Friday, 3 March 2017

'The wrong kind of snow'

Mick, David and I had a day out on the Lochearnhead Corbetts last week. Original plans for a multi-day trip up north had been scaled back for various reasons, not least a dismal weather forecast, but something is usually better than nothing so we took advantage of a slender weather window to grab a day trip instead. Lochearnhead is fairly close to home for all of us with some new territory to explore, so seemed an obvious choice.

I seem to spend a lot of time on Corbetts these days, maybe because I've climbed almost all the Munros in easy reach of the central belt. But never mind the box ticking: hills like this Lochearnhead pair deserve attention regardless. The SMC's guidebook for the Corbetts states that 'Creag MacRanaich is a hill of some character which, were it about 100m higher, would be among the better southern Munros'. So there. It certainly makes a bold statement when approached from the south, a steep exposed south face with a lot of exposed rock and some big overhangs.

It was sort of a generic poor weather day that I've experienced too many times to recall over the years, but interesting and worthwhile for all that. A clear and frosty start quickly clouded over - the snow came in on Creag MacRanaich and really got going on Meall an t-Seallaidh where we had near-whiteout conditions. We watched the snow subtly change through the day as the temperature changed, practised counting paces with mixed results, and came away with skills sharpened and maybe a little more in the bank should we ever find ourselves in a real situation. I also need to learn to roll up my faff into fewer heat and energy-sapping stops on the hill, and use those stops to do a little rucksack rearrangement, thinking a few moves ahead to what may be needed later (wind's picking up - move those goggles to the top of the pack!).

Oh and don't forget the exercise - we may have had 'the wrong kind of snow' as Mick said, too wet and soft for anything interesting like crampons or glissading, but floundering through waist-deep drifts and over buried streams gives a cardiovascular workout second to none.

Anyway, here are a few from the walk, before the weather closed in:

Meall an t-Seallaidh means 'hill of sight', thought to refer to the fine views from the summit. Not applicable today obviously, but here are a few from a visit in summer 2014 to fill in the blanks:

Loch Earn
Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin
Stob Binnein and Ben More

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Mudlarks and fossils

We took the children out for the regular weekend wander - Aberlady this week, with the promise of fossils and Kit-Kats, and I found myself wondering: why? And what will stick?

Slipping and sliding in the tidal mud, caught between trust and the anxiety of thinking for yourself as you follow me out to the ancient bones of scuttled boats, rotten ribs spilling their last meal of rocks, hoping the quicksand doesn't get you?

The bubbling call of a curlew is wild music that grips me with a spasm of longing and loss, I don't know why. Oystercatchers carry me back to summer nights far inland, lying in the dark, the sound of a Cairngorm-born river outside. What will they mean for you?

"Where's the sea?" you ask. We can only hear it, far out across the sand and mud flats. You see, the further out the tide goes, the faster it comes in. Maybe approaching walking pace across Aberlady Bay.

It's cold. Your auntie found a coral fossil but you didn't. How much further is it? No, you're too big to carry now.

Did you overhear the joke we made about building a house with bricks foraged from the foreshore? Only half a joke because I'm running out of illusions about where we are and where we're going, and I'm looking for new stories with less cheap comfort and more scope for action.

The world is changing but it isn't coming to an end, and that's the frightening thing. The future doesn't look like it will be an upgraded version of the present. In the same way, evolution is widely misunderstood: it's not about getting better, improving in some objective sense. It's about adapting to the conditions. Nor is it a process of smooth and gradual change; instead, periods of stability are punctuated by times of rapid change, as conditions break down and clever adaptations become useless, redundant. The parameters of the game are reset. Your move.

So we have to choose carefully what to do, what is worth keeping, and what to let go, with an honest eye to what the situation requires, with an eye to the world outside our culture.

Because whatever you think, this is your home for life. Remember that and you might be okay.

More information about looking for fossils at Aberlady can be found here. Please note Aberlady is an SSSI so do read the information in the link about responsible fossil hunting.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017


The wind was from the east, so I headed west - far west. It was only at Glen Coe that the grey sheet of cloud started to fray and tatter. A ferry hop at Corran across to Ardgour, then a drive along the coast into Morvern, onto a tiny B-road, hugging the cliffs, landed me at the foot of sunny Glen Galmadale. The biggest mountains in Morvern are here, Fuar Bheinn and, overlooking the head of the glen, the craggy cone of Creach Bheinn, looking every bit of its 853 metres from down here at sea level. It's a late start and I know I'll still be out when it's dark.

Fuar Bheinn first. There's something a little Himalayan about this climb. Steep shoulders rise from the glen to an airy ridge, leading steeply to the snowy summit, white on blue, my favourite colour combo. My route takes me across the Allt an t-Seasglaich, draining Fuar Bheinn's wild southeastern corrie. Holly trees cling to the steep sides of the burn.

The east ridge is corniced to the north, dropping precipitously to the dark, cold boulders and snowfields of the northeast-facing corrie. A short clamber over granite outcrops and I'm at the top for soup and sandwiches and a long view down to Loch Linnhe.

Crampons on for the descent vaguely northwards, curving around to the long, white, bouldery slopes of Creach Bheinn. The wind is ramping up now. The climb seems long and I start to feel exhausted. Not as fit as I think I am, not for these conditions anyway. I need to watch myself here. My mind flicks back to the winter skills course I did last year. I stop, take a minute to myself, pull on a belay jacket, warming up and feeling a little better straight away.

Onwards and upwards, the sun sinking into high clouds behind me. Fuar Bheinn looks fine from here - small but perfectly formed.

I find some meagre shelter on the summit of Creach Bheinn for another glug of soup and to check the map for the safest way off. There are many potential traps for the weary. A serious mountain this one.

Crampons on again to descend a steep and bouldery ridge towards the bealach, cliffs on both sides. The gusts are quite vicious now. A couple of times I feel it catch my rucksack like a sail, try to lift my feet off the ground. I just keep focusing on the safe ground below at the bealach where, fortuitously, the wind is much less.

A final stop to get my breath back. The light is going fast, faintest shades of pink on the massive tent shape of Garbh-bheinn. The drama over, I just feel tired now and impatient to get back down. It's a long descent to the glen, and can't be rushed. I'm all alone so give full voice to my feelings as I fight through huge tussocks and bogs and leg cramps to the burn. Then a torch-lit river crossing and final miles under masses of stars.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Autumn gold rush

An unusual thing happened in October. There was a very long run of perfect Autumn weather, which actually coincided with a couple of opportunities for me to get out into the hills and enjoy it. Highlight of the month - probably the year, quite possibly much longer - was a three day backpack with friends, making our way from Fort William to Glenfinnan through and over the magnificent backcountry of north Ardgour. Three days of sensory overload - stags roaring day and night, golden sunrises and sunsets, billion-star velvet skies - left me slack-jawed through much of the following week. Hopefully this trip will appear in print sometime in the future.

Cona Glen sunrise, Ardgour
The fine weather continued and a few days later I headed back up the A82 to Glencoe. It's a long drive from Edinburgh and predictably the car parks were overflowing as I drove down the glen, dozens of walkers and climbers heading off for the Aonach Eagach, Bidean nam Bian and the Buachailles. However, tucked away on the left, obscured by a powerful truncated ridge and invisible from the main road as it swings round onto the final downhill run to Glencoe village, is Sgor na h-Ulaidh, the peak of the treasure and its lower neighbour Meall Lighiche, the doctor's hill. Curious and obscure all over, these two. There's a parking area near the end of the track that leads in to them. There were only two cars, including my own.

The chill is biting further into the day and the air is starting to nip in the shade but around the middle of the day the sun still rallies some strength. On the open slopes of Lighiche it's all blue and gold, and the sweat is running into my eyes.

Away on the right is the back of Beinn a'Bheithir, better known as a grand mountain cirque of deep corries and long enclosing ridges above Ballachulish, on its far side. From here though it's like something dredged up from a dream, an artifact of the subconscious. At first I think of shark's teeth or snake's fangs, then I think bigger: a leviathan's back, huge fins breaking the waves as it readies itself to plunge. One possible translation of the Gaelic bheithir denotes a huge serpent.

Meall Lighiche stays grassy and easy up to the summit, where I stop for lunch, chilling down quickly. Don't believe the pictures, it really is October out there. I leave the summit in hat, gloves, fleece and windshirt.

Sgor na h-Ulaidh looms across a deep bealach. There's over 1,000 feet of unrelenting climbing. On the descent from Lighiche I scan the opposite slopes, which tend towards craggy and broken. I pick out a long groove on the right, beyond which the slopes seem grassier if still steep. I work my way across to this and beyond, then tackle the climb head-on. It's steep, very steep. It goes but there's a hint of exposure. The ground falls away behind so quickly; I can't see far either up or down the slope. A tiny bit of fear and focus is good as a slip here could mean a long and bumpy roll downhill.

The little summit plateau-cum-ridge feels like the eye in a storm of savage inclines. There are muscular ridges and exposed rock all around, self-contained mountains isolated by deep bealachs. I meet a man on the summit, a convert from coarse fishing to hill-bagging - the one hobby has completely replaced the other. He's got a large dog in tow, wearing its own pannier bags. You wonder how these hills got their names, he says. It's a good question. Was there a legend of treasure buried around the hill, or is the hill itself the treasure, something you have to dig your way out of Glencoe to find?

The Etive mountains are nearby. Bit by bit I'm filling in the blanks, making the links. Getting to know these hills is a lifetime's work and more.

In the other direction, ridge upon crumpled, sun-dappled ridge.

Twilight starts its long gathering,the light is so soft it's almost like a blanket. No time for a brew sadly, the long road back to Edinburgh awaits.

Alpenglow is followed quite quickly by darkness. I waste daylight trying to bushwhack through to the car park, thus avoiding a very short but frightening bit a roadwalking around a blind bend with no pavement (do bring a torch and something hi-viz to wear if you're doing this route, this little bit of road between the car park and the track end is very dangerous and fast). My way is barred by a gully choked with tree trunks so I backtrack and brave the main road. Back at the car I empty the remains of the food bag while a half moon climbs between two pitch black ridges into a blue-black sky. There'll be a frost tonight, then before too long the storms will come.