The Tomaselli Salami

The Ferrata Tomaselli is a well known Via Ferrata in the Dolomites, and also possibly one of the hardest. It also gives its name to an award given out at an annual meeting of two outdoor sports clubs for what they call “endeavour”. This yearly award was given out on Saturday night past and I’ll tell you a little more of the context later.

In the meantime, I met Gav at the Old Bridge of Tilt car park on Saturday morning with a vague plan to walk to the Allt Sheicheachan bothy, drop our stuff, continue to the peak of Beinn Dearg, then return to the bothy for some whisky and slumbers. We assumed we’d probably have the bothy to ourselves. Although we did have a back up plan in case of weather etc, with a return to the vans if necessary and a drive to Loch Rannoch for some loch side rest and recuperation.

It was clear on the road north that it was snowy, Ben Vrackie above Pitlochry had on a full white coat, so it was a safe bet the bothy would be snowy, which was quite exciting. With our gear packed, we moved off up the icy tarmac road, an indicator of how wintery the road up to Allt Sheicheachan would be.

We cleared the woods and we walked higher into the open moors. Quite slowly, as the track was quite snowy where the white stuff had drifted across it. Soft and deep in places, hard and flattened in others, but more often the former, making heather jumping a quicker and more energy efficient way of moving forward.

The cold and accompanying breeze meant little time to stop and enjoy our surroundings. I’ve been up to this bothy a few times now, but the landscape had never looked so monochrome, other than the roaming red dot of Gav’s waterproofs.

I can normally get to the bothy in a couple of hours. This journey took us three and a half, weighed down with kit and fire wood as we slipped and stepped our way through the snow.

When the bothy finally appeared, at the last minute as usual as it’s tucked down in a natural, river created gully, our smiles reappeared and we reached the door thankful to have completed our journey. By this stage it was too late to head for Beinn Dearg and the snow higher up looked quite deep so we opened the front door, got our lunch ready and made a hot cuppa.

After eating, we explored the area a little, threw snowballs and tried to find the deepest snow. We met Sam, a walker from Greenock, who had tried to walk up Beinn Dearg but the thigh deep snow had won and sent him back down the hill. I felt pretty happy that we hadn’t tried to do the same.

Sunset was due at 3.30pm and the three of us hunkered down and got the fire going. A hot chocolate and some flames soon warmed our soaking wet feet. Sam had brought wood too so we had fuel aplenty to last the night.

The door opened again and in walked a pretty wet looking chap called Raymond. He had coal, which was great. And he then told us his ten pals (yes 10!) would also be coming with fuel.

Each snow or rain flurry brought another small group of people out of the darkness through the bothy door and each looked more relieved than the last that the fire was on and roaring. More chairs were brought in from the store next door. More wet socks were squeezed onto the drying line above the fire. More wet boots were uniformly placed on the hearth to dry. And more and more whisky was passed around, offered and gladly accepted. The atmosphere was as warm as the fire as it blazed on, the centrepiece of our growing commune.

Another couple, not linked to the big group, arrived around 6pm, bringing the total number of bodies to seventeen. I’ve never been in a bothy with more than a couple of other people, more usually I’ve been on my own. It was amazing that such a large group were so far from civilisation and yet feeling completely at home in this cold and remote glen.

After speaking to a few of the big group, it turned out they were on their yearly outing. Two outdoor groups who travelled Scotland and the world searching for adventure. Each year they gathered in a bothy and celebrated their “endeavours” through the giving of an award, the Tomaselli Salami, named after the Via Ferrata route I mentioned earlier. You can see the trophy below.

Yes it’s an old salami and it’s looking well passed it’s best, but it’s well sealed. And as trophies go, I’ve seen few more entertaining or beloved. Engraved on the trophy each year since 2005 was the name of the recipient and the reason for the award and it was clearly awarded to the individual who had cheated death in the most thrilling way possible.

But this year The Tomaselli Salami was being awarded to Ian, a member of both outdoor groups who had recently died, which had clearly added a somber note to this years gathering. It was remarked on a number of times through the night how tame the evening had been. But Ian was clearly missed. His sons were present and it was lovely to see the different generations supporting each other in what was an emotional trip for all.

As the night wore on, I thought about my own boys. Would they follow me into the outdoors world? How would our relationships change as the years go on? Would they be so well supported after I’m gone? I can be quite unemotional sometimes about family, a reflection of my own family life as a child, but I looked at Ian’s boys and for a few minutes they were Sam and Robbie and I was gone. Trying to pinpoint one particular part of our collective future. It was a sobering few minutes but reminded me how strong my love for them is, despite their joint efforts to make parenthood as difficult and stressful as possible.

Gav and I had a great night. Unexpected but in the best possible ways. We met some lovely people and they were all very gracious in including us in what could normally have been a very private event. I climbed the ladder to our sleeping area around midnight, leaving the revellers to burn the other ten bags of coal they brought and maybe talk about the stories they couldn’t tell with strangers in the room.

We were up early the next day and decided to head out for home before breakfast.

The weather was clearer on the Sunday than the day before and the sunrise looked gorgeous as we headed East. The monochrome was shattered.

It’s hard not to get lost in The Lost Valley

I’ve driven along the A82 through Glencoe many times. The road is an outdoor addicts dream as you pass mountain after river after ridge after yet more stunning views. Despite the many drive-throughs, I had no idea the Lost Valley (or Coire Gabbail) existed until about 4 years ago when I walked the Bidean Nan Bian circuit and my return was through the Lost Valley. The promise was made to return and properly enjoy the atmosphere of this magnificent amphitheatre, something I wasn’t properly able to do that day 4 years ago after 8 hours walking in the summer heat.

Along with Paul, James and Gav, I found myself in the big car park opposite the Three Sisters, a phenomenal viewpoint even if going no further than the low wall that surrounds the car park. But we were ready to go further. Four big kids full of excitement at where we were heading with our tents and our whisky.

The good path headed east and then quickly turned south into the gorge at the bottom of the corrie and then steeply up into the corrie itself.

As we climbed higher and the breathing became deeper the flat valley floor, famous from a thousand images, came into view.

As a venue for a camp, the valley is beautiful. High mountain cliffs on three sides and a flat floor with a mix of stones and grass. The Allt Coire Gabhail flows clear and fast at either end, although curiously disappears in the valley itself. Camp was set up and we ate lunch.

Despite being only a few short miles from the main road, you get the real feeling of being far removed from civilisation in the Lost Valley, something all four of us were craving.

With no real plan other than to explore, we headed up the path that leads to the Bealach Dearg, the pass between the two Munro’s, Bidean and Stob Coire Sgreamhach.

At a ford and crossroads, we headed up the side of the Gearr Aonach ridge but went in different directions, each seeking our own mini adventure and solitude.

For me that included a foot dip and some snowman building.

We came together again later at the bottom of the path where the valley flattens.

A meal was cooked and a fire was created. As we admired our surroundings it was clear how small we really were compared to the huge mountain theatre we found ourselves in.

A breeze kept the worst of the midgies at bay and we had a really fab evening.

The next day was very wet with an extra large dose of midgies. We quickly ate some breakfast (our first), decamped and headed back the now much slippier stone path towards the bottom of the corrie and the car park.

When we reached the car park, it was agreed that a second breakfast was necessary so we headed for Tyndrum and the rolls and hot drinks were a fitting end to an amazing trip.

Take a look at the film below.

Loch Laidon Living

As the number of vaccines administered hits the millions, the end might just be in sight. I say that with one eye on a future that is still very much unknown. As one sage-like fellow said:

“Anything can happen, and often we are wrong. The best we can do with the future is prepare and savour the possibilities of what can be done in the present.”

With that in mind, I savoured the possibility of what I could do with a 36hr window.

I headed to Loch Laidon. For some camping, some eating, and some floating.

And watch the film here:

Dark Skies

Two days walking part of the Southern Upland Way from Balgrennan to Dalry with Paul and James. Our camp near White Laggan bothy looking towards Loch Dee, a peak at just how “dark skies” that part of the world is, and our morning view as the sun was hitting Craiglee. A belter of a trip. And thanks to P and J for some of the photos. Film below.

And here’s the film.

Do you take your swimming goggles for a walk?

This is a question you won’t often ask yourself. Although stranger things do happen I suppose. My mum used to take her cats for a walk (yes, all 4 of them) and it was always a thought that made me smile, the somehow odd idea that felines needed a lead to leave their home.

One of my guilty pleasures in the outdoors is removing my shoes and socks and dipping my feet in the water. Usually sore and sweaty, the wave of relief that bubbles around my toes makes my whole body refreshed and ready to go again, even after a long day.

I decided to take that idea a step further. A few years ago I was at a talk given by Calum Maclean about wild swimming at the Peebles Mountain Festival. A very funny guy, he’d pulled his broadcasting skills and love of outdoor swimming together to create some short films of his adventures. His Scottish Temperature Guide film is a hoot, you can find it here: https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/calum-macleans-scottish-temperature-guide/

I’ve spent plenty of time in the water when kayaking, at the beach or dipping my feet on long walks. But building a trip around a swim in a wild and remote highland area, just like Calum, was not something I’d done before. And in the current climate, where swimming in your local council pool is a bit of a no-no, the idea of some socially distant swimming in a wild place really appealed. After some thought, I remembered Loch Kander. And packed my goggles in my walking bag.

I’d first spotted this loch when walking some of the Glenshee hills. Coming down Cairn an Turc on the way to Cairn of Claise, you spot the rocky edge of the corrie and it was a pretty stunning view, looking down into the corrie and the loch below. A perfect opportunity to go back to the loch, explore a new area and maybe have a dip at the same time.

I’ve made a couple of trips up Glen Callater as far as Lochcallater Lodge and Callater Stables bothy before.

The bothy is still closed at the moment due to the pandemic. I carried on along the path that is known as Jock’s Road on the edge of Loch Callater.

Alien feet?

After passing Loch Callater, you can see Corrie Loch Kander coming into view to the right of the waterfall.

The cliffs of Corrie Loch Kander looming behind the corrie entrance.

As the walk continued this massive waterfall had been getting bigger and bigger in my view so I took a wee trip up the hill to see just how powerful it was. Frogs and caterpillars were everywhere.

The last part of my outward journey took me towards the loch. But even this close, there was no sign of it yet.

But when they came into view, the corrie and the loch were absolutely stunning. High cliffs to the south and west didn’t prevent the strong, swirling breeze. This did make me wonder if getting my kit off, even in summer, was a good idea….

Some signs of recent rockfalls on the right.

The breeze was calmer near the corrie floor so I took of my walking gear, put on my swimming goggles and after 10km I was really looking forward to getting into the water. I think the smile tells you I enjoyed it. To me it felt a bit chilly to start with, and the water felt warmer as time went on. Calum Maclean would describe it, I think, as “no bad”. Definitely not roasting.

I don’t take many selfies, but I thought it was the only way to prove I actually got in! The coldest bit of the day was the drying off in the cool corrie breeze.

Looking back down Glen Callater towards home.

Seven hours after I left the Auchallater car park, I was back at the van. Feeling pretty clean actually after my mid-walk bath. I took my GoPro along so take a look at the film below. I’m not naked, that would be unpleasant for most people, other than my wife. And will I do this again? Will I take my swimming goggles to other baltic (cold, not Eastern European) lochs and waterways for a walk? Probably. But I need a wetsuit.

Grid Square Journeys no. 1 – NO 1114 (West Dron Hill and Pitkeathly Loch)

The coronavirus lockdown of the last 10 weeks has finally started to ease a little. On Thursday, 67 long days after it started, Nicola Sturgeon signalled the start of phase one of the lockdown relaxation. I can go to a garden centre (not unheard of, they usually do awesome cakes), play croquet (unlikely but if desperate, you never know) and mingle with one family a day, as long as we remain socially distanced and take our own cutlery. I loved how the First Minister specifically mentioned this at the briefing, as if she had already fully planned her own first barbecue in a post lockdown world. A lovely example of a politician in touch with what her constituents might be asking about.

Hill walking is now back on the agenda, as long as you don’t drive, remain within five miles of home and stay within your own personal limits.

We moved house on November and one of the advantages of daily exercise since March has been the chance to get to know my new local area in a way I probably couldn’t have done in a non-covid age. The lovely Spring weather has been perfect for this. Despite the hardship of the last few months, a rain-sodden spring could have made it even tougher.

As well as exploring my new ‘hood, this year I had made a full year plan of microadventures which didn’t quite get moving. I’m also keen to refresh my navigation skills and I’ve been thinking about a way to tie all this up in a nice, neat package. And so I give you….. grid square journeys. In my head, if it’s done correctly, it would look like this:

The premise is simple. Walk around a grid square on an OS map. Or any other map. A friend of mine on Instagram was looking at maps of The Shire last night. A grid square journey around Hobbiton or Rohan or The Lonely Mountain would be pretty mind blowing.

Anyway, you can choose the square. Those squares are built up from the blue lines that go from left to right and up and down on a map and cross each other regularly creating the grid effect. One square is 1km long in each direction so making a total perimeter of 4km (plus don’t forget to add the distance to get to your chosen square).

The simplicity appeals and this is a much shorter distance than I’d usually go for, but I wanted to see the 360o view of a square, seeing all that it has to offer from every angle. Every rabbit hole, every cave, every pimple hill or mountain.

But the real clincher is navigation, using only a map and compass. No GPS, no phone (other than turning your tracker app on at the start and end to log your route and see how you got on) or any other help. It was a challenge, how close could I get to a perfect square?

There are so many squares to choose from. Some easy, some hard, some so remote you’d need to cover the distance of three OS maps to get too. I started close by (within the 5 mile limit imposed by the Scottish Government) and on a lovely, sunny and warm day. So here goes.

I was going to journey round square NO 1114, which was actually a bit challenging, with hill ground (West Dron Hill), plantation and a loch to consider on my route, the healing waters of Pitkeathly Loch no less. I might have needed those waters as it had been so long since I laced up my boots. But it’s a hill I wanted to explore, and shouldn’t a challenge be fun and pique your interest as well? So up I went, along the back road to the start of the Wallace Road and up over the hill.

Forward toward West Dron Hill.
Backwards towards Bridge of Earn
On the Wallace Road heading towards West Dron Hill Farm.
A fenceless gate on Dron Hill
Found a geocache on the way up, near the gate.

By the time I reached the top, I was feeling the heat but it was a gorgeous day and I decided on a start point for my grid square saunter. I wasn’t going to just start on the grid square, I needed to navigate to it too. So on the map further east of my square you’ll see an old ruin marked West Dron Hill Farm. That would be where I started.

And I set to work. I worked out my direction (pretty easy on a grid square I know…), how long it would take (in distance and duration), any dangers to look out for and how I’d know I’d reached my destination. I’ll include all the info for each stage at the end for those who might be interested.

West Dron Hill Farm to the grid square.
Am I in the right place?! Looks like I’m wearing a pork pie hat. Which I wasn’t.
Maybe including a plantation was a bad move. It was pretty hellish moving around in there.
I had to make a few detours for gorse bushes.
How am I getting up there! (Pitkeathly Hill)
Pitkeathly Loch. With added gorse. I couldn’t find a way to the top of Pitkeathly Hill so I handrailed around the east side of the loch until I reached its tip.
Easier going at last.
And back near at the start of the square.

How did I get on? Let’s see. Here’s my information. The first few lines are what I use for measuring 100m and the rough time I take. Then each block is a section of the walk. Each section has my start and end point. Under that it has my bearing, my distance, the grade of terrain, the number of double steps, the time I estimated and in brackets is the actual time it took.

As I said the only time I touched or looked at my phone was at the very start to turn it on, and at the very end to turn it off. And I was so hopeful to see how I’d done.

I suppose it could have been worse. The first two sections were pretty ok. The plantation section was awful and the trees and undergrowth made staying a straight line pretty difficult. The gorse hampered my progress on a number of occasions. And it’s triangle!!!!! Not a square! I can’t really explain why that happened. My phone could have lost the signal? There is a wind farm in the area, I walked right under some of the turbines, could that have affected it? Where it stopped is also where I had my lunch, so maybe stopping for a wee while caused an issue with the app.

Whatever happened, it’s a start. I had a fab day in the hills, never far from home, I practised my navigation (and realised I’m in need of lots more practise…..) and I found a new way to explore the hills. And next time, my square will be squarer.

Well. Are you going to give it a try?

Shall I have Summit to Eat?

Cairngorm summit, early yesterday. I’d have stopped for lunch if it wasn’t for the following reasons:

The wind was gusting at about 50mph.

The temperature/windchill was around -5C.

The views were non existent.

It was only 10am…

Berwickshire Coastal Path: Berwick to Eyemouth

A few pictures from a recent walking trip with our new van.

Sunday morning rear view at St Abb’s harbour.

Berwick Coast Watch building.

A sea cave near Berwick.

Needles Eye formation.

Old Smugglers cottage at Lamberton Skerrs.

Partanhall at Burnmouth.

Bernie getting tucked in by the sea on Saturday night.

And the Sunday morning sunrise.

and the film…

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