Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Night March to Maol Bhuidhe

There's nothing quite like wandering through wild country by the light of the moon on a winter's night. I find the experience exhilarating and always wonder why I don't indulge myself more frequently.

Maol Bhuidhe is one several bothies that provide refuge for travelers through the great wilderness that lies between the Road to the Isles to the South and the Lochcarron road to the North. The sheer emptiness of this country captured my imagination the first time I saw it on a map, but it wasn't until  last winter that I took my first trip into Maol Bhuidhe using the route marked in blue on the map below. The cycle from Killilan to Iron Lodge was an icy ordeal; the ascent to the bealach between Faochaig and Aonach Bhuidhe on foot was equally tough. The snow was deep and our packs were dreadfully heavy, laden with winter mountaineering equipment in addition to the usual charge of food, beer and coal. We arrived at the bothy at 0300 in such a fatigued state that our climbing equipment remained unused.

We didn't expect to meet another soul that weekend but we were in for a surprise. The Maintenance Officer (MO), a sprightly septuagenarian who thought nothing of walking from his house in Inverness to carry out some work on the roof of the Kearvaig bothy near Cape Wrath, appeared early on Saturday afternoon. He spent much of the day cleaving burnable chunks from a large piece of bogwood using a splitting maul and a hammer. Come evening time he regaled us with stories of his unorthodox lifestyle, which involved spending 150 nights a year in bothies. This was a wonderful revelation to me; that in the 21st century it is still possible to effectively live the life of a vagrant, travelling the length of the country on foot and spending every night in a bothy or doss.

We remembered many of the MO's stories as we sat round the bothy fire on Saturday night. The reason that he was able to devote so much time to the bothying life was because he had no wife.  He told us in his broad Lancastrian accent how his first two wives had deserted him ('fooked off') then went on to tell us about his third wife, who he had really liked. The tale had the makings of a great joke, but ended in tragedy rather than punchline.  The third wife had died after a year and instead of finding another he answered the call of the wild.

View east from Maol Bhuidhe

Detractors of bothies often complain about mice. Such whingers would find no cause for complaint at Maol Bhuidhe. The MO happened upon a couple of adders dozing in the sunshine one day as he walked in from Bendronaig. He scooped them up into his bag and released them in the vicinity of the bothy. He maintained that they have kept the mice at bay ever since.

The MO has made a number of improvements to the bothy in the time it has been under his stewardship, he was justly proud of the wood paneling and the smoke-free fireplace, but his greatest achievement was the installation of a swee. You may not have heard of swees and this is entirely understandable, a quick web search  didn't turn up a single use of the word in this context so I am pleased to be keeping the word alive. A swee is a pot stand on an arm, mounted  on a vertical pipe beside the fire. You place your cooking pot on the swee then swing it over the fire to boil up your water. The MO has been inspired by a swee that he had seen in the Oban bothy and had a heavy duty replica fabricated from angle iron by an Inverness blacksmith. After carting this monstrosity all the way to Maol Bhuidhe he found to his dismay that it wasn't quite the right size and had to carry it all the way back to the smiddy. The second iteration of the swee fitted perfectly and is still in place.


The MO gave us many tips. The one that lodged in my mind was that he always approached the bothy from Attadale (the red route) rather than as we had from Killilan, so when we planned this year's visit we decided to try this route, expecting it to take much less time than the blue route. We got a reasonably early start and made it to Bendronaig in about 2 hours. We left our bikes there and set off just after 2200, fully expecting to arrive at Maol Bhuidhe by midnight. As we approached Loch Calavie an extremely strange noise wafted to our ears, an eerie swooshing noise that defied explanation. It sounded like a jet fighter, the quiet part as the plane approaches, petering out before the louder portion as the plane passes overhead. The overall impression was of some form of monstrous beast, respiring in its lair. It turned out to be coming from the frozen loch, as the burns transported meltwater into the loch it set up stresses in the ice and the noises that had transfixed us were presumably the result of these stresses dissipating through the icepack.

Cloud billows from the flanks of Lurg Mhor over the ice of Loch Calavie, silent in the daylight

Beyond the loch the last 2.5 km to the bothy were on untracked country, hard walking through peat hags and hummocky moraines. Guided by the coires of Aonach Bhuidhe we picked a line and struck off, the frosted grass rusting and sparkling like tinsel beneath our boots.  As the time crept closer to 0200 we grew tired and I could feel my brain slowing down. Several times I was convinced I could see the loch in the distance but it turned out to be a small snowpatch right in front of me. The bothy did not give up easily, the loch and river both putting up a struggle. One of our party suffered a dismaying double immersion in an ice cold chest-deep bog. When we finally arrived at Maol Bhuidhe bothy at 0215 on Saturday morning, after a 6'45'' journey and three hours after my usual bedtime, I was reminded exactly why I don't schedule a moonlit wander every weekend.

A couple of snaps from the road home through Glen Sheil. The Five Sisters of Kintail above and I think Beinn Fhada below.

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Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Fossil hunting in Brora

"The fossil hunter's hammer is like a torch; illuminating the past..."

The line above came originally from an advert and has lain dormant in my imagination for some years. I can't recall which product was being advertised but as I write it occurs to me that I may  have unwittingly fallen under the advertiser's spell and been guided subconsciously towards their products ever since. Can anyone else remember what the advert was for? If it was for lager, tinned fish or bicycles that would explain a lot.

Guided by the excellent ukfossils.co.uk  website I loaded the van with lunch materials, a geologist's hammer and a cold chisel. Our destination was Brora, just over an hour's drive north of Inverness. The plan was to locate blueish rocks on the beach at the mouth of the Brora River and crack them open to reveal the fossils that have lurked within since the Jurassic period, 160 million or so years ago.

At this time of year when the days are short, the wind is biting and everywhere apart from the coast is encased in snow and ice it's hard to find a suitable outdoor activity for the whole family. This was my first dabble in the sport of fossil hunting and I could easily get a taste for it. It's surprisingly exciting to get to work on a pile of stones, to split them open then carefully inspect the fractured surfaces for hidden jewels. I imagine the gambling enthusiast gets a similar similar rush of excitement when playing fruit machines. Below are pictures of the three most impressive finds.

A small shell, about as wide as a penny.

This one is about the size of a cockle

And finally the prize specimen of the day, an ammonite about 4 cm across.

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Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A tale of two visits to Creag Meagaidh

Creag Meagaidh occupies a central position in Scotland both geographically and in terms of mountain sports.  Its cliffs, the view of which unfolds throughout the approach to Coire Ardair like the plot of a good novel, are rivaled in scale only by the likes of Ben Nevis and Ben Lair.  Walking the last few km into the coire is like entering a magical kingdom, like stepping into legend.

The cliffs of Coire Ardair from Lochan a'Choire, April 2006

On my first visit this impression was enhanced by the discovery of a snow dwelling - a tent within a snow wall, - like some kind of wintery Masai boma. We did not engage with the inhabitants, our eyes instead drawn skyward. We'd come to attempt the 1957 Face Route, originally climbed by a team including Chris Bonington and Dougal Haston. The route seemed a sensible choice in the prevailing snow conditions - lots of it and a thought provoking avalanche forecast. The route extends almost to the coire floor, leaving only a short snow slope to negotiate. As we surveyed the face I became uneasy about an apparently unavoidable and heavily loaded snow slope high on the route. My partner, who was more experienced than I, was less concerned. He was confident that we would surmount it somehow and his enthusiasm carried us up to take a soggy, dripping belay at the base of the route. After a bit of exploratory poking we pronounced the route out of condition and the game a bogey. We retreated to the car park with our tails between our legs, lamenting the amount of effort required to participate in our chosen sport.

Sitting in the boot of his estate car was a ski tourer, his tanned face justifiably smug at having successfully executed his day's sporting plans on the ridges while we were groveling our way to failure in the chilly shade of the coire. The wisdom of skiing in preference to climbing under such snow conditions began to dawn on me and the ambition to undertake a ski mountaineering ascent of Creag Meagaidh started to take root in my imagination.

That ambition was realised on Sunday. Rushes of euphoria tingled at my temples as I skinned along the ridge towards the summit plateau under blue skies, a hard-earned natural high that will stay with me forever. Row upon row of snow peaks lay ahead, but my eye was drawn irresistibly to the cliffs of Coire Ardair. I no longer feel the same hunger to test myself on the classic climbs that grace their faces, yet I know that a combination of perfect conditions and a suitably motivated partner could easily see me fall under their spell once again. My pulse quickens at the thought.

View from Carn Liath summit towards Coire Ardair and Coire a'Chriochairean, January 2009. This is the same shot as featured in my previous post, hopefully less grainy this time.

The arctic wastes of the Monadhliath stretched away to my right, a blanket of white broken only by the  vulgar dark green of the conifer plantations that lie to either side of Melgarve bothy and the line of pylons – soon to be super pylons - that march from its doorway over the Corrieyairak Pass towards the Great Glen.

Revisiting a place like Creag Meagaidh provides an opportunity to see clearly the person that I was on my previous visit. The gradual changes that have occurred, almost imperceptibly, over the intervening years are brought into sharp focus by the relative timelessness of the landscape. Such changes are practically invisible from the comfortable vantage point of our day to day routines.Wild places provide the punctuation we need to make sense of our stories. This visit highlighted how my motivations have evolved over the last few years. I wonder what insights my next visit will provide?

Creag Meagaidh has been managed as a National Nature Reserve since it was was purchased by SNH in 1985. I've been mulling over issues of land management, re-wilding and species introduction and will discuss them in next week's post.

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Sunday, 10 January 2010

Creag Meagaidh Skitour: traverse from Aberarder to Moy

What a tremendous sunny Sunday. We tackled one of Scotland's 4 star classic skitours, the traverse of Creag Meagaigh from Aberarder to Moy, taking in the summits of three Munros. We had the route to ourselves,  fresh tracks all the way. The snow on the descents was some of the best I have experienced in Scotland.

This is as good as it gets, the stuff that dreams are made of. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

The day in prospect, viewed from the slopes of Carn Liath. The prominent notch in the centre is the Window, the cliffs of the upper coire of Coire Ardair can be seen to the left of the Window; Coire a'Chriochairean is the right; Creag Meagaidh summit plateau to the far left. The regular approach to Coire Ardair goes up the glen, past birch-covered hummocky moraines.

View from Carn Liath summit towards Coire Ardair and Coire a'Chriochairean. A bitterly cold easterly wind swept a carpet of spindrift across the summit.

Waves of euphoria engulfed me as I skinned along the ridge towards Coire a'Chriochairean.

The high plateau of Creag Meagaidh on the right. We deviated slightly from the guidebook route to avoid suspect slopes in the vicinity of the Window.

Excellent snow on the descent from Creag Meagaidh summit towards the Moy Burn.

This tour could well turn out to be the highlight of the winter. It should certainly be enough to put paid to any feelings of angst at not having capitalised fully on this cold spell. Having said that I do quite fancy climbing some ice........

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Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Electric Pale Ale Acid Test

It's been snowing almost constantly since I took this photo and I'm fast running out of places to put the snow. Everywhere round here is similarly affected and the skiing at Cairngorm is truly excellent. Don't allow yourself to be put off by the weather forecast - we took a chance on a half day yesterday and were amply rewarded; the forecast wind and poor visibility didn't kick in until after the lifts had closed. 

As this is the first post of 2010  I have decided on a beery theme.  Below you will find the results of an Electric Pale Ale Acid Test and an appeal to any more mature readers for their lager taste recollections. This is only my second ale based post - read the first one here.

It is not every day that the pale ale enthusiast is given an opportunity to quaff more than one variety of his chosen beverage on draught in the same pub. I was almost physically excited to find my favourite beer, Caledonian's Deuchar's IPA, rubbing shoulders with two of its peers, Cairngorm's Trade Winds and An Teallach's Crofters, on the bar of Inverness's Castle Tavern.  We were part way through the pale ale showdown that inevitably followed this delightful discovery when I horrified my drinking colleagues by revealing that I wasn't averse to the odd can of Tennents lager.

I surprised myself by mounting a spirited defence of this much maligned brew, quoting the little known fact that Tennents was the first lager beer brewed to be brewed in the UK in 1885 after Hugh Tennent travelled to Germany to learn about their low temperature fermentation techniques. This pedigree surely makes it a cut above other cooking lagers.

Tennents is not by any means the finest lager I have ever drunk but I have a sentimental rather than a taste-based attachment to the stuff. It was the first beer that I ever tasted when my older cousin produced a couple of cans to supplement our new year's cider allowance over 20 years ago. In those days beer was very much a man's drink and was packaged accordingly. On the opposite side of the can from the logo lurked a photo of an 1980s lady, all hairspray and synthetic nightwear.

The burds no longer grace the cans, but the flavour of the bevvy itself is still exactly as I remember it close to a quarter of a century ago. I wonder how much the flavour has changed over the beer's 125 year history? Sadly all those who drank TL is the nineteenth century will be gone by now, but there must be people still alive who can remember how it tasted in the 1920s and 1930s. Are you one of them? If so I'd love to hear your views on the subject.

And the result of the Electric Pale Ale Acid Test? A new favourite beer for me - Cairngorm Brewery's Trade Winds. It's nice to see an independently brewed beer from the Highlands outperforming the mighty Deuchar's.

The Ullapool beer festival page has a good list of Scottish breweries and the ales they produce.

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