Thursday, 30 August 2012

Off to the Alps and the end of my Scottish summer.

There was a distinct nip in the air when I walked out of my bothy early this morning. For the first time a hint that autumn will very soon be here. High on the hills the grass is showing signs of browning and it was sleeting on the Ben yesterday morning. 

On saturday morning I leave for a 3 week trip to the Swiss Alps. For the first time since I've been in Glencoe I'm not ending my summer with stuff still left on my "to-do" list for the season. 

I'll be going off to the Alps with a very full and satisfying Scottish summer behind me. The last few months have been some of the most enjoyable of all my time in the Highlands, so many great days in the sun and in so many different parts of Scotland.

And a lot of memorable climbs to look back on too…from classics such as the near-mythical North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag or the superb East Buttress of Beinn Eighe…to completely new and unrecorded routes in Glencoe.

I've climbed 6 new routes in the glen this summer, something I'm pretty pleased with as finding quality new routes anymore is quite a challenge…and a couple of my new routes are actually rather good. The feeling of climbing into un-known ground, solo and onsight, such a wonderful mixture of fear and elation. 

But now all my thoughts turn to the next three weeks, and the fact when I return from the Alps it will to be the start of another Highland autumn. 

See you all in a few weeks folks.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Photos from Handa and Assynt

The Great Stack of Handa.

Busy busy busy! Busy working in the Clachaig, busy planning a trip to the Alps next month, busy running, busy trying to re-gain my peak fitness after an injury…it's no surprise that the last few weeks have gone past in a blur.

A squall about to break over Stac Pollaidh

The day after my last blog post about this exceptional Scottish summer, the drizzle and mugginess made an appearance and with it came the midges. Hordes of them,  endless, relentless, inescapable swathes. Anyone who has been down Glen Nevis in the last few days will know what I mean…they were unbelievable down there last week.

A storm over the Old Man of Stoer

But in-between my busy days and the midges I managed a really good short trip to Assynt and the far North-West with my girlfriend at the beginning of the week. 

One of Handa's "bonxies" and the view to Inverpolly

Without any mountain-based plans for once we took a boat out to the small but magnificent island of Handa, best known for its colonies of puffins and skuas and its awesome sea-cliff scenery.

What a memorable island it is…if you've never heard of The Great Stack of Handa before, I'd recommend you look it up. Of all of Scotland's countless impressive cliffs, mountain faces, corries and coastal landforms, the Great Stack is surely one of its finest. 

Check out that cave...

There is something unique about the feeling of walking on Scotland's islands. I don't know quite what it is but I find it relaxing and exhilarating in equal measures. The calm and quiet view over to Inverpolly and Assynt to one side, and the gaping drop down the 300ft cliffs to the sea below on the other…the Isles of Harris and Lewis in the distance…fulmars and skuas fighting and diving on every side…the constant look-out for whales or dolphins in the sea. 

Nicole exploring the Inchnadamph caves

After Handa we also managed to battle midges over the rough walk to Eas a'Chuil Alluin, the waterfall that drops 658ft in one go to Glencoul and claims the title of Britain's longest falls. The rough ground, bog-bashing and need for serious caution to approach the top of the falls felt so wonderfully contrasting to the experience of visiting most other big waterfalls. Signposts, handrails and a good path aren't necessary or wanted here…as it should be.

A quick visit to the Inchnamdamph caves and an oath to climb some of Assynt's famous mountains next time, and back to Glencoe. 


Thursday, 16 August 2012

A very different Scottish summer

One of many perfect summer evenings in Glencoe

Last year it rained for 311 days out of 365 in Glencoe. The summer months arrived and with the onset of July also came the gloom, low cloud and mizzle that is so strongly associated with Highland summers…and I cemented my reputation as the grumpiest bugger in the glen until the winter arrived.

Evening sunshine on Stob Coire nam Beith

I'm not sure how things could have been any more different this summer. Whilst England has suffered one of its wettest summers on record, up here our smiles have slowly been growing wider. At the end of a period of glorious high pressure in May I remember thinking "that'll be our summer over then"…and didn't dare to even whisper the idea that, maybe, just maybe, we would actually get a proper summer.

But a proper summer is what we have well and truly had so far. For me it will be defined by dry rock, warm days on Aonach Dubh climbing new routes, vivid sunsets lighting up the West Face at dusk. Long walks over remote hills in the middle of no-where, lazy days in the sun on the Clachaig meadow, exploring new parts of the Highlands with my girlfriend.

Dry rock on Aonach Dubh

I've always tried hard to believe in "clouds and silver linings". I've often been guilty of not succeeding, bad life-experiences and pessimism sometimes getting the better of me. But the last few weeks have been an eye-opener, and I've managed to find real positives in an injury, something that usually defeats my optimistic side.

A golden eagle on a fine day in Glenfinnan

A foot injury from hill-running has been the catalyst that I needed to reignite my love of hill-walking, something that had increasingly become replaced by climbing and running this year. I stopped running for a while and focused on some of the longest and finest of Scotland's hill-walks, and reminded myself how to do 20-milers after no sleep.

A sunny afternoon in Coire nam Beith

It seems a bit unreal…how many hill-days in good weather is it possible to have in a Highland summer? 

But perhaps the thing that defines it most for me is that for once I have enjoyed the summer for what it is, not just as a period of time to endure between winters. It is hard not to become intoxicated by the warm sunshine and the promise of more to come, to indulge in the pure pleasure of climbing on dry rock or lazing with a beer in the afternoon before a busy weekend at the Clachaig.

A stunning dawn over the Aonach Eagach

But there it is…as usual…mid-August, and my attentions increasingly turn to the next winter. Even before the best Scottish summer I've had has ended, I can't stop it from invading my thoughts. I can hardly wait for new winter adventures, nothing inspires me more, but before that I have my next big challenge.

In two weeks I leave for Switzerland again, and during September I'll remind myself of the very different mountaineering environment of the Alps. But I've no doubt that my coming autumn and winter in Scotland will never be far from my mind.


Thursday, 2 August 2012

A surprise on Aonach Dubh

Soloing the first ascent of "The Surprise" (Severe), Aonach Dubh, Glencoe.

Usually when I set out to solo a climb that I think is going to scare me, there is a certain amount of mental preparation involved. Visualising yourself succeeding, making sure you are realistic and honest with yourself, and sometimes a good blasting of angry music on your ipod on the approach to keep yourself psyched.

Today was a total exception, and I'm still slightly surprised at my afternoon on Aonach Dubh. Insomnia is still playing its nasty game and I didn't get to sleep last night until after 5am. Waking late, my plans to go hillwalking somewhere weren't going to happen so I half-heartedly set off up to the West face of Aonach Dubh with the intention of a bit of climbing.

As I got to the base of the Un-named Pinnacle, for some reason my attention turned to an unclimbed route which I'd never given much thought to before. A traversing ledge along the South Wall, going round an extremely exposed narrowing and then up a groove to the top of the Pinnacle.

The narrowing looked scary. But the route looked brilliant, all the more appealing in the warm sunshine. So after a brief pause to assess my mood, I set off up the route less than 5 minutes after noticing it for the first time.

I reached the crux of the ledge. It narrowed to only about 3 inches wide, and a sharp bulge in the wall pushed me outwards. I managed to find a good handhold for my right hand, and I set about working out how to get past the bulge and to the wider continuation of the ledge beyond.

With a lot of my weight on my right arm I blindly searched for a left handhold on the other side of the bulge. I started to feel a bit pumped and I stretched further to my left to find anything I could swing round on. At just the right moment I found it, and trusting the hold I swung round through the crux with relief.

After this a nice steep groove to finish on the top of the pinnacle, and I stood on top a bit baffled and surprised at what I'd just done. I think it is the most psychologically difficult new summer route I've climbed, the blind search for a hidden handhold on such a narrow and exposed crux a stern challenge whilst soloing. 

A quick solo of "Nelson's Slab" (Diff) afterwards.

A great wee find and certainly a new route to remember, on yet another warm and sunny summer day in Glencoe. What a summer so far!


Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Keeping up the mileage in The Cairngorms

The cliffs and old snow of Garbh Choire Mor, Braeriach

"A traverse possible in a single epic day for the extremely fit"…so the guidebook says for the 22.5 mile traverse of the "Braeriach Four". Just the kind of description that fitted the bill for what I was craving yesterday.

Dawn over the Cairngorms

Regular followers of this blog will know that I have a very minor injury just now that has prevented me from hill-running for the last few weeks. Despite trying to stay as positive as I can, I am forced to admit that I don't cope well with injuries. Being deprived of my daily running fix has begun to take its toll as I struggle to find something to fill the gap, and my efforts have fully turned to trying to maintain my hard-earned peak fitness of spring this year.

Despite many 15 or 16 mile mountain routes over the last few weeks I've been getting fed-up of finishing the route and getting home with still plenty left "in the tank". It has actually been a fair while since hill-walking has tired me out, I guess as a result of focusing on running in the hills instead.. Yesterday I wanted to feel the sensation of being drained…I wanted sore feet, stiff muscles and the need for sleep.

Reindeer near the summit of Braeriach

Ignoring the guidebook's advice to take two days over the full-circuit, I was walking up Braeriach's NE spur early yesterday morning in glorious sunshine and crisp light, looking forward to the many miles ahead. What a wonderful route it is, the undulating plateau edge all the way to The Devil's Point. 

Braeriach is an utterly stupendous place, its 13 corries and endless cliffs making it an awe-inspiring place hard to equal in Scotland. I can't think of many backdrops more suitable to a route of this length, and a lot of mileage seemed to disappear as I would marvel at one view after another along the plateau.

The extent of the views from Cairn Toul were quite a change after spending most of my time in the West and NW Highlands recently. There aren't many places from which you can see the Trossachs, Ben Nevis, Knoydart, The Fannichs and the Southern Cairngorms all at the same time.

After the four Munros and the descent down to Corrour Bothy, I started what would usually be "day two" of the route, the return along the entire length of the Lairig Ghru. At about 19 miles along the route I started to get what I'd been after, the pleasant sense of fatigue starting to make itself known. 

Perfect weather on the plateau

A lot about tiredness comes down to what's going on in your mind, after only 30 minutes of sleep the night before doing the route I should have been totally exhausted…but because I regularly do long mountain days after little or no rest I simply know the tricks to ignoring some of the signals your body sends you.

The semi-permanent snows of Braeriach, Garbh Choire has been snow-free only 5 times in the last 100 years.

10 hours 45 mins after leaving the car I had finished the route, but with some frustration I realised I simply did not feel that tired. I guess that I need to aim higher until I can start running again. A little frustrated yes, but glowing from such a grand course over the Cairngorm's finest. One of Scotland's best routes, for sure.

Note: unless you are a hill-runner or an extremely fit hill-walker then take the guidebook's advice and do this route over two days, if you doubt your mountain-legs then trying it in a day will break you.