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Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The 2004 Challenge, Day 7. Who Knows Where??

Day 7 of the 2004 Challenge was supposed to be a long day - about 31 km long - and I always knew it was going to be tough. But it got considerably tougher after an (ahem!) "interesting" start, which made my experiences trying to get from Glen Clova to Loch Lee on the 2000 Challenge look tame.

What follows is NOT a tale of good, accurate, pinpoint micro-navigation.

The plan was to ascend Carn nan Tri-tighearnan, head north east over the open hillside, and follow the track down Meur Tuath to Drynachan Lodge - where there is a nice inviting bridge over the Findhorn. In the early morning light, however, I looked at the heathery hillside behind the lunch hut, and I looked at the good made-up track up the Allt Odhar, and I decided that I would follow the track to its end and only then head up the open hill.

Which would have been OK as a plan IF the track had ended where it runs out on the map. But it didn't. And LONG after it should have been obvious that I had continued climbing way, way beyond the point that it gives out on the map, I was still merrily plugging away up that track.

Eventually, I decided that the track must have been extended, and that it was probably time to turn left and head on up the hill. So this is what I did. Without first taking any bearings or anything (had I learned NOTHING from my experience in Glen Clova??) which meant that I had not identified that the track had swung round to the south, and that the hill I was now merrily ascending was Cairn Kincraig and NOT Carn nan Tri-tighearnan. The low cloud base didn't help, either, as it meant that I did not have a sun in view (I actually do quite a lot of "rough reckoning" off the position of the sun, which is a surprisingly useful navigation tool ... if only you can see it!).

When I eventually reached the top of this low, rounded, heathery hill, I had this uneasy feeling that things were not all as they should be. There was no triangulation pillar, for one thing. And my altimeter was not reading anything like 615 metres, either. But then again, altimeters can be very temperamental, especially on cold damp mornings such as this. Furthermore, one of my earliest navigation instructors taught me that there are two kinds of features on the map and on the ground: those made by man, and those made by God. Of the two, the former have this disconcerting habit of appearing where they are not shown on your map, and of disappearing from where they are; whereas the latter have a considerably greater quality of permanence about them and should therefore be preferred as your navigation landmarks. Triangulation pillars are, of course, made by man.

So I looked on the map for features made by God. If I was on Carn nan Tri-tighearnan and continued the way I had come up then, more or less ahead and slightly off to the right (depending upon my exact approach as I climbed the upper slopes) there ought to be another low rounded top, about a mile away: Carn an Uillt Bhric. And indeed, there ahead of me and slightly off to the right there WAS another low rounded top. OK, so it didn't feel like a mile - I'd have put it at something closer to half a mile - but estimating distances on the ground has never been one of my strong suits.

So - again without bothering to check the compass (compasses are for wimps, remember? At least, they seem to be whenever I go spectacularly wrong!) I headed on over to this second top. As I did so, the cloud base was steadily dropping, and once I reached the second top I was in swirling mist with seriously reduced visibility. Carn an Uillt Bhric, like Carn nan Tri-trighearnan, has a triangulation pillar on it; and once again, when I reached my top the triangulation pillar was missing. But the landform which God had made felt right, the hillside dropped away beyond the top as it ought, and I managed to persuade myself that this was indeed Carn an Uillt Bhric notwithstanding the prominent absence of any triangulation pillar. I could see from my map that if I wanted to find the track down the Meur Tuath, then I needed to descend to the left of the Meur Bheoil. I could see a little re-entrant ahead of me, which was dry right up here at the top of the hill, but I deduced that it would have a stream in it a little further down and so I descended to the left of this, assuming it to be the top of the valley of the Meur Bheoil.

Dear reader, if you have not been following this on the map, I think that now really is the time to open up Landranger 27 and compare the descent I had foolishly convinced myself I was making - a northerly descent at grid reference NH 835395 - with the descent I was ACTUALLY making: an easterly descent at NH 834368. Yes, I was over three kilometres off course, and facing in totally the wrong direction! (Well, maybe not totally - but 90 degrees out at any event.) Moreover, I was making a descent which was FAR steeper than the one which, according to the map, I should have been making had I been in the right place. It was Glen Clova all over again, only this time I was heading down rather than up; and it was only once I found myself in the midst of the scree runs in the north east corner of grid square NH 8336 that I finally admitted to myself that something had gone seriously wrong with my navigation.

When in doubt, stop.

For once I did the right thing.

And as in uffish thought I stood, the mist below me cleared enough for me to see the valley floor, and a majestic river which could only be the Findhorn. So I consulted my map, took a belated (and now absolutely unnecessary) reading on the aspect of slope, and started to devise a sensible contingency plan to get myself back on route. I retreated up the hill a bit, then descended the ridge to the north of the scree runs. I crossed the stream and joined the track just to the south of the little knoll at NH 848378, then followed this through Daless to Drynachan Lodge. OK, so I was supposed to have approached Drynachan Lodge from the north and in fact I was approaching it from the south; but at least I was back on track.

Reviewing the two routes on the map, I think that the route I actually followed may be a little shorter than the one I had planned; and it certainly involved less ascent. But the route I had planned was going to be - ahem - easy to navigate. Just head north east up the ridge, continue north east over the top, past a little lochan, over another top, and descend until you get to the stream where there is a track which will take you to the bridge.

I am reminded of a scene in one of the Police Academy films, where they are supposed to be throwing smoke grenades through a window and into a hut for the purposes of a training exercise. Moses Hightower completely misses the window, but he has thrown his grenade with such force that it goes straight through the wall of the hut. "Nice throw, Hightower" says Mahoney. "It went in, didn't it?" is Hightower's laconic response.

So, never mind how I got there - I was now at Drynachan Lodge. It went in, didn't it?

I crossed the bridge and started up the track past Tirfogrean. This is a surprisingly stiff little climb, so half way up I stopped and ate lunch. Then I pressed on across Carn na Sguabaich, which is a shooting moor; and as I went I put up a number of grouse. Noisy they may be, but they fly low and fast and stay well below the skyline - and I could immediately see why they are considered the ultimate challenge among shooting folk. I'd have enough difficulty hitting something easy, slow and stupid like a pheasant. Grouse are quite definitely out of my league!

At grid reference NH 888362 there is a little building beside the Allt an t-Sluighain Mhoir. This too is a shooting estate lunch hut. It is nowhere near as well appointed as the one in which I had spent the previous night, being just a dingy little timber hut with a corrugated roof; but I tried the door and found it to be unlocked, so I made a note for future reference - little knowing that I was destined to spend a night there on my very next Challenge, grateful for the shelter it provided from a howling gale and pelting rain which would have made for a very uncomfortable night had I had to spend it in my tent.

I carried on south past Carn a' Gharbh-ghlaic, until I came to the little building at NH 895336. This is a bothy, and I ducked inside to change my socks (which has become sodden and uncomfortable after all the heather hillsides and stream crossings of the day so far). It is a very gloomy little shack, with a few - surprisingly comfortable - armchairs, and a notice on the wall telling the story of the crashed aircraft on the hillside behind. It seems that when it came down, there was a shepherd asleep in the hut who was woken by the crash (given that the closest pieces of wreckage landed barely ten metres from the back wall, it would have been surprising if he hadn't!) He did his best to save the pilot, but was beaten back by the flames. What really freaked me, though, was that I have a cousin in the Fleet Air Arm (as I write this, he has just returned from Afghanistan, where he has been doing a first class job of casualty evacuation from the front line) who was - so I am told - such a precociously good flyer that he was the youngest person to win his military "wings" since the War. Well, I looked at the date of birth of the pilot of the plane which crashed behind the bothy in the late 1950s, and subtracted it from the date of the crash, and I figured that if this wasn't the actual guy from whom my cousin had wrested the laurels of "youngest wings" he must nonetheless have come pretty darned close. Some time I must go back and take down all the details, and ask my cousin if he knows the name of the previous holder of that accolade to see if it really was the same pilot. At the time, though, it just made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. So as soon as I had changed my socks I set off again.

I followed the track past Knockdhu, and from the track junction at NH917351 I just continued more or less due east, intending to follow the path to the B9007 road.

It soon became apparent why this path does not continue to the track junction east of Knockdhu. The ground between the Leonach Burn and the Tomlachlan Burn is just one ghastly, all but impassable morass of peat and heather. Even when I reached the Allt Laoigh, at the point where it swings east, the going was no better. The "path" is just a figment of some deranged cartographer's imagination. The Tolmachlan Burn is all but unfordable, running between tall bluffs on either side; but I eventually did find a viable crossing point and took the plunge. (My new socks were already sodden from crossing the bog, so what did it matter if they got even soggier?)

Once across the Tomlachlan Burn, I just aimed for the northern end of the ridge that is the Carn nan Clach Garba and eventually, thankfully, made it to the road. As I did so, a steady rain began to fall. Lovely!

I trudged south on the road for a kilometre, then turned left onto the road to Lochindorb Lodge. My plan was to follow the track and path up past Loch an t-Sichein, and make camp at the path junction at NH 984310. It had been a long and wearying day, and I was looking forward to a good meal and a pleasant night's sleep. But the day had one more nasty surprise in store for me! You see, the track had been extended, more or less due south, from the point at which the map shows it becoming a path and swinging to the east. And I completely failed to spot the point at which the path to the loch turned off (although, to be fair to myself, I WAS expecting the only path to be the one turning to the left; I was not expecting the track itself to continue straight ahead.)

Had I been aware of the extension to the track, I should almost certainly have paced the track to make sure I didn't miss the path junction. As it was, however, I had not been expecting to need a measure of distance; but after a while it slowly began to dawn on me that I was almost certainly way beyond the turning for the loch. I was reaching the head of the valley of the Feith a' Mhor-fhir, and the hill rising up ahead of me and to the right told me all I needed to know.

At least this time I knew where I was - which was in the eastern half of grid square NH 9630. It was too late to worry about trying to find my way to my planned camp site. The rain had passed, there was a good spot by the track to put my tent up, with a ready source of water from a small stremlet flowing through a pipe under the track. So I made camp somewhere round about NH 968304. There was a convenient rock on which I set up my stove; and after supper I made myself a cup of coffee. As I sat enjoying it, the keepers came down the track in their 4x4 and we exchanged a few words before they drove on. Then I settled down in my tent for a most welcome night's sleep.

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