Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Keep right at the Prickly Pear

Right now I'm sitting by the woodburner, all togged up in my winter gear (luckily lofting insulation is on test for the next issue of Outdoor Enthusiast), and the last two weeks would be a distant dusty memory, if it weren't for a little bottle of Argan Oil, from a Berber womens co-operative, carefully carried home from Morcocco in my hold luggage. I'm trying to recreate my favourite dish from the Kasbah Restaurant in Tafraout- a subtly fragranced take on a classic, chicken tagine with olives and lemon. Some incredible smells are wafting from my kitchen and I reckon I've just about nailed it, with the help of that argan oil, (although I might have gone too heavy on the preserved lemon...).

The Ameln Valley, Anti Atlas of Morocco
Sadly I can't recreate the ferocious sunlight, the big views and the lurid orange quartzite of the Jebel L'Kest range in the Anti Atlas of Southwest Morocco.   I've just returned from one of the most exciting climbing trips I've ever had, and luckily it all went pretty much to plan. 

We flew in to Agadir, and picked up a hire car.  After much angst we shelled out for a 4x4 which turned out to be a good call as not only are there lots of rough tracks to negotiate to get to the crags, but while we were out there they were also digging up pretty much the entire stretch of main road from Agadir to Tafraout. Tarmac was in short supply.

The climbing is situated on either side of the Jebel L' Kest escarpment, giving distinct north and south regions. We headed south to start with, and a rented apartment in Tafraout, giving us easy access to the crags of the Ameln Valley. We don't climb hard, but there was plenty to go at amongst the easy routes.  Highlights of this part of our trip included the fabulously alpine Sun Ribbon Arete (S) on the bizarrely shaped (and named) Bunny Ears at Robin Hood rocks, and some superb cragging at Cheshire Cheese Crag and Tizgut gorge.

Bunny Ears, Robin Hood Rocks
 Blacksticks Blue Slabs (S), Cheshire Cheese Crag
Tafraout itself is a busy if scruffy town, not yet given over to all things touristy, but well used to receiving trekkers and climbers, and with a few good eateries and basic hotels. The Kasbah was the place to eat and be seen, and seems to be in league with the brothers over the road at Maison Troc, who will sell you a carpet if you wish (or even if you don't). The food is excellent and I was happy to eat salad and all sorts of other contraband without ill effects. Elsewhere in the town I can recommend the Hotel Tanger for dinner (no idea about the rooms), were the food is almost as good, a quarter the price, the service a bit more relaxed, and the locals dine. Expect to be offered a small selection of delicious tagines with bread.  Couscous generally has to be pre-ordered as round here it isn't the 5 min prep type. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning there is a souk in town. Its a good place to stock up on picnic goodies such as olives and dates.

On non climbing days we wafted around the hills and scrambled on remote peaks on the edge of the Sahara. On a particularly gentle day headed down south to the oasis at the Gorge D' Ait Mansour. Here actual water sloshes along the bottom of a spectacular palm filled sandstone gorge. The towering walls here are hundreds of metres high, with villages perched on their lower slopes to avoid the occasional flash flood. A clamber to the summit of Jebel L'Kest (2359m) was quite literally the highpoint of the holiday.  We approached from the precarious vilage of Anergui (the drive is an experience in itself), and negotiated a maze of rocky alpine valleys to locate the South Ridge, a great wee scramble to the top with stunning views that stretch accross Morocco from ocean to peak and desert. 

The Summit of Jebel L'Kest 2359m
Gorge'D'Ait Mansour
Moving north and leaving Tafraout behind, we based ourselves for a couple of days at the sumptious Tizourgane Kasbah (a fairytale fortified guesthouse, refreshingly quiet after the town) and barely scraped the surface of the acres of rock located within easy driving distance of Igaoudnidif. We tried  a friendly if occasionally loose little crag at Tizi Gzaouine, and some very accessible (if a little hot) cragging on south facing Ksar Rock,  The classic severe, Desert Man at Ksar is aptly named, as we sweltered in the direct sun at midday.

Wally feeling the heat on Desert Man (S) Ksar Rock
As a finale we went big, with a day up in the high hills at Adrar Asmit. The 1 hour walk in seemed intimidating after a couple of weeks of roadside rock but we soon remembered that we are from Scotland and it's basically still cragging, and got on with it. The highlight of our trip was here: Wild Country, a mere V Diff, with occasionally scrappy climbing, but a fabulous mountaineering experience and stunning views across the northern valleys of the L'Kest range, with the sea visible in the west and the snowcapped main Atlas peaks to the north.

Getting some exposure on Wild Country (V Diff)

Suspect belay (cairn- but the base was good...!)) summit of Adrar Asmit.
With guidebook descriptions that read "keep right of the prickly pear" and "descent straightforward if prickly", it was never going to be an pain-free trip. The climbing was at all times exciting, although this was often as much due to suspect rock as the situations.  The rock is baked in the desert heat of the summer and is prone to fracturing, often without warning.  If in doubt, hit it!  Even in the lower grades, trad climbing here is a serious undertaking, with self rescue being the order of the day. At Tandelt Crag in the Lions Face area of Ameln for example, we found a scary array of loose rock not mentioned in the guide, which may have developed recently? We also witnessed apparently spontaneous rockfall at this crag.

There have been a lot of new routes put up in a short time, and as a result many have seen only a handful of ascents and although we found the grading to be fair, if even quite friendly, stars seem to have been awarded quite enthusiastically so take these with a pinch of salt. However, for us the destination was a superb choice, with lots and lots of rock, at grades to suit all comers. The objective dangers and need for self reliance combined with good mountain sense served mainly to heighten the sense of adventure rather than detract from the experience.
More info and guidebooks:

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Hello! Remember Me?

What a season that was!  My poor blog has been utterly neglected, mostly due to lack of internet access and spare time for the last eight months. It's been a crazy and wonderful season. Here it is summarised in photo form.

March saw me canoing on Loch Shiel, working for the wonderful Shearwater Adventure

In April, Wally and I were on holiday in Fontainebleau

In May I visited Ailsa Craig with Ocean Breeze Ribtours

In July I experienced the warm heart of Africa on an expedition to Malawi

We trekked on Mt Mulanje for six days. 

In August, I explored my home with clients.
This is the lovely waterfall along the shore west of Kildonan. 

A rainbow above Glen Sannox

September saw me expeditioning again.
This is The Hutchison Memorial Hut in the Cairngorms.

It's October now, and I'm back to enjoying Arran!
This is the ridge of the Warrior looking along to Suidhe Feargus. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Sgurr na Ciche and Garbh Chioch Mhor

In a happy coincidence, what felt like the first good weather of the year happened at the same time that my husband had a week off work.  However, with warm temperatures and monster cornices prevalent throughout the Highlands we faced the reality that even with the settled weather, winter climbing is a particularly risky business right now.  We've been away from the action, and with no first hand experience of conditions, we opted for less committing activities, whilst making the most of the good weather. Sadly this might be the first winter in 15 years that I haven't ticked a graded climb.

We kicked off the week on Sunday night with an evening stomp from Loch Arkaig up the forest road in Glen Dessary to A'Chuil Bothy. We found the bothy in good shape, and soon had a fire going and dinner on.

A' Chuil Bothy
The following morning was more damp than we had expected. However, after  second brew, the clouds parted and things looked more positive. We were soon heading up the glen in the direction of the peaks overlooking the Mam na Clioch Airde (the stony pass to Sourlies Bothy and Knoydart).

Looking down Glen Dessary
Just below the first bealach, we struck up through open ground in the direction of Sgurr na Ciche. This munro is a spectacular cone of rock- a proper mountain that I've admired a lot from the Knoydart side. It's one of those peaks that just asks to be climbed and ever since I first laid eyes on it I've been slightly obsessed. From the Glen Dessary side, it is less impressive, but still steep and fun.

In the gully that leads to the ridge
To gain the ridge, we postholed up a chossy gully filled with hollow snow and boulders in to a col between the Sgurr and its neighbour, Garbh Chioch Mhor. From there it was possible to strike up snow runnels to the summit ridge. Fun in ascent, these gave pause in descent! The views from the top were worth the work, and it's something I will relive every time I look at the eastern skyline from Knoydart.

Final snow cone to the summit. 

Looking west to Loch Nevis and Knoydart
Awkward descent....
From Sgurr na Ciche, we followed the switchback ridge over Garbh Chioch Mhor and it's little brother, Garbh Chioch Bheag.  The sun shone and the views were stupendous. In the clear conditions the terrain should have been straightforward, but the treachery of the soft snow and sagging cornices kept us guessing.

Looking back to Sgurr na Ciche
Garbh Chioch Mhor summit
Final switchback to the bealach.
Beyond the Chioch Bheag, we descended in to the bealach.  It's traditional to continue here on to Sgurr nan Coireachan, but it had been a long day, and to prove we are not baggers, we left it for next time, and struck down hill in to Glen Dessary and dinner in the bothy.

Monday, 3 March 2014

A Novice Skier's first tour

This winter has been mission learn-to-ski for me and it has been a slow (very slow) and often painful journey.  This weekend marked a watershed because, under the gentle guidance of experienced friends Dave and Pauline (plus Wally), I was coached and nurtured up a hill, off piste, with skins on.  Not only that, but I skied (some) of the way back down.  The received wisdom is that you really need to be a proficient piste skier to ski tour in Scotland, and as I'm still limping down green runs, this is far from a description of me. My survival on Saturday is entirely due to excellent route choice by my friends, good instruction, and benign conditions.  I admit I was terrified some of the time. The rest of the time it was brilliant glorious fun.

Skinning up on to the plateau of A Bhuidhenach Bheag. 

We set off from Dalnaspidal in the Drumochter pass in the direction of A' Bhuidhenach Bheag, a rounded munro on the east side of the A9.  Skinning up hill on my new touring skis was a revelation.  I'm happy to report that this aspect of ski touring was way easier than expected, and much easier than walking up hill.  Eureka!  I'm a convert.  

Fabulous views of Glen Garry
I did find the navigation very disconcerting when the clag came in.  At times we were in whiteout conditions, and the plateau is very featureless in those parts. On foot, I'm used to being fully plugged in to the landscape.  On skis, I had no idea of my speed, and suprisingly even found the slope aspect and gradient hard to judge. Skiing in a whiteout is also very unbalancing. Lots more practice required here....

And the descent?  Well, the initial slopes were wind scoured icy snow and I panicked. Having never skied anything so steep or technical, the skis came off and I stomped down the hill.  I'd packed the crampons for this eventuality, but my second hand ski touring boots were fine on the crusty ice so I was soon able to catch up with the others at the point where the snow softened and the gradient eased.  On the easier ground, I settled in to my tentative snowplough turns feeling right at home on the gentle slopes. Lots to learn- but I'm very keen, and happy to mark the milestone of my first munro by ski.

Cruising very very gently down the hill!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Recording an unmeasurable loss

I've been taking part in the RSPB Beached Bird Survey and have surveyed 16km of Arran's beaches.  I'm just one of many hundreds of volunteers who are counting the cost of the winter on our seabirds, and reporting disturbing findings. I can only speak for my own small patch but I've been finding dead birds every 200m or so along the shore.  Most of these are razorbills, members of the auk family, who nest on Ailsa Craig, a rocky island to the south of Arran.

Eslewhere in the UK, the news is little better, with stories of mass puffin deaths along the coasts of Wales and France and as many as 600 washed up on beaches in Jersey. Puffins are close relatives of razorbills, and it seems succumb to similar pressures when wintering at sea.

Mass strandings of dead seabirds are known as "wrecks", and their causes are often complex and hard to determine.  What is known about this particular wreck is that members of the auk family are particularly badly affected, and that the weather is likely to be a factor. Post mortems have shown birds to be undernourished, and unable to feed in the bad weather, they have died of starvation. These brutal winter storms this season are not just bad for humans, but for our seabirds too. The Met Office has said that we can expect more and more winters like this, as climate change tightens it's grip. Our seabirds are under seige from all sides, with worsening weather patterns coupled with diminishing fish stocks through over fishing and changes to the temperature/pH of the oceans.

It's vital that we record wreck events as they happen, but we probably won't know the full extent of the damage until the birds return to their breeding colonies in the spring. Then the living can be counted, compared to previous years, and the catastrophe measured. It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such loss, but we must find ways to help these birds if we can.

I take this all quite personally, I have to admit.  These birds are a part of who I am. Childhood holidays by the sea, boat trips to visit seabird colonies, me lying belly down on cliff tops watching the swirling mass of squawking, bickering bird life below. I took these things for granted as a child, and seeing them as an adult brings the child out in me all over again. It is a joy that never diminshes, and I think it is a tragedy if our children's children don't get to enjoy these sights as well.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Kirstie Boot Camp

I've been concentrating far too much learning to ski this winter and I'm starting to feel a little soft, so I messaged my friend, photographer and fellow Arran MRT member Kirstie Smith, with a request that she and her energetic collie dog drag me round the hills today, to remind me of what it is all about.  Now, Kirstie is a small but perfectly formed powerhouse, someone that storms around the Arran hills whenever she gets the chance, so I knew I'd be in for a fun day.....Kirstie is an awsome photographer by the way- check out her website here.  for lots of stunning photos of Arran and mountain rescue training.

After a relaxed start we headed up Glen Rosa, easing ourselves in to the day and enjoying the views at the lower levels.  Crossing the Rosa Burn was unproblematic, despite heavy rain overnight (it often runs in spate and catches people out here).

Glen Rosa
We headed up on to the Saddle, the halfway point of our day, (the easy half).  We were treated to immense views down Glen Sannox, which we took time to enjoy, as we knew we'd soon be in the clouds.

Looking in to Glen Sannox

Before long we were sweating our way up on to North Goatfell.  Its a big pull up from the saddle, and the path, always eroded, is in a treacherous state after this winter's heavy rain. 

From North Goatfell, the fun began, with a traverse under the buttresses of Stacach, in deep snow.  It's steep ground here, and the snow was soft and wet.  It was slow going along here, working from memory of where the path is- there are some nasty rock slabs on this side of the hill that we did not want to stray on unwittingly!

Traversing under Stacach- photo by Kirstie Smith

The summit of Goatfell eventually loomed in to view- although views were as usual, elusive....

Finally, we began the descent down the "tourist path" from Goatfell to Brodick, although you will see from the photo below, its not very touristy at the moment.  It may be mild in the glens, but there are still full on winter conditions on The Goat.

No sign of the path today, and lots of steep ground!- by Kirstie Smith

Friday, 17 January 2014

Glens and peaks...

The weather today was a lot better than forecast with the predicted showers skirting the island and cloud billowing around the high tops but never closing in.  It was a glorious day for photographs and I took a visiting photographer on a journey through the big glens and over the Saddle.  We were treated to a flypast by a couple of golden eagles, and some great views of a bachelor herd of red deer stags. My wildlife photos are useless but hopefully my landscapes will stand up to a bit of scrutiny!  My photographer companion Ann Holmes' photos on the other hand are astonishing, follow this link to see the photos she took during her visit to Arran including on her day out with me

The morning mist clinging to Cir Mhor as we set off up Glen Sannox

The Sleeping Warrior resting in the clouds. 

The view along the ridge from The Saddle. 

Looking south to Glen Rosa with the low winter sun in our eyes. 

The classic view to Cir Mhor from Glen Rosa