Saturday, 25 April 2015

Edinburgh - Cute commute

I may not love work but at least I love the commute: under the beautiful blossom tree in the local park which is outrageously pink just now; up the lovely line of the Innocent Railway bike path listening to the morning birdsong; below the crags of the ancient volcano, Arthur's seat, where the gorse smells of coconut; passed the cute canal boats; round my favourite bend in the canal where Polwarth Church reflects in the water and the view opens up to the Pentland Hills; then finally alongside the city's new tram line.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Edinburgh - A little bit of wildness

For a number of reasons I've been stuck in the city these last few weekends. I'm lucky that just a few minutes from home by Brompton I have the huge green space around the old house at Newhailes where I can breath in the open air and stretch the legs. A maze of paths meander through the woods and just now bluebells, periwinkles and wood anemones carpet the ground. There's a large open pasture as well with open views to the Pentland Hills and across the blue waters of the Firth of Forth. It's so nice to have it right on the doorstep for that sense of space and a little bit of wildness in the city.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Gear Review - Mountain Equipment Guide Gloves

As an outsdoorsy type, I'm always delighted to receive a gift voucher for a favourite outdoor store for Christmas or birthdays. It's not just the thought of a new piece of outdoorsy kit but also the anticipation of a couple hours wandering around the store fondling fleeces and salivating over self-inflating sleeping mats.

I got a Tiso gift token at Christmas and over the winter months I've been using the mountaineering gloves that I bought. I got the Mountain Equipment Guide gloves in the women's version which cost £50. They come in sizes extra small to large and also in a manly version in sizes small to extra large. I've picked out the main technical specifications below.

I especially like the wrist loops which saved the gloves being whipped away in the gales we've had all winter. I wore the gloves on a snowshoe trip in the Monadhliath when the tops were absolutely freezing. Normally I would have reached for mitts in those temperatures but the Guide gloves were so warm that I didn't have to. They are especially warm considering they are fingered gloves. Despite the thickness, dexterity was pretty good and I could take photos, undo buckles etc.

On another occasion I used the gloves while walking for several hours in heavy snow that turned quite wet but the gloves stayed warm and dry inside. The gloves are very flexible and the leather palm is beautifully soft, providing grip on trekking poles, ice axes and muesli bars. My only minor complaint is that the cuff is a little bulky which is mostly due to the toggle for adjusting tightness. This meant it was hard to pull the sleeve of my waterproof jacket over the top. That aside I'm absolutely delighted with them.

As winter gloves, they won't have many more outings now until next year as spring has definitely sprung. If it's spring, that means it's my birthday soon. Here's hoping for another big, fat voucher!

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Ben Venue - Jammy

I've drooled for years over those photos that you see in Scottish calendars of the Trossachs from the little mountain of Ben Venue. You know the ones ... there'll be snow-capped peaks pointing into a blue sky above an idyllic mix of woods and water. And often there'll be an old-fashioned looking walker gazing to the horizon wearing a bobble hat and trousers tucked into red, woolly hiking socks. Well, finally it was time for me to get out there, climb Ben Venue and gaze at that horizon myself. There was one problem. It's a wee bit of a puzzle climbing Ben Venue by public transport and required trains, buses and a lot of extra leg work. 

The climb started with an early Saturday morning train to Stirling which got me there to catch the first bus to the Trossachs village of Aberfoyle. The bus trundled west through the winter fields of the Carse of Stirling and with each rise in the undulating road the passengers had a view north to an array of snow-capped mountains that marked the Highland edge. Just before ten, I was striding out from Aberfoyle on a frosty, sunny morning.

The start of the route up Ben Venue is at Ledard Farm, several miles west from Aberfoyle along a B road. It's no fun plodding along hard tarmac so I took the slightly longer forest trail along the south shore of Loch Ard. Beams of morning sunshine burst through the pines and Ben Lomond teased up ahead with glimpses through mist of it's snow-capped top. The Loch Ard trail eventually pops out at Kinlochard. And two and half hours after getting off the bus and over five hours after leaving home, I was at the "start" of the walk.

The route up Ben Venue from here was pure, unbridled joy. A narrow path climbed up through beech woods drenched in warm sunshine and followed the tumbling waterfalls and dreamy pools of the Ledard Burn. The water was so prefectly clear that I could see the multi-coloured stones on the bottom, dappled by the sunshine. Above the woods the path entered open terrain where a chill wind blew through and then disappeared under the snow line.

My route continued to climb steeply in fresh snow that was soft in some places and hard and wind-rippled in other places. I pulled up onto Ben Venue's ridge and meandered between the rocky knolls and outcrops to the top. The moment was perfect and I felt really jammy hitting it on a day like today. 

Despite its small size, Ben Venue is a great, little mountain especially when it's under snow. I felt like I'd had a big mountain day out but in a miniature package. And the view was just as advertised. A jumble of cold, snowy peaks filled the horizon and below my feet there was as much water as there was woodland. The snow contrasted with the blue sky and the sun mostly shone. Mind you, there was no sign of that walker in the bobble hat and red socks so a selfie in pink had to suffice for that photo from the top.

I started down off the top to find a campspot for the night. There's no Sunday bus out of Aberfoyle so there was no point in retracing my route. Instead I dropped off the northeast side of the mountain, picked up a rough, boggy path and descended into the Loch Achray Forest. By the time I'd found a campspot beside the Achray Water, it had been a long day and I put the lights out soon after dark.

It was hard to get moving out of my tent next morning knowing that the nearest bus was at Callander, a long walk away with the last few miles on dreaded tarmac road. But then something changed outside. Snowflakes started to drift gently through the trees and by the time I was packing up, the snow had really ramped up. The landscape was suddenly painted white and I walked out to Callander not on hard tarmac but on a soft cushion of fresh snow. 

Pauline, I thought to myself, you are truly jammy.

Fact File
Photos: More photos on flickr, click here.
Start: Aberfoyle by bus from Stirling Bus Station which is next to the train station.
Finish: Callander then taking a bus to Stirling to catch a train. 
Map: OS Landranger 57
Route: In Aberfoyle walk west along the main street and keep heading west along the B829 to Milton. Cross the bridge to enter Loch Ard Forest and follow the trail around Loch Ard to Kinlochard. At Kinlochard walk east along the B829 for 500m to the road up to Ledard Farm. Take this road which is signed for Ben Venue but leave it just before the farm by following a signed path to the left. Follow the path up through woods beside the burn and go left at a split signed by a green arrow painted on a post (easily missed). The route continues above the trees and climbs around the west side of the top before pulling up onto a bealach marked by a cairm. It then continues along the ridge to the right of the west top which is easily climbed and then onto the east top. I returned to the bealach and found a rough path heading east down into Loch Achray Forest. It becomes a good path later and cuts a line through the forest which is pleasant lower down. When it reached the bottom track alongside the Achray Water I turned left and found a campspot a little way upriver. Next day I walked back along the track which eventually comes out at the Loch Achray Hotel. It actually goes right through the grounds! I followed the A821 to the right and picked up a forest trail leaving to the left at grid ref NN512062 which links to the tracks along the south shores of Lochs Achray and Venachar. From Invertrossachs it's then a private then single track road into Callander.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Gear review - Snowshoes - TSL 305 Approach Easy

"Just leave me here to die". Those words were uttered by my hillwalking friend Graham many years ago as he lay in the snow on a hillside above Blair Atholl. They've become a bit of a standing joke over the years. We were traversing open terrain in deep snow to get to the bothy below Beinn Dearg and were plunging with every step into snow up to our thighs, losing precious time and energy. When Graham eventually fell completely into the snow, he refused to move and out came those immortal words.

If we'd had snowshoes back then, that miserable plod would have become a fun adventure. I've since used snowshoes in Finland and the Alps but it's taken until now for me to get my own pair for using in Scotland. I think it's because it's only in the last few years that they've become cheaper and more available here.

I bought the TSL 305 Approach Easy snowshoes and used them for the first time in the last blog. I got the women's version which fits smaller shoe sizes and body weights. Those are two of the things that you need to check when buying snowshoes - that they adjust to your shoe size and are suitable for your body weight. The other thing to check is the weight of the snowshoes themselves. Remember they'll be strapped to your feet or your pack and either way you'll notice the extra weight. So try to choose ones that are as light as possible. The TSL 305s weigh 1.6kg for the pair. They are made of lightweight plastic and fitted onto my regular walking boots quickly and easily with a plastic binding that was easily adjusted. Needless to say they did the job I bought them for and saved me from sinking into soft snow.

The snowshoes have a front crampon for biting into hard snow and six points on the bottom for grip. I crossed one section of relatively steep ground on hard snow and the grip felt very secure. There's also a climbing bar under the heel which you flip up during steep ascents. l found this was an excellent energy saver and very comfortable as it keeps your heel from going all the way back down with each step on a long climb.

l got the snowshoes on sale from Elite Mountain Supplies. They are currently priced at £105. You can get cheaper ones at Decathlon but they are heavier and I'm not sure I'd like to go too cheap on an item like this. 

Now ... back to that snow-covered hillside many years ago. Of course, I didn't leave Graham there to die and we did eventually make it to the bothy just as darkness was descending. We pushed open the door to find the bothy full of thirty out-of-control, prepubescent boy scouts and dying in the snow was suddenly a more appealing option.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Carn an Fhreiceadain - The watchers' cairn

738 feet. Kingussie. I step off the train into the still, gripping cold of a February morning. There's not much movement in town, just a dog-walker and the postman. Old snow is scraped back to the edges of the pavement and piles of grit are crunchy under my boots. I follow the road that follows the Gynack Burn north. Tarmac becomes compacted snow and icicles hang in the dark corners of the stream’s gorge. It’s quiet except for the squeak of snow as I walk.

1148 feet. Pitmain. The road gives way to track which leaves the woods to enter the open hillside. I have to push hard against the gate whose swing is hindered by drifts of snow. I pull on the snowshoes and start to ascend. It’s slow going. I’m carrying a pack heavy with winter walking kit and winter camping kit, and I’ve now got two extra weights strapped to my feet. But they are worth their weight in gold, saving me from sinking into deep snow that would quickly sap energy.

2132 feet. Bad Each. A biting north wind picks up from nowhere and whips down the ridge. Mountain hares in their winter white coats explode from holes in the snow, leaving their snowshoe-shaped footprints across the hillside. I pull on a duvet jacket and snuggle into the hood. I crouch down with my back to the wind to eat some snacks and force down some freezing cold water from my bottle. It's only three hours from the cosy, comfort of the village but this empty place of snow and wind feels like a different world.

2880 feet. Carn an Fhreiceadain. The top is scoured of snow and blasted by a wind that’s increased to gale force. I can barely stand up or walk and spindrift like tiny needles stings my eyes and face. The windchill is severe and the place is gripped in ice. To the north are the beautiful white wastelands of the Monadhliath and to the south the snow-covered whalebacks of the Cairngorms. But today it’s not a place to linger and watch over the view. I turn and begin to drop back down.

1082 feet. Loch Gynack. A pot of tea is brewing beside the tent. I’ve pitched up in a pinewood that fringes the loch. There's less snow and more grass for pitching on under the trees. My view stretches up the loch to the snow-covered peaks above Newtonmore. I take a hot mug down to the shore but there’s no water at the water’s edge, only ice. The sun sets in a sky smudged with mauve and red. I fall asleep listening to the spooky groans and creaks of the frozen loch.

Fact file

Photos: more on Flickr. Click here.
Start/finish: Kingussie Railway Station served by Edinburgh/Glasgow to Inverness trains.
Route: From the train station walk north to the main street and turn right. Take the left at the traffic lights up Ardbroilach Road and keep straight on this road. Eventually you'll pass the entrance to Pitmain Lodge on the left but go straight on and soon you'll go through a gate and leave the woods. Follow the track for another few hundred metres then leave it to the left to strike up the ridge called Bad Each. When there isn't snow you might want to stay on the track which eventually goes all the way to the top. Follow the Bad Each ridge north to the top called Beinn Bhreac then turn west for Carn an Fhreiceadain marked by a slim cairn. I returned via the gully of the Allt Mor and then rejoined the outward road. At the golf course I took the first "Paths around Kingussie" sign for South Gynack/Newtonmore and followed a lovely trail up to Loch Gynack. I camped at the east end of the loch. Next day I rejoined the path to make a beautiful, snowy circuit of Creag Bheag. A subsidiary path leaves the Newtonmore path and is signed for Creag Bheag. It makes a steep ascent up the east side through woods. I walked west along the top of the hill then dropped off the west side to pick up the Newtonmore path again but turned east to make a circle back to my campspot. It was a lovely wee walk on a snowy, sunny morning.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Gear review - Icetrekkers Diamond Grip

We've had a few dumps of snow here in Edinburgh and crumbs, is it cold. Even a wee stroll over the local Pentland Hills the other day felt like the Arctic as a biting wind scoured the tops. The ground was solid and gripped in ice, evidence of the prolonged low temperatures. But the steep, slippery slopes were the perfect place to test my new ice grippers, the lcetrekkers Diamond Grip.

Like most ice grippers you kind of step onto them and then pull the rubber rand around the edges of your boots. Unlike other ice grippers they don't have pronounced spikes. Instead grip is provided by rings of jaggy bolts with pronounced diamond patterns. One ring sits on the ball of the boot and the other on the heel.

I'm really impressed with them. l charged up and down steep slopes with patches of ice, old snow and frozen, slippery grass. Where other people were gingerly picking their way down, l walked as normal totally confident in my grip. I even tried deliberately sliding on ice and my feet slid an inch or two then the grips dug in. The lack of pronounced spikes is important as it means you can use them on varied surfaces so, for example, when you have to walk across a short section of your route that's free of ice and snow, or a section of tarmac, you don't have to take them off. l tested that on the pavements today with a fine layer of icy snow and the grip was great. Once on they also feel very securely attached. It needed a wee bit of effort to stretch the rubber round the heel.

I got mine for £35 from Icegrippers. I see them being great for iced-up approach walks or frozen lower level paths.  They'll certainly stay close to hand for the rest of the winter. Apart from anything else, it's nice to have a new piece of jangly hardware in the pack.