My Mountains: Chris Townsend

© Chris Townsend

He likes walking in sandals, and carries binoculars to help him avoid bears. For our series of chats with familiar hill folk, Fiona Russell talks with long distance backpacking legend Chris Townsend.

Well known for his long distance solo walks, often in the wilds of North America, Chris Townsend is an outdoor writer and photographer and the author of more than 25 books including the award-winning The Backpacker's Handbook, now in its fourth edition, and a collection of essays called Out There: A Voice from the Wild. His most recent publication is Along the Divide, a book about his walk on the Scottish Watershed. He writes regularly for The Great Outdoors magazine and has a blog.

On Colby Pass, High Sierra, Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk 2016  © Chris Townsend
On Colby Pass, High Sierra, Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk 2016
© Chris Townsend

Chris, originally from Lancashire, has lived near Grantown-on-Spey in the Cairngorms National Park for almost 30 years and considers Scotland to be his true home.

He says his career "just happened". He adds: "There was never any plan for a career other than to spend as much time outdoors as possible, especially on long walks.

"I started writing the type of stuff I liked reading and discovered that others liked it and I could get it published. Photography came a little later – when magazine editors asked me for pictures and I hadn't got any I bought a second-hand camera and learned how to take publishable pictures."

Chis is a BMC Hillwalking Ambassador and a trustee of the John Muir Trust, and previously served as President of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. He has a passion for encouraging and inspiring people to both explore nature and wild places and to realise their importance and work to protect them.

He says: "I also want to entertain and inform, to show people how they can enjoy the outdoors and how exciting and fulfilling it can be."

What is your first memory of walking in the hills or mountains?

As a child I lived in Formby, on the coast of Lancashire, where much of the land is below sea level and the nearest mountains are far away. Back then, I enjoyed wandering woods, fields, sand dunes and seashore and this was when I developed a love of wild places.

The first hill I climbed was actually in a city. On a primary school trip to Edinburgh, I climbed Arthur's Seat, although unofficially! I was fascinated by it and persuaded another boy to come with me so we just slipped away from the class and navigated by line of sight through the streets and then up to the top. I knew then I wanted to do this over and over again.

On the Arizona Trail, 2000
© Chris Townsend

Tombstone Mountains & Talus Lake, Yukon 1990
© Chris Townsend

Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?

My parents, I guess, by allowing me to wander around the woods and fields near home. I spent much of my childhood playing outdoors. There was no sudden revelation. It was just something I did.

Do you prefer coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?

Hills and mountain ridges best of all but overall I like variety, so a mix of landscapes, views and terrain is always good.

Are you a fair weather or any weather walker?

Any weather. Although, as I've got older I appreciate sunny weather more. But as a photographer, I like dramatic light rather than plain blue skies.

On the Continental Divide Trail, 1985  © Chris Townsend
On the Continental Divide Trail, 1985
© Chris Townsend

What are your three all-time favourite hill or mountain walks, and why?

This is such a difficult question. The first three that come to mind are across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui; Sgurr na Stri in the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye and Quinag in Sutherland in the north-west Highlands.

The first is my favourite walk in my favourite area, the Cairngorms. Crossing the arctic-like plateau with its sense of vastness and wildness never fails to thrill me and the views from Ben Macdui, especially across the Lairig Ghru, are superb. This walk is especially wonderful under snow, when I'll probably be on skis or snowshoes.

I've also chosen Sgurr na Stri because it's one of the best viewpoints I know with a spectacular view of Loch Coruisk and the Cuillin ridge.

Quinag with its three Corbett summits is a great mountain on which I've had quite a few splendid wild camps. The views of the hills all around are tremendous.

Is the night-time a good time to go walking? (if yes, please explain!)

Yes. I think to fully appreciate the hills you need to walk at night, as well as during the day. When the hills are dark silhouettes under a huge starry sky they feel very different. The pale light cast by a bright moon gives an unusual look to the hills, too. And sunset and sunrise from a summit can both be amazing. Watching the colours drain from the hills as they sink into darkness and watching the colours come back as the darkness fades are both unforgettable experiences.

Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010  © Chris Townsend
Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010
© Chris Townsend

Have you ever been lucky to avoid/escape a difficult situation in the mountains?

More times than I'm aware of I suspect. Some of my most scary times have been river crossings where I only realised it was a bad idea when half way across.

I also triggered an avalanche once – luckily from above – and have also skied over a cornice in a white-out and fallen a few hundred feet, luckily into soft snow.

You have written a great deal about walking. What were the challenges, if any?

The main challenge is actually sitting down and writing. I find that starting a new book or article is the hardest part. Once I get going I'm okay. If the words won't come I go for a walk. That usually works!

Your perfect walking partner?

Myself! I am happy to walk with others at times but most of my walking has been done alone and I think I get far more out of it then.

Are you happy to go solo?

Very. My preference by far.

On Telescope Peak, highest summit in Death Valley National Park  © Chris Townsend
On Telescope Peak, highest summit in Death Valley National Park
© Chris Townsend

Boots, trail shoes, wellies or barefoot?

Trail shoes or sandals, depending on the temperature.

How do you navigate? GPS gadget, map and compass, phone or a mix…?

A mix. These days I often locate my position on my smartphone (I don't see the need to carry a separate GPS unit) and then take a compass bearing and walk on that. The print map tends to be used at rest stops and on summits for an overview of the area.

What three items are always in your rucksack?

Always? Waterproof jacket is one – I feel insecure without it, even on desert walks. A headlamp, even in summer. A notebook and pen because I like to be able to note things down and I've never found tiny electronic keyboards easy to use.

What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?!

I wouldn't call it a guilty secret but I usually carry binoculars as I like to be able to watch birds and wildlife. I've sometimes use them for route-finding, too, and a few times for checking whether a dark shape up ahead was a boulder or a grizzly bear. It was the latter once and I quickly changed my route.

Your favourite walking foods?

Flapjack and chocolate (except in hot weather).

If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?

The Cairngorms. These are my home hills and I never tire of them.

What is your ultimate walking heaven?

Oh, where shall I to start? Alaska, I think. I've been there once when I hiked the Chilkoot Trail at the start of my Yukon walk but I've never been to the Denali region or the Gates of the Arctic.

Will you be walking until you are 103?

I hope so!

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21 Sep, 2018

A very knowledgeable backpacker, who seems to be a really nice bloke too. He's currently walking the GR5, through the Alps, and is keeping us all updated with his trip on Facebook.

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