Sunday, 26 March 2017

Hill of the mist

I went to Beinn a Ghlo armed for winter. Instead it felt like the first big day of summer. The sun was strong and unbroken, and there were lots of people. Down in the corries and glens newly hatched flies circled in the sunbeams above chattering burns. On the moors there were curlews fresh from the coast, the aural torrent of skylarks, and the peewits whooped and tumbled. On the tops the air was still sharp but the little remaining snow was in fast retreat. Only the highest Cairngorm plateaux looked like they still belonged to winter. I stashed axe and crampons at the foot of Carn Liath, to be picked up on my return.

A bit of a nostalgia trip, this one. Last time I did the Beinn a'Ghlo round was in November 1988 with my dad. The footfall was noticeaby less back then, the informal paths sketchier, less established. There was no infrastructure for walkers. Nowadays formal paths have been built into the south-facing corries, to the toes of the main ridges. The return walk from the foot of Airgiod Bheinn to the road-end at Loch Moraig is much quicker now. 

My memory of that November long ago is of a slithery descent over snow-covered scree towards a darkening moor, escaping a brewing blizzard above, bog-hopping in the dark, meeting no-one all day even though it was a Saturday; corduroy breeches, knee-length socks and an itchy woollen balaclava. It was strenuous, tough even. Follow-the-path wasn't such an option: bearings had to be taken. There was friction in the journey, risk and learning. Today felt like a stroll in comparison - pleasant and easy but lacking the gristle and spice of that early encounter.

Still, it was hard to entertain mixed feelings for long on such a glorious day. Beinn a'Ghlo remains a mountain of beauty, smoothed and rounded to perfection like the frozen folds of a cloak, perfectly poised, its steep slopes rarely breaking stride into crags and outcrops. And in the end I was thankful for the company - leaving the car park, the front wheels of the motor sank deep in the mud. Without help from others just off the hill I'd have been in a proper fix.

Here's the story of the day in pictures (click to make bigger):






























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.