Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Tops & Tailwinds - Coast to Coast via Scotland's Highest Peaks

As well as being an adventure, this trip was a fundraiser for the John Muir Award. See my previous post on the subject for details of what the award entails.

We are still collecting sponsorship so, if you enjoy this post, please click here to show your support!

Tops & Tailwinds: Coast to Coast via Scotland's Highest Mountains from david hine on Vimeo.

Coast to Coast

'Coast to Coast' is a classic challenge for Packrafting in Scotland and there have been a number of iterations of the route over the past five years. A common factor among route variations is always a direction of travel running West to East and for two key reasons this is the sensible approach. Firstly, due the location of the watershed in the west of the country, the longer rivers (navigable over a number of days) flow out to the East coast, with the rivers flowing out west tending to be shorter, steeper and with a higher class of whitewater to contend with. Then there is the wind, which is a major factor in determining your speed, as well as your level of frustration, when paddling on 'flat' water. Visitors to Scotland could be forgiven for thinking the wind to be so utterly capricious as to defy all predictions, so often and completely does it seem to change direction. However, the prevailing winds in Scotland (as in the UK as a whole) are Southwesterly. So for the best chance of having the wind at your back, you would do well to plan a route heading Northeast (or at least to the east). 

A few years ago I posted a report from my previous coast to coast packrafting trip. But that route was a lacklustre affair by comparison with the more ambitious route David Lintern and I set out to attempt on May 9th this year. This route was a bucket list item for me and, although it was certainly hard in places, it was a great trip which I now remember as one of my favourites.

The Plan

Our intention for this trip was to travel coast to coast, beginning at the western point of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and finishing at Spey Bay. In addition to this we planned to climb all of Scotland's 4000 foot peaks, of which there are nine (four being in Lochaber, clustered above Glen Nevis, and five being in the Cairngorms on plateaus to the east and west of the Lairig Ghru). Our packrafts were to carry us on both fresh and salt water lochs, as well as on rivers, for approximately a third of the distance.

In the fortnight approaching our departure, I certainly felt unsure of the tenability of our plan (given the late and extremely heavy snow falls seen on the high peaks) and admittedly nervous about some of the crux points along our route. So it's very pleasing that we came through to the end of the trip with remarkably little compromise in terms of our objectives being met. However, we were chased down from the  ridge of the western Cairngorms by the weather and as a result summitted only seven of the nine targeted peaks.

The Trip

I think of this trip as having really begun at Sanna Bay on the West Coast, although on the first day we did hike out to Point of Ardnamurchan (which is generally regarded as the western extent of the British mainland). Sanna Bay is a gorgeous expanse of golden sand, with views out in the direction of the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck. Although on the afternoon we arrived we were treated to glowing sunshine, as our route took us inland, along the rough and boggy coast of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, we were pounded with rain and were completely soaked by the time we arrived at Loch Shiel (to be our first waterborne stretch of the trip).

Plans for packrafting on 'flat' water are often upset by the vagaries of the wind. Packrafters are uniquely fussy when it comes to the wind; there is often too much or too little, and frequently it blows in the 'wrong' direction. We mostly lucked out on this trip in terms of wind, and the majority of the time we had the 'right' strength in the 'right' direction. On Loch Shiel, we had a determined southwesterly on our tails and this made for roaring progress up that wild and beautiful loch. After a memorable flow into Glenfinnan, we made a short portage to the sea-loch of Loch Eil to continue our progress towards  the Lochaber tops. Loch Eil is oriented differently to Loch Shiel, and a Southwesterly wind was no-long convenient.  Miraculously, the wind changed direction to suit us and our boats flew up the loch with Northerly tails.

Our approaches to the first two of the four targeted Lochaber peaks were made over the course of two sun-filled days of  sun-cream and far reaching views. The arete which joins the peaks of Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis was still decidedly wintry, so the peaks were climbed separately rather than over a single day as had been the plan.  
The evening between the two ascents was spent in the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut in Corrie Leis, below the magnificent north face of Ben Nevis (the place is legendary among aficionados of Scottish Mountaineering).

An abrupt drop in ambient air pressure saw a complete turnabout in the conditions we went on to find on our climbs of Aonach mor and Aonach Beag (the final two of the 4 targeted peaks above Glen Nevis). Visibility was near zero and precipitation was high, so after two successful summits I was extremely glad to be back in the glen at the end of the day and making tracks for the Meanach Bothy a few hours walk to the south. Waiting for us at the bothy we found just enough wood for a fire, and the last of our first batch of single malt was spent on celebrating success on the Lochaber tops.

The next two showery and blustery days were spent traversing what felt like the trip's middle ground and saw us arriving at Dalwhinnie for a welcome shower and resupply. Again, the wind was favourble to our progress by water and we paddled the length of lochs Ossian and Ericht as well as trudging across a couple of less than inspiring hill tracks and slopping through a considerable mileage of bog.

From Dalwhinnie our route took us into the Cairngorms over the course of a day, and over the course of the of the following two days across the high plateaus to the east and west of the Lairig Ghru. On the Western Plateau it looked as if our plans were becoming unstuck. After summitting Braeriach in increasingly threatening conditions and partial whiteout, we bailed the ridge and headed for Glen Geusachan as an escape route from the high ground. In the Corrour bothy that night, we licked our wounds and considered our options in the event that the following morning should also have dawned foul. 

As it happened, the following morning cast a more favourable light on our intention to take on the tops of Ben Macdui and Cairngorm. We were concerned about the high wind in the glen, and as we climbed the boulder fields to the south of Allt Clach nan Taillear our big packs caught the stronger gusts uncomfortably. But as we reached the plateau on approach to the Summit of Ben Macdui, we were relieved to find the wind manageable and it continued to drop throughout the day as the weather generally improved and allowed us expansive views in all directions. We were joined for the day's walking by Bjorn, a German backpacker we'd met in Corrour Bothy and he was great company. After descending to the Saddle between Cairngorm and Bynack Mor, we dropped further down to camp beside the Fords of Avon Refuge beneath the beautiful Loch Avon. 

The refuge is at an altitude of about 700 meters and it would be downhill to the coast from that point on as we set off walking down the twists of Glen Avon. The upper river Avon will be fit for some challenging Sport Boating in places at another time (a sustained class three with flashes of four and five). But with big packs on our backs, we walked the distance down the Glen to be rewarded with fortifying pints of Caledonian Best in the pub at Tomintoul before taking to the water the following day to paddle the Avon out to the Spey. As it happened, we made pretty slow progress down the Avon, there being a need for much scouting ahead and the portage of spookier stretches of white water. But we had a great run on the river until we decided to deflate the boats and walk the remainder of the way to the Spey in order to save ourselves some time and make it to the river that  same evening. The last two days of the trip were spent paddling the familiar waters of the river Spey as it meandered eastwards to Spey Bay, and to the end of our journey.

The route had taken us 15 days to complete. We camped for the majority of nights, but used bothies on four occasions and had one night in a bunkhouse. There is good reason for the coast to coast challenge to have become a classic for Packrafting in Scotland, and I fully expect to hear about more similar trips in the future.

Just as a reminder, if you enjoyed this post please click here to contribute to the John Muir Award!

Thursday, 12 February 2015

C2C4K - Fundrasier for the John Muir Trust

David Lintern and I are raising money for the John Muir Trust's award scheme on a coast to coast packrafting trip. En route we'll attempt to traverse Scotland's 9 highest peaks (all those over 4000 feet), as well as some others thrown in for good measure. We'll set off on May 9th and finish when we finish.

This is new territory for me. Fundraising, that is. I can't remember ever asking for sponsorship before, but that's not going to stop me now. 


C2C4K - John Muir Trust Fundraiser from david hine on Vimeo.

The John Muir Award

By utilising the givey fundraising platform, every single penny you give goes to our chosen cause (including the additional 25% giftaid stumped up by the UK Treasury on eligible donations from UK taxpayers). And as causes go, we think our chosen one is pretty worthy.

The John Muir Award was launched in 1997, and has since helped over 220,000 people connect with wild places. The award encourages participants to meet 4 challenges (Discover a wild place, Explore it, Conserve it, Share your experiences) with the aim of promoting awareness and responsibility for the natural environment. But the trust now aims to expand the award, keeping free to participate, and has launched an appeal to raise funds to make this happen.

The Trip

I'm really looking forward to this trip. Coast to coast routes are becoming a bit of a classic for packrafters in Scotland, as they have been for many years among non-amphibious backpackers (landlubbers!). But the high route we have planned will be a new angle on this challenge and, as with any adventure in the Scottish Highlands, there are a number of factors which could throw us off course.

Whatever happens in terms of route detail, we will be experiencing some of Scotland's finest areas of wild land under our own steam. And that is definitely in keeping with the spirit of the John Muir Trust. I hope you'll agree that this is an appeal worth supporting.

Thank you

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Packrafting in the Cairngorms - A Wet Weekender...

Cairngorm White Water from david hine on Vimeo.

The weekend promised sunshine and snow melt in the Cairngorms National Park. The sunshine was there, part of the time at least, but the majority of the snow was gone, other than from the higher slopes. So after driving up from Edinburgh on Saturday morning David and I found pretty low water on the River Feshie, where the weekend bagan. But the water wasn't too low to be runnable, so run it we did. David flipped once while surfing a wave, and we both jumped into an inviting plunge pool from the rocks on the river bank. The paddling was fun despite the low volume, and one enjoyable section was repeated several times by each of us.

An angry farmer took exception to us exercising our legal right to camp beside the river Feshie (which is a beautiful and highly recommended place to go and camp, by the way!) I must add there was no crops or farm animals anywhere nearby, unless this man is raising invisible sheep. But rather than get involved in a pointless confrontation, and also because by that time we were planning to seek out a higher volume of flow on the River Spey anyway, we upped-sticks and set-off in the direction of Knockando (where a fun and scenic stretch of class 2 rapids can be found).

In the morning, after a long lay in and in no great hurry, we packed up our camp on the banks of the Spey and walked upriver to inflate and float back down. I've paddled through this section on a couple of previous trips, but on this occasion we took our time to play on waves and explore one of the mid river islands. We practiced wet reentry on a flat stretch of the river, and I flipped while playing on a wave. 

With the Spey behind us, the next objective was a recce along the River Avon (which I've long been curious about). We got in for a float of just of few miles through some fun class two stuff, although I know there to be more serious and sustained rapids at other parts of the river. There is a lot of potential for including this river in a backpacking route, and my crystal ball suggests that may happen in the non-too-distant future.

So it was a fun and worthwhile weekend, all in all. Long may the rivers flow.

Taking a break in the Spey at Knockando.

On the upper Feshie (Picture by David Lintern)

On the upper Feshie (Picture by David Lintern)

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Packrafting in Scotland

Although I only have a week to devote to my spring packrafting trip this year, I'm still really looking forward to the break. April is a great time to be among the Scottish mountains; the midges aren't yet fully established and the hills generally aren't too busy. For a packrafter, the added benefit of snow-melt off the hills, swelling water levels in less-than-reliable rivers, seals the seasonal deal.
Taking a break beside the River Ba (Rannoch Moor, Central Highlands), May 2011
It's a little over three years since I received my packraft direct from Alpacka in the US (and, of course, paid the parcel-force ransom note to release it from captivity). The overall cost seemed like a lot of money then, and it still seems like a lot of money now. But I've got a lot of great use out it and, although it shows scratches and scrapes, it still does what it's intended to do and it still does it well.

My first year with the boat saw a packrafting expedition through the Southern Highlands of Scotland, a trip to the arctic region of Northern Norway, and my first flip (in anger) on the cold River Spey (it was December). There was also lots of practicing the basic stuff, both on still water and on various Scottish rivers (most frequently the river Tweed). Basic stuff like manoeuvring the boat, like ferrying across a current, and like trying to understand the deep water channels and eddies. Subsequent years have seen more trips and more progress against the learning-curve. I've become a comfortably amphibious backpacker. But a backpacker I've remained.
I've tried again and again to sum up what is I think is so great about packrafting, and it always comes back to the backpack. But there's a world of potential in these little boats, far beyond the simple backpacking aspirations I've had these past few years. The dark arts of bike-rafting and white water spring to mind. And while I'm not a biker, I confess I've been feeling more drawn to the splashier stuff over the past 18 months.
So messing about on the river, and just teaching myself, has enabled me to get what I wanted out of my packraft up to a point. But my paddling stroke has remained technically lacking and I haven't taught myself the real white water skills to get the most out of my boat in more significant rapids. I wanted to learn from people who are more than backpackers-in-boats, and luckily I had the chance to get out and do that.
Meall Bhuide ridge, Knoydart,  April 2012

In February I was pleased to finally meet Andy Toop who, along with his business partner Rob, is the man behind Backcountry Biking & Backcountry Boating (Scotland's only packrafting instruction and adventure guiding outfit). Andy and Rob have succeeded in making a business out of a passion, in getting packrafts on the telly (BBC no-less), and also in becoming the official UK distributor of Apacka Raft packrafts .
My friend David and I spent a very snowy night out on the Cairngorm plateau before meeting up with Andy to get acquainted with the River Feshie.  The day out with Andy was a whole-lot of fun and skills I'd attempted to practice by myself were finally made clearer to me. My white water technique has a way to go yet, but I've definitely been bitten by the bug.

In retrospect, the wiser route for learning about packrafting probably would have been to seek out guys like Andy & Rob. Although having said that, I've had a great time and personally have no regrets about going it my own way. It's been an adventure!
River Feshie, Cairngorms, February 2014 (Photo by Andy Toop)
Scotland is a good place for packrafting. And it seems to me it's getting more popular both here and across Europe. If you're on Facebook, you might find the Packrafters Liberation Front and Packrafting in Europe  Groups of interest. Or if you engage via google or Twitter it isn't hard to find people who are getting out there. Quite clearly, the air-pressure is building and Our numbers are growing.  Maybe one day this fetish for extremely high-quality urethane-coated nylon won't seem as weird as this sentence makes it sound...


Loch Morlich, Cairngorms May 2013 (Photo, Sarena Hackenmiller)

Monday, 20 January 2014

Gleann Comhann

"... Glen Coe and Lochaber ...They had everything: peak, plateau, precipice, the thinnest of ridges, and green valley, all set between the widest of wild moors and a narrow sea loch - they were Baghdad and Samarkand, at once the home and the goal of the pilgrim. " - WH Murray Undiscovered Scotland

I'd not been here in Winter before. And even in other months I've just barely scratched the surface of Glen Coe. None of the four of us were very optimistic about the conditions on the drive North (too much a damp, green landscape around us), but on the higher ground we did find Winter still in charge. This trip was great from my point of view, although it was not altogether successful. We camped at the Red Squirrel. We plotted, drank and steam dried at the Clachaig Inn.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Uisge Dhè

Cold River from david hine on Vimeo.

It was dark as we drove north on Friday night. It's fair to say I was was in high spirits, wriggling around in the passenger seat and drinking fermented apple juice. David was concerned his aged car might not make it over the high and snowy pass of the Spittal of Glenshee. A car had spun out of control, left the road and teetered precariously at the edge of a high embankment. We stopped to offer assistance, but help was already on its way so we continued on ours.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Wild Land Matters

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have issued a consultation paper to invite comment on the Core Areas of Wild Land map (April 2013). SNH will be considering all responses they receive by 5pm on December 20th, and will ultimately be advising the Scottish Government on the potential use of this map in relation to planning policy.

If you recognise the value of wild land (intrinsic or economic) I would encourage you to add your own voice. Even if it is just a few lines in support of the protection of wild land, don't under-estimate the value of your opinion. And be aware that it's likely there are people being paid to respond, and that the views they are selling may vary wildly from your own.

My response is below.

This hill track is still too young to feature on OS maps. I came across this being pushed up into the heart of one of the 'Core Areas of Wild Land' (above Loch Dionard), while backpacking through in Spring 2012. It's a reminder that these places are constantly under threat.
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Grid North by David Hine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.