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Saturday, 17 April 2010

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!

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