Home Tags Posts tagged with "hillwalking"

hillwalking

Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.

Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.

Photo by: Colin Cheesman

Photo by: Colin Cheesman

Like it or not, now is the time of year when various outdoor activities – most notably hillwalking – have to take account of the red deer stag-shooting season. This affects many Highland glens (and a good few bothies) until 20 October, and has long been a source of awkwardness and occasional tension.

But the longstanding mutual tolerance of stalking and walking is remarkable – a good example of how two almost entirely separate activities can politely coexist in the same locations without recourse to legislation.

Looking at it from the recreational-hillgoing side of the fence, the question is pretty simple: from August to late October, how best to structure one’s pastime without stumbling over the guys with guns?

Here are six possible approaches.

Carry on regardless – Quite a common approach, but essentially the preserve of the rash, the bloody-minded, the class warrior and the Highland-romantic vegetarian who would rather see deer starve than be shot and who has only a sketchy grasp of how the upland rural economy functions.

Treating autumn in the Highlands like any other time of year essentially says: My recreation is more important than your work. Whether adherents to such a viewpoint would be amused by, say, charity fun-runners trotting through their urban office space at key moments is unclear.

Use the Hillphones system – This has been around since the mid-1990s and encourages walkers to phone the estate office relating to their target hills, whereupon an answerphone message (ideally up-to-date) either gives the all-clear or suggests an alternative route.

There is considerable merit in this, mainly in avoiding blanket-ban notices fastened to gates at the foot of glens: “No Hillwalking July–February. Stalking in Progress.” Few walkers pay heed to such things – and neither should they – so the notices tend to be self-defeating for the estates. Enraged walkers merely say Sod it, and march off uphill anyway.

Not all estates are covered by Hillphones – it’s very gappy – but it’s good where it exists. This year, however, sees an attempt to upgrade (some might say tinker with) the system. The Heading for the Scottish Hills website covers the same ground but is map-based, and thus far appears to risk erring on the side of flash rather than functional. It’s a pilot project at present, with a feedback questionnaire. Given time, and a few tweaks, it might prove popular.

Then again, the trusty old Hillphones site does the job just as well, with the advantage of familiarity and simplicity. Whatever the method, the main thing is that channels of stalker-to-walker communication exist and are easy to use.

Stick to the National Trust for Scotland estates – Assuming, as NTS HQ insists is the case, that George Reid’s recent strategic review will not lead to any major land sales, then Glen Coe, Torridon, Ben Lawers, Kintail and a whole chunk of the Cairngorms will remain restriction-free during the autumn.

Ammo does occasionally get sent antlerwards in these places, but not in the stag price-tag style of “private” estates. There shouldn’t be any problem with simply turning up and wandering at will over Bidean nam Bian or Liathach, just as one would in April.

Sticking to NTS properties is arguably the most popular method of handling the stalking hiatus, especially since 1995 when the Trust acquired Mar Lodge and thus added a big eastern estate to what had, until then, been a predominantly western portfolio.

Only go out on Sundays – The stalking trade is deeply traditional, and retains a form of Sabbatarianism. The stags might get gunsights trained in their direction from Monday to Saturday, but they’re due their day of rest, too. Many walkers therefore focus on Sundays during the crucial period – easy enough for those who venture out just once each weekend, harder for full-weekend escapers and midweek walkers.

From time to time, some estates argue that the hills should be avoided on Sundays – the theory being that deer become scared and cross into adjoining glens and unusual territories, adversely affecting the Monday stalk. There could well be logic to this, and Andrew Gordon of the Lude estate, for one, lobbied for it in the outdoor press some years ago. But few if any walkers seem minded to agree, as it smacks of estates over-reaching rather than maintaining the traditional compromise.

Suggesting that walkers keep away on Sundays has echoes of those enthusiasts for Lenten denial who omit to tell pious souls that they are allowed to break their fast every seventh day. The day of rest is an important concept, whether applied to chocolate and alcohol in spring, or stalking in autumn.

Go to the Lake District – Or indeed any hilly area with little or no stalking – the Borders, Galloway, etc. The Lakes in autumn can be lovely. There are far more trees in the valleys than in most parts of the Highlands, and there are more (and better) pubs and eateries – ideal for the longer, darker evenings. It’s generally cosy and civilised – and the hills are good, too.

Scots are often sniffy about the Lakes. The main gripe is that the hills down there are busier (true) and there are fewer of them (also true). But people-watching can be fun – the overequipped-but-navigationally-clueless Lakeland walker is always entertaining to encounter. The empty glens of Knoydart or Sutherland will be there for another time.

The Lake District is great to dip into, and autumn is one of best times to do it. So try pointing the car down the M74 rather than up the A82 or A9. You might enjoy it.

Join in and shoot some of the damn things – Go on, cross the great social/political divide and give it a go. It costs a fair bit, mind you. Erchless Castle, near Beauly, offers “Stalking from £350 per stag.” Or, for £3,750 per week at this time of year, the castle itself can be booked.

Aberchalder Estate in the Great Glen is a bit more expensive – “The estate can offer guests Red Deer Stag Stalking – from £375 per stag (incl. VAT)” – while Invercauld on Deeside charges £395 plus VAT.

“Most folk take several stags in a week,” says Simon Blackett, the Invercauld factor, “and then a group can go out different days during the week. This can vary from four to 18 stags per week. I am fully booked, so there is demand. We are cheaper than the continent. One guy has been coming for 30+ years and he always takes four weeks, so he pays for around 20–30 stags. He and his wife shoot some and he has guests up. He rents a cottage in the village and spends plenty in the pub after, so it is very good for the local economy.”

A decade ago the Invercauld rate was £275 plus VAT per beast. Is this what economists mean when they speak of stagflation?

<em>Picture: North West Air Ambulance</em>

Picture: North West Air Ambulance

The most interesting days are often unplanned, and so it was last Saturday, when a few hours were earmarked for a legstretch on Benvane above Brig o’ Turk. I’d last climbed this in 2002, and had been up neighbouring Ben Ledi 21 times since then, so a slight restoring of balance was in order.

But only a few miles west of Stirling, the messy weather – clumps of cloud and strung-together showers – prompted a rethink. Half an hour later the car was parked at Ledard for the standard southern approach to Ben Venue – almost 100 metres lower than Benvane and with a better chance of staying dry.

What followed was about as close as a hillwalk ever comes to being genuinely action-packed. The glen approach was routine enough, although surprisingly squelchy. Not having been this way in something like two decades (all recent-ish ascents having been made from the Duke’s Pass or the Trossachs Pier side), I’d expected to find the path upgraded in the modern popular-hill style.

There was also the oddity of the crossing of the Ledard Burn, where a single girder gets in the way of the easiest long-stride route across. A few walkers must have fallen in here, having contrived to trip over the “bridge”.

It was in the upper glen, however, that things started to turn unusual. A medium-sized helicopter flew in from the south – heading for one of the fancy hotels, I assumed. So it was a surprise to come round the corner at the top of the glen – where that great initial view of Ben Venue proper suddenly appears – and see the smart yellow chopper parked neatly on a knoll not far below the summit.

Even from a kilometre away it was clearly an NHS air ambulance, and in due course I had a brief chat with the pilot. “They don’t tell me how to do the driving,” he said, when asked what was happening, “and I leave the paramedic stuff to them.”

They – two guys in green paramedic overalls – were further up the slope, attending to a groggy man who, so his five companions later said, had slipped and damaged his collarbone on the final approach to the summit.

Journalistic nosiness doesn’t extend to intruding on rescues, at least not while the medics are busy injecting the casualty with morphine, so I simply said hello and went to the summit for lunch.

Soon there was thrumming in the west and I stuck my head round the cairn to see the arrival of the red-and-grey Royal Navy Sea King. The power of these things at close quarters never fails to impress – I was no more than 100 metres from it, at the same level, and it was kicking out a hefty mixture of noise, fuel smells and rotor-blast.

Even more impressive was the close control of the aircrew: conditions were poor, with cloud all round and a sidewind shoving the big machine toward the outcrops. It held its position beautifully, doing the heavy-duty hummingbird thing as the winchman was lowered and then, a couple of minutes later, retrieved with the casualty on a double hoist.

The door slid shut and the chopper banked into cloud and away towards the Southern General – The Caledonian Mercury wishes the casualty well. His friends hunched behind rocks and took pictures of the action. Sod’s Law dictated that I didn’t have a camera with me.

Half an hour later the NHS helicopter likewise headed off, leaving the walkers to wander down after what must have been a strange and worrying couple of hours. I met them again at the car park – a friendly bunch, doing the very Scottish-male thing of obviously being worried about their friend while also making jokes about driving to Glasgow to take him for a pint.

It would be interesting to know how often this double-chopper technique is employed, given that the ability to get paramedics on site quickly via the air ambulance is now an option. Certainly the skill of the pilots was striking: in rugged country and iffy weather, they both made it look straightforward.

The Trossachs search-and-rescue people were also involved – their little red van headed back to Aberfoyle just as I reached the road – and it’s good to see that they’ve already posted an incident report.

The ease with which accidents can happen was made clear during my own descent. Rather than slither back down the glen, I crossed the corner bumps of Creag a’Bhealaich and Stob an Lochain – the former had some fine shaggy goats while the latter is home to one of the oddest high-level buildings in Scotland, a chalet-like shooting hut, built right beside the 684-metre summit.

From here a track took me along the south-east ridge to Beinn an Fhogharaidh, then I dropped south to reach the main track system leading back to Loch Ard at the old youth hostel.

Less than five minutes from the road, very much enjoying the woodland stroll – some of the easiest ground all day – a foot snagged on something and I toppled forward like a tree. Thankfully the reflexes did their job and my hands went out just in time; had another walker appeared, they would have wondered why someone was performing press-ups on an obscure piece of track.

There has been no lasting damage, just tight calf muscles and a stiff neck; it was more the kind of stumble that leaves you annoyed at your own carelessness. But I could have knocked out a couple of my few remaining teeth, smashed my specs – or jiggered a collarbone. These things are easily done.

<em>Runners approach the summit of the Law</em>

Runners approach the summit of the Law

In contrast to the Dumyat hill race – which enjoyed the most balmy May-evening weather imaginable – its near-neighbour the Maddy Moss race was held on Wednesday in conditions that were somewhat less than clement.

It wasn’t cold, but there was a hefty east wind, the rain lashed sideways, cloud was clamped down and the ground was skiddy on the various steep descents. A real test of hill-running willpower and ability, in other words.

The Maddy Moss is traditionally held on a Wednesday evening in mid-July. It’s one of those summer-fulcrum events, like the Open and the British Grand Prix, after which the season is reckoned to be on the wane. It also has a late start-time – 7:30pm these days (it used to be 7pm), which on gloomy evenings cuts the available-daylight options a little tight for the backmarkers, and gives the race an extra edge.

This year’s version saw 94 runners complete the course (10 kilometres distance, 710 metres of ascent), with the last finisher clocking 104 minutes 31 seconds. In 2009 there were 121 runners, but the reduction of 20-odd per cent in the field could be seen as a net improvement, given the prevailing foulness. With rain having fallen for much of the day, the entry list could have been shorter still.

One oddity about the Maddy Moss race is that it doesn’t visit the bit of land from which it takes its name. Maddy Moss proper stretches from where the old Tillicoultry–Blackford right-of-way crosses the Ochils at the col between Andrew Gannel Hill and Skythorn Hill, to the next rise above the 610m/2000ft contour on Tarmangie Hill, two kilometres further east. Even as recently as a couple of decades ago it was a mildly arduous interruption to the easy walk along the spine of the range. A path evolved, however, and planting by the Woodland Trust has now led to a variety of grassy ATV tracks hereabouts.

The runners avoid all that, swinging sharply south-west to follow the narrow trod of the Gannel path before the final down-surge above Tillicoultry. It is this plunge – and, more particularly, the near-relentless 450m slog up the Law soon after the start – that gives the race its distinctive steep-slope character.

On Wednesday evening, the 638-metre summit of the Law brought a mixed blessing: the end of the really brutal slope, where runners were finally able to transform themselves from hunched, hands-on-knees walkers, but also the arrival of the plateau section, where wind and rain really started to play a part.

Needless to say, no course records were set. The fastest-ever times are 47 minutes 39 seconds for men (Billy Rodgers, 1996), 53 minutes 10 seconds for women (Angela Mudge, 1999).The evening saw Jamie Stevenson of the Ochil Hill Runners club cross the Law between 30 and 40 seconds clear, and he duly won in a time of 52:17. But he was steadily reeled in by 2005 winner, Alasdair Anthony (also of the Ochil club), who was only four seconds behind at the end. Next (and first veteran) came Kenny Richmond of Bellahouston Harriers in 54:08, while first woman was Emma O’Shea of Deeside Runners in 64:41.

It wasn’t the weather for beating personal bests, and most runners will have been happy to get round unscathed. Matt Richardson of the Lothian Running Club finished 69th in 76:40 – exactly the same placing, but over ten minutes slower than his previous effort here in 2008. He described conditions as “pretty awful”, and was troubled with cramps for much of the race: “I felt twinges on the ascent of the Law and then more so when attempting to jump the muddy bits on the slopes up to Ben Cleuch. It cleared up though, and I was going well down until I slipped on some wet rock and the pull on my left calf brought it on, so I had to stop and stretch it off.”

Hill running isn’t Richardson’s preferred version of the sport. “It’s a lot more interesting than the roads,” he said, “although I must confess that my first love is cross-country, as the distances and relatively flat terrain suit me better. I’ve never been much good on the descents after breaking my arm coming down a hill a few years back and always lose a few places.”

Another who failed to stay on his feet was Steven Fallon – he of the 14 Munro rounds. Fallon has become an accomplished performer for the Carnethy club, but came unstuck at the short-but-tricky descent to the main glen early on. He slipped on the wooden bridge, and “badly slashed a finger on the wire mesh, hence the blood all over my white top. It was a bit of a mess, got Steri-strips on it, possibly should have had it stitched!”

Fallon still managed a good time, finishing tenth in 58:09 – one place better but seven seconds slower than last year. “I was hoping for around 55 minutes,” he said, “but with the horrible conditions you just can’t belt down that wet rock into the glen or on the return.”

Overall, the race was a good example of the low-key, just-get-on-with-it ethic that defines the hill-running world. The stars and the stragglers are in it together, and despite fierce competitiveness there is also a good-to-see egalitarian side to proceedings.

This extends to the organisers and race marshals, the unsung heroes of such events. Marshalling in particular can be a miserable duty, and the man who opted to stand on the Law in Wednesday’s deluge had seen more high-profile races in his time. Gareth Bryan-Jones ran the steeplechase for Great Britain at the 1968 Olympics, – but was also happy to spend 45 minutes or so in a downpour, saying “Well done, follow the fence, then the flags” to everyone who passed.

Mexico City sunshine, Maddy Moss rain – it all comes under the same athletics umbrella.

<em>Cameron Livingstone on a high-altitude mower</em>

Cameron Livingstone on a high-altitude mower

Here is a question unlikely to have been asked before: where is the highest piece of mown grass in Scotland?

The first thought might be some roadside verge high on the A93 at the Cairnwell, the A939 at the Lecht or the hairpin-fest over the Bealach na Ba in Applecross, but heather and rocks predominate in such places.

What about lawns? Both the Glenshee ski centre, altitude 650 metres, and the slightly lower Lecht ski and mountain-bike centre, stand amid lovingly tended gravel, not grass. There is, however, a lawn at Fealar Lodge, a cluster of pink-painted estate houses in the hinterland between Braemar and Blair Atholl. Surely that must be the winner in the mowing-at-altitude stakes, given that Fealar stands at 550m?

But no, the highest mown grass appears to be a path at around 600m – just below the 2,000ft contour – on Innerdownie, overlooking Glen Quey at the eastern end of the Ochils. And the most remarkable thing is that the mowing takes place not on a verge or in a valley, but almost to the level of the summit ridge.

This might sound odd, but there is logic to it. Until the late 1990s, the hills hereabouts were a standard mix of upland sheep farm and regimented Forestry Commission plantations. Then the Woodland Trust started to acquire chunks of land – first Glen Quey itself on the south-east side of Innerdownie, then Geordie’s Wood above Muckhart, and more recently Glensherup.

Sheep were shifted, fences went up (to be removed once the trees are sturdy enough to survive deer-nibbling), and the replanting of native woodland species – rowan, birch, juniper – began. Even before the 2003 access law, the Trust was walker-friendly, but there was a problem in that the newly planted areas were much rougher than in the old bare-hillside days.

Step forward Grahame Livingstone and his son Cameron. The Livingstones have lived in the highest house in Glen Quey for a quarter-century, and they run a fence-building business. Also, since 2002, they have been contracted to maintain – to mow, in other words – the network of grassy paths on all three Woodland Trust properties in the area.

“We mow the paths three times a year,” says Cameron Livingstone, “in June, July and August. The first one in the middle of June doesn’t have much effect, but the July cut really checks it back, although this year not so much as in previous years, as it’s been so dry.”

The paths are deceptively long – “around 23 kilometres in total” – and although Geordie’s Wood has the most extensive network (and the steepest, most awkward ground, on Seamab Hill), it’s the Innerdownie paths that catch the eye, because they go so high.

Two mowers are used. One is a trailer mower towed behind a quad bike, the other – used in the steeper places – is a Scag, hydraulic-powered but with the operator walking behind.

The mown paths can feel oddly cushioned, almost as if walking on a thick-pile carpet, and from a walker’s point of view are better suited to descent than ascent. Working round the whole 23km network takes father and son three days each time. “We’ve got quicker, we’ve got a method,” says Cameron. “We could do it in two days, but we don’t rush at it.

It has become easier over time. “The first cuts were a nightmare because of stones breaking the blades on the Scag, and we had to take a pinch bar – a long metal spike – to get the stones out of the path first. It’s much easier now it’s well-established – it’s like cutting a lawn.”

But why mow the paths at all? – it’s not something that normally happens on hill-slopes. “We are mowing the routes to keep them open and inviting,” says James Gilmour, the Woodland Trust site manager. “When the site was planted, the ground preparation used was ‘mounding’, where a machine digs a hole and flips the sod over to provide a raised planting area. These holes are a problem if walking through the planted area, so we are keen to encourage users to keep to the managed routes, and we do this by mowing them.”

Overall, a decade into the process, the regeneration appears to be going well. On south-facing slopes in particular, many trees now stand above head-height and are starting to dominate the look of the glens.

“We are very happy overall,” says Gilmour, “but in hindsight perhaps tried to establish young broadleaves too high too early, without proving sufficient shelter. Above 450m the establishment is not so good, and we believe this to be a combination of thin poor soils combined with exposure to the elements. Overall, though, we are very happy and encouraged to see the new young native woodland take shape.”

There is also the considerable bonus of seeing a more varied fauna. Where once it was sheep, sheep and more sheep, now there is real diversity. “In the first couple of years after planting,” says Cameron Livingstone, “there were ten or more short-eared owls, but they’ve moved on now that the trees are too big. There are long-eared owls, and foxes, and a big increase in butterflies. A lot of people liked the bare hills, but there are plenty of bare hills about.”

There is one predictable downside, however: “The midges have increased because of the trees.”

It does seem that the risks taken in replanting large swathes of the eastern Ochils are starting to pay off. Certainly the feel of the place is markedly different to what it was just a decade ago, a good example of what can be done to reinvigorate a landscape given hard work, patience – and some unorthodox mowing.

Gerry McPartlin completes his round of the Munros

Gerry McPartlin completes his round of the Munros

Tuesday lunchtime, in sometimes-damp, sometimes-dry conditions on Ben Chonzie at the southern edge of the Highlands, Gerry McPartlin duly finished what he began on 10 April, on Ben Lomond. Friends cheered as McPartlin – a retired GP aged 66 – reached the summit, a rather officious cameraman tried to order people about (note to overzealous TV types on hilltops – you’re not in the studio now, darling), and the obligatory completion drams were served.

Afterwards, down at the blue-and-white be-logoed campervan that has served as a mobile base camp for 88 days, McPartlin assessed his achievement. He had tackled all 283 Munros in one big sweep using what could be termed the “Martin Moran method” – driving between groups of hills (5,000 miles in total) rather than cycling and paddling the road and sea sections as Stephen Pyke had done on his recent 39-day effort.

Moran used the drive-between-groups approach during his pioneering 1984/85 winter round, and it has two main advantages: cutting out most of the tarmac trudgery, and allowing opportunistic changes of plan on days when the weather forecast is, say, poor in the east but good in the west. McPartlin reckons, however, that he only really made tactical switches of this sort for a couple of Cairngorms days scheduled for early on, due to the amount of long-lying snow over east.

He took only four rest days – none in the last 26 – and finished the job well ahead of his original four-month schedule. “After a good start,” he says, “I thought I could do three months – and the ego kicks in as well”. The very dry weather that allowed Pyke to get off to such a flier helped McPartlin too – “for example on the Monadhliath, where I was able to walk over the dried-out peat. There were only two really windy days early on, although I hit the gales in the last week.”

Given his age – McPartlin is believed to be the first pensioner to have completed a “single sweep” Munro round – and his thoughtful nature, he was wary of pushing too hard – and he draws an interesting analogy with another form of outdoor exercise. “I was very aware of not overdoing things,” he says. “Cyclists talk about spinning, as opposed to grinding, when they turn the pedals, so when I got a bit stressed I told myself to start spinning again.”

He feels he could have got round faster in his younger days – “from 55 onwards I’ve not been quite as quick on the hill” – but notes that age does bring benefits of a different kind: “It’s a mind game, with focus and motivation hugely important. Maturity helps and it would have been harder without experience.”

“I naively took books and crosswords,” he says, when describing the extent to which his evenings were taken up with logistics and planning, “but the most unexpected thing was how all-consuming it was, outside the walking.”

A sociable creature, he was accompanied by friends on 200 of the hills. “I do on the whole prefer being with people, but it was nice to be able to go at my own speed sometimes.” His wife Rhona didn’t climb any of the hills with him, but did “move the van once or twice”. She was mainly at home in Applecross doing what she normally does – providing accommodation for sea kayakers – and worrying about what her man had let himself in for. “I felt quite emotional for the first couple of weeks,” she says, “worried he had bitten off more than he can chew – especially knowing how ambitious he is. But the memory of David has really spurred him on.”

David is Father David Gemmell, the priest with whom McPartlin completed his first round of Munros in 1995, and who died in 2008. The whole effort was dedicated to his memory, and also served as a fundraiser for the charity L’Arche.

Overall, it went remarkably smoothly – at least until Wobbly Saturday, three days before the end. McPartlin had been staying overnight with a friend in Aviemore – and duly fell out of bed for the first time in his life. “He won’t have told you that,” says Rhona with a laugh as she recounts the story.

Then, on the hill later that same day, there was the nearest thing to a genuine accident on the whole trip. “I was coming off Ben Macdui, descending beside the Tailor’s Burn towards Carn a’Mhaim,” says McPartlin. “Conditions were bad, but not too windy. I stood on an unstable boulder and did a forward somersault – think I must have been mid-air – but was incredibly fortunate to land on some grass.”

That whole final weekend was hard, with serious hills and big gales. On the Sunday he managed to battle round Beinn Bhrotain, Monadh Mor and the Devil’s Point, then along the high summits of Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul and Braeriach, in conditions that he described on his blog as “my toughest ever mountain day – nearly 15 hours with winds at the limit of being possible to walk and relentless rain stinging the face”. Given how fit and hill-attuned he was by this stage, it was evidently an impressively wild day.

So what happens now? “Sleep, then eat a lovely breakfast. I’ve been so fully engaged mentally that I’ve not thought about what to do next.” The return home to Applecross was made yesterday, and there will – of course – be more hills to climb before too long. “Our nephew is coming up soon,” says McPartlin, “and he’ll be wanting to do something.”

by John Knox

The Ochil teamat the new post

The Ochils team at the new post

As they screwed the official blue and green badge to their new “hut”, the Ochils Mountain Rescue Team began a new phase in their life on standby.

They are just one of the 26 volunteer teams ready to rescue – at 15 minutes’ notice – anyone in trouble in Scotland’s hills, glens, gorges, moors and mountains. Not many of the 500 callouts a year are texted to the 40 members of the Ochils team – in fact they get just over a dozen a year – but when the call comes, they have to be as prepared as the heroes of Glencoe or Lochaber.

“The Ochils may not be the highest or wildest hills in Scotland but people do get lost up there, or they get caught out by bad weather, or they fall down the gullies,” said Kevin Mitchell, the team leader. “ So we need to be ready. And that means two training sessions a month, one on a Wednesday night and the other on a Sunday.”

That training can now take place in the team’s smart new £250,000 headquarters, just south of Tillicoultry, with the full panorama of the Ochil hills visible from the windows, from Dumyat in the west to the highest point, Ben Cleuch (721m), almost due north of the hut.

The building is a gift from the first-aid charity, the Order of St John – which, in Scotland, has specialised in supporting the mountain rescue service. Over the past decade, St John’s has built 11 rescue posts and provided 25 vehicles, including the Ochil team’s Land Rover.

The new building was officially opened on Thursday afternoon by the Grand Prior of the Order of St John, the Duke of Gloucester,  and in the evening former members of the team were invited to inspect the facilities. The old boys included myself. I was a member in 1976-78, while I worked as an apprentice reporter on the Alloa Advertiser.

I recognised several old faces – some of whom were still serving with the team after 30 years, if not in an active capacity, then as radio operators or caretakers. We were shown round the training room, the garage, the equipment store – with ropes all neatly stored in canvas bags – the radio-computer room, the showers and toilets and kitchen.

It was all a world away from the police cell which formed the first headquarters back in 1971. In my day, the team had progressed to a cupboard in a scout hut in Menstrie. More recently, the team had been operating out of a garage in the local council’s plant nursery.

But the world of mountain rescue has changed, too. Many more people are taking to the hills and the number of callouts has hugely increased. The rescue helicopters from RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss are now more closely involved.

Last year, the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland (MRCS) recorded a total of 558 callouts, an increase of 4 per cent. 402 of those were hillwalking or climbing accidents. 27 people died, 228 were injured. However, an increasing number of callouts are for non-mountaineering incidents – 156 last year – ranging from motorists stranded by flood waters to sad cases of suicide. 58 people died in such non-mountaineering incidents in 2009.

The Scottish government provides £300,000 a year to the MRCS, and all other funds are raised by the teams themselves and by donations from companies and charities such as St John’s. It’s a huge voluntary effort when you think about it – all those dinners, dances, book sales, fundraising days, not to mention the time and sweat, and the skill, of those who make up the teams.

“We do it because we enjoy it,” said Kevin Mitchell. “ And also, because there’s a huge satisfaction in saving people’s lives. The next casualty, after all, could be one of us.”

<em>Picture:Tony Deall</em>

Tony Deall after 80 miles of the 2002 event

Tony Deall is a retired GP from Penrith. He is also secretary of the Cumbrian branch of the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA). In late May, in Perthshire, he was one of 352 people who completed the LDWA’s annual 100-mile walk, finishing the route (actually 104.4 miles) in 32 hours 56 minutes, joint-80th.

How many 100-milers have you now done? Were any markedly harder or easier than the rest?

16 started, 14 completed. Failed on the first in Cumbria, 1981 (probably inexperience), and the third in the Peak District, 1988 (something fell off, I forget what).

Lakeland in 2002 was undoubtedly the hardest, as I had horrendous blisters (all toes and both sides of both heels) due to wearing slightly tight shoes for the first half. The last 30 miles was HELL, but I was determined to complete, as I’d failed my first in the Lakes. Went deep into a second night – something I had promised myself never to do.

Most of my bad experiences have been with blisters. The easiest was probably the South Downs in 1997. Even when I was in my pomp and doing 26-odd hours, I found them very, very tough and draining events.

How daunting is it at the start, knowing that such a huge distance stretches ahead?

Not too bad – I think the adrenaline rush masks a lot of the fear. Most of the worry is in the days and weeks before the event. Anyway, you always walk just to the next checkpoint and never think further ahead. (Or that’s the plan.)

Does walking 100 miles require a particular mindset, or can anyone do it provided they’re fit enough?

The mind is key. Lots of people are fit enough, but if you don’t want – really want – to do it, then you won’t. I think it’s at least 90 per cent in the mind. Everybody has bad patches and it’s how you cope with them that dictates whether you finish or not. I find it helpful to reassure myself that it will eventually end. Sometimes the possibility of failure after all the time and effort invested is enough to make one stagger on.

Do you jog any of it?

This year I did, as I’ve started some running again. One of my friends rather disparagingly calls it the “LDWA shuffle” – but as he usually finishes behind me in challenges I can put up with it. To do 26 hours you have to run most of the first day!

How important is the feeding/support structure and the camaraderie? Would setting off to walk 100 miles alone and unsupported be much harder?

Very important. A solo unsupported 100 would be very hard. The checkpoints are a target and an oasis of warmth and support, apart from being mere feeding stations. The support of other walkers is also prime.

Do you like to walk and chat with people the whole way?

This year I travelled the whole way with a companion, which is unusual for me. The fact that she is an attractive lady 18 years my junior is completely irrelevant!

Often in the past I have avoided too much involvement with anyone on the first day, as it can take well into the night to establish that the person you are chumming up with is going to finish at a compatible pace. I’m often happy alone, and even in company I can’t do with incessant chatter. Long companionable silences are often good!

Runners often like to be familiar with race routes. Does the same apply with long walking routes?

I like to recce the route beforehand – certainly any night section. It’s nice to look at the route over four to five days and get a feel for the terrain, countryside, etc. In the latter stages of a 100 you don’t have much aesthetic feel. Many people do like to come to the event blind, however.

Do you wear the same shoes and socks for the whole distance? Trainers, or lightweight boots?

I wear fell shoes or trainers and change shoes and socks at the breakfast stop as it is always possible to send a bag to this point.

How do you cope with the long watches of the night? Do you stop for a nap at any stage?

The nights are always demanding though also rewarding (unless you get lost). There’s always a big lift with the dawn. I rarely nap, though did for 15 minutes on a hay bale at the Northumberland event in 2006 – then went like a train afterwards.

Does your medical training help?

No – but then I wasn’t a psychiatrist!

Are the 100-milers the hardest walks you’ve done, or have there been shorter-but-tougher hill days?

I think the Bob Graham was tougher, especially the time I did a solo unsupported round in 1984 to celebrate my 40th birthday. The timescale is a lot tighter, never mind the climbing.

You’re in your mid-60s – how much is age a factor? Any thoughts on how old you’ll be when 100 miles will be too much?

Age is largely irrelevant. It’s appetite that counts. I retired after the awful Lakeland 100, then did the Northumberland to exorcise it and finished in good shape – and retired again! Decided against nearly everyone’s advice to do the Wessex in 2009 (you’ll wreck the knees, etc etc) and managed OK.

This year was another success with – critically – fairly happy feet and without major trauma apart from a split lip when I tripped on a flat track near Blair Atholl at about 33 miles.

I think the oldest ever completer was 82 (he’s dead now). That would give me another 17, though realistically it would be nice to aim for my 20 badge – another six.

Why bother?

To paraphrase Satchmo about jazz – if you gotta ask a question like that, you’ll never get to know!

Tony Deall is chief organiser for the Three Rings of Shap, (62 miles / 100km, with 2,350 metres of ascent, 26 hours), to be held this coming weekend.