Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Last Camp and the First Bivi: Rum and Grinah Stones

Rum was my first trip to spend multiple nights on remote mountains in NW Scotland. Before this I'd always been cautious in where I'd camped, not quite having faith in myself or my equipment to deal with big changes in the weather. That caution was misguided: I wasted the years from age 20-25 in trips that weren't very adventurous. It also became clear during this trip that my equipment was heavier than it needed to be, especially my large tent, so it was on returning from Rum that I bought a Terra Nova Jupiter bivi bag, one of the best purchases I ever made, and one of my favourite possessions. Just a few weeks later my tent was shredded by one of its own pegs, ripped from the ground by a violent December blizzard on top of Moelwyn Mawr, so now I don't have a tent even if I wanted one.    
So this was trip was the yellow tent's last, and best, big outing.

Rum is a glorious island dotted with substantial mountains of diverse character. It is essentially a crumb fallen from that bigger biscuit - Skye - and its biggest mountains, known as the Rum cuillin, are like slightly smaller versions of the black cuillin of Skye. The views from these mountains - over the neighbouring islands of Muck and Eigg, over Skye, and over the mountains of the Western seaboard) are truly spectacular. This is Skye behind Halival with clouds rolling by:

And the island is prone to beautiful inversion effects, where sea mists plateau below the peaks of the mountains. 

I've been to around twenty Scottish islands and this is by far my favourite, even above Aran, Skye and Hoy.
I won't describe this trip in detail, partly because I'm not sure I'd get the precise order of events right, but I will give a brief photographic tour.
I set off by train from Cambridge to Mallaig and spent the night in a Mallaig bunkhouse before catching an early ferry to Rum. My aim was to explore the whole island, bivying all over. But because my equipment was so heavy I ended up camping at several different points around the Cuillin horseshoe, using these ridges as a base from which to strike out in all directions during the day (and leaving much of my equipment packed up behind rocks on the mountain tops).
The first peak to climb was the biggest, Askival. After walking a few miles of coast from Kinloch castle I turned up Glen Dibidil, from this fetching bothy at the bottom. The sea (with some large mussel colonies which must provide walkers with feasts a month or two earlier in the year), is just a few metres from the door.

The two Glens that rive this part of Rum (Dibidil and Harris) are really beautiful and make for very fine walking, with startled snipe bursting from the grasses every few metres. There are beautiful waterfalls  and stunning rock formations. After crossing the bealach between the glens I put my tent down on a flat outcrop at the head of Glen Harris. It can just about be seen in this photo.
I then began the real ascent of the cone of Askival, in order to see the sun set from the top. This sunset could not have been any more perfect. There was enough cloud around for plenty of drama, but not enough to obscure the sweeping views in all directions. It was going to be very difficult for anything else to beat this first night. 

Next day, the weather was worse. I headed down Glen Harris... the eccentric monument at the point where the Glen meets the sea. 

This is land that used to be farmed, and the patterns of old farming structures are evident on the ground everywhere. I then headed up the coast for a while before turning up another mountain, Barkeval, to cross the ridges that led back across Askival to rejoin my equipment and set the tent up only a few hundred yards from where I'd camped the night before. 

Unbeknown to me, this was not a good place to camp because it was the right in the middle of the one way the deer had to cross between the two Glens,  and this was the beginning of the stag rut. Every time a group of deer crossed the ridge during the night the stag would stand and bark at the tent for several minutes before moving on. Fortunately, barking was all they did. Next morning, as the sun rose, I headed up another cuillin, Ainshival, in patchy cloud.

Before descending to a point where there used to be a settlement on the coast, Papadil. 

By this point the day had warmed up, all the cloud had cleared and the sun was remarkably strong. I decided this was a day for lounging rather than walking too far and stayed at Papadil for some time, occasionally having to remove the tics, which populate the long grasses on Rum's coast, from various body parts. Walking along the coast before heading up Glen Dibidil, two sea eagles were soaring between Rum and Eige, one of them can just about be seen in this photo. 

Over the next couple of days I explored various more corners of the island...

...this included the gentler hills in the north of the island, before reluctantly making my way back to Kinloch and Mallaig. In Kinloch, the island's wardens were releasing shearwater chicks that had left their nests but been beguiled by the village's lights. One of these birds was still in its box when I arrived, waiting to dodge the black backed gulls before heading to South America.

A few months after getting back from Rum, it was time to test the new bivi in some severe cold, ready for its maiden Scottish trip with nights on Slioch and Beinn Tarsuinn. This test was two nights in the Dark Peak during a January deep freeze.
On the first day I headed from the A57 in Glossop along the path to Doctor's Gate, up over James' Thorn and Shelf Stones, then left along the Pennine Way, before turning off to Grains in the Water and striking out across undulating moorland to Grinah Stones.
This is as isolated as it's possible to get in the centre of England, and when I've been here in the summer has been a great place to watch short eared owls and the lizards they prey on. Grinah Stones is a rocky ridge in between the boggy wastes of Bleaklow and the long meander of the river alport towards the otherworldly landslips of Alport Castles.
This was no time for seeing lizards. It was a fiercely cold January night during one of the deep freezes we've had in recent years. Despite the huge rocks, which I'd assumed would provide some shelter, it proved impossible to get out of the bitter wind and I was very glad of a new balaclava.
The evening light was great.

And, despite the cold, it was a beautiful night. I spent much of it reading Peter Riley's Alstonefield (a village near here), the first half of which was really superb although the hallucinatory second half rather spoiled the effect.
But it was the dawn that was particularly rich with colour, the low sun turning the ice deep shades of orange. The only kind of yellow snow you can eat.
It turned into a beautiful day, in fact too nice: the walking was great - if slippy - in the morning, but as the snow gradually softened walking began to take serious effort, each step plunging down through several feet of snowfall.

Heading down the dales, which were largely immune to sunlight, proved easiest. The rivers had some great ice features:

I crossed the snake pass and headed up onto Kinder which took a surprisingly long time in these conditions. This was even bleaker than Grinah Stones had been. My water was now completely frozen, as was every stream on the usually-water-logged Kinder plateau. It was a good job I had some whisky.
I headed along the east side of Kinder, before putting the bivi bag down on the north end of the hill. This spot provided some interesting night-time views of the lights of Manchester.
But I placed the bivi bag so as to be hidden from them. Nonetheless, I had some strange dreams about waking up to find that I was camping in the grounds of a posh public school (an imagined version of Manchester Grammar?). Out of the wind this was a much more comfortable night.
     I woke up in thick cloud, and headed down onto a chilly Pennine way

complete with silhouettes of grouse.
After a couple of hours I bumped (almost literally in this fog) into three joggers who were convinced they'd be the only people up there ('we thought we'd got up early'). They pointed out that I was covered head to toe in a thick layer of rime ice and asked how many hours I'd been up there - the answer of 'three days' seemed to surprise them. I headed back across the Snake Pass and down the Doctor's Gate valley to Glossop. By this point, after hours in the freezing fog, I'd lost all feeling in my right hand so it seemed like a good time to get back to the car.

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