Hope that you have been good this year………….?
The drive from Nottingham to the Peak District was through varying levels of fog, at times visibility was down to a couple of hundred metres. That did not stop the maniacs hurtling down the motorway with their lights off. Coming over the highest point of the road between Chinley and Hayfield the world suddenly materialised in front of me. My rear view mirror showed a wall of cloud, surprisingly solid it draped over the hills and filled the valleys.
I left the car at chez Crowther and set off towards Kinder with Chrissie and Reuben. Rather than the usual approach via Kinder Road we climbed up the Snake Path and went past the shooting cabin before dropping down into William Clough. The path as it contours White Brow is particularly enjoyable, it gives great views without much effort. Cloud was clinging to Kinder south of the Downfall but the plateau to the north was clear. We had originally planned to head for the Downfall but at the last minute decided to head for the northern edge with the hope of a scenic mist free wild camp.
Although living just below Kinder, Chrissie usually avoids William Clough due to the numbers of people who use the route onto the plateau. Thankfully we had it all to ourselves, it’s a pleasant and easy way to gain height. Sadly our hopes of a murk free walk were dashed when the bank of cloud engulfed us. This was atmospheric though as it would often thin out allowing shafts of sunlight to penetrate. The surrounding hills would appear before disappearing again, distance being distorted.
It was totally clagged in as we reached the moors below Mill Hill and started the final climb onto the northern edge of Kinder. Suddenly there was a hint of blue above, the cloud thinning and breaking before closing in again. We were teased a few times before the clouds suddenly parted and dropped below us. The setting sun lit them from below turning them into a bubbling fiery cauldron, the moorland cast a golden glow.
We contoured high above the northern edge looking for somewhere sensible to pitch. It needed to be flat and comfortable for the nights are very long in winter. This was easier than we thought it would be as the bare peatlands have now been transformed into grassy prairies. The tents were set up in thick mist, the brief display of light and cloud had only lasted for ten minutes. It was that thick that I set a waypoint on my GPS when we went off in search of water. Less than one hundred metres away and our tents vanished in the gloom. Chrissie’s filter made short work of Kinder water, turning it from resembling a black stout to strong black tea.
It was one of the dampest nights I have spent outdoors, the outer of my Wickiup was saturated even before Reuben and I got inside. I sat and cooked and kept the door wide open for an hour or so, wet mist swirling inside the shelter. The mesh vents at the top soon got overwhelmed and started dripping onto the Oookworks inner. I’m glad I had that inner as it would have been a very wet night indeed. It protected me from the damp above and the veritable bog fest below.
It rained heavily for much of the night, adding to the already saturated conditions. One of those times that you can’t do anything to mitigate the condensation. The bottom of my sleeping bag was pretty damp so luckily we were only out for one night. Reuben also appeared to be less than impressed with the whole thing.
The plan for the morning had been to continue along the northern edge to Fairbrook Naze and then cross the plateau to Kinder Gates and then the Downfall. Chrissie had woken up with the beginnings of a nasty cold and the weather was not conducive to a crossing of the plateau. We decided that instead we would return straight back down to Hayfield via Sandy Heys.
It’s when on the winter moors that I think that I should invest in a fluorescent tabard for Reuben. He really is very well camouflaged, even with a bright green set of panniers on. With thick mist he is almost invisible, there were a couple of occasions when I would be calling for him to return, only to find he was sitting at my feet.
The path down Sandy Heys is short and sweet, quickly getting us below the clouds and out of the cold damp wind.
With this being Chrissie’s local stomping group she led us back to Hayfield via a different route without consulting the map. I liked the name of one of the roads that we passed.
Once again a night on Kinder Scout did not disappoint.
I am very pleased to have had an article published in a proper bona-fide outdoor magazine. It is about the pleasures of backpacking with a dog and is set in the winter hills of Mid-Wales. It’s in the Jan / Feb 2015 edition of Outdoor Enthusiast which is available to read online for free via the link below.
I pulled the Bongo off the road not far from Gualin House, pretty much on the highest part of the A838. Although an A road there was hardly any traffic once past 7.00pm and I had an undisturbed night.
As I write this I am kicking myself. The plan for the following morning was to drive to Blairmore and walk into Sandwood Bay to spend the night in my tent. However waking to another morning of cloud and rain my resolve dissolved. I turned over and went back to sleep for a couple more hours. The unpredictability of the weather was beginning to get to me. When I finally surfaced I went through another bout of lassitude where I could not be bothered to pack a backpacking sack for myself and Reuben. Instead I pulled on my waterproofs and headed up the hill directly behind the Bongo.
Farrmheall – 521 metres
I wonder how many people have bothered to climb Farrmheall? It is the highest peak in a large area of wild land known as the Parph, stretching for 107 square miles. The hill itself is pretty unremarkable and it took less than an hour to get to the summit and back from the van. What it lacks in height and ruggedness it certainly makes up for in terms of views and wide open spaces.
There were vestiges of a vehicle track long reclaimed by the moors on the ascent, a couple of traffic cones having found their way onto the hillside. With my head down and boots squelching across the wet slopes the summit cairn was soon reached. My eye was continually being drawn towards the large bulk of Foinaven, cloud constantly grazing its summit. The long and lonely Strath Dionard looked inviting, the map suggesting many possible adventures in remote and little explored country. Cape Wrath was to my north across endless rolling moors, one day I will make the journey up there and spend the night in the beachside bothy at Kearvaig.
Back at the van I pondered my next move, it continued to spit with rain which dampened my enthusiasm for climbing any further hills. It was also far too late to set off for Sandwood Bay. The weather for the following day looked ‘reasonable’ so I decided to head around to the moors north of the remote Crask Inn. From there I would climb Ben Klibreck the following morning.
I took my time driving down the single track A838, stopping frequently to gawp at the views. Ben Stack looked like a volcano as I passed, its cone poking out from a ring of cloud. It appeared much higher than its 720 metres would suggest. There is much to explore on either side of the road, you could easily spend a week doing so. Loch Shin stretches for miles and it is sad to think that the west side could soon be dominated by wind turbines along the whole length. Glencassley and Sallachy power stations will have 48 giant turbines between them if given the go ahead. Right below the magnificent Munro of Ben More Assynt and designated as Wild Land. Lets see if the Scottish Government sticks to its promise to protect those areas designated as wild land.
Meall an Fhuarain – 473 metres (The site of the proposed Altnaharra wind farm)
We spent the night in the Bongo close to the summit of the Crask Inn Road. Once again for such a remote spot there was a mini rush hour in the evening where many cars passed, followed by silence for the rest of the night.
I have to say that I was rather disappointed when I poked my head out of the van at dawn. The good weather had not materialised. Looking up to the summit of Ben Klibreck a big cap of cloud was racing across the highest slopes. The speed at which it was tearing across the summit cone did not make climbing it a very attractive proposition. A heavy shower brought along on a gust of wind helped make up my mind.
I decided that I would start the long journey home at midday, enough time to have a couple of hours squelching about on the moors. Across the road from Ben Klibreck is a large area of moorland that culminates in the summit of Meall an Fhuarain. This is the site of the proposed Altnaharra wind farm, in fact the wind monitoring mast was already towering over the landscape. I decided to go and explore and also tick off a remote Marilyn.
It was a bit of a long slog to get to the summit. We initially followed the Allt Bealachan Fhuarain for a bit, its grassy banks giving easy passage. It was then a case of striking up rough and tough moorland. As expected the summit itself was nothing special but revealed a huge vista of mountains, lochs and moorland with barely any evidence of the hand of man. It was breathtaking to be honest, amazing that such vast and open landscapes exist in our crowded island. The proposal for up to 22 enormous turbines here would be catastrophic for the landscape, dominating the views from Ben Klibreck, Ben Hope, Ben Loyal and Ben Hee.
We descended into a face of drizzle, the weather matching my mood. Reuben was trying to hide from the wet wind behind random tussocks.
For how much longer will the far north remain special?
I got up a couple of times in the night to add coal to the fire. It was snug in my sleeping bag, Reuben snoozing close by and the sound of wind and rain outside. The candles burned for hours giving the room a cozy flickering glow, driving the bothy ghosts into another room.
The room was dark and gloomy when I woke in the morning, grey leaden skies preventing much light getting through the bothy window. I got up and shuffled to my stove, my breath hanging on the cold air. The stove roared into life and within a couple of minutes I had a cup of hot coffee in my hands. I was dismayed to see that the rain was still falling, I once again began to worry about crossing the river and getting back to the van. Apart from my usual breakfast bacon noodles my food bag was empty. I think I would have to be trapped for a few days however before I considered eating the dog.
The buckets of water for the loo needed filling so I took a walk down to the river, my boots still soaking wet from the crossing the day before. Thankfully the river had reduced to half the size so I immediately felt much more relaxed. An enjoyable couple of hours was then spent in the bothy, eating noodles and drinking coffee before finally packing and heading off into improving weather.
The walk back to the Bongo was much easier that the day before, streams were once again confined to their banks and the surrounding mountains were revealing themselves.
Durness and beaches
Traigh allt Chailgeag was a worthy stopping point on the road to Durness. After a few days in the bleak Sutherland hinterland it felt like I was in different country. The wind had dropped, the sun shone and waves lapped gently at the shore.
I was going to pay Smoo cave a visit but as I passed I was put off by the general hustle and bustle. Ok it was hardly Keswick on a bank holiday Monday but after days without seeing a soul it all seemed too much. I did not feel ready to join the great washed. I still had bits of Sutherland dirtying my clothes and I was long overdue a shower.
The shop in Durness was an Aladdins cave of treasure. They even had Arran Blonde which is one of my favourite beers. I hauled my bounty back to the Bongo and drove the short distance to Balnakeil bay.
A hefty shower meant that lunch was eaten in the van. An almighty bang suddenly rattled the windows and Reuben cowered in the passenger seat. I initially thought that it was thunder but noticed a group of people staring out to sea. I got out of the van just in time to see a low flying jet, then a plume of smoke on an island to the north of the Cape Wrath peninsular. Seconds later there was another mighty boom. The military were playing with their weapons.
It was too late in the day for a big walk so I spent a pleasant hour with Reuben walking the coast path leading to Keodale. The weather was ever-changing. Bright sunshine, white clouds, black skies, sun, hail and rainbows. The grass in the dunes rippled in the wind sending patterns into the distance. Reuben got the wind in his sails and sped across the dunes with a grin on his face.
I later checked into the Sango Sands campsite in Durness, time for a shower and to top up the Bongo’s water supply. By then there was barely a cloud in the sky and I picked a grassy spot right on the cliff top. I double checked that the handbrake was on, otherwise it would be a very quick trip to the beach below. There was only a handful of other vans on the site, braving the weather in the far north during the school holidays.
In the last of the afternoon light I had the beach pretty much to myself bar a couple of surfers. Reuben loves being on sand and raced around in huge circles, ripping up any seaweed that he could find.
Later that evening after reviving myself under a hot shower I paid a visit to the ‘pub’ next door. I was looking forward to a pint and a good bar meal. I was bitterly disappointed, for some reason the Highlands don’t really do cosy country pubs. The best I could find in the land of Tennents pish was a pint of Guinness. My meal consisted of frozen chips, frozen scampi, tinned peas and some strangely artificial looking carrots. It was also not very cheap. I could not bring myself to stay for a second pint.
Beinn Spionnaidh 773 metres and Cranstackie 801 metres
With the best weather of the week forecast I was up and away early. With sunshine promised along with much lighter winds I was determined to get up a mountain. Beinn Spionnaidh is the most northern bit of significant high ground on the mainland and from looking at the map I thought it should give good views of the north coast. Adding its higher neighbour Cranstackie would give a short outing in terms of mileage but plenty of ascent and descent.
There is parking for a few cars a couple of hundred metres from the cottage at Carbreck. We took to the track that leads to the isolated farm at Rhigolter, almost reaching it before I realised that I had left my water bottle back at the van. I decided against the nearly two mile round trip to go back and collect it, I reasoned that water should be easy to find on the hill. We picked up the track round the back of the farm, setting off the dogs barking.
The track has been extended further than the map suggests, an ugly scar on the hillside I would imagine is too steep for most vehicles. We soon left it and climbed very steep grass slopes to Cioch Mhor and finally onto the plateau of Beinn Spionnaidh itself.
The summit plateau is one of the rockiest that I have visited, acres of flat boulders which needed care to cross. It would be a real ankle breaker under a covering of snow. Even Reuben took his time, worried as they wobbled under his paws.
The view from the summit was even better than expected. The whole of the north coast was spread out beneath my feet, the mountains of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope rising from the flat moors. The wilderness of the Parph, a huge area of low hills south of Cape Wrath looked especially inviting under the low Autumn sun. I sat for a long time enjoying the views and solitude whilst I ate my lunch, cursing the fact that I had nothing to drink.
With both hills being Corbetts there was a long descent and ascent to reach the summit of Cranstackie. The views from that cairn were more about the mountainous Sutherland hinterland than the coast. Foinaven dominated the view to the south, the hills to the south-east being comprised more of rock and boulder than vegetation.
We descended back to the bealach between the two hills and picked a way down very steep grass into Calbhach Coire, herds of deer scattering as we approached. It took a while to pick a way through the boggy coire and down to the farm at Rhigolter. With wood smoke coming from the chimney and lights from the living room it looked very cosy. By the time we had walked back along the track and back to the van it was pitch black. Time to find a good spot in which to spend another long dark night.