Reverse! Reverse!

It’s good to know that I can still manage an alpine start. We were supposed to leave on Friday, but there was too much barbed wire to cross so we had to wait for the weekend to turn up and throw a plank over the obstacles. I probably should have seen it as an omen.
I met Phil and Sandy at 0600 and once the gear was sorted we headed North in my motor. Nice for a change, I haven’t done much of the driving of late. The road was empty and we made good time through the rain, the cloud never far above us. We passed Buachaille Etive Mor, normally a landmark, today it had the merest hint of pointiness.
We found ourselves pulling over and trying to find somewhere to get breakfast and some supplies before 0800 via Sandy’s iPhone, but as Phil pointed out, Morrisons in Fort William was warm, dry and had available to us; the breakfast of kings.
We dined well, had cuppas, more cuppas and looked over the map (I’be been over to see Harvey’s at their Doune HQ, more of that later).

I needed some food, Sandy was looking at two days in cold, wet feet, so we went shopping. Ellis Brigham is just round the corner so we headed there first. For a chain store it’s actually got some good kit, probably one of the few I could walk into naked, get kitted out and walk back out prepared and happy. Sandy got into the waterproof socks and then the footwear, we spotted some new Keen Targhee Mids (now with a two-year waterproof guarantee, more later) and those new Salomon boots that look like the XA’s.  We looked at them and the three of us immediately remarked on the height of the ankle cuff, it’s almost knee-high, it’s a helluva thing. It looks like Salomon have dropped the ball, and also therefore, it looks like the Fastpackers are going to be as good as it gets from them.
“Yes, but they’ve got great support” Fired in the assistant.
Phil straightened up to stay out of the line of fire, Sandy put his head in his hands quietly muttering “No no no no…”.
“Support? On an ankle? Restriction you mean?” I offered after a little thought as to whether engaging the boy was a good idea as customers were squeezing various boots in their hands mere inches away,
“Yes, you need support, what, are you going to wear trail shoes in the mountains?”.
You can see where it went from there, and ironically the whole conversation took place next to the Fast & Light stand with all the lightweight cross functional gear looming bright green in our peripheral vision.
“There was even a thing in Trail magazine with this guy saying you can wear crampons with trail shoes…”
I paused and thought about how to tackle that one without looking like a dick.
“…yeah, I probably wrote it”. (Feb ’08 Lighter column).
One Achilles tendon cut, he went down onto one knee,
“Yeah, well, what crampons can you use…”
“Kahtoolas, either type, any Kahtoola gear in fact, Grivel’s AirTech Lite’s, they’re bendy enough”.
Now, I’m not saying folk should like, or approve of anything that doesn’t fit with what they personally believe, but the fact that Fort William’s leading technical store doesn’t appear have the product knowledge or awareness necessary to give cutomers the full picture is really bloody annoying.
There’s still a battle to be fought here, folk need to be armed with all the options before they chose. Maybe I’ve gotten complacent in recent times, but that visit to EB’s has lit a fire under my arse.

We laughed all the way to Nevisport and soon enough we were back at the motor; Sandy with his Keens, Phil with his mini gaiters and me with munchies.
After more driving through the rain we were soon parking up opposite the Cluanie Inn. We stood around the open tailgate door changing footwear, tweaking the packed kit and finally donning waterproof trousers. All the time the rain changed from light to heavy to sleet to wind blown sleet. By the time we left the motor we were wet, our packs were wet and there was none of the excitement that usualy accompanies setting off. There wasn’t even a grim determination, there was maybe just an air of inevitability. We were there for fun, but also for a reason, I had to photograph the route.
It was too wet to take the camera out, never mind see any hills to take shots of. The track into Glen Affric was a shallow burn, water running past us like the contents of a burst attic storage tank exploding through the ceiling and gushing down the stairs. We were camping, taking in the grandest of mountains, crossing swollen rivers.
We stood at a high point on the track and blinked through the freezing rain down the length of An Coarann Mor. Indistinct shapes rose steeply at either side into a blanket of grey. Misery, pointless misery.
Even if we went in, I’d still have to come back and do it again when it was clear. To climb the fantastic hills we were heading to in this weather is a waste, and none of us had the heart for it.
To quote myself “We folded like a damp cardbord box under the weight of a falling wino”.

We stumbled back to the Cluanie, relieved, disappointed and wet. Heading South there were some gaps in the rain and after telling tales of the Mile Dorcha which we passed on the other side of Loch Lochy on the way up, we decided to take a detour and see it. It’s a stretch of the road to Loch Arkaig in a steep sided glen which never gets direct sunlight and consequently is covered thickly in a spongy moss. It’s a wonderful spot and we pulled up at the Eas Chia-aig waterfall at its end, raging with fresh water and snow melt.
Taking advantage of the lighter rainfall we set up the stoves at the picnic bench and had dinner. This was punctuated by Sandy repeatedly burning his hands on his cooking gear, I still didn’t get the “why” of this, but the “how” was most amusing.

The bridge is famous as the stand-in for the Bridge of Orchy in Rob Roy with Liam Neeson, it’s where the redcoats tried to hang Rob Roy and he showed them a clean pair of heels and a bare arse.
The road back to Fort William from here is a joy, on the North side of the Caledonian Canal and devoid of traffic. It takes you back into the usual nonsense at Banavie, where on many other days we would have had a stunning view of Ben Nevis & Co, but not today.
Ft Bill was left behind and over Glen Coe the cloud lifted just enough for us to be persuaded to stop and point cameras at it. It was nice to see it looking a bit brooding, a bit unfriendly, it’s a wonderful place that suffers from accessibilty and familiarity. They should divert the road, or put it through a tunnel or something.
Our hearts sang as we pulled into the Real Food Cafe. Pints of coffee and bit of cake made for an ideal pitstop. Sarah filled us in about what’s happening as well, you’ll notice some building work going on when you’re in, it’s being extended and there’ll be new lower seats in a new area, and even leather seats by a fireplace. We’ll fight about who gets those later.

Holly had gone to her bed by the time I got home, and Joycee was pleased if a little surprised to see me back so soon.
An odd day, plans are for the birds and this proves it. Still, I was hanging out with my chinas, I saw the buds starting to open on the branches, flowers bursting through the winter carpet, we were chased up the A82 by a rainbow, we ate and drank plenty and drove nearly 300miles through the Highlands.
That has to be some sort of victory?

Aye, and I’ve got to get back up there. And soon.

That which bends… II

I pulled as many clothes on as I could, and found my headtorch underneath the pile that had made my pillow. The sound was like a rushing waterfall as the air forced itself through every gap in as much volume and with as much speed as it could muster, the sharp cracking of loose fabric played a demeted solo over the backbeat. I fell out of the tent in unlaced boots and clamped my hand back onto the apex of the pole as the flysheet danced wildly on the other side, cutting through my torch beam in a flurry of red and inky darkness.
Bobinson was also outside in a disheveled state, fussing around the front of his tent, it looked crushed and bent, he had guy lines flapping in the air like tentalcles trying to grab James Mason and sink the Naultilus.
I had two corners up and both ends were loose, the guys attached to the pole were solid so I let go and scurried round to see what I could do. Two bungee cords had snapped simultaneously and the release of tension had sprung one of the carbon end rods out and had fired the guy peg from the opposite end into orbit. But, the Lasercomp was still standing at this point in undiminshed wind.
I re-tied the remains of the bungees and re-pegged them, finding most pegs bent. Not just those wire thin Terra Nova novelties, but the titanium V pegs I took along for extra security in the wind.
With a mix of bent pegs, rocks and even doubling up pegs with Bobinson at the front as we were so close, we both got the tents as good as they were going to get. We laughed.

Back in the tent I stayed dressed and admined my gear for departure, just in case. I slepft fitfully, more aware of the wind in spite of the increased volume of metal.
Daylight wasn’t far way, and when it came it was in sarcastic pink soft focus. The wind raged and small drops of sleet had started to  go pat-pat-pat on the flyshet, but it looked like a 1960’s calendar shot outside.

The tent was standing, and standing well. The porch was calm enough to get the stove on for a cuppa and muesli. I was warm and comfortable, but tired.

I emerged and had a wander around. The tents looked sore, my Lasercomp looked like somebody else other than me had pitched it and the Seedhouse was all wrong at the front. A pole had taken a wee kink and the guys were like a ball of wool that the cat had got at.
But they both survived intact, no fabric tears, no stitching stretched. We knew this might happen, but all it’s done is increase my confidence in both tents.

The folks from Inchree were on their way up to meet us, so we had time ponder the night, have another cuppa and pack carefully.
The weather got worse, the wind got even stronger and we had wet sleety snow lashing us in increasing heaviness. We were wrapped up and packed up as the six hooded figures appeared on the track above us. We headed up to meet them.
Greetings and smiles were exchanged and we all descended together, no possibility of a summit, we were being blown sideways constantly. It really wasn’t a day for the hill.

We ended up in the cafe at Glen Coe, including Elaina who’d stayed at base earlier to plot the peoples revolution in peace without Steve, Sandy, Kate, Cath, Jamie and Nicky interfering.
We ate well, very well. The banter was good and the rain bouncing off the slate patio just outside the window could have been a million miles away.
Some hours later Bobinson and I left reluctantly to head South and home. The hillsides were split by the silver streaks of swollen burns and rivers had burst their banks all over. Not a day for the road either. We stopped briefly at the Real Food Cafe to top up the tank…

There could be finger waving because we went out in those conditions. But we’re both experienced and knew what we were doing, we worked around the problems and were never in real danger.
All the gear behaved perfectly, both tents landed safely even with their tails shot to pieces and the pilots walked way.
Great mountains, great weather, great people.

That which bends… I

Craig phoned as Bobinson and I drove up on Friday, “Don’t eat too much” he said when i spoke of our plans for lunch at Ft Bill. He’s right, on a trip a couple of years back he and I stopped and had a late and huge lunch which gave me the mobility of a bean bag and the whinyness of a Cbeebies presenter when deprived of hairgel.
But Main Street was cold and miserable, the Nevis Bakery was warm and staffed by smiling, rosy cheeked girls. It would have been rude not to have a pie, and it would have been cruel to leave the last hot one next to it on it’s own, and it would have been strange not to have had sweet after savoury. With a cuppa.
Hands and pockets full, fingers dripping grease, we headed back to the truck in high spirits.

We were kitted and admined at the carpark quickly, and out onto the trail. It’s a great path that takes you up into the coire, eroded in some places but pleasant in a hands in pockets way. Although there were patches of thick water ice (see above) which extended up slope and down either side of the path making for a few moments of ponderation with my American boots as Bobinson skipped gaily across in his Icebugs.

The view ahead through the birch wood is one that draws you forward, indistinct shapes become defined and separate into the jagged buttresses of Stob Ban. At 999m it’s one of the wee yins in the area, but one of the most properly mountainous looking.
As we got higher into the coire the wind was getting up a little and the light was fading a little too. Plans for camping at the lochan just below Sgùrr an Lubhair were abandoned without question. We were well aware of the weather forecast and that’s why we were camping on the North side of a ridge, but minimising exposure was still high on the list of priorities.

We descended NW from the track at the top of the zigzags towards the burn and after some faffing and stamping of ground like two shady characters prowling a used car lot for an annonymous getaway vehicle we picked a reasonably gradient-free and flat (in this context, the definition is stretched to its maximum) pitch with a nearby supply of fast flowing, sweet, cold water that I can still taste as I sit here typing. Tents went up, mats and bags installed and our eyes immediately turned South to where the moon was flashing across the slopes through the gaps in the clouds like a searchlight looking for JU 88’s.

An attempt on climbing to the main ridge to have a look was foiled by the increasing amount of water ice which was laughing in the face of my Keens. The hardware was all back at camp, and soon so were we. Stoves on.
Dinner, cuppas, chocolate and a lie back with the ipod as the tent rippled and vibrated gently in the occasional gust that found its way down to us. It looked like a relaxing night ahead.

“The moon! The moon!” so I stuck my head out of the tent to have a look. The holes in the cloud were now much bigger, the moon a pure white disc bursting through the fast moving gaps, making the mountainside look like a ankle-breaking dancefloor illuminated by a mirror ball and spotlight with a madman at the controls.
Even as the temperature slipped below freezing we stood and watched. It was stunning.

I had some texts with friends staying at Inchree and made plans for the next day. Reception was five-bars strong, at the end of Glen Nevis we could see the lights of Ft Bill and Corpach twinkling away.
It wasn’t intrusive, but I got a feeling of detachment which I don’t get on camps where there’s no sign of life at all. Maybe it’s the visible difference between the two places? I could see where I wasn’t. Maybe sometimes that’s as important as seeing where you are?

I stuck the stove on again and had a play with the camera. I’m loathed to do this stuff as I begrudge spending time on it, but if it means I can take photies of the mountains at night I’ll budge just an inch or two.


The cloud thickened and the winds strengthened. We got back in the tents and got down to the serious business of making Z’s.
Snug in PHD’s finest, and with the metal in my ears keeping the rattling flysheet from being annoying, I slipped away for the night.

BoommmFFF!!! Everything went sideways, I knew the fly was loose or torn, the inner was stuck to my right ear. I unzipped the inner door and grabbed the flexing pole above me, I held it down while I scrabbled for my headtorch in the near darkness with my other hand. I heard Bobinson shouting, but couldn’t make out the words.

Oh shit.

…that’s the stove on.

Expedition Foods have some new flavours in their 800kcal range. It’s pretty much all we’ve used for the past 18 months, flavours, eatability and nutritional values are all good. I was sitting in the house the other day looking at the task of writing a few words about them for something else, and what with my weak will and can’t-be-arsed-cooking-ness I made up one of the new flavour meals (spicy mince and rice) to feed both myself and the thought process.

Sitting on a chair in front of the computer it’s just not the same. There’s no sssrrck…Whoomff! As I light my stove with my firesteel. There’s no eager anticipation as the meal sucks in the hot water oh so slowly, and I’m not worrying about getting sauce on my gloves, or the usual chunk of undissolved hot chocolate powder on my spork that’s shrinking with every mouthful of dinner. It’s not cold or dark, I’m not rubbing my feet together inside my sleeping bag enjoying the warmth spreading down my toes as I pull the zip right up under my arms between mouthfuls. There’s no clouds of reassuring steam rising from my mug and the rapidly diminishing tastiness in the pouch in my left hand. I’m not rolling up the empty bag and shaking my water bottles to see if there’s enough water for breakfast and a midnight cuppa.

In the house it’s a Pot Noodle in a bag. On the hill it’s feast from the golden pot at the rainbows end. It’s refueling earned, not aquired. Even making a brew on the summit on a day trip is tasty beyond it’s published remit of required refreshment. Food outside, there’s just nothing quite like it.