Thursday 18 July 2024

A forced change of plan and a walk in a little-visited part of the Cairngorms

An Garbh-choire

Sometimes plans don’t quite work out. Sometimes they don’t work out at all. Knowing recovery from a forthcoming hand operation would keep me off the hills for at least a couple of weeks I planned an overnight trip in the Cairngorms. The day I was due to start I first picked up the friend who’s going to drive me back from the hospital after the operation – aside from being unfit to drive after the anaesthetic I’ll also have a hand in plaster. We got in my car and I turned the key. Nothing. Not a sound. A few more attempts and I range the local garage, who have been dealing with my cars for over thirty years. We’ll get back to you soon, they said. We went for a coffee. It was disgusting. I won’t be going there again.

The garage rang back. We’ll come and look at the car (they were only about half a mile away). Two mechanics turned up and fiddled with a diagnostic device. Nothing. At one point a mechanic thumped the steering wheel. Still nothing. Probably the starter ignition they said. We need to take it back to the garage for a proper look. We bump started the car – nothing wrong with the engine – and off they went. We went for another coffee, a good one this time. Eventually I rang the garage. Starter motors dead. We should be able to get one in tomorrow and may be able to fit it then. I need it in two days to get to hospital. We’ll try our best.

Home was only five miles away but my friend had awkward luggage so we weren’t going to walk. We rang the only local taxi service. Happily, a taxi could come straight away and we were soon being whisked home by a friendly and chatty taxi driver. Thank you, Johnny’s Taxis.

Now a nervous wait to see if my car would be fixed in time for the hospital appointment. But thankfully not a long wait as the next morning the garage phoned and said it was ready. Phew! Relief. Thank you, Woodland Service Centre.

Rather long preamble over. Now to the hills! Without the time for an overnight or even a long day I unpacked my big pack and packed a small one. I decided to have a wander round the northern end of the Cairn Gorm massif, a complex area of ravines, knolls, terraces, and bogs between Ryvoan Pass and Strath Nethy. It’s a quiet, little-visited area (I’ve never met anyone here) with hardly any paths.

I remembered that the walking could be tough here. I had forgotten just how tough. Deep tussocky heather, spongy bogs, steep slopes. Progress was very slow. Once I left the path from Ryvoan Pass and started the ascent of appropriately named An Garbh-choire (it means the Rough Corrie) I reckon my pace slowed by at least three-quarters.

Brilliant bell heather in An Garbh-choire

I didn’t mind the slowness though as the corrie is a wonderful place; hidden, secretive, magical. There are old pines and birches here and even some aspens and plenty of regeneration. In the boggy areas the orange spikes of bog asphodel, the white fluffy flowers of bog cotton, and the pale lilac of orchids gave touches of brightness to the brown landscape. But the real outrageous brilliance came from the stunning deep purple patches of bell heather that glowed with an almost unreal brightness.

Aspen in An Garbh-choire

An Garbh-choire ends in two steep narrow gullies. A line of broken crags lines one of them. I climbed the very steep slope on the edge of these rocks, exiting the enclosing confines of the corrie to a sudden expansion of the world before me. In the distance I could see the broad ridge running from Stac na h-Iolaire to Cairn Gorm.

Cairn Gorm from the top of An Garbh-choire

Below me lay another ravine, Eag a’ Gharbh-choire, this one level and choked with rocks. The remains of a small shieling lie inside. A breeze dried my sweat-soaked clothes.

Eag a' Gharbh-choire

I continued upwards more easily to Creag nan Gall, whose steep west face towers above An Lochan Uaine in Ryvoan Pass. Bits of sketchy path led across the mix of bog and heather, less tussocky here. This was the easiest walking of the trip. From the summit I could see the curving summit of Bynack More rising towards dark clouds. Rain threatened but did not fall.  

Creag nan Gall & Bynack More

I descended south from the summit, plunging down the heather tussocks towards a trickle of a burn. Reaching this I followed it towards Ryvoan Pass. Soon the slopes steepened as I reached the first trees. A narrow dirt path appeared. It felt familiar. It was. I soon remembered I had come this way before, many years ago, and the descent was desperate. The path was wet, slippery and very steep, in places with drop-offs where it had collapsed. I slid down a few of these on my backside. Progress was only marginally faster than on the ascent. Again though the surroundings made up for the arduous walking. I was in a wild tangled luxurious forest, an astonishing mix of trees, shrubs, grasses, heather, and bracken (head high in places). This is how a forest should be.

Even so I did feel relieved to reach the path and easy walking. Although I hadn’t gone very far this was a very tough venture. Far more strenuous than the walk across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui I reckon. Perhaps that’s why no-one hardly ever comes here. I’ll be back.

Sunday 14 July 2024

A Look At The August Issue Of The Great Outdoors


In the August issue of The Great Outdoors I review six backpacking stoves, Alex Roddie reviews six two-person tents, and Fiona Russell and John Manning review a pair of budget sleeping bags apiece. There are also reviews of the Highlander Women's Ben Nevis 52 Litre Rucksack by Lucy Wallace and the Alpine Parrot Ponderosa Trousers by Mary Ann Ochota.

In the main features Vivienne Crow looks at seven mountain challenges including the Cuillin Ridge, the Cairngorms 4000s, the Lakeland 3000s, and the Welsh 3000s. Alex Roddie goes west to east along the challenging Aonach Eagach in Glencoe. Roger Butler explores the Stiperstones, a beautiful and fascinating corner of the England/Wales border. In Switzerland Richard Hartfield takes the new Via Glaralpina trail round the Glarus Alps and meets the volunteers who built it. 

Also in this issue Creator of the Month is artist and writer Bryony Ella, Francesca Donovan reviews Wild Service: Why Nature Needs You edited by Nick Hayes and Jon Moses, in the Opinion column Debbie North says improving accessibility does not mean paving the landscape, Jim Perrin recalls learning rock climbing on Helsby Hill in his Mountain Portrait, James Roddie looks at things to do in and around Inverness, mountain leader Keri Wallace gives advice on moving faster in the mountains, and in her Notes from the Edge Emma Schroeder laments our lack of biodiversity. 

In Great Walks Ian Battersby goes scrambling on Stac Pollaidh in the NW Highlands and has a gentler walk on Windy Gyle in the Cheviots. There are four walks in the Lake District. Vivienne Crow explores Rannerdale Knotts above Crummock Water and Sheffield :Pike and Glencoyne above Ullswater. Also above Ullswater Alex Roddie climbs Place Fell. The fnal Lakes walk is Norman Hadley on Beda Fell above Martindale. Great Walks then jumps to Wales where Francesca Donovan explores Holyhead Mountain on Anglesey, Fiona Barltrop traverses Pen y Fan in Brycheiniog/Brecon Beacons, and Roger Butler follows paths over the Sugar Loaf in the Black Mountains. Finally down in Surrey Nike Werstroh visits the Devil's Punch Bowl on the Greensand Way.


Thursday 11 July 2024

A Wonderful New Midge Net!


The midge season is well under way in the Scottish Highlands. Trying to avoid these tiny winged horrors now becomes a major factor in outdoor trips until the autumn. Camp high in a breeze, avoid damp places, (as if!), don't stop walking. But whatever you it's just about impossible not to encounter midges at some time. 

Insect repellent and tightly woven clothing can stop midges biting but doesn't stop clouds of them whining round your face and head searching for an unprotected bit of flesh. This is intensely annoying and distracting. The only answer if you want to do something that requires staying still - pitching a tent, having a rest, belaying a climber, taking a photograph, watching wildlife - is a headnet. But headnets restrict vision and can feel claustrophobic. The solution is a headnet with built-in glasses. I've been trying a new one designed by photographer and climber Tim Parkin called MidgeSpecs. Short review: they work, they're excellent.

Nearly a decade ago I tried a similar headnet called the Netspex, which I wrote about here. That product is long gone and until now nothing has replaced it. It worked quite well when new but the glasses were quite small, fogged easily, and soon became scratched. 

The MidgeSpecs are a big advance. The glasses are standards compliant safety ones made of strong polycarbonate and have an anti-fog treatment. They're big and clear for good vision and the arms are adjustable for fit. The net is industry standard too. It has a solid top and a bottom drawcord. MidgeSpecs come with a soft bag for carrying and a cardboard tube for storage. The weight is 58g. They cost £28 from the MidgeSpecs online shop.  

I've worn the MidgeSpecs over a baseball cap, a wide-brimmed hat, and my bare head and they fit fine in every case. I've also worn them over my reading glasses and that's fine too. The wide view through the glasses gets rid of the trapped feeling of standard midge nets and lets you get on with what you're there for. I highly recommend them.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

An Interesting Visit To Loch Eanaich

Camp in Gleann Eanaich

On a trip with Tony Hobbs back in February I was blasted out of Gleann Eanaich by fierce winds,  ending up camping down in the shelter of the forest. Over four months later I returned, hoping the forecast for lighter winds and lessening rain would prove correct. The first was, the second wasn’t.

Clouds over the forest

On a showery evening I walked through the wonderful old pine forest and out into the wide boggy moraine-strewn glen. The Am Beanaidh, the river that drains Loch Eanaich, was roaring down in surging brown and cream waves. I’d chosen this route in part because there were no major fords and I knew the rivers and burns would be high after the heavy rain of recent days. Even so I soon had wet feet as the ground was sodden and there were many deep puddles. In places the path was a stream., Every burn that crossed it was full and fast.

The Am Beanaidh

After crossing the Am Beanaidh on a bridge that is developing holes in its flat metal grid panels I was approaching the biggest side stream I had to ford, the Beannaidh Bheag, when I saw two walkers dressed in black waterproofs coming towards me. They managed to cross the stream on rocks then asked me how long it would take to get to the road at Whitewell. They told me they had climbed Angel’s Peak (the now disused Victorian name for Sgor an Lochain Uaine) and had been on the summit at 3pm in thick mist. They said their phones and GPS hadn’t worked properly (they didn’t have a paper map) so they weren’t sure which way they’d gone. It was now 10pm. The most direct route from Sgor an Lochain Uaine to the Beannaidh Bheag is about 10km. It had taken them seven hours. What route they’d taken I couldn’t work out. Sgor an Lochain Uaine is an unusual peak to climb from Whitewell anyway and I wondered if they’d actually been up Braeriach or Cairn Toul. What was clear was that they were lucky to have made it down to the glen safely. There are many places they could have got into difficulties.

Loch Eanaich & Sgoran Dubh Mor

Telling them it had taken me two hours from Whitewell to here seemed to cheer them up a little. One of them said they’d come this way. The other didn’t seem too sure. I told them about the lower path just above the river as the forest is reached, which avoids a steep climb on the wider ORV track. They didn’t know about that.

When I told them I was camping out they looked startled. Then they strode off down the glen and I turned and sloshed through the water, not bothering with the rocks as my legs were soaked below the knees anyway.

After the rain

The forecast had said the showers would cease during the evening. They did, they turned to steady rain. By the time I reached Loch Eanaich it was hammering down. I pitched the tent near the outlet to the loch, filled my water containers, and was soon inside enjoying hot soup and listening to the rain on the flysheet. I’d look at my surroundings in the morning.

Loch Eanaich

I woke to grey light at 4 a.m. It was still raining. Back to sleep. Three hours later I woke again. The sky was still cloudy but the rain had stopped and there were glimpses of blue sky. A gentle breeze was blowing but high above the clouds were speeding past. It would probably be windy on the tops. On the walk in I’d developed a sore calf, probably strained when I slipped slightly, something that happened several times on the wet ground. I thought it might ache even more on a long descent and could be a real problem if it became really painful. I had planned to go up Braeriach. Maybe that wasn’t a good idea now.
 

The foxglove

I decided to go for a walk along the lochside and see how my leg felt. Above the dark water the cliffs and corries echoed its blackness as they rose towards the paler grey clouds, dramatic and impressive. Not all was grim and foreboding though. A scattering of colour lined the banks. Yellow buttercups, lilac orchids, a single tall foxglove, the first purple bell heather. Close to the shore the water was shallow and golden brown, turning suddenly black in the depths further out. Sandpipers occasionally called from rocks and flew low over the water. I saw no other birds.

Shades of water

Back at the tent my mind was made up. My calf was already hurting more. Climbing a hill didn’t appeal and was probably irresponsible. I would walk back down the glen.

Before doing so I tidied up my campsite. Not from any thing I’d done but by moving rocks left by previous campers, some quite recently as the grass underneath was still green. It took me over half an hour to carry the rocks to the river or the loch and chuck them in. I do wish people would put rocks back if they have to use them to weigh down tent pegs, something rarely necessary. There was a fire ring burnt into the ground too but all I could do with that was scuff up the surface.

Vandalism

I had more clearing up to do on the walk back down the glen. Shortly after entering the forest I noticed something well below the path on a small flat area amongst the pines where I had camped in the past. I went down to investigate and found a structure of interwoven sticks round one side of a deep fire pit. I guess it was meant as a heat reflector, as used in bushcraft camping in cold weather. It had been well-made with sharpened stakes driven into the ground, the sticks cut with a saw, and the whole thing bound together with cord. Someone had carried an axe and a saw here, some five kilometres from the road.

Afterwards

I couldn’t leave with it intact, so I set to work to dismantle it and scatter the sticks. A large ring of rocks surrounded the firepit. I shoved these into it. There are no stones nearby and I assumed these had been carried up from the river, which was a fair way below. I could have done with a shovel to fill in the pit and bury the rocks. At least I didn’t leave something that could be used by others or encourage them to think such things are acceptable.

This vandalism angered me. As well as spoiling a wild place having a fire here was a big risk. Campfires should never be built in forests or on flammable ground. This was on both. Next year a ban on campfires will come into force from March to October in the Cairngorms. I am saddened by this but understand why when some irresponsible people behave this way.  I am much more saddened when a wildfire destroys a forest though. Campfires aren’t necessary.

Peaceful

The negative feelings engendered by the mess slowly dissipated as I continued through the forest, calmed by the greenness and the quiet. Heavy showers fell, interspersed with bursts of warm sunshine. My waterproof jacket went on and off. Above the clouds hurtled by. Soon the walk was over. A short but satisfying trip.

Wednesday 3 July 2024

Thoughts on the General Election after a stroll in the Cairngorms

Coire an t-Sneachda, July 2, 2024

Yesterday I went for a walk in the Cairngorms with @Steve72Outdoors and Mel. The weather was wet and windy and cold – more like November than July. We walked into Coire an t-Sneachda, got blasted by a heavy squall, and then cut up to the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais and descended the ridge to Coire Cas. 

Rain starting, hoods up. A few minutes later overtrousers on.

I returned home listening to the election news on the radio. The same politicians saying the same things. Thank goodness this interminable campaign is ending. I’m looking forward to election night, hoping to celebrate some of the nastier Tories losing their seats.

Six long weeks after Rishi Sunak stupidly got drenched in the rain announcing the date of the election it finally happens tomorrow. Overall the campaign has been dull and uninspiring, especially from the Labour Party, whose chief aim appears to have been as uncontroversial as possible. “Don’t frighten the horses” is hardly an approach to get the blood racing. The series of disasters from the Tories has provided some entertainment and begs the question of how their campaign could be this hopeless. But mostly it’s been a constant tedious repetition of soundbites and insults.

The most enjoyable part of the campaign has come from commentators and campaigners from outside the political parties – John Crace and Marina Hyde in The Guardian, Jonathan Pie, Matt Green, Feargal Sharkey (John Peel should be living at this hour!), Carol Vorderman and more on social media. Of the politicians Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, who is standing down, and Stephen Flynn of the SNP have talked sense on the crucial topics the big parties wish to avoid – climate change, the environment, the EU. Flynn has been good on immigration too.

The expected Labour victory will be the best result, but only because the alternative is the Conservatives staying in power due to our first past the post system. That Labour could have a huge majority with 40% of the vote is not good. Whilst not perfect the system for electing the Scottish Parliament is far better – to get an overall majority you have to get 50% of the vote. That is fair and sensible.

What do I hope will happen, other than that the Tories lose? The LibDems to become the official opposition – a good opposition is always needed and I doubt the Tories will be able to provide it as they’ll be too busy fighting amongst themselves. I hope the Greens win a few seats. I hope the SNP don’t lose too many. Both will be needed to challenge Labour on important topics and remind them they’re supposed to be left-wing. I hope Reform don’t win any seats, though I expect they’ll pick up a few.

And after the election I hope the Labour government will quickly discover that refusing to rejoin the single market and customs union and eventually to apply to rejoin the EU is stupid and self-defeating. Maybe they’re only saying this to try and attract votes from die-hard Brexiteers and will find a reason to change once they are in power. I really hope so.

Even more I hope the next government takes the climate and nature crises seriously and puts them at the centre of its policies. Time is running out. That these have hardly been an issue in the campaign is shocking and worrying.

How am I voting? SNP. Because in this seat it’s either them or the Conservatives. In England I’d vote for whichever of Labour, LibDem or Green was most likely to beat the Tories, Getting this government out comes first. Then we’ll see what happens.