Thursday, 19 October 2017

Autumn bites

Sometimes you can get a lot from a short walk, especially if you take it slowly - as you're forced to with young'uns in tow. We were staying near Crianlarich for a long weekend, trying to avoid being hopelessly pinned down by ex-hurricanes, working our way though a ridiculously large selection of footwear to cover all weathers. Sunday afternoon offered a windy window so we headed to Killin for a low level walk by the head of Loch Tay and ruined Finlarig Castle, returning to tea and cake in the village.

There was a lot for the senses to take in - buffeting winds, fast-moving skies, sombre light and crackling autumn colours. We found a dead jay (my daughter was captivated by the vivid blue wing bars and wanted to take a feather) and a ruined castle - Finlarig Castle, as it happened. Here are a few pictures - click to make bigger.

Friday, 29 September 2017

A walk in the park

We started and finished in the fleshpots. Three days and two nights from Callander to Inversnaid on Loch Lomond. In between, it got wild, lonely, and quiet, another side of the national park, far from rangers and permits and interpretation boards and visitor management and bureaucracy. Instead there were the sparse cries of ravens, yellow grasses bowing in the autumn winds, tussocks and bogs and peat hags. The SMC's guidebook for the Southern Highlands describes the uplands between popular Ben Ledi and Stob a'Choin, our final summit as '...a rather desolate stretch of featureless hills of no great interest to the climber or walker.' It didn't disappoint!

Here's the route, minus my little pre-dawn excursion from the second camp to Stob a'Choin's summit. Around 50 kilometres walked and over 2,500 metres climbed in all:

We also left the motors at home. Instead, trains to Stirling where we rendezvoused, bus to Callander, then boat from Inversnaid to Tarbet at the other end and a bus south to Glasgow then, for me, a train to Edinburgh.

Day one took us along the course of the old railway from Callander to Balquhidder, where the wispy seeds of the rosebay willowherb frayed and scattered. The Highlands begin abruptly here as the path climbs into native oakwood, the valley sides steepen, and the voice of the river on the right rises from a murmur to a roar. Ben Ledi sheltered us until the final summit where we caught the full force of a restless, portentous northerly. We walked on into the wind, into the hills. The light was low and sombre; here and there the bellies of the clouds brushed the hilltops and smeared the air with rainbows and showers.

We camped beyond Benvane where an old right-of-way, clearly little used now, drops north on its way from Brig o'Turk to Balquhidder. We found fine grassy pitches near the confluence of two lively burns, amongst stands of dense, dying bracken. Birch and rowan clung to the steepest of the slopes, safe from the nibblings of sheep and deer. There was a glimpse of alpenglow on the hilltops to the north, but dusk seemed to come early under dark and weighty clouds. The wind dropped away after dark. An old, healed fire ring, green grass in a circle of stones, seemed to magnify the loneliness.
We chatted in the tarp for a bit over hot drinks (a teetotal trip this one, having both forgotten the usual whisky), then turned in early.

Ten hours' sleep put away a week of work, worries, rushed packing, a late night and an early start. The morning brought more cloud, and a hovering kestrel nearby. The early blue soon hazed over and fog drifted across the hillsides, presaging rain. In the end we caught just a few spitting showers. Again that restless wind. Our route lay across a succession of trackless boggy ridges that felt very far from anywhere, though it seemed we were never far from a raven. Beinn Stacach, the highest point of this tract of moorland, lay north out on a limb. We found shelter behind an outcrop, dumped the bags, and walked out and back. Returning to the outcrop for lunch we startled a big fox which charged off over the skyline holding its huge brush straight out behind it - so much bigger and more impressive than its urban cousins.

After a brew and lunch, there was more of the same terrain. The Crianlarich mountains were drawing closer, familiar yet strange from this nameless empty quarter, probably a view that's not often seen. If we hadn't been linking together mountains that shouldn't be linked together, Mick observed, we would never have seen this either.

All afternoon the great knobbly bulk of Stob a'Choin grew slowly ahead of us, whilst the trackless terrain of bogs and tussocks, ups and downs gobbled up the hours. The ground around this mountain is hugely complex with knolls, outcrops, cliffs, gullies and sheltered hollows. Streams rise very high on the hill and its southern upper slopes are seamed with burns and trickles. We followed one up to the ridge and the summit - only to find the real summit was a further mile west over a very convoluted, warty ridge. An embarrassing failure to fully absorb the map from me, but one of the best views he'd ever seen according to Mick, and I wouldn't argue with that.

It was too late to get to the top now. We dropped south as the clouds broke up further, giving way to long shadows and dazzling golden light. Mick spotted a dryish looking knoll and we camped still high with a long view down to Loch Katrine.The skies cleared fully; darkness crept up from Strath Gartney to the south, chasing the golden evening glow up the slopes behind us to a last stand on the crags and gullies around the summit of Stob a'Choin. Then night, and a sky full of stars.

The mobile phone alarm jolted me awake. I scrabbled in the dark, disorientating confines of the bivvy bag to locate and switch it off. 5.30am, still dark. I dozed on for another 45 minutes and the beginnings of grey dawn, then wrenched myself out of my warm cocoon and into wet socks, neoprene socks and trail shoes. After a hurried miso soup and a buttery (fusion cuisine, backpacking style!) I climbed towards Stob a'Choin. Venus and a sliver of moon hung just above the shoulder to my right as I set off. Soon I was amongst the complex gullies, crags and streams, picking a way through, using hands sometimes. I emerged near the summit as the sun rose out of a bank of low cloud to the east and painted the hilltops. The Crianlarich hills were close and huge and brutal-looking to the north, Stob Binnein especially impressive, drawing up its bulk from the glen floor, above broad skirts seamed with gullies and crusted with outcrops, to a fine complex of sweeping ridges. Cloud came and went from its summit.

I touched the tiny cairn then wavered for a few minutes wondering whether I should visit another little top a couple of hundred metres north west 'just in case'. But in the end I turned and jogged downhill; I'd told Mick I'd be back by 8 and we had a boat to catch later on.

The day's next act was the hardest, especially for bodies already tired by a day and a half of trackless bog and moorland. We picked up where we left off, descending to the glen where the tightly meandering Allt a'Choin flowed generally south to Loch Katrine. The glen floor was sodden and vegetated, trackless of course. We started to get a feel for reading the vegetation, where we might expect ankle-sucking bog or drier going.

I felt ropy with fatigue and hunger after my dawn climb. Deer fences closed in on either side of the burn sheltering trees recently planted as part of the Great Trossachs Forest project. I made an ill-thought-through attempt to cross the burn over a natural weir of slimy boulders towards a gate in the fence on the far side and nearly fell in. I had enough insight to realise I wasn't thinking straight, and drew back. In the end, the two deer fences never met and we made it down to the road by Loch Katrine following a well established deer trod through the bracken and head-high birch scrub, clearly a well-used corridor for the animals to reach the shelter of the loch side woods from the high ground..

The deer fences were controversial when they first went up to protect the new plantings. It seems the migratory paths from upland to valley shelter were disrupted, trapping the animals above the treeline in harsh weather. It's hard to know what the answer is. Perhaps it's an example of failing to tackle a problem head on, a modern tendency to avoid difficult choices and favour complex workarounds with unintended (and in this case, arguably cruel) consequences - to try to change everything while changing nothing. Think electric cars or biofuels or geoengineering to combat climate change. Would a serious reduction in deer numbers via culling to a level where deer fences are not needed, actually be more humane? One thing is for sure, deer belong in the Highlands, they're magnificent animals well attuned to their environment. Watch a red deer take minutes to cross the hillside you've spent the best part of an hour toiling across. I hope very much we don't start to think of red deer as 'vermin', rats with antlers.

A tarmac road runs along the north shore of Loch Katrine and round to Stronachlachar on the south side. It was a shock to be back suddenly in daytripper land straight from some of the loneliest hill country in the southern Highlands. A steady trickle of bikes passed us as we plodded along in silence, both wrapped up in fatigue. We passed the old Clan Gregor burial ground on a promontary in the loch, and Glengyle House, birthplace of Rob Roy. There used to be a village in upper Glen Gyle. Now the Beauly-Denny pylons march down the glen, and the massive service road. It must have been a lovely place once, where the glen tapers away to the horizon from the head of the loch. Now it's industrial and off-putting.

The original plan had been to strike uphill to Beinn a'Choin from here, taking a direct cross-country route to Loch Lomond, but more deer fences stretched across the hillside. That was enough to put us off. We walked on to Stronachlachar for lunch by the pier where the steamer calls in the summer. A dustbin lorry pulled up containing two very bored refuse collectors spending the day travelling long distances along narrow roads to empty a small number of bins. We could relax a bit now as we only had a few easy miles to Inversnaid. After a leisurely lunch and much refreshed we picked up the Great Trossachs Path heading west above Loch Arklet. This section was a surprising gem. The trail follows the line of the old military road to Inversnaid Garrison, well above the public road, through patchy woods. The Arrochar Alps filled the view ahead. On the right, the slopes up to Beinn a'Choin are open and accessible here, noted for next time.

Before long we were winding through the oakwoods down to Loch Lomond, and I was thinking how great it was to see and approach it from a new angle, and be reminded that there's a good reason for all the fuss and popularity. We fell off the teetotal wagon with pints outside the Inversnaid Hotel, waiting for the waterbus to Tarbet. We'd made it easy on ourselves on this trip, and also difficult. It was a hard one to sum up. "Here's to another... victory" said Mick hesitatingly as we clinked pints. When you link up mountains that shouldn't be linked up, strange and wonderful things happen.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Fisherfield: the land of far beyond

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst - that's usually the mantra, especially on a journey into the remotest mountain country in Scotland. But here I was, preparing for the best, sunscreen, shorts and sun hat packed, two bottles of water in the side pocket. The weather forecast was unequivocal. After many, many years of anticipation, this long walk over the mountains of Letterewe and Fisherfield was about to be seared in my memory in green, gold and blue.

I had 36 hours to play with. Two long, rough days of walking, six mountains and one camp. I walked in from the north. As I left Corrie Hallie, the hills were sloughing off the last of the previous day's rainclouds. The road was still slick with water and droplets glittered on birch leaves as I toiled up the track - the start of long trails through to Kinlochewe and Poolewe to the south.

An Teallach under cloud
Past three tired-looking German lads heading north on the Cape Wrath trail, past brooding An Teallach and its cloudy cauldrons, then out at last on to the wide, windy moor, on to the threshold.

Nothing waits on the other side except yourself and what you bring to it. A 'mountain fastness' - this is maybe the closest we have to such a thing, not just a secluded valley or a dead-end but a whole empty landscape of mountains and rivers with no roads, no bridges, no houses. But let's not get carried away. I drop down to the bend of the River Sealga with its little alder wood and grassy flats and find remains of at least three buildings, just the overgrown bases of the walls left now. People once stood here and looked out, just as I'm standing outside looking in.

Up ahead,Beinn a'Chlaideimh, the hill of the sword, looks like it's wielded from on high as it cleaves the cloud.

I wade the broad river and throw down pack and poles at the far bank, ready for lunch. I'm joined by another walker, with a livewire springer spaniel called Genghis whose nose regularly invades my space as I fish things out of my food bag. After lunch the three of us walk and talk our way up the slopes for a bit before parting ways - I want to take the steep route up the prow of the hill for the views of An Teallach whilst Mark with a dog in tow heads south to easier slopes away from the crags.

The cloud is burning off quickly but the wind still bullies with violent localised gusts and eerie thrums and moans amongst the boulders and hollows.

The climb gets a bit steep and sketchy, not a place to slip, but I'm rewarded with a close encounter with ptarmigan, a finely honed ridge and a fine perch for a second lunch. That climb has taken it out of me. In fact I can't keep on top of my hunger all day. I later worked out that total ascent on this first day was over 2,000 metres.

Onwards into the afternoon, a long descent of Sword Mountain towards Sgurr Ban, the white peak bristling with pale boulders making an awkward climb for tired legs.

Then beyond is Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, highest peak on the round. On the way to the next bealach I spot two people descending the steep zig-zag path you can just make out on the right of the picture below, and catch their voices above the crunch of boots on scree.

Yet I somehow miss them - we manage to pass on opposite sides of a huge boulder. Attacking the zig-zags I get a second wind. I measure my progress against the couple now climbing Sgurr Ban and play a game, trying to reach the top of my hill before they reach theirs. It keeps me going until a few dozen metres off the summit where I stop to take photos.

Beyond the Mullach the ridge curves westwards to Beinn Tarsuinn. I'm captivated by this strange little mountain. There's something sculpted, artificial about the blocky tiers and columns of its north face, like an exotic long-abandoned vertical city carved into the rock. Or maybe the sun is getting to me. My water is all gone and the ridge is dry as a bone.

A path bypasses the next rocky lump, Meall Garbh - the rough hill, well named. On the next col there's nothing else for it, I dump the bag and drop some way down green slopes into the corrie where seeps and trickles start to gather and flow more freely. I top up bottles, drain them, top them up again.

The final climb of the day to Beinn Tarsuinn is an easy one...

...but the subsequent descent isn't. I'm dog tired and the ridge is rough and saw-toothed, the 1:50,000 map just doesn't do this level of detail. At one point the route climbs onto a weird, broad, slightly tilted platform of scored slabs, maybe the size of a tennis court. Then a bypass path slightly below a sharp, pinnacled crest and a teeteringly steep descent on jelly legs, as sure-footed on the sloping stones and gravel as a drunk on floor covered with marbles. I dislodge a large stone which quickly bounds down the slope, thwacking off boulders like a pinball. I can hear it long after it's lost to sight... It's getting a bit silly now and I need to stop.

The first piece of flattish ground will do nicely, though it's a bit damp. Then camp set-up and chores, trying to follow the routine through a haze of fatigue, without cutting corners. Soup, two butteries, mac 'n' cheese with smoked sausage barely touches the sides. Hot chocolate and a flapjack and I feel human enough again to venture outside my shell and outside the tarp to just be where I am. A rough and beautiful world of rock, water and sky, a flawless northern summer twilight.

Just before midnight the wind veers from west to south. Changing the Trailstar door is a minor annoyance but as I get into my sleeping bag, it's unmistakeably warmer. True enough, day two is a proper scorcher.

I'm ready to go just after 9 and wend my way across a broad col of rocks, bogs and trickles to the long slopes of A'Mhaighdean. This is the tortured, wildest end of this wilderness - the great cliffs of Beinn Lair, the many lochs cradled at different altitudes, and beyond it all, the sea.

A'Mhaighdean summit at 10.30am is all mine. Here I am - at long last.

An easy winding descent to another wild rocky col - and now the steep red scree dome of Ruadh Stac Mor. I'm feeling rested and refreshed and blessed to be here, burning up the screes to the top for an early lunch. I linger a bit, no rush - more or less all downhill now.

It's a long descent north between some lovely lochans, but it's steeper an more complex than the maps reveal, with bands of broken craggy ground to be negotiated.

My feet are getting hot and chafed in boots. Off the summits, it's really hotting up. I reach the stalker's path that crosses from Carnmore bothy and down towards Shenavall. I stop to change into trail shoes, shorts and fresh socks. Aaah, the relief. I'm practically skipping down the fine, gravelly path though my pack now has nearly a couple of additional kilos of boot in it. The path swoops down in sweeping switchbacks into Gleann na Muice Beag, then by the main river in Gleann na Muice.

Then in the valley flats the path deteriorates for long stretches into mud and bog. Fatigue rises again. I ford the river at Larachantivore and plough laser-like across the swampy flats towards another river crossing, then Shenavall and a brew.
Beinn Dearg Mor above Larachantivore cottage
There are some Cape Wrath Trail hikers in residence, including the couple I missed the day before. I brew coffee and spend a pleasant 45 minutes chatting. All have been through Bendronaig Forest to the south and seen the scars of hydro works there. Will the massive haul roads be removed when the works are done? Non-committal noises hang in the bothy air.

I'm not quite done. In my haste I somehow miss the path on the moor above Shenavall for a mile, then stumble on it again. A second evening is drawing on but it's easy now, down and down towards Corrie Hallie on a track, back through the shivering birches and birdsong. Behind me the mountains sink beyond view again. But they really are there, I know that now. Go and see for yourself.

PS: I got exceptionally lucky this time. Here's what these mountains can be like when the weather doesn't play nice.