It's that time again to look back at how things have gone over the course of the year – and ahead to 2024. Last year's blog post was a bit of a monster, so I'll try to keep this one more concise. Fair warning: it's still going to be a long read.
2023 has featured a major move for me and Hannah: back to Scotland. If you'd like to read more about our move, you can check out the posts here and here. As you can probably imagine, our move has changed a lot of things in our lives (and for the better).
In these reviews I tend to focus on the outdoors, photography, work, and areas for change in the year ahead. I'll take a look at each in turn.
Although I promised myself that last year would be the the best year for outdoor adventure, in some respects this year has topped it. There have been fewer headline-grabbing trips such as Tranter's Round in winter or a traverse of the Alps, but a lot more time just spent enjoying the Scottish outdoors. Quantity and quality hand in hand. Can't beat that.
I don't consider myself a Munro-bagger, but this year I added 21 new Munros to my tally. I went through my logbooks yesterday afternoon and finally added them up. For several years now I've been saying that I'm 'probably on about 100-150 Munros', but it turns out that my total is now a nice round 100, which surprised me – after 18 years active in the Scottish mountains I had expected to be on more, but then again there have been quite a few years in which I've climbed no new peaks at all. I'll get to the end of the list when and if I get there. I'm relaxed about these things. And anyway, it's nice to keep some adventures back for future me.
It hasn't all been about big mountains. Hannah and I have been getting out for a lot more walking together at all levels. This kind of everyday adventure is just as important – even if, or perhaps especially because, it doesn't usually end up published somewhere or on Instagram.
Let's take a look at some highlights from my outdoor year.
February: the Sandlings Walk
As part of my research for a new book, I headed back to the Suffolk Sandlings to hike the Sandlings Walk in its entirety for the first time. Background on this hike here.
March: the Cotswold Way with Andy Wasley
Shortly after the move to Scotland, I took the train all the way back down south to visit my friend Andy Wasley for another research trip. The hike itself was so much more varied and interesting than I expected (not to mention surprisingly strenuous).
April: the Dartmoor Way with Emily Woodhouse, and the Beara Way solo
Two more research trips in April left little time for exploring the Scottish hills. First was another looooong train journey down south to visit my friend Emily Woodhouse for a pootle around Dartmoor. More about this fantastic trip here. Then, almost immediately afterwards, I headed to Ireland to explore the beautiful Beara Peninsula.
May started cool, but soon developed into a fine, hot month in the Scottish mountains. Highlights included the traverse of Beinn Alligin with my brother James and a solo fastpacking circuit in the Cairngorms.
The highlight of June was a trip up to the far NW to hike the Fisherfield Six with Carey Davies and James. We tackled it as a backpacking round, and our midge-infested first camp led to Instagram fame for us all thanks to some reels that went viral. Greeting my 37th birthday from the summit of A' Mhaighdean was an unforgettable moment.
In July, Davy Wright came to visit, and we enjoyed a fine day out on the Glen Isla hills, taking in Monega Hill, Glas Maol, Creag Leacach, and Monamenach.
August's highlight was finally climbing Lochnagar, a mountain I first attempted in 2014. This time I was glad to be able to climb it with my wife Hannah. Her hillwalking confidence is really improving, and Lochnagar (her third Munro) is a good indicator of how far she has come.
Autumn started with a trip out west to attempt the Glen Coe Skyline as a continuous backpacking route: something I have dreamt of ever since I lived there. Alas it was not to be. I loved the novelty of scrambling the Aonach Eagach the 'wrong' way (eastbound), but after continuing over Buachaille Etive Mor the weather suddenly deteriorated and I decided to call things off.
In October, Hannah and I went on holiday to the Isle of Mull, focusing on wildlife-watching and coastal walks.
Although winter conditions took their sweet time to get going this year, by mid-November snowy hillwalking was back on the cards – and it proved an absolutely stunning month for mountain weekends. Highlights included a traverse of the Spittal of Glenshee Munros, a trip out west to revisit the Ben Lui group for the first time in well over a decade, and gorgeous snowy conditions on the Ring of Tarf.
I've already written about this in my recent post My top images of 2023 – and a year with the Leica M3.
At the end of last year, I wrote the following:
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 the pattern of my work has been pretty much the same this year, the outdoor industry feels a bit more precarious now than it did in December 2022. There are various factors feeding into that, and truthfully there is a lot that I can't write about on a public blog. But, like many of the people I work with across the industry, I'm feeling a tad less secure than I was last year.
Sidetracked and TGO continue to be the main magazines I work with. Both are doing well and have exciting plans ahead, but it has not been an easy year. At various points I've found myself pondering if I need to tweak my strategy again. However, given the chaos and disruption elsewhere in the industry, I'm well aware how lucky I am to have stable work with titles I believe in.
Once again I have written a lot for TGO magazine over the course of the year – not so many feature stories, but a lot of skills pieces, gear reviews/guides, and mapped walks. I was also once again a judge for the annual Gear Awards. And I have plenty more work booked in for next year.
There have been some changes at the magazine in 2023. Carey Davies has left to pursue new challenges, and the title is now in the capable hands of Francesca Donovan and David Lintern. I have a great working relationship with both, and I couldn't think of finer people to steer the good ship TGO into the waters ahead. In 2023 I think some people in the industry have really woken up to how precious and unique TGO is. Being part of this community – and I don't use that word lightly – remains a true privilege.
Otherwise, I've written and published one book this year: Wanderlust British & Irish Isles. It's the third in a trilogy of coffee-table books I have created with German publisher gestalten. The two previous titles continue to sell well in various languages. I have not worked on any other book-format narrative non-fiction this year, despite 2022's vague goal to 'make a start on writing another non-fiction narrative book'.
I have, however, picked up an old sci-fi project from 2017 – and begun work on another. Brightened Earth and The Clarinetist (working titles) are in various stages of prewriting, which is where they will probably remain for at least another six months. I'm not a quick writer when it comes to fiction, and I like to plan thoroughly. Besides, the worldbuilding is the best bit!
No surprises here; once again, 100 per cent of my editorial work this year has been for Sidetracked magazine. It's been a challenging year in some respects, as I alluded to earlier, but it's also been a creatively stimulating year with some incredible projects and major successes. In addition to volumes 26, 27 and 28 of the regular print journal, I have worked on our second Trash Free Trails special edition, a Montane 30th Anniversary special edition, commercial work with a variety of brands and tourist boards, and a secret project we'll be sharing more about in due course. Our get-together in the Lake District this November was a highlight of the year.
In a year when the outdoor and publishing industries have struggled, Sidetracked keeps showing everyone how to do things well: tell the stories that matter, focus on quality, don't cut corners, look after your people... but also, ultimately, you have to turn a profit to remain in business. Walking this line isn't easy. I like to think that we have the right formula.
This year I have only done one talk, at the Kendal Mountain Festival. More here.
Areas for change in 2024
This year I have continued to struggle with social media and how I use it. I finally deleted my Twitter account and have experimented with both Mastodon and Threads. Mastodon has its place (I follow a specific crowd there, mostly for analogue photography chat) but by early December the Threads experience had turned sour for me. I'd log in and it would feel exactly like Twitter used to. Worse: the algorithmically generated 'For you' feed would be a churning cesspit of ragebait and growth hacks. A positive experience it was not.
I've come to realise that this kind of social network – the microbloggy Twitteresque feed, no matter what form it's packaged in – just isn't for me. It brings out the worst in me, and gets more out of my attention than any advantages I can glean from it. The equation doesn't stack up for me and ultimately it ends up being a colossal waste of time with an even more massive cost attached to it.
I keep thinking that I need to make tweaks to how I use Instagram, too. The app has been on and off my phone at regular intervals throughout 2023. In general it's a positive experience, and I find it professionally useful, but dislike the programmed impulse to mindlessly scroll. I think I'll start the year with the app off my phone, just logging on from my computer, and see how I go.
In 2024 I want to keep going with the winning formula of 2023: keeping opportunities clear for weather windows in the Scottish mountains and enjoying a mix of both solo and social trips. I continue to be focused on the sweet spot between hillwalking and backpacking, although I'm adding a bit more scrambling back in the mix and at some point I'll be carefully stepping back into low-grade climbing.
There will also be some longer, more ambitious adventures, but plans for these are very much in the early stages. Expect the Cairngorms to feature prominently (and most likely in 2025 as well).
No big changes here; I'll continue to shoot 35mm film for most of my personal photography. I have a broad range of film in the freezer, from C41 colour negative to cine film and black and white, so will shoot a variety of stocks as the situation demands. When it comes to buying fresh film I'm going to try to stick to Kodak Vision3 250D cine film for colour and Ilford XP2 and HP5 for black and white, though. I will continue to experiment with the best way to digitise my negatives and am about to give camera 'scanning' a go using a macro lens.
One resolution I'm making is to stick with the camera gear I have now for the whole of 2024. I'm completely happy with my film setup, but I have a bad habit of chopping and changing digital cameras, because the perfect digital camera for me will never exist (and yet the grass is always greener somewhere else). No more of this!
As I mentioned earlier, I'm thinking about making tweaks to my professional life. I won't be changing the work I do with Sidetracked or TGO, but I am thinking about pitching short-form outdoor writing more widely again. It just feels like a good time to have plenty of options. One thing I will not be doing is returning to editing manuscripts for private clients. In terms of income gained and time invested this does not make sense for me.
Once again I finish the year with no plans for another non-fiction outdoor book... but I feel uneasy whenever I don't have a 'work manuscript' actively underway. By this I mean something commercial I know I'll make money on, as opposed to a far more speculative personal project that I'm probably working on because I feel compelled to write it. I need to get some ideas down on paper rather than start 2024 with another vague 'I should write another book' resolution.
One change I can mention right away is that I will be editing Outdoor Focus, the journal of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild. Four issues a year, but it's a voluntary position and more about giving something back to the community than my own career. Very much looking forward to this.
I have been trying to devote at least an hour every day to personal projects (either Brightened Earth or The Clarinetist, depending on which I feel like at the time). But I am not very good at time management, and the time I'd originally set aside for these tended to get gobbled up by other things from October onwards. In 2024 I am going to be putting procedures in place to safeguard this time. I get grumpy if I never make time to work on my own stuff.
So that's another rotation done. Thanks to you all for sharing some part of that with me, and I wish you all a happy and successful 2024.
If you’d like to support my writing and photography, you can buy me a coffee. Thank you!
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