Friday, 3 January 2014

Storm Season: Dec & Jan 2013/14

This has been a frustrating few weeks: lots of time kept clear for mountains, but violent winds and storms have meant that peaks wouldn't often be accessible or even visible. So I made do, during December, with trips that don't demand an 8 hour drive each way. I bought myself a Mammut Shield waterproof sleeping bag, very heavily discounted (calling it a Christmas present) and gave it some test drives including in the Brecon Beacons. The sleeping bag is fantastic: just parking it in the snow on mountain tops I've been warm, dry and happy despite extremely grim conditions, with only a few flakes of snow around the shoulders.
     The terrible weather meant there hasn't been much to photograph, but I did spend some time tracking Peak District hares on a misty afternoon that involved less actual walking than perching on rocks reading Will Stone's superb translation of Stefan Zweig's Nietzsche. (Given the conditions I decided I'd buy Stone's collection called Glaciation, stocking up on mountain reading, when I got home).
A few days later, on a day between storms, I arrived at the top of Pen y Fan as the sun rose.
The most fun on this day was when a pair of ravens took a liking to my bag (or rather its cashews and wild boar ham) so decided to defend it at close quarters.

Even when I persuaded them away, they only moved a few feet and hung around until I'd finished breakfast and my chapter. Ravens feed up for the spring season earlier than other birds because they like to breed while there's still snow cover (sheep that die in the snow are an unrivalled source of carrion). So ravens, more than daffodils or blackbird song, really give the first signs of spring... Or maybe their uncharacteristic bravery was actually down to genuine winter deprivation.
As the day went on there were some decent views of the mountains, but as usual the Brecon Beacons were more like a town park, with crowds and queues, than the outdoors (I'm surprised no one has opened a hot dog stand on Pen y Fan).

Shortly before sundown the predicted weather front came in and the views ended for the day. The Mammut sleeping bag did its job wonderfully, keeping me cosy in freezing fog.
    At the beginning of January I decided I couldn't wait any longer. Storms and strong westerly gales were forecast, but the mountain weather forecast contained the word 'bright', so I decided to head to Glen Affric. 
     It was anything but bright (which didn't make for impressive photos I'm afraid). On the day of the drive up I made for two of Glen Affric's most accessible Munros, Tom a' Coinich & Toll Creagach. Parking at Chisholme bridge, the walk in to these mountains is quick and simple, along a reasonable track with only a few streams to ford. It was quickly getting dark by the time I hit the slopes, and the constant drizzle meant that views were limited:
 I made it above the snowline just as the last light faded, and put the new sleeping bag down in the snow-filled corrie beneath the ridge between the two munros. Due to all this drizzle the snow was really unpleasant to walk on (or rather, wade through). But I found a picturesque spot with expansive views to the south and up to Tom a' Choinich's ridges:
This was a spot well protected from Westerlies, but before long the wind had turned south-westerly  and this was a very squally night indeed. It rained hard and constantly: not a good time to spend my first Scottish winter night in just a sleeping bag! By morning, everything - clothes, books, food and self - was soaked through and the rain had made the snow even more tiresome to negotiate. The peaks were well and truly cloud-bound. The forecast from yesterday suggested things might be a little 'brighter' north of the great glen, so I decided to give up on Glen Affric and head north (perhaps using the Kinlochewe bunkhouse to dry things out tonight).
    Driving through Beauly and Contin, things were indeed 'bright', but it was clear that all the mountains were swathed in very dark, immobile cloud which was shedding almost constant rain. I decided to head for a medium-sized lump on the edge of Loch Maree, Meall A' Ghiuthais. I'd noticed on past visits to Torridon that, at 887m this outlier from Beinn Eighe tended to escape cloud that smothered the higher things in the main ranges. The afternoon light, such as it was, was doing interesting things across the glen.
 And by the time the first of the ridges before the Meall was breached evening already seemed to be closing in. It was barely five hours since dawn. Obligingly, in a brief gap in the rain Slioch momentarily emerged from cloud.
The Meall was indeed escaping the worst of the cloud, although not the rain. I decided not to sleep on the top, but on this shoulder (c.560m) where there was at least some possibility of shelter from the gales. I dropped my rucksack off and ran up to the top (taking a torch for the way back). It wasn't possible to see a great deal, but the occasional hints at view did suggest real grandeur: I decided to make it back up here at the next opportunity.
It was another wet night, but some shelter from the wind made it much more comfortable than the previous one. Next morning the cloud level had fallen ridiculously low. The only real option was to head for the coast.
     I headed through Torridon village and past Wester Alligin without a single sighting of a mountain. Along the coast, even in the middle of the day the dark clouds almost entirely kept the sun at bay. They remained between 100m & 200m (!) until well after lunchtime. Only occasionally did some light break through:
Gradually, visibility improved a little, showing just how complex a coastline this is: in some places it could take a whole day to walk a couple of miles as the crow flies:
Eventually, there were even views of the Trotternish peninsula on Skye:
The northernmost point of Trotternish, Rubha Hunish (the low land seen on the right here, after the cliffs fall away) is a stunning point to spend a July night. Climb down the cliffs, onto the grassy peninsula, and you'll find an idyll that's free from the midges that plague most of Skye in summer. Basking sharks hug the coastline, coming within metres of anyone on the shore; minke whales feed not far off shore; otters and seals populate the beaches. But Rubha Hunish in July felt very distant from Diabaig in January - even though the peaks of Harris, apparently bathed in sunlight, could just about be made out to the West:
After spending a while on the coast reading some of Richard Burton's new biography of Bunting, I decided to head up from the coast towards the lower slopes of Beinn Alligin to find a sleeping spot that would take advantage of whatever views might appear. Although Alligin, Liathach and Eighe stayed resolutely clothed in cloud, some of the shapely peaks across the glen briefly revealed themselves:
 And the evening light was excellent. The first time the clouds had broken up since I arrived:
Then it was back to Torridon for the long drive south. This is certainly the most washed out trip I've ever taken. On the second day the hood only came down two or three times, and then only for a few minutes; everything, including feet, camera and sleeping things were soaked through from the beginning. I think I'll have the loud rustling of wind-blown goretex ringing in my ears for days. Next time maybe I won't let impatience get the better of me...
At least when I got back there was time to play with falcons:

All Around Assynt: September 2013

By September 2013, Cul Mor and Cul Beg were two of the only Assynt mountains I hadn't climbed, and I'd been attempting to get Ben up to Assynt without success (due to illness, weather and the lures of Torridon) for two years. We parked near the bottom of Cul Beg leaving the decision of which mountain to climb till later. The more formidable of the two - the fortress of Assynt, Cul Mor - was soon drawing us in... we began to make our way across the glen towards it. After the first couple of miles this trip was all across pathless, rough terrain so was quite slow going, but all the more glorious for that sense of inaccessibility.

Some of the spots along the way, where flat land turns into serene lochans, would have made great spots to picnic on our game pies from the House of Bruar but time was of the essence...
At the first crossing (the river that feeds the above loch) I decided not to take risks with the SLR by leaping between rocks, so just waded through, the price to pay being cold wet boots for the rest of the trip (it seemed like a small cost at the time). We then spiralled up Cul Mor's southern and eastern flanks, which felt superbly remote before putting our bivis down on a high shoulder, leaving just enough time before dark to head to the top.
There wasn't much of a sunset due to the thick grey cloud, but the views from here were still spectacular.

Here's Ben looking down at Cul Beg:
It was evident that cloud, with rain, would soon close in and that finding the bivis might not be easy in the dark. So we decided not to do Cul Mor's other peaks that evening. After we'd made that decision, I climbed down a little to take some photos, leaving Ben perched on the top (above). I soon realised that the other peaks weren't as distant as they'd looked and ran across to get some photos to the north (including Suilven in the rain) and then up the north east ridge, hoping that Ben would never find out how far I'd gone. After a while I heard him shouting that we should go back to camp.
He didn't seem all that impressed when, after I shouted back, he looked across to see me at least 15 minutes of steep descent and ascent away. We did make it back, just as it got really dark, and had a drizzly evening with appropriate accompaniment: cask strength Caol Ila and Heaney's Beowulf.    
    Next morning the top of Cul Mor was engulfed in cloud. We were just below the cloud line so got a nice, though drab dawn.

We decided to make for Cul Beg, hoping that the cloud would lift before we got there. The walk across was beautiful but tough going. By the time we reached the bottom the hill fog showed no sign of shifting. We'd been caught in a couple of sharp showers and more threatened. Our choice was whether to try Cul Beg anyway, aware that there might not be views, or whether to head down the long glen and up Stac Pollaidh, which was low enough to evade the cloud. We chose, decisively, the latter, but somehow ended up doing the former: one of those occasions when (wise) feet overrule (foolish) brain.
     We were extraordinarily lucky. Cul Beg was out of the cloud for about half an hour all day, which happened to be the half hour we were at the top. The climb was hard work, given that this isn't actually a very big mountain, but the views were stunning.  
The broken cloud made this a great place to watch patterns of sunlight pass across the Assynt hills and Loch Sionascaig, with different rivers and rocks catching the light as the clouds moved:

 As the cloud, along with rain and hail closed back in, we headed down steep and slippery hillsides towards the road, with plenty of time to drive (yet further) north during the day.
     The weather had well and truly closed in, so we took the 'wee mad road' towards Inverkirkaig without making any decisions about where to spend the night. This was Ben's first trip along this eccentric road, which sometimes plunges almost into the sea and offers a great sense of Assynt (as well as lots of access points for kayaking out to beautiful little islands). This tiny one-track road also boasts Britain's most remote bookshop, the wonderful Achins, so we popped in there for coffee, cake and an up-to-date weather forecast. The cake was great, the forecast wasn't. But a short break in the cloud was predicted for the next morning, and we soon realised that, via a longer walk in than the usual one, Suilven - Britain's most distinctive mountain - was accessible from the back door of Achins. We wandered up the glen, past the spectacular falls of kirkaig (which never look as big in photos as they really are) and towards the lochs at the head of the river.
This is a beautiful river, surrounded by mixed deciduous woodland which must be full of unusual birdlife in spring, and the loch-smattered plateau above would have provided superb views had the cloud been higher. We camped by a sandy beach on the kirkaig side of Fionn Loch. Next morning we rounded the loch, and headed across very boggy ground towards the bottom of Suilven. With the sun still low, a deer very obligingly posed in the one point where it would stand out against the skyline:
The mountain was still in cloud, but we were optimistic, because the rest of Assynt was soon beautifully sunny.
There's a wonderfully 'miniature' feel to this landscape (captured acutely in lots of Norman MacCaig's poetry: he discusses it in prose in a great film called 'A Man in My Position' available here)

The walk in was indeed long and boggy, taking more time than we'd expected, but by the time we were craning our necks to look vertically up at Suilven the weather was as fine as could be, all the cloud lifted. The sun was out, the wind was down and the Met Office's dire warnings were briefly flouted.

 Heading straight up the side of Suilven the views across Assynt opened up still further

Once we reached the ridge, there were views of Canisp too:
And views that showed the precipitous nature of what we were climbing up. By this stage, Norman McCaig's 'Climbing Suilven' was definitely ringing true:

I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down.
Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,
It's silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.
My lungs say No;
But down and down this treadmill hill must go.

Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.
I claw that tall horizon down to this;
And suddenly
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me

And we reached the top just before the weather remembered what it was supposed to be doing. The sun of the previous hour was gradually banished and the lochs gradually began to turn from silver crinkled paper to a flat leaden grey.

By the time we were ready to go down Suilven was being engulfed in cloud once again. It appeared once or twice more in the time it took us to walk back
and there were still some impressive atmospheric effects as the sun caught the bottom of clouds and brought out the steely rock that's always so close to the surface in Assynt.

We'd left our equipment where we'd camped...
...and Ben, reprobate that he is, needed his mid-day whisky before we packed up, Suilven appearing one last time to oblige for the photo.