My one worry was where to park for this, but I phoned the girls at the Inveruglas Visitor Centre and they said to stick the motor out of sight in the long-stay parking and that’s what I did. It was dinner time, so a BabyBel and a Pepperami were used as leverage against the tide as midges circled and dived while I got my kit together. This is my first bad experience with the wee bastards this year. Oh joy.
I walked by the Sloy Power Station as the rain pattered down, the cars fleeing by my left ear. Do I drive that fast here? It doesn’t seem right when you’re on the pavement.
It was wet but, as I climbed the hydro road I was definitely overheating, gulping in lungfuls of muggy air to try and cool down. It didn’t work, and felt like I was going to burst until I got into clear air and was distracted by the lambs, now a bit bigger, but still shiny white. I wanted to throw a stick for one that stood looking at me, but I have no idea if lambs fetch sticks. I mean, they’re just like dogs but with horns, so they might. You might scorn me, but you don’t know do you, because you’ve never tried it either.Imagine if proper dogs had horns, how scary would that be.
Ben Vorlich is a marvel, it’s the ugly sister of the Arrochar Alps, less defined in shape than the others from most viewpoints, but when you’re walking it’s flanks it commands both your attention and concentration. It’s a mass of crags, tumbling waters, steep grass and dark jagged shapes all around you. You have to make your own route through it and any sense of it being an accessible wee hill just off the A82 is quickly lost if you lose yourself in the drama-filled eastern corries. Maybe not ugly sister then, Twisted Sister.
The hydro road is a blessing, you gain so much height so quickly using it. When you see how steep and rough the ground is around it any thoughts of cheating are easily beaten down with a broom of smugness, because like a rocket, it launches you into the wilds of Coire nan Each.
I love this place, it looks too rugged to be this close to home, huge faces of rock, some stark, some split and some crumbling at their own feet. A torn blanket of green thrown over it soften just a corner or two here and there. I just stood there watching the clouds chasing each other through the jagged teeth on the skyline. Glorious.
Behind me, the east side of the loch is rugged too, crag and natural woodland, it’s colours surging out from under a blanket of indifferent grey.
I’ve walked these hills uncountable times over the years, but this time I was completely caught unawares, I could see the beauty, I always do, but this time as I just stood there and lost mysself in the scenery I could feel it right inside me too.
After breaking my little reverie I turned back to the coire to search for my home for the night, I knew what I was looking for, but not necessarily where it was. So, I zigzagged my way higher and higher, crossing the coire until I found what looked like the grassy mount that hid a cave inside, formed by rock fall debris from what must be thousands of years ago. The shape looked right, but the front was a mess of freshly moved earth and rock. “Oh crap, where am I going to go now?
As ever, I’m running late with a Trail Route, the cave was the plan, but now there was Plan B making an unexpected appearance. I had bivi gear and it was raining, so unless I wanted misery for supper, at midnight, at 1am, at 2am… I had to get inside or at least under something, I was looking for a howff.
The coire is howff central, there’s plenty of free-standing boulders that I could get under, there were shelters between rocks, big indentations in crags where chunks had fallen out, but nothing had me phoning the estate agents for a schedule. Looking for bits of pure blackness is a good policy, it means depth, and that means cooking out of the rain.
I was in the rain clouds now at around 600m, in every billowy gap that passed I’d hopefully scan the crags, as I’ll be honest, it was getting late and I was hungry and tired. Everything was running with water too, many likely candidates turned out to be a cherub short of a garden water feature and I had an awful feeling I was going to have to scramble up that wet crag to get to that good looking one on the left or, oh what’s that over there, halfway up that wide gully? Big dark cleft, looks nice. I traversed the slopes and climbed the gully. I took my pack off and eyed it, it was big enough, but a little low. There’s some water in the back, but enough room to get all of me and my gear in.
I thought about putting an offer in, but I took some cooling-off time. Leaving the gear (Surely I sign that I already aad one foot inside the door?), I climbed the gully and surveyed the other side, a steeper drop, harsher crags, but with two big boulders at the bottom. I could get under that one at the left, I’ll go back down and see.
I got back to my kit and never left again, enough with the fannying about I said to myself.
After using packs with zipped bottom compartments, I’ve changed the way I pack. The Macpac Amp had the camp gear at the bottom in stuffsacks, bivi bag, mat and sleeping bag. Everything else goes in an Exped liner that I can pull out and it can sit in the rain if it likes while I set up camp. Works well, perfect for this trip in fact and I got everything set-up and inside the howff without getting it wet.
The mat was the new Alpkit Airo 120, and I split the difference at each end with my head on my rucksack, a little gap with my waterproof trousers underneath and my feet only overshot the end when I stretched out. magic. My cooking gear went into the roomy interior, which was a little swampy right inside, but between me and that was a big flat stone which took bottles, stove, and even my lamp. I took that Alpkit hanging lamp which would have been nice in the cave, but in here it was just as good and I never used a headtorch all night.
I got my boots well inside in the dry, slipped into my bag and lay back. Comfy. I was completely out of the weather, it wasn’t claustrophobic at all, everything was to hand and I was cozy. The stove went on. This was the Vango Ultralite’s first trip, and it’s a cracker. Smooth control and a mighty flame to delight seekers of hot beverages.
I stuck my iPod on and cooried in as it got dark. Between songs I could still hear the roar of the water cascading over crags, through rocks and under the ground. Nature’s symphony, not so much of the melody, but a bottom end to frighten any metal band. The rain got heavier and over a couple of hours the roar got louder and a little erratic as the water got heavier and a growing wind tried to blow it back uphill.
My howff wasn’t immune to this and around the edges water began to creep in and drip down, just in a few places at the edge, so not a problem. I just shuffled a little further in and the water was miles away. That rock I can feel won’t annoy me unless I lie right on it. Well no, that rock is what my ship ran aground on, and as I watched the restless natives of Coire nan Each ransacked my cargo hold and escaped with every barrel of joy I had carefully packed for that night.
Why am I cold, I’m uncomfortable too. I rolled over one way, another way, up and then down. Checked the zips and drawcords. After a good deal of faffing about it occurred to me to check the mat, and it was indeed flat, Stupid bugger, I must have left the valve loose. I blew it up (always have the valve where you can get to it from inside your bag), feeling the comfort return beneath me. I tightened the valve properly this time and relaxed back in near darkness.
No, my arse is frozen, what the hell is going on with this thing. I blew it up again, now sans iPod, tttsssssssspppppprrrrrrsssssttttttt… No, no, I switched on my lamp, slid over and peeled the mat back to see the water on the lower skin being bubbled by air escaping through the tear made by the rock I’d moved on top of and had been using as a saw with every body movement. I wasn’t fixing this in the wet, but I was getting cold, and this would make me colder. I was already damp, the hot ascent in humid air had seen me sweaty indeed, the Montane Meteor DT had done its best but I had layered dry clothing onto damp baselayers and lying in my bag hadn’t seen the sweat fly out through all the technical fabrics, everything had just gotten damp now. In fact, the inside face of the bivi bag was wringing and the Quantum fabric of the Rab Neutrino bag was doing just as you’d expect, it was licking condensation off the bivi and chucking it straight into the down. I zipped up my Primaloft pull-on, pulled down my hat and thought warm thoughts. Warm and dry thoughts.
I did sleep, several times in fact. When I looked at my watch I was always surprised by the time, so I was slipping away from time to time. I saw the sun rise as point of red under the rain in the distance and I saw the coire bathed in soft golden light through thinning cloud. When I decided to put the stove on after 7, it was a little greyer, but still dry. Outside.
Everything was wringing inside, the top of the bivi was like a wash basin, the hood of the bag was transparent with moisture, rivulets of condensation ran around looking for something to soak into as I shifted around.
I filled the howff with steam from myself and the pot on the stove and thought about it, maybe less clothes would have kept the moisture down, but the mat had the insulative qualities of wallpaper in that state and I was trying to stay warm. maybe it was all just my breath? If I’d had enough room to put the mat inside the bivi maybe the whole thing could have been avoided? Who knows. It was a bunch of new kit on it’s first trip, something was bound to go a little sideways.
My feet and the socks on them were dry, praise be. I slipped them into my mids, strapped on my mini gaiters and stood up for the first time in ages. A few spits of rain.
I took a few shots and packed up. My sleeping bag gurgled as I compressed it into its stuffsack. That’s wet.
My best pals just now are those Klean Kanteen bottles, they are just so nice to use, big lids, the wide mouth is great to drink from, and I can see that yellow one in the dark. I swigged from it and stowed it in my side pocket as I left.
I contoured around the way I came last night, checking out the other options I’d looked at for diggs, I think I got the best deal. I looked back at the little crack I’d slept in, the context it lay in; high in a mountain landscape the measure of any in Scotland.
What the hell was I moaning about, a damp sleeping bag? Eejit, just learn from it, sleeping in the howff was a great experience. Especially so, as I was looking for somewhere against the clock and found something that was pretty much ideal.
The wander down was a joy, I felt light of foot and of heart. The hills were clearing and the sun was spilling through in ever bigger patches. Summits be damned, wander the corries, they don’t have to be passageways or somewhere we look down into and think “Ooh, that’s nice”. Go and see it up close.
The Sloy pipes are a familiar sight from the road and elsewhere, and I decided to make a detour and visit the other end on my way back. The top station is built like a wartime bunker, well that’s late 40’s utilitarianism for you, and it’s awfy steep looking down those pipes from the side of it. It’s fascinating though, the water comes from Loch Sloy in two huge underground tunnels which er, externalise themselves here from the hillside and go into the building to be channeled into the pipes. It’s interesting stuff, and the whole place is a mix of well maintained and new, and the hasn’t-been-touched-since -1949. Must take a kicking from the weather up there.
The hydro road down was even better than the day before, less rain, better views and the last bit with the little shortcut next to the gorge is lovely.
The visitor centre was open, there was cuppas, rolls on bacon, banter with the girls and tourists milling about looking for refuge from the midges. Nae chance.
When I blinked through the wind blown snow into the coire to finally pull the Wheelie across the flat, even if that flat was soft snow, I’ve rarely felt so misplaced in Scotland.
Loch Etchachan sits over 3000ft, but the peaks all around rise a 1000ft more, the high dark cliffs plunged from the seething cloud deep into the dark and frozen waters. I felt quite alone, not something I often feel when I’m in the Highlands, however high or dark it is.
An obvious camp site lay over to the southwest, there, the fresh fall was starting to lie on the bare grass beyond the remaining snow cover, but it was melting into the neck of too-wet grass where the loch is cut in two, my original planned spot. I pitched quick, I was tired and hungry. By the time I was ready to cook, my hands were freezing and throbbing. Damned doughnuts clogging up my pipework.
Stove on, I padded over to the water in unlaced shoes to pick up more water and I met the couple who would spend the night with me. They both wore their summer kit, which I reckon was a bit premature, but their voices were unmistakable as they trotted around the rocks trying to lead me away from their nest. I filled the bottle and beat it back to the tent, and for the rest of the the night I would either listen to, or dreamily absorb the ptarmigan’s banter. A cheery wee burd wi’ gallus patter.
The moon was bright, but it was lighting only the tops of the clouds, which rarely parted for more than a glimpse of a single star at a time.
I crept outside in boxers and duvet jacket to take some night shots and tried to place that little red glow on the screen. I ran around playing air guitar to the fast bit at the end of Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell (iPod was on) to keep warm, and it occurred to me that the feeling of isolation had gone. But what had changed? The tent was up, was that it?
I thought about it when I was back inside, snug inside merino and down, that little red glow to me means comfort, familiarity, trust, memories and endless potential.
Bloody hell, I’ve bonded with a tent. It’s all over.
Macfarlane’s Lantern is the moon. The full moon is when my relatives steal cattle and hide it in the Arrochar Alps.
In some small way wild camping is not carrying on the family tradition.
A few months back, when the consultation on a proposed camping ban from Drymen to Rowardennan was launched I was asked along as a contributor to some media stuff, being both local, available and having seen the inside of a tent or two within the National Park in my time.
I answered the questions, but time didn’t allow the positives as clear voice as I’d hoped, and the worry was that a negative image of camping was what had been presented.
With this in mind, I suggested a wild camping project to the park folks, they liked the idea and we’ve stayed in comms over the past few months knocking about some ideas, and once the election hoohah had shoved us back a few weeks, we got out on the hill on Monday 17th May.
The consultation process had finished by the time we went, and the 300 filled-in forms leaned 60/40 in favour of a ban.
As it happens, the timing worked well I think. I wasn’t wanting to influence opinion on either side of the argument, I wanted to say “This is wild camping”. Not just to differentiate us from the stupids trashing the lochside with their festival camping rigs, but to try and show non-outdoorsy folk the possibilities out there that are well within their grasp. Wild camping is not a hardcore activity for mountain men, it’s sleeping in a tent somewhere you had to make some effort to get to. And, it’s for everybody.
Maybe most importantly of all, I wanted to show that wild camping in the National Park is Go!
We were team-handed, and it was a real mix of personnel. From the Park we had Geoff Miles (Head of Marketing and Relationships), who was keen to get out there and see what it was all about, Grant Moir (Head of Conservation and Visitor Experience), already a man of the mountains and interested in trying some lightweight gear, Chris Sleight from the BBC who who is an experienced climber, Craig McQueen from the Daily Record who turned up race-fit from running, Stuart McInnes from the Edinburgh TRI Center who was wearing his film-maker hat, the familiar face of Phil Robinson, and me.
We had our meet and greet in the Inversnaid Hotel car park, the first time we’d all been in the same pl;ace at the same time. Always nice to meet new folk, and with the sun beaming down, the Arrochar Alps winking from across the Loch, the mood was indeed light.
There was some kitting-out to be done (details later) and once we were all comfy, we hit the trail, the West Highland Way in fact.
It’s easy and familiar ground, and I love it. The leaves glowed bright green above us as they stretched out in the sunlight, the water sparkled and gurgled at our side, banter rippled up and down our procession as we snaked south. I was mic’ed up and gave a remarkably swearing-free commentary which I’m sure will come to haunt me in times to come.
We paused at a “traditional” fire-site, by that I mean it’s been there every time I’ve been there and folk just re-use it because it’s already there. Catch 22-ish? The pile of stones and half burnt logs with three “hidden” Pot Noodles and singed bottle of Lucozade were met with dismay, but little surprise. Phil jogged up to join us at this point too, having had to leave a bit later.
It was way too hot for that nonsense.
We passed a lot of Way walkers, some mountain bikers too. The WHW gets folk out there who might not tackle the countryside otherwise, and that’s a wonderful thing.
We stopped by a little pebbly beach for some interview stuff and some minor snacking. Food raised its nose into the air for the first, but not last, time.
The famous goats were spotted in a blur of shaggy black wool on the hillside just as we arrived at Cailness, which itself was a blaze of blossom. It was our left turn as well, through the gate, away from the Way and onto a remarkably steep landrover track which pulled us into unbroken sunshine, rising temperatures and more frequent pauses to look at the view.
The banter kept flowing, some serious and for use later, there were mic’s, still and video cameras on the go most of the time, but oddly it wasn’t intrusive, we just kind of bimbled along. As we gained the top of the zigzags there was both relief and our first view and Ben Lomond. It’s north side is just awesome. You should go.
The drive to Inversnaid from Aberfoyle is glorious, it’s dead-end nature saving it from an A82-esque fate, and the views of the Ben from here are just amazing. Lomond means “beacon” and that’s just perfect. It stands proud and alone, looking over a little of everything that makes the Highlands , rock and water, tree and heather, summit and sky, village and road, past and future.
“This way” I pulled back the front of the train from it’s onward course on the landrover track with an outstretched arm pointed on the the rough and trackless terrain to the north. I could see big crags looming in a broken landscape softened just a little by a carpet of heather. Hidden somewhere in there was a lochan, and hopefully somewhere for the tents. You know, it did look just a little wild.
There were a few feet needing some attention and some joints needing a break, so we stopped for a packs-off rest stop. There were snacks and banter, and even some warm layers thrown on as there was a little wind cooling us now as we sat above 400m. There is not a single path through here, we’re surrounded by familiar peaks, we’re not that far away from the car park, but there was a real feeling of being out there. This wasn’t lost on us, in many ways it’s the perfect place to demonstrate wild camping. In fact it’s a perfect place just to go and wild camp, I didn’t pick a soft-option destination for this, I just liked the look of it, it ticked all the boxes from accessibility, distance, likelihood of getting a few tents pitched, great views and just damned good fun.
There was a little more cloud forming , and the light shot through the gaps in luminous shafts, the hills to the west grew dark as the sun passed further towards the horizon. We’d set off late (well, some things never change) and even summer has its limits. Scuffs and dents now attended-to, we regrouped and found our way through, round and over the heathery lumps to the lochan. A more lovely spot I couldn’t have hoped for, and right above it, the little summit and ridge I had in mind for our camp site.
We ringed the lochan, filled water bottles and all took different routes up the far side to meet again at a wrecked deer fence and a little cairn. It was perfect, plenty space, views all around water not too far away.
Pitches were claimed, rucksacks dropped into the heather and unpacked, and a silence descended as most of the group concentrated on how to assemble the unfamiliar bag of metal pieces and fabric that was to be their home for the night.
But didn’t they do well!
The tents went up, no one lost an eye, or a finger, or their temper. After that, we sat in a hollow and broke out the cooking kit. The food that followed varied in quality and success, Grant liked his chicken and noodles, Stuart had a nightmare with his as he was apparently supposed to fry some of it. Chris found his olive oil just too late. Bags of donuts, cookies and sweeties appeared and went down well. More sound recording, pieces to camera and many photies came and went, just part of the evening. Somehow in the golden light and at the late hour, however unusual, it all seemed so easy.
After a trip down and back up for more water, there was a second round of stove lighting. The cuppas were accompanied by the most inappropriate collection of stories, and rather than the night hike we just sat and blethered until bed time. The simplicity of it all was a topic, the mini stoves, the single pot and spork, the food-in-a-bag. It makes it all very easy, new skills to learn are few, waste is minimal, joy is maximal.
I tightened a few tents, just a wee bit, and one by one the guys drifted off to bed, leaving me wandering around with a tripod and camera, thoughts of how the guys would fare in the borrowed gear were very much to the fore. Would it be windy, would it be cold, would we have tears and snotters in the middle of the night?
I could hear Phil breaking camp sometime around dawn (he had to be back in Glasgow early), it was bright, but I was too cozy and I drifted away again. A couple of hours later, coughs and zips of varying types stirred me again and I stuck my head out of the tent this time. Stuart was up and dressed, so with a hot breakfast in mind, I did likewise.
The breakfast table was a big patch of bare rock, the wind of the previous night had gone completely so stoves would have no trouble here. One by one the guys drifted over, except Chris who was last up after some extra Z’s. Stoves roared, spoons rattled in cups, muesli was shaken while eyed suspiciously. The cloud cover started to break as we sat and watched. I don’t know what was sweeter, my oats and raspberries, or the sight of Ben Vane dappled with patches light right across the loch from us.
This is wild camping. The walk-in, the pitching, dinner, it’s all part of the same days doings, but waking up to a new day. already in the mountains, that might be the real prize for the extra effort, and the time that you give to it. It’s an exchange which is weighted well in our favour. We can do how we please, the mountains will just sit there and take it quietly. Surely then, how we conduct ourselves in the company of such a vulnerable host must speak intimately of what we really are as people?
There were more recordings followed by packing. As we stood with our packs back on, and looked at where we had pitched last night, there was no sign of us. Not one scrap of litter, not even a tent shaped patch on the ground, the thick heathery grass had bounced back and there was no sign that we’d ever been there. Seven tents and their occupants stretched along a ridge, and with just a little thought and care, one night was made invisible. It’s not even that it was a constant how-to session, common sense quietly prevailed and everyone kept their gear admined, even the first-time wild campers. That speaks volumes, folk either intrinsically know the right thing to do, they need a little help to see the right thing to do, or they just don’t give a shit.
It was now clear blue above us as we descended steeply north to complete our little circular route. The mood was still light, no one had been cold in the sleeping bags which I was relieved about, there had just been a little flysheet rattling when the wind got up that had opened a few sleepy eyes now and again.
We dropped into the forest above Inversnaid, the sound of water tumbling over rocks, sunlight dripping through the canopy of leaves and it was approaching 10am.
It was a glorious little walk, the return to the motor is often a little melancholy, but today I really felt quite pleased with everything.
A group shot in the car park, gear sorted and it was all over. Another magic mini adventure.
Left to right, Chris, Stuart, Grant, Craig, Geoff, Me.
After the lovely drive back out to Aberfoyle, I sat in Liz MacGregor’s tearoom with Craig and Stuart with a my second breakfast. I had a wee reflection on the events, it was just a little thing really, but as I said “Iwanted to do something“.
My part is over, the coverage will be whatever it is, we’ll just wait and see.
But, we did see what wild camping is, we saw how accessible it is, and we showed that the National Park is the place to go to do it.
The Park is changing. In the ban area there’ll be camping grounds, in the right spots for Way walkers too, Sallochy is getting some minimal facilities, environmentally sound ones too. The plantations are being felled and replaced by native woodland, and then there’s the future of the A82.
I have hope for the Park, I have to. I’ve seen what happens when both planners and people do the wrong thing. I watched them tear up and disfigure the lochside 20-odd years ago when they put the road in from Balloch to Tarbet. And now I’ve seen neds saw up ancient woodland so they can fall unconscious on a beach to the crackle of burning branches.
We can’t undo any that, but we can learn I’d hope.
No, I’m not saying where we camped, but all the info is there for you to find it. Brilliant wee hills, somewhere I’ll go back to.
Never have I talked so much shite and have it recorded to be used in evidence against me.
But, we never lost anyone, mechanicals were very few and the weather was as fine as we could have wished for.
I’ve brought back as many new thoughts as I took out old ones to air when I set off yesterday.
Always a good thing.
Holly’s in the kitchen and she’s just sung this, word for word: “I am Iron Man!, dum dum dumdumdum, da da da da da da da da dumdum”
There’s a tear in my eye right now.
Work was a dead loss today. Jimmy was bringing the boat back up the Clyde from Dumbarton after it being in the water for the first time yesterday, and that had to be assisted leading to nautical themed conversation (where I had to bluff like a mofo) at Bowling Basin with folk previously unknown, then cuppas, walking around the harbour with Holly and then an acceptance that the day was done.
So, I’ve been packing the gear for Monday (for that is the day we’re heading out). Rucksacks are fine, we had some trying-on and everyone is happy enough (I’ll do some gear stuff post-trip), even Craig the very tall reporter was sorted with adjustment set to “Stop Here”.
Sleeping bags though is a thing. I’ve got a lot of bags here, but they’re all filled with enough down that I know will keep me just warm enough. So, I’ve had to bring some golden oldies out of retirement that have a heavier fill so that the guys coming along who haven’t done this before will have a warm night at camp.
This has got me thinking about my own transition in what I use. I used to sleep in bigger bags, sometimes fully clothed and often felt on the limit. I went to lighter bags plus clothing and started to wake up to take clothes off to cool down, and now it’s light bags with base layers or less. I’m getting older, I’m not getting any fitter so what’s changed? The bags I’m using are better and lighter, the mats I’m sleeping on are lighter but not any better at insulating, so there’s no huge change in anything other than pack weight.
Is it confidence maybe? Have I subconsciously hit my camping “stride” and when it’s bed time I’m more relaxed and mentally in a happy place, or do I eat better, or maybe I’m so used to throwing on insulating layers when I stop that I’m keeping my core warmth better and a hot drink before bed stokes the boiler for the night? It’s probably a little of all of that, but some nights are still better than others, there is no real etched-in-brass scale for me to judge from.
So, this has me thinking about sleeping bag ratings. They really don’t help at all do they? I know I tend to look at fill weight and apply that to my own accrued data, but what the hell does someone looking for their first bag to carry into the mountains look for? What happens is they go to a forum to ask for advice and get even more confused/abused/depressed.
I can’t even think of a solution to this, it’s something you just have to learn for yourself, and it’s an expensive learning curve to ride your BigWheel round. As we’re looking to help folk with the idea wild camping, I really see this as the biggest issue from a gear, as well as a comfort and enjoyment perspective.
Anyway. I’ll be asking questions on Tuesday morning about how folk slept, how warm they were etc. It’ll be interesting to hear the differences, especially as a couple of the bags are rated into double minus figures.
I’m wild camping in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park in that photie above.
That’s something that is very dear to me indeed, the freedom of the hills. But although access legislation gives us a legal right to be there, how we conduct ourselves and how we treat the ground on which we walk and camp is what gives us the moral right to return.
We all know the score, leave nothing but footprints and a slightly faded patch of grass, send nothing but tweets or pings and take nothing but photies and stories to last a lifetime. And nice wee stone for the fireplace.
The Loch Lomond camping ban is now in the machinery, what the label reads when the can drops onto the conveyor belt, we’ll see in due course.
In the mean time, the wild camping project with the Park folk is happening next week. The BBC and the Daily Record are spending the night (somewhere in that shot below…) with Geoff and Grant from Park HQ, Stu who’ll be filming it, and myself. We’ll be looking at everything from where to pitch, cooking, safety and why everyone should be wearing trail shoes…
I’ve been kitting out the team with packs, tents and more, so there’ll be no overladen DofE lookielikies, and I’m hopeful that we’ll have a good time out/up there.
The message? It’ll be something different for all the participants, and I’ll cover that later next week.
But, I know already what I’ll be saying.
I’ll always be wild camping in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, just like in that photie above.
I could hear the others rustling in their sleeping bags, zips being pulled, coughs and splutters and sniffs. The sound of the key being turned in human ignition.
I waved to Sandy as his head popped out and I whistled to Elaina as she peered out at the sunrise. It was slightly surreal as I’d stuck the music back on while I was dozing and had Megadeth’s “Peace Sells…” shouting at me while the morning played a silent stadium light show.
I probably could have just lain there until the desire to pee became #1 in the list of priorities instead of #6 where it actually was, but I had to get out and feel those rays as they burst over the South Glen Shiel Ridge.
I pulled on my jumper and down jacket, peeled my legs out of my sleeping bag and tucking the laces inside my boots, stuck my feet inside and lurched out to greet the day.
Now, as is my habit, I cut about for a bit outside without getting properly dressed, the reason being I always get back into my bag for a cuppa and bit of a re-heat before breaking camp. I fail to see why my companions found a man in boxers and a down jacket so amusing. No I wasn’t cold, yes my legs are always that colour. Cheeky buggers.
We milled around soaking it all up as the sun squeezed through and the sky changed shape and colour by the second. The colour and patterns washed over us and to each side. Gairich to the South over Loch Quoich glowed like the last embers of bonfire against a blanket of soft pink haze.
It was funny when everyone’s alarms started going off. We knew what time the sunrise was due and various devices had been primed to make sure we saw it. We’d been standing watching for it for nearly an hour.
There were grins and superlatives, there was disbelief too. It was as if we’d been dropped here from an aircraft, like a really out-of-shape band of mercenaries (60+ Roger Moore, Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, you know the kind of thing), in the middle of the night and had woken up to see the target for the first time, sleeping in a deck chair on the porch. I had difficulty in attaching an expended effort to attaining the result we were experiencing as the climb had been in total darkness and had been rather pleasant too. If nothing else if did tell me that the whole experience means something to me, not just the photogenic bits.
Ages later, when blue became the dominant hue above us, I did indeed retire to my sleeping bag for breakfast, and when I emerged I was fully clothed and laced-up. I had a roasting hot purple titanium mug in my hand too. Of course I did.
We broke camp slowly, it was warm and bright and we were donning hats and sunglasses by 0800.
This is the joy of wild camping at its best, already being there, no traffic, no fussing, no frustration. Time to enjoy the moment and all the little things that glue it together.
A ptarmigan was chuckling away and flitting from rock to rock behind us. It’s such a cheery sound and it’s such a lovely little bird. It had spots of colour across its white overalls, it hasn’t had that outfit on for so long for a while, I’m surprised it hasn’t worn out this year.
We put our cooking stones back in place, scanned the ground for anything amiss or missing and hit the trail again.
It was only a little after 0900, but I haven’t felt it this warm outdoors this year never mind at 800m. We all felt the presence of the heat right away as we moved, but the track is a gem and the views kept opening up as we walked, there was nothing but joy to be found with every step.
The ridge swings and tumbles towards the summit, dips and crags at every turn. We found dry stane dykes here and there (top photie), always a good thing to put your own meagre efforts into perspective.
The ridge defines itself in the final appraoch to the summit in a series buttresses on the north side rising to rounded pinnacles which taper into steep snow slopes to the south.
We thought about which way to go, the snow traverse could be loose and difficult, what about the scramble on the crest?
I decided to go and have a look at the snow and report back.
The snow was soft in places and consolidated in others, I crossed a good bit of it and it was great fun, but the lure of the rock above me was strong.
I climbed up and stowed all my bits and pieces on my pack as we regrouped and then made our way up to the first little crag on the crest.
The first thing you see is the oft-mentioned “via ferrata”, bits of old metal fence posts that are actually handily placed on the first little bit of the scramble. Again though, it kinda puts things into perspective when someone is up here cutting holes in rocks and melting lead to seal in a metal stake to build a fence.
The scrambles are great fun, nothing very difficult, but the airyness to your right side lend them a little bit of drama. But the holds are there, the rock was dry and grippy and we revelled in pure joy of playing on the rocks.
One short section did raise an eyebrow when we looked back, it’s a cleft filled with snow which you can’t really see until you’re across and above it. At the height of winter, that gap would be bridged by snow and would be an accident waiting to happen.
It was over too soon. We strolled the final pull through the bouldery terrain to a short snow slope which pushed us into a wide, shallow channel running from the summit down the southern ridge. This was nice on its own, but behind it lay the peaks of Knoydart (Ladhar Bheinn below with a wee bit of snow on it), Loch Hourn with Skye and the Atlantic beyond. Carron and Torridon now joined the Cairngorms as we began complete a 360° circle of peaks including the still snow-plastered Ben Nevis, Ben Alder and Creag Meagaidh and the bare rocks of An Sgurr and Rum.
It’s as fine a sight as I’ve seen, Sgurr á Mhoaraich sits in a perfect position, it was definitely waiting at the door for the box-office to open.
A final shimmy on the snow and we were on the top. Sitting on warm rock, surrounded by pure white snow wearing base-layers, the only sound was gently roaring stoves as they melted some of the scenery to make us soup and cuppas. Twice.
We unpacked and moved in for the long term.
Some folk came a went, seeming slightly perturbed at our presence, a couple arrived with their playful dug and they seemed as happy as we were. That’s the way it should be, if you’re annoyed because I’m on “your” summit I’m glad.
Another cheery fella appeared, I took his photie on his camera and he told us he had only “19 to go”. Good lad.
I wasn’t expecting to see so many folk on Sgurr á Mhoaraich, it’s really heartening to see smiling faces making the effort to get to hills a little off the beaten track.
I dare say we could have stayed up there for longer, we still had food and gas, the ginger muffins were all gone which was a blow, but there was some still sweet to go with last nights still uneaten savoury.
But, we looked at descent routes. Straight down the south ridge would take us into the boggy coire and onto the road in about ten minutes, going north meant a steep descent on very rough ground, a scramble up to another top with a ridgewalk, steep descent , uncertain water crossing and a long walk out.
As we descended north from the summit we quickly hit a big concave snowslope which was a lot of fun as the run-out was long with a sticky end waiting for the unfortunate and the snow was very loose. We all took different directions and approaches and got to the crags below in a good state of repair.
It was here that the snow gear got packed away and we also got some new views. The length of Loch Hourn to one side and the wonders of Coire á Chaorainn.
The upper coire is a mass of huge boulders which have broken from the face below the summit of Sgurr á Mhoaraich I looked like it would be a lot of fun to explore too, and that’s a feature of this mountain, it’s got so many options to explore.
To get to the bealach we had to cross some very rough, loose and steep ground, but it was just so much good bloody fun. Hitting the solid surfaces in the bealach was no disappointment though, the rock formations were good to both hand and foot, in fact the rock is so grippy you can walk up some surprisingly steep outcrops and they hang onto your feet. Brilliant.
Some fannying about was inevitable, we were like kids playing on outcrops on the beach. Phil’s little cave looked cool, although when I looked at properly I don’t think I’d sit under it without a couple of acro-jacks and an HSE risk assessment.
A few paces over, and we stood at the bottom of a terraced buttress guarding Am Báthaich. There’s no obvious best-line, so I went left and Phil went right. As we looked down on Elaina and Sandy after the first pull-up it was obvious that the best line was the one you fancied best, so the four of us threaded our way through the outcrops and along the grassy terraces to where it levelled out into a strange little oasis ringed by twisted rocks that looked like giant penny sweeties, flumps, shrimps and more. We all tackled various bits and found ourselves on a little rocky top a little way from the summit.
There was a deep clear pool there where water was filtered and stowed and I stood on a little crag and found myself drifting away with my eyes fixing on features near and far. I could see places I’d been, places I want to go and those unsung in-between bits that I never knew were there.
I’m an emotional auld bugger at the best of times and years back I used to think “Oh, I’ll come back and go there”, whereas these days I’m as likely to think “I’ll never have enough time to make it back here”.
Maybe that’s part of why I make the most of my trips these days, I like the slow pace as it gives me time to look and think. I know at this stage in the game, that my time isn’t infinite. In my 20’s it maybe looked like it was.
Two blokes passed us in a hurry, not looking up, or sideways, they weren’t runners, just walkers on a route. Did that used to be me? I don’t think so, I hope I’m just more these days rather than different.
The rock that had been giving us so much joy over the past day signed itself off before we left it behind for the knee wrenching descent to Glen Quoich.
At first you think the ridge comes to a full stop, but it falls away steeply in hundreds of metres of steep grass. It was slow going at first but a zigzag path appeared which did make it easier, but we estimate four times farther.
I think it got to me because I took my boonie hat off and packed it full of snow to cool me down as we’d left the glorious shade we’d enjoyed higher up the slope. It didn’t cool me down so much as really hurt my head, like an ice-cream headache all through my brain. I kept taking bits of snow out and throwing that the other members of the party to minimise the pain, but it was still all wrong so I put the snow on top of my hat and just let it melt into the fabric.
Then I just ran down the ridge in a straight line, stopped and shouted “Bored”.
I felt much better after a wee sit down and a drink. We’d all got a touch of the sun.
Elaina is no great admirer of descent, surely a sentiment we can all spread on a Jacob’s Cream Cracker, but it was only when we reached flat ground that we finally hit a Blondie Stopper™. Water, wide, fast flowing and deep. Pure Kryptonite.
We surveyed the chasm that was the Allt Coire á Chaorainn. Phil skipped over on the points of rock that were clear of the raging torrent, the rock was as grippy as it had been all day which was welcome. I followed, dumped my pack and jumped back over. Sandy crossed and we decided to re-arranged some stones under the surface as Elaina was already removing socks in anticipation of the inevitable.
Some stones were shifted and some thrown in from the edge, remarkably Sandy seemed to postion himself in line with the spray every time I launched one…
Phil and I, now happy with our submerged causeway, passed the mighty luggage to south bank and then the lugger of said luggage followed, knee-deep in rushing snowmelt. Incident-free, Elaina sat on the bank emptying the water from her boots while Phil stood and grinned back at me “Ha, all the rocks are soaking wet now, you’re going in on your way back”.
Despite his best efforts to engineer that outcome through leering at me from the bank, my feets did not fail me and soon we were all pulling on our packs again for the walk out by the river.
Before I set off I filled my hat with cool water from the river and jammed it on my head. Bliss
The light was low and the waterfall rushed on it’s way in the shadow of our day’s route, the South Glen Shiel Ridge glowed with evening light through the scattering of moss covered trees.
When we reached the estate road it was all over, we took some “all of us together” photies and trundled along the road. My energy was gone and my legs were set no return-to-base.
The loch water-level was very low, showing the scarring which hydro schemes quietly exert upon the landscape. It was almost a glacial scene, the original river course running through black soil with white rocks and rounded outcrops stark in contrast. There was a little group of walls on one usually submerged flat spot, outlining a group of shielings, rooms maybe?
The lowering light added to sense of melancholy, and after a young stag caught our attention and played hide-and-seek for a while we walked to the main road in a quiet mood. The high ridges at either side tapered down with every step we took and when climbed the stile to find the tarmac we were out of the mountains and by the lochside.
One kilometre of road and the motor was found again. We threw our packs down and the banter flowed once again. Smiling faces, sweaty socks, mini Irn Bru’s and a general agreement on the merits of a fine wee trip.
We pulled over to see another stag, a cheeky one at that, and a little farther on at a high point in the road we all got out and said a proper goodbye to the sun.
The trip was ending as it had finished, in a wash of colour with four pals full of expectation in a beat-up old Ford estate.
Now the expectation wasn’t for some mild adventuring, it was of hot food while we sat and relaxed and laughed about our day, the fun scrambling and the hairy descents, the views, how much sunburn Sandy had and would it lead to sunstroke and maybe a flick through the photies too.
We pulled onto the main road and headed south.
Road Closed South of Fort William from 2100hrs tonight.
It was 15 miles to Ft Bill and it was two minutes to nine. We invented new curses as we swung through the Little Chef (closed) car park in Spean bridge and headed east.
This meant at least an extra 100 miles of driving to get home.
We drove into the night, tired and hungry. Maybe Dalwhinnie will be open? No, Pitlochry was a wasteland too, not even a garage was open.
Everything else was in darkness until we reached Perth where we turned in to find the BP shut as well. Back onto the A9 and to the other side of Perth and the services at Broxden. They signs were out.. Ah, but it’s open.
I parked at the pump and rubbed my eyes. I got out and stuck the nozzle in the empty tank. Nothing…
“We’re changing shift, can ye gies five minutes”
I was beyond caring or verbal reprisal. We left for the shop and gathered what we could to eat, I had Frosties and milk, a microwaved roll-on-bacon, a brownie and two actually rather nice latte’s. The team fared similarly. Home’s were phones and texted, disbelief was expressed.
Have a look at the map, from Loch Quoich there was nowhere to get food or fuel until the southern end of Perth.
I got my fuel once the tricky task of getting someone different to stand in front of the till was completed by the crack team of garage operatives and we left.
I turned off at Stirling and headed cross-country to Balloch and then round the corner back to base. I was tired.
We bid each other a fond and fleeting farewell, too tired and too early in the morning for anything else.
A fantastic trip in glorious country with wonderful folks. One that will stay with me.
But, I urge visitors to remember my motto when visiting this pleasant land..
Welcome to Scotland, Ye’ll have had yer tea?
Once again, “Photies by Us”
He clung onto the edge of the cable car roof, already bloodied and weakened, he felt his fingers go numb as his chest heaved and his throat burned. The last thing he saw was Richard Burton’s grimacing face above him as his grip finally failed under an onslaught of blows and he was sent tumbling into the abyss.
Well that’s as may be, but there’s a hell of a drop from that cable car to the ground so we thought we’d load up and head north before winter hit the rocks. Winter fought hard to stay up there this year, it seemed only right to soften the landing a little.
It was late when we left, but that was the plan. Phil met me at the base-camp carpark after his day of boating and BBC, where we discussed the relative merits of tiny tents and why I wasn’t taking one.
After a wee while Sandy drove past, and then into, the carpark with Elaina riding shotgun.
After some comparing of notes and gay badinage the gear was slung into the back of the motor and we were away. Quite slowly too with four folk and four sets of kit on-board.
The road was okay, and it was bright and clear and there was a air of frustration mixed with anticipation in the motor. Phil was cursing his luck for being at work all day, Sandy was hung-over but excited to be using his bivy bag, Elaina was glad to be away from the rest of the week and I was hungry.
Aye, we could have been on the hill already, but I felt dead relaxed about this trip and the time just wasn’t bothering me. I felt optomistic in the extreme.
The banter from the unusual team-handed approach, the easy day I’d had, the almost guaranteed good weather, a familiar home for the night, it all added up.
McDonalds in FT Bill it was, a surprisingly unprotested destination. We sat a while and enjoyed the fine cuisine as the light outside softened slowly. After so many dashes north at odd times of day, it doesn’t feel weird anymore to be heading to the hill as the traffic thickens up in the other direction. Just feels kinda nice, and maybe a little smug at times too?
A dash into Morrisons for some stuff and things and we were away again. All eyes were on the hillsides as we saw the golden band on the upper slopes slide upwards as the sun dipped lower and was gone. It had looked like we might make the start of the route before night.
Not any more.
We pulled into the side at Loch Garry to see Gairich silhouette against a rust coloured sky. A glorious sight that had us all out with our cameras.
That’s something worth mentioning, cameras were swapped about so much over the next two days that I think it’ll be impossible to ever decipher who took what, most of the ones of my are by Phil, but I think it’ll have to be “Photies by Us“.
Our destination wasn’t so far away from that peak in the distance and it acted like a marker as we swung towards it along the twisting road to Kinloch Hourn.
As the colours changed to soft purples we stopped again. The air was colder now. Night-time was tying its boot-laces.
As soon as we crossed the bridge over the neck of Loch Quoich that stretches North towards Alltbeithe we were scanning for parking places and found one round the corner, right at the start of the stalkers track.
We all fell out onto the crinkly old tarmac and immediately felt the cold, so shorts were ditched for hill-gear, packs were straightened out and snacks added to pockets. The night was clear so we set off without the aid of torches. The sun was long gone, but the sky was a patchwork of blues from indigo to ice and stars pushed though with every step. There was enough light for now, as our night-vision kicked in as best it could.
We skipped up the track and the temperature seemed to be rising with us, we all found it on the balmy side and the frequent stops were accompanied by unusual bouts of honesty “Ahm knackered”, rather than “Oh, look at the view”. Well, it was dark.
We met a fella coming down by headtorch who was camping nearby. We chatted for a good while and he seemed less suspicious than most at our “…camping up there somewhere” plan. Friendly old boy, I hope he’s enjoying his holiday.
The chance meeting burst my night-vision though and when we parted I switched to red light as a half-way house. This seemed like a sensible ploy and soon we were all looking a little more Sci-Fi than before.
The track wanders up an easily angled ridge and gets a little more defined at Bac na Canaichean where the terrain strats getting good for camping, but snow was still thin on the ground. We stopped a few times, but my eye was forever upwards as the ghost of the summit was stark against a flood of stars. It look both miles and inches away and I wanted to creep closer.
The grassy ridge was broken by huge areas of stone, at first flat and then increasingly angular with vertical plates and chunks that looked like piles of Holly’s books that had been pulled out of the bath and dried on the radiator.
The rock on these hills was a feature all weekend, and a fine one.
We settled on a great spot at the foot of Sgurr Coire nan Eiricheallach, some flat ground, huge snow-banks for water and hopefully something to look at in the morning.
The last half hour had seen fingers of black spread from the north and block out the stars as it grew. From walking a carpet of twinkling pinpoints where we saw shooting stars and tracked satellites we were now in a sea of utter darkness. Cloud cover now hid every detail and there was no impression of height or distance. I think, had I been solo that could have been a little unnerving.
Camp was set up quite fast despite the team’s unfamiliarity with a lot of the kit. The next step was the sound of stoves lighting one after the other. A symphony of pure delight.
No one was very hungry after our dinner pitstop in Ft Bill, so it was snacks and cuppas, and I supposse it now being 0100hrs might have been a factor in my not really wanting spaghetti bolognese.
Phil slipped away first and by 0130 we were all in our sleeping bags. I was happy and comfy, I felt like I’d come home. I had space to move, stretch and breath, I was wrapped in warm down, I couldn’t even feel that sharp rock I’d pitched on and tried to blunt with a pile of stuffsacks…
I put on some music and drifted off without a thought left in my head.
I stirred sometime after 0500 and it was bright. The thin tent fabric was diffusing the soft light and it’s warmth matched my own as I shifted onto my back and wiggled my toes. I unzipped the inner door and had a peek under the flysheet.
The cloud cover had broken and morning was coming, a firey horizon was climbing up a pale blue sky towards us.
I tied open the outer door and snuggled into my sleeping bag as cold air brushed my face. Morning grew as the minutes ticked by and I lay and watched it.
I squinted into the bright sunlight as the icy air prickled my cheeks and skated over my fillings. The sun was up and picking out the snow capped tops and ridges in pink, the wet snow of last night had shrunk into a carpet of crystals and although the shapes of the landscape were the same as before, the atmosphere was so different I felt like I’d came out of hibernation. And a little early too, as it was bloody freezin’. I pulled on some layers and got the stove on. With a hot cuppa and some grub inside me I felt surprisingly fresh, and with a hint of cloud on the little bit of western horizon that I could see, I decided not to fanny about this time, and get packed and get going.
First I had to check over my feet for wear and tear, it’s not often I wear big muckle boots, but they were looking okay. I hadn’t cut my toenails, which I usually always keep on top of, and my wee toe on my left foot gave me cause to purse my lips. It’s a weird toenail that one. I bust it years ago and now it grows in two bits, like Bugs Bunny’s front teeth. It was rubbing my other toe a little, but “Ach, it’ll be fine…”.
I emptied the tent and started to bag up the gear, leaving my softshell and waterproof over the top of the bits and pieces. The tent was iced up and the pegs frozen into the ground, but it was away in its stuffsack in no time. Much of my gear was iced up, even kit that had been in the tent, my sleepmat was pure white at one end. I think it showed me how much condensation there had been early in proceedings. I lifted the jackets up and was amused to find them both as stiff as boards after sitting there for just ten minutes. It really must have been properly cold.
I finished packing, got kitted up, scanned the campsite for something I might miss later and I was away. The snow above me was now gleaming white against a sky of a dozen shades of blue.
The sight was one of those things that gets me all excited and has me starting off up the trail too fast and getting out of breath. So it was good timing when the track ended abruptly in a very steep slope of unbroken iron-hard snow. I stopped and swapped poles for ice axe and rubber soles for crampons and took the slope straight up the middle. It quickly became so steep, and the snow was so consolidated, that I had to swing the pick into it to get any attachment to the slope at all. I was also glad of having my Grivel Airtech’s on, I would have been sobbing into my Buff had I been wearing Kahtoolas, and the guilty pleasure of an old-school ascent was one which I revelled in.
I broke into the sunshine on the ridge and views down Glen Affric past my old pal Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, it’s so wild, so beautiful and so familiar in there now. I turned towards the summit of Beinn Fhada, just up and around the corner. Ahead of me was just over 1000m of rock hard snowslope, covered in a few inches of fresh flakes from the previous night, a virgin slope rising only 250m in height from where I stood to the cairn.
Every step was a joy, clouds arced across the sky above in wisps, stripes or cotton wool balls, but none threatened me at all, they briefly visited some of the other tops but my top stayed clear.
The view to the south grew with every step, the Five Sisters, The Saddle, Knoydart and beyond all slid into view and from the summit I was adrift on a choppy sea of white crested waves while the sun beat down on me with a warmth which didn’t belong on this wintery perch, but was oh-so welcome.
I stayed on that top for a long time, hours in fact. I had soup, coffee, some snacks and wandered around with my hands in my pockets in what was a perfect day, a day to absorb, to relish and remember.
When I left it wasn’t because I was cold, or tired, had stuff to do later, or the weather was turning, the cloud bubbled and ebbed at the edges of the scene but came no further. No, it was just time to go home.
The descent down the ridge towards Meall á Bhealaich was a crunch down that same long slope, where now my own tracks had stamped a little bit of humanity into a wilderness scene. I went past my line of ascent and picked a less steep alternative further along the ridge. It had seemed like a good idea, but as the temperature rose, the snow was melting and the hillside was a grass-covered mudslide, where it has to be said I performed some amazing moves several times in a bid to stay upright, which was achieved. Nine times out of ten.
The river crossing was easy, the waters were much lower, and I stopped for a drink and a snack. It felt very much like the time I was here last summer, bright and liovely with the sounds from the water, only the winter camouflage on the scenery gave the game away. It won’t be long ’til it’s alive again, you can see buds on branches, hear birdsong from the trees. In fact, I ‘d heard ptarmigan on the ridge but had seen none, I’d followed the tracks of a mountain hare but I hadn’t found it (I wonder if what looked like a fox had fared better…). Best of all, I saw and heard a golden eagle for the first time in a long time. So long in fact that I had to google the eagle’s call when I got home to check that my memory was working.
My mind was wandering on the last part of the track although a little niggle on my toe was starting to creep into the periphery, not enough to stop me though. I noted that the sky was clouding over a little more, and I felt happy with my lot. Sometimes you can’t wait for the weather, you have to take a chance. I’m glad a found that wee window and fell though it.
I pulled my boot off followed by my big woolly sock, I rolled off my liner but could see there was something amiss as it got towards my toes and stuck. That would be the blood then. I eased the liner off of the sticky mess and watched half of my toenail go with it. It wasn’t sore, and it was my fault for not keeping up with personal maintenance, but I did feel a blow from the hammer of inconvenience land on the back of my head. Keeping it clean and not bursting it any further is going to be annoying for a few days.
However back on the road and heading south was trouble free, empty roads and and sunshine ’til Ft Bill, and from there on increasingly dark and pishy horror until I got home in the midsts of a storm.
Lame adventuring it is, but what joy from something so accessible in this magic wee country.
Butch and Sundance below have got their trail shoes on and are even into short sleeves.
I dunno if that’s entirely wise, it’s pissing down out there, so I think Spring got stuck in the door of the bus trying get all its shopping bags down the steps and got dragged away to the next stop. Possibly Mars, where having Spring unexpectedly turn up should be quite interesting as they have nothing much to speak of in the way of an atmosphere or water, or inhabitants other than Ice Warriors from out of 60’s Doctor Who.
Maybe Spring will just wait across the road for the next bus back this way, or even jump a taxi. Come to think of it, shouldn’t something as important as a season get some sort of limo service or something instead of having to slum it in public transport? Seems a bit of a liberty considering all the work it does with so little in return “Oh look, daffodils. What’s on the telly?”.
I knew I was going, I just didn’t know when. I had booked in meetings and site visits on Monday and Tuesday and then I looked at the weather. Wednesday morning was looking good. Bugger, that meant an alpine start, miles of driving and less fun that it should be.
Phil knew the score and as he stepped off the return flight from Iceland he was texting to see if I’d been.
“We should go up and camp on Tuesday night”
“That’s a possible, it’ll be later on though…”
We had a plan. Of sorts.
I got back to base late in the afternoon and started packing carefully, everything laid out on the living room floor. It looked like it was going to be properly cold and as much as I was in a hurry, I didn’t want to leave anything behind. I’ve got previous of that to be taken into account.
Phil appeared before I was ready of course, then there was some faffing around as I had to reunite Joycee with her car keys at my folks house, during which Holly said “Daddy, back from the mountains” and started to pull my jumper off. Ach.
Then we were on the road. The A82 in fact.
It was clear and it was cold. We kept watching for clouds, but it was all stars and optimism. We had to drive through Tyndrum, there were no lights on and no dinner there for us. Ft Bill also had the shutters down, Morrisons was shut, McDonalds was shut, I’m not on speaking terms with the chippy and the only other option was the Morrisons garage where we got sammidges, snacks and some gay badinage with the wummin in there who was from Cumbernauld it turns out. The lesson is, that after 2100hrs Scotland is shut on a Tuesday.
Spean Bridge came and went, the Fersit sign was next and then we were driving through wind-blown snow on the road. Fresh and unexpected. It was late, were convinced that there was now a cloud overhead, and other doubts started creeping in about night navigation in cloud, will the car park be locked, it’s after ten and we haven’t had any dinner.
The car park was empty, and a skating rink. After a half-arsed salchow we reversed into a snow bank and parked up. Lights on, cold sammidges and Lucozade for dinner.
A wee van pulled in and the sounds were those of racks being assembled for climbing in the morning. That affected our plans, if they were camping at the cliffs we wouldn’t, not totally an anti-social thing, but courtesy, the environment and flexibility in our route made it a good choice. We found out next day that they’d slept in the van, but it was academic anyway. After walking until 2350 we knew we hand to stop, and we were neither on the ridge or at the lochan.
The trail had been iced, but walkable and the mostly clear sky had seen us walking sans headtorches. Very pleasant indeed, if increasingly cold.
We found a cracking spot a little way above the track, my wee tent needed just a little flattening with the Snowclaw to get a pitch, but Phil needed some digging for his winter fortress. After a small mechanical with a pole that needed some McGuyvering we were set and the stoves were soon on as we wandered our little plot.
A beautiful night it was, and nice to be camped below the tops for a change, it gives you a different persective on your surroundings. I’ve had an odd desire to camp on a beach for a while, so maybe this is good mental half-way point?
We both slipped into sleep quite quickly, it was very late, hot chocolate and high loft down will do you in every time.
Zzzzziiiipp! Mmmffff… crump crump crump. I opened my eyes, bloody hell, it’s light outside.
“Mornin'” I shouts, “What time is it?”
“Five past eight!” Says Phil as he pads about outside.
Ah bugger, all the advantages of our drive up last night had been lost if you look at it from a logistical perspective, but we were firing up stoves in the mountains in the sunshine and snow. That’s a Win.
We just hung out at camp for a couple of hours, taking photies, sipping a hot brew, shooting the breeze and waving to the chain of climbers clanking past on the track below. Any notion of having to do anything else all day was lost. I was quite happy where I was.
A front moved across us from the West, like the sunroof being pulled closed. The light was diffused by high wispy cloud and I took that as an omen. We packed to leave.
We rejoined the trail and headed towards the cliffs or Coire Ardair on hard frozen snow, high ridges all round and in air that grew ever cooler.
The bright blue ice on the cliffs began to shine out from the frozen rock faces. And soon tiny black figures on the blue ice became visible, then their movements, then their shouts.
The cliffs had a dozen folk clinging onto them, some in obviously more precarious positions that others. Coming towards us were a pair who’d called off after one had hurt his ankle. He limped after his mate who was carrying both packs and both sets of gear. That was going to be a long walk out for both of them.
Lochain a’ Choire (below left) was frozen and snow covered. It’s a beautiful spot. We could have camped here, but at what time, 1am, 2am? Another time.
Poles were changed for crampons and ice axes. The snow was very inconsistent though, being variously frozen rock-hard and fall-through-up-to-yer-baws deep. This made the climb to the “window” bealach slow and tiring, but the scenery made every rest stop a joy. The huge cornice to our left looked so precarious, it was cracked, it was weary and it was right above us. The rocks here were iced on their faces as they turned into the Window, ice-falls draped the overhangs and every scree strewn gully was was filled with a blanket of fresh snow. The wind was picking up and the mood was changing as we climbed in to the wide channel and onto the broad back of the mountain.
It was a sea of snow with a ring of dark blue on the horizon. The sky was the same colour as the ground, and just as blank. Tinted lenses didn’t help, this was distinctly odd indeed.
We were both starving by this point but Creag Meagaidh’s plateau isn’t where you want to be stopping for lunch. As time was getting on, and the light was tiring at the same pace as ourselves, we waved to Mad Megs Cairn and turned down to Puist Coire Ardair for some shelter in which to enjoy our pub lunch (Lasagne and Chili Con Carne).
We dug in the snow a little and I got the stove on, cut some chunks of snow and added them to what little water I had left in the pot. the rising steam was like a lost brother coming home. Dinner was gone in a flash, we really did leave it too long and that makes you all upset. I had been sucking on a frozen protein bar, but I think that had been using so much effort that any benefit was cancelled out.
A climber topped-out near us as we were packing up. We were the only folk on the mountain that day who weren’t climbing. I waved to his grinning mate as he too clambered over the edge following a pink rope, and then I turnd after Phil.
I curled my thumbs into my fingers inside my mitts as they throbbed. It was very cold now, it hadn’t risen above -5ºC since we’ve arrived, but it was now properly cold.
The walk along the ridge towards Sròn á Ghoire was exposed to the wind and we had our faces covered and hoods up. The views back to the cliffs of Coire Ardair were wonderful though. By now the cliffs were starting to swirl with spindrift and the snow was moving in behind us. Down was the right direction.
The heathery slopes of Sròn á Ghoire were frozen and there was still much snow, and after that we found the track was iced right back to the motor. So we had the happy task of removing boots with crampons still attached and throwing them in the back.
It was dark with snow lightly falling. The glen where we’d camped was in cloud now and we’d got the timing right, just and no more.
The drive home? Ah, now there was an epic. We had intended to stop at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum but it was closed, and we had been a snails pace as the snow had gotten increasingly heavy and the road had become ever more ill-defined. Had I been alone, maybe there would have been some chancier driving with my new snow tyres, but the presence of a passenger does tend to reel in such tendencies these days.
It was much great relief we pulled into the BP garage a mile from home (my home anyway, and where Phil’s wheels were waiting) and I picked up an Indian Meal For Two for Me.
Just in the nick of time too, I was fading away.
Even though we rushed north late last night on a mission, by the time the sun came up this morning it was back to fannying about at camp as normal. Just in down trousers these days.
It was all planned. I was fed up pushing my luck with deadlines for Trail Routes, no matter what I did something would either make me late with words and photies or I’d end up having to change the route or some bloody thing and look stupid. So I’ve been glued to the weather forecast for the past couple of weeks, and if a chance came along I was off, regardless of day, customers wailing or any lame personal issues such as injury, fatness or difficulty in matching things with purple.
I got up at 0500 when Rock Radio 96.3 stuck its finger in my ear, and it was a finger with a big skull ring on it too. Well, it would be.
Everything was ready, clothes, rucksack, boots, empty water bottle next to the sink. I dressed as the kettle boiled, it was cold, the heating wasn’t on for a couple of hours yet. A hot cuppa and some toast was more than enough at this time of the day as I sat in the dark living room feeling just a little shaky. Time to go. I kissed the girls and clicked the door locked behind me.
The A82 was clear, the fog and gloom were no barrier to progress either. I sailed through a frozen landscape, through the grey and into the brightness of a new day, everything was blurred by frost.
Rannoch sat on the edge of dawn, a frozen Loch Ba showing no reflection from the snow covered Black Mount behind.
What would it be like to stand here as the light broke the horizon and streamed onto the tops, slipping down the slopes as it rose lazily for it’s southern winter arc. Glorious.
The cars that were parked there meant that the moment would be enjoyed and remembered by someone. I didn’t slow down as Glen Coe sped towards me.
I was the first customer of the day in Morrisons in Fort William. “Is the cafe open?”, “It is now, what are you after?”.
I sat with my rolls on bacon and coffees and did some texting on my phone. Friends were setting off as I looked out of the window at the blanket over Loch Linnhe and the icy car park. The good weather is in the mountains today.
I picked up a pastry, a Dairy Milk and strode back to the car feeling positive about the circumstances I’d found myself in. But I’m the weak link in any chain, my sore knee, that little cough, a rub of the eyes, a knocking sound from the front shock absorber… The doom monger of an archetypal Scotsman that thrives within me tried to throw my aim, but as I kitted up at the edge of the forest while chatting to the old stalker from down the road I knew I had one foot already on the snow.
The Munro’s Guide really needs re-written, not just revised. Some of the routes choices cause me no end of dismay. Here they’d have you struggling up the viewless, endless, soulless northern slopes of Ruigh na Guailainn and Stob Choire Gaibhre. I’ve done it, and although there is much merit in doing the Grey Corries clockwise, this has to be the worst way to ascent the range, so I deliberately went the other way this time. I followed the old narrow gauge railway line which was fun, finding old bridges, sleepers and the like, much better than the nearby forest road of dullness.
There are some bigger surviving bits of infrastructure like the bridge below, both interesting and incredibly frustrating. There should be wee trains running on this carrying hill goers and tourists to tea shops at Loch Trieg. If it was in the Lakes…
Not far from here is a dam with a deep pool behind it and a water crossing that seems to have the potential to be the hariest bit of your day. I got across dry, but I don’t know if I could consistently repeat that successful manoeuvre.
The ridge is nicely angled and pleasant to climb. The views to Aonach Mor pull you on and the contours are passed one after the other with surprising ease. As it becomes more defined with altitude it becomes rockier and cliffs grow to your left on the way to Beinn na Socaich, the first top of the day.
I sat here for a while, had a munchie and looked ahead and around and behind. Wonderful.
It marked a change in the ground under my feet as well, I’d been walking on frozen turf and dirt since I left the motor, the snow patches had been becoming more frequent, but from here I’d be walking on snow until lunchtime the next day.
The wind was light, it was cold but bearably so. The sun was shining and ahead of me was an unbroken snow-slope to Stob Coire Easain.
Half way up that slope I met a fella coming the other way and we stopped to have a blether. The day itself was high on the agenda. He was exstatic whereas I was maybe just buoyant. It wasn’t long after we parted that I discovered why we had different levels of happiness. He had been walking the ridge and he’d been watching what I hadn’t even caught a glimpse of as yet.
When I hit the summit I threw my poles on the cairn, dropped my pack on the snow and breathed it all in as I grinned for Scotland to at least Gold Medal intensity, possibly even world record level.
I paced around the top, the cloud was being sucked northwards in streaks over the bealach joining the ridge to Sgurr Choinnich Mor where it then disappeared into nothingness, beaten by this east-west line of huge peaks where no low cloud could survive, other than the spindly cloak that followed the outline of the lochs to the north which sat there both days, neither flinching nor breathing in or out.
I had come here for a mixture of reasons, but I felt nothing but the simple joy of just standing there.
The wind was a little sharper up here, so I pulled on a windshirt and some headgear. I also swapped poles for axe and crampons. It was narrower from here.
I though about camping on this first top, there was just enough room, but it left a long day two and besides, the ridge was wearing its best winter suit. I had to go and see.
The ridge twisted and turned, rose and fell, and every step was a gem. The Grey Corries are fantastic in their own right, but they views across Rannoch, to the peaks around Glen Nevis and to the grand peaks to the north are superb, and I can’t believe I saw only three people up here in two days. Maybe everybody was on Ben Nevis? What a shame, over here was just perfect.
I met a couple on the first Munro, Stob Coire an Loaigh, and they were all rosy cheeked and smiley faced. I took a couple of photies of them on their camera, I like doing that for folk.
It was only afternoon but the light was slipping away, the days are getting so short. I had to find a pitch soon, the wind didn’t look like being an issue, so I wasn’t worried about being on the ridge, I just needed a patch a bit bigger than me. There’s always something.
I looked ahead at the deserted swoops of white crest with its dalmation spots of black rock, and as I munched on a Perrerami and a mini Babybel colour seeped into the white and blue bled from the sky as everything turned pink.
I walked into the alpenglow, my shadow growing longer with every step. I reached the cairn of Stob Coire Cath na Sine and I was at home for the night. Night? It was only half three or something, I was here for a good wee while indeed.
The spot just down from the cairn was perfect. I flattened it out with my SnowClaw and the tent was up. Pitching on hard snow is easy.
I admined my kit and set up the inside of the tent, mat, sleeping bags, snacks, pastry, iPod, mini Irn Bru… It was then I noticed that my 1 litre Nalgene bottle was missing, it was also full and missing. It wasn’t at camp, it hadn’t rolled away as far as I could see. Every time I took my pack off I checked it was still there when I pulled it back on, so where the hell was it? I fell through the snow a couple of times, maybe it git dislodged and is sitting in the snow somewhere? It was more of an inconvenience than a disaster, so I set the stove up, put in a little water and a big wedge of snow. Dinner would just be a little longer than usual.
I went for a wander as the stove roared away to itself.
The loose low cloud had knitted itself together into a patchwork quilt of different thicknesses, not quite an inversion, but something else. It was quite beautiful and time passed at it ebbed and flowed, and after a while broke up and dispersed. I think it knew that most folk had gone home and didn’t see the point of putting in the effort.
A few patches persevered, and fair play to them I was watching at least.
The stove was taking its time. The gas was nearly out, No1 canister was empty (I’m carrying part used gas canisters just now to save the planet etc) and I was having to melt snow to eat and drink until tomorrow afternoon. Arse.
I got my dinner and a hot cuppa though, no problem. I had a wee nap too and awoke an hour later with a plan. I’ll go and find my bottle.
It was late, and dark, no trace of the sun remained. I had some twinkly lights to the north belonging to Spean Bridge, a street light in the distance from Bridge of Orchy and the stars above including some rather nice shooting varieties, maybe the forerunners of the expected meteor shower? I was suited up against the cold with my down gear, I had my headtorch and crampons on, ice axe in hand and handbag slung over my shoulder. Seriously, the Raidlight front pouch turns into a man-bag. Handy if slightly odd, but hey, who’s going to see me up there?
I set off the way I came. I climbed, I descended, I traversed and I even contoured at times. I swung my head from side to side and as I approached the first top of the day again I decided that this was maybe just a little mental and that I should go home. On the way back it felt a little narrower, a little steeper, I felt a little bit exposed at times. I was glad when I got back. I’d make the gas last, the bottle was history, purple or not.
I had a hot chocolate and my vision returned to normal again…
I woke at twenty five to seven after a good night. I had a couple of semi-awake moments, but I reckon I had five or six hours sleep. It was lights-out and music-on about eleven the night before, and the last I saw my watch was about half twelve. I was warm, the wind never grew to tent-rattling velocity and it was all very peaceful. Maybe I was tired after my extra ridge walking too. Idiot.
The horizon was a deep red, and even the slender crescent of the moon had joined in the fun. There was more cloud, but it was high and was just there to lend depth to the sunrise.
The day awoke slowly and I greeted it with a hot drink and a cold nose. Not from sleeping (I kept my head inside the bag this time), just from the sharp morning air. I wandered around the little top, frozen bootlaces still undone. The colours and shapes shifted lazily and the peaks with the most snow began to rise from the haze as the very first rays broke over the parapet.
I was in no hurry, I didn’t even look at my watch again until I was back at the forest track. But as the sky brightened I felt myself responding to it and waking up, tidying my gear and packing up to go.
I cleaned up camp, no coffee or dinner spots on the snow or that sort of thing, I took my cooking stone back to the cairn and filled in the wee hole where it had sat and it was like I’d never been there.
I was still looking all around as I left, so much to take in and all so different from yesterday. I suppose that’s why we keep going back, you never get the same day twice, and the next day will always be the best one ever.
From here the ridge narrows, the slopes seem to steepen and I found myself being careful. It’s odd walking from camp straight onto a snow arete. The joy of camping indeed, no walk-in, straight to the fun bit. The first fun bit ended in a short, steep scramble downwards with a little traverse over a snowslope to the continuation of the ridge. The run-out was straight to the bottom of the coire. I was suddenly very aware of how short the spikes are on Kahtoolas. Kahtoolas are great on ascent on most snow, but here I found my personal limit with them on a descent. I cut a few steps to start me on my way and plunged the axe very deep into the snow in case my feet gave way. I worked my way down and across onto the ridge.
Bloody hell. I’ve been here before, all the scrambling and steep bits in this direction are going to be tackled as descents.
I thought about taking a route north into the coire or down one of the other ridges, but the top of Stob Choire Claurigh was so close, and all the scrambling was on the other side. I’d see how I felt when I got there.
The summit of Stob Choire Claurigh is a wonderful spot, it’s high and towers over Stob Ban to its south. It’s a great shape too, it looks like a cone of sorts from a little distance, but it’s well defined and sculpted, the ridges have crests to delight, or as I found on this occasion, flounder upon.
Beads of sweat popped out on my forehead as I made my way across steep slopes near the top, my feet breaking away beneath me and catching just a little too late to keep my confidence intact.
I was relieved when I reached the crest of the ridge (to the left above), it was easier going, and more importantly, enjoyable. I slip here would still be exciting, but my feet were sticking again and the pace was back to normal.
I stood at the rim of Coire na Ceannain and wiped my brow with my Buff. That had been interesting.
I descended around the coire rim which is a deep bowl with a secretive lochan on a high shelf. It was bright green the last time I was here with Joycee in springtime, today it was frozen, just a pale grey shape in the shadows.
The view across the coire from Stob Coire Gabhre is inspiring when you ascend to it, as it’s your first mountain view of the day. Today it was my parting shot, a glance over my shoulder and the lochan was gone, another glance back and the mountains were gone. A mile of water ice with grass sprouting through it lay between me and the forest road. It was on that road that I finally got to take my crampons off.
I truck pulled up beside me as I tramped down the road towards the motor. “Are you out for the good of your health or are you wanting a lift?”
I was so tempted, but my feet were relaxing after hours of crampon wearing and I was maybe 1km from the motor, “Ah, you’re the silver car?”. I was parked in shall we say a traditional place, which is very much on a private road but is treated with respect by it’s unofficial users and is issue-free, the gates have no padlocks and no tyres are slashed. The friendliness of the estate folk that I met on both days was a joy to discover. It proves that there doesn’t have to be conflict between us and them, or even an Us or Them?
The frost was thick, it hadn’t lifted for days. The glen is in the shadow of many of the tallest mountains on these islands, and they’re keeping the sunlight to themselves.
One last railway bridge needed a visit on the way back. I can see Thomas going over there, pulling along kids with balloons and ice creams, parents glad of a sit-down and muddy hillwalkers happy with a ride back to Ft Bill. Ach.
The day wasn’t over though. The texting of the previous day meant that I was on the lookout for pals, and I found them coming off Buachaille Etive Beag. We compared notes and trail scars and headed to the Real Food Cafe, where I arrived first and another familiar face arrived right after from his camp elsewhere.
We dined like kings upon the tasty fare and it was the perfect unwinding of a weekend which seemed to have had at least 33% extra free.
There are other stories to be heard from the weekend, folk getting oot is magic. These folk in fact: Elaina, Steve and Sandy.
The Trail Route thing? Er, I forgot all about it when I hit that first top on Saturday. It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine…
Petesy, it’s the phone for you.. “Uh… ?”
“Church heating… pump… broken… noises… cold… funeral tomorrow… Aaahhh!… Aaahhh!… Help”
I croaked back something about my own plans and timescale and likelyhood and all the while I was trying to reverse out of it, I knew I was going to try and fix it. I wouldn’t see anyone stuck. I threw on my working gear as I down a cuppa on the hoof and I was out on the road. In the opposite direction to the mountains.
Sometimes experience is the best tool you can ever own. A gate valve is just that, the wheel you turn to open and close it lifts and lowers a gate inside the valve body. One of the valves on the church system turned out have either a stripped or damaged spindle and the gate was lying inside, blocking the flow of water and keeping the heating off. Impossible to spot without an X-Ray or an auld heid. Levers and a hammer got the gate jammed onto the spindle and retracted without having to drain the system, heating on, alright!
I looked at my watch, day ruined.
I headed to my folks to see Holly and have my lunch. The sun was bright, the air and sky were clear and cool. “I thought you were going to the mountains?” Said Maw, “Aye, that was the plan”.
“Daddy, mountains?” Chipped in Holly hopefully.
“I suppose, I could just go somewhere nearer…”
Hey, if you can’t get away, you can just play at home. I headed home, grabbed my gear and fired up the road to Arrochar and my favourite hill, Beinn Narnain. Unclimbed by me in 2009? That’s just not right.
It’s just up the road, but it was late, the sun was low. I thought about parking and where to do it. The houses, maybe next to the garage? It took the gamble and abandoned the motor in the carpark. The payment machine was broke and I was running out of daylight. I’d worry about it in the morning.
The quickest way up is the new track, and the shortcuts on it are fairly consolidating themselves. Some are waterways (well, ice floes right now) and some at just light paths, so it’s not the disaster it could have been. Which is good because I took the shortcuts this time.
It was warm in the sunlight, I was wearing baselayer and shades as I joined the track to the Narnain boulders. I strode along and passed a couple of stoney faced folk in full alpine mode, the hills must have made them sad today.
The coire is showing increasing signs of developing a track, this route misses out the “wow” moment where you first see the summit rocks from Cruach nam Miseag, but it’s a wonderful, rough trek through steep, rocky, wild scenery. It’s alsa a great place to dodge rocks that detach themselves kamikaze style from the huge crags, so no camping please folks.
Emerging from the coire onto the coll brought me back into the disappearing light. I’d made it just in time, I was happy enough.
The snow all around was pink, the rock glowed orange, the sun was a weak pinhole of amber light sinking away far to the south. I started on the final climb as the Cobbler’s peaks grew sharper and darker to my left.
The snow cover was becoming more constant, and it was getting rock-hard as well. Before tackling the scrambly bit ahead I stopped. I layered up with microfleece, gloves and Buff, and for the first time this winter I strapped on crampons and set off with an ice axe in my hand.
I was grinning from ear to ear as my spikes dug into the hardpack with every footfall, the temperature dropped and the light from the moon grew stronger that the dying rays of the sun.
I didn’t want to camp in the “usual place”, just below the summit plateau, and a couple of places just below the Spearhead crag stuck out as possibles as I crunched over the lip into the snow-filled hollow. It’s a dramatic and atmospheric spot, but it looks like the rocks don’t fall from the crags and bounce quite as far as the best flat pitch. The pack was off and the down jacket was on. I flattened the area a little more with my Snowclaw and pulled out the tent, which went up very easy considering this was the first time I’d pitched it.
I admined my gear, which included donning my down pants, and got to the important bit: getting the stove on. I had hot Mountain House Lasagne, coffee and a donut. A meal of kings that is.
I slipped into my sleeping bag(s), warm, fed, and I drifted away in total silence, with moonlight lazily drifting though the flysheet, I was in a little cocoon.
I woke up a couple of hours later to find that the world was a very different place.
The inside of the tent was covered in ice, all my kit was white and all my water was frozen. I gingerly stuck a hand outside to find my watch, and just before the display went blank I saw -15°C. I have no idea if it was reading right or not, but the temperature killed my watch and it was really cold.
My breath wasn’t steaming in clouds, it snaked away from me like ribbons of flame, twisting and twirling onto the flysheet, very odd. I stuck on the stove and melted myself a hot chocolate. The steam condensed at the apex of the tent and froze there, I had icicles falling on me until I packed up to go home.
I was now awake, roasting hot inside all those layers of down and it was definitely time for a pee and wander about outside.
I stepped out into a wonderland.
The moon was full and bright, the sky was dark and clear, stars twinkling down at me as the moonbeams caught the snow and twinkled right back at them.
The summit crags loomed dark and still, to the south the lights of the Central Belt twinkled benignly around the lonely peak of Ben Lomond, to the north, the darkness was only punctuated by dimly glowing snow-capped peaks. I threw my hands out and laughed to myself, this is what it’s all about.
I skipped around, bursting with, I dunno, emotion? Enthusiasm?, Pure joy? I was all alone here, and it just wasn’t right, I had to share the moment. I got on the phone to Joycee just to let her hear my footsteps crunching in the snow. I was like a wee boy out to play, but I was a cowboy wi’ nae indians, a jap wi’ nae commandos, I was hiding but there was no one seeking.
I climbed into the crags, they seemed smaller in the dark, the ascent felt easier. This so-familiar ground had taken on a completely new life and I was exploring it for the first time.
I love the hills, I never tire of them and they bring me great joy, but something about tonight felt new, something I thought I’d never feel as much as this in the hills again. Was that a wee lump in my throat, or was that Buff a little bit too tight?
This was simply wonderful.
My watch came to life again in the warmth of my pocket, and it said that I’d been wandering around for two hours. I was cozy in my down gear, wrist to ankle, and I must have been having fun. It was getting late though, and it was time for a final cuppa and bed. A shooting star to the south west was nature’s parting shot. Bless you.
I filled my bottles with snow and melted it down with what water I had left, that was me ready for breakfast.
I stripped to my baselayers, stuck my iPod on and pulled the sleeping bag drawcords in around my head. The cold air and moonlight faded away and fell into a light sleep with dreams of bizarre behaviour to a soundtrack of my favourite music. Restful no, intriguing yes.
I woke at 0200 and had to pee again. There was no argument about it. The bottles were frozen, the Photon is too small for physical contortions, so it was down jacket on and ootside.
Good plan, it was all change again. A high thin layer of cloud had formed and the moon had become a glowing ball submerged in a pool of rainbow colours. The light was weaker and the atmosphere had changed, less friendly, more unpredictable feeling. There was a low wave of cloud climbing up the side of the Cobbler and towards me. It was slow, but steady. It would be here soon.
Behind me, the tent flapped a little as breeze whipped up from nowhere. I’d seen the forecast, I knew what was coming, you just always hope it might be a little later arriving than they say.
I woke at 0615 as the flysheet flapped manically over my head. the proper winds had arrived.
The tent was rock-solid though, so I found my iPod at the bottom of the sleeping bag and stuck it on the drown out the intrusion.
I also discovered that the end of my nose was completely numb. I’d been sleeping inside the bag to block out the light, but I must have been roasted in my sleep and stuck my face back out to get some air. A frostbitten nose in the Arrochar Alps? I’d never have lived it down.
It was getting lighter as well, so I gave in and decided to get the stove on and have a look outside. I showered my head with ice from the flysheet as I opened the door to the frozen murk that lay outside. Ach, cuppa.
I stood the stove up, arranged the windshield and looked for the pot.. Where’s the pot? There’s the lid… Ah!
After I’d melted the snow the night before, I’d stuck the pot in a little hollow in the porch, and it must have still been warm enough to melt itself six inches down into the snow. I had to dig it out with my ice axe. That was a first.
The crags were dark grey shapes lost in fog. All the bare rock from last night was encrusted with ice, the tent looked like stonewashed green denim.
The cold wind whipped the tent, the gear and any bare skin. It was time to go.
Packing was easy, and it was quick. The biggest worry when setting off is always swapping the down jacket for a shell for on-th-move protection without heat-induced unconsciousness, but I got away with it with no chills or unnecessary faffing.
My crampons were back on, and with ice axe in hand (initilally for pulling the frozen-in tent pegs out), it was time to see if my motor was still sitting unmolested in the same spot.
The snow was even harder now, the dirt and turf were frozen rock-hard too. I clambered through the jumble of rocks, relearning how to use my winter feet and finding them to be servicable with maybe just a wipe down with an oily rag at the service station before the next trip. If feels good to out in winter again.
I met a few folk on my way down, most cheery with time to chat as the weather started to clear, some a little bemused and also a couple of po-faced bastards whose bubble had obviously been burst by the gaily attired cheery sort saying hello to them while heading in a downhill direction at a very unusual time of day when real mountaineers such as themselves were taking on a very serious ascent.
Dressing up to go out and play? Hell yeah.