Sunday, 14 January 2018

Memories of 2017

The turn of a year is a time to look forward to the possibilities and challenges ahead, but also to reflect on the year just ended. I've once again been very lucky to have enjoyed some superb days and nights in Scotland's great outdoors. As in previous years, I've absolutely failed to select just one memory from 2017 - so here are a few.... :o)

A change of work routine during 2017 has resulted in fewer longer trips; instead there have been more "local" adventures........

.....and really, there's plenty to go at - even very close to home!

The colour palette as the seasons turn has been a joy; one of the highlights of my year has been to be at home regularly enough to notice the subtle changes.....

...and some frankly jaw-dropping natural light shows.

There were some cracking hill days in 2017, spanning all the seasons (sometimes in the same day).  Whether on the bigger hills or the smaller ones, easy days or tough battles, mountains continue to be a gift that just keeps on giving.

I had no difficulty selecting the year's outstanding multi-day trip.  A wonderful journey to (and over!) Jura and then around Colonsay by sea kayak would have been a highlight of any year...... the very best of the early Summer weather when we seemed to travel under perpetual sunshine....

...and in majestic surroundings.  The story of this trip starts here, and you can follow our journey in "Sea Kayak Stereovision" on Douglas' blog (with much better photos than mine!) starting here.

But, if pushed, I'd have to say that the single outstanding memory from a year in the outdoors during  2017 is.....

...a truly fantastic encounter with a pod of dolphins on the Sound of Arisaig.  These captivating animals actively sought us out and played with us for hours; it was the most thrilling and intimate of wildlife encounters and all the better as we didn't seek it out......'s left us with memories to last a lifetime

But once again the year was made by people and by shared experience.  A huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone with whom I've enjoyed the outdoors in 2017 - from struggles in tough conditions to nights around the fire - these experiences are all the better for sharing with friends - Slainte Mhath!

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Mostly downhill on The Correen Hills

 In this first week of 2018, Allan and I had been lucky enough to share a day's sea kayaking and a hillwalk already - and on 7th January conditions looked superb for another hillwalk.  We'd looked at paddling but strong northerlies on the previous day had left a legacy of big swell; however light winds and blue skies would be perfect for hillwalking.

Our concern was the state of the roads - icy conditions have prevailed since before the turn of the year and the night of 6th/7th January was to be very cold.  We decided on a walk along the Correen Hills ridge just a couple of miles from my home - and since we'd have two cars available we could make a linear route.

The morning was indeed very cold, but by the time we met at 0930 temperatures had risen to -5 Celcius.  We left one car at Dubston where we intended to finish, and then drove up to the top of the "Suie road" to park in the forest parking area at the start of the Gordon Way.  A look at the map will show that we'd start our walk at 390m, our high point would be 518m and our finishing point would be at 200m.....a mostly downhill hillwalk  :o)

 It really was a great morning to be out and about.  The route goes west along a wide forest road and we had the late morning sun at our backs.  There was almost no wind and the frozen ground underfoot was making for fast walking.  At the point where the track begins to head downhill, a narrow firebreak leads gently uphill to emerge from the forest......

 ...onto the broad ridge near the cairn known as Peter's Prop.  The views from the entire Correen ridge are very wide - ahead of us in the distance, Ben Rinnes was a glistening white pyramid,  and at the left of this image, the Buck o' the Cabrach showed its best aspect.

 To the north, Tap o' Noth's distinctive cone was capped with snow, we could just make out the walls of the hillfort crowning the summit.

 The Correen Hills curve around as a broad arc shaped like a large "C" facing south east and enclosing two moorland valleys.

 There are tracks along most of the ridge and the going is generally good (though with a few boggy bits in wet weather) and with very gentle gradients.  As the ridge curves around, the views ahead constantly vary - Tap o' Noth and the Buck dominate the first section.

 The south west leg (the back of the "C") has three tops, Badingair Hill, Brux Hill and Edinbanchory Hill, though there's negligible ascent between all three - barely 30 metres.  You can stick to the fence line on the broad crest of the ridge, which is also an estate boundary, or take the track just below the skyline.  The snow was a little deeper on the southern slope aspects and was glittering in the bright sunlight.

 Ahead, the high point of the walk is the dome of Lord Arthur's Hill.  There's a sense of great distances on these hills - but each time I walk the ridge the same vanishing trick seems to take place as what seems like a really long way just reels off almost effortlessly.

 We were soon on the final short climb to the 518m/1699ft summit of Lord Arthur's Hill.  This is a "Marylin" and so is the summit folk head for.  We met a couple and their Springer Spaniel at the summit shelter, and agreed that this was one of the better ways to spend a Sunday! In fact, Allan and I met more folk on our walk today than I've met in the previous five walks combined - it's good to see this ridge getting more walkers; it's well worth the effort.

 We stayed at the summit, enjoying lunch and the views, until numb fingers reminded us that the temperature was still well below freezing.  Our descent headed down the Fouchie Shank, a broad and easy angled ridge with views ahead to Aberdeenshire's iconic hill, Bennachie, which from this angle looks a little different from the classic view.

It's a good descent down through scattered woods of pine and larch to meet a farm track at the base of the Fouchie shank.  Valley temperatures were, if anything, colder than on the ridge and the most difficult terrain of the whole walk came within a hundred metres of the car we'd left at Dubston where the farm track was heavily iced.

Once again, the Correen ridge had given a really good day's hillwalking....although our route had been mostly downhill!  If you walk this using two cars as we did today, it's about 14 kilometres with only about 210 metres of ascent and about 350 metres of descent - it takes about four hours.  If you only have one car, starting at Dubston and gaining the ridge via the Contlach Shank gives a great loop - this route is described here

Thursday, 4 January 2018

A big sky day on Culblean Hill

My last hillwalk of 2017 had been on Morven above Cromar in Aberdeenshire. Whilst descending from Morven I'd looked over to a lower hill which I thought would give some great views. Culblean Hill isn't on any main hill listing, and there are very few references to it on the usual internet sites.

On 3rd January, Allan and I planned to climb Culblean Hill as our first hillwalk of the year and drove the short distance to near Loch Davan.  The roads were very icy and tricky, as was the track heading up to Redbush and onto the moor - the same initial route I'd used to climb Morven six days previously.

The freezing rain which was making conditions slippy on lower ground had been falling as snow higher up the hill - Morven looked splendid in dazzling white; the cloud off the top unlike my ascent just prior to the turn of the year.

An estate track leads high onto the moor between Morven and Culblean Hill - at the highest point we left it and headed SW up a gentle dome of short heather.  The view as the high point of the track is reached opens out suddenly - a real "wow" moment, and just kept getting better as we climbed higher.

The cloud moved away from Morven's summit to leave a simple colour scheme of brilliant white and sky blue; we were in bright sunshine but now in a chilly breeze so didn't linger too long, despite the frequent stops for me to take photographs......

.....and really, the views were worth stopping for!  The giant sprawl of Ben a'Bhuird and Ben Avon  to the west were flawlessly white under deep snow cover, thoughts of ski touring came straight into our heads!

To the south, Lochnagar's corrie looked magnificent, the line of my most recent climb on that queen of mountains clearly visible where the low sun brushed the ridgelines.

Culblean is in no way a high hill, but it has in abundance the "big sky" feel of the hills hereabouts.  We were able to stroll across the gentle slopes of the summit area on frozen ground with a covering of powder snow, under a huge expanse of sky.

I'd guess that this hill is pretty rarely climbed - we were certainly the first walkers of the year to come here.  The 604 m/1982 ft summit itself is marked by a small cairn of pink granite blocks.......

......a nice contrast against the blue and white of Morven across the bealach.

The combination of small stature and being separated from nearby hills, the summit still gives super views.  A cloud sea rolling over Lochnagar as fresh snow swept in.......

In the eye of a searing winter sun, the most easterly of the Munros, Mount Keen was a distinctive silhouette. It's been several years since I've climbed Mount Keen - I made a mental note to try and rectify that in 2018!

There's a Trig Point on Culblean Hill, but it's some 2 kilometres north east of the summit and some 127 metres lower....which we figured must mean that there would be an equally good view from there.  We headed off to find out, stopping en route on a sunny slope out of the breeze to have our lunch.

Each trig point was specifically sited where it would have sight lines to at least two others, mostly on prominent points.  This one (S8709 for those who "bag" the trigs!) commands a great view of the Dee valley.....

......especially upstream to the west over Ballater and beyond to the high Cairngorms.

Below our feet was Loch Kinord on the Muir of Dinnet, one of two shallow lochs (the other is Loch Davan) formed when giant pieces of ice from the Dee valley glacier were stranded and melted out to form "kettle lakes".

Loch Davan was our aiming point back to the road and we headed downhill on an ESE line.  We can't claim this was the best descent - thick heather on a steep slope led to a boggy area then dense woodland before we met the track back to the road.  A much better descent would have been ENE to the north edge of a wood, then down the heather slopes to the track.

Our first hillwalks of the year had been to a hill which seems almost unfrequented - but which offers superb views and is well worth the modest effort to climb it.

Our route was just less than 10 kilometres with 490 metres of ascent.  We started and finished at the track leading from a minor road connecting the B9119 and the A97 at NJ 431023 - the whole route is on OS Landranger map 37 (Strathdon & Alford).

Monday, 1 January 2018

First footing on the Moray Firth

 The first day of a new year, and the first day's sea kayaking of the year!  Donald, Anne, Allan and I met up at Findochty to paddle a favourite section of the Moray Firth coast on a bright but distinctly chilly January morning.  Having run a shuttle down the route we headed out from the frosty shade of the harbour and into bright sunshine.

 Away to the north across the Moray Firth the mountains of Caithness stood out well, plastered in snow.  Although the images in this post seem to show a flat calm sea, it was anything but for most of the day.  A powerful long-period groundswell from the northeast kept up constant interest, to say nothing of constant noise and bursting spray.  We threaded between rock stacks and channels to arrive at the iconic feature of this part of the coast....

 ....the Bow Fiddle Rock, which we hoped to "first foot".  The rocky inlets just to the Portknockie side were full of swell and clapotis, but it seemed quiet enough in the channel under the graceful arch.

 Deceptive though, as the swell was certainly running.  Anne is right in the centre of the arch in this image - just her paddle visible in the trough between two larger swells.

 Just as Allan was about to paddle through, a set of really large swells arrived and burst through the arch.  At this point we couldn't see him at all.......

 ...but cannily he'd waited until the noise and action subsided before sweeping through on the backwash - this was great sea kayaking!

 I hadn't expected to be able to paddle through the nearby large cave-tunnel known as the "Whale's Mou" (mouth) but in the event it was very benign, seemingly at right angles to the swell.  An hour or so either side of high water it's possible to paddle through and into a bay on the other side, then back out into Cullen Bay again.

 The bay is a sun trap even in the depths of winter!  We'd hoped to land on one of the pebble beaches here but all had been steepened by recent storms and had swell running into them, so we decided to head for Cullen harbour....

...and enjoyed a leisurely paddle across the bay with a breeze and the sun on our backs.  Luncheon was taken in a sunny corner of the harbour and featured slices of Christmas cake - thanks Anne! :o)

I took no photos from Cullen to Sandend as the swell got quite engaging close in to the Logie Head and along the rocky coast near to Findlater Castle.  Donald and I managed to pass through a small cave-tunnel, but there wasn't much headroom in the bouncy conditions....


 We had to squint into the low winter sun to find the correct line of approach into the tiny harbour at Sandend; but the sun hadn't risen high enough to reach most of the cottages or the harbour itself, and the temperature as we landed was barely above freezing.  What a great day we'd enjoyed on our "first foot" paddle - it's set a high standard for 2018!

This is a favourite paddle and arguably some of the best sea kayaking anywhere, with sandy beaches, picturesque harbours, stacks, arches, caves and a castle too.  It's around 14 kilomteres from Findochty to Sandend - we took a little less than four hours - but you can easily fill a whole day on this route in calm conditions when the features can be fully explored.  For the best experience, choose a day with minimal swell; a couple of hours either side of high water gives the best rockhopping opportunities.  There's little in the way of tidal effect on this section, but the whole coast is exposed to the north and east.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

A winter day on Morven

The period since Christmas has been quite cold, with temperatures down to -8 Celsius overnight, while a northerly airstream has brought snow showers. I was looking for an opportunity to get out and about and a day of clear weather on 28th December looked perfect.

I headed the short distance over to Cromar to climb Morven - there was markedly less snow on the ground here than at home but plenty higher on the hill.  Morven is an Anglicisation of "Mor-Bheinn" (big hill), and it lives up to the name- a bulky dome which stands apart and seems to tower over the surrounding countryside.  I've climbed this hill several times and it always seems to take more effort than you'd think it should. On the drive across I noted the shroud of cloud across the higher parts of the hill, and the banner of snow blowing from the summit - there would be some lively conditions near the top.....

The shortest route to the hill from near Balhennie is the one most folk use, it's short but quite steep and pretty much out and back.  I looked for a route with a bit more variety and settled on starting from the minor road north of Loch Davan, taking a track past Raebush and Redburn which passes through a pleasant wood before heading uphill onto the moor.  The views up to the northeast are extensive, beyond Cromar to the hills near my home.  Snow showers were moving across much of the higher ground, but up to this point I was in clear conditions.

A clearance in the cloud over the top of Morven offered the hope of a summit view, but I was still three kilometres from the top and the cloud soon closed back in.  My route followed tracks curving across the broad saddle to the left of this image, then I went up more steeply, aiming for the right hand edge of the summit ridge.  The going was initially tough in deep, snow covered heather, but as height is gained the vegetation becomes much shorter and the underfoot easier....

...though the conditions were really fierce as the summit area was gained.  The cloud was combining with a 50mph tearingly cold northwesterly wind which was raising a considerable groundstorm of pulverised snow.  This image was taken in a brief lull in the wind and shows the best visibility for some time!  To add to the fun, a heavy snow shower arrived so I battened down and put on ski goggles to maintain some limited visibility.  This was full-on winter and I found myself really enjoying the wild conditions. 

A line of battered fenceposts is a useful guide towards the summit; today adorned with foot long frost feathers.  These feathers are formed when a cold, strong wind deposits moisture onto the windward side of rocks and other objects; the feathers show the direction of the wind as they grow directly upwind and can build up to a considerable size.

The now shower eased as I was heading across the flattish ground of the summit ridge on a compass bearing and I was pleased to see the cairn emerge from the whiteness right on cue.

This wasn't a day for a leisurely snack whilst enjoying the summit vistas!  A brief crouch behind the trig point to set up bearings to the track below and I headed back along the ridge - the wind by now was really biting and was pushing me bodily sideways in the stronger gusts.  At the end of the summit ridge I took another bearing and headed dead SE down into the murk towards a track which passes to the south of Morvern.  The snow whirling off the ridge was all being deposited down here, but not in sufficient quantity to constitute an avalanche hazard.  It did make for a speedy descent through the heather and I was soon on the track and into much more benign conditions.

A look back from the point where the track heads steeply back down to Raebush; the cloud banner still streaming off the top of the hill, conditions would still be as fierce up there.  At 872m/2860ft, Morvern isn't the biggest of hills, but once again it had given me a terrific winter day.