Sunday 30 June 2019

A Wild Camp on Braeriach

Wild places always call. Sometimes the weather does too.  Blue cloudless skies, hot sun, the mountains sharp and clear. I couldn’t resist. So I went to Braeriach for a circular walk with a high camp that I think takes in just about everything the Cairngorms have to offer from the forests to the mountain plateaux.

The walk began amongst the wonderful pines of Rothiemurchus Forest. Even in the shade of the trees it was hot. The rivers and streams still ran strongly though, full with recent rain. The path took me slowly up through the forest towards the great cleft of the Lairig Ghru and the ragged cliffs of Creag an Leth-choin. 

Once below the cliffs and in the mouth of the pass I turned more steeply uphill to climb the slopes of Sron na Lairige, the other wall of the Lairig Ghru. A few walkers passed me, descending. Distant views opened up, far hills sharp and clear. 

A last climb and I was on the long broad summit ridge of Braeriach looking across the snow-splashed cliffs rimming huge An Garbh Choire to Cairn Toul, one of the great views of the Cairngorms. Across the Lairig Ghru a few clouds were drifting over the summit of Ben Macdui, the first I’d seen all day.

Away across the plateau I could see the silver thread of the infant River Dee running across the mountainside before plunging down into the corrie as the Falls of Dee. Reaching the stream I followed it to its source, a collection of springs called the Wells of Dee. Here I camped, alone in a vast landscape.

A thin mist slipping over the ground reduced the sunset to a thin red line. At 2.30 in the morning I woke and looked out to a clear sky with a bright crescent moon and the white streaks of noctilucent clouds rising above the orange glow on the eastern horizon. I wandered round camp, revelling in the silence, the beauty, the peace, the joy of being here. In the distance I caught movement, a herd of reindeer browsing in the half-light.

Several hours later I woke again as the bright light of the sun warmed the tent. A breeze gently rattled the fabric, a breeze that kept me pleasantly cool as I wandered up to Einich Cairn and then along the edge of Coire an Lochain where I gazed down snow-filled gullies to the dark waters of the lochan.

From the mouth of the corrie an old little-used path zigzagged down towards Gleann Einich with the long cliffs of Sgor Gaoith and Sgoran Dubh Mor rising above, another splendid scene. A final descent down boggy heathery slopes and I was on the wide track in the glen and heading back towards the forest. Once in the shelter of the trees the heat hammered at me, making the walking the toughest of the day. Amongst the glorious trees I was happy to slow down, sitting often to soak in the life of the forest.

Sunday 23 June 2019

Book Review: Scaling the Heights - Measuring Scotland's Mountains

Back in 1891 Sir Hugh Munro produced his Tables of Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet high using the maps and surveying techniques of the time. These often weren’t very precise leading to doubts about hills just above or just below the magic 3,000 feet (914.4 metres). Modern surveying equipment and methods can measure hills much more accurately. The Ordnance Survey however only gives heights to the nearest metre. So a 914-metre summit might be 3,000 feet or might not. 

In 2006 The Munro Society decided to settle the matter by measuring accurately the two hills the OS said were 914 metres high, Beinn Dearg in Torridon and Foinaven. This developed into eight years of measuring the heights of all nineteen hills around 914.4 metres, a process that became known as “The Heightings”. 

This book, produced for the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Hugh Munro, tells the fascinating story of The Heightings with contributions from many of the members of The Munro Society involved plus the surveyors themselves. There are also chapters on how Munro constructed his Tables, the changes to the Tables since Munro’s time, and how modern surveying techniques work. 

Measuring the hills involved carrying heavy equipment to the summit and then waiting for hours while readings were taken. Sometimes the weather wasn’t kind, but the surveys still went ahead except on the very first trip, the only one I was on, when we turned back due to the stormy weather. 

Excellent photographs give a real sense of what The Heightings were like, showing the surveys taking place, the hills themselves, and the people involved, often wrapped up warmly or lying in bivi bags as they waited for the survey to be completed. 

Heading up Beinn Dearg on the first Heighting

Given the subject matter this could have been rather a dry book. It isn’t. It’s entertaining as well as informative and contains some humorous stories. My favourite comes at the end of The Heightings when a German TV company films a pretend Heighting (a real one would take too long) as part of a documentary on Scottish life and culture with an emphasis on the idiosyncratic. Iain A. Robertson, the author of this chapter, comments ‘how any group of persons who climbed mountains because they were above a certain height and, moreover, went to great lengths to check these heights, could be regarded as idiosyncratic is difficult to fathom’.

A Restorative Walk Up Craigellachie

I haven’t been out much recently. Here’s why.

The last – I was going to say ‘week’ but actually it’s longer than that. Let’s start again. The last ten days have been very frustrating. I’ve had a bad cold, a horrible cold; a stinking headachy, snotty, hacking cough cold; a cold that left me feeling brain dead and exhausted for days. It wasn’t nice. For writing I had to do – deadlines, deadlines – the words were dragged out of me, slowly and painfully. My mind really didn’t want to think, just wanted to be left alone to half-watch DVDs and half-read books. I had to bully myself. 

In the depths of the cold I didn’t care that I wasn’t getting into the hills. I felt too ill. But a slow recovery started me longing to head upwards, to do more than short strolls. As always with illness this period was the most frustrating of all. I felt awake, alert, again but my body was lagging behind. I knew if I pushed myself it would probably just mean a longer recuperation. Patience! Patience!

A short hill walk seemed a good test – nothing too strenuous or committing, a there-and-back route I could abandon easily. Craigellachie beckoned. I had to be in Aviemore anyway so why not wander up this dramatic little hill. Rising directly above Aviemore it’s a craggy wooded hillside. Once on top open moorland stretches out to higher summits.

The ascent is quite short but steep in places. I soon knew how well I could go uphill. Slowly, it turned out. Most of the way winds through lovely birch forest, the leaves still fresh and green. Below the forest swathes of long thick grass, blaeberry and unfurling bracken were dotted with flowers – speedwell, buttercups, tormentil. In one place lovely cranesbill. In a shallow lochan bright yellow iris. But shades of green dominated, soothing and refreshing. 

As the trees faded out the terrain turned to brown, rock-spattered moorland. Looking back down I admired the young trees spreading slowly upwards – pine as well as birch. This is a healthy forest. 

The summit was breezy, the sky dark with clouds. But there was no rain and the air was warm. The cold wetness of recent weeks was fading with my cold. In the distance hills faded into indistinct greyness. It felt good to be high above the world again. 

Descending back into the forest I was coughing and spluttering but I felt mentally renewed. Next week, a longer venture.