Thursday, 28 April 2011

Cairngorms: Camping in Glen Quoich

Camping amid the remnants of the Caledonian Forest in the Southern Cairngorms
Of the many outdoor blogs that I read Will Gadd's is one of my favourites. He did a post of top tips last year that stuck in my mind. Not because I agreed with it most of them but because I agreed and disagreed in equal measure with one particular tip.

'Camping is vastly over-rated. Most local trips can be done without camping.'

Gadd, like many enthusiasts of the outdoors, is an activity based person. My impression is that the outdoors is primarily an arena in which he can strive for excellence in a variety of activities, each of which he practices to a very high standard. At the other end of the spectrum is someone like Ray Mears. When I heard him speak last year he modestly described his lifelong devotion to bushcraft as an excuse to spend time outside. I have a foot in both camps. For instance, I will admit that it is usually a mistake to attempt to combine camping - or bothying - with climbing, particularly in winter. So often the effort of humphing the huge bag that such a combination trip requires reduces or eliminates the possibility of actually doing any climbing. What you are left with is a camping trip that would have been more enjoyable without the climbing hardware in the bag. On the other hand, camping as an activity in its own right is my favourite way to spend time outdoors. That was the sport for the weekend past, a pure and simple camping trip.

Beinn a'Bhuird from the south
The best camping in Scotland is perhaps to be found in the glens of the southern Cairngorms, accessed from Braemar.  On offer is an unusual combination of upland forest, mighty Scots pines that need the linked arms of a whole family to hug, rivers and flat green grass on which to pitch. I had my first taste of it last year at Derry Lodge in Glen Lui and resolved then to bring the family along. Having found Glen Lui to be patrolled by officious representatives of the National Trust I decided to try nearby Glen Quoich instead.

My first glimpse of the pinewoods of Glen Quoich was on just the type of combination trip that I mentioned as being often unsuccessful above, a cycle and skitouring trip to Beinn a'Bhuird. When Pete proposed the idea to me I had scoffed that there was no snow and that he must be insane to consider such a plan. After some rumination, however, the audacity of the plan took hold of me. The absurdity of biking with ski and overnight kit into one of Scotland's most remote Munros, in the full knowledge that there was no snow, became an irresistible proposition. I mustered my family, at that point consisting only of partner and dog, and departed for Invercauld. After a moonlit cycle we passed the night in a place that shall remain nameless but that will no doubt be known to many readers of this blog. We woke to a fine and still spring day, the distant pinewoods of Glen Quoich looked so tempting, like a tiny oasis of North America lurking on the fringes of the Cairngorms, that the idea of camping there lodged in my brain. Life being what it is it took 5 years to return, my original party enlarged by the addition of a 3 year old daughter.

Evening light on the pinewoods below Beinn a'Bhuird
The glen did not disappoint. After a distinctly moist cycle in, the weather dried up and we passed two very pleasant nights amid the pines. The nearby summit of Beinn a'Bhuird tempted me but I did not give in, this weekend was all about chilling and simply spending time in the outdoors.

Finally, a plug for a new blog that I have found, devoted to this tremendous area of Scotland, Cairngorm Wanderer.

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Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Culra Bothy

Culra bothy with Ben Alder beyond
I've been wanting to get into Culra for quite some time so when a couple of friends announced that they were heading in for the weekend I decided to join them for a night and have a day on the hill. I left home after dinner and arrived about 2130 just as the light was fading. For such a remote location it is incredibly accessible - the 15 km cycle to the bothy from Dalwhinnie took me a mere 1'23''; I took it pretty easy because I had my dog with me and there is a fine line between giving him a good run and animal cruelty. Without a dog I reckon it could be done comfortably in an hour.

The approach down the side of Loch Ericht is a breeze on account of a well-maintained road that provides access to a variety of extravagant gothic buildings. The one closest to the camera is a mere gatehouse; the castle beyond is partially obscured by the trees.
Culra is one of the few bothies that is genuinely useful as a base from which to hillwalk or climb. Consequently it has a reputation for being crowded, despite having three separate sections. I had planned to kip in my new tent in an effort to drive the per night cost below that of a Hilton hotel but a light drizzle dissuaded me from leaving the warmth of the bothy. The bothy was quiet on Friday night, with only our party and a couple of guys camping by the river.

All in all it was a fine weekend and one that has inspired me to pay a few more visits to this part of the Highlands.

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Monday, 11 April 2011

A Lightweight Epiphany in Glen Affric

The one that got away. Mam Sodhail and Carn Eighe from the ridge of Sgurr na Lapaich, 23rd April 2006
It may seem contradictory for one who purports to take a dim view of the pastime of Munro bagging to keep a careful record of his own ascents, but that is exactly the position in which I find myself. This noncommittal approach has led to me skipping some summits where a more dedicated bagger would have pushed on.  I've had it in the back of my mind for some time to return to Glen Affric to nab Carn Eighe, a hill that got away back in 2006. Looking back at the photos I'm not surprised that it escaped. I'd been experimenting with the lightweight, wearing approach shoes and crampons instead of boots. What I hadn't realised was the extent to which the nubuck outers of the approach shoes would wick moisture under my gaiters onto my socks. By the time I reached Carn Eighe's companion summit, Mam Sodhail, I could feel the makings of a blister. I bailed out down the ridge of Sgurr na Lapaich instead of making the return journey to the summit of Carn Eighe.

Campsite in Gleann nam Fiadh
It was fitting that the weekend's return visit marked a further journey into the world of the ultra light. Over the course of the last two years I've been developing a taste for solo trips. This started with a trip into the head of Loch Monar in my pre-blog days. Since I've been blogging I've taken a couple of solo trips, a winter bivvy and a spring trip into Fisherfield last year My only successful previous attempts at the ultra light have been bivvy trips. For camping trips I've always had my packweight boosted by a 2.75 kg two man tent and while it is quite possible to haul the resulting load over the hills it has been something of an exercise in masochism. Climbing hills is just so much easier without a 15 kg sack; one can easily spending several days completing a route that could be done - and enjoyed - in a day by the unencumbered. I enjoy spending time on the country as much as I enjoy climbing hills so have always been able to justify the inherent inefficiency of this approach to myself.

Mam Sodhail and Carn Eighe from the east, 9th April 2011. Much less snow this time.
All that changed last week with the arrival of Terra Nova Solar Competition a one man tent. At 1.15 kg it saves me a full 1.6 kg in tentage, but that is only the tip of the weight saving iceberg. Carrying less tent means that I can strip the lid and backplate from my pack, shedding a further 500 g. The danger with a heavy pack is that it is easy to stick more into it. With a light pack the reverse is true. All in all I ended up with a pack weighing 9.5 kg, under the all important psychological 10 kg barrier. If that sounds a lot it is because in addition to the essentials I was carrying a dog bed (required to prevent dog from moving around the tent), dog food, trekking poles and a heavy Canon G10 camera.

Carn a'Choire Ghairbh reflected in Loch Affric
I left Inverness just after 1800 on Friday night. By 2100 I was 7.5 km from the road in Gleann nam Faidh, relaxing in my tent with a warm drink. Saturday morning dawned fine and I was on the move by 0700. I paused for a brew on the summit of Carn Eighe at 0900 and was back at the car by 1200, having chewed my way through 24.5 km in under 6 hours moving. I arrived home just after 1300, satisfied and ready for an afternoon of family activity and gardening.

To complete the same itinerary as a daytrip by noon would involve leaving home at the unpalatable hour of at 0400 so this approach is actually an efficient means of travel, combining most of the speed of the day hike with all of the pleasures of backpacking. I've seen the light and can see why there are so many blogs devoted to this most satisfying of outdoor pursuits. I'm keen for more of these short fast trips, designed to spend maximum time on the country while minimising time away from family.

I'm in the market for a lightweight dog bed if anyone knows of such a thing??????????

Publish Post

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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Badrallach and Beinn Ghobhlach

Beinn Gobhlach
My first visit to Badrallach was over ten years ago. It was a one night stopover en route to Coigach and Assynt, so we didn't adequately explore the surroundings. On revisiting at the weekend I was extremely impressed, both by the campsite and by its environs. Badrallach is a tiny crofting community occupying a sunny spot the end of an eight mile single track road on the north shore of  Little Loch Broom. It is the access point for an even more isolated but rather larger off-grid community of Scoraig, five miles down a track from the end of the tarmac road. A quick squint at their web page revealed that there are a couple of crofts for sale for those who fancy it. It's certainly not for me; I grew up on an island so isolation and its attendant inconvenience holds no romance for me. I can still remember how liberating and novel I found my first taste of mainland life, being able to simply get in the car and go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted, rather than being a hostage to the weather, to the ferry timetable or to both.

View west from Beinn Ghobhlach to Scoraig and the Summer Isles
View from Beinn Ghobhlach towards the Corbett Sail Mhor and a snow-dusted An Teallach
I've been dabbling in a bit of hill running lately but hadn't taken on any proper hills, no Munros or Corbetts.  At 635 m Beinn Gobhlach is a Graham and on a sunny Sunday morning it made an irresistible objective.

Sail Mhor and Little Loch Broom from Kildonan
Saturday's stroll was more gentle, tailored to 3 year old legs. East of Badrallach is the stony beach and abandoned township of Kildonan. By the shore is a relatively modern building, in the first stages of deriliction, still roofed and with staircase and fireplaces intact, but carpeted in sheep dung and already past the point of no return. I recently read Adam Nicolson's book 'Sea Room', the story of the social and natural history - and prehistory - of the Shaint Isles. Due to their small size and to his tenacious curiosity he was able to piece together a complete history of the human habitation of the islands. As I read his account I realised that with the right eyes, layer upon layer, millennium upon millennium of human history could be deciphered in every little corner of Scotland. Kildonan is such a place; even the layman can see that relatively recently there were few and a short time before that there were many. Now there are no people, the foreshore has been relegated to the status of an outdoor feeding station for cattle and sheep, slurry seeps from the poached soil surrounding the feeder into the pores of  the stony beach. My daughter wanted to have her legs buried in the stones. I refused, explaining that the beach was full of poo. I am not in any way against people using the land to make a living, but it seems absurd that we all subsidise these polluting practises through the EU. Custodianship of the countryside it most certainly is not.

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Renewable energy - could tidal power supply all the UK's electricity?

I seem to spend an increasing amount of time engaged in debates with my work colleagues about renewable energy. Usually we exchange a few half-remembered and unverified 'facts' until two or more clearly contradictory statements emerge, at which point we retreat from the topic, muttering about checking facts and getting  to the bottom of the matter eventually. I have decided that the only way to get reliable information on renewable energy is to do the calculations myself and publish the results on this blog.

Let's start what will be an occasional series of posts with an examination of a statement that I was presented with last week.

'All of the UK's electricity could be supplied by tidal power.'

I would love this to be true, but my informant was unfortunately unable to find a reference to support his original assertion.  What he did supply was this:

'Studies have suggested that one-third of the UK's total electricity needs could be met by tidal power alone, and Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, predicted that the Pentland Firth region, where the north-east Atlantic meets the North Sea, will become the "Saudi Arabia" of marine energy.'

'The Pentland Firth has been described as the greatest untapped source of energy in Scotland, and has the potential to generate vast quantities of tidal, wind and wave power.
It is estimated that around 8 TWh could be generated by tidal power in the Pentland Firth, representing 8% of total UK electricity consumption of 350 TWh.'

So straight away we've gone from tidal being able to supply all of the UK's electricity to being able to supply a third. This got me rubbing my hands together in anticipation of unmasking further exaggeration and misrepresentation. Furthermore, the eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that the quote above isn't even consistent - do they mean that the Pentland Firth could supply 8 TWh or 8 % of 350 TWh? 8 TWh or 28 TWh? 

I find all this talk of TWh difficult to visualise, so I am going to borrow David Mackay's trick of converting into units that are more human in scale, kilowatt hours per person per day (kWh pppd). To provide a bit of context, electricity consumption in UK is around 16 kWh per person per day, a tiny fraction of our total energy consumption of 195 kWh pppd.

So in my more friendly units, 0.4 or 1.3 kWh pppd may be generated from tidal power in the Pentland Firth. I decided to check what David Mackay had estimated. To my surprise he estimated - based on what seem to be reasonable assumptions - the tidal energy potential in the Pentland Firth to be a whopping 3.5 kWh pppd!

Now the kilowatt hour per person per day calculations are all based on the population of the UK (60,000,000), not of Scotland (5,200,000). Substituting the population of Scotland into the calculation changes everything - 1.3 kWh pppd (UK) turns into 15 kWh pppd (Scotland). The Pentland Firth, exploited in line with the predictions above, is sufficient to completely satisfy the electricity demands of Scotland! If Mackay's more optimistic estimate is correct the figure is 40 kWh pppd (Scotland), in other words one tidal site could supply 20 % of Scotland's total energy demands, enough to meet all our current electricity demands and to convert most of our ground transportation to run on clean electric power.

When I started my calculations I expected to find that the benefits of tidal energy had been exaggerated just as much as those of wind. I have found the opposite to be the case. My confidence in Alex Salmond in particular has taken a knock thanks to his handling of the Trump episode and what I regard as excessive support for onshore wind developments, but it appears that he has been well advised about the potential benefits of tidal power. The main message that I am taking from the above is that renewable energy makes much more sense in the context of an independent Scotland than in the context of the UK. 

All in all this might be enough to make me reconsider my decision to spoil my paper in the upcoming Scottish elections.

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