Tuesday 28 July 2020

Moments of Pleasure. Selected Scottish Central Belt Snapshots.

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A herd of cows near Clachan of Campsie. Looking at the OS Landranger Glasgow map one day years ago, having done most of the best and more obvious walks on it I spotted a circular route running under the high wall of the Campsie Fells then up via Maiden's Castle and onto Cort-ma Law. It turned out to be a cracker of a route. A highly enjoyable and very varied outing- which is where the post title comes in. Often day long 'moments of pleasure' are reflected in these photos.
A lightning storm over the Garleton Hills in this one. I'd not long discovered the wide open beauty of the Garleton Hills, a small insignificant range of grassy knolls east of Edinburgh and after my initial brief visit to climb the Hopetoun Monument with friends as an add on to a bigger hill day we'd already had.... I fancied going back myself to do the full range. I did not intend to traverse this little known, low level range during a summer thunder and lightning storm but that's exactly what happened. Luckily the surrounding and higher Moorfoots and Lammermuir summits captured the brunt of the lightning strikes and flashes leaving me untouched, completely dry and able to enjoy the show. The majesty of nature at its finest is always best if you are not soaked and freezing cold under it as I had very little shelter nearby to escape any rain if it came my way. I'd rolled my bike over the hills as it was part of a day long cycle tour of East Lothian and a couple of hours later I was cycling along a vast open beach in bright sunshine. Another great day out.
The beach in question was at Gullane then onto this place, cycling across Aberlady Bay. Garleton Hills now firmly in the distance. One thing I have found post social media and Instagram is how busy most beaches have become in the last 10 years.
Here's another east coast beach not that far away from Gullane. The aptly named 'Broad Sands.' Again on a bike and again deserted ... which is a big part of the fun for me... like being the only person on the planet in your imagination as you bomb along at speed over the hard packed surface. ( obviously avoiding any birds ahead and giving them plenty of space to co- exist and stay still sitting on the sand. It's a wide beach -you can easily do that.) A desert island drifter with Fidra in the background here. Inspiration for R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. I used to walk or cycle regularly along numerous Central Belt Scottish east and west coast beaches and hardly see anyone else around but now they are frequently busy, even mid week. Call me elitist but for me it's not the same vibe as before. I don't mind crowds just not in the wilderness. But I've had my allotted time on an emptier planet already so I can't complain.
Alex is not usually a morning person after a night in the pub. A racing snake greets the new day in a climbing hut years ago.... or maybe a slow worm on this occasion. The right colour of bag anyway.

A club trip further north. Julian? demonstrates his new fireproof trousers. That boulder seat looks very uncomfortable.
A solo day out on the Arran Ridge years ago. Early 2000s. Very quiet for most of it with only these two other hill-walkers encountered.
The Arran Ridge from Great Cumbrae in mid winter.
Minor road covered in sheet ice so no cars on it to trouble our walk. It's rarely frequented anyway this minor road, even in summer.
Walkers descending Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. The easy side of this extinct volcano has excellent views over the Firth of Forth and its handful of islands.
Many tourists are surprised however just how steep the other side is and this harder end of vertical cliffs can catch many folk out, especially under snow and ice when walkers go up it under equipped in street shoes and limited warm clothing. For its modest size- 800 foot high and in the middle of a city- it can occasionally bite the unwary. A proper little mountain.
Beach cricket at Earlsferry in Fife. Afternoon summer thunderclouds arriving after a hot, sultry morning. Beach walking again for me. The era of 'Captain Coastwalk' when I was bagging new Scottish  beaches and remote clifftop walks most weekends in the 1990s, usually on my own. A somewhat derogatory and condescending title by those still addicted to mountains and hill-walking to the exclusion of anything else. I didn't mind one bit as I got to know Fife really well- an extraordinary and ancient kingdom filled with surprises round every corner.... including village cricket teams and sea queens, more unusual sights here and a richer visual tapestry of settlements and long traditions than on the west coast, where many of the original inhabitants of the various districts and Highland glens were moved elsewhere or emigrated abroad.
A waterfall jump. River Etive.
Caterpillar and a dedicated photographer.
Not bad but here's one I made earlier.... roped then tamed them into a line. That's real action photography, small scale. Yeehaaa cowboy!

A mystery girl on the shore.....  but who is she? My 'princess of suburbia' perhaps?
Waiting and watching. Feeding time at the children's zoo many years ago. This girl is now a responsible young adult in the world of work. The guinea pigs have sadly passed away. Sniff sniff.....
                                                Calton Hill in Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat.

As I'm in a playful mood here's a playful little number. A horse race through a city. Fantastic modern artwork done with great style and imagination. Best watched full screen. This is worth looking at. The distilled essence of 'cool' in visual form.

Tuesday 21 July 2020

A Mountaineering Life. The Early Days. Part One.

One positive of Covid 19 for me is that, instead of always posting new outdoor trips weekly it's given me a chance, as outdoor activities have been very limited the past few months, to look back and realise how fortunate I've been in my mountaineering life. Work is what you do to earn money and I've always put 100% in there but what makes life worth living for me is the outdoor existence I enjoy in my free time.
Over five decades  later I've been in half a dozen clubs and made numerous friends and companions through them that shared a love of the great outdoors so here's a selection of memorable trips in no particular order.
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As you can see I started early. Around nine or ten here or younger and scrambling on the easy but steep cliffs of Byne Hill above Girvan. We were staying on holiday in a caravan under this hill and every day was a fresh adventure.
20 years later I was still scrambling up cliffs- just bigger and higher ones. 1980s remote central highlands here.
Then we graduated to remote peaks in winter. Beinn Mhor Dearg here in the far north west of Scotland. Easily the equal of any Munro with its snowy ramparts and vertical cliffs.
Then the occasional sea stack... for which we needed rock climbing. Alex at base of stack, above, having crossed the water gap on a rope after Brian had swam across with an end. Although I started out mainly hill-walking and bagging Munros I soon got sidetracked into scrambling, rock climbing, kayaking, caving, island bagging, cross country skiing, and coastal walks... as well as city and town exploring... for me that was a very natural progression as I liked them all....as long as it was outdoors I was usually up for it and would have a go. Day or night.
The Old Man of Stoer here... a classic rock climb in Assynt. Brian and Alex on the middle pitch. At 60 metres or 196 feet high not as hard to reach or as difficult as the Old Man of Hoy at twice the height at E1 but still a daunting proposition at VS 5a with a steep climb down the coastal cliffs then a Tyrolean rope traverse to avoid a deep sea gap just to reach the base of this stack. Brian and Alex sitting on a halfway ledge in this one, above, waiting their turn to climb to the summit as another climbing pair can be seen above them on the sunlit ramp. The bit that worried them (and me watching) was the long abseil off the top where they left their own long sling behind around a summit boulder just in case. ( No telling the condition of the old ones already left there by previous groups, open to wind, salt spray and storms so better to add a fresh one just in case. Most climbers die on the descent on climbs, especially abseiling.

I've got it down as a 240 feet high climb here over 4 pitches but that's probably the total amount climbed including sideways climbing as there is some of that. You can now get taken up it with hired guides if you book then pay online apparently. Probably lay on a WiFi service and games up there as well if there's a queue. That's progress I guess. I was club photographer on this trip as there was no-one else good enough on hand as a partner to drag me up it but I didn't mind that one bit. Taking these photographs was enough for me.... already keen on my new hobby as a snapper of climbing types. If I was actually climbing the route the photos would not be as good at showing the full climb or its position on the coast.
Same with this one where I could move around on the cliff edge to capture different angles. Another real classic snapped from a distance. The famous 'Dream of White Horses' on the Gogarth sea cliffs in  North Wales. HVS 4c and very exposed to the elements.
Roger and Brian on a high level traverse across the cliff. During rough seas large waves can almost reach this position. Which is where the title came from on a windy day of big swells.
Before we started going to mainland Europe for our holidays we would travel down to the Lake District, Wales, Devon and Cornwall on Classic Rock trips. A guidebook and photo list of rock climbs from Diff to VS that became our new bible, although these two routes above are probably in Hard Rock. VS to E1 or thereabouts. In this one I've scrambled down to sea level to photograph 'dream' from below, looking up.
What I liked about Classic Rock and easier rock climbing in general was the situations and rock architecture they took you into. Amazing places only rock climbers see. Hard Rock tends to move out more onto steep blank walls leaving the easy stuff- long chimneys, caves, huge cracks leading deep into the mountain itself for lesser mortals like us.

Ossian's Cave marks the turning point of this long weaving route where you cut back diagonally upwards, onto a higher right running ramp/ledge, directly under the cave- in reality a horrible dripping slot a spider would slide out of if not careful moving around and reached by a dangerous steep extra scramble on grass where folk have fallen before that misjudged it. An incredible place though.

Another Brian from a different club and a memorable trip to Skye. Four days of unbroken sunshine and hot weather and our first visit to the black Cuillin ridge. Early 1980s. Still scrambling at this point. No ropes yet.
Late 1980s and another trip to Skye. Alex on the Cioch here- without a rope in sight.
If you have a very good head for heights you can solo it but the rock is like glass as millions of feet and hands have gone here before you. Most of them on a rope I'd imagine. Very slippy... and you have to reverse it backwards coming down.
If you wonder why I was able to scramble this pinnacle on Gran Paradiso with a thousand foot drop below... years of rock climbing and previous scrambling experience in the UK is the answer to that.
A view hanging off the belay on Integrity. A VS 4c or 4b rock climb ( depends which guide book you look at) up a near vertical cliff face above the Cioch. You can see a single person on Arrow Route on the slab, a few folk on the flat rib above that and one person climbing the Cioch exactly where Alex was two photos above. At some future date I'd imagine the Cioch must fall and slide into the glen below as you can see a deep crack all round the resting edges here- releasing thousands of tons of moving rock in the process. Hope no climbers are on it or under it at the time.
A view of the Cioch Slab and Arrow Route, A 60 metres long V.Diff. on Skye. Note two climbers on the slab. Integrity starts up the cliff at the top left of this photo. You can get 1000 foot of quality rock climbing Hard Severe to VS standard by linking three routes together on this cliff- which we did. Alex and I also climbed Eastern Buttress on a different occasion which is where I obtained these distance shots from. When you are actually on a route it's mostly views looking up or looking down a wall.
A rainy day climbing the Cioch Slab. Integrity goes straight up the cliff right above Alex's head. A very exposed feeling climb. Given the variable Scottish mountain weather getting caught out by rain, sleet, snow, hail, or strong winds is possible and we have enjoyed all of them on rock climbs over the years including a foot of snow falling suddenly halfway up a fairly serious route. Needless to say this makes climbing slightly harder. 'Wet' can also be slippy depending on rock type. Such is life.
Brian on Spartan Slab VS. A cracking balance climb up a massive wall ascended up crack lines and using pure friction in a few places. (No actual holds available just blank padding over slabs.) Loved this climb as it wasn't vertical. Always a bonus. Got up it all the way the first time- rained off it the second time, close to the top.
Sou'wester Slabs. A multi pitch V Diff on the amazing Rosa Pinnacle on Arran. A favourite island for walkers and climbers. You can see two folk on it a quarter of the way up the route in this photo.
Higher up, climbing under the overhang.
The top of the Rosa Pinnacle. We were treated to a foot of hailstones battering our bodies the second time I did Sou'wester Slabs. May can be a tricky month for rock climbing in the mountains... So can second ascents of routes in my case.
Another route on Arran. The 6 pitch VS 4b adventure of Labyrinth. A partially subterranean route going under chock-stones, squeezing up deep chimneys, traversing along ledges and crawling through various holes in the mountain. An amazing experience. You can make out two climbers at both ends of the deep chimney, above.
Higher up on the same route a zoomed shot of Brian and Gordon and (John?).

I also like surprises when it comes to music. You will probably not have heard of this band.. or the song... but it's an underrated gem. All the best kind of surprises are. This is music for grown ups :o)  A tune with depth of character that grows on you as well.

Sunday 12 July 2020

Picos de Europa. Cares Gorge. Potes. A trip to the Towers of Europe.

Another holiday to a mountainous region- this time to visit the Picos de Europa, a group of very steep distinctive peaks in Northern Spain, lying inland and and slightly west of Santander. As they are only 20 miles from the coast and easily spotted from a great distance out at sea, often retaining snow into the summer months, they acted as a fishing boat visual reference and rough guide to the coastline in that region- hence 'The Towers of Europe.'
As we travelled along the northern Spanish coast from Bilbao we enjoyed the lush green surroundings  throughout the journey as this part of Spain gets enough rainfall and cool weather to remain verdant. Numerous deciduous forests and the long 400 mile spine of the Cordillera Cantabrica, a substantial 3000 to 5000 foot mountain range running parallel to the coast, of which the Picos are the highest crowning glory, stretching from the Pyrenees to La Coruna means that this area still retains wild boar, wolf, and bear, although these animals are scarce and seldom seen.
Our base for this trip was Fuente De, which had a terrific campsite surrounded by forests and steep peaks, see photos above, an adjoining bar, some shops and a cable car. There's not a lot in it but it's ideal for hill-walkers and the cable car lifts you up into the heart of the mountain vastness, via a daring single leap cable.
Probably due to the incredible steepness of the terrain here this amazing car ride is not for the fainthearted as its a single drop without any supporting poles or structure from this hut in one great swoop to the buildings below.  If it ever snaps you have a long time to contemplate your demise. When it sets off from the top station it also gives a great jolt downwards and you can hear the gasps from the passengers pressed up against the forward facing windows as they get to look straight down the biggest drop.
When I asked another friend in a different mountaineering club- the only person I could find that had been here- "what's it like?" he'd replied. " Think of the Dolomites... only steeper!"
I took that with a pinch of salt as I could not imagine anything steeper than the Dolomites but he was right enough.
Potes, one of the main small towns in the Picos district, where I picked up some colourful tee shirts depicting wolves, bears and wildcats.
A busy shopping street in Potes. This district is famous for it's smelly cheese yet while I was here I was never tempted to sample any as in this particular street I was convinced I had walked through dog shit, several times, yet no sign of it. Eventually, the penny dropped. I presume that was the distinctive aroma of the cheese wafting from the shops as the famous blue veined cheese Cabrales is reputed to have a very strong penetrating stench. I deliberately never got close enough to the product to verify this at close quarters by sniffing an actual cheese but would you make a cheese that smells so bad or am I dreaming?  I'm not joking that is what it smelled like to me from a distance without going into the actual shops in question yet cheese and food buffs apparently flock here for this unique experience to sample the 'Durian fruit' of blue cheeses. ... Obviously my heathen nose is not cultured or refined enough to tell the difference.  Having said that... San Miguel lager became our favourite beverage during this trip ( see sign above shop) as we popped into the Fuente De bar every evening after hard hot days on the hills. So it was not all bad as I enjoyed that taste and smell of that product and looked forward to a few cool pints of it every evening. Local dried fruit, nuts, cakes, and chocolate gave us energy during the day- alcohol soothed our tired limbs by nightfall... the basic few luxuries of camping and mountain life.

My companions on this trip were two club friends, Gordon and Jennie, who kindly invited me along and I jumped at the chance. This trip was undertaken in mid September and it was only for a week but that turned out to be perfectly timed as you will see later.
Gordon and Jennie were keen rock climbers back then, several grades above my own level, so while they did rock routes I was happy hill-walking on my own and sightseeing, meeting up every night in the campsite after full day's spent on the hills. Near this spot, in Potes, I visited a witchcraft museum which was very unusual and quite disturbing. Some of it featured exhibits from the Spanish Inquisition period with women in particular singled out for some truly gruesome punishments and tortures designed to make them confess their supposed sins against the Catholic church. It was a real eyeopener just how cruel and vindictive they were at ripping people apart in a variety of ways and the exhibits left absolutely nothing to the imagination. Nuff said.
I think this is the Veronica Bivouac Hut, a distinctly 1960s space age design. Another guy from our club, Julian from the Alta Via 2 trip, had been over in the Pyrenees on holiday and had then decided to spend a few extra days here with us. We had arranged to do a 3 day backpacking trip through the Picos together but he wanted to go rock climbing first. I was to meet him up here, in this high mountain bowl at 7,620 feet,  just above the cable car drop off. meeting around 4:00pm.
So I waited.... and waited... and waited.... and no show.
Around 7:00 or 8:00pm, with only a couple of hours daylight left I decided I'd have to do it alone. I had a very steep via ferrata to do down over a cliff, then a rocky valley and pass to negotiate, and didn't fancy doing them in darkness before I reached the next hut, where I was intending to wild camp. In the end Julian did show up, about 4 hours late, having been delayed on the rock climb, but by that time I'd gone and he just made the last cable car back down to Fuente De and the campsite, where his tent was.
I continued on through the mountains alone with the sun fast disappearing. I had enough food for three days hiking and we'd split my tent in half. Julian had the poles and inner tent- I had the flysheet and pegs with me but I reckoned I could just get by using my walking stick as a central pole and pegging the flysheet down in a circle, teepee style... and so it proved.  Luckily, it stayed dry.
My first night was spent a short distance from the Naranjo Hut, which I reached just as darkness fell, under the looming presence of this rock tower. 2,519 metres or 8,264 feet high and a severe multi pitch rock climb just to reach the summit.  It was too serious for me, although Gordon and Jennie climbed it successfully later but I had my own adventurous walking route planned. Up over this mountain massif then a big hard descent to the remote village of Bulnes then around to Cain via the Cares Gorge. I would then circle back over several different foothills to Fuente De. The Picos de Europa are roughly the size of the English Lake District but the summits here rise to eight and a half thousand feet or 2,600 metres.... and zero lakes. Loads of bare limestone though and three separate massifs, each containing a collection of peaks. The Cornion, The Urrielles, and the Lechugales, separated by deep gorges/valleys- the most famous being the Cares Gorge. 'Garganta del Cares' to give its full title.
Being based at Fuente De we climbed in the Urrielles Massif mainly but this is a view of one of the other Massif clusters- probably Lechugales Massif.
Another view of Naranjo de Bulnes, known as 'the orange'.... steep on every side and covered in impressive graded rock climbs. In the Italian Dolomites this peak might have Via Ferrata up it but Spain and the Picos are wilder and I now understood  what that other hill-walker meant as the peaks here are much more unprotected, many of them reached by near vertical gullies or serious scrambling routes or rock climbs- no comfort inducing metal cables or ladders here. Not that I could see anyway.
And the descent down to Bulnes was a leg killer. I don't know if I was mountain unfit for this trip... in my mid 40s by now... or the path was simply desperate... or wrongly modeled/graded for backpacking...or if it was just really hard descending to the gorge but my thighs and calf muscles were absolutely killing me for the rest of the journey. Every step down this steep natural staircase was a real strain on the limbs, rock steps badly spaced out by being for giants which soon caused agony stretching downwards to reach them with a heavy pack on my back so it was a real relief to enter the start of the deep gorge (seen above) as at least this path running through it was flat and easy. It was roasting hot by this time, mid afternoon, so I hid in the shade of a boulder and watched the vultures circling the cliffs above for a couple of hours. In places the Cares Gorge is 3000 foot deep with near vertical surrounding walls. It's so steep and difficult terrain no natural line through it exists--- instead a man made way has been carved across its sheer sides--- which was a godsend for me as I could only hobble along it by this stage. Very impressive place... and the only flat section of the Picos de Europa I discovered in a week. Everything else was straight up.... then straight back down again.
Carved tunnels through the limestone on the Cares Gorge path.
Due to the heat mid afternoon it got very sultry and dark down here, a thunderstorm building near this lookout platform.
But I pressed on and it started to lift and get sunny again.
A photo showing the sheer sides of the Cares Gorge.
A more elevated section, gaining some height.
Halfway along the gorge I came to this water refreshment hut. Getting water in a limestone gorge was not easy so this was well placed. I presume a natural spring or well was here as a short water filled stone trench was behind this hut. I did not drink the water- not sure if it was drinkable- but the hut owner had loads of soft drink cans in it to keep them cool for passersby and I bought two of them. This did me for the rest of the gorge.
A wild descent gully in the Picos de Europa..
Second night was spent camped out in the bushy foothills, crossing back over to Fuente De. That was a strange place as it was a creepy spot I picked and I heard loads of strange noises throughout the night half thinking they might be boar, wolf, or bear snuffling outside but it turned out to be feral goats then a cat of some sort, then a hunter with a rifle. A busy corridor for Picos wildlife passing my tent and only having the flysheet pegged down with gaps aplenty half of it tried to come inside. Not much sleep for poor Bobby defending his honour in the dark!
The next day was a half rest day as I could hardly move once I got back to the campsite around lunch time after a 6:00am start so I just pitched my tent beside the others then went to sleep, incredibly stiff and sore. The day after that I was semi recovered so I did some peaks and ridge walks, again in the Urrielles Massif- the only one we could reach easily from Fuente De. I also managed a very nice hill just outside the Picos de Europa district, reached by local bus. This was around Scottish Munro height- 4,500 feet or thereabouts and much less scary to walk on as it was gentle and grassy underfoot- like Ben Lomond say.... but really wild and beautiful. This was an outlying peak of the Cordillera Cantabrica, a vast northern coastal range roughly similar in size to Scotland's entire western seaboard, slightly longer than the Pyrenees, so plenty of scope for hill-walking here with grassy mountains from 3000 to 5000 feet high fading into the far distance, many of them distinctive and very appealing in their own right... just not as dramatic, serious, or high as the Picos set. Great backpacking mountains though or easy day shots. Although folk often think of the Costas, like Malaga, Benidorm, or Alicante when they think Spanish... inland Spain is the real gem. It's so vast and wild and largely unknown to outsiders with green forests, wide deserts, deep river valleys and empty beaches that it really is an unknown kingdom to most Europeans outside of the tourist hot spots. It's massive, full of amazing wildlife, and dozens of rarely visited mountain districts like Leon, Orense, Avila, Salamanca, Extremadura, Teruel, and Segovia. This trip certainly opened my eyes to its potential. Inland Spain is far more mountainous and wilder than France, which is mainly flat and cultivated in its centre, except around it's borders, where the high mountains occur, yet is little known or talked about.
Dead horse. I also became fascinated with vultures. I'd seen them from a distance in the Pyrenees but in this area I got to see them at work up close. A few days after I took this photo I returned to find this carcass half eaten with two vultures inside the stomach cavity. All I got was blurred shots though as I unintentionally scared them away. Amazing birds. Likewise the huge solitary Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture with its nine foot wingspan and bone dropping habits, which I also spotted later in another area.  A very different kind of Spain.
Our last two days here saw a dramatic change in the weather. From really hot lovely conditions to icy winds, the first snow and ice of mountain autumn and soaking cold rain falling on the tents. By the last day and the last week of September we were frozen solid, ice in all the puddles so we were happy to leave, being the last campers of the season by the feel of it... and certainly the last remaining tents on the campsite, which was now deserted. Time to go home.

Here's another Via Ferrata route I've done, above Cortina, with Brian and John, but this one is much easier- takes in the WW1 protected fighting tunnels, sky bridges, and the amazingly colourful Barbarella lift capsules. (If you do not get in fast you are left behind.) Not that scary, just highly enjoyable and beautiful surroundings..