Alan and the O.S.

Many of you will have followed Alan Sloman’s epic pub crawl walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats this year in aid of Sue Ryder Care. It was great fun to follow his exploits and read his observations on life, the universe and everything. If you’ve not visited his blog recently, you may be unaware that he has been trying to persuade the Ordnance Survey to allow him to reproduce maps of his trek, but to no avail. Why not pop over to his blog and read about it and give him a bit of encouragement. One of the things I’ve learnt so far in this blogging game is that a few encouraging comments really lift your spirits.

How did it start?

How did I get into backpacking? Well, I started camping when I went to Crusader camps and loved sleeping outdoors. When I was fifteen, I did a backpacking trip with a friend around North Devon, from Barnstaple to Lynton and then inland to Exford. This was hardly hard core stuff, along the coast and down country lanes, no real plan or route finding. I don’t think we had any rain at all and the weather was warm.

My kit was variable. An old pair of Dr. Martens boots from a jumble sale, a Skypack frame rucksack fron Milletts with no hipbelt and the water resistance of a tissue (lucky it didn’t rain!), a Vango Force Ten Mk2 tent (bomb proof but weighed a ton), a thin square cut sleeping bag, no foam mat, a Primus Petrol stove (superb and sounded like a jet aircraft taking off). Apart from a PU Cagoule, I had no specialist clothing, just jeans, jumper, cotton shirt etc. It must have been great fun as I’m still doing it!

The Imelda Marcos of sleeping bags

Just as Imelda Marcos had way too many shoes, I’ve got way too many sleeping bags: seven of them. I can’t fully explain how I got into this position. In mitigation, one bag is 20 years old (an ME Annapurna) and really ought to be given to a charity shop. However, the others fall into the usual pattern of dissatisfaction and bargain hunting. I have two synthetic bags (ME Sleepwalker UL, ME Firewalker 2), which I used as base camp sleeping bags before I started backpacking again in earnest. The Firewalker was a half price bargain I couldn’t resist.

My next purchase was the unbelievably expensive Western Mountaineering Highlite, one of the lightest bags on the market, but really only a summer bag. Having found it a bit “lacking” on a wild camp in Snowdonia, I bought a warmer bag, the Cumulus Ultralight 350. This is a very good bag with a sophisticated trapezoidal baffle system and has served me well. However, I sleep cold and it doesn’t have shoulder baffles. I’ve never been too cold in it, but it’s not been below freezing yet.

After listening to Bob’s 2006 TGO Challenge podcasts, I decided that an Alpkit Pipedream 600 would be a “good idea”, so I got the second iteration with the posh red piping. Originally, this year, I was going to go to Scotland in early May, but instead I went in late May, so I took the Cumulus instead. It was fine, but had it been much colder (it got down to 2c), it might have been chilly (no neck baffle!). When Alpkit launched their latest Pipedream 400, I couldn’t resist it; the same weight as the Cumulus, but an extra 50g of down and a neck baffle. They’ve also improved the hood. So there you have it, the man with seven sleeping bags; more money than sense!

Adapta strap-a-map

OK, after yesterday’s philosophising clap-trap, here’s a bit of down to earth practicality. In Podcast Bob’s “End of the Year Show“, he shared with us his “Strap a map to me” idea. For those that haven’t listened to the podcast, it was a delightfully simple idea. Having a map case hanging around your neck is a bit of a pain, particularly in windy conditions. On the other hand folding the map case and putting it in a rucksack pocket is not exactly convenient either. Bob’s answer was to attach two rings to the lower part of one the rucksack shoulder straps. Then attach two bungee cords with cord grips. Roll up the map case and put it through the bungee loops and tighten. The second picture on this page of Peewiglet’s 2006 Challenge shows you what he meant.

This was such a brilliant idea that I used it this year (with some minor modifications), see picture below. As Blackadder would say to Baldrick…there’s only one thing wrong with that plan. When I was walking through the Rothiemurchus Forest, the map case, being a bit slippery fell out of the loops. Fortunately, I hadn’t walked very far before I noticed. It got me thinking as to how I could avoid this potential catastrophe again.

Strap a map

Ta Dah! The answer is to use an extending ski pass holder, attaching one end to the rucksack harness and the other to the hole on the map case where the neck cord normally goes. The advantage of this over just using a bit of cord is that there is no loose string to flap around. What a stroke of genius!

Music of the spheres

I love music and rarely a day goes by when I don’t listen to something. I’m quite eclectic in my tastes ranging from classical to jazz to 70s progressive to heavy metal to Britpop. Very occasionally music appears to connect you with another dimension. Recently I listened to a couple of old Kitaro CDs. This led me to order some more from Amazon and I want to talk about those.

Kitaro is famous for his Silk Road soundtrack. When I had a record collection, I had the first double album. Unfortunately this is difficult to get on CD, so I ordered the “Best of Silk Road”, which is a re-recording of some of the best tracks. I also took the plunge and bought “The Sacred Journey of Ku Kai” vols 1 & 2. If you like slow moving meditational music with an oriental slant, then you will appreciate these, especially Ku Kai vol. 2.

On a roll, I bought his live album “Daylight, Moonlight”, which is a double album of live music at Yakushiji Temple, Nara, Japan in 2001. I was blown away by the beauty of some of the tracks, particularly “Mercury” and “Heaven and Earth”. This album is an SACD disc. I have a fairly expensive system, which has a Denon multi-format player and the detail and atmospherics are gorgeous.

There is a heartbreaking sadness about Kitaro’s music that is difficult to explain. Part of it comes from an oriental culture where beauty and symmetry are appreciated in a way that is alien to the West. Having read a bit about Chinese and Japanese history recently, what strikes me is the juxtaposition of beauty and order with extreme cruelty and violence in the Orient. Perhaps it is this paradox that produces the haunting quality of some of the music not just from Kitaro, but Takemitsu and Joe Hisaishi. Both the architecture and art of China and Japan have a similar fragile beauty.

This made me think of other musicians/composers who can move me in the same way. In the West, some of Vaughan Williams’ music has a similar quality as it evokes a sound picture of a more innocent England before WW1 (The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Symphony No.5). Strangely for a country that has contributed so little to the pantheon of classical music, England has contributed a handful of composers who have composed some of the most beautiful music in history (adding Finzi, Bridge and Butterworth to Vaughan Williams).

From outside this green and pleasant land, Arvo Part, Sibelius and Shostakovich touch into a similar vein of inspiration. Of modern musicians I would highlight Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Enya and Tangerine Dream as well as Kitaro. Before I listened to classical music, I thought it was a world apart, but the more I hear, the more similarities I hear, especially when in comes from the “spheres”.

What has this got to do with backpacking? The same rapture grips me when I see Newlands Valley or Wasdale in the Lake District or Glen Tilt in Scotland. I can’t wait to see Knoydart and other treasures in Scotland. Why do we go to remote places? We go to see beauty and re-connect with something inexplicable. Backpacking helps us do it physically; music can take us there in our minds.

Nike Mayfly

The last bit of kit I bought was some Nike Mayflys. I had been looking for some lightweight camp shoes for ages. I came across the Mayflys a while ago but they were in either bright yellow or Union Jack, which I didn’t fancy. However, recently I found them in black and red (with yellow flames up the side), which I felt was slightly less OTT than the other patterns, so I took the plunge. Fortunately they are not as garish as the picture suggested.

At 250 grams for the pair, they are significantly lighter than most running shoes. Considering the weight they are reasonably robust, although the uppers rattle like a crisp packet! Although they are only supposed to last 100km, the soles seem surprisingly robust and the cushioning is reasonable. Another bonus is that they pack almost flat, so they take up very little space.

They seem ideal for a second pair of shoes for camp. Obviously if you’re an ultralighter you’ll forgo this luxury, but I like to able to change into something at the end of the day. I know Crocs are becoming popular, but I rejected them on aesthetic grounds (they make your feet look huge) and they are quite bulky, as well as being slightly heavier.

Even for river crossings, the Mayfly is quite practical as the material is very thin and unlikely to soak up much water, nor is the insole particularly plush. Mine cost £25 from sportsshoes.com. In their pre-Christmas sale they’re only £21.24. Rats!!

 Nike Mayfly

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