On the journey up we were continually mindful of the temperature, as mild conditions were predicted to be edging their way in. What that equates to in Highland terms is dull, drizzly, cloudy, murky weather. Was February too late for crisp clear winter weather? Only time would tell. From Lincoln to Inverness the temperature hovered a degree or two either side of freezing but as we took the A835 towards Ullapool the temperature dropped like a stone, by the time we reached the 'Fannich' pull in, the car thermometer read minus ten! I've never been the greatest fan of midnight walking but there is something exciting about the shifting shafts of a head torch and trying to avoid black ice. Now adding colour we have the added gliterati of a two stone bright blue Ikea bag, full of wood, that had the potential to turn a straightforward walk into 'Whipping Boy' material. I sincerely intended to carry the wood the whole distance but after two good falls it was down to my 'young apprentice James' to take up the slack, meanwhile a screaming jet roars down the glen, tipping it's wings as if to say "don't forget about me!"
We traced the never ending contours of Loch a Bhraoin by moonlight until about 2:00am when at last the whitewashed cottage of Lochivraon shone through the darkness. Lochivraon was the original estate Bothy which is now in the process of being renovated for holiday accommodation the Bothy is now the old barn at the rear of the building. A good Bothy never manifests its self without a fight! Ikea bag, you lose! However on one of my slips, my right knee took such a bash on a projected rock, I thought we were going to be hobbling back to the car. It was really painful I even felt sick. Apprentice James gave me some encouragement as we sat on a nearby tussock. Just then a cameo of receiving the 'Golden Crampon' award for the third time flashed through my mind, "right come on let's get cracking we're not going to get anywhere sat here" I asserted and off we went. It was kind of irritating how the Ikea bag got heavier and heavier in spite of the fact on one occasion James had some whippingboyesque idea of hoisting the bag over his back and in so doing accidentally jet issoned his favorite wooly hat and a tin of biscuits, the young apprentice showed some anxiety as to whether they would be there on the return leg, I assured him that they would be.
On pushing open the Bothy door it was a relief to see that we had it to ourselves although we suspected that this would be the case because there were no other cars at the 'Fannich' pull in. This was the most practical Bothy I've ever stayed in, it was spacious, there were plenty of platforms to sort out your tackle and spread out, nice long sleeping platforms it even had a flush loo and running water, albeit the pipes were frozen on our visit. It has to be said though that this was not a warm Bothy, tin roof, concrete floors and stone walls don't bode too well for a good nights sleep. The size of the Bothy also tended to conspire against it, it was very drafty and impossible to heat up. This wasn't our home for the next few days, it was our place to survive, this is hardcore! Please don't take this as a criticism of Inverbroom Estate, for one thing it's a thoughtful gesture to provide the Bothy in the first place, once more if you take a good look around you, any wilderness lover will appreciate they owe the Inverbroom team an enormous debt of gratitude for their hard work and ingenuity in keeping the area tidy and accessible, a credit to the spirit of the Highlands. Of course we should not overlook the real reason it was so cold in the Bothy, maybe something to do with the fact that it was about minus fifteen out there!
|The Old Byrne|
|a bit of routine maintenance!|
|not the warmest Bothy|
As I stepped out the Bothy door that morning it was an absolute watershed, it didn't take long to register the real reason we were here, why we had to put our bodies through such deprivation. As I observed the early morning pageant, I gradually began to feel an inner calm. As the dimmer switch of dawn was gradually increased, the 'Fannichs' looked very inviting. As I turned my head west towards our destination for the day, what did I see? The backbone of Letterewe, that is Mullach Fhearchair, Sgurr Ban and the ridge towards Beinn a Chlaideimh, adorned with a garment of white, a stately mantle of snow! I thought for a minute I was in a water colour painting. Art as expression, not as a market campaign. It is all art my dear Blogfans, it is all art up here. Morphing gracefully through the transient art work of the Great Artist.
It actually seemed to be warmer outside the Bothy, maybe we should have slept outside! As we proceeded on our merry way, the only instance of kit failure began to loom in on us. James was having trouble with his crampons, eventually we decided to cut our losses, bank them in the safety deposit box of 'old ruin' to be reunited with them on the return leg. I donated my Ice Axe to Apprentice James and retained my own crampons that for once were behaving themselves. Now we were quite symbiotic, as the old maxim states 'crampons will get you into trouble but an Ice Axe will get you out of it' the import of this old adage would seem to suggest that James was going to be in for a trouble free trip.
|occasional problem with crampons|
|approaching Craig Rannich|
|The lovely Loch an Nid|
|Quatzite slopes on the 'wild side'|
|heading up Sgurr Ban|
|approaching summit plateaux|
|Beinn a Claidheimh and the Deargs|
|The distant Hess!|
If you could observe peoples eyes as they step onto summits like this one, you would notice a sense of euphoria which so clearly say's "wow!" I felt like punching the air and doing a few backward somersaults but refrained as it was a rocky summit, instead I had a dander round the perimeter and let the excitement run through me. Due to it's strategic position Sgurr Ban holds center stage not just in the Great Wilderness but in the whole of Wester Ross. It was like being in an iconic three hundred and sixty degrees shop window! To the north, the ridge tapered right down to the mighty sword of Beinn a Chlaidheimh. The skyline was dominated by the sprawling ridge of An Teallach, in the foreground a projected view of our next targeted hills, the Deargs, Mhor and Bheag from here they looked like a scaled down An Teallach. Very impressive looking hills especially with their secret hidden corrie clearly visible deep into it's southern flank. It looked like a primeval cannon ball, whist targeted for the ridge had pitched too early and blown out a great grassy verge. Atmosphere mist and cloud free, numerous points competing for attention. Everywhere sensational.
|the distant Fannichs|
|The Hill of the Sword!|
|a scaled down An Tealach|
|Ruadh stac Mhor|
Looking east the complete range of the Fannichs stood proud. These are rolling Hills, a compact group of nine munro's. Totally mesmerized I walk along the ridge, to the west, what do we see there? The two most inaccessible Munro's, A'Maighdean and it's close neighbor Ruadh Stac Mhor. Looking towards the south, some other old friends, Slioch and the unmistakable cliffs of Bein Lair. In the foreground the tennis court summit of Beinn Tarsuinn and some other subsidiary tops but wait a minute, where on earth is young Apprentice of the year James? I found myself talking to a young man who had walked from the Kinlochewe side and half an hour has slipped by yet James was only five minutes behind me so where the blazes is he? The young man I was talking to used an expression I've never heard of before as we looked across at the whiter than white Ruadh Stac Mhor, it was the term 'sunballing' which basically means the snow shelf is getting ready to avalanche! Oo'er, please hurry up James, please pop your head up over the ridge. A couple of seconds later a positive sighting of the indefatigable floppy balaclava of James was heading our way from the other end of the ridge. Phew! Where had he been? Well on the last pitch of about a hundred meters, James was backsliding and quite heroically had to haul himself up with the ice axe. At one point he was seriously considering sacking the whole thing off but that would have been ironic, being within touching distance of the summit ridge, on a perfect winters day. Thankfully he plowed on and was well rewarded for his determination.
I don't know whether it was adrenalin but I wanted to pull in another peak, I felt like I had the legs of a twenty year old. We decided to forfeit it though and I honestly think we made the right decision, the route was not easy and it would have been a very long day, besides I aged a lot on the way back! We came down on the other side of the spurr, not the best of decisions, the nearer we got to the ground the more prevalent ice became, not just the odd slippery section but lashings of thick ribbed ice. Plotting a route down was like being in a maze. I paved the way, with having crampons while Appo James followed gingerly behind with the ice axe until the ice subsided.
Now when we were talking to the gentleman on the summit he mentioned a 'must see' on Loch-an-Nid where the stream drains into the loch, a humongous fossil exists embedded in the underlying rock strata! Well it is my duty Blogfans to inform you that no such thing exists! I don't want to induce hundreds of Blogfans especially those in such far flung places as Slovenia, Taiwain and United Arab Emirates, to make this arduous trip to the other side of the world, on the strength of this Blog, to see something that isn't there. I just don't want it on my conscience. Me and James searched through the confluence with a fine toothed comb and found nothing out of the ordinary. We came to the unanimous conclusion that it must have been an early April Fool. I have since trawled the internet and it turns out many fossils have been found there but there is definitely no conspicuous landmark fossil.
In retrospect, no time was actually wasted ambling round the head of Loch-an-Nid. The salubrious soft winter afternoon light had me continually reaching for my camera. From the head of Loch-an-Nid, it looked like the high hills on either side of the loch had swooped down to glen level to stop this huge body of water in it's tracks. A classic Highland loch. As we walked back to the Bothy we were so chilled it felt like we were part of the infrastructure, with any wilderness area, you have to walk in it's own time signature, observe it's rhythms, read it's small print, otherwise you could find yourself oblivious to the very special elements that endow the area with it's wild nature. Case in point, James pointed out, high above some lonely crags overlooking Loch-an-Nid, a Golden Eagle being harried by two Pennigreen Falcons! What an amazing spectacle, the Eagle was being continually dive bombed but it was in no way intimidated, it just spread it's wings and soared out of their range as if to say "you boys just don't know who you're dealing with". Doubtless it was biding it's time before it honed in on it's target. We just stood and stared for about ten minutes, before we moved on, not knowing when the show was going to finish. Incredible! Beyond explanation, beyond words, beyond photography.
|Hills swoop down to Glen level. Loch an Nid.|
|Loch a Bhraoin...|
|Bhein Dearg on fire|
|wee frozen burn|
|distant great wilderness|
|coldest day of the year!|
The stroll along the loch really was unhurried, so much so, I was beleaguered with many photographic opportunities, one of such lay right at my feet, James's biscuits, frozen favorite hat and a few random pieces of wood! On receipt of this discovery we laughed our socks off! Out of the corner of my watering eye, a vapor trail scores the empty sky. When we reached the Boathouse I asked James why he never takes any photos, he replied that his photographs are never very inspiring, in the same breath he pointed out a chimney with a sturdy weed growing next to it that exceeded the height of the chimney! Perfect, I've said it before and I'll say it again "photography begins in the heart".
On reaching Corrie Hallie parking slot, we were very concerned to see that there were two vans and an estate car already there, presumably walkers. We now had to make a decision, it was possible, bearing in mind those three vehicles that there were upwards of a dozen people in Shenevall Bothy. We had never stayed in the Bothy before but the likelihood was that it could be full. What we didn't want to happen was slog it down there, six miles and three hours of hard graft on our already aching limbs, only to find out the Bothy was full and have to trek back, possibly in the dark. After giving it some pensive thought we decided to book into Sail Mhor Youth Hostel for a couple of nights and I can honestly say, as this Blog will soon reveal, that it was one of the best decisions that I have ever made.
The first thing I noticed that Sunday morning when I awoke at 5:30am was that it was raining quite heavily, on the up side it was only raining on one window, if it had been raining on all of them we really would have been in trouble! Not having the six mile head start we had to set off for the 'Deargs' at a ridiculously early hour, I believe we were on the path to Shenevall at about 6:15am, I say on the path, no sooner was I on it, I was off it! More problems with ice, as Appo James stood laughing at his exalted leader, he was soon on the deck too! Vengeance is sweet!
Use of the head torch was vital, although as we struggled crossing a river with the aid of a rickety old fence, it was a pity it didn't illuminate a solid wooden bridge about ten yards downstream! The rain gave us a right battering through the trees, making the unseable Allt Gleann Chaorachain even more noisy. But by the time we had reached the high point of the path, on the lower slopes of Sail Liath, we were pleasantly surprised when the rain abated. Now the landscape began to open up, we had a snapshot view of Loch na Sealga and on the other side of the strath, the angry looking guardian of the glen, Beinn a Chlaidheim, maybe looking more fierce than normal because it has just been declassified as a Munro! From this point we descend to Shenevall Bothy, a Shostakovian landscape, you must hear the cello in the second part of his fifteenth symphony, moody and broody to be sure but all encompassed underneath the dome of ethereal beauty.
|Shenevall Bothy with Bhein Dearg Mhor and Bheag as backdrop|
From Shenevall we took a straight line across the Strath to Larachantavore, to me this was the highlight. The Great Artist had got his water colours out again, An Teallach behind us the 'Deargs' in front of us Loch na Sealga to our right with it's narrow glen to our left all best appreciated under lowering skies. Surreal to the point of breaking the chains of reality. Walking across the Strath was like walking across the Nile Delta, it was spirit level flat. We felt a keen sense of retribution, I've spent many happy summer months in the highlands fighting bog and midges and if you were to do this walk in the summer, or less you're into 'Bog Tenting', it would be a real test of your patience, over a mile of sloshy bog each way and a Midges paradise, with you on their menu! Needless to say it gave us great satisfaction effortlessly plodding across miles of iced bog.
|in summer this would be endless bog!|
|but today frost grips the ground|
|and the second!|
As I took a stravaig around this isolated building I pondered, how on earth did those shepherds survive there in days of antiquity? It reminded me of 'The House Beautiful' a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, which reads in part,
A naked house, a naked moor
A shivering pool before the door
A garden bare of flowers and fruit
And poplars at the garden foot
Such is the place that I live in
Bleak without and bare within.
The nearest road is an arduous six miles away, then it's several more miles to the nearest hamlet. Your next door neighbor is not exactly within shouting distance, Shenevall is about one and a half miles as the eagle flies. In the day's of just popping out to your twenty four hour Tesco's, this building is a living testimony to another way of life, a monument to a different world, only problem is, I'm not quite sure which one I prefer! These days Larachantavore is managed as an estate hut. I'm uncertain as to what Larachantavore means in Gaelic but if I were to ever live there, I would rename it 'The House Beautiful!'
|The House Beautiful|
I firmly maintain you've got to know when to stop, Hillwalking should be savored and relished
not become a life threatening experience. There is a lot of credence in that time honored maxim 'the hills will still be there another day'. We had made the most of a window of good weather today, not brilliant sunshine but leaden skies and cloud free summits. Now the rain was coming back and making up for lost time. It was raining that hard, if this was in Lincoln you would think to yourself, it will only last five minutes max at this velocity, that yardstick doesn't apply in the Highlands, up here at that velocity it could maybe keep it up for three weeks!
One of the ways I gauge a persons depth of hill walking maturity is to observe how they react to adverse weather. The unrelenting ear numbing rain on my cagoule hood, the howling wind and dense hill fog, would indicate that the weather was vile. How does Y.A.J react? Well on a scale of one to ten, I would say ten! Not only is he not fazed by it but he wants a completely rounded out view of how the Highlands really are, notwithstanding, the renowned extreme West Highland weather. Bring it on! Well it's better than having someone at your side saying " well from now on, things are going to get harder and harder and we're going to get slower and slower" obviously James would never say that!
The walk on the way back was a different animal from what it was on the way there. "Judah stretched himself out like a Lion and like a Lion, who dares rouse him" say's the Bible at Genesis 49:9. On the way there the Lion was stretched out, on the return, the Lion had been roused! This was a walk on the wild side. Straths that were once sedate were now swelling and moving menacingly. Mountain streams that were once picturesque, were now raging torrents. It was like a war zone. Water turning corners with such violence. Stationary rock's instantly converting gallons of water into surf, to be immediately interjected into the earth's stratosphere! Intimidating.
We tried to find the point where we crossed the Strath but this was now irrelevant, the Straths were now full and flowing. I pitched in at what I thought seemed a low point but the composition of the river bed was such that as I got near to the bank it suddenly got a lot deeper. By now I was past the point of no return so I went for it, the water going way over gaiter high. My prized possession of dry feet were no longer a viable commodity! The most disconcerting thing was having to bludgeon my way through the ice towards the end. If I could use a word that would least describe my landing on the bank, it would have to be, graceful! The same sensational process was repeated at the next Strath. As I stood there with freezing wet cold feet, I said to Y.A.J "right that's it, it's 'kick the door down' time, no stopping, get focused and onward to the finishing line before the cold get's a grip". Our new book 'The complete guide of how not to cross rivers' is now available in all good book stores.
James made an interesting observation, when you're walking, for example in the Peaks or the Lakes and it's very busy, you can grow weary of even saying "hi" to other walkers. In comparison in the heart of the Motherland, it's a novelty to bump into someone and the chances are, that 'someone' appreciates the same things that you appreciate and has gone to the same lengths to get there as what you have. That 'someone' might even be a Blogfan! You just never know. We met up with three walkers, on the high point of the path, just under Sail Liath bound for Shenevall. Their team leader, a polished looking elderly gentleman had his team well organized, they were quick to pull out various sections of Landranger maps on laminated A4 sheets and you could tell that the rain was in no way going to dampen their zeal for the area. The very persona of the courtly looking gentleman imbued me with confidence, I'm approaching Fifty and although I'm not going to hang my crampons up yet, I can't ignore the fact that the final curtain is maybe not far off as far as expeditions are concerned but his gait said to me " you might have another twenty years left in you yet young fellow!" They were from Devon, by the way and were staying over three nights. I've no idea why but he reminded me of a Mother duck! As the Mother duck moved downstream the other two ducklings followed.
The stream that runs down from Lochan na Brathan was one of those tributaries that was now making it's presence felt, it was hard to believe it was the same stream. I pointed out to Y.A.J a good place to cross, a nice big square rock, smack bang in the middle of the river. I focused on the rock, honed myself to a fine edge and off I went. Next thing I knew I was smack bang in the middle of the river, my feet were level with my head! I couldn't tell the rock was iced! As time stood still I mentally prepared myself for what was inevitably to follow. As I clambered up onto the bank I glanced back at James who gave his Exhausted Leader a look of strange curiosity. James crossed further upstream. At this point my sense of humor had deserted me. We firmed up on our earlier resolve of no stopping or lingering. The only way of heading off the 'shivers' was to generate some body heat and exercise your right to survive. Eye of the tiger!
I always think a sense of humor to a human is like shock absorbers are to a car, therefore I was pleased when my sense of humour returned. James admitted he felt guilty because he found the whole incident absolutely hilarious. I reassured him that he had no need to feel guilty, if the same thing had happened to him I would have been in bits. It has since come to my ears that local hill walking legend Tom Bertins has been consulted to ascertain if the whole scenario merits 'Whipping Boy' status, I personally don't think that it does, you've got to have a few occasions when things don't quite go according to plan, otherwise the Blogs would be boring but the blogs aren't boring are they?
As we trudged over the moor it soon became apparent that we had gone off course. James blamed himself as he was leading, the Exhausted Leader was now behind, however it wasn't James' fault or anybody's fault we had just got blown off course by the weather. The mist was now down, drastically reducing visibility, the whole place resembled a wet desert. We appeared to be heading for a headwall that we definitely didn't broach on the way there. Eventually we had to face the fact that things were not going according to plan, we might even be, dare I say it...lost! It was during this uneasy period I uttered the unforgettable words, "James can you turn over the map and compass please, I need to take a bearing, I think we're wondering round like lost Jews!" As it turned out we had wondered off course a little but soon located the sister track that runs to Achnegie, I think we may have eventually stumbled across it anyway but it's reassuring to have the security of a compass bearing. If I was to be brutally honest, these day's the only time we look at a map is when we're lost! How I do love to hear those immortal words when things aren't going too well, " err let's have a look at the map!"
I suppose we weren't really lost, we were just unsure as to where we were heading but in view of my wet condition, any deviance from the main course was greatly exaggerated. The writer of this blog would like to thank the Dubliners, the Johnstons, Steeleye Span and Blackmores Night for rousing folk songs for me to belt out, raising the spirit and putting a smile on our faces when normally there wouldn't have been a smile. Even James, not a natural singer, found himself joining in on some of the chorus's " Wo Oh glory o ... hand me dowwwwn me bible!"
I found it hard to extricate myself from the shower that evening, I think it could possibly be the longest shower anybody has ever had! My opposite number spent that long over the electric fire, I thought we were going to have to get it surgically removed! I basked in the thought of what a vital decision we had made to stay in a Youth Hostel and do the walk from the road. I think the prospect of being cold and wet and a night in a damp cold Bothy to look forward to, would have been psychologically too much to bare.
As we relaxed in the Sail Mhor lounge that evening, spread out in front of the roaring electric fire, the newly qualified Scottish Hill Walker, James, described our expedition as "frictionless" that was quite a poignant comment, I put down the book that I was reading, 'Modern Jet Propulsion' by H.S.Capade and reflected a moment on James's hillwalking qualifications. Believe it or not James once received the highest accolade possible for a 'Whipping Boy' this was for his pivotal role in the famous, or I should say, infamous Glen Pean expedition. He didn't just get the 'Golden Crampon' award but the A.W.B.M.E( aficionado whipping boy masters eturnus) badge! But James has now been properly trained, has moved on and learned from past mistakes. To James now, double roll mats, never ending ruck sacks, ponchos and webbing belts are but a distant memory, you stand more chance of seeing him on a mountain with a bow tie on than sporting any of the aforementioned paraphernalia!
We will be back..................one day.
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