Archive for the ‘Outdoors’ Category

Mountain DVD duo

Friday, December 29th, 2017

I’ve been watching a couple of documentaries over Christmas, each one featuring British climbers with a mountain of achievements between them – Alan Hinkes OBE and Sir Chris Bonington.

“Alan Hinkes – The first Briton to Climb the World’s Highest Mountains” is a film by Terry Abraham, whose previous award-winning documentaries about Lake District hills have been broadcast in abridged form by BBC TV. Rather than just being a straightforward account of Alan’s achievement of climbing all 14 of the world’s 8,000 metre summits, gained over 27 attempts, he’s interspersed mountain memories with people and places that had an influence on him in some way. Rosebery Topping – the little hill in Yorkshire that started it all off, and fell-running legend Joss Naylor.

The film shows Alan indulging some of his passions, which include real ale and steam engines, but outdoors activities in all forms, including rock climbing, mountain biking, caving, or climbing up a waterfall. He’s extremely generous with his time helping charities such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, the Swaledale Mountain Rescue team and acting as an ambassador for the Youth Hostels Association. His previous existence as a school teacher has clearly helped him in his quest to give young people a taste of adventure, and this includes his own grandchildren, who nevertheless think he’s crazy! But he makes the point that you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to have an adventure – you can do it even on a walk in the woods.

Having said that, it’s the sequences where Alan is interacting with the outdoors on a larger scale that really make the film – skipping along the classic knife-edge ridge scramble of Striding Edge on Helvellyn, being lowered into the cathedral-like subterranean expanse of Gaping Gill, or mushing huskies through the frozen wastes of the Arctic – where Terry Abraham’s talent for capturing the full grandeur of the landscape comes to the fore, along with some spectacular aerial shots.

The film includes scenes shot in Nepal, including the touristy sights of Kathmandu before taking a flight to Lukla and trekking in Everest’s back yard. Here Alan reminisces about his climbs, and you realise that this bluff Yorkshireman is also very aware that he’s beaten the odds, and that he’s quite happy not to have any more big mountains on his bucket list.

“Bonington Mountaineer – My Life Story” by Keith Partridge and Brian Hall is much more biographical, with lots of archive footage and photographs. Even so, the fact that the film opens with present-day shots of Chris Bonington recreating his ground-breaking climb on the Old Man of Hoy at the age of 80 simply leaves you open-mouthed with admiration. What fascinated me the most was the recollections of his early climbing days in the 1960s, where hemp ropes were the norm, and climbers had cigarettes dangling from their mouths – a far cry from today’s rock athletes!

It was also a time when not every corner of the planet was so easily accessible by air, with an expedition to South America entailing a long sea journey. But perhaps most amazing was how after making the first ascent of Nuptse (a mountain across the Western Cwm from Everest), he drove all the way back to Chamonix to do some more climbing! Of course, this was back in the days when overlanding was popular/possible.

The film features interviews with some of Chris’s climbing partners, including Doug Scott, Hamish MacInnes, Paul “Tut” Braithwaite, Jim Fotheringham and Charles Clarke, and inevitably also deals with the many friends lost along the way. Quite often these were tragedies which occurred at the moment of greatest triumph, such as Mick Burke on the 1975 Everest expedition which made the first British ascent.

Impossible to choose one film over the other, as the styles are so different, but if you like mountains, and want to know what makes mountaineers tick, you’ll get a good insight from both of these.

As a small digression, this seems to be an ideal moment to recount a day over 20 years ago, when, as Equipment Editor of Trail magazine, I was with a group of journalists on a product testing trip in the Lake District hosted by outdoors clothing and equipment manufacturers Berghaus. Amongst the company personnel were three of the main players in these two films – Chris Bonington, Alan Hinkes and Brian Hall. The day’s events included a hike over Great Gable, with a lunch stop by Napes Needle, a pinnacle of rock on the flank of Great Gable where the sport of rock climbing began back in Victorian times. The idea was that they would set it up so everyone that wanted to could have a go at climbing the needle. My experience at rock climbing was limited, but I was keen to have a go.

Seated at the very top on belay was Brian Hall, an accomplished mountain guide who has since carved himself a career as mountain safety and logistics expert in extreme locations for the film industry, with an impressive tally of achievements including the Bond movie “Die another Day,” “Touching the Void,” “Shackleton” and “Everest.” I was on what they call in the climbing world a “tight rope.” Every inch that I moved, Brian reeled me in. Even when I reached up for some miniscule blemish on the rock which I subsequently decided I couldn’t put weight on, Brian still tightened the rope. While all this was going on, Alan Hinkes was effortlessly free climbing the rock beside, then above me, suggesting where to put my hands and feet, as well as taking pictures of me. At one point he even crossed over my back from one side of me to the other!

I’m not sure how much of it was my effort getting up (it felt like a lot) or Brian’s taking a substantial amount of my weight, but I was delighted to make it to the top of this most classic of rock climbs. In order to speed things up and allow more people to attempt it, Brian lowered me down the upper pitch to a shoulder of rock where Chris Bonington was waiting to lower me down the rest of the way to the grassy slopes below. So my life has quite literally been in the hands of Britain’s best loved mountaineer. How could one possibly not dine out on that?

Near Miss

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

With the news today that adventurer Benedict Allen has gone missing in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea, I’m reminded of my own plans to visit the island in 1995, and what could have been a near miss. The idea was to join the very first British “package holiday” to trek to the summit of Puncak Trikora (Wilhelmina Peak) – at 4,750 metres, the second highest mountain in West Papua (Irian Jaya), and just 150 metres lower than neighbouring Puncak Jaya (Carstenz Pyramid), the one which any monied mountaineer ticking off highest continental summits heads for as the tallest lump of rock in Australasia.

Although nowhere near as technical a climb – simply a trek through remote leech-infested jungle, with some modest scrambling along a rather exposed summit ridge – Trikora had been visited a good deal less than Carstenz. Apart from the jungle trek and climb itself, the trip also offered the opportunity of contact with the fascinatingly primitive Dani tribes in the Baleim Valley, and even the possibility of me modelling the traditional mud-smeared naked body and penis gourd! As with any such small tourist groups, there is always a minimum number of participants required to make the trip viable, and in this instance it was cancelled not long before departure as they were one or two short.

I’d already moved on to other projects when a couple of months after my cancelled trip, I heard in the news that a group of Cambridge scientists visiting the same area to study the Lorentz National Park had been taken hostage by separatist rebels belonging to the Free Papua Movement. They were held in captivity for over four months until a dramatic rescue by Indonesian special forces, during which a couple of their Indonesian fellow hostages were killed. And so I pondered, had my trip gone ahead, it could very easily have been me kidnapped by terrorists. It makes you wonder how you would have reacted, how you would have borne such a traumatic experience over a period of time, not knowing what the outcome might be. Of course, I also reasoned that had I survived such a situation, it would have resulted in a fantastic book!

Whatever the circumstances of Benedict Allen’s disappearance, I do hope he turns up alive and well very soon.

Update 16th November 2017: News report from PNG saying Benedict Allen has been spotted, and arrangements are being made for his rescue.

Telly Tully

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was equipment editor of two walking magazines, and regular outdoors contributor to the Daily Telegraph, I went through a period of guesting on a number of TV shows – a lot of them daytime TV, but one or two prime time jobs as well. It always struck me as somewhat ironic, as a TV producer putting together an outdoors series for Channel 4 had previously told me more or less that I had a great face for radio! The clips from these shows have been languishing for years on VHS cassettes, and I finally got around to digitising them. At some point I’ll put them on their own page on my website, but in the meantime, here’s a small selection in all their glory – and yes, these were the days when I still had hair!

 

It’s not everyone who gets to be called a girl guide by TV star Nick Knowles! This was something I did on a travel programme called “The Great Escape” on BBC1. The studio part of the programme was live, while the outdoor segment with the tents was recorded earlier, but it was recorded “as live” – so no rehearsals, and no retakes. Considering I had no advance warning that I was expected to do what they call in the trade a PTC (piece to camera), and I’d never done one before, I thought I did pretty well. But the “as live” filming proved to be a slight problem when I came to putting up my previously reliable fast-pitch tent, when one of the pole joints pulled apart.

 

This one was for the BBC2 programme “Tracks,” with a nice dash of Jean-Michel Jarre in the soundtrack. It was shot on a roasting hot summer’s day, and one sequence which didn’t make the final edit was the cameraman’s bright idea of simulating night-time in the tent by draping a large blanket over it to black it out. We spent about half an hour inside doing things like sleeping bags and lanterns, but it was like a sauna! Something else that didn’t make the final cut was my closing quip as Nick Fisher and I walk off. He wishes survival guru Ray Mears was here, and I ask why. “He’d know what to do,” replies Nick. My parting “Nah” was edited out.

 

A BBC researcher rang me up asking me to do a telly spot on BBC2’s “The Leisure Hour” talking about camping. My speciality is lightweight camping rather than the family stuff, and yet still they wanted me! Former Eurovision winner Cheryl Baker did a brilliant job whizzing us around the studio, and at the end of it all, there was a post-shoot meal where I got to dine with Cheryl and her co-presenter, former “Tomorrow’s World” man Howard Stableford.

Climb every mountain…

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

Every now and then I take a little wander down memory lane, and it’s quite possible I may do it more than once this year, looking at what I managed to pack into 1996. As Technical Editor of Country Walking and Trail magazines, I could have had my hands full just writing about outdoors equipment, but after several years of ad hoc contributions to the Daily Telegraph, they gave me my own column “Talking Walking” in the Telegraph Weekend section. And then I was producing a monthly syndicated radio travel programme, which nicely synced with my many trips abroad doing travel features for national newspapers.

This month 20 years ago saw me doing one of my more strenuous trips – guest leading a Trail magazine reader offer holiday to climb Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. At just under 7,000 metres, it’s the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalaya, and while the “tourist” route to the top is a long non-technical slog, the effects of altitude are exacerbated by the latitude. Air pressure at the summit is just 40% of that at sea level, and people die as a result. Most worryingly, while at base camp at 4,370 metres, my group heard of someone who had previously climbed Everest dying of a pulmonary oedema at Confluencia, a camp site below us on the trek in at 3,380 metres. Then there was the guy who was blown off the mountain not far from the summit. I saw his body being recovered by a National Park ranger a couple of days later, the victim’s arms frozen outstretched, making for a somewhat ungainly package strapped to the side of a mule.

But for all that, our trek organisers were good. Everybody reacted to the altitude in varying degrees. Two of our group didn’t even manage to acclimatise to base camp, and were sent back down to enjoy an unscheduled week across the border in nearby Santiago in Chile. For the rest of us, it was ferrying stores up to a couple of camps, then coming down again before starting the climb in earnest. We’d been sleeping two to a reasonably spacious dome tent on the trek in and at base camp, but to save weight, we switched to three to a tent on the climb. This proved to be my undoing. I found myself sleeping in the middle of an established pair, getting elbows and knees in me from both sides.

By the time we got to the mid-camp at Nido de Cóndores, at 5,570 metres, the altitude was getting to me. You never sleep well anyway, and with cramped and restless sleeping conditions I ended up with two nights of zero sleep. I was getting splitting headaches, and I got out of breath just lacing up my boots. There is a plus side to all these hardships, of course, and that is seeing the incredible beauty of the mountains, even if it does come with a price tag. Climbing groups normally spend just one night at Nido before going up to the last camp at Berlin Huts at 5,940 metres, but bad weather had kept us an extra night. It was really windy, and incredibly cold. I remember standing outside with a mug of tea in my hand, and without my hand moving an inch, a gust of wind emptied the mug. It was as though the tea simply vapourised!

Even at this altitude, your body starts to deteriorate, and our guide had to make a decision the next morning – we had to either go up or down. Staying put another night wasn’t an option. The weather had improved, so he chose to push on, but I was so exhausted I decided to bail out at this point, thinking I would just make myself a problem for others if I struggled on.

My solo descent turned into an epic in its own right. I managed to lose the path, and ended up descending a very steep and icy gully strewn with gravelly stones which added a ball-bearing effect to what was already dangerous enough. I nearly managed to wipe myself out in full view of base camp, but somehow managed to get down with just a few rips in my trousers! Back at base camp, they had some hot soup waiting for me, along with the depressing news that the IRA had set off a truck bomb in London’s docklands.

The next day, some of our group made it to the summit, and I was able to speak to them on the radio while they were there. They sounded exhilarated – when they returned two days later, they looked as though they’d aged 10 years! Before we headed home, we had a day or so in Buenos Aires, where I managed to spend a couple of hours celebrating my birthday at a milonga in a genuine tango hall. Here I managed to prove I had two left feet, but at least I wasn’t wearing crampons at the time!

Paddling into the New Year

Friday, January 8th, 2016

The end of 2015 and beginning of 2016 saw me out in my two-seater inflatable kayak twice within four days, both trips with my co-paddler Amy Woodyatt. The first was in some spectacularly un-December-like weather, starting on the outskirts of Norwich at the Rushcutters Arms on Thorpe Green, and paddling up the rivers Yare and Wensum into the city centre. I’ve done this trip a few times now, and I really like the fact that it’s totally different from my more common sorties out in the Broads. Once you get within the confines of the city, you have the proximity of buildings, and indeed the occasional interaction with people on the river bank. I also like the floating history lesson – you get to pass beneath several hundred years-worth of bridges crossing the River Wensum, from the medieval Bishops Bridge to Peter Jarrold’s Bridge, an ultra-modern pedestrian / cycleway which sweeps across the river in a curve with very little apparent in the way of support.

At the head of navigation is New Mills, where water comes gushing through sluices, providing the only white water in Norwich. It provided some amusement for a few moments as we had several goes at nosing into the turbulent waters, then allowing the kayak to be spat out of the mini-maelstrom. Our average paddling speed is usually around 2.5 mph, but for the first couple of hundred yards downstream from here, the current can whizz you along so quickly you get to break the 4 mph speed limit!

Our second excursion of the week was on New Year’s Day, launching from Catfield Dyke, paddling across Hickling Broad, along Deep Go Dyke and halfway through Heigham Sound before turning back. Not surprisingly, Europe’s largest wetland nature reserve was deserted. During the winter, the southern end of the broad is home to wintering wildfowl, so we stuck to the main navigation channel rather than meandering around the reedbeds and disturbing them. Paddling back across Hickling Broad, the wind decided to pick up, fortunately behind us. Just as we had with our journey back down the Wensum, it’s always nice when you get that extra helping hand!

The A to Z Guide for Lightweight Travellers

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

It’s been a long time coming (22 years, to be precise), but my little travel book “The A to Z Guide for Lightweight Travellers” has finally seen the light of day as a Kindle download. The first edition, largely written in 1988 on aeroplanes and trains, was my first attempt at self-publishing. Back then, desktop publishing software was still a year or so in the future, although I was able to send text files off to a typesetter. By the time I produced a revised second edition in 1993, I was able to use Quark XPress to produce all the layouts.

Those first two editions would never have come about without the help and encouragement of my friend Paul Howcroft. He was the genius behind outdoors and adventure travel clothing company Rohan, and who could quite legitimately be described as having pioneered a revolution in lightweight travel clothing. Between us we set up a publishing company called Writer’s Block, the sole purpose of which was to publish my book! Not unexpectedly, the book was on sale through Rohan outlets and by mail order, along with many independent bookshops. It was the only book that Rohan sold throughout the life of the two print editions – for all I know, it still might be the only one. Sadly, Paul Howcroft lost his life in a tragic accident as edition number two was about to be published, but his influence remains.

You might ask why so long between the second and third editions? The truth is that I simply didn’t have the time. The 1990s saw me jetting about all over the world like a lunatic – there was one year when I spent a total of six months away from home, all on individual small trips, sometimes back-to-back. And from then it somehow never emerged from the background. But with the relative ease of publishing on Amazon Kindle, and the distinct advantage of not having to pay for or warehouse actual printed copies, the last few years have seen me slowly revitalising my back catalogue of books as Kindle downloads.

This latest incarnation has been updated and expanded. The print editions had a fair bit of cross-referencing, something which actually works a lot better in the Kindle format. Needless to say, the feel is still the same, enlivened by Bill Stott’s timeless and quirky cartoons.

Auction for Nepal

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

The next few weeks will see an Ebay “Auction for Nepal”, for which I hope my donation may raise a little money. It may be just a jacket, but it’s a jacket with “history”. I’ve joined the ranks of famous people from the outdoors world by donating something special to a charity auction to raise money to help the people of Nepal in the wake of the recent devastating earthquakes.

Spirit of Cardiff off the Welsh coast, 2001My special item is the Sprayway Impulse 226 waterproof jacket which I wore on board the powerboat Spirit of Cardiff in 2001 on its world record transatlantic from New York to Lizard Point, a record which has stood unchallenged ever since.

Famous outdoors personalities donating items to the auction include mountaineers Sir Chris Bonington, Doug Scott CBE, Kenton Cool, Alan Hinkes OBE and Rebecca Stephens MBE. Organised by the British Mountaineering Council, the auction will be held on Ebay, raising money for UK charity Community Action Nepal. Founded by Doug Scott, who made the first British ascent of Everest in 1975, CAN has worked in Nepal for many years building schools and health centres, and installing clean water supplies in many of the areas hardest hit by the earthquakes.

The jacket itself is in good condition, and in fact I still use it now and then as I really like it (it’s the bright yellow that does it…) It’ll be a wrench to part with it, but if it can serve a better purpose, it’ll be worth it.

The lucky winner of the charity auction for my transatlantic jacket will also receive a signed copy of my book “Confronting Poseidon”, which tells the story of the powerboat Spirit of Cardiff and its epic voyage around the world in 2002.

Update 29/06/15: The auction went live on Ebay yesterday, running to 5th July. View the auction and bid for a little piece of transatlantic history here!

Blazing Paddles

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Last week I finally took the plunge and bought an Advanced Elements Convertible, the two-seater version of the inflatable kayak I’ve been using for the past 18 months. Amazingly, while 15 feet long fully deployed, it still fits into the back of a two-seater Smart car complete with paddles and all the rest of the kit. Apart from the obvious advantages for more sociable paddling trips, having an extra pair of hands can come in handy for occasions where I want to take photographs or shoot video. When you’re on moving water, the moment you stop paddling to take a picture, you’ve lost control of the kayak. At times that can be nothing more than a minor irritation, at others, potentially more dangerous.

My first trip out with long-time paddling companion Amy Woodyatt was one of my favourites, starting from Catfield Staithe. The half mile or so along Catfield Dyke was enough to get the feel for paddling a much bigger craft – if anything, I would say the extra length and weight makes for improved tracking on the single seater.

Then we emerged onto Hickling Broad. With virtually no wind, the broad was calm, and we did the mile or so of open water to the other side in good time. Just after crossing the navigation channel, we stopped for a chat with a couple of guys on sit-on-top kayaks who were heading out of Hickling towards Horsey Mere. It was tempting to follow them, but we stuck with our original plan.

The unexpected treat of the day came as we pulled up to the bird observation tower – we heard the distinct booming call of the male Bittern, one of the UK’s rarest birds. It sounds just like someone blowing across the neck of a large bottle, but deep and penetrating. My previous encounters have only been the odd single call, whereas this was at times almost continuous. But they are very elusive – I’ve still yet to see one!

Fleece memory

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Recently I sorted out a large pile of old clothes for a friend, who was collecting them for the homeless in Norwich. Actually, it was a good opportunity for me to slim down my vast collection of fleece tops, baselayer tops and long johns, and loopstitch socks.

I shall be interested to see whether I spot this Berghaus fleece jacket on the streets at some point in the future, as it has a bit of “history.” Along with similar Polartec fleece trousers, I wore it in March 1990 in the north of Sweden, doing a feature for a Sunday colour supplement about the filming of the Channel 4 TV programme “Conquer the Arctic”. It also happened to be the only occasion I’ve come close to crashing in a helicopter.

I spent a week in the northern village of Abisko, where they used helicopters to transport film crews and journalists about to the different shooting locations, filming international competitors doing everything from downhill and cross-country skiing to ice climbing and skidoo racing. I’d hung around at the end of a day which saw the competitors ice climbing, finishing up in a spectacular ice cave behind a frozen waterfall. They were going to spend the night there, and after I’d watched a TV crew getting shots of them settling in, I took the last helicopter out. It was dark by now, and the pilot had to fly up one valley, cross a pass and down another valley towards Abisko. Apart from the lack of light, it was complicated by the fact that the cloudbase had come right down, so that as we flew up the valley, a searchlight picking out the rocky mountainside not so far below (and beside), the cloud was getting thicker.

The visibility reduced to the point where the pilot had to turn back, with an alternative two hour drive back to base becoming a possibility. But before that, he decided to try his luck flying up another valley. The mist got thicker and thicker, the rocks on the mountainside seemed to get closer and closer, and then suddenly we were above the cloud – looking across a sea of it. If the pilot was concerned, he didn’t show it, but here we were in pre-GPS days, flying above a cloud containing lots of lumpy rocky bits! It was a short-lived moment, because in the distance we saw a hole in the cloud, and the lights of Abisko shining through. And so we made it back safely, and before the bar closed!

With me on the trip was a young journalist from the FT, Rebecca Stephens. Just over three years later, she became the first British woman to climb Everest!

Broads National Park

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

When I first published my Kindle book “The Broads: A unique National Park” in 2013, it came under fire from certain quarters. “You can’t describe the Broads as a National Park,” they said, “because it isn’t one. And if you got that wrong, what else have you got wrong?”

The truth is, I didn’t get it wrong – but my detractors are guilty of a huge slice of pedantry. The legislation which covers the protection and management of the Broads is different from the other National Parks, because uniquely, the Broads is predominantly wetland, with navigation interests. And so the Broads has always been described as “enjoying the same protection as a National Park”, or being “a member of the National Park family.”

But foreign tourists don’t see the distinction. If they’re looking to visit somewhere with scenic landscapes, the National Park tag becomes an important deciding factor. And for an area where a large chunk of the local economy is dependent on tourism, trying to explain that “it’s really rather special, but isn’t a National Park per se” has always seemed to me to be rather akin to shooting oneself in the foot.

Fortunately the Broads Authority has recognised the problem, and this week voted to adopt “the brand”. So from now on, it’s the Broads National Park. Better late than never.