Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Across the water to Cowal

This is the last of the Christmas holiday write-ups. I did the walk before Hogmanay but cleverly forgot to charge my DSLR camera's battery. It was a great day for photos though. Figuring something is better than nothing, I used my six-year-old mobile phone instead - camera a whopping 2 megapixels! It took a while to find the lead to download the pictures. I didn't miss the weight and bulk of my usual camera though (a Sony A200). Nice pictures but a proper brick. For the big walk in May I'm starting to wonder if a smart phone with a top-notch camera might be better, as well as serving other purposes.

To the walk, and this was a stolen day, taking advantage of a brief weather window, whilst staying with family in Glasgow. Heading west out of the city towards Greenock on the M8 always seems an odd approach to the hills. It's post-industrial central belt much of the way until the bigger houses and more genteel streets of Gourock. Then the Clyde estuary ends and the sea begins, and across the water there's a hazy rain-veiled land of mountains and fjords. 

I reached Cowal via the Gourock-Hunters Quay ferry.This is expensive with a car. It would be possible to do this walk car-free by taking a bike on a train to Gourock, crossing as a foot passenger, and cycling the fairly short distance at the other side.

I love Cowal, it's a fascinating and neglected land (by hillwalkers at any rate - no Munros, you see, but rough and challenging walks a-plenty). So close to Glasgow and its satellite towns, but distant too: accessible only by ferry or a big drive via Loch Lomond and Arrochar. Fingers of gnarly upland interlace with sea lochs creating serene cul-de-sacs and backwaters, near yet remote. Cowal has that typical west coast ruggedness without the edge of harshness of the north. It's a lush landscape. Benmore Botanic Gardens between Dunoon and Loch Eck are well worth a visit.

A round of Beinn Mhor and Clach Bheinn fitted neatly into a short winter day. Beinn Mhor is one of the highest peaks in Cowal but little Clach Bheinn beats it for ruggedness. The hills occupy a wedge of upland between Loch Eck and Glen Massan near the head of Holy Loch. A shower cleared and the sun rose in Glen Massan as I pulled on my boots. Setting foot on the track, a stoat shot across my path to the left and three red deer hinds bounded away to my right.

Sunrise in Glen Massan

Conifer plantations are the greatest barrier to reaching the heights of Cowal. There's a waymarked trail to Beinn Mhor through the Coire Mheasain forest, all the way to the open hillside. The first steep, zig-zag pull up from Glen Massan is rewarded with a gentler section and some open views.

Then it's back into the trees. The way narrows, steepens, widens to a firebreak - then you're free of the forest. Especially liberating when it coincides with another rain shower clearing off.

The forest was almost balmy but the mountain was gripped by winter. I dug in to a snowdrift below the trig point, out of the way of a biting wind, for a brew and lunch. The mist was thin and chill.

The east side of Beinn Mhor has some substantial crags. I set the compass before groping my way down erratic slopes: wet snow, sudden steepness, bulges and holes, hidden burns and bogs. I copped one icy bootful. No gaiters! As I sat to wring out my socks the cloud started to clear off the summit.

Clach Bheinn might yield a view. Wide moors and widening skies. Spongy and soggy underfoot, water pooling around my boots with each step.

All clear on Clach Bheinn...

Sun on the land, a rare treat this winter.

Clach Bheinn is a wild and rugged little hill and it brings out the wild side of Beinn Mhor too. Craggy Coire Sith looks east down to Loch Eck. All around is the work of glaciers - gouging, scouring, smoothing.

Glen Massan is just a brisk walk away from Clach Bheinn, over the ridge and very steeply down between two plantations. Daylight was fading as I reached the valley floor. The sky was a uniform gun-metal grey, the light dead and diffuse, ahead of the next weather front. By the time I was back on the ferry from Hunters Quay the rain was pelting down and the sea was choppy. The hull boomed and shuddered and salt water leapt the bow doors and sluiced the windscreen as I sat back, toying with sleep.

A ferry ride and a wintry mountain, a stone's throw from the city. Sometimes you can lower your eyes without lowering your sights.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Brighten the corners

Sometimes you have to read between the lines to get the point. The Scottish Highlands aren't just a collection of isolated big-name mountain groups, an impression you can get if you stick to guidebooks and Munros. They are in fact a stupendous continuum. Between the constellations of Cairngorms, Nevis, Torridon and the rest, there is much dark matter: the unseen stuff that gives it weight and form and holds it all together.

Imagine Dalwhinnie as the tip of a triangle. Follow the left-hand side down Loch Ericht to the bottom left corner around Rannoch Station. The base of the triangle follows lochs Rannoch and Tummel to the confluence of the Tummel and Garry rivers. Glen Garry and Drumochter form the right-hand side of the triangle.

The topmost angle hosts a few Munros - the Drumochter group, popular of course but relatively unloved. Beyond these, there is some of the roughest, wildest and least-visited country in the Highlands.

The forecast was for one good day - crisp, sunny, bright - followed by a return to mild and wet. Dalnaspidal was frosty, puddles and potholes crunchy with ice. The Inverness-London Kings Cross express thundered past as I did some final checks and tweaks. A friendly gamekeeper sporting a deerstalker asked where I was headed as we waited to cross the line.

Fast walking along an easy track by Loch Garry tempts you into the heart of things.

The track ends abruptly at the head of the loch, pitching you suddenly into the wild. I had the absurd illusion that I'd gained height.

My objective was the Shaggy Mountain, Beinn Mholach. A fitting name for a shapeless, lumpy, rocky heathery beast of a hill. The Millwall FC of Scottish mountains, perhaps: no-one likes it and it doesn't care. The reception was violent too as I was blattered by a prolonged snow shower as I toiled upwards. Underfoot the conditions were perfect - deep snow cover but frozen, stable and weight-bearing.

The mist-shrouded summit was inhospitable although the snow had ceased. Time for lunch though. I was starving.

Slowly, all was revealed...

The clouds were doing crazy things:

The latter three pictures above are looking vaguely south-west towards Loch Rannoch. Before Christmas when I was thinking about this trip I learned that an application had been made to site - guess what - a wind farm on these moors. Is this the best we can do? Haven't we got something unique and precious here? Later that night in the tent I was reading Hamish Brown's 'Travels', a collection of articles that reads like a sort of loose autobiography. He mentions how decades ago planners based their choice of route for pylons to Skye: "because there was nothing there":
Of course, "nothing there" means nothing of the material junk associated with man and his despoiling tactics. There is plenty of wildlife and an abundant beauty, a beauty that ranges from sweeping grandeur... to intimate, tiny, perfection.
Nowadays the same attitudes prevail (MAMBA) and the frittering continues.

Still, I left the summit with elated, happy thoughts, just glad to have been there for the show.

Winter in the hills means counting down the hours of daylight from sunrise onwards. Though it was barely mid-afternoon I hurried north and down over sparkling crunchy snowfields hoping for a snow-free campsite by the Allt Cro-cloich. This I found on the site of old summer shielings by the burn. My top tip for selecting a wild camp would be to head for somewhere where there used to be habitation. Almost always it'll be relatively dry, flat and grassy.

Tent up first. I opted for the Terra Nova Laser Photon I rather than the Trailstar as I'm still awaiting the bathtub groundsheet, and I figured the ground could be wet.

Then I made myself at home. This tent is a pleasure to use if it's not raining. I realise looking at these photos now that the pole is slightly squint. More pitching practice needed. Hard to achieve perfection when your fingers are slowly freezing!

It was nice to be all settled in, organised, coffee in hand, as twilight advanced.

Darkness was complete by 5pm and I felt the urge to go to bed and sleep. I read, dozed until 9, then read again until 11 before sleeping through until 8am when daylight started to filter in. It had been a night of wind and showers rattling the tent, but I managed a few decent hours of sleep.

The morning brought persistent rain and cloud-shrouded hills.

I set off for distant Stob an Aonaich Mhoir, as remote a hill as you could wish for, facing Ben Alder across Loch Ericht. Yesterday's fine snow conditions were gone though, I realised, as I lunged, plunged and floundered. Above about 600 metres the snow cover was complete. Miles of post-holing with a heavy pack across featureless moors with little visibility and limited daylight didn't appeal. I turned back. Negotiating the miles of rotting snowdrifts and bog back to Loch Garry was hard enough. Once I fell though a drift up to my waist. Below was wet, sucking peat... I was relieved to get out. This sort of country can take everything you've got, then swallow you up. Care and respect are required.

In almost every peat-hag were reminders of of more abundant past:

The return trek alongside Loch Garry was done in improving conditions.

This triangle of hill country is nameless, fittingly perhaps, unfairly maybe as it has its own definite character. It ain't pretty but it's vital.

Ever wondered why the River Garry is so often dry? The Tummel-Garry Hydro scheme abstracts most of its water from Loch Garry. Read more:

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A sliver of daylight

A respite. Wet and windy, but only intermittently wet and not quite blow-you-over windy. Plenty of cloud but shards of brightness make for dramatic conditions.

Not wanting to drive too far but in need of a long walk, I headed for the Ochils. Ben Cleuch by the long scenic route, from Glen Devon. The first few miles follow tracks and trails through Woodland Trust property and commercial forestry to Glen Sherup and onto the ridge near Ben Shee. Yet again I saw a black grouse up here, this time flying low in an arc across the moor.

Ben Shee

North is upper Glen Devon. Wether Hill overlooks the lower reservoir. This hill is on the Tay catchment boundary.

Up to Andrew Gannell Hill and the main prow of the Ochils, the crest of the great wave of upland rising sharply from the low lands around the Forth estuary. Right on cue the wind freshens and the clouds are torn away.

Views open out to the south, fitfully and hesitantly.

Kincardine and Clackmannanshire bridges beyond Gartmorn Dam
Sunshine on Alloa...

Meanwhile on the tops, the way to Ben Cleuch is revealed.

This is the view nowadays from the summit of Ben Cleuch, looking north-east into the recesses of the range. Not so wild and empty as it once was. And it was wild, a trackless, empty expanse not unlike the Monadh Liath in character. Good country for a short backpacking trip.

I escaped from a battering wind on Ben Cleuch and hurried on to King's Seat Hill, which rises huge above Dollar.

Looking back to Ben Cleuch from King's Seat Hill
Daylight ran out as I wound down the precarious path to Castle Campbell above Dollar. The Burn of Sorrow raged with white water in the half-light in the gorge below. A further four dark miles led over the pass to Glen Devon. The blaze of light from the central belt towns behind seemed very far below and far away.