Thursday, 19 June 2014

Hold the mustard

27 degrees! You'd think that would be far too hot to be running about daft and chasing thrown sticks. Trouble is, with a Colllie you just cant say no. It's just not fair to leave them cooped up all day then not give them a chance to stretch their legs later on.

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We ventured out to the park late in the afternoon. I couldn't be bothered to be honest. I was hot and tired with sore feet after a particularly difficult day at work.

The morning was spent trying to make sense out of a complex wiring diagram and trying to work out why this particular PLC output card had decided to self destruct. After eventually tracking it down, the afternoon was spent wishing I had three hands whilst being wedged in an impossibly small space underneath the machinery and wielding a soldering iron to repair the damaged cable that had ruined my day...and this was all completed while wearing a cleanroom suit (think tellytubby outfit!) and safety glasses that wouldn't stop steaming up.

As I said, I was hot and tired with sore feet but we went anyway. I thought the place would be heaving with folk out enjoying the fine weather but was surprised to find the car park empty and we never met a soul as we wandered along the trail with the sunlight filtering through the trees.

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The quiet was only broken by birdsong and the rustle of the branches as a squirrel darted along in front of us. The mutt must have been roasting too as she made a beeline for the water when we got down the river. She flopped herself down and refused to come back (which isn't like her) so eventually I went down through the trees to get her.

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It looked so cool and inviting that it wasn't long before we were both in having a paddle. My work frustrations were leaving me as I waded deeper and deeper. With the water level being so low, it only came half way up my thighs at the deepest point and what can occasionally be a torrent was now just lazily meandering alongside the path.

I don't think either of us wanted to leave our slow moving oasis of calm so we followed it for as long as we could before the path we needed and the river went their separate ways.

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I'm glad we went for the wander now. A wee hour or so escaping the heat and pressure of the day. There's a lesson to be learned here I'm sure.

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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Salomon Fellraiser Review

The sharp, pungent aroma of wild garlic invades my nostrils as I inhale in deeply. My fast, rhythmic breathing and the occasional swish as my fingertips brush the fern fronds aside are the only sounds to disturb the gentle birdsong in the air. I'm gliding noiselessly through the forest. Fleet footed, swift and agile like a mountain hare. This is what's happening in my mind...although in reality I suspect what's really happening is that all the forest creatures are scrambling over each other in a blind panic, as they scatter and try to get out the road of my lumbering frame as it comes crashing and thundering through the undergrowth. Any dog walkers that I happen to pass are also probably wondering whether or not they should phone an ambulance for the man with the bright red, sweaty, baw-face that's making strange wheezing/whistling noises on every out breath as he hurtles past!

Yes, I've taken up running. Again. I've been here before, a few times in fact, and it always ends in misery with me giving up due to the pain in my calves/shins. Having reached a plateau with my cycling related weight loss coupled with the fact that cycle commuting may not be on the cards for much longer anyway, I was determined to have another bash at running. With the steroids I take to keep the Sarcoidosis at bay it seems I need regular cardio activity to prevent me ballooning up.

Having done a little research it appears my previous running injuries were all "over use" related and possibly, I thought, related to the fit of my footwear. With this in mind I decided to visit the nice people at Run4it and ask the advice of someone in the know. Turns out that because you place your foot more carefully when trail running that they don't make shoes for over-pronaters/supinators. They had me on the treadmill regardless, and after patiently answering all my stupid questions I tried on various pairs and eventually left clutching a pair of Salomon Fellraisers.

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Looking at the construction of the shoes they certainly live up to their inspiring name and I must say my first impressions are very good indeed. It's like they've stolen the best bits from both the XA pro 3d and the Speedcross and come up with these. I love both those shoes so I had high hopes for these.

As you would expect they are nice and lightweight yet tough feeling. The sole unit is similar to the Speedcross with its super aggressive multi directional lugs that are impressively deep. The upper has a wider toe box reminiscent of the XA pro 3d fit and a tough, stiff protective material around your toes that extends the full length of the shoe and around the heel making it very supportive and shrugging of scrapes and bumps. The mesh on the uppers is quite open and very breathable, we'll need to see how this lasts over time but it doesn't feel fragile. They come with the standard Salomon speed laces which I think are pure genius and should be fitted all footwear everywhere. There's a mesh cover over the tongue to stop debris getting in which so far has been very effective and speaking of that tongue, it's huge. It looks like it should get in the way but it doesn't. If anything, it helps you tuck the laces inside the wee pouch on it after tightening a little bit more easily.

Compared below with one of my old Speedcrosses in yellow....

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I've been using them pretty hard over the last month and so far I'm pretty damn impressed. We've become best pals and if they wear well over time, we'll stay that way I think. The wider toe box allows for my feet to spread when running which relegates my Speedcrosses to walking duties only. I've found the forefoot to be very stable when running and those lugs bite deeply into the soft mud and leaf litter in my local park allowing for some pretty fast but confident descents. The heel cup is supportive and the close fit of the sock like upper holds my foot snugly. The sole unit is nicely cushioned too but not overly so, you can still feel the trail underneath you. I'll admit, I was expecting those deep lugs to feel a little squirmy on harder ground but so far I can't say I've noticed it. Maybe they're a harder compound than the Speedcrosses or just slightly smaller?

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As for the running itself? well so far it's been enjoyable. Mostly. I'm taking it easy, building up my distance slowly and listening to my body. Injuries have been avoided so far and I feel a good bit fitter already...although I'm not sure whether that's just a perception or actual reality. It's also just nice to escape to the outdoors every other day and spend an hour or so in the peace and quiet. Anyway, here's some proof I've actually been out running in these shoes...just try to ignore the wibbly wobbly bits though, they're the reason I'm running again!


Friday, 16 May 2014

Damp dug diaries

This write up's a little late (nearly a fortnight) but there's been some things and stuff going on in work and life that have kept me away from the keyboard for a while. I'm determined to write this one up before it fades though, as it was an important one for both me and the dug. Nellie dug's first wild camp!

After seeing an old hill in a new light a few weeks earlier, I decided that we'd continue in the same vein and try our luck at another summit previously missed while it hid in the murk. Having been up Beinn Maol Chaluim before I got a little complacent about the planning and just pulled the maps I'd printed in the past. Then I found myself halfway through a second bottle of plonk before finally deciding "Screw, it, I'll pack in the morning". A long lie, a meagre breakfast and realising that half your kit isn't where it's supposed to be while an excited dug gets under your feet didn't make for the most relaxed of starts to an adventure. A few hours drive later though and I could just about physically feel my muscles unwind as the tension and stress left my body at a rate directly proportional to the wonder of the scenery outside. It doesn't matter how many times I gawp out the car window at it, it always has this effect on me.

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Glen Etive was busy wee haven with quite a few folks camping "informally" along the roadside. We passed a myriad of brightly coloured tents and folks fishing or just lazing about as we threaded our way deeper into the glen. I don't quite understand the attraction of this sort of camping (so close to a road) but it all looked quite pleasant without the neds and general bad press this sort of activity sometimes gets.

I parked the Landy up in the same spot as last time and set about changing footwear and sorting out my pack while the dug danced around me, champing at the bit and desperate to get going. It was getting a little late in the afternoon to be starting out, even for a wildcamp and I usually add on an extra hour or two to my times as I know I'm a little slower these day's. The weather forecast was telling me that while the tops were just clear of the clouds just now it wouldn't be the case later.

We set off at a brisk pace and immediately I found the first uphill gradient as tough physically and mentally as the last time I slogged up it. I remembered every wheeze as I forced my lungs to keep up with my legs but up it we went, slowly and steadily.

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After the initial torturing of lungs and eventually legs the contour lines got a little further apart and the going got a little easier. We were still climbing and settled into a pace that allowed us to make good progress and and yet still find time to fanny about scrambling up the rocky outcrops for no reason other than that we could. We had the mountainside to ourselves, despite all the holidaymakers down below, and every step was a delight. It's hard to describe the joy gained from pushing through the effort and climbing mountains to those that just don't get it. Yes, it can be hard going at times but it's always, always worth it. Usually.

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We got to the first tiny wee lochan a little below where I camped the last time and stopped for a drink and a snack. The tank was empty and I was starting to wonder if that was the real reason I had struggled earlier. There had been a little drizzle in the air that now turned into drops big enough for me to pull on my waterproof top and then I heard the familiar rumble of a Sea King starting to bounce around the hillside. I scanned the clouds above and reached for the camera but it was fairly shifting across the sky and I only just managed to get a couple of shots before it disappeared from view. I hope they were just in a hurry to get home for dinner and not responding to someone in trouble.

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Fed, watered and wondering where that chopper was off to, we set off again. The rain had stopped and the terrain was getting steeper again and there was the occasional requirement to put hands on rock as we worked our way up the shoulder to the broad ridge just above us.

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This was where it was all new to me now. I hadn't seen the views from up here before and again I was glad I saved the top of the ridge for a day that the weather would allow me to see them. The ridge is fairly wide with plenty of potential camp spots but it's still a nice shapely bugger all the way to the summit. Just shows you don't always need a knife edge for it to be breathtaking.

The snow had all but gone up there leaving just a few patches here and there on the north eastern edges. With Nellie being Nellie, she kept wanting to run out onto them (she's the same with streams/lochans etc) but I couldn't tell if there were any corniced edges left until I got closer to them myself. I knew that it was unlikely there would be anything substantial left overhanging up here with all the melt but you don't ever want to take the chance. It's the sort of mistake you might only get to make the once! As a result, the lead was almost deployed a few times while we practised walking to heel.

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As we wandered our way along, the cloud base was getting lower and lower and it seemed we were racing it to the summit. We won, but only just. It had been just grazing the higher tops around us but when we arrived it felt and looked so close and blanket like that I wondered if you'd be able to see my head if I stood up for photos. Judging by the height of the tops around us that it was touching I reckon it must've been around 80-90metres above us, but nonetheless it was an eerie feeling as it gradually got closer and closer.

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We wandered around for a bit peering under the grey cotton wool blanket at the views then found a wee flat spot just beneath the summit. Comfort was the top factor in site choice as I knew it wouldn't be long before the view would be obliterated. The rain started again which spurred me on to throw the tent up a little faster. I'd hoped to be able to take my time with this as I knew I'd have to coax Nellie inside with the promise of treats etc. She can be a little nervous of new things and people. The prospect of a damp dug in such a small space meant that it's quite possible I've set a new world record for speed pitching a Laser Competition. Just a pity the only witness was a curious wee Collie. Eventually though she came in beside me and we got settled in for the night.



After we both dried off and had our dinners it was actually quite cosy in there. I'd been worried the Laser Competition would be a little coffin like with the two us but she fit fine and snuggled down in the wider part of the inner by my side. The wind speed was very low which helped keep her calm I suspect. I alternated between reading and dozing until I dropped off completely. I slept right through until the pale morning light filtered through the layers of mist outside and woke me. Nellie's first overnight in the mountains had been a success. My previous imaginations of having to descend back to the Landy in the dark and fog with an unhappy dug that wouldn't settle were banished to be replaced with two content souls enjoying a lazy morning in a tiny wee red tent. Does it get any better than this?

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It wasn't to last though as eventually she wanted out for a toilet stop and then after breakfast she was raring to go again. It's her routine at home though so I left her to sniff and explore around outside while I ate my own breakfast and then eventually broke camp.

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Navigation required a little care in the poor visibility so we took our time picking our way through the cloud as we retraced our steps. I'm not sure exactly when I stopped following the compass bearings. I remember we kept seeing our footprints from the day before in the snow patches and I ended up just following the dug at some point. Then when we started losing height I realised that I could hear fast running water getting closer and closer? This wasn't right. I consulted the map and realised we had somehow started walking north east instead of south east at some point. I knew which slope we were on but not how far along it. We back tracked directly uphill and by keeping the banks of snow to our left we were able to easily pick up the trail again. A slightly embarrassing detour that I nearly never wrote down here but I suppose I want to remember this trip for what it was not just some glossed over and edited version. Besides, we'd never have met the ptarmigan laughing at us in the mist if we hadn't gone wrong.

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Dropping down under the cloud base was was both a relief and a joy to behold. It meant I could put the map away and rely on my eyes to both navigate and to take in the beauty of the mountain environment before us, wreathed in swirling tendrils as the mist beneath us broke up.

The ground was much soggier than the previous afternoon and it was slippy underfoot in some places but that's not why I deliberately slowed my pace. Everything was so quiet and peaceful. The landscape looked fresh, lush and inviting and it was clear that it was changing slowly from winter to spring/summer in front of us.

I slowed our descent to make it last as long as possible before we got back to the road and ultimately civilisation.

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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

ɪˈvɛntʃuəli

I've been waiting a while to do this one again.

I last climbed Ben Donich back in 2008 and there wasn't much to see except mist, cloud and rain that day. I've been going stir crazy waiting for a weather window to coincide with one of my day's off. I don't mind walking in poor weather but I like to be rewarded with a view for my efforts and there's no way I can be arsed camping if I know the conditions are just going to keep me tent bound. I'm not really sure if that's because I'm older and wiser now or if I've just gotten lazier?

Actually if I'm honest me and the Dug made an attempt to get up there on Thursday to try and catch the sunset but although the weather was crystal clear, the wind speed was just ridiculous. The poor mutt was being blown about like an empty crisp poke when it was gusting and I was having to use my trekking poles for support rather than to propel me along. After not much ascent we soon beat a hasty retreat back to the caravan for peace, quiet, beer and a book. Caravan? Yep that's right, we were in the area on holiday all of last week. A great week spent in glorious spring weather with plenty of walking but unfortunately no summits (It was a family holiday not a Sandy holiday!). I'll put the holiday snaps up later when I've sorted through them.

I still had the Easter/Bank holiday weekend to enjoy before going back to work so we fast forward to Sunday where the day was started with a long lie in, poached eggs on toast for breakfast and the quietest bank holiday drive I've had in many a year. I found the car park jammed full, forcing me to park a little "off road" so the logging trucks still have access...not really a problem for me though.

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It's not a massive hill day as you get a nice high altitude start from around 280metres which suited me fine as I'm a little out of practise at the old wild camping lark. I changed my shoes and socks, strapped on my pack and set off through the logs and trees to gain access to the the track that leads you up onto the broad ridge.

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It took me a little while to settle into a decent rhythm of walking that was sustainable. My legs are fine, it's just my lungs that won't keep up. I did find my pace though, and although I might be slower than "Mr Average" I was making good time. The views all around were opening up with almost every step. Clear blue skies, a warm sun and a stiff breeze to keep you cool. Perfect walking weather.

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I was enjoying myself massively and must've looked right state wheezing through a rictus grin. If you saw me, believe me it was definitely a grin and not a grimace! I counted the groups coming down as they passed. There were enough bodies to fill all the motors down below which was nice. I don't mean to sound like an anti social git but I was starting to imagine the summit plateau looking like the camp site for T in the park... I passed all sorts. Couples, families, groups, lone walkers a Dalmation and a Boxer, all heading down and telling me of the fantastic views up top. One guy I spoke to reckoned he could even see Ben Nevis.

Onwards and upwards I strode, stopping frequently to aim the camera and to marvel at the sheer beauty of the place. Why can't Scotland always be like this...or at least always be like this when it's my day off? Soon the terrain became rockier with boulders and craggy bits peaking out of the short grass. I found myself pausing to peer into the large cracks and crevasse like fissures this wee hill is famous for. I wouldn't like to step into one in winter! After scrambling down the wee interesting bit (hands on rock for about two steps) I took off my pack and had a wee poke about. I even clocked an almost completely hidden wee ledge come cave that would make a fantastic bivy spot, as long as you didn't roll over once too many times in the middle of the night! I'm not showing you it though as I might be back.

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After a few more steep sections the terrain flattened out somewhat into the sprawling plateau with grassy knolls and rises leading to the summit. I remember the last time I was here I had had to consult the map and follow compass bearings. The only time I looked at the map for this trip was when I checked it was the right one I was packing. It really was like climbing a different hill.

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Arriving at the summit I was stunned when I saw the view down Loch Goil despite the fact I had just spent the previous week admiring it from much closer! Why had I ignored this hill for so many years? I think it was at this point Ben Donich was just upgraded to the top of my list of favourite hills. It's got everything you could want. It's not that big a hill day, the views are stunning in every direction, you're surrounded by all the bigger, more popular Arrochar Alps (Even if the Cobbler is the wrong way round) but without feeling hemmed in. There's plenty of potential camp spots and there's even a tiny wee Lochan or two to supply you with water. I'll not be leaving it another 5 years before my next visit, that's for sure!

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Still awestruck with the magnificence of this wee gem I'd rediscovered, I quickly found a camp spot that looked comfortable, reasonably sheltered from the brisk breeze and that would afford me the prime viewing position for descent of the sun later on. I emptied the contents of my pack out and flung up the tarp before cracking open a beer to sip as I relaxed, wandered and lounged about the top.

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As the sun got lower, the shadows longer and the light more golden my thoughts turned to food. I was low on water and I don't think you can re-constitute freeze dried meals with beer no matter  how fine a drop it is. I took a wee trip to the wee lochan on the other side of the summit plateau, and of course I took the camera with me so that I can remember and you can enjoy too.

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Dinner was an enjoyable affair of pasta cabonara with a slightly peppery kick to it. One of the Bla Band range which I highly recommend as an alternative to the usual mountain house stuff. It was washed down with a second (and unfortunately my last) Duchess Anne from Strathaven Ales.

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After dinner I sorted out my kit, it was still in the pile I dumped earlier. Satisfied and with the chores done I could relax and enjoy the colours starting to creep across the sky as the firey orb above me sunk lower and lower. The breeze was picking up some more and swirling around a bit so I returned to the tarp and dropped the open side down with an extra guy line. I also pulled on my down pullover as the temp was dropping along with the sun. I must say I was as happy as a pig in the proverbial up there. The fireworks in the sky were sublime and I had the best seat in the house.

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When the colours had almost completely faded and the temperature had gotten even lower I climbed into my bag and settled back with my book. I thought I heard a voice? "Naw, must've been the wind" I said to myself and went back to reading. About 30 seconds later I near sh*t myself as a woman stuck her head round the tarp and said hello! She asked if I'd enjoyed the sunset and if that was my big green Landy in the car park, I nodded dumbly as I tried to pull myself together.  The wind was really biting now and then she bid me farewell and was gone before I could mumble another word.

As I hunkered down in my bivy/sleeping bag under the tarp my mind started to run riot. Who was the strange woman? Why did she ask me about the Landy? Were her and her unseen accomplice now going down to break into it and steal the radio or worse? Did car thieves climb Corbetts and Munro's first to scope out potential victims that are wild camping and blissfully unaware as they get done over? Could I identify the robber? I doubt I'd be able to put together a photo fit and all I could remember was that she was wearing Paramo. Do car thieves wear Paramo? Get a grip Sandy, she was just another walker who timed her summit with the sunset.

I dozed fitfully, snatching a half hour here and there as the tarp flapped and caught the wind with more and more vigour as the hands on my watch went round slowly. I love my wee tarp, it pretty much lives in my pack for day hikes now but damn that thing is noisy in a blow. It's a spinnaker one so very, very light but it rustles as it thrashes and flaps. I doubt I'd have slept any better in the Laser comp unless I had ear plugs in, but as this was the strongest wind I'd been under the tarp in I didn't feel comfortable just putting them in and shutting the noise out. At least until I was sure I could trust the shelter not to fly away. Next time maybe.

 At around 02:30ish I woke to the tarp hitting me in the face a lot harder than previous. A pole had moved slightly causing one of the guys to go slack. It may have been me who rolled into the pole or it could've been the wind but regardless it had to be adjusted. I nipped out and made the repair before diving back underneath where it was warm but noisy.



I must've dozed off again as the next thing I knew was that the sky was beginning to brighten with pale pre dawn light. I was tired but there was to be no more sleep for me. I dressed and  headed back over to the other side of the summit plateau to watch the sun come up. The moon was still bright and I could see the clouds scudding by over head as the dark blues became softer pastels. Any exposed skin was frozen as I faced directly into the wind to take my photographs. I took to hiding behind a rocky outcrop and only standing up every few minutes to see how the colours had changed. This wasn't as much fun as the sunset had been. Some of the clouds took a pink tinge to their edges but the whole show was a little too muted to justify standing still in the bitter wind. I was cold and tired so it wasn't long before I decided to return and break camp

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I decided it was too breezy to be bothered faffing with a stove so I would just pack up, head off the hill and have some breakfast at the Landy assuming the mysterious Paramo clad lady hadn't pinched it of course. I checked around my pitch to make sure there was nothing left and then set off. As I dropped from the summit I found I was less exposed to the scouring wind. The exercise got the blood flowing and the feeling returning to my fingers and then the sunrise proper happened.

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I walked off the mountain with the sky on fire!

The Landy was still there, unmolested and I enjoyed my cuppa as I changed out of merino and walking kit back into cotton like no other.

I'll be back on this wee mountain again. I guarantee it!

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