With winter upon us I thought I’d dust down a previous trip report to whet the appetite for climbing Scotland’s munros in snow.
Some days, the right ingredients for a memorable walk just come together. This report describes one of Scotland’s best-loved hills, magical scenery and light, and rare glimpses of majestic wildlife.
I had ‘saved’ Buachaille Etive Mor for many years for a fine winter’s day and today didn’t disappoint. I left home at 7am on a dark, cold and frosty morning with the sun just rising by the time I reached Tyndrum. Passing a stag calmly overlooking the A82 just north of Bridge of Orchy, and the high clouds turning salmon-pink, I realised this would be a special morning.
Normally I would be watching the clock to get to the start of my walk at the allotted time, particularly when daylight hours were scarce. For today, however, the schedule could flex. By the time I’d reached the high point of the A82 overlooking Loch Tulla and the road had flattened out to cross Rannoch Moor I was just in awe of the fantastic colours lighting up the wispy high clouds in the sky. Stopping the car beside Loch Ba I soaked up the experience: silence; the bright moon still high in the sky and the Black Mount hills bathed in soft, orange light. Another couple of photo opps, finishing with a detour down the lane to the Kingshouse Hotel, provided some classic views of the Buachaille as the sun was beginning to rise. (Mental note: next time, pack the tripod for low-light exposures …).
Both the MWIS and BBC weather forecasts had suggested there could be a strong chance of a temperature inversion today, with cloud expected in a band between 300 – 900m. Fortunately, they’d got it wrong for the sky was relatively clear bar the occasional wispy cloud at around 800m blowing up the steep sides of Buachaille Etive Mor from Glen Etive.
Leaving the car in the Altnafeadh layby I followed the well-made path up Coire na Tulaich making quick progress. Many rocks were icy, though, and any lying water had turned to thick ice, so good footwork was essential. Another stag watched my progress for several minutes at the bottom of the gully. I was the first to hit the mountain that morning, shattering the silence of the pristine, crisp morning. I needed my crampons for the final 100m of ascent up steep snowy slopes (my kind of snow – compacted and icy – great for kicking into and determinedly ‘stepping’ up the hill). Topping out on to the ridge, the snow was patchy and hard enough to walk on without crampons, so they stayed back in my rucsac for the rest of the day.
- A short 20 min walk and I was at the summit of Stob Deag where the views were just stunning. While others were coming up the gully behind me, at least for a short while I felt I had the whole mountain top to myself. Space to breathe. To survey the awe-inspiring panorama of Scotland’s mountains. To sustain the spirit and feel alive.
All of the Glencoe hills, Mamores, Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries ridge, and Ben Cruachan were in full view in their snowy splendour. Schiehallion poked out of the early morning mist across the flatness of Rannoch Moor. Only out to the west coast did banks of cloud obscure the view.
As a largely solo walker I treasure the freedom and time to think that comes with being alone in the hills. I’m not (usually!) anti-social but it’s definitely a very different kind of experience to being out with others. That precious time passed once two other groups of walkers caught up with me – including a work colleague and friends from my home town (despite the vastness of the landscape, Scotland is a small world after all !).
In spite of the patchy snow, route finding was straightforward along the curved ridge over the two intermediate peaks – Stob na Doire and Stob Coire Altrium – before reaching the second munro, Stob na Broige. The only difficulty was caused by having to scramble over icy rocks in a couple of places. Light winds made for a fairly leisurely lunch stop overlooking the Buachaille’s little brother, Buachaille Etive Beag – and memories of a relenting pull up from Glen Etive with my other half in the late ‘90s and, an unsuccessful ascent with my Dad in deep snow one Easter in the mid ‘80s.
Frozen grasses, adorned with wind-blown ice, provided interest along the ridge. By now, high cloud created slightly hazier conditions and started to dull the light. But on the return from Stob na Broige on the narrow part of the ridge I had a real treat. A large brown/black bird of prey – I think a golden eagle – just hovered in the up-draft about 20 feet above my head. It slowed to inspect me, moving gracefully in the light winds for around 10 seconds, then flew away from the ridge down towards Glen Etive. At this point the other walkers were some distance from me and I felt really privileged to have shared – if briefly – a rare experience with such a majestic creature.
Now for the descent. The first section from the bealach between Stob na Broige and Stob Coire Altrium crossed a firm, frosty snowfield. Next up (beyond the snow line), frozen, tussocky grass. So far, so good – I could now see another well-constructed path below me. However, in order to reach the main path I needed to cross several large slabs of ice-covered rock. Fine, I thought, I can do this. I nervously picked my way between the patches of ice to find clear rock giving firm footholds. But it soon become clear this wasn’t going to be straightforward. The ice-free rock was getting trickier to find; meltwater had clearly been flowing freely over some of these slabs and patches of thick ice were commonplace. At one point I had to retrace my steps – to find an alternative route down. But here also the rocks were covered with ice. I only needed to cross about 4 ft of icy rock to get down to the next grassy stretch. I had a choice: go back up and look for another way round or somehow find a way to cross the ice. I chose the second option and gingerly stuck my ice axe into the nearest tussock of frozen grass. I slowly lowered myself over the thick ice and down to safety. Relief !
My relief was short-lived, however, since down in Lairig Gartain the stepping stones over the stream had grown thick layers of ice with the constant splashing of water. Only the biggest rocks were free of ice – and slippy at the best of times. There are times for graceful technique and other times when you just want to get from A to B without getting wet – and I’m fortunate that no one else was around to see me awkwardly crawling crab-like across the stepping stones to prevent myself from getting an early bath !
So, all in all, a highly successful winter’s day walk: dry feet, a memorable hill, an unforgettable sunrise and close encounters with some majestic wildlife. What more can you ask for ?
The VW camper van is one of the most iconic vehicles ever produced. Few other vehicles have the ability to turn heads and conjure a spirit of freedom, adventure and open roads.
This is the first of a three-part series providing you with a potted history of the VW camper van, told both in text but particularly through the imagery created by VW’s own advertising over the decades. VW’s “Think Small” campaign for the Beetle in the 1950s was ranked the best advertising campaign of the twentieth century by Ad Age in a survey of North American advertisements. VW’s campaigns were skillfully designed to build a lifetime of brand loyalty.
To understand the history of the VW camper van you first need to appreciate how its heritage is directly linked the VW Transporter, the base van also known as the Panel Van, Microbus and Plattenwagen. Contrary to the common view, it was not until the production of the California in 2005 that VW actually produced a camper van themselves – all previous campers were conversions carried out by other companies.
It was in Wolfsburg, a town in northern Germany, that the Volkwagen plant was supported to produce the Beetle as a means of stimulating post-war reconstruction. In 1947, when production of the Beetle was rapidly expanding, a Dutch car dealer and importer called Ben Pon, famously sketched out a simple, box-shaped delivery vehicle that was based on the Beetle’s chassis. He persuaded Heinrich Nordhoff, who ran the VW factory in Wolfsburg, to put the van into production. It was an innovative design that maximising the load-carrying capacity of the vehicle, in between the cab over the front wheels and the engine mounted over the rear wheels.
The first VW Transporter was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in November 1949 and soon became popular as a low-cost, adaptable and flexible utility vehicle. The ‘shoe box’ advert below shows its versatility. The basic Panel Van was simply a load-carrier with no windows. Put in some removable bench seats and windows and you then had the Kombi (the Kombinationskraftswagen). Add some creature comforts such as sliding canvas roof, skylights and high level trim and you had the Microbus or the Deluxe Microbus (also called the Samba). Remove the rear end and you had the flatbed van. Over the years, many variants were produced, both by VW, conversion companies and enthusiasts.
While the Beetle was officially named the T1, the Transporter became the T2. Somewhat confusingly, however, the first version of the van became the ‘Type 2 T1’ – or the T1 for short – with the same nomenclature applying right up to the T5, the current version produced from 2004/05 onwards. The T1 became known as the Splitscreen (or Splittie) owing to its distinctive front end or in Germany, the Bulli. Its personality soon developed and grew.
The T1 was produced for 17 years betweeen 1950 and 1967. During that time, VW evolved and varied the design, positioning it (like the Beetle) as a “people’s wagon”: affordable, adaptable and with a simple design. Soon, it became in icon of classic, 20th century design, with its cheeky ‘face’ and personality widely adored. With its rear-mounted, air-cooled, 25 horsepower engine it wasn’t exactly powerful, but was fairly reliable and simple enough to fix if anything went wrong.
In 1951 VW licensed another German firm, Westfalia, to produce the camper version using the Transporter base and it was exported from 1955 onwards. Westfalia’s camper vans evolved quickly in the early 1950s. They started to produce removable camping fittings that people could install in their Transporters for the weekend, reverting to a work van for midweek. In 1952 they begain producing Camping Boxes, vans with a permantly-installed kitchen unit behind the front bench seat and with a rear bench seat that converted into a sleeping platform.
A number of models catered for a variety of tastes, with different sized beds, solid wood or fomica work tops, and folding or concertina roofs. One of the plushest models, the SO23 Campingwagen Deluxe, designed for export to the USA, had curtains, carpets, insulation, additional cupboards and a 90-litre water tank. The only facility the SO23 didn’t have was an internal kitchen since export laws forbade the use of gas cookers within vehicles. In the late ’50s and ’60s Westfalia also sold a distinctive stripy awning as an optional extra which provided shade on the side of the van and either one or two awning sides.
While Westfalia were the ‘official’ VW converter of camper vans, over the years many competitors entered the emerging market. In the UK, Canterbury Pitt Conversions and Devon were the first companies producing camper conversions in 1956 and 1957 respectively. In the US ASI/Riviera and Sun-Dial converted vans similar to Westfalia’s design.
This great video shows some early vans including a 1950s camper with all mod cons.
This German film provides some amusing early footage of a 1950s Splitscreen Kombi (up to 1 min 30) before reviewing the later T2 T3 and T4 models up to 2004.
A promotional video for a VW restoration garage in London rather than a VW promo, this stands out as the coolest film of T1 vans you will ever want to see. Feast your eyes on two 1952 and 1954 barndoor vans and a 1964 panel van.
Bringing things to up to date, this UK advert engenders a feeling of the heritage that lies behind VW vans. Celebrating the 60 year anniversary of the first Transporters it shows how you too can buy a commercial van with a long lineage.
In Parts 2 and 3 of the series I will review the evolution of the camper van during the ’70s, ’80’s and ’90s right up to the current VW California and ‘Bulli’ concept car.
I’m always intrigued to understand what motivates people to climb Scotland’s munros, mountains of 3000ft (914.1m) or over. With 282 to climb it’s not exactly an insignificant challenge (!) but clearly, not everyone you meet up a hill is aiming to climb them all.
You literally meet all sorts out on the hills – from all ages and backgrounds – all enjoying the outdoors for their own reasons. Gone are the days when ‘bagging’ munros was deemed the preserve of bearded anoraks (literally). There are now over 5,100 compleatists, the oddly-spelled name given to those who have climbed all 282 munros, and the number is growing rapidly given the increase in popularity over the last 20 years.
So who do you meet in Scotland’s mountains, and why do they do it ? This is a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek attempt to develop a typology of munroists based on my own competely subjective observations over many years*.
The Occasional Hill-goer
- Climbing munros for this type is merely an occasional activity, something they might do whilst on holiday, a charity event or when tagging along with a friends’ outing. It’s not something they necessarily consider as one of their hobbies, just something they take part in from time to time.
- Most likely to say: “Where’s the nearest pub ?“
- Key characteristics: Sometimes wear ‘unconventional’ clothing (eg jeans, tennis shoes, charity costumes), especially on the “tourist path” up Ben Nevis. Seldom found beyond the most popular munros near population centres, especially Ben Nevis, Ben Lomond, Arrochar Alps, Ben Wyvis.
The Laid-back Bagger
- These people like walking and getting out into the outdoors. They’re aware that they’ve probably climbed a few munros but they’re not keeping count (or at least not until they’ve got to 50 or so !). For them, they’ll climb a munro if the opportunity is there but they’re just as happy to do a low-level walk – they’re not motivated by ticking them off.
- Most likely to say: “I might get around to climbing them all at some point“
- Key characteristics: None particularly – most seem to be reasonably well-adjusted, normal people !
The Club Rambler
- Usually spotted as part of a larger group, all with obligatory walking poles and gaiters and map cases hanging around their necks. These people are part of an organised Walking or Rambers’ Club. They choose to attend a pre-arranged walk, usually every fortnight or so. They do not walk quickly. It is like following elderly people around a supermarket when you’re in a hurry.
- Most likely to say: “So who are we supposed to be following ?”
- Key characteristics: Always clustered in groups. Slow. Walking poles, map cases etc as described above.
The Focused List-ticker
- These are the goal-getters who tend to arrive in the car park at the foot of the hill bright and early before anyone else. They don’t mess around. They put on their gear (they normally have all the latest stuff) and head off at pace since it’s all been meticulously planned in advance. They tend to have a high annual munro-quotient and will often camp or stay in bothies to maximise their bagging potential.
- Most likely to say: “I’ll have compleated in 3 years, 9 months and 6 days“
- Key characteristics: All the latest gear ! They’re fit, outdoors-y types. High proportion of solo walkers (since they often don’t have patience to put up with anyone else).
The Serial Compleater
- There aren’t many of these types around. They may be on their second or third round of the munros, or may have branched out to climb the Tops, Corbetts, Marilyns or one of the many other hill lists. There are some who are very driven (for them, mountains are a career or a way of life); others perhaps have no friends or family to occupy the remainder of their existence.
- Most likely to say: “I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t climbing mountains“
- Key characteristics: Usually loners (they’re part of an elite group and/or have no friends). Always knowledgeable – these types are a real mine of information and can usually describe individual hills (and pronounce their Gaelic names) in great detail.
- To accuse a purist of being a list-ticker is utter sacrilege. To them, mountains are ‘a way of being’ and not there to be ‘conquered’. They will climb summits but reject any notion that it is part of any wider goal. They tend to write about mountains in very long sentences with big words, making lots of references to other writers who are similarly elitist.
- Most likely to say: “Being at one with nature gives me a connection to the land. The feeling of self disappears into a blend of the elements. My spirit soars connected to the majesty of the mountain and all that surrounds“.
- Key characteristics: Long-winded, know-it-alls. Most people can only suffer them in small doses.
The Independent Backpacker
- You’ll sometimes encounter this type lugging an impossibly large rucsac and wonder where on earth they’ve come from, or where they’re going, for they don’t tend to follow the usual routes. When you’re sitting on the summit cairn admiring the view, these people are the ones who emerge from the opposite direction to everyone else. They’re almost always solo walkers, and tend to be on a multi-day trip tackling an unconventional route.
- Most likely to say: “Just four more wild camps until Blair Atholl“
- Key characteristics: Usually solo backpackers, mostly male. Don’t follow the mainstream. Design their own routes. Strong (big rucsacs). Always seem content, in spite of not having seen anyone for the past three days.
* I accept all responsibility for any inaccurate representations (but welcome any suggested improvements or additions to the typology) and no offence is intended to anyone – even Club Ramblers and Purists.
Have you recognised any of these types on the munros recently ? And which type are you ??
So yesterday saw the launch of Scottish National Trail, running from Kirk Yetholm in the Borders to Cape Wrath in the far north. At 470 miles this will be the longest trail in Scotland and the second longest in the UK (tipped by the South West Coast Path at 630 miles).
It’s great to see this first National Trail being launched, created by well known writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish. It takes in parts of the existing trails – the Southern Upland Way, St Cuthbert’s Way, the West Highland Way, Rob Roy Way and the Cape Wrath Trail – as well as following the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
For serious walkers it’s expected the Trail could take 4 – 6 weeks to complete, although I suspect that most people will be content to bite off smaller chunks.
I attended a talk by Cameron McNeish and Richard Else this week where they provided much more background to how the National Trail came about, its route and character. It’s clear that it will showcase the great variety of landscape that exists within a relatively small country, from the rolling borderlands through the former industrialised Central Belt and up through the Central Highlands to the much less populated far north.
It’s not a trail that is well signposted – at least, only those parts that follow existing paths and byways. For the most part, the recently-published book indicates the route using key settlements and other milestones but it’s for the walker to consult detailed maps to find the precise route. And for some sections, such as the Cape Wrath Trail (actually, not a signposted trail at all), there’s some discretion as to the exact paths and tracks you wish to follow. But no matter, for whichever path you take between Kirk Yetholm and Cape Wrath, you can still say you have walked Scotland’s National Trail.
For those of us in Scotland (possibly all of the UK?), look out for the two-part BBC Scotland programme being shown on 26th and 27th December 2012, where you can see Cameron McNeish walking and describing the new Trail in detail …
I did a bit of research to try to discover if there was a definitive listing of Scotland’s most popular munros. I found lots of discussion threads where people have suggested their favourite munros but the nearest I got to a definitive listing is Walk Highland’s list of most climbed munros, based on submitted trip reports (312,000 at the time of writing).
10. Ben Chonzie
9. Beinn Ime
7. Beinn Narnain
6. Ben Vorlich (Loch Earn)
4. Beinn Ghlas
3. Ben Lawers
2. Ben Nevis
1. Ben Lomond
What do we notice about this list ? Well, they’re all southerly munros with the exceptions of Ben Nevis and Cairngorm. Secondly, the list reflects the popular hills close to population centres. In other words, they’re the most climbed because they’re the most convenient and accessible to most people.
But wait ! Where are Liathach and Buachaille Etive Mor ? If this is a list of the most popular, what are the top 10 favourite munros ? This is where subjectivity comes into play, and where I need to draw on what others have said as well as my own favourites. So this is a list of what many munro-baggers would consider to be their favourite munros, dominated by the finest ridge-walking in the UK:
10. Meall Dearg (Aonach Eagach)
9. Beinn Ghlas (Ben Lawers)
8. Beinn Eighe
7. Ben Cruachan
6. A’ Mhaigdean
5. Ladhar Beinn
4. Beinn Alligin
3. Buachaille Etive Mor
2. An Teallach
This clearly isn’t a definitive list – it depends so much on a wide range of factors (weather, time of year, who walked with you etc) and I may feel differently tomorrow – but it’s a pretty good stab I think.
What do you think ? Any surprises ?
My first kayak trip was to Ladhar Bheinn, the most northerly munro on Knoydart, from Corran to the north. My previous attempt to climb Ladhar Bheinn had been thwarted by torrential rain and therefore I was faced with three options:
- take the ferry over to Inverie from Mallaig again, then climb it from Inverie, not the best ascent
- walk in from Kinlochhourn, a 3 hour slog; or
- kayak in from the north.
The third seemed by far the best way to do it, although a kayak / hillwalking trip would be new territory for me.
Iain and I drove to Corran (past Glenelg and Arnisdale to the end of the road, passing the foot of Beinn Sgritheall) and we parked at the new Community Hall, an excellent facility. It took us just 45 minutes to kayak the 3 – 4km to Barrisdale Bay, hugging the north shore of Loch Hourn. Along the way we stopped at one point to watch a young golden eagle just sitting on a rock ledge keeping watch. It was finally chased away by a territorial hawk !
We’d timed our journey to make sure that the tide was with us and being just after low tide meant that we had to haul the kayak up the beach a couple of hundred metres until we reached the grassy foreshore. We weren’t the only ones making this trip; it seemed that another couple of groups had kayaked from Kinlochhourn in the east.
Still hopeful that the clouds would part, we pitched our tent at the ‘campsite’ beside the bothy, had a bite to eat then set out to climb Ladhar Beinn. Even with low cloud I have to say that the route up Stob a Choire Odhar has absolutely stunning views – definitely top of my list of hills to return to in clear weather. Today, unfortunately, the cloud base was around 800 metres and we missed the extensive views of Loch Hourn and over to Skye. We descended via Mam Barrisdale and managed a late tea just before it got dark.
Next morning we packed up our gear and loaded it on to my inflatable kayak, just as the other kayakers were doing the same. It was all rather comical. Our gear was stuffed in and strapped on top, and we were wearing walking trousers and cagoules. Our, slightly more expert friends, had fancy sea kayaks with all the right clothing and other gear. One had even brought a little trolley to take his kayak to and from the water. (They’d just done it for the kayaking, however, and seemed to have stayed in a house in the Bay …).We reversed our route back to Corran, this time battling a slightly stronger wind. (Interestingly, in spite of our close studying of the wind direction and weather pattern, the wind was coming from exactly the opposite direction to that we’d anticipated). It was pretty tough paddling into the wind but easily more preferable to the long walk in via Kinlochhourn and the less interesting ascent from Inverie.
We finished our trip with a great seafood platter at the Glenelg Inn – what a great end to a fantastic trip !
Getting out and about across Scotland (and elsewhere of course) is a whole lot easier with a camper van. You have everything you need conveniently stowed – including the kitchen sink – and a roof to put over your head when the weather turns nasty. It’s camping in style and comfort, without the draughts, wet patches and leaky lilos.
We got Lydia from new just before Christmas 2010. She’s a VW California with a 180 horsepower bi-turbo diesel engine that can either ride along sedately or shift her 3 tonnes surprisingly quickly.
We’d talked for years – literally – about the idea of owing a camper van. We eyed other (van) campers enviously from our tent: “wouldn’t it be great to have a camper van, one day ?”. Well, “one day” always seemed too far off. It was never going to come. But over the years we started to get our heads around this major purchase. We dipped our toe in the water and hired a bright yellow early-70s Bay and took it up to Islay for a week. Being an absolute mechanical liability (more later) meant that we soon put romantic notions of original Bays out of our minds. We then viewed one of the many conversions and toyed with their various pros and cons. But when we actually saw a Cali in a showroom no conversion got anywhere near the build quality and design ingenuity of the VW.
A combination of factors finally made us come to our senses: some cash sitting in the savings account, a realisation that the kids would be grown up before we knew it and cancer taking my sister-in-law before her 50th birthday. “Life’s for living“, we said, and we never looked back.
So why’s called Lydia ? Well, all camper vans soon develop personalities. Being a modern twist on a retro model we wanted a modern-yet-traditional name. It’s a long story but the name “Lydia” was already top of our list of girl’s names and so Lydia she became.
So, a quick intro to Lydia for now … and much more later …
I’ve been mulling over why I wanted to start this blog.
I don’t profess to be ‘expert’ in anything (quite the opposite in fact; we’re all learning) so it’s not a way to share any particular expertise. I’m no extrovert and don’t feel the need to share my every waking thought with the world. And I’m certainly not a techno-geek (although I am quite enjoying the challenge of getting to grips with WordPress).
No, for me I think this about a personal challenge – or more particularly, a series of linked challenges. Being a keen hillwalker (I plan to ‘compleat’ all of Scotland’s munros in 2013) I’ve turned my mind to ‘what’s next’. Being goal-oriented I’m looking for the next challenge(s); things that will motivate and engage me, and keep me learning.
Ticking yet more hills off a list really doesn’t excite me (and I’m not sure my wife would exactly be thrilled …) so that closes off climbing the Munro Tops, Corbetts, Marilyns and the rest. However, there are lots of other hobbies I’m getting into. I recently bought a kayak, I’ve taken up running, completed a sprint triathlon last month and have enjoyed getting back into cycling. I’m also keen to develop my photography skills. And of course I love camping, both under canvas and in my pride and joy, a VW California.
In addition, I’m enthusiastic about living and working in Scotland. Perhaps it’s because it’s my adopted home but I’m keen to get ‘out there’ and explore Scotland – and particularly its remoter, out-of-the-way places. (After all, one of the reasons I took up climbing the munros was to find a good reason to discover my own country).
So to sum up, this blog is a way for me to share my enthusiasm for exploring Scotland and its wilder places. I’ll learn as I go. In addition to the challenge of starting a blog, I’ll find some new outdoor challenges to address and through its posts hopefully can inform – and be informed – about life’s big adventures. I’m looking forward to sharing this and getting any feedback.