Ballater Weekend featuring Hillgoers Winter Skills Training

Lazy Saturday in Ballater

The ideal Christmas gift, a Winter Skills Day with Hillgoers, led us to Ballater at the weekend. Not being ones for doing nothing, we enjoyed a gentle stroll around the Seven Bridges, my favourite being Polhollick.

Polhollick Suspension Bridge, Ballater

Aside from this the walk was gentle and easy, a fine stroll where we marvelled at nature and the water levels that had been seen in the horrendous flooding of 2015.

The Bothy once again drew us in for coffee and cake, delicious as always, mainly due our feeling that mid-afternoon was not an acceptable time to go to the pub!

Later, having checked into our B & B we did just that; a busy night in the Balmoral Bar in Ballater! A decent meal saw us ready for an early night, looking forward to the skills day ahead.

Hillgoers Winter Skills

Meeting at The Bothy, this time in Braemar rather than Ballater, my fears were confounded when the other four participants in the group (husband included) were all male. Instructor Bill, however, very quickly allayed said concerns without even trying, introducing himself, getting the teas and coffees in, and settling us into a relaxed chat about the day ahead. Key to this was that the focus was on learning and support for one another.

After our initial chat, covering the planning and preparation stages of our walks including need to check the weather and avalanche forecasts for a few days prior, we headed out. Originally planned for Glenshee and postponed due to ridiculously strong winds last weekend – you’d have struggled to be upright, let alone hear anyone – again, the weather forecast was mixed and due to get windier, albeit not on the same scale, so we headed out to Glen Callater instead.

Loch Callater Bothy

The walk out to Loch Callater Bothy takes around an hour. It’s pretty much flat, along a good landrover track, and today had a decent covering of snow. This had fallen overnight and was reportedly better than the slushy conditions encountered by yesterday’s Hillgoers group.

Despite this, the snow made it a wee bit of a slog so it was a relief to come upon the bothy. As we approached, the snow began to fall lightly. This was especially welcome as Braemar was likely encountering rain if the aforementioned forecast was correct.

Into the bothy it was time for a snack, some hot chocolate, and the opportunity for Bill to check that we all knew how to put our crampons on and ensure they fitted our boots properly.

Loch Callater Bothy tucked into the slope

As is often the case, the world proved to be extremely small. Bill, having recognised me from running circles, transpired not to be the only runner. Others in the group also had links to friends through work and running interests, and it was entertaining establishing how we were all connected through mutual friends and interests throughout the course of the day.

The Fun Begins: Onto the hill

Refreshed, we headed out onto the hill. As we went up, Bill took the lead and did the hard work allowing the rest of us to follow behind, demonstrating energy saving techniques used when volunteering with Braemar Mountain Rescue Team. Second in line then also did some work, treading on the backs of Bill’s footsteps and creating a bit more of a channel, and so on. Being second last (or back of the pack)I enjoyed a stroll up the hill with minimal effort. I did feel somewhat guilty about this, but not guilty enough to move forward, the others seeming quite content and the distance to be covered relatively short.

I did appreciate Bill’s honesty and humour; when stopping for a mini lecture on conditions or technique, he admitted this was more due to the need for a rest after the exertions than urgency to impart information at this particular moment.

Boots as Tools

The first thing we practised was using our boots as tools, winter boots having harder soles with less flexibility making them better for kicking. We practised using the edges of our boots to gain stability while traversing across the hill, developing confidence in our movements. Quick movement downhill was also demonstrated and practised, including a technique for scree. I’m still not convinced I particularly wish to use this, but I may try it one day – I do ‘love’ a scree slope! Perhaps I should practise a bit more on snow first.

During this time the weather began to change, snow falling and, as the afternoon progressed, wind picking up. Having swithered this morning about my thermal leggings I was quite delighted to have put them on, at no point during the day feeling cold, and glad that I’d put up with overheating a little on the walk out.

The Real Fun: Ice Axes

Initially we practised the self belay, the idea being that this becomes instinctive and can effectively prevent a slip turning bad. Although the snow was pretty soft, this was an ‘easy’ technique to get my head around in the grand scheme of the day.

My initial attempts at self belay

The Inner Child

It doesn’t take much for me to find my inner 5 year old, so I was in my glory when it was suggested that we should all have some fun rolling down the hill in order to flatten the snow, creating an icy slide. One roly poly made me realise that my brain doesn’t work in quite the same way as it apparently used to; it was amazing how disoriented I felt, not sure which way was up and struggling to walk in a straight line! I found sliding down on my belly, head first, to be equally (if not more) satisfying!

Slide made, Bill then clearly demonstrated the techniques required to use our ice axes to arrest should we slip when walking. Previously for Bruce and I, these arrests had been taught through falling onto our fronts with legs pointing downhill.

Bruce in the act of arrest

Today was a whole new experience! Not many falls are graceful and easy; we therefore had to learn techniques for falling backwards and forwards, with both involving a headfirst slide.

The supportive environment and the group dynamic allowed us to have a lot of fun with this. Coordination is key – I’m not blessed on this front – but I do have an awareness of teaching physical skills and was quite comfortable practising the movements while upright and waiting my turn, aware that it will take lots of practise before this is in any way ‘unconscious’. Ultimately, the key skill was to master the initial control, getting the axe into position and the pick into the ground, thus allowing momentum to turn the body to the right direction before then stopping properly. It’s amazing how easy it can look when done by some accomplished! That wasn’t me!

I have a feeling I’ll be rolling around on the living room rug a bit over the coming week – here’s hoping I don’t impale my axe on the sofa!

Cutting Steps and Crampons

Lastly, our learning involved how to use our crampons effectively, the hope being that if we master this art we won’t need to do an ice axe arrest for real. Although using the ice axes was great fun in practise, all the other techniques should be the priority for safety on the hills.

I liked Bill’s analogy for using crampons: walk like a puppet, essentially trying to make contact with as much of the ground as possible, using all points on the crampon to increase grip and stability.

We learned to cut steps, using the ice axe as a pendulum, flattening a small step before moving onto it, thus theoretically allowing others to follow up or down in our footsteps. This is a useful technique if the weather conditions have changed the ground cover.

Back to the Bothy

Heading back down to the bothy, we kept the crampons on. Chat was very easy among the group by this point and it was a pleasurable short descent.

Safely ensconced in the bothy once again, it was time for more hot chocolate (still hot, courtesy of the Stanley flask) and another bite to eat. We were joined by a couple of students who had biked out – good effort – and a couple of lads who’d been out walking.

Finally, the walk back to the car. This passed quickly as we blethered, snow turning more slushy as we approached the car park again.

All in all, a great day out! I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to join Hillgoers on this excellent day, and sincerely thank Bill for his time and efforts. Here’s hoping if I see him again it’ll be a random bumping into at a race, or in the Bothy at Braemar, rather than on a dark hillside when he’s with the Braemar MRT! Thanks to everyone that joined us today – a pleasure sharing your company. Happy walking!

@Hillgoers Winter Skills Training Group

Sgor Mor: Blowin’ A Hoolie

Taking advantage of a decent forecast we decided to head for the hills. Driving out to Braemar the skies looked clearer than expected. Despite being winter there also appeared to be very little snow on the horizon.

After a quick pitstop in Braemar conditions did change as we drove out to Linn of Dee, the road having a light covering of snow and a few icy puddles, just enough for the driver to rein it in as you’re never quite sure of the skid risk.

Arriving at the car park we were greeted by a very friendly robin! He’d just been in the boot of the car next to us and hopped onto my rucksack, perching there proudly. Sadly we didn’t have a camera to hand to capture this lovely moment. He continued to dot around for some time before realising we didn’t have any food for him, leaving to visit the next arrival in the car park.

Setting off, we headed back along the road towards the bridge before following the track alongside the river for a short distance. It wasn’t long before we branched off, beginning our climb (heather bash) up the hillside. This was easy enough in terms of ascent, but a little bit of a slog for the legs due to the lift required with every footstep.

Reaching the deer fence, we headed for the gate, then traversing the hillside a little to reach the flatter ridge. Again, this took time and was hard work. On reaching the flatter ground the heather bashing lessened, the ground becoming more grassy, the grassy tussocks now providing the challenge as they squished underfoot, sinking a little with each step.

As we went up, the wind picked up, the windchill causing the temperature to drop. Having begun with two pairs of thinner gloves, it wasn’t long before the Tuff Bags went on, warming me up nicely and taking the wind away. My freebie Gore neckwarmer (courtesy of a Gore rep at one of the Tiso open evenings) also came up trumps. Pulled up over my mouth, sunglasses on to protect my eyes, hood up for extra warmth, and what was exposed still felt the cold, a wee flurry of snow adding to the wintry feel.

We sheltered near the top of the first minor peak for a snack stop. It was a different world, just dropping a few feet down and totally losing the wind. Refreshed, we battled on into the wind. It really was tough going! The wind was definitely trying to sweep away my walking poles, at times also knocking me off my stride. Bruce later shared that after the second top he’d wondered about just cutting down. I had very similar thoughts, having decided if we’d had any more height to gain I’d have bailed.

As it was we were close to the summit and after a short time we were there. Again, we dropped out of the wind, sheltering to enjoy our lunch before soaking up the views of the neighbouring munros. These had a little more sign of winter but snow cover is still pretty light for the time of year.

Retracing our steps, wind at our backs, we were blown back down towards the stream where we cut down, initially following the stream and then heading for White Bridge. This provided a more gradual descent although it was a tiny bit boggy due to the flatter terrain. The high point of the descent came in the form of a large herd of deer. Impressive in number, we got close enough to see some large antlers before they took flight.

Reaching the path, there was a really wet section. I only realised this as I sank into it, soaking my waterproofs to just below the knee! A slight detour took us back towards the Chest of Dee, some very fast water pouring down; you’d never guess seeing the River Dee meandering along gently further down the path that this was just upstream.

A good track saw us yomp back along to Linn of Dee, making decent time. It was a relief to have some easy terrain after a fairly taxing day. As always, no day out in Braemar is complete without a trip to The Bothy for coffee, and so things were rounded off perfectly.

First Hill of 2020: Pressendye

The original plan for the first hill of the year was to head out on New Year’s Day. However, best laid plans and all that …

The reality of NYD was that we stayed out later than planned on Hogmanay, and when the 8 am alarm clock sounded I felt way too tired to get up. The resulting effect? Waking at 10:55 am, thus missing both the best part of a beautiful hill walking day and the opportunity to do parkrun. A walk along the golf course it was then.

Having not been out for a hill ‘fix’ since Christmas, one of us needed to get out today – it wasn’t me, although I’m glad that we did. The days are all merging into one at present and before I know it we’ll be back to the daily grind.

Due to a very blustery forecast with fog on the high tops we opted for Pressendye, a Graham that’s accessed from Tarland. We’ve done this before and I’ve blogged about it before so I’ll not go into too much detail.

Starting the walk in the main square, it’s a brisk walk along the road for the first wee while before the slog of the day begins, slowly ascending up through the fields and trees.

Pressendye: the first of the gates

Through a few gates – these were sent to try us, and were likened to a Krypton Factor Challenge – we reached the very broad ridge. This was where the wind really picked up and we were glad to be going in the ‘right’ direction, the wind at our backs. Reaching the large windshelter cairn at the summit was a welcome relief and gave a great spot to stop and have some lunch, very much protected from the wind that was howling around us.

Down we then went, dropping out of the wind pretty quickly, following good tracks along the way.

Very randomly, we bumped into a friend of the husband – small world!! After a chat with them we continued, finally descending through the lovely avenue of tall trees.

Tree lined ‘avenue’, Pressendye, Tarland

Coming out just as you approach Tarland from the Aberdeen side there were some very impressive bails, a bail ‘castle’, and a huge white plastic wrapped thing that looked like an enormous slug! Google’s a great thing: I’ve now learned that this is silage wrapped in a Budissa Bag. There are even YouTube videos showing the process, so if you’re bored (or a geek like me) have a watch! I’m well impressed- easy pleased!

Back in Tarland we stopped at Angie’s Cafe for a bacon butty and tea. A perfect end to the first day in the hills. Here’s to many more!

Looking back up to Pressendye

Reflections on 2019: Dreams, Goals and Injury

Goals (and Dreams)

This year I set myself 2 goals:

A marathon PB and a 1st club standard.

I achieved one of them.

A dream came true when I ran the London Marathon, loving every minute of it (despite prior nerves that it might just all be too much).

The plan thereafter had been to recover and then have a strong Autumn season, hopefully chasing down the coveted club standard. Sadly it didn’t happen due to injury, but I did have a rather awesome summer prior to that running the Fife Coastal Path.

We managed a few hills together (and Bruce did quite a few solo) before embarking on the West Highland Way as a wee ‘rest’ in October.

Injuries

Finally after a few months of very little or no running (a whole 10 weeks off) I had my own Christmas miracle in the form of a cortisone injection and, touch wood, will continue running pain free into the new year. I’m four runs in and it’s feeling good so far.

New Goals

There’s a lot of fitness to build back up. For now, I’m loving being able to run once again and enjoying it for what it is. My GFA for London 2020 has been deferred and my goal is to get back to consistent mileage before targeting times.

First up, my parkrun goals: 200 separate volunteer days and 200 parkruns; in that order.

Happy New Year

Here’s hoping that 2020 brings you the opportunity to pursue you dreams and just enough challenge to keep it interesting!

Merry Christmas!

What a stunning winter’s day for a Christmas walk! We decided to take full advantage, heading up Lochnagar.

White Christmas

When we were out this way a couple of weeks ago it looked like there was a fair covering of snow; not so much today. The path at car park level was clear, but once ascending through the trees it got a bit icy underfoot. This was a nuisance as we progressed further as it wasn’t clear until stepping on the boulders whether they’d be icy or not. Thankfully none of us came a cropper despite a couple of near misses!

Christmas Tidings

I was amazed by the number of people we met on the hill today. Everyone was in good cheer, exchanging Christmas joy and chat. The memorable exchange of the day was with four gents, one of whom had come from Milan to enjoy Christmas in Scotland with his hill walking friends (met when doing the Coast to Coast). He told us that God was happy for us to be on the hills today, rather than in church, hence the beautiful day.

Kahtoola Microspikes

When the ‘proper’ ice came it was a pleasure to don the microspikes, finally gaining some confidence and traction. These really are an outstanding piece of kit, perfect for times when there’s not enough for a crampon but boots just aren’t cutting it. They stayed on from hereon in until we came off the snow at the other side.

Winter Sun

The low sun was lovely, warming up the chilly day and making it a truly wonderful day to be out. Onto the proper snow, the slow pull up began. We stopped off overlooking the loch, enjoying some soup and a wee rest.

The Ladder

Up the ladder we went, following the footsteps of many others. As we continued we moved into the mist; sadly it didn’t clear until we’d come off the top.

Christmas Lunch

Reaching the summit we posed for a picture before sheltering from what little breeze there was, joining another three walkers, then being joined by another couple. Throw in a few more scattered around and quite the gathering there was!

Glas Allt

Rather than retracing our steps, we opted for a circular walk, heading down via Glas Allt Falls. As with the route up, it was excellent with the spikes on, not so good when there wasn’t sufficient coverage, again running the risk of slipping on the rock. This slowed me down significantly as the last thing I wanted for Christmas was a fall.

Loch Muick

Completing the descent, we reached the path alongside Loch Muick and made good time, yomping back to the car park. A truly wonderful Christmas walk, we were very much in our happy place!

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Merry Christmas

Hope you’ve all had a wonderful day however you’ve chosen to spend it!

Creag nan Gabhar and Loch Callater

Having bailed earlier than I’d intended on my work’s Christmas ‘do’, I was home and bedded way before pumpkin time, thus waking bright eyed and bushy tailed (or as close to that as I ever get!), and happy enough to hear that golf (his) was off as the course would be on winter greens. Winter greens = no eclectic competition and playing off mats, so I’m reliably informed there’s not much point. Thus the decision was made that I’d accompany him on Plan B, a trip to the hills.

Rucksack packed, breakfast thrown down my throat, showered and out within the hour, I was pretty impressed by myself.

Out the road we went, spotting the hill tops appearing further out towards Ballater, and discussion was had about where to head. We opted for Braemar as the skies were looking clear, a positive contrast to the forecast of foggy tops, and came upon a light dusting of snow on the roadside from around Crathie. Passing the snowgates at Braemar, the road suggested there had been snow this morning. Thankfully we didn’t have to go much further.

Parking up, it took about 10 minutes to get winter ready. Ice axe fastened to the rucksack, winter boots on (and off – too loose – and on again), waterproofs and gaiters on. It was pretty chilly feeling, even with my 4 layers on top and 2 pairs of gloves! Thankfully this feeling didn’t last once I was moving.

Heading along the track towards Loch Callater, we walked for just over a mile before heading up onto the ridge that meanders along and up to Creag nan Gabhar. I became significantly warmer as we headed upwards but in time the wind picked up and the temperature did feel cooler due to the wind chill.

The snow higher up was patchy with tiny drifts on the path, the heather still peeping through in most places, although there were some deeper sections here and there.

We opted to skirt around Creag nan Gabhar, nearly at the top, as the wind was quite strong, the snow blowing across us and the chill biting our faces. We took a wee cross country diversion here, making our own way down towards the main path.

Heading down from Creag nan Gabhar

Ahead, we saw another couple who appeared to be going a very different direction. Talking to them later, they’d avoided a more icy section by taking a detour. Meanwhile, we opted to practise our ice axe arrests, sliding down a steeper, more compacted section on our fronts and using the ice axe to slow down and stop repeatedly. It was rather good fun and definitely a good place to practise, safe in the knowledge that we weren’t going anywhere dangerous. The only unpleasant part was when my jacket rode up – I’m sure I could feel the coldness of the snow through my many layers!

Continuing downwards we finally reached the track and stopped for a bite to eat with the other couple. My soup was very tasty, and having learned from last time I found that shaking the flask before each serving meant I never got to the point of needing to eat it by the handful! There’s nothing like homemade soup for being a meal in itself!

The wee cairn marking the path down to the bridge was either missed or missing – not sure which. Again, we moved cross country with the notion of where we wanted to go from previous experience. Skies were clear so we didn’t bother taking a bearing knowing we’d happen upon the bridge soon. This bridge isn’t visible from the path and on previous occasions we have wondered if we’ve missed it, suddenly stumbling upon it.

Safely across, we wandered a little further before reaching Loch Callater, not yet frozen for the winter. Another stop was had outside the Bothy, another snack. This Bothy is really well maintained and very comfortable with composting toilets on site. Well worth a visit.

Back along the track, it’s about 3 miles to the car park. This was easy walking with just the odd patch of ice today, most of it covered by a thin dusting of snow. Last stop of the day, The Bothy in Braemar for a well deserved coffee and cake.

There’s Always Hope

I’m now on my 9th week of no running and am desperate to get back out there! For a few weeks I enjoyed being at home, having full evenings and being a couch potato. However, being so used to exercise this wore thin pretty quickly! Despite my good intentions, I haven’t been out walking as much as I might have. Walking the streets on dark evenings doesn’t hold much appeal. However, over the last couple of weeks I have tried to make more of an effort to do some exercise with a combination of metabolic and weight workouts, and the odd walk, hoping to preserve some small modicum of fitness, and also serving to lift my mood.

I’ve been extremely grateful to have parkrun throughout this period of injury, enabling me to keep in touch with my running friends and maintaining the desire to get back out there. I thoroughly enjoyed my role as Tail Walker at Crathes parkrun, a beautiful woodland course and was delighted to have someone walk with me in addition to my husband who did his first ever parkrun, albeit without crossing the finish line as he doesn’t have a barcode. Today, I walked Hazlehead parkrun, choosing it over the Aberdeen parkrun, as I love the trails there and felt it would be a more enjoyable walk.

Interestingly, when I’m Run Director I’m genuinely happy for anyone to come along. It honestly doesn’t matter how slow (or fast) you are, so it was strange that today when I arrived I felt some trepidation around walking. Would the volunteers have to wait just for me? Would anyone else be walking? With parkrun having renamed the ‘Tail Runner’ as ‘Tail Walker’,  and being very aware of the whole ethos of the event, it was unsettling that I still had this concern.

Briefing at Hazlehead parkrun

That aside, it was lovely to be at Hazlehead for a change, and a boost to see familiar faces, some of whom I saw just yesterday (a work colleague) and others that I’ve not seen for a wee while. Willie, the Run Director, gave his briefing before I made my way to the back of the field. I was happy to find that I was not alone there and I had company and a blether for the first mile. After this, I was alone, my companion having passed her baby over to her mum returned heading towards ‘home’, running on the rest of the way alone,  and I picked up the pace to enjoy a brisk walk. Here I saw my friend, Hilary, on return, up visiting Aberdeen for the weekend, another lovely surprise.

At the turn I was greeted by a friendly marshal who asked if I was a Run Director from the beach – I am. Then I enjoyed the morning sunshine, again passing along the top of the golf course, and passing the tail walkers who were enjoying their morning sortie, comfortingly in no great rush.

Tail walkers at Hazlehead parkrun

Heading back towards the park, the temptation to run was just too much, so I opted for a strategy of one minute run, one minute walk, probably looking somewhat ridiculous to the morning dog walkers, dressed in my hill walking trousers and down jacket. It was a great feeling though and I lived in hope that I wouldn’t suffer too much later as a result. Finishing, I was greeted by the familiar faces of Hazlehead Run Directors, Tony and Willie, and enjoyed a good chat with on an interesting array of topics! I promised I wouldn’t disclose any further.

Thank you volunteers at Hazleheaed parkrun

Looking ahead, the underwater treadmill at Total Endurance beckons on Tuesday. I’m very excited to be trying this out for the first time. This was very generously gifted to me by a running friend who thought my need was greater than hers. The kindness of the running community over these last weeks has been truly amazing and so appreciated, with folks giving encouragement, friendly messages and offers of support on the road back from injury. Thank you all!

I’m really hoping that I’m coming out the other side soon. My sore foot has now been x-rayed and the good news is there does not appear to be anything really nasty going on. A bone spur seems to be at the root of the problem, creating severe inflammation. With any luck, an injection next week may provide the cure, as I’m told that my feet are flexible and in pretty good shape otherwise.

Wish me luck! Any tips on returning to running gratefully received!