It was colder than I was expecting. I had gloves on from the off.
Half a plan in mind, half a mind to just have a wander.
It was eerie past the tree line. The sun was trapped in a bank of murk so there were no shadows and there was no wind either. Still and dark. And cold, my hood was up now.
The dead pines are straight off of a Tim Burton storyboard. If only my raven was here.
I really don’t like my camera much. When my old LX5 died, I got the update, the LX7, and it’s just not as good.
I don’t what the hell I’m doing with cameras so I rely on picking preprogrammed modes to suit the moment or mood and the LX7 doesn’t have the ones I used to use.
I’ve kinda had to come to terms with the rather lame fact that this took some of the fun away from my hill time as I loved fannying around at night with a ten second timer and a headtorch. Or two.
I tried a few nighttime photies tonight, it really was fun, but the camera was saying no more often than not.
I don’t care how much technology has moved on and how lo-fi the results will be, I’m tracking some LX5s on ebay. It’s all about the joy.
Two jackets, aye it was that cold. It’s not a hiviz vest though, it’s Haglofs picking their pallete at the office party/in the dark.
It’s surprising how much light reflects off that jacket from a headtorch, I glow as I walk. Readybrek? God, I’m old…
The cup marked stone is easy to find in the dark if you know where it is.
Did I really just write that?
I looks like an alien skull emerging from centuries of entombment. A clawed hand will soon follow to clutch at then posses/consume a hapless rambler as part of its plan to take over the world in a low budget British indie movie fashion.
Could have stayed out all night. This was proper fun.
I have history with Haglöfs. Way back when I first started this place and was looking at gear, Haglöfs were the first brand to really “get it” and see how a blogger using and reviewing kit was a step away and a step forward from the bland compromise of magazine grouptests. It started an unexpected wave of change for me and while everyone today with an online presence is reviewing something or other, eleven years ago it was innovative, even a gamble for a brand to trust a random like me with kit. I was already a Haglöfs user (blame the much missed West Coast in Ft Bill for that, after Karrimor shat the bed at the start on the new century, Haglöfs appeared in its place), I fitted the sample size large perfectly (amazingly, still do, aged 50…) and I was in the hills constantly so it was an easy thing to do, plus the gear was usually good and caused me little trouble. Over the years I started to drown in kit and eventually sold out and became a gear editor for a while. I drifted off from regular looks at the Haglöfs range and from a distance they seemed to be becoming a little generic, the stand out individuality that had caught my eye was becoming average alpine.
However, these are times of change for everyone, not least Haglöfs. Renewed focus, embracing their heritage and Swedish roots, making environment and sustainability a priority and unashamedly making gear for outdoor folk, not just alpinists? This is what I was told, and this is what I went to see. I’ve had a smattering of current kit on test the past few months, but I haven’t seen the future.
Now, the lighting in the new shed is horrible, so we have bunch of out of focus and oddly coloured photies coming up. My co-stars Gus and MT have never looked quite so strange.
Remember, it all comes in wummins versions. I think.
Had Haglöfs ruined the hoods with a redesign was my first worry, but it was okay, me and MT made sure of it.
This is the Roc Spire, a bad weather and winter all-rounder Gore shell at 500g for a large. Decent body length, big chest pockets, excellent hood with a RECCO reflector laminated into it. This is common across the range now, no added weight or bulk but a life saving chance built in. Go Haglöfs. There’s a nice 80’s/90’s feel to the look of these, the retro blocks of colours. The yellow is gorgeous as well, again very 90’s. Love it.
I like this weight of jacket if I know I’m going to be wearing it in winter. I feel the cold a little more than I did and adapting to that is worth an extra few grams.
Is this the future? Gore-Tex Shakedry is a light, water resistant two layer fabric with a waffle inner cut into this 400g L.I.M winter jacket. Here it’s got a Gore Topo insert in the back (above) which is super stretchy for free movement. Looks a bit odd, but it’s incredibly comfy on. Designed for snow sports, it just looks like a winter go-to for mountain folk. Reports of the breathability are exciting and development is ongoing, including dying the outer so you don’t look like Action Man Frogman. Which actually, is fine for me if I think about it.
All the proper features, pockets, adjustable hood and cuffs.
No Gore and I don’t mean it’s a PG, this the L.I.M Touring jacket cut from Haglöfs’ own Proof fabric which they’ve been improving since my last look and it’s used on 12% of the 2019/20 clothing range. It’s Bluesigned, has recycled content on the Eco version and I get the feeling it’s giving them options to create and experiment with kit and probably going Gore a wee nudge to keep pushing.
The L.I.M has a good layout, nice pockets, big side vents, where they actually work and an excellent hood. That 90’s yellow again too. 550g.
Be still my beating heart.
These are the Edge Evo Parkas, made in recycled nylon Proof fabric. The colourful one is the Kurbits version which incorporates traditional folk art from Dalarna where Haglöfs originated. It’s a brave move doing this and I love it, the racks of miserable conservative black shells need this in the middle, mocking their limited vision and timid outlook.
I suppose they’re beefyish for a pull-on at 675g and the hood is a little pre-war antarctic expedition, but it all fits together beautifully so for general use and gadding about in comfort in winter, sign me up. There’s a 3D pouch front pocket that made me smile. Complicated and difficult to make, probably unnecessary and most folk won’t pick up on the detail of it, but it’s there because it’s just nice, because someone designed it that way and thought it was cool.
I love the concept and I love the execution, and the very offset zip is excellent, put that on a mountain jacket.
In two different Proof Eco fabrics these are the Grym Evo (yellow and RAF blue at the left) and Eco Proof (the other two). The Grym is in tougher recycled nylon as suggested by the name and the Eco has recycled polyester.
Easy to dismiss this stuff as dog walker jackets but the shells I probably wear most are long patch-pocket jackets, they keep my arse dry and out of the wind when I’m walking the fence line in the Lang Craigs or gadding about around the hills rather than on them. They’re lighter than they look at 580g with all the usual adjustments, proper hoods and pockets and a surprisingly trim and articulate fit.
I like this stuff. I am not ashamed.
Aye, there was a fight for the Kurbits.
L.I.M means lighter and here’s the 265g Comp above on GoreTex Active shell and the Proof Multi below at 290g.
Both light, well articulated, two pockets, decent and slightly oddball hood but different fabrics. Pick a side? I’ve had one of these on test for months, more on that in a bit. The design though while well weighted and small enough to pack, carry and forget can also be used to stare into a blizzard. I wish I could say the the same for my glasses.
Above and modeled by the lovely MT below is the Proteus jacket. A light nylon shell with a QuadFusion polyester lining, think Polartec Alpha or maybe even Rab VapourRise or Marmot DriClime.
It’s dead simple, very light at 270g and I’ve been using one for months. Not giving it away yet, I need some more snow to the west, just to be sure you know?
Haglöfs have this QuadFusion fluffiness in the Essens Mimics seen below. It’s an attempt at synthetic down and it compresses well, with some good instant feedback from the insulation when you pull it on.
The shells are Pertex Quantum, made from 100% recycled polyamide.
The cut of the jackets is much improved from the the early samples I tried. packable, good articulation, brilliant hoods on some. Good weights at 440g for the jackets and 485g for the hoody.
Nice colour palette too, and that black and white one looks like a baseball jersey, love it.
The Mojo Down Hood above is a beast, so much fill it stands up by itself. 390g of 800 fill, box wall, excellent hood, 815g, Pertex Quantum shell in two different weights (both recycled nylon), big pockets inside and oot. It’s a roaster.
Below is the L.I.M Essens. 70g of 800 fill, nylon ripstop shell, handwarmer pockets, packs to nothing at 165g. Oof.
L.I.M Barrier Shorts, along with the skirt insulation for racers at rest or folks still on the move? I’m a big fan of insulated pants so I can see the appeal for folk fitter than me. 140g.
The Barrier Neo Hoods are below. I still have a Barrier Hood from years back, 2008 maybe and I love the simple design which looks largely unchanged, just tweaked and lightened, which I like. Too many changes are due to seasonal selling demands and trying to look sexy again rather than actual necessity or natural evolution. 405g.
Ha, you can’t kill me you bastards, I live, I live! Said fleece when questioned.
The Spire Mid Hood is an awesome feeling hoody in Pontetorto stretch fleece. Handwarmer pockets, chest pocket, thumbloops and a fitted hood that’s brilliant under a shell hood, apart from the one that doesn’t have a hood of course.
Practical, undemanding, long lasting, easy care, cheapish, fleece is till good and I still wear it.
The Heron top MT’s got on is the kind of thing I wear every day, folk just want fancy stuff so they can look like a TV presenter and complain on the internet about how much it costs and how their lightweight specialist sports equipment wore out of after months of daily use on their commute to work.
Heron Tights and Knee Tights. I used to wear 3/4’s all the time. They were perfect with gaiters and long socks, you could regulate your temperature really well and there were no wet trouser ends in the tent. Softshell pants killed all this stuff, not all simple and old ideas are bad. Liked the Pontetorto fabric here, a nice texture and look to it.
Bungy Polartec Powerstretch Hoods below I think?* Whatever, the one I’ve got on shows the way Haglöfs do the hoods on these tops, great design. Also, loved the angled chest pocket, very old school Karrimor Alpiniste fleece. Stuff doesn’t fall out when the zip’s open, old ideas…
*Gus: “Naw ya fanny, that’s the Nengal** hood with recycled polyester inner and recycled ghost net*** nylon outer”.
**A more death metal product name there is not. ***I think he made this up, too sci-fi to be legit.
Two pants in the excellent FlexAble fabric,the Roc Fusions to the left and the Rando Flex’s to the not left.
The Rocs are the mountain pants and the Randos are supposed to be for snowsports but I’d just choose based on fit and features as both would work fine. You’ve got standard pockets or more horizontal pockets, lighter weight or bigger leg vents. Big waist bands, kick patches, lower leg zips, internal gaiters. Haglöfs have always done excellent mountain pants.
The familiar has been updated, a while ago, but I’m just catching up. On the right are the latest Rugged Mountain Pants and it looks to me like they’ve taken the ones I know so well and incorporated some tweaks from the Nansen pants of the old days. They’re a better cut now too, it’s a good update.
The grey ones are the Rugged Flex Pants, a bit lighter and closer cut, more mountain sports that the Mountain Man (and Woman) vibe that the original Rugged have going.
Well. There are bigger changes ahead and we’ll see that later in the year. I see more of the old Haglöfs here than I have in a while I think. I’ve had kit on test for a while and I’ll get to that shortly.
It was nice to see some other daft bugger catching the sunrise this morning.
I had the camera in the truck and I shot down to the shore after the school run.
It was cold, the seaweed was frosted but the sun was bright and warm as it rose, peeling off the layer frost as it crept past the deck of the Erskine Bridge.
I have a sneaky old school showroom blog preview going live in a day or two and I’ve also got my first outdoors trade show for a long while on this week.
For this I have prepared the following handy phrases.
1/ No, the white hair is real, I am not a ghost.
2/ I totally did/ am doing/ will do that review.
3/ Who the hell am I? I was briefly viewed by some people on the internet in the late 70s.
4/ I’m sorry officer, I just lost it. There’s only so many times I can take someone spelling my name with a capital F on a badge.
It’s been a grey year so far, the patches of blue have proved elusive. Seen some in the distance, just haven’t managed to stand in one.
The plan was a pleasant wander from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy on the Way with a train back to the start. I knew the trains were on a limited service, it was just the 2nd so not complaining, but I didn’t know the hotel was shut for winter until someone told us when Beinn Dorain was the biggest thing in the forward view.
It was cold, even my insulated gloves couldn’t keep the nip from my fingertips as the on-the-flat walk kept my heart rate low and temperature down. I felt on the brink of being chilled, the path was iced and the ground never thawed with the single patch of sunlight sitting far ahead on the Black Mount, mocking my thoughts of a clear winter’s day to start the year. The thought of freezing our arses off in Bridge of Orchy for a couple of hours was very much on my mind as the train wasn’t until seven.
Down jackets on, stove lit, snacks broken out. It was still grey, it was still cold, but it’s amazing how warm you become from laughter and cuppas.
There were plenty of friendly faces on the way.
We walked with our down still on, but now with headtorches in easy reach in a pocket. The traffic blinked and sparkled silently in the dark on the A82 as the hills softened and blended into the indigo sky.
The station was a little island, a warm golden glow in the darkness but without any accompanying heat. We had an hour, moving is warmer, we passed by and went down to the bridge. A fire burned on the other side with vans, cars and voices. An hour ago, I would have ran to stand by the fire, now though I was quite warm and content and we walked on through the dark and ambled back to the station.
The platform was bright, silent and deserted. Trees loomed tall, jagged and Tim Burtonesque in the gloom while many coloured alien eyes shone unblinking down the tracks, watching our every move, waiting for the perfect moment to make their move towards us. If I had an imagination I might have felt uneasy.
The train was on time, it was busy and warm inside. I could feel the carriage lean through the curves at the Auch horseshoe, ah the views we could have had. Tyndum Upper was even creepier than where we’d left, how’d they manage that? The Real Food Cafe wasn’t far though, and oh that haggis in batter.
I had the place tidy, not a dirty mug nor a balled up sock to be seen anywhere. I hit the road with a clear conscience and a dirty windscreen on my way to get the Girl in time for the new year. We were meeting at Stirling, it was as good a place as any as she traveled back from here other grandfolks in Fraserburgh where she’d been for a few days. Holly’s spent every Hogmany since she was wee up north, this year she wanted back home in time for the bells. Happy dad is happy.
I arrived really early, imagine that, and parked up at Kings Knot just below the castle, seemed like a good place to see the fireworks which had concided with our meet up. I was right too, within half an hour the locals were jammed into every parking space and gap on the kerb. The Girl and Joyce arrived just a bit after the nick of time, but we jumped into the back of the truck to get some shelter from the wind and we had juice, snacks and fireworks.
The redneck look fits us well, but it was cold and there were a few miles to go. The back road was dark, deserted and drizzly, the year was grinding out its last hours determinedly. Ah, but you can touch me any more you bastard. The truck stuck to the narrow, windy and wet road despite its natural propensity to stick its arse out sideways in this situation. We were soon home.
Jimmy however had decided to take the Wee Spark out to sound a whistle at midnight in the spirit of the old days of shipping on the Clyde. I got my boots back on and walked out into the dark.
I stepped on board as the year died. 2019 started out to the beat of antique diesel engines and the clink of glasses, and of course the shrill, breathy howl of a steam whistle.
Plans changed and I found myself with a wee window of opportunity. I managed to see, speak to or narrowly miss so many folk that are dear to me this week it was probably destined to be that on my “big day” I’d wander the Lang Craigs, the place that too, is dear to me.
My phone pinged with messages and kind words so while I was alone I was with friends the whole time too.
The calm and quiet has lingered on and I’m really quite content tonight. Happy? Imagine that.
I had planned a serious post that spoke of my journey, my disappointments, my joy and more and I tried to take two photies to illustrate this in a very grand fashion. The first would be serious and dour, the weight of the world and experience creasing my brow. The second light and smiling, to show that I might win out after all and that I’m all about the joy of things, that would go at the end of the post.
As I struggled with the practical part of this, the camera on the tripod in the bathroom where the light is brightest including one tripod leg in the sink with me leaning over it from the front, faffing with the settings with no glasses on taking useless shot after useless shot on the timer I realised that this whole process kinda summed me up.
And that’s at fifty I’m actually no different than I’ve ever been. So that’s what I think this is, the final photie I took, it’s me realising how ridiculous it all is, how ridiculous I am, and making my peace with it.
I’m saying blacking out the badly placed bathroom curtain is a metaphor. A metaphor for what I don’t know yet, but my enthusiasm for whatever it is will be mighty. Onwards.
Never been a big fan. It’s stuff in a bowl at someone else’s house at festive times that’s probably been there for ages gathering dust and is probably as unhygienic as it is tasteless. However, the festive packaging of the Twiglets lured me in unawares and I was immediately captivated by the dryness of the snack, the texture of brittle twig (irony?) fresh from the forest floor and the taste of peppery burnt rubber. I love them. This tube even fits my hand perfectly. Do they make them all year round? I don’t think I could wait until next Christmas.
The last time. The best school in the world will be Macfarlane-free next Christmas, the Girl will be in high school. The panto was brilliant, just as it’s always been the past few years. I will miss this place, the care, the help, the enthusiasm, the joy that’s allowed to run free because the kids have worked to earn it.
Peter, the other Peter, who does the controls and electrics for me was working on the panel while I made faces at the pump. It’s single phase, but still big. I’d priced a replacement a while back and it was around a grand just for the pump in a box, so we decided to leave it until it died.
It’s grinding a bit but running although the enamel coating was peeling off badly which took me by surprise. It looked as if it had been under water, which this boiler house has known in its time, but not to this height. The wall was wet looking, I put a hand out and snatched back as a got a sharp pain on my wrist. “What the hell…?”
Torch on, I looked for bare wire or something, easy to miss something in this dark, cellar boiler house, built in Georgian times for a coal furnace. Instead I saw and then felt warm vapour at the back of a valve. Closer in, a needle thin jet of 88degC water was making a straight line from the valve to the wall. Not making it wet enough to run, just to be wet.
How long had that been happening? It was the system isolation valve, can’t dismantle that without draining the system, can you? I can, and did. I was in late last night ( see below…), still holding. How? Send a work order, some secrets are chargeable.
The ante room is a jumble of gear used for frequent jumble sales (irony #2). Bags of hangers and clothes rails of various designs and vintages jammed in together. One base had slipped onto the floor and it caught my eye, a vintage design I think? Can’t quite place it.
I spend a lot of time in churches and although it usually remains unspoken due to professional as well as personal courtesy, my opinions on faith are never discussed at work. And so it shall remain. However, the occasional noob will still ask me as I lie on a damp, manky boiler house floor wrestling with rotten Victorian pipework “What church do you go to? and my answer is always “I’m on my knees in a church most Mondays to Fridays, you want me to go at weekends as well?” Never had a comeback to that.
I opened the door and walked inside with footsteps which felt too loud however softly I landed them. I was alone in a very old, creaky church in complete darkness. The wind moved softly through the gaps in the roof, a whisper, a whistle, a voice? A door opened and a shaft of soft yellow light crept towards me across the empty pews and worn carpet. Walk into the light says the voice in my head, walk into the light. I did, the light was at the top of the stairs going to the boiler house, I switched it on when I came in.
Home has been an escape this week. Been back late every night and the first thing we’ve done is put on all the wee lights and candles. Within a few minutes it’s cozy and itchy eyes are looking at cartoons over the top of a fresh cuppa.
The mornings have been tricky. Even if we can’t get moving very fast, never missed the school bell once. Been a couple of absolute stunners at dawn this week too. Camera’s aren’t here though are they? Fixing that today.
The invasion has begun. That’s what it felt like when I was picking up some mortar from B&Q at the back of Clydebank. Lots of contrails and my first thought was “Steady on, it’s not a race” until something large and military sounding flew slowly over the roof of the truck. I still remember when they tested the four minute warning siren back around 1980. That was scary enough and this had shades of that for a second or two.
How many poor bastards are living it for real this very second.
It was Saturday tea time but I still wasn’t done. I knew the weather, I heard the advice, trust me I know what I’m doing. Fragile buildings with problems on this night of all nights? Of course I was still going out to do my checks.
I got to Balloch and the snow was getting heavy and was lying quite thickly. I could feel the rear wheels being a little more playful that I’d like, but as long as I trundled on, I’d be fine.
How to take driving into the snow photies. Buy a flip case, park in layby, stand phone up on the dash, jam with set of small stilsons if needs be, select ten second timer, wait for gap in passing traffic press go on phone and on truck, hope for the best, be smart arse and get it first time.
I did soon realise my route choice wasn’t the best though. A lot of hills and lots of folk still out who have never driven on snow. I’d be fine as long as I didn’t have to stop, I left plenty distance and trundled on, up and down the hills, it was going okay. I was doing better that the folk going the other way, that abandoned sideways look wasn’t working for them.
I wasn’t confident by any means, the music was down low, I was concentrating, listening to the engine, feeling the wheels, one more big uphill. I’d be fine as long as I didn’t have to stop.
The blue lights were bright through the trees before I got there, my heart sank. A road maintenance pickup was parked on my side, the police were off to the side and cars were coming down the hill. I slowed, I slowed some more, the other side just had to be clear and I’d motor by, easy. No, police on the road, waving arms. I stopped.
I was amazed to see the pickup drive away, the police get into their car, everything apparently fine and I was now stuck on the hill. Rear wheel drive with no weight on the axle. I love my truck, I love the snow, but together they are horrific.
But, the police were struggling, I leaned out “I’ll give you a push if I can borrow your shovel”. That’s what happened. Mind you, as is the way. One was cheerful and helpful, one was sour faced and arrogant. The good guy helped me dig wheel tracks for the truck and told me they’d stopped for the car on it’s roof behind the hedge (no injuries, girl away and fine), bad cop ignored me as I pushed their motor onto the road and got them underway.
It didn’t work of course. I was still spinning on ice, now alone in the dark etc I looked around and found the corner of a broken bumper from the upside down car and stated digging long tyre tracks down to the tarmac with it, enough for me to roll back a good few feet. This worked, I had the run-up I needed and I was on the road again, a little floaty, but moving forwards.
I got to the job, it was okay, made a couple of adjustments, watched it for a bit and checked my messages. It looked like I wasn’t done yet.
The riverside road was okay, still snowy but flat and I was headed to urban areas this time. I pulled into the car park, the place was silent and deserted, even the houses seemed devoid of lights in the windows. It was late I suppose, but where is Christmas people? A quick check and I was locking up again. I stood by the truck, fishing out the keys and a single loud, sharp, crack followed by a boom bounced of the high buildings and on through the dark before it was silent again. Was that a gunshot?
I was on the road again as fast as I could, including a rather nice fishtail on the snow in the carpark on my way to the gate. I checked their local news this morning, nothing. Good.
I just had slush to deal with over the bridge and into Renfrewshire, it was cold, blowy and wet. Miserable. One last check to make, needed tools on this one though, but not difficult at all. Happy with what I saw, I put the lights out, the alarm on and locked up, I was done for the night. It was almost Sunday.
It was an entirely surreal night. By the time I got home the snow incident felt like ancient news and I was like a burst couch, I just wanted a cuppa and a duvet. I’m 50 in a week, either life is telling me to not be stupid or to keep being stupid so I know that I’m not quite done yet.
I think over the course of the year different bits of myself have been reconnected one after another and although it’s been a sporadic and random process, my work head is very much fully functional at the moment. It’s been years since I’ve done 12 hour days, saw customer after customer in the same day and although there are a few still aren’t exactly ecstatic about the progress of their job, in a week’s time anything that really needs done will be done. Mostly likely.
I’m tired though. Sore as well. Quite right, as my much missed buddy Z told me: pain is just weakness leaving the body. Well, that and old knees. If anyone actually pays me in the next week, the pain will subside for a wee bit.
Saturday evening, winter depths of darkness, the worst weather in ages and I am truck-bound with a folder full of paperwork to deliver. The metal will be loud for the next few hours.
I wrote a feature for the current National Trust for Scotland magazine covering the work of their Path Repair Team who were working on Ben Lomond at the time. The time in question was the height of summer, one of the hottest days of the year, or indeed since records began and I felt it on every step of the ascent.
Ciaran and Nan who I were meeting had climbed up at dawn to miss the midges and get to their work site before the sun caught them. Good call.
It was a good day though, great company and excellent banter and I came home with hours of recorded conversation to sift through. I learned new stuff and will forever view paths a little differently.
I’ve some thoughts on it all below, some banter from Ciaran and Nan that never made the pages and an amazing coincidence at the end.
Just to confirm that the feature seen below is indeed written by me, it’s just that they spelled my name wrong.
I fully expect Holly to have to take a sharpie to my gravestone to add the “a”.
I’ve no idea how many times I’ve climbed Ben Lomond, been wandering it’s ridges since I had hair and no camera. It’s familiar and approachable but it’s never a pushover; been on my knees in the wind wishing I was elsewhere and on the north side on snow wishing I’d thought it through better.
The days of joy up there I can’t count however. It’s close enough that I can drop everything and run to it and over the years I’ve caught some golden moments when I had no right to be there.
It’s a bigger hill than the regular route suggests, it has secrets, it has dark corners and it has my heart. I love this hill.
I know I’m not alone, the paths show it. Many years ago I could climb Ptarmigan Ridge to the top and see no one else there, the path there was easily followable for most of the way but it wasn’t overly worn. Nowadays the path is as ground down as the tourist route up Sron Aonach.
It’s not like this is the work of “someone else” though, it’s our feet that’s doing it. We tread on the grass, the grass dies away. We tread on the earth, it breaks up and washes away. We tread on the rock. And then it’s too late.
You could say we should all take different routes. I remember someone on an outdoor forum somewhere on their high horse about always walking off track. Oh aye, my hero. Every hill has a summit or a ridge we have to take, we’re all walking on the same ground at some point.
Besides, hills have obvious lines of ascent, we are going to gravitate to certain routes from the start. It’s human nature, we’re pack animals, we will follow.
I remember a group following my footsteps high on Ben Lomond years back, footsteps in fresh snow which were obviously going in the completely wrong direction just so I could get out of sight for a pee on the pristine white hillside. I mean, really?
So what are the options? Don’t climb hills so they don’t get eroded. Good luck with that. Ignore it and hope it goes away? See too much of that walking through feet deep trenches on the the lower slopes nation wide.
Fix it? Aye, we broke it, I suppose we have to fix it. Yes it’s going to be visually intrusive and the hand of man will be seen in nature, yes it’s going to ease the way for perhaps the inexperienced and the unwary, but what choice do we have?
I saw the lovely little Ben A’an in the Trossachs destroyed when it became one of the first hills reopened after the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001. The little tracks became trenches in a matter of weeks and the whole approach route was ruined forever when the weather got it and washed it all away.
There’s a middle ground to be found where you can do the best job possible if you apply skill, time and money. That’s where the feature comes in. I found the folks with the skills out on the hill, they just don’t have any time or money and NTS are currently making a push for funding.
When you’re looking at the view it’s easy to miss the ground underneath you. The ultimate contrast isn’t, the Cobbler at sunset and the multi-lane highway on the Ben’s lower slopes.
The approach has changed dramatically in recent year with the tree felling above Rowardennan and the non NTS path has seen a lot of changes to match the increased traffic. You can see a difference in the maintenance approach, down here it’s all about feeding folk through, on the open hillside it’s a bit more involved.
I spied Nan first, clearing out the drains on the path. I didn’t announce myself, so I must have looked like a weirdo. Still, action shot etc
These familiar drains stop paths turning into burns and need cleared and repaired. The stones are dug in and set, the drain channels dug and formed then and checked every spring after the snow melts. Not just here, but Glen Coe, Torridon, Ben Lawers, Arran, The Cairngorms and Kintail. That’s a lot of paths, a lot of miles and all of it done by a team of four in a pickup truck.
They stay in local accommodation or NTS sites and get back home most weekends. I worked away from home a lot when I was younger, it can be fun, but it does grind after a while. I could also leave all my gear on site, walk a few feet to my truck and go back to my digs. These guys are carrying tools and gear up a mountain to get to their work and it’s not just the access paths, it’s the final pulls to the summits too.
Ciaran: “We do maintenance runs, walk the paths to see what needs done and see their general state which allows us to prioritise. Sometimes on site staff will have something they need us to do, but mostly we just go looking for trouble.”
Nan: “People do see to appreciate what we do. Even the old-school old-timers might huff and puff at what they see, but they talk to us and they do appreciate the effort, and of course set off for the summit on the path we just repaired”.
Ciaran: “People will show you what’s wrong with your path, they’ll leave it and go their own way”.
That’s the crux isn’t it. Making it usable but not sanitise the experience. Ben Lomond’s paths are mostly a happy medium I think, you have to watch where you put your feet, the stone looks like it should be there and on ascent it blends in well visually.
They use interesting techniques to keep folks on the paths, for example,a few boulders placed here and there with some turf soon turns into a natural feature that folk will avoid.
Once you know they’re there you go “Ah…” to yourself, as much as I know this hill, I’d never spotted them. Have you?
Nan: “We build a path smooth in the knowledge that it will wear and get rougher over time. No path is ever perfect or finished, we’re always doing the worst bits, leaving it to do the worst bits somewhere else and coming back here to do the worst bits again“.
We looked in detail at some of the construction methods. How and why stones are placed or angled, how anticipated future wear or erosion influences what and how they build now.
It’s really not straightforward and I like it when something is based on a mix of technical knowledge, feel and experience like this is.
“We’re stretched very thin, we could do with a whole other team!”
A couple of months later on a #microadventure with Gus I saw an NTS pickup truck parked at the bottom of the hill, looked up and saw big white rubble sacks on the hillside. Who else could it be?
We found the full squad of four in the sleet digging foundations and placing stone for a new path before the increased traffic here made a trench up the face of Meall nan Tarmachan.
Ciaran: “In the years I’ve been doing this we’ve had stone dropped by helicopter twice.” He got his third here. Big bags of stone had just been dropped all the way up the path for ongoing works which will carry on next year once the snow comes and goes.
Me and Gus were cozy and comfy in our fancy new gear after a fine night at the top, so when we caught up with the team the next day, gear was on our minds.
They have an annual kit budget and luckily they have duct tape too for patching when they quickly wreck the gear they get from spending that. These guys are so hard on kit and they’re high in the hills hard at it in gear I’d keep for the garden.
Jeez us hill tourists are so soft.
Lunch is out in the open too regardless of weather, so what do you do I asked, have you got a bothy bag or group shelter?
No says Nan. Best thing is when those rubble bags are empty, if it’s raining, I can crawl inside one and it’s just my feet that are left out in the rain. Quite cozy.
Go to a building site these days and the portacabins are like mobile hotels. These guys are still living the definition of roughing it. Someone somewhere in the outdoor trade brand up some kit and send them it ffs.
Still, they do it all with humour and passion. I got smiles and banter every time.
I asked Nan and Ciaran what their biggest problems on the paths were and I was surprised when they answered as one; “Litter!” Erosion they can deal with, walking for miles to look for stone is acceptable, but crushed cans and bottles jammed between the stones on their steps is too much. “If you can carry it in full, is it too much to ask to carry it out empty?” I can’t argue with that. Dog poo bags hidden in corners of the stonework is a part of the same problem, “It’s the attitude that someone else will get it, I mean, who is this someone else?!” Minor vandalism can occur, stones dislodged and rolled down hill for fun can be dispiriting as well as damaging, every missing stone allows water to pool and run and that’s where the erosion starts. The team can cope with the natural elements of the path as it ages. The large stones or bedrock are at the bottom, the bed of medium and small stones give it shape and the dust and gravel on top which give a walking surface washes away or is blown away by the stronger mountain winds. They go to repair that and they need all the time that have to do it. Let’s help them out and take our little home.
There will always be a debate about path repair and rightly so. I’m saying it has to be done as long as we’re wearing them down with our feet, it’s the way that it’s done is what’s important.
People with passion and sensitivity will do a different job from contractors payed by the metre. The people who care for the land will chose which of these to apply based on funds more than anything.
I suppose it’s up to us where we are with this in the future.
I was in the jammed-solid hall cupboard looking for something else and found my original LX3 camera and a couple of batteries in a box.
I got all warm and fuzzy in the head and immediately charged the batteries to have a play around. One battery was happy enough, one died almost instantly when I stuck it in the camera. Ach, that’s fine given the age I think.
Hmm, I like it better than the more recent LX7. One step forward, two updates back. Taking an old friend out with me this winter.