Wednesday, 31 August 2016
My injured knee had been fine when I was walking - both to and from Aberfeldy - but once I got back to the hotel it started complaining about the stairs again. I thought of Alan Sloman and his "hurty knee" a year or two previously. I hadn't been too sympathetic back then (although goodness knows I ought to have been, when it was knee injuries that had spelled the end of my aspirations to win a junior international athletics vest as a 400 metre hurdler in the 1980s); but he certainly had my sympathy now!
I had a very nice dinner in the hotel once again, and for dessert I had a poached pear with mandarin and lime sorbet. Now this was a real revelation, for two reasons. First, mandarin and lime is an EXQUISITE flavor combination in a sorbet (perhaps this should not surprise all that much, given that mandarin is the sweetest of the citrus fruits, and lime the sharpest); but also because that particular flavor combination then compliments the poached pear to a T. I should add that this dessert was not a regular menu item - we had cobbled it together with components from different desserts, omitting elements I couldn't eat to create something that I could. But I was sufficiently wowed by it that I suggested they needed to add it to their menu in future.
After dinner I turned in quite early. During the night I had three really weird dreams; and waking after one of them, I realized that I hadn't replaced my matches while I was in Aberfeldy! Curses!!!
At least, that was the idea. But Aberfeldy seemed to be shut. And what a depressing little town centre it is, too, when the rain starts falling and nowhere seems to be open. There was nowhere that could do me a new watch strap anyway (the nearest that anyone was confident I would be able to get one was Perth!!!). There was a chemist's shop, though. They weren't able to sell me a new camera pouch (Perth again ... or possibly Pitlochry), but they WERE able to sell me some AA batteries ... provided I bought a pack of 8!!!
I wasn't keen on having 6 spare batteries adding to my pack weight; but I did need two for my GPS, so I bought a pack of 8 (it was really a 6-pack with two free extra batteries ... WHICH I DID NOT WANT!!!!!). I left the chemist's shop and took one last look around the forlorn little town centre when the heavens opened, and I ducked into a little curio and collectables shop to take shelter. Needing to justify my presence, I made a beeline for a tub of foreign coins which they were selling at 5 for £1. I started sorting through them, and they came and offered me a tray so I could turn them out and have a good old rifle through them. Most of it was utter dross, as I had expected ... but to my surprise, hidden away in there were a few pieces that I might quite like to have as additions to my world coin collection. So I started being a bit more methodical about this ... and by the time I was ready to step out of the shop again I had identified 95 coins that I wanted to buy from him. He drove a hard bargain, but I managed to talk him down to £18. He put them in a bag for me, and I set off back to Fortingall ... carrying about a kilo of metal which I hadn't had with me when I set out that morning, as well as 8 batteries to replace the two in my GPS unit!
We had a good look around the forge, admiring the various creations, and then continued on our way. We went through Coshieville to Tirinie in the Appin of Dull, and then we took the path down to the river Tay which we followed all the way to Aberfeldy. The map doesn't show this path - but it is there alright!
Laura was walking to Aberfeldy, and then on to Grandtully (pronounced "Grantly", obviously - these Dull Scots really can give Norfolk a run for its money!). I had said I should walk with her as far as Aberfeldy and then turn back, and that was what I proposed to do. Carrying no gear. Just to see how I felt about it all, and how the knee performed. Plus, when I got to Aberfeldy I should be able to do a bit of shopping. My resupply list had grown a bit, due to various equipment failures. My watch strap needed replacing, and the zip of my camera pouch was broken so I needed to replace that, too, in addition to buying new batteries for my GPS.
Laura was a sport and posed for this picture before we set off; but there was still one more thing we needed to do before hitting the road!
Monday, 29 August 2016
When I got to the hotel, I had a bath and calmed myself down, and then thought about what I should need to do next. One thing that was certain was that I would not be walking the next day; so I arranged an extra night in the hotel, and rearranged my booking at Killiecrankie. I texted my wife. She was going to come and join me for a few days at the end of the Challenge; but if she could have taken some extra leave I would have withdrawn there and then, so that we could enjoy a longer holiday together. But her work diary was full, and she couldn't take the extra leave at short notice.
There was another Challenger in the hotel that night - Laura Liddell. We had supper together, and I told her what had happened. She was absolutely wonderfully supportive, and we agreed that I would walk (without a pack) as far as Aberfeldy with her the following day. I would then turn back to the hotel at Fortingall while she carried on. I thought I should be OK for that - a low level walk, in company, without a pack. And if I should have any more panic attacks, there would be somebody there for me. If I could make it to Aberfeldy without having another panic attack, I was fairly confident I could make it back OK, too.
I rang Challenge Control, and Alvar answered. I announced myself. I guess he sensed something was wrong from my voice, for the first thing he asked was "Are you alright?"
"No," was my direct and blunt answer.
I told Alvar, briefly, what had happened. "I'm still in one piece physically," I said. "But mentally and emotionally I'm all over the place."
Alvar asked if I'd like him to see if the Fortingall Hotel could send a car out to pick me up when I got down to the road, and I said that yes, that would be a good idea. I really didn't fancy the idea of having another panic attack on the side of a busy road with traffic passing close beside me, even though this meant that I should not be able to claim a complete crossing. At that precise moment, this was the least of my worries. I wasn't even sure I should be able to continue in any event.
The outflow burn from the lochan led me down to a weir and a little pool, at the confluence with a couple of other streams running off the mountainside, and from here there was a good, well-made track. After a couple of hundred metres there is a small cairn (pictured) marking the point where the path beside the Lawers Burn diverges, and I turned off onto this path.
I retreated a little and moved across to my right, and after crossing alittle stream I eventually found a viable descent to the lochan; but it was an extremely steep and tricky grass descent, and hardly the sort of thing you want ideally wish to attempt immediately following a near-fatal glissade! Nevertheless, I made slow progress downwards, and was eventually rewarded by a steady levelling out of the ground until I eventually reached the shores of the lochan.
I took this photo looking back up from a little way along the lochan. The snowfield on which I glissaded is in the centre background: I had been working my way down the lower edge of the rocky outcrop below the "toungue"pointing diagonally up to the right in the picture. The slope had a dual aspect - both towards the camera and off towards the left of the picture - and this is why the grass glissade quickly became a snow glissade.
The rock outcrop I found myself on after recovering from the glissade is to the right of the picture, in the centre. I worked my way across to the other side of the stream making the gully in the middle of the picture, and descended the little ridge to the left of it.
When I got down to the shores of the lochan, I took several minutes to regroup and regain my composure, and then I set off along the South shore of the lochan, aiming for the path down the Lawers Burn.
I was snookered. I couldn't retreat back up the hill. That would merely leave me back at the foot of An Stuc, with the same issues as before, but considerably more fatigued and with an hour less daylight in which to solve them. I couldn't go left because of the rock face; and I couldn't go right because of the snow field. So what was I to do?
As I studied the problem and considered my options, I noticed that the snowfield had been melting, and retreating at the edges; and that, in fact, there was a narrow gap between the edge of the snowfield and the rock face. The snow field was deep enough that this narrow gap was like a chimney; and I realized that, by wedging my boot in this narrow gap between the snow field and the rock face, I should actually be able to descent the few metres to where I could see the path emerging again from the snow field. And so this is what I did, and it worked a treat. Until ...
... as I got towards the bottom of the snow field, it thinned out considerably, and it was no longer deep enough to wedge my boot. So now, with no wedging, I was on a steep, wet grass slope. Far too steep to maintain the necessary friction to stay upright - and all at once my feet slid away from me in a grass glissade.
The slope was at such an angle that my grass glissade quickly became a snow glissade; and in the blink of an eye I was hurtling down across the snowfield with no means of arresting myself. I was near the bottom of the snowfield in the direction I had been descending; but in the angle of travel there was plenty more snow beyond the line of the path, and I should shortly be pitched over the immediate horizon into who knew what?
The only hope I had of arresting this glissade was the path itself. The snow was not very thick and I could see a slight dip where it lay over the path. I was approaching this feet-first, and so I dug my heels in hard and bent my knees as I reached it ... and it worked! I managed to arrest the glissade, and now I could safely stand and walk a few metres along the line of the path to where it emerged from beneath the snow.
I was falling behind schedule, and I was fatigued. I was running low on water. I had ahead of me a Munro I had never attempted before, with a tricky technical descent, which might have a snowfield on it, and which I should have to attempt in poor visibility, with a cross-wind, carrying an expedition pack. It didnt' seem sensible, and if there was any way to avoid it, I thought I should take it. Retreating back over Ben Lawers did not seem like a good plan. I would never make it from there round to Fortingall. I needed some other alternative.
The map shows no viable escape routes from the pass between Creag an Fhithich and An Stuc; but on the ground there was an unmistakable, well-trodden path heading off to my right. This was no mere goat track. It was a definite, trodden, walkers' path. But where could it lead? It wasn't shown on the map; but even the most cursory glance at the map provided the answer. There was only one place it COULD lead - which was down to Lochan nan Cat. This was presumably a continuation of the path up the Lawers Burn, allowing access to An Stuc without the need to undertake that difficult technical scramble on the far side. And if people came up it ... I could go down it.
So, with a certain amount of regret that I was going to miss out another three of my Munros, but confident that I was taking the right decision for the right reasons, I decided to bale out and take this escape route down to Lochan nan Cat, then follow the path down the Lawers Burn, and finish my day on the roads round to Fortingall.
A further, troubling development was that as I descended the wind was steadily increasing. It was coming from the West - my left - and that meant that the tricky technical descent of An Stuc, with its possible snow fields, would have to be attempted in poor visibility and a cross-wind. This was a daunting proposition indeed!
It was just after quarter past one that I began the descent to Creag an Fhithich; and this proved a difficult, slow and knee-jarring descent.
Looking back, it is easy to say now that this was the point at which I ought to have baled out. I had been up two Munros, but the conditions were turning against me. There was an easy escape route down beside the Allt a' Chobhair, to connect with my FWA, and I ought to have taken it. But I wasn't thinking like that. I was thinking about the three Munros which remained to be done - all of which were new Munros to me. And I was thinking of getting to Fortingall in time for dinner, so the idea of cutting and running never occurred to me, and I pressed on into the swirling mists.
This is, so often, the way in the Scottish mountains. As the day progresses and the air warms up, the cloud base lifts. You can set out on the ascent of a mountain which is completely shrouded in cloud, and be walking in next to zero visibility for the first half of the ascent; but the cloud base is lifting faster than you can climb, and suddenly you are out of the cloud, and the mist ahead of you just melts away to reveal the most amazing vistas as you approach the summit. You just have to be bold enough to set out despite the cloud cover to experience such days in the mountains; and today was now looking as though it would turn into one such day!
I took the ascent of Beinn Ghlas slowly and steadily, with frequent breathers and glug stops. By the time I reached the summit with its rather modest summit cairn the cloud was all around me, visibility was decidedly poor, and it was cold. But I'd been up here before. Neither Beinn Ghlass nor Ben Lawers was new to me, and I knew the path between them was clear and well defined. I could follow it safely in zero visibility if I had to. Beyond that was new ground to me, but it was a ridge with a further three Munros on it and I felt sure that the path would be easy enough to find. The descent of An Stuc was the only thing that was troubling me. My route vetter had warned that this was a difficult technical piece of scrambling, and I really would have liked a bit of visibility to see what I was doing on that. Still, I was sure I'd be able to cope, and so I pressed on.
As I followed this path, my heart was slowly sinking; for the cloud showed no sign of lifting and, indeed, if anything it was closing in. I had wanted another fine, clear day with spectacular views from the Lawers ridge, but it didn't appear that I was going to get one. There was no wind to speak of, and the clouds were showing no inclination to drop their precipitation, so I did not think that a diversion onto my FWA was called for. After all, there would be a clear, well-defined Munrosits' path all the way along this ridge. But all the same, I was a little apprehensive about this lack of visibility. On the positive side, though, it would limit my water consumption, which had to be a good thing as there were no resupply sources up on the ridge.
After walking for about a kilometer, just about as I was passing the Lochay Bridge hotel, it dawned on me that I had not filled my water bottles before setting out. I didn't want to lose all that time turning back to the hotel to refill them, but what else could I do? I decided to emulate Mr Micawber and assume that "something is bound to turn up", and so I pressed on; and after another kilometer or so something DID turn up, in the form of a caravan site on the left. Nobody was up and about this early in the morning, so I went and found one of their drinking water standpipes, and replenished my bottles.
Half a kilometer further on, I came to the pipeline (pictured). This runs down the hillside, and I had told my route vetter that I should follow it up, not knowing whether this was a viable proposition or not. He had not said that it was not, so I assumed that it was; and my #1 eyeball inspection persuaded me that, at least for as far as I could see at this point, following it up would be practicable. So I hopped over the low parapet, skidded down the cutting embankment, and started up the long, steady ascent beside the pipeline.
Sunday, 28 August 2016
John had booked a room in the Lochay Bridge hotel, which was the first hotel we came to. My own booking was at the Killin Hotel - which was another kilometer or so up the road (a kilometer, be it noted, that I was going to have to walk again in the other direction the following morning: John had clearly made the better job of choosing which hotel to book!) Before we parted John invited me to join him for a drink in the bar at the Lochay Bridge Hotel, an invitation which I was delighted to accept. John said that when I had first suggested joining him for the day's walk, he had been less than delighted, but too polite to say that he would rather walk on his own: but that now he was glad he had had my company for the day. And I have to say, it definitely WAS one of those days which, had you been alone, would have been a sore trial of your staying power and endurance. Sometimes a little company in the hills is just what you need!
I finished me pint and we wished one another well for the remainder of our crossings, and then I walked through Killin to my hotel. The receptionist (who came from Tenerife) had one of those delightful personalities which you encounter once a year, if that - the sort of person who spreads happiness and joyfulness to all around them, just by being there. After a brief and enjoyable chat with her, I went to settle in to my room. Alas, as so often now in the Highlands, there was no bath, only a shower. And there was no telephone in my room, either. The mobile reception was good, however, so I used my mobile to phone Challenge Control and gave Alvar a brief update on my progress.
Having reported in I showered (nowhere NEAR as good as soaking in a bath after a long day's walking!), shaved, and changed for dinner. The hotel served me a delicious beef tomato and mozzarella salad, followed by a pan fried fillet of sea bass. I suspect I enjoyed a bottle of wine with that, but I can find no mention of it in my notes. They had no desserts I could eat, however - which is not really that much of a surprise.
After dinner I settled my account and turned in early, telling them that I should be making an early start the following morning - before reception opened - and that I should not be needing breakfast. Day 5 was the biggest day on my card - the five Munros of the Lawers ridge and down to Fortingall - and I wanted to give myself plenty of time to complete it and reach the Fortingall hotel before they closed the kitchen for the evening.
Behind John, in the left background, is the North ridge of Fiarach with its distinctive plantation just above the railway line to Oban; then beyond that, from left to right, are the two Munros Beinn Dubhchraig (which shields Ben Oss from view) and Ben Lui, and then, after the dip in the skyline which is Glen Cononish (through which I had walked the previous day), in the right mid background is the Corbett Beinn Chuirn. In the right background are the slopes of Creag Bhen Eigheach, which hide Tyndrum from view, although the woods above Tyndrum are very evident.
John's route - one which had never occurred to me when I had studied these maps in the past, but which I have to say struck me as pure genius - was to climb to about 500 metres (essentially, the minimum necessary to pass the top of the pine plantation) and then to contour round into grid square 3929. From here we would angle down across the open hillside to the shielings by the head of Lochan Chailein and collect the track to the Glen Lochay road. It was a very fine piece of route planning which produced, I must say, a most enjoyable piece of hillwalking. Indeed, I think that morning spent contouring round the open hillside with John Hooper may well have been one of the most enjoyable pieces of walking I have ever done, on the Challenge or not.
But first ... we had to ascend to 500 metres; and before we could do that, we had to cross the railway line. There is a choice, at this point, of a level crossing or a bridge. We opted for the level crossing, only to find ourselves hemmed in by fences. We could have crossed them in all probability, but it seemed to make more sense to go about, recross the railway line using the level crossing, and then to use the bridge. To get to the bridge we had to cross a little stream in a deep defile, but this was not particularly problematic. And then it was just a steady old haul up the hillside.
Saturday, 27 August 2016
Looking at the map it seemed like an excellent idea.
When I reached the West highland Way, I thought, my intention was to turn right. But there would be plenty of daylight. So why not turn Left. Go into Tyndrum and have a decent supper somewhere, and maybe a pint or two, and then make my way to my wild pitch in the last of the evening light?
As I strode along beside the River Cononish, the closer I got to the West highland Way, the more I liked this plan.
What I wished, though, was to reach the sheilings and make camp for the night. So I pressed on through the bealach and down the other side.
Not far above this, I came to the edge of the trees. The path didn't continue quite all the way, and I had to fight my way through the last three or four rows of planting, which was a bit of a chore. However, I made it through with little difficulty and only a few scratches to my arms (maybe I should have put a long-sleeved fleece on ... but I was enjoying walking in just a T-shirt). Beyond the edge of the planting there was a deer fence, and then open hillside.
On the other side of the bridge the path was now a well-made forestry track, and I am imagine that it has been made up to ease the forestry operations which had resulted in the diversion of the Ben Lui mountain access. In any event, there was yellow tape stretched across it and warnings not to follow that track. The path by the stream continued upwards beyond the bridge, however, and I was happy to continue following it. I figured that as long as I could follow the stream all the way up to the edge of the woods it didn't really matter if I was doing so on the path marked on the map or not; and if I came out of the wood a little further North than originally planned, no harm would come of it.
Well, no matter. I was sure I'd find a way through OK one way or another. So I finished my lunch, put my boots back on, and followed the path along the bank of the river.
Ben Lui, on the far side of the road, stood mocking me from above the tree line. I had been supposed to be up on top of that mountain; but I little bit of noise had driven me down onto my low level route instead. It should have been my fourth Munro of the crossing, but so far I had managed just the one! Still, there were plenty more mountains on my route card, and I should still have plenty of opportunities to make this a High Level crossing.