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Saturday, 2 January 2010

The 2004 Challenge, Day 1: Shiel Bridge to Alltbeithe

7 May 2004. After a hearty breakfast I signed the Challenge register, and took the road north east to Morvich, where I turned onto the trail up Gleann Lichd. It was a fine, clear day, and as I tramped up the glen I noted how many wonderful pools there seemed to be, most of them with lovely grassy swards close by. It would be just the place to come for a swim and a picnic on a hot summer day. Indeed, I was sorely tempted to take a dip that morning; but I thought it was, perhaps, a bit early in the crossing to allow myself such distractions.

The track is easy walking as far as Glenlicht House, which meant that I had had ten kilometres to settle into my stride; but then, after the footbridges, the climb began in earnest. Four kilometres of steady ascent took me to the bealach, where I rested and ate my lunch, and sat gazing across the valley at a lonely little Munro called Ciste Dhubh (979 metres) - which really looked as if it could do with a little company.

My intended route was to follow the path down Fionngleann past Camban bothy to Alltbeithe youth hostel. Only another 6 kilometres, making it a short day; but I had a big day planned for 8 May, going high on the ridge north of Glen Affric, so first day heroics really made no sense.

But sense or nonsense didn't enter into it. Ciste Dhubh sat there pouting at me, daring me to come and keep her company, and I really had no choice in the matter. Call me weak-willed if you must, but I simply could not resist the siren lure of that lonely little Munro. So I left the path and made a bee line to the Allt Cam-ban, which was easily crossed - although somewhere along the way I slipped, and put all my weight onto one of my walking poles, which sank about two feet into the peat and bent itself into a useless shape. I picked myself up and looked at my ruined pole. Maybe I'd be able to get it repaired in Inverness, I thought. If not, I'd abandon it there and buy a replacement. So I fixed the awkward-shaped thing to my rucksack, and carried on up the north west ridge of Ciste Dhubh with just the one pole.

Now Ciste Dhubh is pretty much 600 metres of uniformly steep ascent, and I took it slowly and steadily.

And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Because when I get on a mountain like this I tend to go at it like a horse on oats let loose on spring grass after a winter in a loose box with no turn out. I drive myself remorselessly, for no good reason, and if memory serves me correctly it took me precisely an hour from my crossing of the Allt Cam-ban to the summit, with full expedition kit on my back and just the one walking pole. I arrived at the top dripping with sweat and absolutely blown; and I shared a few words with three walkers with day sacks who had come up from the south. They considered it an impressive achievement to have topped out with a full pack such as mine. I think they were simply too polite to use words like "idiotic" and "lunacy".

So, that was one more tick for my list of Munros; but now I needed to get down to Alltbeithe. It was a wonderfully clear day, with bright sunshine and only the lightest of breezes, and there was no reason not to linger so I took a good look at the descent options. I could, of course, go back down the way I had come up: but I never really like doing that. Then there was the north east ridge, between Coire na h-Eiridh and Coire an Athair: but the upper reaches of this just looked too perilous. Maybe they'd be OK in ascent. But in descent? After flogging myself senseless on the way up? Not wise ... and this early on in the crossing, wisdom still played some part in my thinking (yeah, right!) That left the east-facing ridge to the south of the Coire an Athair, and I decided to descend this and use the path on the far side of the Allt a' Chomhlain.

The descent was over uniformly steep, boulder-strewn heather, with a slightly steeper band two thirds of the way down - and I made good use of my one remaining walking pole. The crossing of the Allt a'Chomlain presented no great problems. But the path - well, that was another matter! Path? Ha! It was just one long, continuous, morass of sodden peat, with an occasional bit that looked as though the majority of walkers who had passed that way had all trodden in the same place. Progress was slow - very slow - and it took me soemthing over three hours from the top of Ciste Dhubh to Alltbeithe youth hostel. When the "path" turned left at grid reference NH 074192 I thought better of it, and stayed high on the steeper ground (not wanting to get into the low-lying bog that the path pretended to traverse) and contoured my way round to the footbridge over the River Affric at NH 081200.

Alltbeithe youth hostel is a simple affair which provided me with a very welcome bed for the night. A number of other Challengers were stopping there, as well as a Danish family with their impeccably well-mannered children. I spent a good evening in good company; but I was also troubled about my plans for the next day.

According to my route card, I was going to go high, and traverse the ridge An Socach - Mam Sodhail - Carn Eige - Tom a' Choinich before descending to a wild camp in the Bealach Toll Easa. My route vetter's comments had suggested that this would require careful navigation; although my own impression was that it ought to be a pretty obvious ridge and that it should be well-nigh impossible to go wrong, even in poor visibility. But what was troubling me was that I had been able to make a good #1 eyeball inspection of the ridge from the top of Ciste Dhubh; and what I had seen did not make me happy.

I had seen snow. And lots of it. Lying all along the ridge line, and on the south-facing slopes as well as the north-facing slopes.

In my book, snow and knife-edge ridges do not make a happy combination; particularly when you are walking in fell-running shoes. Reluctantly, therefore, I concluded that I should not be ticking off Munros on day 2 of my Challenge, but marking time in the floor of Glen Affric. It was a disappointing decision to have to take, but it was undoubtedly the right one. And, as a minor consolation, I had at least made it up Ciste Dhubh.

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