Monday, 20 July 2015

Drumochter - Wummer

Has anyone seen summer? It seems to have vanished this year and been replaced by a new season. The new season has some aspects of summer - the nights are light, the landscape is green - but also some aspects of winter like storm force winds, cold and an absence of sunshine. I call it "wummer".

It was certainly wummer at the weekend in the Drumochter hills. The forecast had said the winds would ease in the afternoon. They didn't.  I climbed Geal Charn in blasts that I could barely stand up in and that blew me off route several times. The windchill was pretty severe and I was wrapped up in a wool layer, two fleeces, hat, gloves and my waterproof. In July! I didn't linger over the beautiful view down a shimmering Loch Ericht but dropped down off the top to pitch the tent. Much like me, it was at its limit for staying upright.





The forecast had said Sunday would be dry and bright. It wasn't.  Thick drizzle shrouded A'Mharconaich. Mountain hares were shadowy figures in the gloom and the mist coalesced into water droplets on my eyelashes. It wasn't unpleasant. But it wasn't summer. I guess we'll just have to keep searching for summer.


Meantime, it's worth bearing in mind that wummer has a couple of advantages over summer - there are less midges in the cold and the wind, and the hills are a wee bit quieter. Not a lot of folk like being out in the wummer weather.



Fact File
Start/finish: Dalwhinnie. Glasgow/Edinburgh to Inverness trains stop here and the Inverness Citylink bus.
Map: OS Landranger  42
Route: I cycled south from Dalwhinnie on the cycle route which starts close to the Dalwhinnie junction on the A9. Follow it to Balsporran Cottages,  take the track down to the railway line and cross the level crossing.  I chained up the Brompton here. Continue along the track. Ignore the first track to the right but take the second. Follow it up the northeast ridge of Geal Charn. It eventually becomes a more enjoyable path. From Geal Charn follow the path that continues south to the bealach between it and A'Mharconaich and join a track. Where it drops to the bealach a path leaves to the left. It's boggy at first but quickly improves. It gently climbs onto the ridge of A'Mharconaich and junctions with another path at a small cairn. Turn left and enjoy a level stroll to the top. I returned to the bealach and  followed the track back down to Balsporran Cottages.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Breadalbane - Biking the byways

Summer is my least favourite time of year. It's much too bright and busy for me. I prefer shuffling around in the shadows of the darker months.  So with a three-day weekend and a loaded bicycle, I sought solitude in Breadalbane on its quiet routes, old hill roads, disused railways and hidden bike paths. Well, not exactly solitude. I was joined by bike buddy Graham,  in training for a big ride abroad. The short, sharp hills would do him good.

The long cycle up Glen Lyon provided a warm up. It's widely considered to be one of Scotland's most beautiful glens. I won't argue. It was strange to be here again, two blogs in a row, after not having visited the glen for over 20 years. I climbed my first two solo Munros up here in my early twenties and I still had the same map now. I could see my pencil scribblings at the edges all those years ago, noting the hills I could see from the top. The hills haven't changed in that time. I have, of course. The wrinkles look like the contour lines on the map. We stopped to visit the old yew tree. Sitting quietly and minding its own business in the churchyard at Fortingall,  it's one of the oldest living things in the country. Estimates vary but it's certainly several thousand years old.




After Fortingall, a right turn put us into Glen Lyon. It starts as a tight pass filled with trees where the water broils below and the road is cut into the hillside. Beyond here it opens out into a green, broad valley. Farms pepper the fields and wildflowers abound in the verges.  In the upper reaches of the glen there are pockets of wilder woods and Scots pines before open, barren hills take over. Glen Lyon's finale is the  tiny, rough hill road that climbs steeply over to Glen Lochay. We cycled up it and stopped for the night on top. The tents were pitched right at the side of the road -  there was no traffic.



Next morning the road dropped steeply to Glen Lochay in a series of s-bends. The sun's rays broke through a passing shower and illuminated the green pastures below. Glen Lochay is a hidden gem, a green meandering valley far away from the busy world below. We followed its river down into Killin, joined the busier world of bikes and buses, and cycled over the arches of the old bridge that straddles the Falls of Dochart and the ancient burial place of the McNab Clan.



Beyond Killin our route climbed up into Glen Ogle on a quiet bike trail tucked away in the trees. It was lovely to be in the forest, at one moment dappled by sunshine and in the next moment kissed by a light shower that left everything smelling fresh and woody. The trail climbed higher through a clearing. The sun beat down. It crossed the road at the top then disappeared again into the trees on the old railway line that once linked Callander with Oban. We flew down the other side, pedalling flat out. The rain poured down.

Our route turned east now, using the tiny road along the south shore of Loch Earn. It swapped woods for rocky beach and then back again. At the far end we found another bit of bumpy, old railway line that cut across the fields beyond St. Fillans. At Comrie, a steep pedal in hot sunshine put us in the broad-leaved shade of Twenty Shilling Wood. The tents were pitched under a sprawling oak by the river. We cooked supper on a sunny bank and drank evening coffee on the pebble beach. 

Next morning Crieff Golf Course provided our onward route. We must have looked odd. Two scruffy cyclists that had just spent the night sleeping rough in the woods pedalling passed Pringle-sweatered golfers. We weren't churning up the greens of course but following a public track that put us in the direction of the Sma' Glen. The road twisted and turned through the tight confines of the glen before taking us over the hill to Amulree. Our final pull was up to the top of the impossibly steep single-track summer road to Loch Tay. The view stretched to the dark cone of Schiehallion as we began the hair-raising, hairpinned descent. We finished at the start and let ourselves in the quiet back door of Kenmore.





Fact File
Start/finish: Kenmore
Route: Leave Kenmore on the unclassified road northeast below Drummond Hill. At the B846 turn left and turn left again at Coshieville. A few hundred metres after Fortingall turn right up Glen Lyon. There's a great wee tearoom at Bridge of Balgie very popular with cyclists doing the Ben Lawers circuit. Continue to the end of Glen Lyon at Pubil and cross the bridge to climb the steep road south over to Glen Lochay. Online reports suggest this road is closed to public traffic as the surface is badly broken down. The surface was fine for cycling.  There were some rough sections but there was always a decent strip of tarmac to cycle on. We camped at the top at the loch beside the edge of the road - there was no traffic. Make the steep descent into Glen Lochay and continue to Killin on this very quiet road. Cycle south through Killin on the A827. After the bridge ignore the first bike sign to the left but take the second, signed for Callander.  The traffic free bike path initially follows the old railway through the woods and then climbs up to Glen Ogle on good quality forest tracks. From the top it's a super descent on the well-surfaced bike path that uses the old railway line. Leave the route where a spur to the left is signed for Lochearnhead and when you reach the A84, turn right (use the footpath as the road is busy). After a few hundred metres turn left onto the south Loch Earn road which has a cycle friendly reduced speed limit of 40mph. It joins the A85 at St. Fillans. Cycle east on the A85 for just under 2km to cottages at Dundurn. This was the only busy section of the trip. Cycle into what looks like private driveway between the pillars and hang left. Go over an old railway bridge and keep straight on the track across the fields. After another old railway bridge the track emerges at Dalchonzie. Turn right on the unclassified quiet road and follow it to Comrie. We took the Glen Lednock road north of Comrie to find a campspot.  From Comrie cycle south on the B827 through Dalginross and turn left on South Crieff Road. Follow this quiet road to Crieff. When you reach the A822 turn left then turn right on the A85. Opposite the wee square on the main street turn left up Hill Street and continue to the road end. Follow the track straight ahead across the golf course to Gilmerton and turn left up the A822 which is relatively quiet. Follow it through the Sma Glen and onto Amulree. At Amulree turn left passed the phone box on the single track road to Kenmore. It's incredibly steep in places with only one S-bend to assist. The views are great on top and the descent is exhilarating. 

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Glen Lyon - Happiness is ...

Some weekend trips into the outdoors are filled with the wild excitement of remote peaks, narrow ridges or extreme weather. Not this one! The biggest challenge was just getting to the start! 

The Glen Lyon Horseshoe is a circuit of four rounded Munros above the hamlet of Invervar. It's a fair way up the single track road that meanders through the beautiful Glen Lyon. My journey there from Portobello started with an early morning cycle on my folding Brompton to Waverley Station while the rest of the city was still asleep. I took the first train north, jumped off at Dunkeld, folded up the bike then grabbed the next bus to Aberfeldy. Once there, I unfolded the bike and cycled the 12 or so miles to Invervar. Phew!

With the bike stashed in the woods, I made the lung-busting pull up the steep, grassy slopes of the first Munro, Carn Gorm. On its north side lingered big banks of snow and midsummer cornices several metres thick. From Carn Gorm the walk stretched out ahead, a pleasant stroll on slopes of springy grass.


There were no dramatic landscapes and no wild excitement but wandering around up here gave me a deep sense of happiness. Perhaps it was something to do with the airiness of the place or, with no other mountains crowding in, the incredible sense of space. And it was so peaceful, just the gentle whisper of the wind and the occasional thin call of golden plover. 

Later in the day, the rocky prow and bouldery tors of the third Munro, Carn Mairg, came into view and were a welcome deviation from grass slopes. A steep descent from its top put me on a high bealach and I pitched the tent here facing east, putting my back to the chill wind. The hills hadn't been busy but I still loved that feeling  at the end of the day when everyone else had gone and I was left alone to sleep on the mountain. Before bed I made the short walk from the tent to the top of the final Munro. 

Next morning the airiness and space were clogged with cloud and driving drizzle. I walked back down into the glen and cycled back to Aberfeldy where latte and gluten free orange cake gave me a deep sense of happiness.

Fact File
Start/finish: Invervar, Glen Lyon
Public transport: I took the Inverness train to Dunkeld & Birnam. Follow the cycle/pedestrian signs into Birnam, turn right on the main road and the bus stop is just there. Stagecoach number 23 goes to Aberfeldy. I put the Brompton on the bus folded up in its bag. From Aberfeldy cycle back down the road from the main bus stop, turn left at the first junction, right at the next and cycle over the bridge. Continue to the B846 and turn left on this fairly quiet B road. At Coshieville turn left for Fortingall. A few hundred metres after Fortingall turn right up Glen Lyon and continue on this lovely single track to Invervar. I hid my bike in the trees beside the small parking area. For the return on a Sunday take the Stagecoach Pitlochry bus from the main stop in Aberfeldy outside the cinema and pick up a train there.
Route: About 20 metres further along the road from the parking place a green post with an orange top marks the start of the path through a gate. Follow the path up through the woods until it emerges onto a hideous track bulldozed for a new hydro scheme. Follow the track uphill, going left at a split and where it ends a bridge crosses the Invervar Burn. A clear path meanders up the southeast ridge of Carn Gorm, the first Munro. The path continues north then swings northeast to Meall Garbh before undulating eastwards to Carn Mairg. Pass north of the tors to find a steep path down and continue to a bealach (where I camped) then up to Meall na Aighean, the fourth Munro. Retrace your steps about 200m then the excellent path continues down the southwest ridge to pick up the outward route to Invervar. 
Tip: Fantastic coffee at Habitat Cafe in Aberfeldy opposite the bus stop.


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Glen Lyon - Green

This little collage is from Glen Lyon at the weekend. I couldn't believe how green everything was in the outrageous lushness of early summer.



Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Ben Sgritheall - The long walk in

There's much to be said for a long walk in to a mountain. It provides a gradual transition as you leave the civilised world behind and slowly become emersed in a wilder world. And when you get to the top of your peak there's a greater sense of achievement as you've put in more effort to get there. I access most of my mountains by buses and trains so I often have a longer walk in than most people and have to be quite creative about route planning as well. But there's challenge and satisfaction in that.


Anyway, this long preamble about long walks in is leading in a roundabout way to telling you about my climb up Ben Sgritheall which involved a very long walk in. Ben Sgritheall is a solitary Munro on the southside of the wild and beautiful Glenelg peninsula. It's steep slopes rise straight from the sea above the isolated village of Arnisdale which is where most people start climbing it. I don't think many people climb it from the far more distant village of Shiel Bridge to the north but that's exactly where Bart and I set out from.


The morning was grey and cool with lots of low cloud but the forecast had promised sunny skies by late afternoon. We set out on a lovely path that initially followed the waters of the Allt Undalain as they tumbled through spring beech and birch, and then climbed over a small pass. Bart mentioned here that he felt like he was back in his much-loved Alps. Something to do with the zig-zagging steep climb, the high mountains all around and the cows! On the other side of the pass we ate an early lunch out of the wind at the cute little bothy of Suardalan. It occupied an idyllic spot on a swathe of lush, green pasture in the midst of a rough and rugged landscape. We'd walked quite a long way here already over some rough, boggy terrain and it felt wild and remote. We peered out of the bothy door but ahead Ben Sgritheall was still in cloud. After another hour of walking we pitched the tent on the edge of forestry beside the river, drank coffee and watched the weather.




Eventually the cloud started to lift and the scree slopes of our hill started to reveal themselves. We threw lighter packs on our backs and set out again. It was still a long walk from here but by late afternoon the cloud had cleared and the sun was bathing the hills in a warm, golden glow. We picked our way up what felt like the secret side of the mountain, crossed the big, grassy coire and pulled our way up the bouldery back wall to gain the narrow summit ridge.

What a place it was to be in the early evening sunshine. The hills of Knoydart were dark and broody across the waters of  the sea loch, Loch Hourn, which was a subtle aquamarine where the shallows caught the sun. The mountain's slopes plummeted to Arnisdale far below which looked like a collection of Monopoly houses. And to the west the hazy Isle of Skye floated in a sea that shimmered silver in the sinking sun. How lucky we had been that the long walk in had put us on the top of the mountain late in the day when the light was so beautiful and there was nobody else around.


We sat a while on the top, soaking up the moment. It was difficult to leave, to not sit there forever. But eventually we turned round to make our way back down and it was then that I remembered the true meaning of a long walk in ... which is ... it's a long walk out.


Fact file
Start/finish: Shiel Bridge where the Fort William to Skye buses drop off and pick up. Several services per day.
Map: OS Landranger 33
Route: A path leaves Shiel Bridge between the campsite and the river and can be accessed from the parking area in front of the campsite behind the petrol station. It's a good path as it follows the Allt Undalain and then climbs to the bealach but on the other side it's rougher and very boggy as it crosses the moor to the ruin at Bealachasan, a charming wee spot retaining its chimney stack and iron bedstead. From the ruin follow the path as it crosses the stream and there is soon a gate through the deer fence. Follow the deer fence down to the forest track that starts at grid ref NG895173. Follow the  track and at the first junction turn left. Immediately after the bridge take the small footpath that starts to the right and follow it (vague and boggy in places) to the bothy at Suardalan. From the bothy take the path that heads southwest which becomes a track. Ignore the path to the left to Kinlochourn then cross the bridge at grid ref NG866158. We camped near here at Strath a' Chomair beside the river. A track that becomes a path heads southwest from here following the Allt Strath a' Chomair. It peters out as you cross the river and walk through the forestry ahead. Continue southwest ascending into Coire Dubh and Coire Min. From Coire Min head up the bouldery back wall of the coire aiming for the lowest part of the ridge. Once on the ridge there is a clear path and follow it west to the top. It becomes very narrow at one short section with a tricky step. We returned by the same route.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Glen Strathfarrar - Basecamping

basecamp: noun; main encampment providing supplies, shelter and communications for persons engaged in activities such as exploring, hunting or mountain climbing.

Yip, that pretty much describes the temporary home Bart and I made for ourselves at the distant head of Glen Strathfarrar for a few days of Munro bagging. The tent provided the shelter and making the long approach by bicycle allowed us to carry in extra supplies to last a few days. The word "basecamp" always conjures up images of Everest expeditions inching their way up wind-blasted mountains in snow and freezing temperatures.  That image wasn't so far from reality as we got caught out in late May by a sting in winter's tail.

A private single track road runs the length of Glen Strathfarrar. With no public traffic, it was a joy to cycle as it meandered alongside the river and passed beautiful remnants of the ancient Caledonian pine forest. In some parts the river was a torrent of white water, in others slow and peaceful, and in a couple of places it broadened into tree-fringed lochs. After the long cycle in, Bart and l set up basecamp near the end of the road on a shelf of green grass beside the river. There had been a fall of fresh snow on the hills during the night so our view from the tent was forest and white-capped mountains.

In the afternoon we set out to climb Carn nan Gobhar. After a tussle with peat hags clogged with the remains of an ancient forest that must once have covered the slopes, we pulled up onto the broad back of the mountain. We were amazed in places to now be plodding through 20 to 30cm of fresh snow. We saw a weather front coming over the hills to the west and it arrived just before the top, engulfing us in a whiteout. Luckily it cleared quickly and we continued to the top to enjoy a breathtaking view of the adjacent peak, Sgurr na Lapaich, and its achingly beautiful coire lochan.


We weren't so lucky with weather the next day and turned back from our peak in rain and sleet and winds that blew plumes of spindrift from the ridges. The bonus at least was the chance to have a low-level wander in the afternoon to explore the old, atmospheric pines of lnchvuilt Wood.

Our last sortie from basecamp saw us climb two Munros, Sgurr na Ruaidhe and, confusingly, a second Carn nan Gobhar. They were only lightly touched by snow but blasted by freezing cold northwesterly winds. Sgurr na Ruaidhe in particular seemed to be placed at some sort of vortex and we crouched behind the modest cairn for a modicum of shelter. It was hard to believe that at the end of May we were dressed in wool layers, duvet jackets, thick gloves and waterproofs to try to keep warm. Even the ptarmigan who spend all winter up here in the snows were escaping the wind in their shallow snow holes.


With three Strathfarrar peaks in the bag, we packed basecamp away into our backpacks and barbags and made the long cycle back down the glen. Our wee basecamp had provided supplies and shelter though it failed on communications as the only smartphone signal was on the tops of the Munros. In the few days there, we'd explored and climbed mountains but the only hunting done was to find the last packet of biscuits at the bottom of the basecamp food bag.


Fact File
More photos: click HERE.
Access: Glen Strathfarrar is accessed from Struy, north of Cannich. Access to the glen is restricted for motor vehicles but fully open for walkers and cyclists. The private road is asphalted throughout.
Our route for Carn nan Gobhar (Mullardoch): At the very end of the asphalt road we crossed the river by the small dam at the power station marked on the map at NG183381. Climbed the steep hillside above through thin birch woods and struck out SSE to gain the ridge between Carn nan Gobhar and Creag Dubh then walked to the top. Headed slightly north then descended west to the bealach between it and Sgurr na Lapaich.  From here descended into Garbh Coire to eventually pick up our outward route. This route is mostly quite rough with no paths except at the bealach.
Our route for Sgurr na Ruaidhe and Carn nan Gobhar (Strathfarrar): A track leaves the road at NG284386. We followed it (boggy) until we could gain the ridge of Sgurr na Ruaidhe where there's a bit of a path. From the top headed NW to the bealach bewteen it and Carn nan Gobhar where the route is clear to the second top passing a boulder field that was a bit annoying in soft snow. We descended SW to the next bealach then south into Coire Mhuillidh (rough and boggy) to eventually pick up our outward path.


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Glen Shiel - Perfect 10

Glen Shiel is a narrow valley in the northwest Highlands that cuts a line through rugged mountains to drop to Scotland's west coast at Loch Duich, a long finger of sea reaching far into the hills. After rain, which is often, the steep hills and gullies weep water in hundreds of streams and waterfalls that coalesce into foaming white torrents in the lower glen. The north and south sides of the glen are bounded by high, narrow ridges that string together a mouth-watering array of Munros, Scottish mountains over 3000 feet. For some time I'd been wanting to do a circuit of the glen, walking out along one ridge, making a high camp in the mountains and then returning next day along the other ridge. A two-day window of good weather in an otherwise wet and windy holiday week with Bart provided the opportunity.

Day One -  South Glen Shiel Ridge, seven Munros, 16 miles, 5971 feet of ascent
We set out early morning along the old Tomdoun road from the Cluanie Inn. It doesn't reach Tomdoun these days having been drowned by the hydroelectric schemes of Glen Garry. We eventually left the old road and picked up a wynding stalker's path that took us up onto the ridge and the first Munro of the day, Creag a Mhaim. A huge walk stretched out ahead of us through a jumble of peaks and a maze of ridges. There was a lot of lingering snow in the coires and gullies but the ridge itself was mostly clear.  We headed west under grey skies, collecting more Munros with the passing miles. About halfway along, after the peak of Aonach Air Chrith, we came to the narrowest section of the ridge  and picked our way carefully along the top of a thin fin of rock above sheer cliffs that plunged to the coire below.


By late afternoon, the sun had finally broken through and the grey skies had cleared to blue as we clambered up the final Munro at the west end of the ridge, Creag nan Damh. It was the lowest peak of the day but the only one holding onto snow on the top itself. With seven Munros in the bag, we dropped off the ridge and followed a river downstream. It cascaded in a spectacular plume of water over tall cliffs and just below here we made our camp for the night. The sun dropped quickly behind the high peaks and it was soon cold. The temperature, or perhaps the day's exersions, forced us early into our sleeping bags.


Day Two - Brothers' Ridge, three Munros, 7 miles, 4450 feet of ascent
The second day of our mini adventure didn't get off to a perfect start when we got tangled up in steep forestry as we crossed the floor of the glen and then missed the route of a path up onto the ridge. The north side of Glen Shiel is precipitously steep and we found ourselves clambering up grass slopes where a dropped orange would have rolled all the way to the valley bottom. But once on the ridge, the day ahead was pure mountain joy in sunshine and blue skies with spectacular views of the neighbouring peaks, the Five Sisters of Kintail.


The route was again narrow in some places and the top of the second Munro, Sgurr a Bhealaich Dheirg, was strung out at the end of a skinny rock ridge that made a delightful airy stroll. The third Munro on the Brothers' Ridge, and the last of our trip, was a slightly disappointing lump of a peak but we sat there a while in warm sunshine until a chill wind chased us off the top. Back down in the glen, we found the faint line of the old military road that once ran through Glen Shiel, connecting Fort Augustus with barracks at Glenelg.  It pleasantly covered the final miles back to our start point at Cluanie Inn where we had cold drinks sitting in the sun, content in the knowledge that we'd climbed ten new Munros.


Fact File
More photos - click HERE.
Start/finish - Cluanie Inn, Glen Shiel where the Fort William/Skye bus drops and picks up.
Map: OS Landranger 33
Route: Take the private road that heads south about 300m east of Cluanie Inn. Just as the road begins to drop to Glen Loyne a path leaves on the right. It soon splits - take the right hand split. This path zig-zags up to the first Munro on the ridge, Creag a Mhaim. The route west along the ridge is obvious in clear weather with a good path all the way. There are a couple of narrow sections on the ridge. For the second of these, as above, you need a bit of a head for heights although the exposure is minimal. After the last Munro on the ridge, Creag nan Damh, we returned to the bealach just before it and descended into Am Fraoch-choire, staying well on the east side of the river to avoid cliffs and then crossing easily at the bottom of the waterfall. From here there is a clear path and we camped a little further down beside the river. Next day we continued down the path. When it reaches forestry, it's better to walk on the east boundary of the forestry than to go through the middle. We then joined the main road in the glen, the A87, and walked east for 1.5km to a small layby on the north side where a path up to the north side ridge is signposted. At some point above the forestry we missed a faint split and ended up joining the ridge further west than planned. Once on the ridge, the route east across the Munros is again obvious with a good path. We came off our final Munro, Aonach Meadhoin, via its south ridge. Once down in the valley we picked up the old military road east of the forestry here which provided a good walking route back to the Cluanie Inn.
Tip: If camping is not your thing, you could do this route starting at the west end and stay at the Cluanie Inn overnight.