Sunday, 7 May 2017

Lucky seven

Despite appearances on this blog, I've had quite a busy and eventful few weeks in outdoors terms - and varied too. At the end of March I was down in London and headed out to the Medway for a walk through the marshes. I followed the Saxon Shore Way from Rainham to Swale opposite the Isle of Sheppey. It turned into a bright and blowy spring day of huge, fast-moving skies and often brilliant sunshine.

I have conflicting feelings about the marshes, because these are conflicted places - semi-industrial, not pretty, yet teeming with birdlife. There's raw ecological value here in spades. Who cares about my offended aesthetic sensibilities? Yet the intrusion everywhere of pylons, bridges, container terminals, power stations... it's hard for the mind to unwind, you're always reconciling jarring contradictions. At one point I see a ship ahead, seemingly cruising over dry land. It takes a minute to realise it's navigating the still-unseen channel between the mainland and the Isle of Sheppey.

And before we rush to hold up these edgelands as proof that we can do what we do as a civilisation and nature will find its way, let's remember that a couple of centuries ago none of this industrial detritus was here. Indeed, much of it was still not drained - it was real saltmarsh rather than grazing marsh. How much richer was the ecology then? Let's protect and appreciate the life that still thrives here, but let's not pretend this is or should be as good as it gets.

Back in Scotland, two half-day walks followed. There was a wander up a suitably obscure Corbett, Stob Coire Creagach, just north of the Rest and be Thankful on the A83 road. Stoopid here forgot the camera for that one which was a shame as a claggy misty morning transformed into a bright and warm afternoon. The Corbett is the highest point of a long ridge with great views. There are also some serious crags here if the UK Climbing website is any guide. On the track back down to my starting point in Glen Kinglas, the north ridge of Beinn an Lochain filled the view. It looks an exciting climb and I've filed that one away for a winter trip.

The following week there was another half-day walk to Ben Chonzie, a southerly Munro that I last visited in December 1988. It's one of the easiest Munros and viewed as a bit dull by some, but I caught it on a good day with spring warmth in Glen Turret later on contrasting with an icy wind and snow showers up top and big, bright and windblown views to the snow-capped Lawers and Glen Lyon ranges. I descended steeply into Chonzie's lovely eastern corrie, a sun trap of heather, broken crags and old rockfall lushly upholstered with moss. Ducks fussed on Lochan Uaine where I picked up the track back to the Loch Turret dam. There was a ring ouzel too and, setting off in the early morning by the loch, numerous skeins of geese arrowed overhead.

The main event of the month was a three day trip with David, Mick, and (for the first day) Fraser. On the Friday we took a long walk along a short ridge to Buidhe Bheinn, an awkwardly placed Corbett overlooking Loch Hourn and Knoydart. Dave summed it up beautifully here.

We camped high and woke next day to low cloud and snow on shelters. Our weather window materialised though and Dave, Mick and I traversed the South Glen Shiel ridge. Somewhere along the way I climbed my 200th Munro. Summit bagging isn't the be-all and end-all for me, far from it. I don't even know if I'm totally committed to finishing them, there are many daunting challenges still out there (most of the Skye Cuillin for example) and many places other than Munros I want to visit. But it was a special moment nonetheless. Not because I'd bagged an arbitrary round number of hills but what it represented, a consistent thread through life and all its changes. It's a link back from the middle-aged me to the fascinated teenager. Even during all my years down south I'd still always return to climb at least a couple of new Munros each year.

It was also great to be there in company. We even had a couple of random meetings with others along the way previously only known through social meedja. I love my solitary trips but as I'm sure is the case for many others, the Munros are also the story of connections made and experiences shared. Learning, developing, pushing the envelope and having a laugh - that's what companionship in the unmediated environment of the hills can be about. It's almost a cliché, but there really is no room for egos here, no spin and no hype. And what a relief that is. Thanks all, and here's to next time.

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