Thursday, 27 August 2015

A different perspective

For as long as I can remember, the mountains of the north-west have been a part of my life. The mountains and the coast. My earliest memories include the soaring ridges of Torridon, the scent of heather, bracken and pine in the glens beneath and running barefoot across warm peat to the clean, cold sea beyond. For just as long, a camera has never been far away and while I have always enjoyed taking the pictures, I find those taken by others on those trips we have shared, fascinating for the different perspective they provide.
Taken exactly three and half decades ago by my father, this is one such image of myself on the summit of Benn na h-Eaglaise - an area I have come to know well in recent years on the bike following the trails of the Coulin and Beinn Damph Forest - looking towards the distinctive ridge and the horns of Beinn Alligin. I no longer remember the moment, but I would like to think it left its mark. I have much to be grateful for, that early inspiration contributing in no small part to a sense of meaning, purpose and perspective in the years since. It has led me in many directions and filled my life with memories of wild and beautiful places, none more so than the complex coastline of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. 
Taken a mere three and half years ago, Tim took this image as Chris and I began the crossing from Islay to Colonsay, the Paps of Jura beyond. It was a fantastic trip in many ways and somehow, seeing myself in this image gives me a different perspective to the many pictures of my own from the four days we spent amongst these remarkable islands.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

High amongst the heather

Expecting a damp and windy afternoon on the moors, the sun was a welcome sight as we set out on the climb along Mickleden Edge above Langsett reservoir. It is a popular area though never as crowded as the valleys immediately to the south in the heart of the Peak District. And the drop back along the edge is one of the better descents of the area, especially at this time of year when the heather turns vast tracts of moorland a vivid purple.
There are a few steeper sections but the ascent is ride-able throughout, though with little wind and soaring temperatures it was thirsty work...
...leading eventually to Cut Gate and long views towards Kinder, Mam Tor and Win Hill. It is an area I have largely avoided, despite climbing often enough on many of the crags hereabouts over the years, preferring the less frequented moorland edges and seemingly empty spaces a little further north when seeking landscapes such as these. Still, it felt wild enough here, high amongst the heather and peat littered with rough gritstone.
Despite the sun, a storm was brewing on the horizon, giant cumulus towering over the moors and we turned to make the run down to Langsett, racing the weather.
A wonderful section of singletrack snaking between the heather...
...which gives a fast run, interrupted only by one short climb, back to the reservoir.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

*There must and shall be aspirin, or I shall die, here, on this f'%&£ing mountainside*

I was a little young to appreciate the black comedy Withnail and I, when it was released in 1987 though by the time I was at university it was firmly established as a cult classic. Despite watching it on numerous occasions I remember very little of the plot, the film arguably being most notable for an endless supply of quotes** ranging from inspired to obscene. All of which has little to do with events while running on Harter Fell, except for the fact that while we had stopped short of demanding "the finest wines available to humanity" the night before, I was definitely a little worse for wear on the steep ascent of Adam Seat. And the fact that a few kilometres across the fells to the east lies Sleddale Hall, where much of the filming was completed. Aspirin would also have been appreciated.
Setting off from Sadgill - a gentle start to the steep climb that follows - 589m in approximately 3km.
Nearly there and a welcome pause to take in the view across Riggindale Crag - Short Stile the prominent ridge centre right, which falls from the Straights of Riggindale mid-way between the summits of High Street and Kidsty Pike.
On the last easy angled slopes that lead to the summit of Harter Fell (778m), Blea Tarn beyond.
The eastern fells may lack the rugged crags of those in the west, but there is equal appeal in the broad sweeping ridges...
...our descent following one such over Kentmere Pike (730m) and down via Shipman Knotts to pick up the track linking Stile End in Kentmere with Sadgill at the head of Long Sleddale.
The path is boggy and rocky in equal measure - an awkward mix in places - following the wall throughout, beyond which the Shap Fells form a wide and empty expanse.
Looking back on Shipman Knotts before dropping the last two hundred metres to the valley floor and a brew. But still no aspirin.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A duff forecast for the fells

August is a month I associate with rain. Rain and midges. Starting with that as my premise for a day in the fells or afloat, is perhaps the best means of ensuring motivation remains until the typical improvement seen at some point in September before the autumn gales. Yet the mountain forecasts called for clearing skies and warm sunshine - no less than 170C at 750m. My usual scepticism forgotten we headed into the heart of the fells...
...hoping to arrive on the tops to find something not dissimilar to this - taken almost exactly one year ago from Grassmoor, Scafell on the far right, Esk Pike and Bowfell on the far left. 
Starting in Seathwaite we planned to run up Grains Gill and across to Rossett Pike before picking up the rough path to the summit of Bowfell, returning via Esk Pike and Styhead Tarn. By the time we had reached the coll between Esk Hause and Allen Crags I think the plan had changed twice. The second change seeing us heading directly for Esk Pike, taking in the summit in thick clag, rain and a chill wind.
A little cold despite the climb and distinctly damp, the clag suddenly cleared - Sprinkling Tarn visible beneath the cliffs of Great End. 
The rapid change prompted another quick debate and we altered course again, heading down rapidly towards Angle Tarn. I was keen to follow a path which I knew descended alongside Langstrath Beck but which I had never used.
Snaking steeply through the moraines it was a delight to run - despite the occasional stretch of bog trotting - its discovery alone would have made the day worthwhile and we passed a succession of waterfalls cascading into the valley, the beck swollen from two days of summer rain.
Looking back into the fells from the head of the valley and the first vaguely level ground of the day, Esk Pike lost once more in the clag far above.
By the time we crossed the beck several kilometres further on, it wouldn't have been possible to get much wetter without falling in. Which I nearly did a moment before this image was taken.
Lower down the valley still, following the growing beck which feeds the upper Derwent above the lake. There are many beautiful pools hereabouts quite a few of which I have swam in after hot days on the crags years ago - a less tempting prospect today.
As for the forecast, well the skies did clear and while the temperature may have been a little shy of that predicted, the midges were notable only in their absence leaving us in peace to peel off the wet layers and make a brew. A duff forecast then but another fine day on the fells regardless.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Small Isles - Another crossing and a couple of dolphins

Before settling in for the night on Rum, I had watched the skies darken above the Cuillin, the pastel shades of a summer sunset darkening above Loch Bracadale, thinking back again to our trip around Skye four years earlier. We had crossed the wide mouth of the loch in the late afternoon, moving steadily towards Idrigill Point and the stacks - Macleod's Maidens - which mark the start of some truly spectacular cliff scenery and a coastline tailor made for sea kayakers. I remembered too, framing a shot of Tim paddling into a giant arch, a waterfall cascading from the cliffs beyond. It is a wonderful thing, to stand in such a place and recall moments like these. 
Sitting quietly on the sandstone platform, gazing across the Sea of the Hebrides, I heard the long blow of a whale and searched in vain for sight of a fin. It was not to be, not that night at least. I woke with the familiar sensation of the sun burning into the tent though before long the skies had clouded over and the wind arrived. 
Just the gentlest of breezes to begin with it was soon a steady F3/4. But despite expectations of a lumpy crossing, the wind settled and we set out on a northerly heading, bound for Rubha na Dúnain and beyond, the beach of Glenbrittle.
As so often on crossings like these, we each found our own pace, the gap between us opening and closing as we tracked up wind before turning to run before the small waves, always in sight of one another but effectively paddling alone, immersed in our own thoughts. Turning the bow into the wind on the crest of a wave two dolphins simultaneously burst through the surface, spray showering the kayak as another fin broke the surface and then another and another.
All around me dolphins lunging, cresting - one moment beneath the hull and the next crashing back beneath the waves. The pod of around a dozen common dolphins stayed with me for some time before eventually heading north, tiring it seemed of this slow creature unable to follow beneath the surface or keep pace with their effortless speed.
I paddled on for a short while, before two pale flanks flashed deep beneath my bow and the show began once again. 
Given a rare second chance I managed a few more shots until the pod moved off again and I knew this time they were gone. All lethargy banished I paddled on, the entrance of Loch Brittle suddenly close, Tim waiting beneath the low cliffs, the Cuillin still clear and towering above, a twisting spine of dark and broken rock, familiar yet still forbidding in its brooding presence.
In a tiny bay, a perfectly rounded smooth hollow in the low cliffs, we rested a while, looking back towards Canna, Rum and the Outer Hebrides, the last crossing complete, just a few kilometres more to the beach and the end of trip containing more than seemed possible in less than two full days paddling.