Three days to go

Just three days left before we set off on out TGO Challenge!

Our food parcel has been posted; all the essentials have been bought; the kitchen is full of chocolate raisins, oat cakes and protein bars; the tent is airing and all our gear has been washed and proofed. Ticks are starting to accumulate on our to-do list and packing will soon begin!

If you’d like to show your support by sponsoring us, details of our charities and links to donate can be found here: Jessica & Chris’ fundraising team

Stanage: Intro to Grit Stone

Stanage Edge is a 4km wall of grit stone located on the Hallam Moors east of Sheffield. It is separated into three different sections: Stanage North, Plantation and Popular. All of this together offers you over 1300 climbing routes, giving you plenty to go at no matter what grade you climb.

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Stanage Popular

We had two days in which to sample the most popular climbing venue in the UK and after a delicious breakfast of French toast, we headed up the short hill to the base of the crag. This only took us 5 minutes. We wanted to start on something simple, having never climbed on grit before, so we chose an easy looking gully for our first climb. We both thought that we would be in for a tricky couple of days, as our easy gully proved to be cold, slimy and awkward.

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#vanlife

However, as the sun began to poke through the morning clouds and after getting a couple more climbs under our belt, we started to get the feel for the grit stone. It was new to us both and the super wide cracks and sloping edges do take a bit of getting used to. By the end of the first day we had climbed over 10 routes including: Crack and Corner S 4b, Mississippi Buttress Direct VS 4c and the classic Flying Buttress HVD 4a.

As day two began, after more French toast of course, we were back on the grit and flicking through the Rockfax guide book for the next climb. We never had to look far. Be warned though, when the guide book says it’s a popular crag, it really means it. We were staggered by how quickly the car park would fill up and just how easily your plans for your next route could be thwarted by other enthusiastic climbers. Everyone at the crag was friendly and it made for a great atmosphere and a real buzz about the place which was brilliant to be a part of.

Having added Bishop’s Route S 4a and the brilliantly intense Hollybush Crack VD to our ever increasing tally of climbs, the sun was setting on our Stanage adventure. We had been here for two days and we had barely scratched the surface of what’s available. After our cold and awkward start we were both leaving with fond memories and the fact that this is a terrific place, well deserving of its superb reputation. We can’t wait to get back some time in the future.

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Sun setting on the last climb of the day.

Top tips:

Be sure to get there early as the car park fills up quickly so by mid-afternoon you may be struggling for a space at Stanage Popular.

Bring big gear, and lots of it! You will find plenty of use for your biggest hex, torque nut or cam.

Knoydart: beautiful and wild

From the moment when I first heard that the Knoydart Penninsula is the most remote area on the UK mainland, I have wanted to visit. At Easter, we finally made the trip.

The Knoydart Penninsula sits between Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn on the west coast of Scotland. It has no road links and can therefore only be accessed by boat or by foot. We decided that several days walking here would represent great training for our TGO Challenge, which is now only a few weeks away!

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The stags were waiting to welcome us into Knoydart

We decided to start our walk from Kinlochourn, which is reached via a long drive down a very bumpy single track road off the A87. We encountered a lot of red deer in the road so drive carefully. There are two car parks at the end of this road: one for day parking and one for overnight with a £1 charge per night. We left the van there on Thursday morning and set off along the path on the south side of Loch Hourn.

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Setting off along Loch Hourn

It is instantly beautiful. The loch was peaceful with just a pair of grebes floating nearby and the surrounding hills dropping steeply to the shores. The path was muddier than we had anticipated and we had to stop after just 10 mins to put our gaiters on: an early sign of what was to come!

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Barrisdale Bay

The path follows the loch shore for about 8 km before it turns south and heads inland as a landrover track to Barisdale. This area is relatively bustling compared to much of the rest of the penninsula, presumably because it can be accessed by boat and there is a path linking it to Inverie. Camping here is restricted to the campsite opposite the bothy; there is a £3 charge per night for both. Also, if your gear is wet, there is no longer a fireplace in the bothy, but there is running water and a toilet.

Once past Ambraigh the route towards Inverie starts to climb. The intermittent showers also became more persistent. By this stage we had seen more deer than I have ever seen and the effect that they have on this environment was clearly illustrated by a large area on the opposite side of the valley from which they have been excluded. The deer fence marked an extraordinarily well-defined line between the short brown grass on our side and the deep heather and young trees or saplings on the other side.

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The first Bridge of Doom in Gleann an Dubh-Lochain

It felt like a long ascent to the bealach (saddle), where the wind caught us. We could now see Loch an Dubh-Lochain ahead where we intended to camp. The descent was simple enough, we just had to avoid the boggy sections: there were many! There were also numerous streams running down, crossing the path and we encountered the first Bridge of Doom (falling apart!). The ground on this part of the valley was unexpectedly and beautifully covered in primroses.

 

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Unexpectedly pretty among the wilderness

We also came across a lone highland calf which Chris announced was dead, before it got up and trotted off.

 

Our camping spot was right beside the lochan and I was very happy to reach it; I felt amazingly light and floaty when I took my rucksack off.

 

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First pitch beside Loch an Dubh-Lochain

Unfortunately it rained on and off constantly while we set up camp and made dinner, so that by bedtime we were soaked again, which didn’t make getting into the tent easier or more comfortable. By the time we were inside we were effectively barricaded in by the piles of wet boots, gloves and waterproofs in the tent porch. We did have a lovely 12 hour sleep though!

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Gleann Meadail

It was nicer in the morning so we set off wearing all our wet outer-layers to dry them out. We turned off the main path to Inverie and headed east up Gleann Meadail. This was a lovely valley and we found a wonderful spot for a camp, where we had our first snack stop, before starting the long climb up to Mam Meadail. Part of the way up, we stopped for lunch and I had just taken my boots and socks off to freshen my feet in the stream, when a big burst of heavy rain hit us. By the time we had scrambled to get our waterproofs on and everything was wet again, it had stopped; this was to be the course of the day.

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A long slow ascent up to Mam Meadail

From the highest point we could see the pointed summit of Sgurr na Ciche shrouded in cloud; we even glimpsed a golden eagle before it disappeared into the mist on the upper slopes. We were slow on the descent down to Carnoch and the marshy land around the River Carnach didn’t look very inviting.

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The mouth of the river Carnach and the BOG

We followed a track up the north side of the river, without crossing it as is shown on the map, but this soon turned into deep mud before disappearing. We weaved our way through the boggy ground, trying to avoid the wettest areas, which was extremely hard going and made for very slow progress. Tracks and paths were occasionally visible but they didn’t help much as we just ended up ankle deep in mud rather than water.

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Down the river Carnach as the valley begins to narrow

Eventually we reached a wooded area that redeemed the afternoon by being absolutely stunning! The valley here narrowed and became steeper, the river also narrowed and ran over rocks, forming waterfalls and cascades, more streams gurgled down through the trees on our left. The bank became steep and we had to climb through trees and rocks but at least it wasn’t so wet.

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Passing  around the foot of Beinn Aodainn

Then, as the river turns east around the foot of Beinn an Aodainn, we came out under a dark cliff that dropped into a gorgeous pool of clear green water. Trees hung over one end and at the other the bank sloped down gently forming a little beach. It would make a perfect campsite and a superb swimming spot in warmer weather. This section was so calm, unexpected and wonderful, I found myself thinking that it could be one of my favourite places in Scotland – on the otherhand, it could just have been the relief of getting out of the endless flat bog!

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Why can’t we camp here?

More waterfalls appeared as we climbed higher and then we were back in the bog again. Here the path on the map disappears; we followed the river, planning to ascend up to reach another path that would take us east to Loch Cuaich, where we intended to camp. However, we came to an apparent dead end when the valley narrowed again and steep crags blocked the route. My feet were tired, absolutely soaked and after such a difficult day I definitely didn’t fancy scrambling about, then walking another hard four km, so I suggested we stopped at the one small patch of dry grass beside the river.

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Waterfalls below Beinn Aodain

 We had dinner – instant custard makes quite a nice dessert – and made it into the tent just a few minutes before torrential rain started to fall. Heavy rain and hail rattled on the tent all night, interspersed with violent gusts of wind that I could hear rushing up the valley before they buffeted us and it was much colder. I didn’t have a good sleep imagining the tent blowing down and the water that was all around us rising up to flood the tent.

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Dinner preparations after a hail shower

However, everything was absolutely fine (I feel bad to have doubted our little tent!) and in the morning the hill tops were all covered in snow. It was dry for breakfast and we set off eastwards to follow the north side of the river to Lochan nam Breac as described in the hill tracks book. Five minutes later and that route was clearly impassable without getting into the river, so we back tracked and scrambled north up the steep slope, aiming to hit the track somewhere above us. This worked and gave us some fantastic views of the whole valley in both directions, before making our way east again. This valley feels seriously wild and committing, it’s a very dramatic, craggy and remote landscape.

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View back down the River Carnach on the last morning

By 11am we were north of Lochan nam Breac and stopped to look at the map; it had taken us nearly 2 hours to walk about 2.5 km. We were astonished! It had felt like we were moving well, but the boggy ground was clearly slowing us down and it was still raining. We had intended to head back to Barisdale along the Abhainn Chosaidh and then through Glen Barrisdale but those valleys were riddled with streams and were not recommended for wet days! Adding that to our slow progress and a big potential river crossing, we decided it was safer to turn back and return via Gleann Unndalain instead.

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Lochan nam Breac

Once we started climbing Mam Unndalain, the bog reduced dramatically and we made much better distance. Glenn Unndalain is a lovely valley but felt much greener and friendlier; the sun even came out for a while, making the numerous streams and waterfalls sparkle.

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Out of the worst of the bog at last and climbing Mam Unndalain

By 3pm our progress had improved so much, we were back at the Barisdale campsite, where we had a hot chocolate before carrying on, intending to camp on the tip of land pointing out to Fraoch Eilean. Howewer, it was only about 4.30pm when we got near and we decided that it would be good training to do a longer day, so we pushed on back to the van. It turned into a beautiful evening as we marched back along Loch Hourn, with the evening sun coming out between showers to light up the moss, dead bracken and granny pines on the shore.

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Granny pines after ANOTHER shower

We got back to the van at about 7pm, sorted out our kit and made an excellent dinner with all our remaining food!

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Evening on the shore of Loch Hourn

Details

Distances: Day 1 – Kinlochourn to via Brisdale Loch an Dubh-Lochain ~ 18km; Day 2 –  via Gleann Meadail and up the River Carnach to the most northerly bend ~ 18km; Day 3 – back to Kinlochourn via Glean Unndalain and Barisdale ~21km

Total: 57km

Comments:

Knoydart is an absolutely incredible place, I would highly recommend going! However, good care and planning is required as the terrain can be difficult, weather forecasts are unreliable and it is very inaccessible and remote: in three days we saw 7 people between Kinlochhourn and Barisdale, and only 1 other person beyond that. Ensure you have plenty of supplies, escape options prepared and enjoy the heart of Scottish wilderness.

TGO Challenge 2017 route

We now have an approved route for our backpacking trip across Scotland! All 291km (181 miles) of it!

We have planned to do this over 14 days, with 10 nights camping, two of these being on a campsite while the rest will be wild, and 3 nights in hostels (to dry out!). We aim to walk an average of just under 21 km (13 miles) per day, with 30.1km as our longest day and 11km being the shortest.

We have decided to start our route from Shiel Bridge, so our first three days will take us through an area that is totally new for us both: Glen Affric to Drumndrochit on the banks of Loch Ness. Here, we will have our first night indoors before taking a ferry across the Loch and traversing the northern edge of the Mhonadliath range via Glen Mazeran, before descending the Burma Road to Aviemore. We chose this route as we haven’t explored any of this region except for Aviemore; we have heard that Glen Affric is lovely and reading reports of some of the other routes across the Monadhliath put us off, as we didn’t fancy endless eroded landrover tracks, wind farms and power lines. Glen Mazeran also appeared to be recommended as a nice place to spend the night.

TGO MAP

Starting at Shiel Bridge in the west and finishing in Montrose in the east.

From Aviemore, we intend to walk via Glen Feshie and White Bridge to Braemar. I have never been down Glen Feshie; Chris has but it was during his ML assessment and therefore he didn’t really take it in.

Our longest day will be between Braemar and Ballater; we have driven this section and it was beautiful, so hopefully this will distract us. Then we’ll have a short day to recover, before taking in Mount Keen. There were a fair few alternatives for crossing the southern Cairngorms, and we originally wanted to go via Jock’s road but this required a long foul weather alternative. We therefore decided to go over Mount Keen, as it was simpler for planning purposes and is a munro that would otherwise require a lot of effort to bag. We will then descend to Tarfside, followed by a final camp in North Water Bridge before hitting the beach at Montrose. This means we don’t have to worry about transport from our final destination to Montrose for signing out and the celebration dinner!

We’re very excited but also a little nervous as neither of us have done anything like this before, so we’re expecting it to be very challenging. It has also required a lot of planning, organisation and preparation, so we’ve decided to try to raise some money for two charities while we do it: Scottish Mountain Rescue and Bliss. Please have a look at our JustGiving pages and support us by supporting them!

Cambusbarron climbing

On Saturday, we managed to get out into the sun and squeeze in our first outdoor climbing of the year!

Cambusbarron West Quarry (Fourth Quarry) is our nearest climbing crag and on such a beautiful day it was a lovely place to be.

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Sven leading  Still Better than Peak (VS 4c), the obligatory first climb of all our visits, and Chris ready to climb.

This crag catches the sun, dries relatively quickly and has some nice views from the top. The rock is dolerite and can be loose at the top, particularly after the winter, so helmets are definitely highly recommended! Many of the climbs are steep and it can be intimidating for less confident climbers. There are good anchors at the top and we’ve taken lots of friends and family to try out an exhilarating abseil. In the summer, you just have to watch-out for midges among the trees: we’ve had to pack up and run away very quickly, when the breeze has dropped.

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Chris happy to be out climbing again, belaying at the top of Cha (S 4a), Jessica and Chris on Not Easy Contract (E1 5b)

You will often find a few members of the University of Stirling Mountaineering Club there, but despite the gorgeous conditions, we had it to ourselves. Access is very easy, just a five minute flat walk from Old Drove Road in Cambusbarron (Stirling), the start of which gives fantastic views across to the mountains, making it a nice venue for a quick after-work climb.

Nevis Gorge and Steall Falls

Following our day out with British Mountain Guide Andy Cave, we decided to take a wander up to the Steall Falls in Glen Nevis. It was raining and we had wanted to make the most of the hotel facilities in the morning, so this short walk was ideal. From Fort William, you take the road all the way to the end of Glen Nevis where there is a free car park. A good path leads away into the dramatic gorge, however it is rough and at times the ground drops away steeply, so care and good footwear is needed.

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View up the Water of Nevis from the path

After winding through the forest, with the river rushing over rocks below, you come out into an open valley. The huge Steall Falls are immediately visible pouring down the hillside ahead. The path leads off east down the valley, but you can turn right towards the river to get a bit closer. A wire bridge crosses the river, which is not for the faint-hearted. A hut is situated on the other side and a boggy walk to the base of the falls is possible, but according to Chris wasn’t worth the muddiness, as the views are actually better from the river.

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Steall Falls in the cloud

Harry Potter fans might recognise the landscape from the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry battles the dragon.

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This bridge requires a lot of concentration (it is also right at the end of the walk and it’s therefore not essential to cross it!)

This is a brilliant walk for groups of friends or families wanting quick access to some wilderness and spectacular scenery, the rocky path might add an extra little sense of adventure.

Distance: 3.5 km / 2.25 miles

Ascent: 220 m

Time: 1.5 hours

#makewintercount

About a month ago I received an email from the British Mountaineering Council informing me that I had won the #makewintercount competition that they had been running all winter with Lowe Alpine. I was astonished! This grand prize consisted of two nights in a hotel and a day out with British Mountain Guide Andy Cave for two people. Chris and I were obviously thrilled.

We spent a week or so wondering where we would be going, before finding out that we would be based at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel, which looked wonderful. Andy got in touch with us and we gave him our experience and what we hoped to get out of a day with a mountain guide. We then watched the weather forecast extremely closely for the week before the trip, excitedly trying to guess what routes we might be able to do.

We escaped the Glasgow rush hour on Friday evening and made it to Glencoe before Andy, who was driving up from England. From the hotel reception we could see the pool, and to reach our room we walked through the lounge and dining area, which had a lovely atmosphere. Our room was far beyond our expectations: large, with doors opening out onto Loch Leven.

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View over Loch Leven from our bedroom door

Upon meeting us for dinner in the restaurant, Andy also gave us two new Peak Ascent rucksacks, provided by Lowe Alpine as part of the prize. The food was delicious and we spent a very pleasant evening getting to know Andy, discussing our options for the following day and making our plans.

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My first try at making and using coils

We usually have very early starts when going out on the hills, so we had expected we would miss breakfast on Saturday, but Andy assured us there would be plenty of time, which made Chris happy. Having packed our new rucksacks, we set off just after 8.30am to Glean Spean. It was warm, with freezing level above the summits, so there was not going to be much ice. Andy had suggested climbing a little-known ridge in the Creag Meagaidh hills, which he knew well, and where there would be a suitable route whatever the conditions. Here, Chris and I could get ourselves up, with Andy demonstrating new techniques and providing guidance. This suited us perfectly, as although it would have been fun for Andy to lead us up something difficult, we had decided that we wanted to use the day as an opportunity to develop our own skills and gain the confidence to try more technical winter terrain by ourselves. Chris has some winter climbing experience but I have only walked in winter, and although I have been on a couple of introductory winter skills courses, when we are out together, we generally avoid steep ground.

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Andy showing Chris methods for getting us safely over short steeper sections

We had a leisurely start, with Andy showing us some of the gear he uses, before setting off along the forestry tracks on the north side of the A86 east of Tulloch.

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Andy ahead and Chris with the coils as we climbed a snowy slope. Note his shiny new Lowe Alpine Peak Ascent rucksack. It’s a great colour!

After a small river crossing and a sandwich pause, we emerged from the forest and headed west towards the steeper slopes. Visibility wasn’t great, so we made sure to get a few navigation and decision making tips. We headed for the east ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn, trying to choose the least boggy route. Once properly on to the ridge and with less grass between the snow patches, we stopped to put our harnesses and helmets on and get our axes out. As the ridge got steeper, Andy showed us how to move together and to make coils with the rope to give the other person confidence and support against small slips. Chris usually leads whenever we are out in the mountains, whether walking, scrambling or climbing, so having Andy with us, gave me the opportunity to lead a bit and practice some rope skills myself.

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Getting used to moving together

Andy gave us a good range of helpful suggestions for moving on steep, but not overly dangerous, ground without having to stop and climb pitch by pitch, which will be really useful for us in the future. By staying on the ridge we also avoided any risk of avalanches; we could see the debris of these in the coires either side of us.

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Having fun!

Once onto the the flatter ground near the summit, Andy told us how it can be useful to keep the rope on in poor visibility; by keeping a good length of rope between you, the person behind can catch the other if they fall through a cornice! He also demonstrated that it can be advantageous to calculate the bearings and distances you will need to use after topping out in order to keep away from the edges and the cornices, before you start climbing, not when you reach the top.

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Nearly at the summit: protecting ourselves from the risk posed by invisible cornices

We used bearings and timing to navigate from the summit in the cloud, walking one in front of the other, rather than together, to help keep ourselves accurate. Then we headed down the south ridge until the cloud started clearing and we got some lovely views of the mountains to the south.

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Summit selfie!

We made our way back down to the forest as the sun was getting lower, dousing the landscape in a beautiful light, and followed a stream through the forest to the track which took us back to the car.

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Mountains just appearing through the cloud

Happily we made it back to the hotel in time for another very large and delicious dinner. After dinner Chris and I said goodbye to Andy, who would be leaving early on Sunday morning, and had a final drink on the sofas by the fire in the lounge area.

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Descending in the sunshine

In the morning, Andy had indeed left before we were up, but we stayed to test out the pool and the sauna, before consuming an enormous breakfast from the buffet.

It was a brilliant weekend and a fantastic prize. We learnt loads and Andy gave us lots of recommendations for places we should visit and routes we should try. We left full of new confidence and inspiration to get out on even more adventures.

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Post-mountain dinner (photo credit: Andy Cave)

Thank you very very much Andy, Lowe Alpine and the BMC!!!!