Saturday, 28 January 2012

Snow Day on Goatfell

Wally and I rushed back from a recent trip to the Cairngorms with rumours of snow on Arran calling us home. The Cairngorms trip was great- lots of navigation on the plateau, and cold weather with a mixture of clag and sunshine, but snow on the Arran hills is something to be celebrated especially when it comes with a promise of sunshine too.

We took the Goatfell path from Corrie, and continued up in to Coire Lan, emerging on the ridge to the north east of North Goatfell.

There was a fair breeze on the ridge and a lot of fresh snow blowing around.

We skirted underneath North Goatfell and round the side of Stacach ridge.

Ice forming on the buttresses above......

As we neared the summit, the sun started to emerge from the mist. 

The view from Goatfell on a clear day, especially in winter, has to be one of the most spectacular in Scotland.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Walking on the Wild Side: Nightwalking

Another little post from the Arran Voice series I am writing.  This one appeared in December's issue. 

It’s December on Arran, and the wheel of the year is dipping in to the darkest phase. If the weather is good, the low winter sun hits the eyes in cold hard rays, but if the island is shrouded in cloud, light slips in and out of the short days almost unnoticed.  

Walking in the mountains at this time of year means preparation, extra equipment and warm clothing.  One of the essentials is a torch. There is a certainty to the darkness in December, and I carry a torch with me now wherever I go. Trying to avoid the darkness cuts short the day and so it is in the dim pre-dawn light that I set out for the hill, and I know that I will return under the cover of dark. The weary trudge out of the glen in the gathering gloom is part and parcel of winter walking, and not always welcome, but the darkness focuses the senses and condenses the experience.  Some of my most intense memories are of the mountains at night.

Mountains have moods, and the same peak can have a hundred different faces depending on the prevailing weather, wind, and time of day. Camping wild and high in the mountains is a great way to feel the changes that come with darkness.  I recall my first mountain camp, two of us pitched by a lake in a lonely cwm on Cadair Idris. As darkness fell we retreated to the warmth of the tent for an early night. Much later I needed to pee, and crawled out of the tent in to the black night.  A mist had fallen, so there were no stars or moon visible, but the beam of my torch picked up the startled eyes of dozens of sheep. Like small green lanterns, they hung in an unblinking circle around our tent, the whirling mist revealing and obscuring each pair of eyes in turn. There was something very creepy about these sheep and fear of their luminous eyes kept me awake until dawn.

Night time is a great time to practise navigation, and the dreaded “Night Nav” is usually a set exercise on Mountain Leader Assessments. My most unpleasant night time mountain experience was one such exercise here on Arran. We set up camp on the shore of Coire Fhionn Lochain, under normal circumstances an idyllic place to spend a night, but on this occasion a storm was raging overhead.  After a hurried tea we went out in to the lashing rain to practice our navigation, heading on to the stony ridge above the coire. The torchlight created a white cocoon of dazzling light around us, beyond which the darkness was intensified and we could see nothing.  Rain soaked in to our clothes, our fingers went numb, and the wind wrestled with us so that we staggered around like drunks trying to feel our way in the dark. It was grim.  A sudden gust of wind snatched the flapping map out of my wet gloves and I watched as it hung in the air just out of arms reach, before being swept off in to the black sky above. I never saw that map again!

By contrast, on a clear but moonless winters night on Ben Macdui a couple of years ago, the stars alone illuminated the glistening white plateau so well we dispensed with our torches and walked by starlight. It was as if the land itself had an inner glow that was reflected back at the Milky Way.  We could see for miles, to the furthest extent of the mountains, where the frosty edge of the Cairngorms dipped down towards the darkness of the Aberdeenshire coast. It was like being on a magic carpet of snow, flying through the sky. On a night like that, the only place to be is roving the hills, on a twinkling island 4,000 feet up while the rest of the world is fast asleep.

The sheer beauty of the mountains at night can be breathtaking and sometimes the darkness brings even bigger surprises. The mysteries of the Cosmos best reveal themselves to the naked eye at night, and being high up in the mountains gets you closer to the action and away from light pollution.  I count myself lucky to have seen the Northern Lights from a mountain top in Norway. However, the one nightwalking experience that I treasure more than any other happened here on Arran just last winter.  Descending from Cir Mhor at dusk with my husband, the sun had set and the sky was a deep velvety blue, still smeared with pink at the horizon.  No need for head torches yet, but the going was tricky in deep snow and slippery boulders. Suddenly, our surroundings were illuminated and we looked up to see a burning ball of fire soar past. The trajectory of the meteorite took it at eye level across the hollow void of Glen Sannox, where it fizzled out in a puff of sulphurous light above the dark glen. It was a chance occurrence, a once in several lifetimes experience, but as they say, you have to be “in it to win it”, and walking at night is a great way to find these surprising and magical moments that come at you out of the gloom.  

Safety First:
Walking in the mountains carries a risk of accidents, and this is increased further at night.  There are ways of minimising the risk to yourself when mountain walking at this time of year:

  • Take plenty of warm clothes, food and drink
  • Carry a map and compass, and know how to use them.
  • Carry a headtorch and spare batteries, or even a spare torch.
  • Choose a route that will be easy to follow in the dark.
  • Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back.
  • In full “winter conditions” other equipment such as ice axe and crampons may also be necessary.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Ben Alder Brainwave

A trip to Ben Alder this weekend was a great little brainwave we had when trying to maximise our hill time- not easy when you live on a Scottish island and you need "new" mountains for your logbook. Getting in and out of the Ben Alder area requires a bit of time and organisation, so we packed our big sacks for a couple of nights out and headed off the island on the first boat on Friday morning. By lunch time we were in Dalwhinnie and setting out on the long estate road next to the beautiful Loch Ericht.

 The Loch Ericht track

Its a 15km walk in to the Ben Alder area from Dalwhinnie, but it passes quickly on easy estate roads. Many folk mountain bike in which seems a good idea, although when chatting to a man from the estate (more on this later) he said that mountain bikes are causing a lot of erosion problems on the smaller trails higher up.
We arrived at Culra Bothy at dusk, and although we had brought a tent and planned to camp, we found the bothy to be very plush, and empty, and were not able to tear ourselves away.... It was a cold clear night, the stars outside were incredible, and we were very happy people indeed.

Culra Bothy with Ben Alder behind. 

The next morning was dull and misty, but there was not a breath of wind, (which makes a change this winter) and after a good breakfast we headed up the glen towards Ben Alder.  Our main objective for the trip was the Long Leachas, a grade 1 ridge that rises up out of the bog in a rocky crest to meet to the summit plateau.

There is a river crossing to get to the start of the ridge, which would be hairy in spate, and even when fairly low was an unpleasant icy boulder hop. 

Snow conditions on the ridge were generally good, if firm and icy, but we needed to pick our line to get continuous fun. If I were to do it again I'd consider wearing a helmet as it was steeper than I expected...!

On the crest high on the route. 

The route itself was fairly straight forward for grade 1, but I the spring conditions made the route feel quite steep and icy at times. There is a short gully on the right about half way up that avoids a very steep rocky band, fun in firm winter conditions but I imagine loose and dank in summer. From the top of the ridge, it was a couple of short nav legs to the summit of Ben Alder.  The plateau was only half covered in hard neve, the rest scoured. We caught glimpses through the mist of big saggy cornices along the coire rims. From the summit, we descended to the bealach, and took in Beinn Bheoil.  This is also a Munro, but is a hundred metres lower and did not have much snow left- no crampons needed.
We were back at the bothy for dark to find it bursting at the seams with new arrivals, so packed our kit and boosted down the glen to a camp spot by the river. It was another cold clear night, and the big bright moon lighting the mountains in the morning was staggeringly beautiful. We made an early start, thinking about the long trek back to the car and the need to catch a ferry home.

Contemplating the long walk out again.

All in all it was a fantastic weekend, and the icing on the cake was a kind offer of a lift from a very nice man with a landrover who cut a hefty 10km off our day today.  It was interesting to hear his perspective on the fantastic paths that have been put in on the estate, many of which have been funded by SNH but a lot of the work has been funded by the estate owners who presumably are not short of a bob or two. It was nice to feel so welcome in such a remote and beautiful region.

Taking it easy on the way out.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Girls Night Out

Night Navigation is an aspect of the Mountain Leader assessment that strikes fear in to the heart of even the most competent navigators. For me, it evokes memories of stormy nights, cold hands and cold brain, struggling to come to terms with little visibility and unpleasant conditions. On learning that some of my friends are looking to gain some experience at night nav, and knowing this is an area I want to work on for myself, we set up a girls Night Nav Club, with the aim of getting together regularly for non threatening forays in to the hills after dark.  This was our second adventure, and as you can see from the photos taken by my friend Kirstie Smith, the weather was not pleasant! Kirstie is an amateur photographer, and although she didn't risk her good camera on this trip she takes a nice photo.  You can view and purchase some of her best work on her website:

 Thats me setting off in to the gloom. "Night Nav" tends to involve falling in to bogs.

Wrestling with maps and compasses while fully be-gloved is all part of the skill set of a competent navigator...

All four of us hiding behind a big blob of rain!