Thursday, 4 August 2016

Corserine and the Rhinns of Kells

I took a day trip to climb Corserine and the Rhinns of Kells, a rough and nobbly ridge to its south. New territory, this: I've never been hillwalking down in Galloway before. Commercial forestry flourishes here in a climate slightly more warm, moist and benign than the Borders hills to the north-east. It's also wilder, the forests and hills guarding a rough and trackless interior of hill lochs, cliffs, crags and bogs between the Corserine ridge and the parallel range to the west stretching from the Merrick north to Shalloch on Minnoch. A different world from the rounded profiles of the Borders.

Driving here from Edinburgh is fun too, especially through the Lowther Hills via the Dalveen Pass and the ancient village of Moniaive with its deep trove of historical connections, and streets barely wide enough to navigate a car through. Pretty but somehow gnarly rather than chocolate box - I got the feeling this place had seen a lot. There's plenty to explore down this way.

I struck it lucky with the weather - here are a few from the walk.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Everybody knows this is nowhere

Three days, two camps, 36 miles of tramping between two Highland villages, and just enough weather to make us uncomfortable if not quite threatened. There was a bit more to it than that though.

The walk started through parkland around Blair Castle. Mick met me from the train at Blair Atholl station. Fife had been bathed in sun but here amongst the hills the clouds were heavy and rain threatened. We walked up through Glen Tilt, losing layers as we went. In conversation we missed signs for a diversion from the path around a washed-out section of track. We weren't the first judging by the irate reaction of the contractors as we rounded the corner towards them. They let us past - just!

Glen Tilt has a long history of habitation. We crossed the river to the west bank, continuing on into the wilder middle reaches of the glen. We passed the barest remnants of old crofts, just piles of grey rock now, and remains of drystone walls climbed the hillsides. Mick sensed an atmosphere, and I did too, a lived-in feeling I've noticed in many similar places in the Highlands, a sense that the land remembers the people and expects them back.

The clearances here were comprehensive, the community forced out for sheep and 'sport'. Later, a famous, long-running access battle took place in 1847 when the 6th Duke of Atholl tried to evict a party of botanists and in effect block access to Glen Tilt, a long-established right of way. He lost the court case in the end.

We brewed up by an ancient stone bridge, still solid, that spanned a side-stream raging through a little gorge. Hamish Brown writes about this place in 'Climbing the Corbetts':
I find it a sad spot: the vivid green, the villages of tumbled stones, the shivering birch trees - and a sturdy bridge that has not seen wheels for a century.
The muffled roar of water, spots of rain, and the hiss of the stove - all blend with the atmosphere of this place. It's good to be back out again, it's been far too long.

We carry on up the side stream towards the great moorland wedge of Beinn Mheadhonach flanked by the deep glens of the Diridh and Mhairc rivers which merge to flow into the Tilt. More ruined crofts, tumbledown walls, and another lonely stranded stone bridge...

It's an intermittently steep toil up the long south ridge, but the sun makes a rare appearance.

I've chosen this hill rather than neighbouring, higher Beinn Dearg as a route north, to avoid energy-sapping wet snowfields.

We're hit by a vicious squally snowstorm as we near the summit. Off the crest, fumbling with waterproofs, then a plod to the top as it blows over.

And we're over a kind of threshold as well, as we drop down the broad north ridge which merges gradually into rolling moorland. Ahead is the empty country around the headwaters of the Tarf and Feshie rivers. No tracks, no houses, for many miles; in a small way it's like walking off the edge of a map. Somewhere many miles ahead the tracks and blocks of conifers and muirburn patches and deer fences will reappear - but for now we're in country that has somehow escaped us.

It's tipping towards twilight as we pause at Loch Mhairc.

Less than a mile further on we hit the Tarf Water. As hoped there are many dry, grassy swards along the banks to pitch our tents on. The skies darken, the watchful, snow-streaked humps of the hills fold in on themselves. We're both tired. Mick measures out the Highland Park and we take a wander by the river, looking for somewhere to cross in the morning. The burns and rivers are on the high side, still fed by meltwater, and stained with peat tannins.

Back at the tent it's a pleasure to brew up and lie still with the door open and the stove hissing away. It's going to be a frosty one although all day the moors have been full of spring sounds, especially the meadow pipits.

Morning brings weak sun and a skin of ice on boots and still water. Ice rattles in the water bladder as I work numb fingers into action over a brew. We find a place to cross dry-shod and work our way up and round to Beinn Bhreac. Sopping bogs and clawing heather give way to dry turf, gravel and lichen. That early sun has given up the ghost and we're braced for more snow showers - and get them

The horizons are smeared with showers but thankfully we just keep the visibility as we follow the spine of the hills towards Leathad an Taobhain. It would be tough to navigate this landscape in low cloud. The gradients are so shallow and contours so spaced out it's hard enough telling one undulation from another - there is the exposure of rock and ridge, and there is this. I wonder if the Arctic Eye can be felt here? Arctic travellers have often described a sense of being watched, a psychological reaction to a landscape devoid of anything recognisably human, experienced sometimes as a desire to climb head-first into a sleeping bag.

But we make it over the empty miles, a rugged mix of bog, peat hags and wet snow underfoot.

On the summit of Leathad an Taobhain, Mick's altimeter gives a curious reading of 940 metres - some way above the 912 metres on the map. Now it feels like that wilderness middle section of the walk is over. We pick up a path, and pass a ruined Victorian deer stalker's bothy, then onto an estate track.

The cloud's been building all afternoon. We're tired again, it's almost an oppressive feeling - nothing good is coming out of the sky any time soon. On the track, concentration wanes and my eyelids start to droop. We find a fairly sheltered spot on grass by a small burn. We get the tents up. And then it rains for 12 hours solid. I don't sleep well. After a few hours the wind is sticking the tent outer to the inner and water is getting in. I long for my tarp. The ground proves to be uneven and I can't relax. I'm plagued by sleep paralysis dreams. I float about the tent, and find a television playing in the porch. That can't be right... I heave and gasp into consciousness.

Next morning, Mick doesn't seem to have fared much better. "It was a bit of a disaster" he sums up.

We're relieved to get away early though it's till sleeting. How to get to Kingussie? The Glen Tromie route involves an easy well-kept track, but a lengthy dog-leg west before heading north. The map shows a direct route north - a climb up to a saddle then down Gleann Chomraidh, on a path. Except the path only exists on the map, so we have many miles of bog and heather slogging, following the river from its infancy, teetering at first on deer tracks laced with worn and slippery heather stems, before we cross over to lower Glen Tromie and see Strathspey and Kingussie, our destination, laid out below. Gleann Chomraidh has not always been empty though; halfway down there's a network of old shielings from transhumance times, just circular piles of rocks now; but the land they're on is still good, a rare dry and grassy oasis that would make for fine camping, and is clearly a good home for a colony of moles.

We're drenched by a lengthy shower on the final miles of road walking but the early start pays off and soon we're downing pints and eating fish and chips before the train south arrives. Phones ping and texts are sent. It's 21st century Scotland, but it still feels like we dropped off the edge and clambered out again.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Winter skills at Glenmore Lodge

It's a truism but one that bears repeating: winter hillwalking in Scotland is very different to summer hillwalking. The physical and mental demands are far higher, daylight is scarce, the margins for error slimmer. It's colder, stormier, and, of course, there are avalanches. As a youngster I didn't know or care much about the risks: I just wanted to get out there. And I got into situations that I know now were dangerous.

In more recent years, and each passing winter roll-call of accidents and fatalities, I've subconsciously avoided challenging myself in winter as I mull over how it all could have turned out much worse. Becoming a parent hasn't helped either. So, winter walks have tended to be on modest hills, by the gentlest routes, on the most benign days. But, but... I miss those snow-plastered cliffs and cornices, the sting of graupel, the crunch and squeak of snow under boots, the late low sun and long shadows, and the way the lower jaw goes so numb it's hard to speak. Timidity and self-imposed limits are to be scorned: I just can't in good faith say I only want to climb mountains in the summer. I want my winter mojo back - but in a more sensible adult way!

So that's how I found myself on a two-day introduction to winter skills course at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland's national outdoor training centre. This is aimed at the hillwalker with little or no winter experience, or the rusty and untutored such as me. A vast amount was packed into the two days, distilled into two broad themes: moving safely on the mountain (crampon and especially ice axe skills); and planning. The philosophy of planning is maybe a more accurate way of putting it, as attitude is so important to planning well for the conditions. If you want time to consolidate these new skills, there is a five day course available: otherwise it's a good idea to get out into the winter hills and start using them as soon as possible.

There's a vast and well-equipped stores where you can borrow technical equipment and many other items including winter boots, waterproofs, tough and capacious rucksacks, and belay jackets. For those starting out on an activity it's a chance to 'try before you buy'; it was also a godsend for me as I travelled light from Edinburgh by train and bicycle.

Packing for winter

The lodge is a comfortable and convivial base - but be warned, folks: this ain't no hotel weekend break. You'll earn those luxuries. The instruction is friendly, informal and supportive, but expect to be pushed, and expect to be outdoors and working hard pretty much regardless of the weather - it's where the real learning happens. My course was sandwiched between storms Gertrude and Henry. Conditions even on the lower slopes of Cairngorm's Northern Corries were wild, but out we went into it to get some real-world experience with ice axe and crampons - and eating lunch, putting on crampons and donning extra layers, Herculean tasks compared to summer!

Digging snow holes

There's no excuse to clock off early either: after day one's foray onto the mountain we dragged our tired limbs into the lecture theatre for two hours of detailed talks on avalanche awareness and winter navigation. On face value, courses are not cheap, but if this one was anything to go by, you will get your money's worth and more.

Courses run until the end of March so do hop onto the website if you fancy it and have a few spare days coming up.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Lochnagar in passing

I was on my way to Aberdeen for the weekend and decided to drop in for a half-day on Aberdeen's very own mountain, Lochnagar. Well that was the plan...

Spittal of Glen Muick has changed a bit since I was last here in 1998. I wasn't expecting to have to dig around in my wallet for £3, and I was surprised to see a parking area for coaches, here at the end of several miles of single track road with car-sized passing places. There's a nice little low-key visitor centre too. I'd say the road-end area is managed now rather than developed. It's a hugely popular spot, by association with Balmoral, and offering relatively easy walking in wild scenery, and that remains the draw.

It's easy going, from the sunny floor of the valley towards cloudy scree-torn heads of the mountain. Most of my walks recently have been at low levels and I'm getting my head back into these contrasts that Scottish mountains are high enough to deliver.

Up to the plateau, around 1,000 metres, and it's getting hard to stay upright in the wind. It's perfectly dry but the clag is impenetrable. Other walkers loom suddenly out of the cloud. Some are turning back; it's really inhospitable up here. I'm dressed for summer, in shorts and a light windbreaker, and pretty soon I make the judgement call.

Across the way, free of cloud and catching the sun, is Conachraig, one of them Corbetts. I've not been there before so at least my peak-bagger self won't go away empty-handed. Actually this Corbett is nameless - at least, the OS map draw a blank on the highest of three tops; Conachraig is the nearest top with a name.

I've never seen such a cloud display, all dry ice, layer on layer of it moving, shifting, interlocking like the parts of some vast machine. At times the gaps align and great shafts of light spear down, rove across the hillsides, and shut off just as suddenly.


A crispy ribbon of granite gravel trickles up to the top. The summit is adorned with great pancake stacks of granite.

I explore the tors and hunker down behind one for a cuppa. The wind is still ferocious up here. In no time I'm back down in Glen Muick. The cloud keeps rolling and piling across, ever more absurd and elaborate; sunlight strafes the hills, the last gasp of flowering heather. Summer's over, they seem to warn. It's only a matter of time.