Ooh, the rain’s off.

I made a quick mid-afternoon dash. I had enough kit for a bigger hill but maybe not enough time or energy to really enjoy it, a tramp around the lovely Luss horseshoe was a thought, Ben Lomond was the perfect but the cloud clung to the tops of every one of them. It might clear, there was blue above, but a descent in darkness and cloud while good for the concentration isn’t worth busting my arse on an ascent for.
What the hell, Conic Hill.

It was busy, busy with folk coming down anyway, not so many heading up as the sun raced them laconically towards dusk. There were hellos in several exotic accents, including my own, and some grunts from the locals. Welcome to Scotland.
The tops had folk sitting and looking, who could blame them, and the pathless top at the back had me.

There was the sound of a stove and not much else. The weather was sitting silently, and I was now alone as the golden light sucked the last of the warmth over the horizon with it as it burned out and left just a pale glow to light my way down.
The Heilan Coos I passed earlier were waiting for me, tearing surprisingly loudly at the scrubby grass. Our national  symbols make me smile. As does doing this stuff, it was just enough to keep me going.

The Mourne Mountains

The weather is rubbish, the rain is hitting the window so hard I can’t see how bad it is outside, I can hear it though. Seems like a good time to catch up with a trip whose anniversary is coming round pretty soon.
Joyce and I saw the first snows of the winter last year in the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland. It was a fantastic trip where we packed in as much as we could in a few days and the whole place made such an impression on me that it’s still fresh in my mind now.

We flew to Belfast from Glasgow which took minutes, it took longer to sign out the hire car than it took to get here.
The road south was a joy once clear of Belfast and the school run madness but we made the big mistake of putting on Radio Ulster which is a window onto some aspects of daily life here that we only hear about on the news occasionally.
That stuff is there, I’m from west central Scotland so I know the story only too well, but when that radio was clicked onto another channel that was the end of it and we were left with wonderful people and a beautiful country who welcomed us like family. That’s what I brought home and that’s why I’d go back in a heartbeat.

We had an itinerary of sorts arranged by Outdoor Recreation NI with places to visit but the hills and walks were left to us which I would write up for Trail Mag back at home.
The days were short so getting to Castlewellan  and checking into the wonderful Hillyard House where the boss Domnic was both an endless source of information and cheerful banter left us only a few hours of daylight to make the best of.

With that in mind we went for a walk based on The Murlough Nature Trail which took us around the ancient dunes and along the beach to Newcastle where a cafe was a welcome shelter from the cool wind, don’t let the photie of Joycee hoping along a line of poles in the sunshine fool you.
Sarah from the tourist office joined us on the walk and chatting to her helped make up our minds about the next couple of days, we’d avoid the obvious and head for the interesting.

In County Down there’s no escape fro the Mournes, they’re like an island rising from the rolling countryside. It’s fantastic.

We took a trip around the coast down a dead end road to visit a lighthouse. Deserted, atmospheric and bloody freezing, we shot back to Castewellan to have dinner at Maginns on the main street.
This was an odd experience, it was midweek, well out of season in late November and the place was huge with just a couple of other tables dining with us sitting happily have an early Christmas dinner. A great start to the trip.

The morning was a surprise, there was blue sky and snow. As the breakfast was cooking I ran out into the street to look, if was freezing and the Slieve Donard , the highest here, and the other hills were wreathed in a blanket of cloud. That would burn off I was sure. It was glorious.

I little car park above the sea was where we started on the farm track. The sun shone but ahead was grey, the clouds seethed and the gaps between them showed a decent dump of snow had fallen overnight.
We were well wrapped up and with fresh legs after just a short drive we strode towards it.

Sea and mountain is always a perfect mix and with the reds and browns of autumn pushing back the green, it was feast for the eyes.
I felt instantly at home here, it’s not like the hills home but it has flavours of the familiar shapes and forms cooked into something altogether different. I was in love already.

The Mourne Wall is everywhere, literaly. It rings the hills to keep cattle out of the reservoirs inbetween the hills that give Belfast its water supply. It’s a proper civil engineering endevour built between 1904 and 1922 and you can walk the whole 22 miles length taking in 15 tops while you’re at it. That would be fun with a high camp in the middle.

We walked into the cloud which shrouded the summit tors of Slieve Binnian. Everything was iced hard, hoods were pulled up and cuffs cinched. The crest of the ridge was like an alien landscape, white with the black tors and total silence. It felt like we’d just left the car and already we were in a perfect mountain landscape.

We came across a pair of grinning locals who were equally well wrapped and but still found time to stop and banter. Every body on this trip had time to banter. As I said in a tweet I sent at the time “Highlands Hospitality is alive and well, it’s living in Northern Ireland.”

The cloud broke up and lifted or drifted away. The sun had no heat in it but we were still pleased to see it and hid behind a tor for lunch.
We could see around us now, the mountains, the sea and Ireland, flat and misty, disappearing to the south.

The last set of tors were the most impressive yet and a scramble to the top to watch the sun set was gravy on a decidedly pie shaped day.
The rock is grippy, there was no exposure and the top was flat, just grooved lightly by the last glacier to pass this way.
It was cold though, we both had down jackets on with no question of taking them off. Winter really had arrived.

I wanted to be here longer, I wanted to visit the other hills, I wanted to be unpacking the tent. I was gripped by this landscape and I still am.

The light left and the descent was rocky and frozen. The track out in the dark was easy to follow with half hidden distant crags and tracks branching off that tugged at me.
But the cold and hunger tugged a little more and the two miles back to the car were efficiently despatched.

Still one of my finest hill days of recent times. The hill, the weather, the company, everything combined to make it perfect.

The fun wasn’t over though. Dinner was at the Maghera Inn which was to be found in utter blackness, seriously I didn’t think it was possible to have a village with so little light emanating from it, it was Hammer Horror perfection.
But inside a warm fire, smiles and amazing food was a perfect end to the day.

The weather wasn’t good. We tried to get into Bearnagh and Meelmore but the wind and rain through the pass was going to make the climb joyless and photies impossible, so we tried our plan B option which to be honest we had really wanted to do all along, Hen, Rock and Pigeon Rock.
The road there is awesome, it’s not about the hills here, it’s just the same as at home, the bits inbetween can be just as good.

It’s at the fringes of the Mournes where the grassy slopes flatten into the patchwork quilt of farmland the rolls to the west. But there’s a fantastic crown of tors on Hen Mountain which is just minutes from the road and delivers the biggest mountain hot for the least effort I’ve ever seen.

We played for a while, probably too long, and while we did do the weather which had lightened cam back in full force. We headed for the rest of the tops in high winds and heavy rain, heads-down and camera’s packed. It was misery.

Staring at wet grass and the drips coming off your hood brim is only amusing for so long. We swooped around the ridges, into the glen and took the train back to the road.
Wet through, hungry and daylight to burn.

A look at the map showed possibilities. The rain had stopped (timing is everything) and we wanted to do a circle right around the hills which would take us past where we’d been the day before, but with time to explore.
We decided to visit the Silent Valley Reservoir.

We sat in the car and ate our packed lunch as the rain ran down the windscreen. Then, the rain stopped, we ventured out and had alook around.

It’s lovely, there’s a wee visitor centre, lots of interpretation and plenty of trails to follow. The views are also incredible, Slieve Binnian dominates with peaks to the horizon circleing the dark waters of the loch.
The walk across the dam would be worth the price of admission had the gatekeeper actually charged us, he was happy with a bit of banter on a slow day.
If you come here for the mountains make sure you have  day off and come here.

A visit to a Annalong harbour was our last diversion before getting back to Hillyard House for showeers and clean clothes for our last dinner date at the Vanilla Restaurant.

This was the fanciest place in town and we were too tired for it. We walked the seafront in the dark and just wanted a bag of chips and an early night. But, they were very nice, the food was gorgeous and it wasn’t as pretentious we’d feared.
Mind you I still have a wee chortle when Joyce when asked how the sweet was replied in her surprisingly loud voice “The sorbet was like jam”.

Great hills, wonderful people, amazing food every time we ate and a bag of memories to bring home. There’s a nice wee outdoor shop in Newcastle and we found that even so far out of season everything was open and the town and villages were busy.

I can’t recommend coming here enough, the hospitality shown to us shames many places I know at home and the hills are something else. There’s no great heights to climb, but there’s the essence of the epic and of wilderness that the hills cling onto as their own no matter how close the roads are or how many peaks that big wall crosses.

Damnation Alley

I was writing a route for Trail, somewhere I knew well and I thought I’d have a trip around it again to see how the new access point was working and write it into my planned directions.
I met Gus at Spean Bridge and after some fine dining at The Bridge Cafe by slalomed the road around the end of Loch Lochy, through the wonderful Mile Dorcha and into the midge death zone – the Eas Chia-eag waterfall car park to get kitted and changed.
It was then it all take a sinister turn. The track up by the waterfall was barred by half arsed fences and felled trees, so the new signposted route was the only one right enough, so off we went down the road. The banter was good, the weather was pleasant, the plan was for a fine overnighter on a lovely route. The forest roads were very fresh, well used, easy underfoot. The deserted construction village at the top rang bells but nothing prepared for the total destruction which lay beyond.

I’d been telling Gus how picturesque it was, the track winding through the trees as the burn disappears below. The track is gone, the trees are gone, christ, the whole hillside is gone.
Dynamited, bulldozed, destroyed. I’ve never seen such an act of total vandalism in the hills in all my years of walking and camping.
Soon there will be a hydro scheme, just a few feet above the waterfall that draws tourists too, one curtain of trees will separate the lower station from view. It’s horrendous, we were stunned and speechless.

Maybe I took it badly because of my emotional attachment to the place, rainy hillwalks, fine summit camps and a particular weekend on these slopes where JYC and I went from “something funny going on here” to “oh look, we’re having a baby”. Or maybe it’s just because it’s act of unconscionable destruction.

It doesn’t end there either, the trail of destruction drags itself high into Gleann Cia-eag to the intake for the pipeline and then you can escape into the short remains of the forest where it finally feels just as it should but the memories of what you’ve just walked through can’t be left at the treeline.

It was clouding over and getting dull, a few spits of rain dampened out enthusiasm for a high camp as much as the boggy ground pulled at our shoes.We carried on until we reached Fedden cottage where the short grass was too hard to resist.
It sits just short of 400m and there’s plenty to see of the building but not much to read about when you search. I wonder who was here last and why they left? A recent visit to Auchindrain has broadened my understanding of these places and the people who lived and worked there a little.

We snacked happily and a wee beverage kept the smiles fueled. There was a breeze, but it wasn’t angry and there was neither amidge nor a tick to be found. A fine bivy was had.

The morning was cool and bright, perfect for porridge, a cuppa and not so much hurrying. The route ahead could be seen but didn’t pull at us enough to leave quite yet.
It’s worth a visit this spot rater than cutting the corner as I have before, there’s an odd sense of emptiness looking north as the ground slips away into nothingness towards Glen Garry while everywhere else are mountains. I want to go back and walk north at some point.

It’s trackless and boggy, peaty and heathery and soon warm and sunny. The track on the far side of the glen is farther away and higher up than you think and we reached it just before the bealach where the dismal Lochy-side approach can be seen snaking away downhill.
The track from here is excellent, easy to follow, easy to walk and the views get better all the time. We did see a few folk which was heartening, but they were all in a hurry. Very odd behaviour.

There were stops for snacks and looking at stuff, there was after all lots to look at and many snacks to eat.
There’s some airy spots but there’s never any exposure, a flavour or rock here and there in amongst the sweeping grassy slopes. The views north are like a sawblade, one tooth after another with names to fire memories an launch plans.
What a place to be.

Nevis & Co presence is felt once you’re on the tops, but they’re just far enough away not to dominate and let the hills breathe a bit. Summit and sea, short grass underfoot and still no thoughts of hurrying.

There was no way around it, the descent was fine by a tumbling burn but the forest beyond was just a gateway to horror.
We decided to explore the earthworks and found the last remaining stretch of the old path on an island on the hillside where each Scots Pine tree was marked to be protected. As you can see a combination of no one caring about that anyway and taking so much earth away around the trees to make it impossible for them to survive means they’ve had it. If I hadn’t been so angry I would have cried.

We went for dinner and on the way home I passed many favourite sights. It really was a joy, a great camp and fine hills but the image of that destruction lingers on.
The word “reinstated” is bandied around in the documents regarding these works, but we all know it’ll never be the same. Surely there could have been a better way?


The Munro Show

Other than the many companions I’ve spent time with in the hills only two people have ever inspired or engaged me when talking about the Scottish Mountains*, one is Tom Weir and the other is Muriel Gray.

I’ve spoken about Tom Weir many times, his books and Weir’s Way TV show are an endless source of joy to me and while Muriel Gray’s contribution to my bubble of mountain consciousness is a smaller body of work it is no less important. It’s also suddenly to the front of my mind with the new 2 x DVD set of the complete Munro Show series from the early 90s which is currently playing on my telly having arrived today ( it pays to pre-order).

I’ve always been outdoors. I was bivying under tree branches and brushing mountain snow off my nylon cagoule in the 70s, but it wasn’t until the mid 80s I really thought about mountains as goals to achieve and it was the early 90s before climbing Munros as a collection seemed like a good idea. That’s when the Munro Show came along.

I’ve always had the VHS tapes and later the DVD releases but they only had a small edited selection from the show so there’s a huge amount of material I haven’t seen for 20 odd years. I’ve watched a few episodes already and it’s an absolute joy which the passage of time and accumulation of experience hasn’t diminished but instead enhanced.
There’s few footsteps she makes that I can’t recall making myself now but there’s a pleasantly tangible reality to it, no filtering, no overly arty framing, the mountains look real in it, I could be standing right there beside her despite the cheap STV video tape it was made on.

The music is of its age and Sorley MacLean is timeless but I love them both. The issues discussed are both historic and relevant, erosion is worse than ever but the No Access signs are gone (mostly and/or forever?). Mountain biking has been the saving of many hill or forest areas and the midges are still clouds of ravenous misery.
So while some of the points of discussion are as historic as the fashions on display, the hills and the words about them from Muriel are timeless. She has a cheeky irreverence which is the perfect contrast to the weighty, sincere, ponderous. thesaurus-fueled prose which did my head in back then just as much as it did now. Smile people, you’re on a mountain.

Outdoor media has changed out of all recognition since The Munro Show was on, readers and viewers are scattered and mobile which makes this old show almost perfect. It’s a snapshot of time, presented as a complete chunk of fun and inspiration that won’t lose readers, have to chase advertising revenue or constantly have to recycle or repeat itself.
Just like Tom Weirs work in fact and that’s why it’s just as important to me.
Plus, it takes me back to when there were still some places I hadn’t been, summits I hadn’t seen and things were a lot bloody simpler.

It’s a joy, buy it. The book too, it fills in some background to the show as well as plenty other good stories.


*I reserve the right to add other sources of joy as they come to mind, Scotland’s Mountains Before the Mountaineers by
Ian R. Mitchell being the obvious one. But modern guidebooks? Don’t start me on that.

Charley Pride: The Country Way

Was out on another bat survey at the Lang Craigs with fellow ranger Jo. The summer nights mean a late start to try and get some darkness around us so it was about half ten before we started to look for any bats. I say look for bats, I mean stand still and wait for bat voices to pop up on the batatron.
Happy to be at 1000ft under clear skies as you might imagine but the warm windless night soon brought with it the ultimate horror – clouds of ravenous midges. And bastard clegs.

I got eaten alive. My ring finger got multiple bites and it swelled so much back at home it started to turn purple and I had to get my wedding ring off sharpish. That wasn’t easy to do and it now feels bloody strange not wearing it, it’s a part of me and a reminder that I was very lucky 14 years ago.

Bats were found and it was a lovely night to be out with good banter to keep me the right side of insane. The crags looked great under the low sun and the sky was fine and colourful. We also saw one of the deer that’s been eating the new tress and all I had to shoot with was my old camera.
I took lots of photies, mostly on random settings as I stood on the edge of midge induced panic until we finished up at half one under a full moon. Didn’t even know there was a black and white setting on the wee wheel. Nice.

Nice to play at home.


Rub of the green

It was sunny and warm when the wee shop in Cannich proved to much to resist and I sat outside it with my too-hot-to-drink coffee feeling quite happy about it all. I had been packed the night before, ready to go, away early and up the road like a bullet.
I had planned a wandery route, missing the familiar and visiting the bits inbetween and I’d packed as light as I could to give me a chance of keep my mind on the view and not my breathing.
I put my still boiling cuppa in the cup holder and got back on the road.

Glen Affric was a riot of green, the dark hue of the ancient pines spattered by the fresh bright leaves of the birch. The pine forest is what defines the glen most times you read about it, but it’s what else is living all through it that gives it its natural air, a living landscape rather than a glen in a bottle.

The road swoops (swooping was available once I’d cleared the 15mph Fiat 500) and meanders and every foot of it is a joy. Just having a picnic here would be worth the drive.

The end of the road costs £2 which is fine as it’s nicely presented and looked after with a toilet block. No midges either. Imagine that.
The road into the lodge has been well worn in recent times, the lodge and its surroundings having been converted into a rich folks hotel hideaway. It looks very nice, clean and tidy with white horses running around the garden and the signs for walkers are polite, but.
But what? I don’t know exactly, empty glens I’m used to, ruined cottages, abandoned shielings, homes converted to bothies, it’s all very picturesque but the glens should be living places, not abandoned or made exclusive.
It’s always good to see investment anywhere outside the central belt, but how much is helping the local economy to fly in your kitchen staff from abroad when there’s guests to feed.
I’m not naysaying, I’m not being reactionary, I’m just not sure about stuff. I was probably still thinking about all the Balfour Beatty signs and earthworks I had to pass on the way here.

My line of thought was broken by a dogfight. An aerial dogfight. The big brown bird made big circles, the smaller black one seemed to be taking shots at it, nipping in towards it, turning quick and darting away. The big brown bird seemed not to want to engage its tormentor, but if a wee dug pulls are your trouser leg enough at some point it’s going to get launched into the garden and not necessarily politely. The big brown bird wheeled fast and took the black bird out of its flight path. The two spun out of the sky, spinning into the heather out of sight.
I’m saying it was an eagle and a raven. And, there was only going to be one outcome.

Past the lodge compound it quickly feels wilder and I was just getting in the zone when I was passed by a film crew on a wee buggy, those things that are half way between a quad bike and a tank. They were a delightful mix of posh voices accompanied by pointing index fingers and a pissed off Glaswegian cameraman who had had enough by the time I caught them back up.
Then, I was free.

The trees thinned but what was there bore witness to long years in the glen in every twisted bough or broken branch. The mountain shapes around me are dramatic but feel to me like a comfort blanket. To the west ahead are the shapes I know very well after 30 years of visits, to my left peaks I’ve woken on to find my tent an island on a golden sea as a lazy sun rose over an unexpected inversion, to my right I was reaching my junction, a branch onto to a track I’d never walked.
It was a nice track too, pleasant walking and there was a nice spot to sit for a snack. Ridges towered over me, gurgling water was the only sound and the sun felt warmer here, the high ground kept the wind to itself. It would have been so easy to snooze after my early start.
Maybe I did.

Higher in the coire there’s still huge chunks of snow. The burn disappeared under it at one point and I was nearly under it too when I slipped trying to get a better look at the snow tunnel that has formed.
Always a good test for the heart that stuff. But the snow was also banking out my route out of the coire and I decided to take the safer option this time and climb onto the ridge. It was a good call, I sat on some rocks high up and watch some psychotic deer trace a line across a steep coire and over the cornice onto the ridge. Good effort, I wouldn’t have done it.

Arriving on the ridge opened up a new world, like pulling down the hood of a duffle coat, everything was suddenly clear. The trek to the top put the last just sharpened it up a little. What a place this is.
The tops are mostly rounded, the ridges are long so the drama is in the scale and the details are hidden here and there like it was natures sculpture park where the best mountain features are placed on the longest route around the park before you get back to the gift shop.
Mam Sodhail’s top was windy, too windy to stay the night which meant Carn Eige next door would be the same. Dinner was creeping into my mind now and I started turning over my options in my mind. Far to go, not so much time to do it and get camped where I wanted to. Exploring the inside of the huge cairn on the summit gave me some thinking time out of the wind.
Aye, there’s an inside, bet you wish you’d looked now.

Sgurr na Ceathreamhnan looms large now. It still pulls at me, the hill it look me longest to get to know and left the clearest memories. Maybe I should go back.
The terrain up here is nice, just pleasant walking, nothing too much or too little and it give you time to enjoy it. I sat on Carn Eige where the stone shelter had a little memorial inside for a son who left a family too soon. I picked it up and read it then put it back safe where it was.
It was a melancholy moment. Folk piss and moan about memorials on hills without taking a moment to try and empathise with the heartbreak that puts them there.
I felt alone, hungry and a little tired now. I had to cut a day from this trip as it was and there was no way I was hitting all the marks. It was time to find camp.

Off the beaten track, where there are no pink lines on the guide books I felt my energy return. The height stayed the same, it’s a land at 1000m here and there was no escape from the wind. The ground was rocky, the roughest it had been and I was having fun. I was also starving, all I could thing about was food and that there was no where to set up the stove.
I reached a rocky top with a big deep cleft below it full of snow, I climbed past the cairn and peered down, a grassy shelf just below the ridge line.
The sun was getting lower, time was getting on, it was here or descent.

Perfect, absolutely bloody perfect. The wind was broken by the rocky crest right behind me, I had uninterrupted views from my door and a snow bank a few feet away. I could have been persuaded to change my address details if I knew what the postcode was.
Dinner was a joy. Macaroni and cheese, fruit pastries and cuppas. I watched the full moon rise and chase the sun towards the far horizon. I walked the rocky slopes until the colours had drained from the sky and I was too tired to stand.
It had been a long day and I was so happy as I slipped into my sleeping bag, the temperature had dropped and I snuggled down into the bag, pulling the drawcord in around my head.
Then I just got colder and colder.

My music was on, the moon was shining bright through the skin of the tent as it climbed higher above me. I was wide awake and shivering.
I had two light insulating jackets with me, one I wrapped around my legs, one I spread over my torso and I started to feel a bit better. Then I shifted my position and the cold cut through like I’d opened a door. I put the jackets back and I started to dose until I moved again and shifted the jackets.
I puled the bags drawcord tight as I could to trap air but it was no good. I lay there cold listening to my music. Hopefully I’d either get to sleep or dawn would arrive.

Dawn won the slowest race I’d ever watched, like every lap was a safety car lap where the safety car was a toddlers big wheel. With flat tyres.
I crawled out of the tent, it was icy cold. The snow bank had re-frozen solid in the night and I had to hack my cuppa out of it in chunks.
Bleary eyes, wandering footfalls, but at least I was warming up. “Zero degree” bag my arse, there was more down fill in my socks than there was in some of the baffles of that sleeping bag.

When the sky lit up all the pain went away. I felt fresh and awake, breakfast stoked the boiler and it didn’t matter that is was just after 4am. Right here right now is why I do this.

I could have stayed, but the flashes of magic that make dusk and dawn special sparkle briefly, it’s nature’s way of telling you to get your shit together and move on.
That’s what I did. Nice it was to, I headed west and found another frozen snow bank that made for a 150 descent to bypass rather than the potential slide down it on my face.
The bealach is where the change is, Glen Affric turns into Kintail. It’s a subtle thing at first but past An Socach it’s pretty stark and I was now torn between one of my favourite places and having to be in Glasgow later that day.

I met some young folks just before I hit the main track, they were heading for a peak bagging day from they wee circle of tents by the river. I said there was plenty of snow patches for melting for a brew, but they wouldn’t have time. Jeez, I was young once, but there was always time for a brew.
I hope they had a good day.

I was really far from the carpark, but with easy walking all the way I wasn’t worried. The scenery, the thin layer of cloud that kept the sun off me and a long chat with the local ranger all helped me onwards.
The trees on the south side of the loch are fantastic, some very grand and twisted pines cling on here and I met a few folk heading west, some on bikes which looks like fun. It’s part of the Affric Kintail Way which has some lovely signage and in principal sounds great but like most of the newer long distance paths in Scotland it’s needing some work to make it viable and attractive to pull in the punters I think. What a walk though, it knocks the nearby Great Glen Way flat on its arse.

I started to jog on the flat and on the downhills, time was getting tight but not desperate yet and it felt like the thing to do anyway. My pack was light and my k**e felt good and it was fun.
Ah, how many times have I thought about running again. I need discipline though, not just good intentions.

The Ka was where I’d left it, a quick change and I was gone. The road was clear and I made my meeting in town. After that I wasn’t much use, I need my sleep.
The downless culprit is still compressed in a stuffsack and lying in the garage. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it.

It won’t be pretty whatever.


Less Is More – Part 2

It was an incredibly peaceful night. Gus told me this was the case as my snoring had been echoing around the coire. I was warm, comfortable and lying out in the fresh air instead of in a tent. You can’t beat that if you get above the midges and have a calm night.
But dawn came early and there was no hiding from it. The sunrise was somewhere beyond the circle of rock that had suddenly appeared but the new day was no less dramatic for it. Climbing up in the dark had meant that the views were all brand new and it was one of the finest mornings I’ve ever had in the mountains. Warm, calm, water lapping a few feet away with rock spearing towards a blue sky all around us expect for the south where the glacier-worn edge just invited some exploring to find the view beyond.

All that had to wait for breakfast of course. Porridge, cuppas and banter. The sun was getting higher and light started to hit the ridge tops and peaks then creep down towards us.
In a moment of perfect timing, positioning and luck, the sun shone straight through the rock window at the bealach above. I took that as a good omen. Ha.

Relaxed is the only way to describe our demeanor. We wandered around as the day grew ever more confident in it’s abilities, it got brighter and warmer while we gazed out to sea or down over the slabs trying to retrace our route from the night before.
We scrambled on the velcro-sticky boulders, playing like a big pair of weans. Time just slipped by.

Coir a Ghrunnda is a place where the heart both rests and soars. Both benign and dramatic, it’s a perfect place to camp, a perfect place to linger and it’s worth every step to get there and walk back without ever climbing a top. That was something we really had to be getting on with though.
Back at camp a little breeze meant we kept an extra layer on, it also showed how lights Gus’ sleeping bag was is it dipped it’s big toe into the loch with its assistance.
With some reluctance we packed and left for higher ground.

We met two folks heading to the crags on the Sgurr Alasdair then circled the idyllic loch to find ourselves in the tumble of boulders on the far side. The boulder are big, grippy for scrambling over but often precariously balanced and occasionally more mobile that you’d hope. It made for an increasingly exciting ascent as we moved as fast as we could to get onto the regular line up the gully to the bealach.
There were many cries of Woo! Haaa! and Mmfffff! until be clambered onto more solid ground for a rest and a chuckle. It was getting airy, looking back the loch seemed suddenly far away and the tops were suddenly at eye level.

Some more easy handwork took us up to and through the rock window. Beyond is just awesome, and in the way the word was originally designed, not the current meaning that means it can be applied to almost anything that is even slightly positive in nature. I blame parents. Like me.
An Garbh-choire is a riot of crag and boulders hemmed by broken ridges with Loch Coruisk and Bla Bheinn as the backdrop. It’s mountainscape to delight the eye and ask questions as you begin to see the detail of movement across its jagged shapes.
We stopped and took it all in.

We weren’t sure about what to do next. Gus was sure he’s come to grief on the crags to the left, neither of us wanted to carry overnight packs up the crest so we went right. Turned out to be a good idea. It was still scrambly and the views were eyewatering. It’s so full of contrasts, beautiful, deadly, accessible, forbidding – all that the mountains should be. The detail grabs you too, we spend so much time looking at the rocks like amateur geologists. Finding shapes and clues in the rock to who knows what. Not us, but we made stuff up anyway.
We stopped to cool off, get down to shorts sleeves and have a drink. That’s when I spotted a disposable barbecue stuffed under some rocks. Who the hell takes one of these onto the Cuillin ridge and leaves it? What kind of arsehole feels the spiritual draw of this place and then defiles it?

The scrambling was fun, it was a glorious day and Sgurr nan Eag’s summit ridge was warm to the touch. Progress had been slow, we kept stopping to look, savouring the day, taking the fun way rather that the straight way. This is the way mountains should be climbed of course, but the clock is unemotional and the rest of the world doesn’t really know or care about this stuff. “Hmm, look at the time, we’re going to have to start thinking about heading back if we’re going to catch that ferry”.
There wasn’t any pressure on us, we could do it fine. Neither of us wanted to retrace our steps, the boulders had already taken most of the soles off my trainers and between us the amount of combined sleep hours we’d accumulated between us over the past two nights didn’t hit double figures. So a bit tired, so a nice slope down to the sea and a brisk march back along the track to Glenbrittle.

It looked a bit craggy and uncertain direct from the summit, which it isn’t but it was when we were standing there, so we decided to descend to the next bealach and take it from there. It was rocky and loose and the coire was a steeper version of the last one, the same tiers of rounded-off slabs with sheer faces, just no obvious weaknesses to exploit.
But, there seemed to be a possibility. A grassy shelf, angular rakes that could be linked up, there was a way…
I headed across and started to pick my way down. It was properly hot now, I really just wanted to sit for a while but the £100 Ka was just across the water and I needed to get there.
It was getting a little more exposed, I was watching my footing, trying to fix the line ahead into my head and I heard Gus behind me “Eh…”
He was behind me, but he was right above me at the same time. We were on what suddenly felt like almost vertical terrain and we both knew we had got it wrong.

It was suddenly all calm steady voices and uphill motion to match. It really was steep and annoyingly grassy in places to make it the least grippy place we’d been since the deck of the ferry the day before.
I knew we had to keep moving, when rattled, stopping lets the simmer reach a boil, like a car radiator low on coolant. I chatted, pointed out the route, filled the gaps with shite until we pulled ourselves onto the ridge well past the bealach.
All that extra work for nothing and all the time spend on it. What was a need for a reasonably direct return to base was now a dash and a dash on shaky knees. The trouble was we now had to stay on the ridge and keep onto the end of the ridge to find ground we could safely descend.

The ridge was airy and grassy with a couple of little outcrops to negotiate. Looking back it was a fantastic place to be, but at the time much of it was overheating, thirst and suppressed panic.
When I got to the last of the many low circular shelters built on the ridge I threw my pack off and flattened myself into what shade I could get from the low stone ring. Gus followed suit and suddenly all we knew was the blue sky and our little garden wall that shut everything else out.

My head cooled down and I felt better. More sun block went round and we sat for a while. We’d gained height again but it was at least straight forward from here.
I don’t know how long we sat there, I think it was quite a while. The views back over the Cuillin and out to sea were sublime, we were a dinghy being towed behind a mighty ship, bobbing away at the tail end of the action, our tow rope a narrow ridge snaking away from us to a vessel whose deck we’d abandoned full of confidence and optimism what seemed like days ago.
My watch laughed at me. The boat would sail whatever time it said and wherever we were.

We got ready to go. Gus has the focus of a man who knew where he wanted to be and wanted to be there now – the grassy bit at the bottom of 500m of scree. I was feeling better, a little spring was back in my step and a took to the scree with trainers that were already trashed and decided to make the most of it.
Ground was covered quickly, too quickly at one point. Gus was in front of me, moving at a nice even pace on the highly mobile scree. I was keeping pace when the stones under one foot just disappeared, my leg folded under me and started motoring down the slope. I hit Gus on the crest of a scree wave and he’s shouting at me to stop pushing and slow down and I was just as much a passenger as he was.
We had the weight advantage and eventually ground to a halt like the worst prepared two-man bob team you ever saw. I was relieved to find that my arse wasn’t now sticking through huge holes in my trousers and there was nothing to be done but carry on.

My eyes were focused on a burn with small waterfalls and I could see it get closer and closer. The easy angled grassy ground felt odd and was slow going but at the water all the pain went away.
Feet and heads were steeped, bottles refilled, heads and hears repaired and everything seemed all right. No way we were making the ferry.

Shellshocked and dazed we wandered well off the track and picked it back up near the slopes to Coir a Ghrunnda where we marveled at the view to the venue of so much fun the night before. The light was fading now as well. Bloody hell.
Tired eyes worked with maps trying to pick up the track, it was simple nav but we were both shot. The solid surface of the path was an utter joy and we picked up the pace as well as we could. The last dregs were soon gone from our bottle and the little bay by the camp site waved to us from the platform as out train slowly pulled into the station. A blast of steam from the cylinders as slowed for the signal and were were there.

The rain came on 100m from the camp site and I found myself in a shell jacket as I tramped to the toilet block for a wee wash and change. We both freshened up as well as we could be arsed doing and sat in the car. It rained, it was dark, the ferry had gone hours ago.
Now, I had to be somewhere the next day, I can’t remember where that was now, but in both our minds the fact was that I had to be back. Have a look at the map, Glenbrittle to Mallaig by road. Tears and despair would be the normal reaction, but we were too tired, dehydrated, emotional and not thinking properly at all.
We hit the road.

Thirsty, hungry, everything we nneded in our rucksacks but rain, darkness and clouds of midges meant that a roadside picnic was a no-go. Broadford was shut, Kyle of Lochalsh was in darkness, the garages were closed, the Cluanie Inn was open and some sort of Porsche owners club filled the bar and the car park trying to impress the bar maid by daring each other to try the most expensive single malts on the shelf. Cans of ginger* and packets of crisps were fine for us and we sat in the car feeling revived enough to light the low battery indicator in both of us. Better than nothing.

I love this road, I know every corner, every peak on the horizon and it was now just a blur off darkness and endless curves for the next 17 hours. How Gus managed this I have no idea.
The BP garage outside Fort bill shone brightly in the night. It was open and had sammidges, coffee, tasty things, Lucozade and more besides. We could have cried.
Maybe we did.
The layby picnic recharged us to one bar and Mallaig was less than an hour or torture for Gus away. There we threw kit from car to car, said our good byes and fell asleep in out cars.
I woke up a couple of hours later and still gripped by the need to get home I hit the road. The road was empty and barely nudged that deer at Glenfinnan. I was tempted to stop at the BP for a coffee again, but it was just because I could have, so I stayed on course. Which put me in front of the cop car which tailed me for a while.
Now the Ka’s speedo doesn’t always work and this is one of those times it stuck at zero. I drove at what I think is 40, then I drove what I think is 30 and then I saw the blue lights behins me. I pulled in at the next spot and rolled down my window.
“Hi, nothing to worry about, just wondering where you’re going at this time of the morning”
I told him my story as his partner surveyed my £100 supercar, where of course she found no fault.
“Oh, nae luck” Was the response to the missed ferry story.
“Safe home” Off I went.
I got home in time for breakfast and I have no idea what happened for 24 hours after that. Bugger, why the hell did I have to get home?

So we compared notes later and we both agreed that it had been an epic, classic and unforgettable experience. It’s taken me a while to write part two and it’s like it was the other day it’s still so vivid.
It’s always a gamble going on a trip with a new partner but through some very trying moments, some acute pressure and all under the strain of sleeplessness and more there were no cross words, no blaming, just banter and a focus of getting there.
Gus is now tagged for my post apocalypse action team. And other hills days before that.

Less Is More? It was indeed, almost all the kit we used was from Haglöfs 2104 LIM range. I’ve been using it more since Skye and I’m going to have some detailed stuff on it soon.

Important Edit

The most important lesson learned from this whole experience is this : I can tell what speed I’m driving at without the speedo working in the car. Nice.

*fizzy pop

Less Is More – Part 1

I was supposed to be heading to Sweden for Haglöfs 100th anniversary celebrations but some family stuff came up at the same time and the trip got canned. But talking to Gus brought about a sort of  consolation idea, we’d head out with a bunch of new season Haglöfs kit to test, have a bit of a laugh and take some photies.
I was heading to Skye anyway, it all seemed like a good fit. I’ve known Gus for years and for all the outdoor talk and gear we’d never managed onto a hill. Good plan, easy and straightforward.

In the run up to the trip the weather looked good for Sunday – Monday – Tuesday with some last minute doubts over Tuesday. So, with little or no thought as to the consequences, a Sunday start was decided upon. Gus was at the Highlander race based at Glenfinnan all weekend and that was where I headed. Mallaig is not too far up the road, getting the ferry across to Skye would save time. fuel and be fun.
The road up was slow, the strange human subspecies of folk that only drive their cars during holiday weekends still lurked around every corner from the easter break, eager to find a burrow to hide in until the next bank holiday, but dangerous when cornered too, so quite likely to unleash an unpredictable attack of swerving or sudden braking causing chaos and mayhem.
However, the skies cleared as I went north and by Ft Bill it was glorious. I stopped off for some camp food and headed up to Glenfinnan.

I parked at the race village with the confidence of someone who was supposed to be there or didn’t know that they weren’t supposed to be there and wandered down to the finish line to see what was happening. The winners were in, you could tell that by the amount of limping skinny people around and bless them all I say. I know the hills beyond well and tackling the slopes at any time can be a task, but chasing a prize while the sun was beating down and ticks are chewing at your ankles deserves our consideration.
I shot the breeze with some familiar faces while working on a venison burger and the prizes were awarded. The local laird was one of the speakers at the prize giving, I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s a proper character, all tweedy and Victorian but cheery and seems to have a realistic and forward thinking approach to the land and it’s various uses by “them and us”.

There was no pressure, but an eye cast on my watch said that time was getting on. I decided to shoot up to Mallaig and sort out the ferry, phone back down the road and take it from there.
The road up does its job. The old single track horrorama is gone and replaced by a fast but largely bland thoroughfare that misses out all the lovely spots at Arisaig and Morar. However, it gets you to the picturesque hamlet of Mallaig in good time. I kept a straight face there, where’s my cheque Visit Scotland?
I went to the ferry office where the folks were all dead helpful and booked us onto the next and last ferry which left at 6. It was well after 5. Hmm.
I shot back to the car park and phoned Gus. He was standing hands in pockets in the sunshine gabbing with the teams and whatnot.
Ah He said.
Indeed I replied.
I’ll leave now.
I’ll be ready.
I unpacked the £100 Ka (I love this car, it is the mountain rollerskate of ultimate joy) and stood on a rock at the seafront counting down the minutes and watching for Gus. I talked to the girls which distracted me, as did the stunning views, but when I looked back at my watch it was leaving quarter to six. I texted Gus 15… 14… 13… I know he knew the time, I just wanted to share the stress a little.

Five-to he shot into view and then into the car park. Hysterical giggling took over as we crammed my kit into the car and raced for the ferry. The same young fella from earlier was waiting for us at the still open ramp. He smiled at my distress as I just handed him the sheaf of tickets and looked helpless. We parked up, the ramp closed and we laughed away the cold sweat as we climbed up to the rather nice lounge for the half hour sail across the Sound of Sleat.
Hearts beat slower as the boat reversed and then leisurely cruised to Armadale. All was well.

The cloud that had been moving in stayed on the mainland as we twisted the slow road towards Broadford. Skye looks very different without pissing rain, wind and cloud. I was enjoying this.
Fuel, sun cream and some extra bits and pieces at the co-op and a quick stop at Sligachan for the views were all that was between us and Glenbrittle campsite, a place where I really must take the girls.

The sun was going down and we still had to pack. I needed a rucksack and clothes as well, so it was all a little improvised, but as Haglöfs sample size large fits me perfectly I just picked the colours that I liked. All of them at the same time. Nice.
The tops above us were burning red and orange as the sun slipped away, how glorious that would have been from the track  to the coire. We compressed, rolled, folded and squashed, then we were ready to go.
The sky and the land had become blue-grey and our rainbow coloured figures worked our way into the middle of it. The going was good on a fine path and the Cuillin although softened by the dusk still presented a dark jagged outline before the rounded bulk of Sron na Ciche and then darkness left us standing alone in a pool of torchlight.

It was here things changed for us. The moonless sky, the hazy memories of the terrain, the GPS at odds with the superior Harvey map and the suddenly steep, loose and rocky terrain, it has us discussing and thinking.
We back/side/downtracked a little and found ourselves on the edge of a huge slab which curved away and down into the darkness. It didn’t seem right, but there was signs of use at its edge where it butted into the crag which rose sheer to our left.
It felt exposed, our two spots of light floated in a darkness where it felt like the light was flowing past our feet into an abyss. I’ve spend a lot of time on night ascents, but this was different.

It was warm and a little waterfall distracted and cooled after the previous ascent on a mineral vein which was the safest apparent route across the another iffy section of polished slab. The glaciers had no thought for future visitors when they carved this place up.
Next in our torchbeams were sheer rock walls streaked by black, water run-off that sprang from nowhere and disappeared back there. It was unnerving. We took our time and looked for routes as best we could in the torchlight.
The rock was good and we clung to it with both hands. The scree slope was invitingly easy looking, but we didn’t want to climb Sgurr Sgumain tonight so we stuck to the rock. It was late, very late and we were getting hungry and tired. Every climb upwards was topped with another wall of rock and route finding problems and the following scramble.
It was fantastic.

There was no question of stopping, no suggestion that we were in trouble, we just bantered away, working through the endless scrambling with the perfect mix of humour and experience. It was clear from the start that Gus was good company on the hill, he’s able, knows his stuff and knows how to laugh.
The last scramble took us to a broken crag with steep scree and the GPS said we were nearly at the loch. We climbed again while the sound of water fell away below us. We stopped and shone into the darkness below. A ribbon of dark grey then a black void beyond. We’d climbed quite high above the loch. Oh, the irony.
We tumbled down the boulder field to the side of Loch Coir a Ghrunnda. It was well past midnight and we were shot, it was time to relax a little and the realities of the time and effort spent getting there overtook us.

We walked the banks of the loch and picked a spot for the night. We found some nice big grooves in the rock to keep us put, we were bivying – it’s no place for a tent up here, and got to unpacking and setting up camp.
It wasn’t too cold, just nice with some light insulation on and a cuppa and some soup was just enough, it was too late for a big dinner. I pitched a tarp over the cooking spot and where our heads were, just for a little extra protection. As clear and windless as it was with stars sparkling above us, you just never know.
We settled down, the sky had lightened, Bloody hell, 3am. Aye, time for bed.
Who knows what the day would bring.


Timing is everything. The sun was shining all through easter and I wasn’t anywhere near being able to take advantage of it which was a bit frustrating given the nice places I have to be going.
But going out to play ’round the back kept me in a good mood. I’m getting used to the old camera again, it feels a bit clunky and it’s way more contrasty than its replacement at the same settings, but I’m happy enough for now.

That’s Jo my fellow ranger below. We did a bit of extra exploring, the Lang Craigs is only a wee part of the Kilpatricks and it’s good to see it in context with a bit of height and distance. We also saw and heard bats, yes heard, via the magical powers of a bat detector which picks up their wee voices and can be used to unnerve the wary and terrify the nervous.

The other good news is that the weather means I’m back in an outdoor shirt rather than a baselayer. Happy, and more on that at some point.

Not That One

While I have no camera I’ve decided to clean out the laptop files, stick all the old photie folders in safe places and take the load off the bulging filing cabinet under the keyboard. Get myself ready for all the new stuff coming up etc
It being me of course all that’s happened is I’ve found stuff that I like and filed away F/A.
So, the first in a few posts of the recent past revisited, the photies that didn’t fit at the time due to wacky poses, funny faces or the like but make me smile now. At least until I have to pay to get my camera back.

Ben Starav last year was the trip that brought the joy of the hills back to me and looking at it again I feel just the same. A perfect evening and a full memory card to prove it.
Damn, this blog is getting big and fat.


Reunion Tour

The report came back that to repair my LX5 would be £180, it was the wee motor that operates the lens, I can hear the broken part rattling around inside the camera. In fully operational condition they’re going for less than that on ebay. The LX5 has further part to play in my story.
I still needed shots, so I was looking for a previously undiscovered box of cash under the bed to fund my long planned camera upgrade or I was taking my intermittently functional LX3 to Torridon.

What the hell, the old camera fit the zeitgeist, I was going in the Ka. The Ford Ka came about when the truck was off the road for repairs earlier in the year and the hire charges for wheels for a couple of weeks were far more than the cost a neighbours old car which was otherwise headed to the scrappy. The £100 Ka has ran faultlessly for two months with some running repairs by Jimmy who likes that kind of thing.
So with a boot full of kit, and I mean full as the boot’s the same size as a rucksack, a poly bag full of old tapes for the cassette player I hit the road with time to spare.
Imagine that.

I was blasting out an old Saxon compilation I’d pulled out of the bag, it was a lottery as none of the tapes were marked. I even found some tapes of gigs from my band back in the early 90’s. I was a far better guitarist back then but a much worse singer, I’ll lay part of the blame on the smoky clubs we played in back then which shredded my voice pretty quick. Must be great singing in clean air these days.
Saxon took me to the Glen Coe cafe where my ringing ears – a combination of back axle noise and heavy metal – needed a rest and breakfast. The clouds had been light and mostly high on the way up, it looked like it would clear.

A quick stop at Ft Bill for food was amusing. A pastry and a wee bottle of Banrock Station Chiraz fro Morrisons was easy, getting some dehydrated food from Ellis Brigham wasn’t.
“Hi, I was looking for some camp food…” I asked as I rooted around the camping kit shelves looking confused.
“Tinned food? Morrisons?” Was the reply.
“Freeze dried, dehydrated, dinner in a bag, just looking for a main meal?”
“Eh…” Said the wee lassie who joined us “I think there’s a box of that stuff in the corridor…”
There was. Awesome.
Every visit to the Ft Bill EB feels like I’m caught in a hidden camera stunt.

The road ahead brought more joy. Kintail will always be special to me, memories and the hills too, today it was crowned with a little cloud and looked spectacular. Beinn Bhan was clear, unlike when I camped on it a wee while back, dammit.
Torridon was draped in high cloud, the light was grey and the hills were flat and my heart sank a little, even the discovery of Judas Priest’s Sin After Sin album on a tape didn’t suppress the feeling of joy trickling away. Of all the places to have crap weather.

But, as I fannyed around choosing socks and chocolate, grey or tan, Bourneville or Terry’s Chocolate Orange? – nightmare – the sky cleared a little, the cool breeze that threaded through the trees was blowing the grey away.
The initial climb is through Scots Pine where the rhoddies are being cleared. The tall branchless trunks are punctuated by fire pits where the rhoddie roots have been dug up and burnt, blackened craters with rising wisps of smoke. It was every inch a scene from the First World War. Unsettling.

It all goes fairy woodland quite quickly, a waterfall, a really nice one too, frustratingly difficult to see unless you want to take a machete to the shrubbery, the pines take on a more twisted shape as they become higher and more exposed to the weather. The path swings effortlessly through the magical scene as snow streaked slopes are glimpsed through gaps ahead.
Suddenly the forest slips off your shoulders and in clear air you are ringed by mountain shapes. Behind are the giants, Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe. Almost cloudless now, their slopes glowing in the afternoon light. Ahead seemed more thrilling, Maol Chean-dearg’s seemingly unattainable summit looming through the bealach while my ulimate goal poked it’s buttressed snowy nose past the ridge ahead. Beinn Damh was a good choice.
The sun reflected off the snow and lit the still autumnal coloured slopes in a flash of warm tones. I couldn’t feel the cold wind, I was moving as fast as I could and my brain didn’t have space for it anyway, too much to look at.

The ridge arrives sooner than expected and a wander to the far side is worth the extra steps. Little broken pinnacles and steep slopes tumble down to the loch as Beinn Bhan dominates the view. Light shimmered on the water which is everywhere, sea, river and loch to the little summit lochans which sparkle into life from miles away. I always want to visit them, more than distant summits, something special about sitting by a high lochan at dusk, the lapping water is soothing, it slows you down and makes the sunset slower, and I’d even say it makes the colours brighter.
But not today, I still had a wee way to go, not steep, but rocky and in the early evening’s golden light utterly glorious. I pulled up my hood as the fast passing air cooled me and headed into the boulder field.

I watched my feet as they picked through or over the rocks and it’s something I’ve watched all my life. But now and then, when I don’t feel pressure, when my mind’s not elsewhere, when it’s all about where and when I’m at, those feet could be from 1992, 1975, 1986, the simple timeless pleasure of walking in the mountains, it’s a thread running through my life and every trip makes a knot that when I run a finger down the thread and feel that knot it triggers a memory or a feeling and I’m there again. 
When I’m not able to do this anymore and I close my eyes and think of my countless days in the hills I’ll see my feet taking the next step before I see any of those summit views or sunsets.

The summit was just over the coire, short descent, stiff climb and what the hell, I’ll do it tomorrow. I’d added over an hour to the ascent stopping and looking, taking photies and grinning, all very tiring so I was ready for dinner.
There was a grassy spot between a snow bank (water supply, yay!) and the rock garden with a shallow angle and sea views from the door. I got to unpacking and pitching.
Pitching was interesting, the grass was no thicker than a shagpile carpet, but my titanium nails got hammered in and there they stayed too.

Everything got sorted, the stove went on, I sat in my chair and watched the sun slowly sink through ribbons of cloud turning from orange to rust to crimson to purple. The Torridon giants glowed pink behind me and as the sun slipped away, fingers of low cloud crept over their ridges from the north and east, looks like the cloud invasion had been waiting for darkness, and as you know that’s when clouds are at their most dangerous, their night vision is even better than an owl.

I opened my wine and toasted the world with a Wish you were here via twitter. I’m used to being alone in the hills, but somehow it didn’t seem right that I was alone on this night, it had been a beautiful evening and it deserved to be shared.
But it was getting colder and windier, a moonless sky had its stars muted by a light haze and it was time to retreat inside, get cozy and listen to some music, it would be a long night.

A wee snooze was just right, but I woke dry mouthed and hungry so I had a drink and a snack, then I thought I’d better nip out for a pee. It was very cold now, the tent was frosted and the twinkling lights on Skye and along Loch Carron seemed awfy far away. I turned back to the tent and something on the northeast skyline caught my eye. I watched for a while, it was hazy and very dark but a green shape slowly fluxed in the far distance. My eyes got sharper as my night vision kicked in, still never as good as the cloud soldiers of course, but I watched for a while. I set up the camera and stood beside it to shelter it, the wind was strong enough to blow the tripod straight over. The 60 second exposure looked completely black on the camera screen and under coercion by editing back at home it looks like a psychedelic experience, but after checking with Aurora Watch it had indeed been a wee flash of the Northern Lights.

The wind picked up. The tent rattled, it shook, nothing I’m not used to, I snuggled down into my bag, the music would win over the rattling. But on it went, it got louder, the tent got more mobile and while not worried, I was getting resigned to having less sleep that I needed or wanted.
I have no idea what time it was when it happened, I was too busy trying to stand up outside and attach an extra guyline to keep the tent on the ground to look at my watch. The pole had snapped clean through and then came through the fabric channel on the outside. The tent rippled at high speed making it hard to keep a hold of, but to my great relief the pegs held it firm to the ground despite the pressure from above trying to tear it away from the hill.
The wind was ferocious.
My lash up kept the tent where it was but it was in bad shape, I lay by the door and counted the minutes until it was light enough to pack and run like hell.

It got lighter outside and with it came the snow. I jammed the broken pole across my shoulder to give me enough height to pack inside but my legs and pack were sticking out the open door and that let the snow blow inside. What a difference a day makes.
I ate some cheese and oatcakes and drank some chilled water, with no hope of getting the stove on it was as good as it was getting for breakfast. Everything packed, I just had to get the tent down.
I could barely stand up, the wind tore past me, desperate to rip the tent from the ground and throw me face first into the boulders but I kept low and mostly in cotrol of my direction. I pulled the pegs out one at a time and stuffed the tent into my pack as best I could.

There was no question of going on to the summit, that was asking for trouble and I wasn’t waiting it out up here to see if things got better, it was time to go.
It got better as I dipped down to the west, but I never looked back and second guessed my decision on trying for the top. I could see how fast the cloud was still moving.
I got back to the coire rim and it all seemed better, I was out of the wind, it was brighter to the west and I had warmed up. I took off some clothes and went back to my plan, descending the ridge on the east side of the coire that no one seems to know is there.

Happy again, I clambered the rocks and enjoyed the views, a spring back in my step. Liathach was crowned with cloud, to the east was deep grey, almost dusk like, but I was in a pool of brightness that took in Loch Torridon and Beinn Alligin.
I was hungry though, I could have stopped and unpacked for breakfast, but the cooking gear needed cleaned after rolling around the tent porch getting full of heather and grit and then getting stuffed away haphazardly. I’d be at the road in an hour at most and then 30 seconds from the inn and some sit-down hot and tasty. It was all good.

I met various folks of their way up and they all had time to stop and chat. They were all smiles and enthusiasm and it brightened me further, any thoughts of my trip being cut short and somehow being a failure were left behind. There was too much good found and being taken home for this being anything but a win.

A change of clothes and I suddenly didn’t smell like sweaty damp down anymore. I turned the corner into the Torridon Inn and smiled at the lassie, “Do you do breakfast?” I knew they did, the sign said food all day, but it’s nice to be polite.
No she said, breakfast finished at ten. Lunch wasn’t for two hours and that was that.
Oh well. Can I have some info on the inn and the hotel, telephone numbers, what kinds of accommodation do you have? I’m writing a wee piece on the area.
Sudden change in interest level.
Oh, I could have a word with the chef, get you a roll on bacon?

I hit the road to Kinlochewe looking for fuel and breakfast. Having to drive by the sunkist slopes of Liathach and Beinn Eighe was no great hardship and the former goal achieved with a smile and some banter, the latter lay just around the corner at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
I went in the door and looked around hoping that the place was open and fully functional and that the format was obvious, counter service/table service etc, these things should be written large when you go into somewhere so you don’t shuffle awkwardly looking for inspiration. But I had no time to think about any of that, a jolly faced lassie at the nearest of several tables full of folks immediately piped up “Hello, how are you?” Hungry was the honest one word answer I couldn’t stop from coming out, but it was at least delivered with a smile.
The lassie was the owner, she stood up with a laugh and orders of “Let’s sort this man out!”
I was sat on the couch at the back next to the log burning stove and I was so relieved I could have sobbed into the sleeve of my purple hoody. I had porridge with honey and sliced banana, a scone with cream and jam, orange juice and a cuppa. I had time to relax, look through my photies and wish I had got the sensor cleaned on the old camera, that dirt spot is going to take ages to ‘shop out when it’s in the sky. I just adored the place and the breakfast I had there.

It’s nice to know the good folks are still out there, the Highland welcome is alive and well.

It was a long way home, but I had plenty time and took a different road. It’s interesting driving the old battered Ka, no matter how fast you’re going, folk will not sit behind you, it’s as if it’s a personal insult to their social standing and character that they have to sit behind my burgundy bubble car. I lost count of the suicidal/homicidal moves folks made to get past me and then drive at the same speed or slower – their nerves shattered but honour satisfied as they were no in their rightful place.
These dumb bastards made the afternoon fly by. As did Bobby Harrison’s Funkist album that I found a tape of. Where the hell did that one come from?!

It didn’t go as planned at all, it went better. I wouldn’t change any of it and I’m now watching the forecast again.
I suppose I will have to change the tent for that right enough.

Older, Wiser, Fuzzier

I wasn’t supposed to be home so soon, but since my home away from home got demolished to make way for a bypass as I slept in it, here I am. What joy there has been, the widening grin below is proof of that.


Conic Screwdriver

Sometimes things work out just right, the Trail that’s in the shops has a route I wrote for Conic Hill above Balmaha on Loch Lomond which was the result of a quick schedule change. It was perfect as I know the hill so well, I’d just climbed it again so knew my facts were already up to date and I got to push a proper gem to the front of the queue for a wee while.
Conic almost always pops its head through an inversion and the views from it are epic, nothing less. I was properly enthused writing this one, I suppose I always am really, but this one is special cos it’s local and the route isn’t what most folk do, it’s got my own regular way up, down and around.
Magic, go climb it.

Sandwood Bay

It was our anniversary weekend, it was Joycee’s birthday, the weather looked good and we had no idea Holly was brewing scarlet fever while we were away. Sandwood Bay seems like an awful long time ago.
Luckily we took some photies. Actually we were lucky to have any photies to bring back, my Panasonic Lumix LX5 shat the bed, focus fault, dead in the water. Luckily the old LX3 with its will it work/won’t it work display saved the day. So did the phones, so here we’ve got two cameras and two smartphones snapping away. Too complicated for me. I’m going back to a sketchbook and telling tall tales.

We stopped at the Tain Asda for fuel and matches or a lighter for camp back-up and had a quick cuppa while we were at it. I went back to the motor to sort some kit outwhile Joycee went to the kiosk and she followed me out a minute later with a big grin on here face “They asked me for ID, I need my purse”. Not letting a 37 year old buy a lighter because she didn’t look 21? I’m still hearing all about it now…

The road from there is a pure joy, every mile of it. As you get further west the grin gets wider as the mountain shapes become more defined and wear names that bear witness to a different history to the peaks further south. Then suddenly you’re in heaven at the coast.

It was late when we left Blairmore with a  four and a half mile trek to the beach. The sky was draining of light and colour but the going is good, it was cool and dinner was waiting for us at the end of the line.
The pace was good and we walked as far as we could using our eyes as they adjusted to the darkness. We went to red light and then to full beam as got near the end. We passed dark lochans, tiny dark beaches, silent expanses of heather but all with the beacon on the Cape Wrath lighthouse ahead. It could have been creepy, but it was more bracing for want of a better expression.
We knew we were nearly there because we heard it, the roar of the ocean. We couldn’t see it until it was just a few feet away, but its presence was definitely felt. Dark shapes disguised the cliffs and the wind whipped across the sand as we walked north towards the light.

We picked a spot near the fresh water river at the far end of the main stretch of beach. The dunes aren’t necessarily a great place to camp, but with some long pegs and some rocks the tent was surprisingly secure and we snuggled inside up as sand-free as we could and got the stove on.
Dinner and a wee bottle of red, a little music, layers of down and the sounds of the sea. The lullaby of doom indeed. The wind howled and the tent shook, but it held it’s ground and went nowhere.
The night sky cleared now and again as ships lights passed along the horizon, but it wasn’t a night for taking photies. Sleep called and we already there.

Not a glorious morning, but a pretty one, quite a calm one too. The wind had dropped a little but the waves had grown, they crashed onto the beach and rocks with a constant roar.
We could see now too, Am Buachaille standing proud and solo to the south and sheer cliffs bursting seewards all the way to the cape not too far to the north.

What a place this is.

We knew we weren’t alone, a fire at the far end of the beach when we’d arrived in the dark gave that away. We soon met the firemaker, Duncan and his girlfriend had been camping and Duncan had come to catch the waves as he worked his way through a ticklist of must-do surf spots. Fair play to him, and indeed the other board carriers we met on their way in later on.
It like meeting mountain bikers or paragliders on the hills, there’s always another way and another perspective, I love that.

Breakfast, break camp and head out while have a wee explore was the plan. The tide was going out, the rocks were emerging and we found a message in a bottle in the sand. It was addressed to Holly and had been sent by a mermaid. It was lucky we’d been there at the right time.

The showers that had drifted across cleared to a blue sky as we tred the miles back out. It was a different world we walked through on the way out, snow dusted peaks lined the eastern skyline, colour was all around and the lochans hidden in the heather were now indigo fringed with gold.
The pace was a little slower this time, no hurry to get back in the car seats, it would be along road home.

There were diversions on the way back, it would be a crime not to stop now and again and get out to have a better look. The part of the country pulls at me like no other place, the hills and the land around them hold their mystery no matter how many times I climb or trek them.

There’s also no more appropriate place for the two of us to spend our anniversary. When we got together the first thing we did was throw our gear into my van and head up here and elsewhere. From Ben Hope to Cairngorm we went visiting every tea shop inbetween. Things haven’t changed that much then.

Magical Mystery Tour

If you’ve been watching the news, which we were doing accidentally because Richard Branson screwed up our telly once again leaving us with just socialist TV and no cartoons to watch, that is five channels plus BBC 3&4, you’ll have seen the endless horrors currently unfolding around the world.

It’s no wonder that this news item seems to have slipped under the radar. As down south’s coast takes a pounding unearthing ancient footsteps and fossil forests up here the snows have brought to light their own ancient mysteries.
Below in an undisclosed location in the north west is the site of the slaying of the last real live Highland Tattie-bogle. As you can see it suffered horribly at the hands of the terrified clansmen of the day, its tumshie heid knocked off and its arms dragged off so they could no longer grasp at unsuspecting passers by.

The loss of the wolf and the bear from the Highlands are what people lament and you never hear of Tattie-bogles (other than Jon Pertwee’s historically inaccurate depiction in Worzel Gummidge), Fear Dubhs or any of the sea dwelling cousins such as the Skelpie. These were a great part of our natural heritage and are almost unknown today. But not entirely unseen, but I’ll come back to that.

Down on the Upside

It’s been the ultimate of contrasts the past couple of days and I’ve been thinking about things that I suppose we all know are always there but maybe we pretend they aren’t.

Trail mag came through and I was pleased to see my Mourne Mountain routes are in there. That trip was brilliant in every way and despite only having about half an hour free of cloud or rain the whole time we were there we discovered mountains and places and people that were a total joy. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
It was also the last proper mountains I’ve been near until the last couple of weeks. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Then the news came through, fallen on Bidean, 12 hours injured in a gully, airlifted to Belford at 0300. When it’s friend you feel it in your stomach and then you run through the what-ifs and come up with nothing.
The story’s not over though the ending is looking far better than anyone might have expected, but it’s swept the feet from under me.