Sure enough the weather changed, there was a bit of rain overnight, a lie-in was encouraged by a steady drizzle and I eventually unwrapped myself from the comforts of the sleeping bag at about 08.00, once the rain had stopped.
An initial assessment of the weather was not good and a further more comprehensive assessment which involved climbing the 10m back up on to the track in order to get a better view north up the glen, merely confirmed the fact that it was a rather claggy day with an unbroken heavy cloud base at I estimated under 1000m. Most of the ridge that was to be my route later that day was covered and the likelihood of more rain was pretty strong.
This was the scenario I had not wanted. In the planning of this expedition I considered two alternative routes from here to Loch Mhoicean (NH 077316). The first section up the glen to Alltbeithe Hostel is straightforward. This si the beginning of SRWS Route 253. From the hostel were two options. One was a low level route due west at the head of Glen Affric then north to Iron Lodge and a climb north east up to the Loch. The other and my preferred option, a high level route, onto the ridge from Alltbeithe Hostel up to Sgurr nan Ceathreambhan, then the NE ridge to Mullach na Dheiragain and Mullach Sithidh, due north down to Loch Mullardoch then up and over to Loch Mhoicean. I figured this was more interesting, more direct and also a chance to get on to some tops and bag a couple of Munroes! Then there would always be the option of the Iron Lodge if the weather was bad.
So here I was at 10.00 hrs. having had a later start than I would have preferred, due to the weather, plodding north up the glen weighing up the pros and cons of the situation. I decided to go with my preference – the high level route and to hell with the clouds!
The first 3 km was a comfortable walk up a good track. The imposing presence of the big hills to the east and west with their crags and rocky buttresses, was enhanced by the clouds swirling around their tops and the dark colouring of the wet rock. The track comes to an abrupt end at the watershed NH 079162 – for some reason this must be as far as the stalkers wish to travel in their ATV’s and 4 wheel drives. The next 4 km to the River Affric, by the hostel was awful, some of the muckiest and more time consuming terrain of the whole trip. The quote from my daily notes sum it up “……the latter half of the walk to Alltbeithe was rotten, boggy peaty muck, descent to river over wet tight grassy mossy stuff was like a staking rink, fell over 3 times……”. It always seems to happen in this sort of boggy difficult terrain, the track appears and disappears like a willo the wisp. It was gone midday before I was standing by the river, feeling thoroughly out of sorts. The falls had only hurt my pride but there is no doubt that when one is out of the first flush of youth (ha! ha!) – 17 going on 57, a fall of any sort especially if accelerated by a 20+kg pack, does have a certain unsettling affect on one!
So temporarily out of sorts was I, that I had removed boots and socks, donned my Teva shoes and forded the river before I noticed that 500 metres to the east, just beyond the hostel is a bridge! Feeling a complete prat I dried my feet, put on socks and boots and set off for the hostel and the path up to the ridge. I rested for a time above the hostel and went through the routine of taking on water.
Photo 14: Sgurr nan Ceanthreambhan from the watershed
The new Karimor sack I had bought for this trip has a 2 litre hydration system, I also carried a 2 litre Platypus bladder. The usual method was to fill this from a stream and add the purifier, which has then to be left for 20 minutes, once it is ready I decanted it into the hydration system together with the G push energy food powder. I find this a good system because the built in hydration system allows fluid to be taken regularly and the second bladder gives the ability to carry extra clear water as well as the energy drink.
During the latter part of the morning the cloud base had dropped and I reckoned it was now down to about 850 – 900m. On my way up the path of the ridge I met with two young women coming down and while chatting they said that they had not reached the ridge because the cloud was down and they had decided to return to the hostel!
It was about 14:30 when I reached the col between An Socach to the east and the ridge to the west NH 080230 The cloud was really thick, so it was very dull, with visibility of only 20-25m. In conditions like this one has no idea of the bigger picture; one can only assess what is in the field of vision and try to judge the features of the mountain from that limited information. The ridge didn’t seem difficult, some terraces with short sections to scramble up or down. I tend to worry on these parts if I loose the main way and I am always relieved when I find footprints or boot smoothed rocks again.
I shortly met up with three guys ‘Dave’ and his two mates who were on their way down from the summit. Dave was to drive his friends to Inverness later that day and would be returning to the hills the following day, Sunday. They were an affable trio and it was good to stop for 15 minutes or so and talk mountain talk. So far in 3 days walking I had only met a handful of people. The previous day the only words I had spoken to someone other than myself was to order a beer and peanuts at the Cluanie Inn.
Progress seemed slow and it was to get slower once I got to about 1000m. The last 1 km had a snow covering of only a few inches, but as that top section of the ridge consisted of loose rock and moss, which combined with soft snow, meant things could not be rushed. Visibility had been very poor most of the time, just a couple of times the north side of the ridge opened up to reveal glimpses of the corrie, the southern side of the ridge remained completely clagged in for the whole time I was on the ridge.
I eventually reached the East summit of Sgurr nan Ceathreauhnan in no more than 10m visibility and went on the further ½km to the West summit. I have to admit here that for whatever reason I had wrongly fixed in my mind that the track on to the N.E. ridge went from the West summit. Imagine my consternation when reaching the west summit and in visibility of 15-20m I realised that a NE bearing would take me straight over the edge of what looked, in the poor conditions like a fair sized cornice. On returning to the East summit the visibility had improved a bit and I could see the tracks, through the snow, that lead to the elusive NE ridge. I was soon dropping down on to the narrow ridge above An Gorm Lochan.
Photo 15: Looking into corrie north side of ridge to Sgurr nan Ceathreauhnan
It was now past 17:00 hrs and I was beginning to feel tired. I think the strain of coping with the conditions was beginning to have an effect and also I realised I probably had not eaten as much as I should have done that day, although I had been taking on the energy drink. A salutary lesson really, that even with experience it is still possible to overlook certain fundamentals on occasions. I have done many walks, that from the distance and terrain perspective were tougher, but when the stress and anxiety of a day like this, on one’s own, is factored in to the equation, I think the effects on ones stamina etc. is quite considerable.
There was still a lot to do before I could set up camp, about 7 km with three big undulations in the ridge before Mullach Sithidh, from where is would be all down hill. Visibility continued to improve and for the first time, looking back, I saw the ridge that had seemed to take me forever to traverse. Also the view out to the west seemed to encourage thoughts of a pleasant fine evening. It stayed thus till I got to Mullach Sithidh NH 082265, by which time I was getting decent views north giving me a view of the start of the following day’s route.
I had stopped to chat with two young guys ‘Phil and Ian’ who were setting up camp in the col above An Gorm Lochan, their mission was not only Munroe bagging but also to bag every top over 3000ft.. They had come away for the weekend and were heading south again on Sunday afternoon. Some time after I had left them, I realised they could probably have helped solve a problem that had been nagging me for some time. Although Ali had full details of my route and roughly where I would expect to camp, I felt sure that when I spoke to her last, on Friday afternoon, I had confused the days and had told her that I would be ringing again on Sunday pm, whereas in reality I reckoned it would be Monday afternoon before I reached Craig on the A896 above Achnashellach NH037496 where I might hope to find a public telephone.
As I approached the col before Mullach Sithidh, NH078252 I heard ‘Phil and Ian’ behind me. They had finished setting up camp and were on a light weight attack of the NE ridge to bag the one Munroe and three 3000 footers. As they passed by I asked if they would mind phoning Ali the next day. They readily agreed, I gave them details, and we parted for the second time. Sure enough she had a call from them the following afternoon as they were driving south on their way home.
At Mullach Sithidh I carried on down the shoulder that goes off to the NW while they continued NE to bag the 933m unnamed top. The last time I saw them they were half way to their objective, moments later it started to rain and within 2 or 3 minutes the cloud had descended and once again I was in rotten visibility, the difference being that this time it was raining, serious Scottish “get off these moontins you bloody introoder” rain. My notes written the following morning put it bluntly “…just as I had established my route it started to rain. The cloud dropped and it absolutely pissed down. Got down by instinct, occasionally reinforced by compass bearing…”
In retrospect this was the low point of the whole expedition. A mixture of exhaustion and disappointment that the weather was deteriorating again, brought many thoughts to mind like, why am I doing this to myself?. I found it quite a mental challenge to stay completely focussed on the matter in hand – a difficult 500ms descent down the north ridge over Creag a Choir Aird to the glen below.
I came out of the cloud at I reckon about 350-400m and although it was still raining, I could see a wide green strip on the south bank of the river about 1 km or so west from the top end of Loch Mullardoch. As I lost height my gaze kept returning to it, becoming more convinced that this was to be my next camp site. Sure enough at about 20:30 hrs I was standing on a beautiful flat grassy sward, “this will do me” I thought and immediately began unpacking my sack. I was completely exhausted. By the time I had pitched the tent and stowed my kit, all I could think of was getting out of my soaking wet kit and getting warm and dry in my sleeping bag, so I just had the recovery drink, half a bar of chocolate and shut my eyes on the day.