Outdoor Discoveries

What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!

Sharing or sparing?

18th September 2018

Having what is called a bucket list, a list of places that you would like to visit while you can, is common these days but I wonder if such a thing is all that desirable. By the its nature, the problems start when compiling a list of such ideas because chances are that you will select places that already are popular. That applies as much when perusing travel magazines or holiday brochures as it does when using social media.

One consequence of this is that certain locations become too popular for the sake of sustainability and that leads to restrictions that affect the independent traveller. South American destinations like Machu Pichu and Torres del Paine National Park come to mind here but the problem is spread around the world. Scotland’s Isle of Skye has experienced problems that never made the news  before and you only have to see how many visit well promoted attractions like the Cliffs of Moher to see how many people visit a small number of locations in Ireland at a time during the high season.

This then poses something of a dilemma: do you cater for the visitor numbers or do you restrict them? With wilderness and conservation areas, there is a tendency to do the latter though it does have the consequence of pushing up visitor costs and that may have its benefits for local tourism businesses as you may find on a trip to places in either the Canadian Rockies or Alaska. When you add in short summer tourism seasons, the effect by necessity is more pronounced.

In other destinations, they add in facilities for the extra visitors with some decrying the effect that this has had on Spain’s Mediterranean coastline because of hotel and holiday apartment construction. Parts of the Alps are afflicted like this but in a different way: it is the infrastructure of skiing resorts that hardly help appearances in mountain country during the summer season. Both examples make you wonder at the appropriateness of such developments and they must tug at the heartstrings of anyone who adores mountain and coastal scenery.

Another aspect of any overdevelopment is that you can install something that encourages the otherwise unprepared into wild places without realise the possible dangers that are there. For instance, I seem to have inherited my father’s unease at cliff edges and my knowledge of how slippery limestone can be almost made me shout at people to keep back from the edge on a damp day hike around the Cliffs of Moher and Doolin. It is little wonder that staff are equipped with whistles to direct the unaware away from peril.

There is overcaution too and one example is the boardwalk on Cuilcagh Mountain and how incongruous it looks in the landscape through which it conveys people to the top of the hill shared between Cavan and Fermanagh, between Éire and Northern Ireland. It also does not help that it stops short of the top too but the boggy morass deters most. Another location where path development attracted adverse comment was at Sliabh Liag in County Donegal but it might be that some sense prevailed there in the end.

Hillwalking is a growing pastime in Ireland so there remains a lot to learn in a country where there is neither experience nor tradition of path and track building in such places. Thankfully, organisations like Mountain Meitheal and Mountaineering Ireland together with initiatives like Helping the Hills are starting to address this so lessons are learned from places like Scotland and applied to get sensible solutions to the growing problem of erosion on popular hills. It is something that needs attention as much as securing access for hill wandering in the first place.

The mention of countryside access brings me to another factor that causes some places to feel overloaded: a lack of alternatives. It is not everywhere that has the liberal access rights that are enjoyed in Scotland and across Scandinavia so there can be a very really reduction in the number of places where you can explore. The options may not stop you going to those better known places like Norway’s Preikestolen before finding other quieter hikes nearby as knowledge grows and maps feel more confiding.

It is this last point that inspires the title and the theme runs through Fiona Reynolds’ The Fight for Beauty, a book that I read last autumn. It is not for nothing park rangers in Denali National Park tell you not to walk one after another in a group so a path never develops and that everyone’s backcountry journey is their own. When there is plenty of land for all, we can spread out and find our own space to recharge weary spirits. That is easier when we are not retracing the steps of others all the while and it can have a lighter impact on the countryside too with less erosion caused by many feet and much path widening. While it can be true that we get confined by or own lack of knowledge, physical restrictions caused by not having enough other places to go hardly help either. Overcoming both might be the ultimate answer to the visitor management conundrum.

Incidental ambles

18th January 2018

The start of a new year can be a useful time to take stock of life. January can be a month that some find too quiet but it has its uses as I am finding out for myself. A current career break means that I have added occasion to think over what I would like to do for a living. After five years of family bereavements followed by responsibilities added through inheritance, there is plenty of reason for this. What had not been obvious to me is that my last job was not a match and the experience left its mark, one that needs to be overcome.

Throughout all of this, I am not forgetting that I am an explorer at heart. There has been time to catch up on reading and I now have my fill of travel writing so I will not be lured into book purchases as easily as before. More discernment could be the way of things for me and that cannot be so bad when finances need to be kept in check during times like this hiatus from work.

Also, I have been travelling around England and Wales collecting ideas for walking trips like Roseberry Topping and Pumlumon Fawr. Surveying the countryside about the latter brought me the added benefit of a short if muddy stroll around Llangurig. Visiting nearby Rhayader is another thought and a short stay in Aberystwyth could facilitate more than initially had come to mind. Other parts of the Welsh River Wye are ripe for exploring too and the hills of the Black Mountain in the western side of the Brecon Beacons could be another tempting idea.

City visits to Edinburgh and Cardiff have come to pass. In the middle of the latter, the banks of the River Taff offered an oasis of calm with Llandaff Cathedral feeling as if it is in a country rather than where it is. Bute Park was another delight that makes me wonder why it took so long for me to make an independent visit to the place and there is Cardiff Castle if I wanted to include that as part of a return visit. There is plenty there for cyclists too and I am not surprised that bicycle hire is available.

Those city wanderings remind me that there have been times during the last few years when energy for more strenuous outings has not been as readily available. Edinburgh has featured quite a few times and there are regular haunts nearer my home in Macclesfield. Knutsford’s Tatton Park, Disley’s Lyme Park together with Macclesfield’s Tegg’s Nose Country Park and Dane’s Moss Nature Reserve all have been places where quick visits offered respite from life’s tumult when enthusiasm for longer trips was not to be found. The same could be said for more urban spots like Buxton, Chester, Sheffield and even Manchester. Anywhere where a coffee can be enjoyed away home has had its uses.

Strolls on my own doorstep like circuits taking in Prestbury all had their uses when my head needed clearing, like on Christmas Eve during my first ever Christmas spent in Macclesfield. That was a stormy affair, as much in my mind as it was out of doors. When a brighter interlude offered, it did not need much persuasion for me to head out on a longer round that linked Tegg’s Nose, the Saddle of Kerridge and the White Nancy. It became just the breather that I needed at the time.

The last few months have been as much about exorcising hurtful memories as anything else. That included the past Christmas and New Year period when it felt more normal than others. Trips to Tatton Park, Manchester and Lincoln all broke up the flow and I also got learning that camping stoves should be used out of doors too, a misadventure that I have no relish for repeating.

Getting past that was like everything else in life in recent times. 2017 became a year when I lightened some of life’s load so I need to think ahead now. Getting an enjoyable and fulfilling work life is one thing and my zest for exploring countryside continues. Overseas excursions could restart yet since I am making my way through Kev Reynolds’ Walking in the Alps at the moment and there is his The Swiss Alps, The Pyrenees and Trekking in the Alps after that. That lot should keep me going for a while yet and I am not overlook what hill country is nearer to hand either.

Uphill strolling from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg

31st December 2017

Flushed with satisfaction after a spellbinding day spent around Zermatt, another Swiss walking excursion became inevitable, and the weather held up for this one too. My destination became Grindelwald and the lure was a possible sighting of the Eiger. Quite how I selected this is lost to recollection now but I suspect that a BBC television documentary about the first successful ascent of the mountain’s north face might have had something to do with it.

On the way there, I took the chance to see Bern again and my time there this time around proved short but it was good to potter about the city in sunshine rather than the greyness of the preceding Saturday. Just as on the way to Zermatt, the sunlit surroundings enlivened the train journey all the way to Grindelwald and not just my flying visit to the Swiss capital.

When I finally arrived at my destination, a bit of bumbling around the place ensued. It was an unplanned affair probably caused by my own inattention or an unwillingness to lose height at the start of my walk but it handily got me oriented. With my bearings obtained, I then set off downhill towards Grund and it was all uphill walking after that.

Wetterhorn & Mättenberg, Grindelwald, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

There was no doubt about the way ahead once the course of gaining height had begun. Swiss efficiency regarding signposting and continued attention to the map saw to that. The mix of road and off-road walking was heavily swayed towards the latter. There never was any recourse to threading on bare pasture like what you would find in Britain or Ireland. The investment in path maintenance bested what is found in those other places and the views over Grindelwald opened out more and more as I continued higher and higher. Even so, steady progress ensured that I was going strong until at least Alpiglen.

Though it was the Eiger that may have drawn me, it was the rocky pinnacles of the Wetterhorn and the Mättenburg that held much of my attention as long as I had sight of them in pleasant sunshine. Wisps of cloud graced the mountainsides as if to foretell the way that the skies would fill with them in the afternoon before breaking up again at evening time. Seeing such craggy fastnesses as I did among landscape that is much tamed was no contradiction. All appeared to fit together surprisingly well.

Burg & Bira, Grindelwald, Switzerland

Winteregg & Retti, Grindelwald, Switzerland

As I continued higher, other views began to attract my notice. The north side of the valley leading to Grindelwald was green in appearance in spite of its steep slopes and cragginess. On the other side of this lay Brienzersee and its environs, though all of that lay out of sight. My hike never was to take me above the altitude of the intervening summits and I was surprised to spot a mountain hut (more like a hotel really) perched on a mountain top around 2500 metres above sea level in a photo months after my Swiss escapade.

The railway line never was far away on this stroll and often provided chances for stopping early if the need arose. There are those who probably use it to gain height before walking downhill again, the reverse of what I was doing. Steep inclines mean that it is a cog railway but they did not scare me at all when I eventually used the train to return to Grindelwald, quite unlike what cable cars can do.

Cloud started to take over as I plied the woodlands between Brandegg and Alpiglen, so my cloudless views of the Eiger were not to be. All I got were glimpses through wisps of cloud before then and that was to be my lot. Beyond Alpiglen, my memories are of overcast skies and barer countryside with views of Kleine Scheidegg ahead of me. Its buildings looked so near that the thought of their being my final destination felt unreal.

Having set aside the idea of finishing my walk at Alpiglen, I was now to go along the track as far as I had intended to travel. With the sunshine absent, there was a certain chill in the air and my course was to take me past idle cable car stations. The out of season feel lent an added sense of desolation to this part of my saunter.

Height was being gained all the while and I noticed a certain shortness of breath descending on me. Unlike the previous day around Grindelwald, the altitude was making its presence felt. Progress just had to slow to what my lungs would allow. That my legs still were more than willing did not help matters. A pair of walkers coming down from Kleine Scheidegg shared words of encouragement and I was well in time for the next train down to Grindelwald.

The views that I hoped to enjoy were denied me and the lack of metalled streets surprised me. The chill in the air was enough to stall any thoughts of dallying and places felt closed down when I might have liked to stop somewhere for a while if I were to hang about the place. In the end, catching the next train was my priority and I got on the next one once I had a ticket for the journey.

Once in Grindelwald, I stayed a while instead of taking the next train to Interlaken Ost. Aside from the fact that the cloud cover was breaking to all some evening sunshine, I also needed time to collect myself after being over 2000 metres above sea level and ascending over 1000 metres to get there. Though I was flying back to Manchester the next morning, what I did not need was any rushing about and it had been a great introduction to where I was. It is true that I learned a little life lesson about what altitude can do to you, but there was much satisfaction too, so that is how I will remember my day in Berner Oberland.

Unfinished Business and Other Possibilities

There is much to savour around Grindelwald and Kleine Scheidegg and I still fancy seeing the sight of the Eiger uninterrupted by cloud cover. Other lofty eminences like Mönch and Jungfrau are nearby and there is the prospect of a railway excursion as far as Jungfraujoch, a costly escapade with views to match the outlay. Less outlandishly, other hiking possibilities are there to be savoured and it helps that nearby Lauterbrunnen also is well served by trains. Enjoying a longer walk would less in the way of height gain or more altitude acclimatisation sounds more than a good thing to me.

Travel Arrangements

Return train journey between Geneva and Grindelwald with changes at Bern and Interlaken Ost. Train from Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald.

Seeing much more than I expected around Zermatt

25th December 2017

In early September 2015, I got to make good an intention to savour some alpine scenery. When I pondered the option in July of the same year, the predicted heat looked off-putting, so I chose Iceland instead. In any case, summer temperatures among the Alps can be such that shoulder seasons are preferable, so long as winter conditions neither linger late nor arrive early.

Exploring Cities

In my case, waiting until the end of the summer holiday season paid dividends. What I was hoping to do was to keep the cost of my Swiss escapade under some sort of control, and the weather did not disappoint either. Within a single week, temperatures had declined to more comfortable levels, so it was with some pleasure that I wandered around Geneva on my first day in the country. The city’s famous fountain on the edge of Lac Léman was in operation as I strolled along the lake’s shoreline as far as the city’s botanic gardens, where I stayed a while before retracing my steps to my hotel near the train station. As I did so, I passed the buildings occupied by the United Nations under now clouded skies.

The clouds broke again to leave a ravishing evening to be enjoyed by all who were out and about. Though I could not pick out Mont Blanc either through lack of visibility or lack of knowledge, there were other French slopes to see as I crossed the River Rhône to the other side of the lake where views of their Swiss counterparts were to be gained. All this ensured a late finish despite any shortening in the hours of daylight, and I still diverted around by the city’s main cathedral church as light failed. Later, again, I returned to the shoreline to try my hand at some nighttime photography.

While this kind of thing scuppered arrangements in Iceland, there was little such impact in Switzerland. For one thing, the next day came dull and cloudy and the country enjoys an efficient if expensive public transport system. In any case, I was bound for Bern, where I spent some time sauntering along the banks of the River Aare that partially encircles the heart of the Swiss capital. There was more exploration than that and I got to see the improbably larger clock on one side of the Zytglogge too, though overhead wires for powering both trams and trolley buses do not help photographic compositions. Nevertheless, it was good to explore another Swiss city and sample more of its famed rail network than that between Geneva and its airport. Returning to the former at a reasonable hour allowed for planning of the next day’s outing, among other necessities.

Seeing the Matterhorn

Macclesfield’s proximity to Shutlingsloe means that I have stood on top of it more than a few times. The distinctively wedge shaped hill also manages to earn the soubriquet of being Cheshire’s “Matterhorn”. It is a comparison that flatters other hills, with Yorkshire’s Roseberry Topping and Wales’ Cnicht falling into the same category. As ever, the real Swiss mountain is a very different prospect, though its profile is known to many. The obvious difference is a summit height that more or less guarantees the presence of snow and ice, together with the need for hiring a mountain guide.

My own encounter was not to need such things, since I stayed low and looked up from there. Though the summit lay over 2000 metres above me, its 4478-metre altitude meant that I too was up higher than I ever had gone before. Even so, I did not notice the altitude as I strolled up and down Zmuttal in the bright sunshine. My own route’s highest point was at around 2179 metres above sea level, a height gain of over 500 metres above that of Zermatt itself. This became a pleasant day trip would bring many rewards.

Once I had paid for a train ticket using cash withdrawn from an ATM, I was set to commence a sunlit journey to Zermatt. Weekend computer system maintenance had put paid to my acquiring a Swiss travel pass, as much as buying a train ticket using a credit or debit card. All that was left after me with wonderful views across Lac Léman to occupy much of the travel time. After rounding the lake and seeing views sampled the day before in better weather, we left the waterside at Montreux in a French-speaking part of Switzerland to head east to Brig in a German-speaking one. From Brig, a cog railway conveyed us through often narrow valleys to its terminus at Zermatt.

Zermatt is a car-free town, with car travellers needing to park up at nearby Täsch before using the railway to get the rest of the journey. There were additional shuttle services, so Brig-Zermatt trains are not doing the work alone. Coming out of the station, I noticed some horse-drawn carriages for conveying visitors to their hotels and electric vehicles shuttled about too.

Even with some vehicles going about their business, the place felt largely pedestrianised, so I could walk freely. The sunny day had caused others to visit the place too, but that was no intrusion. The strength of the sun was enough encouragement for me to address an oversight, so a set of sunglasses was acquired and much used.

Matterhorn, Zermatt, Valais, Switzerland

It took me some time to get clear of Zermatt, and the track towards the village of Zmutt was what I sought. The unmistakeable beacon that is the Matterhorn lured me in the right direction, and I sated my appetite for capturing it in some photos of my own. There were other sights to savour too, for the light remained so glorious that many photos were made. For the whole day, I was going to be in my element, taking in what lay around me.

In the midday heat, I was appreciative that my route took me through some tree cover. There are times when trees obstruct wider views of a landscape, but this belt of woodland was not to outstay its welcome. Any shade while breaking the back of an ascent had its uses, and others were going the same way. This was no intrusion, and any concentration of humanity petered out the further along the valley that I went. My pace was to be mine alone.

Looking towards Zermatt over Zmutt, Valais, Switzerland

Looking back on it now, I reckon that Zmutt was the chosen destination for any fellow travellers because continuing beyond the place had me meeting with scarcely anyone at all. Eateries were open in the aforementioned village, and I was tempted to stop awhile but decided to keep walking. My desired loop was larger than the one that I nearly made through error. Others could enjoy the smaller circuit, while I carried towards and beyond the closed hut at Chalbermatten.

Strahlhorn, Adlerhorn, Gornergrat & Monte Rosa, Zermatt, Valais, Switzerland

The longer that I continued along the trail, the wilder things felt. Having an open mountainside brought ample views of mountains all around me. However, what I had not realised then was how much I could see; that only became apparent while I was creating a new online photo album afterwards. When naming photos, I just had to counter my usual scepticism to admit that lofty heights like Gornergrat and Monte Rosa had come within my sights. Such was the collection of mountain tops that I passed that a very long list would appear if I were to mention them all here.

Unter Gabelhorn, Zermatt, Valais, Switzerland

Much of my time on this hike, my eyes were led back down the valley along which I had come. It was not just the developing sights, but the fact that the sun was in the way for photos in other directions. That included the Zmuttgletscher at the valley head as much as the Matterhorn itself. While the other side of the valley was clothed in tree cover, the steeper aspect of that where I was walking made both for barer surroundings and for loftier sights less accessible to my camera. The latter was to be resolved among the trees where I was to turn to start on my return to Zermatt.

Leaving the path that would have taken me to Schönbielhütte, I made for a crossing of the Zmuttbach without much in the way of any sign of the pools shown on my map. Any views towards the Zmuttgletscher and its neighbour glaciers were to be left behind me too as I made for the track that was to carry me through woodland for much of the way back to Zermatt. After all that I had enjoyed, any restriction in views was no irritation as I passed Stafel and Biel. Others linger in those spots, and I was left the trail to enjoy because not so many were using it. It seemed that visitors to this valley dissipated in the late afternoon, much in the same way as their counterparts would in Britain and Ireland.

Dom & Taschhorn, Zermatt, Valais, Switzerland

Loss of height was not a thing that the track did rapidly, so I was granted views overlooking the village of Zmutt and other parts of the valley below. Enjoying these may have involved peer between trees, but that felt like a mere triviality. Eventually, I was to leave tree cover after me and regain views on the way to the Furi cable car station that looked resplendent in the evening sunshine. Cows were grazing in what would be an improbably high pasture if it were to be found in Britain or Ireland. The shelter of high mountains has raised this as much as the tree line.

Dropping some 100 metres of height, I passed Zum See on the way towards the path that I had used on the outbound leg of my walk earlier in the day. My mind was by now focussed on reaching Zermatt’s train station to start the return journey to Geneva. Everywhere lay quieter compared to earlier in the day, and I made steady rather than hurried progress. The day had been pleasant and memorable for all sorts of good reasons, and I still marvel at the number of photos that I made and how well they look. All the effort proved more than worthwhile.

Further Possibilities

It may be that this could become a start of a series of visits because there remains much more to see. For one thing, there is a higher level walk around Zmuttal, at least on the valley’s northern side, that could reward any added exertions. More leisurely pursuits like taking the train up to the Gornergrat remain tempting prospects, as could making use of cable cars, despite my sense of exposure every time that I have used one. After all, they could give me a leg up for exploring other lofty spots such as Stellisee. Zermatt is surrounded by wonders and there are enough hiking trails to keep anyone going for a good while.

Travel Arrangements

Return air travel between Manchester and Geneva with EasyJet, with rail connections to and from Geneva. Return train journey between Geneva and Zermatt, with changes of train at Brig.

A few new photo albums

16th February 2016

After last year’s overseas excursions, I finally got to internationalising the photo gallery. Photos from two visits to the Isle of Man are in their own album and ones from a business trip to Sweden are in another. My trip to Iceland last July yielded a bumper crop of photos as did that to Switzerland in September.

Stories of my Manx excursions already appear on here because I was following the coastal path around the west and south-west of the island. More urban sights are there to complement the in the gallery. There is not so much of the outdoors on view in the Swedish album since it was a business trip allowing evening walks around Södertälje and Stockholm. Also, I could have done with a better camera too but went without many hopes and with a life change in front of me. The tale of those wanderings is to be found in the travel section of the website so it has not been lost to online posterity.

In contrast, the Icelandic and Swiss escapades came after an even bigger life event. There are plenty of views of Icelandic countryside to go with those of Reykjavik even though the level of outdoor wanderings was not as extensive as those that have taken me around Britain. The Swiss outdoor incursions were more so thanks to the efficient public transport system that got me from Geneva to Zermatt and to Grindelwald, albeit at a cost. The sights that I got to see easily compensated for this though and I hope what is on view shows them at their best. Their stories has yet to be told in full on here and I already have the beginnings of those entries in place.

What I also hope is that more overseas explorations follow these. Norway, Germany and Austria are in mind and, out of curiosity, my mind has taken to explore the prospects of American, Canadian and Kiwi escapades. With what I have ahead of me already this year, I need to temper any soaring ambitions. Once outstanding personal matters are settled, only then can I really begin to dream about heading outside of Britain and Ireland again. In the meantime, the home countries still have a lot to offer me and parts of Ireland as yet unvisited by me may see my footfall. Reining in dreams can be good.