In my year review for 2021 (which disappeared in the Great Website Snafu and is now lost), I wrote that 2021 was my first 'new normal' year as an outdoor writer and editor after Covid overturned everything. Here's how I summed up my 2021:
- '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.'
In general, this remains true – although I've stopped feeling guilty that things continue to go well, because most of my fellow freelance creatives have now bounced back after the Covid lull. In most respects I have had a wonderful and very busy year. However, challenges remain – and there are more on the horizon.
Let's dive in. This is always my longest post of the year, so I'll break up the wall of text with plenty of pictures.
Preface: a Big Year and its unique challenges
Every few years, my life goes through what I call a Big Year. Here are a few:
- 2008: graduated university, split up with my girlfriend Grace, spent a summer climbing 4,000ers in the Alps, moved to Scotland, began the Clachaig Years (yep, this was the biggest Big Year of them all)
- 2010: fell in love with Hannah, another Alpine season, first backpacking trip to Norway, identity crisis as I came to terms with living in the flatlands again
- 2018: death of my father, marriage to Hannah
- 2019: Cape Wrath Trail in winter, Pyrenean Haute Route, signed first book contract with a trad publisher
My 900km Alpine traverse this summer has, all by itself, made 2022 a Big Year. In 2019, after I returned from hiking the Pyrenean Haute Route, I felt numb and disconnected from everything for months afterwards, and the same has been true this year. Perhaps even more so. It's as if the sheer mind-warping intensity of that experience has desensitised me to everything else. Writing is more difficult and I oscillate between spells of high motivation to get out and exercise and spells of low motivation – these also correspond with dips in my ability to write and focus. My enthusiasm for personal photography and reading drops in these periods too. If you're one of the friends I chat with on WhatsApp, you've probably noticed that I go through quieter spells. Yep, there's a correlation.
There are periods in which I don't want to do much of anything. In fact, for about a month after returning from the Alps I did almost no exercise, no writing or reading beyond what was required for my job. Planning future big projects felt impossible. Clawing my way back from that sense of vague hollowness took time and careful self-reflection. More than four months later I don't think I'm entirely back out of it yet.
I remember what it felt like after I moved back down south following my years living in Glencoe. Flashbacks would catch me off guard. Cutting steps up some icy gully in the moonlight, then standing alone on the summit of Bidean and howling with joy at the stars. Striding along the crest of the Aonach Eagach in a gale, my entire body plated in rime ice. Abseiling from the Pinnacle Face in the dark with blood streaming from my forehead. The unreal (but simultaneously hyperreal) sensation of being elevated, just for a moment, far above the usual spheres of human experience into some divine realm that mortals can only glimpse. Yes, I read a lot of W.H. Murray back then. I lived the mythology in a very tangible sense. What in everyday life can possibly compare to that?
These aftershocks would seem like messages from the life of some other being living on another world, and the only way I could respond to them was with a sort of low-level aching grief at that which was now gone – and which perhaps I could never touch again. In my 2017 story 'In Pursuit of Perfection' I wrote about how I learnt that this was not true, and that I could still occasionally experience it all once again when the stars were right.
It is not the same now, but it is comparable.
I don't believe that this is any form of depression, post-trail or otherwise. It's not as if I'm pining to be back out there. In fact, I have appreciated home and ordinary things all the more since returning (this is one of the gifts of trail life). I don't think it's any kind of anxiety or burnout, either. These are both old friends. No, this is something new.
Is there a word for this? Perhaps some clever multi-syllable German word? I don't believe there is. My traverse of the Alps this year was the biggest, scariest, most moving, and most life-affirming single thing I have ever done. Perhaps it's natural that nothing feels quite the same afterwards.
Oh, and in perhaps-not-entirely-unrelated stuff: in the autumn I decided to change my look. Out with the scruffy beard and scruffy haircut I've had since my early twenties; in with a clean-shaven look and a different hairstyle. Maybe it's an early midlife crisis.
In 2021 I promised myself that 2022 would be the best year for outdoor adventure. After the Covid doom years I wanted to make up for lost time, and I'm glad to say that 2022 has really delivered, edging out 2019 as my best adventure year to date by a healthy margin.
I also wanted 2022 to be the year of more social adventures. Although I've done a few solo trips as well, I have spent far more time on the hill with family and friends, and I've really enjoyed this.
Local walking and running
As always, I've been doing a lot of local hikes, although I haven't made as much of an effort to find new places in the Wolds as I did during the Covid years. Most of my mileage has been on my local familiar trails. That's been a good thing for my photography.
My local trail running peaked in mid 2022. By May I was regularly out doing 35km routes in the Wolds – all training for my big Alpine traverse, but I found these outings tremendously enjoyable in their own right. After coming back from the Alps, however, I didn't pick up my local running at anywhere near the same level. I'll begin to spin things back up in early 2023.
Mountains and backpacking
January and February: fastpacking trips
In late January I headed to the Lakes and completed a 65km circuit from Windermere, taking in a lot of summits and 3,600m+ of ascent. Bits of it involved running. This was my first time running in the hills with a pack on, and I loved it. In February I headed to the White Peak and completed a route of a similar length, but with less ascent and a bit more running.
March and April: West Highlands
I decided to go and stay in Fort William for a couple of weeks to get me close to the hills at the end of the winter season. This proved to be an excellent decision. In addition to doing a bit of hill running, I visited Glencoe (a winter ascent of Bidean nam Bian, and a day out on the Pap of Glencoe with Davy Wright), made a two-day circuit of Suilven with my brother James, and finally completed Tranter's Round in winter conditions – a long-held dream.
April and May: Lake District
In April I went on a fantastic two-part trip to the Lake District. The first stage featured a Wainwright-bagging backpacking tour around Wasdale and Ennerdale with Andy Wasley, including a memorable stay at YHA Black Sail. Andy and I have a feature about this excellent adventure out in the latest (February 2023) issue of The Great Outdoors. And the second stage was a fastpacking tour of the Lakes with Ross Brannigan – Keswick to Ambleside via Borrowdale, Ore Gap and the Coniston massif. Running over Brim Fell in a gale was particularly memorable!
In May I returned to Keswick for the Keswick Mountain Festival to catch up with a few people, and grabbed the opportunity to walk up Bleaberry Fell and High Seat while I was there.
An excellent trip with Sidetracked (represented by me, Emily Woodhouse and Emily Tyson) and Trash Free Trails. We climbed the Llanberis Path and bivvied on the summit to see in the solstice in calm, mild conditions – but the purpose of this purposeful adventure was to help TFT conduct research on trailside litter. We collected a lot of litter too, especially around the summit cairn area.
June: Peak District
The first of two walking holidays with my wife Hannah. We camped in Edale and did plenty of walking, including a complete circuit of the Kinder edges and a round of the Great Ridge.
July and August: Alpine traverse
My big trip of the year: 900km of fastpacking (in reality, mostly walking with a bit of running downhill) from Ventimiglia to Zermatt, via the Grande Traversata delle Alpi and a bunch of sections of other classic trails. Towards the end I was joined by my brother James and my Sidetracked pals Jenny Tough and John Summerton.
October: East Highlands
A second holiday with Hannah, based in Grantown-on-Spey. We did plenty of day hikes, notably a traverse of the Northern Corries in fine autumnal conditions.
December: South Downs Way
Part of a research project for a new book. The SDW was not quite what I expected, perhaps in part due to the time of year. I'll have much more to write about this elsewhere soon.
My photography has been through some changes this year. Regular readers will recall that 2020 was my year of taking up wildlife photography as a lockdown hobby – a new learning curve that gave me a huge amount of pleasure. In 2021 I couldn't quite recapture the same magic, and this summer I made the conscious decision to step back from this kind of photography altogether. Why? I felt increasingly that I was forcing things, and when I asked myself what I really wanted to achieve with these kind of images, I couldn't say much beyond 'get some pictures to look cool on Instagram'. For me this is not an adequate reason. I realised that photographing wildlife was getting in the way of enjoying wildlife.
So I took this as another opportunity to reappraise my true needs, and switched from Olympus to the Nikon Z 5. Partly this switch was a result of seeing how well James did with this kit during our assignment in the Alps over the summer, and partly due to various growing frustrations with Olympus and the Micro 4/3 platform.
If 2020 and 2021 were my telephoto years, 2022 has been my year of coming back to normal and short telephoto focal lengths. I've always favoured 50mm as my default focal length – it's how I see the world – and this year I've also become comfortable with roughly 85mm. I've discovered that a high-quality 85 can do almost everything I used to use my telephoto zoom for.
So it's mostly back to primes and a simpler, more considered setup. This has been echoed in my film photography, which has been through yet another renaissance this year. After barely shooting any film in 2020 or 2021, this year I've dusted off the cameras, added a couple more from eBay, and shot a lot of rolls of film. Once again, 50 and 85 (or 90) are my focal lengths of choice. I've started to use film cameras for work stuff, too, which is an exciting step into the unknown.
I've been doing more portrait work this year, including shooting two family weddings and the local vicar's final service. This feels very different to my usual work, but I'm enjoying it, and it's a new learning curve to get my teeth into.
Street photography is something I've been in and out of over the years. This year I've dabbled in it a little more, and have taken a handful of images I quite like (all shot in Lincoln on 35mm film). I still don't think that I am good at this, but I do enjoy it.
Finally, smartphone photography deserves a special mention, because this has been the year when smartphone photography has finally started to really work for me. I've long used an iPhone as a sidekick to a bigger camera, but on several of my mountain trips this year I used an iPhone 13 Pro as my only camera – including for published work. Shooting in raw, and making careful use of the short telephoto lens (77mm equivalent), has yielded superb image quality. I won't be throwing away my real cameras any time soon, but some of my favourite shots this year are iPhone pictures.
At the end of 2021 I stepped back from editing books for private clients, and instead decided to consciously focus on my work for Sidetracked, TGO magazine, and writing my own books. This proved to be an excellent decision. I have not lacked for work – and the extra flexibility has made scheduling adventure time much easier.
Although I don't think freelance anxiety will ever go away, I'm glad that I'm now in a position where I can afford to do a lot less hustling. Book royalties and my income from Sidetracked pay the bills. I'm wary of jinxing everything but it feels as if things are in a decent place financially. It's only taken me eight years...
After years of intensive writing schedules, 2022 has felt a lot more relaxed. In TGO, I have published only two main feature stories (Suilven and the Karwendel Höhenweg), a few bits and pieces on skills, some book reviews, and a number of comparative gear reviews (hydration and water treatment, backpacking meals, dry bags, head lamps, hiking socks).
I've been writing for this superb publication for seven years now and it's been great to see how it is changing to attract a younger and more diverse audience. Carey Davies, the editor, has a team of good people in place. It remains a privilege to be a regular contributor – even if I am not currently submitting quite as much work as I used to a few years ago.
Sidetracked is where most of my written work has ended up this year, but the bulk of it is not focused on me and my stories. I do a lot of ghostwriting for our contributors – something I find uniquely satisfying. Here's a recent example. Otherwise, I've written a fair bit for Sidetracked on my big summer trip across the Alps and its associated learning curve, which we called the Attitudes and Altitude project:
- Prologue: Tranter's Round
- Main feature story: Mountains of the Mind
- Destination Guide to the Grande Traversata delle Alpi
- How to Go Fastpacking
- Fastpacking gear guide and gear review
This project wouldn't have been possible without the financial support of Montane and LEKI. It's been great to run my own Sidetracked project after years of helping out on the sidelines of other ones we have managed.
I have not published any new books in 2022. Remember the hush-hush non-fiction Vertebrate project I mentioned at the end of last year? I submitted it early this year, but due to publishing's hurdles in 2022 as well as other factors its expected publication date was postponed, and it may now be released in a different form next year (or it may not; much is uncertain at the moment).
I have been working on a few other ideas for non-fiction narrative books based on my adventures, but to be honest times are disastrously bad for this kind of book, and I think I need to sit on these ideas for a year or two – six months at least – before I do anything with them.
In better news, I'm writing another Wanderlust book for gestalten, my German publisher. In my head these are not 'proper' books (i.e. they don't tell personal stories of adventure, which is what I'm all about when you get down to it), but they are popular with readers, I know how to do them, and they give me a good excuse to get out on the trail gathering research and photographs. They also pay very well. I'm enjoying this one so far.
As I get older, the idea of investing months of my time into a book that is not guaranteed to make me money becomes much less attractive. Sometimes it's a bit of a jolt to realise how far I've come from the idealistic young writer who scribbled millions of words just for the love of it – and with no expectation of ever making it into print. I know that I still put some of that creative passion into my writing now that I'm a professional writer, but I use it strategically now, and maybe my work is stronger for that.
And how are my books that have already been published doing? The Farthest Shore has been out for a year now, and it has had some absolutely thrilling reviews. Critically, the book has been very well received. No book is perfect, though, and no book ever gets 100 per cent perfect reviews either. Due criticism has been levelled at one particular scene which I embellished for narrative purposes (declared at the end of the book), and I regret that my loose interpretation of the truth in this specific scene has led some readers to question other aspects of the book.
Let me state here for the record that, apart from the scene at Forest Way Bunkhouse, every other event in the book is as literally true as I can describe it. Including, yes, my alarming encounter with Greg. I wrote down our conversation after the event, and the dialogue I've presented is verbatim.
Although I'm not going to share exact sales figures, it can't be said that The Farthest Shore has been a financial success. It's paid off its (modest) advance, though, and I keep seeing it in the wild, so I guess it's onwards and upwards from here! I suspect that the book is destined for minor cult classic rather than mass appeal, and I'm fine with that.
My other two books, Wanderlust Europe and Wanderlust Alps, sell well and now contribute a non-trivial percentage of my overall income. That's due to a combination of bookshop sales and various foreign-language translations.
100 per cent of my editorial work this year has been for Sidetracked magazine. I've edited volumes 23, 24 and 25 of the regular print journal, the Trash Free Trails special edition, a major brand project in print that sadly fell through at the last moment, plus the usual wide range of project and web work. I'm now working on 26. Last year, this is what I wrote about my Sidetracked work, and it remains true: '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.'
This has been my first full year working with Emily Woodhouse as our sub-editor. With every issue we create together she proves herself the right person for the job. She has the eye for detail and adventure background that we need, she's efficient, and she's a fun person to spend time on the hill with. Emily is also the first person I've ever hired for a role, which is another thing that makes me feel startlingly grown up!
Just the two talks for me this year: at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival in March, and the Sidetracked Creators Tour at Fort William in November. I tremendously enjoyed both. The Fort William talk also saw me take to the stage with Jenny Tough – our deputy editor at Sidetracked and a personal friend, but also someone I admire tremendously as a public speaker, so I see this as a bit of a career landmark.
Areas for change in 2023
The big one for next year is that Hannah and I want to move back up north to Scotland. After months of talking about it, it's finally happening: the lease on Hannah's shop runs out in the next few weeks, and she will be closing the business she established 16 years ago. But she wants a change, and it is the right time for this. We're both excited for the move. Very soon we'll be looking for rental properties in the East Highlands, potentially anywhere from the Cairngorms up to Inverness.
Although the Fort William and Glencoe area will always feel like home to me, these days I have just as many friends, colleagues and family members over towards the Cairngorms – and it's a more practical base for all kinds of reasons.
Honestly, I don't have any big plans I can share just yet, and my current feeling is that 2023 will be a quiet year in terms of Adventure with a capital A. However, I am still thinking about a big summer trip. Scandinavia is looking likely. I'll also be doing plenty of shorter backpacking trips for book research, both solo and with selected friends and colleagues – and, once we've moved north, the Scottish Highlands will be within easy reach once again. I can't wait for that! I may even get back into climbing after a hiatus of over a decade.
I'll be shooting a lot more 35mm film in 2023. Yes, it's getting expensive, but I'm ok with setting aside a little of my disposable income for a hobby that gives me so much pleasure and helps develop skills that are directly relevant to my work. (Also, I have a decent stash of film in the freezer as security against future price rises.)
If all goes well, in 2023 I'll publish two new books, but due to the uncertainty of the publishing world at the moment I can't guarantee that. I'd also like to at least make a start on writing another non-fiction narrative book. I realise that this is an extremely vague goal. Honestly, there's a high chance that it'll be pushed back to 2024 if other priorities pop up.
I will continue to write for TGO, and after the move north I'll be looking to increase the amount of short-form outdoor writing I do once again. I'll probably get back into writing for other publications again too. I am still reviewing gear for TGO, although next year my reviewing calendar is less busy than it was in 2022 (my choice, and the reviewing team has once again grown, which is a good development).
In terms of editorial, no surprises here – my strategy remains the same as it was in 2022, which is to keep things simple. I have no plans to return to editing book manuscripts for private clients. Most of my energies will go into Sidetracked magazine. I consider myself fortunate that my main job is one that gives me so much creative satisfaction.
I guess that's about it. If you have read to the end then you are a hero and I salute you! As usual, it's taken me over a week of tinkering to finish this blog post, and as I write these final words it's actually 2023, but I got there in the end.
Thank you all for your amazing support over the last year. I mean that – times are tough for writers, and anyone in the creative fields, really, but without loyal readers things would be tougher still. Cheers, and maybe see you on the hill!
If you’d like to support my writing and photography, you can buy me a coffee. Thank you!
All Rights Reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission. Header image © James Roddie Photography
Alex Roddie Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.