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Sunday, 18 April 2010

The 2006 Challenge, Day 3: Luipmaldrig to Lovat Bridge

I had a nice, easy start to the day - taking my time over breakfast and enjoying the comforts of Luipmaldrig bothy. As a result the three challengers who had shared the bothy with me overnight were away first. Not by a huge margin, it is true. But by enough that I was nowhere near them when they stopped to take photos of one another crossing the little footbridge over the River Orrin at GR 306480. It was one of these photos which was destined to become the cover photo of the TGO magazine which contained the report on the 2006 Challenge!

From the footbridge I had planned to ascend Carn a' Bhainne and then contour my way across the open hillside before ascending Meall Cosach and descending to find the path heading East towards Gleann Goibhre. But it was early in the day, my leg muscles weren't yet warmed up, and I did not much feel like ascent, so I postponed the climb by following the River Orrin down towards the reservoir. The waters of the Orrin Reservoir were low, and obviously had been for some time. Along its southern shore there was a great expanse of flat, deer-cropped turf which made for delightful walking, and I was soon motoring! Go high? Why bother? This was just superb! There were a couple of difficult places where the burns running down from the Northern flank of Meallan Buidhe needed to be crossed; but these were not impassible, by any means.

My original plan, before I became aware that Luipmaldrig was a bothy, had been to camp by the lower reaches of the Allt na Criche; now, instead, this became my first rest stop of the day. It is an impressive wee burn which comes crashing down off the mountains to the South and has to be crossed with care; but the crossing places are there alright, and there is a nice little stretch of turf which would indeed have made a fine camp site. I refilled my water bottles, and as I sat waiting for the purification tablets to work their magic, my three overnight companions from the bothy came into view, following the allt down and looking for a safe place to cross. It seems that they had been advised by their route vetter that the southern shore of the Orrin Reservoir was steep and difficult to negotiate, and that they would be better finding a route across the open hillside a little to the South. So I told them about the great expanse of billiard table-like sward which I had been walking across for the last 3 km, and for some strange reason I seemed to be the only one who was laughing his socks off!

We tried to find the path together, but it was far from apparent on the ground. So micro-navigation gave way to macro-navigation. I lifted my head, pointed to the dip in the skyline marking the col between Creag Bhainne and Crean na-h-Iolaire, and said "it goes through there". So saying, I tramped off in that direction and, in due course, we did indeed come upon the remnants of a path. Presumably, before the Orrin dams were built to create the reservoir, this path connected with the path up the Allt a' Choir Aluinn, and its existence actually had some purpose. Now, however, it was little used and was slowly fading from sight and the memory of men. So much so, in fact, that from time to time we would lose it altogether, only to find it again after a little way; and at its Eastern end, where its course was not at all apparent on the ground, we ended up straying that far North that we met the made-up track at the junction at GR 386487.

We paused again at the building shown on the map at GR 393485. This is a little hut with a concrete floor, belonging to Scottish Water (or Scotish Hyro Power or some such ... I cannot now recall which). It is kept unlocked, and it has a few chairs and the like. There was a big wrap of bottled water and one or two other little treats sitting on a table, and an honesty box for payment along with an exercise book and pencil with which we noted our presence and passing. In an emergency you could certainly use this hut as an overnight shelter; although I would not suggest that you plan to treat it as a bothy.

After the hut, on the well-made track, we progressed at our own, separate paces. My plan was to follow the track until just past Loch Ballach, then aim off South-East across the open hillside and collect the path down to Farley.

Easily said, and easily charted on the map. But alas! I still had not learned the lessons of my first Crossing, and I did not slip into full micro-navigation mode anything like soon enough. The open hillside which I was attempting to cross was seriously, SERIOUSLY boggy; I was unable to lift my head for long enough to keep a firm fix on "the high bit". So, picking my way carefully, trying to find bits of soggy ground that would actually bear my weight, it seems (and this is my later reconstruction, from the map) that I ended up atop Buchaille Breige rather than the unnamed top at GR 452460. I had not seen the path on the way up, but my route had been carefully chosen so that if this should happen I could simply overshoot the top and try to collect the path on the way down. So this is what I did. Which would have been fine ... if only I had actually been on the correct hilltop at the time!

Now, when the ground under your feet does not do what the map says it should do, then you really ought to stop and take stock, and try to work out just where the devil you are! Maybe even retrace your steps to your last known location. However, all I wanted to do was to get off that hillside and out of that wretched bog: so I just kept buggering on, as the only British prime minister to have ridden in the British Army's last great cavalry charge at Omdurman would have said. It was only when, having passed (and noted, without realising its significance!) the Dun Garbhlaich fort, I reached some steep outcrops which I simply could not get down safely (presumably those at GR 467464) that I went into serious WTF? mode. I tried to figure out where I was ... but failed. Largely because I was trying to find a location in grid square 4545 which fitted the landforms, and did not think to look as far afield as grid square 4646. But the only fort in grid square 4545 was Dun Mor ... and I was quite sure that this was not the fort I had seen!!

In the end, I decided simply to follow the stream down. This would, sooner or later, see me safely off the boggy hillside, no matter which stream it turned out to be. So I followed the stream down, fighting my way through some pretty impressive undergrowth in the woods between GR 466457 and 464454, and eventually found the track to Farley. From there, it was roads all the way, very pleasant back roads past Torgormack, Platchaig, Craigscorrie and Altyre then into Balblair. Then a very short stretch on the main road brought me to the Lovat Bridge camp site, where I found my three companions from Luipmaldrig had already pitched their tents.

The camp site proprietors drove us to Beauly (or maybe it was Muir of Ord) where we got a rather disappointing Chinese takeaway, which we ate in the camp site's licensed bar, washed down with plenty of good beer, and watched the tail end of Braveheart which was playing on the television.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

The 2006 Challenge, Day 2: Loch Mhuilich to Luipmaldrig

I don't recall all that much about the second day of the crossing. I woke up, ate breakfast, and broke camp without putting on my socks or trail shoes. I paddled across the stream, dried my feet, put my shoes on and headed down the stream ... only to find a bridge which doesn't appear on the map, GR 129419 or thereabouts. A good, substantial bridge which will still be there if you are ever that way. I then continued down to the path and turned left along Loch Monar.

There are good, unmapped bridges over the Allt a' Choire Fhionnaraich and the Allt na Cois, too. It certainly seems that there is no need to get your feet wet in the Monar Forest! (Incidentally, if you have ever wondered about all the Scottish forests being treeless, you need wonder no more. The Chief Tourism Officer for the New Forest once explained the etymology of the word "forest" to me. It does not actually meean "woodland" at all - it means "a hunting ground". Hunting grounds MAY be wooded, but there is no need for them to be. And the Scottish ones, by and large, are not.

So I passed below the Creag na h-Iolaire and turned up the path beside the Allt a Choire Dhiomhain, then down the River Orrin past Loch na Caoidhe and Am Fiar-Loch. I had the company of a party of three other challengers for some of this way. But, as I say, the day fades in the memory. I am sure it was very beautiful - but I simply cannot remember.

The overnight stop was Luipmaldrig Bothy - a truly wonderful little bothy, and the only one on which I have ever laid my sleeping bag out on a proper bedstead with well-sprung mattress!!! I had a very good night's sleep indeed that night, and was sad to be leaving the following morning.

The 2006 Challenge, Day 1: into the West Monar Forest

The first day of my 2006 Challenge started overcast, but the rain held off as I headed up from Achintee on the path which follows the River Taodail. The fork in the path at GR957416 was not at all apparent on the ground and I strode straight past it, happily following the path up towards Loch nan Creadha. Hours' walking: 1 Navigation Errors: 1. Great start!

Actually, I pretty soon realised that this was what had happened from the land forms and the ascent, but I decided that rather than backtracking I would continue up to the loch, then head East across the open hillside and regain the path at some point or other. I'm glad I did - it's a lovely little loch, and some time when I'm in the West Highlands with time on my hands I might just make a little circular walk by way of Loch nan Creadha and Loch an Fheoir, spending some lazy time at the water's edge (or maybe, if I'm feeling adventurous, actually venture into the cooling waters of the loch). But this blog is about my TGO Challenge crossings, so back to the actual walk ...

Once I'd regained the path it was easy to follow and pleasant going, and I stopped for lunch at the Bearnais bothy - which is absolutely charming. I then abandoned the path and followed the Abhainn Bhearnais up across lovely springy turf, fording the abhainn where opportunity presented, and continuing to the Bealach Bhearnais which I reached a little before 4 pm. I now had to decide between following my planned route up onto Sgurr Choinnich and the ridge beyond, or opting for my Foul Weather Alternative, which would take me down to the Pollan Buidhe.

It really was a no-brainer. The cloud had cleared away, I was feeling good, I could see clear to the summit of Sgurr Choinnich and although there was some snow on the north face, the path was clear all the way. (If, at this point, you're looking at the OS may and asking "Path? What path?" then please reflect for a moment that this ascent is the obvious way up onto a ridge which has two Munros. It follows that there IS a path, whatever the OS map may say!) And besides, I wanted to keep Pollan Buidhe unused, if possible, to keep as many options open for future crossings from the far North start points. So Sgurr Choinnich it was!

The West ridge of Sgurr Choinnich is a relatively straightforward ascent, with two short sections of scramble. The scrambling is not difficult; but it IS exposed, and the fall you would take if you came off it would be very nasty indeed. So I spent a good long time at the bottom of each scramble, studying the face and planning the full sequence of moves that would take me to the top. Only once I had the moves completely figured did I approach the face.

From Sgurr Choinnich to Sgurr a' Chaorachain, the ridge path was clear of snow (although the snow field on the north face, to my left, did approach mighty close in places) and as I strode along the feeling of being, quite literally, on top of the world was simply indescribable. I have walked some fine ridges in my time, but this one has to be right up there with the best of them!

From the summit of Sgurr a' Chaorainn I was then able to see the next section of the ridge, over the two minor un-named tops to Bidean an Eoin Deirg. There were a couple of places where the snow from the left reached up to the ridge line and obscured the path, but it was no problem to skirt round to the right on the gentle grassy slope and soon I was standing on the third and final summit of the ridge. The descent to the Meall a' Chreagain Duibh is by way of a complicated corkscrew arrete, and you cannot sight the whole ridge from the summit. But I wasn't particularly bothered by this, and as I began my descent my only thought was for the welcome warmth of the Wayfarer meal that I should heat up on my little MSR petrol stove once I had pitched my tent beside Loch Mhuilich.

And then .... OH BUGGER!!!

It was getting on for 7pm, and there in front of me was a snow field coming up from Coire Shaile to the South, all the way to the ridge line, and cornicing over the North face. It was only perhaps 5 metres wide at the point where it blocked the path, and in my youth I would have made short work of leaping it. But I wasn't in my youth, and I had getting on for 20 kilos of expedition kit on my back. If there was one thing I was confident about, it was that I was in no condition to leap that snow field.

So I weighed up my options. To go on meant crossing that snow. I had no crampons. The sides of the corrie were steep, and if I were to slip then like as not I'd glissade clean off the mountain. With no ice axe, my chances of arresting any slide were not good. It was only the first day of my crossing, and the idea of a meeting with a fatal accident was not one which I particularly relished.

If I were to turn back, though, it meant going RIGHT back. On my map I had marked an "escape route" down the North ridge of Sgurr a Chaorachain, over the Sron na Frianich, and onto the path down the An Crom allt; but the northern snow fields made this impractical. However, if I were to retreat all the way to the Bealach Bhearnais then I was going to run out of daylight before I reached the descent from the Sgurr Choinnich; and then I should have to make those two short, exposed scrambles in the dark, from the top, without the opportunity to study the faces and plan my moves before I began. I cannot in all honesty say that I was particualry enchanted with this alternative, either.

So I seemed to have only two real choices: either cross the snow field with inadequate equipment, or get benighted on the ridge and spend an uncomfortable, cold and exposed night up there before planning a descent the next morning when all the same essential difficulties would remain.

I looked forlornly at the snow field, and then I had an idea.

With my walking poles, I carefully scraped away at the snow, about half a metre into the snow field, until I had cleared a little hole clean through to the grass beneath, big enough to put a foot into. Then I stepped into my foot hole, and began to clear the next one. In this way, hole by hole, footstep by footstep, I was able to progress across the snow field. It was slow, to be sure ... but it was safe. Or so I thought! Two steps from the end, as I stepped into my hole I felt my foot slipping away beneath me, and for a moment my heart stopped as I thought I was about to slide away into the Coire Shaile despite my best efforts. I drove my walking poles hard into the ground, hoping that they would steady me, not caring if they got trashed in the process (as I'd proved in 2004, walking poles can always be repaired or replaced ...) And then, thannkfully, my sole gripped on the grass, and I was still upright and on my feet.

Arriving safely at the far side of the snow field I stopped and sat down, and hyperventillated for a few minutes while I reflected on what I had just done. I decided that when I got home, I might have to have a bit of a rethink about the whole issue of going high - by which I mean 1,000 metres and above - on TGO Challenge routes; particularly in spiky mountains!

Then reality kicked in. It was now well past 7, I was still at about 900 metres, and there was a stiff descent ahead of me to Loch Mhuillich. So I got to my feet and pressed on, angling down across the East flank of the Meall a'Chreagain Duibh as soon as I was beyond the rocky outcrops. Somebody else had beaten me to the Loch, for there was a green tent already pitched at the south end of the loch. I decided to assume that these wild campers had found a good spot for pitching, and made a beeline for their tent in the hope of finding that there was room for more than one, and so saving myself the need to search for a suitable pitch.

The thinking was probably sound ... except for one thing. As I drew closer, it became apparent that the green tent was in fact the upturned hull of a small rowing boat! And there was no good pitch anywhere near it! Ah well ...

I skirted the loch and followed the burn down a little way until I found a suitable pitch. Normally I would cross the stream and pitch on the far said, in case the waters rose significantly overnight. But it had been a long and tiring day, and I was all in. So as soon as I found a suitable pitch I dropped my pack, put the tent up, and collapsed, exhausted, into its welcoming embrace.

After about half an hour, with the last of the light slowly fading, I began to think about food. I couldn't face getting all my cooking things out of the rucksack, setting up the stove, cooking, eating, washing up ... so I decided to declare an "emergency". Learning from my experience in the Ladder Hills in 2004, I had added two self-heating Wayfarer meals to my kit this year, for use in emergencies where the stove could not be used. So I cracked one of them out (meatballs and pasta in a tomato sauce, I think it was), ate it lying in my sleeping bag, and fell fast asleep almost as soon as I had finished.

I do believe that I may then have had the finest night's sleep I have ever had in my adult life!