When the mountain forecast states: ‘Beware of dehydration, sunburn and heat exhaustion’, you know that it’s going to be a very hot day.
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.
‘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.]
Guest blog by Iain, who’s been on a number of wild camping trips this spring … while I’ve been recovering from a knee injury … more on that to follow in a later blog…
April and early May are perhaps the most precious time of year for me for getting out into the mountains: in a good year you can head out with lightweight gear and camp in the middle of nowhere….without then being imprisoned in your tent by a ravening horde of midges, scratching on the canvas (crooning ‘little pig, little pig, let me in’ … that’s when it gets really creepy) baying for your blood. Sure you can camp before spring comes and avoid them – but that then involves also carrying an axe, crampons, winter tent, and 4-season sleeping bag. OK, so any self-respecting mountaineer should be able to do this, but is it really all that much fun shuffling along like an over-laden mule? One way to cope is of course to set up a base camp somewhere convenient and then head up the chosen mountains; however, this then sacrifices the wonderful freedom you get from carrying everything all the time – the ability to go anywhere you choose and stop whenever you get tired or happen to find that perfect camping spot.
So, there is often only a narrow window between when it starts to get warmer and the midges appearing – and this year looked to be an especially narrow window, with late snows and then pretty miserable conditions. A first attempt to head into Fisherfield at the start of May had already been thwarted by very heavy rain and strong winds. Even worse, that same weekend also saw the first of the midges up near Carn Ban….curses…and I had so been looking forward to trying out my new tent!
Then, towards the end of May, a period of really promising weather rolled in – warm and sunny – and I figured that if I camped high enough then I could escape the midges. I had been out for a trial run a couple of weeks earlier, heading south from Laggan, over the ‘Creag Pitridh Three’ (does anyone ever remember the names of the other two hills on that circuit???) and over to ‘That Chain of Four to the NW of Ben Alder’ (again, their names don’t really spring to mind all that readily to most people: mention Carn Dearg and Geal Carn – red hill and white hill, respectively – and you could be referring to any number of hills in the Scottish Highlands!). I had been pleasantly surprised by the weight of my rucksack – light enough that everything could be carried up and over each mountain without it being unpleasant or making progress too slow. The bad thing with carrying everything (especially when you decide to add a few litres of water as you approach time for bedding down – after all, you never quite know if there will be water later on) is that you can hit the wall and lose all energy quite suddenly and have to stop. I was puttering my way down An Lairig – quite a find, a wide glen, with a lovely meandering stream and hills rising steeply for 2000 ft on either side – when suddenly I could go no further. Fortunately I found a perfect spot on a grassy patch surrounded by a loop of the stream.
Unfortunately (I had heard it was difficult to get back in the bag) I had not tried out the tent beforehand, and was completely flummoxed by the instructions. I had watched a video of erecting it online and there was also a little card showing how it was done (pin the corners, slot the pole in and tighten: job done)…neither of which bore any resemblance to reality. The instructions did rather rely on the outer and inner already being connected, rather than one perfectly folded inside a pocket of the other. In my tiring state it took me about an hour. During this period the wind dropped and I prepared myself for the worst, having already seen midges up high on Creag Pitridh earlier in the day….but my fears were unfounded and none appeared. Clearly I was more tired than I had thought, as even a cup-a-soup tasted like soul food (and as for the cask strength whisky…!).
Anyway, two weeks later, with the arrival of the good weather and a practise run under my belt, I headed for Rannoch station and, from there, got the train one stop up the line to Corrour (as featured in the movie Trainspotting….but we won’t repeat anything from that scene here!). I had been to Corrour years before and found a lovely little tea shop. It (The Corrour Station House) has now morphed into what, to me anyway, was an excellent little restaurant serving superb food…and drink. I decided to make my camp food last a bit longer by having fish and chips at the Station House – which was excellent – before starting out. Sadly, I also had a beer. ‘Sadly’ because I enjoyed it so much that it then preyed on my mind for the next 48 hrs until I managed to get back for another one. After that, somewhat grudgingly, I picked up my inexplicably now-overweight rucksack and headed off into the gloriously warm late-afternoon sunshine to climb Leum Uilleim (a Corbett). The plan had been to trundle down the far side, past the bothy, then round and up to a lochan at the bottom of the next target, Glas Bheinn (another Corbett) but I suddenly hit the wall a little short of the bothy and had to find somewhere to stop. Finding a campsite proved very tricky – there just wasn’t anywhere dry and flat.
Eventually I settled on a little island in the stream, only to find that it had some small but very determined grassy tussocks in exactly the wrong places for lying comfortably. I was rather quicker putting up the tent, but then squandered that time gained by the need to move it around several times before a reasonable night’s sleep seemed possible. The first error was having the entrance the wrong way round, such that sleepily exiting in the night would have meant plunging over the bank and straight into the river. The tent is a Nordisk Telemark 2 and seems pretty special to me: there is just about room for 2 people, a porch for your gear and it only weighs 900 g! Considerably less than that 1 litre Sigg bottle filled with water (or whisky). Incredibly this has not been achieved by the use of extensive amounts of mesh in the inner tent (which the wind howls straight through) or by the use of thin and flimsy material (my other tent nearly got destroyed trying to put it up the first time – it was wrapped in a bin liner and I was at the point of tearing it off when I realised that this gossamer thin ‘bin liner’ was in fact the fly sheet). The only downsides were that it wasn’t quite tall enough to sit upright in (e.g. for putting on boots) and the inner hung down too much, such that it rested against the toes of my sleeping bag, and thus was a bit unpleasant in the morning when wet with condensation. Again the wind dropped and I waited for the worst…but still no midges, even at just below 400 metres in altitude. Phew, as they say, ‘game on!’
With so few good camping spots available, I decided it was worth just leaving the tent where it was for a couple of days. However, the real reason was that I was struggling with the weight. A quick inventory told me what was different this time. 1) Water filter: about 500 g – not gratuitous when camping lower down, and does mean you can carry less water at all times, needing only a tiny stream for a refill; 2) Pertex bivvy bag, again weighs about 500 g, but with a thin sleeping bag I had been getting cold two weeks ago and slept in all my clothes and jackets (plus insulted shorts and gloves) – with this over my sleeping bag I was nice and warm….but still had the same amount of clothing with me to ensure I could lounge around outside the tent or camp high; 3) change of clothes (so much more civilised when doing that lounging around when not wearing t-shirt and underwear that now contains three days of sweat; 4) ah, two things of antibacterial hand-gel (do I really then need a tube of antiseptic cream in my first aid kit?), a little biodegradable shower gel (again, if being clean adds enough to your enjoyment, then is that too much of a price to pay? Trick is to fill a big container with water and leave it to warm in the tent all day), a little towel….hmm, not the smartest bit of packing there. Anyway, all these little things all add up and there was probably 3 kg of stuff I could have jettisoned.
Next morning, with a mostly empty pack, I headed north up the glen – this was not the quick and easy walk I had anticipated and immediately suggested that I had messed up on my strategy by camping so far down the glen. Anyway, it was a lovely day and I headed up to Loch Treig, found the bridge and continued up to Stob Coire Easain. The previous day’s efforts seemed to have taken their toll and it all felt very hard work – so hard that I didn’t even go on to do it near neighbour, Stob Coire Mheadhoin (pronounced “Vane” by the way, in case you are wondering!). These are usually called ‘The Easains’, they are almost invariably done from the North, and it is almost unheard of just to do one on its own – but this was clearly going to be a long and exhausting walk back and it seemed sensible not to head any further away from the distant tent….so while I pondered matters, I had a little sleep on the summit and looked around a bit. The Easains are stunningly well-placed: you have the chain of the Grey Corries to the west, ending with the Aonachs and Nevis; to the south of there the chain of the Mamores starts; and to the south of there lies Glen Coe and even more stunning peaks. On the way back the problems started: not my blistered feet, tiring muscles and aching back, but the craving for a beer at the Station House. When I got back to Loch Treig I spent nearly half an hour sitting and deliberating – it couldn’t be much more than an hour and a half to the pub could it, and from there it wasn’t much more than a two and a half hours back up and over to my tent, was it? Fortunately common sense got the better of me for once and I took the direct route back up the glen. Amusingly I later spoke to someone who had the same thoughts as me but had been armed with a bike and thus cycled through to the pub (though I believe the beers did not sit all that well with him after that). Anyway, next morning nothing was going to stop me – a quick up and over to Glas Bheinn and back to collect the tent, before finding a suitable compromise between distance and altitude to get over Leum Uilleim again and down to the Station House….where I was greeted with a sign that said it was closed from 4.30 to 6.30 pm for a large party. To say I nearly cried would be an understatement. Fortunately I was just ahead of the 4.30 embargo and they were happy for me to eat outside (no complaints there, bit breezy but a stunning day) if I ordered immediately, and they indicated that keeping me supplied with drinks would not be a problem. After all that anticipation neither the food nor drink let me down (though the beers may have played a part in my later navigation errors). Once satiated, I headed over the Loch Ossian in the glorious evening sunshine – meeting lots of people staying in the youth hostel heading to the pub for their dinner – and promptly took the wrong path (aiming to take the main track back to Rannoch, camp at a ruin at 500 metres, zip up Carn Dearg the next morning, back down to collect tent, and walk back to Rannoch station).
….unfortunately, with those contact lenses in, I am unable to read fine details on the map (nothing to do with the beer, honest) and missed the start of the path. I could have slogged up through the heather and bog to reach it….I should have slogged up the muck to reach it. However, the map showed another path further along the loch side, so I would just do 2 sides of the triangle…after all it was a lovely evening and Loch Ossian was stunning. Never found the path. Eventually found a narrow path that took me up a little ways before it disappeared. After some choice words, I figured that my only option was to slog up the horribly steep and wet hill side, covered in waist-deep undergrowth, already tired from a long day, carrying an overly heavy pack, having had perhaps a little too much to drink, and climb Carn Dearg that evening. As I struggled up, finally reaching open hill side and less deep heather, I suddenly came across a narrow grassy ledge that was almost flat…and just big enough for the tent. Ten minutes later the tent was up and I was sitting looking out over Loch Ossian and Beinn na Lap, bathed in the still-warm evening sun, with views out to Ben Alder on one side and the Mamores on the other…and armed with a nice cold can of coke, bought in the restaurant for such times (wonder why I didn’t think to grab another beer…I suppose a heavy glass bottle would not have helped progress). Slight issue was a complete lack of water, which required a long wander around the hillside, listening intently for the gurgle of water. Eventually I found a hole to a tiny stream a metre down, through which I could lower the end of the tubing of the water filter (definitely worth the 500 g weight of bringing it along) and fill up bottles.
Next morning I packed up and headed up Carn Dearg nice and early intending to continue down the long ridge to Rannoch station; however, a quick glance to the west to the Station House, combined with a few choice blisters on my toes, suggested the shorter way back, via Corrour, could be more appropriate. About an hour and a half later, I was persuading them that it would be really nice if they were to start serving hot food early and an excellent venison burger was on its way, as I waited for the train (sadly no beer though, as I would be driving once I exited the train).
OK, so not exactly everyone’s idea of ‘Into The Wild’ (me included!) – but you have to admit that being able to wander mountains and glens so off the beaten track that you don’t meet a single person for four days, and yet orbit a splendid restaurant and pub does have a certain appeal to it!?
[Note: ‘Into The Wild’ is a book by Jon Krakauer, later made into a movie, that recounts the true story of Chris McCandless, who gave away all his money and, after a nomadic existence, headed out into the wilds of Alaska, where his attempts to survive out in the bush failed and he met with his untimely death.
A big ‘thank-you’ to the Corrour Station House, which comes highly recommended, and saved Iain from certain starvation … it’s rather worrying to receive a text from someone telling you that they’d run out of food!]
This was a post that I intended to upload at the beginning of December ….it’s a little late, but better late than never!
Summary of MWIS Forecast: Windy? Northerly, 30mph – 40mph. Effect of wind? Arduous on higher areas. Significant wind chill. How wet? Frequent snowfall. Hail. Whiteout conditions at time. Cloud on hills? Varied, rarely clearing tops, rapid changes in cloud base, often covering tops, cloud down to 500-600m in showers. Cloud free Munros? 20%-40%. Sunshine and clarity? Patchwork of sunshine south of Torridon. Very clear (but visibility near zero in cloud and blowing snow). How cold (at 900m)? -5C. Terrain frozen from glen level. Slight thawing only on lowest sunlit slopes and lowers slopes near north facing coasts.
It’s a long way from Aberdeen to the North West coast and to go out to Torridon for just two days requires a degree of organisation that, at face value, seems to outweigh the benefits of actually being there. Especially when driving conditions aren’t at their best.
But two days of being out in amazing snowy environments proved to be extremely therapeutic. The forecast (as quoted above) was not great, so on the first day we chose to follow the glen that lies to the north of Liathach and which took us past Beinn Alligin and Beinn Dearg, eventually swinging around to pass east of Liathach and west of Beinn Eighe and finally bringing us down onto the Kinlochewe-Torridon road. Our strategy was then to walk back to Torridon along the road from there. There was some brightness, to begin with but then the weather steadily deteriorated as the day progressed. At its upper reaches the path was completely hidden by snow: picking a route that didn’t take us into the depths of the sopping wet boggy terrain was challenging but we were managing fine. That is until one of us remarked on the fact that we still had dry feet – at which point I floundered into an area of deep, soft snow complete with small lake underneath. No more dry feet.
Planning for the second day proved to be a bit of a headache, undertaken in front of a cosy blazing fire, while trying to join in the group rendition of Caledonia (song sheets and maps are not compatible). The forecast didn’t fill me with confidence with regard to any ascent of the Torridon peaks. The snow was loose and fairly unconsolidated (already evident from the previous day). Having played that game before on Liathach (when our party had bailed as the conditions were simply too dangerous to continue), I thought that perhaps something lower, maybe a Graham, might fit the bill. It would be slightly less windy and the particular hills that I was considering were gentle and more rounded. Grahams are often regarded with derision, being considered the poor relation of Munros and Corbetts. Many hill-goers are downright condescending about them, ‘What – me consider doing a Graham? I don’t think so.’ However, many Grahams are still notably higher than a number of English hills that are classed as mountains (over 600m for the purpose of Mountain Leader training). What’s more, they can prove to be every bit as challenging as their higher cousins, whether due to seasonal conditions, technical demands, or degree of remoteness. Not all higher mountains can be considered ‘difficult’ (a subjective description anyway) on grounds of height alone: there are some, for example, that are straightforward and can be accessed very easily from roads that take the sting out of the amount of ascent required.
Our intention was to do both Carn Breac (678m) and Beinn na Feusaige (627m) towards the top of Glen Carron (to the south of Achnasheen). However, we soon found that progress was very slow due to the state of the snow. Many times we were wading through accumulations that were thigh deep. Working as efficiently as possible by taking turns to break trail, we were still virtually (and literally) crawling along: at one point I calculated that we had been moving at a mere 2km per hour. By the time we reached the upper slopes of Carn Breac it was becoming pretty obvious that just the one hill was going to be the sum total for that day.
But however tough the slog uphill was, the views were totally amazing. The constantly shifting cloud, driven along by the brutal winds, created ever changing vistas and I stopped many times to take in the almost unearthly effect of the winter light on the snowbound landscape. When the upper slopes of Carn Breac are attained the view of the Achnashellech Hills opens up in a most remarkable manner. There, spread before you are Fuar Tholl, Sgorr Ruadh, Beinn Liath Mhor. The eye is then drawn northwards, towards the Torridonian Peaks. We could see both Liathach and Beinn Eighe, and the defile between them, from where we’d made our way down to the road the day before. It looked grim and forbidding over there, the skies being an ominous shade of grey. And for us the weather was coming in too, deteriorating on the final approach to the summit with the cloud base dropping to envelope us in whiteness.
We descended the broad north east ridge, soon dropping below the cloud base, down to the col between the two Grahams and then picked our way through the very wet snow to the lower slopes. A walk-out in steadily darkening conditions along a delightfully mud-snow slippery path (of sorts) soon brought us to the better track and then back to the car.
On the map the distance looked like nothing. According to the book, the time to do the two Grahams should have been 5 hours. But when conditions like this prevail, managing just one summit (7 hours) is a major achievement. Winter has its own rules and this needs to be at the back of any hill-goer’s mind. We did consider turning back when we realised how much we had been slowed up by the snow conditions. If the slopes had been avalanche prone, we would have also had to alter our plans. We realised pretty early on that it was unrealistic to attempt the second summit, but judged it possible to manage the first and be on the descent before it became totally dark. Other considerations in winter extend beyond the hill day: what are the roads going to be like, if you do decide to come off much later? And … of course … most importantly of all … exactly what time does that local tea shop close???
[Note: Many thanks to Pauline, my mountaineering buddy for the two days described above. Her ability to plough a trail through extremely deep, soft snow is truly remarkable. The MWIS website (www.mwis.org.uk/) is gratefully acknowledged for the forecast quoted above. Caledonia was written by Dougie MacLean and appears on the album of the same name, released in 1978.]
Guest blog by Iain, who’s been enjoying the wonderful winter conditions in the mountains …
It always surprises me when people aren’t perhaps a little shame-faced about refusing to climb the same hill multiple times. Seems a pretty clear indication that it was only climbed in the first place to allow it to be ticked off a list. After all, like crossing a river, it is nigh-on impossible to climb the same hill twice and have the same experience. Sometimes the experience is so different to the previous visit as to bear no comparison.
This year has been a good example of what I mean. OK, I will admit that the January 1st ascent of Mount Keen is perhaps not one I will remember as having been more than a pleasant day out. But from then onwards it has been an excellent year full of new experiences, in spite of it involving the same hills I always do at this sort of time of year – and all of them in pretty good weather. A snowshoe-supported round of the Loch Callater hills was noteworthy for the lack of seeing anyone “on foot” – not even any footprints. The only other person able to get up there was on skis. As part of the quest for new experiences I thought I would settle down at the summit of Cairn of Claise and wait for the sunset to develop….wearing two pairs of gloves and a pair of mittens, a headband, a hat, a thick winter jacket, a thick primaloft jacket and a thin down jacket….all with the hoods up. The sunset was indeed stunning, but I had to head off before it reached its zenith as I was shivering so badly I could no longer operate the camera. However, the thing that struck me most was the discovery that a mere two or so miles away and only a few hours earlier, a friend was climbing An Socach, just in a base layer and only needing gloves and a jacket on nearing the summit. Different world indeed. Even the wearing-on of the afternoon makes the mountain change in ways you might not really expect – I love the way the feel of the snow changes as it hardens up just from a small drop in temperature….though I am not so fond of when it instead softens up after a day of sunshine and, instead of skittering lightly over the surface, you sink in over your knees.
Heading back to the same area two weeks later really underlined the way the snow changes, with a round of the Loch Muick hills, starting with Lochnagar. The ascent Lochnagar from the Loch Muick carpark can indeed feel a bit repetitive (even more so for those laden down with a mass of climbing gear) but even it has been different every time – last year I entered the cloud as soon as I reached the cliffs and only suddenly exited when I moved two metres north of the summit – yes visibility was pretty much zero on the summit but a mere two metres down from it was enough to get into a stunningly sunny day. This year, all that lovely thick snow had suddenly turned to rock-hard ice. I lazily put on snowshoes to go up the boulder field, rather than crampons, simply because they were easier to reach. Thus, I not only looked totally ridiculous clambering up the crowded summit in them, but later suddenly found myself inadvertently skiing down the eastern side of White Mounth, as they completely failed to grip the ice. Clutzy yes; dangerous, not really. The middle two hills, Carn an-t Sagairt Mor and Cairn Bannoch were just as empty of people as when I had been on them the previous week, but had a completely different feel about them, when covered in ice rather than snow. The major difference though was that, for no obvious reason, I was absolutely shattered (and will admit that I later had to resort to listening to an audiobook to keep my mind off how curiously tired I felt). The other difference was how much more light there was. I had been aiming merely to get back to the pony hut (where the track starts at the bottom of the final climb up Broad Cairn) before it was completely dark. Instead I was back down at the Loch. What a difference even just two weeks makes to the length of the day!
Last weekend, with a rather dismal forecast, I headed up Culardoch and Carn Liath, two easily-accessed Corbetts at the eastern end of the Cairngorms – now surely this would be a generic day out: I would trudge through the forest and up the track, maybe getting the odd view through the mist, maybe finding a light coating of snow, but otherwise it would be unmemorable and probably nothing more than a bit of exercise and an excuse for a lot of junk food. Well, that is roughly how it seemed until about 600 metres, albeit with a considerable layer of snow on the track, when suddenly I popped out of the cloud and into a blue and white wonderland, with breath-taking views across the layer of cloud to Lochnagar. Even with snowshoes on, the ascent of Culardoch was hard work. Sitting on top of Carn Liath watching the sunset just in a light softshell, noting that there was absolutely no breeze or sound, I could see through to Cairn of Claise and was reminded of how perishingly-cold it had been there just a few weeks previously.
OK, let’s not get too carried away: there are some days out that do feel pretty generic and non-descript, and disappear from memory rather quickly. There are of course those that you remember because of how truly awful they were (Jasmin will remember all too well my “just follow the effing fence posts!” outburst in Glen Lyon – there are so many hours of torrential rain-meets painstaking micro-navigation before some tempers fray and you just want to get down by the quickest and easiest method). I can even remember days because of how crushingly boring they were – an ascent in the Mamores with zero visibility and zero breeze was like being in a sensory deprivation chamber all day. Amongst the strongest memories, as they are perhaps the ones in which the biggest shift in how you were feeling occurred, are those in which you suddenly pop out above the clouds. A few years ago we did Glas Tulaichean on a day so dismal I would genuinely rather have been shopping or flicking through the channels on the TV….it simply sucked the life out of you. Cold and spitting rain, poor visibility, a path covered in yucky slushy snow and streams in spate. What on earth was the point in being out – especially as everyone else had decided not to bother? Well, about 50 metres short of the summit, we popped out of the cloud. Everywhere else in Scotland, as far as we could see, was under the cloud and no other hills were visible.
OK, so that was the definitive ascent of Glas Tulaichean and every other visit would be kinda underwhelming? ….well actually the next year we approached it up the Cateran Trail via the intriguing Beinn Earb (always noted on the map, as it really stands out but….it isn’t on any list so why bother?). This gave a superb springy high-level walk, always around the 700 – 800 metre level. At this sort of level, one would normal anticipate a dispiriting bog! Instead it was a splendidly unexpected find. Even better was the sight of a line of over 100 deer all gracefully jumping (or very much less gracefully tripping over for some) the same high fence right in front of us. OK, so maybe Glas Tulaichean itself wasn’t exactly memorable once we, many, many hours later, finally got to the summit.
So, in the same way as there is bad weather (not just bad clothing – 100 mph winds = bad weather!!!) there are doubtless also boring hills (and not just boring people) and really boring days out – but there are far fewer unmemorable days out than you might expect, even if you do the same hills over and over again each year.
Temperatures across the North East of Scotland have certainly plummeted this week, but it was already fairly cold last weekend when we headed over to Blair Atholl to climb Carn a’Chlamain. The previous few days had been wet, so the idea of a long walk-in on a dryish track had its appeal. The mountain forecast was not overly encouraging, but the day turned out fine: it was far less windy than suggested and as luck would have it we had picked an area that managed to remain in sunshine for most of the day. At higher levels there was a fairy-tale dusting of snow, while further up the wind had scoured the slopes, leaving exposed icy patches. The photos from the summit show a fair covering – a taste of things to come. A perfect winter mountain day with stunning visibility, a colourful sunset and a walk-out by the light of head torches.
[Thanks to Pauline, Joan and Iain, who all feature in these photos.]
I love black and white images. At times they can be much more thought provoking, creating an altogether different impression to a colour photo of the same scene. With this in mind, I set off on a mountain day last weekend with the idea of photographing various vistas in both colour and B&W.
Loch Muick with Broad Cairn (behind): The B&W photo is altogether much more stark, and the contrast between the dark foreground and backlit background much stronger than its colour counterpart. However, the autumnal colours are what make the colour snap work here. Difficult to choose….Loch Muick with Lochnagar in background (B&W): This image was taken along the Capel Mounth route from Loch Muick (pictured) to Glen Clova. The bleached grass in the foreground, together with the rock to the left, while presenting a foil for Loch Muick and Lochnagar behind, are actually dominating the photo.
Loch Muick with Lochnagar in background (colour):There is still a high level of contrast between the blonde grass and the background, but in this case the colours of the Loch and hillside create a more balanced impression. There is more ‘awareness’ of the background.
Track and Upland Burn: I find the colour image here much softer than the harsh shades in the B&W version. The autumnal hues add to this impression, which would probably be very different in, say, deep winter or early spring. But the B&W photo conveys a sense of loneliness and a sense of being in a very isolated place by its very lack of colour.
Winding Road: I love both images here: the ribbon of the Capel Mounth draws the eye into the photo. Definition of the hillocks around the track is perhaps more of a feature in the B&W, whereas the colour version conveys a more dreamy impression due to the softer tones. Looking towards Glen Clova (B&W): The inward facing slopes of these hills draw the eye towards the distant forest at a lower level. The upland area behind remains firmly in the background due to the washed out shading. Looking towards Glen Clova (colour): The background comes across as even more remote here. The shape of the middleground hills do not make as much of an impact as in the B&W photo. The colours are almost a distraction, drawing the attention away from the bones of the landscape.
Looking down into Glen Clova: the quality of the light has given both images a soft focus character. To me, much B&W mountain photography seems to work best with high levels of definition and contrast therefore the colour photo is more successful here. The greens and yellows add further to the softness of the picture. Of course, I may well change my mind about this with different light conditions – or at a different time of year.
I reached the summit of Broad Cairn by the time the sun was going down and the final couple of hours back to the car were done in semi-darkness. The Full Moon rose over Mt Keen, initially a brilliant orange, fading to yellow and finally becoming silver as it sailed higher into the night sky. The wind up high was biting and as I walked back the temperature at glen level was plummeting. The mountain hares have turned white and winter is on its way ….
‘Valiant and quite possibly insane (blame the full moon) overnight outing to Devil’s Point, located in the midst of the Cairngorms. Approx. 32 km, 11 hrs and 58 mins (including some hefty breaks), over a mixture of terrains, some of them kinder to us than others. Started at 10.30 p.m. and gained the summit of Devil’s Point at 4.05 in the morning in miserable conditions, then long walk out via White Bridge.’
Sometimes I have an idea. Sometimes that idea (fortunately) remains nothing more than an idea, but at other times something drives me forward to put that particular scheme into practice and make it a reality. Unfortunate or not, it’s usually the more way-out inspirations that are the ones that come to life….
When I contacted Cameron on the spur of the moment with the idea of doing a hill day at night I figured that more than likely he would be busy with far more important and normal things, but the response was pretty immediate – after all, who would want to turn down such a crazy idea as a night hike into the middle of the Cairngorms? And this was not to be just a mere wild camping or bivvying trip – oh no – this was far less sensible. This would mean starting late in the evening and walking through the night and on into the following morning. Even on my Mountain Leader training and assessment, night navigation had taken up only a part of the night. And any alpine starts for high altitude peaks had usually been early morning, again not through the entire night. The closest I had come to running a mountain ‘day’ on the back of a ‘normal’ day was when Iain and I made what was, to us at any rate, a fairly epic ascent of Mount Rainier (Washington State, US, 36 hours on the mountain – 45 hrs more or less without sleep – but that’s another story altogether) – but even for this we did have a few hours of rest. With that particular adventure under my belt, I knew that what I was planning now was feasible.
Devil’s Point gets its name from a rather sanitised translation of the Scots Gaelic Bod an Deamhain. The story goes that John Brown, Queen Victoria’s ghillie, in accordance with the straight-laced sensibilities of the day, provided her with a somewhat more bland translation than the rather earthy ‘Penis of the Devil’. The mountain is technically a subsidiary peak of Cairn Toul (third highest Munro), which rises some 287m above it to the north west. However, Devil’s Point is classed as a Munro – and it’s a hill that, since he heard of it, Cameron has always wanted to bag. It has a glowering, brooding and sometimes almost sinister presence, particularly evident when approached from the south. Its sheer black cliffs are distinctive and what it lacks in height (a mere 1004m, which is nothing in Cairngorm terms), it certainly makes up for in character.
And so it was that we arrived at the Linn of Dee car park at 10 p.m. Cameron was highly organised and was ready to go within a matter of minutes, while I took slightly longer, having to switch my mind to mountaineering from horse riding mode. Rather than sticking with just the one insane plan, I had opted to go for a reasonably long hack directly before coming out to the mountains, so riding paraphernalia was jostling with mountain kit to lay claim to space in my car boot. Eventually, after I had located the necessary items, we were ready and set off around 10.30 p.m.
This part of Scotland is so far north that at the height of summer the sun sets just after 10 p.m. and, on a clear night, it never really gets dark at all – sunrise is usually not long after 4 a.m. We had more than reasonable light as we left the car park. Numerous stops were made in attempts to capture the amazing evening light on camera, but we were making very good progress on the track out to Derry Lodge. At one point, just after I’d mentioned that the full moon would have risen in the south east, the stratus layers started to fragment and suddenly there was the moon, sailing in and out of the clouds. As the remaining evening light dimmed, there was absolute amazement to see our shadows cast to the side of the track so clearly: moonshadows. It’s easy to forget just how much light the moon does actually cast upon the landscape when living in a built up area, where the moon doesn’t stand a chance against street lighting. There’s something magical and mad about moonlight: a half light, a glow that can be deceptive: all is not what it seems in the light of the moon. To the north west there was a red glow in the sky, while to the west, the sky was ‘quiet’: not completely dark, a strange not-even-half light was ahead of us. We passed Derry Lodge, quietly made our way across the bridge and continued along the path towards the Lairig Ghru.
Our first break was by the Luibeg Burn. Doing a full mountain ‘day’ at night, when that night is a continuation of a day (where more than twelve hours have already been spent active), proves more of a challenge because you are working against the natural rhythms of your bodyclock. At 12.30am the body isn’t accustomed to taking on board food or vast quantities of water. Despite eating being reduced to a mere mechanical process, it was still necessary to take on some food and liquid. Our first break over, we continued on our way, on, on and on. The moon floated in and out of the clouds, but was eventually overwhelmed while ahead of us, in the strange dim light of a Scottish summer night, we could see the cloud base resting on Beinn Bhrotain.
It was a strange feeling to think that we may well have been the only people on the move through the mountains that night. The path took us around the bottom of Carn a’Mhaim and turned northwards while (depressingly) starting to lose height, dropping towards the youthful River Dee. Across the river, past Corrour Bothy (with numerous tents pitched outside – the Bothy was probably overflowing as it was a local holiday weekend) and as we started to climb, the weather started to come in. There were spits and spots of rain initially, then the wind started to really pick up and the cloud base dropped. We were on the final approach to the rim of the Corrie Odhar before we stopped again. Substantial wisps of cloud were pelting over the top of the corrie and it seemed like a very good idea to don any extra layers before putting our heads above the parapet. It was definitely lighting up by this time, but sadly it didn’t look as though we were going to see the sunrise from the summit of Devil’s Point.
Once over the lip of the Corrie, the wind was not nearly as bad as just below (very often this is the case). We had poor visibility, but there was a path of sorts. We followed this, but checking the compass bearing frequently (as paths cannot always be trusted to take you to where you actually want to go!). After more climbing, it became apparent that we were handrailing the cliffs to the south side of the mountain, and pretty soon we could make out the summit cairn/shelter. 4.05am.
A lengthy break ensued. There was the vain hope that the skies would clear and we would get views, but the weather began to worsen. Cameron was introduced to the usefulness of a group shelter, effectively a huge lightweight bag which climbers can sit inside to provide some protection from the elements. With people inside, the environment soon warms up, and if you insulate yourself even further by sitting on your rucksack (or sit mat), it can turn a miserable break into a semi-luxurious rest. After sensible food – and then the obligatory chocolate bar – with the sound of rain battering against the shelter and that very natural 4-in-the-morning tiredness catching up on us, it was all too tempting just to stay sitting there. But no, we still had a very long way to go.
We dropped down from the summit to the col, where the visibility was just slightly better, briefly considered going on to Cairn Toul before deciding that the sensible plan was to head down. Down, down through Corrie Odhar, with frequent stops to shed the many layers that had been required on the summit. Conversation revolved around the Devil: all those sayings – ‘The Devil in us’; ‘Devil take the hindmost’; ‘Devil’s advocate’; ‘Needs must when the Devil drives’; ‘The Devil makes work for idle hands’; ‘The Devil is in the detail.’ The idea that the Devil is something inside all of us that needs to be confronted and dealt with….yeah, well just see what erudite discussions you can come up with at that time of morning! We silently walked past the tents outside Corrour Bothy feeling extremely smug that we’d been doing our mountain day at night, while all these hill-goers had chosen the soft option to sleep.
Now it was a case of walking out. The cloud base remained at a consistent level, around the 800m mark, and until the very last, Devil’s Point refused to reveal itself. We followed the east side of the Dee on a path that involved quite a lot of mud (although I have walked this route when it’s been far worse…), energy, distance and time. Eventually we reached White Bridge (and no, it’s not white) for the final plod back to the car park along a good track. We enviously eyed up the bicycles that were being used by walkers coming in the opposite direction. One guy cheerily called out ‘Good Morning.’ We looked at each other in amazement. What did he mean – ‘morning’? Our morning had started some 9 and a half hours earlier and as far as we were concerned it was already well and truly over.
And so it was that we arrived back at our starting point. The one thing that wasn’t any different to any other hill day, was that relieved thought of ‘Oh good, the car’s still there’. But the experience was an unforgettable challenge that will remain in the memory banks forever.
Elusive … Tricksy … Shy … Retiring … Overshadowed … Part of the background … Unassuming … At one with the landscape … Unremarkable … Difficult to find … Lonely …
At 957m above sea level, Tom Buidhe is located in the midst of a rolling high moorland-plateau. It’s well set back from the Glen Shee hills of Cairn O’Claise and Carn an Tuirc. It’s just far enough off the Lochnagar circuit for most people to leave it out, while using Jock’s Road from either side (from Loch Callater or from Glen Doll) means a long walk in. Even on a clear day, it’s difficult to make out Tom Buidhe as it blends in so well with its surroundings – a rounded hummock with seemingly few defining features. It’s a navigational challenge in poor conditions: when the cloud base is down, or when there’s snow on the ground, careful use of the map and compass are required, together with techniques pacing and timing and a good understanding what the contour lines are telling you. On any hill, on any occasion, time, conditions underfoot or weather, or a combination of all three factors can conspire against the hill-goer.
There now follows The Tale Of Mary And Tom Buidhe:
Once upon a time there was a mountaineer called Mary. Mary was working her way through her Munros, was doing really well, but kept coming up against the problem of Tom Buidhe. It wasn’t that Tom Buidhe was a technically challenging hill in the same sense that the Black Cuillin Munros are. It wasn’t even that Tom Buidhe was deliberately being difficult, but time after time, Mary’s attempts to stand on the summit of this hill were thwarted. The first attempt was made from Auchallater one April under snow conditions. However, time constraints prompted a descent to Glen Callater from the summit of Tolmount, rather than proceeding from there on to Tom Buidhe. A second attempt was made from Glen Shee, but due to navigational error the expedition ended up on neighbouring Tolmount. With limited daylight, the sensible decision to turn around was made – after all, Tom Buidhe wasn’t going anywhere – it would still be there for the next time…. Now the number three is highly significant in fairy tales (it features heavily in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example), so by this token, Mary should have bagged Tom Buidhe on the third attempt. This time, however, conditions were extremely challenging. Heavy snow made the going underfoot difficult, the wind was ferocious and visibility atrociously poor. A variant on the second route was chosen (coming up between Carn an Tuirc and Cairn O’Claise), but in the end the weather prevailed and Mary’s party beat a rapid retreat.
However frustrating this was, the key to staying safe is always to respect the mountain. Foolhardiness – that heady combination of proceeding regardless in extremely poor conditions coupled with summit fever- has often led hill-goers into trouble and in some cases to their death. The UK mountains are sometimes regarded with derision as they lack the altitude of many international ranges, but due to the wide and often very rapidly changing weather conditions and also the nature of the terrain they can be every bit as challenging to the unprepared – and also to the prepared. The bottom line (without scaremongering) is that people can die out in the UK hills. Without a shadow of doubt, Mary made the correct call each time …
And so, this weekend just gone, a large party set off from the Glen Shee ski car park. Visibility was set to be good until early afternoon, when a rain bearing front was expected to move in. Mary’s fourth bid for the summit of Tom Buidhe was on the way! Over Glas Maol, then to Cairn O’ Claise. Careful identification of our objective had already been made from Glas Maol, from where Tom Buidhe appears as but a small rise dwarfed by the surrounding landscape rather than a distinct hill – it’s only when you’re on the final approach that it finally assumes a presence. The wind was picking up and the weather changing as we finally approached the summit of the elusive Tom Buidhe. And yes, Mary bagged her summit this time, with time to admire the vista and take in its rather unique position in relation to all the hills that surround it.
And the moral of the story? The mountain will always be there for another day.
[Note: Many thanks for a fantastic day to Mary, Pauline, Elaine, Iain, Angela, James, Claudia and Danny – and canine companions Heidi, Olive and Fergus]