Sunday, 15 February 2015

Botanical Book at Bedtime: Part Two

Last week, in Part One of our Botanical Book at Bedtime, Peter Llewellyn told us about the plan he and his friends hatched to try and find the elusive Diapensia lapponica. It grows on one particularly inaccessible mountaintop and when we left our intrepid team last week, they were about to start the ascent. And just beginning to realise how difficult this particular plant hunt was going to be. 

So, if you're all sitting comfortably, then Peter will begin the next installment...  

Treasure hunting in the Wester Ross uplands.
Part 2: The Ascent

Huperzia selago (Fir Clubmoss)
Image: P. Llewellyn
"We had details of where to start and how to approach the climb from someone who had successfully done the trip a few years before. This included the essential GPS references for the plant. Sometimes GPS references are dismissed as new-fangled nonsense by those who prefer traditional methods of navigation, but we felt we needed every little bit of help we could get. Moreover we were aware that only a short while before our attempt, the Inverness Naturalists group had failed to find Diapensia when armed with maps, compasses, correct grid references but no GPS.

For those unfamiliar with hand held GPS equipment you should know that there is only a little screen with information about your height and a 10 figure grid reference which, with skill, you can relate directly to your OS map. Unlike the ones in a car, no soothing voice tells you to turn left at the Diphasiastrum alpinum (Alpine clubmoss), keep straight on for 400 metres past the Minuartia sedoides (Cyphel), then left by the large rock which looks like Mick Jagger's nose. Good job too, because we didn’t find either of those two plants or anything resembling ageing rock stars

Fraoch Bheinn: the ascent
Image: P. Llewellyn
We had carefully printed out the detailed ascent guidance given to us by a successful expedition. This was totally ignored by our leader who decided to invent his own way up. We started at the splendid Glenfinnan railway viaduct, over a stile and straight into a bog.

At first there was a slight track and a few interesting plants such as Vacciumium vitis-idaea (Cowberry), Huperzia selago (Fir Clubmoss) and Vaccinium uliginosum (Bog Bilberry) here and there, but very shortly the path disappeared and we started the main ascent over tussocks of tripping grass, through boot-clogging mires and ankle-twisting rocks. While the view towards Glenfinnan was impressive, the clouds at the summit seemed to remain in place. Fortunately a slight breeze helped what was becoming, for me anyway, quite a tough climb.

Vaccinium uliginosum (Bog Bilberry)
Image: P. Llewellyn
Those of you who climb to summits of high mountains will be aware that it is the difference in height which counts when estimating the energy expenditure. Quite a few mountains such as Ben Lawers or Cairngorm which are nearly 4,000 feet or more have car parks at around 1,000 feet or higher so the actual ascent isn't as bad as it first sounds.

The ascent of this particular mountain however starts at sea level and ends at 2,815 feet, and so the total climb is greater than that required for many Munros. Being led by a walker rather than a botanist is a blessing and a curse. Experienced hill walkers read maps well, can find the route easier than we novices but they gallop up hills and look disdainfully down at those who are pretending to look at the flowers while really gasping for breath.

Bridie the Lurcher made us feel even more inferior. At every new crag she would bound easily to the top striking a pose for any passing artist who happened by with paints and easel. One unexpected reward - for me anyway - was the sight, circling overhead, of the first Golden Eagle I've ever seen. This was a reminder that this is good bird country and a birder had first found what we were now looking for. 


Vacciumium vitis-idaea (Cowberry)
Image: P. Llewellyn
As usual we were treated to at least twenty five false peaks before a large grey one, towering over the others began to be discernible through mist. That, our leader told us, was our destination. Using my finely honed judgment based on years of getting lost and wet, I estimated it was about 40 miles away.

We took lunch near a rock and contemplated forming an SAS branch of the BSBI dedicated to finding the most tiring way of seeking plants which might not be there anyway. Incidentally have you noticed how utterly delicious cheese and tomato sandwiches are when you've climbed 2,000 feet? 

Looking up, we could see that the cloud base was definitely higher, which was encouraging, but the peak still appeared to be in mist or cloud, which is exactly where Diapensia was supposed to be. In which case the flowers wouldn't be open.

Things didn't look too good..."

And at that point, we have to leave our intrepid treasure-hunters for another week. Will the weather close in and drive them back down the mountain? Will they give up and head for the nearest pub, like sensible people? Should the Mountain Rescue Team be lacing their boots up and zipping their waterproof jackets? 

Tune in next week for the third part of our Botanical Book at Bedtime.