Sunday, 5 August 2018

Monadh Liath Northern Corbetts

Carn na Saobhaidhe, Monadh Liath

Carn na Saobhaidhe

Ascent:        704 metres
Distance:     25 kilometres
Time:           4 hours 42 Mins

Carn na Saobhaidhe         811m      2 hrs 42mins (cycle 58mins, walk 1hr 43mins)
Descent                                           1 hr  59 mins (walk 1hr 31mins, cycle 29mins) 

Friday 3 August 2018

With the fifth round of munros almost in the bag, I thought it about time I went after the twenty odd remaining Corbetts. They are all more than 3 hours drive away and the nearest was a couple of singletons between Inverness and Fort Augustus located to the north of the massive Monadh Liath plateau. In recent years they have both been the location for significant wind farm developments and in the case of Carn Chuilinn, a huge hydro-electric scheme was opened in 1999 and then again in 2009 after a tunnel collapse. The upside is that hill tracks have been constructed that allow a bicycle to be used for the initial part of the long walk-ins. The downside is the ugly scars seared into the hillside with deep peat banks created.

The weather had broken after the summer of sun and there had been some much-needed rain. Friday promised reasonable conditions with some showers expected. I collected my mountain bike from the shipping container next to the new house and drove up to Aviemore on Thursday evening to stay with my niece. She is currently working as a Reindeer herder in the Cairngorms and recently bought a house with her boyfriend. They already had one friend staying with them but have erected a tepee in the garden to cope with passing visitors. We had a good evening and I was able to leave at 7:30am the next day. The heavy rain soaked me as I walked from the house to the car. It was about a 50-minute drive up the A9 and then along the single track B851 road towards Errogie.

I parked in the large entrance splay at the start of the road to Dunmaglass Lodge. It took 10 minutes or so to assemble the bike, which I had carried in the load area, stuff some food and what I thought may be appropriate clothing in my small rucksack. It had already rained and the grey skies were promising more of the same. I had allowed 5 to 6 hours for the trip but the first couple of miles were easy cycling and I began to think this was not as bad a hill as my friend Mark claimed when I suggested climbing it a few years ago. "Count me out" he said, "I have no intention of ever repeating that hill."

I made dozens of pheasants scatter as I cycled along the banks of the river before crossing it below the Lodge. I enjoyed watching two red kite circling above Beinn Mheadhoin and just as I began to think that this is a doddle, the roads began to steepen and a sign indicated 3 miles at a gradient of 17%. It was enough to make me get out of the saddle on the steepest sections as the sweat began to pour off me in the warm humid conditions. A road to the left went to a windfarm with 33 turbines, I kept right and cycled to an altitude of over 500 metres before I decided to abandon the bike just before a ford and a bridge for land rovers.

There remained a 5-kilometre walk along a reasonable but meandering gravel track. After about 3 kilometres I attempted a shortcut to the summit by taking a more direct route over rough heather covered ground rather than following the track that involved a long switchback, it was a mistake and probably added 15 minutes. I was not helped by the need to don waterproofs for the first of several showers during the walk. The summit is a very flat plateau with a small cairn at the east end matched by a radio mast to the west. According to my altimeter, they are at exactly the same height. Just below the summit, a wind farm was spinning away as the clouds gathered for another shower.

I wisely decided to take the track down, what's an extra kilometre when you can avoid the bog and heathers. A recently built and incongruous grouse shooters shelter with double glazing was located at about 700 metres and empty cartridges were widely spread near the shooting butts. There were 4 burn crossings to make on the descent but with my feet already soaked I managed to skip over all of them without any mishap, wet feet always eliminate the fear of slipping.

Arriving back where I had dumped the bike gave me chance to take off waterproofs for the descent to the car. After a couple of uphill sections and stops for photos, I began a long and fast descent, the brakes kept the speed to about 30mph but only by a heavy squeeze on the levers. The Tesco delivery man stopped his van to let me through at a passing place, it is unlikely I could have stopped otherwise. Perhaps disc brakes would be a good investment. I took the wheel off the bike to load it into the car, changed out of my soaking shoes and top, ate some food and checked the map before setting off for the drive to Carn Chuilinn, the next hill, just before 2 pm.

Dunmaglass private road
Dunmaglass Lodge from the ascent road
Pine roots on Aberchalder Burn

Track along the Aberchalder Burn
Grouse eggs
Summit Mast
Summit Cairn, both at same height

Grouse shooters shelter below Carn na Saobhaidhe
Dunmaglass wind farm - 33 turbines
Looking north to Dunmaglass Lodge on the descent

Carn Chuilinn

Ascent:      704 metres
Distance:   16 kilometres
Time:         3 hours 48 minutes

Carn Chuilinn          816m  2 hrs 20 mins  (cycle 45mins, walk 1hr 35mins)
Descent                 1 hr   28 min (walk 1hr 11mins, cycle 17 mins)

The drive from Carn a' Saobhaidhe to Glendoe at the start of the Carn Chuilinn walk is a pleasant 30 minutes along scenic roads past Errogie and Loch Tarf, the latter of which was hoaching with tourists. The massive construction depot at the foot of the Glendoe road forbids any parking so it is a half mile west down a steepish hill before parking is possible. It means an immediate steep climb on the bike and although there is a recently constructed bike trail parallel to the road, its gradient is too steep for riding. I had to push the bike for much of the way  until I reached the private construction road to the Glendoe hydroelectric dam. It is a wide highway with a smooth surface from all the heavy vehicles involved in the hydroelectric traffic.

The second hill of the day is always a bit of a shock but the second cycle ride of the day even more so. The cadence was not fast up the Glendoe highway but I kept a steady pace until reaching a bridge where the road veered left with another 6 kilometres to the dam. A stalkers rough path follows a burn to the right. The recent rains had not made conditions easy for walking and several burns had to be crossed and the path occasionally disappeared into the heather. Carn Chuilinn was not visible with the cloud level down to 600 metres. When the path eventually ran out I continued to head south climbing ever steepening slopes with the sound of underground burns gurgling noisily. Any visibility had gone so I relied on a downloaded map on my phone and ended up clambering through some crags about 200 metres west of the summit. It was after 5pm when I spotted the large cairn above one of many small lochans. The cloud had turned to rain and, for the second time of the day, I was dripping wet with rain and perspiration. I soon cooled down at the summit as I refuelled with fruit and water.

My phone was out of juice so I took a bearing and headed northeast along the ridge for half a kilometre before dropping down the grass and heather slopes to the burn that I had ascended alongside. As I emerged from the cloud a convoy of over twenty vehicles was returning along the construction highway from the dam. I reached the bridge by taking a direct route down the heather covered hillside rather than trying to follow the path by the burn. I collected my bike for what was a very rapid descent to the B862. I didn't bother using the hilly cycle path, I doubt my brakes would have held me on the steep gradient. I swept up to the checkpoint at the construction site and was waved through. I reached the public road and descended the last half mile to the car park. I had loaded the bike and changed by 7pm.

All my clothes were thoroughly soaked, including both pairs of shoes. A friend was to complete his Munros on Carn Mor Dearg tomorrow and I had asked if it was possible to go along since I had discussed his progress with him on many occasions. Then I weighed up the options: wet clothes, wet shoes, sore feet, an hour's drive to find a campsite within striking distance of Fort William. I had my tent with me but there would be nowhere to dry my gear. Then a wet day tomorrow with an 8am start for the ascent of Carn Mor Dearg from Achintee and then the arete to Ben Nevis. I have already been up Ben Nevis three times during this round and did not relish another slog down the tourist path. The rest of the party had walked with Gavin for over twenty years and I had never walked with him although I knew what an achievement it would be. There again I could drive home in three hours. I was about to phone and give my apologies when Bob called. They were in a bunkhouse and about to go for a meal. I am sorry to say that I went home.

Parking weet of Glendoe
Carn Chuilinn in cloud
Summit lochan

Carn Chuilinn summit

Summit lochan
Glendoe construction compound
Day done at car park below Glendoe

Monday, 30 July 2018

A Grand Day Out in Argyll

Tobermory jetty

We started the day in the Morvern village of Lochaline on the Sound of Mull. It is in Highland rather than Argyll but after an early breakfast in the Manse, now an Airbnb run by a Glasgow herbalist, we caught the ferry to Fishnish on Mull. We were in Tobermory before 10 am to discover that all the ferries leaving Mull were full apart from the 1:30pm boat to Oban. It rather disrupted our plans to spend the day on the island. Apparently, campervans have inundated Mull this summer with the result that spontaneous travellers such as ourselves have been scared off. Much the same has happened in the rest of Scotland and a number of acquaintances have told me that they are giving up going north in summer because of the congested roads, slow traffic, full campsites, shortage of places to eat and general over-commercialisation of tourism. It is a sentiment that I share although the mountains are still largely ignored by the new wave of tourists in campervans, coaches and the self-drive visitors following the tourist board circuits.

In the two and a half hours left we decided to drive over to Calgary and then journey down the north-west coast of Mull and try to catch the 1:30 ferry. It was a spectacular drive in perfect conditions. We stopped at the excellent cafe in Calgary and spent half an hour walking the beach before setting out with just an hour to make the final 35miles to Craignure. The narrow single track road was slow and we were held up by tourist traffic but made Craignure as the last car to arrive and get on the ferry. Worries over, the sail down the Sound of Mull was beautiful in the warm summer breeze. It is the place where our eldest learned to walk on the deck of a Calmac ferry so it has happy memories for us.

Disembarking at Oban we decided to make for Loch Melfort, the place where we stayed in exactly the same week 36 years ago when the summer was similar to this year. Our two daughters of 3 months and 2 years spent most of the week in a paddling pool. We tried to learn how to windsurf on the loch whilst grandparents held the fort.

We continued the excursion by driving on to Arduaine Gardens on the other side of Loch Melfort. They are one of the National Trust treasures with the gulf stream providing conditions for a vast array of trees and plants and enjoying spectacular views over to Jura and Mull. The journey back to Glasgow was via Loch Fyne where we stopped for an ice cream at Inverary and met an old neighbour. Loch Lomondside was chock-a-block with traffic returning from a grand day in Argyll. After the rain at the weekend, Glasgow was back in its high summer mode with the pavements alive with al fresco drinking.

Leaving Lochaline
Tobermory waterfront
Calgary coffee house
Midsummer crowds on Calgary beach
Calgary beach
Calgary beach cafe
Looking across Loch Na Keal to Ben More
Sound of Mull
Oban waterfront
Our holiday cottage of 1982 on Loch Melfort
Arduaine Gardens, Loch Melfort
Loch Melfort and Mull
Arduaine Gardens
Vital Spark at Inverary

The West Highlander

West Highlander at Fort William
We had vouchers for the steam hauled train to Mallaig and finally, after several attempts, managed to get a reservation on an afternoon trip. The train was full, the happy band of men on the footplate were enjoying themselves and the Black Five locomotive was steamed up and raring to go. There had been 842 of these locomotives built to the design of Sir William A. Stanier for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) between 1934 and 1951. They were the most numerous of all locomotives in the UK. and the workhorse for both passenger and freight duties. Their design heavily influenced the BR commissioned locomotives after nationalisation. 

Leaving Fort William and passing through Corpach the locomotive was barely audible but as we began to climb the familiar beat of the pistons reverberated in the glen and the coaches clapped along. Sticking my head out of the window brought the smell of coal and particles of soot lodged in my hair. At Glenfinnan, there were crowds of spectators on the hillside as we crossed the famous concrete viaduct, Harry Potter has a lot to answer for. The train halted at the station so we could visit the museum, see the workings of the signal box and admire the locomotive. The driver and fireman were in animated conversation with the engineer. The steep incline up the glen to Cross had the locomotive rasping for breath. The spectacular scenery made evident the immense difficulty of constructing the West Highland line through some of the most complex rocky landscapes. The seascapes and tunnels beyond merely confirmed this. The beaches of Arisaig and Morar made us wish that you didn't have to return on the same day but tourism schedules seldom cater for spontaneity.

The only blight on the trip was the attempt by the company to sell cheap Chinese produced souvenirs in the style of Ryanair stewards. The train was filled with tourists from most parts of Europe with the inevitable groups of Americans making more noise and taking up more space than the average traveller. Souvenirs of local produce would be so much more in keeping with the trip but the temptation to obtain high markups on tacky plastic goods always seems to win. Some smoked mackerel would have tempted me.

Mallaig is the end of the line and the port for ferry services to the small isles and Skye as well as to Inverie in Knoydart peninsula. Apart from fresh fish and chips, there isn't a lot to see or do in a couple of hours before the journey back. Fortunately, we shared a table with a young Dutch couple who were on a three week holiday to Scotland. The conversation was non stop as we exchanged ideas and information on the return. We arrived back slightly ahead of schedule and were able to make the Corran ferry before the last sailing and get to our Airbnb in Lochaline.

Why everyone wanted to be an engine driver
BR coaches, so much more comfortable than today's coaches 
Steaming up at Glenfinnan station
Mallaig, catch in
Fisherman's mural

Glenfinnan viaduct

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Boris Johnson RIP

On your bike mate

John Crace has absolutely nailed the posh establishment ex-Mayor of London and ex-Foreign Secretary in tomorrow's newspaper. (see below) Let's hope there are no further resurrections from this vainglorious hypocrite. The acclamation of President Trump should help clinch that outcome.

Boris Johnson's fans wanted a roaring lion. They got a paper tiger

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh, the central Skye ridge

Sgurr na Banachdich in cloud from Glen Brittle campsite

Returning from a week in the Lake District, the Met Office was forecasting a couple of reasonable days on Skye. I was anxious to finish the Skye ridge leaving me with only Tarmachan, a fine but easy mountain, to complete my fifth and final munro round. Whilst there are many munros that I will revisit, there are quite a few that I would gladly give a miss. I am also not sure that I will be up for the Skye ridge in 5 years time, although I have enjoyed the scrambling and climbing on the ridge in recent weeks. I am beginning to think that ropes and equipment would be necessary and that spoils the sense of freedom and overcoming risk in the mountains.

As always John and Keith were both keen to accompany me, Keith was also close to finishing his fifth round, including all the tops, to add to his three Corbett rounds and a Graham round. There can be few people who have walked more in Scotland. We delayed our trip for a day to avoid two rainy days that ended the month-long drought and travelled up on Wednesday afternoon to the Glen Brittle campsite. We arrived after the rains had passed and a warm breeze was keeping the midges at bay. It meant missing the World Cup semi-finals but England were never as good as the media believed and it was no surprise to discover that they had lost.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Ascent:       1327 metres
Distance:    14 kilometres
Time:          10 hours 58 minutes

Sgurr a' Mhadaidh                  918m      3hrs 30mins
Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh                973m      4hrs  49mins
south top                                 968m    
Sgurr Thormaid                       930m      6hrs 31mins
Sgurr nan Banachdich            965m       6hrs 55mins
Sron Bhuidhe                          960m      7hrs 38mins

The Skye ridge is generally seen as four sections, the two munros above Coir Ghrundda in the south; the three summits above Coire Lagan, including the highest Sgurr Alasdair and the Inaccessible Pinnacle; and the three peaks in the north, approached from Sligachan including Sgurr nan Gillean. In the middle are three lesser-known peaks of Sgurr a' Mhadaidh, Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh and Sgurr nan Banachdich. They ridge wriggles between them over gabbro and basalt dykes. There are a couple of tricky scrambles exiting from An Dorus (the window) and between the twin summits of Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh the exposure is quite breathtaking with massive drops into Coire Uisg on the east of the ridge.

We had driven to Skye with the expectation of good visibility after a couple of days of heavy rain, the first for over a month. Sadly the cloud level remained down to 600 metres in the morning so the ascent was less straightforward than on previous visits. We followed the obvious route to Coire An Dorus but then followed a rogue path up the steep cleft leading to Eag Dubh, the black cleft. Having realised our mistake we lost 45 minutes trying to contour round to the north over sloping slabs that were still wet from the previous day. When we eventually reached the Coire An Dorus, progress was quick and the scramble up to the summit of Sgurr a' Mhadaidh provided good sport.

We had some food and drink before making the descent to An Dorus, we scrambled down about 20 metres below the top of the gulley from where we redirected three other parties who had reached the steep face at the top of the gulley and found the climb unnerving. There is a steep pitch leading to the Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh ridge but, with good holds, it provided no real obstacle. Once on the ridge, the scrambling is enjoyable although the sense of exposure was reduced by the lack of visibility. We peered down the deep cleft of Eag Dubh and realised that we would not have made it had we continued. I had been slightly apprehensive about the summit ridge, which is notoriously narrow, a basalt handrail with a narrow ledge for feet below and then the abyss of Coire Uisg. It is not called the 'peak of anxiety' for nothing. We continued to the south peak where we took a long break for the rest of our food. The cloud came and went as we looked down the 130 metres of vicious descent to the bealach.

It was slow going,  Sgurr Thormaid and Sgurr na Banchdich loomed out of the cloud like impossible sentinels. By this time we had become more relaxed scrambling and delighted in 45 minutes of climbing on the grippy gabbro that was shredding our fingers. We climbed over the three teeth without realising it and back climbed down Sgurr Thormaid with our confidence rising. The final climb to Banachdich is up a twisting loose scree path. We had completed the three Skye mountains and we lolled on the summit for a while. A guide arrived with his two charges who were feigning exhaustion.

We continued over the two south tops, one of which is a classified top and therefore an unmissable option for Keith before eventually reaching Bealach Coire na Banachdich. The path descends from here and makes a long loop south before twisting and turning through numerous rock bands to the floor of the Coire. At last the clouds were dissipating from the ridge and we enjoyed some sunshine as we walked out over the peat grasslands, passing the impressive waterfall and down to the Glen Brittle Memorial Hut. The farmers had been cutting and collecting the silage and there was a convention of farm machinery in the fields. We met a farmer and her dogs and were told that the day had gone well and everything had been gathered in.

A breeze sprang up and the evening sunshine provided a warm glow as we reached the campsite. It made the evening meal a midge free relaxing event as we sprawled on the dry grass reflecting on the day's adventure with a sound sleep guaranteed. Never have couscous, a pasta salad, green tea and apple pie tasted so good. At last the fifth round looks like it is in the bag. It will have taken almost ten years, more than twice as long as previous rounds but it has been done at the same time as a nearly completed Corbett round so perhaps there is an excuse other than age.

Starting the ascent to Coire Mhadaidh
Crossing the burn below An Dorus
An Dorus, the window

Descending Sgurr a' Mhadaidh

Eag Dubh

Summit of Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh in the cloud
Summit Blockheads
Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh ridge
On Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh ridge
Sgurr Thormaid and Sgurr na Banchdich

Sleeping pod on the ridge
Sgurr na Banachdich towards south top
Glen Brittle and Canna

Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh from Sgurr na Banachdich south top

Exiting Coire na Banachdich

Waterfall on the Allt Coire na Banachdich