Monday, 29 July 2013

A Question of Gear Part 2: Sleeping, cooking, eating, drinking

Poor sleep plus not enough (or not the right stuff) to eat equals pure backpacking misery. So what 'gear solutions' will I employ to avoid this?

I'll be sticking with the sleeping bag I already have. It's an Ajungilak three-season bag that I've had for around 12 years. It's been on a round-the-world trip with me in 2005 as well as countless other backpacking and camping trips. I can't remember how much it cost exactly - 'fairly expensive' is my only recollection. The comfort rating is -5c so it should be more than adequate for mid May to mid June. It doesn't pack down as small as more modern bags of similar rating, but there is no shortage of room in the Berghaus Vulcan II.

What about a mattress? I have a variety of battered old foam mats which I've used for backpacking trips for years. They're the sort of thing that have to be rolled up and fastened to the outside of the pack - not practical if you want to use a waterproof rucksack cover. For the Tay watershed walk I've decided to invest in something more comfortable, lightweight and compact: a NeoAir XLite therm-a-rest. It weighs 350g and packs down to the size of a 1 litre bottle.

NeoAir XLite in its stuffsack next to a 1.5 litre bottle
 Doesn't take too long to inflate - at least I didn't lose consciousness whilst doing so!

It's substantially thick when inflated. It should provide not only warmth and insulation, but also protection from bumps and lumps on the ground in less-than-ideal wild camp sites, of which there will be many on the Tay watershed walk.

My pillow might just be the traditional rolled-up fleece jacket. However we do have some cheap inflatable camping pillows from Decathlon kicking around that were purchased for a family camping trip to Kent last year. Providing that weight and space allow, I may carry one of these.

Earlier this year I purchased a Primus ETA Paclite stove which I used on my overnight trip to climb Meall Horn, Foinaven and Arkle. It performed superbly in horrible conditions of strong winds and rain. With a windshield and pot with heat exchanger, it's fuel efficient, works quickly, and can be set up and used just about anywhere. It also has a plastic bowl which has a secondary function: protecting the inside of the cooking pot from scratches (the stove sits inside the pot when packed away). Rather than sitting on top of the gas canister, the stove attaches via a flexible fuel pipe. This means that stability is not such an issue on uneven ground or in wind. No need for wedging the canister into a boot, between rocks etc.

The plastic bowl may be all I need to eat out of. I certainly got on fine with just this on the Foinaven trip. I'll also carry my penknife, purchased in Ullapool a few years ago prior to a two-day backpacking trip over the Beinn Dearg range and Seana Braigh, and I have a variety of old camping cutlery and a nice lightweight thermos-style mug.

Carbohydrates supposedly give you energy, but experience has taught me that plenty of fat and protein - i.e. the energy-dense stuff that fills you up properly, and preferably the animal variety - is what really keeps you going on an extended load-bearing walking trip. In my very earliest overnight trips into the Cairngorms my rucksack contained such delights as dried macaroni cheese, pot noodles, biscuits, chocolate, oatmeal and bananas. The result was that by the second day I would often feel chronically hungry and weak. More recently I've always ensured I carry a block of cheese, mixed nuts, and some form of meat (smoked sausage is ideal). Cheese and sausage on oatcakes makes a good lunch on the move.

If dried macaroni cheese and the like are out, it's inevitable that I'm going to have to carry some freeze-dried purpose-made expedition food with me for main evening meals. I've tried a few of these in my last few trips and found them tasty, filling, and hassle-free to prepare. They're full of calories and (unless specifically vegetarian) contain plenty of meat, fat and protein. They can be expensive, but you do get what you pay for. Therefore they'll be strictly for the remotest parts of the walk where I'll need to carry several days' worth of food - for example the Cairnwell to Dalwhinnie. The Mountain House brand I've found to be relatively modestly priced but still very good quality.

Where re-stocking is easier and I don't need to carry so much food, I envisage having a few tins in the backpack - meatballs, corned beef, tinned stew and chilli - along with a bag of rice.

On the Foinaven trip I tried muesli, pre-mixed with a generous amount of powdered milk and then mixed with boiling water, for breakfast. This worked well so will probably be my staple breakfast for the walk along with some form of extra protein, maybe a couple of slices of smoked sausage.

 You'll be aware, if you've read stories about the Antarctic exploits of Scott and Shackleton, of a foodstuff called pemmican. Originating amongst native Americans, it's the ultimate fat and protein-based expedition food, made from ground beef and beef tallow. If I could get hold of it I'd take plenty of this stuff with me. Sadly, searches on the internet to source pemmican in the UK have yielded nothing. I have seen recipes for making it but it looks like a lot of work. A high-protein alternative could be beef jerky or 'biltong', seasoned and air-dried strips of beef that have a fairly long shelf life. These would make good snacks along with mixed nuts, dried fruit and chocolate.

Carrying fresh fruit and veg is not an option, at least not in any quantity. I'll aim to get these in during rest days. Perhaps a multivitamin supplement would be worth carrying instead.

Quite simply, water, tea and coffee, and a hip flask of malt whisky for the evenings.

I've never hesitated to drink water straight from mountain streams in the past, and have never bothered with filters or water purification tablets. Recently, though, a friend told me about a family member who had fallen seriously ill and suffered permanent damage to their health after contracting something from a stream in the Lake District. Moreover, much of my route will be through lowland areas. I've decided therefore to invest in a water bottle with built-in filter for the walk. This one, a military-spec product, is what I'm most likely to go for.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The long and windy road

Back from a long weekend in Scotland, the last until Christmas as the baby is due in September. It was a mixed bag, with an 8 hour round trip to Arnisdale on Saturday to climb Beinn Sgritheall followed on Sunday by a wonderful afternoon and early evening wander through the Ochils west of Glen Devon. The wind was the dominating feature of the weekend, closely followed by too much driving and an annoying cold I couldn't quite shake.

The purpose of the pilgrimage to Beinn Sgritheall was to meet a friend who was down to his last six Munros. I wouldn't be able to join him for the grand finale on Mull in September but wanted to be there for at least one of his final few, hence this rather crazy arrangement. Myopic Munro bagging results in these situations where the driving outweighs the walking. Beinn Sgritheall is remote and brutally steep. It eschews the small talk and gets straight down to business with a relentless climb from sea level at Arnisdale to the summit. On a day of low cloud with no views, such as today, it is the ultimate bonkers bagger's peak.

Arnisdale village feels - and is - a long way from anywhere. It faces Knoydart across Loch Hourn, and is walled in behind by the huge silent slopes of Beinn Sgritheall and Beinn na h-Eaglaise, screes toiling up into dry-ice clouds.

Boats moored off Arnisdale
Scree slopes towards the 907m east top proved to be a bit of a challenge - loose and, like everything else on Sgritheall, steep.

Putting the scree into Sgritheall
The ridge from this top to the summit was easy despite the wind. There's one narrow section with the tiniest bit of scrambling. Thankfully the forecast rain never quite arrived, at least not until we were well off the mountain. We got wet enough with the moisture in the clouds alone.

The descent was every bit as unrelenting as the climb up. Then after a coffee and a breather at the roadside it was back in the car for a four hour drive back to Fife.

Not nice for knees
Ah, Sunday afternoon in the Ochils. Footpaths and gentle grassy hills, only 20 minutes drive from my parents' house. The perfect antidote to the previous day's lunacy. Well, it seemed that way for about five minutes. I parked at Castlehill Reservoir in Glen Devon and set off for Glen Quey. It was still windy, and it wasn't long before that wind was driving rain at me with malicious intensity. I was soaked in a few minutes. It was mild though, so I wasn't too bothered. The wind moved things along briskly and the sun was soon out again.

I didn't have a particular route in mind, so this walk developed into an unplanned wander. If anything I wanted to avoid climbing hills for the sake of it! Large tracts of hillside above Muckhart, in Glen Quey and in neighbouring Glen Sherup have been planted with native woodland by the Woodland Trust. Across Glen Devon to the east, a less welcome plantation of wind turbines sprouted from the hilltops. I'll be walking through this one on the Tay watershed walk.

Green Knowes wind farm from Innerdownie
 I followed the Glendevon Reservoirs trail from Glen Quey over the north end of Innerdownie and down through commercial conifers to Glen Sherup. The hillside of Ben Shee across the glen was also planted up with native woodland several years ago. As the trees grow and the vegetation recovers from decades (if not centuries) of sheep grazing, upper Glen Sherup is becoming wild and verdant.

I followed a trail up the glen, then onto the ridge of Mailer's Knowe, where a black grouse scuttled then flew away low over the heath and saplings. At the boggy watershed between the head of Glen Sherup and the Glen of Sorrow grew an abundance of cottongrass, white heads bobbing and waving in the wind.

I jogged - yes jogged! - up the grassy slopes to Tarmangie Hill. To the west the highest part of the Ochils massif bigged up its modest credentials under a mantle of stormy cloud. Sadly, more of those pesky 'money spinners' were planted right where they shouldn't be.

Burnfoot wind farm from Tarmangie Hill
Cloud cropped the view of the lowlands to the south.

I pushed on over the wide grassy whaleback to Whitewisp Hill then down to the footpath at the highest point of the pass between Dollar and Glen Quey. At this point the pass is a steep-sided trench. Gloomy conifers reach down to the floor of the pass on one side; on the other side sheep crop the slopes. Only amongst a few out-of-reach crags do native deciduous trees hang on, a living reminder that once upon a time this pass was deep forest.

The return of the sun coincided with my emergence into upper Glen Quey. Some semblance of wildness is returning here thanks to the work of the Woodland Trust.

Two very different visions of forestry in Glen Quey
A lot is happening in the Ochils. They face threats like never before. But the restoration of these native woods is heartening. A noticeboard informed that the local place-name Muckhart derives from the Gaelic 'Muc Airde', heights of the pigs, a reference to the wild pigs that rooted through the original wildwood in these parts until several hundred years ago. They might yet be glimpsed again in the forest undergrowth of Glen Sherup and Glen Quey.

The birth of a new native forest in Glen Quey