Friday, 24 June 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: Granite Highway

This is the fourth of a series of articles that I am writing for the Voice for Arran about Walking and Wildlife on Arran. This article appeared in June 2011. Hope you enjoy!

“Granite….” The name rolls around my gritted teeth. I’m a lover of granite, and just saying the word makes me want to climb mountains and feel rough crystals against my palms.   If geologists are interested in how rocks are formed, mountaineers obsess about how a rock feels to feet and fingers. Granite is a rock for the tactile. Formed deep in the bosoms of volcanoes, a geologist will tell you that the main constituents of granite are quartz, feldspar and various forms of mica. The sizes of the crystals define its texture. It is featureless, massive, and hard.
            My love affair with granite began with wrestling the gymnastic crags of the Cornish coast, before it flourished on the warm rosy slabs of the Alps. Here on Arran it has matured in to a slow burning passion that draws endless delight from perfect pockets, biting cracks and wind sculpted hollows.  At the end of a hard day in the Northern Hills, my hands are stinging from hours of happy tussling with an unforgiving but eternally intriguing rock.
            Today Arran is shining like a jewel in the sea. I’m looking forward to a day walking a tightrope of granite that hangs from the sky like a twinkling curtain from Sannox to Brodick. I will climb quickly, and then hardly descend until I reach Goatfell, my feet treading a highway in the heavens hewn of solid rock.
            Leaving the main path in Glen Sannox I cut up above the glen towards the Devil’s Punchbowl. Shadowy sunless cliffs loom above me, their mood in keeping with the sinister name. Just below the coire rim, a rough deer track cuts under the slopes of Cioch na h’Oighe.  A loose path weaves between steeper sections of scrambling, and I seek the direct route on bare rock wherever possible. I feel my way up creased slabs of cold granite. Thousands of years of rain and seeping vegetation have worn the slabs smooth and I search out grooves and hidden edges for my boots. Already my hands feel sore and black peat is rammed under my fingernails. The way is steep. 
            Breathing heavily, at last I crest the wave of rock, and I’m perched on the summit of the Cioch that curls upwards in to the heavens. A cold wind hits my face and the sudden sunlight dazzles me. My hands look pink and raw. It is time to hunker down between the summit blocks to refuel for the next stage.  I lie back against a boulder and look up at the blue sky. Briefly, the sickle shape of a soaring kestrel arcs overhead before diving in to the rocks far below.
            Beyond the Cioch, a narrow ridge of jumbled blocks and heathery notches forms a bridge to the massive bulk of Mullach Buidhe. Most of the difficulties can be avoided, but it is more fun I think to pick my way over the tottering blocks balanced against each other on the crest. They look improbable, but the colossal friction of hard crystals and their sheer tonnage mean that they have come to an enduring rest in these positions. In between, the wind and the rain have eroded softer sections of the ridge, leaving treacherous scoops of golden gravel, ready to sweep the unwary into Glen Sannox.
            Before long, I’m labouring my way up the slopes of Mullach Buidhe.  The ridge widens, and, the heather gives way to a miniature rock garden of mosses that cling to the loose slopes in the wildest of weather. Mullach Buidhe itself is a broad peak with several craggy tops and a steep west face. A lone raven sits on the highest, and as I approach, the bird flings itself in to the abyss, before shooting back in to view with a raucous cry on an updraft as if fired from a cannon. On this sunny day, Mullach Buidhe itself feels like a rocky meadow floating high above the world.  The grass here is soft and short, and the gentle gradient gives my hands and legs a rest. Looking down and left towards the sea, I can see the village of Corrie shining in the sunlight on the shore, further out, the Caledonian Isles is emerging from Brodick Bay. It is breezy, and even from here I can see the whitecaps skipping past her.
I drop down from Mullach Buidhe, and begin the climb up to the summit of North Goatfell.  Here I get my first glimpse in to Glen Rosa, and the scrambling begins again.   From North Goatfell there is an escape path that runs along the east side of the ridge towards Goatfell. This is a useful route for those who don’t like heights or in poor weather.  The scramble over the top of Stacach ridge itself although short, involves serious situations and one or two “technical” moves.
            I slither down from North Goatfell over granite slabs and turn my attention to the ridge.  A series of blocky tors bar my way and I must seek out the easiest way up, over and down each one. The largest, involves a series of shelves above a huge drop, known as the “Giant’s Steps”. Climbing these is like getting out of a swimming pool over and over again, and I inelegantly heave my way on to each shelf. The rock here is fantastic. Rough slabs grip the soles of my boots reassuringly while I grapple with coarse blocks and flakes. I get a few grazed knuckles, but it is a small price to pay. I take my time, savouring each moment, as Goatfell looms in to view.
            At the highest point on Arran a magnificent panorama unfolds before me. The deep defile of Glen Rosa drops away suddenly, and each of the buckled peaks of the Goatfell Range rises up to meet me. A ribbon of ocean encircles the island, and beyond I pick out Ben Lomond, the Arrochar Alps, and the Paps of Jura.  I know that I can see Glencoe from this point, having spotted Goatfell in a reverse view, but it is impossible to identify the individual peaks amongst the tangle in the north. To the south, I can see Ailsa Craig like a distant cone floating on the sea, and the shadowy shape of Northern Ireland against the sun.
            At last from here my way is down, and I stick to the natural line of my journey taking the bouldery South Ridge of Goatfell for as long as possible.  Finally, I say goodbye to this fine granite highway just before it plunges steeply to Glenshant Hill, and I turn east down a heathery flank towards the main path, that takes me safely to Brodick.  

Tips for enjoying Arran’s Hills:

  • Make sure you are properly equipped for changeable mountain weather.
  • Always carry a map and compass and know how to use them.
  • Take your litter home with you
  • Leave a route card with your estimated return time.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Mainland Raiding Party

Yesterday was a lovely calm day and both Wally and I had the day off. We took the difficult decision of water over hill and put the kayaks on the roof of the van for a little jaunt over to the west of Arran.  The mainland was sat there winking at us from across a perfectly still Kilbrannan Sound as we put in at Dougarie. It was too much to resist and before long we were out in the channel and heading for Kintyre dreaming of ice cream shops and friendly locals.

Looking back towards Drumadoon point from the Kilbrannan Sound. 

We saw plenty of wildlife on route, including a wonderful flypast by a couple of puffins, and a fleeting glimpse of a porpoise fin rolling through the water in the distance. Gannets soared overhead, and a fish jumped clean out of the water in front of us.

Before long we were approaching Carradale Point, and knowing that we had a good supply of munchies on board decided to forgo the teashops and icecream of the village (are there teashops in Carradale? There ought to be) and head round to the sheltered bay on the other side of the point in search of a peaceful spot for a picnic.We explored the point on foot,  the location of a well preserved fort that  is cut off from the mainland in high tides.

The rocky coastline of Carradale Point

Sheltered beach that was perfect for a stop. 

It is a rugged and dramatic stretch of coastline.  Arran is visible beyond. 

We wished that we had planned a longer trip and brought tents and sleeping bags with us for a night out but it was not to be.  Reluctantly we tore ourselves away from this lovely and wild stretch of coastline and got back in to the boats.  The wind and waves were up and the paddle back to Arran required a bit of body power before we were back on dry land for a well earned beer and rest. 

 Lighthouse Buoy of Crubon Rock by Carradale Point, visible at low tide. 

Approaching Arran's shore again after a tough windy crossing.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Gold DofE: Cairngorms Journey

This week I got to truly appreciate the incredible scale of the Cairngorm mountains, by walking a circuit that took me around their gentler fringes, using ancient passes and estate tracks to trace their circumference. The walk took four days, with three camps on route.  Davy, Andy and I were shadowing a group of Gold Duke of Edinburgh students on their final expedition.

Day 1: The students set off from Loch Morlich, and Davy and I set off ahead of them from the ski centre. We tucked ourselves away in wet and windy weather to watch them pass through the bouldery Chalamain Gap and descend in to the Lairig Ghru.

The Chalamain Gap is an amazing feature but not a fun place to be with a big rucksack! We did manage to find a cool little boulder howf for a brew though!

From the gap it was in to the amazing drovers pass of the Lairig Ghru.  This is Lurchers Crag, a famous winter venue for climbers. 

Looking South out of the Lairig Ghru and towards the Devil's Point. 

On route to Corrour Bothy for the night we took a detour to check out the tiny bothy in Garbh Coire under Angels Peak. I'll be back!

Day 2: After a night of vicious wind we awoke to a bright and breezy day at Corrour Bothy.  The students left early to continue their journey to the next camp by the river Gairn.  The route was to follow a series of passes via Derry Lodge, and Glen Quoich.

Corrour Bothy nestling under the Devils Point.

Hot dusty road from Derry Lodge.

Day 3: Now thoroughly off the beaten track, we followed a stalkers path to Loch Builg and then picked up the doubletrack in to Glen Builg.  The glen is a haven for breeding wading birds including oystercatchers, sandpipers, snipe and lapwings. I waited at the bridge at the entrance to Glen Avon and was treated to dramatic views of a young golden eagle being mobbed by angry crows and gulls.

The wide and peaceful Glen Builg, with meadows full of waders. 

We passed the lovely waterfalls of the Linn of Avon and turned north up Glen Loin, a tortuous and twisting glen that we gladly left behind, before descending to the water of Caiplich for a camp. 

The Linn of Avon with its dramatic cascades and inviting pools.

Day 4: Most of the students headed north over a bealach to descend down to the Nethy and a crossing at the fords of Nethy.  Andy and I headed over the tops with one lucky lad who was being trained for a future final exped.  There were lots of navigation opportunities and rough boggy heather hillsides to negotiate before we dropped down to Bynack Stables to meet the rest of the students at Ryvoan Bothy.  All that remained was the stunning walk back to Loch Morlich through the wonderful scots pines below the bothy in Glenmore. 

Looking from the bealach back towards Glen Loin. 

Scots pine heaven, Glenmore.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Silver DofE: Kinlochleven Tramp

I'm really enjoying the Duke of Edinburgh Award work that I'm doing at the moment, and this week, it was a Silver Award final expedition, with three teams of students in the hills between Kinlochleven and Corrour station. The weather was not entirely on our side for the whole trip, but unlike the students I had the luxury of a first night in Loch Chiarain Bothy. Not only that, but the cool weather meant that once we had left the sheltered woodland around Kinlochleven, there were very few midgies to bother us. That said, the photo below was taken just 20 minutes out of the village, where I was hiding at a path junction checking the students had all successfully left the start point on the correct path....

We took the track up to the Blackwater Dam and were treated to fabulous views of the back of the Aonach Eagach ridge and Buachaille Etive Mor.  The impressive spire of the Crowberry Tower was clearly visible from that angle.

To pick out the Crowberry Tower, click on the image to view it full size. 

At the Blackwater Reservoir, we took a boggy path along the shore before turning North East up the Allt an Inbhir and then down to the Loch Chiarain bothy. This bothy is quite plush, with 2 rooms upstairs and downstairs, and plenty of midsummer light streaming in through the windows.  The students camped by the loch, to fulfill the requirements of the DofE syllabus. 

Loch Chiarain Bothy

From Loch Chiarain, we continued on the second day to Loch Treig, or the "Loch of Doom", where we crossed a scary rotting bridge and tried not to think too much about doom.   

Plenty of atmosphere at Loch Treig...

We followed the shores of the loch for about 3 km before turning up the Lairig Leacach. The bothy at the top of the Lairig was a welcome rest point for the students and I spent a mere 6 hours at this point waiting for the groups to come through so a lot of hot chocolate was consumed! 

 The Lairig Leacach- Sgurr Innse looms in to view. 

From Lairig Leacach, it was a stomp over the hill in the rain to Meannanach Bothy on the banks of the Abhain Rath. By the time we arrived at the river it had been raining for some time, so we crossed the river before the waters rose to high and camped on the opposite bank at the ruins of Luibeilt. This was a wet camp after a long day and the students (and leaders) were pretty pooped...

From camp we watched the river rise and snow fell on the tops behind...

On the final day, all that remained was to head over the pass to the two Loch Eildes and head down in to Kinlochleven by the early afternoon. 

Andy McNamara from Otters Tail Adventures admires the view.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Loch Lomond canoe trip

Its been a wild few weeks weather-wise and I have been obsessively watching the forecast as a planned three day canoe expedition with a silver DofE group loomed large in a wet and windy calendar. As it happened the weather was mostly ok, but the promised tailwind did not arrive until the third day so there were some challenging conditions for the students- and me, as the art of paddling a canoe is a new one on me.
We were led by Andy McNamara of Otter's Tail Adventures.

Day 1: We put in at Balloch, in lovely sunny if breezy conditions. 

 We set a course towards Inchcailloch Isle. Andy likes to take things easy, and here an umbrella takes the strain in a light breeze at our heels. 

Inchcailloch is a magical place to camp. There is tons of wildlife, I saw my first merlin, as well as a woodcock, a sparrowhawk and a white deer.  The sunset from the summit of the isle was breathtaking.

Day 2: we had a headwind, and took shelter in the Narrows between the islands before ducking underneath the western shore at Luss and heading up to Firkin point and back east to Rowardennan, underneath Ben Lomond. The view here is looking north from Inchconnachan towards Fraoch Isle and the northern part of the Loch. Ben Lomond is visible on the right.

The joys of camping in the west of Scotland in summer! We found a flat spot North of Rowardennan for a well earned camp. 

Day 3: the weather deteriorated to wind and rain, but the bonus was a feisty tailwind that blew us up the loch to Ardlui under sail!