Articles of faith

TGO Challenge Gear List (not)

Six years ago I crossed the Alps. There I met the ultimate backpacker. He wore isolated shoes, two loose goatskin trouser legs, a hazel-framed backpack, a bow and arrows, a pouch with fire-making tools and a couple of birch bark food canisters. And an axe with a heavy and expensive copper axe-head. His name was Ötzi. 

I asked him why he would take that heavy copper axe-head. In a soft voice he said: “the museum people thought it might have signified riches and leadership, but for myself, well, I just love it, as a tool. I don’t mind the weight penalty, chopping firewood with it is such a pleasure.”

Ötzi. Reconstruction by the Arie & Alfons Kennis in Ötzi’s very own Bolzano museum.

Irrational additions to the backpack have existed for at least 5,000 years. These articles of faith define the walker. Show me yours and I’ll try and read them. But first:

What do I want from a walk, what are my articles of faith?

I want silence. The best thing in the wild is the huge big silence. My current stove, a White Box Stove, is completely silent. Why pick a nice spot for the tent, amidst this silent landscape, and then turn on a roaring jetboil? Calculating the weight penalty? I’ve tried, given up, and settled for it’s 53 gram (including windscreen)

My White Box Stove during a test, 2015.

I want simplicity of movement. I never fail to enjoy the sheer simplicity of walking. There’s many modern day ‘stuff’ that can ruin this simplicity. Think walking poles. They give your brain two extra legs to master (it can’t), they swing in and out of your view. Noise! On pole-people’s gear lists two or often three pairs of gloves turn up, because hands are exposed. While pole users have many a reason to use poles, I have only one counter-argument: poles are simplicity lost. A non negotiable to me.

I want to be immersed in the landscape. If I wouldn’t have any inhibitions, I would walk naked, and sleep on a bed of moss under the starry sky, eating rabbit each night. Until then, I prefer the thinnest barrier between me and the landscape, put up in a minute. And gone in a minute. This lightness is spoilt by having too much stuff inside the tent. Spare stuff annoys me. I don’t bring spare batteries, no pillow, a tiny towel (aaarghhh), less repair stuff, no shampoo, no swiss army knife, no spare socks, no spare shoelaces, no … you name it. This stufflessness is a dogma, and I thought I would suffer the consequences sooner or later, but I never feel something’s missing. Because so much is gained.

I need some comfort. Two items stand out: a book, and a thermos. For as long as I can remember I carry books. Lately, it’s an e-reader. But the purpose is the same: a book keeps me from walking into bad weather, and keeps me from walking at all if that’s what’s called for. 
In a way, the thermos accompanies the alcohol stove. The stove is not lit quickly, and fuel, once poured in, can’t be re-used. So I boil one and a half liter of water two times a day. The thermos contains the surplus. Benefit: hot tea first thing in the morning, without setting up the stove, and a hot drink on the hill. Weight penalty: 189 g (e-reader + cable), 229 g (0,6 L thermos)

Safety. Of course I carry torch, compass and a foil blanket. But I have an irrational fear of high winds. When I was 10 or 11, the family camped on a French campground when one of those mediterranean winds struck our tents at night. Being inside a small tent with that storm hammering it made a lasting impression. My sister and I where ‘evacuated’ into the bigger tent my parents slept in. In Scotland I’ve had many a stormy night in my Phoenix Phreebooter, a bombproof tent. Recently, I bought a Tramplite tent, which stormproofness is overkill on most days, but it frees me from fear. 
Weight penalty: about 200 grams (pegs!), compared to my Tarptent Moment.

Ye Olde Phreebooter somewhere behind Liathach, Torridon, 1995

The oddest and oldest relic in my pack is my spoon. Over 30 years old, and with me on all my Scottish walks. Weight penalty? Even calculating it would be heresy!

Latest news: yes, I bought a Dyneema Composite Fabric (Cuben Fiber) Fusion Bonded SUL Tent Peg Bag, size XL. ‘What animal’s skin is this made of?’ Ötzi would ask.

The latest addition to my gear list: a girl’s make-up mirror, to catch ticks.

More posts on my preparation for the TGO Challenge here.

One gram at a time

My gear list is perfect … for coming to Scotland in March or April. So when I heard that the start of the TGO Challenge had been postponed till June 18, this kind of threw me off guard. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure. Because June means heat, and worse, The Scottish Midge. The last year I suffered the midge was 1995. My log states “160 bites. On each lower leg”. This is why my walks in the following 25 years were firmly outside the midge season.

Lochailort, 1995. The last time I remember being driven to madness by midges

Some data for the unbelievers: the midge has a wing span of 1.4mm, and there’s 8,000 midges in a gram. Population size is 180 thousand trillion midges in peak season (180,000,000,000,000,000). This makes for 22.5 million ton of midge in the sky. Staggering. Fortunately they come one gram at a time (see photo below). There could be 37 different species in that one gram, but Culicoides Impunctatus accounts for most of the bites. (source: https://www.highlandtitles.com/blog/midges/)

A quarter gram of midges. The rest of the gram is on the other hand and the lower legs.

To counter the plague, I bought a can of Smidge, and a sun hat with the accompanying midge-proof headnet. And I scrapped the plan to leave the inner tent at home.

My gear list is nothing special. I was about to write that I’m baffled by the neurotic level of detail gear lists have, but mine is pretty bad nowadays. It seems even gloves or pegs have five word names with a lot of ‘exploring’, ‘pure’ and ‘nature’ in them. Going online ensures the ‘do I need this’ question is always answered with a YES. The worst is Ultralightoutdoorgear.com, where everything is sorted by weight. This conveniently conceals the fact that sorting the shop by weight (low to high) has almost the same result as sorting by price (high to low).

Therefore, we need a good defense against buying expensive lightweight stuff. One trick is to realise walking doesn’t need any gear at all. Just good shoes, decent socks and something to keep the rain out. If that doesn’t help ask yourself this question:

What does hillwalking do for me and how can my gear enhance that?

My answers to this question and my gear list for the TGO Challenge are in the next edition of this blog. One gram at a time!

More posts on my preparation for the TGO Challenge here.

The Italian connection

TGO Challenge 2021 preparations part 2 / click here for part one

If an Italian man dresses up to make an impression, he will never let on whether he’s going to a bar or to his mother. I’m sympathetic to this principle. Walking friends have described me as extremely opportunistic, route wise. So, when walking across the Highlands I’d be ready for the high ridges, but when the weather forces me to walk the landrover track down in the glen, I will do so and happily pretend it’s my choice. My TGO route for the coming west to east crossing of the Highlands must accommodate this behaviour. Designing such a route is fun. The only problem is that my imagination runs wild and before I know it I the maps are filled with scribbles and options. I love it, except… 

TGO Challenge 2021 Route design
Marked route on printed sheets and calculations

TGO Challenge Control forces you step up with only one main route, and one Foul Weather Alternative. There’s a route sheet you download and fill in, box by box, in great detail. This makes playing the tourist and following every whim a lot harder. Challenge Control would make an Italian write down which bar he would enter, what lady he would walk up to and what would happen next. Would the Italian ever confess to walking a dull route, on paper? 

TGO Challenge Route Sheet
The freedom to roam the hills is preceded by some bureaucracy

Once described, one sends the route off to Ali & Sue, the gatekeepers at Challenge Control. They are Challenge veterans themselves. They assign you to a vetter, a person that checks your route against rules and safety regulations, Julia in my case. This week, she sent my route back with a list of formal issues. Simply put: I’m not allowed to leave so many options open, and I should write the main route and foul weather alternative sections in the box of the day they are to be walked. This feels like filling in forms for tax return. Thou shalt jump through hoops. On the positive side: the formalities made me cut out bland stuff, and made me commit to my route.

All this goes against my habit to sneak off into a fold in the landscape. My predisposition is to hide, to escape and turn up in unlikely places. But Challenge Control’s responsibility is to find me, so I will have to suppress my urges and be traceable. Let’s find out how much escapism I can fit in there. Supervised escapism, does that count?

Glen Etive lunch stop
Smug opportunist having lunch, Glen Etive, 1999

Update: the minute I published this post, I got a message from Ali & Sue: “Thanks for this which looks good to us.  We will pass it on to Julia for a closer look at the detail”. More on this in a week or two…

Update 26 January: Julia Hume vetted the route, I made two corrections and then it was signed off, ready to be walked!

“Dyneema Hybrid Composite Fabric (Cuben Fiber) Fusion Bonded Tent Peg Bag”

TGO Challenge 2021, preparations part one

Madness. We are locked down and I got a place on the 2021 TGO Challenge, a walk across the Highlands of Scotland (Read more about it here). This is the first post, in English, about my TGO preparations and walk. The walk is in May, preparations are just what I do every winter, absorbing maps.

The good old romantic babble claims the Highlands separate the men from the boys (the women from the girls), build character, reveal the real you to you. Repeating this, supporting it with gear, building communities around it in a wave of instagram-posts and books … doesn’t make it true. 
One might as well claim that walking the Highlands is easy, easier than working life, easier than raising children, easier than the culturally complex task of visiting an art gallery on opening night (how to dress, what to say, who to avoid, how little to drink, how late to arrive? Whoa!).
‘By what route shall I descend Ben MacDui if the weather comes down?’ is dead easy by comparison. Still, the outdoors is made out to be difficult, and scares people into buying gear that has eleven word names, like said cuben fiber tent peg bag. I clicked on it, it was that close! Madness.

Seriously, did I think the crutch would aid hitchhiking?

This will be my 20th wander in the Highlands. My career started with hitchhiking in jeans, followed by a long period of semi-heroism, doing more or less dangerous/daft things, in recent years growing into the subtle art of mobile waiting, mixing roughing it and touristy stuff into a pleasant blend. I try to counter the nature-adoring pose of the romantics or the heavy handed gear talk of the control freak type of walker. For me, walking is doing nothing. Turning it into a sport, by pole-flaying along at great speed, or turning it into a religion, by striking a pose every turn, just shows how bad people are at doing nothing.  

Found a page three, early February 2003, between Geldie and Feshie (later I found out I crossed a popular west to east route here, hence the tabloid)
Sympathetic & Very Obscure Hill on South Uist

Yet, I might be counted as a member of the Church of Hillwalkers. I keep a log of classified hills and aim for them, I own a too expensive handmade tent, I sleep under a quilt with custom colours, I donated to Walkhighlands and won its prize for report of the month.

But I will go great lengths to deny my membership. Call me a snob or spineless, I like my identity to be layered. I’ll be my own subcategory of hillwalker-designer, neither mountaineer nor artist. I’m in-between but hey, I can handle a pub full of hillwalkers. And I might even dare going into an art gallery during opening night.

So what has all this to do with the TGO Challenge? For one, this challenge will be a nice and purposeless saunter, mixed with daft high stuff. That’s what I’m aiming for.

Soon: since it serves no purpose, my route had better be baroque.

Click here for TGO Challenge 2021 preparations part two

Creating my TGO21 route book. Baroque? It’s office work, really.