Thursday, 31 May 2012
Soon after the landing craft, I came to a good well-made path through the woods down to the loch-side. This, too, was new since I walked this way in 2000, and was way-marked as part of the Great Glen Way. Although I was walking in sandals not boots I decided that this looked well-enough made that I shouldn't fear wet socks, so I turned onto the path. I hadn't gone far, however, when it started to rain, and I came upon another walker busily putting on waterproofs and stretching a weather cover over his rucksack. I decided it might be prudent to do the same, so I stopped and we talked. His name was Andy, and he had been up camping and fishing. Now he needed to get down to Spean Bridge to catch a bus to Inverness, as he had a ticket for a coach departing Inverness at 7 the next morning. He didn't know how long it would take to Spean Bridge - but I assured him we should be there by 6, which gave him plenty of time to catch his bus and me plenty of time to get something to eat before catching the sleeper to London. And so, suitably waterproofed, we continued for a while in company.
Now, at Achnacarry there is a museum. The Clan Cameron museum, to be exact. Which I reached at about 3 o'clock. And - blessing of blessings - there was a telephone box there with a working telephone! It wouldn't accept coins, though - only credit cards - but I had one of them with me, so that was alright. I telephoned Challenge Control, and both John and Roger were keen to speak to me and delighted to find I was OK. The confirmed that Kathy knew they had mislaid me, so I thought I'd better call her as soon as I could. However, I got the feeling that this phone box wouldn't let me call a mobile number, and I didn't know her work telephone number. John also told me he thought the police only needed to speak to me, rather than actually have me visit in person (whereas the mountain rescue people had been pretty adamant that they would need to see me in person to close their case). Well, John had a telephone number for the Fort William police station (or "Fort Bill Old Bill", as I noted on my piece of paper as I wrote it down) so after ringing off from Challenge Control I gave them a call. The police had loads of paperwork to fill in and it took us a little while, but once we were done they confirmed there was no need for me to call in in person, so that was fine.
Now, I was getting pretty thirsty, and the museum had a refreshment room. I hoped they might be able to sell me a can of Irn Bru ... and I hoped they might also have a telephone they'd let me use to call Kathy. Well, the only drinks they were selling were bottles of water, and I decided to pass on that. But they DID have a telephone. They said that they weren't supposed to use it to phone mobiles ... but in the circumstances, they could see it was a bit of an exceptional case. So they allowed me to use it to call Kathy, and I assured her I was fine and well and that there were no problems. She said that John had been very reassuring and had told her he expected I was fine and that I had probably just had to go to ground somewhere because of the storm. The police, she said, had tried to reassure her, but had been telling her that the winds had been strong enough to blow articulated lorries over onto their sides, and that in the circumstances she hadn't actually found this all that reassuring!
Well, anyway, I didn't want to be on the borrowed phone for too long, so I promised to give Kathy another call as soon as I had mobile signal (which I was sure I should have fairly soon) and then I rang off. I gave the museum some money for the call, and then I headed for the shores of Loch Lochy.
I continued walking along the loch road, and after a while I spotted some deer ahead. I stopped, and took a photograph, then advanced a little before stopping again and taking another photograph. In this way I was able to approach reasonably close before they took fright and ran off. I had a number of photographs, and this was the best.
Wednesday, 30 May 2012
Shortly before I left, two walkers passed by on the road, and I soon caught up with them. They were not Challengers. Their names were Colin and Terry, and they had been trying to walk from Fort William to Ullapool; but Sunday's storm had destroyed their tent, and with it their plans. They had been making their way from bothy to bothy since then and were now trying to make their very bedraggled way back to Fort William. They, too, were off map - but I reassured them that we were now on roads that I knew and they would have no trouble getting back to civilisation. We walked together for a while, and as Colin and Terry had been walking since about 7 a.m. we stopped for lunch a little before 12 in a lovely sunny interval. As we sat enjoying our lunch, a helicopter flew overhead, then returned back up the other side of the loch. I had an uneasy feeling that it might just be out looking for me ... and Colin and Terry thought that it might be looking for them, as they too had missed a number of calls to their wives and presumed that their wives had also placed an emergency call by now. However, they also suggested that the storm had probably left quite a few stranded walkers in remote parts of the West Coast, and quite possibly they had a long list of people they were looking for ...
At Strathan I had my first human interaction in practically three days: a young pair of walkers, not Challengers, who were on their way up to A' Chuil bothy. We exchanged a few words and they went on their way. I tried my mobile again, but still no signal. I knocked on the door of the one inhabited house at Strathan, in the hope that they might have a working telephone, but there was no answer. So I pressed on, and soon came to the start of the metalled road. Here there was a parked BMW, and I wrote a note asking that if they were returning tonight to anywhere with a phone, they phone Challenge Control and give the message that Challenger number 34 is safe and well and camped by Loch Arkaig. I put the note under a windscreen wiper (without setting off the car alarm in the process, which I thought was pretty good going!) and changed from my boots to my sandals.
I also changed into a dry pair of socks (I was only going to walk a short distance further tonight, and they'd be fine for walking in again tomorrow) and made myself a cup of hot Bovril before setting out along the loch looking for the first good camping pitch. I soon found one - and the photo shows the view from my tent looking back west up the loch. It was 6.30 pm, and my GPS said that the grid reference was NM 99352 91788 (that's NM 993917 to any sensible mortal like you and me!) - so in the first three days of the Challenge, I had managed to progress no more than 30 kilometres from my start point!!! No sooner had I pitched my tent than the rain started falling again. So I collapsed into my tent, settled for a few handfuls of trail mix by way of supper (thereby saving the necessity to go and sit out in the rain to cook an evening meal) and quickly fell into a deep, satisfying sleep.
I was also at the edge of my map now. Once I was in the woods, I would be off-map and navigating on the basis of local knowledge alone. But I knew full well that the track led to Strathan; and that from Strathan I could follow the road all the way to Loch Lochy and then through Gairlochy and past the commando memorial into Spean Bridge. I didn't know the distances for sure, but I knew they were manageable. However, I wanted more than anything to reach the metalled road before I stopped and camped for the night. That way I could spend the whole of Tuesday walking in sandals; and when I got up in the morning, I should not have to start by plunging my nice fresh dry socks into boots which would still be wet from their dunking in the River Pean's overspill.
Tuesday, 29 May 2012
I decided that it had to be worth a try ... although first, I thought, I ought to do my best to dry as much of my kit as possible (as the storm had been so intense that quite a lot of gear was wet despite my waterproofs.) The bothy has a wonderful fireplace and grate - but it was all terribly choked up with ashes and clinker. So I gave it a thorough cleaning out before lighting a fire and doing what I could to dry all my gear. Then when I was ready I packed all my gear, made sure the fire had burned itself out completely, made a further entry in the bothy book saying that I would make a further attempt to get through to Glen Pean (as I still didn't think that the weather looked all that suitable for going up high on Sgurr nan Coireachan) and, at 11.45, I set out from Oban bothy once again. This time, however, the weather was FAR more settled - as this view looking west along Loch Morar shows!
Hello. Nobody was at home when I called, so I have taken shelter in your tractor shed. If you find this note on 13 May then you will find me in the tractor shed. If not then I shall have set off back to Lochailort. If you are able to offer me a bed for the night then this would be very much appreciated; but even more important, I should appreciate the chance to use a telephone if you have one which works from here, as I have no mobile signal. I have been unable to follow my intended route due to the state of the watercourses, and the TGO Challenge organisers are expecting me to call them from Corran tonight. If I do not manage to alert them to my safety and whereabouts, then they may initiate a Mountain Rescue search which is (a) unnecessary and (b) in altogether the wrong place. We need to try to prevent this if we possibly can. Kind regards, Jeremy Burrows
By 3 o'clock, however, as I approached the Taodhail River, it began to look pretty obvious that I was not going to be using this note after all, as the river was unlikely to be fordable.
I figured that it probably was not wise to plan on sleeping under canvas tonight, so I decided that I should only attempt to get as far as Glanpean bothy today. That would mean I had to make a fair old yomp along Loch Arkaig tomorrow, and I'd have to hope to get some mobile signal (or find a working phone in some other way) before Challenge Control put out an emergency call ... but this seemed like the best plan I had! So I made a further entry in the bothy book saying that this was what I now planned to do, left the bothy book open in the middle of the table, and headed out into the storm at 11.30. However, I did not get all that far! The river looked angry and swollen, and as I walked up beside it I wondered if I really was going to be able to ford it ... but long before I reached the fords, at 12.45 I encountered THIS little lake at NM 884895 or thereabouts. And I really did not like the look of the thing. How deep was it? Waist deep? Chest deep? Neck deep??? Neither did I like the look of the rocks to the right. There MIGHT be a way through them ... and I MIGHT be able to find it in the howling wind and rain ... and if I did I MIGHT be able to cross the river and continue into Glen Pean. But I decided that, on the whole, the odds were heavily stacked against my being able to continue through to Glen Pean. So I had my lunch and then turned back to Oban bothy.
To be fair to myself, looking through the entries in the bothy book, it appeared that 7 hours was a pretty normal time for walking in from Lochailort, and I hadn't taken much more than that. But ... well, the only sensible decision had to be to stop short for the night. However, that then gave me a further problem, because with the storm forecast for tomorrow, I didn't think I would be wanting to head up that Munro in the morning either. And even if I did ... well, I'd never make up the lost time and make it all the way down Cona Glen to Corran. And this was a problem in itself, because I was due to phone Challenge Control from Corran on Sunday evening. Having stopped short at Oban, that already wasn't going to happen.
I tried my mobile, but there was no signal - so I couldn't even let Challenge Control know what was going on. But what WAS going on? I was stopping at Oban for the night, and then ... what?? If the route over Sgurr nan Coireachan was impactical, then it looked as though my only viable alternative was going to be to head over into Glen Pean and down to Strathan, then along Loch Arkaig to Spean Bridge. That would take two days - Sunday and Monday - and then on Tuesday I could follow the route I had taken on my first Challenge in 2000 from Spean Bridge to Corrour, and so make the Sleeper and my Union AGM in London as planned. I would have to hope for a mobile signal somewhere along Loch Arkaig to let Challenge Control know what was going on, though, or else they might call out Mountain Rescue. And, what was worse, they'd tell Mountain Rescue my planned route via Corryhully, Cona Glen and Corran ... and I wouldn't be ANYWHERE NEAR any of those places!!!
I figured I'd better leave a very clear entry in the bothy book, and leave the bothy book open on the table, to let any rescuers who came looking for me at Oban know where they should go looking next! Having made my entry, I had supper (a tin of smoked mussels; a gluten and dairy free chicken hotpot; a couple of gluten free country slices and a quick swig of Caol Isla from my hip flask) then settled down for the night. I went to bed at 7.30 but got very little sleep, because the storm arrived early and there were howling winds and beating rain pretty much all night long.
I stopped for lunch at 1pm and pressed on through the Slaite Coire and over the bealach. As I began my descent, this stunning view towards An Stac (that's a different An Stac from the one in the earlier photo: NM 866889 as opposed to NM 763793) opened up. Beinn Gharbh is to the right of An Stac; whilst the glens are Gleann Taodhail (left) and Gleann Cul an Staca (right).
As I looked for the path down to Lochan Lon a' Ghairt, however, things began to feel VERY wrong. I was approaching the edge of the woods alright ... but all I could see was tree tops, and it felt as though I was approaching the edge of a very deep precipice. I took a deep breath and back-tracked up, moved across to the left, and tried again. This time I found a path heading down ... which looked more like a deer track than a human track, but at least it was a track! I thought of the mountain goat symbol of the Ultimate Challenge, and followed it: and before long it became all too obvious that I HAD been heading straight for a rocky precipice with a drop of 30 or more metres. I shuddered to think how fatal that drop could have proved, and made a note not to come up here in poor visibility. But my troubles weren't over yet, because my track led me into a deep gully. I had no difficulty fording the stream ... but getting back up the north face of the gully? Well, that was another matter altogether! Eventually, however, I found my way down to the footbridge at the south end of Lochan Lon a' Ghairt, and headed North up the track to Meoble.
Monday, 28 May 2012
The weather forecast was for a really bad storm on Sunday 13 May ... so I decided to give my boots a second coat of wax just to make sure they really were nice and water repellent. Then I went downstairs and enjoyed a fine breakfast of kippers and poached egg (hotels on Loch Fyne please take note ... if hotels in Lochailort can supply their guests with kippers, then so can you!!!!!)
After paying my bill I hefted my pack, and set out along the road back past the station. At my first glug stop I finally found a use for that little multi-tool which I have carried ever since finding it by the path on the 2000 Challenge. There was a nasty little sharp projection on one of the strap clips on my new rucksack, and I was sure I was going to cut myself on it sooner or later if it remained in place. So I chose the saw blade, and sawed it off. A great improvement, and a worthwhile contribution to Health & Safety on the TGO Challenge!!
Having returned to the hotel, I enjoyed a very nice supper (local langoustines straight off the boat - the kind that you can only ever find in the inns close to where the fishing boats are based - followed by a rather fine venison curry) and had a drink or two at the bar. While I was still enjoying my drinks, however, a couple of local musicians began playing and, ever one to enjoy live music, I stayed and listened. And had a few more drinks. And bought some drinks for the musicians.
They wished to know whether I were a Jacobite. I assured them that I was, and proved my credentials by asking them to play "Roses of Prince Charlie" - which they did, rather well.
Eventually, however, all good things must come to an end and I knew I ought to get some sleep before starting my Challenge in the morning. So eventually I bade them all goodnight and headed up to bed.
It is a short way from the inn to the water's edge, and I suppose I should really have carried my pack there and back. But I'd already unpacked a few things, so I left it in my room and went down without it. I went without my waterproofs, too, which may or may not have been a bad idea. There was a light drizzle falling, but nothing too worrisome. So I headed down in just my microfleece and hoped it would be OK.
Then the train reversed and continued towards Mallaig, and once again I could not resist taking a picture from Glenfinnan Viaduct. This year, however, I did not alight at Glenfinnan, but travelled on one stop further to Lochailort.
That sorted, I returned home and organised my rucksack, leaving it to the last minute to compress the down sleeping bag. I had ANOTHER new rucksack this year - a 66 litre pack which would force me to minimise unnecessary clobber - or so I thought!!! It still came to nearly 17 kilos when fully loaded. However, I wasn't too concerned about this. With fewer laundry and resupply opportunities this year, I needed to carry more clothes and food. Next year, all being well, I should be able to get below the magic 15 kilo figure.
Thursday 11 May began with an early alarm (5.15, no less!) and my long-suffering wife drove me to Milton Keynes Central to catch the 6.22 to Glasgow. A wonderful train, this, if a little uncivilised in its hour of departure. The photograph shows it arriving bang on time.
It was raining when we arrived in Glasgow. I had a couple of hours to kill, so I bought myself some lunch bits to eat on the next train, then found an outdoor shop where I stocked up on necessary supplies which I had been unable to find anywhere in London (in particular, boot wax and Kendal mint cake). Then it was on to Glasgow Queen Street for the afternoon train to Fort William and Mallaig.
The picture shows the summit shelter of Geal Charn, where I took a short breather and a bit of lunch before continuing to Carn Bhac, then on to Carn Creagach. The weather started to deteriorate and I feared being caught on the tops in an electrical storm, so I angled down across the north face of Creag an Lochain to join the Glen Ey path shortly before the bridge over the Allt an t-Sionnaich, then returned to the van.
On Saturday I parked up at Spittal of Glenshee and hoofed it along the Glen Lochsie path and up Glas Tulaichean, to make up for having had to omit it on the 2010 Challenge. I met a nice couple up there who took this picture of me at the summit cairn, and then dropped down to Loch nan Eun and back to the Spittal by way of Gleann Taitneach. Then I drove over the Devil's Elbow (or what's left of it) into Braemar, figured out where Richard Baker's B&B is and said hello, then went for supper in the Fife Arms.
As it happens, Richard and Marilyn were involved in organising a show in the village hall on the history of Scottish dancing that very evening ... so I got talked into going to see it, and a very enjoyable evening it was (even if I did get sold a whole load of dud raffle tickets!!!)
Then I drove down to Linn of Dee and parked up for the night.