Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Nativity by Sir Edward Burne-Jones
The Virgin brings forth today
the Word Eternal
and the earth offers a cave
to the Unapproachable.
Angels give glory with shepherds,
and the Magi journey with the star,
when for our sakes was born
as a new babe
He who is from eternity, God.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Cairn Gorm and Fiacaill Ridge

Cairngorms and thereabouts-051

The other hike we did in the Cairngorms was perfect in every way, except for the fact that we were still recovering from our hikes up Ben Nevis and around the Ring of Steall (we actually did the numbingly cold hike after this one -- I haven't been following a strict chronology while blogging about this trip), and so were a little tired.  It's probably because of the hiker's "bonk"* that I don't have a real narrative for this hike.

Cairngorms and thereabouts-016

We set off from the Cairngorm Ski Park, intending to hike up Cairn Gorm and along Fiacaill Ridge.

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The trail was nice and smooth for the first part of the hike. I admired the heather blanketing the ground.

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If we had been able to get over the spine of Cairgn Gorm, I think that is the ridge we would have walked along on the last part of the hike.

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The clouds remained far above and we were able to enjoy the view of the Rothiemurchus Forest, Glenmore, and Aviemore off in the distance.

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I said Scotland is rocky.
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Our first good look at Fiacaill Ridge.
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Fiacaill Ridge looked like blocks set carefully on top of each other to form teetering columns in danger of sliding away.
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This is about as far as we got before we had to turn back.  Snow and ice covered the trail.  We couldn't figure out a way to bypass the obstruction.  The rocks on the left were too steep to clamber over, and the land dropped away too sharply on the other side for us to safely go that way.

On the bright side, while making our way back down Cairn Gorm, we met the ptarmigan, of which I have spoken before.
Bog cotton, Cairngorms, Scotland
 Last, but not least, we saw plenty of bog cotton along the trail.  What a homey name for such a funny looking plant.  It made me think of fairy brooms.

*The "bonk" is what you can sometimes feel after putting your body through a massive exertion of effort (such as 2 difficult hikes of 10 - 12 hours each within a few days of each other) and not yet eating enough calories to make up for the caloric deficit that results from such an effort.  All of this combined makes for a nagging sense of fatigue and a stomach that annoyingly feels like a dry, echoing well no matter how much food you stuff into it.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Cairn Gorm is rocky

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Looking up at J. on the side of Cairn Gorm
Scotland has a lot of rocks.

Monday, November 15, 2010

In which we are defeated by wind and rain on Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui

Here is a little background on the previous post and the quote from Tolkien's Return of the King, in which Frodo sees the Grey Havens for the first time.
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Our plan was to hike out to Ben Macdui, Britain's second highest peak, from Cairn Gorm.  They are among the cloud capped mountains above.
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But that plan bit the dust once we entered the clouds and were subjected to fierce winds and rain.  I have never been as cold as I was on the side of Cairn Gorm.  We were prepared for wet conditions, but not for wet conditions, 30 mph winds with occasional wicked gusts greater than that, and a windchill of 26 degrees that came out of nowhere.  One minute, we were hiking along, damp but comfortable; the next minute, the temperature plummeted and the wind came.

We were so cold, we lost all sensation in our hands.  It took me several agonizingly slow minutes to put my gloves on.  I had to consciously tell my fingers when to open and when to close.  It was strange to have no sensation in my hands and stranger still to have to work at communicating with this part of my body.
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Also unnerving were the clouds.  They moved to and fro according to the wind's fancy.  One moment our view was obscured,
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and the next moment, the cloud blew away and we could see how close we were to edge without realizing it.
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The cold befuddled us. This was the most disturbing thing of all.  It's hard to describe.  I only have a vague memory of how heavy my body seemed (I was no longer feeling the cold) and how tiring it was to form a coherent thought.  It seems obvious to us now, warm and cozy inside the house, that we should have turned around and gone back once we realized that our gear was not adequate for the weather conditions, but it took our cold-addled minds a while to come to this conclusion.

When we turned to go back, the clouds lifted, oh so briefly, and revealed the far green country and lochs we would not be able to explore.  Then, as quickly as they dissipated, the wind drew them back, walling off the view behind a dank grey veil. 

The cold and the befuddlement have heightened my memory of that brief moment to the point of a dream.  For the first time, I keenly understood how Frodo felt when he saw the Grey Havens for the first time. 

But at least he got to go on. 

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Rain in the Cairngorms

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"The grey rain-curtain
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turned all to silver glass
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and was rolled back
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and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country
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under a swift sunrise."
(J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Encountering the ptarmigan in the Cairngorms

Spot the ptarmigan
We startled this ptarmigan and her chicks while out hiking. There was an explosion of feathers and frantic clucking as the chicks scurried to their hidey-holes and mama ptarmigan boldly remained in full view.

She then proceeded to lure us away from her chicks (we humored her, as we were going in the right direction anyways) by dancing in and out of the nooks and crannies of the boulder field, always just ahead of us.

Spot the ptarmigan
When J. made the mistake of detouring around a boulder and thus towards her chicks, she came right up to his feet, flapping her wings and squawking a racket.

Several times, we thought she had left, now that we were clearly moving away from her chicks, but, nope, she would pop up from behind a random boulder, like a mole in the whack-a-mole games at Chuck E. Cheese.  It was quite amusing to be treated as bothersome predators.

Later on, a gentleman gave us a ride into Aviemore. He was an avid birdwatcher, out on a bird-watching expedition around Europe. We told him about the ptarmigan and learned that it is actually quite rare to spot one. Not only are they reclusive, but they blend in so well with their environment--as you can see from the picture above.

Friday, October 22, 2010

In which we are introduced to haggis

Our hostess Mary fed us quite well during our stay at Cairn Eilrig.  Knowing we were off gallivanting in the mountains, she prepared stout fare that would fuel our hikes: thick porridge, bacon and sausage, eggs, beans, mushrooms, oatcakes, endless toast and jam.

As a breakfast person, I loved it.  I tucked it all away everyday.  Even if I wasn't quite so hungry one morning or two, I found room for her porridge and sausage.  It was that good.

So one day, J. and I were raving about the sausage she served us that morning.  It was a very unassuming black patty of crumbling matter.  But once we took a bite, its rich earthy flavor and subtle seasonings blew us away.  It was that good.

We asked Mary about it.

"Oh, it's not sausage," she said, "It's haggis!"

A little back story here: I'm normally quite willing to try new foods.  Even fish.  But not organ meats.  I draw the line there.  When people asked us, upon hearing that we were going to Scotland, whether we were going to try haggis (go find out exactly what it is - I'll wait), our response was a flat "no."

And sly Mary slipped it to us underneath our very noses.

Even as the reality of what I had consumed that morning slapped me upside the head, no sense of revulsion followed.  It was that good.

Butcher's shop, Aviemore, Scotland

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Over the hills and through the woods to the Cairngorms

Our next stop on the trip was the Cairngorms, on the other side of Scotland in the eastern Highlands.  One would think, looking at a map, that you could just head due east and get there in relatively short time, but no.  We had to take the bus north to Inverness, then catch a train southeast to Aviemore, then hop on a bus to Glenmore, then walk up the hill to where our bed and breakfast Cairn Eilrig is located behind the Reindeer Center. 

But I'm not complaining.

On the bus to Inverness from Fort William
How can you when you have views like this from the bus?

On the bus to Inverness from Fort William
This is a far cry from my experience with bus rides, which has been limited mostly to the stretch between O'Hare airport in Chicago and my hometown of Rockford, Illinois, where there are cornfields as far as the eye can see and random collections of industrial buildings.

On the bus to Inverness
We passed lots of homes like this. 

We rode for a long time along Loch Ness. Nessie did not make an appearance. It wasn't really the weather for monsters--the sky was a lively blue and the surface of the loch was dappled with sunlight. No mist or moaning wind.

Inverness Railway Station, Scotland
We arrived in Inverness, where the buildings all seemed to be carved out of the same block of stone.

Inverness, Scotland
Various storefronts tried to introduce a dash of color into the mix.

Inverness Railway Station, Scotland
The train station was modern, white, and airy. These little guys were posted on a wall.

Aviemore Railway Station, Scotland
We arrived at Aviemore Railway Station, which was decorated with candycane colors. I loved the railway stations of the United Kingdom. While the Victorians sometimes overdo it in the decorating capacity, their railway stations are lovely.

Cairn Eilrig, Cairngorms, Scotland
Our final destination, Cairn Eilrig (Hill of the Deer Walk), where we met our gracious host Mary and her black lab Poppy. 

Reindeer Centre, Cairngorms, Scotland
How can you resist reindeer?  The Reindeer Center is located just beneath Cairn Eilrig.  I peeked over the fence numerous times during our stay in the Cairngorms.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On to the Cairngorms

View from Cairn Eilrig, Cairngorms, Scotland
View of the Cairngorms from Cairn Eilrig, the bed and breakfast we stayed at during our time in the eastern Highlands of Scotland.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The path between Fort William and Ben Nevis

Footpath between Fort William and Ben Nevis, Scotland
There is a path between Fort William and the Ben Nevis trailhead. Achintee Farm is right on this path, so we walked this way several times daily during our stay in the Fort William area.

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The path mostly follows this stream as it winds its way down from Glen Nevis.

Footpath between Fort William and Ben Nevis, Scotland
Trees line the way

Gnarly tree along footpath between Fort William and Ben Nevis, Scotland
and grow in the middle of the way.

Footpath between Fort William and Ben Nevis, Scotland
Fields are nearby,

Footpath between Fort William and Ben Nevis, Scotland
lined with posts shaggy with old man's beard moss.

Sheep, Achintee Farm, Fort William, Scotland
There are usually sheep, their baas aloft on the wind.

Ben Nevis in background, from footpath between Fort William and Ben Nevis, Scotland
The mountains loom in the distance.

Footpath between Fort William and Ben Nevis, Scotland
A path with mountains in the background needs a welcoming home at its end.

Footpath between Fort William and Ben Nevis, Scotland
I wish I could walk this way everyday.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mallaig and the West Highland line

We had nothing in particular planned for our last day in Fort William  After wandering aimlessly for a couple hours, breakfasting at Cafe 115 along the way, we decided on a whim to take a trip on the train somewhere.

Thus we ended up on the train out to Mallaig, a small port on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands.  Our route took us through some breathtakingly wild and gorgeous land.  We found out later that the West Highland line is considered the most picturesque train journey in the United Kingdom.

Glenfinnian Viaduct
Serendipity smiled on us this day. This route crosses the Glenfinnian Viaduct, which is often used in the Harry Potter movies.  It was even more impressive to see in person, even though we couldn't really pause to absorb the sight (the train keeps moving - it's not the Jacobite Steam Train).

View from the train, heading back to Fort William
Typical Scottish hills, vivid green, rocky, and worn with the passing of ages.

View from the train, heading back to Fort William
We passed many more harbors like this as the train worked its way northwest of Fort William.  It was along this route that the mercurial Scottish weather revealed its tamer side: grey and overcast skies, a nippy wind.

View from the train, heading back to Fort William
Church of Our Lady of Braes stands out against the bleak landscape.

View from the train, heading back to Fort William
I felt a tug of sea longing when we passed this bay.   

Mallaig harbor
We arrived at the end of the line (literally for the West Highland line) in Mallaig.  It struck me as a hard, flinty sort of place, resolutely maintaining its perch on the edge of Scotland in spite of hard winds and the toil of making a living from the sea.  As it was a Sunday, the harbor was quiet and we didn't get a chance to see any fishboats at work. 

Mallaig harbor
We saw some battered boats that were still in use and covered with all sorts of tools that only a fisherman would know how to use.

We had lunch at the Tea Garden.  It had a pretty outdoor seating area covered with climbing vines and potted plants of all shapes and sizes.

I got fish and chips while J. tried cullen skink, a soup made with haddock, potatoes and cream.  We had tea, of course.

Mallaig harbor
After lunch, we walked around the harbor to take in the views.

Looking at Skye
This is the closest we got to the Isle of Skye.  We toyed with the idea of catching a ferry to Skye, but after comparing the timetables of the ferry and the train, we realized we would have to hop right back on the ferry after half an hour on Skye in order to catch the train back to Fort William.

Seagull chicks on the railroad tracks
I watched these seagull chicks while we waited for the train back to Fort William. They blended in perfectly with the the rocks within these train tracks.  I found the idea of these brash birds as babies highly amusing.

View of Loch Eil from train, heading back to Fort William, Scotland
The train runs along Loch Eil for a while.  The weather brightened as we headed back to Fort William.  Such prolonged, cheerful sunniness was unusual: another one of our stereotypes (blustery weather, wind with prying fingers, mist hugging the heather on the lonely Highlands) bit the dust.

View of Loch Eil from train, heading back to Fort William, Scotland
Back to Fort William, always in the shadow of Ben Nevis.