Posts tagged ‘Southern Uplands’

July 3, 2013

Backpacking the Merrick and the Range of the Awful Hand

by backpackingbongos

The Range of the Awful Hand conjures up images of fire-breathing dragons, goblins and orcs.  A land not out of place in the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings.  The Galloway Forest park has plenty of other names on the map to get the imagination going.  How about Rig of the Jarkness, Clints of the Buss, The Wolf stock, Howe of the Caldron or the Murder Hole?

I have visited the area a couple of times and I feel that it is amongst the wildest south of the Scottish Highlands.  There is a lot of rugged scenery crammed into a relatively small area.  It is also home to some of the biggest and baddest tussocks that you will ever come across.

The Range of the Awful hand is so-called because the hills resemble the fingers of a hand when viewed from above or on a map.  The Merrick is the highest hill in mainland Scotland south of Ben Lomond.  To its north there is a series of high hills that stretch for several miles, a ridge I have always wanted to walk.  It would be difficult to walk them in a day without a degree of backtracking.  Therefore a couple of years ago I planned a backpacking trip, saving it for a spell of settled weather.  This finally coincided with the first weekend of June.

Although the Galloway Forest park is located in Southern Scotland it is a long journey when travelling from the Midlands.  This is because it is so far west, a good eighty miles from the motorway network.

With such a long drive and the weather being good, I decided to travel after work on the Thursday and camp in the North Pennines, before continuing the following morning.  Therefore shortly after 10pm I found myself parking next to the Hartside cafe on one of the highest roads in the country.  I shouldered my pack and walked a kilometre or so up a nearby hill, pitching my tent at 2000ft in the last of the light.

It really should have been an idyllic moment but the peace was soon shattered by a meeting of boy racers in the cafe car park.  I had a good view and watched as they proceeded to do wheel spins around the gravel before tearing off down the hairpin bends on the road.  This continued for a couple of hours until they finally buggered off and I got some peace.

I suppose that peace is relative, as the moorland birds were numerous and very vocal.  The evocative call of the curlew soon loses its appeal at 2.00am when it is only a few metres away!  I woke early to sunshine and clear blue skies, it was good to start the day in an elevated spot with views to the distant Lake District.

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Breakfast was easy that morning.  Get up, pack, walk twenty minutes down hill, throw rucksack in car, enter cafe, order.  It beat my usual bacon supernoodle backpacking breakfast.

Stomach happy I continued the drive to Galloway Forest Park, a final stop in the nearby and rather lovely village of Straiton.  I am making more of an effort these days to spend a bit of cash on local businesses when I go out hiking.  Therefore a good excuse to stop at the cafe for a toastie and a drink.  By the time I pulled up at the Stinchar bridge car park it was past midday and already feeling rather hot.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this was an easy route based on the distances below.  This is one tough area in which to backpack!

Day 1 – 11 kilometres with 360 metres ascent

Day 1

Leaving the car it was a bit of a slog along the hot tarmac.  I had walked for about twenty minutes when that sinking feeling comes when you know you have forgotten something.  I had left my two litre platypus in the car.  This meant that I would only have two one litre bottles for when camping on the waterless summits.  I cursed but could not bring myself to turn round and get it.  I would just have to make do.

Tarmac turned into the gravel track of the forest drive.  Being a Friday this was really quiet and only two vehicles passed by the time I had reached the turn off for Tunskeen bothy.  Thankfully this is now blocked by a forestry gate stopping people from driving to the front door (sadly not effective on quad bikes).  The shade of the forest was welcome for a while, the mountains looming on the horizon.  Soon the tiny whitewashed  bothy came into view.

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It was good to get out of the direct sun, the dark interior providing temporary cool relief (you don’t often say that about a Scottish bothy!).  The inside was in pretty good condition, if not a bit worn and tired looking.  Plenty of cut wood was piled in a wheelbarrow in the corner.  The bothy book gave the impression that it is a well used place, especially at weekends when it sees a bit of local party traffic.

An old bottle of lemonade was sitting on the windowsill, after emptying and giving it a wash it provided a good replacement for my forgotten water bottle.  The outside of the bothy was a bit of a shit tip, bits of litter, food scraps and a couple of feral socks made me glad I was leaving.  The bothy started to look a bit better once I had put in some distance, the bulk of Shalloch on Minnoch behind.

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It was hard work walking the short distance to Tunskeen Lane, it was either tussocks or deep heather.  The deep heather was actually the easiest to walk through.  Its real ankle twisting territory, especially with a backpacking sack.

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I sat in the middle of the river on a large slab, water cascading over the surrounding rocks.  I spent a while filtering four litres of water for my summit camp on Macaterick, this being the nearest water source.  Distributing the bottles around my pack, they really weighed me down as I made the slow and steady climb towards the summit.

Although a hill I had previously not visited, it is somewhere I have fancied camping as I assumed the view to the north would be good.  I was right, a series of Lochs spread out below my feet, among an empty landscape.  The summit was pretty rough but I managed to locate a small patch of flat grass and got the tent up.

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Pitched early and with water already fetched I spent the rest of the afternoon lazing in and around my tent.  Time spent in between gazing at the view and reading my kindle.

As afternoon turned to evening the light became softer, the low light picking out shadows and textures on the surrounding hills.  I wandered around with my camera for a couple of hours snapping away as everything took on hues of yellows and then reds.  It is one of those evenings which is hard to capture with words so I will let a few images do the talking.

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The best thing was that it was summer, warm and not a single midge in the sky.  What more can you ask for?  The weather was so good I went to bed with the tent fully opened, the view from my sleeping bag stretching the length of Loch Doon.

Day 2 – 10 kilometres with 700 metres ascent

Day 2

I slept surprisingly badly, probably down to the fact that it did not get properly dark.  I woke just after 4.00am, turned over and was greeted by the sun peeping over the horizon.  There was a thin layer of mist in the valley below.  I really should have got myself up and started snapping away.  Instead I sat up, took a photo whilst still in my sleeping bag and then turned over and went back to sleep.

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It’s not often that you get forced out of your tent at 7.00am from the top of a Scottish hill by the heat.  It was a novel experience but by the time I was packed at 9.00am it felt absolutely sweltering.  I set off along the south ridge of Macaterick under blue skies, a few fluffy clouds beginning to bubble up.

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Descending towards the Elgin Lane I was soon floundering amongst the heather and tussocks.  In this sort of terrain I find it harder to descend than climb up hill.  The momentum along with a heavy pack makes it easy to misplace your footing, especially when there are loads of holes hidden in the vegetation.

My plan had been to climb the other side of the valley to the summit of Mullwharchar.  However I decided I could not be bothered and the heat was getting to me.  I have spent the night camped on its summit before so consider it well and truly bagged.  I noticed a narrow animal track along the river bank so decided I would follow it to Loch Enoch.

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Close to the Loch I found a comfy perch, got the shoes and socks off and got the stove on.  It was clear that it was not going to be a big mileage day so I was content to pick the fluff out of my navel and stare vacantly at stuff.  The surrounding stuff was very scenic.

I decided that I would climb the Merrick via Redstone Rig instead of the main route via Benyellary.  Walking along the shore of Loch Enoch I was suddenly confronted with a pair of buttocks.  The owner was standing buck naked on a sandy beach, hands on hips.  He was far enough away for me to slip by unnoticed, therefore I did not have to engage in awkward conversation.  Starting to climb I looked back and he was looking my way, thankfully dressed in underpants.  Five minutes later I looked back and he was once again exposing himself to the empty loch.  At least it was a warm day for it!

Although warm the skies had clouded over, distant scenery disappearing in the murk.  It felt a bit of a slog climbing to the summit, but the higher I got the better the views over Loch Enoch.

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I reached the summit a tired and sweaty mess at the same time as a young couple.  The woman was dressed in denim hotpants, t-shirt, pumps and designer glasses, looking like she had just popped off the catwalk.  No sign that she had walked up a 843 metre mountain.  I on the other hand was covered in peat, red in the face, out of breath and perspiring heavily.  I felt a right plank.  A slightly overweight and middle-aged one.

I scuttled off awkwardly and marvelled at the view instead.  Despite the gloomy conditions it was a good one.

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The trig point was absolutely covered in copulating beetles, the surface teeming with them.  I was particularly taken with the enthusiasm of this fivesome.  Anyone know what they are?

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North of the Merrick the ground drops away steeply with a fairly narrow ridge leading to the subsidiary top called Little Spear.  Tough on the knees but now I was up high the going was easy on short-cropped vegetation.

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From Little Spear I dropped down to a col and started the ascent of Kirriereoch hill with good views back to the Merrick.

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Kirriereoch hill has a large grassy plateau, the only feature being a drystone dyke that runs across the summit, this gave shelter from the breeze whilst I had an enjoyable laze about.

I really was not prepared for the steepness of the descent.  It looked doable on the map but from the top of the slope it appeared vertical.  I spent what felt like an age picking my way down very steep bouldery slopes, occasionally backtracking to pick a safer route.  I have to say that trail shoes are rubbish for this sort of thing.  It’s when large, heavy leather blocks come into their own.

I had Elvis legs by the time I got to the bottom and was keen to pitch.  It was early but there are loads of small lochans on the wide ridge leading to Tarfessock.  An easy water source for a wild camp.  I picked a good spot close to steep slopes, giving great views down into the central Galloway badlands.  With water filtered I enjoyed another lazy evening watching the light change, the clouds getting darker before dissipating at dusk.  Another cracking spot.

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Day 3 – 9.5 kilometres with 380 metres ascent

Day 3

I was up and cooking breakfast at 6.00am, exceptionally early for me!  Even at that hour it was warm in the sun which was already high under a flawless blue sky.  Looking to the west the quality of the light was beautiful and pin sharp.  Every feature in that direction looked close enough to touch.  This meant that the wind turbines that had been hidden in the murk the day before were gleaming white.  From faint outlines they were now the dominant feature in that direction.

I turned my back and looked east instead, over the wild Galloway heartland.  With the sun rising in that direction, the light took on softer tones giving the hills a velvety texture.  Sadly in the far distance the hills to the east resembled giant pin cushions.  The gentle rolling contours of the Southern Uplands now prickling with hundreds of turbines.  The wild places of this part of Scotland are diminishing at an alarming rate.  Soon the wild core of the Galloway hills will be a small, rugged island sitting in a sea of industrialisation.

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My immediate surroundings however were superb and I had them all to myself.  I just knew that would be the case until I descended to the car.

Without a hint of a breeze the dreaded midge decided to put in an early morning appearance.  Not a real menace but just enough to mar a perfect breakfast.  I still managed to dally and it was nearly 8.00am by the time I had packed and was on my way.

The walk to the southern top of Tarfessock was easy, the vegetation short and the ground dry.

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There were some bizarre sights on the way to the main summit of Tarfessock.  I kept coming across piles of sharpened sticks and posts with duct tape wrapped round them.  These were at random intervals along the ascent.  I also found empty smoke canisters and a crudely constructed shelter which was all of six inches high.  There were also loads of discarded fag packets.  Some odd people must stalk these lonely hills.

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A decent to the Nick of Carlach and then what felt to be a very long climb to the summit of Shalloch on Minnoch.  The view back to the north was outstanding, a great excuse to stop and get my breath back.

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The summit of Shalloch on Minnoch is broad and grassy, cropped short like a bowling green.  It would be a featureless place in poor visibility.  The true summit is a couple of hundred metres away from the trig, a point worth remembering if you are a sad hill collector like me.  The best viewpoint was from the cairn to the north.  I did not take a photograph looking to the west.  In a turn of the head I counted over one hundred and thirty huge wind turbines (many not turning) in that direction.  Plenty more are currently planned for the hills and forests to the north.

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A long grassy descent followed by a short boggy climb took me to the north summit of Shalloch on Minnoch.  As is usual in these hills the lower the altitude the thicker the vegetation.  Cropped grass soon gave way to tussocks and heather.

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By the time I was approaching Cornish Loch I was hot and rather fed up of lurching through the vegetation.  It was all a bit too much hard work to be honest.  It took ages to walk any distance at all.  I was rather relieved to finally reach a path.

I don’t know what happened but I meant to take a path leading directly back to the car park.  Somehow something went wrong and I walked in the opposite direction for far too long.  Thankfully I ended up on the minor road a kilometre from the car park.  I cursed my lazy navigation.  As always when leaving the car for a few days in an isolated spot I was pleased to find it waiting for me in one piece.

May 7, 2011

Backpacking the Manor and Moffat hills from Tweedsmuir

by backpackingbongos

Looking at a map of Southern Scotland there is a large area of hill country between Moffat and Peebles.  Large rolling grass and heather hills rise above the 800 metre contour and continue for miles, only broken by a solitary minor mountain road.  It is the sort of landscape that I love and a place where you can stride out for miles whilst remaining high above the valleys.  For some reason it is not on many people’s hill walking radar which made it a good choice for the first May Bank holiday.

Day 1 – 5.6 miles with 430 metres ascent

A long drive from Nottingham took me through Moffat and up and over the spectacular road that passes the Devils Beef Tub.  I found a parking space at the crossroads of the tiny hamlet of Tweedsmuir, an idyllic location next to the infant River Tweed.  Due to a combination of having a bit of a lie-in and a slow drive to conserve diesel, it was gone 3.30pm by the time I shouldered my pack and set off towards the church.

The air was crystal clear with not a cloud in the sky.  Being late April the sun was quite strong but the temperature kept pleasant by a keen north-easterly wind.  The village was deserted as I left it to head along forestry tracks that contour above the Tweed, the views below being a pleasant contrast of bare hills, forestry and green pasture.

Quick progress was made and I soon found myself entering the lower stretches of the Polmood burn.  Crossing the crystal clear burn with ease I found a rock to sit on whilst I had a snack.  It was good to be heading into the hills for a few days, everything I needed to be self-sufficient on my back.  It was tempting to simply pitch my tent on the green cropped grass next to the river, but I felt that civilisation was too close.  A wild camp at the head of the valley should give me guaranteed seclusion.

Heading along the freshly upgraded track I turned to look at the view behind and something near the summit of Glenlood hill caught my eye.  At first I though that there was a fire but after a while realised it was a plume of dust following a large vehicle.  I stood and watched for a while as other vehicles came and went along the moorland ridge.  What was going on?  Hopefully I would get a better look when on the hills in the morning.

A 4wd vehicle briefly invaded the peace higher up the valley and I noticed that it has come down the hillside, where there was not a track marked on my map.  A few minutes later I noticed with some dismay that the track I was on now continued high on the slopes of Hunt Law.  Whoever had constructed it had done so without much care about its visual impact.  It was wide enough to drive two vehicles side by side and the hillside either side had been ripped apart.  All in all a bloody mess.  This contrasted strangely with the thousands of new trees recently planted next to the burn, lovely little broad leaves that will look splendid in years to come.

I managed to find a pitch next to the river where the ugly track was out of sight, although aware of the wind gusting straight down the valley.  Soon after the photo below was taken I decided to attach the Scarp’s crossing poles, as the gusts steadily increased.

The sun was soon lost in the bottom of the deep valley and I retired to my sleeping bag with a book after a curry for dinner.  For some reason I dream a lot when wild camping, this nights theme was shark attacks………..

Day 2 – 11.6 miles with 1,070 metres ascent

I awoke to find mist streaming across the top of Broad law high above me, it was moving pretty quickly showing how strong the wind was up there.  For all my disgust at the newly bulldozed track I soon found myself walking on it to the col below Hunt Law, much easier than heather bashing.  A brief detour and I was standing on its summit to take in the views, unfortunately the unlimited visibility of the day before had disappeared and everything was lost in a hazy murk.  I could make out the activity on the Glenlood hill ridge, a series of roads had been bulldozed and there was a massive crane at the end of one such track.  It looked to me that a wind farm was in the process of being built, this was sadly confirmed when I got home and did a bit of Googling.  Another fine hillside ridge fallen to the march of the spinning giants.

The slopes of Cramalt Craig went on for an eternity, whilst sitting down I was passed by a chap out bagging Donald summits.  He was surprised to see someone as these hills do not get much traffic.  He thought the idea of camping out whilst climbing hills a strange one!

The summit of Cramalt Crag was a featureless place but did give a great feeling of space and wide open vistas, even through the heavy haze.  On my descent towards Broad Law and the climb to its summit I was reminded of the Cheviots.

Broad Law at 840 metres was to be the highest point on this trip and I found a wall to shelter behind to have lunch.  Out of the wind it was very warm, but standing up plunged me immediately into the strong cold wind, the main feature of the weekend.  There is an assortment of summit ‘furniture’ on the summit, a communications tower and some weird beacon of some sort.

The descent of its long slopes south is walking at its easiest on short-cropped dry grass, well it would have been if the wind had not been trying to blow me over.  Then out of nowhere it started to rain, light at first but then with some urgency which had me pulling on my waterproofs.  The smell in the air as rain hit parched ground was lovely.

A quick detour to the summit of Talla Cleuch head was made, the views were stunning even though visibility was lost in the haze.

I was now approaching my destination for the night, the exquisite glacial valley of Talla Water which carves its way deep into the hills south of the Megget Stone.

The minor road was crossed and I ascended through what would usually be bog, the ground was so dry that I managed to get through in my inov-8’s totally dry-shod.  I entered the valley, a land of hummocks which I weaved in and out of on the way to its head, clear waters tinkling away to my left.

The ground got rougher the further up I got but I located a good spot for the Scarp and pitched.  I really had the sense of being in the middle of nowhere now, my main reason for going out backpacking.  It was just me, the hills and a few sheep and lambs dotted around the hillside.

I wanted to climb Lochcraig Head and Molls Cleuch Dodd but they would make an awkward round in the morning with too much there and back walking.  So after a quick snack I set off with a nearly empty pack up the very steep slopes to the east of my tent.  The sun had vanished from my campsite but after gaining height it put in an appearance over the other side of the valley.

Reaching Lochcraig Head the setting sun had turned the hazy sky a great shade of pink, the hills taking on a soft velvety texture.  It was lovely, but hard to capture in a photograph.

I noticed a large cairn to the south away from the summit, so wandered over for a look.  The view that awaited took me by surprise as the ground fell steeply away to Loch Skeen.  The area around the loch is a little bit of the Highlands slipped into the south of the country.

Heading back down to the tent the setting sun put on a display for me, a fine end to a peaceful day in the hills.

Day 3 – 9.7 miles with 840 metres ascent

There was a different feel to the air when I got out of the tent, it felt less humid and the sky was a brilliant shade of blue.  I had company to look forward to this morning as Pete and Fiona were travelling down from Glasgow to join me for part of the walk.  They were going to meet me at 10am, so it gave me time to have a lazy start to the day.  The sun was warm so after packing I lay down on the grass for a while, enjoying my surroundings.  A couple of figures appeared further down the valley, a chocolate lab attached to them by an extending lead.  Distant sheep were scattering up the hillside, sensing a hound in the vicinity.  Getting closer, Dougal was unleashed and he bounded over to give me a friendly canine greeting.

After coffee and a catch up chat it was off up the steep grassy slopes alongside Tates grain, the views down to the valley opening up with every step.

The full force of the wind hit us when we reached the summit ridge and we staggered off in a drunken manner towards the summit of Molls Cleuch Dodd.  The clarity of the air was exceptional, more akin to a crisp winters day than late spring.  The strong easterly winds were doing a great job in clearing the muck out of the atmosphere.

As usual once up high the walking is extremely easy on these hills, it was just the incessant wind and lack of shelter that required us to put in more effort to keep in a straight line.  Heading towards Great Hill Pete and Fiona decided that Dougal had probably been walked enough for one day, he is only six months old so care needs to be taken that his growing body is not over exerted.  After the summit they would descend into Donalds Cleuch and then Gameshope, pictured snaking off into the distance below.

Great Hill showed the full extent and bulk of Hart Fell, my destination for the day.  It looked very close but I knew that there were a few ups and downs to be conquered before its trig could be reached.

Just before leaving Pete pointed out a mass of people gathering on the horizon around the cairn on Lochcraig head.  As they moved towards the edge of the hill it looked like a scene from the film Zulu, a mass hill invasion just about to start.  I was keen not to be surrounded so moved off over Firthhope Rig where I failed to find shelter for a bite to eat.  I thought that the nicely named rotten bottom may provide respite from the wind (I hope you did not miss my nicely crafted pun there).  Thankfully I found a dry stone wall that provided plenty of shelter and spent a while enjoying the heat of the sun, eating and generally lazing around.

My peace was finally shattered by an invading army of ramblers, one popped over the wall wearing a fluorescent tabard.  He greeted me and waited for the next in line to appear.  They simply kept on coming and coming and coming and coming.  I sat there with images of them doing the conga across the hills, the line of walkers was staggeringly huge.  I counted 26 of them in all until finally another chap in a fluorescent tabard brought up the rear, looking slightly the worse for wear.  Maybe I am grumpy but I cannot see the point in hiking with that amount of people, what if you fancy a wee, a snack, a nice little sit down, a photo break?  Do you want to be led by men wearing safety vests?

I watched them conga up across Rotten Bottom which made me change my route a little bit, I headed straight across the nice dry bogs, skirted Stirk crag and popped onto the summit of Cape Law.  Hart Fell looked even bigger now, blocking out the whole horizon.  I thought about contouring round it but decided that it would probably be more hard work than simply climbing to its summit.  Descending from Cape Law, I chose a line of ascent and put my head down and got it over and done with.  I tried to do this accompanied by music but the noise of the wind drowned out the tunes from my headphones.

Hart Fell summit itself holds not a huge amount of interest but the views are extensive.  The wind here was screaming at me whilst I hid behind the shelter, whistling through the surrounding wire fences.  On a hill ridge a couple of valleys away I could see that a large wind farm was being constructed.  Huge bladeless towers had been erected among a mass of access roads.  Looking at the internet when I got home I found out that this is part of the massive Clyde wind farm scheme which when it is completed will be the biggest in Europe.  In all 152 turbines will blanket the surrounding area dominating the scenery for miles around.

I staggered from the summit and followed a fence in a northerly direction before striking off towards the west, high above a beautiful empty landscape.  When researching this walk I typed in Earlshaugh as I considered camping near the abandoned farm.  Once again I was dismayed to find that yet another wind farm is being planned.  This is a lovely open landscape of gently rolling hills, it would be a real pity to lose it under miles of bulldozed roads and 500 foot turbines.

My last peak of the day was now in sight, a grassy whaleback that reminded me a bit of the Howgills.  I spotted a sheepfold situated in a patch of green and decided to head towards it to seek shelter for a camp out of the wind.

It turned out to be a magnificent spot, sheltered from the worst of the gusts.  I unpacked and made coffee and a quick snack.

I decided that a quick ascent of Whitehope heights would be in order, my pack left at the tent.  A short ascent followed by a high contouring line using a sheep track brought me easily to the col below its summit.  Here the wind really hit me and I found it difficult to stand, the gusts were terrifyingly ferocious and nearly lifted me off my feet.  As I set off for the summit I had to lay-down a few times to avoid being blown over.  I used a combination of crawling on my hands and knees and quick staggering, interspersed with sitting down.  Only a few metres from the top I considered turning back, the wind was making it difficult to breathe.  I finally made it and sought shelter behind a small rise, marvelling at the extensive views.  The photo below shows a scene of calm and serenity, but believe me it was bedlam up there!

Day 4 – 11.3 miles with 660 metres ascent

Wandering around camp barefoot in the morning it struck me that this bit of Scotland had been tick free on my walk so far.  Strange considering how many sheep there are about.  I would not even consider walking through grass barefoot in the Highlands!  Anyway it was very pleasant feeling the cold damp grass beneath my feet.

My next destination was Din Law which involved contouring around the slopes of Hart Fell, to avoid climbing back over its summit.  This was actually fairly easy due to the nature of the terrain and I was soon at the head of the stream just before it plunges down to become Fruid water.

From Din Law it was a simple case of following the easy wide grassy ridge north to the trig point on Garelet Hill, a good yomp with excellent views throughout.  Only the incessant wind spoilt things a bit.

My time on the hill tops came to an end shortly after Garelet Hill and I made the steep plunge down Lairds Cleuch into the forest where I would pick up the Silver Jubilee forest track.

Reaching the track I was both hungry and tired and feeling a little battered by the wind and constant sun.  I had developed a bit of a cold and the combination of sun burn and the blowing of my nose meant that it was now very sore.  I really wanted a good sit down in some shade and out of the wind.  Luck would have it there was a hide in the forest a few hundred metres away where I duly deposited myself.  Coffee and couscous was made and I lounged on one of the chairs with my shoes and socks off.

Duly refreshed it was head down, headphones on whilst I bashed out the final few miles of the day.  The lower I got the hotter the temperature and the wind dropped as well.  It was a sweaty final half hour back to Tweedsmuir where a baking hot van was waiting for me.

May 2, 2011

Desiccated on the Southern Uplands

by backpackingbongos

I got back late last night after a cracking weekend backpacking the empty hills close to Moffat.  This is a great landscape to emerse yourself in for a few days and a place to escape the Bank holiday crowds.  If these hills were south of the border they would be a National park and absolutely heaving with people, instead they were almost deserted this weekend.

Sunny weather was forecast so a high level route was planned and walked, but I did not count on the effects of this weekends wind.  It was absolutely ferocious at times and made walking hard work.  On the last evening I pitched my tent in a sheltered sheep fold and strolled to the top of a nearby hill.  The wind was so strong I had to lie-down a few times as I thought that I would be lifted off my feet and deposited in the next valley.  My heart was pounding as I struggled to make my way down again, it absolutely bloody terrified me as a clung to a fence for safety!  With all the sun and dry wind I am now feeling positively desiccated.

I am pleased that I managed 38 miles with 3000 metres of ascent in three and a bit days on mostly pathless terrain, as I wanted to test out my knees before the TGO challenge.  They did pretty well, only complaining at the end of each day or on particularly long descents.  If you want a high level route this is one to do as I did not drop below 450 metres for 28 miles.

It was great that on Saturday morning Pete from Writes of Way and his wife Fiona joined me for a couple of hours, Dougal their labrador puppy in tow.  Excellent company before they peeled off to return to their car.

Anyway a full write up later on in the week.  The following photo of me struggling up yet another steep grassy hill was kindly donated by Pete.

February 27, 2010

Backpacking the Ettrick Hills from Moffat Dale

by backpackingbongos

With the days getting longer I thought that it was time to get in the first backpacking trip of 2010.  I am a fan of both bothies and wildcamping so with a three day window I could have a night in each.  Where to go though?

The week before I had an eye on the weather, watching the forecast change day by day.  Wales was my initial destination but was overtaken at the last minute by the Southern Uplands which promised three days of sunshine and frosty nights.  This is an area that is largely overlooked by a majority of hillwalkers and backpackers, I really cannot work out why.  The Moffat hills are easily accessed from the M74 and the journey time only takes an hour longer than a trip to the Lake District if travelling from the south.

Day 1 – 6.1 miles with 820 metres ascent

My original plan had been to start at the entrance to Selcoth fish farm but there was nowhere to park without leaving the van on their drive.  I carried on up the A708 and found a village hall (miles from any village) which had a car park without any ‘no parking’ signs.  It was past 12.30pm when I finally put my backpack on and set off back down the road.  I soon passed the fish farm and the buildings at Selcoth picking up the track that leads onto the shoulder of Croft Head.  As I started to climb there were great views up Moffat Dale and the hills to the north.

My general lack of fitness was felt on the ascent of Croft Head and a lengthy sit down was had on the 350 metre contour.  Sheltered from the wind and with the sun on my face there was no where else I would rather be.  Unfortunately sitting down is not the best way to climb a hill, so the pack was put back on for the long slow ascent of the north west ridge.  The summit was a junction of fences, one of which I followed towards Cat Shoulder.  The views towards Ettrick Head were impressive, with the hills still covered in a patchwork of snow.

As I descended onto Cat Shoulder Craigmichen Scar dominated the view with the Selcoth Burn cutting a gorge beneath its steep slopes.

A newly bulldozed path descends in zig zags to a sheepfold where I picked up the original line of the Southern Upland Way which winds its way across Scotland coast to coast.  A walk that I would love to do some day.  Along this spectacular stretch the path is little more than a sheep track as it contours high above the river.  Thankfully most of the snow had melted on this side of the valley, one slip and it would be a long way to slide in snow.  The river soon climbs to meet the path at a scenic little footbridge, giving access to the upper reaches of the valley.

I could see the markers of the Southern Upland Way climb out of the valley across steep snow covered slopes.  The snow was rock hard and pretty deep with only the top of the markers showing.  Without crampons it would be pretty difficult going so I decided to ascend Capel Fell alongside Rae Grain instead.  The slopes felt much steeper than they looked on the map and my leg muscles forced another sit down.  This enabled me to take in the geography of the upper Selcoth Burn leading to Ettrick Head.

The views from the summit were well worth the effort.  The sun was now beginning to set and the temperature was dropping sharply.  I got out my new Gorrilapod SLR tripod and experimented with a few ‘posed’ shots of myself staring wistfully off into the distance.

My extremities were soon feeling rather cold and I noticed that frost had started to form on my rucksack, time to get moving!  I crossed Smidhope Hill and started to descend alongside the Little Smid Hope into the forest where I got my first glimpse of Over Phawhope bothy.  I had my fingers crossed that I would get it to myself, this particular bothy is less than a mile from the road and can get pretty busy.  However it all looked dark and quiet and there was no smoke rising from the chimney.  I arrived in fading light and entered its cold interior by torchlight for a look around.  I quickly bagged a tiny room which had a bunk bed in it before setting about getting a fire lit.  I have great gratitute to the person who brought in the 50kg bag of coal and the stack of chopped logs, one definite plus to being near a road and on a drivable track!  The stove was soon roaring and I spent the evening eating whilst reading a good book.  Even with the stove on the go the room never got above 4 degrees celsius, the front of my legs were burning whilst the back of them were freezing.  When I went out to collect water the edges of the fast flowing stream had started to freeze…….

Day 2 – 10.7 miles with 745 metres ascent

I was warm and comfy and overslept, finally getting out of bed at gone 9.00am.  Going outside to answer a call of nature I noticed that the thermometer on the wall of the bothy was still showing minus 6 degrees celcius.  It must have been pretty chilly last night!  I have to admit that I would have been happy to spend the day at the bothy sitting by the fire and reading, it is in such a lovely spot.  Instead I had the luxury of cooking and eating from a comfy armchair before sweeping up and collecting some kindling for the next person.  A couple of photos were taken before heading off back towards Ettrick Head along the Southern Upland Way.

The forestry track was at a good gradient to warm up my muscles and it was nice to stop and chat to a couple of guys heading in the opposite direction, the first people I had seen since leaving the van.  Ettrick head marks the boundary between the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.

My first destination for the day was the summit of West Knowe which was reached via Parks Well and initially up exceptionally steep slopes.  The sort that involves grass scrambling, muttering, and a bit of, ‘I wish I had not come up this way’.  Luckily this was short lived and I was once again striding across an easy grassy hillside.

Hours were then spent strolling over rolling hills with amazing clear views in all directions, taking in Loch Fell, Wind fell and Hopetoun Craig.

The light was constantly changing to dramatic effect and progress was easy following the fence line across hard packed snow.

Just before reaching the summit of Ettrick Pen I passed the third and final person in three whole days.  As is common in remote spots we stopped and chatted for a bit before going our separate ways.  I like these hilltop exchanges, something you rarely get in the crowded Lake and Peak Districts.

The Large Cairn was passed on Ettrick Pen and I descended with views down the wilderness of the Cauldron Burns which flow for miles before reaching civilisation.  I found a great spot to pitch with access to water but there was still a couple of hours to go until sunset.  Plus the ground here was frozen solid!

The ridge was followed to the forest edge where Fauld Sike descends into the trees.  It was a nightmare descent down steep snow covered slopes, drifts at times covering the stream itself.  Thankfully just as I was beginning to question my decision and turn back I hit a forestry track which was followed down to the Ettrick Water.

In failing light I skirted over the hillside on the other side of the valley and dropped down to the Kirkhope Burn, still just about in sight of the Farm buildings.  I should have continued and been completely out of sight but I had found a great flat pitch on which to spent the long night.

My evening was only spoilt by the effect my freeze dried meal had on my stomach, I would just get warm and comfy when a sudden dash outside was needed.  Note to self to try a different brand!


Day 3 – 7.2 miles with 525 metres ascent

I managed to oversleep again, sitting up to my usual Akto Shower, the nights condensation dripping onto my sleeping bag.  The night had been cold, really cold but there was not the usual white coating of frost.  It had been cold enough to freeze my platypus and my boots were a solid block of ice.  I had to force my feet into them and run around a bit to break the icy crust, not the best way to start the morning.  I had my eyes on the sky which was starting to cloud over with a few flakes of snow, I finally packed up much later than planned.  Note to self, stop procrastinating in the mornings!

It was an enjoyable ascent of the Kirkhope Burn to its source.  I had originally planned to climb Andrewhinney Hill but lowering clouds and heavy snow put an end to that idea.  The summit of Bell Crag was reached with the fence line then contouring above the very steep slopes above Moffat Dale 1550ft below.

The ridge was followed south to the cairn on Bodesbeck Law where I was greeted with dramatic skies, shafts of sunlight piercing the dark clouds.

Descending to the col to the south a track was picked up that led to Bodesbeck farm and then the main road.  The Moffat hills on the otherside of the valley began to dominate the view, especially the great scoop of Blackhope burn.  A range of mountains that I backpacked a few years ago and somewhere I am keen to return.  A massive upland area rising to over 800 metres with only a minor road crossing alongside Megget Water.  Why go to the Lake District when there is a spectacular and remote area such as this close by?

The Ettrick hills I had spent three days crossing were not as spectacular but the feeling of remoteness and isolation more than made up for this.  Go on try a new area next weekend!

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