Running Hadrian’s Wall

Firstly, I’m not an ultra runner and have only run a marathon distance once. So it was with this knowledge that I cautiously planned to run Hadrian’s Wall Long Distance Path. I set myself the challenge to complete the route over 4 days (and one evening) and while that is easy for walking, I wanted to be able to run as much of the route as possible which would make it a challenge.

If you’re going to complete this route I recommend West to East as the wind will be behind you encouraging you on. For some reason more people seemed to walk it the other way. Its definitely possible to de entirely on public transport, as Carlisle and Newcastle are on main line stations, with good buses and metro service at either end to get you to the start/finish.

Finally, get yourself the Hadrian’s Wall Passport from either the Fort in Newcastle or Carlisle Tourist information, so you can collect your route stamps along the way. Its a nice memento of your journey!

Bowness on Solway to Carlisle – 15 miles

Having caught the train to Carlisle I dropped some stuff off at my hotel for the night and caught the bus to Bowness on Solway for an evening run of this part of the route. I had toyed with the idea of not bothering with this bit and doing Carlisle to Newcastle only, but the completer in me had to do the whole thing. The bus was £6.90 and was only 40 minutes, I had no excuse really. It was even sunny!

To be honest though, anyone who decides to start or finish at Carlisle still acceptably completes the route in my opinion. On getting off the bus in Bowness I trotted happily along the coastal path before the route winds on farm tracks into Glasson and then Drumburgh before hitting the long section of road all the way into Burgh by Sands. This would have been a dull section to walk but wasn’t much joy having to run.

From here there is another farm track into Beaumont before I discovered the disappointment of a path diversion resulting in more road. It was a beautiful sunny evening though so I tried not to complain.

Eventually I was able to pick up the path at Kirkandrew-on-Eden to reach the river and a lovely track into Carlisle. With all that road running my left leg was already starting to be unhappy as I reached Carlisle quite hungry. Despite the whinging to myself it was a beautiful evening of running in the sunshine.

Carlisle to Greenhead – 20 miles

I set off optimistic about the route today. I was finally going to see sections of Hadrian’s Wall and pass through open countryside. However, I’d barely left Carlisle before my knee started to scream so the pace was slow and tedious all day, though I ran as much as possible. The expectation of being able to run most of the route and actually having to stop and stretch every 4km, I felt disappointed and beaten.

The route heads out of Carlisle by following the river and country lanes towards the M6 and beyond. Upon reaching Crosby on Eden it heads briefly North to reach the remains of the Wall. Passing by the Wall’s Milecastles and following it’s ditch, the route starts to become hilly as it reaches the village of Oldwall and Newtown.

The miles of fields were a joy to run through and for every village the route passes through there is a house selling drinks and snacks or honesty boxes of snacks. I couldn’t resist the honesty fridges selling lollies!

The long slog uphill to Hare Hill felt hard work in the heat and with a sore knee, but the top marked a change to run on the flat for a while. I had a quick break at Birdoswald Roman Fort in order to collect my Hadrian’s Wall passport stamp before heading downhill to the river.

Marked on the map as a Roman bridge there is actually a large metal bridge over the river now but it’s still worth a visit for the impressive foundations of the former Roman bridge and the long section of wall.

From here it was a few miles more through Gilsland and into Greenhead where I finished running for the day. Of course I had booked accommodation slightly off the route and so had to stroll down to Blenkinsopp Castle for the night. Despite complaining to myself for not booking somewhere on the route, it turned out to be well worth the extra distance it as it was a lovely spot. A gorgeous pub with friendly hosts and a lovely room with my own patio! It felt like luxury on a sunny evening!

Greenhead to Chollerford – 17 miles

I woke stiff and feeling like the day was going to be a tough challenge. Having spoke to my partner that morning for moral support, he pointed out that I was running almost back to back marathons so I was bound to be tired and sore. Ok, I wasn’t doing marathon distances but it did make me realise that what I was doing was a challenge for someone who’d never done back to back long runs before.

I started the day with a trudge up the hill to get back onto the route at Greenhead. The running felt comfortable for a while and the views were amazing. This section of the route is pretty hilly as Hadrian’s Wall and the Long Distance Path follow the Great Whin Sill fault line. This long layer of dolerite rock surfaces in this area, forming a long crag and creating a natural boundary that made building Hadrian’s Wall here logical. (The Geological Society have a really interesting page about the Great Whin Sill – follow this link). At least the uphills gave me an excuse to slow down and walk for a short section.

This has to be my favourite section of the route, much of it I have walked before when completing the Pennine Way over 5 years ago. Passing turrets, Milecastles and old Roman Forts the route occasionally breaks for small country lanes before heading uphill again to wide views and more milecastles. The best views are from above Highshield and Hotbank crags.

I stopped briefly for a drink and to get my stamp at Housesteads Roman Fort, one of the biggest forts along the Wall. From here the was one more hill and Trig point before heading downhill towards the road. Here I met the Long Distance Walkers Association Hadrian Hundred participants. A string of walkers heading towards me, with the expected jokes that I was heading the wrong way, the stalwarts with their heads down marching and not expecting to see anyone walking towards them and endless smiling faces happy to say hi. I was pleased when I met the last of them at Brocolitia Roman Fort and the little temple of Mithras.

Here the weather also turned and the end of the day was marked by cloudy skies and cold winds. The remains of the Wall also start to become less visible and marked more by ditches in the landscape. So it was a pleasure to reach Chesters Roman Fort and finish for the day.

I stayed in Acomb at the Queen’s Arms Hotel which was a hidden delight in this quite little village.

Chollerford to Newburn Bridge – 17 miles

I woke to rain and the prospect of standing around waiting for a bus to take me back up to Chollerford. Thankfully by the time I disembarked from the bus it had stopped raining heavily and turned to drizzle.

This section of the route hadn’t inspire me when I looked at the map and saw that for most of the way the path followed the road. I had expected it to be just the other side of a fence in a field and fairly uninteresting. I was really surprised to find it winds through small woodlands, and fields bounded by amazing hawthorn hedges and wild flowers. However, this section does have the highest quantity of stiles, in some place 5 within 50 metres!

Reaching Whittle Dene reservoirs felt like a significant marker as the Path continues on a from here to the A69 and eventually heads South to Heddon-on-the-Wall and the River Tyne.

Of course I’d chosen not to stay on the route but the other side of the river near Ryton, in what turned out to be the quirkiest B&B I’ve ever stayed in. If you’re ever in the area and want to stay somewhere reasonably priced with a four post bed, slip bath and a hall of buddhas, armour and Chinese cats then Hedgefield House is the place for you. It was a lovely place for my last night.

Newburn Bridge to Wallsend – 11 miles

This section of the route is entirely on tarmac as it follows a cycle track and winds through housing and along roads. As a walk it could be a bit dull as Hadrian’s Wall itself has disappeared but it makes a nice run into Newcastle. Eventually it meets the River Tyne again and leads you into the City itself. Running in the rain with a very sore leg I was definitely pleased to see the Tyne Bridges and feel like I was making progress.

As the route leaves the city centre of Newcastle it continues to follow the River, though in places its not well sign posted and I did find myself running through an industrial estate before I eventually found the path again. Its quite unremarkable as much of this area is industrial, being once the site of Tar Works which have left its mark on the river’s water quality, and now being the site of large international oil and gas and steel companies part of the Port of Tyne.

Hadrian’s Wall itself takes a direct line through the City of Newcastle but I think the choice to make the Long Distance Path follow the River Tyne is a good one. The route at this point might be lacking in history but the Tyne does have woodland along its edge and is much prettier than walking through housing.

Reaching Wallsend felt amazing. The Fort has a fantastic museum and cafe so if you’re finishing your journey here its worth a stop and a look around before you jump on the Metro back into the City – and of course get your last stamp in your passport. It was lovely that the staff were excited to hear about how I’d got on and what I thought of the route.

I would definitely recommend the Hadrian’s Wall Path, either as a running adventure or even as a first long distance path adventure. It is easy to break down into manageable distances with lots of places to stay along the route. It’s also super easy to do by public transport, which can’t be said for all long distance paths.

Walking the St Cuthbert’s Way

Opened in 1996 St Cuthbert’s Way is usually tackledin 4 – 6 days and to be honest that’s a really good idea. Over the course of three very long days Sharon, Ted and I tackled the route and discovered that pilgrimages don’t always have to be religious.

The route

The St Cuthbert’s Way winds for 100km from the market town of Melrose in the Scottish Borders, to Lindisfarne Island on the North Sea coast. It crosses through the Cheviot hills in the Northumberland National Park, takes in Roman roads and endless woodlands, riverbanks and open moorland. 

The route starts in Melrose, where St Cuthbert started his religious life in 650AD and ends in on Holy Island, at Lindisfarne Priory, his eventual resting place.

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Planning your walk

There’s a plethora of companies willing to sherpa your bags around and book you accommodation, but its not difficult to sort out yourself. The official route website provides fantastic links to accommodation along the route, but popular accommodation search engines are also useful. Decide how far you want to walk each day and plan your accommodation accordingly.

Starting in Melrose we found accommodation easily as there is a range of pubs and B&Bs available, with plenty taking dogs. Ideal places to stay, depending on how many days you wish to complete the route in would be: St Boswells, Harestanes, Morebattle, Town Yetholm, Hethpool, Wooler, Fenwick and Beal.

Depending on your fitness its possibly to carry your own kit and not have your baggage transported. We packed light with little spare clothing, and bought food en-route in the variety of local shops. Sharon even managed to carry food for Ted and we both carried knitting for the evenings (albeit we never actually did any!)

The real planning challenge with this route is dealing with how you get from the start and finish. We decided to drive to Melrose and leave our car. When we finished we caught the bus back from Beal, via Berwick upon Tweed to Melrose. This is straight forward but takes about 2 hours depending if you make the bus connections (we didn’t and had to have lunch in Berwick!) Bus timetables can be searched for via traveline.

It’s important to carry maps, although the route is very well sign posted with way markers, so we didn’t struggle to find our way. As a rough guide the Scottish section of the walk is really dog friendly, with all of the fences cross through gates. Once in England Ted had to clamber or be picked up over stiles.

Day 1: Melrose to Morebattle 40km (25miles)

Melrose is a lovely market town and worth a visit in its own right. We arrived on Thursday evening and only saw the Abbey in the dark so we intended to spend some time there when we returned.

The route starts from the town centre and heads immediately uphill to the Eildon Hills. These hills would be a significant feature of our first day as despite our progress along the route they remained visible for most of the day. This is the high point of this section.

Crossing through Bowden and into St Boswells the route follow the path of Bowden Burn till it reaches the River Tweed. In hindsight St Boswells would have been a good place to get lunch as there’s a range of lovely cafes and bookshops. But we were on a mission to walk 25 miles so pressed on.

From here the route winds along the River Tweed till it reaches Maxton and meets the Dere Street Roman Road.

Dere Street was a surprise. I expected a surfaced track, perhaps suitable for bikes but this section of the Roman Road is given over to woodland and is a beautiful walk between fields and trees. Eventually the route meets woodland and Harestanes Visitors Centre. We had planned to get a (very) late lunch here. The cafe is advertised as open till 5pm, but stops serving food at 4pm – worth noting if, like us, you arrive late. We luckily managed to get left-over sandwiches from the fridge and had to keep dreaming of soup.

From Harestanes we continued on. If like us you stop at the visitors centre it does mean circling back around through the woodland north of the Monteviot House and Gardens in order to get back on to the river.

Here you cross a suspension bridge and follow the river before getting back on Dere Street Roman Road – here it is a stony track. Continuing to follow the route along through woodland and fields we continued on, the miles slowly making our feet tired. Despite the late hour the walk through the rapeseed fields and woodland was magical, with deer and badgers appearing in the dusk.

The route eventually ends up on country lanes as it leads to Morebattle, and passes the impressive Cessford Castle, a huge ruined tower.

We had called ahead to the Temple Hall Hotel to pre-order food and they obliged by providing hot pizza when we arrived.

Day 2: Morebattle to Wooler 32km (20miles)

After a great breakfast and a visit to the community shop to find lunch we left Morebattle a little later than intended. The route starts by walking along the lanes before heading uphill to Grubbit Law. Its worth noting that on the map it looks like you need to ford a river to head uphill but there is in fact a wooden bridge just beyond the ford, making crossing easy.

It was a hot day and while not high it was a pleasure to be done with uphill and walk along the top of the fell to Wideopen Hill summit. The summit at 368m is the highest point on the route and is marked as the halfway point on the St Cuthbert’s Way. It definitely provides fantastic views across the Borders.

Once in Kirk Yetholm we enjoyed the shade and had lunch where the route joins the end of the Pennine Way. It was interesting to find myself back here, having completed the Pennine Way in 2004 and not expected to find myself in the tiny village of Kirk Yetholm again.

From Kirk Yetholm we walked along the road to head up the fell to the Scottish/English Border. Here the division in the countries follows the fell top ridge line, and while marked by a gate and a signpost, you’d be forgiven not realising there’s a border.

Crossing through the gate the landscape of the Northumberland National Park did seem different, as if the requirement to mark access land and the appearance of sheep somehow transformed the feel of the landscape.

We followed the route downhill through fields, a felled woodland and onto a long and tedious farm track guarded by sheep before reaching the quiet village of Hethpool. Ted hadn’t had that many opportunities to bark at sheep so far and so appeared to ignore the yank of the lead to keep him quiet.

From Hethpool the route heads East along the side of Wester Tor before briefly being redirected around the farm at Torleehouse, and heading uphill to grouse moorland and a landscape similar to our own Peak District. The moorland track continues for nearly 5km over Gains Law before finally dropping down towards the market town of Wooler.

We arrived late on Sunday in Wooler and the Black Bull Inn didn’t do food, but thankfully the Milan restaurant next door served food till 10pm so we had time to shower and make ourselves look tidy before we headed out for food.

Day 3: Wooler to Lindisfarne 29km (18 miles)

We managed to leave at 9am from Wooler and headed along the roads on to Weetwood Moor. I confess that I’d looked the map and decided it was entirely possible to miss this uphill and down hill diversion by walking on the road. However it is a lovely stretch of moorland with great views and provides a great aspect to see the Weetwood bridge from. The road is also quite busy and frankly this final day of walking has more than enough tarmac already in my opinion.

From Weetwood Hall the route takes in country lanes and track for around 8km, even when it crosses fields it’s still a stony track. In the hot sunshine this became a bit of a tedious walk with our tired feet. When we reached the woodland we sat in the shade to have lunch, a lovely spot for a break with a view across the fields.

Further on we came to St Cuthbert’s cave. The Cave is an impressive overhanging sandstone rock supported by a single piece of stone, making it look precarious. According to legend, monks carrying St Cuthbert’s body from Lindisfarne took refuge here.

From the top of the hill above the cave the path winds down through fields and the Sheillow woodland before it reaches the village of Fenwick and the busy A1 road.

We continued on from here, taking care to cross the mainline railway and wandering through fields the reach the end of the Lindisfarne Causeway. The traditional route follows the posts across the sands to reach Holy Island. We did follow them as we had a few hours before the tide started to come in, however the sand is really estuary mud and so is very sticky and unpleasant in places. Ted’s feet were also sore on the sand so we bailed off to walk the rest of the way on the causeway.

We’d luckily arranged a lift back from the lovely Fred at Brockmill Farmhouse where we were staying for the night, so we had an hour to have food in the Crown and Anchor before we had to leave and beat the incoming tide.

Reaching the priory, the end of the route, felt like a great place to end a tough 3 day walk, and we were pleased to arrive in Holy Island at the end of the day when it was quiet.

Finding our pilgrimage

Walking the St Cuthbert’s Way turned out to be a pilgrimage for us both after all, even if it wasn’t a religious one. It was a journey which tested our ability to walk long distances to reach our destination and provided opportunities for us to explore a new landscape, cross boundaries and see Roman and Christian history.

I’d definitely recommend this route – the variety of terrain as it winds through the Scottish Borders into Northumberland makes it worthwhile.

CMD Arete and Ben Nevis

I’d hoped that Christmas would have marked the start of the winter and provide me with the start of winter log book days for this season, ahead of me preparing for my Winter Mountain Leader Assessment in a few months.

Whilst there had been snow in December, by the time we arrived in Fort William we were in the middle of a thaw and the North Face of Ben Nevis was devoid of snow – except on the very upper reaches of the gullies.

Despite this we set off at 7.45am in the dark to do the Carn Mor Dearg arête and Ben Nevis, a challenge even in December’s ‘summer’ conditions.

CMD Arete

The walk through the woodland from the North Face car park is straightforward even in the dark and takes about an hour to get to the fence which marks the open moorland and access to the North Face of Ben Nevis.

It was a typical Scottish morning and the dark was accompanied by wind and rain. We soon found the barely noticeable footpath off the main track which heads up onto Carn Beag Dearg and beyond to the wide open ridge to the munro summit of Carn Mor Dearg.

It was noticeable how mild the conditions were as we immediately started wading through moorland bog as we trudged uphill.

Despite heading into the mist around 600m the route isn’t complicated as it heads south-east along the top. A cairn marks the first summit of Carn Dearg Meadhonach before reaching the summit of Carn Mor Dearg.

We had been here in March in the midst of the fantastic winter but were beaten back by strong winds; it was such a contrast to be here in mild damp conditions.

Beyond the summit, the CMD arête begins to head south before curving round the head of the valley south westwards, towards the col before Ben Nevis. At around 1.5km long it is certainly a committing ridge as you cannot escape once on it, without retreating.

Despite being a grade 1 scramble in summer conditions, it is not as complicated as Crib Goch or the Devil’s Ridge on the Ring of Steall, as there are no technical scramble sections which cannot be completely avoided. That said in winter conditions it would be a committing and slow undertaking.

Ben Nevis

From the col the route scrambles up between the rocks to reach the summit of Ben Nevis. Whilst the summit did still have snow, it wasn’t so significant that we had to use crampons or axes. The mist wasn’t even so low that we couldn’t see the large summit cairns marking the way.

That said its important to be prepared up here, as the summit plateau is treacherous in poor visibility. Gardyloo Gully is very close to the trig point, and requires navigation around to get back to the tourist path back to Glen Nevis.

Its useful to have the key information scribbled on the edge of your map to aid descent – a bearing of 231 degrees walked for 150m, then stay on 282 degrees to reach the zigzag path and the large cairns. Beware that if you stray too far on the first bearing its possible to mistakenly enter the top of Five Finger Gully. Be confident in your pacing in poor visibility.

If you want a detailed article on navigating on the summit check out UKHillwalking.

Despite it being December as we descended we met the ubiquitous idiot in shorts with no map, casually dragging his partner to the summit. I couldn’t help remarking to him that I hope he kept warm in the wind, and while he looked sheepish I doubt he’d make a different decision next time.

The zigzag path back down is easy to navigate once on it, although once at the ‘halfway loch’ (Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe) we headed off on the path northwards to more bog trotting as we headed back to the track to the North Face car park.

 

 

Walking in Asturias – The Camino Real del Puerto de la Mesa

Having hiked in Asturias a few times before I was prepared for open trails and amazing views. The Camino Real del Puerto de la Mesa, high up in the mountains provides all this, along with an amazing insight into local history.

The GR-101 is a path that runs from south to north through Asturias, leaving Torrestío and ending at Las Cruces, after passing through Belmonte. The route follows the old Roman road of La Mesa, more commonly known as El Camín Real. This route linked the Castilian plateau with the town of Gijón.

The Roman road is around 45km long. This trail also has a variant, the GR-101.1 Camino Real de Cueiru to Villanueva, which is what we walked (in reverse).

For an Open Street Map view of the whole of the GR101.1 click here – we opted to walk as far as the old historical town of Bandujo / Banduxu.

Walking the GR 101.1

We started our walk along the trail from Castanedo del Monte, a small village in the hills above the old industrial town of Trubia and heading for the medieval town of Bandujo.

Should you wish to start the trail lower down the valley is possible to walk up the hill from Villanueva, along the old packhorse trail, following the signs for Cuevallagar. (We used this route to head down to Villanueva a few days later and I can confirm its easy to navigate and a lovely walk through the woods – although preferable downhill!)

From Castanedo del Monte the trail, signposted as the GR 101.1, heads out of the village on a small lane which hugs the side of the hill and looks out over the woodland and valley below.

The lane eventually turns into a dirt track and heads into the woodland towards the old local mines. The town of Trubia in the valley used to be a bustling industrial town with workers coming up the hill to work in the mines. Now the mines are abandoned and provide an interesting feature along the walk.

From the mines the path winds up the hillside to eventually reach the top and the village of Linares, where you can follow the road to reach a small car park where people come to sit and admire the view.

Here the Camino Real del Puerto de la Mesa, is at its peak. The track now heads across the top of the hill, giving amazing views to the mountains beyond as it winds along.

On a scorching hot day at the end of August it was beautiful, but also a shade free place to be at midday. We continued along the track as it wound around the hillside, past farm fields and small limestone escarpments above. Despite being a walking trail this is also farming country, with lots of cattle roaming, and the occasional farm truck whizzing past kicking up the dust.

Around lunchtime we reached Cuevallagar, a plateau with a perfect lunch spot near a tree.

After a feast of Asturias cheese and bread with cider we followed the GR101.1 towards Maraviu, turning off the track to head across the grassy plateau. Eventually the track re-emerges for a while and you start to wind downhill to a bend where you reach a junction and turn right to end up in another grassy field. Here you head across and uphill to reach a gate and the road.

We were met at the gate by an old farmer tending his cattle and a small yapping chihuahua. He offered his chilled CocaCola from a hidden freezer box, which Leah of course accepted in her fluent Spanish. He confirmed that we were on the road which headed down to Bandujo.

While the route was no longer the official trail and now a tarmac road it was still quiet and peaceful and on arriving near Bandujo I could see why Leah had insisted that this was our goal.

The church of St. Mary in the centre of Bandujo is of medieval origin and underwent restoration in the 18th century. The palace of Bandujo and its tower is one of the best preserved late medieval defensive towers in Asturias. This building also served as a prison and town hall.

Here we were lucky enough to be met by Dan, Leah’s husband for a lift back to Villanueva.

Tough decisions on the Jungfrau

Crossing the 1 foot wide ridge of snow I was very aware of the snow melting under my feet and becoming unstable. I held my breath and walked confidently, eyes ahead.

We’d already lost half an hour on the ascent waiting for a team ahead of us to climb the snow to the ridge line, their guide leading the way and belaying them up. When we crossed the ridge we had to wait again for the guide to cross the couloir, digging a foot deep through the snow to place ice screws, securing the traverse to the metal stake and beyond to the rocks.

Waiting on a route is never ideal, especially when the snow under our feet was fresh and only had one night of freezing. And the sun was already high in the sky, melting it.

Tempting fate

Our decision to have a go at the Jungfrau was borne out of our original goal to climb it and the Monch on our trip to Switzerland, and out of frustration at having our plans change due to wet weather for a few days. For 4 days it rained heavily on and off, a few of those times we had been caught out trail running or crag climbing, determined to make the most of the breaks between showers.

The weather had promised to be glorious on Saturday, the day before we went home, so after a long discussion about the likelihood of the snow higher up having had chance to consolidate, we gambled on a trip up high to try the Jungfrau. We also winced at the cost of the Jungfraujoch train, at £180 or so each this wasn’t a cheap gamble.

So Friday afternoon we headed up on the train, through the low cloud and drizzle. There’s no doubting that the Jungfraujoch is an amazing feat of engineering, but in the mist we were unable to really appreciate this, with no view to be had at the Eismeer station half way up the inside of the Eiger.

Despite the awful weather the summit station was busy with tourists, also unable to appreciate the landscape their were in from the panorama windows of the cafe.

We kitted up at the doorway and headed out along the snowy track to the Monchjoch hut, it what can best be described as typical Scottish conditions. Damp and foggy.

Waking up to clear skies

Waking at 3am to discover that it had been clear skies overnight and the ground had frozen was a great relief but we were aware that this wasn’t likely to last and the unconsolidated snow while frozen now would soon melt in the morning sun.

We were the second team out of the hut as we headed back along the track to the Jungfraujoch where we roped up and headed across the glacier as quick as we could to the bottom of the Rottersattel ridge.

The views down the glacier even at 4.30am were beautiful.

Before stepping on to the rock ridge we had to cross a crevasse bridge, I wondered how stable it would be as we descended later.

The rock ridge began with what we now realised was typical Swiss broken rock before we reached the bigger stable rocks. Climbing the ridge we moved quickly together, traversing round the east side and heading left before climbing up to the top.

Once up the rock we had a lovely snow plod across the broad ridge to the bottom of the ascent. The sun was already shining and we’d caught up the guided group ahead of us.

We had a snack and a drink waiting for the group to ascend and traverse the snow ridge, mindful that we were losing valuable time and the snow was melting. We were grateful to the guide for breaking trail, but his choice to belay his group one by one up the snow was taking time.  I was particularly nervous when we traversed the narrow arete and onto the snow bank which looked down on the steep western side. The metal stakes were appreciated on the traverse.

From here we had a rocky ridge to ascend to the summit, but with the sun beating down and the snow turning to slush beneath our feet, within 100m of the summit at 9am we decided to turn around. The route we had come up had required considerable front pointing to ascend.

With quick discussion and much disappointment, we decided to turn around in order to descend safely – to reach the summit might have taken an hour to get up and back to where we were and it was a chance we didn’t want to take.

Retreating from a route is always disappointing. The team ahead summited and thanks to their guide who knew an alternative way to descend they did so quickly. However, without this knowledge we saw the giant serrac as an impenetrable obstacle to descend, and so we had to retreat the way we came, down the mushy snow, carefully.

As we reached the bottom of the rocky Rottersattel ridge we realised that the crevasse bridge was now too soft to walk on and to walk above it on the slope too risky to try – the snow too soft to hold an arrest if one of us slipped. So we had to head down the other side of the ridge and descend much further on shale to reach the glacier.

The trek back to the Jungfraujoch station was incredible slow and tiring in the midday sunshine.

Scrambling on the Wetterhorn

Towering over Grindelwald town the Wetterhorn is captivating, its ridges and high glacier catch the eye. Its also less likely to be shroud in cloud than the Eiger so looks seriously impressive.

The route up the Wetterhorn from Grindelwald takes in the Wilsgratli ridge up to the Wettersattel and then snow or rock to the summit. It’s not immediately obvious from the town as it is a narrow ridge in the centre of the Crinnen glacier.

Knowing the ridge was AD- there was a long discussion about its complexity, and whether I was going to be able to haul myself up it without too much whinging.

In hindsight, we should have also had a discussion about coming back down.

The walk in to the Gleckstein Hut

The route starts at a large car park near the Wetterhorn hotel and follows a track through the woodland which then heads steeply northeast to pick up a path which contours around the side of the mountain.

The walk in to the Gleckstein hut was also only 3 and half hours which was quite attractive after the slog we had to get to the Mutthorn hut a few days earlier.

It was lovely, a pleasant meander around the mountain heading slowly uphill and around towards the Oberer Grindelwald glacier to reach the hut.

The Gleckstein hut is popular with guides for teaching alpine skills and for hikers walking into see the glaciers, and you can see why. When we arrived we sat looking out across the valley watching the sunset.

We left the hut at 4am, the first out, but this left us route finding to find the Willsgrati ridge to reach the Wettersattel. While there is an obvious path which runs up to the Chrinnen glacier, there are also a number of paths which branch off from it.

Once on the glacier we roped up and headed uphill to find the snow gully which provides access to the route, described in the guide book as ‘climb up unpleasantly for 200m’ before crossing a couloir before getting to the Willsgratli ridge.

Once off the glacier it became clear that the rock on the Wetterhorn is not at all stable, even when frozen. We crossed the couloir to head onto the ridge where we stuck to the ridge top to ascent.

Once on the ridge it was mostly scrambling to reach the Wettersattel col. Roped up we weren’t quick, but then I knew I would find this tricky, given the exposure and loose rock. Despite some whinging from me, we kept to guidebook time to reach the col and onto the snow.

The snow was the quickest way to reach the summit so we headed up to a glorious view.

We were also lucky to get a selfie with the Eiger!!

Descending is always the hardest

The sun was already hot and melting the snow as we descended from the Wetterhorn. We decided to use the stakes on the rock, which in hindsight was slow albeit safer than the snow.

We were the last of the three groups that has ascended that morning to get back on to the ridge and descend. As the ridge is well known for rock fall this meant that we weren’t going to have anything fall on us, but we had to be safe to prevent dropping rock on others.

Despite the AD- grade not being the hardest alpine route I’ve done, the descent back to the hut was definitely the scariest I’ve completed. Teetering on the rock and trying to place gear to protect ourselves I can admit I was scared for the full 6 hours or so it took us to get back down from the summit to the hut.

This was made much worse when a couple who were being guided were airlifted from the ridge in front of us. The helicopter came close to the ridge and picked up someone before heading down to the Gleckstein hut. Later we passed a blood splattered rock.

Back at the hut I asked how they were and was pleased to find out the female had slipped and suffered only a leg injury, but this hadn’t stopped us from imagining the worst as we had descended – being aware that they had been climbing without helmets.

The lower part of the ridge is tricky to find the exit route, once you’ve passed the three stakes look for a way off to the right. If you’re lucky you might find the stakes across the couloir to get back to the more solid rock and eventually the glacier.

We were slow, possibly dehydrated and hungry when we finally got off the glacier and down to the hut where we had lunch and fluid before descending back to the Wetterhorn hotel. It was a long 18 hour day!

Tschingelhorn – a Bernese Oberland initiation

Acclimatizing well is at the core of a successful mountaineering trip to the Alps. So starting low and working our way up the altitudes was a sensible approach to our plans in Switzerland. It’s easy to do when you’re somewhere like Chamonix where you can reach high altitudes with relative ease on the cable cars, but the Bernese Oberland proved to be a different beast entirely.

We chose the Tschingelhorn due to it being a low alpine summit at 3562m and having a straightforward summit route, graded PD (French for a little difficult) so we knew it was achievable. Having to walk in also meant that we would be able to acclimatize as we went.

What we hadn’t banked on was a mammoth walk to reach the Mutthorn hut at the base of the Mutthorn ridge, almost in the middle of the glacier, and 2000m of ascent from the start at Stechelberg. It didn’t look that far on the map, but when you add in the ascent to get there, and the hot sunshine, it was a hard slog.

The walk in to the Mutthorn hut

Starting at the end of the Lauterbrunnen valley in the tiny village of Stechelberg, we parked up and followed the signs to Obersteinberg, a 6km walk gaining around 800m height.

Whilst an endless slog uphill on narrow woodland tracks, the path provides a fantastic opportunity to see the changes in the landscape and walk through a pristine UNESCO Word Heritage landscape. Much of the Jungfrau region achieves this designation but as we found out later in our trip, this also brings bus loads of tourists so the solitude we found on our walk into the Mutthorn hut can’t be easily found elsewhere.

It took about 3 hours walking through the woodland forest trails and up to the pastures to reach Obersteinberg, where a hut provided a refreshment stop and a chance to check the map before heading across the glacier beyond.

From here we followed signs to Oberhoresee, a little glacial lake and a popular destination for hikers exploring the valley. We stopped briefly in the baking sun and contemplated cooling off there on our descent.

From there the path becomes less distinct as it turns from a walkers path marked by red and white striped marks, to an alpinist track marked by blue and white marks. It winds through the moraine, scree and eventually out on to the glacier itself.

From looking at our map it became clear that while it was still very early in the season and lots of fresh snow was still around, the glacier itself had receded considerably from what was marked on the map.

This also meant that a direct approach wasn’t possible due to the crevasses and seracs now present. So we had to loop around to be able to ascend up the glacier towards the hut. The snow conditions weren’t great either as the glacier was covered in a foot of snow which had melted to create a surface like the moon.

The Mutthorn hut

The Mutthorn hut perches on the end of the Mutthorn, a shaly rock ridge which rises out of the glacier. To reach the hut required circling around the crevasse to access the door.

Despite its isolated location, or perhaps because of it, the Mutthorn guardians provide a very warm welcome – a hot drink and chocolate to all of their guests. Run by the Swiss Alpine Club, members get a good discount, as do reciprocal clubs.

The evening meal was basic – soup followed by cheese, potatoes and salad and then fruit salad – but considering our location I was surprised to get anything fresh.

Ascending the Tschingelhorn

We left the hut at 4am to ensure we had enough time before the sun rose and started to melt the snow. Crossing the moon like glacier was much easier when it was frozen from a night under clear skies.

The ascent is fairly straight forward, we had to circle around the Tshingelhorn ridge to the South side and ascent the gully to the col and follow the ridge to the summit. At about 45 degrees the 300m gully was long and steep but in a solid condition and well trodden so was easy-going (although at 3000m altitude it was hard work!)

The view from the summit was fantastic, looking over to the Breithorn and further beyond to the Aletschhorn.

Had we properly considered how challenging it would be to get to the Mutthorn hut we would have budgeted for staying more nights and doing other peaks in the area, but as we hadn’t we descended back to the hut and after a quick lunch continued back down to the valley – a very long 17 hour day mountaineering.

Free online mapping can be found at https://s.geo.admin.ch/7bd468f691

The Ring of Steall

Its taken me a while to write up my Easter trip, so much so that trad climbing season is well underway. Anyway…. here you go.

There’s some routes in Scotland that are epic and have a reputation for endurance, requiring nerves of steel or providing amazing views. The Ring of Steall doesn’t disappoint on any of these.

The Ring of Steall is a classic Scottish route, covering 4 munro summits and narrow rocky aretes, made even more special in full winter conditions. The route is around 10 miles long with over 1800m of ascent, making this a tough walk in any conditions.

We tackled this route over Easter when winter was still dominating the mountain summits in Scotland, but snow and ice can lie on Scottish mountains well into the Spring so make sure you check the conditions before you set out and be suitably prepared.

Sgurr a Mhaim

Heading from Glen Nevis lower falls carpark, the walk up the first munro, Sgurr a Mhaim is a long tedious trudge of endless ascent. We didn’t reach the snow line until around 800m but once there the cloud lifted and we were treated to an amazing view of the Devils Ridge.

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I was a bit apprehensive as we crossed the Devil’s Ridge. Its incredibly narrow in places with a few spots of tricky scrambling which can test your head for heights, especially scrambling in crampons. This is grade I terrain in winter so don’t under estimate it; even in summer it would be a tricky scramble.

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Despite a few narrow places the Devil’s ridge wasn’t the intimidating crossing I had anticipated and we reached the other side in no time.

Am Bodach and Stob Coire a Chairn

From the end of the Devil’s Ridge we circled round towards Am Bodach, crossing over the summit of Sgurr am Lhubair. I knew what to expect on Am Bodach, having climbed the summit from the other side in December. However, much later in the season the deep powder snow had been through a winter of freeze and thaw cycles and the descent down to the north col was 200m of concrete-hard neve ice. For the first time on the route I was genuinely a bit scared. I’d slipped on old neve about 8 years ago, the fall resulted in twisting my knee, so I took front pointing the descent slowly and counting under my breathe to calm myself.

Thankfully once we’d descended the snow softened and we even dug out a bucket seat in the deep snow as we crossed to Stob Coire a Chairn, to have lunch in the sunshine. This munro summit is easy to cross without consideration after Am Bodach, but does provide a good view back along the route.

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From the third munro we descended more hard neve, though not terrifying, to our final munro.

An Gearanach

The scramble up on to An Gearanach summit isn’t difficult, but towards the end of the day it did require effort to pick through the snow and rocks to the top.

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Once across the summit the descent also required careful route finding to pick our way down through the rocks and crags. It took several false starts before we found a route down to the col from where we could head East to descend to the river. Don’t head West to the Steall waterfall, whilst this looks like an easier descent initially, you cannot descend directly from Steall Falls.

In winter conditions we had to front point down the steep snow banking to reach the river. From there we continued to descend the path to Glen Nevis and the boggy crossing to reach Steall hut and the steel rope bridge.

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We were lucky to be able to flag a lift back down to our car otherwise it would have been a long dull trudge along the road to finish. Here’s the route for a gpx file click the map to find it via OSMaps :

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Trying to stay motivated at the end of winter

I’ve just walked off the hill from another disappointing weekend of 70mph winds and a lack of activity it’s made me think – I’ve had difficult winter. I started with the intent to bag lots of winter days towards my winter ML log book and it started well, with a trip with to Glencoe with a friend also working towards her winter ML. (She passed this week). Almost right away it went downhill.

I felt demoralised as I wasn’t as confident as her and lacked belief in myself. I compared myself to her, seeing that I couldn’t keep up with her and she was much quicker at making navigational decisions.

Since then I’ve had 4 other trips to Scotland which have only established this feeling of not being good enough.

I’ve been left to do my own thing by my climbing friends in the Cairngorms and not having the opportunity and confidence to join them, and then two big days in Braemar which I was definitely on it with the navigation but lacked confidence in leading.

And then I went to the Ben, and didn’t manage to finish the CMD Arête circular, only making it to Carn Mor Dearg summit due to really strong winds.

I feel like I’ve had lots of failures and not just that one. There was failing to try Dorsal Arête out of fear and failing to try the Devil’s Ridge on a windy day.

So at the end of winter with one trip north left I’m thinking of not bothering and giving up and letting the spring seep in.

I can navigate really well. I know this. But I worry about being in whiteouts. I have all the skills but on steep terrain I still freak out, especially climbing rocky ridges in the ice.

I’ve suffered from spending the winter with climbers who are technically more skilled than me and have generally left me behind for doing their own adventures. You think this would work in my favour as I’d get to solo some peaks, but I’ve always had someone in tow who either wasn’t as skilled and lacked enthusiasm for effort or occasionally a climber who wished they were climbing and were demoralised they were walking instead.

In honesty, I’ve had some good days too. Snowshoeing in Glen Feshie was the highlight of the winter, gorgeous weather and conditions and I felt success being on my own in the clag in the summit.

I did enjoy the navigational challenges around Braemar too, gaining confidence in my abilities to navigate in poor visibility.

But on the whole winter doesn’t feel like a success to me. There’s been more disappointment.

How do you learn to winter climb?

I joined a mountaineering club to get out more in winter and while that’s happened, after three winters with them I’ve not yet climbed any winter routes.

Winter is so short and the conditions in Scotland so unreliable that climbers in winter lack the patient to teach others in the same way that you find at the summer crag.

How do you learnt to climb in winter without paying for an instructor?

I had a great club trip to Rjukan in 2017 which was aimed at giving people the chance to learn as well as progress. That’s the only time I’ve ever had that opportunity to try and learn.

I’m not against paying for instruction but with winter climbing how does that really build skills to get outside again without a support system?

Or is it my learning style?

Maybe I struggle to learn from the people around me because I lack the confidence to just have a go.

I met a guy this winter at the CIC hut who was in his first winter season climbing and had already lead a IV pitch. His attitude was to just get on something and try, to learn quick and have a go.

Maybe my cautious attitude is what holds me back. Maybe my fears and my reluctance to push myself and find myself scared somewhere exposed, is what stops me just getting on and seconding behind an experience leader.

I had hoped to climb a few routes this winter with friends and the only opportunity I had on Dorsal Arête I bottled it. Since then there’s not been any opportunities, so I’ve failed in that objective for the season.

I’d also hoped to have more log book days completed, but I’ve done 12 this winter.

It feels like poor progress.

What now?

I’m heading into spring being grateful for the chance to whinge on the rocks with the more friendly and helpful trad climbing community.

I’m trying to be less critically reflective of myself and be more open to opportunities.

I’ll try this summer to not let fear prevent me getting on routes so that perhaps next winter I’ll get to try something.

I might still squeeze in one last trip this winter to Scotland but as for the future of my winter ML?

I think I need to be honest that I don’t know if it’s really for me. I don’t know if I’m really a leader in the winter environment, maybe I bit off more than I can chew with that particular challenge.

Cogne: Cascades de Lilliaz

We had checked out the popular and only easy to access climbing spot of the Cascade de Lilliaz at the start of the week. It looked like a good plan for when we would be too tired to do more long walk ins and when the weather was predicted to be less reliable.

The cascades is the only climb which isn’t a committing route as you can bail off at any point along the river route. This also means it is very popular with climbers and spectators.

We had only intended to do one day of climbing there but after Moliene wasn’t in condition we headed back there on both Friday and Saturday.

There had been heavy snowfall and any thin ice had been covered enough for us to momentarily forget about it. So on Friday we headed up and climbed pitch 3 on the right side.

The ice was actually quite good although it did have gaping holes in some places where you could see straight through to the waterfall below.

We went continued up the river gorge to climb pitch 4.

Pitch 4 felt much easier and while there was a mid way belay point we did it in one pitch.

We had such great fun we headed back down to do the left side of pitch 3.

The following day we couldn’t bear to pay for ski hire so we headed back to climb the first two pitches. Having arrived a bit late we discovered the truth about the Cascade de Lilliaz, it is a very popular ice crag. Especially for groups and for instructors to take clients. As such it took us a while to be able to climb up the middle of the waterfall.

I found this line incredibly tricky as the centre of the waterfall was cauliflower ice formations and very snowy and soft on the top. I didn’t feel stable at all so there was some severe whinging from me.

From here we walked around the gorge to pitch 2 which was much more fun.