The Chalamain Gap

A place that seems to divide opinion, the Chalamain Gap; the complete spectrum from “ankle snapping nightmare” to “just a few rocks, nae bother”. The natural pessimist in me would invariably incline towards believing the former and dismissing the latter; but the truth was I’d only ever seen the gap from a distance, or in other peoples’ pictures; so we decided to take a look. And that really was all we decided to do…

What we were supposed to be doing was reconnaissance, and trying to establish whether the better option for climbing Braeriach (my most coveted, unclimbed mountain) would be from Whitewell or The Sugar Bowl. Whitewell is a preferred starting point for any number of walks but would be the longer option; The Sugar Bowl route is reckoned to be the more direct, but does incorporate the gap which, as mentioned previously, gets mixed reviews.

By this point the nature of the gap was absolutely clear

By the time we were within a couple of hundred yards of the base of the gap it was pretty obvious what we would be dealing with – a chute filled with boulders of assorted shapes and sizes, interspersed with a similarly diverse variety of holes. There was really no need to walk right up to the base of the gap, but obviously the compulsion to do so was irresistible. Somehow I just knew we would then be climbing up through it but studiously avoided being the one to suggest doing so; not least because one of the party is susceptible to calf strains when over-stretching. I pointed out that we’d done what we’d set out to do, taken a look – a close one at that – and that there was an alternative route down into the Lairig Ghru, by means of a track which passes close to Rothiemurchus Lodge. I felt I had done my best to counsel restraint.

There was really no need or justification for the “closer look”

Or the detailed, boulder by boulder, inspection which followed

We were slow, inelegant, probably comical at times, but in the end we made it up and out and immediately agreed that the views across to Sgoran Dubh Mor had already justified the effort; Lurcher’s Crag looming to our left was a bonus.

Then the views quickly began to more than reward the effort

And then a runner appeared, having climbed out of the Lairig Ghru (which we found to be a steep enough proposition in the descent!) and proceeded to pick a way down through the boulders with all the surefooted poise of one of Tolkien’s elves. Our next move was somewhat less vigorous – working out an improvised circular route which would take us back to the Sugar Bowl via Rothiemurchus and the south side of Loch Morlich.

And the rewards continued…

Time to drop the packs and open out the food…

Walking north from the Lairig Ghru there comes a point in the path where the forest is just beginning to thicken a little (or just beginning to thin out if you’re heading south) with some of the best food stop options to be found anywhere: sheltered; not quite buried in the forest; not quite out of sight of the hills and – if you sit for long enough – the birds will become accustomed to your presence and emboldened by the familiarity.

As for the Chalamain Gap? The consensus seemed to be somewhere between the two extremes: not quite the ordeal some of the reports might suggest – but certainly not to be dismissed as “nae bother” either. None of us expressed any inclination to attempt running through it.

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A hill and some weather…

For a few years now we’ve used the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS), particularly when in the highlands. Although the reports are geared towards weather expectations on the summits, they generally give a useful indication of what might also be expected in the valleys and in a much more specific way than, for instance, the generalised BBC summation. To a point we’ve learned to trust them as the best planning guide for a couple of days ahead (and we rarely look further than that). The MWIS website can be found here.

With a 90% prediction that summits east of the A9/Spey valley would be clear of cloud by late morning, we set off for the top of Ben Macdui – climbing into cloud, but trusting the MWIS forecast. I won’t include a route description here – it was a familiar, well-walked one; and one detailed on a number of online sites such as Walkhighlands.co.uk. Just as an aside here, our preferred route-finding combination to have to hand (but still with a full-sheet map in the bag) is a Walkhighlands narrative in combination with our own printed route plan from Routebuddy. We particularly like the feeling of reassurance when the two documents actually seem to correspond.

Mist and optimism came and went as we climbed steadily past Coire an Lochain and onto the level ridge above the Lairig Ghru. Throughout the walk the higher tops – Cairn Gorm, Braeriach, Macdui itself – came into view then disappeared again in a random sequence resembling a high level dance of the veils. Not long after setting off we checked the summit of Cairn Gorm; it was clear of cloud, then, within a minute or so, everything down past the Ptarmigan restaurant was obscured, and shortly afterwards clear again. And that was typical of how the morning progressed.

This wasn’t a summit bagging exercise: the idea of heading for the high point of the immediate area was simply to take in the views – hence the fixation with cloud conditions. Crossing the first boulder field I was beginning to harbour a few doubts about the possibility of unobstructed views, but I kept them to myself; even on the final walk up to the cairn/trig point those doubts persisted.

There are few certainties in life, but one is that if you climb to the top of the highest mountain in the locality you will be exposed to the wind – whichever direction it’s coming from. Temperatures at the summit felt a good few degrees lower than those we’d walked through during the morning’s climb and we soon decided to add a layer before hunkering into one of the improvised stone shelters for a hot drink and some food. It turned out to be a good decision: as we sat there the clouds parted for the final time and patches of blue sky began to appear. As did a female snow bunting, complete with a chick already well-versed in the arts of begging the odd bit of food. We’d also passed a pair of dotterel on the way up – barely noticeable among the boulders.

One consequence of this rather untypical summer was the number of dry watercourses: I doubt we’ve ever seen so many in that part of the highlands; even some substantial lochans were considerably altered from their familiar size and shape – smaller pools dried out completely in some instances. That said, there’s no doubt that there were sections where conditions underfoot were somewhat easier than would usually be the case.

With the tops completely freed of cloud (and the temperature suddenly more agreeable) we were able to take in the views from the summit, wander around the immediate area, and take a few photographs. Most things can be enhanced by a bit of sunshine – even Cairn Toul, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and particularly Braeriach (which would struggle to look unattractive on the greyest of days); so the sun on our backs and the surrounding hills made for a pleasant, unhurried return to the waiting car.

Not long into our walk down we were all startled by a loud roar from behind us: a Eurofighter (Typhoon) came across the tops to the south, dropped into the Lairig Ghru before executing a full 180º turn and heading back in the direction it had come from. I’m sure it was nowhere near as effortless a manoeuvre as the pilot made it look.

Pictures: Rather than fill the screen with images there is a short slideshow which attempts to show how the day developed. The link can be found below:

Slideshow

Slideshow soundtrack: The music is the instrumental backing track from The Dream Academy’s cover of The Smiths song Please, please, please let me get what I want. If it sounds familiar, that may be because at some time you have seen the film Ferris Bueller’s day off (gallery scene – near the end).

A few days in Ardnamurchan (Part 3)

Two days compressed into a single short selection of pictures: more of the same, which reflects exactly how it was. And more of the same was never too much; not once.

So the random sequence is, in no particular order, of waves breaking on a rocky shoreline, the suck and hiss of the retreating water telling its own story of how unwise it would be to take reckless liberties on slippery rocks. Small boats passing larger ships; a haze blurring the demarcation between sea and sky; a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry seemingly suspended in a fog – hovering between air and water.

Great black-backed gulls; oystercatchers; Manx shearwaters; the ringed plover with eggs (or young) secreted somewhere among the weed and shingle of Kilmory; pink sea thrift somehow apparently growing from the bare bedrock of Ardnamurchan point.

And Kilmory itself, quiet, lonely, a place to tread carefully, a place to revisit…

Days 5 and 6

 

Music: The Gael (Dougie Maclean)

A few days in Ardnamurchan (Part 2)

A week doesn’t allow much time for settling in and there can be a temptation to simply cram in a sequence of ‘whistle-stop’ days; the kind of holiday that can leave you needing a holiday. Thankfully the unexpectedly hot weather helped to crystallise our thinking and there are certainly better things to be doing on a sunny day in Ardnamurchan than spending time in a slow-moving car.

Sanna Bay was enthusiastically endorsed by a number of comments in the visitors book and seemed to be an obvious place to check out as were headed in the direction of Ardnamurchan Point. It (Sanna Bay) is certainly a lovely spot, although we actually preferred Kilmory which we discovered a couple of days later; the ringed plovers nesting in the shingle may have helped to swing that verdict.

There is a lot of coastline footage in the Day 3 selection – little else in fact; an inevitable consequence of holidaying on a relatively small peninsula, with sea lochs and open ocean almost never out of view. For the repetition, I apologise; hopefully the scenery will offer some compensation…

Day 3 – Sanna Bay and Ardnamurchan Point

It took us a couple of days to realise that the deer fence adjacent to the cottage had an access gate for Laga woods, and that the track eventually worked its way up to Loch Laga and beyond. Anyone wanting to see cuckoos, rather than just hear them, could do worse than parking themselves on one of the many rocks which line this path and just waiting a while. The wooden uprights of the deer fence seem to be a favourite spot for them to sit and summon a mate; the noise of their calling gradually abated during the week as they paired up, mated (presumably), and no longer felt the need to attract attention. By Friday there was just a single one – sounding plaintive, and frankly rather desperate.

Having seen Ben Hiant from Glenborrodale, then checked its position on the map, we came to the conclusion that, once the shoulder was reached, views should extend in just about every direction. We weren’t disappointed – even able to pick out the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan point.

Day 4 – Loch Laga and Ben Hiant

 

Music: Field of Dreams (Title track); The ghost of Tom Joad (Bruce Springsteen)

A few days in Ardnamurchan (Part 1)

This was new ground for us; at least once we’d crossed Loch Linnhe it was. Ardnamurchan was a strange oversight, considering how many times in the past we’d driven that stretch of the A82 from Crianlarich to Fort William. We’d passed the slip road for the Corran ferry any number of times and never boarded; looked over the loch to the other side, wondered about it, but never crossed. I’m thinking this could almost be worked into a new verse for Caledonia.

So, on an impulse, we decided to visit the Ardnamurchan peninsula, found some accommodation, booked and then spent a few weeks trying to plan for… well, for west of Scotland, so all eventualities. Having spent those weeks reiterating the possibility (likelihood!) of rain-bearing westerlies, potentially storm force, I did feel some responsibility for the fact that we’d gone overboard on the waterproofs and fleece and were correspondingly a bit under-equipped when it came to shorts and T-shirts. But pessimism is a lifelong affliction and my new mantra is that, yes we can go back, but we’ll never be that lucky again…

This is definitely one of those occasions where the pictures tell a better story than any words, so with that in mind I’ve tried to create a sequence of slideshows, which my cheapskate, bottom of the range, WordPress plan doesn’t exactly make easy. The slideshows were created firstly with iMovie then uploaded to Youtube and can be accessed by links; the transitions between frames are not the smoothest but I’m operating at the extremities of my technical knowledge here.

The first part of the journey begins not far from where it ends, insofar as I’ve omitted the M5/M6/M74/A74(M) sections and started somewhere around Ballaculish. The shots of Glencoe were mostly taken from a moving car (not by the driver!) and I’d forgotten just what a spectacular place it can be; which is pretty unforgivable really!

And we finally got to board the Corran ferry – in itself a short voyage of discovery.

Day 1 – Journey and crossing

Day 2 – Laga Bay and Glenborrodale

 

Music: Kicking Bird’s gift (from Dances with wolves); Comfortably numb (Pink Floyd)

Centrism – dead or merely dormant?

This blog rarely ventures into the area of politics, which isn’t to say that politicians don’t get the occasional mention; but it is only occasional and invariably unflattering. Politics, though? That’s an altogether different matter – a place (to paraphrase The Joker) like Gotham; best avoided by decent people who’d be happier someplace else. So this is an unaccustomed foray into shark-infested waters – unarmed, under-equipped, it has ‘ill-advised’ written all over it…

I (and I promise this will be the end of water-based analogies) would happily admit to – in political terms – not exactly paddling in the very middle of the stream, nor indeed where the prevailing currents are presently at their strongest. That said, neither do I see myself as someone who gravitates to the extreme ideological margins; with that in mind, I’m a bit puzzled as to why I feel quite so alienated.

My view – and it’s a long held one – is that the vast majority of the sentient population occupy a relatively narrow segment of the political spectrum, roughly spanning the arc from social democrats (although in the UK we don’t call them that – it’s all a bit too Scandinavian) to traditional one-nation tories. I belong in the former group, which remains sadly, somewhat lazily, but perhaps understandably tainted by Blairism; I persist in using the term social democrat because I see it as quite distinct not only from socialism but also from the present leadership and direction of our principal party of the left.

My alienation – something I’m convinced I have in common with many of those on the centre right (at least those with whom I have some contact) – is the frustration which derives from being  inadequately represented by our parliamentarians; not because the parliamentary consensus doesn’t share our views, but rather because it quite probably does and seems too timid to express itself, thereby allowing the agenda to be commandeered by a vocal minority of lunatics on either flank. Until the moderates – maybe numbering about 500 out of the 650, but we’ll never really know unless they speak up – until they find their collective voice (and balls!) we will not have a properly functioning parliamentary democracy.

In part this problem has its roots in the use of lazy collective terminology – ‘the left’ being just one example; there is no homogenised left, any more than it would be possible to throw a small blanket over everybody to the right of centre. It’s a handy device if you want to appear dismissive, but it’s hardly contributing much to an informed debate. But, whatever the root causes, it’s a sad and dangerous state of affairs when both of the main parties appear to be operating in fear of a fringe who are neither representative of their traditional support nor even the majority of their own sitting MPs. Not really a functioning democracy in anything other than name. 

These battles, on both sides of the political divide, might not literally be as old as the hills but will probably last most of us a lifetime: often they are depicted as ‘struggles for the soul of the movement’, which sounds so much more benign and principled than the more truthful assessment that what they usually represent are shameless power grabs. Meanwhile we continue to hope that moderation – being still the majority mindset both inside of parliament and out – will somehow eventually reassert itself. How realistic a hope that actually is becomes ever more questionable while each of what we call “the main parties” appears susceptible to the influences of zealots of differing varieties – the disaffected anarchists who try repeatedly to attach themselves to Labour; the neoliberal dogmatists who find their host at the fringes of the Tories.

The latter are probably fewer in number, albeit often with the wherewithal to buy themselves a cloak of either anonymity or respectability; but the motives are the same – to operate outside the societal norms which constrain most of us, whether we like it or not. Using bought influence to manipulate the democratic processes might be less visible than throwing bricks at the windows of a bank, but just as destructive in its different way.

The counter argument to this gloomy prognosis is that in the end the ‘centrists’ invariably win; there’s truth in that, but, having won, to then have to expend so much energy battling with their respective fringes – relatively small in number, but disproportionately vocal and disruptive – is no recipe for effective administration, even less so for edifying public spectacle. So while it’s no real surprise that a great rump of backbenchers on opposite sides of the house frequently turn out to have – to quote the late Jo Cox – more in common, the problem remains that moderates are, by the very nature of being moderate, inclined to operate quietly, go about their business undemonstratively. Restraint and tolerance rarely make the front pages.

As I’m coming to the end of this – and it’s taken a while – we seem to be in the throes of yet another round of ‘what about?’ politicking: the apparent anti-semitism still perpetuated by certain elements of the left, countered by accusations of Islamophobic factions operating inside the political right. As if we have nothing more pressing or constructive to be occupying our minds right now. I smell burning, hand me my fiddle…

It does say something though for the state of our politics that it can seemingly be reduced to a hand of bigotry poker, with all sides apparently clamouring to be dealt in. Which is obviously hyperbole, but that’s what grabs the headlines.

Right, I’ve reached the point where it’s either publish or delete; I’d like to say it’s been cathartic, but one last read-through has just left me in need of a walk. So perhaps it hasn’t been entirely wasted after all…

 

The Nature of… Jim Crumley

Jim Crumley is a nature writer whose books I’ve referenced before in blog posts, as indeed have others on their blogs. Among Jim’s books a longtime favourite of mine has been his timeless classic A high and lonely place – a eulogy to The Cairngorms and one which prompted this post back in 2014. Both celebratory and unafraid to confront the issues – many of which endure to this day – it is both a good read and a work of reference.

Most recently I’ve read the two connected works in the series The Nature of… and am hopeful that there will be two others to follow. Both books are written with an intimacy and perspective which can only derive from patience and exposure – the latter possibly in more than one sense of the word. Most of all there is that most scarce and precious of commodities – original thought; something which, in these soundbite days, seems as elusive as the native wildcat which he and I would love to know were out there, moving secretively through the forests of Rothiemurchus and Inshriach.

Here’s an example: it’s taken from The Nature of Autumn

“And the first day of autumn is the beginning of everything, the first stirrings of rebirth. The forest fall thickens the land with limitless tons of bits and pieces of trees. The earth is hungry for food: all spring, all summer, it has been thrusting life upwards and outwards, and by the last day of summer, it is tired. Autumn is the earth’s reviver and replenisher… ”

On first reading, this runs counter-intuitive to my programming: unquestioningly I’d accepted that the natural order of the seasons was spring, summer, autumn, winter – emergence, abundance, slow-down, shutdown. Having your perceptions challenged is never a bad thing and, with the benefit of a different perspective, it makes sense to see autumn as very much the opening step in a new cycle – one which incubates during the winter months; dormant but already primed. From the perspective of our most northerly latitudes it makes absolute sense.

Original thinking challenges us and, who knows, perhaps might encourage us to develop it as a skill of our own. How could that ever be a bad thing?

 

The Nature of Autumn and The Nature of Winter, are both written by Jim Crumley and published by Saraband.