Friday, December 18, 2020

you must lower me into the steall

A couple of further notes on that Scottish trip, as my memory has now been jogged by looking at the photo gallery, and as I don't seem to have blogged about it at the time: we stayed in one of the cottages here between Glencoe village and Ballachulish; perfectly nice as I recall and well-situated for Glencoe and Fort William. Just to prove that point we'd stayed in the same cottage the previous year and knocked off a pair of Munros in each of those locations. The plan was to do something broadly similar this time. That's not quite how it went, though, and the reasons why not may have some general applicability for those planning and doing mountain walks. 

First attempted expedition was to do the Ring of Steall, one of the great Scottish horseshoe ridge walks, which incorporates four Munros with the option of a couple more if you start super-early and don't mind doing a couple of out-and-back detours from the ridge. Most people will find that four does them quite nicely. The standard route here is to park in one of the car parks up Glen Nevis directly south of Ben Nevis itself and then do the route in a clockwise direction, the start and finish point being at about twelve o'clock. One of the first things you have to do if you take this route is cross the Water of Nevis via the bridge in Steall Meadows. Meh, no biggie, you'll be saying. Weeeell, yeah, but this bridge is a little out of the ordinary. Here are pictures of me, and subsequently Jenny, crossing it.

It is a bit intimidating, and the consequences of falling off are unpalatable (I mean, you wouldn't die, but you'd get extremely wet), but it's not utterly terrifying once you're on. The wires are as taut as they reasonably can be, while still conforming to the laws of physics, so it's not like slacklining, but you do need to keep your mind on the job. Different people have different triggers for going a big rubbery one, though, and this guy (who ended up doing broadly the walk we were planning to do) seems to have bailed out and preferred to ford the river on foot. To be fair, the river was probably a bit shallower when he did it. Hazel was also, it's fair to say, not especially enthused about the prospect, but, in her defence, we'd just discovered she was pregnant with what turned out to be Nia, so a slightly raised level of caution was probably understandable. I have no pictures of Hazel crossing the bridge, probably because the inebriated-docker-strength swearing directed at me throughout fogged the images. At least, I laughingly said when she arrived safely on the other side, we don't have to come back this way. I should really learn to keep my mouth shut.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the next thing you have to do is ford another, smaller river just below a waterfall. Since it had been raining for the previous fortnight the waterfall was in spectacularly torrential spate - quite a sight, but it meant that a high proportion of the rocks that would normally present themselves as stepping stones were submerged, and after much searching around we concluded that there wasn't a way across that didn't carry a risk of getting either drenched or killed. So we turned back, somewhat reluctantly as it meant that we had to go back the way we'd come, including the bridge. It's actually not so bad on the way back as it's slightly downhill, although that does make getting on in the first place slightly more hair-raising as the drop is a lot longer.

Lessons here are: don't assume little blue lines on the map are insignificant streams which you can just step across, and remember river volumes are highly variable (we found the same thing here and on our ascent of Ben Lui in 2009 but managed to get round it with some radical route re-planning both times). Also, don't assume everyone in the group has the same triggers for going NOPE NOPE NOPITY NOPE, and be understanding when it happens at an obstacle that seems relatively trivial to you.

Anyway, we ended up driving back and going to Kinlochleven for the afternoon, firstly for a mooch around the ice climbing centre (and a visit to the bar, obviously), and thereafter for a session in the Tailrace Inn. We didn't go to the visitor centre, which houses The Aluminium Story, a guide to Kinlochleven's quite interesting industrial history - I forget whether we found it was closed or were just distracted by the prospect of a pint. The other pub that were are in right at the end of the photo gallery, incidentally, is the splendid Clachaig Inn in Glencoe, which I previously mentioned here.

Our next attempted mountain walk was to conquer the two Munros conveniently placed round the back of the cottage where we were staying - well, not exactly, but close by to the south of the A82 between Ballachulish and South Ballachulish (which, confusingly, is due west of Ballachulish, although it is south of North Ballachulish). These two (Sgorr Dhonuill and Sgorr Dhearg) form part of an overall group of peaks known as Beinn a'Bheithir, and are relatively benign in terms of height and difficulty. I have a feeling we didn't set out until relatively late in the day (after lunch, perhaps) as we were waiting for a break in the unrelenting downpour; I think we eventually decided to just go anyway as otherwise we would run out of daylight. We had intended to do this route, only anti-clockwise, to get the boring low-level bit on the road out of the way first. 

That should have been easy, and the entrance off the A82 onto the complex of forestry tracks that leads up into the valley from where you can scramble up onto the summit ridge is completely obvious (it's here). We nonetheless managed to waste a phenomenal amount of time scrambling about in a pathless wood failing to locate the path, probably owing to either mistaking a war memorial for a church or vice versa and leaving the road too early. Whatever the reason, we eventually emerged, wet and frustrated, onto the correct path and followed it for a bit, but before we could start gaining any serious height the heavens opened again and we soon decided that it was a bit too late in the day and we were already a bit too wet for an expedition of this magnitude and we should probably knock it on the head, particularly since the clouds which were dumping gallons of water on us were starting to shroud the summits a bit. You can get an idea of the conditions from the two photos below, which show Jenny and Hazel just about to set off from the cottage, and Jim showing his contempt for the whole situation by having a piss on some logs. 

The lesson here, apart from the obvious one of learn to read a map, you cretin, is that often the most difficult and frustrating bit of a walk, navigationally speaking, is right at the start while you try and find a way onto the hill you're aiming for while respecting the boundaries of other people's property and picking your way around all the other stuff (buildings, fences, walls, lakes, trees, branches of Screwfix) that you don't get so much of once you've gained a bit of altitude. Once you've done that it's also much easier to see where you're going and where you've been, and the contour information from the map and the terrain also helps. 

Just writing this blog post down has rekindled feelings of annoyance and frustration at being thwarted twice within the space of a few days (not to mention marooned on Mull in between), and a determination to one day get back and conquer the six Munros we missed out on, plus a few of the remaining 260 or so I haven't done yet. Obviously having been locked in the house for most of the last ten months hasn't helped either. Realistically this might have to wait ten years or so until the kids are old enough to come with us. Will I still be up for twanging precariously across a wire bridge at the age of 60? Of course I will.

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