Achmelvich is a firm family holiday location for team Pescod. Camping at Shore Campsite is bliss and renting a cottage in the October holidays provides peace and quiet like nowhere else. And just down the road is the Old Man of Stoer, a sea stack with a super classic climb. Many stacks offer a fantastic adventure, and this one is right up there; a sea channel that demands a swim and/or some tyrloean rope tricks, crashing waves, time pressure from the incoming tide, a committing abseil, sea gulls, remoteness.... But unlike many other stacks, this one has good rock and fantastic climbing. Of course, I was super keen to climb The Old Man of Stoer.
One time we were staying at Achmelvich in October. The weather was great and the sea was calm. Having not climbed it before I was slightly nervous, especially as I was to climb it with Owen, my son, who was just coming up to his 13th birthday at the time. After a few years of climbing indoors, I was sure he could manage the climbing, but the exposure, tyrolean traverse, sea gulls, real rock, traditional climbing moves, and the big abseil were all new to him. He was also much smaller than me still, so the impact of me falling off would have been huge. More importantly, solving simple problems might not go well due to his lack of climbing experience outdoors and the nature of the stack making communication, at times, nearly impossible. Of course, returning to my lovely wife Louise, Owen's mother, with tales of things going wrong was the biggest fear, far greater than the things going wrong in the first place!
So, I did a lot of research. We did a recce walk along the coast (recommended - it is one of the best low level walks in Scotland) which revealed a tyrolean rope already in place. I checked out the scramble descent down the the cliff to sea level. Tide tables showed a very low tide early in the morning and the sea was near flat calm. Also, I had learned that it is possible, at a very low tide, to walk around the back of the stack and avoid the nasty first pitch. This is a 5a traverse across a slimy green wall and well worth avoiding if at all possible. You can see it in the picture above - hands on flat holds in the horizontal crack just above the level of the rope anchor, going left to the big ledges capped by overhangs.
So, Owen and I got up nice and early, left quietly before anyone else was awake, and walked in to the stack. At every point during the climb I offered Owen the chance to decide not to carry on, to return, pride intact, very happy. At every point, Owen said it was all cool. We scrambled down and took a moment at sea level to soak up the sounds, the smells, and the unique atmosphere of a sea stack. We slid across the tyrolean ropes after checking they would (probably) be OK and waited a few minutes for the last of the tide to sink away so we could traverse round the back. Sure enough, we found a nice easy traverse to get us onto the normal route and a very comfortable belay. A slightly awkward diagonal crack and pull through a bulge got us to another superb belay on jammed blocks. Everything was cool still, so we carried on.
Next, the route traverses right and up slightly to find a groove leading to the top. There is a choice of traverse ledges and a choice of grooves to follow upwards, so I spent some time deciding which one was best. I was also very careful to arrange the protection very well. I placed enough to make it easy to follow the route, but not so much that it slowed down the whole process, it was all within reach of Owen but was well extended so there was no rope drag, and it all stayed in place but came out easily when Owen got to it. There is virtually no chance of communicating with your belayer once you get to the top of this pitch but Owen was very well briefed and he followed up the pitch easily. Everything was cool.
One last easy pitch got us into the sunshine and onto the top for a very satisfied moment before starting to think about the abseil back down. This was another key part of the whole enterprise since it would be tricky for me to sort out any problems Owen might have on the way down. The ropes were set perfectly, the stacked abseil was put in place and we both abseiled a short way to get used to the idea before I went down the overhanging section to the base of the stack. At the bottom, talking about the abseil, Owen said "Can we do that again?".
Now, the ropes needed to pull down nicely. I pulled, they moved, there was no snag, and when the ropes fell, they coiled perfectly into a pile at my feet on the narrow ledge without falling over the edge a few centimetres away and into the sea. We pulled ourselves back up the tyrolean ropes, scrambled back up the cliff and went back to the cottage for lunch. Sometimes, everything needs to go smoothly, and this time it went about as smoothly as possible. I'm sure Owen will remember his climb of Old Man of Stoer at the age of 12 forever; I certainly will.
Every mountain leader needs to learn some names of plants growing in the hills. Even if you are not a mountain leader it can add a lot of pleasure to your walk if you can name some of things you see growing. But it's not always easy to remember the names. One thing that can help is to learn some interesting things about the plant. Give it a back story and you are more likely to remember its name.
Thinking of really daft images also work. Let your creativty fly with ridiculous situations that include the plant, its name and perhaps an aspect of its back story. The more ridiculous it is, the more memorable it will be for you.
So, here is more information about some common plants as well as some things that might just help you remember them.
Freddy fungus and Annie alga were deeply in love. Freddy said "I'll provide the house" and Annie said "I'll provide the food", and together they lived in perfect harmony.
This is a lichen. Lichens are made up of two things, a fungus and an alga. The fungus provides the structure of the plant (the house) and the alga captures and provides minerals for the fungus as well as for itself. The lichen is a symbiotic relationship of the two things. One without the other is nothing. This particular one is sometimes Devil's Matchsticks and it's got a fancy latin name that I don't know!
Sundew is awesome! It is one of two plants in the UK that eats insects. The sticky beads of enzymes on the ends of the hairs on its leaves catch small flys and spiders and digest them, giving the plant an advantage over other plants. This allows it to grow in very poor ground, mostly boggy bits of peat. The one above is in flower, something I have not seen very often. You can also see spiders and flys in its leaves.
It is called sundew because, when the sun has dried off all the dew on other plants, the sundew looks like it still has drops of dew on its leaves. This used to scare people (a long time ago) so the plant was thought to have slightly sinister properties. Which is true - animal eating plants are scary! Don't stick your finger in one of these, it will have your arm off in seconds.
Butterwort is the other midgie eater. It has hairs and enzymes in the curls of its pale green leaves which catch spiders and flies where they get digested. It also lives in wet, boggy areas where other plants struggle to survive. Next time you are churning your milk, bung in a bit of butterwort. The enzymes will help your milk turn into butter.
Bog asphodel is one of my favourites. It's rich yellow flowers with spiky petals pointing up at the sky are like ladies hands with long slender fingers catching bright rays of sunshine. That's the daft image I used to help me remember the plant. The hands are ladies hands because bog asphodel was used by women to colour their hair and the plant can be used for dying other things as well.
Bog asphodel used to be called bone breaker. Crofters found that cattle eating the flowers were more likely to break bones in their legs. What they didn't know is that this flower grows in quite acidic conditions, where there is very little calcium. It was the lack of calcium in the cows' diet that led to brittle bones and more chance of broken legs, not eating the bog asphodel.
Lousewort is a very common pink flower that might occasionally be found with a white flower. There are white lousewort on Buachaille Etive Mor. The funny shaped flowers reminded me of some of the puppets in Sesame Street or The Muppets, and helped me remember the plant. It looks pretty and delicate, but it is quite mean. Under the ground, its roots eat into those of neighbouring plants to gain more minerals and to give it an advantage over them.
Imagine a small caveman, about 20cm tall, running around the highlands in his animal skin clothes. He'd have a club in his hands to donk things with, such as dinosaurs or other tiny cavemen. Club moss would be the ideal size and shape for a club for a tiny cave man, but quite ineffective since it is normally soft and light. Club moss sometimes has spores in the ends of its clubs that ping off when you brush past. The spores can go for 30cm or more, and you can trigger them to fly off with your finger. Try it next time. The club moss trailing down the rock in the picture is antler club moss, a variety that creeps along the ground and can be many metres long. Fir club moss grows in little clumps and alpine club moss is much more compact and low growing,
Orchids are beautiful flowers that are quite common. There are a few varieties in our hills, and they all grow in stiff stems with a head of lovely flowers. This one is a heath spotted orchid, the one you are most likely to see in the hills. I used to think that orchids were reserved to rainforests where David Attenborough went to make TV nature programmes. Now I know they are common across the UK and quite easy to find. This does not detract from them though, they are fantastic flowers.
Next time we'll have a look at bog cotton, eyebright, the fabulous sphagnum moss and some others.
After a lifetime of keeping well away from guns and despising the notion of hunting, I find myself in the novel position of wanting to encourage stalking clubs. It has taken many years of listening and learning about upland management to reach this conclusion and I’m very far from being an expert. But, it seems to me that we need to find a way to include communities in the management of the land and, in particular, of the deer.
Why? What has changed?
We have now acknowledged that we are in a global climate crisis.
So, how can community stalking clubs help solve global climate change?
One thing we can do to mitigate the effects of the global climate crisis is to plant more trees and encourage biodiversity to create more areas of robust natural habitat. This is a key strategy of the Scottish Government. In Scotland alone, around 9.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year are removed from the atmosphere by our forests. Scotland’s forests cover 18.7% of the total land area and the ambition contained in Scottish Government’s forestry strategy is to increase this to 21% by 2032 by meeting planting targets rising to 15,000 ha a year from 2024/25.
This is good news but there are problems. The target does not differentiate between native trees and plantations of non-native species. Although conifer plantations are fast growing and can store carbon quickly, in the long run they are inefficient in comparison to native woodland, partly because we cut them down and turn them into wood chips or pellets to burn, but mostly because they do not support the wider woodland ecosystem. Native woodlands promote better soil quality, full of good bacteria, making a woodland more efficient at soaking up carbon, bio-secure and ultimately more climate resilient.
Reducing grazing pressures, predominantly from deer, would help accelerate the spread of woodland – especially native and deciduous species – thus producing a cleaner, greener, healthier environment. As well as stopping reforestation, trampling and grazing by deer dry out the soil, thus diminishing the ability of peat to absorb carbon and store greenhouse gases. Upland peat bogs are also incredibly important for absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon.
The number of deer in Scotland has risen from 150,000 in 1959 to 400,000 in 2010. We only see them every now and then but their impact on the landscape is very widespread. They nibble the tops off the vegetation, keeping it all down to a very modest size. Trees do not get the chance to grow to sufficient height to be left alone by the deer. Even then, mature trees sometimes get their bark chewed by very hungry deer. We mostly see native forest in our mountains only in steep, inaccessible places where the deer can’t reach, or odd patches of old trees with no young trees growing up underneath.
It’s very easy to see the impact of deer grazing. Go to Glen Coe and walk into the Lost Valley. After you cross the footbridge over The Coe you are in a thick birch woodland with blaeberries up to your thighs and heather just as deep. It’s a small area and the fence on the far side is soon reached, after which we see just short vegetation with very little variety. You can see the difference in vegetation from the road. Inside the fence, where the deer can’t reach, the ground is dark with thick vegetation cover and trees. Outside, it is apparently bare grass.
If you keep going as far as Glen Shiel, there are large areas of fenced off Scots Pine trees on the south side of the road. These were planted many years ago and fences put up around them to keep the deer out. The difference between inside and outside the fences is stark. Fencing off areas and planting trees can be useful but it is very expensive and not a long term solution. Fencing is a way around the problem but does not tackle the main issue; it should not be the first management technique considered, deer management should always be the priority.
Without the grazing pressure of deer, trees and other vegetation would come back by themselves. Silver Birch and Rowan trees are great space invaders, finding their way into any open space and settling there quickly. Scots Pine are a bit slower off the mark and need some encouragement but they are native and very successful in Scotland. Trees would return to very large areas of currently empty landscape with patchy, open woodland in fifty years if they were left alone by the deer, soaking up and storing a lot of carbon from the atmosphere. Native trees do not naturally form dense forests like the conifer plantations, and in fact this is not the most effective type of forest for biodiversity. The patchy, open woodland that would develop naturally has lots of edges, and this forest edge habitat is the best for biodiversity. It would only extend up to about 600m above sea level, above which trees can’t survive the weather.
Deer have been shot for a very long time, we call it stalking. If we didn’t shoot deer at all, their number would increase so much that they would become unhealthy. Without sufficient food or shelter they would starve and we would see carcasses far more often. Even with the current level of stalking, our deer are 30kg or so lighter than the same deer in Norway due to the lack of good food. The government works with deer management groups made up of neighbouring landowners to set numbers of deer to shoot each year. Stalking provides financial income for landowners and the heritage of stalking reaches back for 150 years, about as long as we have been climbing.
Asking landowners to change what they have done for so long is a big deal. If you told climbers and hill walkers they were no longer allowed to walk freely in the mountains due to the global climate situation, we would not take it very well. There are generations of stalkers who feel totally embedded in the culture and work of the estate. They have a deep sense of connection with the deer and their land, and also have a phenomenal knowledge and understanding of how it works.
But, it’s clear that we can’t carry on as we have been doing with the reasoning that it’s what we have always done. We will all need to change our ways of life to have less impact on the planet. As a mountain guide I need to cut the number of flights I take each year, travel less, work from home more. We need to find a way to reduce the number of deer which maintains an income stream to the landowner so that stalkers and the infrastructure of deer management can be paid for. And we absolutely can’t lose the deep connection that stalkers have with their deer and the land they look after.
What needs to change is trophy hunting and shooting for social status. Shooting anything to express your dominance over nature is wrong and futile. Shooting animals to associate with people you want to connect with or to impress is also wrong (such as grouse shooting). We should be clear that we shoot deer for the benefit of the health of the herd, for biodiversity and because of a deep connection with the landscape.
We also need a system that pays for itself. It’s not possible to stop commercial stalking and force landowners to cull deer to much lower levels. The cost of doing this is not sustainable. Instead, perhaps we can think about importing a system that works very well in other countries. Sweden and Norway have successful systems of deer management which involve community groups and small groups of individuals taking responsibility for the management of the deer in certain areas. It is very carefully controlled by the government with gun licences, shooting permits and monitoring of the health of the deer. And it has had very impressive results in some areas.
Cull targets in Norway are based on carcass weight. So if a population of deer is averaging lighter weights during a set period, the assumption is that there is competition for food, so the cull is increased. This doesn’t factor in the natural ebbs and flows of a wild population, but it does result in healthier deer. Locally, Corrour estate is a great example of somewhere that is seeing larger deer as a result of increased deer management. Between 2006 and 2017 they found a 36% increase in deer carcass weight. There are fewer deer but they are much more healthy.
In Scotland, a shift to this sort of system would take a long time, several years at least, and would rely heavily on the current stalkers and landowners, their knowledge and passion for their estates. But, community stalking groups could pay for themselves and be a part of the solution.
It’s a difficult change to manage. There’s a long heritage of stalking in its current form and no culture of hunting in Scotland. Culture shift is possible though, when there is a will and a good reason to do so. Using car seat belts was not the norm before legislation came in; now it would feel very strange not to use a car seat belt. Legislation can bring about a culture shift. Wearing a helmet when skiing was a very odd thing to do only fifteen years ago. Now, everyone wears a helmet, and this change did not require legislation. Stalking and hunting culture is a much bigger thing to change but it is still possible if the benefits are clear. We already have a stalking club on Harris and there are some estates already thinking about community stalking programmes.
If this all sounds like handing out guns to people and giving them free reign to go and shoot deer, think again. Deer stalking will always be thoroughly regulated, however it is done. In a stalking club, as well as working within the normal system of gun licencing, each member is required to pass their Deer Stalking Certificate level 1 before becoming a member.
Clearly there is not one system that will work for every estate. And many estate owners might see no benefit to them. The biggest benefit is to slow down global climate change, with no immediate, tangible benefit to landowners. There is another benefit, one of connecting communities with their landscapes. Some communities in Norway talk with pride about how they have changed their landscapes over the last fifty years, how healthy their deer are now and how much they value their landscape now. Creating this deeper connection with the landscape, connecting individuals with nature over a long time scale, is good for our health. Many clinical studies have demonstrated this and GPs prescribe time in nature as a treatment for some conditions. Our reaction to the current Covid-19 outbreak has confirmed our need to spend time in nature. This connection would be strengthened greatly if we are given the opportunity to help manage the landscape.
This is a very emotive subject for many people, one with a very wide range of opinions, and one with the potential for people to further separate themselves and dig deeper into their ingrained positions. To start off with, it would be good to accept that change would be beneficial and that it is possible. Then perhaps we can come together to explore some ways of enabling the change we need, in a sustainable and sensitive way.
Red deer are beautiful, outstanding wild animals that we must treasure and look after. But, in their current numbers, red deer are endangering pine martens, red squirrels, capercaillie, wild cats, and any number of other smaller animals that are just as important, as well as the potential for beautiful forests full of colour, bird song and life.
You know those white rocks you see every now and then when you're walking in our mountains? They are made of quartz, one of the coolest things ever! They can form beautiful crystals, they resonate when you put an electric charge across them, they create an electric charge when you squash them and it is possible to melt them in a very, very hot fire to weld other rocks together (although we can't work out how!).
Quartz is the most abundant and widely distributed mineral found on the Earth's surface. It is found everywhere and is plentiful in igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks. It is very durable, resisting mechanical and chemical weathering. As a result, it is very often found on mountain tops and is the primary constituent of beach, river, and desert sand.
These are some quartz crystals I found in the Alps. Quartz is one component of granite, along with mica and feldspar. When granite cools down incredibly slowly, the minerals have time to come together to form big crystals. The slower it cools, the bigger the crystals. Some quartz crystals are 50cm long and crystal hunters still work in the mountains of the Alps. Quartz is a chemical compound made up of silicon and oxygen (SiO2 - silicon dioxide or silicate) and the molecules are perfectly lined up in a crystal, in the same way that carbon atoms are lined up in diamonds.
So, why is the quartz we see in our hills white, and not crystaline? Well, imagine the crystaline quartz is a car windscreen. When you hit it, what happens? It fractures along lots of lines that criss-cross and make it look white. It's the same with our quartz. It has so many imperfections in it, so many fractures and layers, that the light going through it is refracted and reflected inside, making it look white.
Watches used to advertise the fact that they rely on quartz. Quartz resonates (vibrates) at a specific frequency when you pass an electric charge across it. It is possible to use this resonance at a known frequency to set the speed of a watch. The frequency does not change, even when the electric charge changes so it is a very reliable method to use for measuring time.
Quartz is a pietzoelectric material. This means it creates an internal electric charge when you apply mechanical stress. Squash quartz and you can make an electric charge sufficient to cause it to spark. You have probably done this when you light a gas stove. Jetboil stoves have them; the little button you press squashes a pietzoelectric material to make the spark.
Sitting high above Glen Nevis, Dun Deardail is one of Scotland's 70 ancient vitrified forts. There are very many hill forts, but the vitrified forts are different in that they have been burned at a very high temperature for enough time for the rocks to melt and stick together.
The process of vitrification occurs when a timber-framed drystone rampart is destroyed by fire. With temperatures reaching over 1000° C, the heat from the blaze begins to melt the rubble core of the rampart. As the burning rampart collapses, the rocks first fracture and then become liquid. Gas bubbles form inside the rocks as the extreme temperatures change their mineral composition. When the fire burns out and the rampart finally cools, the burnt and molten rocks form large blocks of conglomerated stone. These can still be seen within the rampart.
Vitrification is not a deliberate construction method as the original timber-framed drystone rampart would have been more stable; it is much more likely to have been the result of accidental fire or deliberate destruction. In recent excavations coordinated by Nevis Landscape Partnership, rocks of different types were found stuck together with quartz.
So, next time you see some white rock, stop and look to see if it is quartz. Wonder at its amazing properties. Look to see if it is slightly transparent and crystaline. Imagine finding a crystal cave in which the walls, ceiling and floor are covered in quartz crystals, hundreds of millions of years old, that took millions of years to form. Be amazed by its electrical powers. Quartz is cool.
A traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is a classic expedition that many people aspire to. What most people underestimate is just how big a challenge it is and how well it measures up to anything else in the world.
It is truly world class.
We certainly can't go to the Cuillin Ridge on Skye right now, but this might be a very good time to do some planning for when you do go there. April, May and June often offer the best conditions to be there; settled weather, dry rock, light winds and even one or two old snow patches from th winter to offer a supply of water.
A traverse of the full ridge often starts with Gars Bheinn on the south end and goes north to finish on Sgurr nan Gillean.
The walk out will feel far longer than it really is but you do eventually reach the Sligachan for a well earned celebration.
Gars Bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillean is 11km including the short extra bits to get to Sgurr Dubh Mor and Sgurr Alasdair. There’s also 1750m of ascent going along the ridge. Add on to this the walk in (2.5km and 895m ascent from Loch Scavaig) and walk out (5km to Sligachan) making it 18.5km with 2645m ascent.
The exact route taken is open to much variation and you’ll need to decide your rules of engagement. Taking all the easiest options means there are several sections at grade Difficult that must be climbed and a few abseils. Optional extras include the TD Gap (Hard Severe), King’s Chimney (Very Difficult) and Naismith’s Route (Very Difficult).
Guidebook and Map
The SMC guidebook “Skye Scrambles” has a good description of all the individual sections as well as good diagrams. Andy Hyslop’s mini guide to the ridge is possibly the best resource to have though. The Harvey’s map “Skye The Cuillin” is the best map and is printed on waterproof paper. It’s at 1:25,000 but has the main ridge at 1:12,500 scale and also describes common routes on the sides of the main ridge.
The logistics can be awkward down to the single track roads and the length of the traverse. Two cars are often necessary and being based at Sligachan is probably best. Leave one car here and drive to Elgol to take the boat to Loch Scavaig. If it all works out you will get back to Sligachan after the traverse. However, if you escape off the ridge early you will end up in Glen Brittle a long way from your car.
Going from South to North as is most common in the summer, you have two options.
From Glen Brittle camp site it is best to walk up the well made path to Coir a’Ghrunnda. There is good water here so you don’t have to carry any for the two hour walk in. A short boulder slope from the west end of the loch takes you to the crest of the ridge. Dump the bags and go out to Sgurr nan Eag to start your traverse from there.
The better option these days is to take the fast boat from Elgol to Loch Scavaig. You can ask to be dropped off on the west shore for the easiest route up to Gars Bheinn where purists will say you have to start anyway. This approach has the added dimension of a boat trip making the whole enterprise feel that much more adventurous, and is recommended.
There is far too much detail in the 11km along the ridge to include much of a description here. There is continuous scrambling and occasional sections of rock climbing. Getting along the ridge involves more route finding skills than navigation and it takes a while to get used to the structure of the rock to choose the best route. There are a few sections where time can be saved (or lost) with a bit of knowledge of the best line to take so spending a few days scoping out these sections is time well spent. In the mist, completing the traverse is all but impossible without prior knowledge of the best line.
Sections to scope out include –
Sgurr nan Eag and Sgurr Dubh Mor. Sgurr nan Eag involves only very simple scrambling if the best line is taken, this being on the west side of the crest. Sgurr Dubh Mor has a complex line that is particularly confusing in the mist.
You can lose a lot of time in the TD Gap so it might be worth doing this with your rucksack on or practicing hauling your packs. It’s good to know how to avoid it as well in case it turns out to be wet – traverse under the west side of the TD Gap on a trail in the scree to the Bad Step of the south west ridge of Sgurr Alasdair. Scramble up this and reach the top of Sgurr Alasdair.
Sgurr a’Mhadaidh and Bidein Druim nan Ramh are complex peaks, each with several tops. The central peak of Bidein usually requires an abseil to descend and finding the abseil point is tricky as it is not obvious. There's also the Belly Ledge on An Casteal to avoid, so a day spent going from An Dorus to Bruach na Frithe would be very useful.
Best tactics for a complete traverse
Spend some time on the ridge before you set out on your traverse. The Cuillin hills are unique in the UK for their continuously rocky nature and the relentless exposure on the crest of the ridge. It’s the never ending concentration required that is so draining for most people and getting used to the scrambling both up and down will help with this. By moving efficiently and confidently on exposed sections you’ll save lots of energy, both physical and mental, so get some long days in on the ridge first.
Set your rules of engagement. What is your objective? To reach all eleven Munros? To get from end to end? To do these and to climb the TD Gap and Naismith’s Route? Make sure you agree your objectives with your partners but be prepared to change these if the weather does not work out as expected.
Decide whether to bivi on the ridge. Watching the sun set over the sea from a camp on the crest of the ridge and scrambling on the ridge in the early hours of the next day are great experiences. The down side is carrying the extra gear required. Going light and fast is great, as long as you do move fast. Even then you should expect one of the longest days of mountaineering you’ll ever do. Another idea if the forecast is good, is to have a big dinner then walk up in the evening to sleep on the ridge. You’ll have less to carry then and will have a head start on the traverse.
Water is a problem. There are very few places to fill up with water and in hot dry weather you will need to drink a lot, especially if you bivvy over night. Find out where you might find water, look for these places in advance, plan your bivvy spot around the availability of water. I know of many attempts that have failed due to lack of water.
This is the toughest single mountaineering challenge in the UK, so it’s always going to be valued very highly. However, there is so much more than this.
Being on an island and rising straight out of the sea makes the setting outstanding. Sections of the ridge require you to stay absolutely on the crest with the full drop down to the sea on one side and down to Loch Coruisck on the other. The nature of the volcanic rocks is fascinating, following stepped dykes sometimes and crossing the many gaps where dykes cutting across the ridge have eroded.
The combination of all these makes it very special but it’s even more special because you have to work hard and have some good luck to complete a traverse. As with most things, the more you have to work to achieve something, the better the reward.
During the current lockdown, lots of people are walking more than before, and more frequently. New places are being discovered close to home that bring people into contact with nature, and for more lucky people totally immerse them in nature. Hopefully this will be one of the positive outcomes of the lockdown that we keep going on the other side of covid-19. Walking is very, very good for all of us. You don’t have to take my word for it. There’s a book I’d like you to read called “In Praise of Walking” by Shane O’Mara. Don’t be put off by the evangelical sounding title; it’s a fascinating read, very well referenced and backed up by scientific research, all about the astounding benefits of going for a walk.
The physical benefits of walking are very well understood. Regular walking brings positive changes in virtually every single measure of health including a drop in body mass index, a reduction of measured body fat as a percentage of total weight, a decrease in triglycerides thought to underlie some forms of heart and cardiovascular disease and an increase in production of heart loving fats called high-density lipoproteins. It works for everyone and the more you walk the more the benefit to physical health. The message is, if you need to lose weight and want to look after your heart, go for a long walk, as often as you can, ideally through nature and ideally build it into your daily routine.
Bizarrely, walking also makes us more intelligent. We know this by studies using the Stroop Test, a very simple method of evaluating cognitive performance using words written on paper in different colours. You would have thought that the cognitive demands of standing and walking would reduce the brain’s capacity to do more tasks. This is not the case. Standing and walking improve our cognitive performance, as demonstrated by the Stroop Test. Most of us who walk regularly understand this very well. We often think more clearly when we are walking, engage in interesting discussions and have our most creative thoughts. Philosophers have often commented that they can only think when they are walking.
Not only does walking improve the performance of our brains, it strengthens the physical structures of the brain. Studies on old people have shown that regular walking can reverse the effects of aging on the brain, making it two years “younger”. Simply by going for a walk, we make our brains stronger and more effective.
However, the most important benefit of walking is that walking in the natural environment has profound restorative effects on our wellbeing. “Attention Restoration Theory” tells us that the human experience of the natural world markedly assists in maintaining and fostering a strong sense of subjective wellbeing.
Modern day life in our urban, man-made environments, increases mental fatigue, stress and anxiety. Restoration of feelings of calm, relaxation, revitalisation and refreshment can be achieved by spending time in a natural environment. For it to be most effective, a natural environment should have three critical elements;
Going for a walk is perfect!
Removal from Normal Life
I’ve often said to people, walking is like meditation. We are removed physically and mentally from our everyday lives. We get so involved in the moment, in the activity and its demands on us, that we very often forget all about our normal worries and anxieties. The more we are challenged by the activity, the less cognitive bandwidth we have for anything else. It’s only when we get back home that we remember about the outstanding bills, the anxiety caused by our work or any number of things that cause our mental fatigue.
Fascinating Sensory Elements
It’s really obvious that our landscape is full of astounding visual and sensory elements that are fascinating, beautiful, full of wonder and surprising. Over the last few years I have increased my knowledge of the natural environment massively, especially through projects such as The North Face Survey on Ben Nevis. It’s also clear to me that there is a never-ending supply of new knowledge to gain, new insights to understand and new things to see. This understanding of the very small things in our landscape makes my enjoyment of the vast scale of the landscape even more rewarding.
It Should Be Expansive
By exploring the landscape that surrounds us in Scotland we get to feel the immense scale of the landscape, the power of the weather, and the never-ending nature of wildness, that can give us a proper sense of scale.
On a walk in Glen Nevis, when I find a stone with stripy layers that are bent and contorted I think of the age of the rock and the scale of the forces that resulted in this small stone. The rocks of the Mamores are about 800 million years old. Homo sapiens (us, the human race) evolved about 200,000 years ago making the Mamores 4000 times older than us. The Mamores were south of the equator back then and they have drifted up to where they are now moving at the same speed that your thumbnail grows. They were 10,000m high at one point, higher than Everest is now. The pressure on my stone and the heat required to metamorphose it into the rock it is today were provided by the weight of the mountains and the heat from the Earth’s centre towards which it was pushed.
Not everyone is into geology but just with this little bit of knowledge we can get a proper sense of the scale of our landscape and the age of the planet. It is a good reminder that each of us is not at the centre of things with the world revolving around us. We need to learn some humility and to take responsibility for ourselves. This is surely the expansive nature of the experience that is required to make its restorative effects most profound.
This is why I am passionate about spending time on our mountains. It maintains our physical health, it restores our mental health and it can have a profound influence on our spiritual well-being. It can counter the self-centred focus that modern day life has on us all. In these days of global climate change, an obesity epidemic, mental ill health and disconnectedness from nature, one solution is simple.
Go for a walk, preferably a long one and immerse yourself in nature!
Scotland has enjoyed enlightened access rights for seventeen years. The Land Reform Act of 2003, and the Outdoor Access Code that goes with it, gave us all the right to responsible access of any land other than gardens and industrial land. No other country in the world has such a good system that works both for landowners and for people seeking access.
We can go walking, climbing, cycling, horse riding and camping on the land, kayaking, canyoning and swimming in the rivers. We can do just about anything that is not powered by an engine and that is responsible. It's this key phrase, responsible, that is what makes this legislation different to any other access legislation, and what makes it work so well.
Our access legislation does not mean we have the right to go anywhere, in any way we like, to do what we like. Instead, it means we need to consider what is responsible, what will be the impact on other people including the land owner, other users and the population as a whole. We need to be considerate of other people, not selfish, when we exercise our right of access.
Climbing has been described as fundamentally selfish, it is of no benefit to anyone but the climber. Climbers often express the anarchistic side of their nature through their climbing, the rebelious urge to break rules, in fact the desire to play in an environment that does not have rules. Considering other people and being responsible are rarely our first considerations but the risks of accident and injury do impact our friends and family, and the nation as a whole when we rely on rescue services and the NHS.
How can we justify going climbing if it is fundamentally selfish and, potentially, costly to the nation? Each time there is an accident in the mountains that reaches the media, people describe the climbers as "selfish", "suicidal", "unjustified" and calls are made for them to pay for their rescue and medical treatment, for climbing to be banned, for our access rights to be taken away from us. Very prominent people in government say these things on radio discussion programmes. After all, if a small change in our access rights that affects a small number of people in our population might save a few lives and the cost to the tax payer, it would be worth it, right?
Well, no. It would be a disaster.
The benefits of climbing might not be quite as tangible or immediate as the very occasional accidents, but they are very powerful and benefit all of society. I've mentioned the benefits of climbing in several previous posts. They include physical health, mental health, spritual well-being, a proper and personal sense of risk assessment, a time of separation from our daily anxieties, immersion in nature and a sense of well-being that comes from connectedness with nature, respect for other people and a clear demonstration that, in the most basic of things, we are all equal.
We go climbing to remind ourselves what matters in this world.
When enough of us benefit from these things, society as a whole benefits, and our selfish acts of climbing become beneficial to to the rest of society. "Normal" life that includes everything that is designed to make life easier for us, simpler, more comfortable and more pleasurable, leads to a more self-centred way of living. Climbing does the opposite. Climbing grounds us, reminds us of what matters in this world, makes us less self-centred.
A lot of us are thinking about what matters in life right now as we deal with the COVID-19 emergency. A lot of us would really like to go climbing right now to help us deal with the very stressful situation we all find ourselves in. However, this is not the time to be anarchistic or to make decisions based on our personal risk assessments. Instead, right now is the time to demonstrate how responsible we can be when there is a requirement to do so. We have the right to responsible access, and to be responsible right now means we can not travel to do our daily excercise (not even five minutes in the car to a nearby walking area), we must stay at home, work at home if at all possible and stay apart from other people.
This is a temporary situation and right now it is more important than ever to maintain good relationships between neighbours and within communities. This is not about restricting the general right of responsible non-motorised access to land but it is part of the wider approach to prevent COVID-19 deaths and preserving the nation’s food supplies.
Most of us are doing the responsible thing, and all of us are looking forward to things going back to normal so we can go climbing again. However, I'm sure, like me, you are all questioning why we can't go climbing right now. Hopefully, this will help.
Here's the Ministerial Statement on Access Rights that very clearly explains what is expected of us and why.
Coming home from a big day of climbing I used to feel a real slump in energy. This isn’t very surprising really, a day on Ben Nevis is hard work and uses a lot of calories, so feeling tired at the end of it makes sense. It was a pain though - I come home to a chaos of children and their after school activities, phone calls and messages, Louise telling me about her day and all the jobs I need to do such as drying my gear, checking forecasts and trying to work out where to go tomorrow, when all I wanted to do was collapse on the sofa. I wanted a way to avoid this dip in energy and nutrition seemed to hold the answer.
Back then my strategy was to eat more. On a really big day I’d get a pack of five jam doughnuts and eat them all before eating a regular dinner later on. Instant sugar energy would pick me up, right? And I do so much exercise that the calories would be burned off the next day. As nice as this was, it wasn’t working.
A few friends were talking about a ketogenic diet like what Dave MacLeod has used successfully for a few years now. After completing his 24/8 project (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huL5TdBfTIE) Dave talks about finishing this amazing athletic feat feeling that he could carry on going. He describes feeling a uniform supply of energy, no peaks and troughs like you can get on a diet of carbohydrates.
Looking more closely at the ketogenic diet, I could not work out how I could get it to work for me. You can’t have cereal for breakfast or sandwiches for lunch. The practicalities, cost and dedication to follow it when the rest of my family was eating very different meals made me look elsewhere.
This is when I was lucky enough to hear some advice from Rebecca Dent, the High Performance Dietician, aimed at British Mountain Guides, with the aim of helping us stay fit and healthy enough to carry on climbing right through our careers and into retirement. Having taken her advice and acted on it, I realised half way through this winter that I do not now suffer the big energy dip I used to when I got home. It was a hard winter with lots of tough days. The only change I have made is in my diet, so I can only attribute the results to this.
The advice included a few things. In short; eat more protein, more omega 3 oil (found in oily fish), lots of vegetables every day and half of these should be green, berries every day, nuts and seeds, and beetroot juice. We should also eat protein in all our meals and eat lots of small snacks instead of a few big meals. Here’s great article written by Rebecca giving an example of what to eat and when to eat it on a big day of climbing
When we are working hard, day after day, we need more protein. The recommended intake for a normal lifestyle is 0.8g of protein per kg body mass. When we are working hard we should increase this to about 1.6g per kg body mass. As a guide, an egg contains about 13g of protein, a chicken breast of 172g has about 54g of protein. My body mass is 85kg so I need to take in about 136g of protein each day which is quite a lot.
We can get protein from meat, fish, eggs and dairy such as yoghurt. Nuts also have a lot of protein but we need to be wary of eating too much saturated fat that you get a lot of in nuts. Protein powders are very useful (like what bodybuilders use). I found there is a huge range of these and it is really hard to know which to go for. Find one with whey protein and creatine (3g per day), and a second one with casein (30g to 40g per day, best just before bed time).
Omega 3 oil is found in fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel (but not tuna, cod or haddock - fish fingers don’t count!). If you don’t like fish you can take fish oil tablets - three of the 1000mg tablets every day when you are exercising hard.
Do you get your five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, every day? Each portion is 80g and the total is 400g (minimum) each day. Half of this should be dark green vegetables such as sprouts, spinach, broccoli, kale, cabbage etc. Your dinner plate should be half covered in vegetables and half of these should be dark green.
You can look up the reasoning behind all these things, there’s too much to put into this article. The next step is to work out how to build this into your daily diet and routine. Don’t go for one big change, a complete overhaul of your food intake. Instead, make small changes over a period of time and work out what you can sustain. It’s hard to maintain a revolution, easier to make small changes in your daily habits.
Here’s how it works for me.
Breakfast - granola style cereal with yogurt, berries and toasted seeds and nuts. Packets of frozen berries are not so expensive and I make yogurt at home (see below).
Lunch - sardine sandwiches made with seedy, wholemeal bread with sardines in tomato sauce (35p per can) and a little extra tomato ketchup, eaten over three snacks during the day.
Back at the van - protein shake plus an apple and a pear.
When I get home - peanuts or mixed nuts.
Dinner - a source of protein, lots of vegetables and some brown rice or pasta, potatoes etc.
Supper - a slice of seedy, wholemeal bread with peanut butter or a bowl of granola cereal with yoghurt.
If you’ve climbed with me during the last year I probably went on about sardine sandwiches! I used to eat cheese, butter and mayonnaise sandwiches. By cutting these out and replacing them with sardines, I’ve cut out a lot of fat and replaced it with a cheap source of protein and omega 3 oil. It helps that I like sardine sandwiches and I’m aware that not everyone does!
I try to cut out as much refined sugar as I can. No more doughnuts (at least, not very often!), no sugar in my tea, no sweets and I prefer dark chocolate.
As for carbohydrates, I try to eat good quality carbs (brown rice instead of white, brown bread, sweet potatoes instead of regular spuds), and I try to match my intake with the exercise I do. The last two weeks have seen my level of exercise drop dramatically so I have reduced how much cereal, bread and rice/pasta I eat.
My diet is not perfect, not by a long way. I still eat biscuits, cake, fish and chips. But I’m more likely to reach for a protein snack instead of doughnuts, I eat a lot of spinach, and I eat sardines most days. The result is that I don’t have that dip in energy levels when I get home and, long term, I should have fewer niggling injuries and be able to keep on climbing for another thirty years. I’m 47 now, and I wish I’d done this 20 years ago!
Here's how to make yogurt.
I use an Easiyo tub to make it in. This is just an insulated tub which holds enough boiling water to surround the 1ltr container and keep the heat in for several hours. If you don't have something like this you can heat the milk and make the yogurt in a vacuum flask, or keep it warm in a warm slow cooker or even just on a radiator.
I mix up 1ltr of full fat milk with 1tbs live yoghurt (Yeo Valley Natural Yogurt) and 2tbs full fat milk powder in the container. I place this in the big tub with boiling water and leave it over night. It's as easy as that.
Without the insulated tub, heat 1ltr of full-fat milk over a medium-low heat until almost bubbling (85ºC), stirring often so it doesn’t catch on the bottom. Leave it to cool enough that you can stick your finger in it but it’s still pretty hot (46ºC). If you want to get more accurate, use a thermometer. Then mix in the yogurt and milk powder and keep warm and still for at least 5 hours.
Once started, you can use a spoon of the old yogurt to start the next batch.
One of my favourite post-workout snacks now is yogurt with berries and protein powder. It's filling, very tasty and really helps with the recovery.
This might sound like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, but there is a lot to gain from learning more skilful walking. We all learn how to walk at a very young age and we all do a lot of it. In some ways, this works against us when we are walking on rough, loose and unpredictable ground like we find in the mountains. Our gait is so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to change it to become more efficient when we go off road.
However, if we can become more efficient walkers, we will be able to walk further and enjoy it more. If we can become better walkers, we will slip, trip and stumble less often. And, as we move into scrambling and climbing, we will move much better on steep ground if we have good foundations in our walking technique.
Here are some tricks to get you thinking about how you walk and how to make it more efficient. You can do all of them in your daily walk or exercise routine during the Covid19 lockdown.
Often, one of the first drills you do when you start rock climbing is to climb with silent feet. The same goes for walking. Place your feet as quietly as possible as you walk along a trail (any trail). Of course, the gravel under your shoe will crunch but the thumping noise of your shoe striking the ground can be minimised. Tune in to what you are doing to make this work best.
You might find that you look to place your feet accurately instead of where ever they land, you might shorten your stride slightly, place your foot gently and softly, perhaps by putting it down toe first. All of these things are good.
Explore how you place your feet. You can use your toes, inside edge, outside edge, walk sideways. Learn to use small placements accurately and confidently. Shorten your stride to make it easier to shift your weight over the leading foot.
Pause and balance
Walking along a pavement or any regular, even surface, we tend to fall forwards onto our leading foot with full commitment. When the foot placement is predictable this is fine. On uneven surfaces, when the foot placement is unpredictable, a moment of pause, balanced on one foot (the trailing foot) is useful so you can check if the next placement is stable. All these drills are designed to build in a moment of pause, balanced on one leg.
Be centred and smooth
Hook your thumbs into your belt in front of your belly button or hold your hands behind your back. Focus on your hands and on moving them forward smoothly. Take this up a step by balancing small stones on the backs of your hands held just in front of your belly. You can make this a competition between the people you are with – the person who keeps the stones their hands longest wins.
Balance a small stone on your head while walking!
We tend to focus on our extremities, especially when we think about skilful walking, when we should be more centric, leading with our centres. Leading with our centres makes us walk more smoothly.
It’s common to end up with a lot of shock loading when we walk downhill. Long steps, landing on your heel, falling onto your leading foot, result in heavy strikes and a lot of stress going through your knees and hips. It’s also a good way to slip and slide. So, do the opposite. Walk on your toes in descent and take short quick, soft steps, placing your feet accurately.
Our joints can be used as shock absorbers that transfer impact force into muscles and tendons instead of the cartilage and bones within the joints. Cartilage is very hard to repair and replace, whereas muscles repair themselves and adapt quickly, and tendons are designed specifically for stretching and rebounding. If we use our ankle joints as well as our knees and hips, we add another shock absorbing joint and hugely reduce the impact force, wear and tear on our cartilage. To make this habitual (something we do all the time) we need to practice it purposefully on easy trails.
With purposeful practice of these skills by doing the drills we will build our walking technique. This means we should practice all the time we are out walking, as much as possible during the walk, regularly and often. Make it habitual; normal.
In addition, we should do specific exercises to build strength and balance in our ankles. The best way to do this is also to build it into a daily routine. We can use the time we brush our teeth for this! When we brush our teeth (twice a day for two minutes each time) –
One last thought is about walking poles. In descent, walking poles can help take a lot of shock loading off your joints relieving knee and hip pain, and they act as stabilisers, especially useful when your muscles are tired and legs are wobbley. However, there is a serious down side to over reliance on walking poles. We can learn to use the poles for balance, stability and correcting small errors in foot placements. This means that our muscles used in walking and our walking technique deteriorate. It seems to me that we should maintain our skilful walking technique and use walking poles only when we really need to such as walking through fresh snow or with a heavier than normal rucksack.
Covid-19 brought a rude end to our winter climbing, just when it was getting really good. Three weeks of lockdown and probable restrictions on travel after that mean we are unlikely to get out winter climbing again before next winter.
So, in traditional fashion, here are some images from my winter that give a flavour of what it was like: full of promise, disapointing, stormy, snowy, stormy, windy, brilliant, tough and amazing. It was very challenging for much of it, not just the weather and ground conditions, but the changeability of them, demanding a lot of careful consideration of the hazards.
I didnt get it right all winter, that's for sure. But I got it right enough and I got through it unscathed. It will certainly be a winter to remember for lots of reasons.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.