Sunday, 20 November 2011

Beinn Fhionnlaidh from Glen Creran

After Thursday nights adventures I spent most of Friday afternoon asleep in my cosy bed at the Clachaig Inn. On Friday evening a noisy knock at the door signalled the arrival of Elaina, who I was looking forward to seeing. Partly because she had promised me a batch of her delicious home made banana muffins. I followed Elaina down to the Bidean Lounge to join Kirstin, Iain and Steve and of course the star of the weekend Frank who I hadn't seen for a few years. This weekend was all about Frank, who the next day would be bagging his final Munro Beinn Fhionnlaidh. By final I mean the only one on the list of 283 Munros that Frank is yet to summit. Frank is still fit as a fiddle and to use the word final would be wrong as I know for a fact it won't be the last time he climbs to the summit of a Munro. Frank also wanted to have them all under his belt before he was sixty years old. It just so happens that Sunday would mark his sixtieth birthday, so the weekend was a double celebration. We ordered food and I stuffed down Haggis followed by a tasty Venison Burger. Over dinner I told everyone about the adventure I had on Thursday night. Of course sympathy was soon replaced by the usual mocking and mickey taking, not surprisingly a trend for the weekend.

Walking for Elleric to Glenure

After washing dinner down with a few pints of ale my Thursday night adventure had turned into a dramatic near death experience that I just had to share with the rest of the Clachaig Inn. Later on we were joined by the friendly folks from Frank's mountaineering club in York. Maria arrived having just come down from Buachaille Etive Beag. Maria who we nickname the Energiser Bunny, managed to cram in several Munros this weekend. I am fairly sure the next final Munro event will be Maria's. Gordy who I haven't seen for ages turned up with his mate Stuart, who I immediately bonded with. It may have been something to do with the fact we were both modelling the latest Movember trucker moustaches, or as other people referred to them, seventies porn star moustaches. It has to be said we did look like the chuckle brothers when we sat next to each other. Gordy and Stuart were a bad influence on us all and Steve in particular. The drinks went from ale to whisky and even to port. Much later on we were joined by Frank's son and daughter and their partners. I'd never met these guys before but was not surprised to find they were a great bunch. They had their soft boxer dog Maui with them who was an immediate hit with the dog lovers, myself included.

Lunch spot at 500m on Beinn Fhionnlaidh

As Steve ordered his fourth "last" drink of the night Frank declared that everyone should be at the car park in Glen Creran at the start of the walk for 9am. A few people looked tired in the morning though most of the Scots and Yorkshire contingent seemed to have not surprisingly managed to avoid hangovers. I picked up Maria from the Glencoe Youth Hostel and we drove to Glen Creran. We drove under the Ballachulish Bridge, past Castle Stalker then turned left on the Glen Creran road before the Creran Bridge. At the car park it was great to see so many people had turned up for the event. There were already twenty people. The only two missing were Gordy and Stuart who turned up half an hour later but soon caught up with us on the hill. We set off along the track from Elleric to the farm at Glenure. Steve and myself spotted a herd of Red Deer on the hill side above the farm as we approached. At the farm we turned left and carried on along a track through the forest. When you have dozens of people in a group like this you often find that despite usually keeping an eye on the navigation, for some reason everyone thinks that someone else is navigating. Unfortunately no one was and when someone finally did look at the map we realised we should have turned right off on to a less obvious track, almost immediately after the farm.

Fraochaidh and the Ballachulish Horseshoe

We retraced our steps and headed up the correct track. There were several Red Deer stags as we passed one of the farmers fields. The track soon led us on to the grassy western ridge of Beinn Fhionnlaidh. This route is not always the preferred route up Beinn Fionnlaidh, there is also a popular route up from Glen Etive. Frank decided on this route as despite it being a bit of a slog the terrain is fairly straight forward, and therefore easier on those less experienced who had joined us. There were a few people with us that hadn't walked up anything like a Munro before and a few who were returning after injuries. It can be difficult walking in a big group with varying abilities, but most people were understanding and just enjoyed taking their time. Personally I have never been someone who rushes up and down mountains. I spend my life in a rat race, why on earth would I want to do the same on a mountain. We were soon joined by Gordy and Stuart who looked surprisingly chirpy considering how much they had been drinking the night before.

Guard of Honour for Frank

The views behind us were now starting to open up over Loch Creran. The cloud level was lifting and revealing impressive peaks all around. Beinn Fionnlaidh really is one of those mountains, similar to Moel Siabod in Snowdonia, that looks like it has been placed by human beings for viewing purposes. It is completely surrounded by impressive mountains and wild glens. We stopped for lunch at around the five hundred metre contour. The banana muffins were being consumed at an alarming rate. The sun was shining now and everyone was in great spirit. We continued up the ridge, which is famous for its unforgiving slog and false summits. Passing the Lochan Cairn Deirg the views towards Beinn Trilleachan were awesome with the suns rays beaming down into the wild hidden glen behind it. The only sign of life two buzzards circling on the thermals. We headed along the upper section of the ridge which narrowed and gave us a few false summits. Three Ptarmigans in almost complete winter plumage came to say hello before scuffling off over the rocks.

Frank summits his final Munro Beinn Fhionnlaidh

As we neared the actual summit, around us the cloud had now risen above all summits except Bidean nam Bian. The summit trig point was now only metres away so everyone created a guard of honour walking sticks for Frank to walk through on approach to his final Munro. At the summit a bottle of champagne was opened and Frank gave a speech thanking his family, friends and walking buddies. I made sure he mentioned that I had nearly died getting there of course. Bagging all of the Munros is an incredible achievement, Beinn Fionnlaidh is one of the easier, but even climbing an easier Munro like this makes you really appreciate what a task it is. I am a long way off with only twenty two! Frank had some incredible adventures while bagging the Munro's and I was more than happy over the weekend to hear stories of the many ups and downs. All twenty two of the group had made it to the summit, which was fantastic when you consider some had never climbed a hill in their lives, some were recovering from injuries and some had lifelong ailments. The panoramic views from the summit were breathtaking. To the west looked over our ascent route and beyond Loch Creran. To the north the Ballachulish Horseshoe, the Mamores and a few minutes later Ben Nevis. To the south the pointy mountains around Glen Etive like the mighty Ben Starav. The wild hidden glens behind Beinn Trilleachan still basking in rays of hazy sunshine. By far the most impressive view though was east towards the Glencoe mountains and the Black Mount. As the cloud had only just lifted it was creating a natural roof just above the mountain summits. Both Maria and myself took a wander to the eastern edge to stand in awe of this sight.

Eastern ridge of Beinn Fhionnlaidh

We saw several people coming up the eastern ridge from Glen Etive. They made it to the summit just as most of our group had started the descent. It would have been quite a shock to have found twenty two people at a summit you would usually have to yourself. When they reached the summit Maria and myself explained to these guys why twenty people were descending from the summit area. They told us a fabulous story of how they were on a final Munro party a few years back when the guy turned to his friends and said "do you know guys I think I have already done this one". Brilliant! I left Maria at the summit and started the descent. I soon caught up with Steve, Maria, Gordy and Stuart who were understandably taking their time. Why rush away from such a stunning landscape. We also realised if we took our time we would get to see the sun go down over Loch Creran. I had a few moments on the descent where I just sat and tried to take it all in. I think most hill walkers have those moments on a walk where they split from the pack and wander off on their own to clear their head and think about how lucky they are to live and in such a beautiful world. Not only was the sunset something special but it also fell right behind my favourite place, the Isle of Mull. On the orange horizon was the silhouetted profile of the Ardmeanach peninsula, Ben More and A'Chioch. The ground underfoot on the final grassy part of the ridge was often an unsettling mix of wet slippery grass and mud so we ended up on our backsides on a few occasions. By the time we reached the woods and the farm at Glenure we were in full darkness but none of us wanted to ruin the atmosphere with our head torches so we made our way along the track back to the car park in darkness. The skies were clear and as well as a few bright planets we could also see seven stars that make up The Plough.

Elaina and Stuart passing Lochan Cairn Deirg

The return journey back to Glencoe took twice as long as the outward journey as we got stuck behind the slowest land rover in Scotland. As we approached Glencoe via Loch Leven, through the car windscreen we could make out the black outline of the Pap of Glencoe. I headed to the Glencoe Independent Hostel where a vacant bed awaited my arrival. Paul who I hadn't seen for a very long time had arrived in the afternoon. He soon put us all in a good mood by telling us how happily in love he is, and as well as the soppy story he also provided more Whisky. That night in the Clachaig's Boots Bar we all celebrated Frank's incredible achievement and celebrated the old boys 60th birthday. He received a cake with fireworks and a five foot tall silver sword to cut it with! Unfortunately the events of Thursday and staying up late the night before had taken its toll on me so I was seriously lacking energy. I chatted to two of Frank's friends who happened to live round the corner from me back home. We moved to the Bidean Lounge later in the night as the Boots Bar was absolutely rammed and roasting hot. As I decided not to drink on Saturday I helped the others by escorting them back and forth to bunk houses and youth hostels. I made several trips up and down the minor Glencoe road that night. On a few trips I nearly ran over drunken walkers and on one trip i nearly ran into a young Red Deer crossing the road. I was so tired that the only memory I have from the Bidean Lounge that night was looking up to see Maria stood at the bar lifting a local Scotsman's kilt! That night most people stayed up till the early hours in the youth hostel, I however rested my eyelids and dozed off so I would be fresh for the long drive back home in the morning.

I have uploaded the photos from the day here.

Route Map...

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Ben Lomond from Loch Lomond Wildcamp

The first glimpse of Scotland's most southerly Munro, Ben Lomond is one of many favourite moments during trips north to the Scottish Highlands. Ben Lomond is like an old friend sitting by the side of Loch Lomond welcoming you back to what us outdoor folk think of as the real world. Despite admiring Ben Lomond many times through my car windows from the A82 trunk road on the western side of Loch Lomond, I have never actually climbed it. I have seen many impressive photos from my Glasgow-based friend's adventures up the mountain that is often dubbed "Glasgow's Mountain". I took a few days annual leave and decided that I would head north with a plan to drive up the eastern side of Loch Lomond to Rowardennan, wild camp on the Ptarmigan Ridge then bag the summit of Ben Lomond in the morning. I booked off Thursday and Friday so I could do the wild camp on the quiet Thursday night. One of our outdoor friends Frank was climbing his final Munro of Beinn Fhionnlaidh near Glencoe on Saturday, followed by celebrations in the Clachaig Inn for his 60th birthday, so I could combine the wild camp with that too.

Bonnie bank of Loch Lomond at Rowardennan Pier

I had a busy start to the week at work: I was sent to Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester in three days. I packed on Wednesday night and checked the MWIS and Met Office weather forecasts. Damp, cloudy, drizzle and breezy were all mentioned, which didn't exactly inspire much energy the next morning. I set off on time and travelled up the M61 then M6 with no problems. It was dark and cloudy with the odd shower through England. As I approached the Solway however, the clouds gave way to blue skies and hazy sunshine which lasted all the way through Scotland. I used the newly extended section of the M74 that skirts south of Glasgow city centre. It was quite a novelty seeing the city from a new angle and took half an hour off the journey. When I reached the roundabout at Balloch - the one with the eyesore of a sculpture - I turned right and passed through Balloch. The last time I was in Balloch was 1996 to watch Oasis, one of the most memorable events of my younger years. I have never driven up the road from Drymen to Rowardennan via Balmaha that skirts the eastern side of Loch Lomond. It is a rather stunning area with incredible views across Loch Lomond. The parking and camping along the road seems to have changed a lot over the years so it was hard to find information on exactly where to park. When I reached the Rowardennan Hotel and saw a few free parking spaces behind the hotel I decided to park up. I left in great spirits as the weather was far better than had been forecast. The night before I wouldn't have believed I would be seeing the views I was about to across Loch Lomond. I walked along the road passing the proper car park where I should have parked, then reached the bay by the pier at Rowardennan.

Sun setting over Loch Lomond
The views from the small bay across the still and silent loch were breathtaking. Looking up I could see the rocky knoll on the end of Ptarmigan high above and to its right the gloomy looking Ben Lomond shrouded in cloud. I walked past the Rowardennan Youth Hostel then past the park ranger offices before turning right on a path through the woods by Rowchnock House. The path passed by a tumbling burn, through a gate and ascended the hillside passing a sheep fold then continued ascending the hillside towards a waterfall on Sput Ban. I continued to follow the ascent path, pausing every so often to look back and admire the ever-opening views across Loch Lomond. The path, which wasn't too bad, continued a fairly simple route across Spat Bun skirting a small forest. As the path passed the long crag on Tom Fithich the sun was just starting to set to the west over the Arrochar Alps. The views were absolutely stunning at this point with blue skies and contrasting dark clouds. I crossed a small stream then the path started to get a little steeper and end up at the foot of some tricky zigzags. The zigzags were tough, though only because I'm not used to the weight of a pack of wild camping gear these days. I was eventually on the top of Ptarmigan with the first proper view of Ben Lomond which looked quite foreboding shrouded in windswept grey cloud. Ahead I could now see the small lochan that was the planned wild camp spot.

Loch Lomond from Tom Fithich
I reached the lochan and hunted for a decent flat area to camp. The only problem was the wind. Up here on the ridge itself it was getting windy, so with that in mind and realising the wind direction was coming from the east I headed round the lochan and down the western side of the ridge. I soon found a flat spot out of the wind and set up camp. The view down Loch Lomond from the camp spot was awesome, looking down almost its entire length. However, by the time I had set up camp the sun had set, it was getting breezy and where Loch Lomond had been, now there was cloud and the flicker of lights from Inverbeg, Tarbet and the A82. I settled in for the long night. It is easy to forget how long winter nights are; I would not see daylight for another fourteen hours! I made tea using the Primus Eta Express stove which I have been given to test and of which I will do a full review later this week. After tea I snuggled up inside my lovely new Rab Alpine 600 sleeping bag, which was major overkill as it was surprisingly warm for mid November. Due to the long night ahead I had downloaded an entire series of Big Bang Theory on to my iPhone. I lay in the tent watching my brilliant iPhone screen while outside the clouds were dropping lower, the air getting damper and the gusting winds picking up all the time. I looked outside at one point to find I was now in total darkness and a thick cloud.

The lochan on the Ptartmigan Ridge

By 8pm I started to get sleepy as I had got up early that morning and driven for several hours to get here. The winds seemed not to be giving up and were instead getting worse, so I grabbed my ear plugs and tried to doze off. A short while after the tent above me inverted and plunged toward my head. I am used to this and the disorientating flapping of a fly sheet in strong winds, so I just put my head back down and carried on trying to ignore the ever increasing winds. This went on for another hour and the tent inverted more frequently almost smacking me in the face a few times. By 9pm it was starting to bug me and a few times I had to put my hands up to stop it hitting me in the face. By 10pm I had adopted a bizarre position in the tent where my body in my sleeping bag was in the inner, my body above my chest was out into the porch. The reason for this was that I had to hold the structure of the tent in place, kind of using my body to complete a geodesic structure and stop the tent from constantly inverting and snapping the poles. It was also at this point that I packed everything away other than my sleeping bag and readied myself for the frightening possibility that I may have to abandon camp at 750m and descend the mountain in pitch black darkness, severe gales and thick cloud! Every so often the tent got brighter giving a false sense of security tricking my tired and exhausted mind into thinking it was a gap in the weather. This brightness was actually the white cloud coming over the crest of the ridge and down what I thought would have been the sheltered side of the ridge. The gusts were getting very serious now and almost flattening the tent. I lay in the bizarre position holding the tent for five horrific hours, getting more and more cold, hungry and tired.

Wild camping above Loch Lomond

The whole time I was thinking in my head was I doing the right thing riding out the storm. One extremely settling factor was that I did have reception on my iPhone, which I turned off at 9pm to conserve battery life. Knowing I had decent waterproofs, warm kit, enough food and decent head torch made a big difference too. With these things in mind and seeing as the tent had lasted so far, I decided staying in the tent was the right thing to do. The alternative after all was descending in the dark, damp and severe gales on an unfamiliar slippery path. Not only that but also with a heavy pack, exhausted, hungry and somewhat mentally shaken up. At 2am I checked the time and was glad to think I only had another five hours to see out. Then it all went wrong at around 2:30am: several gusts at the same time slammed the entire tent by my arms down flat to the ground. The tent, as it is designed to, popped straight back up, but two of the poles came out of the eyelets on the inner and threw themselves out. The tent was now all over the place and turned into a wind sock with myself inside it. I couldn't really tell what, if any, damage had been done and couldn't do anything to get it back into shape or even get hold of it. I bent over and stuffed my sleeping bag in its dry bag then the rucksack and made my way outside into the scary dark nightmare that I would now have to navigate for the next few hours with extreme care. Rescuing the tent was probably the hardest part of the whole night. I had to tie the doors around my legs then get on top of the tent and pull the pegs and poles out. This was while the entire thing was flapping around like mad. I was aware of the poles swinging around dangerously in the air. After throwing the tent and poles in the rucksack I made my way up the slippery and steep western side of the Ptarmigan Ridge to the small lochan. Getting back round the lochan I made a point of taking my time as I knew one slip and I would have been in the lochan.

The moon eventually helped out

I found the ridge path and despite the winds now blasting into me trying to push me over, seeing the path which I could now follow was a massive relief and made me feel a lot better. My pounding heart was now telling me to get down as quickly as possible to a more sheltered environment, but at the same time my head and experience were telling me to keep calm, and my eyes were on the ground below (now lit up by my head torch held in my hand). It is incredible just how much of an obstacle and annoyance wearing glasses and effectively having no eye sight without them can be a a time like this too. On the ridge in the cloud they steamed up immediately and I had to hold them on my head to stop them blowing off. If they had, there is no way I would have made it off the mountain by myself. Luckily the path was fairly clear and I was hugely relieved at finally reaching the bottom of the zig zag section. It was at that point that the wind started to ease as the path descended the more sheltered western side of Tom Fithich. It was also at this point that I smiled for the first time in several hours. I knew as long as I didn't trip or fall I would be safe. As the path swung in slightly and crossed the stream, the full moon appeared like a huge floodlight and even Loch Lomond could be seen. I could also see the lights of the youth hostel and hotel a Rowardennan. At the lower section of the path I did unfortunately slip on wet grass and upset an old football injury of my medial collateral ligament of my right knee. It was just a short walk through the woods then along the track back to Rowardennan where I sat in the dark on a bench by Loch Lomond. I looked around at the quiet, inky rippling water, the dark shapes of the mountains silhouetted by the moon, and it all felt so calm and innocent and a complete contrast to the scary nightmare just a few miles up the mountain on the high exposed ridge. I tried to sleep in the car when I got back to it but only managed around half an hour. I set off feeling relieved to have escaped from what could have been a bad situation and proud of myself for dealing with it so well. The trip up to Glencoe was great as the sun was only just rising and created stunning scenes around the mountains. Some of the ridges had cloud rushing over them at speeds I had never seen before. I arrived at the Clachaig Inn at around 8:30am where I was given a taste of true Highland hospitality. They made me a free bacon sandwich and pot of tea, then arranged a room for me that I could sleep in during the day, re-energised ready for the arrival of the rest of the folks later on.

I have uploaded the photos from the day here.

Route Map...