Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Hill of the roaring

The summer doldrums: a month after the solstice, the growing and raising mostly done, the season is sliding down the far side in a blaze of heat, haze and heather pollen. Clouds of the stuff coat my shoes and make my mouth dry on the moors above Blair Atholl. I went to climb Ben Vuirich, a big hill (903 metres) but totally overshadowed by the massive and complex mountain of Beinn a'Ghlo just to the north.

A weekday and an unpretentious, self-effacing heathery lump of a hill, so solitude aplenty. But Hamish Brown writes that 'Ben Vuirich may be unobtrusive but it has the common magic of all mountains' and he's not wrong. The approach from the west, once off the Beinn a'Ghlo path which I biked along for a few miles, is a long trackless plod. The route passed lonely Loch Valigan. I stopped for lunch near a little tarn with a panorama of Beinn a'Ghlo, its curves and sweeping ridges and scree-covered flanks filling the view across the glen. So many insects this year, it seems, including things I've never seen before - a hoverfly mimicking a bumble bee briefly checking me out as I supped my tea - or maybe I need to check my baseline, the paucity of crawling flying things in recent years.

I dropped steeply north from the breezy summit of Ben Vuirich to pick up the old hill track from Strathardle back towards Blair Atholl. This side of the hill was airless and hot, and I was glad I hadn't climbed up this way. However I found a good burn to replenish water bottles, and the walk back to the bike along an old landrover track then singletrack path was wonderful - may this old way never be bulldozed.

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Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Having it large

Enough arthouse hills - time for a blockbuster! Ben Nevis is not renowned for its weather, so I decided to jump at the chance of a free day in the midst of this preternatural spell of fine summer weather. It had to be something new, something big, something with with plenty to goggle at -  so, Ben Nevis by the Carn Mor Dearg arete it was.

Climbing, sweating, drinking like a fish, fighting the heat, nursing cramped legs, scrambling, scraping shins on granite, gawping at vertigo-inducing cliffs, catching the shouts of climbers, peering down on the distant roof of the CIC hut, sun-baked ranks of mountains to the horizon... I even got a little dose of solitude towards the end of the day. Heading for the Allt a'Mhuillin path, I peeled off the congested tourist trail down Ben Nevis and headed north above Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, and was quickly enveloped by the sunlit peace of the moor. By the Allt a'Mhuillin I stopped for a final brew, just to watch the water, rocks and sky for a while, soak up the warmth and enjoy the scent of bog myrtle.

There's no world shortage of photos of this route, but here are a few more anyway.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Gaick bike and hike

With a new mountain bike to take out for a spin and a strong urge for hills and solitude, I decided to head somewhere I've only been once before but fell in love with straight away: Gaick. This long and spectacular natural route from Glen Garry to Kingussie is just a few miles east of Drumochter, and it's only thanks to a few twists of historical fate that the A9, the railway and a line of massive pylons is routed through there rather than here.

I huffed and puffed up the track from Dalnacardoch Lodge, grinding the gears on my unfamiliar bike, nearly crashing on a downhill when I changed down to the small chainring thinking I was changing up to the big one. By the end of the day, on the way back, I'd just about got the hang of it. I was also already thinking about the modifications I could make - a 1 x chainring set-up for a start, which would relieve my tiny mind of a lot of the worries about gear changing, redundancies and crossed drivetrains. Anyway, it's many years since I've owned a mountain bike and enjoyed the thrill of riding on gravel tracks. I packed a long distance into a fairly short day - it's nice to expand the travel options, and bikepacking looks like something that may be within reach now - watch this space...

I powered up by the Edendon Water, past the empty house at Badnambiast, which would make a great bothy, past the curlews and anxious pipits, and ground to a halt in a muddy morass by the sad ruins of Sronphadruig Lodge. There are no lights now in these long glens of Gaick and Dalnacardoch and Dalnamein; the many summer shielings are rickles of overgrown stones, and the subsequent heyday of the sporting estates is long gone too.

I trudged up into the drizzle and clag in search of a of A'Chaoirnich, a Corbett on the east side of the pass. Not nice but not too threatening, a chance for a bit of navigation practice on the crisp plateau, following bearings and counting steps to the tiny summit cairn. Then another bearing off to the northwest, to find a wide boggy bowl, gathering waters and tipping them over the lip down a steep ravine into the Gaick. Deer tracks took me to slopes steep but unbroken and safe to descend. Then a wade across the river and lunch while the rain stopped and clouds brushed the plateaux, lifting all the while.

This is a place of vastness and serenity. Come here in the summer, camp on the grassy well-drained flats by the river. Sit outside until 11pm when it's still quite light, listen to the pipits and oystercatchers, let the sound of water send you to sleep. OK, there might be some midges, but still.

An Dun was another Corbett and a strange one, a steep-sided fragment of plateau which must have once been moated by gouging glaciers. It's steep north ridge narrows to something of an arete near the top. I climbed out of the world of pipits and into the realm of golden plovers and their squeaky-creaky calls. There were at least four up here and they traced wide anxious circles around me.

Schiehallion dominated the view south...

Then a steep descent back to the bike and a white-knuckle ride back down the glen.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Balmy under the stormy

The long north ridge of Carn Mor Dearg
Out there, it's been a stunning summer so far, apparently, but spare time has been scarce these past few months. Time to crawl out from under a blanket of Edinburgh haar. The plan was a trip to some of the remoter, obscurer bothies and mountains of Assynt, and so it remained until Aviemore. Having lunch in a cafe, my eye caught the weather forecast on the screen high on the wall. The north and west of the country were invisible under an angry yellow and purple rash of thunderstorms. Weather warnings were in place. Time to reassess...

Lower Glen Feshie was humid and dusty when I parked up near the Achlean road-end. The storms would be hitting the Cairngorms too but hopefully a little later tomorrow than out west. The glen was quiet and still, even the birdsong was muted under the blanket of heat. Dark green fritillaries weaved and fluttered over the heather. Humans were in short supply today; the deep green calm of the Caledonian pine woods welcomed me in.


The transformation in Glen Feshie continues. Everywhere you look the forest is coming back - pine, birch, juniper.

There are old lone pines, survivors from the days of high deer numbers and overgrazing, and very young saplings from since the deer were banished. Inbetween in age are the plantation pines, serried ranks, all the same age. It will take time for nature to fully blur the hard edges of human management and decisions - a long time. But this place is entrancing, immersive nonetheless.

Through it all runs the Feshie river. Just now after weeks of dry weather it's a tame affair, chattering through the stones and fordable just about anywhere. But it's a major force in the glen, sinuous and thrashing when in spate, ranging across its wide bed of boulders, eroding, tearing away and reshaping.

My target is Ruigh-aiteachan bothy. It's just undergone a major refurbishment and must now be the most luxurious bothy in Scotland. Wood is provided, there are toilets, and the two downstairs rooms each have a sturdy stove. Upstairs the loft has been wood-panelled and is cosy. A large group of mountain bikers on a tour of the Cairngorms arrive just after me but it would take more to make this bothy feel crowded. I think winter would be the time to visit here and appreciate the creature comforts. Tonight it never really gets dark, and it's far too warm for a fire. The bikers get one going for a bit to dry out their gear but the bothy is soon sweltering. Outside, though, there are voracious midges...

Next morning I leave by 7, hoping to beat the storms. A short distance south of the bothy I ford the river and start climbing up the track towards Glen Tromie to the west. It's raining lightly, and still, and fog drifts across the hillsides.

Near the top of the pass lies tiny Lochan an t-Sluic. It's guarded by a small wading bird, possibly a golden plover, who stands on a rock in the water and calls insistently as I pass.

I'm making for Carn Mor Dearg, an unpretentious Corbett that encloses mid Glen Feshie to the west. The gravel track takes me high up the hillside, into a bank of thick fog, then fainter ATV tracks straggle up to the broad ridge south west of the summit. It's an easy plod to the top, visibility restored above a scrappy inversion.

What to do now? Another Corbett lies a few miles west but already the unstable thunderheads are piling up from west round to north. A few minutes of dithering and indecision and I decide to play safe and head back to Achlean down Carn Mor Dearg's long and easy north ridge. A good decision as it turns out; I'd not gone that far when I heard the first distant thunder from a monster cloud formation that had quickly built up over the Monadh Liath on the other side of Strathspey. Closer to hand, cloud was evolving in alarming ways over the Cairngorm plateau too.

But right now my route was bathed in sunshine. The pipits fussed and the insects hummed. At one point I watched as at least 10 bumble bees, possibly carder bees, crawled and buzzed over a few square feet of moorland. What were they doing? Working on some tiny flowers I couldn't make out? Or perhaps their nest entrance had been damaged and they couldn't find it?

Dropping off the end of the ridge I bush-whacked down to the Feshie through deep heather and birch saplings, overwhelmed with the richness of it all.

As I approached the road-end at Achlean, more thunder sounded. Carn Mor Dearg was under the storm now. I'd enjoyed this impromtu visit to the Feshie more than I would've imagined. Big plans for the outdoors crash and burn all the time, it's a faith-based business really. If it's not life it's the weather. I felt blessed that this time I'd found a gem amongst the wreckage.