Saturday, 31 May 2014
Early in my photography session, my camera dropped from three bars of battery to two bars of battery. This didn't trouble me unduly. I was 5 days into the Challenge - a third of the way through - and I had a fully charged spare battery with me. So it looked as though I had plenty of battery power. However, that assessment depended upon the assumption that all three battery bars are equal ... and as I soon discovered, they ain't! Soon after the camera dropped to two bars of battery, it dropped to one; and almost immediately after that, it flashed up an emergency "low power" warning, and died altogether about 10 seconds later. This put an altogether different complexion on things! I was now a third of the way through the Challenge, and I had burned my way through fully half of my available battery power. If I didn't slow down, I was going to run out of battery before I reached the coast. Clearly, therefore, I was going to have to start rationing myself!
I put the camera away and went for supper. There was little on the menu that I could eat as it stood; but the chef was very willing to try to adapt and adjust to accommodate me; and in the end I had a very interesting meal. For a starter I had scallops served with a Portobello mushroom stuffed with tomato and mozzarella; and this was followed by smoked salmon with coleslaw and chips. It was all very good; and I retired to bed a happy man.
I checked in and collected my resupply parcel, and I rang Challenge Control from my room at 3.30 pm to let them know I had arrived safely in Kinlochleven. I then rang the Dalwhinnie bunkhouse, and said that if they had anyone going shopping in Newtonmore or Kingussie (or Perth or Inverness, obviously) between then and my arrival on Friday, I should be most grateful if they could buy me some fresh supplies of Compeeds, painkillers and Kendal Mint Cake. I then enjoyed a bath and removed the Compeed from my left foot, before heading down to explore the bar and the laundry facilities.
The descent is long and tedious, and it is surprising how long it takes before Kinlochleven comes into view. But eventually I could see the town spread out below me at the head of the loch, and what a wonderful sight it was!
A bit further on, I sat for a while and chatted with a couple of late teenage girls, who were experiencing the joys of long distance walking for the first time. They were surprised at how difficult it was; but I got the impression they were enjoying themselves and that they would certainly be back for more.
I stopped for lunch at Lairigmor. The ruins had some good firm stones on which to set up my stove, so I decided to heat up the food I had not eaten the previous evening. The picture shows the view of the path as I headed away from Lairigmor, with Stob Coire na h-Eirghe in the background. Soon after this, I was able to look up to my left and see Stob Ban on the skyline. I also saw several figures making their way towards the ridge which I had not dared attempt. I watched with interest. They appeared to turn back.
I opted for safety and certainty, and turned North. The picture shows the North ridge, as seen from above, as I began my descent. The inversion appeared to be lingering over Lochs Lochy and Arkaig; but Loch Eil now appeared to be free of cloud.
Next, I looked due West, into the corrie. Could I, I wondered, descend into that and follow the stream down? I aimed off towards the stream, and took a good peer down it as far as I could see. It appeared to run in a deep, rocky defile. Not a good idea to follow it down. I backed off and resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to return over Meall a' Chaorainn. I retreated back up the hill until I was clear of the snow fields, then contoured round to the south of Mullach nan Coirean until I regained the ridge linking it to Meall a' Chaorainn. The picture shows the view looking towards Meall a' Chaorainn as I regained the ridge.
I spent some time admiring the inversion, and reflecting on the fact that there were doubtless many Challengers down at Spean Bridge or Gairlochy, sittign under all that cloud and cursing the weather this fine morning; whilst I was walking in sunshine, high up on the Mamore ridge, looking down on the inversion. Yes ... despite having to turn back, I was in decidedly good spirits.
I woke early, and took another good look at Stob Ban. The snow was still there. The certainty that I could not get up it to continue along the Mamores ridge persisted. If I was going to get to Kinlochleven, I was going to have to return the way I had come, and then spend most of the day on the West Highland Way. I was disappointed - but I had no choice. And despite the disappointment, I had had a spectacular day the day before, and the most stunning high level camp. So I wasn't too downcast.
On a knife-edge ridge such as this, snow means only one thing: trouble. I am a summer walker. I do not have winter skills. I do not have winter equipment. I had emergency snow spikes in my pack, but that snow field called for something considerably more substantial than emergency snow spikes - both in terms of equipment, and skills. I did not have the equipment to get up that ridge, and I did not have the skills to get up that ridge. Put simply, there was no way that I was going to get up Stob Ban. And that meant that my traverse of the Mamore ridge ended right here.
I did actually continue a way, more in hope than in expectation, to see whether the ridge looked any more viable closer to (after all, Meall a' Chaorainn had ...). However, the ridge between the two hills was decidedly dicey. The ridge line was very rocky and hazardous; the path below the ridge line traversed a very steep slope and was far from comfortable walking. The whole situation was a risky one. The risks were manageable ... but they were unnecessary. I already knew what I was going to find ... Stob Ban was in no fit state to climb. Traversing this ridge would merely enable me to confirm that even more definitely. Why take risks for the sake of confirming what I already knew?
I turned back, and paused at the summit of the 917 metre hill to take stock. It was 6 pm and I was at an altitude of 3,000 feet. I could retreat all the way back over Mullach nan Coirean and Meall a' Chaorainn, then look for a low level pitch somewhere along the West Highland Way. That would involve making a lengthy descent when tired and dispirited, late in the afternoon, and was far from ideal. Alternatively, I could look for a high-level pitch, and worry about the consequences of Stob Ban being impassible in the morning. I opted for the latter - not least because there was, in fact, a near perfect high-level pitch just to the south of the summit of the 917 metre hill. I texted Challenge Control to tell them of my revised plan, to camp high, retreat the way I had come, and use the West Highland Way to get to Kinlochleven in the morning. Then I set up my tent and took a GPS fix on the location: NN 1309 6543.
I descended carefully, and then pressed on to the unnamed 917 metre top. There was show, and there were cornices, but the ridge line was clear. All was going well, and I was happy. I reached the summit cairn of hill 917, and I looked ahead to the next section of the ridge line. And that's when I began to smell trouble!
Once past this outcrop, however, it was plain sailing all the way to the little summit cairn, where the views were just spectacular. I took a breather, too some photographs, took some water, and texted my wife to say that I was atop Meall a' Chaorainn and pressing on to Mullach nan Coirean, the first Munro of my crossing.
In the event, it was eminently possible. We stopped for lunch a little way North East of Lundavra, overlooking the lochan, and then continued to Blar a' Chaorainn where our paths diverged. Bernie turned right onto the West Highland Way, whilst I turned left. I found myself overhauling a number of footsore West Highland Wayers with light day sacks. I exchanged a few words with some of them, but for the most part they weren't very talkative. After a kilometer or so, I saw a convenient gate that would let me out onto the open hillside and give me access to the north ridge of Meall a' Chaorainn, so I headed for this and was soon on my own once again with nothing for company but the majestic highland landscape.
The track up Gleann Righ is well made, and progress was good. It is not, however, a natural track. It doesn't follow the landforms in any meaningful way, and it is a rather depressing track to walk in consequence. It is artificial, and you feel separated from the land rather than part of it. Bernie and I both remarked upon this.
I had not been on this track long when I caught up with Bernie Clark, another Kilchoan starter who had followed a mainland route rather than crossing to Mull as I had done. He too was heading for Lundavra, with the intention of turning right onto the West Highland Way and following it into Kinlochleven. I told him that was my FWA, and would leave me cooling my heels in Kinlochleven for a day, but that our routes coincided as far as Blar a' Chaorainn. I therefore asked if he would mind some company for that part of the way. Bernie was initially worried that he would be slowing me down; but I managed to persuade him that I NEEDED slowing down sometimes, and so we walked in company for the next few hours.
What did bother me, albeit only a little, was pacing myself. I had a lot of ascent to do today, and I needed to avoid pushing myself too hard in the early part of the day. I know from experience that this is something I tend to do; and it is not good when the ascent effort comes towards the end of the day. It is necessary to keep something in reserve.
I collected my laundry and had a very pleasant breakfast of smoked haddock - the most perfectly filleted haddock I have ever eaten. Then I packed my rucksack, paid my bill, and at 9.30 I strolled out of the hotel and straight onto the Corran Ferry. I believe that this, the third ferry crossing of my Challenge, probably set a new TGO Challenge record. For it is very easy to walk a route with two ferry crossings; but three ferry crossings can only really be achieved by going onto Mull, and off again North of the Great Glen. I doubt this has been done before.
The Corran ferry also has the very great attraction that it is free for foot passengers!
The picture shows the Corran lighthouse, viewed from the ferry.
I arrived almost exactly at 7pm. I collected my resupply parcel and went to my room. There was, disappointingly, no bath. So I took a shower, texted Challenge Control to say I had arrived safely at Ardgour as planned, spoke briefly to my wife on the mobile (there being no telephone in the room) and took my laundry to reception. I had two pints of cider and a delightful supper of lemon garlic chicken, and then retired to my room to give my feet some attention. I had rubbed two blisters under the toes of my right foot, and had a bit of a hot spot on the instep of my left foot, but that was all. I pierced the blisters and allowed them to drain; I put a Compeed on the intep of my left foot; and then I collapsed gratefully into bed.
The A861 main road may be an A road, but it is still pretty wild and remote, and very lightly trafficked. It also has good verges most of the way and there is no difficulty about stepping aside when necessary for passing vehicles. During the course of the day I had been slowly composing a poem, called "The Song of the Challengers", and as I walked this stretch of road the first verse was completed. It goes:
Oh it's hard to ford the Geldie when in spate
And it's hard to bear a twenty kilo load
It's hard to climb a rusting iron gate
And it's hard to plan FW for Jock's Road
But we'll tramp, tramp, tramp 'til we reach the cold North Sea
Yes we'll tramp, tramp, tramp (finish not at Blowup Nose!)
We will tramp, tramp, tramp for we love to roam so free
So we'll tramp, tramp, tramp 'til we meet up in Montrose
At the time, I thought I'd probably get around to composing a few more verses during the course of my crossing, and have it finished by the time I reached Montrose. Alas, however, this was not to be, and in the event this is as much as I wrote during the 2014 crossing. There'll be plenty of opportunity to finish it in due course, however, so watch this space ...
My 4.55 - 5pm break was taken at Gearradh, where a kind householder allowed me to refill my water bottles from his supply. The rain started up again, however, so it was back into my waterproofs; and I decided to resume my boots, too.
At Sallachan, I took the track through Coile na Cuile to Ardgour House. I passed a dog walker who told me it would be a lovely walk which I would enjoy; but actually, the track is pretty grim, and I almost think one might as well take the road round to Clovullin. I took my 5.55 - 6 pm break in the Coile na Cuile and then pressed on. The track takes walkers behind Ardgour House, and then along a lovely avenue and past the two lochans north of Clovullin. By now my feet were beginning to hurt a bit, and I took a couple of painkillers that I found in my pack. I don't know how long they'd been there, and they were probably hopelessly out of date. But they seemed to do the trick.
I was, to be honest, sorry to have to leave their company so soon. They were a charming couple, a little older than me, and he had spent his entire life in outdoor education. I told him the story of my ML assessment, and finding myself assessed as #4 in mountain fitness, making me the least fit in the fitter of two assessment groups. He in turn replied with the tale of his own winter ML assessment, where he had been in a group of 3, the other two of whom were Olympic athletes. It was a similar story. He was hopelessly outclassed. They all failed on navigation, after the other two hadn't a clue where they were, and he was too exhausted from trying to keep up with them to be able to figure it out. He passed second time, though ...
Bidding them fairwell at the road junction, I pressed on along the road. I didn't take a 1.55 - 2 pm rest break; and my 2.55 - 3 pm rest break was taken at the Outdoor Centre at Kilmalieu. I was making good progress now - with only 17km still to go. In part this is because the Loch Linnhe shore road is little different from any other shore road, and didn't really offer all that much in the way of distraction. In part, too, it was due to the fact that the steady rain provided encouragement to keep up a good steady pace and make progress. As I walked I was able to look across Loch Linnhe and survey the tops of the Appin and Etive mountains. They all looked reassuringly clear of high-level snow. That was reassuring ... because the following day, I was due to head up into the Mamores.
I passed by Lochan na Criche (pictured, with Loch Linnhe in the background), and my 3.55 - 4 pm rest break was taken by Lochan Doire a' Bhragaid. This is an interesting wee lochan, and at its South West end there is a broad expanse of flat grass which would, I suspect, make an excellent wild pitch. The water, if taken from the stream on the North side of the road, will probably be fine and safe too, as it is a short run-off stream from the Meall a' Bhragaid. By the time I took this rest stop, the rain had cleared again, and my waterproofs were back in my pack. There was only 12 km or so still to go, and I was feeling in good shape. Above all, I was feeling confident that I should be at Ardgour by about 7, in time to enjoy a bath, a really good supper, and get a good night's sleep before my two big days in the Mamores.
I reached the junction with the little road leading steeply down into Kingairloch, and there was another A-board sign advertising the Boathouse Restaurant. "First building in Kingairloch", it said ... which I naively interpreted as meaning that the first building I came to would be the restaurant. But it wasn't! In fact, the Boathouse Restaurant, housed in the oldest building in the village (the "first building in Kingairloch") was right at the western end of the Loch a' Choire, and I had to walk fully a kilometer and a half back the way I had come to find it. On the way, I paused at a little jetty to take this picture of Loch a Choire, with the impressive Beinn Mheadoin range beyond it.
Eventually, however, I was at the restaurant - developed by the Kingairloch estate in the old boathouse which had been an essential part of the estate back in the days before the road, when the only reliable means of accessing it had been by water. And what a restaurant it was! I had a delicious crab salad, followed by roast venison haunch. The venison was from the estate, and I do not exaggerate when I say it was by FAR the finest venison I have ever eaten. I always think that haunch is the most difficult joint of venison to get right; but this was simply perfect in every way! Dessert, as ever with me, posed a wee bit of a problem. However, the starters on the menu included warmed goat's cheese with pear and walnut, so I asked to be served this in lieu of dessert - and very acceptable it was too! All of this, with a glass of merlot, a shot of whisky (their own estate blend) and copious amounts of water cost me a little over £30. I was more than happy to pay this for such an exquisite meal!
Before long, Loch Uisge came into view. The picture shows one of my first sightings of it, with the distinctive rounded form of Beinn na Cille in the background. I had my 10.55 - 11 rest break half way along the loch (3 hours of walking; nearly 11 km covered; starting to look OK for timing) and pressed on. I noted as I did that just to the east of the bridge over the Allt Doire na Bainnse, on the south side of the road, there is a well-surfaced little car park. It is doubtless intended for the use of those who are venturing up onto Beinn Mheadhoinn; but it would serve as an excellent overnight stop when touring in the camper van!
Beyond Loch Uisge the road was long and not particularly exciting; but the prospect of a good lunch at the Boathouse Restaurant spurred me on. I reached the woods, and there was a track off to the right running down towards the river. I suspected that following this might be a good idea; but it was not shown on my map and it might turn out to be a dead end. On days when you have 40 km to cover, following dead-end paths is a luxury you simply cannot afford. So I stayed on the road and kept plugging away.
My first progress check came at Achagavel, the site of my originally intended overnight stop. Achagavel is a little over 5 km from Crosben cottage, and I reached it at 9.30 - so my pace was not everything I needed it to be; but on the other hand, this was following a difficult and broken path up Gleann Dubh. I would soon be on the roads; and then I would be able to make better progress. I was not, therefore, too dismayed. Besides, had I camped in this vicinity, I might not have got away until about 9, so I wasn't really all that far behind schedule!
My route vetter had suggested that Achagavel would probably turn out to be an occupied residence, and so it proved. The path made a stiff little ascent up the side of the garden fence, and then there was a well made track, with wire fences either side, and precious little in the way of viable camping pitches. Stopping at Crosben was surely the right thing to have done!
Beyond Achagavel, the track climbs up the hillside in a North Easterly direction, which wasn't the direction I ideally wished to be travelling in; but it was the way the track went. After a short distance, however, there was a trail bike path off to the right, which appeared to be contouring pretty much the 200m contour line, and I figured that it would probably meet with the road a little to the South of the main track. Perfect! So I turned off the track and followed the trail bike path.
Hmmmmm ... the main track was well surfaced, and passable by motor vehicles. It probably bridges all the side streams. The trail bike path was churned-up peat, and made difficult crossings of the streams, of which there were several. I was right in my surmise that it led to the road - right at the corner of the woods - but I suspect it may have been a slower way of reaching that point that following the main track. Nevertheless, I had reached the road by the time I sat down for my 9.55 rest stop (a little over 1 km covered in 25 minutes ... not good progress!). In theory I ought to have changed into my walking sandals at this point; but my feet were feeling good in my boots, so I decided to continue as I was for the time being.
After breakfast I gathered all my gear and re-packed my rucksack. I did a final tour of inspection to check that the cottage was exactly as I had left it, and at 8 o'clock on the dot I set out locking the door behind me. Mr Thornber had warned me that the path might be difficult to find for the first few kilometres, and sure enough it was less than obvious in places. But the line of the glen was clear enough, and every time I seemed to lose the track I just kept going in the right direction, and sooner or later (usually sooner) something approximating a track reappeared. Was I following sheep tracks rather than "the path"? Possible. But it doesn't really matter. The point is, I made steady progress up the glen.
After Crosben, the next named location shown on the map is Lurga. Mr Thornber had told me that this was the site of an old mine and that there were no buildings there, just ruins, and so it proved. They are rather atmospheric ruins, however; and so I took some photographs.
When I set out from Crosben I had not needed my waterproofs; but by the time I reached Lurga I had put them on, and I was to wear them for most of the day as it proved to be a day of on-off drizzly rain. The air was still, however, and there were no really heavy or uncomfortable showers; so the walking was pleasant enough.
After supper, I spent the evening trying to imagine what life at Crosben must have been like for the Hollick family. All the trappings of family life were still there. A pile of board games stacked up on one of the shelves. And the books included a "Look and Learn" annual from 1974, suggesting that the Hollick children must have been about my age or perhaps a little older. That would place old Mrs Hollick in her 70s or perhaps even her 80s - so Mr Thornber was probably right when he surmised that she was unlikely to return to the cottage. And the child's felt-tip pen drawing of a volcano which was pinned to one of the book shelves? That had either been there a very long time, or was drawn by a grandchild. Possible both!
As the evening light began to fade I read some articles from a copy of Reader's Digest which was older than me, then returned it to the shelf where I had found it and went up to bed. I slept very well in Crosben cottage.
Once I was safely over the bridge, Mr Thornber showed me into the cottage, where he had already lit the stove in the sitting room. I took off my waterproofs, and we sat and talked a while. Mr Thornber told me of the Hollick family - the last people who had lived at the cottage - and how he had helped them move in and had often dined with them. He came by from time to time to check that it was still secure, but he doubted they would ever be back and in due course the estate would probably come and clear everything else. He told me to feel free to use anything that was there; but I didn't feel comfortable doing that. I burned some wood from the wood store, but that was all. Although invited to use the gas stove in the kitchen, I actually used my own MSR petrol stove to heat my supper.
After a while, Mr Thornber had to leave to attend to other matters, and I was left on my own in the cottage. I had a good look around. There were three bedrooms upstairs, with bed frames but no mattresses on them. There were a couple of ancient mattresses in one of the rooms, but I did not like the look of them as they had been standing rolled up in a damp, neglected cottage for a while. There were, however, a couple of sheets of foam rubber which were bed length, and I put both of these onto the bed frame in the smallest of the bedrooms and it made a very acceptable bed on which to lay out my sleeping bag.
The cottage had been relatively tidy downstairs; but on the stairs themselves and upstairs there was fallen plaster everywhere. I tried to sweep some of it up, but made little impression and stirred up a lot of dust. In the end, I settled for just sweeping the floor of the room I was going to sleep in, and expelling the sweepings out onto the landing.
Thursday, 29 May 2014
Monday, 26 May 2014
While I was admiring the views at the Acharn Bridge, a gentleman in a rather marvelous little piece of kit called a John Deere Gator drove up, and we got talking. He offered me a lift up the glen as far as Crosben cottage, which I naturally declined. I told him about the Challenge, and my plans to camp in Gleann Dubh. He told me that it was not the greatest of places to camp, on account of the midges; but he said that I was welcome to stay the night at Crosben cottage if I wished. I said I wasn't sure - it was a good 5 kilometres short of my planned overnight stop, and I had a long enough day the following day as it was. He said he'd leave it unlocked, and I could make up my mind when I got there. Then he drove off up the track, and after taking a quick glug I followed on foot.
When the ferry came, it turned out to be the Loch Linnhe again! It took us across to Lochaline, and I photographed it as it departed. The sun was shining brightly, and I was in no great hurry, so I bought myself some leek and potato soup at the little refreshment kiosk at the ferry terminal, and sat down to enjoy the sunshine. Then I changed into some fresh socks (enjoying the luxury of knowing that, with a laundry opportunity the following day at Ardgour, I could afford to use two pairs of socks a day on this leg of the crossing) and I was only just starting out from Lochaline as the ferry returned once more.
I arrived at the Salen Hotel in good time to settle in and have a relaxing bath before dinner. I thought the hotel was probably where my wife (although she was only, at the time, my finacee) and I had stayed on Mull when we took our first island-hopping holiday off the West Coast in 1988; however, they searched out the guest books going back to 1988 for me and there was no entry that I had made. I do not believe that I should have omitted to make an entry in their guest book, so I guess we must have stayed some place else. It is difficult to think where, however.
The standing stones are evidently quite a significant feature of this part of Mull; but in seeking to follow the path line shown on the map I bypassed them altogether. And this is a shame because, when you get to Tenga, they are well signed and there is a made-up track (which does not appear on the maps) to take you to them. I could have made better progress had I found this track! Never mind, though: I reached Tenga, and then the road, where I sat down and changed my sodden socks.
Sunday, 25 May 2014
Leaving Tobermory behind, I followed the B8073 Dervaig road; and I was soon tramping through wild and remote country with the Tobermory River off to my left.
The crossing to Tobermory was as perfect as could be hoped for. The sea was smooth and calm, and the little ferry boat steadily made its way across until finally it reached the Tobermory slip and dropped its ramp. The cars drove ashore, and I followed on foot; and now, after so many years of wondering how to achieve it, I was on Mull as part of a Challenge.
The 8 o'clock ferry would always have been impractical. The hotel didn't start serving breakfast until 8, and I wasn't going to depart before breakfast. Besides which, the Challenge Register doesn't open for signing until 9 on the first morning of the Challenge (and yes ... I know they allow the Oban starters to sign a little early in order to make the 9 o'clock Lismore ferry; but I wasn't about to start any such tradition for Kilchoan starters and the Tobermory ferry!).
So, I had an hour and a half to wait. Not really a problem. It was a nice morning, and the harbour was a pleasant enough place to bide a while. I had already walked something like a kilometre, so a short rest was probably in order in any event ...
I had breakfast, paid my bill (quite a big bar bill, that ... ) and headed down towards the harbour for the 9 o'clock ferry to Tobermory on Mull.
My walk also took me to the remains of the old fort, which I had never seen before. They have had a lot of conservation work done on them, and have a number of information boards, and are well worth the time to have a good look around them. It really is amazing how many new things you can find to see, even in a town that you have visited many times before!
Having established the bus arrangements, I had a very nice breakfast in the station café (because the breakfasts provided on the Sleeper are not exactly either gluten-free or dairy-free) and then went for a stroll around Fort William. I had brought suncream this year, but not Skin-So-Soft. The forecast was for midges in abundance, so I took the opportunity to acquire some Skin-So-Soft and add it to my kit. I then told a first timer who was also waiting for onward transport (to either Acharacle, or Lochaillort, or Morar or Mallaig ... I cannot now remember which) about this prudent precaution, and he went off in search of some anti-midge of his own.