Good Luck to Maggie's Monsters

Good luck to the 1000 folk who're taking part in Maggie's Monster Bike and Hike this weekend.

They'll cycle from Fort William to Fort Augustus and then walk to one of three possible finishes.

The hardiest souls will hike through the night all the way along the Great Glen to Inverness.

I'll be part of the team filming and photographing the event. So don't forget to wear your red t-shirts and smile please! See you at the Pasta Party tonight.

My Favourite Music Radio Station

Music is a very personal choice. I offer this not as a recommendation that I am sure you will like, but a suggestion which I hope you might enjoy trying.

Hey, you're an eclectic open minded person or you wouldn't read this blog.

Radio Paradise is my music radio station of choice. Only available on the internet, I first heard it at Grassroots Cafe in Glasgow. I was so taken with the choice of music I asked the waitress what station was playing.

I now listen on iTunes when I'm working on something which doesn't require total concentration (like right now!). We also have a Roberts WIFI Internet Radio which plugs into the main music system. It won't replace Radio Four as our main listening, but it's next on the list.

It's like having a really good iPod on shuffle.

A Remote Haunted Bunkhouse

This is Frank Conway, an 85 year old mountaineer, now living in one of the most remote bays on the British mainland.

Frank is chatting to Liz. The three of us nattered and sipped tea for well over an hour, as Liz and I waited for the Knoydart ferry. We were in Tarbet, having just completed a super mountain bike ride.

With only one other house in the bay, it's a pretty out there location for an eighty-five year old. Apparently Frank, who has been one of the older 'characters' of Knoydart for years, also
featured in the Coast TV series, possibly this one.

But that's not why I'm writing about him. I'm writing, because Frank showed us a photo of a ghost.

Frank lives in a former church. Owned by theatre emprisario Sir Cameron Macintosh, it's now converted into a bunkhouse for which Frank charges just £2 a night.

You can't book a bed. "If people could book it, they'd think they owned the place", Frank told us.

He insists the bunkhouse he runs should be like the youth hostels of his youth, always willing to take a wet-and-weary mountaineer who staggers in late at night.

"If a group had booked the whole place, they might not let that person in. I'm not having that".

Lots of kayakers turn up too, using it as a base from which to venture deeper into Knoydart to bag munros.

And then there's the ghost.

From an envelope, which I suspect never leaves his side for long, Frank produced three photos. Not computer prints you understand. These were pre-photoshop, regular colour prints, just like the holiday snaps you used to get back from the printers. In fact, they were someone's holiday snaps. Taken inside the bunkhouse, they looked very much like the digital image I took.

Except they also captured the image of a ghost.

Two showed a faded grey shape, slightly indistinct, floating towards the back of the hall. But there was no mistaking the third.

A woman in a purple-ish, grey cape, drawn tight around her throat with collar turned up, was standing to the back of the old church.

Except she wasn't standing. She was floating. Her bottom half faded from view.

Perhaps I should have photographed the photograph. Then I thought - what better insentive for you to visit the place and see for yourself.

A great ride and a great kayak route - plus a ghost. The orginal Ghost Ride. What good value.

Surfing Sheep

Superb MTB Wild Single-Track

This has to be a contender for the title, 'Best Mountain Bike Route in Scotland.'

Tarmac from Mallaig to part way down Loch Morar, then utterly superb single-track, much of it rideable.

Finally, if it's Monday or Friday, a tiny ferry trip back to Mallaig. There are more sailings in peak season.

There's not much more you need to know about this trip except that it is superb and it took us about four hours to get from Mallaig to Tarbet.

Well, there is one more thing.

There's a great bunkhouse at Tarbet costing just £2 a night, which you can't book. It's run by a fascinating chap who gave us a cup of tea. More about him and the haunted bunk-house later. For now, here are the images of a great ride.


The 2,568 Mile Diet - Article

There are at least three tried and tested weight loss diets associated with hiking the world's wild places. I know this because I've tried and tested all three.

(This article was written for publication while we were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2002. More articles at SimonWillis.co.uk)

The first is the Scottish backpacking diet, which, sadly does not work!

Every trip to town requires a visit to the local fish and chip shop, and no matter how little you eat while backpacking over your chosen Munros, a full fish supper or deep fried Mars bar (yes, this artery-attacking delicacy does exist) provides more fat laden calories than you could ever burn off on the hill.

Then there's the trekkers diet, most effectively experienced in Nepal, India, or Pakistan. Weight loss is dramatic and sudden, usually five to eight hours after a local meal.

However, the strain inflicted on the body's purgative systems is a painful drawback.

Now I have found the Holy Grail of the diet industry; a diet which permits you to eat whatever you want, and still the pounds will tumble from your waist, hips and thighs.

Of course, this diet is The Pacific Crest Trail.

For the first time in two decades I could be called "skinny."

I actually startled myself when I caught sight of my reflection in a mirror. I looked like a lollipop, a stick with a ball on top. For a brief moment I fantasized I was developing a six-pack stomach, until Liz explained I was looking at my ribs, not seen so prominently for twenty years.

I have no idea how much weight I've lost because I don't normally weigh myself.

I prefer the simple but accurate weight assessment method recommended by a doctor friend, which he calls "the jiggle test."

Stand naked in front of a mirror and jump. The bits which jiggle, which are not meant to jiggle, are superfluous. Try it. You'll hate it.

Now when I do this test I am alarmed to find my entire skin seems to jiggle! It's as if a layer of fat has been sucked out and my flesh is a size too large for my skeleton.

It's not as if we haven't been eating well. Liz cooked and dehydrated about a third of our vegetarian trail meals at home and these are the ones we relish most.

MSR brand Mountain Gourmet meals come a close second. To everything we add a large dollop of olive oil, injecting a hundred and twenty calories with every tablespoon.

For Liz, this is clearly enough because she looks exactly the same as when we started the trail, a lean but powerful female physique.

For the first two months I experienced no change either, but when we upped the daily distance to between 25-30 and more miles I discovered my engine needed more fuel.

That triggered the phenomenon which long distance hikers call the "trail appetite".

This is a depth of hunger which can never be truly satisfied, as if your legs and arms had been hollowed out to leave more room for food.

PCT hikers have been thrown out of restaurants advertising an "all you can eat buffet" because, like ravenous locusts, they really could eat it all.

I even astonished myself when I put away soup, a large chicken dinner with potato, vegetables and pasta, followed by desert. And then promptly ordered a double cheeseburger with fries.

And if this doesn't sound exceptional to you, then perhaps you too need a diet.

You know, there's one I highly recommend...

It Doesn't Always Work Out

I always enjoy finding new walking or mountain bike routes.

But just as a Princesses must kiss a lot of frogs, so those of us who search outside the guidebooks must accept, we will sometimes fail to find what we're looking for.

Yesterday was one of those days.

I've looked at this route as long as I've lived on Ardnamurchan. On the map, it looks like it should be good.

There's a long Land Rover track to the start; a steep slimb across a mountain pass on a Scottish Right of Way; then a return route on tarmac. It could even be turned into a loop. (Oh, the GPS switched off for a while near the top - hence the straight line).

Sometimes, those old routes up to mountain passes are well made, having been rebuilt by generations of stalkers as a way of getting their shooting clients into the upper corries.

The top section is usually a thrash, but it's mostly OK. Not this one.

Too steep, too narrow and too little track. It would be a great walk, but not when you're lugging a two wheeled machine on your shoulder.

The downhill was too boggy to ride until we managed to jump into the tracks of a quad or Argocat.

But this happens when prospecting for new routes. It doesn't always work out. So long as it's fun trying.

Many, Many Pop Songs with Just Four Chords - Video

Good point, well made. High in this week's Viral Video chart.


And if you liked that...

New Kayak 'TV Channel'

Rapid TV is the latest idea from Rapid Media. Described as, "regular, television-style webisodes featuring insider looks at the latest events, gear, boats, films, expeditions and more". It'll come through their YouTube channel. Sounds an interesting development, not unlike the Podcasts I started a few years ago. Pilot episode embedded below.

MTB Skills Training

That's not me in the photo! It's Alastair MacLennan, one of Scotland's top downhill racers, now running the local business MTB Ride Guide.


He'll happily guide families on leisurely rides, but he's at his best when blasting down steep stuff. I'm not. That's why I hired him for half a day.

I've been riding mountain bikes for a long, long time. I've done some big routes and been published in magazines. But I learnt more with Alastair in twenty five minutes than in twenty five years.

Sea Kayaking convinced me of the benefits of coaching. Rather than allow poor, undirected technique to develop bad habits, good coaching nudges you in the right direction. So when you practice later you should be practicing correct not incorrect techniques.

Now my head is spinning more than my wheels. Body position for climbs; body, shoulder and hip position for berms; unweighting wheels for drop offs. Lots to practice. Hopefully, I'll remember the right stuff.

Young Me Now Me

A friend pointed us towards this rather curious website, YoungMeNowMe, where people 'recreate' old photos from the family album. There is something a bit weird about it, and I like that! Some of the photos say a lot about the individuals' lives. We thought we'd have a go.

So here we have me aged 15 and, integer reversed, aged 51. A rather prescient photo considering my future career, which has been on the blog before.

Circumnavigation of Britain Attempt Underway

24 year old James Bonell and Joe Andrews who is 28 have started their attempt to sea kayak 3,000 miles around Great Britain.


They hope to raise £20,000 for two charities - WaterAid and the National Association for Colitis and Crohn's Disease.

There's a map of their progress at gonepaddling.co.uk and a JustGiving page.

My Favourite BBC Podcasts

I listen to quite a lot of Podcasts, but two from the BBC top my list of favourites and delight me each time iTunes downloads another.


First, the hilarious The Now Show. And during the Election, the same team are also making a nightly programme called The Vote Now Show. One subscription delivers both.

The other is Americana. Presented by Matt Frei, this programme reports the people and stories shaping America. It does so with wit and style and none of the usual pomposity of news or current affairs programmes. Best start with an episode presented by Matt. This show is genuinely entertaining and informative. It's current affairs by stealth.

These make my long drives through the Highlands far more bearable. Wanna sample some?

Mitch Benn does topical songs for The Now Show. Some are a bit naff, but other hit the mark spot on. Here's his rant against those Perfect Bodies we see in magazines.

'Fly Fishing' by JR Hartley - Video

We had a quick look in Fort William's Tourist Information Centre yesterday.

There's a canoe photo on the cover of one of their brochures. However, I couldn't see any books or information about sea kayaking in the area.

Primarily that should be of concern to the guides and outfitters in the area.

But perhaps they'll know people like Rockhopper if I had asked at the counter. I didn't.

I had considered asking, "Do you have a copy of The Scottish Sea Kayak Trail please", or asking whether they knew anything about it.

Liz stopped me. "That would be a J.R. Hartley moment", she said. Liz was right.

For those of you who don't know the reference it comes from an almost iconic TV advert for Yellow pages which ran in 1983 - corincidentally, the same year that I started working for the BBC. Here it is:

Oban Sea Kayaking Article in The Herald

My friend Fiona Russell has a sea kayaking article in The Herald newspaper, also available online.


It was her first time sea kayaking, and she was well looked after by Stuart Wagstaff and the team at Sea Kayak Oban.

Or rather, the instructional side of the business, which goes under the rather cheeky name of the National Kayak School. Cheeky, in that this name implies some sort of official status which it doesn't have.

Still, good publicity for the sort and the area. Coaching in the same area is also available from Tony at SeaFreedom Kayak and Ken at Sea Kayak Scotland.

A Route Home

I finally managed to confirm and book a route home for Liz's family who have been trying to leave South Africa for days. They can't fly out of Joburg until a week tomorrow! Then I can get them via Madrid to Santander, then a ferry to Plymouth the following day. they won't arrive on UK soil until 30th April, eleven days from now.

When all this started I wrote - Imagine, No Aircraft. A rather good writer has produced a somewhat better article today. A World Without Planes by Alain de Botton.

Great Climb LIve on Web & TV in HD

Saturday 28th August. Six hours of live climbing on BBC Scotland, live on the web and BBC HD channel.


Dave MacLeod and Tim Emmett attempting a new hard route on Sron Uladail on the Isle of Harris. This big lump here.

Earlier in the summer they'll also attempt 5 new hard routes on 5 islands in 5 days. They're calling it The Triple 5.

It's made by my friends at triple Echo Productions. They attempted a similar production from the Cairngorms a couple of years ago and were rained out. This time it'll happen whatever the weather.

Chick

Here's something a little more cheeful.


Born a few days ago and grown quickly to quite size, it's one of many chicks which will be raised on our friend's croft.


Stuck

A couple of years ago I ran the OMM with my brother-in-law. we had a great time, but he's not so happy today.

He and his wife and three children are stuck in Johannesburg. Their flight home a couple of days ago was cancelled due to this ash cloud.

Back here we've been trying to find them a route home. we thought we'd found one, flying them via Dubai to Cassblanca, Madrid and Santander, then ferry to UK.

But the airline booking systems are all closed. Even at Joburg airport, he can't book a flight past Dubai. There's no telling how long this will contine. They're stuck, for now.

Caravan In The Hills

On a recent road cycle ride I noticed this caravan tucked off to one side.

It had a wheel clamp on it and the air of semi-permanency about it.

Curious, I swung the bike around and went a little closer to investigate. It didn't take much sleuthing, as there was a note pasted to the front window explaining everything.

Talk about a holiday home. It's certainly cheaper than paying campsite fees.

A photo of the note is below - I hope you can read it clearly.




Imagine - No Aircraft

The big story, of course, is the complete and unprecedented closure of UK airspace due to a volcanic ash cloud from an erupting volcano in Iceland. Last time this volcano erupted, two hundred years ago, it kept going for two years then triggered an even larger volcano.

But we might get a lovely sunset!

Of course when the wind shifts from the north back to the south west, and the high pressure system moves on, so will the ash cloud. Probably.

Our First Time Sea Kayaking

Among the pile of slide photos we recently had scanned was this one.


Liz decided she fancied trying sea kayaking. I wasn't at all sure.

Nevertheless, as surprise birthday present for Liz, I booked us two days at Rassay House.

We didn't learn much, but that didn't matter. We had experienced sea kayaking. It didn't immediately grab us though.

We just thought, "well that seemed like fun", and went back to training for our big walk, the Pacific Crest Trail. Funny how things change...

Sea Kayaker Hopes To Become Member of Parliament

Could one of these sea kayakers be Prime Minister of an Independent Scotland? He hopes so...

This is Neil and Alasdair Stephen who run the successul Dualchas architectural practice on Skye.

I took the photo as Cailean MacLeod interviewed them in 2007 for our Radio Scotland programmes on The Canoe Boys.

They're both paddlers, and both have been politically active for years, with passions firmly behind the independence cause of the Scottish National Party.

Still, it was a little surprising to discover Alasdair is a prospective parliamentary candidate for the constituency in which we live. Yes, he wants to be our MP.

And boy does he look different in his 'official' photo!

However, Alasdair faces a sizeable challenge. Last election in 2005 the SNP did not do well (3119 votes). Even the Conservatives beat them (3275 votes), and in Scotland, that's saying something.

However, Alasdair's biggest challenge is that the current MP is Charles Kennedy (19,100 votes). Almost 60% of the vote went to Kennedy and he has a majority of 43.8% over Labour (4851 votes).

Ross, Skye and Lochaber is biggest constituency in the UK, all 12,779 square kilometres of it, the population density here being so low.

Incidentally, met Charles Kennedy for the first time at a local art gallery event two weeks ago. He seemed a nice enough chap, but then, so is Alasdair. Who to vote for, eh?

A fascinating inside track on what Alasdair is like comes from his brother Neil in a blog entry. Neil writes about them campaigning in Dingwall,

"While I wear jeans and a soup-dribbled jumper, and chase punters down the street hissing “take the leaflet”, Alasdair Stephen now wears a suit and tie, polished shoes and a pleasant smile. He looks people in the eye, is sincerely concerned, and doesn’t argue policy. To be elected a politician you have to listen and be nice. The bombastic finger-jabbing bit comes later."

That's the thing about writing blogs. You never know who'll find them and when they'll reappear.

Which Witches Trail is Which?

A couple of years ago we had our first blast around one of the Witches Trails at Nevis Range.

When we returned the following year - the trail had gone! I thought I was cracking up.

However at last night's presentation (see below) when I mentioned I'd spent yesterday afternoon on the Witches Trails, someone remarked - "Oh you found the trails did you?"

Clearly others had found them somewhat tricky to locate.


The World Championship red trail, built for the 2007 championships, is a stunner. I was hugely delighted to get around the whole thing (well, excluding the Black option) with only five foot-downs.

I was going on quite a bit about it last night and tweeted about it too.

But it's years since I mountain biked seriously, and I've been working up to this.

Trail conditions were just right - not too wet to be sludgy, nor too dry to turn to loose dust.

However, I am going to have to learn how to ride drop-offs. Anything more than half wheel height and I just bottle it.

I might even take some tuition.

Imagine the call, "Hello. Can you teach an old dog new tricks?" Hey, if I can't find someone in Fort William to teach me, I'm not much of a journalist.

The 10 Under The Ben red trail was next. It's longer but a much easier option compared to the World Champs run.

There's one gnarly red downhill section, called "The Cackle" which I initially bottled, then went back and breezed.

However, I completely bottled Black Nessie, the big sting int he tail of this ride.

When I got around and down to the bottom of that section, and saw all the permanent padding and scramble netting slung around the trees, I decided discretion had been the better part of valour.

I heal slower these days.


Last Night's Presentation Audience

Take a good look at ths lot.

I bet these are the people who will have some of the top jobs in the outdoor adventure industry in coming years.

They're on the BA Degree Course in Adventure Tourism Management at Lochaber College.

Frankly, they seem like a good bunch.
Best of all, they didn't yawn, hurl abuse or rotten fruit. I always consider that a success.

Thanks for a good evening folks. And hey - check out the book and DVD websites. (Thanks Dan)

A 13yr Old To Attempt Everest


Uneasy, at the very least.

So far, 13 year old Jordan Romero has ticked off five of the 'seven summits'. The photo was taken on the summit of the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia.

Next on the tick list, Everest. Here's his website.

Dr David Hillebrandt is medical advisor to the British Mountaineering Council. He is quoted in the Guardian article, highly critical of the child's parents, saying ".. it's vertging on child abuse".

It's worth reading what Hillebrandt says, then listening to the kid on the BBC or in the video below. Or, for that matter, watching some of the many, many videos about this 7 summits attempt.

New Zealand DVD review

A positive review of the DVD Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown .

Written by John Kirk-Anderson and appearing in The Sea Canoeist Newsletter of the Kiwi Association of Sea Kayakers, No 145 February - March 2010.

It's really interesting to read different opinions and reactions to our innovation of making a coaching DVD which also shows a journey.

Separately, JP has sent a photo of a review in the French magazine, Kayak. Sadly my language skills are not up to translating the entire thing.

I think JP will send me a translation. I just hope it doesn't say it's awful!

(Edit - JP provided a quick translation below)

Four years ago Gordon Brown earned raving reviews from the kayaking world, with his book “ Sea Kayak”.Simple, precise, clear and complete, it was based on his kayaking experience.

Gordon, has returned today with a dvd. Good teacher, he has paraphrased his book with images, but it goes further than just to arouse the interest in going kayaking, it introduces kayak handling skills.

The first part of the dvd is dedicated to the techniques and detail gestures on how to get the skills to control your kayak in the direction you want to go. Gordon is adept at navigating close to the rocks, his objective is to give to everyone the ability to navigate through any situation.

You won’t find here a course on how to do an eskimo roll or X rescue. The essential is to practice, but also to have an enjoyable navigation, his instructions are very relevant.

The second part , shows 4 days kayaking trip along the scottish coast of the Isle of Skye. The weather is good, the area appears to be pleasant and we discover through the film sequences the need to learn some skills and their usage in a real situation. It proves that a few good images are more valuable than a long speech.

I'm Giving A Presentation Tonight

If you're in Fort William at 7pm tonight, do drop in to Lochaber College, near Morrisons and say 'hello'. More info about what I'm doing here.

Kayak, Tent, Kinfe and Off Into The Australian Outback

This story sounds somewhat like Into the Wild (a superb book - buy it now!!!). Only instead of Alaska, this young chap is heading into the Australian outback to live off the land. He left this video message asking authorities not to come looking for him. Read more of his story here.

Strontian-Kingairloch Loop Cycle Ride

This is a great 35 mile circular road ride.

With more visitors coming to our area, many bringing road bikes, I thought I'd share some local knowledge including accommodation options.

I start in Strontian and tackle the trickiest single-track road section first. That's the main A884 between the Corran and Lochaline ferries.

Mid-week this can be very busy and potentially dangerous. Before 11am or earlier on a Sunday is best. Most cars can pass you in either direction, but drivers unfamiliar with such narrow roads might not appreciate this. Big lorries cannot get past bikes, so please use passing places like other road users.

A killer climb up from Loch Sunart goes on for ever. It makes me glad of my triple chain-ring every time I do it.

It's actually a tricky descent, putting great strain on wrists and especially brake blocks, so it's best done this way arund. A much nicer descent, still on the main road, and you're down to the B8043 Kingairloch turning.

From this point you'll start to noctice these old mileage posts. Before that whacking great hill road was built, this little road was the main route between the ferries.

Today, it's is relatively quiet. It is emphatically not suitable for lorries or caravans, but it is not without hazards, such as finding a tourists car coming around a blind bend on the wrong side of the narrow road. Believe me, it happens.

This section of road is one of the highlights.

You're on relatively smooth tarmac, compared to many of the roads around here, but it's quiet and travels through stunning scenery down to the loch itself.

You can see a good enough distance ahead to gain some speed which carries you up and over the small rises in the road.

You don't ride it, you swoop down it. It gives me tingles every time. And there's great food waiting.

The Boathouse restaurant lies down to the right in Kingairloch Estate (not the village). This has become a regular eating place for us and is sign- posted from this road. Be warned though, you might find the last climb of the day a little tricky if you over indulge.

Kingairloch Estate owns the restaurant and lots of holiday cottages for which they charge reasonable rates. the locations are absolutely stunning.

If you fancied staying in a genuine Scottish Estate this place has a great atmosphere.

I always make a point of diverting from the main road and cycling 100 yards into the tiny hamlet of Kingairloch.

It's an estate-owned village, but there's a lovely church.

Liz and I always break our journey here, sitting outside on the grass looking at the view.

Yesterday I shared that view with a group of visiting bird watchers, 'twitchers', who had set up their scopes and were peering out to the tideline.

I wasn't sure whether I should mention the Golden Eagle I'd seen from the road behind them.

I decided against it and returned to the view.

Last Monday Liz and I kayaked past this spot on an equally perfect day. She's in London for ten days and I miss her, especially when I'm visitng our usual haunts.

If all this has you interested in paying a visit to this patch, you don't have to rent a cottage.

Over the last year or so, on our occasional visits to this area, we've seen a team of builders engaged in rennovation work. Now we discover the out-buildings have been turned into 'The Steadings' B&B.

It has the eminently sensible charging policy of reducing the price if you stay for more than one night, reflecting the marginal costs.

A double or twin room drops form £40 each for the first night, to £35 for the second and £30 for the third. Singles are £5 more.

The cycle route continues past these buildings and along the coast. A narrow section on very rough road has the compensation of stunning views across Loch Linnhe.

Ride past the Abernethy Outdoor Leadership School, and then start sniffing. Chances are you'll smell the wild goats before you see them. They usually hang out in the trees around here.

Also keep your eyes peeled for a sea eagle which visits this area from his home on Mull. We usually spot him from the kayak.

Eventually, hit the main A861 and start the last climb of the day. It's long, but it's not so steep from this side of Glen Tarbet.

Whizz down the other side, and you're back where you began.

It should take about three hours including stopping in Kingairloch.


I'm No Guru

Although that is how I have been billed. Oh dear!

I agreed to give a talk to BA students on the Adventure Tourism Management course at Lochaber College.

It's happening this Tuesday 13th April at 7pm in Fort William. Proceeds and my fee go to the RNLI.

As part of their course student had to organise a series of such lectures - from recruiting a speaker to making the event happen.

However, I am not giving one of my usual talks so I am wellout of my comfort zone.

The brief is: "...to invite a series of guest speakers to present and discuss the ways in which their businesses operate and the skills, knowledge, experience and resources required to make them a success". So I've prepared a one-off talk.

* Part one is my career providing adventure travel journalism and photography for magazines and newspapers.
* Part two is about starting my own film-making business Sunart Media.
* Part three... well, they might not sit still that long!

I'll let you know how it goes. Fingers crossed. And toes.

Mission Statement

This much loved t-shirt was retired to the role of duster this week.

I bought it in Santa Fe, in the same store Liz had bought the same shirt several years earlier. I was always taken with the 'mission statement' on the back of hers which reads:

Quit work.
Get some stuff.
Go somewhere.
Have some fun.

The photo was taken near Santa Fe, just before we embarked on our five month long Pacific Crest Trail hike in 2002. The t-shirt may be gone, but I think the wandering spirit is returning again. I'm starting to want another big adventure in a year or so.

I wonder where we'll go?

Refinement to Kari-Tek Kayak Roof Rack

It's not particularly pretty, but it looks rather effective.

The owners of this campervan, parked yesterday just down the road by Strontian slipway, have padded out the lifting bar of their high-top Kari-Tek roof rack.

It's the obvious thing to do I suppose. Just I hadn't thought of it!

I've positioned our (similar) rack well over to one side of the roof, precisely so the rack, when lowered, doesn't hit the side of the van. As a result it looks a bit lopsided. It's within the extent of the wing-mirror, but only just.

However, if I pad out the bar like this I might be able to move it in slightly. Another thing for the 'to-do' list.

Kayaking Accidents

There have been a series of awful kayaking accidents in Scotland this week. There have been two deaths on rivers and a sea kayaker is missing off Shetland, feared dead. It's giving us all pause for thought. Here are some news reports for those who want to know more.


BBC on Grandtully accident. Press & Journal on Glencoe accident. The Scotsman on Shetland missing kayaker.

Postage Rates Have Risen

Royal Mail has put up its prices by a staggering, inflation-busting amount.


Nevertheless, I'm still offering DVD Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown for £19.95 including free postage to anywhere in the world.

My book, The Scottsh Sea Kayak Trail is just £14.99 and postage remains £2 to the UK, so that's still cheaper than most shops. However, P&P to Europe and the Rest of the World have had to go up slightly.

Caledonian Sleeper

The evening breeze caused my white hankerchief to flutter. I raised it in a salute of fond farewell to my beloved, while her train slowly eased out of the station.

Well, something like that.

The 'sleeper' from Fort William to Euston isn't particularly well named as far as Liz is concerned. She finds it very hard to sleep on board.

It's not the noise, she says, but the bumps and shunts during the early hours of the morning.

Still, it's an easier way to get to London for work than driving to Glasgow, flying to Heathrow, then catching the train. And it's not for too long.

'The Big White', Mountaineering In Alaska - Article

Bigger than France, Spain and Great Britain all added together but with fewer residents than Glasgow it’s easy to see why those locals call Alaska, “The Big White”.


More published articles at SimonWillis.co.uk

With any number of exotic destinations, including trekking peaks, why go to Alaska rather than Asia or South America?

“Because here I can break wind with confidence”, was the considered if earthy, response of Dean James our group leader. Dean should know, as a guide for KE he leads treks all over the world but always returns to Alaska.

The rest of our group had trekked in the Himalaya, Karakorum or South America, but we’d been lured here by a single common thought, the chance to stand on part of the planet where no human has ever stood before.

“When you see how many companies advertise Mera or Island peak you know the place is going to be crowded”, said Peter, a veteran of many such treks. He pointed past the tent door, “But just look out there. Rock, snow, sky... and nothing else for hundreds of miles.”

After a six hour drive from Anchorage to the tiny mountain town of Chitina, a small ski-plane dropped us in the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park at the head of the Jefferies Glacier, a long corridor of ice separating two walls of mountains, many of them unclimbed. Provided you know where to look, there are hundreds of such mountains in Alaska, of varying heights and difficulties just waiting for a first ascent.

We were all fairly experienced winter walkers, some were climbers, but this is such alien territory we needed an experienced guide like Dean. We planned to spend two weeks hiking down the glacier, climbing as many peaks as our fitness and ability allowed, carrying all our gear in backpacks and on sleds pulled behind us.

Our first mountain was the easiest. We left our camp at 7,880ft and by lunchtime had claimed our first virgin summit (9,650ft). True enough, it was not what you’d call a difficult climb, more a gentle snow plod, and anyone used to crampons can quickly get the hang of walking in snow shoes. Moving together, roped in two teams of four, we made light work of it. I couldn’t help thinking that if all the mountains were this easy, we’d knock off more than half a dozen!

How wrong I was.

Our first day on the glacier was also our last day of perfect weather. Alaskan mountaineering starts in March when it’s cold enough for the snow to be stable but after the heavy falls have stopped, except this year, they hadn’t.

That night the temperature plummeted below -15c inside the tent, and I snuggled deep into the Everest down bag I’d borrowed from Mountain Equipment.

Despite being rated at -40c, I sleep cold and it took several nights of shivering in all my clothes before my body adjusted to the night time temperatures. More importantly it snowed all night and day, giving no chance to establish a freeze/thaw cycle to consolidate the ground. The avalanche risk was high. We were confined to camp. So all day we just read, played cards and tried to look on the bright side; at least there was plenty of the stuff close to the door to melt for drinks.

Two days and two novels later, the ground was good enough for us to tackle our second mountain. It was more demanding, but no harder than an average Scottish Munro in good winter conditions, albeit with an absolutely spectacular upswept cornice that looked like a breaking tidal wave of snow and ice.

The trickiest part of the climb was the approach walk across the glacier.

Dean was in front, probing the snow for crevasses with one of his trekking poles which he’d fitted with a smaller snow basket. Alaskan “slots” make Alpine crevasses look like amateurs.

They could swallow a whole house but the snow bridges don’t start to collapse until you’re in the middle, perched over the jaws of these monsters.

That’s exactly what happened to Dean.

He dropped though to his waist and although we pulled him clear, during that horrifying split second when the snow was crumbling beneath him, he’d seen what lay below.

Or rather, what didn’t, because the walls of the crevasse were so far apart, we’d all been standing on fragile crust.

For all the objective dangers of such adventures, the greatest hazard must surely be the risk of sharing a tent with someone who snores.

On my first trek in Nepal I’d been paired with a nocturnal industrial cement mixer, or so it seemed. I now trek with a walkman and, where possible, my own tent, but weight was at such a premium I couldn’t take either to Alaska.

So I was delighted to discover that my tent partner Adrian not only slept silently, but was a tolerant companion, a vital quality when you live, eat, sleep and (rarely) wash in a few meters of space.

Sled hauling is a feature of Alaskan mountaineering.

I'd seen pictures of explorers pulling pulks across the trackless wastes of the Arctic, so I was a little taken aback when Dean handed me a child’s red plastic sledge.

This was not the stuff of heroic adventure, it was a toy!

Nevertheless, when the time came to move camp it proved an excellent way to carry heavy loads. And believe me, the loads were heavy. Tough tents, big sleeping bags, mountaineering equipment, a gallon of fuel each and two weeks of high calorie food just will not fit into a rucksack.

Split the weight between a backpack and a sledge hauled behind on ropes (attached to the sack NOT the climbing harness - it’s easier to ditch if you fall into a crevasse) and the whole thing becomes far more manageable.

Led by Dean and his crevasse probe, we spent four hours crossing the glacier under a warm sun and had set up camp in time to watch it set behind our first two summits.

When Dean pointed out the next route, I gulped.

A wall of rock rose almost vertically from the glacier, and was split by a series of snow filled gullies which led to a gently angled snow field and then the summit.

In the early light, our chosen gully looked frightfully steep, but seemed more manageable once we’d reached its base. Yesterdays sun had consolidated the snow, providing sure footing for our crampons.

We moved together in two teams, Dean stomping a clear route to the upper snow field without needing a belay. However, the upper field was not so simple because soft, fresh snow had blown over the ridge, making it avalanche prone.

We picked a delicate line, near the ridge and as close to stable rock as possible. The summit provided the best panorama yet, including a direct view of the stunning unclimbed 12,000 foot pyramid which our pilot Paul Claus, had called “Flightpath Peak”.

An excellent climber himself, he intended to be the first to its summit, and consequently refused to fly in climbers if he suspected they’d attempt to steal his prize.

Without knowing it, we’d saved the best until last, because our fourth mountain had everything.

A challenging glacier approach, a gully climb, a rocky ridge, and a steep-ish ice pitch. At the end of that day, as we staggered back into camp, we all agreed it just couldn’t get any better, so it was time to go home.

Easier said than done. To save weight, we had no satellite telephone. Instead, Paul had given us a tiny, line-of-sight two way radio.

It wasn’t powerful enough to reach the one hundred miles to his ranch, but just perfect, he explained, for contacting jumbo jets as they flew overhead. We were supposed to ask the 747’s navigator to contact Paul on his home frequency and ask him to pick us up.

I now know that jumbo jets are like busses, you wait for ages then they all come at once, with the inevitable confusion over the airwaves.

A Thai Airways pilot refused to believe anyone could be calling from the white wilderness below and, assuming a hoax, angrily ordered us off the air before flying out of range.

Our message never did get through, but Paul can not only read the weather, he also reads minds.

First we heard a drone, not the bass note of a intercontinental airliner, but the mosquito-like buzz of a tiny De Haviland Beaver.

With an aerial flourish, Paul swept over a pass and pulled up next to the tents we were hastily trying to collapse. "We only have a short weather window”, he yelled over the sound of the propeller, “so I want people and I want them now". Bags and bodies were thrown aboard. We clung to each other as the tiny craft hurtled down the glacier and into space.

In fourteen days we had climbed four previously unclimbed peaks, but we had also spent seven days squashed inside our tents with nothing to do except count snowflakes. It was triumph and tedium in equal measure, but it was a true Alaskan mountaineering experience in a tiny corner of The Big White.

This article was first published in 1999. The information is almost certainly out of date!

Information: The United States Department of the Interior is not given to gushing prose, but let me quote from the official guide: “Incredible. You have to see Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve to believe it-and even then you’re not too sure.

The number and scale of everything is enormous. Peaks upon peaks. Glaciers after glaciers”. You get the idea. Don’t blunder around here unless you’re an experienced Alaskan mountaineer or you’ll come to grief. Hire a guide, or go with a specialist operator.

Specialist Operators: KE Adventure Travel www.keadventure.com takes one party a year on its Alaskan Climber adventure. Or try Cloudwalker Expeditions (01222 810 502)

Maps: Trails Illustrated map 249 Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve. Available from Stanfords or over the internet.

When to go: Mountaineering season starts in March, but lasts into July when there is virtually 24 hours daylight on the glaciers. In early June there is only a couple of hours of near darkness at night, but it can be very cold, down to minus 15 to 20 degrees centigrade. The daytime temperatures are surprisingly comfortable, depending on whether there is significant wind chill or not, ranging between 3 and 20 degrees centigrade. The weather is relatively stable at this time of year, but short lived storms are a possibility, and these can put down a couple of feet of snow in a few hours.

Equipment: You’ll need a 80L rucksack and a light-weight, warm sleeping bag (1000 grams of down - minimum). The Mountain Equipment Everest proved ideal, as was their Annapurna down jacket for sitting around camp. Climbing gear and plastic double boots are, of course, a necessity. One of the main considerations when choosing equipment should be its weight as you’ll carry or haul all your own stuff. KE Adventure Travel provided excellent North Face V25 tents (one 2/3 man tent between two) plus snow shoes and plastic sleds.