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.

Belnahua Bound

When the chance came along to visit the abandoned island of Belnahua, on the west coast, my immediate response was an unambiguous YES as the exploring nerves in my body all went into overdrive. A friend is writing a book partly based on the island and she was chartering a boat to go over and do some research. Belnahua in Gaelic means “mouth of the cave” and is one of the Slate Islands. Slate was taken from the shores of these islands and slabs of the rock were used to cover buildings and as grave and hearthstones. There is surprisingly little online about the island but you can find out a little more about the islands here: https://slateislands.org.uk/belnahua/.

After speaking to Young Johnston about a possible boat trip, he was in. And Dave decided to come too. So along with Katie, who organised the boat, our merry band of adventurers were looking forward to stepping from 21st Century Mainland life to 19th Century island life.

We left early on Saturday morning and arrived in Ellenabeich, a gorgeous village about 20 miles south of Oban, from where our boat would depart.

From the village you can see the Slate Islands as they stretch south over the Firth of Lorne. We went higher to get a better look. If you look near the top left of the photo below, you can see two islands, one in front of the other. The one at the front, that looks a bit like a submarine, is Belnahua.

Getting our buoancy aids on.

Our boat arriving to take us out to sea.

The trip over only took about 10 minutes but in that short time we saw some stunning views of the surrounding islands as well as some porpoise. Young Johnston was on GoPro duty and took some cracking photos. In my head, the soundtrack to the trip was “The Island” by Skippinish.

Our tropical weather was probably showing us a side of the island that slate workers wouldn’t see in mid-Winter storms. The island still has the remains of some of the quarry workings as well as old machinery and some of the old housing.

Not only were the rocks on the island great for slate, but they were peppered with fools gold.

We’d come prepared to swim so before lunch we got our trunks on and tested out the water. The similarities to the Caribbean continued as the fairly warm water lapped our legs.

The water in the quarries was so clear and a pleasure to swim or even just float in.

After a last walk around some of the old buildings and another swim, this time in the sea, waiting for the boat to come back, we took our last selfie and headed back across the water into 21st century Ellenabeich. We booked into the Aire/Airidh, walked up the hills behind the village and ate fish and chips and ice cream, enjoying the sunset and talking about the day we had just enjoyed.

If you’ve never visited the island of Belnahua, or any of the Slate Islands, I’d absolutely suggest you should. Whether for the walking, history, swimming or to see a different part of the country, this won’t disappoint.

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.

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?

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:

Really? …. More Shelving?!

When you own a house, you’re always saying you need more storage. For every new dress or outfit, you need a bigger or better wardrobe. When you buy extra kitchen rolls, because your young boys like to spill stuff, where do you keep them?

A van is the same. I built it with under bed storage, which seemed a good idea and is great for keeping the van tidy. There is loads of space under there too. Then I decided to make some shelves…. because… you know, I bought those extra camping mugs and I needed somewhere to put them…

Well, the new shelves were such a success I wanted to make more! Some would say having more storage means you just buy more things to fill it. As long as it’s bought in Tiso or GoOutdoors or some other outdoor emporium, I think I can live with that…

I cut some wood.

I fixed it together.

I oiled the wood with teal oil.

I added elastic to the bottom shelf to stop the small storage boxes I bought falling out.

I added the fittings for the two metal end shelves.

I placed the shelf unit in the van and started to install it. Some well placed brackets and it’s solid.

I re-organised some of my gear into the new shelves/boxes.

And here’s how it looks all finished.

The bed will now be smaller but can still hold two people. And there’s now more room for storing tents and other stuff under the bed. It’s great having a small table top now as well as part of the build.

I will need to stop building shelves. Otherwise there will be no room to sleep or sit. And the shelves aren’t full. So what shall I buy to fill them?

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.

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