2011 – a year of ups and downs

Yes, it’s another one of those annoying ‘year in review’ type blogs! I’m hoping mine will be a little bit different from most, as we’ve been on quite a bit of a journey in terms of walking over the past year.

Comments from Janie in purple.

We originally created this blog in November, 2010, though it didn’t really start going strong until January 2011, so I really consider this year as the first year of the blog. We don’t get a huge number of visitors (it averages at about 10 a day just now) to the blog, but I think it’s fair to say that neither of us choose to write just to gain readers. We write because we want to, and we enjoy it… I guess that’s true of most bloggers. We certainly don’t make any sort of income from it.

The blog was originally created to talk about our preparations, and our initial planned walk of the West Highland Way. We’d originally planned to walk the way together in April, 2011. Sadly, due to ill health, Janie decided to pull out of this attempt, so it was all down to me. Even then, the walk failed miserably. Despite having spent a fair amount of time walking to build up fitness and strength levels over the proceeding months, I simply couldn’t manage the walk. I managed to walk the first day to Milarrochy bay, but my hip had all but given out with the weight I was carrying on my back (somewhere in the region of 20kg).

That first attempt was quite a bit of a learning experience for me, and I resolved to lighten the load and get myself physically fit for load bearing. The plan was to re-try the West Highland Way, in August. This time, there would be more in the way of camping trips and backpacking to prepare for it, so that I could get used to load bearing and the back. Janie agreed to make the second attempt with me again, as I was planning on walking over 7 days, instead of the 5 I had planned for the original attempt.

To that end, there were a couple of memorable walks for us. We did the first couple of stages of the Rob Roy Way, from Drymen to Callander. That was our first real attempt at carrying everything we needed for a proper backpacking trip, and it was, for me, the spark that ignited the love of backpacking in me. The sense of freedom you get from being able to stop when and where you like (within reason) and be one with your surroundings (corny, cheesy line – but true, all the same!) is definitely not to be underestimated. I’d pretty much determined at that point that this is something I’d like to spend a whole lot of time, money and effort on. I’m pretty sure Janie will be more than willing to vouch for the fact that I’ve become a little obsessive about the whole topic in recent months, with half of my life on Google Reader, following a fair number of backpacking blogs and researching gear more or less constantly!  I can definitely vouch for Grahame having driven me mental with his constant need to check out gear stats, weights and the like 😉  Having said that though, I do ask him to make sure he has thoroughly researched every option before he makes a purchase, so I have to share at least a little of the blame 😉

We also made the walk-in to the SYHA Hostel in Glen Affric. It was during this time that the realisation dawned on us that realistically, for Janie to be able to complete the West Highland Way, we were going to need to use a baggage courier service. With Janie’s condition, she simply wasn’t able to carry the weight required, day in, day out. This was later confirmed a couple of weeks before the walk itself, by her doctors, so given the choice of using the courier service or for Janie to give up on the walk, we chose the courier service. We figured this would realistically be Janie’s last chance to attempt something of this nature.

We never did get round to writing a proper walk report of the West Highland Way on this blog (sorry guys!), but needless to say, we completed it. Although there were some stages which I found to be reasonably hard work, I didn’t feel I was really challenging myself in the same way as I would have been if I’d been carrying my own gear. There was a certain feeling that we were cheating, to a certain extent. We weren’t. It was quite obvious that the walk was a struggle for Janie in many places, and I felt a whole lot of admiration for her throughout the walk – and still do!

There was one day in particular that was a bit of a challenge – the day which would normally have been one of the easier ones, from Inverarnan to Tyndrum. Having arrived at Inverarnan relatively late the previous evening (close to 8pm), I had decided that I couldn’t be bothered cooking… I was too tired. In case anyone thinks I get an easy ride here, he cooks, I clean 😉  We went to the Drovers Inn, had a coke each and shared a packet of Mini Cheddars. The next morning, yours truly managed to spill breakfast whilst cooking it (which is a part of why I no longer have my Optimus Crux stove and wouldn’t go for an unstable gas stove again). As a result, we set off that day having eaten half a bag of Mini Cheddars and a roll (in Janie’s case) or an Alpen bar (in mine). Needless to say, by the time we reached Crianlarich, we were completely exhausted. We ended up giving up on that day and getting the bus from Crianlarich to Tyndrum. It felt like a whole lot of a cheat, but it was completely necessary at that time.  Its worth mentioning here that the distance we missed on the bus was around 6 miles – which we had walked and then some over the course of the other days by camping around a mile outside of town each time and walking in and out for food.  Hopefully that will minimise the impression of cheating just a bit!

That taught me quite a lesson about how we need to keep ourselves fuelled. I honestly didn’t think that skipping so little food would have such a profound effect on both my body and mind. I’ve pretty much promised myself (and me!) that it’ll never happen again.

A week after the West Highland Way, Janie had her operation to prepare her for Dialysis. This has effectively ruled her out for backpacking trips for the foreseeable future. Janie still comes walking with me when she can, but walking in general isn’t as easy for her any more, sadly. That coupled with the fact that she now needs to plug into a machine every night for 8 hours, and needs this to be in a clean environment, it means that camping isn’t nearly as viable an option as it once was. If anyone is interested, she’s created her own blog, detailing her kidney problems and the lengths she has to go to retain as much of a “normal” life as possible.

As for me, I’m still trying to lighten the load, and I get out and about when I can. It’s not quite as much fun without Janie around, and I’ve still to really attempt my first solo camping trip since the West Highland Way. I’m hoping that will be soon, as I’ve recently upgraded some of my gear for colder conditions (new down jacket and sleeping bag, but more on those another day, once I’ve had a proper chance to use them!)

I’ve also taken the difficult decision of purchasing a 1-man tent (a TarpTent Scarp 1 – in the post from the US as we speak!). There’s a certain air of finality to that, which I’m not overly fond of. I’ll still have the Vango Banshee 300 that we used on the West Highland Way, so should the scenario arise that Janie will be able to come away for an overnighter, it’s still an option.

Gear in 2011

In terms of gear purchases this year, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve made a few inroads in terms of both weight saving and in durability. Some of the things I’ve bought would be abhorrent to the ultralight backpackers, but for me, it’s all about finding the balance between price, comfort and durability.

The first mistake I made was in February, when I purchased the Raichle Mt Trail GTX boots. The boots themselves are actually extremely comfortable, and the uppers are superb. However, the sole unit appears to have a bit of a defect, and is delaminating a bit and coming off. Much as I always like to try my footwear on before buying, in this particular case, had I been able to access online reviews at the time, I wouldn’t have gone near them.

As my boots were in for repair at the time, I ended up walking the West Highland Way in my Berghaus Pro Rush GTX shoes. I have to admit, I found shoes to be much for comfortable and easy to wear than boots, but these particular ones had a couple of minor issues. The first, and one that most backpackers will have recognised already, was the Gore-Tex lining. Water got in on the second day, and as a result, the shoes never completely dried out during the walk (Gore-Tex is just as good at keeping water in as keeping it out!). My feet were properly stinking by the end of the West Highland Way! The second issue was that they don’t provide quite enough arch support for those sorts of distances, so by the end of day 4, I was in a fair amount of pain, due to collapsed arches. (I have to say that I still wear the Berghaus shoes, just not for long distance or high level hikes)

I’ve resolved to try and fix this for the future, by using non-waterproof, but quick drying shoes. I’m currently looking at a pair of Salomon Exit 2 Aeros, but haven’t yet got round to popping along to a stockist to try them on yet. I’m hoping to have a pair (or something similar) by the end of 2011.

I definitely can’t afford to replace my gear or upgrade it regularly, so I tend to purchase items based on their planned longevity and versatility. My favourite purchase on this front for the year was my Outdoor Research Furio Jacket. Using a mix of Gore-Tex Paclite and Pro Shell, and using a 70D face fabric, it’s pretty much bombproof. I only bought it in September, which is why there’s been no hint of review for it yet, but as I’ve been using it regularly since then, I can definitely say it’s good for me. It’s not to everyone’s taste, though. By making it so hard wearing, they’ve effectively added to the weight and reduced the packability to a certain extent. Mine comes in at 580g (in XL), which although not heavy, is definitely heavier than any ultralight backpacker would use. With a RRP of £250, they’re not cheap, but I managed to get mine in a sale from Field and Trek for the bargain price of £115. Well worth the money at that price! It’s currently selling for £199.99 at Field and Trek, or if you were looking for an older model, Nevisport  have it for £147. (The older model doesn’t have the chest zips, so is slightly less useful)

I’ve made more sleeping bag changes this year than I care to remember. I started off with a cheap Gelert Tryfan model, weighing in at 1.7Kg (which Janie ended up using on the West Highland Way), which I then replaced with my Snugpak Travelpak Xtreme at 1.2Kg.. and I’ve now gone back up in weight to 1.6Kg by getting an Alpkit SkyeHigh 800 sleeping bag, for colder weather. The biggest problem I have with sleeping bags is their size. As I’m 6’4”, there’s a fair amount of sleeping bags that I simply can’t fit into. I managed ok in both the Snugpak and the Gelert, though, and the Alpkit came in a long length option. I’d have chosen their PipeDream sleeping bags for weight saving, but they don’t come in a long length.

I’ve made plenty of changes in stoves, too. I started off the year with a regular Trangia 27 kit. These are great pieces of gear, and you simply can’t go wrong with them. The only drawback to them was the weight. I then changed to an Optimus Crux stove and Terra Weekend Cookset. This was a big change in terms of weight and space savings, but with the stability issues and the fact that it simply couldn’t simmer very well, so was less useful for cooking (as opposed to boiling water, which it did exceptionally quickly), it wasn’t for me. I’ve now gone back to the Trangia burner, but I now use a Clikstand setup for it, which, when coupled with an Alpkit MyTiPot is a good saving in both weight and space over the original Trangia.

I’ve already mentioned the new tent purchase, which should be arriving in the new year. I still like the Vango Banshee 300 we used on the West Highland Way. It could do with being longer for me, as I tend to have fabric in my face or my feet touching the ends, but for 2 people, it really does work out quite well.

2012 and Beyond

Looking to the future, there’s plenty on the horizon. In April, we’ll be (yes, we) walking the Speyside way, if everything goes according to plan (more on that later, once things are confirmed), and I’m hoping to do another walk of at least a week long in Scotland. I’m planning on doing a number of overnight camps and trips, and keep building on my gear and my fitness.

At the start of 2013, I’m hoping to walk the West Highland Way again, but this time, with improved fitness and experience, in winter conditions. I’m then hoping to start something major in terms of backpacking in summer, 2013… something of a backpacking monster. I can’t really explain that one just yet, as it’s in the very early planning stages – watch this space, though!

In terms of this blog, I’ll continue to update it regularly, maybe more so, as I’m hoping to increase the number of times I get out. I’d definitely like to increase the trip reports, as that would imply I’m doing more trips! 😉 In saying that, when we created this blog, we said that we would focus not only on the hiking and backpacking aspects, but on the wildlife we’ve seen along the way, too. I don’t feel we ever really achieved that, in the sense that we’ve not really shared some of the amazing wildlife experiences we’ve had. Sure, there was the Red Deer Rut and the Mountain Ringlet on Ben Lawers, but I feel there could be more. It surprises me how many people go out in the wild places of Scotland, with a view to being out enjoying the scenery and wildlife, but don’t actually know what it is they’re seeing or hearing.

I just wanted to add a bit here at the bottom as a wee apology for not having updated my gear section as yet, and being a bit absent on the blogging front!  This is due to a variety of factors – mainly lack of time, energy and internet access!  However, with 2012 knocking on the door, I am finally on the web at home and nailing down my routine a bit so I have more time to participate in the shorter weekend walks Grahame likes to pester me into 😉  I hope that means I will be able to write a few more of the blogs – and even maybe do a retrospective report on the West Highland Way, if anyone is interested 😉  I will also be doing some gear reviews – especially on gear that i have bought in the past year and am now having to replace!  Meantime, thank you for taking an interest and hope to write again soon!

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