Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A tale of two Innses

It all got a little bit epic a little too soon. Driving the wild road between Dalwhinnie and Spean Bridge the snow was swirling down and the road ahead reduced to two black furrows through the white. I tailed a lorry as it cut a swathe through the slush and made it past Loch Laggan and safely down below the snowline. I was on my way to meet David Lintern and Tim Mitchell. Dave and Tim have known each other for a long time, and Dave had kindly invited me to join them on a winter foray into the hills above Spean Bridge to bag a brace of Corbetts, Cruach Innse and Sgurr Innse.

The sun was out as we set off; it was almost warm and we were soon sweating under sizeable packs full of winter gear. We pulled up past the Wee Minister who watches over Glen Spean and confers protection on the many climbers and walkers who pass him by.

My load was probably heaviest of all. In order to accommodate my enormous synthetic winter sleeping bag along with everything else, I'd had to use my 100 litre Berghaus Vulcan pack. That's already at least 5 kilos right there, and I struggled with the weight all weekend. As it turned out I was being over-cautious and would have been fine with the PHD down bag I used on the Tay watershed walk, with some clothes worn in the bag and a silk liner, all of which would have fitted in the Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack. I've been out camping and bothying so rarely in winter in recent years I've lost a bit of confidence in where my limits are.

There was nothing heavy about Dave and Tim's company though. We chatted about everything from gear and politics and the politics of gear to blogs, wildlife, conservation, family and kids, and much else. Outdoors is a good place to start getting to know people: you're guaranteed a fair amount in common with other cases who share your love of clambering up wild snowy hills in driving spindrift.

Tim and Dave both make at least part of their living through photography, and as a keen admirer of Dave's outdoors work, and always looking for ways to improve my own efforts, I was curious to see them in action. My take-home lesson would be: take lots of pictures, all the time, in all conditions. Be bold. Both guys had their cameras out in horrendous spindrift on Cruach Innse as the clouds and snow that had accompanied us most of the way up from the track cleared off spectacularly. As Dave explained later, the camera can take a fair amount of damp and punishment as long as you let it air a bit afterwards.

Dave and Tim on Sgurr Innse
Lunch was taken quickly in the lee of some rocks beyond the summit of Cruach Innse, sheltered except for the occasional eddying blast of spindrift. Ice axes out, we picked a steep way down to the col and began the climb up to Sgurr Innse. Tim has an eye for the miniscule, the tiny details underfoot that can be as engrossing as the big views. We pore over snaking woody stalks exposed by the blasting wind, hugging the ground. Dwarf juniper perhaps, or heather. The upper part of this hill looks a little like a ruined castle, well guarded by crags and steep broken slopes. We pause to take stock and trace a line up. Do you see that rock band? asks Dave. What, Coldplay? Tim replies.

At the foot of the final steep pull to the summit we dump heavy bags and get the crampons out. I'm cramping badly down my left side and hip as I twist round to buckle up the straps - fatigued from hauling too much weight - and rather sheepishly accept help to get them on. Then I feel silly for being sheepish: it's about team-work, not egos, out here, and I wouldn't hesitate to help out my companions.

The climb is awkward over mixed ground. Snow partly conceals the scree and boulders but we know there are leg-breaking voids beneath. I lose a crampon without noticing but luckily Dave is behind me and picks it up. Dusk is gathering when we reach the rocky ribs of the summit.

We return to the bags and start thinking about where we're going to spend the night. Dave likes to camp high and has his eye on the snowy shallow corrie below and right, sheltered from the prevailing wind. I'm more hesitant, having camped in winter and having woken up to a snow-covered tent before but never having camped on snow, but I'm game nonetheless. Close up we see that the sheltered spots are heavily drifted and creating platforms for the shelters will take much shifting of snow.

Darkness encroaches, snow starts to fall again. The consensus shifts to the Lairig Leacach bothy a few clicks away. It's a mini-epic to get down to the Lairig track. My ski goggles are half-covered with snow and I'm struggling to watch the ground and follow the two tottering headtorches in front. I take one slip and drop my axe - not good. I'm enjoying this but I'm in need of some winter skills training. The Glenmore Lodge short course is looking like a potential Christmas present this year. Got to take my fun more seriously.

The view from the bothy
We reach the track near the summit of the pass aided by Dave's GPS device. It's a mile or so gently downhill to the bothy and the stars are out in force. We space out a bit on the track, stopping and craning necks to take it all in, constellations I've not seen in a long time because there's not a chance of seeing them from the city. Orion rises to the south, Casseopeia nearly overhead, and there's the Plough behind us. Is that the Bent Saucepan? asks Tim.

The bothy is small and solid if a little unloved and clearly home to a colony of mice. There are two dry wooden sleeping platforms, one above the other. It'll do nicely. A line of mouldy clothes hangs across one corner near the stove: why, why, why? We get the down jackets and stoves out and work up a fug with dinner and brews. Whisky aids the digestion. Dave takes his tipple outside with a bothy stool and camera and gets to work with some night shots. We're all in bed by around 11pm. That dead weight of a sleeping bag comes into its own at last: I'm toasty warm and collapse into a deep and restful sleep.

Nokia's 'Good Times' ring tone rocks the bothy at 5.15am. I've forgotten to switch off my alarm. Apart from that it's a peaceful night. Dave's photographic sixth sense kicks in and he's first to leap out of his sleeping bag and head out, camera in hand. He returns describing alpenglow on the tops. It's shaping up to be a lovely alpine sort of day. As we finish packing up, daytrippers are arriving from over the Lairig. I'm heading back that way as I'm bound for the Smoke the following day, but Dave and Tim are setting off for Stob Coire Easain and Stob a'Choire Mheadhoin, two fine Munros with big ridges above Loch Treig. I feel jealous, then feel the weight of my pack, and feel slightly relieved as well. We shake hands outside the bothy and go our separate ways. It's been fun, and educational for me. It's hard to learn and develop when you only go out on your own. Dave clearly gets out a lot and is always looking for ways to improve the experience and his skills, and is happy to share.

It's a lovely walk back and I'm in no hurry. The mountains look magnificent and I get the camera out frequently.

The snow cover ends quite suddenly as I drop into Glen Spean. Home and almost dry. Then I sense a presence to my left and turn my head sharply. Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis, huge and white, soaring into stormy clouds. Wow. What must it be like up there? I think I'd like to find out one of these days.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A walk in the woods in Fife

Walking in the woods at daybreak. A simple spartan ritual; a heavenly indulgence.

A circuit of four or five miles from the door of the house I grew up in, I've walked it hundreds of times over the years.

Coal trains once rocked and rumbled along the railway north of the woods. Then after bitter times the mines closed and the tracks were lifted, leaving only old ballast slowly reclaimed by grass, between blazing banks of August willowherb. In later years the track bed became a hardcore path, then a tarmaced cycle way.

Progress. All around, cars multiplied, and houses, and new roads, supermarkets, retail parks, more aircraft overhead, computers, commuters and offices, more stuff and more stress. The woods conceal the distant beginnings of the long boom. There are hidden mine shafts and tunnels where coal was extracted by hand.

But up here I can still find what I'm looking for. So can foxes. badgers, roe deer, and a host of birds, keeping the neighbourhood in touch with itself.

After months in the city the first thing I notice is not the silence, it's the sound - of living non-human things.

Wintering curlew wheel in to feed amongst the winter wheat, with sparse cries.

The magic hour is fading into broad daylight, and it's time to go.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Tay watershed walk: a final fundraising update

It's been a while now since I completed this wonderful walk. Whilst I won't deny it was primarily a personal indulgence which provided me with a stock of memories and experiences I'll never forget, I also raised some money for two outdoors-related organisations: Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust. I've written about the whats and the whys here, but in short SWLG is an entirely volunteer-run group working to protect wild land for its own sake, and Venture Trust incorporate the transformative wilderness experience deeply into the personal development work they do with disadvantaged young people. In the end there is perhaps something in the unmediated outdoors that knows us better than we know ourselves.

Anyway now the fundraising is over I thought I'd reveal the final totals raised: £410 for Venture Trust and £435 for Scottish Wild Land Group. A massive thank you to everyone who donated. Your money will help continue the fight to protect Scotland's magnificent wild land, and to ensure many youngsters who have faced tough starts in life and who may otherwise never get the opportunity can access that resource to help turn those tough starts around.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Ivinghoe Beacon

In the latest in an occasional series of weekend escapes from the Smoke, my friend Steve and I headed out to Tring in Hertfordshire to walk to the terminus of the Chiltern Ridgeway trail at Ivinghoe Beacon. A lung-tingling clamber through dormant woodlands on an ancient sunken trackway scored deep into the hillside, yawning off an early start, feeling the sharper cold of the country outside the urban bubble.

This 5,000 year old route follows the Chiltern ridge from Wiltshire, a dry ripple of high ground, and perhaps a safer place to travel than down in the forested plain. Below the bare tops of the chalk downs, the Vale of Aylesbury disappears into the haze. Nowadays it's nearly treeless, pocked with chalk pits, housing, and warehouses, carved up by roads, gateway to the industrial Midlands, the white noise of traffic hanging over it like a pall. It's an effort to see into the past but up here amongst the tumuli you can sense an older, earthier world, and see why this place mattered. Ivinghoe Beacon, out on a limb at the end of the ridge, is a commanding viewpoint. It's a fascinating place for Steve, a geologist with a keenness for archaeology.

I've passed through this landscape at high speed so many times by train. It's nice to step off, slow down, and get to know it better. Do stay on the path though.

The hilltops are kept close-cropped by sheep, and there are small and stocky Belted Galloway cattle too. This bald landscape is supposedly a conservation area, but it's not clear what's being conserved. There seems, to my ignorant eyes, to be little diversity here and little habitat. Left alone the hills would quickly become wild and untidy with scrub. Maybe that's what's being conserved - a comforting and familiar landscape.

We double back from Ivinghoe Beacon and into the woods of the Ashridge Estate. Looking back to the chalk downs we see five fallow deer racing across the hillside through the unperturbed sheep.

Under the trees frost and even some snow remains and it gets icy at times under foot. The sun is always low, dazzling as it only can at this time of year. There are many people out walking in the woods now, old and young, children and toddlers. It warms up somewhat as we walk; spring is slowly gathering its strength in the tree trunks and beneath the leaf litter.

We emerge from the woods at the Bridgewater monument. Downhill is Aldbury village, a pretty place choked with daytrippers' cars. We drop in for pints and crisps at The Greyhound - it's actually sunny and sheltered enough to sit outside (coats on though!) then weave our way on muddy trails back over to Tring station and a fast train back into London.