SVG 2012 and Dubh Loch Climbing

The past few months Amelia has been quite busy organizing her first conference. The Scottish Vision Group chose her and a colleague to co-organize the 2012 meeting. Amelia was in charge of selecting the venue among other things and this year’s meeting was held at the historic Douneside House in Tarland.

The house is beautiful. 14 bedrooms, huge conservatory, dining hall, lounges, studies and full bar all interconnected by a warren like maze of hallways adorned with period furniture and art, Douneside House was a delight to stay at. The grounds of the house are extensive as well. There’s a small burn trickling past on the east side around which beautiful trees, flowers and shrubbery are lovingly maintained. A small path leads visitors through passing small benches to sit and over tiny bridges. Many wild birds call this place home. It’s quite magical.

The crown jewel of the grounds is possibly the “Infinity Lawn” which seems to stretch on forever into the distant hills of Lochnagar. As conference organizer, Amelia scored us the #2 bedroom so we had quite the amazing view in the morning. If I’d known it would be this good, I might have stayed both nights!

The weather in the mountains was too good to pass up however, even for a night in Douneside House. My friend Ben and I spent Friday night climbing and camping at the nearby Dubh Loch. Friday we walked in at a fast 2 hrs and climbed the superb three pitch route A Likely Story (HVS 5a ***) on the Eagle Slabs. I led pitch one and three while Ben led the delicate traverse of pitch two. Really good climbing on perfect mountain granite.

Saturday we climbed the 5 pitch classic Mousetrap (VS 4c ***) up the right side of the Dubh Loch. Long pitches of sustained difficulty took us the full height of the crag (200+ meters). We made it to the top in good time despite a later start only to discover our descent gully was still covered in snow. A moment’s consideration of that terrifying descent compelled us off the north side of the mountain at an easy run as we were now hard pressed to get back in time for me to make it to Douneside House for dinner at 6pm.

JLS and Clach na Beinn

The outdoor climbing season opened for me on Saturday March 17. Danimal and I headed to Longhaven quarries for the classic sea cliff climb Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (E1 5c**). I had led this route last year with another friend, Johannes and this year Dan was keen for it, so offered to hold his ropes. It’s an excellent climb in a dramatic situation and one that requires a fair degree of adventuring just to get to. Below is a photo of another climber on the route. The climb starts a few meters above the sea under the big arch.

The next day, Amelia and I headed up to the high crag of Clach na Beinn. We had been there before a few years ago. It’s a great crag perched high on a hilltop. The walk in is long but lovely and we felt like stretching our legs. Walking in the hills is fine, but it’s always better if there’s climbing to be had at the end of it.

We packed a nice lunch and ticked off a couple of climbs, one new and one we’d done before but kind of got wrong. The last time we did Bogendreip Buttress was when Amelia’s sister Kate visited. I led it the hard way and she followed the proper way. I was keen to do it the proper way, but it still felt hard.

Climbing Trips: Isle of Skye

Back in August we took a weekend trip to the Isle of Skye to do some climbing and hillwalking with some friends. Our good friends Johannes and Jane organized food, drink and accommodations so all we had to do was show up and all would be looked after. They did a super job too. Our bunkhouse was just up the road from Talisker and quite central to any and all mountain-related activities we wished to pursue.

The first day Amelia and I went for our big mountain goal of the season — something on Sron na Ciche capped by Integrity. A big day out, with 11 pitches spanning 3 separate routes from bottom to top. We got quite an early start and did the enjoyable route Cioch West (V Diff*) which placed us at the bottom of Cioch Nose (V Diff ***).  Amelia and I swapped leads all the way up. It was a superb day on the mountain with great weather, rock and magnificent positions. Topping out on Cioch Nose was definitely one of the highlights. It was a bit surreal watching the mountain rescue helicopter fly maneuvers in the valley below our position. From this position climbers have the option of escaping off the mountain or continuing up a final 2 pitch wall.

Our friends Dan and Marianne were also in the area with another friend to do some scrambling, but the lure of Integrity was too great and we met them at the base of the route. The first pitch of Integrity (HS 4b ***) is one of the best climbs I’ve ever done. It is an amazing bit of climbing. Not hard, and extremely fun. The second pitch is merely ok, which is a shame, but the thrill of being so high above the valley saves it a bit.

We topped out around 5pm and you know that getting to the top is only halfway. The way down was a bit epic in that we missed the proper descent gulley so ended up in a scree gulley of doom. To say this was a bit harrowing is an understatement, but suffice to say we made it without any real harm done. We made it back to the car, just as it was getting fully dark — probably around 10pm — and then back to the bunkhouse by 10:30 to some very relieved friends. It was high summer on Skye, we used every last ounce of day we could get I guess they got a bit worried when we didn’t show up for dinner. Luckily they saved us some! We have some seriously great friends.

The next day, the weather deteriorated a bit so we all decided to go on a hillwalk up in the Cullins. Johannes engineered it so we would just happen to be walking past the tooth-like formation of Am Basteir/Bastier Tooth home to the famous Naismith’s Route (V Diff**). It took us a few hours of walking uphill past streams, boulders and sheep, up into the clouds and the rain. We only got a bit lost, but we were all having a good time. I honestly didn’t mind at all, the previous day was just so great.

It was bitterly cold up on the hill and Am Bastier was barely visible in the swirling mists. We did bring ropes and harness and helmet, but not climbing shoes. We figured the climbing would be quite easy and manageable due to the easy grade, even in the rain! Ha, were we wrong.

Danimal went up first to check it out. He climbed up about 15 m before reaching an impasse of loose vertical rock. His one piece of protection at 7m had long since fallen out. The wind and rain continued to howl.

We yelled up to him. “Dan, how does it look up there?”

“Not good,” he calls back.

“What’s your plan?”

“Run away!”

So down he comes. Fair play and good sense to you buddy. Johannes decides he wants to go “have a look anyway.” Dan and a couple of our group decide to carry on and do so more hillwalking while Johannes and I have a closer look at the tooth. Amelia and Jane decide to stay and make sure we don’t get into trouble. Johannes gets to Dan’s high point and builds a belay to bring me up, and before I clue into what’s happening, I’m at the belay and he’s handing me the rack. Swell. Now I get to lead up the loose vertical section and our anchor is not exactly confidence inspiring. I try to ignore the fear and launch on up the wall. In rock shoes and fine weather it would have been easy, but in the rain with big bendy boots the climbing was quite gripping. I managed to not fall off and die which was good, so I brought Johannes up and we scrambled easily to the top from there.

Here is where I should mention the conversation that happened before we set off. Amelia asked Johannes how long his rope was, and if it was in fact long enough to abseil off the top of the tooth, which is 30m, requiring a 60m rope. To which Johannes replies, “48m, we’ll be fine.” Somehow I missed this, or just failed to process the implications, but now here I was at the top of the tooth an hour or two later with frost forming on my trousers. Johannes is dangling in the mists some 24m below me having an epic because his 48m rope will not in fact get us to the bottom.

The solution of course was to build a hanging belay to which I abseiled down to. We then pulled the rope and willed our freezing hands to not drop the rope. That would be disastrous. We rigged another abseil which then took us to the ground. Lesson learned eh buddy? Hehehe.

Ah, I didn’t think it was so bad. He had a rope and some gear. It was a shame he had to leave his gear behind on the wall but hey, it’s all part of the mountain experience sometimes. Not too bad all things considered.

We hoofed it down the mountain and headed straight for the pub. We met up with our other friends there and recounted the story, much to Johannes’ shagrin. It is a good story, and a fine ending to a crackin’ weekend. Thanks guys!

Agag’s groovy

After Brad and I climbed Squareface a few months back, Johannes made me a tick list of 10 classic easy multi-pitch routes in Scotland. Soon after, the weather took a bad turn and I’ve had to (im)patiently wait for it to be good enough to get back out and start ticking. A few weeks ago, finally, we got on number 7: Agag’s groove, on the Rannoch Wall in Glen Coe (and last week we got on number 9: Cioch Direct in Applecross, but more on that at a later date). Agag’s groove is on Buchaille Etive Mor, which is a huge lump of granite that stands sentinel over the Rannoch moor at the head of the awesome Glen Coe valley.

To get to the base of the route, you climb halfway up Curved Ridge and then exit off left into a gully to the base of the wall. So you’re already pretty far up the mountain before you officially start climbing. It’s a popular route and by the time we got to the base, there was a party on the route and another waiting in line. So we settled in to wait. Luckily it was a nice sunny day, so we didn’t mind.

I led the first pitch, which was a good long pitch through pretty easy terrain to a big ledge with a boulder sitting on it – easy belay. I brought Brad up and he climbed through and did pitch 2, which was a fairly straightforward ramp and corner. Brad brought me up and we waited on that ledge for some time, because the people two parties ahead of us seemed to be held up. We never did figure out what was going on up there, but luckily the folks ahead and behind us were friendly and patient, and we passed the time in amiable conversations despite the fact that we were crowded onto tiny ledges, hanging on gear in various cracks and slung blocks. The party behind us was a group of three lovely old guys who last did the route 40 years ago. They had since all moved away, and had reunited to come back and visit some of their old haunts. They were having a blast and their enthusiasm was infectious. But really, who couldn’t have a blast on a route like this?

 

The third pitch was mine, and it’s the “juicy” one – steep and exposed, on big holds. I was having a grand time running it out until I reached the very end of the pitch – several body lengths above my last piece I stood up into a steep corner and grabbed a big hold – it looked solid but started rocking backward slowly. A readjustment of my balance and swift grab to a higher hold saved me from taking a long ride. Good thing that happened at the end of my last pitch, because I would have been leading a lot more timidly after that! Brad came up and led through to the top, and then it was all over too soon. Although not really over — I don’t know if we got off route or what, but the traverse over to the top of curved ridge was extremely sketchy! The climb down the ridge was a bit more straightforward but also required a lot of care. Then we had the long steep downward trudge back to the road, but it was such a nice evening that we didn’t mind.

 

Glen Clova

We went climbing in Glen Clova last weekend. It’s an hour’s drive south of here, in Angus. The closest town is Kirriemuir, whose claim to fame is being the birthplace of both J.M. Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) and Bon Scott (the lead singer of ACDC), who I like to imagine would have hung out together had they been contemporaries. We’d been to Clova a few times previously, but for hill walking rather than climbing. It’s a lovely glen with rolling green hills, lots of wildlife, and a burbling river winding through and waterfalls tumbling down the surrounding hills.

The climbing is on crags perched on a steep hillside, so they feel very high and exposed even at their base. It was sunny for the most part, but rain showers were rolling down the glen at regular intervals, along with very gusty winds. So we had to pause a few times to wait out a squall, and put up with some chilly belays on the top of the cliff. There was always the worry you’d get halfway up a route and it would start pouring, but that never actually happened.

Brad started out on two steep HVS’s, Wandered and Witch’s Cauldron, both of which were steep and intimidating from the ground, but had solid gear and big holds right where you needed them. Then we walked over to another face to see what Dan and Julie were up to. Julie was leading Flake Route, and it looked like a nice long line. Dan highly recommended the adjacent route, called Central Crack. It was HS 4b, which is pushy for me, but it looked nice, and not too hard, so I got on it. It was harder than it looked! There were several points where the crack tipped back and the feet ran out for a while, and in between those spots was quite sustained as well. It was 40 meters long, so sewing it up was not an option – nothing worse than running out of gear before the climb is finished! A few times I placed a piece to make a hard move and then reached down and back-cleaned it so I could use it again later, which worked reasonably well to keep me moving. Before I knew it I was climbing through the final slab to the top (in gale-force winds!).

Brad finished off the day on an E2, the opening moves of which included an overhanging fist jam section. I tried to follow and failed. Dan took over and made it look easy. I need to go to jam school. I like cracks because they are easy to protect and rarely height-dependent, but I am crap at jamming.

We didn’t take many pictures, but I included a few below from some other visits to the glen, including walks to the summits of Mayar and Driesh via the magnificent Corrie Fee, and a walk up to Loch Brandy.

Squareface

While I was happy to get a long weekend out of it, the royal wedding did not interest me in the slightest. The closest we got to paying it any attention was turning on BBC radio while driving out of town. Several pundits were in the midst of a heated discussion about Victoria Beckham’s hat, which was pretty much what I assumed the coverage was going to be like. After about a 30 seconds the nausea started to set in and I turned it off.

We parked at Keiloch (near Braemar), shouldered bulging packs and started cycling up a long, steadily inclining landrover track.

  • Camping gear = kind of heavy
  • Climbing gear = kind of heavy
  • Camping + climbing gear = heavy!

After a while we were no longer on a nice landrover track, but pushing and sometimes carrying the bikes up a narrow rocky path. We came across a nice, level, tent-sized grassy spot and dropped the bags and the bikes there, but continued on to the head of the valley, just to make sure we knew where we were. We soon came across a ruined stone hut — a distinctive landmark noted in our climbing guidebook.  We hiked a bit further just to get a look at the terrain ahead for the next day, and then returned to make camp and have some dinner.

In the morning we packed up the climbing gear and pushed/carried the bikes out to where the path opened up again. The guidebooks say to leave your bikes at the ruin, but we’d been told that in fact the track would open up again on the other side and we’d be able to ride most of the way up the Slugain valley, and it did, and we did. It was a gorgeous ride in fact, up a huge open valley on a nice single track.

There were a few stream culverts to cross – some big enough you had to jump across, which was no easy feat carrying a bike and a big pack full of heavy climbing gear. Eventually the path degraded again and we were pushing more than riding so we ditched the bikes in some heather and continued on foot up another steeper valley to The Sneck, which is a weirdly-named high pass into Garbh Coire, a huge corrie on the northern flank of Beinn a’ Bhuird. Then down a scree slope into the corrie, and across the bottom of a steep snow field, and back up the other side to re-cross the snowfield at a narrow point at the top to get to the base of the wall. Or, at least that’s what Brad did. In an effort to take a more direct route I tried to stay on the near side of the snowfield instead of crossing- and re-crossing, and I ended up wasting at least an hour and scaring the crap out of both of us. ANYway, that embarrassing episode behind me, we eventually made it to the base of Squareface, which is a gorgeous huge square buttress of granite. Amazingly, there were two parties already on the route. Imagine cycling/hiking all that way to wait in line for a route! So we had to hunker down and wait in the windy corrie, in the shade, next to the snowfield. The party in the lead was moving very slowly and by the time we got to climb we were both chilled through.

I led the first and third pitches. The first pitch is 40m and consists of a long, rope-munching crack, and then a rightward scramble up a series of blocks. Brad led the second pitch, which wandered rightward across the face to a corner, up to a horizontal crack, and then back leftward to a three-star belay ledge – a perfect triangular platform jutting out over the valley. The third pitch was just spectacular – high up over the corrie, gorgeous gritty granite – make your way up and right into a lovely layback flake, up the flake and over to finish.

That single pitch alone was well worth the long journey to get to it. I’ve been working on getting more solid on the lead so Brad and I can do long mountain routes more quickly, and this was a good start – it was only VD, but it was very exposed so I felt pretty good about pulling it off with minimal hesitation, especially after the fiasco with the snowfield.

Then the long walk back down to the bikes, and the lovely ride back down the Slugain to our campsite. In the morning we biked and hiked all the way back to Garbh Coire – on a bit of a schedule since we’d arranged to meet our friend Johannes at 10am at the base of a route called the Cumming-Croften. When you arrange to meet someone that far into the wilderness at a pre-specified time you expect something to go wrong, but we could see him waiting at the base of the route as we clambered up the long scree slope underneath. When we finally reached him he immediately showed us his watch — and it was 10:00 on the nose! Not bad timing when you consider we’d left camp at 7:30am. Then we did the Cumming-Croften route. Six pitches, great views, very exposed – but some loose and rotten rock in spots, and very cold in the shade.  On the whole it was not a bad route, although quite hard for the grade (Severe 4b). Sadly, we forgot the camera when we ditched the bags at the Sneck, so no pictures of that, although I did get a picture of another party on the route later in the day.

When we got to the top of Cumming-Crofton it was 2pm. Brad and Johannes went back down into the corrie to do the Slochd Wall, which is another, harder (HVS) route near the Cumming-Crofton.

I hiked back down to The Sneck, where we had left the bags and retrieved the camera, which we’d forgotten there, and hiked back up and along the rim of the corrie to try and get some pictures of them, without much success. After a while I gave up on photos and just enjoyed the sunshine. They were still a few pitches from the top, so I headed back to camp on my own to tear down the tent and pack up. The trail back to camp was fun – my bag was light because I’d left all the climbing gear with Brad, so I got to cycle fast and light down the long single-track along the Slugain in the evening sun without a soul around.

By the time Brad and Johannes arrived at camp I had everything packed up and we cycled out. What had been a rather miserable uphill toil on the way in was pure joy on the way out – moving fast through forests and around boulders and through streams under lovely purple hills in the setting sun. I think we picked the plums of Garbh Coire on this trip, but I can imagine going back to repeat them someday. Squareface is a special route – all the more special for being in such a remote and rugged setting.

A breakdown, a castle, and an old man

I had a conference on Skye last weekend. Sometimes when my conferences are in nice/fun enough places I can convince Brad to come along with me, and Skye definitely exceeds the nice/fun threshold. The conference was scheduled to start on friday afternoon,  so we hatched a plan to leave after work on thursday and drive straight through to the campsite at Glen Brittle, right under the Black Cuillin range. Then we’d be able to get up early and get in at least one nice long route up the lovely steep face of Sron na Ciche before I had to be at the conference. So we jammed the car full of camping and climbing gear and set off.

Traffic was heavy and it was after 10pm by the time we got through the other side of Inverness and were cruising along the shore of Loch Ness. That’s when the car’s headlights, radio, and dashboard lights started flickering on and off. Hmmm. It’s pretty deserted, and there aren’t a lot of places to pull over, so we kept going. Eventually the car lost power steering, and then the engine died altogether. At the moment it died we were just entering the village of Drumnadrochit, which is the only populated place on that whole stretch of road. Brad coasted around a bend and wrestled it into a little side road along the village green. The car rolled to a stop directly in front of a B&B. There was weak cell service so Brad called AA roadside assistance. He had to shout the spelling of “Drumnadrochit” 5 or 6 times before the dispatch person could understand, at which point she said they couldn’t get someone to us until the morning. The lights in the B&B had just turned out and there was a “no vacancy” sign in the window but we timidly knocked and explained the situation to the owner, who did in fact have a room available. In the morning we got up knowing our plans for Sron na Ciche were certainly dashed, with the more pressing worry being whether I would make it to the conference at all.

The AA guy showed up around 9am. By the time I joined them outside, he and Brad had boosted the car and it was running but not well, and he seemed perplexed about what was wrong. At that point Brad remembered that, a few weeks ago, he’d disconnected the power supply from the battery because the fan wouldn’t shut off. He’d reconnected it the next day, but at the time I was hovering over his shoulder nervously telling him to be careful (having gotten quite an unpleasant shock off a car battery in high school auto mechanics class). So he didn’t tighten it as much as was perhaps necessary. Brad subtly suggested to the AA guy that he might consider checking that particular connection, and sure enough, it had worked itself quite loose over the ensuing weeks and was most certainly the cause of our problems. AA guy tightened it up and we were on our way, and had no further car trouble.

So we were approaching the bridge to Skye at Kyle of Lochalsh by noon or so –not enough time for mountain routes in the Cuillins, but time to kill before the conference. Brad suggested stopping at Eileen Donan, which is an island on a sea loch with a picturesque castle that we’ve driven past a number of times before. So we did that. There’s been a castle on this site since the 13th century, but it was almost entirely destroyed by the english in 1719. It was rebuilt from 1912-1932 by the Macraes (apparently with some controversy, since although the Macraes were historically the caretakers of the castle, it was the stronghold of clan MacKenzie). Lovely building, interesting history, gorgeous setting, certainly worth the £7 entry fee. The guides love their jobs and will talk your ear off with fascinating details of the castle.

We then proceded across the bridge to Skye. I was keen to at least do a little bouldering before the conference so we set off to find a boulder field near the Old Man of Storr, which is a dramatic rock pinnacle standing on a ridge over the main road on Skye, so there are consequently lots of romantic pictures of it all over regional tourist brochures. After trudging through boggy heather slopes in sprinkling rain for a while we gave up on our boulders, and decided to just hike up to the Old Man instead, since we hadn’t been there before. It was a nice walk, not difficult, and only about 20 minutes or so from the road – recommended for any/all. The old man is not as imposing from close up. Actually the closer you get the more he just looks fragile and lonely. But when you stand next to him and share his amazing view, you don’t feel sorry for him. I was moved to give him a little kiss before we hiked back down, and wish him many more millennia to enjoy his breezy perch over green hills and blue sea.

So then, to the conference, which was at Sabhal mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the southern peninsula of the island. It’s a lovely little campus looking across to hills of the Knoydart peninsula. It was a terrific place for a small conference – amazing views, delicious food, really cute pub to hang out in at the end of the day. While I was at the conference Brad got a chance to have some fun on Skye. Hopefully he’ll get a chance to post about his adventures.

Hogmanay in the Lake District

Our cancelled christmas meant we were unexpectedly here for Hogmanay (that’s scottish for new year’s eve). It’s a very popular holiday here and things tend to book up quickly, so we weren’t sure what to do. We’d tentatively decided to drive to Stonehaven, which is a town a few miles south, to see folks march to the harbor swinging enormous fireballs around and then pitch them into the sea (what else can you do with enormous fireballs?). It was going to involve some struggling with parking and traffic, which is never much fun on New Year’s, so we weren’t as psyched as we wanted to be. But Lo! At the last moment we got a call from Johannes and Jane, who had booked a hostel in the Lake District and had two spare bunks. They were leaving at 4pm so we quickly threw some food together and packed.

We arrived that evening at the house that the family of one of Jane’s friends had rented for the holiday. They had a great spread of yummy food out and we spent the evening in chatting and eating until midnight, and then we drank champagne and sang auld lang syne, followed by a little walk down to the shores of Lake Windermere to watch fireworks and floating paper lanterns drifting over the town. We don’t put much stock in this particular date, but if we did have lofty expectations for New Year’s eve, the pleasant evening spent with these warm and lovely people would certainly have exceeded them.

In the morning we got our first glimpse of the Lake District. We’ve passed it on the M6 a few times now and I’ve watched the exits go by a little wistfully because I’ve heard it’s very nice – and you can even see the pretty hills and lakes off in the distance from the motorway. It was easy to see what all the fuss is about when we breakfasted looking out the windows of the hostel onto Lake Windermere at the little sail boats floating in reflections of snow-dusted hills.

We’d never stayed in hostels until we moved to Scotland. I don’t know if it’s just us or if north americans in general just aren’t on the hostel wavelength. My prior conception was that they were just for young hippy backpackers, usually in big cities — and maybe in Canada and the US they are. But over here anyway they are often in really beautiful remote settings, and they are full of people of all ages, including families with small children, from lots of different backgrounds and countries but with a general outdoorsy-ness in common. They’re a great inexpensive option for a group of people who want to stay close to outdoor activities and cook and eat meals together, especially in the winter or during midge season, when being outside in the evenings can be uncomfortable. We are hostel converts. This particular hostel in Ambleside definitely ticked the “great location” box, but was a little more crowded and unfriendly than the others we’ve stayed in.

On New Year’s Day we went for a walk for a few hours up a hill called Red Scree. It took about an hour or so to reach the summit, and it was cold and very windy! But we hunkered down in a rudimentary shelter and had a quick chilly break and bite to eat before descending the far side and followed a pretty valley back to the village. After another couple of hours we were enjoying teas/ales in a pub.

Back in the crowded kitchen at the hostel, we conquered adversity and put together an epic feast. Soba noodles with veggies and puffed tofu accompanied by sushi buns comprised the first course; second course was delicious veggie chilli and rice, with strudel a la mode for dessert, topped off with whiskey over a game of black-out bridge.

The next day Johannes — in his infinite enthusiasm —  had us up bright and early to go check out some local bouldering. We started out in nearby Brant Fells, which was a short outcrop on top of a hill near Ambleside. The bouldering was well-suited to climbing without a crash pad, since it was quite low and the landings were grassy. It was pretty muddy around the base though, and the climbing required thoughtful feet, so keeping our shoes clean enough to stick was challenging. Brad and Johannes quickly become absorbed in the traverse of the outcrop, which was a puzzle of delicate moves on small holds. I got shut down quite quickly on a little reachy bit. I probably could have worked something else out eventually, but I confess to being a bit of a weenie when it comes to climbing in cold conditions, and it was quite cold, so I contended myself with taking pictures and walking around the hill to stay warm. The views were great so I didn’t mind.

Later in the afternoon, after some lunch at a little cafe in Ambleside, we moved on to the Langdale boulders, which were challenging in a different way – steeper, more committing. They are in a really lovely setting and I’d love to go back sometime with a pad. It was getting dark so we didn’t stay long – just long enough to fire off a few of the “easier” problems and to admire the subtle ancient carvings in the side of one of the boulders (those are off limits for climbing of course).

Then it was just a matter of saying our goodbyes and heading back to Aberdeen. A fine Hogmanay!

winterly walking

We’ve been here for two years and so far both winters have broken records for snowfall amounts and low temperatures. December was the coldest in the UK since 1910. Although the consequences have not all been positive (airports closing, pipes freezing, etc.) it does make us new canadian residents feel at home. With snow comes the kind of calm and crisp wintery days that are perfect for trudging around the countryside. All the familiar old places look new and fresh and the sun is magnified by fresh white powder.

I took the camera for a wander to Clashrodney after fresh snow one sunday afternoon a few weeks ago. The fields in this spot are usually mucky and unpleasant to walk in. A little snow changes everything.

A week or so later – snow still down – we grabbed the snowshoes and headed up to Scolty Hill, a nice park near Banchory. We got the car stuck trying to get into the parking lot but a nice australian guy helped push us out. We opted to park down the road a ways and walk in past the cute houses buried in snow and fenceposts with fresh snow hats.

The signage in this park isn’t the greatest, but the nice thing about snowshoes is that it doesn’t really matter where the trail is. You can go wherever you want.

There’s a tower to memorialize a napoleonic war general on top of Scolty hill. You can climb to the top and enjoy great views down to Banchory, east to the sea, and west and south into the hills.

A week or so later, with our friend Joe, we drove a little further up the Dee valley to Cambus O’ May to walk through the forestry reserve and on to a geographical feature called Burn O’ Vat. (What is with all the cutesy “O’s”?) The forest was in lovely deep snow with big fat flakes still coming down.

We were aware that one of the many climbing venues we haven’t had a chance to visit yet was nearby somewhere, so it was a nice surprise when we got off route and followed a trail that led us into an abandoned quarry full of bolted sport routes. The climbing looked hard and a little uninspiring – featureless and dead vertical – but was sheltered and would probably warm quickly given a little sunshine, so we may go back on a sunny winter day and give it a go. This day, though, was a bit too chilly. Ice climbers were toproping the frozen waterfall ice at the back of the quarry.

We got lost a few more times, but eventually found Burn O’ Vat, which is a big glacial pothole with a stream running through it. You enter by hopping along a series of flat rocks in the stream, through a narrow chink in the rocks, and into the Vat, which is aptly named – standing inside is very much like being in a large, smooth-sided vat.

The only downside to winter walking is the short short days. At the winter solstice the sun down at 3:30pm, so you need to plan your route accordingly and take a headlamp just in case. On this particularly day we failed to do either one and as you can see from the gallery, it was dusk when we reached the Vat, and our car was parked many miles away. So the high of a lovely walk was somewhat dampened by a long, dark trudge along a busy road in the snow. But dinner tasted all the better for it.

Hike to Loch Dubh

A couple of weeks ago some old friends were in town and we had the great pleasure of Nell and Martin’s company for a short while. We know each from the Halifax era where Nell and Amelia were colleagues at Dalhousie.  They drove up from Hull for a wedding on the Friday, but on Saturday they wanted to go for a walk in the hills. I guess Hull is quite flat and they were both keen to get out into some excellent Scottish wilderness. Amelia and I kicked around a few ideas of where we could take them. There were many options of course, but eventually we settled on taking them into Glen Muick in the hopes that we could walk up to Creag an Dubh Loch which is a big climbing venue that we’d never visited. It all kinda depended on how they were feeling the morning after the wedding. If they weren’t up for a long walk we could just walk around Loch Muick in about 3-4 hours, if they were feeling fit then we could extend the walk to include the higher and wilder Loch Dubh (pronounced Lock Doo).

The walk to Loch Dubh

The walk to Loch Dubh

We drove into town and picked up Nell and Martin and their two friends Igor and Cinzia (sp?). We deftly maneuvered our way through town and up the Deeside without losing Igor, who was following, and found ourselves at the Spittal of Glenmuick in about an hour and 45 minutes. The car park was jammed. It was a beautiful but windy day for a walk. Maybe we’ll see climbers? One can only hope.

Loch Muick

Loch Muick

We quickly arrived at the easternmost end of Loch Muick in near gale force winds. This didn’t seem to deter the dog walkers or their dogs. We watched the dogs fetch stones from the chilly waters for a bit and then continued on. Note the long pants and jackets in mid-August. Scotland is beautiful, but it is never hot.

The walk around Loch Muick is easiest on the northern side which turned out to be a wide flat land rover track. Good to know. When we return to climb it would be a good idea to cycle in the first bit. Loch Muick is pretty. We walked, and talked and wondered if we could walk back along the high ridge on the far side. One of the great things about walking in Scotland is that you can see everything. The walk passes the impressive Glas-allt Shiel house which was built for Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, we took no photos.

The path becomes quite narrow at this point and climbs higher up the glen. In the distance we can the see the Falls of the Glas-allt which is where we’ve decided to have lunch.

Lunch at the Falls of the Glasallt

Lunch at the Falls of the Glasallt

After a short break and a few bites of lunch we continue along the narrow footpath admiring the fine views up and down the glen. The sides of the glen are getting steeper, the heather is in full bloom and the sun is shining. Further along still the impressive cliffs of the Dubh Loch come into view.

Martin and the Dubh Loch

Martin and the Dubh Loch

The cliff was much larger than expected! Quite impressive actually and getting bigger the closer we got. No one was climbing today, probably because of the wind which was still quite strong. I meant to bring the guidebook to spot some of the easier lines that would be within our ability. I guessed they went up the slabby tongue of rock that reached down almost to the loch itself but I couldn’t be sure. Most of the climbing here is quite hard for us but there are two or three routes that we could do. Our guests seemed quite impressed that we could climb such a thing. It is an intimidating looking cliff and with route lengths around 9 pitches I guessed that even on the easiest route, way-finding would be a good challenge.

Creag an Dubh Loch

Creag an Dubh Loch

Despite a bit of seepage, the crag looked like it was in good condition. We walked until the trail ended on the far side of Loch Dubh where there’s a nice sandy beach and some very good spots for pitching a tent or three. It was clear these areas had been used before. I’m sure we will use them in the future. We contemplated hiking up and around to the top of the crag, but the day was getting on and some of us were a bit on the tired side. Personally, I didn’t want to go up there. Not today anyway, so we retraced our steps so we could walk back via the southern shores of Loch Muick.

Falls of the Glasallt

Falls of the Glasallt

Up in Glen Muick

Up in Glen Muick

On the far side of Loch Muick we encountered another smaller waterfall feeding into the loch. We took some pictures of course.

Waterfall

The falls at the west end of Loch Muick

The girls at Loch Muick

The girls of Loch Muick

The guys at Loch Muick

The guys at Loch Muick

The rest of our walk was fairly uneventful. Nice light, nice scenery and easy walking. Most of the discussion revolved around what was for dinner. We hatched a plan to get some Indian take-away from a great restaurant we frequent in town and have a feast back in Cove. All in all it was a great day in great company. Hopefully we’ll see you all again soon.