Friday, 28 June 2013

Cairngorms - Looks like rain

Bart and I had an idyllic few days in Torridon but when the midges set in, we decided to spend the second part of our holiday further east. Since Bart first came to Scotland a few months ago there is one thing that’s he’s really fallen in love with and that’s our herds of wild deer. So when we headed to the Cairngorms I was hoping to have an extra special surprise in store for him.

Before I tell you the story of our Cairngorms trip, perhaps I should tell you the story of Bart for any readers who didn’t follow my previous blog, the bicycle diaries. During my two-year world cycle trip from 2010 to 2012, I was cycling into New Zealand’s Mount Cook National Park when another touring cyclist pulled up on the road beside me. A tanned, fit Belgian man with sexy cycle shorts, a crop of wild, silver hair and a gorgeous smile. We hit it off instantly, as if we’d been friends for many years. Of course fate would have it that I was cycling south and Bart was cycling north! Despite that, he changed his plans and we had a lovely week cycling and camping together before he had to catch his homeward flight. We kept in touch then met up again in Istanbul for a great adventure cycling through the winter mountains of Turkey and Greece. Towards the end of my two year trip, as I pedalled over the Alps, I was intercepted by Bart in his campervan and we spent two months cycle touring and trekking there. Then, after my world cycle trip ended, I joined Bart in the Canary Islands to help him work on his rental properties. We’d had a lot of fun together over this time but it was when Bart first came out to Scotland in March this year that our relationship blossomed. Perhaps the beauty and romance of the Scottish landscapes played a hand! Or maybe spending freezing, grim nights in a tent huddling together for warmth!

Before this starts to sound like a Mills and Boon novel, let’s get back to the Cairngorms. We spent our first day in Aviemore stocking up Bart’s campervan with groceries, eating coffee and cake in town and then working off the extra calories with a bike ride through Abernethy Forest and Ryvoan Pass. On our second day we climbed Ben Macdui via the Fiacaill Ridge which I’d never done before. The ridge is a bit of a mountain legend in Scotland and hairy men in bothies will go misty-eyed as they talk wistfully about it while stroking their beards. As we approached, the ridge looked quite daunting but in the end it was a fun and easy scramble. By now we were hankering to be out in the tent again so we loaded our packs with overnight gear and jumped on the bikes for a trip to the Cairngorm plateau. 

The Cairngorm plateau is a unique place in Scotland being a high, sub-alpine, semi-tundra moorland. The mountains here lack the pointed shapeliness of those in the west but the Cairngorms have a very special atmosphere, a sense of space and wildness and many dramatic glacier-sculpted corries and steep-sided glens. The plateau itself is an ancient landscape - being so high, it was largely unchanged by the destructive ice of the glaciers.  Up here there’s some unusual wildlife such as the snow buntings we saw on Ben Macdui which look like large, white sparrows. There’s also an animal that harks back to those ancient times. If we were to find it, I knew Bart would love it. 

We cycled out through the Rothiemurchus pinewoods on fast dirt trails and then bumped along the rough track up Gleann Einich. The bikes were hidden away in deep heather and we started to climb the narrow path high above the waters of Loch Einich into Coire Dhondail, one of the many corries that form the scalloped edges of Braeriach. Light rain fell and a rainbow formed over the loch. The path zig-zags steeply up the back wall of the corrie and at the top pops out on the plateau. Bart and I think alike on many things but we had a small disagreement at this point. The back of the corrie was covered with a near vertical wall of old snow. It was June so we weren’t carrying ice axe and crampons. I thought that the snow was soft, sugary and not dangerous. Bart thought it was hard, slippery and that any mistake would send us accelerating to the bottom to be dashed to pieces on the rocks below!  After a bit of discussion, we nervously crossed the narrowest section of snow. Our hearts were pounding and not from the love of each other!

Safely across, we climbed the final section onto the mist-shrouded plateau and there before us were the animals I’d hoped to show Bart – the reindeer! Thousands of years ago reindeer were native to Scotland but as climates warmed after the last ice age their populations dwindled and died out. This small herd in the Cairngorms of about fifty animals was reintroduced in 1952. The reintroduction was largely an experiment but they thrived in this place which is much like their native home in  Scandinavia - the climate is similar, the vegetation is like that of the Arctic tundra and Ikea's not too far for those must-have soft furnishings. The herd is semi-wild in that the reindeer live natural lives out here in the mountains but there are always folk down below keeping an eye on them.   

After our reindeer encounter, we pitched the tent on a high shelf above Loch Einich on a grey, grim evening and blethered the hours away until bed. Goodness knows what we talk about on these long evenings in the tent – probably stories of adventures passed and dreams of ones yet to come. The next morning we unzipped the tent to dense banks of clouds billowing up from the loch but by the time we’d had breakfast and packed up, the weather was clearing. So we trekked around the rim of the great corrie that holds Loch Einich, gasping with awe from the top of the sheer, rock cliffs that plunge down to the water. We picked off the modest peak of Sgor Gaoith before finding a steep route down through the rocks and scree. 

We were soon trekking along the quiet shores of Loch Einich, marvelling at the mirror surface of the water. After a picnic lunch on the beach, we retrieved our bikes from the heather and fairly flew back down the glen. As we arrived back at the van in Glen More, a few heavy drops of water splattered on the road. 

I was delighted to turn to Bart and say “Looks like rain, dear”.

Fact file
Start/finish: Glen More
Map: OS Landranger 36
Route: From Glen More take the Old Logging Way bike route opposite the shop/café and follow it towards Aviemore as far as the north end of Loch Morlich. Pick up the dirt road to Rothiemurchus Lodge turning off to the right at the signpost for the Lairig Ghru. Continue to Cairngorm Club Footbridge, cross it and keep cycling west to Gleann Einich. Cycle up Gleann Einich (one easy river crossing) and before you reach the loch, hide your bike in the heather and take the uphill path marked by a stone cairn which tops out on the plateau. There’s no trail at the top but follow the high rim of the huge corrie that holds Loch Einich round to the Munro, Sgor Gaoith. Retrace your steps a little way to find an indistinct route down the back wall of the corrie above the end of the loch. Be sure to find the right route down as there are steep crags here. It becomes a more firm path and is marked on the map further down. Return to your bike via the shores of Loch Einich and retrace your outward cycle route.
Tip: If you fancy a morning coffee before you start, head to the café inside Glen More Shop – it’s got a great view of the bird feeders at the back where you can get really close to red squirrels and the local birdlife.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Torridon - Bartman returns

Friday evening, cycling home from work. Got a week off, good weather. At my door there's a campervan. Happy he’s back, the Belgian man. 

Travel north together. To Torridon. Trek through the cool woods by the river. Half dome of Fuar Tholl looks like Yosemite. Along the airy ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor. Can almost touch the rock wall of Liathach. Throw the tent up by a lochan. A high place, above the sea and the midges. Watch the sun sink beyond Skye. Try to guess where it will set. But we’re asleep before placing a bet. 

Unzip the tent above the clouds of a morning inversion. Scramble up Sgorr Ruadh with hands and boots on rock. Chill out in Shieldaig. Beachcombing, people watching. Daydreaming about living in the yurt we find in the woods along the coast. Climb up the stone shoot of Coire Mhic Fhearchair. It’s primeval here. Imagine pterodactyls circling overhead. Balance along the narrow ridges of Beinn Eighe. Step aside as others squeeze by.   

Into forgotten Fisherfield. Trek the remote shores of Lochan Fada. Wild goats watch us. Another scramble up loose rock in the rain. Ruadh Stac Mor. Make camp on a high beach. Noisy neighbours, those sandpipers. Coffee and porridge warm a wet morning. Cross the causeway of the Dubh Loch. Its builders made two lochs of one. We wondered how long ago. Walk for hours through the Letterewe woods, damp and dripping and deserted.Wet and tired, we’re back at the van. My home on the road with the Belgian man.

For all the photos click here.

Fact File 
Maps: OS Landranger 19 and 25. 
1) Beinn Liath Mhor and Sgorr Ruadh - can be climbed from Achnashellach Rail Station served by trains from Inverness. Cross the line at the west end of the platform and follow the right of way to Torridon via Coire Laire. Above the trees take the two right hand splits in the path and walk up the steep southeast face of Beinn Liath Mhor. Follow the ridge northwest – a superb walk with great views. We camped just below the top at a high lochan. Descend to the bealach below Beinn Liath Mhor – a path will help you through the steep, rocky terrain. From the bealach ascend the northwest ridge of Sgorr Ruadh which has an easy but fun rock section near the top. Descend to the bealach between Sgorr Ruadh and Fuar Tholl and pick up the path that rejoins the outward route. 
2) Beinn Eighe – the right of way from Achnashellach continues through to Glen Torridon. Take the path opposite Ling Hut that cuts north between Liathach and Beinn Eighe and follow the right hand split into Coire Mhic Fhearchair. Ascend the stone shoot on the back wall of the coire onto the ridge. Make your way east along the main ridge. A steep path descends back to the glen at Spidean Coire nan Clach. 
3) Fisherfield – from  Kinlochewe (serviced by Westerbus from Inverness) follow the road to Incheril and pick up the right of way to Letterewe signposted at the back of the car park. Follow it to Gleann Bianasdail and turn north through this glen. Trek around the east and north shores of Lochan Fada and head towards A’Mhaighdean, contouring round its easterly slopes to the bealach below Ruadh Stac Mor. Scramble up through the rocks to the top. Return to the bealach and take the path that heads northwest. We camped here at a high lochan. Descend on the path to Carnmore and the Dubh Loch. Cross the causeway, take the left hand split in the path over Bealach Mheinnidh to Letterewe and trek east back to Kinlochewe. 
Tip: Shieldaig is a top spot for chilling out. Community campsite in the village (pay by donation) looks out over the bay; gorgeous walks along the coast with little hidden beaches; very cool coffee shop in corrugated iron hut on the beachfront.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Ben Starav - Third time lucky

The Munros may sound like a Scottish folk trio but they are in fact the mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet. To many outdoor types bagging a Munro is the be-all and end-all of a day in the hills. I’ve done a fair few of them but often I prefer to climb the smaller, less popular hills or trek the remote valleys and quiet places in between. However there is one Munro that I’ve had my eye on for a number years and last week I set out for the third time to try to bag it.

Ben Starav is a dramatic peak that radiates rocky ridges to each point of the compass. It’s tucked away above the quiet waters of Loch Etive and it’s Gaelic name translates to Hill of Rustling. I’m not sure if that refers to the cattle variety or the noise of chocolate wrappers being eagerly opened by hungry Munro-baggers on the top. The first time I tried to climb it I was too easily distracted by an irresistible picnic spot. I spent my day building miniature dams in the stream that flows from the corrie and floating an empty mackerel tin down through the pools. The second time I was beaten back just a few hundred metres from the top by winds that would blow a house down. So when I jumped off the Friday evening train at Bridge of Orchy last week, I was determined it would be “third time lucky”.

As I set out, the sun was sinking behind the peaks, the Doire Darach pines were silhouetted against a peachy sky and the last of the day’s cuckoos were calling. As dusk and deer gathered, I trekked along the West Highland Way path towards Inveroran. There was no chance of getting lost here in the dark – I just had to follow the white markers of discarded trailside toilet paper. It bewilders me that people come out here to enjoy beautiful landscapes and then trash them like this. The quiet moonlit waters of the Abhainn Shira guided me west and I pitched the tent at eleven beside the standing stone where the old Clashgour bridge was before a flood swept it downstream. If you walk this way, you’ll know the spot.

I unzipped the tent next morning to a cloudless, windless day. Warm sunshine flooded in and melted the thin veneer of ice on the flysheet. Some people dream of tropical islands or fancy hotels but to me the height of luxury is to drink my breakfast coffee on a crisp morning while lying in my sleeping bag with the tent door open and enjoying a wonderful mountain view. But I couldn’t linger today over a second cup – it’s a long walk in to Ben Starav from here. At Loch Dochard I paused to reflect on the reflections as a huge fish flew over my head with an osprey attached to its back. I trekked on into empty Coire na Caime where all the trees have been rounded up and corralled inside fences. The deserted remains of shielings tell of a time when the people here were rounded up too. 

On the back wall of the corrie heather slopes gave way to boulder fields which gave way to rocky ridges as I climbed the last few hundred metres to the summit. I must confess to you that I can be a bit anti-social in the hills and when I climb a mountain, I do like to have the top to myself. So when I saw a figure ahead of me on the ridge, I made ready my trekking poles in case I should have to trip him up and push him off. Fortunately he didn’t linger on top and by the time I was there, I was alone. The sun was shining, the views stretched for miles, I had the place to myself and I’d bagged Ben Starav. 

It was indeed a case of third time lucky.

For all the photos click here.  
Flickr has changed a little - when you are in the set of photos for Ben Starav, hovering your cursor over the bottom of each photo in the montage will bring up the description. View individual photos by clicking on them and then scroll through the others by using the arrows at the side. To view as a slideshow click on the three dots at the lower right and select "slideshow" from the dropdown menu that appears.

Fact File
Start/finish: Bridge of Orchy served by the Glasgow/Fort William train or Citylink bus.
Map:OS Landranger 51
Route: From Bridge of Orchy follow the West Highland Way north and at Forest Lodge take the track west, signed for Loch Etive. Follow that track to Loch Dochard and over the watershed. Cross the river that flows from Coire na Caime (it’s usually straight forward but if in spate there’s a bridge a little downstream). Trek through Coire na Caime (there’s a trail initially as you pass through the trees but nothing after here) and onto the bealach between Ben Starav and Beinn nan Aighenan. Turn north then climb west along the east ridge of Ben Starav to the top. I continued my route by returning to the bealach and walking east along the full ridge of a second Munro, Glas Bheinn Mhor, and then descending back into Coire na Caime at the shielings to camp.
Tip: Bridge of Orchy Hotel does great coffee. I think they do good food too though I went for the cheaper option of tuna and mash by the river.