With thousands of miles of solo long distance walking under his belt, no-one is better placed than BMC Hill Walking Ambassador Chris Townsend to outline the attraction of heading out alone.
How did you get into the outdoors? Has hill walking always been the activity that you enjoy the most? I can't remember a time when I wasn't into the outdoors. I was brought up on the Lancashire coast where as a child I loved exploring the woods and fields and beaches. The biggest hills were sand dunes! I started hill walking on school trips to the Lake District, Snowdonia and the Peak District and it has been my core outdoor activity ever since.
When and where was your first solo walk? Was it an active choice to go by yourself? My first solo walk must have been in the Formby pinewoods, probably when I was eleven or so (I wasn't allowed to go on my own until then!). I wanted to watch wildlife and I enjoyed being alone in nature. Much later, when I was a student, I walked the Pennine Way solo, my first long distance walk.
Why does solo walking appeal to you? Do you think it’s something more people should do? I go walking to experience wild places and I find it easiest to do this alone. I enjoy being with people but I can do this in towns and at home. I do walk with others at times but I find it a very different experience. There's a selfish element to solo walking too. You can make decisions without consulting anyone else! I can decide to look at a view for an hour or walk well into the night on the spur of the moment.
I'd certainly suggest that others should try solo walking and see what it feels like. It isn't for everyone though. I have friends who've tried it and really didn't like it.
Is there anywhere you wouldn’t consider going walking by yourself? I haven't found anywhere yet! I guess there may be places where the threat from wild animals might mean solo walking was inadvisable. But then I've walked thousands of miles solo in grizzly bear country, which is not recommended.
Do you find that solo walking helps with your writing? Would you find it harder to write if you walked with other people all the time? Definitely. I keep journals of my walks and my writing is based on these. With others it can be hard to find the time to make notes. I have to really discipline myself when in a group or days can go by without my writing anything down.
It’s clear from your latest film, ‘The Cairngorms in Winter’, that you’re not just a ‘fair weather walker’. What keeps you going when the weather’s awful and there’s no visibility? The knowledge that it will clear up eventually! Actually, winter storms, although more threatening and harder to deal with than summer ones, can be exciting and invigorating. The hardest weather to deal with mentally is continuous rain and mist, which I had rather too much of on the walk along the Scottish Watershed I did last summer. After days without seeing much it does require will power to keep going.
Have you ever thought about doing the Mountain Leader award? Many, many years ago I worked for several summers for Outward Bound Loch Eil leading two week treks and considered getting qualifications. I did the first half of the award but never returned for the second part. If I'd gone on to do more instructing I would have completed it.
What’s your scariest moment in the mountains? There have been a few over the years! I've done some hairy and frankly reckless river crossings in the past and occasionally had some rather too exciting scrambles. But I think the scariest was on a ski tour in Norway when I skied over a cornice in a white-out. The cornice collapsed and I found myself falling through the air in a cloud of snow. That was terrifying. Luckily I landed in deep snow and was unhurt except for a bloody nose, caused by hitting myself in the face with a ski as I fell.
What’s your favourite bit of kit you take with you on a day out hill walking? Probably my camera, which comes with me year round. Most actual walking gear is seasonal of course. I have lots of favourite bits of gear. Two that come on most trips are my Pacerpoles and a merino wool beanie.
Where’s next on your solo walking hit list? Immediately, winter walks in the Highlands, something I didn't do much of last winter as I was making the Cairngorms film. I'm hoping for plenty of snow! Looking longer term I'm thinking of a long walk in the Southwest USA, in the desert mountains and canyons.
What do you hope to achieve as the BMC's first Hill Walking Ambassador? I hope to promote hill walking and inspire and inform hill walkers and show them why the BMC is important. The BMC's work on access and conservation is essential for the future of hill walking and should be supported by all hill walkers.
This article is part of a series of articles celebrating Mountain Training’s 50th anniversary year in 2014.