Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Crag at the end of the World

Worlds End -Craig y Forwen
It must be at least twenty years since I visited World’s End. The delightfully situated limestone crag at the head of the beautiful. Eglwsyg Valley in North East Wales. It was one of my regular haunts when I started climbing in the 80‘s and Stuart Cathcart’s little Cicerone guidebook- Clwyd Limestone was my bible. It was a great crag to roll up to for an evening session. Offering short, single pitch routes of all standards on three tiers of cliff which rose up from the sylvan ravine like an enchanted castle. Thinking about it, many of those little limestone venues were pretty stunning in their locations. Pot Hole Quarry, Maeshafn, Pandy Outcrop-not limestone more a granite crag but popular with NE Wales climbers all the same.

Then there were the impressive Eglwsyg cliffs themselves; Craig Arthur, Dinbren, Twilight Towers, Pinfold and further east to the popular Trevor Rocks. I only climbed once at Craig Arthur- surely the biggest limestone cliff in north Wales apart from the Ormes on the coast?- but I remember it being pretty intimidating place. I well recall climbing Swalbr, named after a track on 60‘s supergroup, Cream’s Disraeli Gears album, and the first pitch which I led re-defined to term ‘chossy’ ! It was pretty nerve wracking, tossing every other hold over my shoulder! Thankfully the ‘out there’ final corner pitch was pretty wild although I’ll admit to grasping the final hold like a drowning man clutching at a lifebuoy.

The upper reaches of Eglwsyg Valley: Abandon hope all ye who seek to park here'
What struck me this time on my visit, was the fact that despite the valley being a pretty spectacular,with the great pale crags rising high up above the narrow lane, which weaves its way towards World’s End -or Craig y Forwen to give its original name- through woodland tinged with early autumnal colours and fields dotted with the ubiquitous small Welsh ewes, was the pitiful lack of parking hereabouts. Despite the fact that the valley lends itself to so many outdoor activities, including rock climbing, hill walking and mountain biking, the landowners and political powers that be have conspired to make the area as unwelcoming as possible. Every gate is marked ‘Private Land-Keep Out’ and there is absolutely nowhere you can park in the valley.

Around the time I stopped coming to the valley and World’s End, word came back that a new landowner had taken over the estate who turned out to be...what’s the word I’m looking for?..Oh Yes...A Twat! The traditional parking area under World’s End was blocked off and draconian parking restrictions kicked in. Furthermore, a compliant local council marked all the lay-bys along the valley and beneath the crag as ‘Passing Areas-No Parking’ restrictive. You can in fact carry on up the hill and pass beyond the estate and walk back but overall, the parking hereabouts, is redolent of the restrictions at The Roaches in Staffordshire.

The whole thing I’ve got to say is typical of the small minded parochialism of north Wales local politics and policing. With Freemasonry rife amongst local politicians, North Wales police hierarchy and landowners, little wonder feudalism is alive and well in North Wales. Imagine if the Eglwysg Valley was in the Lake District? I’m pretty sure its rich potential would be appreciated and exploited by landowners and politicos alike, and parking areas would be created, trails opened up and visitors welcomed. Instead of being met with brutal ‘Private- Keep Out’ signs every few metres.

80's Bible
So...The valley is stunning in every way and well worth a visit; just don’t expect the locals to be keeping 'a welcome in the hillsides'!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Outdoor Vloggers Camera: the Sony A5100 v the Canon 750D

Time was when anyone making a video used a standard Camcorder and a DSLR camera for stills. These days the tech choices are mind boggling. DSLR and Mirrorless cameras, Super-Compacts,Go Pros and mini sports cams, drones and i/Smartphones. However, in the last year or two, I’ve noticed that more and more serious Vloggers are using DSLR’s and Mirrorless cameras like the Sony Nexus and Alpha range cameras for their work. I blame Casey Neistat, the hugely successful New York vlogger who until recently, was shooting a lot of his incredibly slick vlogs on the Canon D70...I think he’s moved on to the D80 at the time of writing. Despite their size and obtrusiveness, the aforementioned vlogger still managed to skate board around New York’s busy streets with a chunky DSLR on the end of a flexible Gorilla pod.

The reason?  Well quality has to be the primary reason.The D70 is a seriously good camera which takes pin sharp stills and video and offers a range of features more often found on cameras costing a great deal more. In fact, in one vlog Neistat calls the D70 ‘The best Camera in the World’. Quite a claim for a camera costing well under a thousand pounds in the UK.

I’ve recently had the chance to evaluate two highly regarded vloggers cameras; The Sony Alpha 5100 and the Canon EOS 750D or T6i Rebel in the US. Both cameras fall in that entry/Mid price range- retailing at under £500- and both cameras are well regarded by both reviewers and users alike.

First off, The Sony A5100 which is a mirrorless camera with a handsome 24-megapixel sensor with 179 integrated phase-detect auto focus points and although it's not exactly pocket sized, it is still a hell of a lot easier to lug about than a DSLR. With a tip up articulated screen, its great for anyone who wants to talk to camera or take a selfie. It does have a touch screen but this feature is very limited in terms of creative control. As you would expect, The Sony takes pretty good photographs and sharp video. It does however have one serious drawback which really put me off the camera. No viewfinder. Unlike the highly rated A 6000, the 5100 only has a led screen and trying to use a creative mode like aperture or shutter priority or manual is next to impossible in bright outside conditions.

Also,taking a photograph or filming outside in bright sunlight makes it more a point and hope action. As you would expect from Sony Mirrorless stable the Alphas offer a range of interchangeable lenses but the problem still remains. If you have to control your filming through the back screen, snapping on a zoom lens is not going to change things. If you are considering the Sony, then go for the A6000 which does have a viewfinder and although technically, its pretty much identical to the A5100, its old fashioned controls and viewfinder make it much more attractive to the outdoor photographer or vlogger.

The Canon 750d has become one of the most popular cameras in the Canon stable by virtue of its pricing, features and quality. Currently selling at £560 in Currys/PC World, the camera can be bought brand new on the grey market for just £420. Unlike the Sony, the 750d feels like a real camera. Chunky, solid and offering a highly intuitive range of creative features. Despite being in the same ball park as the Sony with regards to its 24mp sensor, the Canon is a totally different beast when it comes to versatility. A fully articulated screen and touch controls which leaves the Sony’s limited screen movement and touch screen functions in the dirt I’m afraid.

With live view and touchscreen focusing and shooting, as well as the option to link your smart phone to the camera and control the functions and shooting externally. Although this probably won’t appeal to the average user, it will appeal to the more serious amateur. Both cameras have wi-fi and you can download images to your phone, but actually, the Sony Play app which needs to be downloaded first is pretty crap to put it bluntly! Despite several attempts to transfer images, I never got it to work once so I gave up. To be honest, I haven’t used this feature on the Canon yet so I can’t comment.

So...I think you will have caught my drift thus far. The Canon 750D pretty much blows the disappointing Sony out of the water with regards to features, ease of use and hands on, on board tuition. Both cameras offer excellent results and produce sharp photographs and video, but nevertheless,the 750d is an excellent option for those whose pockets don’t stretch as far as a 70 or 80D.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Stealth Camping in a Van

Coming to the end of 'The Raider's Road'-Galloway Forest
We don’t really refer to parking up a camper for the night in a quiet, off the beaten track location as ‘stealth camping’ in the UK. Wild Camping usually suffices although its fair to say, some people do use the term for parking up for the night in an urban location. A couple of weeks ago I was up in South West Scotland in my V Dub T4 and as usual, avoiding campsites like the plague. One of the pleasures of owning a camper for me is discovering some quiet place in a pleasant rural location where I can hunker down for the night. Blissfully free of the nerve shredding realities of social camping. Doors slamming, couples arguing, kids crying, dogs barking, the stench of Asda burgers barbecuing etc etc. And people pay for this!!!

On my way home I dropped in to see an old friend who was parked up on a campsite in his T4 and who was paying £22 a night to stay on a massive site that resembled a 1970‘s Pontins holiday camp! So...on that basis, wild camping for four nights in Scotland saved me £88. Which easily covered my fuel costs.

One of the best ways to make wild camping work-as I’ve mentioned before on a blog piece- is a bit of forward planning using OS maps and Google Earth to suss out wild camping spots. Always have a back up plan in case that attractive looking clearing in a Forestry Commission plantation is actually gated and locked. It’s pretty frustrating to arrive somewhere where you hope to spend the night as darkness begins to fall and discover that you are in a no go situation.

Driving around in the dark looking for somewhere to park up can on the odd occasion, turn up trumps. I was watching a You Tube video recently where the couple, Scott and Ellie, who go under the moniker ‘The Explorer Buddies’, rolled up in the dead of night at the tip of Pen Llyn (The Lleyn Peninsula) in a NT car park, in thick fog and woke up in the same pea souper the next morning. No one around to disturb their peace and quiet and if the fog had lifted, it would have revealed a most spectacular view of Bardsey Island just across the Bardsey Sound. The other side of the coin though is that you are just as likely to end up parked up in a litter strewn layby; wedged between an Eddie Stobart lorry and a caravan!

Many of our best wild camping sites carry ‘No overnight camping' signs. These can be erected by private landowners, the local council, organisations like the NT and Forestry commission. The latter bodies don’t usually have the legal powers to enforce this or generally won’t bother. Most NT and FC employees want a quiet life and don’t want to get into a situation with someone they can see is just passing through. A convoy of Travellers arriving en masse is a different kettle of fish! Private landowners are more tricky. Certainly large landowners are more likely to employ forelock tugging goons to do their bidding and often will try to move you on. As for local councils; like the NT and FC, they generally don’t have anyone to enforce these regs and certainly the stretched local police have better things to do than pester a middle aged couple rustling up a curry in their camper and harming no one.

I’ve often pondered what the situation would be if someone tried to move you on after you had parked up for the night and drunk half a bottle of wine? If they were insistent that you move on then they would be encouraging you to commit a crime! I would interested to see how the police would arbitrate this if you contacted them and told them that a surly gamekeeper was encouraging you to break the law?

Finally...we need to talk about London! I was recently reading the travails of a Facebook friend who found himself unexpectedly £250 poorer after innocently straying into London in his 2002 VW TD and falling foul of the city’s draconian emission charge. Not everyone realizes that most pre 2006 diesel campers and vans have been subject to a £100 a day charge if they stray inside the M25 perimeter, for some time now. Short of sticking on false number plates and flicking the V’s at the city’s CCTV cameras as you enter the zone, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Just don’t go there. If you fancy a city break in your camper, go to somewhere like Edinburgh instead. It’s much nicer anyway and is surrounded by proper countryside and mountains. Not the endless, featureless sprawl that passes for countryside in the Home Counties!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Adventure climbing: Beyond the world we know

He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

The Beatles

One thing that’s always struck me about Pen Llyn-The Lleyn Peninsula- is just how relatively unexploited the areas climbing potential is. True, in the past, people like Joe Brown and Tony Moulam have thrown up a few routes and Pat Littlejohn has certainly made a mark on the sea cliffs hereabouts, but apart from visits from latter-day rock jocks like Calum Muskett and James McHaffie, there is still whole swathes of rock which awaits exploration.

Take the area around
 Nant Gwrtheyrn on the north-west coast. Driving down into the village I’m always amazed by the massive cliffs which capture the eye as you negotiate the zig-zag bends. These admittedly rather dank and vegetated cliffs which face out towards the sea must be at least 400‘ high. A cleaner section on the left-facing in- certainly looks like it would go but belays at the top look worryingly hard to find on the steep, heathery ground above.

If this section looks too much trouble to clean and equip with anchor points for an abseil return to base, what about the natural outcrops and quarries which sit above the village to the west? Looking up, its hard to take in just how much rock there is up there. Buttresses abound. Pale granite cliffs and man-made quarried areas tumble down the hillside in such a haphazard way that it’s difficult to focus on a particular area. It’s as if the climber’s brain cannot compute this much information and becomes literally stoned!

Perhaps that is why there is no history of climbing in these parts as there is just too much to take in? Although I suspect that more prosaic reasons are behind the areas’ neglect? For a start, access is not easy. The crags and quarries are scattered across the steep hill side in such a haphazard manner that getting from one area to the next is not easy. When I set off to look at a promising face, I found myself on a moving belt on loose scree and ankle snapping larger rocks which had me most of the time on all fours. Grasping at larger rocks, heather, and bracken as I set off small avalanches of scree with every footfall. Once I had reached my destination, weighed up the potential and set off across the hillside to look at other areas which looked promising, it became easier said than done. Some of the quarries had sheer drops which meant that you had to re trace your steps and try and find a way down. 

Finding myself on one quarry face, I noticed that it tapered down towards a gully at the far end. Perhaps I could scramble down and reach the scree at its foot. Taking my iPhone out of my back pocket in case I slipped back and smashed it, I carefully put it in a lower front pocket of my cargo pants. ‘Carefully’..not quite. Next thing I noticed was my phone tumbling down the gully to fortuitously land in the bobbing fronds of a clump of bracken which had rooted on a ledge. Tantalisingly out of reach, I downclimbed as quickly as possible and just reached it at fingertip length before it disappeared down the gully.

All these exertions were taking place on the lower reaches of the hillside. Exploring the higher slopes was not an option with the autumn sun fast disappearing over the horizon.It would take an age to take in every possible area of rock with climbing possibilities.

I doubt very much that the climbing potential of this area will ever be realized given how modern climbing is increasingly focused on accessible, established areas and no one these days is interested in the type of adventure climbing that the crags and quarries hereabouts, lend themselves to. Perhaps a new climbing ethic will develop in the future? Climbers will tire of polished crags, sports climbs, and chalk-stained boulders and actually seek out these obscure, unexploited areas?

Virgin Llyn Granite

Perhaps in 2050, adventure climbing involving death-defying approaches, gnarly descents, dubious rock etc, all undertaken without having reference to information online or in a guide, will appeal to future climbers? That voyage into the unknown. Where just reaching a virgin cliff is an achievement in itself.Even before the climbing begins. Possible I guess, for as the world becomes more overcrowded and the great outdoors shrinks evermore. Battered by tourism, wind farms, pylons, dams, new roads, housing, forestry, shooting, and fishing, etc. Perhaps by then, these hard to access places will come into their own as places of sanctuary and sanity in an increasingly mad world and become-in a tiny country like the UK at least-the last redoubts of adventure.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Buying cameras and gear through the Grey Market.

When I was looking to buy a Phantom drone, I did what most people do. I checked out the reviews and then shopped around for the best price available. As to be expected Amazon and outlets through eBay appeared to be the cheapest.However, it was a supplier I'd never heard of who were offering the drone at a good £50+ less than the nearest dealer. So..I placed the order and in about 8 days the drone arrived. It was set up and performed as it should without any problems. It was only when a few months later, when I was looking to buy a Sony mirrorless camera and discovered that once again, this supplier was the cheapest around-a good £100 cheaper than anyone else- that I realised that the supplier was based in Hong-Kong and selling through the so called 'Grey market'.

What is The Grey market? borrow from an article about the market in The Guardian.

'A Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge mobile phone for £530 instead of £619, or an iPad Pro for £650 when it’s almost £800 elsewhere – these are some of the tempting offers you can find online if you visit websites selling products without the manufacturers’ authorisation. Goods such as these are known as “grey” products or parallel imports. According to the International Trademark Association (INTA), these goods are genuine in that they have been manufactured by, or for or under licence from, the brand owner. The discount comes because they are not being sold through official channels, and are usually brought in from another country.'

So, basically the buyer is bypassing EU and UK import tariffs by buying directly from a market which operates outside of the conventional laws and legislation applied by states such as the UK, to outlets based in Europe, The US or Japan.Thereby avoiding import duty and taxation.

So what's the catch? appears that if say my DJI drone had developed a fault within a couple of weeks, it is questionable if the supplier would play ball and supply a replacement or refund. Then you would have the hassle of sending the item back to China/Hong Kong. Furthermore, a manufacturer like Apple, Sony or Canon, would not offer any guarantee on a product which was not sold through an officially recognized outlet. In a nutshell.'you pay's your money and you takes your chances!.

That being said, a camera like the Canon D70- superseded by newer model but still being sold new- selling through the aforementioned grey market outlet for £661 compared to up to £1000+ through an outlet like Amazon puts into perspective the massive mark up that manufacturers and governments apply to products sold in the regulated market.

Worth a punt? Well....that's for the individual to decide.Is it a risk worth taking?


Monday, September 4, 2017

Too Many People

Release Hell!: Yr Wyddfa Summit.Image- The Telegraph
The recent news that police were advising that the Isle of Skye ‘was full’, must have surprised even those of us who live in tourist destination areas and who have become used to the annual nightmare of gridlocked roads during the school holiday season. An event which sees many like myself just keeping way out of central Snowdonia for the duration and getting our outdoor fix in the areas which have yet to be discovered by the hoards. The situation on Skye this summer can be seen on vloggers, Tim and Mandy ‘Saved Purple Cat’ video linked below where they found themselves unexpectedly rolling up in their Mazda Bongo in the middle of the tourist tsunami.

All across the UK in the tourist hotspots, it’s the same story. Cornwall, The Lakes District, The Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia. Too many people crowding into too small an area with the predictable consequences. This comes at a time when the Lake District National Park has just been awarded Unesco World Heritage Status which caused Park National Executive Richard Leafe to boast how it would boost tourism in the Lakes by at least 20%. As I commented at the time, should we really be getting excited about 8-mile queues on the Kendal by-pass over 5 miles queues? If there is one thing the LDNP doesn’t need it’s more tourists, and for some years now I’ve applied the same summer criteria to the Lakes as I do to central Snowdonia...just don’t go there! The Lakes are far better in autumn, winter and early spring anyway.

Last bank holiday in North Wales we had a 13-mile tail back on the A55 Expressway.. ‘Expressway'!!! Who could not smile at the dark irony of that description? Meanwhile over on the creaking A5 which brings the bulk of English Midlands traffic into North Wales, those traditional bottlenecks, Llangollen and Corwen, continue to funnel traffic into their narrow, rat trap streets where a convoy of cars, campers, caravans and motorbikes, wait in frustration at traffic lights. An experience which if anything is even worse on the journey home.

Does it have to be like this? Well...Yes and No. There’s no getting around the fact that the UK is a heavily over-population island with limited space for the 65 million population to escape to, from the urban jungle for even a short space of time. It is predicted that the population will have exceeded 70 million in the next ten years and is on course to overtake Germany as the largest state in Europe by 2050 with a population of over 82 million. When this stat was reported in The Guardian, the writer could hardly hide his excitement. As if winning the population race was like winning the European football championship, instead of the sober reality which in effect condemns the country to a pretty depressing Bladerunner-esque future!

The Migneint: Far from the Madding Crowd 
Getting back to where we are now in relation to our crowded great outdoors. Thankfully there are still plenty of opportunities to avoid the crowds and many beautiful areas where it is still rare to bump into another person. Crags in the back of beyond which rarely see a climber, Hills where the hiker or wild camper is almost guaranteed to have the place to themselves. Quiet lakes set on pathless moors, caves and old quarries returning to nature, forest trails where the mountain biker will be all but guaranteed a lonely ride. All it takes is an OS Map and a bit of imagination-(Tip- Google Earth is a great resource too)- and it’s still possible to find yourself far from the madding crowd. As the population and car ownership increases, it will certainly take more effort in future to stay ahead of the pack, but I’m pretty sure it will still be possible to enjoy the outdoor experience in relative peace and quiet in the near future at least. Leaving places like Skye, the Central Lakes, Snowdonia and Cornwall to an ever more hellish and overcrowded future.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Guys win Prizes! :Mountain Writing and the Gender Gap

Boardman-Tasker 2017 shortlist: Image BT
So...the Shortlist has been announced for the 2017 Boardman-Tasker Award for mountain literature and in contrast to recent shortlists, there is a surprise entrant on the list....a woman! Yes, Canadian writer, Bernadette MacDonald who actually won the award in 2011 with ‘Freedom Climbers’-  which charts the disproportionate impact Polish climbers had on post war mountaineering, despite their isolation behind the iron curtain- has climbed mountain literature’s slippery slope and planted a flag for female writers amongst the usual BT cast of male hard nuts and romantics. In fact, you have to go back to 2013 to find a female writer on the shortlist and as it turned out, Harriet Tuckey’s biography of her father, Griffith Pugh, took the first prize with her ‘Everest-the First Ascent'.

But this is not to have a go at the Boardman Tasker committee who select their long and short lists from books generally submitted by publishers. You can only deal with the hand that you are dealt, and if books penned by women are not forthcoming, or if those which are, are deemed not good enough, then that’s no fault of the powers that be. The lack of successful female mountain writers should come as no surprise I guess, as a lot more men climb at the extremes of the sport. Both as rock and winter climbers and as extreme mountaineers, and it seems as if literary committees are more inclined towards favouring what I’ve described in the past as 'tales of derring-do’ over more mundane fare.  However, that begs the question, why should climbing at a lower technical standard or writing about people, places and experiences which are set in say, the English Lake District or Snowdonia, be considered as lesser works of art?

Personally, some of my favourite climbing books have been autobiographies which were firmly rooted in a world which is familiar and accessible to the everyday journeyman or women, Bill Peascod's Journey after Dawn, David Craig’s Native Stones, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Harold Drasdo’s The Ordinary Route, Harry Griffin’s Coniston Tigers, Gwen Moffatt’s Space Beneath my feet, even John Redhead’s esoteric, and one for the crow.

For the creative female writer there is material aplenty to fashion into a worthwhile literary work-as all of the above have done- without having to explore the greater ranges or describe being benighted at 24000‘, surviving avalanches or watching helplessly as a partner falls down a 2000' Himalayan ice face. With more women than ever taking part in mountain activities and more than holding their own with most men, I am left wondering how long it will be before female mountain writing really starts to make inroads into the macho world of mountaineering and climbing literature?