An Alpine Easter

Four days off in a row for my girlfriend meant a trip, off to the Cairngorms for cross country skiing.  Phil Turner was free and kept us company, so we were driven up in style in a luxurious Mazda bongo.  By Monday the forest glowed in warm spring sunshine, and even on Friday there was no snow for amateurs to hire kit to practice on groomed trails.  Elsewhere, winter reigned, so we changed our plans.

The campsite at Coylumbridge is superb, but still well below freezing overnight.  Got us off to a gentle start before the day hike to Bynack More the following day.

The last time we tried for this, we were turned around with our tail firmly between our legs, but today 'conditions were favourable' and it's a worthwhile, interesting ridge, especially under snow.  An easy round over Bynack Beag and dropping back to the Nethy via a steeper section that meant we donned crampons once more.  As an outlier, views from the top were superb.

The next day, and we met with Paul and Helen from Walk Highlands at Choire Cas, and headed for the the second highest peak in the UK, Ben Macdui. 

This was only our second time on the plateau, and our first time to this summit, so there was alot of new ground.  A vast, frozen expanse.  No man's land, under matte.  The wind is deadly cold up here.

I learnt alot on this trip, and it's cumulative with other trips this season.  Pack weight - more annoyingly, bulk - has crept up again with proper winter mats and especially camera gear - it needs a proper audit.  Keeping my optics clean (or rather workably filthy) is more of a discipline in severe cold - with a snotty nose rubbing against the screen, condensation, fine snow and ice to contend with, I am glad the new machine is weather sealed. 

Needed this time were snowstakes, softshell not hardshell, and to pack less food, that was easier to prepare.  Gas is touch and go at these temperatures unless the canister is full.  We carried wood for a fire we didn't use, and a floorless shelter that meant ice and spindrift covered us in our sleep.  Sun cream should have been taken, and we all needed to drink more - alot more.  I still have the residual mentality of a 3 season backpacker, which is not always practical in Scotland even in those same seasons - but I'm learning, and learning is good.  Meanwhile the plateau was majestic, its fat powdery ice crystals slooshing under our crampon points. 

Naturally there was talk about the deaths on the hill this winter, and naturally there is extra caution around potential avalanche areas.  Not one soul I know in the hill-going community takes this lightly, it is being considered - and in truth, we never stopped.  As others have said, it's important to keep this in perspective - the personal tragedies are horrible, regrettable, but small in number, compared with the size of the places we go out into.  If there's one lesson to take from all the media noise in the last few months, it's that nothing should be assumed: not our experience, nor our fellow mountain traveler's ignorance.  And most of all, not the mountain.  We know, and that's why we go.

Paul and Helen left us at the summit and turned for home, we continued on for camp.  Although this was only an overnighter, it felt like a real expedition.  The ease of access from the Choire Cas car park puts an interesting slant on the safety question, given how serious the weather can be here.   A minor navigational wobble for both Phil and I near the surveyor's ruin off the summit.  We both got it wrong - food for thought, but no harm done.

Both Loch Etchachan and Loch A'an (Avon) were frozen solid.  Easterlies mean deep snow on the descent to our camp, still over 700ms, but the snow was consolidated and not dangerous.

We cast around for a windless camp, but where the wind subsides, the snow is looser and prone to drifting.  We set up, and I cooked whilst T nursed a new cough from her sleeping bag, and Phil ate his own weight in mashed potato.  Night falls, and the wind rises.

I hope they never reach this place with webcams and safety nets and mobile reception.  Some places should be left well alone, convenient or not. 

I spent first part of the evening with one eye open, staring at the pole bowing under alot of silnylon catching a little of what the Cairngorms can offer up, a sort of Shackleton first person video game.  'There's always the Shelter Stone', I said to T after returning from guyline adjustment for the second time.  Eventually I gave up, got tired and got some sleep. 

The morning brought calm, and warm sun.  We crossed over the loch, and ascended toward Cairn Gorm itself, frigid air scorching our lungs.  In the sun, thinner snow turned to mush on the easterly slopes, and we opted for straighter lines over the zigzags of earlier.  A truly alpine experience, blessed again - damn!  It felt like another country. 

Building Pingu Palace

Last weekend was full of firsts.  First time building an igloo (exciting and exhausting).  First time on a proper timelapse project (exciting and educational).  First time snowshoeing around the Abernethy Forest (pin drop quiet and stunningly beautiful).  Real boys and girls own adventure stuff.

A big thanks especially to Paul and Helen from Walkhighlands for looking after us on Friday night, Chris Townsend for being igloo guru and an inspired site foreman, and Phil Turner for making things happen and bringing it all together.  Oh, and Terry Abraham and Tanya Morgan for being there and as irrepressible as ever!  Terry was filming for his Kickstarter project 'Cairngorms in Winter', and I expect he'll have more for you on that front shortly.  I shoveled snow and did some driving.  And took a few pictures... about 1200 give or take.  983 of them are in the sequence above.

It was a good crew.  You can read about the build in detail from Chris here, and if you want the technical lowdown (i.e all the mistakes I made) on the timelapse, follow the direct video link here - but otherwise there's a few more shots from the weekend below.  Hope you enjoy.

Our own Off World Hogmanay

Back once again, two weeks later.  Up the west flank of Glen Quioch this time, then cutting over to Glen Derry via a mountain pass in miniature, hail and sleety rain and scree and rivers in spate after a huge thaw over Christmas.  It was good to be back, and with friends for New Year.

Unfortunately my girlfriend was caught up with work, and so there were 3.  We made camp in good time, and found a place not far off the beaten track.  Regulars to the Cairngorms will know where.  It's nice to camp under trees, a novelty.  Andy has a clever homemade windshield made of ripstop nylon that slots into the two pole ends not used once his SL3 is up.  It makes a fun and useful kitchen area.  Mulled wine was concocted, dinner was eaten, and the temperature plummeted. 

It started to snow.  Only a little, but cutting horizontally under the canopy.  We retreated inside the teepee tent and out of the windchill.

Some time later, the patter of snow on the flysheet slowed and stopped.  The snow had settled.  We went for a walk along the bank of the river, already less swollen as the re-freeze slowed the water high above us on the plateau.  Someone over at the bothy struck up on the bagpipes.  The magic began.

Later, we explored the small area around camp. We found bedraggled prayer flags and future hidden pitches on unassuming baby ridges, all the time shepherded by grand and silent Scot's Pine.  Walking, chatting, taking photos, we were soon toasty warm.  The moon emerged and stars twinkled.

The snow made our passage on the heather unearthly, spongy soft.  We bounced around as if gravity had lessened somehow, smiling to ourselves.  The land felt benevolent, the scene intimate.  Bright moonlight reflected on partially polarised vegetation.  Someone came from the bothy to welcome us in.  We declined as we were enjoying being outside, but were struck again by the generosity and camaraderie of people when in the mountains.  The pipes played on.

Late to rise, at noon we made our way to the Luibeg bridge and over towards Corrour.  Andy and Nic experienced their first stravaig across pathless heather and semi frozen burns.  We saw deer and red grouse.  As we turned our backs on Devil's Point, the weather turned on us.  Sleety squalls kept us company along the boggy path by the River Dee towards the terraced waterfall of White Bridge, where we donned head torches.  A 2 hour walk out in the dark on track awaited.

Andy and Nic have confirmed that 'the bright planet is Jupiter and the red planet (SSW, or about 7.30 o clock in relation to Jupiter) is Aldebaran, the eye of The Bull (Taurus).  This red giant is nearing the end of its life and is 65 light years away.  The star cluster to the right of Jupiter is Pleiades. Often referred to as the 'Seven Sisters' although there are over 250 stars in total in that cluster.  They are 'hot and young' stars - the Rihannas of the night sky'.
I could not have wished for a better first Hogmanay in Scotland, a place that has opened its arms and heart to me in the last year.  On New Year's Eve, with friends chatting and the pipes playing, something warming in the cup on a cold clear night, how lucky we are to have all this.  The air was heavy with Mountain magic.  Respects were paid. 

Go softly, thanks for reading, here's to 2013.

Base over Apex

We stopped the car at the Linn of Quioch, started the walk, skittering on an icy track all the way slow going, warm clothes and firewood in the pack.

Via the Devil's punchbowl whilst the bridge is repaired, then deep on the east side of a wide valley, past victorian forestry plantations, the twisted shattered trunks of caledonian pine exposed on grouse moor, and upwards.  3 O clock fireworks on the hills above, then the end of the path and into the heather and snow, contouring alongside the river in the slip sliding undergrowth. 

In the UK we don't call it the backcountry or bushwhacking, but I suppose that's what it is.  Off the beaten track, joining the dots, intuiting our way through frozen marsh and scots pine.  Using the lines of animal tracks wherever possible.  I know how the deer go, after a year in the north.  They are one step ahead, still fat from their summer feed, eyeballing us nonchalantly from high on the bare hill.  T always spots them before I do.

We make our way slowly through the woods until we almost run out of light, and find a flat pitch on icy heather level with the treeline, near our jumping off point for the day ahead.  We make a small fire in the stove inside the tent, warming our hands and feet for a few hours until long hours of sleep.  The synthetic quilt works well, moving the dew point away from the down bags, but summer sleeping mats leach the last of our warmth in the long dark hours before dawn.

Dawn when it comes is painfully slow until pale yellow light hits the slopes opposite.  We finish stowing gear and move off, contouring awkwardly through the rapid thaw, moving at a snails pace towards Ben Avon, maybe a kilometer or 2 an hour at most.  Hard, unnecessary graft with no skis or snowshoes.  Packing axe and crampons was plainly wishful thinking on this trip.  A lesson in benchmarking.  Time to change our skillset again, if we want to do this every year. 

Following the winding river, overshooting our turning point for Avon, then cutting back and stopping for lunch.  We head between the granite tors on two low summits around 600ms and follow a riverbed down to a deep valley.  In these quiet places there are eagles, buzzards and kites (we think), mountain hares, ptarmigans now in winter plumage, even a silent, gliding crane.  Footprints cross in all directions.  Far away from Tinseltown, the snow lies consolidated, deep and soft on the downhill.  This is the reward for no real tops, the reward for taking the quiet way that few bother with, the reward for moving neither hard nor fast.  Effort is rarely wasted.

Later, we skid and teeter along a water ice path, out under rain, the snow is gone.  Into forestry commission land, old widely spaced plantations, the newer, cheaper, denser stuff interspersed.  With dark approaching not long past 3.30pm, we make camp under a killing tree.  The young buzzard abandons its pitch as I examine ours.  Judging from the bones beneath, it won't be interested in our meal.  Another fire, soup and pasta, mince pies and custard.

The following morning is cold and wet, and the rain follows us out past a closed ski resort to soup and tea at Blairgowrie.


We are back in the CNP with friends in 2 weeks time, to welcome the New Year in properly.  Until then, have a great midwinter's break and here's to coming back kinder and wiser in 2013.  As always, thanks for tuning in.