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.

Lock Skeen Sun

As I left my house this morning, I was dreaming of a Texas sun. Or at least that was the song I was listening to, by Khruangbin, as I drove south to pick up Dave and then on to the car park at the Grey Mare’s Tail, near Moffat.

Our packs laden with food and wood, our mood and spirits were high as we climbed the initially steep path past the numerous waterfalls and up towards Loch Skeen, our final destination for the night.

After a sedate couple of hours and a gradually reducing gradient we reached the loch that would be our bed buddy for the night. We set up our tents and settled for a cuppa and to check out the surroundings.

The Loch Skeen sun was replaced for a while by the Loch Skeen snow, although nothing could take away the beauty of our resting spot. I went on an explore and headed uphill from the waters edge.

As the fire was lit, so the sun gave us a wave.

The combined warmth of my wander and the fire meant time to cool off in the Loch. The water was chilly but I was in pretty quickly and swam across to the island.

Another cuppa was waiting as I pulled my shivering shorts out of the loch and dried myself off in front of the flames.

With our steps and strokes for the day completed, we settled into our chairs and chatted, mostly about when and what we would eat. Steak and tatties were on the menu. The weather continued to change regularly although with no real extremity. After tea we went to the loch outlet and some of the little bays further around this gorgeous loch.

The evening started to close in. Drops of snow coming and going and a growing breeze made us consider retreating to our tents. The water on the loch took on the look of the sea with the waters lapping the stony edge with increasing noise and power.

And then, the clouds slowly took flight, the water calmed to almost a mirror and the wind eventually vanished. Calm was restored and we celebrated with a whisky and some gentle political discussion and debate.

There are no trees around the loch. Just two small trees on a couple of little islands. And with the temperature forecast to be freezing, we’d come up with a whole trees worth of wood. We were glad of the warmth the fire gave us as the night went on.

Even the local ghost came close for a heat.

The next day started bright and warmed quickly. The light on the hills opposite quickly filled the giant bowl that the loch sits in.

Bacon for breakfast and The King flexed his cookery muscles once more.

Eventually we packed up, sad to leave our camp but refreshed by our time in the outdoors. After numerous “hi”s and “hello”s from the dozens of others coming up as we headed down, we reached the valley floor, resplendent in the Loch Skeen sun, and the van.

The snow arrived again just as we were about to drive off. We definitely weren’t in Texas, but then again, why would we want to be anywhere else?

Building a Den

Recently there have been a lot of weather, snow and wind and rain, but you might never have known it walking down the quiet wooded path. The only evidence of rain was the absolutely sodden ground we moved across. The light breeze moved the trees in the sunshine, throwing shadows across our muddy footsteps as we made our way to the spot I’d found a few weeks earlier.

It’s almost a year to the day since coronavirus closed schools for the first time and the opening up of business and leisure is keenly anticipated by all of us. Schools have just reopened after the second lockdown in Scotland and there is genuine excitement at being able to go to school and back to work.

But our world still feels very small and so Young Johnston and I decided to create a new world. Not very far flung of course, just far enough to give the impression of being far flung.

I’ve been watching far too much YouTube lately while napping Mini Johnston and I’ve come across a couple of channels that are totally absorbing, partly through the personalities involved and partly through what they get up to. The first channel is called Simon, a Bloke in the Woods and the second channel is called Kent Survival.

But undaunted, and seeing this as a first “draft”, we continued to build.

Inspired by their first class bush rafting and my own live if the outdoors, I located a nearby woodland, and found a spot just off the beat and track. Or so I thought until I saw all the dog walkers who use the field next door.

We started by building a skeleton, a sort of double lean-to.

More shell was added ready to tarp over and a wall/fire reflector was added at the front.

We found some Y branches and created some hooks that allow us to keep our bags off the ground. I also created a special mallet for Young Johnston. So he could hit things.

And hit other things.

The tarp was added to the roof, attached with cable ties, gaps filled with bracken and logs placed to stabilise the bracken.

We decided we need a bench, again to keep us off the ground.

You don’t go out with a 5 year old without taking a bag of snacks.

Young Johnston worked on his own little projects, like an extra seat and a flag pole.

We also added more fencing. Although there is more fencing to be done.

Our little homestead is really coming together. We have a back door into the den, we’re still discussing whether to close it off or not.

The view from the inside.

Looking up.

And where we have got to so far.

After all of that, we were shattered. Thank goodness we had a bed to lie down in.

More fencing is needed, especially if the back door remains, as that is the side the wind usually comes from. More bracken could go on the roof and there are also a couple of holes needing filled in the tarp.

It’s one of these projects that will probably never 100% be finished. Young Johnston is pretty proud of his efforts and rightly so. And today it was announced the “stay at home” message and national travel restrictions will go by April. It’s great to have a wee local outdoor base, but we’re also keen to get back into the van and go off exploring.

Castle Law Hill Fort

The doors are closed and locked on adventures far from home once more as coronavirus takes hold again. So close to home is the default option when scouring maps for places to explore. I’d seen the Castle Law hill fort from afar loads of times, often from the Dunning to Bridge of Earn road in the van, sometimes from the park in Forgandenny with Young Johnston.

Find out more about the fort here: http://hillforts.arch.ox.ac.uk/records/SC2994.html

It was so cold last night, the frost on the van was thick, snow-like and solid. -5 on the temperature gauge. But the sun was rising and the clouds were in hiding.

I passed the snow line and was slightly disappointed at what lay on the ground, you can’t craft snowballs out of powder. The views improved with every step looking west toward Ben Chonzie and back toward Bridge of Earn.

I passed what used to be Glenearnhill, an old farm, finding a bonus geocache in the old fireplace, and carried on up the last few metres to the top of Castle Law.

I reached the summit. In some ancient forts you struggle to spot the ditches or wall foundations. Today, even in the snow, the lines and curves here were clear.

The summit cairn included painted stones, a reminder of the virus. But my mind was lost in the hills and the snow and the sunshine. The views were stunning, with the shapes of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’ Chroin obvious in their winter coats.

The snow was so deep in places. But it was so powdery that getting a solid foothold was pretty tricky. I slid most of the way back to the old farm.

After lingering in the cold at the summit and marvelling at the fort and sliding most of the way down, my hands were like ice blocks. So I built a wee fire, created a cheese and tomato masterpiece and checked out the geocaching app again to find another treasure nearby. Turns out there are a few around the Law.

And after my second treasure find I started for home.

My route.

Lockdown has curtailed our outdoor adventures again but their is so much to see on our doorsteps that it’s a great opportunity for Microadventures. And with this walk today I achieved my 50 mile target for Doddie Weir’s DoddieGump challenge, raising money to help fund research into MND. Might have to try for 101 miles now. There’s lots more to see on my doorstep.

Good Lordy it’s coldy at Loch Ordie

Went on my first adventure of 2021 today to Loch Ordie, which is off the A9 between Dunkeld and Pitlochry.

The weather was beautiful. Cold, sunny and cloudless. And I spent a good part of my time at the loch being followed around by this Robin, even managing to photobomb me at the top of the stairs on the left as I pondered whether to get into the water. The ice covered water.

Hi Kev, said Robin.

A bit of walking and a bit of swimming. It was pretty cold today, but what a feeling to be in the water with my new friend, Robin.

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. 3 – NN 7941 (Meall a’ Choire Chreagaich and a Swim!)

For the third of my Grid Square Journeys, I needed to do some tweaking. I’ve used the same number of steps since I was first taught to navigate properly by Rich. But either old age or maybe too many injuries has meant my stride has started to change.

The last two squares has seen me finish short of my goal, so after a bit of thought and some measuring, I’ve added 6 double steps to each one hundred metres. I’ve altered my timing too and you can see at the bottom my new stats.

So here was the plan, up to the top of Glen Quoich, in the hills between there and Kenmore. Far from dirty camping and cramped honeypot parking. Meall a’ Choire Chreagaich, a small peak to walk round, with a wee loch and not too much height, looked great. I stopped at an abandoned cottage on near the head of the glen. Good stonework and a solid roof, the sheep have made it their home.

I parked up at a road end, just a km from the start of my route. Note the lack of another soul or car. Bliss!

The weather was a mix of showers and brightness, with only a tiny point of blue sky seen all day. The going was fine, lots of heather. I could see the munros of Glen Lyon and Loch Tay, as well as Schiehallion, although the tops were shrouded in cloud. Lunch was the chunkiest cheese sandwich I think I’ve ever had.

And how did I do?

Distance-wise, I think the new steps made a difference to my overall accuracy and each section measured about right. Timing was more accurate too. My bearing was a little off on the northern and southern sections, although not by far. I’m aware that the long distances invoked, a full km, mean any mistake is exaggerated the longer the section.

It’s looks like a square, so maybe I shouldn’t be too harsh on myself. Here’s the stats.

After I’d finished I passed Loch Freuchie and remembered a waterfall I’d seen when before so pulled in and went exploring. The falls are 2km from the road and about 15m high so the noise of the water as I approached grew more deafening.

Definitely time for a dip. Not so much swimming, more bobbing, as a friend described it.

Grid Square Journeys no. 2 – NO 1314 (Balmanno Hill)

Fort William has Ben Nevis. Pitlochry has Ben Vrackie. Auchterarder has Craig Rossie. Even the smallest of village usually has a local hill, even if it’s pimple sized, which stands guard over the population. Bridge of Earn has a few. Which is handy as we are still unable to travel for leisure much beyond 5 miles from home. This is the second of my grid square journeys and after West Dron Hill last time out, I moved a couple of hills east to Balmanno Hill. Find out more about grid square journeys at https://challengekev.blog/2020/05/30/grid-square-journeys-no-1-no-1114/.

I ran my finger over the paper map to find an appropriate square to explore. Not easy actually, and I’ll talk more about that later. Once I’d chosen my walking venue for the day, I got my gear ready and pulled the bike out of the garage. Here is where I was going here.

The start of my walk in was about 5km away and the bike was going to be a saviour, knocking 10km in total of today’s trip, which with plummeting fitness levels due to coronavirus and excess crisp consumption I felt was a good move. The bike trip was all uphill on the way there too. So the journey back would be a free wheeling extravaganza, something my feet would surely thank me for later. On the way there, I passed Balmanno Castle.

As I pedalled up the 12% gradient, I slowed to a crawl near the old railway line and pushed my metal horse the rest of the way up to the top.

With my helmet tied to the bike and the bike locked to a fence, hidden behind a bush, I started trekking up the hill. Big steps at first as I was so excited to be out and climbing, quickly tiring to baby steps as my energy vanished in the warmth. Like the last grid square journey, I wanted to start off the square and I was looking for a top, just to the west of a phone tower. You can see the tower in the picture below.

Looking back while I climbed, you could see all the way to Dundee along the Tay.

After an in depth discussion with some cows, who followed me from the tower to the next fence, either in curiosity or in menace, I discovered an old tractor. With the key still attached! That might prove useful if I was too tired to get home in the heat of the day.

I also spotted this beauty, flying right over my head, in the same menacing fashion which the cows displayed.

I reached the high point where I planned to start and plotted my route, working out the distance to the square, timings, steps etc. If you read my last post, you’ll know that last time out I had a run in with some gorse, which was determined to knock me of track. Look what was in wait for me below.

So right from the start, I had to manoeuvre around what was becoming my yellow nemisis. If my calculations were correct, I’d hit the grid square just to the west of the Balmanno Hill summit, handily marked by a trig point. Now it’s worth pointing out I was pretending I couldn’t see the trig point. The whole point initially with grid square journeys was that I practise my navigation, so that I can find my way home in poor or non existent visibility.

I finished just beyond the trip point and turned north, looking over Bridge of Earn itself.

With my next section plotted, I sauntered north towards the village enjoying the view, down what turned out to be a much steeper grassy slope than I saw on the map.

I stopped after completing my planned steps, a wee bit short of the trees. And it was clear from the map I hadn’t reached the north west corner of the square. This left me in a bit of a quandary. I knew I wasn’t at the corner of the square, I could see that from the trees (although it’s always possible that the trees are marked on the map incorrectly) and the height measurement I checked on my phone. But if I was on a hill where I couldn’t see anything, I’d have to rely on my skills without the benefit of sight.

I decided to move on from this spot, as if blind to the beautiful wind blown trees you can see below. That south westerly wind must be pretty strong up here.

I turned west, and after plotting my course started moving.

Into this.

My yellow nemesis had returned, in the same way the Daleks kept popping up to foil Dr Who’s plans. And when I looked up I could see where I needed to get to, just west of the point in front of me in the picture below. But I could find no way around or through the thick, spiky gorse bushes. As you’ll see from the map of my final route at the bottom of the post, I trailed a long way off course trying to find a way through the heavy gorse blanket.

I could see where I needed to get to. But in low visibility I wouldn’t. I’d only see the dalek bushes. I debated with myself what the best thing to do was. I decided to use my sight and height and worked out a route that would get me to that point.

Trees are much more friendly than gorse.

The next two pictures give you an idea of what I was facing in terms of spiky gorse hell. In the first picture, you can see the route I took. From the top right of the picture, you can see a line of clear ground to the woods, down through the woods to about half way, then out onto another clearing to a burn, then back up this side of the hill. But you can see some of the massed banks of gorse on the right.

And in this picture, you can see just how much of the hill is gorse covered at the moment. I had walked all the way round the top of the gorse bank that you can see to the top of the gorge on the right before turning back. And not a single spot of clear grass to walk down. Never mind a blanket, more a wall.

I was hungry and the top at the north west corner of the square made a fab lunch spot. Legs or hot dogs?

I set off south after lunch on much better ground and with no daleks to get in the way.

And then east.

Wood sorrel for snack time.

This tree is grasping the rock it’s growing on, gripping it’s base with roots like fingers.

I continued east, the peak of West Lomond in the background.

And then heading north. More gorse, but plenty of routes round it this time. You can see the trig point on Balmanno Hill in the centre top of the picture. After my lunch, I went back to poor visibility so was relying purely on my navigation and I was curious to see where I would finish in relation to the trig point.

And here is where I finished off. A little west of my final destination.

You can see the peaks of Beinn a’ Ghlo in the background.

So how did I do? Let’s see.

How critical shall I be? My navigation skills are getting better. I use the 5 D’s which are as follows:

  1. Distance – How far to the intended destination?

2. Direction – What is the bearing?

3. Description – What we see or feel on the way and what will the destination be like?

4. Duration – How long will this take? and

5. Dangers – Are there any hazards on the way?

I learned these from a fab mountain guide that I know, Rich Parker. You can find out more about Rich and navigation here: https://www.access-mountain.com/single-post/2015/10/25/How-to-avoid-geographical-embarrassement

I completed a full square this time which is an improvement on my last outing, although that push towards the middle of the square while trying to outwit the gorse gives the square a slight cracked window look. Here are my notes (first number is direction, second number is estimated distance, then comes my estimation of the ground, then estimation of double steps needed, estimated duration, and actual time in brackets):

So what have I learnt?

First, finding a good square is not always easy. There are a few other squares near me that would be easy to practise on, low level and fairly clear of any obstacles. At the moment though they are being used for crops by the local farmers.

Secondly, what are these grid square journeys for? I need to consider the purpose of these trips a little more. Should I consider myself blind, as if in a mountain whiteout when practising, ruling out the possibility of using what I can see to guide me? Or should I just go with the conditions and if I can see where I need to get to, use that information?

And thirdly, I need to think a little about the number of double steps and timings per 100m I base my calculations on. My timings in the last two journeys have been sometimes nearly dead on, while in others, they’ve been a fair way off. My stepping is more reliable but you can see from my route above that I’m generally short of my planned destination, the corners. Am I choosing the wrong ground difficulty, or are the numbers of double steps wrong? It could of course be both, I’ll dig around a little deeper and come up with a modification for next time.

And finally, I’m running out of local hills and decent grid squares that are close by. I hope the travel restrictions are relaxed soon. Maybe I need a tardis.

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