Monday, 22 February 2016

Fort William Winter Trip Feb 2016

February half term. Winter climbing. Fort William. Standard. Bernard the Skoda was loaded to the gunwhales with bags, booze and a James and Michelle for the long drive to Fort William.

Any journey north on a group trip begins with a stop at the Courtyard Dairy. Regular readers will know of my love for this shop. We picked up some superb new (to us) cheeses this time including some fantastic L' Etivaz and some bloody marvellous Dorstone goats cheese. £50 of grade A+ cheese just about lasted us the week!

Another regular stop is the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum where we refuelled on fantastic black pudding and haggis sandwiches. We're north of the border now kids! They've got an electric vehicle charging point now and we saw someone topping up their Nissan Leaf.

The sun was setting as we hit Glencoe

A quick trip around Morrissons with a trolley of vegetables and a short drive we reached the cottage. We were staying at Maybank Cottage just outside of Fort William. We really liked it with a decent sized kitchen for all our cooking needs, super comfy beds to collapse into after a long hill day and a decent sized living room. We'd definitely consider staying there again for a winter trip.

Fire on, getting started on the cheese, James brought a large selection of homemade pickles too!

Fish pie fun times, let the big dinners begin!

Plans were made for Sunday for a winter day for everyone given that there were a few people who hadn't worn their shiny new crampons yet. The avalanche forecast for Lochaber was considerable with an unusual north easterly wind depositing snow on west faces.

Sunday - A bash up the Ban

We decided on a trundle up the North Ridge (I) of Stob Ban (999m) from Glen Nevis as it was close and it is a lovely peak. Lorna, Vicky and I were looking forward to climbing it in the light as we'd descended it a couple of years ago in the dark after finishing late on a route. It turned out to be much nicer on the way up in lovely weather.

We picked our way up through the woods, following a likely looking path that turned into a rather sapping scramble over fallen trees and a climb over a deer fence to make a start on the hill proper.

The view down Glen Nevis on the way up, Ben Nevis on the right

Spot my fellow mountaineers below. Makes you feel small.

Above the scrambling but with a nice exposed narrow snow ridge to move across

A short scrambling section with a slightly exposed step across a gap pushed Louise well out of her comfort zone. "Look, just f*** off for a moment will you?" she said whilst curled up in a ball on a ledge when I offered her a rope for her peace of mind. When she is set on something Louise's determination to do things is one of the things I love the most about her. She got her head right and then clambered to the top, stopping at the next narrow snow ridge before crouching down. There followed a spot of muttering before she stood up and marched smartly across it without looking down!

The wind picked up just after we crossed this and made our way up the broad slope to the summit where we toasted each other with Parky's summit whisky (a nice drop of Jura Superstition) before dropping back down the East ridge to the col to pick up the path.

Louise and I at the summit

The Wooden Wonder was very capable on the ascent, if a little heavy. The massive adze is great at digging holes in the snow though!

Everyone eventually went on ahead after we said we'd catch them up as Louise had slowed down with tired legs. This was a big day out for her and the ascent and descent had caught up with her. She said after that it was the best Valentine's Day (I'd forgotten!) she'd had and one of the hardest things she's ever done. Good lass.

On Strava:

The slow cooker goulash was ready on our return, combined with roasted parsnips (never enough) and an early night for some.

The enjoyment of the day was tempered with the news of two missing Bradford climbers on Ben Nevis who went out for a climb and didn't come back. Our thoughts kept returning to them throughout the week and we were heartened to see many in the outdoor community working together to try and find out what happened. The dedication of Lochaber MRT in their search and rescue efforts is worthy of note.

We choose to test ourselves in the hills, the effort and sometimes adrenalin of the climb, the elation of the summit, the commitment because of the rewards it brings to us both physically and mentally. One does not conquer the mountain, we are permitted by nature and by our own skill and determination to reach the objective. We revel in our smallness against the massiveness of the mountains and come away bigger for the experience.

Monday: Ballachulish Horseshoue and Bolognaise

The avalanche forecast wasn't great but the weather forecast was great so we decided on a ridge-y kind of walk. The Ballachulish Horseshoe looked like a good day out as the hills seen from the Ballachulish bridge when heading south always looked very tempting. We picked a truncated route that went up Sgorr Dhearg (1024m) and Sgorr Dhonuill (1001m) with plenty of options for making the route shorter if required.

Loch Leven, Ballachulish village and Glencoe village

A rather stiff climb up the first hill led to a broad snowy ridge leading to the mini summit of Sgorr Bhan and the view of the lovely curving ridge to Sgorr Dhearg.

We dropped down to the col and up the other side, topping out on the second peak with a 360 degree panorama of peaks as far as the eye could see. We could even see all the way to the Cuillin hills on the Isle of Skye, a cool 2 1/2 hour drive away.

The overwhelming panorama of mountains is almost too much to take in and mobile phone photos do not capture the majesty, the scale of what we can see. It makes you very conscious of the sheer amount of rock and earth that makes up this planet, sending you brain into a dizzying spiral of thought before you *snap* back into remembering not to kick yourself in the leg with your crampons. Such is mountaineering.

On Strava:

A few quick bum slides down the hill and we were making our way back through the forest trails and back to the car. Louise had knocked up a tasty spag bolognaise back at the hut which was seen off very quickly. The weather forecast for Tuesday was, to use the technical mountaineering term, "shite" so we broke open some more wine and declared Tuesday a rest day.


Set the controls for a lie in (nice), lots of toast and hot cross buns, snacks, board games, books and approximately 5 gallons of tea watching the rain sweep the valley. The roast chicken dinner wasn't half bad either.


Avalanche forecast still sketchy but weather improving throughout the day. A big hill day was required after yesterday's refuelling so we decided on the CMD arete which links Carn Mor Dearg with Ben Nevis.

It's a long slow slog up from the North Face car park but the gradient is amenable so we just put our heads down and plodded up. Nick was feeling the previous day's in his legs and wasn't sure about continuing but once he'd got to the top of the first hill he perked up and went for it!

We had a pretty brutal wind carrying the snow and whipping it into our faces. It wasn't long before we all had our ski goggles on, a pretty much essential winter walking requirement. We chatted to a local chap on his way to do the CMD arete. He quickly crampon'd up and was away.

After the summit of Carn Mor Dearg the hill dropped sharply and the sides fell away as we gained the ridge and started our traverse. Conditions were good and we made steady progress, its just a shame that the cloud prevented us from getting a decent view of the north face of the Ben.

Eventually the cloud cleared when we reached the end of the arete leading to some lovely views and a chance to revel in the exposure.

The snow was quite deep on the way up the side of Ben Nevis with some thigh deep drifts. We almost lost Ben in this one.

An icy summit plateau awaited us with some decent sized cornices above the gullies

We made our way down the zig-zags passing a couple of parties on the way up and, oddly enough, a Chinese girl in Ugg boots clutching a flask of green tea by the half way lochain. We hit the car 9 hours after setting off just as it started to rain, perfect timing!

On Strava:

Climbers from the other cottage were thwarted in their Aonach Mor west face ambitions by a broken gondola forcing a later start than anticipated.

However the group curry was a great success. James made a lentil dahl, Vicky made a creamy turkey and vegetable curry, Lynnette's beef and spinach madras was just the ticket and once I got James and Michelle set up making chapattis we had a right old feast. Well done to the other cottage for bringing extra sundries too.

Thursday - Golden Oldy

The objective for Nick, Jake, Ben and I was the classic Golden Oldy (II) on the west face of Aonach Mor. Ben and I tried to climb this last year but had trouble finding the correct route in the cloud, ending up the still enjoyable Temperance Rib instead.

We caught the 8am gondola up to the ski centre, traversed across the hill to the bottom of the quad chair lift then dropped off the side following another party on their way in to the west face. This time, with the aid of GPS co-ordinates and the advice of a friendly guide we met on the walk in we hit the correct route. Nick and I paired up, moving together until I ran out of gear. We swung leads quickly with Nick tackling some iced up rocks with aplomb on his first winter lead proper. He's a capable chap and had no troubles with the narrowing ridge, stopping to belay after a while. I think he was happy to finally put his new Quark axes into action!

The narrow atmospheric ridge was great fun and steady going. The snow was falling steadily and filling the footprints of the soloist who went before us so it felt like we were the first ones on the route. Jake and Ben were moving a little slower behind us along with a guide and client and a chap and lass who had teamed up in the youth hostel. We had the ridge to ourselves. We refuelled at the last belay with some adventure bars and a swig of water, tasted good!

We motored up the last bit to finish the route in about 3 hours. Nick went off along the plateau to bag the summit proper whilst I coiled the rope and found a sandwich.

We'd agreed that if we were just in front of the guys that we'd wait for them at the top but they weren't even in sight so as agreed we headed down to the ski centre, caught the gondola back down and drove back to the hut for a cup of tea with Nick disappearing to pick up Ben and Jake later when they got down about an hour and a bit later. A successful day all round and what a great route, felt solid for the grade under all that powder snow.

On Strava:

Lorna cooked a cracking Cottage pie and Vicky turned out her trademark mango and ginger crumble (not enough ginger!). Poor weather forecast for the next day with RED on the avalanche pizza - too much tomato sauce. I wanted to do something with Louise as I'd hardly seen her all week despite sharing a cottage!

Friday - Nessie spotting in Fort Augustus

We intended a quiet day, just the two of us going for a short potter up the valley to poke around Loch Ness. Ben, James, Michelle and Nick all jumped in at the last minute so a triple date it was!

Fort Augustus is not a bad spot, we had lunch at the Moorings cafe (nice food) and made the first club ascent of the Gift Shop Traverse. I picked up a really nice bottle of Loch Ness brewery Dark Ness beer in the shop and a haggis for when we got home. We bloody love haggis!

It was pulled pork for tea, followed by board games and then the last night of the holiday was over. A good time was had by all.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Marmot Dark Mountains 2016 - 3rd Place Again for Team Spinach


None of this would have been half as much fun without the other half of Team Spinach so thank you to Emma for putting up with me. Hopefully you enjoyed it as much as I did. Proper team effort and I'm very glad to have you as a racing buddy.

Same time next year I hope?

I love it when a plan comes together

It's been that time of year again where Team Spinach dust off their night navigation skills (wander round the moors looking confusedly at a compass), start a new performance diet (we've finished all the cheese from xmas) and turn our thoughts towards the Marmot Dark Mountains event (we did it last year and didn't die).

We felt a lot happier with our navigation skills from last year so our only real preparation was loosening the legs on the KCAC Wed night social fell runs and a quick test of bearing following in the dark on Ilkley Moor. I've been doing some cycling over winter and Emma threatened to break out her Nell McAndrew exercise DVD so we were in "good" shape.

"Which way does the pointy bit go?"

This year the event was based in Mungrisdale village on the east side of the Northern Fells of the Lake District. It's a lovely little village with a nice looking pub, The Mill Inn, next to the beck. Must come back for a second visit.

Mungrisdale (C) Visit Cumbria

Get Set...

Kit check was very nearly a short affair as Emma had left her sleeping bag in the car but that was sorted out. Not as exhaustive a kit check this year; last time they wanted to see everything but I'm guessing with the much larger number of competitors this year that they just wanted to see the essentials. We got checked for sleeping bags, emergency bag, tent, torch, gloves and hats.

Busy in the village hall, everyone looks fitter than me aaaaarrrggghh!

We were furnished with some very nice veggie chilli, cheese and pitta by Heather who was doing a sterling job in the kitchen followed by a massive slab of chocolate pudding and custard. Pre-event food fit for kings!

We spent a bit of time looking at the map and trying to guess where we would get sent. Thankfully the steep bit of Bannerdale Crags and the south sides of Blencathra (including Sharp Edge) and Skiddaw were all marked as out of bounds. Of course with the live tracking it would be simple for the organisers to check if anyone had infringed an out of bounds area - only one team was disqualified for this.

C course map, lots of squiggly lines

Even though we had a couple of hours to kill before the start it went quickly, filled with cups of tea, chatting to folk and packing our bags, getting ready. Emma debated what layers to wear and opted for warm and of course ended up having to de-layer on the first long climb. So it goes: be bold, start off cold!


CP 1-3

All that map studying meant we dibbed at the start and immediately set off in the right direction! Sometimes this is the easiest bit to get wrong.

A nice easy start saw us head out along the River Glenderamackin (superb name!) on a good path, picking up the first two controls before the long steady climb up to Mungrisdale Common, the col between Blencathra and Bannerdale Crags. This last bit up to the col was quite icy underfoot, thankfully not repeated anywhere else as I'd left my Kahtoola crampons in the car as I didn't expect them to be required.

One of the fun things about this kind of event is doing admin tasks like changing layers, getting food and drink, putting things away whilst on the move. It's made much easier with two, with the other ferreting around in your pack for the elusive sandwich or glove.

We were one of the last teams to start so most of the field were ahead of us. I think we overtook about 4 teams on this stretch and we certainly feel like we made an excellent start. Competitive Emma was making plans and Competitive James was making a rare appearance.

Anyway, we made it to the col and the wind, brrr, not hanging around here for long!

Us (68) putting in a good lead on our fellow competitors


We came a bit unstuck coming down to find checkpoint 4, being too far left. In the end we thought we were too low, discovered we were in fact too low but found it after relocating and taking a bearing off a pair of sheepfolds.

The track up to Skiddaw House went quickly and we took the opportunity to eat. I shoved half a pork pie down my neck and a piece of cake. We'll be hearing more about the pie later.

Last year, Emma's food had got all mushed up together and had accidentally invented the fruit cake, cheese and guacamole sandwich which, she maintained was surprisingly tasty. This year she decided to cut out the squashy middleman and lump it all together at the start. The considered opinion was that it didn't work quite as well this time but it was certainly worth a try. I'm sure I saw half of it go back in the pack uneaten.

Artists impression of the contrary cakey culinary curious concoction. Crikey!

At Skiddaw house we were warmly greeted by Emma's father-in-law Colin who was manning the show there. Although it looked very inviting inside we declined to stay and chat over a cocoa, quickly dibbed and then charged off towards the next checkpoint.


In our haste, we didn't check all of our options and by the time we were attacking the direct line and thigh deep heather slopes of Great Calva we realised there was a track marked on the west side of the hill that we'd not seen. Dur... So we cut across to the main path to pick it up after a scenic 800m detour.

One advantage of such a night time event is that the terrain doesn't intimidate you as much because you can't see it. As a result there were several times where the sight of a long climb would have perhaps depressed us, instead we could just see some torches in the distance encouraging us to go for it.

Thankfully the path up was a bit better despite the mud and ice. We both broke out our respective walking pole to aid out ascent - deploy the third leg!. There was someone taking photos by the control on the summit, he looked like he was freezing his bits off!


After following the fence down off the top of Great Calva we picked up the faint path towards the summit of Knott which we managed to track all the way. We followed a bearing to the main path coming off Great Sca Fell, aiming off ever so slightly and picking it up where Emma had expected to from pacing (go navigation!).

I had started to feel a bit queasy over the last few checkpoints and burping unwelcome greasy pastry burps from the pie and it wasn't getting any better. I managed to keep it down but wasn't putting anything in on top of it so I was starting to run a bigger deficit than George Osborne.

I forced down a hummus and beetroot pitta and some jelly babies and willed myself over the next hill, reminding myself that it will improve and I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Things were starting to head into Type 2 fun territory.


The route to 9 was not straightforward. Contour left around the hill? Climb up right then down the river? Nope. Go big or go home we said. Straight over Brae Fell and down the other side to pick up the gully then the second stream junction. Handrailing all the way made for simpler navigation if a slightly longer route. Both the first two teams contoured round the bottom of Brae Fell, most other people just charged straight over the top. According to the splits, contouring looked about 10 minutes quicker.

The teams contouring around the Bottom of Brae Fell got a Willy Knot! Ha!

Like most of the stream gullys on this event it was a steep sided affair involving much hopping from bank to bank, steep contouring or just very wet feet. A combination of all three was applied! I did spot a very cool old mine tunnel heading into the hill from the side of the beck but now wasn't the time for subterranean shenannigans, we had a control to find!

It wasn't long before there were three teams all gathered at this one control at the same time, exchanging a small amount of banter. Everyone had a different idea of how to get to the next point, ours involving a short scramble out of the gorge using an old tree and following a bearing to pick up the next path to lead us to...


Ah, hello weather. Where have you been?

Horizontal hail was making things hard work. I put my goggles on and things improved, but Emma, normally a glasses wearer, struggled with hers making her vision more blurry. Urgh, this was not fun, distinctly Scottish conditions!

We followed our bearing and picked up a path going the right way (or was it...) following a pair of lads along it. They stopped, looking confused and we pooled our collective brain power which, at 5:45am and with no sleep, meant we could just about use words to make sentences. Just.

They pointed out that the uphill should be on our right, not left which meant we were on the wrong side of the hill. Amateur mistake, we hadn't gone far enough and picked up a parallel path. The wind, hail and tiredness had meant we weren't paying attention to the map. So we took a bearing for the CP, aiming off to allow us to make sure we hit the path before it and off we went.

Chatting to these lads it turned out they were Neil and James from just over the hill in Ilkley. I remembered them from last year as the two who had beaten us into 3rd place. They were having a slightly harder time this year and were a bit slower.

Extremely good navigational catch by them, well done guys. We made it to the hut together and, after saying ta-ra, we slipped and glooped our way down the next path.


It was about here that it started to turn from hail to rain. Again I was thankful for my Buffalo jacket keeping me warm. The track ran steadily down, through some old mine workings in an out of bounds area to the road.

Staightforward navigation at this point, and my recent lack of long distance running was starting to tell on my knees. We paused briefly at the road, dropped some Vitamin I, forced more food down and I fertilised some heather in the good ol' fashioned bear-in-the-woods kind of way. Amusingly, the first question Emma's son asked her when she got home was "did either of you do a poo outside?" How did he know?

Thankfully, energy was slowly returning, and things were improving. We came to the ford river crossing that we'd been warned about in the pre race briefing. Thankfully the river levels had dropped so it was only knee deep instead of upper thigh deep. Nevertheless it was quite refreshing thank you very much!

Emma requested a new earworm at this point, having had Imelda Staunton singing "A Squash And A Squeeze" on a loop in head from somewhere near the start. I kicked off an acapella "Bear Necessities" from the Jungle Book and Emma remembered the second verse better than I.

I remember being quite surprised coming across a control, only to realise it was the one that we'd been heading for!

Now it was head down for the last big climb.


We wound our way slowly up a long shallow gully up in the grey light of early winter morning. Fresh snow on the ground and beads of water sparkling in our headtorch beams and the mountains looming out of the grey behind us made for a magical feeling. I love this bit, when you've been out all night and the day breaks anew. Always gives me a real boost. I still had to resort to counting my footsteps and forcing a jelly baby down every 100 paces just to keep me going.

We overtook another team at the top and somehow found our seventh wind, jogging down towards Mungrisdale and enjoying the gradely view down Bullfell Beck valley. Emma was keen to make sure we didn't go past the next control

"If I have to go back up that hill then I'm not going to be a happy bunny!"

We found the sheepfold and the control, trotting off down the track on the home stretch.

CP13 was visible from a fair way off: daylight eh, great invention! We could see the event centre but were a bit miffed as we had to run away from it for the last control, then past it again to get to the bridge before we could jog down the road for our round of applause from the marshals manning the finish.

Hurrah, we did it!

Post Race

Emma downloaded our timings from the dibber whilst I handed back our GPS tracker. I wondered if anyone had been watching our finish on that internet. Our printout showed that we were currently in 3rd out of 8 finishers but we knew that there were more teams behind us and one mixed pair ahead of us so no trophy this year.

However we were very pleased to find out that we were indeed 3rd overall on the C course this year so, whilst no trophy, we still retained our position from last year. Big smiles all round.

Thankfully we didn't suffer from any of these

I remember it taking a while to enjoy the breakfast last year but no trouble this year, I'd been looking forward to the hash browns and baked beans from about 2/3rds of the way around.

Whilst inhaling my breakfast I was chatting to a few other teams. A few guys on the C course who'd made similar mistakes to us. James from CP10 turned up so it was nice to catch up with him and see how they got on.

Two chaps on the Short Score course who had got back too late and lost all their points. Had they made it back in time, they could have won but they gambled and lost. We commiserated with them and I was reminded of a line from "If" by Rudyard Kipling

     "If you can make one heap of all your winnings
         And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,"

They were fairly upbeat about it and we changed the subject to discussing food. One had made some chocolate caramel shortbread and offered us some. We discussed the addition of sea salt to the caramel and he'd put some orange oil in there too. They headed off and we tried the goods, not bad but I thought my version I made before xmas was better - more salt Igor!. Turned out that this guy was a Great British Bake Off finalist from this year (Ian Cumming) - how about that!

Shane Ohly, the race director, did all the prize giving stuff and thanked all the marshals and volunteers - he is Mr. Positive! We trundled off home via the services for an espresso or two and back via the cheese shop to stock up on weapons grade brie for a much needed shower, gear drying and power nap!


SI Entries results page is here

Live tracking including reply was here - but I expect it won't be there forever.

Strava log from the slightly grainy GPS tracker is here

23 miles / 37km
5545 feet / 1700m climbing
4383 calories

13 finishers on our course out of 23 starters,

  • My Buffalo Systems Mountain Shirt absolutely thrives in these kind of conditions. I only saw one other Buffalo wearer, we shared a knowing nod and an amused glance at all the fancy brand names, knowing in our hearts that we were the true champions. In my imagination at least.
  • Ronhills with waterproof trousers and Sealskins socks looked after the bottom half and I was just the right temperature all the way round. Comfortable in fact!

Event Musings
  • Don't follow other people, pay attention to what you are doing
  • More frequent reference to altimeter when navigating to a point on a hill to ensure we don't drop too low. This requires frequent resetting of the reference at known altitudes throughout the event to take into account the changing barometric pressure due to the weather. This would have sped up our location of checkpoint 4 for a start.
  • I didn't really look after my food intake prior to and during the event so suffered a bit
  • The maps were much more robust this year. Last year's map ended up looking slightly foxed but as the late Sir Terry Pratchett would have observed " had been badgered, wolved and possibly beared as well." This year's map survived being dropped in four muddy puddles, washed in a river or two and folded intentionally and unintentionally every which way. It still looks in great nick!
  • A well run and friendly event


I feel like I've got really bad jet lag. This is how I felt at work on Monday (I wasn't actually asleep on my to do list, honest!)

Thankfully I had some steak and a beer when I got home which made everything alright again!

I earned my point.