Like many, my motivation to write has been affected by the year that was 2020. The desire to share parts of my life with the internet waned as I tried to reconcile my life of many parts being confined to the same four walls for weeks on end. There is no correct reaction to a global pandemic. Making it through is enough.
That said, a rather contentious article on the state of nature writing just before Christmas sparked a wish to share some of my favourite “outdoor” books that I’ve read recently. Whilst the hills are off limits to many of us living in the lowlands, some armchair adventures may be the next best thing.
A note: I have cherry picked from my recent reading history. Somewhat inevitably, I have read significantly more outdoor books by white men than any other writers. As much as I try not to judge a book by its cover, if there’s a man’s face taking up most of the front, in gritty high contrast, staring at me with a smoulder, I will probably give it a miss. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favourite writers are men, but if anyone has recommendations for a more diverse background of authors than the ones below then I am always keen to hear.
A second note: Vertebrate Publishing sent me Winter 8000 and Big Trails for a neutral and honest review.
A third note: It’s hard to take artsy photos of book stacks when some of them are on your kindle. Also when you’re not very artsy.
Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season
Bernadette McDonald, Vertebrate Publishing
Bernadette narrates the attempts for the first winter ascents of the fourteen 8,000m peaks, with a chapter for each mountain. The book is the result of extensive research of first hand accounts from the climbers, interviews with surviving family members, club records and archives. Bernadette threads these accounts together to deliver balanced yet enthralling tales of athletic achievement.
Unlike many mountaineering books, Bernadette adds no hyperbole or unnecessary drama; indeed these sometimes come from the quotes of the climbers themselves, particularly from the more recent attempts as social media creeps in. The focus on the characters, particularly the Polish, dedicating their lives to the winter summits, brings colour and life to a rather bleak pursuit. The “art of suffering” gets its own entry in the index list.
The chapters are ordered by the date of the first successful winter summit, which include accounts of earlier, unsuccessful attempts. This can cause some confusion when in one chapter you read about the death of a climber attempting a summit, who then reappears in subsequent chapters for their earlier attempts of different mountains. A reflection on the death tolls and motivations of the endeavours is provided in an epilogue.
Recommended if: You want to hear about feats of mountaineering from a more balanced perspective than the usual disaster porn.
Out On Your Feet
The Hallucinatory World of Hundred-Mile Walking
Julie Welch, Aurum Press
Like the good millennial that I am, I discovered the Long Distance Walking Association and their annual “Hundred” through someone live-tweeting it. The longest I’ve walked in a day is 36km and I couldn’t quite comprehend the idea of walking a further 124km without significant rest. But that is what many people attempt in 48 hours at the LDWA’s flagship annual 100 mile challenge.
Throughout the book I found myself drawing parallels between the LDWA and the audax communities. Both are host to slightly eccentric subcultures, with people covering mind boggling distances powered largely by tea and cake, under little/no fanfare in a very old-school fashion, with all finishers receiving the same recognition regardless of their time. I loved it. I also empathised with the roundabout of emotions, similar to those experienced on an audax: “I’ll have done it! I’ll feel great! Actually, I might quit at the next checkpoint”.
This is not a book that will tell you how to prepare for a Hundred in any practical terms, or a recipe for success. It is a humorous account of walking a really long way, with a colourful supporting cast, interspersed with flashes of history of the LDWA, and Julie’s build up to her Hundred.
Recommended if: You want a spare-no-details insight into what happens to the body and mind when walking 100 miles.
(Out of print, ebook editions available)
A Philosophy of Walking
Frédéric Gros, Verso
I often get asked what I think about when I’m walking long distances by myself. Frequently, I’m musing on why putting one foot in front of the other is perpetually compelling
Frédéric questions why many great authors and philosophers have also been ardent walkers. Some chapters are devoted to a certain philosopher and their relationship with walking, others explore particular themes and attributes of walking, such as “solitudes” and “slowness”. For example, Frédéric is of the view that walking should not be rushed: “The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time… It’s an abstract calculation, though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal.”
The chapters are short, almost bite-sized, and it’s easy to pick up for a gentle reflection on the essence of walking. Talking to friends who have read it, it can be quite divisive. If you’re similar minded to Frédéric you’ll find yourself nodding along with moments of inspiration. If you’re not, he can come across preachy, failing to acknowledge his privilege, and trying to distil a singular definition of walking.
Recommended if: You’ve ever contemplated the “why” of walking.
Where There’s a Will
Hope, Grief and Endurance in a Cycle Race Across a Continent
Emily Chappell, Profile Books
Unlike most in the cycling world, I know Emily as “Sam’s sister”, with Sam being a mechanic at Broken Spoke bike co-op. In her second book, Emily invites the reader to follow her in the 2015 and 2016 Transcontinental Races. The Transcontinental, or TCR, is a self-supported bike race from one end of Europe to the other, approximately 4,000km long. Approximately, because each rider devises their own route, threaded between several mandatory checkpoints which are often at the top of mountain passes.
These riders can become slightly god-like to the average cyclist, with their feats of endurance and willingness to suffer seeming like such a leap from the every day. As such, it’s a delight to the reader that Where There’s a Will reveals Emily is indeed human. She writes beautifully, making you feel as if you’re riding along with her in the mountains, in the storms, through the night.
Emily’s athletic achievements are part of the book for sure, but I would wager that someone not especially interested in cycling would still find this a gripping read. Emily is brutally honest about the highs and lows, and I appreciated that the book didn’t finish with the end of her TCR race. The writing of the relationship with her mentor and friend, and on the grief of loss, elevates this beyond being another sporting memoir.
Recommended if: You want an honest and human insight into the world of ultra endurance cycling and what happens after the race ends.
Big Trails: Great Britain & Ireland
Kathy Rogers & Stephen Ross, Vertebrate Publishing
Big Trails provides teaser information for 25 long distance paths in the British Isles. It does not pretend to be a detailed guidebook for any of them, rather it presents an overview of the trails, with enough information for you to decide which ones you want to research further.
Each trail is given a few pages of narrative accompanied by beautiful landscape photography, a map, and an “essential information” page with more details, honest pros and cons, elevation graphs and seasonality suggestions. What I hadn’t seen before is an estimation of the time each trail will take, for four different user groups – walkers, trekkers, fastpackers and trail runners – using the “Jones-Ross” formula, a development on Naismith’s rule. With a description of how each user group travels, you can choose which one suits you best, and get a more realistic estimate of the time required. For example, it suggests that a walker would take 9 days on the Cotswold Way, whereas a runner could traverse it in 3 days. As always, take these with a pinch of salt – for Wainwright’s Coast to Coast it estimates a runner could complete it in 37 hours (over 5 days), then on the same page describes the fastest known time to complete it being 39 (continuous) hours. Maybe it’s laying down a challenge?
Recommended if: You want inspiration for your next long distance walk or run.
Seven Steps From Snowdon To Everest
A Hill Walker’s Journey to the Top of the World
Mark Horrell, Mountain Footsteps Press
I have walked up Snowdon numerous times, and on a quiet day it’s hard to beat. Thinking of climbing, rock or ice, makes my palms sweat. Just typing that sentence has made my hands go clammy. Hence my intrigue that a walker, perhaps like me, could walk up significantly higher mountains than Snowdon. The relatability of the book makes it a very engaging read.
Mark tells his story of mountaineering from the perspective of a paying client on commercial expeditions, and he tells it well. Perhaps with more similes than necessary. But it is refreshing to hear this side, rather than from those who were born with ice axe in hand, or are only chasing world records or online followers.
It’s an entertaining book, following Mark as he progresses up more and more technical peaks. It is an honest account of the work needed to succeed and be safe in the high mountains, which is something that I think can’t be overstated – and the discussion of the different criteria commercial outfits have for their clients was eye-opening.
Recommended if: You want to hear how a “normal person” walked, trained, financed and climbed increasingly difficult mountains.
A Short Story About a Long Run
Lizzy Hawker, Aurum Press
In the first lockdown I started running again after a lengthy hiatus, and am thrilled to be able to plod around my local woods in the mud. Despite my longest ever run being 15 miles, my dreams have always been larger than my body initially offers, and I still harbour quiet ambitions of running ultradistances on trails some day.
Lizzy leaves her heart on the pages, divulging her thoughts, feelings, and Buddhist philosophies, rather than focusing on the objectively impressive number of running accolades and titles she has earned. It is not the training or racing that Lizzy is passionate about, but the act of running itself. The simple title of the book speaks to Lizzy’s view of her achievements and records; you could categorise her as an ultrarunner, a trail runner, an endurance athlete, but she prefers the distilled essence of what she does, rather than pinning her to any one descriptor.
She does hold parts back from the reader, glossing over difficult times and skimming some details, and the jumps back and forth in time can be a bit disorientating. In the third and final part of the book Lizzy starts addressing “you”, who is assumed to be a close partner, but is never disclosed, and it almost feels like the reader should quietly close the book after part two, leaving them along together.
Recommended if: You’ve ever daydreamed of running ultradistances in the mountains and exploring the non-physical benefits of running.
Clear Waters Rising
A Mountain Walk across Europe
Nicholas Crane, Penguin Books
Because of this book I have a planner spreadsheet that plots a rough itinerary of walking across Europe’s continental divide, linking up various mountain ranges. Whether I will ever make that walk remains to be seen, but if I don’t, Clear Waters Rising provides a vicarious alternative.
Nicholas is the classic self deprecating Englishman, and paints wonderful pictures with his words. His walk across Europe in the early 1990s is a journey of wild camping (before it was called wild camping), bivvying (before it was called bivvying), and spending more time with people than he does money. Continuing a theme of the books I’ve teasered here, Nicholas walks without sponsors, without his sights on records or fastest known times. He walks just to walk.
At 400 pages it’s quite a heavy tome, and some of the longer history sections may have the reader glazing over, but it’s a well-written and entertaining read. Nicholas follows the old drove roads, pilgrim paths and mountain passes, and walks through Eastern Europe at a particularly interesting moment in time. His ignorance of mountain risks is forgiven through his humility and positivity, endearing him to both the reader and to the characters he meets.
Recommended if: You’ve ever run your finger across a small scale map and wondered what it would be like to walk across it.