Wednesday 29 February 2012

A colourful February day in Aberdeenshire

The last week of february 2012 has seen a sucession of unseasonably mild weather, culminating in 28th February being  the warmest february day in Scotland since 1897 with a temperature near Aberdeen of 17.2 degrees Celcius.

To put this in context, temperatures for the same week in 2011 were between minus 6 and minus 11 degrees Celcius!

The early flowers are already out; Snowdrops and these Crocus in full bloom.  The garden and woods are full of birdsong. The Rooks already have nests in a group of tall Larch trees nearby, their calls are such a part of the farmland scene.

I used the weather to do some tidying in the garden.  Towards evening a gorgeous luminous light washed the surrounding fields and I grabbed the camera.

A few hundred metres up the lane and this glorious sunset was developing and lighting the whole sky.  Unfortunately I didn't bring the tripod so these images aren't as sharp as they should have been.  I walked to the top of the lane as the sky darkened from gold to red.

The view to the southwest was spectacular.  The warm weather has been partly caused by a Fohn effect with air warming as it flows down the eastern slopes of the Cairngorm mountains.  The resulting unusual cloud formations were underlit an angry red; the gold of just a few minutes previously had lost its colour and turned inky dark.

Walking back down the lane, the evening air felt more like April than February.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

A blue and white view from Beinn Teallach

We crossed the burn near this point.  The water wasn't deep here but all the boulders which were above the surface were coated with ice so we had to balance on stones beneath the surface. The intense cold of the morning was beginning to ease as the sun climbed above the surrounding hills.

Southwards across Glen Spean, the view started to open up.  The two prominent hills are Stob Coire Sgriodain (peak of the scree coire) to the east of Loch Treig (on the left in this picture) and Stob a' Choire Mheadoin (peak of the middle coire) to the west of Loch Treig.

At extreme right, the Corbett of Sgurr Innse is visible.  All these hills have given good days; I can clearly recall the ascent of each one.

As we climbed higher above the woods the views really began to widen.  The tangle of ridges forming the Grey Corries were dazzlingly white. 

And further west still the bulk of Aonach Mor (big ridge) had a cloud cap.  Beyond Aonach Mor lies Ben Nevis but as so often, the summit area was shrouded in cloud.

A steady climb through the snow got us to the summit of Beinn Teallach.  A low hill surrounded by bigger ones often gives the best views and today this was certainly the case.  The last time Dave and I had climbed this hill was over ten years ago and on that day our view was restricted to twenty metres in cloud, driving rain and a westerly gale.  How different this visit was!

The summit temperature was around minus 7 degrees Celcius with a light wind.  We were able to pause near the summit cairn to eat our lunch - a complete contrast to the previous day.....

Heading back down the hill we got a gun barrel view along Loch Treig, along which the West Highland Railway line snakes on its way to Spean Bridge and Fort William

It had been a super day, we'd been treated to the Highlands in all their winter glory and in benign weather too.  This short hill, often described as "uninteresting" in Munro guidebooks is anything but.  Walk it on a clear day and it has as good a view as you could wish for.

Sunday 26 February 2012

A gentle winter day on Beinn Teallach

Overnight the fierce wind subsided and snow fell widely across the Highlands.  We planned a short day on Beinn Teallach (hill of the forge), a Munro above Loch Laggan.  It's a hill Dave and I had climbed before but new ground for Karen.  We also thought that the hill would give a good view.

Heading out from Roughburn near the Laggan Dam, we wandered through a wood transformed from the previous day.

The contrast between the thrashing wind of Saturday and the cold, calm conditions of Sunday was astonishing.  These rapid weather changes are typical of the maritime climate of the west of Scotland, and are both challenging and a delight.

The overnight temperatures had been quite cold; this puddle was frozen in a concentric pattern.

Emerging from the wood we crossed a burn and headed toward the open slopes of our hill.  Beinn Teallach is not to be confused with An Teallach in the Northwest Highlands - that hill is a craggy classic whilst Beinn Teallach is a grassy and somewhat ordinary Munro which only just scrapes into the 914m/3000 ft bracket.

Our route would cross an icy burn and go up to the corner of the wood then up open slopes toward the right hand ridge.  The summit is a kilometre farther back and a little higher.  The weather was looking good and there was even a little warmth in the sun; it was going to be a good day.

Thursday 23 February 2012

A peek through the Window

On a weekend meet of the Mountaineering Club of Bury (MOB), we were forecast to have two very different days of weather.  Saturday would be extremely windy with frequent snow showers, while Sunday would be much quieter.

We were staying in Roybridge, a good central point for Lochaber to the west and the Cairngorms to the east.  I've been a member of the MOB for over 20 years having joined when I lived in the north of England.  Though no longer living in the area I've remained a member and it was good to catch up with old friends and to meet some new folk.

Plans for climbing on Ben Nevis were firmly off the agenda given the forecast for really difficult conditions on Saturday.  The consensus opinion was for a walk on Creag Meagaidh, a plateau mountain with a terrific corrie.  We split into a couple of groups and headed off; the weather was already looking menacing from the approach path.

Creag Meagaidh is a National Nature Reserve with a superb variety of habitats.  On the approach, the path passes through some fine birch wood above the hummocky remains of the glacier which carved out the mountain's main feature, Coire Ardair.

Rounding a corner we walked into an arctic blast of wind.  The headwall of Coire Ardair with the very prominent Post Face  dominates the view ahead, with banners of snow being torn off the summit plateau in the strong wind..  This is a winter climbing venue for the conoisseur; very variable routes on steep rock, ice and that Scottish speciality, frozen turf.  Tom Patey put many new routes up on the Post Face, his "Crab Crawl" which crosses the face horizontally is still a test piece.

One of the MOB groups headed for "Easy Gully", a Grade 1 snow climb to the left of the face in this picture.  Karen, Dave, Jordan and I opted for the climb to "The Window" (the notch on the right of this picture), a narrow cleft splitting the plateau and a key feature when getting off the mountain.  Our plan was to gain the Window, then if conditions were suitable to turn east (downwind) and take in a ridge on the return to Aberarder. 

The steep snow slope gave a good climb into increasingly ferocious conditions with an icy wind and pouring spindrift.  We split into two pairs, with Jordan and I reaching the Window a little ahead of Karen and Dave.

Conditions in the Window were truly wild.  The northwesterly wind was being funnelled through the gap and it was difficult to stand in the blast.  Spindrift whirled in a furious groundstorm rendering visibility almost nil.  Even battened down we could feel the chill of the wind; we could operate here but it was a battle.  Communication became difficult in the stronger gusts and we decided that for today this would be a suitable turning point.  Navigating a ridge in this wind would have been difficult.  Karen was the lightest in the team and was finding it hard to stay upright.  It was decided - we would go down.

As we prepared to descend, we by chance met our other team who had completed Easy Gully (which wasn't at all "easy" in the conditions) and had made their way along the summit plateau to the Window.  They confirmed that conditions above were terrible.

A ittle below the Window we stopped to prepare for the descent.  We were all frozen up; crampon and rucksack straps were solid.

But at least here we could stand up!

We hadn't climbed to a summit, but my goodness we'd had a good day; proper winter mountaineering day in challenging conditions on a big hill.  We were well satisfied and enjoyed the wind being at our backs on the walk out.  Ahead over Loch Laggan a dramatic procession of cloudscapes raced across the sky.

Friday 17 February 2012

Getting a feel for things at Portsoy

On a bright and breezy afternoon John, David and I met at Portsoy harbour for a short afternoon paddle. The air temperature was about 4 degrees Celcius and we had a good forecast for the afternoon.  The westerly breeze and a short swell had set up some entertainingly clapotic conditions near the mouth of the harbour so we paddled across the bay towards the West Head where we'd get some shelter from the breeze.

John and David have recently purchased new boats; John has a P & H Cetus MV

 David has opted for a Tiderace Xplore.  Both these well-regarded boats looked superbly well built and finished.

Soon we were in the lee of the shore and in conditions which were better for getting a feel for the handling of the boats.  We paddled a couple of gaps on our way out toward the West Head; as we neared Redhythe Point the increase in swell was noticeable.

Returning along the shore we pulled into this small beach which is more or less inaccessible from the land.  Here we could climb above the shore a little to sit in the sun on soft tussocky grass for lunch.

On our return to Portsoy we were able to explore a couple more inlets before heading offshore to open up a downsea run into the harbour mouth.  The clapotis and slightly increased swell gave some good opportunity for John and David to experience the performance of both boats in choppy water - both of the boats simply cruised through the confused water.

Back in the harbour I had a short try of David's Xplore, and made an undignified exit on the weed covered slipway in knee deep water....

It was good to meet and paddle with John and David, two more enthusiastic paddlers!

Monday 13 February 2012

Fueling the fire - nutrition for a winter trip.

Food choice for a trip is a very personal thing, not only in preference/dislikes but also in the whole ethos or approach to meals.  Much of course depends upon the length of the trip!

When backpacking, choices are partially limited by what one can physically or comfortably carry.  For short sea kayaking trips of two or three nights (the typical "weekender"), the possiblities seem endless, especially if a bothy is used rather than a tent; things are just easier when you can stand up and use a hard surface to prepare and cook food.

Hardened winter athletes need a finely balanced nutrition strategy to sustain performance.  Here's ours :o)

Douglas and I share a very similar approach:

Meals are an integral part of the trip and should be as enjoyable as the other elements of the day.

Good food is one of life's pleasures, and fresh ingredients are likely to be more nutritious than packet alternatives.

     Image: Douglas Wilcox                                                                                     

Part of our kitchen during a recent trip.  Douglas' pressure cooker gets to work on baby new potatoes - just a couple of minutes cooking time in this produced great spuds!

Our menu for a three day/two night trip is below.  It's fairly typical of what I'd do even if solo, though sharing the planning and preparation of meals is all part of the fun of a trip for me.

We set out on our trip at lunchtime, fueled by some of Douglas' home-made Carrot & Coriander soup accompanied by slabs of his home-made wholemeal bread.

Our evening meal on the first night was Vension Casserole with baby new potatoes.  Dessert was Christmas cake followed by Smoked Deeside Cheddar with organic Orkney oatcakes.  We enjoyed a pre-prandial dram of 18yo Glenfiddich and accompanied the meal with a bottle of red wine. 

Breakfast was a simple affair of fruit and a cup of tea/coffee.  It was cold and we wanted to get moving.  Douglas had brought bacon and eggs, but we didn't in the end use them.

Luncheon on our second day was Douglas' excellent home-made French Onion soup, again accompanied with home made bread.  We also had slices of home-made fruit cake purchased from my local Farmer's Market (as a two kilo slab!).

Dinner on our second evening consisted of home produced individual haggis from my local butcher with baby new potatoes and pre-prepared carrot & neep, accompanied by a glass of red wine. Dessert was more cake followed by cheese (again from a small independent creamery and bought at a Farmers Market) and a fine vintage port.

This is Steve Wright of Mortlach Game - the best Venison in Aberdeenshire!  Steve shoots, butchers, packs and sells wild venison from Red and Roe deer. He also sells other game, all of it high quality. His website has the recipe for Venison Casserole which I pre-prepared and sealed into a container for ease of cooking; it's easy to prepare and very tasty.  This was our main course on the first evening. The meat we used was diced shoulder from a wild Red Deer hind.

Both Douglas and I are passionate about using good, local ingredients.  With one of us living in the south west and one the north east of Scotland, we have access to a huge range of excellent local food - in this we are very fortunate.  The majority of the food and drink we enjoyed on this trip was produced in Scotland.

It has been noted that we enjoy the occasional libation, both with food and occasionally on arrival at particularly fine beaches.  These measures are small, but satsifying!

At the conclusion of our trip we had sufficient food for a further 24 hours (at least) without resorting to dried food as well as a range of snacks and treats.

Friday 10 February 2012

A dancing mouse in the house

After sunset the temperature had plummeted and in the late evening the wind increased to a near gale.  The roof of the bothy flexed a little in the blast, but we were warm enough in winter sleeping bags.  Towards dawn the forecast drop in wind strength arrived, and the temperature fell still further. 

Douglas was having trouble with a sore knee but slept  once he'd taken some strong painkillers; I slept well.  One of the mice in the bothy seemed to fancy a career as a tap dancer as it repeatedly ran across our pan lids.  In Scotland we don't have bears to contend with, but we still hang all food and kit in the rafters of bothies away from these industrious little creatures.  I have a theory that bothy mice are rapidly evolving into a distinct subspecies (ssp  bothy caledoniensis?), being distinguished from regular field or house mice by possessing fitted crampons and titanium tipped teeth....

The morning was grey and very cold.  We packed, tidied the bothy and stacked the extra wood we'd collected, then raked through the ash of our fire to make sure it was fully extinguished.  We wasted no time in getting our kit back down to the boats and repacking them as the wind was already increasing again.

We'd have a raw wind in our faces on the way back to our starting point; we soon became comfortably warmed up as we paddled steadily into the weather.

Nearing our destination we entered the lee of the land; above us breaks in the grey cloudsheet allowed some sunshine to spotlight the landcape.

All too soon we arrived back at the start point to finish our short winter trip.  It had been a superb few days, and proved once again that winter can give great paddling opportunities.

We would normally include details of the location and our route for a trip such as this.  In this instance we have decided not to do so.  The reason for this is that the bothy we used is not administered by the MBA; it is a private building left unlocked for use by others.  The owner merely asks that the Bothy Code is respected and that the location is not publicised.  In this way, those who find it will enjoy it as we did and it will not become over-used, particularly by large groups.

If this seems a little selfish we apologise, but surely it's good that in the age of internet information on all MBA bothies being a click away, there are spots to find for oneself?

If you've used this bothy or know where it is, or can guess from the photos on our blogs, Douglas and I would ask that the owner's wishes continue to be respected.  If you don't know where it is, we truly hope that you find it in the same way that we did, and that you have as good a time as we did in surely one of the best little bothies in the world.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Primetime viewing

After lunch we paddled back along the coast to round the point and the start of an open crossing back to the bothy.  For the moment we were in the lee of the land, but we were aware of the steadily strengthening and cold SE'ly wind at our backs.

We started the crossing, and this is the last photo I took on the way over.  The wind-blown waves from the SE increased steadily as we came out of the lee of the land and the fetch increased.  A complicating factor was a SW'ly swell from the open sea which was crossing the wind-blown stuff to produce a confused swell pattern.  The third factor was that the ebb tide from the sea loch shown just over Douglas' shoulder was running strongly and confronting the SE'ly swell to produce some wind over tide effect.

It was for this reason we'd turned back before lunch.  In full daylight this was an exhilarating crossing on an sparkling blue sea, the boats surfing and surging ahead only to bury their noses into the next short swell, a constant corkscrewing ride requiring concentration and observation.  In darkness it would have been a real challenge.

The crossing flew past and soon our bows touched the pebble beach we'd left in the morning.  Unpacking what we needed, we changed out of paddling outer gear on the beach and climbed up to the bothy.

Douglas has some nice shots of the inside of our cosy abode.  Once warmed up by the climb and a coffee, we made and lit the fire then checked out the in-house widescreen facility.  It showed an increasingly alluring picture so we opened the door...

We gazed out of the door to a smouldering sunset in vertical format.

Stepping outside the world turned back to widescreen format. In our elevated spot we had a grandstand view as the colours developed.  It was compelling viewing.  Pleasingly, the smoky tones of that sunset matched the colour of our dram of pre-prandial 18yo Glenfiddich perfectly! 

Meantime, the bothy was being warmed by our (also slightly smoky) fire and our dinner was cooking.  As the sunset receded the wind continued to increase.  We settled in for an early night.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

The taste of Paradise is......

We returned to the beach where we'd examined my boat to take second luncheon. 

It's a beautiful spot which we've both visited before.  In the sunlight the shallow water is lit with gorgeous shades of blue and turqoise.

A narrow finger of sandy machair has some hollows in which we were able to escape the biting wind - Douglas' anemometer was recording 14 knots of wind with a still air temperature of 0 degrees Celcius.  The views up and down the coast were simply marvellous - we considered ourselves blessed.

A TV advert used to depict a coconut chocolate bar being consumed against a backdrop of a white sand beach with the strapline "The taste of Paradise".

We can exclusively reveal that the true Taste of Paradise is....... home-made French Onion soup!

We followed this with a piece of home-made fruit cake and (it being second luncheon) a small dram of 18 year old oak aged Glenfiddich.  We considered ourselves doubly blessed.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Back for lunch

We continued our journey along the coastline, with the wind increasing all the time, as forecast.  We'd hoped to reach the head of this sea loch, but the wind was barrelling directly down into our faces and had seriously reduced our speed.  We calculated that by the time we reached our hoped-for destination the tide would have been low enough to expose the mud in the upper reaches of the loch and pushing on would also mean doing an open crossing in choppy conditions in the dark.

Reluctantly we turned back; our progress increased dramatically with the strong wind and a bit of tide at our backs.

Near the mouth of the loch this buoy was resting on the shore.

Closer inspection established that it was probably a wave measuring buoy.  The position and name tie in with a point at the south west of Iceland noted for its population of breeding wildfowl.  It seems that this well travelled buoy had followed the 1200km route of the migrating birds - though at a somewhat more sedate pace!  We reported the finding to Stornoway Coastguard by telephone after our trip.

On the shore of the loch, we saw two walkers picking their way along the steep rocky slopes.  It looked to be hard work on difficult terrain; the trees in this image are fully grown birches which give an idea of the scale. 

Emerging from the loch we paddled back through turqouise water past a couple of idyllic beaches toward our second luncheon stop.

Monday 6 February 2012

The price of impatience!

We began travelling along the coast, rockhopping among small channels and around tiny islands.  Sheltered from the groundswell it made for really pleasant paddling.

At the tip of a small headland, this outcrop appears to have striations - perhaps evidence of how far the glaciers reached along this coastline.

Around the point we were exposed to a low but powerful swell whilst mainly being sheltered from the cold wind.  We continued to explore the small bays and inlets, enjoying the surge and retreat of the swells.

In a recent post I extolled the virtues of Moray Firth as a good place to learn patience, observation and timing whilst rockhopping. It's a lesson I need to do again!

I had watched a blind gully which was side on to the swell, and so was protected from the wave itself but had a good rise and fall at its mouth.  It looked a fun place to practice holding position, so I watched for a few minutes to make sure it would be safe to try.  I had thought of using a wider gully just to the landward side and separated by a low rocky finger, but decided on the more challenging play spot.

Having seen nothing untoward, I paddled to the mouth of the gully.  After riding a couple of swells, I failed to see the arrival of a set of three, twice as large as the regular sets.

The first wave of the three broke clean over the seaward arm of the gully and onto me, capsizing me instantly.  In a maelstrom of water, I made a swift wet exit- I just didn't want to be inverted in this place.  The capsize turned out to be a blessing in disguise; the second wave picked up my boat and slammed it upside down onto the rocks - I almost followed but fended off with my feet and let go of the boat.

The third wave of the big set washed my boat off the rocks and into the wider gully and me up onto the rocks.  I got a foothold, resisted the downward surge as the wave receded then walked off into the wider gully, which although choppy, was a better place to be altogether.

Douglas came in positioned skilfully to attempt a rescue (thanks Douglas!) but in the confined space things were difficult. I quickly decided that it would be better to self-rescue in the gully than try to swim the boat out and back into the swells.  I managed to empty most of the water from the cockpit with a bow lift, then self rescued using one of the techniques I've practised whilst paddling with Gordon Brown of Skyak (thanks Gordon - it worked a treat when needed!).

Once clear of the gully, Douglas rafted up with me whilst I pumped out the remaining water and made a quick assessment.  There seemed nothing seriously broken either on me or the boat so we paddled on for about 15 minutes to a sandy bay where we could make a proper examination for damage.

Amazingly, despite being slammed against rocks several times, my boat had suffered only very minor damage to the cockpit coaming (temporarily fixed with Duct Tape) and a couple of gelcoat scars at the bow.  I already knew that the Tiderace Xcite is a tough boat - it had proved to be very tough indeed.  I was also very impressed that despite being in the equivalent of a washing machine on full rinse with added abrasion, my Lomo Renegade drysuit was completely unscathed - another tough bit of kit.

So, was I unlucky or careless or foolish?

I'm still not sure.  If I was unlucky to catch a set of big swells (we saw nothing as big all day) then I was incredibly lucky to get away essentially unscathed.  Risk is part of sea-kayaking and the only way to be a better paddler is to practice at the top end of one's comfort zone.  I re-learned the lesson that you should watch, then watch some more before committing, and practiced a self rescue in real and challenging water conditions. 

I was in the water less than five minutes, my kit kept me warm and I was able to continue despite air temperatures of about 3 degrees Celcius and a very cold breeze.  This is the best advert I can think of for wearing a drysuit and warm kit underneath - if I'd been in a two piece our day would have ended right then and there, with potentially serious consequences once I was wet.

Some of Douglas' very fine home made French Onion soup and a piece of cake completed the recovery on the beach.  Douglas suggested that the spot would forever be known as "Ian's inlet" - I reckoned that "Stupidity Gully" might be more suitable!

Douglas had a much better view of the whole incident, his report of it is in this post.  

An uplifting morning

After a comfortable night in our five star lodgings we scrambled down to the shore before sunrise and sorted our kit in the frigid morning air.

The forecast on the radio was for freshening wind through the day, the widescreen forecast in the bothy showed a calm sea and clear skies for the moment.

Our day would begin with an open crossing.  We got on the water as the sun began to fire the hillside adjacent to the beach - it was going to be a great day.

The dawn flush was still in the sky as we warmed up by paddling steadily out into open water....

To greet the sun as it rose.  There was little warmth and a chilly breeze was starting up against us.  We chatted on our crossing, reflecting on how fantastic it was to be out on a day like this.

After an hour or so we neared our first shoreline and got into the lee of the land and out of the chilling breeze.  Fresh snow was capping the tops of the surrounding mountains.  The scene was upliftingly beautiful; we drifted along and drank in the views.