Out of Excuses

Petesy, it’s the phone for you.. “Uh… ?”
“Church heating… pump… broken… noises… cold… funeral tomorrow… Aaahhh!… Aaahhh!… Help”
I croaked back something about my own plans and timescale and likelyhood and all the while I was trying to reverse out of it, I knew I was going to try and fix it. I wouldn’t see anyone stuck. I threw on my working gear as I down a cuppa on the hoof and I was out on the road. In the opposite direction to the mountains.

Sometimes experience is the best tool you can ever own. A gate valve is just that, the wheel you turn to open and close it lifts and lowers a gate inside the valve body. One of the valves on the church system turned out have either a stripped or damaged spindle and the gate was lying inside, blocking the flow of water and keeping the heating off. Impossible to spot without an X-Ray or an auld heid. Levers and a hammer got the gate jammed onto the spindle and retracted without having to drain the system, heating on, alright!
I looked at my watch, day ruined.

I headed to my folks to see Holly and have my lunch. The sun was bright, the air and sky were clear and cool. “I thought you were going to the mountains?” Said Maw, “Aye, that was the plan”.
“Daddy, mountains?” Chipped in Holly hopefully.
“I suppose, I could just go somewhere nearer…”
Hey, if you can’t get away, you can just play at home. I headed home, grabbed my gear and fired up the road to Arrochar and my favourite hill, Beinn Narnain. Unclimbed by me in 2009? That’s just not right.

It’s just up the road, but it was late, the sun was low. I thought about parking and where to do it. The houses, maybe next to the garage? It took the gamble and abandoned the motor in the carpark. The payment machine was broke and I was running out of daylight. I’d worry about it in the morning.
The quickest way up is the new track, and the shortcuts on it are fairly consolidating themselves. Some are waterways (well, ice floes right now) and some at just light paths, so it’s not the disaster it could have been. Which is good because I took the shortcuts this time. 

It was warm in the sunlight, I was wearing baselayer and shades as I joined the track to the Narnain boulders. I strode along and passed a couple of stoney faced folk in full alpine mode, the hills must have made them sad today.
The coire is showing increasing signs of developing a track, this route misses out the “wow” moment where you first see the summit rocks from Cruach nam Miseag, but it’s a wonderful, rough trek through steep, rocky, wild scenery. It’s alsa a great place to dodge rocks that detach themselves kamikaze style from the huge crags, so no camping please folks.

Emerging from the coire onto the coll brought me back into the disappearing light. I’d made it just in time, I was happy enough.
The snow all around was pink, the rock glowed orange, the sun was a weak pinhole of amber light sinking away far to the south. I started on the final climb as the Cobbler’s peaks grew sharper and darker to my left.

The snow cover was becoming more constant, and it was getting rock-hard as well. Before tackling the scrambly bit ahead I stopped. I layered up with microfleece, gloves and Buff, and for the first time this winter I strapped on crampons and set off with an ice axe in my hand.
I was grinning from ear to ear as my spikes dug into the hardpack with every footfall, the temperature dropped and the light from the moon grew stronger that the dying rays of the sun.

I didn’t want to camp in the “usual place”, just below the summit plateau, and a couple of places just below the Spearhead crag stuck out as possibles as I crunched over the lip into the snow-filled hollow. It’s a dramatic and atmospheric spot, but it looks like the rocks don’t fall from the crags and bounce quite as far as the best flat pitch. The pack was off and the down jacket was on. I flattened the area a little more with my Snowclaw and pulled out the tent, which went up very easy considering this was the first time I’d pitched it.

I admined my gear, which included donning my down pants, and got to the important bit: getting the stove on. I had hot Mountain House Lasagne, coffee and a donut. A meal of kings that is.
I slipped into my sleeping bag(s), warm, fed, and I drifted away in total silence, with moonlight lazily drifting though the flysheet, I was in a little cocoon.

I woke up a couple of hours later to find that the world was a very different place.
The inside of the tent was covered in ice, all my kit was white and all my water was frozen. I gingerly stuck a hand outside to find my watch, and just before the display went blank I saw -15°C. I have no idea if it was reading right or not, but the temperature killed my watch and it was really cold.
My breath wasn’t steaming in clouds, it snaked away from me like ribbons of flame, twisting and twirling onto the flysheet, very odd. I stuck on the stove and melted myself a hot chocolate. The steam condensed at the apex of the tent and froze there, I had icicles falling on me until I packed up to go home.
I was now awake, roasting hot inside all those layers of down and it was definitely time for a pee and wander about outside.
I stepped out into a wonderland.

The moon was full and bright, the sky was dark and clear, stars twinkling down at me as the moonbeams caught the snow and twinkled right back at them.
The summit crags loomed dark and still, to the south the lights of the Central Belt twinkled benignly around the lonely peak of Ben Lomond, to the north, the darkness was only punctuated by dimly glowing snow-capped peaks. I threw my hands out and laughed to myself, this is what it’s all about.

I skipped around, bursting with, I dunno, emotion? Enthusiasm?, Pure joy? I was all alone here, and it just wasn’t right, I had to share the moment. I got on the phone to Joycee just to let her hear my footsteps crunching in the snow. I was like a wee boy out to play, but I was a cowboy wi’ nae indians, a jap wi’ nae commandos, I was hiding but there was no one seeking.

I climbed into the crags, they seemed smaller in the dark, the ascent felt easier. This so-familiar ground had taken on a completely new life and I was exploring it for the first time.
I love the hills, I never tire of them and they bring me great joy, but something about tonight felt new, something I thought I’d never feel as much as this in the hills again. Was that a wee lump in my throat, or was that Buff a little bit too tight?
This was simply wonderful.

My watch came to life again in the warmth of my pocket, and it said that I’d been wandering around for two hours. I was cozy in my down gear, wrist to ankle, and I must have been having fun. It was getting late though, and it was time for a final cuppa and bed. A shooting star to the south west was nature’s parting shot. Bless you.
I filled my bottles with snow and melted it down with what water I had left, that was me ready for breakfast.
I stripped to my baselayers, stuck my iPod on and pulled the sleeping bag drawcords in around my head. The cold air and moonlight faded away and fell into a light sleep with dreams of bizarre behaviour to a soundtrack of my favourite music. Restful no, intriguing yes.

I woke at 0200 and had to pee again. There was no argument about it. The bottles were frozen, the Photon is too small for physical contortions, so it was down jacket on and ootside.
Good plan, it was all change again. A high thin layer of cloud had formed and the moon had become a glowing ball submerged in a pool of rainbow colours. The light was weaker and the atmosphere had changed, less friendly, more unpredictable feeling. There was a low wave of cloud climbing up the side of the Cobbler and towards me. It was slow, but steady. It would be here soon.
Behind me, the tent flapped a little as breeze whipped up from nowhere. I’d seen the forecast, I knew what was coming, you just always hope it might be a little later arriving than they say.

I woke at 0615 as the flysheet flapped manically over my head. the proper winds had arrived.
The tent was rock-solid though, so I found my iPod at the bottom of the sleeping bag and stuck it on the drown out the intrusion.
I also discovered that the end of my nose was completely numb. I’d been sleeping inside the bag to block out the light, but I must have been roasted in my sleep and stuck my face back out to get some air. A frostbitten nose in the Arrochar Alps? I’d never have lived it down.
It was getting lighter as well, so I gave in and decided to get the stove on and have a look outside. I showered my head with ice from the flysheet as I opened the door to the frozen murk that lay outside. Ach, cuppa.
I stood the stove up, arranged the windshield and looked for the pot.. Where’s the pot? There’s the lid… Ah!
After I’d melted the snow the night before, I’d stuck the pot in a little hollow in the porch, and it must have still been warm enough to melt itself six inches down into the snow. I had to dig it out with my ice axe. That was a first.

The crags were dark grey shapes lost in fog. All the bare rock from last night was encrusted with ice, the tent looked like stonewashed green denim.
The cold wind whipped the tent, the gear and any bare skin. It was time to go.

Packing was easy, and it was quick. The biggest worry when setting off is always swapping the down jacket for a shell for on-th-move protection without heat-induced unconsciousness, but I got away with it with no chills or unnecessary faffing.
My crampons were back on, and with ice axe in hand (initilally for pulling the frozen-in tent pegs out), it was time to see if my motor was still sitting unmolested in the same spot.

The snow was even harder now, the dirt and turf were frozen rock-hard too. I clambered through the jumble of rocks, relearning how to use my winter feet and finding them to be servicable with maybe just a wipe down with an oily rag at the service station before the next trip. If feels good to out in winter again.

I met a few folk on my way down, most cheery with time to chat as the weather started to clear, some a little bemused and also a couple of po-faced bastards whose bubble had obviously been burst by the gaily attired cheery sort saying hello to them while heading in a downhill direction at a very unusual time of day when real mountaineers such as themselves were taking on a very serious ascent. 

Dressing up to go out and play? Hell yeah.

66 thoughts on “Out of Excuses

  1. A grand write-up there ptc*. It’s got me just wishing the weather would improve down here….

    Snow-shoes, hmmmm. I’ve been wondering a bit about these lately – I nordic ski, but MoS doesn’t, so these might be a way we could get out together. But I’d guess Scottish conditions would be so patchy, just like they are for skis, unless you’re on hand to grab it whenever it lands. Perhaps the Alps beckon… :)

  2. That’s partly why I went out on Monday Matt, grab it while the going is good. We could be snow-free again by the weekend.
    I think the Cairgorms are made for snowshoes, and closer to me, places like Glen Lyon. But cost versus use for this kind of kit probably never works out unless you’re packing them for a flight.

    Still watching for a reply from Yowie…

  3. I loved reading this, really brought out how truly wonderful being in the hills is. I got back from a trip to Ben Nevis/Aonach Mor a couple of days ago, the first time being in proper snow on the hills. It was the best time ever, and this piece keeps that great feeling alive.
    I now have to factor in 7 hour drives up to ‘proper snow in Scotland’ as part of my normal routine ;o)

    Out of interest, what SCN setting did you use? I got no good photies, as the batteries in my SF1000 died in the cold, on both days. Plenty when coming through GlenCoe, though.

  4. Magic Will, I had a cracking day on Aonach Mor and Beag a couple of years ago in perfect winter conditions, it’s brilliant up there. The extra height makes all the difference to the snow cover.
    Ach, on the good days, those drives will be worth it!

    My camera settings went from “Intelligent Auto” to night scenery, starry sky, and looking at the first few shots I must have had sunset on as well to get those colours.
    I admit to not having even tried the fully manual settings yet, the manual is very thick…

  5. Sir Peter
    A most noble recount and one I’d be proud to get even close to. It’s great to see another so nuts about spending time outdoors (with the right kit!)
    I keep searching for the best “wild” sites in the Midlands…any ideas?

  6. I can count the nights I’ve spent in a tent south of the border on my fingers and toes, and some of those were festivals long enough ago for Saxon and Hawkwind to be headlining!
    I know there’s plenty of places though, the folks I know down your way are always getting out and about. Wales ain’t too far away either?

    I must admit we’ve got it easy up here for this stuff!

  7. “I must admit we’ve got it easy up here for this stuff!”

    You make that stuff look amazing. I think you inspired a lot of people to go camp high and see the hills in a new way. Wonderful photos as ever.

  8. You’re very kind, and that’s a nice thought Martin. I wonder?

    Everything I do is so easy and accessible, the only advantage I have is being near the hills. If someone thinks “Well, if the fat heating engineer can do it…” that can only be a good thing!

  9. PTC*, I’ll echo what others have already said – a fantastic post, report and photos.

    Its tempting me to go for a winter overnight trip sometime soon.

  10. Bless you, it’s nice to be talking about being out there again :o)

    Winter camping is great, with the right kit and enough supplies to make a long night in the tent enjoyable it’s a fantastic experience.

    I can’t wait until the next weather window!

  11. Re the NeoAir; take the backpad oot the Villain and stick 2 Duomats in there. Pop them under the Neo at night and it makes a noticeable difference. Tried it last week and it was fine on frozen ground. I’m sure my current low-grade lurgey is just a coincidence :o)

  12. Aye, I was thinking about that very thing, and other “supplement” ideas. The Neoair packs so small that you can get away with packing other stuff and still beat a regular winter mat for size.
    I shall experiment.

    Also, damn that lurgey and its confounded nuisance!

  13. Now that IS what it’s all about – and it looks nothing like the hill I climbed with Rosie all those years ago as my first munro – it’s like a whole new hill!

  14. I think that’s partly whay I love Narnain so much, seasons and weather change it dramatically.
    I won’t leave it so long to go back this time.

  15. Pingback: Redfeather Hike/Fizan Compact Poles « McAlisterium

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