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.

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Summits aren’t that important anyway…

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A friendly mountain hare just getting its winter coat

Last weekend we walked  for four hours up through deep snow, from Achlean in Glen Feshie, into a big white cloud, decided being in a whiteout on the Cairngorm plateau wasn’t where we wanted to be, and walked back down again!

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Visibility wasn’t great!

On the way up, the sun breaking through the clouds on distant mountains was beautiful , there were lots of interesting animal tracks in the snow and we found a mountain hare that ran towards us rather than away. It was a lovely winter walk, but we’ll have to go back to bag our munros, Mullach Clach a’Bhlair and Sgor Goiath.

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We had fun in the snow though

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

Rab Xenon X Hoodie (women’s)

Do you have a piece of gear that you always take, wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing?

For me, one of these essential items is my Rab Xenon X Hoodie.

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Having awesome fun on Flying Buttress, a 3* multi-pitch VDiff at Dinas Cromlech in Gwynedd, Snowdonia. My Rab Xenon X hoodie kept me warm through the alternating climbing and belaying.

Since I started climbing I have had a lovely big down jacket but it simply isn’t suited to most British (and especially Scottish) weather, so I never took it out into the hills. Instead my pack would be full of extra fleeces and I would often be very cold.

Having a synthetic insulated jacket changed all that! Now I have something very warm to throw on in any conditions and it made me feel much more confident about going out in winter and poor weather in general.

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When the weather gets wild, I feel much more confident knowing I have something warm to throw on over everything else

The crucial aspect is that the Primaloft insulation in this jacket retains warmth even when damp, which means that unlike traditional down jackets, I can wear it in the rain. And I do!

It is also very light (approx. 301g) and packs down to a tiny size so there is simply no need to leave it at home. Even in summer, you never know when a chilly wind might pick up, so this jacket is there just in case.

I don’t just keep it for hiking, climbing and camping either. It’s a cold evening for karate? Throw it on over my karate suit. Might get a bit chilly cycling back from my friend’s house this evening? Pop it in my bag. It’s frosty while I’m waiting for my train to work in the morning? Bring it with me. Going to watch the fireworks? Put it on under my down jacket…..haha double down is the best!

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Maintaining a warm core while enjoying the spring sunshine and airing my feet on our walk across Scotland (TGO Challenge)!

With a slim fit (according to the description) and a hem draw cord, I find my size 12 jacket easily layers under waterproofs but also over the top of everything. Elasticated cuffs keep out draughts and a snug, lycra-bound hood keeps your head warm under a helmet or other hoods.

The outer material is Pertex Quantum, which after over two years of constant use, shows no sign of damage. The 100% nylon rip-stop lining feels silky soft against your skin if you have short sleeves underneath (my lining is also a fun purple colour). Washing it is easy: mine has been through the washing machine many times with NikWax TechWash with no problems at all.

My jacket only has a one-way zip, but the website tells me that the new ones have a 2-way opening front zip, which would be perfect for belaying. It does have a fleecy bit to stop your chin rubbing though.

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It’s warm but also breathable enough to use while climbing or walking

It has two nice roomy hand-warmer pockets and a huge chest pocket that you can pack the jacket into as a stuff sack; when we walked across Scotland, I didn’t take a pillow, I just used my packed-up jacket!

Basically, this is an awesome piece of kit: I absolutely love it and would definitely recommend it to anyone wanting a warm, practical layer for outdoor activities, especially if it rains a lot where you are!

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In Scotland one sunny, summer day can be followed by a day of hail, wind and fog!

 

#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!!!!

Turning back: Beinn Bhuidhe

The weather forecast was pretty bad for last weekend but we are aware that during the TGO Challenge in May, we will have to walk whatever the weather. We therefore decided to try to get out anyway. Not knowing many decent long circular low level walks (please send us suggestions if you know of any!), we decided to try for Beinn  Bhuide, which includes a very long walk-in along a flat track from the head of Loch Fyne. We were hoping that by the time we started ascending, the weather might have cleared up. We also knew there was easy parking for the campervan for both Friday and Saturday night.

It was an extremely dark and wet drive up on Friday night and sounded just as wet when we woke up on Saturday morning. Having finally beaten the struggle to get up, we headed off in all our waterproofs up the track towards the Fyne Ales brewery (Achadunan brewery on the OS maps). It is a long trudge along the bottom of Glen Fyne and many people cycle it. The river was very high and flowing seriously fast, as were all the channels coming off the hillside: it was an impressive sight through the mist.

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The River Fyne looking scary

Eventually, you come to a gate, where a sign asks bikes to be left, and you walk through some hazel woods. We passed a closed up lodge, Inverchorachan, and started to climb, following a path from just the other side of the second gate through the deer fence. The path was quite steep and muddy, but leads up the south side of a gorge, where the stream was raging just on our right. We could see the water tearing off pieces of the bank and throwing up the stones at the edges: it was pretty spectacular.

Before the gorge widened out, there was one particularly tricky but short section, that definitely requires hands on rock. It’s probably not too much trouble in the dry, but is definitely something to think about in the wet if you aren’t confident with that sort of thing.

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The stream above Inverchorachan was very impressive and we were pretty wet.

Beyond this, there was a big waterfall coming down the head of the valley, and the sun actually came out for a few minutes, allowing us to eat a sandwich in the dry and admire the scenery.

Having dried out ever so slightly we set off again, trying to follow the path that was occasionally visible between the snow patches. The sun didn’t last long and the drizzle soon had us putting our hoods and gloves back on. The ground was quite eroded by water and soon became steeper again as we moved up on the left of the large waterfall. The snow was slippery and the ground wasn’t frozen meaning progress was fairly slow.

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Once up onto the next flatter section, the path crossed several streams. The first just required a minor detour, but the next was definitely not possible at the usual crossing point, so we followed it upstream to try to find somewhere safer. The wind had picked up and it started raining heavily,  quickly soaking us again. Having seen the sunshine,  I felt more demoralised than I had before drying out. We struggled along the steep stream bank, passing a fork – meaning we now had two streams to cross rather than one – and eventually found a suitable spot. It was very fast and deep, preventing us being able to place our poles in it for balance, but was easily jumpable.

As we started back down the other side looking for the path and somewhere to cross the next one, we were both starting to think this was not going to be an easy summit. We were now walking away from our destination, which was totally in cloud, and all we could see were a lot of steep hillocks rising into the murk, which in poor visibility was going to be a nightmare to navigate. We managed to cross the next stream but we had lost a fair bit of time and it was now around 1.30pm. We sheltered behind a rocky outcrop, had some food and discussed our options. We were still 1.5km from the summit. There were more streams that might prove impossible to cross. There was a steep section ahead that would be tricky in the horrible melty snow. There wasn’t going to a be a view. We had a long walk out even from where we were, and importantly, if we headed back now we’d be down in time for a beer at the brewery! We had some hot squash and turned around.

 

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It took a while to get down the steep sections but we didn’t encounter any problems. The weather also continued to tease me into taking my waterproofs off before raining again 10 minutes later. The track out along the valley definitely feels long on the walk back but some dancing Highland cows and the biggest herd of deer I’ve ever seen provided some distraction.

And we did indeed make it to the brewery in time for a drink and a venison sausage roll.

 

Details

Distance: 21.5km if you make it to the summit (we walked about 18.5km)

Munro summit: Beinn Bhuidhe  (948m)

Region: Argyll

Time: 7 hours without reaching the summit in unpleasant conditions (7-8 hours usually)

Comments:

Don’t be afraid to turn around if you’re not having fun! Yes, it’s good to get to the top but you are also out there to have a good time! Also, take a bike.