A simple thing

There hasn't been much outside time lately.  The odd half day here and there, but nothing to write about.  Other things happened, but a break was needed.  Something simple providing maximum enjoyment and minimum effort. 

There's a place on the coast I've got to know, just beyond where the dog walkers turn around, and the shore is angled to scoop up the lion's share of driftwood from the Forth.  That's where we went.

No planning, no food dehydration, no stove, no specialist kit.  We bought a tent but could easily have made do with blankets.  The walk in was 45minutes.  Our bags were heavy with 6 litres of water and 2 kilos of fresh salad, salmon, corn and potatoes for the fire. 

It was all about the fire.  We took cotton wool infused with Vaseline and found dead marram grass on the way for firestarter.  We brewed lots of tea and burnt sand onto the cooking pot.  Fire, food, the outgoing tide, and hunting bats.  And the summer.  Time out from complex.  Simple pleasures, now remembered.

Shown up the mountain

I thought I'd share a few more photos from the Italian Job in May.  It's not everyday I get invited to visit Europe for work, and the location was ridiculously romantic,  high up near a chapel underneath the Rocca Calascio, a watch tower built to guard against Medieval Saracen hordes.  Sea mists smudged the edges of the mountains into ideas of themselves at dawn and dusk.  It was warm and dry in a way it rarely is anywhere in the UK.

Luckily it wasn't all romantic views from a distance.  We were also treated to a guided trip to the 2564m summit of Monte Camicia, led by local Abruzzian, one time Messner accomplice and Himalayan guide Giampiero di Federico.

Being the mountain snob I am, under normal circumstances I'd resent being shown the way by an expert and would prefer to go under my own steam.  It should go without saying that there's alot to be learnt by being out with the professionals.  In my case, unfortunately, it doesn't go without saying - I need to be reminded.  Ideally I prefer to go exploring with only a little beta - too much spoils the feeling of discovery (even if it is misplaced).  But my silly self made rules are worth suspending to spend a little time around this amount of experience.

14 in the group, we move relentlessly slowly all the way to the col.  After far too many breaks, Phil and I were getting bored.  But grinding away in first gear, our guide was metering the speed of the group as a whole.  After we left those without crampons and axe to descend safely, Giampiero slipped into third for the summit push.  You have been paced.

Crampons were donned, but only the English put their poles away and switched to axes.  The angle was steep and the runout long, but the snow was so soft that we couldn't fall that far, an axe would achieve only limited purchase, and it was better to be balanced with poles rather than wobble and skid with a sharp axe in our hands.  Clearly stiff and starchy Scottish winter rules could be bent, if not altogether broken.  And obviously, the Europeans knew their own mountains best.

Deep, mushy snow made a mockery of my bendy Kahtoola crampons not equipped with balling plates.  These work well much of the time in the UK where the snow is hardened by stiff winds, but out here in balmy Italy, in easier conditions, they met their limits.  On the first half of the walk, I impatiently led the group, on the last half, I bought up the rear with grapefruit sized clumps of wet snow under my boots and clumsy footwork.  It was quite a long way up, and no time for icy appendages.  Time for some of that tasty humble pie.

It's a magnificent summit and fairly easy, although that steeply angled snowy corrie we contoured up in single file did have me wondering.  Would I have done this at home, solo?  I'm not so sure - I would definitely have been concerned about avalanche, even this late in the season.  

Giampiero wasn't remotely bothered of course.  Here he is adjusting B rated crampons on canvas trail boots. It's a walk in the (National) Park for him.  But there are rules for bending, and rules for keeping:  He kept an eye on me all the way down, him steamrolling at the front, me at the back with my stupid snowball feet, all nonchalant mountain muscle to my bandy legged tourist. 

None of this was spoken about at the time.  Even mentioning it now seems overstated.  Then again, gentle lessons in inspiring, slightly dangerous places really stick.  It was good to be reminded to stay flexible, conserve energy and focus on the details, not sweat the rules.  And it was very good to be reminded in the mountains: because it stops me getting hurt, and gifts the ability to do and see more next time I'm on my own.  Salut, Giampiero - well taught.

More info at MontAbruzzo and Giovanni Nori

Variety Pack #2

The last month has been very busy indeed.  I'm running behind I'm afraid...

Arran, and some time spent walking with my mother.  This is the Gorge at Eas Mor, full to bursting with spring potential, latent and waiting for the thaw.  In between walks we made fresh burn trout and wild garlic stew, and stoked a wood fire.  Complicated by some work that wouldn't go away and the high winds and rotten snow that put paid to my plans for a 3 day trip over the tops to Lochranza and back.  The convention here is to tell you about what happened after I reached Goatfell and got turned around on the Saddle, but the time has past for that.  The moral of the story is to always have a clear head in the hills, and always carry winter hardware in the winter.  Far better to go back to the cottage and hang out with the family anyway.  Time far better spent.  This trip can wait.

Then, bless my cosmopolitan self, Italy!  Abruzzo, a 2 hour drive from Rome, a tiny hill fort town at 1400m, and a press trip of all things.  Uncomfortable flight, my first time in a plane in four years, a head cold, good food, strong coffee, warm Mediterranean breeze and hospitable people.  And most of all, light with a different texture - A dry light.  What a luxury.  So good to be away.

Oh yeah, there was some gear to look at too, but not in this shot.  This was where we camped.  I'm not even making it up.  It really did look like this.

And there was a mountain to climb, with a quiet Himalayan legend from Gran Sasso.  Grazie mille, Giampiero di Federico.  My kahtoolas balled up quite badly, so I've bought some proper spikes for next year.  I was slowing everyone down, this guy fairly ran down from 2,500ms.

Taken shortly after dawn, this is a garrison fire fort used to warn against Muslim invaders from the Adriatic.  Built on limestone, with water stores under each tower, it survived a huge earthquake in 1461, but the Saracens never came.  I've just been in London where I found myself amongst lots of real photographers (the ones who went to art school, I feel stupid around, and who make great work) and shots like this would give them a headache, I'm sure.  But it is there, and do I lie if I point the camera at something else instead - without context, without the relationships, isn't anything convention and cliche?  This isn't a criticism, it's a question.

Maybe I should photograph some Lamas, in paradise?  Kintail, at 8.30am, after driving from the airport and losing my phone on the M8.  These places do exist, as real as the mother and child, found in an abandoned farmstead on Skye...

One of the striking things about going straight from Italy to Skye, for me at least, was the similarity in the ecological story.  In Abruzzo, centuries of overgrazing have desertified the limestone mountains and robbed them of all tree cover.  This led to the acidification of the soil, which in turn led to an almost total loss of grazing and agriculture that sustained small mountain communities.  People moved to Rome, or starved, the habitat was changed forever.

On Skye, we went to the Camas Malag, a place where the Clan Macdonald sold out to the man and cleared the land of all inhabitants, preferring to farm sheep.  Rotten walls and a solitary derelict building stood where villages once were.  People moved to Canada, or starved.  Skye was beautifully forlorn in a way that Italy wasn't, but only because I don't speak the language.  Talk to the locals in both places (as we did - in Italy it just took longer) and you hear the same concerns about upland economy, community, sustainability.  The same story in both places - what we do to the soil, we do to ourselves.  Still, I'm the one in the damned aeroplane, right.

The weather tried to wipe the slate clean across Loch Eishort, and we turned our backs on the past.  There's little point arguing with either.  We walked back towards the Marble Quarry at Torrin, the brooding east face of Bla Bheinn, and a more than fancy pad on Sleat, before the ferry in the morning.  On the way home we stopped at the sands of Morar, where each and every grain seemed to reflect the world back into the sky.

In Italy, Giampiero had told us a story about the meadowland basin at the foot of the mountain we climbed.  With the change of political fortunes under Mussolini, the 'the shepherd's meeting place' had been transformed into 'the emperor's camp'.  Made possible by the linguistic similarity of these words in Italian, and deemed necessary because the place was historically important for the hill community that worked there.  Land, language, power, constantly circling each other.

Back in London, I heard the travel writer Nick Hunt tell a story about a boy he met on the road, on his 2,500mile walk across Europe in 2012.  The kid knew the names for all the different types of tree in his home valley, but had never stepped a foot outside it.  The writer knew the names of all the places he had visited in Europe, but didn't know the word for tree in the country he was walking in, let alone the names of each species.  How do I want my knowledge - broad and shallow, or deep and narrow?

There's more from some of these trips in upcoming editions of The Great Outdoors, and Outdoor Enthusiast Magazines.  But it's not all 'work'.  Next time out, it's Rum.  In the meantime, here's the previous variety pack, #1

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.