Monday 13 June 2011

Wild Camping on the Island of Rum

The following account of a rather dramatic trip appeared in TGO magazine five years ago. The picture shows the camp on the slopes of Ainshval.

Stormy nights in a tent are one of the joys of backpacking. Or so I told myself as I lay in my tiny shelter listening to the wind rush down the mountainside lashing the tent with rain and shaking the thin nylon walls. I was camped in Coire Dubh on the island of Rum below the mist-shrouded walls of Barkeval and Hallival on the first night of a four day trip during which I hoped to traverse the Rum Cuillin, the finest Hebridean mountains outside the bigger Cuillin on Skye. Like their larger namesake the Rum Cuillin are the jagged remnants of an ancient volcano.

Earlier in the day I’d arrived on the ferry from Mallaig after a pleasant trip spent watching birds and staring at the ominous dark cloud hiding Rum. In the little village of Kinloch, the only one on the island, the midges were biting in the calm humid air, ending the temptation to camp on the site here rather than start my walk in such, dull misty weather. Instead I passed by the grand Edwardian pile of Kinloch Castle, a rather incongruous feature on this wild island, and climbed a muddy path into the cloud to camp on a breeze catching knoll in the mouth of the corrie.

That evening, in the hope of a clearance and a sunset, I climbed 591 metre Barkeval, a rugged hill built of peridotite, an extremely rough red-brown volcanic rock. I clambered up rock and bog in thick mist and steady drizzle. The summit came and went, barely noticed in the increasingly stormy weather. A compass bearing led to the Bealach Bairc-mheall from where I dropped back down into Coire Dubh and shelter from the wind. Immediately clouds of midges swarmed round me and I had to run to escape them, producing copious condensation inside my waterproof. Wet rain jacket, wet windshirt, wet shoes, wet socks, wet trousers. I stripped off and dived into the merely damp confines of the tent and an already clammy sleeping bag. The gusty wind kept the midges at bay, though they sprang up whenever it dropped for more than a few seconds. During the night the strengthening wind woke me several times. By morning the strongest gusts were reaching 30mph. The tent was shrouded in damp mist and the flysheet was soaked inside and out.

Adopting my wet weather strategy – stay in the tent and hope it clears – I put on another brew and settled down to read my book, the story of Scottish plant collector David Douglas, who put up with far more than wet nights in search of seeds in the Rocky Mountains. Eventually I was rewarded for my sloth with a brief clearance and a sudden view down to the woods in Kinloch Glen. I started packing. The clouds soon closed back in but I went anyway, climbing back up through the dark mist to the Bealach Bairc-mheall. Standing was difficult here and the anemometer recorded a gust of 57.7 mph. It took only seconds to realise that the traverse of the Cuillin would be foolhardy, if indeed possible, in such weather and I was soon descending steep, rough slopes into huge Atlantic Corrie, then on east down Glen Harris, a lovely, wild valley with a noisy river crashing down in a series of waterfalls and water slides, culminating in one big white foamed fall dropping straight into the matching white foamed sea. Here, on the south-west coast of Rum, I camped on the beautiful flower-strewn machair above a wild sea, the grey water breaking in ragged white waves, their crests ripped into spinning foam by the wind. A herd of wild goats stared down at me from a ridge, their shaggy coats, curved horns and manic eyes appropriate to this elemental place. Four curlews circled above the camp, their rippling calls ringing through the roaring wind.

The crossing of the ridge had only taken half a day. Reluctant to spend more hours than necessary in my damp camp I spent the afternoon exploring the coast with its pebble beaches and little cliffs and visiting the big strange Greek temple style mausoleum built here by the Bullough family, former owners of the island. Far out to sea the ferry to South Uist bounced past. I was glad I wasn’t on board. Inland the hills were still cloud-shrouded, dark masses looming in the dull air.

The wind and rain finally eased at dawn, just right for the midges to come out as I was breakfasting. Out to the south-west thin lines of blue sky wavered below the steel grey cloud. Gradually the cloud rose, revealing 528 metre Ruinsival with bands of cloud drifting below the summit. The surging sea was gentler and more rhythmic rather than a storm driven staccato crashing. The world was beginning to look brighter and more colourful.

As the sky continued to lighten I climbed up beside lovely white waterslides on the Abhainn Fiachanis to Loch Fiachanis, set in a wonderful corrie backed by the great walls of Trollaval and Ainshval. More wild goats watched me from a rocky knoll. Steep slopes led up to Ruinisval and a long ridge to Ainshval, second highest summit on Rum at 781 metres and one of the islands two Corbetts. Good views on the approach faded as the clouds descended again. A walker was just leaving the summit, the first person I’d seen in two days. I took a bad line on the descent to the Bealach an Fhuarain and ended up on some very steep, loose, slippery, broken ground that ended in a stubby crag. As I was trying to traverse back to easier terrain the clouds lifted again and I had splendid views down Glen Dibidil and across a blue sea to a sunlight isle of Eigg. Across the glen the intimidating steep screes of the south-west face of Askival, the highest Rum peak at 812 metres, rose into the cloud. Skirting the base of a rather too loose boulder field I reached a little stream on a grassy sward high on the mountainside, hanging far above Glen Dibidil. It was a magnificent situation and I knew immediately I wanted to camp there. I could see the bealach away to the left and realised I had descended too far to the east, fortuitously finding this grassy ledge, from which relatively easy ground led back to the ridge I should have been on.

Showers and midges between the gusts soon drove me into the tent, where I massaged my toes, which were grey and cold after three days in wet shoes and socks. My spare dry merino wool socks felt luxurious and I soon slipped my legs into my sleeping bag to further warm my feet. Outside the cloud thickened and visibility was barely 20 metres. The sense of space and depth was gone and the world had reverted to a patch of wet grass and dense grey mist. The temperature in the tent was 13ยบ but it felt colder due to the dampness.

Bursts of rain and a hammering wind woke me during the night. Looking out I could see the distant lights of Mallaig shining below the cloud. Then as the storm eased briefly I could hear strange, throaty shrieks and cries, masses and masses of them. These were the calls of Manx shearwaters, sea birds that nest in burrows high on the hillsides of Rum, only coming into to land after dark, when they are safe from predation by skuas and gulls. Over 70,000 pairs nest on Rum. The Vikings who ruled these islands 1000 years ago thought that the weird calls of the Manx shearwaters were the voices of trolls in the mountains. They named one of the hills Trollaval – mountain of the trolls. Most of the hill names on Rum are Norse. “Val” comes from “fjall”, which became “fell” in Northern England. Askival is hill of the ash spear, Ainshval is hill of the rocky ridge, Ruinisval the hill of the heap of rocks, Hallival hill of the ledge and Barkeval the hill of the precipice. Prosaic but descriptive names all, letting you know just what these hills are like.

The storm continued at dawn. The Bealach an Fhuarain was very windy and swirling with mist. Having had enough of wet rocky slopes in minimal visibility and with a ferry to catch that afternoon I decided Askival would have to wait for another visit. Turning downhill I descended long Glen Dibidil, another lovely valley with a rushing stream and many waterfalls. At its foot a bothy sits in an idyllic situation looking over the sea to Eigg. Fine cliffs surround Dibidil Bay from where I followed a wet and muddy but very scenic path around the coast to Kinloch where the sun shone between showers. From the ferry I looked back at the dark silhouette of Rum, the Cuillin now visible below a clearing sky. I would be back.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Seizing a Gap in the Wet Weather

Today the rain has hammered down again, sending white streams rushing down the track to my house. The hills are hidden in the dark clouds and the air is chill and damp. It does not feel like June and the warm, sunny days of April seem so far away and long ago as to be from another time. Since then there has been over five weeks of low cloud, wind and rain with barely a sight of the sun. There was a glimpse a few days ago though and a friend and I seized the chance for an overnight in the Cairngorms. The strong winds of the first dry day having abated and the sun shining hot in a clear sky we set off into Coire an t-Sneachda, where the pools, gorged with rain and snowmelt, were overflowing onto the grass. Climbers were at play on the cliffs, three pairs on the same route. We took the easier way up the Goat Track, a fine, thin path that weaves a steep way through broken rocks and loose ground onto the Cairngorm Plateau. Sweating in the sun we crossed the bright stony expanse to the summit of Ben Macdui where a snow bunting sang a welcome. Turning east we descended in search of a high level camp. On this sun-sheltered side of the mountain there were big snow patches that made for easier walking than the rough granite rocks. Beside a rushing torrent emerging from a snowbank we found a patch of dry ground amongst the snowmelt pools. The view stretched out to distant Cairn Gorm. It was an idyllic place to spend an evening watching the light and the water and the clouds and the hills.

I fell asleep with the tent doors wide open, as I prefer for it maintains a feeling of still being amongst nature rather than cut off in a nylon cocoon. Usually any rain wakes me quickly so I can close the doors before anything much gets wet. This was not one of those nights. The wetness crept in quietly and insidiously, thin drizzle in a damp mist that wafted into the tent without waking me until my face was wet and a breeze chilled my skin. The outer of my sleeping bag was damp and the inner tent walls dripping. I closed the doors and fell back asleep. In the morning everything was a little drier in the tent but outside the mist lingered and the spacious views of the previous evening had shrunk to a few metres of rock, grass and water. Shifting clouds and patches of blue gave hope of a clearance as we clambered back up Ben Macdui. The mist swirled just above us. Not far above it was probably sunny. But this mountain wasn’t high enough to reach the light. Rather than spend a day in the clouds we descended steep boulder slopes into the Lairig Ghru pass. Brief views of the hills across the pass came and went as we concentrated on boulder hopping and picking the best route. By the time we reached the glen below the clouds had settled on the summits. They were not to shift again that day. But the walk through the Lairig Ghru between encroaching stony walls and past the dark Pools of Dee was as marvellous as ever and we had a second spot of boulder scrambling through the glacier meltwater cleft of the Chalamain Gap before a final plod across heather and bog, with a couple of swollen burns to cross to keep up the interest. Given the weather since I’m delighted to have seized such a trip. Now to see what the rest of the summer brings.

The photos show Mark crossing a snowfield on Ben Macdui, view from the tent in the evening light, the same view in the morning mist and a brief clearance during the descent into the Lairig Ghru.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Annandale Way on Walk Highlands

My illustrated route description of the Annandale Way (see here for my blog entry on this walk) has just appeared on the Walk Highlands website here. My thanks to Paul Webster of Walk Highlands for sorting out the GPX track after I managed to record so many waypoints that the files were too big to download to my computer. I shall have to look at the settings.

The picture is of Joe Graham's Monument on Almagill Hill on the Lochmaben to Hoddom Castle stage.

Sunday 5 June 2011

New Style TGO

The July issue of TGO is just out and it’s something of a surprise. I knew there were changes on the way but I was still startled at how different the magazine looks. It’s all positive too, with more pages, a larger format and higher quality paper. Photos look brighter and sharper – some of them are quite stunning. The magazine has a spine now and feels thick and substantial. Overall it looks like a magazine that’s decided it’s finally time it flexed its muscles. Congratulations to editor Emily Rodway and her team. (In case anyone’s wondering I’m not involved with the production or editing of the magazine, I just write and photograph stuff, so I haven’t been involved with this new look).

The content has changed too – there’s more of it and it looks better. There’s a whole new Hill Skills section, for which I’ve written a piece on fitting a pack. Also covered in this section are scrambling skills, the many uses of duct tape, map analysis, weather fronts, how to deal with midges (accompanied by a fetching picture of Cameron McNeish hiding under a midge net) and much more.

In the Gear section I review ten single hoop tents, look at Colin Ibbotson’s ultralight packs and test a Ventile cotton/Nikwax Analogy smock from Hilltrek and vauDe’s new Norrsken insulated airbed. John Manning reviews 13 waterproof jackets costing under £100 and finds it hard to choose a Best Buy. There’s also a Best of the Tests page with recommendations and Best Buys from previous issues.

My backpacking column is about my summer long round of the Munros and Tops as it’s the 15th anniversary of this walk. On this day back in 1996 I crossed from Glen Lochay to Crainlarich over Ben Challum, my 71st summit, on the first dry and sunny day for over a week.

Picking out a selection from the rest of the magazine I’m pleased to see Roger Smith giving a page to Alan Sloman’s Wake for the Wild requiem for the Monadh Liath during the TGO Challenge (see Alan’s account here). Carey Davies visits Stanage in the Peak District and tries rock climbing for the first time – which reminded me of the few times I climbed there, my main memory being of how abrasive the gritstone was. New columnist comedian Ed Byrne also heads into the Pennines, but to learn some navigation skills rather than rock climbing. Andrew Terrill, whose pieces are always inspiring, spends a stormy midsummer’s day and night in the Cuillin on Skye and illustrates his dramatic story with some equally dramatic images. Speaking of fine images there’s a wonderful photo essay on the Patagonian Andes by Dougie with some mouth-watering images that made me want to be there – now. Also lovely are the paintings of Welsh mountain artist Gwyn Roberts, with whom Emily Rodway spends a day. Away from pictures to words we come to Jim Perrin. He often quotes from his favourite outdoor writers in his column. Now he’s going to write specifically about them, with an introduction in this issue. In the Highlands Torridon is one of my favourite areas and I enjoyed Cameron McNeish’s piece on Beinn Eighe and two lower but still fine Torridon hills, Ruadh-stac Beag and Meall a’Ghuibhais.

There’s much more in this impressive issue. If you haven’t seen TGO in a while do pick up a copy and have a look. It really is different.

The picture shows two single hoop tents pitched on the Cairngorm Plateau.

Backpacking Suilven

This piece first appeared in TGO a few years ago. The pictures show the view east along Suilven to Meall Mheadhonach and Suilven rising above the camp beside the Fionn Loch.

Rising steeply from an undulating land of bog and loch Suilven is one of the great mountains of the Scottish Highlands, a massive and distinctive wedge of dark Torridonian sandstone standing alone on a plinth of pale striped metamorphic Lewisian gneiss. Suilven looks ancient, a gnarled and battered giant, and it is. At around 3,000,000 years of age Lewisian gneiss is one of the oldest rocks in the world. At just 1,000,000 years old the Torridonian sandstone is young by comparison but still much older than many rocks. From the sides this slice of layered stone is an undulating 2.5km ridge with an off-centre low point, a bulging summit at the west end, the highest point, and a split summit at the east end. Viewed from the east Suilven rises as a finely tapered pyramid, the easternmost top, Meall Bheag, being lower than the next one, Meall Mheadhonach, so they appear as one summit. From the west steep terraced cliffs rise to the bulky, rounded summit of Caisteal Liath – the Grey Castle. From everywhere Suilven looks striking and imposing, a grand mountain in a grand setting. The name comes from the Norse for “pillar” and probably refers to its appearance from the sea and its use as a landmark by the Vikings as they sailed their longboats along the west coast of Scotland. A mighty mountain indeed yet it’s only 731 metres high, not even reaching Corbett (762 metres) let alone Munro status (914 metres). So much for categorising mountains by height then for Suilven is finer and more distinctive than many that rise hundreds of metres higher.

Suilven lies in solitary splendour in the district of Assynt in a huge roadless area between the coast and the road north from Ullapool. All approaches are lengthy. It is usually climbed from the path running west from the scattered village of Elphin to the little fishing port of Lochinver, a good through-route. This path passes below the north face of Suilven from where a rougher trail leads up to the low point on the ridge called the Bealach Mor, a geological fault line. However a more interesting route that explores some of the wonderful country surrounding the hill crosses Suilven from south to north. This can be walked in one long day but I think it’s more satisfying to take two days and spend a night in the wild loneliness of this vast landscape and really absorb and sink into the atmosphere. Waking in such a place greatly enhances the feel of being part of it, of belonging, and deepens the feelings of joy and satisfaction of walking in the wilds.

With this in mind two of us managed to tear ourselves away from the attractions of the Achins tearoom and bookshop at Inverkirkaig Bridge, a remote place for such facilities, and set off one late spring afternoon along a path through lovely deciduous woodland, a rich mix of alder, rowan and birch with a few pines, beside the River Kirkaig. This path rises to moorland above the ravine down which the river flows and leads to the Falls of Kirkaig, a ferociously powerful cataract that plunges 18 metres in a single drop between sheer cliffs into a black rippling pool. Trees frame the falls and the cliffs and the situation is one of natural perfection, beautiful and severe at the same time.

As we left the falls and climbed onto open, boggy, heather moorland rain began to fall with clouds hiding the hills we knew rose splendidly all around. The area around Suilven is a typical Lewisian gneiss landscape of pools, bogs and low hummocky, rocky knolls, a terrain known as “knoc and lochan”. The ragged twisting path led across the wet ground to long Fionn Loch where we found a lovely camp site on the north shore near the burn running down from Coire Mor. The swirling low clouds and grey sky added to the feeling of wildness and remoteness. Nothing was visible but cloud and water, bog and rock, heather and grass – the last green with the spring. A breeze off the loch kept the midges away and I lay in the tent with the doors wide open staring out at the wetness. Slowly the world became distinct and I started to notice movement other than that of cloud and water and hear sounds other than the patter of rain and gentle hiss of wind. On a spit of gravel jutting out into the water at the mouth of the burn two little birds ran like clockwork across the shore. I scanned them with my binoculars. Ringed plover, birds of the water’s edge. Far out on the loch a dark silhouette rode the wind-rippled water. The streamlined shape and long pointed bill showed it was a diver, a symbol of the wild, though whether red or black-throated I could not tell. A cuckoo called from afar and grouse cackled somewhere. Just water and wind, rain and moor, birds and rocks. It was enough. I dozed off content with the world.

Later my sleep was disturbed by the wild shriek of a diver and the drumming of a snipe and then at dawn the more insistent repetitive call of a cuckoo. More noisy cries had me looking out of the tent to see a line of long-necked ducks flying fast overhead, calling all the time. As I watched the clouds slowly began to dissolve and I thanked the birds for waking me as across the loch strange shapes began to materialise in the fading mists, the splendid peaks of Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh. To the east Suilven rose up, dark and foreboding. Slowly the world brightened as the early sun rose through the swirling clouds. By 8 a.m. the sky was clear and the sun already hot with a temperature of 17°C.

Not much further along the shores of Fionn Loch we turned towards the mountain, following a rough eroded path across hummocky moorland to the steep southern flanks of Suilven. The path headed straight up these slopes then cut across the face to the Bealach Mor, a rough, steep climb. The views were spacious and exhilarating. Out of the undulating, shining, sparkling, watery landscape rose a series of distinctively shaped hills – Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh now sharp and clear to the south, Canisp just to the north with Quinag in the distance. Much farther away other peaks came into view, most clearly the ragged edge of An Teallach to the south and the twisting ridges of Arkle and Foinaven far to the north. Eastwards a long dark line marked Conival and Ben More Assynt.

Turning west we followed the ridge, with some easy scrambling, up to Caisteal Liath, Suilven’s highest summit. From this spacious high vantage point there were superb views out across the moorland to the blue island-dotted sea stretching out to the distant hazy Western Isles and back east to the soaring eastern spire of Suilven, Meall Mheadhonach, an exposed scramble. And everywhere lochs and lochs and lochs, water filling every dip and hollow, each one ground out by the glaciers that carved this landscape, including Suilven, itself sculpted by the ice grinding past as it flowed from east to west.

There is no walkers’ way off Caisteal Liath, which is ringed with crags on three sides, except via the Bealach Mor so to this we returned, crossing again the curious not to say crazy wall that runs over Suilven not far above the low point. Who built it and why? No one seems to know. From the bealach we descended the wide eroded gully of scree, heather and rock (which is rather loose and nasty at the top) that runs north down to Loch na Gainimh. This is the most popular ascent route, as the worn nature of the path shows. On the descent the whaleback of Canisp to the east and distant Quinag to the north dominated the view. The summits of these peaks are paler and greyer than the slopes below, caps of Cambrian Quartzite lying over the dark Torridonian sandstone.

Once out of the gully the terrain eased off and the walking became easier as we passed some lochs before reaching the Elphin to Lochinver path where we turned westwards and headed for the coast beside the Abhainn Bad na h-Achlaise and a series of lovely lochs, pausing frequently to turn and contemplate the ever-changing, slowly dwindling views of Suilven to the south and east. The moorland faded too as we passed Glencanisp Lodge and walked through some pleasant quiet woods to reach a road for the last two kilometres into Lochinver and a celebratory meal of the famous pies of Lochinver Larder.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Radio Talks now available on The Outdoor Station

The talks I recorded with David Lintern earlier in the year are now available as podcasts on The Outdoors Station. During a walk through Ryvoan Pass we discussed long distance walking, conservation, wild places and my inspirations and more. Also on The Outdoors Station is David's talk with Alan Sloman and Andy Howell, which is well worth hearing.