08/08/17: Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm, and…

… and a navigational cock-up.

The plan was to walk a circuit taking in the three summits of Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm and Craiggowrie, then make our way back to Loch Morlich and Glenmore, by paths passing close to the Badaguish Outdoor Centre. What could possibly go wrong?

We’d climbed Meall a’ Bhuachaille a number of times before – out past An Lochan Uaine and pick up the track just behind Ryvoan bothy. That bit passed uneventfully…

Ryvoan bothy

As did the next – the climb up to the summit cairn/shelter on top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille; a place where it is traditional for us to partake of food and drink. My kind of place…

Summit shelter – Meall a’ Bhuachaille

That was the high point already taken care of and, with good visibility ahead, what could – at the risk of repeating myself – possibly go wrong? The plan was to drop down from the top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille and continue across to Creagan Gorm and then the third summit (Craiggowrie) before picking up the path down towards Badaguish and Loch Morlich. However, in the planning process, a member of the party – and I won’t say who (okay, it was me!) – had failed to notice that although Craiggowrie is the third named summit on the route, there is an unnamed top between it and Creagan Gorm. In my defence – and, as defences go, this is about as thin as they get – the intermediate top is one of those anomalies where the ridge leading to the summit is named (Creag a’ Chaillich), rather than the top itself; I didn’t notice this on the map I’d printed out.

Just for confirmation – and because I like to plan my cock-ups properly – I’d read a couple of trip reports on Walkhighlands.co.uk and was sure that the descent route would be on the left, immediately after the cairns (plural). And so, arriving at the cairns on what I thought to be the summit we were heading for; and, by the way, why would an unnamed top have four cairns? Yes four! Isn’t life difficult enough? I began to look for the downward path, in the relaxed manner of someone about to enter a very large doghouse.

We looked, didn’t find; pushed on a little; looked again, still didn’t find; saw a group below us who had decided to just yomp through the heather and bilberry and wondered if the path we were looking for had become overgrown (it’s called clutching at excuses) and eventually decided to retrace our steps because we seemed to be heading for Boat of Garten by the pretty route. This meant we had to negotiate, for the second time, some very boggy ground and reascend the unnamed top – replete with its four bloody cairns! – then Creagan Gorm again, before picking up a path which at least we knew was there, having used it before and crossed it earlier in the day.

Later, looking at the printed Routebuddy sheet while we had a coffee and bite to eat, it was clear where we had gone wrong: allowing me to be the one with the map was the critical flaw in the plan. I probably chose the wrong time to suggest that days like this are character building.

Oops…

Heading off Meall a’ Bhuachaille and towards Creagan Gorm

Summit cairn – Creagan Gorm

There was no shortage of cairns – Lochs Garten and Mallachie beyond

A boulder which we passed (twice)…

Badaguish (below) – exactly where it was supposed to be

A rainbow which our original plan might well have missed

The route reacquired

Almost time for coffee and recriminations… 

 

The mountain at the end of the street…

I read somewhere – and for the life of me I can’t remember where – about the visual and sensory impact of mountains where they are visible from the streets of a town or city. I recall the article mentioning some of the obvious examples – Seattle, Kathmandu – but also referring to the views of The Peaks from Manchester and Sheffield. I’d credit the author if I could remember who it was; it might have been Robert Macfarlane.

This shot was taken looking south-west along the high street of Kingussie: the looming presence dominating the skyline is Creag Dubh – a two and a half thousand footer which is actually beyond Newtonmore but almost looks within touching distance…

 

A belated in memoriam…

Just returned from a couple of weeks based in Kingussie: tired from the M6; body back in the English midlands, head still somewhere meandering one of the endless trails; intending to make a start on a series of posts about selected days and escapades. But, before any of that, an oversight needed to be rectified…

We travelled north on Friday August 4th and there was something about the date that nagged at me; a couple of days later I would remember what it was. A year ago to the day, the blogging community sadly lost one of its finest: he went by the online name of Oldmortality and his blog – witty, erudite, original, thought-provoking, never dull – can be found among the links to the right, under the name One Small Step; OM’s final post was dated 27th July, 2016 and among the comments is one from his daughter confirming that he had passed away. If you’re not already familiar with the blog then I’d urge you to read through the backlog of posts while they still remain available; I still do, and I know I’m not alone. They are unique reflections on a life well lived.

This was where I was when I remembered why August 4th was significant…

It’s the Cairngorm Club footbridge across the Am Beanaidh, which flows north from Loch Einich, and the reason it’s significant is because it’s the spot where Oldmortality once met up with fellow blogger Mike Knipe (whose also excellent blog can be found here: northern pies); their rendezvous is also remembered in the comments attaching to OM’s final blog entry.

Memory jogged, I took a contemplative moment and resolved to do the same every time I’m fortunate enough to pass this way in the future.

Oldmortality loved his music and would often sign off with a link to a tune of his choice. I’m not sure this would have been on his playlist, but it somehow seemed appropriate…

A head full of Scotland…

Not long returned from a couple of weeks in the highlands, it’s probably understandable that, randomly, places with Gaelic names still spring unsolicited into the consciousness, accompanied by mental images of a clarity which is almost harrowing. Ironically, the better the time enjoyed, the more acute the ache of nostalgia: this is the comedown to end all comedowns; this is what the highlands can do to you…

The Cairn Gorm wind (Sunday, August 7th, 2016): Winds were predicted and it was indeed a bit blustery in the Spey Valley; blustery but no more than that. After a low-key, settling-in day, we’d ventured to Cairn Gorm, intending to ascend via Sron An Aonaich, otherwise known as the ‘windy ridge’ route – appropriately, as it turns out – and explore some more circuitous descent options, with a view to avoiding the funicular and as much of the ski paraphernalia as possible.

Stepping out of the car at Coire Cas, it was immediately apparent that conditions were a little bit more severe than blustery. As we raised the tailgate a number of items of clothing were plucked from the boot and distributed around the car park. With everything retrieved, an impromptu meeting agreed – unanimously, which is a rarity! – that heading for the tops today would be neither enjoyable or sensible.

It turned out to be a wise decision: later in the day, a record gust for the month of August was recorded by the Cairngorm weather station – a short stroll away from the summit cairn. (From the BBC website): “Met Office meteorologist Stuart Brooks said the wind speed on top of Cairngorm in the Highlands had so far reached 115mph and the weather station there was on track to note the highest gust ever recorded in summer”.

The midges of Glen Einich (Sunday, August 14th, 2016): We love the hills, and being out on them; but sometimes we just like to look at them from beneath. This could be just an excuse for the lazier days, of which we are also quite fond, but there’s no denying Scotland does have some very inviting glens. Glen Einich for one: a walk-in framed on its western side by the buttresses of Sgoran Dub Mor and Sgor Gaoith, with the corries of Braeriach to the east and, when it eventually comes into view, the blank headwall of Coire Odhar. Oh, and of course, there’s Loch Einich.

DSC08572

The looming presences of Sgoran Dub Mor and Sgor Gaoith, heading into Glen Einich

These are the places where it’s good to pause, reflect, and feel that particular sensation unique to the Scottish highlands; unique at least as far as the UK goes. Uneasy but not in an unpleasant way is the best explanation I can offer; a certain acknowledgement of scale on a number of levels – the physical scale of the mountains themselves of course; but also the timescales represented by those mountains, which will endure long after we, as a species, have become a footnote to their history.

I’m no mystic, but I do believe that on a certain level the genuinely wild landscapes communicate with us: come in here with attitude and you’ll likely come unstuck; don’t take liberties and maybe you’ll be okay – but there are no guarantees. And there would be no point in arguing back – mountains don’t debate!

DSC08507Anyway, to the midges… and maybe, like the mountains, they will endure us as a species; I think they probably will. We’d progressed, largely untroubled, up to the point where the track splits and the lower path descends to closely shadow the river (Am Beanaidh), with the right-hand fork gradually climbing clear of the valley floor. It was here that they sprang their ambush – rising from the ground, descending from the sky, outflanking us and mocking our feeble attempts at defence; and all in the time it took us to make the decision – high or low? The little blighters have no interest in discussing surrender terms either.

Eventually we reached a high point, where the breeze seemed to thwart them a bit, and thereafter we mostly lost them – as long as we didn’t pause anywhere for too long – at least until we picked up a couple of patrols on the return leg, still keen for one last bite.

Edinburgh and the Highland Chieftain (Monday, August 15th, 2016): We’re all pretty fond of Edinburgh, particularly the astonishing variety of landscape to be found within the boundaries of a city. And we also all like a ride on a train…

P1160559Having established that even the walk-up return fares from Kingussie were surprisingly reasonable, we turned up at the station and booked for an out and back trip on Virgin Trains East Coast service,  a train which goes by the name of The Highland Chieftain and eventually ends its journey at either London Kings Cross or Inverness. One surprise was that using the ‘Chieftain’ – a refurbished High Speed Train (Inter-city 125 in old money) – in both directions was actually cheaper than the alternative Abellio/Scotrail option, travelling by 3-car DMU. We enjoyed a nicely turned-out train – even on the northbound return, by which time it was several hours into its journey – with plenty of room and good seats in both directions. This doesn’t make me a convert to the idea of a privatised railway, and anyway the Mark 3 coaching stock dates back to BR days and could show a Pendolino a thing or two when it comes to seating pitch and window alignment.

P1160377

Viewed from the train: early morning, low cloud rolling over the hills of Drumochter

Despite closely shadowing the A9 for a a sizeable part of the route, the train gives a much different perspective; particularly to someone who would usually be the driver. Passing Dalwhinnie, there was time to savour the view down Loch Ericht towards Ben Alder, looking massive even at this distance. Somewhere south and east of Drumochter, possibly around Killiecrankie, the highland wildness finally concedes its stranglehold, merging into the fertile prosperity of Perthshire and, for a while, we were back in familiar territory around Pitlochry and Dunkeld, rattling over the iron viaduct near to Dalguise. Away from the fractious and overcrowded peak-time commuter trains – which are an altogether different experience –  it’s a great way to travel.

DSCN0965

Looking along Princes Street from Calton Hill

We had 5 hours in the city: a little more would have been nice but, as we already knew our way around, we were able to make the most of the time available. August in Edinburgh means Fringe, and negotiating The Royal Mile felt like the most tiring walking of the entire fortnight.

There and back, we spent roughly as long on the train as we did in the city. Not once did the journey seem to drag, not even for a second and not in either direction. In fact we were all visibly downcast as the northbound service passed through Newtonmore and began to slow.

P1160849

Sadly, all good things have to come to an end – holidays, train journeys…

The birds (various dates and locations): What follows is nothing more than a sequence of disproportionately fortunate encounters, which will probably never be repeated during a single fortnight. That’s all there is to it: no claims of expertise or meticulous planning; just sheer dumb luck.

Two young cuckoos being fed, in plain sight, by a pair of warblers at Achlean – mentioned here

An impromptu pause at Loch Morlich roadside, where a firecrest – a bird I’d expected to go my whole life without ever seeing – worked its way through the foliage until it was a few feet from the passenger side windows, while the three of us sat as motionless as is humanly possible

Two golden eagles – one in Glen Feshie, the other, a few days earlier, barely into Glen Einich – and neither at a time of day when you would generally be optimistic. In the case of the Glen Einich one, we were no more than a couple of paces from stepping out from the tree cover – and almost inevitably spooking the bird – when we spotted it, drifting at not much more than tree height. As it was, we got to see it circle a few times before heading off towards the west. The Glen Feshie eagle was being mobbed by a flock of smaller birds and was distracted enough not to notice us for a while. Neither sighting would have lasted longer than about 15-20 seconds but – having only ever having seen about three or four in my whole life –  I don’t recall ever seeing a golden eagle for more than a few seconds.

We have, over the years, squinted at the tree line, trying to work out exactly where a cuckoo’s call might be coming from; never with any luck. We’ve similarly scanned skylines and hillsides, hoping to pick up the dark shape or shadow of an eagle in flight. Perhaps the occasional unlikely stroke of luck is nature’s trade-off for the fruitless hours.

Meall a’ Bhuachaille (Saturday, August 13th, 2016): For years we did this hill a disservice; an error of omission. We now try to make time for it whenever we’re in the area; the views are exceptional, it can easily be fitted into a part-day, and the summit shelter is sufficiently ‘wraparound’ to protect against everything other than a full-on northerly (there has to be a gap somewhere!). While we were taking advantage of the protection, a couple of young lads arrived who had run to the summit from Glenmore Lodge, via Ryvoan bothy; after all of 30 seconds, one said “Ready?”, the other nodded, and off they went in the direction of the next top – Creagan Gorm. We could only wonder, and wish them well

DSC08170

Lochan Uaine from Meall a’ Bhuachaille

DSC08168

Looking back down the track on Meall a’ Bhuachaille; Ryvoan bothy is just visible below.

DSC08189

Hillsides virtually stripped of trees – lynx needed!

P1160334

Curtains of rain moving across Loch Morlich.

DSC08228

Bynack More from Meall a’ Bhuachaille

It’s probably a consequence of its distinctive shape and position at the head of the Ryvoan pass, but Meall a’ Bhuachaille – despite keeping company with much loftier neighbours – seems to be in view from most of Strathspey. We began to wonder whether Meall a’ Bhuachaille might be Gaelic for “visible from everywhere” but apparently it translates as ‘The hill of the herdsman’.

[Below] Meall a’ Bhuachaille and neighbours from… actually, I’m not sure. Probably (top to bottom): Glen Einich; Whitewell; somewhere else…

DSC08618 DSC08705 DSC08300

So that’s it for reflections until next time.

Which can’t come soon enough.

 

There’s some corner of a highland field…

DSCN0951Just past Whitewell, returning from Glen Einich, I paused to look back towards Braeriach, take a couple of photographs and noticed an item of equipment parked in the corner of the field. I use the catch-all term “item of equipment” to allow some latitude for my lack of knowledge in these matters; although I think this is probably a tractor and that’s as specific as I’m prepared to be.

That said, I do know that there’s a wealth of knowledge out there among the outdoor community. My thing is railways – even old, long disused stretches of the former network, trying to picture how things might have been in their heyday; or the dedicated freight loops where a couple of trains a week fight through the buddleia en route to some surviving remnant of a quarry or colliery. We all have our little idiosyncrasies…

Anyway, all of that aside, zooming in revealed this…

DSCN0952

Judging from the tyres, it might still be in use, although the front ones seem to have sunk a little, and the more you zoom the more blemishes are revealed. If its working life is done, it’s got a splendid place to spend its retirement.

Carn Ban Mor: 1,052 m (3,451 ft), not a Munro

It doesn’t matter that it tops out at well over 3,000 feet – there’s more to it than that. Scottish hill classification is – like life itself – something I don’t fully understand; probably because, as with life itself, I haven’t always been properly paying attention.

It’s to do with relationships and proximity (like a restraining order?), and also parents and subsidiaries. That last bit sounds like the kind of stuff you’d find in a PLC’s profits warning and maybe it all serves some purpose, but…

(Here’s the ‘but’): if it’s the case that Carn Ban Mor is blissfully indifferent to its designation – and we can probably take that as read – then I don’t really think it should matter to me either; which is convenient, because it doesn’t. To misquote Robbie Burns “A hill’s a hill for a’ that” and Carn Ban Mor is a fine old hill, and one with a particularly fine path.

Just before the croft at Auchlean, a track leaves the tarmac road and cuts away across the heather and bilberry. Alternatively, just past the croft, another track leaves the path to Glen Feshie at roughly 90º. It’s not long before the two converge, but fortunately we chose the latter option, otherwise we would have missed the two cuckoo chicks being fed by a pair of warblers in the lee of the farm buildings.

DSC07299

Cuckoo chick, waiting to be fed (Glen Freshie)

The energy expended by those small birds, incubating and nurturing the two cuckoos, is a genuine wonder of the natural world. For perspective, imagine a pair of robins tirelessly rearing a couple of young pigeons and you’d be about right.

Many hours later, we chose to return via the same route, just to see if the feeding was still going on: it was, even though the chicks both looked well capable of taking care of themselves. And their foster parents.

I’ll not dwell too much on the route, as there are any number of detailed and well-written descriptions available online. The path climbs through mixed woodland, which eventually gives way to open hillside and views of Glen Feshie and then the Spey valley. The Cairngorms national park is accessed via a gate and introduced by a boulder situated just inside the park boundary.

DSC07544A food stop was taken in the comfort of a peaty gulley, just to the side of the path. It was only on emerging onto the higher open ground that we realised just how much we’d been sheltered from the wind by the presence of Carn Ban Beag on our northern side. On the upper slopes a group of reindeer crossed our path on the ascent, and did so again as we were returning.

What sets the path apart from many others is that it takes you to within a whisker of the summit, without the degeneration into either quagmire or ankle-snapping boulder field, which is so often the case and usually just at the point where the trickiest part of the ascent is reached. A small waymark cairn marks the point where you need to leave the main path and head across gently sloping open ground to the summit cairn/shelter and take in the views which, in this case, really do justify the use of the word “panoramic”.

DSC07475

Sgor an Lochain Uaine and (right) Cairn Toul

The summits of Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine are familiar from a thousand pictures seen in guidebooks and on internet sites and; a little further on, there are excellent views across to the western corries of Braeriach. Almost due north, the rocky summit of Sgor Gaoith looks within touching distance; a little deceptive, as there is a drop down onto a saddle before needing to reascend another 100 metres in height.

 

DSC07478

The summit of Sgor Gaoith (1,118 metres) – Carn Ban Mor’s ‘parent’ hill

The return to earth (20/06/2015)

The return to earth

There’s no avoiding the fact that leaving the highlands involves ‘coming down’ in more than one sense. From a seemingly unending choice of mountains topping three and a half thousand feet, we return to a locality where the highest accessible summits reach around half that height.

Abdon Burf (Brown Clee), at 540 metres (1,770 feet), is the highest point in Worcestershire and Shropshire; Long Mynd – despite feeling much more like proper hill country – tops out at the summit of Pole Bank (516 metres/1693 feet).

It’s hard not to suffer withdrawal symptoms, and not just for the landscape either: highland place names evoke a particular nostalgia, all of their own. Simply planning a route in The Cairngorms can be enough to prompt anticipation and excitement: tracing a line on the map across allt; gleann; creag; stob. The principal waterways – Dee, Spey, Feshie – mostly seem to be identified by the anglicised ‘river’ but elsewhere the landscape is doing its bit to preserve the mystery and romance of gaelic. Could there be a better and more appropriate way of conserving a language than through the naming and identification of iconic landmarks?

The Welsh have a word – ‘Hiraeth’ – which has no direct equivalent in English, but one definition is “… a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia and wistfulness”. And there we have it, in a nutshell – an Englishman, back home and stricken with hiraeth for the wild places of Scotland (and their names). It’s almost a subliminal argument in favour of the union.

So, what to do? The realities of daily life demand attention and recreation has to take its place in the queue; not always at the front, unfortunately. Meanwhile, the post holiday void has to be filled, as best it can, by the frequently shorter and invariably less dramatic outings taken closer to home. As coping strategies go, this seems better than any of the alternatives…

f8181-dsc08175

The Worcester and Birmingham canal, near Droitwich

Canal walks are one of our staples, and what they lack in terms of hills is usually compensated for by the generally less hurried pace of life and movement around inland waterways. That and the often surprising diversity of wildlife colonising the margins; particularly where the canals border on areas of arable farmland.

Canals in the Droitwich area have benefited from substantial restoration efforts in recent years. These are too extensive and complex to cover in a blog post but there are a number of online sites detailing the work which has been carried out. Suffice it to say that the restoration projects have reactivated previously derelict and overgrown sections of waterway and towpath, created a variety of new wildlife habitats and some excellent walking opportunities. The restored canals are now in the care of The Canal and River Trust: their site can be viewed here; there is also, among others, a wiki page giving some of the back story.

a5c73-dsc081322b2_edited-1

Reed Warbler

One particular component of the  habitat enhancement has been the creation of extensive reed beds; these attract a variety of bird species but seem particularly appealing to probably the highest concentration of reed warblers we’ve ever encountered anywhere. Perhaps the day will eventually arrive when I can reliably distinguish them from a whitethroat at first sight; I’m not there yet.

Reed warblers are one of the varieties vulnerable to being used as a host by parasitic cuckoos and we heard distinctive cuckoo calls coming from a copse quite close to the towpath. In fact we’ve heard a number of cuckoos calling in the vicinity of local canals this spring/summer, where we can often go several years without hearing a single one in the locality. I suppose it could be that this is connected to the apparently thriving warbler population.

73a30-dsc08242_edited-1

Serendipity: while trying to pinpoint the precise location of the cuckoo, Rob chanced upon this green woodpecker sitting uncharacteristically motionless on top of a tree stump…

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

 

 

d24b0-dsc08053

 

 

 

Cultivated land, hedgerows, some woodland. A nice mix of habitat for warblers and other varieties.