Thursday, 28 February 2013

The margin of safety (training!)

Highland hills are easily climbed in the imagination, sitting here in a nice warm flat in south London. Each trip to Scotland brings the reality back - the aching legs, puffing, sweating - but that's all forgotten almost as soon as it's over. Only the desired outcomes - the sights and sounds, the satisfaction of accomplishment - remain. My wife has forgotten almost everything about the birth of our first child (I have not). If it wasn't for that, perhaps we wouldn't be expecting our second now. Not to compare climbing hills to childbirth; but still, the same psychological principle is at play.

When it comes to the hills, though, a lack of conditioning can mean that the discomfort overwhelms the enjoyment altogether. As I know from experience, going unfit to the hills and struggling rather than enjoying is dispiriting. And that's just on a day trip, never mind day after day consecutively, with a heavy pack. I'm not unfit at the moment, but am I fit enough? Do I have that margin of safety? The thought of complete exhaustion, in bad weather, somewhere between Loch Tilt and Gaick, is not a pleasant one.

With this on my mind, much of the past few days has been spent leafing through the introductions of various accounts of marathon treks in the Highlands, trying to glean not just what these guys did about planning and logistics, but what kind of physical shape they were in before they started. Did they do any training?

Martin Moran (The Munros In Winter) and Mike Cawthorne (Hell Of A Journey), who made winter conquests of all the Munros and all the 1,000 metre peaks in Scotland respectively, talk about the importance of training and fitness. Moran details some of his routine, which involves a lot of running up wooded cloughs in Derbyshire. His fitness is clearly immense. He puts in some days that would be considered huge in any season, let alone winter: for example a full round of Glen Lochay. Obviously the physical demands of coping with freezing temperatures, wind chill, deep snow and fleeting daylight, mean that to maintain that margin of safety, fitness has to be taken deadly seriously. Scottish mountains in winter don't just look different, they are different.

Dave Hewitt and Hamish Brown, whose exploits took place in summer, are coy on the subject. Hewitt describes himself as possessing 'reasonable fitness'. Brown, in the introduction to Hamish's Groats End Walk, claims never to train for his long treks. That's about it.

What they doubtlessly had, though, was the benefit of living close to the Highlands and being able to visit frequently, perhaps every week, consistently building up fitness, endurance and experience. They got fit for the hills by climbing hills. My hillwalking - a day or two every couple of months at the most - can't really be counted as part of any fitness regime. I need to be doing other things. Sticking with the weights, certainly, but I also need to get my body accustomed to what it will actually be doing: walking long distances with a heavy pack. And in the absence of actual hills to practice on, what better way to enjoy a stifling London summer than tramping the streets with a backpack full of iron plates.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Some vital statistics

A little more poring over maps today building up an overall picture of the walk. Some of those vital statistics are as follows:

Length: Approx. 282 miles/454km. Perhaps a few miles longer on the ground - I used Mapometer to work it out.  I reckon it will take me around 3 to 4 weeks. Overall I think this is about the right size of challenge - not on the scale of a Brown or Hewitt, but a bit more than say the average TGO Challenge route with a few more hills on the way.

Munros en route: 31.

Corbetts en route: 14

A lot of heathery peathagged lumps up to Dalwhinnie, then some characterful classics thereafter. Here they are in the order they'd be climbed on an anti-clockwise walk (Corbetts in italics; an asterisk means they're a short detour from the watershed, usually c.1km, and can be easily included in the route):

Beinn Chaorach, June 2012
Tom Buidhe
Cairn of Claise
Glas Maol
The Cairnwell
Carn a'Gheoidh
Beinn Iutharn Mhor
Carn Bhac*
An Sgarsoch
Carn Ealar
Beinn Bhreac*
Leathad an Taobhain
An Dun
Carn na Caim
Carn Dearg, March 2012
A'Bhuidheanach Bheag
The Fara
Beinn Bheoil
Ben Alder
Sgor Gaibhre
Carn Dearg
Meall a'Bhuiridh
Stob Ghabhar
Stob a'Choire Odhair
Meall Buidhe
Beinn a'Chreachain
Ben More, Stob Binnein and Cruach Ardrain from Beinn Chaluim, June 2012
Beinn Achaladair
Beinn Mhanach*
Beinn nam Fuaran
Beinn a'Chaisteal
Cam Chreag
Beinn Chaorach
Beinn Odhar
Beinn Chuirn
Ben Lui
Ben Oss
Beinn Dubhchraig
Cruach Ardrain
Stob Binnein
Meall an t-Seallaidh
Beinn Each
Stuc a'  Chroin

Highest point: Stob Binnein (1165m)

Calories expended: 20,624 according to Mapometer. That's apparently around 73 Mars bars.

Stuc a'Chroin and Ben Vorlich from Meall na Fearna, May 2012

Monday, 18 February 2013

Here's the plan...

It was maybe seven or eight years ago that I first thought specifically about walking the bounds of the Tay catchment. However since the age of 14 when I started heading out on my own or with friends to the hills, the desire was there to spend an extended time in the outdoors, to link up familiar locations in long multi-day walks.

In those early days I cut my teeth on local hills around Tomintoul where my grandfather owned a house for forty years, spending many a day in the Cromdales or in the hills around Glen Livet and Glen Brown, wandering over the little hills whilst daydreaming about the bigger ones.

I shortly moved on to exploring the high Cairngorms, quickly climbing my way through the Munros in a series of summer overnight trips, staying in the bothies - Ryvoan, Faindouran, Corrour - often with our dog at the time, Sam, in tow. The thrill of self-sufficiency, of waking up in the mountains, was addictive. I also slept rough on occasion, in the heather in Glen Avon swaddled in a sleeping bag, rain jacket and black bin bags on a drizzly two-day trek from Inverey to Tomintoul, and in Glen Gairn on another overnighter to make a sun-frazzled sweep of Corbetts from Cock Bridge to Linn of Quoich. Ben Avon and Beinn a'Bhuird were climbed in a night walk from Tomintoul and back, with a two-hour nap in a heathery hollow. By 1991, at the age of 18, I'd climbed all the Cairngorm Munros and much else in those mountains besides.

I was hooked, and the seeds of the current scheme were planted. I had also discovered in my Cairngorm wanderings that I could cope with my own company at least for a time - indeed, I could handle with ease being on my own in the dark in the middle of nowhere - essential for a venture like this! Many of these early Cairngorms explorations were done alone, more by default than design. If like-minded people couldn't be found, that wasn't going to stop me. I was pretty obsessed.

That's how the Tay watershed plan - or at least the desire to do something of that ilk - was ultimately conceived, then. But what brought the idea fully formed out into the light? In the absence of mountains to climb I like to devour as much mountain literature as I can. Those of the long continuous walk variety, usually with some self-set goal, I find particularly appealing but also unsettling. The best of these books bequeath the thought: "I could do something like that", quickly followed by: "So why don't you then?".

For a long time I'd had an idle fascination with the empty lands south of the Cairngorms proper, and the long boundary between Perth & Kinross and Aberdeenshire, then Highland, marching erratically but relentlessly from the Cairnwell pass to Drumochter over many miles of high, featureless hills. Names like Gaick, Beinn Bhreac and above all An Sgarsoch epitomised desolation in my mind. You walk into the middle of nowhere but instead of finding enlightenment in a Ben Alder or a Seana Braigh, you find... more of the same. Walking this bit of watershed would be a challenge on it's own. It's the part of the route that I look forward to with most trepidation. I do have Ben Alder to look forward to afterwards though.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I was aware this was only part of something much bigger - the watershed of the River Tay catchment. I traced the line outwards. Seemingly disparate places were magically connected: from Glen Isla in the east to the gates of Glencoe, they all offered their waters to the Tay. At some point I learned that the Tay, whilst not the longest river in Britain, was the biggest in terms of sheer volume of water discharged into the sea. And moreover, in the breadth and drama of the landscapes it encompasses, what British river could rival it? So much of Scotland is represented within its bounds.

A couple of accounts of long walks finally dragged the idea blinking into the light. They were Nicholas Crane's 'Clear Waters Rising', a mind-boggling epic year-long walk along the mountain spine of Europe from western Spain to Istanbul; and Dave Hewitt's relatively homely and approachable, but no less enjoyable, 'Walking the Watershed', an account of a walk along the entire length of Scotland's east-west watershed. Despite the difference in scope, both these books epitomised the allure and the challenge - mental and physical - of the long walk. They also prove that it's the breadth of mind of the walker rather than the length of the walk that matters when it comes to communicating the experience. I dug out my own modest idea, dusted it down, and realised it could be a goer.

That was a few years ago and at last I'm going to do it. I can't find any evidence so far that anyone else has done it. It would be nice to do a first, something original - I loved Hamish Brown's 'Mountain Walk' but a non-stop round of the Munros has been well done, and really would be beyond my scope anyway given my family commitments, and probably fitness and experience as well.

The Tay walk also meets other criteria: rather than being just a long wander, as in the aforementioned books there's a clear route, a challenge and a goal to discipline the resolve which will undoubtedly waver at times. It also has that egalitarian aspect that shone though in Dave Hewitt's book. It's not about bagging summits - although plenty will be bagged (or double-bagged: I've climbed almost all the Munros on the route). Tracing the route on the map last night I was delighted to see the humble grassy hills of the Ochils east of Glen Eagles linked to the Black Mount and its view into the fanged mouth of Glencoe. There will be plenty of Highlands, but a fair slice of Lowlands too.

In firming up the route, the first big question was where to start and finish. Obviously it was going to be a circular route. My initial instinct was an anticlockwise journey from Perth, as it's where the river becomes tidal. Warm-up days would take me across the gentle Sidlaws to Forfar, Kirriemuir and so into the Highlands above the Angus glens. On the return, in the final days into Perth I would be following the watershed between rivers Almond and Earn rather than Earn and Forth, treating the Almond as the final major tributary rather than the Earn. I pictured myself setting off one morning from the middle of one of the bridges over the Tay, returning triumphantly to the same spot from the other side some weeks later, a bit leaner, hairier and more sunburnt.

However, neat as this sounds, excluding the River Earn, which is inextricably linked with the Tay, seemed wrong, as did finishing so far inland, albeit where the river technically meets the sea. And what about that other, greater city that is almost synonymous with the Tay? Could Dundee credibly be left out of the loop? Further investigations on the internet unearthed a couple of maps showing the 'official' boundaries of the River Tay catchment area. The line clearly starts just outside Broughty Ferry, and returns to the opposite shore of the Firth of Tay in far north-east Fife. It has to be this route. What is lost in the Sidlaws will be made up for with a traverse of the 'unfashionable' eastern Ochils, finishing up on the wide sands and big skies of Tentsmuir Point on the edge of the North Sea.

At this stage, having done an initial mapping of the full route on the OS 1:50,000 maps, a few other general concerns emerge. Firstly, in the lowland sections, finding campsites could be tricky; there may be a lot of tedious (and potentially dangerous) road walking; and the tamed nature of the land with farming, forestry and fences will make the watershed hard to follow accurately all the time. Also, at the risk of sounding like a complete cowardy custard, I can't help worrying a bit about fearsome farm dogs, shotgun-toting Farmer Palmers and herds of over-curious cattle (have I been living in London for too long?). I will need to buy or borrow more detailed 1:25,000 maps of these areas and maybe scout out the route by bike or car over the next few trips up north so I know what to expect.

In the Highland sections - particularly the aforementioned journey from the Cairnwell to Drumochter - I'll be especially isolated and vulnerable to the elements. Getting lost in this featureless area in bad weather could be as easy as it would be inadvisable. Also, will I be able to carry enough food and fuel to get me through this section? There are no quick ways off this bit of the watershed once committed, and no easy access to civilisation. Will I need to consider burying a food cache or two in advance a la Hamish Brown?

All to be worked out in due course...

There are also more ephemeral fears. What will all this isolation and solitude do to my head? There is a passage from 'Clear Waters Rising' that has stayed with me. Alone in the evening in an Alpine hut in a snowy forest, the author hears mysterious footsteps outside, and later has a disturbing dream. Maybe it was a supernatural experience, or maybe too much time alone was messing with his mind.

On the flipside, another passage I remember well - this time from 'Walking the Watershed' - describes the author's feelings, camped high in the hills on a starry night near the start of the walk, as he realises that this is just the beginning, and that many more nights like this lie in store.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Enjoy yourself - It's later than you think.

Today I turned 40. Today is also the day I started planning - planning, not daydreaming about - a big challenge that has been knocking around in my mind for a number of years. The two may not be entirely unconnected!

I plan to indulge, as never before, the greatest obsession that has stayed with me throughout most of my life: hills and mountains, in particular Scottish ones. If this obsession was a pet dog, the RSPCA would have confiscated it years ago due to neglect. Brought up in Scotland until my mid 20s, for most of the last 12 years I've lived in London. I work full-time, I'm married and have a two-year-old toddler. Trips to the Scottish hills are few and precious. Whilst hillwalking friends resident in Scotland casually look forward to their weekend climb, I'll endure weeks and weeks of anticipation, praying that the weather lottery will come up at least vaguely in my favour. Still, over the years I've managed to chalk up 192 Munros and 50 Corbetts to date, plus numerous other hills.

One unintended consequence of this situation, though, is that I've developed a strictly no-nonsense approach to planning and executing my stravaigs that I never had when I was young. Nowadays, routes are carefully picked to allow for the weather, the amount of daylight, and the company, and ensure that at least a summit or two can be achieved. The rucksack is packed the night before, the alarm set for 5am. If public transport is involved, train and/or bus times are checked and double-checked. These days I don't crash into bed at 2am, hoping for the best the next day. Maybe it's a mid-life thing: wasting time now is almost physically painful!

As I've approached 40 I've also taken my physical fitness firmly into my own hands. Instead of forcing myself to go running - which I hate, and is of little use anyway for building the functional strength required for trekking up and down mountains with a heavy pack - I do free weights, bodyweight exercises (e.g. pull-ups and press-ups), and conditioning exercises like sprints, skipping and hitting a punch bag. As a consequence I'm leaner, fitter and stronger than probably any time in my life. Climbing mountains is certainly easier now. On this topic I would highly recommend an e-book called Hillfit by fitness blogger and hillwalking enthusiast Chris Highcock, which sets out the importance of strength training in getting fit for the hills (and more generally), and includes a programme of simple exercises to improve strength.

Anyway, that's all well and good, but... I'm still 40. I'm still in the pink, but it's later than you think.

So, it's time to stop wishing life away. With my family onside, as well as time and fitness, the plan is, in May and June 2014, to walk the entire length of the watershed of the River Tay; in other words, to walk the whole boundary of the biggest river catchment area in Scotland - the biggest river in Britain in terms of volume of water discharged into the sea.

Today I went into Stanford's map emporium in Long Acre and bought all  (well, almost... the route crosses the corner of OS sheet 53, which I realised when I got home and started laying the maps out) the relevant 1:50,000 maps, and spent the evening tracing the route out in red felt tip pen. It's a daydream no longer: as I drew the line, I started to see it in terms of a myriad of problems to be solved. But zoom out and the big picture is still there, in all its glory and simplicity.

The big picture: Looking south from Beinn Dubhchraig to Loch Lomond, June 2012