Thursday, 23 November 2017

Aonach Mor

Two weeks ago we jogged up to the top restaurant on Aonach Mor . I painted the above sketch looking west down the length of Loch Eil.Since then there have been several falls of snow so the view would now be much more wintry.
Above is a quick pencil sketch of Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg on a rare clear day.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Autumn Sunrise

The weather over the last few weeks has been very wet but recently rather than monotonous  continual drizzle we have had sharp sudden showers interspersed with dramatic skies - big dark centred clouds and splashes of blue sky.On the hills the grasses and  bracken have turned to beautiful red russet tones;Autumn seems to have come on very suddenly.
However this week we had two days - yes two whole days without rain. Monday was a spectacular day; I left home before 6 am to run to work. Passing through fields in total darkness the gates glittered with frost in the beam of my head torch and the frozen grass crunched under my feet..Above there were a few stars visible. It was the first really frosty morning since the Spring.
 Recently most of my running commute has been in the dark but on Monday due to the change in the clocks there was soon a glimmer of dawn in the East. This developed until the underside of a bank of cloud was illuminated a gorgeous salmon pink by the first rays of the sun . As I ran past Nevis Range and on towards Torlundy the cloud cleared though squally showers could be seen beyond the mountains. The colours brightened and brightened until Ben  Nevis was silhouetted against a brilliant yellow and orange sky fading to blue /purple clouds to the South. It really did look as if the sky was on fire. The summit of the Ben was wreathed in pink tinged clouds.I took lots of photographs and  nearly collided with a cyclist as I couldn't take my eyes off the heavens.
 Within an hour of these pyrotechnics the sky had returned to its normal gun metal gray.
Ben Nevis- painted from a photo taken from Torlundy on Monday

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Small Paintings

Today I've been painting some small ( 14cm x 9cm) pictures for sale at The Gallery In The Fort; a small gallery in town. Here is a selection.
Loch Arkaig

Loch Lochy

The North Face of Ben Nevis
Loch Linnhe
The loch pictures are all similar in composition but the fun bit is painting the skies and  the reflections in the water. Painting small pictures allows some experimentation with techniques without the risk of ruining a large painting .

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Visit to Kinbreak Bothy

I was recently given a copy of The Scottish Bothy Bible by Geoff Allan.
It is a lovely book lavishly illustrated with photographs of the hills and the bothies. I realised that despite having lived in Lochaber for 5 years I haven't stayed in many of the local bothies. Seeking to remedy this I went to Kinbreak bothy in Glenkingie last weekend.
 I got Helen to drop me off at Glenfinnan .I took the track north under the viaduct made famous by the Harry Potter movie and on to Glenfinnan Lodge.Beyond there the path climbs to col and then descends into Gleann Cuirnean. It was very dramatic landscape although low cloud mist and rain obscured most of it.The stags were rutting; their loud bellowing adding to the gothic atmosphere.
Looking from the col into Gleann Cuirnean

.Lower down the path became boggy and narrow. There were some beautiful waterfalls. Finally I was sloshing through the swamp in Glendessary , I spotted two wild boar but they were quite small and ran away squealing.  Next I took the steep path over to Glenkingie, It started off as a good track but soon became very boggy. Several times I went in up to my hips. I was was quite relieved when I finally spotted the red roof of the Kinbreak bothy. There was once a house  at Kinbreak which was inhabited until the 1940's by the local shepherd, however it is now a ruin and  only the byre remains.
The ground floor of the bothy is very basic with a cobbled floor and stone walls but the loft has been made into a snug living space . There are a couple of settles a fireplace and a table .
I set up my little wood stove in the fire place and brewed a mug of tea with a few bits of wood  I had carried in. After eating I drank some whisky  then went to bed feeling well satisfied with my day.The bothy book had several references to Larry the bothy mouse. I heard him in the night scampering  here and  there but it was too dark to see what he was up to.
I rose early and was away by 6.30 .Crossing the burn by the bothy in the dark was tricky as it was swollen by all the recent rain.I trudged back over the hill and  through the bogs and was in Glendessary by 8am . I then had a long trek along the road beside Loch Arkaig.The road was initially a relief after the bogs but soon I was wishing for an end to the tarmac. The morning started wet and windy but later the weather cleared and there were brief periods of sunshine.The loch was glorious with the autumn colours starting  to show on the hills and the water reflecting  the blue sky.
Loch Arkaig is very long but eventually I reached its head and  went through  the dark mile to Clunes.(The dark mile is stretch of road hemmed in by the hills creating a damp, dark and mossy place) .At Clunes I managed to get a phone signal so phoned Helen for a lift home. I could have jogged the remaining  7 miles but was a bit weary of the road.
I really enjoyed staying at Kinbreak and am inspired to visit more local bothies.

Loch Arkaig Looking West

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Ben Nevis Ultra

Last weekend we attempted the Ben Nevis ultra.We knew from our recce's of the route that there was no chance that we could complete the whole course without being timed out.There had been some criticism on face book that the cut offs were too severe. Most races have cut offs based on the likelihood of a runner reaching the next checkpoint before that checkpoint's cut off, which is based on the time taken to reach the following checkpoint before its cut off and so on until the end The idea being that if you keep within the cut offs you have a realistic chance of reaching the end before the race closes. Obviously the runners at the back of the field run slower especially late in the race so most races have increasingly generous cut offs at the later checkpoints .Hopefully this means that race marshals can close a checkpoint at the cut off time and get home rather than having to wait an indeterminate number of hours for stragglers to come in. The Ben Nevis Ultra was the other way round in that the cut offs were stricter later on. For example the Nevis Range closed at 5.30 leaving only  31/2 hours to reach Glen Nevis before the cut off. Climbing Carn Mor Dearg, traversing the arrete and climbing and descending Ben Nevis in 31/2 hours would be really difficult for me with fresh legs but after 50 miles through hills and bogs- not a chance.
However the organizer did arrange an early start for the slower runners.
We drove to Kinlochleven on Friday and registered . We slept in the car for a few hours and got the 3 am bus for the early start at 5 am . The first part of the route was on a good track ( the Corrieyairack Pass) so knowing what was ahead I was determined to cover the ground as fast as I could .The Pass is gorgeous but is marred by some horrendous electricity pylons.
 Beyond the first checkpoint at the Melgarve bothy the bog began. It was every bit as bad as I remembered from my recces, although this time I didn't see any fish swimming along the path. However at one point I was in green mush up to the tops of my hips. I was worried I might loose my shoes in the ooze but managed to keep them on. Knowing the route definitely helped and I  to kept my place until the fast guys from the 6 o clock start  started to overtake me. One runner said ( referring to the bog) "This wasn't in the route description." Indeed although there was lots about the Carn Mor Dearg arrete in the description and route videos but nothing about the bog. Helen says that a rubber ring and snorkel should have been included in the list of mandatory equipment!
By the time I got to  the Braeroy support point I was tired- the bogs having taken their toll. However I was revived by some food and a mug of tea , Helen and our friend Sharon arrived soon afterwards. Sharon is an awesome runner and was off like a shot. I went on slowly and Helen soon caught me up. We ran the next section together; a swampy climb past some beautiful waterfalls. It was raining and not that warm. I started to experience  problems with breathing. My breath was making a whistling sound and I felt as if I was trying  to inhale through a tiny hole. Helen went ahead as she was getting  cold and I struggled on .From Inverlair I walked quite a lot but even so was struggling to breath properly. I was overtaken by quite a lot of runners. I considered dropping out at Corriechoile believing that I had no chance of reaching Nevis Range before the cut off. However the lovely ladies at the checkpoint said that it was only 12 km and that I had loads of time. I carried on slowly and was again overtaken by more runners. Gradually my chest improved and I was able to speed up a little. I reached Nevis range with quarter of an hour to spare. By now the rain had cleared away and it was a beautiful evening.I asked if it was O.K. to continue ( even though I had no chance of reaching Glen Nevis by 9pm) They said it was fine as long as I left by 5.30. So on I went . I was very emotional as my goal at the start of the race was to do the arrete and  the Ben if I possibly could but until then I had thought it an impossibility.
Above is the view of Carn Mor Dearg ( on the left) the arrete and the Ben as I climbed the familiar path up the Allt a Mhuilinn valley. Needless to say I didn't sketch this at the time! I painted it this week from a photo I took on my phone.
 The climb up Carn Mor Dearg starts boggy but soon improves. I thought that I was the last to leave the checkpoint before the cut off but soon I saw 4 or 5 runners on the hill behind me.I was very slow on the climb and was overtaken by the others however I did enjoy it , the views over the valley with Loch Eil shining  in the sun were spectacular. On the summit were two marshals who were bravely coping with the elements  ( it was now cold and windy) I thanked them for being there for me and continued down to the arrete as darkness fell.  Being stiff and a bit wobbly on my feet I crossed the arrete with care. The rocks were wet and greasy but it was still great fun.It was now completely dark. I managed to overtake a group of runners . I was glad that I had inadvertently packed an extra top in my rucksack which I was now wearing.There were marshals on the ridge watching out for us and recording our numbers. The climb to the summit of Ben Nevis took much longer than normal but finally I was at the top which was misty . I saw a light over to my left which I guessed was the marshals but I could only see the summit cairn when I was standing right next to it. The two cheerful ladies at the top seemed impressed when I whipped out my compass and a detailed map of the summit plateau  in order to take a bearing. Even though I know the Ben well it would be a shame to go wrong in the mist and darkness . It is a long way down off the Ben at any time but after 55 miles  and in the pitch black it took a while . I passed some more runners going even more slowly than me
.Finally nearly 3 hours after the cut off time (!) I arrived at Glen Nevis . There were still another 10 runners on the mountain behind me. Although I had failed to reach the end of the race I still felt that I had achieved a lot. Crossing the arrete and climbing the Ben were definitely the highlights  of the race.As I said at the start it was curious that the organisers had arranged the cut offs so that the marshals had to wait for 3-4 hours after the cut off for the last runners to arrive.
I could have understood it if the cut offs were designed to keep people from having to cross the arrete and  climb the Ben in the dark, but this wasn't the case . Instead we were prevented from doing the ( relatively) easy last section . However I was extremely grateful that I was able to do the mountain section and the marshals were still waiting for me to arrange transport back to Kinlochleven.

The majority of the runners were timed out in the race although  the cut off at the finish was relaxed so that more could get a finishers medal. It was a great race which I thoroughly enjoyed apart from my breathing problems in the middle. Hopefully the organizers will change the cut offs next time so that it wont become a race for the elite runners only.
Donald Campbell was first in an incredible 12.20.53,
Casper Kars Sijpesteijin was second in 12.39.17.
The first lady was Mira Rae from Nepal who was 5th overall and came home in 14.24.08
 Second lady was Andrea Huser from Switzerland who did 14.49.45
40 people out of 114 starters were given finisher medals although the last home arrived in Kinlochleven  2 hours and 45 minutes after the original race finish at midnight. Rarely can coming last and hours beyond the cut off be such a tremendous achievement!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Trip to Knoydart

Last Friday I had an enjoyable trip to Knoydart . Knoydart is not an island but is only accessible by a long hike from Kinlochhourn or a 45 minute boat trip. In the past when roads were almost universally bad on the west coast, Knoydart would have been no more remote than anywhere else. In fact the sheltered bay where the village of Inverie is situated would make it a safe haven for ships. According to Cameron MacNeish in his Munro book there is an etching from the 19th century showing 40 -50 trading ships in Barrisdale Bay on the north side of the peninsular. Nowadays Knoydart mainly attracts tourists, walkers, fishermen and deerstalkers but there is still some farming. Getting there is a bit of an adventure.
On Friday I went from Mallaig. The weather had been extremely wet so I packed extra clothes and waterproofs. However by good fortune once out of Mallaig harbour the clouds cleared and it was a delightful day. Half way there the ferry stopped so we could watch a minke whale. Minkes weigh 4-5 tonnes and can be up to 10 metres long . It was exciting to see it periodically surfacing about 50 yards from the boat but then it reappeared no more than 15 feet away! I was on the phone at the time to my Dad as it was his birthday and I almost dropped my mobile. Its broad back was so close I felt I could have reached out and touched it; you could see every detail of its blow hole and dorsal fin. It is the biggest animal I have ever seen and that was the closest I have ever been to one.

 The good weather continued and my day outside went smoothly so I was finished well before the ferry returned . The clients offered to take me back in their speed boat. This turned out to be much more of an exhilarating ride than expected. We were travelling into the wind and as our speed increased the little boat started to hit the waves hard, bouncing us out of our seats. I began to worry that the samples that I had spent the last few hours collecting might disappear over the side.Also the wind was increasing and rain started to lash our faces. I was quite glad that at the start I had on a whim accepted the offered life jacket! However I needn't have worried as the helmsman decreased the speed and steered closer to the shore where the water was calmer .  In no time we where in Mallaig slightly breathless and completely soaked by the now torrential rain and the spray.

The above picture is of the same stretch of water but from a photo taken on a calm day on the way back from the Isle of Canna.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Ring O Fire Race

For the past three years we have really enjoyed running the Ring O Fire( a race that circumnavigates the Island of Anglesey in Wales in three days). This time we decided to help marshal instead.
 On Friday we arrived at the Breakwater Park at 9am  and met up with the race directors James and  Quentin and the other marshals. It was a beautiful day though rather hot for the runners.  Our first checkpoint was Alaw Bridge which was quite hectic as the runners were close together .After a break  we went to Wylfa power Station .At this stage the distance was starting to tell on some of the runners and unfortunately one lady was timed out . Our next task was to retrieve the honesty book and flag from along the route . So we followed the last runner out and had an enjoyable jog along the coast - this is one of my favourite parts of the route with dramatic cliffs and ruins. However by the time we got back to our car it was after 11pm.
We slept at the Amlwch Leisure Centre and were woken as always by the voice of Johnny Cash singing the  Ring O Fire at 4.30 am. Again we were at the first check point of the day at Llgwy Beach. When we arrived it was still cold and we were treated to a beautiful sunrise over the sea(see picture below)The cafe there opened early and provided some amazing food - bacon baps , quiches and various other savoury bites, all free of charge to the runners. Once the final competitor had gone through and we had cleared up we had some time to spare so we explored the nearby ruins of a settlement from the time of the Romans. By now it was very warm and sunny and we had a tranquil time wandering through the green fields with the blue sea in the distance.
Sketch of the little cafe at Llgwy Bay
Sunrise over the sea at Llgwy ( from a photograph)
Next up was the checkpoint at The Sea Zoo We had a bit of a wait until the first runners came so we sat in the sun and drank cups of tea in the cafe.
Pencil sketch of the Welsh mainland from the Sea Zoo
The first runners coming through seemed remarkably fresh considering the heat but then they still had a long way to go. We had to leave at 4.30 to go to Newborough Forest the last check point of the day. The past 3 years have taught me that by the time they get to Newborough foret I am exhausted and struggling to run the last leg. Sandy's Bistro in Rhosneigir had provided a delicious lentil soup for the runners which seemed to go down very well.There was also a good selection of other sweet and savoury foods.Finally we went to Aberffraw to help serve pasta and ratatouille . The last runners came in just before 2am
At 4.30 the music was on again and the jumble of bodies lying on the floor of the little village hall groggily assembled in to a  motley crowd of runners. Nobody looked good at this stage as competitor and  marshals alike were suffering from sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. After two glorious days of sunshine the rain was now lashing down. The first check point was at Sandy's Bistro where hot drinks and bacon baps were provided. We missed the next c.p. and went straight to Trearddur  Bay. By now most of the runners were familiar to us and we tried to encourage the as best we could.It was still raining and the puddles in the car park got deeper and coalesced until the checkpoint tent was virtually an island!
Lastly we returned to the Breakwater Park where it had all started three days before. I found it quite emotional seeing the runners come in as it brought back memories of my finishes. We had seen these runners suffer over the weekend, we had fed them and refilled their water bottles.Heard about their woes and mishaps and had consoled and encouraged them Now it  was great to see them finally triumph . It is a very tough race but with a wonderful atmosphere.
Sunday night was party night for the marshals we were treated to a slap up meal and free drinks at Sandy's Bistro . We really enjoyed marshaling and made some good friends .I feel that Bing and Quentin do an amazing job organising the Ring O Fire which is getting better and better every year.

The first man home  was Simon Sikora in a cumulative  time of 23 hours 15minutes and 4 seconds. He was an hour and 23 minutes ahead of the next  runner!
Sally Ford was the first Lady and 5th overall in a time of 26 hours 37 minutes  and 6 seconds
There were 51 finishers out of 87 starters.
 Roll on next September !