Tuesday, 31 July 2007

A wild Christmas

Thursday 21st December.
Have spent the whole day travelling. The rail companies are running true to form, high prices for tickets prior to Christmas and then having major delays. It was an awfully early start too. Catching the first train out from Kings Cross meant being up at around 0330am to be at the station just before six. Arriving late in Edinburgh meant missing the train i had to catch. However, we where smugly informed that there was another Inverness train, but it meant a mad sprint to catch it, being allowed a whole four minutes to change platforms. Arrived Aviemore over two hours later than intended. Just made the chippie before he closed. A clear, cold, crisp night. With some nifty map reading made my way to the lower end of Gleann Einich. Literally just pulled off the track after some 2hrs of walking in among the trees. Tent up and straight in to the sleeping bag.
Nothing strenuous today. Was away early this morning having camped a little conspicuously last night. A heavy frost during the night meant a fair bit of ice on the tent this morning. Spent a lot of time quatering back and forward attempting to find somewhere to pitch the tent. Preferably out of site of the main track that runs up through the glen. Deep heather, tussocks and rough ground denied me that choice. Went up as far as loch Einich and finally got the tent up in a more exposed place than I wanted. This was confirmed when the local gamekeeper came up to do some stalking. Chatting to him he was apologetic but insistent. Camping overnight, fine but the powers that be had decreed a no camping policy. He further warned me that one of his bosses would be coming up in the morning and would not tolerate a tent being in the area. Grrhh, I am not a happy bunny. With a weeks food and fuel and full winter kit my aim had been to make a fixed camp somewhere and use it as a base.. Well, if the weather hold in all probability I shall head over Braeriach in the morning. Temperature is below freezing tonight.
A hard and difficult day. to be honest things where close on the limit. As I was packing up this morning The keeper came up the track with another guy. Obviously one of the land owners. One of the type that really makes me angry, pompous and so full of himself. He stood there looking down his nose at me as I dropped the tent. Finally He decided to speak, "You'll be moving on then!" More of an order than a question. It meant having to bite my tongue from giving him a rude reply.
At least the day had started fine and clear. Followed the stalkers path that leads up towards Coire Dhondail. Things got interesting as the outline of the path swung around to rise steeply above the corrie. It vanished in a steep bank of hard, frozen snow. All the usual faffing, stop, on with crampons, ice axe in hand and then cut diagonally across. Made the bealach ok and noticed there was a bit of a wind coming in from the north and it was certainly much colder up there. There was a bit of low cloud but nothing too untoward. However, took compass bearings just in case. Braeriach is pretty featureless plateau. My aim was for the top itself, there are some nasty drops off the edges and the way off Braeriach leading towards the Lairig Ghru looked a little tricky. Rather than head straight across I aimed at Einich cairn (1237m). By the time I got that far conditions where going down hill rapidly. Visiblity was low and the wind was rising. Cursing the extra weight I was carrying, I double checked map and compass. Mentally noting a possible escape route. I started moving again. To make things worse it began to snow, what with blowing spindrift and now snow things where not good. Basically I was in whiteout conditions and it was a question of getting out of there a.s.a.p.That was when things went badly wrong. I took a tumble down a snow filled hole between some boulders. The heavy sack slammed me forward. I sat for a moment, winded, took a deep breath and got back on my feet. It was only then I realised I had smashed the compass. The housing had gone completly. it is so easy at moments like that to panic and I was close to it. Possibly I could have got the tent up and sat it out but that would have been a last resort. Conditions on those high plateaus are very much arctic. Taking several deep breaths and making myself think before acting, I dug in my pack for the first aid kit. There was a basic, tiny button compass in it. Rudimentory but it did at least allow me to find which direction I was heading in. Somewhere off to my right,nw, was was a steep ridge, maybe tricky but an easier option. More by luck than judgement I stumbled over a half buried cairn, which I was pretty sure was the spot marked on the map as 1235m. From there I gingerly edged my way left. Keeping the wind to my right I was fairly certain I would miss the cliff that was due north of me. Suddenly I became aware that I was descending. Steep, nasty ground but not a sheer drop. Feeling fairly sure of where I was, I kept egding downward. Gradually the steepness eased. Now I was quite certain of my bearings but it was still tricky. Too far left and there would be a nasty drop into Coire Bogha Cloiche. Crampons now where becoming dangerous, I was in among a massive jumble of boulders and one slip could have meant serious injury. As I stopped to take them off a sudden gap in the cloud allowed me to see below what lay below. Off to my right quite a way down was a flat semi circular area. Now I was fairly certain that I was heading the right way. Below and to my right was the heavily frozen Loch Coire an Lochan. Somehow I had managed to juggle my way around the ridge that lay above the coire headwall. It was now just a matter of picking my way down. What a sense of relief to get out of the thick clag and actually see where I was. Having said that, the coire was as desolate and bleak a place as any barren land. Really grim and foreboding. Steep, ice and snow covered cliffs, ragged clouds swirling and writhing in the wind, driving snow scudding across in thick banks. it took an age to make my way down and across to Beanaidh Bheag. Even then, things where still difficult. Thick snow hid a tangled mass of heather and gullies. It seemed to take forever, stumbling and lurching through hideous terrain. To add to the difficulties, what little daylight had existed was going fast. Finally I hit the track again and got back to where I had camped the previous night. By now it was pitch black and being so tired and drained made pitching the tent and getting sorted out very difficult. Quite an epic of a day. To add to my woes, the stove is playing up, burning yellow, coughing and spluttering. Very frustrating when trying to melt snow for some much need hot food and drink. It is that old adage though, especially when going solo on the hill. If you get into trouble, be prepared to get yourself ouf of it. In hindsight I could probably have sat it out on Braeriach. There is no telling though how bad things would have got up there. Clothing wise I fine. The worst part in some ways is dehydration. I drank little during the course of the day, which is not good.
Stayed put all day, fortunately not bothered by the stalker or his boss. The stove is faulty, I suspect a blockage in the fuel line, possibly a speck of dirt in the fuel. My boots are ging trouble. They are a pair of new scarpa mantas. My old pair where getting past it but having used mantas before I decided on the same again. One problem, they have been re designed and these new ones are playing havoc with my feet. Went for a walk up by the loch, was tempted to head further up but am still drained from yesterday. Tonight the stove has died. Stripped it but no go, am certain something is blocking the fuel line. When I started it the darn thing splutterd and hardly lit and then whoosh, a massive flair up, fortunatley it was far enough from the fly to do no harm but is now dead. This trip is having its problems. In all reallity it will make snese to head out towards a small bothy down in the forest. Temperature is way down tonight.
Woke this morning to a frozen tent. My tiny thermometer registering minus ten. Cold and clear down here in the glen this morning but looking dark and broding on the tops. Had to use the ice axe to lever the tent pegs out. The river Einich is semi frozen. Managed to get some water to drink. my stomach was not too happy with such an icy deluge. Follwowing the track back down I yet again bumped in to the stalker. He looked a little surprised to see me. I mentioned briefly that I had a wee problem with the compass up on Braeriach. He raised an eyebrow though when I told me where I had descended. In fact he thought it would have near suicidal to have come down that way in winter conditions and further added that nobody hardly ever went into that corrie. Well, steep and difficult certainly but just about doable. Swung off the track to head up towards the Argyll Stone. really heavy going. Steep ground, deep bushy heather and a lot of soft powder snow. Often it meant wading thigh deep in the stuff. The trouble was I felt knackered and this sort of stuff was fast sapping what little energy I had. Eventually made it around to Creag Dhubh. More swirling mist meant poor visibilty for a change! My aim was for Alt Corrie Callais. I knew there was something of a path further down. But heading into the head of the corrie was difficult. Steep ground and tangled mass of heather, a few stunted trees and that deep snow, oh joy. After a few falls and much stumbling things eased a tad. I was surprised to hear voices. A party of Belgians where heading up. They had found the going really awful. It had taken them a couple of hours from the bothy and they had found it as difficult all the way up. Their intention was to try and make it as far as Loch Einich, camp overnight and head out in the morning. There was a grin on my face as I headed down. They had made a lovely job of breaking trail. Made the bothy at last light. There is only one small problem, no fire. The bothy is really like a large, well built shed. Being in a strict conservation area, as well as being in forest, there are stringent rules concerning fires. Needs must though. Once more I was seriously dehydrated. Taking the bothy shovel I gently dug out a large divit not far from the bothy and dug a shallow pit. Scraping around in the snow I found enough wood to get a small fire going. Proper Ray Mears stuff. Using my knife to shave slivers of resinous pine, a drop of paper and voila, a small fire flickering in the darkness. Melted enough snow for heating up water. Managed a couple of pints, complete with a few pine needles and other things floating around. A hot meal cooked and then promptly doused the fire. Loads of snow shoveled on, a good check to make sure there was nothing left smouldering and then the divet replaced and tamped down. Not something I would encourage anyone to do but it was a time of need. My feet are a mess. Taped them up but they are painful. Not blistered as such but a lot of raw skin across the top of my feet. Temperature is dropping fast tonight. My intention is to head out early in the morning for Aviemore. Some twelve miles and a lot of it on road.
Was awake early. None too good a night, painful feet, and not drinking enough and a couple of heavy days going make life a wee bit awkward. Temperature was very low, minus 12 outside the bothy. Was out of the bothy and away by seven. At first I needed the headtorch, but slowly that pre dawn greyness crept in. Everything silent and still, as if the world was holding its breath. my footfalls a sacriledge in the early morning silence. Suddenly there was a long drawn out howl, first one and then another, then a swelling chorus reaching a crescendo. I stopped for a moment, stunned as the howling echoed around the hills. Momentarily I thought I had finally lost it and then it slowly came to me. There was a wild life centre close to Aviemore and they had wolves. It was strangely haunting, stimulating in a way. A harmonius ancient paen, a brief reflection of a time now gone from the hills when man did not hold sway. What a glorious early dawn chorus. The early morning light was something else again. Such beauty, the sky gradually becoming brighter, tinged with pink and laced with thin streamers of wispy cloud. Once got down to the road the real plod began. My feet where twins united in pain. A few early cars past me but despite my attempts to thumb a lift I was ignored. How things have changed. Only a few years back someone obviously off the hill would have been readily offeed a lift. That though now seems to have all gone. Finally made Aviemore not long after ten. Having pushed the pace all the way I was now suffering. As I suspected, the station was closed but there where buses running to Edinburgh. It had been my intention to get some food in Aviemore but there was only a posh coffee shop open. Mulling it over I had been in two minds about calling a day or trying to get another stove. My feet though where in a bad way and there was no real option. To my amazement the train Station in Edinburgh was closed. Something to do with extended track maintenance. Thus had to get a bus ticket for the night bus to London. My hope of a shower in the station being scuppered it was a sorry case of baby wipes in a loo to clean up and in to some clean gear. My poor feet, I had to peel off blood soaked socks with loads of skin coming away too. Both feet are badly chaffed and raw. I was to find out later that Scarpa withdrew their new design boots to replace them with yet another slightly different design. I am hobbling badly and have quite some time to kill before the night coach leaves. Not such a good trip away.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

October. Camped O.S Map LR40. GR 814881.
A very long day. Managed a cheap flight from Stanstead at 0640am. That entailed an early start indeed, having to leave my place at 0200am; catch a 0305 bus from Victoria to ensure I arrived in time to check in. Thus was in Glasgow shortly after nine in the morning to catch the ten o clock bus to Fort William. The weather was bad all the way up with torrential rain and flooding. A quick run around FW to pick up fuel and a couple of bits and then away again on the afternoon bus to Mallaig. Had been hoping to have a meal in FW but time was against me. A pity, I was suffering from the lack of food. My aim was to head down towards Lochailort. The bus driver was excellent, he knew precisely the path I wanted and dropped me right on the exact spot. Amazingly the rain had stopped. A quick change of clothes, a much needed bar of chocolate and a drink and away up the rough path by the Allt na Criche. Lovely scenery and even a glimpse of the sun. Tiredness can lead to mistakes. I swung off down the hill above Lochan Lon a'Ghairt too early, having lost the path. This meant a very steep scramble down through tangled woods and moss covered boulders. Made it in the end and picked up the track that led down to Meoble turning off to head up the Allt Slaite Coire. A steady plod up the hill. tiredness was now starting to kick in. A slip that almost landed me in the burn was enough of a warning. A tricky crossing over a much swollen stream and a little bit of casting around found me a lovely little bit of firm ground, high enough to stay above any water from the stream close by. Just sat there for a while in the fast fading light, drinking in the wonderfull scenery. Am shattered though and need my bed.

Friday. Camped GR OS map LR33 GR864912. A Lovely day on the hill. The breeze dropped during the night and I woke up to a clear, still morning with a heavy dew. Daylight was not until 0730am and it was really nice to just sit there with a mug of tea watching the soft early morning light carressing the hill tops. As I set off, sunshine began to illuminate the tops all around. Slaite Coire remained in deep shadow though; giving it a wild and sombre look. Followed a semblance of a path which probably was a deer path up towards the bealach. The bealach itself was a desolate looking place; a large, boggy basin, with deep water filled hollows and channels, big, ancient boulders and strange shaped hillocks. Followed a broad shoulder down close to a fast, foaming burn. Paused to watch a large magnificant stag with a full rack of antlers. Made it down to the head of Gleann Taodhail. there was a path marked on the map. However, I had to get across what was quite a substantial river. There was a beautiful waterfall and below it a place that looked possible. A shuffle across a narrow bit of rock, a tentative stretch out over the water, one foot balanced on a slimy boulder, a lunge, a slither and presto, across with almost dry boots. Picked up the semblance of a path leading down the glen. it was obvious it has been little used for a long time. Such a wonderful glen complete with some natural woodland and so wild and yet so scenic. Loch Morar looked post card pretty in the sunlight. Followed the path around to Oban bothy. Closed for the stalking. However, I had checked beforehand and knew that is was ok to be in the area. Sitting outside the bothy having a nibble I could see across to where I wanted to get to. Getting there was to prove interesting.
Firstly I had to get around the head of the loch which involved another tricky river crossing. From there it was a case of heading up towards Sron a'Choin. A steep scramble up over and through rock and boulders to gain the shoulder. From there it was an easy drop down towards Kinlockmorar. Yet another river, the Abhainn Ceann Loch Morar. Did that one in bare feet, only knee deep in most places, the middle came up to my thighs. The water was fairly slow moving so no problems. Invigorating though and made for cold feet. Kinlockmorar is a group of derelict uildings, although a couple look quite modern. Another of those, small, isolated communities that once populated so much of Scotland. Access here would have been by boat down the loch. Ok in summer, in winter, a very different story. People have obviously found the living easier else where, because these houses have been used untill very recently.
Stopped fairly early in the afternoon. It allows me time time to just chill, and air things out. There is a strong wind picking up from the SE and some thick cloud as well. It being the rutting season the hills are echoing with the bellowing roars of randy stags. Each striving for dominance of the hinds as they come into their once yearly season. it is the only time of the year they mate and so the stags have to be very busy. Poor beasts, they are shadows of their former selves by the end of the season. There was lovely spot to put the tent but it looks like the stags use it for a jousting ground. Put the tent up in a nice little spot protected by some large boulders. A large group of hinds are grazing close by.

Saturday. Camped GR868959. OS mapLR33. Close to Sourlies bothy. A shortish day. was woken by stags roaring close by, some heavy thuds, a massive crack as antlers tangled with antlers. Again early this morning another couple where sparring. My hunch was right, the bit of ground I looked at last night is a favourite spot for the stags to prove there worth. Awesome, sitting there, mug of tea in hand, the grey light of morning just seeping in and just across from me two stags challenging each other. A few bellowing roars, some huffing and puffing, a couple of steps back and then bang, a mighty coming together. Heads down, antlers locked. there was no real contest though. The challenger was a youngster whereas the defender was a massive beast. He stood there, flanks heaving, steam rising off him, giving a mighty triumhant bellow as the young challenger fled.
The wind had been steady during the night and come morning a mass of thick cloud was scudding across the sky. Thus it was I was away early. I wanted to be at least up on to the ridge before the rain started. Angled across and up the hill towards Sgurr Mor. only a small top but it was still a relentless scamble getting there. Some very steep ground and some scrambling made things interesting. As I made the ridge the expected rain began. I was glad that it had not started as I made my way up, it would have been hot work in waterproofs.. despite the rain and some low cloud brushing the tops there was still some fine views. A lovely airy walk following the ridge along towards Sgurr nah Aide. from the ridge it was difficult to find a way down off it. Finally turned down by Bealach nan Daoine. it proved to be a very tricky descent too. Further along the ridge it had been almost sheer; here it was just hidiously steep. At first mainly over wet and greasy rock, lower down, steep, wet bog that clung to the hillside by what means I am unsure. As I descended I almost had a run in with a stag. Picking my way round a spur of rock and trying to ignore the steep drop below I came to face with this beast. One has to be careful at this time of the year, if they think they are being challenged stags will attack humans. This one was only a youngster though and I had the high ground. He tried a half hearted roar, but obviously had not been practising his bellowing, it was more a weezy bleat than anything. he backed off and angled around the other side of the outcrop and up the hill. Finally made my way down and across to Finiskaig for another deep river crossing, knee deep but cold. Said hi! to a Spanish couple staying at Sourlies bothy and found a lovely spot right by the edge of the loch. Oyster catchers and curlews patter around the low tide water line feeding. it is so peaceful here. Just natural noise, birds, mainly, but the primeaval roaring of the stags adds another dimension to things. Some heavy showers drifting across from the SE.

Saturday. Have moved into Sourlies bothy for tonight.
Although I much prefer the tent it will be handy to have it dry when I head out tomorrow. It has been a leisurely day. Woke to a calm, still morning. The tide was in and the hills where reflected in the mirror like surface of the water.. The Spanish couple came by as I dawdled over breakfast and another two guys where heading through to Glen Dessary.
My intention was to head up the hill behind the bothy. Making my way up Druim a' Ghoirtein. A pleasant broad, twisted shoulder with many small tops, dips and hollows. My aim was for Sgurr na Ciche. (the rocky peak of the breast). It was a top I had seen several times before in my travels around this area but had never got around to doing. Had a tad of dificulty finding a way up. Thick mist swirling around made it difficult to find a route. Finally scrambled up a loose gulley and then through steep grass grass and rock and finally a narrow cleft. Just kept heading upwards untill there was no more up. Touched the small cairn and did not linger. It was damp and cold and visibility was about nil.
Was going to head down in to Coire na Ciche and make my way across to the stalkers path. However, had a good look at it as popped out of the thick mist and decided it meant a long drop down and crossing a lot of wet, boggy ground. Instead just ambled back down. The mists drew back leaving some stunning views and I see across to the Isle of Skye. there was sunshine in that direction. By the time I got back to the bothy it was becoming quite overcast. Am heading out tomorrow via Inverie. My intention is to pick up the afternoon ferry to Mallaig and then the train to FW. Thus having dry gear to pack is handy.
Lit a small fire in the bothy. It is a smoky affair. Possibly the chimney needs a sweep. Being almost out of gas having a fire allowed me to cook supper and have enough for a brew in the morning. There is a smattering of rain this evening and it feels positively chilly.
Sunday. Fort William. Was awake early but was in no real hurry to get going. The weather, although overcast, remained dry. made my way around andacross the tidal flats to Carnach. Some more abandoned buildings. made my way up to the Mam Meadail bealach. There is a good path all the way. The path leads down Gleann Meadail towards Inverie. Further down the glen I was surprised to see what had been an old ruin converted into a rather up market bothy by the local estate. One has to pay to use it and it was securely locked. Unfortunately the track leading up to it has suffered in the process. Really churned up with deep, water filled ruts and glutinous, thick mud. Got in to Inverie fairly early at around 1300hrs. Popped in to the local pub for a bowl of homemade soup and fresh bread. Struck it lucky. Noticed a guy unloading someones baggage off a boat and gave him a hand. In return he gave me a lift back to Mallaig. Getting a lift back by boat meant I made it an hour before the ferry. thus managed to get the train to Fort William. Rang a local private hostel. They promptly came and collected me from the station. the hostel is actually a group of several houses. I have one all to my self. It is clean, tidy, with a well equipped kitchen. A coomon rooom with a wide range of reading aterial, videos etc and everything is so clean and tidy. Am away on the first bus in the moring. a good few days on the hill.