Sunday, 18 March 2018

Achnashellach Alpine

As seagulls fly backwards and polystyrene snow rattles the windows, I thought I'd share some photos of a very different weekend a few weeks ago, way out west in the wilds of Achnashellach and Bendronaig forests. You can wait years for a weekend like this and it's worth every minute. Click to make 'em bigger:

Friday, 9 March 2018

Vat 69 and pipe smoke

When you're 16, things tend to sink in deep and stay there for life. It's hard for me to be objective about the music I obsessed over back then, for example: it hit me hard and left impacts like craters, Over time the dust and ash settles; now they're just part of the inner landscape, overgrown but always visible.

And not just music. It's October 1989, and we're on a family holiday on Arran. I've a new, burgeoning obsession: mountains. Somewhere in the last couple of years I've shifted from being an often reluctant hanger-on trailing after my dad in soggy home-knit pullovers and hand-me-down plus fours, a sort of unspoken apprenticeship. Something has come to fruition, a tipping point has been reached. Maybe it's age, an accrual of confidence, a first secure foothold in the arts of map and compass, whatever - but now I want more than anything to get out there into the hills, alone or with others, it doesn't matter. Oh and there's this list of mountains called Munros.

So, back to Arran. We're in a bookshop and after scanning the outdoors shelves I come away with a little volume called 'Memorable Munros' by Richard Gilbert. Sitting in the back of the car, I start devouring it straight away. It hits me hard and leaves a crater. It turns out to be one of the most inspiring outdoors books I'll ever read, and it's stayed with me for life.

Monadh Liath, 1989
'Memorable Munros' is no literary work, it's not a piece of 'fine writing' about nature and mountains and whatever could it all mean. There is no philosophising, and little rhapsodising. It delivers what it says on the cover: a diary of ascents of the highest peaks in Scotland. It's arranged by geographical area from north to south, so there's no linear narrative structure. Entries are generally short, sparse and functional. And yet it works.

Braeriach, 1990
What I took from 'Memorable Munros' was an attitude underpinning the writing. The author is out there in all weathers, all seasons, alone or with friends or leading school groups, sometimes even at night. Behind the words is an unspoken but unmistakeable weight of experience; you can sense the blend of resilience, self-reliance and adventurousness tempered with caution and wisdom, all those elements we try to balance when we go into the mountains. The entries were written up at the time, often in the tent or the bothy, so those plain words have a rough immediacy, unfiltered, like the ink is barely dry.

Braeriach again, 1994
Above all, there is joy - the simple, powerful, understated joy of being in wild places. There is a vivid account of a March backpacking trip around the mountains of Loch Mullardoch in 1962: a tale of snowstorms, freezing high camps, Vat 69 whisky and pipe smoke. Another entry tells of climbing Ben More on Mull, a huge, complicated round trip taken by the author and his brother for a fleeting but perfect winter day on the mountain. 'Memorable Munros' contains some hair-raising 'epics' but these are never boastful, never over-egged. He takes the rough with the smooth in the mountains, with the minimum of fuss.

Ben Vorlich (Loch Lomond), 1995
Richard Gilbert passed away in January this year. As is often the way, I learned a whole lot more detail about him after his passing, from obituaries and reminiscences from other outdoors figures. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, deeply alarmed at the destruction of wild land and was involved in trying to stop it. He was a teacher by profession, teaching chemistry in the classroom, and mountaincraft outside, leading parties of schoolboys on expeditions in the Highlands and abroad that even now (maybe especially now) seem hugely ambitious. It would seem his personal joy in the hills was matched by his desire to share it with others, and preserve it for others.

And that, perhaps, is why 'Memorable Munros' had such an effect on me. It showed me that great adventures were accessible; that human, not superhuman, qualities were needed. All this whilst never glossing over the dangers and difficulties or 'dumbing down' the hills to our level or pretending risk can be obliterated. 'A Diary of Ascents of the Highest Peaks in Scotland' - maybe that doesn't quite cover it after all.

Young Explorers Trust: Richard Gilbert obituary

The Fara above Dalwhinnie, 2000

Saturday, 17 February 2018

A toe in the Lakes

I'd never been to the Lake District before, so thought it was time to see what all the fuss is about. It also happens to be fairly accessible from Edinburgh - more accessible than much of the Highlands in fact, less than three hours away largely via motorways. The prospect of crowds of people queuing on the fells has put me off visiting before, so I figured a combination of a week day, off-season and iffy weather would be the best time for a first expedition.

High Street looked pretty fine on the map, all craggy corries, tarns and cliffs, a nice compact round from Mardale Head together with neighbouring Harter Fell, easily accessible from Penrith and the M6. Mardale Head was fairly quiet; a thaw was setting in, the wind gusty and restless, the light low and the fells wrapped in cloud. It's a sombre place; two local villages were lost when Haweswater Reservoir was created in 1929 to provide more water for Manchester. The buildings were dynamited before they were drowned.

I climbed Riggindale Ridge to reach the High Street plateau, rather than the more sedate-looking route up Kidsty Pike.

A fine, gradual climb with a few scrambly steps led into the heart of the massif, a ladder to the clouds. Blea Water lay round and inky, down on the left, framed in white.

Before High Stile, the final steep ridge to the plateau, I wrestled with the bothy bag for a sit down out of the gusts for lunch, soup and tea. I'm never without a bothy bag in the winter now. It's not just an emergency shelter but great to have on routes and days where sheltered spots are in short supply. Just getting sheltered from the wind makes a huge difference to lunch stops, minimising heat loss and turning lunch from a hasty undignified scramble to something approaching sane and civilised.

Ahead the ridge climbs suddenly into the cloud and into the whiteout... Crampons on, axe out.

I meet a man coming down. We clock each other's crampons and axes, and agree that not only do they make this safer, they make it easier too. He's been to the summit and turned around, complaining about the wind on the plateau, but when I get there I don't think it's too bad.

There's a cairn where the ridge meets the plateau. Visibility is terrible; it's approaching whiteout. Time to focus. I take a bearing and measure the distance from the cairn to the summit trig, take a deep breath, and push off from that one solitary reference point, into a world of white. On cue, the trig point emerges from the murk. Don't be so surprised silly, the compass doesn't lie!

After a bit of indecision I decide to carry on round to Nan Bield pass. Though there's no visibility, it's not raining or snowing and the wind is manageable, so good for a bit more navigation practice. Heading south along the plateau, I don't want to be blindly following footsteps in the snow as the line of the Roman Road drifts off in a south-south-westerly direction. So, I count 500 metres' worth of steps directly south - just me, my breathing, the sound of boots in snow, the wind, the wavering compass needle. Then 750 metres south-east, and by then I'm clearly on the well-trodden path down out of the clouds to Nan Bield with its snowed-in stone shelter. The wind fairly howls through the gap, up from Kentmere and down over the maze of rocks and snow and winding water towards Mardale.

Water and an energy bar. It's 3.10 pm. I've noticed that an extra hour of daylight has magically appeared over the last few weeks. Enough time to carry on over Harter Fell. The steep climb up is fun and needs crampons, but from the summit cairn it's a simple if lengthy plod along a boundary fence then on to a broad and easy path down to the top of Gatescarth Pass. And that's more or less it - a winding downhill mile through the fading afternoon light takes me back to Mardale Head; the wind still sighs in the grass and the crags still wrap themselves in cloud.