What I’ve loved this season in Antarctica

A few of my favourite things from the past season.

I’ve just returned from four months in Antarctica, working for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust in the famous Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy through the southern summer season.  It’s been an overwhelming couple of weeks, as I reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do little everyday things that were missing from my life over those 110 days.

Like using money and buying things I want from shops and bars, rather than just asking someone to bring things to me.  Driving, and even just moving around at a faster pace.  The colour green.  Or looking out the window and seeing animals that aren’t penguins.  I miss those penguins.  (Though the odour of penguin guano is still lingering on in the fabric of my outdoor clothing).

Then there was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona.  Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined I’d have, but waving through the window of houses as I stood outside in the garden, and staccato notes in what’s app chats and skype calls.  It’s tough, but I know that I’m not the worst off in this situation, and for that, I’m so very thankful.

These are a few of the things that I loved over my Antarctic season, living in close confines with a small team, on a little island with no escape.  There may even be a couple of things you find useful yourself over the next few weeks as we adjust to living in lockdown.

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Things I’ve loved during the southern summer in Antarctica

My Antarctica love list:

Nivea Factor 50 sunblock: The Antarctic atmosphere is ozone-depleted, and intense sun rays can penetrate through more easily, even on overcast days.  Harsh light is reflected back by ice, snow, and the sea.  I wore this every day to protect my skin, and I love the familiar summer-smell of it.

Cébé Summit sunglasses: As with the sunblock, these were essential everyday wear for working outside, even when it was an overcast day.  They have category 4 UV protection, transmitting less than 8% of visible light, so will become part of my ski kit.

Palmer’s coconut oil leave-in conditioner: Like the Nivea, it became an everyday essential to protect my hair from the wind and sun, and it smells wonderful.  Sometimes a blast of it was just enough to drive out the smell of penguin guano until my next shower.

Merino beanie:  This merino beanie hat from Findra is super warm but lightweight and breathable, and in my favourite colours.  Perfect for an Antarctic summer, and autumn in Ushuaia.  I’ll keep wearing into next season, as I’ve already had a couple of frosty mornings and snow showers this week in Scotland.

Splashmaps toob: I live right on the North Sea coast, so this is excellent for keeping the breeze off my neck on cold walks, and my hair out of my eyes as I run.  The Antarctic peninsula map and gentoo penguin design is exclusive from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Rab powerstretch gloves: Super warm and stretchy gloves.  For all the reasons above.

There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.

Billy Connolly

The Storied Ice by Joan N. Boothe:  A fantastically readable book covering the history of the Antarctic peninsula region.  My recommendation for anyone interested in learning more about the continent before their visit, or gaining a vicarious overview of exploration and discovery.

Leatherman sidekick:  A pocket-sized multi-tool I’ve been using for everything from opening up generators to breaking down cardboard boxes.

Irish wheaten bread:  Kit introduces us to the delight that is Irish wheaten bread with this mix from the Cookie Jar Bakery in Newcastle, Co. Down.  Devoured still warm with butter donated from a cruise ship.

The Tin Can Cook by Jack Monroe:  While our provisions in Antarctica were mainly tinned or dried products, this was a consequence of our privilege to be in such a unique location.  For many others, tinned food is an affordable and nutritious necessity.  This brilliant book by cook and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe helped us put together tasty and inventive meals.

Berocca:  Fizzy multivitamins, these were essential for the days when “freshies” (fresh fruit and vegetables) hadn’t been available.

Bananagrams: A simple but addictive Scrabble-like game of assembling words.  This occupied several of our evenings, and according to the Lockroy rules, abbreviations and words in Finnish, te reo Māori, and Scots are all accepted.  As there was no google to check the veracity of claims, it all came down to how convincingly you could argue.

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1. Leatherman Sidekick; 2. The Tin Can Cook by Jack Monroe; 3. Palmer’s leave-in conditioner; 4. Nivea Factor 50 sunblock; 5. Berocca multivitamins; 6. Bananagrams game; 7. Merino beanie hat from Findra; 8. Powerstretch fleece gloves from Rab; 9. Cébé Summit sunglasses; 10. Port Lockroy Splashmaps Toob; 11. Wheaten Bread Mix from the Cookie Jar Bakery; 12. The Storied Ice by Joan N. Booth.

 

What’s next:

Well, who really knows what the answer to that question will be?  I’m back home in Aberdeenshire, and finding myself at the end of a contract at a terrible time to find any work, let alone in the travel and outdoor sector.  However, I have a roof over my head and food to eat, and time to process the experience, which I think is all anyone can ask for right now.

Here’s to a bit of time enjoying the great indoors.  Stay safe, and thank you for following These Vagabond Shoes.

Vicky

I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to, and how you’ve been dealing with time spent in isolation or lockdown.  Let me know in the comments below.

Surviving Lockdown: Advice from an Ocean Sailor

Lessons learned from sailing experiences that prepared me for isolation during lockdown.

I’ve just returned to the UK from Antarctica, to be faced with strange and uncertain times as a consequence of the global COVID-19 outbreak.  I spent four months at Port Lockroy, living and working on a small island with a close team, and as some of you may know, before that I worked on several traditional sailing vessels.

Some of the sailing voyages I made were long; bluewater passages far from land, or any other vessels for that matter.  Being on the open ocean is both an awesome experience and deeply monotonous, epically profound and incredibly prosaic.  And it has been thorough preparation for our current situation.  Sailing on an empty sea with the same crew for weeks at a time, often facing stormy and uncertain conditions has taught me valuable lessons that can be applied to this lockdown.

Of course, there are vital differences.  Making a long ocean passage is a choice (though by day 19 you may beg to differ), unlike our required lockdown to keep ourselves and our communities protected from infection.  But the sense of isolation, precariousness, and cabin fever is familiar.

So, some advice from a sailor, to help us weather these uncertain times.  Here are 11 lessons I’ve learned about living in isolation.

The novelty will wear off.

The first few days after setting sail are thrilling; the endless expanse of the ocean, fresh wind in your hair, and salt spray on your skin.  The excitement of heading into the unknown.  A feeling of complete freedom.

It may be the same during the lockdown period.  At first, the luxury of idle time. Oh, the possibilities!  But then the monotonous ocean swells of boredom roll on and on over the horizon, no end in sight.  It can be hard not to feel a little melancholic, but understand that it’s natural to feel this way, and it will ebb and flow over time.  Prepare yourself, and don’t let your worries become overwhelming.

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The work is never done.

Cruising along under sail, it might seem like there’s little activity happening aboard a ship.  Once the sails are set, what remains to be done?  Actually, there’s more than enough to keep busy.  A good bosun has a neverending list to work on before the end of the voyage.  Make yourself a lockdown list of everyday chores, outstanding tasks, and even aspirational undertakings, adding to it as the days in isolation go on.  Aim to accomplish one or more items ticked off each day.

Keep those goals achievable.

That being said, it can be tempting to make some grand plans when you’re without everyday interruptions.  “I’ll become fluent in Spanish!  I’ll finally write my novel!  I’ll train for an ultramarathon!”  If you have that level of focus and commitment, good on you.

I find it more effective to set small, attainable goals, so if times get tough, I still feel like I’ve achieved something.  Right now, I have two main goals; to do something active every day, to rebuild my fitness after four months in Antarctica, and to write every day.  Having these goals in place helps motivation, and sometimes finding that alone can be enough of a win.

You, the crew, then the ship.

You have certain responsibilities as part of the crew to keep everyone safe, and they come in this order:

  • Firstly, you are the priority.  Take care of yourself. If you don’t look after yourself properly, you’re in no position to help anyone else who may need it.  Keep healthy, stay well-rested, and ask for help if you need it.  You are not alone.
  • Next in importance, take care of your crew.  This applies to everyone on board, whether you are the captain, the cook, or just a deckhand.  Look after your people, communicate openly with those around you, and do what you can to ensure those close to you are coping.
  • Finally, look after your vessel.  If your living and working space is unsafe, then everyone in it is unsafe.  That applies not just to physical dangers, but also to a hostile atmosphere, and any situation that leaves people feeling vulnerable.  Again consistent communication is key; don’t allow small stuff to blow up out of control.

Get away from your gang.

On a voyage you might be put into a small team, called a watch, where you eat, sleep, and work together for the duration of the trip.  Being with the same people for days on end, no matter how much you love them, has a way of turning great friends into huge irritations.

There is often nothing more infuriating than continually tripping over your shipmates in a small, shared space.  Take it in turns to do various tasks, and in using shared spaces and resources.  Make a schedule if you must.  Find the time to do activities on your own.

Find space for yourself.

All ships, even big ones, feel small after a few days at sea.  There’s virtually no private space onboard (save the heads, and that’s not really where you’d want to hang out), just your own bunk, a narrow coffin where you can shut out the rest of the world.  That’s if you have the luxury of not hot-bunking on your voyage.  But it soon gets pretty dull if that’s where you spend all of your time.

I always try to seek out a quiet spot to sit and read, write, or just stare at the water without needing to respond or react to others.  Carving out a physical space lets you find the mental space you need.  At home, we often have a door to close to create that refuge.  Headphones or a book to get lost in can help when all your physical space is shared.  Communicate with the others in your space about your needs, and when you want to be left alone, and respect that need in others.

In our current situation in the UK we’re permitted to leave our homes for short periods to exercise outdoors, so take advantage of the opportunity.  Get out of your room before it starts to feel like a coffin.

I had found that it was not good to be alone, and so made companionship with what there was around me, sometimes with the universe and sometimes with my own insignificant self; but my books were always my friends, let fail all else.

Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone around the World

Spend time together intentionally.

When you do spend time together, make it feel intentional.  While sailing, members of the crew usually had their own roles, but we’d come together to eat dinner every night.  At Port Lockroy, the evenings of our rest days became film nights, squashed together on the folded-out sofa bed.  We’d find small excuses to celebrate too; Antarctica Day, Burn’s Night (and Heidi Day, of course), a visit to a ship for a sauna, the first penguin chick, a gifted bottle of wine and game of Bananagrams.

While celebrations might be too much to handle right now, find a ritual that feels good for your current living situation.  Joyful ways to spend time together makes close company feel like a gift, not something that grates on you.

Keep in contact, at a distance.

Both during time at sea, and in Antarctica, our ability to communicate with the outside world was seriously limited.  A satellite connection to send and receive emails, chats with nearby vessels on our VHF radio, and rare satellite phone calls home.  In general, conversations weren’t particularly thrilling, but the interruption in the isolation was powerful.  Emails from home made me feel connected, despite the physical distance.

There will still be moments that spark your joy.

This is an extraordinary time.  It’s going to be tough.  We’ll inevitably start to feel frustrated at some point.  Many of us are already stressed, even fearful about what may happen.  Some of us will end up out of work, others out of schooling, or even without a home.  We might become sick, or have loved ones who will.  We will lose people.  We may not feel like we can cope, and darkness is drawing in.  Give yourself the space to process those feelings.  It’s ok to be not ok.

Moments of true beauty and joy will exist amid the monotony, uncertainty, and anxiety.  The brightest star-filled sky on a night watch; a sunrise that sets the sky on fire; dolphins playing in the turbulent water under the bow.  Slow yourself down, savour these times, and share them with others.

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You can’t stop the gale, but you can reef your sails.

Right now, it seems impossible to plan for the week ahead, let alone next month or next year.  Everything I scribbled into my journal as I sailed away from Antarctica is left on ice.  Plans and potential melted away overnight.  Now, I only have to deal with what is billowing around me.

We can’t calm this storm, but we can don our foul weather gear and reef the sails while we wait for it to pass.  Many things will happen that are outwith our control, and the best we can do is to be prepared and take mitigating measures.  Do what you reasonably can, don’t try to control the uncontrollable, or you’ll send yourself round the twist.

Treat yourself when it’s all over.

Unlike on an ocean voyage, we didn’t choose to be in this situation.  But we can choose to hold on to hope, and to make the most of where we are right now.  At the end of this lockdown, we’ll be able to meet up again, share our stories face-to-face over good food and a few drinks, and go for all the mountain hikes, wild swims, and bike rides that we’re missing right now.

Think about what you might do.  Plan that holiday you’ve always dreamed of.  Anticipate the meals in the restaurants you’re going to order.  Use this time to reach out to friends and family you don’t see regularly, and talk about how you’ll get together again.

You’re more resilient than you think.

You’ve held the helm in the dark and rain for the last three hours, watched the sunrise, and according to the clock, should have been relived; so do you abandon your post?  Not a chance.  You’re not done until your relief takes over, and you are stood down.  At present, there’s little indication of just how long this lockdown might actually last.  We’re done when we are relieved of our duty to stay at home.

Right now, our responsibility is to stand by and remain vigilant until that time.  Prepare the way you need to, taking each day (or hour) at a time.  You are capable of so much, and you might not even know it yet.  Believe me, you are tough enough for this.

You’ve got this.

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30 of my favourite places in the British and Irish Isles

The archipelago of the British and Irish Isles, on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, is home to a wealth of vibrant communities, historic landmarks, and inspiring locations.  Not to mention the breath-taking views and the incredible diversity of landscapes over such a small geographical area.  There really is just so much to see in and around these islands.

From stark mountain summits and bleakly beautiful moors, to sweeping silver sand beaches and spectacular rocky coasts, from cityscapes that blend the futuristic and the historic, to picturesque villages and towns that tell our industrial story; I’m sharing this list of my  30 favourite places to visit in Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

As with all lists of favourite places, it’s highly subjective, influenced by the places I’ve visited over the years, often again and again, and the memories I’ve made there.  It’s very also much a list of current favourites, as there are so many places around these islands that I have yet to visit.  But I hope you enjoy my choices, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to visit some for yourselves.  Who’s for a road trip?  Or a sailing voyage?

1. Stromness, Orkney.  I have a thing for small coastal towns with lots of old boats and rusty, rotted fishing gear.  And I’m fascinated by the local connection to exploring the Arctic and the discovery of the Northwest Passage.

2. Ben Loyal, Caithness.  Its distinctive profile dominated landward views from our family favourite holiday destinations of Talmine and Scullomie, on the coast at the mouth of the Kyle of Tongue.

3. Oldshoremore, Sutherland.  A few miles further on the dead-end road from the fishing port of Kinlochbervie, a sweeping curve of pink-gold sand that collects Atlantic rollers.

4. An Sgùrr, Isle of Eigg.  A striking fin of basalt rock that rises from the island, making it seem like a rolling whaleback from the shore around Arisaig.

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Fishing from the stern of Irene, at anchor off Eigg in the summer dim.

5. Rannoch Moor and the Black Mount.  I’m sure a couple of hundred years ago, I’d be one of those “grand tour” travellers that became mesmerised by the mountains and have to be committed, insensible, to an Alpine sanitorium. I just can’t not look at the Black Mount.  Which is awkward if you’re walking in the opposite direction.

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Passing the Kingshouse on my way across the moor to Rannoch Station.

6. Glen Tanar, Royal Deeside.  The Cairngorms hold, in my opinion, some of the most stunning landscapes in the whole of the UK, and in late autumn are the place I want to be.  Gold, scarlet, bronze and deep green gloss the trees, and the light is magical.

7. Haughs of Benholm, Aberdeenshire. Home.

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On the edge of the North Sea, at the end of the garden.

8. Oban, Argyll.  Most visitors will pass straight through, getting off the train and onto one of the ferries.  But the town has plenty of character, and entertaining characters.  And plenty of old boats and rusty fishing gear.

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The view of Oban Bay and Kerrera from McCaig’s Tower.

9. Isle of Coll.  I only spent a few days here last summer, but this was one of those places that stole a little bit of my heart.  I want to live here one day.

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The stunning beach at Feall Bay, on the southern end of Coll.

10. Schiehallion, Perthshire.  The fairy hill has such a perfect pyramid profile from the west.

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At the summit of Schiehallion.  On a clear day, I think you can see all the way across Scotland.

11. Corrie Fee, Angus.  A steep-sided bowl of rock at the head of Glen Clova in the Angus Glens, just below Mayar and Driesh, two of my first munros.

12. RRS Discovery, Dundee.  The place to where I can trace both my love of tall ship sailing and the history of polar exploration.  A favourite school trip destination.

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The rigging of RRS Discovery is a striking part of the Dundee skyline.

13. Tentsmuir, Fife.  A deep, dark pine forest, opening out onto a vast bright expanse of beach.  I’ve seen grey seals and red squirrels, vast white-tailed eagles and tiny coal tits, and one day, one of the 30,000 or so eider ducks I look at each winter will be a king eider.

14. Rathlin Island, Country Antrim.  Allegedly, the home of wise spiders that can give you advice for success in your endeavours.

15. Peel, Isle of Man.  A favourite port of the Viking longship Draken Harald Hårfagre.

16. Tynemouth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  The North Sea is “my” sea, and just as beautiful on a slaty-grey winter day as in the height of summer.  Plus Super Gran’s house is here.

17. Tryfan, Snowdonia.  A great snaggletooth of rock sticking out into the Ogwen Valley.

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18. Barmouth / Abermaw, Snowdonia.  As a teenager, we’d travel all the way from northeast Scotland to Snowdonia for an Air Cadet adventure training camp, making Barmouth seem extremely exotic and exciting.

19. Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford.  A collection of ethnographical treasures collected from around the globe; a fascinating introduction to world cultures.  I was a volunteer here when I first moved to England.

20. Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge.  A fascinating place, telling the story of polar exploration from the early days, through to cutting edge research in glaciology and climate science.  I’ve been lucky to spend a few days working here before deploying to Antarctica.

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Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole

21. Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire.  Practically on my doorstep for a while, this is a favourite location for woodland walks, trail runs, and wild camps.

22. Maritime Greenwich.  My favourite part of London, and the place that I think tells most about the history of Britain and its place in the world.

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The distinctive rigging of Cutty Sark on the Greenwich riverside.

23. Stackpole and Barafundle Bay, Pembrokeshire.  A beautiful corner of West Wales.

24. Lundy, Bristol Channel.  Just one night on anchor, surrounded by swirling clouds of thousands of Manx shearwaters looking for an overnight roost.

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At night the sky filled with life as shearwaters came back to the cliffs to roost.

25. Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth.  I’m a bit too young to remember the raising of Mary Rose, but I think the restoration featured often on Blue Peter.  Watching it led me to the realisation that we can read the stories of people who have gone before us through the traces they leave behind, and it was exciting to finally visit.

26. Lymington, Hampshire.  The walk along the old sea walls between Lymington and Keyhaven is an old favourite.

27. Newtown Creek, Isle of Wight.  Watching the sunrise on frosty winter mornings with a coffee, listening to the contented purring of brent geese.

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A liminal space where saltmarsh, mudflat, and shingle banks,  meet the sea and the sky.

28. Swanage pier, Dorset.  More accurately, the underside of Swanage pier; one of my favourite coastal dives in the UK, and where I saw a John Dory swimming for the first time.

29. Helford River, Cornwall.  I’ve only arrived in the river by night while under sail.  Living my best Poldark smuggler life.

30. Newlyn, Cornwall.  While not as picturesque as nearby villages like Mousehole or Porthleven, as a working fishing port, Newlyn is full of characters and there’s always a story to listen to in the Swordfish pub.

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Irene of Bridgwater arriving into Newlyn harbour under full sail.  Can you spot me on the quayside taking mooring lines?  Photo credit: Newlyn NCI
Are any of these places in your British and Irish Isles top 10?
Tell me what makes your list in the comments below.

 

18 interesting facts about the Arctic

A selection of facts about the Arctic you’ll find rather interesting.

While researching ahead of my time in Antarctica, I was continually side-tracked by snippets of information relating to the Arctic, and articles making comparisons between the two polar regions of our globe.  Stories from the rich history of the people who make the region their home, and the explorers seeking new discoveries about the region; the unique ecosystems and wildlife; fascinating geographical phenomena and the spectacular natural beauty of a landscape carved from rock and ice, dark and light.

I’ve long been fascinated by the polar regions, and have travelled widely in the European Arctic.  I accidentally booked a bargain ski break to Finnish Lapland at the end of the polar night*; road-tripped from Tromsø to Kautokeino, Kirkenes, and Nordkapp in the never-setting sun; and sailed southwards from the Norwegian Arctic (ending up in the Algarve), crossing the circle on the way down.  I’ve explored the north coast of Iceland, and the southern tip of Greenland, though whether those constitute the actual Arctic depends on the definition you prefer (see below).

*where I taught myself to ski Nordic-style and discovered the magic of saunas and salmiakki. 

In the process, I’ve uncovered several interesting facts on which to hang my own experience and understanding, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Arctic Facts

  • The Arctic polar circle is an imaginary line circling the earth parallel to the equator at latitude 66°33′ N.  Locations north of the line observe least one day of midnight sun at the June solstice, where the sun remains above the horizon, and at least one day of polar night at the December solstice, where the sun doesn’t rise over the horizon.

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  • Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard, at 78° 13’N, experiences 125 days of midnight sun, where the sun never fully sets, between mid-April to mid-August.  The polar night there lasts from mid-November to the end of January.
  • The Arctic Circle passes through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, USA (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, and the very northernmost island of Iceland.  Only 5 cities or towns with a population greater than 15,000 lie north of the circle: Murmansk, with over 295,000 residents; Norilsk, over 178,00 residents; Tromsø, around 76,000 residents; Vorkuta, around 58,000 residents; and Kiruna, over 17,000 residents.  The largest settlement in the North American Arctic is Sisimut in Greenland, with around 5,000 residents.
  • The name Arctic is derived from the Greek arktikós.  Arktos means bear, and arktikós, the land under the bear, referencing the northern constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear).  The brightest star in Ursa Minor is Polaris, also known as the Pole Star or North Star, which lies in-line with the earth’s rotational axis almost directly over the North Pole.
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Arctic sea ice. Photo Credit: Patrick Kelley
  • Unlike the Antarctic, a continental landmass surrounded by ocean, the Arctic is a small, relatively shallow, ocean basin surrounded by the continents of Eurasia and North America.  The Arctic Ocean has an area of around 14 million square kilometres, making it just a tenth of the size of the Pacific Ocean.  Much of it is covered by ice, which varies in thickness and extent with the season.  The maximum extent is seen in April, the minimum in September, and the difference between the two is somewhere around 7,000,000km2 (2,702,700 square miles), about the size of Australia.
  • The first nautical crossing of the Arctic Ocean was made in the Fram, captained by Otto Sverdrup, between 1893 and 1896.  The expedition was led by legendary explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who attempted to ski to the North Pole while Fram was locked in ice, reaching a record of 86° 13.6′N before being defeated by the southerly drift of the sea ice.
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Fram photographed during Amundsen’s Antarctic expedition, showing the distinctive Colin Archer lines that enabled her to drift with the Arctic sea ice.
  • Another definition of the Arctic is the region where the average temperature in July (the warmest month) is below 10°C (50°F).  The isotherm marking the boundary slices across Iceland from northwest to southeast, sweeps up north of Tromsø, wiggles along the northern coast of Russia, before dipping down to take in the Aleutian archipelago, back north to Nome, then roughly tracing the polar circle across Canada, taking in northern Hudson Bay and Labrador, and passing far south of Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland.
  • The coldest temperatures observed in the northern hemisphere aren’t actually found in the Arctic, rather in the interior of Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Russia’s Far East.  Despite the extreme cold, with a record low of -67.7°C (-89.9°F), the region isn’t considered “Arctic”, as the continental effect on the climate means summers can be as warm as 15°C (59°F).
  • Seven of the eight nations in the Arctic (Iceland is the exception) are home to indigenous peoples, who have lived in this region for millennia.  Their cultures and customs have been shaped by the unique environment of their home, and their relationship with the landscape, natural resources, and climate of the region.
  • Reaching the North geographic pole had been a goal for explorers since the late 19th century, and the first undisputed expedition reaching the pole was on the airship Norge in 1926, led by polar veteran Roald Amundsen.  Previous claims by Dr Frederick Cook in 1908 and Robert Peary in 1909 had dubious veracity or were lacking in detailed records allowing independent verification, casting doubt on their assertations.
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Routes through the Northwest Passage
  • Roald Amundsen also holds the distinction of leading the first voyage to traverse the Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean discovered by John Rae.  He took his ship Gjøa from Norway to Greenland, then through the Canadian Arctic archipelago, to Nome, Alaska between 1903 and 1906.  On the way, he spent two winters in the area now known as Gjøa Haven to learn skills from the Netsilik Inuit that proved rather useful later in his exploration career.
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet is the largest body of ice in the northern hemisphere, and second only to the Antarctic Ice Sheet.  It covers approximately 94% of the land area of Greenland, to a mean altitude of 2,135 metres (7,005′), and is over 3km (1.9 miles) thick at the thickest point.
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The entrance to the Global Seed Vault in the polar night.  Photo Credit: subiet.
  • The Arctic hosts one of the most remarkable examples of international cooperation.  The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard (Svalbard globale frøhvelv) is constructed deep inside a mountain, and currently holds 980,000 specimens of seeds from around the world to safeguard genetic diversity for the future, and provide resilience in the event of a natural or anthropogenic disaster.  You can make a virtual visit here.
  • Arctic plant life is characterised by adaptation to a brief, bright summer, and short growing season, followed by a cold, dark winter, often over permanently frozen earth creating a biome known as tundra.  The boundary between the tundra and the boreal forests found further south is known as the tree line, which roughly follows the July 10°C (50°F) isotherm around the globe.
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Reindeer on the Svalbard tundra. Photo Credit: Per Harald Olesen
  • The tundra supports a range of specialised wildlife, including herbivores like arctic hares, lemmings, muskox, and reindeer (caribou), and predators like wolverines, arctic foxes, snowy owls, and arctic wolves.  It is also home to many species of birds that take advantage of long days and abundant insect life to lay eggs and raise their young, before migrating south for the winter.
  • The Arctic Ocean is also home to a rich diversity of unique wildlife, including walruses, ribbon seals, and harp seals, belugas and narwhals, long-lived bowhead whales, and the apex predator of the region, the polar bear.  Many of these creatures are dependent on the edge of the ice to find the ideal conditions for feeding and hunting.
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Polar bear leaping on sea ice in Svalbard. Photo Credit: Arturo de Frias Marques
  • All is not well in the Arctic.  As a result of climate breakdown, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth, resulting in the loss of sea ice, melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and rising sea and air temperatures.  It has been predicted that the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free in summer before the end of the century, and in worst-case scenarios by the end of this decade.
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet was found to be melting at a much faster rate than previously thought, having lost more than 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992.  Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet contributes directly to rising sea levels around the globe, as the ice rests on a landmass, unlike the floating sea ice.

15 interesting facts about Antarctica

A series of interesting facts about Antarctica that I uncovered during my research.

Earth’s southernmost continent held us in its thrall long before it was first sighted in January 1820, still just a blank space on the map.  The limitless solitude and silence, the vastness of scale, occupying mythical space in our imagination.  Even now, with the possibility to visit the continent as a tourist, we are drawn by the idea of blankness, the purity of a landscape without the cultural associations of our own, where we can make our own connections and add new pins to the map.

I’ve done a large amount of research recently to familiarise myself with Antarctica: the short human history and tales of exploration; ecosystems and wildlife; the rock and the ice; the striking natural beauty of the continent.  In the process, I’ve uncovered more than a few interesting facts on which to hang my own understanding and experience, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Antarctica Facts

  • The Antarctic polar circle is an imaginary line circling the earth parallel to the equator at latitude 66°33′ S.  South of the line experiences at least one day of midnight sun at the December solstice, where the sun remains above the horizon, and at least one day of polar night at the June solstice, where the sun does not rise over the horizon.

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  • Most of the landmass of Antarctica lies within the polar circle, with just the tip of the peninsula, Graham Land, and a few capes in Enderby Land and Wilkes Land extending north of the line.  However, all land and islands, and ice shelves, lying south of latitude 60°S are considered part of Antarctica, and governed by the Antarctic Treaty System (more on that below).
  • The true boundary of the Antarctic could also be considered the Antarctic convergence (AAC) zone, also known as the polar front, an oceanographic feature where the dense, cold waters of the Antarctic circumpolar current sink beneath warmer waters from the north.  The resulting upwelling of nutrients supports a rich diversity of marine life.  The convergence circles the continent at a latitude between 41°S and 61°S, in a band around 40km (25 miles) wide, and the variation is why island groups such as South Georgia (54°15′S 36°45′W) and Bouvetøya (54°25′S 3°22′E) are considered to be Antarctic in biogeographical terms, and Macquarie Island (54°38′S 158°50′E) and Cape Horn (55°58′S 67°17′W) are sub-Antarctic.
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Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), one of the most abundant species on the planet. Photo credit: Uwe Kils
  • The name Antarctica was first formally used for the continent by Scottish cartographer John George Bartholemew in his work of 1890, after the term Terra Australis, which had described a speculative southern continent was used for the re-naming of New Holland (het Niew Hollandt) as Australia.  Antarctica is derived from the Greek antarktikós, the opposite of the Arctic, the opposite of north, used for unspecified and unknown southern lands since the days of AristotleArktos means bear, and arktikos referencing the northern constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear).  The fact that polar bears live in the Arctic and not in the Antarctic is purely coincidental.
  • Antarctica is the coldest continent on Earth.  On 21st July 1983, a low of -89.2°C (-128.6°F, air temperature) was recorded at Vostock Research Station, on the isolated, inhospitable East Antarctic Plateau.  Recent satellite observations have suggested that it may get even colder in certain conditions, as low as -98°C.  The Antarctic Peninsula, where most visitors will go, has a much milder climate, with January averages around 1 to 2 °C (34-36°F), though it can get as warm as 10°C (50°F).
  • The Antarctic has no indigenous population and no permanent inhabitants.  Approximately 29 nations send personnel south of 60° to operate seasonal and year-round research stations, field bases, and research vessels, giving a summer population of around 5,000, dropping to just 1,000 or so over winter.  The number of summer residents is boosted by tourists, with more than 44,000 visitors recorded in 2016-17 season.
  • The Antarctic Treaty System is a unique set of international agreements, laying out the framework for governance of the region.  Originally signed in 1959, it establishes the peaceful pursuit of scientific research, international co-operation, and environmental protection as the goals for all nations active in Antarctica.
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The flag of the Antarctic Treaty
  • The first confirmed sightings of continental Antarctica happened just 200 years ago.  The Imperial Russian expedition led by Fabien Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, on the ships Vostok and Mirny, discovered an ice shelf on the Princess Martha Coast, on 27th January 1820, which later became known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf.  Just a few days later, on 30th January, Edward Bransfield, of the British Royal Navy, sighted the Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost tip of the Antarctic continental mainland.
  • An expedition led by Norwegian polar legend Roald Amundsen was first to reach the geographic South Pole on 14th December 1911.  Leaving the ship Fram, on loan from his fellow countryman Fridtjof Nansen, in the Bay of Whales at Framheim, he traversed the Axel Heiberg Glacier onto the polar plateau, using skis and sled dogs, reaching the pole in 56 days.  On realising their goal, the Norwegian team spent three days taking sextant readings, and “boxing the pole” to establish an exact position.  Despite setting out from their base at Cape Evans on Ross Island just five days later the Norwegians, it wasn’t until five weeks after Amundsen arrival that Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated team reached the pole.
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Amundsen and his crew at Polheim, the geographical South Pole, 1911. Photo credit: Olav Bjaaland
  • Unlike in the Arctic, there are no large terrestrial animals in Antarctica.  In fact, the largest creature living on the land is a flightless midge, Belgica antarctica, just 6mm (0.25in) in length.  It’s reckoned that it’s flightlessness is an adaptation to prevent being swept away in the strong winds that blast the continent.
  • The richest and most diverse ecosystem in Antarctica is the ocean.  Nutrient-rich water upwelling in the Antarctic convergence cultivates blooms of plankton, which feeds super-abundances of krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans.  In turn, the krill support many species of fish, seals, birds, and whales, including orcas, humpback whales, and blue whales, the largest of all.
  • Though we immediately think of penguins as the classic Antarctic bird, only a few species actually live that far south.  Of the 18 extant species worldwide, four can be considered Antarctic (Emperors, Adélies, Gentoos, and Chinstraps) and another four are sub-Antarctic (Kings, Royals, Southern Rockhoppers, and Macaronis).  If, like me, you can’t get enough of penguins, check out the BAS Penguin of the Day photos.
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Gentoo penguin family at Jougla Point in the Palmer Archipelago.  Photo credit: Liam Quinn.
  • The famed Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, have a southern counterpart, the aurora australis.  The aurora is the result of disturbances in the upper atmosphere, when streams of charged particles ejected from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field.  The ideal time to observe the aurora australis in Antarctica is in the dark nights through the southern winter, however they can also be seen from the Peninsula and South Georgia.
  • The Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest single mass of ice on earth, covering around 98% of the continent, an area equivalent to one and a half times the size of continental USA.  It’s estimated that it reaches as much as 4,700m (15, 420′ or 2.9 miles) thick at the greatest extent, and extends almost 2,500m (8200′ or 1.5 miles) below sea level in West Antarctica.  The extent of sea ice formed through the winter months almost doubles the size of the continent.  Unlike the Arctic, the area has remained fairly constant in recent decades, though the variation in ice thickness is unclear.
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Antarctic ice. Photo credit: Gregory Smith.
  • All is not well in Antarctica.  The rate of ice melt has doubled every decade since records were first kept, a direct consequence of increased air and water temperatures in the region.  The rate of air temperature rise (2°C or 3.2°F in the past 50 years) is one of the highest on the planet, resulting in a rise in sea levels and glacial ice calving faster than at any time since the records began.  Further increases in temperature will have profound effects on global weather patterns.

The Great Corset Caper: Pen y Fan in Period Costume

With a group of fabulous and inspiring women I took on the challenge of hiking up Pen y Fan in period clothing, including wearing a corset.

Inspired by pictures of the pioneering women that founded the Ladies’ Alpine Club in 1907 and Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club in 1908, the first mountaineering organisations for women, we wondered what it would be like to take to the hills wearing the fashions of the times; heavy tweed long skirts and jackets, buttoned-up blouses, big bloomers and boned corsets.

I’d long admired the early outdoors women, who not just tackled some challenging routes in the hills, but were also some of the first to break down barriers for women in other areas of life; in society and politics, education and employment, fashion and convention.

After chatting together on Facebook, we came up with a plan to experience it for ourselves.  I really liked the idea of the challenge, but was nervous about the corset.  I’d never worn a proper one before (though I had one of those corset-style tops in the 90s when we all wore our underwear as outerwear).

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Living our best Edwardian life.

In my day job I wear a lifejacket everyday.  There’s such a feeling of relief at the end of the day when you feel the weight of it lifting off your shoulders.  But that was nothing compared to wearing a fully-boned corset.

Meet the team

Getting outdoors on your own is wonderful, and can sometimes be all you need, but it’s true to say that some things are even better with friends. You should know a little bit about me already, but meet the others that were part of the Corset Capers team.

  • Lucy Hawthorne: a baby troubleshooter (think modern-day Mary Poppins) who spends as much of her free time as possible outdoors, wild swimming and paddleboarding with her family.
  • Wendy Searle: though just a normal mum of four with an office job, she’s heading to Antarctica to take on the challenge of reaching the South Pole, unsupported and unassisted, in record time.
  • Lauren Owen: a polar explorer-in-training, heading for the Greenland ice cap in 2020, with a background in fashion history and amazing costume construction skills.
  • Jo Symonowski: combining the unlikely careers of corporate leadership trainer and circus promoter, Jo founded My Great Escape born of her experiences.

With corsets laced tightly and bloomers hidden away under billowing tweed skirts, we took our lead from those pioneering ladies of 1907, and headed for Pen y Fan.

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Ready to take on Pen y Fan!  Or die of a chill like a lady in a romance novel.
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Heading up the mountain on the Brecon Way footpath.

My Great Escape

Although our challenge wasn’t a huge undertaking, and really just a silly way to spend a day, we had a serious side to what we wanted to do.

My Great Escape is a programme to support survivors of domestic abuse in regaining their confidence and self-esteem through outdoor adventure. By providing opportunities for challenges and activities that are a break from daily life, we can help people get the space to overcome their trauma and start to heal.

Leaving an abusive relationship often leaves survivors with little or no support, both emotionally and often financially, and hugely depleted confidence.  This all makes getting out and doing new things really difficult.  That’s where My Great Escape can help.

All of the money raised goes directly into running confidence-building adventures.  Everyone on the team is a volunteer.

By rekindling an early love of adventure and being outside I grew in confidence and self-esteem. I conquered real and personal mountains. I found that through connecting with the great outdoors I was able to heal and then build a wonderful new life.

Jo

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Fighting the wind as we approach the ridge below Corn Du.

Why Pen y Fan?

At 886 metres (2,907′) high, Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons is the highest peak in the south of the UK.  It also has a notorious reputation:  the UK’s special forces use the mountain to train, completing a 24km (15 mile) route over the mountain carrying 30kg (50 lbs) of equipment, in a challenge known as the Fan Dance.

Though we contemplated the whole Fan Dance route, from Storey Arms to Torpantau station, the fickle Welsh weather wasn’t on our side.  With a big weather system moving in from the Atlantic, heavy rain was forecast from around 11am with strong winds, gusting up to 40 knots (46mph), on the tops.  So we settled for just reaching the summit in our skirts.

The Great Corset Caper

Setting off from the carpark at Pont ar Daf the route follows the Brecon Way, with a steady rise in the gradient.  It took a while to get used to breathing with a corset, especially the first time I needed to take a deep breath using my diaphragm.

The view of the peak was obscured behind the clouds all the way, so the only clue to our whereabouts was the wind funnelling down the gap below Corn Du.  Then suddenly we were just below the summit.

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On the top of Pen y Fan, launching My Great Escape into the wild!

Though safe where we were, it was difficult to strike a pose by the famous marker on the summit cairn with our full skirts catching the wind.  We quickly unrolled our banner for some pictures, holding tightly to the corners.  We’d made great time to the top, and really enjoyed chatting with the others out on the mountain.

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Looking like we’re at the cover shoot for our new album of folk music.

With showers growing heavier, we turned around to head back down to Pont ar Daf.  Our outfits  had been unfamiliar, though not as awkward as you might imagine.  The inconvenience of the wind pushing against my skirt, and having to hold it down to cover my long bloomers, the woollen suits were warm and waterproof enough in the drizzle.  I’d probably find a good hat pin, or a scarf to tie around my head for the next time the desire to dress up and head for the hills takes me.

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The Corset Capers ladies, looking most dashing and windswept from their mountain adventures.

The outdoor gear we women wear now has moved on a long way since 1907 (though there’s still room for improvement when it comes to pockets #pocketsfor women), but we’re grateful to those women that came before us. The ones without whom so many of us wouldn’t have the freedom to take on our own adventures, in whatever we want to wear.  I feel that we’ve were able to get a better appreciation of their courage to challenge convention.

Thank you!

We’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who we met out on the hill; your support and enthusiasm for what we were doing was infectious, despite the miserable weather!  And another round of thanks to everyone that supported us remotely via social media.

Additional thanks to Bristol Costume Services, who kitted us out with appropriate clothing, and didn’t mind things getting damp* in the hills.

*completely soaked.

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Jo gives a flash of a corset to prove the challenge was complete.
You can continue to support our silliness at https://mygreatescape.org.uk/climbingcorsets/
Your donations help to get survivors of domestic abuse get out and achieve something amazing.  Please donate what you can to help this great cause.

8 Great Day Hikes in Scotland (but not the Ben)

Few countries can match Scotland for a landscape so wildly beautiful and dramatic; sweeping glens, rugged peaks, historic castles, and ancient forests make it an irresistible draw for hikers.  And even the notoriously fickle Scottish weather can’t detract from the hauntingly bleak splendour of the landscape.

The most mountainous terrain in the British and Irish Isles, Scotland has 282 munros, mountains over the magic 914 metres (3000′), named for Sir Hugh Munro, compiler of the first list, inspiring many hikers to “bag” the full set.  The best rank among some of the best mountains in the world.  The highest is Ben Nevis at 1345 metres (4412′).

But it isn’t essential to claim the highest summit to reap the rewards of hiking in Scotland.  With thousands of kilometres of coastline, hundreds of islands, lochs, and hills only lesser in height, not character or challenge.  Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places.

And the best part is that this is so very accessible here in Scotland, and less than a couple of hours from the biggest cities and towns, it’s possible to feel a sense of remote wilderness.  So get your boots ready for these eight great day hikes, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting.  Or include them in your plans for a Scottish road trip.

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Photo Credit: colinemcbride Flickr on cc

Arthur’s Seat

  • Base: Edinburgh
  • Route length: 5 km (3 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Right in the heart of Edinburgh, this hike rewards you with awesome panoramic views across Scotland’s capital city and beyond.  Overlooking Edinburgh Castle, the contrasting Old and New Towns, the Scottish Parliament, and down towards the port of Leith, this hike gives a snapshot of Scottish history and fits easily into a short break to Edinburgh.

The steep slopes of Arthur’s Seat, rising to 255 metres (824′), are the rugged remains of an ancient volcano; the same one that gave rise to the imposing rock on which the Castle sits and dominates the city centre.  Even though you’re never far from an urban street on this hike, don’t underestimate the terrain and be sure to wear suitable footwear.

This hike is also an excuse to take in the Sheep Heid Inn by Duddingston Loch, reputedly the oldest hostelry in Scotland, and where Mary, Queen of Scots used to enjoy the odd game of skittles.

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Photo Credit: Anne Young2014 Flickr on cc

Conic Hill

  • Base: Glasgow or Stirling
  • Route length: 4 km (2.5 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

This small but steep little summit is a perfect introduction to Scottish hillwalking.  Rising just 350 metres (1150′) above Balmaha, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, the hike is just enough of an adventure for beginners, without being an exhausting expedition.  (Muddy puddles and trickling streams to explore, and a play area and public toilets in Balmaha also help to tempt families to try the route, and the Oak Tree Inn offers a rewarding brew afterwards.)

The ridgeline of Conic Hill follows the line of the Highland Boundary Fault, which also shows as the string of islands in the loch below.  As you ascend, the effort is rewarded with spectacular views across Loch Lomond and some of the grander mountains nearby,; such as Ben Lomond, the Cobbler (Ben Arthur), and the Arrochar Alps.

Conic Hill lies alongside the route of the West Highland Way long-distance trail between Milngavie and Fort William, so watching hikers striding up under big packs makes your daypack seem like nothing, and the challenge very achievable.

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Photo Credit: Alan Burkwood Flickr on cc

Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus Forest

  • Base: Aviemore
  • Route length: 7 km (4.5 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy

In the heart of Rothiemurchus Forest, in the Cairngorms National Park, the circular low-level hike around Loch an Eilein is stunningly beautiful, and a superb route for walking (or toddling) with the family.  Gnarled granny pines, dark mountains, and a ruined 13th-century castle are reflected in the waters of the loch that was once the secret hideaway of rogues and cattle rustlers.

The pinewoods are home to native wildlife such as red squirrels, crested tits, endemic Scottish crossbills, and the comical capercaillie, and when the sun goes down, pine martens and elusive Scottish wildcats stalk the woods.  The walk can be extended to take in Loch Gamhna, a quieter but muddier trail, or a short ascent to Ord Ban to drink in the spectacular views of the tundra-clad Cairn Gorm plateau, Caledonian pinewoods, and sparkling jewel-like lochs.

This might be one of the easier hikes on the list, but it will fulfil all your romantic dreams of Scotland, whether you’re Princess Merida saving the day or wishing for an encounter with a dashing highland warrior after falling through a hole in space-time.  And it gives you plenty of time to go for an ice cream in Miele’s Gelateria back in Aviemore at the end of the day.

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Photo Credit: agprysw Flickr on cc

Old Man of Hoy and Rackwick Glen

  • Base: Stromness, Orkney
  • Route length: 16.5 km (10.25 miles), or 9.25 km (5.75 miles) short option
  • Approximate hiking time: 5 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Hoy is the “high island” of Orkney, taking its name from Old Norse, and reflecting the wild, steep-sided hills and sheer sea cliffs, some of the most impressive in the British and Irish Isles.  In particular, the iconic sea stack is known as the Old Man of Hoy; its 137 metre (449′) walls were scaled live on the BBC back in the 1960s, and it continues to attract climbers today.

From the passenger ferry at Moaness, take the island minibus to the crofting township of Rackwick.  A well-defined path leads along the cliff tops, where you’ll catch sight of the stack rising out of the Pentland Firth, and, in the right season, the abundance of seabirds whirling around it; fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, black guillemots, razorbills, and formidable bonxies (great skuas).  Look out for hunting peregrine falcons too.

On return to Rackwick, follow the road from the hostel to find the trail through Rackwick Glen.  Look out for Arctic skuas and Arctic terns, which may come closer than you’d like, and listen for the mournful calls of red-throated divers on Sandy Loch.   As well as birdlife, you can also expect to see a wealth of colourful wildflowers and the northernmost native woodland in the UK.  And if you time it well, you’ll catch the café for a cuppa and fancy piece in Moaness while you wait on your return ferry.

This hike has an option for a shorter walk, out and back to the Old Man from Rackwick only, taking the Hoy minibus to and from the ferry at Moaness.  Book your return with the driver, especially outside of the summer season.

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Photo Credit: pauldunn52 Flickr on cc

Stac Pollaidh (Stack Polly)

  • Base: Ullapool
  • Route length: 4.5 km (2.75 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 4 hours **
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Stac Pollaidh is only small in mountain terms, but it soars 612 metres (2008′) in splendid isolation over the flatlands of Assynt, the suddenness of its eruption from the emptiness creating an otherworldly feel in the landscape.  Its glacially smoothed flanks are topped with a distinctive rocky crest, carved into a series of pinnacles and steep gullies.

This is only a short hike, but the steep and winding trail is challenging, and the true summit at the western end of the ridge needs scrambling skills to reach.  But the effort is more than worth it, as the panoramic views from the ridge are spectacular.  To the south and west, you’ll see the rugged coastline around Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles, and to the north, across the wild watery wilderness of Inverpolly Nature Reserve, lie the unmistakable mountains of Suilven and Cùl Mòr.

Its easy roadside location has led to an erosion problem on the lower parts of the hill, so please stick to the surfaced trail to reach the higher ground.  The remote location means there’s no local pub or café to repair to at the end of the hike, so you could try Am Fuaran in Altandhu or the Ferry Boat Inn in Ullapool.

**Summer conditions

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Photo Credit: GDSinclair Flickr on cc

The Cobbler (Ben Arthur)

  • Base: Glasgow or Stirling
  • Route length: 11km (7 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 5 hours **
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Heading northwards, Loch Lomond crosses the Highland Boundary Fault and is squeezed between increasingly imposing mountains.  The Arrochar Alps on the western side are a group of very steep and rocky mountains with real character. The Cobbler, also known as Ben Arthur, is the most distinctive.

At 884 metres (2900′), it falls short of Munro status, but isn’t a small hill, and its otherworldly outline of rocky buttresses and rugged peak draws attention from its taller neighbours.  Dominating the skyline over Arrochar, the rocky summit is said to resemble a cobbler at work on his bench, giving the hill its popular nickname.

The true summit of the Cobbler is a rocky pinnacle, reached by squeezing through a triangular hole in the base on to a narrow, nerve-wracking ledge, in a move that’s known as threading the needle.  After traversing the ledge, there’s a short scramble to the top.  This isn’t for the faint-of-heart, and great care should be taken in wet conditions.

However, on a clear day, the views are just as impressive from the base of the pinnacle, looking out along Loch Long across the Arrochar Alps.  Be sure to glance back at the dramatic profile of the Cobbler on your descent, and end the day in Ben Arthur’s Bothy, soaking in the lochside views with your pint.

**Summer conditions

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Stokes Flickr on cc

Lochnagar

  • Base: Aberdeen
  • Route length: 19 km (12 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 7 hours **
  • Difficulty: hard

Immortalised in verse by Lord Byron as Dark Lochnagar, it is often considered to be one of the most beautiful of all Scottish mountains, although Queen Victoria had a different impression of the summit; “it was cold, wet and cheerless, and the wind was blowing a hurricane“; no doubt, she was not amused.

Lying entirely within the Royal Balmoral Estate, Lochnagar is best reached by hiking from Spital of Glenmuick, through ancient Caledonian pine forest and by hunting lodges favoured by royalty.  On the ascent to the plateau, it’s worth pausing at the bealach (narrow pass) before the boulder field known as the Ladder, to take in views of the northern corrie, an imposing rocky wall cradling a lochan in its curve.

The rocky outcrop of Cac Carn Beag, the true summit of Lochnagar, has spectacular panoramic views across Royal Deeside, the Cairngorms, and the Mounth.  A steep descent past Glas Allt falls leads to the Royal Lodge at Glas-allt-Shiel and the shore of Loch Muick.

The summit plateau has few distinctive features, and a steep northern edge, so excellent mountain navigation skills are needed in poor visibility conditions.  An alternative hike would be to follow the low-level circular trail around Loch Muick beloved of Queen Vic, in the shadow of the towering mountain cliffs, followed by a tour of Royal Lochnagar Distillery and a wee dram in the tasting rooms.

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Photo Credit: Hazel Strachan Flickr on cc

Ring of Steall, Mamores

  • Base: Fort William
  • Route length: 16km (10 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 12 hours **
  • Difficulty: very hard

Many visitors to Fort William will head straight for Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak at 1345 metres (4412′).  With over 125,000 hikers a year, mainly in the summer months, it can be incredibly busy on the trails.

Experienced mountain hikers might prefer the challenge of the Ring of Steall instead.  A classic mountain route, taking in four Munros; An Gearanach, Stob Choire a Chairn, Am Bodach and Sgurr a’Mhaim, with fantastic ridge walking between peaks.

The hike begins in Glen Nevis, following the trail through the woodland to the narrow Nevis Gorge and impressive Steall Falls.  Your first challenge is tackling the wire bridge spanning the river, before starting the ascent of An Gearanach.  All in all the hike has almost 1700 metres (5580′) of ascent, including some scrambling along narrow, rocky arêtes, and makes for a long, tiring day out.

The ridge is exposed but has spectacular panoramic views of some of the best known Scottish mountains, such as Aonach Mor, Aonach Eagach, Stob Ban, the Grey Corries, and of course, Ben Nevis.  Put your feet up and recharge at the end of the hike at the Ben Nevis Inn and Bunkhouse.

Those that can’t spare a whole day in the mountains will enjoy the short hike to the wire bridge and Steall Falls, which were seen in some film about a wizard.  Please note, the edges of the falls can be dangerous and warning signs should not be ignored.

**summer conditions

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Photo Credit: joannamarjaana Flickr on cc

My tips for day hikes in Scotland

Whether you choose to take on one of these day hikes, or one of the many others that Scotland has to offer, there are a few things that you should bear in mind.

  • Plan your route ahead of the walk.  Not every route is waymarked, so you need to form an idea of what to expect.  ViewRanger with Ordnance Survey Maps is invaluable for reading the terrain, and the Walk Highlands website has excellent route descriptions and photos.
  • Check the weather.  An essential part of preparation, and can be the difference between a rewarding hike or an endurance slog.  I like the Mountain Weather Information Service website and the Yr.no app.
  • Wear the right clothing, as in Scotland it’s entirely possible to experience all four seasons in one day.  Layering your clothes is important, and packing a waterproof jacket and trousers is always a good idea.
  • Pack plenty of water.  It’s important to stay hydrated during physical activity, and you may be out for longer than expected (or just want to make a nice cup of tea with a view while you’re out).
  • Take a map and compass when you head out; not all trails are clearly defined, and you may need to rely on navigation skills in poor visibility.  And GPS is not infallible.
  • If you’re hiking on your own, be sure to let someone know where you’re going, when you plan to return, and when you’re back safely.

Have a look at my packing list for day hikes for some additional tips on what to take.

Winter hiking

Winter hiking in Scotland is a serious business.  Although the hills aren’t that high, conditions can be gnarly and there are many additional hazards you might encounter.  It’s important to be properly prepared, and that can mean taking an ice-axe and crampons, and having the skills and experience to use them.

It also means spending additional time assessing information about your chosen route; mountain weather, reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts.  And remember that sometimes the best decision you make is the one to turn back.

What is your favourite day hike in Scotland?
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