Friday 30 March 2018

Staoineag Bothy Trip. Glas Bheinn, 789 metres. The 4000 foot Mountain Gallery. The First Cold War.

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Staoineag Bothy the next morning- after the walk in the night before. 'A good dry shelter' as the first survey noted when the idea of using abandoned cottages in the wilds of Scotland as unlocked places of free overnight accommodation and refuge was initially proposed. Before then outdoor folk had used these empty buildings as relief from the elements but they were quickly becoming ruins without roofs, doors  or windows. Over the years since the mid 1960s The Mountain Bothies Association have gradually saved and repaired many abandoned estate buildings, remote outhouses, small barns, and cottages, turning them into places of relative comfort again.
Insides are usually basic but they do have a closable door and glass windows as standard and most have some form of heating in the shape of a coal fireplace or wood burning stove. As an escape from summer swarms of midges, heavy rain, high winds or freezing temperatures  they can be a lifesaver in remote places or just an overnight escape from the complexities and stress of modern life.
Bothy life is a very simple one- like backpacking. Carry enough food, water and fuel for your trip... get to where you are going... build a fire and spend the night. This can be adventurous and challenging in its own way but the general rules are simple which is probably why people are drawn back to it time and time again.
Even building a fire then watching the embers is a primitive joy in itself. You can have 120 channel TV in modern life yet still feel empty, unfulfilled and bored at times but any night spent in a remote bothy with the wind howling outside or the rain lashing against the windows feels strangely comforting, special and unique- as do the ever changing embers and myriad of strange creatures appearing in a bothy fire.. An upside down alien baby on far right...A headless white mummy circled by flame... a guy with back turned in a cap...or a laughing parrot looking forwards- take your pick- its one image... a dog-man with a big axe on left threatening to chop up a snake/worm. How many can you see?
A glowing, shifting, always different kaleidoscope that no doubt inspired early imaginative humans to embellish and add sparkle to a range of stories, ideas, omens good or bad, and future dreams. The first television, the first oracle, the original witch/muse for humankind in cave, forest or hall, and a lifesaver/best friend against the terrors outside- be it savage beasts- other tribes- or the eternal Cold War of winter's dark grasp on the land.
Another log goes on and a lizard suddenly appears a short time after.
When we arrived the smaller room in the bothy was already taken by two young folk- Mae and Elie from the Stirling area. They had already spent one night here and were walking out via Spean Bridge in the morning. After we had unpacked in the other room, see first bothy photo, we introduced ourselves and had our dinner around the one fireplace. After that we settled down and had a chat- the usual bothy conversations. It was however the coldest night in a bothy I've had in many years and even with a good fire going in a small room you could still see each person's breath like a veteran smokers vape exhale every time a sentence was produced. Four small dragons. It was a freezing windy night outside and air flow did seem to be getting in somewhere. When you went outside however it was far worse with a bone chilling gale blasting you in the face as soon as you stepped outside- as bad as any mountain summit. The river had frozen edges the next day so well below zero coupled with a constant biting wind. Mae went to bed early - probably to get a heat in her sleeping bag as I was sitting in a chair right beside the fire already cocooned in mine. Melting gear and drying off vs getting warm was a constant battle and I managed to slightly burn one of my hanging snow sodden boots later on in the other room. Being polite we didn't outstay our welcome and decamped next door to leave them in peace.
Although the other room was twice the size it was on the opposite side of the building from the howling gale outside and a small fire soon had the room feeling comfortable with no cold air breath showing at all. The same effect could be experienced outside- bitterly cold constant draft at the front door and to the east (where the wind came from-  almost calm still conditions sheltered by the west facing gable wall. An obvious answer but to feel it inside the bothy so vividly as a contrast between two different rooms meant the wind chill factor outside must have been extreme.
We went to bed ourselves three hours later, around midnight, with yours truly still wearing full thermals and more gear on inside the sleeping bag than a normal winter hill day. All that was missing was my gortex jacket, used as a pillow, as I'd taken my 3 season bag to save weight and bulk. Not a cosy night by any means but a tolerable one-  it wasn't too cold and I fell asleep quite quickly while watching the fire and the ember creatures.
If possible I always like to watch the fire until the last moment. A warrior in the flames here with a huge curved sword. (incidentally, I've been fascinated by 'Forged in Fire' Channel 63 Blaze recently and the ancient noble art of blade-making which is a real skill and not at all like I imagined that craft would be. Loads of unexpected techniques, ancient weapons on show and a real disappearing art form. Worth checking out.
Going to bed early I was up at dawn to see this sight from the bothy. First sunlight hitting the surrounding peaks. Stob Ban under rosy glow.
The temperature outside was unbelievably cold so it was straight back indoors and deep into my, cosy by comparison, sleeping sheet. Compared to John and Mae's deep pile luxury mine was a space blanket for depth of material and heat retention. Wah! Sniff sniff  :o(
Three hours later we surfaced, had breakfast, then went up our hill of choice. Glas Bheinn, a lowly Corbett at 789 metres, 2,588 feet but given the conditions- still a strong constant wind- it would be a real challenge just to summit. The guide book suggested a long 4km ridge ascent for the views but one blast of the arctic gale outside the bothy door persuaded us a 4km sheltered glen approach was the only option, giving us a half chance at success.
This is us in the sheltered glen following a thin deer track uphill.
As we climbed higher the surrounding peaks looked beautiful and serene- untouched by humanity. Apart from Mae and Elie who had left the bothy early for their marathon hike out to the road we never spotted a soul until we returned to Corrour. There was a good reason for this. Above 1000 feet -anywhere exposed- was 'sheer misery awaits' territory just like the hill-walker earlier in the last post had predicted. On the ridges and summits any exposed skin would start to die- any accidents or mishaps- you would also start to die- and it wouldn't take long. Conditions were that extreme at height. As Alex would have been attempting remote hills on his own here and I couldn't support both friends as a hill companion it's probably safer he missed out on this trip. 
Faced with stunning vistas of gleaming mountains in an area packed with several 4000 foot plus summits and inspiring cliffs my main thought was 'Oh s**t! I'm going to really suffer for this.' And I did. Already the wind chill was extreme and as we climbed higher it intensified so that we felt chilled even with full thermals, T- shirt, lumberjack shirt, heavy fleece and windproof jacket. I had a pair of thick winter thinsulate gauntlets on but even with these the relentless cold had cooled my fingers rapidly. Oven gloves and small cameras do not mix well so I had to take them off completely to get reliable pin sharp images. In under two minutes flat I could not feel my fingers pressing the button down and was starting not to care about the views either. Only my own personal survival.
But I did get several glimpses/insights into what Scotland would look like if the gulf stream (North Atlantic Drift off the UK) ever changed its course, even slightly. As soon as we moved from the sheltered glen onto the upper slopes the sheer ferocity of the wind-strength battered us so completely into submission it was like a world champion boxer in the ring with an 80 year old. Without exaggeration it was a full on arctic nightmare by the time we reached the ridge line. Very aware in our minds this was not an environment kind to life in any way.
John with Glas Bheinn in his sights. Not much spin-drift  around as any snow left by this time had either blown away completely or was frozen solid. We were just about managing to keep progressing without crampons, blown upwards by the wind, but I was not looking forward to putting them on as I had the old fashioned strap on type.
Sgor Eilde Beag, 956metres and Sgurr Eilde Mor, 1010 metres from Glas Bheinn ridge.
The cliffs of Aonach Beag, 1234 metres, 4,4048 feet high and Aonach Mor, 1220 metres, 4,002 feet.
Normally, when bagging these two impressive peaks you don't really see this drop off properly but from this Corbett you get a grandstand view.
And one of Ben Nevis, 1345 metres, 4,413feet looking like a true polar giant of the north. A thousand foot higher at this latitude and it may well retain its own year round snow pack/glacier as summer heatwaves are rare in Scotland. Climate change and ocean current shifts may well bring about that prospect at some point. Hard to predict in a fast changing world. It was a glorious sight but by now my hands had turned completely useless, my fingers were already waxy and turning unreal looking and I knew from experience my immediate priority now was to save them from frostbite. Gloves were pulled on again.
John had still to reach the summit so I told him I'd wait up on the ridge and keep him in view until he came back down safely. I'm not collecting Corbetts myself and the conditions were so extreme up here I was happy to sit this one out. Photography is my main motivation these days- I had a snap on jacket hood which might well blow off completely, and I still had to put crampons on for the descent.
While John climbed the ridge in full view to the summit I warmed my frozen hands under my armpits as the gloves were less effective than hoped, and waited for circulation to return.( John didn't take any photos at height so his gloves stayed on for the duration, once he was on the ridge.) A full 15 mins later I had my hands back enough to allow me to strap on crampons. Normally this isn't a problem in winter but conditions were so severe it was a real drawback this time. Once an action man again with jaggy feet attached successfully and ready for rescue or retreat I lay down on the ice sheet coating the ridge and waited for John's return. There was no viable shelter nearby if I wanted to see him return so a curled ball position was the best option against heat loss and skin damage- gloved hands stuffed inside my rucksack and a foot high rock at my back offering some scant protection.

 It's no exaggeration to say it was a death zone up here on that particular day. Rarely have I felt so cold on a mountain before with a relentless 40 to 50 mph wind a constant companion and a windchill factor off the scale. I'm well used to winters in Scotland and on the peaks but 30 mins exposed to it static in one place was enough for me and as soon as I spotted John returning down the slope I hightailed it back down into the sheltered glen to wait for him lower down. Only then did I get proper circulation returning into my frozen fingers again so it was not a pleasant experience. Grim misery would be a more accurate description but we had both achieved our objectives/goals/targets so we returned to the bothy two happy bunnies...
The previously frozen glen on the way up was a relative hothouse by comparison. One of the coldest hill/ ridge walks for many, many years.
To be continued.... The last day...

A good short video of a cross country/downhill ski trip to Corrour and typical Scottish ski conditions. You need to be hardy to ski here, even in the resorts, and this is completely off piste with no uplift and untamed slopes below.

Monday 26 March 2018

Corrour Railway Trip. Staoineag Bothy Walk in. Munro Memories.

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Last weekend I had an unexpected invite from John, who I've known since the 1980s, to go on a trip to Staoineag Bothy, which lies in a remote area between the Great Moor of Rannoch, "one of Europe's last true wilderness areas" and the cluster of 4000 foot peaks surrounding Ben Nevis- at 1345 metres, 4,413 feet, the highest peak in the UK. I jumped at the chance before even knowing what he wanted to do there but Alex hummed and hawed before deciding not to join us. "Too much snow up there, high winds, long walk, heavy rucksacks,"... blah blah blah....etc etc.
I've always been a 'seize the day, think about any difficulties later' type whereas Alex, who I've also known since the 1980s and various walking clubs thinks of these things beforehand and puts himself off. In this case it was justified for reasons I'll explain later.
Above is the Inversnaid Hotel which we passed on the way up. It lies on the less frequented side of Loch Lomond where only the long distance foot path- the week long West Highland Way running between Milngavie and Fort William troubles the woods and shoreline on this eastern, mainly traffic free, side of the famous loch.
I mention this as it's a great place to do Ben Lomond, 974 metres, 3,196 feet from. Parking at Inversnaid then walking past a waterfall along the West Highland Way until the Cuilness Gorge then up this defile over trackless country to ascend the peak. For experienced hill-walkers it's a great alternative through remote and empty trackless terrain which body-swerves 99 percent of the masses heading up this popular peak. Wild goats may be seen here and Ben Lomond, seen above, also looks very different from this direction. Good navigational skills and self reliance are needed if you are on your own as there's no- one around to ask or help out up here until you reach the summit.
With great weather for the drive up it turned into a photo splurge of classic Munros we'd both done in the 1980s yet not attempted since. It made me rather nostalgic for the Munros and I fancied having a go at the best ones again. Only in good weather like this though and that desire might not last long as they are hard work and my body, and legs, probably couldn't cope with more than one or two. Cruach Ardrain, 1046 metres, 3,432 feet seen here from Crianlarich village. Most of the Scottish Munros I've not climbed for decades now and one of the reasons for visiting Corrour and Staoineag again is to do it while I still can.
Ben More, 1,174 metres, 3,852 feet also looms above the small village of Crianlarich, which sits at a road junction just north of Loch Lomond. Last climbed by me around 15 years ago for the 3rd time. I think that's enough.
Further north, slightly later in the day, and mixed weather over  Beinn Dorain, 1076 metres, 3,530 feet, with wind blown spin-drift visible on the slopes. Blue skies being replaced by grey as a snow flurry arrived. Although it may look spectacular mixed weather was forecast for the weekend, temperatures over the mountains between minus -5 and minus -10 degrees and wind-speeds on the summits around 40 to 50 mph.
Even with full thermals on and four layers placed above that it was chilly. Our intention was to drive from Glasgow to Bridge of Orchy by road (to save train fares mainly and more convenient ) park there, then go by rail two stops up the line for £15 quid return to Rannoch Station then Corrour. From Corrour Station we would walk, carrying very heavy rucksacks over rough boggy ground, for approx 8km or 5 miles into the bothy. With full winter gear, sleeping bags, two days coal, food, water, etc it was like walking that distance over a bog with a knackered Alsatian dog draped over your shoulders.
John at Corrour Station adjusting his pack. Most of the letters on this platform sign are wind and snow damaged. Winters can be harsh up here and 80 to 100 mile an hour winds are not uncommon in these parts. Corrour incidentally, is further north than Moscow, six months frozen Lake Baikal in Russia, parts of Alaska and the southern edge of Hudson Bay in Canada. Getting the packs up onto shoulders was the biggest hurdle as I could barely lift mine. (Another reason putting Alex off going.) Once they were in position though it wasn't too bad and we set off along the vague path from the station towards the bothy.
Several others got off the train here as well but they all headed for Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, a mere 2 km away on a good track. This is them.. and no coal presumably- which weighed a ton.
This railway station lies in the middle of a vast high moorland on the Glasgow to Fort William line and many navvies died here during it's construction, either from exposure, accidents or getting lost when they tried to reach civilization to visit the nearest pubs, shops, etc, often a 20 mile return hike over the moor in appalling conditions but the only entertainment/ services available.
We were following the Fort William path, although " path" was a relative term, as it was barely visible for half the journey. The platform scene in the film Trainspotting was shot here and this is the hill they refused to climb- Leum Uilleim, 906metres, 2,974 feet, a Corbett that's just short of a Munro, and also the James Bond film Skyfall, key scenes filmed around the moor, although you'd struggle to find his remote ancestral mansion/ church/chapel/graveyard/ or underground tunnels... and the numerous  Rannoch lochs here rarely get deeper than six feet for fighting underwater at depth.( I've kayaked over most of them here and scraped the bottom for much of the time, except in the further away Loch Laidon) Ah, the magic of cinema.
Loch Ossian mountains from Corrour Station. We also met a bunch of hill walkers waiting for the train back who described the conditions up on the ridges and summits. "A pure death zone up there!" they warned us. "Brutal, brutal winds and frigid air. Those summits would kill a polar bear stone deid in its tracks! Nightmare temperatures above the snowline at the moment."
"Where are you heading?" one asked.
" Stone egg Bothy." I deadpanned. " then the high peaks behind." I slapped my knee with gusto Dick Whittington style.  " I fear it not boys! We're mountain men."
"Good luck." They offered. "Better you than me. Misery awaits. "
" Cheers guys."

A glimpse of Loch Ossian and the surrounding mountains. Big hill days hereabouts- tough outings in winter as these huge broad ridges offer little shelter and Scotland is a very wind prone country. I've been out in minus -20 conditions on the summits on still days before and it felt ok under a warming sun but 40 mph winds plus a minus -5 forecast can kill exposed fingers and face really quickly.
It was not too bad down here as we set off in bright sunshine over the moors (this is the "path" by the way.) but even with full thermals top and bottom on we rarely sweated, despite the uphill effort. I managed to crash through into a buried stream at one point, sinking up past my knees in freezing water, which was one drawback of being much heavier than normal where I might have glided across unladen. Apart from that it was fine and we made good time. We both enjoyed the walk in.
We regained a good estate track once we reached the waters of Loch Treig, a fjord like blue trench sandwiched between high mountains. In this sheltered spot hat and gloves came off under a warming sun.
One of the surrounding high peaks of the district.
And this is another.
The bare upper end of Loch Treig and another snow flurry coming on.
Red deer. We spotted dozens during the walk and heard about a few dead ones that would never enjoy another spring. A hard, up and down, hot then cold, variable winter this year for wildlife with yet another cold spell predicted into Easter. Yet another easterly chill blast from Siberia and Scandinavia  sweeping down and across mainland Europe to blow the UK's way.
Back to semi trackless walking again after the loch as we faced another uphill grind before the bothy.
The reward for effort being glimpses of higher peaks all around. Stob Ban I think here. A remote and hard won Munro tick.  For being fairly close to Glasgow and Edinburgh Staoineag is a surprisingly remote bothy and would be even harder to reach (almost a two day backpack trip from the nearest road) if it wasn't for the train line cutting through the moor.
We were certainly both very glad to see this familiar dark shape appear through the snow flurries, perched on its bump beside a river. Staoineag. We've both been in here a few times over the years but once a decade is the norm for me so I might not see a 4th visit.
Luckily, we just made it as the light faded although we are both well used to trudging into remote bothies in the dark- even trackless ones. There is nothing else around here to spend a night in so you wouldn't want to miss it.
And a golden oldie from the archives. Alex on a Glencoe rock climb in summer from yesteryear.

To be continued...

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Drum Maw. 445 metres.Hag Law 446 metres. Wether Law 479 metres. Pentlands Gallery.

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A day out with Alex to do a spot of bagging over three small but shapely hills. The view above is of The Pentlands , a hill range running inland from the coastal city of  Edinburgh 15 miles west towards the Upper Clyde Valley region. A high broad valley sits between the Pentlands and the much higher uplands around Pykestone Hill, 737 metres and Dollar Law, 817 metres.
It's a favourite area of mine as it has a quiet pastoral beauty of small villages, large farms and secluded mansions. Alex here at the start of our walk.

 It also has the long distance rolling views and wide open skies of an upland plateau. Locals we met told us the snowdrifts were six to eight foot deep in this region  a couple of weeks ago when Glasgow and Edinburgh had two foot city centre drifts in the public parks. Although still knee deep in pockets the snow had turned into a sugar like softness under the March sunshine and was melting fast.

Breeding frogs in a pond.
The open road. Smashing empty driving on good unfrequented roads make this area a scenic joy to travel through.
The heart of The Pentlands.
Black Mount.516 metres.  Hills in the western Pentlands tend to be spaced further apart and have a more individual character as separate mountains.
Mendick Hill, 451 metres, a modest grassy sided sugarloaf from some angles.

Looking down on West Linton.
The higher peaks remained buried under clouds all day but we stayed in sunshine- one benefit of the lower peaks.
Even some blue sky.
We were both glad to be in sunshine instead of slogging up through deep snowdrifts towards invisible summits.
Another secluded large house.
And we still had a snowy descent of 500 feet or so to end with.
So a spot of snow fun thrown in. A great day out.
And a Kestrel  on its hunting perch to end.

Speaking of wildlife here's a truly fantastic video compilation of exotic creatures around the world and an underrated fine band who have produced some excellent music over the years to go with it. Animal magic of the highest order and a sweeping epic that really grows on you. Both video and song get better as they go on. Best watched full screen.