Monday 19 January 2015

Still no running.....plenty of reminiscing.

      In a hurry to catch a train I was running from one end of Leeds station to the other when I realised my Rt leg was still in no mood to go as fast as I wanted it to go. So I reckon a few more days yet before I take
My mate Stuart Scott near Kinbreack (Click to enlarge)
off into the hills again.. In the meantime I'm in reminiscing mode, letting my mind enjoy itself roaming around some remote hills of yesteryear. And they don't come more remote than the rough bounds of Knoydart in the wild north west of Scotland where, some years ago, I spent a dry, sunny Easter bagging all the Munros with a mountaineering friend, Dr Stuart Scott, a lecturer in vulcanology and geology at the University of Plymouth. We'd parked the car at Strathan and walked up the Dearg Allt to Kinbreack bothy where we cooked a meal by the light of head torches as darkness fell.
      Next morning we awoke to brilliant sunshine, blue sky and all the mountaintops plastered with
Making myself at home by Lochan nam Breac
deep, hard packed snow. Perfect conditions for our traverse of the two eastern Munros, Gairich and Sgurr Mor before making our way past the little jewel of Lochan nam Breac en route to Barrisdale bothy where I remember there was a very smelly dog whose owner enthused all evening about the wonderful hill they'd climbed that day - Meall Bhuide.  The previous night they'd camped by the River Carnach, two in a tent with said smelly dog which, at Barrisdale, was allowed to make itself comfortable on any chair it jolly well liked. I opted to sleep outside in my wee tent, visited regularly throughout the night by a horse that must have felt a bit lonely, and wakened in the morning by an over-sexed quacking drake streaking around at great speed rounding up his harem.
      The morning had dawned grey and misty with limited visibility and there was some discussion about whether we should keep to our schedule or have a rest day. "Och, it'll clear before much longer, let's
Stuart en route to Sgurr Mor from Sgurr an Fhuarain
go" I said.  And we set off into the gloom on a rising path, over a rocky shoulder, and into a snow filled Coire Dhorcail for the assault on Ladhar Bheinn. I can't remember a path. All I remember is the snow getting steeper and steeper until we were kicking steps up a very steep wall. I was ahead of Stuart, breaking trail, when there was that dreaded sound, something like a train going past, quite close to our right but invisible through the thick clag. An avalanche.
Stuart leaving the summit of Ladhar Bheinn
      A voice from below shouted "I'm going back". Stuart was clearly not happy. But from my position above him I could see a high black wall of rock that reassured me no avalanche was ever going to displace us, so I called him up. We followed the rock wall to a break where we could climb onto the ridge to be greeted by a most wonderful sight. We'd climbed out of the clag into a cloud inversion with a cloudless blue sky above us and all the glistening white peaks of Knoydart rising around us. "Aaahhhh, Gregorlach" proclaimed an exuberant Stuart, waving his axe in the air, "this is what mountaineering is all about".  We'd made the right decision. Walking that ethereal pathway along the narrow summit ridge, marvelling at our glittering surroundings, cut off from the rest of the world, it was a scalp-tingling experience I shall never forget. I might even have shed a little tear. It was so beautiful.
      We made our way back to the bothy in Barrisdale, staying high to avoid avalanche threats, over
Contemplating Meall Buidhe
the Bealach Coire Dhorrcail, on to Aonach Sgolte then a steep drop down to Mam Barrisdale where the clag had thankfully cleared. The smelly dog had gone but left it's delightful scent on all the chairs. After refuelling I found a little loft space where I opted to sleep for the night. I'd hardly got my head down when a generator started up, just outside my window, and went on boom boom booming till one in the morning.  Barrisdale bothy is not one of my favourite places to sleep, magnificent though its situation might be.  Next time I'll stay outside with the horse. 
Enjoying a brew outside Sourlies bothy
      Next day we were away in good time re-tracing our steps part way up Mam Barrisdale to climb Luinne Bheinn via the lesser peak of Bachd Mhic an Tosaich. The freezing conditions held which meant we could walk all day and return in the evening without getting our feet wet, which can't happen very often in Knoydart. It also meant we could take more direct routes, not having to traverse the normally boggy hinterland. We were soon onto Luinne Bheinn (usually pronounced loony bin) and setting our sites on distant Meall Bhuide rising majestically in the distance at the end of a long snowy ridge. Stuart, my mountaineering partner, and I were well matched and could move at speed confidently and safely. It wasn't long before we were ascending Meall Buidhe's final rocky ramparts to lunch at it's towering viewpoint. We lingered long, savouring the situation before descending by its south east ridge to the stalker's path through the Man Meadail, down to cross the Carnach river, then continuing south to the bothy at Sourlies.
      This is another beautifully situated bothy at the head of Loch Nevis. There was not a soul there
Resting on Sgurr na Ciche after the hard climb
when we arrived so it wasn't long before I'd claimed a bunk, taken off my boots, made a brew and sat outside enjoying the late afternoon sun. Next day would be a hard traverse over three high Munros, and we'd be starting from nigh on sea level, so we got our heads down early anticipating an early start in the morning. Some time after midnight I became aware of voices and not long after the door burst open to admit half a dozen hungry Outward Bounders who set about cooking meals and making brews that lasted well into the wee small hours. It must have been 3 o'clock before silence descended upon the place. We got our own back in the morning, clattering our pots and pans to make darn sure they were all awake before we slammed the door and set off along the Finiskaig river to find a stalker's path into Coire na Ciche, then a tough slog onto the ridge leading to Sgurr na Ciche, the highest of the Knoydart Munros at 1040m.
Approaching Coireachan from Sgurr na Ciche (far right)
and Garbh Chioch Mhor

       I remember finding a map and compass in the wee shelter at the summit, so hoped the person who'd left them had a good sense of direction. I sprawled out for a while to get my breath back before the long ridge walk to Garbh Chioch Mhor (1013m) then over two minor peaks to Sgurr nan Coireachan (953m), our final Munro. It had clouded over but frozen snow still gave some ideal walking conditions along the delightful high level route. We had crampons (essential for winter mountaineering) but I can't remember ever wearing them. There was just enough give in the snow for our boots to bite, or to kick steps, that an ice axe was all we needed for protection and to move safely. As I've said, we were a perfectly matched pair who travelled fast. (In summertime we travelled even faster, often wearing no more than shorts and a sun hat, ticking off Munros in lightweight running shoes). So, it wasn't long before Coireachan was beneath our feet and we'd dropped down into Glen Dessarry for a night in the excellent MBA bothy at A'Chuil. Next morning it was an easy walk back to the car at Strathan for the long drive home. Mission accomplished. And on schedule....


  1. its great to look back, I enjoy a good natter with friends about days camps and climbs in the mountains particularly the trips with the groups of young people we took and introduced to the mountains, many whom went on to greater things, and bigger mountains, funny thing is the older I get the better I was!!!
    Nice story by the way, good photos!
    Ian B

    1. Thanks Ian, the photos were digitised from slides with my new toy! Not half as sharp as the originals, but just about acceptable. Good for refreshing the memories....

  2. That's not Stuart Scott the volcanologist is it?

    1. The very same JJ - before he washed all the colour from his hair! Says he's doing the Chally again this year....
      (I've since included his occupation in the text)

  3. "We'd climbed out of the clag into a cloud inversion with a cloudless blue sky above us and all the glistening white peaks of Knoydart rising around us."

    Great to read, many thanks.

    Interesting to read the original pictures were slides .... call me old fashioned ! but the quality of slides pictures has always been superb - digital is good and yes, it's modern but sometimes you just can't beat the 'old ways'.

    I followed with interest the exploits of the two American climbers who have become the first men in history to free-climb the south-eastern face of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, considered the world’s toughest rock climb. Tommy Caldwell, 36, and his climbing partner 30-year-old Kevin Jorgesen completed their ascent of the mountain’s so-called “Dawn Wall” shortly before 3.30 on Wednesday afternoon, after a 19-day free-climb, meaning ropes are used only to break a climber’s fall, not to assist in their ascent.

    I'm very pleased they were able to do this.

    It's a good job we all like doing different things, different challenges.

    Hope your right leg continues to heal / get better soon.

    All the best Jan

    1. In my freelance journalism days editors would only accept slides to illustrate articles, because of their superior quality. I have hundreds of them and have just started to digitize some of them. I may post some of my climbing pictures, taken in some very precarious places - but not quite as airy as those on El Capitan. Those guys are incredible.
      The leg is feeling better now Jan, should hopefully be running again next week.

  4. I took to the mountains of Cape Town this weekend (and if I have the time at the office!!! I'll write a few words about my weekend) no Snow here only 30+*c...

    1. Look forward to reading your mountaineering report CD - and ever so envious of your 30º+. It's currently 4º here - not very good for old bones!