Scotland. April 2013
As blogged previously I had planned a backpacking trip in the Galloway forest. Two weeks before, the UK was blanketed in deep snow. I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do when I got there so I took a lot of gear. A pickup truck full of gear to be exact. I was ready for the coldest winter weather, the deep snow and even the unlikely event of spring having sprung.
On Easter Sunday I made the four hour drive from home to Glen Trool in the Galloway forest. The roads had all been well cleared, with only patches of snow on the roadsides.
Arriving at the larger Bruce’s Stone car park I passed through, aiming for the very end of the road only to find it was blocked with snow. Reversing back to the main car park I finally turned off the engine and got out for a walk about.
Across the loch, Macaterick looked decidedly alpine. Snow fields, rock outcrops and the occasional pine. The Merrick is out of sight from the main 7 Stanes track but the path was snow covered.
It was approaching dinner time so I drove off into the forest, along one of the logging tracks to find a scenic spot where I could build a small fire and cook some food. About a kilometre or so down the track I found a suitable spot, a wide area on the track provided a safe, non-flammable surface on which I could make a fire. I collected a small amount of dry, fallen wood. Mostly the waste from forestry operations. I arranged the wood into the different sizes I’d need to build my fire and set up a small pile of kindling.
I took a little of my favourite tinder from my ‘fire bag’ (Vaseline rubbed into cotton wool) and stroked the back of my knife against my fire steel. The tinder immediately caught light, as it always does, and the flames licked through the kindling wood. Moments later the fire was strong enough to have thicker wood added to the top.
I arranged a few damp logs at either side of my fireplace to act as a wind shield and to support the grill that i’d brought to cook on.
Kettle filled and placed on the grill. Burgers unwrapped and placed beside the kettle.
Soon I was enjoying a coffee and some delicious, juicy cheeseburgers -proper bushcraft food, I’m sure you’ll agree!
The cooking was complete and I had no further need of the fire, the evening wasn’t too cool so I didn’t need the warmth so I let the small fire burn out quickly. When the last flame flickered and only embers remained I doused the fire with water from my bottle, spread and mixed the ashes and piled a few handfuls of snow on the fire, just to be sure. (The wildfires further north were certainly NOT my doing!)
I prepared my day pack for the next day and drove back to the Bruce’s stone car park. Almost all the cars had left my this time, only a motorhome and a Mondeo remained. The occupants of the motorhome were setting up for the evening and the Mondeo’s occupants were nowhere to be seen. I found a level(ish) spot for my truck and arranged the contents for sleeping. Most of the kit gets shoved into the front leaving only the cool box, food crate and a few essentials in the back, next to my sleeping space.
The back of a pickup truck makes a reasonable bivi. My double cab is a little too short to completely contain me lying down but dropping the tailgate gives me plenty of space to stretch out with my feet on the tail. Maybe in the future I’ll have a single cab, that should leave me enough space to be sealed in.
The dark, star-filled skies that the Galloway forest park is famous for were partly obscured by clouds but it was still obvious that there are an awful lot of stars up there!
The next morning dawned cold and cold. Damn it was cold. The gas stove refused to play. The temperature was so low the pressure in a brand new canister was to weak to make a useful flame. I got out my petrol stove and it roared into life. Soon I was enjoying a coffee and making final preparations for the day.
I set off along the track to Merrick. Within 50 metres the strap on one of my gaiters had snapped off and one of my walking poles had collapsed. An inauspicious start. All other systems were functioning within normal operational parameters so I carried on. Up Benyellary felt like hard work. Those familiar first day thoughts were there again. “Am I fit enough for this?”. “I should have done some pre trip cycling”.
At the summit of Benyellary the wind was howling, smashing into me with great force and freezing cold. All zips were tightened, hat pulled low and strap fastened.
Between Benyellary and Merrick there is a curving ridge. It was covered in deep, powdery snow. The wind was blowing across the ridge, pushing me further onto it, rather than off the nearest side. After a short way I stopped and strapped on my snowshoes. I could now move more easily, less sinking into the snow and the spikes giving me extra confidence. Leaning heavily on my one good walking pole I continued along the ridge and onto Merrick.
In the comfort of my living room the plan was to carry on over Merrick and drop down the other side, along a short, steep ridge called ‘the little spear’. Leaving my backpack at the summit’s trig point I moved over to look at the little spear. It was covered in pristine snow and looked rather steep. I decided against a solo multi day tour thinking that no one would come looking for my body for at least three days!
The summit was far too cold to linger about on so I took a few photos and retraced my steps back along the ridge to Benyellary and descended to the Culsharg bothy. On my way down through the forest towards Culsharg I met my first humans of the day. Passing the usual pleasantries with them, the weather, the conditions on the path etc I was suddenly taken aback when coming up the hill was a student from my school. Here, in the least populated part of the UK was a reminder of work! What are the odds?
Tuesday 2nd April: Snowshoeing on Curleywee
I slept another night in the truck, warm in my sleeping bag except for my nose. I awoke to another bright clear day, arranged some breakfast, packed my bag and set off down the Seven Stanes track towards Loch Dee. The track was easy walking, occasionally slippery in the snow but otherwise fine. I followed above a stream through an old Oak forest. Signboards informed me it was part of an ancient woodland which once covered this part of Scotland from coast to coast.
Climbing out of the valley bottom and towards the hills I stopped to enjoy the scenery. Snow covered trees, frosty rocks and cold waters crashing from hillsides. If more people knew about the beauty of the Galloway forest it would see an awful lot more tourism.
After a few miles walking the trail I arrived at the base of Curleywee. From the summit of Merrick the day before I’d looked with my binoculars across the valley to this place, a wide snow-filled bowl without any sign of footprint or human traffic. I took off my pack and unfastened my snowshoes. I strapped them to my feet, re-fitted my bag and set off away from the marked trail. Climbing slightly over a low bank of snow I reached the bowl I’d seen from Merrick. There were still no signs of people passing, I had the whole place to myself, to make funny showshoe tracks.
Tufts of rough grass occasionally poked through the snow and I wondered how much use my snowshoes actually were. Were they saving me from sinking or was I just playing with my toys? I took them off, stepped forward and immediately sank to my knees! I quickly had them back on my feet and was on my way again.
I didn’t have a particular aim in mind, just a snowy wander in this deserted hillside. I ambled about up and down the slopes, occasionally stopping to study the views with my binoculars. After an hour or so I sat down to eat my lunch- Coffee from a flask and a lamb and mint pie from my local farm shop. After lunch I turned to head towards the trail and I noticed an unusual animal trail. Only a few footprints leading nowhere and no sign of the creature that made them. I took a photograph of one using the snow basket from my pole as a comparator.
Back on the track it was a short walk back to the truck. I decided to spend the afternoon in Newton Stewart as I needed to visit an outdoors shop to replace some broken equipment. When I reached the main road my phone sprang to life, two days of facebook posts, emails and tweets suddenly appeared, the air filling with the sounds of the various notification sounds.
In Newton Stewart I found Cunningham’s Outdoors shop where I could replace my Gaiters and Leki Poles. I decided that instead of another night in the truck I’d head for luxury and booked myself into the Youth Hostel at Minigaff.
Wednesday 3rd April: Scenic drive to the Highlands
I spent Tuesday evening chatting to a couple of locals in a small pub near the Youth Hostel but only had a couple of pints so awoke with a clear head. I was driving to Fort William today to meet up with a friend who was on holiday there with his family. We intended to do some winter climbing on something large and pointy.
Rather than driving the quickest route I picked a scenic route. Through the Galloway Forest to the Ayr coast then North East, via Glasgow to the A82 to the highlands.
I stopped for lunch beside a minor road which overlooked the Firth of Clyde offering fantastic views of the Isle of Arran. On the way to this point I drove along the ‘Electric Brae’ – a natural optical illusion that I read about as a child. Due to the lie of the land you appear to be rolling uphill when in fact you’re rolling downhill.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember what it was I was meant to do along the Brae and so I ended up driving slowly and feeling puzzled. Oh well, It’ll be there next time…
Arriving in Fort William I parked at Morrison’s and went to see how the town was looking, I’d not been there for several years. Walking down the high street I bumped into Steve and his son. We went the Grog and Gruel to chat and make plans for the next day.
Thursday 4th April: Creag Meagaidh (Easy Gully)
I collected Steve from his rented cottage and we set off towards our planned climb. Easy gully on Creag Meagaidh. We parked the car at the nature reserve car park and checked out gear ready for the day. It was now I realised I’d forgotten my water proof jacket. Luckily I had my pile and pertex jacket which is for extreme cold. I changed quickly and we shared out the climbing gear and walked off towards the mountain.
I’ve done a winter route here before but not for many years. On the walk in the climbing area came into view and my head was filled with ‘gosh, thats big!’ and ‘am I actually up to this?’ and other doubts.
The climb is technically easy, winter grade 1. Its a 150m long snow-filled ramp which leads to the summit plateau. It is often used as a descent route by climbers. As we got closer we could see a lot of the other possible routes we’d discussed were heavily corniced and not in ideal climbing condition. A cornice is a build up of snow and ice over the edge of a mountain. From above they’re dangerous because you can step out beyond the edge and fall through them. From below they’re dangerous because they can collapse on you. Even if they don’t collapse they can take hours of hard work to hack through with an ice axe.
Arriving at the lochan we skirted around its frozen surface and prepared our equipment. Crampons were fitted to boots, Ice axes unstrapped and helmets and harnesses fitted. We planned to climb free (without ropes and protection) but had brought them just in case.
Above us another group of climbers were tackling a hard ice/mixed route off to our right. Occasionally little bits of ice would fall past us down the gully. We set off. The route was easy at first, not too steep, reasonably firm snow. As we climbed the gradient increased and the snow became powdery, not particularly confidence inspiring stuff. As it steepened our steps began to slip, we were glad of crampons. Our ice axe technique changed from plunging the shaft into the snow as an aid to holding them ‘properly’ and swinging the picks into the snow. Axe, axe, foot, foot. Repeat. Slowly and carefully we progressed. Occasionally slipping downwards on soft patches of snow.
We were still free climbing, there wasn’t really an option to use the rope as there was nothing to fix protection too, we’d just be tied together. Which meant we’d fall together. If we had fallen we’d need to rely on using our ice axes to stop us. On patches of the softest snow this didn’t feel like it would work, we’d just slide down, then over a large bump and be airborne before smashing into the slope a long way below. The only option available was not to fall.
Steve was climbing with only one axe as the rope was in the way of his second axe. He couldn’t stop to get the axe free because he’d need to take his pack off and the snow didn’t seem stable enough for that. I didn’t know at the time but he was really wishing he had the second axe out. I was a little way ahead, scouting out the route and looking forward to getting to the summit. Steve said to me later, “I could tell you were nervous near the top, you were off like a rocket!” I was moving as fast as I could because I didn’t trust the snow beneath my feet.
Arriving at the top of the climb I took the opportunity for a quick lie down, thankful that I’d made it. Within a minute or so Steve had joined me. We sat and ate lunch before making our way towards the ‘window’ a wide area which was the easiest way up and down from the plateau.
A few hours later we were back at the truck, enjoying an ice cold cola beverage before driving back to enjoy a slightly warmer malty, hoppy beverage.