Highland and Hebridean Bikepacking; the Small Isles and Knoydart Peninsula

Sand, sea, mud, sun, salt and rain. A fairly typical collection of things that could be expected of any summer outing in the Highlands and Islands. And in no particular order of course as the western seaboard of Scotland is well practiced at throwing all of these at you in close succession. Warmth and dryness must be earned in these parts.

It is on these terms that I headed north from Lancaster on Friday 30th June 2017. A mid-summer, three-part excursion loomed during the week ahead. The mountain bike was well loaded with new panniers as well as a handlebar bag from the Alpkit ‘rando’ bike luggage range. Crossing the streets of Glasgow in Friday rush hour, I met Rowan Jackson at Queen Street station for the long but familiar trundle to Mallaig on the West Highland Line. Rowan came well provisioned with some Scottish Ales for us to enjoy on board over a pre-packed picnic meal. At Mallaig, I had arranged the finest in overnight accommodation; the midge infested bog just-off the dog walking path at the back of the town. Practical, given the near midnight arrival and early morning sailing, but far from a glamorous staging point en-route to the isles.

Part 1: Rùm

On Saturday morning, we boarded the homely CalMac MV Loch Nevis for it’s 07:30 sailing. First stop Rùm. Given the bargain of the overnight accommodation, we indulged in the joys of a CalMac veggie breakfast whilst gliding across the Sound of Sleat towards Loch Scresort on Rùm. Arriving just over an hour later, we were greeted by rapidly deteriorating weather, with the cloud descending the Cuillin and drizzle pulsing through occasionally. After disembarkation, we hurried along to the Kinloch campsite in order to get the tents up in the relative dry.

Arriving Loch Scresort, Rùm on the CalMac Loch Nevis.

Rùm is a fascinating island. Historically, geologically, ecologically and culturally. This small  island of little over 10 000 hectares presents formidable terrain that so typifies the Hebridean landscape. The Rùm Cuillin, rises to the lofty height of 812 m on Askival, and offers a most sporting ridge traverse, remarkable in similarity to that which goes by the same name but is far more frequented on the Isle of Skye. The largest of the Small Isles group, Rùm is the centrepiece of these islands of relative geological youth. The Cuillin itself is a remnant central volcanic complex of the UK’s Paloaeogene volcanic province. This represents the most recent (60 million years ago) period of volcanism in the British Isles, associated with the early formation and rifting of the North Atlantic. Similar volcanic process can today be found on Iceland. Any human inhabitation has been limited to the few segments of the island that could be classed as ‘lowlands’, mostly around a smattering of bays (much of the islands’ coast has towering cliffs). Rùm itself, along with it’s named places and mountains owe origin to Old Norse, although there is no evidence of any permanent settlement by the Vikings. For centuries the Highlands and Islands were plied by a series of rival clans, constantly at war with one another until the end of the Jacobite uprisings in 1745. This led to a population boom on Rùm, which at it’s peak in the eighteenth century, reached 443, mostly subsistence crofters living at Kinloch, Kilmory, Harris, Guirdil, Papadil and Dibidil. A series of wealthy landowners with grand sporting and grazing ambitions for the island led to serious depopulation, largely through emigration to Nova Scotia. The island today supports a modest population of around 40 people, with ownership having passed to Scottish Natural Heritage (formerly the Nature Conservancy) in 1957.

After a visit to the Kinloch village shop to stock up on supplies for the weekend, we set out on the bikes to explore the islands’ Landrover tracks. Firstly to the northernmost locality of Kilmory Bay. Site of Rùm’s only large expanse of sand (red, as it is sourced from the outcrop of Torridonian Sandstone on NE Rùm). We battled through a blustery squall and deposited the bikes trackside in order to make the last trudge over bog to the sands on foot. For the bracing paddle and wander along the sands, the sun showed its face through a rare patch of blue sky. Back up the track to the crossroads, we then turned south to complete a full north-south traverse and reach Harris. Overlooking the Atlantic, Harris is a bizarre but spectacular locality. There are extensive crofting remains, but also the most unexpected of features; a gothic mausoleum; burial ground for the wealthy Bullogh family, Rùm landowners from 1888-1957.

Kilmory Bay, Northern Rùm.

Sunday was our only ‘full day’ on Rùm. Unfortunately the unsettled weather pattern was still very much en-vigour. Our objective for the day was to reach Guirdil on the far-west of the island, possibly via the high ground of the Western Hills. Unfortunately, as we walked up out of Kinloch and across the moorland, the cloud level rapidly raced down to meet us just short of Beallach à Bhraigh Bhig. The thick fog precluded climbing any higher into the hills. So down the far side of the Beallach in thick cloud and drizzle, we wound our way along a relatively well trodden, historical hill path through Shielings and eerie rock formations of the Western Hills. Dropping down a stream gully exiting a small Lochan on the broad exposed saddle before Bloodstone Hill, we eventually popped out of the cloud at around 200 m. Guirdil and the island of Canna emerged below and across the water. At Guirdill, one of the croft houses has been rebuilt as a mountain bothy. A reasonably cosy but basic stone Blackhouse with the loft area boarded out as a sleeping platform. For the trudge back to the east, we followed the long and boggy path out via Glen Shellesder.

Guirdill, with the Isle of Canna beyond.

Overnight Sunday into Monday, the weather stabilised and on Monday morning Loch Scresort was bathing in July sunshine. With our ferry to Eigg at 15:10, there was enough time for a quick walk up to the first part of the Cuillin ridge. We started off up the well-formed hill path behind Kinloch Castle, rapidly obtaining the open moorland of Coire Dubh. Following the main-ridge route as far as Bealach Bairc-mheall we then turned west and summited the outlier peak of Barkeval with a full 360 degree view of the island. A Golden Eagle soared above whilst a small cluster of the islands’ mountain goat population posed on an appropriately heroic outcrop.

Part 2: Eigg

The MV Loch Nevis promptly dropped it’s long-reaching stern vehicle (and foot passenger) gangway onto it’s purpose built landing stage on Rùm and an hour later we were disembarking in an equally efficient manner at an identical facility on Eigg. The Loch Nevis and landing piers on the Small Isles were part-funded by an EU access to remote communities grant, and the facilities have transformed travel between Mallaig and the islands, which was previously a very tidal-dependent affair with most islands requiring disembarkation to a smaller, tender boat to reach the shore, particularly at low tide.

We were staying at the Glebe Barn, raised sixty metres or so above sea level on the islands’ east coast. The old stone building is a well provisioned hostel with fine views from the garden and conservatory from Knoydart to Ardnamurchan.

Eigg has a similar geological and human history to Rùm from the origin of it’s volcanic rocks through to the clearance of it’s once-extensive crofting community. However, in recent years, the island has undergone somewhat of a renaissance through the development of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. This unique partnership of the island community, Highland Council and Scottish Wildlife Trust, purchased the whole island outright in 1997, the second example of a community land ownership in Scotland at the time. The population has since increased to just over 100. A wide range of community facilities have been built and most notably, the island has developed the Eigg Electric grid, sourcing power from wind, solar and hydro power sources.

On Monday evening, for Rowan’s final night on the islands, we wandered back down to the community hub of the island, the Galmisdale Bay cafe-bar for a most excellent veggie burger and pint from the Laig Bay Brewing Co. on Eigg whilst overlooking Muck and Ardnamurchan from the outdoor terrace.

Western Bays panorama & Beinn Bhuidhe.
The West coast of Eigg; Beinn Bhuidhe, Cleadale and the Bays of the Singing Sands & Laig.

Tuesday was another sunny one. We headed out across the island to the picture-postcard western beaches of Camas Sgiotaig (the Singing Sands) and Laig. It was low tide, giving access to the interesting formations of the wave-cut platform in the dinosaur fossil bearing Mesosoic limestones found at shore level. We returned to the pier at Galmisdale in time for Rowan to board the lunchtime boat off Eigg to Mallaig via Muck. In order to make the most of the sunshine, I had a quick lunch back up on the decking at Glebe Barn before riding back down to Galmisdale and taking out a sea kayak from Eigg Adventures. It was near enough to high tide, perfect for exploring the flooded inlets of Kildonan and Galmisdale Bays. In the 2 hour trip, I even managed to get up close to the boulder-strewn shoreline of Eileen Chathastail (small islet just off shore at Galmisdale) and the odd cormorant colony.

Wednesday was fine once again, but more unsettled weather was due from Thursday onwards. It was the opportune moment for a long-held ambition to explore the far-southwest of Eigg; the rough heather-strewn ground between Laig and An Sgùrr. I set out following a marked route through the mixed forestry and woodlands that dominate the prominent ‘notch’ or low point across the centre of the island. The ‘notch’ between the high ground of Beinn Bhuidhe (N) and An Sgùrr (S) is that which gives Eigg its name (Old Norse). The west coast is reached abruptly at a change in slope, or moreover an escarpment that runs almost full length of the island above the fertile, shallow shelf containing the rejuvenated crofting village of Cleadale. The cliff-face is formed of basaltic lava flows of the same palaeogene origin as the Rùm volcano and the prominent shelf is a raised beach of early post-glacial times of higher sea level. Passing down through the scarp to Laig farm, followed a fairly rapid, transverse re-ascent, taking a westerly trajectory along a mixture of indistinct hill and sheep paths. A point of historical interest is Poll Duchaill, a long grassed-over hill fort with a prominent position on a high promontory overlooking the Sound of Rùm. I continued now in a southwesterly direction over increasingly rough and pathless terrain until the summit of Beinn Tighe, 305 m was achieved. The effort expended was more akin with a far loftier height. At this point on the circuit I had reached the Eigg pitchstone lava formation, a hard, crystalline rock with column and pillow like texture. This would be followed, west to east as far as the island summit, An Sgùrr 393 m. The Eigg pitchstone was an extrusive lava flow of the palaeogene volcanic period. Interestingly, it initially came to rest infilling a valley floor. The sides of the valley, being formed of softer sediments and volcanic ash were subsequently eroded, leaving the feature exposed as a hard, linear ridge, standing proud and a distinctive feature on the Inner Hebridean skyline. After a fine trundle through spectacular rock scenery, with low points infilled with clear lochans, I dropped off the high ground and back to the Glebe Barn via the Isle of Eigg shop. Cloud cover had increased through the day, but the haziness did not preclude an early evening dip. Neoprene-clad from head to toe, I managed a good 15 minute splash down at Kildonan Bay, with my antics being observed astutely by three grey seals.

Interesting topography of the Eigg pitchstone.
The inticrate landscape of rock outcrops & Lochans of the Eigg Pitchstone formation.

By Thursday morning, the weather had broken. A brisk westerly airflow had whipped up with low cloud (at times thick fog to sea level) and frequent rain. I took an easy morning at Glebe Barn before braving the elements on the bike and heading South. As a means of warm-up I took the bike for a spin along the rough track leading from Galmisdale, past the wind turbines spinning at a high rate, to the abandoned crofting village of Lower Grulin. This is a site of much enclosed land and former Blackhouse stone walls, now buried beneath the bracken standing at little over half a metre high. Turning around for a couple of kilometres and then downhill to the coast, I abandoned the bike at a cliff-top style in order to explore two caves located just around the point from Galmisdale. The tidal Cathedral Cave was first with it’s vast chamber, followed by the narrower but longer ‘Massacre Cave’. The story behind the latter is just as grim as it’s name suggests.

Later that day, I had a fascinating meeting at the school with the current headteacher of Eigg Primary. The weather was keen to stay equally as bad throughout the day and despite high expectations for an end of day clear spell, I finished the day with a blustery, misty and wet ride over to Cleadale where I dumped the bike once again at the track end and jogged over the fields for a final look at the Singing Sands. A group of sea kayakers were in and had setup camp on the grassy area above high tide.

Friday was my departure day for the mainland. The sun was trying it’s best to break through whilst I packed the gear out on the decking at Glebe Barn. I was soon aboard the Loch Nevis with it’s wonderful on board cafe-bar providing morning tea and scone to complement the swift passage to Mallaig.

Back on the mainland, the hustle and bustle of the seaside town of Mallaig was a stark contrast to the island days prior. Fish packing was in full swing on the harbourside with forklifts coming and going. Up at the station, The Jacobite steam train had arrived and disgorged it’s 6-carriage load of lunchtime visitors to the small town for a seaside delight of their choice to the background overture of ever-opportunistic gulls.

Part 3: Knoydart

After stocking up at Mallaig Coop for the final weekend of this 9-day epic, I headed back down to the harbour to board the much smaller, Western Isles Cruises vessel bound for Inverie on Knoydart. The crossing was a busy one, with several large groups quayside with large-quantities of luggage. All of this, including my bike was loaded down a precarious staircase onto a series of pallets on the bow of the ship. The MV Western Isles is timber-hulled with a small cabin, outdoor bench seats an appropriately located and well-stocked tea and whisky bar below deck level. Fully loaded, it chugged out of Mallaig, turning east around the point and into Loch Nevis.

The peninsula of Knoydart is identified as ‘one of the remotest’ in the UK. It is inaccessible by road with a series of high cols and rough mountains forming a formidable inland barrier and two long, deep sea lochs; Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn forming the southern and northern boundaries respectively. Similar to the islands, this is an area of crofting heritage and the usual history of landowners and tenants. Despite it’s relative inaccessibility, Inverie is a most civilised village complete with pub, Post Office, tea rooms and a range of accommodation. A vast swathe of the peninsula is now under community ownership through the Knoydart Foundation with ambitions for community and ecological development of the peninsula. A significant feature of the work of the Foundation is (re-)forestry. Inverie is backed by a large area of conifer plantation as well as smaller pockets of native mixed woodlands. Gradual felling of the plantation has brought an economic income for the area whilst re-stocking with a mixture of planting for the economy and planting for ecology forms part of the ongoing plan.

Arriving at Inverie pier some 45 minutes after Mallaig, the offloading procedure commenced via a similar staircase. Upon taking account of all my bike bags, I loaded up and cycled through the village and on to the Long Beach campsite. This is a basic facility owned by the Knoydart Foundation with a lovely turf-roof wood cabin for cooking and generally escaping the rain/midges and the most luxurious composting toilet ever seen! After striking camp, I re-loaded one pannier with some provisions and headed off on the bike back through the village and took the only metalled road on Knoydart; that which runs west from Inverie to the cluster of houses  and pier at Airor. The road climbs steeply out of Inverie Bay and winds its way across heather moorland with a grand outlook to the southwest over the Sound of Sleat to the peninsula of the same name on Skye. The outlines of Rùm and Eigg form the distant horizon.

Long Beach Campsite.
Long Beach campsite, Inverie Bay, Knoydart.

After a comfortable night in the tent at the Long Beach campsite, it was an early start on Saturday in anticipation of a long mountain day. The objective was a high level circuit dominated by Ladhar Bheinn at 1020 m. The SMC North-West Highlands hillwalkers’ guide describes the southern slopes, the more accessible side of the mountain from Inverie, as grassy and less interesting than the various northern corries looming above Loch Hourn. And so defined my challenge! In order to get the most out of the mountain, I began the day with a 12 km walk-in via a series of Glens to reach the remote Coire Each on the northwestern face of the mountain. Initially, this was on good forest tracks leading away from Inverie and along Gleann Guiserein. The terrain soon became more unfrequented and the tracks gave way to some quality open hill hacking. The steep climbing began in Coire Each where the final 600 m of ascent was taken within just 2 km via steep rock and turf onto Stob a’ Choire Odhair, the north Top. From here a fine ridge separating Coire Each from Coire Dhorrcail lead to the summit of Ladhar Bheinn. I passed the first and only other summiting party of the day just below the summit; a group of young people on hillwalking day from the camp at Barrisdale Bay. They were out with a leader from the Loch Eil Outward Bound Centre on a 14-day mixed activity expedition. The summit was quite atmospheric, with the cloud just clipping and sometimes clinging to the leeward side of the spatula-like ridge of Ladhar Behinn. It was not a day for hanging around, so after a few obligatory photos, I headed off eastwards towards point 849 m on Aonoch Sgoilte ridge. The latter is a long crooked finger of a ridge that points in a southwesterly direction towards Inverie. A long and undulating downward traverse leads to the broad, peat filled col of Màm Suidheig just below 500 m before the ridge turns back uphill. An unwelcome heave on the leg muscles brought me to the final summit of the day, Sgùrr Coire Chòinniechean, immediately above Inverie Bay. The tent was a mere 779 m below. The final descent was steep and the thickening cloud started to produce some light drizzle. Unfortunately, the menu of the Old Forge pub at Inverie was well outside of my budget (luckily I had checked it online in advance so had sufficient supplies for the whole weekend) and so I settled in at Long Beach for an evening of cooking, resting and well-earned tea drinking in the tent.

Ladhar Bheinn & Coire Dhorrcail.
Ladhar Bheinn and Coire Dhorrcail from point 849 m on Aonoch Sgoilte.

Grand Finale: From Knoydart to Lancaster

The Western Isles Cruises timetable is well matched to that of the West Highland Line. Even on a Sunday, there is an early boat from Inverie to meet the 10:10 Mallaig train departure south to Glasgow. It meant another early rise and shine at Long Beach. The overnight deluge had eased at around 05:00, leaving a damp, misty and still atmosphere. Ideal midge conditions. Until this point in the trip, the sea breeze had generally kept the worst of the Scottish midges at bay, but during the Sunday morning pack-up, they were out in force. In anticipation of my exit from the tent, a thick black cloud had prepared themselves on the other side of the fly screen. Covered head to toe, and the bags largely packed and ready I made a short and swift exit on the bike to the relative safety of the pier.

The boat ride back to Mallaig was a fitting end to the trip with the sun breaking through here and there. On the weekend, the smaller but faster outboard motor boat of Western Isles Cruise plies the Inverie route. This makes short work of the crossing and I was soon loading my luggage for the short ride from pier to platform at Mallaig with 15 minutes to spare. The train pulled out on time and clattered it’s way past the Silver Sands of Morar and Arisaig before turning inland toward rapidly deteriorating weather at Lochailort. For most of the journey south to Glasgow, the hills were cloaked in cloud as the fully-loaded sprinter train wound its way southward and rain pattered on the windows.

The trip had been epic, in all senses. 9-days of the very best of Scottish summer sunshine, rain, wind, sand and salt in this spectacular yet modest Hebridean maritime landscape.

Coigach & Assynt, of Pre-Cambrian Fame

Head north over Drumochter and Slochd summit’s, keep going. Cross the Kessock Bridge and the Black Isle, keep going. Wind your way along the course of the Black Water and the high moorland between the Fannich Forest and Ben Dearg Massif, keep on going. To the north of the small highland town of Ullapool lies a most unexpected yet spectacular region of coastal mountains. This is the Far North Highland region of Coigach and Assynt; a platform-like moorland of 1800 million year old Lewissian Gneiss with isolated, heavily sculpted peaks of 800 million year old Torridonian Sandstone standing proud across the landscape like grand ocean liners of the high seas.

After my early-April Alpine trip, Imogen and I headed north by road for the Easter weekend. On day-1, we (as in Imogen) drove to Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms to break the long 666 km journey to the NW Highlands. Arriving early-evening, we loaded our rucksacks and wound our way up forest tracks leading past the Rothimurchus lodge and ultimately onto a hill path leading to the Lairig Ghru. It was a rather cool evening with showers looming, so we stopped off for the night on a relatively level grassy shelf among the sea of deep heather just short of the Chalamain Gap path junction. Next morning, the cool showers had brought a fresh dusting of snow to the hills down to around 900 m. Leaving the tent, we meandered up to the Larig-Ghru Pass, enjoyed the view down through the Pools of Dee and on to the remote peaks of Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point.

The Lairig Ghru Pass, 835 m looking South.

Returning via the same route to collect the tent, we continued the journey north after a late-lunch.

Our first objective was the beach campsite at the small highland community of Clachtoll. After Inverness, the excitement loomed as we set out across the Beauty Forth and wound our way up through the grand scenery along the Black Water River. North of Ullapool, we turned a corner in the A835 at Ardmair and were faced with the vast south wall of Ben More Coigach with it’s sheer sandstone turrets, towering right out of Loch Kanaird. For the next 50 km, the A835 follows the axis of the Moine Thrust, the epic earth movement of Caledonian Orogeny vintage that shunted younger Moinian rocks upwards and northwestwards over the older Lewisian and Torridonian age rocks of Coigach & Assynt.

Arriving at Clachtoll, I was reminded that we were back in springtime Scotland and the air temperature was a biting 8°C or so with a brisk northwesterly coming in off the North Atlantic, the thermal leggings went on, and stayed on! The campsite is very well served with an excellent toilet and shower block. Happily fed and watered, we explored the intricate rocky platforms and bays for sunset.

Bay of Clachtoll

Day-2 continued with the showery north-westerlies. In the morning, we drove north around to Clashnessie beach, with an interesting little waterfall tumbling over a raised cliff line of the former late-glacial coastline. The interior of the area perfectly characterises the ‘Lewisian’ landscape, gradually undulating heather-clad moors, intertwined with hundreds of lochans. Next stop… tea and cake. We carried on for a further 15 mins for the lovely garden tearooms at Drumbeg. A good pit stop and well timed during a brief period of sunshine. Retracing our route from Drumveg, we turned off the ‘main’ Kylesku to Lochinver road (all roads leading away from the arterial A road following the Moine thrust are single track with passing places) to explore the headland of Stoer from it’s lighthouse. Here the lofty sandstone cliffs can be followed to the spectacular Point of Stoer and sea-stack that goes by the name of the Old Man of Stoer.

After a second night on the Clachtoll beach campsite, we packed up and took a leisurely drive south. First stop, Achmelvich. A wonderful spot with perfect white-sand coves and crystal clear waters. The sun came out just in time for our explore, complete with a bracing paddle, April after all is pretty much the month of the year with the coldest annual sea temperatures in Scotland.

Achmelvich Bay

Passing Lochinver, we continued to the sandstone-dominated peninsula of Rubha Mòr. The large red-sand beach at Achnahaird offers a grandiose outlook across the whole region; north along the coast to Point of Stoer, with the mountain panorama inland stretching from Quinag through Suilven, Stac Pollaidh and the massif of Ben Mor Coigeach.

Achnahaird Bay, looking towards the massif of Ben More Coigach (R), Beinn an Eoin (C) and Star Pollaidh, the cone-like mountain (far-L).

Our next caping spot was at the village of Altandhu just along the coast from Achiltibuie. It’s another excellent campsite, provisioned with a heated toilet block and owned by the Fuaran Bar located just across the road offering home cooked pub food at very reasonable prices. A good find!

Well timed around the weather forecast, day-4 was our mountain day. With an early start, we trundled all the way along the Achiltibuidhe road all the way to the end of the road and scattering of croft houses at Culnacraig. Our objective for the day was a full traverse of the peaks that form Ben More Coigach. Starting out, we ascended the sandstone terraces that form the rampart-like SW-ridge of the mountain, with a fantastic outlook to Lewis and the hills of Harris. The Ullapool-Stornaway CalMac ferry was dwarfed in the landscape of hills, lochs and open ocean as it slipped out of Loch Broom and across the Minch. A brief lunchtime deterioration in the weather brought low cloud, and a squally snow shower. Well timed for some quality navigation practice on the high plateau. It soon cleared through to full sunshine once again for completion of the full horseshoe.

Sgùrr an Fhidhleir.

On Tuesday, it was time for the long-haul south to Lancaster; all 666 km in one day. We took it leisurely with stops in Ullapool, Aviemore, Perth and Lesmahagow. With Imogen at the wheel all the way, all that was required of me was to relax, enjoy the scenery and daydream of our next excursion to this rugged extremity of the Highlands.

Achiltibuie, looking along the coast to Ben More Coigach.

Sprintime excursions around the jolly Val-Montjoie…

With a blink of the eye you’d be forgiven if you missed winter this year in Europe. It’s been an mild and for the most part incredibly dry one. The highlands of Scotland barely saw a snowflake until well into February and snow cover across the Alps was often patchy. An isolated dump in early November got snow seekers excited as the webcams suddenly turned white, but it was not the sign of things to come unfortunately. Ironically, writing this in early May, a cold, damp parcel of air hit the Haute-Savoie just last week with snow back down to around 900 m. Whilst spring was already well-established in the valleys and beyond, this was an albeit brief throwback to the all too sporadic  ‘what should have been‘ of the season just gone.

The Domes de Miage from Mont Truc, 1811 m.

I decided upon a late-season snowshoe trip this year. Rooftops and pine boughs laden with fresh white powder and blazing trail through 50 cm of fresh was certainly not part of the vision for this trip. Moreover, it was an opportunity to explore the Alpine snowpack in springtime and get higher into the mountains than is possible earlier in the season when the avalanche hazard is prohibitavely high. It was to be more of a sprintime walking and snowshoeing combination trip.

Joined this time by Lindsey and Steve at St. Pancras International, we headed for the lovely little village of Les-Contamines-Montjoie. The journey down included an overnight stop in a budget hotel near the Gare de Lyon. Before midday on a sunny 2nd April Sunday, our direct TGV from Paris had deposited us at the Arve valley town of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains-le-Fayet, just a short bus journey from Les-Contamines in the Val-Montjoie. The valley is traversed by by the GR5 and GR Tour du Mont Blanc en-route from the Col de Voza to the Col du Bonhomme and thus is familiar territory for many a summer trekker. The valley has only been modestly developed for skiing, in and around the Col du Joly, but this is complemented by ski de fond in the valley at the right time of year.

Enjoying the afternoon sunshine on day 1 below the Col de Tricot, 2120 m and Mont Vorassay (L). Steep and sunny South facing slopes were mostly stripped back to the parched grass.

According to the meteo-france avalanche forecast, the previous precipitation event of any significance in the area had been more than three-weeks prior to our arrival. Warm temperatures thereafter had resulted in a reatreat of the snowline to 1500 m on north facing aspects and anywhere between 1800 and 2500 m on south facing, depending on angle of slope. These conditions determined that there would be a lot of walking on the summer paths, snowshoes on packs before any significant depth of cover could be found.

Despite the lean conditions, we had some great days out, mostly in fine, sunny weather. On day one, we completed a grand circuit to the NE of Les Contamines, up through the woods to the little summit of Mont Truc 1811 m, spectacularly positioned looking over to the West face of the Domes de Miage, and down via the idyllic Chalets de Miage and the Gorges de la Gruvas to the valley.

Looking down on the Envers du Truc from Mont Truc. A great snowshoeing venue for day 2.


After having observed the relatively good remaining snowpack on the ideal nordic-type terrain of the Envers du Truc the day before, on Day 2, we were back out in a similar area, but on snowshoes in a relatively sugary, wet but deep snowpack due to the northerly aspect.

Trying to keep the snowshoes on for as long as possible above Refuge La Balme.

For Wednesday, we headed South and up the valley of the Bon Nant to the Notre Dame de la Gorge. This is the start of the long climb up to the Col du Bonnehomme for the GR5/TMB. It started a little overcast and cool but by the time we reached the Chalet Nant Borrant, the clouds were breaking and sun pushing through. Pushing on up to Refuge La Balme 1706 m for lunch, we then ascended a moraine ridge in the warmth to the spectacular shelf-like Paturages de la Balme for some wonderful open snowshoeing terrain with towering mountains all around.

Wonderful rolling, nordic terrain on the Paturages de la Balme.

Day 4 was another one of wall to wall sunshine, but the cool of the morning was welcome for the long uphill haul out of the valley on the GR5/TMB heading NE towards Col de Voza. We detoured from the GR’s however and took a more interesting zig-zag path from the Pont des Places up through mixed forest, emerging at the far less than glamerous pisted area of Les-Houches at the Hotel Bellevue. The view of the Chamonix valley to the east and the Aravis to the west from this spot makes up for the conspicuous development. We headed partway up the steep NW ridge of Mont-Lachat to find a tranquil lunch spot before making a long descent via Col de Voza, Le Crozet and le Champel down to the D 902 road right down in the valley where we managed to hitch a ride back up to Les-Contamines after the non-arrival of the bus.

A good lunchtime lookout over Bellevue and le Prarion from Mont Lachat.

The final days’ excursion back up from Notre-Dame de la Gorge but via a smaller winding route up the steep, forest-clad eastern side of the valley through some lovely little clearings to the Refuge de Tré la Tête. The route up was largely snow free and the refuge open for tea, beer, chocolate bars etc. It is located on a popular ski touring route into the Glacier de Tré la Tête basin and commands a wondeful position on a prominent flat section of the otherwise sheer ridgline leading up to the Domes de Miage.

After 5 full-on days exploring the valley we were ready for a good rest. Each day had amounted to 15 km or more with an altitude profile of +/- 1000 m, sometimes with a bit of snowshoeing on a dense, thawing snowpack. Hard work indeed. The valley ‘ski bus’ or navette system had been very useful (and free of charge) in helping to cut out some otherwise long and unwelcome tarmac trudges at the start and end of the day.

The great outlook north from Refuge de Tré la Tête.

We headed out of the mountains to Geneva and 20 degree (or more) heat! With the much anticipated CEVA (Cornavin-Eaux-Vives-Annemasse), Geneva crossrail not yet complete we had to load onto a rather packed city bus from Annemasse. After dropping all the heavy gear at our airbnb appartment we were able to enjoy an afternoon stroll around the Lac Léman shoreline to the ‘Jet d’eau’ and a look at the streets of the old town on the south bank of the Rhône. Sunday was a very straightforward journey back via TGV Lyria and the Haut-Bugey line into a warm and blossoming Paris where we spent a few hours awaiting the booked Eurostar in the Jardin des Plantes. Lancaster was comfortably reached by late evening.

The Geneva ‘Jet d’Eau’ and cityscape ligts dominated by the various watchmakers’ neon signs.

April is great month of the year to be walking in the Alps, particularly if you don’t like the heat of high-summer. Most of the walking trails were empty and the wildlife was certainly reacting to the rising temperatures and also easier to spot with the vegetation having not quite yet had the same spring into life and leaf. A few early season Alpine flowers were making the most of the sunshine, particularly in places that in just over a month’s time would be shaded by dense leaf canopy.

Brief Encounters with the Capitals of the British Isles

Great Britain and Ireland, along with over 6000 smaller but not insignificant islands make up the British Isles; over the last three months, somewhat unintentionally I’ve managed to find myself visiting 4 out of the 5 Capital Cities that make up the nations of these islands… even if some of the visits were somewhat on the brief side…

It’s been a very different winter this year, not least for me having had 6 weeks of the (southern hemisphere) summer sandwiched by what has mostly been a relatively calm and mild period weather-wise. A stark contrast to the storm-punctuated winter of 2015-16. I’ve had some great excursions in the mountains, from Scotland to France (the Lake District in between). Updates and photos to follow. As for New Zealand, that trip certainly falls into the ‘epic’ category. The photographs are sorted and over the summer I’ll be preparing a longer format dossier that will complement the forthcoming ‘Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud’ talk that will be out and about at various venues from next winter.

Version 2
Landing at Heathrow Airport from Singapore on 17th January.

After our long travels to, around and back from the upside-down world, we landed back into a very bare and sepia-toned England on a clear, sunny winters’ 17th January. Heathrow was very much as we had left it weather-wise on 1st December, our Singapore Airlines A380 even deposited us at the exact same gate from whence we set-off.

After a short period of settling back in, I had the next outing of the ‘Treading Lightly’ talk at the Chester Globetrotters Club on Saturday 21st January. A lovely group and historic venue at the Grosvenor Museum. After the talk, the group re-convened in the ‘Golden Eagle’ pub just around the corner. Very appropriate choice given the prominence of the Scottish Highlands in ‘Treading Lightly’.

Kayaking in January on the Sound of Arisaig. Rois-bheinn and An Stac with fresh snow.

For our second weekend back in the UK, Imogen and I enjoyed a long-weekend in the West Higlands. Firstly on the Mamore mountains near Fort William with Lorna and Sam and then onwards to our wedding location, Glenuig. We were joined by the Fisher family for a cosy, wintery weekend in a lochside cottage. I returned south overnight on the Caledonian Sleeper, giving me a tick for the Scottish Capital. By far the briefest visit of all, this consisted only of the dreary wander along the platform, compulsorary for Fort William ‘seated’ carriage passengers whilst the most interesting shunting operation remaining on Britain’s passenger railways unfolds. The Aberdeen, Fort William and Inverness portions are joined together, whilst the Fort William seated carriage is left behind at Waverley station. It’s passengers, I being the sole represenative on that dark January night, are required to move into the Inverness or Aberdeen seated carriages.

Proper railway action! At Edinburgh Waverley in the dead of each night, railway staff clad in hi-viz clamber onto the tracks to join together carriages, with proper buffers, shunted by the diesel and electric locomotives of Caledonian Sleeper.

Early in February, in the midst of Six Nations rugby season I made a belated-New Year trip to Cardiff. The new Axe family house is now complete and it was a great catchup with the family and dogs with the usual range of local walks on Garth Hill frequented over the weekend.

Next up on the Capitals tour was Dublin in late-Feb. Completely unplanned and unexpected. I applied to join an Education for Sustainable Development training conference with UNESCO and was delighted to be selected to attend. Given the focus on sustainability, and the bargin that RailSail deals on the Irish Sea provide, there was no-chance of me flying over. I set off, Bromton under the arm for Holyhead and a blustery crossing on the Dublin Swift. The ride into Dublin City Centre was flat and fast(-er than the bus connection almost certainly). Luckily there was a handy tailwind pushing me along too. The conference took place at the Irish Departent of Education and I managed to see lots of the landmark sites either side of the Liffey River, mostly in the darkness of early morning or the evening. Even stronger winds on my return cancelled the Dublin Swift which meant I couldn’t join a final day excursion to the North Bull Island UNESCO Biosphere. Instead I boarded the trusty superferry Ulysees for the longer crossing to Holyhead and waved at my colleagues on the field trip as the ferry pushed out into the strong gale and rough seas from Dublin Bay .

A blustery crossing of the Irish Sea on board Irish Ferries’ superferry Ulysees.

To complete this mini-tour, I spent the first week in March in London. ‘Treading Lightly’ had two outings in the Capital. Firstly, at the friendly little ‘Hand and Shears’ Travel Group, based in an upstairs room at the King’s Head pub near Marylebone Station. This was a group that I’d been introduced to by Nick Crane. This was an evening talk on the first day of meteorological spring (March 1st). A very welcoming and interesting group and I look forward to visiting again next year. I based myself at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham for a few days, staying with Rowan. The following Saturday, it was back up to London town for another rendition of ‘Treading Lightly’ with the Globetrotters Club, this time with the London Branch. The meetings are based in the Church of Scotland Hall near Covent Garden. Again a very friendly and vibrant group and a packed audience made for a fanstastic reception. As with the Chester group, we re-grouped in a nearby pub after the three afternoon talks. I’m pleased to now have the Globetrotters annual calendar on my desk at work and be a card-carrying member of the travel club for independent travellers and travel enthusiasts of all ages that I was introduced to by the President John Pilkington.

The winter ‘talks’ season has now drawn to a close and the longer daylight hours has signalled more time outside than in. I’ve had some great excursions over the Easter period, but I’ll leave those for next time.

Extrêmit-isles of the North Atlantic

Could it be summer? Going by the quantity of clothing being worn here at Vatersay Bay, possibly not! A brisk, northerly airflow dominated on our Spring 2016 trip.

Imogen and I are big Hebridean fans. These small, rugged, windswept isles protrude from the North Atlantic off Scotland’s West Coast, forming a fascinating archipelago that could easily provide a lifetimes worth of exploring from a yacht or via the simple but intrepid means of walking their varied coastline and hills. Scotland’s 6000 mile coast represents some 69% of the UK total, much of this distance is lapped up by the circumference of the hundreds of isles and islets of this majestic Celtic land. But what should constitute an ‘official island’?; inhabitation?; access by regular passenger vessel?; a certain land-area threshold? This is a question upon which I often ponder, after all, our seven global continents surely find themselves surrounded by the vast ocean covering over 70% of the surface area of the Earth. This statistic reminds us of the supremacy of the seas over land, something to which we should perhaps pay more critical attention to in these times of ecosystem collapse and multiple environmental crises. Hamish Haswell-Smith, in his book ‘The Scottish Islands’ settles upon a figure of 162 ‘official’ Scottish islands. Ever the seeker of such categorisations, I first made acquaintance with this book in the Knoydart Pottery and Tearoom, Inverie, after a Munro bagging expedition on the Knoydart peninsula in 2011. Immediately absorbed by the beautiful maps and sketches, Haswell-Smith was soon crowned as my Munro of the Scottish marine world and copy earned itself a place on my bookshelf.

Anyway, on to our Hebridean honeymoon. On Monday 25th April 2016, after our most wondrous wedding weekend in the small village of Glenuig by Lochailort, Imogen and I set out with Lindsey and Liz for Fort William. After relatively benign springtime weather the week prior, overnight the weather had swung round to a brisk northerly flow, with a wintery feel on the wind that would only become amplified throughout the week ahead! We had an emotional departure on the CityLink bus from the less than inspiring Fort William bus station for the 1.5 hour trundle down the coast road to Oban. The wedding weekend had just been everything we ever hoped for and now it was just the two of us, setting out to the far western frontier of the UK.

Oban is one of the major departure ports for the Hebrides, with the majestic black, white and red funnelled vessels of the Caledonian MacBrayne Steam Packet Company (or CalMac Ferries these days). The busy port of Oban serves no-fewer than eight of the isles. Our vessel was the 13:40 departure for Castlebay (Barra), served by the MV Isle of Lewis. The Oban-Castlebay route is the longest ferry route on the West Coast with a journey time of just under 5 hours. For the first couple of hours, the vessel plies the fjord-like Sound of Mull, with the spectacular mountains of Morvern and Ardnamurchan to the north and the Isle of Mull to the South. After Ardnamurchan Point, the vessel jettisons out on a north-westerly trajectory into the open Sea of the Hebrides. The flat isles of Coll and Tiree are visible to the South, whilst the rugged Small Isles and jagged Cuillin of Skye form the northern skyline. At first, the Isle of Barra is barely visible but it’s mound-like profile gradually becomes more apparent way ahead of the bow. The Minch gives a real feel of open ocean, with gannets gliding with the vessel and shearwaters and petrels fluttering by close to the water. Despite the strong wind, the sea state was only moderately rough for our crossing.

The Isle of Barra / Eilean Bharraigh

Our first stop, for two nights was the Dunard hostel in Castlebay. Barra is one of the smaller, more compact of the Western Isles, with most of the habitation following the island ring-road. The centre is rough heather moorland, with a collection of interesting looking hills; Heabhal 383 m, with its unexpected ‘Madonna’ statue lurking on the southern slopes above Castlebay, Hartabhal 356 m and Beinn Tangabhal 332 m being some of the highest. The influence of the Old Norse in the names of geographical features and place names is a strong feature of life on the Hebrides. Given our limited time on the island, we opted to save the hill bagging for a future visit. After a fresh evening stroll around Castlebay on Monday with all the layers, hats and gloves piled on, we settled in for the night at the hostel. Tuesday was our only full-day to explore Barra. Firstly we set out on the clockwise bus around the island as far Borve on the West. From here, we followed the coast and had our first of many sand blasting experiences on the windswept Bāgh Halaman (bay) before continuing back to Castlebay for lunch in the relative shelter of the hostel. The Hebrides have mostly excellent, affordable bus services, coordinated centrally by the Western Isles Council. Local transport exactly as it should be. A shame this is not the case in most other parts of the rural Britain! For the afternoon, we caught another bus out from Castlebay, across the causeway leading to the Isle of Vatersay. This small hamlet located at the southern end of a narrow isthmus between two spectacular sandy bays gives a real impression of the land that time forgot. The painted wooden panel houses, add a Nordic feel to this remote outpost; the southernmost inhabited place of the Outer Hebrides. We had several hours before the last bus of the day so took a stroll up towards the nearby Dun (burial ground) followed by a traverse of the western Bāgh Siar. Despite the unrelenting NW gale, we were optimistic that the extreme north end of the east facing Bāgh Bhatarsaigh (Vatersay Bay), tucked below the high ground of Heiseabhal Mōr would provide sufficient shelter from the northerly onslaught to enjoy the April sunshine. This proved correct, and also presented an opportune moment for the first of only two successful entries to the sea that we managed on our trip! It was a perfect, albeit very brief dip into the clear waters fully wet-suited up from head to toe of course. On Tuesday evening, we visited the Cafe Kismul down on the harbourside back in Castlebay for a curry; the only cafe serving Indian cuisine in the Western Isles perhaps?

Wednesday morning, we were on the Barra clockwise bus again, heading for the ferry slipway at Aird Mhor. The bathtub-like CalMac ferry across the Sound of Barra shuttled us across to Eriskay, with great views of all the islets as well as the large expanse of sand of Tràigh Mhòr on Barra, famed as the only airport in the UK featuring a beach as the runway. A Flybe twin-otter was stationed ‘on the sand’, resting between runs to Glasgow.

The CalMac ferry linking Barra with Eriskay.

The Isle of Eriskay / Eiriosgaigh

The next five islands, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray constitute, under the Haswell-Smith classification, one contiguous island-by-definition. This is due to the construction over the years of a series of causeways, providing ‘dry links’ between them all. It’s just as well, as a period of time studying the Ordnance Survey maps of these islands reveals as much fresh and salt water as land. Indeed, it’s incredibly difficult to the segments of land that are attached or indeed detached. Our time on Eriskay amounted to little more than an hour or so awaiting the onward bus connection North. It was around lunchtime, so we took up a draughty but well positioned bench on the picturesque sands next to the quay. We were soon in transit again, in a very modern, comfortable and warm minibus, zipping across the long causeway leading to South Uist.

South Uist / Uist a Deas

Generally speaking, the Uists are characterised by long sandy beaches with dunes, backed by flat machair grassland on their western (Atlantic) sides and rockier uplands on their eastern (Minch) sides, incised by multiple sea and fresh-water lochs. South Uist fits this characteristic most conformably, with most of the human settlements lying along the spine road that largely traverses the fertile machair of the west. The ‘town’ of Lochboisdale makes exception to this, and adds a significant little detour onto the bus journey northwards. As with many of the larger Hebridean settlements, Lochboisdale is a rather spread out and mismatched assortment of lochside buildings serving the various island needs, having originally built up around herring fishing. A daily CalMac ferry now links the Lochaber port of Mallaig with Lochboisdale. Back on the main spine, our destination of the day was the hamlet of Tobha Mor or Howmore. This one-night stop featured our first stay in one of the hostels managed by the Gatliff Hebridean Trust. The hostel at Howmore is a quaint Hebridean blackhouse with thick stone walls and a thatched roof. After claiming beds at the hostel (not really required as there was only one other person in), we set off to local hill, Hatharsal (a lofty 139 m) with trig point view towards the high hills and glens surrounding Beinn Mhor and also the Loch Druidibeag National Nature Reserve. Aside the view, we also spotted a Golden Eagle soaring at a fair distance but the distinctive white patches on the wing undersides were just visible. After cooking a rather rationed meal of consisting of hostel leftover pasta with a makeshift tomato and cheese sauce (due to being fairly low on supplies), we headed off to the open sands of Bun na Feathlach for a windswept evening jaunt. Showers coming in off the sea had turned the high hills white with snow and there was a strong stench of rotting seaweed on the wind.

The Gatliff Hebridean Hostel at Tobha Mòr/ Howmore on South Uist.

Benbecula /  Beinn na Faoghla

Next morning was the coldest of the whole trip. The cool airflow had brought a light dusting of snow overnight down to sea level and the high hills of South Uist were in winter raiment. We were headed north again, but not this time by bus. We wandered back up to the junction where the Howmore lane meets with the Uist main spine A-road (that super-Hebridean highway which is often single track with passing places :-). We were picking up bikes for two days from a cycle hire shop. After half an hour getting fitted out with bikes, helmets, panniers and locks we pedalled back to the hostel to load our gear before setting out northwards. There was not much of South Uist left before the causeway and indeed, much of northern S.Uist consists of water; the Lochs of Druidibeag and Bi are both traversed via embankment and causeway. Our last stop on S.Uist was a little roadside supermarket at Carnan, where we stopped for a much needed chocolate boost.

A dusting of fresh snow to sea level on South Uist.

The next causeway led to Benbecula, and our first stop was indeed, another supermarket. An important part of a cycle tour being, of course, a tour of the supermarkets of an area. A well stocked Coop at Creagorry enabled us to stock up on all manner of luxuries for the forthcoming overnight stop at Baile nan Cailleach. This named place sits on the southern edge of another of the larger Hebridean towns, Balivanich. The small cluster of buildings at Baile nan Cailleach are largely sheltered from the Atlantic by a high dune system behind the lovely sandy beach of Culla. Balivanich, however has all manner of facilities; a Bank of Scotland, Hospital, large supermarket and even another of the Hebridean airports. The town’s population has built up around a military base. The island of Benbecula was yet another one night stop on our northward voyage and we were staying in Nunton House hostel, a lovely, recently refurbished stone farm house with incredibly comfortable beds. In fact, it felt more like a holiday property than a hostel, particularly given that we had the run of the place to ourselves. It also has a great library and I lost myself in a book about the remote island of St Kilda for an hour or so. To follow the trend of the prior night, we once again headed out for a sunset-time wander along the beach and dunes. The only thing lacking so far was the sunset itself; the frequent cloud banks rolling in on the brisk norwester had thus far blocked our view of the sun hitting the Atlantic horizon. The deep hues of purple and the odd shaft of sunlight through the cloud made for an equally majestic setting though.

It was now Friday 29th April and we were saddled up and off northbound once again, into another strong headwind. After winding through Balivanich and around the extensive Benbecula airfield, we were well on the way to the next long causeway, leading across the vast tidal flats leading to North Uist. Of course, it wouldn’t be the Uists without several other islands and islets being spanned in the process (the flat, wet but habited Grimsay is just clipped by the spine road whilst the uninhabited but undulating Ronay lies off to the east).

A typical Hebridean causeway. This one links Benbecula to North Uist.

North Uist / Uibhist a Tuath

Next up, North Uist. Our visit was relatively short, although the passage through presented us with three options; the eastern A-road via the town of Lochmaddy, the western A-road generally following the coast and linking multiple crofting hamlets or a short-cut across the centre of the island on a lane named ‘Committee Road’ that gently climbs up and over the bleak moorland of Maireabhal before dropping back to the coast at the lovely tidal bay of Trāigh Bhālaigh. As our island destination for the day sat across yet another causeway to the north and the headwind was ever prevalent, we opted for the most direct route, albeit with the moderate climb. The moorland would at least provide for a variety in the terrain after many kilometres of coastal farmland along the southern end of the island. At the interestingly named Claddach Kirkibost, the community centre provided an opportunity for a brief stop. It was a shame that we had already had lunch as we missed out on the cafe. The climb up to the grand summit of 43 m above datum was soon accomplished and provided our final view southwards, along the rocky spine of Uists to the rounded hills of Barra off in the distance. Looking beyond the 3 km freewheel ahead was the open blue sea of the Atlantic, and our first view of the hills of Harris. Within a wee while, we joined the coastal A-road once again whilst skirting the picturesque Trāigh Bhālaigh. After passing an aptly positioned Hebridean blackhouse, providing a perfect photo opportunity with the white sands of the tidal bay and island of Vallay beyond, we reached the hamlet of Sollas complete with another convenient Cooperative Food shop. With our panniers re-stocked with supplies and our leg muscles replenished with chocolate, it was onwards and north-eastwards. The road to Berneray was sneakily undulating for a coastal road, skirting several heather clad-knolls and crossing many burns draining the inland lochs. The final point of interest on North Uist was Dūn an Sticir near Port nan Long, just short of the Berneray causeway. The Dūn is a circular fortified habitation, a common feature of the historic Celtic landscape. The Hebridean Dūn are commonly found on small manmade islands within lakes and the ruins of Dūn an Sticir fall perfectly into the description. A short rocky causeway leads out to the island that once housed the fort.

The ruins of Dūn an Sticir, North Uist.

Berneray / Bernera

There are two islands that go by the name of Berneray in the Hebrides; one forming the southernmost, yet uninhabited island in the chain; the other jutting out from North Uist into the Sound of Harris. It was the latter that provided the end of the road for our hire bikes from Howmore (S.Uist). Our one-night stop on Berneray was at the Gatliff hostel, superbly located on the end of a promontory with views across to Harris and Skye. It was a busy scene at the hostel, as a voluntary work party was in residence. The mortared blackhouse walls were shining a brilliant fresh coat of white paint against the deep blue of the sea and sky beyond. The work party were a friendly bunch and provided me with a glass of red wine to accompany our evening meal. The only downside of our base for the night was its distance from the Berneray ferry slip, itself 4 km back along the road at the causeway. Whilst this seemed insignificant relative to the 55 kilometres of Friday’s cycling, it presented a less welcome 45 minute early morning tarmac trudge for Saturday’s 07:15 CalMac ferry departure northward across the sound.

Sunrise over Harris from the spectacular location of the Berneray Gatliff Hebridean hostel.

Harris / Na Hearadh

Technically not the Isle of Harris, but often called as such, Harris certainly presents the most undulating of terrain on the Western Isles. Harris was perhaps the most anticipated of the Hebridean Isles for me, as I’d heard great things and seen wonderful photographs of pure white sands backed by high hills fluted with deep glens. It certainly did not disappoint. The crossing from Berneray landed us at Leverburgh, the port and village located at the extreme South of the island. Leverburgh is also the port for tourist boats heading to the isolated and majestic island of St Kilda, some 50 km further West out into the wild north Atlantic. Upon arrival in Leverburgh, the onward bus for the town of Tarbert was ready and waiting at the top of the slip. It was wild, windy and cool so we boarded onto the warmth of the smart new minibus right away. From Leverburgh, two roads lead north to Tarbert, traversing the west and east coasts, before merging once again at a narrow isthmus that houses the loch’s and town that go by the name of Tarbert. Our bus took the western coast via Northton and Seilibost with views of their respective vast expanses of Hebridean white sand. We found ourselves in Tarbert not long after 09:00 although it felt much later given the hour at which we had set off from the Gatliff hostel on Berneray.

The long and winding road to Huisinish with the Hills of Harris beyond.

We had a hostel in Tarbert for the night and were able to check-in early and drop much of the heavy gear. Despite being the main ‘town’ on Harris, Tarbert is little more than a cluster of a few shops a small tourist office and a few obligatory Harris Tweed outlets. We had struck a deal in advance to hire some bikes for the day. The hire shop was not your average bike hire outlet with all the latest in cycling gadgetary. It consisted of what seemed to be an old hardware store last decorated in the 1950’s, now gutted with a jumbled fleet of tatty old Halfords mountain bikes propped up around the interior. A range of other bike bits and bobs; a cobweb-bound helmet or two, lone spanner set or random collection of bike lights lay around on windowsills littered with flakes of peeled paint. The custodian was a very welcoming lifelong Harris resident, of course very appropriately tweed-clad, who had opened up especially for us (we were early for the tourist season after all). After trying several bike and helmet combinations we settled on our steeds for the day and were soon pedalling off uphill and out of Tarbert, battling into the all too familiar headwind that had characterised the trip. Our original aim had been to follow the winding road west along Loch a Siar to the picturesque hamlet of Huisinish. A mere 15 km in a direct line from Tarbert, this quantity of kilometres of course does not do justice to the formidable, undulating and incised nature of the section of coast along which this small road runs. All things combined, it was clear from an early point in the day that reaching the magical Huisinish might have to be reserved for a future visit with some combination of less headwind, more suitably geared bikes or even mechanised transport (the bus doesn’t run along to Huisinish on a weekend). Even so, we had a lovely bike ride and made several stiff ascents followed by long and winding freewheels. En-route we passed the derelict Hebridean whaling station of Bunavoneader, active in the first half of the twentieth century, a sobering reminder of the brutal cetacean slaughtering that once characterised these shores. Next up there was probably the most windswept tennis court in the British Isles, Imogen having the claim of having played tennis there on a former visit. Beyond this is the deep incision to the Harris Hills of Glean Mhiabhaig, on land managed by the North Harris Trust. To the north tower the great peaks of An Cliseam (at 799 m, the highest mountain on the Outer Hebrides) and it’s relatives. A stalkers track leads off northwards through the great glacial cleft to a reliable Golden Eagle nest viewing site. Onward and upward again, we passed the now-closed primary school at Cliasmol, formerly the ‘smallest school in Scotland’. What a place to spend the first 7 years of your school career, perched proudly on a heather clad promontory with the most glorious of western vistas out towards the sound … with its multiple islands. Shortly beyond this point, we abandoned the bikes in a roadside ditch and scrambled up to a prominent lookout for lunch (using the lee of a boulder for shelter). We made this our turnaround point. Having expended quite enough energy battling into the wind, we could now look forward to it assisting, somewhat, our return pedal to Tarbert. It certainly seemed quicker on the way back.

From Ceann Reamhar looking North over Loch a Siar & the Harris Hills.

After a comfortable night in the Tarbert Backpackers hostel, with yet another dormitory to ourselves, we headed out early on Sunday morning, this time on foot. Sundays in the Hebrides are very much still a day of rest, the Sabbath is still widely observed and most shops and services don’t operate. This was not a problem for us as we would be spending the day walking over the rough moorland in a southwesterly direction from Tarbert to the small crofting village of Luskentyre. Whilst the hills we would traverse only just break the 500 m contour, the terrain was almost entirely pathless heather and peat bog interspersed with metamorphic rock bands and thus incredibly hard going. Indeed, upon reaching the first summit of Ceann Reamhar 467 m, it felt like we had climbed a Munro. From here we traversed westwards along a broad ridge to the final and shapely summit of Beinn Dhubh 506 m which forms the backdrop of the Luskentyre Sands. It’s a direct southwestward descent from here to the dunes backing the beach, overlooking the uninhabited island of Taransay, of Castaway 2000 fame. Luskentyre Sands themselves wrap around an extensive dune system that forms a good windbreak to oncoming weather systems for the former crofting hamlet. At low tide, the outlet of the Lacasdail river is reduced to a narrow, sinuous channel that separates Luskentyre Sands to the north from the sand spit of Seilibost to the south. Upon reaching sea level, we traversed the sands around the point, whilst a ferocious wind whipped up the surf. The soft white sands provided a good break from the rough open heathery slopes of Beinn Dhubh. The next weather system was marching rapidly coastward and soon arrived, blasting us with a peculiar mixture of sand and hail. The 1:50 OS map marked an interesting but unexplained (in the key) short black bar crossing the channel of Lacasdail river at the low water mark. I was keen to investigate, but it would have involved around a kilometre or so of head on hail and sand blasting so we decided to turn our backs to the storm and head shoreward to the shelter of the village and our B&B. For our final night on the Western Isles, we enjoyed the cosy comfort of the Luskentyre Lodge.

Looking down on Luskentyre Sands from the lofty (506 m) Beinn Dhubh.

Monday was a day of sunshine and sharp showers with the wind continuing to make its presence known. We started out from the lodge on the lane leading inland along the Lacasdail estuary until the point at which it is crossed by a bridge to join the main Lewis-Harris spinal route. From here we turned seaward and westward again as we had a few hours prior to the lunchtime bus back north to Tarbert. This gave us time for a brief visit to a Hebridean art/craft gallery followed by a full circuit of the Seilibost sand spit. Our second and final chance for a bracing dip in the sea presented itself with some welcome shelter provided by the rocks at the southern end of Seilibost beach. These provided a good windbreak for changing into the wetsuit and a large patch of blue sky overhead made for all but spring-like conditions. The next squally shower was on the horizon and marching shoreward with haste. Swim successfully complete, we retreated to the shelter of the rock barrier with that warming feeling of accomplishment before making our way over to the main road for the bus back to Tarbert.

Taking advantage of a break in the showers for a wee dip in the sea at Seilibost beach.

The CalMac ferry from Tarbert to Uig on Skye is the shortest crossing of the Minch at just 1 hr 40 minutes. The MV Hebridean Isles made easy work of the short passage of water and from the rear deck the shapely form of the Hills of Harris made for a scenic backdrop. The uninhabited Shiant Isles lie just to the north of this section of water and are well known as a sea bird nesting colony. I kept my eyes on the water for the colourful streaked-bills of the puffins that return to these islands each spring in their thousands. No such luck on this occasion but there were good displays from the gannets, petrels and shearwaters.

Leaving Harris behind on the Tarbert to Uig CalMac ferry.

Skye / An t-Eilean Sgiteanach

The village of Uig surrounds the perfectly u-formed incision of Uig Bay at the northern end of the island of Skye. The precipitous coastline of stacks and steep scarp of Tertiary volcanic origin is backed by the similarly imposing Trotternish Ridge that rises immediately behind the bay. The transition from the Outer Hebridean to Inner Hebridean landscape represents a significant shift in geological terms; from some of the oldest (300 million year old) to youngest (60 million year old) rocks in Scotland. Uig was our destination for the night prior to making the long trip South back to Lancashire on the Tuesday. The ‘Cowshed’ hostel in Uig was a bustling scene, full of young travellers reminding us that we were back on the ‘highlands and islands’ tourist route. Unfortunately the pub in the village was shut but we settled for a final-night meal in the very satisfyingly-Scottish, tartan carpeted Uig Hotel which was probably more in-keeping with tradition. Next morning, we hauled our luggage for the last time back around the bay to the ferry terminal in order to pickup the CityLink bus for Kyle of Lochalsh. It’s a short run from Uig into the Skye ‘capital’ of Portree. Onward and Southward, the main road weaves its way around the Cuillin Hills at Sligachan and on through Broadford to the humpbacked Skye Bridge that makes easy work of the narrow tidal strait of Kyle Akin. Indeed, it is the presence of this permanent link of concrete and steel, completed in 1995, that leads to Skye no-longer qualifying for official island status in the Haswell-Smith classification. The CityLink bus continues to Glasgow via the West Highlands, but the town of Kyle of Lochalsh is also served by rail from the Highland Capital of Inverness. We were keen to be forgoing a further 5 hours on board the bus by switching over to the train however we were soon to discover that it was not quite the end of the road-based journey for us. A truck had come off the road and was precariously overhanging the railway where the two run side-by-side along the southern shore of Loch Carron, thus closing the line. So it was back on a (rail replacement) bus for the short run over to the station at Lochcarron where another incoming train was turned around for our trip back to Inverness. The minor delay waiting for the bus at Kyle meant we missed our connection on the Highland Mainline at Inverness but luckily the next one was only an hour or so later. We were soon passing the familiar scenes of the Northern corries and weaving our way along the meandering course of the River Tay into Perth and onwards to Glasgow for the short cross-city walk to Central station and the final sprint South over Beattock and Shap.

Uig Bay, Skye.


After just over a week on these windswept isles on the extreme western edge of Britain, adjusting back to a life of traffic, supermarkets and desk based work took some dedication. Existence on the islands had felt like a battle against the elements and we had become accustomed to leaning into the wind to maintain a level footing. Whilst memories of this trip conjure up imagery best described by adjectives such as bleak and desolate, the Hebrides are possibly some of the best islands in the world. The unique blend of Scottish Gaelic heritage with a pinch of Norse influence gives these islands a strong cultural appeal. The vast, open landscapes and seascapes make the Hebrides a place where big sky and it’s ever changing weather and colour dominate. For me there is just one small discomfort with the Hebrides; the severe lack of tree cover. By comparison, even Uig Bay on Skye with its scattering of bear-branched birch trees felt lush with vegetation. Whilst many parts of the windswept, salt blasted machair-lands of the west would never have supported significant mixed forest development as on mainland Scotland, peat hags with exposed stumps and branches stand like tree-graveyards – monuments to a past, more forested era. In common with similar initiatives elsewhere in the Highlands, community land buyouts such as the the West Harris Trust are beginning to restore this imbalance. Our walk out over the moor of Cnoc na Cloìche near Tarbert included crossing a large fenced area of young mixed saplings. The work of community land trusts coupling Ecological restoration with re-population of the crofting landscape offers a bright future for these beautiful extrêmit-isles of the North Atlantic.

This photo typifies the landscape of Britain’s extrêmit-isles.

#mon Tour du Mont Blanc, 2016

For the British International Mountain Leader the Tour du Mont Blanc (or TMB) is somewhat of a mobile office in the sky, high on the slopes of Western Europe’s highest mountain. Whilst many other Alpine tours and linear trekking routes are available, the TMB seems to top them all in terms of interest from international trekking visitors with over 25 000 walkers completing the loop each summer season. It is very much a tour of the middle mountains (moyenne-montagne), the core domaine of the International Mountain Leader (or accompagnateur in French). The core route crosses 6 cols above the 2500 m contour whilst reaching only two summits;  Aiguillette des Posettes, 2201 m and Le Brevent, 2525 m. The Alpine tours are less about summit bagging and more about the wide ranging and grandiose vistas that present themselves to the walker throughout the mountain journey. The TMB is a fantastic introductory Alpine trek for any experienced British hillwalker looking to foray into the Alpine world or indeed for the seasoned Alpinist looking for some time off from the super-early Alpine starts in favour of a multi-day mountain journey that will take them through many well-known mountain landscapes in France, Italy and Switzerland.

My TMB reconnaissance journey took place in late-August, early-September 2016, and this account follows my clockwise itinerary over 9 days, consisting of 6 full walking days, 2 half days and a nicely timed rest day, midway round the circuit at the beautiful village of Champex-Lac in Switzerland. To comfortably walk the TMB, I suggest a fortnights’ trip all-in from the UK, this giving plenty of time at each end to zone in and out of the walking. As ever, if you’re looking for an accompanied journey around the TMB or would like to discuss a bespoke or shorter itinerary, please get in touch.

The attractive village of Le Champel in the Val Montjoie. Looking out to the limestone Massif des Aravis (L distance) and Tête du Colloney (R distance).

Day 1: (Paris) – Val Montjoie – Chalets du Truc (Thursday 25th August)

All my European mountain journeys depart the UK by Eurostar train, with the Alps, Pyrénées and Carpathians all falling within my ‘no fly zone‘. After having reached Paris Wednesday evening and stayed overnight in a budget hotel near the Gare de Lyon, I had just the short hop on the TGV down to Bellegarde (Ain) followed by a local SNCF train to St-Gervais-les-Bains-le-Fayet remaining for Thursday morning. I was stepping off on the platform tarmac in the Arve valley to a warming 30C heat by midday. This was followed by only a short bus journey up the Val Montjoie, where I soon found myself deposited at a chunky wooden bus shelter near the hamlet of La Villette contemplating the task ahead; a mere 156 km and 10 500 m of ascent/descent… No time to loose then! The first stage was a relatively short walk up to the Chalets du Truc, located at 1750 m below the imposing west facing walls of the Domes du Miage (multiple summits above 3500 m) and Aiguille de Bioassay, 4052 m. Fresh out of the bus, I made short work of the 900 m climb up and out of the valley, reaching the refuge comfortably by late-afternoon. This section is a variant of the core-TMB, and merges with the Col de Tricot variant at the Chalets du Miage. Just up behind the refuge at Truc, there is a small knoll known as Mont Truc 1811 m, giving a fantastic panorama. After checking in at the refuge, I climbed this hill and studied the 1:100 000 série vert IGN map for a good half hour before returning for my first refuge meal of the trip. As Chalets du Truc is non-core, there were only 3 other ‘randonneurs’ installed that evening. With the warm, sunny weather, they served us our evening meal outside.

The View from Mont Truc 1811, looking up at the Domes du Miage.

Day 2: Chalets du Truc – Refuge du Bonhomme (Friday 26th August)

Friday was the first full day of trekking on the grand tour. Firstly, I had to drop down from the Chalets du Truc to the village of Les Contamines-Montjoie. This brought me back to the official route of the TMB. Les Contamines is a lovely little village, and well provisioned with groceries and the usual ‘produits regionaux’, such as cheeses, jams and pastries. As I had two full mountain days ahead, I stocked up on suitable lunch provisions for both of these before heading onward and upward. I tend not to opt-into the refuge packed-lunches as it’s very easy to cobble something together for a couple of days or so without too much impact on rucksack weight. The clockwise TMB heads south out of Les Contamines, following the initially gentle upwards course of the Bon Nant (river). This takes a relatively gentle course up to the Notre Dame de la Gorge (church), where the Bon Nant itself takes more of a gorge-like course through much steeper terrain. As a result, the track starts to climb steeply up through spruce and pine forest through the Contamines-Montjoie Nature Reserve (the highest in France according to the interpretation signs). During the ascent to the treeline, two huts are passed; Nant Borrant and La Balme. There were bustling scenes at the latter as it featured as a major checkpoint on the forthcoming evenings’ passing of the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, mountain running race). Above La Balme, the landscape opens out among Alpine meadow. There are views all the way back north to the limestone plateau of the Dessert de Platé and Tête du Collonney of the Haut-Giffre massif. As the path wound its way up towards the Col du Bonhomme, I followed at first, but soon overtook one of the UTMB waymarking teams putting out high-vis markers for the race every 25 m or so.

Col du Bonhomme, 2329 m.

The Col du Bonhomme 2329 m is the first major accomplishment of the tour. It forms the Arve-Isère watershed and from the col and the onward traverse, the views open out to the south towards the Vanoise National Park and the Massif du Beaufortain. Beyond the col, the route swings SE and upwards again, climbing to the nearby Col de la Croix du Bonhomme 2479 m. Seated on a broad shelf just below this latter col, on its SE aspect is the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. I arrived around 17:00, perfect ‘tea time’ and obtained the usual jug of ‘eau chaud’ to top up on (liquid) tea before showering. Dinners were a fairly consistent 19:00 or 19:30 at most huts and Gîtes on the TMB. I shared a 4-person dorm with 2 others (who had also been at Truc the night before). The meal was good and I had a big slice of quiche along with salad as the vegetarian option. The usual convivial atmosphere of the refuge dining was in full swing. As for the UTMB, it was due to pass during the first part of the night, but given most residents were on lengthy TMB’s, GR5’s or Tour du Beaufortain’s and thus in need of a good nights’ sleep, few (me included) stayed up to watch the runners file through by the light of headtorch.

Day 3: Ref. du Bonhomme – Col Chécrouit (Sat 27th August)

Saturday was set to be a big day, and I was aiming by the end of the day to have launched myself slightly ahead of the standard itinerary, well into Italy and the Val d’Aosta region. In order to do this, I took the shorter in distance but more challenging terrain of the Col des Fours (2665 m) variant as opposed to the standard route via les Chapieux. This col is only a shortly above the refuge so the climb is easily completed in the morning cool. From the Col des Fours, a further linear deviation from the variant leads to an outstanding viewpoint at Tête Nord des Fours, 2756 m. Unfortunately, as I was on a bit of a mission that day, I didn’t have time to check it out but the views from the col are still pretty fantastic. There was a very small patch of snow straddling the col, one of very few that I would encounter during my late-season tour. If undertaking early season tours however, its very much a different picture and large patches of snow can be expected at all the high passages.

A small patch of snow straddles the Col des Fours, 2665 m.

Onwards from Col des Fours, its a steep descent on shale to the valley floor at Ville des Glaciers. A summer shuttle bus brings summer day visitors up here from Bourg St Maurice. The valley of the glaciers finishes very abruptly with the sheer South wall of the Mont Blanc massif, with Refuge des Mottets being the last form of civilisation on any form of level ground. The TMB then turns upwards to the northeast, towards the Col de la Seigne 2516 m and the Italian border. This next col was the first location where I encountered one of the helicoptered-in UTMB checkpoints. They looked like little lunar landing pods, particularly among the dust and scree dominated landscape. From Col de la Seigne, the view opens up northeastwards for the first time and you can see the far-off objective of the Grand Col Ferret looming yonder for one of the forthcoming stages. The arrangement of valleys in this part of Italy form a T-shaped trough-like feature, with Courmayeur sat neatly at the outlet of the hammerhead valleys of Veni and Ferret (heading West and East relative to Courmayeur respectively). The orientation of the landscape is very much influenced by the immense geological folding that has gone on here at the heart of the Alpine chain. For a full lowdown on the fascinating geology and geomorphology of the Mont Blanc massif and it’s environs, the Casermetta (old barrack hut) just down the west side of the Col de la Seigne has recently been renovated into well set out visitor centre relating to all things Mont Blanc massif; landscape, flora, fauna, mountaineering and sustainability. It would be a great place to spend a good deal of time but my ongoing route march required forward progress after a limited stop. Throughout the descent of the Val Veni, the sheer 1000 m + walls of the South Face of Mont Blanc dominate. I rapidly passed the Rifugio Elizabetta, the usual finishing point for today’s stage. Another 4 km or so along the valley, the regularity of the U-shape topography is interrupted by the active influx of Glacier du Miage, one of the remaining, but rapidly retreating valley glaciers in the massif that disgorges itself way down into the forest zone. Through bulldozing its way out across the Val Veni floor, it has created an immense lateral moraine. At this point, the TMB takes another uphill turn, this time ascending the South side of the Val Veni in order to reach and follow a natural balcony at approx. 2250 m. The major benefit of this climb (aside from the extra fitness boost) is to obtain an even finer vantage point of the intricacies of granite, schist and ice that form the heart of the Mont Blanc Massif. A high point in the traverse (and another UTMB space craft) marked the start of the descent into the Col Chécrouit. This is a N-S breach in the limestone ridge on the south side of the Veni-Ferret valley system, hanging above Courmayeur. My base for the evening was the Gate le Randonneur du Mont Blanc, with views to La Grivola of the Italian Gran Paradiso National Park. At this overnight stop, I met the next phase of walkers with whom I might reach some form of daily-stage synchrony. I sat with Dominique and Corrine from Aix-en-Provence for the evening meal.

The imposing view down onto the Glacier du Miage in the Italian Val Veni.

Day 4: Col Chécrouit – Rifugio Elena (Sun 28th August)

Sunday began once again with a mega-steep descent! This time it was in order to pass through the well known Italian Alpine town of Courmayeur. The Col Chécrouit sits about 700 m above the town and most of that altitude is lost within the first two kilometres. Triumphantly entering 45 minutes out of the Gîte via the attractive satellite village of Dolonne, Courmayeur was a pit-stop for me, bright and early at 09:00 Sunday morning. A quick visit to the public toilets at the bus station (every detail) and on to the main street. When planning the trip, I had struggled to find much information on what would be open on a Sunday morning in Courmayeur, determining only that the Carrefour supermarket was closed. I need not have feared lunches consisting solely of my mountain of dried fruit and nuts for the next two stages; the town is very well equipped with all the usual local commerces. I was soon re-stocked with bread, pastries, fresh fruit, cheese and pounding up and out of Courmayeur on the long, gradual tarmac ascent leading up to the start of the zig-zag path up to Refugio Bertone. The ascent to the latter re-gained the altitude of the starting point at Col Chécrouit. Very satisfying to be back where you started in terms of altitude if only displaced by a few kilometres to the east after a good three hours or so of walking! Just after the Refugio Bertone, departs another variant, that of the Montagne de Saxe and Testa della Tronche. Formerly this was the way of the main TMB, but now, it takes a more level route on a balcony path along the North side of the Saxe above the Italian Val Ferret. As I was making good time and the weather good, I opted for the high level option. After all, I needed as much hill training as possible for the forthcoming sixth and most epic stage. The views from the Saxe and Testa della Tronche are excellent. After descending via the Col Sapin, I rejoined the TMB just short of Refugio Walter Bonnatti, which continues the local Italian theme of Refuges named after well known pioneer Italian Alpinists. There was a much welcome cold water fountain outside Bonnatti and I took on several litres of fresh water for the last few hours of the day. Beyond Bonnatti, the TMB remains on a reasonable shelf above Val Ferret, until a deep gully line cuts the hillside, making onward and relatively level progress to the nearby destination of Refugio Elena impossible. As a consequence, the route drops a couple of hundred metres to the valley floor and road-head, only to instantly re-ascend around 300 m. Refugio Elena has been heavily modernised, and whilst comfortable and well designed, it has lost a lot of the charm of the more traditional huts. It is also accessible by four-wheel drive track. Dominique and Corrine were in synchrony with me still and had made it to Elena too. We were joined on our table by Jasper from Denmark who was also on an anti-clockwise tour, and had come from Col Chécrouit area, but the stayed at Refugio Maison Viellle rather than the Gîte le Randonneur.

The splendour of the Italian Val Ferret.

Day 5: Rifugio Elena – Champex-Lac (Mon 29th August)

The altitude profile for the next stage was one of the more unusual; a short sharp up and down in order to cross the Col Grand Ferret, followed by a very long, gradual decent of the Swiss Val Ferret, ending with a brief 400 m climb up to Champex-Lac. The day started clear and sunny once again and the usual departure time of around 08:00 enabled the climb to be completed in the cool of the morning. I reached the day’s high point and Italian-Swiss frontier of Col Grand Ferret (2537 m) around 09:00 and with very little surprise, my TMB table companions from the night before arrived within the same 15 minute period. The Mont Dolent, 3823 m dominates the northern view here, with Grand Combin and Mont Vélan on the eastern horizon of the Swiss Valais.

Col Grand Ferret (Italian-Swiss border), 2537 m. Mont Dolent 3823 dominating beyond.

The descent into Switzerland and the Val Ferret starts gently on a broad sweeping path before zig-zagging more steeply via the Cabane la Peule to the valley road-end and nearby hamlet of Ferret. At this point, the TMB walker is presented with two options; to gradually descend 14 km through forest, open meadow and passing through several villages of the little-developed Swiss Val Ferret or to gain a few hours advantage on the final re-ascent to Champex-Lac by taking the bus. Determined to avoid any form of motorised assistance for the full TMB circuit, I opted of-course for the former. The efficient Swiss public transport system even gives the option of reaching Champex-Lac entirely by bus, with a change at the junction town of Orsières, where trains run to Martigny and buses up to and over the Col Grand Saint Bernard to Aosta. I soon settled into a good 6 km/h rhythm down the valley. At Praz-de-Fort, the Val Ferret is supplemented by the entry from the West of the meltwater of the Saleina Glacier, as well as at least some of that of the Glacier d’Orny. At the merger of the two valleys, the TMB suddenly takes a 90° turn to the east and runs along the now forested crest of the lateral moraine left by the Glacier de Saleina in times gone by when it extended right out across the Val Ferret floor. Normal, northward progress resumes where the moraine meets the Drance de Ferret whose course is forced right up against the eastern side of the valley by the 30 m high moraine. I took a long and relatively late lunch on a well positioned bench towards the end of the descent just short of the hamlet of Issert. From the bench, I could see the v-shaped notch on the west side of the valley that houses the picturesque village of Champex-Lac. A short, but tough (given its position in the day) forested climb with zig-zags concluded stage 5. My base for the coming two-nights was the Maison Flore-Alpe at the Champex Alpine Botanical Garden. This is a short way above the village and Lake on the steep hillside rising to the east. For the last couple of kilometres into Champex, I had obtained synchrony with Jasper, so we walked together along the lake shore. As he was advancing onwards on Tuesday, he continued an extra half an hour onwards and upwards, to the Gîte at Arpette where he would also join Dominique and Corinne. The maison Flore-Alpe was very quiet and is a hostel rather than refuge or gîte d’étape and thus self-catered. After the long day, I walked back into Champex in the evening and found a good restaurant-pizzerria.

Day 6: Champex-Lac, Rest Day (Tuesday 30th August)

It’s tempting not to break the day after day walking rhythm on Alpine tours, but I was keen for a closer examination of Champex-Lac than could be obtained in the short hours of one evening and swimming was also high on the agenda. Given that staying at the Maison Flore-Alpe provides free admission to the Alpine botanical garden, the ‘rest day’ also gave an opportunity to revise the important IML subject of Alpine Flora. The lake was relatively shallow and crystal clear. It is not fed by glacial meltwater, just springwater from the surrounding hillsides. The water felt cold at first and it took me a good while to get fully submerged. Once adjusted to the temperature though, it wasn’t too bad and I spent a good 20 minutes or so, swimming out to the middle of the lake and back. As I’d brought my goggles, I was able to look down and note the relatively consistent depth, probably around 3 metres. It would be a great spot for swimming with a wetsuit. Upon getting out, the cold hit my core and it took me a good half hour to get back to a reasonable temperature, despite the outside temperature being a very comfortable 25°C or so.

The idyllic Alpine scenes surrounding the Maison Flore-Alpe and surrounding botanical garden at Champex-Lac.

The maison Flore-Alpe is a lovely wooden Swiss chalet and each of the dormitories has a balcony. Upon my return from the lake, I warmed up fully in the sunshine on my balcony and wrote postcards. I was the only one staying for the second night and I put together a basic meal in the self-catering kitchen. After dark, the botanical garden and wooden chalets had a certain spooky feel to them, with the Victorian decor and silence of the surroundings.

Day 7: Champex-Lac to Refuge du Lac Blanc (Wednesday 31st August)

This stage was epic! Following the rest day at Champex, the objective was to undertake a double-stage (according to TMB standards) and reach the Aiguilles Rouges to the north of the Chamonix valley. Champex-Lac is the easternmost point of the tour and the standard route swings back towards the west via a fine balcony above Martigny to reach the Col de Forclaz or Trient. There is also however a high-level ‘short-cut’ through the eastern end of the Mont Blanc massif via the Vallon and Fenêtre d’Arpette, the latter being a 2665 m ‘window’ through the mountains. Shorter in distance to Trient it may just about be, but the Fenêtre d’Arpette route is the more technical and remote way through. This would form just the first of two cols and three major climbs for my 6th stage, due to consist of 30 km distance, 2800 m ascent and 2200 m descent! No time to hang about on this one. Luckily, the weather forecast was mostly good, with a possibility of rain and/or storm late in the afternoon. I was walking away from Champex-Lac by headtorch by 04:00. Indeed, most of the climb up the Val d’Arpette was under the cover of darkness. I had set out a fairly solid time regime for the day, and was aiming for dawn to strike just in time for the steepest and most technical ground leading up the eastern headwall of the Fenêtre d’Arpette. Dead on time, the light arrived in order for me to see the way ahead through the vast boulderfield of the final 300 m. The col was reached at 07:00, around sunrise and the benefit of my early start meant that I hadn’t seen anyone else all the way up, and had the col to myself.

First light at the Fenêtre d’Arpette.

From Arpette, I could once again see the ground to the North of the Mont-Blanc range. The mountains of the Haut-Giffre; le Cheval Blanc, Grand Mont Ruan and the Lac d’Emosson. 07:30 was my deadline to be on the descent into the Trient Combe. The west aspect of Fenêtre d’Arpette was equally as steep as the east but less boulders and more shale, mud and a little scree. The path zig-zags down to the tree-line and the Chalet du Glacier at 1580 m. From here it would be a nice short and easy trundle down valley to Trient (for an overnight stop), but I had merely completed around a third of today’s stage and it was barely 09:30. So onwards and upwards was the name of the game and after crossing the water of the Trient, the route of the variant climbs steeply, almost back on itself at first but trending westwards up to the Cabane les Grands. This is not marked as a refuge on the map, nor mentioned in the literature. However just after I had crossed the wonderfully engineered ramp leading diagonally across a rock wall in order to obtain the rocky alpage surrounding the hut, I crossed the paths of a hut guardian and friend heading toward the valley. He informed me that he had been in over the weekend looking after the hut on behalf of the Club Alpin Suisse but was now heading down (it turns out it is a reservation-compulsory hut owned by the CAS). Beyond les Grands, the variant takes a rocky balcony on it’s course headed ultimately for the Col de Balme, 2191 m. The latter is where the TMB core-route is re-joined and the Swiss-French border crossed. Aside from being the point at which the view west along the Chamonix Valley first opens out, La Balme is not one of the more spectacular cols on the Tour. The surroundings are largely dominated by ski infrastructure and large tracks that form winter pistes. The rather scruffy Refuge du Col de Balme sits on the highest point but reportedly has no water for passers-by. I didn’t hang around at La Balme and the surroundings were suddenly a lot busier than I had been used to; mostly due to the uplift from Le Tour, which was my next waypoint, around 800 m below. The descent took about an hour, followed by a trudge on tarmac down to Montroc where I began the final ascent of the day. The end-destination, Refuge du Lac Blanc was perched 1000 m above me in the Aiguilles Rouges. This range consisting of towering metamorphic rock runs parallel to the Mont-Blanc massif north of the Chamonix valley. The TMB traverses the Aiguilles Rouges for it’s final stage(s) in order to provide probably the finest views on the whole tour of the Mont Blanc summit itself as well as other well known high summits. The TMB ascent into the Aiguilles Rouges takes an interesting but steep and technical route via a series of ladders. These begin just after passing the imposing Aiguillette d’Argentière. Setting out from the valley, I soon settled into my ascending pace of around 600 m (height gain) per hour. This rhythm was interrupted by the ladder section and also by the first significant rainfall of the trip, almost timed perfectly to coincide with my ascent of probably the most technical ground of the entire tour! It was somewhat refreshing to be walking in the rain, although a little humid underneath full waterproofs. A large cairn at the top of the steep ground marks the start of an easier ascent of the shelf leading up to the hut. Sweet smelling heather and bilberry interspersed with greenish-grey rocky outcrops typical of the Aiguilles Rouges landscape are crossed providing plenty of further opportunities for some hands on rock. There’s a final double-laddered section (one for up, one for down) fifty metres or so below the hut. The final metres were tough and I my legs certainly felt heavy. I arrived at Refuge du Lac Blanc somewhat anti-climatically, in mist and drizzle around 17:30, thirteen and a half hours on the move from Champex-Lac.

The wonderful setting of the Chalet-Refuge Lac Blanc at 2350 m in the Aiguilles-Rouges.

Refuge Lac Blanc is just wonderful. Certainly the best Refuge of my tour so well worth the extra long push to reach it. Consisting of two timber alpine huts perched on a rock promontory, the refuge sits immediately above the twin-lakes of Lac Blanc (inférieure and supérieure). The two are separated only by a short bank. Up behind and to the north of the refuge, is a steep cirque culminating in the Col du Belvedere and Aiguille du Belvedère (2965 m) to the left.

Just before dinner time, the clouds started to clear leaving an atmospheric scene looking across to the Aiguille Verte and Mont Blanc. I had caught up with Dominique and Corinne once again at Lac Blanc so we chatted about each others’ accounts of the Fenêtre d’Arpette and the last two days over the meal. I slept like a log in the comfortable top bunk of the refuge dormitory that night.

Day 8: Refuge du Lac Blanc to Les Houches (Thursday 1st September)

It was a fresh start to Thursday morning. The sky had completely cleared, leaving perfect conditions for Alpinists on their routes in the Mont-Blanc Massif. Refuge Lac Blanc sits directly opposite the imposing ice-capped needle of Aiguille-Verte. Just before breakfast, the high east facing flanks were just catching the first rays of sunlight. Dominique had spotted pre-dawn headtorch light on the summit of Aiguille-Verte, ‘good news if they are descending the Couloir Whymper of the voie-normale’ he remarked as it is important to descend this 50º SE-facing couloir leading down onto the Glacier de Talefre before the warmth of the morning gets going.

Early morning reflection on Lac Blanc of the Grandes-Jorasses-Mont-Blanc panorama.

The route for Thursday involved a full traverse of the Aiguilles-Rouges via what is marked on the map as the Grand Balcon Sud. After a good explore and some photography of the Lac(s) Blanc after breakfast, I started the descent to the Chalet de la Flégère, summit station for a major télépherique (cablecar) from the valley. Things start to get rather busy from here, as the Flégère is a popular starting point for day excursions. I took a brief snack break on the (closed) terrace of a winter buvette and was joined by a French IML and his group of mostly British and American clients. It provided some entertainment as he gave them the overview of Mont-Blanc Massif summits and various anecdotes about the glaciers and climbing routes. From Flégère, the balcony really begins, and for the next 4 km leading to Planpraz the path remains largely on the level, just dipping in and out of the upper limit of the pines. Planpraz is another access point to and from Chamonix via the popular télécabine (gondola). From Planpraz, the TMB climbs steeply into the Col du Brévent 2368 m before traversing the wonderful gneissose rock scenery of the NW side of the Brévent and on to the summit, 2525 m. At Planpraz, I met Dominique and Corinne having their lunch. With Les Houches sitting 1600 m below le Brévent, the descent is rough and relentless. Corinne made a sensible decision in the interest of her knees to descend to the valley from Planpraz, thus saving the extra 600 m of ascent and descent involved of going on up to the summit. Dominique and I walked together from Planpraz over le Brévent to just before Les Houches (Gîte d’étape les Méandres where I was staying). It was great to have 5 hours of continuous French conversation on the go, certainly the best way to brush up on language skills and it was very interesting talking to Dominique and sharing experiences of our various excursions among the Alps. We took a late (or second for Dominique) lunch break overlooking the valley just beyond Refuge de Bel Lachat, before tackling the final 1000 m down through the forest.

Spectacular rock scenery in the Aiguilles-Rouges near Col du Brevent.

Gîte d’étape les Méandres was my base for the final overnight stop on the tour. It is located a couple of hundred metres above the Arve River on the north side of the valley. Dominique and I parted ways outside the gîte as he continued on down to the station to catch a train to Servoz. The gîte was quiet, with just three others in residence. They had all just arrived fresh from America and the UK, to start out on their TMB the next day.

Day 9: Les Houches to Val Montjoie (Friday 2nd September)

Les Houches is normally the start and end point for the TMB ‘by the book’. Given my bespoke 7-stage itinerary, I had to get back over to the Val Montjoie in order to official complete my circuit. Between Les Houches and my trusty wooden bus-shelter at the hamlet of La Villette near Les Contamines, was a mere 900 m+/-, 15 km trundle over the picturesque Col de Voza 1653 m. Given the metrics of prior days, this was more like a walk in the park and as I was aiming for an early afternoon bus at La Villette, it would have to be ticked off at the usual brisk pace. Les Houches provided a welcome early morning boulangerie stop before I tackled the ascent through the trees to Voza. The official TMB unfortunately follows a tarmac road for most of its way up to the Col de Voza. I was not so keen on this, particularly on my last day, so I branched-off to the east on a footpath ascending via le Verney and les Grands Bois up to the Hotel Bellevue 1800 m. As the name suggests, this is a fine viewpoint higher up the ridge leading from Col de Voza to Mont Lachat. It is also the the winter summit station of the Tramway du Mont Blanc, which in summer traverses across the steep slopes of the the Aiguille du Goûter to le Nid d’Agile giving Alpinists heading out on the Mont-Blanc ‘voie-normale’ a good head start on the ascent to either the Refuge de Tête Rousse or Refuge du Goûter.

The Tramway du Mont-Blanc at Col de Voza.

The Col de Voza is one of the more developed cols on the TMB, being of lower altitude and sitting in the centre of the Les Houches/St Gervais ski area. As such, there is no shortage of cafés restaurants and hotels. There is also a passing loop and station on the Tramway du Mont Blanc. I was progressing well on timing for the day, so to celebrate completion of all the ascent on my TMB, I took a 30 minute break for ice cream (genepi and myrtille) from the cafe next to the station. Whilst relaxing in the sunshine, I observed the busy scene at the station as ascending and descending trains passed and deposited some of their passengers.

From Col de Voza, little over an hour of descent down through the trees and pretty hamlets of Bionnassay and Le Champel stood between me and the end of the circuit. The familiar view of the Mont Joly and the Massif des Aravis dominated as with the first couple of days of the tour. For the last kilometre or so from the familiar water trough at Le Champel down to La Villette, I retraced my first steps on the TMB, 8 days ago. 156 km and 10 500 m of ascent and descent later, I was collapsing my Leki poles, and folding the map at the somewhat anticlimactic but comforting familiarity of my wooden bus shelter near Les Contamines. With half an hour to spare before re-entering the fast-paced life of mechanised transport once again, there was plenty of time to contemplate the last 8 days of near continuous movement through the mountain environment.

l’Après TMB

After such major excursions in the mountains I always like a bit of winding down time; not least in part to get used to the more stationary existence that inevitably follows. The Geneva basin provides an ideal staging point for the return to the UK, with around 9 direct TGV’s per day to Paris. Last summer, I discovered the French town of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, a frontier town just to the North of Geneva in the Pays-de-Gex arrondissement of the Ain Département. Geneva sits in an interesting location from both a physical and political geographical perspective and there’s an abundance of potential in terms of exploring both of these agenda. After my TMB, I spent two nights in Saint-Genis, which gave me a full day before the Sunday return journey to Lancaster. I was staying with some lovely airbnb hosts; Erika and Patrice, who made me feel very welcome and even provided me with a bike to explore the surrounding villages! I had a lovely Saturday morning ride in the sunshine along the foot of the Haut-Jura chain, followed by an afternoon walk through the vineyards of the Franco-Swiss borderlands, finishing of course with an essential taster of the red stuff. Hard to turn down after walking past thousands of vines bursting with grapes and a perfect conclusion to such an epic outing.

Why the No-Fly Zone?


Have you not heard of Easyjet? This is a question I am frequently asked when I meet people in the mountains of Europe and the conversation naturally turns to how I got there, or indeed how I’m getting back home again. The reaction to the statement, ‘all the way by train’ is often one of relative surprise. Around ten years ago, I decided to create myself a European ‘no-fly zone’ within which I would always take the train over the plane. The zone is centred on Paris, with a radius of around 1500 km in each direction. Within this area fall many well known destinations such as Warsaw, Vienna, Milan, Barcelona and… Thurso. As most of my trips are mountainous in nature, the zone encorperates the major European ranges of the Carpathians, Alps and Pyrénées. Plenty to keep me occupied.

Firstly, it’s important to set some context; I am not by any means anti-aviation. As a transport and travel enthusiast, I am excited at the prospect of any journey through, over or between different landscapes, whether by rail, road, air or sea. Indeed, to take-off in a modern passenger jet-aircraft is one of the most exhilarating things out there, after perhaps the thrill of travelling at 300 km/h on a high speed train of course. But in having a keen interest in the environment and sustainability agenda, air travel also brings and element of controversy to the forefront of my mind, given its relatively heavy impact by comparison to surface based modes of transport. Is it possible to be an ‘environmentally conscious traveller’? That’s a question for another time. But also as a Geographer, flying at 800 km/h at 10 000 m altitude is generally the least interesting way to observe the subtitles of the landscape evolving as move from one part of the globe to another (except perhaps for when you pass over large-scale, otherwise inaccessible geographical features such as the Greenland Ice Sheet). So turning again to the question overall, my short answer is simply that it comes down to a matter of efficiency. This can be taken as efficiency in terms of an amalgamation of time, enjoyment, cost/value analysis, geographical and scenic interest, energy consumption and environmental impact. Generally speaking, I firmly believe rail travel beats flying hands down on efficiency when the above factors are investigated for a given journey within my ‘no-fly zone’. Conversely, when a 6000 km + inter-continental journey traversing the arctic circle is examined, the opposite is likely true, air probably beats land (or sea) in terms of efficiency in many (but perhaps not all) of the factors listed.



In order to consolidate this concept, I’ll take a working example of a journey I am very familiar with; Lancaster to the Haute-Savoie Département of France. Firstly, I’ll describe what I believe an air-dominated journey would look like (although I’ve only done it once so I am open for suggestions of improvement) and secondly, what a rail-dominated journey entails.

Living in the NorthWest of England, taking a flight would almost certainly involve Manchester Airport. Given a reasonable allowance for check-in (2 hours) plus the getting to the airport bit (probably a train journey of approx. 1.5 hours) and the flight itself (approx. 1.5 hours), a reasonable half-day of travel would need to be put aside in order to deposit me at Geneva Airport. I would then no-doubt use public transport (which I am most familiar with) or some form of direct transfer in order to get me to my end destination of one of the many lovely Alpine villages on offer, let’s use Samoëns for this example (3 hour onward travel allowance). So all inclusive, I would be looking at around 3/4 of a day on lots of little bits and pieces of short-journeys stuck together with very little time in one seat to sit back, look out of the window, enjoy the scenery, read, write etc.

Now for the train. Setting out from Lancaster on West Coast mainline express trains, a comfortable 2.5 hours will usually deposit me at London Euston. After a short stroll through the backstreets between Euston and St. Pancras, I find myself at the Eurostar check-in gates. There is usually plenty of time for a cup of tea or pint at one of the good station pubs before boarding Eurostar to Paris. Check-in is always very slick at St. Pancras and usually takes around 10 minutes to clear (unless your bag gets searched). 2.5 hours on board Eurostar, with it’s walk-in buffet car and large comfortable seats will land you in the Gare du Nord. Time for another stretch of the legs (although it’s a 4 km walk), metro, RER or bus journey over to the Gare de Lyon. Next up its the TGV for a 3-hour sprint down to the Geneva basin (a number of stations offer connections to the Haute-Savoie). The TGV is one of the best long-distance trains out there; spacious, often double-deck, seating guaranteed and a lovely ‘Voiture-Bar’ (walk in buffet car) with perch seats and good views. So all-up, after about 3/4 of a day of travel, I am almost there. The rest of the day is spent on the 3 hour (ish) public transport transfer up to Samoëns. So a full day of travel will get you there comfortably. On the outward journey, I often choose to break the journey overnight at either London or Paris to ensure I optimise the journey around other activities (work etc.) or just for a bit of added interest.



So looking at the above timings, we can deduce that the perceived relative speed of air travel does not really present much of a gain (perhaps a quarter of a day?) overall relative to the train. From the perspective of time-efficiency, I’d argue that the rail-based journey provides much more ‘valuable’ journey time in terms of the efficiency factors outlined earlier (enjoyment, scenic value, on board amenities, opportunities to stretch the legs etc.)

An analysis of the relative energy consumption and environmental impacts of land (only) based transport including high speed rail versus air and land based transport for the journey being discussed here might be best tackled by means of a postgraduate thesis. Such drastic action becomes of most prevalent need if the unfathomably complex world of carbon footprinting is brought into the mix. So suffice to say, we’ll save an in-depth analysis for a rainy day :-). In brief however, it is generally accepted that rail journeys (and in particular high-speed ones) produce around 10% of the climate-damaging emissions compared to air travel over a comparable distance. So for today, we’ll simply state that from an energy consumption and environmental impact perspective, the railway win hands down on efficiency relative to air. It is always worth us keeping in mind however that there is no form of climate impact-free mobility in the modern world and if we are going to move about, we have to accept some form of impact – even walking burns calories that in turn have a carbon footprint ;-). That is why for me, efficiency of mobility is such a topic of interest and without wanting to ramble on for too long here, I’ll move on. More on that in future maybe.

So that is all well and good, but what about price? Surely the cost of the Lancaster to London leg alone will be more than a return flight to Geneva? This section requires the myth of the expense of rail travel to be interrogated. You will often hear such phrases as the opener to this paragraph pushed around by the media and the like, jumping on the cost of headline ‘walk-on’ Anytime fares. However what the railways are not very good at is presenting the deals that are available if you plan ahead and build your journey as much as possible around the cheapest quota-controlled fares available (such fares came about in response to the arrival of budget airlines in the 90’s). This is where rail can become very competitive with air, but you have to add-up the separate parts of the ‘whole journey’ in order to see the full picture. Let’s take a closer look based on the example again…


A quick web-search on the Easyjet website for a few months in the future presented me with ‘headline’ Manchester to Geneva airfares of around £25 each way – a bargain indeed. However, that price doesn’t include luggage and Alps trips always require more luggage than you can carry-onto an aircraft. Easyjet quoted £16.50 each way for a bag in the hold; still looking pretty reasonable. But what about spiky things like ice axes, crampons, snowshoes etc. There is a possibility that these may require additional charges under ‘specialist sports equipment’ but we’ll leave that out for now. So whilst £41.50 sounds pretty good, I then arrive at the costs that are often forgotten; train to Manchester Airport (or Airport parking), let’s allow £15 for either of those, and the costs of the public transport or transfer to Samoëns from Geneva. The former would be the same in the air or rail dominated journey so we’ll disregard (although it would rarely be more than about £30 all up). The latter option however would tip the balance astronomically in favour of rail though. I have never taken a private transfer to an Alpine village but to the best of my knowledge they are rarely less than €200!

Based on the above working, we’re going to take £56.50 for Lancaster to Geneva (one-way). Now for the costs of rail. I will refer here to the exact costs of my tickets on my most recent journey. Lancaster to London: £21.50, London to Paris: £29.00 and Paris to Bellegarde (near Geneva and with a direct local connecting train into the Haute-Savoie): £24. Grand total, £74.50. So in this very non-scientific, back of an envelope comparison (but hopefully reasonably representative of the situation) the plane wins by £18. Now there are many things that one might spend £18 on, but for me the efficiency of rail travel over air is something that something that is worth an extra £18 every now and then.

The High and Mighty; Ben Avon & Beinn a’Bhuird

Most of the Cairngorm Munros accessible from Deeside involve long track approaches along wide open glens. Braemar, conveniently located on the elbow of the A93 Perth to Aberdeen road acts the gateway village to a vast swathe of Scottish upland. After a busy few weeks, Imogen and I were up for some remoteness and the forecast was for heavy downpours in the West Highlands. The only solution was a good bit of Munro bagging out on the dry, eastern hulks of Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird.

Setting out along Glen Quoich. The high ground of Beinn a’Bhuird looks on to the north.

These two summits tucked away on the far Eastern extremity of the Cairngorm massif form together an impressive expanse of granite plateau above 1000 m. The prospect of heading out on multi-day expeditions from Braemar always conjures an exciting, exploratory feeling; a rarity for outings in the UK mountains. In these parts, unless you’re up for epic 12-hour + days with long track based trudges sandwiching the high ground experience in the middle of the day, you’re forced to overnight somewhere out in the wilds.

We arrived at a damp and windy Linn of Dee carpark just as dusk was setting in on Friday. It was the first time we had hit Deeside outside of the Scottish winter season so we were surprised at the number of vehicles in the car park (which is usually deserted when we turn up late on a Friday). Some were inhabited, but most were locked up for the weekend, their owners no doubt out frequenting the bothies and heather moorland of the inner Cairngorms.

Following the multiple severe storm cycles of winter 2015-16, the Quoich Water had in many places forged new channels, created fresh slips and cut through the track. River erosion processes in action!

The starting point for our route was the Linn of Quoich, so after an early breakfast in the car to escape midges at Linn of Dee, we trundled eastwards a few kilometres along the north side of the Dee to the small carpark at the road-end. At this point, the track leading along Glen Quoich departs. Once booted and saddled, we were soon getting into a warming rhythm heading upstream along the attractive, mostly forested glen. After about 8 km, the Quoich Water swings east and then north around the bulk of high ground forming Beinn a’Bhuird. We continued upstream until the fine cropped heathery hillside of Carn Eag Dhubh gives access onto the Ben Avon plateau at its southernmost end. After a largely dry morning with sunny intervals, the promised afternoon showers began to build as we gained height. Upon reaching the 1000 m contour near Carn Eas (1089 m) we were shrouded in drizzle and mist, with the brisk westerly just adding that full-on Cairngorm experience. There was something a little more benign about the whole experience compared with most of our winter outings in the area, despite us wearing almost similar quantities of clothing. Luckily, the showers and cloud were short-lived and by the time we had completed the long trudge over the open plateau to the corrie rim of Ben Avon’s north face, blue sky featured once more. Indeed, the granite-t0r featuring the true summit of Ben Avon; Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe (1171 m) looked very fine indeed against the clear air. Unfortunately, the very highest point would have involved some rather delicate scrambling along the summit rocks. Not a great idea given the 60 mph gusts that were blasting through the many crevices in the tor. We did just manage 5 minutes of shelter on the eastern side for a quick snack looking out over Royal Aberdeenshire and southeastwards towards Lochnagar.

The true summit of Ben Avon; Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe, 1171 m; one of the many granite tors poking out through the featureless tundra-like plateau.

After retracing our steps for a kilometre or so, we descended gravelly slopes into ‘The Sneck’, the high, 980 m watershed between the Quoich and Avon waters. From this point, there are great views of the high, glacially scoured corrie of Garbh Choire on the east face of Beinn a’Bhuird; a feature that must contain many fine and relatively unfrequented winter snow gullies. A short push up the other side, leads to the equally vast, twin plateau of Beinn a’Bhuird. The first top, Cnap a’Chleirich, 1174 m, is little more than a pile of boulders and staging point for yet more vast, featureless upland. The benefit of walking on these plateau in mostly clear weather is that ground can be covered relatively rapidly. Our next point of interest, was the true summit and ‘North Top’ of Beinn a’Bhuird, 1197 m. The rather uncelebratory cairn is located around 150 m back from the corrie rim of Coire nan Clach; one of a series of perfectly formed scoops hanging high on the mountainside above the broad breach of the Water of Quoich.

Looking towards ‘The Sneck’ & Beinn a’Bhuird. Garbh Choire holds onto some snow among its gullies and ridges.

We reached the summit of our second munro of the day around 17:30 and at this key point were faced with a key decision – where to head to strike camp? Our original plan had been to descend via a broad stream gully to the Dubh Lochan, nestled high on the east flank of Beinn a’Bhuird, however the weather was showing no signs of improving that evening and the prospect of a draughty, drizzly session with the camping stove was not particularly appealing. Instead of this, we opted to continue southwards along and off the plateau in the direction of a long hill track that leads off the high ground back down towards the Quoich Water, around 8 km away. This lead us at long last to some rather sheltered, sweet and mature pine forest sometime just after 20:00. After a session of pumping and filtering down at the Quoich, we were re-stocked with several litres of water; sufficient to replenish ourselves with pasta and hot chocolates after our wonderful 31 km outing. Despite the pitch being on a slight slope, we slept very well indeed. The unrivalled comfort of the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir mattresses are just what you need after a long day on the hill! Who needs a hotel bed?

The bleak North Top (and true summit) of Beinn a’Bhuird, 1197 m.

Given that we had made it back down into Glen Quoich on Saturday evening, Sunday morning simply presented us with a leisurely stroll back down the track leading to the Linn of Quoich. The blustery, moist weather still prevailed but at glen level, it was reasonably mild. July after all! Our gradual downhill track trudge passed with ease and the pleasant sign of young Scots Pine, Mountain Ash and Birch trees rounded of a perfect weekend in the wilderness.

Glen Quoich falls within the Mar Lodge Estate, managed by the National Trust for Scotland. With a progressive policy on reducing deer numbers and replanting native Caledonian forest. The landscape is beginning to take on a more primeval feel, with restored natural processes. The results are clear, not a red deer in sight all weekend, no ticks found crawling on our trousers or tent and a good variety of forest birds inhabiting the rapidly reforesting Glen Quoich (beautiful Bullfinches seen fluttering around the trees on the final slope back down to the carpark). Now all that is needed is the restoration of the natural top predators to release full trophic diversity. Upon return from this trip, I note with interest via the Mar Lodge Estate website that the first successful breeding attempt of a Hen Harrier in decades has been confirmed over the weekend. Great news for raptors, I hope this is just the start of further rewilding in the Cairngorms.

Postscript – I’m just adding the final touches to this blog at 21:00 on Tuesday 19th July and just two days after the trip I’m in the back yard with the laptop, shorts and shirt, 28 C! It feels several seasons away from the cool, blustery weather in the north over the weekend. Even the Dachstein mitts had to come out at times!