Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Cairngorms - Changes

The icy winds picked up freezing air from the plateau, blasted down Gleann Einich, squeezed between the Rothiemurchus pines and sneaked under the flysheet of our tent, confining us to duvet jackets and an evening indoors. With idle time, my mind wandered to a favourite line from a favourite book. In “The Sea Room” Adam Nicolson, recalling his time on the Shiant Islands off the west coast of Scotland, writes about the arrival and departure of the winter geese. He says “nothing has changed, except the thing that changes everything”. It made me ponder moments in life when a seemingly small factor alters the course of events and I recalled a moment that changed my life.

When I was 21 and studying medicine at university, I was browsing the medical textbooks in Thins, that much-loved Edinburgh bookstore, when a poster on the wall caught my eye. It was an advertisement seeking volunteers to work for the charity, Friends of the Earth. At that moment I decided to take a year out of university and become a volunteer. That decision changed my life. Working with Friends of the Earth, meeting new people and opening myself up to new experiences gave me the deep love and appreciation of nature and the outdoors that has enriched my life ever since. It was during that year that I got a mountain bike for my 21st birthday to start exploring hill trails and some cheap walking and camping equipment to get me out into the mountains. I made dolphin-watching trips, planted trees in Glen Affric, cleared rhododendrons from native woodlands and took part in numerous beach cleans. I changed my life.

Earlier in the day Bart and I had changed our plans to bag a few tops in the Cairngorms and instead we decided to stay low out of the worst blasts of the gale force winds. We found ourselves trekking through another moment of change, that moment in the year when winter gives way to spring. We trekked along the edge of the great corries of Braeriach, setting fresh footprints in the powder snow. We trekked along the very edge of winter. To our left the corries of the mountain were still plastered with snow whose surface was scoured by a fierce wind that drove a fine layer of spindrift into our face and down our necks when we crouched behind a boulder for lunch. Grey clouds gathered above the dark crags of the corrie walls and our limited view was a monochrome world of white. But to our right the Spey Valley with its blanket of Scots pines was bathed in sunshine and free of snow. Down there the season was changing.

And so we left winter and followed a small stream down the mountainside into spring. At times the stream disappeared under bridges of snow that we nervously crossed, wondering if they would give way under our combined weight. We pitched our tent close to the Tree of the Return, the last tree in Gleann Einich that traditionally marked the place where people would turn back after walking their cattle to the summer grazing higher in the glen. During the night the winds gathered even more strength and so we took the tent down and walked in the half-light to a new spot lower in the glen. When we unzipped the tent next morning we found ourselves surrounded by dozens of toads who were taking advantage of the changing seasons and a moist morning to make their way to the nearby lochan to mate.

Not far from our camp spot was the Chalamain Gap,  a narrow, boulder-filled defile that provides a natural route between Glen More and the Lairig Ghru, that mighty pass that bisects the Cairngorms. The Gap was the scene earlier in the winter of an avalanche that tragically killed three people. As Bart and I trekked through we came upon the huge slabs of avalanche debris that fell there but more poignant than this were three pits, several feet deep, dug into the snow. It was an incredibly sad scene and we stood there in quiet reflection for many minutes. We wondered if a seemingly small factor, even as simple as lingering over a second coffee at breakfast, had altered the course of the day ahead for those people and placed them in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

How easily, in just a moment, life can change.

For more photos click here.

Fact file
Start/finish: Glen More served by bus from Aviemore
Map: OS Landranger 36
Route: We followed the pretty Allt Mhor path up through Glen More and left it below the ski slopes to join the route through the Chalamain Gap. Where the path from the Gap meets the Lairig Ghru we ascended the slopes of Braeriach and contoured west through the corries before dropping down into Gleann Einich. We camped in the woods and next day ambled back to Glen More through the Rothiemurchus pine forests.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Rannoch - For the first time

Readers of this fledgling blog will already have gathered that I love the Scottish outdoors … the landscapes, the elements and the wildness. I’ve trekked and cherished so many miles of this land, thrown my tent up in a thousand favourite spots and soaked up the stunning vistas that Scotland serves us. I know this land so well and yet sometimes, every now and then, something makes you see it as for the first time. That’s just what happened last weekend.

With a few days off work, a backpack loaded with camping kit and a stunning weather forecast , I headed north with my Belgian boyfriend, Bart, here on his first prolonged visit to Scotland. We jumped off the morning train at the idyllic little station at Rannoch whose pretty Victorian waiting room, characteristic of many of the station buildings along the West Highland Line, nestled below snow-capped mountains. Our train ride had taken us through a mouth-watering landscape of lochs and woods and peaks beautifully sculpted by the winter elements. 

Under a strong sun but in a biting cold wind, we set out along the old Road to the Isles, the ancient drove road that crosses Rannoch Moor on its wild way to Fort William. The crisp air, the russets of the trackside vegetation and the fresh snow gave the landscape an autumnal atmosphere which was out of place for Easter.  We stashed the camping kit behind a rock to travel lighter as we climbed the mountain, Carn Dearg, that rises above the moor. As we reached the snowline we put up a mountain hare, its winter white coat showing the first signs of changing to its blue-grey summer colour. As we gained height the vast views expanded even more as peak after snow-covered peak came into view, so that the mountains looked like the top of a lemon meringue pie. 

The Belgian man was blown away by the landscape – the layers of rugged mountain ranges, the sparkling partially-frozen lochs, the sweep of forests. But most of all he was amazed by the huge herds of deer that roamed wild across an empty landscape against a backdrop of winter mountains. And, although I know this part of the country so well, Bart’s excitement made me see the wonder of it all with fresh eyes.

We walked back in soft evening light, collected our camping kit and set up the tent on the open moor with a panorama of snow-plastered peaks on our horizons and a skein of noisy geese passing overhead. In the last of the light we cooked a supper of chilli with rice, warming cold hands by the little stove. When darkness fell we wrapped up warm in sleeping bags and duvet jackets as the thermometer plummeted to -7 degrees and a crispy coat of frost started to form on the tent. One disadvantage of being a mature woman in her … let’s just say, middle age … is that I can’t get through the night without going to the toilet. However, the advantage of this is that it does at least get you outdoors during the dark hours. This night the sky, as so often in the Highlands, was sparkling with stars. Orion looked down on our tent and even in the darkness I could make out the ghostly white shapes of the mountains.

Next day we trekked to Loch Ericht through moorland miles dotted with frozen lochans and stands of dark pines. The steep snow-covered flanks of the mountains plunged into the gunmetal grey waters of the loch that stretched to the distant northeasterly horizon. We pitched the tent on an idyllic spot in a stand of Scots pines with a view to Ben Alder and in the afternoon climbed up through the snow on its steep flanks to expand our mountain horizons. Where the slope eased on the bealach the snow was deep and had been sculpted into waves by the wind. Despite the sunshine, the wind blasted through here and discouraged us from lingering too long.

We trekked back, pausing by Ben Alder Bothy. For any readers not familiar with bothies I should tell you that these are simple huts and cottages located in remote parts of the mountains and available for hill-goers to stay in, mostly free of charge. Bothies are a facet of the Scottish mountains that again are so familiar to me but it was all new to Bart who was really taken by the rustic charm, stunning location and cosy interior. When Bart started fantasising about returning another time with nice food, a bottle of wine and some candles for a romantic weekend for two, I had to put him straight! The reality of bothies is that they conceal a stinking, seething mass of sweaty, unwashed climbers who spend the evening drinking beer, passing wind and picking their blisters.

Another freezing night passed, although the trees around our tent muffled us a little against the cold. In the very early hours of the morning I woke to a strange sound outside. Some distance away there were bizarre, repeated warbling and clicking sounds. Having camped here before, I knew there was a black grouse lek close by where in spring I’d watched the male birds displaying by fanning out their white tail feathers and indulging in mock fights to win a female. I’d told Bart that we might be lucky to see this spectacle but thought we were probably just a little early in the year. This morning it sounded like only one male at the lek so I decided not to bother waking Bart who was snuggled up warm in the two sleeping bags that he’d packed.

After a lazy morning of coffee in bed soaking up the beauty of our camp spot, we trekked the wild trackless miles back to Rannoch passing numerous shielings whose broken down walls were covered with mosses and the tiny red flowers of Devil’s Matchsticks, a type of lichen. We ate lunch with our backs against a warm rock in the sun and watched herds of deer move across the landscape. I’m so used to seeing deer in the hills but Bart’s excitement made me look more closely at them  – a beautiful wild animal, the sun highlighting their rich red coats and the herd moving closely together so they appeared to be one organism flowing effortlessly over the landscape of moor and mountain. I saw the deer and this place as if it was for the first time.

For all the photos, click here.

Fact File
Start/finish: Rannoch Railway Station served by the Glasgow/Fort William trains
Map:OS Landranger 42
Route: From Rannoch we trekked a little way along the road before picking up the right of way to Fort William which we left by a stand of forestry to climb the long south ridge of Carn Dearg. After the top we dropped sharply to the right of way at the ruins of Old Corrour Lodge for our return. Trekking east to Loch Ericht you can string together bits of rough track or contour higher round the hillside. We camped in the pine trees before Ben Alder Bothy and climbed above the bothy to Bealach Breabag. 
Tip: Rannoch Station houses a small museum about the railway and moor, and a tea room.