Thursday 30 March 2017

First day of Spring above the Angus Glens

The first day of Spring this year found Joan, Duncan and I meeting up in the the town of Kirriemuir for coffee; our plan was to climb Cat Law from the lower reaches of Glen Prosen.  The first day of Spring it might have been, but the forecast didn't promise much in the way of Spring-like weather; we expected a strong wind and cold temperatures - but hopefully some sunshine too.

We started out from near Easter Lednathie, there are a couple of spaces to park on the roadside just north of a stone bridge but south of the farm and houses.  A track climbs steadily up through woodland, then alongside a plantation of spruces to reach a gate and fenceline on the Peat Shank.

The climb up towards Cat Law goes through some boggy ground initially but the going underfoot gets better as height is gained. We followed animal tracks to skirt the wet ground, but in poor visibility the fence would provide a good handrail up to the summit area.

The final fifty metres of ascent brought us into a different world - even at this modest altitude it was most definitely Winter rather than Spring.  We'd enjoyed a degree of shelter from the northwesterly wind until this point, but now we were exposed to a chill blast.

At 671m/2201ft, Cat Law is a "Graham" (a Scottish hill between 2000 and 2500 feet with at least 150m of descent on all sides).  This classification of hills may lack the height of the Munros, but more often than not give good days on quiet routes - and there are 219 of them to go at.

Cat Law is prominent from the A90 Dundee-Aberdeen road and sits right on the edge of the Highlands.  Our view was huge, stretching from the Tolmount hills in the north west around the plateaux above the Angus glens to the North Sea in the east.  What was also in our view was an approaching snow shower, so we hunkered down in the lee of a stone shelter wall constructed of stones from a much older cairn which stood here.  The summit marks the meeting point of three parishes and it's likely that the parishes themselves followed a much older land ownership pattern.

Once the worst of the stinging snow shower had passed we headed back down to the head of the ascent track and on to the subsidiary domed summit of Long Goat, between Cats and Goats, this walk has a distinct animal theme!

The wind was pushing through snow showers with increasing frequency, towering coud racing past trailing veils of snow and creating a wonderful variety of changing light.  On the summit of Long Goat we were being snowed upon in whilst bathed in bright sunshine - some would say typical Scottish spring weather!

Our descent took us eastwards down a small path whch meets a track at a prominent orange painted gate, then down to the road 2 kilometres from the starting point.  As we headed downhill the showers of snow passed through and we once again entered more spring-like conditions in Glen Prosen, the 6 degrees Celsius glen temperature felt pleasantly warm in comparison with the minus 2 degrees of the summit!

Monday 20 March 2017

Equipment Review - Helinox "Chair One" camping chair

It was this winter camp which finally convinced us that camping chairs would be a good investment on sea kayaking trips.  A bitterly cold evening sat on just on the ground with the cold penetrating upwards was followed by.....

...a frigid morning several degrees below zero.  Mike, Douglas and I camp regularly both in the mountains and on sea kayak trips; in all seasons and in all kinds of weather. Whilst backpacking I tend to keep things reasonably light, but with the sapce available in a sea kayak there seems no good reason not to pack a chair to make things a bit more comfortable.

Douglas and Mike purchased Helinox chairs shortly after this trip, and having done some research I came to the same choice; I've now used the chair for two years in a variety of situations from summer and winter wild camping, in bothies, at camp sites, for family picnics and as an extra chair when the house was full of folk.

Helinox are a Korean company specialising in lightweight, innovative outdoor equipment.  If you've not heard of them (I hadn't before researching folding chairs....) then you may well be familiar with their best known products, the respected DAC series of tent poles.  The European dealer is Nigor BV based in the Netherlands.

The Chair One is designed as a lightweight but strong folding camp chair capable of supporting up to 145Kg.  The frame is constructed of DAC TH72M shock corded pole sections which are thicker and more robust than the average tent pole.  The frame connects to a pair of moulded attachments and the seat is then attached to the ends of the poles - as shown on the video on the Helinox website. The whole thing folds down and stows in the supplied zipped bag.  Total weight is 960 grams and the pack size is surprisingly small.

It has to be said that the Chair One is in no way a budget product, retailing at around £95 in the UK.  There are other desings and some close approximations of the Helinox design for less money, but none have the quality of the Chair One.  Right from unpacking the chair the quality and design are plain to see, the frame is strong and the design is good - everything fits just as it should and after extended use shows no sign of becoming loose or sagging.

The seat fabric is a robust and quite stiff cordura type material with panels of mesh at the back and lower sides for ventilation; the pockets into which the pole ends fit are very strongly constructed.

After a few months of using the chair I slipped on a wet rock and fell onto it, placing a stress at an angle onto one pole section which it was never designed to take.  Surprisingly, the pole didn't break but was slightly bent.  At the end of the trip I contacted Nigor to see if I could purchase a replacement section, explaining that it wasn't a fault with the chair but my clumsiness which had damaged the pole.  My email was answered within twenty minutes - a pole section would be despatched from Holland that day free of charge and postage.  That level of customer service and the quality of the chair mean that I should be enjoying a seat for many years to come!

If there's a drawback with the Chair One (and most folding camp chairs) it's that the legs tend to dig into soft ground, snow, and or pebble beaches.  Helinox have thought of this and there are two optional extras - a groundsheet which attaches to all the feet, and "ball feet" made of ABS plastic with silicone bases which push over the legs.  We purchased the ball feet and have found that they transform the stability of the chair - they can stay on the legs and the whole thing still fits into the zipped pouch.  The feet add about 250g in weight but are well worth considering.

So, it's a chair....... big deal you might think.....

But it really is!  Comfort at camp sites is just so much better; one's backside and legs are raised off the ground and into a comfortable sitting position.

The angle of the back seems just right to relax and the Chair One is still comfortable after a couple of hours sitting, whether that's enjoying a sunset......

......or sitting around a fire.  The seat height is 34cms without the ball feet, a couple of centimetres higher with the ball feet attached.  This height is just right for me, and is a convenient height to be able to sit and stand comfortably.

The Helinox Chair One may not be the cheapest chair on the market, but it is a premium quality, lightweight and comfortable chair which should see many years of use.  It packs small enough to easily fit in a sea kayak or rucsack.  Mine lives in the car when it's not in my boat and goes on most trips with me - only if I'm lightweight backpacking do I revert to a piece of sit-mat. 

There's a lot to be said for getting one's backside off cold, wet or tick-infested ground and chilly camps are now much more bearable!

Conflict of interest statement:  I purchased my Chair One at retail price (less a club discount) from a national retailer and have no connection with Helinox or the retailer apart from being a satisfied customer.

Friday 17 March 2017

Meall Alvie

Back home after a long spell working away, I scanned the forecast to see if the weather might be suitable for either sea kayaking or hillwalking. A run of very strong winds didn't offer much encouragement for either the sea or the high hills, so I looked for something with a bit of shelter to get back out and about.

Mid March is very much late Winter rather than early Spring in the Highlands, despite the very mild Winter.  The day was pleasant on low ground but with a forecast of severe gales setting in rapidly higher up the hill during the morning.

East of Breamar, the River Dee takes a couple of turns as it squeezes between low but rugged hills on its way from the mountains to the lower ground.  One of these, Meall Alvie, hems in the northern bank of the river and forces both road and river close around its foot.  The summit is only 560m/1837ft which is very low compared to the surrounding mountains and is wooded right to the summit with Scots Pines.

There's a estate car park at the Keiloch with a £2.50 charge.  The charge is per visit rather than per hour or per day, which is sensible given that this is the departure point for many long routes.  The toilet in the car park is decorated with front covers from Scotlands iconic hill "fanzine" - The Angry Corrie; sadly missed by this hillwalker.....

An information board shows the waymarked routes on this part of Invercauld estate, and nearby a Scottish Rights of Way signpost indicates the way to Inver via Glen Felagie and the start of the route.

After about a kilometre the track passes Felagie Cottage, a locked bothy used by Cults Girl Guides from Aberdeen - it's in a fine location sheltered by woods on one side with a view to Craig Leek on the other.  This is the point where I left the track..... look for a drystone dyke indicated on the 1:25K Ordnance Survey map (but not on the 1:50K) which runs right up to the summit and over Meall Alvie.  From here on there's no path through the deep heather, it's steep and surprisingly hard going.  I was lucky to be doing the walk in dry conditions but was still glad I'd put on gaiters; you'd definitely want them in wet weather!

Higher up the heather gives way to blaeberry underfoot which gives easier walking.  The wood seems to be semi-natural, perhaps a plantation which has been thinned and allowed to naturalise.  There's plety of dead standing trees and some fallen so the wood is a rich habitat.  It should have been rich in birdsong at this time of year but the predominant sounds were a marine roar and the creaking of trunks and branche as the wind thrashed the trees above. 

The trees grow smaller as the summit is reached, stunted by exposure to the wind.  A wooded hill summit is not the norm in Scotland, but with a bit of searching some good views can be had - this is looking north-west to the massive plateaux of Ben Avon and Beinn a'Bhuird......

...and a bit of searching for a clearing in the trees gives a good view of Lochnagar to the south. 

The wind was now at full gale and the air had the faint haze often seen in strong wind, particularly noticeable in this view ENE along the River Dee and the A93 road towards Balmoral Castle in the distance. 

The 560m summit of Meall Alvie is hidden among the trees, so it had a bit of shelter.  An hour is sufficient time to reach the top of this small "Marilyn", and most folk seem to turn around and return by the route of ascent.  Wherever possible I prefer to find a different descent route to make a bit of a circuit, and this is possible on Meall Alvie. 

The stone dyke can be followed across the summit area to the south-east, where it runs downhill.  The way down is even steeper and rougher than the ascent route, for a small hill this one takes a bit of getting at!

The wall continues to the top of some crags, but just above these it crosses the end of a grassy forest track which winds pleasantly down through the woods.  Walking quietly here pays dividends, there seem to be plenty of Roe Deer in the wood and I got several good views as they browsed near the track.  Lower down the grassy track joins a new and broad forest road which perhaps indicates that the trees on this side of the hill will be harvested.

This route is about 6km with 240m of ascent - it took around two hours to complete. The whole route is on OS 1:25K sheet 404 (Braemar, Tomintoul and Glen Avon) and is easier to follow at the 1:25K scale as the wall is clearly indicated.

As a bonus, the excellent food and coffee at the Bothy in Braemar is just a few minutes drive away :o)

A good hill for a windy day!

Sunday 5 March 2017

Keeping an Iron Grip at Saddell Bay

During the summer of 2016 Douglas and I made a journey along the Kintyre coast which included a visit to Saddell Bay where we found a sculpture by Sir Antony Gormley staring out to sea.

One of the "Land" series created in 2015 by the renowned artist and sculptor, the Saddell Bay figure is called Grip and was due to have been removed along with the other Land figures in 2016.  However, Grip has been purchased by an anonymous donor and has been granted planning permission, so will remain in the setting for which he was made.

So, if you visit Saddell Bay, Grip will be there - an enigmatic and intriguing figure gazing out to the Kilbrannan Sound.

Note: Douglas will be touring and can be seen at a variety of Scottish coastal locations throughout 2017......