Thursday, 29 September 2011

Shooting stars, roaring stags and a midnight crossing of the Aonach Eagach (posted by James)

A down-climb into the dark

One of the things that has always made me the happiest, wherever am I, is developing an intimate relationship with a place. Whether it be a small patch of woodland or a range of hills.

The thing I like about it is knowing exactly where and when to go to somewhere specific - a nook and cranny for every mood and any type of weather. And last night when I finished work at midnight, I just knew the Aonach Eagach was the place to be.

The best starlit sky I've seen since the end of the winter…the long arm of the Milky Way clearly visible stretching across the sky. The constellation Orion standing proud and firm, appearing to peer down on Rannoch Moor and the central Highlands. The Ridge was going to be a truly special place to be last night.

As I topped out on Am Bodach, the wind hit me. I hadn't realised how strong it would be…gale force gusts regularly battering the Ridge and buffeting me from side to side. But I didn't mind…I've done the Aonach Eagach many times and it has been totally different on each occasion, and a mid-night crossing in a gale definitely appealed.

The narrowest section of the ridge

Pitch black. No moon at all, leaving me to weave my way through the ups and downs of the Ridge by torchlight, regularly stopping to turn my torch off and just look up at the breathtaking star-scape above me.

It seemed an odd thing, seeing so many shooting stars on a night like last night when the wind was howling so loudly. I think of shooting stars on still, frosty nights on Ben Nevis when there is no sound at all.

The Pinnacles

A slight lull in the wind, and a hint of strange noises echoing in the corries on the North flank of the ridge. I brushed it off, thinking I was imagining things….but there it was again. Roaring stags.

The first I've heard this autumn, and what a way to hear them for the first time. Peering down into the black depths of the corries I couldn't see a thing, but there the stags were…roaring in gale at 2 in the morning.

On the way down, the clouds started to roll in and a few drops of rain started. The end of a few brief magical hours, when I was in exactly the right place at the right time.


Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Achieving my last goal of the summer (posted by James)

Bidean nam Bian (1150m), the highest peak in Glencoe

Life spent living at Glencoe's Clachaig Inn is a wonderful, probably unique thing…and I doubt many people would believe a lot of it unless they'd lived and worked here themselves.

From your first day (and I'm on about day 930) you start hearing of legendary members of staff of days gone by, and the crazy and memorable things they did.

About 2 years ago Clachaig's renowned Jimmy the Bush told me about what he called "The Hageman Challenge" - to climb Bidean nam Bian and get back down in the 3 hour break of a split-shift behind the bar. Bidean is usually a 5-6 hour walk for most, but Hageman managed it in 2 hours and 10 minutes, a time impossible for me when I heard about it 2 years ago. Challenge accepted!!

I'm as fit as I've ever been just now, and September's weather has made me restless and with itchy feet. So yesterday at the end of the first half of my shift at 3pm, I found myself hurtling towards Achnambeithach in my car (the accepted start point for the challenge) full of energy and psyched to test my fitness to the full.

I've done the run up past the big waterfall into Coire nam Beithach many times, and it's always hard work. It is by far the steepest of the three corrie approaches to Bidean nam Bian, but also the most direct and the route that Hageman took when he did it. Despite the steepness I found a good steady pace straight away, a skill I've been toning a lot recently.

Up to the base of the cliffs of Stob Coire nam Beith, and then a blissfully level and fast run along to the base of the scree at the bottom of Bidean's North-West face.

Now for the hard bit…..the steep, loose and slimy scree slope up to the col between Stob Coire nan Lochan and Bidean's North ridge. It is grim going either up or down, a slope far more pleasant under firm snow. It is an almost impossible slope to run up, so this is the slowest part of the course.

And then the final pull up the North ridge of Bidean, and 1 hour 16 minutes and 1 second after leaving Achnambeithach I found myself on the summit.

A 2 minute rest to contemplate, and catch my breath…a smile spreading across my face as I knew that if I looked well to each step on the descent, then I had it in the bag.

Leaving the summit I knew the descent down the scree would be grim, and it was. It is slimy and loose as a result of the snow that covers it for half the year, and on a wet day like yesterday it is hard to keep level when going at speed.

Down off the scree, and I increased my pace to full throttle. It is a steep and risky path to run at speed after rain, but it was just one of those days when I felt on top form and I descended Coire nam Beithach the fastest I have ever done.

2 hours, 9 minutes and 47 seconds later I found myself back at my car at Achnambeithach, with plenty of time spare to have a shower before starting my next shift at 6pm. Chuffed.

So….with this I have achieved the last of the three main goals I set myself for this summer. On-sight soloing The Great Ridge of Garbh Bheinn, getting mid-way through the Munros, and Bidean in a Clachaig split-shift.

Of the three though, I think perhaps yesterday's success was perhaps the most significant for me. It is not a massively impressive time to run Bidean by the standards of "dedicated" hill-runners, but it is significant as along with the last few weeks I think it might mark the start of me hill-running simply for the sake of hill-running.

Bidean in 2 hours in winter conditions? Now there's a thought….


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Some thoughts on running, fitness and "winter training" (posted by James)

September has on the whole been a pretty wet, blustery and cold month so far….or at least it has been whenever I've had a chance to get on the hill. As a result my hill-mileage has been fairly low for the last few weeks.

But September is not a month to be idle with the winter just around the corner. One of the most important lessons I've learnt about winter climbing is that no matter how fit you are, being just that little bit fitter would always make things easier and more enjoyable….so September is for me the month when I always try and step things up a gear or two.

I've made an important discovery recently - that although I don't particularly enjoy hillwalking or climbing in bad weather, I seem to enjoy running all the more when it's raining. So I've been doing a lot of running in the hills, and enjoying it far more than I have previously. There's a simple reason for that…I'm just fitter than I was this time a year ago.

Fitness, training, and weight loss seems to have been a common theme with a lot of my friends recently so I thought I'd give some of my thoughts on it here. Nearly everyone I know (including myself in the past) who has made a big effort to change their lifestyle, fitness or weight has found it extremely hard work, requiring a lot of determination and willpower. This is fair enough, as you are you repeatedly putting your body through stresses and strains that it isn't used to, you have to learn to say "NO" to that packet of crisps or that pint of beer, and most importantly you have to be able to keep on doing it.

Yet I have managed to significantly increase my fitness year on year since coming to Glencoe, and it isn't very often it has seemed much effort. And this increase in fitness has been very deliberate, as when it comes to mountaineering greater fitness is the key to open so many doors of opportunity.

So how have I done it, yet managed to rarely see this hard work as effort? It has been very simple…it just comes down to variety. I've deliberately stopped the monotonous "training regimes" I used to try when I was a teenager, I rarely weigh myself and it's not very often I measure my times or speed when I'm out running or walking. I just vary what I do. Take this week's runs for example - Coire nam Beithach on monday, the Lairig Eilde yesterday, Coire nan Lochan today. Next time I go out I might go hillwalking instead, and the time after that I might go climbing. Or whatever I fancy.

The basic key for me when it comes to increasing fitness is to try and *feel* it rather than measure it, vary what I do and where I do it, and to keep a constant eye on the prize. For me that prize is greater likelihood of being able to achieve long term winter climbing goals or long-distance mountain challenges, for others it will be different.

Not everyone has the privilege of being able to run, walk and climb in the type of surroundings that I live in, but I think it's something you can probably apply to wherever you live. It won't work for everyone, many people will prefer to see results in terms of numbers - but the key is to find what works for you.


Friday, 16 September 2011

A great start to the autumn on Skye (posted by James)

Clach Glas - Blaven Traverse (grade Diff by route taken)

After 6 days of torrential rain, the starlit sky and frost which greeted me at 4am yesterday was a sight for sore eyes.

The promise of a great morning ahead, so I headed to that most awe-inspiring of places, the Cuillin of Skye. A few days ago a mate of mine had suggested the Clach Glas-Blaven traverse as one of the best days you can have in the Scottish mountains….enough to get me curious!

Perfect weather on Clach Glas

It turned into one of those days which started great and got better with every moment. As I started the walk-in, the sunrise slowly lit up Blaven and Clach Glas. The sky started to turn more blue and the moon sat just above Blaven's South ridge. And all the time a real chill in the air.

The NE Face of Blaven - the crux of the route follows a chimney up the steep right-hand ridge line.

Emerging at the ridge crest was a moment I'm going to remember for quite a while. The whole of the Cuillin Ridge suddenly in view, to me unquestionably the most impressive panorama I've ever seen in Scotland.

The view to Am Basteir and Sgurr nan Gillean

The traverse is great, absolutely great. Soon after you start the climbing you come to the view of the North Ridge of Clach Glas, and it is quite a sight to behold -Ashley Abraham was quite right in giving it the nickname of "The Matterhorn of Skye".

Clach Glas - "The Matterhorn of Skye"

The route up the North Ridge looks improbable for a Moderate climb, and it is a devious line requiring good route-finding skills. It takes you through absolutely sensational surroundings with false-turns possible all over the place. In fact the whole traverse is a test of good route-finding, especially when soloing as I was.

Crisp light and cool air

Down to The Imposter, the great vertical bastion underneath the summit of Clach Glas, and then a long down-climb to The Putting Green - a rare patch of grass on the ridge.

The Imposter

From here you weave upwards through complicated ground to the crux of the route, the 18 Metre Chimney. It's a fun crux, very in keeping with the Diff Grade - i.e some reachy moves and a few small holds but never serious, and I felt perfectly secure without a rope.

The crux - The 18 Metre Chimney

And then on to the summit of Blaven, and one of the absolute best summit views I've seen yet in Scotland. Lochs, the sea and islands on every side, the Cuillin Ridge standing proud before me, and not a cloud in the sky.


Tuesday, 13 September 2011

A September storm in Glencoe (posted by James)

The River Coe going mental....

I think I'm fairly safe in saying that we've just had the rainiest 5 days in Glencoe since I arrived in the spring of 2009. I have never seen such continuous torrential rainfall.

As a result the River Coe is putting on an absolutely spectacular display…showing off, frankly! The water level is the highest I've seen it, and the steeper, faster sections are raging torrents which are almost frightening to look at.

Down by the village quite a lot of trees on the banks of the river are fairly submerged, and the water level is starting to look a bit close to the bottom of the bridge.

Just before the bridge into Glencoe village

I've been up and down the glen a bit in my car having a look at things - the waterfalls are really worth taking a look at! I dare say there will be a few surprised drivers when they turn the corner at the Meeting of the Three Waters. As for the Allt Coire nam Beithach (the waterfall underneath the W face of Aonach Dubh), all I can say is that just now it is absolutely immense.

The Allt Coire nam Beithach

The rain is still getting heavier….


Friday, 9 September 2011

Some photos from the last two weeks (posted by James)

The moon throwing Aonach Dubh, Glencoe into silhouette

A "Brocken Spectre" seen from the summit of Moal Chean-Dearg, Torridon

Re-discovering a cave on the West face of Aonach Dubh that Alex and I had first found in 2009.

Mushrooms starting to appear in the woods of Glen Lochay

An awesome cloud inversion over Glen Lyon, seen from Stuchd an Lochan

A eerie morning on the Glen Lyon dam, on my way towards Stuchd an Lochan

Morning fog over Killin, seen from Meall a Gheordaidh