The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Earl's Seat (NS569838; 578m)

Monday 21 October
Distance: 8.9 miles
Ascent: 470m
Weather: Lightly overcast and cold

Short version account of the day: A really hard outing that nearly defeated me just 2.5km into the intended 16km. The day was saved by turning an out-and-back into a linear walk.

Long version:
Before a hill-bagging trip I usually research my potential hills in some depth. I'll use StreetView to check out local roads and parking places and to see what routes others have taken, then I'll plot my intended route and note the start point, route and mileage & ascent figures in my hill-bagging notebook.

Our rough intentions for this trip (where we were going and how long we were staying) changed so much during September that I didn't do any of that. In fact, we thought we were only going to be spending 10 days in Scotland, five of which were to be with other people, so the entirety of my planning was to note a few hills that I wanted to visit around the Newtonmore area.

I have thus been 'winging it' this week, and it was only when I got back to Bertie after yesterday's outings that I decided, as the weather forecast was due to be fine, I'd like to go up Earl's Seat today. We were going to be driving along the B822 anyway and with a county boundary (thus almost certainly a fence or wall to follow) running east from that road to the summit, it looked a feasible route. At the point of making this decision I had no mobile phone reception to see how most people approach this hill and later, when I did have reception, it didn't enter my head to do so. Not that it would have changed my plan; I've approached many a hill from a different direction from everyone else as I prioritise ease of parking.

The parking turned out to be perfect. We were heading for a car park further along the road, but right on the boundary found a parking area that looked suitable for spending the night, meaning I could get up and go this morning without needing to either get my bike out or trouble Mick to drive me back up the road.

Pedestrian gateway, Forestry Commission sign (no forest, mind), well-trodden line, all right opposite Bertie's night-stop. This looks good!

Bertie's heating kicked in three times during the night (it's quiet when it's running, but sounds like a jet engine for about 2 seconds when it fires up, so I tend to notice it), which told us it was a cold night. Unsurprising given the clear sky to which we'd gone to bed. It was thus no surprise to step out this morning to a frosty world.

Looking back down to Bertie. Most of the ground I crossed this morning was semi-frozen but the most striking hard frost was down in the glen

The going up to the first minor top (Holehead) was easy, if boggy and almost (but not quite) frozen enough to bear my weight.

I'd seen this from a distance but was still surprised to come over a rise and find it right in front of me.

I think I can say with some confidence that most people go up to Holehead, admire the view from the trig point, then retrace their steps. From there to Hart Hill the path became but a trod and the going became rough. Boggy wallows, a few hags and with deep heather in places.

Over there is Earl's Seat. I'm not sure whether this snap conveys how rough and wet the going was in between me and it.

Just before Hart Hill I got the first view of my objective, still over 4km away, and of the terrain I needed to cross to get there. I dithered at length. It wasn't the getting to Earl's Seat that was concerning me, it was the fact that I was going to have to toil my way through the same rough bogginess (including a descent and reascent) on my way back. Add in already having freezing feet and the fact that I was plunging them into icy water on a regular basis* and the return journey was looking even less attractive.

I texted Mick to let him know how I was getting on and that I was considering turning back. In response he kindly offered to come and pick me up from the road to the south of Earl's Seat if I wanted to make the route a linear one. I dithered some more. I plodded on a bit further. I dithered some more. Finally I concluded that I'd spent far too long on Hart Hill dithering, made a decision and marched on towards Earl's Seat. The speed didn't last long. I was soon passing through hags and deep bogs again, needing to be vigilant about old rusty wire on the ground that was the exact same colour as the surrounding autumn upland grass, although at least for the moment I was going generally downhill, making the stretches through knee-high grass and heather easier going.

I'd been bashing through a particularly rough section when I suddenly found myself on an ATV track. I've no idea where it'd come from and thus whether it could have been useful to me much earlier.

My intended route had skirted the head of Fin Glen, so as to avoid losing too much height. By the time it was in my sight I'd modified my plan: to dead-head to the summit. As my recorded route at the top of this post shows, that's exactly what I did.

On the summit. Note the earphones. My entire walk had been powered by two particularly engrossing running podcasts involving endeavours far harder than this little walk. Note also that there's a well-trodden line behind me. Unfortunately, that wasn't the way I'd come up nor the way I was going down.

See that windfarm over there? That's where I was for yesterday's first hill.

Descending to the south included some reascent to another minor summit (Dunbreak) and the need to wade through another 24 icy bogs.

I was mightily glad to make it through Ballagan Farm without being savaged by any dogs, to find myself on the road where Mick was to pick me up just a few minutes hence. I plonked myself on a handy rock, looked at the map on my phone ... and realised that the lat/long I'd sent Mick was wrong. It was about 200m (and out of sight around a bend) before where I was sitting. A quick trot down the road and I was in the right (well, wrong really) spot and a couple of minutes after that along trundled Bertie.

I'm sure I have done hills that I've found as hard as this one, but just now I'm struggling to name one. I'm also sure that if I had done this very route in one of the dry Aprils I've enjoyed in Scotland in recent years, I would have found it a joy. The surroundings were truly superb.

(*Describing the outing to Mick later, I said that I had waded through 57 icy bogs. That was a fictitious number plucked out of the air, but I doubt it was far wide of the mark. As a result of all this bog-wading, I kicked myself again for having failed to pack a pair of waterproof socks for this trip. I also pondered whether I would have been better wearing my boots. My feet would have been warmer, but also would have been much heavier for all the high-stepping. A tough call, but I think if I was to do the same again tomorrow (please, noooooo!), I'd still chose the mesh trail-runners.

As an aside: my legs were fine after yesterday's bike rides; not tired, heavy, aching or sore. My shoulders and arms were a different matter. Who'd have thought that they could be so exercised by riding a bike?!)

Sunday 20 October 2019

Carleatheran and Meikle Bin

Sunday 20 October

In 2008, on our way from Land's End to John o'Groats, we passed through a gap (named the Spout of Ballochleam) in a stunning escarpment to the S of the town of Kippen. On one side of that gap sits a hill called Stronend, to the other side sits Carleatheran, both Marilyns. As nice as it would have been to have walked both as a single outing with Mick*, hugging the top of the escarpment, the logistically easier option was to park at the N end of Carron Valley Reservoir and visit both Carleatheran and, across the glen, Meikle Bin (of whose summit we passed within 2km in 2008), leaving Stronend for another time.

Carleatheran (NS687918; 485m)
Distance: 10 miles biked, 0.5 mile walked
Ascent: Around 400 or so metres
Weather: Sunny! A bit of frost on the ground first thing.

Red track = bike; purple track = walk

Since I used my bike to access some hills in April this year my cycling has extended to a few trips to supermarkets and laundrettes, mainly using my Brompton on German cycle paths. It's therefore no surprise that by the time I had huffed and puffed my way up to the top of the windfarm road, on a track with some noticeable undulations (so not all down hill on the way back!), I was putting this ride into the category of 'quite hard'. The uphill headwind didn't help either, but I'm sure it was still a whole lot easier than the first few rides I did to access hills, when I bought my bike in 2017.

Morning light looking up the Carron Valley

The prominent point is Meikle Bin, my second hill of the day.

At this point in 2008 we left the track (which wasn't marked on the map we were using at the time) and headed across to the ruin visible in this snap, from where we made our way up through the Spout of Ballochleam.

Before I reached the end of the track, as marked on my map, I could see that it had been extended and although I couldn't be certain of its destination, I felt sufficiently confident that it was going in a helpful direction that I didn't abandon my bike and take to my feet. Instead I teetered on a cattle grid and man-handled my steed over the railing (there was a taller-than-average locked gate on the other side and the cattle grid's side railing offered the point of least resistance).

At the highest point on the windfarm track, I turned off onto a rough track and a short distance later abandoned the bike at the point where the track degraded to unsurfaced and boggy.

Five minutes later I was at the summit.

Summit selfie

Summit view. Whilst I was being blinded by the sun to the SE, the views to all northerly aspects were mighty fine.

Another five minutes had me back at my bike** and half an hour later I'd toiled back up the ups and whizzed down the downs and was back at Bertie, an hour ahead of schedule and two hours ahead of the 'panic if I'm not back by' time (we had no mobile phone reception where Bertie was parked, which always puts pressure on me to be as quick as possible to minimise Mick's worrying time.)

Meikle Bin (NS667821; 570m)
Distance: 6.2 miles bike, 1.2 miles walk
Ascent: 220m bike, 160m walk
Weather: Still a lovely day but a bit cloudier and a bit warmer.

Red = bike, purple = walk

I'd not intended to head out for this hill until after lunch, but having enjoyed a croissant and coffee for elevenses, and once my feet had thawed out (I'd carelessly wandered into a bog during the first outing), I thought I may as well get on with it. 

As the stats suggest, this ride in was far easier than the first one had been, even on legs that were starting to feel the efforts of the day. The walk turned out to be surprisingly easy too. My expectation had been the need to bash out of the forest then climb pathlessly up to the summit. When I started seening "Meikle Bin' signposts at every junction, I began to expect that there would be a path, but it was only when I reached it that I came to appreciate that this is a popular hill.

The well-trodden line to the summit, dotted with people

Summit selfie

My final ascent would have been more moderate if I hadn't got myself into a race with a woman (she had been gaining on me and my perception was that she was trying to get to the top before me, so obviously I then *had* to go faster. Yep, completely ridiculous). I fair trotted back down having enjoyed another excellent set of views from the top. Being a pointier hill, and with no windfarm on its flanks, they were good in all directions.

Looking down over the reservoir

Thanks to gravity and only a few minor undulations in the forest track, the return biking leg was quick and easy.

An enjoyable couple of hills, although in hindsight I would have preferred to have visited Meikle Bin on a weekday morning, when it would have been a little less busy, particularly with dogs, some of whom were desperate to put their muddy paws on my jacket.

(*In the event, Mick didn't join me today as he was resting a thigh strain he incurred yesterday.
**Even though on most of my hills it's highly unlikely that anyone will happen along and take my bike, I do always lock it up. Except today I opened my hip-belt pocket, looked at the key hanging there and wondered how I could possibly have with me the key to the wrong lock, as the one that fits my 'beefy' lock always lives in that pocket. I didn't even try it, as it so clearly fitted the 'puny' lock. It was only when I went into Bertie's drawer in between my hills and saw the two key types side by side that I realised I'd had the correct one with me all along. Doh!)

Friday 18 October 2019

Knock of Crieff (NN873233; 279m)

Friday 18 October
Distance: 1.75 miles
Ascent: 120m
Weather: A cool and damp autumnal day, with cloud hanging in the valleys.
What a lovely little hill the Knock of Crieff is! Having either walked up hill(s) or been for a run every day for the last week, I'd allocated today as a rest day, but even rest days require some exercise and this little hill was perfect for a short walk with the bonus of scoring another Marilyn tick too.

With Bertie parked in a slightly ignorant position, Mick stayed behind as I strode up an engineered path through natural woodland:

That brought me to a viewpoint on the first minor summit...

...where the view to the west of glens full of mist was far better than I managed to capture (in fact, my snap is so bad that I've not included it - the photo above shows the clearer view to the north).

After descending a little way, still on a good path, I picked up a muddy line through trees that felt like it was going in the right direction. It was, and less than twenty minutes after leaving Bertie I reached the summit cairn, which sits amongst the ugly piled-up remains of a recently felled forest. I shouldn't complain - before the forest was felled there can't have been any view from this summit, and it's a view worth seeing, even on a dull, overcast day.

Look beyond the piles of wood-harvesting detritus and there's a far-reaching view of cloud hanging in the dips. I walked through some of that low lying layer of cloud on my way down.

Obligatory summit selfie.

As can be seen from the map snippet, I formed an almost-circuit by using a good track for my descent (not as attractive as my ascent route, but pleasant enough), arriving back at Bertie half an hour after leaving.

Bonus snap for Conrad (based on his question a couple of days ago), of today's elevenses:

Thursday 17 October 2019

Meall nan Caorach (NN928338; 624m) and Meall Reamhar (618m)

Thursday 17 October
Distance: a few yards under 8 miles
Ascent: 530m
Weather: disappointingly low cloud, but only a few spots of drizzle.

Yesterday I looked at potential hills that could be visited between Blair Atholl (where we were at the time) and Stirling (where we intend to be at the weekend). I then consulted Google Maps for some distance calculations and discovered that travelling to Stirling via Crieff on the A822 was marginally shorter than going down the A9. Bonus! The A822 may not be as big and quick as the A9, but it meant we could bag some hills without adding any extra distance to our journey south.

Bearing in mind the weather forecast and my wish for Mick to feel inclined to come along with me, out of all the hills accessible fromt his road I opted for the two named above. They sit not much more than a kilometre apart, either side of a pass that is accessed via a track.

Most people seem to park at the end of the Girron farm track and StreetView suggested it would be big enough for Bertie, so that's to where we drove. Objectively there was enough room, but it felt a bit rude plonking something so much bigger than a car in that location so we backtracked to the village hall I'd spotted in Amulree just over a kilometre earlier. It looked like the sort of place we could validly park and that was confirmed when we saw the 'You're welcome to use our car park but please consider making a donation' sign.

Contrary to the forecast lifting of the cloud and general brightening-up, as we arrived, rain started to come down. The flask of coffee was retrieved from one of our daypacks and the butteries from the other, and we had elevenses whilst waiting for the rain to stop.

Stop it did and out we headed, just at the same moment as were the only other occupants of the car park. This couple were on bikes, heading off in a different direction, but we all agreed that we hadn't chosen a good day for our respective activities. For us, our summits were up over 600m and as we set out the cloud base was somewhere between 400 and 450m.

Heading up the track the cloud started to lift and there was even some blue sky to the east, but our optimism that it would clear further as we ascended was misplaced.

Many people do these hills as a circuit, which would have definite merit in better conditions. We chose the easy option, using the track to nearly the top of the pass, then doing an out-and-back up Meall nan Caorach.

Summit snap with a murky backdrop

Steps were retraced to the track where we paused for fig rolls and a sip of water. Given the rain-induced delay in setting out it had now become clear that it would have been a really good idea to have made another flask and have packed some lunch.

During that brief break I plotted what looked to be the best (i.e. avoiding the steepest terrain) line up Meall Reamhar and we set out on a navigation exercise as the cloud descended onto us again.

An old fence was an obstacle easily crossed and we did an excellent job of following bearings to the summit cairn.

Not nearly the worst visibility ever had on a summit, but no good for views either.

Consideration was given to walking back along the ridge, which I'm sure is a lovely option when there are views to be had, but today there seemed no point when we could drop back below the cloud and take advantage of the same track we'd walked in on.

Mick crossing the base of the glen

The track in the upper reaches of the glen is a lovely grassy one

A bit of drizzly rain started to fall just before we reached the road,and we feared that our timing had been ill, but in the end it didn't amount to enough leave us with wet kit needing to be dried.

By the time we were back at Bertie, changed and had lunch cooking it was quarter to three and we were hungry enough to eat a scabby dog. Yep, definitely should have taken sandwiches and a flask with us!