The team had been reduced considerably by the time we walked into the Real Food Cafe as a pair for a mighty breakfast before heading uphill. Real life’s a bugger.
Phil (bobinson) and I took the short drive to Glen Orchy. A glen with a beautiful river of dark depths, tumbling white water, jagged rocks and hidden dangers. The road follows it closely and although its wonders are well known to paddlers and rafters, walkers mostly fly past either end of it on their way to Glen Coe or Ben Cruachan. It’s vital to our mission that it’s visited, and at a leisurely pace.
We were looking for the track that takes you into Coire Daimh and up onto Beinn Udlaidh, the plan was to use the convenient flatness of the summit plateau to pitch our tents with gay abandon. But neither of us could remember where the track started and we ended up at the Meall Garbh end of the hill. Nonplussed we parked up, kitted up and headed onto the chilly and not a little gloomy hillside.
Ten minutes later the two sleek, well equipped outdoorsmen were two fat wheezing old men with a phlegm problem. Leaning on poles looking at the view quickly became the order of the day. It’s steep and the going was soft, picking around the crags and up towards a frozen burn. It was very cold, there was some wind, the sun cast an occasional beam through a porthole in the clouds in the distance, but otherwise it was grey and getting greyer. Hats on, hood up, gloves on, zip up. That’s winter.
After a while we reached the plateau and while Phil had found his legs and was looking at the view to the South already, I was happily crunching up the now level frozen burn in my Icebugs. It’s so satisfying that, walking on ice and not going on your tits.
I drew up level with Phil, but a little further towards the top of Meall Garbh and could see our home for the night. The sun had probably set behind the cloud, the summit of Beinn Udlaidh was close but not a great enough prize to draw us on further uphill. He sauntered up and we threw our packs down onto short brick-red grass covering a large level spot with 360° views of oh-so familiar hills from unfamiliar angles.
It was getting cold fast and was -3°C when we started piching the tents and -5°C when we finished. It was also pitch dark. But from here we cound see Tyndrum, Bridge of Orchy, Dalmally and the habitations down the banks of Loch Awe, and even the burger bar parking area on the A82 high above Loch Tulla was easily picked out. The main roads linking all these places were busy, but the only sense to be approached by their presence was sight, the lights of the cars twinkling, the street lights and the houses. It was silent.
We went for a wander around the plateau, well wrapped up and headtorches on. I wore my PHD mitts and rejoiced in my hands being properly warm on top of a winter hill for the first time in my life. I had left my wee Alpkit light on in the tent so we could find it again and we found ourselves standing on the ridge a distance away, torches off, shooting the breeze and watching the slow motion distant life of the lights below us and far away.
Dinner raises it’s head, always. I had enough water left but Phil had to break the ice on the lochan to get his, the snow cover was too sparse to be usable. I took a Rekri8 remote canister stove this time and cooking was easy, even wrapped up as I was with so much down that I should actually been flying South for winter with my relatives. I put on my PHD down booties and sat cross legged with the tent wide open and waited for the water to boil as the temperature sank by a tenth of a degree at a time.
Dinner, cuppa, a small confection and I was happy. Time for a chapter of my book. Still fully clothed apart from the down jacket, I slipped into sleeping bag #1, then that ensemble went into sleeping bag #2. I lay on my front chuckling away at my book growing cosier by the minute.
A pee expedition revealed a pair of frozen Icebugs (they went inside the tent this time) and a few more drops of moisture swirling about in the air. I got back to the tent and before I got into my sleeping bags I had to strip down to my base layers. Head to toe in Chocolate Fish’s Taranaki Merino, Thorlo socks (the lambswool toe ones, I can never remember the name, mountain climbing or polar expedition or something), the down booties and a beanie. I stuck my iPod on at a reasonable volume and lay there quite happy as the songs and minutes ticked away. I found myself drifting away, I was in the mountain equivalent of a duvet-day, cosy, the telly was good and cuppas were within easy reach. It was the camping sweet spot of…aaahhhhh.
I became aware of the outer flapping a little, it was breaking through the music. I ignored it until it was joined by the tak tak tak on the fabric of something solid being carried along with the wind.
A quick shufty outside revealed a light snowfall and increasingly gusting winds. We grinned at each other across our lawn, this is why we were here. The wind was coming unexpectedly from the South, so the porch was taking the weather in the face instead of the foot end. What this meant was that snow was being blown inside the porch and I kept getting tiny crystals being blown through the midge netting on the door and landing on my face. The noise increased, so I turned up the iPod and and sunk into my impenetrable shield of down. The tent was also now becoming a little more physical in it’s battle with the wind, I pulled the hood drawcords in tighter and closed my eyes.
The wind from the North tore at the fabric, it’s force pushing the body of the tent down onto me, the sound drowing out every thought, never mind the metal on my iPod. I unzipped the inner door and noticed that the earlier Southerly wind had filled the porch full of snow, my stove, poles and pack were now decorations on a Christmas cake, odd additions to a snow covered Victorian winter village. The pegs holding the porch down were showing more and more bare metal as it danced wildly on the spot, a Riverdancer with Lithium batteries installed. I opened the outer zip a few inches and winced as the rocket propelled snow sprayed my face, blinking through it I opened the door more and looked over to Phil, 20 feet away. My torch beam picked out his face grimacing through a crack in his door as he poked his torch out.
The snow was passing horizontaly, his tent was shaking violently, as was mine, I could see his expression as he picked out it’s twisted shape with his torch through the blizzard. It was 0300, hours ’til daylight, -8°C in the porch. As long as it didn’t get any worse we could ride it out…we pondered the situation and each other through the darkness and the mayhem, we shouted as one…”Er, are you alright?”.
I pulled out as much of my kit from the snow as I could find, shook it off and brought it inside. All that was left was my empty pack, poles and stove. It occured to me that my bare extended arms weren’t complaining at the cold, if I go into the kitchen at home and it’s 19° I’m commenting on it. All relative I suppose.
I lay there with the iPod turned up as loud as I could bare and still the rattling fabric was winning. the whole tent was mobile, as if me and it had been lifted and dropped down one of those rubbish chutes that you see running down the scaffolding on building sites that looke like a big string of ice cream cones. I kept on waiting for us to land in the skip at the bottom, but my skip was 700-odd metres below. A comedy dust-down as I climbed out and walked away seemed unlikely.
As I lay there one thought preoccupied my mind. The tent was trying to tear itself apart, snow was coming up between the inner and outer all around, if I was getting out quick it was in baselayers and down booties. The down booties, that was it. I was too hot, I kicked them off inside the bag and wriggled my toes, I opened the drawcord of the bag up a little and let some cool air in.
Sitting there in a maelstrom of weather and tent horror and I was the comfiest I’ve ever been in a sleeping bag in winter. Is that irony, or sods law or something?
The weather continued, and as strange as it may seem I got used to it and drifted in and out of sleep. It seems that around 0430 the wind died down a little and Phil and I both got and hour and a half or maybe two hours sleep. I looked out and saw a crescent moon through a gap in the clouds, I closed my eyes and the next time I looked the low sun was struggling to be seen through billowing clouds as they rolled smartly by.
Phil and I both emerged simultaneously and ran in opposite directions, unlaced boots, longjohns and jackets. This had been the best opportunity to pee for hours.
Still windy, still below zero, and back inside the only logical course was digging out the stove and getting the water on the boil. I was low on water now, but there was plenty of snow in the porch and hot muesli and coffee hit the spot.
Getting dressed was a pain, getting packed up was worse. I got everything away except the tent and got out outside in my waterproofs and padded gloves to finish the job. We were packed and away in a few minutes.
Hoods up, faces covered, we abandodned the short climb to the actual summit. The cliffs there are amazing, ice encrusted and dramatic, but this morning shrouded in cloud.
Tired eyes squinted and looked downhill. The hillside had changed overnight, the frozen turf of our ascent was a soft mix of fresh snow and thawing ground as the temperature now rose. The icicles were melting.
As we lost height, hoods came down, conversation became easier as we stopped talking through fleece and there were many skating and indeed bumsliding moments on the unreasonably slippy slopes.
The road was slushy, above us a few patches of blue cut through the quilt of grey. It coud have been a bit downbeat but the mood was light, we were admined and down the road in the Real Food Cafe again enjoying meaty delights in what seemed like moments.
We went to test, and that we did indeed, on many levels.