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.


The Odyssee said...

What a day. One of those days you try and avoid. You were lucky to find each other once you lost track, it's a frightening experience.

However you had a marvellous end to it and i bet you were laughing about it later.

Good post.

Pennine Ranger said...

Yes, well snatching success from the jaws of defeat and that kind of thing - which is better than the converse. And I came away from the experience with two resolutions: 1) to take the book when we go up again to finish the walk 2) Identify problem areas on the map and study them more carefully beforehand. If I'd used MemoryMap to look at the topography in 3d, we could probably have saved ourselves an hour. None of the bealach crossings were what I had expected. On the one hand being over-prepared spoils the surprise and spirit of discovery. On the other hand, it's almost inevitable you set off on something like this with some pre-conceived notions. On this particular day, the mismatch was inconveniently large. It was still a great experience overall and we both have enough years of walking in mountains to hopefully keep out of serious trouble. Days like that make you feel alive!