Blog posts

Rehabilitation

Every now and again, you endure a day on the hills so unremittingly grim that it colours your perception of the hill you’ve visited for some time afterwards! Cat and I had just such an experience a few years back when we went up Beinn Eunaich and Beinn a Chochuill, where we trudged around the two hills in heavy rain, which turned to sleety snow over the summits, driven into our faces on the outward journey by the wind, and buffeting us around on the way back. My abiding memory of the day was of moisture running down the insides of my jacket and trousers, and it was sufficient to put me off both Event as a waterproof membrane and these two hills, for the foreseeable future.

Given that experience, it’s probably not hard to imagine the sort of inner response that rose up when my mate Richard suggested paying them a visit the other week. A little part of me died at the thought of ‘wasting’ a day in another dreary trudge, but lacking any inspiration for a better suggestion, I agreed while mentally kicking myself for my mouth’s intemperate use of the phrase “aye, why not“!

The weather forecast didn’t make for particularly inspiring reading the night before our trip, and as I sat in the Real Food Cafe waiting for Richard to arrive, I had the feeling that the link sausage roll I was eating for breakfast might turn out to be the highlight of the day. It was something of a pleasant surprise to arrive at the parking spot just beyond Dalmally and spot blue sky; the forecast hadn’t offered much hope of anything beyond the cloud clearing the summits, but there was enough of a break for the sun to catch the white slopes of the ‘Dalmally Horseshoe’ and give it a distinctly alpine aura as it rose up to our left.

It’s a relatively long haul up to the summit of Beinn a Chochuill, with the steep pathless climb up the SE ridge made trickier underfoot by a coating of wet snow. The wind was fairly bracing when we popped out onto the main ridge, with little swirls of spindrift adding to the atmosphere as we made our way onto the summit.

The views were pretty spectacular, with swirls of cloud making Ben Cruachan seem even more imposing than usual. Cruachan always seems like the forgotten giant of the southern highlands; it’s complex network of ridges and summits gives options for multiple days out, especially in winter, yet it rarely gets a mention in comparison to the likes of Ben Lawers. There was enough ‘bite’ in the wind to chase us off the top however, and we made steady time back down the ridge, across the saddle and up the ascent to Beinn Eunaich. I’d not noticed in my previous visit here, but the top of Beinn Eunaich is no place for mucking up navigation in poor visibility; there’s an abrupt drop about 5 metres beyond the summit cairn which would probably be masked by a cornice later in winter, so definitely one where precision is required!

Another quick stop for a snack and some pictures and we started to drop down the curving south ridge as the sun dropped low on the horizon. Behind us, a wall of dark cloud hinted that the forecast snowfall wasn’t far away, and encouraged us to keep up a brisk pace until we reached the point where the path drops steeply back down to the glen and the final couple of kilometres back along the farm tracks to the cars, with the reputation of this pair of hills firmly rehabilitated as a venue for future days out.

Ptarmigan Travels

Regular viewers of our Facebook page or Instagram account will be aware that, despite appearances on the blog, we haven’t been sleeping for the last year, and have in fact being doing the odd bit of work here and there! When I kicked off 360 Degrees Outdoors, I saw it primarily as a means to provide support for the work we were doing at SiMY Community Development and, as that work has developed, keeping up the blog on here has taken a bit of a back seat. However, I do enjoy writing stuff other than reports, funding applications and process documents, so you’ll be delighted to know that I’m going to try and elbow some ‘blog space’ into the cramped confines of my diary.

Last weekend provided me with some perfect fodder for a post, as we took a group of the young adults from SiMY out to play in the snow on Meall Nan Tarmachan. They’re all regulars on our summer hill days, so the arrival of snow on the Scottish hills gave us an excellent opportunity to extend their experience and help them begin the process of developing the skills needed for independent travel in the mountains in winter.

We arrived at the Ben Lawers Nature Reserve car park to be greeted by the slightly underwhelming sight of a snow line that was a good bit higher than we’d anticipated, and left us with a brisk hike up to around 850m before we got our boots on snow. Small patches of wind slab had formed over the previous evening, which gave us the chance to stop and chat about ‘safe travel’; how the wind speed and direction shape how the snow lies on the hills and how that should guide our route finding. We were just below the summit itself when we finally found a shallow gully with sufficient snow to get the ice axes off the bags, stick a helmet on and start to work on movement skills. We left ice axe arrests for another day, (with more suitable snow) and concentrated instead on how careful footwork and axe placement can minimise the risk of slips and trips and allow safe movement. Little pockets of soft slab gave the opportunity to introduce ‘self belaying’ to stop a slip becoming a slide, and offered a little experience of how to use boots to improve footholds in variable snow conditions. At the top of the gully, a layer of refrozen snow provided scope to introduce step cutting, but a stiff wind across the main ridge encouraged us to move on to keep warm. Just short of the summit cairn, the discovery of another patch of soft snow led to the young people introducing me to a winter skill that seemed to have been omitted from the Winter ML curriculum; making snow angels.

Conditions on the summit were not conducive to hanging around, and we moved on as soon as we’d taken the obligatory summit selfie. With good visibility and benign snow conditions, I was happy for Cat to reverse our outward route with two of the group, and I continued along the ridge with two of the girls who were keen to visit the pointy summit of Meall Garbh. We made it there in good time, encouraged along by the wind which whipped spindrift across us as we negotiated the icy path.

Making our way down the south ridge, we could see Cat’s group crossing the grassy slopes on the other side of the corrie, and it wasn’t too long before we reached the land rover track that contours round the south side of the Tarmachan ridge and made our way back to the car park with the setting sun adding an atmospheric backdrop to the final leg of our journey.

It’s always tricky to anticipate how people will respond to the experience of Scotland’s hills in winter, but as we arrived back in Townhead, one of the girls left me in no doubt of how she felt: “the best day I’ve ever had in the mountains!”

 

Kids need Nature…

Today saw us returning to Pinkston for another session on the water. We had a different coach this week, but Phil carried on where Fraser had left off last week, delivering another another positive, fun experience for the young people.

Watersports isn’t my forte, so my role for this session is really just organiser, driver, photographer and general dogsbody. However, it gives me a great opportunity to observe the young people I’m usually more directly involved with, and it’s not hard to spot the development in the young people over the last few weeks, seeing confidence, resilience and self-belief grow alongside flourishing technical skills in the various  activities they’ve been involved in. Today, I was looking a young people who were nervous about getting on the water three weeks ago, now standing in their canoes laughing as Phil worked on their balance with a rendition of ‘hands, shoulders, knees and toes’. Other, perhaps more subtle, differences are emerging as well; at the start of the summer I challenged them about the tone of disparaging competitiveness in the group and today I noted how much support and encouragement was being offered to people who were struggling, or still a bit unsure. For sure, the ‘snark’ is still strong in the bus there and back, but there are clear signs of a different way of relating to other emerging that can be nurtured along in the coming weeks, months and years.

A professional acquaintance of many years observed recently that it had been a bold move for me to switch careers at fifty years of age. I was a bit taken aback by the suggestion that what I was doing now represented any kind of move away from the nurturing of young people through informal educational activities that’s been my consuming passion for the last thirty years. In my own thinking, there’s a clear and coherent journey that I’ve been on to explore that central question of “how best to live”, with my professional interest in education slowly converging with my personal love of the outdoors. The catalyst for their final merging was my reading of Richard Louv’s ‘The Last Child in the Woods’, which pushed me towards a more thorough exploration of why residentials in remote settings were always the most effective aspect of our work with young people from urban Glasgow. The widely held perception that getting into nature is good for us has a long history, but it’s been fascinating to discover that modern science is confirming the value of time spent in natural settings for both our physical and mental health. A Japanese university has even researched the optimum density of trees in a forest that gives the most benefit; unsurprisingly, naturally occurring woodland has a far more beneficial impact than densely packed plantation forestry. More recently, I’ve been reading about the Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv and reflecting on whether some aspects of this worldview might translate to Scotland in some meaningful way. I’ll write more on this as I dare, but for the moment, I’ll leave you with this inspiring short film I came across recently…

 

Wet and Wild!

I’ve had a busy summer so far, providing a range of outdoor activities and micro-adventures on behalf of SiMY Community Development. One component of the programme that I’ve been particularly looking forward to was the overnight trip to the Cairngorms with some of the young adults who participate in our regular hill walking group.

We’ve been pretty lucky with the weather so far this summer, with only one day at the start of the holidays where ‘rain stopped play’, but the last couple of days more than made up for that!  A comparison of the Met Office and MWIS offered us the option of somewhere between 30 and 50mph winds, in the latter case with gusts of up to 70mph on day one, followed by a drop in the windspeed as a band of rain moved across the region on day two.

After much deliberation with Graham, the other ML on the trip, we decided to stick with plan A; setting off from the Cairngorm ski centre and heading for Ben Macdui via the gradually ascending path on the ridge which forms the western side of Coire an Lochain. From there, the plan was to drop to the Hutchison Memorial Hut and camp there for the evening. From there we’d drop down to the Loch Avon basin to vist the Shelter Stone, before heading up Coire Raibert and the option of heading down past ‘1141’, or heading up and over the summit of Cairngorm and descending via Windy Ridge.

The wind was strong enough to rock the van around as we parked up, giving and early sign that were facing winds at the upper end of the forecast range. We were already considering a range of alternative options, but decided to take a walk out towards Coire an Lochain to see what conditions were like over that way. That plan lasted all of 200 metres from the car park before a particularly strong gust of wind skittled us off the path. We decided to alter the plan and reverse the route, limiting the amount of time we needed to be on the plateau by walking into Coire an t-Sneachda and heading up the Goat Track instead. When we arrived at the entrance to the coire, I could see the clouds being ripped over the rim of the coire above the Goat Track, and it was fairly obvious that heading up would be a high risk strategy. We took shelter behind a rocky outcrop and grabbed a snack, while we came up with an alternative; we’d head over to Glenmore past the Green Lochain, then give people the option to climb Meall a Buachaille before camping at Ryvoan bothy for the night.

The day worked out pretty well in the end; the young people had time to take in the tranquil beauty of  An Lochain Uaine, before a few of us dropped our bags at Ryvoan and enjoyed an unencumbered stroll up Meall a Buachaille. We then spent an interesting evening chatting with an eclectic mix of folks at Ryvoan, including a young German girl who’d been hiking round Scotland since she left school in April, and a group of French students who had hitchhiked and worked their way up to Scotland. There was also an older chap who was on an extended cycling holiday, and a young couple who returning south from a quick trip up to Skye, so all in all, an interesting range of experiences for our group to hear about.

Thursday offered another vague outlook, with the rain and low cloud forecast to clear sometime from lunchtime onwards. We decided to have another go at Ben Macdui, but walking up the path towards point 1141 in a mix of drizzly rain and low cloud wasn’t that inspiring, As we climbed, one of the young people began to struggle; she had landed badly on her ankle when we were skittled by the wind the previous day, and although it hadn’t caused her any discomfort on the relatively flat walking to and from Ryvoan, it was clearly causing her a fair bit of discomfort now. Time for another review of the plan, which resulted in me heading back down with our casualty for a treatment regime of ‘foot up, ice pack, ibruprofen and hot chocolate’, while Graham led the rest of the group towards the more modest objective of the summit of Cairngorm and a return via ‘Windy Ridge’.

I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed that we couldn’t deliver the Cairngorms experience I’d hoped to give the young people, but that was tempered by their positive responses when we debriefed over a brew in the ski centre cafe. They were reassuringly unconcerned about being wet and tired and definitely up for a return trip to collect the views they’d earned this time round. Time for me to dry some kit and get going with the planning then…

 

Walking off the Turkey on the Ptarmigan

The combination of festive overindulgence and the murky weather we often get at Christmas don’t tend to offer much in the way of motivation to get out onto the hills, but thankfully, this year, I had the benefit of Laura, Catriona and Jeanne wanting to take advantage of a decent forecast for the 1st of January to stretch the legs and clear the head after a week of festive overindulgence.

None of us were that keen on a long drive, so we opted to head for Ben Lomond and a trip up the Ptarmigan Ridge. It’s my favourite route up the hill, particularly when there’s a bit of snow, as the upper slopes take on a much more rugged appearance, and with a decent build up, there’s quite a bit of fun to be had on the final summit cone. Sadly, on this occasion, we arrived on the wrong side of the freeze/thaw cycle, with all the snow that had been present a few days previously now washed off the hill and back down to Loch Lomond. On the upside however, the sun was shining and, aside from a fairly bracing wind at the summit, it was a perfect day for being out and about.

We opted for the Ptarmigan ridge route up; nearly always my preference, as it’s usually far quieter than the main path and there’s a bit more of a rugged feel to it. Turns out it wasn’t quite so quiet this time round; a large group of around 20 people had set off just ahead of us, making for some interesting overtaking manoeuvres on the narrow steep path!

I’d been up here about the same time last year with the same group of folks and the difference in conditions was dramatic; last year the final section of the ridge had been covered in hard snow, giving it a lovely ‘alpine’ feel, whereas this year, it was a straightforward plod up the bare stone path.

Despite the lack of winter conditions, the view from Ben Lomond’s summit on a clear day like this is always rewarding; looking north, your eye is caught by the dramatic shape of the Cobbler, then on towards the wide sweep of hills around Crianlarich, from Ben Lui over towards Ben More and Stob Binnean, and beyond them, distant peaks in the haze stirring memories and awakening half-formed plans for days to come.

Heading back down the main path brings another set of visual treats, particularly at sunset on a clear day like this, with just enough cloud on the western horizon to catch the fading light and contrast it with the deepening shadows on the still waters of Loch Lomond below. Soaking in the view to the south over the ground which the John Muir trail now traverses, it was easy to see what keeps drawing generations of Glaswegians out here to escape the city and take his advice to “break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” Arriving back at the car with distant lights twinkling in the darkness, I’m pretty sure we felt more ‘spruced up’ than most in the aftermath of Hogmanay.

North Glen Shiel Ridge

We spent this weekend up in Glen Shiel, getting back to work on slowly paring away at the list of Munros I haven’t visited yet. I’m still a bit ambivalent about the whole ‘bagging’ thing, but there’s no doubt that the discipline of working through a list of hilltops pushes to you visit corners of Scotland that might otherwise be overlooked in the rush to the obvious honeypots. I’ve been over the 5 Sisters a couple of times now, but for some reason, have never turned right at the top of the ridge to cross the 3 Munros at the ‘Brothers’ end of the ridge. We’d discussed various options in the preceding week, including the Mullardoch 12, but with three dodgy knees between us at the moment, we eventually settled on an option that gave us more options for cutting things short if anyone’s joints started giving cause for concern.

The weekend didn’t quite go according to plan from the outset; we were 10 minutes out of the house and heading for Strathblane when my phone rang. Cat answered it, and relayed the message that we had a call out for someone who’d got themselves into a fankle over by Loch Lomond. As we were going to be driving past anyway, it seemed rude not to go and help out, but by the time we got free from that, we were running a bit late to make the Co-op in Balloch and had to rely on the local supermarket in Drymen for some supplies for the weekend.

We’d opted to take the van for the weekend, but Cat can’t drive that yet, so I had a long wearisome shift behind the wheel before we arrived at Loch Cluanie and found ourselves somewhere to park up for the night. Despite Cat giving the dogs a bonus walk while I was off doing my MRT thing earlier, they were still pretty frisky as we tried to get off to sleep, and we’d had a short, intermittent sleep when my alarm went off at 6.30am the following morning.

IMG_0799 - Version 2We dropped off ‘Rat Bike’ at the Cluanie Inn carpark; the drawback to this route was that I’d be cycling 7km along Glen Shiel to collect the car at the end of the day. ‘Rat Bike’ is a scabby looking old singlespeed made up from my parts bin that is perfect for getting left in situations like this, as the initial appearance of its rusty pink frame with a variety of touch ups in different shades is grim enough to make it unappealing to the passing bike thief, and it was cheap enough to throw together that it wouldn’t be a disaster if it did get stolen. More importantly, I can lock it up somewhere and not spend the day worrying about whether it’s safe.

IMG_0751We parked up below the Bealach an Lapan and, inspired by the gathering cloud of midges, got kitted up and moving up the hill as quickly as we could. The climb up to the ridge is unrelentingly steep, but has the advantage of letting you cover the 500metres of height pretty quickly and, after a quick pause to stick on another layer and try out the chocolate orange Digestives we’d found in the shop, we carried on up the easier angled slopes to the summit of Saileag, our first Munro of the day, arriving there about 90mins after we’d set off.

IMG_0750I was pretty pleased with the pace we were setting and, more importantly, that after just a couple of weeks of stretching and strengthening at the physio, my knees felt much more stable and stronger than they had for a while. We carried on along the ridge towards the next summit of Sgurr a Bhealaich Dheirg, making quick progress along the slightly narrowing ridge and sizing it up for potential winter fun factor. The summit cairn involves a slight detour off the main ridge over some very easy bouldery terrain, and we paused at the top for some food, noting that there was a distinct autumnal quality to the temperature that encouraged us both to stick on another layer and some gloves while we sat.

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The most easterly ‘Brother’ is Aonach Mheadhoin, about a kilometre and a half further on, with around 200m of height to lose and regain. Cat was beginning to feel a little discomfort in her knee on the descent, but it eased as we climbed up to the windswept summit cairn and carried on to the final top of Sgurr an Fhuarail which offered more prospect of a bit of shelter from the chilly breeze. We arrived there just before 1.00pm which came as a pleasant surprise to both of us given neither of us felt that we’d been pushing particularly hard.

Given how early it was, it seemed a reasonable decision to carry on an head for Ciste Dhubh, even though it means dropping to Bealach a Choinich at 600m, then climbing 400m again up the long draggy 2km ridge to the top. In the event, it turned out to be a bit over-ambitious on Cat’s knee in particular, and by the time we made our way back down to the bealach from the summit, she was in a fair bit of pain and facing the prospect of a 4km walk back to the Cluanie Inn along a fairly rough, wet path.

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The midges were waiting for us back at the road, making the most of the time it took me to unlock the bike, stick the front wheel back in and set off back to the car while Cat took refuge with the dogs in the pub. The first three kilometres are just sufficiently uphill to let you feel it in the quads at the end of a long day, before the road mercifully turns downhill and lets you freewheel the rest of the way to the van and the return journey up the glen to join Cat in the pub for some food, a review of how broken our respective knees were, and some ‘joined up’ thinking about aspiration v’s ability for Sunday – the tourist thing at Glenfinnan it is then!

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