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 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)

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

 

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… 

 

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…