Thursday, 31 May 2012

Skiing, Social Capital and Scottish Independence

The mogulled delights of the Grand Couloir in Courchevel

Late March in the French ski resort of Courchevel. We shared a gondola with a group of well-heeled English women. They were discussing their offspring, one of whom had a job interview that day.

"How did Timmy get on at his interview?"

The proud mother responded. "He's got his second interview with Deloitte Consulting today. He's giving a presentation this time."

"What's the topic?"

"It's on opportunities to profit from the Arab Spring."

"Did you help him with the presentation?"

"You know Timmy, he likes to do his own thing." She laughed then paused. "Luckily we have a family friend who looks after North Africa for (insert name of major bank) so he was able to use him as a bit of a sounding board."

I thought how nice this was for little Timmy. The family friend would no doubt have access to the latest thinking of highly paid consultants on the very topic of his presentation. Imagine the advantage this inside information would give little Timmy in the interview process. Perhaps he would be competing against other candidates from less privileged backgrounds who had had to do their own research and come up with their own ideas. They wouldn't stand a chance.

My mind shot forward twenty years. I visualised Little Timmy as a fully fledged Tory, clad in blazer, Oxford shirt and slacks, asserting arrogantly that he had worked bloody hard to earn his money and didn't see why he should be paying taxes to support lazy scroungers. Why couldn't they learn to stand on their own two feet, as he had done?

This is the concept of social capital in action, the mechanism that explains why the moneyed elite are so successful at ensuring that their offspring get the best jobs in the most lucrative professions, why social mobility is so difficult to achieve and why inequality in our society deepens with every generation. When I was young and naive enough to believe that I lived in a meritocratic, classless country, this may have angered me. Nowadays I regard it as an inevitable part of human society. After all, who wouldn't use their network of friends and professional contacts to help advance their children's careers if the opportunity arose?

Social capital is nothing new. I recently read the abstract of a paper, the authors of which had analysed the bones and teeth of skeletons found in high status neolithic burial sites. They found high levels of strontium in the teeth of the high status skeletons, indicating that as children they had dined on food produced in loess, the best, most productive soil. The authors used this observation to support their thesis that inherited wealth dated back to the very dawn of agriculture, a prime example of using science to support the bleeding obvious. Privileged children grow up into privileged adults. That is why rags to riches stories belong in fairy stories, they are very much the exception.

On a recent episode of Question Time or some other late night discussion programme the musician and social commentator Billy Bragg presented the argument that there was something amiss when so many of our leaders come from such similar backgrounds, public (for any foreign readers this means private) school then Oxford or Cambridge. A lady representing the Labour party challenged him. Surely he wasn't proposing that our leaders should be poorly educated? In any case, she continued, an increasing proportion of the Oxbridge intake now comes from comprehensive schools. To his great credit Bragg quickly clarified his point. It doesn't matter if anyone with the right grades can, in principle, get into Oxbridge. It remains a deeply unhealthy situation that, no matter which political party one votes for, one can be pretty sure that the resulting leaders will be drawn from the same small and deeply unrepresentative pond, and that once in power they will legislate for the benefit of their pond mates rather than in the best interests of the country. In what sense can democracy be said to be working if an overprivileged clique are consistently over-represented at the highest levels of government?

This is why I am disillusioned with Westminster politics, with Old Etonian millionaires pedalling the myth of meritocracy while brazenly hammering the poorest in society and using the proceeds to award tax cuts to the super-rich. The fiasco of the referendum on the Alternative Vote shows that the Westminster system is unlikely to change for the better any time soon. 

I will vote 'Yes' to Scottish independence when I get the chance, not because of any sentimental Braveheart-based reasons, but because I am sure that an independent Scotland, whose voting system already nods in the direction of proportional representation, will elect a representative, progressive government that will be more effective at reducing inequality in our society than any Westminster government, regardless of colour, will ever be. At the very least it might try. 


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

A scorching day on the South Glen Shiel Ridge

The old Road to the Isles, looking towards Cluanie
Last Friday provided a rare combination of fabulous weather and the opportunity for a spot of hillwalking. We decided on the South Glen Shiel Ridge, originally hoping to knock off the full seven Munros. However a later than intended start, a drive that took longer than my hopelessly optimistic prediction and a desire to return home at a reasonable hour to my extremely pregnant wife made a shorter day seem the more sensible option, so we contented ourselves with the eastern section of the ridge.

I left the van near the high point of the glen and cycled back to the Cluanie Inn where Paul and Tam the dog were sheltering in the shade of a tree. There are more direct routes to the ridge, but I was keen to follow the aesthetic line of the Old Road to the Isles, having been intrigued by its snaking path over the hills on previous visits to the glen. When Loch Loyne was dammed as part of a hydroelectric scheme part of the road and its impressive arch bridge disappeared beneath the waters. In times of drought the bridge emerges from its watery grave and the old road may be followed once again. 

View east along the ridge with the snowcapped peaks of the Cairngorms just visible in the centre
The weather was extremely hot, probably well into the 20s even on the tops. At first conditions were hazy, permitting only views of the adjacent peaks  but they cleared progressively as the day wore on, with grand views east as far as the snowcapped Cairngorms, incongruous in the harsh May sunshine. I could have enjoyed the last day of lift-served snowsports the following day had the urge taken me but it seemed more appropriate to head instead to the beach for a bracing dip in the sea.

Red deer hinds cool themselves on a snowpatch

Ridge leading to the summit of Aonach air Chrith (Ridge of Trembling) the scramble over was entertaining enough but no trembling was done
I took an enjoyable detour from the ridge to the airy subsidiary top to the north of Aonach air Chrith which proved to be sporting enough to quicken the pulse, the descent of the step prior to the top requiring the negotiation of either greasy chimney or airy crest. 

Sgurr a'Mhaoriach and Loch Quoich with the mighty Sgurr na Ciche on the right 
There is an intriguing track between the ridge and the Loch Quoich peaks of Sgurr a'Mhaoriach and Spidean Mealach which may could perhaps be used as part of a good mountain bike route, perhaps linking with the old Road to the Isles to make a circuit that includes a crossing of the Atlantan Bridge of Loch Loyne. The idea has certainly taken hold so I am sure that I will be back on the bike at some point to prospect it further.

During our lingering breaks on the summits I re-acquainted myself with the contours of the surrounding peaks, reigniting memories of past trips: a winter bivvy on Sgurr a'Mhaoriach to the south, a torchless benightment on Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan to the north and plenty more that preceed or haven't made it onto this blog. 

Too hot a day for dogs
As it turned out I don't think the dog would have been capable of completing the full ridge in that heat so it was just as well we opted for the shorter day. Quite apart from anything else it leaves me with a great excuse to return to a spectacular area that never disappoints.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Cairngorms: Overnight ski mountaineering trip

Coire an t-Sneachda

The fickle nature of Scottish winter conditions has been beautifully illustrated by this season. It got off to a promising start, but a thaw over Christmas took its toll and despite some further snowfall it all ground to a halt at the end of February, the earliest end to a season since lift-served snowsports began 50 years ago. I gave up and went skiing in France at the end of March. When I returned I waxed my skis and put them in the loft. That did the trick. The snows returned in late April, and they kept coming, allowing deep snow cover to build up over the Cairngorms. People always express surprise at April snowstorms, but they are are in fact a normal and reasonably predictable part of our weather, so much so that they have long been known in agricultural circles as 'lambing storms' for their propensity to appear, inconveniently, at the same time as the year's delicate crop of lambs.

What was unusual about this year's lambing storms is that they culminated in a week or near-constant snow over the tops before giving way to a weekend of sunshine. What's more this was not just any weekend, it was a weekend that had been reserved, months in advance, for outdoor sport. I had hoped that it might be spent be camping by a crag, climbing sun-kissed rock by day and drinking round the campfire by night, but this was not to be.

There could only be one choice of activity given the conditions, an overnight ski mountaineering trip taking in the big four tops of the Northern Cairngorms, Cairngorm itself, Ben Macdui, Carn Toul and Braeriach. I had first embarked on this route six years ago, almost to the day, when I'd only been skiing for a year. On that occasion  we decided to truncate our round by overnighting in the Garbh Coire Howff and accessing the Braeriach plateau via Garbh Coire Mor, missing out Carn Toul and Angel's Peak. Part of this decision had been driven by a reluctance to spend the night in the Corrour bothy, at the time notorious for overcrowding, mice and for being located in an area festooned with human excrement. All has changed since then, the bothy is now a cosy wee place, wood-lined with a stove and sleeping platform bunks. In order to address the jobby issue a composting toilet has been installed in a wooden outhouse. 

Pete, Stu and Colin on the steep section at the top of Allt Clach nan Taillear. Avalanche debris to the left.

After a couple of runs on the horrifically crowded piste we struck off from Cairngorm summit at at around 1300 hrs, bound for Ben Macdui. Reliable snow cover makes the jaunt to Macdui and back by far the most popular ski tour in Scotland, but it is most certainly not one of the best. The terrain is too flat, and flat terrain is the least enjoyable for touring on alpine kit. In truth lighter weight nordic gear is a far better choice for this particular tour, obviating the need to repeatedly affix and remove climbing skins. While such lightweight kit is advisable for the skier whose ambition is to bimble on the plateau, it is not the best choice for ski mountaineers seeking what the admittedly rather dated SMC guidebook describes as 'one of the finest and most challenging ski-runs in the Scottish mountains', the descent of the Tailor's burn (properly Allt Clach nan Tailler, the burn of the Tailor's Stone). My previous descent six years ago was a trying and exhausting one, the snow was heavy and the visibility was poor. This year it was revelatory, a pleasant glide on beautiful snow with the sun on our faces. I have been concentrating on improving my skiing this season and it had paid off, I'm now capable of enjoying skiing black with a pack.

Corrour Bothy and the Devil's Point

A light pack is critical for touring, but the activity itself requires so much equipment; shovel, avalanche probe and transceiver, skins and harscheisen, that I was unable to get the starting weight of my pack below 11.25 kg, including all overnight kit, food, camera and half a litre of water. Our packs were lighter back in 2006 because we didn't have any avalanche safety equipment, not that the spring conditions required them. This year, after a week of snow, it would have been rash to leave the safety gear in the car. In truth I am dubious of the benefits of transceivers in Scotland, having heard neither of anyone being saved due to having one nor of anyone perishing through the lack of one. For this trip I left crampons at home, unwilling to carry a kilo of ironmongery that wood almost certainly remain in my bag, reasoning that I could cut steps with an ice axe should I find myself on steep, icy, unskiable ground. I am glad that I didn't have to cut any steps and am now very tempted by lightweight crampons, the best of which are under 300 g. But perversely, investing in lightweight crampons would increase rather than decrease the weight of my pack, for I would actually carry them rather than leaving them at home.

The ice axes did come in handy at Corrour, where we found, to our surprise, a substantial log, over 2 m long and about 15 cm diameter. A previous visitor must have carried it in, hoping to find an axe or saw in the bothy with which to process it into stove sized lengths. We spent a at least an hour and possibly more taking turns at hacking away at the log, covering the surroundings in wood chips as if a group of beavers had picniced outside the bothy. There were three other residents who were, I think, rather bemused by the this prolonged bout of frenzied hacking. They seemed glad enough of the resulting fire though.

I was delighted to get a chance to inspect the famous Corrour toilet, an ingenious contraption that has two seats side by side. I didn't actually use the facilities, a surprising omission that I attribute to too consuming much oatmeal and not enough beer. At first it appears to have been designed with tandem crapping in mind. However on closer inspection it became clear that only one was in use. I recall reading somewhere that the toleys fall into a sack. Only once the sack is full and the hatch battened down to allow the composting process to take hold does the second seat come into play.

The day in prospect from the summit of the Devil's Point
The distant Southern Cairngorms, Carn a'Mhaim, Angel's Peak and Lochan Uaine from near the summit of Braeriach

It was wonderfully exhilarating to start another blue sky day out in the heart of the wilds of the Cairngorms.  I was outside with my porridge waiting for the sun's warmth to sweep down the flanks of the Devil's Point towards the bothy. I was the only member of the party who had any enthusiasm for starting the day with an ascent of the Devil's Point and so I strapped my skis to my pack and set off half an hour ahead of the rest of the party, ascending from the boreal spring into Scotland's island of Arctic tundra, the Cairngorm plateau. From the summit the day's sport was laid out before me; the peaks of Carn Toul, Angel's Peak and Braeriach are well defined and each provides a worthwhile ski run from its summit. The snow level was 700 m, reaching down to the high point of the Lairig Ghru. The transition between deep skiable snow and heather was a sharp one. The relatively high snowline accentuated the contrast between high and low ground, the col connecting Carn a'Mhaim and Macdui was highlighted beautifully. The distant peaks peaks of the northwest stood proud against the foreground of a practically snowless Monadhliath. The northerly Munros, Ben Mor Assynt  and Ben Klibreck,  were clearly visible, a full 80 miles to the North, as was the full length of the Caithness coast. Also clearly highlighted was the path of the Dee, the glen of which separates the northern and southern Cairngorms. 
Content after two runs of fresh tracks down Coire Gorm on the the best snow of the year
Approaching the teetering torture of the Chalamain Gap
There was a price to be paid for the wonderful descents from Sron na Lairig into Coire Gorm (it was so good we skinned up for another run), the walk out. We managed to ski to the lip of the Lairig Ghru but thereafter had to strap our skis to our packs, grit our teeth and dig deep for the descent into the gorge below, then the ascent to the torturous bouldery bed of the Chalamain Gap, a glacial meltwater channel carved in times past by vast volumes of melt water released by the Strathspey Glacier. We teetered our way through on empty legs to a soundtrack of plastic and buckles grating on granite.

Every single step required conscious effort. I constantly fought the urge to take off my pack and lie down on the ground during the toe mashing march below the Northern Coires to the Sugar Bowl car park where my van, comfortable shoes and orange and mango juice awaited. Above us the piste bashers groomed the slopes of the ski area ready for another day's skiing. The prospect was not appealing, it seemed more fitting to end the season with this unsurpassable phoenix of a trip.

Labels: , , , ,


This Page

has moved to a new address:

Sorry for the inconvenienceā€¦

Redirection provided by Blogger to WordPress Migration Service