the world

Mountains have long held a kind of magic over many of us, both enthralled and appalled by their wild irregularity and the glimpse of danger deep in their embrace. Many peaks have great significance to different faiths and cultures, a rich folklore to explain their origin, or are places of pilgrimage for locals and visitors alike.

You are not in the mountains. The mountains are in you.

John Muir

The most spectacular mountains in the world have captivated the imagination of those that have laid eyes on them. The endless play of light and weather creates views that melt and shift in moments. Dynamic landscapes are at once intimate and vastly unknowable. Peaks that rake the sky and alter the perspective of those that attain the lofty heights. There is no getting accustomed to them.

To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Whether you’re a seasoned mountaineer, passionate orographer or geologist, a photographer, or merely an inquiring traveller, there’s going to be a mountain on this list that will leave you spellbound.

Stetind

  • Coordinates: 68°09’54” N 006°35’34” E
  • Location: Nordland, Norway
  • Elevation: 1,392 metres (4,566′)
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The distinctive anvil-like summit of Stetind. Photo Credit: Stetind.nu CC BY 2.0

This is Norway’s national mountain; its sheer granite walls soaring over Tysfjord to the distinctive summit, once described as the anvil of the Gods. Fishermen in the Lofoten Islands used its characteristic profile as a navigation mark. Pioneering British explorer and mountaineer William Cecil Slingsby called it the ugliest mountain he ever saw, though he may have been bitter after failing in his attempt to make the summit. I think we’d have to disagree.

Thor Peak

  • Coordinates: 66°32’00” N 065°19’00” W
  • Location: Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada
  • Elevation: 1,675 metres (5,495′)
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Thor Peak, on remote Baffin Island, is the highest overhanging rock face on earth. Photo Credit: Peter Morgan CC BY 2.0

Thor Peak, in Auyuittuq National Park on remote Baffin Island, a towering wave of granite rising up from the Akshayuk Valley, is the location of the greatest vertical drop in the world, a staggering 1,250 metres (4,101′) high*. To put that into context, the Empire State Building is just 443 metres high and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest human-built structure in the world, is 830 metres high. Auyuittuq is an Inuktitut word meaning “land that never melts”. White knuckles and frozen fingertips guaranteed.

*It would take a spine-chilling 36 seconds for someone weighing 80kg to fall the 1,250m from the face below the summit all the way to the valley floor.

Snæfellsjökull

  • Coordinates: 64°48’21” N 023°46’23” W
  • Location: Snæfellnes, Iceland
  • Elevation: 1,446 metres (4,744′)
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Snæfellsjökull in the morning light. Photo Credit: Axel Kristinsson CC BY 2.0

This 700,000-year-old cone-shaped stratovolcano at the western tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula inspired the adventure in Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Largely dormant since around 200 CE, Snæfellsjökull had long been topped by a compact glacier, indeed the name translates to “snow mountain glacier”. However, rising temperatures in the region mean that the summit crater has been ice-free since 2012. In clear conditions, it can sometimes be seen from Reykjavik, 120km away across Faxa Bay, and it was the last sighting I had of Iceland as I sailed into the west on the Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre.

Denali

  • Coordinates: 63°04’10” N 151°00’27” W
  • Location: Alaska, USA
  • Elevation: 6,201 metres (20,343′)
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Aerial view of the Denali massif. Photo Credit: Arctic Hokie CC BY-SA 3.0

Denali means “The Great One” in the Athabaskan language, but this wasn’t the official name of this colossal massif until 2015. For most of its modern history, it was known as Mount McKinley, named for US President William McKinley. In mountaineering circles, it also goes by the nickname “Mount Mid-Life Crisis”, as one of the more accessible of the Seven Summits, however, it is reputed to be especially challenging due to unpredictable weather and extreme elevation from sea level. For those less inclined to bag the summit, spectacular views can be found along the Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3), and from Denali National Park and Preserve.

Ketil

  • Coordinates: 60°24’59” N 044°30’44” W
  • Location: Kujallaq, Greenland
  • Elevation: 2,010 metres (6,594′)
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Ketil, in southern Greenland, is home to soaring big wall climbs. Photo Credit: D. Stanley CC BY 2.0

Ketil is just one of the sky-high granite peaks lining the arrestingly beautiful Tasermuit Fjord in southern Greenland. Known as Uiluit Qaqqaa in Greenlandic, meaning “oyster shell mountain”, it’s common name harks back to one of the Norse settlers that arrived in Greenland under the leadership of the notorious Erik the Red. The west face of Ketil is one of the world’s biggest and most challenging near-vertical big wall climbs, soaring over 1,000 metres. Despite being well off the beaten track, it’s becoming increasingly popular with climbers in recent years.

Suilven

  • Coordinates: 58°06′54″ N 005°08′13″ W
  • Location: Assynt, Scotland
  • Elevation: 731 metres (2,398′)
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The unmistakable outline of Suilven from the west. Photo Credit: Balthus Van Tassel CC BY-SA 2.0

Suilven, or Sùilebheinn in Scots Gaelic, is diminutive in comparison to most of the others on this list, but in my opinion, it’s the most beautiful of them all. An inselberg with an iconic profile, it’s a steep-sided ridge carved by ancient glacial ice rising over a wilderness area of bogs, lochans, and rough moorland. From the highest point, known as Caisteal Liath (Grey Castle), the sheer sides reminiscent of the rocky ramparts of an impenetrable fortress, the panoramic views of Sutherland and the Hebrides are outstanding.

The Eiger

  • Coordinates: 46°39′39″ N 008°00′19″ E
  • Location: Bernese Alps, Switzerland
  • Elevation: 3,967 m (13,015 ft)
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The notorious Mordwand, the north face of the Eiger. Photo Credit: Terra 3 CC BY-SA 3.0

The Eiger is a mountain with fearsome beauty and a notorious reputation. The technically challenging North Face, first ascended in 1938 by a German-Austrian expedition, is one of the most deadly; at least sixty-four climbers are known to have perished on the face, earning it the epithet Mordwand, the “murder wall”. In 2015 legendary speed climber Ueli Steck scaled the Heckmair route up the North Face in an astonishing 2 hours 22 minutes and 50 seconds. For those less inclined to risk life and limb, mountain views can be glimpsed from the route of the Jungfraujoch railway or the après ski terraces of Kleine Scheidegg.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo

  • Coordinates: 46°37′07″ N 018°20′00″ E
  • Location: Dolomites, Italy
  • Elevation: 2,999 metres (9,839′)
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The astonishing Tre Cime di Lavaredo at sunset. Photo Credit: Sinclair CC BY 2.0

In the Italian province of South Tyrol / Südtirol, the rugged Tre Cime di Lavaredo, also known as Drei Zinnen, as the name suggests, are three distinct peaks that make one of the most iconic views in the Dolomites. A 10km circular hike from Rifugio Aurenzo is one of the finest day hikes in the area, taking in spectacular views of the peaks, picturesque mountain lakes, and remains of trenches and tunnels from when the region was part of the Alpine front during WWI. It’s the ideal location to try your hand at Via Ferrata, and gain a new perspective in the mountains.

Matterhorn

  • Coordinates: 45°58′35″ N 007°39′31″ E
  • Location: Pennine Alps, Switzerland and Italy
  • Elevation: 4,478 metres (14,694′)
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The Matterhorn glimpsed from the Gornergrat train. Image in the public domain.

One of the highest summits in the Alps, the near symmetry of the Matterhorn has enchanted visitors to the region since the advent of Alpine tourism in the mid-19th century. The iconic pyramidal peak was first summited by mountain pioneer Edward Whymper in 1865, though not without tragedy, and it now attracts hundreds of climbers attempting an ascent every year. Visitors to Zermatt can get closer to the mountain without climbing on the Gornergatt mountain railway, or gondola lift to the Kleine Matterhorn station.

Aiguille du Dru

  • Coordinates: 45°55′58″ N 006°57′23″ E
  • Location: Alps, France
  • Elevation: 3,754 metres (12,316′)
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The spire of Aiguille du Dru soaring through the cloud. Photo Credit: claudio.audisio CC BY 2.0

Appropriately, aiguille translates as needle, a fitting name for the arresting granite spire of Aiguille du Dru, in the Mont Blanc massif. The highest summit is known as Grand Dru, though it is a sub-summit, Petit Dru at 3,733 metres, that is considered one of the six greatest north face walls of the Alps. Many of the routes pioneered up the wall have been lost in rockfalls over the years that considerably altered the profile of peak.

Half Dome

  • Coordinates: 37°44′46″ N 119°31′59″ W
  • Location: Sierra Nevada, California, USA
  • Elevation: 1,444 metres (4,737′)
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Half Dome and reflection in Yosemite Valley. Photo Credit: www73 CC BY 2.0

The iconic outline of Half Dome, towering over the eastern end of the Yosemite Valley, was made famous by legendary American photographer Ansel Adams in his striking black and white landscape images. The first technical ascent of the sheer northwest face took place over five days in 1957; the same route was completed free solo in a remarkable 1 hour 22 minutes by Alex Honnold in 2012 (see the documentary Alone on the Wall). Hikers can reach the summit of Half Dome on the Cable Route between May and October, though a permit is required from the Yosemite National Park Authority and it can be crowded on a summer weekend.

Trango Towers

  • Coordinates: 35°46′00″ N 076°10′59″ E
  • Location: Baltoro Muztagh, Karakoram, Pakistan
  • Elevation: 6,286 metres (20,623′)
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From left to right; Trango Tower, Trango Monk, and Great Trango. Their vertical faces are the world’s tallest cliffs. Photo Credit: allanv CC BY 2.0

The Trango Towers are a series of soaring granite pinnacles in the Baltoro Muztagh, northern Pakistan, not far from K2 and the Gasherbrum peaks. The Towers feature some of the most immense sheer walls in the world, with the east face of Trango Tower claiming the title of the greatest near-vertical drop on earth at 1,340m. The region only opened to outsiders in 1975, allowing the discovery of some of the most challenging climbs ever completed, a combination of altitude, steepness, and the technical nature of the big walls.

Fujiyama (Mount Fuji)

  • Coordinates: 35°21′29″ N 138°43′52″ E
  • Location: Honshū, Japan
  • Elevation: 3,776 metres (12,388′)
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A dreamy view of Fujiyama. Photo Credit: Tim Donnelly CC BY 2.0

There is a saying in Japanese; He who climbs Fuji is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool. Fujiyama is a captivating volcanic cone, capped with snow for almost half the year, that has enthralled and inspired artists through the ages. Almost 300,000 visitors troop to the summit annually, so the tranquillity of the peak is best appreciated from afar. The mirror lake of Kawaguchiko (Lake Kawaguchi) and the Edo-era buildings at the Iyashi-no-Sato open-air museum on Saiko (Lake Sai) offer the finest viewpoints.

Machapuchare

  • Coordinates: 28°29′42″ N 083°56′57″ E
  • Location: Anapurna Massif, Nepal
  • Elevation: 6,993 metres (22,943′)
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The distinctive fishtail summit ridge of Machapuchare. Photo Credit: Carsten Nebel CC BY-SA 4.0

Machapuchare is named for the notched summit ridge and double peaks, reminiscent of a fishtail when viewed from the Annapurna sanctuary. The mountain is sacred to the Hindu religion, believed to be one of the earthly homes of the god Shiva. It’s long been claimed that no human has ever set foot on the summit; in 1957 an expedition led by British climber Wilfred Noyce reached within 150m (492′) of the summit before turning back.  No climbing permits have been issued since. It’s rumoured that New Zealand climber Bill Denz made an illegal ascent in the 1980s, though he perished on nearby Mansulu in an avalanche in 1983, taking the truth with him.

Ama Dablam

  • Coordinates: 27°51′40″ N 086°51′40″ E
  • Location: Eastern Himalayas, Nepal
  • Elevation: 6,812 metres (22,349′)
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The view of Ama Dablam from Kala Patthar. Photo Credit: Stefan CC BY 2.0

With a name meaning “Mother’s necklace”, the arresting Ama Dablam appears to reach out in an embrace as two ridges reach out from either side of the main peak. It lies close to the route of the popular trek to Everest Base Camp, towering over Thyangboche Tibetan Monastery (also known as Dawa Choling Gompa), once home to Tensing Norgay before his mountaineering career took off, and often captures the hearts of those that pass by, enticing them to return.

Cotopaxi

  • Coordinates: 00°40′50″ S 078°26′16″ E
  • Location: Andes, Ecuador
  • Elevation: 5,897 metres (19,347′)
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The symmetrical cone of Cotopaxi viewed from the altiplano. Photo Credit: Simon Matzinger CC BY-SA 3.0

A stunning stratovolcano with a distinctive snow-capped cinder cone, Cotopaxi is the second-highest peak in Ecuador and can be seen on the skyline from Quito and while driving the Panamerican Highway. It’s also one of the most active volcanoes on this list, with 87 recorded eruptions since 1534, the most recent in 2015-16. The mountain and surrounding National Park eventually re-opened to visitors in late 2017, and with time for acclimatisation, the summit can be gained on a challenging but non-technical ascent.

Kilimanjaro

  • Coordinates: 04°03′33″ S 037°21′12″ E
  • Location: Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania
  • Elevation: 5,895 metres (19,308′)
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Snow-capped Kilimanjaro from Amboseli. Photo Credit: Nicolas Hoizey CC BY-SA 2.0

Kilimanjaro does not, in fact, rise like Olympus over the Serengeti; instead, the world’s highest freestanding mountain soars above the savannah of Tsavo and Amboseli, on the Kenyan side of the border. As one of the Seven Summits, it features on the to-do list of most mountaineers, but scaling the peak needs no technical skill and large numbers of people attempt the trek to the summit. Trails lead through a succession of ecozones with distinct flora and fauna, before emerging onto a rocky lunar world and the glaciated landscape of the summit.

Mount Roraima / Monte Roraima

  • Coordinates: 05°08′36″ N 060°45′45″ W
  • Location: Pakaraima Mounains / Sierra Pacaraima, Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela
  • Elevation: 2,810 metres (9,220′)
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A trekking route to the top of Roraima starts in the village of Paraitepui in Venezuela. Photo Credit: Paulo Fassina CC BY-SA 2.0

Spectacular Mount Roraima is the highest tepui, or table-top, in the Guiana Highlands of South America, a vast plateau bounded on all sides by 400 metre (1,300′) high cliffs. The national borders of Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana meet at a tripoint on the top, which was unexplored until 1884. The mysterious plateau is home to a unique diversity of flora and fauna, and often seen shrouded in mists, inspiring both the setting of Paradise Falls in the Pixar film Up, and the living dinosaur haven in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World.

Alpamayo

  • Coordinates: 08°54′45″ S 077°39′07″ W
  • Location: Cordillera Blanca, Peru
  • Elevation: 5,947 metres (19, 511′)
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In 1966 Alpamayo topped a poll of mountaineers to be named the most beautiful peak on earth. Photo Credit: Frank R 1981 CC BY-SA 4.0

Alpamayo is often named the most beautiful mountain in the world, and the near-perfect pyramid of ice and rock in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca is certainly hard to resist. Not even surveyed until the 1940s, due to its remote location, it was successfully summited first by a German expedition in 1957. The steep faces of Vienetta-like fluted ice require a high level of technical ice climbing ability, but superb views of the peak can be taken from the trek to basecamp, or the multi-day Alpamayo circuit route.

Huayna Picchu

  • Coordinates: 13°09′27″ S 072°32′50″ W
  • Location: Andes, Peru
  • Elevation: 2,693 metres (8,835′)
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Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu shortly after first light from the Sun Gate. Image in the public domain.

Huayna Picchu is the iconic sugarloaf peak that looms over the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, forming the backdrop of the view from Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) and the final section of the Inca Trail route. Trekkers can follow a waymarked trail to the summit, with sections of scrambling with cable and railings for support, for a vertiginous perspective on the ancient city, named as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.

Pic d’Imarivolanitra (Pic Boby)

  • Coordinates: 22°11′42″ S 046°53′06″ E
  • Location: Andringita Massif, Madagascar
  • Elevation: 2,658 metres (8,720′)
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The Andringita Massif in Madagascar. Photo Credit: Chris CC BY-SA 2.0

Madagascar might be better known for its unique wildlife, but the sheer granite walls of the Andringita Massif often draw the comparison with the more well-known peaks of Yosemite, and have been a pull for big wall climbers since the 1990s. The towering presence of Pic d’Imarivolanitra, also known as Pic Boby, is Madagascar’s second-highest mountain, and a feature of trekking circuits through Andringita National Park and nearby Tsarnovo Valley. At around 2,000 metres (6,5652′) high the trails pass through a dreamlike landscape of rock gardens filled with colourful succulents, before descending into lush forest.

Table Mountain

  • Coordinates: 33°57′26″ S 018°24′11″ E
  • Location: Cape Province, South Africa
  • Elevation: 1,085 metres (3,559′)
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The Cape coastline emerges through the clouds on Table Mountain. Photo Credit: vapour trail CC BY 2.0

The stark profile of Table Mountain dominates the skyline of Cape Town, despite its relative lack of stature. While this entry on the list offers an easy route to the top via the Aerial Cableway, there are several hiking routes of varying difficulty that lead up the mountain and across the vast summit plateau, including through the beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and out to the shark fin of Devil’s Peak. The mountain is home to unique native vegetation, part of the designated Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site.

Cradle Mountain

  • Coordinates: 41°40′48″ S 145°56′24″ E
  • Location: Central Highlands, Tasmania, Australia
  • Elevation: 1,545 metres (5,069′)
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Cradle Mountain above Dove Lake. Photo Credit: Steve Penton CC BY 2.0

At the heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the rugged basalt peaks of Cradle Mountain rise over lakes carved out by ancient glaciers surrounded by alpine moorland and temperate rainforest. The area is home to unique Australian wildlife with absurd names; echidnas, wombats, quolls, pademelons, and the elusive Tasmanian Devil. There’s a darker history to the region too; following violent persecution by European settlers, the last free Aboriginal Tasmanians were sighted in the area in 1836. The Overland Track, an iconic bushwalking trail considered one of the world’s best, links Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair, the deepest in Australia.

Monte Fitz Roy / Cerro Chaltén

  • Coordinates: 49°16′16″ S 072°02′35″ W
  • Location: Andes, Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
  • Elevation: 3,405 metres (11,171′)
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Mount Fitz Roy is also known as Cerro Chaltén, the smoking mountain, for the clouds that usually shroud the mountain. Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff CC BY-SA 2.0

Named Fitz Roy in honour of Robert Fitz Roy, captain of HMS Beagle, who charted large stretches of the Patagonian coastline, this imposing shark-tooth peak sits astride the international border between Argentina and Chile. First ascended in 1952, the peak has drawn the attention of several notable climbers, including Tommy Caldwell (The Dawn Wall) and Alex Honnold (Free Solo), who traversed the 5km long ridgeline of Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks. For those less inclined to scale lofty heights, the peak is the spectacular backdrop to several trekking routes in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and day hikes around the village of El Chaltén. The routes lead through woodlands and montane meadows, to reach spectacular glacial lakes and rugged boulder fields.

Cerro Torre

  • Coordinates: 49°17′34″ S 073°05′54″ W
  • Location: Andes, Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
  • Elevation: 3,128 metres (10,262′)
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The east face of Cerro Torre above the glacier. Photo Credit: Gagea CC BY-SA 3.0

Another peak often touted as the most beautiful in the world, Cerro Torre is an arresting pinnacle of granite topped with an otherworldly mushroom of rime ice. Its undeniable beauty is matched only by its colourful history. Declared an impossible summit by climbing pioneer Walter Bonetti, the Italian climber Cesare Maestri claimed success in 1959. His partner Toni Egger was swept away in an avalanche on the descent, taking with him the only camera recording the event. Further attempts using a variety of climbing techniques only brought more controversy and claims of desecrating the singular nature of the peak. A story worth delving into further for mountain buffs.

Ulvetanna Peak

  • Coordinates: 71°50′60″ S 008°19′59″ W
  • Location: Drygalski Mountains, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica
  • Elevation: 2,930 metres (9,612′)
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Ulvetanna in the southern Drygalski Mountains. Photo Credit: Wilfried Bauer CC BY-SA 3.0

The granite peak of Ulvetanna, meaning “the wolf’s tooth” in Norwegian, is one of the most inaccessible mountains in the world. A captivating spire of rock in the Fenriskjeften Mountain, it rises like a fairytale castle over the white expanse of the ice sheet below. It was first climbed in 1994, but its remote location means it’s unlikely to make it on to your mountain bucket list unless you’re an experienced mountaineer with polar connections.  Instead, you can vicariously explore it from the comfort of your home by watching The Last Great Climb, documenting the first ascent of the northeast ridge by British climber Leo Houlding and his team.

Why not save this dose of mountain inspiration for later?

What I’ve been reading this season | Autumn 2020

Another small collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found over the past few months that I want to share with you. This season, they’ve mainly been inspired by thoughts of Antarctica, the Arctic, and the coming winter.

Heading South

How Prosperity Transformed the Falkland Islands

A masterful travel piece about the Falkland Islands by Larissa MacFarquhar, diving deeply into changes that have occurred over the past 30 years or so. One of the best destination profiles I’ve ever read.

Scenes from Antarctica

A slideshow of photographs from across the Antarctic continent, highlighting the human presence in the region.

What the future of polar travel looks like

A Condé Nast Traveler article from early in the summer looking at the prosepect of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and the knock-on impacts of cancelling a 2020 summer season in the Arctic.

What will happen to the 7th Continent?

The uncertainty of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic may be the necessary pause to spark conversations about the future of the industry. This piece by Bella Lack asks questions about other potential consequences of this season.

200 years ago people discovered Antarctica, and promptly began profiting by slaughtering some of its animals to near extinction

In the two centuries since its discovery, Antarctica has seen a range of commercial, scientific, and diplomatic activity. This blog post from The Conversation journal looks at the ways natural resources have been exploited over time, and the impact of changes.

Blue whale sightings off South Georgia raise hopes of recovery

In positive news, a whale survey expedition recorded 58 sightings of Blue Whales, and numerous accoustic detections, around South Georgia in 2020, where the marine mammals were all but wiped out by the whaling industry.

The Other Polar Place

A mission to unearth the wreck of the Nova Zembla

An account of the expedition to hunt for the wreck of a Dundee whaling ship lost in the Canadian High Arctic by Matthew Ayre, sparked by a simple note in a historic ship’s logbook.

My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor

A longread essay by Andrea Pitzer detailing a research trip in the wake of 16th century polar explorer Willem Barents, and the unexpected wild pleasure of a voyage completely under sail.

Reindeer at the End of the World

A beautifully atmospheric piece by Bathsheba Demuth detailing the collision of Soviet ideology with the nomadic lives of Chukchi reindeer herders, tuned to the natural cycles of the tundra.

Life inside the Arctic

A captivating National Geographic photoessay by Jennifer Kingsley and Eric Guth that travels across the Arctic, meeting people living and working in the far north, and reframing the perception of the Arctic as a remote, isolated and uninhabited region.

Winter is coming

Dreading a dark winter? Think like a Norwegian

An examination of the mindset that helps residents in areas experiencing the polar night get through the darkness of winter by cultivating resilience and inner strength.

The Best Rain in Literature

Who am I kidding? I’m going to be in Scotland this winter, and while there’s a chance of crisp, bright snow days, more than likely it’s going to be driech. So here’s a few beautiful paragraphs from great authors and poets to help me learn to appreciate the rain.

Photo Journal | Autumn in the Cairngorms

Autumn in the Cairngorms is sensational. Autumn is the season of transition, when days are honeygold and light, and nights are inky-dark, afternoons are sun-warmed, while mornings are crisp with frost. Autumn is when weather plays across the landscape, changing through the months and through the course of any one day.

The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Rowans extravagant with red berries. Birch and bracken glowing acid green and yellow against the dark of the pines, and the oak and beech woodlands blaze with a fire of reds, golds, and oranges.

“October is the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August. From the gold of the birches and bracken on the low slopes, the colour spurts upwards through all the creeping and inconspicuous growths that live among the heather roots – mosses that are lush green or oak-brown, or scarlet and the berried plants, blaeberry, cranberry, crowberry and the rest. “

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow tucked behind tussucks, sheltering from the low autumn sun.

The first snows of winter dust the high plateau from early October, replenishing snow that lies year round in dark hollows on northern slopes, and draping a silver cloak across dark hills beneath bleached out skies. In this transitional time, overnight snowfalls cover mountain trails and reveal tracks, deer, ptarmigan, hares, melting away just as quick.

In the gloaming, as the dark draws in earlier every day, and on days that are dull and overcast, the colours glow on the hills. The radiant magic of the trees in fall. A last brief blaze of sunlight as they retreat before the winds of winter that whip the leaves from their branches. Cool, wet south-westerly winds that sweep in from the Atlantic, that lay damp orange carpets of larch needles on the forest floor.

Night falls after short days, wood smoke-scented and velvet-textured, filled with a full moon and a scattering of stars.

Have you visited the Cairngorms in autumn? Share your tips for things to see and places to go with me in the comments below.
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Armchair Travel: 10 Best Books about Disaster and Survival

A selection of the best non-fiction books about tragedy and disaster, survival against the odds, and adventures gone awry.

There are a few travel and adventure books I’ve read that make me really envious of the experiences described within. Expeditions I’d have loved to be part of and thrilling adventures I wish I’d had. Satisfying challenges with successful outcomes, taking place in locations I desperately want to explore for myself.

I’ve also read many books telling the story of devastating disasters, adventures gone way wrong, and epic accounts of survival against the odds. Tales that make me very glad that I wasn’t there in that place, at that time, doing that thing. Not in a gawking, voyeuristic way, but to marvel at the strength and adaptability of the people involved, and the enduring hope that many of them can hold on to through their ordeal.

Here are 10 of what I consider to be the best non-fiction adventure books about disaster, survival, and human resilience.

*Warning: there’s potentially a couple of spoilers in this list.*

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

I first encountered this story in the film Alive, reading the book by Piers Paul Read on which it was based shortly after. It’s probably the first story of this type I read, and it piqued my interest in these tales of human resilience in unimaginable circumstances.

The story of a rugby team, along with some of their friends and family, whose plane crashed into the high Andes in 1972 on the way between Uruguay and Chile, is perhaps one of the best-known survival stories.

Survivors were stranded on the mountainside for 72 days and forced into an unconscionable decision to avoid succumbing to their situation. Parrado is one of the survivors, and one of the pair that set out to find rescue for their friends, and this is a deeply personal account of his experience. Buy it here.

Touching the Void – Joe Simpson

Experienced climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates make a challenging first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande in the Huayhuash mountains of Peru, and run into difficulty on the descent. Simpson is injured and unable to climb down, relying on Yates to lower him on a rope. But a series of unfortunate events leaves them trapped on the mountain in deteriorating conditions, unable to see or communicate with each other, while roped together.

Unable to determine the fate of his friend, Yates is forced into the nightmarish decision to cut the rope and save his own life. Remarkably Simpson survives to tell the tale, and probe the huge psychological trauma resulting from the event. Find it here.

We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance – David Howarth

This book tells the story of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian resistance leader and commando during WWII. Following a botched raid on a Nazi installation in Northern Norway and the sinking of his vessel, he’s forced to swim ashore and flee into the Arctic hinterland at the end of the winter.

Evading capture for more than two months, he battled against snow blindness and frostbite, with cold injury leaving him unable to walk from the blizzard-lashed high plateau for 27 days, before he was able to make contact with Sami reindeer herders and plan an evacuation into neutral Sweden. Find it here.

438 Days: An Incredible True Story of Survival at Sea – Jonathan Franklin

In an incredible turn of events, missing Salvadoran fisherman Salvador Alvarenga made his way ashore on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands, 14 months after his seven-metre long skiff disappeared off the coast of Mexico in a storm. With no sails or oars, and a broken radio, he and his fishing mate, Ezequiel Córdoba, drifted out into the Pacific.

The author carried out a series of interviews with Alvarenga, piecing together the events of the storm and subsequent 9,000 nautical mile drift, learning how he managed to find food and water, and avoid scurvy. He also probes into the fragile mental state of Alvarenga, especially following the death of Córdoba, and being passed by several ships that had the potential to be rescuers. Read it here.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – Nathaniel Philbrick

One the most notorious maritime disasters from the so-called golden era of the whaling industry, and said to have inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick (the device used to unravel the story in the fictionalised film of the book).

Using material from the memoirs of two survivors, the first mate of the ship and a teenaged cabin boy, Philbrick reconstructs the events leading to the destruction of the Essex by a wounded sperm whale, and their subsequent ordeal. Of the twenty crew to take to the open whaleboats, only eight survived the 90 days before they were rescued. Buy it here.

Raising the Dead: A True Story of Death and Survival – Phillip Finch

I bought this book for my ex, also my usual SCUBA diving buddy, while we were starting to get into wreck diving around the coast of the UK. We read it together and discovered exactly what our worst nightmare would be.

Two divers enter a cave system in the South African Kalahari known as Boesmansgat (the Bushman’s Hole), searching for evidence of a previous diver that had perished. They penetrated the flooded sinkhole to an incredible depth of 127 metres (886′), 127 METRES!!!!, which required a decompression time of several hours and flawless dive planning. Needless to say, it does not go well for the pair. Find it here.

Last Man Off: A True Story of Disaster, Survival and One Man’s Ultimate Test – Matt Lewis

A fast-paced and compelling account of the loss of an ancient and unseaworthy fishing vessel in the mighty Southern Ocean, written by the scientific observer placed on board. Fresh from graduating, marine biologist Lewis is the most inexperienced crew member on the ship, but plays a key role in the rescue of the others as they take to the life rafts in a severe storm.

He also writes on safety, security, and survival at sea, and on preparedness and training for working in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth, in an engaging way that is accessible for seasoned sailors and landlubbers alike. Buy it here.

127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Aron Ralston

I think most people will be aware of the consequences of Ralston’s notable self-rescue after he became trapped while hiking in a canyon, and that dramatic act is why the book features on this list. However, I find the character of Ralston hard to warm to and struggle with reading about his compulsion to seek out unnecessary risk in his outdoor activities.

I actually preferred the Danny Boyle directed film of 127 Hours, which cuts through a lot of the extraneous material of the book to the core of the survival story. Read the book before you see the film as you gain nothing from the other way round. Pick it up here.

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic – Jennifer Niven

In 1921 Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman, joined a team of five men on an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea in a speculative attempt to claim the island for Canada (or the United Kingdom), backed by controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. After two years facing starvation, scurvy, and the disappearance of three of the team, the only survivors were Blackjack, and Vic, the expedition cat.

It’s rare to read an account of an expedition where the voices of indigenous people are central, and more so that of a woman. During her life, Stefansson and her rescuer, Harald Noice, created a media furore to attempt to exploit her story, causing her to retreat from the public eye. Niven creates a deep and respectful portrait of a remarkable woman. Buy it here.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing

This list would be incomplete without mention of Shackleton. The survival of the Endurance’s crew after the loss of the ship in the Antarctic pack ice, the subsequent voyage of the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and the crossing of the island from King Haakon Bay to Stromness against all odds are the stuff of legend.

Lansing’s gripping account of the expedition is my favourite of the ones I’ve read, drawing on detailed first-hand accounts from surviving crew members and diary excerpts, to create an enthralling historical narrative and a fascinating study of leadership in the most challenging of conditions. Read it here.

Have you enjoyed any of these books?  Which epic adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

What I’ve been reading this season | Summer 2020

A small collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful readings from around the internet I’ve found over the past season, that I want to share with you.

Coronavirus Pandemic

An interesting piece on the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic by Malcolm Gladwell, with an in-depth examination of the challenges of viral archaeology.

A fascinating blog post from Vanessa Spedding which dives deeply into the psychology and philosophy of the turning point in our lives brought by the imposition of a COVID-19 lockdown.

Eva Holland explores how our resilience to trauma can be cultivated and strengthened, both at an individual and a community scale.

Travel and Tourism

A long read from the Guardian newspaper exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the future of the global tourism industry, the hit to local economies, and ways to reinvent the sector in a more sustainable model.

The sudden, melancholy realisation of a future without travel, when it was the definitive factor that shaped your livelihood and nourished your soul.

A piece from the Washington Post in June that summed up the appeal of the late chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain, particularly his understanding that food was a common language to share stories across cultures and experiences.

Nature, Wildlife and the Outdoors

Endurance runner Rosie Watson explores opportunities for new ways of working and living in a time of climate crisis and environmental change, following the enforced pause of the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdowns.

An informative post by Becky Angell about taking the first steps towards gaining the Mountain Leader qualification, particularly the important prep work you can do when you can’t get out to the hills.

Revelling in the sight of planets and galaxies, as well as nocturnal nature Matt Gaw shares the thrill of hiking at night.

Lucy Wallace shares an account of her return to the hills following lockdown, and the full-on sensory joy of being back outdoors in a familiar wild place.

Scotland

Merryn Glover shares insights and encounters garnered from her experience as the first writer-in-residence in the Cairngorms National Park.

An article marking the 175th Anniversary of the formation of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays), and landmark legal challenges that ensured continued protection of ancient drove roads and passes through the Cairngorms.

A response to a newspaper article forecasting the death of the Gaelic language in Scotland by Charles (Teàrlach) Wilson, posing questions about deeper impacts of tourism on rural and island communities, and how people are central to rewilding a landscape.

What I loved this season | Summer 2020

Where I’ve been

After returning to the UK from Antarctica, I spent most of the previous season in COVID lockdown at my parent’s place on the coast of Aberdeenshire.  I haven’t travelled much further afield this season either, just relocating to the other side of the county to start working for the Cairngorms National Park Authority as a Seasonal Ranger.

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Looking up Strathdee on a moody afternoon, towards my home for the summer at Mar Lodge, near Braemar, Aberdeenshire.

It’s been really exciting to get out and explore Royal Deeside, visiting sites that I’ve known since as a child, and discovering new places I’d never been to before. I’d been really worried about finding work this summer, with the sectors I usually work in completely closed down and existing staff finding themselves furloughed or even facing redundancy. So I feel extremely grateful to have this opportunity, especially when I thought working in the berry fields might have been the only option for the summer.

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Views of Lochnagar and the White Mounth Munros from the Forest of Ballochbuie. The view of there from here.
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Views across the glen to Ballochbuie from the hills between The Stuic and the side of Lochnagar. The view of here from over there.

My only trip away from the area was a very personal one to spend a few days in Caithness, meeting up with family and friends to visit old haunts and remember times past. Despite the emotional circumstances of the visit, it was good to see the sea and sky in a different place for a short while.

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Hanging out on the pier in Thurso, watching dolphins swim in the bay.
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Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of mainland Britain, from Old Castlehill
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Watching the wind in the summer barley

What I’ve done

My current base in the Cairngorms, near Braemar, has been fantastic for getting out into the hills for hikes, and on most of my non-working days, I’ve been able to spend most of the time outdoors. I also stay very close to a couple of mountain rivers with excellent swimming pools, and have tried to fit in a dip at least a couple of times a week.

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The Punchbowl on the River Quoich.
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The mysterious entrance to Burn o’Vat

I’ve not actually done any overnight camps on my recent hiking trips, wimping out after seeing the midges that have been plaguing the campers I speak to on my ranger patrols. Although there are a few places that are always midge hotspots, it just seems like this is an especially prolific summer for the midges. I think I’ll wait for the end of the season before I venture out with my tent for a few nights.

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Forest walks on old trails near the village of Dinnet.
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Big skies over the Muir of Dinnet.

I had the good fortune to meet the local ghillie fishing his beat while I was out on patrol one day, and managed to arrange a fly fishing lesson. There’s still a long way to go before I master my casting technique, and I’m pretty sure that if a fish ever took the fly it would end up with me screaming and falling overin the river, but it was a really enjoyable morning on the Dee, watching the fish and dragonflies, listening to the birds, learning to read the movement of the water.

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Learning to fly fish on the River Dee.

My Summer Love List

Books: I’ve been getting down to some serious study and preparation for taking a Mountain Leader training course in the Autumn, so my Mountain Leader Handbook and the Navigation in the Mountains textbook have been indispensable.

I’ve also picked up the Cicerone guides Walking the Munros (volumes 1 and 2) to plan a few more hill days and mini-expeditions for my day’s off.

Interesting articles and blogs I’ve read can be seen here.

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The things I’ve loved this season.

Podcast: I discovered the Out of Doors podcast from BBC Scotland after they interviewed my colleague Duncan about the work of the Seasonal Rangers in the Cairngorms National Park. I got hooked by the eclectic range of subjects they discuss, and the warm, cosy feel of the show.

Clothing: Despite what you might think, summer weather in Scotland can be pretty warm at times, so a pair of lightweight but hardwearing trousers suitable to wear as part of my Ranger uniform was really important. My Rab Valkyrie trousers have a great fit, excellent quality, and meet my requirement for POCKETS!

Equipment: To go with the new trousers, my most essential piece of equipment this season has been a spray bottle of permethrin treatment which I use on my clothing. I work in areas where ticks, and other biting insects, are prevalent, and it’s really important to be aware of the risk of Lyme disease.

My only real vanity is sunglasses, and I found a great pair from a company called Waterhaul. As well as providing a good level of UV protection and looking good, I chose these as they’re made from recycled plastic fishing nets. The company are a social enterprise, and recover discarded nets from the beaches around Cornwall to turn into the frames. I love them so much.

I picked up a brand spanking new pair of hiking boots too, which I absolutely love. They’re Scarpa Peak GTX boots, and the blue and orange colour matches all the rest of my gear. Including my tartan pyjamas.

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Important pyjama – hiking boot coordination.

Treats: I picked up a bottle of my favourite Rock Rose gin from their gorgeous wee distillery shop, and a small bottle of their sloe gin, perfect for an autumn afternoon warmer when the weather turns a bit colder.

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Bottles of Rock Rose gin on the shelf.

As rangers for the National Park, we get supplied with a few Clif bars to keep us going, so I’ve been testing out a few of the different flavours. My current favourite is Peanut Butter Banana. 10/10 would recommend for your next trip to the hills.

What’s next?

Autumn is my favourite season, and this year I’ve got a bit more to look forward to. It’s my birthday, and this year it’s a big one as I turn 40 in September. I can’t quite believe it.

I’m also in the process of booking a Mountain Leader Training course, to consolidate my skills and move on to the next level. I’m really excited about it, but also a bit nervous.

One of the things I love most about autumn in Scotland is cold, crisp mornings to go walking in the woods. Looking out for fungi and falling leaves, listening to the roar of deer on the hillsides, then finding a cosy spot by a fire to read and watch the weather out the window. I’ve got a few more days in hand this season, and some friends are planning to visit, so I’m really excited to be able to get out and show them around my home.

What have you been up to over the last season? Have you started to get back to some sense of reality?
Remember I’m always here if you need an ear; I’d really love to hear from you.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I’ll make a small commission* on the sale at no additional cost to you.  These help me continue to run the site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

How to go to the toilet in the great outdoors | A guide for hikers & campers

Everybody poops. It’s just a fact of life.

As someone who loves hiking and camping, and has been doing it since I was a child, of course I’ve had a poop in the great outdoors. But set all squeamish sniggering at this statement aside, this is an essential declaration. We can’t ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t happen when we’re outdoors for extended periods.

As a ranger in the Cairngorms National Park through the summer of 2020, I’ve unfortunately seen the impact of irresponsible hikers and wild campers at some of the most beautiful places in the country. Quite frankly, it’s disgusting, it spoils the outdoor experience of everyone else visiting the area, and I’m fed up of having to clean up toilet paper and baby wipes. I just don’t want to see it anymore*.

*And for chat with my ranger colleagues to revolve around more than the biggest jobbies we’ve seen this week.

Dealing with human waste in a hygienic, environmentally sensitive way is a vital outdoor skill, and not just for expert or elite-level outdoors folk. Anyone spending a long time out hiking, or camping overnight will have to face up to the inevitable. And as most of us are accustomed to flushing toilets, it’s a skill that needs to be learned like any other.

Talking about how to pee and poop properly in the outdoors raises awareness of the issue of environmental contamination from human waste, and hopefully will spread understanding of the most responsible way to manage our bodily functions while hiking or wild camping.

Also, I hope it will also go some way to resolving any fears or discomfort some may feel about going to the toilet away from the usual facilities, fears that may stop them from trying longer trips. I’ve shared a few of my toilet tips about how and where to go when hiking or wild camping to ease your worries and help you prepare for your next outdoor experience.

It might look like a beautiful camping spot for the night, but think about where you might be able to go to the toilet safely and hygenically.

So here’s my guide on how to go to the toilet outdoors, to help you plan for your next hiking or camping trip. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below. I’m here to help.

Top toilet tips for the outdoors

Plan your day around facilities

As your mam always told you before a long car journey, it’s best to go before you go. And she wasn’t wrong. Proper planning is key to find available facilities before you head out on a hike, and a little bit of research will let you know if there’s a public toilet at or near the start of your hiking trail, or the possibility to stop on the route. An OS Map will show these marked with a PC symbol, for public convenience.

Walking routes in more populated areas may have the option to visit a public toilet on the way, or to call in by a pub or café for drinks, snacks, and access to the facilities. Knowing the route you intend to take ahead of arrival (and your Plan B) will let you plan the length of time you’ll be out hiking and the time between potential toilet stops. But what if you’re in a more remote area, or planning to stay out for a longer hike or camping trip?

Know where to go outdoors

Get off the trail. It’s really, really unpleasant to encounter human waste on or near a path. It may not always be possible to get off the trail in all places along your route, so check the map for suitable spots and don’t leave it to the last moment. Ideally, you should be around 50m from any paths, buildings or shelters, which is a bit further than everyone thinks (approximately 45-60 seconds walk, or a 10-second dash if things are getting desperate), and 30m from any burns or streams.

Where should you not go to the toilet?

Near a water source. A loch, lake, or stream could be the water supply for a remote settlement, farm or house, or maybe just an ideal spot for people to swim or paddle. You should try to be at least 30m from any water sources when you go to the toilet.

Shelters, shielings, crags and caves. At some point these interesting features to explore can all become really useful spots to escape from wind and weather. Think about finding a curious cave to investigate, or a big stone to shelter from the wind while you scoff your lunch. Then the prospect of seeing, smelling or stepping in something you really didn’t want to.

Ready to pee free?

So, if you’ve never tried it before, you really want to take into account the terrain and the wind when you go for a pee. Try to face downhill as much as possible, but also aim away from the wind to avoid accidental wet feet. Hiking poles can help you maintain balance if you squat down.

Take off a heavy backpack before you squat, to avoid tipping off balance at a critical moment and make it easier to get back up again. Just remember to leave your pack above you if you’re on a slope, but close enough to reach your toilet paper stash.

Devices like a SheWee or a GoGirl, essentially shaped funnels for urination, can make it much easier and discrete to pee outdoors. I would definitely use one for the peak of midge season in Scotland, when the thought of exposing any more skin than is absolutely essential makes me shudder. They’re the sort of thing that benefit from practice at home before venturing out into the world.

Have a bit of toilet paper or pack of tissues handy to dry off, but toilet paper doesn’t magically vanish overnight if it’s left on the ground. If you use it, take it away with you, just like any other rubbish you might create on your hiking trip. A sealable bag in a pocket of your pack is the best place to store used paper until you can dispose of it properly in a bin.

Remember, leave no trace.

Dealing with a solid problem

Going for a poop outdoors needs a bit more forward planning. There’s basically only two options available to you as a responsible hiker and wild camper: bury it on site, or bag it and take it out.

Burial

You’ll need a bit of equipment to do things properly. You can find a small trowel or folding shovel in your local garden centre, hardware store or online, and compostable dog poo bags or food waste bags are easily picked up when you do a supermarket shop.

Find a suitable spot, at least 30m from watercourses, shelters and paths, and use your trowel to dig a hole about as deep as your hand (15cm / 6″ is ideal, the length of a mobile phone… Don’t drop it!). Best to make it a bit wider than you think you might need to. Do your poop.

Any toilet paper or wet wipes you use should be placed into one of the bags you brought, and binned later. Fill in the hole with the soil you’ve dug out, completely covering the new contents. Don’t forget to wash your hands or use sanitiser. If you’re in a rocky spot, try resist the urge to build a little cairn over your poo, in tribute to your special moment. This is the sort of place where your should really consider using a bag to remove all trace of your waste.

If you’re caught out walking without your toilet kit, scrape out a depression in the ground with the heel of your boot or the end of a walking pole. Do the deed, and cover it up as best you can with the material at hand. Soft moss and gravel can top up the material you’ve scraped away.

In a real emergency, spongy soft sphagnum moss can be used instead of toilet paper. However, this is destructive to the ecosystem and doesn’t fit with a leave no trace philosophy, so should be the last resort option.

Bag it and bin it

In the UK we don’t really have a tradition of bagging and binning our own waste, but it can be an essential requirement when hiking in other locations around the world, especially in remote areas or in mountain or desert environments where natural composting wouldn’t occur. With the extremely high pressure on some honeypot sites, it might be something that land managers and recreation groups promote more in future. Be ahead of the curve!

Take a supply of compostable dog poo or food waste bags to collect that thing you need to do. Seal up the bag, then place it inside another sealable bag or container to hold it until you find a bin or return home. A plastic tupperware-style box** is easily cleaned and disinfected at the end of your trip, or dog owners might be familiar with dicky bag type containers, which can clip onto the outside of your backpack, and work just as well for other species’ faeces.

**It’s best to label it for exclusive use to avoid putting your sandwiches in at a later date.

A simple toilet kit to make sure you’re prepared for every occasion when you go camping or on a longer hiking trip.

Additional Hazards

Take a good look at your chosen spot before you squat. Brambles, thistles, gorse and especially nettles don’t make for a comfortable jobby option (I’m sure many of us have at one time or another managed to use our bare bum to locate stinging nettles in the dark… Ouch!).

Also, be aware that bracken, heather and long grass can all potentially be harbouring ticks, especially if there’s a lot of sheep or deer in the area. It’s good practice to do a body check for ticks at the end of your day’s hike, and carry a specialist tick tool and small travel mirror if you’re in a high-risk area. Read more about risks associated with ticks here.

Menstruation in the Outdoors

While we’re talking about what happens in the toilet, let’s tackle menstruation too. It’s a subject that can often be taboo, whether through stigma or shame, but something like 25% of the global population experience menstruation, with around 20% of them on their period right now. And while it can leave you feeling sore, irritable, and lacking in energy, it shouldn’t be a factor to stop you getting outdoors to do the things you enjoy.

However, menstruation in different environments brings up the issue of waste, especially in more remote locations where there is limited, or no, disposal facilities. As with everything else, the message is leave no trace! You really shouldn’t leave any sanitary products behind. Many contain plastic, and even a natural cotton tampon will take up to six months to compost in optimum conditions. In a mountain or moorland environment that will be considerably longer.

Used sanitary towel and tampons, and any tissues and wipes you use, can be stored hygienically in a compostable dog poo or food waste bag, and disposed of properly when you return home. An additional ziplock bag or tupperware container to hold filled waste bags will protect against any potential leakages or broken bags inside your backpack.

In a move to cut down on the amount of waste created during my period I started using a reusable menstrual cup a couple of years ago. It’s ideal for long day hikes, or overnight camping trips, as you can wear it for up to 12 hours, though I’d definitely recommend getting used to it at home first.

For longer trips, it would need a bit of additional planning to ensure you can clean your hands properly before and after fitting it, empty it safely and cleanly, and rinse it out between uses, particularly in a challenging setting. Do you want to be faffing about with one when faced with a lack of privacy, heavy rain, low temperatures, or an abundance of midges? It may not be the most practical solution in some circumstances, but will reduce the amount of sanitary protection you will need to carry in your pack.

Essential kit to go when you’re outdoors

  • A small trowel or folding shovel
  • Hand sanitiser, for before and after
  • Toilet paper or tissues, in a sealable waterproof bag. I get my toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap?
  • Compostable food waste bags or dog poo bags
  • A sealable waterproof (ziplock) bag or small sealable container to contain all used waste bags
A camping toilet kit is simple to put together, and doesn’t take up much room in your pack. You don’t need to take a whole loo roll, just as much as you think you’ll need, plus a little extra to make sure you’re not caught short, in a sealable bag to keep it dry.

I tend not to use wet wipes unless I’m going on a longer trip and they’ll be a substitute for showering. Most contain some form of plastics, and can take an incredibly long time to break down after disposal, so choose a brand that is biodegradable and made of natural fibres.

Putting together an outdoor toilet kit for your camping and hiking adventures means that you’re prepared for whenever nature calls, and you can enjoy yourself without worry. Remember to leave no trace, and help keep the outdoors safe and beautiful.

I hope this blog post has given you a few guidelines on how to go to the toilet outdoors comfortably and confidently, and without leaving a big impact behind you.

How are you feeling about your first wild poop? If you’ve got any more questions please ask in the comments below.
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Gear Review | Rab Firewall Waterproof Trousers

If you’re serious about spending any length of time outdoors, then it’s essential to be prepared for wet weather. Even in the height of the summer season showers and persistent rain can be forecast (there’s a reason our countryside is so green and lush in the UK), and quickly turn a fine day out in the hills into a miserable slog if you haven’t packed your waterproofs.

While a waterproof jacket is probably the most important piece of your kit, you’ll be thankful of a good pair of waterproof trousers to give additional protection from the elements and keep you comfortable for longer.

So what do I want from a pair of waterproof trousers? Obviously they need to keep the wind and rain out, but in most cases they’d stay tucked up in my pack in hopes of fine weather, so need to be lightweight and packable. Once the heavens open, they need to be simple and quick to pull on, so long zips are important, and other features I’d look for in my waterproof trousers would be POCKETS! and vents or two-way zips.

How I tested the Rab Firewall Pants

I think I gave Rab’s Firewall Pants an extremely thorough testing, well beyond the usual realms of outdoor equipment testing. I rocked a pair of these waterproof trousers during the 19/20 season at Port Lockroy, Antarctica, and thoroughly put them through their paces, wearing them daily for around 12 hours at a time over the four months of our season.

In general, the conditions I experienced were relatively mild, given our extreme location; temperatures ranged between -7°C and + 15°C, though winds reached in excess of 40 knots on occasion, and we experienced days of persistant heavy rain and occasional blizzard conditions. 

Our daily routine mixed high levels of physical activity, changing through the season from shovelling snow and cutting paths and steps, to scrubbing guano and sluicing rocks with buckets of water hauled up from the shore, with time engaging with visitors to Base A, the first permanent British base on the Antarctic Peninsula, now operating as a living museum. 

As the wildlife monitor I also had the additional task of counting penguin nests, which involved lots of bending and kneeling, avoiding pecks and pokes from curious penguins, and occasionally crawling into guano-filled spaces under buildings.

Product description

The Women’s Firewall Pants are waterproof trousers with a degree of stretch, made using Pertex Shield® 3-layer fabric. Rab claims this makes them ideal for use in alpine or winter conditions where freedom of movement is essential.

The Firewall Pants are designed for active use in mixed environments, with 3/4 length fully waterproof YKK® AquaGuard® 3-way side zips to allow for high levels of breathability. The trousers have a part elasticated gripped waistband and knee articulations for comfortable movement.

The trousers are compatible with winter boots with under-boot cord attachment loops, and a regular fit allows for a baselayer to be comfortably worn underneath. They weigh 296g (10oz).

The Firewall Waterproof Pants are also available in a men’s fit.

Field Results

Though the pants are lightweight, I found that the fabric was hardwearing and durable, and the regular fit gave plenty of room for additional layers worn underneath without being too flappy around my legs on windy days. I’d usually wear them over a pair of midweight softshell pants, with an extra pair of merino leggings on particularly cold days, though occasionally conditions were warm enough for shorts or lightweight leggings underneath during physical activity. 

The articulated knees, slight stretchiness in the fabric, and elasticated waistband meant I had little restriction of movement, which was exactly what I needed for my work, especially the penguin monitoring. The gripper strips in the waistband helped to stop the pants from slipping down as I moved around.

The long three-way zips on the outside of the leg made it easy to pull them on or off over my boots, and to vent at any position (the ideal position being just above the top of a long rubber boot, but not so low down that a penguin could nip the back of my knees).

The ankles have a shockcord to cinch the hem, and a loop to connect to bootlaces, so that they would remain secure while hiking, though I always wore rubber boots and didn’t make use of this feature.

With a limited supply of freshwater on the island, I could only keep them clean with seawater.  Though it was far from the ideal way to care for my kit, I had no problems with the taped zips seizing up with salt. Even with this abuse, they remained fully waterproof for the duration of the season.

Worth the money?

The Firewall Waterproof pants cost £135, putting them at the more expensive end of the range of products on offer. On a tight budget, you can find decent waterproof trousers for around £50, though you would compromise on features like breathability, venting, and ease of donning. However, the performance and durability of the Firewall pants make it a worthwhile investment.

Conclusion

I wasn’t too familiar with Rab products, previously only owning a pair of Gore-Tex gaiters, but the Firewall Waterproof Pants were well designed and comfortable, with several little touches that gave a very good performance in tough conditions. I wore my Antarctic pair to the absolute limit through the four month season, and will definitely be replacing like for like now I’ve returned to the UK.

Disclaimer: Rab provided the outdoor clothing that formed part of the uniform for UK Antarctic Heritage staff based in Antarctica for the 2019/20 season. This is my honest review after months of use.

If you’ve got any questions about finding the right waterproof trousers, leave a message in the comments below.
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