Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Scotland: Devil's Staircase & Stob Mhic Mhartuin, West Highland Way

Devil’s Staircase, West Highland Way, Glencoe, Scotland – 6/4/18 – 5 miles


So many must-see-must-do’s in the highlands of Scotland! Every day of our trip included some walking.  On this day we traveled from the port town of Oban to Fort William. Along the way we sought out the magic of Glencoe, a deep valley cut by the River Coe.  Mountains rise high and close on either side, giving that Yosemite feeling only everything is awash in green, green, green.

We were still building confidence on driving, interpreting road signs, counting exits at traffic circles, thus by the time we found the Glencoe Visitor Center we were a wee bit frazzled (9:00 a.m.) We didn’t have a single € for parking (why pay parking at a visitor center? Upkeep for the restrooms?) The staff person at the information counter smoothed our ruffled feathers with a map and a detailed explanation of how to recognize the car park for our hike.

"Look for the white house," he said

Three Sisters of Glen Coe (left to right): Gearr Aonach (Short Ridge) and Aonach Dubh (Black Ridge) and Beinn Fhada (Long Hill)

Two out of three of the Sisters

It is really helpful to know (or at least know where to find a list of) Scottish Gaelic words used in mapping the hills and mountains of Scotland.  Once you’ve got your cheat sheet, it’s easy [for us paper map people] to determine what you’re looking at and distinguish different features. Most basic is that “glen” means valley and “ben” means super big mountain.  Also:

Aonach = ridge
Lairig = pass
Meall = rounded hill
Mullach = summit
Sgorr = jagged or rocky peak
Stob = point
Sron = nose

All features have qualifiers added to these words, just like back home (how many Cold Mountains and Bald Mountains do you know?), fun to parse out the names.  Buachaille Etive Beag seems to mean “little shepherd of Etive” which sits next to Buachaille Etive Mor, “the great shepherd of Etive.” Anyway, fun for those who like to know what they’re looking at.

All of that to say that Jim and I hiked up the Staidhre an Deamhain (Devil’s Staircase) and then up the side trail to the mullach of Stob Mhic Mhartuin (Son of Martin Point?). This is an out-and-back hike on a section of the West Highland Way that was built for military use in the mid-1700’s.

Our parking area was obvious, a deeply rutted pull-off across the road from the trail marker. West Highland walkers, some in groups and some solo, zig-zagged up the obvious and uncomplicated trail, an 800-foot elevation gain to the pass

The pointy peak on the left horizon is Stob Mhic Mhartuin

Turning around to look back across the valley at Buachaille Etive Mor

A cairn marks the pass between the summits of Stob Mhic Mhartuin to the west and Beinn Bheag to the east (that big ol’ hulk in the background here). From here the West Highland Way descends to the town of Kinlochleven.

But Jim and I turned left onto a slightly fainter track, gaining another 500 feet in elevation as we climbed the Stob.  Somewhere along this trail I realized that there would be no trees or even tall bushes, so I had to scramble quite a ways off trail to find a big enough rock for a potty break. No photos.

The top of Stob Mhic Mhartuin is quite broad and I don’t know it there are the equivalent of U.S. survey markers.  There were little cairns in several places.  Could this one be the “summit?” I am okay with the ambiguity. I mean, just look!

Looking across the valley toward the Three Sisters

We had a different adventure awaiting in Fort William, so we hustled back down to our car, making a mental note that someday we would return to walk the entire West Highland Way.

In the upper left you can see the Blackwater Reservoir

How did we spend the rest of the day?  Taking the Jacobite Steam Train to Hogwarts…

Our home for the night was Fort William Backpackers hostel, a fantastic base for travelers and the best night’s sleep of all our accommodations on our two-week trip – yes, a full eight-person bunk room.  Backpackers know how to keep quiet and sleep anywhere!  The town is an excellent base for outdoor lovers and is the northern terminus of the West Highland Way. We’ll be back!

“There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.” ~Billy Connolly

Monday, February 18, 2019

Giant's Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland – 5/30/18 – 3 miles

And just like that, Jim and I were in Northern Ireland!

Okay, so it took some planning for a two-week trip across the pond to visit Northern Ireland and the islands and highlands of Scotland.  Most of our days were filled with castle explorations, pub inspections and practicing not screaming as Jim navigated on the wrong side of the road driving a stick shift.  “We did not need this level of difficulty!” became one of our memes.

Did a little hiking in these two stunningly beautiful countries. If you’ve been, you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t been yet, you must.

After two nights and a fascinating day of political history in Derry, the second largest city in Northern Ireland, we embarked on a drive of the Causeway Coastal Route (A2) along the Antrim Coast.  We toured the entire route from Derry to Belfast in a single day, but two or even three days would be awesome to explore the villages along the way.  We saw some highlights but we missed some stuff (too many castle ruins and distilleries, too little time!) Giant’s Causeway was our #1 goal. It’s part of the UK National Trust (like the U.S. National Park Service) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Science:  A result of volcanic activity 60 million years ago, a natural geologic formation of around 40,000 vertical polygonal basalt columns massed together to form a causeway jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Legend: Finn McCool, an Irish giant, created the stepping stone pathway so he could walk over to Scotland to fight a rival Scottish giant named Benandonner. My money is on Finn McCool.

Info about Giant’s Causeway is here. I’ll stick to our day of exploration.  The massive Visitor Center was teeming with people.  [Though we didn’t take time to explore the architecture of the VC, you should!] We got through the enormous gift shop and outside to the trail beginning, where there are three choices to reach the Causeway:  (1) walk a half-mile on the Blue Trail, which is actually a paved roadway, (2) ride a bus on the Blue Trail, or (3) climb the Red Trail up to the cliff edge for a two-mile walk and then descend the Shepherd’s Steps to intersect the Blue Trail and make a loop. Trail descriptions here.

Jim and I started walking the lower path…

…but soon we backtracked to take the Red Trail along the clifftop.

Spectacular! Every little side step to the edge gave a view that couldn’t be captured by a camera, although Lord knows I tried. All around was saturated with vibrant colors. 

The bushes of yellow gorse growing in profusion reminded me of the wild yellow coreopsis I saw covering East Anacapa Island at Channel Islands National Park.

From this windy height the people on the Causeway were tiny swarming insects and the rocks really didn’t look like much, a pointy peninsula in the vast coastline…but climbing around on the stones, I realized how very special this place is.

At Shepherd’s Gate

Before going left to see the Causeway up close, we followed the trail as it continued right

Basalt column formation called Organ Pipes

The skinny strip of rock jutting into the water in the upper right quadrant is Giant's Causeway.  The flat cliff top in the extreme upper left is the Yellow Trail. Crazy, right?

The trail appears to continue, but shortly past this fencing the path was blocked

Down at the shore’s edge

A young man and woman who were also rock hopping among the lumps of volcanic rock took a photo for us.  The guy was picking up rocks (is that allowed?) and gave one to me, a smooth round black rock that fit in the palm of my hand.  He said he was from Tennessee, visiting Northern Ireland with his church on a mission to evangelize on the streets of Belfast.  I wonder how that went?

Standing at the Giant’s Causeway, the blocks were no longer theoretical but magical. So tiny from the cliff’s edge, now I saw how extensive the geologic formations were. Accepting the throngs as a matter of fact, the humans gave scale to the landscape. Jim grew tired of me asking him to either pose or take photos of me, and I felt self-conscious for wanting mementos.  But of course I’m glad now that I have them!

We explored mounds of blocks, some darker, some lighter, some flat as pavement, some missing.  A staff ranger stood alert to people going too far to the edges where waves crashed.  Occasionally, without warning, a huge wave would splash high up and drench a few folks and I could see the potential danger.

The cliffs in the background where the Yellow Trail traces the edges

On the Causeway looking up at the high point

From the Yellow Trail at the high point looking down at the Causeway

We continued on our way along the Antrim Coast and stopped to see Carrick-a-Rede, a rope bridge to the tiny rock island where salmon fishermen were based when salmon were plentiful in those waters.  The walk to the rope bridge is free, but a paid timed ticket is required to walk across (and back). This late in the day, the line was an hour long, so we chose to just sit and watch. Looks pretty cool, eh?

IRELAND: “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t met yet.” ~William Butler Yeats