Friday, April 30, 2010

April 30, 2010: Ice Climbing Is Hard

(This is the third entry I posted today, so make sure you read the April 28th and 29th posts, below, first.)

Today was a day of unexpected discoveries.

For starters, I discovered that when you're in a hostel in the late morning after everyone has left, and the reception has closed up so that the staffer can clean the entire hostel, it's a boring place.

I also discovered that a quiet mountain town turns into an overcrowded nightmare when a major international dirt bike mountain trials event takes place, and all the parking spots are used up and the streets jammed with traffic.

Most directly related to my trip though, I learned that ice climbing is a lot harder than it looks. While I'm sure no one has ever thought that ice climbing looked easy, it is far more technical than you can even imagine.

I have been climbing for six years, and as such I would have thought that I could have used some of those skills on the ice. To be certain, I was better off than the other student taking the course who obviously had no climbing experience whatsoever. That said, I found it rather difficult to carry over many of my rock climbing skills since I was constantly trying to get my cramp-ons or axes to stick in the ice, which took more or less all of my concentration.

Part of my under-estimation of ice climbing's came because a) when I think that swinging/kicking a sharp, heavy metal object at a sheet of ice, I expect it would result in the tip sticking in at least somewhat, and b) when I watch videos of expert ice climbers easily standing on the tips of their cramp-ons I think "it must be simple". However, what typically happens is that if the tip of the cramp-on or axe does not hit the right density of ice, at exactly the right angle, whatever it is that I tried to stick in to the ice will just bounce off and then I come falling down.

That said, I was able to make it up to the top of every 45 foot high ice wall we attempted, albeit not very gracefully. Embarrassingly, I estimate that I broke every single rule of efficient climbing form I've learned and taught as a rock climbing instructor, but it was definitely a blast, and something I would love to do again should the opportunity arise (I can hear my mother praying I change my mind as she reads this).

Other than the ice climbing though, today was rather uneventful. I consciously decided to take it easy and rest my battered legs in preparation for a 22 km "fell race" (mountain running race) tomorrow, and I don't regret it. With that though, my time in Fort William has come to an end. While this area is definitely beautiful, there are way too many tourists here now and so I will not be sad to say good-bye tomorrow morning.

August 29, 2010: On Top Of Scotland

(This is the second of two posts today. Make sure you read the post from August 28th first.)

My first full day in Fort William was yet another memorable event (actually, a series of memorable events) in what is shaping up to be a fantastic, albeit shortened adventure in Scotland.

My whole reason for coming to Fort William, in fact my main purpose in coming to Scotland, was to enjoy the plethora of outdoor activities for which the Fort William/Lochaber area is famous. However, because of my late arrival the previous night I did not get an opportunity to plan my activities for today, until today.

At 7:30 AM I rose from bed to eat breakfast. Upon the completion of breakfast I phoned every outdoor adventure company in the region I could find, to see what activities they could offer me on short notice. My first choice was to try white water rafting, but unfortunately none of the operators had any larger groups I could join this week. My second choice was to learn how to ice climb at the world's largest indoor ice climbing centre, Ice Factor. Fortunately Ice Factor had a spot available for me the next day, and so I signed myself up.

While I had scheduled the ice climbing lesson for Friday, I still needed something to do today (Thursday), and so I made an appointment to try the new Skyride aerial adventure course in the afternoon.

(Before heading out to try the Skyride aerial adventure course I went into town to find some lunch (I'm actually staying just outside of Fort William). I loved the well preserved traditional buildings on main street, where you can find traditional businesses and shoppes that exemplify the spirit of old Scotland... like Subway.)

The Skyride aerial adventure course starts with a 50 foot climb up a cargo net just to get to the obstacles so one can start the course. After being clipped in, each participant attempts, on his/her own time, to complete a lap of the course. The first obstacle is one long cable, that sways back and forth with each step the participant takes. A parallel rope, directly above the cable, is available for participants to hold in order to steady themselves as they try and shuffle the 12 or so feet along the thing cable to the next platform. From here the competitors have to traverse a second, identical 12' cable. However, rather than one long horizontally oriented rope to use as an aid, the participants are given a series of thin, hanging ropes about three feet apart, on which to hold. The next obstacles include a series of three swinging platforms suspended from wires, followed by a swaying/bouncing bridge, with two feet between each plank. Should the participant make it this far (keep in mind, the obstacles in question are 25 feet above the ground), he/she must traverse a fifteen foot log, then a swinging climbing wall. The seventh (next) obstacle is by far the most awkward to navigate. Competitors must step across a series of 4" by 4" wooden blocks, each suspended from one end by wires, each block being progressively longer then the one before it (read: it swings away from you more when you try to step on it). After this there is running leap across a gap, and another running leap to a trapese that swings to the finish.

Since the booking is for a set period of ime, the faster the participants complete each lap, the more laps each participant can take. I naturally took this to mean that completing the course was a "race," and that I should attempt to break the "record," even though no such record existed.

The instructor did tell me the though that the fastest time anyone had ever completed the course was under a minute, and was held by another staff member. However, we deemed that just swinging around on the safety rope, thereby skipping all of the obstacles, as the staff member in question had done was cheating, and therefore the record should not stand. This, or course, meant that I should attempt to set the record, or why else would they have let me try the course?

After three attempts I had more or less ironed out the major flaws in my strategies for each obstacle and was ready for my record attempt. On my fourth attempt I completed the course in a blistering 1 minute and 19 seconds, which the instructor said was "very fast" and was a time most of the other instructors would now probably be trying to beat. My session was over at this time, so I couldn't try again, but I think if I worked at Ice Factor and could practice the course enough times to perfect my movements, I could "easily" get my time down below 1 minute. As I write this now, I'm tempted to book another run at the course just to see if I can do it...

The Ice Factor climbing centre was not actually located in Fort William where I am staying, but rather in a small town 20 miles away called Kinlochleven. Kinlochleven is notable for a couple of reasons: One, it was the first town in the United Kingdom to have every home supplied with electricity (even before the Royal Estate received electricity), and 2) because of all of the heavy engineering needed to produce all of this electricity, it was also one of Britain's 100 most polluted towns, and was the focus of a massive clean up project some time ago. More importantly to me though, Kinlochleven is located on an amazing stretch of road, the B863, which is even better than the A82! On the way back from my session, I switched on the Astra's "Sport" mode, and really let loose on the narrow, winding, undulating roller coaster of a road, located next to a stunning bit of scenery: Loch Levin.

(My Astra taking in the views of the splendid Loch Levin. The unbelievable B863 passes along this Loch, providing unbeatable views for 10 miles. The skies were a little grey at this time, but for the one or two minutes each day when the sun comes out it makes the mountain glow and the water sparkle.)

When I got back home around 3:00 PM, I immediately set out to hike up the tallest mountain in the UK: Benn Nevis (1340 metres, or 4406 feet high).

(Ben Nevis, or at least half of it. The rest of the mountain is up in the clouds.)

Fortunately for me, the entrance to the Benn Nevis hiking path is literally located right across the street from the front door to my hostel. Unfortunately though, the summit of Benn Nevis is so high that the temperature at the top of the mountain is below freezing (-21 centigrade with wind-chill) and I did not bring anything warmer than a thin, non-waterproof shell of a coat. I've never let a silly thing like being unprepared stop me in the past though, and so with running shoes, track pants, a thin jacket, a Snickers bar, and a 500 mL bottle of water, I set out to conquer Britain's highest peak.

(A group of hikers I met along the way who were in the process of trying to climb the three tallest mountains in Britain in under 24 hours. They told me that this was their second mountain, and that immediately after descending they would climb in a bus and drive through the night to the next mountain in England.)

(A beautiful picture of the glen of Glen Nevis - where I was staying.)

(Ben Nevis has a number of peaks along its top ridge. The most common way to reach its summit is to take this path up, and then cross over the "bridge" in the middle of the picture to get to the other side where the highest point is located somewhere up in those clouds.)

Along the way, every person I met thought there was no way I would make it to the top with my choice of "kit." I poo-pooed their concerns, since I figured there was no way I could fail, since I had "set my mind to it." I wanted to climb Ben Nevis, that's what I was going to do.

(A beautiful loch between two of Ben Nevis' peaks.)

It wasn't until later that I found out that unlike hikers in Korea, who will buy $1000 worth of hiking gear to have a picnic on the side of a large hill, hiking the Munroes in Scotland is a seriously dangerous endeavour that results in roughly 4 deaths every year due to heart attacks caused by dehydration, or people slipping off of cliffs. But never mind inconvenient details like that right now; on with the story...

Everything was going along just fine and dandy for the first hour (less than half the mountain), until I came to an unexpected waterfall. The waterfall produced so much water that it flooded a 3 metre wide section of the path about 10 -15 centimetres deep with ice cold glacier water. Here's where the water-proof boots would have come in handy... This is also where I should have refilled my water bottle....

(The "waterfall" on Ben Nevis.)

(Two videos of the "water fall", from different angles.)

After that I was told by a climber coming down from the summit, "you can't go up to the top; it's all snow and your feet will get soaked." I replied, "that's alright, my feet are already soaked," and kept on my way. Eventually, after the grass had disappeared, and I was literally up in the clouds (the portion of the mountain obscured in the picture), it started to dawn on me that they were not talking about a couple of inches of snow here or there, but 2 metres of snow that never melts because the temperature is always below freezing.

(What I ran in to at the top of Ben Nevis. I touched up this picture on my computer to make it look better, but the visibility was nowhere near this good; especially since my glasses were all fogged up and/or covered in snow.)

(A video of me trying to find my way to the summit of Ben Nevis. I make a mistake in this video. The name of the mountain is Ben Nevis. Glen Nevis is the valley below the mountain
Ben Nevis, not Glen Nevis. There is no second mountain called Glen Nevis.)

A saner person probably would have turned around at this point, but I noticed a T-shirt back at the hostel advertising the mountain as the tallest in Britain, and I didn't want to buy the T-shirt if I hadn't reached the summit, so I soldiered on, eating snow to keep myself hydrated.

Eventually, after 2 hours and 40 minutes of the world's toughest stair master workout, I was able to stand beside the finish marker, the highest land dweller in the UK. I almost died, but it was worth it, because now I get to wear my Benn Nevis T-shirt honestly. Well, I would have been able to wear the T-shirt honestly, but I later found out that there were no shirts in my size, so alas my effort was in vain.

(Me, on the summit marker of Ben Nevis with my trusty water bottle. "Kimchi!")

April 28, 2010: A Fantastic Drive

Today was my last morning in Ullapool, and since I knew that I was going to be driving a long way today, I decided to fill up again on The Frigate's cooked breakfast, or "fry up" as the locals call it.

After breakfast I did some last minute souvenir shopping and then headed out to conquer Ullapool Hill - a small 350 metre mountain behind the city that provided some more training for my upcoming mountain half-marathon this Saturday. Additionally,it provided me an opportunity to get some nice pictures of the town and its surrounding area, since the weather the day before had been rather gloomy at the best of times, and downright awful at the worst.

(Ullapool is a wonderful town that I will certainly go back and visit again some time. It seemed that every pub or shop had won some kind of award for Best This or Best That. Even the public toilets are award winning.)

(The famous Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. Because of this ferry service to the islands on the outskirts of Scotland, Ullapool is considered a "life blood" town by the government, and this means it gets a bit more attention and money to make sure the roads leading into it are kept clear of snow and open all year round.)

(The town of Ullapool, as seen from the top of Ullapool Hill.)

At around 2 PM, I finally left Ullapool which, as I would soon find out was far too late. My first stop though was only 13 miles away at Corrieshalloch Gorge, where visitors can walk on a bridge and look down over The Falls of Measach. While at the gorge, I met an English couple who told me about a great town along the west coast called Applecross that I just "had" to stop in and see. I told them I would add it to my list since I was heading in more or less that direction anyways.

(I didn't tilt the camera, the rocks were slanted that way on their own. This picture was taken on the walk around the gorge, leading up to the Falls.)

If I thought the roads leading to Ullapool were difficult on Monday, I received an even bigger shock today. After two days of driving in the north of Scotland I have finally gotten used to the narrow roads, which is a good thing because the coastal roads of Scotland are some of the best driving roads in the world if you can take being only inches away from the oncoming vehicles. That said, they're also very scary roads, and incredibly dangerous, so I'm sure glad I upgraded to the SRI Astra with its superb handling or I might have died. I now know why European cars have "European tuned" suspensions; if they didn't there would be no drivers left in Europe, or at least Scotland.

(My Astra enjoying the scenery while I take a rest in a "lay-by" (road side turnout) along one of the aforementioned coastal roads.)

(My Astra watches what is essentially the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, in Applecross, with a new buddy. Unfortunately the weather had turned downright awful by this point.)

(A wonderfully quaint cottage in Applecross.)

(The Applecross Inn: My first chance to eat since leaving Ullapool.)

There were two "B roads" (minor roads) heading into Applecross, and unfortunately I took the wrong one, which added some considerable time to my journey, but eventually I made it to the little town on the sea side and was able to get a delicious smoked salmon sandwich - my first meal since breakfast. While finishing my sandwich I had a pleasant conversation with a very helpful elderly couple, again from England, who had been to Applecross twenty times. They directed me to the "short" way out, which involved the scariest hill climb/decent on single track road ever (just one lane shared by cars going both directions).

The way up the mountain featured blind turns that could have held a potential head-on collision while the way down contained razor sharp hairpin turns, and was so steep and the visibility so poor due to the fog and rain, I would have surely toppled over the edge in a car made for American roads. To make matters worse, on Scottish roads the sheep graze wherever they please, and also cross the road wherever they please, as slow as they please. The deer also seem to think the road is for grazing, and on this one journey alone I encountered five separate groups of deer eating on or crossing the road in front of me. However, unlike the deer in Alberta, the red deer of Britain aren't dumb, and they actually get out of the way when they see you coming. All in all it was probably the most exciting drive of my life. Anyone coming to Scotland is strongly encouraged to rent a car and drive the A87 from Invergarry (on the southern tip of Loch Ness) to Fort William; you'll never forget it! (Don't worry though, the A87 portion of my trip was a relatively safe one.)

(Look closely, you can see one of the more than a dozen deer who crossed the road in front of me at one point or another during my trip.)

(A compilation of videos I took whilst driving in the wonderful north-west of Scotland. Some were taken to show the beautiful scenery/roads, while others were to show the kinds of dangerous conditions one can get himself into on the roads of north-west Scotland. After driving down some of these single track roads, I'll never complain about that one stretch of undivided highway around Sturgeon Lake ever again.)

Finally, after 8 hours of driving I made it to my next hostel in Fort William at 10:30 PM. My night in Fort William may have been shot, but I'm not too concerned as the drive down was an experience I won't soon forget.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April 27, 2010: Wet Hiking In The Highlands

Day 2 in Scotland, and my first full day here. I woke up at roughly 6:30 this morning, because my body hadn't fully adjusted to the time difference. Regardless, I felt no drowsiness so I got to work completing yesterday's monster blog post and editing all the videos, etc.

At 10:30 I had to leave my room so that the staff could clean it, and since it turns out "free Wi-Fi", as advertised on the website, really means "pay to use Wi-Fi", I set out on a trek to find a cafe in town that supposedly offered wireless Internet. My first goal though was to find a shop that served breakfast.

(I live in one of those white buildings on the left, and my room overlooks the sea, literally a stone's throw away.)

(A different look at the lovely white shops along the sea front. My hostel is two white buildings to the left of the brown buildings.)

(The Caledonian Hotel, not where I stayed, but definitely the best looking building in Ullapool.)

Just down the street from my hostel I found a cafe/restaurant called The Frigate advertising a "Frigate's Cooked Breakfast" option on the menu. For 7.50 GBP (about $11.50, or less than my hamburger at the airport in Calgary cost) I was served on a plate the size of a pizza pan, bacon, eggs, sausage, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, black pudding (cooked pig or cow's blood that has congealed), toast, potato scones, and baked beans. The restaurant also threw in a large pot of tea for free. Then, after finishing everything and feeling full and completely satisfied (if not a little sick), I continued on with my Wi-Fi mission.

After using about as much free Wi-Fi at the Ceilidh cafe as I figured a 1.90 GBP bottle of lemonade earned me (and probably a lot more), I decided to stop in at the rather charming Ullapool museum. Built out of an old church, the museum still has the original pulpit from which the priest would have given his sermons. There weren't many artifacts in the museum, but there was a tremendous amount of information about the Highland Clearings of the 18th Century, and genealogical information about the people who lived in this area at the time. The person working at the museum was also more than helpful, and even gave me some information regarding the person to whom I should speak to find out about my own Scottish ancestry.

(The excellent Ullapool museum, in the old church.)

(The original pulpit.)

Since my hostel closes during the day from noon until 5 PM, I decided to go for a drive north of the town to explore the "Rock Route", an area of land where, in 1888, James Horne and Ben Peach first discovered how mountains are formed. I hiked a complete circuit of Knockan Crag, turned back and ran around it the other direction all in an hour, and then continued on to The Bone Caves to see the area where Horne and Peach found a fossilized lynx and polar bear skull.

(The view looking out from Knockan Crag. The visibility was poor today because of the dark clouds and thick mists.)

(A couple of photographs I took on my way up to The Bone Caves of which I am especially proud.)

The route up to The Bone Caves was much much longer than the Knockan Crag circuit, and by the time I got back to my car it was 7:30 PM, and I was absolutely soaking wet - it had been raining all day - and rather hungry since I hadn't eaten since breakfast. Actually, a lot of my discomfort came as a result of blazing my own trail straight up the wrong mountain to see what were not The Bone Caves, but rather were the home of a peregrine falcon and her offspring. The falcon was none to happy to have me intrude on her nesting area, and she made quite the display of displeasure. I figured I'd best get out the vicinity before I lost my eye balls. It was at this point I realized that the mountain is much steeper going down than it is going up, and so I had to zig-zag back down the mountain, using the local flora for extra traction/safety, which also soaked my shoes and pant legs considerably.

(The famous Bone Caves.)

(Not only did I have to watch out for angry falcons, but the slugs were out in full force because of the rain.)

(A shot of my car for the week at entrance to The Bone Caves trail.)

(Another shot of my Astra 1.8 SRI in front of the dock in Ullapool.)

When I did get back to the town at 8:15 PM I was starving. For dinner I went back to The Frigate and ordered a haggis and mushroom pizza. Haggis, a traditional Scottish food, is made by cooking sheep's heart, liver and lungs inside of the stomach. It tastes surprisingly good on pizza, and while I normally only eat pepperoni pizza back in Canada, I always try to sample some of the local cuisine when I'm in a new country so I figured I couldn't come all the way to Scotland and waste the opportunity to eat some sheep's innards.

Tomorrow I will attempt to find a swinging bridge over a waterfall, but for now I sleep.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April 26, 2010: The Long Drive

Finally, after 10 days of waiting, I am finally leaving for Scotland. My plane left the Grande Prairie Airport at 1:55 PM on Sunday, April 25, 2010, and while I've flown many times, this is the first time I've actually left from the Grande Prairie Airport. Because of this I was a little surprised that I had to walk out onto the runway to get to my plane - a tiny Dash 8.

The flight went well enough, and I was fortunate enough to get an entire row (two seats) to myself. I also "charmed" the flight attendant and got myself 2 extra packets of corn nuts (and by "charmed", I mean I asked).

As usual, my seat was right over the wing... well, in this case it was under, but has anyone ever sat in an economy section of a plane and not had his/her view obstructed by the wing? I don't think it is possible. At least I was able to capture some pretty neat footage of the landing gear deploying, which you can see in the first video, below.

(I didn't capture the flight to Munich because I wasn't sitting near a window.)

(The Dash 8 that took me to Calgary.)

I arrived at the Calgary International Airport at 3:30 PM, just an hour and a half later, where I was immediately impressed by the quality of the automatic taps in the washrooms. Not only did the taps provide a goodly amount of water pressure, but the water came on without fuss as soon as my hands were placed in front of the infrared beam. Said water was also immediately warm.

(Not my plane, just some other plane I watched being loaded/unloaded while I ate a relatively tasteless and expensive burger at the Calgary International Airport.)

(My plane to Frankfurt.)

The boarding time for my Airbus A330 plane to Frankfurt seemed to be rather long, certainly longer than any wait I've had flying into or out of Korea on a similarly sized plane, but to my surprise there were empty seats on the plane (which makes me wonder why I couldn't have gotten an earlier flight out?). Some early issues included my personal entertainment station not working (the video screen in the back of the seat of the person in front of me), even after two lengthy delays caused by airline attendants trying to restart it (the most boring first hour of an overseas flight ever), as well as being kicked constantly by the three year old girl beside me as she twisted and turned to get some better leverage with which to fight her sister beside her. Eventually I was able to move to a different seat, where I had no further problems.

(The Lufthansa Airlines 737 I took from Frankfurt to Edinburgh.)

(Bicycles you can rent in the Frankfurt airport to get around faster inside.)

The flight arrived in Frankfurt at 11:20, giving me 20 minutes to get to my next flight. However, after landing, it took 10 minutes to taxi into the airport. The German passenger beside me joked that he was "driving to Frankfurt" (add your own German accent). I then had to go up two levels, find my gate number, run across the airport, get lost, orient myself, then descend three levels where I was held up by an annoying kid who didn't want to check his soft drink into security. Once the bottle was finally pried from his hands, he screamed at the top of his lungs for three minutes. Eventually I made it just in time to my bus, which took another five minutes to get me across the airport and out to the plane, which was waiting for us in what seemed like a neighbouring town.

People often tell me that they experience "culture shock" when they go to a different country, but in my experiences I've often prepared myself in advance for most of the differences I might be likely to encounter, or at least told myself that there will be a difference and then was not shocked when there was one. However, I confess to being caught off guard by the announcement by our pilot that even though there was a slight "traffic jam" on the runway that would delay our take-off by five minutes, we would still likely arrive in Edinburgh on time. My Air Canada flights typically run into all sorts of delays, but you don't really have much of a choice, and so you just have to sit there and "like it". In Germany though, things are mechanically efficient, and the Germans seem to expect everything to run on perfectly (I'm probably unfairly generalizing based on one experience, but that is a common stereotype of German people, so I'll pretend as though I invented it).

My neighbours for the flight were a young couple from Maine, who were making their fourth trip to Scotland. Since they had also flown through Amsterdam on one of their previous flights (my first trip to Scotland two years ago transferred in Amsterdam), we were able to share airport stories about Frankfurt and Amsterdam, as well as discuss the finer points of Scottish life with the confident assurance that only a person who spends a week at a time in another country has.

After clearing customs in Edinburgh, I went to pick up my "Ford Fiesta or similar" car that I had reserved. Unfortunately there were no Ford Fiestas left, and so my options were a Vauxhall Corsa, or a Vauxhall Astra... (you can't see it, but I'm making a "sick" face). The rental agency gave me two options: a 1.2 litre Corsa (5 door station wagon), or a free upgrade to the 1.8 litre "hot hatch" SRI version of the Astra. I thought about the $50 extra worth of fuel it might cost me for the trip, but decided that I was on holidays, and that I should enjoy my possibly one and only opportunity to drive a European hot hatch.

I believe I once remember Jeremy Clarkson testing this car and saying the turning radius was awful. He was right. Despite it being a compact car, the Astra 1.8 SRI is a nightmare to try and park, and it also has seats that are uncomfortable after sitting in them for an hour, the rear window visibility of a Lamborghini Countach (non-existent), cruise control that is impossible to figure out how to turn on (I still haven't even figured out where it is, or if it even exists), and an AC system that only blows the hot air from outside at my face (I once had Mercury Zephyr that also did this). But the power... oh, the power! The car has no problem accelerating into traffic, or passing other vehicles, although that does not necessarily mean that I don't have problems getting the car to do them. After driving the Astra 1.8 SRI I'm sure I'll never buy one, but I sure don't mind driving one for a week.

Actually, on the driving front I feel that I've done relatively well so far. There was a bit of an iffy moment in Inverness, in which I turned left into the right (wrong) lane, and caused quite a bit of confusion for the oncoming drivers. But, other than that, I'm sure I've only made but a half-dozen (hundred) of drivers shake their head and mutter "tourists".

It's not easy driving in Scotland either, what with traffic circles being as common as stop signs in Grande Prairie, and roads that are easily two to three feet narrower (check out the video a bit lower down in the post). That said, I'm having a blast driving in a country where manual transmissions are the norm and you have to qualify in order to rent an automatic car, and where there is even the option of driving a car with a 1.2 litre engine, and this is also considered normal.

But back to the trip...

It took me about twenty five minutes (not a joke), to figure out how to exit the Airport at Edinburgh (anyone who has been there knows what I mean), and after driving in a bus lane, a taxi lane, finding myself in a restricted area, I finally made the right exit on the round-about (traffic circle), and got onto the A90 heading for the Firth of Forth bridge.

I had specifically chosen this route so that I could get a glimpse of the water going over the bridge, but the metal railings obstructed my view so much I could not see the water. Oh well, being able to tell my Scottish friends I drove over the bridge will be fun enough.

At Inverkeithing, just north of the Firth of Forth, the A90 turned into the M90 race track. I raced along to Perth, whereat I turned onto the A9 and then took a pit stop in the beautiful town of Pitlochry.

Most of the trip on the A9 was far less beautiful than I remember it being when I took the train through the countryside. However, the "B road" into Pitlochry past the River Garry, cannot be matched for stunning beauty, and had I been able to find a spot to turn off and take a picture, I would have (there are no hard shoulders in Scotland in seems).

I had been to Pitlochry on my trip to Scotland two years ago, and so I remembered most of the stores along the main street. I stopped to buy some ice cream at a small store, and pick up some vitamin water (I was rather dehydrated at this point). What I hadn't remembered though, was how difficult it is to get two lanes of traffic, and a row of parked cars onto one street made for no more than two "American sized" cars. But this is Scotland, and you just find a way to squeeze yourself in there or you'll never go anywhere. After a few tight fits and close calls, I was out of Pitlochry and back on the A9 heading for Inverness.

(Standing under the Macnaughton's of Pitlochry sign, where I once bought a $100 hat made in America.)

Along the way I stopped in at Aviemore, wrongly assuming from its beautiful name that it would be as picturesque as Pitlochry. It wasn't. It also had zero shops open, since they all closed at 4 PM (it was 4:10 when I arrived).

(The Cairngorms Hotel in Aviemore.)

During my first trip to Inverness, I distinctly remember it being my least favourite Scottish city. My second visit confirmed my original assessment. Going to Inverness was a waste of time. I only drove in because I thought I would be able to find an adapter for my computer, etc. at the mall, but all the stores were closed. There was also the aforementioned incident in which I nearly caused an accident by turning into the wrong lane. The third time won't be the charm though, because I'm never going back to Inverness again. Along with all American airports, and square tipped shoes, I am now also boycotting Inverness.

At this point, I had originally planned to travel even further north into Sutherlandshire, to explore my ancestry, but it was getting late, and I needed to check in at my hostel in Ullapool (still 70 miles away). This is where Scottish driving got interesting.

Already in my drive I had experienced more corners than on the entire Highway 43 journey from Grande Prairie to Edmonton, but I was not expecting the "adventure" that is the magnificent road A835 to Ullapool. The A835 to Ullapool is like that section of Highway 40 near the Grande Cache mine on steroids (you know the one). The already narrow roads, are made at least a foot narrower, and the already non-existent shoulders are made even more non-existent, by chopping off the road right at the edge of the paint and adding sharp ditches on the side of the road, or lining the road with steep cliff faces. The corners are often blind, and the road dips and drops out from under you after those blind corners. Despite that, the 60 mile an hour speed limit isn't enough for the locals on these roads, and they race their fifteen year old rust wagons on spare tire sized wheels at 70 mph or faster on this bike path for cars. Check out the video below for a glimpse at the tamer portions of the road, on which I could spare one of my hands to hold the camera. On my next visit, after I have some more experience, I'll go even further north, where I'm told it gets "better".

(This video doesn't capture the "sense of speed" or "danger" that anyone sitting in the car would have felt, but trust me, it was there).

Eventually I made it to Ullapool, and was delighted to find the scenery exceptionally beautiful, the staff exceptionally friendly, as well as all the people in the street who helped me find the place when I was lost.

After checking in and taking my first shower for roughly two days (or at least it felt like two days), I set out to find a place to eat. As can be expected in a fishing town, fish and chips ("real food," as it's known here) shops are a dime a dozen. Well, they would be if there were a dozen food stores to be found. As far as I can tell though, Ullapool is one main street right on the harbour, a harbour, and then two other streets. I will explore the town more thoroughly on Tuesday to find out though, which will probably be "today" by the time you read this.

And now I go to bed. I haven't slept in 32 hours.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

April 25, 2010: I'm On My Way!

At 1:55 PM (Mountain Standard Time) my plane leaves from Grande Prairie to Calgary. From here I fly to Frankfurt, Germany, and then to Edinburgh Scotland. After roughly 10 days of delays, I'm finally on my way. Stay tuned for a review of my flying experience, including my experience on Lufthansa Airlines.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

August 24, 2010: No Cue Jumping

Well, it looks as though I will not get a phone call today to inform me that I've been included on an earlier flight, so tomorrow I will head out to Scotland on my twice rescheduled ticket. The journey will be quite a bit shorter, and probably not at all deserving of an entire blog, but I'll keep one regardless to post pictures, stories, etc.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

April 20, 2010: Heathrow Opens!

Finally, after almost a week of forced closure, Heathrow airport was allowed to open by the British authorities. In an attempt to catch up quickly on the back log of flights waiting to come into the airport (including mine), the British authorities have allowed the airport to operate 24 hours a day, receiving flights throughout the night. Dare I become optimistic again?

April 19, 2010: New Ash Cloud

Just when I was getting my hopes up, and the I thought the airspace over Europe was going to open up and I could get into Heathrow Airport, it turns out the volcano in Iceland has erupted again, and with it a new flight ban. As such, I don't know when I will be able to leave now. I booked a flight for this upcoming Sunday, but hopefully a replacement flight to take all the people on a "wait list," including myself, will come along earlier.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

April 18, 2010: Blue Skies Ahead?

Today a number of European airlines ran "test flights" with unmanned Boeing 747s. All of the planes came back without a single sign of damage due to the ash. However, the EU has not lifted the air travel ban just yet and so I wait for more news. I will awake tomorrow morning to see if my tomorrow afternoon flight will still be departing as scheduled.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

April 17, 2010: Yet More Not Going Anywhere

The title says it all...

April 16, 2010: Still Unable To Fly

The volcano in Iceland kept spouting ash today, further delaying flights to and from Northern Europe, while cancelling still more flights. The latest reports also do no look optimistic for an end to the eruptions in the near future, and many airlines have cancelled flights until Monday at the earliest. I wait patiently for my chance to leave.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April 15, 2010: A Volcano In Iceland Keeps Me In Grande Prairie

Today was supposed to be the day of my flight from Grande Prairie to Edinburgh, via Calgary and London. However, a volcanic eruption in Iceland had spewed volcanic ash high into the air making air travel in the region impossible. As luck (or unluck?) would have it, nearly all flights to Europe travel over Iceland, and so going to Paris or Munich, and then to Scotland, was out of the question. So, as it stands I've been booked on a flight for Monday, and will be informed as soon as possible if there is an earlier flight available.

In the mean time I've been busying myself with watching the adventures of the BBC's Michael Palin as he circumnavigates the globe, travels full circle around the Pacific Ocean, crosses the Himalayas, and completes a journey from the North Pole to the South Pole. His resourcefulness and general British pluckiness has definitely been a source of optimism for me as my trip has been temporarily derailed before it even got under way.

More updates as they happen...