DAY 9 Friday 14th May
Loch a Chroisg to East Side Ben More Assynt
Walked from 08.10 to 21.00hrs
Distance 27K Climbed 589m Camped at NC 346196
Due to the extremely inclement weather, several hours of heavy rain followed by winds strengthening to gale force I did not give a lot of thought to taking photographs!
I slept well and around 05.00 woke to that rather unsettling sensation of complete still with no sound other than a very gentle whisper of light rain on the flysheet, a few inches above my face. I dozed until 06.15 when I realised that the rain had stopped. I vacated the embryonic warmth of the sleeping bag and unzipped the flysheet flap; the sight that greeted my bleary eyes did little to raise my spirits in expectation of fine walking conditions.
A kaleidoscope of earth colours surrounded me, the near areas of heathery hillside were a riot of muted wet browns, further away these toned into a sludgy khaki/grey. The loch was a sheet of grey; the clouds were a subtle blend of heavy greys, which looked as though they contained too much rain to be good for me. The only actual and metaphoric light on the horizon was way over in the east, where the previous evening there had been a strip of cumulus, now a far away band of thinner cloud back lit by the rising sun.
Since embarking on these solo expeditions I have surprised myself, on occasions when conditions have been less than favourable and there has been little cause to whistle a merry tune, I seem to be able to just get on with things and face the challenges at hand. In my normal everyday life I am far more likely to have a depressive reaction, cuss, bluster, roll my eyes, be grumpy and then get on with it! This I am sure is much to Ali’s amusement and irritation.
The (I suspected) temporary lack of rain helped in the packing up process, which together with preparing and eating my meagre breakfast, still took the best part of two hours, as usual. I set off just after 08.00. with the sobering thought that the next 10 to 12 km, which I had always thought likely to be challenging, would be made much more so by the inclement weather.
My immediate route was the 150m climb up the Allt Rapach, to the watershed between Meallan Odhar and Meall a Bhuirich Rapaig NC245 035 from where I would hope to see my next objective – Cnoc na Glas Choille. The river is surprising wide and fast flowing, considering its relatively small catchment area. Higher up several convergent side streams made progress up the west bank slower than I hoped. Looking from afar the hills give a false impression of rounded regularity, and I was not expecting, as I climbed higher, to have several precipitous ravines to negotiate. These just seem to appear out of nowhere, suddenly offering you the prospect of finding a way down anything from 10 to 20 metres to cross the stream then up the other side.
This gave an exciting and adrenalin fired start to the day, I thought on severaloccasions that these deep gullies were definitely not the places to fall and break a leg, one could lie undetected for quite a while before being discovered (or not!), I tried to eliminate these thoughts as soon as they wagged their crooked fingers at me.
As I neared the beallach between the two hills I perceived that the sky had darkened, and a few minutes later, standing looking north-east over the vast grey expanse of wilderness, the tops of the hills on either side of the beallach had been swallowed into the clouds, but I was able to identify, way in the murky distance, the rounded outline of Cnoc na Glas Choille NC276 081. I quickly fixed a compass bearing, as I suspected that I would not see it for much longer. Sure enough as if on cue the rain started, this was the proper Scottish variety, none of your nancy southern rain here, this was the business! Within the next 2 or 3 minutes visibility reduced dramatically, everything more than about 250 metres away had disappeared into grey nothingness. Studying the map the previous evening I concluded that a straight line route was likely to be as good, or bad, as any other, so off I set compass clutched firmly to my breast, walking to the newly acquired bearing, well protected from the rain which was coming from slightly behind me.
Photo 55: Looking N.E. from the beallach NC242036 approx the route I took – The rain does not come out on the picture!
This is a very wild and remote area, not perhaps in terms of proximity to a road, but by virtue of its obvious complete lack of anything that would appeal to the normal wilderness frequenting fraternity. As I plodded, I tried to imagine when was the last time someone walked this route. I could not think many people found their feet pointing in this direction. Other than the track I had taken from Strath Canaird, the O.S. map shows no other paths in the area bounded by the A837 and A835 some 100 square kilometres or so. Apart from the remains of a very old and rusty wire fence, I saw no evidence of human egress during the next 6 kms.
Conditions underfoot were awful; to say challenging would be understating matters. A constantly changing terrain, ranging from fairly firm clumpy grass interspersed with sparse heather, squelchy bog, peat hags, many streams, to sparse heather interspersed with not so firm clumpy grass, more streams etc.. All good fun when trying to walk a bearing. Occasionally the cloud would lift a bit, sometimes enough to reveal that I was still on course for my destination. The great consolation was that by concentrating so hard on the next step and the compass bearing, I was not thinking too much about the rain lashing down.
As I crossed the river Allt nan Clach Aoil I NC265 061was pleased with my progress, in spite of the difficulties, I had covered the 5 or 6 kms. from the watershed in about 2 hours. It was now just after 11.00hrs and my satisfaction was to be short lived, for as I climbed up towards my objective, the clouds had lifted again to reveal the unmistakeable outline of a deer fence across the top of the hill. This was the first of several low points over the next few days. Standing on top of Cnoc na Glas Choille just before 11.30hrs in driving rain, looking north-east, I could barely make out the Glen Oykel forest and Loch Ailsh, which marked the starting features of the route I would follow in due course (SRWS route 320) past Benmore Lodge and skirting Ben More Assynt. Unfortunately I was looking through a 2 metre high deer fence. The other side of the fence was a clear fringe of moorland then I could see the tops of the trees that were now part of a large area of forestry that I presumed covered the slopes running down to the A837. Oh! woe is me, if only I had bought an up to date O.S. sheet 15, I would have seen that the area of forestry to the south west of the A837, between the two rivers, had tripled in size by extending north westwards right across the bit of hillside I wanted to cross.
The deer fence was 2 metres high, stoutly constructed of what down in Devon I believe is called pig netting, strong wire mesh about 12cms square, tensioned between posts which must have been 3 to 4 metres apart. I guessed from the look of it that it had been erected within the last year or two, some 100metres from the edge of the forest and seemingly stretching forever in each direction. Sometimes ways through the fence are provided, but I was entirely pessimistic that this would be the case here. I walked to my left for 200metres or so until standing on a vantage point I saw that it carried on due west and disappeared into the mist and rain. I knew that if I continued that way I would be going far off my route, towards Loch Urigill, so I retraced my steps and continued south-east until I realised that I was losing height and heading towards the Allt Eileag and I knew that most likely this could mean big trouble as the river is shown on the map as not exactly a trickle!
Needs must when the Devil rides! Although I had not a clue how I would find my way through the forest once I had got over the fence, I assessed that it was the lesser of several evils. I found a suitable spot for my trespass to commence. There was no way that I could climb the fence wearing my sack so I took it off and contemplated the problems – both physical and psychological – of ridding myself of all means of comfort and support, by throwing it over the fence. Fortunately as I stand at 6 feet 4 inches I reckoned that once I held the bag above my head I would be able to toss it over without the necessity of further height gain. This was no easy matter, lifting a 20+kgs. bag above my head, it took me several attempts before I felt it was balanced and ready for the heave ho! It was as though I was cutting a lifeline, not to mention the sheer value of what I was despatching over this obstacle. What if I could not get over? What if I could not find the bag again if I had to take another route myself? Fortunately confronted with this predicament and the omnipresent heavy rain I did not dwell too long on this philosophical train of thought. The bag thudded into a boggy area of clumpy grass on the other side, I poked my walking pole through the mesh to join it, and about twenty seconds later I was reunited with my worldly goods and chattels.
As I stood donning my sack once again I smugly thought ‘huh! It will take more than this to stop Big Bob!’ Now I had to find a way through the trees on to a forestry road which surely ran across somewhere below me. There was quite a clear area between the fence and the edge of the forest, so I walked back in roughly a N.W. direction looking for any indication of a ride through the trees. When I am out on my own in the mountains or moors, thought processes and powers of deduction always seem to be more highly tuned than when out in a group, I have got lost far more often with my walking pals than I ever have while on my own. It was these powers of deduction that came to the fore now, I think the fact that the fence was so new made me think that sooner or later there must be some evidence of where the fencing crew had driven up through the trees to reach their place of work. Sure enough within 200 to 300 metres I saw faint signs of A.T.V. tracks and these lead me down in a N.E. direction through the trees along a ride that was only a few metres wide, and 5 minutes or so later I was standing on (I assumed) the main forest track. The question now was ‘which way will lead to the A837?’ Again my clear thinking (ha ha!) suggested going to the right where my map) showed a track coming off the road at NC308 074 and sure enough that was exactly right.
I was so relieved that the forest had been beaten and as I walked along the track the rain was easing a bit, my spirits rose, ah! life isn’t too bad. All of a sudden a crooked finger appeared wagging furiously at me, ‘ What if there is another 2 metre fence and a locked gate between the forest and the road at the end of this track?’ Ohhhhhhh S**T!!!!
My fears proved to be ill founded. The rain had virtually stopped by 13.30 as my boots once again hit tarmac on the A837. Often when you hear people talking about taking long trips in the wilderness on their own, they talk about ‘finding themselves’ in great seminal soul searching experiences. I cannot be doing with any of that, I get involved with thinking about matters of uncertainty, like the question that now bothered me, ‘ why spend all that money on building a fence at the far side of the forest when the deer can just wander in off the road?’ All the way through since crossing the fence there had been ample evidence of deer, in the form of footprints, droppings and bark stripped saplings. Maybe it was to stop deer from going into the wilderness, now there’s a thought!
Photo 55a: Looking NE up track towards Benmore Lodge
I left the road behind me and set off up the track to Benmore Lodge, I continued for 20 minutes then found a suitable place and with great relief, flopped down for a well earned rest. I had not eaten since 07.00 having been otherwise preoccupied, but times like this I think prove the worth of hydration systems and energy drinks. Throughout the morning I had drunk nearly 2 litres so had taken in plenty of ‘emergency rations’. I sat for half an hour enjoying some food and the now complete lack of rain. It was good to mentally unwind after all the trauma of the past 6 hours. The walk up to the Lodge was a gentle relief, the track goes past it and the adjacent cottages and outbuildings but I saw no sign of life, other than hearing some yapping dogs, which were shut up in one of the sheds.
As I left civilisation behind yet again, I mused that apart from a few cars I had neither seen nor spoken to anyone since leaving Ullapool the previous morning. At the confluence of the rivers Oykel and Allt Sail an Ruathair NC330 130 two bridges took me on to open moorland above the forest and then north-east along the right bank of the latter. It was now that two facts occurred to me, firstly it was clear that this area had not received the dowsing I had come through that morning and secondly it was with sinking heart that I had to admit to myself that the wind, which had become more noticeable in the last 2 or 3 hours was now what the weather forecasting people would probably describe as ‘a strong westerly, gusting to storm force’. I carried on along the path, which was reasonable, but at times needed sharp eyes to pick out and consoled myself with the thought that maybe there would be shelter once I got round on the east side of Ben More.
Photo 55b: Looking NW, A837 in distance, from track to Benmore Lodge
The weather had been playing quite a significant part in the scheme of things, so it was understandable that my thoughts would dwell more on matters meteorological. The Ben More Assynt range is a formidable massif and at what must be well over 100 square kilometres of high ground, clearly has an influence on weather patterns. I had noticed when down at Loch Ailsh that the two southern sentinels of the range namely Sail an Ruathair and Sgonnan Mor had appeared very differently, the western flank of the former was bathed in watery sun whilst its neighbour cowered under a dense black pall of threatening cloud. This situation continued all the time I walked below them, which was strange because there was no sign of sunlight anywhere else across the whole of the visible extent of sky.
By the time the path headed due north, contouring round the side of Meall an Aonaich NC347 157, it was in places what is called on Dartmoor a ‘peat pass’, that is , a path literally cut through the peaty hillside to the rocky surface below. I had seen no grass or any area which would offer a reasonable camping spot, since leaving the north end of the forest. The first corrie with Loch Sail an RuathairNC337 144 had offered nothing but bog, rocks and deep heather. The time was now approaching 18.30 and I had been walking for the best part of ten hours. I was beginning to think I had made a mistake not making a camp spot by the confluence of the two rivers, where there had been a welcoming area of flat grassy ground. At the time I felt that I would be sure to find somewhere in either of the two nearby corries which would be more sheltered than the top end of the forest. Now though, after drawing a blank with the first, I approached Loch Carn nan Conbhairean NC347 175 with apprehension thinking that being blasted by the wind with the tent securely anchored on solid ground may have been better than the alternatives that were now presenting themselves.
My earlier thoughts of shelter on the east side of Ben More were proving to be wishful thinking on my part, to quote from my log “……..the wind was gaining strength worryingly and far from giving shelter the wind was crashing down on me from the corries above – way above up in the cloud …….”. Looking to my left, up the steep mountainside, an ominous dark cloudy ceiling hung 100mts above me, looking to my right the peaty desolation that is Glen Cassley was opening out, giving some understanding to the earlier quoted extract from the S.R.W.S. book “….through some very wild and remote country on the east side of the Ben More Assynt range..”.
I passed by the loch, very close to the outfall and there was absolutely no chance of camping there, even if a good grassy sward had presented itself, it would have been dreadfully exposed to the ferocious gusts blasting down out of the murky gloom above. Not far beyond I stopped at a point where a high peaty heathery bank gave some protection from the wind, I wearily sat down, my back nestled into the bank and looked down over a vast tract of peat hags. This was a scene that one of those 19th century artists, who delighted in producing pictures with religious significance, could easily have used as a subject for a depiction of Purgatory. I had crossed several areas of peat hags in the last 10 days but what I looked at now put them completely into the shade, these were Premier Division peat hags, those that were head of the queue when size was being handed out, peaty cliffs up to 2 metres high sometimes stretching for 100 metres, which seemed in most cases to be separated by lagoons of liquid peat.
I was pretty tired and mentally exhausted by now and also feeling extremely hungry, after all this was the time I would normally be camped and preparing the evening banquet. My thoughts wandered southwards and I pictured Ali, back home from work perhaps sitting in the garden, with the cats, enjoying the last of the sunshine before shadows lengthened over our little courtyard garden. I decided that no further decision could be made on an empty stomach and duly began to unpack my rucksack in search of food and stove. While waiting for the water to boil I idly looked out the ‘phone and was very surprised when there appeared to be a signal, but it was not strong enough to get all the way to Devon, so hopes were dashed of a comforting conversation with Ali.
An hour and a half later, much refreshed by food and a rest I assessed the options. I could stay put with no chance of getting the tent up and endure a long night in a makeshift bivvy. I could carry on walking for another couple of hours, with the possibility of finding somewhere to camp and at worse stop about 22.00 hours for the bivvy. The great consolation in all this was that there was still no rain. I decided to press on, I hoped at least, to find somewhere eventually to hunker down for the night.
Progress was slow as the path was becoming more difficult to follow, in places a clear path cut through the peat, then moments later no sign at all. For the umpteenth time I pondered the question of why paths disappear and reappear with complete unpredictability. How many times have you looked at a map and decided on an alphabetical walk from A to G, because it shows a nice clear path through B,C,D,E,F and finishing at G. You set off on a splendid path visit B arrive at C and off toards D with no problem, then oops, all of a sudden the path begins to be less defined. Before you reach D you loose it completely, but regain it shortly afterwards. The same thing happens on your way to E except that it takes longer to find it again and when you do it’s an apology of a path, not strong enough to leave its mother. On the way to F it disappears without trace, you carry on over what looks like virgin territory – no foot has ever trodden it before – as you approach G you find a path again, that takes you to your goal. So why? Do lots of people set off from A get to between C and D become fed-up turn round and return to A thus making that section even more pronounced? What of those who set off from G to walk to A? Do they go only a short way along the path , fan out across the country, to converge on the intended track somewhere between E and C then all tramp along triumphantly together to A? Such weighty matters concerned me as I carried on my way.
I reached the river Allt a Chnaip Ghiobhais NC348 194 about 21.00 hours, the light was fading now, mainly due to the continuing presence of a great pall of dark cloud overhead. This is a pretty big river gathering its load from the corries below the southerly ridge from Ben More. It has cut a considerable watercourse down the side of the mountain and although it did not present any great difficulty to cross, it did have the effect of disguising the path. By the time I had crossed the river and climbed back up to the open moorland I was not at all confident that I was on the path. I walked on for another 300 metres or so trying in vain to pick out signs of a path in the failing light.
I had noted from the map, that a track comes from the east and crosses my path at right angles, but I was not prepared for what I now stumbled on. A wide track appeared from the wilds of Glen Cassley and carried on some way up the mountainside. Since the river I had seen no convincing evidence of the path and I immediately decided that I would be foolish to carry on further. Looking round for somewhere to make a bivvy I saw a large rock standing at the trackside, below it was a sort of ditch with a mound above it, to the side of the standing stone. This little scoop did give quite a bit of shelter from the wind, I felt this was going to be about as good as I could hope for so set about clearing some the surface stones and tried to make it as homely as I could, the main drawback being that the slope was quite steep.
There had still been no rain since early afternoon and now in the gathering gloom of late evening there was a definite dampness in the air. I fervently hoped that it would remain there and not descend on me, for the experience of contending with rain as well as the wind, was not one I hankered after.
I wrapped myself up in the inner groundsheet section of the tent and lay on the Thermarest and spent a couple of uncomfortable hours trying to relax. This in itself was no easy feat, with wind trying to tear things from my hands and consign them to the wilds of Glen Cassley It now occurred to me, with a great sense of irony, that this was just the sort of situation that I sometimes jokingly referred to at home. For example as Ali and I snuggle down under the duvet, on a wild winter’s night, with the rain lashing the double glazed windows and the wind howling round the roof, I will say something like, “It’s not the night to be stood on Exmouth seafront in nothing but your underpants” or “I’m glad I’m not on the top of Yes Tor [Dartmoor] with nothing to cover my confusion”.
I must have gone off to sleep because I suddenly became aware that it was much darker and to my great relief the wind had lessened, to the point where it no longer tried to blow anything in its path to oblivion. I looked at my watch, just after 23.00 hours, but there was still just enough light to see to put up the tent. Ten minutes later it was erected, decidedly skewy, but while the wind stayed as it was I reckoned that the few pegs I had managed to partly sink into the stony subsoil should hold it. Two hours earlier when I stopped walking I had put on an extra pair of trousers and my extra coat, now having just removed my boots and feeling like Michelin Man, I crawled into my sleeping bag and was asleep within a very short time.