Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Dalwhinnie - What would Dougie Vipond do?

My skis were waxed and ready to run when I stepped off the Friday late-night train at Dalwhinnie. There were just two problems. Firstly, there wasn’t much snow. Secondly, I couldn’t find a spot close to the station to pitch the tent. It was already late and bitterly cold as a wintry wind blasted clouds across a crescent moon. I plodded around in the dark, searching by torchlight on either side of the trail for a piece of dry, level ground but found only soggy lumpiness.
When faced with a problem that you can’t solve, it’s useful to turn to your hero and ask yourself what they would do in the circumstances. And so I posed the question, “what would Dougie Vipond do?” The unhelpful answer that I arrived at was that he and the Adventure Show crew would of course check into the nearby hotel! As that wasn’t an option, a little more scouting eventually revealed a grassy, tent-sized shelf behind the railway line. 

As for the problem of not much snow, there was nothing for it but next morning to haul my heavy pack and skis a long way up the hill to the snow-line. At the top edge of a patch of forestry I cleared some snow and made base camp in the last of the trees where there was a little shelter from blasts of icy wind that whipped across the hillside. 

I strapped my skins to my skis, my skis to my feet and headed uphill, threading together the remaining lines of snow. At the top of the hill the skins were off and so was I. As I descended the snow that lingered in the narrow stream gullies and made my own twisting tracks, I felt quite the expert ski-tourer and, despite my dire downhill technique and the gusty wind, I somehow managed to stay upright all the way back to the tent. The wind pummelled the tent all through the evening and into the night but I was quite comfy inside, passing the dark hours with a pot of hot tea and that fine literary tome, the Scots Magazine.   

Next morning the wind and the thaw had diminished the snow cover a little further so I left the skis at the tent and headed out on foot. The land was still dressed in dowdy browns where the snow had receded and a low ceiling of grey cloud completed the drab scene. But a few rays of sunshine penetrated the gloom to catch in their spotlight a herd of red deer grazing below the snowline. To the northeast deep passes in the Drumochter hills revealed tantalising glimpses of the snow-covered Cairngorms. Red grouse flapped back and forward in a frenzy and every now and then a white mountain hare exploded from its hiding place, kicking up a plume of snow with its big back feet and leaving behind snowshoe-shaped footprints.  

Back at base camp the wind had saved me much of the effort of taking down the tent. But at least the sun came out and bathed Dalwhinnie and its surrounding green pastures in faintly warm sunshine. A lapwing made its “peewit” call overhead, a sound that I always associate with spring in the way that the screech of swifts makes me think of summer or the noisy cackle of passing geese conjures up winter. I packed up, picked my way back down the hill and plodded to the train station along Dalwhinnie’s main street, pausing by the hotel. 

Peering in through the windows of the bar, I could have sworn I saw Dougie Vipond.

Fact file
Start/finish: Dalwhinnie Rail Station, occasionally serviced by the Inverness trains.
Map: OS Landranger 42
From Dalwhinnie I took the track that goes a little way along the south shore of Loch Ericht to access the lower slopes of Geal Charn. I was using Rossignol Free Venture skis, a very short, fat ski with a binding that fits leather winter boots designed for a step-in crampon. The binding has a fixed position for downhill skiing or free-heel position for climbing and the skis have their own skins. In case you don't know this term, skins are furry strips that attach to the underside of the ski to give you grip for skiing uphill. Basically the "hairs" of the "fur" allow the skis to glide on the snow in a forward direction only, so you don't slide backwards. They were originally made from seal skins but of course these days they are synthetic. The skis are a bit of a compromise on all fronts and not ideal for any particular type of skiing. But because they are short, light and can be used with winter walking boots, they are very versatile for accessing distant snow by foot – perfect for Scottish conditions.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Portobello - Bitesized

Bitesized trip. Bitesized bike. Brompton to the beach. Starting at the sewage works. Cycling the sea wall. Oystercatchers in tuxedos. Redshanks in orange clown feet. Turnstone turning stones. Curlew calling. Barnacles covering driftwood. Looking inside for geese. Empty. It’s winter. Barnacle geese are being geese. In summer they become barnacles. So ancient people believed.


Along the promenade. Tyres crunching frozen puddles. Cycling with a seal. Me on the Brompton. Seal in the water. Keeping pace with me. Busy prom. People taking sea air. Eating sea food. Fish and chips. Day-trippers never seeing the night-time beach. I do. The red fox. Jumping on the sea wall. Looking at me. Vanishing. 


Over the Esk. Goldeneyes ducking and diving. Widgeon grabbing forty winks. Swans going with the flow. To the sea. Seaweed covering shopping trolleys. Shop til you drop. So modern people believe.


On to the lagoons. Not blue. Ash grey. Power station pumping. Teal stealing the limelight. Winter light. Short-eared owl not waiting for night. Nor I. Into bitter west wind. Into Portobello. Drinking campervan coffee. Eating chocolate brownie ... bitesized.

Fact File
Map: OS Landranger 66
Route: Coming from Leith direction, join the beach bike route on the new bike path from Leith Links - left up the ramp just after the allotments. From Edinburgh city centre take the Innocent Railway Path that starts at St Leonards then before the Asda store follow bike signs to the left for Portobello. Cycle along the prom to Joppa then continue east on the main road (it's wide here). As you enter Musselburgh turn left down to Fisherrow Harbour and continue along the waterfront, over the Esk and round the ash lagoons on the John Muir Way.
Tip: First Saturday of the month is Portobello Market - great stop for cake, other goodies and fab coffee from a converted camper. Otherwise The Tide coffee shop/gallery is on the prom at the bottom of Kings Road - good coffee and they can supply bike locks!