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 several 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 several 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.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Pentland Hills - Frosty morning

It was a beautiful morning in the Pentlands on Saturday. The soft, golden light of winter. The crisp, clear air. A thick layer of frost sparkling in the sun. An Arctic wind scouring off the top layer of your face! Oh well, it saved me the cost of a facial peel!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Aberlady Bay - The golden hour

The last hour of the day. Sitting with my back against a west facing fence. Sipping hot coffee with the last of the Christmas cake. And watching the sun sink over the bay. Perfect.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Loch Ard Forest - Light and shadow

The winter sun is at its lowest in Scotland at the moment. In mountain areas it barely climbs clear of the lower ridges before it suddenly realises it’s needed elsewhere in the world and promptly leaves. Some people don’t like it, the 4pm night. But the trade-off is the ethereal quality to the light as the sun’s low arc creates contrasts and rich textures. It’s magical. 

The winter light was gorgeous in the Loch Ard Forest last weekend for a short overnight biking trip with my friend, Graham. On a frosty morning early beams of sunshine burst through the trees, backlighting me with a Readybrek outer glow. Showing my age! How long has it been since those adverts were on TV? 

The reflections on Loch Ard were perfectly sharp such that the line was blurred between real and unreal and the colours were on fire. The foxes blurred reality even more. Their mirror surfaces caught what little light there was in the shadow of the canopy and reflected back the forest. Like the real fox, they melted into the trees. 

Eventually we biked clear of the forest and into sunshine that illuminated the snow-covered slopes of Ben Lomond. Another trick of the light - sunlight on snow peak - made the Ben look Himalayan in character. 

We cycled north, working hard on a wet track with the consistency of porridge. As the sun sank, we made a high camp in the shadow of the mountain. It was a wet, lumpy, sloping spot but the panoramas across the Arrochar Alps and Ben Lomond in a setting sun were stunning. 

It was a still, calm evening in the Glen of Wind as a nearly full moon rose, casting shadows of tents and silvery light on the mountain.

Fact File

More photos on flickr - click HERE.
Start/finish: Aberfoyle. We used Graham's van for this trip and parked in the main car park at the visitor centre.
Maps: OS Landranger 56 and 57
Route: From Aberfoyle head west along the B829 and turn into the forest by crossing the bridge at Milton to pick up the forest tracks. Follow waymarkers at the first split to the right to keep to the loch shore and keep following them to Couligartan. At this junction, take the left hand track uphill, then another left track signed for Aberfoyle and then a right at the next junction. You'll shortly go under a bridge. Keep straight on this track now up into Gleann Dubh. Cycling this track is very enjoyable with open forest, views to Ben Lomond and a "big country" kind of feel to the landscape. At the cottage at remote Comer Farm, take the very steep track through a gate and up to the right to cycle up through Gleann Gaoithe. We camped up here, though it was really difficult to find a good spot. Next day we returned to the junction just before the bridge we'd passed under yesterday and followed waymarkers back to Aberfoyle via Blairvaich and Duchray House, popping out of the forest at Kirkton. 
Information: All of this route is on good quality forest tracks and is quite easy apart from the steep climb at Comer. Though much of Loch Ard Forest is commercial plantation, there are also beautiful areas of natural woodland.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Chilterns - Old English charm

I must confess, between you and me, that I never, ever go to England. I know it's the country that neighbours my own but why would I swap the rugged, mountainous wildscapes of Scotland for the tame fields of England. Here's one reason ... Bart and I only had five days to spend together at Christmas and needed a halfway point between Scotland and Belgium. That'll be England then! My train and Bart's campervan met at Stevenage, the last stop before London. A quick look at the map showed the closest green space was the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We had the van parked up there early Christmas morning, ready for a few days of outdoor fun by boot and bike.

The Chilterns is a range of gently rolling wooded hills west of London. They rise abruptly on the west side in a steep, chalk escarpment that marks the limit of the ice sheet in the last ice age. Below the escarpment the fields and villages of the Vale of Aylesbury stretch to the horizon. There are no wild mountains or dramatic landscapes but what the Chilterns have in bucket loads is charm.

We happily wandered for hours and hours along the maze of footpaths that criss-cross the area. These old routes must have been used for centuries. Sometimes the paths passed through ancient woods with knarled old trees or tall elegant beeches whose smooth trunks glowed burnt orange in afternoon rays. Sometimes they crossed open fields where the grass was crunchy with frost and Canada geese grazed in the cold winter sun. Other times the footpaths were squeezed between tall hedgerows before popping out into a little, country hamlet where Christmas wreaths hung on smart cottage doors and the lights on the village Christmas tree twinkled in the dusk of late afternoon. Another day we walked for miles along the frozen waters of the Grand Union Canal where sun-sparkled frost coated the boats and bridges, and smoke from the chimneys of the barges drifted slowly into the still, blue air.

It was England and it was absolutely charming.

Fact File
We based the campervan at Tring Reservoirs from where it's easy to do big walks in the hills or cycles on the wee back roads. Near Tring you can pick up the Ridgeway, a long distance trail that stretches the length of the Chilterns that we used for a couple of our walks. In this area we also used the Grand Union Canal towpath to make a loop back to Tring from the Ridgeway or as a day walk in itself combined with local footpaths. There is an unbelievable number of footpaths here which is fantastic. The footpaths were often muddy and churned up which I put down to there being a lot of posh people with horses in the area.
For more information on the Chilterns including an interactive OS map with walking and cycle routes, click HERE.