Thursday, 14 March 2013

Feb/Mar 2013 - Holiday - South East Asia Part 1, Thailand

I'm aware haven't updated this blog lately. I've still been out and about, but although I've started writing reports here and there I haven't felt inspired to finish them. I've just got back from a 3 week holiday to South East Asia though, and that's definitely worth recording. We covered a lot of ground, and took a LOT of photos, so I'll write it up one country at a time. Click on the photos for a larger view.

Part 1 - journey and Thailand.

Our plane awaiting
Saturday 16th February saw Hazel and I departing Heathrow at 10:30am bound for Bangkok via Kuwait. I entertained myself entertaining a cute 3 year old Indian boy sitting next to me who had nothing to do, by digging out some paper and pencils and jointly creating a picture with flying aeroplanes (me), crashing aeroplanes (him) and an assortment of sealife below. Kuwait airport was a mixed experience - we were provided with free food while we waited for our connecting flight, but said flight ended up 1.5 hour delayed with no information at all barring the new gate number given by one staff member, until the plane actually arrived and the cabin crew trooped on.

We landed in Bangkok around noon, and took the skytrain from the airport to the Phaya Thai station in the city proper, first buying a ticket for the wrong line (the express line being more expensive, and with a long wait than the city) as I thought it would be straightforward having done this before. At the other end came our first tuk tuk ride of the trip (I really love tuk tuks, such a great way to travel in a hot, slow-traffic city) took us to Hua Lamphong station to reserve our tickets for the night train to the walled city of Chiang Mai in the North. The 19:35 train we wanted (which supposedly has the best views coming in to Chiang Mai) didn't have any seats next to each other but we managed to get tickets for the 18:10 one.

We then had half a day to kill before the train, but were feeling rather hot and bothered after a day of travelling, so instead of exploring the city and the markets we looked for a guesthouse for a few hours for a shower and a snooze. We'd both been to Bangkok before so figured this was a more productive use of our time. We found a place near the station, just a single bed and the communal sinks were lacking water, but the showers worked and so did the fan. Semi-refreshed, we had a meal at a convenient restaurant, then walked back over the road to the station where the train was waiting.

Sleeper train to Chiang Mai
We made stilted conversation with the Italian lady sharing our section of the train who claimed she had poor English but which was much better than our Italian. A couple of beers and a 'clink' to celebrate that section of our travels was language mutually understood anyway. When dark fell and the beds came down, Hazel and I finished the books we'd been reading on the plane, and swapped. We were asleep by 9:30, I woke frequently but slept very deeply, so every time I woke it felt like I'd had another 10 hours.

We awoke at 6 hoping to relish the mountain scenery much lauded by the travel website, we didn't want to miss any as this train was due to get in an hour earlier than the one we'd originally intended so the remaining views should be valued - as it happened we needn't have worried as it arrive an hour and a half late. The sun hadn't actually risen at 6 but soon there were misty valleys, hanging creepers and sand banks supporting the railway track, not the rocky mountainous land I'd anticipated but enough to absorb.

The Sculpture
We had breakfast in the restaurant carriage (comically named 'bogey'), and failed amusingly to make conversation with the cute French guy on the table next to us. In Chiang Mai we chose a songthaew (shared red-bus, more of a truck where you sit in the back) to take us to the accommodation we'd earmarked in the lonely planet. We completely failed to bargain a good price for the bus, but it's hardly worth trying as everything there is so cheap. Well, except the accommodation we were heading for, the 'Tamarind village' - which was like a luxury spa resort, very beautiful and appealing, and it's a good thing it was fully booked as we didn't notice the price until consulted the book again later on. The place we ended up in, the much more reasonably priced 'The Sculpture', was still rather plush, probably the nicest place we stayed in our trip. It had artwork on all the walls both internal and external, and our twin room with air-con still only cost under £15 a night (most places we stayed were £5-£10).
Turtle at Wat U-Mong
Tunnels at Wat U-Mong
Chedi at Wat U-Mong

Chicken at Wat U-Mong
Once checked in it was time to explore the city, as we'd only be here for one day as a stop on our way to the Bokeo jungle near Huay Xai in Laos - this was our real first destination but there was time for a little sighseeing on the way. After a fruit shake in town we took a tuk tuk to a temple out of town called Wat U-Mong. Here there were brick lined tunnels to explore, supposedly built in the 13th century to stop a clairvoyant monk wandering off into the bush, which were nice and cool on a hot day, especially on the feet since at temples and a lot of restaurants and guesthouses you're asked to take your shoes off. We wandered up to the Chedi (a Buddhist stupa / mound-like structure containing relics), then over to the lake where there was a giant turtle and a series of catfish hanging lazily in the water. We also took lots of photos of chickens, as they were wandering about everywhere looking colourful with adorable little chicks in cheeping tow. We contrasted Wat U-Mong with a couple of temples in town: Wat Chang Taem with its intricate decorated window shutters, the eastern temple of Wat Chedi Luang with its huge buddhas and Wat Phan Tao with its teak roof and offering jars.
 Wat Chang Taem
Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Phan Tao
Riverside restaurant in Chiang Mai
After this we returned to the Sculpture for a snooze, then took a tuk tuk to a lovely riverside restaurant also picked from the lonely planet where we sat on overlooking the Ping river and the lanterns of the lower decking and dock for the dinner boat. We really lucked out with this place - great view, friendly staff, great food where I chose my all-time Thai favourite a Massaman curry, and live music which, although Western based, contained some of my favourites with Simon and Garfunkel classics and a Jason Mraz track.
Boat across the Mekong
In the morning we took a taxi to a very normal looking bus which, over the course of a few hours, transported us to Chiang Khong and the Thailand / Laos land border (actually more of a water border). Here the queue to exit Thailand was short, and after passing we paid a negligable fee for the boat to carry us the short distance over the Mekong into the port border-town of Huay Xai, Laos.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

September 2011 - Walking - Munro review

 (Click the photos to enlarge).

I've just got back from another Munro trip to Scotland, to the east where the forecast was better. On the Saturday we did the six to the east of the Glenshee ski centre, and on the sunday we did the two above the Dalmunzie hotel. The last time I attempted the Glenshee eastern 6 the conditions were incredibly challenging - awkward iced turf and then thigh deep snow, strong winds, driving hail and a white-out on top, so we only managed one hill in I'm-not-sure-how-many hours. On this trip we managed all 6 in 8.5 hours. Sunday went pretty successfully too, although the predicted storm rolled in and we finished a little wet with an even wetter drive home through much standing water.

There isn't much to write about for these hills really, so instead I've decided to do a little review of the 63 Munros I've done so far. My ticking year runs from February to February (except year 1, which started in January) and I need to complete an average of 29 Munros a year to get them done before I'm 40 as planned. I'm well on track now, and I intended this to be my last trip of the year as over winter I plan to stay more local where the hills are less terrifying in winter conditions, which makes this effectively the end of year 2, so it seems an appropriate time to take stock of what I've done in that time. So in some kind of order of favouritism with my over-riding memories of each. I just want to add that the ordering has no bearing on the company, which was excellent at all times:

1 = Southern Cairngorms (Beinn Bhrotain, Monadh Mor, Braeriach, Sgorr an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul, The Devil's Point) 48km in 2 days.
This trip comes top because it's just a stunning area to walk in. I hadn't previously warmed to the Cairngorms (fnar...) probably because I associated it with winter trips which I never got my head round. My two climbing visits there were much enjoyable, but this was another level again. Approaching from the South gave it a new, more natural, feel (forested and no ski centre). Both Glen Dee and (inward route) Gleann Laoigh Bheag (outward route) are beautiful river valleys with turquiose waters and plenty of greenery, then the mountains are abrupt and dramatic. Sgorr and Lochain Uaine and the Devil's Point in-particular offer amazing viewpoints with steep drops below where you can sit down and drink in the situation, and the weather was stunning to match, one of only two times I've walked a Munro in shorts (well, trousers with zip off legs before I start sounding irresponsible). Unfortunately, for some reason my photos mostly show mist and snow. I also did my highest wild camp at that point at 880m.

Mini-planet of the Cuillin ridge
2 = Skye Cuillin (Sgurr nan Eag, Sgurr Dubh Mor, Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, Sgurr Dearg, Sgurr na Banachdich, Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh, Sgurr a'Mhadaidh).
A big tick, although unfortunately not complete (although it's no hardship to go back!), and one I wanted to do before I forgot how to climb. Every Munro or Munro group has its own feel, but The Cuillin has a really distinctive one. It's not that remote, nor as serious as some reports would have you believe, and from various points you can see down to a town or boats or road, but no matter how close they are you feel a long way away metaphorically. The ridge is obvious, continuous and lilting, and that gives the impression of being a tangible thing, a special world, with the valley below being another world away.

Cloudless Ben Nevis summit
3 = Mamores (Mullach nan Coirean, Stob Ban, Sgurr a'Mhaim, Am Bodach, Stob Coire a'Chairn, An Gearanach, Na Gruaichean, Binnein Mor, Sgurr Eilde Mor, Binnein Beag) 34km in 2 days.
It's possibly telling that the long circuits are my favourites, but the weather has a lot to do with it to, although if the weather had been poor we would have cut down the circuit anyway. This was my most challenging trip in terms of distance, the last stretch along the road was excrutiating (at which point I would have cried if someone had suggested I do another Munro before I had recovered), but it was the most rewarding. The distance was less than the Cairngorms but there was 1.7 times as much ascent (2.5 Ben Nevisses). We were treated with lovely weather and views, just what you want on these hills. Stob Ban is probaby my favourite Munro to look at now, lovely aesthetic rounded white buttresses from the east.

The next three trips are difficult to put in order.

4 = Torridon (Sgorr Ruadh, Beinn Liath Mhor)
'Sea fire'
The most well known hills in Torridon are Liathach, Beinn Alligin and Beinn Eighe, and with due cause, as they dominate the view and rise straight from sea level, looking knife edge, rocky and inpenetrable. These two to the South don't really get a mention and aren't visible from the road, but they're aesthetic too, the former steep and stony and the latter more rounded and craggy, the terrain on both exposed but amenable. Their other appeal is that from them you get amazing views, north to the big trio, west over to Skye and the ocean beyond, and South to a mass of other peaks. I remember standing on the top of Beinn Liath Mhor as the sun was setting, turning round to see every part of the 360 degree view, before reluctantly descending as far as our wild camp, from where we also watched the dawn. The weather when I did these was unbelievable for Scotland, sunshine the whole way and shorts to match. We still managed to head up the wrong hill first, but until you're on the upper levels it isn't too clear which lump is which.

4 = Ben Nevis & Carn Mor Dearg
Tower Ridge has been on my wishlist for ages as it's a 'through route' (i.e. in the course of the route you pass through a fully enclosed hole). When I stopped climbing my list became somewhat abandoned, but I knew I'd probably still do Tower Ridge as I could tick Ben Nevis by that route. I was very keen to link it to the CMD arete, as I'd seen it from the top of Aonach Mor (a Munro I have yet to walk up, rather than ride up!) and loved the aesthetics of its Northern backbone. I didn't realise that the actual CMD arete was the other side of the summit, but it's no fun knowing it all before you go. My memories of this trip, were that the weather was poor with no views but it didn't affect the enjoyment; Tower Ridge was pleasingly non-terrifying; and the summit plateau was wonderfully eerie, with its sudden mass of people passing in every which direction and artefacts such as ruins, memorials, elevated trig points and shelters rising out of the mist.

SE Top of Meall nan Tarmachan
4 = Tarmachan Ridge (Meall nan Tarmachan)
The Tarmachan Ridge only contains one Munro but it's best done in its entirety as the 5 tops all have their own character and distinctive shapes. They were all the more beautiful cloaked in a layer of frost. There was a real camaraderie amongst the various groups of walkers as they passed on the message to avoid a particularly icy descent, although I'm sure they all thought I'd fallen to my death as I let out a might scream when a fat mouse ran out from behind a rock I was stood on, which echoed around all the peaks.

Crazy bridge on the walk in to Culra bothy (Ben Alder group)
7 = Ben Alder group (Geal-Charn, Aonach Beag, Beinn Eibhinn, Carn Dearg, Ben Alder, Beinn Bheoil)
This is a series of nice steep, shapely hills. It was my first big trip, and was quite an undertaking although didn't seem so as everything went to plan. Smooth journey up on a Friday afternoon and a cycle in to Culra bothy, 4 Munros the first day, 2 the next (we could have linked them together in one big day - you actually cover a lot more distance splitting it up - but you learn as you go), then cycle out and drive home early on Monday. I had expected to go on my own but found a partner last minute. The reason this is fairly high up in my list is was the first time that I knew that Munro bagging was for me - on the Sunday morning I awoke with an array of aches and pains and the weather wasn't exactly encouraging, but I didn't have a doubt that I wanted to stick to the plan - something I never experienced with rock climbing. It's a shame the cloud (and rain with it) was down each morning as I think the trip could have been a lot more memorable (and more deserving of this position in the list) with the potential views, but this is Scotland after all! I also encountered my first crazy bridge, there seems to a mental river crossing on each Munro trip.

It's VERY hard to order the next 11. After deciding on an ordering I notice rain features highly in 6 of the bottom 7.
Cloud inversion from Ben Chronzie

8 = Ben Chronzie
This was my first Munro in January 2008, and it was so amenable that despite a reasonable covering of snow we didn't need to don our crampons. It's billed as a boring hill, but it was pretty with ice encrusted fence posts and cairns, and we had crisp, clear views to the Ben Lawers groups and beyond to Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor. Plus we saw many mountain hares on the way back down.

Beautiful sunrise taken with iPhone
8 = Beinn Narnain & Beinn Ime
I did these two in winter and was almost out of my comfort zone. They weren't too hard, but although I have a little winter experience I don't have much winter confidence as I don't enjoy it much for the sake of it (only because it's still Munro bagging) so on the crux of this route I really could have done with a helmet and rope. Still, it worked, and although I had to leave my partner lagging behind I managed to run up and back the second Munro within the available time. More importantly, we saw the most amazing pink sunrise on the walk in.

8 = Carn Mairg group (Carn Gorm, Meall Garbh, Carn Mairg, Meall na Aighean)
This was a nice, complete day, pleasant in its average-ness - the hills neither boring nor awesome, the terrain was varied, and it makes a good circular route. It wasn't overly taxing in terms of distance, but given the available daylight in November we had to get a shift on.

8 = Ben Vorlich
I'm not sure why I have tweaked this above the others. I'm not sure my memories are representative of how I felt at the time! There was a whiteout and a bit of a blizzard, and I completely failed to manage the descent over to Stuc a'Chroin so had to send half our party on ahead as they were moving faster. Nevertheless, looking back I enjoyed it, perhaps because it was new to me (my second Munro) and I felt quite empowered - I didn't meet the challenge but I learnt what the challenge WAS (even if I then decided I preferred to walk in summer). The ridge up Ben Vorlich is quite a striking feature too, especially looking at it on the aproach, covered in snow with people glissading down it.

8 = Dalmunzie (Glas Tulaichean & Carn an Righ)
There is no real reason this one comes next. It's only because it's the one I did yesterday, and the wind blasting we got on the top of Carn an Righ made me feel really alive and I'm still buoyed up by it. And the finishing cake and hot chocolate in the Dalmunzie hotel afterwards was a suitable congratulation after a damp finish.

8 = Glenshee western 3 (The Cairnwell, Carn a'Gheoidh, Carn Aosda)
These is billed as the easiest circuit of three you can do as you start fairly high up and there isn't much ascent after the first summit. The wind had been forecast to be rather intense, but the direction wasn't quite as predicted so were were hit by it on the first hill but avoided it on the second and third. The descent was very rapid, the snow was such that we could run down and we made it to the ski centre in time for a hot chocolate. I did a few Munros in the snow in the winter of 2010/2011, not because I wanted to (I'd previously decided I'd tried winter climbing enough to learn I didn't like it, then ended up donning crampons and an axe more than ever before), but because I'd had a few cancelled trips during the summer and was quite short of my target. I still didn't quite hit it, but more than made up for it this summer.

8 = Loch Monar (Bidein a'Choire Sheasgaich, Lugh Mhor)
The Bridge of Instability
These are by far the most remote hills I've done. We walked for three days - one to a bothy, one over the Munros, and one back to the car - and saw one other party on the hill, two single houses. Ben Alder was a similar outline but Culra bothy was packed to the rafters, we were the only ones at Bearnais, identified with previous explorers via a visitors book reporting a wild moose. The weather was dreadful nearly the whole time, first we were blown over and then we were soaked from all angles, but we were treated to a beautiful double rainbow as a reward. We would have done an extra day over 2 or 3 more Munros, but the warning of lightning and horizontal hail sent us walking sodden homewards, back over the (cable) Bridge of Instability. Changing into jeans felt surreal, as if I'd been away for a lifetime rather than just a weekend. The sun came out just before we got back to the car, and we drove home under clear blue skies. Most odd.

8 = Glenshee eastern 6 (Carn an Tuirc, Carn of Claise, Tom Buidhe, Tolmount, Glas Maol, Creag Leachach)
My first, abortive attempt at these hills was memorable due to the inclemency of the weather (wind, sleet, low cloud - we got it all). The second attempt was successful. Not perfect, as we accidentally took in Tolmount and Tom Buidhe in the wrong order despite having faultless visibility, but it wasn't a drama. The hills themselves aren't very distinctive, but it was a productive day and we could see up to the Cairngorms, and we saw more hares that I've seen on any hill before.

8 = Ben More & Stobb Binnein
Ben More was steep and relentless but I enjoyed that kind of thing, feel like I'm really working.

8 = Rannoch Mor (Beinn a'Chreachain, Beinn Achaladair, Beinn Mhanach)
This was another rather damp day but satisfyingly arduous.

8 = Beinn Dubhchraig
Another winter walk that was cut short, but useful for confidence building. We ascended via the North East shoulder which was mixed terrain and quite hard going. We descended straight down the corrie bowl once we established the avalanche risk was acceptable.

19 = An Socach
The peak was a little boring, the weather was very damp, and I don't remember much about it at all!

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

August 2011 - Walking - Public transport antics and Mamore magic

It's a long write-up (as usual), but it's a report for me as much as anybody so I have a full account of what I've been up to, and it may be of interest to reader that want a little more detail than is usually found online! Click the photos to enlarge, the full set can be found at


I don't recall why I decided it was time to do the Mamores, possibly because it seemed like a suitably arduous achievement to fit into a bank holiday weekend. I do know that I thought my friend Vicky might be a suitable partner as we discovered at Easter that we're pretty equally matched in terms of stamina and speed both up and downhill, and I thought she might not have done the Mamores yet living over in Aberdeen. It turns out she's already done two of them, but didn't mind doing them again and having a go at the whole circuit, as per this link. She also pointed me in the direction of Megabus with the help of which I managed to plot an entire round trip including a bit of beautiful train line, for only £56 (and it is possible to do it cheaper still), compared to £120 or thereabouts by car.

On the morning of Friday 26th August I packed, dealt with the garden and chickens, and drove over to Stoke all to a finely tuned schedule, and still managed to have to run for the train just catching the one later than planned, which I would also have missed if it wasn't running late. Thankfully a swift walk across Manchester with my various bags saw me on time for my Megabus at 12:40. There was a bit of chaos when it came to actually boarding the bus, but I manage to squeeze onto the front bus that was going direct to Glasgow, rather than the one that was stopping on route. The guy taking tickets assured me the coach had all mod cons, and it wasn't until we were about to pull away that the driver informed me the brand new toilet was out of action as someone had managed to lock the handle before closing the door. I was dismayed as I quite needed it after all my dashing about, but the driver was a nice chap and we made a stop at a service station up the motorway so those of us with weak bladders could run in and out. Nice, but not a push over as he (quite righly) chided the passengers who didn't re-board the bus after the alloted 5-10 minutes, which I was pleased about as I only had an hour in Glasgow to make my train connection. The next area of excitement was a 3 hour traffic jam near Carlisle. Thanks to phone calls, maps, iphones, and some banter, we took a couple of detours and after a bit of traffic but nothing like 3 hours of delay we were flying Northwards again. The coach journey felt like something out of a film, I got to know a couple of my fellow passengers and the drivers, and it felt like a little community on there everyone rallying together to get us to Glasgow on time, I'd happily travel to Scotland that way again in future.
Damp start but high spirits

At Glasgow I walked the short distance to Queen Street station and found they hadn't even put up the platform number yet, so I treated myself to Burger King and got chatted to a cyclist who it turned out had the seat opposite me on the train. I had been looking forward to taking this journey, part of the whole point of planning the trip the way I had, as it would give a different perspective of the mountains. It's a shame darkness had fallen by the time we diverted from the road and went across the wilderness of Rannoch Mor (my planning had various holes in it) but for the bits I did see it was nice to share it with someone who also had a passion for the outdoors. I'm keen to re-do that part of the journey another time and extend it to enjoy the Fort William to Mallaig section, which is meant to be one of the most beautiful train journeys you can do in the UK. The long journey becomes a lot less tedious if it becomes part of the adventure. I noticed quite late on that the train went through Roy Bridge, where we were staying for the night, before it got to Fort William, and I managed to get hold of Vicky just in time to divert her to meet me there instead. That saved us about 40 minutes which we made the most of by having a pint in the Stronlossit Inn, before retiring for a not-so-early night.


Ridge from Stob Ban towards Sgorr an Iubhair 
Path to Stob Ban
We managed about 6 1/2 hours sleep before our alarms went off at 6am. We had a quick breakfast and packed and were out of the hut by 7:10, drove round to Glen Nevis, and started walking by 7:45. The day was looking overcast and discouraging and it promptly started raining, but we donned waterproofs and pressed on regardless. I had a couple of minor issues, my right achilles was complaining whenever the ground got steep, and I seemed to have acquired a minor sprain in my right wrist, but I assessed them and decided that neither were critical, and although they didn't improve much over the weekend they didn't get much worse either. We walked up through a felled forest, then up onto the ridge of Mullach nan Coirean. We were getting pretty toasty with all the uphill exertion so stripped off the waterproofs but thankfully it seemed to have stopped raining, we could even see above half of Ben Nevis behind us with a patchwork of small fluffy clouds over it. The longer we walked, the nicer the weather seemed to become. The clouds, where they weren't fluffy, were like a light lace shroud being wafted up and down over the summits, occasionally giving you views and keeping you guessing the rest of the time. There was something odd about the moments of visibility too - they seemed to happen just after we'd looked at the map or directions and worked out which direction we were heading in next, almost as if the weather was rewarding us for our navigation skills, and showing us we were right before we actually started onwards. At one point we felt a bit of warmth and looked up to see a hazy yellow disk burning a hole in the clouds until the sun appeared for real.

Stob Ban (left) from Lochan Coire nam Miseach 
We took a photo at the first summit and continued, on towards the aesthetic hill of Stob Ban. The rock changes noticeably from red granite to pale grey quartzite between these two and the path and ridges become more defined. Near the summit we were passed by two friendly RAF lads doing the Ramsay round who we had a chat with when we all paused at the cairn for a quick bite to eat. They headed on first and we followed a little later, only we hadnít gone very far when I noticed the way ahead was descending to the valley floor. A quick halt and a check of the route description told us weíd missed a turning, so we turned round and walked the other way a little so we could take stock of our bearings. Something about doing that made the entire world flip 180 degrees in my head, and itís quite an odd sensation not being able to marry up a single item between the view and the map. Suddenly the reality dawned on my, just as Vicky pointed out we were facing the way weíd come up, and I righted myself ñ weíd been going the correct way in the first place, just forgot to hook a sharp left down a shapely ridge that in fact Iíd already paused to take a photo of! After a little way we dropped off the ridge and descended gradually to lochan coire nam miseach, then zigzagged up the other side, dumping our bags at the top so we could travel lightly out and back along the spur of the Devil's Ridge. This is billed as both exposed and scrambly - we found it neither, but nevertheless it was lovely, a flat path on a pointed ridge, which crosses over a couple of rocky bits then ascends steeply up the grass flanks of Sgurr a' Mhaim. The views now were becoming more impressive, with the shapely peak of Stob Ban above the green lochan the most dominant.

Munros ahead from the Devil's Ridge. Sgorr an Iubhair (ex Munro on right), Am Bodach (pointy one against sky), Stob Coire a' Chairn (pointy one against black), An Gearanach (left), Na Gruagaichean (black peaks back right) and Binnien Mor (black peak back left)
Vicky against the backdrop of the Devil's Ridge
Back at the bags we had a quick lunch, then summited Sgorr Iubhair which used to be a Munro but got demoted in 1997. The short stretch over to Am Bodach was pretty straighforward. At the top rain threatened again, and a chap that was travelling in the other direction looked a little harried after the ascent he'd just done that we were about to go down, saying it would be even worse in the wet, so we were a little nervous about it. It was actually completely fine, the ground was steep but it wasn't overly loose, foot placements were flat and on an obvious path and there were always things to hold on to. After this little blip in the weather we had the best weather so far, blue skies with puffy clouds passing over the summits, some appearing to emanated straight from the Ben Nevis summit, and elsewhere suns rays picking out various features on the hills' flanks and on the valley floor. I'm not sure that I appreciated them enough as I'd just realised that I'd mis-counted and we'd only done 4 Munros not 5, so I was feeling a bit dejected. Thankfully though it wasn't far to Stob Coire a' Chairn, which was the real number 5 and I perked up a bit.

Clouds over Ben Nevis
Steep but reasonable descent off Am Bodach
Next up was the second spur out to An Gearanach via An Garbhanach. This was also billed as being scrambly, and this time it was. From afar it looked reasonably tricky but as we neared we noticed a path up the side of rocky triangle outlining the initial ascent up. The path then continued along the righthandside of the crest, but we followed the rocks in the purest line straight along the needle edge of the crest, which was reminscent of the Cuillin with its pointed rocks which sloped away to either side. After An Garbhanach the terrain was grassy again, and took us onto our sixth summit of the route, we were really making progress now. The route description said this was an excellent viewpoint so we rested for a minute or two to take in our surroundings, Ben Nevis right in front of us. We returned directly along the path for the sake of speed, starting to become aware of the time, we no longer had seemingly endless daylight to play with.

An Garbhanach (front) and An Gearanach (back)
Scrambling on An Garbhanach
Back at the bags we sat for a little more food and to come up with a plan. The route here contoured round Stob Coire a' Chairn that we'd already done, rose just a little and rejoined the ridge heading to Na Gruagaichean. This section was about 1km so we decided to time it to see what kind of speed we were currently walking at. Then we'd know what we could achieve in the remaining daylight. It took us 35 minutes from 6pm to 6:35, rather slow, but it wasn't exactly representative as first we'd had to find the path, and then I'd stopped to fill my waterbottle up in the stream - it's very unusual for me to run out of water, especially when the amount I was carrying normally lasts me a full weekend, but it had been a hot day. Ideally we'd hoped to manage 8 Munros and camp down by Coire an Lochain but this was now looking a bit ambituous. That aim was more so that we could make the most of the better weather and have less to do in the forecasted rain the next day, rather than because we actually needed to split it up that way to achieve the full set, so it didn't matter if we camped elsewhere. We picked out a couple of other options from the map, all places with the necessary running water for cooking. We eliminated the coire bowl to the north of Na Gruagaichean as it was directly in the wind, and instead decided to bag that summit, head past it to the bealach then drop down to the South to the streams there. And this we did, despite the weather worsening - the wind was picking up and the rain forced us to stop to don waterproofs again. We practically flew over Na Gruagaichean's top and the summit itself. Between the two there was a little unpleasant ground across a little notch - steep and loose - but it was soon over. As we scrambled up the last bit of ascent, zigzagging up boulders on an indistinct path, the light was noticeably fading and I was panicking a little. I was encouraging Vicky to move faster as time was against us and was aghast when at the summit she said she was hungry and wanted to stop to make a sandwich. I plied her full of dried apricots which I had to hand and after the essential photo I shood her off down the crest towards the bealach. The path down looked fine and the rain had lifted again, but our intended camping spot was still hidden behind out of sight and I didn't feel I could relax until I knew the terrain. As we descended there was a beautiful sight to my left. The area was darkening except for a single, wide, bold, orange sunbeam passing from the northern flank of Na Griagaichan in a gradual diagonal down to the ground. It was so long you had to move your head to see the whole thing. There wasn't time to stop and take a photo so I committed it to memory and I think the sight is now permanently ingrained in my head, not something I'll not forget for a while!

Catching breath on An Gearanach, Grey Corries in background
 Munro no.  6 An Gearanach in front of Ben Nevis
We reached the bealach thankfully quickly as the path was good, and there on our right we could see, as hoped, some flat ground with a couple of streams, and also a little lochan. My spirits lifted, then I relaxed almost entirely when we were looking for a nice way to descend and Vicky spotted a zigzag path taking us down. The last of the light seemed to linger and we actually had plenty of time to pitch the tent exactly 12 hours after setting off, and start cooking. The highs and lows continued though, as the rain started for real causing us to huddle with the stove in the not-very-sheltered open porch, and the dinner was disgusting. So disgusting that it turned Vicky's stomach and she was poorly for a few hours. We kind of took it all in our stride though, as you don't really have much choice in that situation. Vicky eventually managed to crawl into bed, and eventually we both managed to fall asleep, although I keep waking with an unexplained pain below my right knee - it seems I'd bumped it earlier in the day and it didn't like lying down. Despite finding a sheltered spot to camp the wind must have turned because occasionally a significant gust shook the tent. It held up surprisingly well though considering how lightweight it is, and we remained in relative comfort.
Sun beam into Kinlochleven
Wild camp


Munro no. 8 Binnein Mor
We had plenty of hours in the tent but it wasn't all relaxing so we didn't make a particularly early start. We started rising at around 7, and didn't start walking until 8:45. My knee was causing me a little trouble but eased off after some ibuprofen. First stop was Binnein Mor's south top, then the rocky path to the main summit. Binnein Mor is the highest Mamore but there isn't actually much height gain to it as you're already pretty high. Still, it seemed to take forever to get to, but thankfully much quicker to return from. As we conginued to Sgurr Eilde Beag, Sgurr Eilde Mor's south west top, we noticed that the mist was lifting and the day proved to be better than we'd expected, although it was cool enough and damp enough that we left our waterproofs on all day.

On the scree up Sgurr Eilde Mor 
Where I got blown over on Sgurr Eilde Mor
The route description we were following said to descend this top direct, down the steep rib to the lochan below, but I had a go at the start of it twice and really didn't like it - it was steep, loose and there wasn't anything to hold on to. Of course Vicky just waltzed down it, but I called her back and we decided to take an easier but longer descent, a sweeping path that also led to the lochan. I felt a bit uncomfortable about having avoided that descent, as I previously believed that I can manage any summer walker's ascent of a Scottish mountain (it's a whole different thing in winter, even an easy slope can stop me in my tracks, even with crampons on), but I consoled myself by reminding myself that this is only one man's suggestion and not an accepted route. Sgurr Eilde Mor proved to be reasonably challenging mountain. We followed a path that zigzagged up from the lochan, taking us first over scree on a reasonable path, then up steepening red dirt and pebbles to a high ridge. It was never certain whether we had enough purchase on the gravel to move up more than we moved down, and I wasn't looking foward to coming back down it afterwards. I was pleased when we reached the rocky path on the final narrow ridge to the summit, but the wind had picked up even more and was gusting across us. I had a real heart in mouth moment when I was blown off the side of the path and fell backwards over the rocks. It was a real out of control moment where I knew I was at the mercy of fate. As I was falling I remember spotting a particular rock that I thought I could grab hold of to stop me falling off the back of the mountain, but thankfully I stopped before needing to grab it. I held on to steady myself before standing up, and flashed Vicky a look of stunned, terrified relief. We carried on carefully up and back down, not stopping at the summit except for the obligatory photo. The descent of the loose ground was actually way better than expected, and easier than the ascent had been. The wind was blowing into our faces and kept us upright, which made us feel a lot more stable. Also I employed a technique I'd learnt on the descent down An Dorus on the Cuillin Ridge, of keeping my back and body upright and straight, and driving my heels into the loose ground on each step. For the first time ever I felt like I'd improved at going down hills, something I've always been slow at, as I experienced the new sensation of placing a second foot while the first was still moving, usually I won't move a foot until the one I've just placed is solid.

The descent I didn't do and Coire an Lochain
Munro no. 10 Binnein Beag
We branched off the path just before the lochan and took a shortcut over to the good path which lead round the flanks of Binnein Mor and over to the little lochan in the col between that and Binnein Beag. This was easy going and was a welcome relief, and I felt like we were on the path home now, even though we still had one Munro left to bag. Binnein Beag is the smallest Munro on the route but you start from quite low so it has the second most ascent on the circuit. We followed a path all the way up though, which made the passage through the boulders trivial. It wasn't the most obvious of paths but I seemed to have a sixth sense in finding it, a subconscious assessment off logical line, lighter rocks with signs of wear, different kind of rocks imported in or moved and levelled ground on scree, all observations made experience in the hills. The descent after summitting was rather exciting though. Straight down the west rib, which looked, and was, just a loose red gully. At one point it steepend more but Vicky led us left down grassy ledges and we reached the plateau to a tiny lochan. From here we tramped the heathery, boggy ground north west for some distance to the Water of Nevis, thanfully not stranding ourselves on any of the small rocky cliffs that were scattered about along the edge of the river. We looked for a crossing point, first going upstream then deciding to follow some trodden ground downsteam a bit. This led us to a shallower section and we waded across. Amazingly I only received a tiny trickly of water down each boot, probably because I was still wearing my waterproof trousers which created a seal, I'd expected to get totally swamped.

Overjoyed to be back at the car
Crossing the Water of Nevis
Following the Water of Nevis the views were quite varied so that kept us entertained but it still seemed to take an age just to reach the Steall bridge. We started to encounter other people so we knew we were nearing civilisation again, but perhaps due to the harder ground my feet were starting to hurt and the going was getting tough. As we walked along the tourist track past the pretty cascades of Glen Nevis that I'd last seen in the snow 5 years ago the achilles of my right leg, blister on my left instep, and squashed heels of both feet were vying for the title of most painful injury. There was then nearly 3km of road which I just knew would go on forever. I stuck my thumb out whenever a car past but nobody seemed inclined to stop so we accepted our fate and trudged along, struggling to speak. As we travelled I reflected that it was only experience that told me I would do another Munro, because at that precise moment it wasn't a concept I could even consider, I was all Munro-ed out. We'd done 10 Munros and 7 Tops over 22 hours with a wild camp, covering 34km with 2.5x Ben Nevisses in ascent (3400m). Desperation made me pick up the pace, and finally the car suddenly appeared closer than I'd expected, and 9:45 after setting off. With deep joy I pulled off my boots, to find, with less joy, the soles of my feet were white, wrinkly and hard - the onset of trenchfoot? Who knows. A baby wipe and some clean socks and they started to feel better already. We drove back to Aberdeen via Aviemore where we stopped off at an Australian restaurant, where Vicky had an American dish and I had a Chinese one. Very Scottish. Then we snatched a few hours kip at Vicky's before she took me to the bus station for 7am. I slept for the first half, pretty soundly considering the transport, then a nice lad from Bangladesh sat next to me and offered me a headphone so I could watch 'Seven Years in Tibet' with him. I gratefully accepted and was in Manchester before I knew it. I didn't have to rush this time, so sat down for a pizza before I boarded my train. The walk back to my car at the other end was uphill and difficult and I was dying for a wee, so I experienced all kinds of relief when I got home, and the chickens seemed to be getting on better too! A memorable trip, for sure.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

July 2011 - Walking/Climbing - Ben Nevis

Skimming stones behind the CC hut
This trip was many things to me. It was the highest Munro, not to mention the highest mountain in the UK (Ben Nevis); it was a route that has been on my wishlist for ages not least because it counts as a through route, i.e. going through a fully enclosed hole (Tower Ridge); it was the neighbouring Munro that I'd wanted to do since I saw its aesthetic profile when I stood on top of Aonach Mor in winter a few years ago (Carn Mor Dearg arete), it was a trip with two friends I no longer see as often as I'd like to, and it was another step closer in achieving my aim of ticking all the Munros before I'm 40. Simon and Claire arrived at mine on the Friday evening, and we enjoyed some of my home-made alcohol beverages and discussed the route. On Saturday morning I attempted to prep us for the long drive with butcher's bacon and home-made tiger bread, then we began the drive up to Fort William. We arrived at a reasonable time, did a bit of shopping, moved up to the hut at Roy Bridge, Si and Claire whipped us up a tasty curry, then we had a wander along the river, and were in bed by 9 without getting too badly devoured by midges.

Things had gone well so far, but that was the easy bit. Sunday morning started early, but inauspiciously. We woke just after 5, and got to the Nevis Range ski centre car park to find I'd left my hiking socks in the hut. Secondly, we had the Climbers' Club key for the forest gate and higher car park, but according to a chap in the hut the foresty commission had changed the locks the previous week without letting the Climbers' Cub know, and on top of that we couldn't even get to the gate to check as we found there was a motorbike world championships being held in the Leanachan forest and their fences in the car park were blocking access to the forest track. Thirdly, while we were considering these problems some night security came over and told us only event VIPs could park in the car park, although as it was so early there were no staff there that knew where we *could* park. Also, despite the weather having been nice all week by all accounts, today the forecast was for showers and low cloud, and sure enough it was pretty overcast with a certain amount of dampness in the air. Nevertheless, none of these things were enough to cause us to change our plans, so we went back to the hut for me to pick up some more socks (I later found the others had rolled under the bed), and parked in the North Face car park instead. We began our walk in at 7 to 7, at first steeply through the forest then a more relaxed ascent up the banks of the Allt a' Mhuilinn to the CIC hut (altitude 680m), which we reached after an hour an a half. It was a little surreal to pass a 'digging in progress' sign along with two wheelbarrows and the digger itself under the cliffs of Ben Nevis 5km from the road, but it seems they are improving the path by the hut. Another half an hour later and we were at the start of the route.

We decided to miss out the Douglas boulder to save time, and went round the back via East Gully instead. I went first, and followed a little path which first went up easy grass and rock, and then steepened up a loose, muddy scree gully. I steadily picked my way up not yet sure of the friction on this terrain, at times having to bridge on holds that weren't quite big enough to inspire confidence in big boots, and holding onto rock that was clearly not well attached. I found it unpleasantly loose and was fervently hoping the rest of the route would not be like this. This gully took us to the Douglas gap, from which an open chimney left up onto the ridge proper. Claire took over here and carefully explored the holds and made progress up to safety. Thankfully the rock here was much more solid, but this meant we had to start from scratch 'finding our feet'. It was pretty steep, and I was glad that Claire could remember the moves she'd just made and pass the knowledge on to me to aid my upwards progress. We didn't get a rope out, but made a mental note not to feel ashamed to request one if we met another such obstable.

North Face of Ben Nevis
The information we had with us said that the next section was easy going, and indeed it was, and we made fairly rapid progress. Claire carried on picking the way upwards, and at some point I took over being in front. The scrambling was luxurious and despite the complete lack of views due to the lowe cloud I was really enjoying the gorilla like movement over the rock now. We kept our eye out for the Little Tower, which one description said was inconspicuous but another had some advice on how to tackle. We reach a little steeping that may have been it, but couldn't work out the advised approach of starting on the left and trending right up an awkward ramp to a corner, so instead took it straight on which was given as an alternative, since this way seemed worn and was marked with crampon scratches. I decided to be brave and stay in the lead, despite my climbing skills have falled into disuse, and although a little harder than the previous section it was never hard or scary and still fun.

This easy section of the ridge seemed to go on forwever, but after eventually we reached an area where the crampon scratches ran out, and there were several options, none of which seeming that likely. The left hand flank seemed most amenable so I tried a couple of grooves but although each led up a little, the slab above them looked like it would repel further progress. Claire retreated a metre or two and found a stepped groove that I'd missed, so we went up that. Then came an akward bit on a par with the earlier chimney, and decided that this was probably the Little Tower, as a ramp led righwards. Claire teetered across it, and gave us some feedback, before pulling stylishly over a steep block onto easier ground again. I approached the ramp in a different way, staying lower so that I was more in balance and not pushed backwards by my rucksack. That bit was okay, but I didn't like the feel of the move over the block so remembered my previous mental note about gear, and got Claire to pass me down a couple of slings that I attached to myself for safety for that one move, which I then made much more happily. I'm well aware that slings don't have any 'give' and if you fall on them you can generate a lot of force, both on your body and on the sling and rock, but in this situation the speed advantage overweighed all that, all that was needed was a little backup.

We carried on on more easier ground, until we reach the unmistakeable Great Tower, a vertical wall which could have been climbed but was of a quite different level of difficulty to the route so far. We had been expecting to summit the Great Tower direct since the route description had said to climb to its 'very ramparts', but reading further we realised that we were already at the ramparts, and it was here that the Eastern Traverse led off to the left to avoid this difficulty. Claire spotted the traverse and it was reassuringly wide, albeit in a fantastic position on the edge of the cliff and I'm sure it would be vertigo-inducing for many. At about this point some eerie whoops and cheers reached us through the mist, other people on the mountain somewhere, and we whooped back. The Eastern Traverse led us straight to the tunnel, which was my 'through route' section, and I dived eagerly ahead to thrutch myself up the inside of the fallen block and out of the hole at the top. It wasn't greasy as one description had warned, just fabulous. With the other two still engaged in this bit, I explored the next section which was described as steep with good holds. Steep it was, climbing the broken left wall of the Great Tower with triangular blocks jutting out so your body was always pushed outwards even if your hands and feet were in the niches above and below. It was reasonably okay though, no need for a rope although I did thread a sling through a hole and attach it to myself while I figured out the steepest move, and then all three of us were at the cairn on the tower.

We knew we were nearing the summit now, but still had to face the infamous Tower Gap, and were feeling a little jittery at the prospect. We first paused off the back of the Great Tower for a replenishing snack, then it was Simon's turn to be the intrepid explorer at the front so we sent him off across the next obstacle - between the Great Tower and Tower Gap the ridge narrows into a metre wide gendarme with vertical sides dropping into gullies that lead down to the coire floors. This bit in itself is particularly memorable, carefully sliding on your bum over the gendarme which a kind of rock gangway, the exposure from the sheer drops each side causing you to shrink down onto the rock and pray for high friction to hold you there. Simon investigated Tower Gap at the end of the ledge while Claire and I waited on it, enjoying the situation at the same time as trying not to think about it too much. There was already a rope in situ so Si clipped in to it, but there was a bit of a delay before he actually descended. From my vantage point I coudn't see what was going on, I just knew I was getting a little chilly and also a little damp as it had started to drizzle, but when I arrived I saw that someone had tied a knot in the rope to bring the two strands together. This knot was half way down the gap, so the rope wasn't actually much use as an abseil rope until you'd actually managed to lower yourself down to the bottom of the gap. Simon threw himself valiantly down it, and climbed skillfully up the other side, using the ab rope as protection although the higher he got the more horizontal it became - thankfully the difficulty eased with the height. Claire followed, then me, and I accepted the rope Si threw over to me, so I had direct assistance from above. Then we stowed the gear for the final section.

The refuge at the summit
The ramp leading away from Tower Gap was much easier than it looked from below although Claire wasn't keen on one of the moves - we were all a bit wobbly after the pause and confusion of Tower Gap and the odd rope work. Even after climbing up the other side I was worrying about the bit in the description noted as a 'final steepening' with no mention as to whether it was hard or easy. As it turned out it was barely noticeable, and suddenly we found ourselves standing on the summit plateau, an unexpected situation after being so absorbed by the route for so long. The mist still brought visibility down to around a hundred metres, but we could hear all manner of noises up ahead. Captivated, I gingerly stalked onwards while the other two sorted something out behind me, until the view cleared a little and I could see ghostly figures passing in either direction in front of me - we had reached the tourist path leading up from the right to the summit on the left, and there was a steady flow of people ascending by that route. In no time at all we'd joined the masses and covered the last couple of hundred metres across the plateau to the summit, and were standing there amist the sodden walkers and climbers, the ruins of the observatory, a war memorial, a trig point, a wooden roofed steel-box refuge, and a number of cairns, each artefact appearing out of the mist as the other faded in to it.

It was the first time up here for all three of us and we sat and had some food and drink. We'd made good time, 2 hours for the walk in and 5 hours on the route, and it was now 2pm, meaning we had time to descend by the CMD arete as planned.

We set off on a bearing, but then I made a brief error and led us over to the wrong shoulder, forgetting there were two. I soon realised my mistake and we backtracked 100 yards or so and found the path down the correct shoulder. We zig zagged down steeply for a good way, and had our moment of vindication when we found a levelling along with the the pole marking the escape route down Coire Leis, showing we were in the right place. There was also a feature that looked like a large rock chalice, which turned out to be a series of abseil posts, marking another descent option. Our route carried on ahead, with the flanks steepening again into the CMD arete. We followed the path along the back of it instead of scrambling along the crest, for speed's sake and because we'd already put in a good deal of toil on the way up so didn't need the extra difficulty at this point. There were still no views, and the rain that had started at Tower Gap had not stopped, so we were plodding along in waterproofs. It was a little disheartening having to walk with poor weather and no visual rewards, but at least it had held off while we were climbing. I personally was still enjoying the terrain, and imagining what a stunning situation it must be on a good day. The ridge curved round to the North and it didn't seem too long until we were only 1km from the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, and then 200m. Then a short hop along to the subsiduary top, then all that was left was the epically long path that descended mercilessly slowly to the Allt a' Mhuilinn.

We'd expected to descend fairly steeply back down to the valley floor, but the path we picked up seemed to be heading in pretty much the correct direction albeit staying high, so we followed it deciding it would be quicker than going off track. At points we thought it would never descend nor converge with the Allt a' Mhuillin path, but eventually we saw over a rib and were reassured that it would. As we came down out of the clouds we started to get a couple of views. Unfortunately by this point Tower Ridge was out of sight, but we saw the western part of the North Face, and round to Lochan Meall an t'Suidhe and beyond to Loch Linnhe. The rain stopped too, meaning we could take off our waterproofs, which was good as it was getting steadily warmer the lower we got. There was also a brilliant moment where I observed that we hadn't seen much wildlife except for the odd little brown bird, and added that I nearly always see Ptarmigan on Scottish hills… then as if by magic, just as we passed a bump on the path we stumbled over the largest flock of them I've ever seen, and they ran around for a bit before flying away, flashing white under their camouflaged grey backs. We saw some deer in the distance too, the other essential tick.

When we finally reached the Allt a' Mhuillin we wished we were still up on the flanks as it was pretty midgy, but thankfully that didn't last too long as it started drizzling again which kept them away - we weren't complaining this time. The path back along the river then through the forest began to drag, our feet were aching and our knees were sore. We didn't quite make it within 12 hours, but we reached the car at 7 past 7 having left at 7 to 7, and 12:15 isn't bad at all for such a long day out: 14km and 1480m total ascent with a fair amount of scrambling. The question is whether to go back and do it again on a fairer day, there are so many other Munros still to do but I think it would be worth it!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

June 2011 - Walking/Climbing - Skye and the Cuillin

(The full set of photos accompanying this report can be found here -

The hardest Munro is said to be the Inn Pin (Innacessible Pinnacle) as it requires a rock climb to get to the summit, and on top of that it is part of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye which is fairly continuous scrambling over 12km and often done in one or two long days, so I was keen to get there this year before I forgot how to climb. The best time to go is in May or June when the snow has melted but the midges haven't yet descended en masse, however my planned trip fell through and nobody else could take a week off at short notice. Then I received an unexpected message from a friend who was on shore leave for a couple of weeks and interested in a little Munro bagging or climbing, and suddenly the trip was on.

We liaised over facebook chat, working out what to take and researching the route. We would head to Skye on Monday 20th June, staying until Sunday 26th at the latest and hoping for a weather window. I had already planned to go Munro bagging with a different partner the weekend before, so arranged to stay with some friends in Glasgow on the Sunday night to save coming all the way home inbetween, and enlisted a neighbour to look after the chickens.

The typical weather on the first day
The first weekend didn't start well, driving for ages down winding, damp Glen Orchy with Paul looking for a suitable spot to hang his tarp and me desperate to just put my head down in the passenger seat and catch up on some sleep. When we finally stopped, spent a while settling down, and curled up in our respective spots, the camper vans next to us started pumping out repetitive techno music. I tried to ignore it. I really tried, and every time I went to do something about it (move myself, move the car, ask them to turn it down) it seemed quieter and bearable so I'd lie down again, and then once again it would take over my entire brain and pervade the world around me - boom, beep, boom, beep. So eventually I got out of the car in my t-shirt and shorts and wandered over to Paul's bivvy to see if it was queiter over there, it was a little so I resolved to get my tent, then I was suddenly aware of a toxic, needling pain all the way up my legs and realised there were midges everywhere. I ran back to the car with Paul's keys saying I'd return them shortly, but when I reached the safety of the car, sobbing and scratching, I knew I wasn't getting out of there for a second time. It would be like willingly leaving the trenches into enemy lines without any kind of fire power. So I sat in the car in self-pity, feeling doomed to a sleepless night that would impact on my energy on the hills, then was overjoyed when Paul appeared at the window and said we'd move down the road. We found a non-boggy layby and I dosed up on anti-histamines, and finally at 1am I went to sleep, peacefully and deeply. Saturday started a little ominously with the initial path peppered with cows, but things steadily improved. The weather took a while to catch on, and it rained all day, but that couldn't take away from my elation that my knees weren't hurting one bit on the downhills, they've been improving more and more over the last year, and the steady plod up and down hills was blowing away the cobwebs that had accumulated since my last Scottish trip at Easter. We did 3 Munros on Rannoch Moor - Beainn a'Chreachain, Beinn Achaladair and Beinn Mhanach - gaining barely a single view through the cloud, but we struck up a steady conversation of shared experiences and for me the day passed without drudgery. In order to bag an extra 'top' I half deliberately mistook a county boundary for a footpath and dragged us directly up Beinn a'Chuirn for a bit of added interest. We were rather sodden by the end and grass-skiing all over the place in our soaked-through boots, but the impacts of that were lessened by adjusting our original plans to camp for the night and booking into the last available beds in the backpackers hostel in Tyndrum, which has a reasonably effective drying room.

Winding path of Ben More
Sunday was a better day, some low cloud but no rain, and we ticked off Ben More and Stob Binnein, near Crianlarich. The descent was quite steep, boggy steps round the side of the hill, and I wrenched my knee a little, so had to engage in a little wrong-way-round-traversing trickery to stop it getting any worse, which seemed to work, but apart from that it went mostly smoothly. We even got a couple of views. It had served as a good warm up for the impending week on Skye, I didn't tire myself out too much and the skin on my still-recovering toes held up fairly well. We'd had a late start as I'd left my gaiters in the drying room, and a later finish as it took longer than we'd anticipated (it's quite a slog up Ben More, although thankfully I like uphill slogs), but I made it to Glasgow in time for tea, shower and bed.

After a leisurely morning of sleeping and shopping, James met me in Glasgow and we headed on up to Skye, with a couple of photo stops on route to stretch the legs. We made it to the north end of the island a bit before sunset and walked into a little bothy where we planned to stay for the night, a converted coastguard lookout with a fantastic view over the lower headland and the Outer Hebrides. The bothy came with a grumpy Scot in situ, but he soon left with displeasure at the disturbance on his peace and quiet, and we settled down in our own peace and quiet, with a book, the view and a whisky.

Old man of Storr
The next two days were spent doing a little touristing as we needed Tuesday to recover and the forecast for the wednesday looked dubious. We visited the Kilt Rock viewpoint, the brewery shop, the Talisker distillery and the fairy pools beauty spot. Wednesday was actually a nicer day than anticipated which boded well for the route being dry. Unfortunately the forecast for Thursday had moved in the other direction according to metoffice, saying hail and a risk of lightning, but the other forecasts still said it would be fair, so we had an early dinner and an early night as planned. We squeeze into one tent as mine was packed for the ridge, and when I took it down I found a perplexed mouse underneath it wondering where his house had just vanished to, been after my food no doubt. Added to the Eider ducks in the bay and the corncrake we could hear in the neighbouring field the campsite was quite a good setting for wildlife.

James on the approach to Sgurr nan Eag (right) and Gars-bheinn (in distance)
At 4:45 am Thursday morning we were breakfasted, packed and ready to begin. James had been ready an hour before with his watch still set on French time and was a little miffed that I was still snoozing, until he realised his mistake. There are a couple of ways you can begin the ridge - either by boat from Elgol (not practical at that time in the morning), or from Glen Brittle, either traversing round the base of Gars-bheinn (the start of the ridge) and ascending it direct, or walking up past Loch Coir' a' Chrunnda to a col mid-ridge, dumping bags, and backtracking to knock off Gars-bheinn and Sgurr nan Eag (the first Munro on the ridge). We opted to do the latter, as it meant you can fill up your water bottles in the loch at the top and do the majority of the ascent with lighter packs. I normally drink more on the walk in than throughout the day, so took half a litre of squash in my platypus and managed to time it perfectly so I'd just finished supping away when we reached the loch. With an extra 3kg of water our packs were significantly heavier but at least we were only one final slope before the ridge. I think there's a definite line between my bag feeling 'light' or 'heavy' and it was definitely now the wrong side of it, but on the plus side it would only get lighter as the trip went on. The path we could see zigzaging up the scree looked to go up the wrong side of the coire ending too far along the ridge meaning more to backtrack (and ascend), but we followed it anyway and it did somehow lead in the desired direction, although we seemed to end up a little too high if anything. At the ridge proper we wedged the bags behind a rock and scampered over Sgurr nan Eag and on to Gars-bheinn, occasionally stopping for a photo or two. It's quite a long way, but the going is easy (even easier if you stick to the ridge rather than trying to take the runner's detour round the side of Sgurr a'Choire Bhig) and where there isn't an obvious path you can choose anywhere to walk. We got to Gars-beinn just after 9am, a little after the recommended time of 8:15 (and that's for slow people), but those times were for a speed 1-day ascent, and we were carrying big packs.

Death approach to Sgurr Dubh Mor that wasn't death
We returned to our packs and continued North East to take in Sgurr Dubh Mor which isn't quite on the ridge but is the second Munro. It was very difficult to continue with our previous sure-footed rhythm due to our heavy packs (12kg+) playing havoc with our knee strength and inertia, but we continued as fast as we could hoping we'd get used to the weight. The way to Sgurr Dubh Mor looked from afar to be a bit of a death trap, with scree ramps followed by a loose gully, but everything was reassuringly solid. That was one of my overriding memories of the ridge: the rock (in the majority) has amazing friction, there's nearly always something good to hold on to, and the loose boulders seem to be securely wedged, even at impressively steep angles. That did a lot to reduce any impact of the exposure - there were only two places on the rige where I felt at all exposed, when the drop was sheer, the rest of the time I didn't fret about my position at all, there were gradual slopes beneath you and it was just a fantastic place to be and afforded unobstructed views. And views there were, the cloud base was about ridge-level and lifed slightly as it reached the summits too, so we could see clearly down to the valley floor, with the various islands to the wets and the azure waters and sailing boats in Loch Coruisk to the South East. I'm not a religuous person but I was actually praying that the weather held, and promised that I would do all manner of good deeds in return.

We left our packs on the ridge again for the final interesting scramble up Sgurr Dubh Mor, which had a couple of tricky moves that would have been hard to reverse, had we not found an easy way back down again. Then on to the TD gap, the bridge between us and Sgurr Alasdair. Just before this there is the first of the aforementioned exposed sections (the second being the Inn Pin, and the drop off to the right hand side), a few metres of vertical scrambling up to the belay spot. James tentatively climbed up this, declared it not as bad as it looked, but dropped me a rope which I tied round my wait so I didn't have to fret about plummeting to my death. It was actually quite straighforward although I'd still like a rope if I did it again.

TD Gap
At this point it was 2pm, only 2 hours behind the 1-day schedule, although I think that time is actually for the far side of the TD gap rather than the near side, so we would have been further behind still. However, following that timescale we would have made camp at 5pm, and it was light until gone 11, so we weren't too fussed about sticking to it, just useful as a guideline. The TD gap is one place where you can lose time getting stuck in a queue, and sure enough there were a few parties strung out at various places on the far side of it, moving upwards. However by the time we'd faffed about abseiling in to the gap, shivering in the mist and drizzle which had picked an inopportune moment to descend (there vanished my promises to the man-up-there), they were off and away. In the deteriorating conditions I lost my confidence, and we made a little faff of climbed on the two big boulders that sit in the gap, in order to reach the start of the rock climb. James found the easy way up, and we roped up for it, attached ourselves safely into the proper belay stance, then James set off up the climb. He had been a little nervous as the rock here was smoother and lacked the friction we had enjoyed on the rest of the ridge plus he was wearing approach shoes rather than rock shoes, but at least he could leave his pack with me and haul it up after, and in actual fact he climbed it pretty quickly, finding it a lot nicer than he anticipated. I enjoyed it too, not least because the clouds lifted just before I started. I had a hiking boot on my right foot and a rock shoe on my left foot, I couldn't be bothered to change them both but as it happens I got the pefect combination as my hiking boot wedged nicely in the wide crack at the back of the corner.

The next section was thankfully easy, and downright enjoyable. Sgurr Alasdair was a quick hop up an obvious scramble next to a bealach where we'd paused for a snack. Thearlaich was a little perplexing as the guide we were following doesn't tell you how to get up or down it so we made up our own route, retracing our steps a little until we could find a way to scramble up, and carefully scrambled off the back too, James ahead picking a viable descent. The other parties seemed to climb it directly as a rock pitch, and possibly abseiled off the back of it.

Collie's Ledge
We crossed rapidly on to Mhic Choinnic, and the location of King's Chimney (VDiff). It isn't actually necessary to climb this so to save time we opted for the alternative of Collie's Ledge and I'm glad we did, it was my highlight of the ridge. It's an exposed traverse round the side of the mountain, with a completely smooth, flat, natural, jagged edge ledge for your feet, and always good, high-friction handholds. It takes you a little past the summit, so we deposited packs again somewhere they wouldn't roll off, and scampered up and back - Munro number 4! (Although we thought it was no. 5 at the time, forgetting that Thearlaich wasn't one).

It struck me at some point that when you are in a situation where you know you don't really have options and know you just have to keep going, you don't really question your morale or choices, you just get on with it. As a result of this I wasn't really sure how much I was enjoying myself as I was ignoring the usual questions that tumble around in my mind, such as whether I wanted to be there still or how my morale was holding up or if I was tired, just in case the answers were undesirable, I could go over all that once I was safely back at the campsite. This led to a rather remote enjoyment of the experience, for the first day at least. A restrained mind is not bad though, it keeps excitement and fear in check. The first time you take on the challenge of the Cuillin ridge it's a massive unknown, each section could be tricky and there are so many of them that if you let the anticipation of each one get the better of you the effect would compound and you'd be a shaking wreck. I knew that I could quite easily be nervous about various sections if I wanted to, but instead I was wearing a matter-of-fact cloak, and I'd just take each challenge as I got to it, as there was no way of knowing how it would turn out when until I got there. I first realised I was doing this on the traverse to Sgurr Dubh Mor, as the scree looked horrible but I didn't panic, and when we got there it was actually completely fine. This made me aware that it was actually a good way to tackle things, and although doing it unconsciously I knew that this approach stood me in good stead for the rest of the challenges, made them pass in a kind of oblivion.

An Stac (lump in the middle), the brown ramp round it, and the Inn Pin (high fin)
We had been wearing our harnesses since the TD Gap, and had drunk over 1/4 of our water, but we were still tiring a little by now. We were no longer looking at the clock, just making progress as our bodies and minds would allow. Looking on there were two options - the towering bastion of An Stac, which was described as a Mod rock climb, like a taller version of the Inn Pin and just beneath it, or a brown, slippery-looking ramp round its left hand side - neither of which looked that appealing. We continued scrambling onwards until the moment that we had to make a choice, James had been keeping a good eye ahead on where the parties ahead of us had gone, so knew the decision point. Studying the options myself, I was drawn to the sight of immensely steep scree slopes leading from the side of An Stac right down to the valley floor, and commented that my worst nightmare would be to end up on something like that - and then my jaw dropped to the floor when I spotted tiny ant like people happily ascending and descending it. That both reassured me, as it obviously wasn't suicidal as I thought, and terrified me lest I had to partake in a similar experience on a later descent. This discovery didn't help me to come up with a preferred onwards route as on the one hand An Stac looked taxing - from this distance it was hard to tell whether it was more akin to scrambling or climbing and the party in situ were pitching it suggesting the latter - but on the other hand the brown ramp involved walking across the top of the scree and the person in front to do that had sent a portion of it clattering far, far down the slope (thankfully not following it himself). The brown ramp would save time, but miss out a notable section of the ridge. This latter catechism led to our decision - we knew that it is advisable to take time-saving bypasses, and considering that I was there to bag the Munros it wasn't the end of the world if I missed out a non-munro pinnacle, even if it was a notable one. Furthermore, I had mis-remembered the notes as saying that this bypass 'gives the legs a rest if not the brain' so I thought that might mean it was loose and scary, but James reminded me that it had said that the bypass 'gives the brain a rest if not the legs', so bypass we did. It was actually okay, a wide, featured slab, easy angled enough that you didn't feel that you were going to slip down it, but steep enough that you had to scamper up it on all fours.

James on the Inn Pin
The rock here was interesting, rounded brown lumps held in by a kind of natural mortar that was flaking away in places leaving large brown pebbles scattered about. You could ascend it anywhere, although I stayed towards the right-hand side where the rock was more featured and the exposure was less - I'm more confident on slabs than I used to me but they're still my weakest area. Despite the fairly trivial terrain, the slope was relentless, partly because the angle lent it to a speedy ascent and no resting. Nearing the top, which pops you out right at the base of the Inn Pin it started to rain again. I increased my speed lest it get treacherous - it did get slippery, but we made the step rightwards before it got scary. Then we were standing on a big flat ledge, with a few other people, staring at the dramatic fin of the Inn Pin - like a small, more defined version of An Stac, but higher, and this time compulsory in order to tick the 5th Munro. The rain wasn't giving up so we pulled on waterproofs and sat there glumly with moments of enthusiastic conversation while we waited for the other group to climb the route. The rain abated before James started climbing, but of course picked up again as soon as I came to second it. James made short work of both pitches, despite wearing boots and a rucksack it is only a Mod. I decided I couldn't be bothered to put my rockboots on despite carrying them with me claiming I'd find them essential. After enjoying a rainbow spanning the valley floor, it was my turn to climb. The first pitch was okay, not quite as easy as the scrambling despite James telling me it was, but no dramas. The belay I arrived at was less than ideal, James had draped a couple of slings round spikes as expected but one was too high for me to inspect and the other seemed to lift off at the vaguest touch, so I belayed one handed while clinging desperately to a very good handhold, and using added knee and elbow power when I needed both hands for the rope. On the second pitch, despite the belay above being much better, I was fretting audibly, as the angle had dropped off and I was clambering horizontally along the tip of the ridge, the left-hand side ending at the ledge we'd been on but the right side was fairly sheer for a long way down and had I fallen off I would have struggled to find any purchase on the rock and would have been dangling there, further inhibited by my pack. So despite the moves being easy, each one felt serious. I made gratuitous use of my knees as it meant I could take smaller steps and keep my centre of gravity lower, and so remain in balance. Due to the rain I didn't enjoy it as I had the TD Gap, and I was very thankful to reach the abseil chain and make myself safe. The abseil was exposed but didn't bother me, I was on a rope and going back down! We promptly packed up the gear, walked up a short continuation ramp and hopped over the back of the perpendicular ridge line to have a sit down, and discuss another choice we had to make - what to do next.

The Inn Pin had been particularly time consuming and suddenly it was 7pm, and we had been going for over 14 hours. It didn't feel like a lot, because we knew it would be a long day and you just have to ignore it and keep going, but we had to start to consider that it might be time to stop. Only it didn't look like an ideal place for a tent. Plus we were still three Munros away from the point we had hoped to set up camp. Although we had also hoped to be there by now. Should we carry on? The next section of ridge looked easy, but there was no guarantee we'd find a place to pitch the tent, and on second inspection the location we were at looked like it wasn't that ridiculous. Then again, given that it was still raining and we were feeling a bit disillusioned, perhaps we should descdend all the way down, we still had time? There are plenty of escape route along the ridge, only the one nearest us didn't sound particularly nice in the wet. It was like a tombola, each option we came up with sounded equally likely, and the final decision was a likely to happen purely by which one the conversation ended on. Neither of us had a strong opinion either way, I don't think either of us knew what we wanted to do, for me my decision making mechanisms were fixed in 'don't think, just get on with it' mode, so we were almost communicating via telepathy. We decided to stay put, and try to pitch the tent here. We knew we wouldn't complete the whole ridge in one more day, so we agreed to see what the weather was doing in the morning, and have an easy day, ideally do at least 3 more Munros, meaning we'd have competed the entire western portion of the ridge.

Bivvy spot on the back of Sgurr Dearg
From a certain way along the ridge, there are pre-built bivvy spots, semi-circles of stones to shelter behind in a bivvy bag. One of these off the back of An Stac seemed to be wider than the others and floored with fine gravel, and wasn't on a scary angled sloped, so while the rain surrealy turned into snow, softly plopping around us, we popped the tent up, weighing down the pegs with rocks and tying some of the guy ropes on to other rocks, then piled up our damp kit in the porch. Sitting inside the tent it was obvious it hadn't quite gained the structure it should have, but it was warm and somewhat steamy, and dry. Neither of us were hungry but we knew it would be silly not to eat so James tucked into his Jamaica loaf and I my yummy and squidgy banana soreen, followed by a few swigs of Laphroaig quarter cast that James had brought along in his new hip flask, purchased that week in the Talisker distillery. Then, we with got on with the only exciting task remaining - sleeping! It took me a while to drop off, first afraid that the wind, light but gusting, would pull the pegs out of their tenuous placements. Then it rained more, and the sound distracted me further. Eventually though, sleep overcame me.

A good few hours later, well past dawn, I heard James mumbling about getting dripped on, and he got up and went to sit in the sun which was shining with renewed vigour. I was dry and warm so I stayed put, but the disturbance of the tent and the rearrangement of space seemed to anger the fabric, and it desposited a steady stream of water on my head, so I too got up and wandered outside into the dry.

Typical path, descending towards Banachdich
After a relaxed breakfast we packed up our kit and continued along the ridge. First up was a winding scree descent down a fairly broad flank on the outside of the ridge (the ridge forms a curve around a volcanic crater, loch Coruisk is on the inside while Glen Brittle and the Sligachan are on the outside). For most of the ridge James was ahead as he was more sure footed, and even if I started off first there was bound to be a divergance as we picked a different step or two and James would overtake and pass back in front. Sometimes my mind started to numb at taking none of the responsibility of route finding and I'd request that he hang behind me for a while so I could take a turn in the driving seat. This kept the status quo and kept things fair without introducing an uneccessarily precise division of labour. (At the climbing sections I still let James do all the work of course, much faster that was and we both knew it made sense, me having retired my climbing shoes in exchange for Munro ticks). I went ahead here, following scree zig zags downwards and losing height. We had to descend a little to the left of the ridge so that we could then traverse round and reach the bealach between Sgurr Dearg and Banachdich, rather than trying to descend the steep, jagged rocks that are directly on the ridge. The path here became less obvious, perhaps because it's the kind of terrain where a path won't stay put, as this is the only part of the ridge we did that didn't seem so stable. We picked a way around a perpendicular rib and across a wide screen gully, and then thankfully it returned to normal again, with a more obvious track up the scree on the other side and round the back of Banachdich to the true summit.

À cheval on Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh
That section was quickly forgotten as things got more and more enjoyable as they day went on. The next section of the ridge is described in the guide as mind numbling but we didn't find that at all. Thormaid, the sub-peak after Banachdich, had earned a little description in the guide (most of the easy bits were just given as notes on a route map, but the tricky bits were details underneath, Thormaid being one such), but thankfully it was a piece of cake, scrambling straight over then walking down a terrace of sloping ledges. A mixture of flat path then minor scrambling led us round and over the two peaks of the Midget ridge and we were in our element, poles away and scampering along the rock. Then we got ridge fever and obliviously went straight over some pinnacles rather than using the path around the side. I'm glad we did though, a fantastic à cheval position and my second favourite section of the ridge. We relished the two peaks of 'Greedy' (Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh) and the area between them not at all complex despite the guide saying it is, then picked our way across and down a couple of easy scrambly bits towards An Dorus.

Final Munro for us!
An Dorus is a bealach in a notch like an easier version of the TD gap, and the short downclimb to it caused us to stop and scratch our heads momentarily. James went down one way and I paused at the top of another until he came to receive my bag so I could then climb down it in balance. We left our bags on a ledge and set off up our last Munro of the trip, 'Moody' (Sgurr a'Mhaidadh). This was also fantastic fun, more secure scrambling of a 'go anywhere' variety, with blissful hands and footholds. We were up in 15 minutes and down in 10. Inbetween that we sat on the summit for a very long time, just drinking in the views, the peace, and the situation. I knew it made sense to end our adventure, it was quite a distance to the last 3 Munros past the three tops of Mheadaidh and the confusion of Bidein Druim nam Ramh, and here was a practical place to descend as it would bring us back to the road at Glen Brittle youth hostel not too far from the campsite, rather than significantly further along towards the Sligachan end of the ridge... but I had been thoroughly enjoying moving over the rock and didn't want to stop. We satisfied ourselves by taking many photos and scrutinising every aspect of the view, the tiny fin of the Inn Pin in the distance poking into view behind the perpendicular ridge of Sgurr Dearg, our camping spot on the near side of that ridge, Gars Bheinn even more distant still where we had started the ridge, Loch Coruisk, and the three remaining summits with their as yet undiscovered craggy ups and downs. The air was still, and we were in special world, fairly close to civilisation yet entirely separate from it just given the difference in altitude.  Finally we returned to the bags and started off down the An Dorus gully. This gave a couple of easy steps down some rocky ledges, then another zig zag path rapidly losing height down more solid scree. This went on for a fair old while, and eventually took its toll on our legs, and we were thankful for the slackening of angle at the Allt a' Choire Ghreadaidh. Here we shunned the path and wandered along the bank of the river, more cascades and plunge pools akin to the ones we'd photographed at the Fairy Pools two days before. At a more open section we sat and took our boots off and dunked our feet in the ice cold water, trying not to scream out in comical pain at the soothing but intensely cold temperature.

Descent down An Dorus
We were still 2km from the road and this last section, although pretty and reminiscent of an alpine meadow, was agonising. Perhaps due to the heat (losing 700-800m we would have gained 7-8 degrees in temperature) my feet were screaming, which was odd because I hadn't had a single problem with them on the ridge. The blisters on my little toes, although not as bad as they had been a couple of weeks ago, started rubbing noticeable, and my heels kept cramping up and causing me to stop and grimace. I was overjoyed when we met the road, as although still 2.5km from the campsite it meant we could hope to hitch a ride. Unfortunately traffic was sparse, only 1 car passing in 1.5km and they waved apologetically to indicate that they didn't have room. Thankfully a lady and her daughter in the second car stopped to take us the last kilometre back to the campsite and we were so thankful we picked up every hitcher we saw over the last 2 days of our trip.

Celebratory haggis, neeps and tatties in the Sligachan
Back at the car, we relaxed, smiled, sorted kit, then enjoyed a little self pampering - a shower, almost a massage (the showers there are awesomely powerful), hair dried with the free hairdrier, moisturised, cleaned teeth, and clad myself in lovely clean smelling clothes. After that I could almost walk again, and we upped sticks and decamped to the Sligachan, enjoying a 3 course dinner and a couple of posh whiskies, before battling the dense cloud of midgies at the adjacent campsite for a bit, then having an early night and a good sleep.

Saturday dawned misty and damp giving us no inspiration to get up and allowing us a bit more recovery sleep. Then we visited a couple more sites of interest before beginning the long drive home.

Kylerhea ferry, we went to Skye and came back from the 'Isle of Skye'
All in all it was a pretty memorable trip. It holds a bit of an odd place in my memory, as it was organised last minute, didn't follow a strict plan, and didn't feel like a holiday, and we didn't complete the whole ridge, but it was a fantastic experience and didn't leave me wanting, although has left me making virtual plans for the future - return and do the remaining section in a day, and then possibly another trip travelling light, just water and food, doing the whole thing in a day and missing out the climbing section (perhaps asking someone if I could join in on their rope on the Inn Pin). I'm definitely happy with the way we approached it for our first attempt - happy that we didn't hire a guide, despite all other two day parties that we met having hired one, the paper printout was more than sufficient; happy with the gear we took, yes packs were heavy but in order to pre-stash water you have to do another significant day of ascent or descent beforehand, and I wanted the confidence of having overnight kit so we could stop and sleep whenever we wanted. Before I went, I didn't know what to expect, how serious it would feel, how tricky the terrain would be, whether we'd need to do any short roping (we didn't). People can relate their experiences, but words are difficult to hook up to your own impression. I'd read that it is possible to descend from various places along the ridge, and I now know that I'd feel confident doing that, so if I return I can do so with less kit, and just bail out if the weather turns rather than having to be prepared for all eventualities.