Mountain days needn’t all be mega-taxing experiences. That epic twelve hour plus day, moving at the speed of light, with very few stops can be an extremely satisfying physical and mental challenge, but it often doesn’t permit the luxury of really engaging with the surroundings. The past few weeks have been about shorter hill days, enjoying the scenery, and really absorbing the beauty of the changing seasons. Observing the change of colour to the hills, as the brown washed out appearance as a legacy from the Autumn changes to the vibrancy of spring colours. Lower down, the trees, as is customary in the North-East of Scotland, hint at spring for weeks and then within five days have developed their full summer leaved appearance. This year it’s very much been a case of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’: that very pale yet intense spring green mantle of the woods and forests.
‘The Hidden Side to Glenshee’ involved exploring a new route up Creag Leacach. Starting at Spittal of Glenshee, we picked up the Cateran trail and headed up the SSW ridge of Creag Leacach. This is a quiet route as most hill-goers elect to climb this Munro from the Glen Shee ski area. It was a remarkably warm day with plenty of sunshine, fair weather cumulus – in short, that wonderful time of year when you can enjoy both the hills and warmth without fear of the dreaded Scottish midge. We descended into a glen behind the ridge, where we came upon a huge herd of deer, who, as deer tend to do, panicked as soon as they realised we were near: a stampeding herd that size really is a sight to behold . As we re-joined the Cateran trail for the final few kilometers, the warmth of the day (even though it was evening by this point) really intensified. Looking back, our final views…
The next weekend, by contrast, had reverted back to more brooding – and colder – weather. To the north of Braemar, the veils of rain sweeping across the landscape towards Lochnagar offered interesting photographic opportunities.
Morrone (859m) behind Braemar affords wonderful views of the Cairngorms and an easy-going day can be planned around this hill – together with a visit to a coffee shop in the village. Over the top then back by the golf course road is one option if parked at Auchallater, but if in full training mode, returning back over the hill gives about 1000m of ascent. Fuelled by a good feed at the coffee shop, this re-ascent can be quite painless! The cloud came and went yesterday and there was even the odd heavy shower (although not as heavy as further east). On a shorter day like this, there’s always the option for further exploration on the homeward bound journey. I discovered the quiet beauty of Glen Kinord, complete with a long line of geese and goslings crossing my path en route from meadow to loch, and many, many bunnies, adults and babies alike, scampering ahead of me through the meadows. Yes, shorter days have their place in the great scheme of things.
[Guest blog by Iain, who has just returned from a spot of Corbetteering in Knoydart. Knoydart is billed as ‘the last great wilderness’ and offers a logistical challenge for the mountaineer – certainly for accessing Munros, but even more so for the Corbetts. The area is notorious for high rainfall and rivers that are often uncrossable. This coupled with extremely rugged terrain makes for demanding outings, be that a day trip or an expedition. It must be said that Iain got extremely lucky with the weather last week…]
Most hills are tackled in one or two obvious ways.For example people rarely think to camp in order to climb the Glenshee hills, but also rarely think to do Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart as a day trip from home. The Glen Dessary hills perhaps provide the widest array of commonly-chosen options.These are generally approached from the end of the road at Loch Arkaig: turn off the main road at the Commando Memorial, just North of Spean Bridge and then just keep on heading west along around 20 miles of alarmingly undulating single track road (be prepared for any low-slung cars to ground at several points, and just hope that the road goes straight on as you crest each rise blindly pointing skywards).You can of course stay in Fort William and drive in for a single day, 40 miles of single track road being perfectly manageable.However, there really are rather a lot of Munros (4) and Corbetts (at least 7 – most of which cannot be combined with ease) for which this is the preferred starting point and you don’t want to have to do that drive too many times.So, many people choose to camp in the glen, to stay in the many bothies scattered around, or even to stay in a camper van in the car park and cycle in each day.
I decided to do something a little different and try out my new hooped bivvy bag.This is essentially just a giant zipped (reasonably breathable) waterproof bag, with a single curved tent pole to hold the material away from your head and make it feel a little less claustrophobic.In my case, it weighs in at a mere 500 g and slips easily down the side pocket of a rucksack.The big question everyone asked was “why?”A fair point when many tents weigh less than 1.5 kg – why would you sacrifice so much comfort for the sake of the weight of 1 litre of water?Well, I suppose lighter tents tend to have lots of mesh ventilation panels on the inner, which the wind howls through, and also pitching a tent does require a certain amount of space, whereas if you can lie down, you can bivvy.Other considerations would later become apparent.
In stunning early May weather I trudged up from Strathan at the end of Loch Arkaig, having done my best not to undermine the advantages of the bivvy bag by filling up the saved space with other items.This took me a very long time and it was well after 11 am by the time I finally got moving so, after making it up and over Sgurr Mhurlagain, and down and across the River Kingie at a distressing height of just 100 metres (which was remarkably easy to cross for once) it was already time to think about where to bed down for the night.I headed round to the col between Sgurr an Fhuarain and Gairich, via one of the many tracks that leads to nowhere (to the south side of Loch Quoich…where it then simply stops far from any road) before eventually spotting a promising-looking promontory.This was the first thing about bivvying – not being in a tent, you feel very exposed and in need of finding somewhere slightly hidden from view (you wouldn’t want to bivvy at the side of a major path!).It was a bit soggy and the rocky outcrops provided no shelter from the strong wind, but there was a dry strip just big enough to stake out the bag (now that is far quicker and easier than a tent).
After dinner I realised that a) I had messed up by forgetting a book and b) had no idea what on earth I was supposed to do now to while away the time.It wasn’t long before it became chilly and I slotted myself into my lightweight sleeping bag and got most of myself into the bivvy bag, with head propped up on my rucksack….wearing a thin down jacket and thin primaloft jacket, both with hoods up, gloves, insulated knee-length shorts (most of the warmth but pack down a lot smaller), and a pair of down booties.I had thought that the latter item was a pointless waste of space, but turned out they were an absolute godsend.I settled back to listen to an audiobook, sip a rather fine cask-strength whisky and gaze at the darkening sky.Next thing I knew it was 3 hrs later and I woke to see stunning twinkling stars above and to realise that I was really rather cosy and comfortable.
The next morning I left most of my stuff inside the bag and headed up Sgurr an Fhuarain and over to Sgurr Mor.The views westwards from the latter, of unknown lochs and rugged hills with no obvious route of access, told me where I would be heading next – Ben Aden.Sadly I had miscalculated by thinking just to have a single night out as a trial – when I got back to my bivvy it would have been so pleasant to have gotten back to lounging in the sun (having not seen a soul all day) and sipping the whisky, but I had over-cautiously arranged accommodation back in Fort William and had to pack up and head back up 1000 ft over the col to get back to the car.
Two days later saw me back at Strathan, with an optimised pack and heading for Sourlies on Loch Nevis (past a sign asking me not to feed the pigs!?) then round to Ben Aden, where I intended to bivvy in the col between it and Sgurr na Ciche (“Peak of the Breast”…no comment).On the way across a boggy stretch I lost the path and found myself on a good stalkers’ path heading uphill.I suddenly wondered why I would head back down from my current 400 metres to sea level at Sourlies only to climb back up to 800 metres, rather than just go up and over Sgurr na Ciche, with a quick detour over Garbh Chioch Mor.After loading up on another 3 litres of water (having found that most of the streams were dry on the previous jaunt) I felt very sluggish and thoroughly envious of those people zipping in for a day with tiny little rucksacks.The weather was still glorious but quite breezy and I wasn’t really able to enjoy those stunning views out to the islands of Eigg, Rum and Skye from Sgurr na Ciche – at least not as much as the photo suggests I should have.
Getting down to the col with Ben Aden was less testing than I had feared (they don’t speak of the Rough Bounds of Knoydart for nothing), but it was clear that I was now pretty wearied and it was time to find somewhere sheltered and dry to bed down.This proved surprisingly difficult as all the flat places were very boggy (would I be devoured by midges or just pestered by flies?).Here the advantage of a bivvy became clear as there really was nowhere a tent could have gone – even finding somewhere for the bivvy required a lengthy search.Dinner (with more whisky) was pleasant, but then the sun went behind Ben Aden and the temperature plummeted – a warm day had become a 2 degree C evening and it was time to get into the bag again. I had always imagined that I would be able to prop myself up on my elbows and read, but the roof of the bag just wasn’t high enough to keep the material away from my head and I again resorted to an audiobook and watching the sun set.The night was much colder and windier and there was no option of lounging with my head out of the bag – I was able to leave it unzipped for some ventilation, but otherwise had to hunker down, to get my head under the highest point inside and avoid the cold bag brushing my face.
Morning brought a sleeping bag covered in ice and one of the biggest problems with bivvying – there is nowhere to go to do “stuff”.I needed to spend time putting plasters on my savaged feet – which would be OK in a tent, but was misery in the open with a strong breeze and I lost all feeling in both my fingers and toes.Breakfast was cold, but I was soon into the sunshine heading up Ben Aden and was on top by around 9.30, it being further than it looked.The anticipated views out to the islands, now with the sun behind me, were actually slightly disappointing, as Ladhar Bheinn (“Larven”) blocks the view.Still, if having the splendid Ladhar Bheinn in your way is your biggest problem…On the way up I had concluded that I didn’t actually fancy another night where I was – there was no access to other hills from there – but more importantly, I realised I had run out of coffees, and a high camp without a hot drink is unthinkable.So I headed back, cooked all the remaining food (a block of emmental, melted over a pack of salami with some tattie scones chucked in (quite good actually, and those calories were going to be need), packed up and started on the long trudge back to the car – some 8 hrs or so.Sourlies and the western side of the route was sheltered, blazing hot and busy – conversations included trying to convince non-Scots that they should be treasuring this weather as one could come here every year for a decade and never get it this good; comparing notes on midges (out, but none biting – “but watch the ticks, we picked 40 off my legs yesterday, but I had been a bit stupid and just lay down in the long grass for a sleep”); what is the ratio of value for a good day in Scotland versus a good day anywhere else in the world – we settled on one of ours being worth three anywhere else as they are so rare).Once finally up at 400-odd metres again the east wind was nice and cooling as I rushed to get back, looking rather enviously at the various tents and bothies passed on the way….followed by a long drive back to Aberdeen.
So what did I learn about bivvying and the hooped bivvy bag.Well, it is wondrously lightweight and, especially compared to sleeping in a bad hotel bed (as I did for one of the nights in between jaunts!), I was incredibly comfortable and relaxed, though slightly more headroom would have made it much better. However, having a bit more shelter and somewhere to relax or sort oneself out, protected from the elements, is worth few extra hundred grams of taking a tent.Some people also take a tarpaulin…but this adds more weight again.On the plus side, I couldn’t have done what I did with a tent, as there simply was nowhere to pitch it and it did encourage me to take a route I would never have considered otherwise, plus bivvying gave me a lovely clear view of the stars, not available inside a tent.
Finally, the big elephants in the room – what if it had rained or been midgey?Well….it would have been thoroughly miserable and would have put me off for life.Any other questions?
So, a great piece of kit (as were the insulated shorts and the down booties!) and I’m sure I will have many more very satisfying jaunts with it, taking unusual routes, over the years…but I will pick my weather and time of year very carefully indeed.
I’ve always been fascinated by the layers of landscape that gradually reveal themselves as I climb higher on any ascent. Mountain days, no matter how short, always offer thought-provoking views, provided, that is, the cloud base co-operates and remains above the summits. And even in poor visibility, the altered, narrowed perspective can fire the imagination. Fitting the jigsaw puzzle pieces of the views from other mountains together is one of the rewards of visiting any hill, no matter what its height or situation. What lies over that hill or fold in the landscape? Where does that ridge lead? What route would I take from here to there? What would I see from there? I was over there six weeks ago…. I would have seen that feature from the other side….
Recent days included a wander up Morven (871m) and a short, but fast ascent of Geallaig Hill (743m) from Braenaloin (both are hills near Ballater). Morven offered us stunning views of the surrounding springlike countryside, but the sunshine was deceptive: it was cold on the summit and most of my winter layers were required. Geallaig, a week later, proved to be equally as chilly, especially as the encroaching cold front complete with cloud and snow showers moved in to envelope the hill. The rapid change in conditions served to remind us just how raw the weather can still be in April. But the views (before we lost them) across to Deeside and Lochnagar beyond were superb.
Some of my most intense memories come from days in the mountains. An elevated, different world, places that can’t be seen or imagined when you’re driving along the road through the glens. Days when time takes on different meaning, stretching itself out to the utmost while a vast number of experiences crowd their way into your memory. The landscape that imprints itself on your consciousness. And all this, regardless of the weather – whether it be battling with the wind to reach a summit, traipsing across extremely boggy ground with rain lashing at you, in the sensory deprived environment that constitutes a white-out, friendly white cumulus clouds creating a chequered shadow pattern over the world below you or a day of wall-to-wall sunshine and intense blue skies.
Yesterday’s forecast was extremely promising (how promising? Try Aviemore as the warmest place in Britain), and we actually succeeded in leaving the house early enough to be at the Sugar Bowl car park for a reasonable hour. Setting off on the first leg of our jaunt, it soon became apparent that we had different ideas about how best to use a stunning day like this. Iain was all for the ‘do as much as we possibly can’ approach – his actual comment being ‘seize the day by the neck and throttle it’. I wasn’t overly convinced by this somewhat go-getting attitude. After a number of days attending various full-on mountaineering courses this winter, I was much more of the mind to re-connect with the mountain environment in a visual and spiritual sense. Don’t get me wrong, I have thoroughly enjoyed all of my CPD experiences, but while on these courses there is little time to really revel in your surroundings. We rapidly approached the evocatively named Chalamain Gap, a boulder strewn ravine that lies below Creag a’ Chalamain (Crag of the Dove, the label ‘Chalamain Gap’ is a relatively recent one, not appearing in older literature), now associated with the 2014 avalanche that killed three people. It’s not the easiest terrain to negotiate, with huge blocks strewn about haphazardly. In wet or freezing weather, with a layer of snow or ice, it has the potential to really slow up any hill-goer. As we crossed the Allt Drudh and embarked on the climb in earnest, it was becoming clear that there was a conflict of interests, so once we were over Sròn na Lairige (1180m), Iain powered off to do his intended ambitious route of Braeriach (1296m), followed by Angel’s Peak (1258m) and Cairn Toul (1291m) – complete with nasty re-ascent on softening snow. My aim was Braeriach, but to have the time for photography without someone sighing every time I took out the camera, to perhaps take the opportunity to perfect some of my CPD work and to simply enjoy the views on this stunning, stunning day. On the way up to the Braeriach plateau, I stopped to exchange a few words with someone who was on descent. The conversation rapidly turned to Nan Shepherd and her writings on the Cairngorms. This is a book that sits at home, beckoning me to read it (once I’ve cleared the numerous things that stand in the way). I was intrigued to hear how inspired my fellow mountaineer had been by this publication – to the extent that he had been on a mission to swim in one of the lochs in Coire an Lochan – and had been extremely disappointed to discover that it was frozen over.
Continuing to the summit, the many different effects created by the snow were fascinating. The wind had sculpted in many senses: beautiful sastrugi, raised footprints, strange cornice lips were all the result of the wind. The recent history of wind direction and weather patterns was all evident here. The sun on the snow revealed icier patches in amongst softer patches. The views of Cairn Toul and Angels’ Peak across the Coire were amazing and I spent much time drinking in the panoramas.
It had been baking hot on the walk-in, but on the plateau the wind had picked up slightly and a significant number of layers were required (although Iain commented that on Angel’s Peak it was warm enough that he spotted one person in a t-shirt and another in shorts…at 4000 ft in March!). I headed over to the promontory to the south of the summit, before re-gaining the top and then deciding to start my return journey. Another viewpoint beckoned and I sat for another while, just allowing the day to wash over me. After all, there was no hurry. Iain had to be a very long way behind me, given his plan of action.
I ambled (no other word for it) downwards, wallowing in the luxury of being able to stop wherever, whenever. The sun was dropping and as I dropped down to the Allt Drudh I was deep in shadow. The sting in the tail re-ascent up the Chalamain Gap was not anywhere near as much effort as I had anticipated and I cruised up the path, noting the stunning orange glow of Lurcher’s Crag as the sun went down. Not particularly wanting to cross the Chalamain Gap in the dark, I had timed my arrival there to perfection. As I paused at opening to the ravine, I thought how much the scenery was reminiscent of Tolkien’s Mordor – down to the bare, stunted tree that was struggling to grow at the entrance.
My route choice through the boulder field was sound, but then I hit a patch of extremely slippery, peaty mud at the other end which put an end to my cleanish trousers and boots (yup, managed to sit down in the stuff!). Halfway across something behind me shifted and in the half-light, my imagination went into overdrive. Was that Gollum following me? Or something equally as sinister? My pace picked up and I was very grateful to exit the Gap. The final 3km was uneventful, but I could feel the air temperature dropping rapidly and eventually I needed my headtorch. A final drop down to the bridge over the Allt Creag an Leth-choin and a last short pull up to the road saw me back at the car. The sky was studded with stars and the longer you looked, the more you could see, the background stars seeming to come into focus.
So what of Iain? (apart from him trogging along singing ‘Oh It’s Such A Perfect Day’ to himself…and yes, he actually admits to doing this) Well, he was tiring and repeatedly checking his watch for turnaround time on reaching Cairn Toul, flagging, with legs seizing up badly on return to Braeriach, sighing loudly on descent to the Lairig Ghru, slipping and stumbling in the pitch black through the Chalamain Gap and finally having to jog-trot the last half hour just so that we could reach the fish and chip shop, literally less than one minute before it closed (aware there might have been just a tad of annoyance if had we missed it and gone hungry due to his idea of a ‘good time’), not to mention whimpering intermittently on the drive back and barely being able to walk the next day. I think that in the grand scheme of throttle-stakes it was the day – and not Iain – that scored a clear victory here.
Needless to say I was not greatly sympathetic….after all, we both had a pretty perfect day, whether we tried to seize and throttle it, or to just appreciate it. Memories are made of this.
[Note: The two song references in this post are to Memories are Made of This (Gilkyson, Dehr and Miller, 1955 – made popular by Dean Martin) and Perfect Day (Lou Reed, 1972); ‘seize the day and throttle it’ is a quotation from Calvin and Hobbes (Watterson); the Nan Shepherd book referred to is entitled The Living Mountain ( Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011)]
After attending a fairly demanding winter mountaineering course last weekend, and then following this up with four days of intensive horse riding, a straightforward hill day was definitely in order. So we decided on a shortish jaunt – up Glen Callater then onward to Carn an Tuirc and Cairn of Claise. Winter is definitely in retreat – there was very little snow underfoot. The main photo shows some lying on the high Eastern Cairngorm plateaus, while the odd cornice was still clinging to various precipitous edges. Of course, it’s still only March and winter could yet return with a vengeance…. watch this space…..
[Guest blog by Iain, aka the mountaineer who likes to have a sleep on summits. He’s even been known to take the odd nap on 14, 000 fters when the conditions have been right..]
Jasmin is away, so that usually means one of two things in winter (assuming I do actually get out of bed): find somewhere sunny to sleep on a mountain or head out on snowshoes…or ideally both. I was once wakened by the sound of someone taking my photo on the top of a snowy peak – they commented that they had never seen anyone look quite so pleased with themselves as they slept. Admittedly sleeping in snowshoes does take practice (no lying on your stomach) and can be quite a danger to the knees and ankles if attempted by the non-expert. Today was definitely not going to be a sunshine day, so it was clear – assuming I could get to the mountains after the recent snow – that it would be a snowshoe only day.
Mention snowshoes in this country and you are almost guaranteed to get one of two responses. The first is: “oh, those things that look like tennis racquets?” The second is: “not much call for those here?” For the first response: no, they don’t look anything like tennis racquets and I have no idea why we all seem to think that they do (was it in a movie or something?). I’m sure I held this image until a few years ago as well, but they probably haven’t for several decades. It is simpler to suggest anyone interested does a search for MSR and snowshoes than for me to try to describe them. For the second response…no, definitely not true either, as today’s outing clearly demonstrated.
I don’t know how many different types of snow there are, or how many of these require snowshoes, but we definitely get at least one of these snowfalls in Scotland most years when without snowshoes getting up a mountain can prove to be almost impossible. When there has been heavy snowfall and the snow pack is unconsolidated, there are several approaches to getting up a mountain: get there late, when others have already done the work and you can simply follow in their footsteps; be part of a decent-sized group who can take turns breaking trail; be built like a bulldozer with the energy of the Duracell Drummer Bunny; or take snowshoes or cross country skis. Well, the skis do have their advantages once you get up the steep parts and can cruise across the plateau (though they are more cumbersome when not being worn), but I have certainly been on mountains where those on skis failed to get up (especially if it is icy) whilst those on snowshoes, armed with aggressive claws and serrated metal strips on the underside, had no problems.
Today, with little desire to drive very far, I was heading for Glen Muick. The weather didn’t look great, so I thought I would just do Broad Cairn and Cairn Bannoch – a decent enough day out in winter. Unfortunately I had slept badly and put my back out…which takes one to the first problem with snowshoes: you have to carry them when you aren’t wearing them. Now apparently George Mallory, when sorting out kit for his 1924 Everest attempt, had asserted that 1 kg on your feet was equal to 6 kg on your back. Well, maybe for tough guys like him, but I would definitely rather have an extra 500 g (or 1 kg…if he meant per foot) on each foot than 6 kg extra in my rucksack! However, don’t think you can ditch the crampons just because you have snowshoes – a number of times (notably the descent off Glas Maol after a day of puttering around the Glenshee hills) I have had to change over to crampons to get back down safely in icy conditions. Today my back was nearly bad enough to decide against the snowshoes (which clip on very nicely to the side of a rucksack, as long as it has buckles on the compression straps – otherwise undoing and doing up the straps is a right battle). The walk along Loch Muick made me think I had made the wrong decision, as the snow was no more than ankle deep and was fairly well compacted. However, once I got to the turn up Broad Cairn suddenly there was only one set of tracks and they were startlingly deep – in fact more than knee-deep at times: exhausting. Instead, on with the snowshoes and a fairly easy walk up the steep zig-zag path. The tracks were clearly those of someone who had gone up and then returned in their own footprints – that they even got as far as the top of the steep slope before turning back earned my respect. How far would I have sunk in without them? Well, I was barely going in to my ankles next to where the heroic boot-shod walker had been up to their knees. The soft heavy snow was bad enough that I could easily push a walking pole in all the way to the handle – as happened a few times when I fell over. An outstretched arm would have disappeared up to the shoulder. Once I had reached the end of the track at the pony hut, at about 700 m, the need for snowshoes rather disappeared – this seems to be pretty common for Broad Cairn, a number of times I’ve done the circuit of the Loch Muick hills in crampons only to need the snowshoes for the walk back when down to the track. Fortunately I was wearing some quite short snowshoes – specifically the MSR Evo in their smallest guise (not much longer than the children’s model) – which are perfect for fitting onto a 45 litre pack, can easily be worn all day without you tripping over them and, if the snow gets too deep, you can simply screw on the detachable tails, which add another few inches to the backs and give additional floatation.
On getting back to the top of the steep section a few hours later, I found that by now quite a number of Duracell Drummer Bunnies had been up and a track had indeed been worn into the snow….but nobody had made it any further than that point, not yet halfway to the summit.
So, no they don’t look like tennis racquets, and yes you do need them in Scotland….so why have I never seen anyone else wearing them I wonder?
Conference. As an ex-academic, the very word strikes a chill in my heart. Those agonising long hours (or rather weeks) of putting a paper together, together with all the visual aids and music (all intended to keep your audience vaguely conscious). Getting steadily more nervous as the time for your paper draws nearer – only to find that because your presentation was right at the end of the final day and as the previous delegates had overrun massively, only two or three of your stalwart acquaintances have elected to listen to what you have to say while all the others have disappeared in search of alcoholic refreshments – and then to find that halfway through the cleaner wanders in, looking completely bewildered to have stumbled upon the world of Eighteenth Century Venetian Sacred Vocal Music, and who then interrupts to enquire: ‘Mind if I hoover the floor now, love?’ Or the conference where you’re regarded as ‘the new kid in town’ and as it is tradition to give just one speaker (usually the person who’s rashly trying to infiltrate their protected ranks) a very hard time, you absolutely know it’s going to be you. And lo and behold, you deliver your paper unto your very hostile audience, before the ‘head of the clan’ embarks on a scathing dressing down of what they think you’ve written…. and then (yes, it gets worse) while you’re still in the stunned state of ‘I can’t believe this is happening’… and then, more indignantly, ‘did you even listen to anything I said?’, someone shoves a microphone in your hand and you are required to reply – diplomatically of course. Nightmare.
But however nerve-racking my past conference experiences have been, as an ex-academic I know that conferences are the Done Thing and Very Important For Keeping Yourself Informed And Up To Date About Your Field. So when I saw the Mountain Training Association (MTA) Winter Conference advertised, I knew that it was a must. And anyway it didn’t seem to be the type of conference I had experienced in the past. It was made up of a variety of workshops from which you could select two to attend over the weekend. No lengthy keynote address to have to sit through. No stress of having to deliver a paper. Just turn up, attend with the opportunity to refresh skills, to develop as a professional and to meet like-minded people. And it would mean treading the hallowed corridors of Glenmore Lodge once again, my alma mater for all my mountain training to date.
Old habits of a lifetime are hard to break, however, and I found myself getting more and more wound up before I drove over to Aviemore last Friday. Rationalising wasn’t helping. Nothing really helped except, perhaps, a very large bar of chocolate – and that only for a short time. However, as soon as the first workshop began, and I became immersed in the world of winter navigation, all doubts and fears faded. We had a cracking session that had us switching between orienteering and larger scale maps. And while the conditions initially underboot were not those of deep winter, the weather at least obliged by providing a suitably low cloud base at times and then snow. Plenty of time for discussion on strategy – and, in a very natural way, many other bits and pieces fed into the navigation picture, such as refreshing the idea of planning a route with avalanche awareness in mind and so on.
On Sunday we woke up to a white world. My second workshop proved to be equally as captivating. One of the highlights was being able to share all manner of professional and personal experiences with others, to ask our instructor as many questions as the day was long and to be out there experiencing a winter day in terms of working with a group in winter conditions. As winter is a very different prospect to summer, we explored the idea that decision making throughout the day is very much a dynamic process that has to take into account the conditions that are presently being experienced. There was one word to describe the day and our instructor: inspirational.
Out of all the CPD sessions I have attended over my rather chequered career as an academic and very short lived stint as a teacher (music aside), these MTA workshops really stood out above the rest. The reason is that these workshops were all run by instructors who do this stuff for real, they have a wealth of experience to draw upon, they know what it’s really like. They spend their time working closely with many different people, each with their own particular agenda for coming to the mountains, so they understand the importance of communication and how this needs to be modified according to the audience. My CPD sessions (and here I’m not talking about conferences) in the past have been a somewhat mixed bag, ranging from being a) so far removed from the reality of my work to b) being completely irrelevant, and being delivered by people who 1) had no ability to communicate with anyone and/or 2) had so little experience of the job I was doing that they could in no way be taken seriously. From depressing motivational speakers to time management courses that over-ran, I had been left wondering what the ‘P’ of Continuing Professional Development really stands for. But this particular conference succeeded in making me appreciate the true value of CPD when it is carefully matched to the needs of the professional: to be honest, I had never really understood what all the CPD fuss was about before this weekend.
As I drove back home (on rather slippery, snowy roads), I reflected on the experience of the weekend. The next time I see the word ‘conference’ I will no longer have to feel that chill striking my heart. Providing that ‘conference’ is preceded by ‘MTA’ that is.
[Note: Many thanks to the MTA for organising this most valuable conference, to the amazing instructors who delivered the workshops and also to Glenmore Lodge for the comfortable accommodation, great food – and, most importantly, that traditional tea and cake, always ready and waiting for us when we came off the hill.]
After much debate last night, which revolved around ‘how much further is it really to drive around to the Northern Corries rather than going out to Linn of Dee – it can’t be that much longer, can it?’, we bit the bullet, got up way before the crack of dawn (sort of) and embarked on the drive to Aviemore and the north side of the Cairngorms with the intention of going up Ben Macdui. An agonisingly slow journey caused in part by freezing temperatures but mainly by lorries cruising at below 40mph with nowhere to get past soon convinced us of the error of our ways. As we disembarked at the ski car park it was surprisingly busy, with a number of minibuses disgorging keen hill walkers. And as we started heading for Coire an Lochan the paths were alive with brightly dressed large groups of people.
As regular Southern Cairngorm mountain goers we’re very much used to days when we see either no-one or maybe just one or two people – and hill etiquette of a cheerful greeting and a quick chat is pretty much always observed. Today was a different matter. We merely got a brief ‘hi’ out of most people that we passed. When there are those kind of numbers out on the hill the whole ‘meet and greet’ thing becomes no longer viable – as it simply slows everyone down too much. The other thing that I noticed was the average size of rucksacks, which generally looked to be reasonably small and no match for the dimensions of my pack. How, I wondered, did most people manage to cruise by with sleek, streamlined rucksacks while there was I, plodding along like a packhorse (and that was after having learnt a valuable lesson about heavy rucksacks at the end of last month). Perhaps it was my ‘battlebread’ sandwiches that were the problem (bulky and completely inedible, aka ‘multigrain rolls’ and sold by a supermarket which shall remain nameless).
That aside, it was a stunningly clear day with uninhibited views in all directions. Any remaining snow was hard névé, just about manageable in my old Mantas without the need to resort to crampons, but you had to be on the lookout for hard icy patches, otherwise you’d suddenly find your feet going from under you – not good on a slope where the consequences of a slip could be dire but these gentle snowfields gave no such cause for concern. The sunset, viewed from Cairngorm itself, lacked the fierceness of last week’s skies, but provided a spectacular sequence of colour changes over the ridges of the Northern Corries. The final part of our descent back to the car park was done in darkness. As we arrived at the car we looked back to see the lights of many other headtorches making their way down Coire Cas. We were not alone …. it sure is busy ‘up north’.
Whenever there is serious snowfall, the mountaineering fraternity goes wild, the reason being that the winter season in the UK can be so short (this is in terms of snow arriving and lying the mountains, and not the ‘general’ winter season – which does have a tendency to go on forever) that you simply can’t afford to waste any opportunity to get out there. However, when the snow falls in earnest, it tends to be non-selective. The ideal scenario would be for the snowfall to tamely confine itself to the mountains, while roads and car parks remain beautifully clear. Dream on. So, when the snow arrived at the end of last week, we had to think carefully about which hills it might be possible to access. The main roads were likely to be open, but narrow, minor roads into various glens might prove treacherous to negotiate – and as for parking spaces, yes we had a shovel, but did we really want to begin a winter hill day already shattered after having had to dig our own parking space? With this in mind, we opted to park at Keiloch (Invercauld), just off the main road to Braemar. Clearly many others had had the same thought process – and so it wasn’t surprising that the car park was already fairly full when we arrived.
The forecast was an odd one, with neither the local weather prediction or the MWIS (Mountain Weather Information Service) being in agreement. Being clothed for minus 5 in the glens and being prepared for a similar temperature plus the chill from 40-45 mile per hour winds on the summits proved to be an error of judgment. It was clear from the start that it was going to be a much warmer day than expected, probably around the zero mark: it certainly had all the makings of a drippy, semi-thawing snow day. So as we made our approach through the forest, there were a few halts to remove layers in order to ensure that neither of us started to overheat. Once out of the trees and across the burn, we started to climb. I stopped to adjust the venting system on my newish jacket – bought at a knock-down price in a sale (being small does have its advantages) and then left unused for over a year – but a very fetching 2-tone purple that eventually proved too much to resist. Kit failures 1 and 2 ensued. The taped pit zips on my shell layer refused to budge. I had to shed my rucksack and perform some strange yoga-type movements in order to get them open. Had the designers ever tested this jacket??? In the process of this battle, my left silk liner glove was completely destroyed. Again, this was a relatively new item. Why bill silk liner gloves as ideal mountaineering equipment when they aren’t robust enough to even cope with the mere opening of zips (OK, granted these were difficult zips – but still?)…
We carried on, and as we got higher, it was windy, but nowhere near as desperate as the MWIS had suggested. The cloud base lifted gradually and eventually the wintery upland landscape was under a continual shifting light pattern, sifted through the rapidly racing clouds. Tendrils of spindrift snaked their way across the snow-covered ground, converting themselves into blistering sprays of crystals in stronger gusts of wind. From time to time, a snow hare would dart out from in front of us and race for cover elsewhere, hunkering down and flattening ears close to bodies in an effort to conserve heat. We went over Carn an-t Sagairt Beag (1044m) and then up to the summit of Carn a’ Choire Bhoidheach (1110m). A retrace over Carn an-t Sagairt Beag to its neighbouring higher summit of Carn an-t Sagairt Mòr (1047m) meant that we were now facing into the wind. I donned my goggles only to discover kit failure no. 3. My googles (again newish – and, it must be said, not cheap) demonstrated an annoying tendency to completely steam up on one side. The left side of my world was fogged over, but with the wind in my face, I needed the goggles on. We continued. The sun started to sink behind the distant hills. The approach from the north east to Carn an-t Sagairt Mòr is steepish and about half way up we hit a patch of hard névé, pretty much a layer of ice. Iain, in his double plastic boots (why on earth was he wearing those – they looked ridiculous!?), skimmed up the slope effortlessly. My old Mantas with starting-to-wear profiles got me about 5 steps up. Using the boot edge as a tool was proving completely ineffective, so grumbling, I retreated and re-tried, this time deploying the ice axe for step cutting. The icy névé was pretty solid and I could see me being there until midnight as I tried to carve out something resembling a stairway for myself. Cursing even more, I retreated again and whipped out my crampons (all good fun when working with liner gloves that provided no protection from the elements). Kit failure no. 4. I had checked at the beginning of the season that my crampons were correctly adjusted for my boots, but I had forgotten that there had always been a very slight mismatch between the right boot and its crampon. And now, the lever at the back of the crampon was rather loose on the boot. Eventually, I managed to adjust the system to the point where I felt happy that the combination of the straps and mechanism wasn’t going to cause any problem. And, finally, up I went.
Summit attained, we descended (Iain now also wearing crampons for the descent over the névé and ice – naturally I took no satisfaction from his lone kit failure: the instep crampons he had lazily intended to slip on didn’t fit over his plastic boots – he insisted he had worn them for the entire circuit of the 5 Loch Muick Munros last year, but clearly had never checked for compatibility with other boots – [please note, instep crampons need to be treated with a hefty dose of caution: they cannot and should not be considered a replacement for full crampons under any circumstances]). It was getting dark and it became evident as we descended back towards the forest that the snow had become decidedly softer in the lower reaches during the day – that sort of waist-deep softness that doesn’t do any more for hurry than it does for already fraying tempers. Sitting in a nice horse shelter watching the snow gently falling, whilst devouring unusually copious remaining supplies of chocolate, helped restore some semblance of good humour. Once again, it was a long walk-out by light of head torches, but with the snow coming down was all rather therapeutic.
When I acquire new mountain kit, I expect to have to try it out in a variety of conditions and in combination with other items, but I do also expect the manufacturers to have tested items themselves. There was no excuse for those zips, the gloves or the goggles. It seems amazing now looking back on the kit worn to the mountains many years ago when still at school or as an impoverished student – any old shirt and trousers (except that we all knew that jeans were a no-go), a non-breathable set of waterproofs, some cheap ski gloves, a headtorch with a battery the size of a generously-proportioned slab of vanilla cake and a bobble hat, all stuffed into a cheap £10 rucksack. I would say that it all worked just fine, but of course it didn’t, we just didn’t know any better (but it certainly lasted well, vaguely did what it was supposed to do, didn’t cost the earth – and of course never went out of fashion…never having been stylish in the first place). That said, the spare liner gloves I finally located at the bottom of my pack late yesterday did cost just £1.50 from the local petrol station… and, unlike those upmarket silk gloves, they cheerfully withstood the final ferocious fight that I had to have with the zip of my shell jacket – just so that I could take the wretched garment off at the end of the day …
Mount Keen (939m) tends not to be held in great esteem, despite its unique claim of being the most easterly Munro. Once bagged, it’s then frequently forgotten and not revisited. However, for those of us living in the North East of Scotland, an annual appointment with the mountain is obligatory.
While the mountain itself may not be that visually stunning, the lengthy approach from the north through the Caledonian pine forests of Glen Tanar is undeniably very lovely. I must confess that my New Year’s Resolution to rise earlier and drive to hills that don’t require such a long approach has already failed dismally (see last post), this being reflected in today’s nice short drive but then a 29 km plus round trip on foot. The benign weather conditions and lack of snow were most un-January-like, but the views across to the Cairngorms had all the clarity of the midwinter. Walking back through the pine forests in the moonlight was a truly magical experience: it more than made up for me failing to fulfil my New Year’s Resolution at such an early date.
Featured photo: The shadow of Mount Keen cast on the landscape below