Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Ben Wyvis Ski Tour

Ben Wyvis from the Culloden Battlefield
Ben Wyvis is prominent in the view northwards from Inverness, but it is nowhere near as close as it looks. Despite being over 30 miles away by road it is still the local Munro for residents of Inverness and one that I have been up on quite a few occasions.  The only time I have been up it on skis was over four years ago, in January 2008.

Motivation for winter sports can be hard to find when it feels like spring, as it did on Sunday morning, when I saw the view of Wyvis above while wandering round the Culloden Battlefield. It looked white, but I knew that the snow was a long way from the road. Conditions were therefore far from ideal for ski touring, but it is entirely possible that this damp squib of a winter is on its way out, meaning that this might be as good as it is going to get. I decided to embark on an afternoon skitour and on returning home I marshalled my equipment and set off.

I spent the entire journey on a motivational knife edge and almost turned back on several occasions, sceptical that there would be sufficient snow to justify the considerable effort involved in accessing it. When I arrived at Garbat the car park was full and the flanks of the hill were almost entirely devoid of snow.  I groaned inwardly at the prospect of having to explain myself and my peculiar choice of equipment to the steady stream of ramblers who were no doubt at present returning from the summit in the mild spring air.

 Less than ideal ski touring conditions on Ben Wyvis

Rather than carry skis up the steep slopes to An Cabhar I continued up the glen. That way if the snow cover was insufficient for a ski descent I would be spared the effort of lugging my skis up the steep path, actually more of a stone stairway in places.  It was a fine afternoon and I was delighted to be out. I have a new pair of ski boots that are a touch on the snug side   so I consoled myself with the thought that at the very least I would be wearing my boots in a bit and making them a bit more comfortable.

View from the Bealach Mor: Little Wyvis on the left and An Cabhar to the right. Still no snow....

Snow at last! This tongue continued to the summit with only a couple of short, heathery interludes.

Just above the bealach, after carrying my skis for about 4 miles, I found a sizable bank of snow. I affixed skins and struck up it,  even then thinking that if it ran out I would at least get a few turns on the way back down. But it didn't run out, rather it provided a semi continuous field of snow all the way to the summit of An Cabhar.  The dog rolled gleefully in the granular spring snow, his arthritis briefly forgotten.

Slightly murky on top, as is so often the case with Ben Wyvis.

The descent was an exhilarating blast on granular spring snow, with over 1000 ft of vertical.  Well worth the effort, in fact had I set out earlier I would definitely have skinned up and had another run. I think that, had I been accompanied by someone else with similar motivation levels, we would have either talked each other out of going in the first place or of continuing once we had started. Self deception can be a very useful skill.

For the record it took me 3 h 40 from car to car, including a picnic stop and would have probably been quicker had I taken the direct route of ascent.

Below are some photos of the slightly better conditions I experienced in January 2008.

Emerging from the woods at Garbat with a fine tour in prospect
Skinning up to the summit

On the summit of Wyvis, low cloud rolling in from the east.

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Saturday, 11 February 2012

Time travel using Google Earth: Kudle Beach

Google Earth image of the beaches of Karnataka, Southern India. Anticlockwise from top left: Gokarna Beach; Kudle Beach; Om Beach
It is tempting to regard travel in terms of physical movement, but when one travels it is through both space and time. One does not merely visit a place, rather one experiences a unique combination of time and place. When I did most of my travelling in the late '90s and early '00s my experience was very different to the accounts that I had read of the golden age of backpacking in the '70s and 80s, a pre-commercial age when travel was real travel and travellers were real travellers, before gap years became the norm, before travel became yet another bland, off-the-shelf transaction, before local people became so inured to backpackers that they stopped seeing them as people to interact with and started to regard them as units to be processed for profit.

I was lucky enough to get a bit of the real deal myself, proper down to earth, sub ten dollar a day, shoestring travel. One of the places that sticks most in my mind is Kudle Beach, to the south of Goa on India's Arabian Sea coast. There was no road, access to the beautiful sweep of wave-lashed sand was on foot over a headland of red laterite rock.  Amid the palms that fringed the beach were a handful of complexes of thatched huts where discerning skinflints could avail themselves of very cheap but extremely basic accommodation.  So basic in fact that there were no toilet facilities, the procedure was to do one's business in an adjacent, sun-scorched field, where a hungry cow came along and ate it up. Yes, you read that correctly. The cow ate the shit, all of it. I spent a happy fortnight there, swimming in the crashing surf in the mornings and evenings when the sun was low, sheltering in the shade of the palms during the baking, pre-monsoon heat, practising Tai Chi and relaxing in my hammock. 

It was there that I wrote 'The Cow-Toilet of Kudle Beach' a hilarious travelogue which is linked on the sidebar of this blog. That piece was lifted directly from my travel journals, which I was keeping assiduously at the time. Recently I took a journal from the shelf and read it for the first time in ten years. I was writing well and prolifically at the time, with the passage of a decade I could tell that I had succeeded in capturing the essence of the place and, more importantly, of the time and of its people. The text brought to life memories that had lain dormant for a decade and restored others that had slipped completely through the mesh of my mind. 

Google Earth images reveal changes to Kudle Beach, 2004 - 2011. I stayed at the Spanish Place, marked in red. In 2002 there was no plumbing and the toilet was a cow. Between 2010 and 2011 a swimming pool appeared.

When I had read those same accounts back in 2002 the memories were still fresh; the account seemed unremarkable, no more than could have been written by any of the backpackers who had stayed on Kudle Beach over the years. The passage of time has made them so much more. As the Google Earth images above show, Kudle Beach has been developed significantly in the last decade; where previously there were only thatched huts there are now large numbers substantial buildings, even swimming pools. My writing from 2002 has now been elevated from generic backpacker ramblings to a poignant portrait of a combination of time and place that  has been swept aside by progress, one that no longer exists outside the pages of my journal.

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