This is why we climb Scottish hills…..

If you needed reminding how beautiful Scotland is, a day like last Sunday would do it!

For us it started at 7am in the van above Loch Tulla, where we had tinned spaghetti and sausages for breakfast, with the sun shining on a frosty landscape, below a perfectly blue sky.

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Our breakfast view out of the van door: Loch Tulla and Beinn an Dothaidh 

We set off to climb Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a Chreachain at about 9am from the car park just off the A82. It was -3 degrees and we were wearing all of our layers! Having walked for 20 minutes and just passed Achallader farm, we realised neither of us had a compass, so Chris had a nice early jog back to the van while I sat and watched the lapwings in the sun, which was just starting to warm up.

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Morning sunshine feels good

The path continues through fields along the base of the glen until it crosses an old bridge just below a ruined farmhouse. Land rover tracks then take you above the Water of Tulla on the north side opposite a lovely remnant of old Caledonian forest.

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Chris checking out the collapsed bridge

A tiny cairn and a faint path mark the spot to leave the track and descend to the river. The bridge has been washed away so the river is not passable in spate. The water wasn’t high on Sunday, but it also wasn’t really warm enough for me to be very happy about taking my boots and socks off to wade across the river – the cold left me breathless and unable to speak for a minute or two when I reached the other side!

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The Water of Tulla and Beinn Achaladair

 

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Cold, cold, COLD!

The faint path continues up through the woods on the other side, gradually fading as you reach fenced areas. After a bit of meandering we found the tiny underpass (even I had to bend down!) under the railway and started to climb more steeply between the Allt Coire an Lochain and a deer fence. Behind the fence, the forest is regenerating well, demonstrating the impact high numbers of deer and sheep have on this landscape.

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To the right (west) Beinn Achaladair looked very impressive above the lovely old Scots pines, with snow still shining in the gullies. To our left the Allt Coire an Lochain bounced, sparkling down layers of flat rock steps. We picked one of these steps that was warm and dry for our first sandwich stop (cheese and chilli jam) before crossing to the other side.

 

 

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Allt Coire an Lochain

The climb up the grassy slopes on the left (east) of Coire an Lochain to the bealach is relentless, but was redeemed by the magnificent view across Rannoch Moor that was gradually revealed with each pause and, higher up, looking down on Lochain a’ Chreachain, which, still in the shade, retained it’s layer of ice.

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Lochain a’ Chreachain

Upon reaching the bealach we had the wonderful realisation that we were surrounded in every direction by mountains as far as we could see! It was fantastic and something that I have never experienced in England or Wales.

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The other side

It took about three hours to reach this point but once on the ridge, despite a few snow patches still clinging on, we sped up considerably.

The visibility was utterly amazing: beyond the empty expanse of Rannoch Moor, the bulk of Ben Nevis stood massively above the Mamores, but in front of yet more rows of distant snowcapped mountains.

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The emptiness that is Rannoch Moor. You can also make out the Buchaille and Ben Nevis (would’ve been clearer if my camera hadn’t had an empty battery and I hadn’t had to take all these on my phone…)

The summit of Beinn a Chreachain was easily visible and we paused to enjoy the views of endless mountains and the remoteness: we could see one house and no roads at all!

We dropped steeply off the summit and made our way across the slopes towards Meall Buidhe, where we could see north across the empty expanse of moor once again.

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Now you can definitely see the Ben 🙂

The climb up to Beinn Achaladair is steep and more rocky, but once at the top, we could have stayed there for hours admiring the landscape.

Then began the descent via the ridge south to the bealach above Coire Daingean.

We filled our bottles in the tumbling Allt Coire Achaladair (totally delicious water!), before navigating the long, boggy path back to the carpark.

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Getting a drink from Allt Coire Achaladair

We are so lucky that all this is only an hour and a half from home.

We could not have asked for a better day: it was simply beautiful and just reinforced how much we love exploring Scotland.

Munros: Beinn a Chreachain (1081m) and Beinn Achaladair (1038m)

Distance: 21.5km / 13.5 miles

Duration: 8 hours

Comments: Do it on a clear day!

 

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Goggles: a late but fabulous discovery

Before I started walking in Scotland I didn’t understand the point of gaiters, now I rarely go out without them.

I think the same thing has just happened with goggles: after our day on Ben Ledi yesterday I don’t know why I have walked in winter without wearing them!

Heading up Ben Ledi

I have always carried a pair in my bag for emergencies, but until last year they were an extremely old battered pair, which, on the one occasion I had to use them, steamed up so badly I literally had my nose on the snow slope trying to see the steps kicked ahead of me. Panic led me to give up and endure the pain of wind-blown snow being driven into my eyes.

Lots of snow

Last year I decided to buy a new pair of basic ski goggles, and have carried the new ones with me on winter days since. Two weeks ago in the Cairngorms, I finally got them out but too late (by the time we stopped at the summit the conditions had eased) and they sat in my pocket rather than my bag. But yesterday, I actually put them on and what a revelation! I could see! Pain free! I had so much more confidence! I felt invincible!

Heading into the cloud once again

Why haven’t I used them before?? It feels like it might be a complete game-changer on winter days for me! I no longer need to get upset and panicky in driving snow!

Happy and comfortable in our goggles!

Perhaps I am the the only person to take so long to realise the difference this little piece of kit makes, but I wanted to share just in case I’m not 😊

Rewards

We were trudging through warm, wet cloud, sliding on slushy snow, mud and grass. We were hot, we couldn’t see anything and we were asking ourselves why were we doing this.

I had even climbed this munro before!

But was the cloud brightening? Why did I feel like I wanted to put my sunglasses on when visibility was so low? Could we see blue above us or was it a trick of the light?P1020919-COLLAGE

Yes, that was definitely a glimpse of blue sky…. And of a snowy mountain side….oh, but it vanished back into the cloud again.

Our trudge was definitely more hopeful and expectant now!

Then quite suddenly it happened: we popped out above the cloud into a fantastic world of sunshine, blue sky and sparkling snow and ice.

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The sun was actually warm and there was little wind, so we had to strip down to our t-shirts. And the views……they were incredible…..mountain tops poking out of a fluffy white sea as far as we could see in all directions.

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Often, summiting a munro involves dashing to the top, looking around for half a minute while being blasted by wind, and being blown back down to find some shelter before having a sandwich, with all your layers on. Not on this day though: on this day we spent 40 minutes on the summit, enjoying our lunch and gazing around in wonder – without even having to put gloves on – before descending back to the damp, grey world, everyone else was spending their day in.

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Just occasionally, we experience an extra special reward for our uphill struggles.

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A Ptarmigan: spending all year high up on Scottish mountains, it must be one of Britain’s hardiest birds?!

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A whole new world

You don’t have to go far or high to have a wonderful experience.

Ben Venue is popular little local hill in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. November’s snow turned it into a beautiful and spectacular new world. We didn’t even feel the need to get to the summit.

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Don’t overlook your local area! Explore and enjoy it….it will never be the same two days in a row.

Drinking water when walking and camping in Scotland

I am a very thirsty person and never go anywhere without a drink (usually my Nalgene bottle of water). Therefore access to water when outdoors is always something I plan carefully.

There seems to be a lot of difference in opinions and behaviours up here in Scotland regarding drinking water when out in the countryside. My first taste of “wild” water was from Glenrosa Water in Glen Rosa on Arran; Chris and I camped in the glen for two days, it was very hot and we couldn’t take enough water to last the whole trip. I was quite nervous as prior to that I had only ever drank clearly marked drinking/ tap water.

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Glenrosa Water, Arran

It turned out to be delicious and did me no harm whatsoever. Indeed, drinking stream water in remote locations seems to be common up here, and indeed essential on multi-day trips. Yet, I remain wary: in summer I carry a 2 litre platypus on single day walks and only drink stream water when absolutely necessary. In contrast, Chris never carries more than a litre of water and tops up on many of our days out.

I’ve discussed this with others and come across very differing opinions. The general rules seem to be that if you are well-away from people, high up and the water is clear and fast-flowing, it is fine to drink, and this rule has been effective so far for us.

However, this time last year, we were planning for our TGO Challenge and I was very preoccupied by our water supply. I trawled the internet and the advice I found was very confusing! I found people who stated that when walking in Scotland they carried nothing but a mug as water is plentiful and clean, and others who always avoided drinking water straight from the source and preferred using tablets or a variety of filters.

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There was lots of water in Knoydart

I looked up the price, weight and ease of use of many suggested options and came up with a plan that worked extremely well for us. We had planned a fairly low-level route from the west coast of Scotland to the east, which meant that we might not have access to clear little mountain streams for much of the time. I also read and heard a few stories of people who had become ill from drinking stream water, so I didn’t fancy relying on it for two weeks.

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Water in the Cairngorms

On the other hand, we are in Scotland and water generally isn’t in short-supply, so we opted for a small (500ml) and inexpensive filter water-bottle each (Water-to-Go ~£13), to use when on the move, and which we kept topped up whenever we came across a suitable water source. We both also carried a 1l water bottle that we filled up and added a water purification tablet to, before stopping to camp each night. We used this for cooking and drinking in the evening and next morning. If water sources looked scarce, it also allowed us to carry more than our 500ml during the day. We used the more expensive purification tablets (Life Systems Chlorine dioxide tablets ~£10.50) that supposedly remove the taste, which they seemed to do; the only problem was that in cold Scottish spring water, they took many hours (and lots and lots of shaking) to dissolve. We would also recommend keeping them in their little box, not your first aid kit as we did, because the foil got damaged and many of them got ruined when they became exposed.

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Glencoe water

Spring 2017 was very dry in Scotland and we actually found that many small streams were sluggish and the water was discoloured or contained algae. Although lochs and lochans were still plentiful, it is not recommended to drink unpurified standing water either, so we were very pleased with our strategy: it wasn’t particularly expensive, we didn’t have to carry any extra filter equipment, spend time filtering water in advance, or carry large quantities of water.

Whisky & Mountains

Last week we made the fascinating discovery that the Dalwhinnie Whisky Distillery is running free distillery tours until March. We quickly formed a plan to tour the distillery as well as bag a couple of munros over a weekend.

Carn na Caim and A’Buidheanach Bheag were our hills of choice as they were conveniently placed across the road from the distillery: whisky on Saturday and mountains on Sunday, the plan fell into place.

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After a civilised start on Saturday, we loaded up Bruce (the camper van) and headed up the A9 to Dalwhinnie. There wasn’t quite as much snow on the hills as we had hoped but it is still early in the season and there was a good dusting of the white stuff, so we were not too disheartened.

Amazingly, we found a perfect spot for Bruce within walking distance of the distillery and there was even time for a cup of tea and a sandwich before our tour. I have always enjoyed the Dalwhinnie whisky, ever since drinking it in a cold and wintry Shenavall Bothy a good few years ago, so I was really looking forward to the tour. Rightly so as well, as the tour was super and the whisky and chocolates at the end were excellent: a huge thank you to the staff at the Dalwhinnie Distillery for a great time.

We headed back to the van for our classic chorizo, vegetable and tomato sauce and tortellini pasta and settled in for the night. It was a cold night which even included a bit of down jacket action in bed!

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A stunning morning

In the morning we tentatively got out of bed and made our final preparations for the day ahead; this included defrosting the inside of the windscreen as it had frozen during the night. It was only a short drive to the start of our walk at the Balsporran car park about 5km south of Dalwhinnie. We planed to follow a circular route described in an old edition of Cameron Mcneish’s Munro book. His route takes you straight up the west slopes of A’Buidheanach Bheag and down the land rover track that connects to the A9 about 3km north of the Balsporran car park. In the interest of not wanting to walk along a road at the end of the day, we did this route in reverse, which turned out to be a brilliant idea…

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Summit just up ahead (!).

It was a stunning morning and, although we were walking so close to the A9, it was a pleasant stroll north up to the path that would lead us into the hills. We gained height fast and thought we deserved second breakfast just before reaching the vast plateau of these mountains. At a track junction a path leads north towards the summit of Carn na Caim. This is a very undramatic summit and you only know its the top because of a small cairn, otherwise you would probably miss it if you were not paying  attention. We were paying close attention though, the clouds had been following us since the track junction and by the time we made the summit, we could have just as easily been in a steam room, although a lot colder!

So cold in fact that we needed to keep our primaloft jackets on as we made our way off the summit following our compass bearing. Thankfully by the time we had made it back to the track junction the cloud had lifted and once again revealed the vast open space towards the second munro of the day: A’Buidheanach Bheag.

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The vast plateau

The walking was simple due to the big track and flattish ground, meaning we quickly covered the 2.5km to the summit. It was on our way to this summit that we saw our first hare zooming across the open hillside, we would see two more by the end of the day.

The A’Buidheanach Bheag summit is even less dramatic, if even possible, than the previous one, but at least it was not in a cloud so we could enjoy the superb views across to Glen Garry and Ben Alder.

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Views across to Ben Alder

After enjoying the summit and some more flapjack, obviously, it was time to head back to Bruce. That meant descending the west slopes of the mountain, which certainly added interest to the day. The steep, half snow-covered, half wet grass and heather made for a tricky descent, then there was a small river crossing before slogging over the last bit of muddy ground under the huge electricity pylons before returning to the van. During the decent I couldn’t help thinking “I am so glad we didn’t try to walk up that!”

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In the end we had a lovely time bimbling across these hills but I would not recommend ascending or descending the West slopes of A’Buidheanach Bheag. Descending them isn’t horrendous but ascending them certainly would be. It may be worth heading back to the track junction and walking NW back down the track to the A9: not as adventurous though.

Details

Time: 6 Hours 15 minutes

Distance: 12.8Km / 8 miles

Munro summits: A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag (936m) & Carn na Caim (941m)

Ascent: 610m

 

 

 

Winter has arrived in Scotland: Meall Ghaordaidh

As winter approaches, what constitutes a “good forecast” has a tendency to change slightly. Take yesterday for example: 30-40mph winds with difficult walking conditions on high ground and severe wind chill might sound unpleasant but there was also 80% chance of cloud free munros and excellent visibility. Actually not so bad for a Scottish winter day (we can always turn around if it’s too bad!).

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Another thing to remember when planning routes at this time of year is the dramatic change in daylight hours; in about six weeks, we’ve gone from nice long days to pitch dark beofore 5pm. It can catch you out!

Sunshine through the spindrift

So Kirstie and I decided to stretch our legs and enjoy a bit of sunshine and possibly some snow (!?) with a wander up Meall Ghaordaidh. It’s not a particularly exciting munro, but the route is fairly short, important as we weren’t starting early and Kirstie is recovering from an arm injury. Situated north-west of Killin, it was also in an area we haven’t explored much.

And it was most definitely worth it: a long steady climb but wonderful views of snow-capped hills and great to be out in some snow for the first time this winter (I think it can officially be called winter now!).

Summit views appreciated very quickly!

On the last stretch to the summit, we were bent into the wind, with heads down to protect our eyes. We remained at the summit for about two whole minutes, which was all we could take with the spindrift being blasted into our faces.

A short way down again and we were out of the wind and able to sit and savour our lunch, sweet tea, the views and the simple fact of bring out on such a fine day.

Details

Distance: 9.5km (5.9miles)

Duration: 4h50m

Munro summit: Meall Ghaordaidh (m)

Ascent: 895m