Sunday, 28 June 2015

Sun, cirrus and a little surf at St Bees

On a largely flat shoreline, notable for its estuaries and rather than its cliffs, St Bees Head is the dominant feature of the Cumbrian coast. In fact it is the only area where there are any cliffs of significance between North Wales and the north coast of the Solway and it is necessary to go a long way north to find any of similar height. Home to the ubiquitous guillemots as well as smaller numbers of razorbills and kittiwakes, there are still a few puffins - we saw two on the water shortly before landing at Fleswick Bay.
Launching through small surf, beneath blue skies and cirrus, from St Bees beach close to low water...
...and turning the corner - the low point in the cliffs marking the only conventional landing hereabouts at Fleswick Bay. I had packed rock shoes in the hope that we would be able to land on the slabs beneath the lighthouse for a little bouldering in the sun but choppy seas and a freshening south-westerly put pay to the idea...
...and we landed at Fleswick - generally easiest mid-way between high and low water which avoids the dumping waves created by steep shingle at high water, and the rocks when low.
Nosing into one of the caves to the north of the bay and reading the carved names which date back hundreds of years in some cases.
At rest on a fine slab, looking south, before continuing our downwind run with some long fast rides on waves to around 3ft. 
Beyond the North Head, the sea flattened and we drifted a while in the sheltered bay before turning to punch back into a freshening south-westerly, tomorrow's weather rapidly closing on the Cumbrian coast. Back at the beach and the surf was sufficient for a short play on modest waves by which time the sun had gone. So too had any finesse on my part it seemed as I braced up on a small wave, before rolling less smoothly than I would have liked on another - a little practise required perhaps, now that the water has warmed a little.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Eilean nan Ron and the Rabbit Islands

Arriving at Skerray Bay, close to Tongue on Scotland's north coast, the silence was tangible, the sea calm and not a breath of wind. With little talk, the boats were unloaded and we prepared for a trip that has been a long time coming. Not Cape Wrath, which has haunted my thoughts since I first sat in a sea kayak, nor Whiten Head which I hope one day to combine with it. This was the sheltered option - a short journey around Eilean nan Ron and the Rabbit Islands - though here, almost as far north as it is possible to go on the Scottish mainland, shelter is a relative term. 
And despite the lack of movement below, we both knew a 1.5m swell was running from the north. There was little doubt in my mind that we would encounter some interesting water soon enough.
In fact the swell was immediately apparent - heaving over rocks just a few feet from the shallow entrance to the bay. Heading east initially via the beautiful and similarly sheltered Caol Beag, we passed inside Neave Island, surfing gentle waves against the tide...
...quickly passing the remarkable south-east facing beach. Had we been on the water for more than five minutes we would no doubt have stopped...
...but with rising anticipation we turned the south-east headland and paddled out into something entirely different.
Swell, tide and clapotis quickly combined to create conditions sufficient to ensure the camera remained safely inside the GT's small front hatch - the last picture I took before things picked up however, clearly showing there was going to be little chance of exploring the caves and arches of this wild coastline.
As we pulled away from the northern end of Neave the clapotis eased, leaving us to make the crossing to Eilean nan Ron on rolling, smooth sided swells. Approaching the cliffs, a distinct line of waves was visible and I deliberated on conditions ahead. The same feature had been visible from the shingle at Skerray. While the tide was running strongly, it soon became clear that the disturbance was more clapotis rather than standing waves and we entered into another chaotic stretch of padling, the camera confined to quarters once more as we pitched through waves from all angles of up to 2m.
Approaching Meall Thailm, the clapotis quickly dropped off allowing a more leisurely inspection of the cliffs and this enormous slab, topped by two distinctive boulders which have so far resisted the surging waves of winter storms whose reach is plainly obvious on the second slab in the far left of this image.
Inside the headland and a different, tranquil world of seals, skerries and thick kelp - we landed briefly to inspect the drying passage between the islands...
...before heading out and across the bay, the northern tip of Sgeir an Oir - the Rabbit Islands - our next objective.
Rolling waves and a long view towards Whiten Head...
...and though the size and chaos of the seas off Eilean nan Ron was gone, the Rabbit Islands remained elusive, frequently disappearing from view. Fulmars cut across the waves, flying directly at the boats only to veer off at the last second - never have I seen them carve away so close to the kayak. Passing the arch which splits Sgeir an Oir in two, we continued south, before heading around the southwest corner of the Rabbit Islands to land on what is one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, backed by the rugged summits of Ben Loyal. 
There followed an interesting paddle into a freshening north-easterly wind now pushing against the flood stream which once more joined forces with another stretch of clapotis demanding concentration until the very last strokes back into Skerray Bay. Carrying the boats back up the steep shingle, a local couple arrived for an evening paddle - how was it, they asked? To be quite honest I wasn't entirely sure how to answer, but having waited so long to paddle this remote coastline, our brief introduction had certainly lived up to expectations - a wonderful place that contains all that is best about sea kayaking - Perfect, I replied eventually.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Little change on Liathach

I first completed the traverse of Liathach at the tender age of six. I remember very little of it though I can recall a few moments crossing scree filled gullies and causing a degree of concern on the descent, insisting so the story goes, on running ahead. Many years later and little it seems, has changed - Liathach remains for me, like so many others, among my favourite of the big Scottish ridges. And I still like to run ahead on the descents.
Above, Chris contemplates the steep ascent completed, and the steep ascent still to come...
...though there is a moment's reprieve on the first level section of the ridge which also provides a taste of the exposure that follows.
From close to the summit (1055m), a view (L to R) across Beinn Alligin, Beinn Dearg, Baosbheinn and Beinn an Eóin - all of which I have climbed, ridden and camped beneath in years past, each summit carrying its own memories - happy days.
Beinn Dearg through the gully which precedes the Fasarinen pinnacles.
Chris completing one of the first more exposed steps...
...and myself on one of the last. In dry conditions, if a little care is taken picking the best line, especially in descent, none of the pinnacles present any difficulty greater than grade II or III scrambling. We took them all direct, which is what I had hoped Tim and I were going to be able to do on a winter attempt a couple of years ago. A late start and deep unconsolidated powder decided otherwise and we retreated before committing to the full traverse.
The last of the Fasarinen pinnacles above, and below a view across the ridge leading to the more difficult northern pinnacles, towards the Horns of Alligin - an easier proposition than Liathach but another fine ridge especially in winter conditions when the traverse merits Grade II.
From Mullach an Rathain we dropped rapidly on the loose path and before long I was heeling down, running the steep descent as I had so many years before. I passed many bemused faces on the way, most friendly, some disappointingly but predictably aloof, no doubt disapproving of my apparent recklessness regardless of my painfully polite approach to passing. Continuing happily into the glen in this way I reached the final slabs between which the path winds to the road and after a short walk, was offered a lift by an elderly couple who related stories of their own exploits on the ridge far above, from years gone by. Perhaps it was they whom I remember stopping to ask just how old I was while careering down on that day almost exactly 34 years ago.
Taken on a beautiful early spring day while riding into the Coulin Forest, this is the classic view of Liathach, in perfect conditions for the winter traverse which remains on the list though I doubt I will ever struggle to find reasons to return to Torridon.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Across the sea to Skye

Despite the promise of clearing skies and a fine afternoon, the next morning's clag failed to lift and with a cold north-easterly, there was little inclination for either the hills or the sea. A walk up to the lighthouse at Rubha Réidh revealed the sense of staying ashore - although the coastline south of the lighthouse remained relatively sheltered, conditions changed dramatically at the point with 1.5 to 2m waves breaking heavily in the race and a choppy sea as far as it was possible to see beyond. By early evening however things had improved.
Later still, a low sun cast beautiful light across the sands beneath our camp...
...the Torridon mountains - still clagged in - providing a dramatic backdrop as rainbows formed beyond Red Point.
Last light, looking across the sea to Skye - a stunning evening with the promise of better things for tomorrow.

Monday, 22 June 2015

A taste of Torridon

A late arrival in Oban, followed by a flurry of unpacking and repacking kit and an even later arrival in Torridon, meant that our next objective was scaled down somewhat, but then even a short afternoon on the bike in these parts allows for some high quality riding. And besides, our drive through the night had been made worthwhile by the sighting of a wildcat as we passed beneath the five sisters of Kintail. Much as I would feel somehow cheated were I to see a humpback whale from the deck of a ferry rather than from the kayak (a humpback was seen very recently incidentally, from a tour boat operating near Gairloch), I couldn't help but feel a vague sense of disappointment that the first wildcat I should see, was to be from the car as this most elusive creature crossed the main road.
Either way, the fleeting image was clear in the mind's eye the next day as we toiled into the hills above Annat. The image above, taken from the ridge of Liathach on the opposite side of the glen, gives some idea of the scale of this gargantuan landscape, the Torridon sandstone which provides its own peculiar form of excitement on the climbs in the area, also creating some unique riding opportunities...
...slabs like this in particular, which ease progress on the way up...
...and make for a fun, fast descent.
With Liathach and Beinn Eighe forming the backdrop, there a few routes equal in their combination of dramatic mountain scenery and technical riding - it was a short afternoon but as usual, even a brief taste of Torridon left me keen for more.