My wife and I had been up Merrick the previous day. The way down had been interesting, mainly because I’d just taken the quickest route, whether or not it was actually a good idea.
With this route, we wanted to make sure we were on the correct side of the Galloway Hills so that we could get home in good time for our children. I planned the route with Hannah, my wife, but decided we’d have to play it by ear a bit depending on the terrain.
The Mountain Weather Service report said that the Galloway Hills on 7th May 2018 would be sunny and warm, with very little wind. Here’s a PDF of the report.
It was a straightforward walk up past some standing stones and a farm. I’d wanted to go and explore them, but there were lambs in the field so I thought it best not to disturb them.
Further on, some of the rams had very curly horns.
The route took us up past a disused lead mine. Some of the smelting chimneys were still standing. The air shafts were well marked and fenced-off.
After looking around the abandoned buildings (apparently there were 50 dwellings here at one point) we set off, but on the wrong track. I realised when we started entering the trees, and turned around.
However, instead of going all the way back to the path, I decided that we’d go along by the fence and then join the train. That meant we had to traverse lots of grass hummocks, which was hard going. In fact, this was the least steep of the hills but the most difficult walking.
Eventually we found a track up Knockower (511m) and followed that.
We got near the top and stopped for some coffee. It was at this point we made a decision to only go up Black Craig.
We headed down Knockower and towards Black Craig. This part involved tramping over heather, which was difficult for Hannah’s knee (which was already hurting a bit).
I suggested that on the way back down we use the stone wall as a ‘rail’ and head down into the forest.
The top of Black Craig (528m) was beautiful with magnificent views over Loch Doon. As we ate lunch, Hannah saw a track up Coran of Portmark and suggested we go up it. I agreed.
We trudged down Black Craig through boggy heather. Hannah spotted a moth, and we saw a lot of bees.
Crossing a wall and stream, we started our ascent of Coran of Portmark (which is an odd name for a mountain).
We walked at a steady pace near to the fence. It was straightforward but reasonably steep.
We made it to the top of Coran of Portmark (623m) and then looked for a track back down.
By this point, I’d realised that my watch had stopped tracking our route, which was annoying. Nevertheless, we just wanted to get back to the car and home.
We headed back past the disused lead mine. I wanted to investigate the air shafts, but Hannah stayed well clear.
We made it back to the car. My watch had stopped recording walk after about 5km but we did around 17km in about 5.5 hours.
Things I learned:
The second day is always harder than the first, especially for less experienced walkers.
I shouldn’t just rely on one method of tracking my route.
The terrain can make the difference between an enjoyable walk and a tough one.
It’s been almost a year since I’ve been able to get away to log more of the Quality Mountain Days I need to eventually get on a Mountain Leader course. This time, I went to the Galloway Hills over the Bank Holiday weekend, and I didn’t go alone. I’m going to write each day up separately, as I took quite a few photos!
Before we set off, and while I was still at home, I planned the route for the first day and had a rough idea of what we would do on the second. I used a paper map (Galloway Forest Park North, OS Explorer Map 318) and the OS Maps app (I’m a premium subscriber). Hannah, my wife, came with me.
I find that the OS Maps app underestimates the distance and time it actually takes to do walks I plan. In the event, we walked 20km and it took 6.5 hours.
I downloaded a PDF (see here) of the Mountain Weather Service forecast for the Galloway Hills. It said it that the cloud base would be low, but summits should be clear by midday.
We set off at 08:39 so we expected to walk through the mist until we reached the summit.
The route towards Merrick was well-signposted, with the only challenge being poor visibility. The wind was very light.
There were some tricky bits, as you can see below! However, it was mostly a straightforward ascent.
In Scotland, it’s always difficult to know how much of the ‘forest’ area shown on a map will actually be wooded. It’s a managed forest, so sometimes there’s no trees at all, just stumps!
The climb through the trees was steep in places, so I ensured I kept encouraging Hannah. She was fine, despite having a bit of a dodgy knee (which is stopping her from running at the moment). She kept up find.
It wasn’t difficult to keep on the track, but I nevertheless kept checking that I knew where we were.
The first peak we ascended on the way to Merrick was Benyallery (719m). There is a cairn at the top, and Hannah took my photo.
The Mountain Weather Service forecast said that there could be some wind, and so I was a little concerned about going across the ridge from Benyallery towards Merrick. In the event, everything was fine.
Visibility as we got closer to Merrick decreased to about 50 metres.
We made it to the top of Merrick (843m) and had lunch, using the trig point as shelter. I made sure we both kept warm as soon as we sat down.
As we started the descent from the top of Merrick, we began to pass more people. The temperature dropped, and we took our off-path route towards Bennan.
Had the cloud base not been so low, it would be have been obvious which way to go. However, with poor visibility, we needed to make sure we found the best way.
A new, high deer-proof fence had been erected by the Forestry Commission since the OS Map was published. We found a way to cross via the largest stile I’ve ever seen.
The track up to Bennan (556m) was an easy walk. Once we reached the top, the cloud base lifted very quickly. Within minutes, we could see the top of the peaks we’d just climbed!
From there, we headed down the track. I’d planned for us to deviate from it once we got round and down to an altitude of about 270m.
It’s always difficult to know in advance what you’re actually going to discover when you see a black solid line on an OS map. It means a boundary, but fence or wall? In this case, I’d planned to use it as a ‘rail’ to help us down, instead of continuing on the track. That would have added another 5km to our journey.
It wasn’t a good decision. This was Hannah’s first mountain day, so when I went ahead to have a look, I should have turned back and stuck to the track. In the event, she coped really well, but it was a pretty treacherous route down: sheer drops, boggy ground, and felled trees.
In the end, we made it. I’m not sure what I’d have done had she or I had hurt ourselves, however. I certainly learned a lesson there. We made it back to the car park.
By the time we got back to the car, my smartwatch told me the route had been 19.97km. So, like any sensible person, I walked around a bit so that it reached a nice round 20km!
Things I learned:
Plan the last part of the route as well as the first bit.
Go at the speed and ability of the least experienced member of your group.
As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I’m aiming to get on a Mountain Leader course by 2018. To do so I need to complete (and log) twenty ‘Quality Mountain Days‘. This time around, I headed back to the Lake District on Sunday and Monday.
The two days couldn’t have been more different, which goes to show how the weather can really affect both your safety and enjoyment when walking at altitude. Sunday was glorious; I wore my sunglasses virtually all day, and enjoyed an ice-cream by Lake Windermere when I came back down. Monday, however, was a completely different story: 40mph winds, incessant (freezing) rain, and low visibility.
I planned my routes by using OS Explorer Map OL7, and by using the Premium features of the Ordnance Survey website. I’ve found the latter extremely useful since its launch, particularly the 3D mapping feature. It means I (should) know what to expect before I get there.
Checking the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS), I could see that Sunday and Monday were going to be very different days. It’s actually the first time I’ve opted to go out at this time of the week, a decision we made as a family so as not to interfere too much with our children’s activities. However, as it happened, that meant an extremely difficult day on Monday, with little time for recovery before work on Tuesday.
Sunday (QMD 9)
The route I planned for my first day of walking took me up Red Screes, across over Dove Crag and Hart Crag, round by Great Rigg, and back past Rydal.
Usually, I record my actual route using the OS Maps app. However, for whatever reason, my battery was extremely low by the time I arrived in the Lake District. I think that was down to a faulty cable that made it look like my phone was charging while Google Maps was giving me directions, but that wasn’t actually the case. I prioritised being able to make calls in the event of an emergency over recording my actual route.
On the way up I met a retired guy coming down Snarker Pike. We got chatting, and he mentioned that he’d gone up there early to watch the sunrise! I noticed that, although it was dry where we were, he was wearing gaiters, so I decided to put mine on.
A bit further on, I ended up deviating from the route I’d planned after making a mistake. After checking my map and compass, it looked like I was heading for Middle Dodd. I made a course correction to ensure I was going to Little Hart Crag, but that actually took me off in the wrong direction. As a result, I had to traverse the side of a mountain. That wasn’t much fun on the knees and ankles!
Once back on track, I decided to go up the steeper route to Scandale Head. As my detour had added time onto the route I’d planned, and I knew the next day’s walking was going to be challenging, I decided to come back down via High Pike and Low Pike. I didn’t want to be out for longer than I needed to be.
On the way back down I met a guy using walking poles. I asked him about them, as I’d intended to buy some when I got back home. He said how inexpensive they were, and how much of a difference they made. I resolved to buy some when I got back down to Ambleside.
It was a pretty straightforward route back to the car, the only slightly tricky bit was getting down Sweden Crag. I walked back to the car, and then straight into Mountain Warehouse and bought some walking poles. I was out exactly five hours, from 09:15 to 14:15.
The rest of the day I spent eating ice-cream, reading the newspaper in the pub, and talking to people at the hostel. There was one guy in particular who was really interesting and ended up telling me his life story.
Things I learned:
Double-check before doing a ‘course correction’ just in case you were actually on the right path.
Always wear gaiters.
When it’s been dry for a long period of time, overnight rain can make everything slippery.
Monday (QMD 10)
After Sunday, it was hard to believe that Monday’s weather could be so different. However, I trust MWIS, so had planned a route that I thought would be challenging yet safe. Parking the car at Sadgill, I plotted an anti-clockwise walk up to Harter Fell, then Kentmere Pike, and back down and round to the car.
I usually enjoy my walks, even if it’s physically (and sometimes mentally tough). I did not enjoy Monday at all. There were times I could barely see. The four layers of clothing I was wearing were so wet I could wring them out along with my gloves. The wind was brutal and the freezing rain and low cloudbase meant I couldn’t see much.
While I had my phone with me, once I’d put it in the right mode to record my route and took a few photos, I left it alone. There was too much rain to use the touchscreen, and any time I put my arms down from the 90-ish degrees of using my walking poles, water gushed out of the opening to my coat. It was pooling in my sleeves.
There were a couple of times on the way up to Harter Fell that I thought I was going the wrong way. It’s easy to get disorientated and, stupidly, I’d managed to leave my compass in the car. It was only after triple-checking my map that I was convinced I was on the correct route. Thank goodness for the distinctive shape of some fields. I probably should have done some pacing, but I was too miserable.
While it wasn’t too catastrophic, I did make one mistake on Monday. I mistook one corner of a field for another, went over a stile, and then realised I was rather close to a very steep edge. I retraced my steps, got my bearings, and got back on track.
Everything was going fine, and I was looking getting back to the dry warmth of my car. I could feel myself speeding up, as the BPM of the songs going through my head were getting faster.
As happened the day before, I had to climb down a crag on the way back. This one, Wray Crag, shouldn’t have been an issue. The problem was that it was my first day with the walking poles. They’d been great up to that point, really saving my knees. One thing I hadn’t done, however, was keep checking that the clasps keeping the extendable bits in place remained tight. It was as I used my left-hand pole to steady myself as I come down the crag that it gave way.
I must of only tumbled down a couple of metres, landing on my elbow and hip. I got up straight away, cursing myself for my stupidity. Realising I was alright, I counted my blessings, as if I’d hit my head it could have been very different. I tightened my walking poles, and strode on.
Getting back to the car, I looked at my watch. I’d set off at the same time as yesterday (09:15) but got back to the car by 13:45. So a four and a half hour walk, instead of the five hours I’m supposed to do for a QMD. I’m still counting it, as it was extremely challenging for me, I didn’t stop for more than two minutes at any point, and I learned a whole lot.
My phone turned off as soon as I got it out of my rucksack, and wouldn’t turn back on. I was convinced it had irreparable water damage, and had to use my car’s inbuilt satnav to get back home. I dried myself and changed clothes rather awkwardly in the back of the car before driving home.
Given that I’d told my wife to phone Mountain Rescue if she hadn’t heard from me by 17:00, it was important I got home before that time. Fortunately, it’s only a bit over two hours from that part of the Lake District back to my house. I stopped at a service station for all of five minutes for a coffee, a sausage roll, and a cinnamon bun, and got back home in record time.
I planned my routes last weekend. Ben Nevis was straightforward to plan(up and down the tourist trail as fast as I could), but Stob Bàn, and Mullach nan Coirean looked like it would be more interesting.
On Monday, one of my clients sent me a link to this BBC News article about a new feature of the Ordnance Survey app. It looked incredible, and I already use the mobile app, so I signed up for a premium subscription. This gives me access for a year to a whole range of features, one of which is the new 3D functionality in the web version.
All of a sudden, those contour lines came to life:
There was a brief discussion on Twitter (including official Ordnance Survey account) as to whether such easy access to 3D visualisations was a good thing. Some argued that it might lead to less emphasis being placed on the ability to read contour lines.
My view is that it helps enormously with planning, as it allowed me to decide where would be good places to stop and eat, as well as the parts of the route which would require more effort.
Friday (QMD 7)
I got up at 04:45, had breakfast, did some final packing and checking (including of the mountain weather service) and set off. I was on the road by 05:30 and it took almost five hours to reach Fort William, the town at the base of Ben Nevis. I left a route card with the guy who runs the hostel I was booked in at, and drove to the Ben Nevis visitor centre car park.
After I got changed and paid my car parking, I set off straight away. The Ordnance Survey app reckoned it would take me 4.5 hours to ascend Ben Nevis, and I reckoned on a descent of about two thirds of that time. So, about 7.5 hours was the time I allotted.
In the event, it was a lot easier going that I expected. The first part of the route, up to the waterfall, is almost a motorway. The next part was steeper, but not particularly a problem. The only bit that was a bit tricky was the snow and ice above 900 metres. It made me wish I had walking poles — and it was almost slippy enough for crampons.
Walking through the cloud layer was interesting, as I had to go from waypoint to waypoint, as well as following walkers in front of me. I can see why in low visibility it can be easy to get disorientated. At the top, I checked out the highest war memorial in Britain, and then headed back down.
Although walking uphill can be tough stamina-wise, I prefer it to walking downhill, which is hard on the knees. I skidded a few times coming down the snow and ice, but after that it was long and boring, but easy-going down to the bottom.
I won’t be hurrying back to do Ben Nevis again but, if I do, it will be with someone else, and we’ll stay at the Ben Nevis Inn & Bunkhouse. It doesn’t look anything special on the outside, but I went there for dinner after a shower at my hostel and checking Foursquare. The food was good, it’s cozy, perfectly placed at the start of the route to the top.
In the evening, I had a great conversation with a thatcher who had come up on the sleeper from London with his mountain bike, and an Australian who was on a tour of Europe. I also got to start an excellent book by Richard Sennett entitled Together : the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation, while listening to a record player in front of an open fire.
Things I learned
Just because a route is popular doesn’t make it interesting.
Circular routes are the best.
Walking poles aren’t just for old people.
Saturday (QMD 8)
(N.B. the timing on this is incorrect, but the distance and elevation seem correct)
I was in a mixed dormitory at the hostel. That was fine, but makes changing clothes, etc. something you have to think about rather than just get on with. Of the six of us, the two middle-aged guys snored like troopers, and one of the women talked in her sleep. But, hey, I don’t go to hostels for a good night’s sleep.
Getting up at 05:45, I knew that I had to get out quickly if I wanted to complete my route and then drive back home the same day. I got ready, had some breakfast, handed my key in, and drove to the start point, a car park in Glen Nevis. I reckoned that my walk would take around seven hours, and started at 07:45.
The path up Stob Bàn was really interesting as it wound alongside a river with plenty of stream flowing into it.
The day before, I’d passed lots of people going up and down Ben Nevis, and even walked with one guy for a while. However, on Saturday I saw no-one for six hours. And yes, it was bliss.
As I approached Stob Bàn, the wind picked up and the ascent looked more formidable than I had expected. In the end, however, it wasn’t as difficult as it looked, and the views were amazing. I pushed on to Mullach nan Coirean.
Having visualised this route in 3D, as well as my route up Ben Nevis, I’d noticed that there was a different way down than the one I’d planned. Unhelpfully, this left me in two minds while I was going over rocky ground. I ended up veering off-course, and ending up in a situation where I had to do a course-correction. Instead of retracing my steps or climbing up another steep ascent, I decided to make my way down the mountainside.
This was tough going, and I skidded a bit down the wet heather. I eventually made it to the bottom of the valley, only to find that the fence I was looking for as a waypoint on the map actually impeded my progress. Noticing that someone had cut a small hole in the wire fence, I squeezed through like an octopus.
Walking along the fence on the other side, I then came across this:
Needless to say, it wasn’t marked on the map. Nor, though, was the path down from it to the track, so I half-walked, half-ran down back to the car. I stripped off, rubbed myself all over with a wet flannel, changed my clothes, and started the journey home.
Apart from a quick stop in Stirling for an emergency milkshake and to go to the toilet, I made it back in one go. Sitting down for 4.5 hours after walking for six isn’t the best idea in the world, but today I’m not as stiff as I was last time.
Things I learned
A thick sweatband would be a good addition to my gear.
Check and double-check your route when stopping for a drink/snack.
Five hours each way is perhaps too far to drive each way for a two-day trip!
As I mentioned last time, to get onto the Mountain Leader course, I have to get 20 ‘quality mountain days‘ under my belt. Given that I often work away, and I’ve got young children, it can be difficult to get away at the weekends. I’m going to have to be a bit more disciplined about this if I want to get on the course before the end of 2017!
Since last time, I’ve started using the Ordnance Survey’s OS Maps app. It’s not perfect, but it is pretty great. If, like me, you buy a new (paper) Landranger map, you get the digital download of the map through the app included. One of the features of this is the ability to plan a route in the app.
Friday (QMD 3)
I drove over to the Lake District on Friday morning. Google Maps didn’t seem to recognise ‘Helvellyn YHA’ so I just typed in ‘Helvellyn’, planning to course-correct when I was closer to my destination.
What actually happened was that Google Maps took me to the other side of Helvellyn. When I drove back (adding half an hour to my journey) I couldn’t see the road up to the hostel. As a result, and as you can see from my actual route, I started from a car park in Glenridding.
The other difference between my planned route and what I actually walked is that I decided to return to the hostel via Striding Edge. This isn’t a route I’d do by myself if the weather was bad, but as it happens it wasn’t very windy and the sun was shining!
I re-created the route when I got back to the hostel and it estimated that it took 3 hours 10 minutes. In fact, it took over four hours. I’m not entirely sure how the OS Maps app can quote a shorter amount of time for a route that’s 50% longer (see below!)
Here’s a few photos from Friday:
Saturday (QMD 4)
After a couple of beers and dinner with fellow hostellers, I slept well and was up at 7am ready for my next day of walking. I’d planned to go up to the top of Gowbarrow Fell, Little Mell, and Great Mell.
However, this wasn’t feasible given the amount of bracken on the steep ascent on the east side of Gowbarrow. Instead, I pressed on, and took a slightly different route up Little Mell Fell. It was hard work.
This is the actual route I took as I discovered the feature in the OS Maps app that records your route via GPS. I decided to skip going up Great Mell Fell and head back via High Force and Aira Force. That was a pleasant end to my walk.
Here’s some photos from Saturday:
I’ll probably spend another couple of days in Lake District, and then move onto mountains in Scotland and Wales. Given that the Lake District is less than two hours away, these will be longer trips…
This weekend I’ve been up in Northumberland National Park learning how to navigate when out and about on hills and moors. It’s the first step towards (hopefully, some day) becoming a Mountain Leader. At the moment, it’s for my own interest and development, but you never know! 🙂
The course is a new one, and this was the first time that Paul Robinson and Mark Clarkson from Rock and Roam had offered the course. We ended up covering a lot more than the limited number of skills included on the official Mountain Training page; it was great that Paul and Mark were so flexible.
There were six trainees and two leaders, which was a great ratio for learning. We were doing resections by the end of the first day, which apparently is pretty unheard of for a ‘basic skills’ course! We each had a turn leading a section of the walk on the second day, having to navigate by feature, bearing, and distance. I learned a lot.
I suppose the main thing that the course has given me is the confidence to go out there by myself. After all, you don’t want to be the person that Mountain Rescue have to come and save because you’ve done something stupid. Given my interest in ancient monuments and settlements (there’s loads in the Ingram area) I feel like there’s no problem with me now going up there by myself and exploring.
The next thing is the Mountain Skills course, which will mean having to travel to the Lake District, Wales, or up to Scotland. I’m not sure exactly when that will be, but I’m already looking forward to it!
You can see the photos I took in this Flickr album. They’re unedited from my phone so not of the best quality, but you can get an idea of the terrain – and the wonderful views.