On the hill in the 21st century

31/5/05 Cairn Gorm and Beinn MacDui

After a trade show in Aberdeen, I picked up a rental car – a Megane – and drove west. I stopped at Alford to buy provisions at around 7p.m, and again in the Nethy Bridge area. I parked up at the lower car park on the Coire Cas road, just above the tree line of the Queen’s Forest, and pitched my tent in an Eden of diverse vegetation down by the stream, some half mile from the car.

Next day, it was gloomy. From my camp in the rough ground, I slogged up into Coire Cas, taking a steady pace, arriving at the Ptarmigan around 11a.m (after a start at 8.23a.m) and at the summit of Cairn Gorm a while after that. On the summit I looked at the automated weather station, and had a chat on the mobile with a friend of mine – in order to make him jealous.

From there to Ben Macdui took a long time, with some close compass work in dense mist, and even some use of the GPS. An added complexity in this area, is that the map grid reference eastings and northings can be very similar. Point 000000 is nearby in a small corrie above Loch Echtachan. It is possible to be somewhere like 981983 and confuse eastings and northings.

It probably wouldn’t matter in clear weather. But the mist came down and I had to cross a large and very old snowfield, in what became effectively near white-out conditions. I got in due course to the summit of Ben Macdui, and more compass work brought me to the cliffs, which could not be missed. Thence to the right down the ridge, into the valley. This was a wild and deserted place. I camped at Dunbeg Bridge or thereabouts, and I experienced some difficulty in fording the river, which cost me half an hour backtracking to the bridge. It was pouring with rain and I was bone tired, though happy enough, after a hill day of eight and a half hours. I met four people on the hill all day – it was mid-week.

It rained on and off all night, and I was a little dismayed to find on this second night under canvas, that my tent was still soaking wet on the outside in the morning. I’d had difficulty sleeping because of light, and because of sore hips. I took brufen in the morning, also to help with my feet. So after a wet strike, a little before 8a.m., I started off up the Lairig Ghru. There was some heavy rain as I walked in, fortunately at my back. Up and over the pass was not so time consuming as I had thought it would be, and I was taking lunch around 1p.m at the Sinclair memorial at the foot of the north side of the pass, in a rare blast of sunshine. Thence across to the “Chalamain Gap” which is just that – a dry gap – and down to the car in pouring rain.

16/6/07 Tryfan and the Glyders

Myself and J. Parkinson made a good start from the Milestone Buttress around 10.30a.m. We climbed separately, each of us completely familiar with the route. The North ridge of Tryfan is one of the classic mountain scrambles of the UK; it needs little further description here. Rough rock and a widening vista as one rises above the A5 and the lake far below.

I reached the summit breathless after a little under two hours – recalling ruefully that when I first climbed this mountain nearly 25 years ago, it took me one hour and seventeen minutes from the road to the summit. When Jim arrived we paused to reflect on how often we had visited this well-loved summit. Since my first visit in the crisp, clear cold of late October in 1983, I’ve been on Tryfan at night, in winter conditions, and with at least four different parties on at least six occasions. Never alone mind.

Down then, to Bwlch Tryfan, which was like a railway station, and on upwards. Rather than sweating up the screes we climbed Bristly Ridge. The ridge has many towers, spurs and disappointments. One must be able to downclimb to avoid frustration and danger.

At the crux of the scramble we found ourselves climbing rock that was at best “Diff” (as in “Difficult” – the technical rock climbing jargon in the UK for “easy”) or possibly even “Moderate” (technical rock climbing jargon for a rock climb equivalent in difficulty to say, a child’s climbing frame or a steep ladder). But we were climbing free – unroped and unprotected. It’s the exposure that makes the difference: if you fall off here, however easy the climbing is, you die – if you’re lucky. No-one ever does fall off – I can’t think of any such fall from Bristly Ridge coming to my attention in the last 40 years. At one point we noticed that we were climbing above and to the left of a lot of folk who were roped and wearing climbing helmets. We became conscious that our womenfolk back home might take a dim view of our position. We had perhaps been pushing our luck, and we were were glad to reach the summit.

Then, along the tops in misty conditions and high winds, and down to the Devil’s Kitchen, as steep and gloomy a descent as there is anywhere, though spectacular. A bit like Rossett Gill but much more dramatic. And like in Rossett Gill, in the Devil’s Kitchen you’ve to be thankful you’re going downhill.

Thence a pleasant stroll past Idwal Slabs and the walk-out down to Idwal Cottage, where tame chaffinches ate crumbs from round our feet.

27/6/09 Great Langdale – a slow stroll up the Band

A four day holiday,a winding down, in the Lake District. I am in the Lakes, in Great Langdale, with my friend J. Parkinson, his wife, and an old school-friend of hers. On the Friday after a leisurely start we went very slowly up The Band, taking over two and a half hours to reach Three Tarns below Bow Fell. I was and had been somewhat blasé; I thought the weather would hold firm, but it did not. It broke big time, though no rain fell. My mountaincraft is shot to bits through lack of practice!

30/5/10 Snowdon via Crib Goch

My son and I went to North Wales and we had a tour de force Snowdon Horseshoe traverse. We set out what we achieved to do, which was to climb Snowdon via Crib Goch. I never saw the mountain so busy. There must have been a thousand people above the top of the Miner’s Track. We probably passed another thousand coming down the Miner’s Track, and on the whole route, only on the walk-in along the lower part of the PYG track, were we at any time more than twenty yards from another human being. So much for the solitude of the hills on a summer Sunday. W.H Murray would be turning in his grave.

I would have needed to pay for parking too. I tried and failed to park at the Pen-y-pass, perhaps should have known that this would not be possible mid-Sunday morning in summer. We had to park in a lay-by on the main road, and take a minibus to the top of the pass. I did not buy a parking ticket.

I confess I have never before climbed Yr Wyddfa on a Sunday! It has always been either mid-week or Saturday. Mind, times change in the eighteen years since my first ascent (in summer 1982 with A. Mackervoy) and hill-walking today is mighty popular. We got back to the site (itself a backup site since our first choice, the usual one opposite the Tyn-y-Coed hotel, was full) and we had mashed potatoes and steak cooked on a Trangia. A nice dinner for camp. Thence to Cobdens Hotel for a game of pool in the cave at the rear (deserted in this season) and a pint.

27/5/12 Askeval, Rum

There is no cloud in the sky, and it is somewhat hazy, and getting worse. It has not taken much effort to get up to this summit, just moderate care and plenty of rest and fluids – and a hat. On this hot Bank Holiday weekend in May, this is no place for the bareheaded. The view is stupendous – literally and not metaphorically beyond description. It will be better still at dusk when the air clears and the light takes on the delicacy of evening. A common camera can do no justice to the view;  you would need a chopper full of IMAX camera to begin to do justice to it.

There is no single person on the mountain but myself. Today I doubt if there is a comparable mountain in all the UK of which that will be true. I know there at least half a dozen mountaineers hiking somewhere in the interior of Rum, because I saw them on the ferry yesterday, but for the moment I am alone.

I got back from my walk about 5.30p.m. Any longer and I should have been in trouble through lack of fluids – it was a very hot day. I lack the Ranulph Fiennes-like qualities needed to drive my body through damage in such circumstances (though my wife might disagree with that statement).

12/8/12 Coniston Old Man

Yesterday my wife and I drove through from Red Lodge in the Trent valley, to the Lakes. We stayed at High Grassings near Hawkshead, and had an OK dinner at the Queen’s Head in Hawkshead. Today a good walk up the Old Man of Coniston via Brown Pike and Dow Crag, starting by a long trek up the Walna Scar Road. There was a rain shower when we were on the top. It’s a long walk down through Goat Water and Lever’s Water and past the copper workings. This was the first time ever that my wife has joined me on a proper hillwalk.

7/8/14 Jacks Rake

Today a slow start walking up to Stickle Tarn in bright sunshine. From Stickle Tarn we walked round to the start of Jack’s Rake and climbed up it. I had climbed Jack’s Rake alone, with a big rucksack almost 25 years ago. I knew I could do it; I knew it could be done.

We succeeded, though it took twice as long as if I’d done it alone. From the top we went to High Raise, and then back down to the top of Mickleden, and on home. That is to describe in a few lines, a long and pleasant afternoon’s hillwalking, for we were not home and dry until after 6pm. An eight hour day.

Then after a quick shower, into the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel for supper. Good solid tucker for £21 total for two us. A couple of pints of Lakeland lager at 5% left me feeling pleasantly p*ssed, and shivering with cold, though it was a fine evening.

26/6/15 Blencathra via Sharp Edge

To Lancaster from Red Lodge, leaving at just after 9a.m and arriving at the University at 11.25a.m. Much heavy traffic round Stoke and a stop for coffee at Charnock. Great to see my son Nat. We set off forthwith for the Lakes taking the Kirkstone Pass – because we could. We stopped briefly near Aira Force, but had no change for car park fees levied by the National Trust – £5 for two hours. We’d bought lunch from the corner shop in Patterdale. We drove through to Scales and set off up Blencathra at about 2pm. Nat hared off ahead of me in fine fettle; the weather was good.

As we got into the corrie of Blea Tarn, the weather broke big time, and our scramble up Sharp Edge was lethal. Conditions were very greasy and slippery underfoot. The mist was down, and for a time it rained quite heavily. Nat struggled with confidence and technique in foot and hand placement, and we got up Sharp Edge only after long meditation and careful consideration on his part, and gentle coaxing, on mine. In any case, to withdraw from Sharp Edge in those conditions would have been even more – much more – hazardous than going on. An ascent of the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is no mean achievement in ANY conditions.

So on and up we went and soon finished. We were further encouraged by three friendly men making their way slowly up the ridge with much talk and laughter.

After the summit we descended through pleasant afternoon sunshine to the car, and drove directly to Honister Hause YHA. We checked in and had the cup of tea we as Englishmen had been desiring for some time. I saw that Youth Hostels are now licensed. Supper was steak (for me) and Cumberland Sausage (for Nat) at the Fish Hotel in Buttermere, taken outside, on a very clear and pleasant evening.

Next day, it turned out that Nat had slept poorly, but I was fine. We went to the Honister slate mine, which was an inspiring and excellent experience, good value for money. Thence a walk from Seathwaite, Borrowdale, and on up to Taylorgill Force and back.

Taylorgill Force

The walk back down was enlivened, as I recall, by having to provide technical and moral assistance to a group of young DofE bronze expedition hikers who had been sent this way by their teachers, who clearly knew nothing of the route at all. The main route over Styhead – a veritable motorway amongst Lake District paths – lies on the left bank of the beck going uphill. There is a much narrower and considerably less frequented path on the right bank; you would have to know from experience that it is over very steep ground above rapids. A very close reading of the high scale 1:25000 map does tell you that, but anyone might miss that. The teachers had clearly made neither a recce visit nor a close reading of the map. They had no idea what they were doing sending Bronze DofE pupils (14 year olds) with big rucsacs along such a route. When we got down, the concerned teachers saw us and asked if we had seen their charges. We told them we had; the youngsters were safe, if shaken. I held my tongue and said nothing more: it’s not worth it.

Thence, tea in the Scafell Hotel, and then back to Lancaster. Supper we took burgers at Oscar’s Wine Bar in the centre of town – good service, good burgers, a good trip.

15/8/15 A walk above Osterbo Fjellstove in the Aurlandsdalen, Norway

By bus from Flam to Osterbo, this cost about Nkr 75. The coach ran empty through amazing scenery to a place called Vassbyggdi, whereupon it filled nearly full of Norwegian hikers. Then the road ran through a series of mountain tunnels until we emerged into the upper part of the Aurland valley – Aurlandsdalen. It resembled North Wales or parts of the Lake District, but with more trees, better waterfalls, and the scale of the place was much greater. You could see at height there was still 2-3% snow coverage.

We dropped bags off at the Fjellstove (hostel) and walked up Langsdalen (the long dale – rather like “Langstrath” in the Lakes). The route was a winding path through rich woods with again, a wide variety of wild flowers and a much broader selection of flora than you would see in the UK. The route opened out above the woods, passing a hydroelectric dam. The stream was no mountain beck in the British sense but a completely unfordable torrent. We curved round to the right and higher into a biting wind, though it be mid-August, and crossed several snowfields before arriving at a falls by some huts. There was a footbridge. The falls were comparable with High Force on the Tees, though perhaps half the height. The river – for such it was by British mountain standards –  could not be forded safely at all, even in mid-August at low water. I doubt if there a half dozen such mountain rivers in all the UK, and this is just a side valley into a side valley in fjord Norway, and quite unremarkable as such.

We walked higher, towards a further series of falls, but Mrs H did not feel well and was not really that comfortable with the weather, the wildness and the biting wind, so we retreated about 1pm.

Our dinner that night – in a kind of upmarket youth hostel atmosphere – was cream of mushroom soup, followed by sliced reindeer with brussels sprouts and boiled potatoes with a very good gravy, and something rather like cranberry sauce. For dessert, “cloudberry” parfait or ice-cream. She had two glasses of a very sweet Reisling at the reasonable rate of NKr 59 (about £6.50) per glass, and I had a pint of one of the local Aegir brews. The waitress offered us seconds of the food. Though it was a pukka restaurant in a pukka hotel the place felt like a youth hostel more than anything else, complete with common rooms full of old books including R.D Blackmore novels in Norwegian, and board games, Dotted round the walls were diverse stuffed animals including several foxes, a brown bear in the common room and an enormous polar bear in the dining room.

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