Eas Mor, Glen Brittle

Destination: The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Black Cuillins are probably the longest sustained alpine-style ridge in the UK, found in Skye, Scotland, they’re very spiky and dramatic.

In 2012, in March, our trip to Skye was beautifully sunny and hot. So much so that we went swimming in the rivers and sea.

Last time round, I still thought of myself as very unfit, and inexperienced. I’d only say my confidence has increased since then, but I’ve also demonstrated my fitness to myself and grown my confidence in travelling over exposed ground. Last time, the only Munro I summitted was Sgurr a’Mhadaidh via An Dorus – and I distinctly remember being on the top of this narrow ridge of rock, looking down at everything else. I remember looking around and noticing there was a lot of empty space between us and anything else.

Path to An Dorus - the scree slope
Path to An Dorus – the scree slope

This time, we’re going to stay in Glen Britle for 6 days, and the weather conditions are unlikely to be anything as like last time. MWIS doesn’t cover the Cuillins in a great deal of granularity, but I’m looking and hoping for reports of relatively little wind and precipitation. I’m also looking for a greater than 50-60% chance of cloud free summits – the Cuillins are one of those places where visual navigation is really the only way of doing things safely, and everything else are just aids for if/when you get stuck in cloud and need to return. The local regional medium term weather forcast looks damp, but ok.

SAIS doesn’t have an outpost in Skye either, but the latest Torridonian reports are positive, and the reports for the rest of Scotland also show a low risk. Obviously, conditions change, and we’re probably best placed to observe them. Significant new snow, or significant rises in temperature at altitude, are probably the biggest obvious atmospheric things we can be aware of that could cause problems. When it comes to actual avalanche avoidance, there’s a lot one can do on a snow slope to predict whether an avalanche is likely. From the SAIS observations in Glencoe and Lochbar, I think the conditions are likely to be snowy at altitude – mainly icey wet snow that has refrozen. Somewhat slippy to walk on, but ideal for crampons and not prone to movement.

If only the snow would freeze all the scree slopes solid please, and not exist anywhere else – that’d be lovely. ;)

Obviously all excursions and outings are weather dependent, and I’m travelling very well prepared for the conditions I’m expecting – Scarpa Manta B2s & G2 crampons, Ice Axe, down jacket, are packed.

I’m hoping the weather allows us to get up Sgurr Dearg/In Pin, Sgurr Alisdair, Sgurr Nan Eag, Sgurr a’Mhadaidh, Sgurr Banachdich seems straight forward, but the standard route looks boring, so it might be an option for the first hike.

I think my climbing buddy would like to have a look Am Basteir’s tooth so we’ll take a look at that and maybe Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh too.

I might see (conditions permitting) if I can do a camping excursion from Glen Brittle up to one of the high corries… Probably one of the 3 closest ones. *shrug*

The Black Cuillins of Skye
The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Cuillin range is particularly interesting, as it one of the places in the UK where the 1:25,000 Ordance Survey maps just aren’t adequate. The 1:12500 Harvey’s map enlargements of the ridge, are considerably better, but no use alone. I’ll also be taking the excellent SMC Cuillins guidebook and the Skye Cicerone guide.

I’ll be taking a Garmin GPS with me – not for navigating (we want to be navigating visually), but for returning in poor visibility and avoiding navigation errors. The narrowness of the cuillins, and the slightly magnetic Gabbro they’re made of, means that compass bearing can’t ever be fully trusted, and so the GPS will give a lot of confidence.

However a GPS device can only tell you where you are in terms of a long/lat reference – if you don’t have a map for it to overlay that position on, then it’s useless.

Thus, over the past few months, I’ve been working to improve the OpenStreetMap coverage of the Cuillins – from the various data sources available – 6 inch maps from the 1800s, Ordanance Survey open data releases, and Bing aerial photography, and thanks to the kindness of some guy in Germany, this data is now available for your Garmin GPS (and is loaded on mine!).

Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain
Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain

Like when I went to Kyrgyzstan, I’ll be taking my Spot satellite pager device and will periodically fire off A-OK’s which will go out via Facebook and twitter. It’s not the same level of remoteness though, and though there will be mobile signal on the top of the mountains, we will also be carrying walkie talkie’s.

Spot will tell you my GPS position at the time I fired off the A-OK and I’ll mark the exciting and tricky bits of scrambles, and summits with custom alerts, saying they’re exciting.

I figure you might like to see where I am, but SPOT uses Google maps which are a bit rubbish in that area, so you’ll have to find a way to use the SPOT co-ordinates with this rendering of OSM: http://umap.openstreetmap.fr/en/map/black-cuillins-skye_4548#16/57.2007/-6.2260 perhaps you can hack the URL?

For next time I go away, I want to use the Spot API (go look – you may be able to hack something? *shrug* that pokes the co-ordinates auto-magically into the umap-osm thing – or at least, provides neat links to show where I am on a better map.

Anyway… Time for me to get packing! I’m excited! I hope to return with stories, and photos! :)

The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background
The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background

#TimOnTour Kyrgyzstan 2013 – Exploring Central Asia’s lesser known mountains

What’s going on here?

I’m on a two week trek, exploring a lesser known part of Kyrgystan, in central Asia. I’m publishing my location (with a Spot device) and that I’m OK, at regular intervals.

Where are you right now?

Back in the UK.

Where did you go?

Have a look at this map.

What do different update types mean:

OK/Checkin:

  • Just that I am at location and everything is ok. (Two thumbs up, absolutely ok, things are going great)

Custom:

  • Slept here
  • Lots of wow noises due to surroundings at that point
  • Summited something
  • Met someone here
  • Something of interest happened here
  • Repeatedly, over protracted period, with no intertwined OK/Checkin’s -: everything OK, but not ‘awesome’, no assistance required. Probably coincides with return to civilisation.

Note: none of these updates can mean I need help. There is a unique Help alert that carries that meaning and is dealt with separately.

Who is guy anyway?
Who is guy anyway?

How do you pronounce Kyrgystan?

“Kur-gur-stan”

Where is Kyrgystan?

Central Asia. South of Russia, West of China

What timezone is that?

KGT. +5 hours from BST

Who are you travelling with?

I’m going on my own.

How are you getting to Kyrgystan?

Turkish Airlines: Manchester to Osh, via Istanbul.

How long are you  going for?

2 weeks (30th September – 15th October)

My flights
My flights

Where are you going?

Osh for a couple of days, then down to Bakten province, and up the Karavshin valley, right up to the Jiptik (джиптик) valley.


Where I’m planning to go.

Why Karavshin & Jiptik valleys?

There are unclimbed peaks in the area which I plan to scout/photograph. In addition, the scenery is reputedly comparable to Yosemite but in my 300 page guidebook of Kyrgzystan (2011), Batken province was given just 3 pages, and the Karavshin/Ak-Suu area was mentioned in passing in just one paragraph.

Also, it’s the only state in Central Asia with no visas for UK-visitors.

The area is traveled but certainly not well traveled. Seems like enough reasons to me!

What are you aims?

Meet and understand the landscape and people of the Karavshin & Jiptik valleys.

Where will you be staying?

I will probably mostly be camping, though I may do a few homestays in yurts.

Is it easy to get there?

No, it’s a bit of a ballache. Kyrgystan is 90% mountainous, but also, due to the Soviet Union days of Stalin, there are lots of enclaves and exclaves of various different countries in the area… and the main roads go through them. This means that to drive from Osh to Batken, I have to drive round Sohk, and Uzbek enclave (as I don’t have a transit visa), and the avoid the Uzbek border. When I leave Batken for Karavashin, I have to avoid or otherwise pass through the Tajik enclave of Vorukh…. and to go to the Karavashin area, I need a permit allowing me near the border, as it is close to the border with Tajikistan.

And that’s just the access issues.

Actually finding out everything above was also pretty challenging (and perhaps not accurate!). I don’t expect execution to be as simplistic as I explained.

I’m using a local travel company – Karavshin Travel – in Batken to help with a few things, but I’ve no idea how it will play out.

It wouldn’t be adventure travel, if I knew all the variables.

What are the dangers?

Have you done anything like this before?

Sort of.

I have solo cultural experience in Eastern EuropeBaltic StatesWestern Russia and I live next to Rusholme.

I’ve a good deal of solo trekking experience in England and Scotland and notably last year I spent 2 weeks backpacking through the northern Sweden, in the Arctic circle

Kyrgyzstan doesn’t speak English, even as a second language, how will you communicate?

The locals may speak Kyrgz, or they may speak Tajik, Uzbek or other central Asian languages.

Kyrgyzstan’s second official language is Russian, a foreign language I scored an A in, many years ago, at GCSE. I don’t speak Russian very well anymore, but I can read/spell out Cyrillic and, with the help of a phrasebook, I expect to be able to make myself understood.

Are you taking a satellite phone?
No. If you want to catchup, drop me message and suggest sometime when we can chat when I’m home!? Catchups are good. :)

What happens in event of an emergency?

In the event I require assistance, my SPOT satellite device will alert 10 friends/family who will probably then contact my travel company in Batken. They will look at the information available to them and make decisions on that.

Are you scared?
No. What is there to be scared of?

If you buy a car, but are too scared of scratching it to take it out of the garage, then there’s no point having such a nice car.

If you have a nice camera but are so scared of losing it that you refuse to take it to places where you’d want nice photos, then there’s no point having such a nice camera.

If you have a nice life, but you’re so scared of taking calculated risks that you don’t get to have fun, then frankly, what’s the point?

I see the world, not as a world of dangers, but as a world of opportunities.

I’ve written about this in more detail in two blog posts:

My prints of 1980s soviet military maps.
My prints of 1980s soviet military maps.

Is Google Maps the best maps you have?

Fortunately not. I’m navigating off a 1980 1:200,000 Soviet military map, that I have printed to A2 (each square = 4km), and several fragments of 1:100,000 that cover the same area. You can browse the maps with ease on toppomapper.com.

How bad will your withdrawal symptoms be through lack of internet?

Pretty bad… my hair may start falling out. Oh wait, it already is.

I’m kind of looking forward to it – last October I did 12 days in Sweden without internet.

How much does your rucksack weigh?

Too much.

18kg (inc camera, ex. water)

If you're Tim, this is the electronics you take, including spare batteries
If you’re Tim, this is the electronics you take, including spare batteries

What’s in your rucksack?

Kitlist

Surely you don’t need XXXX?

If I didn’t feel it was necessary, I wouldn’t be taking it. We may have to agree that we have different definitions of “necessary”.

What money are you taking?

Kyrgyzstan uses the “som”, which isn’t a very strong currency. I’m taking US dollars and some euros I have left over and am going to change them on arrival.

This doesn’t seem very organised, how long have you been planning this?

About 9-10 days from concept to takeoff.

Basically, I had been mis-counting my holidays, and so when I noticed the end of my holiday year approaching, I did a check, and rather than finding I owed holiday, I found I was owed about 2 weeks of holiday…

At that point, began the rush to find a way to make use of my time. After much thought, this was what I decided on.

This sounds very stressful. Wouldn’t you prefer to sit on a beach somewhere and have a casual beer?

I think by “stressful” you mean “exciting”. Having said that, I love beer and beach holidays as much as anyone else, they’re rarely “exciting” though.

No expense spared on food!
No expense spared on food!

Aren’t you vegetarian? Won’t that be tricky in Kyrgyzstan?

Well, for me, it’s a lot less tricky, as I’ve 22 years experience at it, but it’s true to point out that most Kyrgz recipes start with “first you kill your sheep”.

Being sufficiently polite and respectful is far more a concern for me than starvation – bread is an important part of Kyrgz culture and I’m certain I’ll find something to eat.

Why are you vegetarian?

It’s a long story. 22 years long, and I’ve summarised why in a previous blog post.

What will you be eating?

Whilst I’m in the mountains, I anticipate eating expedition food which I spared no expense in buying from a British supermarket. Food is a strangely polarising subject, and I anticipate no end of criticism for my choice to carry food from the UK.

How long will it take you to get your photos online afterwards?

I anticipate taking 2000-5000 photos, perhaps 2-6 hours video footage. I’d anticipate that only about 5% of that will be of interest to most people. Separating that 5% is time consuming and somewhat draining – 6 hours work in several stages. I’ll get it done, but it’ll take time and energy, both of which I won’t have. Expect a multiweek lag.

Who’s paying for your trip?

I’m entirely self-funded.

Are you receiving support from anyone?

Bytemark Hosting Logo
Bytemark Hosting are helping provide 24 hour response to alerts

My employer, Bytemark Hosting – has allowed me to hook my emergency SPOT alerts into the 24 hour s alerting framework, Mauve, that we use for monitoring servers 24/7.

When an alert is raised via this system, the oncall engineer is alerted and/or woken up, and goes and deals with the problem.

I’m very confident in my colleagues, and so, by hooking my call for help into Bytemark systems, my colleagues can help alert my ground-team straight away, so help can be sent straight away.

I’m very grateful for Bytemark’s support on this front – not every organisation would be comfortable with such a thing – so I really appreciate working with people who are happy to watch my back.

Any words of gratitude?

I’d like to thank my family, for their positive outlook on everything. It’s really been a great influence on me.

My awesome girlfriend Clara for happily letting me go off and do my own crazy things, and then happily suggesting we go camping in March in the UK. <!–more pukeworthy comments–>

John Proctor for suggestions and moral support and for his part in the Muzkol 2013 expedition with Jonathan Davey, which partly served as encouragement and inspiration. John’s other climbing buddy, Ed Lemon, also deserves a pint for map assistance.

Anita Wilczynska, my former trekking buddy from Morocco, for moral support & encouragement – it’s appreciated!

My sister & her partner for being part of our safety web – thanks!

My colleagues at work, and the building security guard for putting up with most of Amazon, being delivered to our office, for the past 2 weeks. ;)

Who’s influenced and inspired you?
Jessica WatsonLaura DekkerRobin Knox-JohnsonPete GossEllen MacArthurMike PerhamJoe SimpsonTom AllenTheodora Sutcliffe and Zac Sutcliffe, Alexis OhanianTim Moss

Both sets of grandparents’ own style of epic voyages and casual “jaunts” round unusual places.

Who are you raising money for?

Nobody.

Can I pay for your holiday?

I recommend giving money to your favourite charity instead. ;)