Saturday, 18 November 2017

Scale and space on Lochnagar

It's a short climb from the bealach to Meikle Pap, which gives a great view across to the cliffs of Lochnagar, except that today the top portion of the mountain was in cloud.  Looking across the bealach, the way ahead goes up the curving ridge known as the Ladder and then around the rim of the corrie and up onto the summit plateau.  Scale is not easy to convey, but this is a fairly big chunk of hillside.  Although bouldery, this area has a reputation for avalanches when under deep snow cover.

The cloud began to disperse as I crossed the bealach and headed up the Ladder.  A pause to catch my breath was also a chance to look back across to the "top" of Meikle Pap (big breast)- quite descriptive as Gaelic hill names often are.  For scale, there are two hillwalkers crossing the bealach just to the right of centre in this image.

Close up, the granite of Lochnagar is pink like most of the Cairngorm area.  Seen en masse at the head of Lochnagar's corrie, it often appears dark and slightly menacing.

The rim of the corrie was a wild place to be on this day; the wind was pouring into the north facing bowl and being forced out over the corrie lip in a freezing blast - literally so as the tears the wind was wringing from my eyes were freezing to ice on my face.......

Across the head of the corrie was the slope I hoped to use for my descent, it comes down from close to the summit in a bold sweep and was a part of the hill I'd not previously walked.

There are some terrific views from the head of the corrie - this spot at the head of a steep stone chute is one of the best places to look down on the lochan which gives the mountain its name  - Lochan na Gair (Little Loch of the Noisy Sound).  Up to the north there were signs that the cloud which had capped the mountain for the previous hour was beginning to break up and I hoped it might allow a summit view.

The summit area of Lochnagar is a gentle dome with southerly trending dips to the Munros of the White Mounth, a complete contrast to the dramatic crags of the north face.  As far as the eye could see - which was quite a distance - the high ground was covered white.  The sense of space and scale under huge skies rivals the main Cairngorm plateau here, but in poor conditions navigation needs to be accurate.  In parts the subtle glint of ice reflected the sun and I was glad of the crampons in my rucsac, there was no doubt that these were winter conditions.

Approaching the summit there are cracking views down some of the gullies which split the crags of Lochnagar, the walls sheer and square cut all the way to the corrie floor.  The head of this one framed the Meikle Pap nicely, but given the roiling turbulence of the wind I didn't venture any closer to enjoy the view downwards......

Ahead, the summit of the mountain, Cac Carn Beag was just a couple of hundred metres away.  Sometimes translated as "little pile of shit", its an undignified name for a grand viewpoint but is quite descriptive when seen from some angles, although the name is thought to be probably a corruption of Cadha Carn Beag (slope of the little cairn).

Monday, 13 November 2017

First day of winter on Lochnagar

November has so far been unsettled and for the most part windy.  A swing of wind direction to the northwest introduced a very cold airflow and the promise of wintry conditions in the hills.  Last year offered little in the way of "proper winter" weather, so I decided to take the opportunity while it lasted.

My plan was to climb Lochnagar, one of the classic mountains of the northeast of Scotland and a hill which rarely disappoints.  Something else which didn't disappoint was the frosty pre-dawn weather as I left home.  Before we lived in the northeast we associated frost only with still conditions, but here the deepest frosts are often driven in by a freezing wind.  The morning certainly had promise, and if the amount of scraping of the car windscreen was any indication conditions underfoot should be good and frozen on the hill.

The golden wash in the sky was just stunning as dawn approached, it was time to go!

Forty five minutes later and I was approaching the car park at Spittal of Glenmuick as a beautiful wash of light flooded the far side of the glen.  Don't be fooled by the warmth of the light, it was very chilly!  Lochnagar had a good dusting of snow across its upper slopes and looked great in the early morning light.

My route would take me across the glen to the house at the foot of the Allt na Guibhsaich (burn (stream) of the pine trees) and up the track which follows the burn all the way to a high point between Glen Muick and Glen Gelder.  From there I'd follow a path up to the prominent bealach (col) in this image, then go first up to the conical top of Meikle Pap, then return to the bealach and climb up onto the summit plateau and head around above the cliffs.

I set out at a fast walking pace to try and generate some warmth.  The temperature was hovering just below freezing and a heavy snow shower was raking the top of the mountain.  Showers had been forecast throughout the day, and given the likelihood of frozen ground I was wearing winter boots and carrying both crampons and ice axe.  I didn't expect to need an axe with comparatively little snow on the ground, but I prefer to carry and not use it rather than not carry it and need it.  In the event, I didn't use crampons either, though there was a section of icy ground on the descent where I nearly put them on.  As it happened, the icy section was avoidable on boulders to one side.

I was well warmed up by the time I reached the Muick/Gelder watershed after about 5km of easy angled ascent.  The watershed is at about 700m/2300ft and has a great view across the valley of the River Dee to Ben Avon which seemed to have a good covering of snow.  The path from here climbs more steeply to reach a bealach between Meikle Pap and the main mass of Lochnagar.......

.....where there's the classic grandstand view into the corrie of Lochnagar.  The whole mountain is named for the dark lochan below the cliffs which is called Lochan na Gair (little loch of the noisy sound).  It's a stirring view and one which never loses its impact.  The wind was also making an impact at this bealach, a scything cold blast deflecting around the corrie and pouring over the bealach.  It wasn't a place to linger today despite the grand view; I turned north to make the short climb up to the top of Meikle Pap and what's actually an even better viewpoint.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Remembrance - November 11th

In remembrance of all those men and women who have lost their lives in the service of their countries, those who still suffer the physical and mental scars of the conflicts in which they served; and those who are left with loss and grief.

               "At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them"       

Saturday, 28 October 2017

An incendiary moment

Yesterday evening's sunset over the Aberdeenshire countryside - a stunningly rich blaze of colour....

...the intensity of which charged the whole sky with incendiary shades and changed the quality of the air around us as we took an evening walk.  One of those evenings which take the breath away.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Cairngorm contrast - the relentless foe

Afte two days of really lovely October conditions the weather broke.  I was staying at Rothiemurchus Lodge and through the night the whole building was shaken by violent gusts of wind - my thoughts were with the Duke of Edinburgh's teams over on Deeside but actually they had quite calm conditions low down in Glen Derry.

I set out into heavy rain and scudding cloud.  What this image can't show is the violence of the wind; tearing gusts which blew sheets of rainwater from the ground and roared through the trees.

Climbing high above the woods of Rothiemurchus, a glimpse on sunlight on the far side of the Spey valley would be the last for some hours.

Ahead, the weather looked particularly challenging as cloud and rain belched out of the jaws of the Lairig Ghru.  The rain now set in with real venom and the wind, dead against me, slowed progress right down.

At some points I simply had to turn my back to the wind and rain as it became too painful to face into the combination of 60mph wind, lashing rain and gravel blown from the path.  The Lairig Ghru is one of the great through-routes of the Cairngorms, and indeed of Scotland.  A huge former glacial breach linking Deeside with Speyside, it slices through the Cairngorm plateau reaching 835m at its highest point.  Today it was perfectly orentied with the wind, which was roaring through, almost stopping progress at times.

In normal circumstances I'd have avoided heading up into such weather, but I intended to meet the D of E teams as they came through the other way.  They would have this weather at their backs but would still find it more challenging than previous experiences in the hills.

Hunkered down at the Pools of Dee, a few small lochans near the high point of the pass, I watched the clouds racing past.  The main plateau lies some 400 metres above the Lairig and I could only imagine the power of the wind up there as it raced unchecked over the dome of the Cairngorms in the first real "blow" of the autumn.

In these conditions, and particularly in winter, the wind is a relentless foe.  I've had some of my hardest fights not too far from this spot, the wind sapping energy, strength and willpower - a fundamental and fierce experience.  There's a wild pleasure in being able to operate on the hills in such conditions though - a feeling almost impossible to explain to someone who doesn't walk or climb in the mountains.

Briefly poking my head up occasionally to scan for folk coming through, I settled down for what might be a long wait.

But remarkably, both teams were keeping good time and going well - impressed but not overawed by the conditions.  It was a relief to put my back to the wind as I headed after them - progress suddenly seemed so much easier and now th trick was not getting blown over.

And then, one of those moments.......the rain ceased and the cloud tore apart as if a curtain had been pulled; we walked into bright sunshine and clear air.  The wind stayed at the same severe gale force, but what a difference!

Looking back up into the Lairig, the cloud was now racing across the pass rather than straight down.  The shif of wind as a front passed had totally altered the conditions in the space of a few moments - a real Cairngorm contrast.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Cairngorm contrast - golden time

During the first half of October I had the opportunity to visit several areas of the Cairngorms over a period of four consecutive days whilst assessing two Duke of Edinburgh's Award groups.  The teams would travel from Deeside across to Speyside, covering over 80 kilometres whilst investigating an aim for their venture.

The first two days were forecast to have really fine autumnal weather, the third and fourth days would bring something much more challenging - but more of that later!

I planned to meet both teams in the forest and moors above Invercauld and set out on my bike along the network of estate tracks on a pleasant afternoon.

In position along the route the teams would take, I had plenty of time in had to sit and make a cup of tea whilst enjoying the play of early evening light across the moorland.  The heather has turned from purple to a greenish bronze and the light seemed warm and benign.  It's good to pause and take some time in the hills occasionally; to enjoy some "golden time" just absorbing the surroundings - and it was a great evening to do so.

I spent much of the following day in Glen Derry, and again had plenty of time to just sit and observe.  The autumnal colours are really starting to take hold now, the leaves of this Rowan turning from green to yellow and set off nicely against a background of dark green pines.

Finding a vantage point from where I could  see the teams approaching from some distance, the "brew kit" came out and a cup of tea was soon in hand.  The view to Derry Cairngorm is a fine one; it's been a few years since I climbed this particular hill - something I must rectify soon.  Overhead, the unmistakeable wild music of Pink Footed Geese added a note of autumn sounds.

This Birch tree was visible from some kilomteres as a brilliant yellow firecracker standing out against the muted moorland shades - just beautiful, but perhaps it might be in the wrong location........

........because the corrie at the base of Derry Cairngorm is called Coire Craobh an Oir (Corrie of the tree of gold).  The teams would journey around the base of Derry Cairngorm and below the dark spur of Devil's Point which can just be glimpsed centre left in this image.  Although the weather looked settled, the forecast told a very different story and their day would bring them challenge in plentiful supply.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

A two day Torridon tour - between a rock and a hard place

Continuing our paddle along the north side of Loch Torridon, Allan and I paused at this ruin.  It may have been a croft or a fishing station, but would have been a tough place in which to make a living.

For most of this part of the loch the shore is steep and rocky - difficult to walk along...unless you happen to be perfectly adapted of course.  We saw several goats and I've met with them previously in this area.

Approaching Loch Diabaig, there's a change in the geology from sandstone to Lewisian Gneiss and the scenery becomes suddenly more rugged but with very few landing places......

.....apart from the shore at the head of Loch Diabaig.  The settlement of Lower Diabaig must be one of the trickiest places in Scotland to reach by road, a minor road at the end of a long minor road which twists over the Bealach na Gaoithe (pass of the winds) before descending steeply to sea level again - truly between a rock and a hard place.

Heading out of Loch Diabaig and towards the narrows separating outer and middle Loch Torridon there's another change in the rock type and this time the contact zone is unmistakeable.  On one side of the contact there's a pink sedimentary rock, and on the other a dark metamorphised igneous rock.

We were by now looking at a couple of options for a second night camping.  There are surprisingly few good spots; we checked out one I've used before on a small promontory before deciding on a patch of level ground on the south shore of the loch.  As it was quite early in the afternoon we decided to paddle part of the upper loch before pitching our tents.

As we passed through the narrows by Eilean a' Chaol (Island of the kyle (narrow)) the view up to the head of the loch showed that a change in the weather was approaching.  The big Torridon hills were obscured by thick cloud and we could see heavy rain falling.  As this was headed our way we started back towards our intended campsite, but the rain beat us.

As the rain started the wind dropped to a dead calm - and we knew exactly what would be waiting for us on the shore!  Almost as soon as we stepped from the boats we were attacked by midges which seemed undeterred by the rain.  We now had a fairly easy decision - we were only about half an hour's paddling from Shieldaig and our car; and we could easily get home that evening if we chose to.  The prospect of a night confined to our tents to shelter from both rain and midges wasn't that appealing - after all, our trip ws meant as a relaxed couple of days! 

We arrived at a decision pretty quickly and got back in the boats to paddle across to Shiledaig.  Even on the main street of the village the midges were biting us as we loaded the boats onto the car.

Loch Torridon had given us a good couple of days paddling and had fulfilled the aim of sheltered options in very changeable winds and weather.  When the wind is in the north or south it's a good alternative to more exposed parts of the north west coast, though the topography of hills and the loch does tend to funnel any easterly winds.

Monday, 25 September 2017

A two day Torridon tour - big sky morning

Sometime during the night I became aware that the rain had stopped and the wind had dropped away.  Early sunlight heating the tents prompted us to be up and about early, emerging into a bright morning.  Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones to be up and about early and we exited the tents straight into clouds of ferocious midges.  Usually they don't bite much in bright sunlight (see paragraph 2.6.2 in this paper), but the local population on this piece of Loch Torridon shoreline clearly hadn't read the paper!  We scrambled for our midge repellent and I straight away put on my suit of "midge armour" which made things much more bearable........

Though the midges were doing their level best it was still a lovely morning, and in a superb location. Packing was a little quicker than we'd have liked in order to escape the midge attack, which remarkably continued even as the day heated up. 

As soon as we were on the water and away from the shore we left the midges behind and were able to fully appreciate the morning....and what a morning!  Our position at the outermost part of Loch Torridon had sweeping views - to the west the Trotternish peninsula on Skye lay under an ever-changing cloudscape; while on the horizon we caught a glimpse of the long chain of the outer Hebrides.

It was the majestic cloudscapes (and not the midge attack!) which made the morning so memorable.  Towering cumulus would build over the land and then slowly subside in an ever-changing pattern, dissipating where it drifted over water and never really threatening rain.

We paddled eastward, into Loch Torridon and into patterns of bright sunlight and cloud-shadow.

Each time the sun emerged from the cloud pattern, the water beneath our boats was flooded with morning light, the colour and detail snapped into sharp focus by the intensity of the light.

As the morning grew warmer the cloudscape developed a heavier, more solid appearance, but still didn't really threaten rain.  The Skye shore was in shade, while here on the Torridon shore.....

...we basked in warm sun.  After an hour or so of paddling we decided on a second breakfast and landed on a beach of sandstone boulders.  Thankfully the midges seemed to have given up and we enjoyed a pleasant coffee break propped against boulders warmed by the sun.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A two day Torridon tour - a meteorological beating

On our crossing of outer Loch Torridon we had a very visible aiming point - the sandy beach at Red Point which seemed to have caught any patches of sunlight throughout the day.  A pale patch amongst greys, greens and browns, it stands out well in views from the south.  The swell which had built up behind us as we crossed was broken up by a small island and an offshore reef, making for a relatively easy landing.

Red Point was the site of a fishing station, now abandoned.  The cottages are just gable ends and a couple of walls, the most complete building being a semi-derelict store on the shore.  It's missing substantial portions of wall and roof and was a bit "sheepy" - we would be glad of it soon enough! Slender trunks of pine trees seem out of place in the dunes nearby; they didn't grow here but were dug into the dunes to provide supports for net drying.

I knew from a previous visit that we could find decent pitches behind the dunes, we pitched our tents in comparative shelter from a strong breeze which at least guaranteed no midges would trouble us during the evening.

A blink of evening sunshine provided a flash of colour, but unfortunately it didn't last long........

...before the weather begann to close in.  The wind increased to a pretty strong blow and soon we felt the first spots of rain.

To the south, the shore we'd paddled from looked to be getting some heavier rain; we reflected that place we'd originally planned to camp would have been exposed to the worst of this weather.

To seaward, there was an unmistakeable and menacing bank of rain approaching.  We moved our cooking kit into the derelict shed to take advantage of whatever shelter it offered - there would be no camp fire on this evening!

The next couple of hours saw heavy rain and a strong wind battering the coast, and the shed where we huddled to eat dinner.  The weather was pretty hostile and the evening was one of the coldest August evenings I can recall outside of the mountains.  Soon after dinner we battened down our tents and retired to our sleeping bags.

The view from the tent door just before I closed it up was quite dramatic.  The mountains of Torridon were invisible and the middle part of the loch at Shieldaig was taking a real meteorological beating - the sky was a livid purple shade and the sheets of rain were clearly visible.  Lying in my sleeping bag listening to the rain and wind on the tent, I wondered what the morning might bring......