In-keeping with tradition, whenever things don’t go according to plan, I post up the resultant photographs in black and white. I’d earmarked this weekend for some time, as one in which to get out for a camp. As usual I had no idea where to go, but was keen to avoid my usual default of the Cairngorms. Eventually I hit upon the idea of heading down to the Borders, after seeing the John Muir Trust’s campaign to raise funds for a bid on Talla and Gameshope. This was further reinforced after seeing Dave’s post [with some cracking photos and snow!] on the subject. If I was going to pledge, I may as well see where my money was going. Besides, I’d never been before and was keen to head down for a look.
I’d had a friendly warning regarding the weather forecast from Mr. Feet, which I duly ignored. Revised forecasts from MWIS had a more favourable for the Southern Uplands, even suggesting blue skies were a possibility. I was going.
I decided on a route starting at the NTS Grey Mare’s Tail property, taking in Loch Skene, followed by a summit camp on Molls Cleuch Dod or Carlavin Hill, overlooking Gameshope in the valley below. I’d then return via White Coombe. Not a long route, but one which could be extended, weather permitting, to take in more summits with minimal descent in between.
The climb from the car park up past the falls is steep and narrow, the altitude gain is rapid and I passed first of the falls quite quickly. I slowed my pace, in an effort to remain relatively sweat free under my pack, this worked quite well and I was quite comfortable in just a base layer and windproof. I didn’t want to soak myself as my only other insulation was my down jacket, and that was for camp. There are smaller falls further up and the pitch eases off as you enter the hanging valley. The path meanders alongside the Loch Skene outflow, among the moraines, with the trinity of White Coombe, Mid Craig and Lochcraig Head coming into view ahead. There was still relative calm, until I rounded a moraine and unexpectedly found myself looking out across Loch Skene with a savage wind exfoliating my poor, delicate face.
Time for gloves. My new Chocolate Fish Merino Possum gloves were superb, and surprisingly windproof. Buy some. I pressed on, and remembering the advice I’d read online, left the shore and headed for the row of fenceposts running toward Lochcraig Head, where it was alleged to be less boggy. I’m fairly certain this was bullshit. I can’t imagine how the shoreline could have been any worse than the terrain by the fence. In summer, after a dry spell, maybe. Conditions underfoot and the increasingly blustery wind made for slow progress. Even with walking poles, the wind would buffet you into the particularly slick peat you’d been trying to avoid, which you’d then slide through. I was glad I’d opted for gaiters.
Further on, the fence becomes dyke. I realised belatedly that I’d come as far as was sensible if I was planning to camp. To press onward to the shrouded summits would have been ‘interesting’ but given I still had 250m to ascend and with the wind as it was, I decided to take shelter in the lee of the dyke, have some lunch and consider my options. I opted to hunt out a sheltered spot to pitch up. Options were few and I spent around ninety minutes wandering a half kilometre of hillside in search of a pitch. The flat bits were all either; too exposed, sodden or covered in sheep shit. There was one lovely spot, with the appearance of a close mown lawn, overlooking the loch. I thought about taking my chances, until a gust nearly blew me off my feet. Back I went to a small heathery patch I’d seen earlier, there were only a few sheep pellets on it, it’ll do.
This whole time, I’d been quietly hoping for a drop in windspeed to something more civilised. Something less like an unyielding cutaneous assault. It wasn’t to be, the Akto did not react well to the gusts, the head end was pretty flat. Sod it, I was going home, I couldn’t be arsed sleeping [or not] in these conditions. Besides, I’ve already ruined one perfectly good tent in high wind. I packed up, thought of pizza and headed for the car. The paved trail down past the falls was much less forgiving on the way back down. My knees were being brutalised, even with poles. Not a problem I usually suffer from. I resisted the urge to walk alongside the trail on the soft, welcoming grass, in a bid to avoid erosion. I slowed my pace considerably and hobbled back to the car, solitary in the parking area.
I was disappointed, I’d been looking forward to camping out for weeks and I was not going to see the summits or over to Gameshope after all. However, what I did see of the area was pretty special; hanging valleys, impressive waterfalls, high level lochs, rolling moorland – and I’d only done about a third of my planned route. This is one I hope to return to in a month or two. The hills were largely empty [maybe everyone else had seen a better forecast], but the road down from Innerleithen was devoid of traffic too. I was left wondering why this place isn’t more popular, the weather wasn’t great, which was a factor, but it’s clear from the relative lack of ‘touristy’ developments by the roadside that this is not a heavily visited area. As such, I think it may be more at risk from developers looking to exploit these hills, dangling the ‘economic benefits’ carrot in front of the local communities and anticipating less public resistance than in a National Park, for example.
So I’ll be making a pledge to the JMT campaign, so that next time I go back to the area, and the time after that, there will hopefully be a turbine free sanctuary under the stewardship of the John Muir Trust, alongside the neighbouring NTS and Borders Forest Trust properties. I urge you to do the same, then take a trip to see what you’re helping to preserve. Weather permitting, you won’t regret it.