Look, people!

I felt terrible: bleary eyes, sore head, grumbling stomach. I sat with a cuppa, chin in upturned palm, and looked at the MWIS (the weather service for people who go to the mountains during office hours only) forecast, tomorrow was looking good and there was some talk of the cloud breaking up in the evening. I was packed anyway, so I got my shit (slowly) together and rolled onto the A82 one more time.
I don’t think my driving was so good, my concentration was askew, but the rubbernecking holiday makers kept the pace at a whiplash inducing 25mph, so no ill became me. I paused at Tyndrum for fuel, for the motor, not for me and my next stop was the Morrisons cafe in Ft Bill for a hot plate of heart assaulting tasty spirit liftingness. I felt a bit better after that, but a walk through the rain to pick up some food for camp didn’t fill me with optimism.
The road beyond was the same tarry rope again, up which I made slow progress, and it was with great relief that I parked up at the Cluanie Inn. The clouds had indeed broken, there was blue to be seen. I pulled out the kit, chose a pair of mids at random and headed west. Within 200 metres I was pulling on a sheath of Paclite, the rain was battering down, and as I walked the water ran from my cuffs and peak. Hurrah.

I slipped in fine comedy style, both feet up in the air and landed on my hip. I lay there in the grip of a mossy trampoline and screwed my eyes tight shut. That was sore, Salomon and their gripless bastard footwear. I fell back onto my feet and limped on a few steps. I was fine, just pissed off. The rain didn’t even blink.
I love it here, I’ve had the finest and the pishest of days on this map, and I’ve learned not to expect, just top accept. So with a more cautious stride my journey into the murk was with a quiet ambivalence to the conditions, I was prepared for this.
The Steall Bhan waterfall is a hidden gem, a long white swishing tail swinging from the coire above, and with a hint of ridgeline above too. The shielings around here are brilliant, perfectly round, like giant stone piecutters left lying around. From above they look very odd indeed. The ridge was so steep that I enjoyed frequently turning round and admiring their symmetry.
The cloud broke briefly into low, clawing, stalking mechanical shapes, climbing over the contours and then flashing into nothingness, I could see the peaks of the South Glen Shiel Ridge over their spiny backs before the  solid ceiling of fuzz above me descended once more and stayed there for the night. My head went down and I climbed some more.

Just before the summit of Aonach Mheadhoin there’s a little shelf on the east of the ridge with the third of three tiny lochans hiding in it’s corner. With the wind rising, and the rain tagging along, the summit looked like no place for a quiet night, so I sneaked into the little shelf and made myself at home.
I was a little light-headed when I got into the tent, in a giggly “Ha ha, look at me” sort of way, it was dry, the wind was only tickling the top of the tent a little and I was moments away from getting the stove on. The grey blanket outside didn’t worry me, I wrapped the sleeping bag around me as I sat cross legged and ate my lasagne and drank my Krüger coffee. I stretched out after that and made the mistake of falling asleep. Well, it was still early.
The bleary eyes were back, maybe more misty I think this time. The cool evening had swapped jackets with a hot night and I was stripping down to my boxers and unzipping the tent to get some new air in. It was well after midnight now, but still light as the full moon set the cover aglow. The outer zip snagged. I leaned further out and tried the other zip, it went so far and snagged too. The door was still shut. I pulled, tugged, cursed and grimaced. The zip had most definately shat the bed, so I pulled apart some of the teeth at the top to make a vent of sorts and went back into my bag to sleep the light sleep of someone who’s not as tired as they were and are a just a little bit annoyed. All things considered, at that point I’m much rather have been at home doing a Disney princess jigsaw with Holly.
It was nice and light at 0700, so I fell into a proper sleep until ten to ten to celebrate.

I tore the door open and stuck my head out, the cloud was still whirling around, but it was bright white. It was on it’s way out. The deposit I’d paid last night had got my arse into the best seats for the day ahead.
After scaring away the band of deer peering down at me from the summit, a pee, clothes, breakfast and some wandering around with a cuppa was the order of business. I could hear voices too, the path on the ridge just above me had some of the days first walkers on it and they’d missed me altogether. One fella got a surprise when he looked back and I went up to have a blether. He was heading along the ridge to the Morvich camp site, a big day. Turns out he lives about ten miles away from me.
I went back and packed up slowly, I was soon down to my t-shirt as the cloud gave up the fight and retreated to other hills nearby. I met a pair of folk on the short pull to the top, they were full of banter and were doing the round over to Saileag and back down, which is where the clouds were lurking, not lurking actually, they really did look as if they were getting ready to launch themselves this way again. Wee buggers. 

The summit of Aonach Mheadhoin is a delight, it’s a wide dome and is surrounded by the shapes of the familiar. The mountains here all look likes kids drawings, swooping pointed shapes with a strip of blue above. The boggy approaches fade, but that skyline, the character that each peak has, the ridges that stretch before me, that’s what’s stayed with me for the past 20 years and why I’ll always, always come back here.
The descent to the coll was in sunshine, a light breeze and on a rapidly drying path. It’s narrow in the middle, but not exposed, and it’s rocky too. The dug and then the owner I met here were all smiles as we passed, even the German couple (one from Berlin, one from Dublin, don’t call me out on the detail of this stuff okay),who’d also spent last night in a tent were happy enough, even though we crossed paths several times that day and I kept on taking their photies.

Sgurr an Fhuarail is an even better top I think, a rocky wee place with Ciste Dubh chained to its ankle to the north. I broke out the  stove and got a cuppa on the go as a felle from Inverness joined me. We talked about this and that and the time passed nicely.
So often I’m alone up there, but not today. Not one miserable face did I pass, smiles and welcomes all day. I was in danger in having me opinion of the human race softened there for a minute.

The descent and reascent to the little top that looms over the Cluanie Inn was a joy, my mood was as light as the clouds that remained above me. The tall skinny cairn that waits for the visitor made me smile too.
I met my German friends again, they were heading for a hot shower and dinner below. I was planning to take some shots of the front of the building and no more, but after the long trek down that steep grass, in the heat from the undilited sun, the thirst that had crept and and the hunger that was growing within sent me through the door and into a chait with a menu in my hand.
Haggis, neeps and tatties in a pool of gravy, washed down with a pint of Irn Bru. My eyes were misting when the last forkful went in.
If I could have put my feet up and fallen asleep right there it would have been a perfect day.

Last Train to Clarksville

I’ve been cutting about the Ft Bill to Laggan stretch a few times recently, and it’s shuffled previous thoughts to the surface again. I love industrial stuff, the visit to the pipes on the recent Ben Vorlich trip was, oddly perhaps, a highlight. And the narrow gauge railway that ran from Loch Treig to the Ft Bill smelter has always caught my imagination as so much of the infrastructure still exists.
The film footage I’ve got of it in use showed the possibilities, the stories from locals about how it was sabotaged by deliberate neglect so that it wouldn’t pass into tourist use tells of a depressingly familiar attitude. So, if it can’t be a railway again without spending big bucks, couldn’t it be a proper path and cycleway? I passes through the Aonach Mor tracks anyway, but I suppose that would forever block the rail option though.
There’s a cracking collection of photies here, and an out-of-print book. I really fancy walking the route of the line from end to end, a train from Ft Bill to Fersit and then a walk back. I wonder how many fences you would have to climb and how many security men would chase you as you got further west? No summits to tick which is nice, instead there’s confrontations to collect, bridges to bag, sleepers to stockpile, rails to er, round up?
My to-do list is getting longer all the time.

Howff

My one worry was where to park for this, but I phoned the girls at the Inveruglas Visitor Centre and they said to stick the motor out of sight in the long-stay parking and that’s what I did. It was dinner time, so a BabyBel and a Pepperami were used as leverage against the tide as midges circled and dived while I got my kit together. This is my first bad experience with the wee bastards this year. Oh joy.
I walked by the  Sloy Power Station as the rain pattered down, the cars fleeing by my left ear. Do I drive that fast here? It doesn’t seem right when you’re on the pavement.
It was wet but, as I climbed the hydro road I was definitely overheating, gulping in lungfuls of muggy air to try and cool down. It didn’t work, and felt like I was going to burst until I got into clear air and was distracted by the lambs, now a bit bigger, but still shiny white. I wanted to throw a stick for one that stood looking at me, but I have no idea if lambs fetch sticks. I mean, they’re just like dogs but with horns, so they might. You might scorn me, but you don’t know do you, because you’ve never tried it either.Imagine if proper dogs had horns, how scary would that be.


Ben Vorlich is a marvel, it’s the ugly sister of the Arrochar Alps, less defined in shape than the others from most viewpoints, but when you’re walking it’s flanks it commands both your attention and concentration. It’s a mass of crags, tumbling waters, steep grass and dark jagged shapes all around you. You have to make your own route through it and any sense of it being an accessible wee hill just off the A82 is quickly lost if you lose yourself in the drama-filled eastern corries. Maybe not ugly sister then, Twisted Sister.

The hydro road is a blessing, you gain so much height so quickly using it. When you see how steep and rough the ground is around it any thoughts of cheating are easily beaten down with a broom of smugness, because like a rocket, it launches you into the wilds of Coire nan Each.
I love this place, it looks too rugged to be this close to home, huge faces of rock, some stark, some split and some crumbling at their own feet. A torn blanket of green thrown over it soften just a corner or two here and there. I just stood there watching the clouds chasing each other through the jagged teeth on the skyline. Glorious.
Behind me, the east side of the loch is rugged too, crag and natural woodland, it’s colours surging out from under a blanket of indifferent grey.
I’ve walked these hills uncountable times over the years, but this time I was completely caught unawares, I could see the beauty, I always do, but this time as I just stood there and lost mysself in the scenery I could feel it right inside me too.
After breaking my little reverie I turned back to the coire to search for my home for the night, I knew what I was looking for, but not necessarily where it was. So, I zigzagged my way higher and higher, crossing the coire until I found what looked like the grassy mount that hid a cave inside, formed by rock fall debris from what must be thousands of years ago. The shape looked right, but the front was a mess of freshly moved earth and rock. “Oh crap, where am I going to go now?
As ever, I’m running late with a Trail Route, the cave was the plan, but now there was Plan B making an unexpected appearance. I had bivi gear and it was raining, so unless I wanted misery for supper, at midnight, at 1am, at 2am… I had to get inside or at least under something, I was looking for a howff.
The coire is howff central, there’s plenty of free-standing boulders that I could get under, there were shelters between rocks, big indentations in crags where chunks had fallen out, but nothing had me phoning the estate agents for a schedule. Looking for bits of pure blackness is a good policy, it means depth, and that means cooking out of the rain.


I was in the rain clouds now at around 600m, in every billowy gap that passed I’d hopefully scan the crags, as I’ll be honest, it was getting late and I was hungry and tired. Everything was running with water too, many likely candidates turned out to be a cherub short of a garden water feature and I had an awful feeling I was going to have to scramble up that wet crag to get to that good looking one on the left or, oh what’s that over there, halfway up that wide gully? Big dark cleft, looks nice. I traversed the slopes and climbed the gully. I took my pack off and eyed it, it was big enough, but a little low. There’s some water in the back, but enough room to get all of me and my gear in.
I thought about putting an offer in, but I took some cooling-off time. Leaving the gear (Surely I sign that I already aad one foot inside the door?), I climbed the gully and surveyed the other side, a steeper drop, harsher crags, but with two big boulders at the bottom. I could get under that one at the left, I’ll go back down and see.
I got back to my kit and never left again, enough with the fannying about I said to myself.

After using packs with zipped bottom compartments, I’ve changed the way I pack. The Macpac Amp had the camp gear at the bottom in stuffsacks, bivi bag, mat and sleeping bag. Everything else goes in an Exped liner that I can pull out and it can sit in the rain if it likes while I set up camp. Works well, perfect for this trip in fact and I got everything set-up and inside the howff without getting it wet.
The mat was the new Alpkit Airo 120, and I split the difference at each end with my head on my rucksack, a little gap with my waterproof trousers underneath and my feet only overshot the end when I stretched out. magic. My cooking gear went into the roomy interior, which was a little swampy right inside, but between me and that was a big flat stone which took bottles, stove, and even my lamp. I took that Alpkit hanging lamp which would have been nice in the cave, but in here it was just as good and I never used a headtorch all night.
I got my boots well inside in the dry, slipped into my bag and lay back. Comfy. I was completely out of the weather, it wasn’t claustrophobic at all, everything was to hand and I was cozy. The stove went on. This was the Vango Ultralite’s first trip, and it’s a cracker. Smooth control and a mighty flame to delight seekers of hot beverages.


I stuck my iPod on and cooried in as it got dark. Between songs I could still hear the roar of the water cascading over crags, through rocks and under the ground. Nature’s symphony, not so much of the melody, but a bottom end to frighten any metal band. The rain got heavier and over a couple of hours the roar got louder and a little erratic as the water got heavier and a growing wind tried to blow it back uphill.
My howff wasn’t immune to this and around the edges water began to creep in and drip down, just in a few places at the edge, so not a problem. I just shuffled a little further in and the water was miles away. That rock I can feel won’t annoy me unless I lie right on it. Well no, that rock is what my ship ran aground on, and as I watched the restless natives of Coire nan Each ransacked my cargo hold and escaped with every barrel of joy I had carefully packed for that night.

Why am I cold, I’m uncomfortable too. I rolled over one way, another way, up and then down. Checked the zips and drawcords. After a good deal of faffing about it occurred to me to check the mat, and it was indeed flat, Stupid bugger, I must have left the valve loose. I blew it up (always have the valve where you can get to it from inside your bag), feeling the comfort return beneath me. I tightened the valve properly this time and relaxed back in near darkness.
No, my arse is frozen, what the hell is going on with this thing. I blew it up again, now sans iPod, tttsssssssspppppprrrrrrsssssttttttt… No, no, I switched on my lamp, slid over and peeled the mat back to see the water on the lower skin being bubbled by air escaping through the tear made by the rock I’d moved on top of and had been using as a saw with every body movement. I wasn’t fixing this in the wet, but I was getting cold, and this would make me colder. I was already damp, the hot ascent in humid air had seen me sweaty indeed, the Montane Meteor DT had done its best but I had layered dry clothing onto damp baselayers and lying in my bag hadn’t seen the sweat fly out through all the technical fabrics, everything had just gotten damp now. In fact, the inside face of the bivi bag was wringing and the Quantum fabric of the Rab Neutrino bag was doing just as you’d expect, it was licking condensation off the bivi and chucking it straight into the down. I zipped up my Primaloft pull-on, pulled down my hat and thought warm thoughts. Warm and dry thoughts.

I did sleep, several times in fact. When I looked at my watch I was always surprised by the time, so I was slipping away from time to time. I saw the sun rise as point of red under the rain in the distance and I saw the coire bathed in soft golden light through thinning cloud. When I decided to put the stove on after 7, it was a little greyer, but still dry. Outside.
Everything was wringing inside, the top of the bivi was like a wash basin, the hood of the bag was transparent with moisture, rivulets of condensation ran around looking for something to soak into as I shifted around.


I filled the howff with steam from myself and the pot on the stove and thought about it, maybe less clothes would have kept the moisture down, but the mat had the insulative qualities of wallpaper in that state and I was trying to stay warm. maybe it was all just my breath? If I’d had enough room to put the mat inside the bivi maybe the whole thing could have been avoided? Who knows. It was a bunch of new kit on it’s first trip, something was bound to go a little sideways.
My feet and the socks on them were dry, praise be. I slipped them into my mids, strapped on my mini gaiters and stood up for the first time in ages. A few spits of rain.
I took a few shots and packed up. My sleeping bag gurgled as I compressed it into its stuffsack. That’s wet.
My best pals just now are those Klean Kanteen bottles, they are just so nice to use, big lids, the wide mouth is great to drink from, and I can see that yellow one in the dark. I swigged from it and stowed it in my side pocket as I left.
I contoured around the way I came last night, checking out the other options I’d looked at for diggs, I think I got the best deal. I looked back at the little crack I’d slept in, the context it lay in; high in a mountain landscape the measure of any in Scotland.
What the hell was I moaning about, a damp sleeping bag? Eejit, just learn from it, sleeping in the howff was a great experience. Especially so, as I was looking for somewhere against the clock and found something that was pretty much ideal.

The wander down was a joy, I felt light of foot and of heart. The hills were clearing and the sun was spilling through in ever bigger patches. Summits be damned, wander the corries, they don’t have to be passageways or somewhere we look down into and think “Ooh, that’s nice”. Go and see it up close.

The Sloy pipes are a familiar sight from the road and elsewhere, and I decided to make a detour and visit the other end on my way back. The top station is built like a wartime bunker, well that’s late 40’s utilitarianism for you, and it’s awfy steep looking down those pipes from the side of it. It’s fascinating though, the water comes from Loch Sloy in two huge underground tunnels which er, externalise themselves here from the hillside and go into the building to be channeled into the pipes. It’s interesting stuff, and the whole place is a mix of well maintained and new, and the hasn’t-been-touched-since -1949. Must take a kicking from the weather up there.
The hydro road down was even better than the day before, less rain, better views and the last bit with the little shortcut next to the gorge is lovely.
The visitor centre was open, there was cuppas, rolls on bacon, banter with the girls and tourists milling about looking for refuge from the midges. Nae chance.

I’m a heating engineer, get me out of here.

Daniel and the lie-in

The internet is a very small place.

I met a group of Dutch hikers at Derry Lodge, they were kicking back in the afternoon sun with their tents pitched ready for a shot at Ben Macdui in the morning. I said that I might see them there, maybe even with the wheels, a statement which was (rightly) met with much amusement and some mild mocking.
I was tempted to break out the gear and get a cuppa on the go, their relaxed air was drawing me in, but I was still miles away and a fair wee bit of ascent below my target, so I hitched up the wagon again and hit the utterly wonderful trail on the east side of Glen Derry.
It was a breeze with Wheelie, I’ve never known such an easy long walk-in. If I ever do Lurg Mhor from the south again, I’m taking Wheelie.


The water crossings were fine, the biggest one was pretty shallow, and it was only when I was in the upper glen where the Glas Allt Mòr meets the Derry Burn that the wheels stopped spinning. It’s pretty deep, fast, but easy on foot. With Wheelie strapped to my back on the rocks if felt like I was unicycling on the top of a flagpole, so the only option was to head upstream and find another way over. I haven’t walked uphill with so much weight on my back in years, but I found a place and made it over without even a hint of disco-legs on the slightly precarious middle boulder.
I trekked back down the side of the burn with Wheelie’s basic shoulder straps sawing into my collar bones (I’ll be hot-rodding this if it’s going on the WHW) and as I reached the track again I bumped into a fella about to cross in the other direction. He was saying stuff, I was saying stuff, but the roar of the water meant that hand signals were the only understandable options, and his offer of assistance to cross the burn had come a few minutes too late and we parted company in opposite directions.

The next water crossing was on the wee narrow wooden bridge, after which the track was steep and incredibly rough for Wheelie all the way to the Loch Etchachan, save for the wee oasis that’s the Hutchison Hut.
There was a boy in the hut and we shot the breeze for a while, he was taking his time crossing from west to east via the tops. He mentioned a previous caller who’d been bivying on Macdui and he described the bloke at the burn, but he had the hut to himself for the night, well apart from the mouse living in the pile of rubbish inside which caused me much dismay. “Oh, are you meant to take that stuff away?” he said…
I nearly burst a gasket getting Wheelie up from here, it was really difficult for that single km, but oh such a lot of fun.

The walk up to Macdui in the morning was sarcastically easy. I’d packed an Exped Drypack Pro and I threw some bits and pieces in there and headed off. It was a glorious wee trek, dry rock, snow, blue sky with Simpsons clouds and sunshine. The top was completely clear and I headed west to peer down into the Lairig Ghru, a glen full of memories and thoughts of making more.
It was a glorious bimble and boulder-hop back to camp, that little red dot was visible from far distant. I sat in the sun on my Neoair and ate sweet and sour chicken for lunch. A runner and his dug called by to say hello, I think the dug was more interested in the food than the onwards route though.
I was reluctant to leave, here was just perfect if I’d had another day as was the original plan, but the descent to the hut was definitely a diversion. All the way down fighting the very mobile load behind me, it felt like holding back a transit van with a broken handbrake which will roll right over the top me if I tripped. In such instances they say you should lower Wheelie ahead of you, but I could just see it tumbling down the mountainside and bursting inexplicably into flames after I accidentally let it go when I sneezed. So, I stayed clipped and acted as the front brake, and yes the disc knees got awfy hot.

I was soon rolling easier again after I stopped to take some shots, I was now so used to the handling and the width of Wheelie that I could jump gaps or take detours and know what the reaction would be, I really did gel with the wee bugger quite quickly.
However, I was soon at the Glas Allt Mòr again, and I knew that was trouble. As I got close I could see a figure skipping the boulders and heading my way. I got to the water’s edge as he landed on the bank.  Bloody hell, it was the same fella I’d met at the same place yesterday.
“Alright?” Said I.
“Yes, what’s the chances of meeting at the same spot?”
“I know, what are you up to?”
“Camped at Derry Lodge to dry out my gear, I’m heading back in now”
“Fantastic”
“Are you Pete?”
“Er, aye…”
“Peeteeceee?”
“Aye”
It was danonthehill, a name I recognised as a poster here and elsewhere. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
He’d flown up on his week off and was spending it cruising round the Cairngorms, walking, bivying and getting both soaked and sunburnt. We hung out for a bit, and of course the offer of help to cross the water was gladly accepted. I went to set up the Zipshot tripod and the ballhead was missing. Bastard, it must have come off when I stopped last time. Borrowing Daniel’s Pacerpole/monopod setup I got a shot of the water crossing that I really hope makes the feature.
We swapped good wishes and went our separate ways.

I took the track on the west side of the glen lower down, different views and atmosphere, and just as beautiful. Something landed on my neck and buzzed as I wandered through the trees, I brushed at it and it fell down my t-shirt, and with no pack to stop it, it went right down to my waist, struggling all the way (as Holly said while watching a bee having a fit outside “The bee is having a tantrum”). I unclipped Wheelie and pulled my t-shirt off in 0.666 seconds. Any doubt that if there was an incident I would be trapped inside the Wheelie’s machinery was gone. As was whatever the bloody buzzing thing was.
A cuppa by the river calmed the nerves before the trundle back to reality.

An email from Daniel arrived a few days later (which I had to rescue from the spam bin, why does all the mail from the blog contact form go into the spam bin?). He was home safe after what sounds like an immense trip, more adventure in a week than many who live near the mountains could muster in a year. An outstanding effort, good lad.
He’d met a group of Dutch hikers who’d climbed Macdui (well done them) and they’d got to talking,  a black widget had been spied on the track and Daniel immediately knew what it was and where to find it. He picked up my Zipshot doodah on the walk to Loch Etchachan, took it on his travels and then home.
It arrived back here in the post today, having been on more Cairngorm summits than me.

Coincidence or luck? Maybe, but without good people rowing the boat with Chance painted on the bow, we’re never going to find these wee sunny islands of good fortune at all.

The internet is a very small place.

Macfarlane’s Lantern

When I blinked through the wind blown snow into the coire to finally pull the Wheelie across the flat, even if that flat was soft snow, I’ve rarely felt so misplaced in Scotland.
Loch Etchachan sits over 3000ft, but the peaks all around rise a 1000ft more, the high dark cliffs plunged from the seething cloud deep into the dark and frozen waters. I felt quite alone, not something I often feel when I’m in the Highlands, however high or dark it is.
An obvious camp site lay over to the southwest, there, the fresh fall was starting to lie on the bare grass beyond the remaining snow cover, but it was melting into the neck of too-wet grass where the loch is cut in two, my original planned spot. I pitched quick, I was tired and hungry. By the time I was ready to cook, my hands were freezing and throbbing. Damned doughnuts clogging up my pipework.
Stove on, I padded over to the water in unlaced shoes to pick up more water and I met the couple who would spend the night with me. They both wore their summer kit, which I reckon was a bit premature, but their voices were unmistakable as they trotted around the rocks trying to lead me away from their nest. I filled the bottle and beat it back to the tent, and for the rest of the the night I would either listen to, or dreamily absorb the ptarmigan’s banter. A cheery wee burd wi’ gallus patter.
The moon was bright, but it was lighting only the tops of the clouds, which rarely parted for more than a glimpse of a single star at a time.
I crept outside in boxers and duvet jacket to take some night shots and tried to place that little red glow on the screen. I ran around playing air guitar to the fast bit at the end of Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell (iPod was on) to keep warm, and it occurred to me that the feeling of isolation had gone. But what had changed? The tent was up, was that it?
I thought about it when I was back inside, snug inside merino and down, that little red glow to me means comfort, familiarity, trust, memories and endless potential.
Bloody hell, I’ve bonded with a tent. It’s all over.


Macfarlane’s Lantern is the moon. The full moon is when my relatives steal cattle and hide it in the Arrochar Alps.
In some small way wild camping is not carrying on the family tradition.

Wheelie goes to the Cairngorms. Part 5

 

Sittin’ by the river, havin’ a wee cuppa, a wee rest before the walk out… sunshine… erm, it’s kind of all over really.
It’s been fun, s’been different. Very different having wheels in the mountains that aren’t one in front of the other.
Oh, I’ll have more to say on this!

Wheelie goes to the Cairngorms. Part 4

 

Well, it was quite a night, snowed quite a bit. Eh, but I got woken up by the sunlight hitting the tent, still bloody cold though.
And, I decided to leave Wheelie at base, and we’re about… ooh, watch here… get to the summit of Ben Macdui. And a little spot of lunch I dare say.
S’bloody nice. Very clear. You can see how cold it was in the night, all the grass is frozen.
There we go…
No’ bad eh?

Wheelie goes to the Cairngorms. Part 2

Just crossed a burn, a very full burn, and fast flowing. Wasn’t easy.
Eh, I’m well up now, I’m opposite Derry Cairngorm. The track’s a lot rougher now, I tried putting Wheelie’s wheels… ? Wheelies wheels in the kinda close-together format, but it’s like wrestling an octopus*, so I put them back, and I’m taking the hits as it rides up the sides of the thin track.
Ah, kinda getting there. Might be dark by the time we get to camp…
Bloody hell, there’s a surprise…

*You can change Wheelies’ wheel-base from wide to narrow, easy to do but has big handling effects on rough ground.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something… purple?

Funny how given a gap, not even the biggest of gaps, that almost anything can feel new again.
Be it Galaxy Counters, Black Sabbath’s Sabotage album, that thing we did last week or walking in the Cairngorms.

My heart swelled at the beauty of the trail through the trees, and it soared skywards as my destination came into view. The distance passed quickly as I swam in the new colours and moods rolling from the hillsides, the Cairngorms are unfamiliar, and all the more wonderful for it. I walked through four seasons, I camped at what I could have sworn was an abandoned south Atlantic whaling station (had I had more time I would have searched for the hidden submarine pen with the lost nazi gold on board) and then walked through snowy sunshine to stand in the UK’s second highest point.
It was like I’d been dropped onto another planet. A planet where a pair of ptarmigan (now in summer coat, d’you think they changed just a little too soon?) come up and cluck at your feet a little bit, rather than B Movie infantry shooting at your flying saucer and then getting their asses kicked by Gort. Jeez, no way I’m getting him in one of my tents. I wonder if he’d rust if he got left outside?
Wouldn’t the Wizard of Oz have been much better if the Tin Man hadn’t been that camp Vaudeville affair and had been a badass space robot instead? The Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys would have gotten shot out of the sky and hit the deck in flames before they even got near the happy band of campers.

I’ll be back sooner I should think. The Cairngorms I mean, not the fantasy land (which is not unlike South Park’s Imagination Land) that I also occupy much of the time.

Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park Wild Camping Trip

prologue

A few months back, when the consultation on a proposed camping ban from Drymen to Rowardennan was launched I was asked along as a contributor to some media stuff, being both local, available and having seen the inside of a tent or two within the National Park in my time.
I answered the questions, but time didn’t allow the positives as clear voice as I’d hoped, and the worry was that a negative image of camping was what had been presented.
With this in mind, I suggested a wild camping project to the park folks, they liked the idea and we’ve stayed in comms over the past few months knocking about some ideas, and once the election hoohah had shoved us back a few weeks, we got out on the hill on Monday 17th May.
The consultation process had finished by the time we went, and the 300 filled-in forms leaned 60/40 in favour of a ban.
As it happens, the timing worked well I think. I wasn’t wanting to influence opinion on either side of the argument, I wanted to say “This is wild camping”. Not just to differentiate us from the stupids trashing the lochside with their festival camping rigs, but to try and show non-outdoorsy folk the possibilities out there that are well within their grasp. Wild camping is not a hardcore activity for mountain men, it’s sleeping in a tent somewhere you had to make some effort to get to. And, it’s for everybody.
Maybe most importantly of all, I wanted to show that wild camping in the National Park is Go!
We were team-handed, and it was a real mix of personnel. From the Park we had Geoff Miles (Head of Marketing and Relationships), who was keen to get out there and see what it was all about, Grant Moir (Head of Conservation and Visitor Experience), already a man of the mountains and interested in trying some lightweight gear, Chris Sleight from the BBC who who is an experienced climber, Craig McQueen from the Daily Record who turned up race-fit from running, Stuart McInnes from the Edinburgh TRI Center who was wearing his film-maker hat, the familiar face of Phil Robinson, and me.

Monday

We had our meet and greet in the Inversnaid Hotel car park, the first time we’d all been in the same pl;ace at the same time. Always nice to meet new folk, and with the sun beaming down, the Arrochar Alps winking from across the Loch, the mood was indeed light.
There was some kitting-out to be done (details later) and once we were all comfy, we hit the trail, the West Highland Way in fact.
It’s easy and familiar ground, and I love it. The leaves glowed bright green above us as they stretched out in the sunlight, the water sparkled and gurgled at our side, banter rippled up and down our procession as we snaked south. I was mic’ed up and gave a remarkably swearing-free commentary which I’m sure will come to haunt me in times to come.
We paused at a “traditional” fire-site, by that I mean it’s been there every time I’ve been there and folk just re-use it because it’s already there. Catch 22-ish? The pile of stones and half burnt logs with three “hidden” Pot Noodles and singed bottle of Lucozade were met with dismay, but little surprise. Phil jogged up to join us at this point too, having had to leave a bit later.
It was way too hot for that nonsense.


We passed a lot of Way walkers, some mountain bikers too. The WHW gets folk out there who might not tackle the countryside otherwise, and that’s a wonderful thing.
We stopped by a little pebbly beach for some interview stuff and some minor snacking. Food raised its nose into the air for the first, but not last, time.


The famous goats were spotted in a blur of shaggy black wool on the hillside just as we arrived at Cailness, which itself was a blaze of blossom. It was our left turn as well, through the gate, away from the Way and onto a remarkably steep landrover track which pulled us into unbroken sunshine, rising temperatures and more frequent pauses to look at the view.
The banter kept flowing, some serious and for use later, there were mic’s, still and video cameras on the go most of the time, but oddly it wasn’t intrusive, we just kind of bimbled along. As we gained the top of the zigzags there was both relief and our first view and Ben Lomond. It’s north side is just awesome. You should go.


The drive to Inversnaid from Aberfoyle is glorious, it’s dead-end nature saving it from an A82-esque fate, and the views of the Ben from here are just amazing. Lomond means “beacon” and that’s just perfect. It stands proud and alone, looking over a little of everything that makes the Highlands , rock and water, tree and heather, summit and sky, village and road, past and future.
“This way” I pulled back the front of the train from it’s onward course on the landrover track with an outstretched arm pointed on the the rough and trackless terrain to the north. I could see big crags looming in a broken landscape softened just a little by a carpet of heather. Hidden somewhere in there was a lochan,  and hopefully somewhere for the tents. You know, it did look just a little wild.


There were a few feet needing some attention and some joints needing a break, so we stopped for a packs-off rest stop. There were snacks and banter, and even some warm layers thrown on as there was a little wind cooling us now as we sat above 400m. There is not a single path through here, we’re surrounded by familiar peaks, we’re not that far away from the car park, but there was a real feeling of being out there. This wasn’t lost on us, in many ways it’s the perfect place to demonstrate wild camping. In fact it’s a perfect place just to go and wild camp, I didn’t pick a soft-option destination for this, I just liked the look of it, it ticked all the boxes from accessibility, distance, likelihood of getting a few tents pitched, great views and just damned good fun.


There was a little more cloud forming , and the light shot through the gaps in luminous shafts, the hills to the west grew dark as the sun passed further towards the horizon. We’d set off late (well, some things never change) and even summer has its limits. Scuffs and dents now attended-to, we regrouped and found our way through, round and over the heathery lumps to the lochan. A more lovely spot I couldn’t have hoped for, and right above it, the little summit and ridge I had in mind for our camp site.
We ringed the lochan, filled water bottles and all took different routes up the far side to meet again at a wrecked deer fence and a little cairn. It was perfect, plenty space, views all around water not too far away.
Pitches were claimed, rucksacks dropped into the heather and unpacked, and a silence descended as most of the group concentrated on how to assemble the unfamiliar bag of metal pieces and fabric that was to be their home for the night.
But didn’t they do well!


The tents went up, no one lost an eye, or a finger, or their temper. After that, we sat in a hollow and broke out the cooking kit. The food that followed varied in quality and success, Grant liked his chicken and noodles, Stuart had a nightmare with his as he was apparently supposed to fry some of it. Chris found his olive oil just too late. Bags of donuts, cookies and sweeties appeared and went down well. More  sound recording, pieces to camera and many photies came and went, just part of the evening. Somehow in the golden light and at the late hour, however unusual, it all seemed so easy.


After a trip down and back up for more water, there was a second round of stove lighting. The cuppas were accompanied by the most inappropriate collection of stories, and rather than the night hike we just sat and blethered until bed time. The simplicity of it all was a topic, the mini stoves, the single pot and spork, the food-in-a-bag. It makes it all very easy, new skills to learn are few, waste is minimal, joy is maximal.
I tightened a few tents, just a wee bit, and one by one the guys drifted off to bed, leaving me wandering around with a tripod and camera, thoughts of how the guys would fare in the borrowed gear were very much to the fore. Would it be windy, would it be cold, would we have tears and snotters in the middle of the night?

Tuesday

I could hear Phil breaking camp sometime around dawn (he had to be back in Glasgow early), it was bright, but I was too cozy and I drifted away again. A couple of hours later, coughs and zips of varying types stirred me again and I stuck my head out of the tent this time. Stuart was up and dressed, so with a hot breakfast in mind, I did likewise.


The breakfast table was a big patch of bare rock, the wind of the previous night had gone completely so stoves would have no trouble here. One by one the guys drifted over, except Chris who was last up after some extra Z’s. Stoves roared, spoons rattled in cups, muesli was shaken while eyed suspiciously. The cloud cover started to break as we sat and watched. I don’t know what was sweeter, my oats and raspberries, or the sight of Ben Vane dappled with patches light right across the loch from us.
This is wild camping. The walk-in, the pitching, dinner, it’s all part of the same days doings, but waking up to a new day. already in the mountains, that might be the real prize for the extra effort, and the time that you give to it. It’s an exchange which is weighted well in our favour. We can do how we please, the mountains will just sit there and take it quietly. Surely then, how we conduct ourselves in the company of such a vulnerable host must speak intimately of what we really are as people?
There were more recordings followed by packing. As we stood with our packs back on, and looked at where we had pitched last night, there was no sign of us. Not one scrap of litter, not even a tent shaped patch on the ground, the thick heathery grass had bounced back and there was no sign that we’d ever been there. Seven tents and their occupants stretched along a ridge, and with just a little thought and care, one night was made invisible. It’s not even that it was a constant how-to session, common sense quietly prevailed and everyone kept their gear admined, even the first-time wild campers. That speaks volumes, folk either intrinsically know the right thing to do, they need a little help to see the right thing to do, or they just don’t give a shit.


It was now clear blue above us as we descended steeply north to complete our little circular route. The mood was still light, no one had been cold in the sleeping bags which I was relieved about, there had just been a little flysheet rattling when the wind got up that had opened a few sleepy eyes now and again.
We dropped into the forest above Inversnaid, the sound of water tumbling over rocks, sunlight dripping through the canopy of leaves and it was approaching 10am.
It was a glorious little walk, the return to the motor is often a little melancholy, but today I really felt quite pleased with everything.
A group shot in the car park, gear sorted and it was all over. Another magic mini adventure.

Left to right, Chris, Stuart, Grant, Craig, Geoff, Me.

epilogue

After the lovely drive back out to Aberfoyle, I sat in Liz MacGregor’s tearoom with Craig and Stuart with a my second breakfast. I had a wee reflection on the events, it was just a little thing really, but as I said “Iwanted to do something“.
My part is over, the coverage will be whatever it is, we’ll just wait and see.
But, we did see what wild camping is, we saw how accessible it is, and we showed that the National Park is the place to go to do it.
The Park is changing. In the ban area there’ll be camping grounds, in the right spots for Way walkers too, Sallochy is getting some minimal facilities, environmentally sound ones too. The plantations are being felled and replaced by native woodland, and then there’s the future of the A82.
I have hope for the Park, I have to. I’ve seen what happens when both planners and people do the wrong thing. I watched them tear up and disfigure the lochside 20-odd years ago when they put the road in from Balloch to Tarbet. And now I’ve seen neds saw up ancient woodland so they can fall unconscious on a beach to the crackle of burning branches.
We can’t undo any that, but we can learn I’d hope.

PS
No, I’m not saying where we camped, but all the info is there for you to find it. Brilliant wee hills, somewhere I’ll go back to.

Auntie Clockwise

We left early for Pitlochry, but even as we arrived mid-morning after the wonders of a drive through woodland Perthshire, the place was already jumping.
It’s the Etape Caledonia cycling event this weekend and the pavements, carparks, cafes and shops are just full of folk, half of them in padded lycra as well. The sun was shining and it was a joy to see a wee Scottish town alive like that. I know there’s naysayers because of the traffic disruption on race day, but in uncertain times there’s money being spent that wouldn’t be othewise. Folk have such as narrow view at times.

There was a bunch of trade stands there, outdoor, bike, multisport etc, so I caught up with some folk, met some folk, got some gossip and news and came back with some bits and pieces.
Holly got a bike helmet in Escape Route, it’s a wee cracker and it’ll do her for a good wee while. She was dead proud of it too.
Lunch in town was magic, the girls had a wander while I blethered some more and before we knew it, it was after 4, and it was time to hit the road.

We followed the race route towards Loch Tummel and a quick cuppa at the Queen’s View. Schiehallion looked dark and brooding, back-lit as it was by the early evening sun while we wound south to Glen Lyon.
The Glen was quiet and beautiful as always. It feels like a secret, trapped between the A82 and the A9, with no summits that will ever grace the cover of a guide book, but with walking to delight the soul and stir the heart for those who can turn their eyes from the celebrity peaks.

The sad site of the long neglected and now closed Ben Lawers visitor centre sparked a discussion. A missed opportunity, misplaced, mistimed? Whatever, it should be open, interesting and selling cuppas and cake.
Holly loved the Falls of Dochart in Killin, she was sure she could see sharks hiding in the little holes in the rock, I couldn’t disagree, she’s three feet closer to them that I am, with better eyesight. We hurried back to the motor just in case.

I checked out my campsite choice for Monday night and then we took a diversion down Loch Long.
Another weekend with the girls, another trip through the mountains.
I love this stuff.

Buttons

What do you want to do today?
“My want er… Daddy’s mountains and build a snowman”

Off we went to Lochgoilhead, quiet trails to walk, down a quiet singletrack road and somewhere where Holly had been when she was just a little baby.
This time she walked a good bit of it, but had great fun in the “Hollypod” as well, although making dad run after mum while she was in it took years off of the old fellas knees…
We had a picnic in the sunshine, saw red squirrels, waterfalls and birdies in a landscape waking up and coming back to life with a flourish.

The Arrochar Alps looked beautiful (and awfy busy) as we passed, snow clinging on as green creeps up to meet it.
We had some unusual sounds in the motor too, the usual mix was there, but Holly has an ear for the pipes and traditional music so I have a few favourites in there like The Mist Covered Mountains, With a Hundred Pipers and of course Macfarlane’s Calling.
I’ve spent a lifetime denying the cliches of the land of my birth, but as I grow older, when I hear the pipes I can now feel something tugging at me deep inside. It’s a wonderful thing.

Holly was knackered by the time we got back to the motor and could hardly keep her eyes open at granny’s when she arrived for dinner all rosy-cheeked and muddy. 
A perfect day.

Destiny of the Daleks

I squinted into the bright sunlight as the icy air prickled my cheeks and skated over my fillings. The sun was up and picking out the snow capped tops and ridges in pink, the wet snow of last night had shrunk into a carpet of crystals and although the shapes of the landscape were the same as before, the atmosphere was so different I felt like I’d came out of hibernation. And a little early too, as it was bloody freezin’. I pulled on some layers and got the stove on. With a hot cuppa and some grub inside me I felt surprisingly fresh, and with a hint of cloud on the little bit of western horizon that I could see, I decided not to fanny about this time, and get packed and get going.
First I had to check over my feet for wear and tear, it’s not often I wear big muckle boots, but they were looking okay. I hadn’t cut my toenails, which I usually always keep on top of, and my wee toe on my left foot gave me cause to purse my lips. It’s a weird toenail that one. I bust it years ago and now it grows in two bits, like Bugs Bunny’s front teeth. It was rubbing my other toe a little, but “Ach, it’ll be fine…”.

I emptied the tent and started to bag up the gear, leaving my softshell and waterproof over the top of the bits and pieces. The tent was iced up and the pegs frozen into the ground, but it was away in its stuffsack in no time. Much of my gear was iced up, even kit that had been in the tent, my sleepmat was pure white at one end. I think it showed me how much condensation there had been early in proceedings. I lifted the jackets up and was amused to find them both as stiff as boards after sitting there for just ten minutes. It really must have been properly cold.
I finished packing, got kitted up, scanned the campsite for something I might miss later and I was away. The snow above me was now gleaming white against a sky of a dozen shades of blue.
The sight was one of those things that gets me all excited and has me starting off up the trail too fast and getting out of breath. So it was good timing when the track ended abruptly in a very steep slope of unbroken iron-hard snow. I stopped and swapped poles for ice axe and rubber soles for crampons and took the slope straight up the middle. It quickly became so steep, and the snow was so consolidated, that I had to swing the pick into it to get any attachment to the slope at all. I was also glad of having my Grivel Airtech’s on, I would have been sobbing into my Buff had I been wearing Kahtoolas, and the guilty pleasure of an old-school ascent was one which I revelled in.

I broke into the sunshine on the ridge and views down Glen Affric past my old pal Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, it’s so wild, so beautiful and so familiar in there now. I turned towards the summit of Beinn Fhada, just up and around the corner. Ahead of me was just over 1000m of rock hard snowslope, covered in a few inches of fresh flakes from the previous night, a virgin slope rising only 250m in height from where I stood to the cairn.
Every step was a joy, clouds arced across the sky above in wisps, stripes or cotton wool balls, but none threatened me at all, they briefly visited some of the other tops but my top stayed clear.
The view to the south grew with every step, the Five Sisters, The Saddle, Knoydart and beyond all slid into view and from the summit I was adrift on a choppy sea of white crested waves while the sun beat down on me with a warmth which didn’t belong on this wintery perch, but was oh-so welcome.

 

I stayed on that top for a long time, hours in fact. I had soup, coffee, some snacks and wandered around with my hands in my pockets in what was a perfect day, a day to absorb, to relish and remember.
When I left it wasn’t because I was cold, or tired, had stuff to do later, or the weather was turning, the cloud bubbled and ebbed at the edges of the scene but came no further. No, it was just time to go home.

The descent down the ridge towards Meall á Bhealaich was a crunch down that same long slope, where now my own tracks had stamped a little bit of humanity into a wilderness scene. I went past my line of ascent and picked a less steep alternative further along the ridge. It had seemed like a good idea, but as the temperature rose, the snow was melting and the hillside was a grass-covered mudslide, where it has to be said I performed some amazing moves several times in a bid to stay upright, which was achieved. Nine times out of ten.

The river crossing was easy, the waters were much lower, and I stopped for a drink and a snack. It felt very much like the time I was here last summer, bright and liovely with the sounds from the water, only the winter camouflage on the scenery gave the game away. It won’t be long ’til it’s alive again, you can see buds on branches, hear birdsong from the trees. In fact, I ‘d heard ptarmigan on the ridge but had seen none, I’d followed the tracks of a mountain hare but I hadn’t found it (I wonder if what looked like a fox had fared better…). Best of all, I saw and heard a golden eagle for the first time in a long time. So long in fact that I had to google the eagle’s call when I got home to check that my memory was working.

My mind was wandering on the last part of the track although a little niggle on my toe was starting to creep into the periphery, not enough to stop me though. I noted that the sky was clouding over a little more, and I felt happy with my lot. Sometimes you can’t wait for the weather, you have to take a chance. I’m glad a found that wee window and fell though it.

I pulled my boot off followed by my big woolly sock, I rolled off my liner but could see there was something amiss as it got towards my toes and stuck. That would be the blood then. I eased the liner off of the sticky mess and watched half of my toenail go with it. It wasn’t sore, and it was my fault for not keeping up with personal maintenance, but I did feel a blow from the hammer of inconvenience land on the back of my head. Keeping it clean and not bursting it any further is going to be annoying for a few days.
However back on the road and heading south was trouble free, empty roads and and sunshine ’til Ft Bill, and from there on increasingly dark and pishy horror until I got home in the midsts of a storm.
Lame adventuring it is, but what joy from something so accessible in this magic wee country.