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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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.

 

Photo Journal: Stormbound in Skudeneshavn, Norway

The name Norway derives from Nordvegen, the north route, a network of sheltered sounds, straits and fjords along the country’s coast providing a shipping route protected from the wild North and Norwegian Seas.  Karmsund, the narrow channel between the mainland and the island of Karmøy, a Viking stronghold, was the final part of the route we’d  follow before emerging into the open water of Boknafjorden, north of Stavanger.

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Gamle Skudeneshavn, the old town, on the island of Karmøy, is considered to be one of the best preserved historic towns in Norway,

We make our approaches to Haugesund shortly before 4am, following a couple of large supply vessels into the port, and picking up the sector lights of the first of the channel markers.  Unlike previous night’s sailing, this was pilotage, picking out lights marking the edge of the channel and counting off the buoys, and in familiar water (I sailed here on Draken Harald Hårfagre in the summer of 2013).

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The wind had died away in the evening, and Karmsund was millpond flat in the lee of the island. With first light we picked up the beginning of the open water swell, rolling in across from the North Sea ahead of the coming weather system, and at the 7am watch change, we handed over a slate grey sea streaked with white horses, and the news that we’d put into Skudeneshavn rather than try to run ahead of the storm for Lerwick or Peterhead.

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Entry into Skudeneshaven is through a channel, only 30 metres at the narrowest just past the lighthouse at Vikeholmen.  After a couple of hours punching into the swell we find our line into the harbour, and start dropping sails for arrival.  I’m sent to the bowsprit to call distances and look out for traffic in the harbour (I’m rubbish at estimating distances) as rain starts to sheet down.

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Skudeneshavn was bustling herring port in the 18th and 19th century, a boom town during the age of sail, where fishing and shipping brought wealth to the locals and drew in workers from the rest of the region.  Now traditional herring drifters in the harbour have given way to vast oil rig supply ships and small leisure boats.

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We slide into the wind shadow of an immense oil rig supply ship with a helipad several stories above the tip of our mast, and try to find a berth big enough for the ship.  The harbour narrows down, lined with old buildings, and small boats are tied up on every quay.  The wind pushes us to one spot, and we quickly make fast, though this involves running up one lane and down another, and hopping into a garden.

The old town, Gamle Skudeneshavn, is a winding warren of narrow cobbled lanes, quays and jetties, and traditional whitewashed timber buildings, built by the master boatbuilders that were based here, in a tight jumble around the water’s edge.  The town still bustles through the summer, as a popular holiday getaway from nearby Stavanger, and the host of several heritage festivals, including Skudefestivalen, the largest traditional boat gathering in western Norway.

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Squalls blowing in from the south pushing waves up and over Vikeholmen.

In late autumn, the streets and the shore are far quieter, as weather systems sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean bringing regular wind squalls and rain showers.  Coastal walks become bracing, but there’s always a cosy corner in town to find hot coffee and waffles to warm up.

As the crow flies, we’re less than 15 nautical miles from the island of Utsira, imagined remote and stormbound yet so familiar from the Shipping Forecast, that regular incantation that masters the weather for mariners.   Violent storm 11 is every bit as terrifying as it sounds.  We’ll be staying here in harbour for some time.

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Keeping Time in Maritime Greenwich: Exploring Seafaring London

Maker:S,Date:2017-9-29,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-veIt used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire, the consequence of colonisations and land claims that spanned the globe, connected by the ships of the Royal Navy and merchant fleet. And this sprawling seafaring set-up was controlled from the grand halls of Greenwich.

Influences gathered from the corners of the earth have been woven through the history of Greenwich, London, and the rest of the UK, through discovery and exploration, science and research, shipping and trade. Visiting Maritime Greenwich, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an insight into the factors that shaped the idea of Great Britain, both nationally and internationally.

To navigate around the part of London at the heart of global time and travel, I’ve compiled a rough guide to discovering what makes Maritime Greenwich tick.

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The River Thames

The river is essential to Greenwich, and the Thames Clippers river bus from central London is the best way to arrive. It gives you great views of the city’s most famous landmarks, and I’d recommend sailing at least one way in the evening to see the city lights.

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Old Royal Naval College

The centrepiece of the UNESCO site is the Old Royal Naval College, a complex of grand and imposing classical buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Originally a hospital and retirement home for sailors of the Royal Navy, it also housed a school and boarding house for the orphans of seafarers. After these institutions closed, it became the Royal Naval College training the officers that commanded the ships of the fleet right up to 1998.

Guided tours take visitors around the halls, including the spectacular Painted Hall, and you might recognise the buildings as sets for many films and TV shows.

The Old Royal Naval College buildings also house the Greenwich Tourist Information, where you can pick up tickets for other attractions and plan the rest of your visit.

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National Maritime Museum

I love maritime museums, and would easily spend the best part of my days looking at bits of boats. This free museum is extensive, capturing and presenting the key elements of the UK’s relationship with the sea, from military sea battles to the history of exploration and discovery to colonisation and trade around the British Empire to the stereotypical British seaside holiday. My highlights were the collections of charts and atlases, an exhibition on the battle of Jutland, and artefacts from the Battle of Trafalgar, including the coat worn by Admiral Nelson on that fateful day.

The museum also hosts exhibitions through the year, like the recent Death in the Ice exhibition, telling the story of the doomed Franklin expedition and the recent discovery of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror. (Doomed expeditions in the ice where eating boots becomes essential to survive are one of my favourite things). These events may have a charge and/or advance booking may be required.

Emirates Airline Cable Cars

Head along the river from the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO site towards the O2 Arena (It will always be the Millennium Dome) to find the Emirates Airlines cable cars, which lift you across the Thames into the Docklands. There’s great views all round as you cross, especially to the river and boats some 90 metres below.

A standard return crossing is around £9 (adult fare, children are less, and TFL travel passes give a discount). The cable cars close in high wind.

Cutty Sark

The sky-raking rigging of Cutty Sark looms over you as you walk on the Greenwich riverside. Taking her name and inspiration for the figurehead from the poem Tam O’Shanter (just one of many Scottish connections to the ship), Cutty Sark was one of the fastest of the famed tea clippers, and now sits, fully restored, suspended over her dry-dock and cased in a sea of glass.

The stories of voyages from China to the UK, and then on the wool route to Australia are brought to life by interpreters recreating characters from the ship’s history on lead tours at certain times. I also loved the game where you could try to beat the record for navigating the ship home around Cape Horn, and easily spent a few hours exploring the ship.

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A Day Explorer ticket gives discount entry to Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory on the same day.

Greenwich Park

Climb to the highest point of Greenwich Park, next to the imposing statue of General Wolfe, to look out over the classical buildings of the Old Royal Naval College and Maritime Museum, and the towers of Canary Wharf on the opposite bank of the river. You’ll also be able to look upriver towards central London, and pick out many of the landmarks of the city, like the London Eye, the weird gherkin building, and Tower Bridge.

Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian Line

The buildings in the Royal Observatory played a significant role in the history of scientific discovery, including as the home and workplace of notable Astronomers Royal. Exhibits include the timepieces developed by John Harrison to solve the longitude problem, and the great equatorial telescope.

The Prime Meridian line slicing through the Observatory has been the zero point for measuring time around the globe since 1884 (except in France, of course), and in determining navigational position. I was surprised to find out there’s several other meridians in the area, including the baseline for Ordnance Survey maps and, at the other side of Greenwich Park, the reference meridian for satellite data.

Planetarium

The Peter Harrison Planetarium is the only planetarium in London, and the shows are an excellent complement to the information displays in the Astronomy Centre and Royal Observatory. Although it’s really challenging to not fall asleep in the dark, in your comfortable seat, to the relaxing voice of the astronomer.

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Food and Drink

There’s a great selection of places to eat and drink in the area. I tried:

  • The Green Cafe, on Greenwich High Road, for brunchy breakfasts and good coffee. It also had a big selection of cakes, and plenty vegetarian and vegan options.
  • Museum Cafe, in the Maritime Museum, for a coffee and cake refuel between exhibitions. The sun terrace looks out to Greenwich Park and up to the Royal Observatory (and the view is still great if you’re inside because it’s raining stair-rods).
  • The Old Brewery, by the Old Naval College, for posh pub food and great selection of craft beers in a historic setting.
  • Bill’s Restaurant, on the corner of Nelson Road, for a long leisurely lunch with a bloody Mary menu.
  • Greenwich Market, for world street food from Ethiopian to Korean. I had Argentine empanadas, followed with Brazillian churros with dulce de leche.
  • The Gypsy Moth, next to Cutty Sark and named for another famous vessel, for real pub grub, big burgers, and a beer or two (actually several).
What would be in your plans for a visit to Greenwich? Do you have any recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments below.
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