Saturday, 16 May 2015

Creag Meaghaid - A little bit of Arctic in my life

For a sliver of a moment I could have imagined I was in the Arctic. Looking south across the snow-covered plateau all I could see was pancake-flat snow and a cloud-clogged sky. Behind me was a trail of fresh footprints in powder snow and ahead a fin of wind-sculpted snow led to the summit. In the distance was a range of rocky, snow-streaked peaks.  For a fleeting moment the landscape was bathed in a magical northern light as sun burst through the clouds, illuminating the plateau and creating shadows and contrasts on the glistening snow.

Of course, this place wasn't the Arctic. It was Creag Meaghaid in May, still clutching onto its winter snows. Bart and I had climbed up from Aberarder. A long trail through springtime birch woods had gradually been enclosed by steepening mountain walls until it entered the spectacular amphitheatre of Coire Ardair. Cliffs of broken black rock gashed by snow-filled gullies plunged to the sparkling waters of the lochan below. The only exit from the coire was a steep, snow-filled notch called the Window. We climbed up, kicking steps into the snow, and gazed through to a winter world of snow-covered high moors and overhanging cornices the size of big surf waves. A short pull up from here had taken as onto the Arctic-like plateau of Creag Meaghaid.

After we'd soaked up the views and atmosphere, we returned to the Window and walked east along a high ridge, happily adding another two peaks to the day's tally. As we approached the last peak of the day, a tiny piece of Creag Meagaidh's Arctic chased us to the top as the west wind blew in the lightest flurry of snowflakes.

Fact File

Start/finish: Aberarder at the nature reserve car park.
Map: OS Landranger 34
Route: Follow the main trail from the car park towards the park buildings where it passes to the right. Stay on the obvious trail for 5km to the lochan in Coire Ardair which is a fine day walk in itself. From the lochan the Window is an obvious notch to the northwest. It's a steep climb on snow at this time of year. From the Window head south and then west across the plateau to the summit which sits a little higher at the far west. We returned to the Window and continued east along the ridge taking in another two Munros, Stob Poite Coire Ardair and Carn Liath. We descended the south ridge of Carn Liath, eventually picking up a rough path that rejoined the main trail about 1km above the park buildings.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Arrochar Alps - Yesterday's peak

Most mountains go uphill but some go more uphill than others. Ben Vane and Ben Vorlich are two very uphill mountains sitting side-by-side in the Arrochar Alps. Most people that climb these mountains do so from Inveruglas on the banks of Loch Lomond because most people arrive by car. But I'd recommend a different way.

Take the evening Mallaig train out of Glasgow and after it's chugged up Loch Long under the dramatic rock peak of the Cobbler, jump off at the stop for Arrochar and Tarbet. Make a long walk in through the quiet valley of Glen Loin where the dusktime woods are alive with evening song and the gorse smells of coconuts. Pitch your tent at the head of the glen on the edge of the wood beside a wooden bridge over a tinkling stream and fall asleep to the hoots of owls.

Next morning follow the narrow trail north as it climbs through a rugged landscape of rocky knolls and thin birch woods. You might see a skein of northbound geese overhead, their underwings reflecting the morning sun so they shimmer in the blue like a shoal of fish. Your trail will eventually join the hydro road up to the dam. Enjoy its flatness for a little while before the steep pull up Ben Vane. You'll need your hands at one point and maybe an axe and spikes. There's a pesky slope of late spring snow on the final steep climb with a 200m vertical drop. At the top the view is open and airy and the pointed peak of Ben Lomond draws the eye south.

Once you're back down there's a great camp spot where the Allt Coiregrogain meanders gently down through the woods in little waterfalls and deep pools. It's a satisfying place where you can make an afternoon cuppa and sip it while looking back up at your mountain.

As you've camped high in the hills you can make an early start tomorrow up the steep path to Ben Vorlich.  It doesn't hang around, it just goes straight up the vertical flank of the mountain. The reward for slogging up is a pleasant high level stroll along the top and a dreamy view down Loch Lomond. Low, humpbacked islands float like a lazy pod of whales in water that's as thick and silvery as mercury.

But the nicest thing about these two mountains is their neighbourliness. When you're on the top of Ben Vane you can look across at tomorrow's climb. And when you've done tomorrow's climb and you're on the top of Ben Vorlich, you can look back at yesterday's peak.

Fact file
Start: Arrochar and Tarbet Railway Station served by Glasgow to Oban and Mallaig trains.
Finish: Inveruglas served by Glasgow to Fort William Citylink buses.
Map: OS Landranger 56
Route: At the bottom of the stairs that exit the platform at Arrochar and Tarbet station turn right and you're immediately on a lovely woodland path that contours round Cruach Tairbeirt. It passes above the village of Arrochar with views down Loch Long and across its waters to the more southerly peaks of the Arrochar Alps. Don't take the path that spurs into the village but keep going north on the main trail into Glen Loin signed for Inveruglas. There's a nice flat grassy camp spot just before the path climbs to go over a small pass. On the other side of the pass the path descends to the farm at Coiregrogain. Cross the bridge over the river, go up to the tarmac hydro road and turn left. Turn left again at the next bridge and cross it. After 500m a small stream comes down from the right and there's a stone parapet on the track. There's a faint path here which is the start of the route up Ben Vane. There's a steep but easy to follow path to the top. At one point there's a tricky step up rocks but a route to the right is easier. I returned via the same route and when I reached the track turned right and camped in the forestry by the river about another l.5km further on. It was a nice spot.
For Ben Vorlich return to the hydro road and turn left. After about lkm there's a small cairn at the side of the road that marks the start of a path up. It's a steep slog that becomes more interesting higher up and finishes with a pleasant stroll to the top. At the south end of the ridge the views down Loch Lomond are superb. Return via the same route and to walk out to Inveruglas just keep on the hydro road down to the A82 and under the railway line. A footpath to the left then takes you safely to the Sloy power station and a wee visitor centre with a cafe were you can pass time as well as water until the bus comes. The bus picks up opposite the power station if you wave your trekking poles at it frantically.

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.