A solo van adventure and Buchaille Etive Mor

A few weeks ago I decided I should take Bruce (our campervan) for a trip on my own; I haven’t done this before as I’ve only recently started driving it.

The Scottish forecast was best in the west on the Sunday, so I decided to attempt Buchaille Etive Mor. This is the magnificent mountain that dominates the entrance to Glencoe, where it looks virtually impregnable. However, there are two common (non-climbing) routes up: Curved Ridge, which is a wonderful 240m grade 3 scramble, and the walkers route up Coire na Tulaich.

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View from the van door: early morning mist over Loch Tulla

I had been looking for simple munros to try on my own, but I thought that although these munros have the potential to be challenging, I have climbed Stob Dearg twice (once via Curved Ridge and once in a blizzard), and with a good forecast it was likely to be busy so I wouldn’t be on my own up there.

On Saturday afternoon I drove up to the view point situated just before Rannoch Moor, where there are three large car parks. I spent a very pleasant evening reading and writing in the van, wrapped up in my down jacket and watching the sun go down behind the mountains.

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Buchaille Etive Mor in the sunshine

As night fell, it definitely felt autumnal and I had to get all the blankets out for the first time this year. It was a little strange being in there on my own and I had to tell myself a few times that the noises outside were really not likely to be axe-murderers creeping about!

I got up early and drove to the layby at Altnafeadh in Glencoe used by everyone heading up this mountain, but at 7.15am it was already packed! I always love the drive over Rannoch Moor and that morning it was the most beautiful I have ever seen it: mist was caught on the water and the rising sun was shining through it, turning everything pink.

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The route up Coire na Tulaich

I managed to get a spot in the next car park but that was also filling up fast. I had breakfast and set off at 8.30 feeling excited but a little nervous, as despite the sunshine in the valley, the ridge was shrouded in cloud. As I passed the main parking area, I was informed by people with bells that it was the Salomon Glencoe Skyline Race that day!

I headed off past the Lagangarbh hut and up the walkers route onto the ridge. It is a steep and fairly relentless climb up Coire na Tulaich, but a good path has been constructed and there were lots of people to say hello to. As I reached the ridge, the cloud was still clinging on, but through occasional breaks, the stunning views were revealed. The path to the summit of Stob Dearg was helpfully marked with little red flags for the runners. However, near the top I met the pair who had the job of removing them all.

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West to Buchaille Etive Beag (the Wee Buchaille) on the way up

I sat on the summit to have a few sandwiches (cheese and chilli jam), and was soon joined by a magnificent raven, who watched from a nearby rock. It has obviously learnt that walkers are a soft touch, as it soon hopped very close to me to take some sandwich crusts I threw down and, as the summit got busier, it moved from group to group, with it’s finest prize being half a ham sandwich from someone generous!

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North across Glencoe

Happily the cloud did lift a little more, permitting a few glimpses of Rannoch Moor to the east and Loch Leven down the valley to the west. I then returned back to the spot where I had joined the ridge, but rather than descending the same way, as we had done on a previous winter ascent, I continued west before turning south-west towards Stob na Doire. Despite being on my own, I was having a fabulous time!

The descent from Stob na Doire requires a little care as it is very rocky, then there is the final section of proper ascent up to Stob Coire Altruim. From here, it’s a simple walk along the ridge to the second munro, Stob na Broige. This summit was very busy, so I found a comfy seat among the rocks to the west of the cairn, to eat my final sandwiches and admire Loch Etive and Buchaille Etive Beag.

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Loch Leven through the clouds!

A misty drizzle settled on us, so I headed back to the path that descends the north side of the ridge between Stob Coire Altruim and Stob na Doire. It is mainly a steep grassy slope with a gravelly path worn into it, with a few badly eroded and steep sections. About halfway down, I also discovered some steep slabby areas that had to be crossed carefully. One section made me a little nervous looking at it, and had Chris been there, he would have gone first to “spot” me (stand below to catch me if I slip); as it was after a good look, I put my poles away and headed calmly down backwards. A few bum shuffles and careful foot placements were all that was required; I was pleased with myself as I really dislike down-climbing.

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My raven friend

There are stepping stones across the stream at the bottom and I paused for a last snack on the other side. It’s a great valley, surrounded as it is by such steep mountain sides, but the midges soon had me moving again, following the excellent path down the Lairig Gartain and back to the carpark.

I returned home invigorated and full of excitement about my first proper solo mountain trip!

Details

A fabulous ridge walk in a stunning location!

Distance: 13km/8.25 miles

Time: 5.5 hours (Walkhighlands suggests 7-9 hours)

Ascent: 1110m

Munro summits: Stob Dearg (1021m) & Stob na Broige (956m)

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Exploring Mallaig and Arisaig

Two weeks ago we managed to go away for a long weekend. Unusually, we decided on a relaxing trip rather than a challenging one, and our first choice was Arran. Unfortunately, there was no space on the ferry so we quickly made a new plan to go to Arisaig and Mallaig, which is a region of Scotland neither of us had explored at all.

These two small towns/villages are situated on the very western end of the peninsula south of Knoydart, and getting the boat from Mallaig is actually one of the easiest ways to access this remote area; Mallaig is also well-known for the ferry link to Skye.

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Mallaig harbour

We left on the Thursday evening, intending to stop somewhere near Glencoe to spend the night before continuing the drive on the Friday morning. However, we hadn’t checked the traffic news (nor did Chris read the signs!), and discovered that the road (A82) was closed at Lochearnhead; this wouldn’t be too much of an issue in England, an alternative could be easily found, but in Scotland, there are so few roads that if the one you need is blocked, it requires an enormous detour (hours and hours!) to avoid it. We therefore turned around and parked in a layby, behind a lorry, to wait until it opened again in the morning.

As this wasn’t a very lovely spot, we left first thing in the morning in order to have breakfast with the much nicer views of Glencoe. Sadly, despite the sun on Rannoch Moor, it was raining in Glencoe, so we had bacon sandwiches admiring the mist.

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Loch Morar

We then continued to Mallaig, via the obligatory stop in Fort William to buy the things we had forgotten. Mallaig turned out to be nicer than we expected with a busy harbour, where we watched some fishing boats unloading their catches. It also seems to have one extremely busy street, full of tourists and outdoor enthusiasts.

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Ominous clouds before we got soaked

Loch Morar is lovely, it is worth a drive down the little yellow road to have a look. We parked in Morar to go down to the bay, but ended up having a nap before making it out of the van! The tide was out and the beach was massive; wandering along the northern edge, Chris had a paddle and was caught in a torrential rainstorm without his shoes on.

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Cambusdarach beach is about a 10-15 min walk from the car park

On Saturday, the sun was shining, so we headed for the string of beaches that stretch between the villages of Morar and Arisaig. They were all lovely with white sand and stunning clear blue sea. They were also busier than any beaches we have been on in Scotland before! However, by walking further beyond the first beach at Cambusdarach, we found a quiet spot for a swim with the fish.

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The sea was too perfect to resist going for a swim!

We had lunch beside another beach further south before driving down through Arisaig and continuing south west to the end of the road on the little headland. If you were careful of cars, this road would make a wonderful cycle. Having parked up, we walked further southwest along a track to Rhue Cottage, then on a path down to a secluded beach, Port nam Murach. There were even other people here, though many had arrived by boat, and a big group arrived by kayak while we were there. They set up camp on a wonderful grassy spot above the beach; it looked like an amazing place to spend the night!

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The lovely beach Port nam Murach

We had another calm evening watching kayakers and standup-paddle boarders while we ate dinner.

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Views across to the islands Rum and Eigg

On Sunday we had exhausted our tasty breakfast supply, so we sheltered from the drizzle and had a bacon roll and tea in a café in Arisiaig, before drivng back east along the A830 to a layby just east of Polnish. From there we walked down the Ardnish peninsula to the Peanmeanach ruins. This is a good walk, along a clear, if very boggy, track. The route climbs up the hillside above Loch Nan Uamh, crosses moorland, passing Loch Doire a Ghearain on the left, before descending through a wonderful mossy, deciduous woodland. The path then comes out onto flat marshland, where it’s a case of trying to avoid totally wet feet, before coming to the ruined village on a slightly raised area above the beach. I hadn’t read the route description in detail so it was a pleasant surprise to find a very nice bothy here amongst the ruined buildings. In fact, in his book, the Bothy Bible, Geoff Allan lists Peanmeanach bothy as one of the top five bothies for “Coast and beaches”, “Families and beginners”, and “Romantic hideaways”. I haven’t yet stayed in a bothy, but this one would tempt me: it was spacious, bright, cleaner and more inviting than the others I’ve seen.

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Loch nam Uamh

We had lunch outside, then made our way back. If anyone happens to be there and finds a monocular, I haven’t seen mine since we were there and I would really love to get it back!

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The view down to the coast and the bothy

Dinner was cooked and eaten in Glencoe again, sheltering in the van away from the midges and watching the unsuspecting tourists perform the “midge dance”.

It was a lovely weekend and a very novel and pleasant experience to have no time constraints and be able to lie-in and laze around as much as we liked!

Braeriach: Testing my limits

We climbed Braeriach in April and I will always remember it!

Braeriach is the third highest mountain in Britain, but also very remote and difficult to reach. It is situated in the Cairngorms, south-east of Aviemore and can be accessed a variety of ways: one is as part of the Cairn Toul – Braeriach traverse, which encompasses those two munros, in addition to The Devil’s Point and Sgor an Locahin Uaine; another is as a circular route from Whitewell. As we have already climbed the other three, we chose the latter route.

The forecast wasn’t too bad although MWIS advised that it might be quite windy (up to 40mph), but we wouldn’t be going over any particularly difficult terrain, so we thought it was worth a try. As a long route it would also be good practice for our TGO Challenge.

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At the Cairgorm Club footbridge in the forest

We parked at Whitewell and set off early through the Rothiemurchus Forest on excellent forest tracks. These Caledonian pine forests are wonderful; they are home to capercaillie, red squirrels and pine martin and definitely worth a visit themselves. We navigated the tracks to the Cairngorm Club Footbridge, then followed the path south-east towards the Lairig-Ghru. We continued gradually climbing upwards through the forest above the Allt Druidh. The forest thinned and we were no longer protected from the wind; Braeriach was hidden in cloud ahead of us.

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The Lairig-Ghru looking ominous ahead

The path eventually drops down to the burn and the path from the Chalamain gap comes in from the left. We crossed the burn and started to climb steeply up the ridge on the west side of the Lairig Ghru, still on a fairly good path. However, we soon hit snow, it was still windy and the visibility deteriorated; we could see down the steep cliffs into the Lairig Ghru but not much else. We pushed on but the wind got stronger and stronger; we decided it was time for a break and lunch in the red cafe (our group shelter). Finding a flat sheltered spot on the steep rocky ridge wasn’t easy, and keeping hold of and getting into the shelter was even less easy!

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At this point I couldn’t raise the camera above my waist….

A group shelter gives tremendous relief from difficult conditions, and this was no exception, except that the material violently battering the back of our heads was a constant reminder of what was waiting outside. We were also sitting in a lot more snow than we had anticipated. We had already come a long way, but we started discussing our options: the strong wind and poor visibility wasn’t a good combination, so did we want to head back or carry on? We decided to continue a little further and see how we felt: we were well-equipped, we had lots of time and we could turn around at any point. So after a short but vigorous battle with the shelter which didn’t want to go back into a rucksack, we headed on up the ridge. The clouds had actually lifted somewhat while we were resting, which gave us more confidence, but as we approached Sron na Lairige, the wind roared down the valley pummeling us relentlessly. We had a further battle to get our waterproof trousers on, which stopped the wind biting our legs, but it was starting to become mentally challenging for me, as well as physically challenging. We began to walk for a few minutes, leaning heavily into the wind, then stop and turn our backs to the wind briefly, while I regained my breath, before continuing in this manner.

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View on the summit of Braeriach

As we got closer to the summit, we changed direction, the ridge narrowed considerably and we moved quite carefully. Suddenly the wind dropped. It was an incredible relief. My hair had been flying about my face, making it difficult to see, so I quickly took my hood and buff off ready to re-tie it in the calm, when a huge gust hit us and knocked us both onto the ground. I was shocked: I had never felt wind like this. Whenever I moved, the wind picked up the snow and shot it in sharp spikes into my face, while my hair whipped my eyes. It was awful, so I crouched on the floor with my eyes closed waiting for it to calm down. It did a little. We moved forward cautiously. Then there were more gusts; we tried to move down north off the ridge slightly but having been driven to the ground again, the wind pushed me across the snow even while I sitting down! This was terrifying, I had never felt so out of control. I rolled onto my side and dug my elbow into the snow to stop myself from sliding, unable to see much due to the snow in my eyes and face. Chris wasn’t struggling so much, possibly because, unlike him, I was wearing my large backpacking rucksack to get get used to it before the Challenge and it was acting like a sail; he came and crouched behind me. We couldn’t stay there, so we crawled forwards: the ridge was broader ahead. By this point I had had enough, I wanted to get down.

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How we’d been feeling a few minutes earlier!

I honestly have no idea how long we were in this wind but it suddenly disappeared again. We walked calmly but warily to the summit, where there was no wind at all and we could take our gloves off and have some food. However, we could hear the wind roaring like a massive waterfall around the corries just over the edge, it was very strange. Once again we discussed the options: earlier in the day, we had decided that we should return by the way we had come, rather than complete the circuit, as we knew the way and could follow our prints if necessary. Now, we looked at the map and decided the fastest way down and out of the wind was to continue east and descend into Gleann Eanaich as planned.

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As we left the summit, the wind hit us again, this time pushing us downhill from behind. It was difficult not to go too fast and to prevent my rucksack from coming round to my front! However, we descended quickly and soon it was just a surreal memory. The slope was steep, and we “skiied” in our boots down some gullies still full of snow. We lost the path and picked our way down the steep hillside to the track clearly visible below us, passing a couple of reindeer on the way. We didn’t even get too wet crossing the bog to get to the track. Then it was simply a trot in calm weather along landrover track all the way back to Whitewell, occasionally looking back and thinking “did that really just happen?!”

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Desending steeply down into Gleann Eanaich

Back at the van, we had tea and hobnobs before driving up to Glenmore Lodge for a delicious dinner to celebrate another successful adventure.

Once home, we checked the reports from the Cairngorm weather station, which had recorded gusts over 80mph at lunchtime and reaching 90mph by mid-afternoon.

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Proof we were actually fine despite a little too much excitement!

I think I tested my limits further than I ever have in the mountains that day. However, I didn’t panic, I didn’t cry, I didn’t freeze: we were fine, I was fine. I’m proud to know we can cope with difficult situations. Chris actually enjoyed himself!

However, when MWIS forecast 40mph winds two weeks ago, I changed our plan from climbing a ridge on Ben Nevis to rock climbing at Dunkeld…..

 

Munro summit: Braeriach (1296m)

Distance: 26km / 16.25 miles

Ascent: 1217m

Duration: 9h 15mins

 

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.

New Year in the Lake District

Rather than celebrate the New Year in Scotland as we usually do, this year we decided to go away in our campervan. One of the wonderful things about a van is the freedom it provides to choose where to go without having to book anything or rely on good weather, as we used to for camping trips. We can also take all our gear,meaning that whatever the weather, we can do something. So, on the 29th , we had a look at the weather forecast: it was going to rain over New Year and then turn cold, which ruled out any climbing. The band of rain was going to move down the country on the 1st, leaving nice weather behind it in the Lake District, so that was where we decided to go.

We received a shiny new book of mountain routes for Christmas, with lots of choices for Helvellyn, including Striding Edge, which is reportedly very good. We set off from my parents place on the afternoon of the 31st, but for various reasons made slow progress north. We arrived in Windermere to a very dark and wet evening, and our first two potntial camping spots proved unsuitable. We then made for Ullswater, and found a remote spot to park up and see the New Year in; also possibly the windiest place in the Lake District! However, for two people used to sheltering in a little two-man tent, the pleasure of being in a nice dry van, while the rain and wind beat the outside, hasn’t worn off yet, so we were very happy! Grandma’s Christmas hamper and a bottle of bubbly also ensured we had a lovely dinner.

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Happy New Year!

We had also decided that due to our late arrival and staying up until midnight, we didn’t fancy the early morning required for a hill day. Instead, we had a lie-in, a rare thing in the van, and easy to do as it was bitterly cold outside (and a little inside too) and the wind was still howling.

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Turns out we chose a great spot despite the pitch dark and rain

In the afternoon we went for a gentle stroll along the edge of Ullswater. There is pay and display parking in Patterdale (£4 for the day) and a route perfect for families, if you walk NW along the A592 and take the first right turn, following a track over the Goldrill Beck, through a farm yard (campsite) and north parallel to the edge of the lake.

 

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Ullswater

We walked up to Silver Point and a little beyond before the weather started to turn and the call of the pub became too strong. You can take a higher route back from Silver Point, which actually gives nicer views for much of the way, and can cross the same bridge as you came over, or another slightly further up, which provides access to the very cute hamlet of Rooking.

 

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Sunny New Year’s Day walk

While out, we noted that there might be a fair amount of snow on the top of Helvellyn, which made us reconsider going up Striding Edge as we don’t know the area and the guide book suggested that snow and ice can turn the easy scramble into a winter climb.

Helvellyn

After another night in our windy carpark, with the addition of snow rather than rain, we got up at 5.45am, had spaghetti and sausages (breakfast of champions) and drove down to Glenridding. We parked in the carpark just off the A592 by the information centre and set off in the dark, using our head torches to follow the signs for Helvellyn. The route goes west along a residential road, after about 500m the houses peter away and you follow the road right then left, following the old mining road on the north side of the stream. This runs for about 1.5km to the youth hostel and the disused mine; by this point it was light but the sun hadn’t yet come over the hills. As you pass some holiday cottages there are more signs, keeping you on the right of way and away from the mining areas. We then quickly started to climb steeply, taking the path to Sticks Pass, which zigzags up the hillside before curving into a small gully. At the top of this, you come out onto a large flattish area that still shows lots of signs of human activity. The sun finally emerged over the hills to the east and turned everything orange for a while.

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Catching the sun’s first rays

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The sun just peeking over the hills

We made our way NE to the bottom of the steep valley side and followed the path west towards Sticks Pass and the broad saddle between Stybarrow Dodd (N) and Raise (S), where the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow. A very clear path runs along this line and we made our way without difficulty up to Raise (883m). By this point it was pretty cold and the cairn was coated in ice on the north side; with clear blue sky, the views in every direction were lovely and we could see the summit of Helvellyn ahead.

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Lots of snow and ice on top of Raise

The ground between Raise and White Side is fairly flat and it was definitely chilly in the wind, but on the south side of White Side we were much more sheltered. Then there is a steeper climb up a narrower ridge to Lower Man; we had a pause at the top as it was sheltered again and ate some hobnobs before the final ascent to Helvellyn. It was bitterly cold at the top and very busy by this time: we took a couple of photos and dashed back down to our sheltered spot for a sandwich, but not fast enough to avoid getting extremely cold fingers (the thing that makes me grumpiest about winter walking!).

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Chris is happy

We descended by the same way, until we took the path that peels off E leading down into Kepple Cove. This is a fairly steep descent down to the stream on a decent path and then a stomp out underneath Stang until you get back to the disused mine.

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On the way down after a sunny, snowy, cloudless day

Having anticipated a long day, we were rather surprised to be back at the van by 1.30pm. So after packing away our stuff, we had some delicious hot chocolate and drove back to Stirling, which left us enough time to unpack the van, shower, change and go out for a lovely dinner! Perfect!

Details

Distance: 17.4km

Duration: 6h 15m

Ascent: approx. 1090m

Summits: Helvellyn (949m), Lower Man (925m) and Raise (883m)

Comments

A pleasant walk with some lovely views and good paths all the way. We’ll be back for Striding Edge, returning via the line of summits south down to Grisedale Tarn.

Glen Lyon: Last Munros of 2016!

With a busy Christmas and New Year period ahead of us, we thought we should definitely squeeze one last adventure into 2016. We decided on Glen Lyon, a place we have never been before, and to tackle an 18 km loop taking in four Munros! We packed our bags and the van before heading up on the Friday night, looking for an early start on the Saturday morning, knowing that the short days would be a factor if we didn’t get an early start.

From the car park, the sign posted path takes you through recently torn down woodland and out onto a Landover track. From here, you can see where you will be descending, four Munros and 18km later. But first you must skirt round more woodland and cross a dodgy bridge to get your first glimpse of Munro number one, Carn Gorm. It was a cold morning, bringing to mind the “be bold and start cold” philosophy, but you soon warm up by gaining the ridge of Carn Gorm and heading for the summit of the mountain. Behind you there are lovely views down Glen Lyon, but the view was short lived as, typically, the cloud came in just as we gained the summit.

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I went first to test it out…

By this point the wind was blowing hard and a compass bearing off the top was needed to gain the ridge onto Meall Garbh; here we moved down off the path for a few minutes of shelter, food and to revive the icy fingers. A good mountain track and fence posts lead you to Meall Garbh, where a strange cairn of old fence posts greets you as you reach summit number two.

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Cairn of fence posts

From Meall Garbh you head east and gain a large plateau as you approach Carn Mairg. From here be sure to take in the superb views of Schiehallion to the north east and we were also lucky enough see a Brocken Spector! The Carn Mairg summit seems to made up of broken down tors, these crumbled rocks would have been broken down by years of freeze – thaw cycles cutting through cracks of the old stones

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The sun trying it’s best.

Unfortunately though, the cloud had once again come in, only offering us a short glimpse of the terrain ahead and the final Munro of the day. From Carn Mairg you head east down a ridge to a saddle, and then south before you must take a dog leg in order to reach the summit of Creag Mhor. The cloud persisted, not allowing us any views as we reached the saddle just before the summit, with only map and compass leading the way to the top of Munro number four! Wahoo! They also lead the way down, heading west to the ridge leading to the torn down woodland and back to the van. As we dropped down out of the cloud and views opened up, there was time before it got dark to get a few pictures of the River Lyon and the Ben Lawers range as they came into view.

 

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Glen Lyon and the Lawers group

This was a lovely walk and great for ticking off Munros. But the views, when we could see them, where terrific and I really appreciated getting a great view of Schiehallion, and the Brocken Spector made it extra special.

 

Distance – 18km/11.25 miles

Time – 7.5 hours

Ascent – 1310m

Summits – Carn Gorm (1029m), Meall Garbh (Carn Mairg) (968m), Carn Mairg (1042m), Meall nan Aighean (Creag Mhor) (981m)

Top tip – Layer up! With it being winter, it’s important to stay warm, and having a good layering system also allows you to manage your temperature a lot more easily.

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.