Monday, 26 July 2010

Three Counties Cave System

An article in yesterday's Mail on Sunday about the Three Counties System, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park is also on the Daily Mail website at


Cavers have been exploring the various individual caves in the system for the last 30 years, looking for and making connections.  The system now totals around 70 miles in length.

The new connection links Notts Pot with Lost John's Cave.  During 1985/86 Steve Gough, Ric Halliwell and I spent over 100 hours digging beyond Acrobat Pot in Notts Pot, at a site previously dug and abandoned by Lancaster University in the 70s.  We had occasional help from others, notably Ian Jepson, who is now sadly no longer with us.  We broke through a very unstable boulder and mud choke into a new piece of cave, which Steve and I explored for a couple of hours one Monday, comprising a mud filled hall having an aven with a roof of jammed boulders and some clean washed, narrow stream passage with a few fine formations leading to a flat out bedding plane crawl partially filled with loose cobbles. We named the aven Hangingwater Hall and the passage, Clay Pigeon Inlet (because it had a chute part way along it).  We published our discovery in the CPC journal for that year.  When we returned the week following the break-through, the route into this new stuff had collapsed and despite many weekends of digging, which involved lying in mud in an increasingly smaller space, poking above our heads with a large iron bar, we never got back through.  Our feeling was that this would have been a dry way into Notts II, which had recently been discovered by divers.  This preceded the opening up of a route to Notts II from the surface by about 10 years. This link to Lost John's goes off from at inlet in Notts II.  This is nowhere near our dig but it's very satisfying to see the connections gradually falling into place, even if it has taken more than 20 years to get this far.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

North to the Cape - Day 5: Onwards to Shiel Bridge

It rained heavily all night.  Looking out from the door of the potting shed the next morning, everywhere was awash.  Knoydart was in flood.  I half expected an ark to go sailing by with pairs of animals on board: 2 sheep, 2 deer, 2 midges, 2 cleggs (or would that be a Clegg and a Cameron?).  I went out clutching the poo trowel to contemplate the day ahead and inspect the ford.  It looked considerably deeper than the previous evening. 

 We put all our wet gear back on - bringing back unpleasant memories of Sunday caving trips in the Dales - and stepped from the relative comfort of the shed into driving wind and rain.  At the ford we loosened our rucksack straps, linked arms and with one pole apiece waded across slowly.  It was only knee deep but it was fast flowing and underfoot was quite uneven and loose.

After the ford - the track below Sgurr na Sgine

After some sock wringing, we followed the track until it ran out at the point where the burn coming off the south west corner of Sgurr na Sgine meets the Allt Coire Mhalagain.  And now we faced a more serious challenge.  This was in spate and too dangerous to cross at this point.  We  followed it uphill for about 500 feet, passing a dozen or more branches until eventually it was possibly to cross safely. 

Our nemesis - the uncrossable burn

We kept the height, contouring round the western slope of Sgurr na Sgine and rising up towards the bealach.  I was looking for a lochan and I was looking for a summit called Meallan Odhar.  Unfortunately, I was looking for both of them in the wrong place.  There is a lot of contour activity in that particular kilometre square on the 1:50000 and with the rain on my glasses and the wind, I was having trouble making sense of it.  The image of the topography in my head was nothing like what I was glimpsing periodically through the cloud and rain.  We were too high for Meallan Odhar and we had missed the lochan somehow.  I got a position from the GPS and set a compass bearing for the lochan.  The terrain still didn't make sense but our best shot was to believe the map and not my head. 

Christine was also having a bad time, being blown over by the wind.  In my urgency to get off this hill, I lost her twice in the space of a few minutes.  It brought to mind the line about losing both parents from The Importance of Being Ernest.   Following the bearing,  I'd lost some height (reluctantly) and when I looked round I could see her above me, but encased as I was in black goretex, she couldn't see me, even from 50 yards away.  Nor could she hear my shouts and whistles and I had lines from a King Crimson track playing in my head - "I talk to the Wind, My words are all carried away".  Cue flute and melotron.  It made a change from the theme to the A Team, which had been plaguing me since Glenfinnan.  

I walked back up the hill and shouted something like, "follow me", which must have got translated by the wind as "stay there".  Another compass check and I set off again towards this irritatingly illusive lochan.  I found a line of fence posts heading downhill and followed them to the lochan, perched right on the bealach.  Unfortunately this was precisely the direction I had just minutes before told Christine not to go, thinking it would lead into the wrong valley.  I looked behind me.  No-one was there.  I waited a few moments for her to come out of the mist.  Nothing.  I left my pack by the lochan and fuelled by panic induced adrenaline, ran back up the line of fence posts.  I found her sheltering behind a big rock.  I took her pack and shouted to follow the fence posts and stop at my rucksack.  I threw on her pack, pulled the straps tight and set off behind her.  It was a monster.  I was bent double against the wind and every gust threw me off balance. 

We reached the col and swapped rucksacks.  "You've got to burn this thing", I shouted but I don't think she heard me.    I pointed to the valley and threw myself down the slope with only one thought in mind - to get off the hill (this time checking I was being followed).  A couple of hundred feet down and the wind died away, the rain eased and the cloud lifted. Wiping my glasses I took another GPS reading and located us on the map.  We were dropping into the wrong valley.  And then the penny dropped and I understood what we should have been doing.  In fact the Book says, go up to the bealach and keep to the left of the lochan and contour towards a line of large stones.  Of course the Book was back in Sheffield.  The stones are actually a rough wall  with a track behind it.  The track leads to Meallan Odhar, which is at the end of a spur running NE from the bealach.  How obvious and simple it was now!

The Forcan Ridge from the bealach below Meallan Odhar

We climbed back up to the wall, and followed the track to Meallan Odhar, from where we descended to a col separating the A87 and the Allt a Choire Chaoil.  On the way down we passed some lads who said they were going over the Forcan Ridge.  Had it been a sunny day, we had considered this as an option but in these conditions it seemed madness.  Later on I looked back and could just make out two of them on the ridge.  I wouldn't have been surprised to them clinging by their fingertips as the wind blew them out like flags.

Allt a Choire Chaoil

Our route down Allt a Choire Chaoil was largely trackless punctuated occasionally by some evidence that we were not the first to pass this way.  The rain had set in again and it took an age to cover 2.5 km to the point where we should have been able to cross the Allt Undalain and pick up the land rover track leading to the campsite at Shiel Bridge.  However, the gods weren't letting us off that lightly and no matter how long we stared at the problem, the water level didn't get any less than suicidal.  So we continued down the eastern side of the river, which was trackless, boggy and rough, periodically taunted by the sight of the land rover track.  We were starting to lose any sense of enjoyment today but pressed on with the promise of a warm, dry room booked at the Kintail Lodge Hotel.

We arrived in a very bedraggled state and I was slightly worried that when they saw us they might tell us they had lost the booking!  Instead, they were splendidly welcoming and helpful and showed us to the drying room.  A hot bath, hot meal and a few pints of Red Cuillin made the world a better place.  Outside it was still raining.

9 miles and 2,400 ft for the day. Total distance from Glenfinnan: 46 miles

Neither of us took many photos that day.

Monday, 19 July 2010

North to the Cape - Day 4: Barrisdale to a Potting Shed

This was going to be an easy day.  A stroll along the side of Loch Hourn to Kinloch Hourn, then a bit of a climb to camp below Sgurr na Sgine.  It would be 8 miles and leave us in a good place for the following day's crossing into Glen Shiel, with a possible detour onto the Saddle.  Well, without wishing to give away too much, it wasn't going to pan out quite like that.

We had a slow start and didn't get away from the bothy until 10am.  It was still windy and showery but on brief occasions we got to see our shadows.  The track out of Barrisdale was good.  So good in fact that we missed the right turn to KLH and ended up on the small promontory where the loch narrows.  Backtracking, we found a smaller path and set off on the first of a series of climbs, totalling 800 or 900 ft, which define the character of this stretch of the route.  Brook and Hinchcliffe descibe the path down the side of Loch Hourn as 'laborious' and this seems to have informed every other commentator on this stretch of the walk.

Looking west along Loch Hourn

The way the book splits the route puts this stretch at the end of a day and the expectation of a flat walk by the loch side might put a downer on the day when this isn't realised.  We were fresh, more of less, and I rather liked this section. We were also spurred on by the promise of a tea room in KLH, which we had learnt about from someone staying in the bothy.

The tea room didn't disappoint and after an hour (oh alright, an hour and a half), an extremely large and tasty corned beef sandwich and a huge pot of tea, we reluctantly set about the rest of the day's walk.  Now whether it was lightheadedness due to a real cup of tea or the crossing of the previous three bealachs or some other factor, I can't say but a degree of numptiness set in and it lasted for the next 24 hours.

The tea room at Kinloch Hourn

The first episode was in trying to find the way out of KLH.  A large sign clearly indicating the direction to Glen Elg was followed up by a number of closed gates into what looked like front gardens, a path along the beach to nowhere and a path higher up and parallel to the beach.  We could see where we needed to be - up by some pylons - but there was no obvious way to reach it.  So we set off up the side of a stream coming down the hillside, straight up the fall line, spurred on by the occassional evidence of others having passed this way, probably also lost!

It was steep and seemingly endless but eventually we reached the path and after a brief spell of immoderate language aimed towards people with locked gates, a sense of normality was restored.  It even started raining again and the wind got up a bit and we felt much better.

The track to Sgurr na Sgine

The intention had been to camp by Allt a Choire Reidh, between Buidhe Bheinn and Sgurr na Sgine, somewhere near where the ford is marked on the map.  On the one hand this was madness.  It's a horrible place to camp.  It's boggy and lumpy and windswept.  I guess in better weather it might look more inviting but it would still be a bad place to put a tent.  On the other hand, there is a useful garden shed there, which the Book describes as a shelter.  I must have read about this back in Sheffield but I wasn't carrying the Book.  I was carrying a book (which I never opened in the entire 7 days).  I just wasn't carrying the Book.  Anyway because I wasn't carrying the Book, I couldn't read that it wasn't intended as a place to sleep.  So armed with this ignorance, and after evicting a large number of spiders, we spent the night there listening to the increasingly heavier rain and wind.

The potting shed

For future reference, camp at KLH.  Whilst it is possible for two people to spend a moderately comfortable night in the potting shed, it is not intended for that and camping up there would be hopeless.

9.5 miles and 2,900 ft for the day.  37 miles from Glenfinnan.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Dodd Fell

A brief break in the telling of the North to The Cape caper - there's more on the way.

Christine and I drove up to Hawes on Friday night in the campervan - we'd had enough discomfort in small tents and bothies of late. The River Ure was flowing well. Christine asked me, "Do fancy having a go at that one?", alluding to our recent stream crossing activities. "No I haven't got my gaiters with me". "You surely don't think they'd make any difference?". "Well, yes, a psychological one". "In that case you be better wrapping them round your head as a blindfold."

It rained all night, of course, and we set out quite late on Saturday morning to walk over Dodd Fell and Drumaldrace, both Mintoes or Norberts or something like that. Whenever I see Dodd Fell mentioned I think of the old joke about Ken Dodd:

Ken Dodd's just died
Did he?
No ,Doddy

Anyway, after getting lost in Gayle - yes I know, it's not big enough to lose anything in - we picked up some Pennine Way signs which seemed to be going in the right direction. It started to rain but we are used to that. It got windy - really quite windy. We are used to that too. We reached the summit despite these setbacks. 

 Another fine summer's day

I think I'm going to write to the Ordnance Survey. Someone has planted the trig pillar in the middle of swamp. What's all that about? Surely that can't be the top?  If it was the top, all the water would be draining away from it - wouldn't it? 

Anyway, there were fine views of P-Y-G, Wherneside and Ingleborough. They'd have been finer with less cloud but it was nevertheless impressive to see them from a different angle.

Two out of three:  Whernside and Ingleborough

 Bit of a navigational nightmare and lots of splodging to get down to the Cam Houses road. I managed to open up a cut on my thumb, which I'd created on Thursday evening slicing a pepper (ok, I admit it was an alcohol related accident), with the result that I had blood pouring down my hand whilst trying to find the first aid kit and peel open a plaster with my teeth. I'm writing to Boots as well to have words about the way they pack their product. 

We walked within spitting distance of Drumaldrace but given the ominous black cloud approaching, didn't feel inspired to go to the top. I'm not a ticker and Christine had ticked it already, albeit almost entirely from the comfort of a Vauxhall Astra (no hang on, that's an oxymoron).

Semer Water, Addlebrough and an ominous black cloud from below Drumaldrace

So on down to Burtersett, passing within spitting distance of the top of Yorburgh,  and along the wrong footpath back to the campsite.

10.6 miles, 1750ft

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

North to the Cape - Day 3: Sourlies to Barrisdale

This was going to be a sea level to sea level day with a whopping great climb in the way but my main worry was crossing the River Carnach.  I'd read a few reports of desperate times fording this in flood - and it had rained most of the previous day.  The map appeared to show a bridge near Carnoch but the Book didn't mention one and neither had anything else I'd read.

We were packed up by 9:30 and strolled over to the bothy to have a look inside.  It's much smaller than the other two we'd visited so far - really quite intimate.

Sourlies Bothy

The tide was in and we scrambled over some rocks along the water's edge before taking an indistinct track over the headland.  On the far side was a large flat expanse of grassy meadow with the River Carnach defining its northern edge.  We aimed for the west end of what looked like a large sheep fold and crossed at a point where the river was slightly braided.  The previous day's rain had had no effect on water levels and it was only about 6" deep.  Phew!  However, a few hundred yards upstream, just before Carnoch, we found the bridge.  It's an exciting construction in need of some repair and a health and safety fan had planted a sign to warn of the danger in using it.  Getting on and off the southern end looked like it could be a problem in flood but it would probably still be a safer option than wading.  I'd use it.  In fact I did and I didn't die!

The wobbly bridge over the River Carnach.  It doesn't quite reach the far bank and you would want to cross one person at a time.
The valley which the Carnach flows down really is beautiful and varied.  We strolled along the river bank for a while, quite a long while actually, with Knoydart's Munroes either side of us - rugged, majestic, steep sided mountains rising up from sea level. 

The ruins of Carnoch from the bridge, Ben Aden in the background

Further upstream the track climbs through some trees and over rocks.  There are some deep plunge pools, which on a warmer day would have been hard to resist swimming in.  We stopped about 1pm for lunch on some sand banks, at the point on the map where a ruin is marked and one of the suggested camping sites in the Book.  On the OS map the path runs out around about here but on the ground there is a reasonably distinct  track which finally peters out a little before the river makes a sharp right turn into a gorge round the north side of Ben Aden.  This left us facing a headwall and our route was up and through this.  We took a line between the small waterfall on the left and the gorge on the right, which involved a bit of easy scrambling.  There was some evidence of others having passed this way.  At one point we thought the world was about to end when a Tornado jet fighter came screaming up the valley, 3 missiles on either wing and pulling a lot of Gs round the slopes of the mountain.  It would spoil the challenge to describe our route in detail and in any case I can't remember it now - it snaked about quite a lot to follow natural lines of weakness.  We were looking for the track from Loch Quoich which would take us down Gleann Unndalain to Barrisdale. In fact I had somehow managed to climb about 50' above it and it was only when I turned round to check Christine was ok that I noticed it below me.  It's a good path with fine views and it took us about an hour to climb the 800' up to the bealach, a southerly wind strengthening the higher we went.  Unlike the previous two bealachs we had crossed, which had long plateau sections, this was more like a narrow doorway between two worlds.  The one we were leaving was of a wide, open, glaciated valley with sweeping curves and a slow meandering river.  The world we were propelled into by the wind was narrow and claustrophobic, a deeply incised V shaped valley of straight lines and sharp angles.  We started the descent, initially keeping the stream on our right but crossing over after a short while.  It's pretty obvious when you're there. 

Looking down Gleann Unndalain

The track down Gleann Unndalain seems to go on a bit after a long day and the rain, which had held off all day, came back with a renewed fury.  

Barrisdale Bay from Gleann Unndalain

Eventually Barrisdale Bay came into view and it took us about two hours from the col to reach the settlement .  There is a bothy and a camping field - details at  For reasons of conservation, camping elsewhere in the bay isn't allowed, which is fair enough. 

The bothy at Barrisdale

We decided to stay in the bothy.  There were some other walkers staying there who were using it as a base to tick off the local Munros.  I think we were in bed by 8pm or shortly after.  All this navigational stuff makes a chap sleepy.

We'd covered 9.5 miles and 2,200ft ascent that day and 28 miles from Glenfinnan.

North to the Cape - Glenfinnan to Strathcarron (Days 1 and 2)

This and the next few posts are an account of the first third of the North to the Cape route described in the book by Brooke and Hinchcliffe. We'd planned to cover stages 2 to 7 of the book, between Glenfinnan to Strathcarron, that is missing the first day along the side of Loch Eil from Fort William and cutting straight to the chase of a wilderness experience. It would be 65 to 70 miles through Knoydart and Glen Shiel, crossing 6 bealachs en route and would take us 6 days. It was the first week of July and we were me and Christine KIng. The weather forecast was heavy rain and high winds for the first four days.

I'd done quite a bit of background research on the web and read numerous accounts of dangerous river crossings, exposed traverses around gorges, tents torn by rampant deer and any amount of trackless wastes to navigate across. Let me start by saying that no near death experiences will be reported here. If you want that sort of excitement I can direct you to other blogs. No frogs were harmed during this walk.

Days 1 and 2: Glenfinnan to Sourlies

The train pulled out of Glenfinnan Station at 4:30pm and after 12 hours travelling it was good to finally get walking even if was only 3 miles up to the bothy. This was it, Glenfinnan to Strathcarron following the North to the Cape route - 70 miles in 6 days. After posing for a picture with the monument behind us we set off along the track under the viaduct and continuing up Glen Finnan. It's road walking to within a few hundred yards of Corry Hully Bothy.

Glenfinann and the leaning monument!

The bothy is run by the Glen Finnan estate and boasts electric lights, kettle and fan heater. There's an honesty box for the electric but you could run up a huge bill if you forgot to turn the heater off!

Corry Hully bothy

Thursday morning broke with low cloud and persistent rain but not the high winds that had been forecast (they came 2 days later). We left the bothy at 8:30 and followed the obvious and good track up the glen. As we neared the bealach, the path crossed the stream, then it crossed back again and repeated this a few more times until we neared the watershed between Streap and Sgurr Thuilm, which was marked by a gate but no fence.

Looking back down the track towards Corry Hully bothy

View towards the bealach.  The track has started to deteriorate by this stage

The Gate - which we of course shut behind us

It had taken us 1.5 hours from leaving Corry Hully. We dropped down into Gleann Cuirnean keeping to the west side of the stream. My copy of Scottish Hill Tracks from 1975 says to descend on the right bank (i.e. the opposite bank from us) but to do so looked madness from where we were. An account of a crossing from Glenfinnan to A Chuil bothy, which I'd found on the web before we set off, spoke of a hard descent with a narrow ledge round a gully and the author nearly landing in a waterfall.

The top of Gleann Cuirean, looking back towards the bealach

We experienced none of this and followed the obvious, albeit rather long track down the glen. The main danger to life was slipping on one of the many frogs which jumped out in front of us . Near the bottom of the glen, the track crossed the stream before bending leftwards to reach the bridge over the River Pean. Crossing the Allt Cuirnean wasn't necessary but did avoid a bit of rough going.

Flushed with confidence that we hadn't died on the first bealach, I turned right off the bridge and quickly realised the path had disappeared. Christine reminded me that we needed to head into the forest and after a brief bit of faffing, we went back the other way for about 200m to find a broken gate and track into the forest. The route is a bit boggy and we went right at the first junction, when a left would have been easier. Both ways lead to the main east-west forestry road, where a right turn takes you towards Glen Dessarry.

We'd decided that rather than dropped down to Strathan and walk up the north side of Glen Dessarry, we go up the glen through the forest and stop at A Chuil bothy for lunch. We caught glimpses of the wide open glen through the trees and the route on the northern side looked like it was a road as far as Upper Glen Dessarry. We nearly missed the bothy. I just happened to notice a building below us through the trees and when I back tracked a few feet saw a small cairn marking a track down to it.

A Chuil bothy, Glen Dessarry

A Chuil bothy is very commodious, with an entrance porch and two main rooms. We brewed up some soup and lit a fire to dry our wet clothes and socks It had been raining steadily since we left Corry Hully - that persistent, nagging, all pervasive rain that Scotland is good at. It got so cosy, we got in our sleeping bags and had a bit of siesta for an hour or maybe more, for it was 4:30 when we set off again. The original plan was to camp by the lochans on the bealach over to Sourlies. Looking at the map, Sourlies was only 5 miles away and the weather had cleared, so we set out with the feeling of going on a short evening stroll. The upper section of Glen Dessarry goes on and on (and on) and the route to the bealach is somewhat schizophrenic in a few places. We were starting to tire of expecting to see the wee lochans just over the next hump, when finally, there was the first one and very tranquil and pretty it looked in the evening light.

Lochan a Mhaim
The track round the southern edge of the lochans is mostly easy to follow but longer than it has any right to be.  When you eventually clear the second one and start to drop a little, it crosses to the north side of the Finiskaig River (a small cairn marks the spot) and then rises up steeply - and I mean really steeply. At the end of a long day this seems a nasty, mean-spirited little climb but it has to be done to avoid the gorge through which the river cascades. From the bottom, I was sure I'd seen a sign on the hillside with writing or an arrow on it but I didn't seem to pass it on the track over the bump, so perhaps I had been hallucinating. Anyway, the descent was pretty rapid with a good bridge over the river at the bottom and a bit of a stroll through the pastures to Sourlies.

Looking down onto Loch Nevis and Sourlies

There was a large D of E party camped by the river and smoke coming from the bothy, so we pitched our tents between the two.

Our tents at Sourlies

It was 9:30pm, 5 hours after leaving A Chuil, and the sun showed little sign of setting. We were camped by the loch, oyster catcher and plover poking about in the mud, there was no rain, only a few midges and we were 2 miles further on than we had planned. We'd covered 15 miles and more than 3500 ft of ascent and ticked off two of the four bealachs we had to cross between Glenfinnan and Shiel Bridge. It was time for some food and sleep.