It has been a busy few weeks here at reindeer house with with plenty of new calves being born on the hillside. We thought we’d share a few photos of the lovely new members of our herd. As long term readers or followers of our social media pages will hopefully have seen, we ask that you don’t identify any of the mothers if you know them. This information will be going in our adopters newsletter in June. Enjoy…
Born 11th May 2006
Blondie is different to the vast majority of the herd because not only is she pure white but she is also stone deaf. When she was born in May 2006 she was the first pure white reindeer calf for nearly 40 years, indeed since her great-great-great-grandmother Snowflake, who was born in 1968. We had no first-hand experience of a reindeer as white as the driven snow and for a while as a calf we thought she was just an incredibly lazy, ‘laid back’ reindeer. While the rest of the herd would eagerly run down the hill when we called them, Blondie would be sleeping! But it didn’t take us long to realise that actually she was deaf. Clapping our hands and shouting into her ear while she was fast asleep did nothing to rouse her; she was quite literally ‘in a world of her own.’
We worried over how she would cope out on the free range as she couldn’t hear her mother Glacier grunting to her, nor would she be able to hear the clicking of the reindeer’s tendons as they walk – a constant noise that encourages the herd to stay together. Equally she would not hear a dog barking or people talking and so be unaware of potential danger. Well, our worries were unfounded; she is now 12 years old, has successfully raised a number of calves and is very much alive and kicking. One advantage is she is really easy to spot on the hill, standing out like a sore thumb against the dark hillside, although admittedly in the winter, the white camouflage in deep snow helps to disguise her.
In 2010, Blondie had a male calf Lego who, like his mum, is pure white and also deaf. Not wanting to have too many deaf reindeer in the herd we decided not to breed from Lego, but at two years old Lego had other plans and managed to be sneaky and mate with Lulu, a seven year old, light coloured female. Lo and behold the next spring Lulu had a pure white male calf Blue, who, yes I am sure you can guess, is deaf too!
Interestingly when we have been out in Swedish Lapland we have often heard the Sámi describe white reindeer as lazy and easily predated on by wolves. I think we can safely give them the answer why!
The Everest Marathon
I packed and unpacked many many times as you can imagine but left with a very civilised 13kg rucksack with everything I needed… I hoped! Having never done anything like this before I was a bit of a fish out of water but what’s the worst that could happen? Alex, my brother, dropped me off at the airport in Inverness to fly to Heathrow where I would meet most of the team of folk and organisers taking part in this adventure. When I got there I had a bit of time to spare so I went and grabbed a coffee. While sitting there I clocked someone in the coffee line who looked suspiciously like another runner and surely had to be on the same trip. He was wearing some serious gear with a fancy running rucksack and water bottles on each strap, straws sticking up ready for quick access… he looked ready to compete! And here’s me in my chequered shirt, comfy travelling trousers looking ready for a leisurely holiday. It was this point I text a couple of friends questioning whether I should be on this trip, What have I signed up for!?!?
Shortly after, Sally (fellow reindeer herder), found me. It was Sally who introduced me to the idea of doing the marathon so ultimately she is to blame for all this 😉 I pointed out the other runner, told her how much I was bricking it, but in her usual bubbly, positive self she said ‘it’ll be fine… you’ll be fine’. The two of us headed to meet up with the rest of the group and set ourselves up for the two long haul flights. We arrived into Kathmandu Airport. It was absolutely buzzing. The smog levels were unreal, felt like I needed a buff over my mouth the whole time. Our hotel was a little piece of paradise in amongst the chaos of Kathmandu. We had time for some dinner and a shower but I think everyone was feeling the need to go to bed, knowing we had a fairly early start.
The next morning we were allocated into our groups. This is where Sally comes into it, she was the yellow group leader so she got our group together in the hotel garden and we did the tedious but necessary introductions. First up was McKenzie, he was from the North of England. McKenzie was one of those people who, although dealt a harder card in life, really was an inspiration to everyone by picking himself up and ‘taking the bull by the horns’. He took on adventures for various charities supporting causes close to his heart. Now this is where first impressions were blown out the water because it was McKenzie who I saw in the coffee line only hours before and when I got to know him, he couldn’t have been more different from that serious looking, coffee drinking runner in Café Nero! Then we had an Aussie couple Travis and Kelly. They were setting off on a worldwide adventure and going for as long as money and time would allow, starting with the Everest Marathon… One hell of a start if you ask me!
The next group of people were fellow Celts… the four Irish! Tom, John, Frank and Daithi are all friends from a running group back home. As well as their great banter they were just the most genuine lovely people who I spent a lot of my time with while in Nepal. I wont big them up too much or they’ll think I liked their company, and I’ll never hear the end of it 😉. Also in our group was Chris who is an English guy now living in Thailand, he was here to be a marshal on race day having done the marathon in the past. He was a real rock in the group and had a heart of gold as well as lots of good advice for us.
Steve was one of the oldest competitors, but this meant nothing in this type of event as he was certainly fitter than most of us and has completed some amazing races including an Iron Man. If you don’t know what an Iron Man is, google it, because it will blow your mind! Christian came from Guernsey… You can’t get much further from my Cairngorm home. He was a really great guy and always so positive. Even though Nepal dealt him the mean card when it came to tummy troubles he never moaned and always had a smile on his face and a toilet roll handy 😉 (Sorry Chris!)
Bobby was our token Yank! A 23 year old that really has been there, done that. He was completing his last marathon on every continent… what an achievement at such a young age! I spent a lot of time trekking with Bobby being a similar pace oh and not to mention kicking his ass at card games (he may say otherwise but it’s not true!). Sam lives and works in London… again couldn’t get much further from my life but its amazing how different our lives can be yet we are brought together in this adventure and get along so well. Working in the world of computers and technology I’ll never forget trying so hard to understand a conversation he was having with a friend during a trekking day about some software or app and my brain failing to understand any of it… I just don’t have it when it comes to anything technical! Sam was always game for everything, a real good sport!
Shauney was another Scottish lassie and my tent buddy… Do you think they planned that?!?! I couldn’t have asked for a better person to share this adventure with. She is the youngest person (aged 22) to complete the Everest marathon and having done some epic long distance races in the past already had some great stories. I’m not sure I would have taken on such a massive adventure when I was her age so I really admire what she has achieved. The best thing is she only lives over the hill and is a horse trainer… Future reindeer herder comes to mind!
Next are father and son Ross and Lachie from New Zealand. Ross is a mountain runner back home so this was his adventure and Lachie was coming along to be a marshal on race day. It all changed slightly for Lachie and having been strong during trekking days he decided to give the full marathon a go. Read on to see how he gets on! Mark and Ulla were a couple from Northampton who are good friends with one of the Everest Marathon doctors. This is how they came to be sat in this circle of crazy people. Mark was to take on the marathon and Ulla was there to marshal. The two were such a positive couple and so lovely. They were actually the first ones I met back in Heathrow Airport when I was super nervous about the whole adventure and they were so relaxed and calm.
Ali wasn’t here as a competitor or marshal, she was here learning the ropes for taking on the organising of the Everest Marathon in the future so she was constantly jotting down notes and off with the Nepalese organisers trying to get her head around the ins and outs of the whole thing. Nishma was our group doctor and has been the doctor on the Everest Marathon before so was all ready and set for the challenge ahead. Such a bubbly lady who always had a smile on her face and great advice. Couldn’t have asked for a better person to look after us and she had skills when it came to card games! Then last but not least, Sally. Some of you may already know Sally as she has been a seasonal reindeer herder on and off for about ten years. She is the most positive, smiley person I know. Having her as our group leader created such a great atmosphere and I really feel our group gelled so well and looked after each other which was also down to her great leadership. I wouldn’t have taken part in this amazing adventure and met these incredible people if it wasn’t for Sally, so she’s to blame… I mean she’s to thank! So as well as our group there was the red group. I won’t introduce all of them or we will be here all day but I will mention Rich and Dr Mike who we adopted as honorary yellow group members over the course of the adventure. Both great guys, game for everything and super strong in the mountains!
While we were still in Kathmandu we all took part in a fun run. We all hopped onto a bus which took us out of town to the top of a hill (thankfully) ready to run down in our costumes. We had Elvis, 118 118 man, Peter Pan, a penguin, four Irish Leprechauns and many more costumes. Everyone made a real effort to dress up. I wore a reindeer onesie which at the time seemed like a great idea until the Nepal sun came out and it turns out running in 25 degrees gets rather hot! As well as the fun run there was an excursion to the Monkey Temple and also other iconic spots around Kathmandu. This then brought us to the morning we left for the mountains. It was all getting rather real now… eek!
We hopped on a tiny 16 seater plane and flew to Lukla. The views were spectacular looking over to some of the worlds biggest mountains. Now this runway is renowned for its shortness. Luckily I couldn’t see it from my side of the plane until the last minute. It certainly made my stomach turn slightly but there was nothing we could do bar hope the pilot was on course, which he was. It helped that the weather that day was glorious so no turbulence to contend with. Once we landed, we grabbed some lunch and various instructions from our leaders and headed off on our first trek together as a group. We had about 4 hours walking that day passing yak trains, some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, Sherpas carrying the most incredibly heavy loads, many tourists, plant life I’ve never seen, traditional houses and hamlets, children running to school (which at that altitude, walking was tough enough for us), suspension bridges, and many more amazing things. What a beautiful country and the colour from prayer flags and the Nepalese clothing just brought it all alive.
Over the next two days we trekked to Namche Bazaar which is the main village and last proper civilisation for most trekkers and climbers before heading onto other trails and Mount Everest itself. It was a lovely little place with cafes, bars and shops selling curios and souvenirs. Also for sale was lots of outdoor gear which was branded names but not branded prices… We had a couple of days in Namche Bazaar getting any last minute essentials but more importantly acclimatising. It is really important for your body to adjust slowly and properly to altitude or you can make yourself really sick. Some folk in the group were already experiencing some symptoms but luckily I was OK, so fingers crossed it stayed that way. From Namche we did a couple of treks for good views but also to help with the altitude then after a few days we headed off. This was for real now. We had our lovely Sherpas, a herd of yaks to carry the gear and lots of nervous but excited folk ready for this massive adventure ahead. We still had two weeks until the marathon itself, which at the time felt like ages away but its amazing how it seemed to fly by.
On leaving Namche we discovered the red group was very well trained and all had their assigned number so when we were all due to leave they would shout out their number to make sure everyone was there. Needless to say we were rubbish and when put on the spot I’m not sure any of us remembered which number we were. So later that night, during our nightly meeting with Sally we decided we had to do better therefore we gave ourselves a letter, starting with A, B, C… etc and with our letter we had to think of an animal. So here goes… I think this was all the animals in our group and what ended up being our morning chorus before setting off on trekking days to make sure everyone was there – Ass, Baboon, Cat, Donkey, Elephant, Ferret, Giraffe, Horse, IBEX (this was Bobby’s animal and always said with great volume!), Jaguar, Koala, Lemur, Meerkat, Nightingale (this was me), Orangutan, Pufferfish, Quail, Reindeer (of course), Snake, Tiger and Unicorn. It took a few days to perfect but it sounded awesome when we did get it right. Peter, the leader of the red group said he’d buy Sally a beer if we managed so I think he needs to dig deep cos we definitely got there!
From now on we were camping. We would arrive at camp every day to our tents already set up and our Sherpas starting our dinner. Our kit bags would arrive and we set up camp for the night laying out our sleeping mat and bag then change into our evening attire (I had two sets of clothes, daytime and night time… that was it!), park ourselves in the lodge and crack out the card games. This happened most nights. Some folks would read, go for a wee walk, sleep and now and again Sally had organised a quiz so it was a real social time all round. Ulla had a birthday while we were there and amazingly the Sherpas managed to bake a cake. How? I have no idea but it was delicious. After dinner the Sherpas heated up water for us which we would stick into our water bottle and put in our sleeping bags. Worked as a fantastic hot water bottle especially when camping in the minus’s. Ice would form on the inside of the tent, that’s how cold it was.
Our first few days after leaving Namche took us up a valley towards Gokyo. We camped at a place called Machherma for four nights which was great, it meant we didn’t have to pack up camp daily. One of the days we just did a walk up and run down for nice views and acclimatising. Then on one of the other days we headed up towards Gokyo and Gokyo Ri which meant we were gaining a lot of height. This was a big day and not everybody opted into doing the bigger walk but from the top of Gokyo Ri there was the most magnificent views of Mount Everest. The walk was super tough as we reached almost 5400m but every step was worth it. Bobby had a beer from one of his sponsors which he downed at the top… not sure how but I put it down to having 8 years on me 😉 The blue water lakes were just incredible and we had great weather to top it off. Saying that it was pretty chilly up there. On one of our other days it was meant to be a rest day but Bobby, Sally and I decided to go for a wander, taking us back to Gokyo because it had a good bakery. We took a massive cake order from both yellow and red group and headed off on our ten mile round trip… things we do for cake!
As days went by we covered lots of ground trekking and most of us acclimatised well. Depending how some people were coping with altitude meant their trip was altered but on the whole everyone was doing amazingly. Once dropping down again in altitude some folk decided that was as far as they would go and would meet the group again at the end of the marathon back in Namche Bazaar. For the rest of us we were starting the marathon route in reverse, trekking it over a number of days. It was crucial at this point to know where we were going as the next time we would see it would be on marathon day itself. There were a few big climbs and drops again as we made our way up the valley. This was also the main route to Base camp and Mount Everest. We stopped at various lodges along the way and camping overnight. We even went to hang out with the monks in one of the monasteries in Tengboche. We passed many yaks and Sherpas and the further up we went the colder it got. One of the coldest nights was in a place called Pheriche a couple of camps before our last night in a tent.
We reached Lobuche, this was our final two nights camping and start of preparation for marathon day. It was a bleak wee place and the lodges were cold at night. When we were back in Namche Bazaar I bought myself a yak wool blanket. I think its safe to say this was my best purchase and every night I wrapped myself up in it and wore it like a skirt in the lodges. It was so toasty warm and some of the group commented on it being surgically attached to me… it wasn’t far off it that’s for sure! We had a rest day here where we had the option to walk up Kala Putar giving us great views of Everest but a few of us opted to go to Base Camp instead. In 2016 a friend of mine summited Everest and while he was out there I would hear of his adventures and obviously he spent a lot of time at Base Camp so it was nice to go to the area I had heard so much about. Base Camp is also one of those places in the world you hear people talk about so now I have ticked that off the bucket list I’m pretty delighted. The same day we also passed Gorek Shep, this was to be the start line on race day. The first three miles was going to be tough though as it was mostly boulder field. This part a lot of people were dreading but I’m afraid to say it was the one part of the whole race I enjoyed the most. The rougher the better for me as I’m not exactly a built long distance or fast running, I am however built for hills and rough ground whether it be up or down so this part was fine by me, it was the flat runnable bits I was rubbish on!
The last health and kit checks were done the day before the marathon in Loboche and this was where we sadly had to leave Sally as she was to marshal this first check point the next morning. Really I feel she should have been allowed to come to the start line with her group. By this point of the journey we really had got to know everyone in our group so well and with Sally being our group leader it was a shame for her not to see us on our way, however, this wasn’t hers or our choice and seeing her smiling face, 3 miles into the marathon was also really nice… a real boost! That afternoon we trekked to Gorek Shep once again and stayed the night in the lodge there. It was pretty chilly and the yak blanket was out again for sure! We prepped our kit bags, got some food inside us and all hit the sack nice and early, ready for a 6.30am race start. Poor Shauney, my tent buddy, fell ill and she couldn’t manage any food that night. Not only that but the sickness kept her from resting properly before the race. We made sure she had some sugary fuel through the night but that was real bad luck as she was definitely one of the strongest women competitors in the group!
We all got up around 5am, had some porridge and tea for breakfast and also just to warm us up. The lodge didn’t exactly have central heating. We got onto the start line for 6.15am, all absolutely freezing and leaving our down jackets on for as long as possible. Minutes before 6.30am we reluctantly took our jackets off in preparation for the start whistle. Then… We were off! The Nepalese runners were wearing hardly anything and they shot off at the speed of light leaving all us international runners behind. We plodded on but at 5,140m even plodding felt exhausting. Although you make some really good friends during this adventure, come race day I was always going to run my own race and if that coincided with someone else of similar speed then great but I wanted the experience to be my own however it panned out. I reached Sally after the 3 miles of rough boulders and she was our first check point. I did a reindeer call from afar so she knew I was coming. A warm drink and hug from her was welcomed and we carried on our merry way.
We had another few miles before our next check point which was Chris in Dugla (4620), again it was so nice to see a friendly face and a bite to eat. By this point in the race we were still seeing a few of the other runners but as the race went on folk dispersed more and more and I think this was the last time I saw the front runners of the international field, they were well and truly off ahead of me after Dugla. The next part of the race was all very runnable, this is where I’m not so strong but I plodded on. Where I gained places in the rough sections I definitely lost here, which was fine, everyone excels in different terrains. Next check point was Pheriche which was where Dr Mike was based. We were now 7.5 miles into the race and it was still pretty cold, all my layers from the beginning were still on and weren’t coming off anytime soon. From here Bobby and I ended up running at a similar pace. He was much quicker on the flats though. It was really nice running with someone by this point and as we ended up trekking together most days a familiar, friendly face was definitely a boost! We ran together for the next 7 miles, through check point number 4 in Pangboche and onto checkpoint 5 in Tengboche. This was where we visited the monks and they had good coffee from our visit there a week previously. It took quite a lot of will power not to visit the bakery on route! We were given some rice pudding and another drink before the steep decent into the valley, knowing we would have to climb out of it afterwards.
It was also this check point that Bobby and I ended up on different paths but I knew I would see him again somewhere along the way. During the decent there was a yak train coming up so I stepped off the path and decided to use a wee path cutting the corner. Big mistake… immediately after stepping off the path I rolled my ankle. Gahhh!!! I could have kicked myself. I walked it out for a bit and once I got to the bottom of the valley and crossed the suspension bridge it seemed to sort itself out. Or at least it wasn’t hurting quite as much. It was down here I saw Lachie (the Kiwi who came to marshal the race but ended up running it). This was the first I had seen him since the start line. He was a couple of minutes ahead of me so I didn’t get to chat to him but I was so pleased he was going strong. The next check point was after the big climb and 17 miles in so by this point I’m only a few miles off the furthest I’ve ever run. It was here that the marshal told me I was the first international lady through, which as you can imagine totally shocked me. I felt pretty good about it (who wouldn’t) but I was well aware I was getting to a point of the race where I may get tired quicker than some of the other ladies who have done lots of marathons. But what will be, will be. This race was always just going to be an adventure for me whatever the outcome so I plodded on with no pressure.
The next 3 miles seemed to go on forever. It was quite flat and very runnable, which by mile 18, 19 and 20 I wasn’t really feeling the running love anymore. Also by this point I hadn’t seen any other runners for quite some time and it was getting quite lonely. Usually when I’m home and out running I have the dog with me and having spent the past 2.5 weeks trekking there is always someone to chat to so this was probably the hardest part of the race for me mentally. The next check point was very welcomed, it was Ulla and she was the smiley face I needed to see. This check point was actually at Namche Bazaar, mile 20. Namche Bazaar was where the finish line was, right in the middle of the village, however we still had another 6 miles to complete which was a real kick in the guts so off I set on the 6 mile Thamo loop. The only plus side to doing this extra 6 miles was I got to see some of the other runners again which really helped the moral. The loop meant we ran out for 3 miles, turned around and then ran back the same way so all those folk in front of you passed you on their way back. So, half a mile into the loop I see Franck running towards me. Franck is from France and he was always the strongest trekker and I was really gunning for him to do well in the marathon as he absolutely deserved it. So as we pass each other, we exchange a high five and he heads onto the finish line. The next friendly face was Rich, then Alistair and the fourth international runner was Chris from Guernsey. He was the first from our yellow group so again a delighted high five exchange as he goes onto finish. Theses 3 miles seemed to be going on forever but being back in amongst some friendly faces definitely helped! I reached the turning check point. It was here there was some local Nepalese marking off the runners as they went through. They clocked that I was the first international lady through so they tied a prayer scarf round my neck and I wore it as I ran back to Namche. About ½ – 1 mile on my way back I pass Kim. This was the first time I’d seen her the whole race and now I felt like I needed to try and hold my position or the lovely prayer scarf they just gave me would be hers. We exchanged our high five and I just had to hope she was as tired as I was. On my way back I now knew this was the furthest I had ever run before, and I’m not going to lie I was pretty knackered! But even if I walked the last couple of miles I knew I was going to finish so there was definitely comfort knowing this. I passed Bobby who sadly had been struck by the sickness everyone had a few hours before. He said he was OK and would see me back in Namche. Then I passed the Irish guys. Screw the high fives by this point it was hugs all round, but they weren’t for holding me up they wished me luck and told me to go get first international lady. To be completely honest I would have been delighted to have a blether by this point, it was just nice to see them, but I plodded on. Every corner I turned I hoped the next would be Namche Bazaar… Then finally there it was! The steep stony steps, narrow streets and locals ringing bells shouting ‘Runner’!!! As I jogged through the street towards the finish line I couldn’t quite believe it was all about to be over. It was all quite overwhelming but I was definitely ready to have a sit down! Through the finish line I went in 6 hours, 56 minutes and 51 seconds!
We were told as a rough guide to how long we will take was to double our marathon time and this would be pretty accurate, however I couldn’t do this so I was delighted with my personal best! Seeing the others who had already finished was really nice and hearing of their stories along the way. Lachie who wasn’t even coming to do the race finished a few minutes ahead of me, also getting a personal best as it was his first marathon too so he was super happy, and looked way to fresh… or at least fresher than me! We then waited at the finish line for our other friends to come in. Kim was about 15 minutes behind me, but looked like she could have done another few miles, no bother! Then a few more came in over the next hour. The Irish weren’t far away, however it turned out that Bobby fell really quite ill, staggering, being sick and generally not in great form. The Irish group clocked this on their way back and they helped him back to the finish line. It was a real shame the illness got Bobby mid race but finishing alongside his good friends must have been pretty special too. He needed to see the doctor right away but soon got himself sorted out. I was now waiting for Shauney to arrive. Knowing she was so ill the night before I was really keen to see her finish. Sam from our group ran with her the whole day which was absolutely incredible of him and the two of them came in a couple of minutes apart. I absolutely take my hat off to that girl, she completed that race having the worst night and illness. I’m not sure I would have managed in her circumstances. We then welcomed home Mark who was still looking so strong and Frank, the last of the Irish to come through. Unfortunately he also wasn’t well but considering lack of energy and illness he plugged through and completed it. So out of the 46 who started the race, 40 completed the full marathon. The rest finished at the 20 miles mark when we first reach Namche Bazaar so everyone did amazingly. A massive well done to all runners. Of course we had the support of the check points along the way which did heaps for moral and food and drink where necessary so a massive thank you to them as well. Sally and Chris who were the furthest away check points were the real heros of the day as MacKenzie fell ill very early on in the race and they helped him home by walking but he was so weak that he had to get on a horse to get back to Namche so the real gold medal goes to them and the Irish team for helping others.
I think we were all ready for some comforts now after a pretty gruelling day so we headed to the Irish bar (of course!) for food and beers all round. It was, as expected, a fairly tame night but catching up with everyone on their day was really nice and everyone experienced a really different race ultimately ending in their own massive achievements! I was shocked, overwhelmed, delighted… all the emotions, as I really hadn’t set out for any great achievement, I was just in it for the jolly and adventure so to bag first international lady was as much of a shock to me as everyone else. But I couldn’t have done it without the support of the amazing yellow team and Sally so really they are all to thank.
The next day was a rest day in Namche Bazaar and of course a bit of retail therapy… AKA buying presents for friends and family, and myself. My legs today were pretty exhausted and sore but a few celebratory beers later helped ease the pain. That afternoon Bobby organised the worlds highest beer mile, Google ‘beer mile’ for details, but at 3000+ meters and sore legs there was no way I was going to survive this so I watched from the side line. The next day we had to walk 14 miles back to Lukla where we were going to catch our flight the following day back to Kathmandu. This was the hardest walk I have ever done. My legs two days after the marathon were the sorest they have ever been. Stepping down was the worst but in general the body was just exhausted. We plugged through and made it to Lukla but was very happy to see a bed that night.
The flights from Lukla go in small aeroplanes so we were split into 3 groups to get back. Due to poor weather conditions the 2nd and 3rd group unfortunately didn’t get back to Kathmandu that day. This included me, however that is the way the cookie crumbles and it was out of our hands. We pushed hard the next day to get on one of the first flights going and much to everybody’s delight, we got back… Woo Hoo! The hotel seemed so luxurious compared to when we first stayed there. A hot shower was welcomed by everyone and a change of clothes meant we all transformed from that grotty hiker back to clean holiday maker. All the men were suddenly clean shaven again, they were hardly recognisable! As we missed a day in Kathmandu due to flight delays we all rushed around getting some extra shopping (more yak blankets), had a few more celebratory beers (can they still be called celebratory beer by this point?) and headed back to the hotel for the presentation of our certificates. The food and celebration was great and it was nice to have one last night with everyone before we all went our separate ways the next day. One beer of course leads to another which apparently leads to drinking card games in the hotel rooms so our heads the next day were a bit worse for wear… When in Kathmandu!
So the adventure comes to an end, and what an adventure it was. We all caught our various flights back home. A few kilos lighter for most people as when you spend time at altitude inevitably you lose weight. Some folk lost a stone, I only lost 4kg, which was enough that my trousers looked a bit silly on me! The last of us said our goodbyes at Heathrow airport, I blagged a lift to the Lakes District where I then jumped into a reindeer lorry going back home to the north of Scotland. 12 hours later from Heathrow and after walking the reindeer back onto the hill after their Christmas tour all my family and friends were there waiting to welcome me back. Dogs went mental having not seen me for 3.5 weeks and after two days travelling it was sooooo good to be back. Especially back into my own bed!
So although this amazing adventure has come to an end I am left with the most incredible memories and lifelong friends out of it. Already there are plans to visit folk and a reunion up here in Scotland later in the year. This of course has to be based around a race of some sort so the Dramathon (marathon around the whisky distilleries) seems like the most apt one to pick which is happening in October. Already a good few folk are booked in to do this so its going to be a great weekend, I cant wait!
The Everest Marathon is a charity set up to help the people in rural Nepal. As runners we were asked to fundraise to take part in the race. Friends and family have been super generous, as well as adopters from our reindeer support scheme and the general public passing through the Reindeer Centre and I managed to raise £2,431.23 which is just amazing so THANK YOU all so, so much.
Here’s some more photos of my amazing adventure and friends along the way.
Group shot with Nepalese runners too.
Mid April here has a definite ‘calm before the storm’ feeling. The area has quietened down as the school holidays have finished and all is peaceful on the reindeer front…but it won’t be for long. At the start of May, all hell will break loose.
Calving is nearly upon us. Although we know exactly which females ran with bulls during the rut last autumn and should therefore be pregnant now, it’s not easy to tell with a reindeer, and it’s really only into April that bellies start looking that little bit more than just well padded. Scanning them like farmers do with sheep is obviously completely impractical, so all we do is to keep an eye on the possible candidates and watch for rapidly expanding tummies. Literally within a couple of weeks reindeer can go from looking exactly the same as their non-pregnant chums, to looking absolutely enormous! As I write, in mid-April, we’re in the middle of that stage, and every day someone will remark on a particular reindeer’s sudden portliness. The weather has finally warmed up too, and with the reindeer still having their full thick winter coats as well as extra weight to lug about, they are looking like they are starting to find it all a bit of an effort, and there’s lots of huffing and puffing when the herd move from place to place.
By the time you read this, we’ll have moved the herd across to our hill enclosure, and will be doing a bit of sorting out. Non-pregnant females will go back out onto the free-range to spend their summer there looking after themselves, while male yearlings will be split from their mums and be moved across to join the other male reindeer at our farm, near Glenlivet. Pregnant females will stay in the hill enclosure until they’ve calved, and then will head out to the hills to join the other females, leaving us to bring male reindeer across to the enclosure from the farm, to duly entertain all the visitors through the busy summer months.
Once bellies give away obviously pregnant reindeer, then the next clue is an udder starting to form. Reindeer don’t have huge udders like cows do, as no arctic animal wants a frost-bitten udder, but instead have much smaller, fur-covered udders and produce smaller volumes of milk, but much richer in fat than that from a cow.
As many of you probably know, all the staff here take part in a calving bet to pick who they think will calve first. Winning doesn’t really matter; it’s not being last that is most important, as a cold swim in the loch awaits the unfortunate loser (as told by myself and Abby on a previous blog: The Calving Bet. So from now on until the start of May, there will be a lot of inspecting bellies and peering between back legs to be done…
N.B. Details of which reindeer are pregnant will be kept under wraps by us until our June newsletter for our adopters has been published – so don’t ask us whether so-and-so is due to calve this year! If you recognise a reindeer in the photos above, keep it to yourself…
Balmoral: Born 16th May 2012
For the calves born in 2012 the theme was just ‘2012’ because so much happened that year. It was he Queen’s Jubilee year our 60th anniversary and also the London Olympics. So we had great fun coming up with diverse names to suit the theme and as one of the biggest calves of the year Balmoral was aptly named.
He was, however, a mistake! During the rut of 2011, when Balmoral was conceived, we attempted to restrict the number of cows breeding by leaving them out on the free-range without a bull. That all seemed fine until a young bull, Strudel, went missing in the hill enclosure and turned up a few weeks later on the free range having found ‘heaven’, i.e. lots of reindeer females – even more than your average breeding bull would manage in a season.
Fly was one of those cows left out but ended up in calf to Strudel. But we’re not complaining because there are now some great reindeer in the herd now as a result from that rutting season in 2011.
During the 35 plus years I have been with the reindeer there have been some iconic bull reindeer who have stood out amongst the rest of the herd. In the early 1980s it had been Troll: great name (from the children’s story Billy Goat’s Gruff – and yes there was a Trip and a Trap too) and an equally great reindeer. His son Gustav, a real gentleman among reindeer, took over from him in the late 80s and early 90s. Then we brought in a young bull from Whipsnade Zoo for new blood and that was Crackle, who featured in many photos, leaflets and articles about the herd. Indeed he was the reindeer on the front cover of the first book I wrote about reindeer, Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses’.
In 2003, a bull calf named Crann was born and by two years old he showed all the signs of being something special. As a mature breeding bull he grew huge antlers year after year, probably the biggest antlers that have ever been seen in the Cairngorm herd and right up until his last year he continued to grow amazing antlers for his age.
By 2015, Balmoral was the most promising young bull in the herd, growing huge antlers as a three year old. As a result, we decided to give him a shot as a breeding bull, allowing him to father some calves, rather than being castrated as most of the other three year old males are. In 2016 he looked incredible with even bigger antlers, and ended up being the main breeding bull that autumn, with many of the calves born last spring fathered by him. He’s well and truly spread his genes about! His son Burns, born May 2017, who is big, bold and boisterous may well follow in his footsteps and become a breeding bull in his own right in a couple of years.
As it’s my turn to write a blog, I thought I would do something a little different. Here at the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore, every time I look towards the hillside and enclosure, my eyes are always drawn to the daunting shape which stands boldly behind it. These are the Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm. On a clear day in the Glen, whether you’re here to see reindeer, walk, ski or simply escape into the space of this beautiful place, the horizon of towering cliffs and steep slopes might just fill you with awe as it does for myself. It’s for that reason that I’d like to tell people a little bit about what lies on the reindeer’s doorstep and where they have the opportunity to go now the time has come for them to explore the free range.
The Northern Corries are what make up the North West side of Cairn Gorm, Britain’s 6th highest mountain at 1245m high. There are 3 corries in total that sit side by side to one and other, each having it’s own individual character. A coire (corrie) or cirque is an amphitheatre like, bowl shaped valley formed by glacial erosion. The head of a coire is usually very steep with cliffs and rock faces. Below these, a steady downhill slope carved by the glacier that would have once existed.
As one of the most iconic spots in the whole of the Cairngorms National Park they are also popular with people, in particularly Coire Cas. This is the most eastern of the 3 corries where the ski centre and funicular railway is. It’s over 50 years since the first chairlift opened to skiers and it’s grown in popularity ever since. Our reindeer have been known to wander here every now and again but during the winter months they tend to keep their distance from the busy ski slopes. However, they have often been seen licking salt off the road to the main carpark! Interestingly, other animals such as mountain hare and the ptarmigan also use the busy slopes as protection from predators such as the Golden Eagle and Ravens who, like our Reindeer usually keep away the busier areas.
The central coire of Coire an t-Sneachda is the most dramatic. Here the cliffs can be up to 200m high and below them, a huge boulder field with rocks the size of cars that have been crumbling away from the cliffs high above for thousands of years. During the winter, climbers and mountaineers can flock into the coire if the conditions are good as it is one of the most reliable places for this style of climbing anywhere in the UK. For our reindeer, I could imagine there is actually a lot of food for them in the coire with lots of boggy areas where lichen would thrive but over the years. Unfortunately for them, Sneachda has also got busier and busier with people and it’s become a place where the reindeer spend less time other than the odd spot of grazing.
The final and most westerly coire is Coire an Lochain. This is another steep sided coire where more giant cliffs lie at the back. It is also home to the highest loch or lochain in Scotland at around 920m. What makes this coire special is that it’s thought to have had the UK’s last glacier as little as a few hundred years ago. Remnants of this are still visible all around the coire, but the most obvious sign of past glacial activity is the Great Slab, a glacial moraine of rock that sits proudly just under the upper cliffs.
Climbers and walkers do regularly venture into Coire an Lochain but not in the numbers that the other two coire get. Being a little quieter, this is the most popular of the coires for the reindeer. Similarly to Coire an Sneachda, the coire is much wetter than the plateau with many small burns and boggy areas, meaning there is more lichen and other foods for them. The females and calves have been found there a few times recently. On the whole though, the reindeer don’t spend huge amounts of time here and usually pass through to higher, more remote places in the summer months.
If you are planning on exploring the Northern Corries in the coming year summer or winter, keep an eye out for some of the herd. You may be lucky to bump into some of them in one of Britain’s true mountain areas.
Fly: Born May 2007
Calves: Custard 2009, Dragonfly 2010, Domino 2011, Balmoral 2012, Anster 2013, Hudson 2014, Aonach 2015
I was inspired to write about Fly as the featured reindeer for this blog as I followed her back from the far end of the hill enclosure with her new-born male calf back in May 2014. Fly’s name has a tenuous connection to the 2007 theme of the colour green: the gardener’s worst nightmare, greenfly. We shortened her name to Fly.
As I followed her through the wooded slopes of Silver Mount Fly led me a tortuous route up and down the hill through deep heather and thick woodland. I’m not sure who she was testing, me or her calf. Her calf was amazing, struggling through the jungle of rank heather, scaling rough boulders and trying to keep up with his mum as she strode up the hill. I had to keep my wits about me as on a couple of occasions she appeared to completely vanish. Fly by name, fly by nature.
There are only a few breeding females in our herd that get the gold star for breeding success and Fly is up there with the best of them. She calved first as a two year old, a strapping female calf who we called Custard (can you guess the link?!). Custard calved for the first time in 2012 then in 2013 she had a beautiful female calf, Cream (clever with linking names eh), so Fly at the age of only five years old became a granny. In the world of reindeer grannies can go on to be mothers too for many years and since having custard Fly has gone on to produce six strapping males: Dragonfly, Domino, Balmoral, Anster, Hudson and Aonach.
Fly is coming up 11 now and having missed out on the rut last year she shouldn’t be calving this year. However, as she’s still one of the biggest and strongest females in the herd it’s possible she may well run in the rut with a male again this autumn if she stays in good health. Fly has maintained a remarkable record of being the first female to come to call every time Fiona has been out to bring in the free-rangers these last couple of months. She is never far from the front of the group when the other herders call the reindeer down but she is always first when Fiona calls!
On Thursday 22nd March Tilly and Fiona set off on their journey to the north of Russia where there was a World Reindeer Herders council meeting. This was to be held in Salekhard which is a town at the bottom of the Yamal Peninsula, and also where you find the Nenet reindeer herders. Here are a few photos from their weekend away, we will write a more detailed version of events in our newsletter in June.
There will be a more detailed write up in the next adopters newsletter so keep your eyes peeled!
As I write, it’s currently our third day in a row stuck in the office as the mountains are stormbound yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time this winter. This reindeer herder is very much ready for spring…
Visitors to the Cairngorms often have a hard time understanding just how unpredictable and harsh the weather can be here, particularly in the months of December to March, but often encompassing November and April too. The Cairngorms are the only area of the UK with a sub-arctic habitat, and our weather here is a whole different kettle of fish to the rest of the country. No problem for the reindeer who have evolved to live in such a hostile climate, but the reindeer herders certainly feel the effects of such long winter seasons.
Just now it’s mid-March, and while much of the country is thinking about spring, we are still held firmly in the grips of winter. It’s very cold outside and snowing lightly, but to be honest the weather down here in the glen is fairly benign compared to that which the reindeer are currently dealing with up on the hills. A glance at the Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk) shows the current temperature at -8°C but with the windchill dropping that to -23°C. The highest windspeed on top of Cairngorm itself in the last 24 hours was 99mph, but it hit 127mph two days ago. You can find some good videos on our Facebook page each winter (click on ‘Videos’ on the left hand side of the page) of the wild weather, though videos still don’t capture quite how it actually feels.
While we’re closed to the public in January, from February through till the end of April we run our 11am Hill Trip out to the free-ranging reindeer on the mountains daily, as long as we can locate the herd, but also only if the weather is ok. And it can be a big ‘if’. If you’ve visited us at this time of year before you might know the scenario first-hand – you’ve driven a couple of hours to get here, the weather seems ok, you’ve brought your warm clothes, the roads are fine…only to find an apologetic and slightly fraught reindeer herder here in the shop doing their best to explain to everyone that there will be no Hill Trip until tomorrow. Or possibly tomorrow. Maybe not. Ask us in the morning.
From our point of view it can be very difficult to describe to people just how different the conditions will be above the treeline, away from the shelter and safety of the glen – over the years I’ve had many an angry parent trying to convince me that their two year old would be fine, when I know full well that the parent themselves would barely be able to stand upright, let alone their toddler. It can be extremely hard to turn people away. Sometimes our last line of persuasion is to tell them to drive up to one of the ski carparks first where the weather will be more like it will on the Hill Trip, and then to come back if they’d still like to book on. Invariably, they never do.
But if we can, we will always run the Hill Trip, although sometimes only with adults, or even only with adults if they are wearing ski gear – jeans don’t keep anyone warm and are useless in winter. We don’t want to turn people away if we can help it though, so over the years I’ve led trips in howling gales, sideways blizzards, zero visibility, and in extremely slippery conditions where the whole group has crept around like Bambi on ice. There was a memorable trip in -10°C one year. In general visitors can be very game when there is the prospect of a herd of reindeer to see, but I often wonder in years to come, whether it will be the reindeer they remember or the weather conditions.
Sometimes the decision about whether or not the Hill Trip can run and whether it’s safe to take visitors on the hill is taken out of our hands, as the snow gates on the road just beyond the Reindeer Centre close. Depending on where the reindeer herd happen to be will depend on how far up the road we need to drive, and even if the gates are closed the Cairngorm Mountain staff will often let us herders up the hill as far as one of the lower carparks. This way at least we can still give the reindeer some feed and check them over, and keep them in the habit of being fed at the same time each day, making our lives easier in the long run. If the reindeer stayed in the area where we walk up to on the Hill Trips there wouldn’t be such a problem, but unhelpfully they are moving about two miles away each night just lately, making us head much further out into the mountains in order to retrieve them. Right now though, it’s so windy that we haven’t even bothered trying to get up the hill at all for the last three days, knowing we’ll not be able to stand up on the ridge due to the wind, let alone get right out to where the reindeer are likely to be. (Update: We’ve just tried. We had to turn back.). So after three days of being stuck in the house cabin fever has set in, but on the plus side the bathroom is now freshly painted…
I prefer the less tame reindeer…
We have a lot of very sweet reindeer. They come right up to me and stick their noses right into the feed bag I have just carried up the hill…. Bumble, for instance…. I cuddle Dr Seuss and scruff up his nose hairs. Reindeer are wonderful creatures. So powerful and hardy, standing into the gales, looking into the snow that flies across the hill, this is where they live. The likes of Bumble and Dr Seuss have lots of adopters. Everyone loves Bumble. So cheeky, so adorable.
Occasionally someone comes into the shop and asks to adopt a real wild reindeer, a rebel, one who knows no boundaries. I breathe a sigh of relief and start rattling of my favourites, because I prefer the less tame reindeer. I prefer the ones at the back that no one ever sees or the ones that elude even us herders. Tambourine, Enya, Wapiti, Chelsea, I say, these are my favourites. These reindeer have a different beauty. These reindeer laugh at us mere humans. These reindeer have few adopters. Who wants to adopt a reindeer that will wallop you, or walk away, if you go near it?
My favourite when I first arrived was Bega. A pale coloured male that was born on the free-range and a real struggle to train. My other favourite was Champagne, a flighty young female, with distinctive spear like antlers. Both Bega and Champagne died before their time.
I guess this is perhaps what makes the herd so wonderful and interesting – we have both tame and less tame reindeer!
Thanks for reading. Dave