#317 – Gowbarrow and Aira Force in the English Lake District

On Gowbarrow Fell with Ullswater in the distance

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The north-eastern Lake District, with Ullswater in the centre

It was mid-February 2022, and we were looking at changing our campervan for something more up-to-date.  Soon, the deed was done and we needed a couple of ‘shake-down’ trips before launching off on our annual May trip to the Scottish Highlands.  Where better to start than the Lake District.

Ullswater and the surrounding area

A couple of days in Langdale at the beginning of March was a good start to the shake-down process, followed a week later by four days at Threlkeld near Keswick.  The next trip was to be a fortnight in Northumbria and the Scottish Borders, but we just couldn’t keep away from Lakeland – Ullswater and Aira Force are just a short hop from the M6 Motorway, so a couple more days there seemed like a good move.

The route – anticlockwise starting near Aira Force (bottom left)

I lived at Patterdale at the south end of Ullswater in the 1980s, and I know the area well.  In fact, I got to know the mountains surrounding the lake very well but spent little time exploring some of the lower hills in the area.   So, the plan for this trip was to put that to rights by taking a circular route from Aira Force around and over Gowbarrow.

Setting out on the circular route around Gowbarrow Fell

When it comes to ‘lower hills’, Gowbarrow is definitely on the shortlist at a mere 481 metres (1578 ft) height.  It’s thought that the name comes from Old Norse and probably means ‘Windy Hill’ – the area has other Old Norse names dating back to the 9th Century onwards, when the Vikings first started to settle, so you will come across beck (bekr) for stream, Force (foss) for waterfall, Tarn (tjorn) for a small lake and Fell (fjall) for mountain.

Looking back to Ullswater
A popular lake for boating
The gradually rising narrow path above Ullswater ….
…. winding its way around the hillside
Looking east to Hallin Fell and the High Street mountains ….
…. and looking to the west, with Aira Point just left of centre

Our route took us east from Aira Force (more of which later) on a gradually rising narrow path.  Gowbarrow isn’t going to get you into a sweat, either through exertion or excitement, but like many lowly hills, it’s a great place to view the surrounding country, and the views of Ullswater and the surrounding fells compare well with the views from Hallin Fell, just a couple of kilometres away on the opposite side of the lake.

The path continues ….
…. with the views opening up to the southwest
Not exactly crowded
The summit of Gowbarrow Fell, and the view towards Glenridding to the southwest ….
…. and looking northeast towards Pooley Bridge
The view north with Blencathra (left) and Carrock Fell (further away right)
Closer zoom view of the southern side of Blencathra, 12 kms away ….
…. and the distant Carrock Fell, 14 km

The narrow path continues for a while before taking a turn to the north, followed by a second turn, this time to the west, to the small summit of Gowbarrow with its stone cairn – the views of the Ullswater area included much of the lake, and further away to the northwest, the northern hills of Blencathra and Carrock Fell were also visible.  I had taken two cameras (Olympus) on this hike, one with an equivalent 35mm lens and the other with an equivalent 200-600mm lens – the longer lens was included in the hope of getting some red squirrel images but ended up being used for long landscape shots due to a ‘no show’ by the squirrels.

Round the far side of Carrock Fell, with Ullswater coming back into view
The descent towards Dockray, with a badly eroded path to deal with ….
…. but path repairs are in hand (Dockray to the right, at the very top of the image)
‘The Royal’ at Dockray – it would have been rude not to visit!

Our next port of call was a short diversion to the hamlet of Dockray, but before that, we had to negotiate a badly eroded section of path.  Our route had been deserted, but this was March and I guess that hundreds of boots must pound along here in summer – a bit lower down we found helicopter drop bags full of stones to repair the path.  Once past the worn section, we were soon at ‘The Royal’ at Dockray for a cool cider – well, it would have been rude not to!

A distant view of Aira Force, with the bridge at the top of the waterfall just visible
Next to the bridge ….
…. and looking back to the bridge

Our route back to the van went via the 20 metre (65 ft) waterfall of Aira Force, one of the best-known waterfalls in the Lake District, if only for its connection with Romantic poet William Wordsworth. It’s a favourite on the tourist circuit, but the best views are out of reach at the moment, due to damage caused by fallen trees – I did the best I could to get a decent photograph from the accessible viewpoints before heading back to the van to top up my cider levels.

Closer view of Aira Force

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

p.s. It was T-shirt weather for the Gowbarrow hike, but three days later we nearly found ourselves marooned up near Simonside in Northumbria – it snowed overnight, then froze in the early hours, making the steep road out like a skating rink.  I’d decided that there was no way I was launching a 3-tonne camper van down a steep icy slope, but by the time we had taken Border Collie ‘Mist’ for her morning walk, the road was thawing out – one consolation would have been that getting cold cider would not have been a problem!

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#316 – Helm Crag and Far Easedale

Helm Crag (centre) in the late-afternoon sun, February 2007

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

Helm Crag at Grasmere near Ambleside, in the English Lake District

“The journey of a thousand miles, starts with a single step” – Lao Tzu

“I would walk five hundred miles, and I would walk five hundred more…..” – The Proclaimers

Writing a blog is sometimes like taking that first step in a journey of a thousand miles.  All sorts of things can get in the way of that first step, but the reason I haven’t posted anything for almost three months is quite simple – we’ve been away from home for over half of that time, visiting places new and old, and more importantly getting more material for the blog.  In fact, I’m still sorting and editing photos from the trips!  Oh, and we covered quite a bit more than a thousand miles.

The route – out along the north ridge and back down the Easedale valley

Three months is a long time to disappear though, so while I’m getting on with the admin and edits, here’s a story from 2007.  I’ve written 72 walking routes for the Walking World website, mostly between 2007-10 (see – http://www.walkingworld.com/) but this one was the first – a classic Lake District walk including a busy, iconic peak and a lonely, deserted valley away from the crowds.  This is ‘Helm Crag and Far Easedale’.

Setting out from Grasmere in February 2007 ….
…. with Helm Crag rising above
The tarmac road ends ….
…. giving access to the hill paths ….
…. before reaching the edge of the open fellside

We set out at the beginning of February 2007, on a clear and almost cloudless day.  I say ‘we’ but I mean just Chris and myself – Border Collie ‘Mist’ didn’t become part of our lives until December 2010 (see post #5).  I must have been a pain in the arse to walk with back then because I took loads of photos to act as a prompt when I came to write up the route, instead of writing notes (I later used a digital voice recorder, which speeded things up a bit!).  The initial; part of the walk is along a quiet tarmac road, but tarmac is tarmac and it was good to get out onto the hillside at last.

Early view of the ridge to Calf Crag, with Gibson Knott just right of centre ….
…. and the view back to Grasmere with some late morning mist over the lake

Helm Crag sits at the southeast end of a ridge running northwest to Calf Crag.  Helm Crag is certainly no giant at 405 metres height (1329 ft), with Calf Crag not much higher at 537 metres (1762 ft) and most of the ridge joining them being around 400 metres. Despite the lack of height, the views of the surrounding country are impressive, with the main attraction being the first objective, Helm Crag.

Approaching the South Summit ….
…. with the North Summit just beyond
The North Summit, also known as ‘The Howitzer’

It was the Victorians who started giving daft names to hill and mountain summits. Helm Crag is itself a short ridge with two summits, the south summit being known as ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, presumably because it looks like a lion and lamb from the valley at Grasmere (hmm, sorry but I don’t get that one!).  The north summit is also known as ‘The Lion and the Lamb’ (yes, confusing isn’t it) or ‘The Old Woman Playing the Organ’ (really?) or ‘The Howitzer’ (a bit more plausible) depending on where they are viewed from.  If a daft name is needed, ‘The Howitzer’ is the most appropriate, but ‘North Summit’ does it for me!

The author mucking about, going up to the summit, posing like a good ‘un before retreating – safely!

In fact, the North Summit is by far the most interesting feature of the hill (well, to me anyway) because it has the distinction of being one of the few summits in the Lakes where you have to rock-climb to get to the summit.  It’s a short climb and not particularly difficult by rock-climbing standards, but it would hurt if you fell off (a lot!) or would be downright embarrassing if you had to be rescued from the top.  The famous English guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright chickened out on the summit bid, but he lived to be 84 – watch and learn.

From the North Summit – Gibson Knott in the middle distance
Heading up to Gibson Knott with the ridge beyond
Looking back along the ridge to Helm Crag
Looking down to Brownrigg Moss from Calf Crag, at the end of the ridge

For those who survive the scramble to the summit (or sensibly do a Wainwright), the view to Gibson Knott indicates the way forward.  The Gibson Knott-Calf Crag ridge is one big grassy frolic, giving easy, pleasant walking – in my hill running days, I ran the ridge several times, and it’s one of those gently undulating ridges that doesn’t ask much from the runner but which gives loads back.  On this trip Chris and I walked, gradually gaining height to Calf Crag before starting the descent to Far Easedale.

The view down to Far Easedale with the winter sun starting to set
Down in the shadows in Far Easedale, with the sun still lighting up the ridge

Far Easedale is a delight, being deserted and quiet, though the fact that the nearest car park or bus stop is over 5 kms away contributes to that.  If you seek solitude, this is where you will find it.  We found it as the February sun was starting to dip behind the hills – as the valley is narrow, it doesn’t take long before the shadows start to take over from the sunshine, leaving only the high ridge and Helm Crag in the sun. Possibly the best way to finish a short but rewarding day out on the fells of the Lake District.

Final view of Helm Crag basking in the late-afternoon sun

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

p.s. Apologies to those of you who have been hanging around waiting for a new post – I’ll try to keep up!

p.p.s. Apologies also for some of the colours in the images – digital photography has come on leaps and bounds since the photos were taken (15 years) but there’s only so much that can be done in editing.

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#315 – The Precipice Walk near Dollgellau

Precipice –

  1. A cliff with a vertical, nearly vertical, or overhanging face.
  2. A situation of great peril.
The Precipice Walk – yep, looks like a precipice!

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

North Wales – the Precipice Walk is at the small flag, near the bottom of the map
Map showing the surrounding terrain – route in the middle

The Precipice Walk had been on the ‘to do’ list for a couple of years.  It sounded like an interesting little route, but the ‘little’ part of it was the problem – a drive of nearly two hours for a walk of 5½ kms.  We do more than that at home on the daily dog walk!  However, we hadn’t been out for a hill day for several weeks and the short hours of daylight in January wouldn’t allow time for a long hike, so perhaps it was time to visit the Precipice Walk.

The Precipice Walk – anti-clockwise from the start point

There was a time when mentioning a walk with a precipice would have been an instant no-no from Chris – our day on Crib Goch back in 2002 had done nothing to encourage her to try another precipice, but this precipice walk sounded more benign.  A bit of research even found a 5-Star review on TripAdvisor, with not a single ‘Terrible’ comment; in fact, the punters seemed to love it!  It had to be worth a two-hour drive.

Setting out on a sunny morning
Llyn Cynwch with Cadair Idris beyond in the distance
Things start to get steeper

We arrived on a cold, crisp January morning, with frost still lying on the grass in places, a result of the clear skies overnight.  I’m usually moaning in this blog about dull, flat light for photography, but not today – in fact, the day was sunny and bright, but the low January sun was to cause different problems for photos on the way round, with the sun often shining right into the lens.  Ho hum, another challenge then. 

The view across to Rhobell Fawr
Heading out towards The Precipice ….
…. accompanied by ‘shadow people’

The route passed near to the small lake of Llyn Cynwch on the way out, but that would have to wait until our return.   Although the route isn’t especially high, it gave some great views out onto surrounding hills including Cadair Idris (see posts #150 and #300) and Rhobell Fawr (see post #205) and the low sun gave us a bit of company in the shape of two humans and a dog – our own shadows!

About to turn the corner ….
…. to look down to the Afon Mawddach, over 200 metres below
Afon Mawddach and the A470 road (the small white dot in the centre is a motorhome!)
Into the shade, with the big drop still below
Out into the sun again – big drop still there
Chris on the precipice section with the valley over 200 metres below

We soon turned the northern corner of the route to head south along the ‘precipice’ bit, with the Afon Mawddach and the A470 road 200 metres below us in the valley.  We also had the sun directly in our eyes, apart from the short sections where bends in the path put us back in the shade.  Sun or shade, the drop to the valley was ever present, adding a bit more interest and drama.

Off the steep ground, looking out to the Mawddach Estuary
Foel Faner ahead
The small summit cairn of Foel Faner with the moon rising
The view to the Mawddach Estuary from the summit of Foel Faner ….
….and the view in the other direction, with Rhobell Fawr (far left) and the Aran Mountains (far right)

The precipice didn’t last for long though and soon we were off the steep ground, looking out to the Mawddach estuary.  We briefly abandoned the return section of the Precipice Walk to include the short climb up to the small summit of Foel Faner, an ancient hill fort.  The 360° view was enhanced by the bright sun, but the moon rising to the east reminded us that the day would soon be slipping away.

Heading back by the shore of Llyn Cynwch
Reflections across the lake

Llyn Cynwch was included on the way back, with hardly a ripple on the water, but the lengthening shadows told us that it was time to head back to the car, and our two-hour return drive.  It was time to head for home.

Mid-afternoon and time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#314 – Yr Elen and the Dragons Teeth

Yr Elen, seen from Carnedd Llewelyn (Photo from 2015)

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

Yr Elen from Foel Grach (2014)

Readers of this blog might well think that I have moved to live in Scotland, based on the number of posts on Scottish mountain trips over recent months (10 out of 12 to be exact) so time to redress that with a post featuring a Welsh mountain.  We did this route in July 2021, and on the timeline, this should have been published between post #304 and #306, but finally it’s time for the lovely Yr Elen to step forward into the light of day.

North Wales, with the Yr Elen route on blue at the centre
The mountains of the Carneddau, with the Yr Elen route in the centre in blue
The Yr Elen route, clockwise starting from Gerlan near Bethesda

The mountain is often approached from Carnedd Llewelyn on the north-south ridge of the Carneddau – as Yr Elen is one of the fifteen 3000 ft peaks (915 metres) of Wales, hikers following the Welsh 3000’s Challenge route have to divert out and back to tick it off, adding 2.5 kms and 250 metres of height loss and gain.  Not for us on this trip though – our route for the day was the quiet, lonely ascent from Gerlan, near Bethesda.

Setting off up the valley of the Afon Caseg, with the clouds down on the Carneddau
Carneddau ponies, not worried at all by clouds, humans, or Border Collies
The clouds lifting a little, but still brushing the top of Yr Elen ….
  …. but clearing more as we headed up the wide valley
The valley narrows ahead

We set out heading east up the wide valley of the Afon Caseg, which translates as ‘the Mare’s River’.  Clouds were covering the tops of the Carneddau, which didn’t seem to bother a small group of Carneddau ponies, who live on the mountains here all year round. The valley stays wide for about 5 kms, at which point it starts to narrow – by the time we reached the narrows, the cloud was almost burned off the hills by the warm sun.

Looking up towards the Northeast Ridge of Yr Elen (the ‘Dragons Teeth Ridge’)
Wet, mossy hollow by the Afon Caseg
The entrance to the hanging valley of Cwm Caseg, our route over on the left, just to the right of the stream
Looking down to the small lake of Ffynnon Caseg (The Mare’s Well)

Our route was to the small hanging valley of Cwm Caseg, then up the Northeast Ridge of Yr Elen, also known as the Dragons Teeth Ridge, a route that I had followed before with Border Collie ‘Mist’ (see posts #159 and #186).  On the way, we passed a wet, mossy hollow that I had not seen of previous visits, probably because this time I had taken a slightly easier line of ascent for Chris and for a Border Collie who is now officially an old girl – the upshot was that we arrived in the cwm above the tiny lake of Ffynnon Caseg (the Mare’s Well) instead of next to it.

What we missed on this trip – Ffynnon Caseg …. (as seen in 2015)
…. and the small, ruined hafod (2015)
Heading up the steep slope.  Beware, dragons teeth ahead! (as seen in 2015)

It is said that Ffynnon Caseg is where Carneddau ponies go to give birth to their foals. It is one of the loneliest and quietest places in Wales, with the only sign of human activity being the ruins of a tiny hafod (summer dwelling). Above the lake, the slope heads steeply upwards to gain the crest of the Dragons Teeth Ridge – once on the crest of the ridge, the drop on the other side of the ridge suddenly becomes obvious.

‘…. the drop on the other side of the ridge suddenly becomes obvious’ – looking down to the valley we had walked up
There’s quite a drop below as well (image from 2014)
More teeth to come (2014)

The ‘obvious drop’ was straight down to the valley we had walked up, and Chris was a less than happy bunny about the amount of fresh air below us – the views up and down the ridge were equally airy.  Chris would normally have had my undivided attention on steep ground, but as mentioned earlier, we had an old, though enthusiastic, Border Collie along as well.

A younger Border Collie ‘Mist’, waiting for me to catch up on an earlier trip (2014)
Higher up the ridge, but still waiting for the human (2014)

Collies are a bit like some humans, and ‘Mist’ isn’t ready to accept yet that she doesn’t have the physical strength of a young dog.  That usually isn’t a problem – on difficult ground I now attach a long leash to her harness and stop her before she tries to climb awkward steps, followed by a shove up the bum to clear the obstacle.  This is exactly what we did, then having got ‘Mist’ through the rocky section, I returned for my other ‘client’, who was waiting patiently below.

On the summit of Yr Elen, with Foel Grach (left) and Carnedd Llewelyn (right) beyond on the skyline
Team pic #1 – Chris, with Carnedd Llewelyn behind
Team Pic #2 – Rare shot of the author plus dog
Team Pic #3 – ‘Mist’ at the start of the descent route

Without too many dramas, we all regrouped and followed the last easy section of ridge to the summit, and there was time for ‘Team Pics’ in the sun before we prepared for the descent down to Gerlan.

Looking down towards Foel Ganol, with Gerlan and Bethesda in the valley below

The way down was steady and a complete contrast to the drama of the Dragons’ Teeth.  A faint path crosses Foel Ganol (‘Bare Hill in the Middle’) and a lower un-named peak, before heading down to a crossing of the Afon Caseg to get back to the outward path.  Stream crossings can have their moments, but the water level on this occasion was low.  I spent a couple of minutes looking for an easy crossing point for ‘Mist’, and having done so I looked across the stream to see the old dog already across and grinning back at me – she has a few more miles in her yet!

Time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock


Posted in 5. North Wales, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

#313 – Easan Dorcha and the Tea House Bothy

The path from Coire Lair to Easan Dorcha and the Tea House Bothy

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The Northwest Highlands showing the Easan Dorcha/Tea House Bothy route in the centre

If you have been following recent blog posts, you might be excused for thinking that the Scottish Highlands are a sun trap, and the myths about rain and wind are just that – myths.  Well, sadly that isn’t always the case, but whether it’s rain or shine we still have a Border Collie wanting to get out for a walk.  We usually manage to find something interesting though, even if it doesn’t always involve heading up a mountain.

The Tea House Bothy route (in blue) and the loch Coulin route from Glen Torridon (in red)

September is often a time of fine, settled weather in the Highlands, but in 2021 the middle of the month had a few rainy or blowy days.  We were down in Wester Ross by now, which usually means a visit to Torridon – one of our standby low-level routes in Torridon is a circuit of Loch Coulin (shown in red on the map above) which although it doesn’t include heading up a mountain, it does pass through some interesting mountain country. 

Map view showing the two routes, with the Tea House route in blue, Loch Coulin circuit in red

Looking at the map, it was obvious that the Loch Coulin circuit carries on over the Coulin Pass towards Glen Carron.  A bit more research showed a bothy, that was easily accessible from the Glen Carron side – now, I’m a sucker for a bothy walk, and here was one off the beaten track in an area we don’t get to very often. 

Closer view of the route – clockwise starting at the red flag, with the bothy at the blue flag

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to add the occasional lower level walk to our mountain days. These often have the feel of being part of a journey, or sometimes even an exploration.  The bothy route looked ideal for a day where the weather forecast wasn’t looking too good, and ‘Mist’ was happy to have a new area to sniff around.   In addition, the bothy itself would be a dry spot for lunch if needed, so all the boxes were ticked.

Achnashellach railway station in all its glory

A good map makes route planning a doddle.  There was an obvious circular route starting out from the railway halt at Achnashellach – from there, a 15 km circular route wandered through mountain terrain. The 15kms fitted neatly into four sections – a stalkers path cllmbing gradually to Drochaid Coire Lair to start with, followed by an equally gradual descent to the bothy and the Easan Dorcha stream.  The third section was a good track over the Coulin Pass followed by a steady descent through woodland back to Achnashellach to finish – we had a route.

Setting out beyond the woods….
…. with the 907 metre peak of Fuar Tholl above
1         The stalkers path leading up towards the bealach (pass) of Drochaid Coire Lair
The upper part of the stalkers path

The railway station at Achnashellach is a bit on the pretentious side, with little more than a single platform, but it does give access to some magnificent mountain country.  The path soon leaves the woods behind as it skirts below the 907 metre peak of Fuar Tholl.  It then winds its way gradually upwards, in the easy way that stalkers paths usually do, before finally arriving at the bealach (pass) of Drochaid Coire Lair below the ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor.

At Drochaid Coire Lair with Beinn Liath Mhor above – © Trevor Littlewood
The Beinn Liath Mhor ridge above Coire Lair © Nigel Brown
Starting the descent to Easan Dorcha and the Tea House
The woods above the both

Our view of the Beinn Liath Mhor ridge was clouded out, hence the two images used above taken from the Geograph project – they reveal what looks like a classic Munro ascent, and I’m sure we will be back for that in better weather.  Instead, we plodded on down the still excellent path towards the bothy, with waterproof tops eventually coming out of our packs.  ‘Mist’ has her own smart dayglo pink jacket, more for our benefit than hers – collies have perfectly adequate fur coats, but once ‘Mist’ is wet, she is wet for the rest of the day!

The Tea House Bothy finally comes into view
Waterfall near the bothy, on the Easan Geal stream
The bothy – a bit like a posh garden shed!
Cosy enough inside ….
…. in fact, cosy enough for Border Collie ‘Mist’ to have forty winks!

The route passes by native woodland before the bright green roof of the bothy comes into view.  The two streams of Easan Dorcha (Dark Waterfall) and Easan Geal (Bright Waterfall) join just before reaching the bothy, which takes its Easan Dorcha name from the larger stream, though it is usually just known as ‘The Tea House’ – in reality, it’s a posh garden shed, though it could be used for sleeping at a push.  Which is exactly what ‘Mist’ did, and she caught up on her beauty sleep whilst the humans had lunch in the dry.

Looking back towards the waterfall with Beinn Liath Mhor beyond, as we set off to return to Glen Carron
One last view of the Easan Geal stream joining the Easan Dorcha stream ….
…. before heading down towards the River Coulin
Beinn Eighe hiding in the cloud to the north
On the Loch Coulin route in May 2018, with Beinn Liath Mhor peeping out in the centre

After the bothy, there was a further descent of 1 km to meet the Coulin Pass track.  Views of Beinn Liath Mhor peeping out of the mist were replaced by an old favourite, Beinn Eighe (see posts #230 and #246) before we hit the track leading uphill to the Coulin Pass – an old photo shown above from May 2018 shows the start point of this track at the head of Loch Coulin, and although I didn’t know it at the time, it also includes yet another view of Beinn Liath Mhor.

Heading up to the Coulin Pass in September 2021, the ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor left of centre
Rainbow above the head of Loch Coulin chasing us up the track as we head up to the Coulin Pass

Beinn Liath Mhor continued to dominate the scene as we gradually gained height to the head of the pass, with a rainbow chasing us up the track.  The height gain was gradual and civilised, and soon we were heading downhill on the final section of the route.  Eventually, we reached the forest, and the scenery became boring endless green, but before that, we had a final panorama over Loch Dughaill in Glen Carron – it was time to head for home.

Heading for home – Loch Dughaill in Glen Carron

Text and images © Paul Shorrock, except where otherwise indicated, which are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Posted in 1. Scotland, Bothy days | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

#312 – Two men and a dog, and the highest noodle bar in the UK (Having a fun time on ‘The Spine Race’!)

Two men and a dog ….
…. and the highest noodle bar in the UK (JB)

At this time of the year (January), I’m usually sat in Greg’s Hut Bothy on Cross Fell, working on one of the safety teams for the Montane Spine Race. This year I’m not – along with human companion John Bamber, Border Collie ‘Mist’ has always accompanied me, but at fourteen years old she is getting a bit old for the Greg’s Hut malarky.

Being a Border Collie, she would have got there and back, whatever it cost her in discomfort and effort, but to struggle back after a big fall of snow as in previous years would have been too big an ask. Leaving her behind wasn’t an option either – I would have come home to one miserable dog!

So this year my Spine Race involvement has been watching the dots of the racers trackers. For the sake of nostalgia, I thought I would resurrect this post, previously published in 2013. I enjoyed reading it again, I hope you do

* * * * *

“Do you fancy a couple of days up at Greg’s Hut in January?”

Greg’s Hut in January, altitude 700 metres – outlook bleak!

If anyone other than John Bamber had asked the question, I would probably have answered with a reply that included sex and travel!  For those who don’t know it, Greg’s Hut is a bothy, high on the flanks of Cross Fell in the Pennines.  At 700 metres altitude, it can be cold and cheerless in summer, so the prospect of staying there in a Pennine winter was not on my short list of ‘Fun Things To Do’.  Why did I say, “Sounds like a good idea” ? … Ask the dog ….

Ask the dog ….
Having fun in Snowdonia …. (JB)
…. with the man with the beard

Never just an ordinary day out! (JB)

Mist – “I’m getting used to the boss and his daft schemes, but I know there’s something going on when his mate John (the bloke with the big beard) turns up.  Don’t get me wrong, John is a lot of fun, and I’ve had some great hill days with him, but it’s never going to be just an ordinary day out.  I suppose that’s why the boss said yes to the Greg’s Hut trip – those two are both as daft as each other!  Mind you, when they said I could go as well, I was packed and ready before them!”

Setting out on the Greg’s Hut recce for the first Spine Race 2012

It was autumn 2011, and John had signed up as one of the Support Team for the first ‘Spine Race’ to be held in January 2012 – not having anything better to do, I said that I would join him.  We decided that it might be a good idea to do a recce beforehand – I hadn’t been to the bothy in over twenty years, and John hadn’t seen it at all, so a check on luxuries such as a functioning roof seemed to be a good idea.

Greg’s Hut – roof intact!

Mist – “Haha … I still remember that walk!  I always think that the boss carries too much when we are in the hills – a bag of dog biscuits is all you really need if you think about it – but John turned up with this stuff called ‘coal’ in his rucksack.  It certainly looked heavy, and I was laughing all the way to the hut.  Humans never cease to amaze me ….!”

Spine Race start line 2012
John sets up the highest Noodle Bar in the UK
Two happy customers – 2012 winners Gary Morrison and Steve Thompson

Yes, it’s true, John carried about 10 kilos of coal in on that trip.  Just over a week later we were back again, with John setting up what was probably the highest ‘Coffee and Noodle’ bar in the UK – if it wasn’t the highest, it was certainly the most difficult to get to.  We had four visitors out of sixteen original starters, with the Hall of Fame including joint 2012 winners Gary Morrison and Steve Thompson, followed later by Mark Caldwell and Andy Collister.  Those guys had to work to get their noodles!

Having fun on the 2012 Training Weekend (JB)
What the runners see on the training event – Rochdale by night (JB)

In November 2012, a training weekend was organised for those taking part in the 2013 race.  There was quite a lot of interest for this (optional) event, and all who attended seemed to have a good time – well, that’s if your idea of a good time is running round 72 kms (45 miles) of Pennine hill and moor.  At least it didn’t snow – we saved that up for the 2nd Spine Race in January 2013.

Spine Race start line 2013
‘Mist’ search training (DH)

‘Mist’ and I were not at the start line for the 2013 event – we had a race of our own to run.  Whilst 47 elite athletes were starting the race at Edale, ‘Mist’ was completing her obedience and stock safety tests to begin training as a search and rescue dog with SARDA  (Search And Rescue Dog Association).  The two of us made the grade and were accepted as a trainee search team, and on Sunday evening we set off from North Wales to catch the race up at CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn.

CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn (JB)
Life in the big dog kennel (JB)

Mist – “Laugh!! I nearly wet meself! John (the one with the big beard, remember – pay attention at the back!) – John had brought this huge kennel along (I think he called it a tent, but I know what a kennel looks like – I AM a dog, after all).  Anyway, it snowed all night, and I had a great time chasing snowballs around, but it didn’t look like a lot of fun in that kennel, what with loads of cold, wet humans in there.  John was having fun, though”

2012 – backpacking the gear to Greg’s Hut
2013 – travelling in style (JB)

Yet again, John showed the world that an extremely large dump of snow was not going to interrupt his new career of ‘extreme noodle chef’.  Having sent all the happy customers on their way, we then set our sights on our old friend, Greg’s Hut.  The previous year we had to backpack all our gear in, assisted by a group of porters who didn’t hide quickly enough when we went looking for help – this time we had a ride up the hill track in Phil’s 4X4.

‘Johnnie’s Noodle Bar’ open and ready for business (JB)

Mist – “Yes, that was quite a trip – just as well we had the help, ‘cos I didn’t fancy carrying in two days worth of dog biscuits!  John must have had a brainstorm, ‘cos the week before he carried up twice as much of that black stuff (coal, isn’t it?!) to the hut – didn’t we all fall about laughing when we arrived and found that it had all gone!!”

Racers leaving Greg’s Hut …. (JB)
…. with a long, cold run ahead (JB)

It’s true – over the space of a week, someone had either used or pinched 20 kilos of coal from one of the most deserted places south of the Scottish border.  If they burned it in the stove, they must have inaugurated the highest sauna in the UK – if it was pinched, I hope they suffered a hundred bad backs carrying it away!  A re-supply carried us through, and ‘Johnnie’s Noodle Bar’ was open for business once again.

A busy night at ‘Johnnie’s Noodle Bar’ (JB)

All good things have to come to an end though, and in less than two days the surviving athletes had passed through ‘Greg’s’ – time to hit the road again.  After a day at Bellingham we set off for the finish line at Kirk Yetholm.  However, there was a cloud on the horizon – in fact there were lots of clouds, accompanied by a storm warning from the Met Office.  Our little corner of the UK was about to get a visit from Mr Snow!

Mist – “Snow? I should say so! Some of the time you couldn’t see your paw in front of your face!”

Just before the blizzard arrived (JB)
Heading for the finish (JB)

People who say that they have been in a blizzard in the UK are usually mistaken – a heavy snow fall with a bit of wind ‘doth not a blizzard make’.  However, having been in a couple of blizzards over the years, I can confirm that THIS was a blizzard!  What’s more, we still had two teams out on the final ridge of the Cheviots.  These are ‘little’ hills, around 500-700 metres in altitude, but sometimes latitude means as much as altitude, with the latitude of the Cheviots being about the same as that of Moscow.

Last group to finish, heads held high (JB)

The next day the storm had passed.  The two groups had done exactly the right thing, and had gone to ground in two different mountain refuges on the ridge (the term ‘refuge’ is used loosely – think more along the lines of garden sheds).  During the night Stu and Joe from the support team had gone up on the ridge for a welfare check, with John and I as backup, and found themselves looking out for their own welfare instead!  The ‘garden sheds’ were life savers though, and the next day the two groups mustered themselves and walked off the ridge with heads held high.

The loneliness of the Pennines in winter (JB)

There’s a narrow line between adventure and misadventure, and these athletes know all about that – their performances are frequently heroic, often inspirational.  They make the week of the Spine Race an event to look forward to each year, and being a member of the Spine ‘Mountain & Medic’ Support Team is very special to me – that and my part time job as sous chef at the highest noodle bar in the UK.

Mist – “Couldn’t have put it better meself  – any noodles left, John?”

(JB – assisted by Naomi Dodds and Olivia Cheetham)

Text and images © Paul Shorrock.  Images tagged (JB) © John Bamber, and (DH) © David Higgs – For permission to use any images, please contact the blog author.

Posted in 4. Northern England, Bothy days | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

#311 – Return to Stac Pollaidh

Stac Pollaidh as seen from the minor road into Coigach (May 2017)

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

Some of the mountains of Assynt and Coigach – Cul Beag (L) and Stac Pollaidh (R) viewed from Cul Mor

Assynt and neighbouring Coigach make up one of the most remarkable landscapes in the Scottish Highlands.  The mountains are like something out of a fairy tale – although not particularly high, they rise up steeply, straight out of the surrounding moorland, and are like nothing else in the UK.   Add an equally amazing coastline with cliffs, sea stacks and hidden sandy beaches and you have just found the perfect destination for hiking and mountain walking.

The Northern Highlands of Scotland showing Assynt-Coigach with Stac Pollaidh (red cross) in the centre
Closer view of Assynt-Coigach

Stac Pollaidh is one of the iconic peaks of Assynt, which seems strange for such a small hill that only just scrapes in to be classed as a UK mountain, at a lowly altitude of 612 metres (2008 ft).  Height isn’t the only criteria to become an iconic peak though – character counts for a lot, and Stac Pollaidh has character in buckets!

The Stac Pollaidh route, anti-clockwise from the car park (shown in greater detail below)

That character makes Stac Pollaidh one of the most recognisable and popular hills in the Highlands.  There are two summits, connected by a rocky crest – the lower one (551 metres/1808 ft) on the eastern end of the ridge and easily accessible to hikers, with the higher 612 metre summit to the west and accessible only by a precarious scramble, making it one of the most inaccessible summits on the British mainland.

A murky, misty day ‘somewhere’ on Stac Pollaidh – May 2017
Back again in September 2021, with the mist coming and going – nothing new there then!

We first came here in May 2017 (see post #229) but missed out on the ‘iconic peak with buckets of character’ thing – the summit was clouded over, and we ended up having a walk round the mountain instead.  It remained on the ‘to do’ list though, and we were back again in September 2021 – low cloud and mist swirled over and round the jagged crest, but we decided to give it a go.

Setting out, with Loch Lurgainn and Sgorr Tuath (the nearer peak) behind
Loch Lurgainn panorama
Below the East shoulder of Stac Pollaidh
Round the corner now, with Cul Beag in the background ….
…. and Suilven coming into view

The surrounding peaks were cloud-free as we set out from Loch Lurgainn, with the sky overcast but with occasional breaks, allowing the sun through.  The route doesn’t waste any time in gaining height and before long we were passing under the east shoulder of Stac Pollaidh, with Cul Beag now behind us and Suilven coming into view.

Close up of the route – the ‘normal’ route in red, our route in blue
The approach to the east summit, straight up to the gap in the centre and left of the fence
Our approach route with the gap and East Summit on the left
Border Collie ‘Mist’ on the traverse path
Chris on the traverse path, with a steep drop below
The final rocks to the East Summit

The ‘normal’ approach to the East Summit takes a direct line up the steep hillside (shown in red on the map above).  I had read that sections of this path were quite eroded, so we carried on heading round the hill until we reached another path that doubles back and traverses in at an easier angle (shown in blue).  The diversion dropped us in nicely below the final rocks of the East Summit.

A rocky section on the final bit of ascent ….
…. before the summit pops into view
‘Mist’ on the summit, possibly checking for sandwich opportunities

From below, the final rocky section to the top looked as though it might be ‘a bit interesting’ for Chris, who doesn’t like big drops, but once started, it was quite easy, and the summit soon popped into view.  As Border Collie ‘Mist’ gets older, I often clip a leash into her hill-harness for safety when on potentially hazardous ground, but the Collie was more interested in checking out sandwich scrounging opportunities.

The view down to the gap – the other paths heading to the left are rising towards the West summit
‘Mist’ heading back along the traverse path ….
…. with the dog leash finally off on safer ground
Chris back on the main path round Stac Pollaidh

The summit was a good a place as any for a food and coffee break.  On the descent to the gap in the ridge, we could see the other route heading for the West Summit, but this was probably going to be a bit too exciting for Chris and ‘Mist’, so we followed the traverse route back to the main path. 

Turning the corner round the western side of the mountain ….
…. and passing below the West Summit
The dot spotted on the skyline ….
…. which turned out to be one of the locals

Back on familiar ground, we turned the corner round the western side of the mountain, before starting to lose height down to the car park.  It always pays to stay alert, and on the skyline I could see a dot in the distance.  It was a long way off, but I thought I could pick out antlers.  It wasn’t until I downloaded the images later that I got a proper look – a young red deer stag.

Stac Pollaidh in the distance, seen from Knockan Crag on the A835 (The nearer peak on the left is Cul Beag)

We parked up near Knockan Crag on the A835, and as the evening came on, we had a great view of Stac Pollaidh through the gap between Cul Beag and the lower hill of An Laogh – once again, the zoom lens was put to good use, giving a close-up view of the East Summit of Stac Pollaidh.  It had been four years since our aborted misty trip, but the return had been well worthwhile.

Zoom view of Stac Pollaidh from the same Knockan Crag location

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

Posted in 1. Scotland, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

#310 – Beinn Ghlas & Ben Lawers

On Beinn Ghlas with Ben Lawers behind

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The Scottish Highlands with Ben Lawers and the Southern Highlands in the centre of the map

The August 2021 Scottish trip had gone to plan – by sticking to the Southern Highlands and the Cairngorms we had mostly avoided the dreaded Highland midge, and had enjoyed some good hill days in great weather conditions (see posts #306, #307 and #308)   We were due to head south at the end of the month to welcome a new grandchild and to get our second Covid vaccinations, but there was still time for an extra couple of hill days.  Ben Lawers would do nicely!

Ben Lawers and the surrounding mountains, including our route

We had been in the Ben Lawers area in October in the previous year, but the weather hadn’t been kind and Meall nan Tarmachan had been a good consolation prize (see post #292).  What’s more, Chris was starting to get the taste for bigger hills and longer days, so a trip up Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers fitted the bill nicely.

The route – outbound over Beinn Ghlas, return via Upper Coire Odhar

The two hills make a great day out if done together.  The path leaves the car park and heads through a conservation project, where deer and sheep have been fenced out, allowing the native woodland to regenerate.  Beyond the trees, the route gets much steeper and suddenly becomes real mountain walking.

Setting out on a misty, moisty morning
Outside the fenced conservation area, with the start of the broad ridge leading to Beinn Ghlas
Looking back to Coire Odhar with the trees of the fenced area just visible in the mist
The start of the height gain ….
…. but still being chased by the mist

The start didn’t bode well.  Our ascent through the conservation area was a misty, moisty walk that brought back memories of Meall nan Tarmachan the year before, but as we left the trees behind the mist started to lift.  From there, it was a constant companion, drifting in and out as we gained height – it did give us constantly changing views though.

The start of the final section of ascent on Beinn Ghlas
The view back to Meall nan Tarmachan, just left of centre (see post #292)
Meall Corranaich – near, but we decided not to bother
Nearly there on our first summit – Beinn Ghlas summit ahead, just in the mist
Meall nan Tarmachan with the mist cleared from the summit
Closer view of Meall nan Tarmachan, with the small pointy summit of Meall Garbh more obvious
The final section to the summit of Beinn Ghlas

The constantly changing views included a distant Meall nan Tarmachan, and it’s true to say that we saw more of the hill from the slopes of Beinn Ghlas than we had when actually hiking up it ten months earlier.  Longer views included the mountains over by Crianlarich to the west, while nearby we had Meall Corranaich as a companion.   This was a contender for a third top, which could be collected more easily from our return route, with an additional 600 metres horizontal distance and 180 metres of ascent.  (Spoiler alert – we didn’t!)

The view west from Beinn Ghlas ….
…. with Ben Lawers ahead of us to the northeast
Looking back to Beinn Ghlas ….
…. and looking ahead again to Ben Lawers

From the summit of Beinn Ghlas, we had our first real view of Ben Lawers, the star of the show.  The height gain from the upper edge of the conservation area to the summit of Beinn Ghlas was almost 500 metres, on top of the initial 200 metres through the woodland from the car park.  Beinn Ghlas is 1103 metres (3619 ft) in altitude, but we had to lose 100 metres down to a col before getting to grips with the 1214 metre (3983 ft) summit of Ben Lawers.

Almost at the summit
The last few metres, showing the survey triangulation column
The view to the east, out to Loch Tay
The summit cairn at 1214 metres altitude

The final 200 metres of ascent from the col below Ben Lawers wasn’t a big deal, just a steady plod being required.  No mistaking the summit in this case, with a rather tatty survey triangulation column and a much more attractive summit cairn.  Lawers is the tenth highest mountain in Scotland, but the fact that it misses being a 4000 ft mountain by just 27 ft does nothing to diminish its popularity.

The return route ….
…. heading down to the col, with our return route to the right and Beinn Ghlas above

Having taken in the views, it was time to turn round and head back.  We had a variation return route that avoided crossing Beinn Ghlas a second time by going round the mountain on its northern slopes.  It was this route that gave the best approach to Meall Corranaich, but the day was drawing on and we decided that our two summits were enough for the day – it was time to head for home.

Time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

Posted in 1. Scotland | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

#309 – Glen Feshie – A rewilding success story

Upper Glen Feshie – pioneering rewilding in the Scottish Highlands. Photo © Ian MacDougall

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The Western Cairngorms with Glen Feshie in the centre

Reading the two previous posts, you might imagine that summer in the Cairngorms means t-shirt weather every day – it really isn’t like that!  We did have sunny weather while we were there, but one day was forecast for gale force winds.  Strong winds on the exposed Cairngorm Plateau aren’t to be trifled with, so plans were modified for a trip to a lesser-known part of the National Park – Glen Feshie.

The route – out and back from the car park to the north (Red sections are variations taken on the return)

Why Glen Feshie you may ask.  One reason was the obvious one that we had never been there, but there was an interesting hook to hang a trip on – a bothy.  To merely say ‘a bothy’ is on the verge of being disrespectful though – Ruigh Aiteachain (Shieling of the Juniper Bush) is one of the best appointed and best kept bothies in Scotland and is rightly popular.  (If you don’t know what a bothy is, check out the Mountain Bothies Association website)

Setting out from the car park

Glen Feshie has been called the loveliest glen in Scotland, though fans of Glen Lyon or Glan Affric might have something to say about that.  It could rightly be called the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Cairngorms though, mainly because of sensible land management.  In the past, some Scottish landowners have been far from enlightened, and in the 19th Century, many estates used evictions to clear the land of human occupation, in order to maximise profits from deer stalking and sheep farming.

Off the tarmac and on to the path

The irony was that, for once, the cruelty of the clearances was down to the clan chieftains, not the English.  Since then, estates have been bought and sold, sometimes to absentee landlords and sometimes to innovators.  Danish businessman Anders Povlsen bought Glen Feshie in 2006 and prioritised the regeneration of natural habitat.  The method was simple – drastically reduce the number of deer on the estate by stalking, not for profit but for the welfare of the land.

Deer numbers have been reduced to around two per square kilometre, allowing the regeneration of native trees.  This in turn has benefited the whole ecology of the glen and wildlife species that had been long absent are returning.  One thing you won’t find, as sometimes seen elsewhere, are hypocritical ‘Welcome’ signs that ‘request’ hikers to stay on the paths, contrary to access legislation in Scotland.  Free access to the Glen Feshie is not only tolerated but encouraged.

The last bridge over the River Feshie, seen from the west bank of the river © Richard Webb
On the east bank of the river, looking back to the Feshie bridge on the outward part of our trip
Heading into the glen

On our way to Ruigh Aiteachain, known to many simply as ‘Feshie Bothy’, we passed by the last bridge over the river, which until 2009 would have permitted a circular route using both sides of the glen, re-crossing the river near to the bothy at a second bridge at Carnachuin.  Unfortunately, Carnachuin bridge was washed away in a flood in 2009 and has not been replaced, more of which later.

Looking back at the washed out bank where the Allt Garbhlach stream joins the River Feshie

The destructive power of water became a constant theme as we travelled on up the glen.  The crossing of the Allt Garbhlach stream can be problematic, even impossible, when in spate.  On arrival we found that the path had been washed out – this had been re-routed in recent years to cross the Allt Garbhlach by a set of steep steps, but the diversion and the steps had been obliterated.  The descent to the stream was nasty and loose – the map showed this route plus an alternative, but we later discovered in a conversation at the bothy that the paths and tracks around here change frequently due to flooding.

Past the washed-out section at the Allt Garbhlach and into the wood at last
The sign we didn’t see – visible in the centre of the photo next to the track
We didn’t notice the sign on the outward part of the route, but it isn’t all that obvious!

We entered the woodland beyond the Allt Garbhlach and started to make faster progress on a good 4×4 track.  One of the problems of striding out and having a good natter along the way is that subtle signs can be missed – Chris and I both missed the low sign for Ruigh Aiteachain by the side of the track, and if Border Collie ‘Mist’ saw it, she wasn’t letting on.

Just beyond the sign we didn’t see, following the ‘old’ track ….
…. to where it joins the river ….
…. and disappears! © Julian Paren
The small knoll and the start of a bit of bushwhacking!

The map showed us to be on the correct route, but the 4×4 track we were on was about to spring another surprise – as we drew near to the river the track disappeared.  The photos illustrate once again the power of the water, with the track totally washed out.  A small knoll next to the remains of the track had a faint path heading the way we wanted, but there was a good bit of bushwhacking and cursing to be endured before we found ourselves back on the track.

Out of the jungle at last and literally back on track
At the Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy, AKA the Feshie Bothy
The bothy from the front ….
…. and round the back. A nice sunny spot to sit – if there’s any sun!

The remaining section of the 4×4 track was far enough from the river to avoid any further surprises, and a straightforward stroll took us to the bothy.  Parked outside was a pickup, a sight not exactly common at Scottish bothies.   The owner broke off from trimming the already trim grass and asked if we would like a cup of tea.  We had just met Lindsay Bryce who is the unofficial keeper of the bothy – I’ve got to say, he keeps it in very good order!

One of the wood-burning stoves and the kitchen area
Second stove and more cooking space
Common room, library or sleeping area? Take your pick
There’s also an upstairs ….
…. with more sleeping space

The area was used as a training area by commandos during WW2, and by the 1950s Ruigh Aiteachain cottage was virtually derelict.  This was turned around when the MBA took over management of the cottage as a bothy, and since then landowner Anders Povlsen has not only supported the use of the bothy but has also undertaken major refurbishment that has transformed a wreck into one of the best-kept bothies in Scotland.

The sign says it all!

The approach to common bothy problems bears the hallmarks of Povlsens’s approach to estate management – instead of putting up signs that people will ignore, alternatives have been created that make it easier for bothy users to do ‘the right thing’.  The problem of bothy users cutting down trees for fuel was easily solved by providing a good stock of dry firewood for the bothy.  The problem of bothy users leaving human waste was solved by building a composting toilet next to the bothy.  As the sign says, “It’s Glen Feshie. We do things differently here”.

The old bridge at Carnachuin, destroyed by flood in 2009 and not yet rebuilt © Peter Ward
Carnachuin Bridge as it is today © Richard Webb
The Commando Memorial at Carnachuin © Ronnie Leask
Another view of the memorial © John Ferguson
The Carnachuin locations shown above plus the location of the sign we missed on the way in

We stayed at the bothy long enough for a chat with Lyndsay followed by a lunch break, ably assisted by ‘Mist’ who can sniff out a sandwich at 100 metres, but then it was time to head back.  It would have been interesting to return by the west bank of the river, but as stated earlier, the bridge at Carnachuin was still in ruins after being destroyed by floods in 2009, so we were unable to visit the Commando Memorial on the other side.  (The map just above shows the locations of the washed-out bridge, the memorial and the location of the sign we missed on the way in.)

Setting off from the bothy, following the alternative routes shown in red on the route map

Our return route had a couple of variations we had picked up in conversation with Lyndsay, and we managed to avoid the flood damaged sections that had been a problem on the way out.  We made good progress back to the car park in plenty of time for the dog’s dinner time – it was time to head for home.

Time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock, except where indicated otherwise.  The other named images are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Posted in 1. Scotland, Bothy days | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

#308 – Remote Loch A’an in the Cairngorms

Remote Loch A’an (Loch Avon) in the Cairngorms

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The northern Cairngorms with the Loch A’an route in the centre

Our first Cairngorm hill-day of August 2021 (see post #307) had included Cairngorm summit and the Northern Corries, a great introduction to the Cairngorm Plateau for Chris – it had also been a great day out in the sun for Chris, me and Border Collie ‘Mist’.  Our next trip covered a bit of the same ground, but also ventured into more remote territory – we were heading for Loch A’an (Loch Avon).

The Loch A’an route – blue, anti-clockwise.  (Post #307 route shown in red for comparison)

Loch A’an is a fair-sized loch that the tourists never see, as it’s one that you have to work for.  Both routes (shown in blue and red in the map above) were the same distance to walk at about 12 kms, but the Northern Corries route had a total height gain of 810 metres (2656 ft) against 970 metres (3182 ft) for Loch A’ an.  This is due to a significant height loss to reach the loch, height that has to be regained to get back again!

Closer view of the Loch A’an route

Looking at the map beforehand, the descent of Ciste Mhearad to the loch seemed steady enough but the return via Corrie Raibeirt looked as if it might be ‘interesting’, with an initial 230 metre height gain over 560 metres of horizontal travel.  That’s an average gradient of 1-in-3 – now that’s steep!   Beyond the initial steep section, the upper section of the path looked to be at a much easier gradient, and we had been able to see most of that on our Northern Corries trip, a few days earlier.

Setting out from Coire Cas with a cloud inversion over Aviemore in the distance
Literally off the beaten track now – dropping down into Ciste Mhearad
The path above Ciste Mhearad

We set out on another sunny Cairngorm day – this was getting to be a habit!  The Windy Ridge path up to the Ptarmigan lift station seemed to go a bit more quickly this time.  Beyond the Ptarmigan, there was a path marked on the map, but nothing materialised, even using GPS for more accurate location.  The tried and tested method of ‘just head in the general direction’ brought us to the hollow of Ciste Mhearad, which apparently translates as ‘Margaret’s coffin’.  Once there, a path of sorts did turn up.

August snow patches in Ciste Mhearad ….
…. feeding the small stream ….
…. that runs down to join the Garbh Allt (Rough Stream) and the River Nethy

There were a couple of snow patches right at the head of the corrie, remnants of the previous winter.  Not too long ago, patches of snow would survive here all year round, but this has been almost unheard of over recent years.   The now visible path ran next to the small stream, fed by the snow patches and soggy marshy ground above, but the map indicated the path turning away from the stream after about 300 metres, to take a less steep line down to the valley bottom.  Once again, locating the path wasn’t easy.

A faint path heads away towards Loch A’an – but soon disappears!
Back on track again – on the path heading for ‘The Saddle’ above Loch A’an

Once found, the faint path towards ‘The Saddle’ wasn’t easy to follow, and we soon found ourselves in lumpy, bumpy ground.  We had drifted off the path by about 20 metres, but we were below it by now, not a good place to recognise the error. We finally picked up the correct line when we spotted a solo hiker just above us, going the opposite way, and we were soon back on the correct course.  ‘The Saddle’ gives the only realistic exit to safety from Loch A’an in blizzard conditions, when the Plateau might be too hazardous, but it’s a long trudge of over 12 kms round to Ryvoan Pass and Glenmore Lodge to the north.

Heading southwest above the loch with Carn Etchachan in the distance
The cliffs of Stac an Fharaidh below Cairngorm – no exit that way!
The entrance to Coire Raibeirt and our route back (Chris just visible in the centre if you zoom in!)

We weren’t going to Ryvoan though – instead, we turned southwest to follow the lochside round to Coire Raibeirt.  The original plan had been to visit the Shelter Stone, a bivouac site famous in Scottish mountaineering history, but that would have added an extra 2 kms to the trip, and the day was starting to slip away, so we headed straight for Coire Raibeirt instead.   I had never been in this corrie before, but the contours on the map told a tale. The ground ahead told the same tale – it was going to be steep.

Looking back to the loch – the tiny white speck just left of centre is shown enlarged in the next image
A rare sight in the UK – a floatplane, just taking off from the loch
Further up Coire Raibeirt on a rocky scramble section, right next to the stream

We had barely started when we heard the unexpected sound of an aircraft – below us!  I had just enough time to get the camera out to catch the shot of a floatplane that had just taken off from the loch – someone would be home before we would.  That excitement being over, we turned our attention back to getting up Corrie Raibeirt.  The route followed the stream running down to the loch, and in the lower sections, the two ran together.  It would be rather more than exciting if the stream was in spate, but conditions for us were good.

Noticeably gaining height now in Coire Raibeirt, with Loch A’an below
Border Collie ‘Mist’ on a long tether with Chris just ahead
Off the steep section at last with just a gradual climb ahead

The route was a mixture of engineered path (thank you those who built it) and natural rock steps, some of which required a bit of a scramble in places.  No obstacle to the humans but ‘Mist’ is getting older now and starting to show it – she sometimes needs a bit of help on steps she would have leapt up as a young dog, but I had fitted her ‘Ruffwear Web Master’ harness and a long tether, and gave the collie a tug from above on a couple of sections.  It also helped me to slow her down from behind on the easier sections, to stop her pushing on into difficult ground.

The view back down the Allt Coire Raibeirt ….
…. now shallower on the uphill side
‘Mist’ back out in front again ….
…. closely followed by Chris

Progress wasn’t exactly swift, justifying the decision to drop the Shelter Stone option, but ‘steady away’ eventually brought us on to less steep ground.  The deep cleft of the Allt Coire Raibeirt became shallower and the path became an easy stroll, despite still heading uphill,  and before long ‘Mist’ was back in her preferred position of being out front.

The last bit of ascent to Point 1141 ….
…. with Coire an t’ Sneachda on our left (see previous post #307)

Our last bit of ascent was to a location known to the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team as ‘Point 1141’ for the simple reason it is marked on the map as a spot height at 1141 metres.   From there it was downhill all the way into Coire Cas, in winter the main ski area for Cairngorm.  The day had been a long one and humans and dog were getting that dinnertime feeling – it was time to head for home.

2Just below Pt 1141 looking down to Coire cas – it’s time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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