Sitting with my camera amongst the seaweed watching the chirps and squabbles of feeding rock pipits is as close to meditation as I get. These little brown birds feast all year round on the invertebrates that live along the strandline. Always busy, always striving, I’m hypnotised by their constant activity.
Conditions are shaping up well on the mainland at the moment for Scottish Winter fun, and today Wally was working in the Cairngorms with Alban and Hélene from France who wanted to enjoy their first winter mountain experience in Scotland!
The team headed in to Coire an t-Sneachda and took a meandering line to find snow for step kicking, cutting and some ice axe arrest practice, before heading up on to the Fiacaill Coire Cas for an ascent of Cairngorm.
The weather was glorious, but they took the opportunity to practice some navigation anyway. There were occasional expansive views and a rapidly changing cloud and skyscape providing an atmospheric backdrop to the day.
Betwixtmas… that leftovers laden lull between Christmas and Hogmanay when nobody can remember what day of the week it is. Hopefully folk are getting the chance to get out and enjoy the great outdoors and work off some of those mince pies!
We are in full packing mode, shifting our base up to Fort William for three months in the New Year. What this means for our clients is two things:
We can offer winter Munro bagging adventures and winter skills days with more reliable conditions than we usually see on Arran. So if you’ve never used ice axe and crampons before, or simply wish to be guided around the Scottish mountains this season by experienced Winter Mountain Leaders, get in touch.
We are still available for days out on Arran, either for wildlife watching or (conditions allowing) winter walking, - so please also get in touch to check availability.
More info about winter walking and skills days here: https://www.arranwildwalks.com/winter-mountains/
Fingers crossed for a good winter season with lots of snowy fun for everyone. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the Festive Season and have a happy Hogmanay!
Lucy: Today I met with a student from Glasgow University who is collecting otter spraint on Arran as part of his dissertation research, to see whether it contains microplastics. This is a new science, and will help give conservationists a better understanding of how microplastics may be traveling in the food chain around the Firth of Clyde, and the potential impact on otters and their prey. Pablo Garcia is going to be on Arran quite a bit over the winter, gathering samples from locations around the island, and is keen to garner support from locals and wildlife enthusiasts who can help him out by collecting spraint that they find on Arran.
Pablo has been on Arran for a few days now and has visited a number of locations in the South Arran Marine Protected Area. Today he and I travelled North to Lochranza, to walk the coast around the Cock of Arran, a place where previously I have seen lots of otter sign, spraint and of course, otters themselves.
We were not disappointed. Almost immediately we spied a dog otter fishing off shore just outside the village. We also found numerous spraint locations, well used trails (some made by badgers and red deer as well as otters) and disused otter holts. We were careful not to disturb any sites that looked like they were in current use. Later in the day we were also treated to a fleeting glimpse of a female otter.
If you would like to help Pablo, please get in touch with Pablo on 2197669G@student.gla.ac.uk for further information. He will send you a sheet with information about how to collect and record your samples. To keep the spraint fresh, pop it in a ziplock bag. The Community of Arran Seabed Trust are acting as a hub for collection of samples, storing them in their freezer on Pablo’s behalf, so drop them in to the COAST Octopus Centre by the tennis courts in Lamlash.
I’ve been tinkering with the idea of bike packing for a while. It looks brilliant for a start, all that fancy luggage and those beefy trail hungry bikes. Bike touring for extra rugged types, count me in! The luggage ain’t cheap, so after deciding that this might be my new passion, I started collecting bits, and then did a mini mountain bike tour back in the summer on easy trails around Ben Alder. All this was building up to the big one, two weeks in the mountains of Crete in October. So now I’m back, and I have the benefit of hindsight. Here’s what I have learned.
1. Start With the Bike.
It’s a no brainer really, if you’ve got a big trip planned, start with thinking about how your bike needs to be set up. For Crete, we knew we would be riding a mixture of tarmac and unsealed agricultural roads with lots of height gain every day. Tracks can be rough and thorny. I’m lucky to have a choice of bikes (n+1 anyone?) and decided that my Adventure Bike would be the most comfortable ride for this trip. It’s fairly light, with a tough aluminium frame, strong wheels, and we fitted brand new Schwalbe Landcruiser tyres to keep those thorns out (which they did, with zero punctures in 2 weeks of riding). Adventure Bike has a triple chainset but with my lack of training, I knew the hills would be my nemesis. I decided that I wanted to bring as little luggage as possible, staying in rooms and hotels along the way. This was a good call as the hills were massive, so I got this bit right at least! However, some aspects of my bike weren’t ideally suited to the luggage I wanted to carry. More on this later. Meanwhile, Wally was riding an adapted Scott mountain bike and had even friendlier gears on the hills, but he compromised with less performance on the rare tarmac flats.
2. Aerodynamics: You Win Some, You Lose Some…
The point of bikepacking luggage is twofold. Firstly, by distributing the weight around the bike in small packages and using frame bags, it’s possible to keep the centre of gravity low and close to where the rider sits. This is great for rough trails and technical terrain. Secondly, in theory, it is also a lot more aerodynamic than bulky panniers clipped on to a bike rack. I bought a secondhand half-frame bag from a pal, to optimise that centre of gravity benefit, but I quickly realised that it made using my bottle cages awkward. I knew water could be an issue in the dusty heat of Crete so carrying plenty of water would be essential, but no bother, I excitedly purchased an adapter kit that allowed me to fit my bottles to my forks. My bike now looked awesome, and like a proper Adventure Bike! My delight lasted until my first headwind, when I discovered that fork mounted bottle cages are a bit like sails. Great with a tailwind but rubbish in a headwind. My sporty bike with drops and a relatively tucked riding position was transformed in to a plodder.
As we got the hang of things, Wally’s handlebars became the perfect place to store fresh bread and delicious Cretan pies, snuggled safely between a map case and his bar bag. To be honest though, from the word go, our gear was definitely a bit DIY… Proper bikepacking luggage is gorgeous and exciting but also very expensive. My set up ended up being a bit of a mishmash of off the peg luggage (love the Koala 13 from Alpkit), and bits cobbled together from drybags and assorted straps that we collected in the run up. I strapped a drybag to my handlebars using segments of alkathene water pipe (thanks to a plumber friend), to hold it off my bars and leave space for my hands, (I bought an Alpkit Joey handlebar harness to help with this). I carried a small roll of gaffer tape, which I regularly applied to protect the bag from an exposed section of brake cable. At the last minute before we left, I found an old lens pouch for a camera which strapped on to my bar bag and could be filled with snacks, and a luggage strap that held my flipflops on to the saddle bag, so that I was always beach ready!
4. Do Dummy Runs
I left my dummy run until too late, and discovered that my number one problem was going to be the interaction of my bar bag and my road style gear levers on my drop handlebars. Adventure Bike has narrow profile Bontrager bars, designed for women and other people with small hands, which I absolutely love, and have improved my confidence when descending. The massive down side which I had not appreciated until I was in the thick of it, is that if you strap a bulging bar bag to them, you can’t easily use the gear shifters. This was a particular issue from my front (left) shifter which needs more room to travel than the right. Getting the set up right so I could push the levers required lots of trial and error every morning, pulling on the straps to deform my bar bag to exactly the perfect dimensions for my gears to work. This was intensely annoying, for my companion as well as me (I swore and grumped about even more than usual in the mornings) and I’m keen to hear from anyone who has solved this problem.
5. It’s a Big Faff
Which brings me to the thing I really hadn’t appreciated. Panniers fitted to bike racks are easy. They are big buckets of happiness ready to accept whatever kit you throw in them. It doesn’t really matter what order your gear goes in to a pannier because you can always have a rummage about later. In contrast, bike packing luggage is a total faff. The bags are smaller, and odd shaped things like tools or guidebooks will only fit in certain places. Some of your gear is going to be totally inaccessible all day without dismantling the entire set up, so packing requires planning. And then each bag needs fitted and tensioned perfectly to withstand the bumpy ride it is going to get on those fun trails. I’ve realised that although bikepacking gear definitely looks the epitome of rugged adventurousness, if I know I’m only going to be on tarmac, I’d much prefer to tour with panniers and a bike rack. That said, a bikepacking set up really is superior on rough and technical terrain.
6. There’s No Such Thing as the Perfect Set Up.
I’ve been doing lightweight trips on foot for decades and I am still constantly honing and improving my gear. I’ve come to realise that in this respect bikepacking set ups are the same. What works for one person, on a particular journey, will not work for another, and tinkering on the road is also absolutely going to happen. I’m looking forward to hanging my nose over other people’s set ups, and if anyone reading this has some top tips they’d like to share, I’m all ears.
Lucy: Last week I was observing a Summer Mountain Leader Training course with Graham Uney in the Lake District. This was a thrilling opportunity for me, to watch an experienced ML trainer at work, pick up some navigation coaching tips, and excitingly, it was also a bit of an extended job interview. Ever since I passed my own Summer ML eons ago, my life has been defined by my work in the mountains. I’ve been inspired by the excellent training and support that I received at the time and have been waiting for an opportunity like this to become involved with training future mountain leaders.
Graham runs Graham Uney Mountaineering, based at Bampton near Shap, but ranging all over Snowdonia and Scotland too. We’d never met before but in the small pond of outdoor instructors in the UK he’s a well known figure. He was joined by Charlie, who is working towards his Course Directorship for ML awards, having worked on a number of courses around the UK and who runs his own company Your Mountain Challenge.
The Mountain Leader Training course follows the syllabus as set out by Mountain Training, and although it isn’t possible to cover every minute aspect of the syllabus in six days, a huge amount is covered, plus the core skills of navigation, leadership and dealing with summer mountain hazards are trained in depth. Candidates should have accrued a minimum of 20 Quality Mountain Days before training, giving them the prerequisite experience needed to get the most out of the course.
On Day 1, after some time spent in the classroom looking at the syllabus and scope of the award, we headed out on to the hill to practice some basic navigation skills. Most of this was easy revision for the candidates, and it was great for me to observe Graham using his methodical approach to teaching about the compass and map. As navigation coaches, we all have our little tricks up our sleeve, and we are always happy to borrow other people’s ideas! Day 1 was also a good time to introduce the responsibilities of the leader, and how to manage a group in the hills and around common hazards such as short rocky steps. We were blessed with the failing light of November and even managed to squeeze a bit of “night nav” in before tea.
Day 2 was a magnificent day to be in the hills so we headed to the big mountains for a circuit of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge and the summit of Helvellyn. This is a classic Lakeland route, but quite serious in places and taking the Mountain Leader in to the”grey area” where a rope may be required in certain situations. It was a good opportunity to discuss a range of thorny issues, such as use of the rope (it’s a tool for emergencies only for MLs), the scope of the award, and managing groups in hazardous terrain. As a quality mountain day it had a bit of everything, including some navigation, despite the excellent visibility. Graham is one of the Fell Top Assessors for Helvellyn in winter, so knows the mountain like the back of his hand. It was pretty cool to be up there with him!
On Day 3 we headed to Mardale to look at steep ground hazards. On the way, Graham let me loose with his precious candidates and I spent some time with them looking at contour interpretation. We navigated our way up to a boulder field where Graham demoed some emergency rope work before the candidates practised using different types of anchors and body belaying for themselves. Finally, they tried out “Classic” and “South African” emergency abseils. Fun/scary (delete as appropriate) under friendly conditions, useful to remember if an unforeseen problem arises.
Day 4 was a nuts and bolts kind of a day, including emergency procedures, and confidence roping. The weather was pretty brutal so we were happy not to wander too far from base, and even to spend some time in the classroom.
The final two days of a Mountain leader Training Course usually contain the expedition element. This involves a night out camping, and some night navigation. Last week the weather was very cold, and windy, and with fresh snow high up later in the week, we headed to a relatively low lying area (600m or so) and planned a camp not too far from Mosedale Bothy. Bothies are not for use by organised and commercial groups, but it was good to know that shelter was nearby for the team should the weather become a serious problem. On the first day of the exped we did experience quite a bit of sideways sleet and even snow, but by the time we got down to the valley floor conditions had calmed, and after a hot tea, we headed out again in to a starlit night for night navigation practice. This aspect of the ML syllabus often intimidates candidates (it did me) but these days I see it as a huge adventure. I love being out at night and navigation is a fun challenge. The key is to be methodical in your approach, keep your navigation legs short and use good strategies. Also chocolate and a hot drink help!
After a cold night, we headed out for a final mission, back to the car park… with lots of navigation in complex terrain, building up to assessment conditions. The candidates were able to put all that they had learned in to practice, completing a two day mountain journey during which our feet barely touched a mapped path. A huge well done to everyone on the course, it’s a full on experience, totally immersive, and a big milestone on their journey to becoming mountain leaders.
It was also a fantastic learning experience for me. I’m hugely grateful to Graham and Charlie for sharing their knowledge and experience with me, and to the candidates themselves who were great fun and super keen. I loved being part of Graham’s team. Training future leaders is where it is at for me in terms of job satisfaction, and I’m delighted that 2019 is looking to contain lots more of this sort of stuff. Excitingly, there will even be a Summer ML running over split weekends in the Lake District and on Arran!
For more info about Graham’s Summer Mountain Leader Courses: http://www.grahamuneymountaineering.co.uk/Mountain-Leader
To read Graham’s Course Report from last week: http://www.grahamuneymountaineering.co.uk/course-report---mountain-leader-training-nove
To find out more about the Summer Mountain Leader Award: http://www.mountain-training.org/walking/skills-and-awards/mountain-leader
And…. breathe! It’s been a busy season and the blog has been a bit neglected, although if you’ve been following us on Instagram or Twitter. you might have noticed that we’ve packed a lot in to summer 2018. As well as our mountain leading and wildlife guiding days here on Arran we’ve also been working for other fantastic companies across Scotland and overseas. Wally has been guiding Scottish bike tours for Wilderness Scotland, and I’ve been supervising young people on big adventures in Europe with our friends over at Adventure Expeditions. A couple of weeks ago things got a bit quieter, and we managed to shoehorn a cycling holiday in to our diary.
Not just any cycling holiday either- this was the culmination of a long held dream of mine to tour by bike around the mediterranean island of Crete. Last time I was there I was an enthusiastic archaeology student, travelling with my mum in a clapped out Fiat Panda. I remember epic mountain roads and lots of dirt tracks. Fast forward nearly 25 years and Wally and I were hoping that not much has changed. Although we’ve both done a bit of bike touring, this would be our most adventurous and physically challenging trip to date, and our first real tour (rather than a wee overnight) using “bike packing” gear rather than traditional panniers and racks.
The advantage of the bike packing set up is that it concentrates the centre of gravity close to the bike where the rider sits. The bike is more stable, and in theory more aerodynamic. Because of those hills, we packed super light, and cheated slightly by treating ourselves to the luxury of rooms and dinner in tavernas every night. This decision was spot-on, as the hills were as big and steep as I remembered, and I don’t think I'd have enjoyed them as much with a tent, sleeping bag and stove on board.
Recalling those hills, I was unsure how far we’d be able to travel so only booked our first night of accommodation, and kept the rest of our options open. This was also a great idea, as we quickly discovered that riding gravel tracks with around 1-2,000m of ascent per day, and zero training, our mileage was not going to be very impressive. We were also blessed with a heatwave when we were on the coast, which made riding up hills, hot and thirsty work. We tended to keep the days short, riding in the mornings and avoiding the worst of the afternoon heat. But those hours we did ride? My god they were brilliant. We were treated to epic views of limestone peaks, studded with olives and kermes oaks. Swarms of griffon vultures soared above us while we negotiated wild gravel roads. Occasionally, we would encounter inexplicably gorgeous, perfect tarmac. On these occasions we’d say a little prayer of gratitude to the tarmac gods, for smiling on us from time to time.
Our route took us over two big mountain traverses- the Dikti and Psiloritis ranges, but nothing was ever flat. Our traverse to the coast from the Lasithi plateau in the east, over the Dikti range and down to the sea was almost entirely off road. This was probably the finest day’s riding I think I have ever done. The views were astonishing, and the 1000m descent on farm tracks was surprisingly technical. Once we hit the south coast, we explored the Messara Plain and adjacent Asterousia Range. These smaller but equally impressive mountains (the highest, Kofinas Peak, is a mere 1280m), plunge precipitously down to the Libyan sea. The hills here are dry and dusty near desert.
Our second big mountain traverse took us over the shoulder of Mt Psiloritis, via the incredible Nida Plateau (1,500m). This was the most intimidating ride of the trip for me. Locals shook their head in disbelief when we said we were taking that road, but the reality was a glorious climb on smooth tarmac with precisely graded hairpins, followed by rolling rough tracks through remote valleys, before meeting more tarmac for our descent. At the end of two incredible weeks. Heraklion beckoned, and home.
As we develop this blog we plan to bring much more than the occasional trip report to the site. We already have a section of Top Tips for enjoying the outdoors, and this is the first of our Reviews, which we hope will include our favourite tried and tested pieces of gear, as well as new products that we think are of interest. The Guppy Friend laundry bag, which costs £25 and is available from Surfers Against Sewage, is something we've been trying for about a month, and in that time we've been getting the hang of using it, and finding out how it works.
What (and why?) is the Guppy Friend?
The Guppy friend is, in short, a bag designed to catch microfibres, that you put your synthetic (polyester, fleece etc) laundry in, before shoving it in the washing machine. If you've already heard of the scourge of microfibres then you may already understand why this is important, but concerns about the problem that microfibres present for our environment are only just becoming widely known. The problem is, that tiny pieces of fibre break off our clothes every time we launder them, and are washed in to our water systems. The concern about synthetic microfibres, is that like plastic, they persist in the environment for an unknown period of time. A 2017 IUCN report in to Primary Microplastics in the Oceans, estimates that 1.5 million tons of microplastics enter the oceans every year. Of these, 34.8% come from textiles. They slosh around the oceans and rivers, picking up toxins and entering the food chain. Some are so tiny they can even cross cell membranes. We have no idea at this stage what this means for human health but the potential problems are scary to say the least. For those of us that live in synthetic outdoor clothing, the realisation that we may be part of the problem is worrying. The Guppy Friend was invented by some German surfers to try and help solve the problem. It's probably only part of the picture- but the bag is intended to catch the microfibres in the wash, and stop them from going down the drain.
My extreme Guppy Friend test.
Before getting a Guppy Friend, I spoke to a few people who had already used them, and asked how they found them. "Easy" was the common response, but also "I think it works, although I can't see any microfibres in the bag". How to tell if it works? I decided to give it an extreme test, using an extremely old, and frankly environmentally diabolical, fleece blanket, that is so degraded, it leaves a fine mist of microfibres where ever it goes. The first problem I ran in to, is that the Guppy Friend is only supposed to be half filled when it is used. My blanket is pretty big (its a blanket) but I decided to make an exception this time, and hoped that I wouldn't destroy my washing machine.
After a cool wash (as recommended by Guppy Friend), I pulled the blanket out of the bag. It was dripping wet, the spin cycle seemed to have been completely ineffective. I've since learned that this is a consequence of overfilling the bag. A quick check around the seams revealed a horrifying amount of green fluff, all caught in the bag. Guppy Friend are keen to stress that you should never wash these away as it negates the whole point of the bag. Put them in the bin without delay!
What next for the blanket of doom?
These recommendation above about how to dispose of fibres might help answer a burning question that I have about what to do with the offending blanket. Should I continue to use it (microfibres)? Should I bin it (and add to the landfill burden) or return it to it's hiding place at the back of our airing cupboard? I decided to ask Twitter, who preferred the out of sight, out of mind option. For the moment, I'm hanging on to it, in case some form of redemption can be found. Creative ideas welcome...
Guppy Friend extended test.
Meanwhile, the Guppy Friend has seen a lot more normal use, and we've been getting the hang of it's little idiosyncracsies. After each wash, I run a tissue around the seams and wipe out the tiny microfibres. The main problem I have is due to the type of laundry that we generate- which is very heavy on the synthetic fibres, with lots of fleece, and technical outdoor gear. The guppy friend will only take about one set of thermals (tops and bottoms) and a light fleece. Any more than that and it affects the spin cycle. I've taken to putting what I think are likely to be the worst offenders in the bag, and running the rest through as normal. I've not tried using a second bag as yet- at £25 each it's quite an investment.
So what else can we as outdoor consumers do to prevent microfibre pollution from our laundry? Evidence is emerging that if we wash our gear a bit less, reduce the temperature, and slow the spin cycle, we can help reduce microfibre release. Buying good quality gear is also key- cheap fleeces that pill and bobble in the wash are releasing microfibres much more quickly. If buying new, then its worth considering biodegradeable alternatives where appropriate, such as merino wool, or biosynthetics like Tencel Lyocell.