Archive for November, 2015

November 30, 2015

Battered days and bothy nights in the Ettrick Hills – pt1

by backpackingbongos

The hills that circle the lonely Ettrick water are some of my favourite in Southern Scotland. Rounded and grassy they remind me a little of the Howgills further south. However the Howgills are positively heaving with people in comparison. During this four day backpack at the end of October I did not see a single person on the hills.

The approach to the head of Ettrick water by car is long via the narrow winding road through Eskdalemuir, then the single track one up the valley. You do get a sense of remoteness when driving there, the prayer flags of the Tibetan Monastery at Samye Ling fitting in against the backdrop of hills.

Moffat provides a much more accessible jumping off point for these hills via the Southern Upland Way. I found a spot for the car a couple of miles outside of town and headed east on the waymarked long distance trail.

This is the first walk in a long time where I have left my camera at home, I decided to use just my mobile phone to take photographs to see how they would turn out.

Total distance – 47 kilometres with 2230 metres ascent

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The forecast for the weekend was not very promising, heavy rain and strong winds were to be a feature of this backpack. With this in mind I had planned the route so as to make use of a couple of the MBA bothies that are dotted around these hills. It was meant to be particularly wet and windy the first night so I hurried up the forestry track, keen to get some distance under my belt before the rain swept in.

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The Southern Upland Way as it makes its way towards Ettrick Head passes through a large forestry plantation, not exactly inspiring walking along the wide gravel tracks. I eventually managed to escape it on another vehicle track that ascended south towards Scaw’d Law. This ended at a turning circle where I managed to locate an old grassy track that took me onto the heathery open hillside. The views once up high were typical Southern Uplands, rolling hills, forestry and the ubiquitous wind turbines.

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Scaw’d Law is designated a Marilyn which allowed me to add another tick to my list. I walked a short way from the true summit to a large cairn giving great views down Wamphray Water and beyond. The clouds were beginning to gather in the west, spits and spots of rain being carried on a strengthening wind.

From the summit of Scaw’d law I descended very steep heather clad slopes to the east, a real punishment for the knees. A barbed wire fence at the bottom caused a bit of difficulty as it was just above groin height and too wobbly to climb.

The ruined farm at Garrogill is located in an idyllic spot next to a rushing burn. It would have been a beautifully wild and remote place before the forestry came and blanketed the hillsides. Sometimes I wish that I could wind back time and have a glimpse at the life people led in these out of the way corners of the country. It must have been a harsh existence.

There is a good path that ascends onto the moors to the east of Garrogill that is not marked on the map. This I was thankful for as I had envisaged a battled through the trees. From the saddle between Cowan Fell and Ewelairs Hill it was a short descent to the landrover track than runs to the head of Dryfe Water. I glanced up to the summit of Loch Fell, its top being grazed by cloud, I would be climbing it the following day.

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The walk down Dryfe Water was a delight, autumn firmly in charge of the colour scheme.

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Dryfehead bothy was to be my home for the night and I approached it wondering if anyone would be there. You can usually tell if a bothy is occupied by the smell of wood smoke long before the bothy comes into view. There was no such smell as I approached the back of the bothy, the chimneys smoke free.

The setting is idyllic, it has a grassy lawn and some well established trees surrounding it, the burn a short distance away.

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It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the gloom inside. There is a room either side, one with a stove the other with an open fire. There is a small room in the middle just big enough for one person. I decided to stay in there, just in case a group of people turned up later that evening.

Water was fetched from the burn and wood sawed into useable lengths. The stove was soon roaring and water boiling for a coffee. I had packed some tea lights, so as night fell the room was bathed in a warm glow. With it being a Friday night I expected other people to turn up but no one came. The rain soon started and the wind picked up. I love being in front of a warm bothy fire when the weather is bad.

I only managed to stay up until 9pm before retiring to the single room to get comfy in my sleeping bag. All night the rain lashed the window and wind rattled the front door. This was loud enough to wake me up a couple of times, thinking that someone had come in. The downside to bothies on your own is your mind can play tricks, ghosts prowl lonely buildings.

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It is rare for bothies to have toilets (although there are a few that do) so my first ‘job’ in the morning was to take a long walk with the bothy spade………..

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The rain had cleared to a thick drizzle as I set off with the spade down the track. The burn was raging, foaming with brown peaty water. There was a constant drip of water from the trees, the long grass soaking my trousers. Back at the bothy I quickly packed up, no wet tent to contend with. Breakfast when backpacking is always bacon Super noodles and coffee, even better when you have a bothy table to sit at and a window to look out of.

The bothy was swept, the door closed and bolted and I set back up the way I had come the day before.

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The track climbs high onto the shoulder of Loch Fell which meant only a short pathless climb to the summit. The weather quickly closed in, a wall of cloud bringing stinging hail and gusty winds. Wrapped up in winter Paramo I was well protected from the elements.

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The route was along a high grassy ridge linking Loch Fell with Ettrick Pen. The weather was changing by the minute, clear blue skies would be followed by punishing showers of rain and hail. It was both exhilarating and hard work.

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The last shower of the day was the worst, a natural version of waterboarding leaving it hard to breathe when facing the weather.

As quickly as it came it was gone, leaving a few ragged clouds under blue skies.

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I had wanted to camp high to take advantage of the views, but the wind was far too strong for a quiet and comfortable night. I dropped down to the head of the Muckle Cauldren Burn hoping to find a dry flat patch, but everywhere was very wet. I followed the burn down its boggy course failing to find a suitable spot. In the end I descended all the way to where it intersects Glendearg Burn. There below a tin hut was a flat spot sheltered from the wind. The Enan was pitched in the fading light, stars appearing in the clearing sky.

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November 20, 2015

Goodbye Bongo

by backpackingbongos

I went to the garage this morning to say a sad farewell to our beloved Bongo. She has been very poorly the last few days, sitting on a ramp with her innards exposed. Last weekend on the way to the North York Moors she broke down, something she has only done once before in the seven years we have owned her. It turns out that the cam belt had snapped, causing damage to the engine. Once on the ramp and with panels removed it turns out that the rust problem is much more extensive than we had previously thought. It would take a hell of a lot of expensive welding to get through the MOT in February, on top of a big bill to get the engine running again. We have made the difficult decision that she is uneconomical to repair.

We have had some good times together, from one end of the UK to the other. I have lived out of her for weeks at a time on the islands of Scotland. The name of this blog comes from the Bongo (no I don’t take a set of drums into the hills). The name will remain though as I don’t think that Backpackingfordfocus has the same ring about it.

😦

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November 6, 2015

Above the clouds on the Whinlatter Horseshoe

by backpackingbongos

Being a sad hill bagger type I noticed a clutch of unclimbed Nuttalls, Wainwrights and Birketts on both sides of the Whinlatter Pass. Rather than doing a series of there and back day walks to collect them I planned an inelegant backpack that would take them all in. For want of a better term I have called it the Whinlatter Horseshoe. Well I thought that it was a horseshoe shape until I actually traced it on a map. It turned out to be the shoe of a psychotic Shetland pony.

Total distance – 31 kilometres with 1840 metres ascent

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(Click to enlarge)

Day one

The footpath sign was correct in indicating that it was a no through route. The right of way simply stopped at the edge of a field with no way forward. It had however done the job of depositing myself and Reuben within access land at the foot of steep slopes that would eventually lead us to the summit of Ladyside Pike.

It was a climb done in thick murk, there was no wind and a total absence of a view. Every now and then I could hear the traffic as it made its way up and down the Whinlatter Pass. Otherwise it was simply exercise with the absence of external stimuli. That was why it was extra special after all the exertion to see the final summit cone against the blue sky, mist slowly being pulled aside.

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The air on the summit itself was warm and crystal clear, a different world from that just a few metres below. A sea of cloud was spread below my feet to the west. Strangely though everything to the east was clear, the valleys visible. The Whinlatter pass itself seemed to be the dividing line.

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The way ahead was along a snaking ridge and up to the summit of Hopegill Head. The mountain looked unobtainable from this angle, sitting above a band of cliffs that I would have to climb. I was not sure if this would be possible with Reuben in tow, he is not the worlds most proficient scrambler.

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Getting closer to the final pull to the summit, things looked even trickier.

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The climb turned out to be very easy, especially with the rock being warm and dry. I’m not sure that I would want to descend when there is a layer of ice though!

The cloud to the west was consolidating, becoming thicker and rising and falling up the hillside like waves on a beach.

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The summit of Hopegill Head is a beautifully airy place. I took off my pack and perched by the tiny summit cairn taking in the scenery. It was late in the afternoon during the first weekend of October and I was sitting on the summit of a mountain in warm sunshine. What had initially looked like a very average day on the hills was quickly turning out to be one of the best.

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The ridge to Whiteside looked too good to miss, even though it would involve doing it twice as a there and back.

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The walk along its twisting path and over various minor summits was sheer delight. It was even better on the way back to Hopegill Head as the setting sun began to cast everything in an orange and then pink glow.

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Back at Hopegill head the sun put in a dazzling light show as it began to sink into the line of cloud spreading towards the western horizon.

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I sat until the sun finally dipped, the temperature immediately dropping, both myself and Reuben’s breath rising in the cool air. I had planned to camp high, my map showing water just to the south east of Sand Hill. Unfortunately the watercourse was bone dry when I got to it during the last of the fading light. Plan B was to descend to Coledale Hause and climb a little way along the stream to the south. It was dark by the time we reached the Hause, the climb being done by torchlight. I eventually found a reasonably flat platform on which to pitch the Wickiup. Reuben did his best to help by trying to get inside before it was fully pitched. He went off in a huff to bed down in some long grass after I told him he was just adding to the challenge of pitching in the dark.

With the tent fully pitched he was soon quick to make friends again when invited inside to get comfy on his mat and blanket. He feels no shame in wearing his fleecy pj’s, snug and warm he let out a grunt of contentment and was soon snoring away. It was not that long before I joined him in the land of nod.

Day two

Fell runners must be insomniacs as a pair of them passed my tent soon after dawn, with more passing whilst I was eating breakfast. It was a clear morning with the cloud low in the valleys, however it steadily rose whilst I was packing up. By the time we left we were in a cold and grey world with limited visibility.

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It was a trudge back up towards Hobcarton Crag, visibility reduced to the eroded path that I was following. Suddenly blue appeared above me and I broke out above the cloud for the second day running. Hopegill Head just about had its head above the clouds, the ebb and flow threatening to crash over its summit.

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Our next destination was Grisedale Pike, it’s conical summit not being as successful in holding back the fluffy surge.

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The best view of the day was towards Skiddaw which looked like an isolated island.

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We were engulfed again on the summit of Grisedale so we dropped down to the north to find a quiet spot for a mid morning snack. The rest of the day was spent in a miserable combination of damp fog and limited visibility. Hobcarton End was bagged before a long knee breaking descent through the forest to the summit of the Whinlatter Pass.

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I had carefully planned a route through the forest on the other side. However I failed to realise that Whinlatter is a major mountain biking destination. My planned ascent route turned out to be a fast downhill bike track where those on foot were prohibited. I took note of the signs as to walk up it would mean the quick demise of Reuben, myself and any descending mountain biker. Instead we trudged along the road for a while before climbing over a gate close to a disused quarry.

What then followed was a steep, highly vegetated struggle through deep heather and bracken. I was simultaneously pulling myself up with fistfuls of the stuff, whilst often falling sideways after some tufty section meant I lost my balance. Reuben however did not mind it one bit. At one point I’m sure that he was even smiling.

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Once on the hill we picked up a path to Whinlatter Top and did a there and back ascent of a couple of hills. I had planned on camping somewhere near Barf but laziness soon got the better of me. After picking up water from Drycloffe Gill the Wickiup was pitched on Tarbarrel Moss.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent reading and brewing, the sun putting in a brief appearance at the end of the day.

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Day three

This time it was mountain bikers who were up at the crack of dawn. A trio decided to spend a while chatting loudly close by (I later found out that there was a bike trail nearby, they had stopped at the summit). You really are never far from people in the Lake District! There needs to be some bylaw that states if you are not wild camping you are not allowed on the fells before 9am………..

We had soon bagged Ullister Hill and were on a series of lovely paths through the forest en-route to Seat How. This allows you to tick a Birkett off the list, but strangely it is not even a hill in its own right. It’s simply an area that has not been planted by forestry. It does sport a cracking view back to Grisedale Pike though. The good thing with obscure hill bagging is that you visit places you would not usually bother with.

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Barf was our next objective, via a series of forest paths and tracks. At one point I was very pleased when I overtook a trio of teenagers on mountain bikes. I was on foot with a backpack and wobbly belly. Breaks in the trees gave views down to Bassenthwaite Lake and across to Skiddaw, its head stubbornly in the clouds.

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Although Barf is a small hill it is rugged enough to have bits that you can fall off. The views are also outstanding. It was then another descent followed by a climb to the summit of Lord’s Seat. I timed my arrival perfectly as a gaggle of ramblers had just finished their lunch and were about to leave. Reuben was wearing his panniers so we both suffered the indignity of a mass of pensioners taking his photo using ancient forms of technology.

Lord’s Seat is aptly named as just below the summit to the north is a natural rocky seat that provided respite from the cooling breeze. A perfect spot to sit for a while and finish the contents of my food bag.

The walk over Broom Fell, Graystones and Kirk Fell was an easy one, these rolling hills not having a huge amount of character. The day was leaden and overcast but a few beams of sunshine managed to pierce the clouds every now and then.

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The descent from Graystones to the valley bottom is a steep one, my knees and thighs were sore by the time I got to the bottom near Scawgill bridge, not a route that I would like to repeat any time soon.

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Back at the car park I did my good deed for the day, picking up a discarded crisp packet. It was covered in dog shit. Thanks for that.