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.

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