DAY 5: Monday 10th May 2004
Loch an Laoigh to Coulin Pass
Walked from 10.00 to 17.00hrs
Distance covered 20K Climbed 764m Camped at NH 024533
I had a lie-in this morning having had no wake up call from my bladder! Although there is no way of seeing out of my tent without unzipping the door, the absolute stillness and amount of condensation on my fly sheet made me pretty certain that the weather had clagged in. Eventually at 07:50 I got out and sure enough, I was in pretty dense fog, or low cloud! I found my way to the stream and filled the washing bowl and had my strip wash. This must always present a funny sight – stark naked hopping on one foot then the other, much splashing, many sharp intakes of breath and the occasional “cor bugger that was cold”! It is amazingly invigorating though and really gets the day into sharp focus straight away.
I breakfasted on one mug of tea, lumpy porridge and a bit of chocolate. As usual the morning routine took about two hours and at just before 10:00 I gave the campsite a last once over checking for any stray item and climbed up on to the track. In the last few minutes I noticed that it was definitely getting a bit brighter, so maybe the weather would be OK. I had been pessimistic though in my choice of dress and was all kitted out in waterproofs.
Having walked along the track for about 100m or so it suddenly came to an end as I had suspected the previous evening. I had already decided on the high level traverse of Bearness having been put off by the boggy appearance of the area near the river. The visibility was still only about 30-40m so I took a bearing and set off across the moor in a roughly NE direction.
The mist cleared very quickly after I had been walking for about 15 minutes and by 10:30 I was getting fabulous views from the SW right round to NE looking up towards Beallach Bhearnais. By now it was really warm and I soon had to stop to change into shorts and swap the Paramo jacket for the light Pertex jacket.
Photo 23: Looking N.E. up Bearness towards Beallach Bhearnais
The walk up to Beallach Bhearnais which lies at I reckon just under 600m was one of those immensely satisfying and challenging walks. I saw no evidence at all of any track or path, but looking way down below to the river, remained convinced that I had made the correct choice. The terrain was very varied, from peat bogs to heathery moorland, from ‘clitter’ to craggy outcrops. ‘Clitter’ is a good old Devon word and is used to describe areas of Dartmoor, very often near tors, where there are many scattered lumps of rock of varying sizes sometimes all together, sometimes with heather etc growing around them. The several streams flowing down the NW flanks of Beinn Tharsuinn had all cut clefts to differing degrees into the hillside which added to the excitement and challenges of the terrain. These ravines would suddenly appear out of the heather, the deepest involved about a 30metre precipitous descent to cross the torrent then an equally steep climb out.
There were some dramatic views up to the ridge of Beinn Tharsuinn looking up the ravine cut by the outflow stream from Coire Beithe. Nearing the bealach, the views back to the SW were wonderful showing the dramatic beauty of Bearness, a glen which I suspect is more used to being looked down upon than walked in. Climbing the last few metres up to Beallach Bhearnais brought one of those fabulous moments that all those who walk the hills must relish. You know that on reaching the top your whole vista will change, just a few more steps and new mountains are coming into view…………..and all of a sudden, there you are, standing on top taking in that new panorama, a great wide glen to the NE and in the east the wild heights of Sgurr Choinnich with just a few cotton wool clouds around some tops, defying the heat of the mid-day sun.
The bealach NH060450 is a very different place to the glen I had just walked up, here there were clear tracks and because this is the access point to the big mountains all around, it had the feeling of a place that would probably see at least a few visitors every day.
Photo 24: Ravine on N.W. flank of Beinn Tharsuinn
It was now 13:00 hrs and because the walk up Bearness had been rather time consuming (6km in 3 hours), I knew I should press on. I sat for 15 minutes or so just taking in the view and enjoying the complete solitude. I will admit to just a faint sense of satisfaction and achievement having come through over 50km of wilderness since my last human contact 43 hours earlier, about 18:00 hrs on Saturday.
I set off down a good path and soon was able to see the track from Craig to Glennaig Lodge on the far side of the stream. As I rounded a shoulder, below I saw the point where the path crosses the Allt a Chonais to then join the main track and, surprise, surprise, a figure coming up the path towards me. We stopped and chatted for 10 or 15 mins, names always seem irrelevant at these chance meetings of like minded people half way up mountains, so, I shall refer to him as ‘Alan’. He was a lean and very fit looking 59 year old, he was climbing not only Munroes but also all the 3000 ft tops, just like ‘Phil and Ian’ who had been my last contact on Saturday. The previous day he had climbed Ben Avon and Ben Bhuidhe (Cairngorms) no mean walk and was to spend a couple of days here climbing some more of the handful of tops left for him still to bag.
Photo 25: Looking S.W. near Corrie Beithe.
Photo 26: Looking N.E. from Beallach Bheanhais.
We said our farewells and I hurried on down towards the river which I found was a ‘boots off’ job. The slip-on Teva shoes are really great for this as they are specially designed for amphibious use. The soles are very grippy and give quite a bit of confidence coping with slippery underwater conditions. I soon joined the good estate road that goes down the valley to the railway track eventually linking with the A890 at Craig. It was a really warm afternoon and the hazy sunshine gave that look of innocence to all the mountains. There was an all pervading scent of warm coconut in the air from so many huge banks of gorse that were on either side of the track all the way down to the road.
It was one of those uplifting occasions when out walking, the weather was glorious, the scenery superb, long views into the hazy distance with dramatic outlines of many hills all around and all was well with the world. Although I had only covered about a third of the walk, I did feel very satisfied that I had negotiated the 50kms (as the raven flies) of wilderness since leaving the Cluanie Inn on Friday, and really enjoyed all the challenges it had posed.
I was nearing Craig and soon I hoped I would be able to phone Ali – even though the OS map did not show a public telephones any nearer than Achnashellach Station 5kms down the A890. Who knows there may be a wonderful tea shop there, selling freshly baked home made cakes and great mugs of freshly brewed tea? Although the OS map shows only about five buildings at Craig it includes the word ‘Hostel’ which I knew from a conversation with one of the few people I met on Saturday, was the famous ‘Gerry’s Place’. Anyway it was with a great sense of expectancy that I joined the A890 and turned left towards Craig, the hustling bustling mecca of the Highlands!
Photo 27: Looking back to Sgurr nan Ceannachean, not far from the road at Craig
Three of the five buildings proved to be large detached dwellings on the north side of the road which in estate agent speak, were in ‘elevated’ positions with panoramic views of the mountains. Unfortunately there was no sign of a teashop. Gerry’s Place was the last building on the left set some 50m off the road adjacent to the railway line. As I approached, a figure emerged and started to walk towards the road and we met halfway along the drive. I greeted him with a “Hi, what a wonderful day…is there a telephone here I could use?”. He replied “Yes there’s a payphone inside”. He turned and headed back to the hostel with me, I guessed he was either Gerry or one of the management – it turned out he was a mate of Gerry who was running the hostel while Gerry was away. He seemed like a very amiable sort so I pushed my luck… “Any chance of a cup of tea?”. “Sure thing, I’ll put the kettle on while you make your call” he said.
It was now about 15:00 hrs and it is always a bit of a lottery phoning Ali during business hours because ours is a mainly retail business so there is always the chance that we cannot have a decent conversation because of customers needing attention. However, on this occasion we were lucky and I sat in the cool and temporarily empty hostel and had a long talk with Ali catching up on all the news at home. How Devon was basking in early summer sunshine, the latest exploits of the cats, the disinclination of the tourists to spend money and other such news. I could sense the relief in her voice as she realised I was in good heart and not suffering with blisters, bad back, violent stomach disorders or anything else.
I have had to undergo this telephone analysis since an occasion in the autumn of 2001 while walking the West Highland Way, I reached Rowardennan on the east bank of Loch Lomond and overnight suffered a very bad bilious attack which subsequently turned out to have been caused by a sudden blooming of the giardiasis that I must have contracted whilst trekking in the Atlas mountains in Morocco some months before. The following morning I continued the walk and just about managed to stagger as far as Inversnaid Hotel by lunchtime. Realising I could go no further I had hoped to get a room there, but the Hotel was fully booked. The kindly lady on reception managed to book me in at the small hotel up the hill in the nearby Lodge. I guess her natural desire to help was fuelled by her anxiety to find somewhere else for this pale and gently swaying individual to keel over. Later that day, Saturday, I phoned Ali in a state of some distress feeling very ill and thinking I would have to give up the walk. My dear wife then spent all that evening trying to establish how I could get back to Glasgow and thus home from the wrong side of Loch Lomond on a Sunday. However, the next day I felt so much better that in a call to her on Sunday morning I told her that I was able to cross Loch Lomond, catch a bus north to Tyndrum and thus should be back on schedule to finish the walk and use my pre booked B&Bs.
Since then, understandably, I suppose she has always wanted to convince herself I was fit in body and spirit whenever I have phoned her on one of my treks. On this occasion I had passed with flying colours and signed off promising to call her again the next morning from Kinlochewe.
At the back of the hostel, I found Gerry’s mate, sat on a long ‘bench’ leaning against the wall. This ‘bench’ is an ancient tree trunk about 4 to 5 metres long propped up on two small chunks of tree, it is in a fabulous position south facing looking across the railway line and valley with its forest to the hills, which are the same hills whose southern flanks I had gazed on from my walk up Bearness earlier that day.
We sat there in the afternoon sun drinking big mugs of tea and talking mountains and walking. Once again the fellowship of the hills – this common love of beauty and solitude provided a short episode of companionship that I will remember for many years.
Photo 28: Coulin Pass and Beinn Eighe in centre distance
I left Gerry’s Place about 16:00 hrs and carried on along the road, looking for the track which would denote the beginning of The Coulin Pass – SRWS Route 288. This is only about 1km west from the hostel, NH 029 490 So I was soon sweating my way up the zig zagging path through the trees. The forest higher up had recently been felled so I enjoyed some wonderful views and the relative comfort of a breeze during the last part of the climb. Near the top of the path, it joined a good estate track NH024 500 which carries on all the way to Loch Coulin.
About 3km down the track I saw a very good campsite just by the bridge over Essain Dhorca, although I would have liked to have carried on for another 5 or 6km. I realised the track was heading towards the estate houses and farms and finding a suitable spot for a wild camp may well become more difficult and this really was an idyllic spot. My mind was made up – a comfortable campsite was worth the slight drawback of an earlier than usual start the next day.
Camp was very soon established and conveniently placed. Dead trees allowed me to put up a washing line and another large tree nearby provided a suitable hook to hang out my sleeping bag to air. For the next 2 hours or so I busied myself with washing, sorting out kit and food and generally enjoying the warm evening. I could see Beinn Eighe in the distance – Liatach was not visible – hidden behind Sgwr Dubh, to the west and south west the dramatic trio of Fuar Tholl, Beinn Laith Mhor and Beinn Liath Bheag.
There was more insect activity than I would have liked, quite a lot of midges and other things had made their presence felt by mid evening – 24 hours on and I would find out quite how active they had been!
Photo 29: Camp 5 – Coulin Pass
All the washing I had done was dry by about 20:30 hours, it’s always good to have ones reserve clothing dry and clean for several obvious reasons. The weather had seemed to change a bit, although still clear in the west with sunshine till sunset, clouds had filled in elsewhere and Beinn Eighe had disappeared, so I did not have too much hope for clear weather on Tuesday.
Surprisingly, I found there was a signal on the mobile phone so I was able to report in to mission control and also send a couple of text messages to friends. Being someone who basically dislikes mobile phones I am always self conscious about using one ‘in the wild’ because I know how it annoys me to come across someone using a phone “Hi Sally I’ve just reached the top of this huge mountain on the Isle of Skye!”. Of course it’s different when I use one! My first solo back-packing jaunt to the Cairngorms in May 2000, Ali insisted that I took a mobile phone.
These things cannot be regarded as any sort of safety aid because in my experience the only chance of a signal in most mountain areas is right on the tops, not a lot of good if you get in trouble halfway up! I did keep her informed of my progress, and on the third day climbed up from my camp spot to the top of Cairn Toul to find myself in mist with a clear sky above and a wonderful view over a cloud filled Lairig Ghru with Ben Macdui just protruding on the other side. I decided to report in to Ali and found only a reluctant signal on the phone, but by climbing the extra 1½ metres and balancing on top of the cairn I got a steady signal! While talking, a dog suddenly appeared through the mist closely followed by its master. I felt such a prat and duly was obliged to explain my odd behaviour.
On this occasion by the River Coulin I was undisturbed, the only sounds were the stream and occasional bird call, I had not seen a soul since my friend in Gerry’s Place.
As usual I had done all the necessary jobs, sorting out, log writing, map checking by about 21:00 hrs and was now ready for bed. I did a mental body check and was pleased that everything was in good working order. I was so pleased that my feet were standing up very well with no blisters or sore bits. The other pleasing thing was that my new rucksack was so much more comfortable and not causing the shoulder ache that my previous sack was prone to do.