Sunday, August 29, 2010

Scenes around Fort William

Fort William was a nice little town situated near the base of Ben Nevis, on the shores of Loch Lhinne. 

Downtown Fort William, Scotland
The downtown was mostly dominated by touristy shops full of tartan-related souvenirs, all sorts of whiskey and shortbreads, and all the other cheap thingamajings that tourists like to get.  As we were chiefly in the area for Ben Nevis, this did not disappoint us as we explored the town.

Alexandra Hotel, Fort William, Scotland
There were some pretty buildings, such as the Alexandra Hotel.

Tree carving on church, Fort William, Scotland
There were several churches, one of them with a lovely tree carving above the entrance.

Public library, Fort William, Scotland
There was a public library where we checked our email. Noticing that I was logging in from a different IP address than normal, Facebook made me validate my online identity.

English breakfast at Cafe 115, Fort William, Scotland
A typical English breakfast that did us quite well after the Carn Mor Dearg Arete hike.
There was a nice cafe (Cafe 115) that we kept returning to for breakfast and afternoon tea.  They had giant scones that were tasty, but quite different from the dense scones I'm used to in America.  Theirs were more cake-like, delicately sweet with an airy crumb.

"Elderly people" road sign next to cemetery in Fort William, Scotland
I found this sign sadly amusing.
 We walked past this cemetery and the nursing home near it along this road quite a bit between Achintee Farm and Fort William.

"Lollies and choc bars" in Morrison's, Fort William, Scotland
We did not get a lolly.
We visited Morrison's to stock up on food for our next hike. I did not find the rows of marmalade and marmite enticing. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Exploring Old Inverlochy Castle

We took a day off from serious hiking and walked to Old Inverlochy Castle along the Great Glen Way.

Old Inverlochy Castle-01
We passed a elderly gentleman, complete with tweed jacket and corduroy slacks, out for a leisurely stroll.

Old Inverlochy Castle-06
We completely missed the castle and did not realize our mistake until we crossed River Lochy and looked back to admire Ben Nevis.  What a pretty picture the castle makes with the Ben in the background!

Old Inverlochy Castle-31
The castle was surprisingly intact for dating back to the 13th century and going through lots of wear and tear in the meantime (several battles, plenty of forceful takeovers, etc.).

Old Inverlochy Castle-10
We walked around the courtyard imagining the hustle and bustle that would have taken place here way back when.

Old Inverlochy Castle-29
I climbed crumbling stairs.

Old Inverlochy Castle-28
Jon sat.

Old Inverlochy Castle-37
We walked around the perimeter and imagined where the moat would have been.

Old Inverlochy Castle-23
These lovely flowers blanketed the courtyard.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Carn Mor Dearg Arete

Ben Nevis and lesser siblings, Ring of Steall hike, Scotland
A distant shot of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, taken from the side of An Gearanach

In the picture above, Ben Nevis is the highest point on the left. Follow the arm of the mountain to the right where it dips then rises in a quick succession of two peaks.  That ridge is the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, the route we hiked up Ben Nevis.

Carn Beag Dearg path, Ben Nevis, Scotland
Here is a closeup of part of the arete.

This is one of the things I so enjoy about hiking--the simultaneously grand and intimate view of the world one gets just by setting foot out the door.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ben Nevis: There and back again

Getting ready to start the uphill hike
The kind owner of Achintee Farm welcomed us to the hostel with open arms, in spite of the fact that we were early and walked in on him fixing the toilet.  He assured us that we could easily make the ascent of Ben Nevis ("Mountain with its head in the clouds" or "Mountain of heaven") if we left soon (it was about 11 AM when we arrived), as there was no guarantee that the fine weather that day would still be so fine for the rest of our stay in Fort William.  The days are so long in that part of Scotland that, even if we got stuck at the top of the mountain in the gloom in the evening, he told us we could just wait a few hours until dawn when it started lightening up again and we could see well enough to pick out our way down.

"You're capable - you can do it.  I trust you,"  he said.  That was quite a compliment, coming from a native who knows the terrain like the back of his hand.  With his rich Scottish brogue, he added, "Aye, and you'll sleep."  We were soon to discover how true his prediction would be after we returned from the hike.

Up the Mountain Track to Ben Nevis, Scotland
We set off up the trail, which quickly turned into a long and steep climb up stone steps crafted to keep trail erosion at bay.  The land fell steeply away on one side as we settled into the rhythm of climbing. The mind wanders as I climb, the ache of my legs a distant murmur that I can ignore as I imagine that I am a hobbit off on a grand adventure.  Another step, and another, until it all runs together and all I can remember is that I have always been climbing, and my streams of thoughts have coalesced into an ocean on which I am adrift in daydream.  Then, lo and behold, the climbing stops, the ocean disperses, and I look about myself in befuddlement, stray memories clinging like dew to my conscious: how did the top come so fast?

Allt a' Mhuilinn ("stream of the mill") valley - north face of Ben Nevis on the right, Scotland
The land abruptly flattened once we reached Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe ("Halfway Lochan").  From there, we turned off the main tourist track, up Allt a' Mhuilinn ("Stream of the Mill") valley, which is bordered on one side by the brooding north face of Ben Nevis, towering 2300 feet above the valley.

North face of Ben Nevis, Scotland

The north face of Ben Nevis was immense.  It looked like giants were emerging from the earth.  Clouds shrouded the summit.  We stopped to stare countless times.

Making our way up the side of Carn Mor Dearg, across from Ben Nevis, Scotland
We went off trail and beat our way up the steep side of Carn Mor Dearg ("Great Red Peak"), opposite the north face of Ben Nevis.  Going off trail went against every American trail etiquette sensibility that we had, but our host assured us that because so few people go this route, they encourage this approach to spread out any wear and tear we hikers bring to the land. 

The vegetation was different what we were used to.  We would occasionally sink to our knees in spongy vegetation.  This mentality of "two steps forward, one step back" soon became maddening on this incredibly steep slope and I quickly learned to distinguish what type of grass grew on firmer ground.

Red deer, Ben Nevis, Scotland
The red deer had no problems traversing the terrain.
Sometimes we had to clamber over piles of large rocks, which required a delicate sense of balance.  At one point, a boulder I was perched upon began to shift.  I immediately began to step onto the next rock, which also began to move ominously under my weight.  I will never forget the sense of sheer terror that cut through my heart at that split second as I had a vision of the rocks giving way under me and the boulder just above smashing into me.  I managed to lean forward and hug the rocks in front of me (this should give you an idea of just how steep the slope was) while J. coached me on where to place my feet and hands.

Ridgetop, Carn Mor Dearg in background, Ben Nevis, Scotland
I promptly broke out into tears once we made it to the top of the ridge.  And then I was fine and we went on.

Carn Mor Dearg Arrete path, Ben Nevis, Scotland
Which was just as well because the scarier parts were still ahead: the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.  But I was able to face those parts with equanimity.  The scary bits came when the trail dropped off the ridge-top and hugged the ridge.  During those times, the trail was a thin, pitiful thing that you could just barely make out in the jumble of rocks scattered on the side of the mountain.  It was a matter of thinking only as far ahead as where to make your next step.  We would pause to catch our breath and look back and have no idea how we got to that point.  We were hugging rocks, blindly feeling with our feet for secure footholds.  At one point, the trail petered out and we stood there, leaning against the mountain, looking at the mess of rocks and looking at each other. On one side, the mountain, on the other, a long uninterrupted fall to the valley floor.  Then we spotted a rock jutting out that we thought just might take us to better ground.  Once we made that move, we easily spied a way back up to the ridgetop that we couldn't have seen one step before.

Looking out over Allt a' Mhuilinn valley, Ben Nevis, Scotland
We took a break at the head of the Allt a' Mhuillin valley, absorbing how far we had come.  The north face of Ben Nevis loomed even closer on the left.  On the right was the slope that made me cry.

Getting closer to Ben Nevis, Carn Mor Dearg Arrete path, Scotland
We finished the rest of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete and made it to the base of the Ben Nevis summit. A boulder field rose up before us, a massive pile of boulders that looked like the aftermath of a battle between giants. We scrambled up the boulders, occasionally crossing paths of scree, loose rock that likes to slide and take you with it. Knowing the cliff edge was to the right, we made sure to keep to the center of the boulder field, always veering left whenever we encountered obstacles.

Summit of Ben Nevis, Scotland
These rocks were very annoying to walk on.  I was very tired of rocks by this point.
We had no idea we were close to the summit until we climbed a boulder and unexpectedly stepped onto level ground.  The ruins of an observatory and other buildings were scattered about the summit.

Cornice of snow on cliff-edge, overlooking Five Finger Gully, Ben Nevis, Scotland
There was snow at the summit, even in June.  J. pointed out this cornice of snow, whipped out to a fine edge over Five Finger Gully.  Snow can be deceptive, making you think you are on solid ground, when you might actually be treading on a cornice that may crack and send you free-falling to an unpleasant end.

Trail under construction, Loch Lhinne in background, Ben Nevis, Scotland
We walked out of that cloud.
We took our time descending Ben Nevis. Down and down we went over rocks. There were always rocks, even in the midst of such green country.  My ankles were weak, my knees tired.  Down and down we went, all 4400 feet back to Achintee Farm.  It took us 8 hours to climb Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete path.  It took us 2 hours to descend.

We slept well that night.

Monday, August 09, 2010

We see the mountains of Scotland for the first time

After we descended all 212 steps of the bell tower in Bath Abbey, we headed into London to catch the Caledonian Sleeper train to Fort William, Scotland.

Caledonian Sleeper Train to Scotland
We started laughing when we opened the door to our compartment.  There wasn't standing room for both of us and our luggage.  We managed to situate ourselves and our monstrous bags, and I fell asleep to the lull of the train working its way north through England.

Caledonian Sleeper Train to Scotland
The wild hills of Scotland greeted us when we awoke the next morning.  We sat at the window mesmerized by the landscape.  It was quite a change from the gentle hills of England.

The train conductors don't announce stops.  You're expected to be ready and waiting with your luggage at the doors to alight when the train rolls into your stop.  You have a few minutes to jump off before the train starts rolling again.  Fort William was the end of the line for both us and the train, so there wasn't a rush to get off immediately.  Though who would want to stick around in the closet-sized compartments any longer than they have to is beyond me.

Achintee Farm, Fort William, Scotland
We walked two miles to Achintee Farm, where we would be staying for 4 nights. The Ben Nevis path begins within several hundred yards of the hostel.  I chose this lodging wisely, if I might say so myself.

Around Fort William, Scotland-44
The mountains are ever-present.  They loom over us all, slumbering giants, ponderous with the weight of time immemorial. Ben Nevis is the greatest peak in the United Kingdom, at over 4000 feet high.  In the picture above, the Ben is the brooding mountain on the left.

Foolhardy or not, we went on to climb all 4000 feet soon after we checked into Achintee Farm.  I'll share my tale of the 10 hour ascent on another day.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Bath, England

Today was our last morning in Lacock.  We bid the sheep a fond farewell as we trekked through their field one last time.  They ignored us.  Mostly.

We decided, sort of last minute, to go to Bath for the day before heading into London to catch the sleeper up to Scotland.  The Bath train station did not have a left luggage facility, but we gambled that there would be a backpacker hostel that would store our bags for cheap while we took the sights in.  Our gamble paid off and we left our bags with a mohawked, tattooed, albeit extremely polite and soft-spoken young man at the Bath Bathpacker hostel.

Bath is a beautiful city. The heart of the city is crammed with Georgian buildings and homes made with local honey-colored Bath Stone.

I wish our street signs could look like this
On a bright sunny day, the stone is imbued with a warmth (doesn't "honey-colored" make you feel warm inside just reading it?) that infects you with good spirits, so you stroll around Bath with a grin plastered on your face and a feeling that all is right with the world.

Georgian architecture is very pleasing to the eye.  Influenced by the classical architecture of Greece and Rome, it's all about clean lines, proportion, and elegant details*.  This devotion to order makes for handsome buildings that you just want to sit and stare at for a long time.  It's almost like meditation, letting your eyes roam over the perfect proportions of the buildings, unsnarling the kinks of your mind in the process.

We walked to the Royal Crescent and admired the half-circle of stately townhomes.  I couldn't help but think of the 2007 Persuasion, in which Anne is depicted running along the front of the Royal Crescent, desperate to get to Captain Wentworth and declare her love for him, or whatever it was that she had to do.  These are not buildings that you just start running in front of.  These buildings would frown upon such an act, such is the weight of awe you get just from looking at them from afar.  What better way could there be to show the risk Anne took with the simple act of running than to have her run in front of the Royal Crescent?

We stumbled upon the Jane Austen Center on our way back into the heart of Bath.  It was a nicely put together museum, with scenes of typical life in Bath during Jane Austen's time, complete with dummies wearing the fashions of the time.

J. and I snickered at the poster-sized reproductions of the portrait of Mr. Darcy as portrayed by Colin Firth in the giftshop.  We snickered even more when we saw the door to the men's restroom. 

We visited the Roman Baths.  The water really is that green.  And warm.  You could feel the heat if you sat down at the water's edge.

The museum was full of ancient artifacts, such as this mosaic floor. As Americans, it was a little breathtaking to be in the presence of such ancient history.

After a snack of black coffee and pain au chocolat at a hole-in-the-wall cafe, we explored Bath Abbey.  We were struck dumb.  The Abbey was an art form composed of light and air**. 

We went up the bell tower, climbing 212 steps. 

This is the ceiling we stood on
In addition to getting a bird's eye view of Bath, we got to stand on top of the vaulted ceiling.  Our tour guide pointed at the keystone, which was about 6 inches long and a hand's span wide, saying, "If you pull that out, the ceiling will collapse."  There was also a peephole through which we could see people milling about the abbey floor far below.  The peephole revealed the thickness of the stone we were standing on to be about 6 inches thick.  It was a little spooky.  Nonetheless, the workmanship of craftsmen from 600 years ago held and I am here writing the latest post in our British adventures. 

*Travellers with backpacks and worn tennis shoes will feel a little out of place inside such structures.
**Art is as much as about the "lack" of something as it is about substance.  Dancers will sometimes interject moments of stillness into their routines.  This lack of motion is as necessary to the dance as any leap or wave of the arm.  So, too, with magnificent buildings.  I notice the intricately vaulted ceiling, soaring columns, details of stone, but the space of light and air they encompass is the ever more powerful. As if the act of trying to contain the uncontainable illustrates for us the bittersweet futility of reaching for the unattainable in the here and now. We are all trying to touch God.