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Posts tagged ‘hills’

Boots that were made for walking

 

They’re irreplaceable old friends that  have accompanied me for a thousand miles or more. Every step of the way.

I never imagined, when I bought them five years ago, that the distances they’d travel would be so vast or that they’d transport me on adventures that are still reshaping my life. I thought they’d be just occasional acquaintances, brought out to play on odd weekends.

But gradually the high heels and cowboy boots were discarded, the sandals and wellingtons laid aside and for the last two years they’ve been my default footwear, whether it’s climbing hills or boarding the steps of aircraft. Bare feet are the only better option.

They walked the Camino: 500 miles across Spain, climbing high over the Pyrenees and skimming the dust of the Meseta, kicking over woodland tracks and along the sides of hot motorways. They pounded the industrial suburbs of major cities and trod gently on the smoothed stone of ancient cathedrals. They carried me all the way to Santiago.

They walked more warily on the exposed ridges of  New Zealand’s Kepler Track, strapped on snowshoes in the wilds of Ontario and slipped into the stirrups of Ginger to explore the wilderness at the far end of Lake Wakitipu.

But (like their owner, I fear) they’re showing some signs of wear and tear. The once deep, rutted tread is worn smooth and unsafe. Holes have cracked open along the seams and they’re no longer watertight. I worry that their long adventurous days of crossing moors, hill paths, heather and rock are numbered but admire how they have matured and now tell a story of the bumps and scrapes experienced along the way; not least the mushy mess that replaced my little toe for a week in Spain.

But how do you say goodbye to such trusted friends?

Almost guiltily I’ve started to research brands and prices. After five years of skipping the footwear section of outdoor stores, I’m being drawn to pick up and assess the alternatives. I haven’t tried any on but one of these days I’ll have to invest and break in replacements though I’ll never dispose of them, and on dry days and gentle slopes they’ll be taken out of retirement.

Many years ago I tidied the attic and found the tattered trainers and broken skateboards my son had been hoarding. Callously, I  consigned them to the bin. He threatened to leave home unless they were retrieved so I complied, of course, but didn’t understand.

I’m sorry Ali; I get it now.

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The summit of Ben Lomond

Immersed in the West

It’s misty and moody and I just can’t stay away.

Scotland’s west coast has been calling me this summer and I’m no sooner away than I’m back. I’ve walked through showers and downpours then wakened in the tent to pools of water in the “porch” and a wee cowerin’ beastie (not a rat or mouse or vole – so what was it?) nestling under my rucksack. That was a surprise; for both of us.

I follow hill tracks and paths with a head full of Bonny Prince Charlie, clan battles and  Highlanders, between mountains and alongside rivers in spate; near Glencoe,  Black Mount and onwards to Kingshouse below the Buachaille Etive Mor.

And I’m going back again today. Stob Binnean and Ben More are the big hills that beckon my old walking pal and I. There’s rain forecast, of course, but we’re undaunted.

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Walk the WHW (if you dare)

The West Highland Way is Scotland’s best known long distance path, but nobody seems to have informed the cattle that it’s a right-of-way. Or maybe they were just a bit weary of the endless hikers on a May holiday weekend and decided to stage a protest.

I’m not frightened of cattle  (although these girls had a definite glint in their eyes) but I spotted a few folk who preferred to take a huge detour rather than run the gauntlet. Pamplona’s Bull Run would be the Camino’s equivalent, I suppose  – although I don’t remember any pilgrims signing up for that either!

 

 

On the edge of the Atlantic

 

Hill lochans, peat bogs and wild flower machair stretch out behind me; I’m on the white shell sand at the edge of the Atlantic, gazing out at hazy St Kilda, forty miles away. Beyond that it’s Canada.

I’m just the latest to stare out from the western shore of North Uist across thousands of miles of sea to wonder about friends or family on the “other side”. Hundreds left from here in the early 1800s, bound in the main for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Desperation drove them on perilous one way journeys because they couldn’t afford to pay high rents on their small crofts and there was no mercy from the landowners who effectively “cleared” them from their land.

Maybe that’s why this feels such a fragile, poignant place; it’s haunted by the memories and the longing of families who’ve gazed for two centuries from either side of the ocean. You hear ancient whispers in the western wind and sense a long sorrow for the loss of homeland.

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Stretching time

It has been passing too fast, this gap “year” of mine and it seems I’ve now overrun my original 12-month deadline. Thirteen months and … well, who’s counting? Best not. I’ve been stretching it out, packing in adventures, travels, walking,  sunshine, encounters and as much writing as I can before my nomadic lifestyle comes to an end and I have to work again.

The hills have been an enduring focus. Two of the most memorable were Beinn Chabhair and Ben Cruachan in Argyllshire; brutes of mountains which demanded long days and big effort. We started late after mornings of rain spent reading in the tents but Chabhair eventually rewarded the steady slog with evening sunshine and outstanding views. There was no desire to leave the summit so we dallied and gazed at the ranges of hills, trying to work out the names of different peaks, returning to camp too late and tired to cook. We pooled resources and shared beer, chocolate and yoghurt – a walker’s feast.

But Ben Cruachan was a different matter. It has been a target for a long time and it lulled me upwards, almost promising all day that the clouds on the summit would clear as I reached through them to the top.

But for once I wasn’t lucky. I’m a fair-weather walker so the last few hundred feet of navigating through mist over rock slabs was a disorientating experience which I’m not keen to repeat. I turned back once, only to meet a couple of serious climbers then follow them sheep-like to the summit. Finding a route back on my own was scary.

Then it was back up to Sutherland to climb Canisp, the elegant swirl of hill I admired from the summit of Suilven in the springtime. I could P1010343gaze all day at the wonder that is Suilven … But Sandwood Bay beckoned still further north across the moors.

What a day of late summer sunshine, the magnificence of Ben Stack, Foinaven and Arkle poking stark out of the expanse of Sutherland’s heather and moorland.  I want to return to camp there, miles from roads and houses and people and take time to enjoy its peace. Next year.

I camped in the pine woods of the Cairngorms and on the coast  in Fife; I spent three days in Stirling at the “Bloody Scotland” crime writing festival listening to successful writers discuss their books and making friends (and commiserating) with like-minded aspiring authors. One woman had written 18 novels and published them online to acclaim yet still can’t attract a publishing deal. What hope for the rest of us who’re still struggling to finish our first?

But despair in pointless (while procrastination is not) so I jumped on a cheap flight to Bordeaux to rewalk parts of last year’s Camino more slowly. And visit Pamplona, Estella, Bilbao and finally the lovely French town of Bayonne.

And now I’m going to stop and stay still for a while. I’ve arranged to rent a little cottage for the winter; it’s by a beach and it has a fireplace. I don’t need more.  Hibernation suddenly feels like another exciting adventure. I’m going to enjoy the sound of the waves at the door, to walk in all weathers and finish my story.

And in the springtime? Time, I hope, will stretch.

Hooked on the hills

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They’ve become an obsession.

Their remoteness has always been a draw: the feminine outlines or brutal  ridges, the ruins of summer sheilings on lower slopes, the  heather in autumn and the beauty of winter snow can’t fail to inspire, but this summer they’ve somehow filled all the space in my head and called me in the way the Camino de Santiago did last year.

I go to bed with a bundle of maps then pore over routes on the internet. My dreams are full of the tops I’ve climbed or the views of other hills I’ve seen from summits during the day. I check mountain forecasts and have my car permanently packed with camping gear in readiness for a rapid escape.

P1040534Heaving my body up more than 3000ft in the space of a few hours isn’t a pretty sight: there’s the red face, the sweat, endless glugging of water from hill streams, stops to catch my breath and  internal debate about why the Hell I’m doing it. For pleasure? Really?

But then when the view opens up below and there are just a few feet to go to the cairn on the top the pain is forgotten.

Yesterday, after resisting temptation for months, I bought the Scottish hillwalkers Bible: The Munros. It was my consolation for being back in the city after two days when I camped near Tyndrum and climbed Beinn Dubhchraig and Beinn Oss, two lumps of hill which were shrouded in mist in the morning but cleared to spectacular sunshine just as we reached the second summit. A few days earlier I’d climbed Ben Lomond and the weekend before it was Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas.

Before they were all just names: iconic views from below or pictures on calendars and in coffee table books. Now I can stare up and remember: I’ve been there and it was so much more beautiful from above.

It might be a temporary phase, a passing passion. But “The Book” is open beside me and my socks are almost dry on the line.

If the sky is clear tomorrow…

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Heading into the hills

It can take a lot of plotting, planning and scheming to find a way into one of the most spectacular pieces of wilderness in Scotland.

Unless you have the time and energy to carry a pack for days,  you first have to negotiate your way through a padlocked gate which bars entry to most vehicular traffic. Local knowledge and being able to utter  the “magic words” overcame that controversial barrier.

But the first 16 miles of bumpy road  up the Glen Strathfarrar track were just the beginning. More scheming had resulted in a rendezvous and the opportunity to hitch a lift on a boat all the way up remote Loch Monar.

View from my tent

View from my tent on the shore of Loch Calavie

That gave us a fascinating insight into the way of life for folk who live up here all year round and a summit by summit commentary.

By the time we reached the stalkers’s house at Pait and finally heaved on our rucksacks to walk five miles further to Loch Calavie we had taken a few shortcuts and learned a lot. Choosing a campsite beside the loch was a great piece of advice.

We pitched our tents near the shore and set off on the slog up Lurg Mhor, the 986m hill which rises straight up from the loch. It’s known  as Scotland’s most remote Munro and it’s a steep pull up to the summit cairn.

From here we were close to the neighbouring and (to me at least) terrifying Meall Mhor summit. I preferred to turn my back on it and look west instead, over the sea to Rum, Skye and the wonder of the jaggy Cuillin Ridge.

Evening view to Skye and the west from the top of Lurg Mhor

Evening view to Skye and the west from the top of Lurg Mhor

We considered tackling Bidean a’Choire Sheasgaich. It was close but would require another couple of hours of effort at the end of an already long day.

Instead we enjoyed the long walk back across a  mossy hillside carpeted with wild flowers to stop for the day and cook down beside the water. I fell asleep to the sound of birds and the scent of a Highland hillside in June. No midges. No phone signal or internet access. Just peace and the stars.

Sutherland Trail: Suileag Bothy

Back in the bothy we were shivering. The air was damp and our bags had been too heavy to carry  fuel for the fireplace. Yet our timing had been only slightly out as I’d met people on the hill who’d had a great roaring coal fire and company the previous evening. But we were alone with only matches and a few kindlers to burn. It was barely enough.

We boiled water, made soup and pasta then at 8pm, wearing every piece of warm clothing in our rucksacks, we crawled into sleeping bags to drink hot chocolate. It was bedtime in the bothy.

P1030680Just before midnight I woke up. A full howling storm was battering our tiny stone house, torrents of rain pelting down on the noisy metal roof and rattling windows which looked out to the dark hulk of mountain. I lay and listened, absorbing the full might of the weather and idly pondering (as you do through the night) how the modern roof was attached to the ancient walls and just how secure it might be. Occasionally there would be a respite and then the wind whirled around us, sucking up enough energy to batter and blast with wave after relentless wave of fury. Rain soaked in under the shaking doorway and somewhere at the far end of the bothy another door banged all through the night.

How fortunate that we had retraced our steps and not camped as originally planned. It would mean an extra few kilometres walking in the morning but for now we were safe and dry. And finally warm.

 

Riders in the storm – and a kidnapping in Triacastela

I’d been emailing my son for four weeks, waxing lyrical about the heat and endless hours of Spanish sunshine. I’d written about the regular stops at cafés, the cathedrals, culture, wine and food. So, lured by balmy temperatures and the alfresco lifestyle, he agreed to come and walk with me for the last 120km to Santiago.

And then, just as he was flying into the country, we entered Galicia.

Image 2We climbed to the top of O’Cebreiro then higher to Alto do Poio where, at 4380ft, Galicia showed us it was made of sterner and more demanding stuff then the regions we had left behind. Waterproofs went on for the first time in four weeks and instead of shielding me from the sun, my trusty (tied down) Tilley hat had to keep out the worst of the storm that lashed down on my head.

P1000497We shared some of the narrow paths with horses – caballos – today and the smell of leather, thornproof waterproofs and damp animals was intoxicating. But for once I wasn’t envious of the riders in their heavy ponchos who looked cold and uncomfortable as the rain poured down and they had to negotiate their way around the endless stream of drenched travellers.

But being a Scot I was thrilled by the onset of the spectacular wild weather and found myself singing John Bunyan’s  “To be a Pilgrim” for most of the 10 long kilometers down the hill to Triacastela, on paths that were being washed away into streams that filled our boots with water and gravel.

ImageThe nearest albergues were full when we arrived but at one an old Spanish lady called Olga loitered near the desk. She beckoned and urged us to follow her into the street where we found ourselves hijacked in her rickety car and speeding down the road to some (costly) bunks in a renovated garage! In dire emergency, perhaps, it would have been a Godsend. But it hadn’t yet come to that. We escaped.

In the end we waded in to Albergue Aitzenea, a stone building where our old pals Nathan and Carmen greeted us as they sat writing at a table. I bagged a bunk for Robbie and we all went to dinner round the corner with French Jeanine who had taken photos as we walked. Then Robbie arrived in a taxi and was integrated into camino life with an evening of laughter, stories, wine and a 10-euro three-course meal.

And the downpour outside made it feel just like home.

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