A wee wander in the wilderness.
1st May 2012.
We were supposed to be working this weekend but the forecast was for rain, rain and more rain of almost biblical proportions accompanied by gales across the south west and Wales. So it was no small relief when I phoned Tim at Mortonhall School and he agreed to postpone the Gold Practice expedition. I do not think that the most hardened of mountain professionals would want to go out in conditions like that, never mind 50 plus teenagers. My view is that we are trying to develop a love of the hills in these guys, not put them off it for the rest of their lives.
So what to do with the weekend – the DIY that is waiting or a mega session in the climbing wall to get fit for Spain later this month?
A look at the weather forecast was enough, the north west of Scotland was set to be good so we piled our kit into the Gangster and Friday morning we were off. By evening we were settled into the Alex Mac hut in Ballachulish wondering what to do over the coming days. None of my mates could join us (unlucky for them) so we selfishly set our plans over a bottle of wine and retired for the night.
The next morning saw us winging our way over to Kintail in glorious sunshine, whilst the south west was being battered by the rain. Stopping only to take in the view over to Knoydart, we parked up at Lundie on the A87, with three hills in our sights for the day.
There was a lot more snow than we thought but this didn’t deter us from hoofing up and over Carn Ghluasaid, Sgurr nan Conbhairean and Sail Chaorainn. Three fine hills to add to the list, in beautiful winter conditions.
Twas a cold and bitter wind that harassed us across the tops but the sun demanded good shades be worn and a high factor suncream applied to the nose.
So having dispensed with these hills and with senses buzzing we decided to drive up to Coirre Hallie and walk into Sheneval bothy, and why not – it’s only a 100 miles or so and a 10 km walk-in.
We arrived at our campsite at around 8.30 pm; the walk across the moor may only be 10 km but its a long 10 km, with a full pack, after having already done 3 hills and driven 200 miles or so since the morning. The best way to enjoy this area is to walk in and camp or stay in the bothy.
However, dinner cooked we settled down in the heart of the Letterewe wilderness for a very quiet and contented sleep.
Again it is a long time since I have been to the Letterewe. For those without prior knowledge it is a very remote area between Dundonnald and Kinlochewe. You can walk across it in a day but it is a long way, probably 12 hours at the least of no nonsense, head down walking. Combine this with the knowledge that it is very rugged and there are a couple of big river systems that have to be crossed without the aid of bridges.
Next morning we awoke, rather later than arranged to a halcyon day of clear blue skies… what to do? There are six hills to tick in this area. It’s possible to do them all in one very very long day but again this would require a bit of a head down mentality and this was not what we wanted.
Instead we set our sights on Ruadh Stac Mor and A’Mhaighdean (which is probably the most remote of all the Scottish Munros)
Leaving the tent at 0830 we crossed the two rivers, which were thankfully quite low but very cold due to the overnight freeze, relatively easily and were on our way to the top of R.S Mor which we summated at 1200 almost exactly. Picking our way down and through the sandstone bastions that surround the south side of this hill gave us a bit of excitment but by 1300 we were on the top of A’Mhaighdean with a view to die for.
From the outer Hebrides to Torridon to Glen Strathfarrar to Ben Kilbreck in the north, it was all laid out before us in the crystal clear air following the recent snow storms. The weather was perfect with only the lightest of winds demanding a light weight fleece be worn on the tops.
Any thoughts I might have had about completing all six in one day were just not going to be realised, my legs were aching and it was almost 15:00 hrs by the time we made the bealach above Lochan Fada with at least 12 km of rough ground and two river crossings lying between us and the tent.
By 1800 hrs we reached the last of the rivers to cross, 500m from our campsite. The waters were a tad higher after the day’s sunshine melting the snows, so after removing my boots and socks I decided to throw them over the river just in case I got knocked over in the rather faster moving than they had been in the morning waters.
I knew instantly the second boot left my hand that I had made a mess of it. Jane and I watched as the boot sailed into the air, hit the banking and bounced straight back into the river. Total panic ensued, but to cut a long story short, thank the lord for a small tree branch further down the river that stopped the boot from going out into Loch na Sealga and gave me the chance to rescue my wayward footwear.
Sitting outside the tent at 9pm in a lightweight fleece and bare feet I contemplated just what an amazing country Scotland is – before the midges come out anyway. Freedom to roam and camp and the ability to disappear into remote territory where you need not see anyone else or hear a car or an engine. Long may it continue.
The wild ( north ) west or Fear in the Fannichs
March 21st 2012
Parking the gangster at the side of the A832 Dundonnel road I shouldered my heavy pack and started walking in along the estate road towards Loch a’Bhraoin. The wind whispered through the heather on the hill and the Sitka spruce plantation bringing the evocative call of a great northern diver to my ears and the hint of rain to my nostrils.
It had been 15 years or so since I had been north of Inverness, way too long and I had a real desire to experience some true isolation and wilderness. There are not that many places left in the UK where you can feel remote but the far north west of Scotland is one of them.
The perfect campsite
I pitched my tent at the side of the river that fed into the loch, cooked a meal and settled down for the night. No sooner had I snuggled down into my sleeping bag than the first rattling of wind driven rain harassed my tent.
The forecast was for sunshine and showers for the next couple of days so I just snuggled down further into the down and enjoyed the security and warmth that you can only feel in a well pitched tent and a warm sleeping bag when the weather outside is a tad inclement.
I was aware all night of the continuing and increasing wind and rain and when I stuck my head out of the narrowest of openings in the tent door the next morning was unsurprised to find a rain lashed loch and the snow down to 500m outside.
There is always that feeling of regret as you stuff your sleeping bag away feeling the warmth it still holds from your night’s slumber, trading it instead for cold clothes and the knowledge that you really need to get out and face the elements if you are going to achieve anything.
Like a goretex clad moth emerging from a bright yellow nylon cocoon I stepped out into the rain and the wind, I had not driven 650 miles to pack up and turn around just because of a little wind, rain and snow.
From the loch I headed south along the Alt Breabaig, I had to cross this river to get to my targeted hills and given the overnight rain and the spate conditions of the river this was not going to be easy. I had to walk a good 2 km further than the usual fording spot to find a safe place to cross and that still involved a bit of a run and a jump over an undercut bank, which at my age is something I generally try to avoid. However I was across and now committed. Through the rain I could see the snow line of Meall a’Chrasgaidh some 300m above me, I gritted my teeth and started the plod. At 500m the first of the snow lay on the ground, at 600m the ground was covered in horrid wet slushy stuff, at 700m it was dry and blowing about. However it had cleared a bit and stopped snowing and i could see the summit some 250m above me. I pushed on and was sheltering from the biting wind behind a small pile of rocks which was masquerading as the summit cairn by 1030.
Not hanging about I turned south and started down towards the coll towards my next goal, Sgurr nan Clach Geala.
By the time I made the coll the weather had deteriorated and I was now in a real white out blizzard. Stupidity being one of the cornerstones of success I set my compass and headed on. 45 mins later the trig point appeared out of the maelstrom, it was shattered and broken, perhaps as a result of a lightening strike. It made me feel that I was in some kind of post apocalyptic nuclear winter and added to my feelings of concern.
The weather was foul, 5m of very poor visibility, spindrift blurring the ground and merging the features into the clouds, the wind was buffeting me and driving the snow and drift into my watering eyes making it even harder to see. I was feeling distinctly uneasy, there were big cornices to my left, which I could not see but could somehow feel and in order to avoid being too close to them I had dropped down slightly from the ridge and entered a snow covered boulder field from hell. I was in a very remote area in foul conditions, the consequences of a broken ankle or even a bad navigational mistake did not bear thinking about. I made up my mind to head down towards the next coll and bale out.
Then it cleared, simple as that, one second I was frightened, the next I was gazing at an incredible view.
I romped up to the summit of this beautiful hill and then dropped down to the bealach above the nest of Fannich to lunch in the sun.
It was a different day now, gone was the fear -now I was out for a walk. Strangely I felt cheated: only an hour or so ago I had been scared silly, now I felt that the day was too easy and realised that I had been enjoying the fear and the worry and the testing conditions. There’s no pleasing some folk I guess. I pushed on over the next two hills, Sgurr Breac and A’Chailleach to bring my munro tally for the day to five. The weather continued to change with squally blizzards chasing rainbows and sunny periods through the glens below me and nine hours after leaving the tent I was back.
Nothing disturbed my sleep that night. I knew it had been cold as the inside of the tent was sparkling with frost when I awoke at 0530 with the light.
I breakfasted on coffee and porridge and the forcing my feet into my frozen boots (I had stupidly left them in the mouth of the tent) broke through the icy nylon to a lovely morning view down the loch to the snow covered Slioch in the distance.
I broke camp, packed the tent, shouldered my pack and was heading towards the next set of hills; the Deargs were in my sights for the day.
It was another day of sunshine and blizzards, the walk in had me down to my t.shirt, then by the summit of Beinn Dearg I was back to map and compass in whiteout blizzard conditions.
These were hills that I had always looked forward to doing but I found them a little uninteresting; a long walk in then a short climb to an unimpressive summit. Maybe it was the heightened emotions of the previous day that had me feeling that way. Maybe it was the challenge and the worry that now made me feel that all I was doing today was ticking some hills. However all that aside the views for that day from the top of my third and final hill, Eididh nan Clach Geala, were fantastic.
The Inverpoly hills were propping up the sky and the light breaking through the cloud was adding a three dimensionality to the panorama in front of me.
I made my way back down the long glen to the car and from there down to Fife. The weather was due to “crap out” the next day, which it did, and I had achieved my goals. Eight Munros, feeding my soul with some isolation and as an added bonus scaring myself silly.
So how can I possibly follow that one, by going to Dartmoor this w/end of course.
Three Munros, the Forcan Ridge
and a Kicking in the Corries.
Feb 5th 2012
It didnt really start all that well. The weather on the drive up was dreadful, snow, sleet and the usual motoring insanity that accompanies one snow flake drifting innocently down out of the leaden sky. Never mind the fast lane being covered in snow and the almost white out conditions over Shap.
Then there was the arrival in the pub at Fort William just as the final whistle blew on an ignominious defeat at the hands of the auld enemy at the rugby.
However never one to let my spirit be diminished by real and awful setbacks and given Dunc’s ability to ( almost) hide his gloating sassenach countenance we set plans for a winter traverse of the grey corries ridge the next morning.
Baz and Dunc are coming with me to Peru this year and wanted to get some good winter experience in so they had hired a cottage in Fort William to do just that.
I had to be up in Scotland to visit some nearest and dearest so decided to gate crash them for a few days and see if I could join them in a couple of adventures.
So despite a less than inspiring forecast we set out early doors under a leaden sky from Corriechoille farm just ( about 6Km ) North of the actual ridge. We decided to do a West-East traverse as the wind was due to increase from the west midday and we judged it would be better to have it in our backs that our face given that snow was to accompany it.
This meant we had to face a long walk in rather than a long walk out.
Trudging up the ridge the sky brightened giving us warm hands with which to fit our crampons as the snow hardened to good neve. We were just approaching the first summit, Stob Coire an Laoigh when there was a perceptible darkening to the surroundings. Looking over my shoulder to the west the sky was the colour that you just know is not favourable, a sort of grey/black smouldering living entity, hmmmm, this was accompanied by an almost immediate increase in the wind which picked up the spindrift and blurred the ground into the sky, hmmmmm.
We pushed on but when the snow started it was just uncomfortable and we still had 4Km to go on the sometimes narrow ridge. Sometimes discretion is undoubtedly the better part of valour and we still had other days to enjoy so we decided to bin it and go back the way we had come. So after doing the typical heading off the hill in the wrong direction, realising my mistake and sorting it and getting down out of the teeth of the storm what happens, the usual, the sky clears and blue skies come over. Bugger, that was not forecast, the reason we had binned it was that the forecast was for the snow to get worse. However we had now lost so much height and too much of our momentum so we decided to head on down and back to the car. On the way the weather continued to improve and we came across this amazing photo opportunity at a dam built many years ago at the edge of the Leanachan Forest.
These concrete rings had been abandoned many years ago and nature had in that time attempted to reclaim them. Its these little things that help reclaim what might be viewed as a wasted day.
That night we checked the MWIC and were amazed to find that there was clear weather with 80% chance of cloud free summits and no wind forecast for the next day.
Given the snow that had come down that day the gullies were laden so it looked like another ridge day was on the cards.
The Forcan ridge is one of the iconic ridges of Scotland. Situated above glen Shiel on the road out to Kyle of Lochalsh it is in arguably one of the most scenic areas of the country. With Kintail and glen Affric to the north, Skye and the Cuillins to the west, the rough bounds of Knoydart to the south and the south Shiel ridge overshadowed by the distant Ben to the east the views on a good day would be hard to beat anywhere in the world. A Grade two summer scramble but in winter quite a serious little undertaking some 3Km long with no real bale off points.
I have waited over 10 years for an opportunity to do this in winter, could this be the day.
Arriving in the steep sided glen just west of the 1719 battle site the next morning it really looked like game on.
We wasted no time in getting onto the hill and climbing the initial 500m via the good stalkers path to put us at the start of the ridge.
The scrambling is never really difficult, it is however sustained and exposed and was not made any easier given the covering of non consolidated powdery snow on the north and the rapidly melting sun warmed southerly side sludge.
Up we climbed and were on the first summit around 1230 where after dispensing with the steep westerly side via an abseil back to the ridge we lunched in the sun.
After the abseil there is a tricky little slab to cross which gives access to the westerly end of the ridge and the final climb to the summit of the Saddle, which is the Munro top of the ridge.
It was truly a day of superlatives, you would need to go a long way to have a better day out.
We topped out and made our way back to the car situated in the steep sided glen below. Then to top it all off the full moon rose in the east as the sky turned all kinds of amazing colours in the west.
Loch Clunie reflected these colours in its glass like waters to finish of the perfect day in a perfect way.
There is nothing more I could possibly add to this.
The next day I decided to indulge my Munro bagging passion and drag B&D up a fairly boring hill that i had not done before at the side of loch Lochy.
There was no way the previous day could be equalled but we still had another great day out.
Its a long walk in but we climbed the hill via the choire below the north side of the hill which gave us some nice steep neve to play on. We had the place to ourselves, we did not see another soul, hear an engine, just the wind in our ears, the rattle of the ice displaced by our crampons being blown across the plateau and having our souls filled with the contentment that only a day in the wilderness can bring.
Three days that will stay with me for a long long time to come.
December 23rd 2011
A wee Scottish jaunt.
The barest lightening in sky to the west showed where the sun had set some time ago.
The ice and snow covered hill we were standing on was encircled by clouds lit by the western glimmer, it felt akin to standing on a bald head protruding from a haze of fuzzy hair, the spindrift blowing across the top in the not inconsiderable wind like some crazy combover. The stars were gaining strength so we switched on our headtorches and started out for the valley floor and the warmth of the woodburner at least an hour and a half away at the Clachaig inn some 2000ft below us.
Just back from Kalymnos I bumped into Henry at the Bristol climbing wall ” Any plans for this winter mate”?.
“Yes as it happens I have elected to take two months off and go up to Scotland, how do you fancy coming up for a spell, I could do with a foul mouthed Scot in my company to keep the locals at bay”
Hmmm, nothing about my prowess on the hill, being a rock when the conditions were tough or indeed being a mine of stimulation and witty company but nice to be wanted for something I guess,
So… I had been waiting and watching for some weeks now for the weather to give me an incentive to face the long drive north, wet, warm and windy seemed to be the order of the day. With Xmas fast approaching it was starting to look more and more unlikely that any decent conditions were going to materialise.
I was so tired of waiting that i decided to give the novel idea of doing some christmas shopping a try, rash I hear you say and indeed it was. I went to Bath and within 10 mins (600 seconds) I had had enough, enough of crowds, enough of the consume on credit insanity, just enough so I went home and waited some more.
Then out of the blue and in the wake of hurricane Bawbag there was a dump of snow and a few days of low temperatures BANG, the starting gun had gone off and I was into the gangster and heading North with one week to go till Xmas and my mandatory return to the family abode.
The journey north was fairly effortless, ( ignoring the two mile queue for the trashed Aston Martin DBS at Jnc 15 ( Oh Dear)) the snowy tops of the Lake district hills were resplendent in the mid-day sun as I passed and held promise for the days ahead. By the time I passed the Scottish central belt and entered the highlands the temperature had dropped and the snow-line was at the side of the road.
The late afternoon sun lit the hills as I cruised along the empty roads in Glen Dochart and over Rannoch Moor down into the Coe, across the Ballachulish bridge to my destination, the Alex Macintyre memorial hut.
Henry was already there, had been for some days, and Nigel arrived later that evening, so chilling out from the long drive with a wee dram we laid our plans.
Next morning with a reasonably leisurely 0700 departure we headed back up into the Coe, parked up and started up the long and uncompromising ascent to the northern choire of Stob Choire nan Lochan. Fortunately the early birds had broken trail for us ( good planning and we got a long lie) so the fresh snow was not too much of a hindrance and we were up in the Choire in good time.
Dorsal Arete, a pleasant grade 2 was our target of the day and we wasted no time in getting tooled up and onto the route.
With blue skies above, little or no wind, and a good ( maybe just a little too much) covering of fresh snow we cruised along the arete and arrived at the top just in time for the weather to deteriorate.
It was now blowing quite strongly and snowing quite heavily but it was only mid-dayish and way too early just to turn around and head back down, so instead we rashly decided to prolong the day by heading over to Bidean and then down to the Bealach above the hidden valley and from there back down to the road. Nigel needed some good mountain days out for his WML Training and I needed to feed my soul so a wee adventure was called for.
I live and work in an environment where I have to take safety very seriously but sometimes you need to take risks, push out the boat, suck it and see and all those other cliches. Never has the nanny state been so strong in this country and I find it stifling so when you are in the company of like minded individuals who accept responsibility for their own actions its nice to take risks and feed your soul.
The conditions continued to deteriorate and the going was tough in high winds and deep snow so it was three o’clock by the time we had had lunch on the top of Bidean and then descended to the bealach where we discovered to our dismay that our line of descent was hindered by a 5 ft cornice and a heavily laden snow slope below it.
“Death on a Stick” was the conclusion and by far the simplest alternative was to retrace our steps over Bidean back to Stob Choire nan Lochan.
Sounds simple but in deep snow, on tired legs and in the knowledge that it would soon be dark it was demoralising to say the least. However an adventure was what we had been seeking and this was shaping up nicely.
Our trail, made only an hour or so earlier had completely disappeared in the falling snow and heavy spindrift, the wind was adding to the excitement by coating everything in a layer of ice and so by the time we got back to the top of Stob Choire we were heavily rimed up.
However, never has a pint tasted so good as the one that was partaken of in the Clach that night.
Next day we set out to tick a Munro called Gulvain.
I have been an unashamed bagger of Munros for many years and have only forty or so to do, the vast majority of them I do in winter as summer is of course for climbing. Therefore the opportunity to get another one in was too good to miss. However after walking in for an hour or so in heavy rain we decided that it was just not the day to do it ( Maybe it was something to do with Henry’s cold, Nige’s knee and my lack of enthusiasm ) Instead it was a day of coffee, retail browsing and wandering the streets in the metropolis of Fort William.
Next day however was a different matter, the weather was due to seriously crap out and we had one day left to make the most of our location.
Its a tough hill that one, 25K of walking, over 1000m of ascent and I guess that 50mph winds, some deep snow, occasional whiteout conditions and freezing temperatures do not make it any easier.
However it was ticked, another good little adventure was had and thats another one less to do !
True to form the weather really did crap out, the temp went up to double digit figures, the rain and wind came on with renewed vigour, there was nothing left to do but to head back south via Fife to see some loved ones and friends.
There was one other highlight of the trip however that has to be mentioned, Kerris and Danny joined us for a couple of days at the hut along with some students from Bath ( who we did not know ) Just before we left Kerris asked us in a whisper ” Whats the Bum Club”? “Eh” was our reply, ” Well those students have signed the book as the BUMClub, is it a gay mountaineering club?”
Bath University Mountaineering Club… Bless.
Now its onto christmas and Spain in early January.
All the best to you and yours.
January 2011 has been a busy month planning for our forthcoming 2011 expeditions ( Morocco, Ladakh, Spain and Nepal.)
We have also lunched our new website at http://www.wildcountryconsultants.co.uk
As well as many Duke of Edinburgh expeditions being organised for all parts of the country we found the time to take advantage of the excellent winter conditions in the mountains of North Wales early on in the month.
Our winter skills course had fantastic weather with a week of virtually unbroken sunshine and cold conditions allowing some excellent winter ascents of the best ridges in Snowdonia, Bristly Ridge included.
We also had some great ice climbing in south Wales in some of the coldest conditions ever recorded in the area