Nihahi Ridge

On the last day of June this year, I headed out west from Calgary to do a ridge walk with one of my friends and his children. The Nihahi Ridge lies at the far end of the Elbow Valley, close to a number of peaks named after either World War One Royal Navy battleships (Cornwall, Glasgow) or Roman Mythology (Romulus, Remus). We started from the car at about 10.30 AM, and were back down by 2.10 PM. This included a walk-in of about 1.5Km from the parking lot, and taking many small breaks due to my fitness level.

Nihahi Ridge area

Nihahi Ridge area map (courtesy of Google Maps)

Today proved to be a lesson in mountain weather, and just how rapidly things can change for the worse. The start of our walk was in brilliant sunshine, though driving west, we had seen showers trailing beneath clouds in the distance. In such hot weather, heat-stroke is a risk, and adequate water should always be carried. Sun-block is essential too, and insect repellent.

Right from the start, the view in this walk are spectacular. The surrounding mountains beside the Elbow River rise to large peaks all around, and the view of Nihahi Ridge during the drive in is striking. At first you wonder how you will manage to get up there. As it turns out, the approach is straightforward, switching back and forth, gaining height rapidly until you find yourself in an alpine meadow (coming into bloom at this time of the year), with Gaillardia, daisies and other flowers all around. Excellent views are seen from here, of the peaks to the southwest, Mt Glasgow, Mt Cornwall and Banded Peak. These bad boys are all in the 8000-9000 ft height bracket, and offer walking / scrambling that is unlikely to crowded. No queueing for Sharp Edge here!

Nihahi means “Rocky” in the local Stoney dialect, which is appropriate. Just as in Gaelic in Scotland, the local names tend to be descriptive. I much prefer them to some of those imposed by later settlers. Why name mountains after warships or politicians? The original names sound great, like “Yamnuska”.

DSCF3941

First view of the ridge, approaching the meadow

As we approach the meadow, the views to the east, south and west open up. With the switchbacks, height is gained quite rapidly, but inside the pine forest, lack of external visual reference makes you feel as though you’re crawling along. At this point, as the pictures show, it was a bright, hot, sunny day. There weren’t even that many biting insects.

DSCF3942

Looking south across the Little Elbow River

Looking out to the west, below, we start to get our first proper view of Mts Romulus and Remus, named after the mythical founders of Rome. These are serious mountains, though the very southern end of the Nihahi Ridge obscures the valley containing the Little Elbow River.

DSCF3937

First views of Mts Romulus and Remus

To the south, again, nice views as we gained height, with the Little Elbow River visible away down in the valley floor. Don’t know the name of the mountain in the far distance, but I like the shape of its profile.

DSCF3951

View south, gaining altitude

Once up and across the meadow, a steep trail switches back and forth up the eastern side of the ridge. The post I’m holding in the photo below is part of a fence system protecting that section of the walk from a drop of perhaps one hundred and fifty feet. What isn’t clear from the shot is that the meadow in the background is actually quite high above the starting point, right down at the river. In the background, Elbow Valley runs east for miles, towards Elbow Falls and Bragg Creek. On a day like today, it is a fantastic drive, rarely seeing other drivers, let alone some of the aggressive yahoos commonly encountered on the TransCanada Highway. On another subject, I’m unashamed of the sweat covering my rugby shirt. Getting to this point was a real effort, and there’s nothing wrong with a good sweat in any case. Proves you’re putting the effort in!

DSCF3954

Looking back to the meadow. Large drop to the left.

As we gain height, Mount Glasgow and Mt Cornwall become a bit more visible. Even at this point, from the first real viewpoint on the ridge, the weather out to the west is perfect. At this elevation, there is little wind, and no real indication in the sky that anything is amiss. The walking is more of a scramble at this point, though still very easy. My main problem at this point is overall fitness. While I train three times a week in martial arts, this is more steady, prolonged effort, and suffering from asthma makes my chest ache and breathing is difficult for the first thirty minutes to an hour of any hike. Still, perserverance pays off, as here.

DSCF3959

Better view into the Opal Range

Just before the trees give out on the main ridge, the view to the east is still pretty spectacular. I think the hill over my left shoulder is Forgetmenot Mountain, though I need to check that. The meadow is now significantly lower, and what you can’t see immediately behind me is a much larger drop. To the east, the weather looks as it has done all day, lovely. Up here, there is quite a bit more wind, funnelling out of the valley to the west, where the sky is just starting to darken. Lunch was a good option at this point.

DSCF3963

Looking back East – again a large drop behind!

Now, the view west is starting to look a bit more ominous. In perhaps fifteen minutes, the sky behind Evan-Thomas E3 has darkened, and the clouds have closed in. At this point, I think I can hear distant thunder, but am not sure if I’m imagining it, with all of the ambient noise created by the wind from the west.

DSCF3965

The ever patient Little Elbow River carved its way through all of this.

The effects of wind and rain are clear in the shot above, giving an idea of the time taken to erode these magnificent mountains to mineral grains. Literally a geological age.

DSCF3967

View north to the main Nihahi Ridge.

To the north, the ridge loses it’s forest cover, and becomes essentially bare rock. Here we have a choice to make. The sky is darkening to the west rapidly, while to the east and south, everything is as it was. However, the main weather system is coming in from the west, and it doesn’t look good. The last thing we want to do is be stuck at altitude on a bare ridge with lightning bolts coming down. June and July is thunderstorm season here in Alberta, and the storms themselves tend to be significant, with lots of bolts and large, potentially damaging hail. Given the ascent time, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and turned around, unlike a small group of young people without much gear, who happily (and noisily) made their way upwards. Given their exit options, and the storm that was shortly to follow, I sincerely hope they got out OK.

DSCF3972

Looking back down where we came from.

Now we can definitely hear thunder, and the sky has a funny cast to it. The underside of some of the clouds starts to look bulbous, or domed, an indication of cumulonimbus, or thunderclouds. Mountaineers have reported their metal gear, such as ice axes, singing or humming in intense electrical fields before thunderstorms. I’ve never been this high up when such a storm has rolled in, and I admit to being very keen to lose some elevation before it arrives. Another hazard at this point is moving downhill rapidly. It isn’t as easy as you might think, and the chance of falling or turning an ankle is actually higher. As Baz said to his kids, if you fall uphill, you have less distance to fall. Now we can trip and sprawl downhill, potentially breaking wrists. The tree roots that helped us to climb the trail now become wet, and lying at an angle, represent sliding hazards. The first drops of rain fall, thick, fat and slow, but still not numerous. Thunder is now close and loud, with occasional flashes of lightning from close to the ridge.

DSCF3974

Looking west, towards Evan-Thomas E3 in the far distance.

 

DSCF3982

Storm brewing. Weather changed in minutes, note the cloud undersides.

Down at the meadow, we’re aware of being out in the open, and decide to shelter. Not being the tallest object in the area is a good thing, so we take shelter in a thick stand of trees, but not touching any. As the thunderstorm moves over us, we pass through one of the belts of strong hail, which comes drumming down, with a downpour of almost biblical proportions. If this is a typical Alberta thunderstorm, it will be violent and move through quite quickly. As it turns out, it slackens off fairly quickly, allowing us a window of opportunity to head for lower elevation still, among trees that now smell beautifully of pine resin and clean air. All around are pools of new rainwater, and the sun finally starts to reappear, even while the thunder is still crackling around the highest reaches of the ridge.

DSCF3984

Violent thunderstorms all around. Looking for shelter.

In terms of wildlife, this area is rich, though we didn’t see a great deal, mainly some butterflies that I need to look up in my guide. One thing we did see, and quite close to the road, was bear scratching marks, below. As with any walk in western Alberta or British Columbia outside of Fall (or Autumn for my non-North American readers), bear spray should be carried, and you should be competent in its use, before going on your hike. You won’t be any use to anybody if you end up spraying yourself – it happens.

DSCF3985

Bear scratch marks.

So, overall, a great walk, within about an hour of the western edge of Calgary. The Elbow Valley was full of people taking advantage of the approaching Canada Day long weekend, but it still didn’t feel cramped. Everyone we met was friendly, including a batch of people all wearing red Raytheon t-shirts. Some sort of fundraiser perhaps. Anyhow, lots of nice folks, and when I can bend my legs again, I’m sure I’ll look back on this walk with affection. It was well worth the effort, and it reminded me that there are so many excellent places to hike, close to the city, but away from the usual tourist draws like Banff and Lake Louise.


Chester Lake – a hidden gem in the Canadian Rockies

I found out about Chester Lake by walking with a local hiking group from Calgary, the Calgary Nature Lovers. You can reach their website here: http://www.meetup.com/Calgary-Nature-Lovers-Hiking-Meetup/ This was my second walk with them, and while not too strenuous for most people, I am still unfit enough that it made me sweat a bit. It can be found by driving west from Calgary on Highway 1 until you reach the intersection with Highway 40, running into Kananaskis country, beside the large and unattractive casino on Stoney land. Turning south, the drive is a good one, running past Barrier Lake (another good walk), and weaving between mountains on either side of the road. It is here, roughly opposite Mt Kidd, that I encountered a large female moose, standing still in a darkened roadcut. Thankfully car and moose went on their separate ways unharmed, driver forcibly educated about the kinds of wildlife to expect on rural roads. Rounding the base of Mt Kent, you take the Smith-Dorrien Spray Trail, twenty kilometers of gravel road. Along the way, you can see into glacial cirques such as the Black Prince, named for a World War 1 Royal Navy warship. Even in the last weekend of July, there was a sizeable snowfield in the cirque, that will probably last until the winter snows fall.

The view westward from the parking lot is seen below, showing Commonwealth Peak, Mt Birdwood, Snow Peak and Mt Burstall. Hidden behind Burstall is the evocatively named Whistling Rock Ridge. However, our trail today would take us to the north-east, climbing through forestry trails until we reached a plateau and a beautiful wild-plant and conifer meadow. From there, the trail wound easily along the flat, among streams and pools, to a green-blue lake, surrounded by large mountains on three sides.

View west from the parking lot.

View west from the parking lot.

The trail was well marked, and worked its way gradually up the side of Chester Creek, with tall trees providing some shade from the bright sun beating down. Thankfully, the walking group I was with had a good attitude towards pacing, and with lots of brief stops, we made our way to the plateau. As can be seen below, there was still a lot of snow higher up.

Mt Burstall and Snow Peak, from the trail.

Mt Burstall and Snow Peak, from the trail.

Once up on the plateau, we were surrounded by wild flowers. All of the usual Albertan suspects were here, and the smell of pine resin hung strongly in the air. It was truly a beautiful day to be outdoors. We had also been warned of the presence of a grizzly in the vicinity of the lake during the past two days. Bears are not stupid animals, and will tend to stay away from people, unless their young are threatened, or you do something stupid like leave food out where they can be drawn to it. When I was registering to buy my bear spray, a guy said to the people at MEC that he had been told he could spray it around his camp as some sort of barrier. NEVER do this. Bear spray is a strong extract of capsicum or pepper. If you spray it, bears will smell it from a long way away, and be drawn to investigate. You do not want this. Thankfully, on this day, no bears were to be seen anywhere.

Wild flower meadow, with Mt Chester in background.

Wild flower meadow, with Mt Chester in background.

Mt Chester, like the Black Prince, was another Royal Navy warship from the First World War. Why so many peaks in the Canadian Rockies are so named isn’t clear to me, but one of the mountains on the west side of Chester, Galatea, is another one. Most of these ships had a nasty tendency to blow up, as the crews stored cordite in open corridors. This allowed explosions to flash down the length of the vessel, generally causing a catastrophic detonation. Needless to say, the Royal Navy eventually learned from these lessons, and designed ships that were less dangerous to their crews than the enemy.

A sighting of the extremely rare and slow-moving Big Dave.

A sighting of the extremely rare and slow-moving Big Dave.

Approaching the lake, the mountains begin to rear up. In the photo above, Mt Chester is on the right, shedding vast scree slopes of limestone and mudstone, which contain fossils. The Fortress is almost in the centre, and Gusty Peak is the large one just left of centre. Galatea lies just out of shot the the left. These rocks give a real sense of age. Folding is visible, and the major beds all dip away to the south-east. Imagine the force needed, and the immense time needed to apply it, in order to make these gigantic bands of rock bend and twist.

In the meadow, looking west.

In the meadow, looking west.

The meadow really was idyllic. This is all hidden from the road, and has to be earned by tramping up the trail. Well worth it, by my reckoning. By now, the lake was pretty close, and we saw deer crossing one of the gullies on the side of Mt Chester, high up above us. The rocks making up Mt Chester are different colours, and where they change, the scree slopes change colour from cream to grey quite markedly. The photo below shows the grey slopes, at the base of which fossils can be seen. To be clear, it is not permitted to remove anything from here, and the only thing you can collect is photographs.

Scree slopes on Mt Chester.

Scree slopes on Mt Chester.

The lake itself is clear, not very deep, and extremely cold. Swimming here would be a challenging proposition! It was clear enough to allow us to see brook trout rising towards the surface and take flies, with gills and fins moving gently. It was almost as if you had an aquarium right at your feet. Stupendous.

The view west from where I ate my lunch.

The view west from where I ate my lunch.

As I mentioned, the scree slopes below Mt Chester contain fossils. In this case, not bivalves, as I had thought, but according to a friend of mine, Dr Stan Stancliffe, who studied the things, brachiopods, Rhynchonelliformea to be exact. The picture below is pretty low resolution, but I didn’t have a proper camera to hand. Better examples are seen if you Google the scientific name above.

Brachiopod fossils.

Brachiopod fossils.

After making our way back around the lake, crossing the scree slopes, we retraced our route back along the meadow and worked our way down through the trees to our starting point. All in all, a diverting few hours, and a really beautiful little lake. I’ll definitely do this walk again, and bring a better camera next time!

Beautiful lake colours, and I believe, Mt Galatea.

Beautiful lake colours, and I believe, Mt Galatea.

Apologies for the picture-heavy post, but hey, people like pictures, right?


Columbia ice-fields

As a geology student, and even before that, I used to look at illustrations of glaciers, and learned the names of the various structures, both on the glaciers themselves and the landscape formed by their passage. These words gained a special meaning for me, conjuring up images of far-flung and distant places. Moraine, lateral and terminal, bergschrunds, arretes and horns. Eskers and crevasses. None of this really helped me to get an idea of the scale of a real glacier. Standing on one did.

We drove for hours through the Rockies from Calgary, stopping for breakfast in Canmore. Normal Canadian Rockies scenery, that is to say, breathtaking in it’s expansiveness, surrounded us. For me, driving north of Lake Louise took me into new territory, as I had never been further from Calgary since I arrived. Aside from some unexpected tailgating from idiots with pickups, it was a ridiculously good drive north, with scenery that really did threaten to make you drive off the road. The mountains themselves started taking on a new character. The southern Rockies had all appeared grey, laminated, and well, if not smooth, then certainly less jagged than some of these. Reds and creams started to appear in the rocks, as well as the first icy intrusions of glaciers. As I said, I had never seen one up close and personal before. It was quite a sight.

Glaciers, for those who don’t know, are colossal “rivers” of ice, flowing down from an ice-field, carving a path through the surrounding rocks. They leave evidence of their passing everywhere, if you know what to look for. Typically, U-shaped valleys, and large piles of ground up rock tend to provide clues. Despite the enormous mass of ice in a typical glacier, it is in motion, albeit very slowly. We passed a number of glaciers on our drive north, the Crowfoot and Bow to name a couple. Vast hanging sheets of dirty ice, just to the west, above lakes of turquoise.

Johnson Lake

Johnson Lake

The Icefields Parkway is named after the Columbia Icefield, from which at least six glaciers extend (Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Stutfield and Saskatchewan). The icefield is also surrounded by some of the largest mountains in the Canadian Rockies, including Mt Athabasca (3491m), Mt Andromeda (3450m), Mt Columbia (3747m) and Snow Dome (3456m). Snow Dome is apparently the hydrological apex of Canada. Pour a jug of water onto the peak, and the water will find it’s way into one of three oceans: Pacific, via the Columbia River, Arctic, via the Sunwapta and Athabasca Rivers, and the North Atlantic, via the N.Saskatchewan River and Hudson Bay. The North American counterpart is in Glacier National Park, Montana.

From the icefields visitor centre, it is possible to take a trip up onto the Athabasca Glacier. From the centre, the glacier is striking. GIven that the maximum recorded extent of glaciation was at the visitor centre in 1844, the glacier has lost about half of its mass. That said,  it is still very impressive, with another couple of glaciers running down almost into contact with it. The centre was also chock full of noisy tourists, but that’s my problem. I don’t deal well with crowds. From this vantage point, it was possible to see tiny specks moving up on to the glacier. These would turn out to be large, six wheeled tour buses, specially geared to allow safe operation on the glacier. There are 23 in the world, with 22 based here. The one remaining bus is stationed at McMurdo Base in Antartica. Cool or what?

Athabasca glacier from the visitor centre.

Athabasca glacier from the visitor centre.

A regular tourist coach takes you from the visitor centre to a handoff point, located on the left side of the photo above. Here we decanted into specially designed buses. Ours, curiously enough, was brightly decorated and nicknamed the “RastaBus”. Here’s why:

The RastaBus

The RastaBus

Close up, the glacier is something of a surprise. Due to the immense weight of ice, all of the air bubbles are squeezed out, resulting in a material that has a vivid blue colour. As would be expected, it is also very slippery to walk about on. I would have been far happier with my crampons and a walking axe, but would have looked quite out of place among the tourists milling about! There are numerous streams running off the glacier, and unsurprisingly, they are a little chilly to drink from. Where they cut through the glacial ice, more of that beautiful blue colour is exposed.

Glacial spray

Glacial spray

While I remember, credit where due. I took very few of the pictures in this post. Most were taken by my friend, Di, and her far superior camera. Standing on the surface of the glacier, it is impossible to gain a sense of how deep the ice is. In this instance, it is approximately 300m deep, or about the same height as the Eiffel Tower. Food for thought. Looking up towards the icefield, you really do get a sense of it being a river of ice. One recent survey counted 30,000 crevasses in its surface. Looking to the sides, the Andromeda and an an unnamed glacier both extend down towards us. Between us is also a barrier of lateral moraine. This is rock that has been ground up and pushed to the side by the motion of the glacier. In this case, it has resulted in the formation of quite a large berm.

Athabasca glacier

Athabasca glacier

Lateral moraine

Lateral moraine

Another thing you don’t realise is how far away the end of the glacier used to be. It extended all the way down to the visitor centre, as mentioned above, and can be seen in this shot looking back down the valley.

The visitor centre

The visitor centre

So, not bad for a day’s trip out of Calgary. We headed back down to Banff and found meat products in the form of Eddie’s burger joint. Slow initial service, during which time we were at risk of eating our own hands, but the food, when it came at last, was excellent. All in all, the Icefields Parkway can be thoroughly recommended. To finish, another couple of photos, showing Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier.

Bow lake

Bow lake

Crowfoot glacier

Crowfoot glacier


Hiking in Kananaskis – Part 1

I’ve been on vacation for two weeks, and being prompted by the presence of a friend from Luxembourg, decided to get off my backside and do some hiking. My general fitness level can best be described in terms of a large walrus, i.e. heavy and not much good out of water. In fact, if I do enter the water, Greenpeace come and relocate me in the Pacific – their Vancouver HQ is not a million miles away.

With this in mind, we selected a hike that suggested lots of wildlife, good views, and a low chance of killing me. I recently bought an excellent trail book for Canmore and Kananaskis, and the hike from Pine Top day recreational area looked good. 5 kilometres it said, with some more strenuous uphill sections and an easy riverside walk. Turns out to be about 6 klicks, which is fine, and since the catastrophic floods, the river has diminished greatly, but the northern section that runs above Highway 68 is lovely.

Immediately after we got out of the car, we were greeted by screaming and shouting children’s voices, carried on the wind from a nearby camp. This didn’t initially bode well, as we didn’t know if the kids were in one location, or moving around the same trail as us. It turned out that they were penned into one location, and hey, they were just having a good time.

Crossing Highway 68, we headed up into meadows of spruce, aspen and birch. All around were abundant plants and flowers, most of which I can’t identify, but we took photos of. I say “we”; in truth, Di did. The weather was warm, with the sky largely clear, and dominated on one side by some rather large mountains.

IMG_0331

The walk begins. Suspiciously gently.

Kananaskis is in the foothills of the Rockies, and if you like endless voews of trees, rising up to smaller hills then massive ones, then this place is for you. The hiking covers a wide range of grades, from what we were doing, through to some pretty strenuous but amazing hikes. All around you, life is running wild, and it is hard not to feel optimistic. Particularly on a day when the sky was free of rain (here at least. It thundered pretty spectacularly on the way back from Canmore later), the path was littered with large noisy crickets, and myriad butterflies fluttered about, doing their stuff. We were interlopers, but what a place to interlope in! Even the air smelled good. There’s nothing too strenuous about the meadows north of the highway, which make up about half of the walk. I was surprised to see later that the route had an ascent of about one thousand feet. It certainly didn’t feel like that. I’ve been on walks in Torridon and Knoydart which felt like torture, because you could see the route away above you, always moving on up. Mercifully for me, most of this route was hidden by a thick blanket of trees and vegetation. Also, there was so much to look at and enjoy that the general pace was pretty easy. Di’s patience made it easier still.

The photographer, out from behind the lens for once.

The photographer, out from behind the lens for once. Dinosaur t-shirts rock.

IMG_0343The flower above is apparently called something like “red paint brush”. I’m sure some enraged botanist will be in touch, with the answer wrapped around a brick!

Another thing about walking here is that the views just get better and better. In keeping with many trips into the Rockies, we ran out of descriptive terms, and even gave up on saying “wow”. One thing I was surprised to see was lots of different species of fungi. OK, so I come from Scotland, where it is so damp that hundreds of species flourish, but there were many unfamiliar types here, or differing morphologies. I’ve never actually seen some of these particular physical forms before.

IMG_0387

The south side of the trail, where it crosses the road and heads toward the river, is very different. Clearly this side of the trail doesn’t bask in sunshine like the meadows above, and the abundant flowers and grasses noted above are absent. Also, the trees here are mainly spruce and pine. Fungi abounded again though, and there was the smell of wild garlic. The river itself was low, though large piles of rocks in the stream bed indicated high energy material transport – presumably during the recent floods that devastated Canmore, Calgary and High River. Even without a lot of water, the riverside walk was pleasant. The guide book gave the impression of it being down beside the river, but it’s actually higher up above, only coming down close on two occasions.

IMG_0439More unusual fungus, this time inside a dead tree.

IMG_0451A flower. Pretty, but still need to check my book to identify it.

So to recap, this is a really nice walk in summer, and would probably be fun to snowshoe in winter, if you could get the car in here.

IMG_0399

There are toilet facilities on the south side of the road, at a small parking area. In keeping with many other places in Alberta, they are rudimentary, but far better than the backwoods alternative. We did encounter a small group of elderly Canadians, who treated us like most others I have met, in an open and friendly manner. It was a relief to be able to walk somewhere with scenery of staggering beauty, and hardly run into anyone at all. In fact, at some points, the silence really was deafening. From here, it is possible to drive west until you hit Highway 40, and then head north-ish to Canmore, which boasts a nice Dairy Queen, and the town can certainly do with some financial stimulus after the floods. One thing to watch for on the road is cattle. We encountered a herd of cows, which looked to be enjoying its new-found freedom, but did cause something of a slowdown! Another thing to be aware of is the fact that the weather can change with startling rapidity. When we reached Canmore, a thunderstorm rolled east over the mountains, following us along Highway 1A, all the way to Cochrane. Watching lightning bolts strike trees a few hundred metres away is exciting enough from inside an earthed motor vehicle, but unprotected outside, a completely different matter.


Walking wish-list – Part 1

This is probably going to be a short-ish post, and different to my normal ones, as it will cover places I haven’t been yet.

As a walker in the United Kingdom, I have been blessed with some spectacular scenery, most of which is pretty close to hand. Even a long drive, by UK standards, is only about ten hours or so. I’ve decided to turn my attention to some places on my wish-list. If money were no object (if only!), where would I love to walk? Well…
Canadian Rockies – Banff and Jasper National Parks

Do you really need to see why? OK. Have a look at this:

Moraine Lake

(Photo from CCEL.ca)

The Rocky mountains – how can two words conjur up such amazing pictures? OK, as a geologist / geochemist, I have something of a crush on rocks to start with, but surely even non-geologists can appreciate this? When I think of the Rockies, I think of wilderness hiking and camping, and the chance to get away from the city. OK, as with many other national parks (Yellowstone, Wyoming and the Lake District, England spring immediately to mind), you can end up viewing beautiful scenery in the company of many, many people, but hey, that goes with the territory. Some of my favourite moments have been in the remote hills of Knoydart (Scotland), reaching the head of a mountain pass before my friends caught up, and enjoying the sound of the wind rushing over the barren broken rocks. Other times, it has been knowing that the nearest main road is 30 miles walk away, 26 of it on a dirt track, or looking at the eroded roots of mountains in the northwest Highlands of Scotland, and knowing that you are looking at pretty much the dawn of time.
Jasper National Park also seems to offer what I am after – the chance of getting away from everything. Have a look at this beautiful image:

Jasper National Park

That looks incredible. I am planning to start canoeing again, and this would be one of the places I’d love to do it. Ray Mears eat your heart out. This looks stunning.

Forgetting the Rockies (if you can), Canada has a wealth of walking opportunities, and pretty decent people, from what I’ve heard. I look forward to someday exploring this beautiful place.

Nova Scotia

Cows – in a field (From Truths and Half Truths blog

http://truthsandhalftruths.typepad.com/truths_and_half_truths/my_island/

Cows, in a field, near New Brunswick. This could be South Lanarkshire, but the cows’ accents give it away. Not mountains, I know, but Nova Scotia is a place I would love to visit. Apparently it does have a lot of good hiking trails, so I’ll have to get my boots on and explore.

The Appalachian scenic trail

Mt Avery (Pic from National Park Service)

2184 miles in length, crossing 14 States – what’s not to love? I first read about parts of this in a book by Bill Bryson (A walk in the woods), and was hooked. Geologists have described the Appalachians as having formed in a similar way to rucks in a carpet or rug. That’s some rug! You’d have to be mad not to love this place, mad.

Just about anywhere in Norway

The Norwegians have great mountains. I mean, just look at this! Again, how can you not be impressed by the majesty of nature?

The Troll Wall

Photo: Romsdalsalpene.com

The Troll Face is apparently popular with people base-jumping. Why someone would want to jump off a vertical mile-high cliff is beyond me, but hey, each to their own! Here’s a link to a video on Youtube of some fearless people doing just that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjdqGZdzUDU

This list could run on for quite a while. I’ve not even started with the Alps, Austria, Africa or South America. There are so many places that I’d love to see and do some walking in. I think this post will have sequels…


Walking with the Moray Ramblers

When I first moved to Aberdeenshire, I thought that it would be easy to find a walking group. It turned out to be a little more difficult than I expected, and I ultimately joined a group over in Elgin. Over the years, they have made me feel very welcome, and I would recommend them to anyone in the Moray area.

This post is about some of the places in the north of Scotland that I have visited with the Ramblers, and why I enjoy walking with them so much. While I’m at it, here’s a link to their web page: http://www.morayramblers.org.uk/

One of the things that I like bout rambling groups is that you often get to see parts of the countryside that might otherwise have passed you by. In my case, with a number of groups, this has included a Covenanter’s grave, a great canal walk near Linlithgow, an iron-age fort in the Scottish borders, mountain-biking tracks in Strathpeffer, Glen Affric, and Torridon in perhaps the worst weather I’ve ever seen!

Another thing that I like is that within such a group, people with a wide range of interests and knowledge come together. My own area of knowledge is geology, but I’ve walked with an opthalmic surgeon interested in botany, ex-squaddies who could tell you what insects you were looking at, a blood donor whose tally I will never reach if I live to be a hundred, and many more.

In common with most of the people I’ve encountered in the hills, the Moray Ramblers have also shown me a great deal of warmth. You probably know the same kind of people. Most times, when you drop into a bothy somewhere, the people you’ll encounter will be friendly, and a good time will be had by all. Even if you do find the occasional “unusual” person. I think that there is a particular mind-set for the people that love being outdoors. On that very rainy day in Torridon, nobody moaned or griped, despite the overall experience being similar to standing in the shower. We saw very little, and unlike my shower, the hills didn’t have a handy thermostat 🙂 Still, you pays your money and takes your chance… I am glad to have been with them that day.

Loch Muick from Broad Cairn

The first time I got into the mountains in Grampian, it was with the Moray Ramblers. While the views were magnificent, I wasn’t very fit, and felt as though I was dying on the way up.

Loch Muick

This view was shot from the far end of Loch Muick, looking back up at Broad Cairn. What started off as a rainy cold and strenuous day turned into an epic trip, with some truly stupendous views. Reminds me why I get into the hills.

Rogie Falls

Strathpeffer is one of my favourite haunts as well – this shot was at the Falls of Rogie. It was a beautiful day, and I had always driven past the falls on my way somewhere else. Again, the Ramblers showed me some great walking that I might have missed otherwise.

Mighty Suilven

Any excuse to get a photo of Suilven is good enough for me! This was a Ramblers trip again, and unseasonably warm for April. Arriving in Ullapool the night before, with the sun turning Loch Broom silver, was a sight I will never forget, as well as the ancient sandstone outliers rising from the Lewisian plain, catching the last of the evening sunlight as the lower ground faded into darkness. Sometimes I forget how fortunate I am to live in such a beautiful country.

Anyway, to return to the original theme, I would probably never have seen half of the places I’ve been to, without the Moray Ramblers. I would certainly have not had as much fun in the process. If you live in Moray, I can’t recommend them highly enough.


The north-west Highlands. Scotland’s ancient past

One thing that really gets me about geology is time. We are taught that a particular geological epoch lasted for seventy million years, or took place five hundred and fifty million years ago, but this seems incomprehensible to me . Working backwards, I can just about manage to think about eighty thousand years, then the numbers just don’t mean anything.

In Scotland, one of my favourite geological areas is the far north-west, Sutherland. As students, this was one of the first places that we ever did any geological fieldwork. It made quite an impression on me, and I love to go back. The coastal areas of Sutherland are some of the oldest rocks on Earth, formed two to three thousand million years ago. Remember what I said about the incomprehensibility of geological time? The Earth is believed to have formed, according to current estimates, four and a half thousand million years ago. So, the western Highlands are old, vastly old. This is where I have been walking, as a geologist, it’s difficult not to be excited at the prospect of seeing such ancient rocks.

For the trip I am writing about, I started at Inchnadamph. It is a good base for a few reasons. There is an excellent hostel, pictured below.

Inchnadamph hostel

Inchnadamph is well situated for exploring many of the hills of Sutherland. Conival and Ben More Assynt are near to hand, and the massive bulk of Quinag looms just to the northwest. One bit of it (Sàil gharbh, rough heel?) is visible just to the left of the hostel, but such an impressive hill deserves a picture of its own.

Quinag

Quinag is mainly Torridonian sandstone, with a thin skin of Cambrian quartzite on top. It was previously thought that this mountain, like many others, had been overrun by glaciers, but according to Leeds university scholars, there is evidence on the summit that this was a nunatak, or”bit sticking out of the top of a glacier or ice-field”. Many of the other local mountains are made of Torridonian sandstone, and sitting on a landscape of much older Lewisian gneiss. For more information on Quinag, I would recommend Leeds University’s excellent page, which can be found here:  http://www.see.leeds.ac.uk/structure/assyntgeology/classic/quinag/

This part of Scotland was involved in the dawn of geological science. During the Enlightenment, gentleman scientists, or “natural philosophers” as they would call themselves, would come here to try and understand the formation of the Earth. In the eighteenth century, the idea of the Earth being older than the six thousand or so years quoted by Bishop Ussher was difficult to accept for many people. James Hutton’s studies showed that the time needed for geological processes to take place meant that the Earth simply couldn’t be 6000 years old. Needless to say, this still causes controversy among a particular segment of the population. See here: Nutty Waffling. I’m not going to start in on this, or why even normal Christians should find their “alternative” theories offensive, but I think that they have strange views, which do not stand up to scrutiny. Anyway, back to the geology!

My walk this time started down at Cam Loch (Cam, bent or twisted), at NC 233 121, just off the A835. The loch is beautiful on a nice day, and the landscape is worth shouting about. Basically, it is a huge sheet of old Lewisian rocks, with mountains of Torridonian sandstone sitting on it. The rest of the sandstone has been eroded away, leaving the mountains sitting proudly.

Cam Loch

From here, the path heads to just north of west, following the edge of the loch. As you can see, it was a beautiful day, and we didn’t expect to get sunburn in April. At grid NC 214 413, the path becomes less distinct, but heads to the north, skirting around Meall na Braclaich. There is some really nice conglomerate up here, which is basically just a mish-mash of old rock. The path soon brings you to Lochan Fada, Little long loch.

Lochan Fada

From Lochan Fada, the trail brings you north-west, under the shoulder of mighty Suilven, or The Pillar. This impressive sandstone mountain stretches for 2Km to the northwest. For the whole walk, the aspect of this hill changes. At the beginning, you are seeing the south-eastern end, almost end on. From Loch na gainimh (Sandy loch), you see it flank-on, and from near Lochinver, the impressive sugar-loaf of Caisteal Liath (Grey castle) at the north-western end.

Suilven from Loch na Gainimh

From here, it is still quite a long walk to Glen Canisp lodge, about 6Km. On those rare days when the sun beats down on Sutherland, you need to be careful and carry enough water to last the course. One of our party collapsed at Glen Canisp, though he later recovered. The loch is your last real chance to reload with clean water, so use it wisely. Despite its appearance, Suilven is a straightforward hillwalking trip, working up to a bealachat the lowest point of the ridge between the summits, and then heading to on to the ridge top.

Suilven from Glen Canisp track

This is an old land, and you can almost forget that humans exist. Aside from the track, you are alone among the oldest rocks in Britain, with only the wind for company. This can be an unforgiving environment, even in summer, so care is needed. Any day out on Suilven is a long day out, and you need to be prepared for it. That said, it is a beautiful place.

Canisp from the west

Sadly, there are no cows in this post (Sorry Jen), the terrain being a bit too rough for them. I’ll try and make sure that some get into the next one!