I squinted into the bright sunlight as the icy air prickled my cheeks and skated over my fillings. The sun was up and picking out the snow capped tops and ridges in pink, the wet snow of last night had shrunk into a carpet of crystals and although the shapes of the landscape were the same as before, the atmosphere was so different I felt like I’d came out of hibernation. And a little early too, as it was bloody freezin’. I pulled on some layers and got the stove on. With a hot cuppa and some grub inside me I felt surprisingly fresh, and with a hint of cloud on the little bit of western horizon that I could see, I decided not to fanny about this time, and get packed and get going.
First I had to check over my feet for wear and tear, it’s not often I wear big muckle boots, but they were looking okay. I hadn’t cut my toenails, which I usually always keep on top of, and my wee toe on my left foot gave me cause to purse my lips. It’s a weird toenail that one. I bust it years ago and now it grows in two bits, like Bugs Bunny’s front teeth. It was rubbing my other toe a little, but “Ach, it’ll be fine…”.
I emptied the tent and started to bag up the gear, leaving my softshell and waterproof over the top of the bits and pieces. The tent was iced up and the pegs frozen into the ground, but it was away in its stuffsack in no time. Much of my gear was iced up, even kit that had been in the tent, my sleepmat was pure white at one end. I think it showed me how much condensation there had been early in proceedings. I lifted the jackets up and was amused to find them both as stiff as boards after sitting there for just ten minutes. It really must have been properly cold.
I finished packing, got kitted up, scanned the campsite for something I might miss later and I was away. The snow above me was now gleaming white against a sky of a dozen shades of blue.
The sight was one of those things that gets me all excited and has me starting off up the trail too fast and getting out of breath. So it was good timing when the track ended abruptly in a very steep slope of unbroken iron-hard snow. I stopped and swapped poles for ice axe and rubber soles for crampons and took the slope straight up the middle. It quickly became so steep, and the snow was so consolidated, that I had to swing the pick into it to get any attachment to the slope at all. I was also glad of having my Grivel Airtech’s on, I would have been sobbing into my Buff had I been wearing Kahtoolas, and the guilty pleasure of an old-school ascent was one which I revelled in.
I broke into the sunshine on the ridge and views down Glen Affric past my old pal Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, it’s so wild, so beautiful and so familiar in there now. I turned towards the summit of Beinn Fhada, just up and around the corner. Ahead of me was just over 1000m of rock hard snowslope, covered in a few inches of fresh flakes from the previous night, a virgin slope rising only 250m in height from where I stood to the cairn.
Every step was a joy, clouds arced across the sky above in wisps, stripes or cotton wool balls, but none threatened me at all, they briefly visited some of the other tops but my top stayed clear.
The view to the south grew with every step, the Five Sisters, The Saddle, Knoydart and beyond all slid into view and from the summit I was adrift on a choppy sea of white crested waves while the sun beat down on me with a warmth which didn’t belong on this wintery perch, but was oh-so welcome.
I stayed on that top for a long time, hours in fact. I had soup, coffee, some snacks and wandered around with my hands in my pockets in what was a perfect day, a day to absorb, to relish and remember.
When I left it wasn’t because I was cold, or tired, had stuff to do later, or the weather was turning, the cloud bubbled and ebbed at the edges of the scene but came no further. No, it was just time to go home.
The descent down the ridge towards Meall á Bhealaich was a crunch down that same long slope, where now my own tracks had stamped a little bit of humanity into a wilderness scene. I went past my line of ascent and picked a less steep alternative further along the ridge. It had seemed like a good idea, but as the temperature rose, the snow was melting and the hillside was a grass-covered mudslide, where it has to be said I performed some amazing moves several times in a bid to stay upright, which was achieved. Nine times out of ten.
The river crossing was easy, the waters were much lower, and I stopped for a drink and a snack. It felt very much like the time I was here last summer, bright and liovely with the sounds from the water, only the winter camouflage on the scenery gave the game away. It won’t be long ’til it’s alive again, you can see buds on branches, hear birdsong from the trees. In fact, I ‘d heard ptarmigan on the ridge but had seen none, I’d followed the tracks of a mountain hare but I hadn’t found it (I wonder if what looked like a fox had fared better…). Best of all, I saw and heard a golden eagle for the first time in a long time. So long in fact that I had to google the eagle’s call when I got home to check that my memory was working.
My mind was wandering on the last part of the track although a little niggle on my toe was starting to creep into the periphery, not enough to stop me though. I noted that the sky was clouding over a little more, and I felt happy with my lot. Sometimes you can’t wait for the weather, you have to take a chance. I’m glad a found that wee window and fell though it.
I pulled my boot off followed by my big woolly sock, I rolled off my liner but could see there was something amiss as it got towards my toes and stuck. That would be the blood then. I eased the liner off of the sticky mess and watched half of my toenail go with it. It wasn’t sore, and it was my fault for not keeping up with personal maintenance, but I did feel a blow from the hammer of inconvenience land on the back of my head. Keeping it clean and not bursting it any further is going to be annoying for a few days.
However back on the road and heading south was trouble free, empty roads and and sunshine ’til Ft Bill, and from there on increasingly dark and pishy horror until I got home in the midsts of a storm.
Lame adventuring it is, but what joy from something so accessible in this magic wee country.
I knew I was going, I just didn’t know when. I had booked in meetings and site visits on Monday and Tuesday and then I looked at the weather. Wednesday morning was looking good. Bugger, that meant an alpine start, miles of driving and less fun that it should be. Phil knew the score and as he stepped off the return flight from Iceland he was texting to see if I’d been.
“We should go up and camp on Tuesday night”
“That’s a possible, it’ll be later on though…”
We had a plan. Of sorts.
I got back to base late in the afternoon and started packing carefully, everything laid out on the living room floor. It looked like it was going to be properly cold and as much as I was in a hurry, I didn’t want to leave anything behind. I’ve got previous of that to be taken into account.
Phil appeared before I was ready of course, then there was some faffing around as I had to reunite Joycee with her car keys at my folks house, during which Holly said “Daddy, back from the mountains” and started to pull my jumper off. Ach.
Then we were on the road. The A82 in fact.
It was clear and it was cold. We kept watching for clouds, but it was all stars and optimism. We had to drive through Tyndrum, there were no lights on and no dinner there for us. Ft Bill also had the shutters down, Morrisons was shut, McDonalds was shut, I’m not on speaking terms with the chippy and the only other option was the Morrisons garage where we got sammidges, snacks and some gay badinage with the wummin in there who was from Cumbernauld it turns out. The lesson is, that after 2100hrs Scotland is shut on a Tuesday.
Spean Bridge came and went, the Fersit sign was next and then we were driving through wind-blown snow on the road. Fresh and unexpected. It was late, were convinced that there was now a cloud overhead, and other doubts started creeping in about night navigation in cloud, will the car park be locked, it’s after ten and we haven’t had any dinner.
The car park was empty, and a skating rink. After a half-arsed salchow we reversed into a snow bank and parked up. Lights on, cold sammidges and Lucozade for dinner.
A wee van pulled in and the sounds were those of racks being assembled for climbing in the morning. That affected our plans, if they were camping at the cliffs we wouldn’t, not totally an anti-social thing, but courtesy, the environment and flexibility in our route made it a good choice. We found out next day that they’d slept in the van, but it was academic anyway. After walking until 2350 we knew we hand to stop, and we were neither on the ridge or at the lochan.
The trail had been iced, but walkable and the mostly clear sky had seen us walking sans headtorches. Very pleasant indeed, if increasingly cold.
We found a cracking spot a little way above the track, my wee tent needed just a little flattening with the Snowclaw to get a pitch, but Phil needed some digging for his winter fortress. After a small mechanical with a pole that needed some McGuyvering we were set and the stoves were soon on as we wandered our little plot.
A beautiful night it was, and nice to be camped below the tops for a change, it gives you a different persective on your surroundings. I’ve had an odd desire to camp on a beach for a while, so maybe this is good mental half-way point?
We both slipped into sleep quite quickly, it was very late, hot chocolate and high loft down will do you in every time.
Zzzzziiiipp! Mmmffff… crump crump crump. I opened my eyes, bloody hell, it’s light outside.
“Mornin'” I shouts, “What time is it?”
“Five past eight!” Says Phil as he pads about outside.
Ah bugger, all the advantages of our drive up last night had been lost if you look at it from a logistical perspective, but we were firing up stoves in the mountains in the sunshine and snow. That’s a Win.
We just hung out at camp for a couple of hours, taking photies, sipping a hot brew, shooting the breeze and waving to the chain of climbers clanking past on the track below. Any notion of having to do anything else all day was lost. I was quite happy where I was.
A front moved across us from the West, like the sunroof being pulled closed. The light was diffused by high wispy cloud and I took that as an omen. We packed to leave.
We rejoined the trail and headed towards the cliffs or Coire Ardair on hard frozen snow, high ridges all round and in air that grew ever cooler.
The bright blue ice on the cliffs began to shine out from the frozen rock faces. And soon tiny black figures on the blue ice became visible, then their movements, then their shouts.
The cliffs had a dozen folk clinging onto them, some in obviously more precarious positions that others. Coming towards us were a pair who’d called off after one had hurt his ankle. He limped after his mate who was carrying both packs and both sets of gear. That was going to be a long walk out for both of them.
Lochain a’ Choire (below left) was frozen and snow covered. It’s a beautiful spot. We could have camped here, but at what time, 1am, 2am? Another time.
Poles were changed for crampons and ice axes. The snow was very inconsistent though, being variously frozen rock-hard and fall-through-up-to-yer-baws deep. This made the climb to the “window” bealach slow and tiring, but the scenery made every rest stop a joy. The huge cornice to our left looked so precarious, it was cracked, it was weary and it was right above us. The rocks here were iced on their faces as they turned into the Window, ice-falls draped the overhangs and every scree strewn gully was was filled with a blanket of fresh snow. The wind was picking up and the mood was changing as we climbed in to the wide channel and onto the broad back of the mountain.
It was a sea of snow with a ring of dark blue on the horizon. The sky was the same colour as the ground, and just as blank. Tinted lenses didn’t help, this was distinctly odd indeed.
We were both starving by this point but Creag Meagaidh’s plateau isn’t where you want to be stopping for lunch. As time was getting on, and the light was tiring at the same pace as ourselves, we waved to Mad Megs Cairn and turned down to Puist Coire Ardair for some shelter in which to enjoy our pub lunch (Lasagne and Chili Con Carne).
We dug in the snow a little and I got the stove on, cut some chunks of snow and added them to what little water I had left in the pot. the rising steam was like a lost brother coming home. Dinner was gone in a flash, we really did leave it too long and that makes you all upset. I had been sucking on a frozen protein bar, but I think that had been using so much effort that any benefit was cancelled out.
A climber topped-out near us as we were packing up. We were the only folk on the mountain that day who weren’t climbing. I waved to his grinning mate as he too clambered over the edge following a pink rope, and then I turnd after Phil.
I curled my thumbs into my fingers inside my mitts as they throbbed. It was very cold now, it hadn’t risen above -5ºC since we’ve arrived, but it was now properly cold.
The walk along the ridge towards Sròn á Ghoire was exposed to the wind and we had our faces covered and hoods up. The views back to the cliffs of Coire Ardair were wonderful though. By now the cliffs were starting to swirl with spindrift and the snow was moving in behind us. Down was the right direction.
The heathery slopes of Sròn á Ghoire were frozen and there was still much snow, and after that we found the track was iced right back to the motor. So we had the happy task of removing boots with crampons still attached and throwing them in the back.
It was dark with snow lightly falling. The glen where we’d camped was in cloud now and we’d got the timing right, just and no more.
The drive home? Ah, now there was an epic. We had intended to stop at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum but it was closed, and we had been a snails pace as the snow had gotten increasingly heavy and the road had become ever more ill-defined. Had I been alone, maybe there would have been some chancier driving with my new snow tyres, but the presence of a passenger does tend to reel in such tendencies these days.
It was much great relief we pulled into the BP garage a mile from home (my home anyway, and where Phil’s wheels were waiting) and I picked up an Indian Meal For Two for Me.
It’s like visiting a friends house, or your granny. Sure, it might not be exciting this time, it might just be cuppas and some telly, but you know that you’ll be welcome, time will pass at whatever pace it likes and you’ll be immune to any outside influence or interference for the duration.
I watched the mix of snow flurries and sunshine, looked at my watch, filled the kettle to make up a flask. I was heading to Ben Lomond for my first visit of 2010.
The pure white summit ridge swings in and out of view all the way down the road from Drymen, and never seems any closer. It’s a big bloody magnet, and it’s pull on me has never lessened through the years.
I changed into my big thick socks and boots(?!), pulled on a windshirt and headed up the tourist track. It’s been a couple of years since I climbed Lomond this way, and as good as the Ptarmigan ascent is, the views this way are different and I was already enjoying myself as I cleared the woods and stepped into the breeze and cool sunshine.
I met my first descenders of the day, a couple who’d not made the summit, but were just out for the joy of it to see what lay up the track. As with most folk I meet on the hill, they were immediately concerned for my well-being as I was walking in the wrong direction late in the afternoon. I explained myself.
The next meeting was one which will stay with for quite a while. An auld fella was coming towards me, and my first thought was “What the hell is that on his nose?”. It was a bit of tissue to stem the blood.
“Have you taken and tumble?”
“Aye, my crampon came off…”
I surveyed him and my mind raced through the options as I questioned him. He was worried that he’d burst hid cheek, but although his face was swollen, he’d just skinned it. The only blood was from his nose and it looked to be stopping. He was having black eye today as well. He was lucid, sharp in fact, and was moving well.
“Come on, sit down and I’ll get you cleaned up”
“Well, let me walk you down then?”
“No, no.. I’m fine…”
He was edging past me at this point. I let him go. It went against all my instincts, and all my standards as an interventionist, but I watched him walk away.
You know what swung it? I reckon he was well into his 70’s, he had a mix of gear from recent to old-school, I reckon he’d been in the mountains all his life. He’d taken a tumble and he’d picked himself up, sorted himself out and was making his way home. If I’d taken over would it has broken his confidence in his lifetime of experience? I just thought of him staying home next time because of his memory of this “young” fell taking him off the hill.
I felt queasy, it was a very emotional moment.
I watched him descend into the dip where the little bridge is, emerge onto the track at the other side and motor along, as he faded from sight he was almost with the couple I’d met earlier.
I don’t know if I did the right thing, and I don’t know if I’d do the same if I had a second chance.
The next group I met were instructed to watch for the auld boy as they went down. Soothing my conscience or taking precautions? At that moment I wasn’t sure at all.
The next pair were a couple of retired boys, using their free time to good effect with-weekly hill trips. We shot the breeze, talked gear and hills and it lightened my mood.
I went a little farther, but with losing so much time the light was fading and it was time for dinner, and it was time for crampons.
Now it was snow and ice and wind. The moon came out, but it’s bright, clear light was cold and the insulated jacket I’d put on when I stopped had stayed on as the wind fired spindrift into my legs, my mitts stayed on as my finger tips nipped and my face stayed covered as every inhalation ran sharp fingernails over my fillings.
The cloud was patchy and fast moving, the snow was hard and my spikes cut into it very definitely with every step. My headtorch was still in my pocket, the moon cast my shadow long and well defined in front of me as I traversed the wonderful summit ridge.
The trig point was iced and exposed, it was so cold on the summit. A quick refuel and I descended to the little coll to watch the camera constantly get blown over into the snow. But I did get the chance to play about a little.
It’s funny how a long exposure makes the city lights look so bright, it turns Lomond into an urban peak. But standing there, they’re just tiny twinkles to the south and don’t feel intrusive at all.
I took forever to descend. And tired eyes and some patchy clouds brought out my headtorch.
Eventually all the cloud disappeared, the moon rose a little higher and the wind sunk a little lower. it was beautiful.
I pulled up a rock and finished my flask. I had a lot to think about. I often say how easy what I do is, how accessible it all is. But the mix of people I’d met and their varying fortunes had reminded me of how relative it all is. We can all make mistakes, experience isn’t a bulletproof shield, we can all find ourselves out of our depth, and we can all find a little victory from reaching a level that others would scorn at.
So I don’t think there is a right or wrong, or if there is it’s just applicable to you yourself. What’s maybe universal then is the need to have an understanding for the “other”?
The carpark was deserted and pitch black. My feet were glad to be back into trainers, and suddenly the most important thing was hot food. I hadn’t realised it was getting so late.
Is a McDonald’s a guilty pleasure? I was the last customer last night, they’d put the cat out, turned down the duvet and were about to lock the door and turn the lights off when I appeared at the counter. I half expected them to just say “Here, just take the assorted lukewarm foodstuff that’s left with out compliments and give us peace”. But instead I got a Big Tasty with Bacon and onion rings frshly made and fries still with a bit of crispiness about them. Nice.
Legislation and regulations are always formed in reaction to something. These people are never clever enough to see what’s coming. Or, they do see and are fingering their purses thinkng “Hmm, not today”.
So, it’s with mixed emotions that I’ve been fielding calls from near and far by people reporting water dripping from their boilers. And you what it is? Condensing boilers with their condense drains freezing up, the water backing up, filling the boiler and running out through the screw-holes or whatever.
I know that most of these installations have been fitted to regulation standard or beyond, so I fully expect a reaction to this from “The Powers That Cost Us Money” that will mean more retraining and cost to the industry, ie me and others like me, and also from the manufacturers who will have some quick fixes and arse covering because, they know exactly what could happen and were banking on us never having such protracted low temperatures again. Well, not in the guarantee period anyway.
Wouldn’t it be better to devise practices that exceed the limited view of having to operate within “normal parameters”. Why can’t we use the information at hand (-25°C at Braemar 15 years ago) and get it right the first time?
Still, as inconvenient as some aspect of the current situation may be, the daily light-show out of the living room window is soothing my housebound mind.
Tomorrow regardless, I’m back at work. I’ve got a meeting with one of my favourite customers to look at pipes that look pre-war and may contain water, gas, or nothing at all… That’s the kind of thing that I like.
The girls were unpacking from their trip up north, I was up to my knees in bags, clothes and Christmas parcels. I was also in the way.
I peered out through the fog at the frozen village. I packed a few bits and pieces, dressed for the weather and headed off to look for some sunshine.
It wasn’t far away. As I pulled into the Overtoun House car park the edge of the fog swirled around me and after a couple of minutes I was climbing high above it. The cloud hugged the shape of the Clyde, and everything else was gleaming white and bathed in winter light.
It was a glorious wander though deep powder snow. And absolutely bloody freezing.
I made it back to my folks for lunch and the girls arrived just after me. There has since been much snacking, cuppas and listening for Santa. He’s in for a treat this year, flapjack, tea and apple juice in the Peppa Pig bottle, and of course a carrot for Rudolf are all sitting ready.
Holly is having such a great time this Christmas, she’s so excited, and it’s just a joy to watch.
Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, at this time of year where the highs find new heights and the lows can find new depths, with all my heart and soul, I wish you well.
The streets were deserted and silent. From struggling through nose to tail traffic in heavy snow at 20mph on the way home, to cIear skies and the village all to myself on the way home from a visit to my folks house for dinner.
Winter walks at night in the snow are pure magic. The snow takes the light and plays with it, everything seems new and clean, the hardest edges are softened, it’s like a sleeping powder has been sprinkled on the land and I missed it and stayed awake because I was in the cellar changing the cheese in the mousetraps.
The girls are stuck up north in the snowdrift that is Joycee’s folks place. It’s getting helluva close to Christmas, lets hope for better roads up there tomorrow.
Yes, yes, it’s that bloody man again. But, looking behind him, it looks like the old days, snow covered ridges tumbling into the distance.
Will this last? Has winter laid its golden egg already? I hope not, I could bear the inconvenience of this slippery surface for while yet.
Maybe ’til April?
It was all planned. I was fed up pushing my luck with deadlines for Trail Routes, no matter what I did something would either make me late with words and photies or I’d end up having to change the route or some bloody thing and look stupid. So I’ve been glued to the weather forecast for the past couple of weeks, and if a chance came along I was off, regardless of day, customers wailing or any lame personal issues such as injury, fatness or difficulty in matching things with purple.
I got up at 0500 when Rock Radio 96.3 stuck its finger in my ear, and it was a finger with a big skull ring on it too. Well, it would be.
Everything was ready, clothes, rucksack, boots, empty water bottle next to the sink. I dressed as the kettle boiled, it was cold, the heating wasn’t on for a couple of hours yet. A hot cuppa and some toast was more than enough at this time of the day as I sat in the dark living room feeling just a little shaky. Time to go. I kissed the girls and clicked the door locked behind me.
The A82 was clear, the fog and gloom were no barrier to progress either. I sailed through a frozen landscape, through the grey and into the brightness of a new day, everything was blurred by frost.
Rannoch sat on the edge of dawn, a frozen Loch Ba showing no reflection from the snow covered Black Mount behind.
What would it be like to stand here as the light broke the horizon and streamed onto the tops, slipping down the slopes as it rose lazily for it’s southern winter arc. Glorious.
The cars that were parked there meant that the moment would be enjoyed and remembered by someone. I didn’t slow down as Glen Coe sped towards me.
I was the first customer of the day in Morrisons in Fort William. “Is the cafe open?”, “It is now, what are you after?”.
I sat with my rolls on bacon and coffees and did some texting on my phone. Friends were setting off as I looked out of the window at the blanket over Loch Linnhe and the icy car park. The good weather is in the mountains today.
I picked up a pastry, a Dairy Milk and strode back to the car feeling positive about the circumstances I’d found myself in. But I’m the weak link in any chain, my sore knee, that little cough, a rub of the eyes, a knocking sound from the front shock absorber… The doom monger of an archetypal Scotsman that thrives within me tried to throw my aim, but as I kitted up at the edge of the forest while chatting to the old stalker from down the road I knew I had one foot already on the snow.
The Munro’s Guide really needs re-written, not just revised. Some of the routes choices cause me no end of dismay. Here they’d have you struggling up the viewless, endless, soulless northern slopes of Ruigh na Guailainn and Stob Choire Gaibhre. I’ve done it, and although there is much merit in doing the Grey Corries clockwise, this has to be the worst way to ascent the range, so I deliberately went the other way this time. I followed the old narrow gauge railway line which was fun, finding old bridges, sleepers and the like, much better than the nearby forest road of dullness.
There are some bigger surviving bits of infrastructure like the bridge below, both interesting and incredibly frustrating. There should be wee trains running on this carrying hill goers and tourists to tea shops at Loch Trieg. If it was in the Lakes…
Not far from here is a dam with a deep pool behind it and a water crossing that seems to have the potential to be the hariest bit of your day. I got across dry, but I don’t know if I could consistently repeat that successful manoeuvre.
The ridge is nicely angled and pleasant to climb. The views to Aonach Mor pull you on and the contours are passed one after the other with surprising ease. As it becomes more defined with altitude it becomes rockier and cliffs grow to your left on the way to Beinn na Socaich, the first top of the day.
I sat here for a while, had a munchie and looked ahead and around and behind. Wonderful.
It marked a change in the ground under my feet as well, I’d been walking on frozen turf and dirt since I left the motor, the snow patches had been becoming more frequent, but from here I’d be walking on snow until lunchtime the next day.
The wind was light, it was cold but bearably so. The sun was shining and ahead of me was an unbroken snow-slope to Stob Coire Easain.
Half way up that slope I met a fella coming the other way and we stopped to have a blether. The day itself was high on the agenda. He was exstatic whereas I was maybe just buoyant. It wasn’t long after we parted that I discovered why we had different levels of happiness. He had been walking the ridge and he’d been watching what I hadn’t even caught a glimpse of as yet.
When I hit the summit I threw my poles on the cairn, dropped my pack on the snow and breathed it all in as I grinned for Scotland to at least Gold Medal intensity, possibly even world record level.
I paced around the top, the cloud was being sucked northwards in streaks over the bealach joining the ridge to Sgurr Choinnich Mor where it then disappeared into nothingness, beaten by this east-west line of huge peaks where no low cloud could survive, other than the spindly cloak that followed the outline of the lochs to the north which sat there both days, neither flinching nor breathing in or out.
I had come here for a mixture of reasons, but I felt nothing but the simple joy of just standing there.
The wind was a little sharper up here, so I pulled on a windshirt and some headgear. I also swapped poles for axe and crampons. It was narrower from here.
I though about camping on this first top, there was just enough room, but it left a long day two and besides, the ridge was wearing its best winter suit. I had to go and see.
The ridge twisted and turned, rose and fell, and every step was a gem. The Grey Corries are fantastic in their own right, but they views across Rannoch, to the peaks around Glen Nevis and to the grand peaks to the north are superb, and I can’t believe I saw only three people up here in two days. Maybe everybody was on Ben Nevis? What a shame, over here was just perfect.
I met a couple on the first Munro, Stob Coire an Loaigh, and they were all rosy cheeked and smiley faced. I took a couple of photies of them on their camera, I like doing that for folk.
It was only afternoon but the light was slipping away, the days are getting so short. I had to find a pitch soon, the wind didn’t look like being an issue, so I wasn’t worried about being on the ridge, I just needed a patch a bit bigger than me. There’s always something. I looked ahead at the deserted swoops of white crest with its dalmation spots of black rock, and as I munched on a Perrerami and a mini Babybel colour seeped into the white and blue bled from the sky as everything turned pink.
I walked into the alpenglow, my shadow growing longer with every step. I reached the cairn of Stob Coire Cath na Sine and I was at home for the night. Night? It was only half three or something, I was here for a good wee while indeed.
The spot just down from the cairn was perfect. I flattened it out with my SnowClaw and the tent was up. Pitching on hard snow is easy.
I admined my kit and set up the inside of the tent, mat, sleeping bags, snacks, pastry, iPod, mini Irn Bru… It was then I noticed that my 1 litre Nalgene bottle was missing, it was also full and missing. It wasn’t at camp, it hadn’t rolled away as far as I could see. Every time I took my pack off I checked it was still there when I pulled it back on, so where the hell was it? I fell through the snow a couple of times, maybe it git dislodged and is sitting in the snow somewhere? It was more of an inconvenience than a disaster, so I set the stove up, put in a little water and a big wedge of snow. Dinner would just be a little longer than usual.
I went for a wander as the stove roared away to itself.
The loose low cloud had knitted itself together into a patchwork quilt of different thicknesses, not quite an inversion, but something else. It was quite beautiful and time passed at it ebbed and flowed, and after a while broke up and dispersed. I think it knew that most folk had gone home and didn’t see the point of putting in the effort.
A few patches persevered, and fair play to them I was watching at least.
The stove was taking its time. The gas was nearly out, No1 canister was empty (I’m carrying part used gas canisters just now to save the planet etc) and I was having to melt snow to eat and drink until tomorrow afternoon. Arse.
I got my dinner and a hot cuppa though, no problem. I had a wee nap too and awoke an hour later with a plan. I’ll go and find my bottle.
It was late, and dark, no trace of the sun remained. I had some twinkly lights to the north belonging to Spean Bridge, a street light in the distance from Bridge of Orchy and the stars above including some rather nice shooting varieties, maybe the forerunners of the expected meteor shower? I was suited up against the cold with my down gear, I had my headtorch and crampons on, ice axe in hand and handbag slung over my shoulder. Seriously, the Raidlight front pouch turns into a man-bag. Handy if slightly odd, but hey, who’s going to see me up there?
I set off the way I came. I climbed, I descended, I traversed and I even contoured at times. I swung my head from side to side and as I approached the first top of the day again I decided that this was maybe just a little mental and that I should go home. On the way back it felt a little narrower, a little steeper, I felt a little bit exposed at times. I was glad when I got back. I’d make the gas last, the bottle was history, purple or not.
I had a hot chocolate and my vision returned to normal again…
I woke at twenty five to seven after a good night. I had a couple of semi-awake moments, but I reckon I had five or six hours sleep. It was lights-out and music-on about eleven the night before, and the last I saw my watch was about half twelve. I was warm, the wind never grew to tent-rattling velocity and it was all very peaceful. Maybe I was tired after my extra ridge walking too. Idiot.
The horizon was a deep red, and even the slender crescent of the moon had joined in the fun. There was more cloud, but it was high and was just there to lend depth to the sunrise.
The day awoke slowly and I greeted it with a hot drink and a cold nose. Not from sleeping (I kept my head inside the bag this time), just from the sharp morning air. I wandered around the little top, frozen bootlaces still undone. The colours and shapes shifted lazily and the peaks with the most snow began to rise from the haze as the very first rays broke over the parapet.
I was in no hurry, I didn’t even look at my watch again until I was back at the forest track. But as the sky brightened I felt myself responding to it and waking up, tidying my gear and packing up to go.
I cleaned up camp, no coffee or dinner spots on the snow or that sort of thing, I took my cooking stone back to the cairn and filled in the wee hole where it had sat and it was like I’d never been there.
I was still looking all around as I left, so much to take in and all so different from yesterday. I suppose that’s why we keep going back, you never get the same day twice, and the next day will always be the best one ever.
From here the ridge narrows, the slopes seem to steepen and I found myself being careful. It’s odd walking from camp straight onto a snow arete. The joy of camping indeed, no walk-in, straight to the fun bit. The first fun bit ended in a short, steep scramble downwards with a little traverse over a snowslope to the continuation of the ridge. The run-out was straight to the bottom of the coire. I was suddenly very aware of how short the spikes are on Kahtoolas. Kahtoolas are great on ascent on most snow, but here I found my personal limit with them on a descent. I cut a few steps to start me on my way and plunged the axe very deep into the snow in case my feet gave way. I worked my way down and across onto the ridge.
Bloody hell. I’ve been here before, all the scrambling and steep bits in this direction are going to be tackled as descents.
I thought about taking a route north into the coire or down one of the other ridges, but the top of Stob Choire Claurigh was so close, and all the scrambling was on the other side. I’d see how I felt when I got there.
The summit of Stob Choire Claurigh is a wonderful spot, it’s high and towers over Stob Ban to its south. It’s a great shape too, it looks like a cone of sorts from a little distance, but it’s well defined and sculpted, the ridges have crests to delight, or as I found on this occasion, flounder upon.
Beads of sweat popped out on my forehead as I made my way across steep slopes near the top, my feet breaking away beneath me and catching just a little too late to keep my confidence intact.
I was relieved when I reached the crest of the ridge (to the left above), it was easier going, and more importantly, enjoyable. I slip here would still be exciting, but my feet were sticking again and the pace was back to normal.
I stood at the rim of Coire na Ceannain and wiped my brow with my Buff. That had been interesting.
I descended around the coire rim which is a deep bowl with a secretive lochan on a high shelf. It was bright green the last time I was here with Joycee in springtime, today it was frozen, just a pale grey shape in the shadows.
The view across the coire from Stob Coire Gabhre is inspiring when you ascend to it, as it’s your first mountain view of the day. Today it was my parting shot, a glance over my shoulder and the lochan was gone, another glance back and the mountains were gone. A mile of water ice with grass sprouting through it lay between me and the forest road. It was on that road that I finally got to take my crampons off.
I truck pulled up beside me as I tramped down the road towards the motor. “Are you out for the good of your health or are you wanting a lift?”
I was so tempted, but my feet were relaxing after hours of crampon wearing and I was maybe 1km from the motor, “Ah, you’re the silver car?”. I was parked in shall we say a traditional place, which is very much on a private road but is treated with respect by it’s unofficial users and is issue-free, the gates have no padlocks and no tyres are slashed. The friendliness of the estate folk that I met on both days was a joy to discover. It proves that there doesn’t have to be conflict between us and them, or even an Us or Them?
The frost was thick, it hadn’t lifted for days. The glen is in the shadow of many of the tallest mountains on these islands, and they’re keeping the sunlight to themselves.
One last railway bridge needed a visit on the way back. I can see Thomas going over there, pulling along kids with balloons and ice creams, parents glad of a sit-down and muddy hillwalkers happy with a ride back to Ft Bill. Ach.
The day wasn’t over though. The texting of the previous day meant that I was on the lookout for pals, and I found them coming off Buachaille Etive Beag. We compared notes and trail scars and headed to the Real Food Cafe, where I arrived first and another familiar face arrived right after from his camp elsewhere.
We dined like kings upon the tasty fare and it was the perfect unwinding of a weekend which seemed to have had at least 33% extra free.
There are other stories to be heard from the weekend, folk getting oot is magic. These folk in fact: Elaina, Steve and Sandy.
The Trail Route thing? Er, I forgot all about it when I hit that first top on Saturday. It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine…
I remember my first crampons. Purple Stubai’s, ten points with about ten feet of straps which always came undone and trailed about me until I tripped on them and tried to hide them inside my gaiters.
My first axe was a Stubai as well, a metallic blue thing with a welded-on adze and no teeth on the pick.
I felt like I was a mountaineer.
My instruction in their use was very much the application of a trial and error technique followed by looking at “action” line drawings of men in breeches in an old book when I got home. But learning what doesn’t work is as important as what does, like self arresting with a 70cm axe. I bought a 55cm Mountain Technology the following Sunday afternoon.
I’ve stuck with 55cm or 60cm since. 57.5cm would be perfect, but you can’t have it all.
Winter kit has so many memories tied to it.
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.
No it’s not a 99g sleeping bag (yet), it’s a new feature on their website which might be even better than the Design Your Own Mortgage Sleeping Bag feature, it’s “GearAdviser“. I’ve been playing with it for a while and made up shopping lists for climbing Denali, Mt Vinson and walking to the North Pole.
Apart from the fun aspect there’s some really good technical information and advice in there, the Lightweight bit in the FAQs section is spot on and the rest is just as well thought out.
It started a train of thought as well. Winter is here, Ben Lomond today has snow on the top few hundred metres, so camping is now winter camping unless it’s at low level. My last winter bag went down to the Stoneleigh trade recently show to be misunderstood by gormless store buyers, so what now?
Lightweight and warm while sleeping on snow and ice. That’s what’s on my mind.