#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!!!!

The Great Outdoors Challenge 2017

In May, we will be taking part in the TGO Challenge. This is a non-competitive backpacking event in which 300 participants walk from the west coast of Scotland to the east. It has been running every year since 1980.

Chris and I discovered its existence separately last year: I heard about it via Twitter, and Chris heard about it by meeting a Challenger in the Cairngorms during his Mountain leader assessment. We had been vaguely considering undertaking a long trip, with Chris mentioning the Cape Wrath Trail every so often, and we quickly decided to apply for the TGO Challenge. A really interesting aspect of this challenge is that every group plans their own route, so although 300 people are crossing during the same fortnight, we can all go different ways. It therefore combines a long-distance journey and wilderness, with a sense of camaraderie and companionship.

Having been accepted, we are now deep in our route planning! We’ll keep you updated as our plans progress.

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Our living room is currently carpeted with OS maps. A little furniture rearranging meant that at one point we were able to fit in the whole width of Scotland!

Isles of Lewis and Harris: beaches and eagles

Lewis

Having had a fantastic day on Liathach in Torridon on Sunday, our plan was to spend the rest of the week getting a taste of the Isles of Lewis and Harris on our very first trip to the Outer Hebrides.

So, on Monday morning we caught the 9.30am ferry out of Ullapool to Stornoway. The water was incredibly calm and remained so for the entire crossing. We saw gannets for the first time, skimming just above the sea, identifiable by their large pale beaks and black wing tips contrasting strongly with their white bodies. We also caught a glimpse of two small fins side-by-side behind the ferry, but we couldn’t tell whether they were dolphins or porpoise. We spent some time during the crossing with all our guide books, climbing guides and maps (of which we had many!) out, constructing a plan of action for the next few days.

The ferry arrived in Stornoway in the early afternoon; we had read that this was by far the largest settlement on the islands, so we went for a wander around. Unfortunately we were rather underwhelmed and soon headed off for wilder areas.

Our first destination was the beach, Traigh Uige, at Timsgearraidh on the west of the island, which I think we read was the nicest on Lewis. The drive lasted about an hour, mostly through empty low-lying bog, containing very little but short brown grass and lots of lochans. This doesn’t sound very appealing but in the sunshine it was surprisingly attractive, with the golden brown contrasting with the bright blue of the sky and water.

We drove to a spot marked on the OS map with parking and a picnic area, just north of Eader Dah Fhadhail, and found it to be a designated camping area with toilets, showers and a utility room, run by a crofting association. The beach is just behind a small band of sand dunes and is lovely: beautiful white sand and sea so clear and blue, we quickly decided that we had to have a swim!

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Sunny Traigh Uige

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Eventually, feeling invigorated, we headed back to the van for dinner. The following morning, the sun was still shining and we drove up to Aird Uig to look for some sea cliff climbs. We parked at the end of the road opposite a house that is being run as a cafe and craft shop, or “open house” when the cafe is closed: a lovely idea. Aird Uig looked like a very unusual place, full of long low buildings with flat roofs. Some of them were nicely done up as holiday accommodation, others appeared to be in the process of renovation and quite a few were in very poor condition, lacking windows and surrounded by broken cars and engines. Apparently it is an old RAF base and the community are now doing lots of work to bring in visitors and provide jobs and business for locals.

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So where are these cliffs?

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We headed west from the centre of the village along a track and then down towards the north side of a lochan and the cliffs. The views were great but we weren’t very successful at finding the climbs; unfortunately, this seems to be a regular occurrence for us with sea cliffs. In the early afternoon we headed back to the van for the drive down to North Harris.

Harris

As you head south from Stornoway, the landscape changes: it starts to get hilly, and we drove along a really beautiful valley, with Loch Aireasort in the bottom, before reaching much more rocky terrain. We were looking for a shop to stock up on milk but didn’t actually find one until Tarbert the following day, so make sure you plan food shopping carefully!

We turned off the main road just north of Tarbert and drove west along a narrow, single track, windy and humpy road.The next day’s walk was to start from this road and I had spotted a small beach and a parking area at the end of it, which I thought might be somewhere nice to stay for the night. This road gives easy access to the Forest of Harris and part of the way along it we spotted a sign for a Golden Eagle observatory, which was very exciting: Golden Eagles were one of the things I was particularly hoping to see. At the end of the road, we did indeed find a lovely beach, parking, a wild campsite and a toilet, again run by the local crofting association. Be prepared to have to get out and chivvy the Highland cows out of the road though, they really weren’t bothered by the van at all. That evening we were able to have dinner with van doors open looking right down onto the beach.

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Traffic jam

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Dinner with a view at Huisinis

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Breakfast in the sunshine

After a sunny breakfast on the picnic benches above the beach, we headed off to start our walk; this time the cows were lying in the road and wouldn’t move until I went and stood over them. The walk starts at the access road to a power station about 3/4 of the way along the road, just before a little castle (Abhainn Suidhe) if you’re coming from the west. It follows a tarmac track up past the power station, but before we had even walked 1 km, we heard a raven making a lot of noise and realised that it was mobbing something very large indeed: my first Golden Eagle sighting! The eagle dwarfed the raven, which chased it round the valley before we lost sight of them over the hills. I couldn’t believe it and was so excited as I hadn’t really expected to see one. However, the Forest of Harris reportedly has some of the highest nesting density of Golden Eagles in Europe, so it’s a good place to spot them.

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Glen Ulladale

Once past the power station, the track gets steeper and climbs up to a small dam at the end of Loch Chliostair. Here, a path follows the west side of the loch; there is steep hillside on both sides and I spotted another eagle come over the top and slowly circle it’s way around to our left. Then we heard a strange yapping sound and another came into sight near the first and they circled together for a while before splitting up. The one that was yapping made a sudden drop towards the hillside at one point and we could see flashes of white on its underside, suggesting that it was a juvenile.

The path continues to another smaller loch before dropping down into Glen Ulladale (Gleann Uladail). As you descend, Sron Ulladale starts to come into view on the right. This is a massive fist of rock that bursts out of the hillside and towers over the valley as a magnificent overhanging cliff. It has been described as the finest inland precipice in the UK, and if you are a climber, it hosts some famous long hard climbs. Great big boulders litter the grass below, which are quite fun to climb around, and stags were roaring just the other side of the valley.

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Photos just can’t do justice to Sron Ulladale

We returned by the same path, and nearly bumped into three red deer, fortunately without a stag. We also saw two Golden Eagles above Creagan Leathan, soaring close together and occasionally diving towards each other, whereupon one would flip upside down and they would clash talons. It was amazing to watch. Our last sighting of one was a juvenile again, with white patches under its wings flying low over Lag MacCodruim.

Once back at the van we made for Tarbert, which isn’t very big but there was a shop, so we stocked up on milk, bread, and the real essentials: hobnobs, twix and twirls. We also had hot drinks and cheesecake in the hotel next to the ferry port. Then we carried on towards West Harris, making for Luskentyre (Losgaintir). Right at the end of the road, there is parking, more toilets and a beautiful beach (Traigh Rosamol), where we watched the sun set; the calm sea only broken by a cluster of fins crossing the bay. Then we drove back along the road a short way and camped at one of the designated spots.

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Traigh Rosamol

When we woke up in the morning, the tide was out, leaving a vast expanse of sand, upon which we made dams and drew giant penguins as we waited for it to warm up a bit.

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Traigh Losgaintir: where’s the sea?

Then we moved on to explore some of the other beaches, which were all absolutely stunning: probably some of the nicest beaches I have seen.

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Traigh Lar

For lunch, we parked at the end of the road beyond Northton (Taobh Tuath) and ate overlooking another beautiful beach, before taking the track through the gate, which leads to a string of small pretty beaches. The sea looked so gorgeous that we braved the cold again and went for another swim!

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Traigh na Cleabhaig

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We couldn’t resist a final dip

We had to head back to Tarbert that night as our ferry was very early the next morning, so we began to make our way northwards again. The very large beach of Traigh Scarasta looked very inviting for a final walk, but we could not find an obvious way to get onto it from the A859, so we carried on a little further to a parking/camping and picnic area just north of the golf course. From there, if you walk north along the road a little way, there is a gate into a field with information about the standing stone, and from there you can walk down to a more hidden beach behind the dunes. There was no-one else there, so we tucked ourselves into the edge of the dunes and made ourselves hot chocolate, with just a seal and a dolphin/porpoise for company.

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Hot chocolate and hobnobs on the beach….what more could you want?

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Comments

These islands are a wonderful place to explore, with some absolutely stunning beaches and they are ideal for campervan trips. Just make sure that you have plenty of food with you as there aren’t many shops open out of season except in Stornoway and Tarbert.

CalMac Ferries: Ullapool – Stornoway £67.90 ; Tarbert – Uig £42.20 for two people and a 6m-long van.

Exploring the West Coast: Northern Kintyre and our first otters!

Last week it was our birthday (we have our birthday on the same day!), so we planned to go away for a trip in the van over the weekend. Originally we were going to leave on Friday evening, but one of our gifts was two MASSIVE steaks, which we really wanted to eat, so Friday night became steak (they were so big we had to share one) and wine night and we set off on Saturday morning instead.

The forecast wasn’t great and we had been so busy we decided to explore the West coast rather than climb mountains. Our planning consisted of checking Google Earth for nice looking beaches and driving to them! I decided we should aim for Kintyre, but with just two days we weren’t going to be able to drive far south so we decided on a route that stayed north with some nice beach options.

We set off around 10.30am on Saturday, and drove around the bottom of Loch Lomond to Arrochar. We have been to Arrochar a good few times to walk or climb in the Arrochar Alps, but I had never been any further than than, and Chris has only been as far as the Rest and Be Thankful pass: a nice view point that looks down Glen Croe. From then on we were in new territory for both of us.

We carried on along the A83 to the tip of Loch Fyne, where we stopped to check out a brewery (Fyne Ales) that we had heard good things about in Achadunan. It seems very nice and we bought a few bottles to try; it definitely looks like the perfect place to stop off on the way down from Beinn Buiddhe one day.

Further on, Inverary looked nice and the castle is very impressive. We stopped for a wander at Port Ann and followed the marked trails down to the abandoned Otter Ferry (we didn’t see any otters there).

We then carried on until the turning right approx. 3km beyond Ardrishaig, where we took the B8024 across to the west coast and the edge of Loch Caolisport. We paused for a cup of tea and biscuits just beyond Tighnahoran, but the beach I had been hoping for didn’t look as inspiring as I had imagined; it was a very calm place though (all the beaches were disappointing on Saturday, but we later discovered it was simply because the tide was in!).

We carried on going, whilst starting to think of finding somewhere to stay for the night. There is really very little in that area: there were hardly any cars on the roads and just a few scattered houses and farms.  Kilberry has a shop (I think I remember one) and a café/restaurant/pub but there’s not much anywhere else, except a campsite about 2km before you reach Kilberry.

We drove right down to Loch Stornoway, where we got out to have a look. The water was amazingly still and came right up to the grass, which I had never seen before; we didn’t stay long as the midges quickly found us!

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Loch Stornoway at high tide

We parked for the night in a layby above Port Mor and from the time we arrived to our departure around 11am, we only saw about 4 cars! The beer from the brewery was very good.

In the morning the sun was shining and we could see the sand at Port Mor, so we found a gate and a muddy path down to the little bay. It was perfect, nobody around, nice white sand, clear blue water and just enough sunshine.

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Our private beach, Port Mor

Two seals were watching us from some rocks just off the beach along with a collection of shags or cormorants (I’m not very good at distinguishing them).

p1050349The sea was too inviting to resist and not as cold as we expected! We spent a good while swimming, wading, finding beautiful shells and introducing Chris to hermit crabs (which are very cool!), before drying off and finishing our birthday cake (thank you Kirstie!).

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We then moved on to Ardpatrick: there is hardly anywhere suitable to park but we managed to tuck the van in, and followed a track past Ardpatrick House to another small bay. Seaweed and layers of massive shells lined the top of the beach but beyond that was a large expansive of beautiful sand.

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Is this really Scotland? Who needs to go abroad!

As we climbed over the rocks to see what was around the corner, I spotted something in the water ahead of us. After a couple of seconds I realised it was an otter, and, amazed, we stopped to watch. We quickly realised that there appeared to be another on the rocks: in fact, there were three, a mother and two youngsters, who she was fishing for. It was incredible; I have always wanted to see otters but had never found any before. We were about 25m away and watched them for nearly an hour; the mother fished almost constantly, and made an unexpected amount of noise when she found something suitable for the young ones, which would promptly leap into the water. Otherwise they would just swim around the shore and roll about on the rocks. Eventually we left them and moved on but ended up just above them. The mum eventually noticed us and dashed back, making a very peculiar huffing noise and led them away tucked in either side of her. They weren’t that bothered though as we saw them again all curled up together on some rocks just around the corner!

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Otter family!

On the way back up the beach, we couldn’t resist another swim, the water was too nice. Then we headed home, following the road to Tarbet and then the A83 back to Arrochar again, via another tea break in Inverary. Overall, it was an absolutely wonderful weekend and we felt like we’d been away for much longer than the two days.

 

Finnich Glen

If you are looking for somewhere nice to go in the Central Belt to pass an hour or so, I would highly recommend Finnich Glen. Accessed from the A809 (parking on the A809-B834 junction; the glen is to the east of the road) and not far from Drymen and Killearn, the deep, narrow and mossy gorge makes a really interesting little exploration. If you take children beware of the edges and steep drops to the left of some of the paths, and if the steps down into the gorge look too intimidating, keep going: you can reach the water via a much gentler slope further along.

Scottish landscapes

After our holiday to the French Pyrenees, it was time to get back into the Scottish mountains. After a look at the forecast and the walkhighlands website, Glen Isla was the destination. Neither of us had been there before so we were excited to discover a new part of the country.

We packed the van and headed in the direction of Braemar and up to our starting point in Glen Isla. With our route taking in the munros Glas Maol and Creag Leacach, along with Monamenach as a cheeky corbett, it was going to be a longish day with a decent amount of UP! So no sleep in for us.

As we made our way up the glen the views did not disappoint and gaining height rewarded us with excellent views into Canness Glen and Caenlochan Glen.

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It was a great reminder of the beauty of the Scottish hills: they may not have the height or as many trees as let’s say the French Pyrenees but they do have a special charm about them, particularly with the flowers and LOTS of mountain hares about.

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Two munros down, and with tiring legs, we navigated our way over the last of the humps and bumps to the top of Monamenach and back to the van for an epic dinner of sausages and sweet potato mash.

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On Sunday we decided to explore the  incredible Scots pine forest in Glen Derry, which is part of the Mar Lodge estate, now managed by the National Trust for Scotland. Trekking up from the Lin of Dee carpark and past Derry Lodge, there is a lovely circular walk up and down the forest and river. In the forest we found some stunning views of the trees, lots of baby Scots pine trees, some bees hard at work and even a great spot to stick our feet in the river.

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It was great to be back out again after a few weeks and we are looking forward to more summer adventures soon.

En vacances

We hadn’t been abroad together since our last climbing trip to Kalymnos over two years ago, so we were very happy to accept my parents’ invitation to join them in their gîte in the French Pyrenees a couple of weeks ago. The Ariège region isn’t a big tourist destination and life there seems quite slow and simple, but the hills, forests and streams are very beautiful.

The first evening saw Mum and I swimming in a river near Tarascon-sur-Ariège, followed by a picnic on the river bank accompanied by beer and wine.

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The next day started hot so we explored Montferrier, the village we were staying in, and walked to waterfalls and a previously abandoned village that has now been restored and reinhabited, higher up the valley in the forest.

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Montferrier

The following day was much cooler and wet, so we decided to leave the mountains and visit Carcassonne. Out of the hills, it was actually very hot, but we enjoyed a lovely meal and a wander round the old town, which is a restored medieval fortified village with many turrets and battlements. We also found crepes with Nutella in a lovely market square in Mirepoix on the way back, which made me happy.

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Carcassone

On Friday it was again cool, so we went to a market in Foix and to investigate some tuffa waterfalls, which were incredible; the limestone has left deposits over the moss and vegetation creating strange formations around the streams and waterfalls.

On Saturday we went up to the local ski resort but it was too cloudy to get any views if we walked higher, so Chris and I took a long walk back down to the village. The mixed forest is amazing, with more natural tree regeneration than I have ever seen in the UK. Every clearing was full of a huge diversity of flowers and insects. About 30 minutes’ walk from the road was a well-equipped refuge, complete with barbecue and picnic benches. As we climbed higher, we moved through more stunning forest and out into wild flower meadows. Navigation was easy thanks to regular coloured markers and even sign posts! Despite much of the walk being higher than Ben Nevis, it felt like a stroll in the woods. It made me wonder whether this is what Scotland may have felt like before the deforestation.

 

On our penultimate day, we drove east to the Mediterranean and a fortified port, Collioure, which was very busy but very pretty too. The small pebbly beaches were packed but the sea was lovely to swim in, with fish visible below you in the clear water. There was a great atmosphere later in the day; after not too much sun burn, a delicious meal on a terrace and a few tunes from a traditional French band, it was time to head back to our gîte.

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We made a final push to get into the mountains on our final day, but it was still cloudy and the chairlift from which we had planned our summit route turned out to be closed on Mondays! We salvaged the day with a lovely walk up to some small lakes, which took Chris to his highest ever altitude of approximately 1730m, followed by beer, wine and a delicious barbecue.

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We thoroughly enjoyed our trip and thank Mum and Dad for inviting us to explore this new corner of the world.

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