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Weir’s Way?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our series of Autumn walks with the young people from SiMY Community Development, but with winter conditions beginning to dominate on the higher ground, I’m starting to get a little more conservative with our objectives. With the first snows of the season lying on Ben Lomond, I thought it would be fun to take the group somewhere they could see how much has changed on the hill since we travelled to the top a few weeks ago; Conic Hill is the perfect objective for an easy day, with great views from the top, and plenty of scope for adjusting plans if the youngsters found the cold a bit much.

As a bit of an aside, it’s worth pointing out that winter conditions in the mountains have a bigger impact on children than adults; at their stage of development, they have less in reserve physically and mentally to withstand the effects of cold and increased workrate on their bodies, so if you are heading out on the hills with your kids in winter, the gap between what they and you will cope with is significantly wider than it would be in summer. Plan to keep within their happy zone, not yours!

After a mildly embarrassing episode at Balmaha, where I attempted to pay for parking at the electric car recharging station (parking is free by the way), we set off up Conic Hill on a dry but chilly morning. There’s an excellent path which runs along the north side of the hill, although several of the younger members of the group were at pains to point out that the step height on some of the steeper sections wasn’t chosen with 11 year old legs in mind! I was suitably impressed at one point to hear a conversation taking place about “geological fault lines”; someone had clearly done their research about our objective for the day.

As we climbed higher, we were treated to a great view north to Ben Lomond, looking very majestic with a coating of snow; several of the group were surprised to see how dramatically conditions had changed on the mountain, and I suspect a few people reappraised the significance of their achievement in getting to the top, even without the snow. I’d be lying if I denied being happy to hear The Cobbler, which was looking particularly ‘kick ass’ in winter plumage, being discussed in positive terms as a future objective.

The summit of the hill was catching a very slight breeze, which was nevertheless enough to instantly start chilling people down, even with Louise and I doling out every available spare layer we had with us. We stayed just long enough to grab a quick snack, before heading down, but it was enough to make the point about just how cold it can get up a hill in winter, far more effectively than I could back in the centrally heated kit store in Glasgow!

I’d given people the option of extending the trip with a visit to the Cashel Forest project a little further up Loch Lomond; there were mixed feelings about heading out into the cold again, so we went with the compromise option of a relaxed wander round the shortest loop, chatting about some of the trees, mosses and other plants that we encountered along the way.

On our way back, it seemed appropriate to stop off in Balmaha to pay a visit to the Tom Weir memorial statue by the shores of the loch. It occurred to me, as the kids arranged themselves for a group photo with Tom in the midst, that I have no idea whether he liked young people or not, whether he’d be incredibly cheery about being surrounded by teenagers excited about being outdoors, or horrified by their noisy exuberance. I suspect even Tom would struggle to get a word in sideways with this lot at times, but I’d like to think that he’d see in them an echo of another daft 16 year old from north Glasgow who finished one trip to the hills inspired with plans for a hundred other journeys in the future – or maybe he’d just like the ‘toories’

Sneaking out to play in the snow!

It’s been a busy couple of weeks since I last set foot on a hill; lots of indoor climbing, bike maintenance, DofE expedition training and a fair whack of paperwork has kept me out of mischief as well as the mountains. Fortunately, the recent cold snap has coincided with a free day in my diary, so it was off to Ben Lomond on Friday to stretch my legs and see what snow conditions were like higher up on the hill. I also had a few new bits and pieces of kit that I wanted to try out before conditions get really challenging.

I opted for the route up the Ptarmigan Ridge, and there was a pleasant surprise early on in the form of the path improvements which the NTS have been working on – they’ve filled in the deep trench which had formed up the ridge, and left a neat ribbon with the occasional step up. It’s much easier going now and a lot less muddy on the lower stretches.  The snow was beginning to lie from about 650m, but the effect was largely cosmetic until the base of the summit cone at about 800m, when it began to be deep enough to require some thought about safe travel. Ice had formed in one or two places where the snow had melted and refrozen, and I covered the ground with axe in hand – someone travelling slightly ahead of me had opted for crampons as well, particularly on the sections where the path curves towards the steep crags on the north side of the mountain.

The summit was a fairly inhospitable place, with a stiff breeze whipping the loose snow across the barren rock, and I stopped just long enough to get a couple of summit shots before heading back down the main track back towards Rowardennan. Dropping out of the murk that shrouded the summit, I was treated to a dramatic view north west towards Arrochar, with the Cobbler in particular looking suitably dramatic as the  snow picked out the details of its cliffs and craggy skyline.

Coming off the hill at twilight is often a very atmospheric experience, and dropping off Ben Lomond through the evening hush, against the backdrop of Glasgow’s twinkling lights and the faint sounds of traffic on the far side of the loch, there was a tangible sense of having paused, of having time out from the busy rhythms of the city. It was a gentle reminder of how fortunate we are to have this wild place right on the doorstep of Scotland’s largest populated area, and the importance of minimising our impact when we journey here. Since my first visit to Ben Lomond back in the 90s, the National Trust for Scotland have done a lot of work to reverse the erosion that scarred the hill, narrowing and containing the ‘tourist’ path which was gradually spreading out across the plateau. Earlier generations of Glasgwegians valued the opportunity to escape the city and roam in these places and, whatever you think of the Lomond & Trossachs National Park’s current camping restrictions, it’s worth keeping in mind that increased self-restraint on the part of some current visitors would make the issue disappear.

For my own part, it’s an appropriate that this springs to mind now – after I reach the car and bring this moment to an end, I’ll be driving home to grab some food and prepare for the next day’s activities; returning here with a group of young people to climb Conic Hill and explore the surrounding countryside. At nearby Balmaha, I want to connect them to their more recent past; visiting the memorial to Tom Weir, hoping to inspire them, not only with his stravaiging spirit, but also with his love and concern for the land that he travelled through, doing my wee bit to ensure this beautiful place will always have friends and  protectors.

Maybe I need to  get them some bobble hats…

The cycle of life (or maybe just Munro Bagging)

Standing on the platform of Corrour Station watching the train disappear into the distance always gives me a sense of isolation that’s fairly unique in the Scottish context. Most of my hill days begin from the car or, in the case of my recent trips to Knoydart, the warmth of your bed in the hostel at Inverie. In contrast, step off the train at Corrour and you’re miles from the nearest public road, and the next train won’t arrive for another six hours. These days the air of remoteness is enhanced by the closure of the tea room adjacent to the platform, leaving the only regularly inhabited building in the area as the Loch Ossian youth hostel.

On this occasion, the isolation was tempered by the large group of people busy getting themselves ready to head up Beinn na Lap. We were all here to celebrate with my friend Gill who, barring any last minute calamities, would be completing a round of the Munros on the summit in a couple of hours time. Gill, and Janice, who was also here with her family, were on the same Summer Mountain Leader training course as myself a few years back and we try to keep in touch via the odd hill day now and again. Sadly the weather wasn’t really getting into the spirit of the occasion, with the cloud hanging low over Rannoch Moor, and a light rain blowing in on the wind. I’ve gotten a bit used to walking in soft-shell under blue skies of late, and it was a bit of a shock to the system to be back in a Goretex suit for the day.

The upside of starting at Corrour is that you’re beginning the day at 400m, and getting to the top of Beinn na Lap is a fairly straightforward walk, if a bit boggy lower down. After a stiff climb up onto the ridge, it’s an easy walk along the broad, stony ridge to the summit. Thankfully, as we arrived at the top, the cloud lifted for a bit, and we had the benefit of some atmospheric glimpses of the Mamores and Grey Corries, as well as the customary peek at Schiehallion off to the east of us. To help celebrate Gill’s achievement, a couple of folks had brought some grown up fizzy juice to help wash down a suitably rich chocolate cake. To maintain balance in the universe, Janice’s two children; Iona and Kyle, were starting off their Munro-bagging careers, and she’d managed to find time to get t-shirts printed to mark Gill’s completion and their initiation into the strange world of obsessing over lists of peaks. In some respects, putting on a t-shirt was probably a fairly low key way to mark the occasion; we should really have organised someone in a tweed robe with antlers strapped to their head to come and invoke the spirit of Rev AE Robertson while daubing them with some Ptarmigan droppings.

Sadly, the cloud rolled back in, accompanied by a chilly wind that put an end to a very relaxed celebration and lunch stop. We made good time back down the hill and arrived back at the station just as darkness fell,   and quickly took full advantage of the shelter on the platform to huddle away from the wind, which by now had a real bite to it. With two hours to wait for the train back to Tyndrum, the rapidly dropping temperature was a timely reminder that winter is just round the corner, and I found myself wishing that I’d stuck a heavier insulating jacket in my bag as Cat and I squeezed into a corner of the hut in an attempt to get out of the wind.

The train opted to add a bit of drama at the end of the day by being sufficiently late to inspire a bit of speculation about our prospects of spending the night on the platform, aided by a singularly unhelpful Scotrail employee at the other end of the ‘passenger assistance’ button, who insisted that we must have missed the train; quite how he imagined that nearly 20 people on a windswept single platform had collectively overlooked the arrival and departure of said train was beyond our comprehension. Thankfully, Cat’s polite insistence finally persuaded him to check, whereupon it transpire that the train was, in fact, running 30mins late and would be along presently. Shortly afterwards, a reassuring beam of light appeared from the north, and we were soon settled into the cozy warmth of the train heading for Tyndrum and a chance to continue the celebrations for Gill in the Tyndrum Inn.

Over dinner, I had the chance to chat with one of Gill’s friends who lives on Knoydart, and it proved to be a fascinating insight into life after the community buyout, and some of the tensions that still remain for people trying to live and work there. It was a sobering caveat, given my enthusiasm for radical land reform, and a reminder that regulation of ‘how the land is used‘ is as important as ‘who owns it‘ if we are to see both people and place flourish in rural Scotland in the future. Watching The Munro Show this summer was a reminder of how much land access has changed for the better since the early 90s, even if many of the problems relating to mismanagement remain to be tackled effectively. It would be encouraging to think that, if Kyle or Iona find themselves rounding off a day on the hills with a visit to the pub forty years from now, they could be similarly encouraged by the improvements they’ve seen since their first Munro back in 2015.

Off to a flying start…

It’s been back to SiMY duties lately, with a little sequence of three hill walks designed to offer the young people who attend the ‘Micro-Adventure’ group the chance to experience a day out in the hills. We began with a visit to Tinto Hill; a Graham on the south side of Glasgow, then took on a more challenging trip to Ben Lomond, Scotland’s most southerly Munro. With the clocks going back last weekend, the shorter daylight hours meant we opted for Ben Ledi as a more modest final objective to try and avoid the need to be out after dark; walking at night is a lot of fun, but better experienced in more benign conditions to start with.

I’ve been really impressed with the young people who’ve taken part in this series of walks; most of them hadn’t done any serious walking before they set food on Tinto, and several of them found Ben Lomond, and Ben Ledi, a significant challenge physically and mentally. Despite that, each and every offer to call it a day and turn round has been knocked back, and every one of them has made it to the top of the hills they took on. It’s a genuine privilege to watch young people flourish before your eyes as they discover qualities of resilience and determination within themselves that they were previously unaware of.

It’s no great revelation to me that taking young people from the city into Scotland’s wild places helps them thrive and grow; generations of young Glaswegians before them crossed the ‘Khyber Pass’ towards Loch Lomond and trod the same hills, finding a sense of freedom, a space to think and explore new ideas, and a place to forge friendships within which those ideas could be brought to life. By taking these young people out into these same spaces, our hope is that we can help fan into flame the same radical passion for a better, fairer world that burned in the hearts of their predecessors. I’ve recently been reading the biography of one such man; Jock Nimlin, who penned a beautifully concise description of his own hopes for a better world from the context of his own work in the Clydeside shipyards during WWII.

“For me, or for people like me in the future, there will always be the open country. War can’t stop the trees from budding, or birds from singing, or spoil the beauty of a sunrise over Loch Lomond. But all that beauty will be of no use unless there is peace and confidence in the hearts of those who see it.”


All Done and Dusted: Schiehallion

Walking down a hill alongside someone carrying two large red numbers was almost guaranteed to generate some curiosity amongst other hill goers, and sure enough, we encountered some suitably crusty old curmudgeons who, having discovered the reason for Wendy’s big 70 sign, took the time and trouble to remind her that, in the grand scheme of ticking off Scottish hill lists, she’s still taking baby steps. To be honest, I’ve never understood the pleasure some people seem to take in talking down other people’s achievements, especially when they’re so multi-layered as the 70 Munros Challenge has been. While climbing 70 hills was the banner headline which many people focused on, the underlying purpose was to try and raise £70,000 in funding for Christian Aid projects, particularly the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund, and to raise awareness of the work that the organisation does. At the time of writing, the fundraising total has passed it’s target by some margin, and, anecdotally at least, there’s been an awful lot of chat about a whole host of subjects related to the work that Christian Aid does.

What has been particularly interesting has been the way other people have adapted the challenge for themselves; some people taking their own first tentative steps into the mountains, while others have mirrored Wendy’s efforts in completing all 70. For at least two people I know, it’s been the catalyst for finally completing a complete round of all 282 Munros, and we’ve had numerous people who have taken on the individual hills and pushed themselves far beyond what they thought they might be capable of both physically and psychologically. For my own part, the challenge has been less about the physical demands of the hills at a personal level, and more about the challenge of consistently making good judgement calls in the planning and execution of each journey, particularly in the early days when it seemed as if winter had settled on the hills on a permanent basis. It’s one thing to be able to look after yourself in the hills in winter, and another thing to be able to extend your own personal comfort zone to encompass a group and ensure that they are not only objectively safe, but ‘feel’ safe and have an experience that will ultimately be positive, even if feels a bit ‘type 2 fun’ at the time.

The weather has definitely added to the challenge this year, so it was a relief to conclude the 70 Munros Challenge on Schiehallion in calm clear conditions, which encouraged at least some people to linger with Wendy on the summit for about 2 hours,  soaking in the glorious views, picking out hills from earlier days, chatting, reflecting on our travels together and playing with ideas for future journeys. Looking south, we could see the four Munros situated between Schiehallion and Glen Lyon on the North Chesthill estate, the owners of which have a long history of conflict with hillwalkers, and it stimulated an interesting chat about the possibilities for changing patterns of land ownership and use in the upcoming Land Reform Act currently making it’s way through the legislative process at Holyrood.

Eventually, we made our way down the hill for the last time and said our farewells in the car park; a bittersweet moment made easier by the knowledge that there are other journeys planned, more mountains to climb and the small matter of a fast approaching winter season that will soon coat the wild places we’ve trodden with a blanket of snow to mask the evidence of our passing and replenish the challenge of the hills.

Sgurr Dearg: The In Pin

Until this year, I’d pretty much written Skye off as a destination for mountain-based fun; that might be heresy to those visitors upon whom the weather gods have occasionally bestowed the gift of fine weather, but every one of my previous trips to Skye have been spectacular washouts, leaving me with memories of days stuck in a tent watching the mist roll about Sligachan or Glenbrittle, or feeling the tent shaking in the grip of  yet another storm blowing in off the Atlantic, my only solace the knowledge that even Skye’s midges can’t function in a Force 10 gale.

Given we were going to be up in Kintail on successive weekends this September, I allowed myself to be persuaded to give Skye another chance. We’d been up here for two day trips earlier in the year, twice summiting Bla Bheinn in less than optimal conditions, getting my now customary teasing glimpses of the main Cuillin ridge through the swirling cloud. The weather forecast wasn’t very confidence inspiring when I checked it one last time before we set off to meet the group from Christian Aid who were planning to traverse the Five Sisters of Kintail on the Saturday, with a succession of cloudy wet days being predicted for the coming week.

Thankfully, the forecast was beginning to improve by the time the last of our ‘cottage buddies’ arrived on Sunday and, after chatting through various options, we decided to head for Sgurr Dearg on Monday, for a crack at the Inaccessible Pinnacle, notorious amongst Munro baggers as the only Munro that requires rock climbing to reach. For Cat and myself, it was a rare opportunity to get out together on a mountain route, thanks to the willingness of some of our chums to dog sit for the day, and I was hoping that the weather would co-operate and let us do something fun!

Conditions were pretty much perfect on the day; if anything, we could have done with a bit of a cooling breeze as we battered our way up the scree slopes onto the south west ridge of Sgurr Dearg, before making our way along the broken crest of the ridge towards the distinctive fin of the ‘In Pin’. The ridge itself is described as a grade 1/2 scramble in the SMC guidebook, but it’s fairly benign and there’s plenty of scope for choosing easy route options if you so wish. There was a bit of high level cloud beginning to gather as  we arrived at the base of the In Pin itself, and the fresh breeze definitely had a hint of autumn about it as we got sorted out for the climbing portion of the day. Alex was keen to lead and, as we only had a single rope with us, the V Diff option on the west side of the pinnacle seemed the option involving the least faff for a group of 4 people. The eastern option is an easier climb at Mod, but longer and probably not the best option for someone’s first multi-pitch with 3 additional climbers.

There’s a lack of reassuringly positive handholds on the lower section of the Vdiff climb which, coupled with sparse options for placing gear, made it a fairly bold first 6 metres for Alex until he reached a big spike at the halfway point and wedged a chunky big hex in behind it, before heading up to the top of the route. Cat and Sarah went up next, then I tagged along at the back, collecting the hex as I went. It was fairly chilly at the top, and after a couple of quick photos, we sorted ourselves out to abseil back down, a process not helped by the idiot who arrived at the top just as we were leaving, and felt it appropriate to try and hurry the girls along as they got set up to come down. He appeared to have developed selective mutism by the time he arrived at the bottom, ignoring my invitation to discuss his actions, and concentrated instead on continuing to pull his own rope through the abseil ring above, managing to bring the rope down on his own wife’s head in the process…

We took shelter from the breeze on the far side of Sgurr Dearg again, taking a bit of time to pack away climbing kit, grab a snack and let people get over the recent unpleasant encounter, before heading back down towards Glen Brittle. The sun was low in the sky as we made our way down the ridge and we made it back to the car just as the twilight began to fade into darkness. A fantastic day out, and an experience that definitely rehabilitated my attitude to Skye – if only it could survive until Friday!