Monday, 23 March 2015

Gear Review - Mountain Equipment Guide Gloves

As an outsdoorsy type, I'm always delighted to receive a gift voucher for a favourite outdoor store for Christmas or birthdays. It's not just the thought of a new piece of outdoorsy kit but also the anticipation of a couple hours wandering around the store fondling fleeces and salivating over self-inflating sleeping mats.

I got a Tiso gift token at Christmas and over the winter months I've been using the mountaineering gloves that I bought. I got the Mountain Equipment Guide gloves in the women's version which cost £50. They come in sizes extra small to large and also in a manly version in sizes small to extra large. I've picked out the main technical specifications below.

I especially like the wrist loops which saved the gloves being whipped away in the gales we've had all winter. I wore the gloves on a snowshoe trip in the Monadhliath when the tops were absolutely freezing. Normally I would have reached for mitts in those temperatures but the Guide gloves were so warm that I didn't have to. They are especially warm considering they are fingered gloves. Despite the thickness, dexterity was pretty good and I could take photos, undo buckles etc.

On another occasion I used the gloves while walking for several hours in heavy snow that turned quite wet but the gloves stayed warm and dry inside. The gloves are very flexible and the leather palm is beautifully soft, providing grip on trekking poles, ice axes and muesli bars. My only minor complaint is that the cuff is a little bulky which is mostly due to the toggle for adjusting tightness. This meant it was hard to pull the sleeve of my waterproof jacket over the top. That aside I'm absolutely delighted with them.

As winter gloves, they won't have many more outings now until next year as spring has definitely sprung. If it's spring, that means it's my birthday soon. Here's hoping for another big, fat voucher!

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Ben Venue - Jammy

I've drooled for years over those photos that you see in Scottish calendars of the Trossachs from the little mountain of Ben Venue. You know the ones ... there'll be snow-capped peaks pointing into a blue sky above an idyllic mix of woods and water. And often there'll be an old-fashioned looking walker gazing to the horizon wearing a bobble hat and trousers tucked into red, woolly hiking socks. Well, finally it was time for me to get out there, climb Ben Venue and gaze at that horizon myself. There was one problem. It's a wee bit of a puzzle climbing Ben Venue by public transport and required trains, buses and a lot of extra leg work. 

The climb started with an early Saturday morning train to Stirling which got me there to catch the first bus to the Trossachs village of Aberfoyle. The bus trundled west through the winter fields of the Carse of Stirling and with each rise in the undulating road the passengers had a view north to an array of snow-capped mountains that marked the Highland edge. Just before ten, I was striding out from Aberfoyle on a frosty, sunny morning.

The start of the route up Ben Venue is at Ledard Farm, several miles west from Aberfoyle along a B road. It's no fun plodding along hard tarmac so I took the slightly longer forest trail along the south shore of Loch Ard. Beams of morning sunshine burst through the pines and Ben Lomond teased up ahead with glimpses through mist of it's snow-capped top. The Loch Ard trail eventually pops out at Kinlochard. And two and half hours after getting off the bus and over five hours after leaving home, I was at the "start" of the walk.

The route up Ben Venue from here was pure, unbridled joy. A narrow path climbed up through beech woods drenched in warm sunshine and followed the tumbling waterfalls and dreamy pools of the Ledard Burn. The water was so prefectly clear that I could see the multi-coloured stones on the bottom, dappled by the sunshine. Above the woods the path entered open terrain where a chill wind blew through and then disappeared under the snow line.

My route continued to climb steeply in fresh snow that was soft in some places and hard and wind-rippled in other places. I pulled up onto Ben Venue's ridge and meandered between the rocky knolls and outcrops to the top. The moment was perfect and I felt really jammy hitting it on a day like today. 

Despite its small size, Ben Venue is a great, little mountain especially when it's under snow. I felt like I'd had a big mountain day out but in a miniature package. And the view was just as advertised. A jumble of cold, snowy peaks filled the horizon and below my feet there was as much water as there was woodland. The snow contrasted with the blue sky and the sun mostly shone. Mind you, there was no sign of that walker in the bobble hat and red socks so a selfie in pink had to suffice for that photo from the top.

I started down off the top to find a campspot for the night. There's no Sunday bus out of Aberfoyle so there was no point in retracing my route. Instead I dropped off the northeast side of the mountain, picked up a rough, boggy path and descended into the Loch Achray Forest. By the time I'd found a campspot beside the Achray Water, it had been a long day and I put the lights out soon after dark.

It was hard to get moving out of my tent next morning knowing that the nearest bus was at Callander, a long walk away with the last few miles on dreaded tarmac road. But then something changed outside. Snowflakes started to drift gently through the trees and by the time I was packing up, the snow had really ramped up. The landscape was suddenly painted white and I walked out to Callander not on hard tarmac but on a soft cushion of fresh snow. 

Pauline, I thought to myself, you are truly jammy.

Fact File
Photos: More photos on flickr, click here.
Start: Aberfoyle by bus from Stirling Bus Station which is next to the train station.
Finish: Callander then taking a bus to Stirling to catch a train. 
Map: OS Landranger 57
Route: In Aberfoyle walk west along the main street and keep heading west along the B829 to Milton. Cross the bridge to enter Loch Ard Forest and follow the trail around Loch Ard to Kinlochard. At Kinlochard walk east along the B829 for 500m to the road up to Ledard Farm. Take this road which is signed for Ben Venue but leave it just before the farm by following a signed path to the left. Follow the path up through woods beside the burn and go left at a split signed by a green arrow painted on a post (easily missed). The route continues above the trees and climbs around the west side of the top before pulling up onto a bealach marked by a cairm. It then continues along the ridge to the right of the west top which is easily climbed and then onto the east top. I returned to the bealach and found a rough path heading east down into Loch Achray Forest. It becomes a good path later and cuts a line through the forest which is pleasant lower down. When it reached the bottom track alongside the Achray Water I turned left and found a campspot a little way upriver. Next day I walked back along the track which eventually comes out at the Loch Achray Hotel. It actually goes right through the grounds! I followed the A821 to the right and picked up a forest trail leaving to the left at grid ref NN512062 which links to the tracks along the south shores of Lochs Achray and Venachar. From Invertrossachs it's then a private then single track road into Callander.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Gear review - Snowshoes - TSL 305 Approach Easy

"Just leave me here to die". Those words were uttered by my hillwalking friend Graham many years ago as he lay in the snow on a hillside above Blair Atholl. They've become a bit of a standing joke over the years. We were traversing open terrain in deep snow to get to the bothy below Beinn Dearg and were plunging with every step into snow up to our thighs, losing precious time and energy. When Graham eventually fell completely into the snow, he refused to move and out came those immortal words.

If we'd had snowshoes back then, that miserable plod would have become a fun adventure. I've since used snowshoes in Finland and the Alps but it's taken until now for me to get my own pair for using in Scotland. I think it's because it's only in the last few years that they've become cheaper and more available here.

I bought the TSL 305 Approach Easy snowshoes and used them for the first time in the last blog. I got the women's version which fits smaller shoe sizes and body weights. Those are two of the things that you need to check when buying snowshoes - that they adjust to your shoe size and are suitable for your body weight. The other thing to check is the weight of the snowshoes themselves. Remember they'll be strapped to your feet or your pack and either way you'll notice the extra weight. So try to choose ones that are as light as possible. The TSL 305s weigh 1.6kg for the pair. They are made of lightweight plastic and fitted onto my regular walking boots quickly and easily with a plastic binding that was easily adjusted. Needless to say they did the job I bought them for and saved me from sinking into soft snow.

The snowshoes have a front crampon for biting into hard snow and six points on the bottom for grip. I crossed one section of relatively steep ground on hard snow and the grip felt very secure. There's also a climbing bar under the heel which you flip up during steep ascents. l found this was an excellent energy saver and very comfortable as it keeps your heel from going all the way back down with each step on a long climb.

l got the snowshoes on sale from Elite Mountain Supplies. They are currently priced at £105. You can get cheaper ones at Decathlon but they are heavier and I'm not sure I'd like to go too cheap on an item like this. 

Now ... back to that snow-covered hillside many years ago. Of course, I didn't leave Graham there to die and we did eventually make it to the bothy just as darkness was descending. We pushed open the door to find the bothy full of thirty out-of-control, prepubescent boy scouts and dying in the snow was suddenly a more appealing option.