Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Four new walks are up on the website

The following four walks are all based on the Wessex Ridgeway:

No. Location Distance (m) Date Walked
850A walk from West Lavington to Bratton Camp 19.2 15/04/2010
849A circular walk from Urchfont to Etchilhampton and West Lavington 16.4 12/04/2010
848Avebury to Devizes 18.2 09/04/2010
847A circular walk from Marlborough to Avebury 17.1 07/04/2010

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Going lightweight

I was just reading an old blog post on Peewiglet's blog about lightweight backpacking. At first glance lightweight backpacking makes sense; if you are having to carry everything up and down mountains then a few kilograms can make a world of difference. Yet I am fairly uninterested in the topic.

First, some definitions. Lightweight means a base weight (i.e. excluding water and food) of 20lbs (10kg); Ultra-leightweight has a baseweight of 10lbs. Sounds like a lot? Well, that weight has to include tent or tarp, sleeping bag, mat, cooker, spare clothes and the pack itself, along with other essential and non-essential odds and ends.

My favourite tent, the Northface Westwind (see right), has a weight of 3kg (6.6 lbs). As can be seen, this is major part of the weight budget. Yet I have carried this tent for thousands of miles up and down hills and have slept in my Westwind for over seven nights in a row. After a couple of nights it starts to feel like a home. As it is a two-man tent there is plenty of room inside for me and all of my kit, and I can sit up to get dressed with ease. It is also exceptionally weatherproof (NASA used it in Antarctica), so I can sleep through storms without worrying about it being blown away. Yet the price of this comfort is weight.

One of the best backpacking tents is the Hilleberg Akto, a one-man affair weighing only 1.5kg (3.3 lbs). This is half the weight of my Westwind, and that 1.5kg could make all the difference on the hills. The Atko is rightly popular, but experience shows me that it is too small for frequent use. My other tent is a Jack Wolfskin Gossamer (shown right), a one-man tent that is about the same weight as the Akto, and the dimensions are roughly the same (if not the exact arrangement). I can easily spend a couple of nights in summer in the Gossamer,  but any more and the lack of space and comfort gets highly annoying. It is also much colder than the Westwind, as even a slight breeze sweeps under the fly and through the mesh inner.

However, the main problem is that I am well over six feet tall. If I want to get dressed, then I have to shuffle half-out of the tent in order to easily pull my clothes on as I cannot sit up. It is too small for my rucksack to fit in alongside me, so that has to stay outside. These may seem like minor things, but they really matter when you are footsore after a week of walking. This will be a problem that is common with the lightweight tents (aside from tarps, which have other issues).

I prefer to take the extra weight and be able to sleep and live comfortably. After all you spend about ten hours a day walking, and the other fourteen in and around your tent. Getting a good night's sleep is so important. The biggest problem with my Westwind tent is a fairly non-obvious one: it is bright yellow, and hardly unobtrusive for wild camping!

Likewise, little luxuries help. I read a little too quickly for books to be a sensible thing to carry, but I am addicted to listening to MP3 music and podcasts as I stroll. A camera is also a must for me and, if I am out in the wilds, a hip flask of whisky to keep out the chill. All of these are worth their weight in gold, especially as I do the vast majority of my walking on my own. I could camp without them, but the trip would be soulless and boring. It is surprising how the simple act of listening to a favourite song can really lift me out of a low funk.

Lightweight clothing can also be bought. But again, comfort is important. It is little good having the latest lightweight coat if it does not adequately keep out the weather. If you can get comfort and light weight then all well and good, but comfort has to come first. After all, although it may not seem so at times, you are backpacking for enjoyment.

So when it comes to tents, comfort beats weight for me. However, I am not totally against reducing weight where possible. Years ago I swapped my faithful Trangia for an MSR Pocket Rocket, a gas canister burner. This is far lighter (especially as I have no need to carry a bottle of meths around with me). There are disadvantages, however; it can be quite hard to get stable on rough ground, and with a large pan resting on top it can be a little like an upside-down pyramid, tottering in the wind. Over the years I have replaced many heavy items of kit with lighter ones, with varying degrees of success.

I have also just ordered a new sleeping mat - a Thermarest Neo Air mat, which has had rave reviews. Not only is this lighter than my current mat but it is thicker, better insulated from the ground and should be much more comfortable. I spent a night out in my Westwind last week, and realised that my current mat slowly deflates during the night. A replacement was needed, and the Neo Air looked like an ideal (if expensive) replacement.

This morning I have been packing up my rucksack ready for my first backpacking trip of the year (indeed, my first for two years); the weight is currently 20kg, including enough food to last me a couple of days. My clothes alone are 5kg. Lightweight? Certainly not. Comfortable? Certainly. That weight would allow me, with regular replacement of food, to be out on the hills for weeks.

As with everything in life, it comes down to compromise. Weight, comfort, practicality and cost all swirl together to provide the walker with a near-infinite range of choices. Weight undoubtedly matters, but it is not the be-all and end-all of the backpacking experience.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Book review: Lori Lansen's 'The girls'

This will be an unusual book review, for I listened to this story rather than read it. I have got into the habit of listening to the radio when I walk; I shudder to think how many thousands of hours of Radio 4 and 5 I subjected my ears to during my coastal walk. Added to this were tapes of Simon Schama's 'A history of Britain', which I bought in Cornwall and listened to many times as I strolled along.Since then I have got into a rather ecletic mix of podcasts and audio books, although music still makes an appearance.

One of the books I got out of the library was an audio recording of Lori Lansen'sbook, 'The Girls'. I had not heard of it, and only vaguely knew the author's name. I knew little of what to expect from this random pick.
I started listening as I was heading out of Marlborough on the Wessex Ridgeway; by the top of the first hill I was sobbing my eyes out. The beginning - in fact the entire first CD - is incredibly powerful, and a masterclass of how to write eloquent, almost lyrical prose. I listened for the entirity of that day's walk, on the journey home and for pretty much all of yesterday and today.

The book tells the story of two Canadian conjoined craniopagus twins, Rose and Ruby Darlen. It is written in an autobiographical form, mostly by Rose, with some additions of Ruby's interspersed.

It would be easy for a book about this disability to be mawkishly sentimental; even exploitative. Yet Lori Lansen avoids these traps with surprising ease. For one thing Rose and Ruby never seem to revel in self-pity; their lives are shown as being rich and fulfilling despite - or perhaps because of - their condition.

Additionally, the two girls are shown as having two very different characters: Rose, the larger of the two, is bookish and wants to be a writer; Ruby, the smaller, more beautiful and sickly sister, has a knack of finding Indian artefacts on the rural farm where they live.They are as different as any two sisters you can imagine, yet are forced to live a mutually dependent life. In places I started to imagine that Rose and Ruby were two seperate women, only for a sentence to act as a jolting reminder of their permanent link. They often tell the same tale from different perspectives, each sister giving her unique perspective on the important events of their lives.

The twins are abandoned at birth (it is never fully clear what happens to their mother) and adopted by a childless couple, a nurse called Lovey and her Slovakian husband, Stash. The book is as much theirs as the girls, detailing how they first met and fell in love, and how the adoption of Rose and Ruby completes their lives.

As the girls grow up they get a job in the local library, with Rose sorting and stacking books half the time whilst Ruby reads to children for the other half. The total acceptance by the local community of their condition is heartening. They even fall in love, although the affair has some heartbreaking consequences. The familiar, usual events of life are told from the girls' unique perspectives.

The story of their lives drew me in, encompassing me with its warmth. Only one part of the book failed to maintain the high standard - the adult girls take a trip to Slovakia with their aunt and uncle, and this whole section felt out of place and unnecessary, a jarring chapter in what is essentially a Canadian tale.

It is interesting to think about why this book had such a significant emotional effect on me; it was the first book to make me cry since Audrey Niffenegger's 'The Time Traveller's Wife'. I am unsure if reading it would have had the same effect, but the woman reading the audio book - Sarah Mennell - did a superb job, giving all the characters different voices. Her reading swept me away. It would be interesting to read the book to see if it had the same effect.

It was a particularly difficult topic for a writer to tackle, and Lori Lansen utterly succeeded in creating a non-exploitative, endearing and tender story. I would award this utterly satisfying audio book 4.5 out of 5 stars.