February 5, 2016

A solo mid Winter Borders / Kielder bothy trip (part one)

by backpackingbongos

The River Esk was in full spate as I drove over the bridge in Langholm, the brown turbulent water an impressive sight. Once past Bentpath and heading up the Meggat Water the road was a mess of stones and gravel washed down from the recent heavy rains. One long flooded section gave me cause for concern, but luckily the water was only a few inches deep.

I left the Doblo at the end of the road next to an information board at the deserted Jamestown. I was a bit nervous leaving our new van on its own and full of kit in such a remote spot. Reuben was saddled up with his panniers and I hoisted a full and heavy 80 litre pack onto my back. Much of the weight was a bag of coal, kindling and firelighters, you can’t head into a bothy in January without the means to have a warming fire.

It took less than an hour to walk to Greensykes bothy, first along a firm track and then a boggy slosh through the forest. Under a steely grey sky with a hint of drizzle in the air the scenery was hardly inspiring, but it was good to fill my lungs with fresh air and stretch my legs.

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The bothy was hidden until the very last minute, the first glimpse being through a break in the conifers. I looked for signs of life and smoke from the chimney but all was quiet. I really wanted the place to myself, space to clear my head and relax.

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The place was indeed empty, clean, well-kept and with a good supply of coal and dry logs. With dark falling I set about lighting the candles that I had carried in and got the fire going. The chimney drew very well, the fire filling the room with warmth and a friendly glow. I made a cosy nest on the sleeping platform, putting Reuben’s bed next to mine. It was one of the most pleasant bothy evenings that I have had. I sat reading in front of the fire whilst drinking the half a bottle of red wine I had brought along.

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The warm room meant that the winter sleeping bag that I had brought along was not really needed, I didn’t zip it up until the early hours. For some reason Reuben did not settle down that night, he kept shifting around, sitting up and staring at something. I didn’t feel any ghostly presences, but perhaps he sensed something I could not.

In winter, bothy mornings are much more preferable to waking up in a tent. There is space to stretch out and make breakfast in comfort. There is always a good quality spade to make the morning walk of shame much easier. Before leaving I swept the bothy and left it as neat and tidy as I had found it. The bag of coal I had carried in was left with the existing pile of fuel.

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The walk back to the van was much quicker, my rucksack a bag of coal lighter. Much of the snow that had been on the ground had now melted, leaving the track even wetter. A solitary shepherd with his collie passed on a quad bike as I neared the road head.

Before driving off I restocked my rucksack with another bag of coal and food for Reuben and I.  The aim this time was Kershopehead bothy, just to the east of Newcastleton, deep in the forest to the south of Kielder. It was a very scenic drive over the moors between Langholm and Newcastleton, an area very worthy of returning to for a backpack. Newcastleton is a pleasant place and the village shop and bakery provided a boost to my supplies.

The van was once again left in a remote spot, this time at Kershopehead Bridge. The walk into the bothy this time was longer, taking a good couple of hours. The problem with forestry tracks marked on the map is that you don’t know if they are going to be wide roads or narrow grassy trods. I managed to pick one that started off promising but soon left me stuck in the middle of a bog. I had to re-trace my steps and start again.

Kershopehead is another well looked after bothy, although I was glad that I had carried in a big bag of coal as it was lacking in the dry fuel department (although it is in the middle of a huge forest!). The stove was soon roaring and another cosy night was spent staring into the flickering flames and reading Game of Thrones. I had carried in with me a huge brick of a book, weight not really being an issue when you are only walking a few miles a day.

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The following morning we set off into low cloud and light drizzle to find a way to climb Glendhu Hill. This isolated moorland lump is defended almost to its summit on all sides by forestry. Height was quickly and easily gained on a series of forestry tracks until we got to Coal Grains and a convenient place to leave the track. Here the forestry had been felled and replanted. That meant that the conifers were only a couple of metres high and there were gaps between them. I hid my pack before climbing to the summit, relieved to get the weight off my shoulders. The going however was still very tough due to the rotting brush underfoot from when it had been felled a few years ago. There were many traps for the unwary hidden in the long grass and heather.

The summit itself was a desolate place in the wind, rain and mist and we did not hang around. We retraced our steps back to the ruckack for a quick snack break. Reuben was not enjoying the weather and did his best to build a nest in the heather by much kicking and turning round and round in circles. No sooner than he had got comfortable we were off again.

The trudge back to the car seemed to take ages, tracks through forestry plantations never being very exciting the second time round. I was glad when we rounded the last corner to see the van still where I had left it.

With it being late in the afternoon there was not enough daylight to walk to the next bothy on my list. Instead I drove to the end of a single track road and a gravel forest car park. A quiet night was spent in the van, owls hooting in the dark woods. The morning brought mild panic when I could not open either of the rear sliding doors. Climbing undignified over the front seat and exiting head first it was evident that they had frozen shut, a bit of a design flaw. The stove in the Doblo is designed to be used alfresco so I stood at the rear of the vehicle brewing up and cooking breakfast, my breath steaming in the sub-zero air. The forecast promised a bright and sunny morning with cloud building in the afternoon, followed by heavy snow during the evening and night. Once again I repacked my 80 litre pack with plenty of coal and kindling.

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January 27, 2016

I’m walking 486 miles for the John Muir Award

by backpackingbongos

On the 1st August 2016 I will leave Denver and walk 486 miles across the Rocky Mountains to Durango. Over the space of 6 weeks I will pass through eight mountain ranges, six National Forests and six wilderness areas. The trail rises to 13,271 feet with an average altitude of 10,300 feet. There are 89,000 feet of ascent and descent before I get to Durango. It’s a big physical challenge and a huge mental one, as I will be hiking alone and unsupported. All gear and food will be carried and most nights will be spent in a tiny tent in the wilderness

Being passionate about the wild places both in the UK and abroad, I have decided to raise money for the John Muir Award. The aim of the award (run by the John Muir Trust) is to encourage participants to increase their awareness, understanding and engagement with nature and wild places. When more people connect with nature and wild places, more people will care for nature and wild places.

The trip is self funded so all money raised will go straight to the John Muir Award. Although a bit clunky to use I have decided to set up a page with Givey.com. That means that every penny you donate goes direct to the John Muir Award.

You can donate here.

January 22, 2016

Planning my first US through hike – The Colorado Trail

by backpackingbongos

 

Colorado trail map

(Click to enlarge)

I have wanted to do a through hike in the US for a long time, for years being obsessed with the Pacific Crest Trail. DVD’s were collected and time spent reading books and trip reports. However the dream has never been realised. Life gets in the way and a job, marriage and owning a dog make disappearing for six months a distant dream.

About a year ago I stumbled across a trip report about the Colorado Trail. This starts near Denver and makes its way south-west across the Colorado Rockies to Durango. At 486 miles long it is for me a realistic proposition time wise with most people completing it in four to six weeks. Last summer I spent some time negotiating with my wife Corrina about jetting off for a couple of months. It’s not a prospect that she is thrilled about, but being a star she agreed. The next step was to approach work. They have been great and now August and most of September have been booked as unpaid leave. I’m good to go!

The Colorado Trail is a high altitude route ranging between 5,520 feet just outside Denver to 13,271 feet below Coney Summit. The average elevation is above 10,300 feet. It passes through eight mountain ranges, six National Forests and six wilderness areas. Adding that to the 89,000 feet of ascent and descent during the entire trail and I think that I will be physically tested to my limit.

It’s the first time that I’ll trek in an area where bear sightings are a real possibility, so this is something that I need to do research on. Last summer the first segment through Waterton Canyon was closed due to bear activity (article here). Bear canisters are not a requirement for the trail so I will be storing my food in an Ursack.

I’ll be trekking through the Colorado ‘Monsoon’ season. This means that afternoon thunderstorms are a regular, often daily occurrence. The reading that I have done so far indicates that these can be very violent with frequent lightning strikes. I’m not ashamed in admitting that my greatest fear in the outdoors is lightening (after a near miss a few years ago). It terrifies me! They are meant to be fairly predictable though, building up from about 1pm and often clearing by evening. This will mean dawn starts to ensure that I am off exposed high ground by around midday. A new mindset will be needed for this late rising slackpacker!

There are opportunities for resupply, although they will involve a hitchhike, something I used to do regularly in my early twenties but have not done since. Towns like Leadville (the two-mile high city) and Silverton look very pleasant and somewhere I would be happy to rest up for a couple of nights. Resupply is going to be the major bit of planning, working out when to leave the trail, how to get into town and then get back on the trail. I’m not going to bother sending packages ahead, I’ll live with what I can find in the shops. This may mean travelling a bit further to somewhere with a proper supermarket. I have already purchased the most up to date data book but am waiting for the new guidebook to be published in the spring. I’ll start planning in earnest when that has been released.

Data book (1)

One of the best resources I have found online is by Paul Mags, link here. The blog that really sparked my imagination and gives a day by day account with loads of photos is here.

As someone who purposely seeks solitude and most of the time avoids established trails and busy areas, the Colorado Trail will probably be a bit of a shock to me. Although not many people through hike it, the 28 segments each with a trailhead mean that it is accessible for day hikers and weekend backpackers. Also apart from the wilderness areas it is a shared trail and popular with mountain bikers. Therefore I will have to change my mindset and look at it as a cultural experience as well as a backpacking one. When I receive the maps I will look for a few detours off the main trail and work out what 14,000 peaks I want to bag. One exciting thing is that I’ll be sharing about 300 miles of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) if I take the Collegiate West option.

Kit wise I’m pretty much ready to go. I’m not going to be spending hundreds of pounds trying to knock a kilo off my base weight (although I do need to knock off a few kilos from my body weight!). One thing that I have just invested in though is a new meths stove, currently making its way across the Atlantic (Flat Cat Gear Bobcat Jr). I’m a big fan of my Jetboil but it looks like meths will be available in places that don’t have outdoor shops. I think it is yellow Heet that I need to look out for when resupplying. Another investment will be in trail shoes. In the wet and cold UK I am happy in leather boots most of the time as I am usually up to my knees in a bog somewhere. The Colorado Trail is meant to be pretty easy-going underfoot, well-drained and with a good surface. Along with generally warm temperatures during the day (can get cold at night), I don’t want to be clumping around in boots. The rest of my gear is what I usually use, nothing special is needed.

So, with flights now booked the trip has become a reality rather than just a dream!

 

January 7, 2016

A New Year week in Weardale

by backpackingbongos

We managed to bag ourselves a cheap cottage for the period between Christmas and New Year. This was in Weardale in County Durham, an area of high moorland in the North Pennines. The drive up on Boxing day was horrendous, the north of the country being deluged by rain and floods. The A1 was a world of spray and a couple of accidents, whilst the A roads were often hidden under water. The river Wear was a thunderous beast as we drove along the road through the valley to the village of Westgate, and our rather compact home for the week.

Myself and Reuben managed to get out and about on the hills most days, with Corrina joining us for half of them. The weather continued its mild, damp and cloudy theme, although the sun did occasionally put in an appearance. I have to say that I am rather smitten with this part of the North Pennines. It’s wild, rugged and empty once you climb onto the hills. Only two people were passed whilst out hiking. Here are a few phone pictures giving a flavour of the hills and dales.

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The first morning dawned clear and crisp so I walked straight out the door and onto the hills. Under blue skies patches of mist were draped over the higher hills. This is looking towards Fendrith Hill.

 

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The high moorland watershed between Weardale and Teesdale, again looking towards Fendrith Hill. I was on my way to the summit of Westernhope moor. The ground was very wet.

 

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Heading back into Weardale above the hamlet of Brotherlee.

 

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At the top of the Boltslaw incline is the ruin of the engine winding house, very atmospheric in the mist that plagued us that day.

 

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Easy walking on the moors above Rookhope. My top tip when visiting Rookhope is not to park in the village hall car park. This now appears to be for the exclusive use of the nearby residents. The gate was locked when we got back and we had to go door knocking to find someone with a key…….

 

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Corrina does not go into the hills with me very often so I promised her big views into Northumberland from the summit of Bolt’s Law. Visibility was down to a couple of hundred metres.

 

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A very well camouflaged dog. He now has a flashing red light on his collar so we have at least a small chance of spotting him.

 

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A golden dawn on the moors above Stanhope.

 

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Summerhill Force in Teesdale was rather disappointing in its volume considering all the rain that had fallen.

 

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However on the plus side you could walk behind it.

 

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Atmospheric old mine workings alongside Rookhope burn.

 

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Currick on the Northumberland / County Durham border.

 

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A boggy trudge to Dead Stones from Killhope Cross.

 

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Looking towards the shelter near the summit of Dead Stones. It looks like the roof could cave in at any moment.

 

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Climbing out of West Allendale.

 

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Ewe looking at me? Sheep keeping a close eye on Reuben in West Allendale.

 

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Dark clouds building over the summit of Hard Rigg.

 

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I stopped for a while on the summit of the A689 at Killhope Cross, at 623 metres it’s the highest A road in the country. The rain started to turn to snow.

 

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The hills above Cowshill are full of the remnants of the lead mining industry.

December 23, 2015

Amdro – turning an MPV into a campervan

by backpackingbongos

I have to admit that I started to miss the Bongo after we had it scrapped. Although it only got used a few times a year, I liked the idea of being able to jump in it at a whim and disappear into the hills. The thing that often stopped me doing so was the prohibitive cost, it was a gas guzzler getting only around 23mpg.

Looking round for a more economical replacement I was shocked at just how expensive campervans are these days. Even panel vans with less than 100k on the clock and in good nick cost enough to make your eyes water. I then discovered a company based in North Wales that makes removable campervan kits for van based MPV’s, I was sold on the idea.

There are loads of these types of vehicles knocking about which means that you can easily buy a decent one second hand. We opted for the rather utilitarian looking Fiat Doblo, finding one with low mileage and a reasonably powerful 1.9 litre diesel engine. It’s proved more than capable of getting up the steepest moorland roads and cruising comfortably on the motorways. A week after getting the car, the campervan kit arrived from Wales. Here are a few photos showing how it all works (mud and dog hair courtesy of Reuben).

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Just another car parked at a muddy North York Moors car park.

 

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When driving around it is a normal 5 seater car, the camper kit hidden in the boot.

 

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The Amdro boot jump sits in the boot ready for use. It simply clamps into place and can be removed when not needed.

 

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To make a bed you simply pull the front seats forward and flatten the back seats. The Amdro boot jump then folds outwards to provide a flat platform. The lighter curved section at the front can be removed to access storage boxes underneath and to make a table when in day mode.

 

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The cushions then fit onto the platform to give a very comfortable bed. I’m 6ft and I can lay flat with no problems. There is room for a couple, or a man and his Staffy. Reuben will have to be relegated to one of the front seats when there is two of us though!

 

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For day mode you remove the curved section and using the pole provided it becomes a handy table. Two people can sit and eat comfortably.

 

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The kitchen unit slides out on rails from under one of the seats. Under the other seat there are two plastic crates for storage.

 

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The stove is a high quality double alcohol burner, mainly designed for use on boats. It is simple and works well. A spill proof reservoir under each burner holds over a litre of fuel. There is then enough room to store your kitchen equipment, although you have to be fairly minimalist. It’s a handy thing to have even when not using the van as a camper. It is easy to just pull over and make a cuppa or cook a meal. If the weather is bad the stove unit can be lifted out and used inside (making sure there is adequate ventilation).

 

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Over the past weekend it proved to be a comfy place to hang out whilst the wind blasted across the North York Moors. I’ll do a proper review at some point after using it over the next year. The main thing I will be looking at is how it copes with extended use and abuse.

Amdro can be found here.

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