Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Alps - Arrochar, not French

On the west shores of Loch Long above the village of Arrochar is a cluster of rugged, shapely peaks called the Arrochar Alps. For years I have travelled north on the train up the other shore and completely ignored them in favour of farther away places. Perhaps it’s because at that point, about an hour out of Glasgow, the catering trolley comes through the train and I’m distracted by the promise of hot tea and other goodies. Or perhaps it’s because I always imagined Arrochar to be full of hordes of daytrippers from the city, walking along the waterfront eating ice-cream and chips. Whatever the reason, I finally decided last weekend to find out what was going on up there in the Arrochar Alps.

West Coast Motors may sound like a second-hand Glasgow car dealer but it’s actually the bus company that runs a service along the bonny banks of Loch Lomond and up to Arrochar. As the bus trundled north, Jim the driver entertained passengers with local history and folklore and was even kind enough to drop me right at the start of the walk up into the hills. On a chilly morning the path zig-zagged up through forestry, eventually climbing above the clouds of a temperate inversion to reveal views to snow-dusted Ben Lomond.

Higher up, the path shook off the trees, crested a ridge and made me stop in my tracks and shout out loud to nobody, “wow”. Here was my first close view of that iconic mountain, the Cobbler. It’s so named because its rocky pinnacles are said to resemble a cobbler bending over his last but I thought it looked more like a raging bull with two great horns. In its early winter garb of powder snow and frozen cascades, it looked especially beautiful.

But I was heading for different mountains and the path continued to climb, squeezing a way through two giant rocks called the Narnain Boulders. The boulders are glacial erratics, stranded here when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated. They are famous as a much-loved overnight doss for Glasgow climbers in the old days. Of course, that was when hill folk were made of sterner stuff, not like today’s namby-pambies who stay in B&Bs back down in Arrochar. With ice underfoot and a heavy pack, I made glacial progress up the mountain, eventually popping out at a high, flat place called Bealach a’Mhaim. It was rocky, icy, wind-scoured and exposed - a perfect spot for base camp.

With the tent up, I shouldered a lighter pack and skipped up my first peak, Beinn Narnain. As I gained height, the patches of snow and ice amalgamated until finally the last few hundred metres were gripped in hard snow and I strapped on the crampons for the first time this winter. The clouds of the morning inversion had dispersed and the sun had broken through, picking out a panorama of snow-capped peaks and the glinting waters of Long Long far below. The air was cold and crisp and clear. I stayed up there, breathing it all in, until the numbing temperature forced me back down to the tent. As I left the top an old man in a bobble hat was on his way up, moving slowly and doubled over his walking pole like a cobbler over his last.  I asked if he would take my photo and as he did so he told me that he had climbed this mountain many times. Given the effort the ascent had caused him, I guessed this might be his last time up here and I felt sad.

Beinn Narnain means “hill of notches” which I am prepared to accept is a reasonable description of the nobbly, rocky terrain in its upper reaches. But I’m at a loss to understand the name of the next peak I climbed, Beinn Ime, which translates as “hill of butter”. Perhaps in days gone by it was known that cattle grazed on the slopes of Beinn Ime provided particularly fine dairy produce. Beinn Ime and its neighbouring Alps, being so close to Glasgow, are quite popular but one advantage of camping high on the mountain is that you can beat everybody else to the top. 

So it was on Sunday morning that I had Beinn Ime all to myself and the thought crossed my mind that it doesn’t get much better than this - trekking along a ridge of pristine snow, crampons biting into the hard surface, on a perfect winter morning of clear skies and snowy mountain vistas. 

I ambled slowly back down to Arrochar in the gathering dusk as drifts of woodsmoke from its cosy cottages settled above the trees on a windless afternoon. Arrochar was not full of hordes of daytrippers but was dark and quiet and peaceful as I walked along the waterfront. It was too cold for ice cream but I couldn’t resist eating chips.

More photos on Flickr - click on the logo on the right.

Fact File
Start/finish: Arrochar by Citylink/West Coast Motors buses between Glasgow and Inverary or Oban.
Map: OS Landranger 56
Route: Heading out the west side of Arrochar on the A83 there is a Forestry Commission car park on the left - the bus driver will drop you here if you ask nicely and the start of the path is immediately opposite. Follow the path up through the forestry and when you reach a track by a transmitter turn left then a quick right. Ignore the left hand fork for the Cobbler higher up and keep on the path to its end in Bealach a'Mhaim where the routes are rougher. From the bealach it's a straightfoward climb up the northwest ridge of Beinn Narnain and the south ridge of Beinn Ime. 
Tip: The Fish and Chip shop in Arrochar must be the quaintest in Scotland and on a cold evening you can sit inside with hot tea.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Dunkeld - The bag lady

Goretx Paclite. Goretex Pro. Hydrophobic down. Softshell and Activeshell. With so many high performance fabrics available to keep us dry in the outdoors, there was really no excuse for ending up with plastic bags on my feet the other weekend.

Bike buddy Graham and I were cycling in the hills above Dunkeld, soaking up the last of the autumn colours and getting a good soaking into the bargain. On a grey day we powered our way up the Queen's Road, lingering a short while by the glass-like waters of Mill Dam. 
Beyond here we sploshed our way along water-logged tracks and trails, and when heavy rain came on, we were already so wet that it didn't really seem to matter. They say this is good weather for ducks but even the ducks around here felt the need for extra rain protection and had sprouted very strange feather headwear. We almost fell off our bikes laughing at them. 

High up in the hills and woods after a grim afternoon of rain, mud and pushing bikes, it was tempting to stay in the cosy bothy, put the fire on and dry out but we pushed on and put the tents up on a carpet of golden needles below a copse of larch trees.

It was still wet next morning and I realised I hadn't packed my waterproof Sealskinz socks. Readers should  note that Sealskinz are completely synthetic and that no animals were harmed in the making of this blog. Without them, the only way to at least start with dry feet, was to put plastic bags inside my shoes. 

As we cycled back down and passed again the ducks, I could see their beady, little eyes resting on my feet. I knew they were thinking "who's laughing now".

Fact File
Start/finish: Dunkeld Station served by Glasgow/Edinburgh to Inverness trains
Map: OS Landranger 52
Route: Fom the station cycle down into Birnam and turn left on the main road. At the next junction turn right and cycle through the main street in Dunkeld. At the far side turn right onto the A923 then take a quick left onto a forest road signed as a right of way to Kirkmichael. Climb this track to Mill Dam and continue to Loch Ordie. Pass in front of Loch Ordie Lodge following a track around the loch but at the east end stay on the main track and head away from the lochside. Take the left split in the track and follow it north behind Capel Hill. It becomes increasingly rough and then a footpath. Progress is hard here but the woods are lovely. Follow this trail north to Lochan Oisinneach where you'll find a gorgeous camp spot on a little knoll above the water with a copse of larch trees. Follow the trail which becomes a better track as it turns south passing Lochan Oisinneach Mor and returns to Loch Ordie. Retrace outward route
Tip: The tracks and trails above Dunkeld are great for cycling with lots of route options. I only had to do some pushing because of the conditions underfoot and because my pannier bags were catching on tall trailside heather where the trail was very narrow.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Loch Tummel - The Milk Tray man

“You can't come down here … there’s no access cos of the show” said the hi-viz security guard as he pulled over Bart’s van. We were on a dark, forest road trying to get to a nice, quiet van spot by Loch Faskally for a weekend of canoeing. Mr Security must then have clocked us as sporty, outdoor types and said “… unless you’re with the canoeists …”. I had no idea what he was talking about but said that we were indeed planning to take to the water in canoes. He shouted into his crackly walkie-talkie and let us go through. So it was that we made it to the loch and on the way got a free, sneaky view of the Enchanted Forest light show.

Next morning, the “canoeists” turned out to be rowers … hundreds of them! Rowers can be quite troublesome, especially on canals where they take up the entire width and can’t even see where they are going! We decided to abandon Faskally and instead drove around the corner to Loch Tummel. It was a really lucky move as we found an idyllic spot to park up for the weekend beside a quiet, sheltered bay with a spectacular panorama of autumn woods.

I like canoeing but my main reason for getting out on the water this weekend was to see what Bart looked like in a body-hugging wetsuit. Quite nice, actually! Dressed head-to-foot in tight, black neoprene he looked like the Milk Tray man. As I changed into my watersports gear, Bart might have hoped I would look like Pamela Anderson in an episode of Baywatch – sadly, he was disappointed. We pumped up the canoes and launched them onto the glass-like waters of the loch. There was not a breath of wind so that strands of mist lingered in the trees and on a grey, rainy, clagged-in day the place had a secretive, primeval atmosphere.

Next day, we were pedalling bicycles instead of paddling boats and set out along quiet, single-track roads that wound their way around lochs, through autumn woods and over the shoulder of mist-shrouded Schiehallion. On his visits to Scotland, I have been introducing Bart to an aspect of British culture that he finds quite bizarre and that is the coffee and cake stop when you’re out on a bike tour. Bart tells me that nobody does this in Belgium and if he suggested it to his bikey mates, they would think he had gone bonkers! Apparently in Belgium only old ladies and men of a more feminine disposition visit tearooms! This day we stopped on our bike ride at the tearoom in Kinloch Rannoch and ordered a huge wedge of carrot cake with two coffees. As you can see from the photo, Bart seems to be integrating well into this aspect of British culture!

As I didn’t have cake, I was really needing a sugar hit by the time we cycled the last few undulating miles back to the van. I hurriedly threw open the van door but I was disappointed - the Milk Tray man had not visited or left a chocolatey gift, and the only thing waiting on my side of the bed was a wet patch from the hole in the roof.

Fact File
Start/finish: Loch Tummel. We were in the van this trip but you can get there by a short cycle or walk from Pitlochry which is well served by buses and trains.
Map: OS Landranger 52
Route: There are lots of spots along the road on the south shore of Loch Tummel (signed for Foss) where you can put canoes in. We chose the first spot after the dam beside a small bay - it was gorgeous. A little way along the loch from here there are small islands that you can paddle out to. For our bike ride we continued along the Foss road to Tummel Bridge then crossed the river to join the B846 to Kinloch Rannoch. From Kinloch Rannoch we took the road that climbs up to Braes of Foss then rejoined the B846 before turning off again for the road along the south side of Loch Tummel to return to our van spot.
Tip: In autumn, the Foss road on the south shore of Loch Tummel must be one of the most beautiful bike rides in Scotland. It was idyllic.