Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Drifting along on Pressendye

The easterly wind was roaring across the upper ridge of Pressendye, louring clouds alternating with shafts of sunlight in a stroboscopic effect.

A deer fence is a useful guide towards the summit in poor visibility.  Today it was decorated with frost feathers and buried to half its height in wind-packed snow.

There was real exhilaration in being up here in such wild weather; the wind was absolutely freezing and driving along spicules of snow in whirling drifts.  Underfoot there was no more of the deep powder of lower down the hill - here the ground was either packed snow or iron-hard ice, grey with a dull sheen and requiring crampons for safe movement.  Full winter conditions and I wasn't yet above 2000ft!

At the corner of the deer fence a large drift had enveloped the 2 meter fence completely.  Packed hard by the wind, it offered no obstacle to deer or anything else.  Conditions like this are just one small example of why Paul Lister's plan to fence 50,000 acres of the highlands to create a "game reserve" in order to make money is so robustly opposed.  Anything inside a fence would, eventually, simply walk over the top in a bad winter.

Where the snow had been scoured away the heather was encased in ice; each clump resembling a coral reef or a glass sculpture.  This winter has, after a run of mild years, brought "proper" conditions and a reminder of the capability of the weather to create beauty from savagery.

The 619m/2031ft summit was touched with weak sunshine, the light all the more remarkable against a graphite grey sky - I was so glad that I'd pressed on through the heavy snow to reach the top.  I was absolutely the only person on Pressendye on this day, and it was no worse for that.

To the west the broad ridge undulates across Broom Hill, Green Hill and (appropriately) Frosty Hill and White Hill.  It would have been good to follow the ridge, but it would have made for a long day in these conditions.

Heading back to the angle of the fence, the view over Cromar was very wintry and it looked that there was more snow inbound.

A change in the light brought out the striations on the top of a frozen wave of snow - it looked delicate but was really unyielding

Descent to the top of the forest was quick, and in comparison to the climb, effortless.  Crampons bit into the surface and provided all the traction required until the snow became a little deeper.

A very grand sky overhead, a snow covered landscape all around; it was a really fine afternoon to be out and about on the hill.

I took a different line down through the forest than the one I'd used on the climb - partly to make a bit of a circular route and partly because it just seemed better to walk through undisturbed snow.  Across the Dee valley Mount Keen was prominent in sunlight; a useful headmark on the drop to the B9119 road a kilometer or so from the car, ending a great short walk.  The contrast between conditions on this wee hill in late Spring and in "early Spring" just a couple of days short of the vernal equinox had been very marked!

Monday, 19 March 2018

Pressing on to Pressendye

On Saturday 17th March whilst driving into the village of Tarland, we remarked on how good the hills to the north looked.  This broad and undulating ridge separates the Howe of Cromar from upper Donside and is a fine viewpoint, particularly the "Graham" of Pressendye - the highest point in this image.

I decided that if the weather held on the following day, I'd climb Pressendye - normally a couple of hours walk with a modest amount of ascent.

Overnight into Sunday 18th March there was another dump of snow, the latest in a run of weather systems borne on a cold easterly airstream.  An additional 10cm fell, turning the whole landscape back to winter.  Nevertheless, it was a bright and breezy day and I drove the short distance to the start of a route I've used before.

The route goes initially up a farm access road, past the farm of Pett.  I stopped to chat with the farmer who was loading sheep feed pellets for his animals.  This latest blast of winter could scarcely have come at a worse time for him as his ewes are just starting to lamb - getting them in safely and keeping them sheltered will be a constant worry for the next few weeks.

Above the farm the track enters a pine forest and the snow lay a little deeper.

The higher up the forest I went, the deeper the snow became.  At about 400m height it was above my knees and progress began to be really laborious.  I emerged through a particularly deep drift onto the broad forest road which takes a curving line west then north towards the higher ground.  The prints of Roe deer crossed the track at various points - and, thrillingly, the tracks of a Wildcat; one of the rarest and most elusive of Scotland's mammals.

The track continued to climb, the snow continued to get deeper.....

...and in parts was thigh deep.  Progress slowed to less than a kilometer an hour as each step sank deep into the unconsolidated snow.  On this flank of the hill I was sheltered from the strong easterly wind, which was in part why the snow was lying to such a depth.  I estimated that there would be much less above the treeline where the wind would have been getting at it.

The scene was outstandingly beautiful though, and taking photographs every couple of hundred meters at least gave an excuse to pause from what was becoming really hard going.

On the final rise out of the forest the snow was at its deepest and I was more wading than walking, each uphill step a real effort.  I pressed on, hoping that my theory about the wind having removed most of the snow from the higher ridge would prove accurate - any kind of distance in this depth of snow would be a real battle.  Another gasping stop - purely to admire the beauty of snow covered trees against a blue sky of course!

At last I got above the treeline and onto more open ground - almost immediately there was a change underfoot.  Less depth of snow and what was left was packed into a consolidated, squeaky consistency like polystyrene.  On steeper and more exposed ground I'd have been concerned about the formation of windslab, a layer of such snow that can shear away from the layers of snow underneath and avalanche.  There was no risk of that here fortunately, and I made better progress though still with an occasional jarring when the surface layer broke and my leg plunged through to the thigh.

At about this point I changed hat and gloves to the warmest I had with me and battened down.  The wind was about 40mph from the ENE and absolutely frigid, the still-air temperature at this height of about 500m was minus 5 Celsius.

The steady direction and strength of the wind over a couple of weeks has created some great snow sculptures.  In the lee of each dwarf pine (this one bent to the ground by weight of ice) graceful waves and fins of snow extended downwind.  They looked fragile but were surprisingly well bonded.

Above, a white banner against the gunmetal grey of a passing snow shower showed the effect of the wind as it whirled a groundstorm across the flank of the slope.  The contrast between the conditions I was experiencing today and the gentle nature of a summer walk on this hill could scarcely be more pronounced.  In winter, every Scottish hillwalk can be a mountaineering outing; even those on the smaller hills.

Thursday, 8 March 2018


Despite the heavy snow and fierce cold of recent weeks, the season is beginning to turn towards Spring.  Winter is often thought of as a dark time with little in the way of colour; but there have been occasional moments of real beauty - as in every winter.

The dazzling, sparkling purity of snow covered hills against a cloudless blue sky is probably the best example of this and there's been more snow than in recent years too, a "proper" winter.  On this day above Deeside we could see for many miles through the clearest of air.

Earlier in the season when there wasn't so much snow but plenty of frost. There was contrast between shaded forest which held a frost haze most of the day, and the warmer colours brought to life by sunlight on the slopes of Lochnagar.  The scene in the mountain's great corrie was altogether more monochrome though.

The winter saw a series of "supermoon" events where the full moon was bigger and brighter than usual due to its proximity to the earth.  The pale blaze of this moonset at home was a beautiful sight, and prompted me to get out and experience the arclight brilliance of this rare event.

One of the features of the winter landscape is the blonde shades of the fields, grasses and barley stubbles bleached by the frost and wind.  Lit by low sunlight, these apparently lifeless fields take on a remarkable shade.

Back among the hills, as a freezing night gave way to a sunny day with a fierce north westerly wind. With a combination of frost haze in the glens and searing morning sunlight plus suspended dust from the wind, the view across the Dee valley towards Mount Keen was one of silhouettes softened into shades of light and shadow, the sky almost devoid of colour.  Processing this image in black and white made it actually more true to the view I experienced.

Days are short in the north of Scotland through the midwinter, the sun remains low for the six or so hours it's above the horizon.  The low angle means that sunrise and sunset can seem quite long, and the delicate lighting of dawn in particular can be quite beautiful.

Even when the cloud is down and there's apparently little definition, the play of shifting light can be quite magical.  We sat on the moors above Glen Gairn and watched as cloud and sun performed a "dance of the veils" - alternately hiding and revealing the hills and moorland slopes.  The eye was drawn to the geometric shapes of field boundaries in the foreground as a point of reference, but all around us light shifted and changed.

Spring is on the way bringing a riot of bright colours, but winter isn't so dark and monotone after all.....

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Twa landmarks frae the sea

It's been some time since I last climbed Clachnaben, a small but prominent Aberdeenshire hill. With a forecast for bright, cold and very windy day, I spent an hour one evening looking over maps for a hillwalk relatively close to home.

My eye kept coming back to Clachnaben - the hill sort of chose itself.  My previous climbs had both been from the north, so I looked for a different route and worked out a circuit that would work with, rather than against the wind.

A small quarried area off the B974 (the Banchory to Fettercairn road over the Cairn o' Mount, which on this day was closed higher up due to snow) has been made into a parking area from where the shortest route to Clachnaben starts.  The first part of the walk rises gently through open woodland and was very pleasant with sunlight dappling the woodland floor.

Emerging from the wood there's the sudden "reveal" of Clachnaben ahead.  The granite tor which forms the true summit is very prominent from miles around, particularly as the hill sits in isolation at the end of a ridge above the lower ground of the Dee valley.  Sheltered from the strong northwest wind, and with views like this, it was a superb morning to be out.

My route diverged from the "normal" path to the summit and continued around the slopes of Netty Hill into Glen Dye.  The view down to the Water of Dye was an unexpected delight, and would make a great short walk by itself. A quicker way to this point is by parking near to the narrow road bridge at Spital of Glen Dye, but parking is limited, and on a difficult bend.

The ground was so frozen that I'd put two sets of boots in the car, plus crampons.  On looking at conditions on the drive over I'd opted not to use my heavy boots and crampons.  This was the right choice for the hill, but further along the Glen Dye track I was wishing for a third skates!  The whole track was covered in thick blue-grey ice...there aren't any photographs from this part of the walk as I concentrated on staying upright.

I managed to reach Charr with only one or two "skitey" moments, one of which had me doing a fair impression of Bambi on Ice.......  

Charr is now an MBA bothy, and sits in a wild and lonely place; it seems much more isolated than the distance from the road would suggest.

The bothy occupies three rooms in part of the building, the remainder is retained by Fasque estate.  There's no fire or stove here but the place is clean, dry and bright.  I've visited previously but not (yet) stayed here.  I met another walker heading home to Fettercairn over the hills having been dropped at Spital, Charr is on a number of potential routes between Deeside, the Mearns and the Angus glens - which is food for thought for future walks.

After lunch and a "brew" of tea in the bothy ("Char" at Charr?!) I headed back out and tackled the steep climb up the track beside the Bracky Burn.  Emerging onto the open hill at the top exposed me to the wind, which was absolutely biting.  This was the only leg of the walk where I'd be heading into the wind; I'd planned the route to have it with me on the high ridge leading to Clachnaben.

To the west there's a wonderful view of wild, open country with the higer hills leading to the Cairngorm plateau beyond.  It is, essentially, a view of absolutely nothing - and that's a precious thing.  There's word that a windfarm is planned near here with giant turbines; if the planning application goes ahead I will be objecting - this is a landscape which shouldn't be industrialised.

The climbing continues to meet a track between Mount Battock and Clachnaben, where I was really glad to turn and put the wind from my starboard bow to my port quarter, it was searingly cold as well as strong.  Clachnaben's tor is well seen from here, but the view is of the shorter side rather than the full height.  The ground on this ridge is bare and broken, and marked by ATV tracks - it's better under snow than not for this reason.

This is one of the hills where the trig point isn't the actual summit.  The scramble up onto the tor is easy in most circumstances but with a combination of ice and the gusting wind I elected not to stand up on the very top block!

On te direct descent (which is the usual ascent path) the tor is seen at its best. A granite plug, the tor has been plucked by ice and from most angles appears as a "wart" on the slope of the ridge.

Away to the north there's a good view of that other much loved Aberdeenshire landmark, Bennachie. The distinctive shapes and proximity to the coast of these two fine hills gives rise to the old rhyme :

"Clachnaben and Bennachie, are twa landmarks frae the sea"

 On the way back down Clachnaben this set me thinking - would it be possible to climb both hills in a day using a bike to get between them?  A long day for sure, but just maybe......

My circular route was 16 kilometres with around 500 metres of ascent.  I took a little over four and a half hours including a brief stop at Charr bothy.  Other circular routes are possible from the north which can take in Mount Battock and the connecting ridge.  The shortest route is a simpe up-and-down from the B974, but in my opinion this fine hill deserves more than that.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Low sun and low swell - winter rockhopping on the Moray Firth

 The first weekend of February brought a brief period of calm weather, so Lorna, Allan and I took advantage by planning a paddle at one of our favourite local spots.  Launching from Sandend on a bright but cold afternoon, we headed west towards Cullen.  The plan was just to enjoy some time on the water and to get in among the rock features of this great stretch of coast.

 We struggled to see landward in the low winter sunshine - but certainly weren't complaining about a sunny February afternoon!

 Closer in we were in the shade; the sun streaming over the top of the cliffs creating some great halo effects.  These north facing outcrops see no sunlight through the winter months and can be very cold places. Despite this, the seabirds are beginning to arrive back for their breeding season.  Gulls were loafing around the skerries, as were Shags - while Fulmars already seem to be occupying territories and threatening all intruders.

 This cave-arch is a hidden gem - we seek it out each time we kayak here.  In the summer it gets the most wonderful lighting - in the winter the atmosphere is a little darker.

 The afternoon sun picked out the ruin of Findlater Castle really well, the calm conditions allowing us to rest a while in the bay below.

 The swell was low, but quite long period and with considerable energy, at times giving sporting passage through narrow gaps - lots of fun!

After a break for coffee and sandwiches on a small beach in Cullen Bay, we headed back towards Sandend with the evening sun on our backs.  The breeze dropped along with some of the swell - a relaxed end to an afternoon of winter rockhopping.