The Fifth Element

It was late when I left. I’d been packed for nearly two days, I was out of bed on time, I was ready. But then mother took a flyer in the Asda car park and it all went up in the air.
I took to saying “mother” years back, it might look a little twee, maybe even sound a little lame to some, but spoken in my accent it sounds like I’m addressing a commanding officer, so mother it is.
The x-rays were okay, a sprain which was all strapped up, go to the hills, I’ll be fine, Jimmy’s here.
I took to saying Jimmy years back, shouting “Dad” at work made me looking like Pike from Dad’s Army, so Jimmy it is.
Turns out after I got back, it was dislocated, I guess you should always x-ray from different angles in the first place.

My first stop was Pitlochry to nip into Escape Route for a gas can and grab some food from the local baker and deli. It’s not even half way and the day was grinding ever onwards. I should never plan for anything, I should just get out of my bed in the morning and see what happens.
The sun was bright, the sky was clear and snow was everywhere. It was a delight. The Cairngorms looked like a set of dining room chairs with a white blanket thrown over them. Come on north, where are you.

No delays on the Kessock Bridge this time, I can’t remember an easter with quieter roads. Ben Wyvis was shining white, a huge lump it is and An Teallach always looks like a glimpse of some greater range as it sits in the middle of your windscreen. The road in front of me was empty and I flew towards Ullapool. Early evenibg, I was a wee bit hungry with a few miles to cover on foot and some steep slopes to tackle with it.
The top of the climb over to Ardmair is a favourite spot, it’s where Ben More Coigach comes into view. For all its diminutive 743m height, it looks huge stretching straight from the sea. I turned into Blughasary and trundled through folks gardens to get to the little car park for the Postman’s Path, a route where I was planning to have some fun tomorrow. It’s a coastal route and was indeed used by  a postman to take the mail into Achiltibuie before there was a road. Not so long ago either.

I changed clothes and sorted out the last few bits and pieces for my rucksack. Where was my gas… rummage… rummage… It was on the counter in Escape Route. Northwest Outdoors would be shut by now, the garage in Ullapool? That would take time, I rummaged some more, two nearly empty cans in the boot. Not enough to keep melting snow, but enough to do me if I took plenty water to camp. With reluctance I packed my two extra water bottles and took the bridge over the River Runie to start the trail. It was cool, the sun was slipping down and I was changing my plan with every footstep.
It was very quiet, almost no wind and no bird song. When I left the river and started to climb around Meall nan Clachan is was actually a little eerie. The sky was turning pastel, the ground was growing indistinct without direct sunlight, dusk was here whether I liked it or not.

The track just stops dead I the middle of nowhere by a little two foot high stone built wind break. The loch was nearby, Ben More was up above, it was late, I needed my dinner. Mountains later, time to find somewhere to kip.
There’s a lot of bare rock here and inbetween is peat with jaggy heather sticking out of it. Still, got a spot a few feet from the loch and I pitched the unfamiliar tent pretty quickly for its first time out of the bag. I sorted my kit out with a triangle of sunset to the west. Maybe a little frustrating, but looking up there was no way I was anywhere near the summit before dark, I’d made the right call.
I took my cook kit and foodbag down to the lochside where the sandstone had been worn into the shape of an armchair. The loch was frozen hard save for a few small gaps near the rock where the sun had been and I felt the temperature fall as the darkness thickened and my pot came to the boil. Then my phone rang.
I sat in my own little pool of light in the darkness, watching ice form in the lid of my stove while I read Holly and her two cousins a bed time story over the phone.

It really was getting cold, the tent was frosted, my rucksack and boots too. The ground sparkled under my torchbeam and I crept into my sleeping bag. I lasted half an hour and then had to go out and see what was happening. The stars were out, not too bright, but there was a sky full of them. I had a play with camera and lights, but I was tired. Hot chocolate and bed.
It wasn’t the best nights sleep, but don’t know why, I was warm, there was no wind, just one of those things. Bugger.

I’d set my phone alarm and it was bright in the tent when it woke me, probably during the best bit of sleep I’d had too, bloody thing. Still, sunrise is where it’s at so I sat up, showering myself with frozen condensation, pulled on my down gear and crawled outside.
Not spectacular, just nice. The sun rose and the light spread down Ben More and caught the top of the tent. The frost clung on, there was no warmth in those rays yet. Porridge, a cuppa and a plan.
The Postman’s Path could wait, I’ll head up with a light pack and come back for lunch. I got my shit together and skipped away, in a manly fashion, into the sunshine.

The loch had re-frozen during the night, there was no open water at all and it was an inch thick at the edge. Winter’s grip isn’t getting cramp quite yet.
I started to get views south as I climbed, an alpine horizon with some of the newsworthy hill fires starting to show maybe? I certainly saw them on the way home, one was raging by Slocht Summit.
I’d forgotten my shades, they were in a poly bag of CD’s back at the motor. I spend the next few hours squinting from under the brim of my tartan cap. I was squinting at visions of joy though and hitting the ridge brought the first of many on this hill.
Bare pink sandstone littered with little boulders, fluff from the glacier’s pockets. It’s a wonderful place, it made me smile, you could say it’s a little other-worldly, but it feels too much like it was built by a primary school art project, it’s fun.
The peaks of Coigach, Inverpolly and Assynt rise into view to the north as well now. There’s nothing quite like it.

I couldn’t see much of the ridge or the summit from below, I knew there was some snow, but I did wonder about leaving my crampons behind to gain that extra tenth every lap. That would have been really stupid, the ridge narrows, the snow gets rock hard and then I was on an arête, treading carefully while squinting sideways at views that just made me want to sit down and breath out really slowly.
Ahead there was a plateau of white, the crags were buried in snow and as my points dug in in I was glad the sensible old head chose the packing list at camp.
Speicein Coinnich needed to be visited right now, not last night in a breathless scrabble with a full overnight pack, this way it was total and utter joy. It’s much airier than I expected too, aye, I haven’t been on here before. I’d been saving it for a perfect day and by leaving late I’d engineered just that by accident.
The views are beyond explaining or describing, the peaks are all there, but the tumbling land of the northwest that links them and the sea ahead of me, blue and infinite. I’ve said it before, but here the landscape is alive, the passage of time and the evolution of the earth laid out before you in motionless motion. You have to come here, touch the rock, you can feel a heartbeat.

The ridge is over a little too soon and a snow softened col is turned to reach the edge of the gully scarred slopes so well seen from the south. It’s deceptive though, the ridge slopes gently north into a plateau of sorts and rises to the other tops including the summit itself and the fine angular thrust of Sgurr an Fhidhleir. The snow was mostly solid and the going was good, my eyes watered at the blinding brightness as the wind tried to chill me, not knowing I was dressed for it. So many contrasts for so many senses, only smell felt left out, I fixed that by pulling out some Austrian smoked cheese. There, everyone was happy.

The summit looks out to sea and so did I. The wind was howling around me and the stone shelter was buried deep in snow, I waited as long as I could, as long as my fingers could stand it.
I took a swing north on my way back, found some snow to fall into up to my waist and looped back towards the col. There was a big long slope running northeast, doable I thought, and the snow was hard enough to make it enjoyable too. A descent by the buttresses overlooking Inverpolly, out of the wind and with crags to hide in at the bottom for a quick snack.

It was all over too soon, I was in the heather again, I was back on the sandstone slabs and I could see the tent far below. My face ached, the sun, the wind, the eternal grin. A short day with more mountain joy that I had in the whole of 2012. I’m glad I paid karma for this stuff in advance.

Back at base I had a cuppa and some noodles with oatcakes and a Cadbury’s Freddo. The ice on the loch sang and twanged and creaked at the sunlight stressed it. The figures on its surface were frozen in mid flight but might soon be free.

Coming home is a blur. I did stop at Ullapool for something else to eat, it took me a while to break camp and walk out, I was dragging my feet. The hill fires were burning all over and then I was looking at the Cairngorms directly ahead, exactly like a row of wedding cakes, thick with icing.
I always go west given a choice and for the first time I think I know why. I love the Cairngorms when I’m there, and even if it is epic in every way, the level height, the blankness of it today when I’d already seen geological chaos bordered by land and sea, it doesn’t call to me in the same way.
I’ll be on the A9 so much in the next couple of months, I hope I’ve got time to stop by and talk it over, my neglect makes me feel guilty at times.

I fuelled at Aviemore and headed home with all sorts of arseholes flying past on the wrong side of the road in expensive cars with snowboards on their roofracks trying to kill me and everyone else who was just trying to get home.
I didn’t care. I was floating, I wasn’t even tired, my head was full of the day and the night before it and it bubbled away like the dozens of newly hatched frogs I saw in a burn on the walk out. Crazy wee buggers.

#2 in an ongoing series of title explanations: Coigach means Fifth.

27 thoughts on “The Fifth Element

  1. Great photos and a fantastic write up. If I didn’t have a visit arranged I would have been making plans now.
    I try and tell people at work just how incredible their own country is and they just don’t get it.
    They’ll all be booking trips to Turkey and Greece to lay on a beach and get drunk when they’ve got this on their doorstep.

  2. Bless you. Scotland is indeed a wonderful wee place.

    I hope you have a wonderful time and I hope you get the views, it’s place that’s made for clear summits. I remember being on Cul Mor a while back and being crestfallen when it clouded over when I got to camp. Got sunburned the next day :o)

  3. beaches are only for sitting on after a long days walk or work…..
    therse not that much healthy about lying on a beach, theres heat stress, sunburn, skin cancer. your kidneys dont work when you’re lying down…. nether does the circulation to your brain, people think they are getting rest but they arent really. they are just turning themselves into a stagnant mess…

  4. 2 weeks ago I took my girlfriend on 3 days along the South Downs Way and I wish the sky had been as clear as you got it in these photos!
    I haven’t plucked up enough courage to wild camp yet so we stuck to camp sites…
    Sadly my visits to Scotland have only been to Edinburgh and Glasgow. How have I let myself get away without getting into the mountains? I think I’m going to have to find a cheap/fast/easy (non-existent?) way of getting from North London to those beautiful, cloudless mountains you’ve got up there.

  5. @bsmith_90
    Have a look at the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness. Goes from Euston and Watford. Maybe you’ll get a bargain berth … my last trip was £68 return. Alternatively, use the ‘seated sleeper’.

    Thanks again for an excellent report that gets the wander juices going. No trip planned for that area, though me and the missus are off for a week to Boat of Garten in a few weeks, followed by Skye for another week. B+B both times, though. I’m also being asked by my camera club (Bracknell) to set up a trip to Glencoe or Skye for a small group.

    Magic.

  6. About the melting snow for drinks and food, how long does that take for a 900ml pot and how much water do you get from a pot of snow? We were wondering about this last Sunday up on the Glen Feshie hills.

    Great photies.

  7. Thanks for the kins words folks.

    Beaches are nice to camp by or skip stones from, that’ll do me.

    Scotland can be far away, but there are ways to get here that don’t cost too much, the overnight bus is cheap, but cheerless. you ust have to think about the joys of where you’re going.

    Melting snow, the must fun you can have ineffieciently burning gas :o)
    Volume wise the ratio might be around a third on a good day or a quarter, that is 250/300ml of water from a litre pot full of snow.
    You have to have some water in the pot to start with or the snow flashes into steam and I’ve seen me dripping chunks in for ten minutes to make up a full pot of boiling water from just a little water in the bottom at the start.

    All unscientific I know, but I’m happy doing this stuff, I’d rather carry an extra gas canister than another litre of water.

    Here, I’m off the Skye soon as well. Once it’s a little less alpine over there.

  8. Love Coigach. I take the family there every summer, and would encourage anyone (not everyone, though, you understand) to visit. Climbed Cul Mor once and Stac Pollaidh a couple times. Traverse around the Rubha Coigach from Achnahaird is recommended too.

  9. @bsmith_90 – It might be worth you spending some time walking in the Lakes or Snowdonia. Both are amazing, albeit not quite as spectacular as many of the ranges in Scotland. But, they are closer for you and will take your breath away.

  10. Arthur, I think you’re about right there. Even with 4 days off between shifts a trip to Scotland would have me spend a lot of time travelling and not so much walking.
    I love Snowdonia and the drive isn’t too bad. I’ll have a look at some maps when I get in, see if I can work out a route and/or where would be good to spend a night!

    Failing that Trail magazine has a novices guide to wild camping next month; may have to see if that gives any useful pointers other than the same old!

  11. Camping is the best way to make the most of your time. I’ve got to travel for several hours to get to a hill sometimes and knowing that I’m in no hurry to get down or back makes a huge difference to my enjoyment.
    This trip is the perfect example, it’s a great day walk by itself, but add a night by the loch and sunrise with a cuppa and you’ve made something altogether different and indeed better.

    Camping is fun on its own but it’s also a great tool as it expands your horizons. I’ve been sleeping in the hills one way or another since the mid 70’s and the past 6 or 7 years have been the best and the most fun with all these daft wee tents and lighweight gear.

    It’s a fantastic time to be discovering the joys of it all.

  12. Superb. That was a joy to read. I could just feel your grin!
    Funny you mentioned how quiet the A9 was. I was in Nethy Bridge with the family for easter (was banned from the hills, :-( but did manage a short early morning blast up to Ryvoan on the bike).
    I was struck by how quiet the roads were – and even Aviemore wasn’t nearly as busy as you’d expect. Was great for us, but it did make me worry for those who rely on the tourist buck.
    Saw a few wildfires too. Even got involved helping to put one out near Boat of Garten. It was stunning when it hit the treeline – old scots pines were just exploding as if they’d been napalmed. Scary stuff, but thankfully it was brought under control before it did too much damage.

  13. Aye Wayno, we live in better times in many ways.

    Hey Feepole, that’s a nice wee ride. Anything outside recently has been a joy until the past few days!

    I’m seeing plenty black patches all over, some very close to the roads. The rain did arrive just in the nick of time.

  14. The Trail mag article was less than helpful. Nothing more than comments from the writer about how enjoyable his first ever wild camp was. Back to my 1:50k map of Snowdonia with a Sharpie pen in one hand and the other hand with fingers crossed!

  15. Things I took away from the article:

    – Try wild camping/backpacking
    – Leave No Trace (or is it “leave only footprings, take only photos”?)
    – Have someone with experience (the Trail mag photographer) plan it for you.

  16. Number 3 is probably what is worrying me the most. How do I know if my foam mat and 1 season bag are warm enough? I guess trial and error.
    I wouldn’t mind being cold and wet myself but I know Naomi (my better half and walking partner) doesn’t like sleeping cold!

  17. The truth is that the ratings on sleeping bags are done in a lab and while it’s useful to see them they don’t translate into real life very well.
    It’s very difficult to know how cold you’ll be, even now I sometimes pick the wrong bag or mat, but I’m never stuck. I’ll stick my rucksack under my mat or wrap my insulated jacket around my inside the bag and that’ll get me back to sleep.
    It’s too expensive to experiment, I’ve been lucky enough to try dozens of sleeping bags and now I know what weight of down will keep me warm in what conditions. But when you’re in a shop with one hand on your forehead and the other on your wallet, it’s not so easy.
    I’d rather be warm than cold, I’ll rather carry less than more. Somewhere in there is the perfect bag and mat combo, but adaptability is vital too.

    I’m just no help at all am I.

  18. I’d much rather read that than endless BPL forum threads of people claiming that a $500 cuben 100 gram down quilt is the perfect sleep system for any weather.
    I have a golite adrenaline “1+ season” bag which was warm enough with a prolite extra small on a chilly night earlier this year (March) so I should be okay for the summer.
    I’ve stolen a few potential routes from the fantastic v-g.me.uk blog and now it’s just down to either persuading Naomi to come along or persuading her to not be jealous if I go alone.

  19. Can’t wait to hear how you get on.
    The world really will be yours and the best view you’ll ever have is dawn through the unzipped door of a tent.

    Alright!

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