Thursday, 31 December 2015

Festive Beinn Damh

Last post of the year from me, and it's a bit late as I'm updating with some pictures from Beinn Damh on Christmas Eve.  Wally and I spent Christmas in Torridon with our friend Hazel.  The weather was wild and daylight didn't put in much of an appearance, but we snuck a day out between the teeth of the storms and were rewarded with what are currently feel like fleeting wintry conditions and magic views.

Views of Beinn Alligin and Liatach

The craggy flanks of Beinn Damh

Wally looking festively snowy!
As I write this we are in the closing hours of 2015. It's been a spectacular year for us, with Wally joining the business, work for me in Malawi and hundreds of memorable hill days. We'd like to take this opportunity to thank our clients and colleagues for making our jobs so much fun and to wish you all a joyful and mountain filled 2016. Happy Hogmanay!

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Castle

A slightly late post- (blame- computer malfunction) with some photos of Sunday's stomp up on to Caisteal Abhail, one of my favourite peaks on Arran (they might all be my favourites actually).

The north ridge
I'm bumping along with an annoying shoulder injury at the moment so we kept it easy on the upper body and stayed away from the amazing mountaineering on the Sleeping Warrior. It's possible to summit without too much scrambling by climbing the North Ridge and descending the curving arc of Sail an Im.

Cir Mhor and A'Chir

NE face of Cir Mhor

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Dreaming Big: The Arran Coastal Way comes of age.

I awoke this morning to sad news of the death of Doug Tompkins, the founder of The North Face and a conservationist who committed much of his vast wealth to founding National Parks in Patagonia. I only recently became fully aware of Doug's work, when a friend pointed me at a beautiful film: 180° South. I've included the link to the Youtube version below- it's a fairly long film, but worth the effort, so after reading this blog maybe make yourself another cuppa and get some popcorn.... 

Anyway, only this morning I learned (via Twitter from Alan Halewood) that Doug was also instrumental in gaining a big donation from The North Face for restoring the Allt a'Mhuilinn path to Ben Nevis. A path that has profoundly improved my personal experience of the walk in to climb on the beloved Ben.  

It was with Doug's legacy in mind that I headed out of my house to attend the opening of a new monument to mark the start and finish of the Arran Coastal Way, a 65 mile circular route around the island. We'd hoped a few of hillwalking's great and good would be able to make it to the island, but with the ferries on Amber Alert today, it was just locals who attended- but what a crowd came out and braved the weather!  It was heartening to see so many familiar faces and good friends at the event. The monument itself is a beautiful, tactile sculpture made by a collaboration local artists (design and metal work by Simon Horne, woodwork and carving by Tom Buchan and Sam Easson, plus stonework by the Coastal Way Team).  I'm going to love showing it to clients and friends who visit our isle.

The new monument, designed by Simon Horne

After the ribbon was cut, we retired to the Douglas Hotel to hear about the latest developments in the Coastal Way project. My work takes me to all corners of the island and together with my clients I'm often to be found watching wildlife on parts of the Coastal Way. The superb footpath through the boulder field at An Scriodan has vastly improved the experience of walkers around the Cock of Arran.  A similarly ambitious path has recently been put in place across the rough scree under the fluted cliffs of Drumadoon Point. Project Officer Rachel Sedman and her team of dedicated pathworkers (Scott, Stu and David) have done an extraordinary job of uprgading and improving access in a number of tricky spots. We now hear that another big grant award will enable to project to continue for a year longer than originally planned- with more improvements to come.

A new path takes Coastal Way walkers under Drumadoon Cliffs

It's important to put these developments in to context.  The Arran Coastal Way was the dream and brainchild of two local men, Hugh McKerrell and Dick Sim. Sadly both men have now passed away, but I was lucky enough to know Dick for a few years.  A quiet man with an elvish air, he was passionate about access on Arran and although he had climbed and mountaineered all over Scotland, pioneering new routes as he went, he was sure that there was nowhere more special and attractive than his little island. In 2003 Cameron McNeish opened the new trail, although from the start it was always a work in progress.  It wasn't without controversy either: Dick's enthusiastic waymarking with yellow paint prompted a few heated discussions in the letters page of the Arran Banner! The yellow paint has all but completely faded, but Dick's legacy lives on.  Everyone would agree that together with Hugh McKerrell, it was his energy and enthusiasm that was the spark needed to create a world class long distance walk. The trail and its beautiful new monument are testament to the power of individuals who dream big.

Like Dick, Doug Tompkins didn't make everyone happy all of the time. His money enabled him to purchase millions of acres of wilderness plus adjacent land, via the Conservation Land Trust. This was often to the alarm of the Chilean and Argentinian governments, and against the wishes of local ranchers. His vision was vast, and its effects powerfully felt on all sides. The land he bought has been or is in the process of being gifted back to the Patagonian people in the form of National Parks such as the 800,000 acre Pumalin Park in Chile.

Dick did not have Doug's money, but he had his vision, and in his own way was able to bring lasting positive change to the landscape that he loved. The money brought by visiting walkers helps keep this little island economy afloat, and the new paths protect fragile shoreline habitats from erosion.  I know that thousands of people will enjoy the Arran Coastal Way in coming years.  I'm sure that they will fall in love with the wild and rugged coastline, with it's windswept beaches and friendly villages, and appreciate it just as we who live here do.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Winter is here!

There was a bit of respite from the recent stormy weather today.  Goatfell had a good covering of snow overnight so it was a good opportunity to head up in to Coire Lan to enjoy the fresh snow.

Once up on the ridge it was pretty wild, with spindrift flying about. The path under the buttresses was passable but required a fair bit of route finding.

Happy Lucy

Stacach ridge looking Alpine

Surprise rain/snowbow

Friday, 13 November 2015

Abigail, the first snows, and Cock Farm

We've avoided the worst of Storm Abigail here on Arran, with the strongest winds passing to the north although as I type, a rolling thunderstorm is chuntering overhead. Wally and I headed out in to the weather this morning, but avoided the worst of it with a circular walk from Lochranza over to the east coast. It was pretty wild, but apart from some sideways snow on the Narachan (it is settling in the mountains... woop!), and ferocious hail around Fairy Glen, we stayed dry. It was a gloomy day though so I enjoyed tinkering with the mono settings on my camera. We avoided Laggan Cottage for a change, and cut down through the historic ruins of Cock Farm, ancestral home of Harold Macmillan, partially deserted during the clearances, and finally abandoned in the early 20th century.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Fontainebleau Rocks

I've been on my hols, and as the year is an odd number we went to Fontainebleau for a spot of bouldering with friends.  I've covered the whys and wherefores a bit on the blog over the years, as I'm not really a boulderer, but I love the forest, and the joy of circuits is what draws me back to climb here. This year we were treated to near perfect weather conditions, with dry rock and gentle autumnal breezes the order of the day.


Monday, 28 September 2015

A Wild Summer

In the last days of September, I'm reflecting on a wild, wild summer.   Since I got back from Malawi at the end of July, my feet have not stopped moving.  I've crammed my life with work and play and not had time to look at this blog, let alone update it... So here I am now, and as the year changes gear and I've finally got time to draw breath. I'm looking forward to a bit of chill out time and a chance to refuel and recouperate, with the prospect of an exciting winter ahead.

Fancy bike socks matching the sky for once.
On the summit of Goatfell, working for Adventure Expeditions.

A girls beach trip, and perfect waves at Machrihanish.
Rainbows and coastal walks.
Watching basking sharks.
Sleeping amongst the granny pines in Glen Lui.
A Bronze expedition in Glen Trool.
A kayak mission to Carradale in perfect conditions
Co leading a walk on the Three Beinns for Arran Mountain Rescue's open day.

A spot of CPD on Ben Nevis with Alan Halewood.
Travelling to Cheshire with my old school bike to ride my first Sportive.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Elephants come to visit

A final installment  from Malawi 2015, in the form of a wee report and pics from Liwonde National Park and the R&R phase of Arran High School's expedition, and some thoughts on Cecil the Lion.

We camped in our little tents at Mvuu Camp, perched on the banks of the Shire River.  Mvuu means hippo, and as anticipated we were serenaded day and night by the snorts and roars of neighbouring hippos frolicking on the river banks. I was bowled over by the biodiversity of the place.  In a day of wildlife watching we saw over 50 species of bird and mammal, with kingfishers, night herons, giant crocodiles and various birds of prey all vying for our attention, it was hard to know where to look.

 The stars of the show however were the elephants. On the first night I was woken at about four in the morning to the sound of guards calling softly in to the night.  "Njobvu... Njobvuu..." I listened intently and remembered that this is the Chichewa word for elephant.

What followed was one of the most intense wildlife experiences of my life. Frightening yes, but thrilling too. I became aware of approaching noises, crashing, thudding, and low rumbles.  Elephants are quiet, so this must be a lot of them to make such noise. As the dawn light glimmered, I peered through the zip of my tent and counted.  Fifteen elephants surrounded us, mums with babies. The guards had been calling to a male in must, who they were following around the camp- thankfully he moved on quickly. As group leader I was flummoxed.  What should I do?  Assessing the hazard of a herd of elephants in camp is not something we learn at Mountain leader school! With nowhere else to go I decided it was best not to wake the team and risk upsetting the elephants. At daybreak the herd moved away, and a few of the early risers got to see them as they trundled off through the thorns.

I've been back a couple of weeks, but Liwonde has been very much on my mind since I flew home, especially with all the recent coverage of illegal poaching and trophy hunting in Zimbabwe, which is not far south from Malawi. It appears that the tragic loss of Cecil the lion has gone some way to highlighting the plight of Africa's wildlife. What it has also done, in my mind, is flag up the disconnect between wildlife tourism and ordinary Africans, between poverty and conservation. Most of the people living close to Hwange National Park had never heard of Cecil the Lion. Meanwhile ordinary Zimbabweans endure food shortages, violence and political turmoil.  Interest in wildlife, whether for conservation or hunting, is linked to privilage and seen as a post colonial hangover. I'm as outraged as the next person at the slaughter of Cecil, but he is just one lion among many who will loose their lives this year, and meanwhile wildlife loss on an even more spectacular scale happens outside of the parks, through deforestation as ordinary people cut firewood to sell as charcoal in order to make a living. We must do more for conservation at every level, tackle habitat loss inside and outside of the parks, and to do so, we need to tackle the poverty that aflicts rural communities in Southern Africa.

An organisation that aims to do this is Children in the Wilderness who describe themselves as "a non-profit organisation to facilitate sustainable conservation through leadership development and education of rural children in Africa." Children in the Wilderness is supported by Wilderness Safaris, who run Mvuu camp, where we stayed  at Liwonde.  They bring local children to Liwonde to learn about conservation and the wildlife of the park. They don't just work in Malawi, they can be found as far afield as Namibia, Botswana and the Sechelles.  They support literacy schemes within the schools and through Eco Camps and mentoring. Projects include reforestation initiatives, working to support girls to stay in school and scholarships for deserving students.  If you've been distressed by the fate of Cecil, its worth offering them your support.

Finally, I think we need to put our own house in order.  Hen Harriers are perched on the brink of extinction in England thanks to hunting interests here in the British Isles.  Hunting for fun may seem barbaric, but it is also big business, putting money before conservation interests. This sunday is HEN HARRIER DAY, a day to celebrate one of our most beautiful wild birds, and ask why more isn't being done to protect it.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Fisherman's Rest

Our second block of community work took us to a well established project south of Blantyre called Fisherman's Rest. Wiktor and Sue Chichlowski have been working in the community for thirty years, and have achieved tangible change to the quality of education and opportunities that children receive.
We were excited to learn about a whole raft of schemes that include waterhole maintenance, school meals (via The Good Food Project), library building, poultry husbandry, tree planting and  the My Girl Project, which encourages girls to stay in school when puberty hits. Fisherman's Rest currently work with 22 schools in the area, as well as a community centre called Tilitonse.

Like Dzalanyama, our time here was short. However, this time, we were slotting in to existing work that had started long before our arrival and will continue long after we have left.  We were aware that whilst our presence, in the form of a bit of literacy teaching, hilarious games and English language conversation, are an important part of what happens here, the real hard work is being done by the community, Wiktor, Sue and their tireless staff. However, we brought essential $$ with us, and were made to feel welcome and valued by everyone we met. Wiktor was careful to ensure we could see the big picture, so as well as dong some construction work and teaching at Mtemaumo School, we also got to see a completed library at Mpemba, where exam results have rocketed since it's completion, and an impressive new school build close to Fishermen's Rest (I'm sorry Wiktor, I've forgotten the name of the school!). In the afternoons we danced, sang and played football at Tilitonse with the local children. It's a spectacular operation, with success down to Wiktor's ability to attract a considerable amount of corporate sponsorship, whilst at the same time engaging the communties in the development.  Nothing happens unless the communties themselves are fully commited and supportive of the scheme. There are no wasted efforts here.

Helping to build library and classrooms at Mtemaumo School

Helping deliver nutritious porridge at Mtemaumo School

Super competative Duck-Duck-Goose, Tilitonse Community Centre

Teacher Steve Garraway entertains the children at Mtemaumo School

A fun creative class, Mtemaumo School
Completed library Mpemba school.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Mulanje Mountain

It's a year since my first visit to Mulanje working as a leader for Outlook Expeditions, and the place laid a spell on me that has proven impossible to break.  I was blown away by the sweeping granite walls, the high altitude meadows, and the strange affinity to Scotland's moorland, with heather, peat and moss, re-imagined in Malawi, a land of mindboggling biodiversity. Last year I met our guide Wonderford Mmambo, and learned about the Mulanje Mountain Rescue Team, of which he is a member.  I'm a member of a mountain resuce team too, and I was shocked by the stark contrasts between our two organisations- basically doing the same job. Except that Wonderford's team also do a lot to help out in their community, where there is little in the way of a safety net for people when life goes wrong.

Fast forward to January 2015 and the Mulanje Mountain Rescue Team was at the forefront of efforts in the area to rescue people trapped by catastrophic floods.  Many were killed, either drowned or eaten by crocodiles. Others passed away in the aftermath from illnesses caused or made worse by the unsanitary conditions. Homes and businesses were destroyed. I'd already wanted to do something to help the rescue team, but the bad news from Mulanje encouraged me, and I undertook a fundraising challenge in May to raise some cash to take out to the team during this year's visit.

I was delighted to see Wonderford again this year, and he accepted on behalf of his team $1160 raised donated by you- my friends, family, colleagues and clients, to support the work of his team.

Wonderford is a superb guide, who knows the mountain like the back of his hand, and is both kind and incredibly professional. The Arran High Team were delighted to have him showing us the way in 2015 and we enjoyed a superb three day trek on the mountain.  He arranged for a team of strong porters to carry our tents and spare equipment for us- a worthwhile investment for enjoying the trek that also helps support the local community. Portering is one of the best paid jobs in the area.

Our route took us up to the Lichenya Basin, via a steep climb through high altitude pinapples, jungle, and moorland, to Lichenya Hut, one of the most beautiful and atmospheric of the huts on Mulanje.

In the forest strangler vines wrap themselves around ancient trees.

The porters carrying our equipment at Lichenya Hut

From Lichenya, the following day we enjoyed an undulating walk out of the basin, and along the narrow neck that links the main mountain to Chambe- an impressive outlying peak with impenetrable granite walls. We were excited to learn that it was the day of the Porter's race, a huge 26km mountain running event that attracts international competitors, but which is always won by one of the strong men from Likhubula, the village at the foot of the mountain.

The leaders in the Porter's Race

Stunning views from the path to Chambe

The entire team, reading the Arran Banner on Mulanje!
At Chambe, we were given permission to stay at France's hut, the setting for the tragic events told in Laurens Van Der Post's account of his 1949 explorations on Mulanje Venture to the Interior.

The following day, we descended to Likhubula, to enjoy a delicious pizza at the Mulanje Pepper Pizzeria. A rare treat in Malawi. After the trek, Wonderford arranged for me to meet some of his colleagues in the rescue team, and I was honoured to hear first hand from David Majeweta, John Ben and Kingsley Mmambo about the difficult times during the floods. I also learned a lot more about how the team functions.  With 24 members in total, drawn from  members of the Guides and Porters Association, six at a time from each of the four main settlements around the foot of the mountain. In this way the team ensure that they are able to provide a rapid response, as the mountain is very large and quite an obstacle to be negotiated. The men work as volunteers, and not only that, but the members of the Guides and Porters Association donate part of their earnings on the mountain to help keep the team going. The team has recently received some branded warm jackets from a benefactor, but on the whole they are fairly limited in their equipment.  They may not have much gear, but there is no lack of strength or dedication. As a mountaineer, who has fallen in love with Mulanje and been welcomed by the people I've met there, their story is a powerful one to me. They deeply impressed me with their commitment to their community and respect for the mountain on which they work.

Wonderford Mmambo, David Majeweta, Kingsley Mmambo and John Ben.