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).

Should aesthetics trump functionality?

I’m assuming it’s still okay to use the word ‘trump’ in the title of a post without attracting some incoherent response from the man on Capitol Hill.

On a short outing in the Severn Valley a few days ago, I was struck by the contrast between some of the structures and apparatus – old and quite new – which we encountered along the way. At the foot crossing in Eymore Wood we paused briefly as former Southern Region pacific 34027 Taw Valley passed through with a longish and busy train. This is the locomotive which has, on occasions, appeared around the country in maroon livery carrying the Hogwarts Express nameplate. Built immediately post WW2 (1946) it still looks the part, although – had it not been rescued from a south Wales scrapyard – it would have had a very short working life, having been withdrawn from service by 1964.

There is a slight uphill incline at this point and it was the kind of cold, crisp day when a bit of exertion generally produces good, photogenic steam.

Between the railway and the nearby river, a couple of Severn Trent reservoirs double up as boating lakes and wildlife retreats – wildfowl mostly but with a growing cormorant population. In combination with the preserved railway, the river itself and the northern edge of the extensive Wyre Forest, which reaches all the way to the opposite bank, it’s an attractive and not over-used area. Unfortunately, it seems to have been considered an appropriate site for a solar farm (Cenin Renewables in conjunction with Severn Trent apparently) – a development which started small and seems to be proliferating over a wide area. This is part of a cluster sited a few metres from the bank of the river…

One of the local councils – Kidderminster Parish – said at the time of the initial development they only found out about Severn Trent’s plans after they were approved because of (quote) “a loophole in planning regulations”. I could go on about the effectiveness and appropriate siting of these panels – that and the still ongoing debate around their dubious longevity and payback – but that would make for a much longer post. For now I’ll leave it that they’re unsightly and in a place where they should never have been considered; a place, incidentally, where if you pitched a tent for a night’s wild camp you’d quite likely be moved on.

About a couple of hundred metres upstream (no more) John Fowler’s elegant and timeless cast-iron arch bridge carries the railway across the Severn. Probably an unfair comparison, but even in the fading light of our return journey it struck us as more enhancement than intrusion…

Earlier in the day I’d taken this shot from the road bridge adjacent to Arley Station. It’s a jumble and just about everything is wrong with it, but I quite like the overall chaotic effect of steam, people, trains and infrastructure…

There are still a few examples of lower quadrant semaphore signalling to be found out on the main lines, including around the Worcester/Droitwich/Malvern area. Upper quadrants (raised signals) are a bit more numerous, particularly around the stations on the Highland Main Line; the GWR always liked to be different.

With the light almost gone, there was just about enough time to capture the bulrushes below. This group are at the edge of one of the two small reservoirs and are often frequented by coots, and occasionally reed warblers. Nature’s designs are often studies in understated elegance; something we could learn from…

At the turn of the year…

A walk on Wednesday 27th December, 2017

2017 was more or less bookended by snow on The Long Mynd. The January fall was a light covering, short-lived and already receding by the time we descended; December’s looked to be made of sterner stuff…

The mix of blue skies – pale blue, admittedly – and freshly fallen snow meant that the climb away from the still relatively quiet Carding Mill Valley was full of promise of what conditions might be like higher up. Deeper snow, fewer footprints, extensive views; all of these crossed our minds. In the meantime we contented ourselves with regular pauses to take in the immediate surroundings; for all that these are our most frequently visited hills, it is rare to see them like this.

The combination of snow-covered rocks and swollen streams made for some interesting choices when it came to foot placement. On a warm summer’s day this clear running water can look inviting for a foot soak. Today it just looked to be best avoided. As we climbed the depth of the snow covering was progressively increasing and the sky intermittently darkened, threatening further falls which, apart from the odd flurry, never really materialised.

The path we were following leads to a short, steep, rocky ascent alongside Light Spout waterfall. It can be tricky in these conditions, when there is often a combination of ice and running water, but is generally more difficult to descend than it is to climb. We made our way gingerly up and over the top; I followed, so that if Jo slipped she would take me with her, and if I slipped I would put only myself at risk. I remember thinking at the time that it didn’t seem entirely fair but she would have to come and retrieve me because I was the one carrying the food.

By the time we’d started the return leg, the sun was already dipping low over the hills of mid-Wales, casting long shadows across the snow. There was a consistent six to eight inches of fallen snow across most of the higher ground, with drifts and wind-blown cornices of double that and more (See the picture below). Any evidence of a slight thaw was quickly disappearing as the temperature began to drop, and the combination of surface water running over compacted ice and snow made underfoot conditions for the descent increasingly uncertain. Progress was slow and deliberate, with the treads of our boots becoming repeatedly packed with a mixture of snow and ice and needing to be either kicked or stamped clear to restore some traction.

As we descended, in fading light and falling temperatures, we were both a bit perturbed to be passed by a mixed group of adults and children who had seemingly barely started their walk. More so when one of the adults asked us if there was “anything at the top”. They were all wearing what would probably be described as ‘street clothes’ – no waterproofs; casual wear mostly; trainers and leisure shoes. None of them was carrying any kind of pack, so there was nothing to suggest they had spare hats, gloves, a map, or any food and drinks. It was clear from the question that they weren’t familiar with these particular hills.

We did try to persuade the one who appeared to be in charge that, with the light fading quickly and the temperature falling, coming back down would be much more tricky than the climb, as indeed already was the case, but he seemed worryingly blasé.

Now, okay, this is The Shropshire Hills in a moderate covering of snow, with temperatures dipping down to around -1º to -2º plus a bit of windchill; it’s not the highlands with 100mph gusts, snow past your thighs and sub-arctic conditions. But the path back down to Carding Mill Valley is easy to miss in fading light and there are any number of options for making the wrong choice; it could take someone who didn’t know the hills a long time to realise they’d made a navigational error and possibly longer still to correct it. In the end we had to tell them to note the path junctions and the way marker posts (quite a few of which are down at the moment) and remember landmarks as they passed them.

A sense of place

The west midlands confuses people: not the endless proliferation of local dialects; not the eccentricities of the motorway network; perplexing though both of those can be. New York might well be “so good they named it twice” but The West Midlands (capitalised this time) is apparently such a brilliantly imaginative name for a place that to use it only once would have seemed wasteful; so it’s been applied to two completely different entities – one of which resides within the other.

First, there’s The County of West Midlands: neither small nor perfectly formed, this nondescript aggregation of bits taken from Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, all of which – reduced though they may be – still separately exist, managed to be a compromise of sorts in that it was held in almost unanimous contempt by residents of all three of its constituent parts. The reasons for their discontent might have varied – from the erosion of cultural identity to concern over the effects on property prices “If people get the idea we’re a suburb of Dudley” (yes, seriously) – but the thing that united us them was that we they just weren’t happy and that’s all there was too it. It doesn’t take much.

Then there’s the other ‘West Midlands’ which, according to Wiki is “One of the nine official regions of England”, stretching from Herefordshire and The Cotswolds to the edge of The Peaks and all points west, right up to the Welsh border. None of this is new, although it is to me.

Both versions of The West Midlands are officially designated as NUTS, which will surprise almost no-one.

Within about 10-15 minutes at a decent walking pace I can reach the remnant of an old Roman road, which marks the boundary with Staffordshire, just at the point where it is tapering down to nothing in the middle of some nondescript pasture; in rather less time again it is possible to exit Staffordshire and cross seamlessly into Worcestershire. So, I reached the Roman road, left behind the neatly suburban West Midlands (designated NUTS1) and crossed into the unkempt agricultural West Midlands (NUTS2), heading for one of those places where The Woodland Trust is doing some of its sterling work.

This is, for a while, an odd patchwork of an area: the clearly defined residential plots come to an abrupt end and are replaced by a chaotic, bits and pieces landscape of indeterminate ownership – a couple of small copses and a few fields which have remained undisturbed for, to my knowledge, the best part of 35 years. Vegetation comes and goes, proliferates, dies back, and the tracks which meander between the trees and brambles follow the same lines that they have followed for as long as I’ve known them.

At least over time the wildlife changes: the buzzards and ravens which would once have been considered exotic are now relatively commonplace, particularly the buzzards. The grey squirrel and rabbit populations ensure there is certainly no shortage of food; no doubt there are field voles out there as well, but they maintain a lower profile. These days the squirrels have to compete for cached food with the expanding population of jays – a bird with attractive plumage but frequently sounding as if it’s being tortured. Goldcrest are present in good numbers; possibly they always were and I never noticed them or, more likely, thought that anything so small would automatically be a wren.

Today the kind of snowfall we rarely see any more has thrown a pristine blanket over some of the less attractive aspects, like the unused rolls of razor wire and discarded feed sacks. The woods themselves seem to be groaning under the covering of snow and the goldcrests and wrens, as they flit between branches, set up small tremors dislodging many times their own body weight.


     

A return to mid Wales

This is mostly a photo post: it was the second visit of the year to the Rhayader/Elan Valley area and, coincidentally, the walking was mostly defined by the heavy rains which had preceded our few days there. ‘Coincidentally’ because this had been exactly the case back in May; sustained spells of heavy rain – not exactly a rarity in mid Wales – can turn some of the hills into a quagmire, and a misery to walk.

However, there are compensations to be had from arriving in the aftermath of a good deluge…

The overflowing dam at Penygarreg reservoir – viewed from Penbont

As above, but from a little closer. Or possibly zoomed

The rain was just about over by the time we arrived, but there was still plenty of low cloud around and a heavy clinging dampness hanging in the air. This is Wales – come prepared!

The fire in the distance looked more appealing the closer we got. It turned out to be forestry workers on clearing duties, rather than wild campers

By mid afternoon, the combination of clearing skies and steadily lowering sun had lent an altogether different feel to the water and surrounding hillsides…

Better had been promised for the next day, and was duly delivered…

Inevitably, in this part of Wales, there would be red kite…

Looking for feeding opportunities among the boulders

And taking advantage of thermals, conspicuously absent on the previous day

 

Ambivalence on Cairn Gorm

Preamble:

This has taken an absolute age to write and I’m really not sure if I shouldn’t have just paid heed to that and abandoned it. For a while I’ve been toying with the idea of taking the blog in a different direction, without ever really being clear about where that direction should be. Brilliant, eh? An outdoor blogger who can’t even navigate a way through his own thought processes. 

Thing is, there are only so many times it’s possible to write about the final approach to the summit of Worcestershire Beacon, or the tricky descent of Light Spout Hollow. Ironic really, considering there is probably no limit to the number of times I would happily descend Light Spout and never tire of doing so. And it can be tricky…

Anyway…

I’m not a great lover of Cairn Gorm; at least not on its northern side. Actually, that’s not an entirely fair resumé: it would be more precise to say that I’m not a great lover of what’s been done to that part of the mountain, not least the rebranding – and why? – of the mountain’s name, which somehow grates more than it should when I see it on facilities, information boards, or even one of the funicular vehicles and its completely innocent cargo of passengers.

I’ve touched on this before [here] and Chris Townsend recently posted about the rather slipshod manner in which redundant infrastructure was being removed – albeit only partially – from parts of Coire na Ciste. As someone who isn’t, and never has been, a downhill skier, I don’t feel qualified to argue the merits, or otherwise, of the pastime; hence this, from the earlier post…

“It’s true that Cairngorm itself is an untidy clutter on its northern side: mostly the consequences of ski development. I know there are arguments in favour of skiing as a leisure pursuit; not least the economic benefits in the winter months and, equally importantly, the fact that, for some, it’s an enjoyable activity. There’s no denying though that skiing is greedy for land and creates an awful mess on the hillside when there’s no camouflaging blanket of snow…”

I did also – in the interests of intended balance – concede that “there are equally instances of spots (Snowdon summit, Ben Nevis as examples) where the accumulated effects of tens of thousands of walkers can leave the place looking far from attractive…”

With all of that said, and nothing really resolved, I just think that the development – if it had to be done at all – it could have been carried out with a little more subtlety, a lot less intrusion, and with a view to a generally more sympathetic outcome. There’s an obvious question hanging here: if that’s how I feel, why go there? Well, it is a very accessible summit on those days when the weather looks like it might run through its entire repertoire in the space of an afternoon, and – the other side of that coin – a relatively straightforward place from which to retreat. And, once you begin to cross the summit plateau and the buildings and equipment, the tows and fencing, fall behind and dip out of sight, then it really becomes a different place.

I find my gaze is usually drawn first to the lochs Avon and Etchachan, rather than to the neighbouring summits; then, as I adjust my eyeline upwards, there’s often the compulsion to look back down again and confirm that I have secure footing, despite standing on a solid rocky base and a long way from any precipice; a feeling of exposure, where none actually exists – it’s almost become a mannerism. Then the details begin to reveal themselves: the high summits of neighbouring mountains; steep crags falling away into deep-cut valleys; watercourses threading their way down until they meet, combine, create bigger watercourses, spill into the lochs and, in some cases, feed rivers which will make their journey all the way to the coast, gathering power as they go.

And then I realise that I actually love it up here…

I might have liked it more in former, wilder days; I might have liked it more in the future, when the wolves have returned and land management lower down has been reclaimed by lynx and beaver. But for now, and as long as I’m able, I’ll continue to climb past the ugly bits and enjoy the views from the top. To some extent, traversing the summit plateau from north to south is like crossing a watershed, a frontier where national park status is broadly observed to the south, and has been selectively set aside to the north.

(Context: it has been more than nine weeks since I last wandered past the summit cairn to take in the views to the south)

Ski tow equipment – Coire Cas

 

Just walking clear of the last of the development

Not pretty, maybe, but natural and as its intended to be

No comment needed (other than that this is taken inside a national park)