Sunday, 23 February 2014

to and fro
the yo-yo years
on the Big Moss
Over 3,000 feet up, on the Moine Mhor (Big Moss), the immense plateau above Glenfeshie, studded with lochans and wee streams, surrounded by Cairn Toul, Braeriach and, far below, Loch Einich, as Kay and I put up the tent, I was impressed to find that she had carried a bottle of pinot grigio all that way, so that we could enjoy gourmet living. From quite an early age, she had been interested in cooking, probably because my skills were so limited, and it was great to be sharing the tent with someone who could do better than kippers and marmalade for breakfast.
wee lochan
In May, late winter, the snow was old and patchy, the day windless, the sun bright, and we spent the rest of the day plootering about the wee lochans, still part frozen, and coasting along the tops to the west of Loch Einich. Back in the tent, the gourmet nosh and nicely chilled bottle gave rise to a level of contentment with life that dived sharply in the wee small hours when I woke hearing the well-remembered whisper on the roof of the tent and looked out to see that there were already several inches of snow, and that the stuff was coming down very thickly indeed.
above Loch Einich
We packed up as fast as we could and headed for the valley, but it was uphill to start with, and in the snow and semi-dark impossible to see more than a few feet; without the compass, we would soon have been wandered; as it was, we were well off the track and battling through an ever-increasing depth of snow that masked boulders, heather and holes, until we were nearly down into the glen.
Had we been in too much of a hurry to pull out, wasting all that effort to take the tent up onto the plateau? no, the snow continued for the next fortnight.
Midsummer, and Ishbel, her sister Sheena and I had a gorgeous day up on the Big Moss, over to Braeriach, a little way from whose summit we found the Wells of Dee, where the infant River Dee first emerges from the stony hillside: a sharp metallic taste, but a few feet lower, trickling through bright green moss, the water became sweet.
cascading stream
This time we were camped down in the glen, by a cascading stream among the trees, dry level ground, rich in ants. That evening Ishbel insisted that we all do a quiz designed to assess our potential for survival. Sheena and I were not at all keen to find out our prospects, but Ishbel insisted, so we did the quiz. It turned out that Sheena and I would survive fine, because in the last resort we would eat Ishbel, but she, a much less brutal person, reluctant to eat us, would not. She was astounded and seriously dischuffed, a pity, up till then it had been a perfect day, and after all it was only a quiz.
Glenfeshie, much less spectacular than Loch Morlich or the Lairig Ghru, and with no chair lift to bypass the slog up to the plateau, was free from the tourist hordes, its river was good for swimming, and there was even a gliding club nearby. I found I was going back there a lot; for after coming home from the abortive Ulan Bator expedition, it had soon become clear that an early-retired body was still needing to travel, but not at all clear where to.
below Liathach
When Cee came with me to Torridon in the Mitsubishi van, there was cloud down over all the summits, so we followed a slightly furtive Japanese angler (who claimed to be heading for a loch with an exotic fish - but we may have misunderstood) up the track that goes round the north of Liathach to look at the wee loch, but without sunshine it was a dreich, dismal place, and the angler had disappeared. Fortunately Cee was happy for hours sitting in the van drawing cartoons or reading.
in the van
At the river, as I bent to fill the water container, the bank gave way and I fell in, landing on a finger which came out of the water at an unusual angle. Quicker than thought the other hand  pulled it straight; it swelled up and turned an interesting dark colour, and was so painful that I couldn’t easily change gear, so for the next few days Cee worked the gear lever while I de-clutched. (In retrospect, should the van technically have had an L-plate?) Later, back home, an x-ray showed a fracture, but it was already healing fine and nothing more needed to be done.
on Stac Polly
Kay mostly had good weather, and she cruised up Beinn Eighe, Ben Mor Coigach and Stac Polly with what looked like enjoyment, and at a rate of knots that made me realise that now she was, though still inexperienced, definitely the strong element in the duo, while I was the fading laggard.
Maude and I went to Torridon in October, in her huge car, which stuck in the mud, so we spent a day building a road out of whatever flat stones we could find nearby. After many hours we thought the road was firm enough and long enough to drive out of the mud; cautiously Maude tried, and the great beast rode out onto the tarmac, no problem.
Too late for a hill, so we went along to the pub, where the locals looked us over and wondered where we were staying. In our tent, we said. Local eyes glittered with appreciation: “Och, you will be as hard as the deer.” Well, we hoped it was appreciation rather than irony, and ever since have raised our spirits from any low ebb by saying to each other “but och, we are as hard as the deer …”
And in the following days our hard hooves sewed up Beinn Dearg and Beinn Eighe.
It was becoming obvious that each of these quick visits to the high places was costing a return ferry fare and a previous booking, which made it impossible to simply go when there was a spell of fine weather and come back when it turned bad. Perhaps it was time for a change, a longer journey, to … where?
A plan started to form: away south to the sun, maybe France and/or Italy? Fresh-baked rolls, local cheeses and wines? Tiny hill-towns pulsing with history? Major centres of renaissance art, enormous paintings by famous names? Very different from the wilderness of the homeland, but very appealing.
Was anyone interested in coming along? Yes, Cee and her current boyfriend, both art aficionados, would like to go to Venice and Florence.
(To be continued)
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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

finding the way
comfort-free zone
Inside the bothy it was fairly free from comfort: a concrete floor to sleep on, a pail to collect the formidable quantity of snow you need in order to produce enough water for a breakfast coffee – and what had been previously in that pail might have been sheep-dip, to judge by the taste. It was a relief to emerge in the morning and find the day sunny, except that the tops we were to sew up that day, Carn Mairg and Schiehallion, were lost in cloud.
Carn Mairg and Schiehallion
But we had all the navigation gear you could hope for in that era – compass, O.S. 1” maps, torch (in case of benightment) and whistle to blow for help (eh? who would hear us?) So off we trudged through the snow, onwards and upwards until we were in the cloud, and eventually we reached what we thought was probably the top of Carn Mairg.
Only probably, because we could see nothing, and this was not a sharp peak, just one of several rounded summits; but since the ground fell away downwards on all sides and we had gone what seemed to be the right distance and travelled uphill what felt like the right amount, and because we wanted to get on and sew up Schiehallion, a much more satisfying peak, from which you could see right across the Rannoch Moor to our playground in Glencoe, we decided that this could be deemed to be Carn Mairg.
So we looked at the map and got a compass bearing and our leader pointed into the whiteness and set off at a rate of knots.
Our leader, Dave, a human dynamo of close-packed energy, was of posh origin and fell naturally at all times into the role of leader; we proles fell naturally into the role of follower, and accordingly we followed Dave into the whiteness.
Time passed. The mind goes hazy in the white-out; you can actually fall asleep while still trudging steadily onwards; you lose track of reality. But shouldn’t we be starting to go downhill? For we needed to lose over 1,000 feet of height in order to cross the valley and start the ascent of Schiehallion. Instead of which we seemed to be traversing a large expanse of plateau.
But presently we were cheered by coming upon recent prints of boots that had gone in the same direction as ourselves. Hurrah, we must be on course, all we had to do was carry on and follow these other people. Must be others from our climbing bus that were doing the same as we were … who could it be? Well, whoever it was, it was fine to know there was someone to hear the whistle if we needed help, chortle, chortle. And on we went, following the lovely clear bootprints. More hazy time passed, more plateau, more whiteness.
Just as I was belatedly noticing that one of these bootprints showed a defect identical to the bit in my left boot which had recently lost a nail, we suddenly joined another set of bootprints, and the realisation burst upon all of us simultaneously that we had gone round in a gigantic circle and were following our own footprints, round and round.
Awed at having fallen into this classic trap, we now kept checking the compass, descended into the valley, climbed Schiehallion, upon whose rocky summit, above the cloud, we sat and ate Penguins and drank in the spectacular view.
Schiehallion summit
We dissected and shared an orange, while dissecting our gigantic circular trudge and sharing our amazement that this could really have happened: for we had all been sure that we were heading in a straight line; tales of lost walkers circling ceaselessly until the hypothermia picked them off we had long ago put into the Dustbin of Rural Myth. But now the tales had leapt out of the dustbin and gibbered at us. We agreed that, in the bus on the way home, no word of this episode would escape any of our lips during the usual chat about who had done what and how and why.
But later, because white-out is not uncommon, I thought it might be an idea to practise walking blindfold and see if there was a way to keep straight instead of circling. The pace with the right foot was a tiny bit longer than the pace with the left foot, so I tried to lengthen the left pace a little bit to compensate, and of course I over-compensated and circled the opposite way … friends helping with this experiment seemed to find it hilarious, as I zigged and zagged, trying to find the magic even pace.
It took time and merriment, but at last I became able to keep a straight line for several hundred yards, and felt that in a white-out on, say, the Cairngorms plateau, I’d now be better able to avoid the dread Circle of Death.
Loch Avon, Shelter Stone, Loch Etchachan
Came a day when I went up Deeside, bound for Ben Macdui, but the cloud was well down over all the tops, so I went up Glen Derry to take a look at Loch Avon. By Loch Etchachan (frozen nine months of the year) it was snowing hard and drifting in the strong wind, but once down by Loch Avon, in the shelter of the surrounding crags, it felt nearly warm, and the temptation was to linger and read the Visitors’ Book in the famous Shelter Stone where up to six people can spend the night in minimum comfort.
However it was not a day to lie about enjoying a good read, for the snow was coming down heavily, the cloud was creeping lower, and it was ten miles or so back to the Deeside road. So I had a good look at the map, zipped up tight and started off.
The steep climb from Loch Avon took me into blizzard; the track was covered, the snow was getting deeper and drifting, and the wind’s ferocity was increasing. But it would be only about half a mile before I’d be gently descending from around the 3,000-foot level down to Loch Etchachan, so this was the time to use my honed skill at walking in a straight line; for if you constantly look at the map in the blizzard you risk losing gloves, the wind can tear the map or blow it away, you get too cold, you start making mistakes.
And so I ploughed on through the drifts, taking care to keep in a straight line, and after a bit the cloud got a bit less dense and I caught a glimmer of water below me. Yes! That would be Loch Etchachan, soon I’d be out of the cloud, it would be gentle downhill all the way … but surely this bit shouldn’t be so steep? … more water came into view, a long narrow bit of water, much too far below. I had gone round in a big circle and was dropping back down to Loch Avon … ah me, the Circle of Death, the hypothermia, aarrgh!
So out with the map and compass, never mind the cold hands and the wind tearing at the map, only half a mile or so back up and over, and eventually the real Loch Etchachan came into view, and soon I was down out of the cloud and could see where I was going, whew.
It was a salutary reminder that the wilderness is neutral, it neither loves nor hates you, it doesn’t care; it can carelessly finish you off with a piece of weather or loose rock; you’re the one that cares whether you survive or not, so you have to use all your skill and clever toys when conditions are bad.
plootering about on Bidean nam Bian
There are some who have a gift for knowing the way. Four of us had been plootering about on the various tops south of the Glencoe road; the cloud settled over us, and typically, being a group, we hadn’t been paying much attention to where exactly we were; and we wanted to be sure of coming down northwards, so as to get to the road, rather than southwards where there would be a long walk back. Once below the cloud we’d be fine because we’d recognise which corrie we were in. So it was time to look at the compass.
Bidean nam Bean
But wait! George claimed always to be sure where north was, so here was a chance to see if the claim was true. OK, we said, show us north. George’s eyes grew vague and unseeing as he accessed his inner powers; then his arm shot out and pointed unwaveringly in the direction of … we looked at the compass … due south. Ah. We repeated the test from time to time, and every time without fail he would point south, certain that it was north. A powerful gift. So long as you remembered to add 180o. George had grown up in South Africa; could that have keyed him into the South Pole instead of the North? No way of knowing, since no-one knew how the gift worked.
As we stood there wondering where exactly we were on the ridge, before we started the descent, Henry, a techno-chap whose dearest wish was for the return of the Stanley Steamer (a car powered by steam, you can get a 1910 model now for around £15,000), pulled from his anorak an altimeter; “If we know our height” said Henry, “we’ll know which top this is”. Good thinking.
Henry consulted his technotoy, and looked puzzled. “We seem to be at 4,322 feet, but …“ A pause, while the implications sank in.
“So we’re somewhere near the top of Nevis? When did you calibrate it?” asked Johnny, who had flown gliders.
“Um, yesterday, in Edinburgh” admitted Henry, looking abashed.
The silence that followed was pregnant with unspoken comment, and the altimeter never appeared again.
We were never lost. Being lost depends on how precisely you want to know where you are; you always know roughly where you are: Glencoe / Scotland / Europe / Planet Earth. We were never lost, for we knew we were (e.g.) near Carn Mairg, or between Loch Avon and Loch Etchachan, or in the Bidean nam Bian group, which was precise enough most of the time.
What we needed was to know what direction would take us, over terrain that we could cope with, to where we wanted to go, fast enough to escape hypothermia, starvation or dehydration.
What we needed was simply to find the way.
If I were a minister doing my sermon, I would say “I sometimes think Life is a little like that.” Eech.
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