Tag: walking

Quality Mountain Days 7 & 8: Ben Nevis, Stob Bàn, and Mullach nan Coirean

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‘. The last time I was out was a couple of weeks ago in The Trossachs, which you can read about here.

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.

Planning route up Stob Ban

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:

Ben Nevis - 3D route

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)

QMD 7 (actual)

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.

Ben Nevis path

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.

Ascending Ben Nevis

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.

Ben Nevis - summit

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

  1. Just because a route is popular doesn’t make it interesting.
  2. Circular routes are the best.
  3. Walking poles aren’t just for old people.

Saturday (QMD 8)

QMD 7 (actual)

(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.

Stream

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.

Stob Ban

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.

Top of Stob Ban

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:

Ladder

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

  1. A thick sweatband would be a good addition to my gear.
  2. Check and double-check your route when stopping for a drink/snack.
  3. Five hours each way is perhaps too far to drive each way for a two-day trip!

Quality Mountain Days 5 & 6: Ben Ledi and Ben Vorlich

First of all, a bit of background: to get onto the Mountain Leader course, I have to complete and log twenty ‘quality mountain days‘. It’s been winter, so my last couple of QMDs were back in October. However, now spring has sprung, I’m off back up mountains.

My previous four QMDs were in the Lake District, but this time I thought I’d mix it up a little by heading to Scotland. This is a little further for me to drive from my home in Northumberland, but, as you’ll see, it was definitely worth it!

Given that it’s only March, I decided against the Cairngorms, leaving that area for the summer months. Instead, I focused on Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park.

The great thing about the Ordnance Survey’s OS Maps app is that you can see routes that other people have added, and use these as inspiration for your own. I decided to go up Ben Ledi on Friday, and Ben Vorlich on Saturday, staying over at Callander Hostel.

Before I left, I watched some videos from The Bushcraft Padawan, aka Craig Taylor, who I know from the world of edtech. As you can see from the photos of my map further down this post, I followed his suggestions to pimp my map. I checked the Mountain Weather Information Service, which promised optimal conditions!

I knew I’d be tired on Saturday, as I never sleep that well when I’m away from home (especially in hostels where you can guarantee someone will snore) and I’d have spent a full day walking on Friday. It was for that reason, that I decided to walk further on Friday than on Saturday.

Friday (QMD 5)

The route I planned at home went up Ben Ledi, across to Stuc Dhubh, down the trail, through the trees and round past a waterfall, and then along the road back to Callander:

Planned Route - Ben Ledi (QMD 5)

Driving from my home to Callander took a little over three hours. It was a straightforward journey, with light traffic and wonderful views. On arrival in Callander, I found the hostel, parked my car, and tried to find someone to give them a route card. However, there was no-one to be found, so I sent the route to my wife and told her to call Mountain Rescue if she hadn’t heard from me by 19:00.

Instead of driving from the hostel to the start point I’d originally identified, I walked to it, which added a good half an hour to the overall journey time. The initial walk up the path was pleasant.

Approach to Ben Ledi

However, I soon got to a scene of devastation. The timber forest around Ben Levi is a ‘crop’ and as such is harvested. What is left, though, looks like what I imagine parts of England looked like after the Harrying of the North.

I sat down on a few logs and sent my wife the image below. I put down my hat, gloves, and sunglasses. When I got back up, I must have knocked them off onto the ground somehow, as I realised about an hour later that I didn’t have them.

Deforestation on Ben Ledi

The route up to the top of Ben Ledi from that point involved some steep sections, but it was the snow that surprised me. I hadn’t expected it to be so deep!

Just before I made the final ascent to the top of the mountain, I sheltered from the wind behind a rocky outcrop. My hands were dirty, so I rubbed some alcohol gel into them in preparation for eating my lunch. That decision ranks as one of the stupidest I’ve made while on the side of a mountain, as without gloves, the wind on my hands then made them feel extremely stiff. I ended up putting spare woolly socks over my hands.

Once I got to the top of Ben Ledi, I followed a trail on my map rather than a demarcated path. The snow got even deeper at this point, to the extent that I had to start being very careful about the route I was taking.

Heading out from Ben Ledi

My route took me via a couple of tarns, which were partly iced over and beautiful to behold. I just stopped and looked for a couple of minutes, before the cold wind encouraged me to keep moving.

Ben Ledi

The purple line on the map below shows the edge of a boundary between areas looked after by different organisations. It’s also, however, a path. I’d intended to head up to Stuc Dhubh and then down the track to Allt Ghleann Casaig.

However, by the time I got to the top of Bioran na Circe, the snow was thigh-deep, so I made my way down the slope towards the two fords. To make this easier, I kept the stream to my left, and the gully to my right.

Stuc Dhubh

It wasn’t easy going, and I slipped and slid down. I was thankful to get to the bottom. From this point onwards, I was walking along tracks and roads back to the youth hostel. It took me what seemed like ages to get back, and by the time I was on the last stretch, I had my head torch on. I’d already contacted my wife by that point, but I got back just before 19:00.

QMD (actual)

As you can see from the above, I use the OS Maps app to track my route. I was out for over seven hours, walked over 18 miles, and ascended over 4000 feet. I was pretty tired by the time I checked into my hostel, staggering out after a warm shower to get some fish and chips.

I slept reasonably well, despite the inevitable snorer, and the two drunken idiots who burst in at 02:30.

Things I learned

  1. Check you’ve got everything once setting off again after resting.
  2. Don’t put alcohol gel on your hands in cold weather.
  3. Plan interesting routes that don’t involve lots of walking on roads.

Saturday (QMD 6)

The route I planned at home took a straight route from the southern shore of Loch Earn up the path to Ben Vorlich. From there, it looked like a straightforward walk to Stùc a’ Chroin, along the ridge, round and up along the river back to my starting point:

Ben Vorlich (QMD 6)

I was anticipating a couple of things on Saturday. First, because it was the weekend and a beautiful sunny day, I knew that there would be plenty of people out and about. Second, from the map, I anticipated an easier day than Friday. I was wrong on both counts; there were about the same number of walkers, and it was much harder going than Friday.

I bought provisions in Callander, and then drove around to my starting point. I hadn’t needed my ‘proper’ camera or my waterproofs the day before, so I left them in the car to make my backpack lighter.

Start of route up Ben Vorlich

My optician had warned me earlier in the week of the need to protect my eyes given my pale blue irises and ‘larger than average’ pupils. Having lost my walking sunglasses on Friday, I was forced to wear my aviator-style driving sunglasses. This was less than ideal.

It was tough-going up Ben Vorlich. Thankfully, I had a couple of individual walkers ahead of me, meaning that the route through the snow was clear. The path was steep, and very slippery in places. It made me realise why people have walking poles.

Route up Ben Vorlich

I overtook a guy who had a couple of dogs with him, and felt I was doing well. However, life has a way of knocking you down a peg or two and, on this occasion, that was done in quick succession. First, I came over the brow of the hill to see the final ascent involved scrambling through ice and snow. Second, a guy in his early twenties ran past me. Unbelievable.

Top of Ben Vorlich

I did, however, finally get to the top of Ben Vorlich. It felt like an achievement, and the views were stunning. I stopped for a few minutes, and then pressed on towards Stùc a’ Chroin.

It didn’t take long for me to realise I hadn’t read my map very well when planning this route. What I had assumed  was a ridge from Ben Vorlich to Stùc a’ Chroin actually involved a steep, snowy descent followed by an even steeper ascent. I sheltered at the bottom of the pass, enjoying my steak pie and bottle of Lucozade.

Stùc a' Chroin

When I’m out on mountains, I talk to myself in my head. Not in a personality disorder kind of way, just in the sense that I think all of us do: having a conversation as to what’s coming up and what my response is going to be. Usually, I have no problem willing myself on after geeing myself a bit.

However, on this occasion, tired after yesterday’s walk, and surprised at having another steep ascent to make, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I decided to re-route and take what I assumed would be an easier route along the river.

River route

Oh, how wrong I was.

Not only was the way down tricky, but the ground all the way walking down, keeping the river on my right-hand side was extremely boggy. I saw a herd of deer at fairly close quarters, but wasn’t quick enough to take photos.

I struggled through snow on top of sucking mud for what must have only been two or three miles, before turning the corner. I was hoping, but again it was assumption rather than close map reading, that the trail back would be reasonably straightforward. I had only paid attention to elevation, rather than what the ground would be like underfoot.

https://www.cloudhq.net

The journey by the river, however, felt like a walk in the park compared to what came next: walking over snow-covered heather, with small stream underneath. It was really hard-going, and I had to keep an ear out for the tell-tale sound a small stream under the snow. On a couple of occasions, I put my foot down through the snow and heather into a stream.

Snow-covered heather

I was wet. I was tired. I was fed up. The photos all make it look beautiful, I suppose, but I had my head down most of the time, trying to not to stumble. The trail marked on the map was like Blackadder’s four-headed, man-eating haddock fish-beast of Aberdeen. It didn’t exist.

Eventually, I turned a corner and saw something so mundane, but so welcome: a bridge. If there’s a bridge, there’s a path. And from there, I walked down what felt like a motorway back down to my car. I collapsed into the boot, removing my sodden boots and gaiters, tore off a large piece of Soreen malt loaf, and greedily pushed it all into my mouth.

QMD 6 (actual)

The above information really requires the context given above to understand the impact it had on me as a mountain walker. Despite a shorter route both in terms of length and duration, and the total ascent being less than Friday, nevertheless Saturday’s route was hard.

The drive back home was frustrating, both because of my desire to get home and drink all of the whisky in my house, but also due to the weekend traffic and number of speed cameras in the Scottish borders.

Things I learned

  1. Assume nothing. Check and double-check your route, especially when it comes to elevation and ground underfoot.
  2. Consider buying walking poles. It could save your knees.
  3. Mountain water tastes amazing.

Next week, I’m planning to head back up to Scotland for my seventh and eighth QMD. Can’t wait.

Quality Mountain Days 3 and 4: Lake District

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!)

QMD 3 as planned QMD 3 (actual)
QMD 3 (elevation)

Here’s a few photos from Friday:

QMD 3 (01)
QMD 3 (02)
QMD 3 (03)

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.

QMD 4 as planned   QMD 4 (actual)
QMD 4 (elevation)

Here’s some photos from Saturday:

QMD 4 (01)
QMD 4 (02)
QMD 4 (03)

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…

Walking to calm the monkey chatter mind

A couple of months ago I wrote about my morning routine. In that post I mentioned that I’ve begun to take my ’emotional temperature’ when I wake up. Something I’ve found useful no matter what colour I find my mood is a morning walk; it helps calm the monkey mind:

Mind monkey or monkey mind, from Chinese xinyuan and Sino-Japanese shin’en 心猿 [lit. “heart-/mind-monkey”], is a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”. (Wikipedia)

There’s something about the repetitive act of walking that takes thoughts tangled like an old ball of yarn and organises them into some sort of coherence. I guess the same is true of cycling or swimming, too.

I’m fortunate as there’s an ancient woodland on my doorstep to walk through, but even without this I think that the act of walking anywhere helps. The digital world is so fast-paced and almost schizophrenic compared to the offline world that we need to pull ourselves out of the stream to order our thoughts.

This weekend I’m looking forward to taking this further with a Hill Skills course. It’s the first step on the rung towards becoming a Mountain Leader. I never got around to doing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award when I was younger, so I guess this is my opportunity to make amends!

Image CC BY Berit Watkin

Ben can almost walk!

Ben walkingBenjamin Daniel Jonathan Belshaw is 361 days old today (i.e. it’s his 1st birthday on Tuesday). He can stand unaided for around 10 seconds and can walk by grabbing onto a finger. 🙂

He’s being dedicated (it’s a bit like being baptised) at our Evangelical church on Sunday. Hopefully he’ll be able to walk by his first birthday!

Click on the image to watch a short video taken today.

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