Saturday, 16 April 2016

Moving On...

The Mountain Goat is moving to Jonathan Miles Photography, click the link below to continue the journey.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Late Winter Lakes

A few photographs from a recent high level walk round Newlands Pass.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Ben Alder Bike Mountaineering

There is an old adage that the more effort you put in to something the more you get out of it,  I must admit that this does not really occur to me as we saddle up and begin the long cycle in to the base of Ben Alder my mind distracted by the weight of ice axes crampons and four season boots jammed in my rucksack and upsetting the bikes centre of balance. It will certainly turn out to be true hours later when we arrive back at the car having traveled almost 45km on a day that does justice to one of the great hills of Scotland.

Ben Alder is a vast mountain; its high plateau remote, aloof, commanding a position in the heart of the Central Highlands.  Far from any road potential suitors must to commit to long approaches from Dhalwhinnie or Corrour just to get to the base of the mountains ridges and faces. In winter the mountain marshals short days and deep snow into its defensive vanguard each kilometre giving additional protection not given away easily, and for one of the finest mountains in Scotland it should always be this way.

It's the middle of February and for Dom and I the only hope of completing an accent in a single day was to make use of mountain bike and cycle as far as Culra bothy (currently closed after an asbestos survey) which is reachable after a trip of some 15km on landcover tracks. Leaving the bikes here we hoped to climb one of the ridges that radiate out from the western edge of the plateau before returning to the bikes by the other. The ridges known as the Long and Short Leachas these are rumoured to give a good grade 1 expedition in winter although few appear to put in the effort to approach.

Under a full cover of snow anything short of a fat bike would probably be defeated but fortunately we have caught the weather at just the right time, a slight thaw has stripped the snow from below about 550m and most of the approach is clear although a hard frost has left the ground well frozen. The landcover track follows the northern shore of the Loch  Etrict closely, the sky is dull grey and overcast and the waters a cold unfriendly blue. To the south the northern ramparts of Creag Dhubh fall steeply into the loch, lonely and steep looking icefalls cascade down the crags so remote I doubt they see one visitor a year.

Loch Pattack from the estate track, the path leads right from this point.

Cycling with heavy packs is not as hard as I expected or perhaps its all those miles on the road bike commuting to work through winter that have desensitised me to the effort. The first seven or eight km beside the loch are relatively level and its not until the track turns north at Ben Alder Lodge  a faux baronial chateau built to service the super rich that the real climbing up to remote Loch Pattack begins. Even this is not too steep and my legs tap out a good tempo as we leave the trees behind and emerge into the open hanging valley which sits above the lodge. 

It is possible to reach the bothy by following the landrover track all the way but where it passes the southern shores of Loch Pattack it is often underwater even in summer and if not a deep ford or wobbly cable bridge must be navigated on the bike. A much better alternative is to take a right down a good path a couple of hundred meters after were the track levels out and the loch first comes into view. This path would be difficult to find under snow but today its firm and disappears easily under the wheels of a bike as Ben Alder and the Leachas ridges slowly come into view.

Just before we reach Culra the path crosses the Allt a' Chaoil-reidhe which is flowing quickly with little sign of ice, a testament to the past few days rising temperatures. Arriving at the bothy its covered in warning signs and beginning to look a bit sorry for itself coverd in warnings not to enter. However tempting the shelter is we take note and hide the bikes and change outside in the wind into our winter gear.

Looking up a very snowy Long Leachas in full white out conditions.

Following the path along the river the snow is generally well packed and the going easy, this changes as soon as we gingerly cross onto the southern side just after the junction with the Allt a' Bhealaich Bheithe. There is no bridge or neat stepping stones and you have to make use of what rocks come your way; slipping over here would certainly not be a good plan.

The ridge itself is lost in the cloud above us but the spur on which is sits is an obvious landmark to aim for. The snow morphs from firm neve blasted hard by the wind upon which the crampons bite greedy to deep powder in which they wallow seeking purchase. It's a pattern which alternates back and forth in a random patchwork across the hillside driven by the subtle differences in the texture of the landscape as it dances with the wind.

Generally its possible to weave the firmer sections together until we find ourselves on the ridge at which point it becomes obvious that the wind has deposited large amounts of powder for us to post hole through. At least the navigation is easy, if you fall off you are not on the route; however the ridge line is generally rounded until it narrows in its upper section with a number of steep rocky steps most buried by snow.

The narrower upper section of the Long Leachas as we timed our arrival at the top with the parting of the clouds.

From the top of the ridge where it meets the shoulder of the mountain its a good 1.5 kilometres and 150m of accent to the summit which would certainly would have been challenging to find if the cloud had not lifted just as we arrived. Marching south before swinging to the south east we are careful not to stray too close to the eastern face of the mountain which falls almost sheer for 300m and must be heavily corniced. 

A chill wind continues to push the clouds out the way giving flashes of blue sky and sending sunlight dappling across the snow bound plateau. As it clears the landscape offers up  glimpses of neighbouring peaks which drift in and out of view like great ships lost in banks of fog. It takes much longer to reach the summit than expected even though we can see virtually throughout only slowly drawing in such is the scale of  Ben Alder's plateau.   

Looking east toward loch Etrict and our start point almost almost out of view at the head of the Loch.

Losing hight on the Short Leachas with a frozen Loch na Bhealaich Bheithe with the munro of Benn Bheoil behind.

Retracing our steps we reach the top of our decent route the slightly shorter version of the Long Leachas which is helpfully called the Short Leachas just in case you get the two muckstip. We had caught a fleeting glimpse of it on the way up, a perfect alpine esque ridge through a window in the thinning cloud. Now with the clouds lifted it's revealed in its glory as a delicate snow aerate weaving its way down the mountain in a series of delicate cornices.

With a bit of care its a joy to descend, the view in front opens out giving a stunning panorama over a frozen Loch na Bhealaich Bheithe with the munro of Benn Bheoil behind. There is a huge sense of space as if one is decending into a void with the vast eastern face of Ben Alder stretching away to the left and right as you walk down this narrow line of white suspended in the sky. Sunbeams breaking through the clouds catch the gullies, ridges, and faces of the surrounding peaks causing them to glow with transient glory before the door closes and the light moves on. 

Looking back up the corniced ridge of the Short Leachas, certainly the highlight of the trip and great value for the grade in these conditions.

Reasons to return; Ben Alder and its ridges (left) and the equally brilliant Sgor Iuthan (centre) with Geal Charn behind and the rounded Carn Dearg (right)

Having descended from the airy beauty of the ridge its a bit of a shock to be back on the flat with a long snow slog back to the bikes; although gently downhill the miles in soft snow are beginning to tell in the legs and there is another river crossing to deal with to get across the Allt na Bhealaich Bheithe. Following the river for a while we find a crossing point after about fifteen minutes, carefully stepping from rock to rock as the ice cold water tumbles between them.

At the bikes the last of the coffee is drained from the flask before crampons, boots, and axes go back in the bag with the heavy winter waterproofs, to be replaced by lightweight cycling shoes (perhaps not the best choice).  Before leaving its compelling to take one last look at Ben Alder, already three kilometres away it sits majestic as the sun begins to slowly hide below its summit; the eye is also drawn to its neighbour Sgor Iuthan  and an equally fantastic looking ridge with descends from its summit.

Temperatures have risen during the day and the ground has started to thaw so the wheels don't roll as easily as they did this morning but my 29er excels on this type of terrain, fast and smooth particularly when back on the estate road. Even with 40 plus kilometres in the legs I feel full of energy from the satisfaction of the day; a proper alpine experience in the UK and the feeling that we have had to really work for what we achieved. More importantly I feel we did one of the great mountains of Scotland justice. I will certainly return to this remote spot, the challenge of getting here makes the experience all the more rewarding.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Beinn Mheadhoin and Loch Avon

The first few days of my trip north had been characterised by low cloud and drizzle, the peak of Cairn Gorm lost is a blanket of grey cloud and drizzle. I had passed the time with a good ride through the woods of Rothiemurchus and and run between Loch Ericht and Loch Laggan via the remote Loch Pattack my bike making short work of the landcover tracks now carved deep into the hills. 

Today was different, the forecast wasnfor a high pressure system to settle over the northern Cairngorms giving blue skies and an excellent opportunity for a long walk into one of the more remote Munros Beinn Mheadhoin situated south of Loch Avon in the heart of the Cairngorms.

A winter view of Beinn Mheadhoin (left) and Carn Etchachan (centre) taken from the top of Coire nan Lochan

The hill with its distinctive granite tors is easily visible from the top of the Northern Coire but is well guarded from casual suitors by the deep trough containing Loch Avon which to my knowledge must have a good claim as being the most remote large body of water in the UK.

The air was cold and crisp as I left the ski centre carpark but as the sun continued to rise its rays soon provided a warming glow as a worked my way through the clutter that is Coire Cas in summer as various bits of heavy plant dig and scrape their way about the hill in preparation for the coming ski season. Snow cannons sit forlornly beside a maze of picket fences and lifts incongruous agains the heather.

Looking down the gentle slopes of Coire Raibeirt towards Beinn Mheadhoin its tors clearly visible against the skyline.

Having joined the path up to point 1141 on the shoulder of Cairn Gorm I join a faint path which drops down the gentle slopes of Coire Raibeirt picking up a small stream as it goes. Beinn Mheadhoin dominates the view whilst  Loch Avon remains hidden in a deep trough ahead only becoming visible at the last minute as the path drops very steeply downwards out of the hanging core towards the water. Strenuous efforts have been made to build stairs down for much of the route but they are steep and eventually end up in the stream bed, no doubt a nightmare if verbalised in winter!

Towards the bottom I cross the stream and pick up a rough path which leads after much bolder hopping to the head on Loch Avon, its a wild place steep hills and crags on all side with just the narrow opening to the north west containing the loch itself. The Feith Buidhe cascades down from high on the slopes go Ben Macdui and is crossed on stepping stones where it enters the Loch.

I make a short detour to visit the Shelter Stone one of hundreds of huge boulders that have fallen off the encircling crags and now lies across its neighbours creating a sheltered bivvy cave famous in cairngorm mountaineering history. The shelter is one of many dotted throughout the bolder field no doubt welcome places to rest for those who brave these parts in the depths of winter. 

Loch Avon with the slope of Cairn Gorm behind.

 Loch Etchachan

A path climbs steeply to the col between Carn Etchachan and Beinn Mheadhoin, nestled just beyond it is Loch Etchachan the highest large body of water in the UK at over 900m above sea level it looks a lovely place to camp in good weather surrounded by such awesome scenery. Just before the outflow of the loch I turn up the hillside to the northwest and climb steeply onto the summit plateau of Beinn Mheadhoin. The plateau is flat stony with very little vegetation, testament to the difficult year round conditions plant life faces clinging to the poor soil. 

The expanse is dominated by a series of high granite tors the largest and highest of which proves to be the summit and to me almost justifies inclusion alongside the Inn Pin as a Munro needing some climbing skills (but not ropes), certainly there are a couple of moves which would not be out of place on a v. diff

The three summit tors, the highest point being the central tor.

The view from the top is quite spectacular, for 360 degrees hills stretch out around you, its a place to stop and savour the view before heading for home. I spend about half an hour planing about with my camera taking bracketed exposures to try and compensate for the contract in light conditions, all I need to do know is learn how to combine them in photoshop as as yet the results are not ready. Leaving the summit I retrace my steps, its a tough climb back onto the Cairn Gorm plateau but this and the various building works passes as I depend back towards the car park can detract from a great day in the hills.

The view from just shy of the summit back to Loch Etchachan and Loch Avon, the count back to cairn Gorm is the steep gully about a third of the way in from the left.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Ribblehead in Winter

Yorkshire - World class riding on my doorstep

Hopefully the success of the Grand Depart last year and this weekends Tour de Yorkshire have begun to put this great county on the cycling map. Although I will always love the challenge of the great alpine passes, Yorkshire can still deliver stunning rides, leg destroying climbs, in an incredible landscape.

Below are some photos from recent rides.

 Rolling down Kingsdale 

 Dropping in to Dentdale, very steep with inconveniently placed gates!

 The cobbles of Dent

One of the many viaducts on the Settle - Carlisle line

 Pen Y Ghent

 Fleet Moss, the highest road in Yorkshire

 A mountain bike decent towards Ribblehead

Fewston and Swinsty Reservoirs (secret spy base in the background!)

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Stob Ghabhar via the Upper Couloir

Stob Ghabhar and Stob a Choire Odhair are two Munros that form part of the Black Mount west of Rannoach Moor and overlooking Loch Tulla. Climbing Stob Ghabar in winter is made a little bit more interesting two easy couloirs imaginatively (in what must have been a burst of creativity) given the titles "upper" and "lower" with give access to the summit from the north.

The Lower Couloir leaves from just above a small lochain perched high up at the head of the Allt Cchoire Dhearbhadh itself a long slog across the high plateau west of the West Highland Way as it crosses Rannoach Moor.

Looking for some climbing on a dull overcast day we decided to approach from the south parking near Inveroran and walking up the old starkers track that runs up to Corie Toaig and the col between the two Munros. From here its a short traverse round to the lotion and the climbing.

 Overcast skies above Loch Tulla

Corie Toaig

A good track leads most of the way to the col, we cross the snow line at about 500m and are soon enveloped in thick fog which obliterates the horizon and leaves us struggling for reference points as snow and sky blur in to one. The disorientation in these conditions especially on relatively open ground makes route finding difficult and both Dom and I have to work hard to make sure we hit the col at the right point as I display an alarming tendency to let the terrain pull me to far to the east.

From the col there is no sign of the Lochain just a mass of white which we descend into on a baring; pacing out the distance we take great care conscious of the fact that the lochain is probably frozen with a covering of snow - not a good place to blunder out on to!  Finally in the matt light which surrounds us a hint of blue looks to reflect off the snow to our right giving away the position of the water, its barley noticeable in the fog. 

 Where is this couloir?
 Maybe this?

Finding the Lochain was only the start of the difficulties, with viability so poor there is no sign of the couloir or even any real rock bands above us. The 1:25:000 OS map indicates a spur of rock running down to the edge of the water which forms the right hand edge of the funnel of the Lower Couloir, contouring a safe distance from the edge  we traverse round until this band of rock emerges from the mist then turn left and begin to climb steeply. The couloir is wide and its only after a couple of hundred meters that it narrows to the extent we can see both walls giving us the confidence we are on the right track. The terrain is steep of grade 1 but there are a line of foot prints for us to follow making the work easier.

The gully finishes on a steep upper snow field, continuing straight up would eventually lead to the summit but to reach the Upper Couloir we traverse left over steep terrain which were it not for the zero visibility would feel very exposed. The architecture of the mountain is very difficult to pice together in the weather but is clear from this photo on UKC the narrow gully cutting a present shape through the summit buttress.  

The gully itself is excellent, narrow and well packed with good ice, a grade harder than the Lower Couloir with a step of grade II where I wished the rope was not in my rucksack as I climbed it. I captured the short brown trouser moment for posterity below.

The gully finished pretty much on the summit which was being lashed by a bitterly cold wind and not the place to linger without any view to distract the attention. We quickly dropped down the ridgeline to the col grabbed a bite to eat and then traversed on to Stob a Choire Odhair which felt hard on the legs which had already put themselves through a significant amount of accent. On the top I was forced to deploy the emergency Harribo for a sugar filled decent back down to the van.

Stob Ghabhar from Stob a Choire Odhair 

The Black Mount in slightly nicer weather