Whilst in Aberdeenshire for a wedding, we’d have been daft not to bring boots. The weather gods looked very kindly on us all weekend, and as we were staying at the very foot of Bennachie, I walked it both on the day of the wedding (early with just the dog) and with Mary and Fern on the day after.

Fern wondering how we got up here so quickly on the first walk

With a wedding deadline to meet (and a shower – always needs a lot of caffeine to face) the first day was short, but done at a cracking pace, just up to Mither Tap and an almost continuous jog back down (Morocco must have done something for my fitness…). On the Sunday, we’d expected a few of the other relatives and friends to be up for a walk, but they all found other things that required their attention, so just the three of us decided to do a longer version, visiting various tops. First, back up to Mither Tap by the same route (and again, at a cracking pace).

Mary contemplates the view from Mither Tap

From here, we dropped steeply down to the west side by a little granite crag, and over some scree until a good path materialised once again. Bennachie is a miniature granite massif like a scaled-down version of the Cairngorms, but with excellent paths across the moor. Since we had sunshine, a slight breeze and shirt-sleeve temperatures, we made rapid progress to the west, soon gaining the final rocks of Oxen Craig, another fine tor.

Oxen Craig is the highest point, at 529m

Dropping southwest of Oxen Craig, the path was clearly a lot less well-trodden and in places had the odd boggy bit (being dryshod on the hill in Scotland in late October was a real novelty). After dropping 80m, its only a 40m or so reascent to Watch Craig, and a rather finer, rockier summit ridge than you’d guess from looking at the map.

Our westernmost summit, Watch Craig

We were still under 5km from the hotel, but had run out of mountain. A short retrace and then a path dropping southeast proved quite a bit rougher, but soon joined a main trail, Gordon Way, which contours around the south of the hills, and appears to be much favoured by mountain bikers. Below was much forestry and perhaps the views were not so fine this side. Gordon Way soon drops away, whilst we climbed partway back up Oxen Craig to join our path of ascent, which we followed for only a short way before turning off to visit another tor, Craigshannoch. This seems less visited, too, but had excellent paths in three directions. We set off heading back towards Mither Tap but soon branched yet again, to contour round and drop back onto Maiden Causeway and the route home.

The path back east from Craigshannoch

All in all a fine couple of part-days of hillwalking away from the temptations of reception lunches, and excellent weather for the time of year – now stalking is over, I’d normally be in Scotland for ski touring !

Pennine Atmospherics

We’ve been doing a few local walks lately, but this one was a little further afield as we decided to revisit High Cup Nick. It was a cold sharp and sunny day at home, but almost as soon as we started heading west, there were rolling banks of fog, though we could see the blue sky just above us whilst we were east of the Pennine watershed, so thought it would burn off soon enough. West of Stainmore, however, we descended below what was now a layer of overcast and we started to have our doubts.

Heading NE out of Dufton, we got some way up the hill before entering the cloud layer. We were following the bridleway that (eventually) leads to Garrigill at the top of the South Tyne with the intention of dropping into High Cup from the moor above which would be a more dramatic way of seeing it than coming on it gradually from below. A couple of steep zigzags very much reminded me of the Sani Pass and I was fondly imagining emerging from the top of the cloud to find the highest Pub in Africa… The track soon got quite snowy, then the sky started to look blue and I found I had a shadow – this was looking good. A zephyr took the mist away and the sun burned down fiercely for a short while.

By the time, Mary, Chrissie, Tully and Fern arrived, however, a more prolonged bit of breeze had drawn the clouds back and we turned south onto the trackless moor in very poor visibility, though the top of the cloud was obviously not far above. Looming through the mist, we saw a big cairn, and from there we could briefly make out the trig point a little further south. Again the sun penetrated the fog, and had we been above a drop to our north, we would have seen brockenspectres. As the ground was level, we just got the top half of the halo, but this was quite impressive and distinct.

From the trig point, which was on the edge of the plateau, just above a drop-off, we picked up a better, though at times indistinct, path, with less snow, so made rapid progress south. As we approached the drop-off into High Cup, the path turned more eastwards and we knew we wanted to drop down to meet the Pennine Way. But every time the cloud thinned a little and gave us a view we seemed to be looking down steep snow slopes into impenetrable depths, so we continued to follow the path along the top of the edge. Eventually the fog lifted briefly again and we could see that the way down was straightforward, if rather boggy. The GPS said we were quite a way east of where we’d hoped to cut down, so we wasted no time, dropping back into the cloud, now with a cold breeze in our faces. A quick snack and an additional layer added, we headed along the path which materialised and soon grew more distinct. But no views. As a scenic excursion to one of the Pennine’s more dramatic bits of scenery, the trip was a bit of a flop. But the dogs enjoyed it…

A return to Munro bagging ?

When I had the misfortune to live in Cambridge, it seemed no trouble at all to drive 500 miles north two or three weekends a month during the Scottish “season” (October 21st to about the end of May), but when I moved two hundred miles nearer, the need for escape sort of withered a bit. Maybe marriage and kids had something to do with it… but it seems I’ve only ticked four Munros in the last nineteen years. I was up to 186 out of the 277 in the tables that were current when I started, but the dastardly Scots have messed things about a bit since then, with the total going up to 284, and some of the ones I’d bagged being demoted to mere “tops”. Mind you, some of the tops have been elevated to Munro status, too, but I was never obsessive about recording which tops I’d visited…

September 2014 however (yes, I know, it’s not in the season) has seen the start of a resumption of effort. Since both Mary and I had managed to succumb to minor injuries sufficient to deter us from paddling the Moriston on Wet West, but already being committed as part of the grand transport plan to get Michael back from Fort Bill on the Sunday, we decided we’d better give the dog some exercise and hence found ourselves booking beds in Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness (Fort William and environs seemed to be “full”). This gave us relatively easy access to a couple of outstanding targets in the north.

Ben Wyvis from the easy path up

Ben Wyvis was one I’d tended to ignore, saving it as an easy ski peak, but rarely driving this far north when conditions would have been good enough. So we kicked off with this on Friday, finding the car park moderately busy (we reckoned it would be best to avoid the weekend for this relatively popular peak). The day was a little warm from the start, but got a lot hotter as we found ourselves above a thermal inversion with clearing skies above. The south facing slope soon warmed up, and anabatic wind was drawing the cloud up from below, at one stage faster than we were gaining height ourselves. But the sun and a minimal breeze were enough to burn off the top of the cloud, and we stayed in the sunshine . The cloud had burned off completely before our descent. The walk was 14.7 km with 900m of ascent, but five hours (almost all on good paths) was not terribly quick – we must be out of practice !

Little Wyvis (a Corbett) above the valley cloud from the way up

Seeing as how it was very dry, it also seemed a good time to tick off the last of the Fannaichs – Fionn Bheinn, which has something of a reputation for being boggy. This, too, had been on my list of peaks to save for a ski ascent in the depths of winter, but being so nearby, it seemed churlish not to finish a section of the tables with this last hill in the group. Guidebook descriptions manage to make it sound difficult to find the route out of Achnasheen, but clearly, enough people have been lost and wandered through private gardens that the place is now vastly over-provided with signposts to the “official” route up the hill. It was indeed a trifle squishy underfoot at times, but not bad by Scottish standards. I can imagine, however, that a full drysuit might be advisable in wetter weather, and full snow cover (and skis) would perhaps be the best approach.

It looked a long way along the ridge, but that’s just the poor visibility –
it was under half a mile and we were at the top in no time!

The weather looked much hazier, and it soon proved to be less valley fog and more thin hill fog. The splendid views to be expected from such an isolated summit did not really materialise – a pity as we were really quite close to a lot of rather fine and remote peaks I’d climbed previously (Fisherfield forest is a few klicks to the west). From the summit itself, we could not even see the huge Loch Fannaich which lies just below the peak to the north, and a cool breeze meant we did not linger at the top, seeking shelter lower down for our lunch. Though the sun came out and the sky cleared, this was not until after we had descended via the east ridge and an excellent stalkers’ path back to the road. At 12.25 km and 800m of ascent, four and threequarter hours again looks a bit slow, but this time it was almost all pathless so we didn’t feel so bad.

On our return, I decided that a bit of tick-list restructuring was needed and a review of past ascents to ascertain as much as possible about which tops I had taken in (in case more were elevated as Munros). This proved easier than expected, especially with the wealth of data now available on the net. I had always decided that I ought to climb any hill which was a requirement for completion in former days, as well as whatever was in the current tables, so this was an opportunity to establish a definitive list. I was a little perturbed to find that there are 321 summits that are now or have formerly been Munros, and that I had only climbed 201 of these, leaving me 120 to do, instead of the 89 indicated by my 1984 tables. I was at least gratified to find that only one of the now-elevated tops I’d omitted to climb previously would require me to reascend any of the duller hills I’ve endured, but there are indeed a few hills to revisit, most of them rather good ones. I’ll put my list on the website when I have it in a more comprehensible format. Right now it is littered with redundant data that was used for transmogrifying my own ascent log to use the numbering system from the new list…

Tiring the dog out

Sarah having come home for the weekend to pick up all the internet-shopping parcels of shiny mountain biking clothing, we had to go out and try it. All the family was going, but Mary discovered that her front wheel was buckled and the only spare we had was a narrower-rimmed wheel with a less chunky tyre, so she sent the dog to deputise for her while she did gardening. The dog had neither wheels nor shiny new clothing, but was very well behaved and didn’t run off into the woods (it was all she could do to keep up, most of the time).

Sarah on the Grove Link section of the blue trail

Ten miles in Hamsterley Forest did just what it says on the tin. Fern is very low geared, and couldn’t keep up on the downhills, especially the long gentle one where we probably hit 50 kph. We did wait for her, though…. as we did for Michael who was having trouble getting the lowest range of gears.

Every picture tells a story…

Having set out with some trepidation about whether I would be able to keep up, I have to say there’s few things as rewarding as hearing your kids ask “How can you be so damned fit?”

Aft helmet-cam view about ¾ way round

Up onto the Stang

Sunny, frosty and snowy – a day begging for a walk with a view, and highish up in case it got slushy later. I had an ulterior motive for choosing the fell up from Spanham and west of the Stang Forest, as this would enable me to bag the last remaining couple of squares I need to complete the NZ01 hectad on geograph. But the snow was good, the sun stayed out, and everyone else thought it was a good location, too, especially Fern, who is in favour of anywhere with snowballs…