2021 in review

The first ‘new normal’ year as a freelance professional outdoor writer and editor

It’s that time of year again, isn’t it?

Rather than write out an introduction that will end up being almost identical to last year’s year in review, I think I’ll just link to that blog post instead. Almost every word of the introduction remains true for 2021 as well. It’s been another good year, and another year of feeling a bit weird that things are going well for me when they aren’t going as well for others.

Once again, I have worked hard, and once again I’m pleased with what I’ve been able to achieve. In some respects it has been an excellent year. In others it has left me wanting more.

This is a long post, so buckle up. Honestly I wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted to look at the pretty pictures.

The outdoors

Local walking and running

As always, I have been doing a huge amount of hiking in my local area – not just my daily five-mile pre-breakfast walk, but hundreds of miles of walking up and down the Wolds, including a number of overnighters. I don’t often post about these online, but I’m often out doing them, testing gear and recharging the batteries. They have helped to keep me sane. I’ve explored many new areas and grown to know our small local hills all the better.

In December, prompted by a bit of moaning on Twitter and helped along by encouragement and support from my friend Jenny Tough, I decided to start taking trail running a bit more seriously. Turns out that running for more than 2km is a thing I can do after all!

Mountains

I’m glad to report that this year has featured a lot more mountains than 2020 did – although it has been far from a vintage year, and I’m once again all too aware of life out of balance.

As expected, I missed the entire 2020-1 Scottish winter season, which was a blow given how good conditions seemed to be, but things picked up from the summer. My first proper trip was a June backpacking circuit of the Peak District – almost fastpacking – and then from late summer onwards I enjoyed several fine trips north to the Scottish Highlands. Highlights included hillwalking in Torridon with my brother James and his partner Nicole, a visit to Glen Feshie with James, a few days in the far north-west with Chris Townsend and Rob Finch (including a traverse of Quinag and an excellent day up in the Fannichs), a week hillwalking in Highland Perthshire and the Cairngorms with Hannah, and a wintry backpacking trip in the eastern Cairngorms in November.

Perhaps because of the contrast with the black year that was 2020, these experiences felt all the most precious – especially sunny days on Scottish mountains with friends old and new. But here’s the thing. Though I’m always grateful for any time I get to spend in the mountains, it hasn’t felt like anywhere near enough, and I’ve spent much of the year sunk in a constant fug of wanderlust. I know how to be happy living far from the mountains: I need a certain number of weeks in the hills and on long-distance trails. If that quota isn’t met then the wheels start to come off.

It hasn’t all been the pandemic’s fault. Once again I booked myself solid with projects and left little time for myself. It’s stupid, because time in the mountains feeds and nurtures everything else I do; it should come first. It’s a lesson I seem to need to keep learning.

One peculiarity of this year is that I’ve spent a lot more time with friends and family in the mountains and less time on my own. It turns out that I really enjoy this. Who knew? Maybe I’m a more social creature than I think.

Photography

Last year, wildlife photography in my local area was one of the few things that got me through. 2020 had a remarkable spring and summer for birds. The dawn chorus was deafening at times, an outpouring of non-human joy like nothing I’d ever heard, and flowers seemed to fill the world, foaming from all the hedgerows. No matter how trapped I felt I knew that I could go to the meadow at 6.30 in the morning and maybe I’d see the barn owl or a roe deer and maybe I’d come back with an image that meant something to me. That was absolutely everything in a dark time.

This year I hoped that I could replicate some of that magic again, sample the secret wildness, but it didn’t feel the same. I took my camera on the same rounds, changed nothing in my attitude or my approach, and while I’ve captured some images I’m pleased with (including some that are better than anything I managed to achieve last year), everything felt different. There were drastically fewer birds. Animals were wary and shy again. The haunting call of some distant solitary bird only served to highlight the loss of last year’s abundance. Although I kept carrying my camera with me and kept occasionally coming back with images, I quickly formed the opinion that 2020 had been a glorious outlier for me, unlikely to be repeated.

As far as landscape photography goes, it’s been a decent year but with no particular breakthroughs. I’ve come back from every mountain trip with images I’m pleased with. As usual, many of my images have been published in magazine articles and books. I haven’t made any progress with further commercial opportunities for my images, though, and to be honest at this point I’m not sure I want or need to.

In the autumn, I’ve once again been indulging in personal landscape photography in my local area – mostly simple compositions of leaves shot with a portrait lens. What can I say? I have a weakness for bokeh, and it keeps me out of mischief.

Work

It’s been another good year for Pinnacle Editorial – so good that, at the end of the year, I made the decision to put the Pinnacle Editorial brand on ice and focus on a handful of core clients. I’m very excited about this because it will mean greater control over my schedule and more time available to spend in the mountains.

Writing

At the end of last year, I wrote ‘At this point it’s looking unlikely that I’ll be publishing much in outdoor magazines in 2021’. I’m thankful to report that this worry hasn’t come true. It’s been a good year for my outdoor writing in The Great Outdoors and Sidetracked. Here’s a selection of the pieces I’ve had published:

  • Jan 2021: ‘Freezeframe’, TGO magazine (Cairngorms in winter traverse); Wild Walk: Sgorr Ruadh, TGO magazine (mapped walk).
  • Feb 2021: Wild Walk: Schiehallion, TGO magazine (mapped walk).
  • Mar 2021: ‘Has outdoor culture become too detached from nature?’, TGO magazine (comment piece); ‘Isolation and Connection’, TGO magazine (feature about a winter crossing of Knoydart).
  • Jun 2021: ’21 Years on Ben Nevis – Caring for the UK’s Highest Mountain’, Sidetracked Field Journal (partnership with the John Muir Trust); ‘Why the countryside might be in a better state than you think’, TGO magazine (comment piece).
  • Jul 2021: Route of the Month: Tryfan North Ridge, TGO magazine (mapped walk); Hill skills: map-reading fundamentals, TGO magazine (skills guide).
  • Aug 2021: Route of the Month: Buttermere Edge, TGO magazine (mapped walk); Hill skills: compass fundamentals, TGO magazine (skills guide).
  • Sep 2021: Route of the Month: Ring of Steall, TGO magazine (mapped walk); Hill skills: pacing and timing, TGO magazine (skills guide); ‘Life Lessons from the Amazon’, Sidetracked Field Journal (in conversation with Pip Stewart).
  • Oct 2021: Route of the Month: Fairfield Horseshoe, TGO magazine (mapped walk); ‘Sastrugi’, Sidetracked Volume 22 (Cape Wrath Trail Single Moment).
  • Nov 2021: ‘Seize the Day’, TGO magazine (feature about the Glenfinnan Munros in winter).
  • Dec 2021: ‘No Ice, No Life’, Sidetracked Field Journal (in conversation with Lewis Pugh).

I have once again written two books this year: Wanderlust Alps (gestalten, September 2021), and a new non-fiction outdoor book with Vertebrate Publishing. I’m reworking the latter at the moment and will be submitting my second draft in January. I also have a proposal in with Vertebrate for another book.

The Farthest Shore was published in September 2021 and has exceeded my expectations. At the time of writing, it’s received 44 glowing reviews on Amazon, and has become one of Vertebrate Publishing’s top-selling books of 2021. People keep emailing me to say how much they’ve enjoyed it – even that it has changed their life. I’m delighted. (You can read a round-up of some of the best reviews here.)

Finally, this year it was my honour to write the forewords for two publications: Sidetracked Volume 21 (my personal favourite of the three issues I’ve edited this year), and Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite by Mark Horrell (more about this below).

Editing

Sidetracked magazine

It’s been my first full year as editor of Sidetracked magazine, and I have edited volumes 20 (an issue not without controversy), 21 and 22. With every issue I’ve become more confident and have enjoyed the work all the more. This, right here, is the stuff that I feel I am best at: taking a story that inspires me from pitch to printed word, helping a writer to make a connection with the reader, helping them to grow.

TGO magazine

In addition to everything I’ve written for The Great Outdoors this year, I’ve also been working on the editorial side for a few issues. Along with a bit of sub-editing, I guest edited the winter skills supplement in the December 2021 issue – it turned out really well. As I’ve been doing for the last few years, I helped to launch, manage, and publish the annual Reader Awards. Once again we received a record number of votes.

Books

Due to how busy I’ve been elsewhere, it’s been another year with only a handful of book manuscripts to work on, but they’ve been good ones.

  • The Earth Beneath My Feet, Andrew Terrill (line edit).
  • Wanderlust Himalaya, Cam Honan, to be published by gestalten (copy-edit).
  • A new manuscript by Marek Bidwell (structural work).
  • Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite, Mark Horrell (structural work and line edit).
  • On Sacred Ground, Andrew Terrill. Work on this is almost complete and will conclude before Christmas.

Gear reviewing

2021 was my first full year on the regular gear-reviewing team at The Great Outdoors, and it’s been a busy schedule, testing dozens of products. I have delivered comparative reviews of dehydrated backpacking meals, GPS watches, waterproof jackets, base layers, and down jackets. I was also once again a judge in the annual Gear Awards.

Speaking

In addition to various podcasts, I’ve done a few talks this year, both online and in the real world.

  • Mar 2021: online talk for the Outside and Active Festival on preparing for a long-distance hike. This was a joint talk with Jenny Tough.
  • Sep 2021: The Farthest Shore book launch, Highland Bookshop, Fort William.
  • Nov 2021: Kendal Mountain Festival. A talk on my experiences as a climber and long-distance backpacker in the Alps. In November I also delivered an online talk on the Cape Wrath Trail for Walk Listen Create.

Areas for change in 2022

Work

As I recently wrote in The future of Pinnacle Editorial, there will be big changes ahead next year. I’m taking on more work with magazine clients, which means less time to work on other stuff. I’ll no longer be editing book manuscript for private clients and, for 2022 at least, will be exclusively working with Sidetracked and The Great Outdoors for editorial work and short-form outdoor writing, and Vertebrate Publishing for my own books.

Yes, I’ll be writing another book next year, but I don’t plan for 2022 to be a two-book year. Two books a year is quite a pace to keep up and I don’t feel that it’s necessary at the moment.

I’ll be doing more public speaking next year as well. It’s a bit early to mention specific bookings yet (apart from this one already sorted for February), but I hope to return to the Kendal Mountain Festival as well as participate in the Sidetracked Creators Tour 2022.

The outdoors

2022 is going to be the best year for outdoor adventure. There, I’ve put it down in writing. I’m going to get the balance right next year and it is going to be everything I have been missing for the last two years. I want 2022 to be as good a year as 2019 was. No, scrap that – I want it to be better.

My new work schedule will free up more time to spend in the mountains. Omicron chaos permitting, I want to make the most of this Scottish winter season, and I plan to head north more often for short backpacking trips with friends and family from spring through to the autumn. I will be spending much more time in the Peak District. And then, in the summer, I plan to walk 1,000km across the Alps, making good use of the new fitness I’m starting to build up through running. This will be my biggest trip to date, longer than the Pyrenean Haute Route by almost 200km.

One more thing. In my 2020 review I wrote that ‘This has been the first time in my life when I have regretted the fact that I don’t drive. Having to rely on public transport most of the time has felt like a real handicap.’ Next year I intend to do something about that. I am going to learn to drive, and I am going to buy a car – maybe even a small adventure van. Honestly, I have had enough of relying on unreliable and expensive public transport that rarely gets me to exactly where I want to go anyway.


At the end of my 2020 year in review I wrote ‘let’s hope that 2021 brings better things for us all’. It’s been another weird year, but in many respects it has been a good year, and I have every faith that 2022 will be better still. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Images © Alex Roddie, James Roddie Photography, Hannah Roddie, and Jenny Tough. All Rights Reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission.

By Alex Roddie

Award-winning outdoor and nature writer, editor, author, and photographer.

%d bloggers like this: