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

Thursday, 2 January 2014

First Goatfell of the Year.

We ventured out in a weather window today to have a look at Goatfell.  The so called break in the weather was wet windy and wild, but not as apocalyptic as it has been recently. Another storm is forecast for tomorrow.

There was some wet snow lying about on the summit and the Stacach Ridge. It is quite deep in places, and also quite soggy. 

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Goatfell after the Storm: The Evidence of Things Unseen

Its been quite a week, between the weather, international and personal events it's all felt a bit monumental. I found myself in a pensive mood on Friday morning after a hectic couple of days on the mainland and as I arrived on Arran, decided I needed a some Lucy time to get my feet back on the ground. My favourite mountain fix is a round of Coire Lan, with the summit of Goatfell at its highest point. On this occasion I decided to walk up from Corrie, and return via the Brodick path, taking in the Stacach Ridge on the way. 

Setting out on the Corrie path- Goatfell just visible.

The sky was grey but the peaks were clear of cloud as I set off. The dusting of snow and the early winter colours gave the light a beautiful sepia glow. It wasn't long before I was crunching through snow and ice on the steep track in to Coire Lan.  I could feel the temperature rising as I climbed, and soon the ridges were disappearing in to a soft mist. 

Coire Lan with Goatfell on the skyline.
There was plenty of evidence of wildlife, with marks everywhere in the snow from the previous night's activity.  I found the prints of a mink running up the track for a 100m or so.  This is an invasive species that has had a devastating affect on Arran's ground nesting birds.  It used to be seen often all over the island, but is now a rare sight, pushed in to an ever tighter niche by the apparent increase in otters.  The fresh tracks proof however that this fierce member of the weasel family survives on Arran.

Mink tracks in the snow.

Tracks of a small bird, my instinct says wren, but the book says wren tracks are symmetrical (?)
Field vole tracks, complete with vole holes.

I dawdled for quite a while in Coire Lan, distracted from my walk with so much to look at.  Eventually I found myself on the long pull up on to the bealach between North Goatfell and Mullach Buidhe.  My intention had been to traverse the ridge with a direct route over the top of the tors, as from a distance the rock looked snow free.  However, on close inspection, and after a futile 20 minutes of tip toeing down the slabs off the back of North Goatfell, I decided to retreat and take the lower path.  The rocks were indeed mostly snow free, but a thin veneer of ice made the going very slow,  and really there was too much ice to proceed without crampons, but not enough for crampons to be fun. I stayed bare booted and took the traverse path below the buttresses.  Even here I cut steps in a couple of places, before rejoining the ridge beyond the difficulties.

View in to Glen Sannox from the bealach.
Mullach Buidhe living up to its name of "Yellow Hill" even in the mist and light snow.
Wobbly icicles blowing in an imaginary wind are signs of the storm of the previous day.

By the time I made it to the summit of Goatfell, it was snowing gently and there was absolutely no view whatsoever.  I'm lucky as I've been up there so often I can sense it even without seeing it- but there is a little plaque on the summit pointing out the bits you can't see if the mist is down when you arrive.

Goatfell Summit

Descending the main path back to Brodick, the snow got deeper, and was lying in little drifts on the path where it had blown in the previous day.  I cannot imagine the wind speeds up there yesterday- they measured gusts of over 100mph in Saltcoats just across the water.  The snow up here looked like little round balls of polystyrene called graupel- rimed up snowflakes that fall to earth from turbulent air masses. This stuff forms persistent weak layers of ball-bearing like material that if buried and can cause avalanches.  Thankfully a mega thaw set in today so I imagine it has all gone by now.

Graupel- rimed up snowflakes

WH Murray wrote of the "evidence of things not seen" in the mountains, this gave him faith in a world filled with pain.  For me, the stories that the rocks and the snow tell about the world give me similar comfort, if not evidence of a divine presence, at least a connection to something much bigger than the bewildering lives of human beings.