Sunday, 21 October 2018

A Stormy Day on Beinn Eighe with Torridon Outdoors

In the mist

Unusually my first venture into the hills after my GR5 walk wasn't in the Cairngorms but far to the west in Torridon. Back in the spring I'd been offered a couple of nights in The Torridon hotel and The Torridon Inn plus a day out with one of their instructors/guides, the deal being that I'd write about the experience. (There'll be a follow-up post on the hotel and the inn). I'd forgotten about this until a reminder came in just as I returned from the Alps. So a week after returning home I was away again for a couple of untypical luxury nights, with a day of storm inbetween.

View from the lip of Coire Mhic Fhearchair

The forecast being for very wet and windy weather that should ease a little in the afternoon the Head of Torridon Activities at Torridon Outdoors, Charlie Burrow, suggested Beinn Eighe as there's a long walk-in so the worst of the storm might have passed by the time we were high up. The walk-in certainly was wild with a gusty wind, heavy rain, and low clouds shrouding the hills.

The summit clears, briefly

On reaching Coire Mhic Fhearchair,a place that never fails to inspire and impress, the rain eased, though the wind was cold, and we stopped for a rest and a snack and the opportunity to admire the wild surroundings, the wave-swept lochan, and the great cliffs of the Triple Buttress, which faded in and out of the clouds.

In Coire Mhic Fhearchair

Threading a way through the rocky corrie we began the climb up the steep slopes to the col separating the high point of the mountain, Ruadh-stac Mor, from the main ridge. Looking back down the corrie we could see sunshine on hills to the north, which gave us hope the summit might clear.

Looking back across Coire Mhic Fhearchair

The ascent finishes up a loose scree and rock gully. We found the left-hand side a bit easier than the loose centre, with solid rock steps in places. The top of the gully disappeared into the mist and on emerging from it we also felt the full force of the wind. As it wasn't far now we went to the summit - and stood there in the mist a short while. It wasn't going to clear.

In the gully

Turning away we went onto the main ridge where we decided to see if there was a direct way down to join the outward path in Coire Dubh Mor. Both of us believed there was, though in my case my memory was faulty as the terrain I remembered from a descent on another wet misty day was nothing like as steep or stony as this turned out to be. A series of rock steps, steep loose scree chutes, and boulders had us traversing back and forth across the slope searching out the safest way. Far below we could see a path snaking across scree slopes. It took a while to reach. Much of the ground was so loose it slid beneath the feet. Care was needed! Lower down the larger rocks and little crags disappeared and there was just scree to slither down.


Whenever we paused and looked up - when moving eyes to the ground were essential - the great mass of Liathach reared up before us. This really is a dramatic landscape, as fierce, wild and magnificent as anything I saw in the Alps.

On the descent

Despite the weather it was a great day out and it was good to have a companion for once. I learnt a bit about Torridon Outdoors too. A huge range of activities is on offer including mountain biking, sea kayaking, canoeing, wildlife watching, and gorge scrambling as well as guided high and low level walks. You don't have to stay in the hotel or inn to take part in them either. There's more about Charlie and Torridon Outdoors in this Q&A post from last year.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Camping on the GR5 Trail through the French Alps

Camp opposite the Pointe de la Selle

When I set out on the GR5 I intended to camp as often as possible. I knew that you can stay in accommodation every night as there are many mountain refuges and settlements along the way but camping in wild places is a major part of long walks for me and I had no intention of not doing so. As it was after the second week of September most of the refuges and even hotels in towns were closed. An autumn walk on the GR5 requires camping.

First day, first camp. Below the Col de Bise

The walk took me thirty-two days, two of them rest ones. I ended up camping on twenty-one nights, eighteen of them on wild sites, one on an open commercial campground, and two on closed campgrounds that might as well have been wild sites. Ten nights were spent in hotels and guest houses.

En route to the Col de Chesery

Finding camp sites wasn't quite as easy as it is in some areas and I quickly learnt I had to think about the terrain and water sources. Much of the GR5 is on steep slopes with few places to camp. Water sources are sometimes many hours walking apart, especially in the southern half of the walk. I found it was better to stop early if I found a good site as pushing on could mean walking well into the night and crossing high cols in darkness, which I did a couple of times. I also soon started to fill up my water bottles late in the afternoon and carry water the last hour or two so I could use sites far from any water.

Clearing skis at a camp by the Ruiseau d'Anterne after a night of thunderstorms and heavy rain

Mostly, once away from villages and farms there were no restrictions on camping, as far as I could tell. Exceptions were in the two national parks, the Vanoise and the Mercantour. In the first camping is forbidden except next to some refuges, which weren't on my route. I camped just outside the park on two nights and spent a third in a guest house. In the Mercantour National Park camping was forbidden but bivoacing was permitted between the hours of 7pm and 9am. As I'd already learnt a bivouac in the French Alps means using a shelter in which you can't stand up - so backpacking tents and tarps are fine.

Camp en route to the Col de Brevent

Whenever possible I chose sites with spacious views. Sometimes though stormy weather made it more sensible to head down and camp deep in the forests. These sites were also enjoyable - I love trees - and the quietest of them all. Partly because there were no cows. Most of the uplands crossed by the GR5 are used for grazing cattle and sheep. I saw many hundreds of both. Often the animals wore bells, which could be heard jangling from far away. A few times I used ear plugs to reduce the noise. Sometimes I woke to find cows all round my camp. Another result of all these animals was that I often camped on ground liberally covered with cow and sheep dung. By the end of the trip my groundsheet stank, something I've never experienced before.

The GR5 was a great walk that I really enjoyed and I had many splendid camps. The Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, a well-used shelter that had been on two previous multi-week walks and many shorter ones, was ideal, giving masses of room and resisting wind and rain. Here are some more of my camps.
En route to the Refuge les Barmettes

Below the Col de la Vallee Etroite
Opposite the Pointe de la Selle

A frosty morning below the Col des Fourches
En route to the Col de Crousette

Below the Col des Deux Caires
My last camp on the GR5, above Utelle

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Great Outdoors November Issue: GR5 Gear & Other Stuff

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors has just been published. In it I describe the gear I used on my walk through the Alps on the GR5 Trail, a venture I finished just a few days ago. The piece was written eight days into the walk, when the weather had been warm and mostly sunny, though with some thunderstorms and torrential rain. The next three weeks did see colder weather and some strong winds and more prolonged rain. How did the gear hold up? I'll be writing about that soon.

Also in this issue there's a Beginners Gear Guide in which I make recommendations for day walking and backpacking gear and Judy Armstrong looks at gear for women.

The shortlists for the TGO Gear of the Year are announced. These come from products put forward by gear companies. Over the next few weeks I and the other five judges will be testing the products and deciding the winners in each of the seven categories.

The issue opens with a superb moody and evocative double page spread of dawn in Torridon by James Roddie. Further into the magazine Roger Smith considers the problem of vehicle tracks in the hills and looks at the recent excellent LINK Hilltracks report Changing Tracks. Jim Perrin gives a portrait of Bleaklow - 'one of the truly marvellous places in the British hills'. David Lintern traverses vast Ben Avon in the Cairngorms and has a cold camp high on the mountain. Judy Armstrong walks an unnamed ridge in the French Alps. In South Wales Phoebe Smith walks the little known Bwlch with Altitude circuit. Further north in Southern Scotland Ronald Turnbull undertakes the relaunched and in some places rerouted (a road section has been replaced with one over the Ettrick Hills - hurrah!) Southern Upland Way - 'the toughest waymarked trail in Scotland'. Just to the south in the Lake District photographer Dave Fieldhouse shows the changes in the seasons in a glorious photo essay. Finally, Sandy Paterson of Glenmore Lodge gives advice on scrambling.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Out now: my latest book, the story of my Scottish Watershed walk, Along The Divide.

Whilst I was away walking the GR5 trail through the Alps my book on a previous long walk, the Scottish Watershed, was published. Now I'm back I need to get on with promoting it so here's a plug!

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

GR5 completed

After 32 days of tough but superb mountain walking I reached the Mediterranean and the GR5 through the Alps was complete. The walk has been a great experience. I'll be posting more in the next few weeks, including many photos taken with my cameras. I'm looking forward to downloading these. There'll also be a piece in The Great Outdoors. In the meantime I can certainly recommend the route, including the finish to Nice, which I really enjoyed though the final walk through the city to the crowded beach feels rather surreal.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

GR5 Storms and Supplies

Six days out from Briançon and storms and food supplies have dominated the walk. After two days I had what will probably be the finest camp of the trip on the edge of the forest looking towards the dramatic twin summits of the Pointe de la Selle. The night was starry with a bright half moon and I was up for an hour taking pictures. I'll be interested to see how those turn out when I get home. By dawn a frost covered the ground, the first of the walk. The clear skies didn't signal continuing good weather however.

During the day clouds built up and the wind became ferocious. I crossed two high cols and was nearly blown off my feet. I camped in woods down in the valley as lightning flashed all around and thunder crashed and roared. Torrential rain hammered on my shelter.

By first light the rain had stopped. The air was misty and damp. As the clouds rose I could see fresh snow high above and was glad I'd camped in the valley. I was down in the woods again the next night after a day of bitter winds and spits of snow and hail.

The day had solved a food shortage though. I'd left Briançon with just about three days supplies. I knew the refuges would all be shut now but I hadn't expected whole villages to be so too. Brunnisard, Chateau Queyras, Ceillac, Larche. No restaurants, hotels, shops open. Then in the tiny hamlet of Fouillouse a little epicerie said ouvert. It was a joyous moment! In the three days since then everywhere has been closed until here at St Etienne de Tinee where I've resupplied for the last four or five days to Nice and the Mediterranean.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

GR5 The South Approaches

After nineteen days and around 330 kilometres plus enormous amounts of ascent and descent I've arrived in Briançon, the biggest town on the GR5 and a fascinating place with huge walls and forts. I've had a day off here, the second of the walk, the first being in Les Houches ten days ago. I find that after this long I start to slow down unless I take a day off. Briançon is ideal for this. As well as very interesting it has all facilities, including a much needed laundrette.

The walking has mostly been superb with excellent mountain paths through outstanding landscapes. I'm familiar with the pattern now - a steep climb through forest to open country and a col or two and then an equally steep descent into the next valley. Finding cars parked at the top of some of the ascents still feels a little disappointing but I'm getting used to it.

Mont Blanc seems along time ago and even the Vanoise, where I was four days ago, is receding fast. Every Col brings a new world and a farewell. I always look back, relishing the land I've crossed.

Tomorrow sees the start of the last ten days or so. The Mediterranean feels close, Lake Geneva distant. I hope the weather continues to be kind.