Review - Echoes by Nick Bullock

Nick Bullock's prose captured my interest via his blog, and so I had this on pre-order since the summer. 

The book charts the author's early life, his work in the prison system, and discovery of climbing as a release from the world of concrete, sweat and fear that he inhabits on a daily basis.  It takes us through his childhood, an apprenticeship as a estate keeper in Wales, and then entrapment and disappointment in a interior prison of his own, working amongst the country's most wanted - drug dealers, murderers and gangsters.  From here the story accelerates to describe his conversion to climbing and mountaineering, a world of freedom, danger, injury and sanctuary sought in high level, high risk expeditions. 

It's an uneven book, a book full of peaks and troughs and contradictions and most of all tension.  I struggled with the first few chapters.  The author seems to wade through giant snowdrifts to reach into the distant past - you can feel the stretch at recollection, the telling of his early years trance-like, absent.  Everything up to his own incarceration as a prison warden is almost a list, devoid of substance or detail.  As if it happened to someone else, as if something is missing.  Which of course it is - but this absence is a surprise.  His current writing unabashedly confronts his own fears and feelings in a way that some climbing traditionalists find uncomfortable.  Maybe this schism is understandable, given the metamorphosis which lies at the heart of the book.

But, this is less than half the story.  As he begins to tell the tale of his early climbing exploits, early winter climbing on Nevis and an obsessive training regime, the book blossoms.  As the author becomes the climber and not the prison warden, you feel the text relax, become not just more descriptive but also more personal.  The author is a hard man, becoming softer, that tension in his life writ large. The later chapters are classic, breathless page turning stuff - I haven't read a book this gripping for years, scarcely able to put it down from half way through - the later expeditions to Peru and the Himalaya are intimately described, the authors love for the cultures he visits and the friends he climbs with are as captivating as the punishing routes they dream up together.  You can feel him falling in love with his new way of living chapter by chapter, crux by crux.

I'm not a climber, but the author takes you with him - only once did the technical language of equipment obstruct my understanding of the challenges of high mountaineering.  He has been criticised for a direct style both in prose and on the mountain. A prickly and confrontational momentum, famously dismissive of any form of aid when on the hill.  No compromises.  This stance speaks honestly of the author, and the text is the same - at times angular, even awkward, then driven, completely sublime.  Respect for the mountain and good grace when finding routes is something even I can relate to, though I don't know one end of a jumar from another.

What you get with Echoes is the portrait of a man becoming himself, not a silver spooned athlete hot-housed from infancy, but a real soul in real conflict who (literally) climbed out of his own personal hell to become one of the boldest adventure mountaineers in the world.  In that sense this is a story about rebirth, a tale from the road to Damascus, a mammoth undertaking.  Nick Bullock has been places most of us never will, and that's before his feet leave the ground.  The author is as brave on the page as he is on the mountain, and for both these things, Echoes deserves our attention.  Yes it may be uneven and sometimes pieced together, but since it charts such a personal journey and does so increasingly eloquently, I think it's worth forgiving the technicalities and giving some time to a gritty, honest and dazzling transformation.  The author dares to care, and so should we.

A day out in Dunbar

On the high street in a sleepy Sunday seaside town, there's a back and white wooden fronted three storey townhouse.  For the first 11 years of his life, it was the home of the writer, naturalist and conservationist John Muir.  It's now a museum and learning centre run by the John Muir Birthplace Trust.

It's a small but lovingly put together affair, with each floor telling a different aspect of the Muir's life.  The ground floor concentrates on his childhood, the son of a well off and piously religious father and more doting mother, the middle floor a story of his awakening to nature and nature writing in America as inventor, factory worker and shepherd, and the top floor examining the legacy of a man famously known in the US as 'the father of national parks'.

There is clearly a focus on accessibility and education here, which I found hugely positive.  Through touch screens, video and simple games using blocks of wood, the thoughts and words of an inspired and inspiring mind are slowly unveiled.  Often using Muir's own writing, the ground floor tells touching stories of his childhood, the upper floors recounting the incident which temporarily cost him his sight before setting him on a new road to adventure and discovery across America.  I wondered if more sensual input would help set the scene - sounds of the wind in the trees, insects, storms, or using touch to experience wood, stone, sea, sand and so on.  We both wanted to see more of his sketches, which are incredible.

But Muir would have sympathised with the tension latent in bringing the wild outdoors alive in an indoor exhibit.  Overall, we left understanding more about the character of the writer, a character forged in the dying embers of both Victorian imperialism and Christianity, and feeling genuinely inspired.  It is the text that is rightly given pride of place here, and that text does have the ability to transport you right into the heart of nature - you just need to give it a little time to work its magic.

I have heard criticism of Muir's writing as overly verbose, flowery - and if I'm honest I've still not read enough to judge for myself - but from the evidence here alone, I'd disagree.  Yes, Muir's prose is a product of its time, but reaches beyond it to speak truth to power right now.  I honestly found the townhouse a reflective and even a moving place to be.  I'm a harsh critic of museums and art galleries if exhibits are static or over interpreted by careerist curators, so please take that as high praise.

"Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence, you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature'' writes Muir.  A dreamer and stravaiger turned scientist and writer eventually to become a reluctant activist, who made a vast number of first ascents, exploratory climbs and long distance walks with almost no equipment, who openly admitted to wrestling with conscience and struggling for hours with his writing pad.  A humble man of huge intellect, who fearlessly wore his heart on his sleeve.  If only we could all say the same.

The museum's modest proportions suit its protagonist, but it is telling in other ways too - the UK has been slow to realise the significance of Muir's work (apparently many of his books were out of print here until the last decade or so) long after we imported an idea sparked from his passionate texts - a system of protection for land of intrinsic value.  But he may be made more welcome yet - 2014 is the year of a referendum for Scottish Independence, a 'homecoming' year, but also the centenary of Muir's death.

But enough of school!  After the museum, it's an easy thing to go and find some of that nature you've been reading about, by wandering along the coast to the John Muir Country Park

We walked along a wide empty beach passing bleached white driftwood and nesting terns, with chocolate coloured surf swelling in on the tide, then picked up on the breeze out towards Bass rock.  After an hour or more we moved inland, crossing dunes full of meadow flowers and moths, to a quiet woodland trail before turning back towards town and home.

It is quietly lovely, accessible, a great outing for kids of all ages, and I'd recommend it the next time you are in this part of the world.  Really, the beaches here are something else.  Bring a picnic, a waterproof too, and make a day of it.

NB:  This was not written for my work with the John Muir Trust, who are also not connected to this museum, although they did provide some initial support at the time the Birthplace Trust was established.  

Review - BPLUK Honey Stove

This is a small review of the Honey Stove, which BPLUK design, manufacture and sell.
  I should say that I've only used this in its wood burning configuration, although it can be used as a pot support and a stove support for a huge variety of different cookers and also for esbit - there's loads of details on Bob's website here.  I had a mind to use this as a pot support for our whitebox stove, but our pan (for 2) is too big to sit inside the perimeter and pressurise the stove properly.  It would theoretically work in this way, you just need a smaller diameter pot than our old 1.7ltr AGG.  In the end I ended up with a DIY solution to the wobbly whitebox issue.

Bob has good reason to be proud of this, it is designed brilliantly and manufactured in the UK as well, a rare thing.  It comes in a black cordura flat bag, there are 6 sides and a number of middle plates, and the fact that it packs very flat is worth talking about - I slipped it down the back of my pack, along with a quiche silver foil tray to protect the ground, and since its close to your back it helps to mediate some of the weight.  It weighs somewhere in the region of 340gms, though I only used 1 middle plate which brought that down a fair bit.  If you use it to support a trangia for example, its going to weigh less than half that. 

So weight is not everything:  the stove itself is a lovely piece of engineering.  The first time I put it together it seemed fiddly and the metal really tight, but by the end of the trip it was a no brainer - the fixings loosen up a little and the slot design makes sense.  No moving parts = good camp efficiency.  Once its up, the next thing to say is how completely stable this design is.  After using a whitebox exclusively for a year or 2, this was a dream.  Its so solid, and our 2 person pot isn't going anywhere at all.  This is pretty important, in the blustery climes of northern Europe especially I think - we have a huge variety of conditions, high winds and uneven ground to deal with, and this device provides a really firm footing for our precious dinner.  Picking partially cooked food from the floor is not the best. 

The fire itself is really easy to get going with a bit of tinder and then takes only a handful or 2 of wood to bring water to a boil.  It is really efficient, much more so than a regular camp fire, and more than I expected. The fire is completely sheltered from the wind but obviously draws enough air to get very, very hot. Hopefully the picture above shows you just how groovy it is from that point of view.  Its also nice to be able to control the heat: as opposed to a meths stove, you can feed this and make it flamey, or keep it low and efficient and just for cooking.

I have to say I really liked this stove, and I didn't necessarily expect to.  Its absolutely rock solid, and in my clumsy world that counts for quite alot.  It packs flat and is incredibly fuel efficient.  Food does taste better over wood, of course it does, that's why everyone loves a bar-b-q.  It has 'real fire' cache - its big enough so you can get a proper burn going on and do marshmallows (i don't like 'em myself but you go ahead!) and stare into the flames until your eyes glaze over.  You can even dry your socks and shoes off a bit (careful now...)  In comparison, these things aren't so easy to do with the Trail Designs Ti Tri - that's a much more enclosed wood burner, and maybe a tad less luxurious because of that.  I've only used an old Bushbuddy type stove for a few days (borrowed) but found it to be too small for a 2 person pot - it took forever to boil, not a problem with the Honey stove.  But, all the above are a genuine advantage to using the Honey Stove and really add to the camping experience, a reward for your hard days walking.

I probably wouldn't take it for camping solo that often, because the weight puts me off, but for 2 or more that's easily mitigated, especially over a long weekend or more.  I kicked myself for not taking it on the soaking wet weekend around Pumlumon I did with a friend - it would have been great to have had a real fire to help dry us off and give a little comfort, and we had forest campsites for 2 nights where we could possibly have found enough dry twigs to start a fire.  And, to be completely honest I expected the weight to be more noticeable than it was - it more than paid T and I back in luxurious camp fire vibe (lightweight glamping anyone?), volcano hot food and meths weight saving over a 10 day trip for 2 in the Lakes at Easter.  It will definitely be coming out again with us in the future.  I can't wait to use it on a last minute dash to the New Forest, its born to go there!  Now, if only Bob would make a titanium one.... 

Review - Inov8 roclite 370 boots

This is the first time I've done a review of some footwear, so bear with me. I managed to find these in a size 10 a few months ago, and so far I've walked about 100 miles in them all told.  They weigh about a third of my previous Meindl boots - 390g as opposed to 900g per shoe, and I fully intend to take them on the HRP with me.  They have proved to be really grippy, comfortable, breathable and provide support where needed.
The addage about 1lb on your foot being worth 5 in your bag, I really have found to be true.  My feet are much less tired than they were in big leather boots at the end of the day.  I have used regular Roclite 315's for day hikes for a year or so but am cautious about going without ankle support when carrying a heavy load without more training for my feet.  Most sensible UL'ers warn against making the jump too soon, it takes a long time to build strength.  Both Dave Wood and Steve Horner have written great articles about this issue, which show that its a journey and is rushed at our peril. 
So, its no good me pretending I'm a runner and wearing flip flops to walk 600miles in, I'll hurt myself!  The fact that these have ankle support works really well for a transitional hiker like me.  They aren't heavy, but when my ankle does go over (which does happen occasionally on rocky terrain, anyone who tells you otherwise is plainly walking on water), it is fully encompassed and protected.  Its happened a few times and I've been protected exactly as if I were wearing a 900g boot.  These feel substantial enough in the toe area to stop bumps, more structured underfoot than my 315's, but still with loads of feedback from the ground so you can adjust your gait or walking style to the environment as you go.

They also don't have a goretex liner, so my feet are going to keep cool enough in the high temperatures of the Pyrenees.  In the UK I have worn a goretex sock with them, a system which works OK, but I won't bother in the Pyrenees - if my feet are wet for a day or two, so be it, the rest of the time they won't be.  The breathable mesh sits quite high on the boot, so most ground water doesn't get in anyway.

About the grip - these things are way more grippy than any boot I've used - the tread is really aggressive and sticky.  To confirm that, I just wore Keen Targhee 2's on a very rainy 3 day backpack, and they were good until I got onto slick rock - after that, totally useless...even dangerous.  (They also eventually soaked through, and then stayed soaked, thanks to that liner issue.)  The 370's on the other hand, stick like glue on wet grass and mud, and pretty good on wet rock too - well almost.  Don't go trying to use the middle part of your foot to walk on, say, the edge of a rock.  That torsional system might help provide flexibility but it also has no tread.  I did manage to forget that and skid quite badly once or twice.

The really brilliant thing about these is that they might be boots but they still allow my foot to bend.  I really did start to walk in a different way.  Descending from Dale Head in the Lake District with a big pack, normally I might have felt a few knee twinges by the time I got to the bottom.  But I noticed that I began to use the ball of my foot - not heel striking, but using my toes - to take the strain, and this meant no knee pain at all.  This is the way our feet were designed to work - look at where the hinges are!  This, coming from big old leather boots, was a revelation.  It means I'm less and less likely to use the middle part of the shoe to walk on anyway.

There is a caveat to that - my feet are still quite weak in the scheme of things, and I found I strained the instep of my right foot.  I am quite flat footed and also over pronate, so need stronger, thicker insoles than the inov8 ones.  I have since purchased Sole insoles and these seem to do the trick of supporting that instep.  No bruising since, touch wood.

I really like these, I only wish Inov8 would make another unlined boot and buck the annoying goretex trend.  I'll be starting my Pyrenees walk in these and hope they'll take me to the Med - they are showing early signs of wear on the sole but nothing too drastic.  As on other inov8 shoes, the sole begins to impact a little, and on these, the more aggressive tread is ever so slightly worn now - but its minimal.  If they don't get me all the way, I might be ready to use my Roclite 315's by the time I've walked a few hundred miles.