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.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ben Nevis Inn is a welcome sight

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After the long descent down Sgurr a' Mhaim (on the left in the photo above), during which I often considered just laying down and rolling down the rest of the way (what's a few more bruises, considering the bruises and scrapes I had already sustained from my countless falls?), we made it to level ground and prepared for the 6 mile trek back to Achintee Farm along the road.

Naturally, we rather hoped that some passing car would take pity on us and let us hitch a ride.  This is how we made it to the trailhead at the beginning of this hike--an American couple on vacation while on sabbatical in Durham, England picked us up after we had hiked 2 or so miles on the road.  Luckily, after 10 minutes of walking, a van full of sullen teenage boys and two camp leaders pulled over and let us in.

J. and I were on edge once the van started moving because one of the camp leaders who appeared to be in the driver's seat kept looking back at us while we chatted.   All the while the van whipped back and forth along the serpentine road, somehow staying on course, even as he kept looking at us.  We thought he must know the road pretty well to drive the van so carelessly.

Then we realized that we were in the United Kingdom and the driver's seat is on the right side of the van.  Part of what fooled us about the chatty man on the left was his habit of resting his hand on the dashboard.  From our perspective, he truly looked like he had his hand on the wheel.

Ben Nevis Inn, foot of Ben Nevis, Scotland
I drank tea nonstop during our trip
 With this realization, we were able to relax and anticipate, oh joy!, the piles of hot food and stout beers we would have (for nothing is more wonderful to a ravenous hiker than real food in an abysmally empty stomach).  I got potato leek pie, thick slices of bread with butter, large quantities of tea and cream, beer, and sticky toffee pudding. 

Ben Nevis in background, from footpath between Fort William and Ben Nevis, Scotland
Ben Nevis Inn dwarfed by the mountains
At last fully sated, with food and views, we headed back to Achintee Farm where we slept long and deeply.  Thus ends another day.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ring of Steall

So brave young and handsome, still going strong on Ring of Steall hike, Scotland
Your narrators for the Ring of Steall hike.  We were blessed with wonderful weather, but struck dumb by the land.  Let the pictures tell the story here:

Beginning of Ring of Steall trail, making our way up Glen Nevis to the Steall falls
Making our way up the Nevis Gorge.

Steall falls, beginning of the "Ring of Steall" hike, Scotland
The trees open up into Glen Nevis.  The Steall Waterfall, one of the three highest waterfalls in Scotland, is ahead in the distance.  An Gearnach (The Complainer), first peak of the hike, rears its head.  It looks the spine of a dragon lazily raising itself up.

Neat rock formations, Ring of Steall hike, Scotland
We begin the long ascent of The Complainer.  Here is one of the views that was our constant companion as we climbed and climbed.  The rock formations are fascinating -- perhaps the mark of the dragon's claws?

Trail keeps climbing, Ring of Steall hike, Scotland
You certainly have to have a head for heights here!  The views more than compensate.

Trail making its way along the side of the mountain, Ring of Steall hike, Scotland
Looking back at the trail hugging the side of An Gearnach.  Can you spot me?

Panorama shot of Ben Nevis range from Ring of Steall trail, Scotland
A panaromic shot looking out at Ben Nevis.

Looking at the "Ring of Steall," the Mamores, Scotland
Looking around the shoulder of An Gearnach, we have our first glimpse of the "Ring."

Trail keeps climbing, interesting rock formations in background, Ring of Steall hike, Scotland
Looking back the way we came up the side of An Gearnach (The Complainer).  Look for me, the spot of blue in the distance.  Yes, it really is that steep.  Notice the dragon's marks in the background.

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On top of An Gearnach. Ben Nevis and the Carn Mor Dearg Arete are behind me.

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Our first good look at the Ring. The peak of An Garbhanach (The Rough One) is straight ahead.  Next is Stob Coire a' Chairn (Peak of the Corrie of the Cairns)

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Stob Coire a' Chairn, Am Bodach (The Old Man), Sgorr an Iubhair (Peak of the Yew Tree), beginning of the Devil's Ridge.  The peaks look like folds of fabric flung over the bones of the earth.

Closer view of Sgurr a'Mhaim, Mamores, Scotland
So close and yet so far: looking across the valley from An Gearnach to Sgurr a' Mhaim (Peak of the Breast), last peak of the hike.

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Skirting some particularly rough patches on the "The Rough One."

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J.'s glamour shot.

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Pausing to figure out exactly where the trail is.

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I have no idea how we got over this.  Can you pick out the trail?

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But we got over it somehow, because there's me picking my way down.

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Am Bodach (The Old Man) is next.  You would think that The Old Man would be a mild walk in the park, but we did some serious boulder scrambling.  I was on my hands and knees at times.  It was nowhere near as scary as climbing Ben Nevis, but you needed to concentrate.

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On top of The Old Man, looking back at The Rough One.

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This is what the trail looked like at times.  Perplexed and a wee bit nerve-wracked?  So were we.  Especially when you put this picture in context...

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... welcome to the Devil's Ridge.  The trail at times narrowed to three feet in diameter, with steep drops at either side.  If you slipped, you had a long way to go before impact.

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Looking down at the Devil's Ridge from the side of Sgurr a' Mhaim.

Quartzite stones at summit of Sgurr a' Mhaim ("Peak of the breast") part of the Mamores, Scotland
The summit of Sgurr a'Mhaim is covered in quartzite.  From a distance, it looks like a snow-covered peak. 

Making our way down scree of quartzite, Sgurr a' Mhaim, Mamores, Scotland
J. demonstrates how one descends scree.  It was actually a strangely pleasant sensation, slipping and sliding your way down these loose piles of stones.  It made me think of playground ball pits in McDonald's or Chuck E. Cheese's.

Beginning the long, steep, and tedious descent from Sgurr a' Mhaim, Mamores, Scotland
Beginning the long descent.  You might not realize this, but your ankles can get tired.  And when they get tired, you will have a very hard time remaining upright.  I fell too many times to count. 

The trail was suffering from some serious erosion.  At times, the trail had eroded so much, I was walking through miniature canyons, where the level of the ground around the trail was at waist height.   

We want to go back.  I think you would, too, in spite of steep drops and the seemingly innocuous Old Man.