Monday 30 January 2012

Up into winter on Little Wyvis

A visit to Inverness gave an opportunity for a half day's hillwalking recently and although the weather forecast wasn't too great, I thought that Little Wyvis would fit the bill.  Just half an hour from Inverness and of a modest 764 metres, it just makes Corbett status and as a bonus it's one I hadn't climbed so another "tick"!

I arrived at the car park in cold temperatures and light rain.  A few other vehicles were already there, the occupants all headed for the Munro of Ben Wyvis.  As is sometimes the case, I got not a single good view of the hill I was climbing, but across Strathgarve the Kinlochluichart hills were plastered with snow to low levels.

The path climbs through pleasant pine forest alongside a stream and emerges onto open moorland.  The heavily trodden path to Ben Wyvis heads north up the steep slope of An Cabar (the rafter) en route to the Munro, but my route involved crossing the stream and heading up pathless moor to the top edge of the forest.  |to the northwest, the sky darkened to an angry grey colour as a huge snow shower approached.  I took the hint and battened down the hatches just before the world changed from a pleasant hillwalk to a real battle in strong wind and driving snow.

I saw nothing else for some two hours as I pushed up onto the broad ridge leading to the summit of Little Wyvis.  At about 650 metres I crossed from plus to minus temperatures and my clothes almost instantly froze.  The wind was biting, almost painful and I needed to concentrate on the compass to keep me on line for the summit cairn.  A line of old fenceposts helped guide the way and I reached the summit without difficulty.

I was now really enjoying the conditions - this is typical wild Scottish hill weather.  The combination of wet, cold then freezing conditions overlaid with strong wind provides a real winter challenge.  It's true to say that in winter, there's no hillwalking, rather every outing is mountaineering.  In Europe, perhaps only Norway has similar conditions.  Our hills aren't very high, but they bite!

Descending by my outward route, I was almost back at the forest before a slight shift in the wind signalled the end of a two hour battering by wind and snow - it was forecast as "showers"!  To the north west the Fannich mountains appeared and disappeared in a monochrome slideshow.

Smaller snow showers swept across the landscape.  All the snow in the foreground had fallen in the short time I'd been up the hill.

Heading back to the car park the skyscape was really dramatic as the weather began to settle.  Towering clouds slowed from sweeping showers to reveal glimpses of the scenery plastered white.

The whole walk took a little over four hours.  One hour was a pleasant wander and the other three a winter test.  Back in Inverness just 30 minutes drive away, there had been no snow, little wind and the sun was out.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Local hills - Ben Newe

On a bright winter day with a cold northwesterly wind which was shrouding higher hills with cloud, Ben Newe seemed like it would give a pleasant half day walk.  Sitting above the ruin of Glenbuchat Castle in Strathdon, it also promised some nice views over the Don.  The direct ascent I estimated would take less than an hour, so I worked out a route to give a slightly longer walk with some variety.

The route goes from a forest car park just off the road through planted forest then out onto the open moor along a higher wood edge.  The patchwork of light and shade was creating some really nice effects. One feature of this walk is that it is well sheltered from strong westerly wind apart from the very summit of the hill

The view north over Glenbuchat to the Buck o' the Cabrach which lies on the boundary of Speyside.  There was still almost no snow about, this winter is certainly different from last.  At least the colder condtions are turning the land the "proper" bleached winter shades rather than the green of a few weeks ago.

The summit of Ben Newe, like many other northeast hills, is a small tor.  It's said to have a very ancient well at the summit area.  Perhaps this pool in the summit rock is part of it as there is a channel leading from it and traces of an inscription in the rock next to it.

At 565 metres, Ben Newe is a small hill, but being reasonably isolated it does have good views, which is why it was used as a triangulation point for the Ordnance Survey. 

As I wanted a longer route than just up and back down I descended south west on another of the waymarked paths - this one would lead down to a car park to the west of the hill.  Initially through larch wood, the path meets a forest track which is blocked for a way be windblown trees brought down in December's storms.  A bit of a detour soon had me at the minor road which joins the main Strathdon road at Coull of Newe

Near the junction is a flour mill and this fine example of a typical stone built house in the Scottish vernacular style.  The brightly painted windows and door stand out really well.

Leaving the road I wandered through woodland alongside the river Don to this road bridge.

The Don has it's source about twenty kilometres upstream from this point and eventually empties to the North Sea in Aberdeen, one of the granite city's two rivers.

A riverside path enabled me to keep off the road on the way back to complete a really enjoyable day - and just twenty minutes from home.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

A winter afternoon on the Moray Firth

There are lots of arches and stacks on this section of the Moray Firth coast, but I was delighted to find this one on the Portsoy side of the West Head.  I've paddled here many times but not found this slender arch before. It's narrow, but looks like it can be paddled at most states of the tide. 

There are three narrow channels which cut straight through the West Head.  It's rare to get conditions which will allow easy passage through them all, but today was one of the rare days.  This is the widest of the three and even today the swell was being magnified through the gap.  Perhaps the best thing about these gaps is that they teach observation, timing and above all, patience.  In winter the cliffs are quiet but in the Spring and early Summer the racket and smell of thousands of seabirds adds to the special atmosphere.

Around the West Head and into Sandend Bay, I landed at the abandoned croft Redhythe before paddling on to Sandend where I had a break and ate my lunch.  The harbour entrance at Sandend is tiny and faces just about north, which means that in the winter the sun will almost always be in your eyes as you approach.  Not a problem today, but in the rough conditions prevailing here it can be tricky to judge correctly.

Heading back around to Portsoy I stopped at another small pebble beach.  Although the sun was touching this section,  a frost had formed below the high water mark.  Since low water had just passed, the frost must actually have formed during the morning.  It was certainly cold - the roof straps were freezing as I put the boat back on the car at Portsoy.

The 10 kilometres of this short route had taken me over four hours - mainly due to poking around all the little features of the cliffs.  All in all a nice winter afternoon!

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Cold cliffs

On the last of a forecast run of calm, clear days I made a late decision to do a short paddle on the Moray Firth.  My favourite local paddle normally starts at Sandend, but this time I decided to go from Portsoy to Sandend and back.  Although this is only a short distance, there's so much interest among the tiny bays, cliffs and rocky channels here that it always takes much longer than expected.

Portsoy harbour was virtually deserted as I got on the water, in total contrast to the annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival held here, when the harbour is full of boats and the harbourside and surrounding streets are absolutely packed with people, musicians and food stalls.

On the Moray Firth, the swell is a major limiting factor on sea kayaking.  The coast along this section is predominantly rocky with low cliffs and the outer firth is exposed to the north and east.  Today, although it was calm, a residual swell kept up interest; it's rarely completely flat here.

When I launched at Portsoy the boat was still covered in the morning's frost and ice.  Paddling into the shade of the north facing cliffs the air got even colder.  In the winter these small bays don't see the sun at all and frosts become deep and penetrating.

I spent some time playing in a few of the rocky channels, which are great for practising boat control and there are so many of varying widths and commitment that you can choose your difficulty level.  Given the air temperature of minus 3 degrees and a sea temperature of 7 degrees Celcius, I wasn't too bold - I just didn't fancy an unplanned swim!

Soon I was approaching the West Head which separates Portsoy from Sandend Bay.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

A frosty morning

I recently posted that I was looking forward to sharp, frosty mornings - and for the last five days that's exactly what we've had in the northeast of Scotland.  Wherever the sun hasn't touched, the frost has remained unbroken and created some quite beautiful effects, particularly on dead grasses.

A timber stack was white with hoar frost; the dazzling white a nice contrast with the red of a felled pine.  I'm certain there were better compositions and images here, but at minus 6 Celsius I didn't hang around too long!  A morning walk in these conditions is such a pleasure - as long as you keep moving.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Island Hopping on the Clyde - a big view to Arran

We left the shore on Bute and paddled out into a blaze of light.  Passing Garroch Head can sometimes be tricky; on the ebb tide two streams running down the west and east side of Bute converge here in an energetic tide race.  No such problems today though as we paddled serenely past during the last part of the flood tide.

The crossing to Arran is just over 10 kilometres point to point, but more like 12 with the drift of the tide which pushed us north as we crossed.  Long crossings aren't normally my favourite type of paddling, but with a view like this ahead and good company on the way, this crossing was a pure joy.

Arran's ridges got more dramatic as we approached, the thin band of cloud which had been present since just after dawn constantly shifted and changed.  The view was simply stunning.

As we neared, the low sun skimmed behind the cloud band and created a dramatic show of light and shade, the ridges alternately hidden behind luminous mist and then thrown into sharp silhouette. 

Paddling south along the shore for a little way we rounded a small point and landed on the sandy beach at Sannox Bay.  A thin breze had got up so we moved above the beach into the shelter of some gorse bushes.  This time we needed no debate, this was definitely second luncheon; our arrival on Arran was toasted with a nip of 14 year old Glenfiddich.

Second luncheon brought out our food again, with honours going to Mike who produced his stove and a frying pan to cook bacon and egg sandwiches using eggs from his own hens, followed by fresh coffee.  There is truly no requirement to suffer on a trip such as this!

Leaving Sannox, we had 9 kilometres of paddling to the ferry terminal at Brodick.  Initially we thought we'd left our timing a little tight so we pushed on south past Corrie and along a pretty shore with the smell of woodsmoke from the houses along the shore pervading our nostrils.  Phil and I had a good view of an Otter hunting at Merkland Point before we pulled into a glassy calm Brodick Bay at sunset.

We had plenty of time to cross the bay, land on a beach next to the ferry terminal and purchase single tickets to complete our "Island Hopper" adventure. Changing into our spare clothes for the ferry journey, we celebrated the trip with a nip of 10 year old Jura before putting our boats onto trollies for boarding.

The regular ferry "Caledonian Isles" is off service for refit, so we travelled back to the mainland on LOTI (MV Lord of the Isles).  If taken onboard by trolley, kayaks travel free on Caledonian MacBrayne ferries. We were boarded first and our boats placed safely on the car deck.  As so often, the crew were friendly and curious about our trip. The day was rounded off with a hot meal in the cafeteria and an hour later we disembarked in Ardrossan to run the shuttle to Portencross.

Paddling to Arran from the mainland has long been on my "must do" list.  To do this trip with such great company and in such fine weather really was the icing on the cake.

Days like these - they're what life is made for.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Island Hopping on the Clyde - Little Cumbrae and Bute

In the chilly pre-dawn of a January morning, four of us met up at Ardrossan Ferry terminal on the Clyde.  We would have been very early for the first sailing of the day, but we weren't planning to get the ferry just yet.

Mike, Phil, Douglas and I were setting out on our own version of an "Island Hopper" ticket - and one for which we would need just a single ferry journey.  We left two cars at Ardrossan and moved a little further north to launch at sunrise from a tiny beach below Portencross Castle.  It will be well worth looking at Douglas' blog for his report of our trip.

We paddled out from the shade of the castle into a glorious winter morning.  There wasn't a breath of wind and there was even a hint of warmth in the sun on our backs.  Away across the Firth of Clyde the distinctive skyline of Arran emerged from the dawn haze.

The first stage of our trip took us towards Gull Point, the southern tip of Little Cumbrae.  We could clearly hear the terriers at the castle on the Wee Cumbrae barking madly over two miles of water - surely they hadn't detected the likelihood of lunch in our boats at that range?!

If so, the wee dogs would be disappointed; we didn't stop at Gull Point, but continued our paddle north west.  Conditions could really only be described as idyllic, the reflections of our boats gleaming off a burnished sea and the rich colours of the winter landscape glowing in the low sunlight.

We crossed the main Clyde channel and landed on the south end of the Isle of Bute at Port Leithne, a little way east of Garroch Head.

As we got out our stoves and flasks, a dilemma presented itself - was this second breakfast or first luncheon?  The question was of critical importance.  A brief discussion ensued along with some assessment of solar declination; we decided that as the sun was over the yardarm (for a given value of yardarm height!) this could indeed be considered to be first luncheon.  Our arrival on Bute could therefore be toasted with a nip of  10 year old Jura.

We sat in the sun enjoying a superb view of Arran and the outer Clyde with a hot drink and food in our hands.  It was Friday 13th January - but we considered ourselves to be blessed with great good fortune.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Above the pines of Glen Tanar

My first few days home after a lengthy spell working away were family days, catching up and visiting.  The weather this winter has been very different from last; temperatures in the first few days of January 2012 have been around 10 Celcius, compared with minus 10 Celcius in January 2011 - some variation!  The weather so far has been dominated by strong winds including two systems which crossed Scotland bringing Storm (and in some places Hurricane) force winds.

Despite the mild temperatures, it is winter.  One morning we looked up to see about 20 Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) passing low over the house as they came in to land on a nearby field, their wonderfully wild trumpeting calls a true sound of winter.  These are visitors from the high Arctic, perhaps remaining here in the north east while the weather is mild.

On what would be the first day back at work for many after the Christmas and Hogmanay break, a clear and bright morning was too good to miss.  I headed the short distance to Glen Tanar for a modest hillwalk above the pine forest. 

Caledonian pine forest and an attractive river make Glen Tanar a popular area for walking and mountain biking.  The estate has waymarked several walks and there are also some very old rights of way known as Mounth Roads which cross the area.

Caledonian pines are one of my favourite trees and just seem to have a sense of belonging to this landscape.  The real forest specialists of Scottish wildlife have evolved colouration to match these wonderful trees; Pine Martens and Red Squirrels match the warm rufous colour of the upper branches, as does the cock Crossbill whilst the hen is coloured to blend in with the green of the needles.  Crested Tits match perfectly the grey, lichen speckled lower limbs of the trees.

From near the start of my route, the forest stretches out in a carpet of rich green toward the high hills of Mount Keen and Braid Cairn which form the head of the glen.

The walk through the forest was, as ever, a joy.  Although it's winter there is wildlife to see and hear with small birds in the trees as well as Roe Deer in the more open areas.

Where the track emerges from the closer packed plantation onto the open moor above, this dead giant stands isolated, the stunted tree behind showing the effects of exposure to the wind.  Even in death this tree is part of the forest; near the base were tiny seedlings, the first signs of the wood recolonising this area.

A short climb over heather soon got me to the summit of Clachan Yell, the name perhaps is a derivation of Clachan Geal - the fair stones.  The name has also been adoped by one of Scotland's best known Ceilidh bands!  At 626 metres it's a relatively small hill but a pleasant summit nevertheless.  As with many of the Cairngorm hills it is a rounded heathery dome studded with a granite tor.  The hill in the background is Morven above the Howe o'Cromar.

On the way to my next summit, Black Craig the going underfoot is on wind cropped heather with clumps of deer grass which in the low winter sun was the colour of bright flame against the brown heather.  Black Craig is the beter viewpoint of the two hills with a panorama taking in the Cairngorm giants to the west, Mount Keen to the south and the two Aberdeenshire landmarks of Bennachie to the north and Clachnaben to the east.

Reaching the track again from Black Craig, I dropped down to near Shiel of Glentanar where a stone bridge crosses the Water of Glentanar using two slabs as foundations.  It was nearly sunset, 3.30pm at this time of year and my 10km walk back along the river and through the forest encompassed the dusk, the twilight and the rising of a bright full moon.

The route I walked was 23 kilometres with about 500 metres of ascent, and has variety and great views - perfect for a cracking winter day like this.