12 photos from an overnight visit to four Munros in the Ullapool area, a pilgrimage to the Northwest for the first snows of the season, and my first camp since Spain, well over a month before. What I appreciated most of all was the silence and solitude, which save for the chatter of an occasional Ptarmigan, reigned complete. A bath of cold silence, enveloping, renewing, an implacable space to empty my own chattery head.
My friend Mick and I are just back from the Sierra Nevada. Not the Ansel Adams one, the other one… the one the Californian range was named after. The idea was to traverse the range east to west before turning south, crossing as many of the 3000m peaks (of which there are about 30, plus another dozen or so subsidiaries) as possible. We managed most but not all of the 30.
Both of us have been visiting this part of the world for about a decade - on and off - Mick more than I - and it has personal, political and cultural significance for us both, but this was mostly new and chewy ground. These are still fairly untamed mountains; intermittent paths, no signage and plenty of wildlife, much of which is endemic to the range. The Spanish Sierra Nevada are the highest mountains in western Europe outside the Alps, but are much less busy and burdened with far less infrastructure.
Here’s a few throwaway snaps. Not the best pictures of the trip - to be honest, they’re some of the worst… but they already have some kind of emotional resonance for me. This is the material you don’t get from the big commercial operators (yadayada). An actual journey, yo. 7 days only, but at times in some challenging weather and some intense terrain. It’s a place where the lines between backpacking and mountaineering can get all fuzzy if you choose the right (or wrong?) line. A traverse of the Sierra Nevada is compact but sustained.
Richard Hartley (that guide I mentioned - who has literally written the book on the area) and I are thinking of running a week’s guided photography trip in late Spring, 2019.
We’ll steer clear of the more severe scrambles and the weather should be much more stable. A Spanish High Sierra photo tour has the advantage of being off the beaten track and can be run affordably. The group size will be no more than five. I’ll share more on it once we’ve finalised the details, but if you are interested, please get in touch by email.
A few photos from a 24 hour trip from my door, by bike into the next glen for an outlying Munro and a Corbett. I'm still ticking, not religiously, but out of the corner of my eye.
The last time I was up at the head of Tromie and Giack estates, it was grouse shooting territory and felt very bleak. Both estates have since been purchased by Anders Polvsen's Wild Land limited, and it'll be interesting to see what happens next. Coming in from Ruthven, there's plenty of birch, pine, rowan and juniper lining the river. I'm hoping for those natives to spread up the hillsides, which are still bare and barren aside from the old tracks for sport shooting. There's masses of potential here, though... and fossilised tree roots in the peat until about 620m.
Polvsen is open to criticism from land reformers - he is the second largest landowner in Scotland after the Duke of Buccleuch, after all - but I'd quietly suggest a little more caution and a fraction less partisanship on that front. Until the SNP top brass get off the fence, people like Polvsen are allies, not enemies in a regenerating Highlands. To those who reckon it's all a tax dodge, note he pays taxes on all his holdings in Denmark... but not here. If you'd (quite rightly, in my own view) like those taxes to be spent in Scotland, then look to Westminster first, and Hollyrood second, and join Green MSP's like Andy Wightman in advocating for a land tax. That would start to break up the estates as well.
For me, these are the hills of home now. I'm no longer a tourist. As I type this, a few of the shinty boys are repairing the roof about a foot from my head. That's money in the community, where it's needed.
The simplicity of a cycle to camp and a walk o'er the tops was much needed. Family life has been pretty tough in the last year; illness, death, plus the sleep deprivation that comes with two youngsters in the house. I shed a few tears of grief and relief on the rolling hills far above the village. Hills of home - not just places of escape, but spaces to take stock.
I have a feature in the September 2018 issue of The Great Outdoors, about a journey I haven't really mentioned here, so this is as good a time as any to share a few extra photos. Here's a fancypants quote from near the surprise end to whet your appetite...
We floated in space, among the multi-coloured galaxies of a NASA photograph. The airless vacuum beneath our boats was so dense with life that we moved without splashing, pulling our way gently though this universe of water and timing our paddle strokes to avoid contact.
Richard, David and I set off from Beasdale, paddled Lochs Morar and Nevis and finished in Inverie. It was a WET trip and there was plenty of squelchy walking and camping. The route choice was a little arbitrary and planned on the hoof to accommodate the weather, but in retrospect it's a pretty classic 3 or 4 day paddling route. Using the postie path along Loch Morar, and the crossing point at Tarbet (literally, gaelic for portage) is exactly how some of our forebears would have cut about the place... just with less expensive toys. Our train back was a local diesel, but if you timed it right, you could even return by steam train and keep the old skool atmosphere going right to the end.
Looking through these, I'm feeling all nostalgic for a wet bum and the shivers again. Now that normal Scottish summertime has resumed, a reprise is overdue.
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