Ne’er Cast A Clout Till May Be Oot

The wind at the North and East

Was never good for man nor beast

So never think to cast a clout

Until the month of May be out

‘Ne’er Cast A Clout Till May Be Out’ is an old adage that is well-known and often quoted throughout Britain. The rhyme was originally recorded by Dr Thomas Fuller in 1732 in his Gnomologia, while the version cited above appears in F.K. Robertson’s Whitby Gazette of 1855. The word ‘clout’ refers to clothing (think ‘clootie dumpling’, the traditional Scots fruit pudding which is boiled in a cloth). The implied meaning is not to cast off your winter clothing until ‘May Be Out’. The latter half of the phrase is widely debated, the typical interpretation being that one should wait until ‘end of May’ before storing all those winter clothes. However, the hawthorn tree in days gone by was known as ‘May’ or the ‘May Tree’ and hence it is thought that the saying relates to when the hawthorn puts forth blossom rather than referring to the end of the month.

1556794322622There were very definitely no flowers on the local hawthorn trees when I left Aberdeen for the West. In fact, on arrival at Ratagan, ten minutes sitting at the lochside with the odd swift hail shower ushered in on a northerly inclined wind was enough to convince me that it was better to admire any views from inside the parked car while I waited for the rest of the expedition party.P1050689

A through-route always requires logistics. This occasion involved four people travelling from two different cities, two cars, three persons’ worth of luggage for a weekend of mountaineering as well as full packs for all four of us for the two day exped. The result was a major reshuffle of a hair-raising amount of luggage (a staggering proportion of it was food) before the car that was going to take us up to our start point was finally ready to depart.P1050691

Like any good expedition there was a just a hint of nervousness in the air as Joan (Thoughtful Navigation, A Very Special Client…) drove the 70 odd miles round to the River Affric car park. This was a serious birthday expedition (Happy Birthday, Mary!) – serious in the sense that all the formalities of a birthday ‘feast’ supplies were to be carried with us to the very remote hostel (the cake was the only thing that didn’t go with us). Pauline (When Grahams Come Into Their Own) was carrying a bottle of champagne, while I had the evening’s main meal – carefully prepared stuffed peppers, with accompanying tahini sauce. After painstakingly preparing everything the night before, I had been somewhat taken aback to realise that the filled peppers were extremely heavy. As Mary (The Tale Of Mary And Tom Buidhe) pointed out: that’s what happens when couscous is hydrated… Mary seemed to have a very good supply of gin and mixers with her… she certainly had sufficient to allow for a very civilised G&T with her lunch the following day.P1050696

Disembarking at the carpark was a shock to the system. It was cold, damp and felt slightly raw. ‘Be bold, start cold’ is a common saying in mountaineering circles, but we all ignored that pearl of wisdom and layers were piled on. Still semi-seriously considering downing the champagne, and a few gins for good measure before setting off – until one of us pointed out that we probably would be too insensible to even find our way out of the car park – we headed off. A backward glance at the car, and then forward – and we were committed to our adventure.P1050699

The Affric Kintail Way actually starts in Drumnadrochit, wends its way to Cannich and then up to Glen Affric (Gaelic: Gleann Afraig. Glen of the Dappled Woodlands) itself. The Glen is generally considered one of the most beautiful in Scotland: it is a National Nature Reserve and also a Caledonian Forest Reserve. Despite its beauty, the Glen has not been left untouched by development, forming part of a hydroelectric scheme. The original proposals (dating from as early as 1928) suggested that Lochs Affric and Beinn a’Mheadhoin should be joined to make one huge dam. But eventually it was the parallel glen to the north where the River Cannich was dammed in 1951, flooding and drastically expanding the original Loch Mullardoch. From there the water runs via an underground power station and by tunnel to Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin (also dammed) in Glen Affric. Then the water travels by tunnel to the Fasnakyle power station near Cannich. Loch Affric remains natural. P1050700Due to good management and some foresight, the Glen has survived well as a natural living landscape, despite the intrusions of the hydroelectric scheme. The Forestry Commission (now Forestry and Land Scotland) took up management of the Glen in 1951 and, in the wake of the Second World War, after initially starting to grow non-native trees for commercial timber purposes, had the good fortune to be managed by one Finlay Macrae: an enlightened forester, Macrae repopulated the Glen with native Caledonian pines. During his time at Affric it is estimated that he planted some 8 million seeds. The development and preservation of natural forest continued as priority with careful management of red deer numbers on the estate and the eventual removal of all commercial timber plantations. As a consequence, the native forest mixture of Caledonian pine, birch, alder, rowan, hazel, and juniper flourishes here.P1050704

This section of the Affric-Kintail was has always been a traveller’s route – and also old drovers’ route (cattle were driven from Skye to markets (trysts) in the south via these glens). The lonely atmosphere that we prize so much as modern people came at a price for those that lived here during the time of the clearances. There remains little trace of human history along the way: the odd lonely ruin reminds of the existence of people and hints at the importance of this route in the past. We followed the track along the south shore of Loch Affric weaving amongst beautiful wooded areas and eventually emerging at the far end, where the trees fade out and the scenery becomes bleak. We crossed the bridge, passed Strawberry Cottage and continued on our way, eventually reaching Alltbeithe (Birch Stream) Youth Hostel mid-evening.

 

 

On arriving we were greeted by the news that the only two twin rooms in the hostel were available for upgrade if we wished – good news indeed – none of us was going to turn that opportunity down! The excellent custodian of the hostel, Hannah, gave us the complete tour of the place and in no time at all (it is after all a very small hostel!) our little party settled down in the common room area for G&Ts, champagne and food (I was immensely grateful to see those stuffed peppers disappear – that would make a difference to my load tomorrow. I’m sure that Pauline felt the same about the bottle of champagne). Hannah spends three weeks on duty and then one week back at home during the months that Alltbeithe is open. She has wonderful tales to tell about experiences at this remote hostel and is responsible for the running of the place, having the exact skillset for the post: from clearing blockages in the stove chimney (no mean feat) to advising unprepared travellers, to exquisite embroidery skills that feature on cards for sale , she is resourceful, hospitable and completely at home with the vastness of the surrounding landscape and remoteness of Alltbeithe.

 

 

The weather on our first day had been pretty benign, but as we set out from Alltbeithe, the initial sunshine disappeared, the cloud base lowered and we were soon subjected to intermittent hail, sleet and snow showers. It was cold, no two ways about it. Alltbeithe, as I looked back, seemed dwarfed by the immenseness of the scenery. We followed the track upwards towards the Fionngleann. The sprawl of Beinn Fhada and, to the south, the distinctive shape of Ciste Dhudh dominated either side of us initially. We headed past Camban Bothy, after which the track turns into a path, reaching the watershed by Cnoc Biodaig not long after.

 

 

Twisting and winding, up and down over moraines, scenery around us was changing from the bleakness of the more open glen to the spectacular vistas of Kintail. Eventually the path started its descent towards Gleann Lichd, passing a spectacular waterfall and taking us down, down, down, only about 300m of descent, but feeling like much more.

 

 

We could spy Glenlicht house in the distance and eventually it loomed large in front of us, complete with a change in weather. Naturally it was warmer lower down, and we were more sheltered, but suddenly the sun decided to put in an appearance as we powered our way up the Glen, towards Morvich. The final sting in the tail, however, was the 5km walk on the road (including a stint on the main road) to retrieve my car.

 

The encounter with warmth was to be shortlived. As I drove Joan back to the River Affric carpark to retrieve her car, I watched in disbelief as the temperature gauge on the car steadily dropped from a reasonable 12C at Ratagan to 2C at Cannich – and then 1C as we approached the car park. The possible-ice-on-road warning light had come on by this stage and it was trying to snow. I was highly appreciative of my winter jackets that I had selected for this trip – not a luxury, but rather more of a necessity: ‘ne’er cast a clout till May be oot’ certainly rang true on this occasion.

 

 

[Finlay Macrae had been a student of Professor H.M. Steven (Aberdeen), who was joint author (with A. Carlisle) of The Native Pinewoods of Scotland – which highlighted the significance of Glen Affric.

Sources:

https://treesforlife.org.uk/news/article/glen-affric-ndash-60-years-wild/

http://www.affrickintailway.com/index.html

https://idiomation.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/never-cast-a-clout-until-may-is-out/ ]

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Stop-Start. Start-Stop

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Lonely Glen Gairn, looking towards Beinn Avon

Since the last post on this blog back in November my outdoor activities have been somewhat curtailed by Achilles tendon problems. Whatever the reason (whether the problem has its roots in too much running on tarmac when I was in training for a high peak a few years ago or whether related to the more recent knee problem of 2018), I was back in physiotherapy over the winter. Having learnt many valuable lessons about recovery last year (Coming Back From Injury), I was tentatively back on the hill in February with a view to building up length of days and general mountain fitness. But, as ever, several factors conspired to prevent those planned regular visits to the mountains. The weather for a start. Without fail, every time I looked at the mountain forecast through much of March the wind speeds were sufficiently high for me to abandon any thought of any shortish hill day, never mind a more lengthy one. Throw into the mix a cat who went in for major surgery at the beginning of April, and who required round the clock care for a few weeks (top priority of course, poor little guy), and it was pretty much impossible to get out on a regular basis. However, what it did mean was that the few days I did eventually manage were even more appreciated than usual – and the fact that I was out in the mountains, the fact that my Achilles tendons were not troubling me made those few days extremely precious ones.

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Thoughtful Navigation

The ability to navigate is a vital skill for any mountain-goer. Many people tend to rely on GPS systems (either a dedicated unit, or a phone app), but these items are no real substitute for map and compass – and knowing how to use them.  The reasons why map and compass are still the best tools for navigation are many  –  and a discussion on this would turn this post into a very different blog (maybe best kept for another day!) – so I am just going to focus on a rather ‘unusual’ reason why using a map over a GPS is better –  a reason that is perhaps the antithesis of a process that is perceived to be a very much structural and logic based.

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Looking gloomy up high – but good for practising navigation!

 

Navigation can be defined as: ‘the science of determining position, course, and distance travelled during a journey and hence advising on the best course to be steered or taken.’ Put very simply, while out in the mountains we calculate the time taken to travel from one location to the next by working out the distance and the amount of ascent. There are various formulae available to help us to do this, such as the famous Naismith’s rule.  Micronavigation is applied over shorter distances, and we make use of strategies such as pacing distance. As you might expect, close study of features appearing on the map is required. How you make use of those features to get you from A to B and then eventually to your final goal is a fascinating exercise, one that usually has several route options and is a skill that can be developed – and refined –  through experience.  The ultimate test for any mountain navigator is to put these skills to the test in poor visibility or during hours of darkness.

To closely observe the landscape around you and to relate it to what the map shows you is the key to knowing where you are. It takes practice to do this –  particularly while you’re chatting away, to be able to still be making note of what the ground is doing under your feet (‘there was a gradual gradient, then flattening out, and finally a very steep section…’) – and while this sounds like a chore, a distraction from enjoying your day of freedom in the hills, it actually encourages you to relate more intimately to your environment. It helps you to develop a very close understanding of the shape of the mountains, the approaches to them. It helps you to make sense of the landscape and what it really ‘means’. Routes start to make better sense.

And as you become more connected to what is happening under your feet, you develop a better awareness of the many different mountain terrains that exist. You are more aware of the sequence of different sections of the route. The detailed observation of the landscape around you enhances the whole day. It’s almost a ‘mindfulness’ activity. Being in the here and now. Engaging with the landscape as you walk through it. Switching awareness between the far horizon, the mid ground and the foreground (and noting how the scope of horizon, mid ground and foreground is also affected by location and weather).  Noting landmarks that are relevant and personal to you is almost like creating and memorising a secret trail.P1040805

It is this walking with awareness that truly fosters the understanding of the mountain environment and also encourages deeper engagement with it. Once you observe the shape of the land through the medium of your feet (i.e., walking it), the map makes better sense.

The photos that go with this post show that we had a very mixed day for our navigation work back in October. It was windy at first, but the wind speed significantly dropped as the day progressed. There was low cloud sweeping along and hiding the higher tops as we approached the col between Carn an t-Sagairt Beag and Carn an t-Sagairt Mor. Navigation in poor visibility was definitely the order of the day at first, but later the cloud lifted and we enjoyed some wonderful Autumn scenery. It wasn’t quite the full day of navigation in poor visibility that would have been desirable, but the views were more than worth paying the price for lack of low cloud base. After all, there’s always another day….

(Many congratulations to Joan whose careful and accurate navigation took us via some rather featureless terrain up to White Mounth, around the tops and summit and safely back down to Invercauld Bridge. The definition of navigation is taken from The Longman New Universal Dictionary, ed. Paul Procter (1982).)

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A Change Of Weather

P1040221More navigation practice last week: out in the Glen Clova area … this time with not-so-good visibility up high (ideal for putting all those navigational techniques to the test) … and finishing with a hefty shower that started 20 minutes before we got back to the cars.  After the last time (A Very Special Client), when the temperatures had soared to ridiculous levels, neither Joan, Harris the Dog or I were complaining!

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Coming Back From Injury: An Overnight Mountain ‘Day’

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Glen Tanar

January 2018:  I’m out in Glen Tanar, approximately 9km from the car park, up around 600m or so. It’s a January day, the temperature hovering around freezing. There’re some very hard snow patches around but the main issue for us is the icy surface of the track. I catch the front point of my right crampon as I’m going slightly downhill. I try to get the other foot through to stop the trip but because I’m on crampons it takes a split second longer to move the left foot (due to the weight, and the slightly ‘higher’ effect of being on spikes) and I’m not able to stop my fall. I come down on both knees, but the right knee bears the brunt of the fall onto the rocky, frozen ground. Probably one of the worst surfaces I could have picked. As I fall I twist (crampon falls are often twisting ones) and crash down, gravity and the weight of my winter-loaded rucksack driving and grinding the knee into the unkind surface. P1030278 (2)The pain is immediate and I roll (as best I can) onto my back in reaction to the impact. For a few seconds I lie there as my nerve network clocks what’s happened. My companion, who is slightly ahead, turns to see whether I’m alright. I try to get up but feel so sick and dizzy that I collapse back onto the track. After what seems like an age (but probably wasn’t) I drag myself backwards, to park my backside on the embankment at the side of the track and sit there. Failure to get up from where I’m sitting is simply not an option. I need to be able to walk out of this. ‘Broken knee cap, broken knee cap, broken knee cap’ goes through my mind like a chant. With effort I launch myself, find myself able to stand, and, miracles of miracles, my right knee takes my weight. 9km to the car, I tell myself. You have no choice. You’ll just have to do this. The knee has become a numb non-entity, but within 2km the pain is kicking in and the joint is swelling rapidly.

 

July 2018: I have just returned from an ‘overnight’ mountain day in the Cairngorms. Nothing too unusual in that (Moonshadows and the Devil), but a landmark in my knee’s rehabilitation programme. Until now, I hadn’t really been able to contemplate a lengthy Cairngorm day, but finally I had built up fitness and had enough confidence in my knee to head a very long way from any road and any easy option/route out. Setting off at 10pm from Linn of Dee, we crossed the Lui, then, in the deepening twilight, followed the path through the narrow defile of Clais Fhearnaig. We joined the Glen Quoich track and crossed a very low Allt an Dubh-ghleann before starting the long climb up to the Beinn a’Bhuird plateau.

February 2018: ‘You sports people are just so impatient,’ the GP curtly says to me. Three weeks later and the swelling is showing no signs of abating. If anything, it’s worse. I can barely move the leg on or off the bed, am shuffling up and downstairs on my backside and have a very strange lopsided sway when I attempt to walk. 

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Plenty of quality time with a bag of frozen peas…

8 weeks, I’m told, until this calms down – and then there are no guarantees that there’s no damage. A few weeks later, the physio suggests that there may be a problem with the medial ligament, possibly a tear, but nothing is confirmed. The joint is still too swollen for the experts to be able to work out what the damage is and whether a full recovery is feasible. By the end of the month, I’m going stir crazy with the enforced rest and decide to give the gym a go – very gentle, careful exercise, of course.  I discover that I can hardly shift the cross trainer with my legs when it’s on level 0. Using my arms to get moving helps, in fact I end up dependent on them. A quiet yelp escapes every time my right leg moves round… perhaps this is just a tad too advanced for me right now… Meanwhile, Iain has clocked up some crazy mileage on his cross trainer, having forced himself to do some ridiculous pace, is bright red in the face, gasping for breath and virtually collapsing over the top of the machine. Any minute now the gym staff will call the paramedics … how I envy him….

 

July 2018: As overnight ventures go, this one was nothing short of spectacular. Being this far north we never had full darkness. The stars slowly appeared, pale silver pinpricks struggling to make themselves seen in the light summer night. Mars was clearly visible at one point, unmistakeable with its red glow.P1040141 Towards the end of our sustained climb, the waning quarter moon appeared over the shoulder of the mountain and as we approached the edge of the Corrie, the mist was rising upwards, with pre- sunrise hues painting the North Eastern skies, while the lochans down below reflected the moonlight above. Over to the North Summit the colours grew more intense around us. A herd of deer grazing near the summit were certainly very startled to see us and moved off rapidly. The mist brewed and boiled down below in the glens and corries. The sunrise gradually progressed, the paler shades deepening and preparing for the stunning, red ball of fire that eventually lifted itself above the horizon. The moon started to lose its wonderful silvery sheen and the power of its light diminished as it became a whiter shadow of itself.

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Cameron at the North Summit of Beinn a’Bhuird

 

March 2018: ‘You’ve been overdoing it again,’ my very astute physio says to me accusingly. ‘You MUST learn to pace yourself otherwise you’ll not allow the knee to recover.’ I thought I’d done quite well to hide the limp that morning. I’d recently been allowed to start horse riding once again, all good and fine … only I hadn’t just gone for a short hack that particular morning, oh no … I’d also limped my way at snail’s pace around a local mini forest walk, being rapidly overtaken by shuffling elderly Labradors who looked at me as if to say ‘Why on earth are you slower than us? Your problem is…???’ and also a lady supported by two sticks who’d just had a double hip replacement (after I explained why I was so slow, she proceeded to tell me with great enthusiasm: ‘Oh yes, knee injuries are absolutely the worst to recover from.’). The result? One twinging, unhappy right knee. And one severe talking-to, which I totally deserved.P1040175

July 2018: The wonderful experiences continued with the inversion that had firmly established itself with the high Cairngorm peaks visible above the clouds while the cliffs of the corrie were beautifully delineated in the glass clear early morning light.

 

We reluctantly began our descent (the most testing part of the journey for my knee), feeling the warmth of the sun rapidly ramp up. P1040194A mountain hare abruptly sprang out of the grass: we had been so close to him that we could, for a brief second, see in detail his eyes, whiskers, nose and coat. Clearly a youngster, he raced off down the path ahead of us. The temperature was rapidly climbing and we gratefully dropped down into the cloud that was resting in the glen, making things far more bearable. This just left the walk out, with that very surreal feeling that comes with finishing a lengthy mountain ‘day’ when everyone else is just starting theirs.

May 2018: Finally, after four months of recovery, I’m allowed back in the mountains. My downhill muscles are pretty much non-existent, but I was very pleased to have managed a 6 hour day in the Drumochter Hills as my first attempt.

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Beinn Udlamain (Drumochter)

Between March and May I learnt a lot about accepting my limitations and how vital it was to allow my knee to recover. I also learnt how to listen to my knee and to know when to push through discomfort or when to recognise that my knee was telling me that it really wasn’t happy. This was as much about managing my head as it was my injury. When the knee was back to its normal size, it was only really at that point that the physio was able to confirm that I’d been extremely lucky and that there was no damage to ligaments or tendons. Building back up to full fitness was now the challenge.

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Late snow on Beinn Udlamain

July 2018: My knee stood up to this fairly hefty mountain day with only a few gripes and twinges. I will still have to work towards being able to carry a full pack with all my camping gear, but given the unevenness of some of the paths, the challenge of walking in limited visibility on the said uneven ground, the amount of ascent and length of day, my knee is pretty much there in terms of recovery. I’m extremely fortunate that there was no long-term damage. I’ve had to learn to be extremely patient and only push myself to do things when the knee was ready for it… both my head and impatience were clearly a major deterrent at the start of the recovery process. However, it wasn’t just the frustration of not being able to do mountaineering (or the other physical activities that are an intrinsic part of my life – such as riding and, to a much lesser extent, running), it was the being deprived of the wild outdoors environment that is so much a part of my being. I had to avoid looking west towards the distant hills for a few months and completely confine myself to Aberdeen and its environs. Here the riding saved me and allowed me at least that vital sense of being in touch with the world of forests and fields.P1040166

So there we have it: Beinn a’Bhuird marks my return to a good level of mountain fitness. I’m still working on other areas (such as running and strengthening the knee for riding), but as long as I’m patient and sensible, I’ll get there. Recovery is a journey in itself.

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[Many thanks to my fantastic physiotherapists who helped me on my road to recovery and didn’t put up with any nonsense from me. And a very, very big thank-you to the wondeful Flash who looked after me so carefully when I was able to start riding again. Thanks to Flash’s owners too, who managed to find a ‘mounting block’ that was high enough to allow me and dodgy knee to get on board, also to my hacking buddy, KB, who kept a careful eye on me … and finally, I am grateful to Hugh, Jen and Joan for suggesting various gym exercises that have helped – and will continue to help – no end.]

 

A Very Special Client…

When the mountain forecast states: ‘Beware of dehydration, sunburn and heat exhaustion’, you know that it’s going to be a very hot day.P1030995

Last week, with very warm temperatures (pushing around 30C in the Braemar area), Joan and I headed out for another navigation session. This mountain day came with a special request for a ‘special client’ (Harris the Dog). Harris needed to be kept cool, so it was imperative that we stayed close to water courses as much as possible. A route through Ballochbuie forest, handrailing a burn for the most part before heading out onto the open hillside (final destination Carn an t-Sagairt Mor) was planned.

P1030998‘Hot’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Even in the shade of the trees walking was tough. There were several stops (by the water) for Harris to cool down, but also for us to rest. As we climbed higher and above the treeline, the heat became worse. No drop in temperature with gain of height today. No cooling breeze. We made it as far as the spot height at 727m, where Harris very patiently followed us around while we discussed slope aspect, before we decided it was simply too hot to continue – primarily for Harris, but also for our sakes.

So back down to nearest water course we went, where Harris once again happily sploshed around, and then we beat a retreat back into the forest, where, yes, it was still extremely warm, but there was at least some shade and usually a burn close at hand. A final dip in the Dee, retrieving various sticks, clearly made Harris’s day, and although we may not have got up into the high mountains, our day of navigation had been successful.

[Many thanks to Joan and Harris (owned by Lizzie). I hope that you both enjoyed your day, despite the extreme heat! Thanks also to the MWIS (www.mwis.org.uk), quoted above for 28th June.]

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