Friday, 30 July 2010

Cairngorm Caper Part 3

Bit rushed this one as I'm off to France in  two hours.

Tuesday (seek and ye shall find)

Last day, and i've planned a big one. Going to head in to do the Munros Ben Avon and Beinn a Bhuird and at the same time satisfy my curiosity about the fabelled Secret Howff which is roumoured to lurk nesteled away in these parts. The Howff must be the best kept secret in outdoor circles, one that has held for over fifty years. Info is hard to find, a reference here even the odd picture but never too much deatail. I can't let such a secret elude my I must find it.

By far the best way to start todays route is by bike, the track up Glen Slugain is good and distance and hight can be gained quickley. A landrover track winds through the Caledonian Pine forests of the Invercauld Estate then into a open valley gradually climbing towards the ruins of Slugain Lodge. Once past the lodge the track shrinks to winding footpath contouring round a huge open valley.

Then disaster in a poorly judged bunnyhop of a drainage ditch I land heavily hear a pop and a hiss will bbubble appearing around the rim of my front tyre. Bugger; pinch puncture, and guess what; no spare as I used it yesterday. Gutting, miles of amazing track lie infront of me not to mention the decent back town the track I will now have to push the bike down. No rewardfor all that effort. Arghhhhh!!!!!!!

So on I plod on food the path is weel construced and leads gradually up to a coll at 980m from which it is a short pull onto the smmit of Ben Avon. The top is covered with some amazing granite tor's including one which forms the summit. There are good views right into the heart of the Cairngorms. It's a really pecefull place not a soul in sight and just birdsone to keep me company.

I drop back down to the coll then pull up the other site onto the vast plateau of Beinn a Bhuird. The summit is a pile of stones barley noticable as a highpoint and would take a bit of finging in bad weather. I do feel a bit uneasy out on the vast plateau even though the visibility is good.  Not exposed in a climbing sence but more lost in a vastness, never felt that in the uk before.

So the Howff? Yes I found it, quite easily actually a wonderfully constructed shelter hidden away from prying eyes. Now however, I feel bound by the traditions of the last fifty years, and must sware myself to secrecy about its whareabouts.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Cairngorm Caper Part 2

Monday: Echos of the past.

The bike has been nagging me, sat there in the boot ready to devour the trails that litter the hills round here. Today I’ve given in and am going to cycle along Glen Tilt following the ancient drove road toward Blair Atholl. The idea is to get as far as the watershed where the Rivers Dee and River Tilt spring from the top of the pass a round trip of about 25 km.

The drive down to the Lin of Dee is enchanting with the river winding it's way sinuously across the flat valley floor. A thread of silver surrounded by green meadowland and forests of Caledonian Pine, nestled between the barren hills heather clad hills that rise steeply either side.
Looking towards the Lin of Dee
Putting the bike together in the forest the air is still; like a miasma they appear, flitting and hovering, tiny yet infuriating, the bane of the Highlands, the midge. Now extinction is a bad thing but I think in the case of the midge an exception can be made. The bike goes together in double quick time and off we go.

The riding is easy, starting on rolling estate tracks, solid and well made allowing me to move along at a good pace. A couple of fords add to the excitement but in the low water of summer most of them are ride-able if you hit them with enough speed. I notice the weather changing. Sheets of rain are advancing down the valley, grey curtains drawing a vale over the panorama. I meet them; drizzle at first then becoming heavier, but I’m wrapped up inside my Paramo which is perfect for this sort of weather remaining warm no mater how wet I get.

I approach Bryank Lodge gaunt and ruined within its copse of trees; I always find my mind wondering when I come across these places, thinking of what it may have been like in past days when the windows glowed with a warm fire as hunting parties or estate workers truly lived in the wilderness. The trail I am following has resounded to the footfall of thousands of feet over the centuries a natural pathway through a landscape that for centuries made travel a difficult task.
The ruins of Bryank Lodge
The Landrover track begins to feel less traveled, with grass creeping in to the tread marks then slowly begins to climb before finally fading out entirely to become a winding trail of single track. Most of it is ride-able with just the odd boulder field to avoid. Then the track fades out almost entirely as I approach the watershed and the source of the River Dee. The summit itself is a little boggy but the worst of it is easily avoided Just past the watershed the hills close in and the westward flowing River Tilt runs in a narrow defile with the trail winding its way high on the north bank. Taking this as the midpoint I turn for home and quickly lose height.

It’s much easier to ride down these sections of single track using momentum to overcome boulders and ruts than climb them. Soon back on the Landrover track, picking up speed when suddenly SHIT; wheels sliding too fast on loose wet rocks I try to correct but its too late and I’m off, sliding along the ground right leg trapped between my inverted front wheel and the bike frame.

After grinding to a halt I gingerly test all my extremities; my right leg hurts but once I’ve freed it from the bike I find I can put weight on it and thankfully all I will have to show for my carelessness it a big purple bruise. Taking a bit more care I jump back on the bike and continue. The rain has turned the track to a stream and huge cartwheels of spray poor off my tyres mostly it appears into my face. It doesn't matter; although short the ride has opened my eyes to the possibilities of these ancient rights of way and I'm excited by the prospect of some long distance touring in the years to come.

The River Tilt

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Wind, Sand and Stars

I've been reading "Wind, Sand and Stars" by Antioine de Saint-Exupery a pilot in the very early days or aeroplanes. His prose is amazing, beautifully descriptive and thoughtful on the adventure of life.

This passage particularly effected me. I am terrified of the clay hardening, one should always be open to new ideas and changing oneself.

"Old bureaucrat, my companion here present, no man ever opened an escape route for you, and you are not to blame. You built peace for yourself by blocking up every chink of light, as termites do. You rolled yourself into a ball of bourgeois security, your routines, the stifling rituals of your provincial existence, you built your humble rampart against the winds and tides and stars. You have no wish to ponder great questions, you had enough trouble suppressing awareness of your human condition. You do not dwell on a wandering planet, you ask yourself no unanswerable questions. No man ever grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay that formed you has dried and hardened, and no man could now awaken in you the dormant musician, the poet or the astronomer who perhaps once dwelt within you."

I love the vivid description in his prose, here's a storm whilst flying over the ocean:

"Waterspouts stood in apparently motionless ranks like pillars of a temple. On their swollen capitals rested the dark and lowering arch of the storm, but blades of light sliced down through cracks in the arch, and between the pillars the full moon gleamed on the cold stone tiles of the sea. And Mermoz made his way through those empty ruins, banking for hours from one channel of light to another, circling round those giant pillars with the sea surely surging up inside them, following those flows of moonlight toward the exit from the temple."
Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Cairngorm Caper Part 1

Saturday: A change of scene.
I get to Glen Shee in six hours from Leeds; its three in the afternoon so don't feel like setting off on a big one. Fortunately The Cairnwell is probably the easiest Munro in the book as you can drive to about 670m on the A93. Those last 300 m are brutal though, straight up the steep mountain side to a rather tatty summit covered in a load of communication equipment and electricity cables. The buildings are strapped down against the wind that barrels through here in stormy weather.

Standing with you back to this however the views down Glenn Shee towards lowland Scotland are quite impressive. From The Cairnwell I traverse round onto Carn a Gheodih before retracing my steps onto Munro three Carn Adosa which has been horribly scared by the Glenn Shee Ski Centre. The fences, lifts, and land-rover tracks are unsightly, ugly, and completely out of place in summer and the wind makes bizarre and spooky noises in the metalwork.

Thinking about it I don't think I have a problem with sacrificing a few hills to the ski industry and I wasn't complaining last winter carving down the runs. The ski center is now providing mountain bike uplift in summer with the chairlift adapted to whisk you and your wheels to 900m before you race back down to the valley in a blaze of gravel and smoking brakes.

Feeling like a cheap night I wild camp the night beside the river in Glen Clunnie.

Sunday: In praise of patience.

Taking advantage of the A93 uplift I drive to the ski centre. Horrible weather this morning, strong gusts of wind, cloud-base down at about 600m and heavy rain. The forecast suggests things may improve later but as I sit in the car whilst the rain pours and the wind howls things don't look promising. I argue with myself about going out, visibility is about 30m and although navigation will be an exciting challenge I don't really have the motivation. My main reason for walking is to enjoy the views from the mountain and experiencing an interaction with the landscape. Walking in poor visibility or a white-out is just ticking off hill with no real enjoyment you may as well go to the gym.

A few chapters of my book and plenty of tea later the cloud begins to lift, the odd ray of sunlight brakes through and flits across the car park. I leave the cocoon of the car being and head off up Glas Maol taking advantage of the ski center access roads (hypocrite!). There is a huge amount of life about the sides of the mountain are covers in small flowering plants and on many an occasion a scare a clutch of birds or a hare from the undergrowth. Apparently this is due to the geology of the mountains which are primarily composed of limestone which allows for a much richer soil to accumulate than on the barren granite hills of the main Cairngorms
Dropping off the rounded dome of the summit leads to a broad ridge which then climbs swiftly up onto the summit of Munro number two for the day Creag Leacach. By now it is almost a really nice day with great view in all directions. Content and rested but feeling the need for more tea I make my way back from the car a good day salvaged from a very poor start.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Looking Back To Look Forward

Why am I already getting excited about next winter?? I love winter climbing, it excites me more than anything else. I've been reminiscing about some of the amazing days out I had this winter and thought it would be good to get them written up.

February, Borrowdale, Lakes:

Great End looking particularly snowy, it had thawed a bit by the time we arrived, Central Gully is the obvious feature, Window is invisible from this angle.
Psyched for some winter fun were myself, Wicks, and John; we were joined by Gareth, and Steve for their first experience of climbing the white stuff. The idea was to head up to Great End which is a really reliable and hence popular winter venue, and do the classic line of Central Gully. So the tried and tested routine: pack night before, argue over gear, ditch some to save weight, change mind, repack, repeat, sharpen tools and crampons, alarm obscenely early, coffee, food, shoulder heavy bag full or rope and metal, begin the walk-in. The path up Grains Gill gets the blood going, rocks and steps covered in verglass, promising for conditions above but treacherous down here. Great End comes into view her buttresses black but Central and South East gullies shining white and silver in the morning sun.
Me leading the icefall in Central Gully
Tools out and crampons on we solo up the bottom section of Central towards the Amphitheater, it's very banked out with snow and none of the small ice steps are really showing, but the neve is quite good and not too stepped out from the countless hoards who will have passed this way. From the amphitheater the left icefall finish is just shouting out to be climbed. John and I have an argument about who is going to bag the lead. In the end we agree I will lead it then untie allowing John to pull the ropes and lead it on pre placed screws.
The pitch is about twenty meters of nice grade III and the first bit of proper steep stuff I have climbed for almost a year. It goes well no great dramas and my tools behave themselves although I still lace it with gear. I love to feeling when your on good ice and neve, the thwack of the axe in a good placement, the balancing on a few mm of your front points, the slow subtle changes of balance. John leads it no problem and Steve gets up without weighting the rope but admits he is not quite as psyched for wintering as he was this morning. Wicks and Gareth then send the pitch on the second rope.

The lower pitches of Window Gully
We drop down Cust's Gully which is completely banked out and an easy Grade I, Steve heads down to the hut whilst the rest of us charge across to the base of Window Gully for a cheeky end of day solo (I love the fact that Gareth has gone from no winter experience to soloing Grade II/III in one day). I had climbed Window before whilst still at Uni although it had been rapidly melting at the time (video here. Please forgive the dodgy French accents we had just got back from a trip to France and thought it very funny). Window was really fat this time lots of good solid ice in the lower gully which we romp up enjoying the freedom of being off the rope. The upper section of the gully is a little harder but the steep section is very short and goes easily once I've grown some.

Upper icefalls in Window Gully

Then it's Cust's again and a glissade down the snow covered scree slopes below the cliffs. Suddenly there's a huge crack and from high above a loud shout of BELOW! I turn and look spotting a block tumbling and spinning left to right across the face. I cold hand clutches my heart; FUCK that's huge! It must have been the size of a small car. It lands at the foot of Cust's where we've just been and shatters into pieces with an almighty crash changing direction funneling directly down the shallow show filled depression that we are glissading down. I turn and run for the bank to get out of the fall line shouting to the others. Once up I see that seven or eight blocks the size of TVs are spinning down toward John who has not heard "JOHN GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE GULLY". He hears me and turns to see the boulders bouncing towards him; no time left to move he just has to watch them and hope they miss him. I turn away. They miss. That was not fun.
Low down in Window
We don't linger on it. Back down to the valley for lots of tea the stories of our escape being suitably embellished with every step. It was the size of a house I tell you.
Thanks to Scott Muir who took the majority of the pictures in this Blog as he followed us up Window. You can visit his Blog here.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Dreaming the Impossible

I've just watched Concorde's Last Flight on Channel 4 and it's left me feeling sad, the world is a much poorer place without her. One of mankind's most beautiful creations, graceful, an inanimate object with a personality.
It's rare that something can be technologically brilliant yet also a work of art. Concorde was a combination of style, beauty, technology and awesome power that was truly a work of human creativity to rival any Picasso painting or Beethoven symphony.

Concorde like the Apollo Programme of the same era also represent a more optimistic time when designers, and engineers set themselves impossible challenges then reached them. The initial brief for Concord envisaged a plane twice as fast as anything in existence at a time when aircraft were still regularly falling apart as they attempted to brake the sound barrier. We knew virtually nothing about building, powering and controlling supersonic aircraft but we decided to try anyway.

Today our airliners are just big fat buses that lumber around the world, designers concentrate on pure functionality targets like quietness, and fuel efficiency. These are laudable goals and the aircraft of today are marvels of technology but they are not beautiful or inspiring in the way Concorde was.
Yes Concorde was obscenely loud and her afterburners consumed the contents of the average family car petrol tank in two seconds, but when she roared down the runway and into the air people not usually interested in aviation would stop stare and smile. Flying on Concorde was an event, flying today is a chore.
We need to dream the impossible again.