Thursday, 13 October 2016

Autumn gold rush

An unusual thing happened in October. There was a very long run of perfect Autumn weather, which actually coincided with a couple of opportunities for me to get out into the hills and enjoy it. Highlight of the month - probably the year, quite possibly much longer - was a three day backpack with friends, making our way from Fort William to Glenfinnan through and over the magnificent backcountry of north Ardgour. Three days of sensory overload - stags roaring day and night, golden sunrises and sunsets, billion-star velvet skies - left me slack-jawed through much of the following week. Hopefully this trip will appear in print sometime in the future.

Cona Glen sunrise, Ardgour
The fine weather continued and a few days later I headed back up the A82 to Glencoe. It's a long drive from Edinburgh and predictably the car parks were overflowing as I drove down the glen, dozens of walkers and climbers heading off for the Aonach Eagach, Bidean nam Bian and the Buachailles. However, tucked away on the left, obscured by a powerful truncated ridge and invisible from the main road as it swings round onto the final downhill run to Glencoe village, is Sgor na h-Ulaidh, the peak of the treasure and its lower neighbour Meall Lighiche, the doctor's hill. Curious and obscure all over, these two. There's a parking area near the end of the track that leads in to them. There were only two cars, including my own.

The chill is biting further into the day and the air is starting to nip in the shade but around the middle of the day the sun still rallies some strength. On the open slopes of Lighiche it's all blue and gold, and the sweat is running into my eyes.

Away on the right is the back of Beinn a'Bheithir, better known as a grand mountain cirque of deep corries and long enclosing ridges above Ballachulish, on its far side. From here though it's like something dredged up from a dream, an artifact of the subconscious. At first I think of shark's teeth or snake's fangs, then I think bigger: a leviathan's back, huge fins breaking the waves as it readies itself to plunge. One possible translation of the Gaelic bheithir denotes a huge serpent.

Meall Lighiche stays grassy and easy up to the summit, where I stop for lunch, chilling down quickly. Don't believe the pictures, it really is October out there. I leave the summit in hat, gloves, fleece and windshirt.

Sgor na h-Ulaidh looms across a deep bealach. There's over 1,000 feet of unrelenting climbing. On the descent from Lighiche I scan the opposite slopes, which tend towards craggy and broken. I pick out a long groove on the right, beyond which the slopes seem grassier if still steep. I work my way across to this and beyond, then tackle the climb head-on. It's steep, very steep. It goes but there's a hint of exposure. The ground falls away behind so quickly; I can't see far either up or down the slope. A tiny bit of fear and focus is good as a slip here could mean a long and bumpy roll downhill.

The little summit plateau-cum-ridge feels like the eye in a storm of savage inclines. There are muscular ridges and exposed rock all around, self-contained mountains isolated by deep bealachs. I meet a man on the summit, a convert from coarse fishing to hill-bagging - the one hobby has completely replaced the other. He's got a large dog in tow, wearing its own pannier bags. You wonder how these hills got their names, he says. It's a good question. Was there a legend of treasure buried around the hill, or is the hill itself the treasure, something you have to dig your way out of Glencoe to find?

The Etive mountains are nearby. Bit by bit I'm filling in the blanks, making the links. Getting to know these hills is a lifetime's work and more.

In the other direction, ridge upon crumpled, sun-dappled ridge.

Twilight starts its long gathering,the light is so soft it's almost like a blanket. No time for a brew sadly, the long road back to Edinburgh awaits.

Alpenglow is followed quite quickly by darkness. I waste daylight trying to bushwhack through to the car park, thus avoiding a very short but frightening bit a roadwalking around a blind bend with no pavement (do bring a torch and something hi-viz to wear if you're doing this route, this little bit of road between the car park and the track end is very dangerous and fast). My way is barred by a gully choked with tree trunks so I backtrack and brave the main road. Back at the car I empty the remains of the food bag while a half moon climbs between two pitch black ridges into a blue-black sky. There'll be a frost tonight, then before too long the storms will come.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Island time

Early morning, near the end of a week of family camping on Harris, I sneaked out to the car while the children slept the deep sleep of tired, sore legs and fresh air. Minutes later I was swooping along, riding the rollercoaster road from beach and sea loch-head saltmarsh, following tilting rows of telegraph poles up to barren, slabby mountain passes. I was aiming for the cloud-swathed heart of Harris where wild mountains climb from sea to summit and dark rocky glens curve into the interior. The Clisham is the crowning hill, the highest on the Outer Hebrides, but I didn't want to just 'raid' it from the highest point on the road.

The bridge over the Abhainn Sgaladail, which drains the northwestern aspect of Clisham and its satellites, is a much more sporting 50 metres above sea level.

Wet moorland gives way to slabby pavements on the first top, Tomnabhal. Huge Loch Langhbhat wends north from its mountain cradle into the flat watery maze of inland Lewis. This is recognisably Scotland but something more, something elemental and slightly alien to a mainlander. Maybe it's in the shapes and textures of the hills, maybe the island light from above and below - the silent shining ocean. Maybe it's in the Norse oddness of many of the names (the Western Isles are a relatively recent addition to what we now know as Scotland); maybe those names play tricks on the mind, add filters to the eyes.

Clisham beckons next, brushed by clouds. I head up in a straight line, hoping to find a weakness in the crags flanking the summit. The climb seems to steepen exponentially until I'm struggling through a steep, shallow gully that pops me suddenly out on the draughty ridge a short way from the top.

The world comes and goes. It's warm in the sun, cold in the cloud. I'm glad to crouch in the summit shelter for a bite and a drink.

This is just the start though. I want to make a traverse of this, and follow the spine of the hills west.

The cloud descends stealthily. Perspective and scale are gradually blurred. I scramble on, handrailing the drops, but the ridge is so sharp it's hard to go wrong.

Finally I pull to a halt, and listen, disembodied. Dead calm now, and the endless churning of water on either side, down in the misty depths, is the only clue to the true scale of the place.

Endless boulder-hopping leads to the end of the ridge, which merges suddenly and steeply with the moor. Then it's a familiar tussle with bogs and tussocks and heather back down the Abhainn Sgaladail, beneath the mountains' ampitheatre. Up in the clouds, time seemed to stretch out, nothing but me and my breathing, hands and feet and rock. Down below I snap back into place. It's only early afternoon.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Corserine and the Rhinns of Kells

I took a day trip to climb Corserine and the Rhinns of Kells, a rough and nobbly ridge to its south. New territory, this: I've never been hillwalking down in Galloway before. Commercial forestry flourishes here in a climate slightly more warm, moist and benign than the Borders hills to the north-east. It's also wilder, the forests and hills guarding a rough and trackless interior of hill lochs, cliffs, crags and bogs between the Corserine ridge and the parallel range to the west stretching from the Merrick north to Shalloch on Minnoch. A different world from the rounded profiles of the Borders.

Driving here from Edinburgh is fun too, especially through the Lowther Hills via the Dalveen Pass and the ancient village of Moniaive with its deep trove of historical connections, and streets barely wide enough to navigate a car through. Pretty but somehow gnarly rather than chocolate box - I got the feeling this place had seen a lot. There's plenty to explore down this way.

I struck it lucky with the weather - here are a few from the walk.